CHAPTER SEVEN

 

"Yes, I like that one very much," said David Shuster, who sat in close though respectful proximity to where Gerald Matthews had just concluded an impromptu piano recital.  "It's one of Erik Satie's compositions, isn't it?"

     "Partly," replied Gerald, turning around on his piano stool to face his questioner.  "But that's only because of quite a few mistakes on my part, I'm afraid.  It isn't going as well as it ought to at present, despite some recent practice."

     "Well, it doesn't sound too unlike Satie to me," confessed Shuster before asking, in his customarily nonchalant fashion: "Which composition is it, by the way?"

     "Oh, the Sonatine Bureaucratique actually," Gerald obliged.  "I dug it out of my pile of scores in consequence of an unexpected eulogy concerning some of Satie's piano music by that chap Michael Savage last thing this afternoon, notably this and a few other late pieces for which he has apparently acquired a taste."

     Shuster raised his bushy eyebrows in a show of surprise.  "Does he play the piano, then? " he asked, his right-hand index finger momentarily caressing the bridge of his gently aquiline nose.

     "No, not to my knowledge," replied Gerald.  "Although he claims to play the acoustic guitar in a mainly improvisatory fashion."  There was a pause before he continued: "From what I was able to gather from a brief conversation with him during the week, it would seem that he generally dislikes notated music on account of its perceived antiquity, mannerist conventions, and religious connotations."

     Shuster smiled wryly before asking: "Is he an atheist or something, then?"

     "Well, he's certainly no Christian," said Gerald in oblique response.  "I believe he's one of those people who regard religious music as an embarrassing anachronism and therefore won't acknowledge its inspiration, especially in the vocal context, on account of its more or less explicit references to God, meaning principally the Creator, or Father.  You couldn't imagine him singing hymns, cantatas, oratorios, or suchlike religious works.  He thinks people are simply deceiving themselves or, more usually, being deceived by others."

     "So there's evidently a lot of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, etc., to which he won't lend an ear," speculated Shuster, leaning back in his capacious armchair, as though to distance himself further from his only tenant.  "And quite a few modern compositions too, I'll wager."

     Gerald reluctantly nodded his aching head, then said: "Yes, he isn't what one might call enamoured of the general curriculum."

     "Wise man!" averred Shuster.  "I suppose he has his literary tastes down to a fine art too, does he?"

     "That wouldn't surprise me," said Gerald, who was already beginning to regret he had brought up the damn subject of Michael Savage in the first place!  "Although I'm not at all sure what forms they take, even given the fact that I overheard him mention James Joyce and Henry Miller to someone during the afternoon.  But that didn't leave me much wiser, considering I haven't read either of them and don't really know all that much about their works in consequence."

     Shuster raised his brows anew and remarked in a sort of reproachful tone: "Then you were evidently making a big mistake in attempting to secure his confidence, Gerald, since you appear not to have that much in common with him."  He withdrew himself into a moment's silent deliberation, before continuing: "At a guess, I'd imagine him to be the sort of chap who, being an outsider by force of circumstances, relates to writers like Camus and Sartre, amongst others."

     "And who exactly are they?" Gerald wanted to know, in the face of his almost complete ignorance of modern French writing or, more specifically, that branch of it which had never particularly appealed to him on account of its overly left-wing sympathies.

     Shuster opted to forego the ordeal of raising his brows yet again by simply replying: "Highly influential theorists, who constitute the more famous part of what is commonly, though in large measure erroneously, known as the 'Existentialist Movement': a largely philosophical school of writing inspired by Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger.  Interestingly, I was re-reading Sartre's Nausea only last week.  It takes the form of a fictitious journal having more than a little to do with the mysteriousness and even brute horror of existence."

     "Hence existentialism?" Gerald conjectured from the ivory tower-like vantage-point of his piano stool.

     "Yes, in a manner of speaking," confirmed Shuster half-smilingly.  "You see, according to one aspect of existentialist thought - and not the least important aspect either - I am now seated in a manmade 'thing' which, from social expedience, we agree to call an armchair, so that, through uniform conditioning in the matter, we can concur with each other and those around us as to exactly what an armchair is, thereby saving confusion.  However, what you chose to call it outside the everyday world of commonplace references and human relationships is entirely your own affair, bearing in mind its relative reality, or the fact that you can alter its shape at the planning stage and call it a bookgrope, a tiemark, a manpoke, or a showflake, depending on your whim."  It was evident to Shuster that Gerald was anything but happy with this notion, probably because, in his fundamentally conservative nature, he would never have dreamt of doing any such thing.  Nevertheless Shuster continued, saying: "Now that is the entire crux of the matter, of the fact that so many of the things we commonly take for granted as immutable realities are actually mutable and, hence, contingent realities, contrary to popular prejudice."

     "How very enlightening!" declared Gerald bravely, his blue eyes almost hypnotically focused on the right arm of the armchair in which the eccentric and possibly even mad lecturer was still seated.  "I'm afraid I have neither the time nor the inclination for reading anything overly intellectual these days.  In fact, I rarely get beyond a half-dozen pages of my romances after going to bed.  I fall asleep in no time."

     "Lucky you!" exclaimed Shuster, getting up from his 'bookgrope'.  "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all fall asleep so easily!"  He stared fixedly at Gerald a moment, his mind turning somersaults of intellectual daring, and then, changing to an almost resentful tone-of-voice, he said: "Well, I assume that young lady pupil of yours will be here soon, so I'll temporarily retire to my quarters.  See you later."

     Gerald watched Shuster's tall frame pass through the doorway and out of sight with certain misgivings as to just what would transpire later, if things didn't work out to his liking with the young pupil in question.  But, for the time being, he was relieved to have the room to himself again and to be able to get on with replaying the second movement of the Sonatine Bureaucratique, which was trickier than he had remembered from past experience of the piece.  His technique was competent, overall, but by no means perfect, and he reflected that he would certainly have to spend a number of days practising hard if he hoped to bring his playing up to performance standard.  As he had given public recitals in the past, he saw no reason why he shouldn't give a local one in the near future, since the challenge of performing publicly could only induce him to achieve a higher standard of technical proficiency in the meantime, a thing he greatly desired in view of the restrictions his role as private teacher of low-grade piano pupils was placing upon him at present.  Perhaps he would incorporate a few nocturnes by Schubert or Chopin into his prospective recital?  Maybe even a Beethoven sonata, a selection of Debussy's preludes, Ravel's magical Le Tombeau de Couperin, or Mussorgsky's incredibly demanding Pictures at an Exhibition in its original version, assuming, of course, that he could bring them all up to pianistic scratch?  He would see anyhow.  There was still plenty of time for him to make up his mind.

     While toying with these enterprising ideas his hands toyed, as though of their own accord, with the bright keyboard of his Broadwood piano, experimenting with various gradations of tone and touch, inventing strange harmonies, forming arpeggios, scales in contrary and parallel motion, major and minor, diatonic and chromatic, his facile fingers easily in command of the notes.  Yes, he could still bring this old upright to life, cause it to respond to him like a mistress, coax the best out of it, make it rise to the occasion of his occasional nocturnal rhapsodies, when technicalities were safely subordinated to the essential musicality of whatever he happened to be playing and, his head thrown back in rapturous abandon, wave after wave of ecstatic pleasure swept over and engulfed him, bending his will to its omnipotent embrace.  If music was an exacting taskmaster, it could also be an extremely enriching one, a solace from the manifold perplexities of life and a defence against its untimely vagaries.  It had brought him back from the depths of despair in the past and would doubtless do so again in the future.  Music was something that, short of a fatal accident to hands or brain, no-one and nothing could take from him.

     While his nimble fingers continued to explore the hidden depths of sound and meaning which lay buried beneath the bright ivory keys, waiting only for the right touch to release them into the air, his mind slowly changed track and began to explore the imagined body of Miss Stephanie Power, his most attractive and brightest pupil who, providing she had recovered from her illness of the previous week, was due to make an appearance at any minute now.  She had studied under him for just over six months and, despite a slight disinclination to take music of the sort piano lessons thrive upon very seriously, was beginning to reveal latent talents, and not simply with regard to the piano either!  Indeed, her 5' 8" of shapely physique was beginning to have a serious effect upon her teacher's emotional life.  He would have invited her to accompany him to a restaurant on at least three previous occasions had not professional etiquette, incertitude concerning her emotional status, and egocentric reticence combined to inhibit the verbal formulation of his desires, producing a weekly procrastination.  It was certainly high time for him to act if he really hoped to secure regular access to this young eighteen-year-old's enticing physical charms and thereby put his mind at ease.  It definitely didn't pay to let her slip away from the lesson unsolicited every week.  He was beginning to feel more than a trifle distracted - indeed he was!  For it had deeply pained him, the week before, to hear from her mother that she was unwell and would accordingly be staying at home.  That was another opportunity lost, another procrastination to contend with.  It was a wonder to him that he could carry on giving her lessons at all, subject as he now was to nervous strain, coupled to periodic emotional aberrations, whilst in her company.  But one had to carry on with one's duties as best one could, to somehow learn to repress one's emotional intrusions, since man did not live by love alone.  Well, he would just have to see what transpired from this evening's lesson, before committing himself to any further folly!  Things might still work out in his favour.

     Shortly after 8.00pm the musical chimes of the doorbell suddenly awoke him from his morose reflections and, in eagerly answering it, he discovered, to his immense relief, that Stephanie Power was seeking admittance, and doing so in a tight-fitting minidress that emphasized the contours of her figure in a most provocative way.  "Well, hello!" he blushingly exclaimed, before ushering her into his music room.  "I feared you weren't coming this evening," he almost desperately added, as they crossed the threshold together.  "How are you now?"

     "Oh, I'm fine, thanks," said Stephanie, removing her bag from her shoulders and then extracting a music score from amongst its jumble of heterogeneous contents.  "I had a touch of tonsillitis actually, strange as it may seem at this time of year."

     "Poor you," sighed Gerald, eyeing her in an overly sympathetic manner.  "And I had been led to believe from your mother that it was just a cold.  Still, you're looking very well, I must say."  She smiled but said nothing, so he asked: "How's the music coming along, then?"

     Stephanie duly placed her copy of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the ledge formerly occupied by the Satie piece and replied that it wasn't coming along too well, bearing in mind that she had only begun to play the sonata a few weeks previously, and that it was unquestionably more difficult than anything else she had thus far been called upon to play, even with old Miss Edwards, her former teacher.  "I'm certainly doing my best," she concluded, "but it's no easy task, not even in the first movement."

     "Indeed not," confirmed Gerald, as he drew his spare stool up alongside the one on which she was now sitting.  "However, it will soon develop along the right lines if you practise it at least an hour a day.... I say, that's a refreshingly sweet perfume you're wearing tonight.  I can't recall having smelt that one before."

     Stephanie was unable to prevent herself blushing as she turned her admirably bright-blue eyes upon her piano teacher's admiring gaze.  "No, I haven't worn it here before actually," she replied.

     "Well, it's certainly very refreshing," averred Gerald, while continuing to admire her face.  "You make these lessons a far sweeter experience than most of my other pupils do," he boldly added.

     "How very flattering!" cried the young woman, who was momentarily in some confusion.  "I appreciate being appreciated."

     "I thought you might," said Gerald, turning his attention back to the music score and, as though for his own benefit more than hers, saying: "Now then, shall we begin?"

     There was a pause while both teacher and pupil adjusted to the basic requirements of the task to hand.  After a rather tentative start on her part, during which the sustain pedal was left down rather longer than it should have been, Miss Power gradually gained in confidence, steering her way past the various broken chords, tonal indications, and pedal changes with relative ease.  For his part, Gerald coaxed her along in his usual tactfully deferential manner, overlooking the occasional blurred harmony, misplaced note, faulty tone, and dubious timing which crept into the performance in order to keep it moving along as much as possible.  He felt confident that she would soon come properly to grips with the sonata in any case, irrespective of her current failings, because she possessed a natural feeling for music and was usually aware of when and how mistakes were being made.  No doubt, these mostly minor errors would cease to occur as she became increasingly familiar with the music and her technical grasp of it grew correspondingly more comprehensive.  In the meantime, however, he need only draw her attention to those bars of the first movement which were causing her most difficulty, to demonstrate how they should be played, in order not to undermine her own judgement overmuch or cause her to lose confidence in herself.  Quite apart from professionally being the best policy to adopt, he was of the express opinion it was also socially the best, as far as his prospects of keeping on good terms with her were concerned.

     After demonstrating various technical points to Stephanie in this way, Gerald liked to impart additional confidence to her by guiding her fingers over the notes in question, and it certainly wasn't beyond him to put his nearest arm around her waist or take a peek at her rather conspicuously displayed breasts, highlighted, as they invariably were, by a low-cut blouse or dress.  To be sure, she seemed not to mind these little familiarities of his; though it never ceased to amaze him that he hadn't transformed them into something more concrete by now, and thereby achieved a more intimate knowledge of her person, in consequence of the incontrovertibly powerful attraction she always exerted on him.  Was it really a question of professional etiquette over personal vanity or of personal vanity over professional etiquette ... which inhibited him from extending the range and degree of his familiarities?  Or were such considerations no longer applicable because the distinction had gradually become blurred and, having passed the point of no return, he would now simply have to act, regardless of his habitual egocentric reticence, with its retinue of prohibitive demons lurking in wait to ambush every genuine adventurer on love's treacherous highway, before matters got completely out-of-hand and became absolutely unbearable?  Perhaps that was so?  In which case it would undoubtedly be wiser for him to get it over with soon, in order to ascertain exactly where he stood with her.  After all, life wasn't specifically intended for the fostering of disturbing aberrations.  And even if it would be dreadfully embarrassing, not to say humiliating, for him to continue teaching her if she rejected his advances, at least he would then have the benefit of knowing exactly what the position was, as well as the relative consolation of accepting that he had done his duty, as it were, and needn't continue to delude or persecute himself any longer.

     It was towards the end of this lesson when, the Moonlight Sonata's first movement having been played several times, Gerald finally plucked up sufficient courage to proposition Stephanie for a date.  But even then he could only manage to approach the matter indirectly, via the subject of music, by telling her that he had a spare ticket for a concert at the Barbican the following week, and was wondering if she would like to avail herself of it to accompany him there.

     Stephanie halted in her playing tracks and stared incredulously at him a moment, obviously unprepared for any such invitation, which, as soon as she could gather her thoughts together, struck her as both impertinent and undesirable.  Nevertheless, she did her best to sound regretful when, blushingly, she replied: "Thanks for the offer, but I'm afraid I shall have to disappoint you, since I've decided, in consultation with my mother, to discontinue my lessons as from today."  The words were hardly free of her lips when Gerald's mouth fell open in shocked surprise.

     "Oh?" he responded unbelievingly.  "What appears to be the problem, then?"

     "Precisely that I'm sick and tired of playing this sort of crap and want to do something better with my time, like joining a rock band and playing electric keyboards!" shouted Stephanie in exasperation.  "Besides, I've had enough of your sneaky little voyeuristic games and sly caresses.  If you were really a man, and not a snobby little wimp who's afraid of getting rebuffed, you'd have asked me out long ago, and not in such a roundabout way either!  My boyfriend's twice the man you are, what with your smelly aftershave lotion and spotted cravats!"

     Gerald was virtually speechless and almost on the verge of wetting himself.  "But I only w-wanted to h-help you," he stammered, blushing scarlet.

     "Yeah, well the best way you can do that is to leave me alone and let me get out of here so that I can meet my bloke as planned!" yelled Stephanie, jumping up from the piano stool and reaching for her shoulder bag.  "Find somebody else to take to your sodding concert!" she added sarcastically, and was already through the door by the time a stricken Gerald Matthews noticed that her music score was still on the piano stand. 

     Instinctively grabbing hold of it, he ran out of the room and, catching up with her at the front door, pathetically held it out to her, as he stuttered: "You'd b-better take this with you in c-case you ever n-need it or have a ch-change of h-heart in the f-future."

     "A change of heart?" jeered Stephanie, opening the front door.  "You can take that sodding thing and stuff it up your big fat arse!" she screamed and, without even bothering to look back at him, ran off down the path and out into the comparative freedom of the empty street, leaving Gerald Matthews standing speechless in the open doorway, the Beethoven sonata limply dangling from between his sweaty fingers.

     "Dear me, looks like another woman's run out on you!" a deep voice sounded from behind him and, turning round in a sudden panic, he encountered, to his considerable embarrassment, the tall figure of David Shuster standing in the hallway with a glass of Scotch in his hand.  "You don't seem to have much luck with young women, do you?" he added in a sort of unpleasantly rhetorical fashion. 

     With a gruff sigh, Gerald quickly closed the door and was about to pass swiftly in front of his landlord when the latter stretched out his free arm and stopped him in his bolting tracks.  "Seems to me you were deluding yourself over that vulgar little titbit," said Shuster ironically, as he wrapped his arm around Gerald's shoulder.

     Although he would have preferred to extricate himself from both the taller man's embrace and the stench of whisky emanating from his breath, Gerald was feeling so shattered by the totally unexpected outcome to his evening's plans, and by the vulgar ferocity of Stephanie Power's onslaught upon his romantic sensibilities, that he reluctantly resigned himself to the situation in which he now somewhat shamefully found himself, and even allowed the semi-drunken lecturer to tighten his embrace as, with tears welling-up in his eyes, he stuttered: "I just d-don't understand what c-came over her, that she should have t-taken such strong offence to what I s-said."

     "Now, now!" soothed Shuster, solicitously patting Gerald on the shoulder blade, "don't take it all so damn personally!  She probably didn't mean the half of what she said.  Besides ..." and here he paused as though to add emphasis to the significance, in the circumstances, of what he was about to say "... you've always got me to fall back on, old boy."

     Gerald was unable to prevent himself blushing with this remark and, although he fought the temptation that now assailed him to sob-out his grievances on Shuster's ample chest, the conspiracy of pressures which surrounded him was too great, and imperceptibly he found himself sliding towards total submission to Shuster's will, as the older man, scenting victory, gulped down the rest of his Scotch and ran his free hand caressingly over Gerald's trembling back.  "There, there!" he soothed.  "You'll soon be feeling better!"

 

 

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