Dan Hollis lives a happy, solitary life carving exquisite Celtic harps in his barn in the countryside of the English moors. Here he can be himself, away from social situations that he doesn’t always get right or completely understand.
On the anniversary of her beloved father’s death, Ellie Jacobs takes a walk in the woods and comes across Dan’s barn. She is enchanted by his collection. Dan gives her a harp made of cherrywood to match her cherry socks. He stores it for her, ready for whenever she’d like to take lessons.
Ellie begins visiting Dan almost daily and quickly learns that he isn’t like other people. He makes her sandwiches precisely cut into triangles and repeatedly counts the (seventeen) steps of the wooden staircase to the upstairs practice room. Ellie soon realizes Dan isn’t just different; in many ways, his world is better, and he gives her a fresh perspective on her own life.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Hazel Prior
A woman came to the barn today. Her hair was the color of walnut wood. Her eyes were the color of bracken in October. Her socks were the color of cherries, which was noticeable because all the rest of her clothes were sad colors. She carried an enormous shoulder bag, canvas. It had a big buckle (square), but it was hanging open. The woman’s mouth was open too. She was shifting from one foot to the other by the door so I told her to come in. The words came out a bit mangled due to the fact that I was wearing my mask. She asked what I’d said, so I took it off and also took off my earmuffs and I said it again. She came in. Her socks were very red indeed. So was her face.
“I’m sorry to be so rude, but I’m gobsmacked.” She did look it, to be honest. “Did you . . . you didn’t, did you . . . make all these?”
I told her yes.
“Wow! I just can’t believe it!” she said, looking round.
I asked her why not.
“Well, it’s not exactly what you expect to find in the middle of nowhere! I’ve been past the end of your lane so many times and I just had no idea that all this was here!”
I put my earmuffs and mask on the workbench and informed her that indeed, all this was here. Perhaps I should have pointed out as well that this is not the middle of nowhere. Not at all. Exmoor is the most somewhere place that I know and my workshop is an extremely somewhere part of it. I did not say this, though. It would have been rude to contradict her.
Morning light was pouring in on us from the three windows. It outlined the sloping rafters. It floodlit the curls of wood shavings. It silvered the edges of the curves and arcs all around us and made strung shadows on the floor.
The woman was shaking her head so that the walnut-colored hair bounced around her face. “How lovely! They’re beautiful, so beautiful! It is like a scene from a fairy tale. And how strange that I’ve stumbled across this place today of all days!”
Today is Saturday, September 9, 2017. Is that a particularly strange day to stumble across a Harp Barn? I smiled politely. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to ask why it was strange. Lots of people find things strange that I don’t find strange at all, and lots of people don’t find strange the things that I find very strange indeed.
The woman kept looking at me and then gazing around the barn and then back at me again. Then she pulled on the strap of her canvas bag to rearrange it in a different way over her shoulder and said: “Do you mind my asking, have you been here long?”
I informed her that I’d been here for one hour and forty-three minutes. Before that I was out in the woods, having my walk. She smiled and said: “No, I mean, have you had this place a long time? As a workshop?”
I told her I came here when I was ten years old and I was now thirty-three years old, so that meant (I explained in case her math was not very good) that I’d been here for twenty-three years.
“No! I just can’t believe it!” she said again. She seemed to have a problem believing things. She shook her head slowly. “I think I must be in a dream.”
I offered to pinch her.
She laughed. Her laugh was interesting: explosive and a little bit snorty.
The next thing that happened was I went across and shook her hand because that is what you are supposed to do. You are not supposed to do pinching. I knew that really. “My name is Dan Hollis, the Exmoor Harpmaker,” I said.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Ellie Jacobs, the Exmoor . . . housewife.”
“Housewife” does not mean you are married to a house. It means you are a woman who is married to a husband and your husband goes off to work every day and you don’t go off to work at all but embark on house dusting, house hoovering and various ironing and washing duties and other things that happen in a house, and in fact you aren’t really expected to go out of the house at all except to get yourself to a supermarket and then you go up and down the aisles with a trolley and a list looking sad. What a lot of things are embedded in that housewife word.
“It’s funny,” she mused, her eyes wandering around the barn again. “Harp playing was on my list.”
I asked if she meant her shopping list.
She paused and looked at me with arched eyebrows. “No, my before-forty list. Lots of people have them, apparently. You know—the list of things to do before you reach the age of forty. Like swimming with dolphins and seeing the Great Wall of China.”
I asked if she had swum with dolphins and she said no. I asked if she had seen the Great Wall of China and she said no. Then she added that she had a few years to go yet. I asked her how many, but she didn’t answer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked her that. There are lots of things you are not supposed to ask, and I fear that might be one of them. So I changed my question and asked her what would happen if she didn’t manage to swim with dolphins or see the Great Wall of China or play the harp before she reached the age of forty. She said, “Nothing.”
We were silent for a bit.
“It smells lovely in here,” she commented finally. “I love the smell of wood.”
I was glad she had noticed it because most people don’t, and I was glad that she appreciated it because most people don’t. Then she gestured toward the harps. “They’re utterly exquisite,” she said. “Will you tell me something about them?”
I told her yes. I informed her that they are Celtic-style traditional harps and they would have been fairly widespread in Britain during the Middle Ages, especially in the north and west. I told her I had carved the Elfin from my own design out of the sycamore tree that had fallen by the brook four years ago. I mentioned that I had made the Sylvan from ancient beech and the Linnet from rosewood. I showed her the drawers of strings and explained about the red ones being Cs, the black ones being Fs and the white ones being As, Bs, Ds, Es and Gs. I told her about each one being a different thickness and the importance of tension. I showed her the holes in the back and how they were anchored inside. I explained the use of the levers for sharpening the note. I told her about the pebbles. I gave her a couple of pieces of wood so that she could hold them and compare the weight. I expanded on the different resonances of different woods.
Then I realized that I had not asked very much about her, so I stopped telling her things and I asked the following eight questions: How are you? Do you have any pets? What is in your enormous shoulder bag? What is your favorite color? What is your favorite tree? Where do you live? Do you enjoy being the Exmoor Housewife? Would you like a sandwich?
She answered me the following answers: fine, thank you; no; a big camera and a notepad and a thermos with soup; red; birch; about five miles southwest of here; um; that would be very nice.
I made twelve sandwiches using six slices of bread and substantial quantities of cream cheese. I cut them into triangles because I reckoned she was a lady.
I’ve noticed that the act of cutting always helps me think. I do some good thinking when I cut up wood to make harps too. That might have been why, over the triangles of the sandwiches, I came to a decision.
“He gave you one?”
“Just like that?”
“Well, pretty much.”
Clive lowered the motoring magazine and transferred his full attention to my face. His eyebrows drew together and two deep vertical creases appeared between them.
“I presume you’re having me on?”
“No,” I said, and added a “Not” to underline it.
“So he offered, and you just took it?”
“Well, it was . . . it was hard to say no.”
This was going to be tricky. I couldn’t explain it to myself, let alone offer an explanation to anyone else. Which was why I’d been driving around Exmoor for the last half hour—with frequent stops to look in the back of the car and check that it was true—before I finally headed homeward.
Our nice but nosy neighbor Pauline was out in her garden, so I had gone straight in. I had launched myself into the kitchen. I’d swept a brief kiss into my husband’s receding hairline. I’d sought out the kettle, filled it to the brim, spurted myself with water in the process and abandoned it. Then I’d blurted out a tangle of sentences that sounded frothy and ridiculous. I’d blushed, become aware of it, and blushed some more. Now I stood limply grinning by the fridge.
Clive closed the magazine and tugged at the neck of his sweatshirt. “Sorry, El, but I have to ask: Exactly how long have you known this man?”
My mind traveled back to the strange encounter of earlier: the huge open door of the barn that had enticed me in, the warm scent of wood, the light falling on the myriad harps, and there, in the center of them all, the lone figure. There had been some sort of tool in his hand, but already my memory was playing tricks on me and I couldn’t say what it was. He had initially appeared to be an alien. His lower face was covered by some sort of blue mask and he was wearing earmuffs, presumably protection from sawdust and machinery noise. But the minute he’d taken them off, I was struck by the beauty of the man. He was tall and sinewy with dark, disheveled hair. Although his skin looked weather-beaten, there was a strange translucent quality about it. His face was classically sculpted, as if a great deal of thought had gone into every line and curve. But it was his huge, dark eyes that really claimed my curiosity. I’d never seen eyes like that before.
“I only met him the first time this morning.”
Clive was as nonplussed as I’d been an hour earlier. He leaned forward, his expression wavering between amusement and disbelief. “I don’t get it.”
I laughed manically. Explanations swam round in my head, but not one of them was managing to formulate itself into words.
Clive was clearly preparing to escort me to the nearest asylum.
“Come and look,” I tried. Once he saw it, surely he would be as enthusiastic as I was?
I led him outside into the bright chill of the September air. Pauline, I gratefully noticed, had disappeared. The car was still unlocked. I flung open the rear door. Clive’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
“Ah!” I cried in a voice that was half irony, half relief. “So I wasn’t hallucinating!”
It’s a good thing we have a hatchback and seats that go down. I stood back to allow my husband a thorough examination.
The harp was carved out of red-gold wood (cherry, Dan had told me, to go with my socks). It had a lovely soft sheen and there was a marbled swirl in the graining at the joint where it would rest against my shoulder. A light Celtic pattern was carved along the sweep of the neck, and embedded in the wood at the crest was a shiny blue-black pebble. Apparently Dan always puts an Exmoor pebble into his harps. Each pebble is carefully chosen to complement the style and character of the instrument. This harp—my harp—was a lovely size, just as high as my waistline when it was standing. Now it was lying on one side, nestled cozily on the tartan rug in the back of the car.
Clive knocked at the wood of the soundboard with his knuckles as if to check it was real. “But this is quality craftsmanship!”
“I know,” I said, smug now, almost proud of Dan. “He’s been making them all his life.”
“This would cost—what—two thousand pounds? Three? More, even, if it’s all handmade. Look at the carving along the top.”
“The neck. It’s called the neck. Apparently.”
Clive was scrutinizing as only Clive can scrutinize. “It’s—well, I have to say it’s pretty cool! But, honeybun, there’s no way you can keep it. You do know that, don’t you?”
The voice of logic. It came hurtling through my haze of surreal, heady joy, and it stung. “Of course I do,” I mumbled.
Clive straightened and shook his head. “The guy must be insane.”
I sprang to his defense. “He’s definitely not insane. But he’s a little . . . unusual.”
“That’s a cert! What could have possessed him? A woman he doesn’t know from Adam comes waltzing into his workshop one day and, on the spur of the moment, he decides to give her—to give her—nothing less than a harp. A handmade harp that took him God knows how long to construct. Sell, fair enough, I could understand sell, but give? Even the materials must have set him back a bit. Come on, hon, get real! You must have misunderstood. He must have meant you to pay.”
“No, he didn’t. He made that quite clear.”
Clive frowned, unable to comprehend such a concept. “Well then, I guess he gave it to you to try out, hoping for a sale, and you completely got the wrong end of the stick.”
“I didn’t! Look, I told him about fifteen times I couldn’t possibly accept it. He just didn’t get it. He kept asking why not—and he was so . . . I don’t know, so open, so well-meaning, that I felt stupid and couldn’t think of an answer. Then he said, ‘Don’t you like the harp?’ He sounded really hurt.”
“He sounded hurt? El, I think you’re pushing it a bit.”
“No, I swear it’s true! And then he started pacing through the barn, hunting for another, better one to give me! So I had to tell him it was a lovely harp. I had to tell him I loved the harp. And it’s true. How could I not? But I said again and again I’d never be able to play it and it would be wasted on me, and I kept on protesting.” I leaned over and gazed lovingly at my gift. “While I was protesting he just carried it to the car and put it in.”
My mind leaped back again. I had felt so touched by the man’s extraordinary gesture. I had not been able to resist plucking a few strings, as the harp lay there on its side in my car. I did it badly, of course, never having done such a thing in my life before, but the sound was rich, wild and resonant. It had a strange effect, like a shower of golden sparks soaring inside me.
“Good,” Dan had said. “You can cross it off your list now.” He had walked quickly back into the barn and shut the door behind him.
I had stared at the door for a long time.
Today, of all days. After all my wandering and crying and remembering.
Clive’s voice jolted me back to the present. “Look, El, I’m afraid it’s going to have to go back.”
The words bore down on me with their dull weight of common sense. Of course he hadn’t realized what day it was today, and what that meant for me. I probably should have reminded him, but my stubborn streak wouldn’t let me.
“I know. You’re right,” I said, trying to sound as if I didn’t care.
He was rubbing a hand over his brow. “I’d love to buy it for you, hon, really I would. But it would be way too pricey. And you’d get bored of it pretty soon anyway. You’ve never shown any interest in playing a musical instrument before, after all.”
“I suppose not.”
“And we can’t be in this man’s debt. It would be taking advantage.”
I put my hand on his arm. “I know it would. I never should have accepted. I’m sorry I was so stupid. It was one of those crazy moments. I don’t know what came over me.”
“I don’t either!” he said.
Then I made myself say: “Well, do you want to come with me to return it? I think you’d be interested to see the place. It’s a converted barn at the end of a long lane, right out in the wilds, and it’s full, totally full of harps—and bits of harps. You can see them at every stage in their creation. It’s really fascinating.”
Clive scanned my face as if there was something there he didn’t recognize. “How did you find it?”
“I just discovered it by chance. It’s not signposted or anything, but I thought I’d go up the lane and see where it led. I had an idea there might be a nice view or something. I never expected to find a harp workshop. I certainly never dreamed I’d come back home with a harp.”
“The guy’s a nutter!” Clive declared. “Or else he fancies the pants off you. Either way, it would be wrong to keep the thing.”
I promptly removed my hand from his arm. All that remained of the magic had now been shattered.
“I don’t think my pants come into it!” I snapped. “But you’re right, I should return it.” I slammed the rear hatch shut. Clive is a big man and I am used to him towering over me, but at that moment I was feeling exceptionally small. “I’ll take it back now. There’s no point in even getting it out of the car really, is there?” I was struggling to control the bitter twang in my voice. “Are you coming?”
He shook his head again. Sometimes his lack of curiosity amazes me.
“No, I think I’ll leave it to you. If I go with you, it might look as if I forced you to take it back. It’ll make me look like the wicked ogre. You go, hon, and don’t forget to make it clear it’s your choice, and you’ll have nothing more to do with it. OK, love?”
The “OK, love” did not make it any easier. I was in no mood to be OK-loved. But I got into the car and I drove up the hill and back the way I’d come, to the Harp Barn.
She brought it back. I was sad. I guess giving away a harp is one of those many, many things you are not supposed to do.
Why can’t I give her the harp? She likes the harp. She wants the harp. Isn’t it my harp to give? I made it with my own hands, with my own wood, with the help of my own saws and glue and plane and sander. I want to give her the harp. She seems to think I must want money for the harp and says she is so sorry, but, much as she’d love to, she really isn’t in a position to buy it. I don’t want money for the harp. Not at all. If she gave me money for the harp it wouldn’t be a gift, would it? She would not value it as much. I want it to be valued. I want it to be valued by her, the Exmoor Housewife, because she has harp playing on her before-forty list and what’s the point in having a list if you don’t do the things written on it? It is a good harp, made of cherrywood. Cherry is not her favorite tree, birch is her favorite tree, but I do not have any harps made of birch. Still, I think she likes cherry too. It is a warm and friendly wood. And she was still wearing those cherry-colored socks.
“Thank you, Dan . . . for your incredible kindness. I’m really sorry. I’ve been so stupid, so unreasonable.”
I wished she would stop shuffling her feet about.
“I’m sorry to mess you around and change my mind. I’m sorry I took the harp in the first place.”
I wished she would stop saying she was sorry.
“It was very wrong of me.”
It wasn’t. It wasn’t. It wasn’t wrong. No.
But what could I do?
I carried the harp back to the barn from the back of her car. She followed me in. I placed the harp on the floor, in the middle patch of the three patches of light cast by the three windows, in the center of everything. She put herself beside it, sniffing and shuffling. The other harps stood around, hushed and pale.
“I only took it because my head isn’t working properly,” she told me.
I glanced at her head. It looked all right to me.
“You see, it’s an important anniversary today.”
I wished her a happy anniversary.
“No, not that sort of anniversary. It’s actually, well . . . my father died a year ago today.”
I said I was sorry about that. It is a sad thing when your father dies. I should know.
She cleared her throat. “I still miss him so much.”
I asked if she’d like another sandwich.
She shook her head. “We were very close,” she said. “Even closer when he got ill. I used to sit and read to him when he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and I remember him lying there, listening and looking into my face. Then one day, toward the end, he said something to me that I just keep on thinking about.”
It was hard for me to look at her face so I focused on the socks. But out of the corner of my eye I could see her left hand. Her palm was creeping up the back of the harp, stroking it with the lightest touch. Then it moved away slightly and floated in the air. Her fingers hovered beside the strings like a restless butterfly.
It seemed to me that the thing her father had said must be very important or she would not be acting so strangely. But I didn’t need to ask what it was because that was exactly what she told me next.
“He said I sometimes gave him the impression I was drifting, just drifting along. And he said that wasn’t surprising, as he’d done a good bit of drifting and dreaming himself. But it might be an idea to clarify and think about what I wanted. I should pick a dream, any dream, any one of the hundreds, and just try and see if I could make it come true. Just one. Realistically, one could be possible, if I tried hard enough. Because he didn’t want me to come to the end of my life full of regrets. And I shouldn’t leave it too long, because you never knew when . . . he was talking about himself, you see . . . So after that I made my before-forty list because I had a whole load of dreams and needed to narrow them down a bit. I was remembering and pondering it this morning, and then, just as I was thinking about the list and how I hadn’t done a single thing on it . . . I stumbled across your lovely barn.”
Her voice sounded odd, as if she had stuffed rags down her throat. “I probably won’t call in again,” she said.
Sometimes I do the things I am not supposed to do. Sometimes I say the things I am not supposed to say, even when I realize.
I pointed at the harp. “Play it,” I said.
“I can’t,” she murmured. But her hand stayed hovering by the strings.
Harps each have their own unique voice and I knew that this one was a powerful one. It could charm and enthrall, it could plead and it could command. People say that certain sounds can melt a heart of stone. If there is anyone who has that sort of a heart—which I doubt (as far as I am aware hearts are made of fibrous materials, fluid sacs and pumping mechanisms)—if anyone does have a heart composed of granite or flint and therefore not at all prone to melting but just conceivably meltable when exposed to very beautiful sounds, then the sounds made by my cherrywood harp, I am confident, would do it. However, I had a feeling the heart of Ellie the Exmoor Housewife was completely lacking in stony components. I had a feeling it was made of much softer stuff.
“Play it!” I repeated, and I managed another quick glance into her face. Her eyes looked soft and dewy. She stretched out her index finger and ran it across the strings. They rang out with a cry, pure and wild, just as they had done the first time from the back of her car.
I waited. An echo of the notes shimmered in the air between us. But Ellie the Exmoor Housewife still seemed to need persuading. Persuading is not a thing that I normally do, but I set myself the challenge of doing it.
I carefully addressed her socks. I told them that I didn’t mind if she went away and came back later because sometimes it takes time to make decisions. But whether she came back or not, the harp belonged to her, Ellie Jacobs the Exmoor Housewife. It was her harp, and always would be. I never took back a gift. The harp would sit here in my barn and wait for her. It would sit and wait until all the cows had come home. This did not sound like a very long time, so I made it longer. The harp would wait, I told her, until the sea dried up (which someday it would if you gave it long enough) and the stars dropped out of the sky (which someday they would if you gave them long enough), but nevertheless this harp would never, ever belong to anyone else. I would never, ever permit another person to play it. So if she did not come back it would sit here unplayed until the world ended (which someday it would, but it was likely to be rather a long wait). Which was a sad thing. However, if she did come back and did play it, that would be a lot less sad. I added that she could even play it here if she liked, if that was better for her and she did not want to take it home. Perhaps, I reflected, a harp does not fit into the home of an Exmoor Housewife all that well; perhaps it gets in the way of the dusting and hoovering. Harps do that, sometimes.
I have a little room upstairs, which is quite comfortable and warmer than the rest of the barn. I suggested that, if she saw fit, she could use that little room to practice her harp while I was busy making more harps. I would not even hear her from downstairs. I have a few books on learning to play the harp, which I could lend her. I knew a harp teacher and I could lend her too. All the right ingredients were there. I had made my choice about giving her the harp. She only had to review her choice about accepting it. I hoped she would think again. I would be so happy if she would think again. I had now said what I wanted to say. So I stopped talking.
The socks were very still. I could hear the rumble of a distant tractor and the chattering of swallows as they flew over the roof of the barn. The sun shone through the middle window a little brighter than before. It shone onto the harp, so that the cherrywood glowed.
Finally Ellie Jacobs said: “If the harp stayed here and I came to try it out once in a while . . . there would be no harm in that . . . would there?” It sounded as if she was talking to herself, not to me. So then I did look into her face, properly, to try and work out if she wanted a reply or not. She had little water droplets stuck along her eyelashes. I decided that a reply was possibly required and might even be helpful. I decided to do that thing where you ask a question to which the answer is so obvious nobody needs to give it. Only she’d already done that, really, so all I had to do was repeat certain words, just to make it quite clear.
“Harm?” I said. “In playing a harp?”
She smiled then, and turned, and without another word she walked to her car. She got in and drove away.
But I had a feeling she would be back.
The car jolts down the lane. The world reels. I’m all over the place—full of streaming tears one moment and manic bursts of laughter the next. I’m driving completely on autopilot. I probably shouldn’t be driving at all.
This isn’t the kind of thing that happens to me. I must have fallen through a magical portal into somebody else’s life. My existence has somehow transformed itself into something bright and light, filled with frolicking colors. Life was nothing like this when I woke up this morning.
There’s no way I can go home yet and face Clive. A walk in the wilds is what I need. Somewhere high up. High places always help me think, which is what I need to do right now. I put my foot on the accelerator and launch into the road that leads up to Dunkery Beacon.
I leave the car in a lay-by and stride up one of the rocky paths to the cairn at the top. The wind whips my hair and sweeps across the purple tufts of heather. I breathe in cool sea-tang and the fresh, peaty scent of moor.
If I’ve decided what I think I’ve decided, how can I possibly explain it to Clive? I love Clive, of course, and Clive loves me, but there are lots of things we don’t quite get about each other. I don’t get his fascination with football or with finance. He doesn’t get why I take myself off onto Exmoor with my notepad and write poems—poems that nobody will ever read—about bark and clouds and spiderwebs and running water.
Clive likes things to be straightforward. Clive likes things to fall within certain guidelines. My poetry doesn’t really fall within those guidelines. My current issue—being given a harp by somebody I’ve just met—is way outside them.
I walk faster and faster, swinging my arms. I reach the summit in record time. The views on every side challenge me with their rugged beauty: green pastures alternating with patches of tawny moorland, stubby hawthorns, distant hills that melt into the sky, jags of coastline that climb, fall and reach out to the sea. Today the sea is slate gray, laced with a thousand dancing threads of blue and silver. It seems to reflect my overwhelming sense that wonderful things are possible in this world after all.
My mind flits from Clive to Dan, from Dan to Clive. Back to Dan, trying to make sense of it all. Dan seems such an innocent, but something I saw in his workshop tells me I should be wary.
I speak his name into the air, trying it out on my tongue: “Dan.”
I listen to the sound of the word as it is carried out to sea.
“Dan, the Exmoor Harpmaker!” I assert, a little louder. But the sound echoes back into my skull with an edge of doubt. Slowly, as it continues echoing, I realize it has transmuted itself: Dan, the Exmoor Heart-Breaker.
Clive meets me at the door with a concerned kiss. “You took your time. Everything all right?”
“Fine,” I reply. “I went up to Dunkery for some fresh air.”
“No wonder you’re looking so wild.”
I prod my hair about.
“So you managed to return the harp?” he asks.
“Yup.” I make sure my eyes meet his. This much, at least, is true.
He gives me a pat on the back. “That’s my gal! I know you liked the look of it, but it would’ve been wrong to accept it—you said that yourself!”
I push past him into the kitchen. He follows me.
“And it wasn’t exactly practical, was it, hon-bun?”
“No, not really.”
“I expect the guy was pretty glad to see it again, once he realized how silly he’d been. Now he’ll be able to sell it.”
“And he’ll get a good price for it, and someone else will appreciate it. Someone who can make the most of it, someone who can actually play the thing. Like a properly trained musician.”
I’m not enamored with those last three words.
Can I really see myself playing the harp? If I’m honest it was only on my before-forty list because it was a pleasing idea, an exotic image. One of those dreams that remains hazy and amorphous because you assume it will always stay just that—a dream. But now, if I’m not careful, that dream might just somersault into reality. And I have to say, I really, really don’t want to be careful. I’m fed up with being careful.
“You should be careful, you know,” Clive comments. “Wandering about on the moor by yourself. Meeting strange men with strange propositions . . .”
“Yeah, I know I’m a bit crazy. But you wouldn’t love me if I was normal, would you?”
We’ve had this conversation before. And I know exactly what comes next.
“I’d love you whatever, El.”
“Love you too, hon,” I say quickly.
He helps himself to a beer from the fridge and opens it with care, savoring the prospect of pouring it down his throat during the highlights from Bristol City’s latest game. I examine his profile; his long, aquiline nose, powerful jawline and sparsity of sandy-brown hair. His shoulders are square, his arms gym toned. His blue sweatshirt strains tightly against the muscles of his chest. He looks younger than his forty-one years. He is an attractive man. There’s a determination and strength about him that has always drawn me. He is my rock and I am his . . . well, his limpet . . .
I need to broach the harp thing. Why is it so hard? Why is it that out on the open moor I was fizzing with joy, yet now I’m at home the whole situation seems fraught with problems? It should be easy to drop it into the conversation now: “Hon, I’ve decided to go up to the Harp Barn every so often to have a go at playing the harp. The harpmaker’s quite OK with it—in fact, he seems to think I should.”
But no. The words don’t make it to the surface.
The Telegraph is lying on the chair by the window. The leading column is all about terrorist attacks. I listlessly pick up today’s post that’s lying on the table. Bills—I’ll leave those to Clive—and a fund-raising letter from a charity. The letter is plastered with pictures of pale children behind bars and horror stories of people-trafficking. I hold it up for Clive to see.
“No, El, I’m sorry. We just can’t afford to give to any more charities.”
I stuff the letter into the recycling bin, but the terrible images stay with me. Suddenly I’m weary. I switch on the radio for some light relief. Only to be regaled by a story about female genital mutilation. Clive makes a face. I switch the radio off again.
All those people suffering in the world. And here I am fretting about an overly generous gift.
I picture the harp, the beautiful harp, my harp. Dan was adamant. He said it would sit there unplayed forever.
Unless I came back to play it.
Decisions stress me out. It’s much easier when I’m in a situation where I can just mold myself to somebody else’s will. But now Clive’s will and Dan’s will keep pulling me in opposite directions.
I think about my parents, whose iron rule dominated my life for so many years. My mother would have disapproved in the days when she understood such things, there’s no doubt about that. She disapproved of pretty much everything. And my father, who died a year ago today? What would he have made of my harp quandary? The earlier version of himself would have been strict and sensible, but the later, iller, more pensive, more lovable version—the version who told me to pick a dream and follow it? I can’t be sure.
Perhaps it’s not so much the harp as Dan himself who is the issue.
Because Dan is a man. What manner of man, I ask myself. A startlingly handsome one—I could hardly fail to notice that. But what sort of person is he? Certainly not the sort I’m used to.
While Dan was busy making sandwiches I’d taken the chance to nose around the Harp Barn. As well as the harps themselves, the place was overrun with sawdust—mounds of it on the floor and little fragments floating around in the air. Bits of lichen, fir cones and feathers also seemed to be scattered around in random places. Shining pennies were laid out on the windowsills in long, snaking lines. Behind them were glass dishes filled with pebbles. The workbench was stacked with tools and finely penciled diagrams. I’d also noticed, hanging above the workbench, a large corkboard covered with photos. Photos of women. They were all attractive and mostly young. Some were posing with harps; all were very much posing. In the center was a blonde with a low-cut top and stunning blue eyes.
“Ellie, look at you! You’re miles away! Still fantasizing about becoming a harpist?”
“Not at all,” I reply, blushing and springing to action. I start opening cupboards, hunting for ingredients. “I think I’ll get straight on with the supper. Spicy Bolognese all right?”
“Yum! That’ll be great!”
I manage to find an onion. I cut it in half and start peeling off the skin.
Can it be that Dan is a very clever actor, a man who seduces vulnerable women—by giving them harps? It seems absurd, but perhaps Clive is right. Perhaps I should be careful.
“Ahhh, that’s better.” Clive sighs, a smile spreading across his face after a long draft from his beer bottle. “Give me a shout if you need a hand, El. I’ll be in the sitting room.”
He disappears and I hear the sounds of the telly being switched on, followed by a roar from fans. Bristol City must have scored. When Clive’s finished with them, it’ll be a repeat of Doctor Who. After that, spicy Bolognese cooked by the wife. I hope the Bolognese will turn out all right. The wife is finding it extremely hard to concentrate.
Reading Group Guide
Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior
Questions for Discussion
1. There are plenty of memorable scenes in the novel. Which were your favorite moments and why?
2. Ellie has fallen in love with the idea of playing a harp. How does the reality compare with the dream? Do dreams ever turn out the way we expect?
3. Were you surprised that Dan makes beautiful harps but doesn’t play them? Why do you think that is?
4. Why does Dan think he isn’t made of the right ingredients? Are there any “right ingredients” for a relationship?
5. How do Ellie’s perceptions change throughout the novel: of Rhoda, of Clive and of herself? Can we ever really trust our own judgment of other people?
6. Dan says, “Music helps fill up the holes that people leave behind.” Is music a luxury or a lifeline? How does music change Ellie?
7. “As I watch from the window the landscape becomes wilder and hillier and sheepier. I feel that simultaneously I am becoming Dannier. . . . Exmoor, in a way, is me.” Why are his surroundings so important to Dan? What does “home” mean to you, and what does your home say about your identity?
8. In what ways have Ellie and Dan been shaped by their parents? How does this bear on their decisions regarding Ed?
9. The fire brings several realizations to both Dan and Ellie. What are they? Has a crisis in your own life ever helped you see things afresh?
10. Why do you think Phineas the Pheasant is so important to Dan?
11. What are the different types of love in the novel? Which do you think is the strongest?
12. What do you think the future holds for Ellie, Dan and Ed?