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Music is the mediator between spiritual and sensual life

Romance / Children
Virginia Burges
Age Rating:

PART I – Chapter 1

A frisson of fear ran through Isabelle as she crouched down to place her violin carefully into its red velvet lined case. She stood, straightened her back, and turned to see shiny, eager eyes trained on her. She didn’t regard her talent as an inspiration to others, not even musicians. She did, however, think of herself as very fortunate to have made a stellar career out of doing something she loved: playing the violin.

Now it was time to give something back.

‘Do you remember your first time?’

The question came from the grinning face of a young male student. His lopsided smile and intense stare hinted at how awestruck he was by the presence of the violin virtuoso, Isabelle Bryant.

‘My first time?’ Isabelle gave a nervous laugh. ‘I presume you mean my first solo performance,’ she said, hoping the class wouldn’t notice her blushing. Stupid! I’m the virtuoso...can’t believe I’m acting like a shy debutante.

She had reluctantly agreed to run her first Violin Masterclass, having once been a former student at the Royal Academy of Music herself.

She longed for the masterclass Q & A session to end. She was in her element performing in front of an audience, and even coaching the students, but transformed into a bundle of nerves and quirky gestures when she was alone talking to groups of people. In fact, Isabelle loathed public speaking of any kind.

Heart racing, she took a deep breath and delved into the recess of her memory. It was an intoxicating visit.

‘No artist ever forgets their first major professional performance, and I’m no different. It was at The Royal Albert Hall, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and it was a huge success for me because it was the launch pad of my career as a soloist.’

Seemingly unsatisfied with her answer the young man pursed his lips and proceeded to quiz her over the event. How had she remembered the music score? Was she nervous? What was it like playing at that venue with the London Symphony Orchestra?

Isabelle offered them her heartfelt thoughts.

‘Every player gets nervous before a performance. The self-doubts can creep in, and that inner voice that lets you know that you played it less than perfectly last time is only too keen to point out where you made mistakes before. But the really great virtuosi use their awareness to overcome these self-inflicted obstacles to the music. You have to master the mental monsters to reach your peak. If I can do it you can do it too.’

The questioner looked bewildered, while the other students watched her with interest, hanging onto her every word. She cleared her throat.

‘You may have noticed at certain times when you are playing that destructive thoughts can pop into your head. As a result maybe you’ve fumbled your fingering, or perhaps your intonation was off, or your vibrato was askew - or the phrasing, say. The key is not to let these disruptions take you away from your “flow state”. I’m sure you’ve all experienced this state of mind, it’s when you are in deep concentration but your action is almost effortless. When you begin to try to play, it just doesn’t give you the same results. The less mental interference you experience the better your performance will be.’

Her mind drifted briefly to Paris. She could hear Jean-Christophe’s authoritative voice, shrill and thick with accent over her music.

‘Isabelle, ma cherie – sentez-vous la musique, ne pense pas!’ She’d heard the command many a time while studying at the Conservatoire. Feel the music.

The young man noticed her eyes glazing over and quizzed her. ‘How do you block it out?’ He looked almost annoyed as if she was giving him the greatest secret in the world, but he couldn’t fathom its meaning.

Isabelle took a deep breath. I must keep calm under their scrutiny.

‘Apart from all the technique you’ve learned and the many hours of practise you’ve all undoubtedly put into your development as musicians, there is yet another aspect of yourself you can use to reach your full potential.’ Isabelle tried to remember what she had written in her preparation notes.

‘You can use your awareness, the part of you that does not judge, but simply notices. If you’ve ever meditated, you will have experienced alpha brain waves. That’s the optimum state to play in. For me personally, I like to clear my mind of thoughts and that helps me to practise with a relaxed concentration.’

The students were silent, their expectant faces turned towards hers. Don’t falter now Isabelle.

‘There are many facets to awareness, but the main thing to remember is to just observe. If you can remove yourself from your thoughts and witness your experience of the music each time you perform that will massively boost your learning ability each time you play. Also, by focussing on certain aspects of the score it can help you to divert the destructive dialogue in your head. So, to recap, getting deeper into an aspect of the musical experience will help you to avoid those thoughts.’

The auditorium remained quiet as the students absorbed her words.

An unwelcome thought popped into her head as she paused to take a sip from her water bottle. Why don’t you practise what you preach Isabelle Bryant? If you are so good at using these techniques for playing your violin, then why can’t you use them effectively for public speaking?

There was something about playing her violin that transformed her like nothing else. Over the years she had learnt to throw herself into the music and dismiss her anxieties about playing in front of others, but take away her violin and she felt bare – vulnerable even. Such was her confidence with her music that people often were surprised at her reluctance to speak. It was the paradox of her personality. Knowing she would have to give masterclasses at some point in her career Isabelle had diligently worked on articulating the many facets of her success so that she could help students.

She forced her attention out again onto the students gathered before her, acutely aware of her every movement being watched, and her every word analysed. She remembered the young man asking her about her first professional performance. I’ve gotten off-track at little.

‘On the night in question I recall feeling hot under the lights. They were so bright I couldn’t really see into the auditorium. The orchestra were right behind me, and the conductor actually winked at me. The Royal Albert Hall has such a grand ambience and interior setting; I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated. I mean, here I was, barely out of my teens, standing on a stage that had hosted so many historic performances. I had big shoes to fill! I was terrified one of my strings would suddenly snap, or that my nervousness would make me break wind inappropriately.’ Stifled giggles escaped into the air.

That has broken the ice a bit more.

‘And then there would be the reviews to read afterwards. I kept tuning my violin excessively beforehand. I experienced a whole gamut of emotions, but underpinning all that was the desire to just play. Once that first note was out my fear began to dissipate. The important thing is that I gave myself permission to be scared. To make mistakes even. If I had gotten hung up on them then I would have allowed my nerves to interfere with my playing.’

Some of the students were scribbling in notebooks, and the young man was still staring at her, then he was asking her another question. ‘How long did it take you to learn the Beethoven violin concerto?’

’All my life I guess...every time I played it was preparation for that moment. Obviously I learnt the notes over many, many practise sessions. It was the concerto I played when I won the Young Musician of the Year competition. It’s burned into my brain! I also listened regularly to Itzhak Perlman’s recording of the work; as he has always been my inspiration on the violin.

‘The Beethoven violin concerto is a very lyrical piece, perhaps not as difficult as the Tchaikovsky for example, but as you know, it’s still scale laden and challenging in the higher positions.’ Her voice was resonant as she recalled the feeling of euphoria at the completion of her debut solo performance. She always experienced a rush of energy immediately after every performance, but none since that first night had affected her quite so profoundly. It was as though her premier of the Beethoven had opened up to her a realm of possibilities and self- belief she dare not consider before that moment. In the glow of her memory it felt like yesterday rather than fifteen years previous.

The obstinate male student remarked, ‘I read the critics labelled you “Beethoven’s Babe”?’

His expression was smug, certain his comment would embarrass her. Isabelle obliged, and her cheeks flamed for a brief moment. She had forgotten about the reviews. Her butterflies were flying in formation now, and she established deliberate eye contact with him.

’Yes, I believe they did. I was very flattered at the time because he is my all-time favourite composer. He was such a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly.

‘We can all learn from his self-belief. I mean, to stay true to his artistic integrity in the shadow of Mozart, and write the works he wanted to, regardless of public opinion or against what was popular at the time, the “done” thing, that takes courage. He was so radical and innovative, and to produce the works he did with the loss of his hearing is almost beyond comprehension. I could go on all day, but needless to say I was so proud to have played his only violin concerto and to have done it justice. I haven’t really played much Beethoven in my repertoire since then, with the exception of the Kreutzer Sonata in A Major. Every artist has to vary their repertoire and try new things.’

The student finally relaxed his face and nodded in appreciation.

It seemed like only yesterday Isabelle had been in their shoes herself. She had made history by becoming the youngest ever winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition. It naturally followed that she was offered a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and then she had completed her training at the Conservatoire in Paris, blossoming as an artist under the guidance of the legendary Jean-Christophe Charpentier.

Affectionately nicknamed “The Carpenter” by his students, and acknowledged by all his protégés as a master of his craft, he sculpted players into their own unique style. She remembered learning French very quickly. On her return to London Isabelle met Gerry

Goldberg, a mature and experienced agent, but who still had a knack for new trends. He quickly became her mentor too, and rapidly she found herself on the international soloists’ circuit, playing in concerts all over the world. Her first record deal with Decca swiftly followed. It was a heady time in her life, a whirlwind of success, all by her early twenties.

But her happiness was tinged by the fact that her mother had not been there to see it. She kept her grief inside, determined to make the most of her opportunities as homage to the sacrifices made by her parents.

Another question was being directed to her. ‘At what age did you start playing?’ asked a sweet Japanese girl.

‘Well, I was four if I remember correctly, and I didn’t have much say in the matter! My mother was a soprano and my father taught music at the local comprehensive.’

She went on, explaining how her mother had pushed her hard after her first teacher had extolled the virtues of her talent with a little too much zeal. Her parents had worked hard to pay for regular lessons. They had insisted that she learn the Suzuki method, and there had usually been background music playing in their home. Isabelle had always espoused this method as it had enabled her to enjoy the music and play with competence and fearlessness. There was much nodding of heads as the group related to her remarks on sacrifice. To be the top of your field in any endeavour meant giving up so called normal activities. Like most of her contemporaries Isabelle had missed out on the parties that her peers had enjoyed. She was being prepared for a life on the stage. Whenever the family were invited to social events (usually because of their mother’s connections) the Bryant trio of Jack, Isabelle and Lily were frequently asked to perform a musical recital in front of total strangers. Then the knot in her chest reminded her that it was painful to think about her family.

Looking round the newly built David Josefowitz Recital Hall, she noticed that the principal was thankfully now standing and bringing the session to a close. He praised Isabelle for her valuable time and insights. An enthusiastic applause echoed around the hall. Relief flooded over her, and for the first time she could appreciate her surroundings. She noticed how the light was reflecting on the wood panelled walls and floor, giving a warm atmosphere to the room. The acoustics had certainly been very crisp and resonant.

She reached for her semi-fitted, single-breasted tweed navy blazer, which was lying draped across the back of her chair. Gracefully she slid her arms in and buttoned it up over her sleeveless white shirt and smoothed it down over skinny fitting beige chinos, which flattered her long, slender and shapely legs. She had been right to wear her nude, flat ballet pumps which had kept her feet cool and comfortable for the duration of the masterclass. Nonetheless she was savouring the prospect of a long soak in a warm lavender oil bath later that evening.

For two hours Isabelle had played excerpts of the major violin concertos and some of her favourite show pieces, as she gave practical coaching to a few of the students on their violins, and afterwards offered them advice and candid recollections of her path to virtuosity. It was a small price to pay for her current success, and she hoped she may have inspired some of the students to follow their musical paths, whether that meant careers as soloists, chamber musicians or as part of an international orchestra. She only wished that she hadn’t felt so damn insecure, after all, her own success was irrefutable.

Maybe it went better than it felt. They seemed appreciative at the end. Hopefully I’ve made an impact.

With her case slung over her shoulders like a backpack, she made her way south on the underground from Regent’s Park to London Victoria Station. The dreary grey sky hung like a heavy cloak over the platform. As the train jolted to halt she quickly found a seat by the window, and nestled her case vertically between her feet and knees. As more passengers entered the carriage she touched the edge of her violin case lightly, smiling with resigned humour as a passing stranger made a joke about her carrying a machine gun.

Her violin represented another limb to her, it was that precious. It felt so natural, like an extension of her body. She gently rubbed her neck which was feeling a little sore. The rough, red patch of skin on her neck just below her jaw was often mistaken for a love bite, when in fact it was what she affectionately referred to as a violinist’s hickey. Many hours of gruelling practise had left their marks.

Her mind drifted to her earlier private viewing of the Academy’s museum, where she had been shown round by the curator in person. She had spent a blissful afternoon paying particular awe and reverence to their recent acquisition of Italian virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti’s 1709 Stradivarius, renamed as the Viotti ex-Bruce to honour its British donor, which the Academy extolled as one of the most important and well preserved Stradivarius violins in the world.

She had studied the sheen of the dark, pinky brown maple, picturing the old master craftsman huddled in his workshop in northern Italy; surrounded by the distinctive wooden shapes that would become so valuable over three hundred years later. Sadly there were so few of them remaining.

Her own violin, a modern Nagyvary, was crafted by the eminent Hungarian professor Joseph Nagyvary, who had spent his life studying the craftsmanship of Cremonese violin makers; namely Stradivarius and Guarnerius.

Nagyvary violins were made as closely to those of the ancient genius as possible, and there had been many debates about whether or not they actually sounded as good as those of the master. Isabelle adored its sonorous tonal qualities and projection power. If a Nagyvary violin had been good enough for Yehudi Menuhin to play for fifteen years, then it was good enough for her. Gerry, in his nothing is too much of a challenge for me attitude, had managed to do a deal with Joseph Nagyvary to loan Isabelle the instrument indefinitely. It was her most precious possession - except that she didn’t own it.

Isabelle reflected she had been fortunate enough to have played on a Stradivarius at a couple of concerts, firstly at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Philharmonic, for a programme of American composers. The slow movement of the Barber Violin Concerto Op. 14 had sounded particularly heart-breaking on it, with the silence in the room mirroring the audience’s enthrallment. The American Institute for Music had lent her the instrument for the occasion, and she had been reluctant to return it.

The other time had been in Prague for the European Festival of Classical Music, almost a year ago. She and Howard had not long been married, and a fierce debate had started in the music press about the tonal quality of the Stradivarius versus the Nagyvary. The scientific community had been the only objective party, with each opposing camp determined to prove their superiority.

The stuffy carriage and the gentle movement of the train as it trundled along were beginning to make her eyelids feel heavy. Her thoughts switched back to the students, they seemed so full of hope and ambition. She suspected they would trade places with her in a heartbeat. She knew she should be happy, and she was - but there was a void in her life; and it seemed to be widening by the day.

Isabelle drifted into an elated sleep, unaware that the man opposite, after one too many yawns had opened the window before continuing to read his book. The sudden burst of cold air roused her, and also her simmering irritation that Howard had not wanted to accompany her to the Royal Academy for the masterclass. He too had been a student in their conductor’s programme, and as far as she knew there had been no other engagements in his diary. She was surprised he hadn’t wanted to catch up with his old friends and combine some business with pleasure. After all, they had such little time together.

Her despair at his lack of support turned to resentment. I’d do the same for him, especially if I knew he was feeling scared half to death.

But she had coped without him, and basked in satisfaction at having completed the session under her own steam. The principal had asked after him, and expressed his approval at Howard’s appointment with the London Sound Company. They were a rising contemporary orchestra, planning bold and exciting programmes, with the added bonus of positive media attention. Guest conductors had helped to raise their profile further, with performances given under some internationally respected figures.

He had enthused about what a handsome couple they made. But Isabelle knew all too well that appearances were deceptive.

For a start, he couldn’t know that Howard had delusions of grandeur about being the next Simon Rattle, because he was careful to hide his ambition in public. Howard’s mother Celia had pulled some matronly strings, and his ensuing appointment to the LSC had been both lucky and inspired.

Then there was their marriage.

It had all started so promisingly. From their meeting backstage after one of her performances, they quickly progressed to a serious romance. At the time it seemed like a match made in heaven, but she had little experience of the opposite sex. Just like speaking in public, dating had been an activity avoided. Lately their relationship had been spiralling out of control, and the honeymoon period was now a distant memory. Her chest tightened again. How can my professional career be up in the stratosphere while my personal life seems to be breaking faster than some salacious scandal?

They had been arguing of late about Isabelle not taking the Miller family name. She tried to reason with Howard that she had made her name as a virtuoso in her maiden name of Bryant, and to change it might damage her reputation and her position as one of the most popular musicians in the world. After so many years of intense study and hard work she considered her artistic identity as sacrosanct.

Howard of course had a different perspective. Secretly he hoped Isabelle’s popularity would rub off on his career, and also saw it as an affront to the stature of his family that she was being so stubborn in this matter. His mother had berated him for not agreeing the issue with Isabelle before the wedding, pointing out that the new Mrs Miller was showing disrespect and disloyalty to the family. After months of wrangling they had agreed to disagree, but the issue hung in the air like a discordant note.

Isabelle leaned against the window and took in the rolling downs that passed her window every few seconds. The cloud had cleared progressively as the train reached further south, to reveal areas of piercing blue sky.

She had found living in the Sussex countryside a refreshing change from living in London. Still, she never quite felt that she belonged to the clique of gossiping neighbours apparently under the spell of Howard’s fearsome mother Celia. The countryside however, was stunning, and now even more so as the leaves were turning to vibrant hues of orange and red. She loved watching them dance in the wind as gusts whipped round the trees, sending them swirling in a mass of colour, marvelling at the beauty of nature’s choreography.

In a moment of nostalgia, Isabelle pictured the penthouse apartment she had lived in during her early career. The art deco building had a faded facade of dark bricks which was adorned by jade green balustrades around the exterior of each level. It was a familiar landmark on the corner of Grosvenor Place, overlooking Dorset Square, a small sanctuary of greenery. From her flat Isabelle could see the Victorian architecture of Marylebone Station, and the skyline of North West London.

She knew that dwelling on the past wasn’t helpful at the best of times, but she found herself wishing for the good old days before she was married; when she and Gerry made all the decisions surrounding her career. There had been no distractions, no arguments and no jealousy to erode her confidence.

Howard’s hatred of Gerry was another area of friction in their marriage. In Howard’s mind Gerry hadn’t helped by putting in his opinion that she should remain as Bryant, assuming he was only thinking about his commissions. Howard detested agents in general. His cynical view of them being leeches on the professional skills of performers did not endear him to musicians, who viewed them as a necessity in order to enjoy successful careers that were well managed.

Howard’s conducting career had taken a while to get going, and even now it wasn’t comparable to Isabelle’s success as a virtuoso violinist. He was determined to keep up with her, at all costs it seemed, and his obsession with his reputation stemmed from his rampant ego, which she guessed his mother had fuelled from a very early age.

For months Isabelle had sensed something eating away at him. He was always snappy if a rehearsal had gone badly, and several violinists had walked out lately in fury over his rants. Maybe they could take it from a more distinguished conductor, but this baton holder was barely thirty two, and didn’t have the musical pedigree to get away with being a prima donna just yet.

She had tried to broach the situation, and talk him round to being more amenable, but he had cut her short, saying that she should stick to what she was good at and not interfere with his career. His barely audible parting remark as he turned on his heel to avoid her probing was, ‘bloody string players!’

Her cellist friend Sebastian knew one of the offended violinists, who had vented to him about Howard’s ego and his lack of respect for the musicians. What annoyed him the most was the fact that Howard took all the credit when the performance was going well, but he yelled at them mercilessly if things weren’t going exactly how he wanted them to. He told Sebastian in no uncertain terms that a conductor who didn’t realise it was the musicians that actually made the sound wouldn’t go very far, and furthermore, his intellectual snobbery was alienating half of the orchestra.

They all understood that the score itself wasn’t the work. You had to play the music, not the instrument. The subjective experience of the audience was what the composer intended, and Howard should “get over himself” for thinking he alone would make the score come alive.

Isabelle agreed with him. Howard seemed to have a romantic notion that his conducting skills alone afforded him special status regarding the interpretation of a work. So much for humility!

It reminded her of a particularly embarrassing episode during their time in Prague, when a nosy journalist had been sitting at the next table in the Four Seasons’ Hotel restaurant, and had overheard Howard bulldozing her and Gerry and the conductor for the concert.

Howard had been drinking steadily all afternoon, but she hadn’t noticed his heavy consumption due to her hectic practise sessions, and by then it was too late to avert a scene.

Howard was convinced that the Stradivarius sounded better, and was arguing with Gerry, who postulated that it was hard to tell the difference. Isabelle and the conductor had exchanged worried glances across the table, and some other diners in the vicinity had begun to stare at Howard’s red face contorting, as he blustered at Gerry.

When Howard had paused for breath Gerry casually remarked in his deep drawl, ‘Look Howard, the average person in the street who comes to listen to these concerts, or buy the music aren’t going to have that good an ear. Maybe among us professionals we can have a calm debate, but surely the punters are the ones who matter, after all, without them there is no music industry.’

Isabelle’s stomach sunk. Howard was approaching nuclear fall-out, but she felt helpless as to what she could do to limit the damage.

Howard had taken off his small round rimmed glasses and suddenly exploded. ‘What the fuck do you know Gerry? You’re just an agent, not an artist. Keep your goddamned opinions to yourself!’

Their mouths had fallen open.

‘Howard! That’s enough,’ Isabelle had interjected, shooting Gerry an apologetic look.

Howard’s foul temper always made him lash out like an injured animal.

His chair had tumbled backwards as he stood towering over Gerry, who didn’t bat an eyelid. Then he had snorted and stormed off to their hotel room; leaving Isabelle to explain his actions to a bewildered conductor and her old friend, who knew only too well what he could be like.

An article covering the Prague festival had been printed the following week in the Sunday Times.

The comments concerning Isabelle’s performance of The Lark Ascending and other selected pieces had been complimentary, but were unfortunately accompanied by a scathing sentence or two highlighting the behaviour of a certain English conductor. Although the writer hadn’t named Howard, he had made life very unpleasant for him. It had finished on the words, “A conductor who doesn’t know how to conduct himself!”

Yet again Howard had blown his stack, threatening to sue the paper for libel; until Isabelle had persuaded him that he’d have a hard time proving they were making defamatory remarks about his character – his name did not appear once.

The train juddered as it approached the station, bringing Isabelle back to the present with a jolt. She looked at her watch. Oh God!

Her stomach was churning, she felt sick at the thought of being on the end of Howard’s wrath again. He would be furious that she had kept him waiting so long. Ironically she had always admired his promptness, but not today. She doubted he’d even be there still; he would have lost patience long ago and returned home.

I’ll probably have to take a taxi back, but how am I going to call one with a dead phone?

She gathered her case and handbag and stepped into the cool air which revived her a little, and then that familiar voice, laced with contempt, greeted her on the platform.

‘Isabelle! What time do you call this?’ He tapped his watch and folded his arms. ‘You’re late!’

Isabelle flashed him a contrite smile. ‘I’m sorry Howard.’

‘Mrs Miller you may be a talented violinist but you can’t manage your time to save your life. I’ve wasted an hour sat in this bloody car park!’

‘You have every right to be cross Howard, but I couldn’t help it. You know what a sucker I am for ancient Italian violins. I didn’t want to miss seeing the Viotti Strad at the academy, but it meant I missed my original train.’

‘Ever heard of a mobile phone?’

Isabelle remained conciliatory. ‘I tried to call, but my battery died. I meant to charge it last night, but I forgot; I was so pre-occupied with preparing for my first masterclass.’

Not asking how the masterclass had gone, he simply grunted and said, ‘Did you remember me to the principal?’

She chose to ignore his question, knowing it would wind him up further. ‘It went well, thanks for asking.’

Howard raised an eyebrow, muttering something under his breath before turning his back on her. What a pig, he was acting like he had his baton shoved up his arse.

They started walking towards the car. Howard began to button up his waistcoat in the brisk wind. Isabelle on the other hand didn’t feel cold from the elements, but his icy greeting was another thing altogether.

They drove in silence back to Causeway Cottage, the Miller family ancestral home passed down through many generations. She had to admit, it was a beautiful sandstone Georgian country house, with picture book sash windows and wisteria adorning the front wall. The view from the rear of the house was simply magnificent, overlooking the South Downs in all their grand, undulating glory.

As soon as they got home Isabelle put her violin back into its cupboard in the music room, just off the first floor landing. Two large windows offered views of green rolling fields. She had fallen in love with the room at first sight. She was quite particular about her playing environment. The sun would set at the back of the house, casting a warm glimmer and reflection through the glass that was magical. It had been Howard’s study before they were married, but after relentless pestering he finally moved out so that Isabelle could practice there. Her favourite print of Beethoven composing and deep in concentration, painted by Josef Stieler, hung on the wall alongside Andy Warhol’s more colourful version. The sight of Ludwig looking down on her gave her inspiration every morning when she came in for practice.

The painted jade green walls were lined with book cases and piles of music scores. A Bösendorfer piano sat in the corner, which was mainly used when she needed to collaborate with a pianist for sonata performances. The wooden floor boards creaked in certain places, and her treasured, sumptuous Persian rug added a touch of luxury to the room. Isabelle was staring out over the downs when Howard popped his head round the door. ‘I’ve still got some last minute programming to do for the Petworth Charity Concert, which no doubt will take me a few hours, so I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘Okay. Maybe it would be nice for me to help you? After all I am supposed to be one of the featured soloists. I don’t even know what you want me to play yet-’

‘You don’t need to worry about that.’ He was terse. ‘We can talk about it in the morning. I have to run everything past mother first. You know she’s employed by the council, so the pressure’s on me to come up with something special on our home turf.’

Isabelle sighed. She tried not to show her frustration at being excluded from their home concert; but it hurt her to feel that she was not deemed suitable to contribute to the concert’s repertoire, or to even have a say in her own performance. Being side-lined by Howard and his domineering mother was a frustrating end to a successful day.

Before she could protest further Howard had vanished into his study downstairs. He was becoming more reclusive of late, and she felt she had lost her connection with him. Her jubilant mood was waning fast. She was anxious that he didn’t want to spend as much time with her as when they were first married. The sex had been okay to start with, but now it was irregular and mundane, and usually all over in a few minutes of frantic grunting. Isabelle craved cuddles, loving attention, and true intimacy - but now there was no warmth.

Pulling out her mobile from the bottom of her bag she wandered into the bedroom and put it on charge so she could send a quick text to Hortense. She needed their friendship more than ever at the moment. She had no family nearby, and she rarely saw her cellist friend Sebastian, except when she was working with the London Philharmonic on a project.

Hortense was her oldest and closest friend, the daughter of a Louisiana French jazz singer, who had worked with her own mother Julia. Together they had grown up in a quiet, leafy Beaconsfield street in middle class comfort.

Isabelle had studied the violin, while Hortense had trained her vocal cords. Although

Hortense was ten years older than Isabelle, and had come from a very different background; their love of music and life had drawn them together. In fact, she often felt closer to Hortense than to her own sister Lily. Hortense had always been a somewhat motherly figure in

Isabelle’s life, but she seemed to take on the role even more so after her mother died. She’d had difficulty pronouncing the French name in childhood, and so it had been abbreviated simply to “H”.

They looked very different too, with Isabelle having creamy olive skin, long brunette hair and a skinny frame. Isabelle had been a late developer, not getting her first period until the age of fifteen, only to wish it had been even later when the event signalling womanhood finally arrived.

Hortense was of African American descent, and usually wore her hair in braids. She was shorter and plumper than Isabelle, but what she lacked in stature she made up for with personality. She was strong as an ox, with a beguilingly husky voice and she projected a booming laugh that infected anyone in its vicinity.

H had cautioned Isabelle only once in her life; and that had been prior to her marriage with Howard. She remembered the conversation with a shiver as she undressed and slid beneath the sheets.

‘Issy, you gotta think this through more. I know you’ve enjoyed his company, and he mixes in the right circles, but there’s more to marriage than companionship and connections. Trust me, I know!’ Her own marriage to jazz music producer Raymond Lafayette, had been the subject of a Channel 4 documentary aiming to extrapolate the components in a successful marriage. H always said it boiled down to alignment.

‘Have you discussed important issues like children?’

‘Sort of…’

‘Kids are a big part of your relationship, it’s a fundamental issue. Do you both feel the same about it?’

Hortense had an uncanny sense for deceit, and Isabelle, worried she would guess the truth had blurted out, ‘H I’m too busy with my career to think about it at the moment. I guess sometime in the future it would be nice, but Howard needs to concentrate on his career too. It would be a distraction at the moment.’

‘Isabelle Bryant, my bullshit-ometer is redlining! You’re starting to sound like his mother now. What has gotten into you? Don’t you think it would broaden your perspective on life, give you something else other than music to live for?’

Coming from anyone else Isabelle would have told them to mind their own business, but she had too much respect for Hortense.

They had always stayed in close contact, even when Hortense and Raymond had moved back to New Orleans for two years. Hortense had felt the need to get in touch with her roots, and while she and Raymond were living there she’d had a mystical experience. After that they’d decided to adopt an orphaned young boy called Louis, who was now ten. During that time Isabelle herself had been touring the world, establishing her musical credentials.

‘H, that’s just the way it is. I’m sure Howard will come round to the idea in time.’

Hortense had smiled and put her arm around Isabelle, ‘As long as you know in your heart that this is right for you and he makes you happy Issy, that’s all that matters.’

The thing with self-denial was that you never saw it until it was too late. Deep down she had known Hortense was right. There was a difference of opinion that she couldn’t see a way round. At thirty two she was beginning to feel her body’s biological clock craving motherhood, and she didn’t know if she could wait forever for Howard to change his mind.

She had always suspected there was a hidden agenda behind Howard’s proposal, but hadn’t paid any attention to these fleeting troublesome thoughts that interrupted her new found happiness. Loneliness was not an option for her. Always impatient to tackle the next big thing in her life she had jumped in both feet first. She wasn’t going to be one of these highly successful but single career women.

A wave of repressed intuitions carried her on a current that she feared might crash her onto rocks at some unknown date in the future, but still she had chosen to ignore it. She justified to herself that Howard might not be her twin soul, but they seemed to get on well enough to start with. Her blistering schedule gave her no time for romance, and it was a breath of fresh air for someone up and coming in the industry to pay her some attention. She persuaded herself that she would be able to talk him round to having kids. It was to be an assumption among many that would take her life off its plotted heading and into uncharted territory.

Isabelle could make out Howard’s voice on the phone, and sat up in bed to strain her ears. It sounded like he was talking to the director of the London Sound Company. Because of his connections Howard had been in a position to choose his own orchestra to perform at the Petworth charity event. Howard and his mother had persuaded the council to use the LSC based on a no fee arrangement. This would be the first time they were due to collaborate together on a project, and Isabelle was wondering why she felt so apprehensive about it.

I’ve got to hold it together and hope nobody spots the cracks; or more likely, the crevasses in our relationship.

The cream of West Sussex society would be there, dressed in their finest, as well as honest, hard-working locals, who went every year for some high calibre entertainment in a historical setting. The outdoor stage would be covered, with the sound travelling to the far reaches of the spectacular park and its surroundings. Even the deer would be serenaded that night.

Her sense of foreboding was holding back the sleep, and she tossed and turned for an hour, eventually curling up in a comforting foetal position. Her mind slowly quietened, although she was still conscious of the empty space beside her; before finally succumbing to an uneasy slumber.

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