The ceremony lasts longer than anyone expected. We are gathered at the last minute to provide the music. The wife of the dead man had insisted on having the funeral at noon. Dragged from our Saturday morning sleep-ins by a text at 9 am. We, as in, the orchestra. His old students. It’s a pop-up funeral. I suppose all funerals are pop-up. Nobody plans on dying.
Neither did I plan on being inside a chapel closet with a bassoon player, gripping his hair as he spread my legs apart. Pantyhose down. Donut rings around ankle. Cunt salivating. His tongue slips inside my mouth. We are upright, heaving our bodies against each other. Fingers struggling at his belt.
I’d known the boy from Young Performers Awards when we were both ten. He had braces, a scar over his left eye and bad breath that smelt like blue cheese. I felt sorry for him. The kind of pity that was entirely self-serving. I knew this yet felt no shame. He took pity on me, too, I think, because I was the only other Asian who made it to the final round of the comp, which was unusual. Usually, we dominate the podium. Now we were newly minted college graduates, reunited. Better hair. Better skin. Better sense.
Bassoon bends down to retrieve a condom from his pocket. Naked below our torsos. I kneel down. Give his cock a paddle-pop lick. He is smaller than I expected.
He tears at the aluminium wrapping. ‘Here, let me.’
In the darkness, his hands trace my skull as I reach up and unpeel the rubber along his cock. His breath is heavy. I stand to meet his face. Open mouth fans the hair around my cheeks. He lifts me up, slides inside me. Thrusts. Groans. Marks each penetration with a short, muffled growl. The male is insertive. I am receptive. He grabs my wrist for balance. I flinch.
Tchaikovsky’s Adagio Lamentoso floats through the speakers outside. ‘Fuck! We’re on.’
I push him off; leap out of the closet, pull on my panties, skirt, rummage for my shoes. He zips his trousers, pants frantically.
‘I was so close to coming!’
‘Where’s my violin?’ I scan the room.
He points to the corner where my Gabriel Strad lies on top of the piano. I slip on my shoes, pick up the violin. Bolt. Hand to the door. Pause. I still my shoulders. Composure.
On the stage, I arch my back. Violin gripped at the scroll. A large congregation of mourners blink in my direction like school children waiting for instruction. Eighteen musicians wait on me. Behind them, a row of twenty vocalists.
Suspended over our heads, a banner:
IN MEMORIUM PHILIP RESLING
30 JANUARY 1948 – 10 JANUARY 2016
Bassoon shuffles into place next to the clarinets, his black hair standing up at weird angles. I glance at the leaders of each section and rest my eyes on the music. I guide the violin into my neck. Bow on the A string. Pull.
A low, sustained murmur trails through the chapel. We begin Mozart’s Requiem in D minor.
He’d written it for his own funeral, supposedly. At university, Olivia and I wrote poems for our parents to read aloud at our funerals. We were stupid like that.
The choir enter on cue, dramatic and full of minor-key despair. My fingers drop like hammers on the fingerboard. I could play these lines half asleep. I glance at Bassoon whom I’d just let inside my body. His eyes are closed, brow creased. I return to the music in front of me. Long bows. Arms raised. We only play the Introitus; the opening. Sustain the final note. My eyes flick to the banner above, a photo of my former accompanist, who’d died suddenly last Sunday. A stroke in his sleep. In the picture, he is staring into the camera, daring us to look away. His wife and daughter are hunched in the front pew. They are silent. They are still. They are deflecting the pity being thrown at them. I look back at Bassoon. His eyes are still closed. What a loser.
The wife invites us to the wake at the family home. Other musicians exchange stories about the dead man. I hide in a corner with a glass of orange juice, staring at the plate of cut triangle sandwiches and assorted cream biscuits. There is nothing sadder than a plate of assorted cream biscuits arranged on a plastic plate.
Bassoon spots me from the doorway. ‘Hey.’
I swallow some juice. ‘I think so.’ ‘Olivia said you toured with him.’ ‘No. He toured with me.’
Just in time. My best friend pedals across the room, offering a plate of sliced melon and blueberries. I put an arm around her shoulder and take the plate.
‘This is a dreary funeral. Why don’t we get married?’ Bassoon glances between us. ‘Very funny.’
Olivia pushes a palm into my face. ‘You wish we were married. You’re not my type. You’re too thin.’
I roll my eyes. It’s 2016. Anyone respectable is thin. ‘You’re also too pretty,’ Olivia says.
‘And you guys are both girls, so,’ Bassoon chuckles.
‘Are you serious?’ I stop chewing midway through a piece of melon. ‘Quieten down!’ A man in a grey suit walks by and puts a finger to his lips.
‘Jena!’ Olivia slaps my arm. ‘That was Resling’s brother. I have to go apologise.’
Bassoon and I watch her walk into the kitchen, where the man has disappeared into.
I am so ashamed. I’d just fucked a homophobic bassoon player. ‘About before,’ he begins. ‘I don’t think—’
He smiles awkwardly. I want him to walk away.
What did I know about throwing my body at strangers? A whole lot.
I was a child prodigy. I never learned to share the attention. I was always the only kid in the room. I was always the star.
My grandpapa was a child prodigy too. He believed talent chose people. He said it was his destiny to suffer. To pursue great art. He had needs. They were excessive. That’s what he used to say. He used to say it all the time. Maybe I inherited his ferocity. It drove him mad. And wild. And to his death.
Home is Sydney. An old terrace house with cracked walls. Tasteful damp. I live on a quiet street in Newtown, a suburb in the inner west lined with milk crate cafes and bike stores owned by bearded white guys with sensible tattoos. Most practice takes place here, away from the chaos of the city. Away from my mother. Away from Banks.
A week after the funeral, Olivia and I find an evening to practise together. I’m in bed pushing a glass vibrator between my legs when I hear her arrive. I wipe myself clean and slip on a T-shirt and shorts before opening the door.
She wheels her bike onto the verandah as I step out, barefoot. Her hair bunched in a loose ponytail; violin case strapped to her back.
‘Why did you cycle here? It’s dangerous on King Street.’
She shrugs, unties her hair and whips it around like a dog shaking off its wet. She’s clutching her helmet in one hand and extracting a Tupperware container from her shoulder bag. ‘Brownies. I just baked them this morning.’
‘These don’t have hash in them, do they?’
I follow her into the kitchen. She pours herself a glass of water. ‘Why would I want us to be stoned while practising?’
We’re auditioning for a permanent place in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; both of us have been casuals since the beginning of 2015 sustaining on sporadic incomes. The audition is a few months away. Only one position is opening. My best friend and I are vying for the same role. It’s new terrain for us.
The orchestra performs four nights a week, beginning Wednesday. Most of the time, we’re called on Friday or Saturday nights. The pro- grams on those nights require larger numbers. Mahler. Brahms. Big romantic symphonies. The pay is decent. One concert is enough to cover a week’s rent. I have a small amount of money left from my time as a soloist. Most of it I’d spent on books during university.
‘Did you warm up already?’ Olivia slips off her case and begins unzipping.
We play chromatic scales. G, G sharp, A, A flat. All the way to F sharp. Then down again. We pick each other apart sonically. Whoever fumbles on intonation has to buy dinner. In the last two weeks, I’ve had to pick up the bill.
Olivia thinks I’m deliberately hitting the wrong notes because I pity her. We both know I am the better player.
The first five minutes, we play flawlessly, two violins in unison. We hit each note with the calibrated precision of a sniper. During a fast-descending passage of the F harmonic minor scale, her notes scatter off-key. I blast her.
She dips her chin in defeat. ‘I can only afford Thai.’
After graduation, Olivia moved in with Noah. They’d met Theatre Sports one Tuesday afternoon when Olivia was in year ten at Barker College. Noah was in year twelve at Newington. They started fucking a few weeks later and haven’t spent a weekend apart since. They have shared iTunes playlists containing Coldplay, Maroon 5 and Drake. They once played an entire Bruno Mars album on repeat at a party. I had to leave to find another party, one with better music. Their studio is on the ground floor of an apartment block in Enmore. They tell me they don’t mind the forced physical intimacy.
Before Olivia, there was nobody else. I was one of those girls people saw coming and going, appearing too busy to socialise. I’d never known how to relax, how to ‘hang out’. I had no idea how to ‘be’. Recently, Olivia has been the one coming and going. Perhaps it’s her job teaching violin at her old primary school in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps it’s her mother, whose illness she has not yet named. Perhaps even she does not know what it is.
We finish the scales, arpeggios, bow exercises and move on to the excerpts. On my laptop, I bring up the third movement of Beethoven’s 9th. We play along.
‘Can we do it separately?’ Olivia sighs through her nose. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘You’re playing too loud.’
‘It’s supposed to be loud—fortissimo.’ ‘I’m hungry.’
It’s past ten when the food arrives. A slim man stands at the door with a helmet on, holding a package at his chest. Olivia brings in the bag and I set up the plates in the kitchen. She scoops half the noodles into my bowl, the rest into hers.
‘Let’s put on some music.’
Silence makes Olivia nervous. When I first met her, she was always wearing earphones. She’d have them in even during class. One ear, usually the left. She was always distracted, in some other place.
‘Beethoven? Mozart?’ ‘You pick.’
I settle on Ravel, the second movement of his Piano Concerto in G. Its sad waltz-like gentleness always soothes the bottomless need I feel to move, to do something. We eat, hum along, eat more. I look around the kitchen, stop at a small magnet in the shape of Royal Albert Hall on the fridge door. My mother had bought it when I debuted there in another life. Was I eight or nine?
Since I moved out of home, I have seen less of my mother. She was reluctant for me to leave the North Shore, but I’d grown weary of the stifling whiteness of the upper middle class. The casual wealth. The polite faces. The polished performance of adulthood. Pressed pants. Dark blazers. Straight hair. My mother didn’t like the inner city and she didn’t like my flatmates either. She thought I’d catch homosexuality.
As we’re washing up, Mike and Jacob shuffle through the front door carrying a large canvas.
‘What’s that?’ Olivia steps out to peek. ‘The exhibition,’ Jacob says.
They plant the picture against the back of the couch.
Mike’s hair is damp with sweat, fringe clamped to his forehead. He stares at the canvas, picking at a loose thread on his denim jacket. ‘Do you think it needs more, grit?’
Olivia and I look at each other, then back at the canvas. It is blank, a single shade of beige.
‘I don’t get it,’ Olivia says.
‘More grit, yes. Definitely,’ Jacob says.
Mike disappears into the kitchen and returns with the pepper shaker. ‘Let’s do it now before it dries.’
Jacob lays the canvas on the floor and leans forward, twisting the shaker. Black flakes fall—ash on white sand. He looks to Mike, who is cupping his cheek with one hand and staring at the painting as though it is a text he cannot translate. ‘Maybe.’
Olivia goes to her violin and begins packing up.
‘I better go.’
I reach for her arm. ‘We’ll do this again?’
She shrugs, noncommittal. At the door, I wrap my arms around her shoulders. My ring catches the end of her ponytail. We spend a few seconds disentangling it.
I watch her ride away.
I am settling for a good orchestra. Something permanent. But Olivia. When have I ever wanted what Olivia wants? When did I settle for playing a melody with eight other violinists? I won’t be alone in the spotlight anymore, like I used to be. Before I destroyed everything.
At the chemist, I am restocking on condoms. Banks calls. My teacher from another life.
‘I’ve been busy.’ He always begins by qualifying a call. ‘Can you come around? I’d like to hear your excerpts.’
‘Did you see the hand physio about your wrist?’ I make vague sounds.
Last week, I’d knocked my wrist against the station turnstiles while running to catch the train. I am always bumping into things. My body knows no boundaries.
With my free hand, I press my wrist to assess the pain. ‘It’s not bad today.’
‘Your audition is only a few months away,’ he says. ‘Is that why you called? To remind me?’
‘No. The orchestra needs you to step in for a concert tomorrow at noon. The soloist missed her flight from London.’
I stop in the middle of the aisle. ‘What piece?’
The last time I played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, I was fifteen years old and standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall. I didn’t finish the performance.
‘I know it might bring up old memories,’ Banks says. ‘It’s only one performance.’
I had a therapist once who gave me an exercise to do if I ever felt a panic attack coming on. I had to weigh up advantages and disadvan- tages. Of saying yes: good exposure, good venue, reputable orchestra. Of saying no: too much fame is not a good thing. Of saying yes: fame can be good, if used in the right way. Of saying no.
‘Okay, I’ll do it.’
We arrange to meet in a few hours. I go back to scanning the shelves. I can’t find what I am looking for. Non-latex. Ribbed. Scented. Citrus. Large.
I find a salesperson nearby. ‘Do you have those large, non-latex condoms?’
He looks at me as though I’ve asked him to take his penis out. ‘They’re in a sort . . . of reddish pink box.’ The salesperson pretends to not be fazed, but he is fazed. I have fazed him. ‘I’ll ask my supervisor.’
He walks away, then doesn’t return.
At the counter, I pay for two boxes of vegan condoms, three environmentally friendly lubes, a morning-after pill and a box of contraceptive pills. The pharmacist asks me to fill in a form for the morning-after. I count back the hours since I’d last had sex. The condom had broken while the man was inside me. Now, I am here, as if it is my job to clean up the mess.
On the train, I call my hand physio. She asks me to describe the pain.
I tell her I can’t.
‘What do you mean you can’t?’
‘I mean, I don’t know what words to use.’ She tells me she’ll be available in the afternoon.
At the Opera House, I find her in the green room with bags of tapes and cream.
‘It’s pretty bad, Jena.’
She squeezes the side of my wrist like she is navigating the remote control of a game console.
‘You’ll need at least a week’s rest.’
‘A week? I’ve got a concert tomorrow.’ She shrugs.
‘You can either rest it or damage it further.’ ‘What about the anti-inflammatory tablets?’
‘They are not a cure.’ She frowns and hands them to me anyway. ‘No more than two in six hours or your muscles will spasm and you won’t be able to play at all.’
I swallow two pills as soon as she leaves then go into the communal kitchen for some ice. Physical injuries never stopped me from playing when I was the world’s best. Though back then, I didn’t do anything likely to cause injury. I didn’t do anything apart from play. My father wouldn’t even let me use a knife in case I sliced my finger. He was protective like that. My fingers, he’d say, were the most valuable part of our family.
My mother wasn’t so strict. When we were on tour, she would let me use a butter knife.
‘Don’t tell your father,’ she’d say. My mother and I found com- munion through shared lies.
I press the muscles around my wrist to test the pain. It had flared up early this morning when I was in bed with a man. I met him last night at a recording session for Noah’s band. A bass player. I invited him back to my place after and in the morning, I woke to his erection pressed against the small of my back. He slipped inside me without asking, moaning. At one point, I climbed on top of his body and put my hands on the headboard. A blunt pain shot through my wrist. In the climax of morning fucking, I held on, endured the pain. Gripped the wood tighter. Stayed silent. As he was getting dressed, he tried to make conversation.
‘Noah says you’re some hot shot violinist.’
He sat on the edge of the bed, pulling on his socks. I was sprawled on top of the covers.
‘He said you used to be, like, world-famous.’
I got up and reached for my shirt. ‘That was another time.’
It troubles me—how little I care. As arranged, I visit Banks at the Conservatorium, but take my time. I will play for him again. I will forget the pain I caused him. It’s cold inside his room. He never turns on the heating. It interrupts the sound. Damages the instruments.
‘How’s Monkey?’ he asks.
I take out my plush toy from the case and squeeze its neck. ‘Same.’
Banks slides the sheet music onto the stand and sits down. He smells of bacon and sweet milk.
‘Let’s hear the excerpts then. One by one.’
He does not look at me. His focus rests on the music. ‘I thought you’d want to hear the Beethoven?’
He shakes his head. ‘I trust you’ll do well. The excerpts?’
I wait for him to pick up his violin. He played with the SSO for several years in the eighties, chiefly as the concertmaster. When he retired, they kept him on the board and sometimes he plays with us on special occasions, small ensemble stuff.
I reach for my metronome. He does not move. ‘No metronome,’ he says. ‘I’ll count you in.’
The tip of his thumb and forefinger join—a hoop. He draws circles in the air. He hums the opening flute line of the Brahms 4th. Nods his head for me to begin.
I take a breath. The hairs on my bow press into the steel strings. ‘Too loud.’
My exhalation is pronounced.
‘You’re breathing too loud. You’re part of a violin section. You’re not a soloist. You can’t breathe so loud.’
I begin again.
He raises a hand. ‘Now you’re playing too softly. Start again from the beginning, forte. But don’t breathe so loudly. You’re saying something with your breath, but don’t be so frank.’
I stare at the dead skin peeling off the back of his hands. Twenty- five years of European sun had done damage, but it was the last few years in Australia that had brought out the sunspots.
I raise my violin to my neck and begin again, this time, holding my breath.
‘Why are you doing that?’ ‘Experimenting.’
‘Don’t waste my time.’ He stands.
There’s a knock on the door. Another student.
‘Come back when you’re ready to take this seriously,’ he says.
I slide the shoulder rest off the violin and begin packing in silence, stuffing Monkey back inside the small compartment in my case.
Before I leave, he raises a hand. ‘What would you like from me?’ I wonder how he sees me now. If he hates me for what I did when
I was his best student. His most famous student. His reputation had rested entirely on everything I did. Maybe he still loves me.
Part of me wants to erase him. Forget the years he spent teaching me. But there is hardly a memory of a sound that does not include him. Without him, I am rootless.
I turn to face him. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I’m older. Less patient now. You need to clarify what it is you want.
Otherwise I can’t help you.’
‘I think I want you to, I don’t know—contribute, somehow.’ He frowns. ‘Come back after the show. We can talk.’
‘You won’t be there?’ ‘No.’
Walking to the station, I wonder if he’d planned to re-enter my life as strategically as he’d planned to exit, all those years ago. Why did he make it seem as if I was the one wanting something from him? Yet, it was he who asked me to come. I’d forgotten that momentarily. When did I become so uncertain about myself?
The following day, I arrive at the Opera House an hour before the doors open. The concert hall. Musicians in their seats. That old familiar sight. The conductor shakes my hand at the podium. He introduces me to the orchestra. Formalities. They all know who I am. He makes them act as if I am someone I am not. Someone I used to be. The travelling soloist. The prodigy everyone talked about. A cellist on the first desk smiles at me; no teeth. Perhaps gritting them behind a closed mouth.
We run through the concerto. Standard play. I’ve memorised the music in my bones. The notes fly out. Under the surface of each phrase, my heart pounds in my throat, drumming a beat that distracts me from the rhythm of the third movement, its giddy eruption some form of pure joy. Optimism.
During the break, the cellist hangs back and watches me loosen my bow.
‘What’s that?’ He points to Monkey, whose head is sticking out of the shoulder rest compartment in my case.
‘Your childhood doll or something?’
When I don’t respond immediately, he says, ‘Aren’t you a bit old for that?’
I open the concert, just after 1 pm. I use more bow, tucking long phrases into one stroke. For the double stops, I am careful, hesitant about the intonation. Relax on the pressure. Later, the conductor tells me I was too soft. ‘Fuck you.’ If only I were bold enough.
I walk to the Conservatorium to see Banks.
I knock on his door and let myself in. He’s sitting at the piano, marking a score with a pencil.
‘It went well then?’
‘As well as it could. I made it to the end, at least.’ ‘Tremendous.’
He has never used that word.
‘I won’t stay long,’ I say. ‘I need to work on those excerpts.’ ‘Why don’t you play a little?’
‘The excerpts?’ ‘Yes.’
‘I’m not really ready with those yet.’
He smiles weakly. ‘Never mind. I’ll prepare for my next student then.’ He stands and gestures to the door.
Outside, I look back at him. But he has already turned around.
– Jessie Tu, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing (Allen & Unwin)