Adult Beginners is my first novel: a romantic comedy set in the world of new music.  It's about an amateur orchestra of adult beginners, based in north London. Their high ideals come under threat as they attend a summer school, only to find that their rehearsal space has been double-booked with an elite orchestra from Paris, who stand for everything that my amateurs despise. There's conflict, hilarity and romance as the two ensembles are forced to work together and help each other through artistic and personal crises. I'm currently busy working on the sequel: Adult Beginners Get the Blues, and submitting the novel to literary agents. In the meantime, I'm serialising the novel right here on my website! The first chapter unfolds below - scroll down to the bottom of the page to click on the next chapter.

ADULT BEGINNERS

by Sarah Walker

Chapter One

 

Posy replaced her reading glasses and took another look at Carrie's letter, trying to make sense of it. Could it be true that Fergus and Carrie had separated?

 

The thing is, I don't blame him for going. Since Dante was born our lives have been hell, and I know that must sound shocking, but everything that was good has gone. Fergus tried so hard to be an equal partner in everything. He changed nappies, he got up in the night to keep me company while I fed the babe, he took time off work and stayed at home with me. Then finally he wrote me a note, saying: 'People betray their country when they are deprived of sleep, so you cannot blame me for betraying you, my dear Carrie. I appreciate that when Dante wakes us up with his screaming, he is merely following his body's orders. Well torturers are following their leaders' orders. There is no difference. I am going away and I am going to sleep.'

And he packed a suitcase and left. But it wasn't just the night time, Posy. The days have been just as bad. Fergus has not written a word of his novel and the frustration was driving him insane. If he tried to put on his CD of Shostakovich quartets - which as you know is the only way he can relax - Dante would start crying again. I tried to keep him quiet by feeding on demand, but my mother said I was actually making him scream by filling him up too much. Do you think she's right? As for my own violin practice, to be honest Posy I don't think I'll ever pick up the instrument again.'

 

There had been times when, at the age of thirty-six, Posy had envied Carrie's motherhood and regretted having a boyfriend with an aversion to babies, but the intensity of her friend's suffering shocked and humbled her. She turned the sheet of plain, pale blue paper over, concerned to find it covered with writing which grew smaller and smaller, more and more scribbled.

 

Oh shit I can't find any more writing paper. So I'd better get to the point. I won't be coming back to the orchestra. Please don't be mad! Now I'm on my own I can't possibly leave Dante and come out. It was a stupid idea thinking I could come on the course. I hadn't clocked the whole feeding thing and how binding it is - even if Fergus were here I still couldn't get away. I know I was supposed to be going back to work in four months' time. Hey, maybe by then I'll have found another man! (Ha, ha! You should see the state of my body, Jesus, it's like blancmange. And my hair is falling out.) And my playing is bound to be rubbish now anyway. Oh God, Posy, I know this will be really tough for you, but you can find somebody else to lead, I know you can. You'll be better off without me.

 

Posy went over the last sentence several times, wondering if it implied suicide. She read on, straining her eyes to make out the last two lines, which were cramped into the space of a few centimetres.

 

I'd love to see you if you can come over. You're the only person I can trust who won't judge me, because believe me, I'm making a right pig's ear of this motherhood lark and the place is a tip. God knows what the health visitor will think, maybe she'll take Dante away! Though that might be a blessing in disguise, only joking! Write soon and please, please forgive me for abandoning you. Carrie xxxx

 

Posy could hardly believe that the writer was the Carrie she had known for years, the attractive, outgoing blonde who seemed able to cope with anything. She let her head rest in her hands, grabbing her hair at the temples and squeezing her hands into fists. A feeling of helplessness was rising, alongside the anxiety; it was her duty to fly to her friend's side and help sort out the mess, but that was not possible. Posy now had a duty to find another expert violinist and educator to lead her orchestra, because the summer school was due to start in a week's time. Carrie needed her, but so did the people who had signed up; she could not let them down. Posy let out a moan of despair. Everything had been going so well! The Millfields Adult Beginners Orchestra had now been established for three years and was going from strength to strength. A substantial grant had come through, allowing the orchestra to organize their second Summer school - two whole weeks in the idyllic surroundings of Camargue Castle, a stately home and conference centre in Warwickshire, where the orchestra members could learn their craft with one of the most talented workshop leaders in the country: the conductor and composer, Hugh Norbury. Posy, too, was a professional music teacher, specialising on flute; but without Carrie's valuable input, the string players would lose all of their confidence. Not a single player was above Grade 5 (an examination which Posy had passed with Distinction at the age of twelve). The course, with its ambitious programme, would not work.

 

Posy's Blue Persian cat, Mao, jumped onto her knee and rubbed his flat, sticky face against her neck. She managed a wan smile and focused her tired eyes on the laptop. She opened its heavy lid and pressed the On button, and eight little blue lights blinked at her in greeting. Mao made one of his declamatory miaows.

'Yes, Mao, I need to put out a cry for help.'

A recruitment drive. She had a week in which to find a new leader. Someone who believed strongly in helping people of all cultural and educational backgrounds to enhance their lives with classical music, playing together as an orchestra whether they'd been told they were talentless or not. Posy took off her glasses and gazed out of the window with a fleeting glimmer of optimism. As she looked at the nearby rooftops of Millfields, she thought of the people working in the street below. These were the people she cared about; men like Roy Carlton who'd taken up the violin after being sacked from the biscuit factory, not an O level to his name, and who'd gone along to a local evening class to gain a bit of musical education. Now he was on Grade 4, and he was composing too - songs, to lyrics inspired by his old job, the aggressive management, the hierarchies, the joy of baking cakes and bread. His new-found confidence had helped him find fresh work at the bakery in Tesco. Further down the road was a Turkish deli. Posy thought of Amina Osman, the little grandmother of five, with a grey bun and National Health spectacles who played viola and loved music that was slow and expressive. And as she heard a door shut in the flat downstairs she thought of the occupants, Phil and Rhoda Bostwick, semi-retired psychotherapists who'd come to the orchestra in need of creative sustenance and a challenge that they could share. Phil and Rhoda were musically unskilled - he was learning the trombone and she was a Grade 2 cellist - but both had administrative acumen, powerful determination and principles of unwavering liberalism; Posy saw them as the heart of the orchestra. God, how she loved these people! They were like a family to her, crazy, dysfunctional, knitted together in a complex and beautiful pattern that would never be unravelled as long as Posy lived. She let out a tremulous sigh, and clicked onto the orchestra's website, designed by one of its members, the resourceful timpanist Neil Havers. Her heart lifted as the home page flashed into life, with its slowly shifting montage of photographs, all of smiling orchestra members working together in community-based situations. Clarinettists Hattie and Zoe working in a secondary school, surrounded by laughing teenagers; Neil had intended to edit out the blurred spectre of the Headmaster in the background, looking as though he was storming into the classroom to put out a fire (Posy reasoned that he probably understood little about the need for artistic freedom in schools, and had no appreciation of what local amateur musicians, pillars of the local community, could bring to the pupils). Next, a concert at the local town hall came into view; the stage packed with excited players, their faces glowing a little under the bright lights, flushed with the effort of playing an early Haydn symphony. Not many audience members could be discerned, but Posy remembered the evening well - it had unfortunately clashed with the F.A. cup semi final, and she remembered how apologetic Phil and Rhoda had been that they'd been foolish enough to book the hall on such a bad night. The two trumpeters - eighteen-year-old students in the last year of their A-levels - had failed to turn up that evening, practically sabotaging the whole event. Still, it had been a proud moment, getting the orchestra on stage - just a few months earlier, most of the members could hardly play a note. And now, their self-esteem was sky-high. But only if the summer school went ahead.

 

Carefully entering the User Name and Password that Neil Havers had taught her in order to access the inner workings of the website, Posy began to create an advert for the Home Page.

 

STOP PRESS! THE MILLFIELDS ADULT BEGINNERS ORCHESTRA IS LOOKING FOR A NEW LEADER! Due to unforeseen circumstances, Carrie Hammond is unable to lead MABO for the foreseeable future. We need someone to replace her as soon as possible. The ideal candidate will be able to play the violin to professional standard, ideally have experience leading an orchestra, and have several years' teaching experience. They must feel passionate about the ideals of the orchestra (click on MANIFESTO to find out more about what we stand for). We welcome admissions from all areas of the community, regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.

 

Posy stopped and scratched her head. Naturally she supported the rights of the mentally disabled to find fulfilling work; but was it appropriate that such a person could lead an orchestra of needy, fragile amateurs? But then how would a person with a physical disability such as cerebral palsy manage to play the violin? Where did they stand legally on this? All she knew was that she wanted no-one to be excluded. Posy frowned and continued typing:

 

The post is unpaid.

 

Oh dear, there was that sinking feeling again. 'It is impossible to replace Carrie,' said her inner voice companionably, 'you are a fool.'

'Oh, shut up,' said Posy out loud, and Mao leapt from her lap, using his needle-sharp claws to help launch himself. 'Ouch!' reposted his mistress, frowning as she looked down at the little threads bobbling upwards from her beige linen trousers. 'My best trousers, you rascal!'

Mao skulked away, and a few seconds later the rattle of dried cat food being pursued around a plastic bowl could be heard. With sinking spirits, Posy took off her glasses once more and laid them on the desk. What was the point of this? The course was ruined; Carrie's absence could even mean the end of the orchestra. She was part of its lifeblood.

 

Posy stood up stiffly, rubbing her lower back. She made a mental note to book an Alexander Technique lesson, and left her tiny study to go to the phone in the living room; perhaps she could ask Neil Havers to send out a Tweet. Just as her hand descended onto the receiver, the phone began to ring.

 'Hello?'

'Am I speaking to Posy Gibson?'

'Speaking.'

'Of the Millfields Adult Beginners Orchestra?'

'Yes.'

Oh, get on with it! The nerves in Posy's solar plexus recoiled as she anticipated the subject of the call - this was probably the man from Inner City Arts who required the orchestra to jump through various hoops before the money could be released.

'I'm ringing about the Summer school.'

Oh God! What should she say? That the course was unlikely to go ahead? That the course was full? She panicked and played for time.

'Ah, yes; how did you hear about it?'

'I'm sorry, how did Ihearabout it? Well, I can't remember; I think it was a little leaflet at my therapist's flat. Dr Rhoda Bostwick.'

'Rhoda! Of course. Lovely woman, very empathetic.'

'Yes she is. I'm sorry, are you a patient of hers?'

'No, no,' laughed Posy awkwardly, 'I live in the flat above.'

'Ahh, you're the one who plays the flute.'

Posy pulled a gurning face in horror. 'I didn't realize it was so audible! I don't practice in the flat very often…and I only ever play quietly.'

'No, no, it's just from time to time I've heard some lovely improvising coming through the ceiling during my sessions. It doesn't annoy me; no, not at all, I didn't mean to imply…'

'No, of course,' replied Posy, 'it's just that I'd no idea the sound travelled down quite so clearly. I feel a bit mortified.'

'Oh, you mustn't, you mustn't,' said the man. Posy realised that in this polite bit of chit-chat she had quite lost the plot. The man's voice was intriguing; charming, Queen's English, and she was curious to know why he was enquiring about the orchestra.

'So how can I help you?' she asked finally.

'Well, I know it's probably way too late in the day, but I'm interested in coming on your summer school.'

Her heartbeat accelerated. Her mind whirled as she tried to work out what to do. It was almost inevitable that the course would not go ahead.

'Ah, right. What instrument do you play?'

'I play the violin, for my sins,' said the man.

Posy's brow furrowed further. Without Carrie's guidance, the violinists would be like a ship without a rudder.

'And roughly what grade are you? If you've done any exams, that is,' she added, 'we don't expect people to have any conventional training at all.'

'Well I'll let you in on a little secret. And I hope this won't count against me,' the man confided in a soft voice. Posy anticipated the worst - he had only just decided to learn the instrument and had yet to get it out of its case.

'But although I was indeed an adult beginner, I have spent part of my working life as a professional musician.'

Her mind went blank, unable quite to grasp the implications of this.

'You're a professional?' she echoed. "And you were an adult beginner?"

"I'm not a professional now, though I was. I'm an English literature teacher at an evening school. But I played in a string quartet for a few years. I took up the violin when I was seventeen, which I know is unusually late, and just took to it like the proverbial duck. Soon I was swimming away in the beautiful sea of music. I was hooked. I freelanced for a while, met the other quartet members, and then, well, it's not the easiest way to make a living, is it?'

Posy warmed to the man. He had an artistic attitude. He obviously loved music but had no intention of slogging it out at stultifying music society concerts around the country, being told by the smug local matrons that some world-renowned pianist was coming next week. He loved music for its own sake, money or no money.

'And you'd like to take part in our summer school?'

'Yes, I know it's terribly late in the day. I expect you're fully booked.'

'Well we've always room for more. No-one is turned away, as long as they've read our manifesto and understand what it is we stand for. Inclusivity is our watch word. You may be sitting next to some-one who has just started, you do understand that, don't you?'

'Naturally. That's why I'm interested. I've done conventional orchestras to death. They're museums, obsolete hierarchies, vehicles for egotistical conductors to exercise their delusions of power. Though I did work with the Dagenham Pond Chamber Orchestra who have no conductor, and that worked brilliantly for a while though in the end there were fallings out over the running of the thing. Egos have a way of rising to the top. Look at the Soviet Union.'

'Oh, I agree!' chimed Posy. 'But Millfields is nothing like that. We do have a committee running things because, you know, it would just be impossible otherwise. But they're all orchestra members. You could say the orchestra governs itself. And conductors are invited strictly on approval. We won't work with anyone who isn't committed to what we believe in. They have to be talented, yes, and have first-rate leadership skills, but most of all they must haverespect.'

'Leadership skills; essential. I appreciate that now I'm a Head of Department. I like to think that I've learnt a few good things in that direction. Though I won't be applying to be your conductor, oh no! Reading a full orchestral score sends my brain into overdrive. Just a single treble clef, that's enough for me.'

Posy laughed. She was relaxed now, and her mental processes appeared to have warmed up, and be working properly.

'I don't suppose you'd be interested in trying out as orchestra leader would you? We've just lost our leader and boy, do I need to find someone quickly!'

There was a silence, and Posy suddenly wondered if she'd let down her guard too far, revealed to a complete stranger that the orchestra was in trouble. If he didn't want to be leader, then this would put him off completely.

'Well. This is a surprise. I was expecting to be told that there was a waiting list for back desk violinists and that I'd have to wait till next summer. This really is a turn up for the books.'

'You don't have to tell me now. Just think about it.'

Having acted decisively, Posy's mind began whirling again in panic. What if this guy were a mad axe murderer, or simply terrible player, uninspiring and incapable of leading a toddler down a slide?

'No, no, I can tell you my answer now. I'm simply bowled over. I'd like to say Yes. This is so perfect. Music has been calling me back for many years. I can't believe I've been given this opportunity to… tocontribute. I feel very proud and I'd love to try out as your leader. And please, I do understand that this is a trial. I won't be offended if things don't work out.'

Posy smiled, melting with relief. 'Then let's meet up before the summer school and I can tell you more about us.'

'And I can tell you a little more about myself, if you happen to be interested! Er, such as my name.'

'Oh yes. I do apologise. What is your name?'

'Alexander Hamilton.'

'Alexander Hamilton. And I'm Posy Gibson.'

'Yes, you did say.'

'Did I?'

'At the start of our conversation. Well, Posy, thank you. Thank you very much.'

 

She put down the phone and felt a pleasant lightness in her chest. The sinking feeling had magically gone away. Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Her cheeks were flushed and her green eyes were shining. She brushed an unruly strand of her wavy hair out of her eyes and stood back so she could focus on her reflection. 'I have just talked to a charming man,' she thought. 'That was a very pleasant experience. I am looking forward to meeting him.' And then Posy thought, 'Stop it. You are not interested in charming men. You have a boyfriend. He sounded ancient anyway.' A vision of a smooth, silver fox-type flitted across her consciousness. Velvet jacket, bow tie maybe. Well turned out, well preserved. But that was not the point. She had found her leader, and was determined to make it work, whether he was a God-like specimen of male beauty and intellect or pitifully challenged, both mentally and physically. Now, Posy felt she had more strength with which to deal with the problem of Carrie. Her friend needed support, and although Posy had no experience with babies or children, she was confident that she could help. She was a good listener; sometimes people just needed to be allowed to moan, groan and even cry, without being given unwanted advice, without judgement. She decided to give Carrie a ring, and had just lifted the receiver when the front door of the flat opened and Barnaby came in, bringing with him a dozen shopping bags which he released onto the doormat with a sigh of relief. He stretched out his sore fingers and winced.

'That supermarket is hopeless! Their organic range is getting smaller and smaller - I mean, it's 11 o'clock in the morning and they are totally picked over. I was forced to get non-organic mushrooms, non-organic purple sprouting broccoli, non-organic orange juice even, for Christ sake! And no artisan rye bread!'

Posy hesitated for a split second before the correct, sympathetic response made itself available.

'Oh, that's a shame, darling. But you know I really don't mind. Your veggie risotto is always gorgeous whatever.'

'That's not the point,' he replied in a light, sing-song voice, and Posy felt stupid, her obvious manipulation exposed.

'And I'm supposed to be meeting Marcus at half past, I've hardly time for a cappuccino!'

'I'll make you one!' said Posy, rushing towards the kitchen. She felt guilty that her morning had been spent doing nothing but contemplating a letter and answering the phone to a nice, non-difficult person, while Barnaby had been out to do their household shopping, as well as calling in at the printers to see if the publicity leaflets for his latest film for the South Bank'sFestival of Revolutionwere ready.

'Did you get the leaflets?' she called, warming up his coffee cup with a few drops of boiling water.

'Yes!' replied Barnaby, a warmly excited tone coming into his voice for the first time that morning. 'They are brilliant. Marcus is so talented. I can't wait to see what he's planned for the posters.'

He came into the kitchen and leaned against the breakfast bar while Posy frothed the milk.

'You shouldn't be doing that for me. I can make my own cappuccino.'

Posy looked up. 'Sorry.' She instantly regretted her apology. For some reason she always read criticism into Barnaby's throwaway comments, instead of chivalry, which she was sure was their real intention. 'I mean, of course you can, but let me treat you. You've had a busy morning, and it's been a really stressful time for you with the film coming to fruition. You've worked so hard.'

'It's not been stressful, I enjoy a challenge. It's you that always finds things stressful, Posy. That's why you're always in need of Alexander Technique lessons. Is your back still hurting?'

He came up behind her and gave her lower back a vigorous rub, so that she jogged frothy milk over the sides of the jug.

'Whoops. Mm, thank you. You can stop now.' She tried not to raise her voice. It's as if I'm angry with him, but he's done nothing wrong, she thought, frowning. He stopped rubbing and gave her a desultory pat in the same place. The flicker of annoyance flared hotter for a second.

'I've had a bit of a crisis this morning,' she said, blending the milk with hot, strong coffee. 'Barnaby?'

He was studying the Media pages of the Guardian. 'Jeez, I must go and see the latest Don Giovanni!' he said. 'This World War II production sounds amazing.'

'World War II?' repeated Posy, puzzled.

'I'm sorry, what did you say? A crisis?' He finally looked up.

'Yes. A bit of a mega-crisis. Carrie has left MABO.'

'Carrie has left? Why?'

'She can't cope with the baby. Fergus has left her.'

'No! My God! Fergus!'

Now Barnaby seemed more interested. He put down the paper and slurped his cappuccino. 'Why has he left her?'

'He can't stand the stress of being a parent,' replied Posy. 'The sleep deprivation and inability to get on with things. He's unable to write his novel, apparently.'

'So he can't work?'

'Not from home. He can still go out to his part-time job at the publisher's, but he's blocked on his novel.'

'Ah, I see. That must be tough for him.'

'Well Carrie can't work either, can she?' Posy replied, frustrated. 'She's given up all her teaching and hasn't picked up the violin since Dante arrived. It's tough for her, too.'

'Well naturally, but someone has to bring home the bacon.'

'Fergus's novel is hardly doing that.'

'Not now, I grant you, but when it's published it will.'

'That's totally hypothetical, Barnaby. Carrie and Fergus both have creative work that they've had to give up, and it's as hard for her as it is for him. He shouldn't have left her!' Posy's voice rose in a passionate crescendo. Barnaby raised his eyebrows.

'It was her decision to have a baby,' he reasoned.

'It takes two!'

Now the annoyance was really coming out. And as usual, Posy grew hotter and more out of control as Barnaby grew cooler, more commanding.

'So I suppose you feel you should fly to her side?'

'Yes, that's exactly what I intend to do.'

'Even though you now have a crisis, with no leader for MABO and your summer school looming upon you?'

'I have found a new leader. I did it while you were in Tesco.'

'Well, that is quite dynamic for you, I must admit.'

Tears stung in Posy's eyes. 'Iamdynamic,' she protested softly. Barnaby looked up at her, exasperated. His own dark brown eyes were clear and dry, the short black hair irritatingly young and jaunty-looking. Still handsome at 40, while she seemed to be ageing at a rate of knots.

'Yes, yes, of course you are,' he conceded, 'I didn't mean it in a sarcastic way.'

What other way was there, thought Posy, as Barnaby continued to look at her intently.

'At least this should finally convince you about babies. This is what they do. They split people up. They take away all their creative energy. Frankly, they ruin lives.'

Now, Posy's tears could not be held back.

'Oh, what a horrible thing to say, it's unforgivable,' she said, half choked.

'It's facing the facts. I'd better ring Fergus and see if he's okay.'

 * * * * *

 Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10 

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Epilogue