France, being a very cultured nation (well, ask any French person), loves her literary prizes. She has many of them, most famously, perhaps, Le Prix Goncourt. She now even has one, inspired by a line from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, not for an excellent book but for an excellent single page. It’s called, unsurprisingly, Le Prix de la Page 112 (although I’m not quite sure why it’s a bi-lingual title).
The rationale for it is that some books, whilst starting promisingly and hooking the reader, tend to run out of steam a bit by, or even long before, page 112, leaving him/her disappointed and disinclined to continue. So Le Prix de la Page 112 is awarded to the book the literary judges consider has the best, most involving page bearing that number, on the principle that the reader will still be held in thrall, addicted, and will keep right on reading, as they would themselves.
I’ve no idea whether page 112 of my new novel The Flautist will hold the reader in a vice-like grip of needing to know what happens next, or whether they’ll be utterly bored by the time they reach that point. It’s not for me to say, of course. It’s for others, for readers, to judge. But anyway, it’s an interesting little exercise for authors, to look at their own page 112 and ask themselves, ‘is this sustaining my reader’s interest?’
Well here, for you to judge, is page 112 (in paperback terms; ebooks may of course vary) of The Flautist:
conversation to think what she might have said to offend her) would now have to start messing around at this late hour preparing food for the Lord And Master. It was inconsiderate of him, it really was. And he might have phoned to say he’d be late.
But Mick didn’t burst through the outer door into the hall, with his usual swagger. Someone knocked on it. Pam was upstairs in her flat, so Leah got up from her book in the drawing room and walked through to answer it. Very strange; they hardly ever had visitors this late at night.
A policeman and policewoman wearing yellow hi-vis vests stood there when she opened the door, a dayglo yellow-and-blue Volvo estate car parked behind them, garish and incongruous against the mellow stone in the fading light. They removed their caps.
The policeman spoke. ‘Good evening madam. We believe this is the residence of Mr Michael Jones?’
‘Er . . . yes, it is.’ The formal ‘Michael’ had briefly confused her.
‘Fine. And are you related to Mr Jones?’
‘Er, no, not really. Well, I’m his girlfriend – partner. What is this?’
‘I see. And can I have your name, please?’
‘Leah. Leah Weisman.’
‘Right.’ The policeman regarded her steadily. His colleague spoke. ‘Would you mind if we came inside for a moment, please, Ms Weisman?’
That’s it. Sorry; it’s a bit short because it just happens to be the end of a chapter. Although it does end on rather a cliff hanger. You have to read quite a few more chapters to learn the purpose of the police’s late-night visit. So here instead is the next full page, which is not only the beginning of a new chapter but also the start of a new section, which, like a new movement in a symphony, is different in style from the preceding one. In fact, as the book is musically-themed, I’ve called the sections Movements. Here it is:
Chapter 9: August 2015
Benjamin Walters sat on the train clasping his precious instrument case in its concealing Tesco carrier bag tightly in his lap, the holdall containing his performance clothes on the seat beside him. Well you could never be too careful; there was always some opportunistic Johnny likely to snatch it just as the train pulled into a station then make a dash for it, and he was past the days of chasing after thieves. The instrument would be worth a great deal of money to a thief who had it valued by someone in the know, but that was hardly the point. It was heavily insured but to Benjamin it was priceless and irreplaceable.
He looked around cautiously, as he always did when carrying the case. He had always been a little paranoid since nearly having it stolen once (thankfully the attempt had been thwarted though by the intervention of a kind fellow-traveller), imagining that people would have x-ray eyes and still know what the bag contained. The carriage was barely a quarter full, but then the evening was still relatively young by London standards: only ten-fifteen, and no one looked suspicious. He relaxed. Increasingly nowadays, he liked to make as early an exit at the end of a performance as he could. His old bones liked to be in bed at a reasonably civilized hour. The others could linger drinking and chatting and winding down in the green room if they wanted to, but most of them weren’t seventy-six years old.
Besides which, apart from feeling tired, he was anxious to get back home. Esther might have some good news.
It had been a good performance though. He’d thoroughly enjoyed it. They’d done one of his favourites: the Mozart First Flute Concerto in G. He’d been playing it (although not as a soloist of course, often just at home, as a practice exercise and for pleasure), all his working life and never tired of it. But then you would expect it to be high on his favourites list really, being a flautist himself. After all, it was one
Would you like to read more? All right then; here’s the rest of the chapter:
of the jewels of the flute repertoire. Even as First Flute with the Philharmonic orchestra he seldom got to play, highlighted by cameras if it was being filmed or televised, an extended sequence bars by himself. No, he was no Jean-Pierre Rampal or Emmanuel Pahud. For the majority of the performance he was quite happy to contribute to the general orchestral sound or sit and listen to the soloist. He had come to terms many years ago that he would never attain the dizzy heights of celebrity himself.
But it did not matter. He had a good, fulfilling life; was fortunate enough to do the thing he most loved for a living, even if Esther kept pressurizing him recently to call it a day with the Philharmonic and retire. It was all right for her to say that though. She wasn’t a musician. Although she tried, she could not really know what an all-consuming passion in his life it was, how much a part of his very essence, his DNA, how ingrained under his old liver-spotted skin, for all that they’d been married nearly forty-seven years.
He glanced idly at the advertisements above the seats opposite. There was one advertising the summer season at the Wigmore Hall, which he’d just left, funnily enough. Tonight’s had been the seventh concert and there were thirteen to go. Perhaps after that they might take a bit of a holiday; maybe have a few days down in Cornwall, by the sea. Perranporth, perhaps, if Mrs Woods at the guest house had any vacancies. Yes, that would be nice.
The advertisement to its left was for Barnardo’s. It had a heart strings-plucking picture of a boy and girl: the boy about five years old and his elder sister possibly eight or nine, standing holding hands, posing and looking beseechingly at the camera. Above it a bold headline invited, Please help us give Sophie and Max a bright future. Benjamin smiled at it. It struck another sort of chord apart from the obvious one of compassion. A very personal one.
Yes, he thought, a future indeed. Every child deserves a future. A future lived in peace. It should be an entitlement. Wherever in the world they are. How ironic that Aliza and I might not have had one at all, had we not been rescued, but I’ve spent my working life often playing the sublime music of the German masters.
It triggered memories of long ago: of his own childhood. Himself and elder sister Aliza, living in Suffolk near Aldeburgh by a European sea, just down the road (appropriately as it would turn out) from another Benjamin, composer Benjamin Britten’s, Snape Maltings concert hall.
Although it had been a serendipitous deliverance that had landed the two of them on the east coast of England in nineteen thirty-nine. They might so very easily have missed the British government’s final rescue of Jewish children from the clutches of the Nazis: the very last Kindertransport from Berlin on the first of September, the day that Germany marched into Poland and Britain and France declared war.
Of course he couldn’t remember that far back; he was only one year old at the time and in the nominal care of Aliza, who was a small child too: only six (although there were, apparently, adult supervisors and carers on the train and then the boat across the North Sea to Harwich). She could remember it vaguely, she informed him years later when he was old enough to understand what he was being told; the alarm of separation from their tearful parents and the seemingly never-ending journey, and the arrival in a strange place where all the people including the gently-but-indecipherably speaking lady who met them used a language she didn’t understand.
Later again, when he had been considered old enough to handle the full implications of it, he had had the full story from the woman whom he’d assumed at first in a very confused sort of one-year-old way was also his proper mother, as if somehow he had two: kind Maisie Walters. Maisie and her husband Douglas had been touched by the plight of the ever more oppressed Jews in Germany and volunteered their services as foster parents for the refugee resettlement scheme. And big brother Gerald two years older than Aliza) was not their blood brother either but the natural son of Maisie and Douglas. As for their real parents, Maisie had gently told him, her eyes brimming with tears at the thought and the horror of it, they had almost certainly perished in one of the concentration camps. Otherwise, after the war they would surely have tried to locate their children.
It seemed that one of the conditions of the government’s scheme (he had found out still later when researching the Kindertransport as a young man) was that, apart from bringing with them a financial bond for their maintenance, the refugee children were expected to return to their country of origin when the war was over. Some had done so, or gone to other European countries, and others had moved on to the United States. But many of the ten thousand refugees from tyranny had stayed. As Benjamin and his sister had. By nineteen forty-five he and Aliza were as much a part of the family and as dearly loved as Gerald, and after the Foreign Office had tried to trace Samuel and Golda Wolfewitz, their parents, in the chaos of post-war ruined Europe and failed, Maisie and Douglas had applied for permission to legally adopt their charges.
And so Maisie and Douglas had become Mum and Dad and his life as a British subject, a middle class Englishman, had been ordained. His Jewish heritage had been effectively extinguished, not that his mother and father had deliberately wanted it so. They were not anti-Semites. But with no Judaic influences in the adoptees’ lives now, what was the point, really, in identifying two of their children as Jews? Although if Benny or Liza wanted to resume that identity when they grew up, it was up to them. Aliza had quickly learned English (although it would be a few years before she finally dropped all traces of a German accent) and they had become as English as all their friends in the neighbourhood. And Benjamin’s childhood, growing up in the austere post-war years in Aldeburgh by the windswept haunting North Sea, had been everything a child could wish for.
Sitting on the Tube that August evening, clutching his shrouded instrument case, Benjamin’s memory rewound to those far-off days.
It had not been long, he mused, a nostalgic smile raising the corners of his mouth, before music had entered his soul. Well, Dad had been an amateur musician after all, a clarinetist and friend of the local and much acclaimed composer Benjamin Britten. And certainly a role model. Aged nine and anxious to please him, he had begun piano lessons with the stern and redoubtable Miss Spencer who was also his father’s friend and a music teacher at the grammar school in Ipswich. She also gave extracurricular music lessons and had taken him under her disciplinarian wing for an hour every Friday evening. A second-hand upright piano had been obtained when he was ten, as a combined Christmas and birthday present that year (well, in straightened nineteen forty-eight it was quite an expensive item) as he had quickly begun to show Miss Spencer some promise and certainly plenty of enthusiasm (Aliza and Gerald showed no musical inclinations whatsoever).
And with the opportunity now for endless practice, with unlimited hours at the piano when the other two were being typical young teenagers and interested only in popular music and the opposite sex, he had quickly become proficient. Three years later, now at the grammar school and one of Miss Spencer’s chosen few star pupils, he had begun to seriously think that he wanted to make music for a living. He had discussed it with Dad, Miss Spencer and also Mr Britten. They had all encouraged him, although Miss Spencer had cautioned that he stood a better chance of realizing his dream if he played some other instrument. After all (at least if he wanted to do classical music), being a pianist almost by definition meant being a soloist. That was a very high ambition to realise. Whereas, with any other instrument the bar could be a little lower. There were always opportunities for working orchestral musicians.
Benjamin remembered how deflated he had felt at that dose of realistic advice. With the arrogance of youth he had seen no reason why he should not become a soloist. It just required a lot of application and a lot of ambition, and he had plenty of that. And they were always telling him that he had the technical expertise.
But then he had come around to the idea that perhaps his advisors were right. Perhaps he should take up another instrument, if only as something to fall back on, as a plan B if the Grand Concert Pianist Plan came to nothing. Which one though? He had not been particularly interested in any of the strings, or the brass. And certainly not percussion. So that left woodwind. He had flirted for a while with the idea of following Dad and going for the clarinet, until one evening he had heard on a gramophone record Mr Britten’s Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes, which had been such a success at Sadler’s Wells. The first one of those had featured flute (to suggest the cry of seagulls, presumably) and he had been bowled over by it. It was a gorgeous, haunting sound. He had decided there and then that his second musical string, so to speak, would be the flute.
Benjamin was lost in his reverie, back in his childhood past, back at Christmas nineteen fifty-one, excitedly unwrapping his first instrument. It had not exactly been top-of-the range, but it was all his parents could either afford or were prepared to risk. It would be quite adequate for learning on.
And then memory fast-forwarded five years, to his acceptance at the music department of Norwich University. He remembered the astonishingly kind gift of a better flute from Mr Britten because he had proved himself worthy of one, a semi-antique, professional-standard instrument that produced the most exquisite, mellow sound. Well, it had been a joint gift from him and his parents really, who had paid Mr Britten (who had no children, musical or otherwise, to gift it to) some of the value of it, as a matter of principle. It was a beautiful instrument; a Rudall Carte built in eighteen ninety-two by Moujard, with silver keys but with a new later body of jet black cocus wood, exquisitely fashioned in nineteen thirty to modern pitch. Dad had been very envious. But then he had not risen above the level of reasonably proficient amateur. Architecture was his trade. He did not begrudge his adopted son, who was far a better musician than he, a fine instrument.
It was the self-same flute that Benjamin cradled in his lap so protectively now.
What a faithful friend it had been to him over the last fifty-eight years! He had never wanted another. It had collaborated with him in perfect harmony to make music in countless concerts all over the world. It had borne witness to all the major events in his life, not least meeting, romancing and marrying his dear Esther.
Benjamin thought about that now, memory advancing again to nineteen sixty-three and one of the first overseas tours he had gone on after joining the Philharmonic – and to West Germany of all places. Playing in the principle cities: Bonn, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich. It had been a slightly uncomfortable feeling, visiting his country of birth twenty-six years after fleeing it. Although in fact it had not been this western, Federal Republic of Germany where he had originated (he knew that from his adoptive parents) but Berlin, still trapped then behind the Iron Curtain in the communist Democratic Republic east.
He remembered his apprehension before going, not having any idea of what to expect, and his pleasant surprise. There were still melancholy echoes of the war; still vacant gaps between buildings, like missing teeth, which must have been bomb sites waiting for redevelopment and the German recovery and economic boom to come. But there was an air of optimism, and the people were friendly and hospitable. If any were still harbouring grudges about their defeat, occupation and humiliation only eighteen years previously, they did not show it. The tour had been a great success, with enthusiastic and appreciative audiences, and the social intercourse between performances genuinely warm. It was impossible to feel any animosity to their welcoming hosts, not that he had the faintest recollection of the Third Reich of course.
It had happened, that chance meeting that would change his life, in Frankfurt in that far-off nineteen sixty-three. There had been a reception following their concert there (playing Brahms, Mozart and Elgar, he remembered) attended by local newspaper journalists. One of them, he could not fail to notice, was a tall, elegant young woman with sloe-black hair, still in her twenties. Notebook in hand, in which she was scribbling notes, she was quizzing John Bartholomew, the conductor. She was alone; there was no other person with her acting as translator (although possibly, for all he knew, John could speak German). It looked as though she might be taking more than a casual interest in him too, judging by the way her glance returned to his direction periodically after first noticing him.
She had concluded her interview of Bartholomew, thanked him (he had distinctly heard her say danke shoen), the conductor had nodded and she had moved across the room towards him. Benjamin smiled at the memory as if it were only yesterday, not over fifty years ago. He could picture her now; recall his panic that she might engage him in conversation when he had no German at all (well, there had been no point in learning it, obviously) and he would appear an utter fool. So he had been astonished when she stopped before him, looked down slightly as she had at least two inches over him in her high-heeled shoes, and spoke a confident, only moderately accented ‘Hello.’
He remembered his surprised, grateful, mumbled ‘Oh, hello,’ in reply and his inane follow-up, ‘er, do you speak English? Her smile, just slightly condescending, revealing astonishingly white and perfect teeth. Remembered her first words; the first she ever spoke to him. ‘Yes, although not perfectly I am afraid. Do you speak German?’
To which he had had to admit, feeling an idiot after all, that no, he didn’t, which was rather shameful as he was actually German by birth.
She had looked at him quizzically and he had hurriedly explained that he had left Germany as a baby in nineteen thirty-nine. She had asked him why that was, and he had said he and his sister were refugees, and she, her beautiful brown eyes rounding in surprise had said, ‘Do you mean that you were on the Kindertransport? And he had said, blushing a little as if it was some sort of embarrassing confession, yes, and he and Aliza had been adopted by an English couple, which was why he spoke no German.
And she had exclaimed, ‘Well that is astonishing! So was I! A year earlier than you, in nineteen thirty-eight, but also a baby, one year old, with my two older brothers.’ She had paused, eying him steadily. ‘So . . . are you a Jew?’
To which he had said, ‘Yes, well, born of Jewish parents at least, but my adoptive parents are Christian, so I suppose I am too, now. And you are Jewish then, I presume?’
She had smiled, sadly. ‘Yes. And did your . . . natural parents, er, go to the camps?’
He had replied, ‘Yes; Auschwitz, it seems. I found that out a few years ago, researching them. Neither of them survived.’
She had said, ‘I am so sorry. It was a terrible time, wasn’t it?’
He had agreed and asked about her and her parents and she had told him a story quite similar to his own. How she and her brothers, Karl and Herman (who had deliberately not been given Jewish forenames so that they would not stand out), had also been fostered in England, although not as happily, and at the war’s end the British Foreign Office had located her father, who had clung desperately onto life in the hell of Bergen-Belsen before being liberated by the British army in April nineteen forty-five. But her mother Ruth had perished, along with thousands of other poor souls, from typhus. After being nursed back to relative health her father, who spoke English, had worked for the occupying forces as an interpreter. When he was well enough and had somewhere to call his own in which to live, Esther – that was the young woman’s name – and her brothers had been returned to ravaged Germany and tearfully reunited with their haunted-eyed father, and they had eventually settled in Frankfurt.
But the horrific experience of Bergen-Belsen and other camps before it had taken its physical and emotional toll on Isaac Adelstein, Esther had told him, and he had died in nineteen fifty-four, leaving twenty-three year old Karl, twenty-five year old Herman and the teenaged Esther to fend for themselves. Esther had found a job with a Frankfurt newspaper and risen to the impressive heights of assistant to the music critic, which was why she was here now.
They had chatted avidly, oblivious to the socializing people around them, until the tour manager had let it be known that the reception was ending and then, impulsively, he had asked whether he might write to her, and without a moment’s hesitation she had said yes, and written her full name and address in her notebook, torn out the page and given it to him, and he had borrowed her book and pen and done the same.
Benjamin smiled, remembering those many airmail missives winging their way across the North Sea: politely formal and carefully not too often at first but steadily increasing in emotiveness and frequency as he found friendship and then love for her growing. Because it was not simply their common heritage and their remarkably similar experience of rescue from probable death that bound them, but a deep natural rapport: a profound meeting of minds. They were kindred spirits. Not to mention the physical attraction, of course.
And then that holiday during the break between seasons five months later: the trip full of nervousness and anticipation to Germany where Esther had naughtily booked a room in an inexpensive hotel on Karlstrasse for a week in the name of ‘Herr und Frau Adelstein’, doing all the talking to the hotel proprietors so as not to give the game away, although they probably knew perfectly well what was going on. And the wonderful rapturous discovery of each others’ bodies, and his throat-tight, unstoppable, blurted out proposal of marriage in bed together on the last night of his stay.
Eight months later in the autumn of nineteen sixty-four they had been married, in England, at Ipswich, because Esther had given up her job at the newspaper and applied for residency in Britain as his fiancée. It had been a simple, quiet, register-office affair (Esther had not insisted on a Jewish ceremony) with the only guests Karl and Herman, Aliza and Gerald and Mum and Dad.
And then, almost before they had had time to catch breath, it seemed, Esther was giving birth to their beautiful daughter, whom they had named Ruth for her cruelly-lost maternal grandmother. And two years on again, the birth of their son, who was to be Sam in honour of Samuel Wolfewitz. Mum and Dad had been completely understanding about that. In fact Mum, very moved and wiping away a few tears, had thought it a lovely idea.
Benjamin sighed, letting the memories wash over him, flicking through the years like a symbolic time-advancing desk calendar in an old movie. On he went, another twenty-three years to nineteen ninety, and saw in his mind’s eye Ruth offering for his delighted inspection their first grandchild, Daisy, who would be followed in due course by Simon and Rose. And then, seemingly in the blink of an eye (how time seemed to have telescoped in the last few years!) to last year and Daisy being suddenly grown up too, and taking up with her handsome dark-haired boyfriend Hassam.
He smiled, remembering the slight awkwardness – and perhaps a touch of chin-jutting defiance on fiercely idealistic Daisy’s part – when he had been introduced, although there had been no need for it at all. Did she really imagine that Esther and he would disapprove? He was a very personable young man: quiet, rather shy and a medical student. And a born-in-London British subject. Both he and Esther liked him a lot. It seemed his parents and their five children had fled the Palestine West Bank in nineteen eighty-nine during the first intifada, able to gain acceptance and sanctuary in Britain because the father, Ahmad, partly, probably, wasn’t a poverty-stricken asylum seeker but a qualified engineer and therefore a wealth-contributor to the host country.
No, Benjamin reflected, it really was not a problem. There was too much hate and intolerance and ignorance in the world, still, in the supposedly civilized twenty-first century; still terrible wars, often if not usually because of religious and cultural differences. That and resources. He had so nearly been a victim of it himself, after all. That was what he so liked about Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s East-West Divan Orchestra with its mixture of young Jewish and Arab musicians, united by music in equality and untainted by hate. They were an inspiration; a beacon of hope. Why couldn’t the world coexist in harmony and create beauty like they did, rather than inflict cruelty and death?
Benjamin was jolted abruptly out of his reverie. The train had stopped and the doors were sliding open. He was at Bushey, his station; lost in thought, he had nearly gone straight past. Gathering his bags, he got up as quickly as his old bones allowed, before the doors closed again. He didn’t want to have to go on to Watford Junction, wait and come back. It would not have meant a long delay, but he was tired. He wanted to get home to Esther.
If this has piqued your interest, the novel is available in paperback and on Amazon Kindle. (The picture of refugee children doesn’t appear in the book; it’s simply included here to illustrate this article).