Friday, 5 July 2013


Jacki Donnellan

Tick, Tick

A pint with ice and two olives

When they’re very little, they don’t have a rhythm, do they? That’s what makes them so adorable.

They just teeter around, crawling or cruising from bar to bar, flitting from major to minor at the drop of a biscuit.

Then when they get a bit older, they start whirring around, chattering a random collection of hemi-demi-semiquavers, glissando-ing up and down and fluttering like tiny detached grace notes around the park.

But eventually, of course, you expect them to settle down. It’s sad, admittedly, to see them having to learn to live at less than hey, presto speed, and to see them having to sometimes find out the hard way about bar lines and repeats.

But learn they must. We all did.

My wife Alice and I both kept time from an early age. It had come naturally to us. So it was no surprise to us when our daughter, Sophie, began to keep time at about the same time that she learned to talk. She was already in four beats to the bar by the time she started school. People sometimes don’t believe me and say that she must have still been adding the odd stray asynchronous quaver, being so young.

But by the time Sophie was sixteen, she was living comfortably and steadily in perfect common time. We were so proud.

Of course, we hadn’t been ready for when Sophie started experimenting with syncopation without our knowledge. I suppose they all have to go through it. But that way of living on the offbeat had never been for us, and we could only hope that Sophie would eventually decide the same, for herself.

Eventually, she did, and now Alice and I admire the amount of grace notes and flourishes within Sophie’s rhythm. She’s found a way of keeping time like everyone else, but manages to express her individuality without losing the beat. She’s a clever girl.

No, we had no problem with Sophie. Our problem was with our son, Dan.

At first we thought that Dan was just too young. We didn’t worry that he didn’t seem to be keeping time. We did all the things that parents do to encourage his development: introducing him to books at an early age, attending a toddler gym, that sort of thing. Dan loved it all, but we began to worry when Dan started school and we could still see no sign that he was beginning to live in four/four time.

For a while, Alice (it’s always the mums who notice things first, isn’t it?) became convinced that Dan was living in rhythm. It just wasn’t obvious, she said, it wasn’t completely clear where the bar lines were.

She sought advice from other mums, one of whom suggested that Dan was just dotting his notes. It gave him an unexpected lilt, she said, and that was what was stopping him from keeping time. “He’ll grow out of it,” she said.

But as Dan entered his teens, we just could not see a proper steady rhythm in his life into which bar lines could be fitted, even if we allowed for him dotting his notes. It didn’t seem to worry Dan, but as a parent it was very hard to watch.

One day I got out of work early and I went to pick Dan up from school. I could see that all of the children who streamed out of the school gates, laughing and chatting with each other, were in perfect four/four. A lot were on the offbeat, of course, being rebellious teenagers, but they were still in time.

And then I spotted Dan. He chatted to a few other lads, and even joined in with a playful scuffle around a football for a few minutes. But even so, as I watched him side by side with his peers, it was obvious to me that he just did not keep to the beat the way they did. He was utterly out of sync. I simply couldn’t understand it.

He greeted me with a big smile as usual. Dan was always a happy, cheerful lad. Very kind too, exceptionally so. But that day I knew that there was something wrong that we just couldn’t ignore any more.

Alice and I decided that we should take Dan to see someone. There wasn’t a lot of choice about who to see in those days. We went to someone who we were told could help us.

Mr Oswald, his name was. He had a wispy white beard and a slightly odd manner. I wasn’t reassured by his rather slow two crotchets to a bar. It seemed to me like he was only just keeping time himself.

He spent some time alone with Dan, talking to him and asking him questions. Then he called us in, and asked us lots of questions too. Had Dan seemed overly chromatic when he was young? Did he modulate easily? Would we say he tended towards mezzo forte, forte or fortissimo?

We answered the questions as best we could. A lot of them we’d never really thought about before, so it wasn’t easy. We’d always been so concerned about timing that we’d not really thought much about everything else. It made us feel a little guilty.

Eventually, Mr Oswald sat back at his desk and took off his glasses. He rubbed his hands over his eyes, replaced his glasses, and then leaned towards us with his elbows on his desk and his hands clasped together, as if in prayer.

‘This is what I see, Mr and Mrs Johnson,’ he said. ‘It is not that Dan is unable to keep time. That is not the issue.’

‘But if he can keep time, why doesn’t he?’ asked Alice, desperately.

‘Ah, but he does,’ said Mr Oswald. His hands ceased to pray and instead he sat hand to hand, fingertip to fingertip. ‘But you see, Dan does not keep common time. Mr and Mrs Johnson, Dan lives in three beats to a bar.’

‘Triple meter?’ gasped Alice, aghast.

‘Yes,’ confirmed Mr Oswald. ‘Triple meter. Waltz time.’

‘My son is a Non-Marcher?’ I said, before I could stop myself.

‘But why? Have we … did we … do something wrong?’ asked Alice, wringing her hands.

‘No, Mrs Johnson, of course not,’ Mr Oswald said. ‘We’re not sure what causes people to be this way, but it’s certainly not a result of anything you have or haven’t done.” He peered at me over his glasses. “And we don’t really use the term ‘Non-Marcher’ any more, Mr Johnson.’

I gave him an embarrassed nod, without meeting his gaze.

‘But what can we do?’ Alice persisted. ‘Maybe we should pay for Dan to see a professional conductor?’

Mr Oswald shook his head. ‘Dan is as he is. You won’t be able to change him. Your efforts are best spent on helping Dan to cope in a world which marches while he needs to waltz.’

‘Mazurka,’ Dan said, suddenly. We’d almost forgotten he was there.

‘What was that, son?’ I asked, forcing myself to sound cheerful. ‘What did you say?’

‘Mazurka,’ repeated Dan.

‘Yes, Dan. Mazurka,’ said Mr Oswald, turning to look at Dan with patient, professional understanding. ‘Triple meter, accent on the second or third beat of the bar.’

Alice stood up. She looked pale. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her face beginning to crumple. ‘This is too much, too much to take in all at once, I—’

‘Of course, Mrs Johnson,’ Mr Oswald said, rising from his seat. ‘I understand. Maybe it’s better that you all go home now, and discuss what you have learnt.’

We went home, but I have to be honest. We didn’t discuss anything, not with Dan, and not with each other. I think we hoped that it would all just go away. But from then on, whenever I looked at Dan, it was obvious. Three/ four time. It was unmistakable, once you weren’t trying to slot everything between four/four bar lines.

We were in denial, of course. I could see Alice looking at Dan, and I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking that if you could just slip in a crotchet rest before the bar line, you’d have your four beats, and Dan would be just like everyone else. But of course life is not that simple.

I have to confess that I coped very badly with it all. Our son, three beats to a bar! Not four. Not even two. Just three. I didn’t want to accept it.

I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I even put off going home, and went to the pub after work instead. I sat at the bar on my own, and the only person I spoke to was the barmaid, to order a pint.

The barmaid was a beautiful young woman called Shelley. She was very friendly, too. Eventually I would do more than order my pint from her. We would talk, chat and laugh. She was a wonderful, witty, special woman. I don’t like to admit it, but the truth is, I found myself very attracted by the fact that she was so different from Alice. Something about her seemed to sparkle as she stood among the optics. When I spent time at the bar with her, I felt that I could forget all my troubles.

Then one evening, a couple of pints in, I ended up telling her all about Dan. I thought she’d be sympathetic. But she just looked at me. And then she threw her head back and laughed the most beautiful and the most musical laugh I’ve ever heard. And suddenly, it hit me.

‘You live in three/four, don’t you, Shelley?’ I said, quietly.

Shelley shook her head. ‘No, love,’ she said. ‘Not three four. Six/eight.’

My mouth dropped open. ‘Compound time?’

‘Of course!’ she said, grinning. ‘We can’t all be plodders to a strict four/four, can we? Where would the joy be in that?’

I was speechless, and more than a little embarrassed. Eventually, I managed to say, ‘Another pint please, Shelley.’ She served me my pint and winked at me. I drank my pint and then said goodbye. Shelley gave me a cheery wave. I think she knew I wouldn’t be back.

I went home and sat down with Alice, and for the first time, I started to talk to her about Dan. I told her about Shelley. Not everything, of course, just that I’d met someone who was very nice and very happy who lived in triple meter. I said that maybe we should start to think about accepting how Dan was, and about how we could help him.

Alice brushed a lock of greying hair from her face, and glared at me. It was the first time that I’d even noticed that she had any grey hairs. ‘I have started accepting it, Percy,’ she said. ‘If you’d been home a bit more you might have noticed. I’ve been meeting up with other mothers, who all have children who don’t keep to four/four. They’re all special, wonderful children, and so is our son.’

‘I know that, Alice,’ I said. ‘I know he’s special.’

‘Do you?’ asked Alice, accusingly. ‘Have you ever tried to look at him, listen to him, and see beyond his bar lines? Have you ever listened to his harmony? His chords? Do you even know,’ she continued, angrily crushing a runaway tear on her cheek with the palm of her hand, ‘how complex his harmonies are, already, before he’s even turned eighteen?’

I bowed my head. I didn’t know. I hadn’t looked. I hadn’t listened. I hadn’t spent any time at all getting to know my son.

Dan came into the room. He went over and turned on the telly and sat on the sofa. I went and sat next to him. For the first time, I looked at him. Not just at where his bar lines were, but at him. And in that moment, I noticed things that I just hadn’t been aware of before. Beautiful harmonies. Something that I’d always dismissed before as ill-timed discord, which turned out, once I paid attention, to be cleverly resolved dissonance. And from that moment on, my own life felt more comfortably in time than it had ever been. And everything about being Dan’s father began to get easier.

I know. This story probably seems a bit strange to you, now. Nowadays, you come across lots of people in triple meter, compound time, or even mixed time. People are not dismissed, now, because of how they tick. But it was different, then. People had less knowledge, less understanding. Things had only just started to get better for people like Dan when he was growing up. But I’m glad they did.

And I like to think that we played a role in that; that we were a small part of that change. Because we spoke up for Dan. We fought his corner. And we began to speak up for others like him, too, and to learn a bit more about three/four.

We helped Dan to learn to deal with the many situations in life where everything is designed to be dealt with in four. And that’s pretty much everything, of course. Catching a bus. Meeting someone new. Taking an exam. It’s all in four/four.

 Sometimes Dan had to just learn how to cope, to compromise. Or, there were times when he would get by because of his wonderful melody and rich augmented chords. But sometimes, with our help, and eventually without, Dan would be able to change the beat completely, to fit his own. And when that happened, I would always love to see him whirl and waltz his way through to success, while all the common-timers around him did their best to keep up with him in three/four.

And when they did, they would often say how much they’d learned, and how much they’d enjoyed seeing the world through three to a bar, for a change. So Dan was a pioneer, of sorts.

 Of course they couldn’t keep it up for too long, those common-timers, because that’s not how they were made. At the end of the day, we can only keep our own beat, at our own tempo. That’s something that Dan has taught me.

 But although he’ll always be in three to a bar, and I in four, when I look at the fine young man that my son has become I can sometimes feel my heart beating in triplets.

About the Author

Jacki Donnellan loves making music and making up stories. She lives in the Netherlands and works at sailing her family safely across the seas of expatriate life. Follow her on Twitter: @DonnellanJacki

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