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Fruitful Bodies

A Novel

Fruitful Bodies by Morag Joss
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In Bath, England, good health is an ancient tradition and a booming business. One local font of wellness is the Sulis Clinic, where the rich come for rest, repair, and repasts of strictly organic–and not terribly pleasant–cuisine. World-famous cellist Sara Selkirk has come to Sulis to admit her former music teacher. The poor dear has fallen into decrepitude, and has lately been the unlikely suspect in the shocking murder in a local pub.

Distracted from her upcoming Dvorak performance in Salzburg, Sara begins to wonder if there isn’t an odd link between Sulis and the murder. But another death soon rocks Sara to her core, leading her to a choice she will regret–and a killer she can no longer avoid.…

From the Paperback edition.
Random House Publishing Group; July 2005
ISBN 9780440335535
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Fruitful Bodies
Author: Morag Joss
Chapter One

Something wrong with the lipstick. Joyce's fingers, which were feeling twice their normal size, swivelled the base again and the thumb of puce lard twirled down out of sight and then welled back up out of the tube at her. She stared as it shimmered and wavered, eluding focus. Sniffing, as if this could somehow improve her eyesight, she gave it a push with one finger and inspected the smudge on her fingernail. That looked solid enough, so maybe it was only her lips that were wobbling. She wiped the finger down the front of her jacket and with another sniff looked firmly into the mirror that was held by a piece of wire to the handle of the cupboard above the Baby Belling. She sucked in a deep breath and tried to maintain a steady pout. But her reflection was telling her that the problem was not just getting her lips to hold still long enough to put the stuff on, it was the question of finding them first. They were developing a tendency to slip into her mouth and stay there, stuck to her dry teeth.

They had never been that great anyway. The gene pool of Monifieth in 1927 had not been overstocked with luscious Aphrodite mouths in the first place, and seventy-odd years of Scottish consonants, east winds and chewing politely had not fleshed Joyce's out any. Across the crumpled page of her face her lips looked like two horizontal curly brackets of the sort that Joyce as a little girl had practised whole jottersful of at Monifieth Elementary School, along with sevens with wavy tops and treble clefs. Joyce allowed herself a moment's recollection of the perfection of her treble clefs with an involuntary satisfied purse of her lips, before giving herself a shake. It was another tendency she recognised; if she grew for a moment inattentive, her mind would pull her back to a past so distant that even Joyce herself viewed it with skepticism. For how could they have been real, those treble clefs? She must concentrate on the here and now. She leaned in towards the mirror again, took another deep breath and stretched out her lips to receive a straighter gash of Bengal Blush.

Worse. Her mouth now looked like a newly stitched scar and time was getting on. She would have to allow extra for the underground walk, changing from the Northern to the Piccadilly Line at King's Cross, especially in her best kitten-heeled shoes which had been a good fit for the first eleven years but now slowed her down because she tended to walk out of the backs of them. That was the trouble with having Scottish feet, which were longer and narrower than Englishwomen's, she had read somewhere. It sounded finer somehow, longer, narrower feet; yet another little superiority in which one could have taken a pride if more people had known about it, although it did make for a wee problem going any distance in the kitten-heeled shoes.

She considered wiping all the lipstick off but Bengal Blush was the finishing touch, being the exact shade of her suit, the Pringle two-piece that she'd had for, well, did it matter how long, it was a classic. A classic re-interpreted for the modern woman, she remembered being told when she bought it in Jenners on Princes Street in Edinburgh, where it was called not a suit but a costume. Ladies' Costumes, Second Floor. And the jaunty little poodle brooch for the lapel, she'd bought that in Hosiery & Accessories on the way out, unable to resist the picture she made of a professional woman with the style and means to travel from Glasgow to Edinburgh to buy her clothes, no Sauchiehall Street for her. And from Jenners! New stockings too, six pairs on a whim although by this time she was mainly showing off to the salesgirl and the girl had known it, the tone of her 'certainly madams' carrying by then the merest acidity, the wee baggage. But she was getting off the point again. Concentrate on the here and now.

Joyce began to busy herself around the bedsit, collecting purse and keys and, from a suitcase under the bed, her good handbag and chiffon scarf. Only when she had gathered everything up in her arms did a sound from behind the one armchair, followed by the rattle of Pretzel's claws on the linoleum under the sink, remind her that she had not left him any food and he had trodden in his water bowl again.

'Och, Pretzel, was that Mummy going away and not leaving you your tea?' she said.

She dumped her amassed accessories on the floor, mainly into the pool of spilled water, and opened a new tin of dog food while Pretzel's rattling on the floor grew animated and the entire brown tube of dachshund torso wriggled in anticipation. The warm, already half-eaten smell that arose from the tin reminded Joyce's innards that she was in need of sustenance too. As she stooped to put down Pretzel's tea on the floor under the sink, where the smells of drain and warm dog were waiting to mingle with the scent of braised horse and gelatine from the bowl, her stomach, signalling its emptiness, pushed out a little shudder which puffed up through her guts and out of her mouth in a quiet, inflammable belch of vodka vapour. Sour saliva flooded the inside of her cheeks. Her throat puckered and she swallowed a mouthful of neat bile. No, not food. Something else. But there was only the remaining vodka in the bottle in her bag and she was supposed to be keeping that for when she felt the need, or for later on (whichever came sooner, if there was a difference) but what the hell, what was wrong with now? Here and now. She didn't need to get there till the second half, anyway.

Some time later she closed the door and concentrated hard on the here and now of getting the key, which seemed to be trembling, into the keyhole, which wouldn't keep still. From inside the room she could make out the burble of the television which she had switched on so that Pretzel would be less lonely, and thought she could hear Carol Smillie. Pretzel liked Carol Smillie. Joyce sighed with satisfaction as the key finally turned, and set off carefully down the stairs, her good handbag over her arm. Her slept-on, unbrushed hair, her bare, varicosed legs and the rickety Bengal Blush, all things which she had consigned to the there and then, concerned her not at all.

Chapter Two

Sara was feeling sick in the usual way, that was to say, not quite unpleasantly so, and it was such a familiar feeling that it would have unsettled her to be without it. She had done her warm-up, showered, changed into the dark brown silk dress and fixed her face and hair, also in the usual way, which meant about an hour before she really had to. So she had walked about the dressing room, switched the radio on, cracked her knuckles, practised deep breathing, switched the radio off, made some faces in the mirror and asked herself why she did this for a living.

Outside, she could hear the hum of people who had leaked out of the Prommers Bar and were lining the stuffy corridor around her dressing room door. They would be leaning on the walls fanning themselves with programmes, knocking back warm drinks and waiting for the second half, in complete if not comfortable relaxation. She would give anything, anything to be one of them, to be in a summer top and sandals at a concert, sipping heartburn-inducing house wine in the interval, the biggest challenge of the evening being the momentous decision on the way home between Chinese or Indian.

Feeling sorry for herself, she clipped on her diamante earrings, the only jewellery she would wear with this slinky, chocolate satin dress, and turned her head to watch them catch the light of the dozen or so bulbs round the dressing room mirror. The earrings were too large for real life, and too showy even for some musicians she could think of, the professional mice who would consider the playing of the Dvorak Cello Concerto at the Proms as a grave undertaking whose solemnity was not to be compromised by any flippancy in what they might call 'the earring department'. Sara smiled to herself in the mirror. All the more reason to wear them, then. She liked the frivolous note they struck, and the question they raised—brassy or classy?—which led to the next question—who cares?—as long as the Prommers enjoyed the bit of sparkle. What they made of her playing was up to them, once she had given them her best. The one-minute bell sounded and the hum in the corridor began to subside.

Now her shoes were on and she had, out of a mixture of superstition and supreme practicality, worked out the exact spot (a little above her knee) on the front of the dress where she needed to pick up the fold in her right hand and raise it before she took the first steps out on to the stage, if she were to avoid standing on her hem, ripping the dress, falling on hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of Peresson cello and impaling herself on her bow. The audience would love that.

The sick feeling was still there. She swigged some water from the glass on the dressing table, made her way over to the green velvet sofa and perching on the arm (she did not want to walk on stage with even one satin crease across her stomach), she rang Andrew on her mobile.

'Hello. It's me.'

'Oh. Hello.' Silence.

'Look, I'm sorry.' Sara sighed, less with regret than with the effort of apologising when she did not feel she had been at fault.

' 'S all right,' Andrew replied, unenthusiastically. After another silence he added, 'Me too. I'm sorry. But I have to put the kids first, don't you see?'

Sara did, but she also saw that Valerie, Andrew's ex-wife, should not have insisted that he look after them tonight at two hours' notice. And she also saw that the result, her own barging angrily out of the house to drive up to London alone, was utterly understandable.

'Andrew, I do wish you were here.'

'Look—well, never mind. So, are you ready? Are you all right? I've got the radio on. First half was good. I do like those St Anthony Variations. But everybody's waiting for you. How're you feeling?'

'Sick. Doing my deep breathing.' She found herself smiling, as if he had just walked into the room. 'It's lovely to hear your voice,' she added.

'Oh darling, it's lovely hearing you. I'm just so sorry I'm not there with you.'

'Well, I suppose I'd have booted you out by now anyway, if you had been here. I need the time by myself, just before.'

'Time to feel sick in, you poor beast. Look, you'll knock 'em dead. Live from the Albert Hall. Enjoy it.'

Sara smiled at the unnecessary reassurance. 'Oh I will, I will. I'm ready. I'm always like this before I go on.'

'And look, drive back safely, won't you? I'll be here. The M4 should be fairly empty this late, but don't do anything silly. I'll see you later. Break a leg. I love you.'

'I will. Love you too. Got to go. 'Bye.'

There was a knock on the door. 'Three minutes, Miss Selkirk.'

'Thanks,' she called back. And she was grateful, not just for the call but because, as it always did, in that instant her sick feeling vanished. She stood up, stretched her arms up over her head, took two deep breaths and realised she was still smiling. Now the odd jumble of furniture, the pipes running under the ceiling and the fuggy warmth in the dressing room, that made her think she was in the bowels of a very old cross-Channel ferry, ceased to command any of her attention. With her cello in her left hand she crossed the now empty circular corridor that ran right round the building, and joined the leader and conductor in the passageway that led up and on to the stage. They exchanged kind nods and good wishes. The cue that told them that the orchestra had finished tuning came, and the leader made off up the ramp. Two stewards held open the double doors and nodded him through. The applause drifted back to Sara. Simon was looking at the ground. With a raising of the eyebrows and a gesture of the hand, he invited Sara to precede him. Now. She beamed at him and they exchanged a wink. Breathing deeply to control her excitement, she picked up the fold of her dress and stepped forward into the dark tunnel.

Her arrival on the stage brought applause and whistles. Smiling broadly, she wove her way through the orchestra, followed by Sir Simon Rattle, and bowed to the audience, taking in the vast arena, the promenaders' floor with the fountain in the centre, the rows of stalls, behind them three crimson-curtained tiers of boxes, and higher, staggeringly high now, the circle and the colonnaded gallery. Then she turned to the orchestra and inclined her head towards them before taking her seat, thinking that really, she was quite stupendously, outrageously lucky, the luckiest person by far out of all the hundreds in this vast auditorium. To walk out of the darkness into this beautiful bright light, about to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto with this wonderful orchestra, to know with certainty that this thing that she was being allowed to do was what she was for, made her feel excruciatingly privileged. What was all that nonsense she had been thinking ten minutes ago?

She tuned quietly to the orchestra and nodded to Simon on the rostrum. And now she was to be allowed a few minutes listening to the opening Allegro before her first entry. Another thing she liked about the Proms, she thought, tingling with pleasure, was that you see the audience properly. The arena lights were kept on throughout and were placed so high in the roof that from where she was sitting she could see everything, instead of being half-blinded by stage lights beaming on to her from a darkened auditorium. She looked round again, enjoying the pace of the Allegro, her left hand rehearsing her first fingering. She felt momentarily, madly, gratefully in love with everyone, Simon naturally, but everyone else too, from the most pedestrian rank and file players, including the reptilian brass section, the worried-looking BBC crew, the stage technicians, the stewards, the corporate toffs in the boxes, down to every last one of the Prommers: the daffy girls, the skinny blokes, the earnest music teachers in sandals and bifocals, the students, the tourists, the oddballs, even that crazy one in the awful pink suit. She glanced up at Simon and they exchanged a look, a mixture of yes I'm ready, isn't this wonderful, with perhaps a fleeting hint of what are you doing later which they both knew was the occasion, rather than themselves talking. He really is sexy, she considered, smiling, at least with a baton in his hand. God, save me from conductors. Concentrate. Concentrate, it's me in eight bars. Her eyes darted back to the pink suit.

From the Paperback edition.
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