Title: Three Brief Encounters

Author: Sarah Laing

In: Sport 27: Spring 2001

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 2001

Part of: Sport

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Sport 27: Spring 2001

The Hungarian Pianist

The Hungarian Pianist

‘It's the story of my aunt,’ she says. ‘She got to study at the Vienna Conservatorium of Music when hardly any women were admitted at all. She was very good; when she played to Liszt at the end of the year, he lumbered on stage and took her in his arms, warts like fat peach rose buds so close up, and said, “You will be my student from now on.”’

Paris, London, Moscow, Rome, they all wanted her to play for them. Play those slender milk-fingered melodies, blush a little at the audience, heavy skirts foliaging her legs, a hint of ankle, yes, no? But she couldn't. Not without a chaperone, not without her mother, taut with her twelfth child.

So what does a girl do who has been denied a career? A girl who no longer can adjust the piano stool on stage, inhale, then drop her fingertips on the keys, soft as first snow?

A girl gets married. A girl gets pregnant to her oily-skinned, quick-spurting husband, before she's had a chance to choose the fabric for the parlour curtains. And when a girl is giving birth, that big-headed baby paralyses her down the left side of her body. No more sonatas. No more lush chords.

‘I remember hiding behind the sofa when she came to stay with us in Hungary,’ she says. ‘I hid behind the sofa and watched her pick out the melody with her right hand. Her left arm hung at her side like a ring-barked branch of an elm. The music was sad. My aunt played and cried.’