by Andrew Lee-Hart
When I think of Marta, I picture her sitting next to me, drinking strong coffee, her German accent a little harsh but nonetheless seductive, as she begs me to take her out.
Show me London, your great capital, let us find music and dance.
But you know London.
Not as you do Englishman. Take me out to your great city which survived our bombs and stands so proud.
And then there were the piano lessons, which is how I met her.
Straighten your back .you are losing your rhythm . Keep going, dont slow down .you are not practicing enough . Play it again, but with care, feel the music .
It was Bach, always Bach; endless rhythms and patterns, and she sitting next to me, I could feel her tapping her leg as she attempted to keep me playing in time, whilst I breathed in her perfume, something exotic, brought with her from Germany. A powerful and beautiful woman and yet her soul was so complex and dark, that in the end I was left behind.
When I arrived for my first piano lesson, slightly nervous and very curious, Marta questioned me thoroughly, as if not everybody was worthy enough to be taught by her.
How long have you been playing?
Since I was seven or eight, but with the war, I rather got out of the habit of practicing, and now I am a little rusty.
Hmm, thats not good. Who are your favourite composers? Who do you want to play?
I mentioned Schubert and Chopin.
Too modern, she told me, who else?
So I tried Bach, Rameau and Buxtehude and she seemed happier, well happy enough not to throw me out and to agree to teach me two evenings a week.
.but you must practice she warned me, practice, practice.
And now play me something, she ordered.
I sat down at the piano and played Les Sauvages from one of Rameaus keyboard suites, whilst Marta listened intently. She was silent after I had finished, she had joined me on the commodious piano stool as I had started to play, and as I always did afterwards, I found her closeness intensely erotic in strange and dark way. My previous piano teacher had been an old man, also an immigrant, although from Hungary not Germany, who was gentle and full of praise, even when I knew I had not played particularly well.
Well I dont have many pupils she told me after a few moments of thought, and you have good taste in music, which meant that she was willing to take me on, I never discovered whether in fact she often did reject potential pupils, and after being subjected to her harsh commands and withering criticisms, I wondered if many of her pupils swiftly rejected her, for someone more encouraging and kind.
Occasionally I did see some of her other pupils; nervous looking boys or girls hurrying past me as I waited in the kitchen, as if to escape the words of admonition shouted out behind them.
You have not practiced, go home and practice, an hour at least, or if you dont want to, dont bother coming back.
And then I would come in, and she would sigh, and push her dark hair away from her forehead, and gesture to the piano stool, play, play me something, anything, whilst I compose myself.
And I would play some Bach or Purcell until she was relaxed and then she would ask me to play the pieces she told me to practice.
Marta lived and taught on the ground floor of a large house on a quiet street, in Holborn, not far from Bloomsbury; her neighbours must have been a tolerant lot, with the constant tapping of piano keys, her lah lahing along and her cries of anguish after a wrong note or the evaporation of rhythm. I assume she had money to afford to live somewhere so respectable and certainly her clothes although old fashioned were of very good quality, likewise her piano was a Broadwood, which are not cheap; but I was never sure where she had acquired her money, which was odd because she was so open about most aspects of her life.
Which part of Germany are you from?
Koln by the Rhine, I used to see the Cathedral everyday as I left my flat, ah but then you English ruined it. She sighed. Have you ever been?
I hadnt been to Koln, although I had been to Germany, to Berlin, as soldier, wading through the ruins and seeing women and children, grey with hatred and desperation.
You should go. She told me, now that the war is over. Why not?
I had finished my lesson, but instead of hurrying me off to keep practicing she seemed happy for me to stay and talk, our thighs almost touching on the piano stool.
Listen to this she said and started to play; I was expecting something from Bach or another Baroque composer; mathematical and precise, but instead I got a melange of German popular songs; I recognised Mack the Knife and there were other melodies that seemed half-familiar but which I could not put a name to, and then she began singing, quietly at first but becoming louder and fervent.
Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!/ SA marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt.
What is that?
Oh just a song from Germany, we all used to sing it, it was very popular. And she sang it again, this time unaccompanied.
Do you miss Germany? I asked her.
Yes, very much, and it broke my heart when I had to leave.
Why did you leave? Because of the Nazis?
She laughed, bitterly no not because of the Nazis.
It became a habit to spend time chatting after my lessons; I was the last pupil of the day, so after she had criticised my latest offerings she would make us strong coffee (it will have to be black I dont have milk in the house) and then tell me about Germany before the war, or her passion for Bach and about her various romances, and in particular the love of her life, The Baron.
He came into the night club where I used to sing and play and he stayed all evening, listening and watching, I think he must have fallen in love with me straight away, and I him. He took a poor pianist, dressed her and made her elegant and beautiful.
I think you must have always been beautiful.
She laughed slightly before continuing, he took me out, and I was so proud to be with him, someone so handsome and charming. Even during the war, at least to start with, it was fun, he knew all the important people, we could go anywhere.
He was a Nazi?
Of course, we all were, either that or communists, but they had been forced to flee by then, and good riddance. She finished off her coffee, Hitler came to the Barons villa outside Koln on several occasions, and also Speer and that strange little man Goebbels.
You met Hitler?
Yes, despite what you might think, he was a gentleman; always polite and knew how to treat a lady. Dont believe what they say, he was no monster. And he loved the English, but Churchill
She lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke in contempt.
Her mannerisms were those of a middle-aged woman; someone in her late forties or even older, and her clothes decidedly old-fashioned, and for awhile I was fooled, especially in her ill-lit front room where everything was distorted by shadows, but now that we were having intimate conversations close to one another I had leisure to study her face and saw that her skin looked soft and young, and that when she got up to make us some coffee, her body was that of a young woman, and it was a shock, even though I should have known her age.
I took her to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall; I had seen a poster advertising it and as it was keyboard music by Bach I thought Marta might enjoy it.
Thank you, it is a long time since I have been to a concert, even the Baron was not musical, well not serious music, just oompapa, oompapa. She laughed and then shivered as we walked in the cold English fog, her hand holding lightly to my elbow; people appeared suddenly in front of us and blew past us soundlessly with a whiff of perfume or sweat, and then were gone, like the dead on their way to the underworld.
We had good seats, my boss Mr Adler knew someone important and had presented me with the tickets earlier that day.
Dora Bright Marta said as she read the programme, she sounds Jewish.
Is that a problem? I said as quietly as possible, hoping that she would follow suit; before the war she would have got away with such comments, and probably even now, but I have learnt to be discrete in recent years. She looked at me with an amused look in her eye.
Oh you know Jews what they did to Germany. I know many English people feel the same even if they are a bit embarrassed about it for the moment. See I have shocked you, she laughed okay I will shut up, let us listen to this old Jewess.
Dora came on stage; she was in his sixties, her hair grey and she stooped slightly, but she was relaxed and in control, and once sat at the Steinway piano she went through the Goldberg variations with understanding and beauty. Whilst I dont think she played them quite as quickly as Glenn Gould did in his revolutionary recording recorded almost ten years later, it was still a revelation, particularly as the variations were far less well-known then, than they are now. I found the performance thoroughly absorbing and perhaps for the first time understood the greatness of Bach, my companion, however sat huddled in her coat, seeming to be almost asleep or perhaps snubbing the whole thing.
What did you think of the performance? I asked her as we headed out into the cold.
Ah she has no understanding; to her it is just flamboyance and show.
I did not reply, and as we walked back towards Holborn, Marta also seemed annoyed and, unusually for her, said nothing, however, as we began to hurry through the ice and cold, she gripped tightly onto my arm as if scared she would lose me.
We stood outside her house, close together to keep warm, so that I could feel her breath on my face.
I am sorry I thought you would have enjoyed it.
She took me into her arms and whispered in my ear, ignore my sulking, the music was fine, Bach is Bach, no matter who is playing him. Thank you for taking me. Come in I have some brandy to drink, we can warm up.
And then she kissed me softly on the lips.
I woke up in her heavy bed, with a large photograph of a man looking down on me from the chest of drawers; he seemed smart and formal, and yet if you have looked into his eyes I was sure that there was humour too; a jolly companion I thought.
The Baron Marta told me, she sat up, revealing her breasts, he gave me that photograph before he disappeared. She looked at the picture and stroked my back, he managed to smuggle me out of Berlin, and he was supposed to follow, but he never arrived, and nobody knows what happened.
Do you think that he is dead?
Yes, I think so, so many are. I would have heard. So much of the past has gone, but you are here, and I am happy.
And she kissed me, and then pushed me back down onto the bed.
She invited me to a party.
Time for you to meet some of my friends she told me, there will be someone who you might be interested to meet, someone quite well-known.
She kissed me on the nose, and I could smell her foul tobacco and a faint taste of coffee.
Wait and see.
I had a few ideas as to who the guests might be, and Mr Adler had given me a few possible names, and these proved to be fairly accurate; tired-looking German musicians who ate hungrily, a journalist who wrote for a newspaper of which I had never heard and who kept making notes in a small, grey notebook whenever somebody spoke, and a tall Englishman who was someone senior in the army apparently and seemed embarrassed about being there.
We sat round eating small cakes and drinking wine, and then there was another knock on the door.
Ah my star guest Marta said, and I looked up curiously to see who it could be, in fact it was not someone I recognised, a stout man with a surprisingly attractive wife. Wilfred Adonis, Member of Parliament for Plymouth. Marta announced him to the room, he had a self-satisfied smile, either due to his position or the beautiful woman at his side, and a clear sense of his self-importance. Marta surreptitiously managed to move a couple of musicians from the sofa so she could sit the M.P. and his wife down as guests of honour.
I had not realised we were having speeches, but Wilfred after thanking Marta, produced several sheets of paper, and began to talk; he spoke about the war and the damage it had caused, about our German friends (of whom he strongly approved), and the Jews (who he even more strongly didnt), and then it all became mixed up with the decline of British culture and the destruction of nationalism (at which point the soldier nodded vigorously) and then he mentioned Oswald Moseley, who apparently was a martyr (despite not being dead), and at the end we all clapped politely and Marta kissed him on both cheeks and ordered us to drink a toast to this brave and honourable man.
What do you think of Marta? She is certainly a valiant woman Wilfrid asked me later as he joined me on the piano stool, and we watched our hostess as she spoke intensely to the journalist.
Yes, she is lovely I agreed.
Do you find her ideas a bit strange? I know a few English people have sympathy for our Hebrew brethren, but Hitler had a point, they are not patriotic and who do you think it is who controls the money and really makes the decisions? I am in government, and I should know.
I thought you were a Conservative.
He ignored, or perhaps didnt even hear my gibe.
It was a great pity that we couldnt have fought on the same side, or even stayed out of it like the Swiss; a sensible people the Swiss.
Marta came over with a glass of wine in her hand, oh he understands she said to Wilfred, with a smile, and snuggled up next to me, I felt her body warm against mine, and I listened carefully as she and the M.P. talked of the past and of the future. After awhile his wife joined us, she had been on the edge of things all evening, and looked even more out of place than the soldier, after apologising politely she said that they needed to go, that Wilfred was due in the House early the next morning, and reluctantly Wilfred got up and let his wife drag him off into the night.
I made an excuse not to stay after the party, claiming work, but that was a lie, and instead once home I lay in bed trying to read some poetry by that modern poet T.S. Eliot, but I couldnt understand it all and was not prepared to make the effort to try, and in the end I fell asleep, dreaming of marching feet and barbed wire, and I woke up twice reaching out for Marta, in my cold bed, but of course she wasnt there.
I continued with my piano lessons, and I would stay for coffee afterwards, and on occasion allow myself to be seduced into bed with Marta, stroking her pale, seductive body, the tips of my finger on her back and thighs.
Are you getting tired of me? she asked.
No I returned after a moment, and continued to stroke her back as she purred lightly, I like you she told me, but I feel as if I have lost you and I dont know how to get you back.
I continued to stroke her, as if I could soothe away all that was between us.
I would give it all up for you she told me, and she rolled onto her back and dragged me down on top of her and kissed me with something akin to desperation.
It took me a moment to recognise her handwriting even though I had seen it many times; the scribbled notes on my music, addresses and telephone numbers on scrappy pieces of paper left on her table and chairs, and shopping lists left forgotten on the floor, but I had never had a letter from her, and I wondered how she had known my address?
It began without salutation or date, and it gave the impression of having been written in a hurry: The Baron has appeared! And now we have gone back to Deutschland to be together! I did have to think about it; but you do not love me, not deep down and you can find a lovely English girl with boring opinions and I will be happy with my Baron. Keep up with your piano playing, you will never be a maestro but you understand music. Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.
I swiftly walked round to her house, and banged heavily on the door, and eventually a young man appeared, presumably from the first floor.
Oh, the German lady? She went yesterday, with an elderly man. I think she must have left most of her belongings though, because they only had a couple of cases when they went, perhaps she will come back for the rest later. I cannot imagine she would leave the piano.
Did she say anything?
She saw me looking through the window and waved, she seemed very happy. I will be glad not to have to listen to that piano again I dont mind admitting. I like music as much as the next man, but there are limits.
I should have gone to the office straight away, reported what had happened, but actually it was almost lunchtime before I came in and spoke with Mr Adler.
She has done a flip I told him, she has gone off to be with that Baron she mentioned.
He looked surprised, I thought he was dead.
Did you have any warning?
No, but it all seems to have been sudden, she even left her piano behind.
He sighed, another useful contact disappeared, Oh well, she was only minor league, dont worry.
There was that M.P., a bit worrying that he is in parliament.
He is nothing, just an obscure opposition M.P. a bit in love with Moseley, but yes, we will keep an eye on him, and we will speak to his wife, from what you said, she seems unhappy; perhaps you could use your charm on her? Her father is a Lord, what she sees in that idiot, Heaven only knows
He looked at me sympathetically.
I hope you are okay.
I shrugged; I dont understand any of it; she was clever and kind, and I enjoyed her company but
He made us some tea, and then took a photograph from his desk.
My niece Ingrid, this was the last photograph taken of her, she was only eight. I saw a dark-haired girl, smiling shyly, I visited them in Berlin in 1934, my brother and his wife, and little Ingrid, just an ordinary family. I have not heard from them since, and I have to assume the worst; gassed or shot; a little girl and her kind, loving parents.
I imagine them being taken out of their house by thugs in uniforms, their neighbours standing and watching, not doing anything, perhaps laughing and whispering about Jews and money. Sometimes I cannot bear it, but thats why we do what we do.
We sat and drank tea together and he gave me details of the M.P.s wife and we worked out a way that I could make contact with her in the next few days. As I stood up to leave, he shook my hand.
Take a few days off, just rest, maybe go out into the country, take a girl, sometimes it is the only thing that soothes the soul.
I left the building and walked aimlessly; London was cold, colder than I had ever known it, and all around me were men and women hurriedly pushing past me on their way home, to where it is safe and warm and where somebody loves them.
She disappears, gone back to Germany. Baron has returned.
He has been spying on her.
Bosses sympathetic with her.
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