It was totally extraordinary, that such a talented boy should come from a woman as lumpen and unremarkable as my wife’s sister. Julie is that terrible thing – a virtuous single parent. Her pantomime villain of an ex walked out when Daniel , (conceived possibly by magic, but certainly within wedlock) , was a babe in arms, leaving Julie with a permanent sheen of gentle indignation and graciously wielded martyrdom. She doesn’t even complain, unfortunately, which denies us all the opportunity to bitch about her. She is nice and long-suffering and well-meaning and oh god. She invited my wife and I to these hideous little suppers, comprised of cheap wine and god-awful baked pasta, and her relative poverty was there on the table with the crumbs and the weirdly light cutlery. Oh, I know you two go in for gourmet, but I can’t get on with all this posh nosh. We keep it simple, don’t we Daniel? Daniel nodding primly, looking like he’d been brought up. You know, consciously. Like it was a job, or more likely a calling. Jesus.
Anyway, Darling Daniel had been having music lessons for years on the quiet, it seems, because over Christmas, out comes a ukulele and we all have to listen to him playing In the Bleak Mid-Winter. I poured a large port and tried to sidle away, but my wife’s grip told me she wasn’t about to go through this particular ordeal alone, and anyway Julie was standing by the door, saying Michael, I’d appreciate your opinion on this, I really would. So we sit politely in a line on the sofa, and Daniel fiddles with the strings and puts his leg up on a chair like he’s in Peter Paul and Mary, and then off he goes. It was intricate, original music. His own arrangement. After my hurried gear shift, from pained suppression of dismay to an astonished attention, I found myself gazing first at his fingers, flat tipped and deft, and then his eyes, as he regarded his hands with a serene and motherly air. A Christmas Madonna, all long lashes and lamplight in his hair. Intelligent. Moving, even. After he had finished, while the family twittered around him, Julie took me aside and said So I’m right, aren’t I Michael? I thought he was special, but I couldn’t be sure until I checked that you weren’t sneering. Yes, I said. Julie, let us help you get that boy a proper musical education. I will, she said. I need help.
So my wife and I set up an account and have paid for lessons, and I will cover his school fees when he goes to music college in September. That’s all irrelevant. I honestly don’t mind in the least. Money well spent. And it’s been a pleasure, over these last months, to see, as it were, a return on the investment. Daniel now often came over and played for us – sometimes arrangements of old tunes, but increasingly his own compositions. At times, I have been brought to tears by the surprising pureness of it. So unequivocally good. Good quality, of course, but I don’t mean that. I mean morally good. It’s difficult to explain. Of course, the boy’s still a bore. Musicians often are, I think. Play music full of delicate passions, and then, in conversation, reveal an emotional life that is as disappointingly conventional and prosaic as the Radio Times. But he brought some comfort to us both. My wife was getting ill, as you know. I was glad to see how much she looked forward to his playing. She held my hand as she listened, all that malarkey.
And then she got properly sick, in bed, and my world became pills and blankets and night-long vigils. She’s dying, Michael, said Julie, and I realised that the family thought I was in denial, or some such psycho-babble. Maybe I was, I don’t know. She was so thin and old, all of a sudden. I saw my own plump, middle-aged face in the mirror and was astonished by the life in it. Her wedding ring was too big for her, all that. The family tried to help. Julie was around every day, bringing milk and soup and newspapers. Brought me some flimsy little razors and told me to have a bath. Kindness, I know. And she spent hours with me, in the bedroom, watching over Sarah as she slept. Our two large sweaty bodies there, in close proximity, in the half gloom, as my wife breathed. And then, as it was clear that there would only be days left, she said that Daniel would like to come and play. Tears in her eyes. Would that be alright, Michael?
He’d written a composition for her, called Sarah. I suppose one thinks that, as in a film, she should really be roused in her final moments by the music and smile upon her doting family one last time, but nothing of that sort happened, of course. Sarah was beautiful and difficult. Just like my wife, really. I could see what an appropriate and respectful gesture it was. Daniel was solemn and stately, silhouetted against the pale window. The polished wood of the ukulele was rich and warm in his hands. I could see the family there, gathered around her bed, all shiny eyed and exquisitely sad, and suddenly I wished Julie and Daniel and the whole brood of them would fuck off and leave us alone. But I said nothing. I sat and let that marvellous music swirl around me like poison in a cocktail, and Sarah didn’t come to life, and she didn’t die, not that day, not till several days later, when they’d all gone and my beard was in full grey bloom.