Avalon de Jani. That was his name: Avalon de Jani. That may be the wrong spelling but I never saw it written down. I did not understand it then, I was too young, but I do now: the reason he mesmerised me was that he was so beautiful. He must have had some wild South Asian blood in his veins. His skin was dark and flawless; a pale milk-chocolate hue with black eye lashes you could swan-dive from and black shiny hair that flopped over his brow. I did not then know the colour of his eyes because I rarely saw them; I assumed they were very dark. It was enough to gaze at him but if he raised or turned his head to look at me it was too much, I had to look away; like one does to a flame. He rarely looked at me; he rarely looked at anyone. His eyes were always downcast like a shy virgin. He also played the piano beautifully.
“Why do you always want to go so early?” my mother would often ask. “You’re lesson’s not ‘till nine.” I made some excuse, I don’t remember what, but the real reason was so I could sit in Miss Laverton’s hall outside her music room and listen to him play Ravel’s Prelude. She always used it to end his lesson; the one before mine on a Saturday morning. Ah, Saturday mornings. The Ravel Prelude is aurally simple but technically not. Maurice Ravel had written it as a sight-reading examination piece, we were told, for the Paris Conservatoire in 1913. The difficulty arose when the left and right hands overlapped over the same notes and you not only had to get the notes right but you also had to maintain the dynamics, the interpretation, the sense of ease the piece demanded.
It may help you to understand the power this boy had over me when I explain that Miss Laverton was a cow. If it wasn’t for Avalon di Jani Saturday mornings would have been hell and if it wasn’t for Avalon di Jani I would not be now preparing for my first professional engagement as a pianist. Miss Laverton was a sour-faced, mean-spirited spinster, who hated the world for everything it had, or had not, thrown at her, and who took out her revenge on me, or so it seemed to me at the time. Her picky and detailed instruction would later prove fruitful but at the time it was a pain. She hated me. I was never good enough, never intelligent enough to understand the subtleties of pianistic technique. Everything I played was either too fast, too slow, too plodding, too pedestrian or too flowery, too over-cooked, too mannered. I put up with Miss Laverton only because Avalon de Jani was diligent enough to turn up every Saturday morning; and because he did, I did. I finally outgrew Miss Laverton and was given the opportunity to move on, to another state, another city, another teacher; but Saturday mornings lost their magic for me: without her in my life there was no more him. I never saw Avalon de Jani after I moved; even though, now, when I play I still play for him. Tonight, I just might play the Prelude as an encore, if one is warranted.
But for those three years Saturday mornings kept me going. I had secretly learnt Ravel’s Prelude and played it often at home. It was my way of getting close to Avalon de Jani any time I liked. Avalon de Jani. Say it again. Avalon de Jani. It is like honey in your mouth.
On this particular Saturday morning, the morning my life changed, I was early as usual; and yes, towards the end of his lesson he played it. I could hear her dry voice, but not her words, praising him, no doubt. It was a tone of voice she had never used with me. And then she made him play it again. The first six climbing solo notes in the right hand begin after a rest and then they fall as the base notes climb to meet them until treble and bass notes tumble over each other. The rest on the first beat on the first bar is the key here. You must play it even though you do not play it. You must treat it like an expectation: it is part of the music. It is written down: a rest. It is there but, of course, it is silent. He usually forgets this and the impetus it gives the opening notes. I wondered why Miss Laverton did not explain this to him. Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe silence is just that: nothing. I also thought he played it a little too fast but maybe he just wanted to get away from her, get it over with. That, I could understand.
I then heard him start it again, but it was different this time: slower, halting, not like him at all. And just the treble, one handed. He played the whole piece, but it sounded like a child, a beginner, with stiff fingers and uncertain technique. What was he doing? And why wasn’t she shouting at him?
I heard the door open and I looked up preparing myself for those lashes, that floppy hair, and maybe, just maybe, a look. But it was not him, it was her.
“There you are, Mitchell,” she said gruffly. “Come in.”
What? I hesitated. But he is still there.
“Well, come on! Don’t dawdle!”
“Sorry Miss,” I said as I got up. She held the door open as I entered the music room. He was still sitting at the piano with his back to me. I heard the door close and saw Avalon de Jani move slightly along the piano stool to his right, as if to make room for .... My heart skipped a beat.
“Sit down, Mitchell,” she said as she sat in her chair. There was no other place except on the piano stool next to Avalon de Jani. As I sat Miss Laverton said something but all I was aware of was that his left thigh had begun to press against my right. Avalon was looking down as usual; his hands on his knees, his floppy hair obscuring his face.
Miss Laverton said something again and then I heard her angry tone,
“There! In front of you.”
I looked up and there, open, was the familiar music to Ravel’s Prelude: the usual version, for solo piano. What did this mean?
“Avalon will play the treble with his left hand, and you, Mitchell, will play the bass with your right.”
“A little experiment of mine”, she added; and then “Oh, and Avalon, of course, will take the pedals.”
This was a trap. She thought I did not know this piece. And then to ask me to play the bass line, usually played with the left-hand, with my right? He knows this piece backwards, he …. Then I remembered. That faulting treble line I heard him play earlier: she made him play it with his left hand; practicing, giving him the advantage. This little experiment is for nothing but to put me down by showing me up. She’s such a bitch!
“You can take it slower. As you wish, Avalon, as you lead in. When you are ready.”
He paused and I saw in my periphery vision his left-hand rise, the rest, then he began: the first rising phrase. He was indeed taking it slowly. I joined him with my right hand, playing the bass line, my rising notes to his now falling. I needed to keep my eyes on the page, not on my hand. As our hands intermingled his fingers gently brushed against mine. I had to concentrate. Concentrate! I was aware only of the notes in front of me and our fingers caressing ever so slightly. I dared not look down. I have no idea what my fingers were doing, I was glued to the notes on the staff lines hoping my muscle memory was serving me well, but my right hand had never played the bass line before. It was like looking over a cliff, feeling faint. And there are a few sections where the bass line becomes the treble; a mental gear-shift but still I could not, I dared not, look down. The piece is just over a minute in length but it felt more like five. It finally came to an end with my left hand having to cross over his right again to complete the final chord he had started and with each of us aware of the other’s hand raised up off the keyboard, touching, just touching, mine over his to hold before he released the pedal to bring the lingered sound to an end, we took away our hands together and… he rested his on his knees, my hands on mine. My shoulders ached. We waited. I wondered what she was going to say.
“Thank you, Avalon, for staying back a few minutes. Wait just a moment, and I’ll get this month’s invoice.” I heard her get up and leave the room. We were alone. The room was filled with nothing but the warmth between our thighs.
What? “Excuse me?” I said. Did he speak to me?
“I did that really badly”, he said, head still down. “I’m so sorry.”
“No no. It was me. I …”
He got up quickly from our shared seat and headed to the door.
“Wait!” I called. I wanted him to stay. We were alone, if only for a moment. Alone with him. “What about your invoice?” was all I could think to say.
He had already opened the door but he stopped and turned. He looked at me; Looked. At. Me. Oh, yes, his eyes were so dark. I gasped.
He said with the hint of a smile, “Bring it over.” And he was gone.
“Well that was a thorough waist of ti …… Where’s Avalon?”
“He had to rush off,” I said, I think.
“Embarrassed no doubt by your fumbling. What a disappointment you are Mitchell. Anyway, we may as well get started. Scales. E flat. Double time”.
As my fingers danced over the keys I became lusciously aware that Miss Laverton had no idea that this was the first time, and probably the only time she would be alone in a room with the happiest boy in the world.
Prelude in Another Key
His name is John Mitchell. He always looks away when I catch his gaze; he either doesn’t like me or he is shier than I am, which is difficult to contemplate. But then when I look at him he is always looking at me. I can’t help but suspect that maybe there is a little hope lurking in the air between us.
He has short dark hair and looks like he works in the sun. He has strong thick hands which is curious since he plays the piano so well. I often linger in the hallway outside Miss Laverton’s music room after my lesson, after John has taken my place, has sat on the seat where I just was. I always imagine that he will look at me when I leave, as he gets up to enter, but what look there is, is fleeting; but I stand and listen to his warm-up scales. Even those are beautiful, they are lyrical and phrased like a song. Her voice to him is always harsh. I don’t know why she is so hard on him. I wonder why he bothers with her since he is such a good player and she is, well, an adequate teacher; there are better ones around. Maybe she realises that he will be far better than she ever was or could be and resents it. I try hard to like Miss Laverton.
I am well aware that my looks, my dark skin, downward stoop, and cowering demeanour make adults like Miss Laverton think I need protecting, while they make my peers think I need a good kicking. Some of them are like dogs: they can smell fear. In my case, it’s more like derision; maybe they can smell that too. I let my hair grow long in the front so that it hangs down like a curtain around my face so I can’t see the pity, dislike, or stinging curiosity on the faces of those I pass.
Miss Laverton makes me play Ravel’s Prelude at the end of every lesson. She says is has an unwinding effect on the brain, like a cooling down after a workout. Not that it is easy, not like it sounds: both hands compete for the notes around middle C and you need to keep your eyes on the page, and not on your fingers, or they will jumble over each other and ruin it.
However, I was not prepared for what happened, for what I was brave enough to say – I blush, but with a smile, just thinking about it – on that wonderful Saturday when I spoke to him. As usual, after my stumbling through a maniacal passage by Liszt, Miss Laverton asked me to play the Prelude. I did. It was a sign that the lesson was coming to an end and I was pleased to leave the Liszt behind and thought of John waiting in his usual chair outside in the hallway. I wondered if he were listening. And then she asked me to do something very strange: she asked me to play it again, but this time, just the treble line, not with my right hand, but with my left. She said it was an experiment in dexterity, in pliability and technique, and also a sight-reading exercise. She justified it a little too much, I thought, leaving a little suspicion lurking in the background, but what for, I wondered. It was terrible. It sounded like a cat walking over the keys, yet I got through it. Then, without an explanation Miss Laverton rose from her chair, asked he to stay seated, and went and fetched John from the hallway. I felt my shoulders slump forward and my hair fell to its protective purpose. What was she going to do? I knew Miss Laverton’s chair was the only sitting place in the room, other than the piano stool, of … ! I held my breath. I felt the rupture in the air as he walked into the room, I moved slightly to my right, and he sat down beside me; our thighs touching. I could only see his hands on his knees; they quivered a bit with uncertainly. Mine too. The warmth from his body against mine was all I could feel. Miss Laverton said something, and repeated it, more harshly this time, in the tone she always uses with John. And then she explained. She wanted me to repeat the treble part of the Prelude with my left hand while she bade John to play the bass line with his right. I had just practiced this, but had John? Maybe she had given this as his homework exercise last week. I thought it was a little harsh of her not to let us work together on the score for a few minutes: that would have been nice, for many reasons. But no. The feeling in my stomach was that it felt like a test, something to fear. It is hard to like Miss Laverton.
We begin. I lead in noting the rest on the first beat and then the first six notes, when John begins with his right hand as it climbs with the notes to straddle my left. I dare not look down but concentrate on the score in front of us. I can feel our fingers gently touching but I dare not dwell on it, my full attention is on the score, and my left hand unfamiliarly playing the treble notes. It is hard to breathe and to ignore the muscle memory on my right hand which wants so desperately to help. It’s a nightmare and the beauty of the piece is in tatters as we stumble to a conclusion with our two hands intertwined above the keys. I put my hands on my knees, and John put his hands on his. Now I am only aware of the heat between our thighs.
Miss Laverton made no comment but got up and said something about getting my weekly invoice. We were alone in the room. Without thinking, but feeling as if I had let him down, I apologised. We had sounded like beginners.
“Sorry, John. I did that really badly.” I felt a small jump in his body. Was he angry with me? “I’m so sorry.” I knew his difficult relationship with Miss Laverton and I had made his forthcoming lesson all the more worse for him.
“No, no,” said the dear boy and he took the blame. I felt worse! My default response, as always, was flight. I got up to leave. But his voice stopped me. He said something about waiting for my invoice. I turned to look at him: something in his voice seemed not to want me to go. That was impossible. But his eyes were so intense that they gave me courage – this is the only explanation because I am never brave enough to initiate anything. It is so difficult. But I spoke to him.
I said, “Bring it over.”
The shock of those three words propelled me out of the room and out of the house. I walked, almost ran home. What will happen now? Why did I say that? And why did I accompany those words with a little smile, a little smile like that? What will he think of me? Will he come? No. He does not know where … But my address is on the invoice! Yes, he will come. But what will I say to my Grandmother, Mother, and five sisters? They may think he is just a friend. Is that possible? No. My face, or not showing my face, will tell them the truth. It is a disaster! He will come. It is a disaster. He will not come.