Prelude and The Raft
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
All or Nothing
THE PEDLARíS PREDICTION
was beginning to feel a little better and one morning asked my mother
if I could go outside. I was still far from fit and she was none too
keen on the idea. Even so, she agreed, thinking to herself that some
fresh air would be an excellent antidote to the piano.
great dressing ritual began. It was a real ceremony: it was not enough
for my mother just to put my clothes on. I had to be fully rigged out.
My feeble constitution was always close to crisis point. The insignificant
weight of my body was still too much for my matchstick legs. The slightest
gust of wind would have bowled me over so she put some ballast in my
shoes and padded my get-out to prevent the first wild and mischievous
autumn gust turning me into a weather vane. To start with I pulled on
two long pairs of thick socks, then a long-sleeved vest, a thick lined
shirt and a huge pullover which would have done service as a tunic.
A patched old overcoat (which I could have fitted into twice without
all the aforementioned) reached to my ankles. My mother would not shorten
it as I had no long trousers. These plus a long shawl knotted round
my neck and a pair of shoes whose length and heaviness must have equalled
a quarter of my height and a third of my weight respectively, made me
look like a scarecrow. Mother Nature must have thought I was off to
the North Pole when she saw me all dressed up like a guy. In fact I
was only going down into the yard. My goings out were subject to very
simple rules laid down by my mother. First, illness was a costly privilege
reserved for the rich; poor people kindly refrain. Second, why whet
oneís appetite in the cold air when one can go hungry in comfort at
home? Third, God looks after his own. This philosophy was the vademecum
of many other families and was immediately followed by a shower of further
advice before I was allowed out into Ďdropoutsí jungleí.
preparations over, she helped me downstairs for at that season the old
planks of the balcony/walkway were slippery, as were the stairs. When
we reached the yard, she patted the top of my head and swiftly went
back up. There was no-one else in the yard. I walked carefully through
the mud looking for a playmate and thinking nostalgically of the great
events of that summer.
rainbow bubble of my dream was burst when a horde of kids dashed in,
on the way back to the warren after a good time in a nearby field. There
was just the right number for a good game of cops-and-robbers, I thought,
happy to see them. Most of them were known to me because they lived
in the same block. When they caught sight of me, they stopped in the
middle of the yard to exchange a few words then started slowly to approach.
I realized from the nasty, sullen way they were looking at me that there
was nothing to be gained from waiting there and yet I did, intrigued
as I was by their behaviour. They formed a circle round me. They seemed
to be weighing me up as if they had never set eyes on me before. Apart
from a few of my own age, most of them were about ten years old. As
I in turn looked at them more closely, I realized to my surprise for
the first time how like beggars they looked with their torn, ragged
clothes. Mine were all patches and no better than theirs except that
my mother washed and mended them regularly so that I should look less
like a stray dog. Even so, compared with what some of those who were
staring at me with such persistence were wearing and by the norms of
ĎAngel Courtí it must have looked as if I were dressed in haute couture.
My recent exploits at the circus, still the chief subject of gossip
on winter nights, only made things worse. Angered by such superiority,
the gang in its menacing silence obviously found it difficult to accept
that such a weed had done something not even the toughest in the gang
could have. In their eyes, such showing-off could not go unpunished.
They pressed round me, preparing for the kill. In a flash I was pushed
to the ground, punched repeatedly and rolled in the mud, and after that
bombarded with lumps of muck. I got myself sadly up out of the puddle
and heard my aggressors sniggering as they ran off: "Thatíll teach
him to be such a bighead and earn so much! Iíve seen him fooling about...ugh!"
The yard was deserted once more. I hobbled back up to our room. My mother
let out a cry when she saw me returning in such a state. To cut a long
story short, I pretended I had bumped into something from not looking
where I was going. Punishment was immediate: a week without any piano.
I was undressed manu militari and ordered to bed without supper.
While the others ate, I examined my hands as if they contained some
shameful secret. The excuse I gave my mother was only a half-lie. The
invisible object into which I claimed to have bumped did exist: the
power of my hands to induce emotion. Such power could arouse feelings
of hatred as well as of love. As I began to doze off, my eyelids half-closed,
I thought with disbelief of the impotent bitterness of boys I had thought
were my friends as they stupidly tried to take away the only assailable
thing I had. Being a weakling was something to be ashamed of in ĎAngel
Courtí. In the world of the rejected, adults and children obeyed the
same law: that of the hardest-hitting fist.
I went along with my mother to the grocerís shop. She would put a tight
bandage round my wobbly knees over my two pairs of long socks and wind
another round my ankles, which had an unfortunate tendency to go out
of joint. I was thus able to walk in a straight line and fall over less
often. I preferred our neighboursí looks of commiseration behind our
backs to the gusts of autumn wind which blew me around like a straw.
By force of circumstances, I became a stay-at-home.
former friends were replaced, with advantage, by a cluster of extraordinary
characters, whose wonderful exploits I discovered during my bouts of
voracious reading. Captain Nemo, Man Friday, the Seven Dwarfs, filled
my dreams and worked on my imagination whenever they chose. But my piano
was my only confident, at once my master and my slave. The devilish
instrument was a lodestone round which my chief preoccupations turned
and a faithful mirror of my deepest feelings.
father wanted to continue giving advice for a while in an attempt to
temper, or at least channel, my ardent and rebellious talent. He was
not able to do a great deal. The robot-like obedience with which my
hands, as if pre-programmed, sounded out the mysteries of the keyboard
was to him so astonishing that, though I was only five and a half, he
did not dare intervene for fear this apparently superhuman gift, of
which I was the privileged receptacle, should lose its vitality. It
was as though I was drawn to the piano each day by some strange magnetic
force. My father no longer felt of any use at home and returned to his
wanderings with apostolic zeal, in search of the job of his dreams.
mother had gone back to the grocerís as a Ďmaid-of-all-workí, only coming
home to feed me at mealtimes. My sister continued to leave at daybreak
and return late in the evening. Although I was lonely, the time flashed
by, what with piano-playing and reading. In the evening neighbours sometimes
called in for a chat. As always, they paid for the imaginary food they
had brought with the cheerful clink of a non-existent silver crown.
Inflation was under control and the purchasing power of the new coin
was astonishing. On the other hand, half the unemployment indemnity
which had been the salvation of many had melted away. As their nest
egg diminished they were obliged to spend as little as possible. In
such hard times, nobody needed a shopping bag. A few potatoes, a half-portion
of cooking-oil, a single slice of bread for each member of the family
and just a quarter of a candle to light their feasts Ė this became the
norm again. The only way of putting a little aside was to fast or at
least become a vegetarian.
a limping pedlar as tall as a house arrived in the yard with two battered
suitcases, he certainly knew what he was about. His arrival caused unusual
excitement among the diehards of ĎAngel Courtí. Rain had washed the
colour out of his cases, bursting with samples of cloth of all kinds.
Scarcely had he put his bags down than a mass of people crowded round.
He spread out his cloth, got people to feel its softness and suggested
that the riff-raff looking on should have a leg cut off rather than
miss such an opportunity. His brash patter mesmerized the audience and
made the advantages of his Ďpenny-by-pennyí instalment plan, as he kept
repeating with an odd snigger, seem irresistible. It was true. This
wandering pedlar was offering a horde of out-of-work people who were
constantly hungry such bargains as would have made the Good Samaritanís
charity pale in comparison. The fellow knew all that was said about
ĎAngel Courtí and that it was not a good place for trade. Consequently,
he offered to deliver the following week the quantity of cloth of their
choice or a ready-to-wear garment. He would go on to other slums, prowling
the region endlessly like a bogeyman, collecting the money owing him
in sums of £2 a quarter, £1 a month or even 10p a week! The usurer of
fashion was the acme of Providence to all poor untouchables for whom
such opportunities were as rare as the temptation was great. Standing
round this King of the Highway, the crowd of beggars with their bottomless
bags excitedly consulted each other in their racy language. At the judicious
moment, the hobbling hawker conjured up a large book shiny with grease.
He meticulously noted down the name and order of every victim he had
managed to set on the road to ruin. Then he put away his samples in
a flash and, raising his long, ape-like arms to the sky, swore by all
the devils in Hell and half a dozen Bibles (those were the terms he
used) in a voice suddenly grown wheezy to get on with the work. As the
crowd dispersed, the crookback got up and with his deep-set, restless
eyes began searching where the strange melodious sounds of a piano,
which had been intriguing him for some little while, were coming from.
He waited on the alert for silence to return to the yard and then the
dark, starved-looking silhouette climbed the worm-eaten stairs.
usual at that time of day, I was by myself engaged on a complex, poetic
improvisation, sitting with my back to the door. It was not easy to
catch me unawares because while playing I made a mental note of all
the familiar sounds in the block, which resonated like a drum with the
echoes of various comings and goings. Without so much as raising my
eyes from the keyboard, I could tell what was happening in and around
the block from the creaking of a stair, the squeak of planks on the
balcony-walkway and even the distinctive groan of our front door.
a while, I stopped and let my arms fall. Staring ahead, I wondered if
I would dare continue the terrifying story of the Ogre which devoured
children as readily as I did Shepherdís Pie. I finally decided to wait
for my parents to return before making such a daring decision, for I
was as fascinated by the story as by the pictures in the old book I
had come across. The afternoon was drawing to a close and in the silent,
half-dark room the pale light was reflected by the piano keys, yellow
with age. Even the thought of my tea Ė a dry crust and a few pieces
of sugar on a tin plate within easy reach Ė had me thinking of the monsterís
ghastly meals. I was suddenly awakened from my musings by a slight creaking
of the floorboards and my eyes opened wide with fear. I was sure someone
or something had come into the room and was standing motionless behind
me. Before even trying to see what the intruder looked like, I was convinced
it could not be a mortal since it seemed to me humanly impossible to
catch me out without my knowledge or without making the slightest noise.
I sat as if glued to the seat, not daring to turn my head. The voice
of conscience, repenting too late, echoed in my head, "If you keep
reading about ogres, youíll end up meeting one." Summoning up such
courage as remained to me, I spun round on my stool, holding on tight
so as not to fall off. In the darkening room there stood before me a
strange, ghostly man with a blank gaze, extremely tall and thin. He
looked lie a mummified devil. "Thank God!" I whispered. "At
least it isnít the child eater!"
everyone would dare go where I do," said the visitor in a grating,
otherworldly voice. "Iíve been listening to you for some time,
lad. I like your work but Iíd like you to play even better." He
gave a hollow laugh. "Alas! No magic can replace the pinch of sulphur
which will soon make your playing different from othersí. But thatís
of no importance for the moment and even I can do a good dead on occasion,"
he mumbled half to himself.
who are you, sir?" I asked politely, astonished by the characterís
appearance and absurd remarks. "Who am I?" he croaked in a
strangely jovial manner, which struck a false note. "Dammit, youíve
got more curiosity than your fingers, lad. Well, for you, letís see
nowÖIím the deacon of Destiny, ha, ha! Is that good enough for you?"
still failed to understand what he was getting at. Luckily my mother
turned up unexpectedly and the conversation took another turn. Weighing
up the lofty, skeletal figure with one glance of her bright eyes, she
realized he was a pedlar. "Sir," she said politely, but in
a tone admitting of no reply, "we arenít just poor, weíre very
poor. Iím sorry to have wasted your time so if you would kindlyÖ"
Very grandly, she opened the door for the pedlar.
said the decidedly odd creature, "I havenít come to sell my wares,
though you could do with them. You should also know that I never waste
my time," he muttered, stressing the final words. "I came
to tell you that your son has exceptional talent. His place isnít in
a big top but at the Budapest Academy of Music founded by Franz Liszt."
His words admitted of no contradiction either. "But how do you
know?" my mother ventured to ask, quite taken aback. "Madam,
Iím no more than a humble travelling-salesman but, er, well, I know
what I know," he replied obsequiously. "As proof of my good
faith Iím going to make an appointment for you with the Director of
the Academy so he can audition your son."
donít expect me to believe that you know him personally?" retorted
my mother, looking sharply at the strangerís frayed clothes. "Madam,
I have every reason to believe he will refuse me nothing," he replied
with a sardonic laugh. "Be sure to be ready: next week Iíll be
back to confirm the day and exact time of your appointment and then
Ė what will be will be! My respects, madam. See you soon, young master!"
and away he went, shaking with laughter. He picked up his load from
the landing and this time I heard his ringing laughter and slightly
limping walk dying away as he went down the stairs, which groaned under
fell early over ĎAngle Courtí that day. As usual, my father and sister
came home exhausted. My mother told them excitedly about the odd, sphinx-like
character who looked like a tramp and spoke like the Prince of Darkness.
For me, once and for all, he was the terrible Ogre in my story to the
life even if there was no outward resemblance. I was most careful not
to let such a frightful secret be known, for nothing would induce me
to let the image of myself as someone far older than his years be tarnished
Ė an image I polished repeatedly. When my father was told that one of
the top musical dignitaries was to audition me very shortly thanks to
this odd fellow, he went wild with joy. I could not remember ever having
seen him so happy and exuberant. Over supper, he made great plans for
my future as a famous pianist. After all the exhilaration, my parentsí
conversation took a decidedly less enthusiastic turn.
no question of taking the boy to the Academy in that urchinís get up,"
declared my mother, her voice breaking. "They wouldnít even let
him in dressed like that." "What he needs is some new clothes,"
added my father, sighing wearily. "And decent shoes," added
my sister pensively as she got up from table to go to bed. The soles
of her shoes were like sieves. "Donít wait for me for supper tomorrow:
Iím behind with my work and will probably be late," she said as
she finished undressing. "Good night, all!"
got into bed, turned her face to the wall and fell asleep at once. I
did the same. My parents went on talking, trying to resolve the tantalizing
problem. Where were they to get the money from? Next day we were back
to our usual routine. I stayed at home alone, riveted to the piano stool,
my hands brushing the keys and constantly looking round uneasily, either
behind me or at the old yellowing book, expecting to see the menacing
image of the Bogeyman rising out of it. I got off with a scare.
parents and I were just finishing our meal when my sister arrived, flushed
with emotion, a large parcel wrapped in coloured paper under her arm.
She held it out to me silently, smiling. This form of generosity was
not the rule in our community and I stood there, arms dangling, not
knowing quite what to make of it all.
on, take it, silly, itís for you!" she cried, laughing at my shyness.
Greatly embarrassed, I took the beautiful parcel and placed it carefully
on the bed, really sorry to have to tear off such lovely wrappings.
I clumsily began to open it, putting off the moment of revelation as
long as possible. My parents and sister gazed at me tenderly as I undid
the last knot in the final ribbon. The parcel was undone. A dazzling
sailor suit plus a pair of real leather shoes, with such a shine on
them that it reflected the flame of the paraffin lamp, lay proudly in
their box. Five minutes later, dressed in my wonderful suit, I was strutting
round the room bursting with joy while my family gaped in admiration.
The amazingly big collar was like a lordís; my first long trousers with
their immaculate creases fitted just right.
were you able to guess his measurements so accurately?" my mother
asked in astonishment. "Quite simple," my sister answered.
"Last night while you were all asleep, I got up and measured him
from head to foot." "How did you find the money so quickly?"
asked my father, perplexed. "Just as simple," she replied
evasively. "I used all my savings! My dear little brother,"
she went on, containing her emotion and kissing me, "Youíll go
to the Academy for your audition and itíll be a sensation."
could not sleep that night. By now I was quite ready for Nosferatu to
reappear and keep his promise. Meanwhile, I had made a firm decision
to read no more stories about ogres. Would I keep to it? In the huge
album with its dog-eared pages I found a story with a musical title:
the strange fable of a piper. It brought out the Sorcererís Apprentice
in me. I wondered what tunes the ragged wanderer played to his mysterious
rhymes in order to mesmerize the rats and children of Hamlin, getting
him to follow him everywhere. I wanted to do the same.
calculated that I had some chance of success since there were at least
as many rats in ĎAngel Courtí as in Hamlin. I sat down at the piano,
determined to conjure up a dozen or more. I was a little afraid my mother
might tell me off if she came back to find the place overrun with rats
so in the event of my magic not making them disappear in time I planned
to chase them away with a broom.
played for more than half an hour, doing my utmost to draw irresistibly
magic sounds from my piano. Despite my efforts, nothing happened and
by then I would have been satisfied with a couple of mice. But it was
no good: not a pointed nose in sight Ė yet I had even looked under the
pedals. Disappointed and not a little put out, I told myself that either
the Piper improvised better than me or it was one of those stories,
like catching birds by putting salt on their tales, invented by adults
to shake off children over-obsessed with magic.
we got dinner over, I asked my mother with feigned indifference if she
believed in the Piperís prowess. The question amused her and she explained
in a kindly manner that elves, goblins, ogres, as well as the Piper,
were all part of an imaginary family whose characters, though famous,
had never existed outside stories and legends invented for little boys
such as myself. Upon which she got up, washed our cracked plates in
no time at all and returned to the grocerís, warning me to behave myself
at least until she got back. I was alone once more. Outside the weather
was gloomy. To pass part of the afternoon, which looked like being endless,
I decided to re-read the Piperís story, laughing to myself at my previous
naivety. My reading was interrupted by some indefinable noise and I
stopped. A high-pitched whistle, like a long lament repeated over and
over, became ever more piercing as it approached. It was somewhat like
a catchy tune yet there was something pleading about it, at once fascinating
and unbearable. I had never heard anything like it. In my curiosity
I opened the window to take a look at the performer of the unearthly
hymn. It was the Bogeyman. Who else? He was still some way off. This
time he carried not only his two great suitcases but had on his back
a haversack of apparently considerable weight as it caused his long,
starved-looking carcase to bend.
modulated his strange chant until it became a strident whistle, still
walking in the direction of our block and limping slightly. I realized
with astonishment that it was one week to the day since our first encounter.
He was on time for his appointment. I do not know if he had guessed
my thoughts but he nodded at me from a distance, which I took for a
greeting and automatically answered with a wave. Deep down, I was almost
pleased to see the strange, whistling Bogeyman again: he had become
a part of my world. All of a sudden my pleasure turned to fear. People
looking as if they scarcely knew what they were doing came out of their
houses as he passed and, marching like sleepwalkers, fell into line
behind him. The procession grew before my eyes and was fast approaching
the entrance to our yard. When everyone was inside, the good shepherd
stopped whistling and, turning round, called out to his flock, "Come
on, you sexy lot! Itís time to rejoice! Iím back with you again!"
He broke into a forced, devilish laugh. Having recovered from their
stupefaction, his flock stood in line and applauded him, tittering as
they did so. They found him irresistible. He let them gorge themselves
on the hilarity he had provoked then raised his long, skinny arms in
the air. An oppressive silence at once fell over the crowd. He gravely
opened his great black book and in his extraordinary screech owl voice
called out the names of his debtors one by one. They came forward as
if hypnotised and went, heads bowed, up to the small folding table behind
which stood the seller of illusions, proud and generous.
each one he handed the roll of cloth he or she had ordered and, with
a grasping gesture, swept the tiny pile of small change the people had
humbly placed before him by way of a down payment. Good salesman that
he was, he did not neglect to make the noses of the boozers glow by
unashamedly paying court, with attempted ribaldry, to the sunken-faced
women. He picked out one nice girl with an emaciated face standing among
her friends, all withered and faded before their time. With an obscene
gesture he exclaimed, "By the fallen angel, I swear when I see
so many virtues in a single person it makes me long for a bowel movement!
Iíd rather stuff you than the Popeís mule!" The girl thus addressed
went and hid herself behind the others in embarrassment while they guffawed.
The Bogeyman went on titillating the women with other such compliments,
knowing full well that his latest conquest, a notorious prostitute,
was waiting patiently behind a nearby fence for him to honour his promises.
everyone was satisfied, the pedlar climbed up to our hovel. "Hi,
kid! Tomorrowís the day!" he said in the voice of a well-fed trooper.
"Mr Dohnányi, the Director of the Academy, will be expecting
you at his home at eleven oíclock sharp. Be there without fail,"
he went on, turning to my mother, who had just arrived. "No,"
turning towards me again as if he had guessed what was on my mind, "Iím
sorry I wonít be able to go with you but I really am very busy at the
moment. Iíll make sure you get a decent welcome just the same. Good
luck, lad. Perhaps weíll meet again." Those were his final, enigmatic
words as he stood in the doorway before limping off.
morning, my mother and I were up at daybreak. The Directorís home was
on the other side of Budapest. We had an hour-and-a-half walk to the
tram terminus, a two-hour journey across the city, then another hourís
walk. It was the first time I had been out of ĎAngle Courtí. How beautiful
the capital was with its flashing car lights, fairyland shop fronts
overflowing with treasure and wide, leafy avenues with palatial dwellings
on either side. It quite took my breath away. Dotted here and there
were hansom cabs, buggies and antiquated carriages which all became
inextricably entangled at every crossroads. Old hacks pulled buses and
splendid teams of horses with shining harness and gold-plated bits waited
for them stoically, taking not the least notice of the limousine drivers
bursting with impatience and blasting furiously on their horns to try
and get past. Crowds of overdressed people strolled along the pavements.
Haughty-looking women, heads held high, wore hats defying the laws of
gravity, or indeed laws of any kind. I gazed admiringly at one with
a tropical forest on her head made up of peacock, ostrich and cockatoo
feathers, and a few others besides. Another wore, with great dignity,
a three-master in full sail on her hair, which had been elegantly let
down. The most beautiful of all had a hat covered with fruit. There
was something for everyone: an apple, a pair, a bunch of grapes, a tomato.
It was not a hat, it was a cottage garden. We had descended from the
tram and my mother was hurrying ahead so fast that I had to run to keep
up. It was nearly eleven oíclock. We were now in a smart residential
district full of pretty flower beds. Far below us, a superb view of
the winding streets of the city appeared to our delighted gaze. We had
reached our destination.
as we were arriving at the home of the ĎLordí of the Academy, the richly
decorated gates opened. An impressive car with copper headlamps drove
noisily out and sped off towards the town centre. The doorkeeper gave
such an obsequious bow as it went by that we had a presentiment something
was not quite right. His act of homage over, the Cerberus-flunkey, who
was probably used to sending away mothers and their children, cut short
any possible conversation as, with a blank stare, he recited in an expressionless
voice, "The Director only sees people by appointment; he cannot
bear child prodigies and he thinks that, Liszt apart, all pianists past
and present arenít worth a shovelful of shÖ"
smell of burning followed by the dying sigh of a tyre pertinently illustrated
his words. An elegantly dressed man with greying hair came briskly towards
us. "May I respectfully point out, sir, that madam recommends the
car should not be taken out on Friday 13th?" intoned
the minion in an oily voice, bowing low once more. "Change the
wheel and mind your own business," replied the other, repressing
a laugh. "Who are these people?" he asked, seeing how upset
we looked. "The usual sort, sir," whispered the wit, raising
his white gloves in a gesture of helplessness. "Yet another prodigy
longing for fame."
at his servile hypocrisy, my mother protested, "That is not true,
sir! We are very poor and have come a long way for an appointment with
the Director of the Academy so he can audition my son, as that rascal
of a pedlar promised, may the Devil take him and his hypocritical face!"
"But I am the Director, madam, and Iím not expecting anyone this
morning," the head of the household broke in, leafing through his
diary. "Who is this pedlar you mentioned?"
donít know what hoaxer played this trick and I beg you to excuse us
for troubling you," my mother said, bowing her head in dismay.
"But you should know, sir, that weíve been travelling since dawn
and no-one goes miles by tram, not to speak of on foot, just for the
pleasure of getting surly treatment from a dolled-up squirt with a po-face
enough to make you want to go and hang yourself, even if his nose is
like a whole book of drinking songs."
description was so apt that the Professor had to hold his lips tight
to retain his dignity. While his factotum, red with embarrassment, went
off to change the wheel, the Director showed us into the garden and
said in an amused tone, "Come in and play me something, my boy,
while my Ö is seeing to the car." He led us into an immense living-room
with incredibly lavish furniture. Two concert grands had pride of place
in the middle. I hoisted myself onto one of the red velvet-coloured
stools and waited. In one corner, my mother was silently crossing herself
and I heard the voice of the master saying encouragingly, "You
I played. Everything and nothing. I played the Bogeyman, the Piper,
my joys and sorrows, swept along by the elation of at last being where
I belonged. I donít know how long it lasted. I remember the phone ringing,
the Director staring at me as if hypnotized and only going answer reluctantly
after some time. "No, I really canít comeÖ What? The rare pearl
retaining me? Youíre on the wrong track, dear. This isnít a rare pearl,
itís the pearl of pearls, the Koh-i-Noor!" The word was magic to
a childís ears.
is not the place to go into the hidden forces, magnetism, telepathy,
which certain types of journalist wrote of in connection with me. The
future of this heaven-sent child Ė or had he been sold to the Devil?
Ė admitted to the Academy under curious circumstances had to be decided
on without delay. There was a pseudo-critical outcry and soon two clans
of ardent combatants formed. The first spent its time trying to prove
to the second that the Chosen are the playthings of Fate. Unless it
be the contrary, retorted the others.
I went to lessons on foot to save the price of a return tram ticket
and with the money bought out-of-season fruit, especially in winter,
which I then resold in the smart districts at quite a good profit. This
small sum enabled me to start a sort of music library with things bought
by the kilo from junk dealers at the rate for old paper. These were
brought back triumphantly to ĎAngel Courtí, often by the cartload. Did
these books and scores do anything for me? A great deal and, in the
last resort, nothing.
first teachers at the Academy were just as perplexed as my father had
been: they did not know quite which class to assign me to. My talent
was a form of bond with my instrument that permitted my manual skills
to make sense of and straightway put into practice all I learnt from
the sort of methodical teaching which seems an avalanche of odds and
ends to most children. Things incomprehensible to me at ten became conditioned
reflexes activating my hands before my brain could provide a rational
was not yet possible to tell how far my talent would take me before
the weaknesses in my playing were revealed so I was allowed, indeed
ordered, to attend the Holy of Holies, the piano masterclasses. They
were quite different from any classes I had been to up till then. One
was not taught how to play well but how to become a part of oneís instrument
until the soul of the interpreter, visible to all, became the messenger
of music, restoring it in all its original clarity.
a few Ďgrown-upsí aged twenty-five and more came to these classes. They
were virtuosos, with a technique far outstripping my hesitant beginnerís
effrontery, who came along to perfect their already considerable mastery
under the eye of Istvan Thomán, who made an indelible impression
on me. He had been a pupil of Lisztís and was subsequently the revered
teacher of Bartók and Dohnányi. He had been appointed
to the top class at the Academy late in life and was its Tree of Life
Ė an authentic, first-hand purveyor of the teaching of Franz Liszt.
can still hear his voice roaring like an old lionís after a pupil had
played Lisztís Grande Polonaise and Chopinís Fourth Ballade.
"I once played these pieces to Liszt in this very room." What
Liszt had told our master was handed on to us as if it was something
completely new, a password for generations of young interpreters. He
died while shouts and the stamping of boots were already drowning the
celestial voices. People talked far more about the possibility of a
war Ďlike nothing anyone has ever seení than about their next concert.
class was suspended until someone else could be appointed. Soldiers
went into the universities to encourage young people to anticipate the
conscription order, tempting them with the promise of various advantages.
Recruiting officers beat their drums outside the Academy. When it came
to my turn, I replied that I would rather get married than drive myself
hoarse singing the Nazi hymn while goose-stepping through the streets.
I was eighteen.
than a year later I met Soleilka. It was love at first sight and a few
days later we got married without our parentsí permission, stealing
our identity cards to do so. At the town hall we were told that two
witnesses would have to sign the marriage certificate. We hurried out
and came back with two tramps we had found nearby. After the ceremony,
they congratulated us but went away disappointed at not being invited
for a drink. We literally did not have a penny. All they got was a warm
handshake. Our wedding breakfast consisted of some horse sausage, eaten
on a nearby bench. We were in heaven. Even now, thirty years later,
the bond between us is still as strong. Not long afterwards, I was called
up and had to leave my wife behind.