If you think I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to music, I’ll tell you this much: I have performed live in front of a packed house, as one half of a piano duet. My younger brother was the other half. Two people at one piano equals four hands on 88 keys. Sixteen fingers and four thumbs responsible for 4.4 keys each. Simple. What could go wrong? Nothing, and nothing did.
In a faraway England, sixty years distant by now, there was one thing most families, rich and poor, had in common. It cut across the severe class divide that kept us all in our places. Just about every family, those of us who lived in the council houses and those we’d never meet who lived in the posh estate homes, sent their children to piano lessons.
Ron and I went for most of the year before we left England. We had started the year in a new school over in Ashford. One of the teachers gave piano lessons at her home, and my mum signed us up. Her name was Mrs. McNamee, a woman of stout stature and disposition. She stressed the importance of practicing our scales. Do re mi fa so la ti do. I can still hear them in my mind’s ear, although I’d never find them on a piano again. We learned the difference between treble and bass clefs, and to know which piano key corresponded to which black dot on a music sheet.
The most important piece of her curriculum was keeping our wrists higher than the ivories. Mine would tend to sag and drift downward, settling to rest on the key slip that held the piano keys in place. But not for long. She kept a wooden ruler somewhere in the folds of her dress and would rap my knuckles to remind me to keep my wrists up.
I called her Mrs. Smackmee, but never to her face.
We took our lessons at her house, and practiced on an old upright piano in ours. It sat in the parlour, which was a grand name for a small living room. There was no television. There had been once, but it was killed by a lightning strike. The bolt hit the chimney of the Stevenson’s house five doors down, went into the ground, came up in our living room and exited through the receptacle the television was plugged into.
My parents had already made their plans to leave England and set sail for Canada. They lost their faith that England held a future for them or us. The country was still feeling the pinch of the Suez crisis and petrol rationing. The piano wouldn’t make the journey so we had to learn as much as we could in the diminishing amount of time available. Mrs. Smackmee led us away from scales and into a real tune: an old folk song called The Jolly Farmer.
The calendar was moving relentlessly towards the end of our last school year in England. Soon we’d be back in Scotland for the summer, then on a boat down the Clyde and on to Quebec City.
Mrs. Smackmee told us there would be an end of school concert, and we’d be in it performing the very song she was teaching us. Looking back, it seems an odd choice. The old folk tale was about a jolly farmer and a jolly milk maid having a jolly time in a haystack until the jolly farmer’s not so jolly wife happened by. There was lots of room for salty tales in the English schools of the day and no one seemed particularly bothered by them. And nobody sang the lyrics.
Our performance went off just fine. Mrs. Smackmee couldn’t walk on stage to rap my knuckles when the heel of my hands rested on the key slip. I could play in comfort. After what seemed like hours but was only minutes, the final note flew from the piano, bouncing against the walls and ceiling and out the doors and windows. It drifted to where sound waves can still be felt but can’t be heard. For what seemed like forever there was absolute silence throughout the auditorium as students and teachers reflected on the performance they just witnessed. Then, just as Mrs. Smackmee walked to centre stage to take a bow with us, the room erupted in polite but enthusiastic applause.
As quickly as it had begun, my musical career ended. My mother sold the piano and bought a steamer trunk. Some friends thought it a shame that I retired so soon, just as I was within reach of the pinnacle.
Others thought it just as well that I never played in public again.