A Stringed Instrument

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Word of warning: this is a slow-moving talky introspective story. Not all the chapters have sex in them. If you like stories where people are shagging by the fifth paragraph, this isn’t going to meet your needs.


By the time I found the place I was pretty sure going to the work Christmas party had been a bad idea. If there’s one thing worse than me alone at Christmas, it’s me alone at Christmas in the middle of a crowd; after five months at R. J. Churchill Realtors, working as jack-of-all-trades IT support in our main office in Melbourne, I was well aware that I was the odd one out.

My colleagues weren’t bad people, as real estate agents go, and they tried to be polite to the company nerd. But after a few bland nice-to-meet-yous the conversation dried up as we ran out of things to talk about. And after I’d outed myself a couple of weeks ago…

Perhaps I should’ve kept it a secret. Lord knows, it’s not like I had anybody’s portrait to stick up on my desk, and nobody expects tech support to dress femme. But I refuse to lie about it to anybody, and during one of my occasional attempts at socialising I’d run straight into Peter, head of our office and resident ideologue, offering his opinions on the day’s headlines:

“So, I don’t want to sound prejudiced because I’m not, I’ve got nothing against gays, but we shouldn’t let the national agenda be dominated by a fringe issue. I mean, take the economy, we’re talking about the whole country, every single person in this office cares about that. But gay marriage? Not relevant to a single one of us here.”

“Actually, Peter, it’s quite bloody relevant to me.”

Pretty effective as a conversation killer. Of course, that just managed to confirm my status as Not One Of Us. Nobody was nasty about it — at least, not that I ever heard — but I couldn’t help noticing that since then, the only people who’d dropped by my desk to say hello were the ones who needed help with their printers or email.

But the Christmas party? Everybody gets invited to that. And for all that I tried to tell myself I didn’t care about fitting in, truth is it does get lonely being a fish out of water, and I’d been told old ?RJ knew how to throw a good party.

Most likely I was letting myself in for an evening of making superficial conversation with anybody who felt charitable, watching others having drunk fun, then making my excuses to leave early. But sometimes you have to try things anyway. Who knew, maybe the Christmas spirit would help somehow?

And that was why I was walking three blocks from the train station to the Churchill house one Friday evening shortly before Christmas. I’d even put on a nice shirt and dragged out my one and only skirt (at least it had pockets). Sensible shoes, though.

I guess if you own a real estate company you get to have a big house. RJ had the biggest in the neighbourhood. Wrought iron gates, manicured lawn with an oversized fountain in the shape of a swan, classical statues that were probably real marble, hedges cut into perfect cubes… you get the picture. Just to top it off, the house and grounds were copiously decorated with flashing Christmas lights in every colour known to man.

No doubt he’d saved money by holding the party at his place instead of booking a restaurant (there was probably a tax deduction involved somewhere in that) but when I walked through the door I could see he hadn’t stinted on the catering. Three snappily-dressed waiters made sure everybody was well supplied with canapés (or were they hors d’oeuvres?) and I fended off several trays of drinks before I gave in and accepted a glass of champagne, just so they’d stop offering.

Remembering why I was there, I circulated, making polite conversation with various acquaintances. Pretty much everybody I knew from work was there. The more enthusiastic young realtors were too busy talking shop to give me more than the briefest possible wave. Peter had his back to me as he discussed something with my line manager Susan; I waved at her over his shoulder and she waved back, looking distracted. Janelle — Peter and RJ’s executive assistant — lifted a glass in my general direction and offered a slightly sozzled “Happy Christmas!”

Then it was time to face RJ, who was doing the rounds and greeting each of us in person. I’d only met him a few times before; although his office was in our building he was often out, one of those men who prefers to do business face to face. He was in his late fifties, still with a full head of hair that was beginning to streak to a distinguished silver, impeccably dressed in an expensive tailored suit. “Happy Christmas… Yvette?” He offered his hand.

“Yvonne. Happy Christmas, Mr. Churchill.” I shook it and found something pressed into my hand.

“A little Christmas present for everybody.” Four fifties, tax-free, as it turned out.

“Thank you, sir.” But he was already moving on; three more people had arrived behind me. I moved through the lounge room — bigger than my apartment — and gradually canlı bahis drifted toward the garden. It was starting to get crowded inside.

Outside, the caterers were lighting the barbecue, preparing a couple of trays of meat. Nobody else was about, which suited me; I walked out, past the pool, into the garden where it was darker. Out here I felt better, able to shed the tension I felt around my work-mates, able to breathe and feel the breeze on a very pleasant summer evening…

“Hello there.”

I hadn’t heard her come up behind me. “Hello?” I turned, and didn’t recognise her — and I would have remembered if we’d met. She was somewhere around twenty-five, a few inches shorter than me, with classical features framed by an excess of black ringlets. If not for the little black dress and the glass in her hand, a little bit of white make-up would have let her pass for one of the statues in the yard.

Maybe not such a waste after all. “I’m Yvonne.”

“Phoebe.” We touched glasses — ching! — and she treated me to a friendly smile. “Avoiding the party?”

“Crowds not really my thing. Hey, where are you from? I haven’t seen you around.”

“Oh, I’m not with the company, thank god — sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“No offence taken. I’m not exactly wild about real estate myself. So what brings you here?”

“RJ is my dad. I’m staying here for a week, doing the family Christmas thing.”

“Oh. Nobody told me he had a daughter.”

“I’m not around much. I live in Sydney and I don’t make it down here too often. So what do you do, Yvonne, if you’re not selling houses?”

“I make the computers go. And you?”

“I play cello. Trying to get into the Sydney Philharmonic, but at the moment I’m just in a four-piece band. We do weddings, parties, anything. I give lessons. They call it ‘underemployed’.”

“Oh, a musician! That explains it. I thought you looked too classy for real estate.”

She flashed me another smile, teeth glinting in the glow of the Christmas lights. “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s said to me all evening. Say, if you’re a computer person you might know…”

And we talked about how to choose a wireless router. It was a lot like work but I didn’t mind, since the company was better. From there the conversation drifted by way of data plans and downloads into music.

As a schoolgirl I’d spent a couple of years scraping at a violin, so I had great respect for anybody who could make a stringed instrument sound good. I felt a little inadequate talking to a professional, but Phoebe put me at ease on that account; alongside her classical expertise, she had broad-ranging amateur interests in modern genres where I could hold my own.

Eventually I asked a few questions about the life of an underemployed cellist. Phoebe was candid: she’d set her heart on being a professional musician from an early age, but she was finding it hard to break through and starting to wonder whether she ought to start looking for a more practical career.

“Dad says, if I ever want a job with the company, he’ll find me something.” She looked sour. “I know not everybody gets to have their dream job and I can cope with that, but… I really don’t want to be the boss’s daughter, you know? “

I nodded. “You’re not the type for real estate, anyway.”

“Oh?” She didn’t seem to be sure how to take that.

“Not an insult. Let’s just say, we’ve been talking, what, twenty minutes now? And you haven’t once brought up football, cricket, diets, or Australian Idol. That rules you out of the girly conversations and the blokey ones.”

“That bad?”

“God yes.” I swallowed a mouthful of my slowly-flattening champagne; I didn’t much like the taste, but once I’m holding a glass I feel obliged not to waste it. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a visitor from another planet, you know?”

At that point one of the caterers started ringing a bell. “Ladies and gentlemen! If you’d like to line up, dinner is ready!”

I nodded at Phoebe. “Shall we?”

“Let’s.” She took one step toward the barbecue and immediately tripped — a little to do with alcohol and a lot to do with trying to walk on grass in ladylike shoes. As she stumbled she grabbed my arm and I helped her catch her balance, her shoulder brushing my chest.

All perfectly innocent no doubt, but I couldn’t help thinking that she’d spent longer talking to me than politeness required and she didn’t seem in any hurry to let go of me after regaining her feet. Was I picking up signals there, or…?

Down, girl. Boss’s daughter, remember?

By the time we’d salvaged her shoe and made our way to the barbecue, there was already quite a queue forming. Phoebe knew the guy just ahead of us, some friend of RJ’s, and while they were saying hello Susan tapped me on the shoulder. “Yvonne?” She dropped her voice. “Can I talk to you in private? Some time later tonight?”

“Um… okay?”

I thought she might at least tell me what this was all about, but she just turned away. bahis siteleri She looked tense and I wondered what it could be about. Although I reported to her, the relationship was purely administrative; she wasn’t a techie, just the person who signed my leave slips. So if she wanted to talk to me behind closed doors and she was unhappy… I hadn’t been expecting a meeting with her until next month, when we were due to wrap up my probation…

Oh fuck. My brain played the variations:

“Yvonne, I don’t know how to say this, but Peter’s made a complaint…”

“Yvonne, you know the property market has been weaker this last year and all the offices need to look for cost savings…”

“Yvonne, I know Christmas is a really bad time to tell you this, but I thought I should let you know…”

Fuck fuck fuck! I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid, but I had a nasty gnawing feeling inside. I couldn’t think of another reason for Susan’s behaviour and I really couldn’t afford to lose my job just now. And if they wanted to fire me, this was the time to do it, while I was still on probation…

“Hey, Yvonne? You okay?” Phoebe touched my arm.

“Oh, sorry. Just… trying to figure out something Susan said. Probably nothing.” Well, if they want to screw me, I’m screwed and fretting’s not going to help. Might as well forget about it and enjoy the company. Easier said than done, of course, but as distractions go Phoebe had potential. And she was still holding my arm.

“Well, better look lively or you’ll miss your dinner. I’ve been to Dad’s parties before, these people are like piranhas when the food’s out. Have some dolmades, these guys really know how to make them.”

I know what I’d like to have… The thought brought a smile to my face. Seeing it, Phoebe smiled back. Perhaps just as well she didn’t know what was in my mind.

“Mmm, dolmades…” I picked up a plate and started serving myself. Fetta salad, huge stuffed olives, lamb. “I take it your dad has a thing for Greek food.”

For a moment Phoebe looked at me as if I’d said something peculiar. Then she laughed. “Ah, of course, you wouldn’t know!”

“Know what?”

“Tell you in a moment. Come on, let’s get a drink.”

The caterers had set up several tables in the garden. By then it was getting very noisy near the food and some of the agents were getting a bit rowdy, so Phoebe and I set up closer to the house and away from the crowd. “Now, what were you going to tell me there?”

She opened her purse and handed me a black-and-white business card:

Phoebe Karavangelis


Performance — Recording — Tuition

I looked at it, but my mental gears were grinding too slowly and Phoebe had to come to my rescue. “Dad’s parents came out from Greece when he was a baby. When he started in real estate a lot of Aussies didn’t want to do business with ‘Dimitrious Karavangelis’, so he changed it to something British. But only for work, legally we’re still wogs.”

“Oh, right.” Apparently I wasn’t the only one who’d been passing at work. “It worked out for him, then.”

“That it did. Some of the senior staff know the deal, it’s not a big secret, but I guess it hasn’t filtered down.”

“Not to me, anyway. So do you speak Greek?”

“Enough to get by on holiday, but Yaya — Grandma — says I have a terrible accent. I tell her she does too.”

The bell rang again, this time in Peter’s hands. “Ladies and gentlemen! Thank you all for coming tonight. I’d like to welcome our founder and chairman, Mr. Richard Churchill, to say a few words.”

We all clapped politely as RJ stepped up to the mike. He was looking relaxed and cheerful, probably several glasses’ worth of it. “Good evening my friends and a happy Christmas to you all. I like to think of you all as my family and it’s good to see so many of you here…”

He started out with the usual sort of speech: challenging year, everybody pulling together as a team, contributions valued, et cetera et cetera. I kept an ear out in case there was anything worth knowing, but my eyes drifted toward Phoebe — flicking briefly back to RJ whenever I thought she was about to catch me staring — and with my concentration eroded by a couple of drinks, eventually my mind drifted too.

You know, you COULD ask if she’d like to catch up some time.

But what happens if she says no?

Same thing that happens if you don’t ask.

And if she tells her dad?

She’s a grown woman. She likes you, or she wouldn’t be talking to you. You really think she’s going to go crying to daddy because a dyke makes a pass at her? And weren’t you getting fired anyway?

Yes, but… no! It’s just not that simple!

When I wrenched my attention back to the speech, RJ was talking about the early days of the firm:

“…of course, back then none of us fellas typed our own work, we had three ladies who did that for us. There was Abbie, Mary and Dorothy, all lovely girls. But then Mary left us to have a baby and bahis şirketleri we got in a new lady. She could type, but god, so plain, looked like a lesbian, you know?”

My colleagues laughed politely.

I stood up and turned away from RJ, from my colleagues, from Phoebe. I walked into the house hoping they’d think I just needed to use the ladies’ in a hurry. Because suddenly I was shaking with cold rage and the only rational thought I could muster was I needed to get out of there and get my head straight before I did something I’d regret. I didn’t know whether anybody had noticed me leave and I didn’t fucking care.

A couple of the caterers were in the lounge, preparing a big cake. They looked at me oddly as I passed — I’m told I go white in the face when I’m really angry — and I didn’t want to deal with anybody trying to help, so I did my best to look like I knew where I was going.

I headed along a corridor, expecting to find a bathroom where I could lock myself in, but I’d taken a wrong turn. The only doors in the corridor opened onto bedrooms and I didn’t want to walk back past the caterers to try again. So I let myself into the last bedroom — from the size and furnishing it could only have been RJ’s — and closed the door behind me, not bothering to switch on the lights.

It briefly occurred to me that if anybody found me like this, they’d think I was up to mischief, maybe stealing, but it seemed better than trying to face the world just then. I’ve grown a fairly thick skin over the years and I don’t usually let remarks like that get to me, but the combination of RJ’s words — and my loneliness at work — and the threat of unemployment — and more alcohol than I’m used to — had caught me off guard. I leant against the wall, head on my forearm and cried for a bit.

Some minutes later, a tap on the door. “Yvonne?”

I kept quiet, wiping my eyes on my sleeve.

The door creaked open. It was Phoebe, of course. “Yvonne? Are you okay?” She came closer, looking up at my face in the dim light from the hallway. “I’m sorry about my dad. His opinions never really evolved past the seventies. Are you okay?”

“No.” I tossed the anger around in my head, letting the words tumble out of my mouth. “No, I’m not okay, Phoebe! I don’t care if an old man makes some stupid joke. I care that everybody else who should know better laughed at it.”

“I didn’t laugh, Yvonne —”

“No, but you didn’t call him on it either!”

Then I noticed through the haze that in my anger, I had backed Phoebe against the wall, cornered against RJ’s walk-in wardrobe. I was looming over her, gesturing with my hands near her face. She had her hands up protectively, as if she expected to be struck. I lowered my hands, took a step back. “Oh, Christ!” I shook my head in frustration at myself, her and the whole stupid situation. “I didn’t mean to crowd you.”

Phoebe dropped her guard, looking up at me apologetically. “Look, you’re right, I should have said something, Yvonne. I’m sorry.”

A heartbeat’s worth of silence. My next words came without thought.

“Close your eyes.”

Was it desire speaking at that moment, or revenge? All I know is, my voice was quietly implacable and Phoebe obeyed, face still turned up to mine. Before common sense could intervene I stepped in, took a fistful of her ringlets in my left hand and used it to spin her around to face the wall.

Utter silence. Not even the sound of breathing.

I stepped in behind her and pulled her hair upwards, drawing her onto her toes, my other hand nudging more curls aside to bare the nape of her neck. Brushed the skin, softly-softly, with my fingertip and I felt her whole body quiver.

An instrument, I thought. A stringed instrument.

I touched her neck with my lips, breathing in the scent of her hair, and she sighed very gently. My right arm slipped under hers, curving around her chest as I kissed her daintily, tiny little touches falling on her neck and shoulder like a shower of blossoms.

Phoebe swallowed and then slowly her arms came up and back, hands on top of mine lightly in her hair. I eased my grip — she sank back against me — and my fingers began to play in her hair, stroking, twining with hers, as my other hand drifted up to her clothed breast. My nails scraped over the fabric, sending sensations through to the warm body beneath, and I leaned forward to kiss her just below the ear.

She turned her head toward me and I could feel her tensing to say something. “I have —”

“Ssshh.” I squeezed her breast, thumb and fingers tweaking her nipple through the cloth. The rest of her sentence was lost in a high-pitched yelp. I tightened my grip, rolling the nipple between my fingers, and she tensed further then slumped in my arms. When at last she drew in breath I guided her face to mine and kissed her mouth before she could speak again. She was delicious, tender and sweet, and as I held her tight I could feel her heart fluttering in her breast.

“Mmm.” I stroked her face while we kissed. When I broke off the kiss I ran my fingers over her lips, slipping a fingertip into her mouth. I was nipping at her neck, nibbling down to her shoulder, and my right hand shifted to pay attention to her other breast.

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