The Lavender Man

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It was the day of the Lavender Man. Monday was the Skunk, the Punk and the Infant Prodigy; Tuesday was the Rapper and Miss Piggy; Wednesday was theoretically free, although in practice taken up with chores; Thursday was the Ballerina, the Computer Kid, Desperate Dan and the Kleptomaniac; and Friday was Alice in Wonderland and the Lavender Man. He was Laura’s only grown-up pupil, and his arrival, punctually at four-thirty every Friday afternoon, effectively marked the start of the weekend for her. Now she was sitting at the piano, waiting for her weekend to start.

He did not smell of lavender. Laura’s nicknames were impressionistic rather than descriptive, and in most cases she herself had forgotten what quirky association had led her to give a pupil this name rather than that. But he evoked lavender – that is to say, his presence conjured a world of which lavender was an essential component, a tweedy, leathery, pre-War world of stiff backs and chaste compliments and crystal vials of lavender-water. There was a cultivated quality to his every movement, an observance of discreet codes long since obsolete, which endowed his ruddy, bristly masculinity with a touch of something approaching delicacy. And there was the same delicacy in his playing, too: despite his having taken up the instrument so late in life, there was a considered quality, a degree of tact about the way he played which more than compensated for the stiffness of his large, hard hands. After the week’s quota of overfed and hyperactive children, he came as a breath of fresh air – like a waft of lavender, indeed.

And today he was late.

Sitting at the piano and flicking through the exercises she had set him the previous week, Laura found herself looking at her watch: almost twenty to five. Her right hand strayed across the upper octaves of the keyboard, half-wanting to play. She was just pushing back her sleeves in preparation – an unconscious gesture, which her own piano teachers had never been able to iron out of her – when the doorbell rang.
With a mixture of annoyance and relief, Laura made for the front door, registering as she did so the stale, faintly gassy smell of her flat. She was always vaguely ashamed of receiving the Lavender Man here, and always annoyed at herself for feeling ashamed. But these feelings were swept aside, as ever, by the bright, courteous, correct apparition of Mr. Boothroyd, the Lavender Man.

“Miss Morley, I do apologize – ”

“Oh, that’s no matter, Mr. Boothroyd – ”

“I couldn’t get away from the office.”

Something about Mr. Boothroyd seemed particularly bright today, as though his eyes were a tone lighter and his complexion a shade rosier than usual; he appeared taller than ever, and it was with an air of undisguised eagerness that he strode into the front room and sat down at the piano, rubbing his hands as he went.

“Yes, I was awaiting an important telephone call,” he went on, his eyes skimming the page of studies before him; “I do apologize for keeping you.”

How typical of him, thought Laura, to ‘await’ a ‘telephone call’. Was there anyone else in the whole of London who did that nowadays? And yet there was something strange about his demeanour this afternoon: an over-enthusiasm, perhaps, even a hint of nervousness. She wondered if he had had trouble at work.

“Shall we start with those warm-up exercises we were looking at last week, Mr. Boothroyd?”

“My dear, I must confess that I haven’t practised at all – it’s been such a week.”

“All the more reason for doing them now,” rejoined Laura with a smile, and leant forward to turn the page. She was suddenly aware of having long chestnut hair which she was rather proud of. “Yes,” she repeated in a more businesslike voice, “all the more reason for doing them now. Now let’s start with the left hand …”

Diligently Mr. Boothroyd’s left hand performed the first exercise, and diligently his right hand performed the second; but there was something stilted about the way he touched the keys today, a certain hesitancy, a certain restraint.

“Oops, wrong note!”

“No matter, just go on.”

“I seem to have two left hands today.”

“You’re doing very well.”

“You flatter me.”

“You’re doing very well, really; you just have to let go a bit …”

Watching him play – watching, to be precise, the very slight movements of his bottom lip which accompanied his playing, an involuntary habit which she really ought to correct – Laura wondered how old he was. Fifty, perhaps, fifty-five? He was old enough to be her father. And yet he seemed so much younger, for all his old-world courtesy; she could well imagine him as a young man, even as a boy.

“Very good,” she said, realizing as she spoke that she had not heard a single note.

“What, with all those mistakes?”

“It had drive.”

“Well, well, there’s life in the old dog yet,” said the Lavender Man, giving her a strange look as he spoke. “I was wondering, Miss Morley –“


“If, ah – Yes, if it mightn’t be an idea to have a crack at that Chopin piece again,” he said, blinking.

“Oh yes, let’s play the Chopin,” said Laura, turning the pages herself. “I know this is a piece you particularly like, isn’t it …?”

Time always flew in this lesson. Although she knew the pieces so well – and the attendant mistakes, too – there was always a quality of newness about these Friday afternoons.

The Lavender Man did not play well, and he never would; but he played with sincerity, and with an utter respect for every note upon the page. It was as if, with his five-finger exercises and his couple of Chopin études, he were paying homage in his own way to an ideal which he knew he would never be able even to apprehend, as a devout heart lays wild flowers before a wayside shrine. Laura suddenly reflected that she had never had a pupil like him.

“I’m never sure about this opening.”

“I think you’re reading it wrong; yes, that’s an E flat in the second bar … ”

“Ah, of course! Come back, come back, little E flat … “

Yes, she had never had a pupil like him; and she had never known a person like him, either, not in all her years of study and teaching, all her years of practice-rooms and concert halls and metronomes and vanity and arrogance and conceit. Not one of her teachers, not one of her conductors had possessed an iota of this man’s love for music, she reflected; and when she thought of some of the things she had seen in her life as a musician, some of the self-love, some of the back-stabbing, some of the sheer mediocrity, her heart welled with something more than respect for this fifty-year-old beginner, something –

“Oh, that E flat!”

“Don’t look for it!”

“I miss it every time!”

“Just let your fingers run and find it – That’s it! One-two-and … ”

And he played again, still stiffly, still incorrectly, but with more love than ever. The face he turned to her on reaching the end of the piece was that of a five-year-old boy.

“Excellent, Mr. Boothroyd! I think you’ve never played it so well.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand it for the first time. Well, perhaps ‘understand’ is too strong a word; ‘appreciate’, let’s say.”

“You have to keep that left hand going whatever happens.”

“Yes, it’s like being two people, isn’t it? The two hands, apart and yet together …”

Suddenly a look of surprise flashed across his features, as if he were shocked at what he had just said. He rubbed his large, dry hands.

“Well, it is written as an exercise for developing the left hand. There are several more in this book, actually –”

“Miss Morley, there’s something I have to ask you –”

“At least I thought it was in this book; maybe it’s in Volume II –”

“Miss Morley, permit me to ask you something.”

Laura put down the book she had been thumbing through and looked at Mr. Boothroyd. The glance he gave her was such a mixture of hope and fear, of expectation and embarrassment, that she was frightened to return it and she stared away, blushing. A terrible premonition started creeping through her veins.

“How should I start?” said Mr. Boothroyd, clearing his throat as he spoke and flushing in his turn. “Perhaps I should first say that what I want to say – Well, let me put it this way: it’s a suggestion I’d like to make – I stress ‘suggestion’ – and I wouldn’t wish you to feel under any sense of – Well, I have to say, sense of obligation. What we have is of course a … a pecuniary relationship, if you like, and there would be no reason why such a – such an arrangement should not continue. But for a long time now I have been wanting – have been entertaining the idea, shall we say – No: let me call a spade a spade and say that it would give me great pleasure if you could …”

And so he talked, piling phrase upon phrase, his set smile growing more desperate with every word he uttered.
And Laura, no longer listening, was already shaking her head.

“Perhaps sometime at the weekend, some weekend that suits you, of course,” ran on the Lavender Man, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead now, “I was thinking perhaps in terms of a meal in town – There’s a very nice little place I know …

Laura’s head shook until her chestnut curls covered her eyes. Those words, A very nice little place I know, sent shivers through her heart, delivered as they were with affected nonchalance, almost perkiness.

There was a long silence before she could bring herself to speak.

“It’s terribly nice of you, Mr. Boothroyd,” she began, “but –”

He held up his hand to stop her saying more.

“I quite understand, my dear. I quite understand.” Mr. Boothroyd breathed in deeply once or twice, his hands on his knees, his back as straight as a die. “No need to say a word. No need. Goodness, is that the time?” he suddenly said, glancing at the clock on the wall. “We’ve overshot the mark. Dear oh dear. I am sorry. I think I’m due to pay this week, aren’t I …?”

And he took out his wallet and tactfully placed a couple of notes under the metronome on the piano.
“Now, I really must be off,” he said, tapping his pockets and glancing at his watch; “yes, I hadn’t realized it was so late. I have a commitment in town, I’m afraid …”

Laura followed rather than escorted him to the front door. He slipped away with a nod and a smile, straightening his hat as he went. She knew in that instant that she would never see him again; and as she gently closed the front door upon his retreating figure, the smell of her rented flat filled her nostrils, sick and stale and empty.

{ 1 comment } February 16, 2013 at 9:46 am

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