Sidewalk; pavement. Elevator; lift. Diaper;nappy. And flutist; flautist. That’s one of the things that make the English language so rich and fascinating: the way it varies so much, especially between Britain and America, both in spelling, sometimes, and sometimes in downright word difference.
That little preamble has absolutely nothing to do with the following blog, apart from the fact that it discusses both American and European people. If I still have your attention, you might be interested in reading about my new novel The Flautist which, as the title suggests, is all about a young woman who is a flute player (if you’re American, that is; flautist if you’re British, like this author), and is an unusual, hopefully heart-warming and sometimes sad love story. I really loved writing it and hope you might enjoy reading it too.
Leah Weisman is a twenty-something flautist trained at the renowned Juilliard music school in New York. Sadly, she makes disastrous choices in men. Benjamin Wolfewitz, now Walters, is a Londoner and has two things in common with Leah: he’s also Jewish, at least by birth, and is also a flautist. Patrick Brennan is a forty-something softy, and Irish, from County Sligo and a newspaper journalist working in London. He has two connections with Benjamin: friendship and a shared love of classical music.
Patrick (previously met as the brother of protagonist Julie in my novel Secret Shame and also in the The End of October story in my Awakening anthology) is concerned about his expanding waistline and resolves to start eating sensibly and walking to work. That good resolution leads to a chance encounter that catalyzes a chain reaction, building a wider spider’s web of human relationships with far-reaching ramifications.
This is my fifth novel and is a tale of unlikely love, music, kindness and rescue from despair.
Here, as a taste, is chapter one:
First Movement: allegro moderato
The theatre of Juilliard Music School was heaving with people. Leah struggled through the horde of excited students, each one clutching a diploma to their chest, reverentially, as if they’d found the Holy Grail (which they probably had, in a way) to her parents and Shay. The grin on her face would have put the Cheshire Cat to shame. The expressions on her mother’s and Shay’s faces matched her own, although her father’s was polite but less enthusiastic. But she knew why that was; he was a bit disgruntled that she’d only gained a C in piano and a B in flute. He’d expected no less than an A with Distinction, after spending so many dollars on her education as she hadn’t qualified for a free scholarship. He’d hoped for a better return on his investment. Not that, in his eyes, being a musician was a particularly relevant qualification for inheriting the Solomon Weisman chain store empire one day, so she couldn’t see why not fully making the grade was such a big deal for him.
Oh well; he’d just have to lump it. She’d tried her best, although Shay being in her life had been rather a distraction lately. Especially after his proposal. She could hardly believe her luck. Such a hunk of a guy and with such great prospects, to boot, wanting to marry plain-Jane Leah!
‘Well done, honey!’ Carmel enthused as she reached them, taking her to her thin-as-a-rake, expensively-attired body, into an embrace that was more theatrical than sincere (they were not a very tactile family) and air-kissing her left cheek, careful to neither spoil her lipstick nor red-stamp Leah’s flushed skin.
‘Yes, well done,’ Solly and Shay chorused.
Her mother released her grip (well, she mustn’t overdo things). Leah looked at Shay, trying to gauge his expression. He certainly looked pleased, although he did seem rather more buoyed up of late about his job offer with a significant salary rise and generous bonuses and fringe benefits than her graduation. Or about the wedding in the offing, for that matter. Well, that was to be expected, she supposed. He was quite a go-getter, much to her Dad’s approval. She wasn’t sure how demonstrative to be with her fiancé; felt a little inhibited in her parents’ presence. Although why the hell she should be, she had no idea. But perhaps it was their suffocating over-protectiveness; watching her like a hawk (especially Dad) throughout her teenage years, carefully monitoring her boyfriends, all two of them, making sure they were Of The Faith and morally impeccable. Marrying out would have been completely out of the question.
‘Aren’t I the clever girl then?’ she chirruped rhetorically, moving towards him.
He grinned. ‘Yeah. You certainly are.’
He held out his arms but there was no embrace. He simply placed his hands on her slender biceps, closed the distance and also targeted her cheek for a kiss, slightly irritatingly, but at least his lips made contact, briefly, which was something anyway. He moved away and she took his hand with her free one, glancing at her father. There would be no point in expecting any sort of embrace from him, even on this special occasion. But he was still smiling, in a slightly rictus sort of way. He looked fidgety though, as if wishing he were someplace else. Classical music was not really his thing though, as he frequently reminded her. Old fogey that he was, Sinatra was more his bag.
‘Okay then,’ he said, raising the bushy eyebrows above the piggy eyes in his jowly face, ‘is that it then? Can we go now?’
‘Well, yes, I think so,’ Leah replied dubiously, disappointed. ‘I think the rest of it is just mingling, socializing. But I think there’s to be a Class of 2011 group photo; that sort of thing.’
He grunted; looked disgruntled. ‘Oh. Okay. Yeah, I suppose you have to have that.’
‘And there’s the individual photos too.’ Leah tried to press her advantage home. ‘You know: “clever offspring, just graduated, posing with diploma” sort of thing.
Solly Weisman looked impatient. ‘Ah, come on. We don’t have to mess around with that now, do we? I’ll arrange a proper studio shoot for that. Get our PR people to organize it. I’ve got a table booked for us at Da Silvano to celebrate, right now.’ He paused; conceded, ‘Well, we’ll wait for the group shot then, as long as they aren’t too long about it, then get outta here. I’m famished.’
Leah sighed; contemplated her corpulent, controlling father. Yeah, it’s always about you, isn’t it! What you want. But this is my day, for God’s sake. My special day. Can we do what I want, just for once? But aloud she said, ‘Yes, okay then Dad, it’s a deal.’
Henrico the trusty chauffeur was waiting with the Mercedes in the parking lot and the glide across town to the restaurant didn’t take long. Solly phoned ahead to let William, the manager, know they were on their way, so he’d be there ready, fawning, to suitably welcome them. Not that there’d been any problem about losing the booked table; it was paid for and theirs for the entire evening, whether they actually made use of it or not, and with Solly’s prestige and spending power they would have been welcome whatever time they showed up. Even if it were five minutes before the staff’s end of shift. Da Silvano catered to a very select clientele indeed, with prices to match.
Sure enough, he was there at the door, smiling his obsequious smile, wringing his hands, smarming. Leah detested his servility.
‘Good evening. Mr Weisman,’ he oozed, ‘Mrs Weisman. Miss Leah. Mr Goldstein. How are we this fine evening?’
‘Just fine, William, just fine.’ With the prospect of food and a bottle or two of good champagne, plus a few whisky chasers in prospect, Solly’s good humour had returned. ‘I’m ready to eat a horse. Well, a cow, anyway!’
Solly chuckled at his own bon mot and William dutifully laughed too, although he’d already heard it ad nauseum. He led them to their table in the centre of the dining room, so chosen the better to be noticed by the other notables in that evening, including a sprinkling of B-list starlets and their sometimes middle-aged beaus. Leah would have preferred a position less conspicuous. William took their orders personally (well, only the very best service for the famous retail entrepreneur!). Solly, predictably, ordered a humongous T-bone steak, very rare, with fries. Shay, not to be outdone, did the same. Carmel opted for a smaller one, properly cooked. Leah, defying her father’s contemptuous stare, ordered a mushroom goulash.
The wine waiter arrived, although the wine order was also a foregone conclusion: 1998 Clos d’Ambonnay, one bottle to be going on with, and a bottle of good malt. The waiter scurried away and quickly returned with the whisky. The champagne would follow, he said, after it had had a few minutes on ice. Solly wanted to begin serious drinking now though and he and Shay were poured generous measures. The womenfolk, neither of whom liked whisky, would have to twiddle their thumbs and wait.
But then the champagne arrived too, sweating, nested in its ice-filled bucket, and the waiter popped the cork, frothily filled their flutes and retired. Solly raised his, leading the toast. ‘To you, Leah. Congratulations!’
Carmel and Shay murmured agreement. They drank. It was, Leah had to admit, a very fine champagne. Although to be truthful, she’d never tasted a really cheap one (well why would she have?) so she had no point of reference really.
As if suddenly remembering the point of the occasion, Carmel said, ‘Well, that’s your education all finished now then, honey.’
‘Yeah, I suppose so,’ Leah agreed, not quite knowing how to respond. It was a pretty self-evident statement, really. Not that her schooling had been all that remarkable. For all her parents’ wealth, and it was considerable, money couldn’t ensure academic brilliance. She’d been to a top private school where she’d not exactly excelled in any subjects. None of the academic ones, at least. And she’d hated sport. But music had been another matter. She’d taken to it with a passion. She’d been learning piano obsessively since the age of eight (she’d been given a baby grand for Christmas when she was ten) with a dedication that was astonishing and had quickly become technically proficient. Then at fourteen had fallen in love with the flute and had soon mastered it too (so her Christmas present that year had been a high-end Muramatsu, because one of Dad’s friends had advised him that it was a good brand); only the best was good enough.
But both her piano and flute teachers had advised, delicately, that whilst she was good technically, she lacked sensitivity and some feel for interpretation. Dad hadn’t been too bothered about that, as he regarded Leah’s passion for music as a schoolgirl thing, much like wanting a pony, which she’d probably grow out of. And anyway, as their only child now, since tragically losing her brother, little Isaac, to meningitis at a few months old (Mom had absolutely refused to try for another child after that), she was in line to take over the reins of the Solomon Weisman dynasty. As Dad saw it, she didn’t want to have her head turned too much by thoughts of a musical career. Her future, after all, lay in retail.
She’d pestered Mom though to go to Juilliard, which would involve them paying her not inconsiderable fees as she wouldn’t get in on merit. But then free scholarships were reserved for the talented high-potential children of the poor, and it had to be admitted that she was in neither category. But her (and Mom’s) secret hope had been that Juilliard would teach, would somehow inculcate the emotional dimension her music-making lacked. And it had worked to some extent, although it was one of the school’s tutors’ frequently rehearsed maxims that you couldn’t teach genius. You either had it innately or you didn’t. And if you were no Mozart, the next best thing was loads of hard work. There was no reason why she shouldn’t become a reasonably accomplished and employable orchestra player.
But a soloist?
Well, no. Forget it.
Mom had worked on Dad, and finally he’d relented and she’d gone to music school. And she’d really tried, even neglecting piano to some extent to try and focus all her energy on the flute, and had managed a B, which was still pretty respectable, and today was her big day. She felt she’d achieved something anyway, even if her too-demanding father didn’t.
She was brought out of her reverie by her parents talking in unison although not saying the same thing. Mom was saying, ‘And your next big thing now is the wedding. I can’t wait for that.’
Whereas Dad, the ritual of the congratulatory toast over, had already changed the subject – subject as in ‘Leah’ – completely and had turned his attention to Shay. ‘So, when do you start the new job, did you say?’
Shay preened. ‘In three weeks. I’ll have to fly over there well before then of course to sort things out, especially accommodation-wise.’
‘Yeah, of course you will’ Solly agreed, already reaching for a refill from the whisky bottle. ‘Will you be looking to live in the city itself, or somewhere out in the sticks? Surrey’s very nice, as I recall. Stayed in a very nice hotel there once. Very olde-worlde, but genuine. Been a manor house once, we were told. Although it had all the essentials, all the mod cons. Jacuzzi. Hot tub. And great landscaped grounds with a nine-hole golf course. Even a swimming pool, which is something you don’t always see in Britain. They don’t have the weather for it.’ Solly never used five words when sixty-five would do.
‘Well I think we should go for something in town, so as to be close to the job, although Lee fancies country life, I know.’ Shay glanced at Leah with something approximating to an apology.
‘I think you’re right,’ Solly opined. ‘I imagine you’ll be working pretty long hours. You bankers do. You don’t want the little lady to be waiting up until midnight for you to come home, do you?’ It didn’t occur to him to include his daughter in the conversation.
Leah fought down irritation. They were discussing her and Shay’s future, the pair of them, as if she wasn’t present. And of no account. And hogging the conversation, as usual. What about her own plans, dreams for her career? She raised her voice, trying to compete with her father’s gravelly foghorn. ‘Yes, it’s quite my year, one way and another, isn’t it? I can’t believe I’ll be Mrs Goldstein in five month’s time. And turning twenty-one next month too. It’s all happening!’
Carmel said something in reply, but her voice was drowned out by Solly and Shay, who were talking loudly and animatedly on their mutually favourite subjects: business and money, and she didn’t catch it.
‘Yes,’ Shay was enthusing, ‘there are some very nice apartments in Canary Wharf, which is only a stone’s throw from the bank. It’ll be nice to be able to walk to work. Apparently, they’ve really developed the former docks area – what do they call it now? Docklands, that’s it – in recent years. Added a shi – er, shedload of value to the place. A lot of the property gets bought by foreigners as an investment. Well, you can’t blame them really; with the London property market so buoyant, it’s a no-brainer. I might consider doing that: borrow as interest rates are so low over there, so I could easily afford to service a loan, and put it into property. It really would be a win-win.’
‘Yeah, very astute of you, young man.’ Solly nodded approvingly. ‘I can see you’ve a very sound business head on your shoulders.’ He was growing to like his daughter’s fiancé more and more at each meeting. He leaned forward, conspiratorially, and lowered his voice to slightly less than a boom, as if the entire restaurant might be listening in. ‘As a matter of fact, I’m seriously thinking of expanding into Europe: the UK and possibly Germany to begin with. There’s got to be a market for my high-end stuff over there, I’m sure. Certainly in London, anyway, and probably in Berlin. It has to make sense.’
‘I think you’re right,’ Shay agreed, nodding his handsome, dark, curly-haired head too. ‘With a Conservative-dominated coalition government in charge in Britain, the economic environment’s highly conducive to quality retail. There might be some necessary corrective austerity measures in place there just now, like there are here, but there’s plenty of money swilling around the system at the top.’
‘Quite right,’ Solly enthusiastically agreed. ‘The only reason I haven’t considered getting into Europe before is the lack of a good, reliable man to head up the overseas operation. But with you joining the family, and with your background and track record so far, well hell, a few years down the line, who knows?’ He grinned, showing the party several gold premolars. ‘Take my meaning?’
Shay was taken aback. He hadn’t seen this coming. ‘Well, yes Sir. I think I do.’
‘After all,’ Solly continued, now on his second glass of champagne (and three whiskies already downed too), and flushed-faced, the pores on his bulbous nose and his bald pate glistening with sweat, ‘left to herself, Leah isn’t all that interested in taking over the reins, but I did want to keep everything I’ve worked for in the family. So here’s the way to do it.’
‘Er, right. Yes!’
Solly expanded his theme. ‘So the way I see it, Yishayah, you can think of yourself as a kinda spearhead, trailblazer, getting to know the market for me, the lay of the land if you will. And maybe arrange some finance on the right terms, so we can really put some serious money into the project. Give it a couple of years at the bank then join me as Director of European Operations. And after that, the sky would be the limit, if you take my drift. Waddya say?’
Shay was having difficulty taking in the full implications. ‘O-kay . . . yes, thank you, Mr Weisman. Well that certainly gives me food for thought . . .
‘No, “Solly”, please.’
Weisman’s tone became abruptly maudlin. Alcohol often had that effect on him. ‘Yeah, well. As I suppose Leah has told you, I don’t have a male heir, sadly – ’
Shay interrupted. ‘Yes, she did say. I’m sorry.’
Solly looked downcast; shrugged his heavy shoulders. ‘Well; God’s will, I suppose. It’s just the way things have panned out. But maybe you coming into our lives is God’s will too. Who knows?’
‘Um; yes. Perhaps. It’s certainly a golden opportunity you’re offering me . . . Solly.’ Shay wished he would change the subject. This was embarrassing.
Carmel clearly thought so too. ‘Yes, well anyway, honey, that’s something for the future. This is Leah’s evening, remember?’
Solly smiled. Reached for the whisky bottle again and recharged his and Shay’s glasses, as a waiter appeared with their food. ‘Yeah, you’re right, I guess.’
Carmel continued, quickly, before he changed his mind and resumed his empire-building, seeming herself to forget the point of the celebration too. ‘Yes, we’ve got the wedding to think about before then. There’s so much to plan! There’s the Rabbi; you and Yishayah will have to speak with him, and the synagogue to book. And Leah’s bridal gown. And something for myself. Not too eye-catching of course. We mustn’t detract from the bride! And the invitations. How many people should we invite?’
Carmel paused for breath. Leah tried to get a word in to remind her mother about graduating, but she was in full flight now.
‘Yes, we’ll have to decide on the venue, won’t we, as it’ll depend on the number of guests. And bridesmaids to organize, and a Matron of Honor. And you two will have to think about where you’d like to go for your honeymoon. Somewhere nice. We’ll pay for that, naturally. Oh, there’s so much to think about; I’ll be a nervous wreck by the time the day arrives!’
‘Okay, well calm down, Mom,’ Leah said, exasperated. She wanted to be talking about her career prospects this evening, not her nuptials. ‘It’s not going to be a huge society wedding now, is it? Shay and I aren’t exactly celebrities, are we? Not movie stars or anything!’
‘Well, no,’ Carmel conceded, huffily, ‘but your dad and I have a certain social standing all the same and we want to give you a nice kiddushin; one to remember!’
Leah forced a smile. ‘Fine, and thanks for that, but today was my graduation, remember? Can we talk about that?’
‘Yes of course, honey. But what is there to say? You’ve done wonderfully well and got your diploma, and that’s it, isn’t it?’
‘Well, no, not really! I’d like to think this is just the beginning, not an end. I’ve not just left some sort of smart Swiss finishing school you know; I’ve got my entire career ahead of me!’
‘Okay,’ Carmel said, placating, ‘I know your music means a lot to you, although I would have thought your marriage and move to England was top of the agenda at the moment. That’s all very exciting too, isn’t it?’
Leah sighed. ‘Yes, of course, but the marriage is months away, although the move isn’t. I want to be over there as soon as Shay has got us a place fixed up. And see about an orchestra job there. That would be good. I’ve applied for one or two vacant posts I’ve seen advertised, but I don’t know whether I’ll get either of them. One with the London Symphony Orchestra and the other with a much smaller outfit I haven’t heard of, but I don’t really expect to get either of them. Not with my lack of experience and not being British. But I expect there’ll be something, even if it’s not an orchestra. Like session work; things like that’
The condescending smile had left Carmel’s face. She said coldly, ‘Oh, that’s your plan, is it, to move over there straight away; not wait until you’re married? Live in sin?’
‘Well yes, obviously. And it’s not “living in sin”, as you so quaintly put it. Honestly, Mom, you are so last-century!
‘Yes, well it doesn’t seem five minutes since you were my little girl, and now you can’t wait to leave your father and me.’ A tear sprouted at the corner of Carmel’s eye. She carefully wiped it away without smudging her mascara.
‘Yeah, and you still are to me, honey,’ Solly’s less-than-dulcet tones cut in. ‘We’ll miss you.’
Leah sighed again.