Madame Sousatzka, page 12
‘Why, my dear Madame Sousatzka, what are you doing over there? Do meet Mr Phillips,’ and he grasped the person nearest his grasp. ‘Come and join us.’ He brought her forward, calling Jenny and Marcus into their circle, effecting as many introductions as he could, talking all the time for fear Madame Sousatzka would interrupt him. She had decided meanwhile to stay. She had plenty on Manders and he knew it. It would keep.
‘Madame Sousatzka,’ an old gentleman croaked nearby. ‘The teacher. My dear, I’ve heard of you, but I thought you dead,’ he said chattily. He began to sniff audibly, as though he were still suspicious that Madame Sousatzka was in a state of rigor mortis, but it was only because Jenny was standing nearby.
‘It’s my ointment,’ she explained to him. ‘I’ve burnt my hand.’
‘Oh dear, I am sorry,’ he said. ‘What did your doctor put on it? I’m a doctor you know,’ he went on to explain. ‘I’m always interested in other doctors’ opinions.’ Jenny rose to the unexpected occasion. ‘What would you have put on it, doctor?’
‘Why, aureomycin of course.’
‘Well, my doctor must be very clever,’ said Jenny. ‘That’s exactly what he gave me.’
The old man laughed. ‘Yes, I thought so. Smells like it,’ he said. ‘The treatment of a simple burn doesn’t call for much imagination, alas. Now, you keep it well covered. Well, well, well,’ he turned to Madame Sousatzka again, ‘so it’s your pupil we’re going to have the pleasure of hearing tonight. And what do you hope from this lad here?’ He put his professional hand on Marcus’s head. Marcus had the kind of head that invited people to fondle or shelter it. In fact, when no one’s hand was there, he felt unfinished. The old man’s hand was comfortable and fitted nicely, and Marcus was sorry when he took it away.
‘Marcus will be the great pianist,’ said Madame Sousatzka. ‘You will hear him. You will see.’ She looked away from the old man and was horrified to see that Mrs Manders had got hold of Jenny. She nudged Marcus. ‘I think Jenny wants you, my darrlink,’ she said, and Marcus, knowing his cue, rushed over to Jenny’s side.
‘I think it’s very becoming,’ Jenny was saying, very much at home. ‘I was getting rather tired of those very long dresses.’
Marcus felt he wasn’t needed and he returned to Madame Sousatzka. Again he felt a hand on his head, an ill-fitting one this time, and he turned to find Mr Manders.
‘Well, young man,’ he said, ‘are we ready? If we go on talking much longer, we’ll forget what we came for, won’t we? Come and have a look at the piano. Do sit down,’ he said to those in his vicinity, pointing at the gilt chairs that lined the walls of the room.
The old doctor took Madame Sousatzka’s arm and guided her over to a chair. ‘May I sit next to you, Madame Sousatzka?’ he asked. ‘I should be most honoured.’
‘Natural,’ she said, though she would have preferred to stay at Marcus’s side. She watched Manders lead Marcus away, his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The old man held the back of her chair while she sat down. Other guests were drifting towards the chairs, keeping their groups and conversations intact. Soon all were seated. The flunkey was clearing away the glasses, otherwise there was no sound or movement in the room.
‘A most obliging audience,’ Manders said, ‘but we’re not quite ready yet. We have to adjust the pedal for our little man here.’ He got down on his knees and tried to fit the elevation on to the sustaining pedal of the piano. Marcus was handing him the screws. Everyone watched them in silence. Manders pushed the pedal this way and that, but it wouldn’t fit exactly. ‘It’ll take a little while,’ he said underneath his arm to the audience. ‘Go on with your conversations.’ Another silence. The guests were fascinated by these extra preparations.
Madame Sousatzka looked across the room and shuddered to see Jenny planted right next to Mrs Manders, out of shelter, completely on her own. Jenny threw a nervous glance at Sousatzka, and a still, small prayer. It was this moment of piercing silence, broken only by a whispered oath from Manders under the piano, that Mrs Manders chose to begin her cross-examination. And it was going to be a public one.
‘And who is your favourite composer, Jenny?’ Mrs Manders asked. Her voice was low and alone, and it rang through the room like a drum roll. Everybody looked at Jenny. Marcus dropped a screw and joined Manders on the floor to look for it. He no longer wanted to be in at the kill. Madame Sousatzka clenched her fists and prayed silently. But Jenny recognized her cue.
‘Bach,’ she said with confidence. She looked at Mrs Manders, hoping to see the impressed look on her face that Cordle had promised her. But Mrs Manders’s face was blank. ‘What especially do you like of Bach?’ It was as if Mrs Manders had been eavesdropping at the dress rehearsal.
Jenny hesitated professionally, as if she were weighing up in her mind the comparative virtues of all of Bach’s output; with her knowledge of Bach, it didn’t take very long. She heard strains of the old school choir. It was a lovely tune. It made everything right in the world. All those little scrubbed pig-tailed girls with steel-rimmed spectacles loving Jesus. It was tempting. But with Cordle’s warning in mind, she reluctantly cast it aside. ‘Brandenburg Five,’ she said, as if it were a momentous decision.
A few guests gasped, and Mrs Manders raised her plucked eyebrows. ‘I prefer number four, myself,’ she said.
Jenny was flabbergasted. She suddenly realized that if there was a Brandenburg Five, there must, by the law of nature and chronology, be a number four. What’s more, numbers one, two and three. She would be there for a week. Jenny raised her eyebrows in her turn. There was nothing else she could do.
‘I thought, being a pianist,’ Mrs Manders went on, ‘your preference would have been for a piano composition. And after all,’ she turned to her audience by way of explanation, ‘the Brandenburgs are hardly for piano.’
They had all underestimated Mrs Manders. Her knowledge of Bach obviously went further than ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Jenny looked at Madame Sousatzka helplessly.
‘They are all arranged for piano,’ Madame Sousatzka rallied.
‘Of course,’ said Mrs Manders, as a victor generously conceding on a small point. ‘But I find that number four is far more interesting.’
It was Jenny’s turn, and there was no getting out of it. ‘Do you?’ she said, as if the woman were mad. ‘Well, I prefer number five,’ she said, sticking to her guns.
Madame Sousatzka prayed vigorously, her heart palpitating. Manders and Marcus were in communal prayer under the piano. But Jenny didn’t let them down. She hadn’t yet been called upon to express her views on Beethoven. If it arose later on it was a problem that could be dealt with at the time.
‘Why?’ she repeated, incredulous that Mrs Manders should be so ignorant as not to know the answer, ‘it’s great, it’s prophetic, it’s moving.’ Jenny fervently hoped to God it was apt.
‘Moving?’ Mrs Manders repeated, equally incredulous. ‘Hardly an adjective I would apply to Bach.’
‘Wouldn’t you?’ said Jenny, full of pity. ‘I would.’
‘Would you, my dear? Why?’
Dammit, Jenny thought. She could see that the only way to get the upper hand in this conversation was to become the questioner. If there were any more ‘why’s’, she was going to say them. But at the moment she had to cope with Mrs Manders’s last question. Why indeed, she thought. She desperately tried to think of something that had moved her. ‘It reminds me of my childhood,’ she said. Damn the dress rehearsal. She was on her own.
‘Why?’ Mrs Manders was nothing if not persevering.
Well, this was easy; she didn’t need Cordle or Sousatzka for this one. She was just about to launch into a moving account of her childhood; they’d asked for it, and they were going to get it, and anyway, it was a wonderful way of changing the subject – when a little woman on the other side of the room felt the need to voice her opinion. She obviously felt it to be of great importance and well-studied, because she spoke
‘I like Mozart best myself,’ she panted. ‘I do think Mozart is so pretty.’ She pronounced Mozart with a soft ‘z’. She was obviously not prepared, since she liked him, to admit that he was a foreigner. ‘There is something about Mozart,’ she added, deep in thought, ‘that is so elegant.’ Madame Sousatzka could have strangled her.
‘What’s the matter with Brahms?’ another woman said peevishly. She spoke as if she were Brahms’s mother. Madame Sousatzka and Jenny sighed with relief at their acquittal. Manders and Marcus started again on the pedal.
‘Brahms is all very well,’ a dowager said generously, ‘but we have some great moderns, you know.’
‘Who?’ Mrs Manders was at it again.
The dowager had waited for this moment. It was a moment she obviously manoeuvred in all the salons she attended. ‘Webern, for instance.’ Silence. From her long experience of the drawing-room the dowager found that the reaction never varied. Always a flummoxed silence.
‘Come, come,’ said an old gentleman whom the dowager had never seen before, ‘you’re not really serious?’
The poor dowager had never been taken up on her opinion. It had always been, out of ignorance, accepted. She hoped the old man wasn’t going to make an issue out of it.
‘A lot of noise he makes, that’s all,’ the old man went on. ‘We’re talking about the aristocrats of music,’ he said, looking at her as if she had betrayed her class, ‘not these upstarts with new-fangled ideas. Webern’s like an abstract painter with no academic knowledge.’
‘But we must keep up with the times, you know,’ the dowager laughed. ‘Abstract art can be as profound as Leonardo.’
‘You’ll be saying next,’ the old man chuckled, ‘that concrete music is greater than Beethoven, or that pop singing is greater than opera.’
‘They each have their place,’ the dowager insisted, and she shrugged her horsey shoulders like a beatnik granny.
‘I think we’re all set now.’ Manders emerged triumphant and sweating from underneath the piano. Marcus crept out after him, and sat on the piano-stool testing the pedal. He looked around at Madame Sousatzka, communicating an invisible ‘thumbs up’ sign, then at Jenny, with an equally invisible ‘well done’. Cordle and Uncle would have been proud of her.
Madame Sousatzka went over to the piano with the obvious intention of taking over from Manders. She fussed around Marcus, whispering advice in his ear which left the audience in no doubt as to whose property Marcus was. She straightened up and faced the audience. Manders was beside her, and they both opened their mouths to speak at the same time.
‘The floor is yours,’ Manders conceded gallantly. ‘Perhaps you will introduce him, if I may be allowed to introduce you first.’
Madame Sousatzka stepped back, and Manders took the floor. ‘Madame Sousatzka,’ he said, ‘is one of our finest teachers. Her teaching methods, as you know, are regarded by some as being most unconventional. Be that as it may, we, the audience, and especially myself, in my own particular way, are interested in results.’ He strove vainly in his mind to find some great example of a Sousatzka product. But failing, he passed on quickly to Marcus. ‘Madame Sousatzka herself tells us that Marcus is her prize pupil.’ Well, we shall see, he wanted to say, partly because it seemed an obvious remark to conclude with, and partly because he could think of nothing else. With Madame Sousatzka breathing down his neck, he thought that he had already said enough. ‘We look forward to hearing him,’ he said weakly, and almost collapsed into the nearest armchair.
There was a faint, polite applause as Madame Sousatzka stepped forward. The women in the audience were examining her minutely. Already they felt hostile towards her, with the natural hostility of the buyer towards the seller. They tried to find fault with her appearance. But it was difficult. Although unconventionally attired, she looked extremely attractive, and they found it undeniable that Madame Sousatzka was a beautiful woman. Their hostility grew. They went on with their dribbling clapping even though Madame Sousatzka was obviously ready to start. They were not going to make it easy for her. ‘Sh,’ Jenny suddenly hissed with authority.
Madame Sousatzka smiled and began to speak. ‘I have nothing to say to you,’ she said gently. Most of the guests settled comfortably in their chairs prepared for a long speech, having heard that opening before. After all, they thought, most people have nothing to say, but they can take an awfully long time saying it. ‘That is true,’ she went on, as if reading their thoughts. ‘I don’t know how to make the speech. All my life I teach the music. Marcus here will make for me the speech.’ She touched him gently on the head and sat down next to Manders. The audience were won over and they applauded her.
Marcus waited until they had finished. ‘I will play a Chopin study,’ he said. This announcement was followed by thunderous applause. Not only could he play, he could talk too. They settled in to listen.
Marcus repeated his talisman to himself. ‘You will listen, I will listen, Sousatzka will listen, Jenny will listen, and it will play.’ And miraculously, it seemed to Marcus for the first time since he had begun playing the piano, that it did play. He seemed more and more to dissociate himself from the sounds that filled the room. He heard them and was pleased. Occasionally, he adjusted a note here and there, he encouraged them, he watched them perform, listening to their strange permutations of sounds and rhythms. He felt light and detached as if he had become his own shadow. And at the same time, he felt afraid. Would it ever desert him, the body, would it not perform any more? Would it cease to play? But it went on, it seemed of its own accord, and he was listening and he was happy. And when it had finished it stopped and Marcus returned to the last chord, pressing his fingers into the notes, claiming them as old possessions.
He heard the clapping, and turned to look at Madame Sousatzka, who was coming towards him. There were big tears in her eyes. ‘It played, my darrlink,’ she whispered to him, ‘and it played like an angel.’
‘Encore, encore,’ the audience was saying, and shouts of ‘Bravo’ came from Manders’s quarter.
Marcus waited for them to settle themselves again. ‘Variations,’ he said, ‘on a theme of Handel, by Brahms.’ The Brahms fan in the audience heaved triumphantly. Jenny crossed her legs, arms, and all her fingers.
Marcus started on the theme. It dropped out of the tips of his fingers in its simplicity, ornamented occasionally by a casual trill. Marcus listened and heard it as if for the first time. He smiled. It was still working. After each variation, Jenny uncrossed a pair of fingers, until by the end, she had uncrossed everything.
The audience, led by the Brahms fan, crossed over to the piano, eager to shake Marcus’s hand.
‘You’ve got quite a property there, Manders, old boy,’ a young man, obviously in the trade, gave Manders his verdict.
‘Alas, in partnership,’ Manders whispered, nodding in Madame Sousatzka’s direction. She was sharing the congratulations with Marcus.
Suddenly a ‘phone rang. And Marcus remembered his mother. She must have phoned him tonight, as she did every Friday night to say goodnight to him. And he hadn’t been there. What could Cordle have told her? Cordle didn’t know they were trying to keep it from her. He felt a sudden fear at having been found out. He dared not think how he could explain it to her. He wanted to get away. He wanted to sit for a while by the ‘phone-box on Cordle’s landing. He wanted most of all to get out of this room, and away from all these people who didn’t know the first thing about brown hats and vegetables. He felt a lump in his throat and he opened his mouth wide so that the air could dissolve it.
‘You are so tired,’ Madame Sousatzka said, mistaking it for a yawn.
‘Yes,’ Marcus said, jumping in on his cue. ‘I want to go back. I want to go home.’
‘Home?’ Madame Sousatzka whispered.
‘Yes. Home.’ Marcus practically shouted at her.
‘Is too late,’ she said col
‘What d’you think Cordle said to her?’ he asked, as if accusing her.
‘I don’t know. I forgot to tell him,’ she said weakly. ‘We all forgot. So easy it is to forget.’ She knew that her omission to cover up their evening was a further setback to her future with Marcus. She realized how important it was for them to get away. ‘Marcus is tired,’ she announced sadly. ‘We must go now.’
‘But Jenny,’ Manders risked, ‘you can stay a little?’
‘No,’ Jenny said, ‘we’ll all go together.’
When they got back to Vauxhall Mansions, they found Mrs Crominski pressing the dead bells.
Madame Sousatzka opened the door with her key, and they all trooped silently into the studio, as if the meeting had been previously arranged. Madame Sousatzka and Jenny stood against the piano and Mrs Crominski faced them. Marcus hovered in between, as if unwilling to join the accusable.
‘So a party you’ve been to,’ Mrs Crominski said.
‘Some party,’ said Jenny disdainfully. She thought it best to belittle the whole affair.
‘Please?’ said Mrs Crominski. ‘I don’t think I have the pleasure.’
‘This is Jenny,’ Marcus said. ‘I’ve told you about Jenny, Momma. She lives upstairs.’
‘She lives upstairs. Is that all she does? Lives upstairs? Yet she goes to the party and all she does is live upstairs.’
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