Authors: Eleanor Catton
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #FIC000000
Copyright © 2008 by Eleanor Catton
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced,
distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written
permission of the publisher.
Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
First eBook Edition: May 2010
Reagan Arthur Books is an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Reagan Arthur
Books name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and
not intended by the author.
“I can’t do it,” is what she says. “I simply can’t admit students without prior musical training. My teaching methods, Mrs.
Henderson, are rather more specific than I think you understand.”
A jazzy pulse begins, just drums and double bass. She swirls her spoon and taps it once.
“The clarinet is tadpole to the sax, can you see that? The clarinet is a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm
very much it will one day grow into a saxophone.”
She leans forward across the desk. “Mrs. Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way:
a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud.”
Mrs. Henderson is looking down, so the saxophone teacher says rather sharply, “Do you hear me, with your mouth like
scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse?”
Mrs. Henderson nods imperceptibly. She stops fingering the sleeves of her blouse.
“I require of all my students,” the saxophone teacher continues, “that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust,
and boiling away with private fury and ardor and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes
at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger
a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and
bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realizes that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret
of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.”
Kiss-kiss-kiss goes the snare drum over the silence.
“But she wants to learn the saxophone,” says Mrs. Henderson at last, sounding ashamed and sulky at the same time. “She doesn’t
want to learn the clarinet.”
“I suggest you try the music department at her school,” the saxophone teacher says.
Mrs. Henderson sits there for a moment and scowls. Then she crosses her other leg and remembers that she was going to ask
“Do you remember the name and face of every pupil you have ever taught?”
The saxophone teacher seems pleased to be asked.
“I remember one face,” she says. “Not one individual student, but the impression left by them all, inverted like a photographic
negative and stamped into my memory like an acid hole. I’d recommend Henry Soothill for clarinet,” she adds, reaching for
a card. “He’s very good. He plays for the symphony orchestra.”
“All right,” says Mrs. Henderson sullenly, and she takes the card.
That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.
“Mrs. Winter,” she says. “You’ve come about your daughter. Come in and we’ll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to
feed me week by week.”
She holds the door wide so Mrs. Winter can scuttle in. It’s the same woman as before, just with a different costume—Winter
not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role
for a long time. Mrs. Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs. Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long.
Mrs. Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.
They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.
“To start off with,” says the saxophone teacher as she hands her a mug of black-leaf tea, “I don’t allow parents to sit in
on private lessons. I know it’s a bit of an old-fashioned policy—the reason is partly that the students are never at their
best in that sort of environment. They become flushed and hot, and they laugh too easily and their posture changes, folding
up tight like the lips of a blossom. Partly also, I think, the reason I like to keep things very private is that these little
half-hour slices are
chance to watch, and I don’t want to share.”
“I’m not that sort of mother anyway,” says Mrs. Winter. She is looking around her. The studio is on the attic level, and the
view is all sparrows and slate. The brick wall behind the piano is chalky, the bricks peeling white as if diseased.
“Let me tell you about the saxophone,” says the saxophone teacher. There is an alto saxophone on a stand next to the piano.
She holds it up like a torch. “The saxophone is a wind instrument, which means it is fueled by your breath. I think it’s interesting
that the word for ‘breath’ in Latin is where we get our word ‘spirit.’ People once had the idea that your breath and your
soul were the same thing, that to be alive means, merely, to be filled with breath. When you breathe into this instrument,
darling, you’re not just giving it life—you’re giving it
Mrs. Winter nods vigorously. She keeps nodding a few seconds too long.
“I ask my students,” the saxophone teacher says, “is your life a gift worth giving? Your normal, vanilla-flavored life, your
two-minute noodles after school, your television until ten, your candles on the dresser and facewash on the sink?” She smiles
and shakes her head. “Of course it isn’t, and the reason for that is that they simply haven’t suffered enough to be worth
She smiles kindly at Mrs. Winter, sitting with her yellow knees together and clutching her tea in both hands.
“I’m looking forward to teaching your daughter,” she says. “She seemed so wonderfully impressionable.”
“That’s what we think,” says Mrs. Winter quickly.
The saxophone teacher observes her for a moment, and then says, “Let’s go back to that moment just before you have to refill
your lungs, when the saxophone’s full of your breath and you’ve got none left in your own body: the moment when the sax is
more alive than you are.
“You and I, Mrs. Winter, know what it feels like to hold a life in our hands. I don’t mean ordinary responsibility, like babysitting
or watching the stove or waiting for the lights when you cross the road—I mean somebody’s life like a china vase in your hand”—she
holds her saxophone aloft, her palm underneath the bell—“and if you wanted to, you could just… let go.”
On the corridor wall is a framed black-and-white photograph which shows a man retreating up a short flight of stairs, hunched
and overcoated, his chin down and his collar up and the laces on his boots coming untied. You can’t see his face or his hands,
just the back of his overcoat and half a sole and a gray sock sliver and the top of his head. Onto the wall beside the staircase
the man casts a bent accordion shadow. If you look closer at the shadow you will see that he is playing a saxophone as he
ascends the stairs, but his body is hunched over the instrument and his elbows are close in to the sides of his body so no
part of the sax is visible from behind. The shadow peels off to one side like an enemy, forking the image in two and betraying
the saxophone that is hidden under his coat. The shadow-saxophone looks a little like a hookah pipe, dark and wispy and distorted
on the brick wall and curving into his chin and into his dark and wispy shadow-hands like smoke.
The girls who sit in this corridor before their music lessons regard this photograph while they wait.
Isolde falters after the first six bars.
“I haven’t practiced,” she says at once. “I have got an excuse, though. Do you want to hear it?”
The saxophone teacher looks at her and sips her black-leaf tea. Excuses are almost her favorite part.
Isolde takes a moment to smooth her kilt and prepare. She draws a breath.
“I was watching TV last night,” she says, “and Dad comes in with his face all serious and his fingers sort of picking at his
like it’s strangling him, and eventually he just takes it off and lays it to one side—”
She unhooks her saxophone from her neckstrap and places it upon a chair, miming loosening the neckstrap as if it has been
“—and says sit down, even though I’m already sitting down, and then rubs his hands together really hard.”
She rubs her hands together really hard.
“He says, your mother thinks that I shouldn’t tell you this just yet, but your sister has been abused by one of the teachers
at school.” She darts a look at the saxophone teacher now, quickly, and then looks away. “And then he says ‘sexually,’ just
to clarify, in case I thought the teacher had yelled at her at a traffic light or something.”
The overhead lights have dimmed and she is lit only by a pale flicking blue, a frosty sparkle like the on–off glow of a TV
screen. The saxophone teacher is thrust into shadow so half her face is iron gray and the other half is pale and glinting.
“So he starts talking in this weird tight little voice about this Mr. Saladin or whatever, and how he teaches senior jazz
band and orchestra and senior jazz ensemble, all on Wednesday morning one after the other. I won’t have him till sixth form,
and that’s if I even want to take jazz band, because it clashes with netball so I’ll have to make a choice.
“Dad’s looking at me with this scared expression like I’m going to do something insane or really emotional and he won’t know
how to deal with it. So I go, How do you know? And he goes—”
She crouches down beside the chair, speaking earnestly and spreading her hands wide—
“Honey, from what I understand of it, he started off real slow, just resting his hand really lightly on her shoulder sometimes,
Isolde reaches out and touches her fingertips to the upper end
of the saxophone, which is lying on its side upon the chair.
As her fingers touch the instrument a steady pulse begins, like a heartbeat. The teacher is sitting very still.
“And then sometimes when no one was watching he would lean close and breathe into her hair—”
She puts her cheek against the instrument and breathes down its length—
“—like that, really tentative and shy, because he doesn’t know if she wants it yet and he doesn’t want to get done. But she’s
friendly because she kind of likes him and she thinks she has a crush on him, and soon his hand is going down, down—”
Her hand snakes down the saxophone and trails around the edge of the bell—
“—down, and she sort of starts to respond, and she smiles at him in lessons sometimes and it makes his heart race, and when
they’re alone, in the music cupboard or after school or when they go places in his car, which they do sometimes, when they’re
alone he calls her my gypsy girl—he says it over and over, my gypsy girl, he says—and she wishes she had something to say
back, something she could whisper into his hair, something really special, something nobody’s ever said before.”
The backing music ceases. Isolde looks at her teacher and says, “She can’t think of anything.”
The lights come up again, as normal. Isolde scowls and flops down on to an armchair. “But anyway,” she says angrily, “she’s
run out of time, it’s too late, because her friends have started to notice the way she is sometimes, the way she puts her
chin down and to the side like she’s flirting, and that’s how it all starts to come undone, crashing down on itself like a
castle of cards.”
“I see why you haven’t had time to practice,” says the saxophone teacher.
“Even this morning,” Isolde says, “I went to play some scales or whatever before school, but when I started playing she was
all like, Can’t you at least be
? and ran out of the room with
this fake sob noise which I knew was fake because if she was really crying she wouldn’t have
run off, she would have wanted me to see.” Isolde digs the heel of her kilt pin into her knee. “They’re treating her like
a fucking artifact.”