MARY - 1 - THE PIANOFORTE STUDIO
When first I saw Mary, she was leaning from the first floor wrought-iron balustraded window, set above the front entrance of large Victorian Villa on London Road Leicester
from which had just emerged two happy overcoated women, one younger than the other - mother and daughter, I surmised. She had rings on all her fingers and in addition, a handsome fluttering African Grey Parrot upon one of them - all four were waving - ‘Au Revoir’ to each other as the departees made their way up the road away from the tall establishment.
Dark hair drawn up and back into a flowing mare’s tail, offset by large silver ‘ear-rings’, the scarlet flashes of the grey parrot's tail contrasting as well with the ageing French-Grey paint peeling from the stone and woodwork of the Italianate residence, all photographed in a moment of memory.
Directly below her, facing the street there was a discreet bronze plate attached to one of the stone posts flanking an absent iron gate 'Mary Smith LRAM.ARCM. Pianoforte Studio' it stated. Her striking appearance, with chiselled features and aquiline nose together with her animated 'beaked-companion' put me in mind of a Witch -'a Good Witch' - I thought...The lights changed red and amber, green. The traffic started forwards again down the hill towards the City. I took a left turn skirting the perimeter of Victoria Park to avoid the lumbering trucks, the trundling lorries and headed back towards the Royal Infirmary and the ever-present cares confronting a Surgical Registrar at one of England's busiest provincial hospitals. The bubble of encapsulated thoughts and feelings generated at such moments of compulsory standstill had burst - so much for traffic lights.
I had come to Leicester in June of '69, with two surgical fellowships 'in my back-pocket', while a wife small son and a Labrador dog were still down in Cornwall where I had been working until a few weeks earlier. Time allocated was running out for them to quit the married quarters where we had lived for the two and a half years I had worked at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals. Since leaving there I had worked three short locums and successfully taken the English Final Fellowship Exams before getting this plum. The appointment as one of three Registrars in Surgery at this busy Infirmary had been well wished for, despite the fact that I was now as far from the sea as it's possible to get in Britain, which didn't seem too bad considering I'd just spent several years hardly out of sight and smell of it. My feet were firmly on the ground at least, or better still upon the middle rungs of a well-based surgical career ladder - so I thought.
Whilst finding myself most qualified of the three added certain kudos to my recent achievements at the examinations within those echoing corridors, it didn't help much in finding accommodation. Was it me, young Nicholas, or the dog that was the problem? I was allocated a room right down at the Casualty Department of the Hospital initially. Gill came up for a couple of days to scan the local press and housing-lists and to traipse all around the city searching out the few premises that did not include `No Pets'-`No Children' in the listings - There weren't many. Eventually she found a couple of rooms in an old terraced house behind Leicester Prison - no phone and shared bathroom. The 'family' came together again - During off duty periods that is to say.
Driven by necessity, within a short time we moved out to one of the city suburbs where 'washing the car', 'walking the dog', 'cutting the grass' were all regulation steps taken in unison by the regimented husbands opposite, out back and on both sides. Steps as essential and inevitable as making the mortgage repayments. The wives meantime wheeled the children to the supermarket, and in some cases, our's especially, regularly to the adult fiction shelves of the public Library.
Meanwhile back at the 'Royal'......Life was exciting for an eager young surgeon, busy yes, but full of adrenalin and pace. More and more I found the short spells of relaxation spent in company with other members of the 'team', and in particular with a very attractive, opera-loving, Yugoslavian Anaesthetist - Borijana. That part of my Soul receptive to such music, which had seemingly been empty for so long was once more being filled to capacity. The very roots of existence were drawing again the energy to continue the upward and expanding growth that became all too constrained out in suburbia. If Verdi was an addictive drug, then I was doubly 'hooked' not only by this captivating colleague.
Gill with her novels quietly assuaging the tedium of domestic chores, had her ashtray and the coffee mug. We were growing apart. Communications' breakdown of the worst sort. Another fired my passion and soothed the aches, if not the heart-aches. Perhaps worse yet, the fact that Gill was again pregnant. Adam must have been conceived as soon as I'd returned, jubilant and lusty, from six weeks away in Scotland preparing for and taking the Edinburgh Fellowship examinations, when we lived in the Truro Hospital bungalow. He was to be born in the middle of January 1970 there in Leicester.
Now, late in 1970, our marriage completely unsalvageable 'on the rocks', I was spending almost all my time engrossed at the Infirmary. One day in the Casualty Department several months earlier I'd had to see a man complaining of abdominal pains and about which he seemed exceedingly anxious in spite of the fact that I had tried to reassure him that I could find nothing significant on physical examination. I felt for his distress however, and although it was against the usual policy of the department I ordered various X-Rays and arranged for him to return for the results hoping thereby to allay his fears. But he hadn't come back and I had almost forgotten him.
In March 1971 the stresses of emotional conflict were at their worst. One afternoon travelling on the upper deck of a bus past the same London Road 'Studio', on my way to collect B's car from a service and repair garage, I decided, there and then, on the spur of the moment, to call on my way back and make arrangements to start pianoforte lessons - a means perhaps of steadying the turmoil within, and of, this situation.
For more than ten years, since 1959, I'd had a recurring rash on both hands which from time to time interfered with work, although I was never unable to carry out my duties, except for one occasion during my student days whilst on the obstetric firm, delivering babies. It was a cyclic thing which never went completely, and at times was very bad. I had consulted Dermatologists over the course of years and the best that could be said was that not one of them had been able to eradicate or mollify it - some had not even provided much efficacy in the ointments they had prescribed. I was reluctant to accept the fact that it probably was a stress related disorder, but then so was stuttering or stammering (depending upon which of the two the sufferer can't say) which I had started in early childhood - notwithstanding my 'Nanna's' assertion that I'd 'caught it' from a similarly afflicted playmate when she and I were both about 4 years old.
Returning from the garage, I left the car in Victoria Park and cut across the grass in a straight line towards 162, London Road. As I approached the front door it was opened by a man in an overcoat with a scarf tightly wrapped at his throat hurriedly emerging,
" Mary Smith ? " I enquired, as he passed me without closing it,
"First Floor" he replied over his shoulder and scurried away.
Passing through the open door, I advanced across the chequer-tiled hallway and started up the carpeted mahogany stairs. Approaching the flat section at the first turn, a seemingly huge man came through a curtained archway leading from the back parts of the house and at the top of three stairs, to face me.
His six-foot-four frame more than filled the lesser arch causing him to stoop, whilst the added six or seven stairs that separated us added to his magnitude.
"What do you want?" he demanded imperiously, from his vantage point.
"To play the Piano" I replied without slowing my upward steps.
"In there" he said, indicating with a lift of his head as he advanced before me towards the closed door of the large front first-floor room.
The anxious Casualty Department patient of some months' previously had not recognised me, as I had him - upon the instant.
Entering the 'studio' behind the curtained door I was motioned to take a seat upon a sofa set against the back wall of the room. A good point from which to survey the surroundings. It was a large room with a high ceiling having ornamental cornices and decorative plaster mouldings around the offset chandelier - I couldn't imagine why the Victorian designer of such a fine room would have placed the 'central' light so eccentrically.
"What is your name?" enquired 'Mary' briefly -
"Desmond Fosbery" I replied, " I'm a Surgical Registrar at the Infirmary" -
" ah yes," she smiled, and straightway returned her full attentions to the young pupil beside her.
A certain eccentricity went, it seemed, with the room. Heavy-curtains hung around a large bay-window which easily accommodated a Bechstein Grand Piano, at the bench-stool of which were seated the one I took to be 'Mary Smith' and a young pupil engaged in ringing a simple melody from the harmonious 'instrument' before her. Set upon the Piano, thereby precluding the opening of it's 'lid' were a stack of papers, manuscript presumably, a music box, a metronome, a collecting box, a tall pink Italian Porcelain Jar containing peacock feathers and - where else? - the African Grey Parrot in a large grey painted metal cage with a ring on top. The latter was of course painted - red, thereby matching and inverting the colour scheme of it's live occupant. Which every once in a while would invert him- (or ? her-) self just to assert that he was no stuffed bird, whilst searching in the lower recesses of the cage for edible chips of seed and nuts.
Looking around the room, slowly so as not to appear overtly inquisitive or by obvious movement to break the concentrated efforts of the young girl upon the music stool, my eyes fell firstly on the Marble Mantelpiece above a green tiled hearth at which burned a built-in gas fire. Above the mantel was a large antique gilt mirror while at either end of it was set one of a pair of matching antique enamelled bronze Peacocks with folded tails. In the hearth, again one at either side, were set a pair of heavy oriental bronze or copper tureens. At the opposite end of the room was a small ornamental 'upright' piano - upon which stood a very elegant 'carriage clock' - with a harp-shaped stool before it and flanked on either side by well-filled book-cases. Not 'paper-backs' that was obvious.
In the corner beside the small window, from which Mary had been leaning when first seen, on a small stand was a telephone and the matching companion to the pink jar on the 'Grand', it too contained peacock feathers. On the other side of this window beneath a second - more contemporary - mirror with a white wrought-iron frame was a long low table upon which were stacked Dark blue china cups and saucers, an antique tea chest, sugar jar, and a silver teapot set on a salver of the same type and two long-stemmed ornamental silver jugs, before the table was a small rocking-chair while beside it the tall 'man' had just set down an electric kettle, judging by his movements I had concluded it was filled with water. A lamp standard with an ageing but expensive double fabric shade stood lit between this table and the backs of the two seated at the Bechstein. Above it, on a small shelf on the side pilaster of the bay-window stood an ancient Egyptian figurine a few inches in height, of green and blackened bronze.
Upon various walls hung three old oil portrait paintings and another of a girl holding a dove. Beneath that one in the left-hand chimney alcove stood a small side-board with a Tantalus on top - both flasks of which appeared from my position to be empty, and next to it a copper and porcelain Samovar. Immediately to my left at the hinge-side of the door was a wooden cabinet which I concluded was a 'gramophone' or 'record-player' as to my right in the other chimney alcove stood a bank of loud-speakers in a matching wooden framework on top of which was placed a large antique gilt clock in a glass bell. The floor was thickly carpeted except for that part near the door which was showing sad signs of heavy wear and tear.
Two armchairs, one a 'wing-chair', the other a small antique 'tub-chair', and a three-foot Arabian brass tray table upon which were stacked a variety of items completed the furnishings, while hanging from the Chandelier - which was not lit - was the largest silvered-green-glass 'Christmas tree ball' I had seen. Fully six inches across, it mirrored in miniature the whole arena of the salon in which I sat enthralled.
The lesson ended - …..did it ???…..- mine was about to begin. I would realise later that it had been going on since I first stepped over the threshold of that room.
"Alright, dear girl," to the pupil at her side, "You seem to have got that passage clear. Now don’t forget to practice. Give my love to your Mother. Same time next week?" - the girl nodded - "Don't nod child, use your tongue, you have a sweet voice you know. Don't hide it inside your head! - Now then on your way, bye bye. - We'll wave you off". The girl made her farewell and left.
"Well now Doctor Forsbury" -
" Mister FOSBERY " I corrected, perhaps showing a little irritation - I had been sitting unattended for at least twenty five minutes -
" ah, yes" she repeated quietly, "I'm so sorry - Mister Fosbery, please..., come over here - Come on you too 'Hari' " going to the parrot's cage and getting him to perch on the proffered index finger.
"Come along now", pushing up one of the sash windows "or we'll miss her. There she goes, now wave - that's right. Bye bye!" she called,
and there was I, like a child waving out of a window to another - much younger child - one I had not even really met. Whatever would the staff at the 'Royal' think?.....What would my estranged wife think?......What did I think?
"Would you like some Tea?" asked 'Mary' pulling down the window with one hand in a sweeping gesture and the terminal flourish of a concert pianist and setting the parrot at liberty on top of the piano.
The door opened and in came a young man, obviously the next appointed lesson. This time the pupil was able to occupy himself at the piano on his own whilst Mary tended to the kettle which was now boiling.
" Come and sit over here Mr Fosbery" she indicated an upholstered upright chair near the rocking chair in which she sat a little awkwardly I noticed.
"It's easier to talk facing you, will you have 'China' or 'Indian'? You're the visitor, you choose", indicating the tea-chest.
"China" said I, more out of curiosity than confirmed preference. "'Lapshang Souchong' or 'Keemun'" countered Mary -
she had me at a disadvantage, perhaps it showed, " Of course if you’d rather 'Indian', we have 'Assam' and 'Darjeeling'".
The choices swam around my head like so many tea-leaves in the pot...
" I think after all I'd prefer - Assam " I tried to sound convincing.
"My choice as well…... - Yes that's very good David" to the pupil going through his pieces unchecked thus far.
"You won't have tea will you? - prefer to have something a little stronger on the way home I expect" she smiled knowingly -
"Right" said the young man with half a smile, and continued his playing.
The tea was now in the pot and the water added -
"No, wait a minute - let me show you", Mary raised herself from the low chair and 'swung' smoothly over to the piano where instantly she placed all fingers upon the keys to illustrate the point she was making to her rather advanced pupil. I had noticed the disguised stance and gait of one suffering pain in her left hip - I said nothing. The door opened and in came the tall man - I'd finally remembered his name - Gerald Temple-Gaskell.
"Gerald dear, you're just in time for tea. This is doctor - sorry Mister - Desmond Fosbery - he's a surgeon at the 'Royal'. - Will you pour? There's a dear. David of course you know, he’s not having any so it's just the three of us. We're having 'Assam'".
Released from her tea-post she sat more comfortably beside the man on the piano stool and quietly addressed me.
"So you want to take up the piano do you? Have you ever played before?" I answered in the negative. "When would you like to begin?"
"as soon as possible", I replied; having made the decision to start there seemed no point in delaying the commencement.
"Then why not this evening?" suggested Mary. "After tea you could go, I have another two lessons booked. Could you make it back about seven? You may even care to stay and have a bite to eat after if you wish. How does that sound?"
"Excellent" I said, this time with conviction.
It was nearly five o'clock when we'd finished two cups of tea apiece and I left - I did not forget the waving ritual as I crossed the road and stepped into to park under the double row of Elm trees, heading for the parked car. I had found a refuge in the midst of turmoil that was very apparent - it became even more so after I'd faced a somewhat hostile B. who had been expecting her car back for about two hours. At least she knew I had not met with a serious personal accident for the Resident Doctors' rooms overlooked the forecourt of the Accident and Emergency Department. I'd been backing her car out of a tight spot there a few days earlier and sustained the dent which had necessitated my taking it in for the repair which had now led me to my meeting with 'Mary Smith LRAM ARCM' - my 'Good Witch'.
the story continues.................
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