Grace Notes by Frank McMahon
He sat down slowly and deliberately on the wicker chair beside the bed. A wisp of vapour floated from the cup of blackcurrant tea which sat untouched on the bedside table. Silence seemed to gather from the corners of the room and hover above the counterpane.
A breath of wind stirred the curtains. A thin shaft of light illuminated the brown corduroy pattern of his trousers. He breathed out slowly.
His sister Flora had briefed him before he had arrived and made him repeat it after he had unpacked.
“ This is the most important part, Marcus. If you don’t get it exactly right Mother will keep reminding you about it for the rest of the day. So, ready?”
He enumerated each part of the routine, or was it a ceremony, starting with the thumb of his right hand. “ Step one: take in her fruit tea, blackcurrant or raspberry in the Mason’s Ironstone cup and saucer. Step two.”
“ Where does it go?”
“ On her bedside table. Step two: turn on the radio, make sure it’s RadioThree. Isn’t it preset already?”
Flora shook her head.” You can’t be sure she hasn’t fiddled with it. I once got Classic FM. Oh! You’d think I had murdered Mozart. Step three? ”
Marcus resumed. “Bring in the newspaper so that she can read the obituaries and music reviews.”
“And be prepared to answer questions or give opinions on anything she reads out.”
He looked at his sister. “What do I know about Kurtag or Ligeti?”
“Improvise. Step four?”
“Bring in her post and make sure her portable writing tray has pen, paper and envelopes in cases s he wants to reply.”
“Very good. And finally?”
“When she rises, she’ll have fruit and yoghurt at the kitchen table.”
“And then you can relax. Right, Marcus, I’ll see you in a week’s time. Thanks again for filling in for me.”
“You’re welcome. Enjoy your holiday, Flora.”
“I certainly will except I shan’t know what to do in the mornings.”
The breeze rustled the curtains again and he looked up with a slight start before pulling a sheet of paper from his left-hand trouser pocket. Mother’s morning routine which he had performed faultlessly.
He had brought in her tea and waited before turning on the radio. He had then left the room to collect the paper. Returning, he saw she had not moved. He touched her hand. It was cold. There was no pulse in her wrist nor when he felt her neck. No sound of breathing. No movement when he opened her eyelids. He turned off the radio. The Waldstein Sonata.She would have grumbled at that.
“Far too romantic! Who wants sentimental music?”
He lifted her right hand again, examining the strong slender fingers, slightly swollen with arthritis. Three days ago she had played two or three Bach preludes and fugues, nearly disguising the occasional mis-fingering with the conviction of her performance. He had liked Bach but in a cerebral way for its mathematical rigour and intricacy. Sometimes when he was teaching maths to the six form, he would play recordings several times over until they could discover the patterns.
He stood up, left the bedroom and went to the piano in the large living room. Shelves were full of scores. A few had been left on the piano and he picked through these. Bartok, Prokofiev, Schoenberg. How many times had she played this loud percussive music when he and his sisters were growing up?
Of course, they all had to learn to play the piano. Hours of practising scales and if you fluffed one you had to start again. “This is E flat minor, not G sharp!” Tears. Frustration. It became a relief when she was away performing at concerts or recitals. Practice was never enforced then.
“This is how you do it!” Her favourite phrase. She had the talent to master all forty eight major and minor keys, the portal to the vast piano repertoire. That was the point. She had the talent. Would she have made it to the very first rank if she had not had children? He had never asked Flora or Irene if they had ever felt as he did, loved but inconveniently requiring food and clothes and baths and education.
And now she had died, quite unexpectedly. Flora had warned him she was getting a little frail but she was still, indisputably, the mistress of the house, still vigorous. Only yesterday she had declaimed,” I wish we lived nearer the Cotswolds then you could take me to listen to Alfred Brendel. I see he’s giving a lecture on Beethoven, the last three sonatas. He came to one of my concerts and was very complimentary. But I could never see why he liked Schubert so much!”
He walked slowly around the room at the many framed photographs on the walls and shelves. His mother Virginia with other musicians and conductors. Was that Daniel Barenboim? After two or three minutes he began to search for family photos but he could find only one. His father was standing almost shyly on the right-hand side, his wife and children occupying the middle.
It was only after he had left home for university that he began to realise how much their father had been the central figure in the life of the family, playing the major role in a minor key. A calm steady man, the main partner in the law firm, respected by all their clients in Stamford and beyond.
And affectionately remembered. His funeral had been a major local event attracting hundreds of mourners. He smiled as he recalled his mother’s reaction when she learned that her husband had requested in his will that she play his favourite Schubert Impromptu. He could imagine the wry smile on his father’s face as he wrote that request. Or was it a requirement?
And now there would be Mother’s funeral. Marcus began to imagine the scale of it. Former pupils, musicians, familyof course, local dignitaries, the press. He might have to cancel his holiday plans, a group cultural tour of Northern Italy. Later, there would be decisions about the future of the family home, the house of music, built not so much of bricks and stone but of scales, fugues, canons, sonatas, marches and yet more fugues.
The grandfather clock in the corner had just registered half past eight. He supposed he ought to tell someone what had happened.
Going into the kitchen, he made himself a coffee, pouring into it a small measure of brandy.