Madame Sousatzka, page 10
‘You’ll cut your fingers,’ he said gently. But Jenny insisted, picking up the splinters one by one. Then she took another glass and poured them inside, like ashes in an urn. She held it up to the dim green light, like a penitential candle, and then gently consecrated it to the mantelpiece.
‘Poor Paul,’ Uncle whispered. Sousatzka put her arms round her, stroking the fur collar. ‘Come Uncle,’ she said, ‘we must all of us go to bed.’
Cordle went to the door and held it open for the two ladies. Madame Sousatzka’s train dragged through the door, her arm firmly round Uncle’s waist. Mr Cordle nodded to Jenny with a miserable smile, and he closed the door after himself.
Jenny stared at the door for a long time. Then she switched off the lights, leaving only the small night-light by her bed. She lay awake in the luke-dark, watching the glass that stood on the mantelpiece, upright and bare as a dead tree.
‘Tomorrow, I’ll buy a new one,’ she decided. ‘We’re going to need a tumbler in this house.’
Madame Sousatzka had arranged to meet Manders the following Saturday in his office. She had written to Mrs Crominski informing her of her decision, and suggesting at the same time that her presence at the interview was not strictly necessary. Mrs Crominski had replied. To the first, natural, she was delighted; to the second, natural she understood. She hadn’t really understood it at all, but she was still prepared to make concessions to the loser. She decided it would be Madame Sousatzka’s last fling.
Madame Sousatzka was a little nervous of tackling Manders on her own, and she had asked Jenny to go with them.
Marcus was up early at the piano, and Sousatzka was still in her bedroom dressing. She had tried on her entire wardrobe, trying various combinations of colours and accessories. The women’s magazine lay open on the bed with an article entitled ‘Start from Scratch’. Madame Sousatzka took everything off until she reached the scratch condition. Tabula Rasa. ‘The first thing you must do if you have an important date is to start from scratch,’ the article said. Well, she’d done that, hadn’t she, and it was an uncomfortable position to remain in for long. What now? ‘Now,’ the article continued, ‘sit down and think.’ Madame Sousatzka sat down and thought. She was much too cold to concentrate deeply on anything. She considered after a few moments of meditation that she’d been loyal enough to the article, and she leaned over to read what followed. ‘If your date is a formal one, there’s nothing quite to beat that indispensable little black dress,’ Madame Sousatzka rushed to her wardrobe. Yes, she had one of these indispensables, that by any standard of good taste is most readily dispensed with. She surprised it off its hanger and quickly put it on, more for the sake of warmth than conformity. She went back to the article. ‘With a little black dress, you can go to town on accessories,’ it dared her. Well, this was more in her line. She draped a heavy horse-brass round her neck, and swathed her arms in a smithy-full of heavy copper bracelets, and topped the ensemble with a large red velvet hat. ‘Let yourself go with the bracelets and bangles,’ the article had said. She had followed it to the letter.
A new paragraph signified the next stage of the operation. ‘Now take a good look at yourself,’ it challenged. Madame Sousatzka felt she’d rather not go that far, but a sense of duty compelled her to follow its advice to the bitter end. Looking at the results in the mirror, she felt she would have done better to reverse the advice of the experts, to have worn her red velvet dress and gone easy on the rest. So she took everything off and started over again.
She ended up with exactly the ensemble she had intended to wear in the first place. She had gone to town on absolutely everything. She looked so much like a shop-window display that it was unnerving to see her set herself in motion towards the door and manoeuvre herself down the stairs into the hall.
Jenny was already there. She was wearing her black indispensable – the magazine had been borrowed from Jenny, who had taken it from Cordle’s waiting-room.
Cordle had come to see them off. Uncle was shouting from the bottom of the basement stairs. It was the most she could manage so early in the morning. ‘Best of luck,’ she was calling at irregular intervals. ‘Are you gone yet?’ she asked hopefully, impatient to get back to her rocking-chair. ‘The taxi’s just come,’ Jenny shouted back. ‘Good luck then,’ said Uncle, and hearing the front door slam she retired to her room. Cordle saw them all out, down the front steps and into the taxi. He waved to them sadly without saying a word, as if the taxi were a tumbril.
Marcus sat between the two women. He was the least nervous of them all. He rarely rode in a taxi and each time it was an adventure. He would count the length of the intervals between each meter-change, and it would always vary. The meter was not his personal anxiety, so after a while he ignored it.
Madame Sousatzka grew impatient at the crawling pace. For her, the business of hailing a taxi was far more fun than driving in one. She would often, in a crowded street, shout ‘Taxi!’ into a line of traffic, having made sure that the cab was already hired. She felt people around her in the bus queues marvel at her potential. She leaned back in her seat, playing with her watch chain, one of the sundry pendants hanging round her neck.
Jenny was impatient, too. For her, riding in taxis was part of the game, especially in the old days of street pick-ups. She remembered how she used to give the cab-drivers her address and how they never failed to wink knowingly back at her. She found this acknowledgment outrageous; she tried whispering her address, or shouting it with confidence, or dropping it casually with determination, but always it met with the same response, the one-eyed confirmation of ‘I know what you’re up to, luv, but it’s none of my business so hop in the two of you and I’ll see you right.’ The winking cabby had become a recurring image in her dreams and even when she exchanged the pavement for the telephone, she could never obliterate from her memory the demoniac cyclops at the wheel.
They had at last overtaken a bus they had been forced to trail, and the cab-driver turned down one of those back streets known euphemistically as the short cut. When, after much meandering, they got back on to the main road, they found they were only a few yards ahead of their original point of departure. Madame Sousatzka glared at the ticking meter. Not only was she going to her own funeral; she was paying her expenses, too.
‘Are we nearly there?’ Marcus asked. Madame Sousatzka left the meter unguarded for a moment to look out of the window. ‘Almost there,’ she said, relieved. The taxi suddenly turned into a side street and pulled up outside a block of offices.
‘This is it,’ said Jenny, patting her hair. ‘Come on, Marcus, we’ll wait for Sousatzka in the hall.’
‘No.’ Sousatzka was adamant. Marcus especially now was her charge. ‘We will all go together.’
Marcus and Jenny waited while Madame Sousatzka fumbled in her bag. She looked repeatedly from her bag back to the meter, to ascertain that it hadn’t pulled a fast one on her. She was astonished in any case by its reading. She worked out the ten per cent tip aloud, while the driver watched her patiently. After much verbal calculations, she gave him the fare and the tip, separately and exactly.
‘You sure you wouldn’t like a re-count, lady?’ the cabby asked. But his sarcasm was lost on her. ‘No, I’m absolute sure, and thank you.’ She managed a smile, and taking Marcus’s hand she led him up the steps into the hall.
In the centre of the hall was a desk and sitting behind it, operating a switchboard, was a middle-aged lady. Her nose, her chin, and her finger-nails were lethally pointed. Her long, greying hair was parted severely in the middle and wound itself into snails over her ears. Over these were ear-phones that clamped her head like a vice. She was flicking the switches up and down, and stopping up various holes with plugs, all the time resting one hand on her knitting, which lay in front of her. When she saw Madame Sousatzka arrive, she nodded. Or rather, she gave a series of nods in all directions, first at Marcus, then to the switchboard, down to her knitting and up to the ceiling. He
After about five minutes, Madame Sousatzka got nervous. With all the restless plugging and switching the woman was doing, she expected the whole board to explode at any moment. She got up to draw attention to her continued existence. Another nod from the woman, less articulate this time and with less confidence. Madame Sousatzka nodded too, with great vigour; communication had been re-established. She sat down again, fingering her watch. They were already late for the appointment. In a way, this didn’t displease her. She didn’t want to show Manders that she was too eager.
Jenny was getting restless and Marcus was fidgeting. The woman didn’t seem to let up with her plugging and switching. She was obviously completely controlled by the machine.
Madame Sousatzka could stand it no longer. She got up and motioned to the others to follow her. They would find their own way to Manders’s office. She sailed through the hall past the woman’s desk, Marcus and Jenny timidly trailing her. The woman stopped her plugging, and gaped after them, realizing that she didn’t even know whether they were friend or foe. She dropped all her wires and even unclasped her head. She was conscious of desertion and the possible penalties, but she had to warn whoever it was, and she hoped to God there was someone, who was expecting them. She thumbed through the large appointments book, checking the time and the date. To her relief, she found only one appointment scheduled for eleven-thirty. Mr Manders with Madame Sousatzka. She flung on her vice and stabbed the neglected, twitching switchboard with a plug, like a matador administering the coup de grace. She hoped she’d make it before they did. ‘Mr Manders,’ she cooed, ‘Madame Sousatzka is here.’ She didn’t specify exactly where she was, but there was no doubt about her presence in the building.
‘Could you tell her to wait for a few minutes and apologize?’ Manders cooed back. ‘I’ve someone with me at the moment. I’ll ring when I’m ready. Come in,’ she heard him say as he replaced the receiver.
The poor woman suddenly saw the results of her inefficiency. A pointed tear wriggled down her cheek. She got up in a panic and fled from her desk, even leaving her knitting behind, and the switchboard belching and blinking like an over-jacked fruit machine.
Things were no calmer on the third floor, Room 23, to which Madame Sousatzka and her party had instinctively found their way, as if by smell. When Sousatzka came into Manders’s room, he did not at once see Jenny behind her.
‘Ah, Madame Sousatzka,’ he sung, in his best impresario manner. ‘This is my wife,’ he said, turning to the woman who sat with her back to the door. At this point Jenny presented herself in the doorway with Marcus. This was a meeting he had spent careful years avoiding. He hadn’t expected Jenny to come anyway, and his wife had only dropped in casually because she happened to be in town. He decided to ignore Jenny completely and hope that Sousatzka would have the sense to introduce him.
‘And how is Marcus?’ he said, going up to him, to give Sousatzka a little time. But Madame Sousatzka was dumb, and Jenny stood around, ungreeted and unannounced. ‘Ah, Jenny, you’ve come too,’ Manders said, because somebody had to say something. ‘Meet my wife,’ he challenged her. He might as well go the whole way now. There was no avoiding it.
Mrs Manders flung out a limp hand as if it didn’t belong to her, like a fisherman flinging a little one back into the sea. Jenny caught it and stared her straight in the eye. She was a shrewd-looking woman, and small too, Jenny was convinced, because she stubbornly remained seated. She was expensively dressed, and she fingered her clothes as if checking on her compensation. Her face, even in youth, had never been beautiful; not because of her features, which were well-moulded and defined, but because of the meanness of her expression, which age had underlined with wrinkles.
She stared for a while at Jenny’s feet. Then she turned her head towards her husband. ‘Felix,’ she said, as if scolding him, ‘put me in the picture. Madame Sousatzka is the teacher, Marcus is the pupil, but who is Jenny?’
He waited for Madame Sousatzka to supply Jenny’s references. But Sousatzka was staring at the ceiling. The silence was beginning to betray him. ‘Why, Jenny’s another pupil,’ he laughed weakly. He regretted it the moment it was out. He knew that at some time or another she would be called upon to prove it. Marcus gasped audibly, and Manders made frantic gestures to him over his wife’s head, to keep his mouth shut. He winked at him matily, as if to imply that this was only a game. Marcus shrugged. He wasn’t particularly interested in what they were saying. He was vaguely looking round to find where they kept the piano.
‘A pupil,’ Mrs Manders beamed, ‘and no doubt as talented as our little Marcus here.’ Mrs Manders was already asserting her rights of property. Madame Sousatzka instinctively called Marcus over to her.
‘There is in England no pianist talented like Marcus. Jenny is only a beginning.’
Marcus saw Manders wink at Madame Sousatzka gratefully. He caught Mrs Manders’s eye, and she raised her eyebrows at him distastefully. Then suddenly Marcus understood what the game was all about. ‘She’s not a beginner,’ he laughed, wishing to join the game thoroughly. ‘She plays the orchestral parts of concertos, while I play solo. Don’t you, Jenny?’
‘Well, I try,’ she said. She thought that if she was going to pass as a pianist at all, she might as well be a competent one.
‘Well, now isn’t that nice?’ said Mrs Manders. ‘Felix, d’you think I could hear them some time? I know, why not let Jenny come over on Friday with Marcus? You could hear Marcus first and then we could have a little concert. I have quite a salon at home, you know,’ she turned to Madame Sousatzka. ‘Every Friday. The greatest musicians have played in my drawing-room. You must come too, my dear,’ she added as an afterthought. Madame Sousatzka shuddered at the thought of great musicians surrounded by chatter and pretty things on toast. ‘Salon’ was a dirty word in her vocabulary.
Mrs Manders stood up, as if she had settled everything. She was as small as Jenny had expected. She flung out her old fist again in all directions as a gesture of farewell. ‘Will you be dining at home tonight, Felix?’ It was a question meant to impress. With it went the information that Mrs Manders had good silver.
‘I’ll ring you, my dear,’ he said, slightly taken aback by his wife’s terminology. ‘I’ve so much to do today.’
‘Well, I really must go now,’ she insisted, as if they were trying desperately to keep her. ‘I left my car unlocked.’ Jenny obediently noted yet another possession. ‘And Andre will be furious if I’m late. My dressmaker,’ she volunteered. Jenny made another note. ‘Goodbye, then, till Friday.’ Marcus ran to open the door for her. For some reason or other he pitied her. ‘What a sweet little boy,’ she said, fondling his head. ‘Good manners so rarely go with talent.’
When she had gone, Jenny turned on Manders. ‘Now what?’ she said. ‘I could have been anything. I could have been his mother. ‘I could have simply been a friend. How am I going to learn the piano in a week? I’ll just have to be ill, that’s all. I won’t go.’
‘You’ve got to come,’ said Manders almost angrily. He suddenly saw the intriguing possibilities of the new situation, and they half delighted him. ‘She’ll start being suspicious if you don’t come. Look,’ he went on, ‘I didn’t expect you to be here, Jenny. I didn’t expect my wife, either. I just said the first thing that came into my mind. I’m sorry.’
‘Well, I said you were a beginning only,’ Madame Sousatzka exonerated herself.
They all turned to Marcus. ‘Madame Sousatzka doesn’t take beginnings,’ he said, defending himself. ‘She wouldn’t have believed that.’ He already felt himself head of the conspiracy.
‘Well, my boy,’ Manders said, ‘you got us into it. You can get us out.’
Manders was impressed by the boy’s attention to detail. He had in him the makings of a perfect liar. ‘You bandage your hand, you can even have it in a sling; you can’t play, it’s simple.’
But Jenny had objections. ‘I’ll be expected to talk about music even if I can’t play, and I can’t suddenly burn my hand and lose my voice all in one week.’
‘I tell everything you must say,’ said Madame Sousatzka, who wanted a hand in the game, too. ‘I will ask you certain questions, and I will tell you how the answer is.’
‘But supposing she asks me, Mrs Manders I mean?’
‘We’ll all answer for you,’ Manders said in a fatherly way. ‘We’ll manage. It can’t be helped. It was a mistake, but we’ll have to make the best of it. And now let’s get down to business.’
‘Where’s the piano?’ Marcus asked.
Manders laughed. ‘No piano here, my boy. I’ve heard you anyway. The audition,’ he turned to Madame Sousatzka, ‘is a mere formality. I have no doubts that the boy can play,’ he said with some authority, ‘and if I have no doubts, then there’s no question of the boy’s ability.’
Madame Sousatzka was irritated by his arrogance and she wanted to protect Marcus from his unjustified assumption of authority. ‘Is it absolute necessary that Marcus will stay?’ she asked. ‘He can wait for us downstairs. This is just a business, darrlink. For you it is boring. Go down and talk to that nice lady at the machine in the hall. She will let you play with it, perhaps.’
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