Excerpts from ‘K’ a novella about a fictional composer written C 1975

Setting: mainly in the North Midlands during the early 1970’s

Excerpt 1

For the past few days it has rained hard and I have had K much in my thoughts. It is on autumn days such as these that I seem to remember him most clearly, for the events I shall describe have a sad quality about them, like the sight of my garden and the surrounding landscape; wind-swept, green-brown leaves everywhere, the sky hidden from view by thick, threatening clouds which let fall their rain, then thin out to reveal patches of sharp blue sky. These colours inspire the artist in me, and since I have the time I shall record K’s story as I recall it, for I feel a duty to do so. Yet, why I should, when I think of the immensity of the sky beyond those clouds, the distances, the strangeness of those eternities, I cannot say. Often I ask how a small thing such as one human life, however great its accomplishment or potential, can be worthy of serious consideration; all one can give are words and chatter; one can never know another, let alone oneself. Yet, because I loved K as my friend, I feel my pen compelling me onward. Two years after his death he still seems the most memorable person to have entered my life, though Jenny, my wife, would doubtless disagree. It was on me he so often depended and it was I who so often let him down; this is why I speak of feeling duty-bound. But where to begin?

Perhaps in this room, for it was here we came together on many occasions. A very ordinary room: tables, chairs, a sofa, a large bookcase, some of my paintings brightening the wallpaper walls, a pleasant view from the windows, cosy in winter, cool in summer. Opposite to my writing-desk a piano calls K to mind, for it was here he spent much of his time when he came to visit or stay. The instrument is silent now, but in my mind I hear its sounds as he coaxed some work from its depths. I see his small form before it, his back to me, his dark hair uncombed, ruffled, his long arms groping python-like for some mysterious sound which he had perhaps just composed and which required my favourable opinion to endorse its existence.....I listen intently, my mind given over to what he is playing, for I know if I do not like his piece I shall have to give satisfactory reasons for my dislike. If I like the work, a warm reception will be mine, and we will toast the work’s birth with cognac or some other spirit, and he will sit beside me, or perhaps Jenny, and tell us how he came to conceive the piece. If my opinion is unfavourable, his careworn, youthful face will darken, as if a great cloud were hiding the sun from view, and an intense unhappiness will gush forth, as from a dam that has burst its banks, and engulf the pleasure of the evening. It will be necessary for me to explain precisely the cause of my dissatisfaction, and he will watch me with the eyes of a hawk, interrupting me as I give my negative view with affirmations of the work’s strength. From time to time Jenny will back up either K or me with a housewifely view of his piece. She will temper her words with caution so as to ensure things continue smoothly, since she knows, as I do, that we are treading on sensitive ground. One false step and a temporary schism could result; K suddenly silent, uncommunicative; the harmony of our relationship gone; restorable only by some cunningly chosen piece of music which I will sneak onto the turntable. I always knew this was the best remedy when things became awkward. Yet I must confess Jenny’s fears were often not about K’s reaction, but rather about my own. She knew I could react unpredictably to his moods, for I, too, had artistic aspirations, which until recently were quite formidable. I also wished to receive flattery and adulation from those around me, especially from K, because I saw myself as one set apart from others; one sitting in the sky by reason of artistic gifts. Like K, I too had artistic opinions, emotional weaknesses, and his behaviour would sometimes cause me to respond in strange ways. There were times when I was brooding over some painting I was working on, when his mood swings would cause me to get up from my chair and stalk off, without so much as a murmur, to our bedroom, in order to escape his frustrations and irritations.

Yet, as I sit here writing this, I am struck by the rare qualities that were to be found in his nature. It is only when somebody one has admired, envied, wounded has gone that their positive qualities become in an instant overpowering, leaving one with a hopeless feeling about one’s own performance. It is to his ability to perceive that I owe my greatest debt, for it was he who discerned in me artistic talents, which, modest as they are, might have gone unnoticed. It was his rare sense of the precious, the sensitive, the beautiful, which caused me to take myself seriously as a painter. Before I met him, no one had encouraged me to develop my artistic talent (people had regarded me as very ordinary -devoid of imagination and creativity). It was he who gave me purpose; it was he who showed me, indeed told me about the things my upbringing and marriage hadn’t shown or told me of. Thus it is to him my thanks must always go. Above all it was his talent as a composer that has compelled me to write this account of his life.

Excerpt 2

Professor Sz- was a tall, old, cold, white bearded émigré from Budapest. The care of years hung round his eyes like frost from a window-ledge. His voice had a lugubrious quality, and he was so highly-strung that he would clasp his hands tightly together as though they were made of steel, then use his long, thin, pinky fingers to twirl his shirtsleeves round and round. His ears were large and had sprouts of snow-white hair springing from them, and he had the habit of twitching them up and down and sideways, as he concentrated on somebody’s performance, while his eyes assumed a glazed stare, the lids never blinking, so that one got the impression he was related to lizards and other reptiles way back.

Professor Sz- had a special talent for causing young musicians to become so nervous when confronted by his arctic aspect and manner that they crumpled up, emotionally speaking, played badly, and left his studio worse off than before.

K went to the ordeal with a feeling of terror springing from deep within. Like water from a rock, the terror welled up inside him until it reached the white heat of his throat where it evaporated instantaneously, leaving behind a vicious, stabbing pain.

The professor studied him closely, through unblinking eyes, asked a few personal questions, before setting him to work.

K was on his own with the strange man. His mother and music teacher, who had come to the college with him, were told to wait outside the studio while the various tests were undergone.

‘Let’s hear some scales,’ the professor said. ‘Now in thirds, if you please.’ Afterwards there were sight reading tests, ear tests and finally a performance of a Bach Prelude and Fugue.

As soon as K started to play the Prelude his concentration made him forget the terror that had been bubbling deep inside him only moments earlier.

The professor sat impassively, twisting his shirtsleeves round and round as was his wont; speaking only when necessary; giving each command in a sinister, hollow voice.

His words seemed to freeze in mid air.

K lost all sense of time as he obeyed each command.

When he had finished playing the Fugue, the professor sat in a state of abstraction, lost in thought, debating, while K sat nervously at the keyboard, his eyes spellbound by the black and white keys that were acquiring nightmarish proportions.

Suddenly two loud knocks -bang bang- sounded at the door, and Madame K marched into the room to the amazement of the professor, who allowed his eyes the privilege of blinking.

‘Excuse me entering,’ she said in her native tongue, which, although quite different from the professor’s, he nevertheless understood. Professor Sz- sensed an air of opportunism in her manner.

‘What have you decided, professor?’ she asked in English, while the local music teacher shuffled into the studio.

‘I have decided not to accept him.’

Madame K’s face froze.

‘Why not? Why ever not? I heard him play and thought he did magnificently.’

‘They all say that, Madame. I have many who wish to study with me. I cannot accept them all. Only the best.’

‘That’s ridiculous, Professor Sz-,’ she said, while unhappy K and the local music teacher looked on in amazement.

‘It is not ridiculous, Madame. Mr Parrish was kind enough to arrange this audition. My decision in the matter must be final.’

‘But, Professor, why do you reject him? He has such talent. He plays so well and composes so beautifully.’

‘So do many others, Madame. It is my job to listen, and choose those who I think are best.’

Madame K was profoundly upset. For years, indeed since K’s birth, she had wanted him to have a lightning career. She loved and cherished all he did, all that they had put into his future, and here was a complete stranger, doubtless talented, rejecting years, indeed a lifetime of effort and hope. She had endured so much in life. Now as she looked at Professor Sz- her heart pleaded with Him. Prayers were offered to heaven, but they went unanswered.

She took her boy home and on that day and on the ones that followed they both endured a deep sense of dejection. It was she who felt things the most, though, for after a few days K would have got over all that had happened; but she insisted on going over all he had done wrong at the audition, demanding detailed explanations of his every action; and if she thought he had made a mistake, she would get very angry and remind him about how much she had sacrificed to make the day possible, telling him how he had wasted the opportunity, how he had simply thrown it through the studio window on account of his foolish playing.

During the weeks that followed, a second audition was arranged with another highly regarded teacher, undergone, and once more failed. Madame K was desperate. Her world of hope and illusion was crumbling. She couldn’t eat or drink for days on end following each ordeal. Her son became ill because of her nagging and his worry for her. For many days he believed he was a failure. Then hope, irrepressible hope, would dawn in his mind as he resolved to have another try after a further year’s study with the local music teacher. But his mother would have none of it. It was the fault of that man, the local music teacher, she said. Her son would never have failed were it not for the lessons that man had given. So she sent her boy to somebody else who was said to be good, even though it involved her paying a substantial sum for each lesson -money she could ill afford. Her ambitions were still intact, but it was hope that had gone. After the two audition failures she stopped playing the piano. It was as if she had come to hate it, for had it not brought her many dreams which cruel fate wouldn’t allow her to realise? She had failed to become a great pianist herself and had dreamed of fulfilling her life’s ambition through her son. This hope had been dashed by Professor Sz-, whom she saw as an iceberg in the path of the Titanic.