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Authors: Michel Faber

The Courage Consort

The Courage Consort

Michel Faber

A H
ARVEST
B
OOK
H
ARCOURT
, I
NC.
Orlando Austin New York San Diego Toronto London

Copyright © 2004 by Michel Faber

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

www.HarcourtBooks.com

"The Courage Consort" and "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps" were originally published in separate volumes in Great Britain by Canongate Books.

"Bohemian Rhapsody"—Words and music by Freddie Mercury. © 1975 (Renewed 2003) B. Feldman & Co., Ltd., trading as Trident Music. All rights controlled and administered by Glenwood Music Corp. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Faber, Michel.
The courage consort: three novellas/Michel Faber.
p. cm.
1. Psychological fiction, English. 2. Excavations (Archaeology)—
Fiction. 3. Vocal ensembles—Fiction. 4. Twins—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6056.A27C68 2004
823'.914—dc22 2004005912
ISBN-13: 978-0151-01061-5 ISBN-10: 0-15-101061-7
ISBN-13: 978-0156-03276-6 (pbk.) ISBN-10: 0-15-603276-7 (pbk.)

Text set in Minion
Designed by Linda Lockowitz

Printed in the United States of America

First Harvest edition 2005
K J I H G F E D C B A

Contents

The Courage Consort

1

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

97

The Fahrenheit Twins

187

The Courage Consort

To all those who sing lustily
and with good courage, and to all
who only wish they could

O
N THE DAY THE GOOD NEWS
arrived, Catherine spent her first few waking hours toying with the idea of jumping out the window of her apartment. Toying was perhaps too mild a word; she actually opened the window and sat on the sill, wondering if four storeys was enough to make death certain. She didn't fancy the prospect of quadriplegia, as she hated hospitals, with their peculiar synthesis of fuss and boredom. Straight to the grave was best. If she could only drop from a height of a thousand storeys into soft, spongy ground, maybe her body would even bury itself on impact.

'Good news, Kate,' said her husband, not raising his voice though he was hidden away in the study, reading the day's mail.

'Oh yes?' she said, pressing one hand against the folds of her dressing gown to stop the chill wind blowing into the space between her breasts.

'The fortnight's rehearsal in Martinekerke's come through.'

Catherine was looking down at the ground far below. Half a dozen brightly dressed children were loitering around in the car park, and she wondered why they weren't at school. Then she wondered what effect it would have on them to see a woman falling, apparently from the sky, and bursting like a big fruit right before their eyes.

At the thought of that, she felt a trickle of mysterious natural chemical entering her system, an injection of something more effective than her antidepressants.

'Is … is it a school holiday, darling?' she called to Roger, slipping off the sill back onto the carpet. The Berber plush felt hot against her frigid bare feet, as if it had just come out of a tumble dryer. Taking a couple of steps, she found she was numb from waist to knee.

'School holiday?
I
don't know,' her husband replied, with an edge of exasperation that did not lose its sharpness as it passed through the walls. 'July the sixth through to the twentieth.'

Catherine hobbled to the study, running her fingers through her tangled hair.

'No, no,' she said, poking her head round the door. 'Today. Is today a school holiday?'

Roger, seated at his desk as usual, looked up from the letter he was holding in his hands. His reading glasses sat on the end of his nose, and he peered forbearingly over them. His PC's digital stomach emitted a discreet
nirp.

'I wouldn't have the foggiest,' he said. At fifty-two years old, a silver-haired veteran of a marriage that had remained carefully childless for three decades, he obviously felt he'd earned the right to be hazy on such details. 'Why?'

Already forgetting, she shrugged. Her dressing gown slipped off her naked shoulder, prompting one of his eyebrows to rise. At the same moment, she noticed
he
wasn't in pyjamas any longer, but fully dressed and handsomely groomed. Hitching her gown back up, she strained to recall how she and Roger had managed to start the day on such unequal footing. Had they got up together this morning? Had they even slept together, or was it one of those nights when she curled up in the guest bedroom, listening to the muted plainsong of his CDs through the wall, waiting for silence? She couldn't remember; the days were a chaos in her brain. Last night was already long ago.

Smiling gamely, she scanned his desk for his favourite mug and couldn't spot it.

'I'll put the kettle on, shall I?' she offered.

He produced his mug of hot coffee out of nowhere.

'Some lunch, perhaps,' he said.

Determined to carry on as normal, Roger picked up the telephone and dialled the number of Julian Hind.

Julian's answering machine came on, and his penetrating tenor sang:
'Be-elzebub has a devil put aside for me-e-e … for me-e-e … for meeeeeeee!'
—the pitch rising show-offishly to soprano without any loss of volume. Roger had learned by now to hold the telephone receiver away from his ear until the singing stopped.

'Hello,' said the voice then, 'Julian Hind here. If
you
have a devil put aside for me, or anything else for that matter, do leave a message after the tone.'

Roger left the message, knowing that Julian was probably hovering near the phone, his floppy-fringed head cocked to one side, listening.

Next, Roger dialled Dagmar's number. It rang for a long time before she responded, making Roger wonder whether she'd gone AWOL again, mountain climbing. Surely she'd have given that a rest, though, in the circumstances!

'Yes?' she replied at last, her German accent saturating even this small word. She didn't sound in the mood for chat.

'Hello, it's Roger,' he said.

'Roger who?' There was a hornlike sonority to the vowels, even on the telephone. 'Roger Courage.'

'Oh, hallo,' she said. The words were indistinct amid sudden whuffling noises; evidently she'd just clamped the receiver between jaw and shoulder. 'I was just talking to a Roger. He was trying to sell me some thermal climbing gear for about a million pounds. You didn't sound like him.'

'Indeed I hope not,' said Roger, as the nonsense prattle of Dagmar's baby began to google in his ear. 'This is to do with the fortnight in Martinekerke.'

'Let me guess,' said Dagmar, with the breezily scornful mistrust of the State—any State—that came to her so readily. 'They are telling us blah-blah, funding cuts, current climate, regrets…'

'Well, no, actually: it's going ahead.'

'Oh.' She sounded almost disappointed. 'Excellent.' Then, before she hung up: 'We don't have to travel together, do we?'

After a sip of coffee, Roger rang Benjamin Lamb.

'Ben Lamb,' boomed the big man himself.

'Hello, Ben. It's Roger here. The fortnight in Martinekerke is going ahead.'

'Good. Sixth of July to twentieth, yes?'

'Yes.'

'Good.'

'Good … Well, see you at the terminal, then.'

'Good. 'Bye.'

Roger replaced the receiver and leaned back in his swivel chair. The score of Pino Fugazza's
Partitum Mutante,
which, before the calls, had been glowing on his PC monitor in all its devilish complexity, had now been replaced by a screen saver. A coloured sphere was ricocheting through the darkness of space, exploding into brilliant fragments, then reassembling in a different hue, over and over again.

Roger nudged the mouse with one of his long, strong fingers. Pino Fugazza's intricate grid of notes jumped out of the blackness, illuminating the screen. The cursor was where Roger had left it, hesitating under something he wasn't convinced was humanly possible to sing.

'Soup is served,' said Catherine, entering the room with an earthenware bowl steaming between her hands. She placed it on his desk, well away from the keyboard as she'd been taught. He watched her as she was bending over; she'd put a T-shirt on underneath her dressing gown.

'Thanks,' he said. 'Any French rolls left?'

She grinned awkwardly, tucking a lock of her greying hair behind one ear.

'I just tried to freshen them up a bit in the microwave. I don't know what went wrong. Their molecular structure seems to have changed completely.'

He sighed, stirring the soup with the spoon.

'Five to ten seconds is all they ever need,' he reminded her.

'Mm,' she said, her attention already wandering outside the window over his shoulder. Meticulous though she could be with musical tempos, she was having a lot of trouble lately, in so-called ordinary life, telling the difference between ten seconds and ten years.

'I do hope this château is a
cheerful
place,' she murmured as he began to eat. 'It would have to be, wouldn't it? For people in our position to bother going there?'

Roger grunted encouragingly, his face slightly eerie in the glow of the monitor through the haze of soup steam.

Roger Courage's Courage Consort were, arguably, the seventh-most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world. Certainly they were more uncompromising than some of the more famous groups: they'd never sunk so low as to chant Renaissance accompaniment to New Age saxophone players, or to warble Lennon/McCartney chestnuts at the Proms.

A little-known fact was that, of all the purely vocal ensembles in the world, the Courage Consort had the highest proportion of contemporary pieces in their repertoire. Whereas others might cruise along on a diet of antique favourites and the occasional foray into the twentieth century, the Courage Consort were always open to a challenge from the avant-garde. No one had performed Stockhausen's
Stimmung
as often as they (four times in Munich, twice in Birmingham, and once, memorably, in Reykjavik), and they always welcomed invitations to tackle new works by up-and-coming composers. They could confidently claim to be friends of the younger generation—indeed, two of their members were under forty, Dagmar Belotte being only twenty-seven. Fearlessly forward-looking, they were already signed up for the Barcelona Festival in 2005, to sing a pugnaciously postmillennial work called
2K+5
by the enfant terrible of Spanish vocal music, Paco Barrios.

And now, they had been granted two weeks' rehearsal time in an eighteenth-century château in rural Belgium, to prepare the unleashing of Pino Fugazza's fearsome
Partitum Mutante
onto an unsuspecting world.

***

C
OME THE SIXTH OF
J
ULY
the early-morning English air was still nippy but the Belgium midday was absolutely sweltering. The message from God seemed to be that the Courage Consort shouldn't be deceived by the brevity of the plane and train journeys or the trifling difference in geographical latitude: they had crossed a boundary from one world into another.

In the cobbled car park outside Duidermonde railway station, an eleven-seater minibus was waiting, its banana-yellow body dazzling in the sun. Behind the wheel, a smart young man was keeping an eye out for British singers through a pair of very cool granny specs. He was Jan van Hoeidonck, the director of the Benelux Contemporary Music Festival. Spotting his overdressed guests disembarking from the train, he flashed the headlights of the minibus in welcome.

'The Courage Consort, yes?' he called through the vehicle's side window, as if to make perfectly sure it wasn't some other band of foreign-looking travellers lugging their suitcases through the railway barriers.

Benjamin Lamb, towering over the others, waved in salute. He was grinning, relieved there had been no turnstiles to squeeze through—the bane of his travelling life. The mighty scale of his obesity was easily the most identifiable feature of the Courage Consort, though if anyone who'd never met them before asked for a pointer, Roger would always tactfully advise: 'Look out for a man with silver-grey hair and glasses'—himself, of course.

'But aren't there supposed to be five of you?' asked the director as Roger, Catherine, Julian, and Ben approached the side of the minibus.

'Indeed there are,' said Roger, rolling open the sliding door and heaving his wife's huge suitcase inside. 'Our contralto is coming under her own steam.'

Jan van Hoeidonck translated this idiom into Dutch instantaneously, and relaxed behind the wheel while the Consort lugged their belongings. Catherine thought he seemed a friendly and intelligent young man, but was struck by his apparent lack of motivation to come out and help.
I'm in a foreign country,
she told herself. It hadn't been real to her until now. She always slept like a corpse on planes and trains, from the moment of departure to the instant of arrival.

Having loaded his luggage next to hers, Roger walked jauntily round the front of the vehicle and got in next to the director. He consulted no one about this. That was his way.

Catherine climbed into the banana-yellow bus with her fellow Courage Consort members. In true British fashion, each of them sat as far away from the others as possible, spreading themselves across the nine available seats with mathematical precision. Ben Lamb needed two seats to himself, right enough, for his twenty stone of flesh.

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