Quartet for Two Generations
A Tribute to TwoSet
Winnie and her friends were waiting for the bus, talking idly about the new kid in class, when Jeannie burst out, “Where’s your violin?”
“Oh, no . . .” Winnie looked down the street, hoping not to see the bus. “Try to get him to wait!” She ran off.
“That’s the third time this term she’s forgotten her violin.”
“Are you counting the time her mum drove her to school and she left it in the car?”
“What about the time she left it in the rehearsal hall and we had to beg and plead with the janitor?”
“Five. I bet she gets to ten before winter break.”
It was no use. By the time Winnie returned, panting, with her violin, the bus had come and gone. Instead the new kid was standing there, looking forlorn.
“We’ve missed the bus,” said Winnie. “We’ll have to walk. Do you know the way?”
Jack pointed vaguely in the direction of the hills. “Somewhere there, I think.” He told her the address.
“Oh, that’s not far from my house. I’ll walk with you.”
They set off together.
“Are you in orchestra? I saw you talking to the teacher.”
“Yeah. He got me the music so I can start practicing as soon as I get my cello.”
“Cool. I’m in the first violins.” She waved her violin case to illustrate. “Where’s your cello?”
“It’s at the luthier’s.”
“Oh, no! What’s wrong with it?” She said this with exactly the tone of voice you’d use if you heard your best friend was in the hospital.
“Nothing. We just moved here from Perth and my mum decided this is a good time to get me a new cello.”
The cello had been something awfully close to a bribe—his mum’s attempt to reconcile him to leaving all his friends and losing his hard-won place in Youth Orchestra. But it would have been time for a new instrument anyway, after last year’s growth spurt.
“Is she a musician? Is that why you moved?”
“No, she wanted to be closer to my Gonggong. I mean, my—”
“I know what you mean. I have a Gonggong too.” Winnie stopped herself from rolling her eyes in exasperation. “My family’s the opposite, though. He moved back from Sydney last year to be closer to my mum. At least she says that was why. We hardly ever see him.”
As they approached Winnie’s house they heard music.
“Oh, my mum’s home. I thought she had rehearsal.”
“Is she a—“ He was going to say, as Winnie had a minute ago, Is she a musician? But just then he noticed the names on the mailbox—F. Kim and C. H. Chen—and cut himself off. “Is your mum Carolyn Chen?”
“She is. How did you know that?”
“I’m an orchestra nerd.”
Winnie grinned. “So am I. But I don’t think I could name a principal viola if it wasn’t my mum.” She stopped. “I’ll introduce you some time, but I don’t want to interrupt her practicing.” She gave him directions to his house, a few blocks further along.
At dinner, Jack’s mum broke off in the middle of describing the medical director’s quirks. “I almost forgot. Grawert’s called. Your cello won’t be ready until Friday. We may not be able to pick it up until Saturday, unless your father gets off early.”
Jack bit his tongue to hold back all the things he could have said. Out loud he only said, “OK. I guess.”
“Since you’re stuck at home, can you check up on your grandfather tomorrow? I’m on call until late.”
Jack visits his grandfather
Walking up, he heard music again, as he had yesterday at Winnie’s house. But this wasn’t anything near as good. He remembered his mother saying that Gonggong still took a few students, mostly the children or grandchildren of old friends. This had to be a grandchild. The music stopped and started, repeated one phrase, another, and then there was a pause. When it started up again, it was obviously the teacher.
He waited outside, torn between listening and trying not to eavesdrop. After a few minutes the door opened, and a kid younger than Jack came out, looking exhausted.
“Is he a mean teacher?” he asked curiously.
“No. He just gets sad. And then you feel like you have to do better to make him happy.”
The kid went on his way, and Jack went up to the door.
“Mum said she’s on call, so she asked me to visit.”
“Your mum thinks I’m decrepit and helpless.”
“Sometimes she thinks I’m helpless. She forgets I’m fourteen.”
“And you play the cello.” Gonggong looked around as if expecting a cello to materialize behind Jack.
“I couldn’t bring it. It’s still with the luthier.”
They talked in a desultory way about orchestra, Jack’s musical favorites, his plans for the year.
“It must have been hard to move. Is the school orchestra any good?”
“Some of it is. There’s this one girl, Winnie, in the first violins. She’s in my year but she’s already fourth chair.”
Gonggong studied Jack’s face and then looked off into the distance, thinking. “I think it is time to teach you a secret I learned from Ray Chen.” He went over to the shelves and started looking through a jumble of sheet music.
Jack sat back, half-watching his grandfather, before what he’d said caught up with him. “Did you mean THE Ray Chen?” He knew his grandather had been a professional musician, but he’d never thought about him knowing famous people. Ray Chen was one of the most celebrated of what Jack’s mother called Old School violinists: hopelessly old-fashioned in some ways, but still influential.
“I haven’t seen him face to face in years, but we used to know him pretty well. And Hilary Hahn, and Maxim— No, I guess he was before your time.” He paused. “Oh, we’ve known Chloe Chua since she was a few years younger than your age.”
He came back with an armful of music and spread it out on the table, pushing aside the clutter. “Violin and cello duets. Does anything look good?”
“You want to play a duet with me?”
Gonggong shook his head. “Silly boy. You pick a few pieces, go up to your cute violinist, and ask if she’s interested in chamber music. It never fails. Ray said so, and he was right.” As Jack started riffling through the music, he added, “If you’re afraid it’s too obvious, you could try a piano trio instead. Then you have a chaperone.”
“Is that how you got together with Laolao?” he asked daringly. The room was dominated by a piano that must have been his grandmother’s.
“It’s how she got together with us. She asked if we needed an accompanist, and a year later we did.”
As he was leaving, Jack worked up the nerve to ask, “Why does everything say 40?” Posters, ornaments—there was even a 40-shaped lamp.
“How many hours a day do you practice?”
“Ohhh. Mum says that. I never knew where she got it.”
“Let that be a lesson to you. Your mum never practiced more than thirty-nine hours a day. So she had to become a doctor instead.”
At dinner, Jack’s mum asked about his visit. Jack could only say, “He misses Laolao.”
“Did he talk about her?”
“No. But when we talked about music and stuff, he kept saying we. And sometimes it was like he got mixed up and said we if he meant just himself. Like, he said she was our accompanist.”
Jack’s parents exchanged looks. His father said, “I don’t think he was thinking of your grandmother.” It looked as if he wanted to say more, but his mother shook her head firmly. “He wouldn’t want us to talk about it.”
Winnie’s family obligation
It had been a tiring day, one of those days when your violin simply doesn’t do what you want it to do. It didn’t help when Winnie’s mother walked in the door and greeted her with, “Your grandfather wants you to come see him.”
“As soon as possible. And bring your violin.”
“What? Why?” Gonggong had never said anything about her violin, or even about music at all. Then again, she could only remember meeting him two or three times since he moved back to Brisbane.
Winnie’s mother looked uncomfortable. “It’s better to hear it from him.”
“OK then. I’ll go some time next week.”
“Before your birthday.”
“I won’t have time.“ Winnie didn’t exactly dislike her grandfather; he was just, well, boring. ”I’ve got two new pieces to learn, and I—”
Winnie sighed. When her mother invoked her full name, it was no use arguing. “OK. I’ll go on Saturday.”
“I can’t. I really can’t. I told Jack I’d show him how to get to Grawert’s on the bus so he can pick up his cello a day sooner.” This was probably the only excuse that would have carried weight with her mother. Your instrument always came first.
Winnie and Jack at the luthier
When Jack and his mother picked out the cello, they had been helped by an older man. This time there was only a younger man in the shop.
“Are you ‘And Son’?” Jack asked cheekily
“No, I’m— Yeah, I guess I am. I started out as ‘And Grandson’, but we never changed the sign. And after my grandfather died I suppose I am ‘And Son’.”
“I remember that,” said Winnie. “It was the first funeral I went to.”
“Oh, right, you’re Carolyn’s daughter. Your grandfather was here last week.”
“My grandfather? What for?”
“He said you have a birthday coming up,” the luthier said elliptically.
Winnie was puzzled, but shrugged it off. Maybe he was getting her a gift certificate. You could never have too many spare strings. Maybe even a new bridge?
The luthier stepped into the back room and brought out a cello, handing it carefully to Jack. “I think you’ll be happy with the restoration. It was always a beautiful instrument.” To Winnie he added, “You may have heard it before. It belonged to the symphony’s principal cellist until she had to give up playing.”
Winnie nodded; she did remember a petite woman from a few seasons ago. “Is it seven-eighths?”
Jack made a wry face. “I had to promise my parents I’ll never grow another centimetre. We were looking at full-size cellos but as soon as I tried this one I . . .” He trailed away, embarrassed, and then decided to come clean. “I just fell in love with it.” Jack took the bow hungrily. He hadn’t been able to play in over a week.
Half an hour later, as they were leaving the shop, Winnie turned to Jack. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Anything,” he said enthusiastically. He had his cello, he had his cello, he had his cello, life was wonderful.
Winnie visits her grandfather
Winnie’s mother didn’t need to know that she had talked Jack into a bargain. In exchange for taking him to the luthier, he would go with her to her grandfather’s house the next day.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like it here,” he confessed as they approached the door. No need to repeat what everyone, including his parents, had said: Don’t worry. Brisbane isn’t like the rest of Queensland. “But this is the fourth time I've walked up to a house and heard music.”
“At least this time it isn’t live. Gonggong isn’t a musician.”
“It’s a good recording.” He stopped to listen. “Is that Debussy?”
“I think so. I wonder if it’s something he worked on? Mum says he used to be a recording engi— Ouch.”
Listening, Jack made a face. “I guess it isn’t a recording after all.” What he’d first heard as a strong tremolo was now obviously shaky bow.
The music, such as it was, stopped when Winnie rang the doorbell. A moment later, her grandfather let them in. There was no one else there.
After introductions, he asked hesitantly if they would like some bubble tea. “I just made it.”
Winnie gulped and said hastily, “No thanks.” To her surprise, Jack said “Yes, please”, sounding as if he meant it.
When Gonggong stepped into the kitchen, she lowered her voice to apologize. “I’m sorry. I should have warned you.”
“Why? Is his tea really bad?”
“Are you kidding? It’s like drinking snot.”
Jack laughed. “I think it’s fun. My Gonggong makes it too. I’ve never had it before.”
Gonggong came back with tea for himself and Jack. But instead of sitting down, he turned to Winnie and said uncomfortably, “Did your mother tell you why I asked you to come see me?”
“No. She said . . .” What had mum said? “She said I should hear it from you.”
“She hasn’t forgiven me. Well.” He turned around and picked up the violin lying on a table behind him. “You’re old enough for a good instrument. If you want it. I’ll never be able to play again.”
Winnie blinked as it all fell together. “That was you? Mum never said you were a musician.”
“She might not remember. She was pretty young when I . . . lost it. As you heard. I hoped for years it would come back, but it never did.” He held out the violin to Winnie and she took it carefully. Looking to her grandfather for approval, she tried a few phrases. Yes, it was the violin she and Jack had heard.
“Can I see it?” Jack took the violin respectfully and looked at it. And then, while Winnie watched in confusion, he carried it to the window and peered inside.
“I thought so!” He smiled happily as he brought the violin back to Winnie. “It’s my Gonggong’s brother! His violin’s brother, I mean. It’s two years older in violin years. His is number 160.”
Winnie’s grandfather sat down slowly. “One hundred sixty. Then your Gonggong is Brett Yang.”
“Yeah, he is.” Jack remembered belatedly that Winnie had said her grandfather moved back to Brisbane recently. “Do you know him?”
“Oh, yes. Yes. We used to be as close as brothers.”
Winnie had it out with her mother that evening, after she came home from the Symphony concert.
“You never told me Gonggong played the violin.”
“Did you never wonder how I came to the viola?”
“Why would I? Everyone gravitates to their own instrument.” This was not the time or place for viola jokes, or for unkind cracks about not wanting to be second fiddle the rest of your life. Besides, Mum really was good. “I know you started out on violin, but doesn’t everyone?”
Mum shook her head. “It was all tied up with my father. When he left, I couldn’t bear to look at a violin. I even—” Unexpectedly, she laughed. “I first tried switching to trumpet, because it was the most different instrument I could think of. But I just didn’t have the lip. Then for a year or so I thought I would play flute instead, but that didn’t work out either. I had a huge fight with my mum—your Laolao—because I wanted to play the harp and she said we couldn’t afford it. You can’t just walk into a shop and rent one.” She sighed. “Looking back now, I think my father would have paid for it if she had asked, but she was too proud.”
Winnie nodded. Up until she died, a few years ago, the kindest way to describe her grandmother would have been resolute.
Mum abruptly cheered up, looking at her viola case. “And then the music teacher begged me to take on the viola, because the school had one just sitting around that was too big for most kids. He knew I’d played violin before, and I’d just had a growth spurt. —And the rest is history. Now go to bed.”
“All the same. I don’t want to give your Halmoni and the rest of your father’s family any excuse to say I’m not looking after you.”
For the last few years, Winnie had had two birthday celebrations: a proper party with her friends on a weekend, and a more formal gathering with family on her actual birthday. That meant, in practice, everyone from her father’s large extended family—and, representing the other side, her mother and one grandparent. In years past, it had been her grandmother. This year, for the first time, it would be her grandfather.
Normally there would be nobody Winnie’s age at the family function, barring the occasional cousin. This year she had asked Jack to come—and bring his grandfather. Neither of them could be sure if it would be a good idea, or a disaster.
They watched as the two old men, Winnie’s Gonggong and Jack’s, approached each other.
There was an awkward pause before both men said, “It’s been too long.”