The Absent Cellist (Part II)

Janet, for her part, looked riveted, and was sat up straight. Dolores imagined her at the theatre during the climactic scene of a tragedy – the rest of the audience shielding their eyes while she, Janet, leaned forward, so that she might get a better view of the protagonist coming to grief. Dolores felt aghast at this thought, and her hand fluttered up to the bow on her blouse. She fiddled with it apace.

Janet seemed mesmerised by this for a moment, until she looked up – her face darkened, and she said – ‘The string they found at the scene.’ She bucked forward. ‘It was from the cello, wasn’t it?’

‘Not quite.’ Dolores looped the bow around her finger. Somehow, despite careful planning, she couldn’t see how she could get away without painting herself as the villain. Then she thought, ruinously – is there anything to lose, now? Smoothly, she said – ‘There was a spare, so I took it out of the case, I went to the hall-stand, and I put it in his jacket pocket.’ Somehow, the surrounding tables seemed to hush at that moment. Dolores felt herself go red.

Janet drew in her lips as if she was withholding comment, and poured another cup of coffee.

‘Yes, Janet. That was the string they found at the scene. The one I–’ Dolores looked about her. The tables had sparked back into conversation.

‘Am I to believe you brought me here to tell me that you did it?’

‘No, Janet,’ Dolores said with measure, as she folded her hands on the table again.

‘Then what are you telling me all of this for?’

Dolores felt the shift of the situation spinning out of her control. She dipped her eyes and said in a smaller voice – ‘I needed to tell someone.’

Janet gave her a look. ‘Yes but why me?’

Dolores’ hand fluttered back up to her bow as she fumbled for justification. Janet’s own embarrassments and indiscretions crossed her mind, and inhaling with relief she said – ‘Well, you’ve always told me so much about your life. Your condition, that awful trip to Snowdon, Lyndon’s advances.’

Janet perked up, unashamed. ‘You remember all that?’

Dolores relaxed. Janet will hear more, she thought. ‘Of course I do. I was always listening.’

Janet’s expression turned to one of uncertainty, and she leaned in. ‘And I told you all of that in confidence.’

‘And I’m telling you all of this,’ Dolores lifted her head in that regal way of hers, ‘in confidence.’

Janet nodded solemnly, and flagged down a waitress to ask for another pot. ‘I think,’ she said to the girl, ‘we’re going to be here a while.’ She excused herself to go to the lavatory.

While she waited, Dolores considered her next move. She could cast herself favourably, as she had done at the trial – but that wouldn’t relieve her of her guilt. And then a sordid temptation came over her – to paint herself in the worst possible pose. She thought – there must be something uplifting about being the villain. She checked herself. And getting away with it. At last, she ate her slice of walnut cake, and tried to focus as much as possible on how it tasted.

Janet returned, with a new coat of lipstick on and her roll somewhat revived. ‘Carry on,’ she said.

Dolores smiled. ‘To the party, then, and the new Victrola.’

‘Oh golly, the Victrola – how could I forget? Do you know – I hardly got to dance with Avery that evening, after Lyndon put him on wind-up duties.’

‘Lyndon was always so protective over his things.’ Dolores glanced out of the window, her mind elsewhere for a moment.

‘What was the name of that awful song you bought for him? The one that made everybody giddy.’

Dolores chuckled. ‘Cherry Blossom Pink and Apple White.’

‘What a funny song. Or should I say – piece of music?’ Janet gave a little gasp and checked her companion. Dolores smiled toothily, and Janet sighed with relief.

She thinks she is on my side, Dolores thought, with a little pang of regret. Janet could have been a good friend to me, now. Why did I choose her? And then she remembered. Janet had too much to lose.

‘More coffee?’

‘Thank you,’ Dolores said, though she was not thirsty. She was thinking – I want to skip to the end but–. ‘Lyndon came over to speak to me, to ask me upstairs. Monica saw us, so she made some great ceremony about Lyndon’s dear friend Dolores’s present – “we must play it next” – thinking it would keep us there. I went over to the Victrola, and while Avery was putting the last disc away, I tampered with the dial to make the record play. Avery saw Lyndon walk out of the door as he was winding and – bless him, rather panicked, he said – “what’ll I do if something goes wrong with it?”’

Janet laughed, sloshing her cup as she lifted it to her mouth. The white tablecloth turned brown in spots, but she took no notice and said – ‘Lyndon wouldn’t let anyone else touch it, would he? But you weren’t even there to enjoy it.’

‘Of course I wasn’t, Janet. I was upstairs.’

Janet, who was still giggling, ignored her and went on – ‘Everyone looked so queer trying to dance to it. We kept stopping and looking at each other, wondering when it would settle itself. Speeding up, slowing down. Even Monica couldn’t keep in time – but of course she insisted there was something wrong with the new machine. She said Avery hadn’t wound it up properly, or somesuch. She and I almost came to blows about it. I said the record must be warped. Monica was in a frightful temper. “No more music until–”’

‘Until Lyndon comes back. Yes, I did hear her shout that. From upstairs.’ She smiled condescendingly at Janet, hoping she would catch on.

Janet shifted about in her seat, her face a picture of remembrance. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Upstairs.’ She dragged out the word through her teeth. ‘You know it’s funny – if you capture the first hour or so in time and blot out the rest, you can almost convince yourself it was a splendid party.’

‘I don’t have to tell you this, if you don’t want to hear it.’

Janet’s eyes flashed. ‘Oh, I do,’ she said, a little too keen. She patted her breast to steady herself. ‘Only, that is, if it would make you feel better.’

Dolores touched the edge of her cup, which to her was still scalding. ‘Thank you, Janet. I knew I could trust you.’

Janet beamed.

‘You know most of what happens next, anyhow.’

‘Avery didn’t really like to talk about it.’

‘Well from what was in the papers.’

‘Look I don’t mind if you rake over all of it again if it helps you.’

‘Thank you. It will.’ Dolores’s eyes flickered before she continued. ‘So I, uh–. Well I clasped Avery’s shoulder and said I’d ask Rex to fetch Lyndon if there was any trouble with the Victrola, which I did. And oh, I can’t tell you how much my heart was beating as I went over to Rex. I gave him a kiss and I told him I’d be back in a moment. I patted his jacket pocket and I said – “What’s this?” I took out the cello string and I gave it to him. I said – “How silly of you – what use could you have for that here?”’

Janet turned pale. ‘Dolores, I–. Actually, I’m not sure I have the stomach for this.’

Dolores closed her eyes and went on, her voice rising a little. ‘Rex was already drunk by that point. He already knew about the affair – but to carry on while he was around must have hurt his pride. He became agitated – but he knew better than to show his anger among friends.’ She opened her eyes and stared directly at Janet, who shrunk in her seat. ‘Did you have any idea that he would set upon me in bed – that he would strike me whenever I would wriggle away before he could finish.’

‘But you were his wife.’

‘Yes, Janet, but we aren’t all as dutiful as you are. And we don’t all want to sacrifice our lives for children.’ Their eyes met; Janet’s were filled with tears. Dolores breathed out, and drank her coffee at last. She collected herself, and said – ‘I’m sorry, Janet. That was unthoughtful of me.’

‘No, no, it’s quite all right,’ Janet said, half-reaching down to her bag; caught in hesitation.

‘Don’t go Janet, please. I’m nearly at the end.’

‘I know what you’re going to say, and I can’t sit around to hear it. You know that I’d be breaking the law, don’t you?’ Janet lurched forward and said, almost spitting – ‘I’d be – what is it? Complicit? Is that it?’

‘I didn’t kill him, Janet. The verdict was true.’

Janet hesitated, looked about her, blushed, and sat back. She smoothed down her blouse and pursed her lips. ‘Very well.’

Dolores blinked, amazed that Janet was so easily placated, and set her cup down. ‘Everyone in that courtroom was a man – the judge, the lawyers, even the stenographer – and the jury. The story of a long-suffering wife was familiar to them. I had a baby to consider. Murderesses, even, as you call it – complicit murderesses, just wouldn’t do.’

‘So you lied?’

‘It’s not lying, Janet,’ Dolores said irritably. ‘It’s deception. There’s a difference.’

Janet cast about the table, took up a napkin, and began to twist it in her hands. ‘Deception is just as reprehensible. My God, Dolores. You set all of this up.’

Dolores’s eyes gleamed. ‘No I didn’t. I just–’, she breathed in, ‘allowed it to happen. I knew Rex had a temper, but I didn’t make him do anything.’

‘But you sat watched on as he did it.’

‘I was knocked out of the way.’

‘You didn’t even try to call for help?’

‘Who would have heard me, over Monica and all the fuss about the music?’

‘The fuss you created. And yet you had the presence of mind to scream when it was all over. Didn’t you claim in court that you were in a state of shock?’

Dolores, with her secret unfurled, began to tire of Janet. She paused a passing waitress and asked to settle up. Janet stared at her, her large eyes narrowed. Dolores thought it made her look unattractive. ‘You know how female nerves seem to men.’

‘But why Lyndon?’ Janet said, her tone harder than usual. ‘Rex I could understand, but–. Everybody knew that Lyndon was in love with you.’

‘The jealousy in your voice says it all, Janet. He made you care about him in the same way that he made me. He always seemed so protective about his things – so careful that they might not be broken – so careful in fact that he kept secrets, but then I found out about his other things and I was broken anyway. You, and all the other girls.’ She paused. She had not expected to be close to tears. ‘He took advantage of everyone, in one way or another. Avery, for instance; his protégé, his next in line – but only if he turned the pages a little better during Lyndon’s solos.’

‘I think I’ve heard enough.’ Janet took her purse out from her handbag and checked her money. Her hands were shaking.

Dolores placed the toe of her shoe over Janet’s to stall her, and decided to play the last card in her hand. ‘Now you can’t say that Avery hasn’t benefitted from all of this, can you? What did I get besides the baby?’

Janet put down her purse, her curiosity getting the better of her as ever. ‘What of the baby?’

Dolores breathed deeply in. ‘I’m giving it to Monica, once it’s weaned. She knows it’s Lyndon’s. She wouldn’t even speak to me otherwise. I suppose it’s all she has left of him now.’

‘That’s monstrous.’ The waitress returned, and stood with the poise of someone stuck between discretion and servitude as she held out the bill. Janet slapped a note on the girl’s hand; enough to cover them both. ‘There.’ She shooed the girl away, and turned to put on her coat and hat.

‘Janet,’ Dolores said softly, fiddling with her bow once more.

Janet slumped a little, her hat and coat in her hands. ‘What?’

‘I’m telling you all of this in confidence.’ Dolores tilted her head up and gave Janet an imploring look.

Janet huffed, and began to button up her coat. ‘I wish I had never picked up the tele-phone,’ she said. ‘It might do well if I told the papers. Monica even.’

‘Would you really like the business between you and Lyndon brought up?’

Janet closed her eyes and let go of the buttons; resigned. ‘You knew I wouldn’t tell.’

‘Yes. I knew you wouldn’t tell. Perhaps I’m just as bad as men like Rex and Lyndon.’ She hesitated as she went to take a last sip of her coffee. ‘Perhaps I just needed a friend.’ She sighed, shoulders drooping.

‘It’s been a marvellous display. What was it the paper said this morning? A “bravura performance”. The orchestra has had enough bad publicity as it is, so you’ll be glad to know I shan’t say anything, if only for the sake of my husband because, yes – I am a dutiful wife.’ She slung her handbag into the crook of her arm, and pushed her pillbox hat onto her head, crushing the netting out of shape. She peered down at Dolores, and shook her head. ‘Good-bye, Dolores. ‘I’ll thank you to never contact me again.’ She started to leave.

Dolores called to her – ‘Did you find a new cellist?’

Janet turned. Her stern face was almost on the verge of a smile. ‘The cellist is still absent,’ she said, and marched away.

Dolores stared after her, and then when she was gone she stared into the middle distance, and her gaze fell upon the old woman with the cat who got the cream. She breathed in deeply, put on her cloak, and in that regal way with which she held herself she glided across the Giddens café, thanking every girl as she went – wondering if, after all, she had been absolved.

Read Part I.

Beren Reid | May 2017/Aug 2018

Photo from Pixabay

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