IN SEARCH OF NELLY

Long Read: in northern England, 1936, a boy of six suddenly hears that he once had a mother. All that survives of her is a handful of photos and her sheet music. Only later does he piece together her story. A memoir by Irving Wardle

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010

When I lost my job as a theatre critic in 1995, I had no plans for what to do next. Instead of trying something new, I reverted to an old life. I bought a piano, found a teacher and picked up where I had left off at the Royal College of Music in the 1950s. It was as though the past 40 years had never been; or I’d squandered them, like Peer Gynt, on a frivolous detour from my proper path.

Except in moments of teenage self-delusion, I’ve never hoped to become a good pianist. But I have to play the piano, or at any rate practise it. Otherwise I start feeling guilty and tearing the skin off my hands. I hold my mother, Nelly, responsible for this state of affairs. She was a pianist with a thriving career in Lancashire in the 1920s. I have no memory of her and have never seen as much as a letter of hers. What I do have is her sheet music; and while I cannot summon up her voice or her playing, her fingering is there in bold red ink, so I can put any masterpiece up on the rack and reconstruct the precise hand positions she devised to perform it. It’s contact, of a kind.

In my pianoless years, when I would play Brahms’s G minor Rhapsody on any available table top, I kept Nelly’s stuff in the wardrobe I inherited from my grandparents. This is the first object I can remember, and I have hung on to it through collapsing marriages and spells in bedsits as a token on self-sufficiency. If I lose my house, I can set up my wardrobe in some open space and live in it; and when the time comes it will make a roomy coffin. It never ages and looks as indestructible as a mill-owner’s mansion.  As with all wardrobes, you never know what you’ll find once you get inside. Behind Nelly’s music, stowed in orange boxes, I stumbled on another old box, which turned out to hold my wartime gas mask—a discovery that triggered childhood memories of this castellated monster with its mirrored door opening onto cavernous darkness, whose secrets I explored long before Narnia arrived on the scene.

Closing the door behind me, I would press through my grandparents’ mothballed clothes until I reached the back wall and stretched out for whatever I could find. My first discoveries were a spiked German helmet, a black pleated dog whip, and a dress sword in a rigid leather scabbard. Later on these were joined by a junior cricket bat, a child-sized Ruritanian uniform with a frogged tunic, and other things that I was given. But the first three were the best, because I had found them.

Downstairs was another relic: a Bechstein grand piano, on which my grandfather would bang out his favourite piece,  “Grandpapa”—a one-word lyric to the tune of “Chopsticks”. It sounded fatuous to me, but it wasn’t all his fault. There was something wrong with the piano. It had a cracked sounding board. Although I tried to take no notice, there was also something wrong with the things in the wardrobe. Someone had bent the scabbard so that it flopped about absurdly when you drew the sword; the whip was a mass of knots, never to be disentangled; and you had to take care going into action in the helmet as the spike was always falling off. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but much the same was true of our lives in that house. There was an unspoken sense that things had once been good and now they had gone wrong.

We lived in Stockport in a house full of old ladies, all claiming to be my aunts, whose purpose in life was to fuss over me. My stone-deaf grandfather, the lone male, was treated with unsparing derision by his wife and had long settled for the role of resident buffoon. My father also slept there, but as he worked on a newspaper in faraway Bolton I saw little of him.

Every morning, as I heard him leaving for the office, I would shout, “Have you got your glasses?”

“Yes.” Slam.

And that was it until the next day. At the weekends he sometimes had a day off and would closet himself in the room with the piano, which he played loudly while my grandmother held me in an armlock by the door. His favourite piece was “Polish Dance” by Xaver Scharwenka with a key signature of six flats, which did something to excuse all the wrong notes.

Occasionally he would tell me a bedtime story. I liked his voice. I liked his old herringbone overcoat with newspapers stuffed into the pockets, and I felt at home with him in a way that I did not feel at home with anybody else. It seemed to me that I had been dumped among strangers even though they treated me like something precious salvaged from a wreck.

My grandmother sometimes talked about her pre-1914 life, before her husband’s business failed, when they lived in a large house in the village of Darcy Lever where she kept a good table and the place was always full of lads. Every month she tried to recapture those days with copious Sunday lunches attended by a crowd whom we never saw at any other time. There were no more lads; most of them had been killed in the war. But there was always a roast for which my grandfather put on his cinema manager’s suit and picked up a carving knife, completing each serving with a dollop of meat grease and an exclamation of lip-smacking relish which led his wife to close her eyes in nausea. Her compulsive stroking of my father (“a touch of Jack”, she called it) had much the same effect on him.

At the first opportunity I would slide under the table and examine the visitors from the waist down. Regulars included the unspeaking Uncle Will Boyes, easily spotted by his webbed fingers; and an elegant set of high heels and silk stockings belonging to the otherwise unglamorous Mary Stott, future founder of the Guardian women’s page. On one Sunday a new pair of legs appeared, bulging out of mustard check trousers: my godfather, Frank Singleton. And next to him, my father’s hands under the table, tearing a bread roll to shreds.

It was Frank who had given me the Ruritanian outfit, and I decided to pay back the surprise. Unnoticed, I crept up to the bedroom and put it on, adding the helmet and sword as a finishing touch. On my way back, I heard Frank’s voice from the hall. “At Nelly’s funeral”, he was saying, “ there was still some confetti on your dress from the wedding.”

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