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Chapter 3 : Live in Concert
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School starts again on Monday, and I climb into the car in the morning feeling a deep sense of relief that the holiday is over at last. I mean I love Mum and Dad, but they're always a bit unsure around me. There's always this sense that they're afraid. They try too hard not to upset me, and to protect me.
The car stops and Dad and I open our doors, and he takes me to the entrance. "Hello Hugo, good holiday?" asks the teacher who's by the door welcoming us back.
"S'alright, thanks. Bye Dad! See you later."
"Bye Hugo." I set off inside, more confident than I ever am outside of school. There's never anything on the floor that we might trip over, and I follow the corridor with one hand on the wall and the other outstretched to warn me before I crash into anything. When I first started here, it was a maze, but within about a fortnight we could all find our way from the entrance to our classroom and the playroom. After five years, I've got a pretty good picture of the entire school. They hardly ever change anything, except for bringing in new toys and equipment. No rearrangements for the sake of it.
My hand touches something solid, and another hand gropes briefly against my chest before drawing back. I giggle, and so does the other person. Outside of school, collisions like this are embarrassing, but we're all used to them. A couple more incidents like this and I'm in the junior common room.
There are two rooms like this, the infant playroom for the younger kids and the junior common room for when we're older. It's all noise in here, chattering and laughing and toys that beep or rattle. And it smells like it has all the time I've been coming here: clean and fresh.
"Hello, Hugo," says a helper as I shuffle across the room to the corner where my class always sit together. At one point my foot nudges someone, and they scoot sideways out of the way to let me carry on. Then my foot touches the beanbag that marks our corner and I go to my usual place, checking that there's no-one else there and sitting there.
"Hi, it's Hugo," I say, stating my name as we always do so everyone else knows who we are when we arrive. Otherwise there's a lot of guessing who's actually there and who we're talking to. The others say hello too, and their names.
"Hi Hugo, it's Aidan. Guess what!"
"I've got a guide dog! He's called Benji." I hold out my hand palm down and a wet nose sniffs at it. Some of the kids here have guide dogs, and we all love it when there's a new one. Everyone here wants to get one some day, but for whatever reason can't get them yet. I'm not sure whether it's occurred to Mum and Dad how useful they are; if I do end up at Hogwarts in two years' time I probably wouldn't be allowed one there though, so no point getting used to having one.
Emma, the last of our class to turn up, arrives shortly after that full of stories about going to the beach for two weeks over the summer. We listen, rapt, as always interested in anything new. Emma's a good storyteller. I've been to the beach, but only the stony one near Shell Cottage when we were staying with Uncle Bill and Aunty Fleur. Emma's been to a proper sandy one like in the stories we learn to read with. We have a sandpit here, so later on at break time we'll go and play in it and try to do all the things Emma says she did on holiday. Well, there probably isn't enough sand there to bury our legs under it, but we can make sandcastles.
First we have lessons, and a new teacher takes us to our new classroom and introduces herself as Miss Scott. All the classrooms are laid out nearly the same, and we sit at the same places as in our old classroom. I've got Aidan on one side and Terry on the other. There are only eight in our class, a sensible size when we mostly have to keep track of each other by voice.
Mr Benedict is our class helper again; he's followed our class up for about three years now. Miss Scott settles us down with books and we take turns reading out loud, revelling in our secret language that hardly anyone outside of school can read. Feeling lightly over the patterns of dots, I take my turn.
"The Romans were ruled over an Emperor, called- Kay-zar?" I stumble over the unfamiliar word.
"Caesar," Miss Scott corrects me. "See-zar."
"Was he the one who was stabbed? I remember listening to a TV program about Emperor Caesar." asks Terry.
"That was Julius Caesar. The word 'Caesar' is Latin for 'Emperor', so 'Emperor Caesar' is like saying 'Emperor Emperor." We laugh at the idea.
For the first few years, we read single words, then short stories. Now our reading practise is part of our other lessons. Lily learnt about the Romans years ago, but we started off learning how to tie shoe laces and tell coins apart by feel and generally mastering all kinds of useful skills. She did tell me all about them when she did them in lessons, so I already know quite a bit. Like I recognise the word "Caesar" when Miss Scott pronounces it, I just didn't know how it was spelt.
Once we've read the first bit about them, Miss Scott teaches us a bit of Latin. We spend the rest of the week using "Ave" instead of "Hello" and she invites us to call her "Magistra" and Mr Benedict "Magister".
We have maths after that, then break time. After spelling, Aidan and I have our music lessons, and we go across to the music department together.
Mr Greg is straight down to business, and it's not really until the end of the lesson that he talks about anything other than the piano. Or rather, other than my own piano playing and the pieces I'm learning.
"There's a concert on Sunday, and one of the pieces is the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. You've never been to a real concert, have you?"
"There's an atmosphere at a live performance that you can't get listening to a recording. And the Tchaikovsky is probably the most famous piano concerto after the Grieg. It's not my personal favourite, but a lot of people love it and it is a classic." He tells me the time and place, and gives me a flyer to show my parents.
"It's a nice program all round, all Tchaikovsky - Romeo and Juliet and the Swan Lake suite in the first half, then the piano concerto in the second. Ask your parents, at least."
"Okay, I'll try to remember tonight. See you on Wednesday."
I do remember, getting the flyer out when I get home. "Mr Greg thinks I'd enjoy going to a concert."
Dad sounds confused. "Mr Greg..?"
I sigh impatiently. "My piano teacher." I've had the same teacher since I started learning; you'd think even Dad would know his name by now
"Would you like to go, Hugo?" asks Mum. "It'll probably be busy and loud, and you know you don't like crowds, but it would be nice if you think you could put up with that." Crowds. People staring at me stumbling along.
"I would like to go," I reply. It won't be as bad as King's Cross station, and I've been getting used to busy London streets from visiting Lily.
"I'll get some tickets then. Ron, would you like to come too?" Dad stutters out some excuse about having work to do then that doesn't fool any of us. He thinks my piano playing is pretty cool but has approximately zero interest in classical music. And while he can cope fine he still gets a bit flustered around muggles. He never went to a muggle primary school, but Mum did - being muggle-born - and she said we should go because it never did her any harm and she couldn't see why we should be different from other children. Plus she didn't really want to drop everything and teach us at home.
On Wednesday I tell Mr Greg that I'm going to the concert and he's pleased, playing me a bit of the piano concerto that I'll be hearing. I imitate it, and he teaches me the first few bars (very slowly, but still). Then we concentrate on my Grade 4 pieces, and as always I can't help giggling when he gets worked up as usual over my lack of dynamics - although I do then make an effort to put them in.
I can't remember ever going out somewhere with just Mum before. Dad drops us off at the concert hall so we don't have to worry about parking, then we climb up long flight of stairs to the entrance. There are other people arriving too, and I hold Mum's hard tight. We count the steps quietly, like we used to do when she still had to walk me up the stairs at home. One, two, three... right to the top, then suddenly I step inside and the air is warm and smells thick and slightly musty in contrast to the stale city smell of cars and cigarettes outside.
There's a low murmur of conversation from further inside, and our footsteps are muffled by carpet. An attendant is inviting us to go further in, and another asks for our seat numbers. Mum gives them, and I stand very still next to her trying to create a picture of the room. Carpeted floors, young attendants, probably a grand place from the way everyone is behaving.
"...through that door, your seat is on the right-hand side." Mum thanks the young woman and leads me across the room and up a small flight of stairs to enter another room. This one's bigger, I can tell immediately; it's cooler, less musty-smelling, and the muttering has a different sort of tone to it.
"Here we are. Do you mind me taking the one with the good view?"
"'course not." So long as I can hear fine, it doesn't bother me whether I've got things in front of me. We sit down and wait as the auditorium starts filling up. I wait a few minutes to see if she'll think of it of her own accord, then ask Mum what the concert hall looks like.
"It's not very big, as they go; just this one bank of seats. They're all the same as yours, and they're red." The colour doesn't bother me; I have no idea what the difference between 'red' and 'blue' actually is. "A few rows in front of us is a space, then the stage. Oh, the seats slope down so everyone has a reasonable view. On the stage are a lot of seats and music stands, all of the drums, and a grand piano. The orchestra aren't there yet. There are big red velvet curtains tied back on each side of the stage."
She adds a little more and then stops when the seats around us fill up. "Would the little boy like to swap seats so he can see properly?" asks a woman suddenly. I jerk round quickly to face in the direction of the voice.
"Thanks for the offer, but it doesn't bother me."
"Are you sure?"
"Honestly, it doesn't make any difference to me whether I've got a good view or not; I can't see either way." I say it lightly, although I'm screaming inside. Why do I have to explain these things all the time, when I'm supposed to be enjoying myself? It's a concert, where you listen to the music. Surely it shouldn't matter whether I can see or not. But I'd rather explain myself than make Mum do it, because she always gets so awkward.
"Oh, sorry." The woman's embarrassed, not sure what to say. The usual reaction. It gets kind of boring after a while.
"It's fine; thanks for the thought." I smile sweetly in her direction, forcing myself to stay calm. Her question was entirely innocent, her reaction understandable. I'm going to enjoy the evening. I won't get angry, I'll just enjoy it. A few minutes more, then a hush falls and I hear footsteps down below on the stage. One instrument plays an A and the rest copy, shifting the notes up and down until they match the first A. Then a second of silence, broken by applause.
"The leader of the orchestra's coming in," Mum whispers to me, and I nod acknowledgement as I clap too. The applause dies down then builds up again almost immediately. "The conductor. The orchestra are standing up for the applause too."
"Hang on, leader and conductor?" I assumed that the leader ran the orchestra, but then what does the conductor do?
"The leader plays the violin and sits at the front of the first violins. The conductor doesn't play, but stands at the front waving his arms around to make the orchestra play in time."
"What makes the leader different to the other violins?"
"I'm not sure, but they must be important or they wouldn't come in after everyone else." I make a mental note to ask Mr Greg on Monday. Mum stops whispering now because the clapping has nearly died down and the concert's ready to begin.
From the silence comes a haunting sound, two clear notes moving together in harmony. This is the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. It's quiet, very simple, bare harmony. I lean forward, caught, as the tune shifts to the violins (one of the types of instrument I actually can name by ear).
The music grows, swells, then fades again. I'm expecting it to suddenly launch into a dramatic theme, but it's still soft. Another surge, surely this is it- but no, back to almost nothing again. And in the end- a drum announces the arrival of the section I knew must be coming. Violins flying up and down, faster surely than it's possible to play. Cymbals crash, the bass section thump out rhythms-
And as suddenly as it arrived, it's gone again, another calm before the cello sings out. As the violins take the tune, then pass it to a flute, I hear something in the background that makes me lean forward further. Pure plucked notes ripple out and are gone again. I search my memory for the name of the instrument, but I don't think I've ever heard it before.
I think I hear it again, and again, just for a moment before it's replaced by the violins flying up and down their scales. And I lose myself in the music again, following every rise and fall and jumping when the calm is suddenly broken by the crash of cymbals, feeling the driving force of the drum beat in the background.
My teacher last year told us the story of Romeo and Juliet, so I know how it ends. The flute signals it first, then- there it is, that instrument I still can't name! Rippling up chords in the background, as the violins take the tune and draw it to the drum-rolls and brass-laden finale.
The mood is broken as around me everyone is clapping, and I jolt back into the present and join in. Then I tug at mum's sleeve. "What's the rippling instrument, you know-" I tail off. How do you describe it?
"Nudge me next time you hear it, and I'll see if I can figure it out for you, okay Hugo?" I nod and fall silent, waiting for the next piece.
I hear it at the start of the next piece, but by the time I'm sure it's gone again. So I lie against Mum's shoulder and listen, fingers tapping my leg in time to the beat. The music seems to finish, but no-one claps. I nudge Mum to ask why, and she tells me quietly that you shouldn't clap until the whole piece is finished even when it's broken into parts like this.
I sway along with the waltz, at least until I feel that the tune is kind of repetitive as it's essentially the same one in a lot of different arrangements. At last it's a loud kind of arrangement, with the violins playing very high notes and a triangle jangling away continually, and that signals the end.
A light tune has me tapping my fingers on my leg again, and I'm pretty sure I recognise it. Probably from a TV program or the radio or something. And then onto something lighter, and I clutch Mum's arm. There it is, the instrument I heard, gently strummed, strings of notes ringing out in broken chords. Up and down, up and down. I love the piano, but it doesn't sing like this. The violin joins it, but I'm listening to it in the background, just keeping the beat with ringing notes and chords.
"It's a harp," mum whispers in my ear when the wind come in for a louder bit. A harp! I recognise the name, just had never really heard one before. I lean on Mum and listen to the concert, pushing the idea of the harp back. It's stupid to think about learning to play another instrument; does the school even offer harp lessons? And it's taken me long enough to learn the piano, and I'm hardly amazing at that even after five years playing.
The applause takes me by surprise; the final notes are still going round and round in my head when it starts. "It's the interval," Mum says, and she leads me out back into the smaller musty room. I can smell alcohol now, but Mum only gives me orange juice. "You liked the harp?"
"Yes; it's- nice." That's hardly the right word, but I can never think of the one I want when I actually need it. I feel a tiny bit guilty; I always loved the piano, and I should be looking forward to the piano concerto rather than daydreaming about harps. What are they like? I remember playing on the grand piano in the school hall once, Mr Greg showing it to me so I could hear the difference between it and my normal upright. He opened the lid and guided my hand over to pluck the strings inside, and they sounded a bit like that harp only not as clear.
We go back into the auditorium as soon as I've finished my drink, ahead of most of the other audience members. There's a pretty long wait for everyone else to get back and sit down, then the orchestra file back in and arrange themselves. When everyone's clapping, Mum whispers to me that it's for the soloist, and the conductor's following him in.
For the next half hour I'm leaning against Mum's shoulder, mouth open slightly, as I decide that however much longer it takes I'm never going to be able to play the piano like this. I see why Mr Greg gets worked up over my lack of dynamics when I hear the range that it's possible to generate. The piano resonates throughout the hall, rippling up and down beneath the orchestra or singing out the tune while they accompany.
I snuggle closer to Mum, letting the music wash over me. I don't usually stay up this late, even though it's not a school night. The music builds and the piano booms out, then drops down to a simple quiet melody. The orchestra's more than just an accompaniment. The closest I get to playing with other people is when everyone's singing along to my nursery rhymes. Now the pianist's jumping about with a bright tune in the right hand while the left hand rumbles out a rich accompaniment.
Could I ever play like this? Mum says good soloists learn their music off by heart, and that's what I always do. Yes, it's harder for me to learn the music in the first place and I need someone to teach break it down into small chunks for me to play by ear, but I do have a good memory. Still, using not just a couple of octaves in the middle of the keyboard but the whole range- is it really possible to keep track of the whole lot?
The harp doesn't make a reappearance, and almost before I realise it's over everyone around us is clapping and cheering. I sit up straighter and stretch, then join in. As the applause fades people start to leave, chattering as they go. "Tired?" Mum asks, unnecessarily.
"A bit," I admit. We wait for most of the other people to leave before we find our way out. I grip Mum's hand. "I want to play like that." I'd love to be able to make notes that sing like the harp, but there's no point dwelling on things which won't happen. I know how to play the piano, I just need to keep working on it until I can do it as well as that. Mum always says you can do anything so long as you keep working and don't give up. That's what she says now.
"Keep practising and you'll get there in the end." We walk outside and stand at the bottom of the steps waiting for Dad to arrive in the car.
"Mum?" I ask suddenly.
"What do harps look like?"
Translations (Latin to English):
Caesar = Emperor
Ave = Hello
Magistra/Magister = Teacher
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