My grandfather’s piano

A True Story, for Melanie

Each summer I go to the Albert Hall to see my sister play in the proms. It’s one of the highlights of my year. She plays the flute in the Hallé Orchestra based in Manchester. I would like to tell you the story of how she ended up on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall. It is also a story of how, over the generations, if you just keep on keeping on, and have a bit of luck, you can overcome adversity.

She is there on the stage because our great aunt Kitty chased a social security official down the street with an axe. She is also there because our Mum and Dad did their level best to give us the childhood that both of them were denied.

I do feel sorry for the official; he was only doing his job. It was the 1920s, just after the Great War, and the family had split up, and so many people were out of work. Great Aunt Kitty was living alone, in one room, and claiming the dole. In those days, you could not get the dole if you had anything of value that you could sell. So an official came to inspect, and saw that she had a piano. ‘You don’t need the dole,’ she was told, ‘you can sell the piano.’ Kitty picked up the axe that she used to chop the wood for the fire and yelled. ‘It’s not my piano. It’s my brother’s piano. I’m just looking after it for him. He fought for this country in the trenches for five years, it’s his, and you’re not having it,’ and then, brandishing the axe, chased the unfortunate man down the street. The powers-that-be never got the piano.

Later my grandfather married my grandmother, and they had their own house, and he got his piano back from his sister. My grandparents both used to play piano for the silent movies, in the cinema in Clifton Street in Splott in Cardiff. My grandfather was a skilled manual worker, a laminated coil spring maker, had his own allotment, was a champion runner, and a trade union shop steward. But things were not perfect. My grandmother had won a place at the Royal Academy of Music, but she never went – we do not know for certain why not, but we presume it was for lack of money. She had two children, but her husband was by all accounts not a nice man, and she suffered from depression. Then my grandfather lost his job – there was so much unemployment in the 1930s. Then one day in late November, 1932, my grandmother gave into despair and gassed herself in the kitchen oven while her youngest daughter, my mother, screamed hysterically upstairs. That very day, my grandfather found a job, and was never out of work again. Don’t give up, don’t give into despair, ever.

My grandmother’s two daughters, my mother and my aunt, were just aged three and seven, and were packed off to a kind aunt, but brought back six months later when their father remarried. He married a woman who turned out to be an archetypal wicked step-mother. She favoured her own daughter, and treated her step-daughters with cruelty, making them work hard around the house; keeping my mother in the garden ‘out of the way’ even when it was freezing; in the war, she denied them the rations that were rightfully theirs, giving them to her own daughter; she never let her step-daughters have a bath in warm water, but instead they were made to use the cold dirty water that their step-sister had used; she would not let my mother sit the exam for grammar school, making her leave school as early as possible to bring in money, then taking most of her wages off her; my aunt won a scholarship to the best girls’ school in Cardiff, and her step-mother did not tell her, because her own daughter had failed the test; she dressed her step-daughters so badly the neighbours reported the family to social services, even the school reported the family for neglect, but nothing was ever done. My grandfather just tolerated the abuse his second wife visited on his daughters, so he was just as guilty.

My aunt used to fight back and get beaten, my mother just said nothing but lay in bed crying for her sister. Eventually, aged seventeen, my mother snapped. She asked for a drop of tomato sauce on her dinner one night, and was refused. For the first time in her quiet, docile, frightened little life she spoke up. She called her step-mother a ‘mean old cow’, and for her honesty, was thrown out of the house. The very next day she left home to stay in London with the same kindly aunt who’d looked after her years earlier when her mother died, which was all in all the best thing that could have happened to her.

My mother met my father in London, and they married. Meanwhile her step-mother died; her father remarried a third time, to a young gad-about of a wife. All his life, he’d just stayed at home and done the gardening, now all of a sudden, he was out dancing every night. All his life, he’d worn long underpants. His young wife would not allow this – she made him wear modern short underpants. He caught pneumonia, and was dead six months after his marriage. Whether it was the skimpy underpants, or the late nights, who knows. His third wife inherited everything he owned, the house, everything – his daughters got nothing, except, for some reason, his piano. My aunt got the piano at first, then she moved into a smaller house and did not have enough room for it. So we got it. It came all the way on a lorry from Cardiff to London. The very piano that had been saved by  Great Aunt Kitty and her axe.

My sister was four years old when it arrived. She’d never seen a piano before. She sat down at it and immediately started playing tunes by ear. My parents saw the potential and immediately got her piano lessons. She excelled. Our parents encouraged her music, not that she needed any encouragement. Sometime later, she also started the flute. Then she got a place, not like her grandmother, at the Royal Academy of Music, but at the Royal College of Music, studying both flute and piano. She quickly got an orchestral position. And the job she has now is with the Hallé. And that is how, every summer, I get to see her play at the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve seen her play a lot, and I’ve heard her on the radio too. Thank you, Great Aunt Kitty, for defending your brother’s piano with your trusty axe, and thank you, Mum, for calling your step-mother a mean old cow and escaping the family home, and thank you, Mum and Dad, for giving my sister music lessons. Now I’ll sit back and enjoy the music.

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