Fiction Month 2

       In Part 2 of ‘Chalet Concerto’, Anne finds a sympathetic ear in Angela, to whom she begins to open up. As she starts to tell her story it takes on a darker note…

Chalet Concerto Part 2

         ‘I couldn’t help noticing your hands, Anne. They are beautiful. I’d love to have nice hands. Mine look like piles of sausages compared to yours!’
She sniffed, spreading her long hands out as if she was going to do a magic trick. Her voice was small. ‘I was a concert pianist once, a long time ago.’
I leaned towards her. ‘How wonderful! I’ve never met a concert pianist! Do you still play?’ She shook her head and was silent, staring down.
‘First time here, is it? We’ve been coming here for seventeen years, Dave and me; always this time of year and always to this chalet. Dave likes the golf and I’m happy enough. We get to meet up with folks we know and there’s a bit of entertainment in the evenings. It’s Bingo tonight and Karaoke tomorrow. Do you fancy coming along, Anne?’ I realised I was prattling but I couldn’t seem to stop. I don’t mind my own company but I do like a gossip when I get the chance, although I was beginning to think Anne was not much of a one to chat.
She put her teacup on the table. ‘I’ve left my husband’ she whispered. Just like that!
I waited for her to continue but she sat silent. ‘Oh’ I said. ‘Did you want to tell me why? You don’t need to. I know what husbands can be like. I’m luckier than most, I suppose, what with Dave being out on the golf course so much and staying for drinks with his mates. He falls asleep snoring most nights before I’ve finished cleaning my teeth!’ I grinned at her. But I was blathering.
She looked away, across the table at the rows of chalets. ‘I couldn’t stand to be in the house with him a minute longer.’
I nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging way.
‘My husband is French. He is a conductor. After he met me at a recital he pursued me. This was thirty years ago. We married. We had a son. I gave up my career.’ She paused.
‘But children are such a blessing, aren’t they? Our two girls came here with us for years but it’s not exotic enough for them now they’ve grown up. They want to go abroad-Majorca or Florida. I still miss them but I’m hoping one day the grandchildren will come with us. I haven’t told Dave that though!’ I was jabbering again.
‘Our son left to go and train to be an army officer. Sandhurst. My husband wanted him to have a career in music.’ She shrugged. ‘They have to be what they want, not what we want.’
‘I never had what you’d call a career’ I told her. ‘I work in a garden centre. I’ve got no qualifications but I do know a lot about plants. I love it; that’s the main thing I reckon. You have to like what you do.
But you haven’t said why you left, Anne.’
‘My husband travelled for his work with orchestras. I stayed at home to look after our son in our Bayswater apartment. I played the piano a little when I could but without the rigour and demands of an orchestra I wasn’t able to maintain a performance standard. When my husband came home he derided me for my lack of polish. He began to sneer. My son started school. You’d think I’d have had more opportunity then but somehow I lacked the will. My fingers became stiff.’
She flexed her fingers with their long, tapered nails. They were unadorned except for a pale gold band on her wedding finger. ‘I became concerned only with domestic matters. I cooked. I looked after our son. When he was at home my husband would sometimes invite associates to dinner, soloists, composers and so on. These occasions became a cause of great anxiety for me because he would badger me for days about the menu, about the décor, about my appearance. I worried that nothing would be good enough, that I was never good enough. The dinner party conversations would concern recent tours, new compositions, the benefits of one soloist over another. I began to be marginalised-as if I’d never been part of the musical world. One evening a principal violinist turned to me to ask me what I did and before I could reply he said ‘Oh you don’t work, do you?’ as if a career was the only defining aspect of a life.’
‘Hold on a minute, Anne’ I said. ‘I think we need more tea, don’t you? Or would you prefer something stronger? How about a glass of White? I’ve got a nice Chardonnay in the fridge.’ I dashed in and returned with two full glasses and a bowl of crisps.
‘So there you were’, I prompted, ‘at home, feeling a bit left out, I suppose.’
‘I didn’t mind taking a back seat.’ She took a cautious sip of the wine. ‘but he began to find fault with my housekeeping and my appearance. He seemed to have lost respect for me, seemed to have forgotten who I was and who I’d been. He started criticizing my hosting skills, my cooking, my choices, my conversation. He undermined me, suggesting we get caterers in.’
I had a little laugh to myself about that one. I wouldn’t mind Dave suggesting we got caterers in, especially after a cold day at work. Then her story took a darker turn.
‘Some of the visitors were women, of course and many of them single. We had a small studio apartment in Paris where he stayed and I began to realise he was having affairs, using the Paris flat as a base. But I couldn’t really care too much about it because I knew by then I didn’t love him; that my feelings for him had died with his contempt of me.’
I topped up our glasses, noticing that the wine was loosening her tongue.
‘When our son was ten my husband told me of his intention to send him away to school, to a conservatoire near Paris where he would study music. I was horrified. My son had become my raison d’etre, my purpose in life. I railed against the idea until my husband became enraged, shouting, threatening me physically so that I was really afraid-for myself and for the boy.’
‘And your son, what did he think?’ I wondered why she never once called her husband or her son by name. It sounded odd.
She sighed. ‘He was a tall, confident boy, studious. His teacher said he excelled in sports activities and enjoyed organising his class-mates into games. He was always volunteering to help others. He showed no interest in singing or learning an instrument. When anyone asked him what he wanted to become he’d say he wanted to join the armed forces. When his father told him about the music school he became withdrawn, taking meals in his room. His schoolwork deteriorated, worrying his teacher, who called us in to discuss matters. It was she who convinced my husband that our son was not musically inclined and explained what his strengths were. My husband relented and he was sent to a private school as a day pupil, where he worked hard and achieved three ‘A’s at A-level, easily gaining himself a place at Sandhurst, which was all he wanted.
I was lonely when he went but I was relieved that he was out of the flat, out of the poisonous atmosphere and away from his tyrant of a father. I spent my time reading, playing a little piano, walking and visiting galleries. Then my husband’s behaviour changed. He started arriving home without warning, often late at night. It would be obvious that he’d been drinking as he’d blunder in, swearing and tripping over the furniture. He’d order me to get up if I was asleep, demanding meals and drinks. I lived in fear of his return to the apartment, never knowing when it would be.’
‘So you left?’

‘Chalet Concerto’ continues next week. Part 1 is in the previous [last week’s] post. Anne continues with her story and Angela makes the unwise decision to intervene…

 

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A Life of Christmases

The nature of Christmas changes as you go through life but the Christmases of your first memories stick with you into your dotage.
I can still remember the fever of excitement of going to bed on Christmas Eve having left one of my father’s woolly socks at the end of the bed and of waking with the heavy, crackly weight of a stuffed sock on my feet. I remember how mercilessly I was teased by my brothers because I’d christened my new doll ‘Dereline’. Derelict Dereline became their chant for the next few weeks until they tired of my wails.
Then there was the year that my longed-for book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was there, an oblong wedge along the ribbed sock, above the toe which contained a satsuma and a sixpence wrapped in newspaper as well as a walnut.
There were always family gatherings, when more gifts were bestowed [Fuzzy Felt was a new innovation in toy technology then] and we’d be coerced into writing a list in preparation for thank -you letters.
Once we were teenagers the obligation to spend the day with our parents jostled with the desire to be with our friends, others’ homes often seeming to be more fun, more welcoming or more riotous than our own. We no longer wanted to sit around watching the Queen’s speech or playing pencil and paper games with my parents, preferring the anarchic hilarity of drinking games in darkened rooms and puerile jokes and tricks.
Later, as a student I’d often need to work over the Christmas period, a requirement that would set me free from family obligations. Later still marriage and parenthood provided new difficulties as the emotional tugs of two sets of parents clashed.
Parenthood allows you to relive your own childhood festivities for a time as you work to create the magic you experienced yourself. You stay up late wrapping up small gifts and tiptoeing into bedrooms to leave a stocking or a sack. You remember to eat the mince pie, down the sherry and bite into the carrot that was all left as an offering before falling into your own bed for what will be a ludicrously short sleep. You are rudely woken in the small hours by electrified tots jumping all over you…
Having assumed you will never get enough sleep again the tots morph into teenagers, rarely making an appearance before midday and no longer excited by Christmas stockings. They resume their solitary commune with screens and games while you jostle the pans to make a gargantuan dinner they may or may not want. It is clear that mince pies and Christmas puddings will die a death, as subsequent generations reject traditional fare for chocolate concoctions and ice cream.
Then they are gone. They make their own lives [you hope] and in what seems like a blink, have their own children. Your role as a grandparent is an attempt at non-judgmental support. You provide when requested. You step back when not.
In an extraordinary twist and for the first time in twenty-one years, this year we are not playing host on the day. We’ll be celebrating with a late start, brunch, a good walk and dinner in a local hostelry. Magic!

Fledglings, Families and Feelings

Parenthood is an expensive, glorious, heart-breaking, exhausting, rewarding, demoralising, satisfying and confusing state. There is the fever of anticipation [whether planned or not], the anxiety, the draining tiredness, the anxiety, the frustrations, the pleasures and the…yes…anxiety. And then just when you think you have safely despatched your duty, done your best, got them to fledge, downsized, bought the yacht, booked the world tour, had a lie-in,the inevitable happens-they return!

There is no model for this in nature-although I believe female elephants stay in their families [the boys must go and fend for themselves and prepare for fighting and finding mates]. Baby birds do not return to their nests when they are unable to find worms for themselves, young lions must go out and seek their own gazelle to slaughter and sheep may safely graze unaided once weaned.

The returning, grown-up offspring is a double edged sword. You can no longer gripe about never hearing from them or seeing them. On the other hand you must reclaim the room they once slept in, played and made a mess of, which may now be a beautiful guest room, study, motorbike disassembly workshop, dressing room or pottery studio [or simply a repository for all the items you have no idea what to do with]. You may no longer choose to loll around on the sofa with a bowl of cornflakes and watch ‘Eastenders’ rather than making dinner. You cannot slouch about upstairs ‘au natural’ as the unedifying sight of your [=my] ageing physique is likely to be frightening, and/or sick-making at the very least.

If you are lucky enough to possess multiple rooms with TVs you can avoid conflicts over programmes, although you still can expect scoffing over your choices and disbelief over your ignorance on the subject of films/actors/music from any time from the last twenty years [or more].

There will also be stashes of the kind of snacks you had sought to avoid since children no longer shared your house. You open the fridge and the shelves are stacked with chocolate. The cupboards house multi-packs of Cheesy What-nots or Monster Crunch.

Over time you adapt. You squidge up. You make room on the sofa, in the wardrobe and at the table. You increase your grocery shopping, attempt to avoid the chocolate and try to remember who is the current Dr Who. You begin to appreciate the benefits of having an on-site computer technician who can reclaim lost documents, eradicate malevolent, lurking viruses and show you for the hundredth time how to play your music, not to mention the opportunities to gossip about other members of the family and take girly shopping trips with intermittent coffee and cake.

One day, though it is ended. That’s it. You’ve removed the stabiliser wheels and let go of the saddle.  The room is cleared, cleaned of belongings and fluff; reverted into its original ‘guest room’ status. Bare, clean and sad.