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Eighty Days Yellow
The Eighty Days Trilogy, Book One
By Vina Jackson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Vina Jackson
All rights reserved.
A Girl and Her Violin
I blame it on Vivaldi.
More specifically, on my CD of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which now sat face down on the bedside cabinet, alongside the body of my softly snoring boyfriend.
We'd had a fight when Darren had arrived home at 3 a.m. following a business trip and found me lying on the wooden floor in his living room, nude, the concerto playing as loudly as his surround-sound system would allow. Loud.
The presto movement of 'Summer', the Concerto No. 2 in G minor, was just about to kick into full swing when Darren flung open the door.
I hadn't noticed that he'd returned until I felt the flat of his shoe resting on my right shoulder and shaking me back and forth. I opened my eyes and saw him leaning over me. I then noticed that he'd turned the lights on and the CD had come to a sudden halt.
'What the fuck are you doing?' he said.
'Listening to music,' I replied in my smallest voice.
'I can hear that! I could hear it all the way down the street!' he yelled.
He'd been away in Los Angeles, and looked remarkably fresh for someone who had just got off a long flight. He was still wearing half of his business suit, a crisp white shirt, leather belt and dark-navy trousers with a very thin pinstripe, the matching jacket slung over one arm. He was gripping the handle of his wheelie case tightly. It had evidently been raining outside, though I hadn't heard a thing over the sound of the music. His case was slick with rain, rivulets running down the side and pooling onto the floor alongside my thigh. The bottoms of his trousers were wet where his umbrella had not been able to shield him, and were stuck to his calves.
I turned my head towards his shoe and saw an inch of damp calf. He smelled musky, part sweat, part rain, part shoe polish and leather. A few drips of moisture fell from his shoe and onto my arm.
Vivaldi always had a very particular effect on me, and neither the early morning hour nor the look of irritation on Darren's face did anything to distract me from the feeling of warmth that spread rapidly through my body, lighting the blood in my veins in much the same way that the music had.
I turned so that his shoe was still pressed lightly to my right arm and I ran my left hand up his trouser leg.
He stepped backwards, immediately, as if I'd burned him, and shook his head.
'Jesus Christ, Summer ...'
He wheeled the case up against the wall next to the CD rack, removed The Four Seasons from the player and then walked to his room. I considered getting up and following him, but decided against it. There was no way that I could win an argument with Darren when I didn't have any clothes on. I hoped that if I just continued to lie still, I could defuse his rage by appearing less visible, hopeful that my unclothed body would blend better into his wooden flooring if I was lying horizontally rather than standing upright.
I heard the sound of the wardrobe door open and the familiar rattling of wooden coat hangers as he hung up his jacket. In the six months that we had been dating, I hadn't once seen him throw his coat over a chair or the back of the couch, like a normal person would. He hung his jacket straight into the wardrobe, then sat down to take off his shoes, then removed his cufflinks, then unbuttoned his shirt and put it straight into the washing basket, then took off his belt and hung it over the wardrobe rail alongside half a dozen others in varying sombre shades of navy, black and brown. He wore designer briefs, the style I like best on men, tiny pairs of stretch-cotton shorts with a thick waistband. I loved the way that the briefs hugged him, tantalisingly tight, although to my eternal disappointment he would always cover himself with a robe and never walked through the flat with just his underwear on. Nakedness offended Darren.
We'd met at a recital in the summer. It was a big deal for me; one of the scheduled violinists had called in sick and I had been drafted in at the last minute to play in the orchestra, a piece by Arvo Pärt, which I hated. I found it jerky and monotonous, but for a classical slot on a real stage, albeit a small stage, I would have played Justin Bieber and found a way to look as though I was enjoying myself. Darren had been in the audience and he'd loved it. He had a thing for redheads, and he said later that he couldn't see my face because of the angle of the stage, but he had a great view of the top of my head. He said my hair had shone in the stage light as though I was on fire. He'd bought a bucket of champagne and had used his connections with the concert organisers to find me backstage.
I don't like champagne, but I drank it anyway, because he was tall and attractive and the closest thing I'd ever had to a bona fide groupie.
I asked him what he'd have done if I'd been missing my front teeth or had been, in some other way, not to his taste, and he replied that he'd have tried his luck with the percussionist, who wasn't a redhead but was still fairly attractive.
A few hours later, I was drunk and flat on my back in his room in Ealing, wondering how I ended up in bed with a man who stopped to hang up his jacket and lay his shoes carefully together before he climbed on top of me. However, he had a big cock and a nice apartment, and although it turned out that he hated all the music I loved, we spent most of our weekends over the following months together. Unfortunately, to my mind, not nearly enough of that time was spent in bed, and far too much of it was spent going to see highbrow art affairs that I didn't enjoy and was convinced Darren didn't understand.
Men who saw me play in proper classical music venues instead of pubs and tube stations seemed to make the same mistake that Darren had, believing that I would possess all of the traits they associated with a female classical violinist. I would be well mannered, proper, cultured, educated, ladylike and graceful, in possession of a wardrobe full of simple and stylish gowns for wearing on stage, none of them vulgar or showing too much flesh. I would wear kitten heels and be unaware of the effect that my slim ankles might arouse.
In fact, I had only one long, formal black dress for concerts, which I'd bought for a tenner from a shop in Brick Lane and had altered by a tailor. It was velvet with a high neck and a low back, but had been at the dry cleaner's the night I met Darren, so I had bought a bandage dress from Selfridges on my credit card and tucked the tags into my underwear. Fortunately, Darren was a tidy lover and had left no stains either on me or the dress, so I was able to return it the next day.
I had my own place, where I spent my weeknights, part of a block of flats in Whitechapel. It was a bedsit, more of a room than an apartment, with a moderately large single bed, a standing rail that functioned as a wardrobe and a small sink, fridge and cooker. The bathroom was down the hall, shared with four others, whom I did bump into occasionally, but generally they kept to themselves.
Despite the location and the run-down building, I could never have afforded the rent had I not struck a deal with the leaseholder, whom I met in a bar one night after a late-night visit to the British Museum. He never fully explained why he wanted to rent the room out for less than he was paying for it, but I presumed that beneath the floorboards lay either a body or a cache of white powder and I often lay awake at night expecting to hear the stampeding footsteps of a SWAT team running up the hall.
Darren had never been to my flat, partly because I had a feeling that he couldn't have brought himself to set foot on the premises without having the whole building steam-cleaned, and partly because I liked to have a portion of my life that belonged entirely to me. I suppose deep down I knew that our relationship was unlikely to last, and I didn't want to have to deal with a jilted lover throwing rocks at my window in the night.
He had suggested, more than once, that I move in with him and save the money that I was spending on rent so that I could put it towards a nicer violin, or more lessons, but I refused. I hate living with other people, particularly lovers, and I'd rather make money moonlighting on a street corner than be supported by a boyfriend.
I heard the soft snap of his cufflink box closing, shut my eyes and squeezed my legs together in an attempt to make myself invisible.
He stepped back into the living room and walked straight past me into the kitchen. I heard the rush of the kitchen tap, the soft hiss of the gas lighting and, a few minutes later, the rumble of the kettle. He had one of those modern but old-fashioned-style kettles that needs to be heated on the stove until it whistles. I couldn't understand why he didn't just get an electric one, but he claimed that the water tasted better, and that a proper cup of tea should be made with a proper pot of water. I don't drink tea. Even the smell of it makes me ill. I drink coffee, but Darren refused to make me coffee after 7 p.m. as it kept me awake, and he said that my restless nocturnal fidgeting kept him awake too.
I relaxed into the floor and pretended that I was somewhere else, slowing my breathing in a concentrated effort to stay perfectly still, like a corpse.
'I just can't speak to you when you're like this, Summer.' His voice floated from the kitchen, disembodied. It was one of my favourite things about him, the rich tone of his public-schoolboy accent, at turns soft and warm, and at other times cold and hard. I felt a rush of warmth between my thighs and locked my legs together as tightly as I could, thinking of how Darren had laid a towel down the one and only time we'd had sex on the living-room floor. He hated mess.
'Like what?' I replied, without opening my eyes.
'Like this! Naked and stretched out on the floor like a lunatic! Get up and put some fucking clothes on.'
He drained the last mouthfuls of his tea, and hearing the sound of his gentle gulps, I imagined how it would feel to have him kneel with his mouth between my legs. The thought made me flush.
Darren didn't normally go down on me unless I wasn't more than five minutes out of the shower, and even then his licks were tentative, and his tongue replaced by his finger at the earliest possible polite opportunity. He preferred to use only one finger and had not responded well when I had reached my hand down and tried to guide two more inside me.
'Jesus, Summer,' he'd said, 'you'll be gaping by the time you're thirty if you carry on like that.'
He'd gone into the kitchen and washed his hands with dishwashing liquid before coming back to bed and rolling over, falling asleep with his back to me while I lay awake and stared at the ceiling. From the vigorous sounds of splashing, it seemed that he'd washed all the way up to his elbows, like a veterinary nurse about to birth a calf, or a priest about to make a sacrifice.
I hadn't ever encouraged him to try more than one finger again.
Darren put his cup in the sink and walked past me to the bedroom. I waited a few moments after he had disappeared from sight before getting up, embarrassed at the thought of how obscene I would look to him as I rose nude from the floor, although I'd now fallen thoroughly out of my Vivaldi-induced reverie and my limbs were beginning to ache and chill.
'Come to bed, then, when you're ready,' he called back behind him.
I listened to him undress and get into bed, pulled my underwear on and waited for his breathing to deepen before slipping between the sheets beside him.
I was four years old the first time I heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons. My mother and siblings had gone away for the weekend to visit my grandmother. I had refused to leave without my father, who couldn't come because he had to work. I clung to him and bawled as my parents tried to bundle me into the car, until eventually they relented and let me stay behind.
My father let me skip nursery school and took me to work with him instead. I spent three glorious days of almost total freedom racing around his workshop, climbing stacks of tyres and inhaling deep rubber-scented breaths as I watched him jack up other people's cars and slide beneath them so that just his waist and legs were visible. I always stayed close by, as I had a terrible fear that one day the jack would fail and the car would drop and cleave him in two. I don't know if it was arrogance or foolishness, but even at that age I thought I would be able to save him, that given the right amount of adrenaline, I would be able to hold up the body of a car for the few seconds that it would take him to escape.
After he'd finished working, we'd climb into his truck and take the long way home, stopping for an ice cream in a cone on the way, even though I wasn't usually allowed to eat dessert before dinner. My father always ordered rum and raisin, while I asked for a different flavour every time, or sometimes half a scoop of two different sorts.
Late one night, I'd been unable to sleep and had wandered into the living room and found him lying on his back in the dark, apparently asleep, though not breathing heavily. He'd brought his record player in from the garage and I could hear the soft swish of the needle with each turn of the record.
'Hello, daughter,' he said.
'What are you doing?' I asked.
'Listening to music,' he replied, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
I lay down alongside him so I could feel the warmth of his body near me and the faint smell of new rubber mixed with heavy-duty hand cleaner. I closed my eyes and lay still, until soon the floor disappeared and the only thing that existed in the world was me, suspended in the dark, and the sound of Vivaldi's Four Seasons on the hi-fi.
Thereafter, I asked my father to play the record again and again, perhaps because I believed that I had been named after one of the movements, a theory that my parents never confirmed.
My early enthusiasm was such that for my birthday that year my father bought me a violin and arranged for me to have lessons. I had always been a fairly impatient child, and independent, the sort of person who might not seem predisposed to taking extra lessons or to learning music, but I dearly wanted, more than anything in the world, to play something that would make me fly away, like I had that night I'd first heard Vivaldi. So from the instant that I set my tiny hands on the bow and the instrument, I practised every waking moment.
My mother began to worry that I was becoming obsessive, and wanted to take the violin away from me for a time, so that I could pay more attention to the rest of my schoolwork, and perhaps also make some friends, but I had flat refused to relinquish my instrument. With a bow in my hand, I felt as though I might take flight at any moment. Without it, I was nothing, just a body like any other body, welded to the ground like a stone.
I quickly worked through the levels of my music primers, and by the time I was nine years old, I was playing far beyond the capacity my astounded school music teacher could conceive.
My father organised more lessons for me, with an older Dutch gentleman, Hendrik van der Vliet, who lived two streets away from us and rarely left his house. He was a tall, painfully thin man who moved awkwardly, as if he were attached to strings, and as if the substance he moved through was thicker than air, like a grasshopper swimming through honey. When he picked up his violin, his body became liquid. Watching the movements of his arm was like watching waves rise and fall in the sea. Music flowed in and out of him like a tide.
Unlike Mrs Drummond, the school music teacher, who had been shocked and suspicious of my progress, Mr van der Vliet seemed largely unmoved. He rarely spoke and never smiled. Though the population of my town, Te Aroha, was small, few people knew him and, as far as I was aware, he did not have any other students. My father told me that he had once played in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam under Bernard Haitink and had left his classical career and moved to New Zealand when he met a Kiwi woman at one of his concerts. She had died in a car accident on the day that I was born.
Like Hendrik, my father was a quiet man, but interested in people, and he knew everyone in Te Aroha. At some point or other, even the most reclusive person would fall victim to a flat tyre, whether attached to a car, a motorbike or a lawnmower, and with a reputation for taking on even the smallest repair job, my father's time was often consumed with doing odd jobs for various locals, including Hendrik, who had come into his workshop one day to have a bicycle tyre repaired and had left with a violin student.
I felt an odd sort of loyalty towards Mr van der Vliet, as if I was responsible in some way for his happiness, having come into the world on the same day that his wife left it. I felt bound to please him, and under his tutelage I practised and practised until my arms ached and the tips of my fingers were raw.
Excerpted from Eighty Days Yellow by Vina Jackson. Copyright © 2012 Vina Jackson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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