One dingy flat was much the same as the next and a music degree doesn't change that. In other respects moving to the big city was an eye-opener for a country girl like Judith, and one that she welcomed wholeheartedly. Becoming a small cog in the big wheel of a professional orchestra wasn't the most profitable career move but it took her farther away from home and into pastures new.
Getting there had been an uphill struggle at times though. As a youngster Judith had little alternative but to practise her cello in the front room of her parents' house. Not the most conducive place to begin learning an instrument by any means. Or anything else come to that.
Alf's totally non-existent feedback regarding Judith's playing demonstrated an unusually positive attitude for him.
Anne did opine though; her frequent visits to the toilet meant regular interruptions for Judith. "We didn't have time for those sorts of shenanigans in my day, darling," Anne would explain. "Oh, sorry, I shouldn't talk, should I? Don't worry, just pretend I'm not here. I'm sure it's very good, dear . . ."
Anne and Alf's 'encouragement' was usually a case of listing Judith's failures in order of priority.
Their reaction to her cello playing was surprisingly upbeat. This was them giving her their blessing.
Judith was quite reasonably nervous about her very first rehearsal with the great ensemble and arrived far too early. With time to kill, she remained in her car listening to a science programme on the radio; a cell dies, is then replaced and the cycle of life goes on. Apparently every seven years you get a new nose. An idea that rather appealed to her.
She finally forced herself to get out of the car and unhurriedly complete the last and shortest leg of the journey, the walk across the car park.
The hall was as dark as it was quiet. A few dim chinks of light harmonized with the odd far-off, unintelligible voice, and the occasional door creaking somewhere in distance.
Judith lurked in the shadows hoping not to be noticed, or to seem too sinister if she was. It wasn't long though before the place started filling up with people of very different appearances and odours. Instrument cases clicked open, chairs scraped over the already scratched wooden floor. Shuffling music and chattering friends all added to the decibels that began to resound throughout the superb acoustics of the vast room.
In the mayhem it was difficult follow the other players' conversations and Judith had to make do with passing snippets.
Veronica, one of the oboists, with her pre-moulded hairdo and gargoyled face, who resembled something Goya may have painted during his dark convalescing period, saw herself as head of the unofficial, but very real, Unwelcoming Committee. Talking to her friend but deliberately within earshot of Judith, she asked, "What do lightening and cellists' fingers have in common?"
Claire, not the most charismatic violist the world had ever known, merely shrugged. She looked like the summer of her life was behind her, and judging by her expression, it had rained.
Judith would have jumped down the throat of any man who judged women by their appearance, but as a woman herself she was doing so with sisterly bitchiness so that made it all right.
With a self-satisfied grin, Veronica continued to answer her own question, "They never strike in the same place twice." The one joke she ever remembered fell on deaf ears.
Judith's desk partner was someone she would have to at least try to get on with. Brenda seemed really nice. A bit too nice maybe. If she'd learned nothing else from life, Judith knew that the sweeter the smile, the more venomous the smiler.
The Principal Cellist, Mary, still seemed just as encouraging as she had at the audition. Enthusiastic and hearty she gave the impression that she lived entirely on raw meat and cups of tea.
Judith was sure they were all extremely talented musicians and wanted to be liked by them all, but with the firm proviso that she didn't have to like any them back. She also hoped that whilst playing they would sound more united than all this hullabaloo.
A thin man with thick-rimmed spectacles balanced half way down his nose strutted up to the podium and the hall fell silent. He glanced through his eyeglasses at the score in front of him, and then over the top of them to the assembled musicians. "Right," he said quietly, "we have a lot to get through this season." He picked up his baton, which he knew had more power than a lightsaber within these walls, "So, without further ado . . ."
For Judith these early days meant a lot of hard work, they were very regimented but extremely
productive. She settled in quickly but relished her time off, and returned to the country for
home-cooked dinners and fresh air whenever she could.
For Donald it was just the short journey from Bogcragston back to Pobblestrum as he returned to pastures old.
He tentatively made a few attempts to reintegrate himself back into a life that once was by attending village fêtes and so on. Some people looked exactly as they had years before, almost as if they had rotting paintings of themselves in their attics. Others were totally unrecognizable, but he didn't know who they were.
Likewise, he was just another stranger in their midst. A lifetime ago all the locals knew a young, spotty Donald. Now no longer acned nor youthful, he was an alien on his own stamping ground. For him, around every corner there were constant reminders of bygone days. For the indigenous folk of Pobblestrum, around every corner there was some greying, worried-looking bloke with a fag in his mouth who they'd never seen before and didn't care if they ever saw again.
Donald imagined getting himself a dog might help him to get some sort of grip on his many neurosis. A therapy dog. A Guide Dog For Life. And in doing so he quickly became and indoor type with an outside life. He began rediscovering the locale, circumnavigating the dog-walking circuits and strolling the lengths and breadths of the footpaths and bridleways of the area.
Dalmatians weren't that common around there so Dana got all the attention. Neurotic middle-aged
loonies were everywhere so Donald didn't. But that was fine.
Getting into the swing of things he doffed his cap to the odd peddler man as he headed towards
the edge of the village, and his dog headed in every other direction.
What ever the weather or time of year, Dolores always wore a long rain Mac and ankle socks which revealed just a little too much of her blotchy legs. She was probably completely normal in every way and maybe not in the least bit eccentric at all. But from an onlooker's point of view it seemed strange that you'd pass her going the opposite direction on one lane and then bump into her again on another at the other end of the village. A place where, common sense would tell you, she couldn't possibly be.
Logic-defying truths sat awkwardly in a world that thought it could explain everything but
clearly couldn't. Donald had imagined becoming at one with this rural community again would mean
mentally dropping down a gear or two, but not a bit of it. As he glimpsed Dolores again for the
umpteenth time he concluded that it'd be easier on the brain just not to think about it. Go
with the flow, he told himself, or more accurately, go with the dog, who dragged him towards
Saint Ivy's church.
Donald was reminded of his youth, and the importance of getting to church early to ensure a back row seat.
Reverend Sourby may not have been as joyless as he first appeared, but he certainly knew how to disguise his evangelical zeal and Christian good cheer. This was the very man who'd coined the phrase, "Grimace, God loves you."
St Ivy's was one of those ancient churches. Not the sort of place where one goes to be healed; there was no wheelchair access for one thing. Although, with some careful manoeuvring it might just be achievable. However, with a few modifications and a bit of careful thought it could be made totally impossible.
No, it was more the sort of church where you went in healthy and came out worse for wear. Just one of the sermons delivered in those morbid tones would have been more than enough to give migraines to the untrained.
There again Reverend Sourby could lend something to a funeral service that few others could.
Donald wore grey so he blended in with the walls, and he remained a stealth parishioner
until he'd used up his 490 forgivenesses, after which he drifted away.
The church pretty much marked the end of the village, beyond it only fields for a very long way.
Even beneath the dull clouds the shires retained their outstanding beauty. Miles of hedgerow criss-crossed the sweeping downlands. Thoroughfares meandered throughout the acres of landscape, snaking through glade and grove and twisting through cattle and crop. Having traversed a couple of coverts Donald reached the dirt track he'd been heading for, with more emphases on dirt than track. But for all its shortcomings this was a veritable canine highway and people brought their hounds from far and wide.
Ahead the path kinked to the right slightly and then split into two marking the east corner
of a triangular field of tall Miscanthus grass.
The Capital Symphony Orchestra was in the process of recording the soundtrack for a new feature film. A bit of variation from the usual auditoriums, and it afforded the players the weekend off. Judith escaped the stale air and artificial flickering lights.
In normal daily life it was only ever her arms that had any exercise and Judith decided it was high time she redressed the balance. Her parents' dog was called Rex, although often referred to as Pongo. Despite her reluctance to walk him in the past it was never too late to start. Who said an old cellist couldn't learn new tricks?
Unfamiliar with the best doggy routes, Judith followed Rex down the hill, all the way to the top, along to the homestead and the rusty old Bridleway signpost. The gateway to the wilderness. Rex knew exactly where he was going though. He knew all the best thickets by a long chalk, and would happily show Judith his very favourite places for burying bones should she feel the urge to do so herself.
But she was happy enough just to tag along like a tourist in the woods. If nothing else it would be interesting to be reminded what trees looked like before being made into cellos, violins and the like. She only hoped that they were chopped down humanely, but, on the other hand, didn't feel too badly if not.
The bridle path followed anything but a straight line, and the scents that Rex chased took him even farther from one. But overall they both trended towards Pobblestrum.
The wetlands were awash with gorse which was untidy and pretty in equal measures, and not
marred one iota by the greying clouds overhead. Lush grassy plains receded into mere tufts
approaching a rickety old bridge. And on the other side, the lane became almost completely
tuftless with barely anything but mud squelching underfoot and under paw. Once there, Judith
could see the tips of the Miscanthus a little way ahead.
Approaching exactly the same spot, Donald looked the perfect country gent, with his cloth cap and colour in his cheeks for the first time in his adult life. His canine companion tore into dingles and out of the dells on her never ending search for food.
Judith's bohemian look complemented her well, her hair loose and blowing in the breeze, her full-length skirt with its syncopated rippling. A stark contrast to the orchestra's dress code. Rex disappeared into one copse and reappeared from another, clearly having a great time. Granted, the same great time he had yesterday and the day before that.
Heaven didn't intervene very often, and when it did it usually went unnoticed. The sky began to clear, leaving only magical white clouds streaking across the blue as the sun was getting low. And to lend enchantment a light mist began to form in the distance. A four-leaf clover stood high and proud, hoping to be spotted by a passer-by.
All of a sudden the two dogs shot into each other's view, and instantly froze. Although it has to be said they even halted with gusto. The traditional standoff ended with Dana and Rex hurtling into the elephant grass for a game of chase.
Judith had never had a lot to do with Rex before and wasn't sure what to make of this situation. She chose to yell at him. "Rex! Come back here!! Now!!!"
Rex gently reminded her that he was actually in charge, and he would come, but only when he was well and truly ready, thank you very much.
"Rex, did you hear me? Rex . . . REX!!"
The hair on the back of Donald's neck stood on end. He'd never had any near-life experiences before, but that voice was so evocative of another place and another time. He would be taunted by echoes and reflections until he saw voice's owner just around the corner. But until then were never ending seconds in which dreams lived and died.
All along the way Donald had made mental notes about his route, after all he would eventually have to turn back and head home, and preferably before the butterflies swapped places with the moths like The Changing of the Guards.
Remembering that dogs generally aligned themselves with the magnetic north-south axis whilst defecating, he'd carefully paid attention to Dana as she did her 'business.' He had meticulously paid heed to the course of the sun, albeit mostly through a profusion of clouds. He'd made a point of keeping the bee-less hives to his left and the Neolithic barrow to his right.
All very well, but which was home?
He had tried to be too clever too soon. He'd amassed a lot of information and even picked up on many of the compasses nature freely provided, but didn't have an inkling how to actually use any of them.
In addition to the odd chair leg, the bodgers of yesteryear left in their legacy a labyrinth of footpaths. A network that was mapped out by later generations and signposted. Great wooden stakes at every intersection, each headed with arrow-shaped boards directing travellers to a choice of here, there or elsewhere.
Maybe, just maybe, Donald should have taken more notice of those simpler, more observable clues.
But since hearing that voice, the whole idea of heading home suddenly slipped from the forefront of his mind and into murkier recesses. It's surprising how priorities change so radically in the ravages of time. Even in just a few minutes of ravages.
"Rex, I'm warning you, if you don't come back here this minute . . !" Judith persisted in vain.
With one final step Donald finally reached the east corner of the Miscanthus triangle which opened up his field of vision. And just in time to see the silhouette of a girl turning around and walking away into the sunset.
Judith squinted and under her breath asked herself, "Why do people walk into the sunset? You can't see a damned thing!"
As he watched her silhouette moving farther away, Donald noticed that the magical white clouds streaking across the sky weren't clouds at all, but merely aeroplane trails. And as he inadvertently trod on the four-leaf clover, he realized that the atmospheric mist in the distance was actually smoke; the local arsonist had taken it on himself to set light to a nearby barn.
Donald touched the peak of his cap and bade farewell to a brief spell of magic before turning round and heading back.