A Short Story.
The bespectacled accompanist positioned his creased Prince of Wales checked rear on a faded, gold, velvet King Louis XVth stool. Crafted in curves to follow soft, round buttocks, it was perhaps similar to one that might have been found in the salon of Madame de Pompadour, one of many mistresses to the seriously unfaithful King Louis XV. Fifteen years after Loius XV's life of debauchery ended, during the French Revolution of 1789, the jading stool might have supported a TB-stricken courtesan as she masked consumptive shadows with powder and rouge. The faithful ally rescued silk and lace; artillery, flung, for the most part, with feigned abandon, during rousing rituals of striptease. The silent witness eavesdropped upon hungry, clandestine kisses, cumulating in frenzied love-making, interrupted only by intriguing revelations of espionage and discussions that rendered strategic war policies. The shabby French spy was now bed partner to an over-strung Baby Steinway from Hamburg…left-over relics of past glories, like the World War II veterans, who were now seated in an overbearingly stuffy room, which would soon precipitate a snoring chorus, whereupon being nudged, the awakened would whimper, ‘Did I miss anything?’ … ‘We showed those bloody Germans a thing or two, didn‘t we!’ Medalled, then forgotten heroes, with minds, still stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, were invisible now behind unwashed, unhallowed windows. They had been assembled, like the children, they had grown old into, to be distracted for a while, by artistic effort.
They shuffled and plastic seats groaned, as the pianist fished self-consciously into his battered leather music case for his manuscripts, and as he did so, the story of his bachelorhood was told by unkempt shirt-cuffs. He had a pallid ‘indoors’ face, that seldom said, ‘hello’ to the day or to his neighbours for that matter. There was just him, his mother and Henry the cat. His mother, an Irish emigrant from Middleton in County Cork, had always been an unhappy and unfulfilled person, and had never made a secret of the fact. She seldom got out of bed these days, and apart from Mrs Mellor from Strawberry Lane, who performed all the ‘female’ duties, his life’s routine revolved around that of his mother’s. He wished, sometimes, that he'd wake up one morning to find she had died in her sleep, and then immediately hating himself, he'd commit himself to endless decades of the rosary, which had been instilled by the leather belt of his Catholic mother. The space where black and white keys reigned, would gradually mediate between duty and guilt, restoring an equilibrium of ivory nothingness.
The fidgeting audience didn’t know, nor did they much care, that he had stayed up all night transposing, Down by the Sally Gardens, based on a poem by W.B. Yeats and Drink to Me Only, lyrics from Ben Johnson’s 1616 poem, Song for Celia, and several other well-known songs, into the key of C for Charlie. Charlie! A face like a Toby jug and a lifestyle akin to the jug’s namesake, Sir Toby Belch, a fun-loving, character from Shakespeare’s, Twelfth Night, meant that Charlie, a high tenor once, now sang everything at least two tones lower. He had always loved Charlie. At university, Charlie had been the only one that had seen beyond this forgettable figure, that others perceived as weird, if not, slightly unhinged. They hadn’t performed together in forty years … an ocean of time had elapsed since then.
Following their graduation, Charlie became a priest, albeit one with a robust desire for the good life, he went to work as a missionary in Africa, and believing quite sincerely that he could make a difference, he remained in Africa for ten years, before returning to Maidstone in Kent, the adopted home of his Irish family. During that time, there was very little communication between the two men, but on the rare occasions, that an airmail envelope made a surprise entrance through the mouth of the front door, it always read the same as the last. Charlie persuaded that all was wonderful.
The pianist had had one love. She was a young flautist, Maria, whom he had met at Oxford in 1965. Her laughter and light-hearted teasing eased his melancholy on summer evenings meant for sonnets of love like those penned by Francesco Petrarca for Laura and Dante for Beatrice. As they were both fascinated by history and architecture he passed a remark, one afternoon, that there was a wonderful view of St. Michael’s Cathedral from his bedroom window. Maria was enthralled. They joked about Professor Johnson, their German lecturer, whose tight grey trousers had split that morning as he bent down to pick up a piece of chalk, only to reveal that he was wearing no underpants. They giggled so much, that even as they held on to one another for support, they fell helplessly towards his bed, dappled in the yellow of approaching twilight. Laughter exhausted, she turned to him and sighed. ‘Kiss me, Archie.’ Nervously the piano man moved his lips towards hers on the pillow next to him. She had closed her eyes. He watched her closed eyelids for the first few searching seconds, but was unable to halt the tide of certain surrender. She took his piano fingers and gently cupped them around her breast. It was warm and soft … so different from the coolness of his ivory existence. She guided his hand to the buttons of her blouse. He was drowning in the silkiness of her skin ... the taste of her lips… the smell of her breath. Suddenly, he was dragged back into the reality of his ivory world, by a cold, rasping voice. His mother had returned to the 'two up and two down' earlier than usual. ‘Archie … Archie … where are you?’ she bellowed, as she bulldozed from room to room. In order to protect Maria’s modesty, Archie hid her in his wardrobe while he distracted his mother's attention to the guttering at the back of the house, that needed to be repaired. Maria slipped out of the house and Archie's life that day. He never kissed her or felt her softness again. She teased a long-haired cellist now. The 'beatnik' wrote an 'Adagio in G', just for her, and played it, just for her. On a Sunday evening during the finale of Summer, Archie decided to take a different route home, after a meeting of the local historical society. Turning the corner out of Mulberry Avenue, he was seized by the familiar strains of Maria's laughter. It wafted through an open upstairs window, floating downwards onto Mayberry Lane, like cherry blossom in May. Then there was silence. Archie crossed to the other side of the street and as he turned to look upwards, he saw two dark heads joined together in a searching kiss. He lay in bed later that night, his hands behind his head, the shadows of passing trains dancing on his wall, and relived that yellow afternoon for the hundredth time. Archie gave up then, just as he had done with Beethoven’s, Moonlight Sonata. He was convinced that his trembling fingers and his dithering mind would bring life to neither! Woman nor music. He was destined to be one of Nature’s 'fumblers'.
The old soldiers, who were now stirred into a wakefulness by the opening bars of Beethoven’s, Für Elise, even though they would have preferred something less serious, less classical, might have been able to pity the musician’s acne-scarred face, forgive a fraying shirt-collar, a greasy head brushed and swept flatly to one side, but the shoes …absolutely unforgivable … brown leather shoes, scuffed and unpolished. They could not fathom an addiction for art that came between ‘spit and polish.’
Nevertheless, those with social graces still intact, applauded Archie‘s honest, but average rendition. The player stood up to take a bow. His fingers had obeyed him for the most part. The organizer and MC for the afternoon’s artistic escape, left the room then to fetch Charlie. When Archie had left him in the library almost an hour beforehand, Charlie was swigging from a brandy bottle that he had stashed in his black leather bag, next to his rosary beads. Archie begged Charlie not to drink anymore. However, he knew that his well-intentioned friend had gone past the point of getting off. Charlie was adamant he was fine as he swayed, and that he wouldn’t disappoint anyone, including Archie, as he pointed a waving finger. Charlie was an alcoholic, of that there was absolutely no doubt. He hadn’t left Africa. Africa had left him. Charlie thought he could change the world. The dawning of his delusion and arrogant defeat, fostered a lonely dependence on a substance that promised unerring friendship. However, the comforting, assuring, confidence-boosting elixir had transformed itself into demonic keeper. Archie had witnessed some of Charlie’s agonizing periods of withdrawal; the hallucinations, the shakes, the vomiting, the depression, the hopelessness and the final shame of wanting to die. It was always the last time ... but never was. Archie muttered a prayer as he left the room of books. He turned at the jam of the door to look back at his friend once more. A grin met him, while a hand reached into the bag …for the bottle … next to the rosary beads.
Outside again, Archie continued to pray silently, as the old boys continued to waffle and wallow in their stories of war. The MC re-appeared, and as he caught his foot in the edge of the threadbare carpet, it caused him to trip, and the mask of calmness began to peel away, revealing an increasing panic. The old men started to snigger as he regained his composure and navigated his way towards the man at the piano, whispering into his ear. Both men’s heads nodded in acknowledgement and chests heaved in apologetic defeat. The MC then walked towards the podium and explained that Father Hennessy would not, after all, be performing this afternoon; that he had suddenly been taken ill and consequently, Mr. O’Brien would play some old favourites that they could sing along to. There was a loud cheer from a newly-enthused audience.
Five minutes into a Vera Lynn selection, the door was flung open widely, causing the MC to topple a second time. A dishevelled Charlie staggered into the steaming drawing room. The full-throated, but raucous singing from the men stopped instantly as if the money in the meter had run out. The priest stumbled towards the curve of the piano, shouting, ‘Hit it there, Archie!’ Horrified, Archie, silently pleaded with God for mercy, and commanded stubborn fingers to pursue the black and white keys that floated away from him. The old army and navy men’s tongues were hammered shut in amazement and disbelief as Charlie, local man of the cloth, launched into song. Slurring over the words that he remembered, he strained to hit the final top ‘A’ of Gounod’s, Ave Maria. In his bid to reach and hold on to the summit, an unsteady Charlie stood on one leg for what seemed an eternity, before folding like a pack of cards. He lay crumpled, laughing one minute and crying the next; his hands flapped, uncontrollably in a bid to hide a face, bereft of dignity. Archie looked on with sadness, at this spectacle of annihilating humiliation.and waste.
He stared at fumbling fingers and lifted them gently towards black and white keys. No longer cool, they were warmed with possibility and the promise of yellow. He began to play ... Beethoven’s, Moonlight Sonata.....
Maureen Walsh © 2010
Ciao for now!