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The Courage Consort
To all those who sing lustily and with good courage, and to all who only wish they could
ON THE DAY THE GOOD NEWS arrived, Catherine spent her first few waking hours toying with the idea of jumping out the window of her apartment. Toying was perhaps too mild a word; she actually opened the window and sat on the sill, wondering if four storeys was enough to make death certain. She didn't fancy the prospect of quadriplegia, as she hated hospitals, with their peculiar synthesis of fuss and boredom. Straight to the grave was best. If she could only drop from a height of a thousand storeys into soft, spongy ground, maybe her body would even bury itself on impact.
'Good news, Kate,' said her husband, not raising his voice though he was hidden away in the study, reading the day's mail.
'Oh yes?' she said, pressing one hand against the folds of her dressing gown to stop the chill wind blowing into the space between her breasts.
'The fortnight's rehearsal in Martinekerke's come through.'
Catherine was looking down at the ground far below. Half a dozen brightly dressed children were loitering around in the car park, and she wondered why they weren't at school. Then she wondered what effect it would have on them to see a woman falling, apparently from the sky, and bursting like a big fruit right before their eyes.
At the thought of that, she felt a trickle of mysterious natural chemical entering her system, an injection of something more effective than her antidepressants.
'Is . . . is it a school holiday, darling?' she called to Roger, slipping off the sill back onto the carpet. The Berber plush felt hot against her frigid bare feet, as if it had just come out of a tumble dryer. Taking a couple of steps, she found she was numb from waist to knee.
'School holiday? I don't know,' her husband replied, with an edge of exasperation that did not lose its sharpness as it passed through the walls. 'July the sixth through to the twentieth.'
Catherine hobbled to the study, running her fingers through her tangled hair.
'No, no,' she said, poking her head round the door. 'Today. Is today a school holiday?'
Roger, seated at his desk as usual, looked up from the letter he was holding in his hands. His reading glasses sat on the end of his nose, and he peered forbearingly over them. His PC's digital stomach emitted a discreet nirp.
'I wouldn't have the foggiest,' he said. At fifty-two years old, a silver-haired veteran of a marriage that had remained carefully childless for three decades, he obviously felt he'd earned the right to be hazy on such details. 'Why?'
Already forgetting, she shrugged. Her dressing gown slipped off her naked shoulder, prompting one of his eyebrows to rise. At the same moment, she noticed he wasn't in pyjamas any longer, but fully dressed and handsomely groomed. Hitching her gown back up, she strained to recall how she and Roger had managed to start the day on such unequal footing. Had they got up together this morning? Had they even slept together, or was it one of those nights when she curled up in the guest bedroom, listening to the muted plainsong of his CDs through the wall, waiting for silence? She couldn't remember; the days were a chaos in her brain. Last night was already long ago.
Smiling gamely, she scanned his desk for his favourite mug and couldn't spot it.
'I'll put the kettle on, shall I?' she offered.
He produced his mug of hot coffee out of nowhere.
'Some lunch, perhaps,' he said.
Determined to carry on as normal, Roger picked up the telephone and dialled the number of Julian Hind.
Julian's answering machine came on, and his penetrating tenor sang: 'Be-elzebub has a devil put aside for me-e-e . . . for me-e-e . . . for meeeeeeee!'-the pitch rising show-offishly to soprano without any loss of volume. Roger had learned by now to hold the telephone receiver away from his ear until the singing stopped.
'Hello,' said the voice then, 'Julian Hind here. If you have a devil put aside for me, or anything else for that matter, do leave a message after the tone.'
Roger left the message, knowing that Julian was probably hovering near the phone, his floppy-fringed head cocked to one side, listening.
Next, Roger dialled Dagmar's number. It rang for a long time before she responded, making Roger wonder whether she'd gone AWOL again, mountain climbing. Surely she'd have given that a rest, though, in the circumstances!
'Yes?' she replied at last, her German accent saturating even this small word. She didn't sound in the mood for chat.
'Hello, it's Roger,' he said.
'Roger who?' There was a hornlike sonority to the vowels, even on the telephone.
'Oh, hallo,' she said. The words were indistinct amid sudden whuffling noises; evidently she'd just clamped the receiver between jaw and shoulder. 'I was just talking to a Roger. He was trying to sell me some thermal climbing gear for about a million pounds. You didn't sound like him.'
'Indeed I hope not,' said Roger, as the nonsense prattle of Dagmar's baby began to google in his ear. 'This is to do with the fortnight in Martinekerke.'
'Let me guess,' said Dagmar, with the breezily scornful mistrust of the State-any State-that came to her so readily. 'They are telling us blah-blah, funding cuts, current climate, regrets . . .'
'Well, no, actually: it's going ahead.'
'Oh.' She sounded almost disappointed. 'Excellent.' Then, before she hung up: 'We don't have to travel together, do we?'
After a sip of coffee, Roger rang Benjamin Lamb.
'Ben Lamb,' boomed the big man himself.
'Hello, Ben. It's Roger here. The fortnight in Martinekerke is going ahead.'
'Good. Sixth of July to twentieth, yes?'
'Good . . . Well, see you at the terminal, then.'
Roger replaced the receiver and leaned back in his swivel chair. The score of Pino Fugazza's Partitum Mutante, which, before the calls, had been glowing on his PC monitor in all its devilish complexity, had now been replaced by a screen saver. A coloured sphere was ricocheting through the darkness of space, exploding into brilliant fragments, then reassembling in a different hue, over and over again.
Roger nudged the mouse with one of his long, strong fingers. Pino Fugazza's intricate grid of notes jumped out of the blackness, illuminating the screen. The cursor was where Roger had left it, hesitating under something he wasn't convinced was humanly possible to sing.
'Soup is served,' said Catherine, entering the room with an earthenware bowl steaming between her hands. She placed it on his desk, well away from the keyboard as she'd been taught. He watched her as she was bending over; she'd put a T-shirt on underneath her dressing gown.
'Thanks,' he said. 'Any French rolls left?'
She grinned awkwardly, tucking a lock of her greying hair behind one ear.
'I just tried to freshen them up a bit in the microwave. I don't know what went wrong. Their molecular structure seems to have changed completely.'
He sighed, stirring the soup with the spoon.
'Five to ten seconds is all they ever need,' he reminded her.
'Mm,' she said, her attention already wandering outside the window over his shoulder. Meticulous though she could be with musical tempos, she was having a lot of trouble lately, in so-called ordinary life, telling the difference between ten seconds and ten years.
'I do hope this château is a cheerful place,' she murmured as he began to eat. 'It would have to be, wouldn't it? For people in our position to bother going there?'
Roger grunted encouragingly, his face slightly eerie in the glow of the monitor through the haze of soup steam.
Roger Courage's Courage Consort were, arguably, the seventh-most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world. Certainly they were more uncompromising than some of the more famous groups: they'd never sunk so low as to chant Renaissance accompaniment to New Age saxophone players, or to warble Lennon/McCartney chestnuts at the Proms.
A little-known fact was that, of all the purely vocal ensembles in the world, the Courage Consort had the highest proportion of contemporary pieces in their repertoire. Whereas others might cruise along on a diet of antique favourites and the occasional foray into the twentieth century, the Courage Consort were always open to a challenge from the avant-garde. No one had performed Stockhausen's Stimmung as often as they (four times in Munich, twice in Birmingham, and once, memorably, in Reykjavik), and they always welcomed invitations to tackle new works by up-and-coming composers. They could confidently claim to be friends of the younger generation-indeed, two of their members were under forty, Dagmar Belotte being only twenty-seven. Fearlessly forward-looking, they were already signed up for the Barcelona Festival in 2005, to sing a pugnaciously postmillennial work called 2K+5 by the enfant terrible of Spanish vocal music, Paco Barrios.
And now, they had been granted two weeks' rehearsal time in an eighteenth-century château in rural Belgium, to prepare the unleashing of Pino Fugazza's fearsome Partitum Mutante onto an unsuspecting world.
Copyright © 2004 Michel Faber
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