My son’s father, who lives over in Hamburg working on some endless telecommunications project that nobody understands or cares about, is unhappy that our son is being forced to carry on with his piano lessons. He’s under the correct impression that Joshua hates every minute of them.
“What makes you say that?” I ask him.
“Well, let’s see now. Perhaps because he tells me every single time we Skype?”
Lately, there’s been this implied ‘der’ whenever Joshua’s father speaks to me. “He’s not supposed to enjoy them,” I explain, not for the first time. “That’s not the point of piano lessons.”
“Right, so they’re supposed to make him miserable?”
“Well perhaps if you encouraged him to practice…..”
Our telephone discussions always go this way. Like the rest of my life, they are obvious and predictable.
I’d once hoped that my life would be more ground breaking than this. Instead, I’ve done the whole woman meets man and then man leaves thing. You know how it goes. Man seems funny and warm, woman finds herself moving in with man without quite recalling when the decision was made, man and woman buy cat in dummy run for child, man and woman overestimate the extent of their maturity and find actual child a whole lot harder. Man misses male friendship and the thrill of the chase (during which he can always prove just how warm and funny he still is). Man wanders off, pretending he simply has to work abroad, no choice, making the ending predictable but also strangely shocking, like the death of a terminally ill relative. Woman grieves for the tidy life she now won’t have. Woman renews female friendships she had allowed to wither and eats and drinks too much for six months.
And I so wanted to be research-worthy. This is totally not the “hey, come and take a look at this one” type of failure I’d once dreamt of. Hence these hackneyed telephone debates.
“Anyway, the real reason I’m calling,” he says, as bored as I am by our repeats, “is to update you on the plans for Sunday.”
“You are still coming,” I say. “Because Josh is really looking forward to it….”
“Chill. I’m just phoning with some news.”
“Okay,” I say.
“I’m phoning to say I’m bringing a friend.”
“She’s called Pascale.”
“You’re bringing a friend called Pascale.”
“The name or the friend?”
I think for a moment. “Well that keeps it all nice and tidy,” I say, just to fill the silence.
His silence. And my silence. It’s not ours: that’s for sure.
Then he’s gone again. Out there somewhere Germanic and clutter-free. With someone called Pascale. And I am left somewhere English and messy. With someone called Joshua. And I am staring at a lifeless phone, expecting it to offer some kind of explanation.
Pascale, I repeat to myself. French Pascale. Pascale the French friend. Pascale Pascale Pascale. Some words make more sense the more you say them. Pascale, I quickly establish, is not one of them. I look up loads of Pascales on the internet, hungry for clues.
I decide to run this new development past Joshua. Because it’s important to be open with children.
“Your father is flying over to see you this weekend,” I tell him. “For Easter.”
Joshua starts running around like a mad thing, all arms and legs. He can sometimes be a little childish that way. “He’s bringing a friend,” I tell him.
Well that stops him short. “A friend? A friend for him? Or a friend for me?”
Good question. “Neither probably,” I say. But then this sounds a little blunt, so I decide to improvise a little. “Or maybe both,” I suggest. “She’s most probably a marine biologist. She’s from France. And women from France called Pascale are often marine biologists.”
Joshua thinks about this for a moment. “What does a marine biologist do?”
“Not too sure,” I admit, now wondering why I chose a career for her that I didn’t know too much about. “I think they check that the ocean is okay for everyone. For the fish. For the people.”
“So does that mean she’ll like swimming?” He’s waving his arms around again now.
Joshua makes a good point here. “Oh, I’d say she’s a massive fan of swimming.”
“So we could go swimming on Sunday?”
Joshua is a caring and loyal boy, even subconsciously. And here, this most cherished son of mine has given me a fantastic opportunity to make this Pascale woman an immediate disappointment. It would seem churlish to spurn the chance.
“Oh yes,” I tell him. “She’ll be completely up for that. What marine biologist wouldn’t want to go swimming on Easter Sunday? How weird would that be?”
In truth, Joshua is no good at the piano. He has zero talent. Even with scales, the bedrock of all pianism. Just listen to him now, attempting G major, right hand only, one octave. It has one sharp. Just the F is sharpened. The fingering pattern is identical to nearly all the other scales he’s learnt. Yet to hear his clumsy fingers stumbling up the keyboard you’d think he was attempting G sharp minor melodic.
“Josh, what are you doing?” I ask him.
“I hate the major scales,” he says.
Well this is irrelevant for a start. He’s just as bad at the minors. “Oh come on now Josh. You’re better than this.”
“I hate the piano” he says.
“No you don’t,” I say. “Why not try your new piece instead?”
To be honest, I don’t even know why I suggest this. His pieces are no better. Joshua has failed to grasp the most important principle of pianism: that the harder you strike the key, the louder the note sounds. In sensitive hands, this enables you to draw out the melody from the accompaniment and helps the instrument to sing. Not when Joshua plays it. Joshua, bless him, just bashes away as if each note in a chord is of equal importance. He hasn’t got a clue.
Nevertheless, at my suggestion, he turns to his little piece, Ducks and Swans. The swan is a legato melody in the left hand; the ducks are the staccato accompanying chords in the right, evoking quacking, though you really wouldn’t guess all this to hear him play it. In Josh’s hands, the swans don’t stand a chance: the ducks are gunning them down in most bars. It’s carnage out there on the pond.
“I hate the piano,” he repeats, throwing the music across the room at me. “And I hate you.”
“Well that’s fine,” I tell him, coming over to ruffle his hair. “Everyone hates someone sometimes.”
I’m trying to let him work it all out for himself. With children, it’s sometimes best not to spell everything out.
I find myself nervous on Easter Sunday, anxious about seeing them. Actually no. I don’t think it’s the seeing them I mind; it’s the being seen I don’t much care for. I would prefer Joshua’s father not to see me so much larger and blotchier than before. But more than that, I would have loved a blind viewing of the Pascale woman. Nothing sinister. I could just be told when she’s in the local park, say, so I could walk past her and size her up without her knowing. That would help to put my mind at ease. Or perhaps I could follow her around for a few days, just to gauge how she does things: how she dresses, walks, eats. The shampoos and conditioners she uses. Failing that, perhaps she could answer a few fairly straightforward questions about where she was born, her hobbies and interests, her sexual history. Yes, come to think of it, I would definitely like to know about her sexual history. Including her proclivities. Does she even have any proclivities?
Perhaps this all seems a tad intrusive. But the way I see it she’s obviously already spent some considerable time with my son’s father. I’ve let that one slide. And now she wants to spend the day with my son. A little more information wouldn’t go amiss. But no, I know nothing. So here I am, anxiously awaiting the imminent viewing by the highly trained, super-brainy, put-you-off-your-dinner gorgeous but hopefully non-swimming Pascale.
Naturally, it’s Joshua who rushes to open the front door, imitating the screeching of tyres as he recklessly slides across my new flooring in his socks. He helps with the initial awkwardness – of which there is plenty to go around – by attempting, very noisily, to both climb and eat his father.
“You must be Pascale,” I say above Joshua’s shrieking, demonstrated once again my intimidating powers of deduction. It seems that I kiss her on both cheeks, culturally de rigueur you might imagine, though I’m thinking more Judas style. “How was your journey?”
“The journey was good,” she says. “You know…airports. In the air for not one hour. All the waiting….”
I am attempting to listen to her and apparently I join in the conversation in a reasonably rhythmic way, but what I’m really clocking is her greasy hair. And what is going on with her caked skin? What exactly is she hiding? Also, one of her eyes is slightly larger than the other. This is all marvellous news.
“But the traffic on this side was okay?” I hear myself asking.
“Yes. The traffic was good. Easter I guess. Most people already go to where they need to go,” she says, which for one second I mistake for a complicated insult.
But before I can reply Joshua is yanking her away to show her his goldfish tank in his bedroom, probably anticipating some kind of expert appraisal.
And so here we are, Joshua’s father and me. Here we are again.
“Kate,” Joshua’s father says, nodding.
“Joshua’s father,” I reply. (This is based upon an old, bitter joke between us. I won’t bore you with the details).
His voice is soft and kind, so unlike the voice on the phone in recent months. For once, there are no wires or connections linking us, just air. And perhaps for this reason the question rips out my stomach and I’m surprised I still have the muscles to breathe. If you would hold me, I want to say. Just hold me. Of an evening. So I no longer have to rely upon the street lamps to keep things at bay. That would be just grand.
Instead, I say, “I’m good. And you?”
“I am good also,” he says, a little Germanically by my reckoning.
There is a pause. An initial assessment is clearly required, and so, true to form, I try to make it as predictable as possible. “Pascale seems…..nice.”
“She is,” he says.
“Well that’s good,” I say.
“It is,” he agrees.
“You?” he asks, raising his eyebrows and pursing his lips to expand the question.
“Oh no,” I say. “God no. You kidding me? I mean, when? I mean, even if I was interested in someone.”
He smiles. Which again I’d almost forgotten. And then the puzzled Pascale returns.
“We go to swim?” she asks, more to Joshua’s father than me.
“When are we going swimming?” Joshua asks him, bursting in on the negotiations. “Are we eating first or are we going swimming first?”
His father gives me a “what?” frown and I give him the “search me” palms in response. And before Joshua has time to explain Pascale’s startling career change, I’ve herded them all off for the day and closed the front door.
I puff out my cheeks, slide down the inside of my front door and hold my head in my hands to gather my thoughts. And then I recall that the gathering of thoughts is a skill I’ve never developed. How do people do this? Mine just go all over the place.
The only one of my thoughts I can pin down for now is this: she’s not entirely symmetrical. Entirely symmetrical she is not.
With the house to myself I take the opportunity to sit at the piano. As you may have guessed, I’ve recently started playing again, after a gap of some years. My boring life got in the way somehow. And yes, I do recognise how boring that excuse is.
Oh and I lied earlier, when I was describing how best to draw a singing tone out of the piano. It’s not just the speed of attack that generates a cantabile line. It’s the source of the pressure on the keys that counts. If, for example, you only use the muscles in your fingers your tone will inevitably sound harsh and unpleasant. No, you have to use your wrist, your elbow, sometimes your shoulder. Only by passing all that you are down through your arms onto the keys can you create a warm, singing line that genuinely connects with the listener.
The piano, you see, is not just another machine. I have to believe that.