Your Boys

by PeterG09

When I was about nine years old I sacked my music teacher. Well, strictly speaking I told my mother that I was not going back for another lesson. It was as good as a sacking.

She took me on when I was just eight and I quickly discovered that music consisted only of scales, exercises, and the same pieces being endlessly played and played again. At that age you largely accept what the adult world throws at you. But over the space of the one year I gradually began to realise that the point of my having lessons was so that my high scores in grade exams would contribute to her self-prestige. My music books were full of pieces that I never played because they were not for exams. I could have played them, of course, but it was as though I was not allowed to. I could only play what she sanctioned.

So that Monday afternoon, after the lesson, I went home and told my mother that I was not going back. I suspect she had some inkling that I was unhappy. So instead of an argument she sat me down in front of the CD player put on her favourite disc of piano recordings and said "Listen to that". I did, and when it was over I went and found her in the kitchen and I said "I want to play like that."

My mother explained how much practise you needed to get to that standard, but above all she explained how much you had to want to be able to play. Music was not a discipline, and making it was a joy. No more was said about the teacher then, or later. I learned that the pianist on he recording, an amateur, had decided to really apply himself until he got to a standard where he was good enough to make public recording. Maybe I would never be that good but it was a target worth going for.

I was given a book of pieces that were taken from the great classics, with a couple of more contemporary pieces as well. I started at the beginning with intention of conquering them one by one. A worthy objective and as you might guess I never quite finished the book. About eight of the pieces really grabbed my mind and I would go back to them again and again. Eventually I knew them by heart.

On the way in this journey I accidentally discovered that formal lessons were about teaching the fingering: how to anticipate what the best finger positions were for particular sections. Since I now had no teacher to show me I resorted to YouTube where I found tutorials and all sorts of guidance, some bad, some indifferent, and some quite brilliant.

When I was eleven I was allowed to go out on my own with all the usual restrictions: phone on and being tracked, call if I'm going to be late, stranger danger and the rest. It was thrilling to have a little bit of pocket money and my student bus pass and I felt quite adventurous. Usually I never went anywhere in particular, the excitement was in being responsible for myself.

On one of these trips, on a Saturday morning, I noticed that the bus had just passed a shop whose name I recognised: it was the name on the stickers on the back covers of most of my music. So that was where it came from! I abandoned my plan for he day, got off at the next stop, and walked back.

Of course I had been shopping before, for groceries and stuff like that, but this was different. Going in to the shop was like entering a wonderland. There were instruments all over the place, on racks, in cabinets. Permeating everything was the faint smell of wood and varnish and oiled metal. Upstairs was the sheet music department. Shelf upon shelf, divided up by instrument. The two staff were involved in packing orders and did not seem to mind my coming in. I asked tentatively whether it would be all right to just look around a bit and got the OK.

A lot of the piano music was on an upper shelf that I couldn't reach. One of the staff, a young man, saw the problem and came over with a kick-stool for me, and offered me a hand up to get on it. He asked if there was anything special I wanted. There wasn't, I was just fascinated by the choice on offer. Eventually, feeling very grown-up I asked for a piece of paper so I could write down some of the things I saw that looked playable. It was going to make an almighty Christmas and birthday present list.

I was bubbling over when I got home and I couldn't wait to tell everything I'd found and done. At the end of the month my parents gave me a debit card that had accumulated about £150 in present money and I was allowed to use that with a transaction limit so that I could not drain it.

The shop became my destination for many more Saturdays. The staff got to recognise me. The young man, who I found was called Kit, would sometimes show me music that was newly in that he thought I might like and that he had set aside. After my visits I used to cross the road to the café on the other side and have a hot chocolate while I gloated over my latest bit of sheet music.

I became a sort of fixture at the shop. The staff learned my name and often invited me to have a tea break with them in the staff room. I was allowed to use the staff loo.

Inevitably some of what I bought turned out to be not what I wanted, or just too difficult to play. I could not know until I got home. Then one day I noticed that a door off the upper landing was open. I looked in and saw a room with lots of music stands, and a piano. I asked about it. It was a practice room where prospective buyers of flutes and other woodwind instruments could try them out before buying. Apparently some local teachers hired it for lessons, but not on Saturdays. Rather diffidently I asked if I could sometimes try out pieces I had found before deciding whether or not to buy them.

I was given the run of the room provided that I got out if a 'real' customer turned up. While playing one day it occurred to me that our piano at home was badly out of tune compared to this instrument. Sometimes customers would stand in the doorway and listen to my efforts. Some of them would come and talk to me: one even asked if I gave lessons.

One day I had picked up a new book of pieces. As much as anything I was attracted to the very colourful cover which I later discovered was by an abstract artist named Jean Miro. The music was called Gymnopédie, by a composer called Satie. The pieces looked playable with very sparse notation. But when I tried to put fingers to keyboard I found out what they were really like. Huge leaps of notes required pedalling, which I was not at all good at. The music was haunting and even though I stumbled along I could begin to hear the tune coming through.

While I sat there wrestling with the fingering I was suddenly aware of someone behind me. Hands appeared on either side of me, and placed themselves over my hands and a voice as soft as the hands said "like this". The wrists that belonged to the hands slid down my bare arms. It was electrifying. I had no idea who was there but the voice, the skin contact and the feeling of being taken over was almost hypnotic. I had no will of my own but to follow the instructions.

When the last chord was done I dropped my hands and turned around to see Kit behind me. He rested his hands on my shoulders. I had never before felt such an intimate connection with another person. I was too young to be able to put a name to the emotion but I knew it was very personal and overwhelming and private.

I must have somehow found my way home though I had no memory of the journey. I got the music out as soon as I could and tried to recapture the experience. It was hard work, but in my mind I could hear what I was trying to bring out. I got a goose-bumpy feeling from fingering the keys and sensing Kit's hands steering mine.

Later that week I thought to look up something about Satie. I found that he was as far away from a stuffy old composer as anyone could be. The next Saturday I went through to the shop as soon as I could, to share what I had found with Kit. Although he probably knew it all already he let me excitedly gabble out my story. I told him that Satie had a dozen identical suits made so that he did not have to choose what to wear; that in Satie's flat there were three grand pianos, stacked on top of each other. Then Kit asked me to play the piece again. I did, on my own, and it was a great improvement over the previous effort. He sat on the bench next to me and asked if I knew what the music was about. It had not occurred to me that it was about anything. Kit described Satie trying to capture the smoothly balanced movements of classical Greek athletes. I filed that away for further research.

The next time we met I was full of new knowledge. When we could talk without being overheard I told him how the athletes used to oil their bodies before training and performing, and used to work out naked. I'd even found that older Greek boys used to 'adopt' younger boys as lovers and teach them. What they taught was a bit of a mystery but it seemed that being lovers meant cuddling a lot and that seemed to me like a nice idea. I suddenly realised what I was saying and went red with embarrassment, but Kit touched my arm and said it was all right. Then he explained that the athletes used a system like Pilates where you made lots of slow deliberate movements while keeping perfect balance. He said that when playing the Gymnopédies I should think of the boys and their smooth movements. Just listening to Kit talking made me feel tingly. I thought a lot about the boys.

I used to imagine I would be Kit's lover and he would teach me and protect me and everything in the world would be lovely. I had long conversations with myself as I explored these feelings.

Every time after that Kit and I would talk about music. He might show me a new piece, or take me through some fingering problem. One day we were sitting close together on the piano bench when a breeze blew the door shut. "Leave it" said Kit, and went on leaning across me to demonstrate some right-hand technique. One of the staff came and opened the door and saw us like that. I heard them say "Oh …!"

A few minutes later the owner of the shop appeared to tell me that the practice room was needed for another customer. I got my things together and went out. Kit seemed to have disappeared. I packed up and left the shop. Something seemed to have changed and I did not feel like visiting the cafe. I just went straight home feeling really flat.

I never saw Kit again. I was told that he had left. There was no note or message for me – nothing. Only several years late did I work out what had happened. It made me miserable to think that our music could have been the cause of so much upset.

My parents must have noticed the change in mood but they never asked about it.

Two year later I was in Secondary School and I had a very special friend. Andrew and I met at the school choir. He also played violin in the school orchestra, and sometimes I played piano for he orchestra, and also for the choir. He and I had so many interests in common it was inevitable that we would become close friends. Our school theoretically had an inclusive policy which meant a toleration of diversity, and all those other high-sounding phrases which unfortunately did not eliminate the low-level homophobia so common among teens. To be together was one thing but to be seen to be doing anything was quite another. You had to very careful.

We were both quite tall which meant we were always in the back row of the choir. One day while we were standing to sing I found that Andrew's left hand, held at his side, was touching my right. I moved a little, experimentally, and he kept the contact. I pressed the back of my hand against his and he pressed in return. When I could I glanced sideways at him and got a lovely smile back. I could hardly concentrate after that and even got called out for not paying attention.

We got together at my house two days later, the first time we could be properly on our own. At last we could speak without being overheard. By the end of the afternoon we both had puffy lips and were officially (at least in our eyes) boyfriends. It was lovely to be loved.

The following year, our GCSE year, my family went on holiday to Devon. My mother suggested that Andrew might like to come along. He certainly would. He and I would have our own room in the hotel, with our own key. I know now that my parents had thought all this through a long time ago and felt it was better for us to work things out for ourselves free from of the pressure of trying to keep the relationship secret. They must have discussed it with Andrew's parents too. That would have been an interesting conversation. When I thanked my mother after she told me what the arrangement for the fortnight would be, she said "Just don't make it too obvious: other people who don't know you might be shocked or not understand."

I think the whole thing had been arranged so that Andrew and I could have the mental space to explore and develop our feelings. What a gift.

Early on in the holiday he and I planned our time. It was clear that we would not have to follow what my parents did, subject to the usual rules and regs. Andrew had found that there was a stately home nearby which had been owned by somebody in the musical world, and that might be an interesting place to go. Just the thought made us feel quite grown-up: our expedition to a place of our choosing, for our reasons.

The house was interesting in ways we did not expect. It dated back to the era of our grandparents and so we kept coming across things in the kitchen and the bedrooms that we recognised from their homes. And then we entered the Drawing Room. Room? It was huge. I thought that maybe the whole of the ground floor of our house would have fitted in to it. Furniture had been arranged so that the massive room was like a series of separate areas. There were tall wide windows down one side and across the end. Visitors had to stand behind a red rope and could not go further. We saw that at the far end was an enormous grand piano. Andrew surreptitiously took my hand and said "I bet you could get a tune out of that." "No chance" I mouthed back. Eventually we moved on. Then Andrew stopped me and said "Give it a go. Ask if you can play it."

After a lot of reluctance on my part we went back to the salon, incurring on the way the wrath of a room steward who insisted that it was a one-way system. I found the person in charge of the room and asked if it was possible to play the piano. She said rather sharply that it was possible but not for playing chopsticks. I said that was not what I had in mind. With a lot of official fussing-about business she loosened the rope so that we could advance to the piano. I was told that Andrew could not go with me but I insisted that he was my official page-turner.

The walk to the end of the room was like going to a scaffold. The room seemed endless and getting there seemed to take ten minutes though it was probably only ten seconds. I fiddled around with the piano stool, secretly hoping that I could claim there was something wrong with it and use that as an excuse for bottling out. I looked around for some music but all I could find was stuff that was completely not my style. Andrew said "Play that Satie thing – you know it." I sat down and tried to compose myself. A few visitors had noticed what was going on and had stopped to watch and listen. I drew breath, stretched out my arms, and played the opening G and the following D minor chord that makes the piece so instantly recognisable.

Not the way I played it I was awful. The unfamiliar seating position meant that things were not quite where I expected and I fumbled the chord. I stopped in confusion.

Then two hands appeared from behind. There was the thrilling feeling of skin on skin as the hands were placed over mine. A long-forgotten voice said "Think about your boys." I drew breath, looked at where the sheet music ought to be, and played.

When it was over there was silence for a moment and then loud applause from the other end of the room where a guided tour had stopped to listen. I looked up in confusion. Andrew was standing at my side, his mouth slightly open and a puzzled look on his face. He quickly said to play another piece. I thought a moment and played the opening run from Schubert's Trout. It seemed perfect for the occasion. More applause, the message seemed to have got around the house and the end of the room was crowded. "Give them one more" Andrew said, "Give them The Bum." I burst out laughing and launched in to that party-piece The Flight of the Bumble-bee which was what we called The Bum.

Afterwards over a coffee from the café in the courtyard, sitting away from other people, Andrew asked what had been going on. I asked what he meant. He told me that after the awful false start I had sat quite immobile for about half a minute. He thought I had some sort of seizure. The only thing moving was my lips, it was as though I was talking to someone. "I've never heard you play like that before! I know you're good, but that was something really special."

So I told him about Kit. Everything I could remember. About being in love and the heartbreak of losing half my soul. My left hand was lying on the table fiddling with my coffee cup as I went back down that memory lane. Andrew put his hand on mine without caring about how public it was. I think it was then that I first really explained to myself what had gone on, why Kit had so suddenly disappeared. I was crying openly. Andrew mopped me up just in time for me to force a smile for a visitor who had heard me playing and wanted to say 'thank you'.

I told him about the Greek athletes and how they stripped naked and oiled themselves up before performing. We were able to laugh about it by then. Hand in hand we walked back to the exit which was of course through the gift shop. Suddenly Andrew pulled me across to a display of toiletries. He picked a bottle labelled Revitalising Massage Oil , grinned at me, and said "How's your athletic Greek?"

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