Gallic Ghost Story

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
October 30, 2012

The popular notion is that any self-respecting ghost story must pack a nightmarish punch. But this, I believe, is to limit arbitrarily the emotional range of ghostly interventions. Witness the experience of one particular woman whose encounter took place in bright daylight, and whose emotions run from benign amusement, to aesthetic (and nearly sensual) delight and inspiration--with not a shock or a fright in between. The hope is that it pleases by what it offers more than it disappoints by what it lacks.

The ghost of Francis Poulenc came into my garden the other day. I was dusting roses. You have to dust roses in humid climates or you might regret it. So, at least, I'm told. I have to confess that I'm one of those persons who perform many acts out of ritual without the slightest comprehension of why or if they're necessary. But though I'm not strong on self-analysis I have taken the time to calculate the following: that reassessments of the things I do and the states of apostasy I might have to enter in their wake would demand vastly more energy and time than simply performing the rites with an empty mind. So I was dusting roses, trying my best to keep the nasty stuff off my billowing skirt, when the ghost of Francis Poulenc entered my garden and asked me if it might have a cup of tea.

"Of course," I said, naturally, without thought or hesitation. "Do you have a preference? I can offer you a choice of five teas, loose and bagged."

The ghost shook its head. "I have no preference. Thank you."

The ghost looked exactly like the photographs I'd seen of Poulenc in books and CD inserts. The only difference was that the outline of the ghost shimmered from time to time, as if an internal shiver manifested itself over the body in a more fluid way than it might have in corporal beings such as you and I. I commented upon this as I put some water on the stove.

"I hope that the tendency doesn't put you off," the ghost of Poulenc said in an ingratiating tone. "It's completely involuntary."

"Oh, no, please don't give it a second thought. It was only an observation made in the spirit of conversation." This was a remarkable situation and I found myself without much to say. Poulenc himself (for that is how I began to regard him within five or ten minutes of our meeting; rather than the ghost of same) had no such problem; he began chatting on about recent, so to speak, events in his life in an English whose only accent was visual. Only a Frenchman, only a Parisian, could smile like that. I was relieved that he spoke English; my French was limited to the titles of certain songs, some of them composed by my guest.

Tossing off the bottom third of his cup with such gusto I expected a belch to follow, Poulenc stood up and demanded I show him my piano.

"Oh, I'm a little embarrassed by the piano. It's not a good one and it's badly out of tune, I'm sure."

"Never mind that," he said with his arms outstretched as if to measure an eon of time. "I haven't played in years. Your piano shall be my excuse for a neglected technique."

And so Francis Poulenc played my piano. He played the Soiress de Nazelle, he played Improvisations. He even played the Mouvements Perpetuels, which he hated. Then he invited me to join him in a piano four-hands arrangement of the Concert Champetre. "I know it's your favorite piece of mine."

"That's true. But I don't really play."

At this he let out such a detonation of laughter that I thought whatever held together this miracle of ectoplasm must surely give way and splatter my walls and ceiling with the remains of the remains of Francis Poulenc. What would I use to clean them?

"Sit down next to me, my friend. You will know how to play." Along with the shimmer now came a glow. He wasn't a handsome man or ghost. His eyes were lidded heavily and strangely. He looked like the victim of some undefined chronic illness. Yet this marvelous boy of the Madeleine, of the very center of Paris, this boulevardier, this museum of everything Gallic, simply assumed that he was slightly more handsome than Maurice Chevalier and six times more charming. The fact of the latter made the fiction of the former absolutely convincing and when he beckoned me again to sit beside him on the bench and display a skill I didn't have I complied without a care.

But I felt silly and self-conscious raising my hands. They froze about a foot above the keyboard and I smiled a thousand apologies. Poulenc smiled too, but it was only to say, "Touch the piano, my dear. Feel the keys." He wrapped me in trust and I brought down my right hand at random. A happy meeting of three keys produced a tense, pretty, A minor chord. Then another and another and suddenly I was launched, like a spacewoman into the unknown, on a journey through a contrapuntal constellation in a dazzling galaxy the world calls Bach.

"All right, enough of that Teuton." Poulenc said when I was through. "Let's play my music."

Just then a breeze passed through the house, along with a knock on the open front door and another apparition entering the living room.

"Milhaud! My dear man!" Poulenc jumped to his feet. "I haven't seen you since '63. Just before I died! Ha!"

A heavy-jowled man in a dark suit waddled up to the piano. A frown burst into a smile. "Dammit, Francis! You died owing me money," said the specter of Darius Milhaud. It, he, seemed more substantial than Poulenc, although that may have been a trick of the eye. Was it because Milhaud had died more recently--1974--or because of his girth? Turning to me, Milhaud said, "They all died owing me money. All of them. Cocteau, Auric; and Honegger, poor man. His doctors bled him dry."

"But certainly not la Tailleferre!" exclaimed Poulenc, in mock horror.

"No, with Germaine, I died with her owing me money. And I won't even mention Durey. He became a Communist and believed mine was his as a matter of ideology."

Poulenc issued an airy whistle. "You were an easy mark, my friend."

Milhaud shook off the matter genially, as a trifle. "But you were playing. I interrupted. Please."

Poulenc and I began the opening movement of the Concert Champetre. By turns jaunty and melancholy, and concluding with a loud surprising chord, it was a Poulenc self-portrait. A monk and a rascal, a lover and a gamester, no honest emotion without a leavening joke. In death, the sybarite and the acolyte seemed to have reached an understanding.

"Well," said Milhaud, politely clapping, "Now we can truly say that the music of Poulenc is so fresh it wakes the dead. Now give me a chance with our charming friend."

Poulenc bent close to my ear. "It's still Milhaud, passionate and jealous. I must give way before there's a scene." Milhaud scowled, benevolently, and slipped into Poulenc's place as nimbly as his phantasmagoric bulk would allow. When I woke up that morning I never dreamed that by mid-day two of the giants of twentieth century French music would by vying for time at the piano with me. Ghosts they may have been, but it was enough to turn a girl's head.

"I love Francis like a brother," said Milhaud, the elder by seven years, or was it eighteen, the difference in their life spans? How did you calculate these things? "Yes," he repeated, "like a patient, indulgent frere." Poulenc rolled his eyes. "But you'll have noticed, my dear, that the boy has this tendency to put his playing partners through a swing dance. All very thrilling, but after the adrenaline, what?" Milhaud was easy, confidential. In contrast to Poulenc's mercurial charm, his appeal was reassuring and solid, despite my concern that my hands might simply pass through his if we were to collide during a difficult passage.

"We, you and I, will play, hear beyond the notes to the silences between, and time will wait for us, until we have decided we are done with embracing . . . the moment; and then and only then will we continue. A magic is there available to us as palpable as that which brought me here."

I heard a voice, far away. "Forgive him," Poulenc said. "A year in Brazil and he comes back with these insights. Once it was enough to be French."

Milhaud dismissed the heckler with a squint and a raising of the right side of his upper lip, an amused grimace. The spell was not broken. "Saudad," Milhaud said, "means longing." And our hands caressed the silences in the interstices (endlessly elastic without distortion) within his Saudades do Brasil. We played, it seemed to me, for five days.

"I feel like a voyeur," said Poulenc as the last tone died away. "And I've enjoyed it even more than usual."

Milhaud kissed my cheek. "He is, of course, a pig. But, of course, we forgive him. Thank you for sharing that with me. I haven't made love in a long time."

Graciously, and somewhat stupidly, I said, "The pleasure was mine," as if I hadn't devolved into an invertebrate jelly, as if I'd forgotten that until forty-five minutes ago I couldn't play anything but tunes picked out from The Music Man. But this was, after all, a supreme enchantment, and I a pampered demoiselle in a Provencal pleasure garden. I forgave myself.

"My friend," Poulenc said both to Milhaud and to me, "It's time for us to leave." His eyes were sad now, and serious.

"How do you know that?" Milhaud demanded. "You didn't know it was time to arrive."

"I'm beginning to feel less . . . substantial. Call it vanity, but I would not want to fall all to pieces, or become a pale shadow of myself--the process is a mystery--in front of this charming woman."

"Oh," I believe I said.

"You're right, dear boy. Death reveals all the fascinating details of deterioration one's morbid curiosity could ever desire. Been there, eh, Francis?"

"Oh," I said again.

Poulenc laid a hand softly on my cheek. "My dear, we are as rich with questions and as bereft of answers as you are. If I may speak for Darius, we hope that we share this also: as much delight in our company as we have enjoyed in yours. Is this the way out?"

"Oh . . . yes."

Poulenc smiled easily, kissed my hand and turned. Milhaud stepped up. "That is his way. A boulevardier is in love with motion. He breezes in, loves breezily, plays, converses breezily. Takes his leave in faithful imitation of the breeze. He is a good heart, but in love with motion. Look at me. Nothing of the sort could be said of this prize-winning pear."

I smiled, but I could feel the tears standing ready.

"Yes, I've been touched, too," he said. "Can you believe that? I'm still capable. That's a point of pride, I should think. Good, a smile. Now, cherie, listen here. I am floating away now, or whatever it is my nature will dictate, but think of this. Not good-bye, for do you think that in those delicate--though torrid, no?--dances that we shared, do you think nothing will be left behind? Au revoir. Visit the piano often and think of me." Milhaud kissed me on my hand and on my lips and then he turned and walked--floated?--with Poulenc out the back door and through the garden and was gone.

It was fortunate that I had only one thing on my mind as they left. Otherwise a dangerous logjam of questions might have suddenly broken free and a crazy cascade of delusional flotsam and starkly real jetsam might have unhinged me. Who is prepared for these things? Happily, only the piano occupied my thoughts. Would I be left with that much magic? Did Milhaud guess or did he know? I approached it, quietly, as if it slept, as if it were alive, and could be disturbed. I sat, thought of ghosts, thought of memories, wondered at the similarities. Both were held in suspension by an ineffable field or force. In those keys, and what they might say if I roused them, there was quite a terrible finality.

I would wait, I proposed at last. I would wait. I would hold in suspension this precious afternoon, all precious afternoons. I had, after all, roses to dust.

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