The classroom door opens and Jane pokes her head in. “It’s Joy’s turn for piano lessons.”
I grab my dog-eared, second-hand music book from the depths of the ancient desk and hurry across the flagstoned quadrangle to Sister Macrena’s music room. Running is forbidden at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, but a cross between a scuttle and an Olympic power walk can get you there just as fast, just not very elegantly.
The peeling green paint on the warped panels of the door sheds another flake as I fling it open and gasp my apologies to the wizened prune of a nun, hunched in her wooden chair at the treble end of the keyboard. Sister Macrena’s sour expression deepens into distaste as I slam the door and slide onto the piano stool. No exciting, twirling, padded stool that stands on legs carved in ball-and-claw, that moves and adjusts to the finicky requirements of each performer. This is a heavy boxy shape that contains a multitude of music books, which make it too heavy for fine adjustments, or any adjustments at all. Obviously made for adults, it is too low for me, and too far out from the keyboard for my 10-year-old arms. But I am stuck with it. It is fine for the older girls and therefore is fine for the young ones too.
I run my fingers over the seat, and see the shape of hundreds of bottoms worn into the dark, dirty varnish, leaving a double moon of lighter wood. There are two grooves, worn by the rear suspenders of school stockings. I wonder what they did to the tender legs they graced if they could do that to wood.
“JOY!!!” The conductor’s baton that Sister uses to point out the mistakes I make crashes down on the piano frame at the end of the keyboard. The wood there is worn away and splintered into a shallow depression. How many batons has she broken there? I know of two, and the students were broken as well.
“Fur Elise – have you done your practice?”
“Yes, Sister” My allotted time for practice is two half-hour sessions per week on the school piano. My family can’t afford a piano for me, but being a pianist is an accomplishment much to desired, and daddy has promised me a piano of my own for when I start High School. Post WW2 Africa was doing it tough.
“Well then – show me, come on, come on!”
I shuffle forward on my precarious perch, lean in to bring my hands over the keys, and I stop. The keys are ivory, all shades from cream to gold to a nasty yellowy-brown. The tops of the keys are stained, chipped and cracked. They are like the set of teeth displayed by Sister Eustochium on the rare occasions that she smiles. I giggle at the memory of my form teacher trying to ingratiate herself with the Patron of the school, whose daughter Rosaleen is in my class. People who don’t smile naturally, just shouldn’t.
“Joy, come ON girl, what are you waiting for – you only have half an hour.”
My hands adopt the elegant curve desired by Sister, wrists raised, fingers slightly curved, and touch down in the dreamy first notes of Fur Elise. I sway slightly as the music takes me, imagining a Concert Grand, a spotlight, a hushed audience. I lose my balance and slide off the stool.
“JOOOOOY!” The baton crashes down at the end of the keyboard, and I do a hoist and wriggle back onto the stool. “AGAIN!” She pokes the sheet music with her baton.
I struggle through the piece, which has lost its hold on my imagination, and my performance becomes, to my ears and no doubt Sister’s, laboured and pedestrian.
“Hhhhmmm! Let’s hear the Barcarole.”
This is more difficult for me – I have to stretch my hands over octaves, and I have very small hands for a girl my age.
“Left hand only – GO!”
My tiny hand strains to span the cracked ivory. It sweats, and I watch my fingers leave damp marks, joining the sweat of countless other girls of all ages who have laboured for Sister Macrena. I perform a scale of octaves, and every time I hit a note, the end of my thumb hits the note to the left of it as well. I cannot span an octave, nor could I do it last week or the week before. My left hand is too small, though my right hand can just, just, just make an octave. Girls my age play music with octaves: so must I, to keep up with my peers.
“What is WRONG with you? Here give me your hand.”
Sister rises from her chair, though she is no taller standing up than she was sitting down, and waddles behind me to my left side and seizes the offending member. She stretches my left thumb out and back from my fingers until there is a loud SNAP. My thumb joint, where it joins the hand, has suddenly become double-jointed, and the thumb now sticks out at an odd angle.
“ HhhhhHmmmm! Try again.”
My hand is numb. I try the Barcarole again, but it is no better, in fact, my thumb now catches more of the unwanted notes, as it is turned back and the ball of the thumb is what makes contact with the keys.
“Both hands now – from the top.”
Sister starts the metronome that sits next to a small clock on top of the piano. I watch the weighted pendulum set a rhythm that I know is far too fast for me. I take it in, lower my hands, and begin.
My hands come down hard but slow, turning the sway of the Barcarole into a dirge.
“Faster, keep up. Listen to the metronome, girl! It’s not a funeral march.”
I struggle on. My left hand is starting to hurt, and the thumb doesn’t seem to be attached to anything that could control it. At last, I reach the bottom of the page, and to my horror, my left hand still has a bar left to play. I play it, with no right-hand accompaniment, just the pum, pum of a lonely left hand that cannot reach an octave. There are no notes left to play. My hands lie quiet on the keys, limp and ashamed.
“THWACK” The baton comes down on the backs of my hands.
“You are impossible. I cannot teach such a child.”
I slowly slip off the stool and huddle under the keyboard, gazing sightlessly at the brass pedals. The loud one has a hole worn through the middle of it by the right feet of generations of girls who could actually reach the pedals and were allowed to use them. I will never manage either of those milestones at this school.
I wrap my arms around my knees and turn my face to the worn wooden panel above the pedals. I see the grain of the wood, the cracking varnish, some scuff marks where little ones have kicked the piano because their legs are too short for anything else. A breeze comes under the ill-fitting door to the room and blows a dust ball mixed with hair and dandelion seeds. It scuttles out from between the pedals, then retreats back to safety on the next breeze.
Tears are flowing unchecked down my face, to create a patch of darkness on the skirt of my uniform, drawn tight over my knees. The darkness grows.
“Come OUT of there you abominable child.” Sister pokes at me with the baton, but she cannot reach me beyond the heavy stool. There is a loud THWACK as she hits her favourite spot on the end of the keyboard, and two parts of a broken baton fall to the floor. She slams out of the room.
An eternity later a prefect comes for me. We sit in a dusty store-room and I cry as I try to tell her about it all, but words don’t come. Just a wail and a curtain of tears. Later she takes me to the bus and I make my way home.
The next term I go to a private teacher, and my piano arrives a couple of years earlier than expected. I never overcome the deficiency of having small hands, not the way my left hand always plays slower than my right. My left thumb joint remains bent backwards. But I enjoy playing my piano. I play slower than most, worse than most, but I enjoy it much more than most. Most of all – I PLAY THE PIANO. I just don’t play octaves.