His concentration faded with the light. The soft stroke of the low notes created a hollow mid-air tone, not a warm vibration in his chest, and the high voice played out in short mechanical bursts. He was missing that forward movement; he couldn’t make the instrument sing or connect with the piece. He was supposed to be rehearsing the Sarabande of Bach’s Suite No. 5, but he was unable to focus. Part of the problem was the noise from the apartment upstairs; small feet scampering across wooden floors. The greater issue was his own sense of failure, the depressing winter evening and the conviction he was wasting his time.
To stop himself staring at the lights in the opposite buildings or watching people board buses in the street below, he closed the curtains. His gaze fell on the oil painting above the boarded-up fireplace, the single object of beauty in this dismal set of rooms. The only piece they had managed to rescue from the von Rosenheim estate. A grey mare with a chestnut foal caught in a ray of sunlight. The foal’s coat gleamed like copper and the spring grass of the meadow suggested prosperity and peace. That picture represented hope. He sighed and picked up his bow once again.
The call came just before six. With some relief, he put his instrument aside and answered the telephone. They thanked him for his submission. Several members of the orchestra’s string section remembered him performing at the Bartók World Competition. They were impressed. Rolf Jaro had earned himself an audition for next month. The chance to fill a tutti cello vacancy in the upcoming season. The opening chapter of a new life. He received the news with humility and expressed his astonishment, acknowledging the honour. He said he was surprised. Shocked, in fact. It was what they expected to hear. Of course they warned him not to get his hopes up. It was an audition, nothing more, and he was one of over thirty applicants.
Rolf assured them he understood, and that he would take this in his stride. In truth that was an understatement. He could barely breathe as excitement and escape routes thundered through his mind like freight trains, whistling their potential.
He pulled his attention back to the handset. He remembered to say thank you when they wished him luck and ended the call. He paced the tiny apartment, seeing nothing of its faded grey walls and nondescript carpet, visualising instead a carnival of colour in his head. In three weeks his life could change forever. Our lives, he corrected himself. Should he call her and tell her, or wait till she got home? He would calm down, cook a celebratory meal and tell her over a glass of wine. He couldn’t wait to see her face; glowing in the knowledge her faith in him was validated. He grabbed his jacket and ran down four flights of stairs, so light on his feet he seemed to be flying. The stench of boiled cabbage and mould didn’t touch him because his mind was already sampling coffee and pastries at a riverside café.
At the supermarket, he grabbed a packet of pork chops at 20% off and a bottle of Hungarian red. He had no idea whether it was any good. That was yet another area where her expertise exceeded his. But if I get the job – he corrected himself again, thinking positively, when I get the job – we’ll drink wine every day! He broke into a jog on the return journey, for no other reason than an excess of energy.
The sparse and cramped apartment, which usually depressed him as soon as he opened the front door, failed to bring him down today. He stood at the threshold, mentally transforming it into their new quarters. Instead of one room doing double duty as his study by day and living room in the evening, he would have a music room of his own with French windows opening onto a lawn. Strains of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 played in a neighbour’s garden would float across the grass as wild birds added a natural accompaniment. Their kitchen would be the size of this whole apartment, an island in the centre where she would experiment with fresh ingredients she had bought at full price. They’d have a wine rack and expensive cookware and Turkish rugs and a group of young, talented friends round for dinner.
He put the wine and chops on the small kitchen table under the window which served as their dining room and found an out-of-date packet of instant mashed potato in the cupboard. Even his limited culinary skills were up to chopping an onion and making a sauce for the meat. She would come home to a feast, at least by their standards. He put Les Contes d’Hoffmann on the stereo and hummed along with the Barcarolle as he cooked.
This was his time to win; he knew it in his gut. He was hungry for success. There was a time when he considered this apartment a step up, but now he could see it for what it was. A step up for him and a long fall for her. Comparisons with her ancestral home were a waste of time, but he couldn’t help thinking of those towers, the buttressed walls, the huge works of art, the grand piano, the stables, the sweeping gardens leading down to the lake. Now she was reduced to three parsimonious rooms they could barely afford on his orchestra pittance and her income as a music teacher.
Her sense of humour had kept them going. She made him laugh by describing the apartment in real estate agent terms. Bag a Bargain in Bratislava! A bijou residence in an up-and-coming suburb, with a view of three countries and even if you can’t quite see the Danube, you can smell the brewery. He’d join in, describing the rooms as if finding some joy in their failings. From the roof of their block you could see three countries, that much was true. To the north-east, the rest of Slovakia. That blue haze to the south was the border with Hungary and a mere twenty-minute journey to the west lay Austria, land of Schnitzel, confectionery and Mozart.
Austria! Things were about to change. This was a new reality. He’d been invited to audition in Salzburg. That kind of opportunity comes once in a lifetime and he would not let it get away. A sharp pain made him wince. Blood seeped from a cut on his index finger, contrasting with the white chopping board and the thinly sliced onion. Her voice rang in his ears, as clearly as if she were in the room. Look out for your hands, Rolf! Treat them gently. They are your instruments, not the cello. He wrapped a tissue around his finger and focused on what he was doing. Making her a meal was an act of love. Her idea of an act of love involved more energy, bare skin and sometimes a little seasoning, but fewer ingredients. Just him and her.
He ignored the pulse in his groin and opened the window before he started frying the onions. He knew how much she hated coming home to the stink of cooking. She said she smelt food all day at school, so home should be a rest from a constant assault on her senses. Delicate aromas of pear or sweet peas, subtle tastes such as smoked salmon and most importantly for her ears, silence. He checked his watch and switched off the opera. She was due any time in the next twenty minutes.
A fabulous Friday evening. She would enjoy the meal, rejoice at his news and they’d plan the audition strategy sitting at the kitchen table. She’d know what pieces to choose besides the mandatory Haydn, how best to show off his skills. If it weren’t for her, he’d still be a mediocre violinist.
She had always watched him closely. The first to notice his upper body strength and long thin fingers, she realised he was better suited to the cello. It has a depth, a melancholy. Just like you. You just need to spread your legs a little wider. He recalled her mouth splitting into a wicked smile.
She was the one who found him the best teacher. An ageing virtuoso who had long since refused new apprentices but who made an exception for her. ‘Your father was a great friend to me. We can come to an arrangement,’ he told her, with that simian smile. Rolf recalled those long afternoons with Jakobisku with little fondness, if he were honest. The man’s revolting face snapping out criticism and contempt, exacerbated by the scent of mothballs and body odour, made each lesson last an eternity. Yet Rolf’s talent had flourished under the old man’s tutelage, and although it was impossible to deny his mentor’s influence, he was coming into his own. He shook himself. Time to focus on mashed potato.
The door slammed shut just as he was uncorking the wine. His nerves fluttered, listening for any sounds to indicate her mood. Keys left in the lock, not flung at the wall. Coat and shoes off inside the door, bag rested on the floor, not dropped from a height. He poured two glasses and waited for her to appear.
Leonor stood at the entrance to the kitchen, leaning against the door jamb, her expression quizzical. “What’s all this?”
He’d been rehearsing what to say from the moment he put down the phone, but now he just drank her in. Her lean, muscular form, her strong jaw and that incredible pair of dark brows arching over her hooded eyes. Even when she came home to him every night, even though she had an insatiable need for his body, he still couldn’t believe his luck. Leonor von Rosenheim, who could have anyone she wanted, had chosen him. She was smiling as she crossed the kitchen to kiss him hello.
“Whatever’s in that pan is burning,” she said, flicking her gaze to the stove. He flipped the chops, turned down the gas and handed her a glass of wine.
“Thank you. After the week I’ve had, I deserve this. Still, it’s the weekend and it looks like my thoughtful boyfriend has prepared our dinner. Any special reason?”
“I had a call today,” he said, remembering his lines.
Her voice dropped as her pupils dilated. “A call? Tell me more.”
“I’ll tell you everything. Sit. We’re having pork chops with mash and onion gravy. And a glass of Bull’s Blood.”
Their eyes locked as they drank, a smile teasing the edges of her mouth. He folded up two pieces of kitchen towel as napkins, splattered a dollop of mash on each plate, added a chop and poured over the gravy. He closed the window so the draught would not ruin the ambience and sat opposite her, failing to suppress his grin.
She thanked him for the meal and sliced into the chop. “This is exactly what I needed. The food, the wine and the good news. Come on, then. You got a call. Don’t tease me,” she said, looking under her eyelashes.
He swallowed and tried not to get overexcited. “The string section leader of an orchestra telephoned. They asked me to an audition. This is my chance, Leonor. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
She placed her cutlery on the table and clasped her hands to her cheeks, her eyes glowing in the light over the stove. “An audition? So soon? That is the best news! Na zdravie, my love! I am so happy for you! Here’s to the Windy City!”
His glass kissed hers and they drank, holding each other’s gaze.
“Can you believe it? I’ll have to rehearse like crazy and choose the right pieces to show what I can do, but we can work on that together.”
She scooped up some potato and gravy, her expression intense. “Yes, we need to choose carefully, look at their suggestions and repertoire. Then we rehearse as if our lives depend on it. How long do we have?”
He picked up his chop to gnaw the meat from the bone. “Three weeks on Monday.”
She stopped chewing and took a swallow of wine. “Three weeks? Are they crazy? We won’t even be able to get visas in that time!”
“Visas? Why would I need a visa for Austria? I just have to book a hotel in Salzburg for two nights, one before the audition and one after. I suppose that’s in case I get a recall.”
Seconds ticked past as she stared at her plate, saying nothing. He replayed his response, questioning himself. Was he being insensitive? He had only stated the truth.
She resumed eating, flashing him a bright smile. “This pork chop is delicious. Did you make the sauce yourself?”
“It’s not as good as one of yours, I know, but for a kitchen amateur, I was pleased. You know, we could probably afford another ticket if you wanted to come too.”
“We could. If I used up the money for the gas bill and bought no groceries for three weeks, we could stretch to a second seat for me to accompany you. I’ll just stay here and defrost the fridge.”
They ate in silence until their plates were empty. He racked his brains to think of a way to recover the ambience, but failed.
She spoke first. “If you pass the audition, then what?”
“When I pass the audition,” he gave her a hesitant grin. “Then I’ll be a cellist with a respected orchestra and we’ll have a bigger, nicer apartment, because there’s subsidised accommodation for its members. You can still teach because Salzburg is full of music students and I’ll work like crazy to be the best cellist they’ve ever had and get promoted to principal. We can go up in the world! I mean, back up in the world in your case. You’ve sacrificed so much.” He waited for her to lift her gaze from her plate, hoping for the best. “You know, they said they’d seen me play at the Bartók competition.”
Her pride was clear in her smile. “What did I tell you? Even when you sulked all the way home because your quartet didn’t win, I said the important thing was to be seen. And you were. Ha!” She reached for his hands, blinking. “Salzburg. I guess that would make a pretty good first step on your career path. Maybe a couple of seasons to establish your name and then onward to greater things. You can do this. I believe in you. I always have.”
“We can do this.” He squeezed her hands. “It’s what we’ve always wanted, no?”
A smile spread across her face. She pressed her glass to her lips but instead of drinking, dipped her tongue into the red wine, lapping like a cat. “You are what I’ve always wanted. Shall we have an early night?”
He was out of his chair before she’d put down the glass.
After the bells rang midnight, her breathing grew heavier and he stared at the ceiling, spent. If this hint of success increased his sex appeal to such a degree, God help him if he actually landed the role of a cellist with the Salzburg City Orchestra. He knew nothing about Salzburg, other than the Mozart connection. No idea as to its location or proximity other Austrian cities, its geography or climate. Her words echoed in his head.
‘An audition? So soon? That is the best news! Na zdravie, my love! I am so happy for you! Here’s to the Windy City!’
He stretched an arm out to locate his phone on the bedside table, cautious and slow. If she woke for another bout, he wouldn’t have the energy. She slept on. He deepened his own breaths, faking a light snore and typed ‘The Windy City’ into a search engine. The results pointed to Chicago.
Chicago? Was that why she mentioned visas? Why on earth would she assume his audition would be in Chicago? He replaced the phone and closed his eyes. Some days, he had no idea how her mind worked.
Wolf Tones is released as ebook, paperback and audiobook on Aug 19.