September 22, 2013, by Stephen Mumford

The Pianist

As dusk arrived, we took shelter in the pub by the harbour. The sea air and the mist had chilled us. The pub sat above rocks against which waves constantly crashed, the noise being inescapable outside. Inside the atmosphere was completely different: busy, warm, cosy and intimate. A fire had been lit. The décor played on the fishing, sea-faring traditions of the village. There were anchors and authentic fishing nets on the walls, pictures of boats, compasses, maps and depth charts. It was a refuge for the locals on evenings such as this, meeting occasionally with passers-through like us.

We found a table made of rough wood, bumped and worn. A drink gave a warm glow, restoring the comfort that the enclosing night had threatened to rob. Conversation was easy and all around. There came a gentleman of not quite old age, but possibly on the old side of middle age, who sat down at the upright piano that was shoehorned into a small space between drinking tables: a piano that had gone unnoticed until that point. The gentleman’s hands and face wore signs of the sea, the wind and rain of the years eroding his countenance. Outdoors work, especially in fishing, breeds a tough character, pragmatic and practical. From the bar, a young lady brought over a big glass of dark ale and sat it atop the piano for him. Without any hurry, he took a few drinks while the steady hum of chatter continued to fill the room.

At no time in particular, this far from bonny gentleman wiggled his fingers a little and then started running them along the piano keys. To our slight surprise, though not that of the pub’s regulars, music sprang effortlessly from his hands, which ran up and down the octaves in little exercises. My attention was gripped. Without ceremony, he took a pause and another sip of beer. A little intake of breath: and he was away. As a few openers, he banged out recognizable ditties, and I was not the only one to find my foot soon tapping along to the rhythm.

With the end of each little piece, there were a few muted cheers and the tiniest of applause around the house. But there was nothing that we, or he, would regard as fuss. It was mere ambiance, we all had to pretend. Another beer was bought for our pianist. Another pause. But then the fingers caressed the keys again. More traditional standards rang out. But what a surprise for us when this time he joined the tune with song. My party was completely unprepared for the rich, tuneful baritone voice that came unannounced into the evening. With more drinks, this vocalisation saw all of us lose inhibition. Within minutes, we were all clapping along and, if you knew the words, you could join in. With the spread of contagious fun, each short song was celebrated with a more rousing cheer and some laughter where the pianist ended with a whimsical punctuation.

And thus the night continued. I doubt I have ever met a healthy man or woman who didn’t have at least one talent. We are all good at something. And very often that is an artistic talent. When I first saw this gentleman, I formed opinions from his appearance and the situation. Yet he had ability on the piano that I could only envy, evincing years of dedication on his part in which he nurtured his skill. I can imagine long days for him at sea, his hands becoming hardened and calloused pulling in the nets; yet when liberated from his labours he manifested a passion for music and developing his capability. When left alone, we are naturally artists though circumstance counteracts that tendency for many. We cannot say that humans flourish and thrive unless they are allowed artistic opportunities. I am very glad that our pianist of that night had taken his and filled his life, and our evening, with music.

Posted in Culture and Area StudiesMusic