‘Fantastic news, Janey!’
I pulled the phone away from my ear. Sue was shouting in exhilaration.
‘There a class reunion! Next Friday! You will come, won’t you?’
‘I’ll check my diary,’ I said, resolving to have something else on. I didn’t want to meet my former classmates again. Some of them could be quite cutting. I could just hear them:
‘It’s Janey, our brilliant violinist! … Hi, Janey! Are you famous now? … What orchestra are you playing in? … How come I haven’t heard anything about you?’
I didn’t want to tell them how come.
I was plain Jane, and not gregarious or glamourous like the others were. I watched from the edge of their social whirl, but jealousy wasn’t really my problem, because I had my music and that was the only thing important to me. While other girls dreamed of diamond rings from bronzed men on far-flung beaches my dreams were of playing solo in the Albert Hall.
But I was going to join an orchestra; I was convinced about that. I knew I was good. I was the lead violinist in the school orchestra. Little did I know then, that my performance at the leaving concert was not the overture to my acclaimed career, nor a prelude, but its crescendo.
I never joined an orchestra. At Music Academy I soon realised I was nothing special, and when I left I did what less-than-excellent musicians usually do: I taught.
But I couldn’t persuade my pupils to practise, and when I had my own children I all but gave up playing myself. I was lucky to get my present job teaching violin to blind people.
That is what had become of me. So to ‘plain Jane’ my former classmates could now add ’vain’. I didn’t want to be around when they did. So I didn’t go to the reunion, but I got together with Sue afterwards. She was the only classmate I had kept in touch with.
We went to the Blue Lagoon. It was weird to see this bar again, after so long, and strange that it had hardly changed, as if in a time warp. The violet and turquoise carpet that was meant to look, well, like a blue lagoon, was now threadbare, and the electric-blue glossy wallpaper that had seemed so exotic then, was peeling at the edges. The speakers which once emitted strains of Hawaii now played a sanitised reggae, which was an improvement.
‘Remember, we used to think this place was dead posh.’
‘It still is, quite.’
‘Anyway,’ I said, quickly. ‘Tell me all about the reunion. But first, how are you, Sue? How are things?
‘Fine. Great. Jim lost his job, as you know. But really it’s just as well he’s at home. John’s getting so big and heavy, I need help lifting him in and out of his wheelchair.’
I gave her a look of sympathy but she was preoccupied.
‘Let’s order,’ she said. ‘I think I’ll have a Blue Lagoon, for old times’ sake.’
‘Good idea. Me too.I haven’t had one of those since I was under-age.’
The waiter returned with the long bright blue drinks and we chinked our glasses together. ‘For old times’ sake.’
Sue put two large prints on the table. They were both group photographs. The first was familiar: it was of our school-class in our final year: about thirty of us, aged seventeen.
The other was of twenty or so middle-aged men and women, the women younger than the men, who were all either grey or bald. I didn’t know any of them – at first – and then gradually the ghosts of the former adolescents emerged through the lined and worn faces. I gasped as I recognised each one in turn.
‘Oh, look! There’s Cherie, and it that Linda? So it is! But who’s the fa.. , I mean big lady? I don’t know her.’
‘That’s Kate. Remember?’
‘Oh! But she’s obe.. I mean, what a shame! She had a fantastic figure.’
‘Yes, seventeen-year-olds often do. But she was very jolly, you know. They all were, mostly.’
‘Cherie. She married a rich Frenchmen and went off to live in his chateau. We were all so envious. Remember?’
‘Yes, but she divorced recently. She’s very bitter. She’s back, living with her parents.’
‘Oh, what rotten luck! But didn’t she have her own life there? Friends, work?’
‘Don’t know,’ said Sue. ‘Perhaps she’ll get half the chateau,’ she added brightly. ‘You never know.’
‘Neither will she, probably, knowing French bureaucracy.’
Sue pointed to Linda.
‘The class brain!’ I said. ‘Did she get into Oxford?’
‘No, but she married, got two boys; she seems happy.’
‘Is she working?’
‘Yes, in Tescos.’
‘You mean accountant?’
‘No, you know, at the check-out.’
‘But she was brilliant!’
‘I think she just lives for her boys,’ said Sue cheerily.
I sigh and look at the photograph again. ‘Where’s Caroline? I don’t see her.’
Sue stared at me. ‘Didn’t you hear?’
‘No. What? How’s she doing?’
‘Didn’t you hear – about the – they were driving back from a party – long way up north – late at night – they might have been drunk .. ‘
I felt myself going cold. I put my glass down to steady myself. ‘You don’t need to tell me the rest,’ I whispered.
Caroline! Brilliant, beautiful, vivacious, athletic. Everyone admired her; the girls were all envious; the boys infatuated. I didn’t know what to say.
‘She always lived life to the full,’ said Sue. ‘Pushed things to the limit.’
‘Over, obviously,’ I said, and then regretted it.
We sat in silence for a few seconds.
‘There was some other sad news,’ said Sue. ‘Remember Sally?’
‘Yes. I met her a few years ago. She didn’t look any older than the day we left school.’
‘She died. Breast cancer. She was forty-five.’
‘Oh! How sad!’
Another silence ensued.
‘Well, any more deaths?’ I asked flippantly, expecting Sue to move on to happier news.
‘Well, there was Joy. She committed suicide. I don’t know why. She was twenty-three.’
‘No! Joy? But – but – she was so – joyful!’
‘Perhaps there was another side to her. – Anyway, if that’s what she wanted ..’
I gaped at Sue, appalled.
But it seemed she didn’t want to discuss it. She was already moving on to the others in the photograph. ‘…married, two children … civil service … moved to Sheffield … drugs dealer … prison … insurance, can’t wait to retire … four kids … mental institution … best place for him … couldn’t have children … terribly disappointed, but loves her dogs … ‘
I was only half-listening. My breathing was shallow. Three of us had died already, and our lives had hardly begun.
I needed to focus. There was someone Sue hadn’t mentioned yet.
‘Stewie. He’s not in the picture.’
Sue gave me a knowing look. ‘I was wondering when you’d bring him up. Every girl’s heart-throb. The trophy!‘
‘Oh, Janey! You didn’t know?’
She moved in closer. ‘There was a rumour circulating, you know, about you locking him in your bedroom cupboard to hide him from your mother. Of course, I knew it couldn’t be true.’
‘You were wrong,’ I replied, distractedly. ‘Where is he now?’
‘No-one knows. He’s disappeared off the face of the Earth. Apparently, he went to South America and never came back.’
I shuddered as I took this in. Sue fiddled with the drinks mats. Neither of us wanted to articulate our thoughts.
‘I expect he’s having a great time somewhere,’ Sue said eventually.
‘Or perhaps he’s locked in someone’s bedroom cupboard and forgotten about,’ I said, but it wasn’t funny.
I picked up my glass and noticed my hand was shaking. I took a sip of my Blue Lagoon. It was sickly. I wanted water.
‘Our glasses are half-empty,’ I said. ‘Can I get you another?’
‘Mine’s half-full, actually.’
We turned to each other and laughed. ‘So’s mine. I see that now.’
It was getting late. ‘I must go soon. I have to prepare for tomorrow. My students are giving a concert.’
‘Oh, that’s wonderful! You know, Janey? They were all asking about you, and I told them how happy you were with your job teaching the violin to blind people. And they were all really impressed. Said they envied you.’
‘Really?’ I was surprised, but then I realised it was fair comment. I did enjoy teaching those students. It wasn’t just their gratitude; it was the genuine pleasure they got from playing that made the job so rewarding.
‘Yes, I am happy,’ I told her. ‘And I’m looking forward to tomorrow.’