It was almost midnight when my mother called. ‘Your father’s dead,’ she announced, matter of fact. She was a high-ranking civil servant and had cultivated a style of directness. My shock echoed her plain-speaking: ‘Where is he?’ ‘In the piano studio,’ she said. My immediate thought was, how appropriate, and I smiled. The music room was built at the top of our house with a legacy from my grandmother. My father called it ‘Babe’s studio’ after her. It was top-of-the-range: full sound-proofing, fine acoustics, and only a quick climb up the stairs. He loved it. Dying there struck me - quite absurdly for an atheist - as a quick passage to heaven.
Apparently, he had gone up after supper as he often did. When he failed to re-emerge at the usual hour – my mother found him by the piano stool where he had fallen, blood forming a pool around his head. She performed resuscitation for a full half hour but it didn’t revive him. ‘I knew it wouldn’t,’ she said to me later that night. ‘I knew he was stone-cold dead, but I needed to try. I only gave up because my strength gave out.’
She told me this over a cup of tea at the kitchen table. They had just taken his body away. I felt strangely light as if I might float away like a helium balloon. Water trickled down my face. My mother was dry-eyed and shook all over. So like you, I thought. Tried your hardest. Only it didn’t work. For once, her exemplary persistence had failed to produce the desired outcome. The post-mortem showed he had suffered a massive heart attack.
The funeral was held in a church in North London where he had spent twelve unhappy years as vicar. The eulogy was delivered by my mother in short quavers and notes of grief, tears streaming down her face. This was the only time I saw her cry. The next day she gathered together all my father’s clothes for charity, and threw away his many boxes of clippings and old sermons. She took little time off work, much to the consternation of me and my brother. ‘You have to keep going,’ she asserted. ‘It’s better that way.’
She and my father had met in the early 1970s at a small concert organised by his old college at Cambridge. She had recently graduated and was on a fast-track at the civil service. My father was thirteen years older and living off scraps he made here and there by playing the piano. They got to talking after and he asked her out. The engagement and wedding followed quickly. Neither of them were patient people. I suspect they were both prone to loneliness too.
There is a wedding photograph of my parents on a filing cabinet in the music room. It is taken in front of the church in Barnet where they were married. You would never know it was the era of self-realisation, bell-bottoms and punk: she is in a fifties dress and looks so very young. He is in standard morning suit and already grey at the temples. They both stare awkwardly at the camera, as if it is an alarming new invention.
Over the years since his death, I’ve overheard my mother telling my daughters stories about their grandfather. These take the form of cautionary tales, as if he were a character in a series of fables. ‘Your grandfather wouldn’t have liked that behaviour,’ she says in her best grandmotherly voice. ‘He always said spoiled children come to no good.’ I imagine she still chats about him to her women friends with whom she plays bridge weekly. ‘The thing about Eddie,’ I can hear her say, ‘the thing about him is he never gave up, he always did his best.’
The kitchen table in the 1930s rectory where I spent my childhood was the centrepiece of our family. All life happened around it. It served as my father’s pulpit and office, our homework desk, my mother’s in-tray, and the place where we all gathered to eat. My father always sat in the same chair, a beautiful Windsor inherited from his own father, thundering against the world. His targets included Modern Society, encapsulated by the blockbuster movie the Terminator with which my brother and I were entranced; his parishioners who were largely old and bossy and irritated him to distraction; families like us, middle-class, anxious, striving, to whom he was in equal measure obsequious and haughty. It was in this kitchen chair he wrote his weekly sermon, cussing at each crossed out word. As if it would change the world. He loved me and my brother very much but he didn’t like his fellow brethren.
People think being a vicar means you’re a saint or the devil, a goodly soul or a hypocrite; humble and other-worldly, or judgemental and corrupt. It is thought of as a calling. God calls you to do his work. This sounds exalted, as if vicars are free of the usual problems of compromise and purpose. We tend to think of a vicar’s crisis as one of faith, a glamorous existential wrangling with doubt.
But there is no escaping the material world. For my father, calamity arose night after night doing sums at the kitchen table: three weddings would cover the fuel bill; a couple of funerals, my piano lessons; a christening, groceries for the week. This arithmetic was part of the ongoing argument he and my mother had about money. She earned more than him but it was never enough. Even as she flew up the career ladder, the anxiety at home about how the next school invoice was going to be paid dominated their conversation.
‘Why don’t other Dads pick up their children?’ I asked, grabbing his hand. My father was always on time, standing at the school gates, waiting for me and my brother. A lone grey-haired figure in a crowd of young mothers. Incongruous in his dog collar and long cardigan, a battered trench coat in winter. We strolled together the several streets home, my younger brother dawdling alongside.
‘They aren’t as lucky as me,’ he replied in his deep jocular voice.
‘Why not?’ I was a natural sceptic and such an answer seemed to me suspicious. This was a game between us: I would ask about Dads and he would come up with different stories. Some satisfied more than others.
‘Because they work in offices and only come home at night,’ he offered this to me in a light affectionate tone.
‘Oh,’ I nodded. ‘Like Mum.’
‘Quite so,’ he affirmed, a brief cloud passing over his face.
Often, we would stop at the corner shop for sweeties. The shopkeeper also had grey hair and was stooped. He called my father ‘Vicar.’ ‘Everything ok today, Vicar?’ This greeting was accompanied by a conspiratorial smile. Sometimes, he’d add: ‘What a world we live in, ay, Vicar,’ shaking his head, and my father would concur, as if something terrible had happened. ‘Are you as old as Mr. Smith?’ I slurped, sucking on a lemon fizz and reclaiming his hand.
‘Not quite.’ And after a short reflection, he chuckled to himself and said: ‘I misspent my youth you know.’
I thought this had something to do with spending money the wrong way.
‘Is Dad older than all other dad’s?’ I might ask my mother in the early hours of the evening while doing my homework in the kitchen, or, when helping her with supper, or later when she was tucking me into bed. We chatted easily those nights when she was home and not out at some meeting or other. ‘Chatterbox,’ she’d say, amused. ‘I don’t know who you get that from!’ Her way of talking was more succinct, less enigmatic than my father’s. ‘But is Dad really really old?’ ‘Oh he’s so old,’ she would reply. ‘He was born a hundred years ago!’
Every month my father would hold the parish council meeting in our sitting room; every month he would insist on providing scones. Usually these were bought by my mother from the supermarket on her way home from work and would cause her to mutter: ‘Your father, more English than the English.’ ‘What’s that mean?’ I’d ask, helping her with the bags while she took off her coat and put on the kettle. ‘An exaggeration of a type,’ she said. ‘Ah.’ I commented sagely, thinking of my brother pretending to be a superhero.
‘Do I stick them in the oven?’ My father held up a couple of packets as if they were objects of disdain.
‘I can’t do everything,’ my mother retorted, using a short-hand which became so familiar to me that even now I hear accusation in any practical assertion.
‘I don’t suppose anyone will notice the difference,’ he grumbled and looked hopefully at the instructions on the packet.
‘Why you don’t give them biscuits,’ she suggested. ‘It’s cheaper and they go farther.’
He left the scones too long in the oven and the smell of burnt dough permeated the house. He would roar – not directly at my mother – at the oven, at the scones, at the parish council even. And end up claiming a bag of tea biscuits from the store cupboard.
There is a framed certificate on the wall of the music room. Its faded inscription reads, ‘Edward Felix Potter, Young Musician of the Year 1950.’ There is a ragged hole next to it where a sepia photograph of his mother hung. When my father died, my mother gave it to me. I never knew my grandmother. The photo hangs in my front hall, a mysterious dark beauty bent over a grand piano in a European concert hall long since destroyed
Her name was Hana. She was sent to London in the early 30s just after Hindenburg handed over power to Hitler. She was a brilliant musician and her father recognized tough times ahead for artists, particularly Jewish artists. Soon after her arrival in London, she married my grandfather, a straight-laced English solicitor who – I like to imagine - was captivated by her handsome good looks and expressive temperament. My father was born in 1937, her adored only child.
All Hana’s family were killed in the bombing raids or deported to camps by the Nazis.
In the winter of 1986 when I was 9, my father took me to Wigmore Hall. I had shown some aptitude for the piano and this was my reward for achieving Merit in my Grade 4 examination. Not quite distinction – a disappointment to my parents, I could tell, by the slight frown which preceded their bright congratulations, they were hoping I would get a music scholarship to the expensive girls’ school nearby – but above a mere pass.
Wigmore Hall was straight out of a fairy-tale, clad in marble and alabaster, glowing in warm light. Clusters of old men and women were leaning on canes; the men in suits, some wearing trilbies, the women ringed with pearl necklaces. Springy white and silver hair. Elegant, foreign-sounding voices. ‘Ach, Lisl! Du bist....’ Ya, Hans, gut.’
My father was putting away his cheque book and glancing at our tickets when he was accosted by an older woman in a burgundy velvet cape. ‘Nein, nicht ...Felix? die son of Hana?’ She had bright eyes and was barely taller than me. My father looked puzzled, then alarmed.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I don’t quite know who....?’
‘Elisabeth Green,’ she smiled at me.
‘Oh, yes, I’m sorry, of course.’ He looked very pleased, all of a sudden, and bent low to kiss her on both cheeks. ‘I remember you! You came to our house and played duets with my mother.’
‘Yes, your mother could play!’ Her accent was educated and carried a slight German inflection. ‘Of course, I was young then,’ and she giggled. Her friend joined us. They chatted to each other in German and spoke excitedly to my father, tapping their canes. My father grew young, animated. Oh, he was handsome!
‘So good-looking, like your mother. You are playing the piano, still? You must. Such a talented boy,’ chirped Elisabeth to my father. And to me: ‘Your father could play the piano when he was your age!’ With the emphasis on play the piano, and their silver heads bobbed in tandem. ‘And what is your name?’ ‘Hannah,’ I replied, puffing up with pride at the association with my grandmother. Further peals of delight. Schön! Just like her grandmother, so pretty.
My head whirled! I was my father’s lovely Hannah, in a new red dress, surrounded by chattering old women from another country who looked up to my father like he was famous. Tonight he was Felix, adored son of Hana!
‘So Felix what do you mean you don’t play anymore,’ chided Elisabeth. ‘That is a crime, your mother would be sighing in her grave.’
‘You know how it is,’ my father laughed uneasily. ‘Family, bills to pay,’
‘Ach, nonsense,’ scolded Elisabeth. ‘Do you know,’ she turned to her friend, who looked like a snowwoman – a big round belly, a small round head, soft white dress, perched black beret, round red cheeks, ‘do you know, this young man (my father stretched up towards the ceiling, growing taller by the second), klein Flix, not so klein now, nein, so handsome, played Mendelssohn’s Song without Words like he was the man himself. At only 12 years of age. Isn’t that so?’ She prodded my father in a way that was both maternal and bossy.
We took a long time getting home. My father insisted we take the bus, several buses as it turned out. I was enveloped in the magic of our evening: the encounter with star-eyed Elisabeth in the story-book concert hall, the stirring romance of Mendelssohn and Schubert... My handsome gifted father who stood tall among these glamorous ancient foreigners. I too would play Spring Song! I too would hold myself straight as a pin, my arms wide and elegant, fingers running up and down those keys, my whole body swaying with intense passion!
We sat up top, lurching from the West End to the far suburb of Muswell Hill and I watched my father contract back into middle-age. His shoulders rounded and his face greyed; his jowels and deeply-furrowed brow once again became prominent. By the time we alighted, animation had given way to that familiar mixture of hangdog and irritation.
My mother sat at the kitchen table paying bills. She was punching a calculator, hunched over in a narrow pool of light coming from the single overhead bulb. The washing machine thrummed in the corner. She always used it late at night, after 11 when electricity was cheaper. She looked up when we walked in and asked: ‘Where have you been? I was worried.’
‘Oh Mum, we took the bus, it took ages, but the concert was so amazing and there was this woman called Elisabeth, and she knew Dad when he was little and Hana, and said he was this genius, and – ‘ The words tumbled from my mouth. My mother wasn’t listening, she was watching my father. He was standing in the shadows, waiting for the kettle to boil.
‘Eddie?’ My mother’s voice was gentle. She didn’t use his nickname often. Most of the time he was ‘Edward’, crisp and middle-class. He didn’t say anything, the kettle clicked off, steam rose from the spout. ‘Eddie?’ More insistent. He turned to her, silent tears rolled down his face. This was new to me and instinctively I pulled back. My mother went to him, wrapped her arms around his neck, and even though she was many inches shorter, drew his large head to her. I crept away, clutching the programme like a talisman.
My grandmother died when my father was 12, a year after he’d been sent to boarding school and months before he won that competition. The last time he saw her was during a school exeat when they had gone together to Wigmore Hall. She was already very ill with cancer. She had not wanted to send him back to the dark forbidding sprawl of the school which had replaced his home, his life with her. He had not wanted to go. He hated it. But it was his mother’s compromise with her husband. My grandfather had wanted him to board from the age of 7, at the tail-end of the war, but my grandmother put her foot down. She wasn’t going to let go of her beloved son so easily. What inhuman absurd practises you have, she’d say to her husband, meaning the English, and sit down at the piano in the sitting room to fill the house with a thundering Rachmaninov. She started to teach my father as soon as he was strong enough to sit on a piano stool. Learned it on my mother’s knee, he would joke, from the best, she was the best.
There are things to be sorted. The consultant says the stroke occurred in the anterior cerebral artery. When I ask whether my mother will walk again and recover full speech, he shrugs: ‘It’s too early to say.’ It’s also too early to say she will survive. He says this to me in the family room. ‘Does she live alone?’ He asks. I nod. ‘My father died ten years ago.’ ‘Well, the important thing is to keep her positive. We’ve found this can make a difference.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I soothe, kissing her on the forehead, the first time I’ve ever touched my mother in so tender a manner. An overwhelming smell of shit wafts above the curtain from the neighbouring cubicle. I cast about for a nurse but there is not one to be found. ‘I’ll take care of everything. Everything will be ok.’ I pat her hand. She gives me a withering look. There is nothing wrong with her hearing or intellect. She sniffs the air, a reproach to the lax administrative state of the ward. When – if – she recovers, there will be a memo delivered at high level to the Health Trust.
I went straight to her house from the hospital. I haven’t been alone in it for years. We moved here when I was a teenager and it seemed to me always too full of people. Small and poky. My bedroom was half the size it had been in the rectory. I left for drama college just as soon as I could.
There are several cabinets in the music room and piles of boxes all higgledy-piggedly. The cabinets are marked with dates scribbled across the fronts in black felt-tip. My mother’s legendary coping never extended to housekeeping.
‘10th November 1991, The Rectory
My Dear Eddie,
Your doctor says to me you are getting good rest and the medication is working. I keep thinking this is all my fault. I didn’t mean to cause you such unhappiness. But there were the children’s school fees and I thought we’d agreed about that. I know Babe didn’t help either. She’s my mother and what can I say. Things will be different now. They really will. I have found a lovely house for us, just round the corner, so Ollie and Hannah will still be able to get to school easily. It’s a Victorian terraced and quite pretty. The mortgage is big but I’ll manage. Heavens who’d have thought houses would cost so much! I’ve also told the Minister that I won’t be able to travel for the rest of the year.
Please get well soon, my darling husband. You are in my prayers.
All my love,
The letter is written in my mother’s looping scrawl on letterhead from the office. Although it is almost twenty years old, the paper is still fresh, the handwriting strong. It feels too intimate, strange to me. She and I have used email to communicate these past ten years.
I put it back into a hanging file marked ‘correspondence 91-92’. The files are arranged in categories: mortgage, utilities, car, schools, correspondence. Miscellaneous.
In the same file are a handful of letters of condolence. They are from people I’ve never heard of. They come from places in Australia called Joondalup and Crawley. They are addressed to my mother and say how sorry they are about Babe’s passing. What good fun she was, how she’ll be sorely missed.
My father’s breakdown followed Babe’s last visit. It was the summer I turned 14.
In the days leading up to her arrival, the rectory was tidied and given a good clean. Each evening was filled with chores and we didn’t mind doing them.
‘Are we Australian?’ My brother asked.
‘No,’ replied my mother in her ‘don’t-be-silly’ voice. ‘She only lives there. She’s English just like you and me. She went there after your grandfather died. And you have an uncle there too.’
‘Oh,’ my brother sounded disappointed, and returned to the task of scooping up all videos from under the sofa.
‘What uncle?’ It was the first I’d heard of any such person.
‘His name is John. I don’t really know him. He’s much younger than me.’
‘Why isn’t he coming with our granny?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ she paused.
‘Is he awful?’ This was a word I enjoyed using. You could stress the first syllable to satisfying effect and roll your eyes at the same time.
‘A baddie?’ Shouted my brother, waving a toy truck.
‘No, no, he’s at university,’ explained my mother. Which left us feeling a little disappointed. Still, there was the visit of our grandmother to anticipate, a personage as important and mysterious as the Queen.
Babe didn’t look like a granny at all. She glowed like a solid gold piece. She insisted we call her Babe. My mother persisted with ‘Ma.’ They looked very alike, except Babe was larger all over and everything about her was more pronounced, from the helmet of yellow hair (greying blond in my mother) to the orange skin and flashy jewellery (my mother was pale and the only jewellery she ever wore was her wedding ring).
Babe was sharing my bedroom. I sat on my bed and watched her unpack. Never had I seen such an array of colours and slithery textures. I connected such things with film stars and rich people. Holding up a pile of trousers, she looked around the room vaguely and said: ‘So cold here, isn’t it? I’d quite forgot about this gloomy weather. Now in Oz, the sun always shines and we sit out on our deck all year. You’ll visit your Babe one day won’t you?’ I nodded vigorously, pointing to a shelf at the top of the wardrobe. Her underwear, peeking out of the top drawer of my white wooden chest, startled me. In days to come, the black, beige and red lacy apparel would garland the line in the back garden, swinging gaily in the summer light. I noticed my father and mother exchange half-smiles one evening as they took down a matching set of frilly red silk camiknickers, bra and camisole under the surprised eyes of neighbours. She never changed in front of me and I was very glad about this. We were a modest family, nudity was not much practised.
During the day, Babe lay on the sofa in the sitting room and read romance novels. She didn’t take much notice of me and my brother. In the evening, she sat at the kitchen table and squabbled with my father.
‘Don’t you ever cook Ed?’ she asked, indignant. ‘Mary does all the work. Don’t you Mary?’ She pronounced Mary with an Australian long a, so it came out as a nasal snort.
‘I’m fine, Ma,’ my mother replied.
‘I have Church business,’ my father answered, stiff with the effort of being civil. ‘It’s difficult times.’
‘Why’s that?’ She cackled. ‘God not a nice chap after all?’
‘Thinning Church population, schisms in theology.’ He really was trying.
‘Ah, no wonder they’re leaving in droves. If I had to listen to Ed’s sermon every Sunday, I’d make straight for the devil. Isn’t that so, Mary?’ My father let out an exaggerated sigh and said: ‘Well, Babe, I don’t expect someone of your limited education to understand such matters.’ And he got up to help my mother.
Another favourite trick of hers was to hold a cheek of her ample bottom and let rip a fart. This thrilled my brother and me into a state of speechless shock, but only made my father sigh deeper and louder.
On Babe’s final evening, my mother took us to a concert at the South Bank. A girls’ outing, she called it. My only feeling was dread that I might run into a school chum and be ridiculed for being in such un-cool company. I still played the piano, it was as much a part of the school curriculum as French and Maths but I wasn’t much good. I had not won a scholarship and was an average student. I no more wanted to be at the South Bank than Babe but both of us kept our ill-humour in check. My mother was determined we should enjoy ourselves. Time passed quickly and we were home by ten o’clock.
My father was in his usual chair working on the following morning’s sermon. Babe lowered herself next to him. My mother bustled to get us some supper.
‘Mary, get me a whisky, will you?’ Commanded Babe. My father flinched. ‘And Mary, get one for Ed too.’
‘No,’ said my father. ‘I have to finish this and be up early.’ I was inching towards the hallway, hoping to make an escape.
‘Hey, Hannah, sit down next to your old Babe. Come, keep me company.’ She patted the wood seat next to her. Reluctantly, I sat. My mother gave her a tumbler of whisky.
‘Now, Mary, stop all that fussing,’ she continued. ‘Sit for a moment.’ My mother was emptying the dishwasher. An M & S cottage pie was in the oven.
‘Someone’s got to do it,’ replied my mother, clattering the crockery, her reply filled with a habitual absent-minded weariness.
‘Ed, you should’ve come with us.’ There was a dig in her voice.
He grunted, head bowed over his sheets of paper, a pile of discarded drafts crumbled on the floor by his side.
Babe was undaunted. ‘Yes, you should’ve been there. You would’ve appreciated it. Such a fine pianist – what was his name Mary? He was so good, wasn’t he Mary?’
‘He was all right, I suppose. Ma, I’m going to do a laundry, is there anything you want washed before you leave tomorrow?’
Babe ignored the offer and continued: ‘Yes, you recognise brilliance when it’s there in front of you, no mistaking, Ed, isn’t that right?’
My father was scribbling with vigour and ignored her question.
‘When was the last time you gave a concert, Ed? Ay?’
Silence. My mother clattered more dishes.
‘Ed?’ She was needling now.
‘Leave it Ma.’ My mother sounded a little nervous.
Babe was coming alive, warming up with each sip of the whisky. She was up to something.
‘Ed, wasn’t it that spring, in that hall in Finchley, a couple of years after you and Mary were married. Yes, that’s right. Isn’t it?’ My father crumpled up another sheet and threw it on the floor.
‘Dad?’ I was curious. I never wondered why my father hadn’t continued his brilliant career, why he didn’t give concerts or supervise our music instruction. Such questions never came up in conversation between my parents. He listened to music a lot on our family stereo, and this would make him melancholic and dreamy. I thought of his playing as a form of exercise and I never thought about whether it was something he was good at. Wigmore Hall had slipped to the back of my brain, filed away with other childhood memories and covered in layers of young teenage angst.
‘Yes, Babe, that’s right,’ he finally replied, gulping down his last word as if it was poison.
He fixed her with a look I had never seen before... daring her, pleading... hurt pride flickered across his features.
She poured herself another whisky and settled more comfortably into her chair.
‘Ever hear about this, Hannah?’ I shook my head. ‘Ever wondered why your father stopped playing the piano?’ I shook my head again, a little less eager for the story now, sensing that something unpleasant was about to unfold.
‘It was Rachmaninov, I believe, wasn’t it Ed?’ My father stopped writing and stared at the sheet in front of him. My mother had gone quiet too. ‘Yes, I’m sure it was. Memory’s hazy these days, but, I remember that, yes, burned in there – she tapped her head – forever.’ She took another swig and addressed me: ‘We were all there, me, over from Australia with John, who was a young lad, all the old friends from Barnet days, big wigs too, a concert promoter, and that festival director, what was his name?’ She turned to my father.
His answer was so quiet, we couldn’t hear. His head was in his hands now. ‘What’s that?’ Babe taunted. My father didn’t answer. She resumed her story. ‘Doesn’t matter. Yes, all those big wigs from the music world, and all those friends, crammed into that hall. It was going to be the one. Launch you into the big time. Least, that’s what Mary had told me. Hadn’t you Mary?’ My mother was leaning against the kitchen counter, wringing the tea towel. ‘Had I? I don’t remember...’ she mumbled.
‘Well, yes, you had. The big one. After all those years of small-time stuff. You’d spent all the money your mother left you, all that inheritance on the music. I remember Mary saying to me and her father, just after she’d met you, that you were this genius. Yes, the real thing, she said. I was sceptical of course. If he was this bloody genius why was he already in his thirties and just a pauper. I could see he was educated, public school, Cambridge and all that, very posh, but he didn’t have a penny, and as far as your dad and I could see, he didn’t do a scrap of work. ‘
‘That’s not fair.’ My mother’s voice was sad. ‘Dad liked Edward very much.’
‘I’m not saying he didn’t, but he was as worried as me about how he was going to support you and a family. I’m glad he died before this concert. It would’ve distressed him. Anyway-‘ she turned back to me, ‘your father had the great and the good assembled and – ‘
‘Stop, Ma, now. I mean it.’ This was issued as an order.
Babe faltered and my father jumped up from his chair, the beautiful Windsor scraping against the kitchen tiles.
‘What do you know about music?’ He shouted. ‘What the hell did you ever know?’ He was shaking, clutching his fists tightly at his side. I felt my stomach perform somersaults.
‘I said to Mary – didn’t I? – that husband of yours needs a proper job. He can’t play the piano for toffee. He’s a loser. You agreed with me. Don’t pretend you didn’t. You were pregnant with her – she jerked in my direction – and you cried, and said, this can’t go on. And I said, too right it can’t. And I gave it to you straight, Ed, didn’t I?’
‘Yes you bloody did Babe.’ My father’s eyes gleamed ferociously. ‘Happy are you?’ He gathered up all his papers, scrunching them to his chest, and left the room. We heard him thump upstairs and slam the door of the bedroom.
My mother clapped. ‘Good, Ma. That was very well done. Thank you.’ Sarcasm was unfamiliar to her and behind the brittleness her anguish was audible. I had almost stopped breathing, rooted to the seat of the chair. Babe, now quite tipsy, giggled. How could she be so nasty? I waited for my mother to do something heroic. To throw her out of the house onto the street, slinging her lacy knickers after her. Instead, she slapped pie on plates, sat down and avoided looking at either of us.
My father’s unhappiness had reached a tipping point. Nothing was right in his world. The church was a dinosaur, weighed down by ill-educated freaks; or it was spineless, ineffectual in the face of modern fashions. His weekly sermons teetered on the verge of hell and brimstone rants. Each one administered a more bitter pill than the last. ‘They don’t understand,’ he’d bellow. ‘Bunch of old fools!’ No one appreciated his intellectual gifts, his wife was barely a wife, working all the time at her office, or travelling across the country visiting health authorities. His children were becoming delinquent. Civilisation had come to an end. Very occasionally, he’d sit down at our family piano, an old baby grand, and thump loudly. Always one of the Romantics, a Chopin etude or Lizt sonata. The keys would let him down, his hands would let him down. Clashing notes jumped out of the casework.
Sometimes, the playing quietened him, as if a taut nerve had been relaxed and the whole house was released from tension. But it would only take an hour or two, a call from his church warden or a letter from the deacon, for despair to gain a foothold. I often heard all this from my bedroom where I spent hours when I was not at school, looking at myself in the mirror, chattering with girlfriends, dreaming about being a famous actress and getting away from my embarrassing suburban family. My mother’s way of coping was to work harder than ever, snap at my heels and worry.
He was different when he returned from the rest home. Quiet. He helped my mother pack up the rectory, said good-bye to his parishioners and moved round the corner. Sometimes the old edge would appear, a darkening of his spirits and a shout at the world. But most of the time he was genial, sweet with my mother and indulgent to me.
The following year Babe died and the loft was converted into a music room. He scrutinised the plans and supervised every detail. I would often catch him chuckling. ‘What’s so funny?’ I’d ask. And he said: ‘Don’t you see? She would hate this. Rolling in her grave. Her money used to build a room just for me to do nothing but play. She’d hate it.’ The final task - when all else was finished, the reinforced floor, the soundproof panelling, the skylight and windows - involved winching the piano through the large dormer window. This delicate operation attracted a neighbourhood crowd. Exhilarated Oohs and aahs accompanied the old baby as it tilted this way and that, creeping slowly up the front of our house.
On summer nights haunting strains of Shubert would float from the open dormer into the street. Windows and doors would be thrown wide open. There was the bald gentlemen two houses down, who sat at his window, staring into space, head swaying gently. And the small girl, squatting on the stoop, arms around her knees, in a kind of trance. As I grew older and visited less, these occasional moments of solidarity felt charmed: my father was visiting enchantment on his neighbourhood.
I rarely ventured into the music room when he was alive. It had an aura of mystery. It belonged to his private world. It feels strange to be in here now, alone. Trespassing.
In the file marked ‘Miscellaneous’ there is an estimate for its construction dated 1992: £20,374.30. Did he and my mother have a discussion about how to use Babe’s legacy? Or did she make a gift of it to him? I like to think she simply made an announcement: ‘Eddie, I have £20 000 from Ma and we’re going to build you a piano studio.’ She may have exclaimed: ‘It’s going to be the best!’ I wonder if he accepted it willingly, or if she had to use all her considerable powers of persuasion. I like to imagine she handed him a cheque one night with the words: ‘For you. For a piano studio.’ And he replied: ‘But we can’t afford it. We need to put this towards the mortgage.’ To which she declared with a decisive flourish: ‘Eddie, now it’s time for you to play.’
There is little of him left in here. Neither has it been filled by a sense of my mother. It feels forlorn and vacant.
There’s a yellowed poster of a concert at Wigmore Hall lying on top of the piano. The date is 1950. The year my father was thirteen and won the competition. The year of the death of his mother. The year of my mother’s birth.
The piano is covered with a dustcoat. The stool has disappeared. I rifle among the piles of paraphernalia shoved up against a wall. Programmes from the 60s and 70s, some featuring my father. I never knew much about his life before he married my mother. He talked about his childhood, his mother, his stern father who died just before I was born; he talked about the moment he met my mother and how he knew, just like that, that there was no one like her. ‘My Mary, rather contrary, with such a pretty garden to grow.’ He chanted this, playfully, and more often than not it would make her giggle. They came from different worlds, they worked in different worlds, yet they hung on tenaciously to a shared romance of their marriage.
I find a small pile of scrappy fliers. Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata and Debussy’s Images. Pianist, Edward Felix Potter. June 1976. Finchley Hall 7.30 pm. £2 on the door. Wine and cheese to follow. A black and white photograph of my father occupies the lower half. In profile, head bowed, thick dark curly hair, full lips, a suggestion of a smile. Not too much. Mary wouldn’t have wanted him to look too serious, not too frivolous either. She had not yet become Mum.
Mary insisted they book the hall for Saturday, even though a premium was charged for a weekend night and this would eat up her small savings. She had attended dances and concerts here; it augured well for such a grand occasion.
He had hired a Steinway after some deliberation...maybe his mother’s baby grand would do, but, Mary had pressed, you must have the best! Young and believing, or, desperate, yes, that was more likely, desperate for her husband to succeed, to make this breakthrough, she threw all her energy and efficiency behind him. Their future depended on it. She would get good maternity leave from the government but their rental flat was small, they needed to buy a house, a suitable home in which to bring up their family.
The hall was filling with old friends and well-wishers. He stood in the wings peeking through the curtain. His tails hung loosely round his body. He had been much stockier as a young man. The stiff collar tickled his chin. The large round clock above the entrance, right down at the other end, showed ten minutes to go. There was a crowd milling at the back, some chairs already occupied...and...damn! There was his father. In the front row, dead centre, leaning on his cane, head hanging down. Wheelchair? Against the wall, near the long-suffering carer. Mary had pleaded with his father to come. All the way from the house in Surrey. His father responded well to Mary’s persuasion. She was the only one who could still get him to smile. ‘Splendid brain too,’ his father said on their first meeting. ‘Unusual for a pretty girl. The making of you.’ He always put in the boot. ‘He doesn’t really mean it,’ Mary said, ‘he just misses your mother and you remind him too much.’
Edward stepped back into the wings, flexed his fingers. Mary would be at the entrance greeting their guests, waiting for the great impresario to arrive. The great impresario. Edward hated him...a plump choleric producer whose pleasure came from his arbitrary exercise of influence. ‘You have to invite him,’ Mary had urged ‘He’s the one, isn’t he? He knows the most, knows everyone?’ Edward had reluctantly agreed. He had chosen two pieces for the performance – Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata no. 2, the revised version; and Debussy’s Images. They showed off his passion, his intensity of communication, flexibility with different styles. Like his mother. His mother. A sharp pain, always fresh, almost threw his composure. He would never get used to her absence.
He wished he hadn’t seen his father’s glare, fixed on him the moment he entered the stage. It was very brief, but damn his father, damn him! A full hall. Mary in front, so pretty, so hopeful; next to her the loathsome maestro, leaning into Babe. Oh Lord. He steadied himself. Dear Lord. A small incantation. He believed music came from God; he had grasped this as a teenager and in less certain moments the belief calmed him. ‘It is the Divine!’ His mother used to say. ‘Come down to earth to wake us up! Through hands like these!’ And she’d hold up her large, long bony fingers and splay them in front of him with a small laugh.
He begins too soon, plunging into the first movement at a furious, frantic pace. Slow, slow... He feels his limbs, pressing and pounding and caressing. Something is disconnected. Through his body, this body, he performs mistakes. Sweat begins to form on his brow and upper lip.
The applause between the pieces is mechanical. He doesn’t dare look at Mary. The uber-maestro sneers. The Devil take him! A large number of faces stare at him, blankly. He rushed the Rachmaninov, even the gorgeous lush slow second movement. He takes a couple of steadying breaths and sits again. Closes his eyes. There is some coughing at the back. A shuffling of feet. Whispers. The music, only the music, that is all that matters...
He takes his time with Debussy.
He sits a moment before taking a bow. Exhausted and elated. He was in the music, fully in it. A bit too hard on the pedal, perhaps; a little too heavy at times in the Reflets dans l’eau. Yes! The Divine come calling! He bows and smiles broadly, bows again. Then he sees Mary, on the edge of her seat, clapping with such deliberation and looking at him with such pained love and he knows.
He wanders among the crowd, a stranger to all. His hearing is muffled. People move away; even those who extend a hand in greeting do it without warmth, keep their distance, eyes sliding beyond his face, over his shoulder or down to their feet. The air is thick with embarrassment. The maestro is nowhere. Said he had another appointment, explains, Mary, brightly. Only his father, from his wheelchair, looks directly up at him and shouts, ‘Better next time, ay,’ and motions for the carer to take him out of the hall.
He got drunk of course. Stinking, roaring, paralytic. Babe rounded on him, something to do with being useless and getting a job. He laughed in her face and sprayed her with wine. She was outraged, spluttering and brushing the droplets from her bright silk dress. ‘Lordie, dreadful, he’s drunk, of all the things!’ He felt laughter rise up in him, rumbling deep in his belly and then climbing up and out and filling the sad little hall with noise. ‘You’re mad,’ accused Babe. It was all so funny really, so absurd. All these sad little people gathered to hear him play the greatest music ever and he had failed. And who cared, who bloody cared. Certainly not Babe, nor his father. Not that pea-brained fat impresario, thrilled he would’ve been by such a balls-up. The Divine come calling! His mother would’ve cared. And Mary, sweet, divine Mary, she cares. His laughter gave way to collapse.
My mother got him to bed somehow. The next morning they had a serious talk. ‘It’s not that I don’t love you playing,’ she said. ‘But I can’t manage on my own, salary’s too small, education is so expensive, a house. You know.’ Stalwart, practical Mary. Sitting right there in front of him. Slim and lovely in the pretty flowered nightdress she had worn the first time they made love. A bump just beginning to show. He was such a fool. Such a failure. He started to wretch, last night’s potent brew of humiliation and bad wine. How could she love him? He put his head between his knees and wondered what would happen next. Her small, light hand patted his aching greying head. ‘It’ll be all right,’ she repeated with each tap. The tears fell out of his eyes and dropped onto the floor. His nose ran. His body heaved. And there they sat for he didn’t know how long until he was able to look at her again.