My Mother Played Liszt
My mother played Liszt. Not the transposed for modern players Liszt but the original bastard’s manuscripts that he didn’t want women to play, or anyone else for that matter, so betoken was he to his own musical genius. She was taken, my mother, I think, by his obsession with making the piano, the instrument that she devoted her life to, the life force of the musical world. She tackled Dante and Faust as Liszt might have done. Stubborn old cow (if you’re allowed to call your mother an ‘old cow’).
“‘Damn you Liszt’”, she would swear at the old composer, for to her he wasn’t dead, he was peering over her shoulder telling her she could never play his Étude d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini the way he did. But play it she did, and the Etudes, the Symhonies, the Preludes, the Concertos – the whole damn lot. Damn you Liszt indeed, for I suffered it all – waking at midnight to hear her bang the piano and push the old man out of the way, to go back to being dead so that she could master him.
This would go on, night after night, and I needed my sleep. I was a school boy, a child, enthralled by her skill and without excuse the next morning when time it was to rise for school. What the other mothers were engaging I had no idea, not in this sort of behaviour I knew that much. None of it, they were asleep, comatose in their own tea cosies and magazines probably. Other mothers were normal. As far as I could tell I had the only bloody minded mother in the known universe. I’d given up the idea of being part of a normal family, where the mother would bake bread, or cake, for when the child came home from school. Not us, we’d have to make ourselves scarce, while my mother taught her charges. “‘I won’t be finished teaching till seven o’clock, so grab yourself something from the kitchen and find yourself something to do till then. But don’t bother me.’” So off I went.
So Liszt, damn you, you obstinate, passionate, brilliant old bastard. I suffered because of you, learned to ride a bike, dirt track slides, the lot, most of it. Having said that, all of that, I did get a kick out of it, knowing my red headed mother could play like that, whilst the best Reggie Bowen’s mother could do was drive the school bus.
I haven’t mentioned my father, the one who lay in bed while his wife consorted with her lover, reading a book because there was no point fighting the woman. “‘You coming to bed?” “Shortly, yes, when I’ve done some practice.’” He knew he wouldn’t see her till morning.
People who fought the woman came off second best. “‘Shouldn’t you try something easier?’” from those who had some understanding of the dead genius’s works or “‘Is there something you’re trying to prove?’” from those whose musical knowledge extended just slightly beyond a Gershwin tune. A humph was followed by an angled turn of the head in a none too subtle display of disdain.
Which brings me to the point of the school hall. Or more to the point, the grand opening of the new school hall, the purchase of the grand piano to augment its false grandeur and the playing of the aforementioned piano by the school’s salaried hack music teacher at the aforementioned grand opening. My mother detested all school music teachers, perhaps because they failed in their duty to provide her with the education her abilities and intellect deserved. She regarded most teachers, but more particularly music teachers, as dilettantes.
She considered that the teachers college, where they obtained an all too easy qualification, arranged so that enough of them could be loosed on children who she assumed had no interest in music other than to fill in the time prior to lunch, gave them rather a too fundamental understanding of the gift that was music, to impart it to children. She particularly despised our school’s senior music teachers ability to play the piano, considered her a journeyman. It wasn’t that she despised her as an individual, it was that she despised her calling herself a musician, a pianist, when what she was was a second rate musicologist who could play the odd tune.
So when it came time for the opening ceremony, and the playing of the piano, the journeyman school music teacher couldn’t bring herself to even front and play something perfunctory, a prelude, Chopsticks, anything. The music teacher clearly thought long and hard about playing, doing her duty, applying herself to the task of repaying the taxpayer, because she notified the organiser, or the school Principal, we don’t know who, we never found out, on the morning of the concert itself.
The Principal was left in a bind, he had rung around to see whether anyone else on staff might be capable of faking a Beethoven prelude, there were no takers – “‘she’s the only one I know who can play anything decent’” cried one from the corridor. “‘I can ask if any of the music students can play for us,” “that’s rather embarrassing isn’t it’” asked another. “‘We can sell it as promoting our students.’” Then one of those self same students suggested my mother, one who had previously been tutored by her – “‘you could ask Mrs N——.’”
And so my mother picked up the phone shortly after 9am on the morning of the opening ceremony of the new school hall.
‘Is that Mrs N——?’
‘Who is this?”’
‘It’s Clara Pullman from the high school. I’m the secretary to the Principal.’
‘I have been asked by the Principal if you are available to play the piano at the school.’
‘What is the occasion?’ My mother was a direct woman.
‘The opening of the new school auditorium.’
‘I see. When?’
‘Today.’ Clara Pullman was at this point taking deep breaths, ones designed to lower ones heart rate.
Again, ‘I see.’
‘I know it’s short notice.’
‘How perceptive of you. Short notice is not what I would call it. Rude and presumptuous is what I would call it.’
‘I’m sorry Mrs N—— but it’s rather a case of getting us out of a bind you see.’
‘What type of bind would that be then?’ Knowing precisely the bind they were in, she wanted them to work for it. She didn’t have anything against Clara Pullman necessarily but she did despise the idea that she was a backup plan. That was my mother, mess with her, play games with her and take your pain. Yet the self same woman would bake me a cake because I took the blame for Charlie Elks kicking the football through the louvers at the back of the house. She knew Charlie had kicked the ball because I was so quick to take the rap, while Charlie stood there with his supercilious grin figuring he could pull off this type of ruse for the rest of his life. He might have argued that I should have saved it but Gordon Banks wouldn’t have got to this ball. It was wide.
‘Well, you see the music teacher…’
‘Yes, Giselle Radowski. Well, she has had to pull out you see, something wrong with her wrist. She can’t play.’
‘You’re right, she can’t play.’
‘Yes, well uhm, can you help us?’
‘Oh yes I can certainly help you.’ Imagine Clara’s sense of relief, shoulders rising from the stoop, teeth becoming visible, being able to tell the Principal (who is provided a title here for the purposes of continuity only) that she had found a solution, a pat on the back a least, perhaps extra responsibilities. ‘The question is not one of whether I can help you, the question is one of whether I am prepared to help you.’
‘I guess Mrs N—— you have us over a barrel,’ continued Clara Pullman, ‘it’s important to the school because we have purchased a new grand piano. Everyone is expecting a recital, of sorts.’
‘It kind of begs the question as to why you firstly didn’t realise that Giselle Radowski would never be able to play any sort of decent piano recital and secondly, why you didn’t have the courtesy of asking me to bail you out just a little earlier. When is this recital?’
‘Eleven o’clock.’ And silence in the gallery, Clara held her breath, the student sat on her hands studying Bartok, or Bach, I can’t remember what grades she had on Thursdays, while she waited for my mother to get off the phone. ‘I’m sorry Mrs N——.’
‘I still have students.’
‘I will need to let the Principal know.’
‘Tell your inept Principal that I will bail him out.’ She didn’t, not for one moment, consider that her son, me, would bear the consequences if Clara squealed. Things would, I later conclude, go badly for me, I’d be a target.
‘Thank you Mrs N——, thank you.’ And Clara Pullman would go on giving thanks for the next hour, as if she had supped with royalty, or celebrity. She would, Clara Pullman, discover, when she sat in the audience with the students, with the teachers, with the performers, with the dignitaries, that she had been talking to royalty, musical royalty, Liszt type royalty.
‘Hands Fiona, lift the hands, you’re punching the pedals, caress them, caress them. You’re playing by ear again, your’e not sight reading. If you want to be great you first much learn to sight read. You should want to be great. If you want to be great you first must learn to sight read, even the most ambitious works, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, even Liszt.’
She would turn her attention to the school auditorium once she had finished with Fiona, ten year old Fiona, who would surely be great if firstly, her mother had anything to do with it but particularly if my mother had anything to do with it. Fiona finished her lesson, half an hour, my mother relented, on account of the phone call from Clara, let Fiona off early so that she could put in the twenty five years worth of practice required to play in front of a thousand people and hold their attention for any longer than the short introduction.
Turning her attention to the opening of the school auditorium meant rummaging through her sheet music, of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Bach (perhaps not Bach today), Chopin and of course the bastard, tucking them under her arm and making her way to the school so that she could at least familiarise herself with the surroundings, the instrument, the chair she would sit on.
So she tucked them, the papers, those manuscripts that the greats had wept over, under her arm and strode as majestically as any forty odd year old woman, piano teacher, mother of three, wife of a husband who would not care whether she played, for whom she played, for how long she played or under whose commission, and show them, the teachers, the Principal (again, for identification purposes only), the students, but especially Giselle Radowski, what a real pianist does.
Given fifteen minutes, she played for those glorious minutes, a Brahms Prelude to start, then Beethoven’s Fifth. She paused during a Chopin Etude, looking up into the audience, smiled a smile that eliminated all intransigent thoughts, and moved into her work, next with Liszt, the Hungarian Rhapsody to be precise, toying with the melody, the left hand flourishing like a maestro would with his orchestra and the right hand dancing like a reinvigorated Nureyev. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor – “Moonlight Sonata – Adagio Sostenuto” brought solemnity and weight, she followed it with the Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor. She then pulled out the third and final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor Opus 23, thought to be unplayable by many in the musical establishment. It was a piece she’d go to when she was agitated, or was needing to release an energy only a gifted artist would ever understand. The piece muscled it’s way around the fringes of the new auditorium and enveloped the centre of it. The full effect of the concerto required a bank of violins and a convoy of woodwind but on this day she didn’t need them, she would use the keys beneath her fingers alone to impart it’s power. The movement finished with her playing the violin part from the piano, a feat of power and intensity no student, teacher or special guest would ever be witness to again. She played for another fifteen minutes, playing Beethoven’s Eighth Sonata, sight reading everything and if the Principal (who retained the title against the odds) didn’t like it then she’d let her transfixed audience have some more. The students stood and applauded while Ms Radowski stood at the edge of the auditorium bamboozled by what she had just witnessed.
Shortly after that momentous occasion I was squatting on the floor in the hallway at home, late one night, listening to her play Brahms for fun. It helped me sleep when schoolboys were not meant to lose sleep. She would play his waltzes when she wanted to unwind. She was playing Opus 39 No 15 and then she cried out, she had collapsed. I sprang up from the floor and cried out, ‘Mum, are you alright.’ I made it into the music room before anyone else and found her lying on the floor. My father came running moments later yelling ‘what’s wrong, what’s wrong.’ He bent down to pick her up, she was limp, frothing at the mouth, my father started crying while giving her mouth to mouth resuscitation but to no effect. He yelled at me to go and get some towels, for all the good they were going to do, then he yelled at me to call for an ambulance before he decided that he’d call one himself. She stayed limp, we were unable to move her, my father, despite being a veterinary surgeon with more than a passing knowledge of medical procedure, didn’t know what to do. He was crying, like any decent husband would do, the ambulance was on the way. He rang Aldo, our family doctor, who said he’d come over straight away. He arrived just as the ambulance officers were loading her into the ambulance. ‘I think she’s had a stroke Aldo.’
Let me have a look at her.’
My mother had had more than a stroke, she’d had an aneurysm, a major bleed into the brain and for the next few days my father talked to me about how we’d have to each take care of each other while the doctors took care of my mother.
‘Your mother always said you’d be able to look after things,’ my father told me one day as we were on the way to the hospital. I didn’t really know what he meant by that, only that all of us had grown up too quickly, that the music room was empty and that there was no music in the house.
She was then transferred to our major city hospital, to the intensive care unit, where the doctors could keep an eye on her. She had a tube as thick as your arm down her throat, about as uncomfortable as you could make it although I have no idea whether she was able to feel it.
She was in a coma, so I’m assuming that she couldn’t feel anything. Dad and I would fly down every weekend to see her, often staying an extra few days in town, in a place where we knew no one, a busy, bustling city with no soul that I could see and with people who had vacant looks on their faces, although for different reasons than the vacant looks we had as we walked towards the hospital.
We waited for my mother to come out of her coma and listened to doctors and nurses tell us that, whilst she was in the coma it was possible that she could come out of it at any time, even though she was in bed number six of six, beds five and six reserved for those whom they didn’t think would make it. Bed number five had a young lady who was smashed up as a result of not wearing a seat belt in a motor vehicle accident. She didn’t make it, my father tried to comfort her parents but they understood my father’s pain and were gracious towards him.
One morning, it was a Sunday, I went into the intensive care unit to see my mother, I had taken leave from school for the rest of the year, she opened her eyes and looked at me. She had come out of the coma, she couldn’t speak because of the tube down her throat, but she could look at me and try a smile. I said ‘hello Mum, it’s nice to see you open your eyes.’ It’s all I could say, I stroked her face, I told her Dad was nearby and that he’d be in at any moment. It didn’t last long, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep. She was back in her coma, her own world of freedom from pain.
I rushed to find my father, to tell him that my mother had come out of the coma and that I talked to her. An immense veil of guilt came over him, that he was not there to see her, I tried to reassure him but it came to no effect.
‘I was just around the corner.’
‘You weren’t to know, you weren’t to know.’
My mothers hands, her beautiful piano playing hands, had gone into entropy, they had curled up to the point where it would have been impossible to play anything even had she snapped out of the coma and been lucid straight away. It became obvious to us that she was not likely to do that any time soon, her comatose state was something we were quickly getting used to.
We were then visited by a neurosurgeon, who told us that he would attempt to operate on her, to try and alleviate the pressure on the brain. Mr Rushworth, he used the title Mister rather than Doctor, presented himself in his suit, carried a brief case like it held the secrets to a thousand summers and talked down the bridge of his nose through his bifocals, eyes slanted upward and with a seriousness that left us in no doubt as to how he felt about things. Dad nodded at him and asked about my mother’s chances. Mr Rushworth conveyed his measured pessimism but said that it had to be attempted, this procedure, as he put it, to try and bring my mother back from a lingering death.
‘What are her chances?’ asked my father.
‘I will attempt to tie off the bleed and repair the artery but her chances, as you ask, are about fifty per cent of surviving the operation, after that I cannot say.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I thought, he’s only giving her half a chance of surviving an operation, let alone coming out of the coma.
‘We might go for some lunch and then go and buy a video camera,’ said my father. ‘We should be optimistic, we were planning to go to Europe and film some places, so we should go and buy a video camera.’ We found a pub for some lunch, neither of us ate anything, while we waited for Mr Rushworth to finish his work, and walked to a shop to look at video cameras. My father wasn’t interested, all he could think about was his wife laying on an operating table having her skull removed and being poked and prodded by a surgeon who had seen enough of these things to know that my mother’s chances were not great.
He phoned the hospital about three hours later to see how the operation was going, they were finished, she was being wheeled back into intensive care. What was thought would be a five or seven hour operation has taken only three. My father took this as bad news. ‘They’ve sown her back up, there’s nothing they can do,’ were his exact words to me.
We got back to the hospital, we went straight to her room, she was bandaged like a soldier who’d been hit, it was hard to take. My father, full of hope but fearing the worst, asked the nurse how the operation went. There was an “Intensivist”, a doctor who specialises in intensive care patients. He came over to my father and said that the operation went well but that there was not much Mr Rushworth could do. He managed to tie the artery but there were no guarantees she wouldn’t bleed again, the area is weak, he said. Dad slumped in a chair, we hadn’t bought a video camera.
My mother looked the same, she offered no response, she was still deep in a coma, fast asleep, bereft of life. Only now there would be recovery time from the surgery. A few days before she had taken a whole school on a musical tour de force and now she was a lifeless mass.
‘We should go,’ said my father. ‘There’s nothing we can do here.’ He had been in a deep discussion with the Intensivist. He made the joke that he was at a disadvantage because his patients couldn’t talk to him, they were animals, and the Intensivist replied that his patients couldn’t either. It brought a brief smile to my father’s face. He had booked a motel for us stay in, I hadn’t even thought about school and for my father, who has always been academically inclined, he didn’t think about it either. As far as he was concerned, my school year was a write off, I’d start again next year, no matter what happened.
When we got back to the hotel my father told me he was going down to the bar for a drink, that I should watch television, that he wouldn’t be long. He was gone all night, while I watched M.A.S.H reruns. He staggered back into our room just before midnight smelling of whisky.
He had tried to drink himself into oblivion.
A week went by, my father, myself and the whole family had reached a point of resignation, or acceptance, my mother wasn’t getting better, I came up with the idea that we’d play music to her while she was in this coma.
‘What about we play Mozart and Beethoven to her.’
‘It’s a good idea.’
‘I’ll organise it.’ I bought a ghetto blaster, as the latest technology was known at the time, and put some of her favourite music on it. I asked the nurses to make sure they played the music, day and night, I wanted it to be on constantly so that my mother would hear it and maybe respond to it. I optimistically thought it might wake her up. I cried late at night when I thought I’d break down completely. I missed, not only her piano playing but her cooking, her baked dinners, the way she defended her children when she felt they were threatened. I was playing football one day and got tackled, almost breaking my leg. She ran onto the field and threatened to take the boy who tackled me out. I was later embarrassed by the whole affair but now, with her now not moving, having just had her brain operated on, I wasn’t embarrassed at all. I was proud.
I missed the way she rubbed my head when I headed off to school.