Maestro, p.1

Maestro, page 1


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  To four pianists:

  my parents Jan and Reuben, my daughter Anna, and the finest teacher I have known, Eleanora Sivan.


  The author would like to thank Philippe Tanguy for his tireless and creative editing. He would also like to thank Brisbane Grammar School for providing a period as writer-in-residence which enabled him to begin this book, and the South Australian Government through the Department for the Arts for the grant which provided time to complete it.

  Versions of several chapters first appeared in the Sydney Review, the Adelaide Review, and the Sydney Morning Herald Literary Supplement.

  The poem quoted in the final chapter is a version of Wo? by Heinrich Heine, rendered into approximate English by the author.


  Through her political scandals Austria has managed to draw the big world’s attention to herself—and at last is no longer confused with Australia.




  Title Page




  Darwin, 1967





  Vienna, 1975


  About A&R

  About the Author

  Other Books by Peter Goldsworthy


  Darwin, 1967

  First impressions?

  Misleading, of course. As always. But unforgettable: the red glow of his face—a boozer’s incandescent glow. The pitted, sun-coarsened skin—a cheap, ruined leather. And the eyes: an old man’s moist, wobbling jellies.

  But then … the suit: white linen, freshly pressed. And—absurdly, in that climate—the stiff collar and tie.

  ‘Herr Keller?’

  ‘Mrs Crabbe?’

  I stood behind my mother outside his room at the Swan, perched on a wooden balcony overlooking the beer garden. The hotel—a warren of crumbling weatherboard, overgrown with bougainvillea—was packed, the drinkers and their noise spilling out of the front bar into the garden. Up the stairs, second on the right, a barman had shouted—and every face in the bar had turned and followed us up. One or two drunken whistles had also followed us up; whistles living far beyond their sexual means, my mother later reported to my father, contemptuously.

  ‘This is Paul,’ she said, pushing me forward, ignoring the noise below.

  The figure in the white suit stood aside from his doorway, and motioned us inside.

  ‘Of course. Your father has told.’

  The accent was thick. Continental, my father had described it, vaguely. A voice that reminded him of grilling sausages: a faint, constant spitting of sibilants in the background.

  ‘Sit down,’ the voice hissed. ‘We will talk.’

  A problem: how to capture that accent here? Ve vill talk? It’s tempting—too tempting—to slip into comic-book parody. We haf ways off makink …

  If I were less the musician and more the dramatist perhaps I could capture it. No: if I were more the musician, if I had a better ear, I could surely capture it—invent some new notation to pin those strange melodies to the page. But that looks too much like hard work. And might prove too distracting. What matters is the content: what he said, not how.

  So, a declaration: from this point in my memoir Keller-Herr Eduard Keller, the maestro—will speak English as well, or as badly, as me.

  The room behind his door above the beer garden was large, but somehow shrunken, diminished by the presence of the two pianos. An upright, and (my father’s favourite joke) a supine. Those pianos filled the available space like two planets, or perhaps a planet and its smaller moon; about them all else revolved. It took some effort to notice the other furnishings on that first visit: the narrow bed jammed against one wall, the shelves crammed floor-to-ceiling with books and sheet music, the washbasin, the single armchair.

  Keller led my mother to the armchair and seated her with a formal, mannered courtliness; ridiculous, yes, but somehow natural at the same time. In retrospect I seem to hear the click of heels coming together, distinctly—but this surely was not so.

  He seated himself at the grand—a Bösendorfer, the first I’d seen—and swivelled to face us. The upright—a peeling Wertheim, its varnish cracked and bubbled by too many years too near the equator—was mine.

  He pointed at the stool. I sat.

  For a time he said nothing, watching. His red face glowed above the white collar and lapels. Some internal explosion seemed to have driven a thousand broken blood vessels against the inside of his cheeks. Outside, the sound of thunder carried to us, distantly: the sound of February, of deepest, darkest Wet. The room was stifling, oppressive, but the louvred wooden slats that formed two opposing walls remained closed, the ceiling fan stilled. Not a whisper of movement stirred in the sticky air.

  I sensed that I was undergoing some form of test.

  ‘Heat,’ Keller suddenly pronounced, ‘we can withstand. A little discomfort is necessary to maintain alertness. But noise …’

  He gestured in the direction of the louvred wall that faced onto the balcony—the direction of the beer garden below.

  My mother smiled uncertainly and dabbed a handkerchief at her brow. The sweat was beginning to gather, the droplets aggregating into larger drops, heavy as mercury. Newcomers in Darwin, we had moved from the temperate South barely a month before: she found the climate unbearable.

  Keller’s red face also glistened with a fine varnish of sweat-but the linen suit still seemed crisp and freshly laundered. Had he spruced up especially to meet me? I was child enough—self-centred enough—to think it likely.

  He stared; I stared boldly back, fascinated. I’d seen nothing like him before. He was short: migrant-height, European-height. Wop-height. The hair above that flaming face was white, sparse, downy. On his red nose he had placed what I somehow instantly recognised as a pince-nez—although I had come across only the word before, in books, never the actual thing.

  Above all, I remember the hands: those dainty, faintly ridiculous hands.

  I couldn’t take my eyes away from them. Small and podgy like inflated gloves, they narrowed delicately, fastidiously, towards the tips of the fingers. The nails were manicured; the skin pale and soft and clean. If his face was coarse leather, his hands were fashioned from the finest calf: each wrinkle, each dimple carefully hand-tooled.

  A pianist’s hands? Impossible. Too unfunctional, surely. Too … decorative. Incapable of straddling a fifth, let alone an octave.

  One other thing: most of the right little finger was missing. A gold ring on the stump seemed to deliberately flaunt its absence.

  ‘Fifth fingers are unnecessary,’ he pronounced, suddenly.

  I squirmed, disconcerted, and looked in another direction.

  ‘I wasn’t … I mean, I didn’t mean …’

  ‘A luxury,’ he continued. ‘No pianist before Chopin used the fifth finger.’

  He told me this so often in the following years that I soon realised the loss meant far more to him than that.

  ‘Mozart never used the little fingers,’ he continued, waggling the stump. ‘Old Bach. Clementi.’

  ‘And after Chopin?’ I found my tongue again.


  ‘Can you play Liszt without it?’ I spoke up, ignoring my mother’s warning glance.

  He answered this as he was often to answer, by turning abruptly to the keyboard. And here a miracle occurred: the first of many miracles, or sleights of hand, that I was to witness in his presence. Somehow that tiny, maimed claw released an effortless, rippling run of tenths.

  ‘The little finger is a lazy fellow,’ he sm
iled, lifting the hand from the keyboard and waggling the stump once more in my face. ‘He can be trained, yes. Perhaps we will train yours. But he can be done without.’

  He reached over and seized my little fingers—one in each hand.

  ‘If we tell him he can be done without, perhaps he will try harder.’

  A joke? It was becoming more and more difficult to tell. My mother managed to produce an amused sort of noise.

  ‘How old are these hands?’ he asked, still grasping my fingers, turning them this way and that.

  ‘Pardon?’ I said.

  ‘These hands—how old?’

  ‘Paul is fifteen,’ my mother interposed.

  ‘Large hands,’ he said. ‘Difficult to control. But we have time.’

  ‘Shall I play something?’ I suggested.

  He smiled at me for the first time: a brief, minimal smile.

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have heard hands like this before. I know how they sound.’

  I glanced at my mother for help, but she avoided my eyes.

  ‘Today we will only look,’ he continued. ‘At hands. And fingers.’

  He immediately began to explain, in language I thought simple and patronising, that five very different personalities were attached to the human hand.

  ‘They are great friends. A circle of friends. But also great rivals.’

  His thumb ground painfully into the flesh of my upper arm. I bit my lip, trying not to cry out. I could sense my mother shift in her chair, startled.

  ‘Thumb is … too strong. A rooster, a show-off. Sultan of the harem. He must be kept in place.’

  He leant back, amused, watching me rub at the bruise on my arm.

  ‘But perhaps that is enough for this week. Next week … the forefinger.’

  ‘Then you will take him?’ my mother asked.

  ‘We will see.’

  At home, my mother dabbed at her brow with a wet flannel she kept in the fridge for that purpose.

  ‘I hereby grant permission,’ she murmured, flushed, smiling, ‘for you to attend all future piano lessons alone.’

  She cranked open the wall louvres to maximum aperture, returned the wet flannel to the fridge, and decanted two iced lemon drinks. For some time we sat sipping in silence, the only sounds those of the ice-cubes chinking in their glasses and the ceiling fan whirring at highest notch above us.

  We were still sipping our drinks when car tyres crunched across the gravel drive and into the shelter beneath us. As always my mother rose at the sound and began fussing in the kitchen—pulling dishes from the fridge, tossing salads.

  ‘Well?’ my father asked, entering.

  The question was directed at me.

  ‘It went OK.’

  He set down his briefcase and began riffling through the mail on the sideboard—to see if his knighthood had arrived, he liked to joke.

  ‘Did he like your playing?’

  ‘I didn’t play.’

  At this he glanced up: ‘You didn’t play?’

  ‘Herr Keller said he knew how it would sound,’ my mother called across the narrow workbench that separated kitchen from lounge. ‘Quote, unquote.’

  ‘Without listening?’

  ‘He’s an original,’ she laughed. ‘White suit. Pith helmet.’

  ‘Pith helmet?’

  ‘Perhaps I made that part up. But I like him.’

  ‘I don’t,’ I muttered. ‘He practically broke my arm.’

  I had been stewing over the events of that lesson ever since we’d left the Swan.

  ‘I’m serious. He’s a sadist. He …’

  ‘That’s enough,’ my father ordered, quietly.

  I sat nursing my drink, cooling both hands on the damp, dewy glass. In the same manner I had many times, in the South, warmed cold hands, on hot drinks. My father remained silent.

  ‘Why can’t I learn from you?’ I said, at length.

  ‘Must we go through this again?’ he answered. ‘You are going to be better than me. Much better.’

  And that’s an order, I whispered to myself, soundlessly.

  ‘Perhaps there is some other teacher in Darwin,’ my mother, ever the conciliator, suggested.

  He snorted: ‘There’s no-one. It’s a town of drunks.’

  He had not had a good day, it seemed. Again.

  ‘All the scum in the country has somehow risen to this one town,’ he declared, as he had been declaring, daily, since our arrival. ‘All the drifters, the misfits. The wife-bashers …’

  ‘You wanted to come,’ she chided him gently. ‘You agreed to the transfer.’

  ‘I agreed to the promotion.’

  ‘He’s not sure,’ I intervened, ‘if he wants me.’

  ‘He’s teasing you,’ my father said. ‘He’s had no-one as good as you before. Besides, he needs the money.’

  He winked at my mother, and tilted an imaginary glass towards his mouth, thinking perhaps that I wouldn’t understand.

  ‘I’m told he has expensive habits.’

  ‘His physiognomy,’ she murmured, ‘would lend support to that hypothesis.’

  Often they chose to speak in this enigmatic manner: a private code of polysyllables for Adults Only information, a code I had long broken.

  ‘A dipsomaniac?’ my father continued speaking in code, perhaps for the fun of it.

  ‘A weakness for bibacity.’

  ‘You mean he’s a boozer?’ I decided to spoil the fun.

  After dinner that night the two of them played a duet: Mozart, always his preferred tranquilliser when irritable. At first I kept my distance, sitting on the far side of the room, still angry. But the music, as always, drew me—that beautiful, tugging gravity—and soon I was standing at their side, flipping the pages of the score, watching their fingers flickering across the keys.

  Watching especially their fifth fingers—all four fifth fingers—flickering across the keys. I didn’t believe a word Keller had said.

  During the slow movement the rain began again. It fell abruptly, totally, a solid volume of water descending on the iron roof. The two of them kept playing—two parts, now, of a mismatched Trio—but after a few bars they abandoned the attempt, leaving the rain, deafening, solo.

  My father loosened his tie. In those first weeks he still clung to the Southerner’s uniform. Then he wiped the sweat from his brow.

  ‘The arsehole of the earth,’ he declared, loudly.

  He dropped the piano lid with a thud.

  ‘A city of booze, blow, and blasphemy,’ he said, in the tone of voice he reserved for memorable quotes.

  ‘Shakespeare?’ my mother wondered.

  He shook his head: ‘Banjo Paterson.’

  I loved the town of booze and blow at first sight. And above all its smell: those hot, steamy perfumes that wrapped about me as we stepped off the plane, in the darkness, in the smallest hours of a January night. Moist, compost air. Sweet-and-sour air …

  We spent the remaining few hours of that first night in a motel room, but I couldn’t sleep. Sometime near dawn I jerked the mosquito netting aside, rose from the bed and peered out through the louvres. Always I’ll remember that first morning: the brilliant furnace of the rising sun; the huge clouds that ruddered the sky. In every direction rain could be seen falling: vast, distant cubes of water dropping slowly, ponderously out of the sky.

  From time to time a cube would descend from directly above: not so much rain as a solid mass of water, beginning and ceasing suddenly.

  Mid-morning found us inspecting our new home: a bare shoebox of louvred walls and asbestos, perched above the wet shrubbery on high, thin stork-stilts.

  ‘Is this it?’ My mother tried to disbelieve.

  ‘This is it.’

  ‘Check the number again …’

  ‘This is it,’ my father repeated.

  ‘Perhaps the key won’t fit,’ she hoped.

  Later that morning I found her sitting on the edge of the bath, weeping silently: she had left a bluestone villa in the So
uth for this.

  Later still—rubber-gloved, aproned, her thick hair stuffed beneath a scarf, some sort of personal crisis reached and passed—she began preparing the house for the arrival of the furniture.

  I spent most of that first day outside, ducking back beneath the house during downpours. I was keeping out of range of the unpacking, yes—out of sight, out of mind—but also exploring. The garden was large and wet and green, growing dense with trees and shrubbery at the back where it merged without obvious boundaries into a jungled gully which led down to the mangroves and tidal flats.

  I clambered eagerly down among the slippery shrubs, slipping and sliding through the dense undergrowth. I had never seen such greenness: an unnatural greenness, as if the leaves were a kind of plastic. Huge parrots yattered in the dripping fruit trees. Butterflies of brilliant colours—bright rainbow colours, chemistry set colours, coffee-table book colours—filled the air. Under any leaf I chose to lift small creatures seemed hidden: giant, clockwork insects, built from strange meccano, or grubs the size of small, juicy mammals.

  Cartoon descriptions? How else to describe a cartoon world? The moths that thudded into the flyscreens that night were the size of bats—soft, powdery bats. And the bats that filled the mango trees in the darkening twilight were foxes. Even our garden lawn—most domesticated of foliage—needed mowing again almost as soon as it was done … like some lush, green five o’clock shadow.

  Everything grew larger than life in the steamy hothouse of Darwin, and the people were no exception.

  Exotic, hothouse blooms.

  Keller waggled a forefinger in front of my nose. It was our second lesson? Our third?

  ‘This finger is selfish. Greedy. A … a delinquent. He will steal from his four friends, cheat, lie.’

  He sheathed the forefinger in his closed fist as if it were the fleshy blade of a Swiss army knife and released the middle finger.

  ‘Mr goody-goody,’ he said, banging the finger down on middle C repeatedly. ‘Teacher’s pet. Does what he is told. Our best student.’

  Last came the ring finger.

  ‘Likes to follow his best friend,’ he told me. ‘Likes to … lean on him sometimes.’

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