The next day, though, it all started again, with her uncle teaching her the notes: they were written on the stave and corresponded with the notes on the piano. And you moved your fingers by crossing the thumb under your middle finger which was curved over it in an arc. Two or more notes together made a chord, the fingers were numbered from one to five and there were sequences of notes called scales.
‘Now you do it,’ her uncle would say, and she would repeat what he had played.
More time passed, and they would have doubtless continued in this way had other incidents not intervened.
The first was called Ireninha. She was younger than Júlia and she came to live almost opposite, in a house with a garden and a name-plate made of tiles that said Casal das Flores – House of Flowers. She was learning piano with Madame Ortega, the best-known teacher in the city, whose lessons, so people said, cost a fortune. Ireninha wore frilly dresses with a big bow at the waist, and she often seemed to have difficulty breathing; she moved very slowly and had a plump, startled air about her.
Whenever they had visitors, the family would say: ‘Come on, Ireninha, play!’
And Ireninha would play. As soon as she finished one piece, they would almost always demand another. She would sigh and play another piece.
In the middle of a game, in the garden, her mother could be heard calling from the window: ‘Ireninha, it’s time!’
Ireninha would stand leaning against the wall, twisting the hem of her dress between her fingers, pretending not to have heard. She would sulk sometimes, turn very red, scuff her feet, and her jaw and mouth would tremble. But she always obeyed in the end. She would leave the rest of us and go into the house. Shortly afterwards, we would hear the notes of the piano.
‘That girl will go far,’ said the neighbours, nodding sagely.
Even worse, though, was the recital. In Ireninha’s house, for weeks beforehand, they lived in a state of permanent expectation. Madame Ortega’s pupils were going to play. Ireninha was going to play. In public.
The world seemed suddenly transformed by the revelation that there was such a thing as the public. The maid Joana arranged Ireninha’s hair differently, her mother excitedly taught her how to curtsey: ‘You take hold of your skirt with both hands, one on either side – like this.’ And, as she did so, she had to cross her feet, which would be shod in white socks and patent leather shoes.
Her father paced from one side of the room to the other, his hands behind his back. ‘The hall will be packed,’ he said.
For example, she never played the whole of any tune that Uncle Octávio had just shown her, even though she had memorised it instantly.
‘Packed,’ repeated her mother in a tremulous voice.
All Ireninha would remember of the recital later on was how tired she felt and how, on the tram coming home, she had fallen asleep on Joana’s lap. She didn’t fluff any notes or trip over her feet when she curtseyed. She was safe, Júlia had thought, when she finished playing. Sitting beside her aunt and uncle in the first row, she gave a sigh of relief. This time, Ireninha was safe.
She had not expected the terrible noise of people applauding, as if the hall was under bombardment. Ireninha hadn’t either and fled, while the audience laughed and fidgeted in their seats. When she finally returned, dragged back on stage by stout Madame Ortega, the hands continued clapping, beating and beating in her ears, and the sound they made was so aggressive that Ireninha let go of Madame Ortega’s hand and burst into tears, before fleeing once more, this time for good, behind the curtain.
‘It’s death for an artist if no one applauds,’ Uncle Octávio said the following day. ‘Pity the poor pianist if people don’t clap.’
Why, she thought to herself, although not daring to contradict him. Didn’t Ireninha have the right to exist on her own, without depending on other people’s reactions?
She felt a sudden horror of becoming like Ireninha, of being forced to practise scales, play for visitors, curtsey on stage beneath a barrage of applause like machine-gun fire.
She said nothing, but from then on, she grew more cautious. For example, she never played the whole of any tune that Uncle Octávio had just shown her, even though she had memorised it instantly. This, she had heard,was how Ireninha had been discovered, because of her great facility for memorising tunes. Not that it was difficult, because musical phrases didn’t happen by chance, they were interconnected. All you had to do was to seek what you had found already, place the notes in the right order, and, if you were unsure, try and reconstitute what was missing before looking back at the score, as if music were a piece of cloth that had been accidentally torn, a tear that could always be mended. Learning something by heart was not what people imagined. But she kept this idea to herself just as she did with her other discoveries. For instance, she would never tell anyone that she could hear the music simply by reading the score. It seemed to her dangerous to talk too much, she was afraid her thoughts might turn against her once they were spoken. On the other hand, she was full of questions, for example: Where did scales come from? No one had invented them, they were simply there, and always had been. But what did ‘always’ mean? And where was ‘there’, that place where people said the scales had always been?
And where did rhythm come from? From the body perhaps, from the heart beating. But the moment came when it left the body and became a separate thing, there was a moment when the music took on its own existence, and that idea made her dizzy. She wouldn’t share it with anyone else, though, all too aware that what had happened to Ireninha could happen to her.
Teolinda Gersão is a novelist and short story writer based in Lisbon. She has won many prizes, most recently the 2016 Prémio Virgílio Ferreira. I have translated her novel The Word Tree and many of her short stories, a genre at which I think she particularly excels. She has a wonderfully oblique way of looking at things and an extraordinarily wide range of subjects, ranging from the fantastic – a woman who turns into a fox – to the ordinary – a grandmother and her grandson battling against the wind on a beach. This translation is an extract from a novella, ‘The Keyboards’, about a gifted young pianist living in a highly dysfunctional family consisting of two uncles and an aunt. One of the uncles is mentally ill, another is a bully and husband to the long-suffering aunt. The story provides a keen insight into a young girl’s mind, yearning for independence and recognition and to escape from the burdens imposed on her by the adult world. The writing is, as always with Teolinda, seductively lucid.
Margaret Jull Costa has translated works by novelists such as Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago, Javier Marías and Teolinda Gersão, as well as poets such as Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Ana Luísa Amaral. She has won many prizes, most recently the 2015 Marsh Award for Children’s Fiction in Translation for Bernardo Atxaga’s ‘The Adventures of Shola’. In 2013 she was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2014 was awarded an OBE for services to literature. In 2015 she was given an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Leeds.