Piano Duets

by jenniferlbryce

This piece was written for the Henry Handel Richardson story competition in 2012 (it won an honorable mention). The connection to Henry Handel Richardson is that Madeleine, the narrator of the story, is an extension of that character in Richardson’s novel Maurice Guest.

This piece is longer than my usual postings. Please let me know if you find it too long.

 

Madeleine covered her nose with a lavender-scented handkerchief to mask the carbolic of the school infirmary. She bent over a boy in the one occupied bed. ‘Oh, Scotty,’ she whispered. She could think of nothing else to say. Tied to the iron bedstead was a sign that gave the patient’s formal name, Nicholas Scott, and the date of admittance, Tuesday 15th August, 1922.

She always thought of him as Scotty. His normally unruly red curls had been brushed off his face and he seemed to be sleeping. The look of sleep gave him a childish innocence. But there were wounds under the gauze dressings on his neck. The contrast of Scotty’s innocent face with the reality of the violence he had wished to enact was deeply disturbing. His long eye lashes fluttered.

It was not the first time Madeleine had confronted suicide. There was a young woman back in her student days in Leipzig, thirty years ago, and soon after that, Maurice – Maurice whom she had tried so hard to drag away from his desperate infatuation. She remembered hurrying back to Leipzig from Paris to attend his ignominious funeral. It was worse than having a friend die from accident or illness – there was a stronger sense of disbelief. How could this person, with whom you had talked and argued just days earlier, perform an act of such abrupt finality? How naïve she had been to think that one day Maurice would come to his senses and settle down as a music teacher, perhaps with her. It was so hard to accept the brutal truth that he had loved another woman more than anything else in the world. Certainly more than her.

Scotty was much younger than Maurice had been. Surely an adolescent crush couldn’t be so powerful? How bleak and terrifying life must have seemed for the fifteen year-old. Thank God the house master had found him in the bath cubicle seconds after Scotty had kicked the stool away. He had run with the unconscious boy in his arms to the school infirmary where the sister had administered smelling salts and called the school doctor. Madeleine, who had heard a commotion above her sitting room, sought out the house master on his return. Still gasping for breath from exhaustion and shock, he had told her of his gruesome discovery.

She remembered when Scotty came to board at the school, a trembling seven year-old from the country. The boys started teasing him then because he took his teddy bear to bed. They would steal it and put it on the master’s desk, or worse, in the urinals. She had tried to give him the extra attention he needed without obviously singling him out. On Sunday evenings she sometimes invited him and a few of his classmates to supper in the hope that he would find a more homely experience comforting. When he was ten Scotty came to her for piano lessons. As he grew older he became more alone and forlorn. The boys called him ‘Mary the Fairy’ after the film star Mary Pickford and other suggestive names.

When she was a student in Leipzig there had been a lot of discussion about Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. It was thought rather risqué for women to talk of such things, and that attitude had not changed much in thirty years. Within the camaraderie of the music students there was less inhibition and back then men and women had talked long into the night about ‘sexual deviance’. She wondered whether Scotty had homosexual leanings. Recently she had read Freud who argued that homosexuality is not an illness, not something to ‘cure’. But she should not jump to conclusions about Scotty. He was an artistic, sensitive boy who did not fit into the rough and tumble of Carrington Boys’ Grammar.

Madeleine looked out the window. A prunus was just coming into bud. She went through the previous night’s conversation with Andrew. As head master he must tell Scotty’s parents what had happened. She liked to be involved in discussions with parents. Although they had come to Carrington as a husband and wife team Andrew was often reluctant, indeed obstinate, about involving her in dealings with parents. It had turned out to be a less balanced partnership than the one she had envisaged when, as two experienced teachers, they married. Last night she and Andrew had been sitting in bed, propped up on their pillows drinking cocoa.

‘It’s a phase he’s going through. A lot of boys find this a difficult time. But they don’t usually take it to such extremes.’

‘He is seriously troubled, Andrew.’

‘He’s soft. He’s got to be made to snap out of it.’

‘He’s different from the other boys. He doesn’t like games. He’s imaginative – artistic.’

‘It’s like being left-handed. A boy can be trained to write with his right hand.’

‘No – his artistic nature needs to be cultivated.’

‘What’s the point? Where will it lead? He needs to be diverted from those things. More outdoor activities. He spends a lot of time with his music – a lot of time alone. He’s not very good at football, but maybe he could try hockey?’

With that he had slammed down his cup on the bedside table, punched his pillow and turned out the light. He lay with his back to her clenched in his private world. She didn’t touch him. He was like a stubborn tortoise who had retreated into his shell.

In the darkness she sensed the impenetrable wall of his back. He was lying maybe twelve inches away from her, yet he may as well have been on the moon. She dared not reach out for him though she wanted so much to break through the surface of that shell. In their early married life he had allowed her to glimpse into his world, but with the stress of leading Carrington through the war years he had barricaded her off, refusing to share his problems, refusing to listen to her suggestions. It seemed inconceivable that their partnership could have come to this. How could he not soften to the plight of Scotty? How could he so heartlessly throw this sensitive child back into the maelstrom of school life?

Their marriage was an intellectual coming together rather than a passionate coupling. She had met Andrew when she was well into her thirties, teaching music at a school outside London. He taught Latin. They were drawn together by an interest in the writings of William James. Madeleine had not expected to marry although, as a student, she had a brief engagement with a much older man. So far as she was concerned it had been a purely practical arrangement. Since her student days she had gone to dances and accompanied young men to concerts, but she knew she had never been head over heels in love. She had never forgotten words said by Louise, the woman who had ensnared Maurice: ‘You will never care for anyone more than yourself.’ And those words had stuck, even though at the time it was part of a student argument and she put on an appearance of not caring. Was she an incurable egoist? Was this why she had had no ‘grand passion’? As a student she had felt a thrill on seeing certain young men and she had felt disappointments, for example when Maurice didn’t invite her to a student ball. But she had never felt that she would be prepared to die for another – or even give up her career. She was intrigued about that kind of love, yet she knew that she was more likely to pour her heart into her music, sitting at her piano revelling in the chord sequences of Beethoven or Chopin, than to give herself completely to a man.

As a student she had planned to establish her own music academy. But when she met Andrew he suggested that they set up a school together – indeed, that was a large part of the attraction. He would help her to fulfil her dream of running a school. When they had been married five years, he was invited to apply for the headmastership of prestigious Carrington Boys’ Grammar School in Australia and here they had been for the past seventeen years, including the time of the Great War when they felt remote from the battlefields and yet horrified as the names of more and more old boys were listed in death notices.

She fashioned a career out of the role of headmaster’s wife. They lived in the headmaster’s residence – a spacious flat located beneath the boarding dormitories. With no children of her own she made it her business to be a kind of substitute mother to the young boarders. She always barracked for the boarders’ house in sports and she had the young ones in for supper.

She kept rigidly to her weekly schedule that included consulting with the groundsmen, entertaining mothers to morning tea, playing organ for school assembly, giving piano lessons, and one afternoon a week spent at her club in the city where, in the library, she kept abreast of the latest writings on education.

These days she quite often spent time imagining what her life might have been like had she followed her plan of running her own music school. She knew that people saw her as a self-contained childless professional woman; organised and dependable. And she was. But with Andrew she had almost had so much more.

She recalled her lesson with Scotty last week. He was working on a Mozart sonata, the KV 332 in F Major. Most of the boys thumped out their pieces and could not appreciate the refinement of Mozart. But Scotty played the melody line as though it were an operatic aria. She remembered the afternoon sun shining on his supple fingers as he approached the second subject with a sensitivity she had not heard before in a boy. Why hadn’t she said right then that he had the makings of a concert pianist? Maybe those few words of praise, or the suggested aspiration, might have given him courage to ignore the taunting of his peers. He was by no means weak. To do what he had done required a great deal of courage. What he needed was another kind of courage, the courage to be different; so hard for a fifteen year-old. If only a great pianist like Arthur Rubinstein would tour Australia and Scotty could have a hero. He could then see that an artistic, sensitive man can be as highly acclaimed as a sportsman.

She dissected that last lesson, trying to remember every action, every word that had been spoken. Had he offered any hint of what he must then have been planning? Unlike other boys, he usually arrived on time. Last Monday he was early. The knees of his trousers were dirty. He could have been in a fight. But she hadn’t asked. They started with scales – there was always a pattern to her lessons. He had fumbled Ab minor and she had shown some disapproval – she set high standards for Scotty. The sonata had gone well. He must have realised that. But she hadn’t praised him enough. How awful to think that her slight reprimand, that he should prepare Ab minor again for next week, might have been a turning-point for Scotty. She should have realised that he was too fragile to be criticised in any way.

There was a tap on the door and Sister Jemima entered – the boys referred to her as the Puddle-duck. It was an apt nick-name, referring not only to her Christian name, but to her waddling walk. The rotund matron beckoned Madeleine to a corner of the room. Perhaps she thought it would be out of Scotty’s earshot.

‘He’s got some nasty lacerations, Mrs Brownlee. But he’s not really unconscious – just pretending, the rascal.’ She hardly lowered her voice.

‘It will be extremely hard for him to face people.’

‘Well, he’ll be seeing his parents soon,’ Sister Jemima scowled across at her patient.

‘Yes. They have an appointment with Mr Brownlee later this morning.’

‘He’ll have to learn to join in the other boys’ games.’

‘I think he’s had a particularly tough time,’ Madeleine looked across to the bed where the boy had not moved.

‘We’ll keep him in isolation for at least a week. Don’t want the wounds to get infected. It’s a good thing that there isn’t the usual outbreak of spring influenza, there are plenty of spare beds at the moment.’

‘I’d better get back,’ said Madeleine. ‘His parents are coming to lunch.’ She didn’t really need to rush away, but she could think of nothing more to say to Sister Jemima – she didn’t want Scotty to overhear more remarks about being weak, and she was sure that he was listening to their conversation.

Before she left she returned to Scotty’s bedside and, out of earshot of the matron, said ‘Dear Scotty, I’m so sorry. I’d like to help you.’

Then, using her lavender-scented handkerchief to hide tears, she left.

 

Madeleine wished she could be involved in Andrew’s meeting with the parents. It would be so hard to tell them exactly what had happened. But he insisted that he do it alone. He would talk to them in his office, then he would bring them over to have lunch in the dining room of the headmaster’s residence.

Back home, just before half past twelve, Madeleine heard the front door open and Andrew’s voice in the hall, ‘No trouble at all. Grace will look after your coats.’

They came through to the sitting room where Madeleine was waiting with sherry. The sitting room had always been gloomy. It was furnished in deep red brocade and dark wood, the darkness broken only by cream lace antimacassars on the backs of the upholstered chairs. The mirror over the fireplace reflected the gloom and a coke fire smouldering in the grate provided little cheer. There were brief introductions.

‘Would you care for sherry or tomato juice, Mrs Scott?’

Mrs Scott forced a smile and took sweet sherry. She was a slight, pale woman, not the sort you would expect to be a farmer’s wife. She was wearing a stylish deep green costume that was the new short length, with amber beads at her throat. Her hair was crimped in the latest fashion. Madeleine’s own long tweed skirt and hair tied in a bun must look dowdy in comparison, but she didn’t care.

Mr Scott was rosy-cheeked and balding, with a prominent gold watch chain in his waistcoat. He was intent on conveying a kind of false jollity. Madeleine was puzzled that the parents seemed by no means devastated. Had they understood how Scotty, their only child, came to be in the school infirmary?

‘Do you come to the city often?’ she found herself asking Mrs Scott to put her at ease, all the time thinking it a pathetic diversion from the business at hand.

‘It’s nice to get down to the city.’ She gave a strained smile. ‘I like to see the shops.’

Andrew and Mr Scott were discussing wheat production, of all things. It was a great relief when Grace came to the door to announce that lunch was served.

As usual, lunch had been wheeled over from the boarders’ dining room on a covered trolley, which stood in the corner of the room, and Grace served from it. First there was soup.

The room was much lighter than the sitting room. There was a large mahogany table in the centre and matching leather covered chairs. Windows on two walls looked out onto gardens.

As they took their places, the men helping the women, Madeleine said, ‘It’s a shame that Nicholas isn’t well enough to join us.’ She was determined to focus on the purpose of their meeting.

‘I guess he’ll be up and about soon, the young scallywag, causing all this fuss!’ Mr Scott crumbled some bread into his tomato soup. ‘How’s he going with his lessons?’

Madeleine frowned at Andrew. It seemed that, as she suspected, he had not fully explained what had happened.

Andrew confirmed that Nicholas was usually a very conscientious student although his marks had dropped a bit recently.

‘More difficult subjects now he’s in the senior school. Do you think he needs coaching?’ Mr Scott’s question was directed to Andrew.

‘Oh no, no. I don’t think so. He’s really one of the more able students.’

‘But I do think he’s rather troubled.’ Madeleine hoped that Mrs Scott might take this up, but she seemed to be fascinated by the willow pattern on her side plate.

Andrew glared at his wife.

‘Troubled?’ Mr Scott wiped his mouth with his serviette. ‘He has no reason to be troubled – he’ll be taking over the farm, he really has no worries.’

Madeleine was horrified. ‘He doesn’t have a lot of friends at the moment,’ she ventured. ‘He’s rather a lonely boy.’

‘Lonely. Why is he lonely? It must be because he doesn’t play enough games. Can’t you do something about that?’ The father turned once more to Andrew.

‘Yes, of course. I’ll talk to his house master.’

By the time they had finished the shepherd’s pie it had been agreed that Scotty would be put in the house hockey team and moved to a part of the dormitory where he would be under closer supervision. Mr Scott seemed happy with these arrangements and Mrs Scott continued to be quiet and inaccessible.

After coffee they walked to the infirmary, admiring the school grounds, which were extensive and very well maintained. Sister Jemima was waiting for them and their footsteps squeaked on the shiny linoleum as they followed her waddling figure down the disinfected corridor to the room where Scotty lay.

‘I did manage to get some weak soup into him. But he’s back asleep now,’ Sister Jemima looked down at the patient. ‘Nicholas, your parents are here,’ she shouted to him, but Scotty’s eyes remained firmly closed.

Mrs Scott bent over and kissed her son’s forehead.

Mr Scott looked uncomfortable.

Madeleine noticed a tear trickle from Scotty’s left eye.

The school doctor had been summoned and he explained the detail but not the cause of the lacerations; how they had been dressed and how long he expected them to take to heal.

‘He could do with a couple of weeks’ convalescence at home, then no strenuous games for the rest of term.’ He fiddled with his stethoscope.

Madeleine managed a weak smile when she thought how Scotty would be pleased to be excused from games.

While the parents hovered around their son’s bedside, she steered her husband to a corner of the room that she hoped was out of earshot. Through clenched teeth she whispered, ‘What did you tell them?’

‘Not now, not now – I’ll tell you later.’ Andrew kept his eyes firmly on the parents.

‘You didn’t tell them everything, did you?’

‘A fight. Talk later!’ He was exasperated.

As they walked back along the corridor Mrs Scott ultimately said to Andrew, ‘You will make sure that, er, that this kind of sky-larking doesn’t happen again.’

‘He’s got to stand up for himself.’ Mr Scott was vehement. ‘My son must not be allowed to behave like a little sissy.’

It was agreed that the parents would come to collect their son at the end of the following week, by which time the wounds should have healed sufficiently and the risk of infection diminished.

 

That evening Madeleine and Andrew sat at their mahogany dining table and endured a tense meal.

When Grace was out of the room for a moment Madeleine leaned angrily across the table, ‘You criticise Scotty for being weak. You are worse. You are not even honest!’

‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘It’s much better that the parents don’t know.’

‘And why is that?’

‘You have no idea the damage rumours can do . . .’

‘I am sure I have.’

Grace returned with the pudding.

‘He is weak – far too sensitive . . .’

‘What’s wrong with fostering the artistic development of a sensitive boy?’ Madeleine was aware of Grace, busying herself at the trolley.

‘It’s not what we aim to do at this school. You know that as well as I.’ Andrew thrust his spoon into the blancmange. ‘Carrington has a reputation of feeding the professions. We produce fine, upstanding young men. There is no point dwelling on what has happened. We must toughen him up.’

‘Why put him through that? He could be a fine and upstanding concert pianist one day.’

‘It’s a waste of an education. We have a responsibility to his parents.’

‘You had a responsibility to his parents this afternoon that you didn’t fulfil. And you know it. He’s a deeply troubled young man.’

‘Boys often have troubles at his age. It’s a difficult time. He’ll grow out of it. When he comes back from staying with his parents I’ll get Reverend Barnfather to have a talk with him.’

‘He needs more help than a routine talking to.’

‘As I said, he’ll grow out of it.’

‘And in the meantime – assuming it’s something you can “grow out of”, which I doubt. What if he tries again?’ Madeleine suspected that Andrew would only think in terms of what other parents might hear, not in terms of the boy’s needs at all. He seemed determined to maintain the traditions of the large boys’ school rather than to put into practice the idealism they had once shared.

‘I’ll have a talk to the other boys in the dorm. Get them to ease off a bit.’

‘Do they know what happened? They would be shocked. That would make them “ease off”.’

‘On no account are they to know. We agreed that he will be closely supervised. That will suffice.’ Andrew rose from the table. ‘I’ll take coffee in my study, thank you Grace.’ He headed down the passage to his sanctuary.

Madeleine went to her piano and banged out Chopin’s Revolutionary Study. There was nothing she could do until Scotty’s return.

 

Scotty arrived in a taxi from the station at five o’clock on a Friday evening. Still pale, a scarf covered his neck. Madeleine went out to greet him. She had been subtly on the look-out all afternoon.

‘Hello Scotty, it’s good to have you back. Let me help you with your things.’

‘Thank you Mrs Brownlee.’ He followed her up the stairs to his new place in the dormitory. The beds were narrow, cream iron, covered with blue checked spreads. Next to each was a small cupboard with sufficient room for a school suit, some boots and maybe a cricket bat. On the other side was a shelf intended for books or photographs. The boys did not dare to display photographs of their mothers; that would be seen as weak, but a few had horses or pet dogs in simple wooden frames. Madeleine looked at Scotty’s cold iron bedstead.

There was no one around. So much for close supervision, she thought. She helped Scotty unpack his suitcase. There were no biscuits for midnight feasts or any other goodies of the kind that boys usually managed to sneak from home.

‘Scotty – do you feel up to having your meal in the dining hall tonight, or would you prefer a little supper downstairs?’

‘I’d rather eat downstairs, if that’s all right.’

She knew that would be his answer.

‘Mind you,’ she said, trying to sound firm. ‘You’ll have to take breakfast in the hall tomorrow.’

Fortuitously, Andrew had an old boys’ dinner, so Madeleine arranged for Grace to leave a supper of sandwiches and chocolate biscuits in the sitting room. She stoked up the fire and turned on all the lights to make the room as bright as possible. It would be quite daunting for Scotty to sit with just her in this rather formidable room.

‘I don’t suppose you managed to get to the piano while you were home?’ Madeleine had decided to refrain from asking how he was feeling – she could guess the answer to that.

‘I tried the Mozart on our old August Forster. It’s pretty out of tune. It didn’t sound too good. So I just played some of mother’s old songs.’

‘Oh – she would have liked that.’

‘She said I’d improved.’

‘You have, Scotty. You know, you should be really proud of the way you’re playing.’

‘Father says I have to concentrate on sport and other lessons.’

‘I’m sure you can do both. I think they’ll want you to do more sport when you’re quite better,’ she glanced at his neck, ‘but you can work on your music too.’

On a whim, as Scotty finished the last chocolate biscuit, she said, ‘Scotty, your sight-reading’s pretty good. Let’s play some duets. Give your fingers a good wipe.’

They went over to the piano and she pulled out the Moszkowsi Spanish Dances from her carefully catalogued music library. She opened the music to dance number one. They played it slowly at first, but Scotty soon got his fingers around the primo part and they both became caught up in the spirited allegro brioso. As she settled into the chords of the bass part, she remembered how she had played piano duets with Maurice in her student digs in the days before he had become involved with Louise. They had worked their way through arrangements of Beethoven symphonies. But then the visits to her stopped; the power of that infatuation had dragged him to depths from which she had been unable to rescue him. She remembered noticing how his finger nails became broken and uncared for – no longer the fingers of a pianist. She had thought she might be able to lure him away to Paris before he was utterly ruined. It was impossible. She looked over to Scotty. He seemed to be engrossed in the music. What would he dream of tonight in that comfortless iron bed?

In no time, it seemed, they could hear the faint sound of the bell ringing upstairs, and the scuffling of feet as the boys were summoned to bed.

Madeleine put down the lid of the piano and rested her hand on Scotty’s shoulder.

‘It’s going to be hard, Scotty. The boys are probably going to keep teasing you. Try to ignore it. I know it will be almost impossible. Just remember this music. Remember that you have special talent. Work at it, and one day you will be a really fine player. I want to help you. We’ll make your lesson a bit longer – and how about we play piano duets after prep on Fridays?’

‘Oh – thanks   . . .’

‘If things ever get very bad, please come to me.’ She looked intently into his pale blue eyes. ‘Now, up to bed. I expect the house master will be on the look-out for you.’

‘Thank you Mrs Brownlee.’

She watched as the lanky, slightly stooped boy climbed the stairs towards the thudding of slippered feet and stifled whoops of pillow fights .

As she turned towards the fireside, she sensed a presence at the door. It was Andrew.

‘I left the dinner early,’ he said, running his hand through his rather dishevelled hair. ‘I’ve been walking – walking along the river.’

Madeleine noticed that his patent leather evening shoes were quite muddy.

He gestured towards her. ‘That performance was stirring. You were right. He does seem to have something special. Something that we should help him to develop.’

They stood together in front of the sputtering fire and he tentatively took her hand. ‘I’m sure you are the best person to help him.’

And then he held her in his arms.