(If you've just discovered this novel, you can read it from the beginning, here.)
And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of In Search of Tom Purdue.
The phone in the kitchen started ringing, the first annoyance of the morning, and even though it was no longer early – I'd dragged myself out of bed around 9:00, still tired after sleeping poorly – the reminder there was an outside world to intrude on my reality was enough to ruin the start of the day. The house where I'd lived for twenty-some years, nestled along tree-lined Conan Lane on the periphery of Doylestown, a Philadelphia suburb, was capable of supplying enough of those intrusions without relying on the telephone. Given the frequency of wrong numbers and telemarketers, I never answered my phone, not until after the answering machine kicked in and I knew if it was somebody I would want to talk to. Mostly, they hung up before the message finished but often it was some robot saying “Press one, now” – which I declined.
There was a certain gratification knowing some idiot had dialed the wrong number, hanging up before having to acknowledge his incompetence, but then he could immediately call me back, convinced he'd done everything correctly. And then, should I pick up and answer “You've reached the wrong number,” and hang up, hoping he'd get the message? I'd stand there for a moment waiting to see what would happen, half-daring them to hang up, then disappointed it didn't. It would be much easier, as Cameron pointed out, just to ignore it.
I had moved on to my second cup of coffee to no avail, despite being “awake” now for over an hour (and I use the term only in the loosest sense of the word). It would be a misnomer to describe this rather vague state of consciousness as anything comparable to my being fully engaged. Given the coffee was instant and I watered it down with some cocoa explained why the anticipated boost was conspicuously absent. For me, it was enough it tasted good without the desired caffeinated jolt.
On the other hand, I wondered if that's what this Monday morning needed to jump start the old professor more effectively. Or maybe a more energizing book to read, perhaps some mystery or thriller. Exercising or going for a brisk walk through the neighborhood might also help. The mere thought of exercise made me shudder.
I returned to the den which Sondra used to call the “cozy room,” now a starker kind of coziness with its matching chairs and simpler lamps but the same restful view of the yard. Everything had been a little over-stuffed and careworn, the room a little over-cluttered, things which hadn't changed much since Sondra died. Sometimes it still felt like I'd walked into the wrong room by mistake, after replacing everything with new furniture this summer. Cameron had no idea what a huge change that had been for me.
That was part of the problem, I guessed, waking up under-rested like this, not knowing exactly where you were (or when), plus I hated waking up during the night to the sound of cat-barfing. After locating it and getting everything cleaned up, I couldn't fall back asleep, so I thought I'd stay awake and read.
It reminded me of the opening passages of Swann's Way all over again, the unlimited expanse of time which unfolded slowly, how the narrator of this huge book which you've agreed to participate in had difficulty falling asleep and in the process of constant tossing and turning created within its pages this vast parallel universe.
I've been savoring this latest reading project of mine since this past April – and wasn't it a “savory” kind of morning with nothing to do today but curl up in a chair and read?
Originally, I thought of skipping yesterday afternoon's concert because I only had thirteen pages to go before I'd finish Swann's Way, having bogged down in the midst of “Swann in Love” over the summer, but thought how closing one book, then turning immediately to begin the next was a moment of continuity also worth savoring. This was the third time I'd read the first volume of Proust but only the second time for the whole novel, and the first time going from one to the next without a break.
Yes, the tickets had already been paid for and I had promised some friends Cameron and I would see them there – plus it was, after all, their first concert of the season, “opening night.” While I could've skipped an all-Baroque medley of trio sonatas and harpsichord pieces, even expertly played, I'd begrudgingly set Proust aside.
Following the concert, some of my former students, leftovers from my college-teaching days, out to enjoy a mild evening for mid-October, cornered me in the parking lot and talked for almost half an hour. Cameron, who stood uninvolved on the periphery and tried not to act bored, became sullen and withdrawn on the drive home.
After dinner, he took a beer and sat (probably sulking) on the patio while I retired to my bedroom to read, Proust unfavorably comparing the Present to memories of Mme Swann from his Past.
Apparently, Cameron's pulling out of the driveway was what woke me up finally, after dropping off to sleep some ten pages into the opening scene of Proust's second volume with the old ambassador, Norpois, the lamp next to the bed still lit when I peeled my eyes open, the book draped haphazardly across my chest. Usually, I don't read sitting up in bed, preferring an old wing-back chair; but after I'd cleaned up the cat barf, I probably decided against spending the night with my chin on my chest.
My brain, which still struggled toward the light, reminded me it was Monday, a whole day with nothing ahead of me as I dragged my book and the rest of me down the stairs. While the oatmeal cooked in the microwave, I wasted a few multi-tasking minutes to check my e-mail for anything important – nothing.
One of those chirpy newsletters for senior citizens from some well-meaning health organization which I might skim through but usually ignored promised to enlighten me about the “Five Things Successful People Do Before 8am,” like Lewis Carroll's suggestion we should all do “six impossible things before breakfast,” anticipating most self-help books I've ever glanced at. Considering it's a few minutes past 9:00 and I hadn't yet eaten breakfast, my day was by definition doomed to fail, having missed that boat a long time ago, whatever other clichés may apply. The advice focused on exercising and eating a healthy breakfast, as you'd expect, along with making lists of things to accomplish, but also taking time to visualize completing those things you hope to do. But if that was important to you, wouldn't you already be doing it? I skipped over what the fifth thing was.
Ever since I was retired – people still looked at me when I said that in the passive voice, only because it sounded better than saying “fired” – I wanted to wake up two hours earlier, because I sometimes found those early morning hours were for me more productive, at least when I still felt like composing. But it was quite some time since I last wanted to write anything, even with all the time in the world, though it's as much my “self-inconfidence” to blame as any lack of purpose.
Whenever I read this scene with Ambassador Norpois and his rambling dinner conversation, picking up where I'd left off over night, where the young narrator hopes for positive reinforcement about a possible writing career, my heart ached for any young would-be artist who's had his dreams carelessly destroyed by someone dropping such thoughtless, casual remarks. How many times had I let some unguarded comment slip, I often wondered, which might have had a similarly discouraging affect? Despite not making much of it here, its impact lingers throughout Proust's novel.
After trouncing the boy's favorite author – clearly the model for his little essay – putting down the “flute-players” of the “Art-for-Art's-Sake School,” it was clear Norpois thought the boy had not a shred of talent. “I became once more acutely aware of my own intellectual poverty,” the boy confides, that “I had no gift for writing.”
Yet which is worse: something depressingly numbing or such obsequious praise where your little morsel of talent is hailed as “genius,” where every child with anything above the ordinary is touted as a “prodigy,” even before today's overly protective attitudes came along to declare everyone a winner and receiving a trophy simply for showing up? Yet the most casual remark made in passing, intended as the slightest criticism, can be misunderstood and taken the wrong way until it replays constantly in the student's mind, long forgotten by the teacher.
And here was Cameron Pierce, a friend and my assistant for four years, freshly graduated from college with an uncertain future, wondering whether to pursue further studies in a field he's lost interest in. After studying violin since he was a child, and always interested in music, recently he's been curious about becoming a composer.
Part of the “deal” with him helping me out would be informal lessons about music in general, part appreciation, history, theory, his curiosity always excited by music he'd heard or the adventures we'd experienced; so, considering my being a composer and all the other composers he's met, it shouldn't surprise me something would rub off.
But when he showed me some of his first efforts this past spring, not the musical equivalent of children's refrigerator art, I realized it was time for serious lessons though not, probably, with me.
This wasn't the news Cameron was hoping for and he was clearly disappointed – lessons, yes, but why go to someone else? Did I think he wasn't good enough for me to take him on? I tried explaining I was too close to him personally to be unbiased and perhaps we should get a second opinion. He would need someone who could be firm, teach him the necessary discipline – our friendship might be too casual for discipline – and above all a teacher whose criticism would not be taken so personally. And I thought an old friend might be a good place to start, asking him for some sort of impartial evaluation, someone from grad school I'd only recently reconnected with after years of silence. Tom Purdue lived not far away in Marple, a suburb closer to Philadelphia: would he have some time in his schedule?
Like me, Tom had a great deal of promise which never quite materialized, neither one of us finding fame or fortune, even if he was now reduced to teaching as a part-time adjunct professor. He had always been a good composition teacher, emphasizing the basic technical skills which was what a late-bloomer like Cameron needed. Unfortunately, following Tom's heart attack after we'd talked, right before Spring Semester ended, we had to put all this on hold, asking Tom to get back in touch once he felt up to it.
Our own plans changed as well when my friend LauraLynn Harty called from England to say her Aunt Frieda was dying and, given she was 96, suggested we should get there sooner than later. LauraLynn had been a childhood friend of mine and I'd known Frieda, ironically LauraLynn's future husband's aunt, over half my life. We'd shared many adventures these past few years, reuniting at LauraLynn's wedding that one snow-bound December – was it two years ago? – discovering Frieda F. Erden there, still alive and well after thirty-some years' silence.
True, these reunions had been difficult, each garnished with a gruesome murder – LauraLynn's cousin Rob, then Frieda's long-time lover, Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter – but both Cameron and I felt the need to say good-bye to Frieda. In a way, I owed her so much, something I couldn't easily explain, so we left for London the next day.
It was good to manage even the few days we had with Frieda before she began to slip away from us, almost as if, as several people would mention, she'd been waiting for us, worn out from a long, not always easy life with its numerous disappointments but better now since she'd discovered her great-great-granddaughter. That whole adventure surrounding Toni's revelation the week before LauraLynn's and Burnson's wedding, not to mention the unmasking of several killers, was enough to tie together numerous generational strands, and that counted for something.
When she saw us enter her darkened room, her subtle anxieties increased immediately until we'd promised to continue looking after Toni, renewing this rather vague vow to watch over and protect her family's heritage. This struck the others, especially LauraLynn, as another of those inevitably curious mysteries, best left unquestioned, that linger on the mind.
Afterward, then, I felt Frieda, now at peace, let go of this world. She died quietly a couple days later, during Cameron's and my afternoon watch shortly after Vector the butler brought in tea. With a few additional friends stopping by, the funeral was a simple affair full of rambling, half-formed recollections and many silences.
It's never easy to say goodbye, given what we'd only recently found out, knowing there was more we needed to understand; plus it was clear Vector had something to tell us before we left.
LauraLynn's husband had already invited us to spend the summer at Phlaumix Court, his family's ancestral mansion of most unusual proportions, especially welcome since the wedding had been in the depths of deepest winter, so we made arrangements to expand our plans and stay on after the funeral before our official holiday was to start. Burnson's invitation created minor problems, nothing my non-existent schedule couldn't handle nor Cameron's current situation, recently graduated and unemployed, adapt to, the biggest concern making sure my neighbor could look in on the cats. I was able to keep up with Tom Purdue's recuperation over the summer through weekly e-mail up-dates from his intern, Amanda, apologizing for being unable to come down and help on an occasional weekend; and the couple of book reviews I'd promised could be written anywhere once Cameron miraculously retrieved files from my home computer.
Plus I knew it would be good for him, evaporated career goals aside, given the tension with his father wasn't improving and breaking up with Dylan after four years had proven a deeper wound. If this could serve as a distraction, fine, and it might give him a chance to sort a few things out. I joked he should think of our little jaunt through the English countryside as a mini-version of the old “Grand Tour” young men used to take between university and settling down into some profession.
Once LauraLynn and Burnson left for a business trip to Rome and Burnson's mother, Vexilla, returned to her “bungalow” in Provençe, Cameron and I were left more or less on our own with Toni. It gave us an opportunity for short side-trips of a day or two with weeks on end to talk about music. As a composer, Toni wasn't advanced enough to be writing secure pieces yet but then she'd only turned 15 in June: what she was writing, though, showed a surprisingly developed level of natural talent.
We arranged this expanse of time around us and filled it with listening to recordings in Phlaumix Court's opulent music room or paging through scores as we sat on the lawn or the terrace. I wouldn't call these “lessons” exactly but it allowed them both to develop a different way of thinking about the music.
Movement out in my backyard, partly hidden by the patio, caught my eye, an involuntary response on this unusually quiet morning, the birds and squirrels having taken a break and chipmunks nowhere in sight. Since Cameron had already put out the morning's ration of birdseed, it would have been picked over pretty thoroughly by now. Ordinarily, sitting here in my favorite reading chair, I wouldn't be able to see all of my yard from the den, any motion at the far end lost behind the azaleas which needed pruning. Of course, I hadn't exactly been concentrating on the book I still held, going in one eye and out the other, so naturally I also managed to miss whatever I'd seen that surprised me. Even scrunching my brows together did no good as I tried to focus, for whatever it was had dissolved into shadows.
Perhaps Cameron had come back and, since there was little neighborhood traffic this morning, startled something getting out of his car, perhaps the groundhog which spent most of the summer terrorizing Mrs. Quickly's garden. No, whatever I had seen, it was too long-legged to be a groundhog, especially the old, low-slung grandad we called “Sherman.” But I hadn't heard a car drive up – though I could've missed that – and certainly hadn't heard a car door slam. Besides, I'm sure Cameron would've come inside now once he'd parked the car.
Between the two large trees, especially the maple, there was a great deal of shade even on sunny mornings like today, the bushes and a blue spruce along the property line affording considerable privacy, enough Cameron could feel comfortable sitting out on the patio naked on warmer days, confident no one would see him there. Never a big fan of having neighbors who could look in my windows, I always preferred the seclusion my yard offered even though I also knew neighbors couldn't see anyone breaking into my house.
Closing my book, I realized I should ask Mrs. Quickly across the street – and reminding myself to call her Mrs Quigley – if she had seen anything unusual earlier this summer while we'd been gone: if anything was going on even remotely suspicious, from slow-moving cars to prowlers, she'd be the one to know about it.
Maybe this wasn't the best time to get up and move around so a prospective intruder would realize someone was home, as if that would scare off today's brand of “home invader” any more; as if anyone lurking in the shadows intently scoping out my house would care about lights going on at this hour. We spend so much time and money making our houses reflect our success, then become suspicious of anyone driving slowly by, as if the nicer the house the louder it says, “steal from me!”
This was a nice neighborhood, full of mostly retired couples and older individuals than young two-income, multi-vehicle families with school-aged children, our older demographic an easier mark with more cash and jewelry lying around, unless my would-be intruder has decided Cameron may be the real target here, a young twenty-something with state-of-the-art technology worth stealing.
On the other hand, it gradually dawned on me, now frozen into indecision, wouldn't getting up and walking past the windows make me a better target for any would-be assassin sent to kill me? How easy it was for one of SHMRG's agents to locate my address or pass it on to the Guidonian Hand.
Not only should I not stand up and make myself visible, perhaps I ought to crawl over to the basement door? Is their intent to kill me in what looks like a routine break-in?
No, now I'm just being paranoid, I thought, all these things I'm imagining – a SHMRG spy or Guidonian Hand assassin, indeed – the results of having walked into some murder investigation or pre-existing, hare-brained plot, nothing that involved anything so direct where they would risk coming after me and openly threaten me in my own home. Plus it's been almost two years since our last encounter at LauraLynn's wedding: I mean, it's not like I'm pursuing them. Unless they're planning something new and nefarious and this is a pre-emptive strike...?
Besides, what would they be after, what would I possibly have they'd want? Is there something they think I've stumbled upon? And given all of that – none of which I could answer – why now? Somehow, I had this sinking feeling I was about to find out something which, no matter what, would find me first.
At last report from the IMP – the International Music Police – N. Ron Steele, the C.E.O. of SHMRG, was still in hiding, not yet fully recovered after having being shot trying to escape at Schweinwald. There was recent talk about some power struggle with his henchman, Lucifer Darke, but now, it seemed, Steele was getting stronger.
And there was something else unsettling Vector had told me over the summer, news about the nemesis of Frieda's family legacy: it seems the former head of the Guidonian Hand, Carmen Díaz-Éray, has resurfaced.
While SHMRG, a company Steele built from the simplest beginnings, represented everything evil one could imagine about the classical music industry – including plots to kill the Great (if already dead) Composers of the Past – it was their merging with the Guidonian Hand which proved the most worrisome, out to destroy the descendents of Beethoven's daughter.
Once SHMRG revealed they wanted to sign the current heir as a client in order to control her huge earnings potential, the Hand, preferring to kill them all instead, chose to dissolve the merger.
If what Vector said was true about Díaz-Éray being back in the picture, was she positive Toni was their intended target? In which case, was it wise to leave Toni there at Phlaumix Court?
Leaves scattered in a swirl, loosened by a stray breeze, perhaps a squirrel. No, perhaps it was only the neighbors' cat.
This time I was sure I heard a car in the driveway, an engine shutting off, a car door slamming shut, which meant Cameron would soon walk through the back door into the kitchen. Since I wasn't expecting any visitors this morning, I assumed he was back from his errands, whatever that might have entailed. I hadn't paid any attention to how long he might have been gone – it was almost two hours since I woke up and here I was, still in my robe, drinking coffee and reading. And whatever got me worrying about a potential assassin, I had no idea! See a cat or something lurking in the bushes and suddenly I'm on a hit list for the dastardly Guidonian Hand! It would be preposterous to imagine they would be out to kill me, much less Cameron, but stranger things have happened...
It could still warm up to be a beautiful autumn day, bright, crisp, the trees not yet at their most colorful, with a breeze not quite strong enough to bring down too many leaves. My maple might become a blaze of orange – the Japanese maple standing centered in front of the hedgerow already brilliant red. Technically, I know we'd need to have a “killer frost” before a day like this would officially be called “Indian Summer,” but let's not rush the season with another harsh winter beyond the horizon.
Without something to involve him, keep him busy, Cameron was understandably restless, roaming about the house in search of something interesting, stuck out here in suburbia with nothing to do but think about Dylan. I was sorry they'd gone their separate ways – he told me they hadn't “officially broken up” – but I'd seen it coming. After we returned from LauraLynn's wedding, Dylan changed, becoming more withdrawn at times which his doctor wasn't attributing to his Asperger's, though I was thinking it was more his parents' attitude toward Cameron's influence.
Dylan's mother blamed it on us and our adventures, despite its starting long after he'd been kidnapped by that old woman, even though I assured them, time travel aside, she'd never bother them again. But how do you explain, unless Klangfarben did discover the secret of immortality, she'd probably be 270 years old by now?
And now, Cameron wanted to become a composer – perhaps a fantasy to distract his emotional state – and found this dream unrealistic, as if a summer with a 15-year-old prodigy hadn't made it difficult enough. Toni, for all her lack of training, still composed with an enviable ease, often effortlessly productive, which reminded me of Schubert. Much of the time the three of us spent that idyllic summer, listening to and talking about music all day, wasn't so technical they'd had trouble understanding it but Toni absorbed it more quickly.
That was one of the many things bothering Cameron even before we returned, how sometimes she would explain it to him, this child who was eight years younger than he was, sounding so superior. Listening to Dylan talk endlessly about Beethoven, he had absorbed lots of facts, but intuitive, emotional responses were essentially something new.
Instead of coming in through the kitchen, Cameron walked around the back onto the patio, carrying a new book with him, his light windbreaker unzipped and shirt open a few buttons despite the chill, stopping when he saw me to wave with his hand holding the book (as if I could see what it was).
But when the phone began ringing again, he came in to answer it. Someone started leaving a message, a young woman. As soon as she spoke, he picked up.
“Oh, hello, Amanda – everything okay?”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
to be continued...
The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.
©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.