When I was sixteen, I took organ lessons from a dour, quick-tempered, talented British man named Mr. Williams. No one else I’ve known, either before or since, was as self-sacrificing for his instrument. Nor as old-fashioned. In the nine or so months I was his student, I never saw him dressed in anything other than a three-piece suit that had long gone out of style, a tie with what appeared to be a school crest on it, and horn-rimmed glasses dating back to the Kennedy administration. A gold cross was invariably pinned to his lapel. He was the only man I knew who still used Brylcreem in his hair, so much so that it looked like a solid, shiny mass. Not that he was an especially old man. Rather, he seemed ageless somehow, as if caught outside of time, belonging neither to the present nor to some earlier era. To someone of my parents’ generation, he might have been considered handsome, even charming, the real-life version of a certain kind of gentleman thought long extinct—if such a man had existed at all. Most kids my age would have seen him as some weird throwback, but I believed Mr. Williams’ reverence for the past, and the music that had stemmed from it, was what gave him his air of authority and wisdom. And more than anything, I longed to be seen as special in his eyes.
“Tom plays with a natural sense of expression,” he said when I first auditioned for him. “Neither too much, nor too little. A great asset, even on the organ.”
It was the pipe organ he was talking about. I was a nerdy kid, first drawn not to the piano or the violin but to the electric organ, with its many buttons and space-agey sounds: an instrument that was then the proud centrepiece of many a middle-class living room but is now an all-but-forgotten relic from the 70s and 80s. Our family, though, wasn’t middle class—nowhere close in fact. We lived just outside a small Ontario town, on a chicken farm, and my mother welcomed the illusion that came with having an organ. And like all mothers who’ve never had the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument themselves, she believed my education wouldn’t be complete until I learned to do so, that it would make me a better, more well-rounded person.
My father, though, considered the whole thing a colossal waste of money. He didn’t earn very much and would often remind me that I needed to stick with it, like a high-risk investment whose profits can only be yielded in the long run: “You better make something out of it is all I gotta say.”
As it turned out, I was. By the time I started learning the works of Bach, I was already filling in for Millie Schultz at church whenever she got sick, so when she decided to retire I was the obvious candidate for the job. But I needed a more advanced teacher now, she had said. I’d outgrown my old one. It would be more expensive of course. Still, I needed someone who was familiar with the pipe organ and its unique demands on the player, and she recommended Mr. Williams at St. James’s Anglican on East Main Street.
“Yes, Tom’s a veritable diamond in the rough,” Mr. Williams said after my little performance, gazing at me admiringly. “I can see that already.”
My father offered no visible reaction (he’d put on his poker face), while my mother practically swooned at these words. From the way her chest swelled I knew it had less to do with the praise he bestowed upon her son than with the mellifluousness of his accent, no doubt drawing associations with the Royal Family or, better yet: martini-swilling British spies as depicted in the movies.
I too was under his spell, thrilled to have received his praise and appreciative that he called me Tom, even though my mother had introduced me as Tommy. I was going through a liminal phase in my life and I desperately wanted to shed all that was juvenile in an effort to hurry along the mantle of adulthood.
I was also deeply impressed by the instrument itself. Unlike the much smaller, more modest pipe organ at St. John’s Lutheran where I played, the console here had four keyboards—or manuals as they’re known—flanked by dozens of ivory-coloured stops and pistons. Beneath one’s feet ranged a full pedalboard, plus two volume pedals that controlled the swell boxes. At St. John’s, the console was in the balcony at the rear of the church, out of sight; but here at St. James’s it was situated near the altar, amid the choir stalls, while the serried ranks of pipes towered majestically on either side of the chancel.
“Many of them are a façade,” Mr. Williams said, catching the wonder in my gaze. “They make no sound at all. The real music happens behind the scenes, as it were, hidden behind the grille.”
“May I hear you play?” I shyly requested.
“Delighted to,” he said, and happily took my place on the bench. He considered his options, pulled out various stops, and without any sheet music gazed thoughtfully ahead, like a man about to perform a dangerous stunt. And then, dramatically, he raised his hands in the air, before, all at once, they came raining back down onto the keys.
What followed was music of a magnitude I’d never heard before. When I’d played a minute earlier, a simple Prelude in C, he’d pulled out a single stop, the plain, unadorned sound of a woodwind. But as soon as Mr. Williams began, the church was filled with the regal sound of trumpets and horns, the stately diapasons, and the resonant basso profondo issuing from the tallest, biggest pipes in the church. He had a glassine touch that I envied, and his fingers moved rapidly, effortlessly, not only up and down the keys but also from one manual to another, as his feet marched across the pedals. With his eyes closed, there was something prayerful about how he played, worshipful even, as if bowing down to the secret forces therein. So graceful and perfect was his performance that I felt if he were to err, however slight, it would amount to nothing less than a grave offense in the face of such grand, such majestic, such—dare I say it?—hallowed music.
And then it was over.
We were all quiet for a minute, as though we’d witnessed something profound and mysterious.
“Guilmant,” Mr. Williams said as he slid off the bench. “Finale from Sonata No. 1.”
My father was unimpressed.
“I dunno about that Mr. Williams fella,” he said on the drive home.
My father did not often see me play in church (“Someone’s gotta stay home and look after the chickens”) but he came that night, as he wanted to judge for himself whether the twenty-five-an-hour fee was a worthwhile expenditure.
“He seems queer to me.”
An electrical current, a little zap, surged through the car just then. I’d never heard my father use this word before, and it was one of several that had started to creep into my life and echo after me in school corridors and gym classes. I’d always known I was different from other boys, that I was queer, as my father put it. And even if these words weren’t aimed at me specifically, or even spoken at all, their presence—on TV and at church, in the banter of adults, and the barrage of news reports on AIDS—was a constant that had become difficult to escape, forcing me to turn my life, the one I presented to the world, into a lie.
And while I may have had my allies at school (girls, mostly, which only heightened suspicions), I was still too afraid to come out to anyone, and as far as gay people were concerned I knew no one. So it surprised me to hear my father say that about Mr. Williams, because I wouldn’t have known to think that of him. I’d always assumed I was the only gay person in our town, that we were few and far between, and if I wanted to meet others like myself I’d have to go to some big city, like Toronto, an idea that filled me with both longing and trepidation. The possibility that I might share this thing with my own music teacher roused a new hope in me.
“Oh, how can you say that, Bert?” my mother said.
“Well, did you see the way he played?” He released a hand from the wheel to flutter it limp-wristedly in illustration. “A regular Liberace that guy is.”
“It’s called expression,” I said from the back seat where I was relegated to the role of passenger, even though I’d recently acquired my learner’s permit: a demotion I had to submit to any time my father was in the car. This comment, too, startled. As far as I could tell, I saw nothing flamboyant in how Mr. Williams played. If anything, he had struck me as reserved, withheld. “Mr. Williams said I had expression too,” I added, feeling the delicious thrill of nearing an invisible but dangerous line.
“Well, I think he’s wonderful,” my mother said.
“And you get a load of that hair?” he said, either oblivious of or indifferent to my mother’s sudden infatuation. “He’s got enough Brylcreem in it to choke a goose.”
“Well, to me he looks and sounds like a real gentleman.” She shot my father a reproachful look. “Unlike some people.”
“And you? You gonna play like that too?” he said, eyeballing me in the rear-view.
“Maybe,” I said.
He let a moment elapse before turning his eyes back to the road. “Well, you better make something out of it is all I gotta say.”
And so, every Wednesday evening I met Mr. Williams. Before, when I took lessons from Mrs. Heinz (a plump, ketchupy woman who was always pressing her cabbage rolls on us), my mother could hardly be bothered to change out of her housedress. Sometimes she even ventured out with curlers still in her hair. Now she dressed with care and deliberation, always making sure her hair was “just so” before leaving the house. She wore lipstick. Not that she (I don’t think) had any serious hopes or expectations. He was a man and she was a woman, and I think she enjoyed flirting with that invisible but dangerous line as much as I did.
But if Mr. Williams noticed my mother’s all-but-semaphoric signals he gave no indication, and our lessons proceeded in business-like fashion. I’d begin by warming up with scales, then doing my best to replicate the piece he’d introduced the week before—a prelude or fugue usually—focussing on the passages I found particularly challenging, pieces that I’d eventually play in church.
Unlike our initial meeting, in which he seemed genuinely pleased with me, Mr. Williams now stood beside the console rubbing his chin and frowning impatiently. Sometimes he even shouted.
“No, no, no! Stop that caterwauling. This is a march. Not the Funeral March.” Or: “Are you trying to play a polka? Like this.”
While I burned with shame as he played the passage, my mother sat in the choir stalls opposite the console, indifferent to my being scorched. Did she hope Mr. Williams might offer her a gracious smile? Some mysterious sign of attraction? Words of admiration?
None ever came.
The first time I’d played for him, Mr. Williams had praised me for my sense of expression, and so I tried pouring my soul into my performance to gain his approval. But this invoked even more abuse. “Good God! Are you trying to make love to the instrument? You think Bach would approve? Show a little restraint. Now play it like this,” he shouted.
“Mr. Williams,” my mother called from her usual pew. Had his savagery at last penetrated that integument of adoration? “Maybe we could all take a little break right about now. Hmm? What do you think?”
“Might I remind you, Madame, that we do not ‘take breaks’ around here,” he said, and under his breath muttered, “insufferable coddling mothers.”
Mine, though, was indefatigable, and on our way out that night she gave it one last shot:
“So does Mrs. Williams accompany you to church on Sundays?”
I felt myself redden.
“Mumsy, you mean?” he replied, a little archly. “Yes, when she’s feeling up to it. But she’s in poor health now, you know. Spends much of her time in bed. Hardly gets out these days.”
It was hard to tell, judging by the look on her face, how my mother interpreted this information. Perhaps it was with the same mix of trepidation and hope I associated with places like Toronto: yes, Mr. Williams was an available bachelor, but one who referred to his mother as Mumsy.
“How’s your boyfriend?” my father asked that night when we got home. He was unshaven and in a stained undershirt, still smelling vaguely of the barn. Starsky & Hutch was on TV, and an opened can of Bud sat on the end table beside him.
“He lives with his mother” was the form her reply took. She unhooked the imitation pearls from her neck, clutched them in her palm, and stared at them as if what she held was a piece of irrefutable evidence.
I no longer had any use for the Hammond organ we had at home. It was too small for me to practise on and seemed like a child’s toy, not the serious instrument I now required. And so, after school, I would walk to St. John’s Lutheran, unlock the door, and practise for an hour or two before calling my mother when I was ready to be picked up.
I loved the silence of the church those afternoons I’d come in, the solitude I found there. So stark was this contrast with the outside world and the kinds of words I heard there that I would often sit on the bench for a few minutes just to savour it. I felt at ease in the empty church; I didn’t have to lie and pretend to be someone I wasn’t. But I also couldn’t sit there forever, and when I broke the silence with my own racket a different set of words would come echoing back.
No, no, no! Stop that caterwauling!
This is a march, not the Funeral March.
Good God! Are you trying to make love to the instrument?
I never heard what I was supposed to take away those times he played a difficult passage, or if I did I’d forget it by the time I practiced it on my own. And the expression he’d praised me for was now something I had to reign in, like a wild horse, something that needed to be tempered. And so, it was always the same every Wednesday night. For so long I’d always been told that I had talent, but I wasn’t so sure anymore and openly wondered about giving it all up.
“Oh, no you’re not,” my father said. “We spent a lot of money so far, and now you wanna call it quits? Sounds like you got a good teacher there, and you’re gonna make something out of this. Gonna study it in university, up in Toronto or wherever. Then turn professional. And you’re gonna do it whether you like it or not!”
He seemed surprised by his own words, as if he hadn’t known his thoughts until he’d said them. And neither did I, really. I hadn’t thought too much about what I wanted to study, and hearing him talk about a future in Toronto stirred something in me, like seeing a door I hadn’t noticed before swing open, beckoning me to enter.
This juncture also marked the beginning of a curious switch in my parents’ attitudes. The more my father learned of Mr. Williams’ harsh temper, the more he forgot his earlier reservations and became his staunch advocate. Whereas my mother, once impatient for Wednesdays, now regarded the weekly drive as yet another chore and resigned herself once again to the unglamourous life of scrubbing pans and mopping floors. So it came as a relief to her when I officially got my driver’s licence that summer.
“Now you don’t need me to sit beside you,” she said. “Go by yourself.”
These changes also marked a corresponding turnaround in Mr. Williams’ own deportment. Now that it was just the two of us in the dark, empty church, he wasn’t as irate as before. In fact, he was much less critical overall. Yes, he continued to frown as he stood beside me, thoughtfully rubbing his chin, but it was less an expression of disappointment as it was analytical. Sometimes he even nodded approvingly whenever I successfully glided through a difficult passage. And nothing made me happier than hearing that ultimate word of praise: “Good.”
And, oh, how I longed to hear that word.
“I believe we’re at last getting somewhere, my boy,” he said one night, happily clapping me on the shoulder. “All that hard work is finally paying off.”
A sunrise of joy burst across the horizon. Had I really progressed that much? Had I at last met some invisible mark? I turned to him and saw what appeared to be a smile. Even the gold cross on his lapel twinkled merrily. But as I gazed into that face, I understood what it was about him that made him seem ageless, why his hair was at odds with the patchwork of lines that delineated it.
Mr. Williams was wearing a toupee.
It’s a funny feeling to have one set of ideas about someone, only to discover that that person isn’t at all who you thought he was. And it wasn’t just that Mr. Williams was really bald beneath those dead, lank fibres, but that I felt foolish for not having recognized this sooner. And now that I knew, it was obvious to me, reminding me of whenever I had to tell my mother that her slip was showing: something that was visible to all but her.
Remarkable the impact words can have, especially coming from those we respect and admire. “A big improvement,” Pastor Fernholz started saying after church on Sundays. “Keep it up.”
“Someone’s happy,” my mother observed.
And from my father: “You’re in a good mood. Lessons going better?”
“Much better,” I replied, and indeed they were. I felt as if I now shared something special with Mr. Williams, that I’d gone from once bumbling student to top of the class, one of his bright young stars. I had no evidence for this, of course. It was just something I intuited.
One night, as we were leaving the church and Mr. Williams was turning out lights and locking doors, he said he had a recording of the piece I was working on that I ought to listen to. “I think you’ll find it most educational. Would you like me to lend it to you?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking he’d give it to me the following week.
“Come along, then.”
We walked under the streetlights, East Main practically deserted at that hour. I was excited to be visiting Mr. Williams’ home—evidence of my distinguished place among his students—though I was a bit thrown off to see he led me not to the tidy little house of my imagination but to a dilapidated low-rise apartment building. We climbed its creaky, threadbare stairs to the third floor, at the top of which he unlocked a door and held it open, beckoning.
“Come in, come in,” he said. “No need to be shy.”
It was like an antique shop inside. The main room was crammed with very old, very heavy and overly ornate furniture, much of it too large and slightly shabby looking, and almost all of it with clawed feet. The walls, too, were crowded with ancient tapestries, gilt-framed oil paintings, and dozens of black-and-white photographs of people I suspected were long dead. Even the air was stale and smelt vaguely of something medicinal, and ammoniac.
“Gerald, is that you?” someone called out, an old woman, in a frail voice.
“I’ve brought a guest with me,” he called back, but received no reply. He turned to me with an odd, strangely eager expression. “Please,” he said, indicating the sofa. “Sit down. I’ll be right back.”
Gerald. It gave me a funny feeling hearing him addressed by his boyhood name, as if he’d been stripped down to something I wasn’t meant to see. He disappeared down the hall and into a bedroom, closing the door behind him.
I stepped inside and took stock of my surroundings: bookshelves stuffed with brittle, leather-bound volumes; a glass cabinet crammed with dusty, delicate looking china and glassware; a gilded clock ticking with a loud and determined tenaciousness; and a sorrowful-looking Christ hanging from a cross tacked onto the wall. Adjacent to it was a large black-and-white photograph, a framed portrait sitting, of a young Mr. Williams with slicked-back hair and the charming good looks of a Gary Cooper or Clark Gable (although, like the old snapshots of my father, he was unrecognizable as the man I presently knew).
I imagined much of what filled this room must have been shipped over from England, decades ago. By steamer, I thought, as I moved toward a well-worn chintz sofa—a settee? And a wave of sadness fell over me then, like a dust sheet falling onto unused furniture: so heavy was the aching sense of loss in this room. Not so much for an ostensibly happier time in the past but with the dark and certain knowledge that good fortune would never revisit this household, if it ever had at all.
Turning to the wing chair, I started at the sight of a living creature opposite me. A beagle: too old and tired to raise its head off its front paws, but distrustful enough to fasten its large and disapproving black eyes on me. It began making a displeased snorting sound.
“Oh, come now,” I heard Mr. Williams’ raised voice coming from the other room. “Do be sensible.” What he said after that was too muffled for me to make out, and a minute later he re-emerged, smiling unhappily.
“Is everything all right?” I said, standing, suddenly nervous for some reason. “Maybe I should go.”
“Oh, no, no. Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Do sit down. Now what was I going to do? Oh, yes. The record.”
He went over to a wood-panelled hi-fi against which leaned rows of classical music LPs. He bent to finger his way through them, selected one, and put it on the record player.
“Chorale Prelude on ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’,” he said, and again gave me a strange smile that I couldn’t quite interpret. “Bach.”
He moved toward the wing chair and tapped the old dog on the rump. “Off you go, Winifred.”
Baroque organ music filled the room. But for some reason I became self-conscious of my hands and feet. Where to place them? How to sit? Everything felt wrong.
Mr. Williams, though, seemed completely at ease. He closed his eyes and allowed the music to transport him elsewhere, just as it had when he played the Guilmant sonata. A minute must have passed before he reopened his eyes.
Something twisted inside me.
“Oh no, you’re driving,” he said. “But don’t mind if I do.”
He stood to pour himself a glass from a decanter on the sideboard and returned to the wing chair where, taking a deep sip, he gazed at me through the lens of his horn-rimmed glasses. A strained silence followed.
“So, you’ve been living here long?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
Mr. Williams gave me a disappointed look. Not the kind he had when I played badly, but one that suggested what I’d said was not the right question to ask, that this wasn’t an important question. He then stared at me with an intensely neutral gaze, like that of a psychiatrist observing his patient.
“You have a girlfriend, Thomas?” he said, and took another sip of sherry.
“N-n-no, sir,” I stammered, and cleared my throat. “I mean, no. No, I don’t. Well, I have friends who are girls, but…”
I gabbled on, blushing, while he nodded solemnly, taking this in. I knew what my father had said about Mr. Williams was true. I knew it as soon as he’d said it. And I was bursting to tell him that I was also gay. But something stopped me, and the moment slipped past.
“Gerald,” the old woman called out. “I need your help.”
“In a minute,” he replied. He drained his glass, then offered this strange bit of advice: “Don’t look inward to decide what is right or wrong, but to the voices of the past. Only then will the secrets of the music open up to you.” He drained his glass. “You should go. Don’t forget the record.”
All week I was distracted. At church, I spent more time meditating on the silence than practising, and at school I was distant from my own allies. Even the sound of those ugly words—queer, fag, homo—trailing after me in the corridors barely registered, which surely must have left my tormentors disappointed. I also didn’t play well that Sunday, and my mother began to probe:
“Everything okay, Tommy? Something happen?”
“Yeah, leave me alone.”
At night, in my room, I played the record incessantly (“Turn that damned thing off!” my father would shout), but no insight came to me. And the following Wednesday, when I played poorly, Mr. Williams wasn’t at all cross, which didn’t surprise me. Nor did it surprise me when at the end of the lesson he again suggested dropping by his apartment to listen to a record, an offer I accepted. Not just that night but also the following Wednesday, and the one after that, and so on.
Every week we sat in the same places. He in the wing chair, sipping sherry and taking in the music, I on the settee, while the old woman, his mother, remained sequestered in her bedroom. The beagle, too, grew accustomed to my weekly visits and knowingly vacated the chair whenever she saw me come in.
“I really liked the record” was the kind of thing I’d say when we began these after-class get-togethers that were always presided over by that watchful, silent third party, the old black-and-white photo. “It’s amazing how—” I wanted to talk about the voices of the past, the secrets of the music, but Mr. Williams would wave away my inarticulate sentiments to talk instead about his own past: the London suburb he’d grown up in the forties; the years of rationing, even after the War; the daily ritual going to Matins with his parents, rain or shine. “A moral foundation for a boy,” he said, speaking fondly of the latter. “Most educational.” But his mood shifted when the talk switched to his father. A choleric, bitter man was how he described him, never a good word for anyone. There were frequent scenes at home, especially whenever he “took a drop,” a closed fist often bringing these scenes to their conclusion. Didn’t shed a tear after the old man had died, Mr. Williams said, and took a deep sip of the sherry, signalling the closure of this topic.
His mother, though, was the opposite. She was protective of him and encouraged his interest in music, often sitting with him for hours at a stretch, teaching him how to play the piano they had at home. But when he joined the boys’ choir at church, it was the organist who saw something in him and introduced him to the instrument, rousing a new feeling he never felt on the piano, and he fell in love. “A solace,” he called it, when he started taking lessons, because he hated school: the restraining influence of the place, the heavy hand of punishment, the impossibility of escape. An education designed to break the backbone, he said. On some nights he’d describe the teachers as little more than bullies, no different from the boys. An incompetent lot, he’d say, brutal in the administration of discipline. But on other nights, he’d speak fondly of them, commending those same teachers for the quality of instruction he’d received and the virtues they’d instilled in him. “Not like now. Nowadays anything goes,” he said one night, shaking his head disdainfully. “But it was a solace,” he repeated, returning to the subject of the pipe organ, “when someone took you under his wing because he saw you had something special, a gift.” He turned his attention to me as if he saw something similar. “I’ve not looked back since.”
And yet, there also seemed to be a corresponding suppression of words whenever we met like this. “Why did you come to Canada?” I asked him once, but he turned reticent. He glanced up at the black-and-white portrait and said, “An opportunity had presented itself,” and again took a deep mouthful of sherry.
It was like a big, flowing river rushing beneath the floorboards, all that went unsaid, for something else had become apparent about Mr. Williams: his loneliness. A towering, aching loneliness, deep and mournful, like the sound emitted from the tallest pipes in the church, the ones that are less heard than they are felt. I still hadn’t worked up the courage to cross that invisible line and say what I needed to say. But I knew the day would soon come, and when it did, that loneliness we were both familiar with would at last be shed.
“Every week you’re getting home later and later,” my mother said one night, a slight vibrato in her voice.
“He’s not charging you extra, is he?” my father said.
“No,” I said. “We’re working on a new piece. It’s really hard. We just lost track of time.”
“Sounds like he’s working you to the bone,” my father said, delighted. “Make sure you get your money’s worth outta him is all I gotta say.”
My mother wasn’t so easily taken in. She seemed to study me, the way she’d studied the imitation pearls in her palm. But then she let it go and looked away.
“There’s an organ concert coming up next weekend,” Mr. Williams announced one Wednesday night, and explained that a famous organist from Britain would be performing. “In Toronto,” he added. “I think you’ll find it most educational. Perhaps you’d like to join me.”
My mother said nothing when I told her about it, except to cast my father a meaningful look.
“How much it gonna cost?” he said.
“Nothing. It’s free,” I said, which was not entirely true, as Mr. Williams had offered to pay for my ticket.
“I don’t know, Bert,” my mother said.
“You’re not gonna be driving, are you?”
“No, no. He’d drive.”
“Well, I don’t see why not. Sounds like a fieldtrip, just like in school. The kind of thing you’ll always remember.”
That Saturday afternoon Mr. Williams pulled up to my parents’ farm in a pale green Lincoln Continental. Like the furniture in his apartment, his car was also a relic from the past with its Parthenon-style grille, hooded headlights, and sailboat-like enormity. He tooted the horn.
“Wait here, Tommy,” my mother said, wiping her hands on her apron, and went outside.
I fumed as I watched her from the kitchen window, talking and gesticulating. What was she doing? What was she trying to prove? When she turned back to the house I stepped out.
“I told him to have you home by ten.”
“I’m not a child, you know,” I said, and got in the passenger seat of the gigantic vehicle without kissing her goodbye.
Mr. Williams was wearing that day what he always wore: one of his old-fashioned suits, a tie with its school crest, the gold cross. He also drove like one unaccustomed to driving—too slow and sitting too close to the steering wheel.
“What’d she say to you?” I asked as we took the on-ramp for the highway.
“Your mother expressed some concern about the length of time our lessons have been going lately,” he replied, though I doubted this was all she’d said.
Mr. Williams then did something I wouldn’t have expected of him. He depressed the dashboard lighter, produced a cigarette from a pack in his breast pocket, and lit it. “You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” he asked, rolling the window down a crack.
That year I’d also started smoking, though not very heavily or very often, and asked him for one too. “If you don’t mind.”
It was mid-October, one of those glorious autumn days when the sky is a shimmering glass dome and the passing countryside is ablaze with all the reds and golds of fall fashion magazines. Even the symphony orchestra playing on the classical music station seemed to foretell a day rich in promise. It didn’t matter that we were in the slow lane as a steady stream of cars continuously rushed past. I needed time to say what I needed to say. All week I’d been waiting for this hour, imagining it in my head, when we’d be on the highway to Toronto and I would at last stop lying—to one person at least—and where better to tell him than on our way to that city that had always held such promise for me? So after a sufficient interval, I told him I was gay. Just like that, blurting it out.
That wasn’t so bad, I thought. But then a series of dark clouds materialized out of nowhere and blotted out the sun, transforming the landscape into a dull, dun-coloured wasteland. The radio, too, lost its signal and broadcast nothing but static.
Mr. Williams took a long, thoughtful pull on his cigarette. Wasn’t he going to make a similar confession? I felt the sea change in him, and his face darkened, just as it had when I first started taking lessons.
“Bumptious tart,” he muttered, and angrily stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray.
The concert was sparsely attended, only about fifty or so people were scattered among the many pews of St. Paul’s Cathedral, yet for some reason Mr. Williams chose to sit at the very back. The organizers must have been embarrassed by the low turnout and asked everyone to move to the front to create the illusion of a packed house, which Mr. Williams reluctantly conceded to. When Simon Hughes, the organist, was at last introduced a ripple of applause echoed through the church.
As he spoke into the microphone, he too struck me as a punctiliously dressed man, although one from our current era. He wore a smart, well-cut suit and a flaming red tie and matching pocket square. He was also unabashedly bald-headed but compensated for it with a well-trimmed grey beard that lent him an air of Santa Claus-like familiarity. As Mr. Hughes spoke of the pieces he’d selected, I heard not so much what he had to say about them as how he said it, catching in his voice the same plummy accent as Mr. Williams’. Again, light applause, followed by the usual coughs and rustlings of the audience as he moved to the console.
I didn’t think I would be able to enjoy the concert. My thoughts kept wandering back to what had happened in the car. Was I wrong about Mr. Williams? Did I misjudge him? Instead of being lifted of a heavy burden, I felt ashamed of myself, dirty, as if I’d lewdly exposed myself or otherwise committed some grossly indecent act.
But then Simon Hughes began to play.
For the next hour I forgot about the incident. The music enfolded me, seducing me with the quiet beauty of the first piece, its simple, meditative opening and the clean, clear, woody timbre of the flutes. He added in the horns, the strings, the entire ensemble slowly growing in size until, at last, came the deep, reverberating rumble of the tallest pipes in the church.
Soon came a solo—a horn—emanating from the chamber on the right, followed by a playful response from the one on the left, which in turn was followed by the brawny burliness of both chambers at once. I’d never been in the presence of such physical music before, music of such mass and breadth that the whole cathedral—the marbled floors and ribbed columns, the entire outlay of brick and wood and mortar and glass—was, I understood, an integral part of the instrument.
But it was how he played that really struck me, how different it was from Mr. Williams’. Where the latter was withheld, even reverential in his interpretation, Simon Hughes was celebratory and exuberant, punctuating his performance with little flourishes that injected joy, even humour, into the music. And it appealed to me greatly. He too was able to penetrate the secrets contained in those notes, though in a way that was new and honest and free.
Suddenly: the music crescendoed and the full chorus erupted one last time before those final echoes spirited up to the dome and into the night.
Thunderous applause, the audience rising to their feet.
I had been swallowed up by a whale, then spat back out again, slightly disoriented but applauding wildly. Mr. Williams, however, offered a much less enthusiastic show of ovation and only stood to button his suit jacket.
“Well, shall we go home?”
“Gerald!” Simon Hughes called out, descending the chancel steps, hand extended and beaming broadly. “I was hoping you’d come. Good to see you. Good to see you. Looking the same as ever. How are you? You never returned any of my calls.” He stood shaking Mr. Williams’ hand for a long time, gazing at him as if at an intimate friend.
“No, I’m sorry, it’s been a hectic time and—”
“No, no. No need to explain. Quite all right. I understand. How long will you be in Toronto for? It would be marvellous to get together again. A drink first? Sherry? Like old times? Perhaps we can—”
“No, I’m afraid I can’t. We’re on our way home actually. I promised this young man’s mother I’d have him home before too late.”
The joy vanished from Mr. Hughes’ face, like air out of a balloon. “Oh, Gerald, dear. Don’t tell me you’re still—”
“Things are different now.”
“That’s no reason for—”
“Look, let’s get together for a drink. We can talk, catch up.”
“No, we really must be going.”
Mr. Hughes gazed at him in the same helpless, resigned way one would at a sinking ship far from shore. He sighed. “You really haven’t changed a bit, have you,” he said, and turned abruptly to shake my hand. “Lovely to meet you.”
“Well, must be going,” Mr. Williams said. “Good to see you again, Simon. Marvellous performance, as always.”
But Mr. Hughes didn’t hear, as he was already encircled by a crowd of well-wishers.
It was dark out when we re-emerged from the church, the spikey glass towers of downtown twinkling all around us. Toronto, I thought. The city had always held such hope and mystery for me. A city full of endless possibilities. And secrets, like myself. Yet it remained impenetrable and out of reach, even while visiting it. There were people here, I knew, who were like myself, countless people, but I had no way of finding them. I’d also never been with anyone before, not in any real way. Yet I was afraid to, for I also knew there were men in this city who were dying—scores of them—dying because of who they loved, and I wanted Mr. Williams to tell me about them and everything else I needed to know about the future. That if nothing else, I’d hoped he might regale me with tales of the past, sharing whatever bits of wisdom he’d gleaned over the years.
Instead we were going home.
“How do you know Mr. Hughes?” I asked as we approached the car.
“Old acquaintance, old acquaintance,” he said, persuading a set of keys from his pocket. “Tell you what. I’m not especially fond of driving at night. I find it rather nerve-wracking. Perhaps you’d like to take command of the vehicle?”
“Yes, why not?”
“But it’s not my car and—”
“Not to worry. I have complete faith in you. You’re obviously a very capable driver.”
“I don’t know…” I began, as a disapproving apparition of my father rose up before me.
“Oh, come now. Do be sensible.”
I was nervous as I pulled out of the parking lot. I’d hardly ever driven anything other than my parents’ car, and never a vehicle as large as this one. Also intimidating was the bustle of the city streets and sidewalks, something I was unaccustomed to.
“You’re doing a splendid job, splendid,” he said when we at last got onto the expressway. “Easy does it. You’re in full control now.”
And after merging with traffic, I did begin to settle in and relax. But again, a bewildering silence consumed the car. He was preoccupied, I could tell, his working jaw seeming to chew on the words that had been exchanged between the two men.
“So what’d you think?” I said. “Amazing, wasn’t it?”
It was the wrong thing to have said, and the look on his face suggested I’d failed to understand the first thing about tonight.
“Execrable,” he muttered. “Absolutely execrable.”
He let a beat pass, then: “Simon Hughes had made a complete mockery of the pieces he’d chosen. Bach and Guilmant and Handel would turn over in their graves if they heard their work played with such disrespect. What he did tonight was nothing less than sacrilege!” he shouted. “And all for what? Interpretive whimsy? Popular appeal? Instead of performing those pieces as they were meant to be played, as they were supposed to, he turned them into burlesque showpieces on the level of vaudeville!”
That couldn’t be true, could it? What had he heard that I didn’t, that I was deaf to?
“Why are you yelling at me?” I said, and suddenly had to blink back tears. “What’d I do?”
Again, he looked stunned, only now his anger gave way to remorse.
“Forgive me,” he said, and that’s when he crossed a different sort of invisible line to lay a hand on my thigh.
Something twists inside me. My heart starts racing and I turn rigid in the driver’s seat, as my eyes zero in on what’s directly ahead: the cars, the traffic signs, the recurring lines on the highway—all of it coming into sharp focus.
“Forgive me,” he says again. “Simon can sometimes bring out the worst in me.”
His hand is damp. It sits there, heavy and awkward, radiating a pulsing heat that spreads through my leg. I think: It’s going to leave a mark and my mother will see it. She’ll ask me about it and I’ll have to lie.
“Is this why you told me what you did?”
His voice is different now. Soothing, almost rousing, yet scornful and jeering.
“Is this what you wanted, Tommy?” he says, giving my thigh a squeeze. “What you were hoping would happen?”
He’s looking right at me, I can tell, but I stare hard at the road, burning with shame.
“I knew it as soon as I laid eyes on you,” he says, “the kind of boy you are. Nasty. Dirty-minded. The day-dreaming sort.”
He continues in this way, his hand sending one message, his voice another. “Your mind should be focussed on higher, more important things is what my father would say to you. On learning the great works. Not going around playing the coquette. You say that’s who you are, but I don’t think you even know what your words mean, the implications they have. Look at all those men dying of AIDS.”
Sweat gathers on my forehead, my back. Maybe he’s right. Maybe this isn’t who I am. That what I feel now is what I’ll feel when I really am with someone, with someone different. That maybe this is something I’ll grow out of. High-beams are flashing, horns blaring. The speedometer, I realize, has dipped below 70.
“But there’s no discipline. No discipline anymore! There was a time when any responsible adult—one’s parents and teachers, the priest, even the next-door neighbour—didn’t hesitate to give the back of one’s hand to a child. It’s what kept us in line, y’know, how we learned right from wrong. Not like now,” he says. “Nowadays anything goes.”
Horns continue to honk and lights flash in the rearview. Yet it’s impossible for me to speed up.
“But if there’s one thing you have to learn it’s restraint. You think you can go around saying whatever comes into that pretty little head of yours? That you can indulge every whim and fancy?”
He’s daring me to meet his eyes, but I can’t.
“So I’m not going to give you what you want. No. You’re going to need to learn the value of restraint. It’s what I told Simon all those years ago and it’s what I’m telling you now.”
For a long time all I hear is the white noise of traffic in the opposing lanes and the occasional tooting of car horns behind me. He is pensive now, his anger spent.
“I was only hoping to see him tonight,” he says. “Just see. And to hear him play, of course. He was the one who introduced me to the organ when I was still in the choir. My first real teacher. He was twenty to my sixteen. We became the best of friends over the years. Quite close, I suppose you could say. But we had our differences, as people do. He believed in expression, while I advocated for restraint.”
He lets go of me then and, like magic, the car resumes speed.
“Remarkable how long ago all that was, buried in the past,” he says, gazing at the highway as if he can see England of 1953 at the end of it. “And sometimes I wonder if that’s where some things ought to stay.”
My father was furious when I told him the next day I’d be quitting music lessons, especially because I couldn’t give a reason. “All that money we spent! All for what? I thought you wanted to make something out of it. I thought you wanted to turn professional. Now you wanna quit? Just ’cause you see someone who’s—”
“I never wanted to turn professional,” I said. “You did. You wanted me to.”
That brought a swift end to the conversation.
As for my mother, she took me aside in my room. “Did something happen in Toronto? Something happened, didn’t it. Did he… do something? You can tell me.”
“Nothing happened,” I said. “I’m just sick of it. That’s all.”
I continued to play at church on Sundays, but only for another month or two. And more often than not I couldn’t be bothered to practice. I told Pastor Fernholz I’d quit as soon as he found a replacement. I’d lost interest was how I explained it.
“God’s will is inscrutable,” he replied, nodding understandingly, though he seemed more relieved than anything.
I had no regrets. A few years later, I graduated from high school, then moved away for university. Not to Toronto as I’d planned—the city had lost some of its allure—but to Montreal, where I studied English Lit, as I didn’t know what else to major in.
One summer, maybe ten years later, one of my allies from high school sent me an invitation to her wedding. I was excited; I hadn’t seen any of the old gang in ages. But when I read that the ceremony was to take place at St. James’s Anglican Church, the one on East Main Street, again something twisted inside me and I thought about skipping the whole thing.
But then again, why should I? Mr. Williams wouldn’t be able to see me from the console. And even if he did, he might not recognize me, or even remember me. And with people filing out during the recessional, the chances were slim I’d even bump into him at all. And yet, part of me did want to see him again—just see. Whatever anger I’d felt had fizzled away long ago.
No. That’s not true. Not entirely. And anger wouldn’t be the right word, either. Not anymore. It was something else, more complicated, that I felt now, that I wanted to prove.
“Oh, you should have heard him,” I said to Tim as we were shown to our seats on that bright and sunny June morning.
“I can hear him now,” he said, as we slid into the pew.
Tim was someone I’d met in Montreal and, like myself, was in the midst of post-graduate work. It was an unfortunate coupling of names—Tim and Tom—though we were anything but similar. I knew he had little appreciation for any kind of music other than what they played in clubs. He was also more interested in the open bar at the reception, and in getting back to our hotel room afterwards.
“No, I mean later,” I said, “when he really gets going. Then you’ll hear what I mean.”
From where we sat, I could only see the back of the organ console and just the top of that black head of hair I remembered so distinctly. There he was, I thought, thankful to be out of sight.
“Sounds so very Phantom,” Tim said. “Don’t you think?”
It was true. There was something off about the music. It was too showy for a prelude, too brassy. Not the sacred music I would have expected of Mr. Williams. Then again, there’s no accounting for the taste of some couples.
Oddly, the program neglected to mention the name of the organist. It listed the names of the officiating priest, the bride and groom of course, the groomsmen and bridesmaids, the parents of the betrothed. But not the organist.
“Excuse me,” I said to the woman seated next to me. “Do you know who’s playing? It’s not Mr. Williams, is it?”
“Mr. Williams?” She looked alarmed. “I haven’t heard that name in ages. No, they’ve got Janet now. Janet Shepherd. Gerald William’s passed on, dear.”
“Oh…” I said, trying to hide my surprise. I wasn’t sure why I’d assumed Mr. Williams would still be there. Like the hair on his head, I thought his place at the church was something that would never change, that he’d always be at St. James’s, in perpetuity.
“How did you know Gerald?”
She was an elderly woman, smartly dressed in a matching teal blue skirt and jacket; the floral spray and lace crowning her hat lent her something of a magisterial look, not unlike the Queen.
“I used to take lessons from him,” I said, still stunned by the news.
“No, he hasn’t played here in years, dear. He was let go,” she said, noting Tim beside me.
Her grey-haired companion leaned across, grinning. “Turns out the guy was a pervert.”
“We don’t know that for sure, Jim.”
“Well, I think we can safely make the assumption given the charges that were laid.”
“There was a scandal,” the woman whispered. “Some years ago.”
Jim, who saw no reason to lower his voice, loudly announced, “In the public restroom at the mall, if you know what I mean. About a dozen men were arrested.”
“Which goes to show we don’t know exactly how he was involved, Jim.”
“I don’t know why you insist on sugar-coating the whole thing, Anne. They were all charged with—what do you call it?—gross indecency,” he said, relishing the unsavoriness of the words. “He pleaded no contest.”
“Finally this guy’s starting to sound interesting,” Tim said, elbowing me playfully. “I knew there was something funny about him.”
I never told Tim about what happened that night in the car. In fact, I never told anyone about it. Because it was nothing, really, the physical aspect of it anyway. Even if I was still a kid. And, really, what was there to say?
“Well, it’s just that he was such a gentleman,” Anne said. “So prim and proper. Old-fashioned, you know what I mean? And a gifted musician.”
“That is true. Well, most of the great artists are of that persuasion,” Jim said, winking in our direction. “But of course the church couldn’t keep him after that. And they’ve had Janet ever since. She’s not bad, but not as talented as Gerald. Doesn’t have his—what’s the word?—his self-control.”
Anne sighed. “And then he died not long afterwards. I think the arrest was what did him in.”
“Oh, Anne, you and your theories.”
“Well, first his mother died, the poor dear, then came the shame of his arrest and having his name published in the paper and everything. And at his age, too. It must have been overwhelming. I just felt so sorry for him.”
Like Anne, like my own mother, I thought as I watched the groom and his groomsmen assemble at the front of the church, I too had mistaken talent for goodness, an accent for wisdom. I’d been looking for someone who would take me under his wing, someone who’d help me become who I am. But the man I found instead was less sure of himself than I was. A deeply closeted, self-loathing gay man is what I can plainly see now but couldn’t then. And if I learned anything from him it’s that the mysterious world of adulthood, with its air of smug self-assurance and guarded secrets, was little more than an illusion. The answers we think we’ll find once we cross that threshold are elusive at best. We all remain children throughout our lives, forever insecure in our footing, never far from tumbling down the slope and scraping our knees and elbows.
“Oh, there she is, Jim. At the back. Looks like they’re about to begin. Oh, she’s gorgeous, isn’t she?”
What was he so afraid of? Eternal damnation? Fire and brimstone? AIDS as divine punishment? There was all of that, no doubt, the cross he bore. But I think there was something else, too, something more immediate. Shame. Plain and simple shame. When he’d singled me out it had nothing to do with whatever talent I might have had—I was never very good, that’s since become clear to me—but because he recognized something familiar, even if the restraining influences of his life prevented him from seeking out its expression.
The prelude came to an end and the white-robed priest appeared on the chancel steps. He smiled beneficently, waited for the chatter to cease, then spread open his arms.
“Let us rise.”
The congregation stood and with it came the blast of horns and trumpets, something ancient and regal, as the bride and her father slowly advanced up the aisle.
Years must have passed before it dawned on me that it was not Mr. Williams who was the subject of that black-and-white photograph, but Simon Hughes, the silent third party of our Wednesday night get-togethers. I can’t be sure of this—time has blurred the edges of those memories—but it’s the face I see whenever I think of the young Mr. Hughes and the relationship the two men may have had. Mentor and mentee at first, intimate friends later. A good-natured sense of competition between them that later turned to envy as Simon’s star continued to rise; Mr. Williams’ own following a flatter trajectory. I picture Simon, the older, more experienced one, inviting Mr. Williams—Gerald then—out for a drink one night, leading him to a small, out-of-the-way establishment in a dark London side street somewhere, not telling him where they were going or why except to offer a cryptic warning about making a run for it out the back should the police burst in.
I see Simon scrutinizing his friend’s reaction once inside, Gerald feigning diplomatic indifference, neither appalled nor overtly curious. There would be the older man’s cautious advances, slowly, over time, Gerald always demurring until, one night, he’d give in. “Do be sensible,” he’d say once things started to get out of hand, advising restraint. A rift would soon follow, so would immigration when a different sort of opportunity presented itself: the position of organist at a church in a small Canadian town. Which is exactly what suited him. Letters would follow, so too the occasional trans-Atlantic phone call, Christmas cards. Flash forward, years later, to the night an olive branch is extended. But once again it’s rejected. My presence beside him—the only reason I was even there at all, I now know—provided the necessary excuse to decline should such an encounter arise. For Simon Hughes, though, it was the last straw. The door that had always been held open had finally swung shut.
“Oh, look at her,” Anne said. “You got the camera ready, Jim?”
“Hold your horses. Gimme a minute.”
I imagine the regret he must have felt afterwards: the one who’d always been present yet invisible, the one he could turn to should he ever change his mind, even the sense of superiority that comes from being the one who withholds—all that now gone. It’s probably what spurred on the clumsiness of what happened in the car, why I was even driving at all, not to mention everything else that followed—until the charges were laid: proof positive of how he always felt about himself. When Anne said she felt sorry for him, I think she hit upon something: it was what I felt for him too, now.
“What are you waiting for, Jim? Take some pictures, hurry.”
He was more comfortable with the lie. At least that’s what he told himself. Don’t give in, is what he sought to press on me, perhaps seeing me as a blank slate. Respect the past and you will earn my respect in turn. That was, in fact, his lasting mark on me. A respect for the things of the past—for old music, old books—is something I still have to this day. And for that I’m grateful. But I was sensible enough to pick and choose what was of value and what was not, for it was the future I was really interested in when I took up the organ with its many buttons and space-agey sounds, the endless possibilities they offered.
Jim fumbled with the camera. “How do you operate this damned thing?”
“You got to turn it on first,” Anne said, rolling her eyes in my direction.
What would he have made, I sometimes wonder, of the supreme court’s decision to ban the once-common police raids of the past? Or of the much later ruling that would grant same-sex marriage? “Nowadays anything goes,” he’d said. But at the time I’d only heard the disgust in his words, not the envy buried beneath them.
The flash on Jim’s camera at last went off, and now he couldn’t stop taking pictures.
“Oh, I think I got some good ones, Anne. Just you wait.”
But that’s not what I was thinking of then. As everyone gazed at the bride and her father as they proceeded up the aisle, I couldn’t help but face those massive pipes, a little short of breath by the music that issued not from them but from the hundreds of others hidden behind the grille. A rich, full sound, just like the night of the concert in Toronto. Just like the first time I heard Mr. Williams play.
“Listen to that,” I leaned in to Tim to whisper. “Just listen.”