‘Miss Ashton’s Disappointment’
The curtain rises on a living-room in a semi-detached council house in Heywood, Lancs. The sun is streaming through the large rear windows. The brightly-coloured three-piece suite and patterned carpet are circa 1957. A clothes horse – or ‘maiden’ as they are called in Lancashire at that time – stands in front of a coal fire, drying sheets and towels. The soft red glow of the coals showing through the damp steaming cotton.
In a corner of the room stands a large dark wood upright piano. A budgerigar called Joey hops from perch to perch in his cage on top. He stops, cocks his head on one side as the door slowly opens. A thin, pale looking boy, about four years old creeps in. Looking furtively around the room and seeing it empty, except for Joey, he smiles to himself and carefully closes the door behind him. He tiptoes over to the piano and with some difficulty clambers up onto the stool and leans precariously over the keys.
“This is for you, Joey,” he says looking up at his budgie with affection. Joey bobs his head up and down and chirrups back, acknowledging the dedication.
The little boy moves the fingers of his left hand along the piano keys, searching for one in particular. It stands out from the rest by a brown nicotine stain on its tip – a lost memory of a wartime jazz session which his father had held for his musician friends every week in the room above his parents’ Rochdale pub. With quiet satisfaction, he finds the key and gingerly presses it. Then he moves his right hand up to the treble section and presses another key. Slowly from this tentative start, a simple melody emerges. Joey chirps along as if in encouragement. With added confidence, the little boy attempts the tune again. Completely engrossed in his little masterpiece, he doesn’t notice the door open and his parents creeping in. They sit down quietly and listen.
Father is slim, in his early thirties, of average height, with dark hair swept back with Brylcreem to conceal a small bald patch. His wife is a pretty woman, her thin delicate frame dressed in flowered cotton. They turn to each other and smile.
Their son finishes his recital and sits back, obviously pleased with himself. His parents’ gentle applause makes him jump, then blush. He turns and smiles nervously at them both as his father nods his head slowly.
“He’s a natural, Bren. He played with two hands without anyone showing him.”
“That was very nice, love,” Bren says to her son.
“I wrote that for Joey,” he announces proudly.
“Well, it was lovely.”
Father gets up and rubs his son’s head affectionately, and lifting him off the stool says,
“It’s time for dinner now, cock. Go and get washed, there’s a good boy.”
The boy dashes off with a quick glance at his mother, who beams at him with pride.
“He’s a natural pianist, you know. Maybe we should send him for lessons soon?”
“Let’s see how Susan gets on first,” Bren says. “There’s plenty of time for Howard.”
My sister Susan. She’d been sent to elocution lessons, tap-dancing lessons, ballet lessons and she’d hated them all, coming home after just a few weeks saying, “I don’t like them!”
My mum would put on her best coat, go round to the tutor in question and with humble apologies, explain that the lessons were interfering with her daughter’s school work. A cancellation fee would be charged and a few weeks later another activity would be found to improve her daughter’s education and social standing. My mother always failed to realise that Susan was quite happy with the way she was.
Now at the age of eight, it was piano lessons. Susan would come back from them sulking, plonk herself on the piano stool and bang away on the keys with about as much expression as a power drill. It was a great relief to her family, and probably the next door neighbours, that after only a month, my father and sister came to a mutual understanding. She would never play the piano again!
That was the last attempt by my mother to get Susan to do anything she didn’t want to. From then on, she was allowed to run her life more or less as was her wont – with one exception – me. Her tedious little brother needed looking after, and she had to take me everywhere she went. Susan would drag me from the house, grumbling under her breath that it wasn’t fair and telling me to keep my mouth shut, especially in front of friends, and even more especially in front of male friends.
“Zip it!” she’d growl as her smiling entourage approached us.
We’d usually go to the local ‘rec’ and I’d be told to play on the swings while Susan flicked her kiss-curls and giggled coyly at the boys surrounding her and her dolled up mates.
“Don’t go on the roundabout!” she’d break off from the hilarity to warn me. “You were sick last time!”
And, she failed to add, she had been smacked and sent to bed as my fevered brow was cooled by my mother’s loving hand and wet dishcloth.
I’d usually surreptitiously gravitate to the slide, land at the bottom on my arse, tumbling over and grazing my knees and burst into a fit of hysterical screams. Which meant Susan would have to drag me back home while her mates laughed their heads off. She’d be smacked and sent to bed and my stinging knees would be cooled by my mother’s loving hand and a wet dishcloth.
No wonder my sister hated me so much.
You will have gathered by now that I was, to put it mildly, a bit of a wimp in Susan’s eyes. “Yer cissy!” she’d shout as I bawled my head off after some scrape or fall. “Me mum’s going to kill me!”
To make matters worse, I had actually asked to have piano lessons, and if that wasn’t bad enough, I was rather good. I was impatient, of course, wanting to ‘play like daddy’ straight away, but he told me I must do things in stages, practice my exercises, work hard and ‘persevere.’ So I did. And loved it. Susan would sit in the background as I practised my scales mumbling, “Little goody-goody,” just loud enough for me to hear. So I’d start crying and run from the room shouting, “I’m going to tell my mum over you!” and she’d get smacked and sent to bed.
Matilda Emily Ashton. Miss, was a small squat lady of about sixty. She lived in a large dark red-brick Edwardian house on Ainsworth Road, Bury, with her older sister and younger brother. Many times I’d arrive for my weekly piano lesson and stand on the doorstep for sometimes ten minutes ringing the bell. Miss Ashton, the elder, was hard of hearing, Mr Ashton would be out in the backyard collecting coal, which he’d lug into the piano room, gasping for breath, stoically build up the fire, and trudge out again. Matilda would either be what she’d delicately call ‘somewhere else in the house’ or taking a lesson in the back parlour with the door shut. Eventually the front door would open, her pupil would bound out of the house like a prisoner released and Matilda would stare at me vexatiously saying, “Howard! You’re late!”
My protests would simply be waved away and I’d be shown quickly into the piano room with a hurried gesture to ‘sit!’. It was a stuffy room which was taken up almost entirely by a huge black grand piano surrounded and piled high with dusty old sheet music.
With more complaints about my tardiness, Miss Ashton would fall heavily onto the stool beside me and I’d begin to play for her what I’d been learning all week. Then it would start. The ritual taking out of a hairclip from her precariously mounted grey bun with which she would pick her ears, study what the clip had found, wipe the clip on a tissue she’d find inside her cardigan sleeve, and throw the soiled item onto the bottom end of the keyboard. Then the process would start again. I’d try to concentrate on the piece of music before me, but out of the corner of my eye I would be aware of this rather off-putting personal hygiene job going on. Occasionally, the dirty tissue would land near my fingers and I’d have to knock it out of the way as I went for one of the big deep bottom keys. This usually resulted in me playing a wrong note and being told off for not practising enough. By the end of my lesson, there would be a little pile of wax-laden tissues buffered up against the edge of the keyboard.
Then it would be time for Theory. And ritual number two. Plonking herself in front of the blazing fire (winter or summer, it was always a blazing fire), Miss Ashton would test me on my theory studies. I would stand before her as she’d begin to lift her skirt to alarming heights, displaying a lovely set of pink or blue bloomers beneath. Trying not to look, I’d answer each question, and with each correct answer the skirt would be lifted even higher. There was nothing salacious about it. She was simply warming her fanny, but I would always escape from that room at the end of the lesson with a bright red face, and it wasn’t the fire which had caused it.
Occasionally, and usually when I’d played a piece particularly badly, she would sit and play it for me, her squat little fingers caressing the keys, her hunched shoulders rising and falling with each beautifully expressed musical phrase. I would look around the room at photographs taken across many years of her in evening dress, sitting at a grand piano in a large hall somewhere, or standing with groups of beautifully dressed people at musical recitals or functions, a vivacious little woman, smiling and laughing with her cultured companions. Then I’d look down at this dowdy little figure playing so exquisitely for me, and wondered what had happened that turned her exotic high life into one where she sat day after day, week after week, listening to the tuneless bangings of pupils who hadn’t a chance of achieving anything like she obviously had.
In fairness, she did seem to enjoy taking piano lessons and derived a great deal of pleasure out of her pupils passing exams. They were always something of an event for Miss Ashton. She always insisted on accompanying her charges on the bus and ‘for luck’ would wear a bright canary yellow mackintosh, matching Wellington boots and bright yellow rain hat, whatever the weather outside. She would chatter away brightly throughout the journey into Bury Centre completely oblivious of the squirming child next to her, mortified at the stifled giggles from everyone else on the bus. Still, her bizarre attire seemed to do the trick as I always passed with flying colours.
My sister would mumble “Who’s a clever boy, then?” as Mum proudly adjusted yet another framed ‘Passed With Merit’ certificate on the lounge wall.
During one examination, as I sat at the piano and prepared to begin my first piece, a road drill began pounding away outside the window. Even though the examiner closed the window the drill remained an unwelcome accompaniment to my piece. I doubt he heard much of what I played that morning, but I still got a High Level Pass. Probably a sympathy mark for simply keeping going.
One particular day, I arrived for my lesson, stood the usual ten minutes ringing the bell, waited another five then decided to walk round to the garden window at the side of the house just to show my face and prove that I had arrived. I peered in and could just see the shape of Miss Ashton through the dirty glass. She was sitting in front of the fire, alone.
I tapped on the window gently.
“Who’s that?” she jumped up and shouted.
“It’s me!” I cried.
She came to the window, peered back through it, and opened it. I noticed she’d been crying.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, surprised.
“I’ve come for my lesson, Miss Ashton.”
“But it’s cancelled.”
“Oh. Is it?”
“Yes. I told my sister to ring your mother. Didn’t she?”
“No. No she didn’t.”
“Oh well. It’s cancelled, I’m afraid.” She leaned over and picked up one of her discarded tissues from off the piano and blew noisily into it. “I’ve cancelled all of today’s lessons. I’ve had a bad shock. Charlie’s dead.”
Charlie was her English Bull Terrier. The treasured animal had sometimes been as much part of the weekly distractions as the waxed tissues and the moving skirt. His wicker basket lay atop the piano into which the huge brute would be lifted by Miss Ashton whenever he’d scampered into the room if her brother had opened the door to replenish the fire with more coal. He would be covered up with a smelly tartan blanket under which the dog would groan, grunt and gasp throughout the lesson.
She tearfully told me that she had been taking Charlie for his daily constitutional that morning and he had suddenly grunted, groaned and gasped for the last time, collapsing at her feet in a heap.
“Heart failure,” she explained. She was dressed from head to foot in black, the matching dirty tissue grasped firmly in her hand.
At my next lesson, the large wicker basket still perched atop the piano, the tartan blanket waiting beside it for the master who would never return. Miss Ashton had a lacklustre quality about her that day, even forgetting to pick her ears or lift her skirt. Only her heavy sighs – as opposed to Charlie’s grunts – accompanied my chirpy rendition of ‘Blue Danube.’
“Very nice,” she said at the end of my less than perfect recital.
I knew then how very heartbroken she must have been. I tactfully withdrew, leaving her with memories of the only thing I suspect she’d ever truly loved.
When I was eleven, I was given ‘The Dream Of Olwen’ to learn for my next lesson. It was a difficult piece and I worked long and hard at it, trying to master it. Outside, my friends were happily playing in the street. Not getting very far playing it with two hands I stared at the infernal sheet music and instead tried picking out the melody with one hand to see if I could make sense of it that way. Then something happened. Lyrics came into my head to match the melody I was playing. I cautiously sung them with the tune and much to my surprise they sounded good. Another line of lyrics appeared as if by magic into my head and out of my mouth. So as not to forget the words I scribbled them down over the top line. In about ten minutes, I had a song. This was my first composition since ‘Joey’s Song.’ Then I’d only had a melody, this time I had a set of lyrics. Their fluency to me was almost spiritual. I sang and played the song over again.
From behind me, through the window, the sound of applause rang out. My friends had stopped running up and down the street and had sat on the garden wall listening. My first public performance.
“We liked that,” said Teresa from next door.
“Thanks,” I said bashfully, flushing up.
“Play it again,” said Teresa’s older brother, Peter.
Happily I performed my encore, more applause, the audience swelled to three as Teresa’s younger brother, Michael joined her on the wall.
I decided I would play it for Miss Ashton at my next lesson.
I shook like a leaf as I tentatively but rather proudly performed my new composition for Miss Ashton. By God, I thought, as I warbled my way through it, it does sound good.
When I’d finished, I waited for the inevitable applause. Instead, there was a very loud silence. Miss Ashton sat quite still, stony faced and merely nodded quickly as though an unpleasant task had been reluctantly performed.
“Now,” she said sternly, “play it properly. Without the singing.”
As if to emphasise her displeasure, she got up, prodded the fire aggressively with the poker and yelled out, “Alfred! More coal!”
Alfred scuttled into the room, whipped the scuttle from the hearth and scuttled out.
“Should I do my scales now?” I asked feebly. Receiving merely a puckered grimace in reply, I began my C scales. I was just starting D when Alfred returned, puffing and panting with a full coal scuttle. As he struggled with it, Miss Ashton pushed him out of the way, grabbed the scuttle and threw the lot on the fire, stabbing it even more violently than before.
“Enough!”, she yelled as Alfred made his escape, “Play ‘The Dream of Olwen’! Properly!”
It was a disaster. Mistake followed mistake, jarring wrong chord followed excruciating wrong chord, until, unable to stand it a moment longer, she pushed me off the stool and played it herself.
“Now go home and practice!” she cried as she thrashed out the last perfect bar.
I picked up my things and rushed scarlet-faced out of the house.
On the long walk home I came to the conclusion that the life of a concert pianist was not for me. Cilla Black and P.J. Proby were my new musical heroes. I wanted to be like them. A Pop Star. If Miss bloody Ashton couldn’t recognise my talent, my friends certainly could. I made up my mind to tell Mum I wanted to give up piano lessons. However, as I reached home my steely determination evaporated. All that money my parents had spent on my lessons, all that hard work, all those exams passed. Maybe I’d give it another go. So piano lessons continued but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I entered more exams and passed them but the thrill had gone. I put words to all the pieces I was given to learn, which finally drove my mum to rush into the lounge where her pop star son was wailing ecstatically away and shout:
“If you don’t play your music properly I’ll tell your dad to stop your piano lessons!”
A couple of weeks later, Mum she wrote to Miss Ashton to explain why I was giving up my piano lessons. “Important school exams.”
Years later, on a Memory Lane trip back to Bury I drove past Miss Ashton’s old house. The plaque outside her front door which had read “M.E. Ashton – Teacher of Pianoforte (Qualified)” had gone leaving a lighter oblong of red brick. I got out of the car and took a photo of the house, arousing the suspicion of the new owner who came out and asked me what I was doing. When I explained, he told me Miss Ashton had died five years earlier, very old, in a nursing home, alone. He and his wife had bought the house at an auction.
As I got back in the car and had one final glance, I remembered the letter she had written in reply to my mother, words underlined in red pen to emphasise her disappointment:
“Of course, there are always those who do not, alas, come up to scratch, or who will not put that last extremely important bit of effort into their studies. They are the ones who fail, Mrs Jones. I am sorry to say that Howard is one of those. I expected so much more.”
Miss Ashton had her dream. I had mine. And it wasn’t Olwen’s.
copyright John Howard 2016