Michael Harding: Some men play piano naked, some wear thermals in May

Years ago, when the General played the piano, I would frequently find him entirely nude in the drawing room

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

Hard to believe it’s almost the end of May and I’m still wearing two thermal vests when I go outside. It’s nothing to do with the weather, but I had a difficult winter. I thought I was going to die in Warsaw from a chest infection, and just as that eased off my arm went stiff. I couldn’t write and I languished indoors, looking out the window at one freezing day after another. The little bird feeder that hung from a branch of the apple tree flew away one day, carried by a gust of wind across the cliff and down into the quarry.

The General says I should wear as little as possible when I am at the keyboard. “Allow the creative pores in your skin to breathe,” he insists. That was always his philosophy. I remember years ago, when he played the piano, I would frequently find him entirely naked in the drawing room as he lashed out romantic melodies on an upright that was rarely in tune.

I rarely touched her

I brought my girlfriend to meet him once; a woman I adored so much that I rarely touched her. “Oh you’ll love him,” I said, as we drove through the midlands. “He’s an extraordinary man.”

I suppose that’s the strange thing about men who are insecure. We try to impress women with our friends and other strong people, rather than making a stand for our own vulnerable masculinity.

So in a fit of foolish insecurity one evening when a shadow flitted across her brow, I suggested a weekend break in the lush midlands, where the General lived in a big house surrounded by meadows, beech trees and a paddock of horses.

She agreed, and when we arrived he had a bottle of port warming at the fireplace. He was near the window on the piano, in his underwear, and absorbed in Thomas Moore’s After the Battle.

Fortunately he was in a seated position and the alarming tightness of his small underpants was hidden by the piano and the slanting sun that poured in the window, almost blinding us as I tried to ignore the gravity of the situation by declaring that his playing was wonderful.

I asked what the melody was called.

After the Battle,” he replied, “but of course the exquisite melody is Thy Fair Bosom.” On those last three words, spoken with the relish of a man chewing a strawberry, he eyeballed my young friend. I feared he was on the point of standing erect. She fled the room, saying she needed to use the bathroom.

The underpants were entirely sufficient in his own eyes, but by the time she returned I had convinced him to put on his trousers and shirt, which were strewn on the floor not far from the half-empty bottle of port.

The borders of decency

Clearly he had anticipated our arrival with intense joy, had begun to tipple his way down the port and, as men say when they have transgressed the borders of decency, he had “got overexcited”.

But my reluctance to shed thermal vests in May is due to a phrase my father used.

“Never cast a clout till May is out,” he would declare whenever the sky was blue and the sun shone so strong that I longed for the brown waters of the lake beyond Butlersbridge where boys went at weekends to splash about in loud display or to lie on towels wearing sunglasses, like comic, spidery clones of Marlon Brando, as they tried to catch glimpses of female body parts resting nearby on other towels.

My father was a man I never saw swimming. In old age his skin was as white as flowery dough, and a hard life in childhood had left him entirely unlettered in the arts of leisure.

I remember him playing golf, wearing a peak cap and his trousers squashed into grey socks. He was credible enough until he sized up to the ball and began imitating golfers on television. He would look into the far distance as if he might fire the ball into the next parish. And he would take a few phantom swings before finally having a go at the real ball, which sometimes dribbled only a few metres down the fairway, to the sneers of other golfers.

In that instant I saw him as the intimidated child he really was, trying to make it in a world where he didn’t belong. And I suppose I also recognised myself in him, although I am easier now with his shadow, and slow to shed my thermal vests, even at the end of May.

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