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All the world's a stage--and nowhere is that more true than at an all-girls high school, particularly one where a scandal has just erupted. A teacher has had an affair with his underage student, and though her friends pretend to be dismayed, they are secretly curious and jealous. They obsessively examine the details of the affair under the watchful eye of their stern and enigmatic saxophone teacher, whose focus may not be as strictly on their upcoming recital as she implies.
When the local drama school turns the story of the scandal into their year-end show, the real world and the world of the theater are forced to meet. With both performances--the musicians' and the acting students'--approaching, the boundaries between dramas real and staged, private and public, begin to dissolve. THE REHEARSAL is a tender portrait of teenage yearning and adult regret, an exhilarating, darkly funny, provocative novel about the complications of human desire.
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Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her most recent novel, The Luminaries, was born in Canada and raised in New Zealand. She won the 2009 Betty Trask Award and the Adam Prize in Creative Writing for The Rehearsal, which was also long-listed for the Orange Prize and short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an MA in fiction writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. She lives in New Zealand.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
‘I can’t do it,’ is what she says. ‘I simply can’t admit students without prior musical training. My teaching methods, Mrs Henderson, are rather more specific than I think you understand.’
A jazzy pulse begins, just drums and double bass. She swirls her spoon and taps it once.
‘The clarinet is tadpole to the sax, can you see that? The clarinet is a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm very much it will one day grow into a saxophone.’
She leans forward across the desk. ‘Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud.’
Mrs Henderson is looking down, so the saxophone teacher says rather sharply, ‘Do you hear me, with your mouth like a thin scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse?’
Mrs Henderson nods imperceptibly. She stops fingering the sleeves of her blouse.
‘I require of all my students,’ the saxophone teacher continues, ‘that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardour and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realises that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.’
Kiss-kiss-kiss goes the snare drum over the silence.
‘But she wants to learn the saxophone,’ says Mrs Henderson at last, sounding ashamed and sulky at the same time. ‘She doesn’t want to learn the clarinet.’
‘I suggest you try the music department at her school,’ the saxophone teacher says.
Mrs Henderson sits there for a moment and scowls. Then she crosses her other leg and remembers that she was going to ask a question.
‘Do you remember the name and face of every pupil you have ever taught?’
The saxophone teacher seems pleased to be asked.
‘I remember one face,’ she says. ‘Not one individual student, but the impression left by them all, inverted like a photographic negative and stamped into my memory like an acid hole. I’d recommend Henry Soothill for clarinet,’ she adds, reaching for a card. ‘He’s very good. He plays for the symphony orchestra.’
‘All right,’ says Mrs Henderson sullenly, and she takes the card.
That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.
‘Mrs Winter,’ she says. ‘You’ve come about your daughter. Come in and we’ll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week.’
She holds the door wide so Mrs Winter can scuttle in. It’s the same woman as before, just with a different costume—Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.
They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.
‘To start off with,’ says the saxophone teacher as she hands her a mug of black-leaf tea, ‘I don’t allow parents to sit in on private lessons. I know it’s a bit of an old-fashioned policy—the reason is partly that the students are never at their best in that sort of environment. They become flushed and hot, and they laugh too easily and their posture changes, folding up tight like the lips of a blossom. Partly also, I think, the reason I like to keep things very private is that these little half-hour slices are my chance to watch, and I don’t want to share.’
‘I’m not that sort of mother anyway,’ says Mrs Winter. She is looking around her. The studio is on the attic level, and the view is all sparrows and slate. The brick wall behind the piano is chalky, the bricks peeling white as if diseased.
‘Let me tell you about the saxophone,’ says the saxophone teacher. There is an alto saxophone on a stand next to the piano. She holds it up like a torch. ‘The saxophone is a wind instrument, which means it is fuelled by your breath. I think it’s interesting that the word for “breath” in Latin is where we get our word “spirit”. People once had the idea that your breath and your soul were the same thing, that to be alive means, merely, to be filled with breath. When you breathe into this instrument, darling, you’re not just giving it life—you’re giving it your life.’
Mrs Winter nods vigorously. She keeps nodding a few seconds too long.
‘I ask my students,’ the saxophone teacher says, ‘is your life a gift worth giving? Your normal, vanilla-flavoured life, your two-minute noodles after school, your television until ten, your candles on the dresser and facewash on the sink?’ She smiles and shakes her head. ‘Of course it isn’t, and the reason for that is that they simply haven’t suffered enough to be worth listening to.’
She smiles kindly at Mrs Winter, sitting with her yellow knees together and clutching her tea in both hands.
‘I’m looking forward to teaching your daughter,’ she says. ‘She seemed so wonderfully impressionable.’
‘That’s what we think,’ says Mrs Winter quickly.
The saxophone teacher observes her for a moment, and then says, ‘Let’s go back to that moment just before you have to refill your lungs, when the saxophone’s full of your breath and you’ve got none left in your own body: the moment when the sax is more alive than you are.
‘You and I, Mrs Winter, know what it feels like to hold a life in our hands. I don’t mean ordinary responsibility, like babysitting or watching the stove or waiting for the lights when you cross the road—I mean somebody’s life like a china vase in your hand—’ she holds her saxophone aloft, her palm underneath the bell ‘—and if you wanted to, you could just . . . let go.’
On the corridor wall is a framed black-and-white photograph which shows a man retreating up a short flight of stairs, hunched and overcoated, his chin down and his collar up and the laces on his boots coming untied. You can’t see his face or his hands, just the back of his overcoat and half a sole and a grey sock sliver and the top of his head. On to the wall beside the staircase the man casts a bent accordion shadow. If you look closer at the shadow you will see that he is playing a saxophone as he ascends the stairs, but his body is hunched over the instrument and his elbows are close in to the sides of his body so no part of the sax is visible from behind. The shadow peels off to one side like an enemy, forking the image in two and betraying the saxophone that is hidden under his coat. The shadow-saxophone looks a little like a hookah pipe, dark and wispy and distorted on the brick wall and curving into his chin and into his dark and wispy shadow-hands like smoke.
The girls who sit in this corridor before their music lessons regard this photograph while they wait.
Isolde falters after the first six bars.
‘I haven’t practised,’ she says at once. ‘I have got an excuse, though. Do you want to hear it?’
The saxophone teacher looks at her and sips her black-leaf tea. Excuses are almost her favourite part.
Isolde takes a moment to smooth her kilt and prepare. She draws a breath.
‘I was watching TV last night,’ she says, ‘and Dad comes in with his face all serious and his fingers sort of picking at his tie like it’s strangling him, and eventually he just takes it off and lays it to one side—’
She unhooks her saxophone from her neckstrap and places it upon a chair, miming loosening the neckstrap as if it has been very tight.
‘—and says sit down, even though I’m already sitting down, and then rubs his hands together really hard.’
She rubs her hands together really hard.
‘He says, your mother thinks that I shouldn’t tell you this just yet, but your sister has been abused by one of the teachers at school.’ She darts a look at the saxophone teacher now, quickly, and then looks away. ‘And then he says “sexually”, just to clarify, in case I thought the teacher had yelled at her at a traffic light or something.’
The overhead lights have dimmed and she is lit only by a pale flicking blue, a frosty sparkle like the on–off glow of a TV screen. The saxophone teacher is thrust into shadow so half her face is iron grey and the other half is pale and glinting.
‘So he starts talking in this weird tight little voice about this Mr Saladin or whatever, and how he teaches senior jazz band and orchestra and senior jazz ensemble, all on Wednesday morning one after the other. I won’t have him till sixth form, and that’s if I even want to take jazz band, because it clashes with netball so I’ll have to make a choice.
‘Dad’s looking at me with this scared expression like I’m going to do something insane or really emotional and he won’t know how to deal with it. So I go, How do you know? And he goes—’
She crouches down beside the chair, speaking earnestly and spreading her hands wide—
‘Honey, from what I understand of it, he started off real slow, just resting his hand really lightly on her shoulder sometimes, like that.’
Isolde reaches out and touches her fingertips to the upper end of the saxophone, which is lying on its side upon the chair. As her fingers touch the instrument a steady pulse begins, like a heartbeat. The teacher is sitting very still.
‘And then sometimes when no one was watching he would lean close and breathe into her hair—’
She puts her cheek against the instrument and breathes down its length—
‘—like that, really tentative and shy, because he doesn’t know if she wants it yet and he doesn’t want to get done. But she’s friendly because she kind of likes him and she thinks she has a crush on him, and soon his hand is going down, down—’
Her hand snakes down the saxophone and trails around the edge of the bell—
‘—down, and she sort of starts to respond, and she smiles at him in lessons sometimes and it makes his heart race, and when they’re alone, in the music cupboard or after school or when they go places in his car, which they do sometimes, when they’re alone he calls her my gypsy girl—he says it over and over, my gypsy girl, he says—and she wishes she had something to say back, something she could whisper into his hair, something really special, something nobody’s ever said before.’
The backing music ceases. Isolde looks at her teacher and says, ‘She can’t think of anything.’
The lights come up again, as normal. Isolde scowls and flops down on to an armchair. ‘But anyway,’ she says angrily, ‘she’s run out of time, it’s too late, because her friends have started to notice the way she is sometimes, the way she puts her chin down and to the side like she’s flirting, and that’s how it all starts to come undone, crashing down on itself like a castle of cards.’
‘I see why you haven’t had time to practise,’ says the saxophone teacher.
‘Even this morning,’ Isolde says, ‘I went to play some scales or whatever before school, but when I started playing she was all like, Can’t you at least be sensitive? and ran out of the room with this fake sob noise which I knew was fake because if she was really crying she wouldn’t have run off, she would have wanted me to see.’ Isolde digs the heel of her kilt pin into her knee. ‘They’re treating her like a fucking artefact.’
‘Is that so unusual?’ the sax teacher asks.
Isolde shoots her a vicious look. ‘It’s sick,’ she says. ‘It’s sick like when kids dress up their pets like real people, with clothes and wigs and stuff, and then make them walk on their back legs and take photos. It’s just like that, but worse because you can see how much she’s enjoying it.’
‘I’m sure your sister is not enjoying it,’ the saxophone teacher says.
‘Dad said it would probably be years and years before Mr Saladin gets properly convicted and goes to jail,’ Isolde says. ‘All the papers will say child abuse, but there won’t be a child any more, she’ll be an adult by then, just like him. It’ll be like someone destroyed the scene of the crime on purpose, and built something clean and shiny in its place.’
‘Isolde,’ the saxophone teacher says, firmly this time, ‘I’m sure they are scared only because they know the sin is still there. They know it snuck up inside her and stuck fast, wedging itself into a place nobody knows about and will never find. They know that his sin was just an action, a foolish deadly fumble in the bright dusty lunchtime light, but hers—her sin is a condition, a sickness lodged somewhere deep inside for now and for always.’
‘My dad doesn’t believe in sin,’ Isolde says. ‘We’re atheists.’
‘It pays to be open minded,’ says the saxophone teacher.
‘I’ll tell you why they’re so scared,’ Isolde says. ‘They’re scared because now she knows everything they know. They’re scared because now they’ve got no secrets left.’
The saxophone teacher gets up suddenly and goes to the window. There is a long pause before Isolde speaks again.
‘Dad just goes, I don’t know how it happened, honey. What’s important is that now we know about it, it won’t happen any more.’
‘So they called off jazz band this morning,’ Bridget says. ‘They go, Mr Saladin can’t come in this afternoon. He’s helping with an investigation.’
She sucks her reed noisily.
‘You know it’s something really serious,’ she says, ‘when they cross between not enough information and too much. Normally, see, they would have just gone, Listen up, you lot, jazz band’s cancelled, you’ve got three minutes to get your shit together, get out and enjoy the sunshine for once, come on, I said move.’
This girl is good at voices. She actually wanted to be Isolde, because Isolde has a better part, but this girl is pale and stringy and rumpled and always looks slightly alarmed, which are qualities that don’t quite fit Isolde, and so she plays Bridget instead. In truth it is her longing to be an Isolde that most characterises her as a Bridget: Bridget is always wanting to be somebody else.
‘Or,’ she says, ‘they would have gone the other way, and told us more than we needed to know, but deliberately, so we knew it was a privilege. They would have done the wide-eyed solemn holy thing that goes, Come on everyone, we need ...
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