/ Language: English / Genre:love_contemporary / Series: Rutshire Chronicles

Appassionata

Jilly Cooper

Abigail Rosen, nicknamed Appassionata, was the sexiest, most flamboyant violinist in classical music, but she was also the loneliest and the most exploited girl in the world. When a dramatic suicide attempt destroyed her violin career, she set her sights on the male-dominated heights of the conductor's rostrum. Given the chance to take over the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra, Abby is ecstatic, not realising the RSO is in hock up to its neck and is composed of the wildest bunch of musicians ever to blow a horn or caress a fiddle. Abby finds it increasingly difficult to control her undisciplined rabble and pretend she is not madly attracted to the fatally glamorous horn player, Viking O’Neill, who claims droit de seigneur over every pretty woman joining the orchestra. And then Rannaldini, arch-fiend and international maestro, rolls up with Machiavellian plans of his own to sabotage the RSO. Effervescent as champagne, Jilly Cooper's novel brings back old favourites like Rupert and Taggie Campbell-Black, but also ends triumphantly with a rampageous orchestral tour of Spain and the high drama of an international piano competition.

Jilly Cooper

Appassionata

To the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

because they make great music

and I love them all.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I felt desolate when I finished Appassionata, because I’d grown so fond of everyone who’d helped me. I was constantly touched and amazed that musicians who work such punishing hours often for totally inadequate reward should not only be the merriest and the funniest people in the world, but also the most generous with their time.

I must therefore start with a huge thank you to my guardian angels: benign bassoonist Chris Gale, his wife Jacoba, ace cook and viola player, and another viola player, Ian Pillow, who writes Classic FM magazine’s wonderfully funny column ‘Pillow Talk’, all of whom are from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; fair Annie Tennant, Education Officer of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Jack Rothstein, super violinist, soloist, leader and conductor, his wife Linn Hendry, another ace cook and a pianist who specializes in violin repertoire and, finally, brilliant violinist Marat Bisengaliev and his wife Steena, sublime first flute at the English Northern Philharmonia. These eight muses gave me inspiration, encouragement, endless introductions and marvellous hospitality. They never minded being bombarded with silly questions: ‘Could you bonk a small woman on a Glockenspiel?’ ‘Would tearstains devalue a Strad?’ in the middle of the night, and if they didn’t know the answer, they always knew someone who did. I cannot thank them enough.

I would also like to thank two great orchestras. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, whose managing director, Anthony Woodcock, very kindly allowed me to spend a fantastic week in Poole, talking to both musicians and management, sitting in on rehearsals, touring the South of England, listening to marvellous concerts. Everyone helped me, but I would like to say a special thank you to: Marion Aston, Kevin Banks, Andy Barclay, Nigel Beale, Philip Borg-Wheeler, Andrew Burn, Johnathan Carney, John Charles, Stuart Collins, David Gill, Stuart Green, Christopher Guy, Helen Harris, Anna Hawkins, Karen Jones, Edward Kay, Jayne Litton, Janet Male, Peter Rendle, Nick Simmonds, Verity Smith, Louise Wright and Peter Witham.

The red lion’s share of my gratitude, however, must go to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In 1992 I wistfully asked my friend Ian Maclay, who now runs the BBC Concert Orchestra, if he knew a band brave enough to take me on tour abroad. Within twenty-four hours, he had elicited an invitation to tour Spain from Paul Hughes, who must be the nicest man in classical music, and who had just taken over the RSNO as managing director. Thus followed one of the best weeks of my life, as the orchestra roared through five cities bringing the very formal Spanish audiences yelling in delight to their feet. Walter Weller, darkly urbane and charismatic, was the conductor. John Lill, adored by musicians and public alike, was the soloist, reducing us to tears of joy by his piano playing and tears of laughter with his outrageous jokes at the parties afterwards. Jacqueline Noltingk ensured everything ran miraculously smoothly.

In May 1995, I joined the RSNO for a second tour, this time of Switzerland. Once again they played gloriously to packed houses and their ‘music in my heart I bore, Long after it was heard no more’. Again everyone was sweet to me, but the following were of particular value to my story: Kenneth Blackwood, Helen Brew, Valerie Carlaw, William Chandler, John Clark, John Cushing, Pamella Dow, Morrison and Sally Dunbar, Claire Dunn, Jeremy Fletcher, Charles Floyd, Brian Forshaw, Martin Gibson, John Gracie, John Grant, David Hair, John Harrington, Philip Hore, Duncan Johnstone, Fiona McPherson, Evgeny Minkov, Angela Moore, Jacqueline Noltingk, Joseph Pacewicz, Edwin Paling, Miranda Phythian-Adams, Kevin Price, Stephane Rancourt, Michael Rigg, Alistair Sinclair, Ian Smith, Justine Watts, Stephen West.

One of my heroes in Appassionata is a young pianist, so I am deeply indebted for their advice to great soloists: Philip Fowke, Janina Fialkowska, Alan Kogosowsky. I am also grateful to Philip MacKenzie, conductor and moving force behind the west country Amadeus Chorus and Orchestra and his bassoonist wife, Charlotte, who suggested I play the narrator in Peter and the Wolf at the Colston Hall in 1992 so I could experience the utter terror of performing as a soloist with an orchestra.

My other more gilded hero is a brass player. Here again marvellous anecdotes and many ideas came from David McClenaghan and John Logan, first and third horn of the RSNO; Martin Hobbs, second horn of the BSO; Lance Green, first trombone, RSNO; Danny Longstaff, second trombone of the CBSO; and, above all, the legendary Tony Turnstall, former principal horn of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden.

My main heroine becomes a conductor, so I was immensely grateful for help from Sir Simon Rattle, Andrew Litton, Jean Paul Casadesus, Stephen Barlow, Ross Pople, Denys Darlow, Michael Burbidge, Olivier Dohnányi and, above all, André Previn. André, that most droll and beguiling of raconteurs and companions, allowed me to sit in on rehearsals and recording sessions with the mighty London Symphony Orchestra, and talked to me for many hours about both conducting and playing the piano. I must especially thank dear Bill Holland and Harriet Capaldi of Warner Classics for producing the most beautiful CD, titled Appassionata, from a selection of the music featured in the book. On the recording side, I must also thank Erik Smith, Steve Long and Mike Hatch for patiently answering my questions, as did distinguished composers Orlando Gough and Geoffrey Burgon, my neighbour in Gloucestershire.

On the musical administration side, I’d like to thank Philippa Sherwood and Andrew Jowett of Symphony Hall, Birmingham, and Christopher Bishop, late of the RSNO, and the Philharmonia for all their help and wonderful hospitality; Ian Killik of the English Northern Philharmonia; Lynn Calvin of the Musicians’ Union; Libby Macnamara of the Association of British Orchestras; Charles Beare, world expert on string instruments; Sonia Copeland; Chris Steward; Alison Taylor; Ellyn Kusman, Rosamund Leitch of the Wagner Society; Diggory Seacome, timpanist supremo and mover and shaker of the Cotswold Symphony Orchestra.

All the artists’ agents in Appassionata are perfectly horrid, and bear absolutely no resemblance to darling Sir Ian Hunter, Chairman of Harold Holt or Trudy Wright of Harrison Parrott, both of whom advised and royally entertained me.

During my research I spent a lovely morning at the English National Ballet, where Amanda Gilliland and Jane Haworth were as beautiful as they were informative. I also spent fascinating days at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, watching Professor Colin Metters and the venerable George Hurst assessing student conductors, practising their skills on respective college orchestras. One of the pieces was Bartók’s Violin Concerto, which Mia Biakella, the soloist, played quite beautifully. I am also grateful to Huw Humphreys, a young conductor, who, after his début at the Holywell Music Rooms in Oxford in 1994, gave me invaluable insight into pre-concert nerves and the problems of galvanizing musicians.

On a plane to Lapland in 1993, I sat next to a delightful bassoon teacher, who told me piano competitions were frightfully bent with large lady judges often receiving grand pianos as bribes. After that I naturally included a piano competition in the book.

I then spent a splendidly inspiring week at the Leeds Piano Competition, where I saw no sign of pianos changing hands, and must thank the competition’s founder, Fanny Waterman, and Mary Bailey, from the sponsors, Harveys of Bristol; organizer Liz Arnold; Romilly Meagen of the BBC and Roisin Grimley from Ireland. It was also a great thrill to spend time with the brilliant young British contestant Leon Macaulay, who, immediately after the result, touchingly apologized for only coming second: ‘It would have been so much better for your book if I had won.’

I also made friends with Mark Anderson, the handsome American contestant who came third, and he and his wife, beautiful pianist Tamriko Siprashvili, delighted us with piano duets when they came to stay in Gloucestershire.

In August 1994, I spent exciting days at the International World Power Competition. Sulamita Aronovsky was the indefatigable organizer, and I must thank Ann Fuller, Samantha Day, Irish judge John O’Conor and American judge Herbert Stessin for their marvellous observations. Joe Lewis looked after me backstage. Another brilliant British contestant, Paul Lewis, came second, and again spent many hours talking to me.

I must also thank Leonard Pearcey and Ruth Cubbin for twice inviting me to Radio 2’s excellent Young Musician of the Year Award. Many musicians helped me with the background material and stories for the book, they include Robin Brightman of the LSO; Richard Hewitt of the NEP; John Hill; Erich Gruenberg; Alberto Portugheis, Elizabeth Drew, Stuart Elsmore, Alistair Beattie, Alexa Butterworth, Mats Lidstrom, Angela Moore, Rodney Friend, former leader of the LSO; Norman Jones, former principal cellist to the Philharmonia; Raymond Cohen, former leader of the Royal Philharmonic and Hannah Roberts.

The music press were also fantastic. Malcolm Hayes of the Daily Telegraph and Mike Tumelty of the Glasgow Herald held my hand on the tour of Spain; David Fingleton looked after me at the Leeds and took me to endless lovely concerts, as did dear Lesley Garner, super columnist, and Mel Cooper, of Classic FM, who opened his great generous heart and his address book to me on endless occasions. John Julius Norwich invited me to a gorgeous lunch in the country. Norman Lebrecht of the Daily Telegraph, author of The Maestro Myth, nobly tracked down the legend of the chandelier in Buenos Aires Opera House. Keith Clarke, editor of Classical Music magazine and doughty fighter of musicians’ causes; Nicholas Kenyon, controller of Radio 3; Professor George Pratt, Peter Barker, and Ron Hall all gave me wonderful support. My old friend and Sunday Times colleague, Peter Watson, wrote a terrific biography of Nureyev, which was a constant inspiration when I was inventing my explosive dancer, Alexei Nemerovsky.

All my friends in fact entered into the spirit of the book. Alan Titchmarsh thought up the title Appassionata. My piano tuner, Marcus Constance, dreamt up a devilish plot for sabotaging a grand piano in the middle of a competition. Lord Marchwood took me up in an air balloon over France with General Sir Peter de la Billière. Musicians have many ailments. Joanne Murphy advised me on physiotherapy, Dr Joe Cobbe, Dr Graham Hall and Staff Nurse Sue Workman on asthma. John Hunt introduced me to Anthony Norcliffe who knew all about mending brass players’ teeth.

On the non-musical front, Patrick Despard of Arcona was fiendishly imaginative about the splendours and skulduggeries of property developing. Toby Trustram-Eve was brilliant on computers, as were Andrew Parker-Bowles on racing; Peter Clarkson and Jean Alice Cook on nuns’ names and practices; Susie Layton on decor; Sue Jacobs of Leicestershire Social Services and Deborah Fowler in her book, A Guide to Adoption, on adoption. Other friends who came up with ideas include: Susannah and Bill Franklyn; Anthony Rubinstein; George and Dang Humphreys; John Woods; Roger and Rowena and Harry Luard; Francis Willey; Mary and Anthony Abrahams, Graham Hamilton, Michael Leworthy and John Conway of the Archduke Wine Bar.

I’d like to thank Jack and Patricia Godsell for their beautiful Toadsmoor Lake which was a magical source of inspiration, and Dr Ueli Habegger who finally located the island on Lake Lucerne where the ghost horn player can sometimes be heard at dusk.

As well as Spain and Switzerland, my research took me in 1994 to Prague and on to Pardubice where British jockey, owner and trainer Charlie Mann exceeded all expectation by coming second in the Czech Grand National on It’s a Snip, and, later in 1995, came first. I must particularly thank Lord Patrick Beresford and Baroness Dory Friesen for masterminding this brilliant trip for Abercrombie and Kent, and thank Sir Derek Hodgson, Queeks Carleton-Paget and Liza Butler for being such beguiling travelling companions.

Many people wrote offering advice and anecdotes. Many numbers went down in my telephone book. Sadly I never followed them up, as in the end I had to get down and write the book.

If researching Appassionata was a joy, writing it was an absolute nightmare, because an orchestra consists of so many characters, and mine were continually getting out of control, particularly in their behaviour. In fact Paul Hughes, Ian Pillow and Linn Rothstein, who most heroically read through the manuscript for mistakes, said they had never come across an orchestra who behaved quite so badly as my Rutminster Symphony Orchestra. Nor in fact had I. The high jinks and bad behaviour in the book are totally invented and I would stress that Appassionata is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any living person or organization is wholly unintentional and purely coincidental.

I never got to Bogotá, where the first chapters are set, but Annie Senior and Peter Gibbs-Kennet gave me graphic descriptions and I was much indebted to both the Lonely Planet Guide to Colombia and The Fruit Palace, a stunning travel book by Charles Nicholl.

Nor would the book have probably been completed if Sharon Young of British Airways hadn’t tracked down a folder of early notes I’d left at Glasgow Airport.

I am truly sorry if I’ve left people out, but if I’d listed everyone who’d helped me, these acknowledgements would be longer than the book.

While writing Appassionata, I was gently followed to Prague and Switzerland and all over England by a BBC2 crew from Bookmark, headed by Basil Comely. Occasionally I found it difficult to get to grips with brass players’ love lives or seduction techniques in conductors’ dressing-rooms with a BBC crew breathing down my neck, but otherwise they couldn’t have been more tactful, kind and fun to work with.

My publishers, Paul Scherer, Mark Barty-King, Patrick Janson-Smith of Transworld, as usual, have been impeccable, constantly encouraging and reassuringly rock solid at a time of book trade turbulence. I have also had wonderful editorial help from the glorious Diane Pearson and from Broo Doherty, who grew cross-eyed as she ploughed through 1403 pages of manuscript, crammed with musical references. She was, however, so charming and so enthusiastic about the book that I accepted (nearly) all the changes she suggested.

I am also eternally lucky in having the best, most delightfully insouciant agent in London, Desmond Elliott and his assistant Nathan Mayatt, who spent so much time photostatting and despatching.

For the first time, the huge manuscript was typed on computers. The real heroines of Appassionata are therefore my friends: Annette Xuereb-Brennan, Anna Gibbs-Kennet and Pippa Moores, who completed the job on new machines in an amazing five weeks. They worked long into the night, deciphering my deplorable handwriting, punctuating, correcting spelling and pointing out howlers. I cannot express sufficient gratitude to them nor to Ann Mills, my equally heroic cleaner, who somehow cleared up the mess while picking her way delicately through rising tower blocks of manuscript until the house looked rather like Hong Kong.

Sadly, my dear friend and PA, Jane Watts, who supervised so much of the photostatting and collation of the book, and who had given me so much love and support over the past six years, left in November. With huge luck, her place was soon taken by Pippa Moores, who arrived to oversee the move into computers, and stayed to become my new assistant.

My family, comme toujours, were staunchness personified. Leo, Felix and Emily hardly saw me for eighteen months, but gave endless cheer and comfort. So did my dogs Barbara and Hero, and four cats, Agnes, Sewage, Rattle and Tilson-Thomas, who provided sweet, silent companionship and protection in the gazebo, even at the dead of night.

Dear gallant Barbara (Gertrude the mongrel in my last four books) seemed determined to cling on to life if only to see me safely into port. She died a few days after I finished writing, leaving the world unbearably the poorer.

Finally, I would like to thank musicians everywhere for the joy they bring, and to beg the public, the Government and the local authorities to give them the support and funding they so desperately need, because a twenty-first century without orchestras would be very bleak indeed.

THE CAST

CANON AIRLIE

Non-executive director of the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra (RSO), a silly old fossil, constantly campaigning for better behaviour.

ALBERTO

The unsalubrious landlord of the Red Parrot Hotel, Bogotá.

AMBROSE

Principal guest conductor, RSO, known as the ‘fat controller’ — a bitchy old queen.

ANATOLE

A tempestuously talented Russian contestant in the Appleton Piano Competition.

SISTER ANGELICA

A beautiful nun.

ASTRID

Boris Levitsky’s stunning Scandinavian au pair.

LADY BADDINGHAM

Much admired ex-wife of Tony Baddingham, the fiendish ex-chairman of Corinium Television.

BENNY BASANOVICH

A very tiresome Russian-French pianist who can only play fortissimo.

BARRY THE BASS

Principal Bass, RSO.

MRS BATESON

A music lover who befriends Marcus Campbell-Black.

JAMES BENSON

A very expensive private doctor.

BIANCA

An adorable Colombian orphan.

MRS BODKIN

Rupert Campbell-Black’s ancient housekeeper.

ROSALIE BRANDON

A bossyboots attached to the London office of Shepherd Denston, the music agents.

MILES BRIAN-KNOWLES

Detested deputy-managing director of the RSO, a snake in furry caterpillar’s clothing, who is after Mark Carling’s job.

DAVIE BUCKLE

A beaming bruiser and RSO timpanist.

EDDIE CAMPBELL-BLACK

Rupert’s father, an unreformed rake, just emerged from a fifth marriage and raring to go.

RUPERT CAMPBELL-BLACK

Ex-world show-jumping champion, now one of the world’s leading owner-trainers. Still Mecca for most women.

TAGGIE CAMPBELL-BLACK

Rupert’s wife — an angel and the apple of his once roving eye.

MARCUS CAMPBELL-BLACK

Rupert’s son by his first marriage. A pianist whose path to the top is only impeded by asthma and nerves, both chiefly induced by his father.

TABITHA CAMPBELL-BLACK

A ravishing tearaway. Rupert’s daughter, also by his first wife.

CANDY

A comely rank-and-file RSO viola player.

LINDY CARDEW

The mettlesome wife of Rutminster’s planning officer.

MARK CARLING

Beleaguered managing director of the RSO.

HAN CHAI

A very young Korean contestant in the Appleton Piano Competition.

TONY CHARLTON

The indefatigable and perennially cheerful stage manager of the RSO. Known as ‘Charlton Handsome’.

MISS CHATTERTON

Marcus Campbell-Black’s piano teacher, known as ‘Chatterbox’.

LADY CHISLEDON

A lusty old trout and member of the RSO board.

CHRISSIE

An obsequious Northern Television minion.

CLARE

Another very pretty RSO rank-and-file viola player, also the orchestra Sloane.

CLARISSA

Principal Cello, RSO.

CLIVE

Rannaldini’s sinister black-leather-clad henchman.

THE BISHOP OF COTCHESTER

Another silly old fossil.

CRYSTELLE

A bullying beautician from Parker and Parker’s department store.

OLD CYRIL

Fourth Horn, RSO. Heavy drinker. Onetime great player.

HOWARD DENSTON

Wideboy partner in Shepherd Denston, the toughest music agents in New York.

HOWIE DENSTON

Howard’s son, a mega-manipulator, who runs the London office.

NICHOLAS DIGBY

The harassed orchestra manager, or ‘fixer’ of the RSO, who has the unenviable task of getting the right number or players on and off the platform. Known as ‘Knickers’.

MRS DIGGORY

Heroic cleaner of the Celtic Mafia’s Bordello.

DIZZY

Rupert Campbell-Black’s head groom.

DMITRI

A lyrical and lachrymose cellist, later Principal Cello of the RSO.

BLUE DONOVAN

Second Horn of the RSO — blue-eyed Irishman of great charm, who covers for Viking O’Neill, both on the platform and in life. Founder member of Viking’s gang, known as the ‘Celtic Mafia’.

DIXIE DOUGLAS

A Glaswegian hunk, whose light duties as an RSO trombone player leave him rather too much time to hell-raise and troublemake. Another member of the Celtic Mafia.

MRS EDWARDS

Helen Campbell-Black’s underworked cleaner.

ELDRED

A beleaguered Principal Clarinet.

ERNESTO

A bribable Italian judge at the Appleton Piano Competition.

FRANCIS FAIRCHILD

Second Desk First Violin of the RSO nicknamed the ‘Good Loser? because he’s always mislaying his possessions.

LIONEL FIELDING

Leader of the RSO. A vainglorious narcissist.

HUGO DE GINÈSTRE

The charming, chivalrous, French-Canadian Co-leader of the RSO.

GISELA

Sir Rodney Macintosh’s cherishing housekeeper.

ROWENA GODBOLD

Charismatic bloude First Horn of the Cotchester Chamber Orchestra (CCO), the RSO’s deadly rivals.

PABLO GONZALES

An ancient Spanish pianist of great renown.

HELEN GORDON (formerly CAMPBELL-BLACK)

Rupert’s first wife, now married to his old chef d’équipe, Malise Gordon. A legendary beauty and devoted mother of Marcus and less so of Tabitha.

GILBERT GREENFORD

A caring beard from the Arts Council. Mark Carling’s cross.

GWYNNETH

A caftanned barrel from the Arts Council, Gilbert Greenford’s ‘partner’ and another of Mark Calling’s crosses.

RANDY HAMILTON

Third Trumpet from a brass-band and Army background. Another Celtic Mafia hell-raiser.

HERMIONE HAREFIELD

World-famous diva and Rannaldini’s mistress, who brings out the Crippen in all of us.

DIRTY HARRY

A bass player who never washes.

LYSANDER HAWKLEY

Rupert Campbell-Black’s jockey, the man who made husbands jealous.

HARVEY THE HEAVY

George Hungerford’s chauffeur and minder.

OLD HENRY

Oldest member of the RSO, once auditioned successfully for Toscanini, now rank-and-file First Violin.

ANTHEA HISLOP

A pianist, mostly employed for her sex appeal.

GEORGE HUNGERFORD

An extremely successful property developer.

MOTHER MARIA

A radiant Reverend Mother.

IMMACULATA

FAT ISOBEL

A very large viola player.

JISON

A dodgy local car dealer.

BRUCE KENNEDY

American pianist and judge at the Appleton Piano Competition.

KEVIN

A social worker.

MARIA KUSAK

A violin soloist, also employed for her sex appeal.

LORD LEATHERHEAD

Chairman of the RSO and crashing bore on the subject of bottled water.

BORIS LEVITSKY

A glamorous Russian conductor/composer. A bear with a very sore heart as a result of his wife Rachel’s suicide.

LILI

A bribable German judge in the Appleton Piano Competition.

LINCOLN

Fifth Horn of the RSO.

HILARY LLOYD

Second Clarinet of the RSO. An utter bitch known as the ‘Swan of Purley’ because she’s very refined and having an affaire with the leader. Hell-bent on becoming First Clarinet.

SIR RODNEY MACINTOSH

Musical Director and Principal Conductor of the RSO. Absolute sweetie and sly old fox, who lets others do the worrying.

GEORGIE MAGUIRE

World-famous singer and song writer.

CARL MATTHESON

Homespun American contestant in the Appleton Piano Competition.

JUNO MEADOWS

Second Flute of the RSO. Tiny and tantalizingly pretty, known as the ‘Steel Elf’.

MARY MELVILLE

Principal Second Violin of the RSO. A doting mother known as ‘Mary-the-Mother-of-Justin’.

SISTER MERCEDES

A very butch nun.

QUINTON MITCHELL

Third Horn of the RSO who wants to be First Horn.

SALVADOR MOLINARI

A naughty Colombian playboy.

MILITANT MOLL

A fiercely feminist rank-and-file viola player of the RSO.

ALEXEI NEMEROVSKY

Principal dancer of the Cossak Russe Ballet Company, known as ‘The Treat from Moscow’.

NELLIE NICOLSON

Third Desk cellist of the RSO known as ‘Nellie the Nympho’.

NINION

Second Oboe. Militant Moll’s exceedingly hen-pecked boyfriend.

NORIKO

An adorably pretty Japanese; rank-and-file First Violin of the RSO.

DECLAN O’HARA

Irish television presenter and megastar. Managing director of Venturer Television.

DEIRDRE O’NEILL

Irish judge at the Appleton Piano Competition, fond of a drop, known as ‘Deirdre of the Drowned Sorrows’.

VICTOR (VIKING) O’NEILL

First Horn and hero of the orchestra because of his great glamour, glorious sound and rebellious attitude. The Godfather of the Celtic Mafia.

SIMON PAINSHAW

First Oboe of the RSO. A walking Grove’s Dictionary who spends his time brooding on his reeds.

PEGGY PARKER

Owner of Parker and Parker department store in Rutminster High Street. A bossy boots and overbearing member of the RSO board.

ROGER ‘SONNY’ PARKER

Her frightful son, a composer of even more frightful modern music.

MISS PARROTT

The rather heavenly RSO harpist.

JULIAN PELLAFACINI

The highly respected leader of the New World Symphony Orchestra.

LUISA PELLAFACINI

His lovely bosomy wife.

NATALIA PHILIPOVA

An apparently untalented Czechoslovak pianist.

PETER PLUMPTON

First Flute of the RSO.

MISS PRIDDOCK

Mark Carling’s secretary, beloved of Old Cyril. An unfazed old trout.

ROBERTO RANNALDINI

Mega-Maestro and arch fiend, currently musical director of the New World Symphony Orchestra.

KITTY RANNALDINI

His third wife, in love with Lysander Hawkley.

JACK RODWAY

A randy receiver.

SISTER ROSE

A sympathetic nurse at Northladen General Hospital.

ABIGAIL ROSEN

American violinist, nicknamed ‘L’Appassionata’ whose dazzling talent and tigerish beauty have taken the world by storm.

THE RUTSHIRE BUTCHER

A very critical critic.

SANDRA

Christopher Shepherd’s secretary.

FLORA SEYMOUR

Wild child, pilgrim soul and daughter of Georgie Maguire. Destroyed by a teenage affaire with Rannaldini, now concentrating on the viola.

CHRISTOPHER SHEPHERD

Abigail Rosen’s agent, a control freak, who provides the respectable front of Shepherd Denston.

MISS SMALLWOOD

Secretary, Cotchester Music Club.

STEVE SMITHSON

Second Bassoon of the RSO and representative of the Musicians’ Union. Muscular right arm from throwing the book at people.

DAME EDITH SPINK

A distinguished composer and Musical Director of the Cotchester Chamber Orchestra.

TOMMY STAINFORTH

Principal Percussion of the RSO.

MRS DICK STANDISH

A skittish sponsor’s wife.

DENNIS STRICKLAND

Principal Viola of the RSO, known as ‘El Creepo’.

BILL THACKERY

Second Desk, First Violin of the RSO. Better at cricket than the violin. Jolly good sort.

JAMES VEREKER

A television presenter.

WALTER

A benevolent bass.

SERENA WESTWARD

Head of Artists and Repertoire at Megagram Records.

CLAUDE ‘CHERUB’ WILSON

Third Percussion of the RSO. Very dumb blond and orchestra mascot.

XAVIER

A Colombian orphan.

THE ANIMALS

BOGOTÁ

A black labrador puppy.

JOHN DRUMMOND

Miss Priddock’s cat, office mouser to the RSO.

GERTRUDE

Taggie Campbell-Black’s mongrel.

JENNIFER

One of Lady Baddingham’s yellow labradors.

NIMROD

Rupert Campbell-Black’s lurcher.

MR NUGENT

Viking O’Neill’s black collie.

PENSCOMBE PRIDE

Rupert Campbell-Black’s favourite and finest horse.

SHOSTAKOVICH

Rodney Macintosh’s grey Persian cat.

SIBELIUS AND SCRIABIN

Abigail Rosen’s black-and-white kittens. Like magpies, the two of them bring joy.

TIPPETT

Dame Edith Spink’s pug.

TREVOR

Flora Seymour’s rescued mongrel.

Appassionata. OVERTURE

ONE

In the second week of April, Taggie Campbell-Black crossed the world and fell head over heels in love for the second time in her life. The flight to Bogotá, delayed by engine trouble at Caracas, took fifteen hours. Taggie, who’d hardly eaten or slept since Rupert broke the news of their journey, could only manage half a glass of champagne. Nor, being very dyslexic, was she able to lose herself in Danielle Steel or Catherine Cookson, nor even concentrate on Robbie Coltrane camping it up as a nun on the in-flight movie. She could only clutch Rupert’s hand, praying over and over again: Please God let it happen.

By contrast Rupert, concealing equal nerves behind his habitual deadpan langour, had drunk far too much as he sat thumbing through a glossary at the back of a Bogotá guide book.

‘I now know the Colombian for stupid bugger, prick, jerk, double bed, air-conditioning, rum and cocaine, so we should be OK.’

At El Dorado Airport, the policemen fingered their guns. Seeing an affluent-looking gringo, the taxi-driver turned off his meter. As they drove past interminable whore-houses and dives blaring forth music, past skyscrapers next to crumbling shacks, Rupert’s hangover was assaulted as much by the shroud of black diesel fumes that blanketed the city as by the furiously honking almost static rush-hour traffic. There was rubbish everywhere. On every pavement, pimps with dead eyes, drug pushers carrying suitcases bulging with notes, tarts in tight dresses pushed aside beggars on crutches and stepped over grubby sloe-eyed children playing in the gutter. How could anything good come out of such a hell-hole?

As Taggie couldn’t bear to wait a second longer, they drove straight to the convent. Now, quivering like a dog in a thunderstorm, she was panicking about her clothes.

‘D’you think I should have stopped off at the hotel and changed into something more motherly?’

Rupert glanced sideways. No-one filled a body stocking like Taggie or had better, longer legs for a miniskirt.

‘You look like a plain-clothes angel.’

‘My skirt isn’t too short?’

‘Never, never.’ Rupert put a hand on her thigh.

By the time they reached the convent, a sanctuary amid the squalor, appalling poverty and brutal crime of the slums, the fare cost almost more than the flight. The Angelus was ringing in the little bell-tower. The setting sun, finding a gap in the dark lowering mountains of the Andes, had turned the square white walls a flaming orange. A battered Virgin Mary looked down from a niche as Rupert knocked on the blistered bottle-green front door. But no-one answered.

‘We should have rung first to check they were in,’ said Taggie, who, despite the stifling heat of the evening, was trembling even more uncontrollably. She looked about to faint.

‘I can’t imagine they’re out at some rave-up.’ Gently Rupert smoothed the black circles beneath her terrified eyes. ‘It’ll be OK, sweetheart.’

He clouted the door again.

Now that he was in Cocaine City, Rupert had never more longed for a line to put him in carnival mood to carry him through the interview ahead. His longing increased a moment later when the door was unlocked and creaked open a few inches and he had a sudden vision that Robbie Coltrane had got in on the act again.

A massive nun, like a superannuated orang-utan, with tiny suspicious eyes disappearing in fat, a beard and hairy warts bristling disapproval, demanded what they wanted. She then insisted on seeing their passports, and looked as though she would infinitely rather have frisked Taggie than Rupert, before grudgingly allowing them in.

By contrast the Mother Superior, Maria Immaculata, was femininity and charm itself. She had a round, almost childish face, like a three-quarters moon, smiling, slanting brown eyes and a cherished olive complexion set off by a very white linen wimple. As she moved forward with a rustle of black silk, the pale hand she held out to Rupert and Taggie was soft and slightly greasy from a recent application of hand cream. Mother Maria Immaculata believed you brought more comfort to the poor and suffering if you looked attractive.

It was the same in her office. Crimson bougainvillaea rioted round the windows outside. Frescoes and wood carvings decorated the white walls of her office. On her shiny dark desk, which seemed to breathe beeswax, beside a silver vase of blue hibiscus flowers, lay the report of Rupert’s and Taggie’s marriage drawn up by English social workers.

But Maria Immaculata did not set much store by gringo gobbledygook. More importantly, Rupert and Taggie had come with an excellent recommendation from the Cardinal, who was a friend of Declan O’Hara, Rupert’s partner, whose television interviews were transmitted world-wide. Even the Pope, who was evidently writing a book, and might want to promote it on Declan’s programme one day, had put in a good word. Anyway, Maria Immaculata preferred to make up her own mind.

And then Sister Mercedes, who acted as the convent Rottweiler, had helped matters greatly by bringing in this beautiful couple — the man as blond, tall, handsome and proud as El Dorado himself, and his wife as deathly pale, slender and quivering as a eucalyptus tree in an earthquake, and whose eyes were as silver-grey as the eucalyptus leaves themselves.

Taggie was clutching a litre of duty-free brandy, a vast bottle of Joy, a British Airways teddy bear wearing goggles and a flying jacket, and a white silk tasselled shawl decorated with brilliantly coloured birds of paradise.

‘For you,’ she stammered, dropping them on Mother Immaculata’s desk and nearly knocking over the vase of hibiscus, if Rupert with his lightning reflexes hadn’t whisked it to the safety of a side table.

‘I h-h-ho-pe you don’t m-m-m-ind us barging in, straight from the airport, but we were so longing-’ Taggie’s voice faltered.

Timeo Danaeos, thought Sister Mercedes grimly. She spent her life pouring cold water on the romantic enthusiams of Maria Immaculata, who was now lovingly fingering the white shawl.

‘Dear child, you shouldn’t have spoiled us.’

‘They will do for a raffle,’ said Sister Mercedes firmly.

Maria Immaculata sighed.

‘Perhaps you could arrange some tea, Sister Mercedes. Sit down.’ She smiled at Rupert and Taggie and pointed at two very hard straight-backed wooden chairs. ‘You must be tired after such a journey.’

‘Not when you’ve been travelling as long as we have,’ said Rupert, thinking of the wretched years of miscarriages and painful tests and operations, the trailing from one specialist to another, not to mention the humiliation of the endless KGB-style interrogations by social workers.

‘Are you capable of satisfying your young wife, Mr Campbell-Black?’ or ‘Would you be prepared to take on an older child, one perhaps that was coloured, abused or mentally and physically handicapped?’

To which Rupert had snapped back: ‘No — Taggie’s got enough problem children with me.’

‘You’re too old at forty-four, Mr Campbell-Black. By the time he or she is a teenager, you’ll be nearly sixty. I’m afraid if you want a baby, you and Mrs Campbell-Black will have to go abroad.’

Rupert gritted his teeth at the memory.

Looking at the two of them, Maria Immaculata felt that beneath his cool, Rupert was the far more apprehensive. Probably because his background, which involved a disastrous first marriage, a string of affaires, one illegitimate daughter — the English social workers had hinted there might be others — was much more likely to scupper the adoption. He had, however, been an excellent father to his two teenage children and appeared to have a very happy marriage to this beautiful wife.

And who would not, thought Maria Immaculata, admiring Taggie’s sweet face, now that the sun curiously peering through the bougainvillaea had added a glow to her blanched cheeks.

The hand not clutching Rupert’s was now rammed between her slender thighs to stop them shaking. It was also noticeable how she winced every time the crying of a baby in the orphanage could be heard over the wistful chant of women’s voices coming from the chapel.

Over herbal tea so disgusting Rupert suspected it had been made from Sister Mercedes’ beard shavings, it was agreed Taggie should spend the next three weeks helping in the orphanage to indicate her suitability as a mother. Rupert would drop her off and collect her in the evenings. There was no way Sister Mercedes was going to let him loose among her novices.

As a rule, couples were never shown their prospective baby at a first interview. But Maria Immaculata was so charmed by Taggie trying so heroically to hide her longing, that she reached for the telephone and gabbled a few sentences. Sister Mercedes pursed her thick lips — it was all going too fast. Rupert, who’d picked up some Spanish on the international show-jumping circuit, went very still. What if they produced a hideous baby, Taggie had such high expectations.

‘You may find you cannot love the baby we have chosen for you,’ said Maria Immaculata as though reading his thoughts. ‘But our babies are like gold to us, and we, in turn, may decide you are not the right parents to have one, but we thought-’

There was a knock on the door and a beautiful young nun in a snow-white habit, whose dark eyes widened in wonder as she saw Rupert, came in bearing a tiny bundle hidden in a lace shawl.

‘This is Sister Angelica, who runs the nursery,’ said Maria Immaculata.

I wouldn’t mind taking that home, thought Rupert irrationally.

‘We thought Mr and Mrs Campbell-Black might like a glimpse of baby Bianca,’ went on Maria Immaculata.

This time the hibiscus really did go flying, as Taggie leapt up and stumbled forward, drawing back the shawl and gazing down in wonder at the little crumpled face.

‘Oh look,’ she whispered. ‘Oh, may I hold her? Oh Rupert, oh look,’ she gasped, taking the fragile body in her arms.

As if it were the Christchild itself, thought Sister Angelica.

Taggie gazed and gazed.

‘Look at her tiny nose and her perfect ears, and her long fingers and she’s got little fingernails already and eyelashes and her skin’s like ivory. Oh Rupert, was anything ever so adorable?’ Taggie’s gruff voice broke, and her tears splashed down onto Bianca’s face waking her, so the baby blinked and opened big shiny black eyes.

‘Oh thank you, she’s so beautiful,’ sobbed Taggie.

It was as instinctive as one of his brood mares nuzzling and suckling a new-born foal. Suddenly Rupert didn’t need that cocaine hit after all.

Seeing the look of pride and triumph on his face, Maria Immaculata mopped her eyes. Sister Angelica was openly crying as she dabbed Joy behind her ears. Only Sister Mercedes looked as though her big end had gone.

‘There, I mustn’t monopolize her, you must hold her,’ Taggie turned to Rupert.

But Rupert was only happy because Taggie was overjoyed. To him, Bianca was just a blob. In fact the only baby he’d ever liked had been his daughter Tabitha.

Perhaps Bianca sensed this, because when she was handed over to him she went absolutely rigid, screamed, and even regurgitated milk over his blazer, until Sister Angelica, laughing, removed her.

Meanwhile a dazed Taggie was hugging Maria Immaculata. ‘I know it’s only the beginning and she’s not remotely ours yet, but thank you,’ she mumbled. Then, turning to a still, stony faced Sister Mercedes, she settled just for clasping her hand.

‘You’ve all been so kind, oh may I hold her again?’

‘Would you like to give Bianca her bottle?’ asked Maria Immaculata, then, ignoring Sister Mercedes — to hell with the raffle — added: ‘I think this calls for a glass of brandy all round. I do hope you’ll be comfortable in the hotel Sister Mercedes has chosen for you. It is very convenient, only three kilometres from the convent.’

To Rupert, the Red Parrot was Sister Mercedes’ revenge — a two-storey, cockroach-ridden version of the hair shirt. Having acceded to Rupert’s demands for double beds and air-conditioning over the telephone, the landlord, Alberto, whose tight, grease-stained grey vest displayed tufts of stinking, black armpit hair, showed them into a room where the double bed wouldn’t have accommodated two anorexic midgets. The air-conditioning consisted of wire netting over the window, an electric fan which distributed the dust and the swarms of insects, and a gap along the top of the walls to let in the blare of the television sets in neighbouring rooms. Outside the rickety balcony was about to collapse beneath the weight of two parched lemon trees in terracotta tubs, and traffic roared both ways up and down what had been described as a ‘quiet one-way street’. It was only when Taggie looked round for water to relieve the parched lemon trees, that they realized the nearest bathroom was twenty yards down the corridor.

Seeing that Rupert was about to blow his top, Taggie said soothingly that Alberto couldn’t be that bad.

‘Did you see those sweet little hamsters running round his office?’

Rupert hadn’t got the heart to tell her they were on tonight’s menu along with another Colombian delicacy: giant fried ants.

‘The only consolation,’ he said, crushing a second cockroach underfoot, ‘is that the Press will never dream of looking for us here. Tomorrow we’ll move somewhere else.’

‘I don’t think we can. Alberto just told me he’s Sister Mercedes’ brother.’

But they were so tired and relieved they fell asleep wrapped in each other’s arms in one tiny bed.

The next morning, Taggie, shrugging off any jet lag, was back at the convent, blissfully happy to be looking after Bianca and helping Sister Angelica with the other orphans. Having dropped her off, Rupert returned to the Red Parrot and spent half the morning on the telephone checking up on all his horses, including his best one, Penscombe Pride, who had happily recovered from a nasty fall in the Rutminster Gold Cup.

Rupert also tried to cheer up his favourite jockey, Lysander Hawkley, who was suicidal because his old horse Arthur had collapsed and died within a whisker of winning the Gold Cup, and because the girl he loved, Kitty Rannaldini, was showing no signs of leaving her fiendish husband.

‘No Arthur and no Kitty, Rupert, I don’t think I can stand it.’

Afterwards Rupert visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bogotá. As a former government minister, he wanted to see how many strings he could pull, and how much red tape he would have to cut through to enable them to take Bianca back to England.

He lunched with a polo friend, a sleek, charming playboy called Salvador Molinari, who offered him a cocaine deal.

‘You know so many reech people, Rupert.’

The deal would have sorted out all Rupert’s problems at Lloyds. Regretfully, he refused.

‘I’ve got to behave myself, Sal, until we’ve got Bianca safely home.’

Later, in the Avenida Jiminex, Rupert bought some cheap emeralds from a dealer for Taggie, his daughters, Perdita and Tabitha, and Dizzy, his head groom. In Bogotá, beside the dark-haired, dark-eyed Colombians, Rupert was as flashily conspicuous as a kingfisher. Leaving the dealers, he was stopped by a policeman, pretending to be doing an official search, who then tried to make off with Rupert’s Rolex and his wallet. Being still high from a cocaine hit at the dealers’, Rupert knocked the policeman across the street, leaving him minus two front teeth, and went off and bought a gun and a money belt.

On the way to pick up Taggie, the taxi broke down. Having asked Rupert to give him a push, the driver proceeded to drive off with Rupert’s briefcase, containing the emeralds and all the adoption papers and medical reports, stamped both in Petty France and by the Ministry in Bogotá.

As Rupert proceeded to shoot the taxi’s tyres out with his new gun, two more policemen smoking joints on the pavement, totally ignored the incident. Retrieving his briefcase, finding excellent use for all the Colombian swear words he’d learnt on the flight over, Rupert went off and hired a bullet-proof Mercedes, which made him half an hour late picking up Taggie, which in turn resulted in a sharp dressing-down from Sister Mercedes.

Taggie, she said, had been worried and Rupert had missed a chance to bath and feed Bianca. Rupert tried not to look relieved. As the old monster waddled off to fetch Taggie, he reflected that in a battle with his bullet-proof Mercedes, Sister Mercedes would win hands down.

Taggie reeled out in manic mood.

‘Oh Rupert, she’s so sweet, she’s wearing one of the dresses we brought, and she drank all her bottles, and Sister Angelica said she cried much less today, and I’m sure she smiled at me, although it was probably wind. And Sister Mercedes was really friendly and sat next to me at lunch.’

‘Mercedes Bent,’ said Rupert.

After a surprisingly good dinner at the Red Parrot, of shell-fish stew and mango-and-guava ice cream, enhanced by a bottle of Chilean Riesling, they were just drinking to little Bianca, when Taggie turned green and lurched upstairs. Glued to the only lavatory on the landing, Niagara at both ends, she threw up and up and up into a bucket until she was only producing yellow froth and specks of blood. A local doctor, summoned by a demented Rupert, said it was only altitude sickness and prescribed rest.

In the morning, when Mother Immaculata popped in with a bunch of roses from the convent garden and a bottle of water flavoured with lemon-juice and sugar, she was happy to report back to the nuns that never had she seen a husband more devoted or worried than Rupert.

By the evening Taggie was delirious, raging with fever, too ill to be moved as various doctors supplied by Salvador trooped in and out. Trusting none of them, Rupert was onto James Benson, his doctor in Gloucestershire.

‘I don’t give a fuck if it’s three o’clock in the morning, I want you out here.’

‘Give it another twenty-four hours, altitude sickness often takes this form.’

‘You’ve given her the wrong jabs, you overpaid clown.’

Upstairs, he could hear Taggie screaming. ‘I’ll ring back.’

Red-hot pokers were gouging out Taggie’s brain, she was being bombed by massive cockroaches, the blades of the electric fan crept nearer and nearer like the Pit and the Pendulum. It was getting hotter by the minute, not a breath of wind moved the gum trees outside, the rains were expected any day.

In her more lucid moments, Taggie screamed for Bianca. ‘Don’t take her away, I hate you, I hate you.’ She was pummelling at Rupert’s chest.

Then at three in the morning, Colombian time, as he was changing her soaking nightgown, he thought he was hallucinating too, and that Taggie had turned into his first wife, Helen, whose slender body had been covered with freckles. Then he realized it was a rash, and was on to the hospital in a flash, yelling at them. Twenty minutes later, an old man arrived, yawning, with his suit over his pyjamas.

‘Just shut up and leave me alone with your wife.’

He was out in five minutes. He had given Taggie ajab to sedate her and curb the itching. When the blisters developed she would need calamine.

‘And you got me out of bed for this,’ he glared at Rupert.

‘What is it, for Christ’s sake?’

‘Virulitis.’

A little Spanish is a dangerous thing. Rupert went ashen.

‘Smallpox,’ he whispered. ‘Oh God, don’t let her die.’

‘Chicken pox,’ grunted the doctor.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Quite; pretty uncomfortable in older patients. Now keep her quiet and stop her scratching. Pity to spoil such a lovely face.’

Dizzy with relief, Rupert belted back to the bedroom, only to find Taggie sobbing her heart out.

‘Angel, you’re going to be OK.’ Rupert took her burning body in his arms. ‘But you mustn’t scratch.’

‘The doctor says I c-c-can’t see Bianca for a fortnight or go near the convent in case I give the babies chicken pox. They’ll think I’m not healthy enough to be a mother, they’ll give her to someone else. Oh Rupert, I can’t bear it.’

‘I’ll sit with her, I’ll go every day, I promise.’

Despite Sister Mercedes’ furious chuntering, Maria Immaculata was most understanding. Of course Rupert could take Taggie’s place. His was the side of the marriage of which she was unsure. It would be good to study him at close range.

TWO

As Sister Mercedes grimly predicted, Rupert caused havoc among the nuns. Anyone would have thought a high-ranking archangel, if not the Messiah, had rolled up as they made endless excuses to pop into the orphanage to gaze in wonder at this edgy, sunlit stranger, whose cold eyes were bluer than Mary’s robes, and whose hair brighter gold than any medieval fresco. He also appeared to be poring over endless medieval scrolls.

Soon pale lips were being reddened by geranium petals, habits bleached to new whiteness, eyelashes darkened by olive oil from the kitchen, and beards and moustaches disappearing for the first time in years. Even Maria Immaculata discreetly wafting Joy, insisted on giving Rupert religious instruction, while the parish priest, who was as gay as a Meadow Brown after summer rain, bicycled over to preach a fierce sermon on the vanity of vanities.

The medieval scrolls were, in fact, reports on Rupert’s racehorses, his television company, and his various enterprises faxed out to the Red Parrot from England.

Other faxes read more like an illiterate serial in a woman’s magazine as Lysander, Rupert’s jockey, who was even more dyslexic than Taggie, joyfully chronicled the escape of his great love, Kitty Rannaldini, from her fiendish husband’s clutches.

Kitty had evidently made her getaway on The Prince of Darkness, Rannaldini’s most valuable and vicious racehorse and managed to stay on his back until she reached Lysander’s cottage. The horse had carried on into the village and trampled all over the vicar’s crown imperials. Rannaldini, even more incensed than the vicar, had retreated to New York to take over the New World Symphony Orchestra, vowing vengeance.

‘and the besst news,’ wrote Lysander, ‘is that kittys having my baby in the ortum so Biacna will hav sum ass to kik. Sorry yoov got to babysitt at least yoo can OD on snow or dope, botaga is sposed to hav the best grarse in the werld.’

Aware of Sister Mercedes’ massive disapproving shadow blocking out his light, Rupert hastily scrumpled up the fax.

Despite being the object of every other nun’s adulation, Rupert often wondered how he endured those long days at the convent. There were only Sister Angelica and two novices to look after twenty babies in the orphanage, which was part of the old chapel and had high windows out of which you couldn’t see. The din was fearful and when the rains came, to the incessant crying of babies, was added a machine-gun rattle on the corrugated roof.

Rupert was also exhausted. Having come to the end of a punishing racing season, masterminded the entire trip to Bogotá and worried himself into a frazzle over Taggie’s illness, he was woken all through the night by calls from Tokyo, Kentucky and the Middle East. Like Bogotá, the bloodstock market never slept.

But, although Rupert ran one of the most successful National Hunt yards in the country, he was coming to the depressing conclusion that if he were going to beat Lloyd’s and the recession, keep the estate going and support all his children, including Bianca, he would have to switch to the flat full time. Rupert had always been a hands-on boss, but, as he gazed at the sleeping baby, he thought how nice it would have been if he could have started handing over the running of the estate to his son, Marcus. But Marcus was a wimp, only interested in playing the piano.

Bianca was very sweet, Rupert decided, and far prettier than the other babies, but she slept most of the day, and Rupert had finished his faxes by ten o’clock. With plenty of time on his hands, he soon noticed a nearby cot where an older child, with a terrible squint and a dark magenta birthmark down the side of his brown face, sat slumped, gazing at the white-washed wall, the picture of desolation. But when Rupert stretched out a hand to smooth back the child’s hopelessly matted hair, he cringed away in terror, whimpering like a kicked puppy.

‘Poor little sod, what happened to him?’

‘Beaten up and left for dead by his Indian parents,’ said Sister Angelica angrily. ‘They regard birthmark as sign of devil. We call him Xavier,’ she went on, ‘but it’s him who needs saving. He show no desire to walk or talk, the doctor think he’s seriously backwards.’

When Xavier was two, next month, he was destined for the state orphanage, which meant he’d almost certainly never be adopted.

‘Even then he’ll be lucky,’ Sister Angelica added bitterly. ‘All over Bogotá, you must have seen the posters, advertising funerals. Always the government have purges. In Chile, unwanted children are left to die in concrete bunker, here, they shoot any kid hanging round street, because it make the place untidy.’

Outside the convent, knee deep in mud, a little graveyard lurked like a crocodile. Rupert shivered and, noticing Sister Angelica had tears in her eyes, put an arm round her shoulder. Sister Angelica, who’d been plunging rose thorns into her flesh at night to curb her immoral thoughts about Rupert, jumped away, but not before a glowering Sister Mercedes appeared in the doorway.

‘You’re wanted in the kitchen, Sister.’

Rupert was so bored, he started playing with Xavier, bringing him toys and sweets. At first Xavier shrank from him, but gradually interest sparked in the boy’s hopelessly crossed eyes. The next thing was to improve Xav’s appearance. He shouldn’t be wearing girl’s clothes. Rupert returned next day with a blue checked shirt and blue jeans to replace the flowing white nightgown. It was then he realized how pitifully thin Xav was. The trousers, which had to be rolled up at the ankle, were meant for a one year old.

It took two hours, four tantrums and two bars of chocolate to untangle and wash his hair. The screams were so terrible that Rupert had to remove him from the dormitory. The novices were in raptures over Xav’s lustrous black curls. Sister Mercedes looked thunderous. She had spent her life in the prison of being ugly; what right had Rupert to raise Xavier’s hopes of escape?

The days slid by, the rains continued. They’d have to build an ark soon. Taggie made heroic efforts not to scratch her spots which were crusting over and beginning to drop off. Every night she bombarded Rupert with questions about Bianca, poring over the polaroids he brought her, but beyond telling her Bianca had drunk all her bottles, put on a couple of ounces, cooed and slept, there was little of interest to report. Instead, he found himself talking about Xav who was still shoving him away one moment, clinging and tearful the next.

‘I took him a teddy bear this morning, he totally ignored me and it all day. He still hasn’t forgiven me for untangling his hair but when I went he yelled his head off.’

This had upset Rupert more than he cared to admit.

But the next morning when he arrived at the convent, Xav babbled with incomprehensible joy, frantically waving his little hands, trying to express himself.

‘He’s happy,’ smiled Sister Angelica. ‘He refused to be parted from the bear even in the bath.’

As Bianca was asleep, Rupert gathered up a purring Xavier and carried him across to the delapidated convent school where Sister Angelica, to the counterpoint of rain dripping into several buckets, was telling the children the legend of El Dorado, the Indian ruler, who had coated himself in gold dust before bathing. In homage, his subjects had tossed gold and precious stones, mostly emeralds, into the lake after him. Later the name El Dorado was given to an equally legendary region of fabulous riches.

Many of the Spanish Conquistadores, explained Sister Angelica, men who looked like Senor Campbell-Black, blushing slightly, she pointed at Rupert, had died from shipwreck and starvation when they sailed across the oceans in search of the riches of the lake. Many more Colombian Indians, she pointed to Xav, had been butchered in the process.

‘The pursuit of gold,’ she added gravely, as she shut the book, ‘will never bring happiness. The only El Dorado is found in your hearts.’

Rupert, who’d always pursued gold relentlessly, and who had been wondering what Sister Angelica’s legs were like beneath her white robes, raised a sceptical eyebrow.

Wandering out of the classroom, he passed a pile of wooden madonnas, roughly carved in the convent workshop, waiting to be sold in the market. Examining one he was startled to find it opening to reveal a hollowed inside. Jesus, what a country: even the nuns were smuggling coke. As no-one was looking, he slid the madonna into his inside pocket.

Having lunched yet again on rice and herbal tea, any minute he’d turn into a bouquet garni, Rupert realized it had stopped raining. Salvador had invited him out to his house in the country to try out a couple of horses. Suddenly desire to escape from Bogotá poverty and squalor became too much for him. As Sister Mercedes was out, no doubt terrorizing the poor, Rupert persuaded Sister Angelica to let him take Xavier along too, strapping him into the child seat in the back of the Mercedes.

After the rain, every blade of grass and leaf of jungle tree glittered in the sunlight like distilled emeralds. Xav gazed in wonder at towering dark grey mountains, brimming rivers, rainbows arched like limbo-dancing Josephs. He was even more excited by the fat piebald cows and the sleek horses, knee deep in the lush, rolling savannah round Salvador’s beautiful white colonial house.

Salvador, who was sleeker than a Brylcreemed otter, was seriously rich. A Monet, a Picasso and a Modigliani hung on the drawing-room walls. Suntanned girls in bikinis decorated the swimming-pool. Sweeps of orchids grew everywhere like bluebells.

‘You like?’ he asked Rupert proudly.

‘Of course, it’s beautiful.’

‘You should come in on that cocaine deal.’

‘I have to keep my nose clean rather than running,’ said Rupert, unhitching Xav from the child seat. ‘I’ve got a lot of dependants. Anyway, I can’t cope with this country, everything’s crooked, the police, the government, the customs men, even the nuns. How d’you live with it?’

Salvador shrugged. ‘We have a popular song in Colombia, if you dance with the devil, you must know the right steps.’

He was appalled by Xav.

‘You said you were adopting lovely little girl.’

‘We are. Just brought Xav along for the ride.’

Salvador lifted Xav’s chin, looking in distaste at the crossed eyes and the purple birthmark lit up by the sun, and shook his head.

‘How old is he?’

‘Nearly two.’

‘Better buy him a pair of crutches for his second birthday, then he can beg in the street. He hasn’t a chance once the nuns kick him out. Pity someone didn’t give him a karate chop at birth.’

After that Rupert decided not to buy any of Salvador’s horses. But if he hadn’t resolved to switch to the flat, he would have been sorely tempted by a dark chestnut mare. Leaving a trail of silver spray, he let her have her head across the drenched green savannah, forgetting everything in the dull thud of hooves and the feel of a fit, beautiful horse beneath him. He was away for so long Xav had worked himself into a frenzy.

‘Little runt seems quite attached to you,’ said Salvador in surprise. ‘Probably the only good thing that’ll ever happen to him.’

‘Come on then.’ Leaning down, Rupert lifted Xav up in front of him and set off again.

He expected terror as he broke into a canter and then a gallop, but was amazed to hear screams of delighted crowing laughter, and the faster he went, the more Xav laughed.

Red-Indian blood coming out, thought Rupert, reflecting bitterly and briefly once again on his son Marcus who was terrrified of everything, particularly horses.

As they returned to the house for tea and rum punches, three Borzois swarmed out to meet them. Rupert missed his dogs terribly. He had been very upset to find a drowned puppy in the gutter outside the hotel that morning. He’d probably grown so attached to Xav, he told himself firmly, because he regarded him as a surrogate dog. And he was a brave little boy; when one of the girls in bikinis took him for a swim in the pool, after an initial look of panic in Rupert’s direction, he screamed with delight again.

‘He’s a sweet kid,’ admitted Salvador, as Xavier tucked into one of Colombia’s more disgusting delicacies, cheese dipped in hot chocolate. ‘But he’s still too bloody ugly.’

On the way home, Rupert was held up by horrific traffic jams, a solid blockade of lorries belching out fumes, a bus had overturned tipping glass over the road, and a van was being checked by the police. Xav, however, slept through the whole thing. With a pang Rupert noticed the beauty of his left profile now his black combed curls fell over his forehead and his birthmark was hidden.

As Rupert walked into the convent, he was confronted by a jibbering Sister Mercedes, who snatched Xav away like a female gorilla scooping up her baby. How dare Rupert kidnap one of the children? He had seriously jeopardized his chances of adopting Bianca. How dare he raise expectations, she shouted, as a terrified Xav screamed and sobbed as he was dragged away.

Rupert flipped, all thought of behaving well for Bianca’s sake forgotten. Sister Mercedes’ squawks, in fact, were purely academic. There was no real likelihood of Rupert and Taggie being turned down. All the official documents were now stamped and, in private chats with Maria Immaculata, Rupert had agreed to donate a large sum to repair the school. He had also had enough of Sister Mercedes.

‘If you don’t shut your trap, you disgusting old monster,’ he yelled, producing the hollowed-out madonna from his inside pocket, ‘I’ll tell the Cardinal exactly what you’ve been up to, although he’s probably in it as well.’ And he stalked out, dislodging most of the flaking green paint from the front door as he slammed it behind him.

Back at the Red Parrot, surrounded by polaroids of Bianca, Taggie had not realized how late Rupert was. She had been wrestling with a letter to her stepson, Marcus, wishing him good luck in a recital (how on earth did one spell that?) he was giving at college next week. She also begged him to come down to Penscombe soon to ‘hopfully meat yor nu sisster’.

Taggie’s desire to bear Rupert’s child had been intensified because she knew how much he wanted a son to run the estate. This, in turn, would have taken the pressure off Marcus. Saying Rupert got on brilliantly with Marcus had been the only time, in fact, she had lied to the social workers. She was equally ashamed that the moment Rupert walked in she shoved her letter under a cushion and launched into a flood of chat to distract him.

‘Dr Mendoza says I’m not infectious any more.’ Taggie was about to suggest they popped back to the convent for half an hour when she noticed the bleak expression on Rupert’s face, and stammered that she couldn’t wait to see Bianca tomorrow morning.

Fortunately Rupert was distracted by the telephone. It was Declan O’Hara, Taggie’s father and Rupert’s partner at Venturer Television, ringing from Gloucestershire. With his usual courtesy Declan asked after Bianca, Taggie’s chicken pox and then the hotel.

‘Even fleas boycott this place,’ snapped Rupert. ‘Get on with it, Declan, what d’you really want?’

‘As you’re in Bogotá, could you nip over to Buenos Aires tomorrow?’

‘It’s about two thousand miles, some nip,’ protested Rupert, taking a large glass of whisky from Taggie. ‘Didn’t they teach you any geography at school?’

‘I want you to go and see Abigail Rosen.’

‘Who’s she?’

‘About the greatest fiddler in the world, and the hottest property in classical music,’ said Declan reverently. ‘They call her L’Appassionata. I want to do a two-hour special on her, but her agents, Shepherd Denston, who are even greater fiddlers than she is, won’t answer my telephone calls. You’re so gifted at doing deals.’

‘Blarney wouldn’t get you anywhere if I wasn’t desperate to get out of this cesspit. And I don’t know anything about music.’

‘Bullshit your way through. I’ll fax out Abby Rosen’s cv. There’ll be tickets for you and Taggie at the box-office.’

Rupert promptly rang and squared the trip with Mother Maria, who, delighted that someone had taken on Sister Mercedes, was more than accommodating.

‘It will do you good to have a break, enjoy yourselves. I would give the world to hear L’Appassionata.’

‘At least we can get out of this dump for twenty-four hours,’ said Rupert jubilantly. ‘Your father wants us to chat up some female Nigel Kennedy. You’ll love BA.’

Taggie was so desperate to catch another glimpse of Bianca, Rupert agreed they could pop in to the convent on the way to the airport. Stopping off at a toyshop, waiting for Taggie, Rupert glanced at a cutting which Lysander had just faxed out from The Scorpion. This claimed that Rupert was giving sanctuary to Lysander and Kitty Rannaldini, now that she’d left her husband, and weaved in an old quote from Rupert, that Kitty was well shot of ‘an arriviste wop like Rannaldini’. Political correctness was never Rupert’s forte.

Taggie by now had settled for a pink fluffy rabbit and a musical box.

‘We better move it,’ said Rupert, adding a red racing car for Xavier to the pile.

But one look at Bianca was too much for Taggie.

‘Oh Rupert, d’you mind terribly if I don’t come to BA?’

Rupert did mind — terribly, particularly when he thought of his battles with bureaucracy, and his heroic devotion to duty while she had chicken pox. The off-white suit he was wearing was the only thing in his wardrobe that didn’t reek of sick. It was also the first time in seven years of marriage that Taggie had admitted that she wanted to be with anyone else more than him. But he was not going to show it.

‘Why should I mind?’ he said icily. ‘Best-looking women in the world live in BA. Thanks for the pink ticket.’

Not even caring that Sister Angelica was witnessing such a scene, not bothering to kiss a horrified mouthing Taggie, ignoring the anguished bellows of Xavier, Rupert stalked out of the convent, nearly dislodging the battered virgin from her niche as he banged the door.

THREE

Rupert’s mood didn’t lighten until he reached Buenos Aires, a city where he had often played polo and which he had always loved. As he joined the crazy traffic hurtling along the wide streets, elegant regal houses gazed down unperturbed over the half-moon spectacles of their balconies. Even with a chill in the air and the trees in the lush parks already turning, the merry inhabitants appeared to be holding drinks parties on the pavement outside every café. After Bogotá it felt blissfully safe. For the first time in weeks, Rupert left off his money belt.

L’Appassionata posters were everywhere, showing off Abigail Rosen’s rippling dark curls and hypnotic eyes, like the leader of some dodgy religious sect.

As her latest CD of Paganini’s Caprices had just topped the classical charts, her face also dominated the window of every record shop, and she certainly caused mayhem round the opera house. Huge crowds, frantic for returns, rioted and smashed windows. Motorists, driven frantic by traffic jams, anticipated the concert with a fortissimo tantivy on their horns.

Rupert was delighted to flog Taggie’s ticket for nearly a grand, but was completely thrown on entering the opera house to see Rannaldini’s pale, sinister face glaring down from posters in the foyer. Declan had foxily omitted to tell Rupert that the New World Symphony Orchestra was touring South America, and Rannaldini, as their very new musical director, had flown down to BA to conduct them and Abigail Rosen in the Brahms concerto.

Rupert felt a rare wave of shame. He and Rannaldini had last met at the Rutminster Cup when all their horses had fallen, and Rupert had been venting hysterical rage on Lysander in front of the entire jockeys’ changing-room for throwing the race: rage, which had turned out to be totally misplaced, as a post mortem had revealed Lysander’s old horse had, in fact, died of a massive heart attack. As Kitty Rannaldini and Lysander were now happily shacked up in one of Rupert’s cottages, the ‘arriviste wop’, who regarded Lysander as a complete dolt, would, no doubt, suspect Rupert of masterminding the entire coup.

Rupert could have done without complications like this if he were going to sign up Abigail Rosen. She was probably under Rannaldini’s forked thumb by now.

The five-minute bell put an end to his brooding. He had never seen a hall so packed. People were tumbling out of boxes, sitting in the aisles and on the edge of the stage, standing four deep along the back and virtually swinging from the chandelier which hovered overhead like some vast lurex air balloon.

The orchestra were already on stage tuning up. The only man in the place blonder than Rupert was the leader of the orchestra, Julian Pellafacini, an albino with a deathly pale skin, almost white hair curling over his collar and bloodshot eyes hidden behind tinted spectacles. Julian was such a brilliant musician, sat so straight in his chair at the front of the first violins and had such a sweet, noble expression on his thin bony face as he smiled reassuringly round at the other musicians, that their only desire was to play their hearts out for him.

But, beneath his air of calm as he chatted idly to the co-leader beside him, Julian was deeply apprehensive that Rannaldini would destroy his beloved orchestra. Now, for example, he was making them even more nervous by deliberately keeping them waiting.

The merry chatter in the audience grew louder as the glamorous bejewelled women tried to identify Rupert. Rupert, however, was scowling at a tall, self-important man with a leonine head and a glossy dark beard, emphasizing firm red lips, who was thanking the row in front in a loud booming voice for letting him in.

Rupert loathed beards and he thought the man looked like one of those ghastly Mormon fathers, photographed in colour magazines surrounded by hoards of adoring wives and children, and probably fiddling with the lot of them. He was affectedly dressed in a frock-coat with a scarf at the neck secured with a big pearl tie-pin. Rupert shuddered. By strange coincidence the man was now smugly and noisily informing the admiring redhead on his right that he was Christopher Shepherd, Abigail Rosen’s agent, and showing her a haughty, head-tossing picture of his artist on the front of Time magazine.

Halting in mid-shudder, Rupert was about to tap Christopher Shepherd on the shoulder and make his number, when the orchestra rose to their feet and in swept Rannaldini to demented applause. For a second, he glared round at his new orchestra and raised his baton. Then the down-beat dropped like a hawk, introducing the first doom-laden octaves of the overture to Verdi’s The Force of Destiny.

Rupert was tone-deaf and bored to tears by music, but he’d had plenty of practice in being bored and deafened in the last fortnight, and he had to admire the way Rannaldini drew his orchestra together. He might be small but he controlled every note, every nuance, every silence. There were also some ravishingly pretty girls in the orchestra, their split black skirts showing a lot of leg, their eyes going down to their music then up to Rannaldini as they bowed and blew with all their might.

Rannaldini, despite his icy exterior, was in a blazing temper. He had not only been vilely humiliated by Kitty leaving him, he had also been vastly inconvenienced. In one swoop, he had lost his whipping boy and his skivvy, who had tolerated his endless ex-wives, children and mistresses, run his four houses and masterminded his multifaceted career with incredible efficiency.

Since Kitty had walked, or rather galloped, The Prince of Darkness out of his life, Rannaldini had gone through three PAs in New York. The fourth, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, had booked him into the BA Hilton, where his mâitresse en titre, the great diva, Hermione Harefield, from whom he was trying to distance himself, was staying, instead of the Plaza in the suite next to Abigail Rosen. Even worse, the new PA had failed to order a white gardenia for his buttonhole, and, worst of all, she had forgotten to pack his tail-coat. Rannaldini had been reduced to pinching one off the Hilton’s very reluctant head waiter, which was far too big, and every time he raised his arm he got a whiff of minestrone.

Rapturous applause greeted the end of the overture, but it was nothing to the uproar of stamping, cheering and wolf-whistles that detonated the hall when Abigail Rosen erupted onto the platform. Rannaldini gave her several lengths’ start and speedily jumped onto his rostrum to disguise the fact that she topped him by at least three inches. He then waited impatiently, baton tapping, as she shook hands with the albino leader, then bowed and smiled at the orchestra before bowing and smiling at the audience.

Her straight, thick black brows above the tigerish yellow eyes, her hooked nose, huge drooping red mouth, wide jaw, thick dark curly hair, only just restrained by a black velvet bow and marvellous sinewy body, made her look almost masculine. But Rupert had never seen such a sexy girl. Her wonderful long legs were shown off by the briefest black-velvet shorts, while a fuschia-red sleeveless body stocking, emphasized strong white arms, a broad rib cage and high, full breasts.

Totally over the top, yet flaunting the fact that she’d earned them, were the huge diamonds that flashed on the bracelet on her left ankle, as though ice flakes had drifted down from the great chandelier overhead.

And she certainly detonated her fiddle. The Brahms concerto is so difficult it was originally described as having been written against the violin. After a very emotional beginning with a heaving ocean of sound, the orchestra plays on for three minutes before the soloist comes in.

During this agonizing wait, Abigail seemed to quiver like a mustang trapped in the starting gates. And when she picked up her bow, even Rupert had never heard anyone play with such raw passion and vitality, her fingers flickering like flames, her bow gouging out sound like a trowel digging for treasure. She played with total concentration and a wild threatening energy, and gave wonderful flourishes of the bow at the end of every important phrase, as she prowled around the stage, scent wafting from her hot body.

There was also something infinitely touching, when she wasn’t playing, in the way she rested her head like a weary child on her two-million-dollar Stradavarius, and so spontaneous when she swung round and grinned at the first oboe, who’d gone quite puce in the face playing the ravishing opening to the slow movement.

Several times, however, she turned to scowl at Rannaldini, his stillness a total contrast to her incessant movement. With his sinister pallor, midnight-black eyes and cloak-like tail-coat, he was a dead ringer for Dracula. Rupert was glad Abigail kept making a cross of bow and fiddle to ward off the bastard’s unrelenting evil.

She had now taken up the first oboe’s luminous, hauntingly beautiful tune. Glancing sideways Rupert saw that tears were trickling down the wrinkles of the old woman beside him.

‘Mon dieu, oh mon dieu.’

As Rupert passed her his handkerchief, his thoughts wandered to Xavier, poor little sod, what chance did he have? Rupert had read that lasers could cure a squint and work wonders with birthmarks. But he mustn’t think like that. Taggie couldn’t cope with two children, particularly one so retarded he couldn’t even walk.

The orchestra were into the last movement now — a manic, joyous gypsy dance with terrifying cross-rhythms. Rupert could see the white glisten of Abigail’s armpits, the dark tendrils glued to her damp forehead. God, she was glorious. There couldn’t be a man in the audience who didn’t want to screw the ass off her.

She was plainly into some horse race with Rannaldini, faster and faster, neither willing to give in, both her bow and his baton a blur. The faster they went the more the great chandelier trembled and shot out glittering rainbows of light.

And at the end when the bellows of applause and the storm of bravoes nearly took off both roof and chandelier, Rupert noticed that although Abigail collapsed into the arms of the albino leader and reached out to shake hands with the principals of the various sections of the orchestra, she snatched her fingers away when Rannaldini tried to kiss them.

This was followed by an insult more pointed, when a pretty little girl in a pink-striped party dress presented her with a bunch of red roses and she promptly handed one to the First Oboe who had played so exquisitely.

‘Viva L’Appassionata,’ roared the audience, until she came back and played a Paganini Caprice as an encore.

The orchestra, who could temporarily forgive a hard time in rehearsal if the concert was a success, were looking happier and, in homage to Abby, the string players rattled their bows on the backs of the chairs in front, until Julian led them off for the interval.

The only person, surprisingly, who seemed put out was Christopher Shepherd, who’d been making furious notes on the back of his programme, and who promptly disappeared backstage to see his illustrious client.

Deciding also to give Mahler’s Fourth in the second half a miss, Rupert followed him, defusing the heavy security on the stage door with a good wad of the dollars he’d been paid for Taggie’s ticket. Hearing Rannaldini’s screams and seeing smoke coming out of the conductor’s room, Rupert nipped behind a double bass case and nearly bumped into Rannaldini’s mistress, Hermione Harefield, who was waiting to sing the soprano solo in the Mahler. She was wearing a white dress, which looked as though a swan had forgotten to blow dry its feathers, and was making it impossible for a make-up girl to touch up her lipstick as she screeched: ‘Abigail Rosen and I had a no-encore agreement.’

‘Shut up you stupeed beetch,’ snarled Rannaldini. ‘We haven’t got all night.’

And off they went. Hermione got her revenge by making the slowest entrance in musical history, trapping Rannaldini like a car behind a hay wain on a narrow road.

The crowd, who had turned up backstage to congratulate Abigail and get their programmes signed, were disappointed when Christopher Shepherd went grimly into her dressing-room and locked the door.

The manager of the opera house was almost in tears over the vast fees he was having to fork out for Abby, Rannaldini and Hermione. They cost more than the box-office receipts for the whole evening, he moaned, and he hadn’t paid the orchestra yet, nor the marketing people.

‘Rannaldini ees impossible,’ he told Rupert bitterly. ‘He finded out how much L’Appassionata get, and refuse to come out of his room until he get more. He complain about her having too much publicity. Then when I arrange press conference he storm out, because someone ask heem if his wife is coming back. Wise lady to stay away.

‘Hermione is just as ’orrible,’ the manager went on, ‘she see proof of programme and posters, then wait until they are printed to complain they are not OK.’

The poor man was only too happy to accept a further wad of green backs in return for secreting Rupert in the dressing-room next to Abigail’s. On the adjoining balcony Rupert could hear everything that was going on between her and Christopher Shepherd.

Howard Denston and Christopher Shepherd were the most successful agents in New York. Power brokers, they moved conductors, soloists and even entire orchestras around the world like chess pieces. Known as Pimp and Circumspect, they complemented each other perfectly. Howard Denston (also known as Shepherd’s Crook) was a beguiling wide boy from the Bronx who pulled off the shadier deals and lent on unwilling debtors. Totally amoral, he was only turned on by the big deal. Christopher Shepherd, radiating integrity and Old Testament authority, provided the agency’s respectable front.

Christopher had orchestrated Abby’s career from the start, settling fees, monitoring her promotion, providing encouragement and advice. Abby tended to play what he told her to, because unlike most agents, he was musical, playing the piano and possessing a fine tenor voice. Having starred in many amateur productions, he saw himself very much as Rodolfo in La Bohème. Hence the frock-coat and the pearl tie-pin.

Christopher had a parental attitude to his artists. He was aware of the insularity of soloists, the insecurity of conductors. He knew that this resulted in huge egos that needed the public far more than the public needed them, and that they responded as much to bullying as encouragement.

The instant he locked the door of Abby’s dressing-room, she lived up to her L’Appassionata nickname. Dropping the red roses she was putting in the basin, she bounded forward, flinging her arms round his neck, writhing against him, covering his face, that wasn’t obscured by dark brown beard, with kisses.

‘Was I OK? Was I really OK? Omigod, I’ve missed you. How long can you stay on in the UK? Did you like the encore? I need you, oh Christo, I want you so bad.’ She started to fumble with the pearl pin, then changed her mind. ‘No, let’s go back to the Plaza, I can’t be bothered to change.’

Abby had a clear, carrying voice, which had shed most of its Bronx accent and which squeaked endearingly when she got excited. Christopher, however, was in no mood to be charmed.

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Repelled by her trembling, burning sweatdrenched body, which had once excited him so unbearably, he prised off her hands and shoved her away. ‘How in hell can you expect to be taken seriously, right, when you come onto the platform dressed as a hooker? Those hot pants are so tacky.’

Pulling up a chair and like Rodolfo sitting on it back to front, as if to protect himself from further sexual assault, he asked: ‘Where are those gowns Beth bought for you?’

‘They’re too hot.’ Abby would have added too middle-aged and too frumpy, but she didn’t want to insult Christopher’s wife.

‘And why in hell are you wearing that even tackier diamond bangle round your ankle? We all know you’re coining it. Dressed like that, you’re an insult to Brahms and a brilliant conductor.’

Abby was already prowling round the little room but at the reference to Rannaldini her contrition evaporated.

‘He’s a monster,’ she howled. ‘He screwed me on every tempo, dragging or pushing me on. I nearly unravelled in the last movement.’

‘Has it entered your thick head that he might be right? He only happens to be the greatest interpreter in the world.’

‘Only because he makes the most bucks. That’s all you care about. He’s an asshole.’

‘Don’t be obnoxious,’ exploded Christopher. ‘Why must you always telegraph the fact you come from the gutter, and how dare you snatch your hand away when he was gracious enough to kiss it.’

‘Bloody Judas kiss, right? The orchestra detest him, and he’s only been with them a few days. They were really complimentary,’ she added wistfully. ‘Julian Pellaficini said I reminded him of David Oistrakh and he’s played the concerto loads of times himself.’

Christopher looked at her pityingly.

‘Don’t kid yourself your exquisite sound had anything to do with the ecstatic smiles on the musicians’ faces. They only rattled their bows so joyfully because your ostentatious and unauthorized little encore pushed them into overtime. And all that posturing and writhing is so unnecessary. Give the audience an orgasm if you must, but please don’t have one yourself.’

‘That’s because you’re not giving them to me any more,’ said Abby sulkily.

Like a neglected wife, finding comfort in a child, she picked up her Strad and dusted it down, before putting it lovingly in its case, and tucking it up in a periwinkle-blue silk scarf.

‘Thank you, little fiddle.’ She dropped a kiss on its curved scroll, then turned defiantly towards Christopher. ‘I’m not playing for that son-of-a-bitch again.’

‘Sure you are.’ Christopher opened the fridge. ‘You’re gonna record all the Mozart concertos with him and the New World Symphony Orchestra, for starters.’

‘Like hell I am. Fix me a vodka.’

‘You’re staying sober.’ Christopher poured her a glass of Perrier. ‘C’mon, you don’t want to catch cold. Get showered and changed. And at dinner you will turn on what little charm you have. “Thank you for making music with me, Maestro, I was only acting up because you’re so awesome, Maestro. I’m sorry I broke the no-encore agreement, Miss Harefield.” You cannot afford to make enemies.’

‘Because you want to sign them both up,’ hissed Abby. ‘All right, I’m sorry.’ She was near to tears now. ‘I just want us to be alone.’

But as she peeled off her fuchsia-red body stocking, Christopher reached for her dressing-gown. The size of her breasts no longer turned him on, only her enormous royalties.

‘Please kiss me,’ begged Abby, ‘perlease.’

‘We haven’t got time.’ He was now flipping through her good-luck cards to see if they were from anyone important.

‘I’ve got a feeling Beth suspects us,’ he added.

On her way to the shower, Abby halted in horror.

‘Oh no, she’s been like a mom to me.’

‘Well, you haven’t behaved like a daughter to Beth,’ said Christopher brutally.

‘How did she find out? Oh my God, this is awful.’

‘People are talking.’

The corniest way of dumping a woman in the world, thought Rupert scornfully. Christopher was even more of a tosser than he looked. Rupert needed a large drink, and he had heard enough.

Emerging from the Artists’ Bar ten minutes later, he found Hermione coming off the platform still screeching. Not only had Abby got higher billing, but her applause had lasted four times as long. Seeing Rupert, however, Hermione halted in mid-screech like a child spying a tube of Smarties.

‘Rupert Campbell-Black, you’ve come all the way from Penscombe to hear me sing.’

‘I have too,’ lied Rupert. ‘You were sensational.’

‘Then you must join us for dinner. Just Rannaldini, me and Christopher Shepherd. He’s charming, and Abigail Rosen, she’s a spoilt brat, but we don’t have to bother with her.

‘There’s an official reception first at the British Embassy, I must look in because they’d be so disappointed,’ she added, as they were both nearly sent flying by musicians, already changed, charging out to find the nearest bar. ‘But you can come too,’ she shouted over the stampede. ‘Then we’re going on to dinner at Wellington’s.’

The official reception, like all the diplomatic parties Rupert had ever been to, was held in a large, high-ceilinged room with sculptured yellow flower arrangements on shiny leggy furniture and frightful oils of elder statesmen on eau-de-nil walls. As April signalled the start of the Argentine autumn, the central heating was on at full blast.

Having spent many years on the show-jumping circuit and as a Tory minister, Rupert discovered he knew plenty of people. Most of the guests, however, knew no-one, so they gravitated to the evening’s two celebrities. Hermione, who was now wearing a wonderbra and a purple Chanel suit, was livid that the crowd round Abby was so much larger.

Abby had changed into a very short halter-necked dress in oyster-coloured silk, which clung lasciviously to her marvellous body. Her hair, freed from its black velvet ribbon, rippled in Pre-Raphaelite abundance over her shoulders. She was still clutching her dark red roses, whose long stems dripped onto her skirt, moulding it between her thighs. She was also wearing high heels which enabled her to see over the crowd to where Christopher was having a competition with Hermione to see who could crinkle their eyes at one another the more engagingly.

Rupert, half-listening to the ancient Italian Ambassador, who like all ambassadors seemed to have once had an affaire with his mother, was tall enough to watch Abby over the crowd. She looked wild, vulnerable and on the brink of tears, as she made heroic attempts to scintillate on the Perrier Christopher had forced on her, politely signing programmes and answering silly questions about how she got such a lovely shine on her fiddle. When the fifteenth person asked how she managed to memorize so many notes, she finally flipped and snapped back: ‘By learning them.’

As Christopher was still arched over Hermione, about to free fall down her cleavage, Abby slid out of the group of admirers, across the room, and onto the balcony where Julian Pellafacini had commandeered a bottle of Beaujolais and was quietly getting drunk. Easily the most diplomatic person in the room, who had spent his entire career keeping the peace between troublesome conductors and temperamental players, Julian had suffered this afternoon the almost unique humiliation of being bawled out three times by Rannaldini in front of the orchestra.

Emptying Abby’s Perrier over the balcony, he filled up her glass with red wine. After the stifling room, it was blissfully cool. Abby breathed in a smell of damp earth, moulding leaves and the distant reek of bonfires. The full moon was untangling itself from the trees, a round gold ball for Orion’s dogs to play with.

‘Where’s Rannaldini?’ she asked.

‘Taking a conference call from Japan, or so he says.’

With his blond hair even whiter in the moonlight, and his long pale kindly face, Julian looked like the ghost of Abraham Lincoln who’d had a premonition he was about to be assassinated.

‘Rannaldini was so god-damned charming when he was guesting,’ he said bitterly, ‘that the orchestra, particularly the young players, were knocked out when he got the job. Now they’re shell-shocked — like a bride waking up on the first morning of her honeymoon to find her handsome young groom’s turned into a werewolf.

‘Rannaldini met the Second Flute outside the elevator this evening. “Alio leetle girl,” he purred, “I ’aven’t made you cry yet ’ave I?“’ Julian shuddered and filled up his glass.

‘He’s a lousy conductor,’ said Abby scornfully. ‘He only gets edge-of-seat performances because no-one knows what he’s going to do next. If you hadn’t held the first violins back in the last movement, I’d have come off the rails.’

When she told Julian about the proposed record deal with Rannaldini and the New World he was delighted.

‘The orchestra would love it, they thought you were terrific.’

‘Christopher didn’t,’ sighed Abby.

‘Then you need a new agent,’ said Julian angrily. ‘Christopher once tried to get me on his books. I’d probably be as famous as Zukerman or Perlman but I found him,’ he chose his words carefully out of kindness, ‘too — er — forceful.’

‘I’ve grown accustomed to his force,’ sighed Abby.

She jumped as the french windows opened, but it was only a waitress after Abby’s autograph.

‘We’ll trade it for another bottle of red wine,’ Julian emptied the remains into Abby’s glass. ‘Where are you going next?’

‘England,’ said Abby unenthusiastically.

‘Christ, I’d love to work there. If I were single, I’d take the next plane. But the workload’s insane. You have to work twice as hard for half the money. I’d never see Luisa and the kids. But my dream is to end up in the Cotswolds, leading some West Country orchestra.’

‘I’ll join you. Are you coming to dinner?’

Julian shook his head.

‘I’ve got to rally the troops, stop them topping themselves or getting so drunk they don’t make the plane tomorrow.’

The orchestra was off to Rio in the morning.

‘But let’s keep in touch, I don’t want Christopher to stamp out that individuality.’

Looking up at the sky Abby noticed a drifting fleece of white cloud had put a great ring of mother-of-pearl edged with rust around the moon.

‘That moon’s got exactly the same round-eyed, round-faced pseudo-innocence as Hermione,’ said Abby, putting Julian’s card in her bag. ‘God, she’s hell.’

‘Hell,’ agreed Julian. ‘The number of times I’ve seen her jab another soloist in the foot with her high heel to steal a bow.’

Through the french windows, Abby could see her agent putting his empty glass of Perrier on a tray and picking up a full one.

He’ll dump me for Hermione just as effortlessly, thought Abby in panic. Hermione, who talked too much to drink a lot, was merely bending over the silver tray to check her reflection.

‘Placido is one of the only top-flight singers like me,’ she was telling Christopher, ‘who doesn’t have an agent, but his wife is very supportive. If my partner Bobby wasn’t so busy running the London Met-’

Despite having Christopher’s full attention, she was miffed that at the other end of the room Rupert was being happily propositioned by the ravishing wife of the Chilean Ambassador, and that Julian Pellafacini, who should also have been paying court, was out on the balcony with that sluttish Abby. Despite the tropical heating, Hermione gave a theatrical shiver.

‘Could you possibly close those windows, Christopher, I daren’t catch cold. As Placido’s always saying, one’s voice is a gift from God, one has a responsibility.’

But Christopher had already crossed the room.

‘Come inside at once,’ he ordered Abby furiously. ‘You’re supposed to be working, and you’re putting Hermione in an awful draught. How can you be so selfish?’

‘I figured you were keeping her warm with all that hot air,’ replied Abby.

Julian laughed. Christopher glared at him. The moment he’d signed up Rannaldini, he’d make sure Julian got the boot — particularly as now he was wearing one of Abby’s red roses in his buttonhole.

Grabbing Abby’s arm, Christopher frogmarched her across the room.

‘The French Ambassador’s wife wants a word about a charity gala.’

‘I don’t want to talk to her, right?’

‘You ought to do more for charity.’

‘I do a great deal too much for Help the Agent.’

Christopher turned purple.

‘What has got into you?’

‘You — you’ve been so mean.’

‘You’ve got to learn to take criticism,’ hissed Christopher. ‘Aaah, Madame Ambassador!’

Seeing Christopher belting back to Hermione a second later, Rupert decided to take the bullshitter by the horns. Trapping Christopher against a large yucca plant, he introduced himself as the chairman of Venturer Television.

‘Why won’t you answer Declan’s calls?’

‘No point,’ said Christopher dismissively. ‘Abigail’s diary hasn’t got a window in the next three years.’

‘She talked to Time. Declan’s the best interviewer in the world. Only take a day. Declan could come to you.’

‘We’d be talking six figures,’ said Christopher grandly. Then, at Rupert’s look of disbelief, added: ‘Every thirty seconds someone buys one of Abby’s records, OK? We can get those kind of bucks anywhere, and 20 per cent of any overseas sales.’

‘Declan sells worldwide.’

‘So does Abigail. She was in New Mexico yesterday, she’s off to the UK tomorrow, then Paris, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Moscow, Tokyo, then back for a charity gala in New York.’

‘Declan could meet her in any of those-’

‘Hermione my dear, your drink needs freshening,’ and Christopher was gone leaving an enraged Rupert in mid-sentence.

Christopher controlled Abby’s media appearances. He knew there must always be something exciting on the horizon to tempt the record stores, but he had no intention of letting Declan loose on her. The publicity would have been sensational. But Abby was much too impulsive and unguarded, particularly after a few drinks. With a grand inquisitor, like Declan, she could easily break down and dump about her long affaire with Christopher and her guilt about Beth.

FOUR

Outside a taxi was waiting to take them to Wellington’s. Having installed himself in the front and Abby and Hermione quivering with animosity in the back, Christopher was enraged when Rupert sauntered down the embassy steps and jumped in beside Abby.

‘Hi,’ he kissed her cheek, ‘my name’s Rupert Campbell-Black. Hermione invited me along.’

‘Rupert comes from my neck of the woods,’ said Hermione reverently.

Christopher knew exactly whose neck he wanted to wring.

In the dim light, Abby was instantly aware of a flawlessly carved profile, only softened by a beautiful curling mouth, and an iron-hard thigh rammed against hers, because Hermione’s bottom had taken up so much of the back seat.

‘And you deserved every one of those red roses, darling,’ murmured Rupert, making a V-sign at Christopher’s rigidly disapproving back. ‘Where’s Signor Ravioli?’

Hermione laughed heartily. ‘You mustn’t tease him, Rupert, he’s taking a conference call from Tokyo and meeting us at Wellington’s.’

Rannaldini, in fact, was not ringing Japan but pleasuring the Second Flute in the conductor’s room, and then dispatching her to do his packing at the Hilton. He looked as smooth as hell when he arrived at the restaurant having changed into an ivory silk shirt and a black blazer, with a huge wolf coat slung around his shoulders. But the smug post-coital smile was promptly wiped off his face when he saw Rupert and there was a dangerous moment beneath a large portrait of the Duke of Wellington wearing too much lipstick, when they met face to blue-spotted tie, because Rupert was so much the taller.

‘You know Rupert, don’t you Rannaldini?’ gushed Hermione.

‘No, but we have my trainer, Jake Lovell, in common,’ said Rannaldini silkily, ‘who is about to oust Rupert as leading trainer and who was a very great friend of Rupert’s ex-wife.’

Not a flicker in Rupert’s face betrayed how much he wanted to hit Rannaldini across the room.

‘And we also have Lysander Hawkley in common,’ he drawled, ‘who’s an even closer friend of your present wife, Rannaldini. I gather she’s taken up race-riding, and was last seen hurtling across country on The Prince of Darkness — perhaps Jake Lovell could give her a job, although I hear she’s expecting Lysander’s baby.’

Seeing the murder in Rannaldini’s deadly-nightshade-black eyes, Christopher said hastily: ‘Shall we go straight in?’

Dinner, as a result, was incredibly acrimonious; scenes from the Battle of Waterloo depicted on the dining-room walls were nothing to the barrage of sotto voce bitchery flashing between Rupert and Rannaldini.

Christopher placed himself between Hermione and Abby but just as he was ushering Rannaldini bossily to Abby’s other side, Rupert nipped in and pinched the seat. Not having eaten all day, he was more than a little drunk. He was fed up with Christopher for snubbing him and leaving him to pay for the taxi, so decided to irritate both him and Rannaldini by flirting with Abby.

Stung by Christopher’s earlier rejection but believing she had a night ahead and a week in the UK with him Abby had taken one incredulous look at Rupert, who was even more beautiful in the relentless overhead light, and was only too happy to flirt back.

‘Great entrance this evening,’ Rupert told her softly. ‘You and Rannaldini looked like Snow White and the single dwarf.’

Abby laughed. ‘He is single if his wife’s just left him.’

‘Couldn’t happen to a nastier man.’ Rupert unfolded her Union Jack napkin, casually caressing her thighs, as he laid it across them.

‘Why does Rannaldini detest you so much?’ asked Abby. ‘I’ve just heard him telling Christopher you were the beegest sheet unhung.’

‘I didn’t know one hung sheets any more,’ Rupert smiled blandly at Abby. ‘Mrs Bodkin, our ancient housekeeper, likes to hang them out in the wind, but I thought you Americans used massive tumble dryers.’

Abby burst out laughing.

‘You still haven’t explained why he hates you.’

‘His wife, whom he bullied and cuckolded shamelessly, has just run off with one of my jockeys. He thinks I orchestrated it.’

‘Did you?’

Rupert shook his head. ‘You should see my jockey, he’s so pretty everyone wants to ride him.’

‘Why d’you hate Rannaldini?’

‘He can’t stop flaunting the fact that his trainer is the little sheet who ran off with my first wife.’

‘Did she marry him?’

‘No, someone else.’

‘How very complicated,’ said Abby losing interest.

She was quite short sitting down, noticed Rupert, her great height was all in her legs. Her pale face was shiny with sweat, black circles hammocked the bags under the tigerish eyes. Beneath her chin and on her collar bone, her Strad had left red marks as though Dracula had been having a good gnaw. Nanny would have recommended a good dose, reflected Rupert. She was far coarser than Taggie, but still hellishly sexy.

The waiters were plonking down carafes of wine. Obscuring Christopher’s view with a large vase of red dahlias, Rupert filled up Abby’s glass.

‘I know you probably hate to talk about work,’ he went on, having listened carefully to two Australian pouffs in ecstasies in the gents at the Opera House, ‘but I’ve never heard the Brahms so lyrically played. I wept in the slow movement. The last movement really captured the Hungarian idiom and in the first movement, I never believed passages in tenths could be so clearly executed, but with such a beautiful sound. You must have a very big stretch,’ he picked up Abby’s rather large, stubby fingers, ‘for someone with such a little hand.’

Abby blushed with pleasure. She’d written this guy off as drop-dead handsome beefcake and he really knew about music. Flustered, she snatched her hand away and grabbed a piece of bread.

‘No bread, Abigail,’ boomed Christopher, glaring through the red dahlias like Moses on the wrong side of the Burning Bush. He knew how soloists could blow up, eating to stave off loneliness in hotel bedrooms.

Biting her huge red cushiony lower lip instead, Abby studied the menu.

‘I’ll have spaghetti carbonara,’ she told the waiter defiantly.

‘You will not,’ snapped Christopher, ordering Dover sole and radicchio salad for both of them. ‘And no sauce tartare,’ he added bossily.

‘Odd denial from such a tartar,’ said Rupert, thickly buttering a large piece of white bread, sprinkling salt on it in the Argentine fashion, and handing it to Abby. ‘Rannaldini was going so bloody fast, I nearly had a bet on the last movement. How much would he earn a night for conducting?’

‘About one hundred and fifty thousand bucks.’

Rupert was appalled.

‘That’s more than my best stallion gets for covering a mare. “Con” is the operative word.’

Remembering Abby’s c.v., Rupert gazed into her eyes. They were the same pale yellow as the winter jasmine growing round the drawing-room window at Penscombe, but the irises were ringed with black, and the brilliant whites lined with the thickest dark lashes. Rannaldini had compelling hypnotic eyes, too; perhaps it was essential for a maestro.

‘I hear you want to conduct.’

‘So I don’t have to put up with schmucks like tonight.’

‘Isn’t it enough being a genius at the violin?’

‘Genius is never enough,’ said Abby haughtily. ‘I want power.’

‘Nice scent,’ Rupert buried his nose in her wrist. ‘What’s it called — raw ambition? Your poxy agent doesn’t want you to come on Declan’s programme. You’d enjoy it. Declan’s a lovely man, and Edith Spink’s on our board. She’s a lovely man too.’

‘Spink,’ squeaked Abby in excitement, ‘I just adore her Warrior Woman Suite, a genuine talent, Spink, even if slender.’

‘I’d hardly call Edith slender. She weighed in at sixteen stone, all of it muscle, at our last board meeting. When she came to my stag-party, she drank everyone else under the table.’

‘You’re the dopiest guy.’ Again Abby burst out laughing, leaning back as the waiter laid a fish knife and fork on either side of her Union Jack table mat.

‘Don’t you have any control over your life?’ taunted Rupert.

Abby shrugged and drained her glass.

‘I live on a treadmill. Hotel bedroom, airport, concert hall, airport, hotel, recording studio, recital, back to the airport. I know the flight schedules better than the Brahms tonight. I’ve slept in the most beautiful suites in the world, but had no-one to share them with.’

‘Lay down your Brahms, and surrender to mine,’ said Rupert lightly.

Then he looked deep into her eyes, holding them, letting his own narrow slightly — corny old tricks he hadn’t played for years.

‘That is a terrible, terrible waste. How did you meet your gaoler?’

‘My dad died early. He didn’t make any dough, he never verbalized his feelings, but he cried when he listened to Beethoven and I loved him. Mom isn’t Jewish, right? But she became more of a Jewish Momma after she married Dad. She was the one who pushed me. She still calls after every concert trying to control my life. Christopher heard me playing and signed me up when I was twelve. He took me out of school in the States, found me a good teacher for a year, then packed me off to the Conservatoires in Paris and Russia.’

Rupert let her run on. It was quite interesting, and he liked looking at her face which had great strength and at her breasts rising out of the halter neck.

‘I never had the life of a normal child,’ she added finally, ‘music was the only thing that mattered.’

‘And Christopher,’ Rupert plunged his knife into his steak, releasing the blood, ‘how long have you been sleeping with him?’

Abby looked up in terror, eyes staring, totally thrown.

‘How’d you know? Please don’t say anything. Christopher’s phobic about scandal. His wife’s been so darling to me. Mind you, she’s a yachneh,’ then, at Rupert’s raised eyebrows, added dismissively, ‘a housewife with large boobs.’

‘I’ve got one of those,’ said Rupert approvingly. ‘Jolly nice too.’

But Abby was too distraught to laugh. Leaving three-quarters of her sole uneaten, ignoring Christopher’s and Hermione’s looks of disapproval, she lit a cigarette.

‘Christopher never sleeps with her,’ she whispered defiantly.

‘A husband,’ said Rupert idly,’ is a man who tells his wife he never sleeps with his mistress, and his mistress he never sleeps with his wife. I used to be like that. I’ve got a past longer than the Bible.’

‘What happened?’ The burning glow of Abby’s cigarette was jumping round like a firefly in her shaking hand.

‘I married an angel,’ said Rupert.

Abby’s pallor was lard-like now. Beads of sweat kept breaking out on her upper lip and her forehead.

‘Why isn’t she with you?’ she said sullenly.

‘She’s in Bogotá, we’re adopting a baby.’

‘How very caring of you,’ Hermione could no longer bear to be excluded from Rupert’s conversation, ‘to take on a disadvantaged youngster,’ she added warmly. ‘If I wasn’t concertizing all year, Bobby, my partner and I have often thought of adopting a little sibling for Cosmo.’

‘Cosmo’d probably eat it,’ muttered Rupert.

Hermione’s son created more havoc than most earthquakes.

‘Of course Cosmo is super-gifted,’ sighed Hermione. ‘He could inhibit a less bright child. He’s such a plucky little horseman, too, Rupert, I thought you might give him some riding lessons.’

Rupert laughed at a scowling Rannaldini.

‘Lysander’d better do that, he’s the brilliant rider.’

Passers-by kept peering in from the street outside, then leaping up and down in ecstasy and pointing as they recognized Abby. In the restaurant, diners kept coming over seeking her autograph, and then noticing Hermione and Rannaldini wanted theirs as well. Hermione kept singing the same doom-laden bars from The Force of Destiny.

Rannaldini sipped white wine very slowly and stared covertly at Rupert. Ironically, until Rupert had got involved with Lysander, Rannaldini had always longed to be friends with him, aware how much they had in common.

Both men were extremely successful, intensely competitive, insanely jealous, spoilt and, ultimately, insecure. Both had had mothers who hadn’t loved them, and had taken it out on women ever since. Except that Rupert had got lucky with Taggie. Deep down Rannaldini was bitterly ashamed of being unable to sustain a relationship.

Now he couldn’t take his eyes off Rupert, searching for grey hairs, red veins, spare tyres, some sign that the peacock feathers were beginning to moult. Maddeningly there was none. He was dying to have a go at Rupert, but didn’t want to betray his longing or the white heat of his animosity in front of Christopher.

Christopher was hopping mad. Everything had gone wrong, he loathed not being in control. He’d wanted Abby to be admiring and respectful to Rannaldini so he could do a number on Hermione, but all either woman could do was to drool over that arrogant, mischief-making Brit., who was now giving Abby his card, and writing the fax number of his hotel in Bogotá on the back.

‘I hear you’ve got Benny Basanovich on your books,’ Rannaldini interrupted his thoughts.

But Christopher didn’t want to talk about Benny. There were many instrumentalists and singers on Shepherd Denston’s books who would profit from an introduction to Rannaldini. That was another reason for signing up the great maestro but that could come later. Tonight all he wanted to talk about was Rannaldini.

As Hermione had gone off to the Ladies in a huff because more people were asking for Abby’s autograph, Christopher said softly to Rannaldini, ‘I want to put the two most explosive talents in the world together.’

Rannaldini glanced at Abby. She was a spoilt brat, and not his type. But he’d always been turned on by indifference. He’d enjoy taming her, making her jump, reducing her to crawling submission.

He also wanted that Mozart CD deal, because he suspected the New World Orchestra were not going to be the push-over he’d expected. The board had refused him the total hiring and firing rights he’d had with his last orchestra. It would be good to have a mega-record contract to bargain with.

He wanted the deal, but not Christopher as an agent. Christopher, he decided, was an avaricious thug.

‘I’ll have a dessert if you will, Christopher.’ Hermione had returned from the Ladies, face repainted, reeking of Arpège.

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on desserts,’ quipped Christopher gallantly, then whispered, ‘I want to set you free from Rannaldini, I want Harefield to be an even greater name than Callas.’

Hermione bridled. ‘My voice is considered far more lovely than Maria’s.’

‘I said a greater name, Hermione.’

‘I’m not interested in money,’ lied Hermione. ‘My only desire is to bring music to the masses.’

That was a good sign, Christopher thought. She’d just put her hand on his crotch, but he removed it gently with a little squeeze and a tickle of the palm, in case it met Abby’s hand coming the other way.

‘I get as much of a charge if Solti says: “You’re wonderful, Hermione”, as to hear builders on scaffolding shouting: “‘Allo ‘Ermione, loved your last halbum, bort it for the cover, but I loiked the contents”.’ Hermione’s cockney accent was quite frightful. ‘It’s the little things that matter, like the ambassador, this evening, saying you’re even lovelier in the flesh, I hear that so often, I don’t know why.’

Abby caught Rupert’s eyes and giggled, then picked up Christopher’s hand, examining the fingernails, until Christopher snatched it away, asking sharply what she was doing.

‘Look for pastry crumbs, you’ve got fingers in so many pies.’

‘Shepherd’s pie,’ Rupert refilled her glass. Then, dropping his voice, whispered, ‘Christopher wouldn’t do business with me.’

‘He’s so grand, he only talks to God.’

‘And Rannaldini answers, I suppose.’

Abby nodded. ‘Christopher wants me to record all the Mozart concertos with Rannaldini.’

‘I wouldn’t. A beautiful pianist who was recording Beethoven with him topped herself two weeks ago.’

‘What was her name?’

‘Rachel Grant.’

‘I’ve heard her play. She was a wonderful musician.’

‘And Rannaldini was terrible to his wife Kitty.’ For a second Rupert shed his flip manner. ‘Don’t mess with him, sweetheart, he’s evil, he’ll break you.’

Hermione, in between mouthfuls of chocolate mousse, was humming The Force of Destiny again.

‘I had fifteen curtain calls, when I sang Leonora at La Scala. D’you remember, Rannaldini?’

‘We could have a ball if you did Declan,’ murmured Rupert. He’d had far too much to drink. His message was quite unequivocal.

Gazing into his beautiful, predatory, unsmiling face, which for a second seemed unnervingly like Rannaldini’s, Abby thought how impossible it would be to resist him, if he really put on the pressure, and how gorgeous it would be just to take off with him into the Pampas.

Rupert heard himself saying; ‘God, I’d love to sleep with you.’

‘I don’t sleep.’ Abby tossed back her black hair.

‘Well, have insomnia with me then.’

They both jumped as Rannaldini’s mobile rang.

‘Si, si, check eet again, by that time I weel be weeth you.’

Switching it off, Rannaldini smiled round the table.

‘My Leer ees grounded, so I charter Mexican jet, one cannot be too careful. I am so relieved we all escape calamity.’

‘What d’you mean?’ snapped Rupert.

‘There is legend,’ said Rannaldini silkily, ‘that once the great chandelier fall when they perform The Force of Destiny, keeling many, many people-’

‘I can’t remember who was playing Alvaro,’ interrupted Hermione. ‘But they say the Leonora wasn’t nearly as good as me.’

‘Always eet breeng terrible luck,’ continued Rannaldini. ‘Tonight chandelier stay put, but who knows where the ill luck will fall. My orchestra were terrified,’ he nodded coldly at Abby as if to dismiss any complaints of Julian’s. ‘That why they look shell-shocked and thees is why I ’ave jet checked three times just een case.’

Rupert felt icicles dripping down his spine. How could he have left darling Taggie by herself in Bogotá? A handful of nuns was no defence, she might be kidnapped, mugged or raped by some junkie. He should have put her in the hotel safe with the adoption papers.

‘Your car is waiting, Maestro.’ It was the head waiter.

‘Are you coming?’ Rannaldini turned to Christopher, then added to Abby with a sadistic smirk, ‘Christopher hitch a lift weeth me back to New York.’

‘I don’t understand,’ stammered Abby.

Christopher got to his feet.

‘I’ve got a helluva lot on in New York and meetings first thing,’ he said placatingly. ‘I’ll get over to the UK later in the week.’

‘Red Eye flight, Shepherd’s delight,’ said Abby meditatively.

Then she went beserk.

‘You son of a bitch,’ she screamed. ‘You never intended to stop over here, or come with me to England.’ And she hurled her glass of red wine at him so it trickled like blood down his white shirt.

Hermione was suddenly looking very excited. ‘Shall we have a quiet drink in my room?’ she said, turning to Rupert. But Rupert had gone.

Cursing himself for not stopping to recharge his mobile, Rupert raced for the telephone. He was unable to get a squawk out of the Red Parrot. Terrified some ghastly fate had befallen Taggie, he urged his taxi-driver, who drove like the great Ayrton Senna anyway, to go even faster, overtaking Rannaldini deep in conversation with that smug bastard Christopher on the way.

Once at the airport Rupert managed to commandeer Rannaldini’s plane which was revving up on the runway.

Rannaldini had been so gratuitously offensive to the Mexican crew and insulted their honour by insisting on a third security-check, that their swarthy piratical captain was only too happy to accept yet another bribe. I’ll be so broke soon, thought Rupert ruefully, I’ll have to take up conducting.

Turning round, the Mexican captain alerted flight control, and flew off to Bogotá. Seeing Rannaldini and Christopher foaming on the runway, Rupert flicked them another V-sign. Declan could do his own negotiating in future.

Having fretted himself into a frazzle, Rupert reached the Red Parrot as dawn was breaking despairingly over the poverty of the city.

As Alberto, yawning and still wearing his grey greasy vest, unlocked the door, Rupert grabbed him by the shoulders.

‘Is my wife OK?’

‘Si, si.’

Relief fuelled Rupert’s rage.

‘Why the fuck doesn’t your telephone work? I suppose you haven’t paid the bill, you idle sod.’

Alberto shrugged. ‘Possibly small earthquake.’

‘Earthquake!’ Rupert’s fingers bit into Alberto’s plump shoulders until he winced.

‘Only small one, Meesis Campbell-Black want to be near Bianca, so she sleep at convent.’

Rupert was so thankful he gave the rest of his cash to the beggars already out on the streets.

He found Taggie still in yesterday’s jeans and an old black polo-neck. She had spent the night in a chair, with Xavier, still clutching his teddy bear and his racing car, in her arms.

Yesterday Taggie had had a wigging from Maria Immaculata.

‘I have seen many couple here seeking babies and you have very good marriage. Your husband love you, but don’t abuse his generousness and take in every limping duck. He may be jealous of Bianca — try to put him, if not first, at least equal.’

Taggie was utterly mortified and as desperate to see Rupert as he to see her. Laying Xavier down in the armchair, she fell into his arms.

‘I’ve been so worried, I love you, I missed you so, so much,’ they cried in unison.

How could he have propositioned Abby, thought Rupert in horror, when all that was true, good and beautiful in the world was in his arms? He was murmuring endearments and was about to kiss her, when Xav woke and started to cry.

‘He missed you as much as I did,’ said Taggie in a choked voice. ‘He cried himself to sleep.’

She stepped back quickly to stop the child falling off the chair. But suddenly incredulous delight sparked in Xavier’s little face. Jibbering with joy, he slid to the floor, swayed on his feet, then, like a man in space, took the first wobbling steps of his life towards Rupert, who leapt forward to catch him just before he fell.

Appearing in the doorway a drowsy Sister Angelica crossed herself. ‘This is a miracle.’

Taggie burst into tears, she knew she shouldn’t push limping ducks on Rupert, but seeing him dropping the proudest kiss in the world on Xav’s black curls, and rubbing his face against Xav’s cheek, as he normally only did with puppies, she couldn’t stop herself.

‘I know it’s awful after you lost all that money at Lloyd’s,’ she sobbed, ‘and spent fortunes coming out here, and we couldn’t afford for him to go to Harrow, but couldn’t we possibly take Xav home as well?’ She stroked Xav’s little hand now barnacled to Rupert’s lapel.

‘I can’t bear to leave him.’

‘Are you sure you can cope with two babies?’ muttered Rupert when he could trust himself to speak at last. ‘They’ll be a hell of a lot of work, and a hell of a lot more red tape.’

Sister Angelica was tearfully crossing herself over another miracle.

‘D’you think Maria Immaculata will throw Xav in as a job-lot if I restore the chapel as well?’ asked Rupert.

‘Darling,’ giggled Taggie reprovingly.

But Rupert had turned back to Xavier, tossing him screaming with delight in the air.

‘Fasten your seat-belt, Xavier Campbell-Black, you’re coming to England.’

Rupert’s euphoria was complete later in the day, when he found a fax at the Red Parrot from Abby saying she’d like to do the interview with Declan. She’d be back from her tour in three weeks. Could he write to her at her New York apartment, and not say anything to Christopher.

‘I hope you get your baby,’ she had added at the end. ‘And he or she makes you and your angelic wife really happy.’

He and she, thought Rupert, jubilantly, and two fingers to The Force of Destiny.

FIVE

Abby, whose tantrums subsided as quickly as they flared up, was woken at midday by an enraged Christopher, who, after interminable delays, had finally arrived in New York, and who immediately chewed her out for last night’s scene. He had dismissed it to Rannaldini as some schoolgirl crush. But he didn’t trust Rannaldini, and even less Rupert, not to blab about it all over New York.

‘We’ve got to cool it for Beth’s sake.’

‘But I need you,’ pleaded Abby who was still groggy from sleeping-pills. ‘At least answer my letters.’

‘They’ve got to stop, too,’ said Christopher hastily.

He couldn’t man his personal fax at all times, and five letters a week reeking of Amarige, Abby’s sweet musky very distinctive scent, and marked personal, were not easily explained away.

‘Sandra’s beginning to get suspicious.’

Sandra was Christopher’s secretary, a plump, knowing blonde, at whom Abby had shouted too often when she was desperate to get through to Christopher.

‘Why doesn’t she send on my fan mail and my clippings? I need some feedback.’

‘Because it’s all answered in the office. Sandra’s perfected your signature so she can even acknowledge favourable reviews.’

‘She’ll be forging my cheques soon.’

Christopher lost his temper.

‘I cannot understand your attitude. A complete powerhouse at Shepherd Denston is devoted to keeping your particular show on the road, so you can concentrate on music, which was what you said you always wanted, and all you do is winge.’

Howie, Howard Denston’s son, who ran the London office, Christopher continued, would meet her at Heathrow, and drive her up to Birmingham where she was playing the Brahms again with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

‘And, for God’s sake, think of the agency’s reputation and wear something long and decorous. The Symphony Hall are generously allowing you to sign CDs in the interval. And remember only sign your name, OK? All those personal inscriptions and “Love from Abigails” just hold up the queue.’

‘You want to excise love from my life. You could fly out to Tokyo. Oh hell,’ she screamed, ‘there’s someone at the door, don’t hang up, please don’t hang up.’

Outside were four smiling waiters, all avid to have a look at Abby, as they wheeled in a massive breakfast for two: champagne, grapefruit topped with strawberries, silver domes over sausages, bacon and eggs, a T-bone for Christopher, croissants and blackcherry jam, which Abby had ordered yesterday, anticipating she and Christopher would be ravenous after a long night of love.

‘I’m sorry,’ sobbed Abby, ‘you’ll have to take it away.’

Rootling around in her bag, she gave them two hundred dollars.

But when she picked up the telephone again, Christopher had gone.

Nor did her spirits rise when she found Buenos Aires Airport so upended by Rannaldini’s fury and his attempts to charter a new aeroplane that her own flight to Heathrow had been grounded by a temporary strike. Abby, who was wearing jeans and a purple T-shirt, had scraped her hair back and hidden her reddened eyes behind huge dark glasses, but she never managed to remain anonymous. A ripple of excitement went round the airport, as the Tannoy started belting out her latest hit. Next minute crowds were mobbing her, yelling ‘L’Appassionata, L’Appassionata’ and nearly starting a riot. Abby then ended up on the same flight as Hermione, who despite her big black hat and her white Chanel suit, was deeply miffed not to be mobbed as well.

Looking disapprovingly at Abby’s ripped shirt and wild hair, from which the purple ribbon had been torn, Hermione said, as they climbed the steps to the plane: ‘You come from a different generation, of course, Abigail, who are more concerned with lights and glitter and showbiz. I couldn’t bring myself to pose nearly naked on a record sleeve. Our generation were only interested in the music.’

Abby was about to snap back that nothing mattered more than the music, when she gave a gasp of joy. One of the inside first-class seats in the left-hand row had been packed with hundreds and hundreds of scented yellow roses. Christopher hadn’t forgotten. He had done this in the early days of their affaire, when he occasionally had been unable to travel with her.

Then the Furies moved in as Hermione, too, gave a gasp of joy.

‘Who put those lovely rosebuds beside my seat?’

‘They’re for me.’

‘Mais non,’ an Air France steward shimmied up. ‘Elles sont pour Madame Harefield.’

An ecstatic Hermione then asked the steward, Jean-Claude — ‘what a macho name’ — to put the roses in water so Abby could have the seat next to her. She then proceeded to read out the accompanying card from Christopher in which he said he was so jealous of anyone sitting beside Hermione that he felt compelled to fill the seat with flowers.

‘I know he’d have made an exception if he’d known you were going to be on this plane, Abigail,’ Hermione went on graciously. ‘Then he says, let’s see, oh yes, “Meeting you, Dame Hermione,” actually I’m not a dame yet, “was like a dream come true, I can’t wait for our next encounter.”’

A ruse is a ruse is a ruse, thought Abby bleakly.

Hermione must pay excess baggage on her hand luggage, she reflected a second later, as every steward was summoned to stow away squashy fur coats, make-up bags, endless duty-free gifts ‘for my partner Bobby and our son Cosmo — I never come home empty-handed’, into every available crevice.

‘And I expect a nice glass of bubbly and some caviar, Jean-Claude, the moment we take off.’

Abby cuddled her Strad case. It was like travelling with a Renoir. She even took it into the John on flights.

Those are exactly the words he once wrote to me, she thought numbly, as Hermione lovingly replaced Christopher’s note in its little envelope.

‘By the way I’ve got a present for you, Abigail.’

Perhaps I’ve misjudged her, thought Abby, until Hermione handed over a large signed photograph of herself and a tape of her singing Strauss’s Last Four Songs.

‘I was so touched,’ went on Hermione smugly, ‘that Rupert Campbell-Black flew all the way from Bogotá to hear me in the Mahler.’

‘He came to sign me up,’ protested Abby. Oh, what was the use? ‘I must say for an older guy he’s drop-dead gorgeous.’

‘Did you notice his beautiful hands?’ said Hermione as though it was the discovery of the century.

‘Oh, get real,’ muttered Abby. ‘He’s beautiful all over.’

‘He has the most beautiful hands.’

Thank God, the plane was taxiing along the runway.

‘What’s his wife like?’ asked Abby.

‘Not a woman of substance,’ said Hermione firmly. ‘That’s why he’s drawn to, well, more sophisticated and mature women.’

‘Like yourself,’ said Abby, looking round for her sickbag.

‘Indeed,’ Hermione bowed her head. ‘Oh splendid, here comes Jean-Claude with the bubbly.’

Just managing not to throttle her, particularly when she continued to sing The Force of Destiny, Abby pretended to sleep, brooding on the tyranny of her life, bound like Ixion on the wheel of fortune-making. She had been excruciatingly homesick when she’d been sent away to Paris and Russia. She had never had time for real friendships with other girls, or going out dancing or on dates, dickering over lipsticks, cooking disgusting dinners to impress boyfriends. The grind of touring had just been bearable when Christopher had been with her. Now she only had endless hours in bridal suites to contemplate her isolation.

The final straw, when they finally reached Heathrow, was that Howie wasn’t there to meet her. Rosalie Brandon, his deputy, was full of apologies. Benny Basanovich, the agency’s star pianist, had thumped a conductor in Frankfurt, and Howie had had to fly off and sort it out.

‘He sent you his best, Abby. There’s a car waiting to take you up to Birmingham. I promised Howie’ (Rosalie looked faintly embarrassed), ‘I’d escort Mrs Harefield home to Rutminster. We’re all frightfully excited about the possibility of having her as a new client,’ she whispered. ‘I’ll catch up with you tomorrow. You’ll love the CBSO.’

Abby slumped in the front seat of the limousine, cruising at ninety up the Ml. Outside the spring barley shivered like animal fur, cow parsley tossed on the verges, the white spikes of blossom on the hawthorn hedges rose and fell like Benny Basanovich’s fingers, lambs slept beside their mothers, cattle grazed towards the setting sun. Occasionally an adorable little village or a huge house at the end of a long, tree-lined avenue, flashed by.

All life going on without me, thought Abby despairingly.

Inside the car was as coolly air-conditioned as the bottom of the sea.

Birmingham temporarily cheered Abby up. She was deeply impressed by the orchestra and the awesome acoustics of Symphony Hall. Her hero, Simon Rattle, however, was in Vienna and the guest conductor was a charming wily old fox called Sir Rodney Macintosh. Short, balding, very rotund, with twinkling pale blue, bloodshot eyes, and a pink beaming face above a neat white beard, he wore a black smock, purple track-suit bottoms and gymshoes with holes cut out for his corns.

Normally musical director of the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra, Sir Rodney was drawing to the end of a long, distinguished career and knew everyone in the music world.

‘How did you get on with Madame Harefield?’ was his first question as he gave Abby tickling kisses on both cheeks.

‘I thought she was a cow.’

Rodney looked shocked. ‘That’s very unkind.’

Oh God, I’ve goofed, thought Abby.

‘Very unkind to cows,’ said Rodney. ‘They’re such innocent, sweet-natured animals,’ and he roared with such infectious laughter that Abby joined in.

Leading her to her dressing-room, he waddled ahead, chattering all the time.

‘Hermione didn’t go to a very good charm-school, did she, darling? If you want a laugh see her sing Leonore in plum-coloured breeches, got a bum on her bigger than Oliver Hardy.

‘I hear Rannaldini was conducting in BA’ he went on. ‘Defininitely top of the Hitler parade, darling, a cold sensualist, driven by lust that never touches the heart. Here’s your dressing-room, next to mine, which is frightfully posh and normally belongs to Simon Rattle. Like a peep?’

‘Oh yes please,’ said Abby, admiring the grand piano draped in tapestries, the sofas, the scores, the big bowl of fruit on a marble table and the photographs of beautiful children in silver frames. She would have a room just like that when she became a conductor.

Her own dressing-room was full of flowers. Christopher, she thought, with a bound of hope. But they were only orange lilies from Howie, ‘Sorry babe, catch up with you later’; red roses and ‘Good Luck’ from Rupert; bluebells and freesias from Declan O’Hara, ‘When shall we two meet?’ and finally great branches of white lilac pouring forth sweet heady scent, ‘In trembling anticipation’ from Rodney.

Abby hugged him. If only she had a grandfather like him.

‘I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes, darling.’

Abby was very nervous. She’d been up since six practising in her hotel bedroom. Between them, Rannaldini and Christopher had destroyed her confidence. But Rodney was such a tonic. Although he had been known to crunch glacier mints, filched from the leader during the cadenzas of soloists he disliked, he couldn’t have been sweeter to Abby.

‘You are an artist, dear child, play at whatever tempo you feel correct and we will accompany you. Isn’t it splendid?’ he added, as he led her into the vast soaring hall. ‘Pity about the cherry-red chairs, ghastly colour, but fortunately here they’re always covered in bums.’

Unlike Rannaldini, Rodney was also adored by the musicians. Having kissed the leader on both cheeks, he clambered laboriously onto the rostrum, collapsed onto a chair, mopped his brow on a lemon-scented, blue-spotted handkerchief, and beamed round at everybody.

‘That’s the hard part over. So lovely to be back with my favourite orchestra. You all look so divine and play so wonderfully, it doesn’t matter a scrap I can’t remember any of your names.’

The orchestra giggled.

‘Now I don’t need to introduce this ravishing child, she’s had a frightful time in BA with Rannaldini so you’ve got to be particularly nice to her.’

The orchestra gave Abby a friendly round of applause. Artists in their own right, they were not overawed by soloists.

Rodney opened the score and raised his stick.

‘Now, please play together, boys and girls, or I won’t know where to put my beat.’

Abby’s knees would hardly hold her up in the long wait before she came in, but from her first note, magazines and books were put down, crosswords abandoned, tax returns set aside, and the musicians looked at each other in awe as the raw, sad sweetness pierced the tidal waves of orchestral sound.

‘Ravishing, my dear,’ Rodney called a halt, halfway through the first movement. ‘Brass dearies, it’d be nice if the diminuendo could be slightly more pronounced, i.e. shut up a bit.’

Then when a vital bassoon entry was missed: ‘Agonizing over ten across, dear boy, it’s Laocoon. I always have trouble spelling it, now you can concentrate on Brahms.’

Much of the rehearsal was spent telling them about Princess Diana, whom he’d sat next to last night, ‘such a charmer’, and nodding off on the rostrum while Abby and the orchestra played on regardless.

‘Which orchestra am I playing with?’ he asked, being woken by a particularly noisy tutti.

‘The CBSO, Maestro,’ said the leader grinning.

‘Ah yes. Now boys and girls, why are we so happy? Because Uncle Rodney’s in charge. Tiddle urn, tiddle urn, pom pom, it was together when I sang it.’

Rodney lifted his stick again.

He had the weirdest beat, very high and wavery like a slow drunken flash of lightning. The best maestros, like Rannaldini, had a distinct click at the bottom of the down beat, so the orchestra knew exactly when to come in. But when Rodney was on the rostrum, the leader gave a nod to start everyone off, but it was very discreet because the orchestra had such respect for him.

‘I may go to sleep in the cadenza,’ he warned Abby.

‘When shall we wake you up, Sir Rodney?’ asked the leader.

‘When you hear me snore.’

The orchestra were in stitches, but despite such jokes and the legendary blasé-ness of musicians, they all stood up and cheered Abby at the end, and they were joined by people who’d crept into the seats all over the auditorium.

Abby burst into tears and fled to her dressing-room.

‘Rannaldini should be shot,’ said the leader furiously.

Rodney mopped Abby up over a cup of Earl Grey tea, insisting she have one of the sticky cream cakes he’d bought in white cardboard boxes for the entire orchestra.

‘Don’t worry about this evening, we will get ecstatic reviews, because you are breathtakingly beautiful, and because I am old and have a beard. What an easy way to eminence — to grow a beard. If you’re free, we might have a little supper after the concert.’

‘Won’t you be exhausted?’ Abby bit into a huge eclair.

‘Certainly not, I’ll have a good sleep during the Maxwell Davies which comes after the interval. I’m off home to Lucerne in the morning.’

Abby returned to the Hyatt Hotel and followed her usual routine, eating a small bowl of pasta for lunch, which gave her time if necessary to throw it up before the concert, a precaution she’d taken since bad fish had sabotaged her in Tel Aviv. She then lay down but didn’t sleep because she kept praying Christopher might call. An hour before she had to leave for the concert, she washed her hair, then warmed up for twenty minutes in her dressing-room, changing and making up during the overture which gave her as little time as possible to be nervous.

In defiance of Christopher she put on a very short sleeveless dress, covered in midnight-blue sequins, which glittered with every movement, and wore her hair loose but pulled off her face with a crimson bow. She also ringed her eyes with black eye-liner, but left off her mascara in case the Brahms made her cry again.

Rodney had the entire orchestra and the audience in fits of laughter when he waddled on to conduct the overture from Il Seraglio, and sent one of the cymbals flying with his big belly.

His jaw dropped ten minutes later when he popped in to collect Abby.

‘Dear God, child. What a smasher you are. I ought to wave a sword rather than a baton to drive them off.’

‘And you look great too,’ sighed Abby. ‘I love that black-and-silver cummerbund.’

‘Madame Harefield,’ said Rodney acidly. ‘Couldn’t think where I’d found one big enough. If that woman were bowling for England, we’d have no difficulty retaining the Ashes… Tiddle om pom pom. Don’t be nervous. Birmingham’s in for a treat.’

Although Rodney dozed off twice in the first movement, he managed to wake up and bring the orchestra in after the cadenza. The audience sat spellbound by the beauty of Abby’s sound and the sadness on her face. Abby always felt the last moments of the concerto were the saddest, as the Hungarian gypsy seemed to romp down the hill, her feet, coloured skirts, earrings and dark curls flying, then suddenly to break down like a mechanical toy, and as the whole orchestra went quiet, limp stumbling through the last two bars, before the three final thunderous chords.

Invariably when Abby played, there was a long stunned silence at the end, as though it were intrusive to interrupt such sorrow and depth of emotion. Then the audience went wild, breaking into deafening rioting applause. Rodney turned, his plump hands apart, his head on one side — ‘What can I say?’ — before enfolding her in a warm, scented bear-hug.

The audience, crazy for an encore, would have gone on clapping for ages. Abby longed to oblige them, then to unwind slowly, savouring her triumph. But Rosalie Brandon, having spent twenty-four hours humouring Hermione, was back in martinet form, waiting in Abby’s dressing-room.

‘You haven’t time for an encore, you’ve got to sign CDs in the foyer, and then I’ve arranged for an interview with the Guardian, and then we’re having supper with the Independent.’

Abby loathed Rosalie being present at interviews. It had been the same when she was a kid, and her mother had insisted on staying in the room when the doctor examined her.

‘I’m having supper with Sir Rodney,’ she said firmly, ‘Christopher never stops chewing me out for not brown-nosing conductors.’

Christopher’s right, thought Rosalie beadily, Abby was definitely getting above herself.

Rodney, steaming like a pink pig in the conductor’s room as he changed into a clean shirt for the second half, gave Abby a jaunty wave as she passed by on her way to the foyer.

‘See you later, Abbygator.’

SIX

Abby regarded Rodney as far too old and gay to try anything, so she was relieved when he suggested supper in the apartment in which the orchestra put up visiting conductors.

‘You’ve been stared at quite enough,’ he announced as he emerged from the conductor’s room, wearing a big black cloak and a beatle cap tipped rakishly over one eye. He was clutching a clanking carrier bag, ‘Just a few little extras from Tesco’s,’ and singing a snatch from La Bohème. ‘Come along Musetta, devourer of all hearts.’

As they toddled across the square arm in arm, passing cafés, boutiques, pigeons huddling in the eaves and a glittering canal, the moon, slimmer than two days ago, but still sporting a rust halo, was sailing through silvery wisps of cloud.

‘Ring round the moon means trouble,’ sighed Rodney. ‘I do hope I don’t get a tax bill in the morning.’

The apartment was blissfully warm, with a gas log-fire which Rodney immediately turned on. Looking down from the moss-green walls were portraits of music’s giants: Alfred Brendel, André Previn, Rannaldini, Giulini, Jessye Norman, Simon Rattle.

‘You’ll be up there soon,’ said Rodney, pouring her a large glass of Dom Perignon, then sitting down at the big grand piano.

‘What’s your favourite tune?’

Abby’s mind went blank.

Rodney strummed a few chords and began to sing.

‘I love Abby in the springtime,

I love Abby in the Fall,

I love Abby in the summer when it sizzles,’

then changing key and putting on a French accent:

‘Thank ‘eavens for Abigail.

For Abigail get beeger every day.

Thank heavens for Abigail.

She’s grown up in the most exciting way.’

He looked so sweet and naughty, Abby kissed him on the top of his shiny bald head.

Having installed her on a dark, gold damask sofa, with the latest copy of Classical Music, which had her picture on the front, he toddled off to rustle her up some scrambled eggs. Abby felt herself unwinding for the first time in weeks. Oh, why were all the sweetest guys gay?

When Rodney returned five minutes later, however, he was brandishing the nearly empty bottle, reeking of English Fern, and wearing nothing but a blue-and-white striped butcher’s apron. Rodney’s down beat may have been wavery, but nothing could have been more emphatic than his upbeat, which was relentlessly lifting the striped apron like a shop blind.

‘My lovely child.’ Putting the bottle on the mantelpiece, Rodney advanced briskly.

‘Omigod,’ screamed Abby.

Flight to both doors was cut off, so she took the only possible way out, and went off into peals of laughter. After a second, Rodney joined in and they collapsed on the sofa, until the tears were running down their cheeks.

‘I thought you were gay, because you kissed the leader and you were so sympatico,’ said Abby, wiping her eyes.

‘Oh my dear, four wives to vouch to the contrary. Oh well, it was worth a try. You shouldn’t be so beautiful and so tall. Those stunning breasts at eye-level are beyond all temptation.’

‘What happened to your last wife?’

‘She died, three years ago, bless her. Wonderful old girl, used to play concertos in her nightie so she could go straight to bed afterwards.’

‘You must be so lonely.’

‘Not terribly darling, one’s always had a few little friends.’

‘Well, put on a bathrobe and I’ll make the scrambled eggs.’

After that they had a riotous evening, with Rodney regaling her with stories of the Great.

‘Henry Wood gave me my first concert after I came out of the Navy, and my first cigar. He was a charmer. You should do a prom, darling. You’d love it.’

‘They asked me,’ said Abby wistfully, ‘Christopher wanted too much money.’

Rodney frowned and topped up his glass of brandy.

‘I’ve heard that concerto so often, but tonight you made me listen to it completely afresh. I felt that strange excitement we all long for. Like the first time I saw David Gower pick up a bat, or the first time I heard Jacqueline du Pré pick up a bow. You have two matchless qualities, the ability to hold an audience captive and a unique sound that can never be mistaken for anyone else’s. But you’re dreadfully unhappy, aren’t you, darling.’ Gently he massaged her aching neck.

So Abby told him about Christopher.

‘We call him Chris-too-far over here,’ observed Rodney. ‘He’s avaricious, always pushes his artists too hard, gets as much money out of them as quickly as possible before they burn out. You ought to have been allowed to unwind after that exquisite concerto, or at least have tomorrow off, so you can have some fun, and do other things.’

‘I want to have a go at conducting.’

‘Don’t know how ready the world is for women conductors,’ mused Rodney. ‘Women in power are often unnecessarily brutal to their subordinates. Thatcher crushing her cabinet, who reacted with appalling spite. Musically you’re quite good enough, darling, you’ve got the authority too, but concert tickets tend to be bought by women and queers.’ He gave Abby a foxy nudge in the ribs. ‘And they prefer a glamorous bloke at the helm, and orchestras are very tricky, you’d only get by if they loved you.’

‘What about Edith Spink?’ protested Abby.

‘Edith’s a chap, and she’s got her composing, although her last symphony sounded as though a lot of drunken bears were having a saucepan fight.’

‘I must go,’ Abby leapt to her feet, as she suddenly noticed how old and tired he looked.

As he led her to the door, he begged her to come and stay in his house in Lucerne.

‘It’s on the lake and quite ravishing, there’ll be no passes, scout’s honour, and you’re going to come and play for my orchestra in Rutminster, ravishing country there too, and my boys and girls would love you.’

‘Shall I pack for you?’ asked Abby.

Rodney shook his head.

‘The sight of you bending over my suitcase,’ gently he patted her bottom, ‘would be too much for me. Goodnight, my new little friend.’ He stood on tiptoe to kiss her cheek.

‘You’d have enjoyed it, you know, there’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle, and I’m a spring chicken compared to your Stradivarius.’

Returning, still laughing, to the Hyatt Hotel and reality, Abby found an express parcel from Christopher.

Frantic with excitement, hoping for a gold bracelet or even a diamond pin as an act of atonement, Abby ripped it open and found six copies of the CD contract for the Mozart concertos. It was covered in primrose-yellow stickers telling her where to sign. Also enclosed was a brusque note from Christopher ordering her to return the contracts at once. A car would be waiting at Heathrow tomorrow to take her on to a rehearsal and recital at the Wigmore Hall. The next day she would start recording the Bartók concerto with the LSO.

‘If Declan O’Hara or Rupert Campbell-Black try to contact you, I cannot urge you too strongly to resist them,’ ended Christopher. ‘That’s the one thing that could, screw up the Rannaldini deal.’

I better call Rupert at once, thought Abby.

Five Mozart concertos, music she loved, spoilt for ever by bullying and screaming matches.

Her shoulders, her arms, her back and her neck still ached. In the old days, Christopher had cured her, rubbing in Tiger Balm, a mixture of herbs and menthol, and sooner or later his fingers had crept downwards in pursuit of pleasure. Abby groaned at the memory.

Taking her violin from its case, she cleaned its strings with eau-de-Cologne, then dusted its smooth flanks and delicate neck curving over into the seahorse head.

‘It’s you and me against the world, little fiddle,’ she said sadly. ‘If I don’t play you well enough, the bank will take you back again. You must have witnessed so much misery in two hundred and eighty years, but have you ever been played by anyone as lonely and unwanted as me?’

But that wasn’t true, Rupert had wanted her, and men’s hands had trembled when they’d asked her to sign their records this evening. Even Rodney’s jovial elephantine pass had made her aware she was desirable.

She was only so isolated, because Christopher, when he had wanted her had not wanted witnesses, and had driven away all her friends, and even her noisy fat mother. Pacing her room all night, she watched the sky lighten and the city emerge.

Far below she could now see a row of pretty pastel houses, the kind she would have loved to have settled down in, lining the bottle-green, oily waters of the canal, on which floated brightly coloured barges, attached at the centre like the petals of a flower. All round was debris, where bulldozers and cranes were in the process of flattening beautiful old russet buildings, churches, meeting houses and a factory with tall pipes. I’ll be bashed down before I have any chance to enjoy life, thought Abby, her eyes following the path of the canal which flowed under roads and bridges, past a man throwing sticks for his shaggy white dog, along a row of dark cypresses, into the mist, keeping its head down, amid the hubbub of the city. The hands of the little red clock-tower merged into one at six-thirty.

Abby flipped. She was enmeshed like Laocoon, she had to break free. First she chucked Rannaldini’s contracts out of the window. Blue birds of unhappiness, they wheeled downwards. Then she took the earliest shuttle to Heathrow, and booked herself onto Concorde.

Buoyed up by an excess of champagne, she wept over a piece in the Independent about Rachel Grant, the beautiful pianist, who’d been recording the Beethoven concertos with Rannaldini. She had evidently driven over a cliff because she’d seen a picture in The Scorpion of her husband sneaking out of the apartment of a former mistress. What a tragic loss to music, wrote the reporter.

Abby got stuck back into the champagne.

I’m immortal, she thought drunkenly as they approached New York. I could fly this aeroplane if they asked me and I can fly straight back into Christopher’s heart.

Still feeling immortal, she called Christopher on landing, but was utterly deflated to be told he was out. Sandra, his manipulative blonde secretary, had gone to the dentist. Christopher’s mobile had also been switched off. He was probably at a recording session, where they were not popular.

In despair, plunging down from the champagne, Abby took a taxi to her Riverside apartment. Geography was taking over. This was New York, every brick and street number reminded her of once being happy with Christopher. The river looked grey, seal-like and unfriendly, boats were chugging sluggishly upstream like commuters. Someone had left the elevator door open, so she had to hump her bags up five floors.

Letting herself in, Abby gave a sigh of pleasure to see the pale peach walls, the dark peach carpet. Going into the living-room, she was startled to find an empty bottle of champagne, two glasses and a bunch of pale yellow roses, roughly rammed into a vase. Abby’s first terrified thought was burglars. Her eyes raced round the walls and furniture checking pictures, ornaments and silver, but everything seemed in place.

Then, as painful as stubbing one’s toe on a dog bowl in the dark, she noticed the grey pin-stripe jacket hanging on a chair. What, too, was the crocodile wallet she’d given Christopher doing on the glass table beside the keys she’d lovingly had cut so he could let himself into the apartment? A letter from Rupert had already been opened.

Somehow Abby’s buckling legs carried her next door. She had always wanted a beautiful bedroom. Other stars celebrate overnight fame with Ferraris, yachts or Picassos, or a Central Park penthouse. But Abby, as she practised nine hours a day and faced tiny, indifferent audiences in draughty halls, had only dreamt of a bower of bliss.

In the centre of the room was a vast four-poster, richly swagged with crimson velvet, hand-printed with vast blush-pink peonies. Half a dozen white lace pillows reared up like the Himalayas against the wrought-iron bedhead, which had been intricately woven into a pattern of treble and bass clefs; perfect to cling onto when she writhed like an electric eel above and below Christopher.

She had called in a lighting specialist, to cast a flattering rosy glow, so that Christopher, unlike Tithonus, would never grow old.

On the walls was more crimson velvet, on the polished floor rose-patterned rugs, and on the scarlet lacquer bedside tables, where she’d left them ten days ago, were two huge vases of lilies, whose petals were beginning to droop and wrinkle like old limp hands.

The only blot on her bed of crimson joy was Christopher filling his secretary, Sandra, in very non-dental fashion.

The horrified silence was broken by Abby.

‘That’s why you kept on at me to buy a New York apartment, so you could send me off on tour and hump this fat tramp in comfort,’ she yelled. ‘Why didn’t you use the office carpet, or the back seat of the Volvo like we used to? Does Beth know about Sandra? I figured it was key not to upset Beth.’

Looking round, she noticed the closet doors were open. Sandra had obviously been trying on her clothes. A peacock-blue party dress lay inside out on the floor. A bottle of lemon-and-rosemary oil stood unstoppered by the bed.

‘I’m surprised you bother with that stuff, Sandra,’ Abby addressed Sandra, almost chattily, ‘the only thing Christopher enjoys having massaged is his ego.’

For a frozen moment Christopher panicked — then he wriggled out from underneath Sandra, and wrapping a red towel round his loins, advanced on Abby.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’ he thundered. ‘How dare you let the Wigmore Hall down. I hope you weren’t photographed coming off the aeroplane, or they’ll figure you’ve accepted another booking. Shepherd Denston are backing that concert, we stand to lose a lot of money,’ he glanced at his watch on the bedside table, ‘unless you get back on that aeroplane at once.’

Abby looked at him in bewilderment.

‘I cannot believe what I’m hearing.’ Holding her hands over her ears, she stumbled out to the kitchen.

Christopher followed her, determined to bluff it out.

How dare she treat with Rupert behind his back; how dare she leave Rosalie in the lurch, and swan off with that old reprobate Rodney Macintosh.

Abby’s eyes were rolling, she was as grey with shock as the river outside. Christopher could smell the champagne sour on her breath. He was just reaching the fortissimo climax of his fury, when Abby told him she had chucked Rannaldini’s contract out of the window.

‘It’s now being dumped on by Birmingham pigeons, which is what it deserves. You don’t give a fuck about me. I’m just the eternal jackpot on the fruit machine. How many millions of notes have I played to buy this apartment, and you’ve just desecrated it. Well, you’ve blown it this time.’

Seizing the carving knife, which Sandra had used to level the bottom of the rose stems, Abby bent back her other hand, almost abstractedly examining the veins, faint as biro marks, on the inside wrist. Then, raising the knife, she made a deep cut, half an inch above her watch-strap.

Seeing her hand hanging like a snowdrop, spurting blood, and the agency’s livelihood gushing away, Christopher leapt forward to stop her slashing her right one.

‘Not your bowing hand, for Christ’s sake.’

SEVEN

Abby was raced to hospital. Micro, neuro and plastic surgeons jetted in from all over the world to save her career. After a seven-hour operation, including a massive blood transfusion, they managed to repair both the tendons and the arteries and suture the nerve sheaths. As the nerves had been severed, she was spared a lot of pain when she came round. That would come later as the nerves grew back pitifully slowly at a millimetre a day.

She was kept heavily sedated with tranquillizers, antibiotics and painkillers pouring in through the drip. Counsellors poured in, too, and physiotherapists to waggle gently the lifeless fingers.

Abby had no movement left. She couldn’t cup her hand, move her thumb across to her little finger or open and shut or splay her fingers at all. She would have to wear a splint for months to stop her hand contracting like a vulture’s claw, which meant all the muscles would waste.

Abby asked only one question: would she ever play the violin again?

‘In time,’ said the chief consultant. ‘If you persevere with the physio. The nerves will take at least a year to regenerate, then we’ll be able to tell more. Whether you’ll ever play to concert standard is doubtful. There’s too much pressure put on young soloists today.’

Abby was devastated. There were fears for her sanity, as she sobbed uncontrollably for hours on end, or gazed blankly into space.

How could she have deliberately destroyed her God-given talent just to break out of Christopher’s boa-constrictor stranglehold, to spite him because he no longer loved her?

Christopher had tried to hush up the story, arrogantly ordering Abby to say nothing, as he passed himself off as the lone boy-scout hero whose tourniquet had saved Abby’s life. Unfortunately, the porter in Abby’s block had noticed Sandra going in and out. Who could forget those knockers in a hurry?

Christopher had also patronized and ridden roughshod over too many people and wriggled out of paying for too many lunches to have many friends in the Press. The result was a monumental scandal, particularly at such a tragic loss of a unique talent.

‘TIGRESS AND CHEATER,’ shouted the headlines over huge pictures of a smouldering Abby and a sanctimonius Christopher. Christopher had also lied about the fact that Beth had found out. She had had no idea and was wiped out by such betrayal, which made Abby feel infinitely worse.

Nor were matters helped by Hermione, who was at first irked by the massive coverage, then, when it showed no signs of abating, decided to cash in and fly to New York.

‘CARING HERMIONE IN MERCY DASH,’ announced The Scorpion with a picture of the great diva on the hospital steps clutching a bunch of already drooping roses and her latest CD, label out, as presents for Abby.

Ignoring the fact that after thirty seconds Abby had rung down in hysterics to have her chucked out, Hermione afterwards told the army of reporters that she had advised Abigail to involve herself in charity work.

‘“Think of the poor people of Rwanda,” I urged her. “At least you are being looked after by wonderfully caring hospital staff.” I hope the sacred message of my latest CD, Heavenly Hermione, will bring her spiritual refreshment.’

Abby, who’d had to be given a massive shot of Valium, wasn’t remotely cheered up five minutes later when Rupert sauntered in. He was in New York to check out laser surgery for Xav’s birthmark, and arrived with a carrier bag over his head.

‘What in hell are you doing?’ snarled Abby.

‘Hiding from Hermione.’

‘She’s only interested in your beautiful hands, and they’re still on show.’

‘Actually she’s far too busy fighting for access to the make-up department with all those consultants, who are becoming television stars, providing bulletins on your progress.’

He removed the carrier bag and smoothed his hair. He was wearing a love-in-the-mist blue shirt which matched his long blue eyes, which in turn matched the patch of blue sky which was all Abby could see through her window. Part of a sunny outside world, which seemed lost for ever.

‘Poor old duck,’ said Rupert, remembering the bleak horror of Taggie’s miscarriages. ‘It must be like losing a baby.’

‘Far, far worse,’ Abby snapped. ‘Like losing a thousand babies. Every time I played a concert, I gave birth.’

Rupert was appalled by her appearance. A forelock of dark hair fell damp and flat to her eyebrows. Her fleshless face was dominated more than ever by the haunted, heavily shadowed yellow eyes. The only plumpness left was in the curve of her lower lip. She had lost twenty pounds. Seeing her huddled, wide-shouldered, long-legged body, Rupert was reminded of some shell-shocked youth fatally wounded in the trenches.

Getting out his fountain-pen, he drew a blue cross on the inside of her right wrist just where it joined her hand.

‘This is the place if you want to top yourself properly. You did it too far up the arm, just means the nerves take longer to grow back.’

‘Will they?’

‘Course they will. I had no feeling for six months after I trapped a nerve at the LA Olympics; Ricky France-Lynch’s arm took nearly three years; my son-in-law Luke’s hand was pulverized by a polo ball. We all got better.’

He had brought her a bunch of lilies of the valley, and a little silver replica of a head of garlic.

‘That’s to ward off evil, you’re to keep it beside you all the time. Taggie’s also made you a tin of fudge. She sent love and said she was dreadfully sorry.’

‘Thanks,’ said Abby listlessly. ‘Did you get your baby?’

‘We got two, Xavier and Bianca. Flew them home last week. The grooms had hung a welcome home banner across the gate and balloons all up the drive. Edith Spink brought the Cotchester Chamber Orchestra over in a bus to play “Congratulations”. All the dogs had bows, it was great. Xavier couldn’t believe his eyes. He’s walking all over the place now. And his first word was Daddy, so he’s obviously going to be a diplomat.’

Rupert gave a big yawn.

‘Sorry, we’re not getting much sleep at the moment. Bianca’s routine’s all out of sync.’

His tearing spirits made Abby feel even more dreadful, particularly as they kept being interrupted by nurses popping in to check Abby’s fingers for gangrene and gaze at Rupert.

‘They never allow me a second to brood,’ groaned Abby. ‘And oh God, the counsellor’s due at three o’clock.’

‘Don’t believe in that crap,’ said Rupert. ‘Only person who can sort you out is yourself. Counsellors are flooding into Penscombe at the moment. There’s a ghastly beard with an Adam’s apple who’s got a crush on Taggie and keeps forecasting disaster because we’ve adopted a black child. He asked me yesterday whether I was going to teach Xav the customs of his country? Did he want me to give Xav a line of coke for breakfast, I said.’

But Abby wasn’t listening, being too wrapped up in her own tragedy.

‘I can’t do Declan’s programme now,’ she said sulkily, ‘if that’s what you’ve come for.’

Rupert’s face softened.

‘I came to see you, because I was dead worried and because I like you a lot. Classical music bores the tits off me, reminds me of my first wife, but you made it as exciting,’ Rupert cast round, ‘as a good Gold Cup.’

Abby started to cry. Rupert took her in his arms.

For a second, Abby clung to him enjoying the muscular warmth, then, as the counsellor came in, she screamed with rage: ‘Is there no peace except beyond the grave?’

‘Don’t talk like that,’ chided the counsellor. ‘She’s doing great,’ she added to Rupert.

‘I must go,’ Rupert got to his feet. ‘The only answer,’ he ruffled Abby’s hair, ‘is to become a conductor. That shit Rannaldini needs some competition.’

Shepherd Denston, who were in turmoil, were fast coming to the same conclusion.

‘If only Abby’d done the job properly,’ grumbled Howard on a conference call to Christopher and young Howie in London, ‘she could have become a cult figure like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.’

‘Not enough mileage,’ said young Howie. ‘She’s better alive. We gotta find something for her to do.’

Shepherd Denston needed the money. It was not just the houses on Long Island and the old masters and young mistresses, acquired on the expectation of Abby’s massive income. The agency had also extended themselves dangerously, backing concerts throughout Eastern Europe, only to find the newly free populations were hungrier for new cars than culture.

‘What a pity that contract with Rannaldini never got signed,’ said Howard.

‘We better get her Strad back,’ said Christopher briskly. ‘Can’t let it lie idle. Maria needs a decent instrument.’

Maria Kusak was Abby’s bitterest rival, one of the agency’s rising stars.

‘Fact that Abby’s pulled through suicide, like coming off drugs, or cracking anorexia, is gonna evoke public sympathy,’ said Howie, then groaned as his secretary handed him a fax saying that Benny Basanovich had been so drunk in Munich he’d skipped pages of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto before falling off the piano-stool.

‘The only answer,’ said Howard, ‘is for her to learn to conduct, while we see if her hand’s gonna recover.’

For now though, Abby must leave the limelight until the scandal had died down. Sir Rodney Macintosh, who’d said some uncomfortingly sharp things to Christopher after the accident, gallantly came to the rescue, and offered Abby the use of his house on Lake Lucerne.

‘The wild flowers are out of this world, darling, and the mountain air is purer arid more exhilarating than Krug.’

Rodney’s ancient housekeeper, Gisela, who was used to temperamental artists, would build up Abby’s strength. There was every score in the world to work on. She could have a resident physio and a succession of student conductors to teach her the rudiments.

Christopher, everyone decided, must bow out of Abby’s life. Another reason why Lucerne was a good idea. Her career, in future, would be handled by the London office and, when he wasn’t racing all over Europe to sort out the chaos caused by Benny Basanovich, by Howie Denston.

EIGHT

Clutching her silver clove of garlic, Abby arrived in Lucerne. Rodney met her and, with a series of loud bangs, singing: ‘All boys are cheap today, cheaper than yesterday,’ to the tune of ‘La Donna e mobile’, drove her out to his house along the lake.

Known as Flasher’s Folly, it stood on the town side of a wooded peninsula, which seemed to crawl into the lake like a huge furry caterpillar. The house itself was square, black gabled, with a mossy red roof and warm yellow walls smothered in white wisteria. The oak front door was thirty yards from the water’s edge. Behind the house was a lawn flanked by honeysuckle, rose colonnades and a water garden fed by two springs. Separating the garden from the mountains was an orchard and a copse of linden trees. Rodney’s fourth wife, the one who’d played concertos in her nightie, had plainly been a wonderful gardener.

‘We’ve had some great parties over the years,’ Rodney squeezed Abby’s shoulder. ‘In heatwaves we often bathed starkers in the lake at midnight.’

The entire attic was set aside for Rodney’s train sets. He could run ten trains simultaneously along the tracks without any crashes.

‘The secret of conducting is to be able to do ten things at once.’

Abby’s big bedroom took up most of the second floor and had windows front and back. As well as a four-poster with sprigged white-and-yellow muslin curtains, it contained a piano, a record player, bookshelves packed with every score from Purcell to Gorecki, a stuffed bear wearing a Victorian bishop’s mitre and, among other pictures on the pale Parma-violet walls, a portrait of Rodney’s second cousin, Myrtle, who’d become a missionary.

Apart from Gisela, the household included Rodney’s cat, Shostakovich, a huge, indolent charmer with long grey hair and big orange eyes, who usually lay around in pools of sunlight, but who was currently weaving round Abby’s legs, being driven crazy by a heady smell of coq au vin from the kitchen.

‘Oh wow, how lovely to have a cat.’ Ecstatically Abby bent to stroke Shosty, as he was known. But as she gathered him up, her left hand couldn’t support him, and he crashed to the floor, flouncing off on fluffy grey plus-fours.

‘Lands on his feet like his master,’ said Rodney reassuringly.

Like Rupert, he was horrified by Abby’s appearance; so tall, thin and pale, a tree stricken by lightning. She touched her left hand constantly, desperate for the return of any feeling.

To distract her he led her to the front window. Outside, the shimmering pale blue lake seemed to merge into the powder-blue mist and the grey-blue sky without any horizon. But gradually snowy white peaks began to appear.

‘Look darling, they’re all coming out to welcome you. Those are the Riga Mountains and that big crooked peak is Mount Pilatus, named after Pontius Pilate. Legend has it that after he sentenced Christ to death, he came here to suffer for his sins.’

Pilate and me, thought Abby bleakly.

‘I can think of worse places. It’s better than Croydon,’ said Rodney.

Woods were now emerging on the opposite shore. ‘Now you can see Tribschen,’ he went on, pointing to the prettiest white doll’s house on a high grassy mound, ‘where Cosima lived with Wagner and, before he became a conductor, Hans Richter worked there as Wagner’s secretary.’

‘Richter,’ for a second Abby was roused out of her apathy, ‘my hero. He was such a brilliant musician. Orchestras just adored him.’

She didn’t add that with his beard, mane of hair, broad shoulders and air of authority, Richter had looked rather like Christopher. Richter, however, had been a devoted husband. A Christopher with honour. But she must forget Christopher. Hopelessly she clutched her silver garlic.

Aware of her misery, Rodney pointed to an island of trees rising out of the water about fifty yards from the shore.

‘After a long day of copying out The Mastersingers, Richter, a very strong man, used to row across the lake from Tribschen at dusk, embark on that island and practise the French horn, thus starting another legend of a mysterious ghost horn player.’

Leaning out of the window on those early summer evenings, waiting for the stars to come out, Abby often imagined she could hear the first sweet notes of a horn, but they were only owls hooting and the cries of the water birds.

Looking back on her first few months in Lucerne, Abby was appalled that she behaved quite so horribly. Generous, passionate, demanding, workaholic, her last twelve years had been dominated by Christopher and more recently by her Strad, which had now gone back to the bank. Abby missed the Strad even more than Christopher; her relationship with the violin had been so close, so joyous, so tactile, so successful, it had been like taking a beloved dog back to a rescue kennel. And the heartbreaking beauty of her surroundings only made her loss worse.

The doctors were pleased with her. By October the severed muscles had knit so she now had some movement in her fingers, but she still had no grip and no feeling in her palms or her fingertips.

Her worst problem, however, was her inability to relax. Raging at the slowness of her physical recovery, she plunged into conducting, standing in front of the long gold mirror in her room endlessly waving a baton to records, trying to anticipate the entrances of the various instruments, or giving herself blinding headaches poring over scores long into the night.

Her main difficulty was having to conduct in a vacuum. If only she could have returned from Lucerne with a case of different musicians, set them up like chess pieces, breathed life into them, and rehearsed and rehearsed them until she dropped.

‘How can I practise without an orchestra?’ she raged at Rodney. ‘It’s like learning to be a good lay from reading sex books.’

‘I could certainly help you with the latter,’ said Rodney.

‘It isn’t a joke.’

So Rodney in his sweetness, for her twenty-sixth birthday on 26 October, rounded up all his musician pals in Lucerne and Geneva, the twenty-strong local choir and four soloists, and arranged for them to spend the weekend at Flasher’s Folly.

The plan was for Abby to rehearse The Messiah with them on Saturday and Sunday and then give a performance in front of an invited audience on Sunday night. Abby was so excited and terrified, she became utterly impossible. Desperate for evidence that her hand was better, she was also constantly and recklessly testing it.

Rodney only spent about a third of the year in Lucerne and Gisela liked everything to be perfect. On the Friday morning before the concert, gold leaves were tumbling into the lake, but it was so warm she had laid breakfast outside. Café au lait, bacon and mushrooms picked at dawn from the orchard, home-made croissants and apricot jam were all served on and in rose-patterned gold-leaf plates, cups and saucers, part of a priceless set of twelve.

Rodney, who was whipping through The Times crossword, which was faxed out to him from Rutminster every morning, always had his orange juice out of a heavy glass tumbler, of which he was inordinately proud. Engraved with his name and a picture of a puffing train, it had been presented to him by his orchestra on his seventy-fifth birthday last year.

Gisela, despite being old and rheumaticky, hated to be helped. But Abby was desperate to prove her grip was getting stronger, so the moment breakfast was over, she stacked everything including Rodney’s tumbler onto the tray.

‘I’ll carry it.’ In alarm Rodney put down The Times.

‘I’m OK.’

The next moment, Abby’s hand had slipped and everything had smashed into a hundred pieces on the flagstones.

‘Why the hell don’t you leave things alone?’ shouted Rodney.

Too horrified to apologize, Abby stormed upstairs leaving the mess. Within seconds the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ was blaring out of her bedroom. And when Rodney stumped angrily upstairs to play with his trains, Abby had ostentatiously banged her windows shut to blot out the sound of shouting, whistling and hooting. Even when Shostakovich appeared mewing at the window Abby screamed at him to go away. He had a maddening habit of sitting on scores, or leaping onto her shoulders like a witch’s cat when she was giving her all to some elaborate aria.

At one o’clock, she was playing ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ so loudly that she didn’t hear Gisela’s tentative knock, so Gisela let herself in. Always trying to tempt Abby to eat more, she had made her a pale pink smoked salmon soufflé, wild strawberry ice-cream, and had squeezed her a glass of her favourite pink-grapefruit juice. Also on the tray, which she placed on the table by the window, was a bowl of vitamins and a posy of mauve autumn crocuses.

Abby went beserk.

‘For Chrissake, how many times do I have to tell you, I’ll come down when I want to eat.’

Gisela’s kind, rosy face crumpled in dismay.

Upstairs the 8.10 from Zurich ran into the 10.55 from Geneva with a crash, as Rodney toddled downstairs. His station-master’s cap, askew over his eye, did nothing to diminish the roaring rage on his face.

‘How dare you shout at Gisela like that, you spoilt brat! Everyone is falling over themselves to be nice to you. Gisela and I are going into Lucerne this afternoon and if you’re not in a better mood when we get home, you can pack your bags and get out.’

Again, Abby was too distraught to apologize. But after they had gone she sobbed her hopelessly muddled heart out. How could she have been so ungrateful? God would punish her by never allowing her to play the violin again.

‘Oh please, what gets into me?’

Wearily she picked up her stick and the battered yellow score of The Messiah. It was cheating to conduct to a record, and made her lazy and slow to adjust. Rodney’s musicians, if he hadn’t already told them not to turn up for such an ungrateful cow, would probably play it in a completely different way. She’d have to sing and imagine it in her head.

Handel’s original version of The Messiah was scored for a very small orchestra and Abby had arranged her room so each instrument was represented by a different object. The bookshelf on her left was the First Violins, the chest of drawers next door the Second Violins. The faded crimson armchair the First Oboe, the trouser press the Second Oboe, the stuffed bear in the mitre seemed appropriately august to play both bassoons.

Rodney’s beady Cousin Myrtle, gazing down between the windows, which looked on to the back garden, represented the violas. And Abby’s white-and-yellow four-poster, against the right-hand wall, which she hadn’t made yet, had to act as the harpsichord.

The Messiah begins with the entire orchestra playing together loudly and gravely for twenty-four bars. Abby glared round the room to see that everyone was paying attention, paused and raised her baton. Rannaldini was said to have a down beat that could halve butter straight from the freezer. Abby was determined to be as incisive. One, her stick whistled downwards, two to the left, three to the right, and four in a sweeping quarter-circle back to one.

At bar twenty-five after a diminuendo, the tempo changed and she had to cue in the crimson armchair and the chest of drawers after the first beat of the bar, and then bring in the bookshelf and the trouser press, followed four bars later by the stuffed bear, the four-poster and Rodney’s Cousin Myrtle. And all the time she had to sing the tune in a breathless soprano.

Playing away for all their worth, the whole room reached bar ninety-seven, and the first recitative: ‘Comfort Ye…’ Beating eight quavers to the bar with her right hand, Abby exhorted the bookshelf, Cousin Myrtle, the chest of drawers and the four-poster to play slowly and quietly by shaking her left hand, still as rigid as a Dutch doll’s, downwards, as though she were drying her nails. Glancing round she nodded to her dark green bathrobe hanging on the door who was standing in as the tenor.

‘Comfort ye, comfo-ort ye-ee, my pee-eeple,’ sang Abby, quelling Cousin Myrtle with a death-ray glance for coming in too early. As she speeded up the tempo to walking pace for ‘Every Valley,’ she must remember the bassoons, who dodged about all over the place throughout the aria. Nor did she think the stuffed bear was capable of counting thirty-one bars between twiddles, should she forget to cue him in, but somehow they circumnavigated every ‘rough place and crooked straight’, to end with a splendid run of trills from the crimson armchair.

‘Well done, everyone,’ called Abby. ‘Try and be even more together.’

Only the stuffed bear and Cousin Myrtle were looking at her, but in her experience most musicians didn’t bother to look much at conductors.

And now for the first chorus, with a ten-bar allegro tutti, before she stretched out both hands to the gold trees in the orchard outside, who were playing the part of the chorus.

‘And the glory, the glory of the Lord,’ sang the alto apple trees.

‘Terrific, wonderful,’ Abby urged them on. ‘Oh wow,’ she added as she cued in the plums, the, pears and an ancient quince tree, to bring in the basses, sopranos and tenors. It seemed right that such a pretty delicate tree as the pear should sing soprano.

Oh thank God, it was all coming good.

‘And all flesh shall see it together,’ encouraged the apple trees.

Abby worked on frenziedly until the light started fading. She was just about to embark on ‘A Trumpet Shall Sound’, which required a solo trumpet, when she noticed a candidate had rolled up in the form of Shosty who was back, mewing piteously, rubbing his fur against the window pane. She’d been so foul to him earlier. Putting down her baton, Abby opened the window. Leaping onto her shoulder, Shosty smelt of thyme and marjoram, he must have been hunting at the bottom of the mountain.

For a second he purred round her neck, a grey muffler, louder than any percussion player, then jumped onto the table to lick up the butter that had escaped from the smoked salmon soufflé.

Although her wrist ached dreadfully, a great peace swept over Abby. She’d had such a good afternoon’s work. How could she have been so foul to Gisela and Rodney? It was she who needed her rough places planed with the most vicious sandpaper. She’d go into Lucerne tomorrow and buy Gisela that new winter coat she’d been talking about.

Abby wandered over to the front window. The sun had set, leaving the lake a drained vermilion. The snowy mountains opposite had turned dark pink like summer or rather autumn puddings, as they rose out of their gold ruff of woods. To the left she could see the island where Hans Richter had practised his French horn. There were no horns in The Messiah. If only some wonderful musician could row over from the island to woo her. She was almost resigned to the loss of Christopher, she no longer jumped with hope each time the telephone rang or the post arrived. But she felt overwhelmed with sadness, like the Marschallin in Der Rosencavalier, that something she had so cherished had gone for ever.

She jumped as Shosty, bored by salmon flavoured butter, joined her on the window-ledge, weaving against her. Putting out an idle hand to stroke him, Abby froze, whipping back her hand as though she had had some fearful electric shock; then she put it back, held it there and began to tremble violently. There was no doubt, she could feel the faint tickling of his fur against her palm. Pressing down gently she could feel the hardness of his backbone, and running her hand to the left encountered the ramrod straightness of his tail. Then she rubbed the hopelessly wasted ball of her thumb against him. No feeling there yet, nor in her fingertips. Still shaking, she put her palm down again; she could definitely feel his fur moving.

The next moment, the front door banged.

Gathering up Shosty, she raced downstairs screaming with excitement.

Rodney was standing in the doorway still in his station-master’s cap, smiling guiltily. He’d spent far too much money on, among other things, a new train set. Gisela, as though catching the last rays of the sun, was proudly wearing a new red overcoat.

‘Oh Rodney, oh Gisela,’ screamed Abby.

‘Darling, you look happier,’ said Rodney, who never harboured grudges.

On the way down the last flight, Abby lost Shosty, who, indignant at being carted in such a noisy and unseemly fashion, wriggled out of her arms and flounced off to the kitchen.

‘I can feel, I can feel, I can feel Shosty’s fur on my hand,’ whooped Abby, going straight into Gisela’s arms. ‘I’m sorry I’ve been such a bitch, I was so scared.’

Gisela could feel Abby’s face soaked with tears, and her desperate thinness. Her ribs were protruding like an old-fashioned radiator.

‘There, there,’ she stroked Abby’s heaving shoulder, ‘you will get best now.’

Putting down his parcels, Rodney took Abby’s hand and kissed the palm.

‘Can you feel that?’

‘I can feel your beard tickling more than Shosty’s fur.’ Abby was between tears and laughter. ‘I’m gonna play the violin again.’

‘Richter and Wagner shared half a bottle of champagne when Wagner wrote the last bar of The Mastersingers,’ said Rodney happily. ‘We all deserve a nice bottle of Krug.’

Appassionata. FIRST MOVEMENT

NINE

Abby worked for nearly two more years in Lucerne before moving to London to take a conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music. A solid roan-and-white Edwardian building, the Academy stands in the Marylebone Road, flanked by plane trees. The autumn term had already begun, but London was enjoying a very hot Indian summer. Few members of the Academy’s orchestra, red-faced from lugging heavy instruments, noticed the ‘Viva L’Appassionata’ poster hanging from the flagpole as they scuttled in through the glass front door.

Inside, anticipation had reached fever pitch. Since her attempted suicide, Abby had achieved cult status among students who collected her old records and pinned up her posters, portraying her in her tempestuous gypsy beauty. In a materialistic world, she had sacrificed all for love.

In the foyer, therefore, an unusual number of students, who should have been at their various classes, pretended to read notices about scholarships and forthcoming concerts. Such was the excitement that one half expected the antique fiddles to break out of their glass case and offer Abby their services, or Sir Henry Wood in his red robes to shout ‘Bravo’ from his portrait in an ante-room.

As the clock edged towards a quarter past ten, and there was no sign of her, the students reluctantly dispersed, except for a tall boy wearing a navy-blue baseball cap to dry his hair flat, and a girl with a dark red bob, who was scornfully reading a letter which had been pinned to the notice-board:

Dear Musicians,

Thank you for making music with me so delightfully. I must congratulate the Academy on a super orchestra.

With great pleasure

Hermione Harefield

‘Stupid cowpat,’ muttered the girl, and getting out a biro she wrote: PS. If David, the hunky First Trombone, wants to pop in to the Old Mill, Paradise, he’ll be most welcome to a bed for the afternoon.

‘Flo-rah, stop it,’ chided the boy. ‘You’re going to be seriously late.’

‘Oh, all right.’ Grabbing her viola case, Flora hop-scotched across the black-and-white checked floor slap into her teacher.

‘Why the hell aren’t you warming up?’ he said furiously. ‘I put my head on the block putting you forward for this, don’t you dare let me down.’

‘Yes Mr French, sorry Mr French, promise to do my best, Mr French.’

Flora scampered off into the Duke’s Hall where gold-framed portraits of illustrious former students looked down from paprika-red walls on to a packed audience of students, parents, teachers and talent scouts.

Two friends had kept a seat in the back row for the boy in the baseball cap. Flora sauntered up onto the stage where the Academy orchestra, grumbling about the cold after the sunshine outside, were tuning up, practising difficult solos and runs in different directions like skaters. Both sexes were huddled in sweaters and trousers, wore clumpy shoes or trainers and no make-up. The only way you could distinguish the girls was by their long flowing undyed hair, which was mostly drawn back from high clear foreheads, although a few, in Abby’s honour, had turned up with wild Appassionata gypsy curls.

The object today was for this year’s student conductors, who sat in a nervous nail-biting row behind the horns, to try out their skills on the Academy orchestra in the first movement of Bartók’s Viola Concerto.

Flora was playing the solo and she and the musicians had endlessly to repeat the same bits as one conductor after another fumblingly attempted to control the orchestra and were repeatedly taken apart by a genial but highly critical professor, who sat in the second desk of the second violins with a score making notes.

The Bartók concerto is extremely difficult, and with all the stopping and starting, the timpanist, the percussion and the brass (including Hermione’s hunky trombone player) had very little to do, except count bars between the occasional flurry of notes, which they often missed because the conductors forgot to bring them in.

‘You’re not keeping the orchestra down enough,’ shouted the professor to a sweating Swede, who was flapping on the rostrum as though he were about to fly through the vaulted roof. ‘We can’t hear Flora.’

‘Just as well,’ Flora grinned at the Japanese leader, who had a lean beautiful body and a face like a Red Indian. ‘It’s the cadenza next. I’ll need scaffolding and oxygen to reach that top A. What the hell’s happened to L’Appassionata?’

To fox any press who had in fact been humiliatingly non-existent, Abby had been smuggled in by a back door. Shivering behind dark glasses, dying of nerves, she was dickering whether to rush out and be sick again. How could she do justice to such a beautiful piece, particularly when the orchestra were only playing it for the first time?

The soloist, Abby decided, was extremely good. She needed to work on her technique; she ground to a halt twice in the cadenza, and burst out laughing when during a really sad bit she’d caught a friend’s eye in the audience, but generally she executed the high notes effortlessly and joyfully and in the lower register the sound was mellow, dark and mysterious.

She was also extremely attractive. Her figure was hidden by baggy black trousers and a thick black cardigan, but she had a clear pale gold skin, merry green eyes, a plump face ending in a pointed chin and her shining bob was the same warm burnt-sienna as her viola.

Above all, she played with total insouciance keeping up a stream of badinage with the orchestra, chewing gum and reading her tattered poetry book every time there was a pause. Now she was sitting on the lean thigh of the Japanese leader awaiting the next victim, a plump Greek called Adonis, who had soft white hands and gold teeth to match his gold corduroy shirt. All his friends trooped round behind the brass section to video him conducting.

‘Like photographing the captain of the Titanic,’ murmured Flora, getting to her feet.

Sweat was glistening on her upper lip, a russet lock had fallen away from the tortoiseshell slide. There was a chorus of wolf-whistles as she took off her black cardigan to reveal a dark green T-shirt embroidered with yellow daisies and tucked into a wide leather belt.

‘Vy d’you have to distract me viz striptease?’ grumbled Adonis. ‘Now don’t vorry, I vill follow you.’

‘I don’t vant you following me, I want you with me,’ said Flora, raising her viola.

Adonis tried very hard, but the orchestra were all over the place. The genial professor sighed. He was going to have his work cut out with this lot.

That soloist is smart, thought Abby wistfully. Adonis was now going much too fast, but she always caught up.

Glancing sideways, she noticed the boy with the baseball cap. Totally still, really listening, he followed every note Flora played. What a beauty, thought Abby, he’s the one who ought to be called Adonis.

A punch-up was narrowly avoided because Adonis skipped another page and missed out the hunky trombonist’s last entry yet again.

Abby, who’d been studying the concerto for the last fortnight, couldn’t bear to hear it so butchered. But would she do any better? The notes of the score swum meaninglessly before her eyes. Oh God, she hoped she wasn’t going to be sick again.

Adonis was followed by Lorenzo, a handsome Italian who made beautiful gestures, but who seemed more interested in ogling Flora and the video cameras.

‘This one’s got two left hands,’ murmured the professor as Lorenzo kept smoothing his hair with his right hand.

‘You’ve occasionally got to beat in time, Lorenzo,’ he called out. ‘No matter how emotional you feel, you’ve got to first and foremost be a traffic policeman so the orchestra can follow and know where they are, particularly in a piece with so many changes of tempo.’

‘I try again.’

This time extravagant waving and fists clenched to heaven were followed by four bars of total silence.

‘Where am I?’ Lorenzo smote his noble brow.

‘In the Duke’s Hall,’ giggled Flora.

‘You’re lost,’ said the professor.

‘But not forgotten.’ Parking her chewing-gum on the side of the rostrum, Flora gave Lorenzo a kiss.

‘That is a disgusting habit, Flora,’ reproved the professor.

‘I don’t know what score you studied, Lorenzo, but I don’t think it was Bartók’s Viola Concerto.’

The orchestra grinned. Lorenzo turned scarlet, and started to argue.

‘Discuss it with me later,’ said the professor firmly. ‘We’ve got time for one more before lunch.’

The rest of the conductors, waiting behind the horns, leapt to their feet like MPs frantic to speak, but the professor had nodded to the back of the hall.

‘Here comes Abby,’ said Flora, sliding off the leader’s knee.

The Japanese boy looked round.

‘That is not her.’

‘Bet you a tenner.’

‘I don’t have your kind of money.’

Few of the audience or musicians recognized Abby. She was so thin and wore black jeans, a Black-Watch tartan shirt, dark glasses and no make-up. Her hair was short and curly like the young Paganini. The scarlet pouting lips, the clinging minis, the wild gypsy voluptuousness had all gone.

‘Car-worker rather than Carmen,’ murmured Flora.

Abby gave nobody any time to give her a cheer. She carried no score, only a baton, as she loped up the hall and jumped up onto the rostrum. As she whipped off her glasses, the orchestra could see the imperiousness in those strange, unblinking yellow eyes, which was belied by the white knuckles and the frantically knocking knees. For a second she was grabbed by utter panic, her mind a snowstorm. How could she have been so stupid as to conduct without a score?

Then she said quietly; ‘This is a beautiful piece, let’s give it some shape and feeling.’

She suggested some small alterations to the strings and woodwind, then turned to the brass and the percussion. ‘I’m afraid you guys don’t have much to do, which makes it easier to goof off. I’ll try and make things as clear as possible for you. Good luck.’

Her hand, as she raised it, was shaking so crazily even Bartók couldn’t have captured the cross-rhythms, but once she brought it down the entire hall realized who she was, because she was in a class of her own.

The beat of her right hand was knife-edge clear and, although her left hand was a little stiff, she still couldn’t splay her fingers or cup her hand, she managed to show the orchestra exactly what she wanted and in addition convey the emotional intensity she needed. The one vestige of the old Abby was the way she swayed to the music like a dancer.

But she had only to glare at the brass to shut them up and she completely enslaved the trombones by bringing them in exactly right and giving them a radiant smile of approval afterwards.

Flora found it nerve-racking having the world’s greatest violinist beside her, but she loved the way Abby glanced round to synchronize orchestra and soloist, and swept aside the orchestral sound so Flora could always be heard.

Are these the same musicians? Is this the same piece? thought the professor in rapture, letting Abby run through the entire movement without stopping, and then leading a whooping, cheering, stamping round of applause.

‘You have all the marks of a great conductor,’ he told Abby. ‘You have nerve but not nerves. It will be a joy to teach you.’

Everyone was longing to congratulate her, but they were too shy and so was she, so they all left her and scampered off to lunch.

Abby was just pulling out her music case from underneath her chair to put away her stick when she heard a voice say: ‘Excuse me.’

Swinging round, Abby found the soloist and the boy who had been sitting at the end of her row. Standing up he was at least two inches taller than Abby, and when he whipped off his baseball cap, he revealed a beautifully shaped, freckled forehead and hair an even darker red than the girl’s. Abby wondered if they were brother and sister. The girl did the talking.

‘I know it sounds corny, but we’ve got every one of your records. That was a fantastic performance. We wondered if we could buy you lunch, just to celebrate.’

Abby longed to accept but she was so near the edge, that she snapped back: ‘I’m far too busy to waste time eating.’ And then stalked out.

Five minutes later, Flora tracked her down in a distant practice room, trying not to be overheard by the pianist bashing out Liszt’s Dante Sonata next door. Abby was huddled against the blue velvet curtains, her shoulders shaking.

Flora had long been haunted by a description of a vivisection clinic where the animals had their vocal chords cut on admission so, however bad the pain became, all you could hear was desperate rasping. This was the sound Abby was making now.

‘You were seriously good,’ stammered Flora. ‘In fact the only thing to cry about is how awful we were. Mind you, you were lucky to find somewhere to cry, practice rooms are harder to get here than tickets for your old concerts.’

Looking up, Abby saw the kindness in the girl’s eyes belying her flip manner.

‘I’m sorry,’ she croaked. ‘The last time I was on a platform I was playing the Brahms concerto with the CBSO.’

‘I know,’ said Flora. ‘Everyone knows everything about you. Although what a brilliant conductor you’d turned into was certainly hidden in the mists of Lake Lucerne.’

‘It was your solo,’ gulped Abby, fishing for another tissue.

‘I can quite understand that.’

‘No, you play real good. You’ve got a fantastically natural sound, I guess you reminded me of myself.’

‘I should do,’ admitted Flora, ‘having based my style entirely on yours. All our generation has, music schools are churning out more little Abbies than an ecclesiastical property developer!’

Abby’s lips twitched.

‘At least come and have a drink.’

Outside in the sunshine the boy was leaning against the railings, his nose in the selected piano works of Chopin, making notes with a pencil.

‘My name’s Flora Seymour, by the way,’ announced the girl. ‘And this is Marcus Campbell-Black.’

Abby perked up. ‘You must be Rupert’s son.’

Marcus waited, never knowing if the next bit was going to hurt or not.

‘Goodness, you’re like him,’ Abby admired the long, dark, curling eyelashes and the exquisite bone structure. ‘It’s just like looking at a fabric sample in a different colour.’ Except Abby couldn’t ever imagine Rupert blushing or being lost for words.

‘Rupert came to see me in the hospital and gave me this.’ Delving in her jeans pocket Abby produced the silver clove of garlic. ‘To ward off evil. Do tell him I take it everywhere and give him my best.’

‘He said he’d met you,’ said Marcus guardedly.

Round the corner he opened the door of his Aston Martin for her.

‘You go in the back,’ said Flora, ‘then you’ll have room for your legs.’

‘Georgie Maguire: New Man.’ Abby picked up a tape on the back seat in excitement. ‘This must be her latest. Oh wow! Christopher, my ex and I, “Rock Star” was our sort of big tune. I know it’s terrible shmaltz and I shouldn’t say so, but I just adore Georgie’s music.’

‘You should,’ said Marcus, starting up the car and ignoring Flora’s kick on the ankle. ‘Georgie’s Flora’s mother.’

‘Omigod!’

‘I’ll tell her you’re a fan,’ said Flora. ‘She’ll be really pleased, she’s a terrific fan of yours.’

Abby looked at Flora with new respect.

‘Gee, I’m sorry I was rude earlier.’

Flora shrugged. ‘Mum’s the same. She can’t bear strangers muscling in, particularly when she’s coming down after a concert. And she goes ballistic if people drop in at home.’

Abby noticed Marcus wheezing as he drove. Petrol fumes were floating on the hot air and the walk to the car had made him breathless. Reaching into the pocket of his shirt he got out his inhaler and squirted a couple of jets into the back of his throat.

‘Marcus is asthmatic,’ explained Flora. ‘Thank God we can forget about that for a bit.’ Pulling the Bartók concerto out of the stereo she threw it in the glove compartment.

‘Put it back in its case,’ grumbled Marcus. ‘And if you must smoke, don’t use the floor as an asthtray.’

Flora grinned. ‘Don’t be a fusspot.’ Then, turning round to Abby, continued, ‘I can’t get over how different you look.’

‘I cut my hair and my losses. Which did you think was the worst of those conductors?’

‘Adonis by a very swollen head,’ announced Flora.

‘I can’t think how you followed him,’ said Marcus.

‘If you learn to follow any idiot, you get more dates later,’ Flora added scornfully. ‘Conductors are so thick. They carry a white stick to tell everyone they’re deaf. Marcus has been wonderful,’ she added to Abby. ‘He’s been playing the piano version for me all week.’ Leaning across him, she chucked some more chewing-gum out of the window which landed on the shiny dark green flanks of the Bentley drawing up beside them.

‘Jesus, when will you learn to behave?’ Marcus accelerated away from the Bentley’s fist-shaking chauffeur. ‘I thought Lorenzo was even more of a talent-free zone than Adonis. He’s got no sense of rhythm.’

‘He has in bed,’ said Flora. ‘Look at that sweet Jack Russell. I wish I could have a dog in London.’

‘When did you go to bed with Lorenzo?’ asked Marcus in surprise.

‘Oh last week, some time. He keeps wanting repeats. I quite fancy Toniko, I’ve never had a Jap.’

‘Where did you two meet?’ asked Abby, wondering what on earth the relationship was between them.

‘We were at school together,’ said Flora.

Marcus and Flora were the star pupils at the Academy. Marcus was a great beauty. He had inherited Rupert’s Greek profile (so vital in a pianist) and his elegant long-legged, broad-shouldered body. But he also had his mother’s glossy dark red hair, freckles and huge startled eyes, which were the same soft acid green as spring moss. Desperately shy, he was, however, unaware of his miraculous looks and, like a fawn or faun, seemed likely to bolt into mythical woods at any moment. In his third year at the Academy, he was destined for a brilliant career as a pianist if he could conquer his asthma and his nerves.

Flora, who was only in her second year, and who was as sexy and self-confident as Marcus was shy and retiring, had a voice even more beautiful than her mother Georgie. She was still taking singing lessons but, despite pressure from her teachers, who liked to feature illustrious ex-pupils in the prospectus, she showed no interest in taking up singing as a career. Instead she was concentrating on the viola.

Her official excuse was that she didn’t want to be tagged as Georgie Maguire’s daughter.

‘I don’t have Mum’s charisma, nor her ability to project.’

In reality she had been totally wiped out by an affaire with Rannaldini when she was sixteen, and had decided singing was too isolated a career. She had deliberately chosen the viola, that lovely but unobtrusive Cinderella of the instruments, because it blended into the orchestral sound like cornflour, was seldom heard on its own and was the butt of endless jokes.

In doing this Flora felt she was putting on a mental hair shirt, submerging her flamboyant personality, in the hope that God would forgive her the affaire with Rannaldini and somehow alleviate her suffering.

With their famous parents and their hefty private incomes, Marcus and Flora, in the current economic climate of vanishing grants, could have been the victims of a lot of envy and flak at college. As they were both exceptionally talented, utterly without side, and it was soon realized that Marcus’s apparent aloofness was only shyness, any prejudice had swiftly evaporated.

TEN

The quick drink turned into a three-hour session. All the tables outside Marcus’s and Flora’s favourite Italian restaurant were taken, so they lunched inside demanding a large carafe of red wine prestissimo, and larding the rest of their order for canelloni and ratatouille with musical terminology, which involved a lot of back-chat and giggling with the waiters.

Despite their age differences, Abby was nearly twenty-eight, Flora nineteen, Marcus twenty, they found they had a huge amount in common. As children of the famous, Marcus and Flora understood the pressures and the sacrifices.

‘One is never centre stage,’ sighed Flora. Like Abby, both Rupert and Georgie had toured extensively and Marcus told Abby how wretched Rupert had been after he gave up show jumping.

A lot of lunch was spent telling Abby how brilliantly she had conducted. Always boastful when she was unsure of new people, with her tongue loosened by unaccustomed drinking on a very empty stomach, she went into an orgy of name-dropping about the famous musicians who had, it seemed, either tried to screw her or screw up her career. Inevitably she eventually launched into a tirade against Rannaldini.

Flora let her run and, although she had downed most of a carafe of red by the time Abby had finished, no flush had invaded her pale cheeks.

‘Did you sleep with Rannaldini?’ she asked idly.

‘Certainly not,’ said Abby pompously. ‘He came between me and my art.’

Flora kneaded her bread into a pellet and lobbed it at the restaurant cat.

‘When I knew him he came between my legs. Whoops, sorry.’ Then, at Abby’s look of incredulity, continued: ‘I had an affaire with him when I was still at school.’

‘You gotta be joking. What happened?’

‘He dumped me, left me behind like an indifferent paperback in the folds of a hotel bed.’ Flora waved to the waiter to bring another carafe.

‘How long did it last?’

‘It’s a long, long time from May to September,’ sighed Flora. ‘Rannaldini’s so promiscuous, that being hopelessly, hopelessly hooked on him has all the exclusivity of a widow in the First World War, but it doesn’t seem to hurt any less; no safety in numbers.’ Her voice was getting faster and faster. ‘It’s like being alive in your coffin, but no-one hears you scrabbling to get out. I know he’s a shit, but not an hour passes when I don’t want him.’

She dropped her head like a broken daffodil, then the next moment had stubbed out her cigarette on Marcus’s untouched ratatouille.

‘Oh Christ, Markie, I’m sorry.’ Her head fell sideways onto his shoulder. As he put up a freckled right hand to stroke her cheek, she clutched it.

‘Heard the latest viola joke?’ said Marcus to cheer her up.

‘What?’

‘What d’you do with a dead viola player?’

‘What?’

‘Move him up a desk.’

Flora’s mouth lifted slightly.

Marcus had eaten, drunk and talked much less than the others. Occasionally his eyes met Abby’s and a shy, helpless smile drifted across his face. He was beautifully dressed in chinos, a dark brown cashmere sweater and a Prussian-blue shirt, which went perfectly with his dark red hair. When he removed his sweater Abby noticed he had a pianist’s physique: breadth of shoulder, arms grooved with muscle, and big hands that could stretch a tenth with ease. A gold signet ring bearing the Campbell-Black crest flashed on his left hand, as he practised on the table snatches of Chopin’s Grande Polonaise which he had to play in a college recital next week.

He’s very appealing, thought Abby, through a haze of wine. Perhaps I need a toyboy, particularly one who could simplify difficult repertoire by transcribing it for the piano. He also picked up the check.

‘I’ll pay you next week, it’s the end of the month,’ Flora called out as Marcus went over to the till. ‘I think I bought the whole of Jigsaw and HMV yesterday morning. Leave it,’ she said as Abby got out her purse, ‘Marcus gets a massive allowance from Rupert.’

‘How did you two meet?’

‘As I said we were at school together. I’d been drinking at lunchtime, comme toujours. I felt sick during a concert and threw up into Marcus’s trumpet. I think that was the moment Rannaldini fell, albeit temporarily, in love with me.’

Out of the window, a horse-chestnut tree, tawny against the palest blue sky, reminded Flora of the same great bell-like trees in Rannaldini’s park.

‘How was he really?’ she asked as she emptied Marcus’s untouched second glass of wine into her own.

‘Being upstaged by Marcus’s father. Rupert had flown out to sign me up for Declan O’Hara’s programme.’ Again Abby couldn’t resist boasting. ‘Rupert came on really strong; if I hadn’t been crazy about Christopher, we’d certainly have ended up in bed.’

‘I wouldn’t tell Marcus that,’ interrupted Flora sharply. ‘He’s bats about his stepmother.’

Abby jumped slightly as Marcus chucked three gold pound coins onto the red-and-white checked tablecloth. As he put a fiver alongside the pile of notes in his wallet, Abby saw a photograph of a very beautiful redhead.

‘Is that your partner?’ she asked archly. ‘D’you go for redheads?’

‘No, it’s my mother,’ said Marcus.

As it was four o’clock there was no point in going back to the Academy so, after Flora had rushed back to fetch her viola, which she’d left under the table, they tottered down the road to Madame Tussauds because Abby had never seen her own waxwork.

‘I went to see it as a pilgrimage my first day at college,’ confided Flora.

On the top floor, they discovered Rupert’s waxwork in red coat, breeches and brown topped boots, gazing moodily into space among the great sporting heroes.

‘Hi, Dad,’ said Marcus.

Ironically Rupert was next to Jake Lovell who was looking equally unfriendly.

‘Isn’t that the guy?’ asked Abby perplexed.

‘Who ran off with Marcus’s mother,’ said Flora, ‘who we don’t talk about in Rupert’s presence. I’m amazed they don’t come alive at night and throttle each other. Hi, Mum.’

There was Georgie Maguire with her long russet hair and sensual smiling face, clutching a microphone among the pop stars. Drifting into Classical Music, they ran slap into Hermione, mouth wide open in song.

‘Queen of the nightmare,’ stormed Flora, ‘ought to be in the chamberpot of horrors.’

Abby liked Flora more and more, particularly when she removed her chewing-gum and stuck it on Hermione’s nose and topped her dark curls with Marcus’s baseball cap.

‘Flor-ah,’ hissed Marcus, retrieving his baseball cap and looking nervously at an ancient dozing assistant.

‘Hope to God she doesn’t come to life like Hermione’s statue in The Winter’s Tale.’ Getting out a Pentel, Flora drew a big black moustache on Hermione’s upper lip.

Abby was clutching her sides and Flora was lighting an illicit cigarette. Then the temperature plummeted as though they had just stepped out of a plane in the Arctic Circle, and they found themselves confronting a fearsome, lifelike Rannaldini, brandishing his baton like a dirk. Everything was in place, the gardenia, the trained grey hair, the three inches of dazzling white cuff.

‘Waving his wand like the wicked fairy,’ said Flora stonily, ‘Good afternoon, Maestro.’ Drawing heavily on her cigarette, she shoved it between Rannaldini’s fingers.

‘If I was wearing a pin, we could stick it into him,’ said Abby.

By now their giggling had roused the attendant. Marcus hastily distracted him by asking where they could find Abigail Rosen’s waxwork. He’s got a beautiful voice, thought Abby, a bit like Prince Charles’s but with a slight break in it.

The attendant hadn’t recognized Abby and, after much head-scratching and consulting of lists, announced that her waxwork had been melted down because she wasn’t considered famous enough any more.

‘I flew too near the sun,’ said Abby tonelessly.

Once they got outside, she crumpled against Marcus.

‘I guess I’m an applause-junkie worse than Hermione,’ she sobbed into his shoulder. ‘I grumbled about the pressures at the time, OK? I complained endlessly about media intrusion, but I just can’t get used to not being famous any more, no fan mail, never being in the paper, not even the classical music press, and now this.’

The rush-hour traffic, crawling towards the Westway where a huge setting sun blazed like a stop sign, looked on fascinated. A trio of workmen crammed into the front of a blue van, seeing Abby so tall, slim and wide-shouldered in Marcus’s arms; lent out and shouted: ‘Fucking poofters.’

‘Fucking homophobes,’ shouted back Flora, making a V-sign.

‘It’s only because your agents have deliberately kept you out of the public eye,’ she comforted Abby. ‘Look how deliriously excited everyone was today. Once the Press twig you’re the new Karajan, they’ll never leave you alone.’

‘And that’s as bad a nightmare,’ wailed Abby. ‘And I miss my Strad. It’s now being played by a bitch called Maria Kusak. I know she won’t look after it.’

‘I expect she’ll leave it in restaurants like I do,’ said Flora, as they rustled through plane leaves unhinged by the day’s great heat. ‘Now we could go to the Planetarium which would put everything in perspective and make us realize how infinitely trivial our lives are, but unfortunately it’s just shut, so we’re going to take you to meet a very glamorous Russian conductor.’

‘All Russian conductors are drunk and incompetent,’ said Abby ungratefully.

‘Boris is often very drunk but he’s a good conductor,’ said Marcus.

‘And a lot of people unaccountably think he’s a terrific composer,’ added Flora, reflecting that it couldn’t have been good for Abby’s ego, that all the people pouring out of offices stared at Marcus rather than at her.

But Abby had stopped in her tracks.

‘Are you talking about Boris Levitsky who married Rachel Grant?’

Flora nodded.

‘That’s weird.’ Abby was really agitated. ‘I read a piece about Rachel’s suicide. It really influenced me, right, that she could drive off a cliff, because she’d caught Boris cheating on her. After I cut my wrist,’ Abby’s voice broke, ‘I wanted to write to Boris and tell him I was sure Rachel didn’t mean to kill herself. It was just a crazy gesture to wipe out the hurt, with an even greater hurt, anything to make the pain go away.’

‘Tell Boris that, I’m sure it would comfort him,’ said Marcus.

‘Boris was very well known in Russia when I was at the Moscow Conservatoire,’ sniffed Abby later, as Marcus edged the Aston Martin through the traffic. ‘We all went to his concerts. It was a great scandal when he fell in love with Rachel and defected to the West. She was a marvellous player.’

‘I wasn’t a fan of hers,’ said Flora with rare coldness. ‘She was an awful bitch. You couldn’t blame Boris for straying. He used to be one of Rannaldini’s assistant conductors, and Rachel so detested the influence Rannaldini had on him that she had an affaire with Rannaldini out of spite. Took him off me to be exact, that’s probably why I hate her.’

‘But I thought Boris and Rachel were reconciled,’ protested Abby.

‘They were,’ said Flora, ‘but Rannaldini and Boris were after the same job, running the New World Symphony Orchestra in New York. Boris looked as though he was going to get it. He was young, brilliant and back with Rachel. The Scorpion caught him coming out of Chloe’s, his ex-mistress’s, flat. I’m sure Rannaldini tipped them off. Typical shitty thing he would do. Rachel saw the photograph in The Scorpion and drove off the road. Hey presto. Rannaldini, crying crocodile tears over the death of the finest pianist of her generation, lands the New York job. Can we get some drink from that off-licence, Marcus?’

‘We can’t stop here.’

‘We’ll have to stop somewhere. Boris’ll have drunk any drink he’s got. Boris was shattered by Rachel’s death,’ Flora turned back to Abby. ‘Particularly because she left him two young children to bring up. Not a great aid to composition. Despite such set-backs, Boris has had loads of women since Rachel died, men get over these things much more quickly than women, because they’re in a buyer’s market, but he still misses Rachel and feels dreadfully guilty about her. People are always giving him money to write things, then he doesn’t deliver. The Rutminster Symphony Orchestra commissioned a requiem to Rachel more than two years ago. An old duck called Sir Rodney Mackintosh-’

‘I’m his protégée,’ said Abby sniffily, ‘I’ve only been stopping at his house for the past two and a half years.’

I can’t be expected to know her entire c.v., thought Flora irritated.

‘Rodney’s so darling,’ added Abby possessively.

‘Darling,’ agreed Flora. ‘So you probably know Rodney felt sorry for Boris, but again Boris has failed to deliver. Every time he picks up his chewed pencil he thinks about Rachel, starts crying and has to have another huge glass of red wine, and the RSO have to keep rescheduling.’

‘Boris was a great conductor,’ mused Abby.

‘But not especially focused. He’s going out with some big boobed Bratislavian bassoonist tonight. So Marcus and I said we’d babysit.’

ELEVEN

‘Don’t mention Rannaldini,’ muttered Flora as, clinking bottles in time to the clanking of the ancient lift, they slowly climbed to the sixth floor, ‘or Boris will foam at the mouth.’

Boris was already foaming at the mouth. Hardly concealing his manhood with a Ninja Turtle face towel, he was waving a toothbrush instead of a baton. Having opened the front door, he dived into a nearby bathroom to spit out the toothpaste. He had just had a bath and was trying to dry a pair of boxer shorts with a hair-dryer.

Despite a sallow skin, deep-set eyes almost entirely concealed by puffiness, dark hair like an unclipped poodle and a chunky, rugger player’s body, there was an undeniable Byronic smoulder about Boris.

Abby took one look at him, realized she was half an inch taller, kicked off her shoes and bolted to the 100 to repair her smudged eyeliner and even put on some lipgloss.

Boris took one look at Abby and decided to give the Bratislavian bassoonist a miss. He and Abby were soon gabbling in Russian about their Moscow days.

‘What have you got for us to drink?’ asked Flora.

‘I cannot drink, I am on vagon.’ Then Boris saw the bottles Flora was taking out of an Oddbins carrier bag, ‘Oh vell, perhaps I am not.’

Abby was even unfazed by the messiest living-room ever. It was very Russian with crimson and scarlet furniture and gold icons on the midnight-blue walls, but every chair was piled high with clothes. The grand piano buckled under scores, covered in drink rings, and upended silver photograph frames. The dark red velvet cloth on the big table could hardly be seen for hamburger boxes and bottles wafting stale remnants of drink. On the bookshelves were half-eaten apples, overflowing ashtrays, tapes and CDs out of their cases.

While the entire family obviously chucked their shoes and boots in one corner, the rest of the floor was littered with orange peel, pencil sharpenings, tissues and crumpled-up pieces of manuscript paper.

‘Oh Boris, you are a slut,’ sighed Flora. ‘Where are the children — hidden under the rubble?’

‘I forget to tell — the kids, they stay with friends.’

‘Good thing, they’ll get bubonic plague if they stay here.’

Flora removed a curling ham sandwich from the mantelpiece.

‘When did you last eat?’

‘I verk since midnight last night,’ said Boris proudly. ‘Nearly twenty hours.’

While Flora chided, Marcus, who was more practical, had found a black dustbin bag in the kitchen and now settled down to clear up the mess.

‘Where’s the stuff you’ve just written?’

‘I put it in the samovar for safety,’ said Boris.

‘Is it numbered?’ asked Marcus, retrieving it.

‘Not that it matters,’ Flora, who was opening bottles, murmured to Abby. ‘Play it back to front, upside-down, it wouldn’t make any difference.’ She blew a kiss at Boris.

‘Let me see,’ said Abby reverently.

Marcus held out a manuscript page covered in a mass of black corrections.

‘Looks as though a lot of centipedes have been doing the Highland Fling after a mud bath,’ said Flora. ‘Why can’t you use a rubber instead of crossing out?’

‘Because eef my first thought was best, eef I rub it out, it is gone.’

‘How can anyone copy that?’ grumbled Flora.

‘I can,’ said Marcus, removing the pages to the safety of his music case.

‘Vot does eet sound like?’

‘I’ll try and play it later when I’ve tidied up this dump.’

‘What a wonderful wife you’ll make someone.’ Flora lobbed some orange peel at Marcus’s black bag and missed. ‘If you want to make yourself useful,’ she said to Abby, ‘go and wash up four glasses. Abby had a dazzling début as a conductor,’ she was telling Boris as Abby returned with an assortment of mugs, cups and even a small vase.

‘Ear is the only theeng that matter,’ said Boris, filling them all up to the top. ’Ear and rhythm, telling the orchestra how and ven to play. A conductor must learn what is possible to ask, then ask the orchestra ten times more. He must also come into a room at any time and command attention.’

‘“You have that in your countenance which I would fain call master,” or rather maestro,’ quoted Flora, settling down to sort out the mountain of newspapers thrown down by the fireplace.

‘What piece did you do?’ asked Boris.

‘Bartók’s Viola Concerto.’

‘Ah,’ Boris gave a theatrical sigh and drained his glass. ‘Bartók is like me. His last Christmas he could never leave hees flat because he was so ashamed he had no money to tip lift man.’

‘Bartók had security till he was eight, then his father died like mine did,’ said Abby, taking a huge gulp of red wine.

‘He was Aries like me,’ said Flora.

‘Like mine, his genius was never recognized.’ Boris was near to tears. ‘He die in poorness like I shall.’

‘If you gave up drink and worked a bit harder, you’d be very rich,’ said Flora, tipping a pile of Guardians into Marcus’s dustbin bag. ‘Oh look, here’s your hairbrush, that must have been missing for months.’

Removing it from the pile, Flora sat down on the arm of Boris’s chair and started to brush his wild curls.

‘My music reflects the chaos of our times.’

‘I don’t know why you don’t save time and programme this flat instead.’

Ignoring her, Boris topped up Abby’s glass. ‘I am sorry about your wrist. I have all your records. Vil you play again?’

‘My physio thinks so, but I still can’t grip the neck of a violin and my fingers can’t get around the strings.’

‘Eet is same, I ’ave music bursting to get out of my head, but I cannot write.’

‘It’s not the same at all,’ reproved Flora. ‘You can still move a pencil. Don’t be a drama queen.’

‘Ouch,’ said Boris, as she tugged at a tangle at the back. ‘What’s got into you?’

‘I am sick of an old passion. Christ, you’ve got chewing-gum here.’

‘I wanted to tell you, Boris.’ Lowering her voice Abby broke into Russian again, obviously talking about Rachel because soon they were both crying and wiping each other’s eyes and pouring out more glasses of red.

‘Summit meeting between the super powers,’ said Flora drily, as Marcus returned with a second dustbin bag.

Beautiful red-and-blue patterned rugs were beginning to emerge on the floor and a gold-and-blue embroidered shawl on the piano where Marcus was righting the silver-framed photographs of the old days in Moscow: children on toboggans, grannies with swept-up hair, the young Boris with Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

‘That vas my Rachel,’ Boris pointed to a photograph of a beautiful but disapproving-looking woman. ‘She vas a saint.’

‘She was a crosspatch,’ said Flora, getting a black velvet toggle out of her trouser pocket to tie back Boris’s curls. Finally she brushed his wild eyebrows.

‘There, Mel Gibson.’ She kissed the tip of his nose.

‘How many voices are you scoring the Requiem for?’ asked Abby.

‘None,’ said Boris flatly. ‘The instruments play the voices. The RSO chorus is full of squawking amateurs and Hermione Harefield wanted to sing soprano part. So I stop them all. I ’ate singers.’

Returning to the pile through which she was making slow progress because she kept stopping to read things, Flora was now brandishing an unstamped postcard with a charging bison on the back.

‘Why are you writing to Edith Spink?’

‘She send tape of concert of my Berlin Vall Symphony she did in Vest Country. It sound so ‘orrible, I write telling her never to play my vork again. I vondered vot happen to that postcard, geeve it to me.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Flora tore up the postcard and chucked it into Marcus’s black bag. ‘Edith’s a good egg. When Rannaldini blocked my scholarship to the Academy, she put in a good word. You’re stupid to upset her, Boris, she’s on your side.’

‘Not ven she play my music like that. I shall have to go back to teaching.’

‘You can’t, you hated teaching,’ said Flora sensibly. ‘All those staff meetings about handles on lavatory doors, all the fuss when you wanted time off to go to performances, let alone rehearsals. And you can’t compose if you have to write lectures. You’ve got to finish, Rachel’s Requiem.’

‘I never meet a deadline or an honest woman,’ said Boris sulkily.

‘That’s bloody rude when I’ve given you the benefit of my advice. Christ,’ Flora pulled out a sheaf of brown envelopes, ‘don’t you ever pay bills?’

‘Not if I can’t pay them. I cannot buy my kids clothing, I cannot redecorate my flat. Look at the damp.’ Boris pointed to a dark stain above the window.

‘You’ll be able to paper it with brown envelopes,’ said Flora, ‘Here’s one from the Danish National Ballet — surely you don’t owe them any money?’

Opening the envelope Flora triumphantly shook out a cheque for thirty thousand kroners which Boris held up to the light in ecstasy.

‘It’s for ballet they want me to write about Little Mermaid.’

‘That’s terrific,’ said Abby excitedly. ‘You’ll get repeats every time anyone wants to do it and they can sell videos and tapes in the foyer.’

Boris, whose melancholy alternated with raging high spirits, became quite expansive at the prospect of relative riches. Normally he, Flora and Marcus would have played chamber music into the small hours but desisted in deference to Abby.

‘What are your plans?’ he asked her.

‘Take the course at the Academy. I’ve familiarized myself with loads of scores in Lucerne, now I need practise. I’ll take any gig offered.’

Having tidied up as much of the sitting-room as possible, Marcus was wheezing so badly from the dust that he had to retreat to the kitchen, resort to a couple of puffs from his inhaler, and sit down for ten minutes, hunched over the kitchen table to recover his breath. Then he started on supper. There was only a certain amount of his day that he could cope with other people. He needed to be alone now to think about next week’s concert.

Finding a lot of eggs of dubious antiquity, some rockhard Gruyère and some big tomatoes, he decided to make cheese omelettes and tomato salad. There was no vinegar so he used the juice of a wrinkled lime and brought a loaf out of retirement by turning it into garlic bread.

Rubbing the Gruyère up and down the grater until the curls of cheese had overflowed the bowl, he studied the Chopin, humming and making notes.

‘Need a top-up?’ It was Abby with a bottle.

Marcus shook his head.

She looked much better than she had earlier. There was a sparkle in her eyes and colour in her cheeks.

‘My, that’s good,’ Abby pinched a bit of tomato out of the salad bowl. ‘Who taught you to cook?’

‘My stepmother.’

‘The divine Taggie,’ teased Abby. ‘Hermione Harefield said she wasn’t a woman of substance.’

‘She’s the most s-s-ubstantial person I know,’ stammered Marcus furiously. ‘She’s b-b-eautiful and k-kind and she’s the only woman who’s ever made my father happy. That bitch Hermione’s just jealous.’

‘I told you to keep your trap shut, Abby,’ said Flora, appearing in the doorway.

After supper, leaving the others to drink and gossip, Marcus settled down to play the piano. Boris’s flat was on the second floor of a four-sided block which looked out on to a square of garden dominated by a huge golden catalpa.

It was so mild that people in the surrounding flats opened their windows, wrapping their children in duvets, so they could all listen to Marcus until the stars came out, clapping and cheering whenever he stopped and shouting for him to go on.

‘Audience don’t do zat for me,’ grumbled Boris. ‘But he is good boy,’ he confided to Abby, ‘I teach him piano at school. Ven Rachel die he turn up at the house asking what he could do, looking after kids, helping me sort things out. He is gentle, but he is not at all vimp and he play like dream.’

Abby, a bit drunk now, was equally enchanted but also tearful. She must not neglect her physio.

Having dispatched the Grande Polonnaise with a great flourish, Marcus got out more music and launched into a modern piece, explosions of crashing notes, interspersed with a sad, haunting tune.

‘That’s beautiful,’ called out Abby. ‘What is it?’

‘Ees familiar.’ Boris looked perplexed.

‘Bloody well should be,’ said Marcus. ‘It’s part of the “Dies Irae” from Rachel’s Requiem. I finished transcribing it last night.’

‘I wrote that?’ Boris leapt to his feet. ‘Play it again. Where’s my violin?’

‘Under the sofa,’ said Flora.

Impatiently Boris tuned up and began to play the main tune with Marcus accompanying. Marcus’s copying was dark and clear which made it very easy to read.

Having Jewish blood like Abby, Boris tended to soup up the melody, playing very emotionally with great rhetorical gestures.

‘This is very grateful piece,’ he told Abby and Flora in delight.

‘You mean rewarding,’ corrected Flora. ‘Yes, it’s breathtaking. Like Bartók, “full of hitherto undreamed of possibilities”.’

Occasionally stopping to change a note, totally absorbed, they played on.

‘Marcus is seriously good,’ Abby told Flora. ‘Nothing can stop him making it.’

‘Let’s make some coffee,’ Flora led Abby into the kitchen.

‘Marcus is happy and relaxed at the moment,’ she went on, ‘because he’s among friends and he’s had the odd drink but he’s crippled by nerves, throwing up for hours before concerts, and he’s already had to cancel two recitals because of asthma attacks, which doesn’t help in the music world, which hates unreliability.

‘Shall we wash up?’ Flora looked unenthusiastically at the supper plates.

But, as the dish-washer was still working overtime, gurgling away cleaning all the silver and china they’d unearthed from the sitting-room, she decided to leave it.

‘Nothing ever gets clean that I wash by hand.’

After some rootling around she found a tin of Gold Blend in the breadbin and, unable to find a spoon, shook some coffee into four cups.

‘Also,’ she added, switching on the kettle, ‘Marcus has a terrible hang-up about Rupert, who doesn’t see the point of him at all.’

‘But Rupert seemed so caring in BA,’ said Abby perplexed. ‘And when he visited me in the hospital.’

‘Rupert’s dazzling,’ agreed Flora, ‘but the brighter the moon, the darker the shadow it casts and it’s no fun being son of Superstud. Rupert’s always preferred Tabitha, Marcus’s younger sister, and he passionately disapproves of his son and heir taking up anything as drippy as the piano, when he should be at home learning how to run the estate.’

‘How did it turn out with those kids Rupert adopted?’

‘That’s the worst part,’ sighed Flora. ‘I’m afraid there’s no milk. Rupert’s totally besotted with the boy, Xavier, cured his squint and nearly his birthmark, got him racing round on Lysander’s old Shetland pony. Rupert’s got the tearaway he’s always wanted,’ Flora lowered her voice. ‘It’s crucified Marcus.’

Returning to the living-room, Abby heard a voluptuous explosion of notes, and gave a cry of joy. Marcus was playing Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata.

‘It’s so darling, to play that — well — sort of in my honour.’ She went over to the piano.

‘Sort of,’ Marcus blushed, being a truthful boy. ‘Next week I’m also playing it in a recital at college.’

‘I’ll come along,’ said Abby in excitement, making Marcus blush even more darkly. ‘Did you know that to understand the Appassionata, Beethoven said you have to read The Tempest?

This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury, and my passion,

With its sweet air.’

Marcus nodded. ‘My stepfather told me, and quoted the same lines. Sorry,’ as a flurry of wrong notes resulted, ‘I’m no good at talking and playing.’

Abby retreated to the sofa.

‘God, my back aches,’ said Flora, who was plaiting Boris’s hair. ‘Three hours of Bartók takes it out of you.’

‘I’ve got some Ibuleve in the bathroom,’ said Boris.

A smell of bonfires was still drifting in through the open window. Glancing at his watch Marcus saw it was nearly eleven o’clock. They were still clamouring for more in the flats outside. He’d better stop soon or the kids would never get to bed. He launched into Roger Quilter’s Children’s Overture.

‘There was a lady loved a swine,’ sang Flora, as she returned with the Ibuleve.

That’s a stunning voice, too, thought Abby in envy. Goodness they were a talented trio!

Flora slumped between Boris’s knees, calmly pulling off her daisy-embroidered T-shirt and using it to cover high, pointed breasts, as Boris began to rub the gel into her shoulders.

And I wonder what their relationship is, thought Abby.

Glancing across the room as he launched into ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’ Marcus met Abby’s eyes, saw the admiration in them and thought how lovely she looked, her strong, proud face softened by the lamplight. She was much more boyish than he’d expected. Sitting on the sofa, her long legs tucked underneath her, she looked like a model for Gentleman’s Quarterly.

Marcus’s timidity with women had been exacerbated two years ago at the stag-party of Basil Baddington, one of his father’s wilder cronies. Rupert, irked by Marcus’s apparent lack of interest in girls (after all, he was supposed to produce an heir one day), had organized a hooker.

Marcus had been quite unable to get it up and had been violently sick. Terror, which makes people take deeper breaths, triggered off a violent asthma attack, which could have been fatal. The whole thing was hushed up by Rupert’s GP, the admirably unflappable James Benson, who got Marcus onto a nebulizer at the local hospital just in time.

Before he’d lost consciousness, miserably aware of regurgitated wine all down his dress-shirt, Marcus had heard James Benson reproving his father.

‘You must be more careful with him, Rupert, you know he’s never been strong.’

By mutual agreement neither Taggie nor Marcus’s mother had been told of this disaster, but Marcus’s relationship with Rupert, always shaky, had inevitably deteriorated.

Reluctant to witness the love he had always craved, so unstintingly lavished on little Xavier, Marcus had avoided Pensombe and concentrated on his career. Girls, except Flora who was more of a pal, were avoided even though they chased him like mad, not least because of his father’s bank balance.

Last night after copying out Boris’s score until long after midnight, Marcus had collapsed into bed, only to be jolted by a terrifyingly erotic dream about Boris, and woken, sobbing his heart out because it could never be possible.

Having dreaded confronting Boris today, he was ecstatic to find himself suddenly so attracted to Abby. His blue shirt was still stiff from the salt of the tears she’d shed outside Madame Tussauds. All this added radiance to his playing.

‘Who did Marcus’s mother marry?’ asked Abby, thinking of the stepfather who had quoted The Tempest.

‘Malise Gordon, thirty years older,’ replied Flora, writhing half in ecstasy, half in pain under Boris’s fingers. ‘He’s been a brilliant stepfather and really encouraged Marcus, but that doesn’t make up for one’s own father not giving a toss.’

Flora suddenly shivered. They had been so wrapped up in talking they hadn’t realized how cold it had become. As she banged down the big sash window the telephone rang. It was Helen, Marcus’s mother, in hysterics. It was a few moments before Boris could get any sense out of her. Malise had had a massive stroke and been rushed to hospital. Marcus must go home at once.

TWELVE

Marcus drove straight home to Warwickshire. He was bitterly ashamed afterwards that his main emotion was despair that he would probably have to duck out of a recital yet again, and disappointment that he would no longer be faced with the terrifying yet magical prospect of Abby in the audience. He wasn’t even very worried about Malise who, never having let him down, seemed unlikely to start now.

In fact Malise never regained consciousness. Marcus was devastated. He had loved his stepfather deeply. Kind, formal, old enough to be his grandfather, Malise had always encouraged him. They had played endless duets together; Malise had explained harmony, taken Marcus to concerts and shared with him his 78s of Myra Hess and Denis Matthews and Solomon. He had also provided him with a role model of total integrity and honour.

But Marcus had to surpress his anguish in order to comfort his mother who, having been adored and wrapped in cotton wool by Malise for sixteen years, was quite incapable of coping with funerals, let alone life, on her own.

The Press, of course, had a field-day dredging up the old story of how Malise as chef d’équipe had held the British Show-Jumping Team together during their golden era, and how during the LA Olympics, when Rupert Campbell-Black’s great rival, Jake Lovell, had run off with Rupert’s wife, Helen, the team had gone on with one man short to win the gold. There was also a lot of guff about how Malise had picked up the pieces, marrying Helen and restoring her self-confidence, which had been shattered by eight years of hell married to Rupert, and a disastrous few weeks with a miserably dispossessed Jake, who couldn’t wait to belt back to his wife.

The funeral was rather like a rerun of Madame Tussauds with all the show-jumping greats rolling up to pay their last respects and Rupert and Jake glaring into space.

As a further insult, Jake had brought along his son Isaac, a brilliant young jockey, who had beaten one of Rupert’s horses earlier that week. The only thing that could have redressed the balance for Rupert would have been if Marcus could have played Malise’s favourite Bach Prelude quite beautifully on the Steinway that Helen had insisted on hiring for the service.

But Marcus’s asthma always grew worse under stress and, in the panic of overseeing all the last-minute arrangements, he forgot to bring his inhaler. He just managed to help carry the coffin the three hundred yards across the village green to the church before collapsing fighting for breath beside his mother.

Helen was still young enough at forty-four to be described as ‘absolutely stunning’ rather than ‘having been absolutely stunning’. She was far too unnerved at seeing Jake again after all those years, and wondering guiltily if she were wearing too much blusher and eyeshadow on the grounds that Malise would have wanted her to look beautiful, to notice Marcus’s plight.

Unfortunately a church filled with flowers and the fumes from the ancient pew, which had recently been treated for woodworm, made the band round Marcus’s chest even tighter.

Rupert’s best friend, Billy Lloyd-Foxe, had reduced everyone to tears, including himself, reading the ‘Dedication to the Horse’, which always brought the house down at the end of the Horse of the Year Show. According to the service sheet Marcus should have been next but, white and sweating, he could only clutch his chest and shake his head, so, after a long agonizingly embarrassed pause, the parson, who had been a family friend for years, twigged what was up and carried on with the service.

Marcus was only aware of the reproach in his mother’s eyes.

‘I didn’t break down, I didn’t fail, Malise,’ she seemed to be saying and such a public failure would only confirm Rupert’s conviction that his son totally lacked big-match temperament.

Marcus had also been incapable of carrying the coffin to the graveside. Staggering back to the beautiful Queen Anne rectory in which Malise had lived all his life, revived by several squirts from his inhaler, he had been able to hand round drinks and sandwiches. There had been a horrible fascination in being introduced by Helen to Jake Lovell. He was amazed his mother could have left his gilded glamorous father for anyone so small and insignificant.

And then Rupert had walked into the room, caught the three of them talking and stalked right out of the house dragging a protesting Taggie and Tabitha with him.

Returning to the kitchen for more sandwiches Marcus had found Malise’s big-boned tactless daughter, who’d been brought up in the Old Rectory and whose eyes were now running over the furniture like beetles, wondering what she could claw back.

‘The boy’s not going to be much support to Helen,’ she was saying to Mrs Edwards, Helen’s daily. ‘Sickly looking fellow. Daddy did so much for him.’

And Marcus had wanted to shout: ‘I loved him, too.’

But the funeral was only the beginning of the nightmare. Malise had left his desk and everything else in order. To quote his favourite writer Montaigne, he had been ‘booted and spurred and ready to depart’. He had also hidden his worries from Helen so well that she’d had no idea how badly he’d been hit by Lloyd’s. He had made the Old Rectory and its twenty acres over to Helen, but not lived the necessary seven years to avoid estate duties. What little money was left would be eaten up paying the Lloyd’s losses.

Helen was so distraught Marcus felt he had to give up his London digs and stay with her at least for the autumn term. Helen managed to justify this sacrifice as not being too great. It would be so much better for Marcus’s asthma living in the country and commuting to London for his weekly lessons, and at least it would get him away from that trampy Flora.

Helen was too self-centred to realize how upset Marcus was by Malise’s death. She had always lacked the gift of intimacy and been admired rather than liked. Now, for the first time in her life, she felt popular and absolutely amazed by everyone’s kindness: the wonderful letters, the solicitous telephone calls, the invitations to stay, the quiches and apple-turnovers left in the porch: Dear Helen you must eat!

But once this stream of sympathy dried up and she no longer had the funeral to plan, Helen sunk into apathy. Terrified of becoming addicted she refused to take tranquillizers or sleeping-pills, or even a stiff drink to get her through the increasingly dark winter evenings.

She had never got on with her daughter Tabitha, who was still at boarding-school, who spent all her time at Penscombe with Rupert and Taggie; Marcus and his career therefore became all she had to live for. Marcus felt the millstone of her dark cloying love weighing him down and once again was ashamed of longing so much for all the fun of his London life with Flora, Boris and now Abby. The piano seemed to be his only refuge.

Meanwhile, over in New York, Rannaldini had not been enjoying the domination over the New World Symphony Orchestra he had hoped for, possibly because his musicians were in revolt that he earned a hundred times more in a night than they did in a week. He was still having gruelling battles with the unions and endless lawsuits had been brought by unfairly sacked musicians. There was also the unread pile of unsolicited manuscripts and far too much contemporary music to programme and no Boris to weed out and translate it for him any more.

Two and a half years on, Rannaldini was also still brooding on how he could get his revenge on Rupert, for orchestrating the break-up of his marriage to Kitty and hijacking his plane in BA.

‘The elm is a patient tree,’ murmured Rannaldini, ‘it hateth and waiteth.’

A few days after Malise’s death Rannaldini was lunching on oysters and seafood salad in his penthouse flat which was papered with platinum discs and photographs of himself with the famous and which overlooked the tawny autumnal beauty of Central Park.

Picking up The Times which was flown out to him every day from London, Rannaldini observed that another wife was standing by her cabinet minister husband. The photograph had been cropped at waist level, but Rannaldini felt sure the wife had a stiletto heel in her husband’s Gucci toe-cap and a knee in his groin despite the linked arms and the frenetically smiling faces. Kitty had not stood by him — the bitch.

Turning the pages, easing a piece of squid out of his back teeth, Rannaldini discovered Malise’s obituary, a glow job describing his brilliant war, his knowledge of paintings, his work on the flute and his skill as a chef d’équipe where he was the only person who could harness the genius of Rupert Campbell-Black.

He is survived by a second wife and one daughter from his first marriage, read Rannaldini, pouring himself another glass of Pouilly-Fumé.

He could remember the exquisite Helen at a school concert, definitely one of Rupert’s finest thoroughbreds, an earnest intellectual snob, thirty years younger than her upright second husband and in need of a little excitement.

Smiling, Rannaldini took out a piece of dove-grey writing-paper, and picked up his jade-green fountain-pen. He wrote in green ink:

My dear Helen, (may I?)

Please forgive my presumption but going through some old newspapers which I hadn’t had time to read, I found The Times obituary of your husband.

What an extraordinary fine-looking, multi-talented man. I had no idea that the M. M. Gordon, who wrote, to my mind, the definitive work on the flute, was married to you. I would so like to have met him.

You won’t remember but we met briefly when your son accompanied my daughter Natasha when she sang ‘Hark, Hark the Lark’ at a Bagley Hall concert a few years ago. He showed immense promise. I hope he has taken up the piano as a career.

You must be utterly desolate but please comfort yourself. As Voltaire wrote-

Rannaldini sighed with pleasure. Helen would love Voltaire, but he decided to translate the poem, Americans weren’t too hot on French.

There are two deaths,

And one is such that all men dread and all abhor.

The one is to be loved no more,

The other’s nothing much.

This is in no way to dismiss the depths of your suffering but at least you are safe in the knowledge you were never betrayed. My young wife left me for a boy her own age two and a half years ago. I cannot say I envy you, but at least Malise’s love for you and yours for him is intact and untarnished.

Does Malise have any unpublished work? I would be so interested to read it and assist its publication.

Perhaps when your heart is a little easier you would have lunch with me. I have a jet or a helicopter that could collect you, perhaps when I am next in London, and we could share our sadness.

Yours ever,

Rannaldini.

‘Hark, Hark the Lark,’ sang Rannaldini as smirking, he sealed the envelope and set the letter aside to be posted in a few weeks’ time when the trickle of consoling letters would have dried up and his would have far more impact.

Helen was utterly charmed. Rannaldini’s letter arrived at the beginning of November at the nadir of her despair. It looked as though she was definitely going to have to sell the Old Rectory and Malise’s daughter, whom she had never liked, although she’d taken on Malise’s two black labradors which Helen had also never liked, was contesting the will and had laid claim to Malise’s prettier pieces because they were family heirlooms.

Of course Helen remembered Rannaldini from the school concert, arriving late and plonking himself next to Hermione Harefield so Helen had been forced to move back a row and sit next to Rupert, who had behaved abominably as usual, whispering to Taggie and even nodding off and snoring in counterpoint to the Mozart concerto Marcus had been playing so beautifully.

Helen was utterly heartbroken over Malise’s death but Rannaldini’s letter comforted her. She wrote back a charming note, littered with quotations, saying lunch would be delightful. After all, she told herself firmly, Rannaldini might well be able to give Marcus a leg-up in his career.

Marcus, meanwhile, with conspicuous gallantry, had tackled his father about giving Helen an allowance. Rupert had replied that he’d think about it but had gazed out of the window at the reddy-gold leaves cascading down from his towering beeches as fast as his money seemed to be pouring into Lloyd’s. Thank God, he hadn’t been too badly hit and had never risked the house or any of the land, but he didn’t see why the hell he should support Helen. It was sixteen years since she’d buggered off and he’d paid every penny to support Marcus and Tabitha and was still giving them both whacking great allowances.

When he’d first met Helen she had been working for a publisher and always pointing out his literary déficiences. She could bloody well get a job now.

Privately Rupert was absolutely livid with Helen for asking Jake Lovell back to the house after the funeral. Jake was doing too bloody well as a trainer and Rupert was consumed by all the ancient jealousy that Malise had loved Jake more than him.

To top it, Taggie had enraged Rupert by asking Helen to stay for Christmas, claiming that she and Marcus couldn’t be all alone the first year after Malise’s death.

‘I suppose you’re going to serve lame duck at Christmas dinner?’ he said nastily.

And Taggie, remembering Sister Angelica’s warning about too many limping ducks, felt a cold chill.

THIRTEEN

Rannaldini planned his first telephone call to catch Helen at a particularily low ebb. She had just returned from Evensong at which Malise should have been reading the lesson. The church had always been full of admiring ladies on such occasions. Tonight they had turned up to see how his widow was coping. Not very well it seemed. Afterwards, as Helen emerged into the drizzle of a chill November evening, feeling them all shying away, she had scuttled off, black-scarfed head bowed, slipping on the yellow leaves concealing the slimy paving stones. She was too distraught to pause and to speak a word of comfort to Malise in his cold bed. Tomorrow she would bring him the pinched remnants of the rose garden.

As Marcus had gone to hear Murray Perahia playing at the Wigmore Hall, Helen had a long night ahead, terrified of sleeping alone since the black labradors had departed, even more terrified of waking to the horrors of life without Malise and a new one hundred thousand pound Lloyd’s bill.

The telephone was ringing as she came through the door. Malise? An instinctive desperate hope, but it was only a friend who’d been in church bossily summoning her to a dinner party.

‘Only ten of us, do you good to get out. Eight for eight-thirty, strictly caszh.’

Helen had never been casual in her life.

‘I’m not up to it, Annabel.’

‘Course you are, I’ve asked Meredith Whalen for you. Such a duck and when one gets to our age, I’m afraid one has to put up with gays.’

‘Why should some poor gay have to put up with me? I’m sorry, I can’t.’

Helen banged down the receiver with such force the roses on the hall table scattered dark red petals all over the flagstones, joining a shoal of leaves which the icy wind had swept in through the still open front door. The drawing-room flowers were dropping. She mustn’t let standards slip. The telephone rang again.

‘I truly can’t, Annabel,’ she shrieked hysterically.

‘Signora Gordon,’ said a deep caressing velvety voice, ‘’Ow are you. Theese ees Rannaldini ’ere.’

He was so gently solicitous that Helen found herself quite able to accept an invitation to lunch on Wednesday, when Rannaldini’s spies had made sure Marcus would be safely at the Academy.

Helen had always prided herself on her homework, but on this occasion she had no need to buy any of Rannaldini’s CDs, Malise had collected most of them, admiring their clarity, colour and controlled passion.

Helen also rewatched Rannaldini’s famous video of Don Giovanni and found it deeply disturbing as the cameras lingered on Hermione Harefield’s rosy romping nudity and even more so on the still cold face and beautifully moving hands of Rannaldini himself.

She was horrified that with Malise only two months dead she should be thrown into such a panic at the prospect of lunching with such a fatally glamorous man, or how resentful she felt towards Malise for leaving her too poor to buy a new dress. She couldn’t find her newish olive-green cashmere anywhere, wretched Tabitha must have whipped it, which meant she had to fall back on the Saint Laurent black suit she’d worn to Rupert’s and Taggie’s wedding. At least its white puritan collar would hide the dandruff which had snowed down since Malise’s death.

Wednesday morning brought more devastating bills. Helen, who’d been up at first light, spent the morning in tears tidying unnecessarily. She had felt her daily woman’s chaperonage when Rannaldini arrived was more important than the gossip Mrs Edwards would later impart round the village.

But as a final straw, Mrs Edwards rolled up, puffing with excited disapproval and brandishing a bad-taste piece in The Scorpion. Who would Helen, the most beautiful widow in England, marry now? Suggestions included Pierce Brosnan, Boris Levitsky, Richard Ingrams, Edward Heath, Julian Clary, Lysander’s father, David Hawkley — a darkly handsome headmaster who was, as The Scorpion pointed out, a dead ringer for Malise; and, horror upon horror: Rannaldini, photographed smouldering on the rostrum.

Helen couldn’t stop blushing, as she told Mrs Edwards, that by extraordinary coincidence Signor Rannaldini would be popping in that morning to look at the colonel’s unpublished work on the flute.

‘I must f-find a f-folder for it,’ she stammered, bolting upstairs.

‘And I should coco,’ muttered Mrs Edwards, taking a hefty slug of the colonel’s sloe gin before strategically positioning herself with the Antiquax in the study off the hall. Not that there was much to polish. The poor little soul couldn’t stop cleaning since the colonel had passed away.

In front of her dressing-table Helen prayed her blushes would not spread to horrible red blotches on her neck. Starting on her face, she plucked a grey hair from her left eyebrow, and five more from her temples, combing lustreless tendrils over her hair line to hide more dandruff. It would be drifting soon.

Taking her hand-mirror to the window she gasped in horror. With a compass, despair and worry had scratched new lines round her pinched mouth and reddened eyes.

Outside, the garden looked horribly untidy, half the trees stripped, half-showing rain-blackened limbs at awkward dislocated angles as they struggled out of their red-and-yellow rags. Then before her eyes a gust of wind covered the lawn with leaves again. Malise had insisted on sweeping them up at once. The leaves would break her in the end.

Glancing in the mirror she saw that tears had left a blob of mascara on her cheek-bone. As she wiped it away the skin stayed pleated. Helen gave a groan. She couldn’t face Rannaldini. Mrs Edwards would have to say she was ill.

But, bang on midday, punctual for the first time in his life, Rannaldini landed his big black helicopter on the lawn sending all the leaves swirling upwards around him as he leapt out; Don Giovanni returning from the eternal bonfire.

‘Blimey,’ said Mrs Edwards, applying Antiquax on top of Antiquax.

For Rannaldini was stained mahogany from ten days studying scores in the Caribbean sun. Wading through the leaves like a surfer he handed Helen a big bunch of tabasco-red freesias. Then he briefly put his arms round her so she could enjoy the muscular springiness of his body and its sauna-warmth as though he had indeed emerged from hell-fire.

‘I know exactly how tired and lonely and cold you feel all the time,’ he murmured, then stepping back and staring deep into her eyes. ‘But nothing dim you great beauty. No wonder autumn ees in retreat when you upstage heem like this.’

Rannaldini had always been able to lay it on with a JCB. Blushing redder than the freesias Helen invited him in while she put them in water.

Better than a film star, thought Mrs Edwards, kicking the study door further open as she rubbed Antiquax into the blue damask arm of a chair.

As Helen belted off to find a vase and slap on another layer of Clinique foundation, Rannaldini explored the charming drawing-room, with its apricot walls, faded grey silk curtains and glass cases containing Helen’s porcelain collection. One would have to break the glass to reach her as well, reflected Rannaldini.

He thought it a particularly beautiful room because of the preponderance of his records and because of a photograph of Tabitha on the piano. Bareback, astride an old grey pony, her hair was in a blond plait and her eyes were as cool and disdainful as Rupert’s.

The elm is a patient tree, it hateth and waiteth, thought Rannaldini lasciviously.

Malise had had a good eye for paintings. Rannaldini admired a Cotman and a little Pisarro, but what had possessed him to hang that frightful oil of poplars against a sunset with a cow which looked more like a warthog in the foreground? Then he read the rather obtrusive signature: Helen Gordon.

On a side table was an open poetry book.

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

could have recovered greenness? read Rannaldini.

In the desk the green leather blotter wouldn’t close round the sheaf of bills. Flipping through them Rannaldini saw that Helen really was in trouble. The Cotman and the Pisarro would soon be off to Sotheby’s.

Hearing her footsteps as she returned with the freesias in a saxe-blue jug, he turned back to her painting.

‘This is excellent.’

‘Oh, how darling of you. Malise liked it. I didn’t have much time but perhaps now-’ Helen’s voice trailed off, then pulling herself together she picked up a file on a side-table.

‘You said you’d like to see Malise’s unpublished work. Have you really got time?’

‘It is huge honour, I will make time,’ lied Rannaldini.

Mrs Edwards was polishing the hall table now to have a better look. The Colonel had been a real gentleman, although rather frail towards the end, but this fellow looked as though he had three or four more pints of blood pumping round his veins and that lovely Boris Chevalier accent.

‘You help Malise?’ asked Rannaldini.

‘I made suggestions,’ said Helen eagerly.

‘How lucky to have someone to share one’s life work.’

Rannaldini’s deep sigh fluttered the pages as he returned them to the file.

‘It’s fascinating how the flute was given the cold shoulder by musicians in the nineteenth century,’ began Helen earnestly, ‘because it lacked sufficient expressive range.’

‘May I?’ To shut her up, Rannaldini took Malise’s flute out of its case, tuned for a second and started to play.

‘Prokofiev. Malise played that.’ Helen’s eyes filled with tears.

‘I am sorry. I will stop.’

‘No, no, I never dreamt I’d hear it again so soon. Do you play other instruments?’

‘Piano, oboe, trumpet, bassoon, violin, teemps.’

‘Goodness, with so many accomplishments what made you become a conductor?’

Rannaldini laughed.

‘Because at heart every man wants to be a fuhrer. We must go to lunch. I take you home.’ Then seeing the apprehension in Helen’s eyes, added, ‘Don’t worry, my secretaries, my gardener, my ‘ousekeeper and her ‘usband, my driver, Uncle Tom Cobbley and probably his grey mare will all chaperone you.’

As the helicopter circled the Old Rectory before turning south, Helen could see Mrs Edwards belting down the drive twenty minutes early and gave a wail.

‘I forgot to put on the alarm, I’m so scared of being burgled.’

Rannaldini smiled at her. It’s already too late, my darling.

Orange leaves of beech, saffron flames of larch still flickered in the umber woods as they flew over the little village of Paradise up the River Fleet to Rannaldini’s house, Valhalla, lurking pigeon-grey and wrapped in its conspirator’s cloak of trees.

Helen had a heady glimpse of tennis-courts, a swimming-pool, the dark serpentine coils of a yew-tree maze, wonderful gardens, horses out in their rugs in fields sloping down to the river and deep in the wood, the watch-tower, where Rannaldini worked and seduced. Valhalla itself, narrow-windowed and brooding had been built before the Reformation.

‘I’ve been reading a fascinating book on the dissolution of the monasteries,’ began Helen.

Not wanting another lecture, Rannaldini whisked her down dark passages, past suits of armour, tattered banners and tapestries into a red drawing-room.

‘How pretty,’ gasped Helen.

‘Meredith Whalen decorate it and the kitchen when I was married to Keety. You ’ave such exquisite taste, I pay you to theenk up new colour schemes.’

‘Oh, I couldn’t take your money.’

‘My child,’ purred Rannaldini, ‘I know you need eet, as I need your help to exorcize bad memory of my life with Keety. Next week I go to Prague for ten days. By the time I return you must think up something wonderful.’

But Helen was crying again.

‘Malise and I were going to Prague on 21 November for our anniversary. Malise tried to get tickets for a production of Don Giovanni at the Stasis Theatre. Mozart premièred it there in November 1787, you know, and that was where they made Amadeus. But it was sold out.’

‘Because I am conducting,’ smirked Rannaldini.

‘Of course, how stupid of me,’ said Helen appalled. ‘Since Malise died I don’t remember anything.’

‘Eet ees shock. It’ll come back.’ Rannaldini poured her a glass of Pouilly-Fumé. ‘You shall come to Prague with me instead.’

‘But I can’t leave Marcus and I can’t afford it,’ babbled Helen.

‘You will be my guest. I stay in flat. I book you room in nice hotel. I will send you plane ticket and ticket for Don Giovanni just for twenty-four hours, you deserve a treat.’

Putting a warm hand on her neck as comforting as a wool scarf just dried on the radiator, he led her down more passages to the big kitchen whose walls were covered in a glossy green paper, populated by jungle animals and birds.

‘I certainly couldn’t improve on this,’ sighed Helen.

‘I want eet changed,’ said Rannaldini chillingly. ‘Keety loved the parrots and the humming-birds. I want eet out. Sit down. I will make your lunch.’

‘A bowl of soup will do,’ stammered Helen. ‘I can’t eat at the moment.’

‘Then you will start.’

From a next-door office, despite faxes billowing out like smoke, four telephones constantly ringing and the raindrop patter of expensive computors, Rannaldini’s secretaries, who’d all read The Scorpion, kept finding excuses to pop in and gawp at Helen.

Princess Margaret’s office had rung, they said; Domingo wanted advice on an interpretation; Sir Michael Tippett wondered if Rannaldini had had a moment to look at his latest opera; Hermione had rung four times. Rannaldini said he would call them all back later.

As he cooked, checking rice, throwing pink chunks of lobster into sizzling butter, then laying them tenderly on a bed of shallots, tarragon and tomatoes, separating eggs, boiling down fish stock, Helen talked. Her tongue loosened by a second glass of wine, she told him about her money problems, the big house she couldn’t afford to keep up, Marcus’s asthma and her worries about his friendship with Flora. She was delighted when Rannaldini dismissed Flora as ‘an evil little tramp’.

‘We will take Marcus to the mountains,’ he went on warmly, then his voice thickened like the eggs in the double saucepan. ‘How about your daughter?’

‘Quite out of control.’ Helen didn’t want to tell him how incensed she had been about the appropriation of the olive-green cashmere. So she added: ‘At half-term Tabitha borrowed my credit card saying she needed some school books, then used it to buy a pair of jeans and spend the afternoon on a sunbed. I cannot stand such vanity and such lies.’

Rannaldini, who was no stranger to lies and would have been quite out of control on a sunbed with Tabitha, expressed his disapproval. Topping a cloud of white rice with butter and putting it in a slower part of the Aga, he gave the lobster sauce a stir, and started chopping up chives for a salad of lettuce hearts.

‘How can you do so many things at once?’ marvelled Helen.

‘I am conductor.’

Helen wandered over to the screen which Kitty, over the years, had lovingly covered with photographs of Rannaldini and the famous.

‘Everyone’s here,’ she cried, thinking what fascinating people she would meet if Rannaldini became her — er — friend.

‘Why d’you record in Prague?’

‘Because it’s ten times cheaper than London or New York. Not speaking ill of your country, Helen, but I am tired of New York. Last time I record a Haydn symphony the shop steward sit watching second ‘and go round, four seconds to go, eight bars from the end, he leap on to the stage. “All right, you guys, it’s over.” I tried to keel him. I had to be pulled off. Eet takes an act of congress and then of God to get rid of musicians over there.

‘I am almost broken man,’ sighed Rannaldini, belying it by removing his suede jacket to show off his splendid physique. ‘But I must not talk any more, I will burn your lunch.’

Putting a white mountain of rice on each emerald-green plate, he spooned over the sizzling lobster mixture, then poured on the buttery sauce, topping it with a dash of cayenne.

‘Voila!’

‘This is too much,’ protested Helen.

‘You weel eat every bit, even if I have to feed you.’

Rannaldini filled up her glass again.

How wonderfully easy to give dinner parties, if one were living with Rannaldini, mused Helen, and think of the guest list. Her eyes strayed again to Kitty’s screen.

‘It is quite, quite delicious,’ she said in awe.

As he told her his plans for the future Rannaldini’s warm eyes never left her face.

‘The leaves tumbling down remind me of new leaf I must turn over. I am tired of jetting round world. I must settle down in this lovely house, write music and build up a great orchestra of wonderful musicians, who would not be always chasing engagements and money like the London orchestras or threatening strike action like the guys in New York.’

‘You could be another Simon Rattle,’ said Helen warmly.

Rannaldini scowled.

‘The CBSO is second-rate provincial orchestra,’ he said haughtily.

‘You can’t say that. Malise always felt-’

Fortunately Rannaldini’s third secretary popped her head round the door to say the Princess of Wales was on the line.

‘My dear,’ Rannaldini took the telphone, ‘may I ring you back in one hour.’ He’d be leaving for the Albert Hall to conduct Turangalila around five o’clock.

Helen was so speechless with admiration that this great Maestro should find time for her she forgot about Simon Rattle.

‘Why don’t you come with me this evening?’ asked Rannaldini, playfully spooning the last of her lobster into her mouth.

‘I must get back for Marcus.’

‘Eef only I had had a mother like you.’

‘Will Hermione Harefield be singing in Prague?’ asked Helen. ‘This salad is so good.’

‘No, she sing in Aida in Rome, and elephant run away with her. Nellie the Elephant pack her trunk and run away with Hermione,’ sang Rannaldini. His face was expressionless but he gave Helen a wicked side-glance and she burst out laughing.

‘Poor Hermione. I have to confess,’ Helen went on, ‘I do have reservations about Don Giovanni as an opera. The Don reminds me so much of Rupert,’ she gave a shiver, ‘and the way he used to get his best friend Billy Lloyd-Foxe to cover for him like Leporello.’

‘I know,’ Rannaldini slid his hand over hers. ‘Jake Lovell talks of you often, how terribly unhappy Rupert made you.’

‘How kind of Jake,’ said Helen, touched.

‘Jake threw you life-belt when you needed it,’ said Rannaldini. ‘But long term he would have bored you, you are much too bright for him.’

Machiavellian, Rannaldini pressed every organ stop of Helen’s vanity.

‘That’s why he let you go,’ he added, knowing perfectly well that Jake had dumped Helen.

‘Do you think he’s happy with his wife?’

‘Jake dream of you often,’ lied Rannaldini, selecting a ripe peach, caressing its downy curves, ‘And who would not?’ Picking up a knife, he laid bare the gold flesh.

Helen found herself not only sharing the peach with him but, after another glass, agreeing to come to Prague.

Rannaldini’s secretary then brought in a pile of fan mail.

‘Have you sewn that button on my tail-coat?’ he called after her shapely departing back.

‘People think being a conductor,’ he continued as in dark green ink he scribbled his name on each letter, ‘is all helicopters, jets and princesses, but eet consist of worry where you’ll stop long enough to get your laundry done.’

‘Genius shouldn’t have to worry about clean shirts and missing buttons,’ said Helen shocked. ‘Rupert never bothered to answer fan mail,’ she added.

‘That appal me,’ Rannaldini signed a couple of photographs. ‘Eef by writing back to these young people I can lead them on to a lifetime of loving music, it is small thing.’

‘What a genuinely good man you are,’ Helen suppressed a belch. ‘How people have misjudged you.’

‘Come for a walk,’ said Rannaldini, putting his huge wolf coat round her shoulders. ‘How it become you, a leetle lamb in wolf’s clothing.’

As they walked up a path behind the house, the low afternoon sun kept parting the clouds, shining through yellow-and-orange leaves, so they glowed like amber and topaz. Rannaldini picked up a red beech leaf and held it against a soft brown wand of ash leaves.

‘You must always wear brown with your red hair,’ he told her. ‘Black is too hard.’

As they passed a monk’s graveyard, Helen noticed a little pink flower with bright crimson leaves growing out of the wall.

‘What a dear little plant.’

‘It ees called Herb Robert, all the year it flower, the monks used the leaves to staunch flow of blood.’

‘Herb Roberto,’ teased Helen, as they stopped to lean on a mossy gate. ‘Such a beautiful name, why don’t you use it?’

‘My mother, who reject me, call me that.’

‘Roberto,’ repeated Helen softly.

‘Coming from your lips it sound bettair.’ Not wanting to frighten her, Rannaldini decided against a kiss.

As they turned for home, a biblical ray appeared through the clouds spotlighting Valhalla and the saffron larches, as though the place was on fire.

‘Look Helen, it is omen, my past go up in flames like Götterdämmerung. I bring you on this walk,’ Rannaldini took her hand, ‘because the trees at the top of the wood never turn because they only get sunshine in the evening. Oh Helen, let us have some sunshine in the evening of our lives.’

Helen squeezed his hand, so moved that she couldn’t speak.

‘Before you come to Prague,’ said Rannaldini, ‘I must send you my video of Don Giovanni.’

Helen, who prided herself on telling the truth, took a deep breath.

‘We have the video, Roberto, but I must say, neither Malise nor I thought it was your best effort. The music was delightful but all the sexual innuendo and the nudity seemed to trivialize the production.’

‘Go on,’ said Rannaldini icily.

‘And we both felt that the camera rested on your face too much. Although it’s fascinating watching a great conductor at work, it rather distracts from the action.’

‘My Don Giovanni achieve higher rating than EastEnders.’

‘It had popular appeal maybe, Roberto,’ said Helen earnestly, ‘but I think you are capable of greater things.’

‘Do you indeed?’ Rannaldini gazed fixedly ahead.

Realizing she had goofed, Helen said hastily, ‘I guess it’s my fault, as I said the Don is so like Rupert.’

‘How is Rupert’s exquisite wife?’ asked Rannaldini silkily.

Helen’s face tightened; she was wildly jealous of Taggie. Not only had she made Rupert happy, she was also adored by Marcus and Tabitha, and when he was alive, by Malise.

That’ll teach her to slag off my Don Giovanni, thought Rannaldini in amusement.

‘I expect she’s busy chaining herself to some railing to stop lambs and calves being shipped alive to the continent,’ said Helen tartly.

The thought of Taggie Campbell-Black being chained to anything excited Rannaldini unbearably.

‘Peter Maxwell Davies is on the telephone.’ The second secretary greeted Rannaldini and Helen as they entered the house. ‘Have you looked at his symphony yet?’

‘Put it in my briefcase, I do it tonight,’ Rannaldini looked at his watch.

‘Do you admire Boris Levitsky’s Berlin Wall Symphony?’ asked Helen, anxious to keep her end up. ‘Malise and I were overwhelmed by it.’

‘Hopelessly derivative. Boris speak of being divinely inspired by the great composers.’ Sneeringly, Rannaldini pretended to pick up a telephone, ‘’Allo, Beethoven, ’Ow are you? I am ready to receive message, I take it down… and out come chopsteeks.’

‘That’s unfair,’ said Helen reprovingly. ‘Boris is very dear. He’s been so supportive since Malise died, he rings me three or four times a week. I know Marcus would love him as a stepfather,’ she added defiantly, and then felt absolutely miserable.

She is very insecure, decided Rannaldini, Malise had restored her confidence and hung a picture-light over her beauty; now it had gone out.

Changing tack, he said gently: ‘Many men would like to be Marcus’s stepfather. Eef you didn’t like my Don Giovanni, I must give you other records and eef you won’t come to Albert Hall, Clive, my chauffeur, will drive you home.’

Later that evening, Marcus endured a half-hour moan about bills from a restless, sobered-up Helen. He then pointed to Nielsen’s Flute Concerto and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony lying on the piano.

‘If we’re that broke, why are you buying that bastard’s records?’

Startled, because Marcus was normally so tolerant, hoping Mrs Edwards wouldn’t drop her in it, Helen tried a grey lie.

‘Rannaldini wrote me a delightful letter, admiring Malise’s flute book and sent me the Nielsen and the Mahler because he thought I needed cheering up.’ Helen gave a deep sigh.

‘Sure, Mum, Rannaldini’s still a fiend. He wiped out Flora and he crucified poor Kitty. You ask Lysander.’

‘Lysander stole Rannaldini’s wife,’ said Helen furiously.

‘Because Rannaldini was so unfaithful to her. He’s randier than Dad’s Jack Russells.’ Then, as Helen winced, added, ‘Small man syndrome. Although for a small man he casts a long shadow, and he’s got a repulsive black-leather-clad henchman called Clive, who takes women off the bone for him.’

Helen shuddered.

‘Why does he dislike Boris so much? I read it somewhere,’ she added hastily.

‘Boris is taller,’ said Marcus, ‘and a million times more talented. Rannaldini only admires musicians who are dead.’

‘This article said he could be nice.’

‘Only because it’s such bliss when the electrodes stop.’

FOURTEEN

Helen was appalled. The last thing she wanted was another promiscuous sadist. When Rannaldini called, she’d just refuse politely. But Rannaldini did not call. Expert at fostering addiction, he knew exactly how to give a blue glimpse of Paradise before slamming the skylight shut. Whizzing off abroad, he left Helen to stew for a fortnight until she was diving for the telephone, snatching letters from the postman and scanning the pallid November skies praying one of the circling rooks would grow into a big black helicopter.

Then, on the morning of the opening night, when she had abandoned all hope, Rannaldini rang blithely from Prague.

‘I hope you are coming; a messenger will drop tickets for plane and for Don Giovanni within the hour. Clive will meet you at Prague. I book you into charming discreet hotel, L’Esplanade.’

‘I didn’t know I was expected,’ Helen’s voice scraped down a blackboard of indignation. ‘I can’t make it at such short notice.’

‘I didn’t want to pressure you,’ confessed Rannaldini. ‘An I wasn’t sure of production, but eet come good.’ Then, after a long pause, he whispered, ‘I need you, Helen.’

As Helen arrived at Heathrow, a defiant red sun leaving the western sky aflame had just been sucked below the dark horizon like Don Giovanni.

Never had Helen been less prepared for a trip; normally every local legend would have been memorized, every fine church charted. In anticipation of their own proposed trip, Malise had bought her a guide book to Prague. But she had been too superstitious to open it and once she was on the plane she couldn’t take in a word. She kept panicking about things, including her wits, she had left behind.

To avoid the Bourbon-breathed attentions of a businessman with hairy nostrils in the next seat, she accepted a copy of The Times from the hostess, only to find among the birthdays that international conductor, Rannaldini, was forty-four today — on the cusp of Scorpio and Sagittarius, those two most volatile and darkly virile signs. Rannaldini must want to share his birthday with her and she had brought no present except a first edition of Malise’s book on the flute. How awful.

Although fog symbolizing her confusion delayed the plane by nearly two hours, Rannaldini’s Leporello, the sinister Clive, his light eyes as unblinking and expressionless as a cobra’s, was still waiting. Helen kept as far away from his lean leather-clad body as her seatbelt would allow. She was so thin now, there would be nothing for him to take off the bone.

She was far too uptight to be more than fleetingly aware of empty, ill-lit restaurants, floodlit fortresses and spires, a gleaming river and overcrowded unkempt trees, trying to escape over park railings.

As the Czechs had only recently had mass access to cars, the driving was hair-raising. Clive swore under his breath as somehow avoiding head-on collisions he hurtled Rannaldini’s black Mercedes down the narrowest of streets, rattling over the cobbles as if he would bang the heads of the tall lowering houses together.

The hotel, as Rannaldini predicted, was charming, with a crescent of smiling receptionists.

‘Take your time, we’ve missed the first act,’ Clive called after her, as an ancient, knowing porter drove the rickety tram of a lift up to the fifth floor.

Seeing her pinched, twitching reflection in the lift mirror, Helen was overwhelmed with longing for Malise; he’d always thought she looked beautiful and would have known exactly how many kopeks to tip the porter.

The next moment she was gasping with joy for her entire room was filled with different coloured freesias, embracing her in their sweet heady scent. Beside a blue glass bowl spilling over with persimmons, peaches and passion-fruit was a bottle of Krug on ice and the bathroom was full of soap and bottles containing every permutation of Balmain’s Jolie Madame. How darling of Rannaldini to have realized it was her favourite perfume.

More magical still, on the drab beige bedspread lay a long crushed velvet dress in the same soft umber as the drenched ash wand he had picked up in the wood. On the dressing-table was a red leather case from Cartier’s and a letter.

My darling,

The dress is to go with your beech-leaf hair. In box is small present to echo the stars I will put back in your eyes.

In hope,

Rannaldini.

Collapsing on the bed so hard it nearly broke her back, Helen opened the box. Inside glittered a diamond necklace. The dress was wonderfully becoming, the high neck and long sleeves concealed her jutting collar bones and refugee arms. The ribbed clinging velvet made her look saluki-slender. But what would happen when Rannaldini undressed her and found the skeleton beneath the skin? And how could she not sleep with him after accepting these gifts? She wouldn’t mind so much if her bottom hadn’t dropped and if she didn’t feel so leaden-limbed and out of practice. What would happen if she froze inside as she had done so often with Rupert?

The clasp of the diamonds nearly defeated her shaking hands. She was going home. The telephone rang. Oh, why wasn’t it Malise?

‘Whenever you’re ready,’ lisped Clive’s voice.

As Helen came out of the lift, he was singing to himself.

‘Where’s my master, Don Giovanni?

Making love to youth and beauty

While I stay on sentry duty.’

But there was no admiration in his face. He preferred the more butch male singers from the chorus.

It had been the worst pre-opening week he could remember, he told Helen on the drive to the theatre, Rannaldini’s clashes with singers and orchestra had been epic.

‘Musicians here are used to working for the state and having the same job for life, so it doesn’t matter if they learn the parts or arrive on time. They’re very bolshy. All the singers were in tears at the dress rehearsal. Donna Anna said first-night nerves were a doddle compared with Rannaldini’s rages.’

I’m the one with the first night nerves, thought Helen. Clive shouldn’t discuss his boss like this.

‘It’s incredible to think,’ she said reprovingly, ‘Mozart himself conducting the première of Don Giovanni in this very theatre more than two hundred years ago.’

‘And Casanova was in the audience and wrote some of the libretto,’ leered Clive, thinking Rannaldini would have left both the Don and Casanova standing this week. ‘There’s the theatre.’

Ahead, romantically and softly lit by old-fashioned street-lamps and hung with window-boxes full of clashing red-and-mauve geraniums, rose a square, peppermint-green building. The foyer was flanked with hefty pillars that would have challenged even Sampson.

‘How beautiful,’ sighed Helen. ‘If only we weren’t so late.’

‘In Mozart’s day it was fashionable to be late and not stay the course,’ said Clive as he locked the car doors. ‘The Kings and Princes of Prague used to make a quick exit from the royal box down those,’ he pointed to an outside staircase, ‘so they could rush off to their fancy pieces.’

Helen looked bootfaced. Clive was far too familiar. Then they both jumped at a deafening machine-gun rattle coming from the auditorium: the traditional applause for the conductor at the beginning of the last act.

‘Shit,’ muttered Clive.

Only by brandishing his identity card as Rannaldini’s minion, did he manage to smuggle Helen past the doorman, who had had death threats not to admit latecomers.

‘Does Signor Rannaldini know I’ve arrived?’ asked Helen as they belted up the wide spiral staircase.

‘No,’ lied Clive. ‘Once an opera starts Rannaldini cannot be disturbed. He hates to lose the mood. He paces the conductor’s room like The Prince of Darkness. Sometimes in the interval he has a shower and changes his shirt in a trance, not realizing it.’

‘There are moments when art transcends everything,’ panted Helen.

But, as Clive smuggled her into a box overlooking the pit, the door banged and, in her nervousness, Helen dropped her bag with a clatter. There was a horrified silence. Bows stopped moving, wind and brass players stopped breathing. Rannaldini whipped round in a fury, he was known to scream at latecomers, or worse still, hurl down his baton and storm out.

But, as he caught sight of Helen, huge-eyed in the half-light, diamonds glittering at her graceful neck like the Pleiades, he gave a wonderfully theatrical start and stopped conducting. Donna Elvira languishing on her balcony, Don Giovanni and Leporello swapping clothes in the shadowy garden and all the musicians looked at him incredulously as though a metronome had broken down.

Rannaldini gazed at Helen. Then a smile of such rare sweetness and joy spread across his face that a ripple of laughter went through the orchestra and the nearby boxes and everyone was desperately craning round and leaping to their feet to see the beauty who had stopped the great Maestro in his course.

Hastily Rannaldini pulled himself together.

‘I am sorry.’ Briefly he turned to the audience then back to the musicians and singers, ‘We begin the trio again. Taci injusti core.’

The exquisite music started, Don Giovanni resumed his amorous escapades. Helen was overwhelmed. Clearly, even for Rannaldini, there were times when love was much more important than art. Clive was grinning broadly when, during an exuberant tutti, he slid back into the box bearing a bottle of champagne, a glass and a plate of caviar.

‘With the Maestro’s compliments,’ he whispered. ‘He was worried this afternoon that you might not have had time to eat.’

The toast was still warm — like Rannaldini’s hands. Helen quivered with excitement. Marcus had so misjudged him. She must eat a little but she mustn’t crunch too loudly.

In the dim light she admired Mozart’s theatre. Gold tiers decorated with plump white cherubs rose up and up to a huge unlit chandelier. Oblong gilt mirrors on the inside of each slate-blue velvet box, huge gold tassels on the midnight-blue curtains on either side of the stage, the musicians’ instruments all added to the subdued glitter.

Below her, in a pit bigger than one of the Czech Grand National’s fearsome ditches, the musicians played as if their lives depended on it.

It was also a mark of Rannaldini’s genius that after such an interruption, he immediately got his glamorous cast of unknown singers back on course without any slackening of tension. It was also obvious, except to a dazzled Helen, that after her arrival both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira sang of the pangs of love with even more tearful conviction. Zerlina, exuding snapping sloe-eyed sexiness in a cherry-red peasant’s dress, on the other hand, was glaring at Rannaldini as she defiantly flashed soft white thighs and black stockings, held up by one red and one purple garter, at her stodgy lover, Masetto.

But Helen had only eyes for Rannaldini, bewildered that such energy should come out of such stillness. His hardly moving stick twitched like a cat’s tail. His hair, now raven-black with sweat, was the only evidence of expended energy.

They were into the moonlit graveyard now. As Giovanni vaulted over the wall to boast of more conquests to a terrified Leporello, Helen thought once again, with the anger of too much champagne, how like Rupert he was.

Then she gasped in terror as the gaunt grey statue of the Commendatore on his stone horse came to life and to the doom-laden accompaniment of the trombones uttered the first dreadful greeting to the Don.

‘Your laughter will be silenced before morning.’

‘Who goes there?’ undaunted by any ghost, Giovanni swung his machine-gun round the tombstones.

As the sepulchral voice rang out again ordering him to leave the dead in peace, Helen’s blood ran even colder. The statue looked so like Malise on his deathbed. Malise had rescued her from Rupert, now he seemed to be warning her from the grave to stay away from Rannaldini.

But Helen was most unnerved by the lascivious halfsmile on Rannaldini’s face as the handsome young Don, still raging and unrepentant, was finally sucked down into a quicksand of leaping flame.

‘A-a-a-h!’

It was like watching a great aeroplane crash. The Prussian-blue curtains closed like the gates of hell. There was a stunned pause as the audience realized Rannaldini had scrapped the last moralizing chorus. Then followed a deafening roar of applause. As the lights went up and the vast chandelier glittered like a huge thistle overhead, Helen could see the full beauty of the theatre, its soft blues and golds like a sunlit day at sea. But loveliest to Helen were the tier upon tier of ecstatically cheering people.

Down below the musicians were shaking hands and hugging each other in delight, as the cast trooped onto the stage, elated but slightly bewildered at such an ovation. How pretty the girls were, strong-featured, red-lipped, lusty and displaying such full white breasts as they bent to gather up the carnations raining down.

Rannaldini got the greatest cheer of all. For a man who’d been conducting for two hours forty minutes, who was black under the eyes and whose suntan had faded, he looked magnificent, smaller than any of the men but dwarfing them with his personality. Donna Elvira and Donna Anna, on either side of him, had kicked off their high heels and the audience cheered even louder as he kissed their hands and then reached out for the hand of Zerlina who was sulking down the row.

Then the chorus returned and everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in Czech and Donna Elvira presented Rannaldini with pink roses and a bust of Mozart.

Helen was in despair. Surrounded by such youth and vitality, how could he bother with a scraggy wrinkly like herself? Grabbing her bag she frantically applied blusher then jumped as Clive banged on the door.

‘Time to congratulate the Maestro.’

As he led her down into the dingy catacombs behind the stage, she was reminded of Dante’s Inferno, but was reassured by a glimpse of the Commendatore. Having removed his grey make-up and his white wig to reveal a ruddy complexion and wavy yellow hair, he was now putting on bicycle clips and eating a sausage sandwich.

The conductor’s room was pandemonium. The screaming matches, the fearful bullying had been forgotten in the euphoria of an historic performance. Cast and musicians alike were pouring in to thank Rannaldini, bringing him hastily written cards with their addresses on. Rannaldini, because he could see Helen working her way down the long queue, and he wanted to create an impression of amiability, bothered for once to shake hands with everyone and promised to return as soon as possible.

Still in his tails, he had only had time to remove his white tie and gardenia. He was burning hot, yet wringing with sweat, as he took Helen in his arms.

‘My beautiful child, I ’ave longed for this moment,’ he murmured in English, too fast for the Czechs to understand, then sotto voce to Clive, ‘Get rid of everybody at once.’

‘You will come on to our party, won’t you, Maestro?’ pleaded Donna Elvira.

‘I bake birthday cake for you,’ whispered Donna Anna, pocketing his discarded gardenia.

‘I must have shower, I will see you later,’ said Rannaldini.

Zerlina said nothing, but her mascara was streaked with tears as Clive frogmarched her without any gentleness down the passage.

The moment they had gone Rannaldini locked the door.

‘That was a most exciting p-p-erformance,’ stammered Helen.

Rannaldini smiled evilly.

‘You wait till later, my angel.’

Helen blushed. ‘It was far more erotic without nudity.’

‘I leesten to you,’ said Rannaldini gravely.

‘Oh, if I was some small help,’ Helen was in heaven. ‘And the way you control them all with this tiny stick.’ She picked up his baton, ‘It’s a magic wand.’

‘I weesh I could transform thees room into a bower of bliss,’ said Rannaldini fretfully.

Nothing could have been less seductive than the fluorescent lighting, the ugly brown carpet, the repro desk and hard chair, the fitted cupboards, the pedal dustbin, the fridge and shower behind a dingy beige plastic curtain.

‘You should see my room in New York,’ Rannaldini hastily kicked a purple garter under the desk.

‘But enduring art, not surroundings, are what matters,’ said Helen earnestly. ‘And thank you so much for this wonderful dress, Roberto, and the flowers, and the caviar and champagne and these beautiful diamonds. But it’s not my birthday.’

‘Don’t be silly.’ Cutting short her thanks, Rannaldini lifted the diamonds and slowly kissed her collar bone, caressing it with his tongue until she was squirming with desire.

‘I must be the one person in the world who didn’t know it was your birthday,’ she whispered. ‘The only thing I brought you was a first edition of Malise’s book, but it’s at the hotel.’

‘That ees the present I want second most in the world,’ said a delighted Rannaldini. ‘Now I feel Malise geeve us his blessing.’ As he gently fingered her ribs, the ball of his thumb was pressing against the underside of her breast.

‘The present I want you to geeve me most ees yourself.’

But, as he moved into the attack, Helen leapt away.

‘We can’t, people know we’re in here, you ought to change, you’ll catch your death.’

Rannaldini deliberated. Many women were desperately turned on by a burning, sweating après-concert body. Helen was probably too fastidious. The elm is a patient tree. Rannaldini got a bottle of white out of the fridge and filled two glasses.

‘Will you wait while I have a shower?’

Embarrassingly aware, a few seconds later, of Rannaldini naked behind the shower curtain, Helen said she would put his roses in water.

‘They droop already, unlike me,’ Rannaldini shouted over the gush of water. ‘I am so pleased you are here. Kiri and Placido say the same. Everyone pours in and kisses you, saying how wonderful it was, then they drift away.’

‘None of those young women wanted to drift away this evening.’ Helen was unable to keep the edge out of her voice. ‘I am sure everyone felt you should have played the Don. That boy was much too young for the part.’

‘The libretto describe Giovanni as a licentious young nobleman,’ protested Rannaldini. ‘I am neither young nor noble.’

‘Any moment you are going to be ennobled, Sir Roberto,’ said Helen archly, then as Rannaldini emerged from the shower, his sleek still brown body as smooth as butterscotch, a big white towel slung around his hips, she caught her breath.

‘And after Malise,’ she faltered, ‘you seem very, very young to me.’

‘That is kind.’ Rannaldini turned back to the basin to clean his teeth.

‘As I was saying, people drift away after a concert theenking you have more important people to see, so you go back to your hotel, hyped up, totally alone, and you ring home and say, “The applause went on for fifteen minutes,” and they say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got this ghastly problem with the deesh washer.”’

‘I’d never bother, I mean, genius should never be bothered with problems like that,’ said Helen aghast, totally forgetting how often she moaned to Rupert when he was show-jumping in the old days.

Rannaldini turned, flashing beautiful clean teeth at her.

‘Come here my darling, stop playing games.’

‘Don’t you want to go to your birthday party?’

‘Certainly not.’ There would be far too many recently pleasured members of the cast wanting repeat feels.

Sliding into a splendid red silk Turnbull and Asser dressing gown, he picked up the bottle and glasses and sang in a rich baritone:

‘You lay your hands in mine, dear

Softly you’ll whisper, yes

Tis not so far to go, dear

Your heart is mine, confess.’

‘You sing beautifully,’ sighed Helen, taking his hand.

‘Come, let me show you Mozart’s theatre.’

‘Where is everyone?’ quavered Helen as he led her up and down steps along pitch-black passages.

‘Gone home,’ said Rannaldini, who’d tipped the night porter more than he earned in a year. ‘Wait ’ere, don’t move.’ He let go of her hand.

Helen was petrified, the darkness was strangling her. Then she heard footsteps.

‘Rannaldini?’

There was no answer.

‘Don’t play games with me.’

Suddenly she saw a flicker ahead, oh thank God, Rannaldini was lighting candles. Stumbling forward she gave a piercing shriek as she found herself looking up into the livid face of the Commendatore’s horse.

‘Over here. You must not be so jumpy.’ Rannaldini drew her over some cables to where candles were flickering merrily on either side of a vast carved bed hung with turquoise-and-white striped curtains and foaming with white linen sheets and laced pillows.

‘Who’s this for?’

‘Giovanni chase Zerlina round eet in Act One. Let’s have some moonlight.’ Rannaldini tugged down the moon from Act Two so it shone dimly into the four-poster.

But as he drew her towards the bed, Helen began to tremble violently.

‘Come.’ Rannaldini stooped to pull her dress over her head. ‘It is time for the butterfly to emerge from her chrysalis.’

Helen burst into tears; it was the same trick she had used to halt the Rake’s progress of Rupert twenty years ago. Rannaldini, too, was all contrition.

‘What ees eet, my darling?’

‘Malise was just so like the Commendatore. Tonight’s our wedding-anniversary, I feel he was trying to warn me off. All those young women drooling over you this evening. Marcus told me you were dreadfully promiscuous.’

‘A good boy to protect his mother,’ said Rannaldini smoothly, vowing to sabotage Marcus’s piano career at the first opportunity.

‘And why didn’t you call me for two weeks?’

Rannaldini sunk to his knees, burying his face in her concave belly.

‘Because I knew I was unworthy. You are so lovely you would have stopped both Casanova and Giovanni on their road to ruin. I, too, have been wicked. Oh Helen, save me from the flames.’

Rannaldini was gratified to feel tears dropping on his forehead. Gotcha!

Leaping to his feet he pushed her back on to the bed.

‘I’m so scared, Rannaldini.’

‘Do not be, we play little game.

Behold, your faithful lover

Lives for you alone,’

sang Rannaldini, really straining to reach the top notes.

‘Think no longer on that appalling moment.

Your father and your husband shall I be.

‘You felt safe with Malise,’ he went on, ‘because he was both father and lover to you, and made you feel like a little girl. Tonight, let us pretend this little girl has sunk into a decline, because she is so sad. Her family is worried so they invite important doctor from London to see her.’

Sitting on the bed, Helen felt a squirming excitement.

‘The doctor geeves her medicine,’ Rannaldini raised a glass of wine to Helen’s lips, stroking her hair with his other hand.

‘Now she must undress — ’ very slowly he drew the brown dress over her head — ‘so the doctor can examine her all over.’

Gently he began to stroke Helen’s freckled shoulders and arms.

‘She is lovely but much too thin.’ Rannaldini peeled off her grey silk petticoat. The next moment her grey silk bra had followed slithering suit.

‘Ah, how sweet.’ In delight Rannaldini gently massaged her breasts. ‘How small they are, but the kind doctor will prescribe injections and a diet to make them full and beautiful again. Look how the nipples shoot out like sycamore buds. The leetle patient is very, very excited,’ he went on, ‘but she is frightened, her mother is downstairs and the doctor seem to be taking a leetle too long. Now he has peeled off her very clean knickers.’

Helen gave a moan of helpless excitement.

‘Look at her little bush, like a damp fox, naughty excited leetle girl.’

Rannaldini’s smile was satanic. The concentration in the heavy-lidded eyes was total. His voice was deep, slow, hypnotic.

‘Eef the doctor suggest an operation, he would have to shave her so she is even more like leetle girl.’

‘That’s perverted.’ Helen leapt to her feet in agitation.

But Rannaldini’s great strength pushed her back.

‘Every bit of her body must be explored.’ He drew a magnifying glass out from under the pile of pillows. ‘See she has sweet little clitoris, quite beeg enough for pleasure, the doctor stroke it to see ifit is in good working order. And it is, see how easily he slides his fingers in, one finger, now two, good little girl.’

Helen arched and groaned too excited to care any more, buckling against the relentlessly stabbing fingers, writhing beneath the delicately stroking thumb.

‘The doctor is excited, too, he knows with loving he can cure all her seekness.’

Just for a moment his fingers emerged and trailed downwards.

‘Shall the doctor examine his little patient in an even more shaming and private place? She will find it so naughty and exciting, she will beg and beg for more.’

‘No.’ Helen was struggling. ‘Please, Rannaldini, no.’

‘Another time.’ His fingers were stabbing again, her breath was coming faster and faster.

Quickly Rannaldini slid out of his dressing-gown, his body dark gold in the flickering candlelight, his splendid cock raised for the down beat.

‘Look, he geeve you standing ovation. This is most awesome steeple you will see in Prague, my darling.’

Helen’s ‘A-a-a-ah’ rivalled the Don’s, but hers was of ecstasy, as Rannaldini blew out the candle, and plunged deep into her and darkness. He had never dreamt he could make her so wildly excited.

‘Nobilmente sed appassionata,’ whispered Rannaldini as he drove on to conquest, and this time the metronome never faltered.

FIFTEEN

Helen was woken by such beautiful music she thought she had fallen asleep with the wireless on at home. Then she took in the gutted candles, the blue-and-white striped curtains, and breathed in a feral waft of Maestro clinging to the wolf-coat which Rannaldini had solicitously laid over her naked body.

Wriggling into the coat she stumbled across the dimly lit stage, to find Rannaldini already dressed. He was holding a score and picking out a tune on the harpsichord. Hearing her, he looked up and smiled.

‘I didn’t wake you.’

‘What time is it?’

Rannaldini glanced at his huge Rolex.

‘Quarter past seven.’

‘I haven’t slept through the night since Malise died.’

‘That’s because you were so tired and so loved.’

‘What’s that tune? I know it so well.’

‘On a different instrument. I conduct Missa solemnis in Berlin tonight. It is very difficult piece so I flip through score, that was violin solo from the “Benedictus”.’

‘Didn’t you sleep?’

‘I was too happy. People say it’s mistake to get your heart’s desire. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.’

Edging through the music-stands he lifted her down from the stage.

‘My leetle lamb in wolf’s clothing.’

Collapsing against him, hoping he’d make love to her again, she whispered: ‘I love you, Roberto.’

‘Good,’ smirked Rannaldini. ‘What is the purpose of the lamb but to feed the wolf?’

Not taking on board what he said, Helen picked up the huge score covered in red-and-blue pencil marks.

‘You work so hard.’

‘Not so hard as Beethoven. In his own words, “You must sacrifice all the little things of social life for the sake of your art.” That’s why you must never fret if I don’t call you, I am only making love to Beethoven.’

Leading her to the harpsichord he picked out the exquisite tune again.

‘The violin ascend to heaven like we did last night. When I conduct Beethoven, I am so proud I am half-German. Because Beethoven had greatest struggle to write the Missa, he thought it his greatest work. A friend drop in when he was composing the “Credo”, he found poor Beethoven, “singing, howling and stamping”. Oh Helen, I dream of composing again, you must be my muse.’

Seizing her hands, he gazed deep, deep into her eyes, then he said playfully: ‘But muse and genius must be fed. Get dressed and ’ave a shower, my darling, I have to listen to some pianist who beg me to hear her.’

The pianist, dark, plump, very young, was playing Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu quite brilliantly when Helen returned to the auditorium. Instantly Rannaldini halted the girl and introduced her.

‘This is Natalia Philipova. Now what ees it you want to know, Natalia?’

The girl clasped her hands

‘I know I have years of hard work in front of me, Maestro, I am willing to practise eight hours a day and more. All I want to know is if you think I can ever make it as a soloist.’

Rannaldini examined his fingernails.

‘Not in a million years,’ he said smoothly. ‘You will be able to give your friends and your family a lot of pleasure, I advise you to leave eet at that.’

‘You were a bit rough on that poor kid,’ reproved Helen.

‘I save her ten years of wasted time,’ said Rannaldini.

They were sitting in a little café in the main square which looked like an Ideal Home Exhibition of best architecture down the ages. They had breakfasted on croissants, damson jam, slivers of cheese, rolled-up slices of ham with cream billowing out of each end like brandy snaps and black expresso laced with cognac.

‘Usually I go off my food if I’m attracted to a man,’ said Helen, sounding perplexed. ‘But when you’re around I seem to eat like a labrador.’

‘That’s because the strict doctor,’ Rannaldini ran a leisurely hand up her thigh into her groin, ‘has ordered his little patient to start eating again.’

Helen flushed, horrified she should have been so wildly exhilarated by last night’s games.

Rannaldini waved for the bill.

‘Come. I have one hour to show you Prague. Let us go to Charles Bridge which, thank God, is closed to cars.’

As they walked down to the river Helen gave a cry of joy. On the opposite bank the old city stretched itself luxuriously in the first sunshine of the day. All higgledy piggledly, cupolas, turrets, domes, roofs and spires in soft pink, ochre, peppermint-green and drained turquoise, rose like casually stacked stage-sets. Against the blue skyline was a cathedral with a faded sea-green dome topped with a gold star, next to it stood a tawny castle with crenellated battlements like a child’s fort.

‘Who lives there?’

‘Havel,’ said Rannaldini smugly, ‘I dine with heem on Thursday.’

But most breathtaking of all was the river itself. Mist was rising filling the great arches of the bridges, curling in wisps over the icy water. The result was a million shifting shadows. The trees and the houses on the bank cast different shadows on the mist and the moving water. The shadows of the mist, wisps themselves, and the swans and ducks gliding in and out of these wisps, cast and received shadows of their own.

‘Everywhere Zeus is searching for Leda,’ said Rannaldini softly. ‘And see how the sooty black statues across the bridge cast the darkest shadows of all.’

Furious not to have mugged up the city and because Malise had always praised her recitations, Helen launched into The Tempest.

‘The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind.’

‘This rake is not going to be left behind,’ mocked Rannaldini, putting his arm through hers to lead her over the bridge.

‘You are getting cold. The Russians may have left Prague, but icy wind still blow straight from Moscow.’

Sixties music was belching out of a loud speaker. The people pouring over the bridge, as if to repudiate any accusation of Communist drabness, wore brilliant collars: violet, turquoise, shocking pink, but their bulky anoraks and strap-under-trousers looked very out of date.

As the mist thinned in the sunshine, the river seemed to be strewn with cobwebs. The statues, on the other hand, were covered in real, frozen cobwebs, which glittered on the sad, strong Slav face of Christ on the cross like a veil of tears.

‘I theenk of Prague as Sleeping Beauty that’s only just awaked. Two sleeping beauties,’ Rannaldini turned and kissed Helen’s lips, his dark glasses only an extension of his black impenetrable eyes. ‘And last night you awake.

‘There’s St Christopher.’ Moving on, he pointed to more statues. ‘And St Cyril and St Barbara, patron saint of miners. Kafka wrote story about bridge, describing her beautiful hands. The statues ’ave to be restored and rebuilt every year.’

‘Like a face lift,’ said Helen.

‘You will never need one,’ Rannaldini touched her cheek, ‘You have eternal youth.’

They had reached the centre of the bridge. Upstream the river still steamed like a race horse. Downstream it was as smooth and green as crème de men the with a striped pink pleasure launch chugging towards them, and cafés with their umbrellas down on the bank.

‘Now we come to Prague’s most famous saint, St John of Nepomuk,’ said Rannaldini, ‘who was the Queen’s confessor in fourteenth century. Her husband, King Wenceslas IV, was a thug. The story about him setting out in snow with page boy, wine and pine logs to cheer up some peasant, ees balderdash.’ Rannaldini’s eyes creased up with malicious laughter. ‘This Wenceslas was insanely jealous of his beautiful wife and torture her confessor to reveal her secrets. When Nepomuk refuse, Wenscelas pull out poor man’s tongue and chuck him in river.

‘But,’ Rannaldini pointed to a brass plaque set into the side of the bridge, showing the unfortunate monk being heaved over the side, ‘where he land, five bright gold stars spring out of river, and hover there until Nepomuk’s dead body was fished out.

‘This is spot where he went in.’ Picking up Helen’s hand, Rannaldini placed it on ajagged gold cross on top of the bridge wall. ‘Over centuries lovers come to touch the cross together,’ Rannaldini spread his big hand over hers, ‘in the hope that their love will last and prosper.’

Burying his face in Helen’s neck, he breathed in the last vestiges of Jolie Madame.

‘Now you know why I breeng you here.’

‘What a beautiful story,’ sighed Helen, glancing back at the plaque, ‘the body of the poor monk is bright gold, too.’

‘That is where people have rubbed his body for luck over the centuries.’ Rannaldini stretched out his hand, idly caressing the upside-down Nepomuk.

The plaque also showed the Queen making her confession to Nepomuk through a grill. Nearby her cruel handsome husband idly stroked an adoring lurcher. But the tension in his body showed how hard he was listening. How often during her first marriage had Helen lurked on landings and outside rooms trying to overhear Rupert making assignations?

‘The King even looks like Rupert,’ she was thinking aloud now. ‘He’s got the same Greek nose and long eyes.’

‘He love his dog more than his wife,’ teased Rannaldini.

‘I nearly cited Rupert’s dog Badger as co-respondent,’ said Helen bitterly.

‘I think you are more in mourning for your first marriage than the second,’ mocked Rannaldini.

‘My first one nearly destroyed me. I can’t go back to that again.’

The mist had almost disappeared. Upstream a flotilla of air balloons hung like teardrops. Artists were setting up easels. A street musician playing ‘Lili Marlene’ on the accordian was tipped with unusual generosity by Rannaldini.

‘We could have done with you in the orchestra last night, my friend.’

‘Thank you, Maestro.’

‘How good you are to everyone,’ sighed Helen.

‘One more saint.’ Rannaldini led Helen beyond the bridge and down some stone steps to the water’s edge on which stood a lone statue of a slim young knight with a lion at his feet and a gold sword glittering in his hand.

‘Now listen carefully,’ Rannaldini paused in front of the statue. ‘St Brunswick save the lion from a cruel and wicked dragon. Consequently the lion became Brunswick’s devoted companion and also the symbol of Prague. Brunswick’s job was to guard the city.’

‘The day the Communist walk in in 1949,’ Rannaldini’s beautiful voice flowed on like the river, ‘Brunswick’s gold sword totally vanish. The legend was that it would only return when Prague was freed. The very night Prague was liberated,’ suddenly Rannaldini seemed to have difficulty speaking, ‘the joyful crowds sweeping over the bridge notice the gold sword was back in place in Brunswick’s hand.’

‘A miracle,’ said Helen shakily.

Rannaldini nodded. Removing his dark glasses he drew Helen into the lichened, blackened arch of the bridge and kissed her.

‘Since Keety leave me I have not been able to put my heart into conducting, let alone composing. Last night, with young inexperienced musicians and singers, we produce performance of a lifetime. Later while you sleep, you look so beautiful, I write my first music in fifteen years. I dedicate it to you. You have freed my inspiration and given me back my gold sword so I can protect you.’

‘Oh Rannaldini.’ Tears were glittering on Helen’s face like frozen cobwebs. ‘That’s the dearest thing anyone’s ever told me.’

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recovered greenness?’ murmured Rannaldini, remembering the open poetry book on the table at the Old Rectory.

‘That’s my favourite poem,’ said Helen in amazement.

Midges were dancing like mist shadows against the bridge wall. Tourists drifting by gazed down on the beautiful couple.

‘I must go.’ Reluctantly Rannaldini tore himself away. ‘Tonight I will conduct Missa just for you, my darling.’

If he had asked her to follow him to the end of the world, let alone Berlin, Helen would have gone.

As they drove back to the hotel, Rannaldini told Helen he was spending Christmas in his house in Tuscany with his children and two of his ex-wives.

“Ow about you?’ he asked.

‘I shall be staying with Rupert and Taggie and my children,’ said Helen, showing off how well she, too, got on with her ex.

The temperature dropped perceptibly.

‘No doubt you weel have the pleasure of meeting my third wife, Keety and her husband Lysander, Rupert’s leetle catamite.’

Helen looked startled.

‘I’ve always thought Rupert and Billy, his best friend, were unnaturally close, but Rupert’s always been aggressively heterosexual.’

‘Typical homophobic behaviour,’ said Rannaldini dismissively.

‘Not a very intellectual Christmas for you, my dear. At least you can enjoy the sainted Taggie’s cooking.’

SIXTEEN

Helen arrived at Penscombe on Christmas Eve and hadn’t been in the house five minutes before Taggie realized what a dreadful mistake it had been to invite her.

She had put Helen in the most charming spare room, overlooking the lake and the valley and newly decorated with powder-blue walls, daffodil-yellow curtains and a violet-and-pink checked counterpane. Flames danced in the grate, and on the bedside table were a flowered tin of shortbread still warm from the oven and Christmas roses in a silver vase.

Helen immediately pointed out that Taggie was so lucky to be able to afford to redecorate and this was the room she’d so often slept in after fearful rows with Rupert. Then, when Taggie stammeringly offered to move her, Helen sighed that all Penscombe reminded her of how unhappy she had been.

Taggie was also desperately worried about Marcus, who had driven his mother over and who looked absolutely wretched, and was already getting on Rupert’s nerves.

‘Why does he keep saying “Oh, right,” when it plainly isn’t?’

Unlike Helen, who drooped about not helping at all, Marcus, despite his asthma exacerbated by Rupert’s dogs, insisted on carrying in endless baskets of logs, chopping onions until he cried, spending hours peeling potatoes, apples and, most fiddly of all, sweet chestnuts. In return, Taggie had had the ancient yellow toothed piano in the orange drawing-room tuned but every time Marcus tried to practise Rupert’s terriers started howling.

Marcus, in turn, was also desperately worried about Helen.

‘I’m sure she’s having a nervous breakdown,’ he confided to Taggie. ‘She won’t stop crying.’

He felt as ineffectual as the flakes of snow that were drifting down and losing themselves in the rain-drenched lawn and the gleaming wet paving stones.

‘They always say the first Christmas is the worst,’ said Taggie sympathetically.

What neither of them realized was that Helen was only suicidal because Rannaldini hadn’t been in touch since Prague — not a telephone call, not even a Christmas card. She was far too proud to tell anyone that he had dumped her after a one night stand, just because she was spending Christmas with his enemy.

Christmas Day was even more fraught. Among the guests at Penscombe was Rupert’s father, a merry old Lothario, just liberated from his fifth marriage.

Having opened and drunk all the miniature bottles in his stocking before breakfast, he spent the day plastered, pinching bottoms and calling Taggie and Helen by each other’s names.

Opening presents had also been a nightmare because Helen, who seemed to have been given so little, insisted on watching everyone else open their presents.

‘I’m honestly not interested in material possessions,’ she kept saying quite untruthfully.

She was in addition appalled that despite Marcus’s entreaties, Rupert had not used Christmas to slip her a large cheque or announce that in future he would be giving her an allowance.

Tabitha was also acting up dreadully. After two and a half years she still carried a torch for Lysander who with Kitty had been invited to Christmas dinner. She was insanely jealous that Xav and Bianca seemed to have been given many more presents than her.

Finally she was enraged because Rupert had only given her a new car, a dark green Golf convertible, for Christmas when she’d wanted a brilliant young event-horse called The Engineer. Rupert, however, had desisted because Tabitha had ploughed all her GSCE exams in the summer and because the asking price of twenty thousand pounds for the horse was too high.

This omission had triggered off a blazing row which was exacerbated by Tabitha’s refusal to come to Matins.

‘What have I got to thank God for?’ she shouted. ‘He hasn’t given me Lysander or The Engineer and I don’t know why you’re uptight about my GCSEs — your wife’s never passed an exam in her life.’ With that, she stormed out banging the door.

Unable to cope with his first wife at any time Rupert spent most of Christmas Day out of the house. Traditionally the grooms had the day off, so he used it as a marvellous excuse to escape with Lysander to the yard to do the horses.

He was in a twitchy mood anyway because there had been a lot of dropped telephone calls since yesterday. Rupert was only too aware of how beautiful and young his wife was, and he suspected Dr Benson’s handsome new partner and Kevin, the leftie social worker, who’d overseen Xav and Bianca’s adoption, of both being in love with her. Ghastly Kevin had even given Taggie a rose for Christmas which had been planted outside the back door, and which Rupert kicked every time he passed.

And now Kev had had the temerity to drop in — natch at drinks time — bringing Colombian wooden dolls for Xav and Bianca. He had been invited to stay on for smoked salmon and champagne by Taggie, desperate to provide Helen, very frosty from being called ‘Taggie’ and having her bottom pinched by Rupert’s father, with some intelligent conversation. Helen, who was now nose to nose on the sofa talking to Kevin about Nepalese folk music, winced in anticipation of the inevitable upheaval as Rupert swept in followed by Xavier and his usual pack of dogs.

Seeing Rupert’s bootfaced expression Kevin tried to humour him.

‘This little chap’s new,’ he said, pointing to an adorably floppy black labrador puppy with hooded tobacco-brown eyes and vast paws, who was romping with Rupert’s lurcher, Nimrod.

‘He’s mine,’ said Xav, joining both dogs on the floor. ‘Daddy gave him to me for Christmas. He’s called Bogotá.’

‘You never stop nagging me to find Xav a black friend, Kevin,’ drawled Rupert. ‘And now I have.’

‘I didn’t mean-’ began Kev, his Adam’s apple wobbling furiously.

‘Of course you didn’t,’ said Helen in outrage. ‘Why must you trivialize everything, Rupert? One simply cannot underestimate the importance of ethnic origins.’

‘Why aren’t you living in America then?’ snapped Rupert.

‘Rupert,’ said Taggie appalled, which gave Rupert the excuse he needed.

‘I know when I’m not wanted,’ he said and, gathering up Xav, stalked out of the house.

Running after him, but failing to catch him, Taggie returned to the drawing-room.

‘It’s so sad,’ Helen was saying to Kev, ‘that Rupert hasn’t got any easier over the years.’ Then, turning to Taggie, said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t cope with scenes like that, I’m going to lie down.’

There should have been eleven for dinner, five women and six men. As well as Lysander and Kitty, Taggie had invited Lysander’s father, David Hawkley, who, as a handsome widower and a headmaster, would have been perfect for Helen, but unable to face an English winter he had pushed off to Mykenos. Tab’s boyfriend, Damian, whom she tolerated as second best to Lysander, had taken umbrage, after being called a leftie yobbo by Rupert once too often, and ducked out as well. Then, after a mysterious telephone call this morning, Rupert’s father Eddie had asked if he could bring a woman friend, which meant they were two women extra.

Pre-dinner drinks were scheduled for seven-thirty. By seven o’clock Taggie had reached screaming pitch. The geese were sizzling enticingly, the Christmas pudding bubbling, the red cabbage, the celery purée, the crème de marron were warming gently in the left of the Aga and the potatoes cut round and as small as olives only needed frying very fast in clarified butter at the last moment.’

Bianca, however, had been given a maddening Christmas present — a cordless toy telephone which rang when she pressed a button and which everyone, particularly an increasingly jumpy Helen, kept mistaking for the real thing.

In addition, Taggie had been driven crackers all afternoon listening to the chatter of Mrs Bodkin, Rupert’s ancient housekeeper, who was more hindrance than help, and refereeing fights beween dogs and children. These had culminated in a screaming fit from Bianca, because a bored Nimrod had chewed the feet off Kevin’s Colombian doll. This had resulted in Taggie shouting at Bianca and dispatching a disapproving Mrs Bodkin to take her up to bed.

And Rupert wasn’t even here to write out the place names for her; it would be so humiliating if she spelt them all wrong in front of Helen. She couldn’t ask Marcus as he’d gone off to collect Flora, who, to Helen’s irritation, he had invited for moral support.

Taggie was panicking; she hadn’t even changed when there was a knock and a plump, smiling face came round the door.

‘Oh Kitty,’ said Taggie and burst into tears.

‘Whatever’s the matter?’ Kitty dumped brandy butter, winter fruit salad, apple sauce and mince pies down on the kitchen table.

‘Everything,’ sobbed Taggie. ‘Tab’s in a screaming strop. Rupert’s pushed off to the pub and I don’t think he’ll ever speak to me again for giving Ann-Marie Christmas week off and asking Helen to stay. And she’s been just awful. She hasn’t lifted a finger and can’t stop looking at everything and saying, “New picture, new carpet, new sofa,” and it’s years since she b-b-buggered off and Rupert and Lysander have worked so hard and done so well in the last two years, we’re entitled to have something new.’

Kitty patted Taggie’s heaving shoulders; she’d never seen her friend in such a state.

‘I’m sorry,’ sniffed Taggie. ‘And I’ve been vile to poor darling Bianca, and I haven’t said hallo to you, Arthur, are you having a nice Christmas?’

Arthur nodded. A blond, beaming bruiser just two and a quarter and capable of causing considerable havoc, he was clutching a toy trumpet. Having wriggled out of his blue duffle-coat, he was only interested in finding his hero, Xavier.

‘Xavier’s not back yet, darling,’ said Taggie. ‘He’s pushed off with his rotten father.’

‘Go and change,’ said Kitty soothingly. ‘Lysander’s gone to the pub to get some drink. He’ll bring Rupert back. I’ll take care of everything.’

‘If you could keep an eye on the goose and feed the dogs, and put out a bowl of puppy food for Xav’s puppy when he gets back. You do look nice,’ Taggie admired Kitty’s blue wool dress.

‘It’s a bit ’ot,’ admitted Kitty, ‘Lysander gave it to me. I’m ashamed we’ve had such a lovely day. Arfur and I didn’t get up till lunch-time and Lysander came back to bed after he and Rupert had done the ’orses, and you’ve been slaving away.’

Wearily Taggie climbed the stairs to Bianca’s bedroom where there was no lack of ethnic reminders. The yellow walls were covered with posters of Colombian countryside, sweeps of orchids, giant water-lilies and the lake where El Dorado’s gold was hidden which looked like a green yolk in a jagged grey eggshell of rock.

Bianca was never angry for long. Now, wearing new red pyjamas covered in reindeer, her dark curls tied on top of her head to keep them dry in the bath, she was bending over a doll’s pram putting her new footless doll to bed.

‘No, you tut up, Rosie,’ she was saying sternly, ‘I’ve been working my ass off all day for you.’

Giving a gasp of horrified laughter, Taggie gathered up Bianca and covered her with kisses.

‘Oh my angel, I’m sorry I swore at you. I love you so much.’

With her pale coffee-coloured skin flushed from the bath, her big black eyes and her loving smile, Bianca was the most beautiful child in the world, and had the sweetest nature, although spoilt rotten by everyone.

‘Mummy tired, mummy crying,’ said Bianca, then reaching over she pressed her new telephone.

‘Hallo,’ she said, ‘I’m afraid Rupert can’t take your call at the moment.’

Taggie giggled.

‘God knows what he’s up to,’ she took Bianca’s hand. ‘Come and talk to me while I get ready.’

But going into her bedroom, Taggie gave another utterly uncharacteristic howl of rage. Half her wardrobe had been pulled off its hangers and dropped on the floor, or on top of Nimrod, who was stretched out on the bed. He now raised a purple see-through shirt with his waving tail. Taggie’s tights drawer had been ransacked and the only sheer black pair filched. The pale pink camisole top Rupert had given her for Christmas had vanished, as well as her new pale amethyst satin blazer.

Charging into the bathroom she found her make-up box upended, and shampoo, eye-drops, hair dryer and God knows what else, missing.

‘Tabitha,’ she screamed up the stairs, ‘how fucking dare you?’

‘Anything the matter?’ Helen appeared out of the bedroom opposite.

Just your bloody daughter, Taggie wanted to shout.

But, clenching her fists, she managed to control herself. ‘Sorry, I was yelling at one of the dogs.’

There was a pause. Helen was wearing long black velvet with a scooped neckline showing off jutting collar bones. Deciding to look tragic rather than stunning, she had left off her jewellery except Malise’s regimental brooch.

‘What a lovely dress,’ said Taggie dutifully.

‘It’s hanging off me,’ quavered Helen, ‘I’ve lost over a stone since Malise died.’

Shutting the door firmly behind her, she went on, ‘And I don’t have enough shoes to let Rupert’s damn dogs eat them. I suppose he’s not back. No? He was always disappearing like this when I was married to him.’

Going towards the stairs she jumped as the telephone rang.

‘Hallo,’ piped up Bianca. ‘Is that Tabiffa? How fucking, fucking dare you.’

Taggie had no time to do more than wash, tie back her lank hair and put on a peacock-blue dress covered with red poppies, which Rupert loathed but which was the only uncreased thing in her wardrobe.

‘Have a drink,’ she said going into the drawing-room.

‘Oh, champagne,’ sighed Helen, ‘I wish I could afford it at home.’

She was obviously bored with Kitty who, encased in her blue wool, was getting pinker by the minute.

How could Rannaldini have married and been upset by the departure of such a frump? wondered Helen.

Everyone, except Helen, was cheered up by the arrival of Flora who was wearing a grey silk shirt tucked into black velvet knickerbockers. Her red hair, tied back with a black bow, had all the shine and bounce that Helen’s had lost. She was also weighed down with presents: a Body Shop basket for Helen; Beethoven sonatas played by his hero Pablo Gonzales for Marcus; a tape called ‘Let’s Ride to Music’ for Rupert — ‘I thought your father would at least know “The Galloping Major”; and a long clinging silver-grey silk jersey cardigan for Taggie.

‘Oh bliss,’ cried Taggie overjoyed.

‘Marcus said your eyes were silver-grey.’

‘I’ll put it on straightaway. Marcus, darling, can you open another bottle?’

‘Isn’t this room gorgeous?’ Flora looked round, then seeing Helen looking broody and sensing her despair, Flora delved into her carrier bag.

‘I forgot. Boris sent you this, Mrs Gordon.’

‘How very dear of Boris.’

‘It was dear,’ said Flora, ‘cost most of Boris’s last advance from the BBC and it’s the first present he’s ever wrapped up. “I cannot cope with this chello tape,” he kept saying.’

‘Open it, Mum,’ urged Marcus, but Helen had put it on a side-table.

‘Where’s Grandpapa?’ asked Marcus.

‘Gone to collect his mystery guest,’ giggled Kitty. ‘It’s like What’s My Line? Is she in show business? Does she provide a service?’

‘That’s probably them,’ said Helen, as the dogs barked, but soon the barks turned to wimpers of excitement as Lysander weaved in, beautiful in a dinner-jacket and already drunk.

Having kissed Kitty in delight, hugged Flora, who was an old friend, clapped an arm round Marcus’s shoulder and shaken Helen’s hand, he proceeded to tell them what a wonderful time he and Rupert had had in the pub, and how much Xav had won on the fruit machine.

Lysander was a beautiful rider and his sympathy with horses had contributed hugely to Rupert’s successful transition to the flat.

‘Marcus says you’ve done brilliantly,’ Flora told him.

‘I did brilliantly at Christmas,’ giggled Lysander, ‘look what Arthur gave me.’ Raising a leg to show off luminous Father Christmas socks, he nearly fell over.

How could Kitty have left Rannaldini for such a silly boy? thought Helen in amazement.

Lysander nearly fell over again when Taggie walked. in wearing her new silver cardigan. Like Penscombe streams in the winter sunshine, it glittered so radiantly on her long slim body that no-one noticed her lank hair or her laddered tights.

A second later she was followed by Xav storming in on a new motorized tractor, followed by Bogotá and Nimrod, fighting noisily over a chewstik shoe. Xav had a glossy pudding-basin hair-cut these days. His eyes were speculative, arrogant and almost straight. He had been so happy since he moved to Penscombe that he had acquired all the confidence of a young rajah.

‘Where’s your father?’ asked Taggie through gritted teeth.

‘Changing,’ said Xavier.

‘He’s changed.’ Rupert sauntered in doing up his cuff-links, and headed straight for Taggie who ducked her head when he tried to kiss her.

‘You’re an absolute shite,’ she hissed.

‘I am a shite in wining armour.’

‘It is not funny. There are masses of bottles to open and no-one’s done the seating plan.’

‘Good, I can sit next to you, you are so beautiful.’

‘And you are so drunk and late.’

Rupert tried to pull himself together. ‘Go and open the red wine,’ he ordered Marcus. ‘And get some logs. We haven’t met.’ He nodded at Flora, then seeing Kitty, now scarlet in her blue dress, said, ‘Evening, Mrs Hawkley, you’re well rugged up.’

Kitty was terrified of Rupert and he, in turn, didn’t see the point of her at all, but she kept Lysander on the rails and got him up in the morning, even if she did look like boiled bacon.

‘Did you bring me a present?’ Xav asked Flora.

‘I certainly did, but you’ve got to share it with Arthur and Bianca,’ said Flora, handing him a large box of chocolate willies, which triggered off screams of laughter and excitement.

Only Helen looked disapproving. Typical Flora. What with his ex-wife and his cast-off, she was reminded of Rannaldini at every turn. And now Tabitha had stalked in, ravishing in Taggie’s pink camisole top and amethyst blazer, a purple mini round her groin, clean blond hair flopping over her angry blue eyes and flawless skin.

‘Lovely jacket,’ murmured Flora enviously.

‘That’s Taggie’s,’ snapped Rupert.

‘So?’ Tabitha glared at her father.

‘I lent it to her,’ mumbled Taggie. Oh, why was she so wet? Unable to face a showdown she fled to the kitchen where Marcus was opening bottles of Château Latour and had lit all the candles in the dining-room.

‘You are an angel,’ sighed Taggie.

At least the little potatoes were a perfect golden brown as she topped them with chopped parsley. The smell of truffle-flavoured goose was too much for the dogs who formed a slavering crescent round Taggie as she edged them out of the oven.

‘You’re so lucky to be able to escape to the kitchen.’ It was Helen’s shrill voice again. ‘You shouldn’t be humping logs, Marcus. Hi, Mrs Bodkin,’ Helen embraced her old housekeeper. ‘Surely you’re not working on Christmas Day. We used to get village girls in in the old days.’

You are definitely going to get this boiling fat in your face in a minute, vowed Taggie. It was twenty-past eight, everything would be ruined if Eddie didn’t show up soon.

‘Can’t wait to see my father’s latest bimbo.’ Rupert refilled everyone’s glasses.

Then, over more barking, a deep voice cried; ‘Coo-ee, everyone, we’re here.’

‘Oh no.’ Flora looked at Marcus in horror.

‘Timeo Danaos et prima donna ferentes,’ sighed Marcus.

The next moment, Eddie, wearing a dinner-jacket green with age, and leering like Old Steptoe, walked in with Hermione, who was wrapped in a cranberry-red wool cloak with an ermine-lined hood looking as deeply silly as she did stunning.

‘So caring of you to include me in your festivities,’ she said, advancing on a flabbergasted Rupert with outstretched hands.

‘I didn’t know you knew my father.’

‘Eddie and I are old friends,’ said Hermione with a roguish twinkle. ‘Other dear friends begged me to sing at their Christmas Eve soirée, it was so late when I got to bed and the Christmas Day flights are so hopeless, Eddie persuaded me to fly out tomorrow.’

‘Where are you going?’ asked Rupert.

‘To Rannaldini’s, where else? My partner Bobby and little Cosmo are already out there. Rannaldini’s taken a Bohemian castle for the festive season, he likes to have all his children and ex-wives around him.’

‘Not all,’ said Lysander, putting an arm round Kitty.

‘Oh, there you are, Kitty,’ Hermione ignored Lysander. ‘What’s happened to my Merry Widow contract?’

Sliding out of her red cloak and a red-and-white Hermes scarf, she handed them to Eddie.

‘Put them in the hall, dear, and bring in my gifts.’

She was looking wonderful in boned red velvet with a bell skirt which showed off her comparatively small waist and pretty legs. A huge ruby pendant glowed above her big breasts.

I cannot believe this, thought Helen in mounting hysteria, Rannaldini’s ex-wife, his cast-off and now his mistress.

Having handed round CDs of her latest hit, ‘Santa of the Universe’, Hermione was now embracing Taggie before presenting her with a box of last year’s crystallized fruits and the salmon-pink gladioli, wrinkled in their Cellophane, which she’d been presented with the night before.

Barely acknowledging Flora, whom she detested, she turned joyfully on Helen.

‘How are you? How are you? We met many moons ago with Rannaldini at Bagley Hall.’

‘How is he?’ whispered Helen.

‘Oh, full of beans. He was telling me your late husband-’ Hermione bowed her dark head. ‘I’m so sorry, we won’t discuss it — wrote a wonderful book on the flute. I want you to have an advance copy of “Only for Lovers”.’

Helen looked down at the CD case which showed a smirking Rannaldini with his hands on Hermione’s bare shoulders.

‘Thank you,’ she mumbled, then leapt as the telephone rang. Rannaldini must have got the number from Hermione, but Rupert had already picked it up.

‘Cun I speak to Tubitha?’ he said acidly. ‘Can’t you ever find a boyfriend who speaks the Queen’s English?’

Snatching up the telephone, Tabitha flounced out.

Helen was looking round at the Turner of Cotchester Cathedral against a rain dark sky, at the Landseer of mastiffs and the Stubbs of two chestnut mares under an oak tree.

‘That’s new,’ she said, nodding beadily at the Lucian Freud of a whippet and a rather muscular nude.

‘It reminded me of Nimrod,’ Rupert smiled down at his lurcher, who was striped black and brown like a bull’s eye.

Having romped all day with his new friend Bogotá, Nimrod was stretched out on the sofa, fawn belly speckled with mud, paws in the air, chewstik shoe in his mouth, gazing adoringly up at his master out of one shiny onyx eye.

‘What used to hang in its place?’ asked Helen perplexed.

‘The Ingres, I sold it.’

‘How could you?’ said Helen appalled.

‘I hate big dark lard-like women,’ said Rupert, glaring at Hermione, who bored with charming Eddie, came bounding towards him. Rupert was her real prey.

‘What happened to that Colombian lad you were thinking of adopting?’

‘He’s here,’ said Rupert, beckoning Xav.

Getting no reaction from the boy’s impassive, watchful face, Hermione cooed: ‘May I have one of your chocolates?’

As she helped herself, putting her red lips over the knob, Lysander got such giggles he had to hide behind the curtain.

‘I bet you don’t know what my name is,’ Hermione smiled winningly.

‘Yes I do,’ said Xav.

‘Bet you don’t.’

‘Yes I do. It’s Mrs Fat Bum.’

‘Rupert’s father’s brought a bumbo,’ murmured Flora, as a shaking Lysander disappeared again.

‘Dinner,’ announced Taggie.

All Taggie’s efforts to make the dining-room look pretty had paid off. The pale scarlet walls and ivy-green curtains were echoed by a centrepiece of snowdrops, holly and Christmas roses. The only lighting reflected in glass and silver came from the flickering fire, fifty white candles and the picture lights over the family portraits.

‘That was me,’ said Eddie, nodding at a handsome youth in uniform.

‘Oh, what a relief,’ Helen’s voice quavered. ‘You’ve changed nothing here.’

‘Except wives,’ said Rupert. That’ll teach her to be nicer to Taggie, he thought, as Helen brimmed and bit her lip.

Rupert, on the other hand, had taken a shine to Flora and, as there was no seating plan, put her on his left with Hermione as the lesser of three evils on his right, and Helen between her and Eddie, who was on Taggie’s right. Marcus, Tabitha, Lysander and Kitty could sort themselves out.

‘It’s perfect,’ he called out to Taggie as he cut into the goose, dropping the first slice into Nimrod’s waiting jaws.

‘That’s far too much for me,’ whimpered Helen as he handed her the first plate.

‘I’ll have it,’ said Hermione, piling on most of the little brown potatoes.

Having filled up glasses and handed round the vegetables, Marcus found himself sitting next to Kitty. She might have a face like boiled bacon, but she was so adorable and, having worked for Rannaldini, had lots of gossip about soloists, conductors and helpful agents.

She refused red wine, when he tried to fill up her glass, because she was having another baby.

‘Lysander’s coming to the ante-natal classes,’ she said proudly.

‘I love rolling around on the floor with a lot of women,’ yelled a jubilant Lysander down the table.

‘That goose was something else,’ sighed Flora, finally putting her knife and fork together.

‘Have some more,’ said Taggie.

‘Yes please,’ said Eddie.

Tabitha didn’t even bother to toy with a piece of goose as she read Dick Francis under the table.

Please give me Lysander, she prayed.

Please let Rannaldini call, prayed her mother.

‘I think we ought to drink to the cook,’ said Eddie, with his mouth full, ‘To Helen,’ he said, draining his glass.

Everyone, except Helen, howled with laughter.

‘I love you,’ mouthed Rupert down the table at Taggie.

‘I think we ought to drink to absent friends,’ Hermione smiled round, ‘Bobby and Cosmo.’

‘Abby,’ said Flora and Marcus.

‘And Malise,’ said Helen with a sob.

‘Of course,’ said Rupert, ‘Malise!’

After everyone drained their glasses there was an embarrassed pause.

‘And I think we ought to drink to absent fiends,’ said Flora, as Rupert filled her glass again. ‘To Rannaldini!’

SEVENTEEN

The flickering bright blue halo had retreated like a genie into the Christmas pudding. Chateau d’Yquem gleamed topaz in the wine glasses. Gertrude, Taggie’s little mongrel, bristled in a green paper admiral’s hat on her mistress’s lap. Xav, who never seemed to go to bed, was sprawled on his father’s knee, tunelessly singing ‘Cars in the bright sky look down where He lay’ because it made Rupert laugh.

Why doesn’t my father love me a millionth as much as that? thought Marcus wistfully. He was so frantic to practise he was beginning to twitch like a junkie. All the pieces he’d been learning seemed to be sliding away. Across the table his mother looked shell-shocked.

‘I cannot believe you are forty-four,’ Hermione was telling her. ‘I hope I’ll be as lovely as you when I reach your age.’

‘Which is in about two minutes,’ said Flora crossly.

‘Why don’t you take an evening class?’ urged Hermione. ‘There are courses for antique restoration, archery, ball-room dancing — you might find a new chap there. They’ve even got a class for understanding teenagers.’

‘My father would profit from that,’ said Tabitha acidly, glancing up from Dick Francis. ‘Where’s Grandpa?’ she asked Marcus.

‘Ringing my grand-mugger,’ said Xav.

‘I didn’t ask you, smart ass,’ snapped Tabitha.

‘It’s true.’ Rupert came to Xavier’s defence. ‘He proposes to her every Christmas.’

Bored with counselling, Hermione looked sourly at Xav, still on Rupert’s knee, which was exactly where Hermione would like to have been. Rupert had always had a strong head, but he had drunk so much during the day, and Xav’s eyes were so much improved that it was debatable as to which of them was now squinting the most.

‘Very caring to take on a coloured lad,’ observed Hermione.

‘Piss orf,’ drawled Xav in exactly the same bored voice as Rupert.

Lysander got the giggles again.

‘Why don’t you run along to bed,’ suggested Hermione. ‘You could play my cradle song tape, or Mummy could read to you.’

‘Mummy can’t read,’ said Xav. ‘I’ll be reading to her soon.’

‘High time you went to boarding-school, young man,’ said Hermione irritably. ‘Are you going to Harrow?’

‘Eventually,’ said Rupert forking up Christmas pudding at great speed. ‘This is miraculous, Tag.’

‘I suppose King Faisal went there,’ mused Hermione. ‘But I do feel single-sex boarding schools encourage homosexuality.’

‘Not nearly so much as women like you,’ said Rupert coldly.

Hermione burst into merry laughter.

‘You are a tease.’ Then, turning to Marcus, she asked pointedly, ‘Did you go to Harrow?’

‘No, he went to Bagley Hall,’ said Taggie quickly, seeing Marcus go scarlet, ‘As a day-boy because of his asthma.’

‘Have you got a girl friend?’ persisted Hermione.

‘He’s got me,’ piped up Flora, noticing how Helen winced.

Hermione also shot Flora a not-much-cop glance and, mistakenly thinking she would endear herself to Rupert by being good with a miserably squirming Marcus, asked: ‘How long have you had asthma?’

‘All my life, I think.’

‘They say it’s inherited,’ Hermione was determined to keep Rupert’s attention.

‘Must have skipped a generation, then,’ said Rupert, as Eddie returned to the table and pretended to admire Hermione’s ruby pendant in order to gaze down her front. ‘Marcus gets his heavy breathing from my father.’

God, Rupert’s a bitch, thought Flora and, to distract everyone, held her cracker out to Xav. This and subsequent bangs sent all the dogs, including Gertrude, racing out of the room. Xav slid off Rupert’s knee in pursuit of his puppy.

Feeling terribly sorry for Marcus, Kitty, who was wearing a paper crown redder than her face, asked him if he’d had some nice presents.

‘Marvellous, Dad and Taggie gave me some light-weight tails, one gets so hot in concerts.’

‘Now you’ve got to get some work to try them out,’ said Rupert.

‘Hasn’t he told you,’ cried Flora, ‘he’s too flaming modest, he’s got a recital in Cotchester Town Hall on 21 February. You’ve all got to come.’

Marcus smiled deprecatingly at the excited faces, but his moment of glory was short-lived.

‘Talking of special occasions, I’m going on Desert Island Discs on Saturday at seven-thirty,’ announced Hermione. ‘My agent Howie Denston said that at least Sue Lawley and I have lovely legs in common. I hope you’ll all tune in.’

‘Better alert the monkeys to evacuate the island,’ muttered Rupert.

Looking up from the tangerine she was peeling, Taggie hastily asked what records Hermione had chosen.

‘All my own — so fascinating to compare the different accompanists — and conductors. Rather exciting — the programme coincides with a special New Year announcement.’ She beamed at Rupert.

‘Do tell us,’ asked Taggie.

‘My lips are sealed. But I’m dying to see the inside of Buckingham Palace,’ she added roguishly. ‘Have you ever wanted a knighthood, Rupert?’

‘No.’

‘Lady Thatcher offered him one twice,’ said Taggie quickly.

‘Because I have it on good authority that Rannaldini is going to get his K in the New Year’s Honours list.’

‘Sir Roberto,’ said Flora flatly. ‘That should increase his pulling power.’

‘He can have one-Knight stands,’ said Lysander.

Unable to take the roars of drunken laughter, Helen fled the room. Outside she ignored Nimrod and Bogotá, who were engaged in a furiously, growling tug-of-war over Hermione’s Hermes scarf.

Going in search of Helen five minutes later, Taggie found her washing up in the kitchen, rubber-gloved hands whisking round the hot suds, glasses upside down on a tea-towel.

‘Poor Mrs Bodkin looks so tired, I thought I’d give her a hand.’ The reproach was implicit. ‘It’s lovely and cool in here, I always find goose a bit rich.’

‘I’m sorry,’ mumbled Taggie, ‘I’ll take people upstairs, and then we can have coffee.’

I’m being a bitch, thought Helen miserably, but I can’t help it. Taggie’s got everything — youth, looks, children, Rupert’s love and the beautiful house and garden which was once mine.

Although Lysander beamed drunkenly across the table at him, Marcus had never felt more de trop than when left pretending to drink port with the men, who talked non-stop about horses.

Tomorrow, Lysander and Rupert would hunt until two, then the helicopter would take them and Eddie to Kempton in time for Penscombe Pride’s big race at three-thirty.

‘He’ll walk it,’ said Lysander.

Marcus took another surreptitious squirt from his inhaler. The steroids he’d been taking to combat his allergy to dogs and new paint had given him a wretched sore throat.

‘Should be a good crowd out tomorrow,’ said Eddie. ‘Always liked the Boxing Day Meet, mind you hunting’s gone to the dogs since so many people who do their own horses come out.’

Fortunately for Marcus, Flora put on ‘Let’s Ride to Music’, and ‘The Galloping Major’, thundering through the house, soon flushed out the men.

‘Boom, boom, boom,’ went the regimental drums as screaming with drunken laughter Eddie and Flora, cheek to cheek, clasped hands outstretched, trotted up the hall to ‘D’you ken John Peel’, followed by Lysander and Kitty, and Rupert and Taggie, then broke into a canter to ‘Bonny Dundee’ with a pack of dogs barking excitedly behind them.

‘Right wheel, halt, dismount,’ shouted Rupert as the band swung into Aida which had been his and Eddie’s old regimental march.

Unfortunately Hermione, returning from a respray upstairs, couldn’t resist singing very loudly along, so everyone gave up marching and allowed her to put on ‘Santa of the Universe’ jumping out of their skins as ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ filled the house.

‘What with my first wife continually hitting the roof and Hermione taking it off, I’m not going to have a slate over my head soon,’ grumbled Rupert.

Flora, Rupert, Marcus, Kitty and Tabitha, who’d actually put down Dick Francis, were playing consequences. Taggie, who was too slow at writing to play, was handing out liqueurs. Lysander, an even slower writer, was playing chess with Eddie, who was telling him about Rupert’s mother.

‘Played chess together during the first dark days of the war when no-one knew if Hitler was going to strike. Wonderful woman, turned me down again this evening — know we’ll end up together.’

Hermione, meanwhile, had rather startled Rupert by sinking to the floor at his feet, her dark head in danger of being singed by his cigar. He’d go off piste down her cleavage in a minute.

‘Where are we?’ he asked

‘Woman’s name,’ said Flora.

Putting down his cigar, Rupert wrote ‘Hermione’. Handing his turned-over piece of paper to Tabitha, he touched her hand. The rows over The Engineer had upset him very much, he’d probably buy her the damn horse in the end.

Eddie and Lysander were so drunk they couldn’t remember whose move it was.

‘Think I should marry her?’ Eddie nodded in Hermione’s direction.

‘God, no,’ Lysander turned pale. ‘She’s awful.’

‘Damn fine looking, damn rich, sort out my Lloyd’s lorses.’

‘Not worth it, anyway she’s got a husband.’

‘Must be loopy to leave a beautiful woman like that at Christmas.’

‘He’s gay.’

‘Whaddja mean?’

‘Queer.’

‘Good God.’ Eddie’s teeth nearly fell out.

Lysander giggled. ‘Don’t let her get her Santa Claws into you.’

‘Ha, ha, ha, ha, Santa Claws, that’s good,’ Eddie choked on his third glass of port.

‘Good King Wenceslarse looked out,’ sang Hermione on CD and in real life.

I cannot stand it, thought Helen, who was perched on the arm of Marcus’s chair. I’ve seen King Wensceslas’ statue on the Charles Bridge, she wanted to shout, and he wasn’t good at all, and the stupid story about St Agnes’ fountain and the pine logs is garbage. But none of these drunken philistines would be remotely interested unless she told them she had been on the bridge with Rannaldini.

Sensing her anguish, Marcus reached back to retrieve Boris’s present.

‘Please open it, Mum, it’s really nice.’

‘Do have a drink,’ pleaded Taggie.

Helen shook her head violently, sending tears flying out of her eyes.

The group round the fire had finished the first round of their consequences.

‘You start, Tabitha,’ said Flora. Tabitha unrolled her piece of paper. ‘Penscombe Pride,’ she began, in her flat little voice, then starting to smile, ‘met Hermione — on top of the muck heap, Pridie said: Give us a blow job. Hermione said to Pridie: I am about to have my period. Pridie gave her the clap, Hermione gave him a great kick up the ass, and the consequence was…’ Tabitha burst out laughing.

‘Tabitha,’ protested Taggie, ‘that’s enough.’

‘Why must you spoil everything?’ Tabitha turned on her stepmother like a viper.

About to send her to bed, Rupert heard a clip-clop on the flagstones, and cheers and shouts of laughter greeted a grinning Xav, riding into the drawing-room on Tiny, Lysander’s delinquent Shetland pony. Xav had got Tiny’s measure completely and punched her on the nose if she ever tried to bite him, but he couldn’t stop her lashing out at Hermione, sending the discomfited diva scrambling like a camel to her feet. Having vented her spleen, Tiny proceeded to hoover up the straw from Helen’s Body Shop basket, until she encountered a pearl bath drop and curled up her lip.

‘Quick, get a camera,’ Rupert told Marcus.

But Tabitha had flipped.

‘You never let me ride ponies into the house,’ she screamed. ‘That child is spoilt rotten, he got far more presents than Marcus and I put together. It’s bloody unfair, you love him far more than you do us.’

‘Bloody, bloody unfair,’ beamed Bianca, appearing in the doorway with her telephone. ‘Hallo, I’m afraid Tabiffa’s in the bath.’

‘And she’s revoltingly spoilt, too,’ yelled Tab. ‘I was never allowed down at this hour.’ And storming out, she slammed the door shaking every piece of china.

Helen burst into tears.

‘Why is everyone always fighting in this house?’ she sobbed. ‘Why can’t you all be nice to each other?’

You could start off by controlling your daughter, thought Flora mouthing, ‘Don’t worry’ at Marcus.

‘They should bring back National Service, particularly for women,’ said Eddie. ‘Checkmate.’

Appalled that Xav and Bianca could have caused such a terrible row, Taggie leapt forward to comfort Helen who was now wailing: ‘I can’t go on, I can’t go on, oh Malise.’

‘Take that pony back to the stable at once, Xav,’ ordered Rupert.

‘In the bleak mid-winter,’ sang Hermione on the CD, as Mrs Bodkin put her head round the door:

‘Telephone for Mrs Gordon.’

‘Talk about the ungay Gordon,’ grumbled Flora, as Helen shot out of the room, sending Boris’s present flying, ‘And that’s five hundred pounds down the drain, poor Boris. She’s a frightful drip,’ she added.

Rupert agreed. ‘God, I hope you marry Marcus.’

Looking into her eyes, which were the light emerald of the winter barley rampaging over his fields, he picked up the sadness and remembered the gossip.

‘Still hung up on Rannaldini.’

‘I guess so, he recurs like malaria.’

‘You could do better.’

‘And I have to say that when I was at Bagley Hall, you were voted the man to whom we most wanted to lose our virginity.’

Rupert smiled.

‘If I wasn’t bespoke,’ he jerked his head towards Taggie, who was anxiously pouring a glass of Armagnac for Hermione, ‘I couldn’t think of anything nicer.’

‘You will go to Marcus’s concert, won’t you?’ pleaded Flora.

But Rupert had been distracted by the return of Helen suddenly looking radiant, tears dried like raindrops in a heatwave. Bewildered by her mood swings, Marcus sloped off to check with Mrs Bodkin who had telephoned.

‘He wouldn’t give his name, but it was a foreign-sounding gentleman.’

Marcus so hoped it was Boris, who had been screwing up courage to ask Helen out. But when she finally opened his present, the beautiful porcelain nightingale had shattered into a hundred pieces.

Alone in the kitchen Taggie cried and cried. An exhausted Marcus had finally got Helen to bed. Arthur, woken by the din, had been taken home by Lysander and Kitty, who had annexed Flora as well. Tab wasn’t in her room and had probably taken refuge with the grooms over the stables. Eddie had passed out on the sofa, leaving his teeth in one of Hermione’s crystallized greengages. Taggie had put a duvet over him. Hermione’s limo had borne her away to an early flight in the morning.

The dogs had collapsed on their bean bags. The dish-washer swished and swirled round the last consignment of rare glasses and coffee cups. Helen would have been appalled that Taggie hadn’t washed them by hand.

Only Rupert and Gertrude, the mongrel, who had taken umbrage over the new puppy and the crackers, and escaped through the cat door, were missing. Nimrod, the lurcher, brought out a rubber cutlet he had been given for Christmas and squeaked it to make Taggie laugh. But she went on crying so he slunk back to his basket.

‘I’ve lost my dog, my husband and the present list. No-one will know what anyone’s given anybody,’ sobbed Taggie.

She jumped at the crash of the cat door. There was a scampering of claws and in charged Gertrude, wearing Rupert’s black tie, and hurled herself on Taggie.

She was followed by Rupert squinting worse than ever. A blond lock of hair had fallen over his forehead, an empty brandy bottle swung between his fingers.

‘Gertrude and I have been hiding, we don’t want Mrs Fat Bum as a stepmother.’

‘She’s gone,’ sobbed Taggie.

‘Angel, what’s the matter?’

‘I wanted to show I was a better wife than Helen.’

‘Oh, darling,’ Rupert folded her in his arms. ‘I’m sorry I’ve been such a shit, but I can’t stand my first wife, and I loathe Hermione and Marcus gets on my tits and Tabitha’s impossible, and all I want to do is screw you stupid.’

‘I’m stupid anyway,’ said Taggie, but she stopped crying.

‘I was such a wreck when I met you,’ mumbled Rupert, ‘Helen just reminds me how vile I was. You’ve taught me to love.’ He kissed her wedding ring finger. ‘You’ve twisted me straight. I’ve got a present for you.’ Rootling in his pocket he produced a silver locket.

Inside were Daisy France-Lynch miniatures of Xav and Bianca.

Taggie nearly started crying again.

‘Oh how lovely, I wish there was room inside for you as well. Oh, thank you.’

‘I want a night inside your shining armour,’ said Rupert, fumbling with the pearl buttons of her silver cardigan. ‘I’m probably past it, but let’s go and try.’

‘Only if you promise to come to Marcus’s concert,’ said Taggie.

Unable to sleep, Marcus heard the two of them come to bed, softly laughing. Outside the clouds had rolled away leaving a pale grey sky so crowded with stars the constellations were indistinguishable. He had just made the agonizing decision that he couldn’t go back to the Academy next term either. Tab would return to Bagley Hall in a fortnight, he couldn’t leave Helen alone in the Old Rectory in this state.

EIGHTEEN

Dame Edith Spink, composer, conductor and musical director of Venturer Television and the Cotchester Chamber Orchestra, had been responsible for Marcus’s recital in Cotchester.

Built like Thomas the Tank Engine, she had leant on Cotchester Musical Society of which she was president.

‘Boy’s extremely talented,’ she boomed, glaring at the wilting committee through her monocle, ‘and incredibly cheap for one hundred pounds.’

This was a considerable plus because the musical society never had any money.

Marcus had already learnt Chopin’s Grande Polonaise, The Bee’s Wedding and Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata for the concert he’d cancelled because of Malise’s death so he decided to play them again. The Appassionata was fiendishly difficult, but it would be a compliment to Abby, who had dominated his thoughts throughout the long winter in Warwickshire, and who had promised to bring Rodney over from Lucerne for the concert. He would kick off with two Scarlatti sonatas and, then as a compliment to Boris, end the second half with his titanic Siberian Suite.

This had dismayed his piano teacher, Miss Chatterton, known at college as ‘Chatterbox’, when Marcus visited her in her leafy North London suburb the day before the concert.

‘Levitsky isn’t remotely audience-friendly,’ Chatterbox absorbed modern jargon, then flogged it to death. ‘The provinces hate contemporary music, particularly if they can’t pronounce it. You’ll have them leaving in droves. At least end with the Chopin so they’ve got something to look forward to.’

‘The programme’s already printed,’ sighed Marcus. ‘Anyway I can’t let Boris down, he’s so low.’

Boris’s thumping great crush on his mother showed no signs of abating, even though Helen wasn’t responding at all. She had hardly thanked Boris for the porcelain nightingale and, claiming she was too busy with Marcus’s recital to see him, had thrown herself into the role of supportive mother with a vengeance.

The lovely golden walled cathedral town of Cotchester had been a royalist stronghold in the Civil War. After an appalling journey with wind and rain nearly sweeping him off the motorway, Marcus arrived around teatime at the town hall, a splendid baroque edifice two hundred yards down the High Street from Venturer Television.

His hopes of a peaceful couple of hours rehearsing were shattered by Helen who was standing on the steps pointing in horror at his poster and brandishing a programme.

‘How could you bill yourself just as Marcus Black?’

‘I don’t want to cash in on Dad’s name.’

‘It’s the only thing he’s given you.’

‘Except a lot of dosh,’ protested Marcus, getting his dark suit and his music case out of the Aston.

‘And why did you send them that awful photograph?’ moaned Helen, ‘Your hair was longer than his was.’ She pointed disapprovingly at Charles I’s statue in the centre of the Market Square.

‘He was lucky only getting his head cut off.’ Ruefully, Marcus stroked his own short back and sides.

‘Looks much better,’ said Helen, who, because Rupert was expected, had nagged him all week to have a haircut.

Marcus glared at his reflection in the dark mirror in the foyer.

‘Everyone’ll see my ears going bright red with nerves.’

‘I hope you washed them.’

‘Mu-um, they don’t have opera glasses at recitals.’

Picking up the programme he gave a shout of laughter for above his name it said, in large letters: An explosive new talent, Dame Edith Spunk.

But Helen was in no mood for jokes. Last night the Cotswold Hunt, who seemed to epitomize Rupert’s disreputable past, had hired the hall for their annual Hunt Ball.

Apart from a disgusting stench of drink and cigarettes, they had left three broken windows letting in a vicious east wind, a lot of sick in the Ladies, a pair of red knickers and some suspicious-looking stains on the sofa bed in Marcus’s dressing-room. Even worse, there were drink rings, cigarette burns, spilt bourbon and candle-wax all over the keys of a grand piano on which Marcus was expected to play.

Marcus was delighted. His hands sweated dreadfully before a concert and it would be far easier to grip the keys, particularly the black notes, of which there were thousands in the F minor Appassionata, if the piano were sticky and dirty. Alas, Helen then explained virtuously that she had already set to with a flurry of meths and righteous indignation. The keys were now so clean they would slip away from his fingers like minnows.

Soloists have been known to sandpaper down the ivories of concert grands to get a better grip. Rubenstein had even sprayed the keys with hair lacquer. But there was no way Marcus could find lacquer on a late Sunday afternoon.

Just managing not to snap at Helen, he was cheered by the number of cards and presents in his dressing-room, particularly when he found Abby had sent him a beautiful green-leather-bound copy of The Tempest postmarked Lucerne. Inside she had written:

This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury, and my passion, With its

sweet air.

Good luck, Marcus,

Warmest

L’Appassionata.

Marcus trembled with excitement as he smelt the faint trace of her scent on the pages.

Next he opened a silver shamrock from Declan O’Hara and a bottle of Moët from Flora’s mother, both thanking him for the invitation to the recital, but regretting they would be away.

What invitation? Marcus felt a wave of anger. Helen had obviously been at work again. There were other good luck cards from famous friends of his parents he hadn’t seen since he was a child.

As he hung up his suit in the cupboard, he found a pale gold silk dress with an Yves Saint Laurent label, which he hadn’t seen before.

Outside, he could hear Helen saying: ‘We’re expecting Sir Rodney Macintosh, Declan O’Hara, Dame Edith, Boris Levitsky and Georgie Maguire and loads of students and teachers from the Academy. Marcus’s father is flying back specially from the yearling sales in Florida. And, oh, I forgot, Abby Rosen’s coming, yes the violinist, my son has a bit of a reputation as a lady’s man.’

Rushing into the passage before Helen became even more cringe-making, Marcus found her talking to an old biddy in a long grey overcoat, who had the face of a rather over-excited dromedary and a drifting white bun like an icepack on top of her head.

Helen introduced her as Miss Smallwood, the social secretary.

‘Our artist,’ bleated Miss Smallwood eagerly. ‘Are you like your father? Well, perhaps not,’ she sounded slightly disappointed. ‘I was wondering if you could give a little talk to our members before the concert.’

‘A-a-absolutely n-n-not,’ stammered Marcus. ‘And Mum, Georgie and Declan can’t make it.’

All he wanted to do was to get at the piano, slippery keys and all. He found the sound hard and bright in the treble, but after having ‘Lydia Pinker’ and ‘American Pie’ bashed out on it all last night, it was very woolly in the bass. He would have to pound the keys to make the left-hand lines in the Appassionata clear enough.

Nor, unlike the Cotswold Hunt, could the musical society afford to heat the hall which was getting colder by the minute. Marcus couldn’t play if he were cold.

He couldn’t play now. Helen, stationing herself bossily round the hall to test the accoustics, kept snapping his concentration.

‘I can’t hear you from here. You’re very faint from here.’ Then up in the gallery, where she found a white bra with Tabitha’s name-tape inside. ‘You really must project more from here.’

He’d reached screaming pitch when the piano tuner rolled up and proceeded to bang out Chopin’s Grande Polonaise far better than he had, so Marcus retreated to the upright in his dressing-room to run through certain tricky passages only to be interrupted by Helen again.

Venturer Television, BBC Cotchester, The Times and Classical Music all wanted to interview him. Wasn’t it exciting? As he wasn’t prepared to give a little talk, she’d arranged a press conference with sandwiches and glasses of wine.

Marcus was aghast.

‘I can’t, Mum, for Christ’s sake. They’re only here because of Dad. I have to go into myself before a concert and be completely alone with the music.’

‘Uh-uh,’ Helen shook her head playfully. ‘You’re not going to have a moment to feel nervous.’

You mean you’re not risking a re-run of the cock-up at Malise’s funeral, thought Marcus.

‘We’re jolly well going to show Rupert this time,’ said Helen.

Marcus started to shake and wheeze and took a couple of puffs from his inhaler. He’d already used it too much in the last forty-eight hours. His throat was very sore. He had the beginnings of a rash round his mouth.

Out of the window in the dusk, he could see the great shadow of the cathedral like a warning finger, and the wind pleating the flooded water meadows and lashing the trailing twigs of the weeping willows almost horizontal.

Marcus managed to smile at the Press, but he could hardly remember his date of birth. Only when they asked him which pianists he most admired he had no difficulty in saying Emil Gilels, Myra Hess and Solomon and, among the living, Pablo Gonzales. As he suspected, the Press were only interested in him in relation to Rupert.

But was trying to master that big black brute of a piano all that different to getting the best out of a difficult horse? he wondered. As a child Marcus’s worst nightmare had been going into restaurants or to airports with Rupert, who so instantly and effortlessly attracted the limelight. It was ironic that he had chosen a profession entirely dependent on limelight. But it was the only way he could express himself and more recently, the only way he could tell Abby what he felt about her. But it was not to be. As the Press were trailing out, Abby telephoned.

‘I’m so sorry, Marcus, but Rodney’s been hospitalized with bronchitis. I guess it isn’t serious but I daren’t leave him. I know you’ll be great and see you very soon.’

As Marcus put down the telephone almost weeping with disappointment, Miss Smallwood handed him some drooping crimson flowers.

‘Hellebores from Dame Hermione’s own garden,’ she said reverently. ‘Her gardener brought them all the way from Paradise. Dame Hermione wishes you all the luck in the world, but daren’t risk a cold in this weather, such a caring person.’

By seven o’clock the hall was filling up with members of the musical society, variations on Miss Smallwood in flat shoes, long coats with triangles of brightly coloured scarves around their necks, all huddling together for warmth. Any hell fires fanned by the Cotswold Hunt Ball had receded long ago.

Two more telephone apologies came from Rupert’s friend, Basil Baddingham and the Bishop of Cotchester, who both claimed to be laid low by the same bug. As a note of bathos the hunt saboteurs had got the night wrong and rolled up to wave placards saying: ‘Cotswold Butchers’ and ‘Don’t victimize our vixens’ and generally hassle the Hunt Ball. Learning Rupert, who’d hunted with the Cotswold all his life, was expected later, they decided to hang around.

As Marcus changed into his dark suit and had fearful difficulty putting cuff-links into his grey-and-white striped shirt, he noticed the coloured windows of Cotchester Cathedral lit up for Evensong.

He should be the one on his knees praying for his hubris in thinking he could play the Appassionata and the Siberian Suite. Even the Chopin was so clear and linear, it gave you nowhere to hide and the left-hand part was just as challenging as the right.

Having showered and washed her hair, Helen had changed into the gold silk dress and wanted approval.

‘You look stunning, Mum.’

‘You really think so, and it goes with these shoes?’

‘Perfect,’ said Marcus dutifully.

‘I guess I had to have something new. It’s your first professional date.’

She has no idea, thought Marcus in despair, as he put on a crocus-yellow tie, bought for him by Flora to jazz up his whole outfit.

‘Isn’t that rather loud?’ began Helen.

There was a rat-tat-tat on the door.

‘Fifteen minutes, Mr Black,’ cried Miss Smallwood, ‘and Lady Baddingham’s just arrived,’ she added excitedly. ‘But she’s afraid Dame Edith has been struck down by the same dreaded lurgy as our bishop.’

Marcus fought an hysterical desire to laugh.

Monica Baddingham, Basil’s sister-in-law, had caused an uproar last year when she had walked out on her vicious venal husband of nearly twenty-five years’ standing and moved in with Dame Edith.

Such was Monica’s popularity in the area — she had worked endlessly for charity and been kind to everyone and she seemed so blissfully happy with Dame Edith — that the scandal had blown over. Helen would normally have disapproved violently of such bohemian escapades, but realizing how influential Monica had suddenly become in the music world, she scuttled out to say hallo.

She was less amused by the arrival of a very jocund company from the Academy who conga-ed in led by Flora. In order to drink on the way down they had hired a minibus and had now stationed themselves on the left side of the hall so Marcus’s ravishing female fan club could drool over him while he played.

Boris, also on the bus, was in a frightful state of nerves. His hair looked even more electrocuted than usual. He wore a grey track suit, the loose trousers of which kept falling down his chunky body, and his suede feet seemed to curl round each other like bear claws.

‘I don’t want Siberian Suite to be hackled.’

He was longing to sit next to Helen who meanly introduced him to Marcus’s teacher, Miss Chatterton, so they could be nervous together.

‘Do tell Marcus,’ Miss Chatterton begged Helen, ‘that the audience will only enjoy it if Marcus smiles and enjoys it, too.’

Not many people, thought Flora in disappointment. It was crucial to have bums on seats, because anyone who contemplated booking Marcus in future would check with Cotchester Musical Society whether he pulled the crowds.

Oh thank God, here was Taggie looking ravishing as always, in a dark red suit and rather tentatively leading Bianca by the hand. They were followed by Kitty, Mrs Bodkin, all Rupert’s grooms and estate workers and finally, Tabitha, who might have been very jealous of Marcus if she had not received seventeen Valentines and been danced off her feet at the Hunt Ball.

The sight of Bianca, enchanting in a tartan, smocked wool dress with a white collar and dark green tights, gave Helen a legitimate excuse to express her jealousy of Taggie with a burst of anger.

‘Is that wise? It’s a long programme?’

Taggie flushed. ‘Bianca adores Marcus, she’d have been heartbroken if I’d left her behind. If she starts acting up, I’ll take her out, I promise. Hallo, Monica.’ Taggie turned in delight to embrace Lady Baddingham, for whose dinner parties she had often cooked before she was married. ‘Isn’t this exciting? Edith’s been so wonderful to arrange all this for Marcus.’

‘Edith’s hopping mad not to be able to make it,’ said Monica, a big-boned handsome woman, whose red veins clashed merrily with her emerald-green coat, ‘Is this one of your smalls?’

She beamed down at Bianca. ‘Isn’t she adorable? You can’t start them off at concerts too early.’

Helen could have screamed.

‘Where’s Rupert?’ she snapped.

‘He should be here,’ Taggie looked at her watch. ‘I hope the fog isn’t bad.’

‘About a hundred and twenty,’ said Miss Smallwood counting heads. ‘Not bad for a beastly February evening. It’s nearly half-past, we ought to start.’

Marcus was hunched over the table in his dressing-room, panic about an impending asthma attack making him even more breathless. He couldn’t let everyone down again. His reflection glittered silver with sweat in the mirror. Then Helen had burst in in a rage.

‘Absolutely typical, your bloody father’s helicopter’s been grounded by fog. He and Lysander rang from the M4. They won’t make it before the interval, if at all. So, we’re going to start.’

A great calm swept over Marcus. At least Rupert wouldn’t be bored witless or sneer at the low turn-out. Quickly he washed the sweat off his face and straightened his tie.

Nerves overwhelmed him again as he fell up the steps to the platform and sidled towards the piano, hangdog as the last person picked in a team.

‘Please smile, Marcus,’ begged Miss Chatterton.

‘Will you nudge me when I’m meant to clap?’ Taggie whispered to Monica Baddingham.

With a brief shy nod to acknowledge the rattle of applause, Marcus sat down, fiddled with the height of the piano-stool, gave his fingers a last wipe.

‘Hair’s too short,’ muttered a member of his fan club.

‘I like it, more butch,’ said another.

‘He’s utterly gorgeous any way,’ sighed a third.

On her right Flora noticed an old man in a beret getting out a score.

For a second Marcus sat clasping his hands to stop them shaking, then one seemed to escape like a white dove above the keys, then it fell in a skirl of bright notes, a weightless shimmer of sound and the Scarlatti was away.

Forgetting the cold, members of the Cotchester Musical Society smiled in relief. The estate workers and the grooms looked at each other in amazement — was this their sweet diffident Marcus?

At the end of the Scarlatti, Marcus got a splendid round of applause, augmented by the whooping, cheering and stamping feet of his friends from college.

‘Good boy, Marcus,’ piped up Bianca when there was a pause which set everyone laughing and clapping again.

As Marcus came on to play the Appassionata he was smiling. The bass was still woolly but suddenly the sound blossomed, producing such thrilling contrasts of loud and soft, of tender and so fierce that the big black piano shook on its legs.

How could such unleashed forces be contained in such a slender, youthful body, wondered the audience, marvelling, too, at every angelic ripple of sound as Marcus captured not only the nobility but also plumbed the extraordinary depths and dramas of the piece.

Part of the intense pleasure for Marcus’s friends was to see the almost unearthly happiness on his face. Flora clutched herself in ecstasy and looking round noticed a tear like an icicle glittering on the wrinkled cheek of the old man in the beret.

The middle movement was so beautiful as theme and variations chased each other round the keyboard that the tears sprung in Marcus’s eyes, too.

But, as he lingered over the runs and pauses which bridge the second and last movement, he told himself that he must keep something in reserve for the fireworks of the finale.

Allegro non Troppo, Beethoven had warned. He had known the dangers that awaited the unwary pianist, the temptation to show off and run out of puff.

Marcus was usually nervous as the end approached, like the last looming fence in the show-jumping ring. This evening he was utterly confident. But, as he tensed himself to leap into the fray, there was a kerfuffle at the back of the hall.

‘You can’t go in now,’ cried Miss Smallwood.

‘I can do what I fucking like,’ drawled an all-too-familar voice. ‘We’ve come all the way from America to hear this bloody concert.’ And Rupert stalked up the aisle, trailing a red-faced Lysander.

‘Daddy,’ crowed Bianca.

Rupert proceeded to kiss an enraged Taggie, climb over her to his seat and shove Lysander into the one beyond next to Kitty.

Last time Rupert had been to a concert was at the end of term at Bagley Hall, when the auditorium had been packed to bursting because it was compulsory for all four hundred and fifty pupils, their parents and eighty teachers to attend.

A hundred odd people huddled in the stalls, many of them dingily old and plain, didn’t seem a very satisfactory turn-out.

‘Not many people here,’ he muttered to Taggie.

‘Shut up,’ she hissed.

‘Tut up, Daddy,’ reproached Bianca.

Glancing up, Rupert saw Marcus, huddled over the piano staring at him in terror, a baby hare caught in the headlights.

‘Carry on, Marcus,’ he said sharply. Then, turning to Taggie, demanded, ‘Why didn’t you bring Xav, and what’s she doing out of school?’ He glared at Tabitha now engrossed in a new Dick Francis.

From then on it was nightmare. The endless swirling semi-quavers of the last movement escaped in all directions like ants under a jet of boiling water. Marcus’s fingers seemed drunk, had changed shape. Icy cold and sweating they scrabbled and missed Helen’s clean keys.

Then Rupert’s mobile rang and Lysander, who’d been at the brandy on the way down, couldn’t stop laughing and loudly said, ‘Oouch’ when Kitty kicked him on the ankle. Distracted, Marcus played a repeat for the third time, wrong notes clattering down like hailstones.

Surreptitously, Rupert opened a catalogue to check the prices his yearlings had reached. Forgetting himself, Lysander suddenly said: ‘That was a bloody good horse.’

‘Tut up, Lysander,’ said Bianca reprovingly.

Aware of his father’s utter boredom, Marcus lost his place and ground to a halt. There was a dreadful silence. Marcus put his face in his hands.

‘Take your time,’ called out Monica Baddingham kindly.

Somehow Marcus stumbled through the prestissimo and fled to his dressing-room.

Bolting backstage, Flora found him slumped, white and shaking on the sofa bed, his breath coming in great wheezing gasps.

‘I can’t go back, not with Dad there.’

‘It was wonderful — you were playing better than ever before. You can’t let that bastard get to you, you’ve got to remount and finish the course.’

‘Anyone for orange squash or coffee?’ Miss Smallwood popped her white bun round the door.

Marcus clenched his fists.

‘He needs something stronger.’ Flora drew a half-empty brandy bottle out of her pocket.

‘He can’t have alcohol,’ said a horrified Helen who was dripping around like a wet hen.

Flora looked round for a tooth mug.

‘He’s got to relax. This’ll zap the asthma much quicker.’

The Cotchester Musical Society didn’t have a licence, so Rupert, who couldn’t understand why Taggie was so cross when he’d bust a gut to get there, swept Lysander off to the Bar Sinister, Basil Baddingham’s dive in the High Street. Most of Marcus’s fan club followed them in wonder. By the time they returned, Marcus had dispatched the Chopin adequately and was now playing The Bee’s Wedding.

Rupert proceeded to get out his blue silk handkerchief and pretend to be trying to catch the bumble bee, which reduced Lysander to even more helpless laughter.

‘Stop it,’ hissed Taggie over the applause at the end. ‘If Bianca can behave herself, you two bloody well can.’

At the prospect of Boris’s Siberian Suite many of the audience, including four girls who’d come in off the street mistakenly hoping it might be warmer inside, hadn’t bothered to return from the pub.

Cheered by another slug of brandy, ignoring the bewilderment of the audience, Marcus kicked off playing the suite quite beautifully. Boris was in ecstasy, delighted that in sympathy, the rain was rattling the window-panes that weren’t broken and the icy gale, whistling through the ones that were, was billowing out of the dark blue curtains at the back of the platform.

Rupert was reduced to shuffling his feet, sighing and reading Taggie’s programme. His face, quite expressionless as he clocked the Marcus Black, twitched slightly when he spotted the Dame Edith Spunk.

Dame Spunk has put up a Black in more senses than one, he thought sourly. After this fiasco, there was no way the society would ever ask Marcus back. And what the hell was Venturer doing advertising in the programme. The musical society were exactly the kind of old trouts who were always complaining about sex and violence, and television going to the dogs.

The penultimate movement, allegro furioso, in which Marcus had to drag his nails up the strings inside the piano to emulate the shrieks of the Siberian gales, dispatched more musical society members into the night. Even if television was going to the dogs, it was preferable to this din, which you couldn’t even nod off to.

Crash, crash, deliberately bringing down rows of notes at a time, Marcus’s whole arm was now moving up the piano.

‘I’m bored, can we go?’ Rupert whispered to a seething Taggie.

‘Lucky things,’ he sighed enviously, as two more bids scuttled out.

Boris was in despair; soon there would be no-one left to hackle his music. Seeing his father asleep, Marcus lost his place and stopped, and too embarrassed to bow he fled to his dressing-room.

Fortunately the remaining audience, thinking he had finished and blissful it was over, clapped, cheered and stamped their feet to get Marcus and their circulation back, so he returned to take a couple of bows. Monica Baddingham, whose ringing voice was used to calling to labradors across open spaces, then shouted, ‘Bravo’ several times and announced that the composer was in the audience, so everyone clapped Boris, too.

Dreading Helen’s reproaches, Marcus was relieved to pass her on the pay telephone on his way back to his dressing-room.

With trembling hands he put his encore piece, Schumann’s Dreaming, back in his case with the other music and wondered miserably if he’d ever have the guts to play in public again.

The poor professional, however, must always smile after a concert so people may be fooled into thinking it wasn’t too bad.

His friends, crowding in accepting glasses of white, were kind because they loved him.

‘How was the piano?’ asked Flora.

‘Terrible.’

‘What was wrong with it?’

‘Too many wrong notes.’

And his friends giggled in relief that he didn’t seem too cast down.

‘You were dazzling until your bloody father arrived,’ grumbled Flora. ‘Abby’ll be livid she missed it.’

‘You were terrific,’ Tagggie hugged him. ‘We’re all dying of pride. Bianca loved it.’

‘Good boy, Marcus,’ said Bianca, as he gathered her up into his arms.

‘Hallo, darling, you were good. Sorry about the ghastly cock-ups,’ he added to Taggie.

Taggie was too loyal to say she was sorry about Rupert, who had been side-tracked, talking to Monica Baddingham, an old chum whom he hadn’t seen since she had shacked up with Dame Edith. He was amazed how good she looked, and even more so when she insisted Marcus had played very well.

‘I’ve got to whizz home and tuck Edith up with a hot toddy, but I’ll drop him a line. Have you got his address?’

‘He’s living with Helen. That’s most of the trouble. How much would he have made this evening?’

‘Oh, about a hundred pounds, plus expenses.’

And he’s been practising for this concert for months, thought Rupert darkly.

He was overwhelmed by the greyness of the whole occasion. Wandering backstage, he was enraged to find himself at the back of a queue of more old biddies, who wanted their programmes signed, particularly when one, not realizing he was no longer her MP, gave him an earful about the poor dustbin delivery in the area.

He was so fed up that he took it out on Marcus when he finally reached him.

‘At least you got round this time. Monica’sjust told me how much they paid you. I think you should consider another career, something more lucrative, like nursing.’

Marcus’s friends, on the way out, laughed in embarrassment.

‘Rupert,’ reproached Taggie, seeing the brave smile slipping on Marcus’s face. ‘He’s only joking,’ she whispered. Then, relieving Marcus of a sleeping Bianca, added defiantly, ‘Everyone else thought you were marvellous.’

As they all drifted away, Marcus could see Helen was off the telephone and steeled himself to face her bitter disappointment. To his amazement, she was very chipper.

‘I’ve just been talking to the Evening Standard, they want to run a big story tomorrow.’

Marcus had very regretfully refused to go out on the toot with the bus load from the Academy, because he’d promised to have dinner with his mother. Now she suddenly cried off.

‘Janey Lloyd-Foxe is having — er — marriage problems. I promised I’d pop in and see her, so you go out with your friends.’

But as Marcus ran outside, he saw the minibus lurching off down the middle of the High Street.

The musical society were pointedly turning off lights and locking doors. Wearily Marcus returned to his dressing-room. He ought to change, his shirt was still ringing wet. His neck was stiff, his arms and elbows were sore, his back ached as he slumped in the lone chair close to tears. Next month he would be twenty-one and going nowhere. He was roused by a knock on the door and an old man staggered in on crutches. Long white hair trailed out from under his black beret and he was wearing a black belted mac and dark glasses.

‘I am not too late?’

Oh Christ, thought Marcus.

‘Of course not.’ He leapt to his feet. ‘Would you like a chair?’

‘Please.’

‘And a glass of wine?’

‘Please.’ But when Marcus poured it, the old man put the glass shakily on a nearby table and took both Marcus’s pale, strong beautifully-shaped hands in his own which were covered in liver spots and as bent and as arthritic as oak twigs. The contrast could not have been more marked.

For a second the old man gazed at them. Then to Marcus’s horror, he dropped a kiss on each palm. Letting them drop, he took a sip of wine.

‘Those are the hands of a great pianist whom one day the world will know.’

‘Really?’ stammered Marcus. Perhaps the old poofter was harmless, after all.

‘Really. I ’ave never ’ear Appassionata play like that, so beautiful, so eentense.’

‘I had a memory lapse.’

‘Stupid jargon. You stop. So? Eef one takes reesks one makes meestakes. You work ‘ard on piece, no?’

Marcus nodded.

‘You will always have to. Eef you have no originality, it is easy to reach perfection. The Levitsky piece is beautiful, too. But next time put the Chopin at the end so the audience stay because they have some bon-bons to look forward to.’

‘My piano teacher said the same.’

‘I don’t take pupils any more,’ went on the old man, ‘but eef you feel like a week in Spain, I have lovely house, you would be very welcome. I would be ‘appy to geeve you lessons.’

In what? wondered Marcus. He never knew what to do when men made advances, the old ones in particular were much harder to turn down; it seemed so rude. He was also sure he’d seen this man before.

‘You’re seriously kind,’ he mumbled, ‘but my stepfather died and basically I have to look after my mother.’

‘She will recover.’ The old man creaked to his feet, then holding his sticks with one hand, he got a card out of his pocket.

‘Don’t forget. The invitation is always there. But I may not be much longer.’

‘Thank you.’ Marcus pocketed the card.

Then to his intense embarrassment, the old man raised a hand and started stroking his cheek.

‘You have beautiful face which help in our profession.’

Marcus just managed not to leap away in horror. Thank God there was a knock on the door. He never thought he’d be so pleased to see Miss Smallwood, who was anxious to pay him and get off home. She even gave him a fiver for petrol, about enough to get the Aston round the statue of Charles I and back. Only when he’d thanked her and signed the receipt and was letting himself out of a side-door did he bother to glance at the card. He gave a gasp and rushed under a street-light. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t. It was, too. The card said: PABLO GONZALES.

With a whoop of joy, Marcus swung twice round the street-light, then, fighting for breath, tore up a side-street to see if he could catch the old man, his hero, his utter God. But, like the minibus, the huge Bentley had swept off down the High Street towards London.

The only media reference the next day was that as Rupert had been leaving his son Marcus’s concert, he and Lysander Hawkley (the man who made husbands jealous, now married to Kitty Rannaldini, etc.) had got into a fight with the hunt saboteurs.

NINETEEN

Taggie was of such a forgiving nature that Rupert was amazed the following morning when she still only snapped back in monosyllables and crashed his bacon and eggs down in front of him at breakfast.

‘What is the matter?’

‘You should have switched off your mobile.’

‘Not when someone was trying to tell me my best three year old’s been kicked. She’s as lame as a cat this morning. That’s more important than some tin-pot concert.’

‘Not to Marcus, it wasn’t.’

‘Tut up, Daddy,’ beamed Bianca.

‘And you can belt up, you cheeky monkey,’ Rupert turned on her.

‘Stop being horrible to all your children, you great bully,’ shouted Taggie, and Rupert stalked out, kicking Kevin’s rose even harder on the way.

Rupert was as skilled as Stalin at sustaining cold war. But it was such a beautiful day, and the robins and blackbirds were singing. Yellow celandine and coltsfoot exploded on the verges and after yesterday’s downpour, all the little streams, hurtling into his lake had set it glittering like a tiara on the brow of the valley.

Best of all, the vet had reassured Rupert his filly would be fit for the One Thousand Guineas. Returning from lunching with an owner, remembering that Kitty was taking Xav, Bianca and Arthur to a children’s party, Rupert felt suddenly springlike and decided to slope home early.

A great orange sun was filling his rear mirror and warming the lichened trunks of his chestnut avenue as he roared up the drive.

Ringing Taggie to tell her he would check things were all right in the yard, and then be in and she was to get upstairs and out of all her clothes, was met with an extremely icy response. Taggie then hung up. Storming into the kitchen, Rupert found his wife still fully dressed, her face pink and shiny, as she took the skin off a just-boiled ham.

‘Why are you still sulking?’

‘I am not sulking, I’m angry. The only thing I really hate, hate, hate about you is the way you’re so vile to Marcus. It was a good concert. The people who know about music gave him a standing ovation.’

‘All five of them. They were just relieved such a bloody awful din was over.’

‘You’re be-e-e-e-estly,’ screamed Taggie. ‘See pigs jolly well can fly.’

Grabbing the ham, she hurled it at Rupert, who ducked so it crashed into the dresser behind him, breaking two coronation mugs, and smashing the glass on a framed photograph of Gertrude the mongrel, who led the stampede of dogs from the room.

Rupert couldn’t stop laughing which made Taggie crosser than ever.

‘Get out of my life,’ she shrieked.

Having cleared up, chuntering like a squirrel the while, washed the ham, and sprinkled the fat with breadcrumbs, Taggie had cooled down, and went in search of Rupert. She had been turning out the attic and nearly filled up a skip with the contents.

By the time she had searched the house, the huge gold sun had deepened to scarlet, and was flaming the puddles in the yard. Then she saw Rupert, on top of the skip. He was sitting on an ancient sofa, whose springs had gone, sharing a packet of crisps with Nimrod the lurcher, and reading Horse and Hound.

As Taggie burst out laughing, Rupert leapt down, pulling her into his arms, nuzzling at her neck.

‘Let’s go to bed.’

‘Not until you promise to be nicer to Marcus.’

‘That’s blackmail.’

‘I mean it, and we ought to give a twenty-first birthday party for him next month.’

‘And then he can invite all his ghastly bearded musical friends. Oh all right, you can see how badly I want to go to bed with you.’

‘And you’ll be nice at the party.’

‘I promise, and if you don’t come upstairs, I’ll take you here and now in front of all the lads.’ Rupert started to pull Taggie’s jersey over her head, so she scuttled protesting inside.

Marcus, however, quashed the idea. Helen, he said, was still in mourning and not up to a party. Privately, after the horrors of Christmas and his début concert, he couldn’t face a family get-together.

Rupert was relieved he didn’t have to cough up, but, again pestered by Taggie, gave Marcus a beautiful Munnings of one of Eddie’s old steeplechasers, Pylon Peggoty, who’d won a lot of races. Rupert had been trying to track the painting down for years. Marcus wasn’t wild about horses, they gave him asthma, but he was deeply touched, knowing Rupert would have given anything to keep the painting.

Flora, who was broke, but always incredibly generous, had gone busking for three days, and bought Marcus Pablo Gonzales’ recording of all Chopin’s piano music. Marcus listened till he was cross-eared. Abby sent him a crate of champagne, and said they were all missing him in London. While she was in Lucerne with Rodney she’d discovered a fantastic nineteenth-century composer called Winifred Trapp, who’d written among other things a wonderful piano concerto.

‘Perhaps you’ll play it, if I can get a record company interested.’

Helen was delighted Marcus got so many presents, it made her feel less guilty about standing him up again on the night of his birthday. Marcus didn’t mind. On the strength of the cheques he’d been given, he had just bought a second-hand Steinway on the never-never and was dying to try it out. It had arrived late that afternoon after Helen had gone out, and, big, black and shiny, was now dominating the charming porcelain-crammed drawing-room at the Old Rectory, like a bull trying to be good in a china shop. Marcus hoped Helen wouldn’t be too upset by the intrusion.

She’d been so strange lately, ringing up and pleading he came home for supper, sobbing that she couldn’t stand another evening on her own, then he would find a brief note when he arrived, saying that she’d had to go out, after all, leaving him nothing for supper.

Having heated up a tin of tomato soup, and noticed some surprisingly sexy underwear, gold satin french knickers, with a matching bra and suspender belt, clinging to the side of the tumble dryer when he put in his shirts, Marcus settled down to the Bach Preludes. The Steinway was magical, unlike the brute at Cotchester where every note had been like lifting a ton of coal.

He so wished Malise was still alive. Helen pretended to be interested in music, but he and Malise had really been able to dissect pieces together and Malise’s detached, kindly criticism had been such a help and a comfort. Marcus hoped he was OK in heaven, he had been such a courteous man, but strangely shy underneath. Perhaps he was playing duets up there with Boris’s wife, Rachel.

Miss Chatterbox used to tell Marcus that he must practise as though he was performing, even if it were only for the cat. Tonight, to make up a little for letting him down at the funeral, Marcus played for Malise.

About midnight, he started to worry. Outside he could hear the foxes barking. The central heating had gone off, so he put a hot-water bottle in Helen’s bed and turned on her bedside light. She was only saying yesterday how she dreaded sleeping in a big empty bed, reaching out in the night to find Malise wasn’t there.

To his relief he heard the front door bang. He had never seen his mother look so beautiful. She was wearing a dress of crushed tobacco-brown velvet, which caressed her wonderfully slender figure and brought out the red-gold highlights of her sleek bobbed hair, which seemed to gleam with health for the first time in months. She wore no lipstick, so her slender oval face was dominated by her huge hazel eyes. Marcus didn’t recognize the necklace of amethysts which ringed her throat as softly flattering as violets, nor the long dark fur coat slung around her shoulders, nor the flat, but beautifully cut dark brown shoes, which set off her perfect ankles. Helen had arched insteps and always preferred high heels.

She was so spaced out, she didn’t even notice the new piano. As she hugged Marcus, she reeked of a musky feral scent she had never worn before. Why was he so instantly and disturbingly transported back to that end-of-term concert at Bagley Hall? Then Helen, who drank very little, amazed him by suggesting they open a bottle of Malise’s ancient Sancerre.

‘For your birthday,’ she said tenderly. ‘I can’t believe it’s twenty-one years since I first held you in my arms. You’ve brought me so much joy.’

But as soon as he’d fetched the bottle, which was covered in cobwebs and in no need of being chilled, from the cellar and poured it out, Helen raised her glass, and said she must share her great happiness with him.

‘Oh Markie, I’m going to marry Rannaldini in Chelsea Register Office tomorrow.’

‘You what?’

Then it all came spilling out, the weekend in Prague, the cancelled evenings, her almost suicidal misery at Christmas, and all because Rannaldini had backed off, not sure if he was capable of making a commitment.

Marcus was utterly aghast. Mrs Edwards had dropped some heavy hints that a foreign gentleman had been calling. But Marcus assumed it was Boris. Boris would be heartbroken.

And of course, that explained the kissed-off lipstick, the new fur coat, the amethysts and the flat shoes so she wouldn’t be taller than Rannaldini. Her other great love, Jake Lovell, had been small.

She even smelt of Rannaldini, the same disturbing scent that he had wafted round the hall years ago when he had arrived so late for the school concert.

In despair, Marcus begged his mother not to go ahead with the wedding.

‘Malise has only been dead five months, Mum. Rannaldini’s a monster. You don’t know him. Actually he’s worse than a monster. He’s a cold-blooded sadist who wiped out Rachel, and Flora and made Kitty’s life a nightmare.’

‘You haven’t heard his side,’ said Helen, who was in a pontificating mood, to justify the white heat of extreme sexual passion and the joyous expectation of becoming mega-rich again. Rannaldini, she explained, was so caring. He was going to put on a concert to raise thousands for her branch of the NSPCC, which would attract maximum attention now that he had been awarded his knighthood.

‘He’s specially composed an elegy for sad children. It’s so beautiful. And he’ll buy you your Steinway outright, and help Tabitha in her eventing career. I believe in redemption,’ Helen smiled mistily. ‘Rannaldini came into my life and saved me when I’d reached an all-time low.’

‘So you’ve settled for an all-time gigolo, Lady Rannaldini,’ said Marcus savagely.

‘Don’t be obnoxious, you sound just like your father.’

‘You were nearly destroyed by Dad’s philandering.’

‘And look what happened when Daddy met the right woman?’ reproved Helen, though even now she had a slight edge to her voice. ‘You never stop telling me how blissfully happy Taggie’s made him.’

‘At least warn Dad, it’s only fair,’ begged Marcus.

‘No, no, he’ll do something horrible to sabotage it. I deserve some happiness, Markie, I’ve been so desolate since Malise died.’

If Helen hadn’t wept and begged, Marcus would never have gone to the wedding, but he could never bear to see his mother cry.

Earlier that same day, Tabitha had had another blazing row over the telephone with Rupert because he still refused to buy her The Engineer.

‘You shouldn’t tangle with inferior regiments,’ Rupert had snapped, and Tabitha had hung up on him.

Late the following afternoon, Taggie, in an attempt to heal the breach, had rung Bagley Hall to find out if Tabitha would be coming home for the weekend, only to be told that Tabitha’s mother had taken Tab out of school for a very special occasion. Her house mistress had been very mysterious and refused to let on what it was.

In a rage — how the hell was Tabitha going to pass any exams if she was always being yanked out of school — Rupert telephoned Helen in Warwickshire. Getting no answer, he rang Bagley Hall and left a furious message that Tabitha must ring him the moment she got back.

Tabitha finally telephoned so early the following morning, Rupert was still asleep.

‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’

‘In London. At Mum’s wedding, since you ask.’

‘Wedding!’ thundered Rupert.

‘Yes, at Chelsea Register Office. She really looked gorgeous in pale crimson silk like the Tailor of Gloucester, a big dark crimson hat and some gorgeous garnets. I thought you’d be pleased — she won’t need to ask you for money any more. And you’ll never guess who she’s married.’

‘Who, for Christ’s sake?’

‘Rannaldini. He’s really, really nice.’

For once Rupert was silenced.

‘Are you there, Daddy? We all had lunch at the Ritz afterwards.’

‘We?’ said Rupert ominously.

‘Marcus and Jake Lovell were witnesses. Gosh, he’s attractive,’ said Tabitha blithely. ‘And Rannaldini’s going to buy Marcus a Steinway as a joining-the-family present, and guess what? He’s bought me The Engineer — so nice to have a father who loves me again — and Jake Lovell’s going to train him. Mum’s going to adore being Lady Rannaldini.’

Rupert went ballistic, particularly when he saw the exclusive in the Telegraph.

‘One of the bonuses of marrying the most beautiful woman in the world,’ Rannaldini was quoted as saying, ‘is that I acquire two beautiful step children, Marcus and Tabitha. As a musician and an owner, I intend to help and guide them in their chosen careers. Malise was a brilliant horseman, a flautist, and a wonderful stepfather. I hope they won’t feel his loss too much any more. They have both been delightfully welcoming.’

As well as a picture of the happy couple, there were also photographs of Rannaldini smiling at Tabitha with his arm possessively round her shoulders and, worst of all, of Marcus beside Jake.

The telephone rang. Rupert dived on it.

‘How about your ex marrying Rannaldini?’ said The Scorpion.

Kitty read out the Telegraph piece to Lysander.

‘Wowee, game and first set to Rannaldini,’ he said in horror.

‘He’ll break her,’ shivered Kitty.

Helen had been dreadfully patronizing to her at Christmas, but she couldn’t wish such a fate on anyone.

Kitty jumped as the telephone rang. It was Rupert. Had she got Rannaldini’s telephone number in London?

He was so appalled and enraged at the thought of Rannaldini getting his filthy hands on Tabitha that he rang up at once. Helen and Rannaldini were still in bed, later to fly to Milan, where Rannaldini was conducting Don Carlos at the Scala. Poor Marcus picked up the telephone.

‘Why the fuck didn’t you stop it?’

‘I t-t-tried,’ stammered Marcus.

‘Like hell — and why the fuck didn’t you warn me? Have you considered what that paedophile might do to Tab? Your mother’s a whore, she might as well have married the devil.’

Marcus lost his temper.

‘She did that the first time round. No-one could have made her more miserable than you did.’

‘She’s a parasite,’ howled Rupert. ‘She’s always been greedy, never bothered to earn a penny in her life. Now she’s sold out to the highest bidder, and you’ll never make it either, you’re a parasite, too. Don’t expect to get another penny out of me. Go and sponge off Rannaldini.’

‘I don’t want your bloody money,’ yelled Marcus, ‘I’ll get there on my own.’

And he slammed down the telephone. He was struggling for breath, desperately delving in his pocket for his inhaler, when Rannaldini came smirking out of the bedroom. He was wearing the blue-and-green Paisley dressing-gown which Marcus and Tabitha had clubbed together to give Malise for his seventy-fifth birthday, a month before he died.

‘What’s the matter, dearest boy?’ crooned Rannaldini.

He’s the Erl-King, thought Marcus in terror.

‘You bastard,’ he gasped. ‘How dare you tell the papers I’ve been welcoming, you know I was dead against the wedding, and only came to it because of Mum. If you hurt a hair of her head, I’ll kill you. I don’t want any of your bloody money or your Steinway either.’

Somehow he got himself to Flora’s digs without collapsing, and then had to cope with Flora, for once dropping her guard and sobbing wildly that there was no hope of her getting Rannaldini back any more.

Rupert was so incensed, he proceeded to cancel both Marcus’s and Tab’s allowances, and write them out of his will.

‘It’s Tabitha Rannaldini’s after,’ wept Flora. ‘That’s what’s driving Rupert crazy.’

The only thing that cheered Flora up was the new Dame Hermione’s fury over the marriage.

‘Talk about caterwauling for her demon lover.’

Helen, oblivious of the devastation she had created, returned from her weekend in Milan more in love than ever, and reprimanded Marcus for being horrid.

‘Roberto so longs for everyone to be friends.’

As Rannaldini already had five houses, she also felt magnanimously that she should put the Old Rectory on the market, because it had such unhappy associations for her, and hand half the proceeds over to Malise’s daughter.

‘It’s such a good time to sell in the spring when the tulips, the apple blossom and the crown imperials are all out.’

The final straw for Marcus came when he wanted to listen to Myra Hess playing the Appassionata on Monday evening, and discovered Helen, in a flurry of tidying, had chucked out all Malise’s old 78s. Marcus was on to her at Rannaldini’s London flat in a trice.

‘How could you? They’re irreplaceable.’

‘Don’t be silly. They’re all on CD now — Rannaldini’s getting them for you as a surprise.’

‘I want the 78s. Malise left them to me.’

‘Darling, be reasonable, they were only cluttering up the place.’

‘Like me,’ shouted Marcus, slamming down the telephone.

Outside the window, white daffodils lit up the garden and the dark yew hedges, a little unkempt now, which Malise had planted to divide it. Did Malise’s ghost, astride his old hunter, jump them in the moonlight? Would the new owners cut them down?

Marcus, who had lived here since he was four years old, was now not only penniless, but soon to be homeless. He was surveying the wreckage of his life, when the telephone rang. He couldn’t cope with a reproachful Helen, but it was Abby jibbering with excitement.

‘I’ve got my first gig, conducting the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra. Rodney and Howie squared it for me. Only one problem, right? I’ve gotta learn the repertoire in a fortnight. Will you help me?’ There was a pause. ‘You don’t sound very excited for me, Marcus.’

‘Mum’s just married Rannaldini.’

‘I read it. Not the ideal stepfather — I’m really sorry. But think of the doors he’ll open for you, and at least it’ll get your mom off your back, and you can come back to the Academy. It’s poor Flora who’s been blown out of the water. God, I’m scared about this gig.’

Appassionata. SECOND MOVEMENT

TWENTY

Abby was as driven as a conductor as she had been as a violinist. Sweeping into the Old Rectory, she hardly noticed how ill Marcus was looking.

It was ironic that one of the pieces he had to help her learn was Ein Heldenleben, a Hero’s Life, Richard Strauss’s tone poem, which included a portrait of Pauline, Strauss’s capricious, demanding wife. Abby was a lot like Pauline, thought Marcus. She interrupted him for help whether he was practising or just firing off hundreds of letters to orchestra managers, concert halls and music clubs in a desperate attempt to get work. She had also commandeered Marcus’s CD player and would drag him out of bed in the middle of the night to listen to some rival violinist as she sobbed: ‘I’m better than that, aren’t I?’

This would have been the ideal moment for Marcus to have made a move. But he was haunted by his failure with Rupert’s hooker, so each time he bottled out, lying for hours afterwards twitching with desire.

He was also heartbroken that he couldn’t afford to stay on at the Academy. When Rannaldini and Helen returned from their extended honeymoon, he would have to move into a tiny room in Ealing. He could pay the rent and keep up the instalments on the Steinway, on which fourteen-thousand pounds was still owing, only if he took half a dozen pupils a day. By the time he’d paid off his college debts, the bank had started bouncing cheques. He had torn up all his credit cards. The only card in his pocket was Pablo Gonzales’s, but meeting him now seemed like a dream. Marcus didn’t have the bottle to write to him. His asthma was awful, he couldn’t walk twenty yards without stopping to rest.

If Abby was exhausting, she was also expensive. Seeing such a large, beautiful house (and this was only Marcus’s mother’s place. Flora had already told her about the glories of Penscombe), Abby assumed Marcus was just another trust-fund baby, and Marcus was too proud to tell her otherwise. As she had lived with Rodney, now she would live with Marcus. She was not grasping, her records had left her very well provided for, just thoughtless. Having worked for twelve hours sustained only by Granny Smiths and black coffee, she would emerge at dinner time.

‘I’m exhausted and absolutely starved.’

If dinner wasn’t ready, she would insist they took her scores out to the nearest restaurant where, having wolfed down a couple of baskets of bread, she often found she wasn’t hungry when the two courses she’d ordered arrived, and Marcus, being his father’s son, picked up the bill.

Back at the Old Rectory her mess spread from room to room, and had to be hurriedly tidied away by Marcus each time a buyer arrived to look at the house.

As the concert approached, Abby grew more histrionic, dickering over what to wear on the night — ‘I gotta look dignified and drop-dead gorgeous’ — and having screaming matches with Howie Denston, her agent.

The new Lady Rannaldini, thought Marcus, would go bananas when she saw the telephone bill, but that was Sir Roberto’s problem.

Mrs Edwards was in her element.

‘Lady Rannaldini’s residence,’ she would announce as journalists started ringing up, so they simply assumed Abby was Rannaldini’s protégée.

To keep the tabloids at bay, Howie installed bouncers. As a result the more enterprising reporters disguised themselves as prospective buyers. The man from the Telegraph got so into the part he even put in a bid for the Old Rectory, and was furious to be gazumped later in the week by a girl from the Independent.

Marcus took two days off to hold Abby’s hand. For a start, he drove her down to Rutminster.

‘How far is it?’

‘Malise and I always reckoned it was Beethoven’s Ninth to Rutminster and The Creation to Cotchester.’

‘It would have been far quicker in the Aston,’ said Abby petulantly.

As a last-ditch measure, to appease the bank manager, Marcus, the day before, had sold his beloved Aston and bought a third-hand, mustard-yellow Maestro, which Abby didn’t feel had sufficient gravitas. She was not even amused by jokes about taking the Maestro down in the Maestro. The next two days were going to be lean on laughs, thought Marcus with a sigh. Still, it was a beautiful day, with primroses fizzing along the bright green verges like sherbert and the cottage gardens still full of daffodils.

After a steep climb, Marcus stopped the car.

‘Get your head out of Richard Strauss for a sec and look at that.’

Abby gasped with joy for down below in a bowl of wooded hills softened by opal-blue mist, rising from the same River Fleet that flowed through Cotchester, lay the ancient town of Rutminster. There was the racecourse where Rupert’s horses battled with Rannaldini’s to win the famous Rutminster Cup. There was the cathedral, its spire soaring into the air like a litter prong trying to catch the tiny, paper-white clouds hurtling across the the bright blue sky. Along the river bank, weeping willows rinsed their blond hair in the glittering aquamarine water.

‘There’s the Herbert Parker Hall, where the gig is,’ said Marcus, pointing out a hulking Victorian monstrosity standing in its own park to the west of the town.

‘How awesome,’ sighed Abby, oblivious of the hideous proportions and the ox-blood walls which clashed vilely with the faded russet of the rest of the High Street.

‘Who was Herbert Parker?’ she asked.

‘Oh, some nineteenth-century haberdasher who made his pile and then built one. His descendants own Parker and Parker, the department store in the High Street. That Queen Anne house, overlooking the river to the east of the town, is the Old Bell Hotel where you’re staying.

‘What you can’t see is the secret passage from H.P. Hall, as it’s known, to the Shaven Crown in the High Street. You’ll be sent flying during the break by stampeding musicians. Goodness, they’ve got portaloos, they must be expecting huge crowds.’

Dropping into the valley, they entered thick woods. Through the first faint blur of hawthorn and larch, gleamed a lake, reminding Abby of Lucerne and the ghost horn player. Then she jumped at the sight of her own photograph smouldering down from a large oak tree. From then on, there were ‘L’Appassionata’ posters everywhere.

‘Oh Marcus,’ her voice quivered, ‘I feel as if I’m coming home.’

Even though the concert wasn’t until the following night, Rutminster swarmed with Press. Megagram, Abby’s record producers, were reissuing all her old records and had spent a lot of money promoting the concert. The tickets could have been sold five times over. Big screens had been put up in the park, so disappointed punters could watch from outside for a tenner.

Double cherries lining the path up to H.P. Hall were still in bud.

‘We thought of forcing them out with a blowlamp in your honour,’ said Mark Carling, the extremely harassed managing director of the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra who came rushing out to shake Abby’s hand.

He had thinning mousy hair, and tired red-rimmed eyes peering furtively through granny spectacles which seemed too small for his big, worried face. Desperately shy, he found the social side of running an orchestra a torment.

‘I’m in the middle of a rather sticky conversation with the Arts Council, who tend to call the shots. I hope you’ll forgive me, if my secretary, Miss Priddock, shows you round. Miss Priddock’s very much the power behind the throne,’ he said, scuttling off in relief.

Miss Priddock had once been pretty and for a brief period Sir Rodney’s. Plump, mono-bosomed and given to pussy-cat bows, she looked as though she pulled on her blue-rinsed hair like a tea cosy each morning. She lived in the Close with John Drummond, a large, self-important black cat with a white shirt-front which made him look as if he were wearing tails. Drummond, who accompanied Miss Priddock to work and doubled up as office mouser, was known as the ‘purr behind the throne’.

Seeing the imperceptible toss of Abby’s head that she was being abandoned to a secretary, Miss Priddock mentally branded Abby ‘a madam’ and said they had never had a concert like this before. Poor Mr Carling was run off his feet.

‘He’s lucky to have you,’ said Marcus, sensing ruffled feathers. ‘You must be seriously busy.’

‘I deal with everything,’ said Miss Priddock, ushering them into a palatial foyer, whose peeling burnt-sienna walls were almost entirely hidden by L’Appassionata publicity material.

‘Light bulbs, blocked toilets, computers breaking down,’ she went on, ‘they run to me. I’m also Clare Rayner to the entire orchestra. If they’re homesick, got marital problems, can’t pay their mortgage or the gas bill, they end up in my office. I can’t do much, but I’m a good listener.’

And a conceited old bag, thought Abby, as led by John Drummond, his black tail erect, Miss Priddock swept them along the inevitable labyrinths where under naked light bulbs, groups of musicians pretended not to stare.

‘This is the band room,’ added Miss Priddock, ‘where the musicians relax, and this is the hospitality room where we entertain sponsors and friends of the orchestra.’

‘And this is the instrument room.’ Flinging open the door, Miss Priddock surprised a couple in flagrante. Abby caught a quick glimpse of a girl spread-eagled naked on the glockenspiel, her long silver-blond hair trailing like a River Fleet willow. Beside her stood an equally blond man with wicked slitty dark eyes and broad bare shoulders tapering to a narrow waist. Unbuttoning his jeans with one hand, he had the other rammed between the girl’s legs.

Miss Priddock didn’t turn a blue-rinsed hair.

‘Buck up, Viking,’ she said briskly, ‘rehearsal begins in ten minutes,’ and almost dotingly closed the door.

‘Who was that?’ asked Abby, flabbergasted.

‘Viking O’Neill, First Horn and Juno Meadows, Second Flute.’

‘Don’t musicians get fired for that kind of behaviour?’

‘Not Viking,’ said Miss Priddock firmly.

‘He’s got two horrendous horn solos in Oberon and Ein Heldenleben,’ said Abby. ‘I hope he’s up to it.’

‘Viking’s up to everything,’ said Miss Priddock skittishly. ‘The platform’s through that door.’

With a shiver of excitement, Abby could see the stage set up with chairs and music-stands, and hear the glorious heady din of musicians all practising different passages from the Oberon overture.

‘And here’s your dressing-room. It’s Sir Rodney’s normally, but he vacates it for guest conductors.’

On a low marble table, Abby was touched to find a huge bunch of white hyacinths and narcissi and a note from Rodney telling her not to seduce all his orchestra before he saw her tomorrow night.

The room, befitting him, had an extremely comfortable double bed, only thinly disguised as a sofa by a few embroidered cushions, a massive bath, a buckling wine rack, a store cupboard filled with large glasses, tumblers, tins of caviar, foie gras and artichoke hearts. On the walls were photographs of Gisela and Shosty outside Flasher’s Folly, of Rodney’s late wife playing in her nightie and of Rodney and the orchestra out in the park under the turning trees on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. In the wardrobe, Abby found a set of his tails and breathed in a waft of English Fern.

‘Oh, I wish he were here.’

Miss Priddock’s face softened.

‘We all do. I’m afraid Lionel Fielding, our leader, is away guesting with some northern orchestra,’ she gave a more-fool-them sniff. ‘But his co-leader,’ the warmth returned to Miss Priddock’s voice, ‘a most delightful French Canadian, Hugo de Ginèstre, will do everything to smooth your path.’

Hugo was very smooth, as he swept in, all fire and flourish, brandishing his bow like d’Artagnan. Like d’Artagnan, too, he had a glossy moustache, a neat beard, cavalier curls just beginning to recede from a noble forehead, and big soulful dark eyes, which kept suddenly twinkling with merriment. The Musketeer image was further accentuated by a dark brown velvet jacket and a floppy white silk shirt, tucked into black cords which were, in turn, tucked into boots.

Kissing Abby’s hand and then both her cheeks, he said how honoured the RSO were to welcome such a great musician.

Marcus, who was feeling exhausted and spare-prickish, looked at his watch.

‘I’ll take what you don’t need and check in at the Old Bell,’ he said.

‘Don’t be long, I need you — ’ suddenly Abby looked vulnerable, and Marcus’s heart leapt then fell as she added — ‘to help me if I get stuck.’

‘Courage, mon enfant,’ said Hugo, as he led her into the auditorium.

Gripping the brass rail of the rostrum to disguise her shaking hands, Abby looked down at the RSO spread out before her. Many of them were paunchy, most of them pale and drawn, after a long winter of late nights, long hours’ teaching, playing other dates to make ends meet, not seeing the sun and gazing at black dots.

A handful were brown from skiing, some of the girls were young and very pretty, the men handsome, but on the whole they needed an iron over their faces and their clothes. Their gleaming instruments — gold, silver, conker-brown, burnt-umber and black — looked in much better shape. But together, they had the power of a wolf-pack. They looked at Abby curiously but coolly, poised to co-operate or gang up.

Then Abby smiled.

‘It’s great to be here with you guys. Today we’ll concentrate on Oberon and Ein Heldenleben.’

By ill luck, Oberon would start with a solo from the First Horn, who was now dressed in black jeans and a ‘Spoilt Bastard’ T-shirt, and laughing his head off. Blushing, Abby looked up at him and nodded. Viking sat there, his horn to his mouth, but not making any sound. Abby nodded again. ‘When you’re ready, First Horn.’

‘I’m ready, Maestro.’

There was another long, agonizing pause; the orchestra grinned into their instruments.

‘I think he’s waiting for you to give him the upbeat, Maestro,’ whispered Hugo.

‘Oh shit, I never thought of that.’ Abby whipped her stick up and then down and they were on their way. She was dying of nerves. But expecting one of Rodney’s bimbos (the last one had got lost in the New World), the RSO were staggered how good she was. Thanks to Marcus she was embedded in the music, giving every important cue, detecting wrong notes from the babble of sound. Musicians detest stopping and starting, and Abby luckily also had the ability to shout out or sing instructions on the wing.

Simon Painshaw, First Oboe, had carrot-coloured dreadlocks and screwed up his thin face when he played as though he was drinking vile medicine out of a straw.

‘That was fantastic,’ Abby called to him after a particularly beautiful solo, ‘but three bars after twenty-nine, you should have played A flat.’

Blushing beetroot like an unattractive winter salad at the unaccustomed praise, Simon mumbled that his part said A.

‘Then yours is a misprint.’

The musicians looked at each other in awe.

The brass players, when they got excited, made enough din to strip the rest of the paint off the foyer. Abby managed to shut them up.

‘I gather that the RSO brass section are the wonder of the West Country,’ she beamed across at them. ‘But it would be kinda fun occasionally to hear what the rest of the orchestra can do.’

The brass section shuffled their feet sulkily but they forgave Abby when she overheated, and whipped off her dark blue jersey, mistakenly taking her white T-shirt with it, to display a pair of stunning breasts.

Hugo was also a joy, playing with panache, never taking his soulful dark eyes off her, clapping his hands to shush any chatter, pleased that Abby consulted him throughout.

And the First Horn was more than adequate. After the ridiculously delayed start, Abby nearly dropped her baton, because he played with a radiance and purity completely at variance with his distinctly louche appearance. He was also the most outrageously attractive man Abby had ever seen, lounging high up at the back of the orchestra, his French horn, like the sun in his arms, matching his streaked gold hair. His dark brown eyes seemed permanently narrowed as if he were taking aim before firing one of Cupid’s arrows. He had a pale narrow face darkened by stubble, a snub nose, and his big mocking lips somehow managed to compose themselves round the mouth piece of his instrument This was an eighteenth-century horn with a pretty painted bell made of gold leaf, beaten very thin and giving it enormous range.

He’s the ghost horn player, thought Abby in wonder.

‘You do very well,’ said Hugo, as he and Abby had a cup of tea in the conductor’s room.

‘You gave me so much help,’ said Abby, ‘and the orchestra sure take their lead from you.’

‘And I from you,’ said Hugo, who was having a little bet with himself that it would be under ten seconds.

‘There are some very interesting players,’ mused Abby.

Six seconds, thought Hugo.

‘Particularly First Oboe, and — er — First Horn. A wonderful primitive sound. Why’s he called Viking?’

‘He wore an eyepatch to his audition to hide a black eye given to him by a jealous husband,’ said Hugo, gratified to have won his bet, but disappointed that Abby had reacted like all the rest.

‘When Victor, that’s his real name, first came here,’ he went on, ‘he reminded everyone of a Viking blowing a conch in a flat-bottomed boat before nipping ashore for a spot of rape and pillage.’

‘Does he,’ Abby removed her Earl Grey tea-bag, then added super-casually, ‘have a particular partner?’

‘Well, he’s slept with most of the girls in the orchestra.’ Getting up Hugo tested Rodney’s bed. ‘He only has to say, “Hallo, sweetheart,” in that peat-soft Irish voice to some pretty new cellist. Next minute she’s horizontal in the car-park.

‘Horn players,’ Hugo rearranged the cushions up one end, ‘live on the edge. First Horn and First Oboe are the riskiest instruments to play because they’re so heard and so exposed. Viking’s the hero of the orchestra, because he stands up to visiting conductors and the management.

‘The management, on the other hand, think the sun shines out of Viking’s brass’ — rising from the bed Hugo prowled round the room — ‘because he pulls in the punters. If he isn’t playing, they ask for their money back.’

Hugo opened Rodney’s food cupboard, examining tins and jars with rapt Gallic interest. Abby, who hadn’t had any breakfast, dipped a piece of shortbread in her tea.

‘How old is he?’

‘Twenty-eight.’

‘Same age as me. No disrespect to the RSO, but why hasn’t he been snapped up by one of the London orchestras, or made a fortune as a soloist?’

‘Viking’s lazy and unambitious.’ Squatting down Hugo whistled over the vintages of the wines in the rack. ‘He prefers hell-raising with his friends, they’re known as the Celtic Mafia, and playing football on Sundays. There was a mass walk-out when the management tried to introduce Sunday afternoon concerts.

‘Anyway, why should anyone want to work in London?’ asked Hugo. ‘Have you ever tried carrying a double bass on the tube? You can get to work in ten minutes here and park, and you have a salary even if it’s a pathetic one. You get a chance to rehearse before a concert and the audiences are loyal. I like it when people stop me in Rutminster High Street and say, “That was a great concert, Hugo.” The countryside is marvellous and the cottages are very cheap.’

‘You make it sound so attractive,’ said Abby wistfully.

Hugo laughed — dashing d’Artagnan again.

‘And the pickings are good. There are many, many single women in the country. Others have husbands who go to London in the week.’

‘I don’t approve of married men having affaires, said Abby primly.

‘Nor do I,’ said Hugo. ‘I’m divorced.’

Out of the window Abby could see extras running up the path to take part in Ein Heldenleben, which required a much bigger orchestra than Oberon.

‘Has Viking ever been married?’ she asked.

Hugo shook his head, too polite to snap that he’d been quizzed so often about Viking that he was thinking of making a tape.

‘But there is evidence he is taking life more seriously. Recently he left the ramshackle house on the edge of the Blackmere Lake, which he shares with the Celtic Mafia, and moved in with Juno Meadows, Second Flute, who lives,’ Hugo’s dark eyes gleamed with laughter, ‘in a converted squash court.’

‘Does she have long blond hair?’

‘That’s the one, ravissante in a doll-like way.’ Hugo tested the bed again, wondering what Abby was doing this evening. He had a terrific strike-rate with girls disappointed by Viking.

‘Juno,’ he added wickedly, ‘is so refined, she insists on eating bananas sideways.’

Abby burst out laughing.

‘And,’ continued Hugo, ‘despite being a hypochondriac, who rings in sick with a dislocated eyelash, she is very tough. The orchestra call her the Steel Elf. She refused to sleep with Viking till he moved in. He nearly went mad. Now she’s pushing him to get a better job. That’s why he was playing at Covent Garden last night. He’s already picking up her mortgage. But all the orchestra, including Viking, he’s a gambling man, are having bets as to how long it will last.

‘I ’ave to say I love the bloke, and we all forgive him, because he’s such a marvellous musician.’ Hugo looked at his watch. ‘We better get back, here endeth the first lesson.’

‘Omigod,’ said Abby appalled, ‘I forgot you had that horrendously difficult violin solo coming up. I should have left you in peace.’

‘Probably stopped me worrying,’ said Hugo philosophically.

What a pity, thought Abby, that he was at least three inches shorter than she was.

The tattered, bottle-green curtains had been pulled back as far as possible to accommodate the increased orchestra. Viking had four extra freelance horns in his section. There were two gold harps soaring like a king and a queen and an exciting array of percussion including a snare drum, which made a sinister relentless rattle, and cymbals gleaming like Ben Hur’s chariot wheels.

Irritated there were more players on stage, the orchestra were involved in their usual grumbles about over-crowding, music-stands and chairs in the wrong place, lighting and heating. Tomorrow they would have to cope with television cables and cameras. As Abby mounted the rostrum, she noticed Juno Meadows, Viking’s girlfriend, to the left, smugly aware of taking up hardly any room at all. Feeling disappointed Viking was taken — why the hell was she lusting after profligate horn players? — Abby was now in a didactic mood.

‘Ein Heldenleben,’ she told the players, who’d heard it all before, ‘means a hero’s life.’

She was interrupted by the arrival of a very fat, very pretty blonde, who sent several music-stands flying and waved frantically at Viking before plonking herself down beside a furious Steel Elf.

‘Who the hell booked Fat Rosie?’ muttered Hugo. ‘You only need thin musicians for Strauss.’

‘A hero’s life,’ went on Abby, ‘could be described as kinda autobiographical. It was written when Strauss was only thirty-four.’

‘Must have been bloody arrogant,’ said Viking, applying the Second Horn’s strawberry-flavoured lipsalve to his big mouth.

‘Just like you,’ said the Second Horn, retrieving it.

‘Quiet please.’ Hugo clapped his hands.

‘In this piece,’ continued Abby, ‘Strauss paints a savage picture of the critics who attacked his music. They are portrayed by the woodwind, scraping, squeaking and playing out of tune.’

‘Juno won’t have to try,’ sneered the First Trumpet, who had a cruel red-brick face.

‘Who said that?’ Viking was on his feet.

‘Don’t rise.’ The Second Horn pulled him back by his ‘Spoilt Bastard’ T-shirt.

‘Only joking,’ grinned the First Trumpet unrepentantly. ‘Sorry Juno.’

The orchestra, particularly the prettier girls, who entirely agreed with the First Trumpet, smirked into their music-stands.

‘Strauss also portrayed his tempestuous relationship with his wife, Pauline,’ went on Abby, ‘who was a coquette and very capricious.’

The First Trombone, who had a complexion like red rock, very blue bloodshot eyes and hair the colour of wet sand, rather like a South of France travel poster, put down his copy of Playboy.

‘You mean she was an absolute bitch,’ he said.

The orchestra giggled. Abby decided to ignore him.

‘As I am sure you all know, Pauline is portrayed by the leader of the orchestra.’ Abby smiled fondly at Hugo.

‘Hope you’re going to wear a pretty frock, Hugo, dearie,’ shouted the First Trombone.

‘And Strauss even portrays himself in the closing pages on the French horn.’ Abby smiled up at Viking, who put down Auto Express and smiled back.

‘After a terrific battle,’ concluded Abby, ‘when the brass and percussion can really play fortissimo, the work ends with the hero and his wife reconciling their differences in one of the loveliest tunes ever written, with the solo violin singing and sobbing and the solo horn — er — weaving round her like a great purring panther.’

‘Grrrrrr,’ growled Viking.

‘Show us your tits again,’ shouted the First Trombone.

Abby blushed crimson.

‘Let’s get started.’

It was like hanging onto the coat-tails of a hurricane, thought Abby, as she opened her raised arms, and whipped the orchestra to a frenzy in the battlescenes, then quietened them for the love duet. Here, she felt Hugo, although a dashing and technically faultless player, lacked passion. If only she could have taken his place, providing Viking with a player up to his weight. As she sang along with them, she realized how unendurable life would be until she could play again. She hadn’t done any physio for weeks.

Confronted by genius, however, Abby was always generous. Passing Viking on her way out as he put his horn back in a battered case, lined with crushed purple velvet, she stammered: ‘You were terrific, I’m not just bullshitting.’

‘It’s like being a racing driver or a test pilot,’ said Viking. ‘You just got to believe you’ll come out the other end.’

Hugo’s right, thought Abby, he does have the sexiest peat-soft voice in the world, and he was a good three inches taller than she was.

TWENTY-ONE

Hugo took her to the Shaven Crown for lunch. The record shop in the High Street had a display of her CDs and a coloured cardboard cut-out taken from an old photograph when she’d been all wild-haired and smouldering.

‘D’you think people will recognize me?’ she asked Hugo in alarm.

‘Of course, the explosive element is still there, the lovely body, the lovely face.’

Was her face lovely? he wondered. The nose was too big, the eyelids, the bottom lip, even the jaw too heavy and yet and yet.

‘Genuflect to our benefactress,’ he added sourly, as they passed a big department store, draped in banners saying: ‘Parker and Parker Welcomes Abigail Rosen.’

There were even windows devoted to men in tails and women in spangled evening dresses playing instruments.

‘You’ll meet Peggy Parker tomorrow night,’ said Hugo. ‘She’s as squat and brick red in the face as the Herbert Parker Hall. She loves to patronize the arts, patronize being the operative word. And she’s not very keen on Rodney because he remembers her when she was a junior in the underwear department with a tape measure hanging from her neck, and he was always nipping in to buy lingerie for his various popsies. That was before Peggy married the boss. She’s now on the RSO board and a Force to be Reckoned With, because she pumps in a lot of dosh.’

‘I hope she doesn’t force the orchestra into those awful dresses,’ shuddered Abby.

The Shaven Crown had a thatched roof kept in place by a wire hairnet and pale pink walls. Inside it was already packed with musicians and full of inglenooks, black beams, barmaids in medieval dresses and a long-suffering landlord, who wore a monk’s habit when the antics of the RSO became too much for him.

Huge orange logs in the fireplace gave the impression of having smouldered for centuries. Having installed Abby in an alcove on a black bench which said, ‘Leader’s Chair’ in gold letters, Hugo went off to order.

Abby was soon distracted by shouts of laughter. Edging along the bench, peering through a pair of hanging lutes, she saw Viking surrounded by cronies including his Second Horn who had bright blue eyes, and the First Trombone who’d acted up during the rehearsal.

‘Absolutely flagrante,’ Viking was saying.

‘What happened?’ asked the First Trombone, draining his pint of beer.

‘I had a bit of a day,’ began Viking, ‘I had lunch with Thin Rosie, went back to her place and did the business, came out and on my way to the Garden bumped into Fat Rosie, so I went back to her place and catered for her.’

‘That’s why she was looking so cheerful this morning,’ said the Second Horn, glancing up from the Independent.

‘Then I gave my considerable all to Tristan and Isolde,’ went on Viking. ‘Three hours of it. I kept falling asleep, Jesus, I was tired. I josst managed to drive home to Rutminster, fell into bed, josst dropped off, when I was woken by an imperious tap on the shoulder. Her indoors saying: “Haven’t you forgotten something?”’ Then over the howls of laughter, added, ‘That’s why I had to re-accommodate her on the glockenspiel this morning, and in barges Priddock, John Drommond and L’Appassionata.’

As Hugo crossed the bar with his bottle of red wine, Viking leant round to see who he was lunching with, and seeing Abby, without any embarrassment, raised his glass to her.

‘All the girls behind the bar want your autograph,’ said Hugo, ‘and Bernie the landlord wants a photograph taken with you.’

She still loves the recognition, he thought as he filled up their glasses.

‘I shouldn’t drink.’

‘Yes you should, to celebrate, and eat. Two steak-and-kidney pies are on the way.’

‘That’s the nucleus of the Celtic Mafia, the wild men of the orchestra,’ said Hugo, after another roar of laughter from Viking’s table.

‘That’s Blue Donovan, reading the Independent. The quiet one, a seriously good guy and usually broke because he sends so much money back to his family in Deny. Always falling asleep because he plays most nights in a jazz club.’

‘Very attractive,’ mused Abby.

‘Very. Blue covers for Viking musically and in real life. Beneath the sang-froid, Viking’s pretty neurotic. First Horn has to have iron in his soul.’

‘Oh wow, this looks great,’ cried Abby as a steak-and-kidney pie with gold pastry billowing out of the little dish, a baked potato and broccoli were put in front of her. ‘I’m starved.’

‘Can we have some mustard, Debbie?’ called out Hugo.

‘French or English?’ asked the pretty barmaid.

Abby smiled sideways under her lashes at Hugo: ‘I always prefer French.’

Feeling encouraged Hugo continued his run down on the Celtic Mafia.

‘Sitting next to Blue is the First Trombone, Dixie Douglas. A brawny fearless Glaswegian, Dixie comes from northern brass band stock — lips of steel — his light duties as a trombone player give him rather too much time to booze, letch and mischief-make. You want to watch him, Abby. He’s trouble.’

‘He already has been,’ said Abby. ‘This is so good. I shouldn’t eat the pastry, but I’m gonna.’

‘Finally, the man with a moustache, who looks like a sandy-haired Clark Gable, is Randy Hamilton, Third Trumpet, another fearless hell-raiser from a barrack-room background. Randy’s energies when not boozing and womanizing are spent improving his golf handicap and loathing the First Trumpet, Charles Jones, nicknamed “Carmine” Jones because he goes bright red during solos.

‘Carmine, you may have noticed, had a go at Juno this morning, just to wind up Viking, because he hates the Celtic Mafia, and he’s been trying to get Juno into bed ever since she joined the orchestra, and he’s livid Viking got in there first. He always moves in on any pretty girl that comes on trial. “If you sleep with me, darling, I’ll put in a good word, along with my dick.” He’s a very, very nasty piece of work.

‘Both Randy and Dixie are married with wives living in Scotland, whom they go back to sometimes at weekends. Otherwise they live in a house on the lake known as The Bordello, with Blue and until recently, Viking. That’s about it really.’

‘Thank you, Hugo,’ said Abby earnestly, half-watching a pretty waitress carrying a tray of shepherd’s pie across to the Celtic Mafia. ‘It’s crucial for conductors to learn as much as possible about their musicians.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’ Smiling slightly, Hugo undid an oblong pat of butter and dropped it on his potato.

‘When did you leave Canada?’ asked Abby.

Hugo started to tell her, but immediately lost Abby, because a large black collie had jumped onto the bench seat between Viking and Blue, had a red paper napkin tucked into his collar, and started wolfing his own dish of shepherd’s pie, plumey tail wagging as he carefully ate round the cooler edges first.

‘Who’s that?’ asked Abby in amazement.

‘Mr Nugent.’

‘Goddamn silly name.’

‘The fur on the top of his head was too heavy, and kept falling into a middle parting which, together with a slightly unctuous manner, gives him the appearance of a Victorian grocer, hence Mr Nugent. Viking’s had him since he was a pup.’

Filling up an oblivious Abby’s glass, Hugo edged his corduroy thigh within a millimetre of hers.

‘Nugent often sleeps in Viking’s car, which adds to the general stench and mess. He also rounds up the Celtic Mafia after hours, and always gets first place for the horn section in the tea queue during the break.’

Abby didn’t even feel Hugo’s thigh against hers, because Viking had strolled over to the bar to buy another round. She noticed his leather jacket was cut short to emphasize a high jutting bottom and long, muscular legs.

‘He’s in good shape,’ she turned to Hugo. ‘Does he work out?’

‘Only how to get his next lay. That’s how he gets his exercise.’

Mr Nugent crawled across the floor to reach his master’s heels.

‘Surely dogs aren’t allowed in here?’ exclaimed Abby.

‘They’re not, but when Bernie banned Nugent, the entire Celtic Mafia defected to the Old Bell and the bar-takings halved, so Nugent was allowed back again. The bottom line is that Juno can’t stand dogs, that’s what’s going to cause a rift between her and Viking. Talk of the Devil,’ he added as Juno walked in.

She was wearing a fluffy pale pink track suit. Her blond hair was tied back with a pale pink ribbon. Her face was delicately flushed like a wild rose to match. She couldn’t have been prettier.

Having kissed Viking on the mouth, refused a drink and asked if there was any room for a little one, she plonked herself between Blue and Viking.

‘What have you been up to?’ said Dixie snidely. ‘Aerobing or jogging, yoga-ing or yoghurt-ing or aromatheraping?’

Like the rest of the Celtic Mafia, Dixie was torn between jealousy of Viking for having pulled her, and jealousy of Juno for annexing Viking.

‘I’ve been to the gym,’ said Juno, ‘and I went to see my bank manager. He gave me a glass of sherry.’

‘Mine gives me bounced cheques,’ said Randy gloomily.

‘And I bought our tea, someone has to.’ Although Juno had a squeaky little voice like a mouse orchestra, her bluey-green eyes were as cold as distilled fiord water.

‘Nice track suit,’ said Blue the peacemaker.

‘I got it from the Children’s Department of Parker and Parker, and I got us two chops,’ said Juno, looking disapprovingly at the refilled pints of beer.

Dixie ruffled Nugent’s black fur. ‘Good thing the old boy stocked up on that shepherd’s pie.’

‘Dogs only need one meal a day,’ snapped Juno. ‘We ought to go back. I need to pick up a grapefruit and some cottage cheese.’

‘Wow, you are going to have a blow-out,’ mocked Randy.

‘Viking’s eating habits are shocking.’ Juno pursed her pretty lips, then her eyes widened as Marcus rushed through the door. Even deathly pale, black under the eyes and wheezing frantically, he was beautiful.

‘Abby darling,’ he panted, ‘I’m desperately sorry, I crashed out on my hotel bed for five minutes, next thing I knew it was a quarter to two. Are you OK?’

‘Don’t I look it?’ said Abby warmly. ‘It’s been wonderful having someone to discuss the finer points of repertoire.’

And what have I been fucking doing for the last two weeks? thought Marcus.

Feeling she had been a little harsh, Abby added to Hugo: ‘Marcus is a marvellous pianist.’

‘We could use you in the Tchaikovsky tomorrow night,’ grumbled Hugo.

‘Who’s playing?’ said Marcus.

‘Some crumpet of Rodney’s, called Anthea Hislop, known as “Hisloppy” — she’s so slapdash.’ Hugo grinned at Abby. ‘With two of you on the same night, the orchestra was going to paste “Ban the Bimbo” posters all over H.P. Hall.’ Then, seeing Abby’s expression of outrage, hurriedly added, ‘But you’re no bimbo, sweetheart. She did great today,’ he told Marcus.

‘I want to find some truly revolutionary way to do the Tchaikovsky,’ said Abby earnestly.

‘Get the horns to come in in tune at the beginning, instead of splat-two-three,’ suggested Hugo, ‘and you could try to make Hisloppy play occasionally at the same tempo as the orchestra.’

TWENTY-TWO

The run-up to the concert was distinctly fraught. Anthea Hislop turned out to be as curvacious as she was catastrophic as a pianist. This resulted in several spats with Abby which enlivened the rehearsal, but put Abby into the deepest gloom. As An thea was one of Shepherd Denston’s most successful artists, Howie Denston insisted on motoring down from London to take her, Abby, Marcus and Mike Carling, the RSO managing director out to dinner.

Marcus thought that after Rannaldini, Howie was the most dreadful man he had ever met. Allegedly the most cut-throat agent in London, he was short and plump with a white oily face, little black eyes, black hair which fell in a kiss-curl over his low forehead, and very long arms from lugging potted plants to ingratiate himself with large lady artistes. He plainly didn’t give a stuff about music and, like his father, was only turned on by the deal.

Howie’s only redeeming feature during a very sticky evening, when Abby and Anthea completely ignored each other, was that when he wasn’t jabbering into his mobile, he was talking incessantly about himself, which at least kept the conversation going.

‘I have ab-so-lute-ly no private life. I exist only for my clients. My mobile is never switched off.’

He clearly thought it was a huge concession to travel out of London, and seemed to expect wild boars covered in woad to ramraid the restaurant at any second.

Mark Carling, who hardly ate anything, left after the main course to look after a wife who had shingles. Seeing the bill was imminent, Howie jumped thankfully into a hovering limousine and steamed back to London for a breakfast meeting with his most illustrious client, Hermione Harefield.

Howie owned a five-bedroomed house on the canal at Maida Vale and earned at least four hundred thousand pounds year. He was not a day over twenty-three.

Anthea, bored because there was no-one to vamp, disappeared shortly afterwards. Whereupon Marcus lost his temper.

‘Your agent is the most revolting little man I’ve ever met. He’s pig-ignorant and he’s a bloody shirt-lifter.’

‘Marcus,’ said Abby appalled, ‘what has got into you? I’m the one who’s got the big date, right? I don’t want to hear this kinda shit. Howie’s an absolute powerhouse.’

‘Power bungalow you mean, revolting little man.’

Marcus’s attitude didn’t change when he was woken by a call from Howie at six o’clock the following morning.

‘Hi, Pretty Boy, for God’s sake, keep the Daily Mail from Abby.’

Hermione’s rage at Rannaldini marrying Helen had been exacerbated by a piece in The Scorpion about Abby staying at Helen’s house, and therefore being Rannaldini’s protegee. In revenge Hermione had given an interview to Lynda Lee-Potter. How Abby Rosen slashed her wrists because her lover filled my aeroplane seat with yellow roses.

‘Fucking Hermione,’ yelled Marcus. ‘How dare she.’

‘These dames are all the same.’

‘Hermione’s not a bit like Abby, she’s your client, you should bloody well control her.’

But Hermione was a more important client, as was Anthea. Abby might easily bomb this evening.

‘Got to go, Tiger, see you at the press conference, don’t forget, keep the Mail from Abby.’

Abby was too busy rehearsing to see the Mail, but the rest of the media pouring into Rutminster had read the piece. They had all promised not to question Abby about Christopher or her attempted suicide, but within seconds Beattie Johnson from The Scorpion was on her feet.

‘If Christopher Shepherd caused you so much grief, aren’t you getting your own back on him and men in general by becoming a conductor, so you can boss them around?’

Abby had immediately burst into tears and stormed out, leaving the place in an uproar.

At least the programme looked splendid with a lovely new picture of Abby on the front, and, even more lovely to the RSO, eighty pages of expensive advertisements for banks, cars, credit cards, clothes, jewellery and make-up.

It was also a lovely mild night. The birds were still singing, the sun had just set in an orange-and-pink glow, but to combat any symbolism, the moon was rising out of the Blackmere Woods as Abby arrived. She was gratified not to be able to see an inch of the park round the H.P. Hall for spectators with rugs and picnics.

There was an explosion of flash bulbs, police held back the cheering, excited crowds and there, to Abby’s joy and relief, was Rodney, smiling, rubicund, and waiting at the front door with his silver-and-black cummerbund embedded in his vast belly to the width of a snake belt.

‘Good evening, Maestro,’ he raised her hand to his lips. ‘Don’t let them see how frightened you are,’ he whispered. ‘You look utterly sensational.’

Abby’s short hair was brushed straight back from a lily pale face. Her only make-up was eye-liner round the hypnotic eyes, which seemed to glow like tourmaline. The Maharishi effect was heightened by midnight-blue silk trousers and a long collarless matching jacket, which buttoned up to her neck. She wore no jewellery, the only note of frivolity was the diamanté buckles twinkling on her black suede pumps. In her pocket, warding off evil, was Rupert’s silver garlic.

‘They haven’t had a turn out like this since Pavarotti in Hyde Park,’ Rodney led her into the conductor’s room. ‘Oh, darling, I’m so proud.’

‘They’ve only come to see if I’ve got two heads,’ said Abby, as Mark Carling barged in.

‘You look wonderful, Maestro. What the hell are we going to do, Rodney? We’ve got about two hundred too many Press and nowhere to seat them.’

‘Put up a few fences,’ suggested Abby, through desperately chattering teeth, ‘that’s what they like sitting on best.’

She started to run through Oberon in her head, moving her hands to the music. Viking’s opening solo followed by the strings, then that spine-chilling shimmy downwards on the flutes, then blank. She simply couldn’t remember what came next.

In panic she turned to Rodney.

‘I guess I better use a score.’

‘Darling child, it’ll come back, relax.’ He shoved a glass of champagne into her hand. ‘Take the edge off your nerves.’

Next, they were interrupted by Howie, who’d nipped for a second out of Anthea’s dressing-room.

‘Good luck, kid, you look to die for.’

‘Sorry about the press conference.’

‘Forget it. Fact that you survived heartbreak and a suicide attempt creates public sympathy.’

‘Get out, Howie,’ said Rodney icily.

There was another knock. It was Hugo, sleek and glamorous in tails. He had sent two dozen red roses, ‘To the unbimbo’, at the Old Bell, which had made Abby laugh, now he said, ‘Are you ready, beautiful Maestro?’

Abby nodded, quite unable to speak.

‘Good luck.’ Hugo sauntered out onto the platform, fiddle aloft to great cheers. He was very popular.

‘Good luck.’ Marcus gave Abby a quick kiss. He was so nervous for her, he was going to stay outside in the park.

The auditorium was fuller than in Buenos Aires. Many of the audience and all the Press were poised for the public humiliation that so often accompanies a dramatic change of career.

For a second, Abby paused, panic stricken, on the edge of the platform, then turning she saw a smiling Rodney; his pink, bald head gleaming under the naked light bulb, as he blew her a kiss. Abby touched her silver garlic, then she was on her way, sweeping into the light, to an impassioned bellow of applause, which was taken up by the crowds in the park. She shook hands with Hugo.

‘Courage, mon amie.’

Then Abby forced herself to smile and bow to the audience, listening to the manic rattle of palm on palm which was so near in sound to a firing-squad.

‘Kerist, she’s gorgeous,’ said Blue.

‘Shades of Imran Khan,’ agreed Viking, ‘or something that Edwina Mountbatten wouldn’t have been able to resist.’

Abby noticed the Steel Elf, enchanting in black silk with her blond hair piled up, and then she looked up at Viking, who smiled at her, wonderfully confident. At her nod, he put his horn to his lips.

Abby gripped her stick, the upbeat rose and fell like a wand in fairyland, and as if by magic, the notes floated out from the midgy dark green depths of Oberon’s forest. Then she remembered nothing until an avalanche of applause crashed over her, bringing her back to earth.

Throughout the overture she had been completely in charge, yet able to become the music, her beautiful body undulating like seaweed in the dark blue silk. The orchestra, noticing the cruel scar on her left wrist every time she raised her arm, realized how important the evening was to her and had played as though their lives depended on it.

The Tchaikovsky was less successful. The mood was set by the First and Second Violins who had to rise and stand back, muttering ‘Bloody concerto’ as Abby’s rostrum was shoved forward, and the Steinway was wheeled onto the centre of the stage by the stage-hands in their dinner jackets.

Once the music-stands and chairs were rearranged, Hugo struck an A on the piano and the orchestra half-heartedly pretended to re-tune. They loathed concertos. Soloists stole the limelight and, particularly in the case of pianists, obscured half the orchestra, and made conditions even more cramped.

Most of them, however, found it difficult to keep a straight face, as Anthea swept onto the platform in a kingfisher blue-and-gold brocade dress, strewn with tassels that appeared to have been tugged off the sofa in her suite at the Old Bell. She then attacked the piano with the fury of a secretary who’d been asked to stay late and type a fifteen-page report on an old Remington whose ribbon had run out. The only drama was whether one of her large blue-veined breasts would fly out of her soft furnishings and whack the principal of the second violins in the eye.

‘That is the worst pianist I’ve ever heard,’ Abby shouted as she stormed back to the conductor’s room afterwards.

‘Hush darling.’ A very sheepish Rodney put his hand over her mouth. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, I must have been drunk or very tired when I hired her; probably both.’

‘She played the whole thing in boxing gloves.’ Furiously Abby tore Rodney’s hand away.

‘None of the audience will have noticed, and those who did will have marvelled at your restraint. Listen, they’re still clapping.’

Rodney handed her a glass of champagne.

‘I don’t want a drink, I need my wits for Heldenleben. Come in.’

It was a distraught Mark Carling.

‘Thank you Maestro, you were magnificent.’ Then, turning to Rodney, he groaned, ‘That soloist was dreadful, dreadful. How could we have booked her?’

‘You must have had a tip-off,’ said Rodney blandly, ‘and you know how the Arts Council love women. Anyway, she was called back five times; she can’t have been that bad.’

‘Only because they wanted to look down her dress,’ snapped Abby. ‘Anyone with binoculars could have seen her pubes.’

It is customary, even after the most terrible performance, for the management to visit a soloist and tell them they have been wonderful. Mark, a man of integrity, was in despair.

‘What can I say to her without perjuring myself, Rodney? Particularly with that creep Howie taping every word as evidence.’

‘Follow me,’ Rodney winked at Abby. ‘Back in a tick, darling heart.’

Hair dripping with sweat, aching all over, Abby was dying for a quick shower to clear her head before the Strauss, but curious, she lingered as Rodney flung open the door of Anthea’s dressing-room, then pausing in the doorway, opened his arms.

‘Anthea, my darling,’ he boomed, ‘magnificent is not the word.’

‘Very clever,’ muttered Mark in admiration, ‘must remember that one.’ Magnificent, he tapped it into his pocket computer, is not the word.

As Anthea was temporarily tied up with Rodney, Howie felt it safe to sidle out and pay court to Abby for a second.

He was going to have his work cut out at the party later. Anthea and Hermione would want his full-time attention, so would Abby, and after hearing Oberon, Howie was determined to sign up Viking, who was a really hot man. Probably straight but Howie wouldn’t mind getting his jaw broken finding out.

The audience were flowing back now. The piano had gone, and there was nothing to distract them from Abby and a vastly enlarged orchestra. The Tchaikovsky had done her no favours with the critics. She had forty minutes to redeem herself.

Everything was going wonderfully. Ein Heldenleben was drawing to a close. The woodwind had made horribly crabby and discordant critics. The brass had been so loud and exuberant in the battlescenes they must have roused Strauss in his musicians’ heaven. The drums had thundered continuously. The four cymbals had clashed in perfect unison to mark the end of hostilities, and Don Juan’s horn call, the warrior returning from the wars in search of dalliance, had echoed joyfully through the park.

Abby’s hair was sopping, her face lurexed with sweat under the hot lights. She could see the shadow of her hands moving on the bare lectern. Somehow, she must hush the huge orchestra to make the pianissimo contrast of the love duet all the more touching. The cor anglais was now gracefully paddling like a swan. Throughout the piece, Abby had felt like a pilot, faced by a massive dashboard of dials and switches. Her aeroplane had survived the thunder and lightning of a great storm; she was now bringing its precious cargo of musicians safely in to land.

Then, as she cued in the horns, nothing happened. She tried again, nothing. She gasped in horror. Cramp gripped her right hand, which had never let her down in three years, totally immobilizing it. After a three-hour rehearsal this morning, then three-hours practising in front of the mirror, followed by all the tension of the performance, it had finally seized up.

For a few seconds, the orchestra cruised on automatic pilot. Realizing something was wrong, the cor anglais kept paddling, Hugo was poised to take over, when Abby grabbed her right elbow with her left hand, yanking it through the motions, one, two down, three to the left, short four and five back and six up to the centre, and one, two down, to re-establish the tempo.

The pain was so excruciating she thought she’d black out. But there was only one more discordant outburst from the orchestra to go as the weathercock shrieked, the wind howled, the enemies trumpeted, then the hero’s theme was back, with the horns, basses and cellos leaping nobly and majestically up the scale, and they were into the love duet.

On the big screens outside, the vast crowds could see Hugo’s sleek, dark head cocked to listen, and Viking never taking his narrowed eyes off Abby’s face, which was now shining with tears, as she cajoled them through the last few bars. And as suddenly as it had gripped her, the cramp melted away, soothed as much by the solo violin’s exquisite lullaby as by the unearthly beauty of Viking’s dark, tender reply.

Lifting both arms, she was back on course, bringing the great aeroplane down, down through the blue and landing without a bump on the runway. She felt so relieved, she almost forgot to bring in Carmine Jones and his trumpets to echo the hero’s theme fortissimo. Then a mighty crash from the wind and brass faded into the final peaceful, reassuring chord — the hero finally triumphant, bringing the H.P. Hall and the park outside yelling to their feet.

Marcus leant against the rough trunk of a big horse-chestnut tree, clutching himself; his debts, lack of recognition, loneliness, unrequited love, Rupert’s animosity, all totally forgotten. He had never heard anything so wonderful in his life, particularly as the gruesome butchering of the Tchaikovsky had nearly broken his heart. Oh darling, darling Abby, and darling St Cecilia or Polyhymnia, or Euterpe, or whoever guides the fortunes of musicians, prayed Marcus, make the same thing happen to me.

After the sixth call-back, Miss Priddock braved the stage with a huge bunch of red roses and, employing her old trick, an exhausted tearful, ecstatic Abby broke the cellophane with a stab of her baton, and handed a rose to Viking and one to Hugo who was near enough to kiss her.

The next time she returned with a beaming Rodney, who got a great roar of delighted recognition and immediately hushed the audience.

‘My lords, ladies, gentlemen, musicians, we have just heard a masterpiece about a hero overcoming his enemies, most beautifully played.’ He winked at his orchestra, triggering off a volley of ‘bravoes’.

‘But tonight we’re speaking about a heroine,’ he shushed more cheers, ‘who, in the last three years, has battled with dreadful pain, adversity, self-doubt, only to emerge tonight into a new career, as triumphant as she looks beautiful.’ One final time he raised his hand for quiet. ‘I am proud of the RSO, but the night is Abigail Rosen’s. Ladies and gentlemen, a star is reborn.’

TWENTY-THREE

As she fled back to her dressing-room, it was like the old days. People pressed themselves against the wall to let her pass, cheering her, others reached out to shake her hands, for others it was just enough to touch her for luck.

Howie was in raptures, fluttering round her, taking credit for everything. Anthea was a has-been, she didn’t even get the limo to take her back to London. Instead, it swept Abby on to a party at the sort of shabby grand house much featured in British mini-series before the stylist moves in. It belonged to Lord Leatherhead, the chairman of the orchestra.

‘Don’t get him on to bottled water, for God’s sake,’ Hugo had warned her. ‘He’s changed his family motto to “Springs Eternal”.’

As the limo clanked over a cattle-grid, Abby caught a glimpse of a llama and a couple of yaks blinking in the headlights.

Having insisted on showering and changing first, she had arrived so late that she was relieved to see Mr Nugent still there, plumey tail waving as he paid court to the house springer spaniels, who were more interested in finishing up abandoned plates of moussaka and spitting out the aubergine.

Howie was delighted that although Megagram had bankrolled the party, half the record producers in Europe seemed to have crashed it, climbing in through large Georgian windows or bribing the kitchen staff. He was less amused that half the agents in Europe had done the same thing, and were now circling Abby like jackals.

‘The fuckers, the fuckers, why didn’t Megagram put bouncers on the door? But they’re gonna have to fight to keep you, Tiger,’ he told Abby. ‘You stick with me, I’ll field any difficult questions.’

Orchestras aren’t generally invited to parties, being a large number to cater for, but tonight a representative selection of the glamorous and well-behaved had been allowed in to impress potential sponsors.

Old Henry, the oldest member of the orchestra, a rank-and-file fiddle player who could tell you whether Heifetz had started up bow or down bow in 1942, but hadn’t heard of Abby before yesterday, came over and kissed her hand.

‘It’s not often I know why I became a musician.’

Abby longed to talk to him, but he was immediately sent flying by Dame Edith Spink. Massive and monacled, with the solid waistless figure of a cooling tower, Edith promptly whipped the dark red carnation out of her dinner-jacket and presented it to Abby.

‘Bloody good show, particularly the Strauss. That Anthea needs her bottom spanking.’ Dame Edith looked as though she’d quite like to oblige. ‘But you kept your nerve; made the RSO play out of their boots, which I have to say they’ve grown much too big for. You must come and guest with my boys and girls at Cotchester. You were lucky to have Hugo. Heldenleben really sorts the leaders out from the leaders. That little squirt Lionel Fielding would have made the most ghastly cock-up.’

‘I love your work,’ stammered Abby. ‘We all OD’d on The Persuaders at college. I’d just adore to discuss conducting with you some time.’

‘Come to lunch,’ said Edith. Then proudly, almost shyly, as though she were drawing forward a boat by its splendid figure-head, she reached for the handsome, high-complexioned woman behind her. ‘Have you met my partner, Lady Baddingham?’

The Press were everywhere, snapping everyone, desperate for a new angle on Abby’s triumph.

‘Who’s the latest boyfriend?’ asked a subtly smiling journalist.

‘That has nothing to do with my conducting,’ said Abby haughtily. ‘My goal is for people to judge me as an artist, not a woman.’

‘Mm, of course,’ said the journalist, taking in Abby’s tight leather trousers, and clinging yellow body-stocking.

On cue, Anthea wiggled past, hotly pursued by Randy Hamilton.

‘Does Anthea feel the same?’

‘No-one could regard Anthea as an artist,’ snapped Abby.

Howie, meanwhile, had buttonholed Viking.

‘I work twenty-four hours a day,’ he was saying. ‘I am married to my clients, but I could find a window in my schedule to buy you lunch. How about Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons next week?’

The Celtic Mafia were getting drunk.

‘That’s the most important agent in London, you’ve just told to piss off,’ Blue reproved Viking.

‘Time is fleeting,’ said Viking, holding out his glass to a waitress. ‘And artists’ agents very long winded. D’you think Rodney’s bonked Abigail?’

‘Aye,’ said Dixie. ‘She stopped at his place long enough.’

‘Who’s the boy with dark red hair? Pretty as a picture, never takes his eyes off her.’

‘That’s Marcus Campbell-Black,’ said the Steel Elf warmly. ‘He’s lovely looking.’

‘That explains it,’ said Dixie. ‘Must be picking up her bills.’

‘Not after this evening,’ said Viking.

The musical press, determined to refute Strauss’s unflattering portrait of critics, were falling over themselves to praise both Abby’s conducting and her newly reissued records, which they’d mostly slagged off in the past as being over-emotional and teetering on sentimentality.

Now, as they poured double cream over their chocolate roulade, they were bracketing her with Jacqueline du Pré, praising her passion, her lyricism, her wondrous lack of inhibition.

Furious to be out-cleavaged by Anthea, every valley should not be exalted, Hermione had tonight done up two buttons of her yellow Chanel suit. In her pocket, however, was a promising note from Rannaldini:

Carissima,

Our love was too important to be ruined by marriage. I needed another Kitty to run my life and free me to embrace you again.

Rannaldini was little Cosmo’s father, reflected Hermione, perhaps she should forgive him. Fortunately Abby hadn’t seen the Lynda Lee-Potter piece and, in a mood of euphoria, kissed Hermione on both cheeks, and allowed them both to be photographed arm in arm by Hello!.

This didn’t stop Hermione telling the Telegraph how much she admired the RSO for giving amateurs a chance to conduct.

‘It was the same when Edward Heath did Cockaigne with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. They were so supportive to him, and ordinary folk in the audience loved feeling they could have got up and done the same thing. Music should be brought to the people, my next open-air concert… By the way d’you happen to know the name of the First Horn?’

‘OK, darling,’ shouted Rodney, teetering on a sofa to see over Abby’s ring of admirers, ‘just off to look at the conservatory.’ Climbing down, he linked arms with a voluptuous brunette wearing a lot of fuchsia-pink lipstick.

On their way, they had to go through Lord Leatherhead’s office, where, on another sofa, Rodney noticed his Third Trumpet, pleasuring a blonde, and, patting him on his broad, bobbing Glaswegian bottom, called out: ‘Keep to the left, keep to the left, you never know who you may meet coming the other way.’ Then, bending down to ascertain the identity of the blonde, added, ‘Hallo, Anthea darling, so glad my boys are taking care of you.’

‘Patrick Leatherhead ought to put some of your brass section in his wildlife park,’ said the brunette as she and Rodney reached the conservatory.

Terrified of being interrogated about his mother’s marriage by Dame Edith, Lady Baddingham, the Press or, even worse, Hermione, Marcus lurked behind a huge bamboo plant expecting the Viet Cong to attack at any moment. Peering through the leaves, he could see Abby still surrounded by admirers, the ringed moon before bad weather again. He was agonizingly aware of his own desperate poverty and Abby’s leap back to fame. She would vanish from his life now.

‘Hallo, darling boy.’ It was Rodney, wiping off fuchsia-pink lipstick. ‘Hasn’t Abby done well?’

‘Marvellously.’

‘Been a bit like rescuing a blackbird with a broken wing,’ observed Rodney. ‘However fond you get of the thing as you nurse it back to health, you’ve got to set it free, and just hope it survives and comes back.’

Marcus gave a start. The old buffer was more perceptive than he’d thought.

‘I’m away for ten days,’ added Rodney. ‘But give me a ring when I get back and come and play for me. Must go and have a word with darling Norma Major.’

Abby was dying on her feet, drunk, because she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, running only on adrenalin. The good thing about fame was you never talked to yourself at parties, the bad thing was you tended only to talk to the people who wanted to boast they’d met you, the interesting ones were usually too shy.

Peggy Parker, a non-executive director of the RSO and chairman of Parker and Parker in the High Street, had wanted to meet Abby all evening.

‘Ay must thank ye-ou, Abigail for a most enjoyable concert. Your outfit was spot-on, very tasteful and understated as befitted the occasion.’

Clad in thousands of silver sequins, weighed down by make-up, fat-nosed, little-eyed, Mrs Parker looked like a hippo who’d spent an afternoon at Estée Lauder. Pinioning Abby against a suit of armour, similar to the corsets which somehow induced curves in her massive bulk, she launched into the offensive.

‘But next time you return to Rutminster, Abigail, I hope you will feature one of our evening ge-owns on the podium. Ay even thought of creatin’ a new colour for you, a light cerise, called Podium Pink. Ay can see you in cerise.’

And I’ll see you in hell, thought Abby, fingering her silver garlic.

She felt boarded up, like the Canterville Ghost. Behind Mrs Parker, Howie was hopping from foot to foot, desperate to whisk her off to impress someone else. She would have liked to talk to the First Flute, Peter Plumpton, who had played so exquisitely in the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky, or to have picked over the concert with Hugo. But Hugo was a political animal and having chatted up all the record producers, was now deeply engrossed with Dame Edith. Anyway Abby really only wanted to talk to Viking. She could see his blond head against the peacock-blue wallpaper, but he had been besieged as she had all evening, and she was leaving first thing in the morning. And oh hell, Hugo had shaken off Dame Edith and was moving in on the left.

Then, miraculously, as if magnetized by her longing, Viking looked round, stared for a fraction longer than was polite, and then smiled. Abby felt her exhaustion and depression vanish as her cramp had during the concert. Almost imperceptibly Viking jerked his head towards a door on the right marked ‘Private’.

‘Must go to the bathroom,’ mumbled Abby. ‘Great to meet you, Mrs Parker.’

She found Viking in a library, reading a book on fly fishing, Mr Nugent stretched out on a dark green damask sofa behind him.

‘Well done,’ he said softly. ‘That’s one concert I’d have done for nothing,’ which is the greatest compliment a musician can pay.

Abby flushed. ‘You were terrific, too.’

Viking noticed how tired she looked, but how the clinging gold body-stocking brought out the blazing yellow of her eyes, and how enticingly it clung to her breasts and flat midriff, and how his hand itched to follow it inside the black leather trousers down between her legs.

‘Nigel Dempster just told me you don’t want to be regarded as a woman,’ he said mockingly.

‘Not if it means the Press only concentrating on my sex life.’

‘Sure, sure. What happened just before the love duet?’

‘Cramp, my stick hand gave out.’

Viking picked it up idly, shooting a thousand volts through her.

‘Poor little hand, probably jealous of all the attention the left one’s been getting. I’ve got a mentally handicapped sister in Doblin. She’s otterly gorgeous, but everyone makes such a foss of her, her brothers and sisters sometimes feel very neglected.’

He picked up Abby’s other hand, subtly drawing her nearer as he examined the scar.

‘How’s this one coming on?’

‘I don’t know,’ Abby snatched both hands away. ‘I can’t talk about it.’ Although she wanted to terribly.

‘Mosst have been hell watching Hugo,’ said Viking gently.

‘Hell,’ confessed Abby. ‘His technique’s to die for and he has a beautiful sound, OK? But he lacks drama, right? I kept thinking how outrageously I’d have acted up at the beginning, and then how passionately and tenderly I’d have abdicated at the end.’

‘Abby-dicated,’ murmured Viking.

Embarrassed, close to tears, she glanced up at him, noticing the dark blur of beard on the hard, lean jaw, the big laughing lips, slightly reddened and bruised from having been pressed so long against his mouthpiece (oh lucky, lucky mouthpiece), the wide nostrils of his snub nose, the fan of dark gold eyelashes, above the long, speculative eyes that were slowly searching her face.

‘Oh yes, sweetheart,’ he said softly.

Abby jumped as Mr Nugent shot off the sofa and out of the door.

‘Where’s he gone?’

‘Must’ve heard your heart beating. Nugent’s terrified of thunder.’

‘It wasn’t!’ said Abby confused and indignant. ‘How can you assume? That’s ridiculous.’ Panic made her ungracious. ‘Anyway, they say you’re just a stud.’

‘Sure, that’s why I’m stoddying you.’

He had such an untroubled smile, so utterly confident of approval. Abby wondered if the silver locket round his neck contained a picture of Juno.

‘Bad luck getting trapped by Mrs Parker,’ said Viking. ‘She puts such a strain on her corsets. Blue and I thought of getting up a petition to Save the Whalebone.’

Abby laughed, relieved yet disappointed at the shift in subject. ‘Must be kinda fun playing for the RSO,’ she said, hearing tarzan howls coming from next door.

‘Kinda,’ Viking mimicked her. ‘You don’t earn any money. The difference is if you’re a bank manager and you’re caught holding hands with a cosstomer, you’re fired. Here, if the Second Bassoon is caught bonking a fifteen year old in the H.P. car-park-’

‘Or the instrument room,’ said Abby drily.

‘Or the instrument room indeed. Rodney will just say, “Which car? Where is she? I want part of the action.”’

‘Who’s taking my name in vain? My two favourite people.’ Rodney put his arms round both their shoulders.

Hell, hell, hell, thought Abby.

‘Am I pushing myself too hard?’ Rodney frowned at himself in the looking-glass opposite.

‘What have you been up to?’ said Abby, noticing fuchsia-pink lipstick all over his shirt.

Pressed against his belly, Abby and Viking stared at each other.

‘Oh, there you are, Rodney, at last I’ve caught up with you.’

It was Mark Carling looking distraught, closely followed by Nugent licking his lips.

‘Can I pin you down on repertoire? You know we’re planning a Haydn/Stravinsky festival for next March. The Rite of Spring hasn’t been taken… I was just wondering.’

‘Darling boy, I couldn’t do the first fucking bar of that, you know I’m useless at those big orchestral thingies. Juno darling, you get prettier by the second.’

It was the Steel Elf.

‘Oh, there you are, Victor,’ said Juno coolly. ‘Get off the settee, Nugent.’

As Nugent slid off the sofa, Viking slid out of Rodney’s embrace.

‘You’re tired, sweetheart.’ His voice was gentle and solicitous.

‘A little.’

‘I’ll take you home.’

As he put an arm round Juno’s shoulders, she looked as tiny and delicate as one of Oberon’s fairies.

‘’Night, Mark. Congratulations, Maestro,’ Viking nodded at Abby. ‘See you when you get back, Rodney.’

Watching him dropping a kiss on Juno’s hair as they went out, Abby felt as though she’d been kicked in the gut.

‘Why does he wear that goddamn locket round his neck?’

‘It contains the mingled earths of Northern and Southern Ireland,’ said Rodney.

‘I wondered if I could introduce you to some of our sponsors, Abby?’ asked Mark diffidently.

The next moment, shouting, ‘Call you in the morning, Viking,’ Howie erupted into the room.

‘Where in hell did you get to?’ he reproved Abby. ‘You gotta meet Sir Larry Lockton of Lockton Records. They’ve just had a massive injection of Japanese dough.’

But everything was suddenly too much for Abby.

‘All I want you to do,’ she begged Howie tearfully, ‘is to tell Christopher I did well this evening.’ And she fled from the room.

Marcus finally tracked her down in the spare room where people had dumped their belongings. She had taken someone’s violin from its case and had it under her chin. Her right hand was wielding the bow, but the fingers of her left hand, with all the pathos of a crushed daddy-long-legs, were impotently scrabbling at the strings. She was crying helplessly.

Horrified, Marcus ran to her.

‘Abby darling, please don’t. You did brilliantly this evening.’

‘I don’t give a damn about conducting. All I want to do is play the violin again. And you can fuck off, and get out of my hair.’

‘Pissed,’ commiserated Dixie, coming out of another spare room as Marcus stumbled down the stairs. ‘My wife’s the same. Drink always gets women like that.’

Rodney took Abby back to the Old Bell.

In the morning, she discovered Marcus had gone.

TWENTY-FOUR

Abby’s reviews were sensational. MIGHTY LIKE A ROSEN, wrote the Observer, ABBY INTERNATIONAL, said the Telegraph. Even the Rutshire Butcher, a local malcontent, who strung and strung up for The Times, who had a terrifying influence over the Arts Council and who usually flayed the orchestra alive, was extraordinarily complimentary and compared Abby to Lester Piggott galvanizing a seaside donkey into winning the Derby.

The RSO grumbled that it was always the same, if a concert was bad, the orchestra got slated, if good the conductor was praised, but in reality they were euphoric, and so were the management. The takings, plus an unexpected one hundred thousand pound legacy from some local philanthropist, went a long way to wiping out the massive overdraft run up by Rodney overpaying his famous friends.

Despite the accolades, Abby felt very flat and restless after the concert. She was also ashamed of being vile to Marcus, but when she rang the Old Rectory, Mrs Edwards, in high excitement, revealed that Marcus had moved out and not left an address.

Back at H.P. Hall, however, Mark Carling had received a fax from Boris’s agent: Boris wanted to duck out of conducting the Modern Music series, because he was still wrestling with Rachel’s Requiem, which would now have to be rescheduled yet again.

As a result, Howie and Mark engaged in a little horse trading. Abby would be allowed to cut her teeth on the Modern Music series, and Howie would let the RSO have Shepherd Denston soloists and singers at a discount. Megagram were delighted. Abby’s reissued records were racing up the classical charts. The orchestra was thrilled. The Modern Music series, known as ‘Squeakygate’, and only put on to suck up to the Arts Council, was anathema, and now they could at least relieve the boredom by lusting after Abby. Abby was equally thrilled and, already getting above herself, talking to Flora in grandiose fashion about being the next Giulini.

Temporarily she decided to stay at the Old Bell, and was put in the Lord Byron Suite overlooking the river. There was a facsimile of ‘So, we’ll go no more a roving’ on the wall, and a painting of Byron in a turban, looking as dark and explosive as Abby herself.

With concerts most Saturdays, the orchestral weekend fell on Sunday and Monday. Arriving on her first Tuesday, Abby found the dark red H.P. Hall rising out of a ruff of white cherry blossom.

Standing on a flat roof, letting down rolls of different brands of lavatory paper to test which was the longest, were Miss Priddock, assorted secretaries and John Drummond the cat, who fancied himself in an Andrex ad.

This was yet another economy measure, along with stopping the orchestra using the management telephones, reducing the wattage of the light bulbs, and not replacing musicians when they resigned.

On the way to the dressing-room, Abby passed the sanctimonious and detested general manager of the orchestra, Miles Brian-Knowles, inevitably known as ‘Brown-Nose’. Miles had thatched mousy hair, a complexion like luncheon meat, caused by frequent outbreaks of acne, a permanently pursed mouth and eyes so close together they could see through the same keyhole. A born-again Christian, who held prayer meetings with selected members of the orchestra, Miles always wore shirts with a high white collar giving him an ecclesiastical look, and softly soled shoes, enabling him to spy out bad behaviour and then sneak to Peggy Parker. He’d achieved Olympic-level at sucking up to his superiors hence the nickname. He was now having a row with Viking.

‘You were not at your great-aunt’s funeral,’ he was saying in an aggrieved fluting curate’s voice. ‘I saw you with my own eyes playing on television for the London Met.’

‘Indeed you did not,’ Viking was saying indignantly. ‘That was my twin brother Danny, he’s a far finer player than me.’

‘Why wasn’t he burying your great-aunt?’

‘Danny has no sense of duty.’ Viking raised his eyes piously to heaven.

‘I do not believe you, Viking. You did not apply for a letter releasing you to play for the London Met. You could be sacked for this. And please don’t bring that dog in here.’ He glared at Mr Nugent who sat listening with his head on one side.

Viking’s spreading his wings, thought Abby, Covent Garden last month, the Festival Hall this. Juno’s pressurizing was beginning to work.

In the auditorium the orchestra were re-assembling, discussing rooms they’d wallpapered or plants they’d bought over the weekend. A violinist was cutting his nails. Two women viola players were trying to organize a dinner party.

Abby was given a desultory clap when she came in. In return she thanked the RSO for a wonderful concert, and said how happy she was to see them again.

‘Now let’s have an A, Simon,’ she asked the First Oboe.

Because it was April Fool’s Day, Simon Painshaw, with a completely straight face, played A flat.

‘Everyone transpose half a tone up,’ said Abby, who had absolute pitch and knew it was April Fool’s Day, and brought her stick down.

Caught on the hop, the orchestra burst out laughing and gave her a proper round of applause.

The morning was spent sifting through repertoire, struggling with a lot of swearing through a horror by a member of the Lesser Avant-Garde of Bulgaria, full of grunts and shrieks as though a tom-cat was being gang-raped by elderly badgers. They then moved on to an appalling serenade for solo triangle, cow bells and tom-toms with extended catawauls on the strings, written by someone called Roger Parker.

Viking immediately took out a final reminder from British Telecom and on the back drew a bucket, and wrote ‘crap’ on the side, then handed it down the row. Abby, of the same mind, called a halt after five minutes.

‘We’re not programming this garbage.’

‘Maestro,’ Dixie Douglas, the troublemaking First Trombone, put down page three of the Sun and raised a large red hand. ‘I would respectfully submit that this is a work of towering genius.’

The orchestra laughed.

Dixie then explained that the ‘garbage’ entitled ‘Eternal Triangle’, had been composed by ‘Sonny’ Parker, Peggy’s ghastly son, the RSO’s composer-in-residence.

It was hoped Mrs Parker would give a quarter of a million pounds towards the orchestra’s centenary celebrations next year.

‘A concert has been planned for her sixtieth birthday,’ concluded Dixie, ‘in the gre-ounds of her ’uge house.’

‘I don’t care,’ said Abby mutinously. ‘It’s still garbage.’

The orchestra exchanged delighted glances. A run-in between L’Appassionata and Nosy Parker had distinct possibilities.

Later Abby had a cup of coffee with Mark Carling who was beginning to meet her eyes and joke with her.

‘“Magnificent” is not the word you’d use about this office,’ he gazed round at the chaos.

Mark was a sweet man, who loved music with a passion and who had previously been very happy running an early music group in London.

‘Hugo says you did awfully well today,’ he told Abby. ‘It’s lovely to see the orchestra happy. They do tend to grumble a lot. But I believe they have a tough life for very little money. I try to think of that when they barge in here and behave horribly.

‘I envy you winning their confidence so quickly,’ he added wistfully. ‘When I go into the band room, they part like the Red Sea.’

‘I guess they think a lot of you.’ Abby tried to sound convincing.

‘They’d forgive me if I were able to give them rises,’ sighed Mark. ‘The malaise is general. Orchestras everywhere are finding that with audiences plummetting, reduced Arts Council and local government funding and sponsorship being harder to come by, there’s less and less money to spare.’

Abby was too wrapped up in the next week, digesting the arcane repertoire and imparting her findings to the orchestra, to notice how bad things were financially. Not only had Rodney overspent dreadfully, but the obscure music chosen by Mark to appease the Arts Council had not pulled in the crowds. Recordings, television and film work had dried up. There had been no more proms since Rodney fell asleep on the rostrum during Daphnis and Chloé and, for the first time in years, the orchestra had not been invited to take part in the next county’s prestigious Cotchester Festival.

On her second Tuesday morning Abby got an ecstatic letter from Rodney. The Swiss were going to name a train after him.

Just imagine the darling boy chugging through the mountains, we can all go for rides on him and gaze at the wild flowers.’

Running into the General Office in excitement to break the news, Abby found Miles Brian-Knowles tearing out his thatched hair. Herman, the kindly German guest conductor, known as ‘Vun Two Vun Two’, who had been standing in for Rodney for a month, was that evening doing the hellishly difficult Missa Solemnis.

The stage had already been extended, losing three hundred stall seats to accommodate the soloists and the Valkyrie might of the Rutminster Choir. And now Herman was sitting sobbing in Miles’s chair saying: ‘I am not a Nazi. If the orchestra won’t apologize I’m going home.’

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, the orchestra were playing silly buggers and singing: ‘He was Her-man, and he did us wrong.’

‘Herman’s paid five grand a concert to stand up and be electrifying,’ grumbled Viking to Blue. ‘He’s got no right to bore us and be incompetent.’

Hugo, who had another very difficult solo in the Missa, had retired to the leader’s room to practise in case Herman was coaxed back.

Stupid Kraut, thought Abby hubristically, hasn’t a clue how to handle musicians.

Even more dramatically, at lunch-time Mark Carling resigned. The Arts Council, after all he had done to please them, had slashed the RSO grant by 4 per cent, so now with inflation running at 3 per cent, they would be plunged into debt again. Having no money meant Mark couldn’t plan ahead and would have to scrap big productions like Fidelio scheduled for later in the year. The final straw was an enraged letter about the music put on to please the Arts Council.

Dear Sir,

If you continue to programme this drivel, I shall cancel my subscription.

Disasters come in threes. About to fly from Lucerne to take over the baton later in the week from poor harassed Herman, Rodney suffered a massive heart attack. The orchestra were shattered. Forgetting how Rodney had led them into debt and borrowed money off them, they only remembered his wonderful anecdotes about the famous, his kindnesses, rigging up a big screen so they could watch Wimbledon and the way he swept them all out to dinner when he was in funds.

‘Rodney avoided tax, but not attacks,’ said Viking, who’d gone very white. ‘He’ll be OK,’ he added to a distraught Abby.

‘I must go to him.’

‘I’ll drive you to the airport.’

‘Your car wouldn’t make the outskirts of Rutminster,’ said Hugo scornfully. ‘I’ll take her.’

‘Well, take him my St Christopher for luck,’ said Viking.

As the RSO were now facing a mega-crisis of cash and morale, an emergency board meeting was called. With Mark Carling gone, the executive directors included Miles Brian-Knowles, who acted ever-so humble at board meetings because he wanted Mark Carling’s job, and Harry Hopcraft, the financial director, who was within a year of retirement, and against any innovation particularly if it involved spending money.

Among the non-executive directors were the chairman, Lord Leatherhead, who was tone deaf but who had been fond of an aunt who played the tuba; Lady Chisleden, a stuffy old trout, whose reputation for virtue had been somewhat tarnished a few years ago, by rumours that she had been seen pleasuring Rannaldini’s ancient gardener during the famous Valhalla orgy; Peggy Parker, who referred to the orchestra as ‘we’ and who never missed a concert; various bankers, brewers and building society supremos (the three Bs which keep orchestras going), and Canon Airlie, a Handel freak, known as the unloose canon because like Mrs Parker, he was always inveighing against hooliganism.

Finally, there were two directors from the orchestra: Simon Painshaw, Principal Oboe, who was a walking Grove’s Dictionary if given the chance, and the Principal Viola, Dennis Strickland, known as ‘El Creepo’, because he was always brushing against breasts.

These directorships, which lasted two years were supposed to be chosen from the best people to fight the orchestra’s corner. But such was the distrust of management, that Simon and El Creepo had been the only people last time to put their names forward.

The boardroom itself looked across to the russet spires and roofs of Rutminster. The ruby blur on the horse-chestnuts in the park was turning buff as the green leaves pushed out of each sticky bud. The spring sunshine, however, cruelly highlighted the faded dusty brown velvet curtains with the hems coming down, the worn blue carpet, the peeling blue-and-fawn wallpaper, the Paisley design concealing the damp patches. On the walls were also an oil of Herbert Parker, who looked like Bach after a short back and sides, an aerial view of Rutminster showing the concert hall, some framed programmes from the early days, and a photograph of a drooling Peggy Parker shaking hands with the Duchess of Kent. The room however, was dominated by Rodney’s portrait over the fireplace. Ruskin Spear had brilliantly captured his Falstaffian merriment. Any moment, you expected him to wink.

Canon Airlie opened the meeting with prayers for his recovery. Miles really shut his eyes and said the loudest Amen.

Miss Priddock, who was taking the minutes, burst into tears and was comforted by a swig of brandy from one of the brewers’ miniatures. Lord Leatherhead then suggested they offer Abby Rodney’s job.

‘She’s got a high profile, she’ll pull in the sponsors and the advertisers. She’ll attract fat record contracts — we were all impressed by the way Megagram chipped in — and she’s played with many of the top conductors, so she’ll pull in the big names.’

‘She’s also a fine musician,’ chipped in Lady Chisleden. ‘I don’t want to speak ill of the ill, but Rodney hated learning new pieces. Abby will bring in a younger audience. Ours is getting a bit hoary.’

‘And the orchestra like her,’ said Harry Hopcraft, the financial director. ‘I haven’t heard such laughter coming from rehearsals since Rodney fell off the rostrum. And she’s cheap.’

Howie Denston (who’d been on the telephone before Rodney reached intensive care) had offered most reasonable terms.

‘Look how well Dame Edith has done at Cotchester,’ said Peggy Parker. ‘The English have always thrived with a woman at the helm. Think of Boudicca, Elizabeth I, Victoria-’ She waited expectantly.

Miles didn’t fail her.

‘And of yourself, heading your great Parker and Parker empire.’

Peggy Parker bowed graciously.

‘With respect though, Mr Chairman,’ continued Miles in his fluting voice, ‘I feel Abigail Rosen is too young and inexperienced.’

El Creepo, who liked Abby because she was beautiful and had praised his solos, said that Simon Rattle and Toscanini had taken over when they were even younger.

‘Auditioning’ll take months,’ urged Harry Hopcraft. ‘And think of the air fares and the hotel bills.’

‘We ought to consider the alternatives,’ persisted Miles. ‘What about Olaf?’

‘Talks far too much in rehearsals and bores the orchestra,’ said Simon, whose solos Abby had also praised.

‘What about Vladimir?’

‘Liable to turn nasty,’ said El Creepo. ‘Uses us to familiarize himself with obscure repertoire, then rushes off to record it with other orchestras.’

‘What about Hans?’ asked Lady Chisleden. ‘Such a charmer.’

‘Said he wanted to live in the area and get to know us then pushed off on the first plane back to Switzerland after every concert, and he’s always drunk on the rostrum.’

‘Sheraton’s miserable in Germany,’ added Simon, ‘but it would take six months to extricate him. Rannaldini’s restless in New York, but we could never afford him and Boris Levitsky.’

‘Is dishy,’ said Lady Chisleden eagerly.

‘But totally unreliable,’ snapped Peggy Parker.

‘None of them is as famous as Abby,’ said Lord Leatherhead. ‘We must have someone who can haul audiences away from the television.’

Miles cracked his knuckles.

‘What about Ambrose?’ he suggested in desperation.

Everyone shuddered. Ambrose, the principal guest conductor, known as the ‘Fat Controller’, was a bitchy old queen who’d been guesting for three months in San Fransisco. (‘Coals to Newcastle,’ said Viking.)

‘Ambrose is bound to block Abby’s appointment when he returns,’ said Lady Chisleden. ‘He loathes women.’

‘All the more important to engage Abigail at once,’ insisted Peggy Parker, envisaging a whole series of concerts in which Abby dazzled in a different Parker and Parker evening ge-own, and blissfully unaware of Abby’s comments about her son’s composition.

‘Don’t you think we should consult the orchestra?’ said Simon Painshaw, examining his red dreadlocks for split ends.

‘Heavens no,’ said Harry Hopcroft. ‘They’ll disagree on principle.’

Miles’s was the only dissenting voice: he was even more fed up when, over Earl Grey and digestive biscuits, the board showed no inclination to appoint him as managing director.

Everyone agreed with Lord Leatherhead that they needed a new broom with a City background, who could capitalize on Abby’s marketability.

‘He must be musical,’ urged Lady Chisleden.

‘And able to give the orchestra spiritual guidance,’ urged Canon Airlie.

Lord Leatherhead said he and one of the bankers had someone in mind.

‘Will you approach him then, my Lord,’ said Peggy Parker.

And I’ll never suck up to you again, you old monster, thought Miles furiously.

Glancing out of the window, Lord Leatherhead saw Abby, back from Lucerne, leaping out of a taxi, running up the path, as lithe and graceful as the white cherry blossom tossing in the April breeze. As a treat, the board decided to call her in and offer her the job.

‘I’d like to hear how Rodney is, too,’ said Lady Chisleden.

There was a rip in Abby’s jeans, a smudge on her forehead and her dark curls stood on end.

She had had a frightening and exhausting three days and had only come back because she had exchanged a few comforting words with Rodney, who had urged her to carry on with Squeakygate.

‘He was so darling,’ she said, as Miss Priddock bustled in with a fresh pot of tea. ‘He sent you all his love, particularly you, Miss Priddock, and said please don’t worry. He said he’d get much better much quicker if they added some Krug to his drip, and at one moment, he looked round at all the tubes,’ Abby gave a sob, ‘and then said, “Darling girl, I’m not frightened of death, it’s just getting there that worries me”’

When they offered her the job, she burst into tears for a second time, and hugged everyone including El Creepo. Her delight and her impassioned promise that she would work her heart out for Rodney’s orchestra, until he could take over again, touched them all.

‘The problem with modern orchestras,’ she went on, ‘is that conductors are so busy jetting round the world, they never have time to learn the repertoire or get to know the orchestra. I want to live in Rutminster and become part of the community. Thank you all for giving me this wonderful chance. Can I sign the contract as soon as possible, in case you change your minds?’

‘Who is going to tell the orchestra?’ asked El Creepo nervously, after she’d gone.

‘Oh, tell them after the contract’s signed,’ said Harry Hopcroft. ‘We don’t want them putting their oar in.’