I met a woman yesterday, yet I feel I’ve known her most of my life. Brigid never left her home area of Glenmore, Ireland and I’ve never been there. We met through William Trevor, her creator, in his short story, The Dancing-Master’s Music.
Trevor’s characters reveal themselves in traits so vivid yet common that we’re forced to compare them with people we know. ‘This guy is just like Pete from work,’ we might think. Or we may feel that we want to meet and talk with them. His people seduce us into their lives.
Brigid is an old Irish lady who spent her life in domestic service with a prominent Irish household. She came from a meager country background. Her mother was “brought low by poverty and childbirth,” and her father was a drunk.
Brigid never attained a conventional education; she never traveled; she never worked for another employer; she never joined clubs, took music lessons, attended concerts, or did any of a thousand things that contemporary Americans routinely do, and that we retirees are often encouraged to do.
She started work in the sculleries of the house when she was fourteen cleaning pots and doing other dirty household work. She got along well with the other staff and gradually worked her way to other positions. She made friends with people in the nearby community, whom she visited on Sunday afternoons, walking into town, then home to the large house.
She apparently neither married nor had children.
In the first winter of her employment, her employer hosted an Italian dance teacher to give lessons to the family. He was “thin as a knife-blade,” and he played the piano as he taught dancing. Once when a door stayed open some extra seconds, Brigid heard a few notes from the piano—her first ever.
It was arranged that he would play music for the household staff, and it would be different entirely from the dance music. Chairs were moved from downstairs into the drawing room, then taken back when the music was over.
Brigid attended the recital. It was the first time she had seen a piano, her first time in a drawing room, and the first time she had seen a painted portrait hung on a wall.
The music captured her. “It danced over the scarlet walls and the gaze of the portrait people. It lingered on the empty chairs, on vases and ornaments. It rose up to reach the white flowers of the encrusted ceiling. Brigid closed her eyes and the dancing-master’s music crept about her darkness, its tunes slipping away, recalled, made different.”
She took the music home in her ear and carried it back to work, and it stayed with her for life. Over the years she heard various family members play the piano, but none played the music of the dance-master. For other members of the staff the event faded into a back room of memory, but not for Brigid.
In time the fortunes of the family declined and the house began to deteriorate. Rooms were closed off and taken by mold. Vases were empty of flowers and the furniture bleached by the sun. Yet wherever Brigid went in the great house, whatever the condition of her surroundings, the music accompanied her.
A single hour of music lingered in Brigid’s mind and heart and lifted her life to a level she otherwise would not have known.
My mother-in-law lived somewhat like Brigid. Her life carried much hurt, some treasures surely, like her children, but also prolonged periods of aloneness and pain. Unlike Brigid, she played the piano, and one would know that she too soared on the wings of music far above a day’s mortal concerns. Sometimes just an hour of beauty graces our lives forever.