Everyone needs Dido. All the adults in her life—grown-ups who act like children—depend on her for their happiness and stability. The nine-year-old orphan lives with her aunt Eliza, who adopted Dido when her mother died. A depressed musicologist unable to balance her brilliant academic career with motherhood, Eliza ruined her marriage with an illicit affair and is now paying the price. Her estranged husband, Giles, is an opera singer whose girlfriend, Julia, uncovers a shocking secret while concealing one of her own.
As Dido shuttles between Eliza’s squalid flat and Giles’s elegant townhouse, she acts as both tactful diplomat and insightful analyst. Until something happens that powerfully impacts her young life.
Narrated from the alternating viewpoints of Eliza, Giles, Julia, and Pearce, a Cornish cattle farmer who falls in love with Eliza, A Sweet Obscurity plays out like one of the Tudor madrigals at its heart: Each character is a counterpoint to another. And the theme running through their intersecting lives is Dido, who is supposed to save them all. But who will save Dido?
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About the Author
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit www.galewarning.org.
Read an Excerpt
A Sweet Obscurity
By Patrick Gale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
Eliza woke in the night and heard the dog was dying. He was whimpering and his breath came only in laboured lungfuls that must be costing him what little energy they gave.
'I'm here,' she called out, fumbling into a dressing gown. 'Don't worry. I'm coming.'
He was in the tiny room off her small one. She kept the door between the two ajar so that she could listen out for him and so that he would not wake in the dark and be frightened. He hated to be shut in, always had. She sat on the floor beside his bed. 'Ssh,' she said.
He was struggling to sit up, eyes wide with fear at what was happening to him, this final mutiny of heart and lungs. She placed a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed. He resisted only a second then sank back on his bed, teeth bared in his effort to suck in enough breath. She spread her palm and ran it back across his brow. His eyes shut a moment, breathing checked, then they opened, staring into space as his struggle continued. She slid her hand down to the hair on his chest, feeling the heat there and the wild knocking of his swollen heart.
'Don't fight,' she murmured. 'It's okay. You can stop now, poor, old man. Let go. Let go now.'
But he fought on tenaciously for another hour, filling the room with fetid breath, held on, as people said, for grim death.
Dawn was revealing the unreachable grime on the window panes when he breathed his last. He did so abruptly, as though someone had pulled his plug. His tongue protruded. She pushed it back behind his teeth but it slid out again as if suddenly doubled in size. Neither would his eyes stay closed. She would have hugged him but death had relieved him of every social restraint and his bowels and bladder now gave out, driving her from the room. Eliza shut the door, sank to her bed, pulled the quilt about her and gave way to exhaustion.
He had been dying for six months or more.
'You must prepare yourself,' she had been told. 'He could go any day.'
At first she believed them, taking care to bid him good night with extra tenderness in case he went in his sleep, jumping up at the least sound of discomfort and fearing the worst if she woke to a silent flat. Then he defied all predictions. With the aid of prescriptions she could ill afford – ACE inhibitors, diuretics and digitalis – he rose from his sickbed and began to take walks again. Far from dying in the night, he developed only a maddeningly weak bladder and started waking her two, even three times a night to go out. Night after night would find her leaning, blank-eyed in her dressing gown in the draughty lobby while he took longer and longer to trawl the sad patch of grass and bushes outside. Repeatedly, mornings found her with the grey complexion and poor concentration of a nursing mother. Often she woke to find him slumped, seemingly lifeless. She would call his name and feel guiltily disappointed when he slowly opened his eyes and raised his head.
'When his appetite goes and he stops wagging his tail,' she told people, I'll let him go, I'll stop the pills.'
But his appetite showed no signs of abating, he continued to wag his tail and he became something of a prodigy so that all the staff at the vet's would come out to greet him when Eliza called in for more pills.
A month's supply cost as much as her food bill for a fortnight. She tried to economise, giving up coffee and wine, but the withdrawal symptoms – punishing headaches and a dull, flu- like throbbing in her joints – frightened her so she gave up lunch instead. This morning the electricity bill had come due and the pills had almost run out so she was faced with the stark choice: do without light and heat or let the dog die. Foolhardy or sentimental – she was, she knew, often both – she had bought more pills with the last of her funds and rang the number on the back of the electricity bill for people in financial difficulties. She told them she had a child. Shamelessly, she cried. She won both a fortnight's precious grace and the right to pay in instalments.
But Carlo heard her, or at least heard the tone in her voice. And now he was dead and she could sell back the unopened pills to the understanding vet and pay the bill. He had even spared her the cost she had been dreading of having him put to sleep. Just before his eyes turned glassy, she fancied she saw reproach in them. He had perhaps been fighting to stay alive all this time for her sake and would have surrendered long ago had he only known how things stood.
Thank God Dido was away and could be left with only happier memories of him.
The thought of her daughter gave her uselessly meandering thoughts a momentary purposeful channel. Eliza rose and pulled on whatever clothes came to hand. She spread Carlo's old bath towel on the floor then, wrinkling her nose against the smell, fetched his body from next door, laid him on it and gathered its corners around him as a makeshift shroud. Then she heaved him into her arms and left. Illness had left his body pounds underweight and she carried him down the stairs with relative ease.
It was only ten minutes' walk from her flat to Giles' house on Starcross Road. Eliza felt mildly self-conscious carrying her tragic bundle along Caledonian Road but it was only as she stood on his well-swept stairs with their spiral-clipped box trees and left finger marks on his old brass bell pull that she began to feel like the bag lady she resembled.
After the distant jangling of the bell there was a long pause. Eliza pulled again a little harder, just in case.
'Hello?' Julia's voice sounded uncertain, even guilty, like a surprised intruder's, which was gratifying.
'It's me. Eliza,' she said.
Two locks and a bolt were unfastened, the door opened a foot and Julia peered around it. Her skin was without a crease and she appeared to have brushed her hair. She was, as ever, Snow White to Eliza's disordered Goldilocks yet with the dangerous hauteur of Snow White's queenly stepmother.
'Eliza, it's Sunday and it's barely seven,' she sighed. 'And Dido's not here. Giles took her to Winchelsea for the weekend.'
'I know that,' Eliza bluffed. She had forgotten it was Sunday. She still had a day's grace before Dido came back. She reached down to where she had laid her bundle. 'It's Carlo,' she explained, catching Julia's small moue of distaste as a shaggy paw swung free of the towel. 'He died finally and I thought we could put him under the apple tree. Giles always said that would be best. And he was his dog.'
'But the apple tree's gone.'
Eliza took this in then asked, 'Why?'
'It wasn't fruiting any more and it was casting too much shade so I had it pulled out.'
'Well under that copper-leafed prunus would do just as well. I don't mind doing it. You go back to bed. I know where the tools are.'
Coerced, Julia stood back and opened the door wider.
Black and white floor tiles, stripped oak stairs, a huge and faintly sinister pot of fleshy green cymbidiums. Had she really once lived here? Crossing the polished threshold, Eliza felt entirely not at home. There was an alien smell she did not immediately recognise as furniture polish and a terrible sense of everything being arranged in order to impress rather than comfort. Flower arrangements, forbiddingly plumped up cushions, printed invitations on the mantelpiece.
Momentarily forgetting her mission in her curiosity to see what other changes Julia had wrought, Eliza wandered into what she remembered as the telly room and set off the burglar alarm. Wincing against the noise as Julia said a crisp fuck sorry and hurried to turn the thing off, Eliza was chilled to find the cosiness of ramshackle sofas and Dido's play things replaced by the austere, dead space of a dining room. Whatever must Dido think, passing between their spartan flat and all this? The child was too diplomatic to say, but she must have made comparisons and formed a preference. Could it be that, with her natural taste for order and control, she preferred here to there?
'Let me.' Julia was back at her side and taking the bundle from Eliza's grasp. She took it with surprising gentleness and, following her towards the garden, Eliza assumed she was going to assist at the burial. But Julia turned abruptly aside into the utility room, where she laid Carlo on the floor. 'If you don't mind,' she said, 'I'll bury him later. I don't want to wake people and ... and there are bulbs and things I don't want dislodged at this time of year.'
'But we ought to get him buried before Dido gets back.'
'Don't worry, Eliza. I'll do it. I've got all day. Now go home and get some rest.'
Eliza found herself steered efficiently to the hall then shut out on the doorstep before she could protest further. Doubts beset her. Julia was the kind of woman who bought rubber gloves on a weekly basis. It was hard to imagine her stuffing a chicken, still less burying a sizeable dog. The dog pre-dated her, however, so perhaps she would do the deed with a glad heart, burying the first of two rivals for Giles' heart. First of three, if one counted Dido.
Eliza walked home in a daze, fell back into bed and cried herself to sleep.
Initially she wept because she was so tired and because Carlo's long illness was over but the deeper reason was one she could barely have spelled out, even to herself. Carlo was not her dog, not strictly. Strictly speaking he belonged to Giles. But he had bought him on a whim, had never loved him as he ought and had found less and less time in which to give him walks. He had also acquired a mistress with a fur allergy but hid this motive behind the characteristically barbed pronouncement that a dog had no place in a childless house.
There remained the small matter of their legal bond, but Carlo had been the last palpable vestige of a marriage gone awry.
And now she was finally cut adrift.
Eliza spent Sunday in bed, stirring only to brew cups of tea, slap the used teabags into the sink and smear margarine onto bread before retreating with this meagre nourishment to her room. Her room smelt neglected but she could not care. Occasionally a draught through one of the cracked windows brought worse smells under the door from the dog's deathbed. The telephone was silent, disconnected when she failed to keep up payments against the last bill.
She had read once that sleepiness was a symptom of depression, that the depressed sought negation of their pain in slumber. If this was true, she had been suffering from depression all her life. Even as a small child, she had faced the bossy arrival of daylight with a kind of horror and retired each night with relief. Dressed or naked, asleep or watchful, to be curled within or sprawled upon a bed was her natural state, from which every other activity was a resented departure. She was a born nester, whose animal affinities had always lain with sloths, lemurs and dormice rather than with nature's predatory adventurers. Alone, shoeless and horizontal, she felt more truly herself than when she was upright and out in the world.
Unless she could guarantee a deep and dreamless sleep however, taking to her bed was hardly a depressive's escape since, once there, she had nothing to distract her from the steady contemplation of herself.CHAPTER 2
As usual Giles began with purely physical exercises; a sequence of stretches, deep, slow breaths and artificial yawns he had performed in the same order and at roughly the same time of the morning for so long that he could be half-asleep still and his body would shift from one gentle exertion to another without his conscious mind being involved. He had once shared a dressing room with a hatha yoga adherent who had said the same of the unvarying sequence of asanas with which he began and closed each day.
Then, blood buzzing nicely, Giles moved to Trudy's piano and began humming arpeggios at the lower end of his register. It was said that the vibrations from a hum helped to relax the vocal cords, though he could never see how this could be, given that it was the vocal cords which produced the hum in the first place. He then ran through the same sequence of lower register arpeggios at half- tempo, beginning each note as an open mouthed hum – actually an ng sound at the back of his throat – then opening it out to a fully sung ah.
At home, in Islington, Sunday was a practice-free day unless he had a concert in the evening. He had long striven to spend Sunday mornings the way the rest of the population did or at least pretended to; a long leisurely breakfast blurring into a slow, superficial browse through two or more Sunday papers. On Sundays at Trudy's, however, he had to practise because he knew she went to some expense to have the piano tuned in his honour and would have been hurt if he spent the morning ignoring it.
He suspected that she liked to feel that his needing to use her piano was a significant link between his art and her nurturing. The sad truth was that, beyond the odd stabbed chord or melodic line picked out with one finger, he did not need the thing at all. He didn't have perfect pitch but he knew his own range and could pitch any piece he had learnt more or less accurately simply from where its opening notes felt most natural in his voice. With works as familiar as the one he was currently singing, the process was like repositioning furniture by the dents left in the pile of a carpet.
'Despair no more shall wound me,' he sang. Then he repeated the incomplete sequence of notes, adjusting the pitch minutely. 'Despair no more shall wound me.' The intervals were useful this morning, a kind of spiralled arpeggio. 'Shall wound me. Shall wound me. Wound. Shall wound me,' he sang, then allowed himself the brief indulgence of a complete phrase, its incurling flourish like a perfect Grinlirig Gibbons curlicue. 'Despair no more shall wound me/Since you so kind do prove.' Then he allowed himself the first of the aria's fiendish little runs. 'Wou-ou-bu-ouound'. 'Sounds like a constipated owl,' he muttered and tried some more humming.
He swung aside on the piano stool to look out of the window. The others were in the garden. Trudy talked incessantly while flicking through a Country Life backwards. She persisted in wearing white and in dying her hair an approximation of the blonde it used to be.
'I know I'm too old for it,' she said, 'but Ron prefers me this way so what can I do?'
Last night she had worn a white off-the-shoulder thing, far too dressy considering they were en famille, and far too revealing. This morning she had gone to the other extreme and pulled on jaunty white shorts, a tee shirt and white strappy sandals. She changed two or more times a day, ostensibly because it was hard to wear white and not be forever soiling it but secretly, Giles liked to imagine, so she could snatch a few minutes in which to howl into her pillow or bounce naked off the bathroom walls to release her tension.
He wondered if he was alone in finding that, in his mid-thirties, he regarded his mother with the same unsparing revulsion he had as a teenager. He had only to glance at her to relive his shock at discovering how boys at school rated her a kind of pin-up, to hear again husky voices singing Mrs Robinson as she collected him on Sundays.
Dido was dutifully playing Swingball with is stepfather. The game had been bought for her just as the piano had been tuned for Giles. She would far rather be flopped in the distant hammock with a book.
Puffing, dangerously red, Ron was trying not to win but his competitive instincts were too deeply instilled. Dido's clumsiness and lack of interest offered too great a challenge to even his sense of fair play. Once more he could not resist thwacking the ball, once more it flew off the spring and once more Trudy, who failed to understand the game, gave a sort of cheer as Dido gamely ran off to fetch the thing. She hooked it back onto the spring, politely assisting in her own torment.
'All joy and bliss surround me, My —' he sang out at her through the glass. He had meant to sing the entire phrase through to love but something in the flourish on surround snagged like a hangnail and he was compelled to go back and repeat the flourish in isolation, smoothing it out, folding it up again, faster, slower, and again in context. 'All joy and bliss surround.' Again the snag. He frowned, turned from the window absorbed again. He had been practising for so long, it seemed, that sometimes he felt the process engaged his intellect no more than was a bird's on grooming its plumage.
Ignorance occasionally led people to assume that his high voice was artificial, and thus especially strenuous to maintain. It was true that his range, which unusually could tackle roles written for soprano as well as alto castrati, shrank on the occasions when sickness or a bad cold prevented his keeping his voice muscles limber. But then all full-voice, operatic singing, all produced singing as his first teacher had called it, was artificial. As with most counter-tenors, his natural, non-falsetto voice was fairly deep, a lightish baritone, but his high voice felt the more comfortable of the two. On his rare visits to church, for funerals or weddings, it amused him to startle friends by singing hymns at an ordinary blokeish pitch and timbre.
Excerpted from A Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 2003 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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