Congratulations to Hannah Retallick who has been shortlisted in the International Writing Competition for this year's Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. Her story is one of twelve, chosen from over 200 entries, and she has been invited to read excerpts at the awards ceremony which will be hosted by Ian Rankin in Glasgow on May 22nd. We wish Hannah the best of luck!
by Hannah Retallick
We sat on the front row. Who was this Greatest Cellist? I flicked through the Beaumaris Festival brochure until I found the name. I pointed at the words and asked Mum how.
‘Jacqueline du Pré,’ she said. And again, slowly, letting me hear the foreign sounds. ‘du Pré.’
I nodded, my lips and tongue trying it out, silently. My brothers were the other side of me, dressed in shirts and smart black trousers, heads already in their red notebooks. Mum bought them for us so we could take notes at the Festival, or doodle if we began to fidget. I always stuck the tickets in mine and wrote the talk title and description in tiny neat writing. Sometimes I drew the speaker.
We clapped as she walked out from behind the curtain, across the stage-less floor, and past the projector screen. She had grey waves around her face, a checked shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn trainers. Hilary.
How strange to give a talk about your own sister! I couldn’t imagine David and Jonathan doing that for me. And what would they talk about? Would I ever be a Greatest Something? A Greatest Writer? A Greatest Pianist? A Greatest…what?
As Hilary introduced herself, I glanced down at Jacqueline. Strawberry blonde, with pale blue eyes that almost disappeared into the whites, looking with soft focus as though she was in another place entirely, hand resting unnaturally on her temple, around the cello’s fingerboard. Silent.
Hilary walked back and forth, hands clasping and opening. She spoke about the person in the shiny picture. The person who could no longer speak for herself. She called her Jackie. How can the Greatest Cellist be called Jackie?
Two sisters. How different it could have been if multiple sclerosis hadn’t stolen Jacqueline at forty-two. Maybe they would have been here together. The cellist and the flautist. Now, one was on the screen, in black and white; one was watching with us.
Jacqueline du Pré began to play.
My hands tingled. The feeling ran up both my arms and down through my body until it reached my feet. Had somebody opened the fire door? No, there was no breeze, no movement from the audience. It was her. Woman and cello, two halves of a soul, inseparable. Elgar and du Pré, a perfect union. She could speak after all.
After washing my hands, ripping off my shoes and throwing them onto the full shoe rack, I ran to the piano. It was habit. I played the same piece as always, from memory. I had once even attempted to play it backwards. The phrase ‘I knew it back to front’ turned out to be a slight exaggeration. Nevertheless, I knew the piece well. I’d thumped the life out of it. But that day was different.
The music drew Mum away from the half-washed dishes. She peered around the doorframe, tea towel scrunched in her hand, mouth open. She told me I was playing more musically, more passionately, more like…
‘Jacqueline du Pré’.
Du Pré was a cellist, of course, not a pianist, but I knew what Mum meant. I felt it too. I smiled, turned back from the hovering tea towel, and placed my tingling hands on the ivories.
Hello, Jackie. I’m Hannah. It’s very nice to meet you.