It was with nothing but disgust that Susan regarded the musicians whose subtle and accomplished performance was so enrapturing most of the other guests. Susan was conscious that she was a fraud in so many ways and her presence at the recital a sham. It was the music she should be appreciating rather than the musicians. She should be somehow transported to the higher plane that Franz Schubert had prepared for listeners to his String Quartet No. 14 in D minor: otherwise known as Death and the Maiden. Instead, her thoughts were chiefly focused on the huge bald spot in the middle of the cellist's pate. On the fringe and at the back his brown hair was abundant, but in the midst of this luxuriance was an obscene expanse of pink baldness His head was bowed while he scraped his bow back and forth across the cello's strings, and all Susan could concentrate on was this naked excrescence that was in such total contrast to the lank long hair that flowed around the tonsure and over his shoulders.
All four musicians in the string ensemble were equally as disgusting to behold in one way or another. The man playing the viola was so fat that it was only by a miracle that the buttons of his white shirt dammed in a bloated discharge of pink belly that would otherwise overflow onto his lap. With every backward thrust of his bow, a hairy jelly-like engorgement extruded from between the straining buttons. The first violin was played by a man who had one eye at least an inch below the other and such an apology for a beard that it could only be excused insofar as it obscured his receding chin.
And as for the other violinist—the only woman in the quartet—however unprepossessing her musical colleagues might be, could even they stomach the horror of ever having to fuck her? From her scrawny neck to her swollen ankles, the entire length of her body was shapeless and plain. Her skin was pale and blotchy. Her greying hair was tied back in a severe bow. And, only partly obscured by the frame of her unfashionable glasses, her left cheek was overshadowed by a nauseatingly prominent brown mole. Fuck! Susan was sure she could see three long sprouting strands of black hair. Couldn't the woman have at least plucked them out before she ventured into a public space?
The musicians were clearly in some kind of rapture as they scraped their bows back and forth. Their bodies were so tense and energetic that they each resembled some kind of large insect as their arms jerked backwards and forwards. Perhaps the music was good. Maybe it was the greatest music that had ever been performed—Susan was in no way qualified to pass judgment—but while she remained transfixed by the sheer ugliness and ungainliness of the musicians she could make no sense of the actual music at all: whether it was Allegro, Andante or Scherzo. The printed sheet promised that the fourth movement, after which all this torture would be over, would be a Presto, whatever that was. She hoped it would sort of invoke a sense of magic, like 'Hey Presto!', or even a bit of excitement, but all the lurching about from one almost-a-tune to another only made her suffering the worse.
The musicians weren't the only plug ugly people in the outsized music room. The private performance of the Aspettare String Quartet's recital was for the benefit and pleasure of guests hand-picked and invited by none other than Sir Kenneth Chandler: knight of the realm, patron of the arts and private philanderer. To Susan's eyes almost everyone in the audience was grotesque, with the exception of those younger women who were there for much the same reason as she was. How was it possible for so much of God's creation to be so unhealthy, unwholesome and seemingly in-bred? In fact, if evidence was ever needed that God, if He existed, was either far from omnipotent or just playing a cruel and elaborate joke, then this could be confirmed by a scan of the corpulent, sallow-skinned, aging or misshapen men and women all sitting stock still in one of Sir Kenneth's more opulent chambers and at least pretending to listen intently to the Aspettare String Quartet.
Susan was familiar with most of Sir Kenneth's chambers, from the billiard room to the library, from the private cinema to the indoor swimming pool, and from the vast kitchen to the opulent bed chambers. And it was in this last room that Susan, and a few other of her colleagues and acquaintances, became most familiar with the most grotesque and least appealing aspects of Sir Kenneth and his many friends and associates. Sir Kenneth's naked body exhibited a blend of the scrawniness of middle age and the corpulence of good-living. But at least he was a man whose stomach didn't obscure or even flop over the proof of his manhood which he, like so many men, was so keen to flaunt at close proximity in Susan's face.
Susan had seen it all before, of course. She'd seen fat ones; thin ones; ones with a prominent bend; ones where the balls put the penis to shame (although they were most often also nothing to be proud of); dark ones; crinkled ones; circumcised ones; and very many that were either far too eager to jump to attention or needed a huge amount of attention to coax into any kind of useful life. There was always some consolation for the awkward fumbling, the clumsy manhandling and the unreasonable demands on her body. And these most often eventually found their way up her nose or ingested in a ceremony more elaborate and often more pleasurable than the lovemaking it was intended to supplement.
At long last, there was the customary uneasy halt to the performance where the audience looked around at one another to judge whether an applause was required. And this would soon break forth when the cue was given by a couple of firm handclaps: usually initiated by Sir Kenneth who himself relied on a discrete nod from his decidedly cultured and foul-breathed cultural curator. And then like waves crashing on the beach or, more often, a strong wind against the window, applause would break out amongst Sir Kenneth's thirty or forty guests and continue until Sir Kenneth judged that it was time to stand up and stride, still clapping appreciatively, to the dais in front of the gathered audience.
Inevitably, this wasn't to be the end of the tedious cultural entertainment. Susan wasn't going to be let off that easily. As always, when Sir Kenneth congratulated a String Quartet he made a special request on behalf of everyone that they should perform an encore. The musicians would make an unconvincing show of not being prepared and then play the one memorable and even sometimes tuneful piece of music in their repertoire. Every so often, it would be a piece of music that even Susan recognised. Like Greensleeves or the Hamlet Cigar theme tune. These encores never usually lasted much more than five minutes, but this was usually the first time in the whole performance that the musicians and even some of the audience looked like they were genuinely enjoying themselves. Susan often wondered why these chamber music ensembles didn't skip the actual concert and just play a series of encores: seeing as it was the most enjoyable part of the evening. With, of course, a very real promise that it would all finally come to an end.
"How did you enjoy the recital, Susan dear?" Sir Kenneth asked afterwards and when the far more important guests had been attended to and the musicians given enough evidence of the knight's knowledge and appreciation of culture to speak well of him in future.
Susan couldn't say what she really thought or she might never be invited to such an evening's entertainment again. She would never say that it had been yet another excruciating hour and a half of having to stifle a yawn and trying not to fidget.
"Excellent as always, Sir Kenneth," Susan said deferentially. "You have such excellent taste in music."
Susan knew exactly which buttons to press. The knight smiled graciously and placed a discreet but firm hand on her wrist that was as bare as the rest of her arm from the sleeveless shoulder to the elegant bracelet.
"I'd like you to get to know Benedict Cosgrove," Sir Kenneth said in a low voice. "He's the chap with the short beard and cravat chatting to the cellist in the corner."
"Who is Benedict Cosgrove and what is he to you?" Susan asked.
"Well, I'll leave it to you to find out more about the man yourself. In fact, I've never spoken to him for more than thirty seconds at a time. All you need to know is that he's a private investor and that I want him to invest some of his not inconsiderable wealth in my East European enterprises. Just make sure he associates an evening of high culture with a high degree of satisfaction that even Franz Schubert doesn't normally offer."
"Schubert wasn't gay, was he?" Susan asked with some alarm.
"I don't believe so," said Sir Kenneth. "A bit of an old romantic I gather. Or a young romantic really. He died when he was about the same age as our Mr Cosgrove. It was from typhoid I think, but if young Benedict were also to die young I'd rather it was from a broken heart. Now, if you don't mind..."
.... There is more of this story ...