Bittersweet Symphony – Jeanna Skinner

tronco e smorzando

Merda!” said my daughter’s violin teacher, his voice uncharacteristically sharp as the doorbell interrupted us. De-entwining our limbs, he ran his hands through his dishevelled curls and lunged for his jeans.

A hirsute, bespectacled young man, his proclivity for wild gesticulation amused me no end. I smiled, remembering the first time I’d been the cause of his signature gesture: glissando’d into his DMs, he’d called it, throwing up his hands in that peculiar fashion of his. Despite the age gap, we were good together, but I had to end it – and soon. He was getting too involved. I recognised the signs. I’d been here before.

“Merda!” he said again, meeting my tickled gaze. “Aren’t you even un po ‘preoccupato?”

I traced a lazy finger across his non-damask cheek. His puppy-like espresso eyes were, as ever, eager to please; a novelty dog in the back of a car. Funny how a beard and horn-rimmed glasses could belie such youth. He really was extraordinarily good-looking – beautiful, even, but so young. So naive.

“No,” I said, holding the single syllable like a semi-breve and scribbling myself a mental note to book a manicure, “but that’s why you love me. Hide in the bathroom if you’re worried.” I kissed him before he could light another cigarette. Scowling, I fastened my robe and headed for the stairs.

The doorbell rang again. Ignoring its urgency, I lingered outside my daughter’s room, observing my seventeen year-old’s cacophonic mess. Somewhere, obscured by the noisy medley of clothes, make-up, and magazines, were the floor, bed and chair. Neatly propped in one corner, a violin and music stand were odd, jarring notes in the chaos. Grace Chatto, the uber-cool blonde cellist from Clean Bandit, pouted at me from a poster above the dresser. I smiled back, pausing to asses myself in the dresser mirror: I was in good shape for my age. The first, tell-tale lines of autumn just visible as faint, papery creases in my skin; delicate as venation on a leaf. It was time. Time to tell The Violin Teacher, but first I had to deal with the door.


On the doorstep of our Bexley semi, was my daughter, Olivia and, behind her, my husband of twenty-four years, Sam.

“Did you both lose your keys?” My voice sounded alright. At least I think it did; it was hard to tell over the sudden snare drum of my heart.

“I forgot mine. Olivia’s lost hers. Or rather, she threw them away.”

“Yeah, because I’m outta here! I’ve had it with you ruining my life! I’m going, and nothing you can say or do can stop me!” She threw her father a foul, withered look, before flouncing up the stairs. Sam sprinted after her, leaving me to assess my capacity for concern. Time to face the music, I concluded, following them like a mourner at a New Orleans funeral parade.

“You can’t leave!” Arms folded across his chest, Sam barred the doorway to Olivia’s room. “You’re not old enough! Where will you go? How will you support yourself?”

“I’ll get a job – and…I-I’ve met someone. He has his own business. We’ll be fine.”

“Wh-what do you mean, you’ve met someone?” Sam turned to me with a look that typically said, ‘Do something!’”

“Olivia, hon. Dad’s right. Let’s talk about it. Sensibly.”

Olivia threw her hands in the air, in an unsettling refrain of The Violin Teacher and for a brief moment, I hesitated, stymied.

“Do what you want Mum, but I’m out of here. You say we’ll talk about it, but you never let me make any decisions. It’s always what you want. What you decide. He loves me. Why can’t you be happy for us?” Olivia shoved her father aside, elbows pumping like a majorette as she marched to the bathroom. My heart clawed at my throat, but I knew I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, stop her.

There was a strangled little scream, and then:

“You’re here? Oh, thank god, you’re here. I’ve missed you so much!”

“You?” My jaw dropped as they emerged holding hands. “You and Olivia? She’s seventeen!”

“Mum! He’s only six years older than me. I’m not a child.”

I couldn’t look at Olivia. I was willing The Violin Teacher to make eye contact, to confess to everything between us since that first night. What were we up to now? The eleventh? Twelfth? I’d lost count, but suddenly, it mattered. My daughter folded his hand in hers and stretched to kiss his beautiful face, and a scream of denial died on my tacet lips. Then Olivia snatched up her case and started plucking her way down the stairs. About halfway down, she stopped. Stung.


“But – wh-why are you here? You said you had a concert. In Slovenia, right?” Her face was a sinkhole of gaping eyes and mouth. The Violin Teacher dropped Olivia’s hand without ceremony, and I was sure now of how deftly he’d played her.

“Olivia. Mi spiace – I am sorry.”

Gone was the puppy dog. This Violin Teacher was all man, and boy, was his virtuoso performance attractive! I spared a glance for Sam, whose Easter Island silence had caused me to forget his presence altogether. The Violin Teacher left my daughter’s side, and re-ascended the stairs to where I waited above. Sam was behind me at the top, and I flashed on the four of us as crochets and quavers on a staff and almost giggled at the absurdity of it all. With each step, my heartbeat echoed in staccato. Did I really want this?


I extended my hand, surprised by the vibrato in it, and then recoiled, as The Violin Teacher reached past me

– to Sam???

“Arsenio,” Sam said sotte-vocce, embracing the younger man with unreserved and familiar passion. Cymbals crashed in my ears, and I glanced at Olivia as a foolish sob bubbled from her open mouth. Then Arsenio and Sam left together, without another word, in unmistakable and perfect harmony.


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Image: Maura Barbulescu

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