Kath Beattie’s published work includes children’s readers, stories, and poems, chapter books, two children’s books, three self-published adult books (Walking Backwards into Your Future, Charged with Man’s Laughter, and a commissioned history, Artsenta: The First 30 Years). She has had 50 or so adult short stories published, broadcast, or placed in competitions, several poems ditto, plus essays and articles. She has taught creative writing, and runs two writing groups.

Writing and reading are a passion…as is theatre, art, the outdoors…life in general.

When Rachmaninov held my hand

Rachmaninov sits next to me at the concert. I know him by his sombre presence and the infamous long fingers which can span twelve keys and which now brush fluff from his immaculate pants. His pinky briefly touches my knee, enough to send a quiver through my being as I watch immobile, listening to his 2nd Piano Concerto trilling out from the stage. 

My friends want to put their handbags on what they see as a spare seat but I wave them away. 

I’m surprised to find Rach in a business suit, imagining always that he’d wear a cloak topped with a Flemish hat (even though he is Russian), thigh boots and an air of importance and aristocratic haughtiness. Yet here he is looking more like a worried parliamentarian out on the hustings.

I know that he and his family fled Russia after the Revolution and lived mostly in the US, but I enjoy my own image of him. I had of course seen photos of him, but dreams are another territory and can live happily alongside reality. 

‘I’m a modern personage,’ he says as if he knows what I am thinking. His voice has just the sort of richness one would expect from someone with a lugubrious face, and I shrink back in my seat, in case he disapproves of my whimsies. He touches his chest lightly with his willow-stick fore-finger. ‘I was the first in my neighbourhood to own a car and … and … not that I am one to brag, but I did love my fast cars. And speedboats.’

I look suitably impressed, imagining him roaring about on tree-lined lakes and by-ways as he soaked up the music of water, waves and wind inspiring symphonic compositions.  

As we sit listening together, losing ourselves in the trilling notes, he suddenly interrupts our reverie to chat about his daughters or some other topic while the piano keys pound and the drums and violins go crazy. Despite his chatter I’m concentrating closely to the concerto on another level, as if I am in two places at the same time, experiencing fully both happenings.  

‘You purchased this didn’t you?’ He pauses. ‘The record.’  He pops this fact without warning, and my heart somersaults. ‘In the ‘60s from GUM in Red Square,’ he adds, ‘where the locals then queued for hours for soap, biscuits, bread, and the sparse tourists like yourselves thumbed through vinyl wrapped in cheap unbleached paper for our Rooshan classics.’ He peers down at me, his equine face gaunt, half shadowed, his bearing sad.         

There is satire in his pronunciation of ‘Russian’ but no smile and for a second I think he is going to put his arm around me. I nod in answer to his shock statement, afraid to speak aloud – we are, after all, in the presence of the NZSO and a famous living pianist, even if I am in the cheapest seats – come to think of it, so is he! 

Freddy Kemph is conducting and playing at the same time, and it is just at the part where I used to sob, the strings joining me, violins soaring, the cellos groaning and the  piano crying. I almost do it again and not just because of the music – Rach’s compassion feels heavy, overwhelming. How did he know?

‘It was my saviour too,’ he says, shaking his head as if perplexed.  ‘After the hullabaloo of the No 1, I couldn’t face anyone. I contemplated’ – he pauses – ‘yes, I contemplated ending it all.’

My eyes fill with tears. I couldn’t tell him, but even in the depths of my young and sudden widowhood, I had never thought of – you know – taking my own life. If anything I shook my fist to the heavens and challenged whoever was up there to ‘just try and knock me down!’

‘Oh my!’ I say reaching out to touch his sleeve, then look quickly around to ensure no-one sees me stroking what to them must be an empty space. 

‘That’s when these notes came to me,’ he says, ‘Came to me like a miracle or a message from some other dimension. There I was curled on my bed, the curtains pulled, my food  untouched, my family distraught – not that I cared –  wishing I could get out of the darkness – that bottomless black despair – when I heard these notes filling my head, my heart and my room. It was there, whole and real and beautiful and I knew I had a diamond within my grasp.’   

The piano is softly tinkling at this point, as if it too was a precious stone, and I remember that he had been eighteen at the time of the public playing and slaying of his first concerto, which caused the depression. The orchestral conductor was reportedly so blotto that he made a real hash of the piece, the audience booed and ridiculed, and it was never played again throughout Rach’s life. 

I turn to face him, and he adds, ‘It was the hypnosis that helped me through, helped me see that in the whole scheme of things, the reviews, the nastiness and whatnot, were all so very insignificant and not worthy of my self-denigration and hatred especially when I still had so much creativity to expend. It was in the hypnosis that I learned to package it all up and make it into a small beetle in the corner of the room, then stomp on it! But my goodness it was not easy. Sometimes that beetle became a monster again.’ Rach shakes his head. ‘Have you ever had your work rubbished so publicly, so cruelly?’

I screw my face about, partly because I can smell cigarette smoke on his breath (he’s a renowned heavy smoker!) and partly because I am perplexed. I am no musician. I just lose myself in pieces, often not knowing their composer or origin. I peer at him and it strikes me that he knows I scribble a bit and have enough rejection slips to fill the largest recycling bin. It would be crass of me to denigrate his hurt with worse examples (and oh boy I’ve had some beauties) – after all, he’d had a masterpiece destroyed in front of him as a teenager. ‘Life plays us many rotten hands,’ I say shaking my head so he can’t see my embarrassment at remembering some of them.  

‘Inexplicable!’ he says, nodding to let me know that he understands the analogy with the rotten card deals, ‘but how can I grumble about my depths when you’ve had such an ultimate one? You met him there didn’t you, in Moskva? That’s when you got the record together and – and afterwards – after the accident and he – he – passed’ –and I thought how strange that a man who had two sisters die young and who had met so much sadness and depression himself still couldn’t say the ‘d’’word – you played my miracle 2nd Concerto over and over until you could cry no more.’

My face glistens with dew as the piano softens to the melody, the notes flitting up and down the keys as soft as a feather and I look at Rach and see that he too is weeping. I don’t like to offer him my (clean) hankie. What would the folk around me think. For god’s sake, what is she doing waving a tissue over the spare seat?

As it is, the young woman in the second seat along keeps glancing sideways at me. And at half time she and her male companion move. I peer around to see if they’d found better seats and am sure I catch a glimpse of Chopin – or is it Gershwin – in the distance. What is happening to me? I look at Rach. He is still leaning toward me, his eyes brimming. ‘I wept  a lot when writing this one,’ he says. ‘Like you, I sometimes sobbed out loud for hours. I’m telling you, I expended so much tragic emotion that I thought I’d never be whole again.’

I nod as he speaks. Yes, I think, it was just like that. I was inconsolable, not that anyone particularly wanted to console me. They seemed to think that I should just shake myself off and get on with life. For heaven’s sake! A year or three had gone by and I was still a social and personal cripple. Didn’t having work help? And shouldn’t I be lucky not to have children. Perhaps, they said, lucky wasn’t the best choice of words, but life was to be lived, the future grabbed – the past was kaput. They had no notion that it was my future that seemed kaput.

So I wore the coping face and played Rach 2. 

Rach takes my hand. I think of the gardening callouses and the arthritic knuckles and wonder if he can feel them, but my gently curled fist disappears in to his palm like a small bird in a nest, warm and soft and strong. Then he bends and kisses my wrist. ‘Yours is a mirror of my devastation,’ he says. 

The concerto is at the part near the conclusion where the cello and the piano intertwine and plead together. Then just before the piece where the melody unfolds soft and releasing and one feels one’s whole being lifting and floating, he says, ‘You were right to ditch the scratched record.’ In a rush I feel the last of the regret and guilt fade.

It had not been an easy letting-go. At the time my studio was being repainted and I needed to de-lutter. I had sorted the old LPs.  Rach’s was heavier than the more modern ones and badly marked. I’d  put it in the out-box then retrieved it – this happened two or three times. Then I test-played it on the old turntable. The needle jumped, it rang tinny and scratchy. The flimsy paper cover with the Russian design and writing had yellowed and torn till only a scrap was left.  There was no doubt that the old magic had gone. 

‘Try the internet,’ he says, ‘there’s much better ones there. Including some of me playing.’

I turn and smile at him. ‘Sergei,’ I say (I felt that by now, I had the right to address him so, even if he was considered one of the most formidable pianists of all time and possibly a bit toffee-nosed as well),  ‘I have. The trouble is I can’t play you on the computer and write at the same time.’

‘Well then,’ he frowns, ‘I shall send you a new cd.’

 ‘The No 2?’ I cry and quickly look around in case I have actually shouted. But the audience remain statue-like – all except for the teenage boy along the row who is texting, the blue light from his cell phone pursing the lips of the woman beside him.

Rach’s eyebrows fly heavenward. ‘What else?’ Then the world renowned composer, conductor and brilliant pianist smiles at me. He actually smiles. This man known as the six foot-six scowl, smiles. At me. ‘In memory,’ he adds.

Then he is gone. 

 I glance at my companions. They are rising from their seats applauding and bravo-ing, unaware that Rach has been in our presence, and they are probably wondering why I am not clapping. 

‘Sore hands,’ I say, nurturing that wondrous warmth of the feathery nest, his lips on my pulse and his promise. My knees almost buckle at the memory.

There are only so many curtain-calls we can all do before we sit again, and it is then that the theatre manager strides onto the stage, her arms full of bouquets and presents them to Freddy, the first violinist, and the leading cellist, and I pray that the players won’t dump them in the trash-can as they leave (an incident which I had heard a world famous diva once did) and then she makes an announcement. 

‘As a special surprise tonight,’’she says, her voice ringing round the Town Hall, ‘we have a lucky seat-number prize. And the winner of  Freddy Kemph’s recording of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto No 2 is …’

It was me!