The strange thing was how normal Sarah felt.
More than normal, she felt like she was operating on a higher plane. Like she was some kind of super functioning human being, someone who could put in half a day at the office, order the turkey and ham at lunchtime, keep a vigil at her mother’s bedside for the afternoon and still make the Christmas concert at the music school. She managed to shoehorn the car into the small parking space outside the school in the rain and the strobing darkness, without so much as touching the cars on either side. Her movements had such precision to them that she felt as if she could easily land a plane, if called upon to do so. She could step out of a crowd to administer CPR, if there was an accident. She could guide everyone to safety in the event of a terrorist attack.
Sarah was at her best in extremis. When she went into labour with Robert, she had remembered to feed the dog and put the bins out before they left the house. On the way to the hospital, she had hopped out of the car at the traffic lights to post a thank-you letter to Matt’s mother for her birthday present. In the labour ward, she had pulled a pack of cards from her handbag and dealt herself and Matt a hand of gin rummy to pass the time.
It was only her stomach that threatened to let her down. In the waiting room of the music school, she could hear it. A gurgle in her pipes, low down in her bowels. She uncrossed her legs and re-crossed them the other way, to disguise her discomfort. ‘Do you want to take off your coat?’ she asked Robert, providing cover for her digestive system with the sound of her own voice. He shook his head, distracted. His hand steadied the cello case. He had the sheet music in his other hand. He was nervous but would not admit it. ‘Give me your coat,’ she said to Katie, sliding along the wooden bench towards her daughter. The school had once been a church and some of the pews remained, but the ordered air of the Sunday service had been replaced by a joyous disorder of scales and arpeggios, misplayed and interrupted and replayed again, all along the corridor of small, partitioned practice rooms.
‘Can I have the iPad?’ asked Katie.
‘Only if you keep it on silent.’
Sarah slid the tablet out of her handbag and handed it to the child. She placed Katie’s coat across her lap to soothe her complaining belly. She allowed her head to rest back against the wall, and succumbed to the waiting.
‘It will be tonight or tomorrow,’ the nurse from the Cancer Society had said, when she arrived. Carrying with her a cheery little picnic basket, she had a book in the basket, and her own food. She needed for nothing but the use of a kettle. Sarah had left a lemon drizzle cake out for her. An offering from a neighbour, Sarah had wrapped it in a clean tea towel and left it out on the kitchen counter beside the kettle, glad to have some hospitality to show the nurse. A small token of their gratitude. Their relief.
They were so tired. They had been managing on their own for so long, making it up as they went along with the help of the Internet and an occasional visit from the GP, visits that offered some comfort but little illumination. Sarah was never so glad to see anyone as she was to see Jacinta, standing at the door with her picnic basket, and her knowledge, like a flaming torch held up in a dark tunnel. She was the first person they had encountered who seemed to know this thing for what it was.
‘What are your mother’s interests?’ she asked them, the first night she came. There were ten nights provided for free by the Cancer Society, but ten nights would not be needed, Jacinta told them.
‘She was a music teacher,’ said Sarah’s sister, Ruth. The three of them, standing in a small circle in the kitchen, with her mother’s corporal presence weighing lightly on the floorboards of the ceiling above them. ‘She taught the flute for thirty years in the Academy. When we were children she played in the National Concert Orchestra.’
Standing in the doorway of this very kitchen, with her music case in her hand and her old black coat open over the full satin skirts of her evening dress, their mother would have been issuing instructions. ‘Straight to bed after *Dallas *now. And don’t forget to wash your faces.’ She believed in nothing more than soap and water for washing your face. A little Vaseline for dry skin. A few drops of almond oil in the bath. Sarah remembers the way her mother’s leg shavings clung like iron filings to the oily rim of the bath after she had emptied it. She remembers how her skin always smelled of soap. Now the smell in her room was bitter. A smell of something gone off, like rancid fruit. Even with the window open onto the weirdly warm air, the smell persisted.
‘Sometimes they talk about the past,’ said Jacinta. ‘I like to be able to understand what they’re saying.’
‘We had a brother,’ said Ruth, in a businesslike voice. ‘His name was Michael. He died when he was nineteen.’
Jacinta made no attempt to sympathise.
‘And your father? Is he gone too?’
‘In a manner of speaking,’ said Ruth. ‘But I’d be amazed if she mentions him.’
‘She was talking about Michael today,’ said Sarah. ‘She didn’t mention him by name but she was talking about this blow-up boat he had one time when we were on holidays. She told him not to blow the boat up too much, or it would explode, but of course he blew the boat up too much, and it exploded. It was like she was back there, living that memory all over again.’
Afterwards, in the clearest voice, her mother had said, ‘I’ll never see the sea again,’ but Sarah did not repeat that for the nurse. It seemed too sad and too beautiful a thing to repeat. Sarah preferred to keep it for herself.
‘That’s the thing,’ Ruth told Jacinta. ‘Sometimes she seems to be stuck in the past, and then she’ll say something completely lucid, and you realise that she knows exactly what’s going on. But I suppose that’s normal, is it?’
‘Yes,’ said the nurse. ‘They lose the distinction between the past and the present. All that remains is what’s most important to them.’
‘She liked to garden,’ added Sarah, anxious all of a sudden not to leave anything out.
Only that morning, she had noticed a single daffodil in full bloom out in the front garden. The lilac was budding already, and the poor birds were singing. In the chemist Sarah had heard someone say there was no snow in the Alps, so all the skiers were going hillwalking instead. There were pictures on the TV of people wearing T-shirts in Central Park. The weather forecast mentioned highs of eighteen degrees.
‘Can you believe that, Mum?’ said Sarah. ‘It’s been so mild. There are daffodils in December.’
She could see from the rise and fall of the bed covers that her mother was still breathing. Whether or not she was listening was hard to tell. When she spoke, her voice was little more than a breath.
‘Don’t be daft, darling,’ she said, and she seemed about to say something else when her energy failed her and instead she just sighed.
Those could be the last words she ever said to me, thought Sarah, as she lifted her face to a stir of movement from the staircase of the music school. Legs appeared, then foreshortened bodies and finally the heads of the parents who had attended the early concert. The early concert was for piano and violin. The late concert was for flute and cello. In the waiting room, children leaned down to pick up their music cases. Parents stood and, once the stairs had emptied, they began to drift up it, careful in their courtesies to each other. They were gentle people, the music people.
Robert took his place with the other students in a row of chairs that had been positioned on the stage of the little auditorium. With his coat still on him, Robert looked like a street busker. Sarah had a brief glimpse of some moment in the future when he might play his cello on a winter’s day to commuters descending a flight of steps into a Tube station in London. She tried to catch his eye to wish him luck, but he was looking away. She stayed standing, even after most of the other parents had sat down, hoping that he would look at her, but he didn’t. All she needed was one moment, the faintest nod of her head, to let him know that she was behind him, but he would not look at her.
Abandoning her son to himself, she slid into a seat at the back of the room, next to the door. Katie climbed up on the chair beside her, without ever taking her eyes off the iPad. Her angel hair hung down over her face, with a pink patent clip dangling off the end of it, about to fall. Sarah rescued the clip and opened it with a snap, gathering a wisp of Katie’s hair and pinning it to the curve of her tough little skull. Katie was a caesarean baby, and it had always seemed to Sarah that the ease of her passage into the world had gifted her an invulnerability that her brother did not share. He had a window on suffering that Katie would never know.
Sarah glanced down at the screen and saw that Katie was playing Dumb Ways to Die. She was pawing at the screen with her stubborn little fingers, pulling a dancing jellybean character out of the path of a train. She was saving the jellybean from a shoal of piranhas. She was keeping him clear of a ravening shark. A new headstone popped up with each life lost, but the jellybean kept on dancing. To the clean, whistling pathways of Sarah’s mind, even the dancing jellybean seemed significant in some small but perfect way. A feeling that reminded her of taking cocaine. The sense that every little thing in the world was connected, and that it was within her power to join the dots between them, and make perfect sense of everything.
She transferred her phone from her handbag to the pocket of her jacket, putting it on silent but leaving it switched on, so that she would feel it vibrate if someone called her. She ran her hand through her hair, coming free of the freshly cut ends sooner than she expected to. Her fingers had been prepared for a longer sweep, towards a mess of straggly split ends, but what they found instead was a new bob that ended in fresh air above her shoulder. She had taken the opportunity to have her hair cut yesterday, while she was waiting for the chemist to fill a prescription for her mother. She had anticipated that there might not be another opportunity. She had bought a new coat too, in a flash of ice-cold efficiency that propelled her into a shop beside the chemist, where the Christmas sale had started prematurely.
‘I’m looking for a black coat,’ she had told the shop assistant. Normally she would not have asked for help, but she was looking for a shortcut through the process and it seemed to her for once that help would be good.
‘What about this one? The red would be gorgeous on you.’
‘It’s lovely,’ said Sarah. ‘But it really has to be black.’
She didn’t like to say that it was for a funeral, because her mother wasn’t dead yet, and what if the shop assistant asked?
‘This grey one is beautiful. A lot of people find the grey more flattering than the black.’
‘Honestly,’ said Sarah, fixing her eyes on the shop assistant’s. ‘I’m dead set on the black.’
She couldn’t help wishing there was someone there to appreciate her stab at black humour. Ruth would surely have got the joke, if she was there.
As well as a black coat, Sarah bought a black cashmere jumper and a pale blue wisp of a scarf that matched her eyes. In the picture she had of herself walking out of the church behind her mother’s coffin, the blue scarf gave her face some life. She had a pair of earrings at home that would go well with it. She would wear her best black stilettos for a touch of glamour, even though they crippled her if she had to walk any distance. Sarah threw in a new pair of tights as she was paying, and felt complete. She collected the prescription from the chemist, picked up some food, and still managed to be back in her mother’s house by lunchtime, with her hair sitting clean above her shoulders. The ostentatiously large bag containing the new coat occupied most of the back seat, a lick of pink tissue paper peeping out where the bag’s ribbon fastening struggled to keep it closed.
‘I brought salad,’ she whispered to her sister, as she stepped into the hall. Ruth was on the laptop in the kitchen, with a notebook open on the table beside her. Her head on a tilt, as she listened to a clip of Jessye Norman singing Strauss.
Sarah saw her write something into a notebook, with a large question mark after it.
‘Are you doing what I think you’re doing?’
‘We might as well be ready. Once it happens, we’re going to be busy. Do you have any thoughts?’
‘Bach,’ said Sarah, as she unpacked the cartons of salad. ‘We have to have Bach.’
She looked up at the low kitchen ceiling and wondered if her mother could hear them. How strange that would be, if her mother could hear them playing all her favourite music, as she hovered between life and death. Would it occur to her, Sarah wondered, that they were planning her funeral service? Or might she think that this was the choir of angels, summoned to sing her on her way?
The Christmas concert was ordered to allow the smallest children perform first. Their repertoire was limited; all the flautists puffed their way haltingly through ‘Silent Night’, as the piano accompanist gamely tried to keep time with them. The cellists attempted ‘Away in a Manger’, with varied success. Those with talent were easy to separate out from those without. Sarah wondered if the parents could see it, and if so why some of them bothered. Sarah’s mother had called time on her music lessons early. Neither she nor Ruth had an ounce of talent, and poor Michael had too much.
Sarah studied the memory of his face, as much alive to her as those of the children waiting in the front row to perform. Michael’s face was always too soft, too quick to crumple into happiness, or sadness. Michael would hang all his attention on other people’s eyes, watching them the way a dog watches a new person with a hopeful swish of the tail, without knowing whether to expect a kick or a caress. Michael never learned how to let life flow around him, rather than through him. Sarah saw that now.
She worked her way along the row of performers behind the stage, studying them one by one. Those who had already played were loose limbed and bored, their heads swivelling this way and that as they sought out parents, siblings, friends. Those who had yet to perform were taut with nerves and insular, their eyes locked on the stage. In the applause that followed a performance by a red-faced young cellist, a little girl stood up. The girl was no older than ten and she was dressed casually, in a white T-shirt and black leggings. Her long, dark hair was scraped back into a high ponytail and she had an easy command of herself as she stepped forward with her flute in her hand. An iPhone appeared three rows from the front, like a periscope, with its recording function flashing. The girl turned to the accompanist as she sounded a note on the flute. Too short, motioned the accompanist. The girl sounded another note. Again, indicated the accompanist. On the third note, he gave her his approval.
The girl’s head dipped as she started her piece, her spine bending with her in a gentle wave, while her face remained solemn and still. She played well, and everyone knew it, but it was not just that. The girl had poise beyond her years. She had strength and determination. She had presence. Sarah could see her future, rolling out in front of her like a red carpet and she knew that the girl would step out onto it with great assurance, never stopping to wonder why life was easier for her than it was for others, and why should she? When she finished her piece the applause was louder and longer than it had been for anyone else and Sarah clapped too, stunned by how clear the verdict was. Life’s scheme had been laid bare, in this tatty over-lit room, with a fake Christmas tree listing drunkenly in the corner and a length of threadbare tinsel strung from the rafters.
‘The secret is there is no secret,’ her mother had said, cryptically, the other day, before disappearing back down into her silence. Every few hours she would surface again without warning, bearing some such morsel of insight, or memory, or perhaps just pure nonsense, from the seabed of her life. Her breathing shallow and urgent, as Sarah leaned forwards in her chair, straining to hear. Her mother’s words were artefacts now, shared and often repeated between her daughters down in the kitchen, over laughter and tears and interminable mugs of tea. They were afraid of forgetting a single thing. The secret is there is no secret.
The boy at the end of the row of performers was gay, no question. Ten years old, he most likely did not know it yet himself but his mother did, surely. She would have seen it in a sweetness that his brothers did not share, and a preference for the company of the girls in his class over the boys. It was advertised by the choice of apple green for his hoodie, and the plaited leather band he so bravely wore on his wrist, unaware that in doing so he was already telling the world who he was.
It was wonderful that her mother had lived to see the result of the marriage referendum. For Michael’s sake, they had gathered in the courtyard of Dublin Castle to hear the result. Amazing to think that her mother was still on her feet then, that she had walked all the way into town wearing her runners and her raincoat, with a tribal slash of rainbow colours painted across her forehead, using her grandson’s paint palette. When the returning officer read out the result, the cheer from the crowd was much softer than Sarah had expected; it was almost anti-climactic. Sarah looked around her to see couples holding each other and weeping. Her mother was in the arms of a huge bearded man, her small head barely visible against the clutch of his chest, as he wept into her hair. He was someone else’s son, and she was someone else’s mother, but in that moment he was hers and she was his.
‘Everybody assumes that Michael would have recovered,’ her mother had said, on the night of his funeral. ‘But we have to allow for the possibility that he wouldn’t have. Maybe there was no happy life waiting for him. Maybe all his happiness was already behind him.’
Sarah’s attention came back to the room as Robert lugged his cello towards the centre of the stage. He had his coat off, thank God. His face, rigid with the effort of maintaining his composure. He had skipped the last Christmas concert with the excuse of a pain in his tummy. He had not wanted to perform at this one either. He had begged her to write him a note, which she had refused to do. She had talked him into it, without any certainty that it was the right thing to do. Matt was in no doubt that it would be good for him to go through with it, but all Sarah could see was the danger. If he didn’t carry it off, the damage would be all the greater. She felt sick watching him, but she couldn’t not look.
‘When’s it going to be over?’ whispered Katie. The battery on the iPad was dead and her head was lolling on her neck. Her bottom had slipped to the edge of the chair, her legs dangling dangerously off the edge of it.
‘Shush,’ said Sarah. ‘It’s Robert’s turn.’
She hauled the child onto her lap, wrapping her arms around her baby belly. She rested her chin on Katie’s shoulder, looking out at the stage from behind a curtain of her daughter’s tight, blonde curls. The sturdy little body provided both comfort and shield as Robert drew the first sounds out of his cello, and Sarah began to breathe again.
The piece he’d been given to play was ‘Danny Boy’. For weeks he’d been practising it. For weeks she’d been listening to it as she made the dinner, discussing her mother’s condition with her sister on the phone as she stirred the spitting pasta sauce with one hand. While she sat with her laptop in the darkness of the empty dining room, furtively trawling Internet chatrooms for strangers’ accounts of the trajectory of a death, it was the sound of ‘Danny Boy’ that she had in her ears, without ever hearing it. Only now, in this room—with the children more restless by the minute and the adults drooping in the unnecessary heat from the scorching radiators, with the rain sliding down through the darkness outside the window and her son drawing this beautiful melody from his instrument—did she allow herself to hear it.
When he was finished he searched her out, and smiled. Sarah’s plan was to leave as soon as Robert had finished playing. Her mother was dying; no one would blame her for leaving before the end of the concert. The plan was to duck out the door under the cover of applause, motioning to Robert to join them outside. But then she remembered the present she had brought for Robert’s teacher. She should have given the teacher the present before the concert, but she had not thought of it, and there was no way of giving it to her now. She considered leaving it behind her on her chair for someone to find, but that seemed too casual. She wondered should she take it away with her? She could always re-wrap it for someone else, or keep it to give the teacher next Christmas. She considered both of these options but rejected them, aware that any diversion from the minute precision of her Christmas preparations could produce a disproportionate result. A collapse. A derailment. An implosion.
It was too late now, anyway; the final performer had been announced. A tall girl with purple hair and biker boots, she positioned herself in front of the music stand and tossed her head to shake her hair free. She blew into her flute. No. She blew again. Still no. Sarah reached her hand into the pocket of her jacket to retrieve her phone, anxious all of a sudden that she might have missed a call, but there were no messages. She shifted Katie into a different position on her lap and tried to swallow down her impatience. Three minutes, she told herself. It can hardly be much more than three more minutes. Have patience.
The girl began to play Bach’s Sonata in A Minor. Sarah recognised it from the very first notes with the dawning sense that she was living in a movie, one that had been scripted and plotted with its own carefully chosen soundtrack. Already she knew that she would be telling this story for years, how the girl played Bach the night her mother died. The girl played with her eyes closed, her body wavering like a reed in the wind, and as she listened, Sarah realised something. All that matters is now. There is only this moment. It will never come again.
Note followed note and each one of them was exactly where it had to be. They were all locked into the sonata, and there was nothing any of them could do until it was all played out. The child in Sarah’s lap was limp and still, her hard little skull resting painfully on Sarah’s collarbone; Sarah accepted the pain as part of the stillness. Her son sat slumped in his own relief, his eyes wandering the room in search of mischief, now that the fear in him was gone. Sarah thought of her husband in a line of traffic on the canal, looking out of his wet windscreen at the blurry brake lights of the cars ahead of him. She thought of her mother, floating weightlessly in her bed, with nothing but the roof between her and the rain as, breath by breath, she came to the end of her life.
Sarah closed her eyes and waited for the sonata to finish.