Betty looks into the tea leaves. She’s wearing thick woolen purple tights with a tweed skirt. Pip and Bobo, her Yorkshire Terriers sit at her feet. We’re on the low sofas beside the fireplace. ‘What can you see?’, I ask her, but the leaves aren’t clear. There’s a gilt mirror to our left that looks across the room to her oil paintings, streetscapes, broad brush, bold; Betty has painted the trees in the colours of autumn.
Betty had met her mother’s ghost on the stairs before they’d known she was ill. She knew the moment her sister’s fiancé was killed during the war. ‘Don’t talk about him anymore,’ she’d said when her sister told her about the nylon stockings he’d promised to bring. ‘Don’t talk about him, he’s not coming back,’ she said, and a week later they received the telegram. Betty had seen the plane falling in the teacup.
I can’t remember what she looked like, and though she can’t have been much older than mid-fifties, she speaks (in my memory) like a kind of Miss Marple. ‘A man without a button on his jacket came over and asked if he could drive me home. A cold feeling came over me,’ she says, ‘and I thought, there’s the man I’m going to marry’. She had been offered a place at the Conservatoire de Paris, but war broke out in 1939 and she stayed in Ireland. Sam was as plain speaking as she was polished. He used to say, ‘There’s Betty ma wife, Betty ma sister, Betty ma sicitary, A’m up to ma arse in Bettys.’ When he bought the house next to my parents, he said he’d put a face at every window, but they never had children. ‘Sam, Darling, you’ll drop it,’ Betty would say when she’d find him next door, a cigar and a whiskey in his hand, and me, six months old dandling on his knee.
As soon as I was old enough to read I went next door for piano lessons. The Steinway baby grand sat at the back of the drawing room. It had a beautiful, deep tone, but that piano knew I hadn’t practiced as my fingers grappled for the keys. Betty would sit at the edge of her armchair, the smell of coffee rising from the teacup in her hand, a piece of my mother’s shortbread in the saucer. By the time we had made it as far as Molière and Maupassant in school I still couldn’t sight read, and when we came to a new piece I’d ask her to play it first, as if it was an audition. Every week, after I’d finished playing, she’d set down the cup, lift a pencil from the edge of the keys, and mark up the music sheet. In my memory there is something of the sacrament about the ritual of those afternoons, the shortbread, the silence, the short musical refrains, the call and response.
As a child I used to sit there, listening to my mother talking to my mother, mesmerised by the tick of the clock, the rhythm of adults talking when they forgot you were in the room. There were names I never knew mentioned in passing, ‘Of course that was a disastrous marriage,’ she’d say quietly, ‘a most unsuitable alliance.’ There was a world of possibility in the white spaces of those stories.
‘Lay your flowers on the path of life, and not on the grave,’ Betty used say, but after she died I’d taken to cycling out to Broughshane, the village where Sam had grown up, the village that lay at the foot of Slemish, where according to legend, St Patrick had tended the sheep. I’d park the bike across from the nursery school and walk through the graveyard. I’d stand at Sam’s family plot, and think of Betty. A few years later my mother and I called in on our way to the coast to say a prayer. I’d been standing at the wrong grave.
I begin to practice scales late at night, headphones on, so as not to disturb the neighbours. There is something meditative about the repetitive motion. I’ve gone back to piano lessons. My teacher, Amelia, is Russian. ‘Yes, but not so boring,’ she says, and her voice has the cadence of music. I have forced myself to sight read, but I can see grammar instead of language and when I play it sounds like I’m proof reading. Amelia marks up the scales and I pore over them late at night. There is a kind of scholarly satisfaction to reading the notes marked against the five lines of the music, as though I’m trying to locate memory on a grid reference.
Once you collected ten stars you got a book token, but those books are long since gone; the music and the piano given away to a younger cousin. I remember Betty suggesting diplomatically that we leave the exam pieces so I could work on my repertoire, and I started playing jazz after that. As I practice, I remember how it felt to sit with a straight back on the stool. I need the music in front of me as a comfort, but I’m not really reading it. How do you remember a sound?
As I read Amelia’s notes the quavers look like exclamation marks. ‘Don’t force them,’ she writes, ‘but fade away’. I can hear her Russian accent as I read. ‘L h should be light, short (independent),’ she writes, ‘play l h detached’. She writes ‘RISK’ then ‘Empahsize E’. ‘Work on 11-14, go slowly and remember all things.’ In the next entry she writes, ‘speed up sections, very good, speed up’, and there’s an explanation of a grace note, which seems to be an invisible note; something about an absence or a presence. By the next month she has added ‘Theory Guide. Metronome.’ The entry continues, perhaps as an encouragement, ‘RH plays all note short – feel like one of the rock band (cool).’ As I read the notes they feel like coded messages, as though I’m translating from another language. She has marked 8 X as if she’s signing off with a kiss and it reads like ‘Rx’ the medical reference for treatment prescribed, which I’d read in countless medical records as a medico legal lawyer. Then she writes ‘hold LH, pedal exercises’ and by this stage this whole business reminds me of learning to drive, keeping your back straight, your foot within easy reach of the brake, constantly checking the mirror. It feels awkward learning as an adult. The notes feel like archival material, as though Amelia’s notes could take me back to Betty. Then on the last page, she writes ‘peters out’, then she goes on maternity leave and I move away to take up a place on the MA programme at UEA, and the music is left again.
An antique dealer from home buys two of Betty’s paintings. I phone him from the train to Norwich. ‘I’ve had a lot of interest in the smaller one, the landscape, and the other is worth a fortune for the frame alone,’ he says. It seems in poor taste to negotiate. He knows Betty was my neighbour; he can tell I want something bearing her fingerprints. ‘I’ll take them,’ I say. I give him my credit card details. When they arrive, the smaller one is not what I expected. It’s a clichéd landscape, with Slemish in the background. I regret buying it, and I’m ashamed of my reaction. The larger picture, though, is just as I remember it. It’s a huge, bold, confident still life of dahlias in outlandish strokes as broad as calligraphy. It yells out from the canvass. It hangs in my apartment like a family portrait. Some of my friends are buying back pension years so they can retire earlier; I am buying back my past.
I find a phone number for Betty’s sister. She must be almost ninety at this stage, I think. I ring for weeks and eventually I get through. ‘I was wondering if it would be possible to come and visit,’ I ask. She is polite but firm, ‘I’m staying with my brother, you see, so it wouldn’t suit terribly well.’ When I say I wish I had some more of Betty’s work, she says, ‘It’s not mine to sell, you see,’ but it doesn’t matter a bit. She sounds exactly like Betty. I have just telephoned my childhood.
There are drawers full of photos at home; snowmen wearing our hats and gloves, my sister hugging the dog, or one of us standing in the knee length First Communion dress crocheted by my grandmother. We a don’t have single photo of Betty. I’m tracking her down, like a biographer. Odd things come back to me, a letter my parents received from another neighbour when they moved away, saying, ‘We will miss your quiet presence on the road’.
‘Go on through,’ says the agent as he grapples with the keys and bends down to lift the fliers and two-for-one pizza offers. Betty’s house has come on the market. My mother and I head straight for the drawing room. The marble fireplace is still there, but the gilt mirror has gone, and the room seems so ordinary without it. The walls look so much smaller without her oil paintings. The room looks nothing like itself. There’s an artificial Christmas tree perched on top of cardboard boxes where the piano used to stand. It’s midsummer.
I’m not entirely sure what I’m expecting to find. It’s as though I am excavating for fragments of the past. I go from room to room taking photos as though it’s a crime scene. It feels like we’re archaeologists, my mother and I, digging for shards of china, seeking proof that those teacups once existed.
Looking back, you’d have to say they weren’t the cheeriest of years. No matter how sheltered you were, you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing about a hunger strike death, ‘ten men dead’ or another IRA atrocity. You couldn’t talk to friends without tiptoeing around their religion. I think Betty was Church of Ireland, but she didn’t make a song and dance about it. Betty’s drawing room was the only place anyone ever talked about religion as if it was as natural (or as unimportant) as the weather. It was a retreat from the red ‘Brits Out’ or ‘No Pope Here’ graffiti slapped across forearms and splashed over murals across the town. Betty seemed to offer safe passage through the invisible geography of the Troubles.
I wander out to the hallway and I stand at foot of the stairs. It never occurred to me that she must have been lonely, living in this house after Sam died; she certainly showed no signs of it. ‘I was so delighted after the day’s painting,’ she told my mother, ‘I just hugged the bannister’.
Coloured light streams through the stained glass windows on the return. I am thirty years younger. Music wafts out from under the door. Betty’s eyes will light up when she sees me. She’ll pick up her saucer, I’ll sit down and arrange my fingers around middle C. Betty’s encouraging tones will drift after the music, ‘That was marvelous. I think you’re ready for the next grade.’ I’ll lift my fingers from the keyboard and swing myself round so that I’m sitting sidesaddle, and ask how she’s been doing.
My mother and I go on through to the kitchen, past the table where Betty’s oil paintings used to dry. We continue out to the garden, past the black stone wall that bordered our garden, past the headstones erected for Pip and Bobo, and we remember the day she buried Pip (or was it Bobo?). She was so convinced the dog had stirred that she had to call the vet to confirm he was dead. We keep going right down to the end, where my sister and I used to play: the secret garden. It is dangerous underfoot, a bit like a graveyard where the ground gives way. ‘Be careful,’ my mother says.