“The Drawer with the Plan of the Cathedral”: Book Excerpt

This is an excerpt from Chapter Two of my (very!) soon-to-be-released novel, From All False Doctrine. I chose this bit to share because it conveys the tone and some of the themes of the book without giving away too much of the plot.

The setting is Toronto in 1925. The two characters here, Christopher Underhill (Kit) and Peverell Peacham (Peachy), are in Peachy’s apartment, where Peachy has just offered to play a new piano piece that he has composed.

It began as a delicate, almost evanescent melody, built into a passage full of powerful chords, then trickled exquisitely away again. There was a poignancy to all of Peachy’s compositions, even when he tried to be bombastic or modern, as if his essential good nature shone through in spite of himself. This one wasn’t even trying to hide its tenderness.

“It’s beautiful,” Kit said inadequately, when the last note had faded and Peachy had spun around to face him again.

“Thanks … It’s unfinished, of course. It needs something. I have a feeling it’s just the first movement of a suite.”

“That could be good,” said Kit, but with an aching heart. It would be good if he thought the suite had any chance of ever being finished. It would be good if he thought it wouldn’t languish like all of Peachy’s other half-started projects, while Peachy moved on to a new idea for an opera or toyed for a while with an old idea for a jazz band.

Peachy had half turned away on the piano stool and was running a forefinger dreamily across the surface of the keys. “It’s for Harriet,” he said.

“Who?”

It wasn’t Kit’s finest moment; he knew even before Peachy turned an incredulous, glassy stare on him that he shouldn’t have said that, but it had been a genuine question. He was sure he didn’t know any Harriet.

“Harr-i-et,” Peachy repeated slowly. “The woman I am going to marry.”

“What?”

“Marry!” He leapt to his feet. “My future Wife! The partner of all my—”

“Yes, I’m familiar with the concept! Who is your future wife? When did you get engaged? It’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“We’re not engaged, you horrible realist. This is a private determination of my own. She is to become my wife. To that end are all my thoughts directed, all my—”

“Oh! Is it the girl from the beach—the other one, the pretty one?”

Peachy was giving him another glassy look. “The ‘other one’? The ‘pretty one’? You don’t remember her name.”

“Spencer. I didn’t remember her first name. It’s been a long day. Anyway, I didn’t talk to her very much, until—” Until she decided I might be useful to her, he thought, but he had just enough sense not to say that. “Well, at all, really.”

Peachy sighed and sat back down on the piano stool. “Yes, well, since you have reduced the discussion to such a level, Harriet Spencer is indeed the woman I mean. Although I think you’re too hard on her friend—she was pretty too.”

“No, I think I’m being quite fair. Miss Spencer is pretty. Her friend is … something else. ‘Pretty’ is not the word I’d use.”

“‘What?’ he cries in his turn. And what is the word you’d use?”

“I don’t know … I don’t think there’s quite a word—you might need a phrase. Something-ly beautiful.” He shrugged. “I’m not a poet. Anyway. You were saying. You plan to marry Miss Spencer. You have written part of a suite or something in her honour—which is very lovely, by the way, and bound to impress her.”

Peachy closed the cover of the piano keyboard and leaned back dramatically against it, arms outflung. “She’s everything I have ever wanted in a woman, Kit. Such sweetness, such vivacity, such … such a light, clear soprano tone—stop laughing! It’s quite important—I couldn’t possibly marry a woman who couldn’t sing.”

“No, I suppose you couldn’t.”

“Or couldn’t appreciate music, at least. But that was what struck me immediately, you see—I mean apart from her obvious radiance, her angelic face, her breathtaking … ” He noticed the shape he was sketching in the air and shoved his hands embarrassedly into his pockets. “Her—her figure, which the bathing costume did certainly show off to advantage, and which you must admit was, well, flawless. Not to say … ”

“Breathtaking. You did.”

“Yes, well, I stand by it. ‘Pretty’ indeed! But it was her knowledge of music and Scripture, you see—she said ‘Psalm 55’ even before she said ‘Mendelssohn.’ That was what impressed me. I grant you she seemed rather uninformed in other regards—couldn’t quite picture her as a Political Economy major, to be honest, but—she probably just wants a little building up or something. Women often do, I’m told—the culture doesn’t encourage them to develop their minds, and so they waste their potential. Well, I’m something of an expert on that—the irony is not lost on me, my lad. But … the point is, I love her. I just love her.” Suddenly he looked genuinely desolated. “Oh, I know I sounded confident a moment ago, Kit, but really I haven’t a hope. She can’t possibly love me—how could she? I couldn’t even advise it, from a rational perspective. If I were her brother or something, I’d probably forbid it.”

“Take heart! She may not have a brother. And if I were her brother, I would advise it. Heartily.”

“No doubt, but you’re a fool—I’ve long known it. Kit, it’s no good! Even if by some miracle I could win her love, what then? Could I look after a sweet, delicate creature like that?”

“Of course. You’re not a brute. Anyway, are you absolutely sure she wants much looking after?” This was as close as he could comfortably get to saying: I think she misrepresented herself to you. The friend Miss Nordqvist had described so eloquently hadn’t sounded to him like a particularly delicate creature. Which was to her credit, Kit thought, and would no doubt be better for Peachy, too.

“Oh, I don’t mean … I know I’d be nice to her. I mean … well, this whole idea of settling down and marrying, you know, it makes one wish one had … I don’t know, finished one’s degree … done something with one’s life. How can I offer her a husband who cobbles together an income at three or four precarious jobs, with no prospect of anything better on the horizon?”

“You could look for full-time work.”

“We’ve been over this before, Kit. I can’t leave old Doughty in the lurch—the shop would fail if I quit. And I’m not being self-important, I’m just stating the plain truth when I say Montano could not keep the band together without me. And we have to rehearse in the mornings because Sykes still works the night shift. I know the reviews don’t bring in much money, but they don’t take me long to write, either, and at least they get me free tickets to shows. I’m not qualified to do anything that pays real money—anything that I’m willing to do, I mean. I can’t take handouts from my parents, it simply isn’t right. I couldn’t work in an office or anything like that and still have time for my music—and I can’t give that up.”

They had been over it before, many times, and it always ended the same way, with this recitation of things that Peachy couldn’t and wouldn’t do. Half of it—two thirds, maybe—was about not wanting to let other people down. The rest …

“But you do, actually,” Kit said. “All the time.”

“What?”

“Give it up. Not altogether, obviously, but piecemeal—and in the end, I’m afraid it’ll amount to the same thing.”

Peachy looked at him doubtfully. “You mean because I can’t focus my energies and stick to one type of music? But I’ve explained to you—”

“I don’t mean that. I mean because you never finish anything.”

“But that’s … that’s just a symptom of … that’s just because I can’t devote myself to one form, it’s—I haven’t found—”

“Let me put it this way. Why do you want to make music?”

“Why?” Peachy slouched lower on the piano stool, arms folded, irritated. “Because it’s what I’m good at.”

“But why do you want to do the thing you’re good at? I don’t mean why does one—why do you?”

“To glorify God.” He pushed himself upright on the stool and looked at Kit belligerently.

“Exactly.”

“What do you mean, ‘Exactly’? I thought I’d rather called your bluff there.”

“Not at all. But suppose you wanted to build a cathedral. Would it be good enough, do you think, to scribble a plan on the back of an envelope and leave it in a drawer? Obviously not. The thing has to exist in the world. It’s what we’ve been given the world for.”

“I see what you mean,” Peachy admitted grudgingly. “But there’s so much I want to do—there aren’t enough hours in the day, that’s why … ” He gestured hopelessly. “That’s obviously a very poor excuse. But my music does exist in the world. You’ve heard it, for instance.”

“Yes, but who am I, really? I’m like the drawer with the plan of the cathedral in it. It’s something, but it’s not enough.”

“All right. I suppose I see that, too. But what are you suggesting?”

“You’ve got to finish something. Really finish it, and have it performed somewhere—let it out into the world. It doesn’t matter what it is. You want … ” You want somebody to knock you on the head so you forget about all the competitions you won as a child, everything your teachers and your parents’ friends and the contest adjudicators said about how brilliant you were going to be, how the world was your oyster and you could do anything you wanted when you grew up. “I think you want to stop worrying about what form is the best, what the name of Peverell Peacham will be known for down the ages, and just see something through to the end. Because I don’t think you’re meant to do just one thing—you’re meant to do a lot of things. And you have to start somewhere.”

From All False Doctrine

 

Thanks for reading!

You can find out more about the novel here.

You can also sign up to my mailing list, and I’ll let you know when it’s out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *