A House of Music

story about identity

Miss Rosie Burns, 1960

Rosie Burns expected to be a famous pianist. She preferred sleek, black concert grand pianos, which showcased her petite prettiness and pearly arms. Much of her student grant was invested in hand creams. Her fair hair was pampered with camomile rinses. And she transformed curtaining remnants into swirling skirts and demure bodices.

Philip Jones was studying English Literature. Thin, shy and serious, he teamed his sandy beard with a camel duffle coat. He was always in love, but never with a real girl. His devotions were addressed to heroines of Victorian novels.

One term, Philip helped to organise a fundraising wine and cheese party for the university Social Action group. He wrote to Miss Burns, who was known to support such functions. The evening was a success for both Social Action and Philip. Rosie’s delicate colouring was enhanced by her flowing skirt and a ruffled bodice like a cloud of sweet peas. Her performance was equally charming. The audience gave generously of its cash. Philip gave completely of his heart. Miss Burns personified his current fictional innamorata. For him, she was a Rosamond – fair, exquisite, ethereal. Inspired by love and music, he worshipped her with mulled wine and canapés. She graciously accepted his instant adoration.

They married a week after graduation. No one, including Rosie, knew quite why. She wasn’t pregnant and no consuming desire thrust her so early into wedlock. Philip pretended that he had consented to a church ceremony only to please his fiancée. But his heart drummed as he proudly awaited his bride. Blonde and white like a narcissus, Rosie floated towards him along the aisle, accompanied by decorous organ music. He forgave the one jarring note when the priest referred to his flower as ‘Rosemary’. Philip was in love with ‘Rosamond’ – rosa mundi, rose of the world – not some mere herb.


Rose, 1960s and 1970s: Opera in the attics

The narcissus herself decided to be known in future as ‘Rose’, leaving behind the childish ‘Rosie’. ‘Rosamond’ she found flattering but too heavy for her fragile beauty. Despite his preoccupation with passion, Philip had obtained a first-class degree and research studentship. He would work for a higher degree. Rose would teach ‘for a while’ until they were ‘established’. Then she would concentrate on her concert career.

Mr and Mrs Jones rented the flat at the top of a Victorian villa, four storeys of grey brick under slate gables. The attics had once housed servants. The middle two floors had provided spacious living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and separate lavatories for the original owners, a wealthy doctor and his family. The imposing entrance hall had led to a great door and flight of stone steps into the front garden. The basement, below dark stairs, was protected from the family by a small door. Here were the kitchen and scullery, and access to a covered passageway, outhouses and back gardens. There were four cellars: for wine, coal, a butler’s pantry lined with cool shelves and a small buttery. At the end of the unlit corridor, a wooden-seated lavatory offered nineteenth-century state-of-the-art relief.

The lavatory window opened into a gardener’s room next to the potting shed. The house had once been grand, with stables, coach house and tack room. The carriage sweep led from a quiet tree-bordered road round a raised rose bed. The back garden had been planned for leisure, with lawn, flower beds and a wooden summer house under a great lime tree as tall as the house. Beyond this, the orchard had been an arboretum of fruit trees, the old walls lined by a box hedge.

But the grandeur had departed. World War Two air bombardments had destroyed the conservatory; glass was shattered but the mosaic pavement remained, with a mock orange bush thriving in a corner. The house itself had survived but the modern conveniences of an earlier time were now shabby and inefficient. War-damage repairs were no more than adequate. No wealthy doctor would live in a draughty, decrepit Victorian pile. The house was divided into flats, painted throughout in post-war drab. The gardens declined into overgrown no one’s land.

Mr and Mrs Jones saw their two attics, with slanting ceilings and dormer windows, as a Hans Christian Andersen setting for an operatic love story. A romantic bower for Rose. A fantasy come true for Philip. Rose made cushion covers and curtains from fabric remnants, and a bedspread of unbleached calico, dyed to match. She promised herself a patchwork quilt, to be sewn in the evenings while Philip studied. This would be an heirloom, including fragments of every charming garment, past and to come.

The kitchen comprised an elderly gas stove on the landing, facing a stone sink and enamel draining board supported over two shelves. Cotton prints had little to offer chipped enamel. However, Rose pinned yellow towelling across the shelves and laid a red rubber mat on the floor. Wedding-present pans and mugs hung on the wall. A sprinkling of candles in Chianti bottles elevated poverty to Bohemian bravura. She was defeated only by the shared bathroom one floor below, which was permanently occupied by black silhouettes of ballerinas pirouetting on a corset-pink wallpaper background.

Philip worked at his thesis and was happy. He adored his Rosamond and was amazed at his good fortune. She kept the flat neat and bright, and made nourishing, attractive meals. She even found money for skincare preparations, rubber gloves and baby-soft soap powders.

Rose enjoyed her job at the grammar school. She was liked by the girls and unpopular with the staff. She had no interest in her colleagues, and despised the senior music mistress. Music was satisfactorily undervalued. Rose discovered a mission. Philip was entranced as she propounded plans for reform. For Rose, life at home could not provide perfect happiness. There was no space for even a small piano in the attic flat. She had to be content with the school’s elderly Steinway grand, where she could be discovered by admiring pupils as she practised virtuoso études and impromptus. But for Philip himself, his Rosamond made no more music.

Philip became Dr Jones and was appointed to a lectureship in the university English department. He was as happy as ever. Rose still house-kept well, although her catering owed much to pre-packaged meals. Dr and Mrs Jones had few friends, and rarely invited anyone to their home. Rose occasionally entertained selected sixth-form pupils, which earned her more staffroom disapprobation. However, Philip’s promotion led to invitations from his colleagues, and Rose insisted that hospitality must be returned.

When the tenants of the flat below moved away, Rose confessed that her burgeoning artistry was stifled by the confines of the slope-ceilinged attics. The living room overflowed with Philip’s papers and books. Rose marked pupils’ exercises and homework at school. Her sewing materials were stowed under the bed, which was still draped with the dyed calico. The patchwork quilt was ‘resting’. Philip hadn’t noticed the flat shrinking, but he happily agreed that renting two more rooms had become essential.

Dr and Mrs Jones celebrated the doubling of their home with a party. The extra space had provided a living room, and a workroom for Rose. A small kitchen over the front door enabled her to look out at the street while she washed up. One attic was now Philip’s study and the other remained as their bedroom. Philip could use the old landing kitchen to make hot drinks while he was working.

In the new rooms, furnishings in exciting modern prints enlivened the auction-sale furniture. Smooth background music sauntered from the new tape recorder. The buffet was spread in the workroom: cold rice salads, cheesecake, rounds of French bread, and cubed cheese with tiny pearly onions speared on cocktail sticks. The guests were Philip’s colleagues and their wives, all older than their hosts. Rose wore a new dress, a floor-length shift in deep-pink cretonne. Long dresses for informal wear were newly fashionable. Beside Rose, the calf-revealing wives looked dowdy.

At nine thirty, six breathless students delivered a present for Rose from Philip. The ancient piano was charming with its fretted front, fading purple silk and tarnished brass candleholders. The students placed it carefully in a hastily cleared space. Rose expressed delight with the gift, and was charmingly enraptured by the timing of its arrival. She was, of course, pressed to play. Wasting no time on false modesty or virtuoso classics, she offered a sprightly selection of American showtunes and Beatles favourites. The admiring lecturers crowded round with congratulations, but swiftly felt constrained to return to their politely applauding wives. Philip blushed when she kissed him.

But even he realised that her gratitude was for the opportunity to perform, rather than the gift itself. Philip would never confess that he had intended the students to deliver the piano at nine thirty the next morning, when he had hoped to be alone with his wife. He had imagined her thanking him for his loving care in finding, buying and arranging this wonderful surprise for her. Now, his own wonderful moment had been tarnished. He felt ashamed of his selfishness.


Rosa, 1970s: Rosa’s Salon

One man remained at her side. Visiting Polish professor Joseph Goralski raised her hand to his lips, called her ‘Rosa’, and described her performance as ‘worthy of the immortal Chopin’. Would she play for him again? If not tonight, when might he return? Rose was enchanted. The new ‘Rosa’ was sophisticated, mysterious, European. Was he free for coffee on Thursday evening? He asked permission to bring his flute.

Philip was satisfied. He saw ‘Rosa’ as an elegant and mature development of his ideal. Thursday was a triumph. The exotic professor brought not only his flute but also a singing friend. Philip felt honoured to provide refreshments and applause. Weekly Thursday evening salons were established. More musicians came. Rosa had no time to cook. Supper was usually warmed up from a tin. Philip was uncomplainingly proud of his popular wife.

One Tuesday, Rosa arrived home with the nervous members of the new school string quartet. They practised in her workroom for two hours every week. Meanwhile, a Thursday musician asked Rosa to give piano lessons to her daughter. Imogen struggled with Grade Four for a full hour every Monday evening. On Wednesdays, Rosa conducted school choir rehearsals.

Philip opened his own tins. He was researching an adult education lecture series on lesser-known nineteenth-century female writers. He found it increasingly difficult to concentrate with accompaniment from twentieth-century female musicians. He had gradually withdrawn from the Thursday Salons as they became increasingly popular. There was no longer room for him. He ate in a students’ union café and worked in the university library. On Tuesdays, he taught an evening class.

Although Rosa noticed that her husband was infrequently at home, she felt no concern that music might be interfering with his work. He had always encouraged her to develop her talent. Now she was sharing both her skill and her home, providing opportunity and delight to other music lovers. Philip could read and write anywhere. Rosa modestly acknowledged that her piano, her pretty rooms and her unique charm were essential to the service she so modestly provided. She was concerned only with fulfilling Philip’s ambitions for her. And for himself, naturally. While Rosa settled the situation to her own satisfaction, another private pupil arranged to follow Imogen at eight o’clock.

A year later, the tenants of the first-floor flat emigrated to Australia. The ground floor had never been occupied. The landlord lived in a distant city and had no interest in maintaining the property, which provided too small an income to compensate for outgoings. Dr and Mrs Jones applied for a mortgage, which was granted to the salary-earning male. The salary-earning female, to her extreme annoyance, was not permitted to sign the contract. The relieved landlord was prepared to accept any offer, however far below the asking price.

They invested savings in modernising the bathroom and installed a fitted kitchen on the ground floor. Rosa acquired a longed-for baby grand piano, and claimed the first-floor sitting room as her studio. Her former workroom became the bedroom, and the erstwhile bedroom was transformed into a library. The first-floor back room became an elegant dining area.

Dr and Mrs Jones couldn’t agree on plans for the overgrown gardens. Philip liked plants and colour and grass. Rosa wanted patios and pots. They compromised. Philip bought a second-hand scythe and transformed the back plot into a wild retreat, with potting shed, pond and summer house. Rosa hired men to concrete over the front garden and install elaborately pruned bay trees in tubs.

Although the music no longer disturbed Philip, he now spent most of his time out of the house. Rosa didn’t notice. They ate together only at weekends.

Philip fell in love again. As always, his passion was for a literary heroine. This time, she was French. And in time, he met a girl whose twentieth-century ravaged beauty and insoluble problems mirrored those of the nineteenth-century fictional victim by whom he was currently obsessed.

On the school sports day, Rosa was afflicted with a migraine and returned home early to go to bed. The air was thick with sweetish smoke emanating from a combination of joss sticks and home-rolled cigarettes whose contents didn’t resemble tobacco. A comatose, kaftan-clad girl lay green-faced on Rosa’s bed. Her flowing tangle of red hair obscured the flowery pillowcase. Philip knelt on the floor beside her, stroking her grimy foot. As his wife entered he was, dramatically, sick.

Philip was deeply embarrassed. Rosa was amused, contemptuous and relieved. She assured her husband that she understood. He must be free to pursue his research, both practical and academic. Philip assured her of his complete fidelity. Rosa assured him of her liberated unpossessiveness.


Rosalba, 1970s: Rosalba’s Music School

The division of the house into two separate flats was a success. Dr and Mrs Jones were content. Neither had a key to the other’s front door and they visited each other only by invitation. Philip sometimes attended a Thursday Salon, and occasionally ate Sunday lunch with his wife. Listening together to Philip’s Radio Three series of talks on ‘The Victorian Villainess’ initiated a tradition of intelligent conversation over a little wine.

Rosa abandoned her performing ambitions. Why restrict her genius to the wealthy minority who could afford concert tickets? She should devote herself to instructing and developing the many who needed her unique combination of personal qualities and artistic talents. Then the senior music mistress took early retirement, suffering from chronic exhaustion. She had given up the struggle to survive Rosa’s contempt and constant campaign to introduce contemporary educational approaches. Rosa gracefully accepted promotion. She extended her private lessons and advertised for adult pupils. A neat brass nameplate beside the front door declared her to be: ROSALBA JONES. B.MUS: LRAM.


Roz, 1980s: roz’s arts place

Some years later, that discreet nameplate was replaced by an imposing board which proclaimed: roz’s arts place.

Mrs Rose Jones had been transformed into a persona to represent the new decade. As Roz, she controlled her empire, impressive in silver sari, fuchsia trainers and hennaed crewcut. Cool kats in polyester kimonos knelt and bowed gracefully in the Japanese tea ceremony, accompanied by Stockhausen filtering from the percussion course in the next room. Ladies in lycra leotards were lithely liberated to gentle jazz. An undernourished undergraduate entreated co-operation from the cacophonous crèche. Chocolate makers, newly forced into voluntary redundancy by the local factory, sucked their pricked fingers as they pursued the Government Retraining Scheme Patchwork module. In a portacabin on the front yard, young offenders undergoing reformation performed community service in the Happy Wholefood Eatery. Vegetables were supplied from Philip’s organic garden.

Philip sat in his attic, insulated from the noises below him in the house and gardens by raga and reggae delivered through his earphones. He was content, planning a seminar for striking social workers on ‘Whither Womanhood?’

But it was the passive Philip who set in motion the great upheaval. The university had a problem. Too many staff; too little income. Philip had tenure. He felt safe. In all his years as a lecturer, he had published only two papers in approved academic journals, and one book – a slim volume entitled Roses in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. He had neither applied for nor been offered promotion, and had avoided all administrative duties. He fulfilled his responsibilities to teach undergraduates and research the role of women in nineteenth-century literature. His only other contribution was to supervise those few postgraduates whose theses connected with his own preoccupations. For several years, he had been developing a proposal for a three-volume novel, which would be a twentieth-century take on the great Victorian tradition. Characters, place and plot remained just out of his reach. If he only had time!

Helga, Head of Department, confessed her dismay to her colleague and friend, a specialist in post-nuclear-holocaust feminist poetic reconstruction. ‘Lou Annee, I don’t know what to do! I can’t keep paying him and I can’t get rid of him.’

Lou Annee knew just what to do. Her home university was adventurous, rich and far away. It loved staff exchanges. North American lecturers were blown across the globe like dandelion seeds, floating across oceans to take root in foreign academic soil. Once launched, who would remember them or care what happened? Lou Annee was certain that her university was desperate to study obscure nineteenth-century women, whether themselves writing, or written by the Sisters. Philip would be lionised, feted, loved. And even if he faded into oblivion, at least he’d be fading at someone else’s expense. His replacement in the exchange would be funded by the manufacturer philanthropist whose forebears had established the university. Lou Annee kept to herself the suspicion that the exchange staff member would, like Philip, be surplus to requirements in the sponsoring university. She was fond of Helga, who had enough to worry about. Lou Annee allowed herself to hope that the exchange would keep both exchangees out of both sight and mind.


Ro, 1990s: Polonaise

Cy and Babsie loved the attics, which they called the loft. They renamed Philip’s library ‘THE ARCHIVE’, padlocked the door and spent many hours ‘studying’. They loved Roz so much that they reinvented her as Ro.

The former roz’s arts place had been absorbed into the new Pen House Community Centre, and the former Roz, now known as Ro, needed a new challenge and fresh income. When the grammar school had been amalgamated with a giant comprehensive, she had accepted a generous redundancy settlement. Private pupils and roz’s arts place had supplemented Philip’s generous financial contributions from the USA. But what now?

The Polish professor, Joseph Goralski, who had renamed her Rosa, and whose interest had long ago initiated the Thursday evening Salons, had remained a friend. When his nephew Bogdan arrived unexpectedly, Joseph asked if Rosa could find him a room, just for a few days. ‘Ro,’ she chided him. ‘Rosa was a long time ago.’ The professor sighed. ‘Ro it is now. But you are always Rosa for me, kochana – my dear.’ Bogdan moved in and was followed by Anna and, two months later, baby Maria.

Ro moved down to the ground floor. She had the kitchen refitted and the decrepit lavatory combined with the former buttery to create a state-of-the-art bathroom. Proceeds from sale of the ancient wooden toilet seat, now a collectable antique, paid for the newly fashionable shower. The wine cellar retained its original purpose, although the bottles stored on its cool shelves were more likely to be cider than champagne. The coal cellar now housed fuel for the newly fashionable wood-burning stove.

The Polish family kept possession of the former bedroom, living room and little kitchen. They shared the old bathroom with the Americans. Unfortunately, neither Poles nor Americans appeared to have understood the concept of rent. When Bogdan’s family was augmented by his brother Jarek and baby Jurek, while Luis and Sibylla somehow took root in the attics, Ro was forced to take notice. She asked Joseph Goralski for help.


Rosanna, 2000s: Rosanna’s World of World Music

The new board, painted by Babsie, invited entry to ROSANNA’S WORLD OF WORLD MUSIC.

Ro’s former dining room became another studio. Both rooms were in constant use. Bogdan and Jarek, as the ‘Tatra Troubadours’, developed and practised a programme of Polish songs. The newly renamed Rosanna acquired new energy and, with Joseph’s help, revived long-ignored contacts through Philip’s university, her school and the Thursday Salons to publicise and promote the duo. Dressed in the distinctive square cap and costume of Krakow, made by Rosanna and Anna, they soon attracted a large audience to their recitals. Anna taught Polish dance in the former dining room, accompanied by Rosanna. Polonaise and mazurka, krakowiak and – ‘Not polka!’ insisted the usually unemphatic Anna. Her Saturday morning children’s class was an immediate success, and she had a waiting list for Wednesday evenings.

Cy and Babsie expressed tremendous enthusiasm and offered ever more elaborate and impractical ideas. But they were always apologetically busy somewhere else, or secluded in their attics.

One Thursday evening, Luis quietly appeared in the studio and played flamenco guitar for an hour. Rosanna recruited him to her catalogue of tutors and performers. Sibylla shyly offered to teach Latin American dance.

Soon, every morning, afternoon and evening had bookings for at least one class or practice session. Saturday evenings were open to anyone to come and sing, dance or play an instrument.

Still the North Americans failed to appear. Rosanna had no idea how and where they employed their time. However, she occasionally found on her piano origami envelopes shaped like swans or hawks, cacti or lotus flowers, or decorated with designs which Rosanna thought might be African or First Nation. Each envelope contained a single high-value sterling banknote which then had to be exchanged at the bank. Rosanna became adept at declining to react to the cashier’s determinedly neutral gaze. She had no idea how Cy and Babsie obtained these notes, and had no intention of trying to explain. Or rather, failing to explain.

Even Rosanna experienced a slight frisson when Babsie entered the studio one Thursday evening. Cy followed. They bore a collection of drums from several traditions – African, Caribbean, First Nation – and wore vibrantly coloured garments respecting their own national origins. Without speaking, they set up their instruments and played. Soon both rooms were filled with dancing Salonnières.

This was the climax and the end.

When the ground-floor ceiling fell in, two dancers were taken to hospital with broken ankles. Neighbours reported the disturbance: drumming, thumping, strange smoke. While the ambulance departed and the police car arrived, the fire engine extinguished the small conflagration caused by candles colliding with flowing draperies.

At last the house became quiet. All those decades of change, noise, language. Who knew who was living where? Americans, Poles, Latinos. All slid silently away. The house was declared unsafe for habitation. A developer offered a sum which, though small, could not be declined. Dr Jones was tracked down to a small college in Latvia, where he was teaching English as a second language. He signed the acceptance forms with indifference. He was in love with a Slavic beauty who resembled the heroine of a little-known Baltic epic. Mrs Jones was harder to find, but in due course all documents were completed and her bank account regained health.


Rambling Rose, 2010: Rambler’s Rest

Only a few friends knew where she lived. A little painted sign over the door read: RAMBLER’S REST. She had taken no interest in Philip’s summer house in the back garden until the calamity. She refused to leave the home where she had lived so many lives. This was simply one more incarnation. The wooden shed was transformed into a charming cottage. Sanitary needs were provided for to the satisfaction of the occupant. Electricity was, it emerged, no longer a necessity when the sun in the morning and the moon at night could be augmented by oil lamps.

Professor Joseph, her faithful friend, called her his Rambling Rose. Although her rambling had all been within the four walls of the house, he conceded that rambling roses were essentially supported by fences, hedges and, yes, walls. Her only regret, she discovered, was the loss of her piano.

However, before the calamity, she had been learning guitar from Luis. This perfectly suited her new way of life as Rambling Rose. Charity shops provided an endless range of scarves, floaty skirts, weatherproof boots and absurdly glamorous sparkly stiletto-heeled boots. The calamity had, perhaps, been a goddess-send.


Rosemary, 2015: Rosemary Residences

The developer had difficulty in letting the ultra-modern self-contained apartments in the romantic old building, identified on the artist-designed signboard as THE HAVEN. Professor Joseph rented the second floor, and installed his friend on the first floor, site of her former studios. He tactfully suggested that, as her rambling days were done, she might prefer a new name. When they had chosen ‘Rosemary’, a plant both beautiful and useful, Joseph persuaded the developer to rename the house ROSEMARY RESIDENCES. Eventually a young family moved into the ground-floor apartment.

The top floor remained vacant, until a distinguished-looking grey-bearded man arrived with his elegant wife. The former attics, renamed ‘Cherry Blossom’, were transformed with Japanese screens, fabrics and lamps. After Latvia, Philip had taught in a Japanese university. Although faithful to his nineteenth-century literary heroines, he had discovered ultimate perfection in the grace and exquisite beauty of his new students and colleagues. Professor Setsuko Jones had returned his love and consented to make a new life on his side of the world. She easily obtained a visiting lectureship at Philip’s original university.

When the developer raised the rent, the tenants offered to buy the house as a consortium. The developer was relieved. The growing family outgrew its apartment and sold its share of the house to a couple. Hector is a carer who teaches drama to people with learning difficulties. His husband, Raj, is an IT consultant and virtuoso sitar player.


Rose, 2020: Rose’s Repose

Rosemary is not very well. When Professor Joseph passed away, she was persuaded to move upstairs to his former rooms. Content to realise that her wanderings were over, she decided to change her name once more, settling for the simple ‘Rose’.

Professor Setsuko Jones has returned to Japan, leaving Philip alone and content in ‘Cherry Blossom’. He revels in the freedom to pursue imaginary heroines through the three-volume novel in which he has lived intensely through three continents and several decades. Despite arthritic knees, he braves the stairs to visit Rose every day, in the apartment everyone calls ‘Rose’s Repose’. They seem closer than at any other time in their long, detached marriage. Other residents keep him supplied with books, and he has discovered in Skyping the perfect method of contactless contact.

The first floor is home to Louanna, whose grandparents were born on an island in the Caribbean. With her daughters Daisy and Pearl, she runs ‘Rosehips’, an online fruit and flower shop.

Ground-floor Hector and Raj bought Professor Joseph’s share of the house from his family, who live in Chicago. As Rose and Philip reached what would be their final decade, Hector and Raj bought their shares, too. They assured the couple that they would live rent-free for the rest of their lives. Every family needs grandparents, they say. And great-grandparents.

Hector has converted the former coach house and stables into a miniature theatre and Saturday morning stage school. He often consults Rose about music for his productions. Raj is teaching her to play the sitar. They installed photovoltaic cells before green energy became fashionable. They travel by bus and bicycle, and decline to fly. There is world enough of love and music here, they say.

First-floor Louanna and her daughters are rescuing the back garden and old orchard. They grow fruit and vegetables to supply the whole household and donate the excess to the local food bank. The former conservatory, which adjoins their flat, has been renovated and roofed with shatterproof glass. At weekends and on Hector’s show days, they serve coffee, afternoon tea and light suppers. Audiences for Hector’s productions are encouraged to bring picnics and to explore the precious green space. On gentle summer evenings, Raj plays ragas.

After one hundred and fifty years, the House of Music is in good heart. Disasters and wars have damaged, but cannot destroy, either the house or the music. Every decade has brought new life, through Rose and Philip, and the dancing, singing, playing people of the House.



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