In 1968, at the age of seven, I began piano lessons in my hometown of Derry in the North of Ireland. Against the backdrop of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the events that followed, I would be transported, albeit temporarily, each Wednesday and Friday afternoon to the musty cocoon of an old-fashioned terrace house, where under the gentle encouraging supervision of Mr Donnelly, I learned to play the music of the great classical composers.
A bachelor in his late thirties, Donnelly shared the modest abode with an elderly uncle, who himself had been a celebrated pianist. Donnelly was of sallow complexion, with a long drawn, intelligent face and a prominent oversized shiny dome-shaped head that dwarfed the rest of his rather delicate frame. Singularly white, almost feminine hands showcased a set of remarkably long bony elegant fingers.
In a short space of time I had made significant progress in my learning. He effortlessly instilled in me the necessary stylistic techniques and disciplines, as well as communicating a genuine and heartfelt passion for the music that he had chosen to teach as his life’s work. My mother would comment that he never seemed to care much about payment and on occasions his dedication to his beloved muse would spill over into various eccentricities. Often while demonstrating a certain passage of music, he would unselfconsciously lose himself in his playing, eyes rolling dramatically and oblivious to the small and innocent presence by his side. I perceived nothing sinister in this scenario, concentrating instead on absorbing and replicating as precisely as possible the dextrous and masterful style of my mentor. The composer who Mr Donnelly adored most was Ludwig van Beethoven. Therefore it should have come as no surprise to me that on arriving one bitterly cold autumn day for what turned out to be my final lesson, Donnelly had purchased a cake and decorated it with coloured candles; to celebrate the birthday of the illustrious German maestro. Excitedly he lit the candles and as he did so his eyes appeared to fill with light, an effect that contrasted markedly with his habitual unhealthy pallor. Tea was served to compliment the cake in fine antique bone-china cups and he sat opposite me saying little as was his norm. A simple child-like smile fixed itself contentedly on his lips and he stared into the distance as if reminded of a particular fond yet far away memory.
Upon emerging from this brief reverie, the lesson itself began in earnest. I moved to my place at the piano and Mr Donnelly to his, standing directly behind me and gently touching my shoulders to coax the music from me in his usual supportive manner. I was playing a particular composition when all at once I began to experience a sensation of dread. My concentration began to waver and my hands suddenly lost all co-ordination. Though I stared at the music in a vain attempt to regain my place, the crochets and quavers on the page now took on the appearance of black ink spots and lines whose meaning or significance I could no longer discern. Without turning round I sensed that something was seriously amiss. I could no longer feel my teacher’s touch on my shoulders and the room seemed charged with a malevolent presence. In slow motion I began to swivel round in my seat when it happened. Without warning I crashed headlong into the black and white keys that resounded with a most ghoulish, inhuman discord. I was pinned down between the dead weight of Mr Donnelly and the piano. The chord lingered menacingly in the air. I felt sick to my stomach, and for what then seemed like an eternity I moved not a muscle. Sheer terror invaded every fibre of my being. I shut my eyes tight and tried to black out everything. Instead my young mind raced in a thousand different directions, and it seemed as if millions of gigantic flashbulbs were going off all at once in my head. My heart was accelerating out of control and I imagined its constant pummelling forcing a hole through my chest whereupon it would splatter bloodily onto the floor. I began to shake in such unspeakable fear. The oppressive, inert mass on top of me began to undulate lifelessly, in imitation of my own movements. For what seemed like hours, I endured this stifling, claustrophobic position. I blocked everything out except the incessant, magnified tick-tock of the clock on Donnelly’s mantelpiece.
Gradually I managed to regain my composure and summoned the courage to break free and wriggle out from Donnelly’s unknowing hold and bolted straight for the door. Without looking back I was through the hallway and into the street whereupon I made straight for the park opposite his house. Though it was now dark, I ran through the damp overgrown grass, caring little for any possible new danger, until my small legs could carry me no further. I finally stopped, spluttering, coughing until my throat was red-raw. Desperately I tried to catch my breath and when my heartbeat finally slowed, I became aware for the first time of being outdoors and all at once the cold sharp air made me shiver and my ears sting. Though the experience was still vividly fresh in my impressionable mind, part of me already had began the process of banishing it to the furthest recesses of my mind. I resolved silently to keep what had happened to myself and began the journey home, my steps calm and determined. The cold and dark now in my favour, all thoughts of Donnelly erased.
For weeks afterwards I went to the park every Wednesday and Friday. When I grew tired of going to the park, I told my parents that Donnelly had gone to Donegal on holiday. That was accepted without question. I wouldn't have to lie anymore.
The following month however, my mother met him in town. She enquired if he had enjoyed his vacation. "Mrs. ó Gormáin", he replied, "I have never been outside Derry in my life. A while back, I had a severe epileptic attack during your son's lesson and I haven't seen or heard from him since."
I hereby authorize, approve and give permission to ALAN WHERRY to freely publish my short story “Beethoven’s Birthday” on his website.
After all he is the person who inspired me to write it up in the first place!
Sincerely and with so much love and gratitude,
Raymond Gorman aka Réamann ó Gormáin