Prologue: 5th November 2014
A bitter black pall of smoke mixed with fog swirls over the ground as a harsh voice rings out through the darkness.
“Take that! And that! You deserve it Tristan! This is justice.”
Exploding fireworks illuminate the scene to reveal a figure crouching on the damp grass, stabbing repeatedly at something on the ground. As the knife descends again, a red stain flashes on the blade.
Black clad onlookers gaze in horror at the lifeless corpse.
“Tristan,” screams Miriam. “Tristan is slain!”
Chapter 1: Tuesday 7th January 2014
10 months earlier
“Welcome back everyone, welcome back. Could we have some quiet? That’s better. Now, I’d like to start our first meeting for 2014 by wishing you all a Happy New Year.”
“Lancelot’s the same as ever,” commented Boris, the French horn teacher. “I say Miriam, over here! Come and sit next to me. No, you’re not late. Just in time to hear Teflon Man’s latest pronouncements.”
Miriam Highnote, a singing and piano teacher at St Cecilia’s, crept into a seat next to Boris.
“Good Christmas?” she mouthed. “Yes, me too. Although my poor cat, Allegro, suffered – had to rush him to the vet on Boxing Day – something stuck in his throat. Yes, that’s it, how clever of you to guess, Boris, yes, it was part of a tree decoration.”
“Not clever, just heard it before. We had a cat by the name of Oedipuss when I was a boy and every Christmas he used to attack the Christmas tree, with disastrous consequences. In the end we had to put the tree on a really high table.”
“I might have to consider that next year,” said Miriam. “What a brilliant name for a cat – Oedipuss – I think that’s hysterical.”
“My Dad was a classics teacher,” said Boris. “Our dog was called Achilles and my Dad used to stride through the local park shouting, ‘Achilles, come to heel,’ which was pretty embarrassing, I can tell you.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” begged Miriam. “It’s one of my New Year Resolutions, to get through a staff meeting without laughing.”
“Now,” continued Lancelot Prokofiev, otherwise known as ‘Teflon Man’ by his disrespectful department because of his skill at delegating work – nothing ever stuck to his desk – “now, let me introduce Xander Spiccato, our new violin teacher.”
Xander stood up and performed a mock bow to his colleagues.
“Delighted to m-meet you all,” he stammered, “and looking forward so much to w-working with you.”
“Xander, he easy on the eye,” commented Lourdes Acosta, the young flute teacher from Venezuela. “I bet he make beautiful music.”
“Not sure he’s your type,” said Boris.
Lourdes continued to regard Xander with interest.
“I like challenge,” she stated.
“Well everybody,” continued Lancelot Prokofiev, “we’ve got a busy term ahead of us, with a trip to the opera in February, instrumental music exams in March and then finishing off with our Spring Concert. I thought we’d perform some of the Easter parts of the Messiah, among other items. That way we can involve Grailwood Choral Society from the village.”
“More bums on seats – get rid of a few more tickets, that will,” rasped Dennis, the trumpet teacher.
“Er, yes, quite, Dennis,” said Lancelot Prokofiev. “Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now, the Messiah will take up most of my time this term, practising my conducting and what not, so I am relying on my wonderful team,” and here Lancelot spread his arms wide to include all his music staff and also put on a rather frightening leery grin, “that’s all of you, to gird your loins, go the extra mile, best foot forward and proceed through the term with plenty of bounce.”
Lancelot was blissfully unaware of the flurry of comments this speech provoked.
“So YOU don’t have to do anything.”
“Sounds a painfully mixed metaphor to me.”
“What the hell will you be doing as Head of Department, that’s what I’d like to know.”
“Why don’t you do something for once Teflon Man, you lazy bastard?”
The meeting rambled on in its usual haphazard fashion, with one or two of the staff members falling asleep and snoring.
“Late night, was it?” teased Boris, kicking the back of Dennis’ chair.
“What the…?” said Dennis, coming to with a start. “Oh, Boris, it’s you. Fancy a trip to the pub at lunchtime? I almost lost the will to live, listening to Lancelot droning on like that.”
“Great idea,” said Boris. “What about you Robert?”
Robert Truman, Head of Keyboard at St Cecilia’s, was sitting next to Dennis, doing The Times crossword.
“No sadly I can’t,” he said. “Too much to do this afternoon, but thanks for asking.”
“So you see,” continued Lancelot Prokofiev, “if you have exam candidates for instrumental exams, give the names to Brunhilda,” and here Lancelot indicated his long suffering Secretary, “if you have any questions about GCSE or A level, ask my deputy Mr Crispin Burden, and if there is a problem about anything else, solve it yourselves. I am going to be very busy with the choirboys this term.”
At this point there was a distinct snigger from the back of the room, quickly muted.
“I have been offered the immensely prestigious opportunity to prepare our choirboys for the high chorus part of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the ripieno part, which will showcase my talents, ahem, the boys’ talents, in the Royal Festival Hall on Good Friday this year.”
“Mr Prokofiev, Lancelot, might I enquire,” said Miriam, “I mean perhaps ask, maybe, would you consider letting the girls have this chance as well? It is quite usual to let girls sing the ripieno part these days, and in many ways they might even do a better job.”
“Quite,” said Lourdes. “Give them chance. At least they can sit still in concert.”
“Out of the question,” replied Lancelot. “A young boy’s voice is undoubtedly superior in every way to that of a girl. I refuse to even entertain the idea. We need an authentic performance.”
“When the Matthew Passion was written,” said Dennis, “we all know that the soprano and alto parts were sung by boys and men, not women, so do we take it that you will be contacting the Royal Festival Hall and asking for substitutions to be made to the line-up of singers? Obviously you won’t be happy if there are any female singers.”
“Exactly,” said Lourdes, inflamed with the injustice of it all. “And what about ladies in the orchestra? Bach didn’t have ladies in orchestra when he perform Matthew Passion for first time, did he? What you say to that, eh? I think your attitude sexy, very sexy.”
“I think you might mean sexist,” interrupted Miriam hastily.
“Silence!” squealed Lancelot. “I will decide what is appropriate. Leave these decisions to those whose job it is.”
“Only a minute ago he said we were part of a team,” chortled Boris.
Lancelot fixed him with an angry glare before continuing,
“As I was saying, this will keep me very busy this term, and of course I have the massive commitment of conducting the Messiah choruses in the end of term concert too. I intend to do St Cecilia’s proud. Now, any questions? Good, good. No time anyway because you should be with your pupils in the next ten minutes.”
Lancelot scampered off to his study, clutching his leather bound edition of Messiah. A few minutes later, he could be seen and heard through his open ground floor window, conducting an imaginary orchestra and squeaking out ‘Hallelujah,’ with his scratchy voice.
“That white stick he’s wavin’ about looks very small,” giggled Tom, a Year 11 boy loitering outside the window with two of his mates, Alex and David. “What do you say – do I lob this old iced bun through the window or not? I kept it from yesterday break so it’s nice and hard. Icing’s a bit manky but Prokofiev might fancy it.”
“No, no, please don’t,” said Tom’s friend Alex, crouching down now in case Lancelot looked out and saw the trio of boys his singing had attracted. “I can’t afford to get into trouble this term, neither can you Tom. Come on. Let’s go.”
“OK,” said Tom cheerfully. “I say! What about throwing gravel at the teachers’ cars? I always enjoy that.”
“I’m going to get my books ready for revision,” said David, running off. “I’ve got time to have a look at my chemistry notes before the exam. It’s my favourite subject.”
“Creep,” muttered Tom as David disappeared, then he joined Alex crouching under the window. Both boys lifted their phones up over their heads and took a few video clips of Lancelot conducting and singing alone in his room.
“Hope this comes out all right,” chuckled Tom. “I can’t really see what I’m doing.”
“Quick! Run for it!” warned Alex. “That Mrs Burton, his secretary, she’s spotted us.”
Brunhilda rapped smartly on her window to shoo the boys away, repressing a smile at their daring and cheek. Only another five hours until the end of the day, she thought, then home to her darling husband Harry, who was not at all well. She smoothed her hair and reapplied her lipstick before sitting down at the computer again. She hadn’t chosen to share the news of her husband’s illness with any of her colleagues at school. It was still too raw; she couldn’t deal with the inevitable sympathy and questions and it felt right to lick her wounds in private for now. Six months, the consultant had said. Six months at the most. She and Harry couldn’t take it in. A tear rolled down her face and she sighed. Nothing for it; it would have to be a chocolate day. Brunhilda tried to limit her chocolate consumption along the lines of the 5:2 diet. For every five days of chocolate eating, there had to be two off. This was meant to be a day off, but needs must. She reached into the bottom drawer on the right and found that amazingly a couple of bars had already been taken. All the instrumental teachers knew where the chocolate hoard was – it was common knowledge – and she didn’t mind if they took some, as long as it was replaced at some point.
“I suppose the Music Department meeting was quite stressful,” Brunhilda said aloud. “Who can blame them?” It was probably the two young wind teachers who’d indulged – April Primrose and Lourdes Acosta. Let them have the chocolate, thought Brunhilda sympathetically. Life is hard enough. She thought she would bring in a nice cake for the music staff next week, maybe a carrot cake, or coffee and walnut…
“Brunhilda!” Lancelot’s head popped round the door. “I’ve got something for you to do. Would you mind showing Xander round the department and giving him a set of keys to the string cupboard, that sort of thing, registers, pupil lists and so on?”
“Of course Mr Prokofiev,” said Brunhilda dutifully. Xander came into her office and she was struck again by what a good looking young man he was. His heavy black hair hung like a glossy curtain around his face and his dark eyebrows glowered over deep set velvet brown eyes; chocolate brown, thought Brunhilda fondly.
“Hi Brunhilda,” he said. “Th-thanks for welcoming me.”
Poor lamb, Brunhilda thought. I hope the children don’t torment him because of his stammer.
She showed Xander the music staff room where the brass teachers were laughing heartily at something on a phone. She could just make out Lancelot Prokofiev’s weedy tenor voice singing ‘Hallelujah’ before the mobile was hastily switched off.
“This is where you can relax,” Brunhilda said, “and have a coffee at any time. Oh, you must meet Miriam – she’s been here longer than any of us.”
“Delighted to make your acquaintance,” beamed Miriam, shaking Xander’s hand vigorously. What a very charming and handsome young man, she thought. If only things had been different for me all those years ago…
“May I see the concert hall again?” asked Xander. “I saw it when I came for my interview but I’d love to play my violin in it, to check out the acoustics.”
“Of course,” said Miriam. “Follow me.”
“I’ll collect all your paperwork and will be there with you in a jiffy,” said Brunhilda.
Dennis and Boris looked fed up as Miriam and Brunhilda bustled off with Xander, both women clearly enchanted with the new young violin teacher.
“What’s he got that we haven’t?” asked Dennis, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “Eh? Can’t even talk properly. Namby pamby mummy’s boy.”
“I think is nice. I like,” said Lourdes, swishing into the room with her flute case and music bag.
“You would,” laughed Boris.
In the Recital Hall, Xander unpacked his violin, then rested it carefully in the open case while he applied some rosin to the hair of the bow.
“I’ll try some Bach,” he said. He tucked his violin under his neck and the glorious opening notes of Bach’s E major Partita filled the hall, soaring into the rafters, an exquisite, joyful melody.
“Cor!” muttered Tom, nose pressed against the glass of the door. “He can’t half play. And look how many bows he’s got in his violin case.”
“Shouldn’t you be in lessons, young man?” asked Miriam, opening the door so quickly that Tom fell into the hall.
“No; got me mock exams first two weeks of the term,” explained Tom. “I’m free now – well, studying – but I gotta check me piano lesson time. I’m starting this week with someone or other, dunno who, anyway, hope it won’t be too bad.”
“Too bad for whom?” asked Miriam. “Actually I don’t think you will find your teacher too bad. Your lesson is tomorrow, by the way, at ten o’clock; I look forward to teaching you. You haven’t got an exam then, have you? Good. Don’t be late.”
“Ooo sorry Miss,” blushed Tom. “Fink I’ll go back to me form room now.”
“Run along now,” advised Miriam and then she turned back to listen to Xander’s playing again.
“Lovely hall,” said Xander. “I’ll enjoy playing here. And teaching too, of course.”
“You play so beautifully,” said Miriam. And you’re not stammering any more either, she thought. She looked deep into Xander’s eyes, then suddenly she exclaimed,
“Bother! I’ve got to run – pupil in a few minutes. Pleasure to meet you and welcome to the madhouse. Brunhilda will look after you. Here she is now.”
Brunhilda gave Xander his pupil lists and explained how the rotating timetable worked.
“I’ve not done much teaching before,” said Xander. “I’ve been doing a lot of orchestral work.”
“You’ve done so much solo performing too,” said Brunhilda. “I’ve got one of your CDs in my car; I’m a great fan.”
Xander bent his head down. “Thanks. Trouble is, I don’t seem to be able to play so well anymore. Lost my nerve, I think. Thought I’d have a break, a sabbatical, and when I saw this job advertised, I thought why not have a go? It will keep the wolf from the door while I sort out my playing.”
“We’re lucky to have you,” said Brunhilda. “Now, tell me, do you still go to the great Professor Stringendo for lessons?”
“Oh, whenever I can,” said Xander. “He’s the best and he’s been so generous to me with his time and support. There’s still so much I need to learn about the violin.”
“Your parents must be so proud of you,” said Brunhilda. “They must have supported you all the way.”
“Yes they did,” said Xander, “even though they didn’t know much about music, particularly classical music. They’re both dead now. My father died when I was a boy and my mother a year ago.”
“Poor you,” said Brunhilda, reaching out to put her hand on Xander’s shoulder. “You can come and see me any time in my office. I’ve got to be off now; Mr Prokofiev will want his coffee.” She clattered across the highly polished floor in her kitten heels. “By the way,” she called as she reached the door, “there’s chocolate in my desk, in the bottom drawer on the right. Everyone knows about it. Help yourself, and replace it if you feel so inclined.”
“Er, thank you,” said Xander, rather mystified, before he started another piece, the scintillating ‘Danse Espanol.’
“Got the piano part?” asked Robert rushing into the hall. “I was passing and thought I heard one of my favourite pieces.”
He quickly dragged the cover off the Bechstein piano in the corner of the hall, flipped open the piano part and launched into a spirited rendition of De Falla’s masterpiece. Faster and faster they went, until the thrilling climax.
“We’re going to enjoy having you here,” said Robert before he dashed off to teach.
Left alone in the hall, Xander bit his fingernails for a few seconds. He wiped his violin down with a duster and wrapped it in a silk scarf, then, lying it down gently, he secured it around its neck and covered it with a padded silk and velvet protector.
“My best friend,” he whispered. “I think we can recover here.”
Chapter 2: Tuesday 7th January 2014
“Are you there Allegro? Dinner time,” called Miriam as she let herself into her cottage at the end of the first day of term. She was lucky enough to live within walking distance of the school, in a beautiful old cottage that stood in the middle of Grailwood Village. Miriam’s Great Aunt Clara had left her the cottage in her will when Miriam was still in her early twenties.
“To my beloved great-niece Miriam Lucretia Highnote, to thank you for your kindness in my final illness,” the solicitor had read out to Miriam and her extended family. “You deserve my home more than anyone else after all you have suffered.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what Great Aunt Clara meant,” Miriam had said, flustered and embarrassed, trying not to meet the startled and annoyed glances of her uncles, aunts and cousins. They had all been left plenty in the will but would have liked the cottage as well. Miriam’s parents shifted uneasily in their seats and wouldn’t catch her eye.
The cottage had given Miriam stability all those years ago and led to her being in the right place at the right time when a suitable job came up at St Cecilia’s. ‘Heaven sent’ was how Miriam described the post of singing and piano teacher, which she had now held for over thirty years.
Miriam loved her work at the school and had seen big changes over the years. She had never married, but lived alone with only Allegro, her black cat, for company.
“Allegro! There you are. Yes, I know you’re hungry.”
Miriam spooned out a glutinous meaty mixture which Allegro seemed partial to. Smells horrid to me, thought Miriam, wrinkling her nose in distaste, and yet you do hear of some old dears eating pet food when they are hard up, so it must be acceptable to the human palate. I prefer pesto pasta myself, or a nice bit of Wensleydale in a baked potato. Now, what shall I rustle up for myself tonight? Miriam ate her main meal at lunchtime with her colleagues at school – it had been lasagne and chips today, which seemed a rather odd combination to her.
“Not exactly what they serve in Tuscany, Miriam, is it?” Robert had joked with her as they had sat together in the school canteen earlier today.
“Absolutely not,” Miriam had said, with vivid memories of a glorious week spent in Florence flooding unbidden into her mind.
“Have you ever been?” asked Robert,
“A long time ago,” said Miriam wistfully. “Seems like a dream now.”
“We should go to Italy,” said Robert. “Friends travelling together – I’ve always fancied the Amalfi Coast – and we could go to Ischia and Capri as well. Something to look forward to after a hard year at the chalk face.”
“Perhaps,” Miriam had said, “although it’s difficult for me to get away, you know, with Allegro to think of.”
Miriam sighed and decided to make a quick omelette and salad. That would be a delicious snack to enjoy while she caught up with ‘Call the Midwife’ she decided.
Sitting in front of the television, eating from a tray on her knee, Miriam soon grew misty eyed as she saw a poor unfortunate woman coping with a tricky birth, aided by the wonderful midwives of Nonatus House.
“Oh, I do hope it will be all right,” she cried out. “No, Allegro, naughty, and anyway, you don’t like salad. It’s got Mary Berry’s vinaigrette dressing on – you definitely don’t want it. Oh, go on then, try a bit of radicchio. See! I said you wouldn’t like it.”
Allegro spat the radicchio lettuce on the floor with an injured look and stalked back to the kitchen to sulk.
Miriam was soon engrossed in her programme again. I do hope that midwife ends up with someone worthy of her, she thought. She deserves it. Look how small her waist is. Oh, is that the phone?
“Hello, Robert here. I say, do you fancy a drink in the pub this evening? Raise our glasses to the start of term and all that?”
“Why not,” said Miriam. “See you in fifteen minutes? Lovely.”
Robert lived at the other end of Grailwood Village, in a flat belonging to the school. He had been at St Cecilia’s for a couple of years now and was keen to buy his own place but hadn’t found anything to his taste yet. He loved Miriam’s cottage – a place like that would suit him fine.
Robert and Miriam met up at the bar in the Shark and Fiddle.
“Don’t look now,” whispered Robert, “but some of our sixth formers are over there in the corner. I’ve spotted my piano pupil, Dorian.”
Miriam immediately spun round, caught Dorian’s eye, and turned back rapidly to her pineapple juice. The sixth formers from the boarding house were allowed in the pub on Friday and Saturday evenings, as long as they behaved themselves. On other nights of the week they were supposed to stay in the boarding house and staff who saw the boys out of school during the week were supposed to report them.
“Turn a blind eye,” said Robert.
“I might be getting more short-sighted with age,” said Miriam, “but even I couldn’t fail to notice Dorian’s mop of red curls.” She sneaked a look over her shoulder again and saw that the youngsters were drinking up and preparing to flee.
“Bad kids,” said Madame Dubonnet, the French teacher at St Cecilia’s, coming over to join them. She had the flat next door to Robert’s in the school house.
“Gosh, it’s a real St Cecilia’s gathering tonight,” said Robert.
“What do you expect?” asked Celeste Dubonnet. “First night of term there’s still plenty to talk about and plenty of energy. You wait until the end of March.”
“Hopefully we’ll have some sun by then,” said Miriam. “I’ve never known weather like this before. We’re very lucky not to have been flooded like so many other poor souls.”
“It’s all the fault of your stupid English government,” said Celeste with satisfaction. “They should have dredged the rivers. We don’t have this in France.”
“You don’t have the density of housing we have in England and you probably don’t build on the flood plains,” Robert said gloomily to her departing back. “Nice country France. Apart from the French,” he added, with a wink at Miriam. “Only decent thing they ever invented was the guillotine.”
“Robert! You are impossible. You know you don’t think that, and you love the cheese and wine.”
“Talking of wine,” said Robert, “why don’t you let me buy you a glass of Pinot Grigio? I know it’s not french, but it’s better than pineapple juice – after all, it is the start of term.”
“Go on then,” said Miriam. “A small one, mind you. I still have to sort out my teaching for the week. I should be looking at the choir music too. We start again tomorrow as you know and I need to have a quick look at those Messiah choruses.”
“Business as usual,” grinned Robert. “You take most of the choir rehearsals, Lancelot will conduct the concert and the Headmaster will think that our esteemed Director of Music has done all the work.”
“I don’t mind,” said Miriam, “and I can sing in the chorus to help out on the day. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sung in Messiah – must be well into double figures.”
The two friends continued chatting, at ease in each other’s company and blissfully unaware of the sharp looks Celeste was giving them.
“You don’t really need to walk me home,” Miriam said later. “It’s only the other end of the street. But thank you. It would be very nice. You’re such a gentleman.”
“See you tomorrow,” Robert said softly when they reached Miriam’s cottage. “I’ll come and play for the rehearsal after school tomorrow. I’ve had a look at the piano accompaniments. One or two tricky spots but I can fudge those.”
“I’m sure you’re note perfect,” said Miriam, “unlike some of the pianists I’ve had to put up with over the years. I remember one who basically only played the left hand part and most of that was wrong. And as for following! So many accompanists think they’re in charge and try to steer the music their way, because they can’t be bothered to watch the conductor.”
“Now I’m worried,” said Robert. “You know all my vices.”
Miriam opened the door of her cottage to find Allegro mewing piteously. “Darling,” she said, “have you missed me?”
Allegro hissed at Robert, who stepped back in alarm.
“That’s quite a scary cat you have there.”
“Allegro gets so jealous,” said Miriam. “Doesn’t like me to have friends. Especially men.”
“See you tomorrow then,” said Robert. He walked back towards the Shark and Fiddle where he could see Madame Celeste Dubonnet waiting for him, as if she couldn’t quite find the way back home to the school flats on her own.
Chapter 3: Wednesday 8th January 2014
Tom was on time for his first piano lesson with Miriam the next day which made her very pleased.
“How did you remember?”
“My housemaster stuck a note on the door saying don’t forget, piano at ten o’clock. And a note on me blazer, but everyone in my class was teasing me about that, so I chucked it away.”
“Well, it certainly worked, so that’s splendid, splendid. Now I know you play the trumpet already and your parents and Mr Prokofiev thought it would help you to have some piano lessons so that you can understand chords and so on. What sort of music do you like, Tom?”
“I see. Well, of course, I’m not averse to modern music, to pop music, no, not at all. Why, I can remember thinking Cat Stevens was spellbinding when I was younger.”
“Cat Stevens. I think he might have changed his name now or something, not quite sure. Anyway, another thing I used to like was Bohemian Rhapsody. I’ve even been told the piece is set for exams sometimes now; oh dear, that does show my age, doesn’t it? Never mind. Now, let’s see. What do you know about the piano, Tom?”
“It’s a percussion instrument.”
“Yes, interesting, that is what some people say, yes, but what about its lyrical qualities, what about the soulful melodies of Chopin…”
The rest of Miriam’s speech was drowned out by the insistent thumping of the bass notes in octaves, a primitive heartbeat, strangely appealing but at the same time rather disturbing.
“This is wot I like to play, Miss,” Tom grunted over the incessant hammering of the keys.
“Whatever is going on in here,” asked Lancelot Prokofiev, popping his head round the door. “Sounds like Bartok. Oh, sorry Miss Highnote, didn’t see you there at first. Now you watch out, young man. We don’t want to have to get the piano tuner in every week after your lesson, do we now, eh?”
“Sorry Mr Prokofiev, so sorry,” twittered Miriam, wringing her hands. “Oh dear, how extremely mortifying,” she said to Tom after Mr Prokofiev had departed. “Now he thinks I can’t control my class and there’s only one boy in it.”
Miriam looked at Tom, and he looked at her, then they both broke into peals of laughter, hers tinkly and melodic, his fluctuating wildly between the octaves, both a boy’s shrillness and a piercing tenor as well.
“Dear me,” said Miriam, wiping her eyes with a lace edged hanky. “I can’t remember having so much fun in a first lesson for a long time.”
“You’re all right, you are, Miss Highnote,” said Tom appreciatively. “I don’t care what the other boys say about you.”
“What do they say?” asked Miriam, her eyes sparkly with interest.
“Well, it ain’t so much wot they say, as wot they do. They put on your voice,” and here Tom imitated Miriam’s strong rich soprano, throwing his head back and swooping around with his falsetto voice;
“Oh had I Jubal’s lyre,
Or Miriam’s tuneful voice…”
“Oh, I do love a bit of Handel,” said Miriam, “which brings us back to our lesson Tom, no, really, we need to be more serious. I’m going to play you part of Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ and perhaps you can answer a few questions. Aural tests, really.”
“Oh yes,” said Tom. “We dun ‘em with Mr Prancelot in class, I mean Mr Prokofiev, yes I know, sorry Miss, I mean Miss Highnote, sorry.”
The lesson carried on in this happy way until Miriam had completely won Tom over.
“Promise I’ll practise, Miss Highnote, yes, and I know I’ve got to start learning to read the bass clef. I don’t mind doing the simple pieces for now, until I get good at it. Fanks Miss, I mean Miss Highnote. Really enjoyed meself. See you next week.”
“Or maybe at choir later today?” said Miriam as Tom was leaving. And they told me he was going to be difficult to teach, thought Miriam in satisfaction. Tom was a renowned villain, often mentioned in the staffroom. He affected a curious mock cockney accent which was at odds with his background; his father was a local landowner and magistrate and his mother was the daughter of a Lord. Miriam wasn’t sure why Tom and his sister had to board at St Cecilia’s when they could just as easily have gone home every night, but perhaps Tom was difficult at home too and his poor parents needed a break.
“Time for a coffee,” said Miriam. “And I think I deserve a biscuit; hope there are chocolate ones.”
As she set off for the main staffroom, she saw Tom’s friends, Alex and David, greeting him as he made his way across the quad.
“Yeah, not bad,” she heard Tom say. “She’s not bad, for an old bird that is.”
The boys moved off quickly and so mercifully were too far away for Miriam to hear what Alex and David said in reply to Tom’s comments.
“Must remember to tell Robert that,” chortled Miriam. “Old bird!”
After break, Mr Prokofiev’s A level music group gathered for the first time that year.
“Get your scores out; we’re going to listen to some Webern,” said Mr Prokofiev.
“Mr Prokofiev,” said Viola. “When do we know what will be in our mock A level exam? Will the whole syllabus be tested?”
“Oh, er, not sure,” said Lancelot thoughtfully, looking out of the window at some Year 10 girls sauntering past.
“Late for your lessons girls!” he yelled at them. They merely smiled and continued their stroll across the quad, shoes slopping off their feet, bags slung over their shoulders and reaching lower than their micro skirts.
“Should think they’d be cold,” muttered Lancelot.
Dorian was entranced by this vision of perfection. He was sitting at the back of the room and had a good view of the girls as they ambled across the quad.
“Sir?” said Viola. “Our mock exam?”
“Er yes,” said Mr Prokofiev. “I suppose it depends how far we have got in the syllabus when the time comes.”
“But shouldn’t we have finished the syllabus by then, sir?” asked Melody, sitting next to Viola at the front.
“Oh, possibly. I’ll have to check – or you can check online. It’s all online,” Lancelot Prokofiev said, waving his hands vaguely to simulate logging on to a computer.
“What exam are you talking about?” asked a bewildered Dorian.
“Dorian!” chorused Melody and Viola. “Keep up! Don’t you know anything? We’ve got our mock exams immediately after half term, in February.”
“How do you know?” asked Dorian.
“It’s online, school email,” said Melody, rolling her eyes.
“Log into your inbox,” advised Viola.
“Well thank you girls, for keeping us up to speed,” said Mr Prokofiev. “Dorian, come and sit at the front with Melody and Viola. You’re only a class of three, so you might as well sit together. Now, as I was saying, about this Webern we’re listening to today, one of your set works for the music history paper; who knows what school of composers he belongs to?”
“Serial composers,” said Melody promptly.
“Cereal composers? Were they farmers or something?” asked Dorian, very confused. He was trying to log onto his school email on his phone, without success.
“Ah yes,” smiled Mr Prokofiev. “That reminds me of that old chestnut about the serial composers. Stop me if I’ve told you before, but…”
“You’ve told us before, Sir,” said a weary Viola.
“Quite a few times,” added Melody.
“I don’t know about it,” said Dorian, hoping to spin the conversation out a little longer before he had to listen to some serious music.
“OK,” said Mr Prokofiev. “You know that Webern was a serial composer, well there was another one called Berg. Now, Berg’s first name was ALBAN, so you could say ALLBRAN Berg, the CEREAL composer!”
“Get it Dorian?” asked Melody.
“Not really,” said Dorian.
Both girls and Mr Prokofiev sighed together.
“Oh, wait a minute, hey that’s quite funny, isn’t it?”
Dorian started giggling and continued for a long time in a very irritating fashion, even after the music had started playing.
“That’s enough, boy,” snapped Mr Prokofiev eventually. “It’s not that funny.”
After the lesson, Melody and Viola made their way to the library to do some work.
“Aren’t you girls coming to lunch?” asked Dorian, puzzled.
“No time today,” said Melody. “Got too much work, so we grabbed the sandwich option at break.”
Dorian ambled off to the dining hall, absolutely ravenous, dumping his bag on the ground in the quad on the way. As the doors of the hall swung open, he felt as if he’d been physically hit in the face by the noise.
“Oi Dorian! Come and sit with us,” called his mates, already wolfing down their lunch, elbows in one another’s faces. “Get yer lunch and come and sit with us.”
“OK,” said Dorian. He approached the serving hatch and piled his plate up high with chips, pasta, slices of meat, battered fish, chicken nuggets, and topped it off with some roast potatoes. His mum was always asking on the phone if he was eating his vegetables and he’d be able to tell her with a clear conscience next time she rang that he had chosen two vegetables today – chips and roast potatoes. He took some french bread too, plus a chocolate pudding and a yoghurt, and shoved a couple of Braeburn apples into his pocket.
“Hungry, Dorian?” asked Celeste Dubonnet, overtaking him in the queue as teachers were allowed to do and which most of the pupils thought was highly unfair. “You English boys and your carbs.”
Dorian stood back to let Madame Dubonnet pass, his eyes lingering on her legs; she was wearing navy blue tights with tiny clock faces woven into the sheer fabric. Dorian wondered why she would want to wear something so bizarre. What was it with women and their tights? His mum used to say, ‘Mind my tights!’ when he was a little boy and he was never sure what she meant.
“Oo, Madame Dubonnet, I like your tights,” said a voice behind him.
“Why, thank you Viola. They’re stockings actually.”
“I’ve had them for ages. They’re from Paris. How kind.”
Dorian turned to see Viola standing behind him, her plate loaded with meat and fish, with a covering of salad hiding the chips.
“Thought you were having sandwiches?” he asked.
“That was Melody’s idea,” said Viola scornfully. “She should stop telling me what to do. If I want to eat a proper lunch, I’ll eat it. Those sandwiches wouldn’t keep a mouse alive and I ate them as a quick snack on the way here. I say, have you seen Tom around today?”
Tom was Viola’s brother and she felt duty bound to keep an eye on him at school, which nevertheless didn’t stop him getting into trouble.
“No,” said Dorian. “Oh, wait – there he is – in the corner, throwing some rolls. Mr Calculus seems to be saying something to him now.”
“Outrageous behaviour!” roared Mr Calculus. “You’re in Year 11 Tom and yet you still behave like a toddler.”
The girls sitting nearby started sniggering.
“Insult to toddlers, that is,” said one of them.
“He can shout so loudly, that Mr Calculus, can’t he?” said another.
“Should have him in the choir with a voice like that,” commented Miriam, sitting eating her lunch at the teachers’ table. “He’d perk up the tenors no end.”
“When does choir start this term?” asked Dorcas Bark, the classics teacher.
“This evening at six thirty,” answered Miriam. “We need to crack on with the Messiah choruses.”
“I’ll be there,” said Dorcas. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Only time she ever goes out,” joked Will Hemingway sotto voce to his neighbour.
“What’s that, young man?” said Dorcas sharply. “I may be getting on, but I can hear perfectly well.”
“Huge apologies, Miss Bark,” said Will Hemingway, genuinely sorry to have made such a thoughtless comment.
“To atone, why don’t you join the choir?” suggested Miriam.
“Yes, excellent,” said Dorcas, clapping her hands. “Then we can see what you’re made of, as it were. Tenor or Bass?”
“What do you mean?” asked Mr Hemingway nervously.
“High voice or low voice?” continued Dorcas crossly. “I presume you can read music?”
“Well, not really…” stuttered Mr Hemingway.
“Not a drawback,” said Miriam reassuringly. “Come along to the rehearsal this evening and bring your friends from amongst the staff. More the merrier.”
“Topping fun,” said Dorcas.
“OK,” said Will Hemingway, surprising even himself.
“What about you?” said Miriam to Chris Calculus as he joined them at the table, thoroughly exhausted and wound up after giving Tom a lecture.
“What’s wrong with that boy?” he demanded. “I blame the parents.”
“I expect they blame us,” said Dorcas, braying with laughter and sending a shower of apple crumble across the table.
The mood lightened as more staff joined in to give their opinions about what was wrong with the youth of today and suchlike, with ever more outrageous anecdotes being brought out for inspection.
“Did I tell you about the time I found a Year 7 boy climbing a drainpipe when they were meant to be in lessons?”
“What about those lads who took the wheels off the Headmaster’s car?”
“Or the kids who tied the Head of Sixth Form to the railings after the sixth form leaving party? How long did he have to wait to be released?”
“Or the girl who threw her shoes out of a third floor window and dented the roof of my car underneath?”
“Well, years ago, the Upper Fifth, as they were called in the good old days, planted some bulbs outside the staffroom; when the bulbs flowered the next spring, they spelt out a very rude message…”
“Never mind what these kids do – it’s what they’re called that concerns me. I taught a ‘Mowgli’ at my last school.”
“My niece has a girl called ‘Sorrel’ in her class.”
“How can they behave if they’ve been lumbered with such ridiculous names?”
“That’s nothing – I taught a girl called Chaffinch once.”
“I taught a Beelzebub.”
“No, of course not! I made that one up.”
Miriam took advantage of this hilarity to pressgang several more members of staff to join the choir. Splendid, she thought. We will have a great turn out for the Messiah.
She was not disappointed when they first attempted the mighty ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ at the end of the first rehearsal that same evening. Will Hemingway had been as good as his word and had stocked the tenors and basses with fresh blood from amongst his colleagues. What they lacked in skill, they made up for with enthusiasm, and Miriam felt confident she would be able to knock them into shape given time.
“And he shall reign for ever…” bellowed the myriad basses, making the stained glass windows of the hall rattle alarmingly with the sound.
Miriam waved her arms frantically at the tenors to attract their attention to their entry here.
“And he shall reign…” the tenors sang at last, at the wrong pitch and a couple of bars late, getting themselves tangled up with the alto entry.
“We’ll sort it out next week,” yelled Miriam. “Don’t stop now – keep singing!”
She was thrilled to see that Tom was sitting in the tenors, with his friends Alex and David. Brunhilda and Celeste Dubonnet were holding the altos together;
“King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” they sang with their powerful rich voices.
Miriam could hear that Melody and Viola were struggling with some of the low notes in the alto part and she made a mental note to move them up to the sopranos next week. They’d have more fun sitting next to Dorcas anyway, and the sopranos would benefit from the girls’ clear young voices, with those long notes that had to be held steady, then climbed higher and higher. Not quite high enough this evening, thought Miriam with a giggle.
Dorian should have been in the tenors or even the altos, not the basses, but Miriam knew she couldn’t say anything as it would hurt his feelings. Odd, she mused, how women regarded it as promotion to be asked to sing higher, but men regarded it as an affront to their manhood to be moved up to a higher register. Goodness, someone has to be the filling in the sandwich and sing the middle part, she thought. It’s the same with the orchestra, with the middle part, the violas, being the butt of everyone’s scornful jokes.
Miriam felt laughter bubbling up inside her as the chorus rattled to its final cadence, with Robert pounding heroically at the piano. I do hope his tennis elbow won’t play up again after all those chords she thought, holding her arms wide with hands outstretched to wring maximum power out of the final chord.
The Funny Business of Life is now available to pre-order from Amazon. It will be published on 5th November 2014.