Petra looked at herself in the mirror. “I’ve found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with,” she told her reflection, “but he’s hardly noticed me.”
She had been on the way to a workshop when she had heard a faint noise from across the quadrangle. Usually she took no notice of the sounds coming from the music block, but this time, there was something about the music that drew her on.
When she had lived at home, she had successfully trained her ears to ignore her father’s collection of folk songs from all around the world, but the music coming from the open window of one of the music rooms halted her in her tracks. Later, someone said it had “touched her soul”, but she had dismissed that as being fanciful.
She followed the sound and was reminded of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, who lured rats away from the town with his music. Not that she was a rat or anything like it!
The music was coming from behind a closed door. She opened the door as quietly as she could. On the raised dais at the end of the room, a student was playing the oboe, accompanied by a pianist. She took in the oboe player’s dark good looks and the fact that he was able to play quite long passages without taking a breath and then something strange happened.
Her surroundings, even the piano player, began to melt into the background until they disappeared and there was only her and the man on stage. The music washed over her, bathing her in a sound that left her skin clean and sparkling. It was as if there was an invisible cord connecting her with the musician that was still there, even when he had finished. As the last notes sounded, she clapped enthusiastically and the man, who had not looked at her before, bowed and came towards her.
Walking down the central aisle, he kept his eyes fixed on her. Later, Petra knew that they must have spoken for several minutes, because she was late arriving for her class, but she could not remember a word that was said, apart from his name, spoken in a rather attractive foreign accent.
“It’s not like you to be overwhelmed by someone playing an oboe,” Ellie said later. “Are you sure it wasn’t his good looks that got your attention?” She laughed and offered to do something with Petra’s hair so he would notice her. “You’d look great with extensions,” she declared, “more feminine”.
Petra declined the offer. She’d had a short, boyish style ever since her mother had cut off her plaits at her insistence when she was eight years old. It was a practical, no-nonsense hairstyle that required no mousse, hairdryer, diffusers or clips and that’s how she liked it – until now. Ellie was always telling her to be more feminine, and she wavered. If it could get her the attention of the oboe player, anything was worth considering.
People used words like dramatic, emotional and sensitive about Ellie. Nobody had ever described Petra like this. She was the practical and sensible sister, the one who preferred playing with Meccano when she was little and who later cleaned Ellie’s knee when she fell over, or who produced magic tape from her handbag to fix the hem on Ellie’s dress when it came down. It was Petra who got good grades in maths and Latin, while Ellie trained as a beauty therapist, hired a space in the local hairdresser’s and soon had enough clients to keep her busy.
From an early age, Ellie could look up at her father with those lovely eyes framed by long lashes and smile in that way that he couldn’t resist. Petra knew that she would never win in the feminine stakes, so she had gone in another direction. Poetry was lost on her, but give her a saw or a screwdriver and she was in heaven. She followed her father around the house, helping him mend the gutter or lay the foundations for a shed and let Ellie experiment with make-up and hairstyles. She was in much demand at the local carnival club, helping to make floats up to fifty feet long, illuminated with thousands of light bulbs. She could create anything, once the committee had decided on a theme and someone else had drawn up the design, whether it was a huge crocodile or a delicate organza butterfly costume.
Ellie could have any boy she wanted. She was beautiful, with a fine nose and long blonde hair which sparkled in the sunlight, unlike Petra’s rather non-descript brown locks. Ellie had curves in all the right places and knew which colour suited her, wearing soft pastel shades which made her look floaty and feminine. She grew her nails an impractical length and painted them to match her outfits. Such nails were no good when you were underneath the sink trying to fix a leak.
Petra couldn’t compete so she’d gone for boys like Luke who worked in the DIY shop. Ellie would never have been interested in him. They got chatting about cars one day when she was looking for power drills. When he said he was restoring a 1963 Triumph MG, Petra asked if she could help. She spent the next Saturday afternoon cleaning the spark plugs and oil filter and checking the internet for spare parts and was thrilled when he wanted to take her for a drink as a thank you. She had been upstairs changing when he called for her and Ellie had answered the door. As she descended the stairs, she knew it was hopeless. Luke was staring at Ellie as if he had seen a vision. Petra might as well have been invisible.
When Petra left school, she worked in the local history museum, coordinating exhibitions and indexing objects. After a couple of years, her employers allowed her to work part-time while she went to college to study archaeology. She had saved up enough money to move from the 18th century stone cottage with thatched roof her parents had bought when they first got married, to a small rented flat in town. It was the sensible thing to do. She would avoid paying excessive parking fees and the long and irregular bus journey.
Petra’s future lay ahead of her, predictable and certain; but even sensible people have their dreams. Secretly, she was hoping that she would go on a dig and discover something that would catapult her into the halls of fame, like the recent find of Richard III’s skeleton in a car park. But she would give up all that if she could only be with Kurt.
Kurt was tall, with dark, brooding good looks. He was out of her league in some ways, but she didn’t want to give up before she had even started. If they ever got together, she would have to hide Ellie from him, but first she had to get his attention. She wasn’t due in college for a couple of days and during that time, she got to work on herself. Ellie suggested false nails, but Petra thought her short nails were the only advantage she had. Even she knew that musicians can’t have long nails, whatever instrument they play. Kurt was unlikely to be swayed by such things. She listened to all Ellie’s suggestions and discarded them one by one. By the time she was due in college again, she had decided that if just being herself wasn’t good enough, there was nothing she could do.
She went early to college to give herself plenty of time to spend in the music department where she might bump into Kurt. Once there, she walked the corridors, trying to look casual, stopping to read messages on the notice board, keeping an eye out for him. Turning a corner, she did spot him, further along the corridor, getting a cup of water from the dispenser. Her spirits soared, but as she approached him, trying, and failing, to think of something sophisticated to say, a tall, statuesque girl with long blonde hair (out of a bottle, she was sure), joined him at the water cooler. She draped herself over him and frowned in Petra’s direction. It was an age-old message: he’s mine! Petra’s hopes were dashed. She felt bitterly (and unreasonably, she knew) disappointed to see them together. She had been so foolish. How did she think she could compete when there were girls like this around?
They made their way towards her, the girl holding tightly onto Kurt’s arm so that everyone would know he belonged to her. When they drew level, Kurt said hello and looked as if he might say more, but the woman pulled at his arm. “Come on, Kurt, we’ll be late,” she said.
Petra forced herself not to stare at Kurt’s retreating back, but a rather plain girl with glasses, carrying a ‘cello, had noticed her looking at him.
“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he? Everyone fancies him,” she said. “He’s smitten, though, never looks at anyone else except Sable. I can’t say that I blame him.”
Petra made her way back to her archaeology class, scolding herself. What had she expected? A man as gorgeous as that wasn’t likely to be on his own. Even with Ellie’s makeover, she wouldn’t be able to match the girl’s looks. And yet, she felt they had shared something that day at the concert hall. Surely he had felt it too, or was she just letting her imagination run away with her?
She sat through her class, doodling musical symbols on her notebook. All she could think about was Kurt. She kept telling herself not to be so foolish, but she didn’t listen.
Every time she was due in college, she went early, stalking the music corridors, hoping to get a glimpse of Kurt again. She saw him a few times, but he was always with the girl, and she would drag him away as soon as she saw Petra. She never got a chance to talk to him. Even the slightest glimpse of his strong, chiselled features and his mean and moody expression left her feeling happy for the rest of the day. Surely it was just a question of time until they were together.
A week later, Petra was no further on in her quest to belong to Kurt. He and the blonde were as much an item as they ever had been, and Petra still hadn’t been able to talk to him. She took herself in hand and forced herself to stop going to the music department, trying to kid herself that he meant nothing to her, but she could not forget the effect his music had had on her.
She stayed away for nearly a fortnight, but it was like trying to withdraw from a drug. The pain of staying away was too awful. One lunch time, she gave in, telling herself it wouldn’t hurt to go over there just one more time.
As she arrived at a corridor flanked by windows, she saw Kurt sitting on a wooden bench in the quadrangle, on his own. She couldn’t believe her luck! The girl was nowhere to be seen. This was too good an opportunity to miss.
Her heard pounding in her chest, she went outside and approached him. His appearance was surprising: he was slumped over on the seat, his head bowed. She had never seen him like this before. Her anxiety about making a good impression disappeared and she asked, “Are you all right?”
He looked up and gave a flicker of a smile, which did not reach his eyes. “You are the lady who like my playing,” he said. His voice was deep, his accent giving him a boyish charm.
A choir sang in Petra’s head. He remembered her! She felt like jumping around, punching the air with her fist, but she put on her best caring face and said, “You don’t look well.”
“You are very observant girl,” he said. Petra held her breath and forced herself to sit still as he reached out. Her hand, which was resting on the bench in between them, twitched and started to move involuntarily towards him. He took hold of it and her breathing became so rapid, she nearly fainted.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that someone was coming towards them. She didn’t want to look, but here was the girlfriend, standing over them, blocking out the sun and looking furious. Kurt pulled his hand back and stood up.
“Come, do not make a scene, it is nothing,” he said, taking her arm and marching quickly across the square without a backward glance.
Petra felt hot and cold all over, excited and embarrassed at the same time. She went over and over the scene while she worked at the museum, labelling the exhibits or entering records on the computer. She needed to think of something interesting to say so that if she ever saw him again, she would be ready. She would not let the girlfriend bundle him away another time.
Copyright Janet Maile 2017