© Joe 90
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‘Tick…tock…tick…tock… seconds grudgingly emerge from the grandfather clock behind me. Each second hovers over my head, sneering down at me.
‘Tick…what is a boy like you doing here…? Tock…on Saturday morning too!
Tick…you should be out damming a stream or scrumping sour apples…Tock…still another two thousand of us to go before you can escape…
Mrs Crabbe’s music room is mortuary-still . The luckless cadavers slide their bottoms onto the polished piano stool and plunk rigor-mortised fingers down on the ivory keys. Mrs Crabbe, the mortician-in-chief sits stiff and erect in her wicker chair, her needle-sharp pencil stabbing the life from a wandering crotchet or unnatural sharp.
“From bar ten, and pay attention this time!”
Her pupils mumble, “Sorry Mrs Crabbe!” Of the thirty or more whose bottoms polish the mahogany and whose greasy fingers inexpertly fumble for the major and minor arpeggios, not one argues with Mrs Crabbe...ever.
The music room breathes an atmosphere of disquieting solemnity. No room should be this still. Each Spring through to late Summer a beam of sunlight, filtered by the net curtains explores its recesses. It indolently sweeps across the dark, mahogany dresser, then peers beneath the occasional table with its crocheted cloth and spider plant, before finishing with a check of the parquet floor by the door. It finds no dust. Neither does it observe change. Each year, apart from the pupils, nothing varies. Its inspection complete the sunlight retires for the Autumn.
The pencil stabs again: “Back to bar ten! You’re not going until you get this right.”
Mrs Crabbe’s pupils compare notes. They report things in common; the pulse rate that is elevated for at least an hour before their lesson, the ice cold dread that trickles down the backbone when she remonstrates with them. And the slow, mock, mock, tick, tock of the clock doling out the moments until parole is granted.
“She’s a witch!”
“Nah she isn’t.” I wish I’d never raised the subject of my forthcoming music lessons.
Nick Smith has achieved hero status in St Edward’s primary school. He has escaped from the clutches of Mrs Crabbe. The story gets wilder each time it is told. She arose from her wicker chair trembling with rage, or so Nick claimed, seized him by the collar and marched him to the door where Mrs Smith was about to ring the bell to collect him.
“I think, for the sake of us all, Mrs Smith, we will leave it there. It would be the death of me to hear playing like that again.”
And that was after just six months of lessons.
“See that?” Nick pushes up his curly blonde hair at the back of his neck. “She did that to me.”
“What?” I can’t see anything apart from a crust of mud from where we had been rugby tackling each other.
“There, you moron! That scratch. She did that when I was there. She does it to everyone in time. She stands behind you and you hardly feel it.”
Nick lowers his voice. “She’s got a razor thumbnail. So sharp it can slice your skin without you noticing. Then she takes a few drops of your blood in a thimble, and she’s got you in her power.”
“When did she do you?”
“Three weeks ago. It’ll never heal. Geoff said she did it to him as well.”
We kick the huge sail-like leaves of the chestnut trees that line the perimeter of the school playing field. I am about to reply when Nick dives into the leaves. “Wow, just look at this one!”
I gaze at the dark, glossy sheen of the magnificent conker. “Challenge you against Marvolo.”
We strike hands. “Done! It’ll smash it to smithereens.”
“Like hell it will. Marvolo’ll wipe it out.” My prize conker has been through a secret pickling and baking process that has rendered it invincible.
Nick turns the huge conker lovingly in his hands.
“Whatcha going to call it?”
He muses, then his face lights up. “Crabbe!” He says.
Suddenly Marvolo doesn’t seem such a safe bet.
The motorway is in holiday spate. Articulated lorries barrel down the centre lane, their slipstreams howl as they tug at the canvas trailers. Caravans weave and wander and stuffed cars ricochet out of the slip road that leads from the services. I turn back to Nick Smith.
“Keep in contact, yeah?” he snaps his mobile phone shut.
“Sure,” I hold out my hand. “Good to see you after all this time.”
He shakes it with the firm, quasi-arrogant grip of a successful man. He flicks the dregs of coffee over the grass and gives me a slow, cheeky salute.
“See yuh, then.”
We were good friends, all those years ago at St Edward’s, but Nick went to a private school afterwards. Neither of us has changed much in our outlook on life. Nick is still as persuasive and opportunistic as I remember him, and he in turn has dropped broad hints about my lack of ambition. He has done well, but has no family. I have been notably less successful, but three boys will, I think, call me ‘Dad’ with unfeigned affection. Each to his own.
Nick is a reminder of Mrs Crabbe and her piano lessons. It is a part of my life that happened much too early on in my youth to comprehend. So I will tell you my account. Not to excuse myself, or even to acquaint you with the facts as only a nine-year old boy can perceive them. I will tell you because it is my confessional.
I was seven when Mrs Crabbe visited our house. I was fetched in and presented for her inspection. It was the first and only time I saw Mrs Crabbe outside of the room in which my weekly torment was staged.
“So you’re Mark. Do you like music?”
I nod dumbly, my gaze roving up and down this angular, almost emaciated woman standing in our kitchen. She looks old and desiccated. Her white hair and prune-like face set against clothes that could have been around in Dickensian London. Like her music room, time stands still for her.
She turns to my parents. “Does Mark have a piano on which he can practise?”
The piano in the front room is something dear to my parents’ hearts and Mum multiplies my discomfort by telling Mrs Crabbe how I first stood upright using it; hauling myself up by the keyboard. Then having made the discovery of its ability to make loud sounds, I spent many a happy hour bashing it to the misery of the neighbours. This was taken as a sign by my parents that a potential Mozart was in their midst. Mrs Crabbe listens without comment. Then she removes her gloves and strikes a few notes. A pained expression crosses her face. The piano was a gift from the village hall and what notes don’t stick down were best not struck again.
There is negotiation about rates. Mrs Crabbe is the only piano teacher in the village so it has to be her or nothing. But Dad wangles an off-peak rate, and to my horror I am despatched to Mrs Crabbe’s clutches every Saturday morning.
“I expect my students to practise.” Mrs Crabbe admonishes us all with a wave of her wizened forefinger as she prepares to leave. “An hour a day, every day.” She fixes her gaze on me. “Practice makes perfect, Mark. Do you understand?”
I fight tears until the gate clangs behind her. “Mum, Dad. Saturday morning… I don’t want….”
“Don’t be silly, darling.” Mum tousles my hair. “You’ll enjoy it, you see.”
I turn to Dad. “But Saturday morning, I go round to play at Nick’s house then.”
“Strikes me that’s all you do, Mark. Play with your mates. Well it’s time you learnt something worthwhile.”
“Ahh! Another little victim!” The front door flies open. It is Mr Crabbe who greets me. His unkempt yellow hair falls over his shoulders. I recoil from the smell of sardines on his breath.
“Take your shoes off!” His tone conveys ill-concealed glee. My hand is seized and held up to his face for inspection. “Ahh! Not good, my little victim. Do I see dirt under these nails? She won’t stand for that, oh no!”
“C…can I wash them?”
“Too late!” He hisses in delight. “Go in, boy. But keep your fingers turned in if you know what’s good for you. ‘Smack!’” His hands fly together making me jump. “She keeps a ruler for dirty boys with grubby fingernails.”
“Is that Mark Watts?” Her voice carries through a partially open door, across the gloomy hallway to where I stand. “Don’t keep the boy waiting.”
“No dear.” Mr Crabbe’s voice changes abruptly from the gleeful to the craven. “I’m just about to show him in, dear.”
And so it begins. Even at the tender age of seven, having learned the meaning of the word from Father Michael who takes assembly at St. Edward’s; I know purgatory. With the soft unchanging click of the door shutting behind me, my eyes adjusting to the muted light, the glimpse of Mrs Crabbe in her wicker chair, pencil in hand: this is my weekly ordeal. To the measured tick…tock of the grandfather clock it unboys me.
“Wrists off the keys. Like this.” Mrs Crabbe’s hand appears next to mine. I inspect her fingers. They are shrivelled but the joints are swollen. Despite this they move with elegance, poised above the notes, stroking the sounds from the piano. Her skin is semi-translucent; blue veins held down by cellophane.
“Draw off the notes. Staccato, like so.” As Mrs Crabbe’s hand appears to demonstrate, I wonder what the other hand is doing. The one with the sharpened thumbnail. When will it slice across my neck and capture the thimbleful of my blood?
“No, Draw off the note… no, don’t bang the piano. Gently!”
In the polished finish of the instrument I can see her outline as she settles back in her chair. At first she teaches me straightforward one-line tunes, then both hands together. Then scales in simple keys swim into my consciousness; C major one octave, G major, A minor, the list grows.
Where did they go, all those intervals, cadences, sharps, flats - thousands of them released to fly by my fingers every purgatory? By now the room should be full of notes. By the time the sunlight has completed its annual inspection, not one remains: because that is all they were. Mrs Crabbe taught me to make notes, not music.
My youngest son, Jack is taking piano lessons. He brings home a cheery, colourful book with pictures of maggots munching through staves of music. ‘Can you name the notes Micky has eaten?’ Music is fun for him. Kathy sits with him as he chatters about the lesson. She consults a little notebook which his teacher sends home with him. Little smiley faces abound.
The sun catches my neck as I watch Nick get into his two-seater BMW. It reflects off his silver-blonde hair. I should go myself, but the reverie is too powerful to disrupt. The process of absolution has started, I must see it through.
The sun is halfway through its inspection of Mrs Crabbe’s music room. Summer is under way. By now the staves that are presented to me are choked with semiquavers and the key signatures open ever more intricate locks. Part of me knows I am good at this, but mounting in me is a resentment of the time I spend in this mausoleum. Nick has a circle of friends and they go there to watch television. I should be there, but I am here. Batman, the Pink Panther show, Captain Scarlet - they talk of them in the playground. All I know about is Scarlatti and the numerous ‘Hours with the Masters’ studies I am burdened with.
“Why can’t we have a telly, Dad?”
“Waste of time and money.”
“Why can’t I have piano lessons some other time then?”
“Listen, Mark.” Dad’s patience with my complaining is wearing thin. “When your mother is up and about again, then I’ll have more time to work. Then we’ll have more money…” He stops, aware he has strayed into a taboo area. “Can’t you just be satisfied with what we do for you?”
My other beef about the state of the piano goes unaired. Nick’s house has a piano; they bought it when he started lessons. Just now and then I have a go on it, but Nick slammed the lid down on my fingers last time. Our piano has deteriorated since moving to our end of terrace. We moved it away from the wall last week to retrieve a book and we could see that damp had spread into the woodwork.
My playing technique now incorporates a surreptitious levering up of the notes that stick down. The one thing I do enjoy about lessons at Mrs Crabbe’s is the sound of a decent instrument.
“Mark, will you take this letter to your parents?” We are well into the sunless months. Mrs Crabbe’s only concession to the frost outside is a two-bar electric fire. I never see both bars on. Oh, and she has a shawl over her shoulders.
“Yes Mrs Crabbe.” It can’t be the invoice for the term’s lessons; I took that two weeks ago. A rush of hope - has she had enough of teaching me?
That night Mum and Dad argued bitterly. Dad kept repeating, ‘it’s charity, and I won’t have it!’ Mum replied that he was being a fool and to think of Mark. Mum stuck to her guns but by the time peace settled on the house she looked and sounded exhausted. She handed me a brown envelope.
“Mark, love, will you give this to Mrs Crabbe?”
It was something to do with that first letter, that much was evident. Curiosity impelled me to find out more. Had Mrs Crabbe made complaints? That didn’t ring true either, for my parents had slogged it out with each other and I seemed to have had escaped scot-free.
Mum had dragged herself upright. Dad helped her up the stairs.
On impulse I slipped into the living room. The letter Mrs Crabbe sent home with me was open on the table.
“Dear Mr and Mrs Watts.
It will come as no surprise to you to learn that Mark has a great natural aptitude for the pianoforte.” Pianoforte! Was she always so meticulous?
“His progress has pleased and gratified me in the eighteen months since he commenced tuition.” Really? She never once told me that any of my efforts were acceptable. Only a grudging, ‘well I’ll let it go; BUT you need to work harder at your practice.’
“I have refrained from suggesting that Mark enter for any of the standard examinations in the instrument largely because his progress has been so rapid. But now I feel it would benefit him to be submitted for the forthcoming season of exams at an intermediate grade.”
There was a crash upstairs and sounds of shouting. Good, they’re still busy. I continue to read the miniscule script.
“I would take it as a personal favour if you would allow me to enter Mark for an examination in the New Year. I would prefer to meet the expense involved myself as a gift to my most promising pupil.
Was that it? In a way it was a relief, not to mention a surprise, to see something complimentary about me especially from this most unlikely of sources. But I can hardly see what is in the letter to get my parents so het up. Then gloom descends. My spell in purgatory shows no sign of ending.
Mrs Crabbe slits the envelope. I notice she does not use her fingernail. As she reads her anxious expression fades and she almost smiles. My moroseness deepens.
“We’ll have the scales and arpeggios now, Mark. Properly mind, I want them better than they were last week. Wrists off the keyboard.”
Right now Nick, Geoff, Ollie and the rest are hunched on cushions watching the Pink Panther show. I’ve only seen one episode, and am unlikely to see another. No one will ask, ‘where’s Mark?’ Why should they care? It has been decreed by the fates that govern our lives that I am to be consigned to Mrs Crabbe’s house every Saturday morning. My mood infects my fingers. At first my fumbles are unintentional. Minor slips that cause her to speak sharply and send my pulse rate soaring. Soon bravado overtakes me, and I start making deliberate errors, probing her responses, seeing how far I can test her.
The result is gratifying. Mrs Crabbe reacts with increasing sharpness, but nothing more. She does not bring a ruler down on my knuckles as Nick claimed she did to him once. Suddenly I have a strategy to fight back.
“I want better next week. You haven’t been concentrating I feel.”
I nod solemnly, my ordeal has lengthened by twenty minutes but for once I don’t care. Clutching a new book of examination studies I escape into the winter sunlight. I have detected and explored my enemy’s weakness. I must use the information cautiously - a sudden downturn in my performance would be soon exposed as fraud. Now I know she is investing time and resource in me, I sense a new-found strength.
The sun dips behind a cloud. The roar of traffic from the motorway has, if anything, intensified. Nick has long disappeared into the mayhem; I am alone at the picnic table. Now I know why I have suppressed this confessional for so long: was I really this cruel-hearted? Did I really conspire to inflict injury on this ancient lady whose kindness, although cloaked in severity was nevertheless so tangible and self-effacing?
As if the first event of my being submitted for the examination was a signal, the next events followed thick and fast. Mr Crabbe disappeared.
“She’s boiled him!” Nick was gleeful. His dad was an occasional at the White Lion where Mr Crabbe hung out. His stories of life with her made entertaining fare for the regulars. His descriptions of her lifestyle spared little detail or personal information. Marilyn the new barmaid, a frowsy woman, the wrong side of middle age, disappeared at the same time so Nick had to elaborate on his theory.
“She caught them together.” He flung his arms around his own shoulders with his back to me, so that it looked vaguely like two people embracing. “Then she stabbed them both with the same pencil. You look next time - it’ll be red with their blood.”
“She deserved it!” I said to Mum that night. “Nasty old witch.”
Then my face exploded with a blinding pain. When the tears had cleared from my eyes, Mum was sitting down on the settee, trying to catch her breath.
“Don’t you…don’t you ever…speak…to me like that about anyone.” My face was stinging and fresh tears starting down my cheeks. “Especially not Mrs Crabbe. Do you hear? Especially not…Mrs Crabbe. Now get to bed. I…don’t want to see you again tonight.”
Mortified I packed myself off to bed. It would be a long evening and the bedroom was cold. Anger and self-pity congealed in my chest, choking me. It was some hours later when I was woken by Mum, kneeling by my bed.
“Are you awake, Mark?”
“Mark, I’m sorry I slapped you. It’s just that if you knew…” I waited in the darkness until Mum got her breath back. “If you knew what Mrs Crabbe has done for you… for us. I know it can’t be much fun for you missing Nick’s house on Saturday mornings, but…well you will be glad you did, later. Do you see what I mean?”
I didn’t. “Yes Mum.” Then, “Why do you think she married him?”
Mum gave a laugh. “Oh, I don’t think she married him - he married her. He saw a comfortable house, an income for his visits to the White Lion…” she tailed off. I couldn’t see her eyes in the darkness, but I guess she was talking more to herself. “Mrs Crabbe is one of those women left over from the war, Mark. Too few men to go around. She had to take what she could get. Even Mr Crabbe.”
She kissed my forehead. “Mark, her pupils are like family to her. You owe it to her to stick with it. Okay?”
New Year comes and I have the date for the examination written on the inside cover of the book of studies. I am heartily sick of the sound of them, and my distaste conveys itself in my playing.
“Mark, you’re simply not trying. Go back to the top of the page. Legato, what does that mean?”
“Smoothly.” I growl.
“Then play smoothly. It sounds like you’re trying to break the piano. Have you been practising?”
When I arrive home Mum is asleep. I start to get lunch ready for us both. Dad will be in later. Then there is a knock at the door.
“Oh Mark!” Nick’s mother is elegantly dressed. Mr Smith waits in the car out in the road. “I’m glad to see you; I want you to have this.”
“Who is it love?” Mum has woken up. I take the envelope from Nick’s mum. It is addressed to me. “Open it,” she smiles.
The moment I see the invitation my heart plunges. ‘Nick is ten! Come to my party at the village hall. Thursday January 20th after school.’
“I insisted he have it one evening,” Mrs Smith gushes. “I know you can’t do Saturdays since you have piano then. So I’ve booked the party so you can be there.”
Mum appears in her dressing gown. “Mrs Smith, how nice to see you! Please excuse me being dressed like this, I haven’t had…”
I miss the end of the sentence. For ten seconds I had fixed my attention on that date. It was a malicious plot. It had to be! The one date I couldn’t do because I had the exam. The exam! Mrs Crabbe! Witch! She has fixed this to spite me. My eyes fill up with tears and screwing the invite into a ball, I throw it down and dash upstairs to my room.
This time it was Dad who came into my bedroom. Mum couldn’t get upstairs until Dad was back to carry her up. I lay in bed listening to the murmur of their voices. Then he bursts in.
“Get up!” My arm is seized and I am dragged out from under the covers. The chill of the room settles on my skin.
“But Dad, I…”
“Enough!” He roars. “It’s time you understood a thing or two, Mark. We do things for you for your good. Not what you like, d’ye hear? For…your…good.” He spells it out slowly. “I didn’t get the chances you have, and you can stop throwing it back in our faces. Got that?”
“But Dad,” I can hardly speak in my misery, “the twentieth is Nick’s party. His Mum arranged it specially so I could go. Now with this stupid exam…”
I am spun through the air so that I come to rest face down over Dad’s knee.
‘Crack!’ Dad’s hand is hard from manual work and my buttocks are soft. A bolt of pain shoots through me.
“I can’t think what Mrs Smith must …” ‘Crack!’ “…make of us…” ‘Crack!’ “you being so rude and throwing the invite back…” ‘Crack!’ “your mother’s still in tears…” ‘Crack!’
Finally the light is extinguished and I cower under the covers. My bum is warm but the rest of me trembles, either with cold or rage, or both.
My last lesson before the exam is on the Wednesday, the evening before. I drag and scuff my shoes as I draw nearer. At least Mr Crabbe isn’t there with his taunts anymore.
The light in the music room is subdued. The one bar of the electric heater emits a soft glow that turns the white notes of the piano pink. She is sitting in her wicker chair with the shawl across her shoulders, her notebook and pencil ready on the small table next to her. I am about to slide myself onto the stool when she says softly;
“Would you mind fetching me a glass of water, Mark?”
This is the first variation of routine I have ever encountered. I tiptoe into the kitchen find a tumbler and fill it with water from the tap.
“Put it down there.” And as an afterthought; “thank you Mark.”
The lesson begins as they all do with scales and arpeggios. My mind begins to wander. I review the arrangements for tomorrow - Mrs Crabbe will collect me from school and take me on the bus into town. There she will wait whilst I sit the exam and then bring me back. The thought of travelling with her makes shivers run down my spine. All the time Nick’s party - Nick’s party for me - will be in full swing. By the time I get back it will be over. The thought makes me grind my teeth.
“Now the first study. Carefully mind!”
My fingers know the passages of the study well. Well enough for my mind, if it were willing to apply interpretation and dynamics to the scale runs and definition to the section where the tune switches to the left hand. But a cold fury at the meanness of it all has iced my mind over. She listens in silence, her blurred outline present like a spirit reflected in the piano.
“Let’s have the first piece.” She sighs. “Play it as though you are in the exam tomorrow.”
I turn the page. Before me the Mozart, delicate, finely structured and joyous. I know because I like the piece and within the limits imposed by our dreadful piano at home I can do it justice. In a moment, if I choose, my fingers could leap and dance over the keys and music, not notes, would spring into this gloomy room. Music would banish my anger for a few minutes and breathe life into Mrs Crabbe’s sepulchre. But the ice has hardened.
My first notes are a harbinger of what is to follow. I am clever, oh so clever! I play notes that are right, but wrong. I trample the melody and mutilate the sweetness of the composition. I contrive to alter the timing to suffocate the syncopation. In short I murder Mozart and leave his corpse here in Mrs Crabbe’s music room. And when I finish, my heart is racing, my face flushed with exultation. Tomorrow I will perform well, but tonight I have exacted my revenge!
That is all she says. I let my eyes slide out of focus, exploring the wooden looking-glass world before me, waiting for her incandescent fury and frustration at my shocking performance.
“Oh!” Was it a sob? The colour drains from my face and the silence intensifies. Still she says nothing.
“Tick…tock…what a shock…tick…tock…”
A trickle of regret begins to seep through the cracks.
“Sorry, Mrs Crabbe. I can play it better. I will, just wait, I’ll play it again. Do you want me to do that?”
‘Tick…Tock…’ The dam of guilt bursts. Humiliation and remorse course through me. The extent of my miserable deception overwhelms me. Still Mrs Crabbe says nothing, and now I am sweating, palpitating, dry-mouthed.
“Mrs Crabbe, do you want me to play it properly?”
I can’t stay looking at that spirit reflected in the woodwork. She has hunched up, a study in defeat. My victory feels pyrrhic indeed. Finally, slowly, my heart lurching I turn round.
“Mrs Crabbe. Are you okay?”
I have to bend down to catch a glimpse of her eyes. Then the grim truth hits me.
Needless to say I did not get to the exam. I buried my face in mum’s breast, babbling my guilty half-sentences.
“I played wrong mum, I…”
“Mark, it’s been a shock for you, for us all.”
“But mum, I did it! I made her die.”
“Just get some rest, love. You’re upset. It must have been horrible for you.”
Nobody really listened, so the confession remained closed away in the room that time ignored. •
My coffee has gone quite cold. I swill the liquid around the paper cup looking for a sign in the dregs. Time to go, but I cannot leave it here. I can no longer wallow in excuses: I was only a child, she was ill anyway; at least she died listening to her best pupil. My mother died that same year. That eclipsed everything and drove the incident further into reclusion.
“Hello, is that Mrs Constance?” I have to shout over the noise of the traffic. “Hi, you teach my son…Jack Watts… Yes, I hear he’s doing well…. No, there’s no problem.... I was just wondering if you had any space for another pupil? No, actually it’s me… I was wanting to take lessons….yes, whenever you can manage… Oh, that’ll do fine, no, really, that’s ideal… Look I’m around tomorrow, I’ll come and see you then.”
In the cheerful muddle of our front room is a mahogany piano with a polished stool at which I have rarely sat. It has too many memories. It was the final burning coal heaped upon my unworthy head. Mrs Crabbe left all the rest of her substance to the British Legion in memory of a young man who left himself in the sands of Algeria. Jack plays simple tunes on the piano. But not even Kathy knows that I can play.
I smile at the final irony. Mrs Constance will be able to fit me in for regular lessons. Saturday morning.