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The Upright Piano Player
London | November 1999
By the time he finally left, the adulation was beginning to pall. There had been a month of farewells. Lunches every day, three dinners a week--all preceded or concluded with speeches and presentations. His clients had given him a gold pen; the staff, an antique watch, older than himself, but unlike himself, still burnished and bright. There had been photographs from his partners by names he revered: Doisneau, Bravo, Lartigue, all framed in oak, their certificates of authenticity housed modestly in brown manila envelopes. He was familiar with this trick of the rich, restraint adding to the value of the gifts, the generosity of the givers.
There were books, too, first editions of novels he loved--Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh, published by Chapman and Hall in 1928 for 7/6, and now worth £400. They had found him a fine copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good and presented it, he realized, with more than a touch of irony. There was a quince tree for his garden in London (to be lifted and planted at his command) and more than a hundred leaving cards and letters, many of great tenderness.
At the presentations he looked into his lap as clients and colleagues chronicled his thirty years in the company. Occasionally, he glanced up to acknowledge a common memory or to share in the enjoyment of his own edgy wit recalled from earlier days. On the Wednesday of his final week, the company had hosted the official goodbye in the ballroom of the hotel across the square. At 5:00, the staff meandered across the road, latecomers dodging the traffic in their haste to secure a good seat. It was the end of an era, they had been saying in the corridors. Even the graduate trainees, who had joined the company just seven days earlier and had never actually met him, were caught up in the conflicting emotions of the day: sadness at his going, gratitude for all that he had done, but also excitement at the prospect of change.
His three partners were eloquent, each generous with his praise. As he walked to the lectern to give his reply he was aware that everyone was standing. There was applause, a sea-roar in his ears, and he stood waiting for it to stop, smiling into the dark space above the heads of the audience.
In the pub later, the video team said it had been the longest ovation they had ever filmed. “Not that there was much to film, Henry standing there for five minutes and the rest just clapping their heads off. And that was before he’d even said anything.”
He had worked hard on his speech. He knew they expected it to be the speech of a lifetime--quite literally the distillation of thirty years at the company, a list of do’s and don’ts, a formula to keep things as they were--though in their hearts they must have known that was not possible, perhaps not even desirable. He knew it, too, and no longer wanted to make the speech of a leader. In the old days he would inspire them, lift their spirits, and send them back to their desks with renewed energy and enthusiasm. Now he simply wanted to say goodbye and slip away. Somehow he had found the right words and if the audience missed the old fire they had responded to the gentle sincerity of his farewell.
On the Friday, the last day of a long week, Henry cleared his office. A tidy man on the surface, only he knew what chaos existed in the cupboards so exquisitely fronted with beech veneers and brushed aluminum. He threw out almost everything: letters, cards, documents, and photographs. Crates had been sent up to take the books that lined one wall of his office. His books had been a daily comfort, confirming that even in commerce there was room for contemplation. Now he realized he no longer wanted them. He scribbled a note that they were to be given away. He left his awards, certificates, and business degrees on the wall. He wondered if they would end up in the archives or the bin. It was all the same to him.
It was past 9:00 when he took the lift down to the basement. Even at that time on a Friday evening, the building was usually busy. In the meeting rooms, people would be working on presentations for the week to come. Often, they would be there all night--the conference tables littered with charts and the debris of takeaway meals. When the cleaners came in at daybreak, they would sniff the air in reception, gauging the scale of the job ahead.
As the lift passed the fourth floor, Henry knew that Dan Priestly would still be at his desk--not working, but waiting. His evening routine was well established. First, the Times crossword and then television until it was time for the last train home to a wife he no longer loved. (A year later, in the divorce court, she would claim in all innocence that it had been the company’s work ethic that had destroyed their marriage.)
There were many reasons for staying late and Henry was not surprised when the lift stopped at the second floor. A girl got in, someone he did not know. She was flustered to find him there. In the confusion he saw that she was tall with dark, cropped hair. She was wearing a long black coat.
“Ground?” he said. Before he could push the button the doors closed, leaving his finger in midair.
“I’m Maude, one of the new graduates. I was really moved by your speech on Wednesday. I’m sorry we won’t have overlapped for longer.”
He said that he was sorry, too, and could think of nothing to add. He stood looking at his shoes until the lift doors opened on the ground floor. She got out. He felt he had let her down by failing to offer a suitable benediction. Well, he had no more wisdom left.
In the underground car park, his Mercedes stood alone, its black paintwork dulled by a light film of dust. For ten years he had grumbled about the fallout from the cheap ceiling tiles, but nothing had been done. Now it did not matter. He drove up the ramp, only mildly irritated.
In the car, sensors picked up the first drops of rain on the windscreen and the wipers swept across the glass.
He is back again in California driving with Nessa and Tom to San Francisco. It is 1977. Tom is five and needs to pee. They are on the Seventeen-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach and there is no place to stop.
“You’ll just have to hang on, Tom.”
“Yes, you can. Just think of something else. It always works.”
And then he pushes the windscreen washers so that two arcs of water rise and splash gently on the glass. He does it again and again.
“Just think about something else,” he repeats. They are all laughing. In the front seat, Nessa grips his arm. “Stop it,” she says, but her eyes are shining.
Reluctant to go home, on a whim, he drove to a small mews near Grosvenor Square. He parked in the shadows and turned off the lights. The rain was getting heavier. He looked across at the modest building where it had all began. Management consultants had been less fashionable in 1970 and the investment in 1200 square feet of office space had seemed adventurous. He saw that an architect now occupied the first floor offices above the row of lock-up garages. Today, the garages probably raised as much income as the rooms above, but it had not always been so. He had been lucky in that building, winning his first major clients there.
He had always been fascinated by business, but he had never believed in making it more complicated than it was. He was suspicious of textbook managers--the graduates from business schools, who, fed on a curriculum of turbulent case histories, storm out into the real world with an appetite for mayhem. He used to complain that they had been educated at drama school not business school. The people who had inspired Henry had been hands-on leaders who ran their companies the way they ran their lives. He admired patience and conviction and had found these qualities not in corporate time-servers, but in entrepreneurs, people who had put their houses and futures on the line to follow a dream. He had learned from them that, at its best, management was intuitive, honest, and simple. He believed in common sense.
It was a belief that had brought his company early success. It had been one of the first in its sector to go public and had grown to become a group of twelve allied businesses encompassing everything from advertising to contract publishing. The original consultancy, however, had always been positioned at the center of this wider universe--the place where the knowledge burned brightest.
Clients came to Henry for constructive, conservative advice: the rebuilding of assets, the freshening of known and traditional strengths, the protection and growth of brands. They went to others for step-change thinking, for remodeling on a giant scale with all the consequent upheavals. Such grandiose meddling had suited neither Henry’s skills nor his temperament. He thought most change overrated.
He slid further down into the seat as a car turned in to the mews. It stopped at a pub celebrated for its steaks. Three men were dropped off, bulky in their business suits and eager to get in out of the rain. Their voices carried.
“We’ll be out by midnight.”
“We may even be standing.”
There was laughter and the car departed.
Thank God, his days of corporate entertaining were over. He had never been a comfortable host and after the Basil Hume evening he had given up trying.
The cardinal had been invited to speak at a black-tie dinner in a London hotel. Henry had reserved a table and taken a group of his clients. It was an all-male dining club with a simple code: total indiscretion inside the room, total discretion outside. The opportunity to let their hair down had lured many illustrious speakers to the club’s evenings--even prime ministers--and it gave the members what Henry had come to see was their greatest thrill: the belief that they were in the know, right at the heart of things.
When Cardinal Hume rose to speak that evening, the room already grayed by the fog of a hundred cigars, no one anticipated that he was about to give the most audacious speech in the club’s history, more outrageous than anything they had heard from Thatcher, or Heath, or Murdoch.
Hume had said very little. What he did say he said with his usual modesty. Perhaps he was on his feet for ten minutes. He told them to be good people and to do good things. He reminded them that they were leaders and that they had a responsibility to fashion the tone and conduct of their companies. He had spoken with grace and good humor, yet he had not tried to entertain them. He had sat down to restrained applause. The clients at Henry’s table were barely polite. Naive was the general verdict.
“If I want a sermon I go to church, not to Claridges.”
There was general agreement at the table, guests tapping their wineglasses with their coffee spoons to underline their approval of this sentiment. Henry said nothing. He had found himself moved by the cardinal’s speech and admired its courage. He had resigned from the club a week later, pleading pressure of business. A meaningless gesture, since his partners went on taking the firm’s clients to the dinners and Henry’s absence went unnoticed.
Two young women came out of the pub arm in arm, their high heels barely coping with the slick cobbles as, bent double, they hurried to get out of the rain. Reaching the darkened car they stopped for breath or support--he wasn’t sure which--their breasts flattened against the windows, their arms flung over the roof. They were celebrating an escape.
“Well, I don’t have to put my tongue down his throat, just to say hello.”
He lowered the passenger window and the car was suddenly full of curves and the smell of wet wool.
“What the fuck?”
They were startled, but when they saw him in the driver’s seat they ran off laughing.
He started the car and drove home, saddened by the empty seat beside him.
He lived just off the Fulham Road in a two-story, double-fronted house that the local estate agent had sold him as “a country cottage in London.” The house was larger than it looked, and in one of the three reception rooms there had been space to tuck his piano against the wall. He had taken lessons until the age of fifteen when hormones had directed his energies elsewhere. But on the death of his parents, he had claimed the piano and it had gone with him from flat to flat and house to house. It was the only remnant he had of his childhood, its tone a song line to his past. He played it late at night--hushed, tentative jazz--the chords barely reaching the walls.
His friends thought his house somewhat modest, considering his success, but Henry and Nessa had bought it for the gardens.
In the front they had planted four standard holly trees, each in a square bed of lavender edged with box. In the beds below the windows, catmint and ladies mantle were ground cover for Queen of the Night tulips in the spring and Japanese anemones in the autumn. The whole front of the house hosted a magnificent Rosa banksiae “Lutea”--small round buds appearing in late April, bright green and tipped with the yellow of the rose to come.
In the back garden, a formal pond took center stage in a lawn framed by a mossy brick path. Behind this lawn, up two gentle steps and concealed for the most part by yew hedging, was a raised parterre and a small pavilion. Enclosing everything were walls of London brick topped with lengths of trellis that buckled under the weight of ramblers. In summer, the serenity of the center seemed always under threat from the chaos of the edge.
There were no lights on in the house when he arrived. He turned off the alarm and went into the kitchen. The morning’s post was on the table, most of it junk. He sat down to open the rest, too tired to take off his overcoat. He had won £50 on his Premium Bonds. There was a brochure from a wine merchant, several bills, and a letter erroneously addressed to Sir Henry Cage. He studied the envelope. The address had been typed on a computer, the label perfect--a secretary’s mistake rather than a cynical ploy, he thought.
Having read the letter, he was not so sure. It was from someone he had met only once and instantly disliked. It appeared the man was now the chairman of an appeal fund for a government-backed business school. They had been awarded £30 million by the Lottery for a new building and needed to match that with a similar sum from the private sector. The letter said they were looking for fifteen key individuals who had an interest in business. In return for their £2 million they could have a scholarship or one of the lecture halls named after them. It was a crass letter, so inept that perhaps a title had been dangled, after all. He would not reply. He put the bills and the check aside and scooped up the rest for the bin. As he did so, he saw that he had missed one letter, a blue airmail envelope, the handwriting unmistakably Nessa's. He left it unopened on the table. He had not heard from her in five years. One more night would not make any difference.
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