Brodie Moncur stood in the main window of Channon & Co. and looked out at the hurrying pedestrians, the cabs, carriages and labouring drays of George Street. It was raining—a steady soft rain driven slant from time to time by the occasional fierce gust of wind—and, under the ponderous pewter light, the sooty facades of the buildings opposite had darkened with the water to a near-black. Like velvet, Brodie thought, or moleskin. He took off his spectacles and wiped the lenses clean on his handkerchief. Looking out of the window again, spectacle-less, he saw that rainy Edinburgh had now gone utterly aqueous. The buildings opposite were a cliff of black suede.
He replaced his spectacles—hooking the wire sides behind his ears—and the world returned to normal. He slipped his watch from his waistcoat pocket. Nearly nine o’clock—better start. He opened up the glossy new grand piano that was on the display dais, propping up the curved lid with its inlaid mirror (only for display purposes—his idea) the better to present the intricate machinery—the “action”—inside a Channon grand. He removed the fall from over the keys and undid the key-block screws. He checked that no hammers were up and then drew the whole action forward by the flange rail under the front. As it was a new piano it drew out perfectly. Already a passer-by had stopped and was peering in. Drawing out the action always compelled attention. Everyone had seen a grand piano with the lid up but having the action on display somehow altered every easy assumption. The piano no longer seemed familiar. Now all the moving parts were visible beyond the black and white the hammers, the rockers, the jacks, the whippens, the dampers—its innards were exposed like a clock with its back off or a railway engine dismantled in a repair shed. Mysteries—music, time, movement—were reduced to complex, elaborate mechanisms. People tended to be fascinated.
He untied his leather roll of tools, selected the tuning lever and pretended to tune the piano, tightening a few strings here and there, testing them and resetting them. The piano was perfectly tuned—he had tuned it himself when it had emerged, pristine, from the factory two weeks ago. He tuned F a modicum on the sharp side then knocked it in—back into tune—with a few brisk taps on the key. He supported a hammer-head and needled-up the felt a little with his three-pronged voicing tool and returned it to its position. This pantomime of tuning a piano was meant to lure the customers in. He had suggested, at one of the rare staff meetings, that they should have someone actually playing the piano—an accomplished pianist—as they did in showrooms in Germany, and as the Erard and Pleyel piano manufacturers had done in Paris in the 1830s and drawn huge crowds. It was hardly an innovation—but an impromptu recital in a shop window would surely be more enticing than listening to the mannered repetitions of a piano being tuned. Donk! Ding! Donk! Donk! Donk! Ding! He had been overruled—an accomplished pianist would cost money—and instead he was given this job of display-tuning: an hour in the morning and an hour after luncheon. In fact he did attract spectators, although he had been the single beneficiary—he wasn’t sure if the firm had sold one more piano as a result of his demonstrations, but many people and not a few institutions (schools, church halls, public houses) had slipped into the shop, pressed a calling card on him, and offered him out-of-hours piano tuning. He had earned a good few pounds.
“Now all the moving parts were visible beyond the black and white the hammers, the rockers, the jacks, the whippens, the dampers—its innards were exposed like a clock with its back off or a railway engine dismantled in a repair shed. Mysteries—music, time, movement—were reduced to complex, elaborate mechanisms.”
So, he played A above middle C several times, to “get the pitch,” pointedly listening to the tone with a cocked head. Then played a few octaves. He stood, slipped some felt mutes between strings, took out his tuning lever, set it over a wrest pin at random and gave it some tiny turns, just to deliver torque, then eased the pin slightly to “set the pin” and hit the note hard, to deliver a cast-iron tuning, feeling it in the hand through the lever. Then he sat down and played a few chords, listening to the Channon’s particular voice. Big and strongly resonant—the precision thinness of the sounding board (made from Scottish spruce) under the strings was the special Channon trademark, its trade secret. A Channon could rival a Steinway or a Bösendorfer when it came to breaking through an orchestra. Where the spruce forests were in Scotland that Channon used, what trees were selected—the straighter the tree, the straighter the grain—and what sawmills prepared the timber, were facts known only to a handful of people in the firm. Channon claimed that it was the quality of the Scottish wood they used that made their pianos’ distinct, unique tone.
Brodie’s feigning over, he sat down and started to play “The Skye Boat Song” and saw that the single spectator had now been joined by three others. If he played for half an hour he knew there would be a crowd of twenty looking on. It was a good idea, the Continental idea. Perhaps, out of that twenty, two might enquire about the price of a baby grand or an upright. He stopped playing, took out his plectrum, reached into the piano and twanged a few strings, listening intently. What would that look like to anyone? A man with a plectrum playing a grand piano like a guitar. All very mysterious—
He looked round. Emmeline Grant, Mr. Channon’s secretary, stood at the window’s framing edge, beckoning at him. She was a small burly woman who tried to disguise how fond she was of him.
“I’m in full tune, Mrs. Grant.”
“Mr. Channon wants to see you. Right away. Come along now.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.”
He stood, thought about closing the piano down but decided against it. He’d be back in ten minutes. He gave a deep bow to his small audience and followed Mrs. Grant through the showroom, with its parked, glossy pianos, and into the main hall of the Channon building. Austere unsmiling portraits of previous generations of Channons hung on olive and charcoal-grey striped wallpaper. Another mistake, Brodie thought: it was like a provincial art gallery or a funeral parlour.
“Give me two minutes, Mrs. G. I have to wash my hands.”
“Hurry along. I’ll see you upstairs. It’s important.”
Brodie went through the back, through a leather, brass-studded door into the warehouse area where the workshop was located. It was a cross between a carpentry shop and an office, he always thought, the air seasoned with the smell of wood shavings, glue and resin. He pushed open the door and found his number two, Lachlan Hood, at work replacing the centre pins on a baby grand—a long job, there were hundreds of them.
Lachlan glanced at him as he came in.
“What’s going on, Brodie? Should you no be in the window?”
“I’m wanted. Mr. Channon.”
He slid up his roll-top desk and opened the drawer where he kept his tin of tobacco. “Margarita” was the brand name: an American blend of Virginia, Turkish and perique tobacco, made by a tobacconist called Blakely in New York City and to be found in only one retailer in Edinburgh—Hoskings, in the Grassmarket. He took one of the three cigarettes he had already rolled and lit it, inhaling deeply.
“Austere unsmiling portraits of previous generations of Channons hung on olive and charcoal-grey striped wallpaper. Another mistake, Brodie thought: it was like a provincial art gallery or a funeral parlour.”
“What’s he want you for?” Lachlan asked.
“I don’t know. Darling Emmeline says it’s ‘important.’”
“Well, it was nice knowing youse. I suppose I’ll get your job, the now.”
Lachlan was from Dundee and had a strong Dundonian accent. Brodie made the sign of the evil eye at him, took two more puffs, stubbed out his cigarette and headed for Ainsley Channon’s office.
Ainsley Channon was the sixth Channon to head the firm since it had been established in the mid-eighteenth century. On the landing was a 1783 Channon five-octave spinet—the first Channon model to be a true success and which began the firm’s fortunes. Now it was the fourth-largest piano manufacturer, some said the third, in Britain, after Broadwood, Pate and—possibly—Franklin. And, as if to confirm the length of this lineage, Ainsley Channon dressed in a style that had been fashionable half a century before. He wore luxuriant Dundreary whiskers and a stiff wing collar with silk cravat and pin. His receding grey hair hung down long behind his ears, almost touching his shoulders. He looked like an old musician, like a stout Paganini. Brodie knew he couldn’t play a note.
Brodie gave a one-knuckle knock and pushed open the door.
“Come away in, Brodie. Brodie, my boy. Sit ye down, sit ye down.”
The room was large and gloomy—the gas lamps lit even though it was morning—with three tall, twelve-paned windows looking out over George Street. Brodie could make out the high, thin spire of St. Andrew’s and St. George’s West Church through the still-falling smear of misty rain.
Ainsley stepped round from behind his partners’ desk and pulled up a chair for Brodie, patting its leather seat.
Brodie sat down on it. Ainsley smiled at him as if he hadn’t seen him for years, taking him in.
“You’ll have a dram.”
It was a statement, not a question and Brodie didn’t bother to reply. Ainsley went to a table with a clustered, light-winking collection of decanters, selected one and poured two generous glasses, bringing Brodie’s over to him before taking his place behind his desk again.
“Here’s how,” Ainsley said and raised his glass.
“Slangevar,” Brodie replied and sipped at his amber whisky. Malt, peaty, West Coast.
Ainsley held up a puce cardboard dossier and waved it at him.
“The Brodie Moncur file,” he said.
For some reason Brodie felt a little heart-jig of worry. He calmed it with another sip of whisky.
Ainsley Channon had a somewhat dreamy and disconnected air about him, Brodie knew, and so was not surprised at the meandering path the meeting took.
“How long have you been with us, Brodie? It’ll be about three years now, yes?”
“Actually six, sir.”
“Good God, good God, good God.” He paused and smiled, taking this in. “How’s your father?”
“And your siblings?”
“All fit and well.”
“Have you seen Lady Dalcastle recently?”
“Not for a while.”
“Wonderful woman. Wonderful woman. Very brave.”
“I believe she’s very well, also.”
Ainsley Channon was a cousin of Lady Dalcastle, who had been a close friend of Brodie’s late mother. It was through Lady Dalcastle’s good offices that Brodie had been taken on by Channon’s as an apprentice tuner.
Ainsley was looking at his dossier again.
“Aye. You’re a clever boy, right enough. Very good grades . . .” He looked up. “Do you parley-voo?”
“Speakee zee French? Ooh la-la. Bonjour monsieur.”
“Well, I studied French at school.”
“Give us a wee whirl.”
Brodie thought for a moment.
“Je peux parler français,” he said. “Mais je fais les erreurs. Quand même, les gens me comprennent bien.”
Ainsley looked at him in astonishment.
“That’s incredible! The accent! I’d have sworn blind you were a Frenchie.”
“Thank you, sir. Merci mille fois.”
“Good God above. How old are you now, Brodie? Thirty? Thirty-two?”
“I’m twenty-four, sir.”
“Christ alive! How long have you been with us? Three years, now?”
“Six,” Brodie repeated. “I was apprenticed to old Mr. Lanhire, back in ’88.”
“Oh, yes, right enough. Findlay Lanhire. God rest him. The best tuner ever. Ever. The very best. Ever. He designed the Phoenix, you know.”
The Phoenix was Channon’s bestselling upright. Brodie had tuned hundreds over his six years.
“I learned everything from Mr. Lanhire.”
Ainsley leaned forward and peered at him.
“Only twenty-four? You’ve an old head on your shoulders, Brodie.”
“I came here straight from school.”
Ainsley looked at the dossier.
“What school was that?”
“Mrs. Maskelyne’s Academy of Music.”
“Where’s that? London?”
“Here in Edinburgh, sir.”
Ainsley was still computing numbers in his head.
“ ’88, you say?”
“September 1888. That’s when I started at Channon’s.”
“Well, we’ve got a Channon challenge for you now . . .” He paused.
“Top us up, Brodie.”
Brodie fetched the decanter and topped up their two glasses and sat down again. Ainsley Channon was staring at him over his steepled fingers. Again, Brodie felt vague unease. He sipped whisky.
“You know we opened that Channon showroom in Paris, last year . . .” Ainsley said.
Brodie admitted that he did.
“Ainsley Channon dressed in a style that had been fashionable half a century before. He wore luxuriant Dundreary whiskers and a stiff wing collar with silk cravat and pin. His receding grey hair hung down long behind his ears, almost touching his shoulders. He looked like an old musician, like a stout Paganini. Brodie knew he couldn’t play a note.”
“Well, it’s not going well,” Ainsley confided, lowering his voice as if someone might overhear. “In fact it’s going very badly, between ourselves.” He explained further. Ainsley’s son, Calder Channon, had been appointed manager in Paris and although everything was in reasonable shape, seemed well set up, contacts made, stock warehoused, regular advertisements in the Parisian press placed, they were losing money—not worryingly—but at a steady, unignorable rate.
“We need an injection of new energy,” Ainsley said. “We need someone who understands the piano business. We need someone with bright ideas . . .” He paused theatrically. “And we need someone who can speak French. Calder seems incapable.”
Brodie decided not to confess how rudimentary his grasp of the French language was and let Ainsley continue.
“Here’s the plan, Brodie, my boy.”
Brodie was to go to Paris as soon as possible—in a week, say, once his affairs were in order—and become Calder Channon’s number two. Assistant manager of the Paris showroom. There was only one thing to have on his mind, Ainsley said: sales, sales, sales—and more sales.
“Do you know how many major piano manufacturers there are in Europe? Go on, have a guess.”
“Two hundred and fifty-five, at the last count! That’s who we’re competing with. Our pianos are wonderful but nobody’s buying them in Paris—well, not enough of them, anyway. They’re buying trash like Montcalms, Angelems, Maugeners, Pontenegros. They’re even starting to make pianos in Japan! Can you believe it? It’s a fiercely contested market. Excellence isn’t enough. It’s got to change, Brodie. And something tells me you’re the man for the job—you know pianos inside out and you’re a world-class tuner. And you speak fluent French. Good God above! Calder needs someone like you. Stupid old fool that I am for not realizing this.” He sat back and took a gulp of his whisky, pondering. “Calder was too confident—overconfident, I now see. He needs someone at his side, help steer the ship, if you know what I mean . . .”
“I understand, sir. But, if the language is a problem, why not employ a Frenchman?”
“Sweet Jesus, no! Are you losing your reason? We’ve got to have one of our own. Someone you can trust absolutely. Member of the family, as it were.”
“Can you do it, laddie?”
“I can certainly try, sir.”
“Try your damnedest? Try your utmost?”
Ainsley seemed suddenly cheered and assured him he’d have a significant increase in salary, and his position—and his salary—would be reviewed in six months, depending on results.
Ainsley came round from behind his desk and poured them two more drams, the better to toast the new Parisian enterprise. They clinked glasses, drank.
“We’ll meet again, afore you go, Brodie. I’ve a couple of wee tips that might be useful.” He took Brodie’s glass from him and set it on the desk. The meeting was over. As he showed Brodie to the door he squeezed his elbow, hard.
“Calder’s a good boy but he could do with a staunch lieutenant.”
“I’ll do my best, Mr. Channon. Rely on me.”
“That I will. It’s a great opportunity for us. Paris is the centre for music, these days. Not London, not Rome, or Berlin. Apart from Vienna, of course. But we could be number one in Europe—see them all off: Steinway, Broadwood, Erard, Bösendorfer, Schiedmayer. You’ll see.”
Back in the workshop Brodie smoked another cigarette, thinking hard. He should be pleased, he knew, incredibly pleased—but something was bothering him, something indeterminate, naggingly vague. Was it Paris, the fact that he’d never been there, never been abroad? No, that excited him: to live, to work in Paris, that would be—Lachlan Hood sauntered in from the shop.
“Not for long,” Brodie said.
“I knew it. Tough luck, Brodie. Hard cheese, old pal.”
“No. I’m to go to Paris. Help Calder with the shop there.”
Lachlan couldn’t conceal his shock, his disappointment.
“Why you? Fuck! Why not me? I’ve been to America.”
“Mais est-ce que vous parlez français, monsieur?
“Exactly.” Brodie spread his hands, mock-ruefully. “The benefits of a good education, sonny boy. I happen to speak excellent French.”
“Liar. Fucking liar. You speak opera French.”
“All right, I admit it. The key thing is I speak enough French. Which is about one hundred per cent more French than you do.” He offered Lachlan a cigarette, and smiled patronizingly.
“If it all goes well, maybe I’ll send for you.”
From Love is Blind. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2018 by William Boyd.