All the time I knew Madeline, there was always the sense that she didn't fit - with me, with
London, with the test of the world. I noticed it the first time I saw her: she looked so out of
place, in that gloomy bar where I was playing the piano. I'd been in London for nearly a year,
and I'd thought that this might turn out to be my first break. A place in some side street just off
the FulhamRoad that had a clapped-out baby grand1 and called itself a "jazz club": I saw an
advert they had placed in The Stage and they offered me twenty pounds cash and three nonalcoholic
cocktails of my choice to play there on a Wednesday night. I turned up at six, scared
out of my mind, knowing that I had to play for five hours with a repertoire of six standards and a
few pieces of my own - aboutfifty minutes' worth of material. I needn't have worried, because
there was only one customer all evening. She came in at eight and stayed till the end. It was
I couldn't believe that a woman so well dressed and so pretty could be sitting on her own in a
place like that all night. Maybe if there had been other customers they would have tried to chat
her up. In fact I'm sure theywould. She was always getting chatted up. That night there was
only me, and even I tried to chat her up, and I'd never done anything like that in my life before.
But when you've been playing your own music for nearly an hour to an audience of one, and
they've been clapping at the end of every number and smiling at you and even once saying, "I
liked that one", then you feel entitled. It would haveseemed rude not to. So when the time
came to take another break I got my drink from the bar and went over to her table, and said:
"Do you mind if I join you?"
"No. Please do."
"Can I buy you something."
"No thanks, I'm all right for the moment."
She was drinking dry white wine. I sat down on a stool opposite her, not wanting to appear too
"Is it always this quiet in here?" Iasked.
"I don't know. I've never been here before."
"It's a bit tacky, isn't it? For the area, I mean."
"It's only just opened. It'll probably take a while to get off the ground."
She was lovely. She had short blonde hair and a grey fitted jacket, a woollen skirt that came
just above the knee and black silk stockings - nothing provocative, you understand, just
tasteful. [...] Her voice was highand musical and her pronunciation - like everything else about
her - showed that she was from some high-powered background. Her hands were small and
white, and she didn't paint her fingernails.
"I like the way you play the piano", she said, "Are you going to play here every week?"
"I don't know. It depends." (I never did play there again, as it turned out.) [...] "You live near
'Yes,not far. South Kensington. What about you?"
"Oh, it's like another world to me, an area like this. I live in South East London. On a council
After a pause, she said: "Do you mind if I ask you for something? A request, I mean. A piece of
I felt a sudden tight grip of anxiety. You see, the reason I never made it as a cocktail bar pianist
was that my repertoire was never wideenough, and I was hopeless at playing by ear.
Customers are always asking pianists to play things and the only way I could have covered
myself against situations like this was by learning every standard in the book. That would have
taken months. It usually took me a few hours to get a piece into shape, sometimes more. Take
My Funny Valentine, for instance. [...] It had just taken me two days toget it sounding exactly
how I wanted, I'd been listening to some of the most famous records, seeing how the masters
had handled it and working out what I thought were some pretty neat substitutions of my own. I
could play it well, now, I thought, but that had been the result of two days' hard work, and
anything she was to ask for, even if I knew roughly how the tune went, was bound to come...
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