The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind

by Mark Abley


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780889775817
Publisher: University of Regina Press
Publication date: 01/19/2019
Series: Regina Collection
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 483,529
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 6.60(h) x 1.00(d)

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A small hotel on the south coast of England, set back a few streets from the sea. My father had come to Bournemouth for sandcastle holidays as a boy, and now, at the end of an exhausting vacation with his wife and son, he may have wanted to recall or recreate some of the happier experiences of his early life. My mother didn't care for the town. I was fifteen. It was the last time my parents would take me on holiday with them. In a few weeks, I would enter my last year of high school. I was slipping away from their grasp. Or should have been.

A small hotel, constructed in the Victorian era as a home for a man of means. The property had later been converted to serve tourists. Bournemouth lingers in my mind as a blur of rock candy, congested sand, and a long walk through a fern-strewn valley beyond the shops and the brick houses. Walks with my parents were always problematic. My father liked to stride ahead, stopping only to admire the most extravagant of views. But my mother preferred to hang back, alert for any unusual tree or wildflower, keen to listen to birdsong in the wood. At such times they annoyed each other. I was an only child. I vacillated between the two of them.

The hotel was old and modest enough that it had no private bathrooms. A deep, chipped bathtub dominated a cream-painted room at one end of the hall. The toilet stood in a minuscule chamber beside. Every morning we would descend a wide flight of stairs to consume one of those "English breakfasts" — fried bacon, fried egg, fried tomato, fried potato, fried bread — that seem the quintessence of fat. My mother, who had not eaten red meat since childhood, would leave her bacon on the far side of the plate. We lubricated the toast with cups of steaming tea. It had been less than nine years since we settled in Canada, and my parents still needed tea in the morning. So did I. It would take another Saskatchewan winter before I acquired the taste for coffee.

This was our last breakfast of the trip. Where had we been in the previous few weeks? My memories are fragments, strands of displacement and desire: an evening listening to early Cat Stevens albums with a girl in Warwick; the stink of cheap cigarettes in a Woolworth's café; the sight of lapwings and curlews high over the moors near my parents' birthplace in the Welsh borderlands; the sexually provocative graffiti on a wall at Edinburgh Zoo. But I thought of myself as a Canadian. I had a few friends at home. I wanted to go back — I even felt a tinge of excitement at the prospect of the long plane trip.

We would have to board a coach from Bournemouth to Heathrow Airport. My mother, efficient as always, had packed the suitcases and organized the hand luggage. Everything was ready for our departure.

But where had he gone?

My father was in the lavatory down the corridor from my parents' room. I don't know if he and my mother had traded harsh words. They sometimes did. But they stayed together regardless, bound by need and duty and drawing on some deep, secluded pool of love. We had to leave this seaside town in less than an hour. Why was he taking so long?

My mother went to ask, and obtained no answer. My father was not an inarticulate man — he could hold forth in long, bitter monologues if he chose. But he had what my mother called "an artistic temperament," along with a talent for remaining silent. On that summer morning, silence was all that my mother received.

Her first reaction, I assume, was anger: "Don't be ridiculous! We've got a plane to catch. It's time to come out now."

Silence. Immobility.

She knocked on the door of my bedroom. Was I reading the morning's Guardian or The Lord of the Rings? My mother's skirt and blouse were as tidy as always, her lipstick applied with precision, yet she looked flustered, her manner strange, as though the fabric of her carefully woven life were at risk of unravelling. "You try. He just refuses to unlock the door. He's being impossible."

I walked down the corridor, my running shoes light against its dark red carpet, and tested the handle of the lavatory door.

"Dad, it's me. It's Mark. Please come out of there. We've got to get to the airport. We can't stay in Bournemouth forever."


"We'll be late for the bus! Come on, Dad. I want to go home."

My first home had been a semi-detached house on a busy road in Coventry, an industrial city in the English Midlands. My second home was a bungalow in Sault Ste. Marie, a few blocks away from the river dividing northern Ontario and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Most emigrants leave their native country once and for all — but not my parents. My third home was the ground-floor flat of a big house back in Coventry, where I started school. But soon we set off again, this time to the town of Lethbridge, in southern Alberta. For several months my parents rented a small apartment above a Chinese-Canadian corner store. By the time I turned seven, I had lived in six buildings. We moved on to Saskatoon a few years later. Saskatoon was where I belonged now; it had to be. In the throes of high school, I couldn't allow myself the luxury of divided loyalties. My father's concept of home was more nuanced, more complex.

Silence. My mother joined me. She spoke in her most gentle voice.

"Bunny, listen. Do listen to me. You know we have to be on our way. Bunny, the coach will be leaving soon."

Years earlier, they had abandoned the use of each other's given name in favour of private nicknames. My mother was never "Mary" on my father's lips, but always "Woggo" or "Polly Wig" or simply "Mum." Likewise, he had ceased to be "Harry" inside the family home. He called himself "Nubbo" or "Nub," the reverse of "Bun," short for "Bunny Hunch," a play on "Honey Bunch" — a term that had, after the birth of his only child, been jettisoned.

"Are you all right in there, Bunny? Do unlock the door."

Was he sitting on the toilet, was he standing up, were his trousers down, did he have a grip on the door, was his greying head in his hands? I didn't have the least idea. The grandfather clock at the end of the hall was ticking remorselessly away.

My turn. "Dad, please! Come out! This isn't funny anymore. I'm sorry if I upset you somehow, but we've got to leave!"

The world was spiralling into chaos again. This was always a danger of life in my home, life with my parents, but it was a special peril of holidays: they seemed to bring out all the latent tensions in the marriage. Driving east across the dry interior of Washington, three years earlier, my parents had argued so fiercely that they decided to seek a divorce. I slumped in the back seat of the blue Volkswagen Beetle, carsick, yearning for oblivion. By the time we made it back to Lethbridge, two motels later, some kind of reconciliation had occurred. I inferred this from the fact that my father failed to move out of our rented stucco bungalow, though nothing was said to me directly.

A summer before that, on the road from Salisbury to Winchester in southern England, my mother had so angered my father that he, the only driver in the family, stopped the rented car in what seemed, to an eleven- year-old boy, the sun-swept middle of nowhere. The battle lasted long enough for dozens of cars to speed by. It ended with my father spinning the vehicle around and driving back in the direction from which we'd come. We would not, after all, visit another of my mother's uncles. The uncle would, after all, die a year or two later. She would not, after all, forget. It would take her years to forgive.

Holidays were dangerous: I knew that. But this latest one had passed without more than a couple of my father's sudden, unpredictable blowups. Normally the mildest of men, he could explode into an aggressive rant or a burst of self-pity and vicious self-hatred that had the power to darken my entire world. I was familiar with that. But I had never known him to lock a door, remain dead silent, and refuse all pleas to venture out.

My mother's turn. "Bunny, don't be so selfish. I'm ashamed of you. I'm ashamed and upset. This is absurd — you know we have to catch that plane. It's not going to wait on the runway. We can't stay in Bournemouth any longer."

Silence. I remember an old man stepping down the hall, gazing curiously at a black-haired, middle-aged woman and a teenaged boy reasoning with a locked door. The old man's head jerked back and forth. Humiliation: the wash of it across my face and ears. My hot, reddening ears. My heartbeat pounding against my temples like the English Channel's onrushing tide.

"Look, Dad, this isn't fair. I hate it when you act like this. What do you want us to do?"

Silence. Below my black-rimmed glasses, tears were trickling down my face. But I wasn't going to let my father know. He was stubborn. He had his pride; I had my pride too.

"Bunny, how could you? How could you?"

At last my mother walked back along the corridor to their shared bedroom. Or she went down to the reception desk on the ground floor in search of help. However it happened, I was left alone in front of a door. On the other side of it, I knew, I must have had a father.

I tried again.

"Dad, I just want you to know, your music means a lot to me." I swallowed hard. "I'm proud of you. I'm really glad you're an artist ... "

At the time, I wasn't proud of him; I was embarrassed and furious. But a brilliant inspiration isn't always the whole truth.

I'm really glad you're an artist. When he heard me say those words — words I had never spoken before — my father unlocked the lavatory door and stepped into the hall. His tie was neatly fastened; his parting looked immaculate as ever, the combed-over hair just about hiding his bald spot. He gave no sign of remorse or anxiety. I was a curly-haired wreck.

I don't recall a hug, still less a kiss, but we made it onto the Heathrow coach and we caught the plane home.


Each of us walks the world in camouflage. Each of us can be a mystery to ourselves, never mind other people. I'm sure I baffled my father, just as he baffled me. He died more than two decades ago, and as the natural, necessary process of forgetting takes hold, any picture I draw of him becomes an exercise in self-portraiture. There are some things I can't forget. But there's much I struggle to remember. The work compels me to blend my own features with his.

Harry Abley had a range of identities. He was a son, a husband, a father, a devoted football fan, a migraine sufferer; a proud Canadian and a lifelong Englishman; a close friend of almost no one. At various moments, he worked as a medical records clerk for City Hospital in Saskatoon, a demonstrator of electronic organs at the Eaton's department store in Sault Ste. Marie, and an assistant to the North American zone controller in the export branch of Standard Motor Company in Coventry. (That was in the 1950s, when Britain still shipped cars across the Atlantic.) He had no affection for any of these jobs. He did them for the money.

Above all, my father was a musician. He played, he conducted, he taught; he accompanied; he composed. When I was a boy, he would sometimes appear at the dining table with a pencil behind his right ear and an abstracted look in his hazel-green eyes. After a few bites of food and a cursory exchange of words, he would excuse himself, return to the piano — the central item of furniture in each of his many homes — and play, over and over, some musical phrase. Just a few bars at a time, with tiny variations: a chord with D flat, a chord without D flat; a staccato phrase, a legato phrase; a five-note melody, a six-note melody ... Listening to him, short-sighted as I was, I thought about how my optometrist would keep toying with the refractor's glassy settings to arrive at a correct prescription. When a melody or chord had been fixed to my father's satisfaction, and he had scribbled it down on the back of a used envelope or the previous Sunday's church bulletin, he would resume his meal. My mother could be a stickler for proper manners and polite behaviour. But she tolerated these whims without complaint, knowing they were anything but whims. When my father was composing music — for choir, organ, solo voice or piano, and occasionally for other instruments too — he was happy, or something approaching it. Those were the good times, the times when nobody had to worry about his state of mind.

The piano took pride of place in his living room. He would never be at home without one. But the instrument of his life was always a walk, a bus ride, or a drive away: the pipe organ. My father had been learning the piano for four years when, as a boy of twelve, he started organ lessons. He fell in love; he remained in love. A small man with the habits of an introvert and the remnants of a boyhood stammer, he could sit down at the organ bench and fill a cavernous church with as much sound as an entire orchestra. In the Middle Ages the organ had been nicknamed the "King of Instruments," and my father relished the phrase. He was a prince while performing. The feeling of power this gave him must have been exhilarating. It compensated, no doubt, for much else.

As a teenager, Sunday after Sunday, I heard him play and watched him conduct. Pipe organs are like no other musical instrument: listeners in an audience or congregation rarely see the performer at work. The organist sits at a semi-enclosed console — a term that refers to the keyboards, pedals, and draw-knobs or "stops" on either side of the musician — usually hidden behind a pillar or screen, or placed high up in a gallery at the back of a church. There my father would use both hands to play the keyboards and both feet to play the pedalboard. On rare occasions he might push in a stop with an elbow. The mental discipline required to play a difficult piece for organ is matched only by the physical coordination. The resulting waves of sound emerge from metal or wooden pipes attached to a wall, some distance from the console. Yet to a casual listener in the pews, organ music is born independent of the performer; or so it seems.

When my father was conducting a choir, he might climb down from the organ bench and stand in the central aisle. Now the visible focus of attention, he would make no sound himself; instead he would use his hands and arms to shape the sounds produced by other people. In style, his conducting was precise and undemonstrative. He disliked conductors who flung their arms around, and he admired Sir Thomas Beecham, the founder of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, for his ability to direct musicians with a single finger. The robes my father wore in church lent him a certain stature; they emphasized the critical role he believed music should hold in worship.

His profession sent the calendar topsy-turvy. He held choir practices and gave private music lessons on weeknights and Saturdays; the office hours that other people kept were a time for him to practise the organ, learn new pieces, and plan the music for services to come. Sunday was the height of his week, its morning worship the climax and justification of the six preceding days. And to my father, what justified a service was its music. At lunch afterwards, he would seldom mention the sermon — while the priest or minister was holding forth in the pulpit, my father liked to shut his eyes and allow his mind to wander — but he welcomed comments about the prelude, the hymns, the psalm, the anthem, the improvisations, the postlude.

Music showed him a way to God. I suppose it would be an exaggeration to say that for him, music was God; perhaps, though, his God was a heavenly version of Johann Sebastian Bach, a divine artist able to create structures of such transparent beauty and intricate complexity that the cosmos would ring out in harmony. In each of their homes my mother placed a crucifix on the living room wall, and my father hung a portrait of Bach on the wall above his desk. Music ruled his life.

It did not rule mine, and therefore his was a life I could not fully enter. I never took an organ lesson; maybe he was waiting for me to ask, maybe I was waiting for him. More likely, he needed to maintain a private space away from the demands of his family, just as I needed to create an imaginative world in which my parents would not be dominant. An organ, any organ, no matter how shrill its tone or limited its range, would give him the space he craved. Not every organ held stops that allowed my father to speak with both the voix celeste and the vox humana. Yet he was a master at coaxing beauty out of unlikely vessels, making even the weakest instrument sound sweet or strong. To his wife and child, the language he lived and breathed was a foreign tongue: the language of a distant nation. The language of organists.


Excerpted from "The Organist"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Mark Abley.
Excerpted by permission of University of Regina Press.
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