In London I start off by holding court in a Peckham caff – one which has of course sprung up in years more recent than those of my South London youth and which serves cappuccino and organic soups rather than bacon butties and tea to forty-something multi ethnic mothers of toddlers - and visit with four of my closest girlfriends; four cellists, naturally.
A, like me, found herself boarding at a specialist music school at a too tender age. Though there were some advantages – namely smoking in the bluebell wood and midnight boating escapades - we had neither of us bargained for the 6 am musical dictation classes nor, more critically, for the fact that we would have delay a rather important question until our early thirties:
Do I really want to play the cello?
Whilst my answer, after a frozen shoulder, was a resounding and surprising ‘Yes!!!’ her story was different:
A highly skilled and finely tuned musician, A was very successful, winning many of the top London auditions. Four years ago, however, she suffered a broken wrist and her immediate thought was ‘Yippee!!! I never have to play the cello again!’
In the wake of her musical career she painted a milk float pink just like the interior of her flat and created ‘Floating Flowers’, rising even earlier than for musical dictation to get hold of the freshest blooms in Covent Garden. She then floated round a well-to-do Kentish town selling her groovey bunches much, it seems, to the delight of many a timid Kentish bachelor. In her spare time she completed a course in philosophy and religion and has since become a Buddhist.
A always wanted a child and two years ago, having always been told that, due to having neither oestrogen nor progesterone, nor a cycle to speak of, she would never be able to conceive let alone bring a child to term, she was considering fostering as a single mum.
Then A met Z, and now she is 29 weeks pregnant. The doctors hail it as a miracle. She glows pinker than her milk float.
B, having suffered the unspeakable during childhood, had to play the cello. After all, spinning her wordless tale through solitary improvisations in a locked room seemed to be the only way she would survive. Her sense of fantasy – often toppling over the edge into a delicious irreverence - when she plays still inspires awe in me.
Longing to conceive last year B started, finally, to put her story into words and, about ten months later, baby B was born. Wisps of gold crown the sweet dome of her daughter’s head like silk thread, ready and waiting to spin a new and happier story.
Leaning over a lavender bath in which I soaked B read me her compelling writing - hand woven and un-edited - from a vellum notebook, and I shall carry it always in my heart. It is the story of how music can save a life and how a woman can transform her pain, learn to forgive, and create beauty in the world. It - she - is another miracle.
Even if the rest of her life was falling apart, C has seemed to me always to have had a simple relationship with her cello; a relationship free of attachment and un-infused with parental expectation. She chose it for herself and has stuck with it for the same reason. It takes true confidence to sit in the first chair whilst five musicians you have chosen to play with you because each of them is superb express themselves freely behind you, and she has this confidence. Consequently, work has always flowed for her.
C gave birth to a child in her late thirties. It lived only several hours. Perhaps it was at that moment that her spiritual journey was jolted from cruise into fifth gear. She took up body-work, becoming a trained masseuse and now a hatha yoga teacher alongside her gruelling touring schedules.
Now, it seems, life is throwing up one of the biggest challenges of all: For the first time she finds herself under threat of having her job stolen from underneath her nose by a supposed friend and colleague. He is asking for a fight, and the astounding beauty of C is that, as she prepares to stand up for herself, she is not rising to his war-like bait. Due, I’m sure, to her yoga practice, her energy is softer than I have ever seen it and, underneath the surface of her struggle, she knows that life may be throwing something new in her direction and, on some level she is already opening to the possibility of its warmth like a first tentative petal in spring.
What is it that makes someone THE person you ring when you are in trouble? It is not, I think, a penchant for rescue for that would be based on their need not yours. Neither is it that you love them more or that they have more space in their life for you….I don’t know what it is but D is that person. She always has been. It is she I rang from the hospital after my ectopic pregnancy, but it is also she with whom I first shared my joy at being engaged and then with child.
Our friendship has not been without bumps. Thirteen years ago she had everything I wanted: She was playing in a quartet with my brother (which I had always thought to have been my childhood dream although it was probably more like my parents’.) Not only that but I was a lodger in the house where they rehearsed. D was also a member of the orchestra, which I adored but which had mysteriously stopped hiring me. To top it all she was married to a man with THAT RED HAIR THING going on and on whom I had had quite a crush…I, meanwhile, was single and stuck in a rented room in Tooting practicing for auditions which never seemed to work out (and which A normally won!).
D couldn’t, it seemed, have everything though. She struggled for quite some time with depression caused by apparent infertility. This was followed by an ectopic pregnancy erupting excruciatingly on tour in the middle of a Beethoven symphony. Luckily, however, she too, having been told that she would be unable to conceive, eventually ‘plopped’ (as she described it) not only one, but two little miracles.
“It was just like doing a great big poo!” she said of the second birth in her Tasty Lancashire accent.
Touring the world with two wee ones strapped to your cello case, however, is almost out of the question and she finds herself, from working full time with one of the best chamber orchestras in the world, becoming an occasionally slightly reluctant housewife trying to pay off a mortgage on a superb Italian cello and a house in Highgate…. Not without a big Northern grin on her face which warms me through and through.
Still in South London where I was born, I climb into the taxi to catch the 05.34 Eurostar from Waterloo. The grime from the bonnet has smeared itself all over my fingers as I placed my case in the boot and I accidentally wipe it on my Hobbs jumper. In my new attempt not to try and control the entire universe I do not ask the cabbie to turn off his loud music, but rather lean into it. It is a live recording from around what seems to be a Nigerian campfire. It is very beautiful. The cabbie can hear me listening.
“This song says yo' should not be messin’ with yo' fate. God knows what he is doin’ man an’ you shoul' trust in him”
I think of my four friends and see how our lives have been woven together from strange cello cloth and how a miraculous light has shone on each of them at different times, transforming grey to gold. Above all, I think how very much I love them.