LIZBETH MYLES (1880-1909)
He called her his grande dame, his grand lassie, Miss Grandiosity – and it was sort of a joke, because she was really rather short, when she turned the pages for him the audience could barely see her lurking behind the piano, in some theatres they worried that the rake of the stage would prevent her from reaching the pages at all, in one of them they had to fetch her a box to stand on! – but it also wasn’t a joke, because she produced such grand emotion within him, he said he felt his love for her as a roar inside, and so it was; and for all her size she was such a whirlwind, when she was happy it was infectious and she felt so happy too, and his problems seemed unimportant and the sunshine brighter and the music he played sweeter, even when it wasn’t sweet at all; when she was unhappy he wanted to put his arms around her, wrapping up every little bit of her body, and hold on to her tight, and ward off all the bad things. He called her ‘kitten’ and ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’. He called her Mrs Dimpleface, because when she smiled she produced dimples he thought were just adorable – and he called her Lady High Dimpleface when she was being bossy or stuck up, and that happened sometimes, or when she was cross with him, and that happened a lot – and it never failed, it made her smile, and within moments Lady High would leave the building and she’d be his Mrs Dimpleface again. He called her his ‘dearest dear’, his ‘own’, his ‘world’. He called her ‘love’.
She called him maestro – but then, everybody called him maestro – but then, she alone really meant it.
Both of them had prayed for this, in their own ways.
Louis had prayed to God to make him a musician. He hadn’t even thought about music before the age of fifteen, when he had reluctantly accompanied his mother to a concert, and there he had heard Bach. It was, he later recognised, an indifferent performance at best, but it didn’t matter, it was as if a light had been turned on in his head, and he wondered how he’d lived so long without realising his one true purpose. His mother made discreet enquiries, and all the tutors said he was too old to start if he wanted to do it seriously – it could be a hobby, they suggested, something nice, something fun. But Louis was having none of it, this was now going to be his life, and he was going to be the greatest musician of his age, and he would show his genius before the crowned heads of Europe. His father was appalled; Louis may have been too old to be a musician, but he was too young to decide to be a musician either; at the very reminder of his son’s ambitions Father would fly into one of his tempers – “My son wants to be a performing monkey!” he said. He’d planned for him to be in the army, or in the church, or in law. “An entertainer?” he said. “Over my dead body!” And Louis prayed, and over his dead body it was – his father suffered a sudden heart attack during one particularly contemptuous rant against tunemerchants and singsongsmiths and hurdygurdyists, and dropped dead right there on my spot – and Louis went to church and gave thanks to God. He didn’t even know what instrument he wanted to play. He tried the violin, the trumpet, even the harp – and he was glad the harp didn’t take, because it really was most cumbersome, and a bit effeminate, he never thought he’d find himself a woman while hugging a harp. The piano seemed the natural fit. It was sturdy. It was solid. It wasn’t a bit sissyish, not if he banged on the keys hard enough. So a pianist he became.
And Lizbeth too had prayed. She prayed for Louis to notice her. She had been to five of his concerts, each night, one after each other, and she’d sat on the front row, hoping that he would catch her eye. But he looked only at the piano, at his piano and nothing else. And on the sixth night she could bear it no longer. It was his last night in Edinburgh, then the tour would continue to other cities far away, and Lizbeth would never see him again, and she couldn’t bear that – she’d never seen a man she had wanted more, she felt it deep in her belly, a desire, a yearning, an actual yearning, and she’d never felt such things before, she was a little shocked at herself, and she didn’t know it was whether he produced such beautiful music or that he looked so very dapper in his coat and tails. Before the performance she found her way backstage. She knocked at his door. He looked a little scandalised to see her, and she liked that – in coat and tails he was intimidating, but now with that shy and awkward face he looked like a little boy – “Mademoiselle,” he said, “you should know I am a married man!” Married, yes, she knew that; and twenty years older; and French; and Jewish; oh, Mother would never approve. “I want to be of help to you, sir,” she said. “I could be your page turner.” He told her he already had a page turner for the night, the theatre supplied one – but she said, “Not tonight, for every night.” He looked at the clock. “I have to get ready,” he said, lamely – “I’ll give you an audition, but we’ll have to be quick.” He played some Chopin, one of the Nocturnes. And she stood so close to him as his fingers slid across the keys, and her heart was beating so fast, she thought it might distract him, it might put him off the music – he would say, “mademoiselle, I cannot play the piano with all that drum accompaniment!” – but she turned the pages, she kept up with him – and she knew the Chopin, it was very famous, and she supposed very pretty, but she’d never properly listened to it before, and it made sense to her now, it wasn’t just melody, it was full of life and such sweet passion. She kept pace, turned the pages cleanly, and he never had to pause, the entire piece ran as smooth as could be, she wanted to say, don’t let’s stop, never stop, let’s drag it out to a full symphony! And she didn’t tell him she’d lied. Didn’t dare tell him until months later. On their wedding night, and she was still afraid he’d be angry at the deception, but he just laughed and kissed her and then they made love once more. She’d lied, she’d never turned pages for other pianists as she’d claimed; she couldn’t even read music, the notes on the page were just black smudges to her; she didn’t know why it was the right time to turn the page, it just was, it was an answered prayer, it was Louis, it was her, it was the togetherness of them both, they were simpatico. He told her she must now leave the dressing room. He had to perform to his audience. But she would be watching, wouldn’t she? She’d be in the front row? And she was, and this time as he played he didn’t just look at the piano. And never again in her lifetime did she watch him from the stalls, from this point on she would always stand up there with him, turning his pages, and standing so close with her heart beating – but this was maybe her favourite performance, watching him as he watched her, hearing the Nocturne, hearing him make little stumbles when he caught her smiling at him. And from that moment she loved Chopin, and from that moment she loved Louis, and she called him maestro.
He divorced his wife, a fat atonal double bass of a woman. And they went on tour, and that tour merged into another tour, and then another, the tours went on for years. And he never played before the crowned heads of Europe, not even one of the minor ones. And he never played to a full auditorium. But he’d never played better either. And sometimes they’d both wonder if they’d prayed for the wrong things. He wondered whether he should have asked God to make him not just a musician, but a great musician; and she wondered whether she’d held him back, that her love for him had been a selfish thing that had stunted his talent and stopped him from being the maestro he ought to have been. But then they’d put those thoughts right from their heads. They loved each other. They’d got what they’d prayed for, and so much more. They couldn’t complain.
On they toured, and he played Bach, and Brahms, and Mendelssohn, and Schubert, all for the thinning crowds; and when he played Chopin, he played it for her.
The tuberculosis took Lizbeth fast – and she was too young, and that was unfair, no, it was obscene – but it took her fast, and there was some mercy to that – it took her fast enough she didn’t much suffer, but slowly too so there was time to prepare. She arranged the next touring dates for after she’d gone, when he’d be on his own; she’d always arranged the tours, she was the practical one. She told him to hire a new page turner, and he’d said no, and she’d pressed the point, and he’d said no, adamantly no, the theatres would have to provide, just as in the old days, and on this matter at least he won. And he said to her, “I don’t want you to go,” and “I can’t bear it if you go,” and she’d say, “Oh, love,” and she’d say, “Love, I know.” And he’d pray that she wouldn’t die, and that was too much to ask. And he’d pray that she wouldn’t feel any pain, and that too, it was just too much, God didn’t answer prayers like that. And he’d pray, at least let us be together, let us always be together. And he had no right to expect an answer to that either, hadn’t they been given enough already? But God listened.
One day she woke and she was smiling, and it wasn’t one of the brave smiles he’d grown used to, it was a smile broad enough to make her cheeks dimple. She told him that the pain was gone. He could hardly believe it. He began to hope. Though as he looked at her she still seemed so pale and thin, still, he let himself hope. She felt a little numbness on her back, and when he turned her over, he saw that it had turned to wood. A brown, rich wood, he thought it might be mahogany; he knew it was mahogany, he recognised it from the grand piano they owned in the drawing room. He pressed against it gently, she said he could press harder – he asked if she could feel him and she said she could, but he mustn’t worry, it was a nice sensation; it seemed somehow solid, if a sensation can be solid. He rapped his fingers against her and she smiled – and he kissed her on the wood, and there was something familiar and earthy about that taste, as if the wood had just this day grown out of the soil – and he kissed her again, not on the wood now, on the mouth, and she kissed him too, and he could taste the blood there, and the sickness, and death.
The wood grew. She was such a little woman, and so she remained; the illness made her shrink into herself, if anything. But her back now stood proud and tall, like a great sturdy frame. He stroked it. “Oh, my love,” she said. Her feet narrowed, then they doubled, then they turned to brass. She opened her mouth in her widest smile, and her teeth filled an entire keyboard with dazzling white ivory; on her hands her fingernails blackened, and it was a rich black, a deep black, and they smoothed, and they swelled, and they dotted between the ivories as the sharps and flats. “I love you,” she told him, and he loved her too; he loved her as her two eyelids merged into one heavier lid altogether, the one that locked the keyboard away and kept it safe; he loved her as her lungs, her kidneys, the heart itself, as they all stretched themselves taut as strings; as one single eye became a knot in the wood just above the rack on which he kept his sheets of music, so now, when he sat at his wife and played on her and had his fingers tease at her and thrilled to the strange music she made, he gazed at the eye and it gazed at him, it wouldn’t wink, it wouldn’t blink, it held him, so wide, so sure, telling him that it was all right, everything was going to be all right. He played for hours, and no matter the tune, no matter how jaunty or light, each time it made him cry. “I love you,” she told him, “I love you, and you’re the best of me, and you always have been, and you always will.”
And in the drawing room the grand piano softened into a mass of pale and melting flesh, and it coughed blood, hawking thick black gobs of it on to its own chin, and there was pain there, and something rather worse than pain, but it was only a piano, it was only an instrument, it didn’t cry out, it didn’t complain, it didn’t say a word.
And when the doctor came it was the piano he examined, not the wife; and Louis thought him rather a fool not to notice; and he shook his head and led Louis away from the piano’s earshot and told him to expect the worst. But Louis knew there was no worst, his wife was alive and well and getting so much better, no longer turning the pages of his music but producing all the music herself – he couldn’t even pretend it was him any longer, it all came from her, the music flowed straight from her, and when his fingers danced upon her teeth it was just so she could let her genius out. And the piano died, it gave one splutter one morning and just slipped away; and it was the piano they took away, the undertaker and his crew all muttering condolences, and Louis was glad to be rid of it, it looked like a poor faded corpse, like a spent thing, like something broken, something that could never have made music, what music could there be in something so sad? And they buried it. And Louis could hardly stop himself from laughing, but he knew for form’s sake he must be seen to grieve – and yet it was a trick, he’d still got Lizbeth, his dearest dear, he’d still got her and would never lose her and he could tickle her ivories and make her chest thrum, he’d got her, he’d never let her go.
All the stories say that he went back on tour and took his own piano with him. And he performed in his dear wife’s memory, and whilst he never found great success, he was happy. But not one can agree on the ending. Here are just a few of those endings.
In one story Louis dies onstage. He’s an old man, but he’s still performing – and it’s his birthday, it’s his hundredth birthday, no, that sounds a bit too neat, let’s say he’s ninety-nine. He bows before the audience and dedicates the evening, as he always does, to Lizbeth – who was the best of him, always has been, always will. And it isn’t a full house – even sentiment can only go so far in this tale, he’d never have sold that many tickets, a ninety-nine year old hasbeen like him! But though it’s only of modest size, the crowd is appreciative. It gives him a standing ovation at the end. And Louis cannot stand to acknowledge it, because he’s dead, he’s had a heart attack, so sudden and so profound he wouldn’t have felt a thing, there was one great thrum in his chest and that was it. Louis dies proud. And they can’t prise his fingers off the piano keys, and they can’t prise his foot off the pedal. It’s as if he’s become fused to the piano itself. There’s no join where the piano ends and the man begins – there is ivory as far as his knuckles, brass spread over his foot. And his back has become wood, all the best mahogany. They’re buried together, the grand maestro and his grand piano.
And, in another story, the Nazis get him. He lives to be an old man, but it’s no good, history catches up with him. The Nazis break down the front door to his house. They find Louis in the drawing room, sitting at the piano. Maybe he’s playing. Maybe he’s just caressing it, like he does every day – because that’s enough now – there’s no more performance left in him, but if he caresses the piano and strokes the wood and kisses at the keyboard there’s still music of a sort. He doesn’t rise for them. He doesn’t even turn around. The soldiers jab the old Jew with their guns, and laugh, and tell the music man to play them something good – something patriotic – Deutschland uber Alles! Louis doesn’t play that, of course. Maybe he even tries to, but Lizbeth won’t let him. Whatever his fingers tell the keys to do, the piano will only play Chopin. And no matter the shouts of anger, the threats, Louis won’t even change the tempo, this is a calm Chopin, something sweet to be savoured, he won’t be rushed or panicked. They shoot him. Or maybe they’re so overcome by the music’s beauty, and the dignity of the old man and his darling piano, maybe they leave him in shame. No, they shoot him, clean, in the back of the head, and then, and then the piano keeps on playing. The Chopin won’t stop. The love just won’t stop, not for them, not because they say so, not because they will it, it’s more powerful than anything they will ever feel in their uniforms and jackboots, this is his grande dame playing, his grand lassie, Miss Grandiosity, in tribute to the man she adored. The piano plays until in rage the soldiers chop it into firewood.
Or, in one last story. And this one seems real to me. This one true. Because what more magic can Louis and Lizbeth expect? In a lifetime that has given them such miracles already?
Louis falls in love. He doesn’t mean to. Oh, don’t blame him, he doesn’t want to. He tells the woman this. He says, I can’t do this, and she says she’ll be patient, and she is, and it’s all right. – And he’s been lonely enough, surely? Hasn’t he had his fill of suffering?
And when she smiles her face doesn’t dimple. But her face does entirely new things he couldn’t even have guessed at.
On their wedding day he feels as if he’s inviting a curse upon his head. But nothing happens. He toasts his new love, and she toasts him, and everyone applauds, and is happy for them as they cut the cake and kiss and dance their first dance as husband and wife.
He doesn’t tour again. That part of his life is over, and besides, his new wife doesn’t love him for his music. This doesn’t make her a bad person. She loves him for other things. But he keeps the piano. He keeps it, and he buries it under a rug, and he locks it away upstairs, and keeps the key hidden.
They have a daughter. He loves his daughter. At this late stage in his life, third time lucky, Louis has at last created a work of art all of his own.
He indulges the girl, but he won’t spoil her. If she wants to ride a horse, he’ll find the money for riding lessons. If she wants a new toy, a new dress, a pet dog, a pet parakeet even, that’s all right, she can have them. But he won’t let her learn the piano. No more music. Enough.
And one day he hears it. He has been out walking with his darling wife, they’ve walked hand in hand through the parks of Paris as they like to do, they’ve smelled the flowers in bloom, they’ve kissed. But it begins to rain, and they hurry home.
And though the locked room is right at the very top of the house, really so very far away, he hears it immediately. Fingers bashing at keys, not knowing how hard or light to be, and the notes straining in protest. All that discordant music. All that ugly din.
He races up the stairs as fast as he can. He has never been so angry. He can feel his heart pounding in his chest, and he thinks of his father, and how angry he always was, and he thinks, is this it? Will I kill myself with my anger too? But he keeps running, and below him he hears his wife distraught, Louis, she cries, go easy on her, Louis, come back!
She’s beating away at the piano so loudly she doesn’t even hear him until he bursts into the room. She’s lifted the rug from the piano lid, but most of the piano is still smothered, it looks now like something old and dead – it looks like something embarrassing. And her hands are dirty, he sees, she hasn’t even washed them, she’ll be smearing her fingerprints all over those gleaming white keys, she hasn’t even put on gloves – and as she hits the keys, plink plonk plunk, in any order, she keeps time by kicking at the wood – sitting on the stool and so short she can’t even reach the floor, her legs dangling in mid-air and scuffing the side of the piano as she finds some sort of rhythm.
She turns around now, and she still doesn’t know, still doesn’t see he’s angry. She smiles at him, as if she’s been clever, as if she’s just uncovered a big secret – there’s music in the world! And her smile is so big, and no, the cheeks don’t dimple for her either – but that smile certainly has something good about it.
“Papa,” she says. “Teach me! Teach me how to do it!”
When he puts his hands on her he still doesn’t know what he’s going to do. But he lifts her off the stool gently, ever so gently, and she laughs. He sets her down safely on the floor. He pulls the rug off the piano, it comes off in one hard tug, and the piano doesn’t look dead any more, or embarrassing – it’s old, certainly, but that’s all right, he’s old too. And he sits down upon the stool. And lifts little Lizbeth up on to his knee. And begins to play for her.