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Did Chopin ever play the Beach Boys?

‘Noooo! I am not going to interview that awful old man!’

‘Yes, you are’.

‘No,! I am not going to see him for a thousand years!’

‘Yes, you are’.

‘Absolutely not!’

‘Fine, do you still want a job?’

She paused, and then subsided into an angry silence.

‘Right, that’s settled, then. You go off tomorrow, and spend a nice weekend at his house’

She snarled.

‘Or, you can go back to writing, Oh? what was it? The Importance of the Herefordshire cow to the local economy’. Or the other one, ‘Desperate Friesians in search of a Bull’. Or even, your best piece on ‘Do Organically-Reared Hens have better dreams than Battery Hens?’ My case rests’.


So Penny Bright found herself, the next day, on a train to Brighton, still muttering darkly under her breath. The last thing she, as a young local reporter, wanted was to interview a famous but horrible old architect, whose houses had excited the press with all their ingenuity and hidden secrets. His reputation as a bad-tempered, rude old man, insulting to his clients and indeed, to women in general, had made him rich and famous, but it had also made him a lot of enemies. So here she was, a slender, small dark-haired young woman of barely twenty-one summers, going to confront the old lion in his own den. She was definitely not happy.
         Later that day, she stood at the front door of a large, white Georgian house in one of the more respectable parts of Brighton, but which at least did overlook the sea-front. She rang the bell. After a minute it opened, and there stood a short, rather tubby man, with grey hair brushed back from his forehead, and dressed in old jeans and a rather grubby grey cardigan. The expression on his face was not friendly. In fact, most people would call it a dark scowl.
         ‘Mr John Welkin? How do you do? I’m Penny Bright, from the London Echo. I’ve come to talk to you’. And she tried to put on her most engaging smile. He stared at her even more blackly, but said nothing. Behind him the hall was twilit. The silence seemed to purr like a cat. For several seconds, he stood there, then grunted and motioning his head to her, turned and walked back into the dimly lit hall. “In there’. he muttered, as if she was trespassing. She entered a very large but rather shabby living-room, which had at least a fire burning in an enormous stone fireplace. It was filled with enormous and shapeless sofas and armchairs, and some very dingy old oil paintings. But she did notice some very small sketches of the outside of buildings that she recognised as the work of this renowned architect, that were dotted at random around the walls. She turned back, to find that he had disappeared. So she sat down on one of the edges of a dingy sofa, and waited.
         She waited, and she waited. There seemed no sign of him returning. So she sat, trying to make a friendly appearance, and began to feel very bored, and rather cross. It was only after twenty minutes had gone by, that she heard his footsteps out in the hall. ‘Come on then. I’ll show you where you’re sleeping’. She picked up her overnight bag and followed him, feeling more and more like an unwanted guest. He literally kicked open a door after having gone up what seemed like endless steps, and said abruptly, ‘You’re in here’. The bedroom was small and contained only a narrow single bed, a small chest of drawers, and a bed-table, bearing, in a rather forlorn way, a bedside light with a bent cloth shade. There was only a little bare carpet on the floor. ‘Main light doesn’t work. The bathroom’s down the corridor. Supper’s eight, in the dining-room. You’ll find it.’ And before she could speak, he turned his back and disappeared through the door.
         She sat down on the hard little bed in a fury. She had just been treated like a servant-girl. She tried the ceiling light. No.It didn’t work. She had better luck with the dismal little bed-light, which cast a dim gleam over the room. The window, was dirty, with flimsy cloth curtains, which she felt wouldn’t even pull together without falling apart, and the view was a yard with only a collection of old dustbins. Remembering what she was here to do, she went to find the bathroom which was right at the end of the landing. It was old-fashioned, but spacious, and did at least have some hot water.
         Back in her miserable little room, she began to wonder. Why was such a rich and famous architect so uninterested in his own house? Did it have some secrets that she didn’t know about? Why was he so rude and uncaring about his visitors? She began to worry about talking to him. Was he going to be like this all the time? Would she even get an interview? With a start, she realised it was nearly eight, and she didn’t even know where the dining-room was! She hurried down the main stairs, and saw, at last a chink of light under one of the doors in the hall. She tapped on it and went in.
         ‘Didn’t you ever learn to knock!’ You lot are all the same! No manners! Get yourself some food, and find a seat! That is, if you can recognise furniture. Over there’,. and nodded towards a sideboard laden with silver dishes. Muttering a few nasty words to herself, she went to the sideboard, and found, much to her surprise, roast chicken, new potatoes, gravy and a variety of well-cooked vegetables. She brought her plate back, sat down, and began to eat. She was very hungry, but he clearly was not going to starve her, though he sat in silence, eating, and sometimes glaring at her from beneath his rather bushy eyebrows. A fruit tart followed and then coffee. Very welcome.
         Then she sat up and listened, Partly because he might be rude to her for not sitting up straight, but also because she heard something rather special. It was music, piano music, played very softly and gently, and seemed to come from the room next door. It was sweet and very lovely, and she put her head to one side and listened. She glanced across at Welkin, and was amazed to see the expression on his face. It was very soft and dreamy, quite unlike the scowl he normally had. Then he noticed her looking at him and scowled again. ‘Those two, always playing that wretched music!’

‘I thought it was very beautiful. Who is it playing?’

He snorted, and shouted loudly. ‘You two! Come here and present yourselves!’

The music stopped, then there was a scrape of chairs. The door opened. Two young people stood there, smiling. One was a girl, who looked as if she was Chinese. The other was a tall, rather thin boy, blonde with a slightly vacuous expression. ‘Can’t you two ever give anybody any peace?’ This is, I always forget – oh’ Shan-Lin. And the silly-looking one is Peter. They’re musicians’, he added with distaste. ‘This is Penny Black, from a newspaper’.

‘Penny Bright, actually’.


The two smiled at her again and vanished back into the room from where they had come. What was their position in this house? Were they servants or just entertainers? Nothing really seemed to make sense. Anyway, what about her interview? She needed to ask some questions. Opening her bag, she pulled out her mini-tape recorder to ask him if she could use it. Penny certainly didn’t expect what happened next. As soon as he caught sight of it, his face went purple with fury.

‘How dare you, you stupid little trollop! How dare you think you’re going to put me on that, that thing!’

His voice was shaking in fury. He banged both his fists so hard on the table that all the cups and plates rattled.

‘I…I’m sorry! I didn’t know…I was going to ask you first….’

‘You didn’t ask me! You impudent little schoolgirl! Don’t you even know how to write! Even someone like you must know how to make joined -up writing on a piece of paper! You disgusting, disgraceful little brat! I’m not even going to give you the time of day or night! I’m going to bed! Breakfast at seven! Don’t expect me there! Go out for a walk or something!

He walked out, slamming the door very hard behind him. Panny just stood there, amazement and despair filling her up.
         Later, that night, she lay miserably on her bed, shivering with cold under the thin blanket. What had she done wrong? She probably wouldn’t get any interview now. The editor would heave a great sigh, roll his eyes to heaven, and not give her the chance to take any important opportunities again. So much for her career. She lay there feeling sorry for herself. As she looked up at the ceiling, she began to be aware of the invisible noise of the big house. She heard the hiss and buzz of a fly trapped against the window. She could faintly hear the small echoes of traffic noise in the street outside. Far below her, she could even hear the soft whisperings and murmurings of the furniture, settling itself more comfortably. And she could also still hear that lovely music –was it by Chopin? – playing below her. Or was it her imagination? As she listened, there was a little sound of laughter, just for a second, down below. It sounded too deep to be Shan-Lin and Peter. She gradually fell into an uneasy, broken sleep.
         Next morning, she got up, washed and dressed and went down for breakfast. Penny was surprised and worried for two reasons. The first, that there was a delicious hot breakfast waiting for her in the hotplates in the dining-room, together with a fresh pot of tea, and toast that had been newly made. The second was that there was absolutely no-one around, even when she called out. But someone had been up before her and made breakfast. There was no sign at all of Welkin.. By her plate, on the table lay a key, which, when she tried it in the front door lock, fitted perfectly. Her spirits rose. Perhaps he might give her an interview after all! But for now, she had nothing to do, and no-one to talk to, so she went up to get a coat and decided to walk around Brighton, which she had never visited before.
         It was a late winter’s afternoon, and it was almost dark when she came back, and let herself in. By this time she was cold and hungry again, and she was quite definitely in a mood not to put up with Welkin and his insufferable rudeness. So  when she saw the light under the living-room door, she marched straight in. There was Welkin, sitting in one of the armchairs, reading a large book, with the aid of small spectacles perched on the end of his nose.

‘Where’ve you been, you nasty little piece of stupidity and incompetence! I’ve had to wait for you! Just pack your stupid little bag, and clear off! Now!’

         For Penny, this was the last straw. She no longer cared about her job, or about her career, nothing, but to tell Welkin what she thought of him.

‘You horrible, vicious, hopeless, rude, unreasonable, ridiculous old man! You conceited, arrogant, untidy, miserable old fool! You disgraceful, pathetic excuse for an architect! I wish I’d never come here and had the bad luck to meet you! You have the manners of a pig, you don’t even know how to treat anyone with any courtesy, because all you do is insult them! I don’t care if nobody remembers you! You don’t deserve to be remembered! I really hate you and you should never have been some kind of genius! As far as I am concerned, you don’t deserve any of that hero-worship! You’re just a bad-mannered, nasty old rogue! And now I’m going!’

Her fists were clenched by her sides. Her face was scarlet with rage and humiliation. She turned to go. What stopped her was a sound behind her. It was the sound of two hands clapping together vigorously.
         Slowly she turned. There, was Welkin, still sitting in the armchair, applauding. But his face was different. It bore now a wonderful, wide beaming smile. He had changed completely. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ she finally asked. ‘Because if it is, I do not find it funny!’  ‘No,’ he answered, still laughing silently. ‘Listen’. She listened. Behind the door from which the two young people had come the day before, another two hands could be heard, clapping. And then two more pairs of hands joined in, all behind the door. There was a short deep laugh also, exactly like the one she thought she had heard in the night. Then the door opened.
         A smaller, more slender figure than Welkin appeared, but sitting in a wheelchair, that was gently pushed by Peter, with Shan-Lin walking along beside him. The man in the wheelchair was clapping as well, together with Shan-Lin. He stopped in front of her. ‘Hello, my dear’. he said gently. ‘Come and sit down beside me’. Peter wheeled him to one of the sofas, and helped him out onto the sbabby, but soft piece of furniture. She sat down by him, and the others all took their seats in armchairs around. No hostility and anger was there, just a kind friendship.

‘My dear, Penny, isn’t it?’ The man in the wheelchair said to her. ‘I am so sorry we played a bit of a joke on you, but it was well-meant. I will explain to you now. This is Peter, my companion, and this is Shan-Lin, who plays wonderful music for me’. He paused. ‘And this is Simon Welkin’. She had no words at all. ‘Simon is my brother, He deals with all the reporters and the other people, and pretends to be me. Myself – the …how did you put it?….the bad-mannered, nasty old rogue’.

‘Who are you? she finally asked.

‘Well, you see, I am John Welkin, the architect’.
Penny at last found the words. ‘Why did you trick me? Making me think that he was you! Why were you so cruel to me?

‘I am very sorry. but I do not like people coming to see me. I have my brother to protect me, and also Peter and Shan-Lin. I did not mean to hurt you, because I know and believe that you really wanted to come and talk to me. We made a little test for you, and I was pleased and happy that you had the courage and the determination to stand up to my brother. He was very impressed.’ He smiled at his brother, who smiled back.

‘But why? I don’t understand!’

‘My brother enjoys being an actor. That was, and is his profession. He is my other side, my bad side, that I like to show to the world to keep them away. You see, there are many, many people in this world that I don’t like, and I want to keep some peace and quiet for myself. Not from you, because I have seen how strong and fiery and determined you are, and I feel that that is wonderful to have in yourself. Your own faith and confidence, and your refusal to allow others to treat you badly. That is what I like about you. You have the goodness, that comes with true confidence, and you are also someone that I feel I can talk to. I have built and designed wonderful things, but I will never know whether the people who I made them for will ever appreciate them. This is why I trust you, to give a true picture of what I feel I have achieved in what little time is left. I am dying, and it will not be long soon now. We all know that, and now you know it too. Please forgive us, for not trusting you before, but it was truly necessary. I would like you to come and sit with me, tomorrow and talk, and then, perhaps, I can provide you with your ‘scoop’ he smiled at her, as if he was a father to his daughter.

Penny, at first, did not know what to do. Then she turned to his brother. ‘I’m sorry to have spoken to you like that’. she said sadly But Simon smiled and said mysteriously. ‘I’m an actor’. The she turned to Peter and Shan-Lin. ‘Will you please play some more music for us? I would really like to hear it again’. They grinned and nodded, and walked through the door. A few seconds later, the wonderful sounds of the piano began to float through the door. John Welkin leaned back and sighed with pleasure. ‘Now, then Simon. I think that you should put Penny into a rather better room than that you gave her. She can have a good night’s sleep, and then we can begin talking after breakfast’. Simon nodded and his face became a good face, totally unlike how it had been before. Then Penny and the famous architect lay back on the sofa, listening to the music, feeling at peace.
The next day was one of the most wonderful in Penny’s life. John Welkin talked for hours about his work, his life, his ideas and his love of what he did. At lunch, the others joined them. Penny had lost all dislike of Simon, who was altogether a different person. Peter and Shan-Lin talked about how they were devoted to the ‘maestro’ as they called him, and played more music later in the afternoon. She found out so many things about John Welkin: about his love for music, how it inspired his work, the love he felt for life, and how he had tried to put so much of it into his buildings. She told him about herself, and he told her what were two amazing things. One was that he had always put secret rooms into his buildings, not showing them on the plans, but leaving the owners to discover them on their own. ‘Most of them never have’. he chuckled. The other was how he felt about his work. ‘One of the most wonderful things in the world is to know that you did it right! Also how you got it right! And when I leave this world, I shall know this – I did it right!’
When she finally returned, she presented her written interview to the editor. His eyes nearly bulged.

‘This is fantastic!, How did you do it?’

‘’I don’t know.’ she replied honestly.
It was only a few weeks later. It was Peter, in fact, who phoned her. She put the telephone down quietly, and looked out of  the office window. The editor burst in. ‘Penny, I want you to write his obituary! You were the last person to interview him, remember? So, do it fast, before anyone forgets!’ She nodded absently. She turned again to look out of the window. She still heard the buzzing of a fly, the little creaks and groans of furniture settling, the distant roar of traffic far away. She also remembered all the secret rooms, that nobody might discover for many, many years to come.


Dedicated to David Watkin, who died on February 19th, 2008..


Frank Jackson ( 26/02/08)