The Ever-Rolling Stream
The newly styled perm cost twenty pounds more than normal and Harper must have noticed her reaction. Harper whined, “You did say tighter curls; it was like starting from scratch.”
The tip increased the total proportionately and she was left with one lonely ten-pound note. Although she’d watched the re-styling throughout, she took a further hurried glance in the mirror, checking whether it represented value for money. Her face certainly looked sharp, her cheeks tauter.
Harper held out her beige coat, apparently unconcerned about the cost of her labour.
- She must think I’m paid the same rate as the clients who arrive in cars; that I’m some kind of manager.
Two buses sailed past full and her mother was impatiently waiting lunch. “You should have gone to Maisie, it would have been less than half,” Maisie had done her mother’s hair for nearly fifty years; now retired she worked part-time from a barely modified front room.
“It is nicer though, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so.” The tone was grudging and thus close to high praise.
It was Saturday and Wimbledon quarter finals were on television. Her mother would have been offended if she’d played music in her bedroom and so they watched the tennis together. Waiting for the second shoe to drop.
It dropped when the French player her mother favoured was beaten in straight sets. Her mother sighed, got up, made afternoon tea and laid out digestives. “I suppose you’ll be going to the music with your friend,” she said, as she had once a day during the preceding week.
“It’s the Tákacs,” she replied mechanically. “They won’t be back for two years.”
“You’ve already seen them twice this month.”
“They’re playing all the lates.”
“Huh. He likes them too, I take it?”
She nodded. Her mother sighed then added, “Eh, Izzy.”
The hated abbreviation. She got up abruptly, “I think I’ll walk in part of the way. Good exercise.”
“In your high heels! You’ll cripple yourself.”
Only three-centimetres as her mother well knew.
The sense of release made itself felt as she put on make-up. “Di-dah, di-dah,” she whispered, grasping at the opening bars of the Grosse Fuge, anticipating the tension and the sheer volume of sound the four instruments would generate. That tender yet exciting world.
Through Dalston Market and its flurries of human activity, going south. “Muss es sein? Es muss sein,” she sang gleefully to herself. Only three miles to go; she’d walk all the way and have forty minutes to spare. Kill time reading Constant Lambert’s Music Ho, watching the Thames slide past every now and then.
They were to rendezvous in the booking hall but he’d spotted her on a bench near the river and sat beside her without a by your leave. “Isobel!” he proclaimed, “You’ve read that tired paperback twice to my knowledge.”
She smiled happily. “I bought Shaw’s Wagner as you recommended. But it’s too heavy to carry all the way from mother’s. You look healthy. I on the other hand have just been watching Wimbledon.”
“I played two friendlies on Romney Marshes during the week.”
She put Constant Lambert into her handbag. “I wonder if I were twenty years younger whether I’d be tempted by football. Women do, don’t they? Even Rugby. Things were so traditional in my youth. Tennis in summer, hockey in winter. I hated the hard ball.”
“But you swim regularly.”
“Doctor’s orders. Keeps arthritis at bay. Whoops, I promised to avoid nattering on about age. Have we time for a glass of wine before we go in? My treat.”
He looked at her in a slightly odd way; instinctively she recognised this had to do with his sensitivity about her low wages with the Council. He earned twice as much at an analytical lab in Southwark. “Let’s wait til the interval and see how we feel.”
They walked slowly through the loosely distributed gathering and she was amused at the way girls of his age maintained their glance on him. Amused too by his irritation at this. As they took their seats in the main auditorium he sat up with a jerk. “Just remembered, there’s this.” He held out a ticket for a Wigmore Hall piano recital. “A chap at work said he was interested and I bought two. Now he tells me he’s leaving the company.” Involuntarily she reached for her handbag but he shook his head. “It’s free. He…er paid me for it.”
She stared at his bright blue eyes, usually so frank. Twice he blinked and she knew this wasn’t true. That it was a gift. “I seem to be lucky with your free tickets,” she said. They’d first met under a similar premise at the main entrance when he’d played the benevolent tout, dangling what he described as an unwanted ticket which she could have for half-price. Almost immediately adding, “Free, if you’re a real enthusiast.” The concert was a sell-out for that year’s favourite tenor and she’d been vainly searching for returns. They’d babbled non-stop into the evening when she learned he was a moderately advanced violinist, had a Festival Hall membership and could get pairs of discounted tickets. A year of friendship cemented by over fifty concerts.
Now, it seemed, he wasn’t inclined to discuss these coincidences and pointedly looked away. A tiny awkwardness soon blown away as both of them were reduced to silence by the Tákacs’ re-creation of Opus 127. An extended silence in which they remained at their seats during the interval pondering together but alone with their thoughts. The offer of wine forgotten. It had happened before and there was no embarrassment in it.
But if Opus 127 had been magisterial the Grosse Fuge’s depth clawed at Isobel’s emotions. Sending her back into her own fragmented history when music had opened up to her through the piano lessons her mother had briefly been able to afford, then stumbled on through the decades as she took whatever musical opportunities presented themselves. A force that bypassed life’s disappointments and gilded her few achievements, that prepared her for what she jokingly referred to as becoming an Old Maid. Alone but sustained.
And into the sweetness of the fourth movement when she ceased be alone and a shoulder pressed against hers, a first physical contact.
The Tákacs were stamped deliriously off the stage. Unspeaking she allowed herself to be guided out of the auditorium to the bar and handed a glass of merlot. Sipping occasionally, considering the structure she had built to protect herself and wondering at its future strength.
“Where have you gone?” he asked. A lost voice, worried by the transformation.
“I’m older than you,” she said, as if this might explain everything for ever.
“I know,” he said.
“The three of us are friends.”
“You, me and the sounds the Tákacs made.”
He frowned and she recognised disagreement. “A wonderful year and there might have been another. But perhaps not, now. I have a theory that as time passes the difference in age matters more. That we may delay this as friends but not if we become more than friends.”
His eyes were blank as shillings.
She said, “But… but… being touched was… it added to the music. And I may die from it.”
He pushed his chair back. “Let’s stand by the river.”
The Thames eased its way down towards Gravesend like the body of a python. His straw-like hair hung in front of his eyes and she wanted to brush it aside so that he might see more clearly. But he seemed unaware and said, “I need to be like you.”
She smiled wryly. “Older?”
“Having made use of time. Calmer. In charge of myself. Music helps.”
“It should happen naturally.”
His blue eyes shone with tears. “I’m not at all sure. My parents divorced, unpleasantly. I was the ping-pong ball. These days divorce is supposed to be routine for kids. But not for me. Perhaps I was cossetted too much.”
And she realised there’d been signs of the wound, his body curling inwards.
He said, “That fourth movement of the fugue was an opening to somewhere new. It seemed as if you’d already been there. Were there. I leant against you.”
Neither said anything for two, perhaps three minutes. An eternity. His voice was low, almost inaudible. “Did I invade you? If so was I first to cross that frontier?”
“I’ve worked hard to be separate. Physically separate.”
“Today your hair had changed. Closer, almost sculpted. Staying separate, are you entitled to tinker with your looks? Your beauty?”
She wanted to protest but she also needed to be honest. “It may take time.”
“That’s all right. Time is our raw material.”