SUNDAY AND MONDAY
An Evening of Summer Music
Sunday 24 August, 2014
Holy Trinity Church Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol
Zoe Maisey and Lucas Kennedy
Brahms, Debussy, Chopin,
Liszt & Scarlatti
‘You won’t want to miss these two precociously
talented teenagers making their Bristol debut – this
promises to be a very special evening.’
– Bristol Evening Post ‘What’s On’
In Aid of the Family Bereavement Society
Tickets: £6 for adults, £3 for children.
Family ticket £15.
Please contact Maria on email@example.com
for bookings and details of future performances.
Before the concert begins, I stand inside the entrance to the church and look down the nave. Shadows lurk in the ceiling vaults even though the light outside hasn’t dimmed yet, and behind me the large wooden doors have been pulled shut.
In front of me, the last few members of the audience have just settled into their places. Almost every seat is full. The sound of their talk is a medium-pitched rumble.
I shudder. In the heavy heat of the afternoon, when I was sweaty and tired after rehearsing, I forgot that it could be cold in the church even when the air was oven hot outside, so I chose a little black dress to wear this evening, with skinny straps, and now I’m feeling the chill. My arms are covered in goose pimples.
The doors to the church have been closed, sealing out the heat, because we don’t want outside noise to disturb us. This suburb of Bristol isn’t known for its rowdy inhabitants, but people have paid good money for their tickets.
And it’s not just that. The thing is that this concert is my first performance since I left the Unit, and my first performance as part of my Second Chance Life.
As my mum said, only about a hundred times today, ‘This performance must be as perfect as it’s possible to be.’
I glance at Lucas, who’s standing beside me. Only a millimetre or two of air separates us.
He’s wearing black trousers that my mum put a crease in this afternoon, and a black shirt. He looks good. His dark brown hair is just about tamed into neatness, but not quite, and I think that if he was bothered to, he could make those girls who are still lame enough to read vampire romance stories wilt.
I look good too, or I will when the goosebumps subside. I’m small-boned, I have pale, clear skin, and my hair is long and very blonde but thin: cobweb-caught-in-sunlight hair, which looks amazing against my black dress. In the right light my hair can look white, and this gives me a look of innocence.
‘Like a baby deer, fragile, delicate’ was how the prosecutor described me, which I thought was quite nice, though it still hurts me to remember that she added ‘but don’t be fooled’.
I flex my fingers, and lace them together to make sure the gloves I’m wearing are fitting extra snugly, the way I like them, and then I put my arms to my sides and shake them, to get my hands moving. I want my fingers to be warm, and flexible. I want them pulsating with blood.
Beside me, Lucas shakes his hands too, slowly, and one at a time. Pianists catch hand shaking from each other like other people catch yawns.
At the far end of the nave, in front of the altar, the grand piano stands on a low platform, its hammer and string intestines reflected on the underside of the propped-up shiny black lid. It’s waiting for us. Lucas is staring at it, completely focused, as if it represents a vertical glacier that he has to ascend with his bare hands.
We have different approaches to nerves. He becomes as still as possible, he starts to breath through his nose, slowly, and he won’t respond to anybody.
In contrast, I fidget, and my mind can’t rest because it has to run through the things I have to do, in the order I have to do them in, before I begin to perform. It’s not until I play the first note that the concentration I need, and the music itself, will wrap around me, pure and white like a shroud, and everything else will disappear.
Until that point, I’m sick with nerves, just like Lucas is.
Beside the piano, a lady has been introducing the concert, and now she gestures towards us, and then sort of scrapes and bows her way off the stage.
It’s time for us to go on.
I pull my gloves off quickly, and drop them on to a table beside me where the coffee and catechism leaflets are, and Lucas and I walk together down the aisle as if we’re play-acting a wedding. As we do, the heads of the audience turn to look at us, each row triggering the next.
We walk past my Aunt Tessa, who’s in charge of a video recorder that’s been set up to record our performances. The idea is to replay them later, to analyse them for imperfection, and identify areas where improvement can be squeezed out of us.
Tessa is squinting a bit nervously at the camera as if it might turn round and lick her face, but she gives us a thumbs-up. I love Tessa, she’s like a much more chilled out version of my mum. She has no kids of her own and she says that makes me all the more special to her.
The other faces in the church smile as Lucas and I walk between them, creasing deeper into expressions of encouragement as we approach. I’m seventeen now, but I’ve known this look since I was a little child.
Mum describes these sorts of people as our ‘supporters’. She says they’ll turn up to watch time and time again if we play well, and they’ll tell their friends. I don’t love the supporters, though. I don’t like the way they come up to you at the end of a concert and say stuff like, ‘You have such a gift,’ as if piano playing isn’t something that you work on day in and day out, if you want to make it perfect.
You can almost see the word ‘genius’ flashing up like a neon sign in their minds, temptingly bright. Beware that sign, I would say to them, if they asked. Be careful what you wish for, because everything has a price.
In the front row of the church, the last pair of faces I focus on belong to my mum, and Lucas’s dad. Or, to put it another way, my step-dad and his step-mum, because Lucas and I are step-siblings. As usual, they’re wearing the too-bright expressions of parents who are disguising a level of ambition for their children that could choke you.
Lucas is ahead of me by the time we get to the end of the aisle and he’s already taking his seat as I step up on to the platform where the piano sits.
We’re going to start by playing a duet. It’s a crowd pleaser, the brainchild of our parents. Plus, they think it’ll help us to calm our nerves if we play together at the beginning.
Lucas and I would both rather play alone, but we humour them, partly because we have no choice, and partly because we’re both performers at heart and a performer wants to perform, needs to perform, loves to perform.
A performer is trained to perform.
So we’ll do it, and we’ll do it as well as we can.
As I sit down at the piano, I keep my back straight and I’m smiling for the audience even though my insides have constricted and twisted so they feel like a ball of elastic bands. But I don’t smile too much. It’s important that I look humble too, that I get my performance face just right.
There’s a bit of faff while Lucas and I get settled and adjust the piano stools. We already know that they’re perfectly positioned, because we tried out the piano before everybody arrived, but still we fiddle about with them, the spacing of them, a tiny height adjustment. It’s part of the performance. It’s nerves. Or showmanship. Or both.
Once we’re both sitting perfectly, I place my hands over the keys. I have to work hard to control my breathing because my heart is hammering but my focus sharpens on to the music that’s ahead, all of me waiting to hear those first notes now, like a starting gun at the beginning of a race.
The audience is hushed. Just a cough from somebody, that echoes around the vaults and columns. Lucas waits for the sound to disappear and, in the absolute silence that follows, he first wipes his palms on his trouser legs and then he positions his hands over the keys.
Now, that smooth run of black and white stretching out beneath our hands is everything and I watch his hands as intently as an animal ready to pounce. I mustn’t miss his cue. There’s a beat or two more of perfect silence before he arches his palms and his hands bounce lightly: once, twice, three times.
Then we’re off, in perfect synchrony.
We dazzle when we do this; everybody says so. The energy two players produce can be electrifying when it’s right. It’s a tightrope act controlling the power, the tone and the dynamics, because all of it must be perfectly balanced, and it wasn’t so good this afternoon when we got tired and cross with each other while practising in the heat, but tonight, it’s brilliant. It’s seamless, beautiful, and we’re right in the music, both of us, and I’ll admit that doesn’t always happen. Mostly doesn’t happen.
In fact, I’m so into it that at first I don’t hear the shouting, and not hearing the shouting means that I don’t realise that what’s just begun is the end.
But I wish I had realised.
Why do I wish that?
Because, six hours later, my mother is dead.
At 8 a.m. Tessa still hasn’t stirred, but I’ve been awake since dawn.
I’m a criminal lawyer, with a heavy workload. I often work late and usually I sleep heavily until my alarm goes off, but today I have a hospital appointment that’s been burning a hole in the page of my diary for more than a week, and it’s on my mind the minute my eyes open.
The curtains are drawn at my bedroom window, darkening the room, and light filters round them in lazy, unpredictable curves as they move with the breeze from the river. If I opened them, I would see the wide expanse of the floating harbour outside, and the colourful mixture of modern apartments and old warehouses and boathouses that bundle together on the bank opposite.
But I don’t.
I stay where I am and I notice that the breeze is so soft that it barely disrupts the stillness of the room. They promised us a storm last night, but it never came. There was just a short, violent rain shower, followed by a dusting of drizzle, which offered a brief respite from the heat, but only brief, because now it’s thickening again.
Tessa arrived in the rain, in the middle of the night.
She apologised for disturbing me, as if she hadn’t just made my evening. She said she’d tried to phone. I hadn’t noticed because I’d passed out on the sofa in front of the TV, with the remains of a special chow mein on my lap, and the letter from the hospital on my chest.
When I opened the door to her, I noticed dark smudges of exhaustion on the damp skin underneath her eyes, and she stood very still when I embraced her, as if every muscle in her body was stretched too tight.
She said she didn’t want to talk, so I didn’t press her to. Ours is a quiet, respectful affair; we don’t ask for or expect a comprehensive emotional download from each other. We’re more in the business of providing refuge for one another, and by that I mean a strong, safe place to reside, a place where we are almost certainly what two less reserved adults would call ‘in love’, though we would never say that.
I’m a shy person. I moved from Devon to Bristol two years ago, because it’s what you do if you want to avoid spending your whole life and career amongst the same small circle of people, in the area you grew up in. Opportunities in Bristol are much greater, and I’d cut my teeth on Zoe Guerin’s case, so I felt ready for a change.
But it hasn’t worked out too well for me. My cases are more varied, and the workload is more intense, that’s true, but new friendships haven’t come easily because I have to work all hours, and you don’t meet too many potential partners when you’re doing prison visits and court attendances. So when Tess and I ran into each other, just in the street one day, it felt like a godsend. She was a familiar face, we had shared history, however difficult, and we slipped quickly into a pattern of snatching time with each other, just coffees and drinks at first, and then more. Tessa is married though, so that’s where things have sort of stalled. We can’t move on unless she leaves her husband.
Last night, after she arrived, she flopped on to my sofa as if the stuffing had been knocked out of her, and I brought her a cold beer and discreetly slipped the hospital letter into a drawer on my way to the kitchen, so she wouldn’t see it. I didn’t want it to mar things between us, not until I was sure. Not until I’d got through today’s appointment. It was fairly easy to disguise the numbness in my left hand. Nobody at work had noticed it either.
She sipped her beer and we watched a Hitchcock film, in the dark, and the black and white images on the screen made the room flicker as if it was animated. Beside me, Tessa remained still and quiet as she watched, once or twice rolling the cold drink across her forehead, and I snuck a glance or two at her when I could, wondering what was wrong.
Tessa doesn’t share the white blonde hair, pale skin and refined features of her sister, or her niece – her looks have none of their hauteur – though she does share their sharp blue eyes. Tess mostly wears her thick, silky strawberry blonde hair tied back, and the open features on her heart-shaped face and her lightly freckled skin make her look approachable, and kind, and her eyes often dance with humour. Her figure is athletic, her attitude is practical and no-nonsense. For me, she is beautiful.
As I look at her now, in the warm darkness of my bedroom, she’s lying with her hands on the pillow beside her face, fingers curled in beside her lips. Only the sight of the tarnished gold wedding ring on her finger mars the picture for me.
After a while, I ease myself out of bed, because I want breakfast. So I’m riffling through a pile of laundry on the floor to locate something to wear when my phone vibrates.
I snatch it up quickly, because I don’t want it to disturb her.
The screen tells me that it’s Jeanette calling, my secretary. She’s always at her desk early, especially on a Monday.
I go through an internal fight with myself, wondering whether to answer it or not, but the truth is that I’m a conscientious chap so the battle was really lost as soon as the phone started buzzing. I answer the call.
‘Sam, I’m sorry, but there’s a client turned up for you here, at the office.’
‘Who?’ I ask, and I mentally shuffle through the deck of some of my more notable clients, trying to guess which of them might have pitched himself or herself off the good behaviour wagon and back into the mud this time.
‘She’s only a girl,’ Jeannette tells me this in a stage whisper.
‘What’s her name?’ As I ask I think, It can’t be, can it?, because I’ve only had one client who was a teenage girl.
‘She says she’s called Zoe Maisey, only you knew her as Zoe Guerin.’
I take myself out of the bedroom, into the en suite, shut the door and sit on the side of the bath. Here, the morning light streams in through the frosted window, yellowing the room, assaulting my dark-widened pupils.
‘You are joking?’
‘I’m afraid I absolutely am not. Sam, she says her mum was found dead last night.’
‘Oh dear God.’
Those three words express in only a paltry way my utter disbelief, because of course Zoe is Tessa’s niece, and her mother, Maria, is Tessa’s sister.
‘Can you put her on the phone?”
‘She’s insisting she wants to see you.’
I calculate that because my appointment isn’t until late morning, I probably have time to deal with this, at least partly.
‘Tell her I’m on my way.’
I’m about to hang up the phone when Jeanette adds, ‘And she’s with her uncle,’ and my insides take a swan dive yet again, because Zoe’s uncle is Tessa’s husband.