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A Wrong Note
by Andrew Lee-Hart



“My psychopath was also a very gifted composer and musician. He had no formal training, yet he could pick up any instrument and play it, master it in a year or two.”

From “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks



Professor Purcell watched as the two students made their way onto the stage; the voluptuous goddess and the unfriendly genius. Lizzie, holding her violin, immediately took the eye, she seemed to ooze sex, with her large bosom that she always seemed to be struggling to contain and her bottom was all curves. The professor quickly looked away, it had been a long time since he had had an affair with one of his students; and he wasn’t going to start on that path again, even if he was capable of it which he doubted.


Lizzie’s partner Will, was not at all prepossessing; whilst undoubtedly handsome, he was unsmiling and arrogant looking; giving the impression of someone well aware of his self-worth, however, he was regarded amongst both staff and fellow students as the best musician of the year, and possibly for several years, and he was the reason why there were so many people in the auditorium for what was just a student recital.


Will sat down at the piano stool, put his fingers through his hair and then stretched them out in front of him before giving Lizzie the faintest of nods, and they started to play Beethoven’s sonata for violin and piano in C minor.


Will’s touch was assured; strong when it needed to be and passionate, but with the underlying rhythm which would never waver. The violin gasped in sympathy, pushing against the rhythm, and then succumbing to it for a few bars, and for awhile they were together as one, until the piano pushed forward into a faster tempo and the violin sobbed on its own before replying to Will’s playing.


There were forty or so students sitting around the auditorium, many in pairs, watching the couple, all concentrating hard, and even a few other teachers were there; Mrs Williams, two seats away from Professor Purcell, and Mr Finzi near the front, seemingly asleep but in reality playing every note in his head and happy with what he heard.


Lizzie face looked passionate; her eyes half open whilst her white breasts pushed hard against her black dress as if desperate to escape from its confines, and her violin pushed hard into her soft white neck. For a few moments the professor imagined undressing her, so that she stood naked in front of him, but then the piano came in again and the two performers drawing towards the end of the piece, came in together as one; as close as it was possible for two humans to be.


As the applause echoed around the auditorium, Lizzie gazed down at Will, and Professor Purcell wished that for just once in his life he had inspired such a look of devotion and unrestrained passion.


“That was wonderful” she told Will, “I have never played anything as well, and it was so exhilarating. Thank you.”

He continued to look at his fingers, as if he was thinking of something else; he appeared as cool and contained as when they had been playing together moments earlier.

“You were two slow in the second movement, especially in the twelfth bar, I was having to slow down.” He sounded tetchy, “and in the third movement too. You just get carried away and lose the tempo.”

“I am sorry” she told him, her ecstasy swiftly draining away.

“Professor Purcell was there and Dr Finzi, I felt quite embarrassed.”

“Perhaps we could practice together….”


He brushed his hair in the mirror, with the comb he always carried around with him.

“What’s the point, the piece is played. Maybe you should work with Gerald next time. I think that you would work well together. He’s more your level.”

He walked out of the dressing room without another word, and she heard murmurs of congratulations from the various people who had waited for him and then she sank down, her head in her hands.




“He looks handsome” Ingrid murmured, “I can see why you choose to have your lunch here.”

“He plays very well too; concert level. Although you are right, he is handsome in an austere sort of way.” Her accent betrayed the fact that she was from Vienna not here in Cologne, with its massive cathedral that overlooked the Rhine.


They watched the young man sitting at the electric piano, who was playing intently as if unaware of the small throng of office workers in the plaza, who surrounded him, listening intently. He came to the end of the piece and did not even acknowledge the scattering of applause, but put a comb through his hair, although it did not need it, and then stretched his hands out in front of him and stretched.


Anna nibbled on her sandwich, she savoured the dark bread, but never took her eyes off the pianist.

“He is very good; I could listen to him forever.”

Around them the sun shone, reflected countless times in the glass windows of the offices that surrounded the plaza.

“I didn’t know you were musical.” Ingrid said, but then she did not know that much about her friend, who was just somebody she had lunch with, or who very occasionally she accompanied to the cinema.

Anna smiled, embarrassed; “I used to play a lot when I was young; piano and clarinet mostly. I did think of going to study it at university, maybe at home in Austria or even here in Germany. But I wasn’t good enough, not really.”

“That’s so sad.”

“Oh I don’t know. I am happy with my job; I have always loved books, so working on a literary magazine is a beautiful dream, and I have a piano in the flat which I play for fun; fortunately it is on the ground floor so I was able to get it in. He (pointing at the pianist) is far better than I could ever be.”


“What is this piece?” Ingrid asked after a moment, “I am sure I know it.”

“Of course, it is the Goldberg Variations by Bach.”

“Very calming, a bit repetitive. Why don’t you go and talk to him when he has finished?”

“I already have.”

Ingrid looked at her in surprise; she knew Anna was shy and could not imagine her taking the initiative with someone she liked.


Anna laughed, “he is staying with me, he has been at my flat for over a fortnight.”

Ingrid looked at her in admiration, “you kept that quiet.”

“Well it hasn’t been long really. But I do love him, I could not imagine him leaving me now.”

“Oh is he planning on going.”

“Yes, I keep asking him to stay, at least for the summer. We have got something, and I don’t know why he cannot just enjoy himself for a bit, playing the piano here and there, and taking baths with me.”

“You saucy thing” Ingrid laughed.


The pianist finished and there was another smattering of applause.  Anna said goodbye to her friend and with a thoughtful look on her face, picked up her bag and walked over to her lover and, without stopping, stroked him lightly on the shoulder as she walked past. Ingrid noticed that whilst several men – and even a couple of women - had looked at her friend as she hurried over towards her office, the pianist did not even give her a glance.


“I am worried about Anna”, the young woman spoke to the receptionist, “I haven’t seen her for a few days and when I rang her flat it just rings out.”

The receptionist looked at her for a moment and then called someone, and an older man came out and took her to an office.


“She did not come in on Thursday last week and we haven’t seen her since.”

“Oh, so did someone check her flat?”

“Yes, on Monday I went round and knocked, but she did not answer. Perhaps she wasn’t happy and wanted to leave; she was quite a private person with no close friends here, she was very quiet.”

“But she loved this job, it was her ambition, and she was doing so well, or that’s what she said. Did you call her next of kin?”

“I rang her brother, but he did not seem too concerned, apparently she has done it before, just upped and left. I posted a letter through her door asking her to contact us. I am not sure what else we are supposed to do.”

“You could always ring the police.”

“I doubt if it is that serious, people are allowed to quit their jobs if they want to.”

“But it is so out of character.”


The police seemed similarly unconcerned, but, perhaps just to shut Ingrid up, they managed to get a key for her flat and break in, but that is as far as they would go.

“There is nothing to suggest she was done away with.” The policewoman told her the next day, “her flat was tidy as if she had packed a few things. She isn’t from Cologne and may have gone back to stay with family or a friend back in Vienna.”

Ingrid leaned back on the uncomfortable plastic seat in the interview room, and looked at the uninterested young woman, who clearly wanted to get this over with and deal with something more important.

“But she had no family, well none that she spoke to. I am really worried about her.”

“I am sure she will contact you if she wants to. You said you weren’t that close.”

“I am not sure she was close to anyone, but I know that she was happy in her job and she wasn’t the sort to just disappear without letting anybody know.”


She thought for a moment, knowing the policewoman wanted her to leave, “what about the pianist? He was living with her.”

“What pianist?” the young policewoman asked, “Anna lived alone, the neighbours said there were never any visitors.”

“There is a pianist who plays in the plaza near where we both work; he is English I think. She told me that he was living with her.”

“First we have heard of this, there was no sign of anybody else in the flat. She may have made it up, she was quite lonely by all accounts. But we will investigate. What was his name?”

“I can’t remember. Come to think of it he hasn’t been there for a few days.”

“Well if he does return be sure to let us know,” she stood up to go, and Ingrid reluctantly did the same, “we will list her as missing and see if anything comes up. She may even have run away with this pianist; it would explain why you haven’t seen him.”


On Monday the pianist was still not there; a smiley quartet were playing something by Schubert and Ingrid watched them for a few moments and hoped that Anna was somewhere with the rather cold pianist, listening to him playing and sharing languorous baths, but somehow it felt unlikely. She continued to pester the police until they made it clear that she should not visit them again, and then she spoke to Anna’s brother who seemed heartbreakingly uncaring, and she wondered if anybody but her cared about Anna.


Eventually she gave up; she had a new job in another part of the city and began to make friends, but sometimes when she was walking down Cologne’s main high street she would see a familiar figure in front of her and her heart would stop and she would run after her, but it was never Anna.


Two years later Ingrid went to a concert in Berlin; her lover was an older man who was a fan of classical music and as they had done mostly what she wanted on their holiday she agreed to go. Already bored, she watched through half-closed eyes as the pianist walked on stage, passing his fingers through his hair as he did so, and she came fully awake.

“I know him” she told her lover, who already had his pompous classical music face on, “he killed my friend.”

But her lover just looked at her in that dismissive way he had started to affect and turned away to enjoy the music. And when the pianist – a William K - trilled beautifully, she wondered if it was him or whether her friend had imagined the whole thing, somehow close up it seemed impossible to imagine someone so talented as a murderer. Anyway she had more important things to think about; in particular how to survive another three days with this big bear of a man, who bored her beyond words.




He hit her before he left; a hard punch in the stomach that left her clutching her tummy in agony; she was still winded as he walked out of the door and got in his car to set off for London. He liked to drive, in fact it was the only fanciful thing about him, the only thing he seemed to do for the pleasure of the thing, unless hitting your wife and daughter was also pleasurable, rather than a necessity.


“Why aren’t you happy?” Maria had once asked him.

“But I am hungry and Anna is crying all the time.”

Maria could have pointed out that he lived in a beautiful house in the Yorkshire Dales with a wife and daughter who would adore him if he gave them the chance, that he was doing a job that she assumed he loved, and he was one of the best-known living pianists in the world and thus money had not ever been a problem for them, especially as he would play anything for anyone, if they paid enough. Yet he seemed miserable all of the time, even when playing the piano, as if he were incapable of enjoying life, and that each day was filled with difficult tasks that he had to negotiate his way through.


“What would make you happy?” She asked.

“My dinner and for Anna to stop crying.”

“She is only two years old, of course she cries.”

“But I need to practice, I have a concert in less than a month.”

She had sighed and left Anna weeping in her bedroom whilst she finished cooking him his dinner.


Anna was lying on her bed whilst her mother packed. If it had just been Maria, she would have been finished by now; just some clothes and toiletries in a case would be all that she needed, but Anna had so much stuff. Although Will was frugal, especially with other people, his daughter had still accumulated many possessions; in part because she was Maria’s parents only grandchild and they were a very generous couple who ignored their son-in-law’s grim comments about spoiling children.


Anna watched her as she walked into her room.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her face still red where her father had slapped her, which is why Maria had intervened and been punched in her turn.

“We are going on a holiday, I am just packing some of your stuff.”

“Don’t forget Big Ted.”

“I won’t.”

“Will daddy be coming?”




Maria often considered why he had married her, or why he stayed with her when he clearly did not love her. Perhaps he just needed a wife; someone to enable him to do his job without bothering about the trivial things in life, such as meals and buying clothes, and someone to have regular sex with without having to go to the bother of seducing somebody each time. She used to ask “do you love me?”, but now she never bothered, because it had just seemed to confuse him.


Later as she and Anna drove down to her parents’ house down in Hertfordshire, she thought about Will and what he was doing now; he had gone down to London to play a concert at the Barbican, Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto; it was the opening piece of the concert and she could picture him sitting in his dressing room flexing his fingers and looking at the score, and then running a comb through his hair time and again.


Although she could imagine what he would be doing, she could not imagine what he would be thinking, but then she never could. Would he be feeling guilt about hitting Anna and her? Somehow she doubted it; he would be preparing for his mind for the concert, blocking out any disturbing thoughts and making sure he had urinated before he went on stage, no concern about anyone else, not even his wife and daughter.


“Where’s daddy?” asked Anna a few minutes later from the back seat of the car.

“In London.”

He was probably on stage now; a slightly confused look at the audience and then he sits down at the piano, ignoring the applause. And then listening to the orchestra before coming in with another melody. Was this the only way he could communicate with his fellow man? Through the piano, repeating themes, and then elaborating on them? Almost a showing off, a preening.  And afterwards he would walk away, so that by the time the concert was finished he would be halfway back to Yorkshire, not realising that he was coming home to an empty house.




Will watched television that evening; he had to practice in the morning and as he liked to get up early to do so, he would need to go to bed early. If Maria had been there she would have made him some Ovaltine and made sure that his pyjamas were folded neatly and on top of his pillow ready for him, but unfortunately now that she was gone he would have to do it himself. He sighed petulantly as he put on the kettle.


Once in bed he found to his annoyance that he could not sleep straight away, something that rarely happened. For some reason he thought about Anna; the clingy Viennese girl who he had had to kill because she would not let him go; who threatened to follow him or to go to the police and accuse him of rape, which wasn’t technically true. For years he had forgotten about her; he had not even realised that he had named his daughter after her for a few months. As he lay there, he remembered her; her dark hair and brown eyes, looking up at him with what might have been love, before they flickered shut. Oh these women who had ruined his life.


Disturbed by the past, he got back up and walked into his daughter’s bedroom; he noticed a doll that was left on the floor and put it on the shelf; so that it stood straight. But what was the point? He liked everything neat, although presumably everything would soon be taken away and he knew that he would never see his daughter again. For a moment he felt something in his bowels and swallowed a tear, even though he knew that his daughter had only ever been a distraction and a problem for him.


Feeling overwhelmed by an emotion that he could not understand he went back to bed. As he lay, tightly curled up he could smell Maria; her fragrance so strong as if she was lying beside him. Had he really killed her? The knife in her flesh; her sharp cry of surprise?


But why had he done it? Although she had left him he could have carried on, met somebody else or hired a servant or a secretary to cater for his needs? He could find somebody to have sex with; “an arrangement” as they did so well in France. Perhaps that was what he had needed all along.


So why? He had not even thought about it; as if possessed by some kind of demon or monster he had driven down to St. Albans to her parents’ house, where he knew she would be. She had opened the door and foolishly let him in, although he did not think she would.

“What do you want?”

“Just to talk.”

They moved into the kitchen, and he noticed where the knives were, kept in a wooden block close behind Maria.

“But you hit me and you hit Anna. I cannot live with you anymore. I gave you everything.”

He looked at her calculating.


“Can I have a drink please? It was a long drive and I am thirsty.”

She sighed and walked towards the kettle, he swiftly moved across the kitchen and pulled the largest knife out of the block and before she had realised what was going on, he had pushed her hard against the wall, and thrust the knife into her belly twice. She gasped and after a moment silently slid to the floor, whilst he watched her curiously.


And then he had heard his daughter crying upstairs – he had not thought about her since getting to the house, being so concentrated upon his wife - he ran up, and stopped by the doorway of her bedroom looking at his daughter, the knife tight in his hand, his wife’s blood on the blade.


Anna was talking with Big Ted, pretending to give him a drink, her momentary bout of sadness over. After watching her carefully for a few minutes as if she were a stranger, he raised the knife, but then he heard a noise outside and after a second he put the knife into the laundry basket and walked downstairs and out of the front door, and drove back to Yorkshire.


He woke up slightly later than he had planned, but he felt refreshed and happy, despite the fact that he would have to make his own coffee and porridge. He had a concert in Dublin in a month’s time and was to play Shostakovich’s first and second piano sonatas, so as he ate, he thought about the music and how he would tackle the two pieces.


He sat down in front of his Steinway piano.  The sheet music was waiting for him, ready to be transformed into sound; but to his horror when he looked at it, ready to play the music, it was all dots and lines and meant nothing to him, he could not understand what it wanted, what it meant. He tried to play some scales to get his brain working, but his hands would not move in the way they were supposed to, they were like blocks of woods banging against the piano keys with no rhythm and no melody.


He sat there lost, desperately stretching his fingers, unaware of the increasingly loud bangs on his door and then the crash as it came off its hinges and fell forward. And  as the house was filled with the sound of shouting and heavy boots, he started to play.



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