Madame Sousatzka, page 1
Madame Sousatzka specialises in child prodigies. In her hands the new boy will blossom into musical genius. But the public cannot hear him yet: until his debut he belongs to Sousatzka and her bizarre hot- house tenants. One day he will be a great pianist - until that day he must play only for Sousatzka ...
'A story of delectable charm and wit. Passionate, comical, touchingly unaware of oddity, Madame Sousatzka is Ms Rubens' most engaging creation, inimitable and unforgettable ...'—The Times
'Intense and charming, Miss Rubens makes her characters live with a degree of self-awareness that makes them peculiarly stimulating. She has a sharp ear, a penetrating eye and that kind of warm but impartial heart that is the mark of the really interesting novelist'—The Standard
All her life, Mrs Crominski had taken anxiety like a pep-pill. And naturally, over the years, she had become an addict. She couldn’t have lived without it, and even if there was nothing to worry about she daily took her dose, in order to ensure a restless, sleepless night, which had for her become a norm. She carried anxiety about her person like a built-in shadow, which dogged her even when the sun never shone.
She rounded the corner into her street. After a half dozen steps, she could see her own house. Well, thank God, it wasn’t on fire. It was still there, whole, and please God, Marcus was in it, and please God again, in bed. She hated these nights when she had to work late, with Marcus by himself and getting his own supper. Please God he listened to me and didn’t boil a kettle. She could see Marcus’s bedroom window now, and the light shining through the curtains. Thank God, he’s in.
‘Marcus,’ she shrieked, her key still in the door.
‘Momma?’ she heard him call.
He’s in, and what’s more, he’s alive. She went upstairs still carrying her heavy shopping basket, not wanting to lose any time. She pushed his door, but it was locked. ‘Marcus,’ she whispered in a panic. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’m undressing, Momma.’
‘Undressing,’ she screamed with relief. ‘In front of your own mother you should be ashamed. A baby he is,’ she addressed the empty landing, ‘eleven years old, he should be ashamed from his mother.’ She put down her heavy bag. ‘How long you should be?’
She sat down on the leather hold-all, spreading her hands on her knees.
‘Marcus,’ she said, ‘you ate?’
‘All twice over?’
Mrs Crominski sighed with satisfaction as if she had checked a laundry list and found it complete. ‘Homework?’ she added.
She always felt a slight irritation that things could go smoothly even if she were not in the house. ‘You cleaned your teeth?’
‘No, Momma.’ Mrs Crominski smiled. She heard him unlock his door and jump into his bed. She went unhurriedly into his room.
He lay with the blankets touching his chin. His black hair half obscured the blue embroidered ‘Marcus’ on his pillow. Mrs Crominski sat on the bed and Marcus made no move to accommodate her. She balanced on the edge and leaned towards him.
‘All right,’ he said. He knew the questionnaire that was to follow by heart. ‘What did they give you for dinner today?’ he asked for her.
‘So? What did they give you for dinner?’
‘Momma, every day they give us meat, potatoes and gravy, cake and custard.’
‘Vegetables they don’t give you in these fine modern schools?’
‘Always you forget the vegetables, Marcus.’
‘Well, I don’t like spinach.’
‘Is good for you. Spinach, peas, beans. Every vegetable is good. You had a test today?’ she added quickly.
‘We had a test yesterday, Momma, I told you.’
‘Results today, perhaps?’
Mrs Crominski tried to allow a decent interval to elapse. ‘So?’ she said, as casually as she could.
‘I came second.’
‘Second you came,’ she said, throwing her arms round him.
‘Who is first?’
Marcus struggled to free himself. ‘Peter Goldstein.’
‘H’m,’ said Mrs Crominski, ‘the boy with the stutter. Nebisch, let him come first with the stutter. How much he get?’
‘He got ninety-six, and Peter Goldstein isn’t the one with the stutter, Momma. That’s his brother.’
‘He got ninety-six without a stutter,’ Mrs Crominski mused. ‘And you?’
‘Ninety-four,’ she said, standing up to add sincerity to her statement. ‘You should only do your best and I’m not complaining. You did your best, Marcus?’
‘Second is pretty good, Momma.’
‘I’m not complaining,’ she screamed at him. ‘Did I say it’s not good? I should complain with such a mark. You did your best. In any case,’ she added quietly, bending over him, ‘this Peter Goldstein, I’d like to see him play the piano. Tomorrow in the concert you will show them. You will be best, best,’ she repeated, ‘not second best. You go to sleep now. Tomorrow in the morning, you’ll brush your teeth twice.’
Marcus’s eyes were closed and she thought he’d dropped off to sleep. She looked at him tenderly, regretting all the little hurts she had given him, all the reprimands. The times when she wouldn’t let him go swimming because he was late from school. She’d make it up to him tomorrow. Every night when she watched him sleeping, she would make it up tomorrow. She turned out his light and shut the door quietly. She went downstairs with her heavy bag and heavier thoughts about Peter Goldstein.
Marcus sat up in bed and turned his pillow over, blotting out his silk-embossed identity. He brought his right hand out of the blankets and studied it carefully. The black birthmark at the base of his palm, the sundry criss-cross lines that escaped from it like the tracks on a railroad terminal. He turned his hand over and studied his fingernails. What he saw was not very promising. The only finger left with a fraction of bitable nail was the little one and he wanted to save that till after the concert tomorrow, for a little celebration. He brought out his left hand, knowing only too well what he would find. Each nail had been exhausted. He would have to let the whole hand lie fallow for at least a week before he could reap any profit from it. He studied his right little finger again, and his mouth watered with temptation. He hurriedly put it back under the blanket and solemnly knelt up in his bed, tucking his feet well under him, so that he could sit on them, a position he always assumed when nail-stock was low. After a while he got cramp in his feet, and he stretched himself out under the covers and shut his eyes tightly. He rubbed his knuckles deeply into his eye-sockets. That way he could see a kaleidoscope of colours, and out of the colours would emerge eyes, and out of the eyes, people, and out of the people, pictures. From time to time he would rub his knuckles into his eyes, again, to bring th
As Marcus predicted, his mother arrived late. And as he feared she wore her brown hat and her black coat. He was sitting on the platform along with the other performers. They nudged him along the line. ‘There’s yours,’ they whispered, as if he couldn’t see her. He would have denied the relationship if he could. But his mother was too well known in the school because of her frequent visits to the headmaster. ‘Can Marcus be excused the school today, Mister? Tomorrow, he has concert.’ Or, ‘It’s better Marcus shouldn’t play football, I think. Swimming yes. Is good for the boy some exercise.’ Every week it was something else. He stared defiantly at the ceiling. He daren’t look in her direction. Above all, he dreaded that if she caught his eye, she would wave to him. He stared at the brown wooden panels on the ceiling and the noose of ropes and ropeladders that were always hooked up when the gym was used as an assembly hall. He hated her for being late, for her brown hat and her black coat and the shopping bag that had become part of her wardrobe. And he saw it full, the cauliflower sticking out, and the leeks, and the potatoes underneath. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. He felt the weight of it and once again he saw her brown lisle swollen feet. He looked deliberately in her direction and smiled. And sure enough, she waved to him.
The concert was almost over. Marcus was the last item. George Welsh had Ave Maria’d his heart out, and his mother had swooned audibly in the front to establish her relationship. Six juveniles had had a penny, a bright new penny, and had each in the same monotonous way, taken their pennies to the market square, followed one after the other by a proud and mouthing mother. Hodges, the prefect, had brought out his only clarinet solo, and had given the audience, as the headmaster had surely promised he would, a rendering. Marcus was next. When he was announced, murmurs of recognition spread among the audience, and murmurs too of ungrudging praise. Because with all the concerts Marcus gave, he was regarded as a professional and therefore not eligible for comparison.
Marcus sat down at the piano, and waited for the applause to wane. He was about to start, when the back doors of the hall swung open. The whole audience turned around to see the newcomer. She took her place, standing at the back of the hall, and acknowledged the headmaster with a distant nod. Marcus stared at her. In the space of a second he absorbed every detail of her appearance.
The most exciting feature of her face was her forehead, simply because it was invisible. It was covered by a thick mat of black fringe which seemed to grow upward out of the eyebrows. She was covered from neck to toe in black material, of which her handbag seemed to be an extended side-bustle. An assortment of coloured beads and pendants hung over her chest and about her wrists. She was as still and as silent as the two pillars that framed her at the back of the hall. Marcus knew somehow that she was there because of him and he suddenly felt very nervous.
The audience were waiting, but Marcus felt he couldn’t begin without her sanction. He looked towards her for some sign. Again she gave an almost imperceptible nod and Marcus started to play. He had chosen a Chopin waltz, mainly because it was popular and one of his mother’s favourites. He found no technical difficulties with the piece, and after a while he felt he was playing automatically as if he were manipulating a pianola. He felt the woman’s stare on him. He wondered whether the eyebrows were raised under the mat of hair, whether she was smiling, or nodding perhaps. He was sorely tempted to look at her. He stole a glance at the platform, at the row of teachers. None of them were looking at him. All were staring fixedly at the back of the hall. He felt he was being done out of something and he wanted to get the piece over with. He began to hate the woman because she was stealing his limelight. He was surprised to hear that he was approaching the final phrase. The audience had begun to clap after the first of the final three chords. He wondered whether she was clapping too. He decided when he stood up to bow, that he wouldn’t look at her, but he found her staring at him all the same. She wasn’t clapping. She stood there immobile at the back of the hall. Marcus turned round to acknowledge the applause bursting from the platform. He turned about quickly and just caught her in the act of clapping while his back was turned. She dropped her hands to her sides guiltily and stared back at him.
Most of the audience were getting up and filtering across to the long table at the side of the hall where tea was being served. Marcus watched the woman walk down the centre aisle and towards the headmaster, who had come forward to meet her. They exchanged greetings about half-way. The headmaster looked in Marcus’s direction and beckoned to him. Mrs Crominski had seen the signal. Anything that concerned Marcus concerned her, and she was at the headmaster’s side before Marcus reached him.
‘This is his mother,’ the headmaster said, ‘Mrs Crominski, and this,’ he stretched out his arm to Marcus, ‘this is the boy you came to hear. Marcus,’ he went on, ‘this lady is a great teacher. Madame Sousatzka.’
Mrs Crominski gasped. The name had a definite celebrity flavour. ‘Is wonderful, Marcus,’ she said, ‘such a great lady is come to listen to you.’
Marcus resented his mother for reminding him and he silently begged Madame Sousatzka to forgive her. She smiled at her.
‘Mrs Crominski,’ she said, ‘your son has much talent.’ Her English was broken, Marcus noticed, but not like his mother’s. His mother’s English was broken all over in body and spirit. With Madame Sousatzka each separate word was a minor fracture. ‘Who is his teacher?’
‘Mr Lawrence,’ Mrs Crominski said in a tone of declaration. Madame Sousatzka showed no signs of reaction. ‘L.R.A.M.,’ Mrs Crominski added, as if this entitled the man to at least some sign of recognition. Madame Sousatzka was silent. ‘A.R.C.M. Diploma,’ Mrs Crominski went on with some desperation. Still Madame Sousatzka waited. Mrs Crominski decided to play her last card. ‘M.A. Oxon,’ she said. Mr Lawrence was obviously a man who had changed his horses mid-stream. Had Mrs Crominski known Madame Sousatzka she would have realized that the whole of the alphabet after a man’s name would have made no impression on her. ‘I would like the boy for a pupil,’ she said simply.
Mrs Crominski’s immediate thought was money, or rather, the lack of it. Marcus hoped fervently that she wouldn’t mention it. He was ashamed of their poverty when publicly exposed to a rich party, as he presumed Madame Sousatzka to be. But Mrs Crominski felt no such shame. ‘Such money, Madame Sousatzka,’ she laughed, ‘we don’t have.’ The headmaster shrugged his shoulders at the irrelevance. ‘Madame Sousatzka,’ he explained to Mrs Cromin
Such a nice Jewish woman, Mrs Crominski thought, and aloud to her, ‘My son will pay you back, Madame Sousatzka, a thousand times he will pay you back. Such a profit you will have from him. You will not regret, I tell you.’ Mrs Crominski had a talent for looking a gift-horse in the mouth.
Madame Sousatzka opened her bag. It hung like an extra bracelet from her wrist. She didn’t remove it from her hand. She unclasped the hook and it fell open. She fumbled blindly through and drew out a white card. When she withdrew her hand, Marcus stared at the open bag. The chaos inside astonished him. It in no way corresponded to her immaculate appearance. He could distinguish by colours at least four crumpled handkerchiefs. A broken comb was caught in a metal compact, spillings of pink powder lay on everything. An open pen had left ink smudges around the lining and some stray hair pins were caught on the inside pocket. Marcus thought of the chaos inside his mother’s bag, chaos compounded of the same ingredients, dirty handkerchiefs, papers, pins and bus tickets. Had his mother’s bag been open and displayed in public, he would have bolted with shame. But somehow with Madame Sousatzka, it was right and proper. He began to feel very proud of her.
‘On Friday at three o’clock,’ he heard her say. ‘Here on the card is the address.’
‘Yes,’ said the headmaster to Mrs Crominski in anticipation of her request. ‘Marcus can leave school at one o’clock.’ He rubbed his hands together and ushered them over to the table for tea. Mrs Crominski beamed at the people around her, all staring at their little group with wonder and admiration. She put her arm round Marcus’s shoulder and guided him towards the table. ‘Not here, Momma, please,’ he begged. She dropped her arm slowly and Marcus felt the hurt in her. She walked on in front of him and Marcus looked at her hat and thought it was the brownest brown he had ever seen.
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