I don’t have strong memories of childhood, but I do remember the piano. I remember lying on the floor, with bits of clockwork railway spread around, listening to slow piano music. Long bars of sunshine came through lace curtains and I watched specks of dust glittering and dancing while Mam ran through Chopin’s Nocturnes on her piano.
That piano was one of the many fighting fields of family life. My older sister was sent for lessons. She hated it. She wouldn’t practice, perhaps because Dad helped her by playing duets. He complained that she couldn’t keep time. They bawled and quarrelled. After three years of discord she was permitted to stop.
In my teens I began dating a girl, Kath, who played the piano well. It wasn’t her keyboard skills that attracted me but, by sheer luck, I had discovered a way of having a girlfriend without my father’s disapproval. She used to play duets with him. He complained that she couldn’t keep time.
Kath told me, on the quiet, why Dad thought she couldn’t keep time. It was because his own sense of time was weak. He sometimes played solos for her, ‘to show her how it should be done.’ His solos had been practiced for hours. I heard the rehearsals, his mistakes and sticking points.
Ever diplomatic, Kath would listen and applaud. She listened to him talk about his love of music and I heard, for the first time, the story of his piano playing. He told Kath that when he was courting Mam he had decided to learn the piano. He was 26 at the time and believed music would beat a path to Mam’s heart. Mam, he rhapsodised, was a wonderful pianist. (That part I had heard before, though not from him. Gran, aunts, uncles, cousins had all told me: “Your mother was a grand pianist. It’s a shame she doesn’t play anymore.”)
Kath became my wife. She taught piano at home in the evenings. Pupils differed in their approach to mistakes. The better ones, she explained, were resolute: pressing on to complete the piece, overcoming the mistakes.
Repeaters, however, went over and over their errors, repeating the mistake again and again, unable to move on until they had got it right. Kath would gently correct them, encouraging them to keep up the rhythm and ignore the errors, but some couldn’t do it, they had to break rhythm, repeat and correct.
Kath said the re-starters were worst. When they made a mistake they felt compelled to start again, from the beginning. Then again. And again. Dad was a re-starter.
Kath bought a metronome, a relentless, clacking machine to bring pupils to heel, keep them on the beat. It converted some of the repeaters into resolutes. Dad, on his next visit, spotted the metronome. ‘Aha’ said he, ‘I see Kath has decided to tackle her rhythm problem.’ Kath, tactful as ever, said simply that for some learners a regular beat was helpful.
Dad bought Mam a metronome for Christmas that year. He said ‘it might get her back on the piano.’ Often, when we visited them, I heard the sound of Dad playing my Mam’s piano. Mam and the metronome were silent.
After Dad died I spent a lot of time with Mam. There were papers to deal with. She needed help to transfer things into her name. She had to learn how to write a cheque; how to keep track of her money.
One day I was sitting in Mam’s kitchen, explaining what she should do with the cheque she had just received. She had sold her piano. She told me about the duets, the frustration of trying to keep to Dad’s non-existent beat, his insistence that solo playing was ‘not enough fun’.
Suddenly she erupted in loud, bitter fury. ‘I loved that piano, but he destroyed music for me. For forty-eight years I listened to him playing badly. It’s all very well for your Kath, she only put up with it now and then. And she can play on her own whenever she likes. I used to love playing, but once he started it was torment. And that bloody metronome! It brought a whole new twist to the idea of wife-beating.’
I’d never heard her curse before. She sat opposite me seething, tight-lipped, angry. She stared at her hands, folding and unfolding a bank statement. A repeater, wanting to be a re-starter.
And then, quietly: ‘I should have married Peter Jansen. He knew liked to listen to me. He knew he couldn’t play. And he wouldn’t have saddled me with those bloody kids.’