It started to rain. Pour down. Not only was the bus late in arriving, but I was about to be drenched by icy raindrops too. If there were subliminal messages telling me not to go that evening, they were out in force.
The bus stop possessed no shelter. I paced along the pavement, and the rain dripped off my nose. Cold. Effing, bleeding freezing-my-tits-off kind of cold. I stomped my numb feet as I marched.
Headlights streamed by in rapid succession. I stepped back from the curb to avoid icy splashes. Finally, after what seemed an eternity—ten minutes—the bus arrived. A single-decker with misted-up windows, and inside just three other occupants. I supposed I should have been grateful that the council ran a service. I waved my bus pass and sat up front near the driver.
He drove slowly. The bus inched its way along the streets of Cambridge, stopping at every parked car on the roadside, waiting for oncoming traffic.
Seven-twenty. My watch told me I was on course for a less than punctual arrival. The first time I’d showed up in over six weeks and I was late. I clung onto the fake leather attaché case, the stand in its black plastic pouch and my clarinet in her tattered case. Always a she—Nettie—like her predecessor. I considered my clarinet my closest friend. A pathetically sad admission that I kept to myself.
Arriving at my destination, I leaped off the bus and landed straight in a concealed puddle.
“Crap.” I shook my trouser leg and stomped up the street.
St. Mark’s church hall occupied the corner of the interchange. The church itself was set back and swathed in darkness. The brick-faced hall was lit up and glowing. I’d come to admire the building as something not typical of its kind. I’d been under the impression that church halls were simple structures—a large assembly room, a few side rooms and a kitchen for those all-important coffee mornings.
St. Mark’s hall had a stage, a lighting system and a high-vaulted ceiling made of wooden beams, a spacious polished timber floor and slatted windows running down the longest outside wall. The hall managed to look modern, even though it had been built twenty years earlier. The acoustics were fabulous.
As I hurried into the antechamber, I heard a cacophony of musical instruments. I slowed, catching my breath, and let out a sigh of relief. The orchestra was still tuning up.
Luminous Sinfonia, the orchestra I’d joined two years earlier, occupied half of the hall space, not the stage. The raised platform might have accommodated the brass section, but little else. The orchestra I proudly associated myself with wasn’t a small chamber style, but neither was it large. It fitted snugly in-between and consequently could attempt a varied repertoire. Its members subscribed to join the private orchestra and encompassed those like me—amateurs—and professionals, whose pedigree depended on their backgrounds. Together, we amounted to something of quality, although falling short of a caliber orchestra with better funding and prestige.
I sneaked in, scooted around the back of the percussion to the stage area, which was used to dump bags and cases. I peeled away my sodden raincoat, tossing it into a gap, and quickly assembled my clarinet. Glancing over my shoulder, I assumed that everyone else was present. Vincent, the percussionist, glared at me. Vlad, I called him, due to his fantastically pale skin and black, spiky hair. He usually arrived half an hour early to unload his van and set up. Naturally, he frowned upon tardiness.
I gathered my sheet music, and collapsed music stand then wove among the brass section to reach my seat. It had been laid out ready by Cordelia, my fellow clarinetist. I gave her a grateful smile of welcome.
“Hi, Callie,” she said sweetly. “You made it.”
“Bus was late,” I grumbled.
About me, numerous musicians trumpeted, strummed, plucked or blew their instruments while Fiona on her oboe fired off a concert pitch—A for tuning. The chaotic noise was its own sweet music. I’d missed it.
The stand came together quite well. Sometimes it collapsed in on itself, refusing to stay upright. I picked up my music off the floor and placed it on the stand. I hovered, with my fingers poised, waiting for the sheets to fly off when the legs gave out. They didn’t and I applauded my achievement. One day I would replace the infernal contraption.
I sucked on my reed, feeling the gentle roughness against my tongue. I took a deep breath, had opened my mouth to blow down the mouthpiece when I noticed the music on Cordelia’s stand. I blinked in disbelief.
She gave me an obvious apologetic look, a wide-eyed, lip-chewing contrite expression. “I’m sorry. I kept meaning to let you know. It’s all changed.”
“Changed!” A bloody understatement. “When?” I stared at the flurry of notes printed on the bar lines.
She opened her mouth to say something then snapped it shut. Instead, she peered over the top of her stand, and she jerked her head in the direction of the conductor’s tiny podium. I followed her gaze. The position stood vacant.
“Where’s Felix?” I asked.
Cordelia gave me another full-on expression of embarrassment. “I’m such a dork. I’ve been rushed off my feet with my kids… Sorry. Felix is ill.” She leaned toward me, head low. “Very poorly.”
“Ill?” I couldn’t imagine Felix being sick. The man never missed a practice.
She nodded. “Chemo.” Her voice was barely audible over the scrape of bows on strings.
“Cancer?” I opened my eyes wider. Poor Felix. “What kind?”
She shrugged. “He’s been cagey. Not wanting flowers or visitors. He looked sick last time he came. Then he announced he’d be taking an indefinite break.”
“So…?” I pointed at the empty conductor’s spot.
“New guy. New music too.” She bent over and dug about in the pile of paper under her chair. “I should have stuck this lot in the mail to you.” She handed me a wad of sheet music. “Out with the old and in with the new.”
I thumbed through the collection and swallowed hard. What the hell? I’d been playing first clarinet for over a year, ever since the previous competent first player, Paula, went on maternity leave, then she retired, leaving my temporary shift a permanent one. Throughout that year, I’d never played music as demanding as what sat on my lap.
“So who picked these?” I would have to sight-read everything. How could she have forgotten to tell me? I considered myself a competent clarinetist, but not that brilliant, plus I’d hardly touched Nettie in the last six weeks. My stomach knotted. I hated letting people down. Cordelia had probably made a reasonable job of stepping up to first in my absence, but I bet she’d happily slipped back into second once she’d attempted these parts. I’d been dumped in the deep end. Sweet-natured girl. Humph! I growled at her from behind my plastered-on indifferent face. I turned and fully intended to give her a few chosen words of annoyance when the orchestra about me fell increasingly quiet.
I peered over my stand. Somebody over by Debbie, the leader and first violinist, stood. He rose from where he must have been crouched out of sight and continued to grow, stretching out into well over six foot in stature. I tracked his unraveling as he went from stooped to upright, squaring off his shoulders. A dark mop of hair bounced about his face. Tousled, curly and almost short in style, it behaved like an unruly appendage. He tossed his head back and exposed his face. Every muscle in my body sharpened. His hair might have been undisciplined but the features of his face seemed carved into a magnificent arrangement of striking elements. His eyes were perfectly placed on either side of a straight nose. Cheeks high and defined, but not gaunt, and his chin, which was neither pointed nor round, was dusted by a small black goatee.
I watched as he picked up a small baton and rattled it on the conductor’s stand.
Everyone fell instantly silent.
“Who’s that?” I asked Cordelia in a hushed tone.
“Stefan,” she whispered. “He’s filling in for Felix.”
Filling in? From my perspective, he had swooped in. I couldn’t help myself. I was overcome with the need to rudely stare at him as he arranged his music across the broad stand. The man had presence. To my horror, my chagrin, he looked directly at me. He parted his lips, curled them upward slightly. A smile? A smirk? What the hell was that?
“Ah,” he said in a deep voice. “I see the first clarinetist is back in our midst. Excellent. Let’s begin.”
Oh, God. I ducked behind my stand, praying that nobody could see my mortified face.
I had to survive an hour of sight-reading with a new conductor. Stefan threw me in at the deep end by asking everyone to start halfway through the first piece—Capriccio Espagnole—right in the middle of a difficult clarinet solo, then proceeded to extract a level of interpretation Felix had rarely bothered to seek. My brain exploded with an instant headache. The concentration needed to sight-read and pick up on all of Stefan’s precise directions left me swimming in a stream of notes and pencil marks, which littered my score.
I followed Stefan’s meticulous beating arm out of the corner of my eye and managed to keep pace. I fluffed a few notes. Well, quite a few. I missed one entrance, which drew his attention for a second. He furrowed his brows and, underneath, his bright eyes narrowed. I squirmed in my seat. When he had us repeat the section, I came in perfectly. He nodded at me. No smile, but no frown either.
Every few bars, he would wave his arm before him, halting us. A few chosen words articulated at a particular section of the orchestra to highlight his expectations.
“Crisper. It’s meant to be a dance,” he said, addressing the violins.
He delivered his critical appraisal sharply and without cruelty. His voice mesmerized me. I couldn’t define its appeal. His Rs rolled off his tongue with a slight drawl. Something lay behind his clinical pronunciation. The more I heard his terse tone, the more I realized he had a particular goal in mind. A pusher, a driver, he wasn’t just conducting, he was rewriting the music for us—making it ours.