A Perfect Cadence
Dear Miss McCreedy, the letter began, Please present yourself for interview at the above address on Thursday next at 2.00 p.m. Yours sincerely, E Gilmour.
If letters had faces, I thought, this one would be bereft of a smile. Still, Edith Gilmour would be in her early nineties by now, so a little frostiness might be forgiven. She was also one of the finest concert pianists of the second half of the twentieth century, and I was one of her greatest admirers.
I’d spotted her advertisement for a female live-in companion in the personal column of The Times. The duties included playing piano, reading aloud and accompanying her on days out. No domestic work was required. She stipulated one month’s trial period ‘to ensure compatibility’ and requested a hand-written letter of application.
It seemed the answer to a prayer. I was twenty-four, out of work and needed to get away, at least for a while. Tony and I still got along well, but our relationship was in the doldrums and we agreed that some time apart would be good for both of us.
Five days later, I rang the doorbell of a large Victorian house in the mid-Wales market town of Brecon, a place I knew well for its annual jazz festival. She opened the door to me personally, standing erect and looking nowhere near her age.
She greeted me politely and escorted me into a large room that seemed to serve the triple purpose of lounge, library and music room. Bookshelves covered one entire wall and the chairs and sofa were tastefully mismatched in that style I believe is called ‘shabby chic’. The centrepiece, however, was a full-size Steinway concert grand that made me drool with envy.
As we sat opposite each other, I glanced discreetly at her hands resting on her lap. She’d laced her fingers together, so the arthritis hadn’t crippled them, but they were clearly no longer fit for purpose.
“Would you like some refreshment before we begin, Penelope?”
“No, thank you,” I said. My stomach was far too jittery to accept food or drink. “Most people call me Penny, by the way.”
“I’m sure they do, but I shall call you Penelope. Now, what are you going to play for me?”
I chose a Chopin prelude, sat at the keyboard and played, doing the piece, I believe, reasonable justice.
“Hmm! Satisfactory,” she said when I’d finished.
But her words came too late. I’d glanced at her reflection in the polished fall board of the piano as I ended the piece and, for just a heartbeat, her face betrayed her. For I saw there quite clearly the admiration for my playing that some malevolent aspect of her nature would not allow her to express.
“The quavers were rather hurried,” she continued, “and you’re over fond of the sustaining pedal...”
As she went on, I found myself becoming quite angry. Maestro or no, we were not going to hit it off, and I decided to nip this thing in the bud. When she finished, I made a point of closing the piano lid with exaggerated softness and stood.
“Ah well, if I don’t meet your requirements, Miss Gilmour, perhaps I’d best leave.” I looked at my watch. “I have rather a long journey ahead, so the sooner I’m on my way, the better.”
“Don’t be tiresome, Penelope, and sit back down. And you can dispense with that Miss Gilmour nonsense. Call me Edith.”
Four imperatives in a row! But I detected a tone of conciliation in her voice and felt my anger ebb a little. I sat on the piano stool, facing her.
“If I’m frugal with my praise, Penelope, I won’t apologise; I’ve seen too many musicians grow complacent from too many pats on the back. And satisfactory means just that. If I’d meant unsatisfactory, I’d have said so.
“Now,” she said, “let’s try something else. We’ll stay with Chopin, I think. Do you know his Prelude in D-flat, the celebrated ‘Raindrop’?”
I nodded, swung my legs around the stool and played, caring little now about her opinion.
“That was better,” she said, when I turned to face her. “A little too much rubato, perhaps, but that’s an unfortunate characteristic of many pianists who tackle Chopin.”
Just then, the telephone rang in the hall.
“Ah! That will be Mrs Wade for my shopping list,” she said. “I’ll be a few minutes with her instructions, so do please look around.”
I walked to the French windows and looked out on to a spacious garden. A fish pond dominated the foreground before a long lawn sloped down to the banks of the Usk. Wild flowers grew freely and a bird-feeder hung from a beech. Beyond the river were the rolling hills of the famed Brecon Beacons.
Turning back to the room, my attention was drawn to a black-and-white photograph of a rather good looking young man in uniform. As I approached the mantelpiece, I recognised the insignia of an American GI. His smile seemed rather self-conscious, and I imagined him laughing with relief as soon as the snap had been taken.
Edith came back into the room and stood beside me. “An old acquaintance,” she said.
Then a curious thing happened. She smiled at him. Not in the way we might look at a photograph and smile at a memory. She smiled at him, as if he had just said something amusing. Edith Gilmour had never married, but I felt certain now that she had known love in her life – and that love was still very much alive.
“Right,” she said, “I’d best show you your room.”
She cast me a perplexed look. “Wasn’t it clear in the advertisement? You have your own private quarters: bedroom-cum-study and bathroom.”
“You mean I have the job?”
She winced. “Please don’t use that vulgar word, Penelope. I’m inviting you into my home as my friend. If you’re agreeable, that is.”
She suggested a trip into Brecon the following morning, and after a breakfast of coddled eggs, toast and coffee – prepared to perfection by the homely Mrs Wade – we got into my ancient Ford Focus and set off on the short ride to town. I didn’t mention I came to Brecon every year for the festival; I hadn’t got the measure of the woman yet and was uncertain of her opinion of jazz.
We strolled along the High Street to the Market Hall, which I recognised as one of the festival venues. Today, however, it was put to its primary purpose of trading. Edith paused at a stall selling model cars and drew my attention to a black, open-topped model almost a foot long.
“Look, Penelope! I travelled in one of these in Berlin with Herbert.”
Herbert Von Karajan was arguably the finest conductor ever, and I knew Edith had performed under his direction with the Berlin Philharmonic. He was also an enthusiast of fast and expensive cars.
The stall owner observed her interest and smiled. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.
“Indeed,” said Edith. “I was just telling my friend here that I rode in one just like this in 1957.”
“You might well have done, Madam. It’s a Mercedes-Benz 300 Adenauer III, first produced in 1954.” He gave a condescending grin, adding, “but I wouldn’t expect you to know that.”
Edith treated him to a sweet smile that a more perceptive man would instantly have seen contradicted the benevolence it ostensibly conveyed.
“Really? And how many of these fifties models were equipped with synchromesh boxes?” she asked.
The stall owner frowned. It was obvious that his knowledge of the vehicle extended no further than the information he’d memorised from the packaging, but he was one of those men who seem congenitally unable to form the words, I don’t know.
“None of them were,” he gambled.
“I think that should be none of them was,” said Edith, “but I wouldn’t expect you to know that. What I thought you might have known is that the 300 Adenauer had an overhead cam with an aluminium head linked to a four-speed synchromesh gear box.”
I almost broke into a trot keeping up with her. When we got back outside, it had begun to rain and neither of us had thought to bring an umbrella.
“There’s a delightful tea shop just along here where we can shelter,” she said.
Head down, I walked briskly along the street a few metres before I noticed Edith was no longer at my side. When I looked back, I saw she’d stopped to talk to a young man sheltering in a shop arcade with a pile of Big Issues at his feet.
Oh no! I thought. Were we going to leave a trail of broken male egos behind us wherever we went? But no; I saw that they were chatting pleasantly. Then she took some notes from her purse, thrust them into his hand and turned to join me again. I couldn’t see the amount, but the young man’s face was a study in incredulity.
The tea shop was, as Edith said, delightful. Chequered linen cloths covered the tables and all the waitresses were uniformed. Like the model car we’d just looked at, it seemed to belong to a bygone age, the automatic cash register its only visible concession to modernity.
I blew on my coffee and watched the rain patter against the latticed window. “Edith, what’s a synchromesh gear box?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” she said, spreading strawberry jam on a scone with surprising dexterity. “Herbert was a magnificent conductor, but he could bore one so with his talk of cars and motor cycles.”
I offered to read to her that evening, but she shook her head. “Let’s just chat,” she said, patting the sofa beside her.
I looked around the room again. “This is such a lovely place, Edith,” I said, but she evidently mistook me to mean Brecon.
“You should see it in August, during the festival,” she said.
I sat up and stared at her. “Do you like jazz, Edith?”
“Good Lord, yes! As Miles Davis said, it’s the most exciting experience you can have with your clothes on.”
She stood and brought back the photograph of the GI.
“His name was Edward,” she said. “He was billeted in my parents’ home in 1942 when I was eighteen. I took an instant dislike to him. A typical brash American with a national superiority complex. He kept inviting me to call him Eddie, but I insisted on Edward.
“I was already in training at the Royal Academy and was practising a particularly difficult Bach fugue on our baby grand. When I finished, I heard applause from the doorway. I turned to see him leaning against the frame and smiling. I felt sure he hadn’t the remotest idea of what he was applauding. I stood and was about to barge past him when he spoke.
“‘Bach!’ he said. ‘The most beautiful music this side of heaven.’ His American pronunciation, Bark, rankled, but I began to think that perhaps I had misjudged him.
“‘May I?’ he said, and, without waiting for answer, stepped into the room, sat at the piano and lifted the lid.
“In contrast to the technicalities of Bach, he played something melodically very simple, Irving Berlin’s How Deep is the Ocean? But my God, Penelope, how he played it! It took my breath away. I’d never heard anything like it in my life.
“I knew of jazz, of course, but for me that was the New Orleans music of Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong. Wonderful music, but what Edward was playing bore it no resemblance. The rhythm, the syncopation, but most of all, the chords.”
“The bebop revolution?”
“Precisely! It opened up a whole new world of musical possibility for me. Or so I thought. But I was no good at improvising. I’m just a note reader, when all said and done.
“We made love only once,” she said, “before he was sent off to Europe, and I heard nothing more from him. Then in 1946 I received a heavy parcel with a lovely letter from his mother in Philadelphia. He’d been reported missing, presumed killed. She said he’d spoken of me in the only letter he’d managed to send her, and that he’d intended to ask me to be his wife when he returned. She enclosed this photograph of him, along with his entire collection of jazz records that he wanted me to have should anything happen to him.
“I knew then that I would never give myself to another man. It wasn’t a decision, Penelope; it was a prediction. I just knew there wouldn’t be another man, and there hasn’t been.”
We sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, each of us left to her thoughts. Mine turned briefly to Tony and I wondered what, if any, future we had together.
Then Edith stood to replace the photo on the mantelpiece and returned with what looked like a silver cigarette box.
“I notice you haven’t unpacked all your things yet, Penelope.”
A few boxes of my personal belonging were still on the landing outside my room. “I’d rather not make myself too comfortable yet, Edith. There’s a month to go. And … Well, I’m in a difficult relationship at the moment…”
She put a finger to my lips. “No need to say another word. Take all the time you need. Just understand that, from my point of view, the month is up already.”
“Thank you,” I said, and pecked her on the cheek. It was the end of only our first full day together, but how things had changed in that short time.
She opened the silver box and drew out a packet of cigarette papers, three of which she proceeded clumsily to gum together.
“Edith! I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t – normally. But this is the only way I can take my medication. Be a dear and roll it for me; these fingers of mine…”
She passed me the box, and there was more than just tobacco inside. “Medication? Edith, this is cannabis!”
“The two expressions aren’t mutually exclusive, Penelope. And it really is the only thing that relieves the pain in my fingers. Besides, it’s actually skunk, which is very strong, so just a little, if you please.”
My grandfather used to smoke hand-rolled tobacco, and as a girl I’d sit and roll dozens for him at a time. Edith inspected my handiwork, nodded her approval, then lit up with a lighter she took from the silver box. She inhaled, then passed the spliff to me.
I kicked off my shoes and brought my feet up beside me on the sofa. “You could always ask Mrs Wade to bake it in a cake for you,” I said. We looked at each other and began laughing at the thought of the poor woman’s reaction.
The evening wore on as we smoked and chatted, until the clock in the hall struck midnight.
“Oh dear,” said Edith. “Is that the time?”
I swung my legs back to the floor but that was as far as they’d go.
“Edith! I can’t move.”
“Of course you can.”
“No, I can’t.”
She rose, took my hands and pulled me to my feet, and with her help I staggered to the door like a new-born giraffe. We reached the staircase and I began to climb on my hands and knees, Edith pushing my backside up one step at a time. Then I began to giggle again.
“What’s funny now?”
“The way you dealt with that man in the market today.”
“Wanker!” she said.
“Pity his father wasn’t,” I replied, and neither of us could climb another step for fully five minutes.
Somehow I got to my room, undressed and climbed into bed. I pulled the duvet up under my chin and felt the soft breeze on my cheek from the open window. Moonlit reflections of the fish pond rippled across the ceiling and I heard the faraway laughter of late-night revellers on Brecon Bridge.
I thought briefly of Tony, but his memory was pushed swiftly aside by the events of the day, playing back to me in a chaotic pageant of impossible images. I closed my eyes and all felt right with the world.
I woke early and surprisingly refreshed. After I’d showered and dressed, I left a note for Edith to say I’d popped into town for a few things and would see her at lunchtime. The truth was I needed time alone to think. There was no question of my fondness for Tony, nor of his for me, but was there – could there ever be – that intensity of feeling that had existed between Edith and Edward?
When I got back, I saw her through the window, replenishing the bird feeder in the garden. I took the model Mercedes from its box and placed it on the kitchen table where she couldn’t fail to see it when she came in.
I was in my room when I heard the squeal of delight. She climbed the stairs and walked along the landing to my open door.
“Penelope! How thoughtful…”
She stopped abruptly at the sight of me. I was seated cross-legged on the floor surrounded by CDs, wrinkled paperbacks and empty packing cases, my fingers covered in dust and grease.
We smiled at each other and I held up my framed poster of Dave Brubeck. “Where do you think this would look best, Edith?”