‘Career change’

Agatha had become an expert in distraction. Her trademark was a vermilion taffeta ball gown, luminous against her dark skin. A sculptural hairpiece coiled like a shiny python above her ear. She wore ridiculous platform shoes too high to walk in – but it didn’t matter, because she would always perform sitting down, with one leg either side of the beast.

As the faces in the audience caught sight of her, they would whisper and nod appreciatively. That’s her, they were saying, you know, the famous harpist. How on earth could they afford her? Isn’t she just divine? So unique! They shared admiring smiles. Fortunately, nobody was well enough acquainted with contemporary harp music to know how it should sound.

The truth was, Agatha didn’t play contemporary harp music. She couldn’t tell a quaver from a treble clef. So she improvised, or as her website boasted, ‘played only her own original compositions’. Spinning the lie felt easy, liberating. As natural as walking. One foot, then the second, a pause, a skip, a twirl. The suggestion of a frown in her forehead as the beautiful notes hung in the air.

She wasn’t quite sure how it had happened. How she’d gone from being Angharad’s full-time carer to a professional harpist. She hadn’t had a day off since March. Like a magician’s sleight of hand becomes second nature, she had learnt how to expertly arrange herself and her skirts beside the instrument in the manner of a maestro. To smile faintly as she caressed its curves, as if calling to mind the pleasurable hours she had spent at its strings, practising for this moment. In fact, she had never practised music in her life: she had been left the instrument by her last client, along with a Nissan Cherry on bricks and an ailing chest freezer.

Nevertheless, there was no denying that there was something hypnotic about the chords she sounded; the rhythms she chose. Perhaps Angharad still had some say in it. Did the strings remember their previous mistress, and the melodies she used to play for Agatha on dark winter afternoons? Was she lending them back to her, out of gratitude? And how long would they last?