A Duet for Invisible Strings
Heledd made her third mistake on a sunny Tuesday in July.
She and Rosemary had met at a coffee shop to talk about some new repertoire before the orchestra rehearsed late that afternoon. Heledd arrived on time as she always did, ordering a coffee and eyeballing the barista, daring him to offer her any frivolous extras, like milk or sugar. He wisely refrained.
She chose a large table near the window, with one seat in the sunshine for Rosemary, one in the shade for herself, a third for her violin in its case, and a spare. The teenagers at the next table were loud, so she deployed the withering glare she usually saved for the double basses when they talked during rehearsal, and after a couple of minutes they left. Perfect.
She sat down and took out the score she was reading. A sip of coffee, a deep breath, and the world faded away as she let herself sink into the piece, the neat staves of flurrying semiquavers turning into music as her eyes moved over them. It was a recent find, a passionately virtuosic violin concerto by a lesser-known woman composer, and she had become unaccountably attached to it.
Rosemary had founded the Prelude Chamber Orchestra to develop musicians at the start of their careers, and ordinarily when they played a concerto they would invite one of the younger players to be the soloist, but this one had burrowed its way past Heledd's defences. It called to her. She wanted to play it herself. She'd tried it at home, but the acoustics in her small flat hadn't done justice to the concerto's subtleties. It needed room to breathe.
She was in two minds about even mentioning it to Rosemary. Perhaps it was selfish, when there were younger players who needed the experience.
Rosemary herself arrived, late as usual, while Heledd was halfway through the second movement. She swept in, a rainbow of silk and linen, her round face pink as though she'd hurried. 'I'm so sorry, darling,' she said, bending down to kiss Heledd's cheek. 'The bloody Tube, you know…'
Rosemary called everyone 'darling'. It didn't mean anything. But Heledd leaned into the kiss anyway, closing her eyes for a moment and letting herself enjoy the brief warmth of Rosemary's lips, the sensation of being wrapped in the cloud of her perfume.
Rosemary dumped two straining tote bags full of sheet music on the remaining chair.
'I've got some ideas,' she said.
Heledd looked down at the chair. 'Just some?' she asked.
'Not all of these are mine,' Rosemary said. 'Some were suggested by the players, some by our more generous donors, one or two from the board.' She plucked out a four-inch sheaf and put it on the table. 'The rest are mine,' she said, gesturing back to the bags. 'What did you bring?'
Heledd waved the score she was holding.
'Is that it?'
'Not entirely,' she said, retrieving her three other carefully selected candidates from her satchel and laying them down.
'All right then,' said Rosemary. 'Let me just get caffeined up, and we'll get down to business.'
After four years of running the orchestra together, their repertoire meetings had fallen into a comfortable rhythm. While Rosemary went to the counter, Heledd rolled up the sleeves of her shirt and began to sort through the pieces, arranging them in tidy stacks according to style, length and familiarity. By the time Rosemary returned with her cup of froth and sprinkles, the table was covered in paper and Heledd had already formed several very definite opinions.
They sat there for hours. It wasn't long before Rosemary got out her phone and started loading up YouTube videos of the selections, moving around the table to lean over Heledd so that they could both listen at once. The tidy stacks of scores degenerated into a haphazard mess.
They got some more coffee, and sandwiches, and cake. The first round of cuts reduced the selection by half, and Heledd tidied the rejects away into one of the tote bags. They watched another YouTube recording, and Rosemary spent fifteen minutes on what could only be called a rant about the conductor it featured before Heledd gently steered her back to the task at hand. The pile shrank.
The decisions got trickier the fewer pieces there were. The first several had been easy to dismiss – too long, too short, too similar to what they had already done recently – but as the list grew narrower, each piece was harder to let go.
Heledd's concerto was still in the running. She hadn't mentioned yet that she wanted to play it herself.
'Now,' Rosemary said, picking it up and examining it, pushing her reading glasses further up her nose, 'I'm on the fence about this one – it hasn't quite grabbed me yet. How much do you want it?'
Heledd flushed, and she took a long sip of cold coffee to disguise her hesitation. The truth was that she wanted it very much – but saying that to Rosemary felt like crossing a line. It was too intimate somehow to admit to such depth of feeling in this professional setting.
Because it was a professional setting, even if she looked forward to seeing Rosemary more than she looked forward to practically anything else in her life. Rosemary was her conductor, and Heledd was the leader of the first violins, Rosemary's right-hand woman. And that was all it was.
Instead, Heledd fell back on the logical arguments she had prepared. 'You're always looking to feature more forgotten women composers,' she said. 'We haven't done a violin concerto in a while, and it would pair very nicely with that Hannah Kendall piece you've been wanting to do.'
'That would be a nice bit of programming,' Rosemary conceded.
'The first movement gives the violas something interesting to work on,' Heledd added. 'They so rarely get the attention the violins do, and they need it just as badly…'
Rosemary laughed. 'All right,' she said. 'I won't make any final decisions yet, but you've convinced me that it's probably worth a try. Let me have a proper look at it at home and we'll see.'
'Thank you,' said Heledd.
'No need for that,' Rosemary said. 'If we only ever played the rep I thought was best, we'd soon get pretty stale. I'm glad to have you here to push me out of my comfort zone.'
Heledd smiled and looked down at her coffee.
'Anyway,' said Rosemary, 'we'd better wrap up or we'll be late for the rehearsal. We've narrowed it down a lot, haven't we? Let's both give the surviving pieces some more consideration, put it to the rep committee and see what they think? I don't know about you, but I've run out of steam a bit.'
Heledd never wanted these meetings with Rosemary to end. When it was just the two of them, she could relax in a way she never could with the whole orchestra. But Rosemary was right, it would be unpardonable to be late.
Outside, the sun was shining. Rosemary's hair fell in chestnut waves, shot generously through with silver, and the light made it glow. It was so beautiful that Heledd stopped in her tracks for a moment, unable to do anything but look. Rosemary hefted the two tote bags, thoughtfully humming a few bars of Heledd's concerto, walking in time with the music.
Heledd heard the car before she saw it – a whine of tyres that turned into a streak of dark blue, thrumming down the street too fast, much too fast.
Rosemary was crossing into its path.