The Piano Player’s Son
Family is all-important to Isabel. Her parents have an idyllic marriage, and she has tried hard to create one for herself. However, all pretence is shattered when her husband leaves her. On top of this her father dies, leaving Isabel devastated.
Then her mother confides in her: behind her parents’ apparently happy marriage was a secret kept for more than three decades. Isabel is staggered by the revelation. She is desperate to tell her sister, Grace, and her brothers, Rick and George. But her mother makes her promise to stay silent.
The story centres on a family of six – parents, Henry and Eva, and their four grown-up children, Rick, Isabel, Grace and George. Henry dies at the beginning of the novel and Eva is sent into a downward spiral of grief at the abrupt ending of their long marriage. Although he is dead, Henry’s presence pervades the novel, while Eva and George influence a lot of what occurs. But, it’s through the eyes of Rick, Isabel and Grace that we see the events of the novel.
- Isabel lives in London not far from her parents, Henry and Eva. She is separated from her husband, Brian, and lives with her teenage daughter, Rose, while her son, Josh, has chosen to live with his father.
- After her separation, Isabel became particularly close to her father, and his sudden death is a double-blow for her.
- Following his death, Eva reveals a secret to Isabel, but makes her promise not to tell anyone. The secret eats away at Isabel.
- Isabel has inherited her father’s love of music and the piano. It’s a love she shares with her brother, George, although she recognises she doesn’t have his musical talent. She gives piano lessons to supplement the money she receives from Brian, but after her father’s death, finds it difficult to return to playing.
- Isabel vows to mend her marriage and get her family back together. But then she meets Simon. They are both musicians and seem ideally suited. Simon is kind and supportive and everything Brian isn’t. Isabel still seems determined to make it work with Brian, despite her growing feeling for Simon.
- Rick is the oldest of Henry and Eva’s four children. He adores his American wife, Deanna and his three daughters his ‘princesses’. However, when the eldest one, Alicia, asserts the right to make her own decisions, Rick can’t cope.
- The trappings of worldly success are important to Rick. He is ambitious and driven, wanting to be the best at everything, although he is prickly in close personal relationships. He finds it difficult to accept that his relationship with his father was not all that he wanted it to be.
- Rick has never managed to follow in his father’s footsteps and master the piano. Instead he’s given everything to his business and his family. But when his father dies, he determines to inherit his piano and learn to play on it. It’s a determination that will have far-reaching consequences.
- As the eldest, Rick assumes responsibility for his mother. He makes plans to move her from London closer to his home in Northumberland. The plan doesn’t meet with the rest of the family’s approval.
- Grace lives on the island of Ischia with her husband, Franco. Together they run a restaurant there. She loves the island, but her father’s death raises some complex emotional issues for her.
- She spent her early years in Italy when Eva went to look after her own mother, taking baby Grace with her. As a result, she found it hard to fit in when they returned to England and worries that her father might never have loved her.
- Her problems worsen when she and Franco argue about having a baby. Grace doesn’t feel ready, but Franco’s family expect bambini any day now.
- In addition, Grace is troubled by a meeting she has with an old friend of her father’s who suggests there might be things in Henry’s background which the family knows nothing about.
Characters need to be rooted in place, as ‘real’ people are. Whether we’re by the sea, on a mountain peak, in a kitchen, in an operating theatre, in a hot place, a cold place, a prison, at an airport, in conflict with or at home in our setting, our moods will be different. Different things will happen to us. We will meet different people. We will be different people. Without a strong sense of place, it’s hard for a writer to fully realise character, and to achieve suspense and excitement.
The first thing a writer has to decide is whether to make their setting real or imagined. My settings tend to be based on real places, mainly because I like to use places I know and love, although the events that take place in these settings are largely a product of my imagination.
Highgate, North London
The family home in ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ is in Highgate, a place I remember well from my childhood. In the same way I visited Lyme Regis to identify where Vanessa’s house in ‘Unravelling’ is situated, I returned to Highgate and found the house I decided my family would have grown up, and where Eva, the mother still lives. The father, Henry dies at the beginning of the novel, and in my mind this would have taken place at Whittington Hospital near Archway.
- On the way home from the hospital after Henry has died, Isabel and Eva drive past St Joseph’s church, which I went to as a child.
- Isabel’s sister, Grace, travels to Highbury to meet an old friend of her father’s. Along the Archway Road, she remembers when she was on a school coach and a man jumped off the bridge onto the road. This is Hornsey Lane Bridge, the site of several suicides, and a road I know well.
- Isabel meets Simon at Kenwood House, a beautiful neo-classical house, offering stunning views towards London across Hampstead Heath. Near the end of the novel, she meets her estranged husband, Brian, at a pub close to St Joseph’s, Waterlow Park and Highgate cemetery, all places I remember well.
I love the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, an island, known for its health-giving hot springs, but often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour Capri. I’ve spent several holidays there, and it didn’t take me long to decide that’s where one of my characters in ‘PP’s Son’ would live.
The character is Grace, one of Henry’s four grown-up children. Grace wasn’t there when her father died – she hadn’t made it back from Italy in time – and she struggles to cope with this, especially when she returns to Ischia after the funeral.
Grace her Italian husband, Franco, run a ristorante, in Ischia Ponte. The ristorante looks out over the sea towards Castello d’Aragonese, a dramatic and compelling place with a rich history which Grace is fascinated by. This is almost the view of the castle from the ristorante.
Rothbury in Northumberland is where Rick, his wife Deanna, and their three daughters, Alicia, Flavia and Camilla live. They moved there from Newcastle, as the family grew. It is a beautiful little town with the River Coquet meandering through its centre. It is built largely of the mellow sandstone from the hills which surround it. Rick and Deanna’s Georgian house, at the top of the town, is spacious and elegant. They have lavished money on decorating and furnishing it to a high standard.
Rick still works in Newcastle, twenty-six miles away, running his own IT business, and his home in Rothbury, together with his wife and family, provide him with the peace and love he craves. But Rick is ambitious and driven. His job is stressful, particularly when the economic downturn causes his IT business to suffer. He tries to relieve the stress by running:
There were few cars about at that hour on a December morning. He ran with the River Coquet on his right and he always felt better once the dark looming trees of Cragside fell away and a gentler landscape to his left opened up. He was making good time as he reached Pauperhaugh, turned right over the old bridge and headed back up to Rothbury along the disused railway track.
George, the youngest member of the family, runs an art school in Penzance. Both Grace and Isabel visit George there. Penzance is a lovely old fishing town, much sturdier and more work-a-day (and far less crowded) than its more glamorous neighbour St Ives. I love it there. The fishing port of Newlyn lies to the south-west, and the stunning outline of St Michael’s Mount can be seen to the east.
Read the First Chapter
By four in the morning, the vigil was over. Isabel’s lips touched his forehead. He already felt cold. ‘I love you, Dad,’ she whispered.
The others had said their goodbyes and would be waiting in the car park. Their impatience tugged at her, but she couldn’t bring herself to go. It didn’t seem right to leave him on his own. She gazed at the bristles spiking his chin. How long does a beard keep on growing, she wondered.
There was a noise behind her and she glanced round.
A nurse was standing in the doorway. ‘I thought you’d all gone.’ She indicated the trolley in front of her. ‘There are one or two things I need to do.’
Isabel clamped her fists to her sides as the nurse’s hand, reddened and capable-looking, touched her father’s pale arm. ‘What will happen to him now?’
‘I’ll make him comfortable, and then he’ll be taken to the mortuary.’
Isabel frowned at the nurse. Comfortable? What on earth was that supposed to
mean? He looked so peaceful, you heard people say. He could have been asleep – platitudes designed to ease the pain. But never, ever would she have thought her dad was asleep. Sleeping people wake up, they come back to you: I had a bad dream, they’ll say. I love you, they’ll murmur. But this was different. This awful quality of absence slashed a gulf between you and them, between sound and silence.
The glass doors slid open and Isabel stepped out. The early morning air stung her cheeks after the fug of the hospital. She hesitated at the top of the steps, looking down at her mother and brother waiting at the bottom, their faces blobs in the shadow cast by the sodium light. Her mother clung to Rick’s arm.
Isabel started down the steps and joined them. Close to, Rick’s eyes were bloodshot. Before he arrived at the hospital last night, she hadn’t seen him for several months and his hair was streaked with grey. Her mother’s mouth was pinched and lifeless without its red lipstick.
The three of them formed an awkward little circle. No one spoke. Isabel’s fingers searched for the ring on her left hand. She couldn’t get used to its absence.
She settled her mother into her old Volvo and followed Rick out of the car park. As they passed St Joseph’s, Isabel’s gaze slid over the statue of Mary, baby Jesus cradled in her arms, which stood in the church forecourt. Her mother made the sign of the cross and lowered her head. When Isabel was young, she would sprinkle holy water on them all, or offer up Hail Marys as they left for school when they had exams or something big happening. But the Blessed Virgin hadn’t come up trumps this time, had she?
Rick was already in the kitchen when they arrived at the house. He was tapping numbers into his mobile.
‘Sit down, Mum,’ Isabel said. ‘What can I get you?’
Her mother, usually so talkative, so loud, just shook her head.
‘Brandy’s good for shock. Dad’s got a bottle somewhere.’
Rick looked up from the phone. ‘I've sent Georgie boy a text.’
‘No point driving like a maniac. Dad’s gone.’
Isabel glared at Rick. ‘You told him that in a text?’
‘Credit me with some sense. I said no rush now.’
Isabel turned away. She glanced at the wall where her father’s old station clock hung. Over the years, the long black hands had announced when it was time for school, piano lessons, her driving test, and the moment when she and her father should leave for church on her wedding day. ‘The clock,’ she said. ‘Look. It says five to four. That means it stopped when Dad – ’
‘I’ll sort it out.’ Rick pulled open the glass front.
‘No!’ Isabel caught his wrist as his fingers reached towards the clock. Only her father was allowed to wind it. It had been one of his rules.
Rick shook off her hand. He searched around on top of the case and Isabel heard the staccato clicking of the mechanism as the key turned. She stared at her brother’s back, his outstretched arm as he closed the front again and returned the key to its home. He was taller, slimmer, but it could almost have been her father standing there.
She crouched beside her mother’s chair. ‘What about some tea?’ Her voice sounded bright and artificial.
Rick turned from studying the clock, which now showed twenty past five. ‘Not for me. I’m shattered.’
‘Yes, go to bed, caro,’ her mother said.
‘And you, Mum. Isabel can bring tea up to you.’
Their mother stood up, catching hold of the back of the chair. She suddenly looked much older than sixty-eight. ‘You won’t forget about Grace?’ she asked, from the doorway.
‘I’ll ring her now.’
While she waited for the kettle to boil, Isabel dialled Grace’s mobile. When they’d realised their father’s condition was serious, she’d phoned her sister in Italy. She would leave immediately, Grace had said. She wanted to be there. But a few moments before he died, the nurse had come in with a message. There were technical problems: Grace was stuck in Naples.
Grace took an age to answer. Isabel pictured the airport: lights dimmed; row upon row of travellers trying to sleep, whiling away the hours that held them suspended between one moment in their lives and another. It was the worst of settings to receive such news.
The bedside light was on in her mother’s room and she was sitting up, tiny against the plumped up pillows. Isabel tried not to look at the empty space beside her.
‘When I first came to England,’ her mother said, sipping the tea, ‘I hated this dreadful stuff.’ She pulled down her mouth at the memory. ‘I was nearly sick more than once.’
‘I phoned Grace,’ Isabel said.
‘Poor baby. All on her own.’
‘Flights resume in the morning. I’ll pick her up from Heathrow.’
‘And mi tesoro?’
Isabel took the cup from her mother’s hand and put it on the bedside table. ‘George will be here soon.’
Her mother closed her eyes. Isabel watched the rise and fall of her chest. When she was sure she was asleep, she leant forward and kissed her cheek.
Her mother’s eyes shot open. ‘Isabel! Why are you here? Where’s your father?’
‘Mamma ... ‘ Isabel rarely called her mother that these days. She’d left the name behind with toys and dressing-up clothes. It was her father who would say Ask Mamma; you’d better tell Mamma.
Her mother reached up and stroked her cheek. ‘You’re a good girl, Isabel. A good daughter.’ She smiled. ‘Tell Henry I want him.’
‘Mamma. Dad’s gone.’
‘But he hasn’t said goodbye. Henry always kisses me goodbye.’
Isabel put an arm round her shoulders. A pad of flesh covered the bone. ‘Mum, you remember. You went in the ambulance with Dad.’
Her mother’s fingers clutched at the bedcover, her long nails red against the cream material. ‘Gone. He’s gone,’ she repeated as if she was learning a new language. ‘Mamma …’
Her mother dropped back on to the pillow. ‘I’ll be all right on my own.’ She pushed Isabel’s hand away. ‘You get home. Brian will be wondering where you are.’
‘I doubt he will.’
‘Why? Has Brian gone too?’
‘We split up, didn’t we?’ Isabel said.
‘I’m in that flat now. Dad helped me sort it out.’
Her mother slapped her palm against her forehead. ‘I’m all confused.’
‘I can’t manage on my own.’
‘I’ll help you.’ Isabel hoped she sounded confident. Her father had been a saint when it came to dealing with her mother.
‘Henry did everything for me.’
‘I know,’ Isabel said. Too much, people used to say. ‘You and Dad were perfect together.’
‘I wish I’d been half as lucky with Brian.’
‘He’ll come back. They always do. Make him pay a little and then forgive him.’
Isabel stared at a brown stain on the wallpaper above the bed. It looked like tea, or blood. She’d never noticed it before. ‘It’s not so easy.’
‘Forgiveness. Isn’t that what marriage is all about?’
‘You should know, Mum.’
‘What makes you say that?’ Her mother’s voice was sharp.
‘You and Dad were married a long time, that’s all.’ Isabel felt for the words as if she was negotiating a route on a rocky path. ‘You must have had to forgive a few things over the years.’
Her mother’s face wrinkled into a smile. ‘You were his favourite.’
‘Dad didn’t have favourites.’
But you have. Isabel watched her mother. And it’s no secret who.
On the landing, a strip of light shone from underneath Rick’s old bedroom door. She tapped and waited. No answer – he’d probably fallen asleep with the light on. She pushed the door open.
Rick was sitting on the narrow bed, his laptop open on his knees. He looked up. His face was grey in the computer’s bluey glow. He kept his fingers poised over the keyboard. ‘What?’
‘I thought – ’
‘What do you want?’ His voice rasped as if he’d just smoked a pack of twenty.
Isabel smoothed down the edge of the carpet with her foot. It always caught on the door. ‘Someone will have an accident on that one day,’ her mother used to say. Dad had never got round to sorting it out. ‘I thought you might want to talk.’
Rick’s heavy eyebrows dived towards each other and a furrow appeared between them. ‘What’s to talk about?’
For a second, Isabel was a little girl hovering at her big brother’s door: Do you want to play? Shove off! I’m busy.
She shrugged, the urge to communicate shrivelling away like melting snow. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Making a list.’ Rick’s gaze had returned to the screen.
‘A list of what?’
‘What is this? A catechism?’
Isabel edged the door shut with her heel. ‘Ssh. You’ll wake Mum up.’
Rick sighed and laid the laptop on the bed next to him. ‘Right. You’ve got my attention. What do you want?’
A prickling sensation started in Isabel’s nose, and she bit her lip hard. ‘Why do you have to be so vile? Dad’s just died. I thought there might be things to talk about.’
‘Isabel.’ Her mother’s voice called from across the landing.
‘Mum’s awake.’ Rick lifted the laptop back on to his knees.
‘You’d better see what she wants.’ His fingers raced across the keyboard.
A lamp burned on the bedside table, and her mother was sitting at the dressing table, plaiting her hair.
‘I thought you were asleep, Mum. What are you doing up again?’
‘You know I can’t go to bed without doing my hair. You shouldn’t have made me.’
Isabel sat down on the bed and looked at her mother’s reflection as she wound the long, thick hair round her fingers. At one time it had been the colour of burgundy, but now there was more white than anything else. She looked different in the mirror. There was something about her eyes, the shape of her mouth with that slight droop in the corner that made her seem a stranger.
‘He used to love watching me do this.’ Her mother smoothed a stray strand of hair. ‘Morning and night, he’d sit on the bed and hand the clips to me. Except yesterday. He didn’t want to get up.’ She gripped Isabel’s hand. ‘If I’d called someone then, he might still be with us.’
‘It was a major heart attack. Nothing could have been done.’
‘I should have known. He was always up first.’
Her mother’s eyes had a distant look as she contemplated some private world Isabel couldn’t begin to imagine. Isabel followed her gaze across the room. Her father’s dark suit, the one he wore for best, was hanging on the wardrobe door.
‘We were going out for his birthday next week. He’d got his suit out to be cleaned.’ Her mother turned back to the mirror. ‘I didn’t deserve him.’
‘He adored you.’
‘Sometimes I think he loved me too much.’
Her mother’s voice was a whisper, so at first Isabel thought she must have misheard. Surely, her mother could never have too much adoration?
‘He’d have done anything to make you happy.’
‘That was the trouble.’
‘How do you mean?’
Her mother shook her head and the newly wound plait twisted snake-like on her shoulder. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ She sat on the edge of the bed and swung her legs round. ‘I’m tired, Isabel. I think I could sleep now.’
‘You can’t say something like that, Mum, and then shut up.’
‘Your father made me promise not to tell anyone.’
‘If there’s something I should know about ... ’
Her mother lay back against the pillow and closed her eyes. ‘Perhaps it would be better.’
‘It’s no good bottling things up. Isn’t that what Dad always said?’
‘My eyes hurt. It’s too bright.’
Isabel switched off the bedside light. For a few moments darkness and silence coalesced, and then her mother began to talk.
Isabel hung her key on the hook in the kitchen. The flat was cold and silent. She went back into the hall and hesitated outside Rose’s room. The door was ajar and she could hear the soft sound of her daughter’s breathing. She hadn’t expected Rose to wait up, but still she felt disappointed, like a child coming home from school to an empty house.
In the kitchen, she fished around in the back of a cupboard and found the bottle of gin. She poured a large measure. There was a time after Brian left when she drank every night. It got especially bad when Josh went to live with his dad. After the first couple of glasses she hardly felt the pain. She used to fall asleep at the kitchen table, waking up cold and stiff in the early hours, to climb into Josh’s bed and cuddle his pillow.
One night when Rose was staying with a friend, she’d phoned to say there’d been a row, and she wanted to come home. Isabel tried to persuade her to get a taxi but she wouldn’t hear of it, sobbed down the phone. Isabel went. It still made her shudder to think what might have happened.
She hardly drank after that. But tonight was different. She rested her forehead against the cold wet glass of the back door. The blackness of the night was creeping away. A soft grey had edged in. The hedge bordering the garden stood hunched against the darkness of the sports field beyond. A shape streaked across the lawn. Samson. Isabel opened the door and he shot in, arching his back and rubbing against her legs.
She picked him up, burying her face in his warm fur. His weight made her arms ache and she slumped on to the rocking chair. Her father had given it to her when she moved into the flat. ‘Very comforting, rocking chairs,’ he’d said.
Samson tolerated her embrace at first, but then began to struggle. He stood over her, paws kneading her chest. She smelt the sardines Rose had given him for supper. His purr vibrated against her ear and her breathing slowed in response. She pushed her toes against the floor and rocked back. Forwards. Back. Forwards. Back.