Madame Sousatzka, page 20
‘A cup of tea?’ said George, on his guard. ‘It’s not usual, you know. Not in this business.’ He made Madame Sousatzka feel as if she’d bribed a policeman.
‘I was in any case going to make one,’ she said flatly. Frank smiled. He wanted a cup of tea very much. ‘But of course,’ said Madame Sousatzka, ‘if you think it is for other reason, then I like it better you shouldn’t have it.’
‘In any case,’ said George, ‘we’ve got another job. We’re late there already. Well, I won’t say goodbye, Madam,’ he said formally, ‘we’ll be seeing each other again very soon.’ He opened the front door and let Frank out in front of him.
Madame Sousatzka watched them disappear down the steps. She closed the heavy door, and turned to face the empty hall. There was now no question that she was alone. She couldn’t postpone it any longer. She would have, there and then, to begin the waiting.
She sat at her desk in the studio with a blank sheet of paper in front of her. It was just after four o’clock. She drew a line down the centre of the page, dividing it into two columns. She knew from experience that the hours of waiting were long and they needed to be divided. So she wrote in the first column, 4.15 to 4.30, and opposite, she wrote. Make tea. The next quarter of an hour was assigned to the drinking of the tea, and a further quarter of an hour was generously allowed for clearing it away. That would occupy her till five o’clock. She chewed the end of her pencil, considering what activities she could indulge in to while away the remaining three hours. But she knew that whatever she did, she would be waiting all the time, and that nothing was more important than the act of waiting, that nothing should interfere with it, or take priority. She felt that she was insulting Marcus in trying to occupy herself till he came. With sudden decision, she firmly crossed out her tea arrangements with her pencil, and wrote very simply, in huge letters, FROM NOW UNTIL THEN – WAIT.
And so the waiting began, with Madame Sousatzka, her hands in her lap, her watch flopping like a sick pendulum over her bodice, and staring, as Uncle so often stared, at the wall, and a patch on the wall, and the infinite isolated patches within each patch. After a while, she lifted up her hand to catch her watch to look at the time. But she quickly put it down again, as if she were about to cheat and had thought better of it.
She transferred her gaze to another wall, and found it, not surprisingly, similar. Her hand rose again, fingering the face of her watch as if it were braille. And as she touched it, the temptation was too much for her, and she slyly looked down. Half past four. She put it to her ear, hoping that it had stopped, and in spite of hearing its reassuring tick, she shook it violently.
She got up restlessly and went over to the shelves of bound music. She turned her head sideways and squinted at the book spines. She noticed that the books were in no particular order, but that she knew their disorganized state intimately. Mozart was next to Bach, because she felt they would be happy together. Suddenly she thought she would reorganize the shelves into some conventional alphabetical order. She ran her finger along the shelves, looking for a composer who satisfactorily began with A. She found some music by Arne, tucked away unplayed on the bottom shelf. She pulled it out and gave it pride of place at the beginning of the top row. The rest of the shelf, and the one below, was taken up completely by the Bs, and she found enough music to satisfy her new form until she came to the letter E. She went through all the remaining music and could find nothing suitable. She was beginning to like this new system, and she didn’t want it disturbed. Although she disliked his music intensely, she longed for even a sheet of Elgar to contribute a link to the chain. A pile of Cesar Franck lay alongside, waiting to be called. She thought of leaving a gap and filling it in later, even if she had to buy some Elgar, but the idea of postponing the completion of the pattern made her angry.
She was aware for a moment that time was passing, that perhaps in her activity, it was even passing quickly. She didn’t want to cheat Marcus out of any of the waiting time due to him, so she abandoned the task gratefully. It was all Elgar’s fault, anyway. She shoved the music back into its old recognizable chaos, and she returned to her chair to wait.
She leaned forward, so that her watch swung from her chest into her line of vision. This way, her seeing the time was accidental. Five o’clock. The last half hour had gone quickly and she was tempted again into more activity. She got up, smoothing down her dress, as if she had visitors. She went over to her desk and drew a large irregular circle on a piece of paper. Out of this circle she made a clock, marking the division of minutes with lines from the centre. Then she started to count. She counted in German; she felt it more reliable. She shaded in the first minute when she reached sixty and then started on the second. But she didn’t trust the rhythm of her counting, so she set the metronome as a guide. In this way she shaded off four minutes with her pencil, but the whole business had begun to bore her. She might as well wait and do nothing as wait for the metronome to tick off its quota. She screwed the paper up in her hand and threw it away. Then she stopped the metronome, and the relief of the sudden silence in the room tided her over for the next five minutes.
She opened the door of the music cupboard that was lined with a full-length mirror. She looked as casually as she could at her watch as it swung gently from her neck. She held herself rigid to keep it still. Then she stared at it through the mirror. It took her some time to decipher it in reverse, and when she happily realized that it was a quarter to six she looked round the room innocently, like a schoolgirl after a successful piece of cheating. She approached the mirror and studied her face. She screwed up her nose and poked out her tongue. She came in closer and licked the cold surface of the mirror. Her breath had left a film of irregular shape, and she modified it with her finger to give it form. She had begun to like the face-making game, and she puffed her cheeks out, and lowered her eyes with her thumbs, trying to achieve the depths of ugliness. She rushed to her handbag and fetched a comb. She combed all her hair over her face, and parted it over her nose, giving herself a moustache and a beard with what was left. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ she said to herself, pursing her lips and closing her eyes. Then she dilated her nostrils with contempt, and pulled down her lips. For this face, she said, ‘Mr Manders, you are a nobody.’ She threw back her hair, and parted her lips. ‘Marcus, my darrlink,’ she said, stretching out her hands towards the mirror. Then she flung her arms open wide and made a deep bow. ‘How do you do, Mr Cameron and Mr Hodge.’
She began to laugh and feel the beginnings of her happiness. But in the moment of being aware of it, she knew that she had hours still to wait. Without any shame, she looked at her watch. Ten minutes to six. She must go back to her chair and her waiting. She wondered for the first time how she would receive Marcus. She resented having the thought, because now she would have to deal with all its possibilities.
She got up restlessly, and rushed to the door of her room. ‘Marcus, my darrlink,’ she cried, throwing her arms around herself and rubbing her nose in his imagined hair. ‘No,’ she said to herself, shaking her head, ‘I will be angry.’ She watched him come into the room and she sealed her lips lightly. She followed him with her eyes as he went to the piano, and sat down. ‘It’s not so easy, Marcus,’ she said, ‘to come back. You broke my heart.’ The memory of her broken heart made her laugh, and she couldn’t finish the act. ‘Marcus, my darrlink,’ she said, running over to the piano.
It was still light outside and the paper-boy who delivered regularly in the square at six-thirty had not yet arrived. The waiting had come upon her again. She opened the door of her room and stood in the hall. She listened to the others and in the silence she heard their waiting. She came back into her room, calm with the sense of company, and she sat in her chair for a long while, her mind unbusy.
It grew dark as she sat there. She knew that time was passing, but she felt safe because of the others waiting. It was like waiting late at night at a bus-stop, with people in front of you as
It grew dark outside and behind her closed eyes Madame Sousatzka saw the sudden light of the street lamp outside her house. She opened her eyes immediately, and without need to recollect when and where she was, she grasped at her watch in fear. Ten past nine. The panic didn’t creep on her; it pounced on the soft pad between her shoulder-blades, and straight through her heart like a panther. ‘He didn’t come,’ she screamed. ‘No, he’s not coming,’ she corrected herself, as if it were less final. She wouldn’t allow herself to lose hope. She ran outside her door, thinking perhaps he had knocked and was waiting her reply. But the emptiness was there, as if fixed for ever in the walls, along with the noise of the others’ waiting. Her legs trembled as if, like a grasshopper, her ears were in her knees, but all they recorded was the screaming pitch of silence.
He’s had an accident, she decided. He said he was coming. He wouldn’t have ‘phoned if he didn’t want to come. She wondered whether she should ring the police but she was afraid to leave her room in case she missed a second of his absence, which had now become a tangible void in the studio. She moved over to the other chair and looked at her watch. Half past nine. How quickly time passes, she thought, when there is no need to wait for it. The waiting had been his coming, and now he was gone. She closed her eyes, and only when she felt the hot tears on her cheeks, did she realize she was crying. The pain of his first parting was fresh again, and all the wounds that time had healed had reopened. Marcus hadn’t given time, time. She wanted to sleep and to forget, but she was nagged by the hope that he would still come. She thought of closing the piano and putting all the music away, so that he would come without any purpose. But she was too tired and too hurt to move. She wondered whether she should go to bed. Perhaps he would come if she weren’t looking, if he knew she wasn’t waiting for him. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes; her watch slipped sideways over her shoulder, her mouth opened slightly, and her half-clasped hands fell apart on her lap.
Upstairs, Jenny was painting her nails, while the crumpets curled in front of the gas-fire, and the half-empty kettle whispered with steam. Below on the next floor, Cordle sat, huddled next to Uncle on the couch. His new white coat was now unbuttoned, and they sat staring at the chart over the door, like two old-age sparrows keeping their vigil.
Madame Sousatzka stirred in the dark, and in her half-sleep she clutched at her watch around her neck. Not finding it, she woke up suddenly and grasped it from over her shoulder. The hands sat neatly on the twelve, and she knew that it was the end and time to start all over again. She looked out into the empty street around the square of dying houses. She noticed without much pain that yet another house sprouted a FOR SALE sign. One on a short stick, like the hand of a timid pupil who, not being too sure of the answer, thinks it safe to put up his hand in a surrounding sea of upstretched arms. As she turned to draw the curtain, she saw the house on the far corner of the square. A new notice had sprung up in the garden, as if from a magic bean. ‘SOLD,’ it said, in large triumphant letters. With one word, each house had been condemned, and Madame Sousatzka knew that all hope had been drained out of the square. She stared at the word for a long time, chilled by its treachery that injected her with its cold virus of despair.
She went over to the piano and closed the lid, and she put the music tidily away. Then she crossed to the window, and the notice stared back at her for a long time.
Occasionally during the night, Madame Sousatzka wondered why she still stood at the window. She was numb beyond fatigue. She shifted her feet from time to time, but she moved them as if they were not part of her. She felt a decided separation between the three portions of her body. She could feel her heart beating, and she listened to it with detached curiosity. She felt her head stretched high by headache and tears, and when a stray night-bird settled on a lamp-post opposite, she felt she was looking down on it. She spread out her arms, letting the passing hours dry her out, out of her sadness and out of her soreness. And like an immutable scarecrow, she saw the roofs of the houses opposite gradually assume a skyline in the growing light. She still saw the notice in the garden of the house on the corner. She saw its separate letters, but could find no communication with its ensemble, as if the night had immunized her from the square’s surrender. She became suddenly and sadly conscious that she still had hope.
The postman brought one letter, and it lay on the hall floor in its solitude and importance as if sent by special delivery. Madame Sousatzka opened it without any preliminaries. When she saw that it was from Manders, she took it into her room. She saw and understood the notice again, and she drew the curtains so that the room was almost dark.
My dear Madame Sousatzka, it read,
Marcus wanted to come and see you yesterday to tell you of our decision. But he was afraid you would be angry with him and he has asked me to write to you. I have many concerts lined up for him in the following months, and I have great hopes of his career. But meanwhile, as you said, he must continue with his lessons. After great consideration I have decided to send him to Miss Mabel Larks, L.R.A.M.(Hons.), A.R.C.M.(Dip.), to further his studies. She has been highly recommended. Marcus wishes to add a note.
Yours very sincerely,
Madame Sousatzka turned the letter over without giving Manders’s news time to register.
Dear Madame Sousatzka, it said.
Please don’t be angry. I know you will understand. I hope it plays as well for Miss Larks as it played for you.
Love from Marcus.
P.S. Tell Cordle my back back is getting better.
Madame Sousatzka sat for a long time with the letter in her hand. ‘Cordle,’ she whispered to herself, ‘his back is getting better. He’s gone to a letter-lady who makes his back better. And you know, Cordle,’ she laughed sadly, ‘what he plays with the better back and the letter-lady? Mozart, he plays.’ She stared at the postscript, which was magnified by her tears. And all her separate sadnesses, the torture of her parents, Boris, Marcus, and now Miss Larks who had taken her place and straightened his back, collided in a clot in her mind. The realization that there was no limit to human endurance deeply offended her. By all the laws of nature, she should have died of a broken heart long ago.
She was not surprised at the smile she felt gathering on her face, any more than she would have been surprised by a day-break. She drew the curtains to let in the light, and she opened the piano lid to its upmost. She began playing a scale. ‘Not with the fingers, Sousatzka,’ she said. ‘With the belly, the chest, the shoulder, the arm. Nothing you will get from the fingers, Sousatzka. Nothing. They don’t know how to do, and who will tell them, these ten poor little worms? Once again, Sousatzka, to a scale there is no end and no beginning.
‘Listen, Sousatzka, how well it plays.’
This electronic edition published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Reader
Bloomsbury Reader is a division of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 50 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP
First published in Great Britain by Sphere Books Ltd, 1982
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved You may not copy, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make
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Bernice Rubens, Madame Sousatzka
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