The Absent Cellist (Part I)

When it was all over, Dolores decided she needed to speak to somebody. Somebody who wouldn’t feel the urge to speak to somebody else; a friend who had secrets of her own. She flipped through her address book, back and forth, and scanned the names until she found who she was looking for.

Janet Baxter had long been desperate to gain Dolores’s confidence. From the start of their acquaintance, some three years’ prior when her husband, Avery Baxter, had joined the orchestra, Janet had developed a habit of divulging much more about her life than Dolores cared to know. She was the kind of woman who left a long pause after her revelations; a pregnant pause, as though she expected secrets to be traded in return. At Lyndon’s party, she had made a beeline across the room to greet Dolores, and said loudly to the group of people orbiting her – “Do you know, we have been friends for years now, and I still don’t know the first thing about her.”

The Giddens café, Dolores thought. All the chatter and the clatter there will be just the thing to drown Janet Baxter out. Dolores lifted the receiver, and within two hours she was sat before her, with a waitress standing patiently beside their table as Janet scanned the menu.

‘I suppose I’ll have a coffee and a slice of walnut cake as well, after all.’ Janet sighed, and handed the menu back to the girl. Janet nodded at Dolores in a way that suggested she had decided to follow her good taste in afternoon meals. When the girl had gone, she leaned in toward her, and said – ‘Do you know – I thought I would never hear from you again.’

Dolores smiled, and placed her hands down on the table, one over the other; composed. ‘Whatever made you think that?’

‘Well, you know–.’ She trailed off, and set about removing her coat and unpinning her hat.

Dolores saw that her hair was unclean; the roll at the side looked flat, as though Janet had gotten ready in a hurry. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘you’re still in touch with the others.’

Janet looked about her, arm outstretched, her pillbox hat dangling off of her fingertips. Dolores shook her head. So affected, she thought. And to think Avery was once the page turner.

A waitress scurried past, arms stacked with trays of cups and teapots, and knocked the hat out of Janet’s hand. She tutted, stooped to pick it up, and placed it wonkily over her coat on the back of her chair. ‘Oh, yes,’ she replied, her large eyes widening. ‘I was with them all last night.’

‘Oh I read the review this morning. How was it?’

‘The Proscenium still looked a bit damaged, you know, and there was some talk of it meddling with the acoustics or somesuch.’ She leaned in. ‘You know – a few of them asked after you? I said to Avery – “I don’t know why they bother asking me. It’s not as if we’re close friends.”’ She met Dolores’s calm gaze, and coughed. ‘Still, I’m very glad to have been asked out. I expect you haven’t seen any of them since the trial.’

There it was – “the trial” – the gateway phrase to what Dolores had to say. She deflected a smile, composed her face in a sombre expression, and began. ‘It’s all been rather exhausting, Janet,’ she said, in her richest, deepest, most confidential tone. She unfolded her hands, and started in to gesticulating elegantly, as she did whenever she had an audience of her own. ‘Naturally, I couldn’t see any of them ever again.’ Her hands fluttered outward, as if casting her old friends away. ‘They were far too close to Lyndon, and to Rex. And God only knows what they think of me now.’ Janet reached over, placed her hand on Dolores’s, then pulled away quickly, as though she sensed she had crossed a line. Too familiar, Dolores thought. Good – that means she’s invested.

Janet breathed out deeply and said – ‘No, they can’t have enough sympathy for you. Well, yes, Monica is still upset, but she’s not really a part of things now, is she?’ She inhaled, her eyelids fluttered. Dolores was unsure if Janet thought she had misspoken, or was simply under the notion that she, the wife of Avery Baxter – former page turner, had taken Monica’s place as some sort of doyenne of the orchestra. Then Janet said – ‘Nobody liked her much any way. Far too highly-strung.’ She sat back, satisfied with herself – before she jerked forward, eyes wide, and asked – ‘Do you know – it’s still in the papers today. Of course they had to make a little reference to the damned business in that review’ – she rolled her eyes dramatically – ‘but you never told a reporter a thing. How have you managed to keep it all to yourself, all this time?’

‘Well.’ Dolores sat up, placed her hand under her chin, and rested her elbow on the table. ‘That’s why I tele-phoned you this morning. I must tell someone my side of the story.’

‘But didn’t you already do that? At the trial?’

‘Not all of it.’

Presently, the waitress returned, and set out the coffee and cakes. Dolores watched Janet as she reached into her handbag, took out a compact, and checked her reflection. She seemed as though she was preparing herself; she set her expression into one of seriousness.

Janet closed the compact as the girl moved away. ‘I look awful,’ she said, a little nerves in her voice. ‘I wasn’t expecting to go out to-day.’

Dolores smiled magnanimously, and gestured to let Janet pour her cup first. While she did so, Dolores rehearsed the arrangement of her story once more in her mind. She poured a coffee for herself, and began. ‘Rex was stood in the middle of the hallway when I came home that afternoon – that is, the afternoon before Lyndon’s party. My hands were full with bags – my new outfit, and the present for Lyndon – and I sighed to find Rex elsewhere. Mentally, I mean.’

‘Elsewhere?’

‘Avery must have told you about it. No? The brooding moods he has, now and then, especially in the middle of rehearsals. When he can’t quite get the tune right in his head.’ She smiled. ‘We called him The Absent Cellist.’

‘But he’s been playing the cello since he was a child. Surely he knows what he’s doing by now.’

‘He does, but he cracks a little – under pressure.’ Dolores pincered a sugar cube with the tongs, and dropped it into her cup.

‘I suppose that does follow,’ Janet said, quieter than usual.

‘And he was under a lot of pressure that afternoon. I’d told him to relax, that it was no good fretting about the concert at the Paragon. Goodness, they hadn’t even put the roof back on at that point.’

‘Amazing how quickly it all came together.’

‘Rex didn’t think of it as amazing at all. He thought the orchestra was too good to play some “local hotel” and their “little reopening ceremony”. He was frustrated, I suppose, that Lyndon had agreed to play what he saw as a small-town venue.’

‘Hardly small!’ Janet stirred; her jaw slacked in indignation.

‘Well perhaps not in its heyday, but to Rex it was still just a hotel.’

‘Then why fret so over “just a hotel”?’

‘Oh it doesn’t take much to cut up Rex.’ Dolores broke off to look out into the crowd of tables. Her gaze rested on a cat, its hind legs on an old woman’s lap, as it stretched itself up to lick the cream off of a plate. She grimaced.

‘When you say flustered–.’ Janet let the words hang in the air a moment. ‘You mean to say–.’ She dipped her head knowingly.

Dolores murmured agreement. ‘I’m no martyr, Janet, honestly. We weren’t the Fitzgeralds, by any means.’

‘But, I take it, you also weren’t the Slys.’

‘Oh their marriage was all surface. Lyndon cared only about his career, Monica pined only for babies.’

Janet gave an indulgent gasp. ‘Oh yes – what about the baby?’

‘Let’s not skip ahead, Janet.’ Dolores delicately flicked the question away with her long fingers, reached for her cup, and sipped at it. ‘I’ve kept all of this in my mind for so long that I’d be grateful if I could just–. Get it all out in one go.’

‘Of course. I’ll shut up for a bit. I’ll–. I’ll make a start on the cake.’

Dolores watched Janet as she slid the cake slice under her piece and clumsily plopped it onto her plate. Crumbs were scattered across the table. Janet did not notice. ‘Go on,’ she said, as she drove her fork through a walnut.

‘Well, there I was, in the hallway,’ she said, her voice speeding up. ‘Rex with his cello propped against the wall, and the case lying at his feet, and him standing in that funny way of his; at a right angle, as though he’s still onstage.’ She slowed down. ‘I put down my things and – I can’t tell you why, but I felt a curious sense of endearment toward him of a sudden. By then, things had been rather cold between us for several months and I suppose I just – wanted everything to be all right for the party.’

Janet slid over the plate that held the remaining slice of cake. Dolores shook her head. Sheepishly, Janet withdrew it.

‘He was gazing into the living room, with that peevish thinking face of his. I knew he’d forgotten a melody again, because he seemed to be caught in the process of clicking his fingers. When he puts himself under duress, his memory always goes. So, I waited a few moments for him to snap back into life. The clock chimed, and that seemed to bring him out of himself. His eyes flickered and he glanced at me – looking rather vulnerable with his shoulders hunched in. “Oh,” he said – “Oh, you’re back”. His voice was gruff and tired, and in a rush of emotion I embraced him. I hadn’t let him near me for quite a few weeks, but I just felt sorry for him. He is both infantilised and immortalised by his work, and that afternoon he seemed to be the former. He held me in return, and that’s when I think he noticed.’

‘Noticed what?’ A crumb fell loose from Janet’s mouth, and lodged itself in her thick red lipstick.

‘The slight–,’ Dolores closed her eyes, ‘filling out of the body.’

Janet stopped, the last piece of cake halfway to her lips.

‘He pulled away from me then, but before he could say anything I asked him what song, or what part of a song, he was trying to remember. And of course he instantly corrected me. Something like – “It’s not a song, Dolores, it’s a musical piece,” or – “It’s not a part, Dolores, it’s a movement.” Well, I never have had an ear for music, and I can’t be bothered with the technical terms. A song is a song is a song.’

‘Nor me,’ Janet said, gliding the cake into her mouth at last. ‘Tone deaf since birth,’ she said between chews. She wiped her mouth with a napkin, and bit her lip when she saw how much lipstick she had wiped off. She reached down for her compact; to check her reflection once more.

Dolores felt aggrieved by the distraction. She sucked in a breath.

Janet’s eyes flicked up over the compact. ‘I’m still listening.’

‘Good.’ Dolores breathed out. ‘Well, Rex must have noticed, because he became instantly angry. But he wouldn’t mention it. Instead, he told me it wasn’t just a case of “remembering” the piece or the movement or what have you – it was the chords, or the structure, or the melody, or the art. Whatever it was I had lost interest, so I took up my bags to go upstairs. He hates it when I ignore him, so he knocked the bags out of my hands, and accused me of spending more of his money. I tried to tell him it was my own, but he wouldn’t have it. So, rather stupidly, I said I had bought a record. “For whom?” he asked. “It can’t be for us.” And of course that made him madder when I told him. He hated when I bought something for Lyndon even more than when Lyndon bought something for me.’

Janet’s brows raised over the compact, and she nodded slowly. She said – ‘And I suppose in all those bags was a gift from him? The outfit I assume?’ She huffed, and arched her back. ‘Lyndon got me a red dress once – the day after I reminded him that I was still, in fact, married to Avery. It was a cheap one, too – from Sopers.’

Dolores laughed, and with vigour. For a moment she felt as though she was back among the living. ‘You’re on the ball, it seems.’

Janet folded her compact to reveal a triumphant expression. ‘I told you I was still listening, didn’t I? So, didn’t they say he struck you?’

A pit opened up in Dolores’s stomach. The press had made much of that part of the story – the months of Rex’s memory loss, the arguments, the sudden attacks. Dolores shifted about in her seat, and her pleated wool skirt rode up her legs and became uncomfortable. ‘Yes, and then he stormed upstairs, while I gathered myself. One of my earrings had come off, and I found it behind the cello. I bent down to pick it up, and it was then that I saw one of the strings was broken. No doubt he’d snapped it in a fury while he was trying to remember, to rehearse. So I opened the cello case to see if he had a spare one – I always bought his equipment for him – and as I did so I had an idea.’ She paused, calculating her next move.

Have I already said too much?

Read Part II.

Beren Reid | May 2017/Aug 2018

Photo from Pixabay

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