An Honest Lullaby: Short fiction by Frank Joussen

Frank Joussen
It had been no more than a kind of public rehearsal, individually and in twos, for the parents and music teachers of her private musical school. There had been twenty-odd adults present and the kids themselves, of course, but as they were usually taught individually they hardly knew each other. She had played one piece together with Miss Dent, her teacher, an elderly spinster with straight hair and an intolerant stare, and one alone. All alone, alone on the makeshift stage, alone in the only functioning spotlight, alone with her mistakes, the abrupt ending half-way through.

Now it was after dark and she was missing. Pauline was a bit of a tomboy, keen on being outdoors, so her dad hadn´t worried all that much. Now he did and had a bad conscience because his wife Mary was at a seminar far away and he hadn´t even told her about the disaster. – What is more, he and Mary had quarrelled a bit over ‘his little’ girl – the gist being that his wife had told him time and again that Pauline was not so little any more and that he should finally acknowledge that or she would give up on him. But little or not, he knew for sure that now he was called upon to look after their daughter, and that´s exactly what he intended to do.

He found her soon enough. She was his daughter after all, a tomboy and a bit of a loner sometimes. Where had he gone to get a break? Into his tree house. She didn´t have one, his wife had objected, but she did have a favourite tree, with branches as big and strong as the trunks of an elephant. You could sit, read, even sleep on these branches. You could also cry on them unmolested, and he thought that was what she had done. If she had, she had stopped meanwhile and composed herself.

“What have you been doing all this time?”

No reply.

“Moping, I guess. Well, that´s understandable, but no solution.”

“No, I´ve been climbing, and sitting here, most of the time.”

“Climbing, aha. Well, that´s something, I guess.”

He wondered how high she had climbed and what thoughts had crossed her mind climbing so high and feeling so low.

“Do you need help to come down?”


He would have liked to let her jump into his arms, as she´d done so many times when she was little. Wasn´t she a tiny wee bit little any more, at barely eleven, he wondered.

He spoilt her with hot dogs, hot chocolate – she´d declined politely to have a hot bath – and TV till ten. A big exception to the rules, even for a Friday night, but Miss Dent´s reaction to Pauline´s unlucky performance warranted big exceptions, he was sure.

Tugged up in bed, in the warm light of her small reading lamp, he finally found the courage to talk to her, “still sore because of this afternoon at Miss Dent´s school?”

“Sort of.”

“I would be, too, you know. You´re just a beginner – so what did that woman expect? She´s got great ambitions for herself and always wants you kids to put on a marvellous show for her own benefit. - It wasn´t your fault.”

“But it was, dad, let´s be honest.”

“The second piece was much too difficult for you. And in front of an audience …”

“It doesn´t matter, I wanted to play that piece. I wanted it to sound perfect!”


“Yes, perfect!”

“OK, let me tell you a little story about perfection.”

“Please, dad, not another of your goodnight, all´s-well- bedside stories!”

“No, promise! It´s rather a story about how long it takes to reach perfection, if ever. Actually, it´s a real-life story, taken from history itself. You´ve got history at school now, haven´t you?”

“You know I have!”

“Well, then. You know I like reading up on famous people´s lives.”

“I know, dad. It´s called ‘biographies.’ Boring stuff!”

“For me it´s not boring. You know I´m not musical myself. Not like you – and mum. But when I read about a famous musician´s life I feel I can understand him better. Anyway, I´ve read this book about Beethoven. You do like Beethoven, don´t you?”

“Dad! He´s the greatest! But what has that got to do with …”

“Wait a little. Beethoven was the greatest, as you say, but he was also a really lonely man towards the end of his life.”

“Yes, but not because he wasn´t a genius. Only because he was deaf!”

“Only because he was deaf? Can you imagine what it´s like being a composer and being stone deaf?”

“No, that´s right. But Miss Dent said he could hear the music inside his head, so it was all right, I guess. I mean, he did compose the Ninth Symphony at the end of his life!”

“Exactly!” He turned away so that she could not see his triumphant smile.

“He was not only deaf when he wrote it, he was of course also stone deaf when he went to the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. And do you know what happened?”

“People just loved it. It became the most famous symphony of all. Its ‘Ode to Joy’ …”

“Yes, yes. But I mean, do you know what happened to Beethoven at that premiere?”

“No.” She sat up straight again in her bed. “Tell me!”

“You see, he couldn´t hear the music, he couldn´t hear the words of the ‘Ode to Joy’.

Witnesses reported that he hung on the singers´ lips. He had it in his head, you´re right, but he longed so much to actually hear especially the words, the music of the ‘Ode to Joy’. And you know why?”

“It´s the highlight of the symphony. It was the first time that a symphony ended on a chorus.”

“Yes, yes. But that´s not the point. You know that Friedrich Schiller wrote the text of ‘Ode to Joy’. It was published as far back as 1786.”

“But what has that got to do with Beethoven´s feelings at the premiere?”

“The premiere was in 1824. The poem was written in 1786. Thirty-eight years between these two dates. Thirty-eight, that´s exactly how old your mum will be next week!”

She nodded solemnly. It seemed to be a real burden for an eleven-year- old to have ‘ageing’ parents.

“And ever since he read the poem, Beethoven had planned, had worked on setting it to music! And now he´d done it, to the utmost perfection. Wasn´t that what we were talking about – perfection!”

“Yes, and he couldn´t even hear it, dad. That´s unfair, that´s cruel!”

“In a way it was. But he could feel it, he could feel every single note and what had been in his heart for so long was finally being heard by everyone!”

“But …”

“But he didn´t even hear the applause, or so it´s reported. At the very end, one of the singers came and gently turned him around, so that he could see people clapping, people applauding him with tears of joy in their eyes!”

They both swallowed hard.

“Dad, do you think he was happy despite his being deaf then?”

“I´m sure he was. I´m sure he went to bed a happy man. And even all these nights before, when he felt lonely, an outsider, a rejected genius, I think whenever he thought of his big ambition to complete this symphony, and especially the ‘Ode to Joy’, I imagine he could feel a fraction of that happiness to come.”

“So, you mean to say, he didn´t give up his dreams despite the obstacles, right?”

“Yes. I mean, Beethoven´s dream lasted the better part of his life. You can follow so many dreams. You can also …”

“But I want to play classical music.”

“OK, then.”

“OK,” she gave him a rather mischievous smile, “for starters, I´m going to fetch the violin out of the tree tomorrow.” She turned dead serious all of a sudden, “do you think it´ll rain tonight?”

“No, dear, no rain. No rain at all.”