The terminology preferred by classical musicians is, on the whole, pretty blackly humorous. To classical music fans this may come as a surprise, as classical music’s image has never married with its reality. To the general public, orchestral players appear to be sedate, stiff-backed gents in white tie and tails (or, these days, disciplined young women wearing black suits).
‘Squeaky-door’ dates are the derisory title for late 20th-century music concerts. It is deeply unfair on many still-extant composers, whose music isn’t even as interesting as the squawk of an unoiled door, but it conveys the general level of musical excitement pretty well, as in, ‘It’s only a squeaky-door date, so I’m planning on using my less good instrument.’
‘Muddy field’ dates are pretty self-explanatory. You take one muddy field in which sheep habitually graze (generally within hailing distance of a 17th-century stately home or castle) a covered, moveable stage (which still manages to let some rain in, generally on the lower strings) glamorous backstage facilities consisting of one tent and two portable toilets, and several adjoining fields called into service as a car park and places from which to launch the fireworks. There is only one thing of any critical musical importance on a ‘muddy field’ date, and that is the orchestra exit plan. This is because (due to the popularity of their fireworks) your playing may be amplified to an audience of 15,000 people; hence the union has decreed that the performers have to have a separate exit, even if it is over a plowed field. (What occurred one night when I was playing in the Royal Philharmonic in Yorkshire is part of the reason for the Union’s laudable obduracy on this point. As we were accompanying Jose Carreras, the world-famous tenor, the concert was so packed that I didn’t even succeed in exiting the car park until 2 a.m., limping back to London as day was breaking.)
She was in an accident, of course--a long, lingering affair was never Mirabel's style. No, she had to depart with eclat: phone lines buzzing from continent to continent ("I say, have you heard the awful news about Mirabel?") Nothing else would have been remotely in character.
"A heart attack," she had told me firmly, when we discussed it. "I shall have a heart attack. A-type personality. Obsessive behaviour patterns. Competitive lifestyle. Runs, indeed scampers, in the family. A heart attack can only be a matter of time."
"Doesn't seem to upset you much," I observed.
"Why should it? Oh, I expect it will hurt like the devil but then, you see, it will be over--no nerves, no agonizing, no boring, drawn-out suffering. Much the best method, my dear Elaine, I heartily recommend it."
"From your long experience.”
"From my in-depth consideration," she assured me, a little huffily. If Mirabel had a fault, and I could have named you dozens, it was a tendency to take herself, that dramatic, powerful creature, just a touch too seriously.
And yet her heart never failed her, not that she'd given it much chance. Her heart went down with a plane: down, mercilessly down, head first into the black South China Sea.
It took me weeks to admit that it had happened, weeks to accept--if such an enormity can ever be accepted--that she was gone, that she would never be swinging in from her latest tour, laden with trinkets for my girls, or, more rarely, for me. She had been gone so often that her very absences had become part of the rhythm of my life. It never failed to thrill me, like the country mouse, when she called me up from Brussels or Singapore or wherever the orchestra had taken her, to tell me, over a line never quite as crackling as I expected, about the latest trauma to befall her.
And there was no shortage of traumas. Mirabel loathed boredom, so, even if dying young was the penalty, the orchestral world in some ways suited her. She played third French horn in the Orchestra of London, a group which appeared, as far as I could tell, to spend half its time scrambling from one corner of the globe to the other, in a constant, desperate quest for solvency, audiences and CD sales.
When she was at home and unengaged in recordings or concerts, she tended to drop into our house for attention and sympathy, never failing to be irritated if we were, by remote chance, entertaining other company. Which was not to say that Mirabel had no home of her own: she was married to a research chemist of exemplary character, looks, patience and generosity. In fact, so ridiculously admirable was Stephen, and so energetically was Mirabel in the habit of enumerating his perfections, that some people took an irrational dislike to the fellow.
I didn't dislike him; I admired him, for his lean looks, exquisite manners, and for his unselfish support of Mirabel. But I never felt close to him the way you might expect, never failed to marvel that Mirabel--that impulsive, generous, vital creature--should have been attracted by such opposite characteristics. Stephen's inner strength was impressive, but perhaps a little forbidding; when smiled he looked wonderfully handsome, but then, he rarely smiled. I think I was always a little afraid of him, or a little nervous of retaining what Mirabel impatiently assured me was his good opinion. His scientific career was also intimidating; somehow the image of Stephen serenely manipulating chemical molecules and test-tubes seemed to lift him out of the realm of normal mortals and into a different sphere altogether.
I also remember a vivid encounter one day in April 1929. It was the last night of our journey and I awoke early and informed the sergeant in my company of my intention to go alone to a nearby village in order to finish some business there. I gave him instructions to follow me, together with the men, assuming that I would probably have completed my duties by the time the rest arrived, and that we could proceed together to Wao before sunset. My horse and I trotted along a very narrow path through dense forest in the direction of the village, my mule behind (unloaded because it was a very unruly animal, which I kept only because I was paid for its feeding).
After only a few miles, my horse suddenly stopped, as did the mule: then they started plunging forward as fast as they could — before just as startlingly stopping and rushing madly in the other direction! Before reaching the place when they had first hesitated, they again shivered to a halt, before my horse bucked frantically, and then charged off in the other direction again . . . I tried hard to stop him, but it was no use and I began to worry I might fall off, as I was unaccustomed to such galloping. (I held so tightly to the horse that one would have thought that we were only one creature!) On the third occasion of this wild and unruly behaviour I began to fear the presence of some animal hiding among the trees.
I got out my whistle and blew it hard to alert my followers, while pulling out my revolver, in case it should be needed. I was so frightened that my hair stood on end; my felt hat was no more resting on my head but seemed instead upon the tips of my hair! I was almost certain that some leopard was lurking, ready to pounce on me.
I started to pray fervently. Then, as the horse and the mule stopped midway between the two points, preparing for a fresh panic, I suddenly started, seeing a leopard blocking the path along which I was traveling. The moment I saw this, I stopped blowing my whistle and returned my gun into my pocket, in order not to lose control and to start shooting, possibly inciting the animal to attack. I tried to keep my eyes from it although I could not help looking at it. What I felt in those terrible moments is hardly to be told, except that I acquired energy out of my very weakness to such a degree that I wildly imagined that, should the animal attack me, I could seize it and fight back (this was pure imagination!) I remained in this condition for about ten minutes while the horse shivered, ready to stampede again at any moment. The ten minutes seemed to me to be ten hours, yet when I finally dared to look once more in the direction of the apparition I found that it was no longer there.
They say that everyone feels young until his mother dies.
I was getting ready for work when the phone rang. I guessed at once that it was Ahmed, as he usually called at about that time.
It was indeed Ahmed, but his voice sounded stiff and strange. Without any preparation he said, “Mahmoud, our mother has passed away. Be strong!”
I could say nothing. My throat began to ache with tears, my eyes to swim. So, it had truly been our last goodbye! He continued: “She had a heart attack last night, and died on the way to hospital. I was there; I was with her. The last words she spoke were, ‘Ahmed, Mahmoud!’ and then she was gone.”
I was a stone: my lips were glued; my heart had a weight like iron pressing down on it. I don’t remember the rest of the phone call.
Afterwards I was in the basement alone, crying in my soul, my body shaking . . . Not just because she was gone, but because she had lived so hard a life! Her father had died before she was born; her mother had remarried, leaving her to the care of an uncle. Her own country had refused her a passport. When she had married my father was not perhaps the best choice — though he too had suffered . . . And then, her life in Iraq remained so difficult: still there were wars, security worries, personal worries, constant fears for her children and for their children too. There had been so few happy days, so few moments when she could laugh with us and be truly light-hearted!
I had used to hope that I was a comfort to my mother — I knew that she was proud of me — but the crazy dreams I had dreamed of my coming to liberate her in a US tank had never happened. To the end of her life she had been shackled: by rulers who had never had the grace to give her a vote or a passport, by love of her children and her grandchildren that had made even such joys as had existed so fragile and precarious. And yet she gave and gave — she never finished giving! Always she was giving: to children and grandchildren, to my father and to me — There was never a person on earth who asked less or gave more. And how she had loved me: her last word on this ungrateful earth: Mahmoud.