The silent piano

I wanted to write something fun and intriguing today. After all, having just started this blog, I would like to set an attractive, upbeat tone, a beguiling Mozart sonata rather than a mournful Chopin Waltz, exploring subjects that would caress and encourage my readers. But life has a way of interrupting our plans and imposing its own.

Did I say life? I meant death.

This morning we heard that Therese had died. A close relative called to let us know. The news was not unexpected. Therese had been ill for some time with an inoperable and incurable brain cancer, associated with a number of other serious ailments : it was a violent gallbladder infection that killed her. A close friend of the whole family for 20 years, since she had become the partner, latterly wife, of our lifelong friend Michel, Therese had won me over almost immediately with her attitude – a mix of optimism, rebellion and expansive kindness that hid a vulnerable core. She was 81. She was 21. Her body had altered, her mind had become wise, her heart had never aged.

Therese, Granada coast, 2011

Yet eventually, it gave up. Not only her physical heart, through death, but her emotional heart. Shortly after receiving her diagnosis, she renounced life and prepared to leave us.

– “I’m tired, my darling”, she told me, the last time we spoke. “I’m simply waiting to go.” Of all the people I’ve met Therese was one I’d least have imagined to be resigned, to go gently into that good night. People can surprise you at life’s edge, and she knew more about it than I did.

– “I love you, I said, I’ll miss you”. I surprised myself: these were words I’d thought but never expressed before. When she told me she was dying, they came tumbling out like a rush of emotional notes from a baby grand.

Therese had no children, but she had a piano. Had her parents been more supportive, had she believed in herself in her teens, she would have made a fine concert pianist. Until a few months before her death, she still entranced social evenings in her small flat in Geneva playing a Brahms dance, a Mozart sonata, a Fauré allegro, or a melancholy Chopin Waltz. The first time I heard her play, she had been in the next room. I didn’t know her well and thought she had put on a CD of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances for piano.

– “No, no, ma petite Sophie, that’s one of the things I do well myself. You see, I cannot cook. I’m no good at sports and really quite silly sometimes. But I can play the piano.” She had played the 1st Hungarian Dance as though she were giving a recital. I was her friend from that moment on.

What would her life have been if she’d known that when she was 20? Another Moura Lympany? A professor at the conservatory?

Instead, she became an international civil servant and worked a bureaucratic job at the WHO (World Health Organisation). She had a long-standing relationship with a man with whom she could have no children. Some years after his death, in her early 60s, she met Michel and they had been together since. Did she miss out, not having children?

– “I thought so once, but no longer. I’ve had a good life!” And so she had. She had travelled widely, she had spread love and beauty wherever she went, she had stood by her strong opinions on social justice, and she had met some of the great men and women of her age, who had honoured her.

She and I shared a love for literature, for music and for the underdog. Though she could have been my grandmother, though our belief systems were different (she was an avowed agnostic), I always felt her to be a kindred spirit, a spiritual sister.

This morning, we spoke to Michel on Skype. His normal upbeat teasing manner had given way to grieving bewilderment. He is lost without the companion of his old age. He spoke of her piano, which was behind him in the room where he sat, of the longing he had to hear her play again, of the sight and sound of her everywhere in the apartment. A silent piano is so sad. I caught her with my mind’s ear. I tried to conjure the lilting 1st Hungarian Dance, but heard only the last notes of a Chopin waltz.

Au revoir, Therese.

Therese, Alhambra, 2011


time machine

The heat that pushed us indoors during these dog days of the Alpine summer has placed me in front of the grandfather clock in the only cool room in the chalet, the dining-sitting room, for hours – working, socialising, keeping fresh. Every hour it strikes the hour twice, at the exact time and two minutes later – ‘in case we didn’t hear it the first time’ my mother says, and on the half-hour, once. It’s a clear chime, which carries throughout the chalet, even with the doors shut : there is no chance of not hearing it and so when we go to bed, we remove the lead weight that sets off the clock every half-hour. Then only the unrelenting pendulum swings loudly in the night.


It’s long since I examined this symbol both of time fleeing and permanence. Its casing is rough, rustic, hewn together some 150 years ago from fir wood by a peasant in the mountains of Maurienne in Savoy. Over time it has been polished with beeswax until its patina darkened its colour to a deep honey.

The mechanism comes from the Jura mountains, watch country to this day, where clockmakers used to work in small workshops and sent clock and watch mechanisms throughout Europe. The tin-glazed clock face is surrounded by a detailed brass bas relief depicting a mountain huntsman brandishing a rifle, a dog at his side, on a stylised background of oak leaves, acorns and ivy.


I’m wondering about the three men who made this clock. The clockmaker, unusually, did not mark his name or area on the clock face. The bas-relief artist must have worked with the clockmaker, perhaps in the same workshop or close by, to order. He and the peasant-carpenter remain as anonymous as the clockmaker (how do I know he was not a trained carpenter? Because he made an uneven, rough casing out of what looks like the ends of wood used for making other, larger furniture.) The peasant who bought the mechanism with this decorated clock face was not poor : he could afford a good quality movement that still works 150 years later and tells the right time to the minute. But he was not rich: he had to build his own case, out of cheap fir wood. He made it to last, using thick square wood pegs to hold together the strong boards.


He invested in two pieces of glass: a large necessary one in front of the clock face, and a smaller one he must have chosen for his own pleasure, revealing the brass pendulum, battered by time.


Was he a grandfather, assembling his clock during his well-deserved retirement from back-breaking high altitude Alpine farming and animal husbandry? Or perhaps a mountain guide who whiled away his winter evenings in a makeshift workshop in the decades before winter sports took over the Maurienne and turned his descendants into skiing instructors and ski patrollers in the resorts above Albertville. Was he a young man building a clock for his wife-to-be, to impress her parents and prove his resilience and time-worthiness?

His way of life has disappeared from the Alps. His land was sold to make ski slopes and build chalets for tourists. His great-great-grandchildren live in flats and few of them would know how to make a grandfather clock case. His family sold his clock, perhaps to buy some newly necessary household item or simply because it was old and out of fashion. In the 1960s, Alpine antique dealers went from farm to farm, buying clocks, chests, beds and tables, often for next to nothing from families who didn’t realise their value and timeless beauty.

There is still a handful of bas-relief artists and traditional clockmakers in the Jura, but most have closed their workshops, replaced by high-tech workers or cheaper mass-producing factory workers, many of them in Asia. They too have been overtaken by relentless time.

We collect these ancient rustic pieces to give ourselves a window onto a past that was never ours. The grandfather clock is a time machine to a lost world, a magical bridge to a traditional clockmaker, a brass-working artist in the valleys of the Jura and a mountain peasant-carpenter whose life left no other trace of its passage and culture. Time was slower when that clock was made. It has accelerated beyond the imaginings of its makers, faster than the skiers who whizz down those mountains in winter. Yet the clock is still there and tells the time in the way it always did. It has just struck six: the same six chimes the farmer heard in his rugged wood and stone house 150 years ago. Time has passed. Time has stood still.