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The Hours Before Dawn


  Madeline Brooks looked round the crowded lunch table, studying the keen, intense faces engaged in heated debate, and she shivered suddenly. Nazi idealism in Germany and Fascism in Spain and Italy! Was it part of a political trend that would spread to the whole of Europe? Had Hitler identified an effective route out of the financial chaos of the last ten years? If fascism took hold here, how would Britain fare without the stabilising/inhibiting influence of a democratically elected parliament?

  But the students were rapidly abandoning the debating process and lapsing into a heated argument about current affairs. Their society’s chairman, Eric Finchley, nodded his agreement. “When you see how ruthless and fanatical the Nazis are, the backlash is likely to be vicious. Then heaven help us because we’re nowhere near ready to oppose them effectively.”

  “But a nation with that mentality has to be curbed,” another voice butted in quickly. “We should have crushed them when they marched into the Rhineland last year.”

  “How, and with what?” came an exasperated voice. “By the time we’ve modernised our military capacity sufficiently it will be too late. All we will be capable of doing is arguing our point. If, of course, our politicians will argue the point!”

  Madeline’s concentration slipped for a moment as she considered the looming prospect of war. It would affect all their lives. Each one of her friends could soon be fighting in a foreign land.

  Eric was tapping the table now and glancing purposefully at his watch. “We’ve come a long way from the original hypothesis of the wisdom of democratic government versus dictatorship. It’s almost two o’clock. I think we’ll have to call it a day. Let’s meet here again tomorrow to finish the debate.”

  Madeline took a deep breath and mentally shook herself. It would take some while for the implications of this discussion to fade, and she had a lecture on the harmonies of Bach this afternoon! That was going to be a mental leap! She only hoped the walk back to the Royal Academy of Music with Lucy would help her make the intellectual transition.

  She reached into her purse to pay for lunch, but a hand touched her shoulder and her flatmate, Josie Rogers, peered at her short sightedly. A smile was transforming her gentle pretty face. “Don’t wait up for me tonight Maddy. Arny’s invited me out to the theatre. We’re going to see Noel Coward.”

  Madeline laughed and patted her friend’s hand. “What delicious decadence. Have a nice time, the two of you, and tell me if it’s worth seeing when you get in.”

  “Are you doing anything tonight? Why don’t you come with us? You could bring Eric. We’d have an excellent evening.”

  “No.” She smiled gently but firmly. “I don’t want to play gooseberry and besides, I promised to go to the pictures with Emily and the crowd to celebrate her birthday.”

  “Then could I borrow your blue evening dress again Maddy? Do you mind?”

  “Of course not. Just go and have fun.”

  Josie looked at the pile of coins growing on the table. “Do you want a hand with counting it? It’s going to be a desperate rush.”

  “Thanks.” The two of them had been close friends since childhood, and it was second nature for them to share everything, from their lodgings with Mrs Cork and the clothes they wore, to their responsibilities for the debating society. The only thing they did not have in common was that whilst Josie was eager to go out in the evenings with her boyfriend, Madeline was determined to avoid a personal relationship. It was something that concerned Josie, for it seemed unnatural that someone as lively, intelligent and attractive should reject the idea of romance. Yet Maddy did it with single minded determination.

  For Madeline it was a matter of survival, and it was something she had never been able to confide in anyone, not even her closest friend. They began to count briskly through the money and checked it against the bill, then Madeline collected it up and rose to her feet. “I’ll be back in a moment.” And she went to find the busy waitress.

  She wove her way among the tightly packed tables and caught an angrily indignant stare from a smart middle-aged lady and her young son. She smiled charmingly, aware that their debates must sound radical, perhaps even revolutionary, to such staid members of polite society. Then Eric called after her. “Madeline. One moment please.”

  She stiffened. He was the only young men of those who had approached her during the last three years, who would not take ‘no’ for an answer, and his persistence was irritating. She turned to find him striding towards her and she said with calm finality, “Eric! We’ve talked about this before. You’re wasting your breath.”

  “Nevertheless, my dear,” he gathered her hands up in his, “I’ll ask. It means a great deal to me.” He took her arm gently and led her slowly between the busy tables, lowering his voice discreetly. “I’ve acquired some tickets to a concert next weekend.”

  He reached into his inner jacket pocket, extracted a small envelope and took out the tickets. “Rachmaninov himself is coming to play at the Royal Albert Hall...”

  “Eric!” all aloofness left Madeline, to be replaced by a passionate love of music. “The Henry Wood birthday celebration. I’ve been trying for weeks to get tickets, they’re like gold dust! It should be a glorious occasion...!”

  Then her enthusiasm died as she saw through the invitation and realised what he was doing. “It isn’t really your taste in music, is it?”

“Not entirely, but you wrong me. I’d thoroughly enjoy hearing the great man himself. He will be performing the Second Piano Concerto.”

  She nodded with aching longing. “But how on earth did you know I’ve been hoping to go to that particular concert?”

  “Intuition, and a little inside information. But listen. I’ve invited Josie and Arny to accompany us. A party of friends will make a beautiful evening out, and I’ve booked a table at Simpson’s for a meal after the concert. It won’t be expensive, but it will be really special.”

  “You’re going to bankrupt yourself, Eric. Those tickets must have cost a fortune. You know, you would be better spending the money on your books and study.”

  “On the contrary. I want to treat you to a unique evening, something you will look back on for the rest of your life.” He touched her cheek softly and frowned with the intensity of his emotions. “You’re a very special young woman, so vital and spirited and yet something separates you, removes you from the rest of us.”

  Shaken to the core by this familiarity, Madeline turned away from him to pay the bill and recover her ruffled composure.

  She handed the money and bill to the waitress. It was idiotic to feel like this so many years after it had all happened, but the reaction was rooted deep in her, and it hurt.

  Once the business was completed, she turned back to him. “I’m flattered that you should ask me Eric, but I have far too many commitments this month...”

  “No. I won’t accept any answer just yet,” he said firmly. “Think about it. We would all enjoy the occasion tremendously. And it would take our minds off current affairs.”

  Madeline opened her mouth to reply, but it was too late. The rest of the students crowded around them, and they were swept out of the restaurant. Lucy scooped her arm up eagerly. “Come on, we’ve only got ten minutes before the lecture starts. We’re going to have to run.”

  Madeline looked around for Eric, but he had wisely slipped away. Then she caught sight of Josie, and her lips tightened. That young lady had a great deal to answer for, putting her in such a difficult position.

  “Go on without me, Lucy. I’ll follow as quickly as I can. I have something to say to a certain young friend.” Then she reached out for Josie’s arm and drew her to one side, away from the departing throng.

  “You’ve been scheming again, haven’t you? I hear you’ve been telling Eric how much I want to see Rachmaninov.”

  “Don’t tell me you’ve refused him! He’s gone to the trouble of getting tickets, and I know you’re dying to go to the concert. Surely it wouldn’t hurt for you to go together.”

  Madeline could have screamed in sheer exasperation. “Match making! Surely you know me better than that, Josie.”

  “Oh, I know you!” Josie was equally vehement. “Do relent Maddy. Eric’s trying extremely hard to please you. I wish such an attractive young man was making that degree of effort to attract me.”

  “You’re quite happy with Arny aren’t you?” Madeline asked in sudden deep concern.

  “Yes,” Josie smiled tenderly. “Arny’s sweet and kind, and just my type. I couldn’t cope with Eric. But you could. You need someone like that.”

  Madeline shook her head and laughed suddenly. “I most certainly do not! I’m much too busy, and I have next month’s recital to prepare for. I don’t have time for anything else.”

  “Rubbish. You’ve enough time for one evening out.” Josie shook her head. “And surely, to hear the great man himself will be an enormous inspiration.”

  Maddy laughed. “Listen Josie, I like good company and fun, but I don’t want anything more. I’m perfectly happy as I am.”

  “Oh Madeline, you don’t know what you’re missing!”

  A small jag of vivid memory invaded Madeline’s mind. She knew, and the memory terrified her.

  Josie touched her arm and murmured softly, “Well I think you should give it a try Maddy. You need a break, particularly just before your recital. Do you know, there are times when I worry about you? It’s unhealthy to work all the time without taking a break.”


  Late that evening, Madeline closed her books, turned the table light off and sat in the darkness to think.

  Music was her life. It always had been. And she could imagine no future for herself other than as a pianist.

  In the darkness she could almost feel the cool ivory of the piano keys under her fingers. She let her thoughts wander, let her memory roam through the music she had learned, trying to recapture the way it had once been. She remembered the magic of her father playing to her during her childhood, the sheer wonder of listening to him and learning. A burning passion for music had filled her soul, just as it had filled his.

  It was a life more vital and vivid than any other she knew. And she ached to have it back with a longing that felt like a knife wound in her heart.

  She could play, but not as she once had. The magic was gone, locked away and inaccessible, trapped and frozen within her.

  Then she dared to recall how she had been able to connect with it, channel it through her heart and mind so that it flowed through her fingers and the notes had resonated with depth and meaning.

  Tears filled her eyes suddenly. Josie had been out with Arny tonight and was now peacefully sleeping in the bedroom that the two young women shared. She had returned several hours ago, as relaxed and unworried as the schoolgirl she had once been. Arny was a quiet nice chap, well suited to Josie’s organised, gentle temperament, and he was the latest in a string of boyfriends that would have surprised the Reverend Rogers had he but known what his daughter was doing.

  Madeline ran her fingers through her curly golden hair. If only she could relax and trust like that!

  She knew what was trapping her music and causing this excruciating pain. It was the horror and self-loathing that Belaugh had inflicted on her. He had stunted and damaged her ability to feel so that she did not dare to look inside that locked door.

  She had to pluck up the courage, unlock that door and face down the demons. Only then could she reach her full potential as a human being and as a musician.

  Until she had the courage for that, her music would remain dead.

  She shivered suddenly in dread. Could she possibly trust herself for an evening out with Eric? She liked him, she enjoyed the fun, pleasure and stimulation of intelligent company. But the thought of an intimate male relationship screwed her up.

  If any man took a step too close, then the most appalling reaction set in. It was agony to experience, and she could not control it.

  Surely if she was with Josie and Arny, then she would be alright. And it would be marvellous to relax like an ordinary woman, away from the stimulation of the Academy.

  It was very tempting. And Josie was right. She would feel much better for an evening of relaxation. Dear Josie, always the analytical one. A mathematician through and through.

  Oh, what the hell. It was about time she risked trying her luck at living it up a bit. She ought to take that first step.



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