This is a key chapter in the musical thread with ties to the vision Phil had in ‘A Boyhood Ghost’, the new opening to the novel, and with ties to the ending of the novel, most of which I’ve written. I’m posting this on November 25th, 2020, and, tentatively, it’s the last chapter post for this year, although I plan to post articles on the ‘PROCESS’ section for the next 5-6 weeks.
Phil swivelled around in Redmond’s chair, using his feet to wheel himself up to the window and look down at St. Matthews which got him thinking about the yearly music recitals which took place there in his boyhood days of yore. And then, upon considering the recitals, he thought about the Human Metronome, and then about his lessons at her house on Monday evenings after school. Except that –
It wasn’t Monday, not in this developing thought.
In fact, it was a Sunday – a Sunday afternoon.
And he wasn’t having a piano lesson.
He was at the piano, for sure, but he wasn’t having a lesson.
What the devil had he been doing?
Closing his eyes, Phil went back to the time in question, allowing the vision to sharpen. And sure enough, he saw himself at twelve and a half, thumping away at the keyboard, intermittently scribbling down notes onto a piece of staff paper on the music stand while the Human Metronome suggested ‘this-and-that’ over his shoulder, occasionally leaning in to help him write something down.
Come to think of it, the Human Metronome was no longer as her name suggested and not just because she wasn’t banging her pointer on the floor. That was part of it, of course, because, without the tapping noise, she wasn’t metronomish, was she? Truth be told, she was actually and surprisingly quite pretty, ‘right fit’ as his friends were beginning to say of a few choice females in the town.
‘Like, yeah, she’s right fit, she is,’ his good friend Joe echoed in his ear about Jayne ‘with a Y’ Dockery who lived on Sycamore Road. ‘Looks like that centrefold Dave and I saw in the park library.’
Joe had been referring to the thicker-than-dense rhododendron bushes on the northeast corner of Philadelphus Park, fondly known amongst 13-16 year-old male circles as ‘The Park Library’, not just any library, mind, but rather an X-rated one where folks would drop off magazines like Playboy, Mayfair, Hustler and Penthouse, usually in a shopping bag from Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s. The lucky finder would “borrow” from the library, put the material to good use, then return it to the deep, dark shadows of the rhododendron bushes for the next ‘man-in-the-making.’
The kids today, Phil thought with a sigh. A couple of taps and ‘poof’ goes their innocence without the quest of yore. I mean, back in his day, by the time you’d strategized, executed and accomplished your mission of getting a magazine, or a film on VHS, and then consumed it without the parental swat team storming in on you, you deserved to revel in the spoils, because you’d quested; you’d pink-panthered with the stealthiest of maneuvers to get said ‘wisdom’ in your grip, then pussy-footed it into the house, waiting for your mum and dad to leave so you could have the TV to yourself, unless of course your mates were in on it. Then it was a case of close the curtains, lads, ‘cause Amber Lynn in is the house’, with someone being on standby at the window in case the swat team happened to return with that week’s grocery shopping.
Pondering the furtive expedition to the Park Library, Phil thought of the J. Geils Band’s 1981 hit ‘Centrefold’, the video of which would piss Claire off to the high heavens if she re-watched it through her enlightened millennial gaze. At least the women in the video looked real back then, Phil concluded, immediately realising that 1981, the year that ‘Centrefold’ was released, was also the very same year he’d been in his piano teacher’s house on said Sunday afternoon, not having a piano lesson.
Thinking again of (to borrow from the maestro ‘may he R.I.P.’, Prince) the ‘teacher formerly known as the Human Metronome’, Phil admitted that way back then on that Sunday afternoon at her house, she’d been ‘fitter than fit’ in that tight rose mohair sweater which had fuzzed over her in all the right places. As Phil sat there at the piano, it had finally dawned on him what all of Joe’s fuss over Jayne, with a Y, Dockery was about and that, maybe it was time he paid his first visit to the Park Library.
Furthermore, that was the Sunday, he’d learned that his teacher’s first name was ‘Elise’ as in Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ which, the instant he’d heard that, he vowed to revisit the piece of music which he’d butchered because – he hadn’t known! – Christ, if only he’d known that his fingers had been all over Elise’s namesake! – and, that Sunday, in that snug mohair number, Elise had been furry too. It didn’t matter that ‘für’ meant ‘for’. On that afternoon, and in his dreams thereafter, his personal definition of the word, furry, made far more sense to him so he ran with that.
Aware he was veering off into tangent territory, Phil opened his eyes and looked back down at the church – to no avail because he was still as mentally as could be in Elise’s house, at her piano.
‘Perhaps we’ve been barking up the wrong tree, Philip,’ Elise was saying. ‘Because I can see now that your forte lies with composition. And I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing for your parents. Surprising them with a musical creation. You know, I reckon you’re the first student I’ve ever taught who’s taken on such a thing. Your mum and dad will love this, they will. I know I love it.’
Had he been hearing correctly?
Had Elise just said that she loved his composition?
Phil put that on mental replay.
‘Your mum and dad will love this, they will. I know I love it.’
Okay, he indulged and played it again.
‘Your mum and dad will love this, they will. I know I love it.’
Christ. She had said that. And seeing as his composition was the best his soul had on offer, what Elise had really been saying was that she loved him. I mean, seriously, he was his music, was he not?
‘Can I ask you a question?’ he heard himself ask in the past.
‘Of course, Philip.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Oh, right then.’
And there he’d been at the piano, scrambling through the mental math to figure out how old she’d be when he was eighteen. Twenty-nine. Fuck it. Not even thirty. At twelve and a half, the whole thing seemed quite doable, particularly if she were still into those hot mohair sweaters and was willing to wait. I mean, Christ, what would piano lessons be like when he was eighteen and they were the same height?
‘What would you like to call your piece, Philip?’ Clearly, Elise, who was LOVING him, was doing her best to get back to business. ‘I’ll need a title to put in the programme.’
‘Four Shadows, I reckon’ he replied.
‘That fits,’ Elise said. ‘But what’s your reason for naming it that?’
‘Because it has four parts and they’re shadowy, but they’re each a bit different.’
‘Ahhh, I see,’ Elise had responded gently. ‘Well, I’m certain that your parents will be thrilled to hear what you’re capable of. If you’d like, I can just put ‘Four Shadows’ in the programme without the name of the composer – you – that way, it will be a complete, spur-of-the-moment surprise.’
‘I like that idea.’
‘However, Philip. You must put your name on the music itself so, after the recital, people know it has an author. That’s important, that is.’
As he replayed the bygone conversation, Phil knew he’d spent many more Sunday afternoons at Elise’s house with her overseeing the writing down of his developing composition. And then, in the tangent, came the last Sunday when Elise handed him a stiff maroon folder. It was brand new and had P.O. in tiny gold letters in the bottom right-hand corner.
‘You’ve worked so hard, Philip,’ she gusted from the past. ‘So, I wanted to give you something. It’s not much, I realise, but it’s a folder you can keep your composition in, to keep it crisp and flat. I’ll keep it here for you until Saturday evening if you like. That way, your parents won’t come across it at your house. I’ll give it to just before your performance.’
‘Oh, thank you, Elise –’
‘Miss Greenwood to you,’ she interrupted.
That had been a double-edged sword for (a) it confirmed what her man-less house already suggested: she was SINGLE, so, looking down the line, there was hope, (b) he was excluded from first-name rights so, she really did mean business, (c) there was a remote possibility she was holding him to her surname as a cover for the raging first-name passion bubbling beneath her mohair surface and (d) at the end of the day, she’d given him a thoughtful gift which meant she cared for him in some small way.
He’d repeated “thank-you” several times to make sure she knew he’d loved the gift.
Fast-forwarding to the night of the recital, Phil recalled that Elise had insisted all the music students arrive at St. Matthews an hour before the performance. To get organised, she’d said. For efficiency’s sake, they’d be proceeding in together and sitting in the first three pews, in order of their performances. Phil was set to play his composition last, so he’d be last in line. Dressed in his best shirt and trousers, he’d reminded his parents of the recital and hurried out the door, walking briskly to St. Matthews to meet with Elise and all the other students, but, if he were really being honest, just with Elise who, by the way, looked smashing in a charcoal pencil skirt and lemon yellow blouse, the top blouse buttons open to revel the golden ‘E’ dangling from her necklace in the gaping V of her collar.
As the start time for the recital approached, Phil, along with the other piano students, formed an ascending, but stationary line in the stairwell leading to the sanctuary from the lower level. Looking up at the all the other music students who frequented Elise’s house, he could feel the mix of their tension and excitement growing to the muffled sounds of the audience forming. He was nervous, yes, but also proud to be performing his own piece, written especially for his parents.
The moment came.
The church fell quiet as Elise went up and welcomed everyone before she came back to get the students and lead them to the first three pews.
St. Matthews had been full to the gills with grandparents, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. Relatives a-rustle in the pews. The sanctuary lights had been lowered for the event. Just the piano was bathed in light.This is my gift to you, Phil thought, as he and the other students filed into the church. When you hear this, you’ll be so proud – so happy.
However, as the group proceeded to the front of the church, Phil couldn’t see his parents in the crowd. Looking left and right, forwards, and back over his shoulder, he couldn’t see them anywhere. His heart began to sink, but not too low because, they could be running late and he was last up in the programme so if they didn’t show up straight away, it didn’t matter. They’d still be present for the moment.
That Saturday evening, as all the other students got up and performed to clapping mums and dads, Phil periodically turned and looked out into the murky sea of faces to see if he could find his parents. But, no, they weren’t there, were they? They hadn’t come. His heart began to sink much lower, then the self-talk started up to compensate. Gripping the maroon folder, he told himself, ‘It doesn’t matter, Phil. Just do your best. That’s all you can do. You’re twelve years old, not five. Get on with it.’
‘We have a wonderful treat for you all.’ That was Elise. She was up and talking to the audience. ‘Because one of my students, Philip Owens, will be performing his own composition for you which he’s been working on outside of his piano lessons for several months. Come on, Philip. Come on up here.’ And there he was, tousle-haired and red in the face, walking up to the piano, trying to forget the people for whom he’d intended the gift weren’t there. ‘Four Shadows,’ he said shyly. ‘In D minor.’
The audience fell super quiet.
He put his hands on the keys.
His gift for his parents was going nowhere.
His cheeks were burning, his fingers quivering.
And then – he played.
And for a moment, it wasn’t about anything other than ‘Four Shadows’. He lost himself in the piece of music he’d created. That boyhood fortitude, performative, had been short-lived, however, because the emptiness that followed overwhelmed it. There was a feeling. He’d always had it. But on that Saturday night as he took his bow before everyone else’s mums and dads, for the first time he was able to define it.
And what he meant by that was how his parents spent so much time belittling him and reprimanding him for the most insignificant of actions, yet were absent for his truth, his truth being what he was artistically capable of, his truth being his creative force. That moment, receiving the applause from everyone but the very two who mattered, had been his defining moment.
‘Philip?’ Elise was standing with him in the vestibule, staring into his hollow eyes. ‘I’m so sorry they weren’t here to hear that. You listen me, Phil. It was their loss. And all those people out there? They heard you. All those mums and dads. They heard you.’
‘But they’re not my mum and dad. I wrote the song for them. To show them.’
‘To show them what, Phil?’
‘To show them me.’
‘You’re young, Philip,’ Elise said as if she were as old as the hills. ‘So, this might not make any sense to you right now. But sometimes, our intended audience, the person we create the song for, isn’t the person meant to hear it. I’ll bet there was someone out there in that audience tonight who was moved by your composition. You never know, you might end up having to take a time slot on Sunday afternoon to fit in with all the other budding songwriters you’ve inspired. I know. It’s hard. But I’m telling you right now. I heard you. I saw you. Everyone here tonight did. You did brilliantly, you did. The people who feed our art quite often aren’t the ones who consume it.’
‘Thank you, Miss Greenwood.’
But he’d pushed his way through everybody else’s mums and dads, walked away with a hole in his heart. And he hadn’t gone home. Not that evening. He’d gone to Philadephus Park to watch the swans drifting asleep on what was left of their reflections in the dark green water. He’d sat on the bench, setting his maroon folder beside him, and looking at the big houses across the road, wondering what it would be like to live there. Christ, he’d thought. It’d be better than living at my house. There’d been one house that stood out above the others. It was the biggest one, set furthest back from the road with a light glimmering in the top window. He remembered looking at that light, being drawn to it.
‘Oy – Owens,’ a voice interrupted his reverie.
He looked up.
It was Dave coming at him with Joe not far behind.
‘Oy, Owens,’ Joe bellowed over Dave’s shoulder. ‘What the hell are you doing dressed up as a toff for? You been at a fancy-dress party?’
‘No – no I haven’t.’
‘Joe’s pinched his mum’s cigarettes,’ Dave said as Joe, tugged a pack of smokes from his pocket and waved them around as proof. ‘We’re headed over to the Park Library and then up to the school roof to smoke. You can come along if you like. It’ll be great.’
And Phil saw himself deliberating – and Dave and Joe coaxing.
‘What’s that?’ Joe asked, cocking his head toward the maroon folder on the park bench.
‘Nothing,’ replied Phil. ‘Fucking nothing, lads.’
‘Ooooo,’ said Dave, giving Joe a friendly push with his fist. ‘We’re lads now, Joe.’
‘Calls for a smoke to celebrate,’ returned Joe jovially.
‘Onward, lads,’ said Phil, rising from the bench and yanking off his tie. ‘To the Park Library we go. Give me one of those smokes, would you?’
And, leaving the maroon folder on the bench, Phil did his best to forget about the hole in his chest as he tumbled and joked his way to the rhododendron bushes with Dave and Joe and hit the Hustler jackpot.
That night, the night of the music recital, was the first night of many nights he’d climbed up on the school roof with Dave and Joe, the first of many nights he’d smoked cigarettes. It was the beginning of the end of his piano teacher fantasies, not only because he was done with his lessons, but because he’d got a titillating eyeful of what lay behind the world’s best mohair sweaters.
But too –
It was the last night he played one of his own compositions, his only composition to be precise. He’d been a one hit wonder in St. Matthews for all of several minutes, musically done and over with by the tender age of twelve and a half. As things turned out, that night was nothing special. And it was nothing special because, in true Owens fashion, it was just another run-of-the-mill night when he got cursed into bed for having not come home on time and for having eventually returned smelling like smoke – just like Richie used to.