At five years old, I was introduced to the pleasures of music in the form of piano lessons. My mother accompanied me to a white weatherboard house on Waverly Street, where I met my piano teacher. To a young child, Mrs. McCall was a frighteningly severe figure. She seemed almost militant with her direct blue gaze and long tortoiseshell pointer, which she used to beat out the desired rhythm on her piano’s red wood. My notion of specially designed piano pointers was quickly dispelled when my mother used a pair to knit a jumper.
My teacher was a source of great fascination for me, as she was of an earlier generation than my grandmothers. Mrs. McCall wore a cardigan every day of the year, together with thick tan stockings. For as long as I knew her, I saw her neither with her hair down nor with a speck of real skin showing through a carefully powdered mask. It was rumored that her hair grew down to her knees. But I imagine that even when her cleaner arrived in the early hours of the morning, her hair was already woven into the complicated braid she coiled around the crown of her head.
At my first lesson, I sat tentatively on the creaky stool before her piano, the top of which was adorned with onion halves to ward off illness. We began with learning the names of notes and playing games involving rhythm recognition. "The Bunny Rabbit Hop” was one game loved by young students. It required us to bounce out a certain rhythm along the narrow space between piano and sofa. Some children ignored the purpose of the game completely as they vied to perform the longest, loudest hop.
That first Monday, as Mrs. McCall sat with her feet neatly together and played the accompanying song, I watched, captivated, out of the corner of my eye as her papery wrinkles and puffy joints moved confidently over the black and white keys. I went to Mrs. McCall’s house every Monday afternoon thereafter, to be greeted with a warm, melodious “come in, pet!” as I made my way to the sofa to await my turn. “Pet” was how Mrs. McCall addressed her students, which was not to say that she was fond of all of them. I like to think of my teacher as one of the last true ladies of the world, a breed who suffered through elocution lessons as children (“h- wite” instead of “white”) and who always end telephone conversations with a cool, enunciated “goodbye”.
Sometimes, at the beginning of a lesson, I’d be treated with a rundown of complaints regarding students who had already been that day; how they’d neglected to practice or, in more unfortunate cases, how they hadn’t a scrap of musicality in their bodies. I enjoyed this musical gossip, though it often occurred to me that I’d be better off not listening but rather mentally practicing the pieces I had been neglecting all week.
Mrs. McCall, being a lady, would never disparage a student whilst they were present. And to be fair, she even went easy on them when they weren’t present. I never heard her raise her voice. A sharp word was all it took to rein in unruly students.
In my case, I believe the thing that displeased her most was my impatience. I tended to rush through my pieces, largely ignoring phrasing and dynamics. Under my teacher’s strict eye, I was never allowed to escape the frustration of plodding through my favourite music, playing with separate hands before being allowed to play it fluently as the masters would. However, I was very grateful the day she stopped trying to cure my excessively floppy wrists and flat fingers that even now plague me. I had accepted myself as an essentially undisciplined and, therefore, incurably flawed player. I was quite happy to appear to be talented at school concerts while cringing inwardly at every rushed Mozart passage.
Still, Mrs. McCall was determined to have me perform well in exams. In my third year, as the dreaded time approached, she insisted that I undertake extra practice sessions in the privacy of her sitting room. Mrs. McCall led me through her kitchen, past whitewashed benches lined with tinned cat food, and into a cold, musty room filled with the indistinct shapes of sheet-covered furniture. It was so dark that I couldn’t see the far wall. Even with the lights on, the dimness was such that I often spun around from my music books to assure myself I was alone in the room. Mrs. McCall refused to open the curtains, perhaps fearing the sun’s fading effect on her good carpet. I hurried through my pieces on the clunky, uneven keys of the old piano and promptly fled, relieved to be returning to the worn-in-old-slipper atmosphere of the lesson room.
As my musical career advanced, I spent hours in the Victorian room playing and not playing. It was hard to play in an environment so fascinatingly different to every sitting room I’d previously encountered. I grew to love the colour-tinted old photographs, in which ladies have perfect white skin and a hint of rose in their cheeks. My fingers strayed from the keys as I traced the ornate wood of the lounge chairs and the silky rose upholstery that glinted with strands of gold in errant shafts of sunlight.
On rainy afternoons I cherished the cosiness of lesson room, with students coming out of the rain to squash up together on the old sofa and trudge through musical theory. During these lessons I was often distracted by the shelves of old books with rough woven covers, a lot of them Enid Blyton and other children’s books. These shelves were to become my lending library. I discovered that each book’s flyleaf bore the exotic name of Olwen, penciled in a loopy scrawl. I liked to imagine that Olwen was a long-lost daughter, one who perhaps haunted the McCall house. One day my sister ventured to ask about her, and we were informed that she wasn’t a fascinating child at all, but a grown-up surgeon living in South Africa.
The house itself held many mysteries, most of them concerning my teacher’s day-to-day living arrangements. Only once did I venture over the creaking boards of the hallway to her bathroom. It seemed wrong to linger. Occasionally, I would ask permission to go and get a drink, if only to escape the torture of playing staccato scales (“raindrop fingers, pet!”). In her kitchen lined with ancient yellow linoleum, I drank in a smell I could never place, something close to the smell of floury boiled potato. The fridge, a squat, noisy affair outlined in wooden veneer, never contained much apart from a water jug and half- empty bottles of milk.
It was in Mrs. McCall’s kitchen that I came face to face with my criminal tendencies. I would often pocket clusters of butterscotch from a tin near the rusty sink, sweets being an unknown quantity at my house. One day, as I sat playing Beethoven, my sugary treasure heavy in the pocket of my school uniform, Mrs. McCall emerged from the kitchen and offered me a butterscotch. I felt the deepest guilt a ten year old could feel. I accepted the sweet.
Every year, her growing flock of pupils went on display at the town’s “Carols by Candlelight”. Beneath a sky dotted with stars and eager mosquitoes, the small, proud figure of Mrs. McCall guided us through our much-rehearsed carols, sending sharp looks at me and my cousin whenever we giggled at an older girl’s warbling falsetto. It was at the last performance of our student choir that it first struck me that Mrs. McCall was aging: she had to use a cane to climb the stairs to the rickety wooden stage.
At sixteen, I felt that the mysteries of the McCall house had all but vanished, though it still had an atmosphere that seemed to encourage musicality. I never played as well as I did there, with Mrs. McCall in her cane chair beside me, tapping or humming along. It was strange to watch her teach other children, strangers who seemed so much younger than me. I was almost jealous. But a new understanding grew between us. I was aware that she respected my ability and my opinions, though she was my musical superior. Our lessons became less formal as we discussed which pieces of music I could learn in my own time, and exchanged favourite Chopin recordings. She occasionally slipped stories about her past into our conversations. My favourite was the one in which her gallant brother Con made a group of boys apologise for swearing in front of a lady.
When Mrs. McCall died, no one knew how old she was. She was an omnipresent, ageless force that suddenly defied our rules and vanished. I had never encountered death before and for a while it was too painful to contemplate continuing with piano lessons. With my mother’s encouragement, I endured a succession of new teachers. To me, none could match Mrs. McCall’s passion and insight. I passed my last exam and packed up my books, though I sometimes bring them out to play her favourite pieces (“I dream of Olwen”).
I always hoped that Olwen would come back from South Africa to collect her books. Though I saved a few treasured Enid Blytons, the remainder were left to gather dust in a solicitor’s storeroom.
Non-fiction with a liberal sprinkling of fiction.