The Special and the Ordinary

The Special and the Ordinary

by David Clapham


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491778487
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/18/2015
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

David Clapham grew up in in Sheffield, England and studied botany at Oxford. After working at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth, Wales, he moved to Uppsala, Sweden, where he still lives today. David and his Swedish wife Lena have two children. He has also published Odd Socks with iUniverse in 2013.

Read an Excerpt

The Special and the Ordinary

By David Clapham


Copyright © 2015 David Clapham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-7848-7



The first violinist called from the driver's seat, 'Wake up, Bill. You're home.'

Five of them, dressed in dinner jackets, were in the large Volvo car: four musicians, men in their thirties – hardened, professional musicians – and John, a music student in his early twenties. They had set out from Porterfield at 8.30 that Saturday morning and were returning at eleven o'clock in the evening; a long day that had included forty miles in each direction through a dismal industrial area, a tiring rehearsal of the Fauré Requiem with the schoolchildren, and finally the concert. John was sitting with Bill Malverton, his viola teacher, in the back seat of the car parked outside the Malvertons' terrace house.

'John,' said his comfortably built teacher, waking up and rubbing his eyes, 'whatever happens, don't become a musician. The pay is so pitiful.'

But however awful the rehearsal had been, the concert itself had been moving. Bill had commented earlier in the car, 'The girl who was nervous when she began her solo – she pulled herself together and sang with real feeling. Watching and listening to that was what I call a true musical experience.'

John met Bill, who lived nearby, a few days later in the park with Bill's two small children. Bill was trying unsuccessfully to get them to play on the swings.

'John,' said Bill, 'a word of advice. Whatever you do, don't get married.' He paused to let this sink in. 'And if you do get married ... above all, don't have children.' He sighed and puffed on his pipe. 'While on the subject, don't marry a musician. You play a duet for violin and viola, you play it again, and then ... what's left to talk about?'

The trouble was that John was poised to become a musician himself; he had completed his music degree, and he had kept up his piano and viola lessons. But he was still young enough, at twenty-one, to change course if he was making a huge mistake in trying to enter the music profession. The year was 1965; if you were one of the 5 per cent of the age group who had somehow managed to get a degree, your future was assured. You could reasonably expect to get a job even if it was unconnected with what you had studied.

'Why did you become a musician if it's so awful?' John asked Bill. 'Or didn't you realize it was hard work and badly paid? Why do you stay with music? You could always go into business or something, couldn't you?'

'I'm a musician', replied Bill, 'because early on I realized that music is my life.' He puffed on his pipe. He was relaxed and contented; the children had finally occupied themselves on the swings. 'My mum and dad were pretty sceptical when I said I wanted to play the viola professionally, but if they'd tried to force me to do something else, I'd have left home.'

John wondered whether music was his life too.

John was of ordinary appearance and about average height, or perhaps a little less than average. He was on the thin side, with mousy brown hair, and wore glasses for his short sight. Many people his own age or older, meeting him for the first time, seemed to assume that he might be intelligent but was probably boring. Consequently, John gravitated towards people who seemed to be as boring as himself and was often surprised to find them more interesting than he had expected when he got to talk to them. Perhaps they felt the same about him; anyway at university he quickly made a number of friends, often through musical activities. Perhaps he could be interesting enough to dominate an audience as a soloist.

But was music his life? If so, it was because of the man in the red dressing gown, years before, when John was eight years old. It certainly wasn't because any of his family were professional musicians.

* * *

From the late nineteen forties, John's family, the Haworths, lived in an early Victorian house halfway up the hill in a pleasant inner suburb of Porterfield, an industrial city halfway up England. John had two sisters, Bridget and Martha, eight years and six years older than John. Bridget, a happy, well-built sixteen-year-old, was the responsible sister, effortlessly organizing family matters with relaxed self-confidence. Martha, dark haired and more delicate in appearance, stood for matters requiring thought and subtle understanding.

A letter arrived from the Wheatleys, the family who lived at the nearby teacher-training college. At breakfast, Bridget read it out so that everybody could take it in: 'Susan and Peter invite Bridget, Martha, and John to play Brandenburgs next Saturday at the Training College.'

Susan was an older girl John knew about. A while back they had played sardines together in the house next door, a little further up the road, with several other neighbouring children who could turn up to join in games.

'What shall we play this time?' asked Susan on that occasion. 'Sardines?'

John saw Susan's eyes light up as she uttered this word. Bridget, in her role as responsible teenager and organizer of social events, must have noticed this too.

'All right, everybody,' announced Bridget. 'We're playing Sardines. Susan is He. The rest of us close our eyes while I count up to fifty and Susan goes off and hides.'

The house next door had a yard and garden that was particularly rich in sheds and outhouses and was therefore a favoured location for Sardines.

'Forty-nine ... fifty,' called Bridget. The children separated and went off individually to find Susan's hiding place.

John glanced in at the nearest small shed, saw nobody, and hurried on to the next potential hiding place. The others were doing the same elsewhere in the grounds. When he had tried all the obvious places, he returned to the first shed to look again. This time he went to the furthest side, looked up, and caught sight of Susan in a nook in the corner.

'Shh,' she whispered, putting her fingers to her lips, and pointed to where John could climb up to join her. They squeezed up close together so they wouldn't be visible to anyone who didn't come right in and look carefully; and indeed, once, someone did glance in.

'I can feel your heart beating,' whispered Susan in John's ear when the person had gone.

'I think I can feel yours too,' John whispered back.

They waited for what seemed an age, until Martha discovered them; but before she could push up beside them in what space remained, they could hear voices calling that it was time for tea.

The players all emerged. The others were surprised not to have found Susan and John and agreed that it was a good hiding place – all except Bridget's friend Katherine.

'I was just about to search there when we had to stop,' Katherine insisted.

So Susan was familiar; as for Peter, he was Susan's younger brother, but what were Brandenburgs?

'The Brandenburg Concertos are by Bach. They're written for an orchestra, and they're very good and lively and fun to play,' said Martha, 'but someone will have to conduct. I wonder who that will be.'

Their father, a university teacher, was too absorbed reading the newspaper to do more than briefly raise his head. Their mother commented, 'What an initiative the Wheatleys are taking, arranging for a whole orchestra to play, but then they can use that big assembly room that takes the training college students.'

'The students won't be there, because it's not term time,' explained Martha.

Bridget and Martha could expect to play the parts on their instruments, violin and cello, without too much trouble. John had begun on the piano four years earlier when he was four, with Martha explaining how to read the notes and pick out scales and simple tunes from a book called Step by Step to the Classics. This was OK, but John would have preferred to learn from a proper teacher outside the family. Mrs Haworth had taken him to his sisters' school concert, where he had seen girls play the viola. He had decided he wanted to learn the viola and play in an orchestra. By this time, he might just about be able to play the viola part of a Brandenburg concerto. His mother, though, decided she should come along and stand beside John as he played, pointing to each note so that he didn't lose his place in the music.

Saturday afternoon found them assembled in the hall of the training college. John knew some of the players, such as Susan Wheatley on the violin, and Katherine, who was sitting at the piano. The males he had mostly not seen before; one, who might have been twenty-five, held a baton and was standing at the front by a music stand.

Susan saw John looking at the conductor.

'That's Tamash; he's from Hungary, from behind the Iron Curtain. He managed to escape, and Dad found a job for him here at the training college. It's pronounced Tamash but written without the h at the end.'

Tamas tapped on his music stand. 'We're all here now, so let's begin.' He stood poised with his baton until all attention was focused on him; then he raised his baton vigorously in what John knew was called an upbeat, and the upbeat indicated the speed of the music. Further, John could feel that Tamas was getting everybody in the right mood to play with high-spirited enthusiasm from the first note. After this, John struggled to keep pace with the music with the help of his mother. Tamas was inspiring but demanding; his proper place was with a real grown-up orchestra like the one at the city hall; John could tell by the deft and sensitive movements of the baton and the comments in a foreign-sounding accent, always ahead of the music, such as: 'Violas, reply to the flute!'

It was a relief to see many bars' rest printed on the page. Katherine was playing alone on the piano, a complicated stretch. She fought her way through a prolonged thicket of rapid notes while Tamas calmly motioned the first beat of each bar with his baton. Peter Wheatley, eleven years old and in the second violins, caught John's eye and mouthed to him as they counted the bars till they should come in, 'Twenty-three ... twenty-four ... twenty-five ...' and John mouthed back, 'Twenty-six ... twenty-seven ... twenty-eight ...' until Katherine, red in the face, had scrambled to the end of the passage and Tamas summoned in the rest of the orchestra to complete the movement in triumph. He smiled sympathetically at the exhausted girl at the piano, who had managed with only a few wrong notes.

Susan Wheatley, an organizer like Bridget, called a break for refreshments, and the orchestra moved to the dining room. John did not have a big appetite; didn't have much to say to the other, older children; and was tired of sitting.

'I'll take a look up the stairs,' he told his mother after a few minutes and slipped out of the dining room. The training college was a large house, almost a mansion, with an imposing, well-lit staircase. John, entranced, mounted slowly, step by step, then changed to two steps at a time as the boy next door had taught him. It was a long staircase, and as a variation, he tried three steps at a time, but this wasn't manageable, so he reverted to two steps.

At the top of the staircase was a long corridor, brightly lit and generously furnished with paintings. John could just make out the sound of a piano from somewhere down the corridor and went to investigate. He identified the room and wondered whether to knock on the door, but he thought that would be an interruption, so he slowly opened the door and tiptoed in.

A middle-aged man with dark hair whitening at the tips, in a bright red dressing gown, was sitting at an ordinary upright piano. He was slightly tanned as if he had just come back from a holiday in an exotic place. Perhaps he was Susan's father, whom John had never met.

He saw John standing in the doorway and continued to play. After a while, the man asked: 'What is it I'm playing?'

'I don't know.'

'Does it sound like Mozart or Haydn?'

'No, it's not like that.'

'Is it earlier or later?'

'Oh, it's later.' John was sure of that.

'Who came after Mozart and Haydn?' the man asked almost impatiently.

'Oh, Brahms and Chopin and Tchaikovsky and people like that.'

'Is it one of them?' pursued the man.

John thought for a moment and was sure it wasn't; Brahms was somehow intellectual, a vogue word, and Tchaikovsky was noisy and emotional, and Chopin had sad little tunes. 'No, it isn't.'

'Who else might it be then?'

John thought the music sounded dreamy – he remembered the piece 'Dreaming', which he had heard his sister play.

'Is it Schumann?' he inquired.

The man in the dressing gown stopped playing and looked at him closely. 'Yes, it is. Very good. It's called Kreisleriana. You have a good sense of style, haven't you?' He had lost all his impatience. 'How did you get on with the Brandenburg concertos?'

'There was a very long piano solo where we had sixty-four bars' rest.'

'Yes, it's a splendid solo. It should have been on the harpsichord, and we've got a harpsichord which needs to be played, but she wouldn't play on it. It's a pity. Katherine's a talented little thing; she could easily have done it if she had made up her mind to do so.' He was half talking to himself.

'It sounded very long and complicated; she was showing off,' John said.

'Showing off the piano, not herself,' he corrected. 'Though mind you, it should have been the harpsichord,' he added, as before, half to himself.

John looked at the music at the piano. 'Can you play that bit again?'

The man played the phrase.

'Why do you play louder as you go up the tune, and then softer just before the top? It's not written in the music.' John knew how composers indicated a crescendo and how you had to follow what was written in the music, because the composers knew best.

'Schumann doesn't want me to follow slavishly what's printed. He wants me to feel the music, to read between the lines.'

Now Bridget shouted up the stairs: 'Jo-ohn! Johnnie! Are you up there somewhere? We're going now.'

'You'd better be off, I suppose,' said the man in the dressing gown. 'Will you come and see me again?' The tone of his voice had changed completely; he sounded urgent, almost begging. 'Come back tomorrow after tea, or supper, or whatever you call it. Ring at the back door. I'll be here.'

It was strange. Suddenly it was very important that John come back next day, whatever his family had intended to do.

'I promise,' said John solemnly.

The man in the dressing gown smiled. 'I'm Mr Wheatley, Susan's father.'

'Johnnie!' came his sister's voice, closer now.

John opened the door and said, 'I'm here.'

Bridget looked in. 'Hello, Mr Wheatley. We've had a marvellous time but really must be going now.'

'I listened to you,' said Mr Wheatley. 'For a while.'

If so, John hadn't noticed.

Back at home, Mrs Haworth asked, 'How did Mr Wheatley seem?'

'He was playing the piano and wore a bright red dressing gown,' John said. None of the Haworths wore dressing gowns, particularly not in the late afternoon.

'I didn't get much of a look at him, really,' said Bridget.

This was the moment for John to put in, 'He says I should go to see him tomorrow after tea, and I promised. That's OK, isn't it?'

The next day, John rang at the back door of the big house and was admitted by Mrs Wheatley. 'Hello, John. Harry – Mr Wheatley – is expecting you. You know how to get there, don't you? Susan and Peter are both out at the moment, but Susan will be back soon and may join you.'

He climbed up the imposing staircase two steps at a time and walked along the passage to the room with the piano, where the man in the red dressing gown was waiting for him.

'What shall we talk about today?' asked Mr Wheatley.

John wasn't sure; he expected Mr Wheatley to decide such things, perhaps continue with Schumann. But another conversational subject occurred to him.

'Do you compose?'

'Music? No, I don't – at least, I haven't tried for a long time. Why, do you?'

'I once thought of a tune and wrote it down, and Martha played it on the piano. She said it reminded her of something. She took out the piano part of the Archduke Trio, and the beginning of the slow movement had a tune just like mine but more twiddly. I'd heard the record we have.'

Mr Wheatley laughed. 'That happens to a lot of people when they begin composing.'

'How do real composers come on tunes? Do they just enter their heads?'

'It varies greatly. Beethoven had a lot of trouble. I'll show you how it was with the big tune of his last symphony.'


Excerpted from The Special and the Ordinary by David Clapham. Copyright © 2015 David Clapham. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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