For the eldest, piano lessons means being tutored in the essential hand-eye-ear coordination of harmonising fingers with keys, with spots on paper, with sounds of definite pitch. For dad it means being tutored in the associated, treacherous over-world of getting his budding Ingrid Fliter to her class at the appointed time.
Until last Tuesday evening's first foray to class, I thought I had the easier task. Tonight I am wiser, dressed in full battle fatigues, with face painted. (I can also play the Elephant Waltz by rote, left hand and right, because that bit's easy.)
St. Mary's College in Galway is an imposing old four-storey, Georgian-windowed secondary school building. It's on a hill next to St. Mary's Rd, and looks down at you on the road, even before you turn in the gate. To add to the mood, the driveway up to it is of sufficient length to place it, at best (on sunny evenings) in the neo-Victorian slot of one's brain.
- A classic old setting for the child's piano lessons, I think to myself, as I park defiantly just left of the front entrance. The fact that my daughter's piano teacher is Russian fits neatly into that same slot in my brain, cultivated as it is by the plough of predjudice, and the harrow of half-knowledge.
Once inside the ample front portals of St. Mary's, polished floors urgently echo every foot-fall through long corridors of large, white, closed doors. I am already half way down the first corridor, satisfying my search for several more items to mentally store in the Victorian-Eastern-bloc brain slot, when my daughter calls me back.
- That door says Elena, dad - that's my teacher's name.
I walk back. The first large white door on the right after we entered has an A4 page stuck to it. Sure enough, it bears the name of what must be our Russian piano teacher: Elena G—. And to dismiss most doubt, the distinct sound of piano keys being struck, is sending a familiar series of crochets interspersed with minims and semibreves through the closed door in our direction.
However, not all doubt is banished. There is a girl of about nine standing outside the door. Looks foreign. My half-knowledge tells me she might play a concerto on piano. And she has an air that suggests she is waiting to enter as soon as door opens. And…
- But Mammy said that your class was in a room upstairs last week?
- I know, dad, but it could be in a different room this week
- And the week before that, which room was it?
- Upstairs as well, but that doesn’t mean that it’ll always be upstairs.
I am proud as ever of my daughter’s instincts and cop on, but I need to satisfy myself that we’re definitely at the right room.
- Can you show me the room you were in before, and we’ll see what name is on the door – just in case there are two Elenas. We’re a few minutes early anyway, so …
She trudges off with a resigned OMG-Dad sigh.
About a half dozen flights of stairs later I understand why the sigh.
- … And now it’s that last door at the end of this corridor, she continues as she trudges off down its length.
At least there are more names on doors. There are other music classes going on. One door says “Theory”.
- Is that where you were supposed to go for the theory bit?
- Ya, dad, but Elena said I didn’t need to go to that yet …
- I know, I know, mum told me …
- How is a seven-year-old expected to spell words like semibreve, for God’s sake.
- I know honey, it’s fine.
There’s a mother standing outside the last door at the end of the corridor. She’s accompanied by her son. He too looks to be about nine. Our arrival seems to disconcert her a little. I ignore her because I’m focused on the time, and all I need to do is check the name on the door, just to satisfy myself.
It’s not another Elena, so I turn to go, partly because it’s now five o’clock, our appointed time, and partly because I don’t (don’t ask me why) like the woman outside the door. But I’m not getting away.
- Excuse me, are you waiting for a piano lesson?
We stop and turn.
- At five?
- Yes, at five
- With Elena?
None of my instincts are liking this, and all negative categories of my brain are filling fast.
- But we need to go now because it seems she’s downstairs…
Bugger! Why did I bother to share that.
- That must be it, you must be right … and you're sure you’re at five, because we thought we were at five…
- No, we’re definitely five, because she was here the last two or three weeks at five…
- But I missed one week, dad …
(- Keep quiet, honey)
- You missed a week?
- No, yes … no, you see she was here with my wife …
- And you’re sure it was five.
(- Leave me alone, you wagon!)
- Look I’ll ring to be sure …
- Because they said five to us and five would really suit us – is five your preference, or could you do half five?
But I’m on the phone so I can ignore …
- Hello … yes … just here … another woman … five or half five? … five, good … thanks … no, nothing wrong … that’s fine … no – five is fine … thanks, bye …
The wagon has already started down the corridor. My temperature is rising.
- … look, got to go … talk later … thanks … bye.
The battle lines have been drawn on a fight-to-the-death game, called something like Who Most Wants to Push Their Care, and I’ve just used up my “phone a friend”.
I go after Mother Duck who is ushering little Piano Boy down the first flight.
- No, we’re definitely on at five, alright, I call after her.
- Okay, great!, comes the exaggerated, insincere, “good-for-you” reply, quickly followed by the code for “we’ll see about that”…
- We just need to ask Elena what the story is.
The little nine-year-old girl is still standing at the door below. It’s a few minutes after five. The crochets are still straining from the room within.
I stand, four square facing the door, but a respectful distance back so as not to crowd the little girl. Mother Militant takes up a position at ten o’clock, also doing her best not to interfere with the little lone girl (though all her body language asks, “where did YOU come from”). She makes sure she’s in my line of sight.
The little girl looks at us, and after a minute of enduring the intimidation, moves to exit the building.
Minutes are slipping by. The lesson continues inside. “Our” half hour lesson time-slot is being eroded. I text my friend: “Does one knock on the door to interrupt previous class?”. (This is a game where rules get broken.)
Mother Militant doesn’t seem to notice me texting. Her eyes are fixed on the door. She has ushered her son closer to it too, now that the little girl has gone.
But now the little girl returns, this time with her mother, who must have been waiting outside. She looks first at me with daughter, and then at my nemesis with son. She’s a nice woman – nice looking and nice natured. Not Irish. She softens me a little.
Then she speaks. With a nice foreign accent. Throws out the obvious question, but not to either of us in particular. Clever. Like Solomon might. To see who will react first.
- Are you waiting for a class with Elena?
- Yes … at five … we were told five.
My rival, of course, got there first. I bow my head. Look at my toes.
- And you? You are at five too?
The nice voice raises my eyes to look at hers. Beautiful eyes.
- Yes, I’m afraid so…
- Oh dear.
- I guess we should just wait until Elena comes out, I offer.
It’s ten past five. I’m beginning to lose my fight now. Still no text back from friend.
Then the door opens. Elena appears. Middle aged. Bespeckled and a bit befuddled, looking as a piano teacher should, albeit not as I had imagined her – brown hair, not blonde, for example.
She is all apologies as she delivers a seven-year-old boy from the room with his book to his waiting mother. We should have knocked to interrupt her. She gets too involved in the teaching, you see… So, who’s next?
Neither me nor the nice mother need reply. Our rival takes up the explanations, having already moved in and almost removed Elena’s itinerary from her hand.
- We were told five you see …
Etc etc – giving Elena her name and her son’s name more than once.
But Elena is firm.
- No, you are certainly on my list for five-thirty
Now I am contented.
Elena cannot explain why the nice lady with her daughter got their appointment for five. She has a blank under the five to five-thirty slot only because she could not remember “this girl’s name”. Her hand rests on my daughter’s head. They smile at each other. She apologises for forgetting such a beautiful name, and takes her into the room. An arrangement is made with the mother and daughter for a time on Monday. I offer to go and come back at seven because nice mother and daughter live across town. That would not be necessary, and she would not hear of it.
So the nice woman leaves with her daughter. The door closes on Elena and my daughter. And the nemesis takes her son to theory class. As she strides off, I hear her mentally making certain to be back on the dot of five-thirty, to make sure to knock on the door.
Leaving St. Mary's in the car I mention the theory class again.
- So Elena says you don't need to go... ?
- No, dad. Not yet. I don't need to 'til I'm a bit older.
- You know, it's not that hard to spell 'semibreve', really, honey...
- Leave it out, dad...
- No, seriously, it's just a different word ...
- ... Just think about it ... you can spell 'semi' - on it's own, can't you ... spell 'semi'?
- Dad, PLEASE!
Still, the battle lines have been drawn. Those ten minutes lost to the enemy have already been supplanted by a good half hour of home practice. Today we learned The Elephant Waltz. Tomorrow, the world.