Authority, Children, Christmas, Classical Music, Conductor, Country House, Discipline, Drink, Education, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Love, Marriage, Music, Orchestra, Prokofiev, Separation, Shostakovich, The Devil, Vaughan Williams, Vodka
[“The Devil On Your Back,” a ghost story for Christmas, is about 15000 words long, and it will be serialised in seven parts over the Christmas holiday. Although Edinburgh is the customary setting for Tychy fiction, the orchestra featured in this story is not based upon the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, and any resemblance between the two is purely coincidental. Ed.]
I imagine that having a leg ripped off would be altogether less unpleasant than the tacit but quite definite separation which had at some point taken place between myself and my wife. There had been no lawyer on the phone to talk me through the process – no dazzlingly intense confrontation before the impromptu scenery of a kitchen or hallway for me to spend the stunned hours replaying in my mind – no letter of explanation for me to read over three hundred times, searching for some tiny stray thread of hope, a brisk pull of which would unravel its whole huge fabrication. Indeed, there had been nothing formal, nor even acknowledged, as when somebody quits their job and they have a few courtesy cocktails with the poor devils whom they are leaving behind. This would have appealed to my sense of ceremony – presenting my wife with a greetings card and a personalised tea-towel adorned with photographs of ourselves, before we hugged, and she left to start work on her next relationship. But she had just gone.
I wanted to get back to what I had desperately insisted to myself was reality – the natural and real relationship between us – but I sensed increasingly that this was like the sinner yelping in the flames who longs to be back on Earth, sipping his tea and pottering around his garden. Was it for real? My love for Elsie had transformed my world rather as a fresh fall of snow does – into a realm of wonder and enchantment – but now that she was gone, everything was drearily resuming, the traffic of life was flowing freely again, whilst the memories of our love were strewn everywhere like slush.
Afraid to think to any effect, I had retreated into a totally simulated reality, in which I was content to spend all morning reading a newspaper and every lonely night being bombarded by the television. And as with the idea of losing a leg, I retained a sense of phantom attachment to my wife, as if she would soon call to assure me in a voice of unbelievable clarity that, “it’s okay,” or that I would come home to find her sitting peacefully in a chair, but I equally knew that I could put no support on this phantom limb. I would come down in a heap.
But I do not know why I am telling you all of this, for it has little to do with how I came to be at Joppa Grange.
It was over a year since I had been welcome in the draughty halls where the Youth Orchestra rehearsed every Saturday morning and Wednesday evening. The council had abruptly discharged me from my leadership of the orchestra, without offering me any explanation nor grounds for appeal. I was put in charge of a newly established orchestra for senior citizens, which gave no concerts and rehearsed only for the entertainment of its own players. Dressed more impeccably than the Youth Orchestra in full concert attire, the old folk undertook agreeable excursions through the hits of Tchaikovsky and the tunes from Star Wars. Sometimes half of the musicians would down their instruments mid-performance and sit listening enrapt to the music – they say that one hears sixty percent more of a symphony from within the orchestra. I was uncertain whether I was touched or annoyed by what seemed increasingly like a busload of tourists, who were entirely unacquainted with serious musical discipline or anything greater than a passing interest in the music, and when the council unexpectedly summoned me back to assume command of the Youth Orchestra, I knew that it was simply time to go.
Let me be plain – I esteem discipline, and I hold that a teacher is robbing their pupils of their future if they do not make it clear what is possible and how to achieve it. A true teacher should never conspire to be popular, and some of the rehearsals under my leadership may be remembered as unpleasant affairs. There was one morning when a girl – a cellist, I think – wet herself in fear of my temper, or so it was reported, but unbroken eggshells will always leave unsightly bumps in an omelette, and I maintain that my demands upon the individual members of the orchestra are only a sign of my regard for their potential. Under my leadership, the Youth Orchestra will never play Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as if it was tea-party waltz, and it will never succeed in boring the audience with Prokofiev – achievements which I hear time and time again on the school concert circuit.
There is an old and admittedly apocryphal tale from my days at Gothenburg University that a performance by the string ensemble under my command was so ferocious that half of the audience’s hair had turned white by the third movement. When the lights come up and I turn to bow, I wish to be rinsed with the most ghostly flurry of applause. The audience should be stripped of all their civilised bluster to be exposed as clueless, helpless children. All the certainty and intricate sophistication of their selfhood should be forgotten, or else it should be revealed as an absurd illusion. But I have been lately unfortunate in my minions – players who invariably perform in the stilted, wooden style of those automatons which carry out little chores around the face of a chalet clock.
Yet there has always been a market in education, and the forces which had determined my removal from the leadership had soon brought about my reappointment. My departure had ushered in a new era of liberalism, which was not altogether to the taste of the parents who paid the orchestra fees. Backstage after one concert, the children had gathered into one of those rudimentary social structures which are found amongst children – a band of pirates! – and one of them had produced a plastic battle which had contained something rather more ambitious than orange squash – the rum to bind together their pirate brotherhood! At the back door of the theatre, these children had appeared before their own parents as glassy-eyed and inarticulate strangers. Most of the orchestra’s intake came from private schools, but the orchestra was increasingly acquiring the unpalatable odour of the comprehensive. It was thought that my return would restore parental confidence in the orchestra, but my discipline was in particular demand because the orchestra was about to embark upon its annual residential trip to Joppa Grange.
The mild, bright physiognomy of this seventeenth century squire’s quarters watches over about fifty acres of rolling parkland like a dog minding a yard. Perhaps it is faithfully awaiting the return of the aristocracy who have abandoned it, assured that those who occasionally disturb the land trespass only temporarily and that they will leave no lasting damage. During the Second World War the Grange was used as a prison, in the 1950s it became a repository for orphaned children, whilst it lately stands as an “outdoor activity centre,” which hosts archery and abseiling for the city’s schools. The orchestra was due to arrive at the Grange once the schools had broken up for Christmas, whereupon it would spend three days rehearsing in preparation for a big concert on Christmas Eve. The parents in attendance would be offered mulled wine, mince pies, and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols.
Our residential trip was in the hands of two conductors – myself and Adam Honeydew – as well as a teaching assistant whom we had hired from an agency. This man, Zbigniew Tycienski, I found to be a very practical organiser, but completely indifferent to the welfare of the children. He would spend most of his time in the Grange’s cellars, trying to spur the central heating to greater efficiency. I did not know Honeydew very well – he was a lanky, owlish man with thick spectacles, who supervised the orchestra with an almost maternal care and wisdom. He rarely stopped the orchestra during the rehearsals to criticise their playing, and sometimes he would even abandon them in the middle of a piece and stalk off to observe them from afar, because he wanted them to learn how to listen to each other and to “play together.” It would be easy for me to interpret this as a sort of rebuke to myself, and Honeydew certainly fell into posing as the alternative easygoing conductor, but I never felt threatened by him, as he was always careful to select curiously emotionless pieces, such as medleys from West End musicals, which – when they were good enough – gracefully complemented my own, more substantial, choices.
On our first night at the Grange, I had a confrontation with Tycienski which was decisive in establishing my own authority. We had been allotted half of a corridor on the floor above the pupils’ dormitories, complete with our own “cubby hole,” which contained a cramped herd of mangy armchairs and an ancient, senile television. As soon as the Grange had settled down for the night and the dormitories were as near to quiet as they would ever be, we three adults had retreated to the peace of our cubby hole. Once the television had collected a smattering of its wits, Tycienski rose from his armchair with a conspiratorial smirk, and we grasped what was afoot when he slid a shining bottle of vodka out of his rucksack.
Honeydew only looked at him. I, however, pounced upon the opportunity to flaunt my outrage and I fished my angry voice out of its diabolical depths.
“What on Earth do you think you’re playing at? We will call your agency immediately! We will demand that you are sent home!”
Honeydew seemed to withdraw into his armchair like a snail into his cottage, leaving two huge bespectacled eyes which floated between Tycienski and myself. I have to admit that I admired Tycienski’s coolness. “I am a working man,” he shrugged, “and at the end of the day I drink.”
“If the orchestra could see this – if there was a disturbance and you went down to the dorms reeking of vodka – there would be no authority, you idiot!”
Tycienski met my gaze and it was as if he was looking at me for the first time. “I am not an idiot,” he told me.
“Down the sink! The whole bottle – down the sink!” For a brief moment, I was horrified by my own pettiness – I sounded like an old woman – but Tycienski appeared to be reflecting upon what I had said, and even doing little calculations in his head, before he finally walked over to the sink and lay the bottle pointing down. The door crashed shut behind him. The cubby hole was filled with the gurgling of vodka as it raced away to its freedom, and Honeydew and I then realised that we were being engulfed in its fumes.
Honeydew rose. “I’ll open a window.” It struck me that he had maintained a perfect neutrality, careful to betray not a peep of sympathy with either myself or Tycienski.
“We will have to complain to the agency…” I broached.