Starburst

A Novel

Robin Pilcher

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
 
The confetti was a bit of a mystery. Two weeks after the wedding and the multicoloured flakes still kept appearing in every room of the flat. Sometimes they materialized in force under the new king-sized bed or piled up in small drifts behind the television in the sitting room; other times no more than a single fragment floated delicately on toaster thermals around the kitchen. At first, despite the need to vacuum every room on a daily basis, its presence had given Tess a warming sense of fulfilment, a constant reminder of everything that had happened on her Big Day. But now, as she pulled the polo-necked jersey from the top shelf of her wardrobe and a fresh flurry drifted down onto the polished floorboards of the bedroom, she felt it was all becoming a bit of an inconvenience and, like thawing snow, it had been around too long.
 
Tess had a sneaking suspicion that it was Allan who was to blame for it all. She had visions of him tiptoeing about the flat, sprinkling the tissue petals around like love dust so as to keep the spirit of their wedding day alive. But when she had broached the subject on the previous morning as he stood stark-naked shaving in front of the full-length bathroom mirror, he had rather disappointingly denied the whole idea. “Nice thought, angel”—mouth to the left as he scraped away at the right cheek—“but I’m afraid it’s not been me”—chin pulled down for more scraping under nose—“probably like sand after being on a beach”—turns to look at newly-wedded wife with perfectly formed shaving-foam goatee and gesticulates with razor in hand—“you know, you find it between your toes and in your belly button and other places for days afterwards.”
 
That had been enough for Tess. The thought of “other places” had cut any notion of romantic frivolity from her mind.
 
Seated on the edge of the bed, Tess pulled on her brown leather calf-length boots, wrestled the legs of her jeans over them, and then got up and walked over to open the wooden shutters on one of the room’s tall sash-framed windows. Her spirits, which had been flying at Learjet height since the wedding, sank a little when she looked out onto another grey day in the Scottish capital. She could tell by the movement of the leafless trees just visible up by Heriot Row and by the way the pedestrians on the pavement below walked up Dundas Street clutching their coats closed at the neck, that the wind was coming from the north, sweeping cold and unguarded across the Firth of Forth. Spring is a season that’s lost its reason, she thought to herself. The beginning of May and it could as well be February. An icy draught sought out a space at the side of the ancient window frame, surrounding her with a chill that made her shiver and clasp her hands under her armpits. It was about the one thing, being married, that she regretted, having to leave her cosy little tenement block flat in West College Street and move here to Allan’s great barn of a place, situated in the infinitely smarter New Town.
 
Tess picked up her mobile from the bedside table and thumbed a couple of buttons. She held it to her ear as she pulled on her woollen jacket and shouldered the strap of her laptop case. When Allan eventually answered, his greeting was unintelligible through a mouthful of food.
 
“It’s me,” Tess said, picking up her keys from the table in the hallway.
 
She heard Allan swallow. “I know. Your name came up. Sex Maniac.”
 
“It does not say that!”
 
“No, you’re right. It says Mrs. Goodwin.”
 
The name change was something else Tess was having difficulty getting used to. Back in her schooldays, her jotters had been covered with the test autographs of soon-to-be-famous Tess Hartley, but now her pen found it impossible to flow from the s of Tess to the g of Goodwin, and her signature had taken on the appearance of that of an incompetent forger.
 
“That’s nice,” she said with a smile, as she double-locked the door of the flat and began descending the stone steps, the clipping heels of her boots echoing up the chilly stairwell.
 
“So, where are you?”
 
“Sitting in a traffic jam on the M8, twenty miles from Glasgow.”
 
“What time did you leave this morning?”
 
“Six-thirty. I would have woken you but you were out for the count, so I just gazed hungrily at you and left. Are you still in bed?”
 
“No, I’m on my way out.”
 
“My word, that’s a bit keen, isn’t it? It’s only just gone seven-thirty.”
 
“I know, but I’ve got to be up at the Hub early. Alasdair’s calling in from Budapest at eight.”
 
“What’s he doing there?”
 
“Sounding out some dance company he thinks might fill an empty slot in the programme.”
 
“What gives with Sarah then? I thought she liked hogging the morning phone calls with the great Sir Alasdair Dreyfuss.”
 
Tess smiled wryly as she pulled shut the heavy entrance door and walked the few steps down onto the pavement. Allan was right. Sarah Atkinson, the marketing director of the Edinburgh International Festival and her own immediate boss, liked to be the one who liaised with the director, especially when he was on one of his incessant scouting missions abroad.
 
“She’s down in England, having a meeting with the Royal Shakespeare Company,” she replied, glancing down Dundas Street to see if there was a bus in sight. A double-decker, resplendently dull in the Edinburgh corporation colours of maroon and dirty-white, stood at the traffic lights. “What time do you think you’ll be home?”
 
“Sevenish.”
 
“Fancy something to eat out?”
 
“No, I fancy you.”
 
Tess felt a loved-up glow swell in her stomach. “I know it. But that doesn’t answer my question.”
 
“Okay, we’ll eat out. Hey, looks like the traffic’s starting to move. Better get off the phone. See ya, angel.”
 
“Okay, see you tonight.”
 
Tess slipped her mobile into the pocket of her jacket and boarded the bus, waiting for an elderly grey-faced gentleman dressed in a creased pinstriped suit and carrying a weary-looking leather briefcase to clear the stairs before she climbed to the upper deck and jolted into a seat, as the bus took off.
 
It hadn’t been the best time to get married, what with Allan just getting a promotion and her working all hours at the International Festival office, but then again it had almost come down to a “make or break” situation. If anyone were to ask her, she would say they’d been together for just over three years, but in truth that was a bit of a generalization. Their relationship had always blown hot and cold, even to the extent that for a four-month period two years ago, they had taken a complete break from each other. During that time, they slalomed into affairs and crashed out of them, coming back together to lick their wounds and begin to piece together the shaky confidence they had in each other. Those on-the-side flings were easy to forgive. The one Tess had the following year was not, yet even though it rocked their boat quite forcefully, it never succeeded in capsizing it. And that was the danger. It was Allan who said their relationship had become too comfortable, almost verging on the platonic, and that neither was doing the other any favours by continuing to live without any form of commitment. So he proposed to her, and Tess had agreed without even giving the question any thought. It seemed the most natural thing to do. It was just they’d never got round to doing anything about it.
 
In the same way that they’d never got round to organizing a honeymoon. After the wedding, they’d both taken a couple of days off work to move her belongings into Allan’s flat, but neither felt it the right time to head off on holiday. Maybe she would get onto the Internet this morning, if there was no urgent business to attend to once she’d spoken to the director, and see if she couldn’t book a couple of weeks in September after the festival had finished. Right now, on this cold, raw day, she fancied somewhere sunny and warm, somewhere that sounded exotic, with white sandy beaches and palm trees and a blue sea that merged into the sky on the horizon. She smiled to herself and nodded decisively. Yes, somewhere like Barbados would just fit the bill nicely, thank you very much.
 
As the bus took the lights on Queen Street and edged its way slowly up the slope, Tess rubbed the sleeve of her jacket on the steamed-up window and gazed out at the sight of Edinburgh’s citizens walking to work. Men and women dressed alike in formal, colourless clothes, adding to the general drabness of the day, but apt apparel for those who earned their daily crust in the city’s many financial and legal institutions. It never ceased to amaze Tess that a city that seemed to wallow in a state of such stolid lugubriousness for most of the year should, for three weeks in August, suddenly behave as if its water supply had been spiked with amphetamine. But she knew only too well that this dichotomy had existed since the festival’s inception in 1947, and even though it was now regarded as one of the foremost artistic and cultural gatherings in the world, it had only been in the past ten years that the opinion of the archetypal “Edinburgh citizen” had really changed towards the event. Up until then, it had been viewed as a dreaded yearly inconvenience when taxis were impossible to find and restaurants were crowded out. Little was made of the cultural kudos the festival brought to the city, nor of the extra revenue generated for its businesses and householders by the thousands of visitors who came for those three late-summer weeks every year. There was no doubt in the minds of everyone who worked in the International office that the favourable change of opinion was due, in no small part, to the present director, Sir Alasdair Dreyfuss, but he himself would be the first to deny it, being as reticent about promoting his own sizeable achievements as he was about using the “handle” of his recently awarded knighthood.
 
Tess got off the bus and began to walk up Lawnmarket, the uppermost stretch of the Royal Mile. This was where she felt comfortable, the Old Town, with its small-windowed buildings of ancient, gnarled stone, its cobbled streets, its more youthful and exuberant inhabitants, its seedy but atmospheric public houses, its tacky tourist shops, selling everything from ghost tours to tartan ginger-wigged tammies, CDs of wailing Gaelic love songs, weaponry—the genuine article, of course—used by the Highland clans to fight the Jacobite cause in 1745; claymores so blunt that they would hardly give a clumsy sword dancer a bleeding toe, and studded-leather shields that bore not even the faintest scratch of a Redcoat bayonet. Every weekday morning, Tess made the journey from the New Town and it never ceased to give her a frisson of excitement to be back in her old stamping ground.
 
Crossing over the street, she entered the warm, aromatic interior of a Starbucks café, one of the few insurgent establishments in the street. As she took her place in the queue, two away from being served, the entrance door crashed shut behind her. Everyone in the chrome-strewn place looked up or spun round, clasping hands to rattling cups in saucers, deactivating jaws on half-eaten blueberry muffins to stare at the door, expecting the logo-ed glass pane to come crashing to the ground. When nothing happened, the stares were shifted to the young man with the frenzied mop of dark curly hair that spilled onto the shoulders of his far-too-large blue serge overcoat. He stood in front of the door breathing heavily, his hands held up as if surrendering, his eyes tightly closed and a pained expression on his face.
 
“Sorry . . . sorry . . . sorry.” He opened up one eye and surveyed his scornful audience. “Sorry?”
 
Tess decided to help him out. “That was some entrance, Lewis,” she said with a smile.
 
The young man took a couple of steps towards her. “It was your fault, Tess,” he said quietly to her in a lilting Welsh accent.
 
“What d’ you mean, my fault?”
 
“Well, I was just about to go into the Fringe office when I saw you get off the bus, so I’ve just had to run all the way up the High Street to catch you.”
 
Tess stared at him blankly for a few seconds, scanning through her memory files to work out if she’d forgotten an appointment or to make a telephone call. Lewis Jones was her direct counterpart in the marketing team of the Fringe, one of the seven independently organized festivals that were run under the conglomerate title of the Edinburgh Festival. Although their events were managed separately, each office still liaised closely on city issues and the general organization of the festival.
 
“What was so urgent?”
 
Lewis shrugged. “Nothing, really. I just wanted to ask how married life was treating you. I haven’t seen you since your big day.”
 
Maybe it was just the accent, but Tess was always aware of Lewis’s disarming quality of being able to make people feel sorry for him. Right now, she felt like patting him on the head like a little boy and telling him not to get himself so worried—which was ridiculous, really. Not only did she know that Lewis was just shy of his thirtieth birthday—almost her twin, in fact—but also that he was a very shrewd operator, helping to coordinate in his laid-back-to-almost-horizontal way the logisitics for nearly two thousand performers during the three weeks of the Fringe.
 
“It’s—very exciting,” Tess replied with a nod of affirmation. “I strongly recommend it.”
 
Lewis sighed. “No one on the horizon for me, I’m afraid.” He stepped in front of Tess when the girl behind the counter asked for the next order. “Here, let me buy you a coffee and we can have a chat.”
 
“I can’t, Lewis, sorry. I’ve got to be in the office in less than five minutes for a telephone call.” Tess turned to the girl behind the counter. “A cappuccino to go, please.”
 
“Oh, well, never mind,” Lewis said somberly. As soon as the girl had slapped the lid on the paper cup and put it on the counter, he picked it up and gave it to Tess. “Here you are, this one’s on me. You’d better get going up the road.”
 
Tess shot him a smile. “Thanks, Lewis. See you around.”
 
If Lewis said anything in reply, she didn’t hear it. She left the coffee house at speed, and with one hand clutching the cup and the other preventing the laptop case from thumping against her side, she ran as fast as her heeled boots would allow her up Lawnmarket, a Cinderella figure whose sole objective was to be at her desk before the bells of some nearby clock tower struck out its eighth peal.
 
The offices and headquarters of Edinburgh International Festival are housed in a converted church at the very top of the Royal Mile, the building having lost its ecclesiastical name along with its pews and pulpit and “rechristened” the Hub. Pushing her way through two sets of swing-glass doors, Tess hurried along the central passage, at one time the aisle of the church, with the Hub Café behind a long glass partition to one side and the International Ticket Office on the other. She took the staircase two at a time, past the bright red wall with its random shelves of sculptured figurines, and as she stopped momentarily on the upper landing to catch her breath, she heard the telephone ringing in her office. She ran in and reached across the desk for the receiver, simultaneously ridding herself of the coffee cup and allowing her laptop case to fall from her shoulder onto the ground with an ominous thump.
 
“International office, good morning.”
 
“Good morning, Tess. It’s Alasdair.”
 
“Oh, morning, Alasdair.” Tess stretched out the telephone cable with her free hand and walked around the desk to her seat. “I’m sorry, have you rung before?”
 
“No, I left it a little later just to give you the chance to get into the office.”
 
Tess couldn’t tell from his tone whether he had said it with any seriousness, but nevertheless she felt her face pulse with nervous embarrassment. Her boss, Sarah Atkinson, was never late for her early-morning telephone call with the director.
 
“So, how’re things in Budapest?”
 
“All right. The dance company is good, but I don’t think the choreography is up to scratch, so I’m not going to risk booking them for this year. I’ll maybe see if I can’t fix up some sort of collaboration with Hans Meyer for next year. He’ll be coming to direct the Rombert at any rate.”
 
“Nothing you want me to do from this end, then?” Tess asked, tapping the point of a ballpoint pen expectantly on her desk pad.
 
“Not for this project,” the director replied, “but listen, when I was flying out here, I noticed in the newspaper that Angélique Pascal is playing at the Barbican this Thursday. I know it’s a bit early for publicity, but seeing she’s going to be the International’s star turn this year, try tracking her down and organizing an interview, and then give Harry Wills a call at The Sunday Times. There’s every probability you’ll get stalled by Albert Dessuin, her manager, but give it a go.”
 
Tess jotted the names down on her pad, but it was only as a reminder. Both names, especially that of the young French violinist, were well known to her. “Anything else?” she asked.
 
“Yes, I want you to ring up Jeff Banyon at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and ask him if it’s definitely Tchaikovsky they’re going to be doing for the fireworks at the end of the festival. If not, then we’ll have to change our theme to accommodate whatever they’ve chosen. Now, do you have anything else for me?”
 
Tess searched the top of her desk for any messages others might have left for the director. “No, nothing at all.”
 
“All right. I’ll be back in the office tomorrow late afternoon, if all goes well with Air Paperclip. When does Sarah get back?”
 
“This afternoon.”
 
“Okay, let her know I’ll speak to her first thing tomorrow morning. Bye, Tess.”
 
Tess replaced the receiver and whistled out a breath of relief. She really liked the director but had always felt quite in awe of him. He had an unsettling manner that could be taken as being ice cold if one did not understand the constant pressure he was under, and coming up to work at her third festival in the International office, she felt only now that he treated her as an integral part of the team. Yet the story could have been completely different if he’d ever discovered what had happened over the course of the previous two festivals.
 
Her affair with Peter Hansen had been clandestine, exciting, and fired by the creative energy that thrummed through the city at the time of the festival. Peter was one of Denmark’s top artistic directors, brought in by Sir Alasdair Dreyfuss on a two-year contract to direct a number of theatrical productions, and it had been the director himself who had given Tess the job of chaperoning the man. In his mid-forties, Peter was famous, charismatic, and a practiced seducer, and Tess, having just become involved in her first festival, had been flattered by his attentions, and soon accepted her energetic sessions in one of Edinburgh’s five-star hotels as part of her duty. She and Allan had been going through one of their “cool” periods, and even though they were still seeing each other quite regularly, there was never a question of him finding out about it. There was always the excuse of a reception or a dinner she had to attend, or a late-night tour of the city’s nightclubs, entertaining the visiting classical performers. So, when the second year came round, both she and Peter took up where they had left off, and Tess knew at every moment of their affair that it was underhand and dangerous, not least because Peter Hansen just happened to be one of Sir Alasdair Dreyfuss’s oldest friends, and that for the past five years their respective families had joined together for skiing holidays in Norway.
 
It had all come to an abrupt end with a week of the previous festival still to run. She arrived at work one morning to find a note on her desk from Sarah Atkinson saying that Peter Hansen had rung to say he had no further need for her services and that he would be leaving for Copenhagen the following night, immediately after the final performance of the play he had been directing. Tess tried to contact him on his mobile phone, but he never answered. In time, she came to understand that her usefulness to Peter had run its course and that he had simply been using her as a form of diversion, just as he had probably done with a plethora of stupid, gullible young girls in cities where he had been working throughout the world.
 
Sir Alasdair Dreyfuss never found out about the affair. If he had done so, there was no doubt in her mind that she would have been thrown out of the International office without her feet touching the ground. But Allan had found out. It was her own fault, really, walking around in a gloomy daze and bursting into tears for no apparent reason. So when he eventually asked her what was wrong, she told him everything. It could have all ended there. That’s what she was expecting, but instead dear, sweet Allan simply pulled his snivelling wreck of a girlfriend close to him, heaved out a long, painful breath and said, “We’re going to have to stop doing this to each other, Tess. We can’t sustain a relationship when we’re constantly ignoring the basic rules of trust and fidelity between us.” And just when she thought her own selfish stupidity had cost her the love of the one person for whom she had really cared, he said, “Our only chance of survival is to get married. What d’you think?”
 
And she’d accepted without hesitation.
 
Tess jerked her head to break away from her thoughts, realizing she had been sitting staring at the telephone ever since she had finished her call with the director. She leaned over and picked up her discarded case from the floor, unzipped it and placed her laptop on the desk. As it was booting up, she glanced at her watch and decided it was too early to start trying to trace the whereabouts of Angélique Pascal and her manager. Consequently, she thought it as well to wait until nine o’clock before making any of her telephone calls.
 
Which gave her all of forty-five minutes to do a Google search on “Barbados Holidays” and look for a September booking for her much-delayed honeymoon.
 
Copyright © 2007 by Robin Pilcher. All rights reserved.