Ann Ireland is an old friend and a brilliant novelist. I knew her novels long before I knew the author. I recall reviewing her first book, A Certain Mr. Takahashi (winner of the $50,000 Bantam-Seal First Novel Award), a brilliant, comic and poignant tale of two teenage Toronto girls smitten with an exotic, foreign symphony conductor who happens to move into the house across the street. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for Trillium Award and Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award for fiction. Ann lives most of the time in Toronto (not far from where my brother lives); she is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates the Writing Workshops at The Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.
This chapter is taken from a brand new novel called The Blue Guitar. Much of it takes place at an international Classical Guitar Competition where (mostly young) musicians come from around the world to compete for a grand prize and career liftoff. Ireland is interested in examining the reasons why musicians put themselves through this grueling event and how they hold up. Or don’t. This section introduces Lucy Shaker, the oldest competitor, as she does her level best to make time to practice her instrument – despite domestic distractions – in the lead up period to the contest.
A Chapter from The Blue Guitar
A Novel by Ann Ireland
Mark’s uncle has finally pushed off. Out the door he goes, spry as a bird, tossing his vinyl suitcase down the front steps, not bothering to thank Lucy or Mark for their hospitality, nor to offer a farewell to the boys who’d already left for school. His forehead shines as he smiles; in his mind he’s already disappeared from this sorry excuse of a city. The limo idles curbside, plumes of exhaust meeting autumn air while Uncle Philip’s suit jacket whips in the wind.
He wears no overcoat, having left this bulky item stashed in the cupboard down the hall; it is an unnecessary burden in the torrid climate that he is about to enter. He will return in six months to reclaim it. Mark’s uncle insists on limousine service to Pearson International because he likes plenty of leg room before the arduous flight to Southeast Asia. Of course he was too cheap to pitch in for food or wine when he stayed here, en route.
Lucy feels a faint spasm of guilt on thinking these thoughts for it was Uncle Philip, music lover extraordinaire, who quite unexpectedly mailed her a cheque last year with the note: ‘If you’re going to enter this competition, you’ll need an excellent teacher. I hope this will help.’
Thanks to him, she’s been working with the divine Goran.
Lucy watches the driver fit suitcase into trunk then hold the passenger door open for Uncle Philip who, once settled, rolls down the window and calls out in his sunny voice, ‘Back in the spring, dear.’
As if she’ll be counting the days.
She shuts the front door, twists the lock and breathes clove – scented aftershave mixed with breakfast bacon, a now – familiar brew. With luck, there will be no interruptions until four o’clock when the twins amble home from high school. Her husband, Mark, works as a security guard at the Art Gallery of Ontario and doesn’t get off shift until supper time. It’s his dream job, or so he claims. He loves standing in the 18th century room, surrounded by lacquered paintings by little – known artists, making sure school kids don’t jostle or touch anything, or some jackass doesn’t take a knife to the brittle canvases. He claims to thrive on the long stretches of nothing, punctuated by bursts of activity. It gives him time to think – about what, Lucy has no idea. She pictures him standing guard in front of the portrait of some long – forgotten Cornish merchant whose manicured hand rests on a globe.
Uncle Philip is on his way to Thailand. He flies first to Toronto from his home in Halifax, to break up the trip, and he will stay here again during his return, only then he will be tanned and relaxed, rather than snippy with excitement as he was during this visit. It’s Lucy who gets roped into preparing hot breakfast and lunches, because she is the one with a flexible schedule. Uncle Philip sits at the kitchen table and reads her copy of Harper’s Magazine, dripping sugary coffee over its pages, making early – morning throat clearing noises. He combs his hair over the butter dish, and after eating, holes up in the bathroom for a marathon flossing session. She hears pops of loosened string and later finds herself sponging dislodged food particles from the mirror.
Yet Uncle Philip was the one who slipped an arm over her shoulder last night and said, ‘I have great faith in you, my dear.‘
But now he is gone, they are all gone, and Lucy has the house to herself. Beginning at noon she will practice her guitar. No point in trying to do this once the boys came home: they play their own music, Megadeth and Slayer, at a deafening volume and bound around the kitchen shoving drawers in and out and snapping open the fridge door.
The competition starts in four days and she figures she’s as ready as she’ll ever be. The idea of it sends a thrill of anticipation through her body, so intense she can hardly stay upright. Twenty-five years of playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, reaching an age when most women accept ‘their limitations’, as her own mother puts it, and she is charging into the centre of the cyclone.
Goran says, ‘Just play your best.’
‘But is that good enough?’
Bemused, he looks at her and says, ‘Good enough for what? You make music, people listen. Why make it more complicated?’
First task is to collapse the fold – out bed where Philip parked his slim and limber self for the past four nights, get rid of all signs of the guest who will soon disappear into the steamy coastal villages of Thailand. He’ll return, chipper as always, sporting a grizzled beard and tanned hands, the creases of his palms a dental white: seventy-six years old and going strong.
It infuriates Lucy that Philip refuses to make up his own bed, which means putting the couch back to rights so it won’t stick halfway across the living – room floor. She’d asked him to do it several times, as had Mark, and they’d even demonstrated how. Uncle Philip professed great interest in the task, marveled at the ingenuity of the sofa’s mechanism, and never tried it on his own, never once.
Lucy tosses his pillows and blankets onto a chair, then begins to yank off the sheets. She feels something trapped in there, tangled in the bedding. A brisk shake tosses up a manila envelope and Lucy curses, thinking he’s left behind his passport and soon she’ll receive a panicked call from the airport and she’ll have to drive up there in morning rush hour to perform the rescue. So much for running through her program. So much for dipping into the series of right – hand rasqueado exercises, crucial for the first compulsory piece. She dangles the envelope over the exposed mattress and watches its contents slide out.
A series of black and white snapshots tumbles onto the bed, images of boys half-dressed or almost entirely without clothes. Boys – she holds the photographs by their edges – about the same age as the twins, approximately fifteen, with developed bodies, yet still lean and innocent-looking. Slick dark hair – undoubtedly Asian.
She carries the photos over to the window and tilts them towards the morning light. Are they professionally posed shots, something one might pick up in a shop, or – and here she feels her mouth pucker – are they Philip’s own handiwork, using his vintage Leica?
The top picture is at first ambiguous. A teenage boy stands by a market stall, wearing a decorated robe, one hand cradling a melon. His face is expressionless, although he appears to be looking at something, or someone, to his left. It’s his face that draws Lucy’s attention, for he is extraordinarily beautiful, high cheekbones and large eyes possibly outlined by kohl. He holds himself upright, shoulders thrown back and chin tilted.
Now she gets it.
The robe has swept open just a little, enough to let an erect penis peek out, sly yet knowing. Suddenly that castaway glance and jutting chin assume new meaning. Uncle Philip’s whorled fingerprints are all over the emulsion, and now, so are hers. She thinks of Philip lying on the hide-a-bed while the rest of them sleep, staring at this picture and – well, yes.
She does not drop the photograph; if anything, she holds onto it more tightly. The image looks posed and at the same time carelessly set up, with rudimentary lighting. The exposure is grainy, very slow film that pixilates the subject’s skin and robe. The photos are saturated with the same clove aftershave that lingers in her hallway – spritz of the marketplace. She thinks of Uncle Philip’s tapered nails and visualizes his earnest unblinking attention when someone speaks. He’d been, until he retired, chief inspector of restaurants and food-serving sites for Halifax and likes to say, ‘If you’ve dreamed it, it exists, and I’ve seen it.’
She always thought this referred to rodent hairs floating in the bouillabaisse.
Has he dreamed these boys, or is he on the way to meet them now, the Airbus ripping across continents of sky while his pale hands tap his trousered knees? He refuses to eat airplane food and packed his own bag of fruit and nuts, mindful of his bowels. He won’t bother watching the movie; he has his own theatre playing behind those clear blue eyes.
Lucy lets her dressing gown slide to the floor. Under it she wears an old t-shirt and a pair of Mark’s boxers. A man walking a dog on the sidewalk below glances up at her then looks quickly away.
Then the phone rings; it’s Mr. Hyke, vice-principal at the twins’ high school.
‘Am I speaking to Mrs. Dickie, Charles’s mother?’
‘Lucy Shaker,’ she corrects him, not for the first time, and feels her stomach lurch.
‘I have Charles here in the office,’ Mr. Hyke proclaims in his plummy voice. ‘Perhaps he’d like to tell you why.’
She reaches for her mug of cold coffee and sets the photos on the window ledge. Charlie comes on, his voice pitched so low she can hardly make out what he’s saying.
‘What’s up, Charlie?’ she says.
‘I seem to have forged this person’s signature.’
‘I seem to have forged this teacher’s signature on my skip sheet.’
There is muttering in the background, a correction being issued. Lucy is pretty sure she catches the word ‘seem’ spoken with inflection.
‘Mr. Hyke says I’m suspended. Just for a day.’
‘Hang on. You forged whose signature?’
‘Leftko. Mr. Leftko.’
She never remembers teachers’ names. ‘And he teaches…?’
Charlie bombed math. On his midterm report he’d received a single digit mark.
‘Then you better come home,’ she says, choosing a tone of weary patience but actually feeling a wave of panic. When will she practice? For each day missed, a notch of technique slips from her fingers. ‘Put Mr. – the vice-principal back on.’
‘Just do it, Charlie.’
A few seconds of transfer, background of P.A. announcing the track meet, city finals. Imagine, Lucy thinks, having sons who enter track meets.
‘Will this suspension go on Charlie’s academic record?’
‘I don’t know who else’s.’
The rage nodule leaps up her brain stem and settles like a pulsing coin behind her eyes. ‘Has he apologized to the teacher?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘Good,’ she says firmly. Someone has taken charge of the matter.
She dresses quickly, pulling on jeans and blouse and a pair of Mark’s sneakers. Now she’ll have to hang around all day and monitor Charlie, making sure he doesn’t fool with his Play Station or run off to the park for a toke. Not for the first time, she envies Mark as he issues a soft warning into the hushed museum room: ‘Please stand back from the painting.’
She can hunker down at the computer and do the books for her catering business. Not a chance of practicing now, not with the mood she’s been zippered into. Who’s she kidding – pretending to be a serious musician in her forties puts her on a level with those women in floppy hats who set up easels by the riverbank.
Charlie will arrive in half an hour, dumping his pack in the front hall, ranting about the uselessness of school and how teenagers have no status in society. He will glare, daring her to contradict these obvious truths.
One of the boys sprawls outdoors on a wrought iron bench, leg swung over the opposite knee, hand resting on his inner thigh. He stares into the camera, lips parted, showing even, small teeth. He wears only a vest, tossed open to display a smooth torso. His genitals are more or less hidden by the leg position, but he looks as if he might shift any minute – this is the magic of the pose, the source of its tension. In another shot the boy appears to be emerging from a bathroom or sauna, towel slung over one shoulder. Is he scowling? Hard to tell, the lighting is so bad. His complexion is pitted, unless that’s just dust on the lens; Uncle Philip needs to spring for a digital camera and Photoshop. The next picture is more intriguing: a boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen, crouches naked on the dirt floor of a shack, his baseball cap twisted sideways. He’s smiling and the smile is friendly and unforced. The pose is unselfconscious, the small genitals hanging like baby fruit. Behind him, a woman, possibly his mother, reaches for something high up on a shelf.
Lucy shuffles the photographs and stares at them again. What kind of life does Uncle Philip lead over there with these boys, their skin glistening as if oiled? Her own body, she must admit, has seen better days.
Is it so strange to search for beauty?
That’s hardly the point, she reminds herself.
Charlie kicks open the front door on the dot of the half-hour, drops his pack then begins to bustle about the kitchen below, at the same time popping a basketball, an activity that makes the whole house shake. The racket is pure theatre; he’s proclaiming that he is in no way ashamed of the day’s mishap. In fact, it’s a bonus, because he gets the remainder of the day off. He knows she’s up here and he’s waiting for her to come down and issue the predictable lecture which he will mouth word for word in tandem.
The computer monitor displays a breakdown of prices for the job on Saturday, dinner for eight, three of whom are lactose intolerant. Before each job she determines to earn a higher hourly rate, but somehow it never ends up that way. The twins, Charlie and Mike, hover in the kitchen as she carves the elaborate garnishes that are her specialty: olive rabbits, radish flowers, tomato roses, carrot daisies embedded in aspic, and the boys will say, not inaccurately, that it’s this manic attention to the ‘crap no one eats’ that squeezes her profit margin. You can say that about Baroque embellishments, the mordents and trills that decorate the musical line. Yet it is precisely because they serve no purpose but to please the eye that she fusses over her food decorations. She snaps photographs of the spreads before delivery, and mounts them in a portfolio to show prospective clients.
Charlie launches into singing Stairway to Heaven in his newly-developed baritone voice that still thrills him and he drums on furniture until the microwave dings. He’s slid a pair of chocolate chip cookies in there, liking the way they go soft and gooey, chocolate oozing onto the glass trivet. Why isn’t she down here laying down the law, he wonders.
She won’t mention the photographs to Mark, because he’ll want to see them, and Mark is a literal sort of man. He’d insist on shredding them into tiny pieces right away, ensuring they didn’t turn up in recognizable flakes scattering down the street.
‘Disgusting old goat,’ they’d agree. Then they’d fret over whether Philip had approached the twins in a creepy way during one of his visits. That might explain Charlie’s nosedive at school. And why did Uncle Philip suddenly grow this family feeling, after years of nothing more than a UNICEF card sent at Christmas? The visits started three years ago, coinciding with his trips to Thailand, but also with the twins’ free- fall into puberty.
‘Hey.’ Charlie stands in the doorway of her study, gangly five foot eight inches, shaggy hair, ancient Pixies t-shirt.
She looks up, pretending to be surprised.
‘I suppose you’re pissed off,’ he says through an elaborate yawn.
‘I suppose I must be.’
He squints, suspicious. ‘You don’t sound very.’
‘Other things are on my mind at this moment, Charlie.’
He snorts, knowing better. ‘Hyke way overreacted.’
‘Did he now?’
‘Lots of kids forge signatures; it’s practically a religion at my school.’
He waits for her protest. When it doesn’t come and she merely taps out a code on the computer, he slaps the wall. ‘I know what you’re doing; you’re trying to guilt me by not responding.’
‘I thought I was trying to print out a menu.’ She clicks ‘select all’ then ‘print’ and waits for the machine to start spitting out pages.