This memoir was first published in the journal :etchings, Volume 11: three chords and the truth. The other person in this memoir, Gary Williams, died last year (I have no idea whether or not he read this, though mutual friends may have shown an early draft to him). With both Nancy and Gary dead, I admit that I am tempted to write about all the things that were kept secret. But that would just be gossip and sex.
It was the year 1975; I was twenty and working as a clerk in a Brisbane government office. Often I would escape the office to wander the city streets, visit tobacconists, book shops and chat in cafés. It was in a café that I met Gary Williams, who introduced me to the social world of musicians and to Nancy Weir: pianist, exceptional teacher and inspiring eccentric.
Gary was relatively new to Brisbane, having moved to Australia to take the position of principal ’cellist at the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. He was on his ‘way up’, and explained to me that the natural progression of an orchestral musician was to leave the back rows by becoming principal in a provincial orchestra, then return to a major orchestra’s front row, at the very least.
In contrast, Nancy was on her way out, near the end of her career, but Gary’s admiration for her was without bounds, and he gossiped about her regularly: She had been a world famous pianist, had released records, soloed with the great orchestras and conductors, but had given it all up in 1954 when she left Europe and returned to Melbourne to care for her ill father. Since then her fame had shrunk from public awareness.
It meant nothing to me. Instead of being an artist, I was living a life I didn’t have the courage to leave. I loved classical music and I was excited to know someone who talked music and art, but I wasn’t a musician and I had never heard of Nancy. Gary, on the other hand, was in awe of her past, her talent and her sacrifice, so much so that he avoided introducing us for as long as he could.
It was a reasonable enough precaution, even if it only applied to Nancy—I was frustrated, aggressive, rude, loud-mouthed, arrogant, and I didn’t care what I said, who I insulted or how. Nonetheless, he took me to her house in Highgate Hill, showing me through it as though it was his own. Of course, Nancy wasn’t there; she was on a jaunt somewhere, and Gary was looking after her dog, Cully, who trotted around our feet as Gary took me from photograph to photograph. Gary used a world-weary tone to name the famous people in the photos with Nancy, no doubt hoping I wouldn’t recognise his envy that she had had the career he hoped for.
When the inevitable happened and Nancy and I met, Gary pulled me aside and admonished me with the words behave yourself, as he often did when I was meeting someone of musical importance. I was bemused because Nancy wasn’t what I expected. She was short, rather dumpy, wearing a floral dress that looked as though it belonged behind a large frilly apron. At the same time, she had a sharp mind and piercingly direct eyes. She also was prone to vagueness, when her eyes would lose focus and her mouth would open slightly until she returned, as sharp as before.
After our first meeting, Nancy and I became presences in each other’s lives without really knowing each other. Gary frequently took me with him when he visited her, just because I happened to be with him at the time, and we met at concerts, parties and on the streets until we were comfortable and happy to see each other.
The only conversation I remember from that period was when we met accidentally in the street. Nancy had just finished teaching at the conservatorium, which was at Garden’s Point at the time, and was walking into the city. She made it clear that she wasn’t happy when she answered my greeting with an acerbic: ‘You young people think we’re stupid, just because we’re older.’
‘Why? What happened?’ I asked.
‘I have this piano student, and he came to his lesson stoned today. As if you can play properly when you’re stoned!’
She paused, pursed her lips and gazed into the distance, as she often did.
‘He’d been smoking marijuana, and I told him never to come to my lessons in such a state again.’
‘And, what did he say?’
‘Well. He asked me how I knew, and I told him: I was in Alexandria during the war!’
I laughed; there was no other possible reaction. Besides, I was interested in finding out what she had done in Alexandria during the war, but when I asked her, she became evasive.
‘Oh, you know… I was in the army, er… I was… a nurse!’ she mumbled, waffling on a bit longer, but clearly, she didn’t want to talk about it. Being a nurse was an adequate answer anyway—so many people had taken unusual career paths during the war.
It was Gary who, not long after, let out the truth, laughing at the idea that Nancy had been anything but a spy. He told me to ask her about it. It was the first and only time that he didn’t launch into long and elaborate stories about what someone had done, which was how I knew he was telling the truth. A blunt little truth, which I never followed up with Nancy.Instead she and I talked about music and art.
If I had been in the music business, I would have made enough contacts for a lifetime. As it was, my main benefit was social. Some—but only some—of my rougher edges were smoothed in the process of listening and talking to the stream of visiting musicians and composers who dined at Gary’s house. When it was Gary and Nancy and I, however, the conversation was pure gossip, more often than not about who was sleeping, or trying to sleep, with whom.
The primary instigator of the gossip was Gary, whose love of sex and the salacious was unbounded; not even Nancy could avoid taking part, though it rarely was an active role. She would listen and laugh, occasionally making a comment that would further the general salaciousness and hilarity without actually participating. What stood out was that Nancy was, more or less, in charge of the conversation. All it took was a sideways glance, a grunt or a rare expression of disgust, to change the subject of the discussion. The only occasions on which this was not the case were parties, where Nancy blended in with the rest of us. This was the case at all parties I attended except one.
The party was at Gary’s and when I walked in late, as I often did, Nancy was sitting in relative quiet at the kitchen table, staring at the wall opposite. When I said hello, Nancy looked up but didn’t seem to see me.
‘Oh. And what are you up to?’ She said.
Thinking that she was drunker than drunk, I laughed and went down to the music room. It wasn’t a particularly wild party, but it was loud and intoxicated, and I knew everyone there.
At some stage Nancy came downstairs, sat at the piano and started playing. It seemed as though the room quietened. In reality, I drifted to the group around the piano, and focused my attention until she stopped playing, put her hands in her lap and called out.
‘What about the blues? Would anyone like some blues?’
She didn’t wait for a reply, though a lot of people called out yes or cheered and clapped as she improvised her way from tune to tune. Perhaps she wasn’t as drunk as I’d thought; it didn’t matter. She focused on the keyboard and her stubby fingers with knotted joints proved that she was every bit as good as Gary had said. This was what she called ‘banging away at the keyboard’ because, she said, she couldn’t really play anymore, not the way she used to. When she stopped playing, the party ground back to normal. The drinking, flirting and laughing continued and Nancy, well satisfied, rejoined the flow of the party.
I never heard Nancy play again, but our relationship went on, courtesy of our mutual friendship with Gary. We didn’t come to know each other directly, without the mediation of others, until she retired and purchased the Rialto Theatre in West End in 1983.
Not long after she’d taken over, I met her outside the theatre, fussing about posters, or something similar. She showed me around, from projection room to the dressing rooms and paraphernalia beneath and above stage and her pianos, which she tinkled on as she talked. I had friends living around the corner in Spring Street, and up the hill in and behind Dornoch Terrace. I introduced one of these friends, Gabrielle, to Nancy when we all met on the street by chance. Gabrielle was my age, an eccentric in training, and she adored Nancy immediately. Dropping in on Nancy was a part of my routine when I was in the area, and often Gabrielle would be there, pottering and laughing with her. Every time I visited, it seemed that Nancy had discovered something new about the theatre that she showed me and marvelled at with a child-like joy in which she recalled her long experience in theatres and concert halls.
This joy peaked when the Queensland Theatre Company had to move a production out of the now demolished SGIO Theatre while repairs were carried out. Much to Nancy’s delight, the QTC chose the Rialto.
‘That’s what this place was designed for, you know; it’s a theatre, a real working theatre’ she said, then took me around again, telling stories about the theatres she’d worked in, and repeating how delighted she was that the Rialto would have one more real production.
‘I mean, I love movies’ she said, holding her hands in front of herself, fingers bouncing off each other. ‘But this is a theatre…’
I made no effort to see the play, and I remember nothing about it, not even it’s name. Gabrielle and I did odd jobs and ran messages for Nancy, which included going to the pub and buying flagons of sherry, which Nancy consumed in amazing quantities. For the three of us it was a short period of intense excitement that ended all too soon.
Not long after, circumstances in my life changed and I lost contact with Nancy, though I maintained an erratic friendship with Gary, who reinstalled his habit of telling amusing stories about Nancy, many of which revolved around how absurd Nancy’s plans were. He would sigh dramatically and say‘You never know with Nancy, I think she said she was going to run a fish and chip shop… She wants to buy a church… she…’
A few years later, when my addled life became a little clearer, I asked Gary how Nancy was and how I could get in touch with her, only to be told that she had gone north to Mackay and died. The truth that she was alive and well; that she lived until 2008, was something I didn’t discover until 2011 when I found myself talking about the past with John Harrison, an old acquaintance whom I knew through Gary.
John was in town for an exhibition of his visual art, and I was quite excited to see him after some twenty years and to talk about people we had known long ago. It was he who told me that Gary had, inexplicably, lied about Nancy’s death.
I’d known for some time that Gary had lied to me about many things, that he’d actively spoken against me behind my back, so I wasn’t surprised, though John said that it was about that time that Gary became ill and erratic. Perhaps that explained it, but it made no difference to the way Nancy had impressed herself on me.I had thought and talked about her regularly, as though she had still been alive. She had been an ongoing presence in my life, since one particular night on the way back to the Rialto.
Nancy, Gabrielle and I had been at a party up the hill at the far end of Dornoch Terrace, and the three of us were walking home. I can’t remember whose party we had been at, but we were drunk and happy. We had turned the corner into Hardgrave Road. It was well after midnight, the sky was clear, the air crisp, there was no traffic, and I said I felt like dancing in the street. Nancy responded that she’d do it herself, if she could. And then she said: ‘Don’t just talk about it. If you want to do it, then do it.’
And so I twirled and leapt down the middle of the road while Nancy and Gabrielle laughed and cheered me on until I tripped and lay spread-eagled on the bitumen. Nancy nudged me with her foot, while Gabrielle hauled at me until I was upright and we set off again, holding to the middle of the road until a car forced us back onto the footpath.
That night hadn’t been the last time I saw Nancy, but it was the last time that held any value for me. Partly because there was a lot I never knew about Nancy, that I had never asked about because we rarely talked about anything but the present,but also because it summed up everything I knew about Nancy: if you want to do it, then do it, no matter what it is.
© BJ Muirhead 2011. All rights reserved
Born in 1915 in Melbourne, Nancy Weir was a child prodigy who gave her first public piano performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at age thirteen. After studying with Artur Schnabel in Germany, she completed her studies in England, where she made her name as an up and coming star.
When World War II began, Nancy enlisted in the WAAF before being transferred to RAF Intelligence. As a cover for her intelligence activities—which included interrogating prisoners of war, listening to enemy communications and going behind enemy lines—she regularly entertained troops in Egypt and Palestine. In later years, though generally coy about her activities during the war, she once said: ‘I think I am the only classical pianist in history whoever parachuted into Rome.’