Lucy’s Last Chance

by Anton Wills-Eve

<a href=””>I Got Skills</a>

                                                                   Lucy’s Last Chance

Ever since the age of six little Lucy Browning had been mad on playing the piano. Her outstanding skill was noticed at a very early stage. But sadly many people experience hard knocks in life and few find anything more of a burden than having a speech impediment. Little Lucy was such girl, her stammer disrupting everything she wanted to do from her earliest days in infants school. But she was lucky in having a very loving family who did everything they could to help her.

Her elder brother Henry, who was nineteen when she celebrated her fifteenth birthday, regularly lost his temper with people who made fun of his sister and was very worried how she was going to manage when he went to university the following September. However, she assured him she had enough friends to stop her being badly bullied.

The best of these friends was Jenny Williams, an attractive girl with long blond hair who genuinely enjoyed Lucy’s company and, although complete opposites, they got on really well together. “Well, Luce, this is the year that makes or breaks us. I’ve got to get really good GCSE exam grades in science next summer if I’m to get to a top university. But I expect you’ve already written in ‘one hundred per cent’ next to music,” and she smiled and laughed at the same time.

Lucy grinned back, her straight, brown hair adding little to her understandably shy personality. “T-t-true J-J-Jen, but that’s about a-a-all! Languages are a n-n-nightm-m-mare. I like science b-b-but school says b-b-cause I c-c-can’t say the w-w-words easily in ch-ch-chemistry and phyics, I can’t do them. And my wr-wr-written work is quite good. It’s silly!” Jenny agreed wholeheartedly but made no comment as they went into class for the first lesson of the autumn term that September.

At home Lucy’s parents, though, were more worried than Henry. They knew their little daughter was a fighter even if she was no academic genius, so they greatly encouraged her love of music. They saved all the money they could afford to engage a top class piano teacher for her. She had had two one hour lessons every week for nearly nine years when the GCSE year started. She had already won several junior prizes for her playing, including one quite prestigious piano competition for under twelves when she was only ten. Indeed, her teacher was so pleased with her that she predicted a possible outstanding future for her as a concert pianist.

The school had spent five years trying to cure or eradicate Lucy’s impediment, though with very little success. Her teachers knew how difficult life was for her, but in a school of fourteen hundred pupils aged eleven years or older there was little they could do in already over crowded classes. Her form mistress, Miss Paget, who was keen on getting the best overall average grades for her class out of the four forms that year, took Lucy aside to explain to her,

“Lucy you must realise how difficult it’s going to be for you to get good grades in most of your subjects and you will fail French and Spanish completely because you could never pass the conversation modules. We thought if you gave up half your subjects this year and concentrated on music and four other exams you could stay behind for twelve months and do the rest next year. You are a very skillful pianist so that will always be a back up for you. What do you think?”

What Lucy thought she was not able to say to the bullying woman be-littling, her because what she thought was, ‘You mean you want your average grades to be as high as possible and don’t care about my feelings at all’. What she managed to say out loud was, “M-m-my parents w-w-want me to do ten s-s-subjects, so I w-w-will! Also I w-w-want to stay with m-m-my f-f-friends.” Miss Paget was furious.

“Very well,” she retorted, “I shall recommend to the school that you only sit four exams, including music, and your parents will have to pay the entrance fee for the others.This will be doubled as I am not recommending them.”

When Lucy told her mother this after school that day the poor girl got a terrible shock. Her mother had to say, “Darling we didn’t want to worry you in such an important year, but daddy’s firm has had a lot of financial problems recently and had to lay off several of the staff, so he took a drop in salary in order to help out. If we have to pay so much for your exam fees we’ll have to cut your piano lessons to the occasional one now and then, not two a week. I am dreadfully sorry.”

Lucy was almost in tears but held them back until she went up to her room to do her homework and cried her heart out. However, beneath her emotional upheaval she felt a rising determination not to give in and still went to her next lesson as her parents had already paid for the rest of that month’s piano tuition. The following evening she told her piano teacher, Miss Marshall, she had some bad news. The teacher could see Lucy was upset and thought it was the usual malicious treatment she often experienced. But Lucy’s news was a bombshell.

“M-m-m-iss M-m-marshall, I shall have t-t-to give up m-m-my lessons b-b-because my f-father can’t afford t-t-them any m-m-more.” The teacher was stunned. Lucy was one of the two best fifteen year old pupils she had ever had and she was appalled at the thought of losing her. She knew Lucy was going through an awfully difficult time and tried to cheer her up. 

“Look you’re one of my top pupils and you don’t even have a decent piano at home so can only practice at school when the music master let’s you. But I think that if I applied to the regional music society board I might be able to get you a scholarship to carry on studying with me. I’ll see what I can do. I was hoping to enter you and John Franklin for the regional musician of the year competition, with preliminary rounds each month to the end of April and the final in July. I really think you have a chance of winning the under eighteens class.

“This carries with it a scholarship for the whole of the cost of your studies through to the end of four years at a leading university or

music academy. You would need a top grade in your GCSE music exam in the summer, but I know you could get that already! You would also need the minimum grades in seven other subjects at least for a university to take you, and three A levels as well, but I hope you can manage that.”

Lucy could not believe her ears. “ M-m-m-miss if you c-c-an get m-m-me a scholarship with y-y-you, I th-th-think, I KNOW I can!” They smiled at each other as the previous pupil was finishing his practice and got up from the piano to leave. Miss Marshall introduced them. He smiled at Lucy and she blushed in confusion. Boys usually laughed at her and she did not know how to respond. He held out his hand when Miss Marshall introduced them and she shook it timidly.

“Miss Marshall tells me you’re very good.” Then he waved goodbye and added, “Hope to see you again Lucy.” She was too shy to speak, smiling as she opened her music case. He stayed back, out of sight, for ten minutes and could not believe how well Lucy played.

The following week, it was the third in September, Miss Marshall gave her the most wonderful news. She had told the music board of Lucy’s problems and how extremely good she was, so they had given her a bursary to have free lessons twice a week with Miss Marshall until the end of the summer term. Lucy and her parents were thrilled and the young girl could not wait to tell her form mistress.

“S-s-so you see, M-m-miss Paget, I w-w-will work r-r-eally hard all year t-t-to get the g-g-grades I need!” Miss Paget was not very encouraging but did at least tell Lucy she was glad she had a goal to aim at that might also get her better exam results.

And so it was, eight months later, that a very cheerful Lucy could think of nothing else but the music finals that sunny Monday of the last week of the summer term. They were scheduled for the Friday and she was filled with excitement at the prospect of a really important achievement for the first time in her very frustrating life.

Most of her friends had concentrated on working hard at their GCSE exams hoping for good enough grades to go on to the universities they wanted. The exams finished half way through that week but Lucy’s academic ability had never been better than average. She knew her chances of university in two years time were virtually nil without her piano playing, which was now recognised as outstanding for her age. Little did she know but several top musicians who had judged the earlier rounds were already talking about her as she had come first or second in every round, good enough to progress each month. Even the school’s headmaster proudly booked a seat in the hall for the finals.

The GCSE exams had been very difficult but she had finished them all and had a piece of luck with her French and Spanish.The school had told the conversation examiners about Lucy’s serious speech problems and they agreed to mark her on what she knew, understood and was obviously trying to say; not on her accent or speed of reply. Both the French and Spanish examiners told her she had done well enough to get an overall pass if her written papers were also up to the standard needed. This encouraged her enormously as had her steady progress through the music competition.

That lovely summer morning her best friend Jenny called to her across the hot school playground as they went back into class after morning break. “Hi Luce, Only a few days to go until the last round. Well you’ve made it to the last six for the whole of the region, so go for it girl!” Jenny knew how much her friend needed encouraging.

Lucy looked at her extremely pretty companion, who attracted most of the boys in their year, but there was no envy in Lucy’s reply. Quite the opposite.

“Th-th-thanks J-J-Jen. J-j-just a few b-b-butterflies,” she smiled always feeling more hopeful when Jenny was with her. So that lunch break as Jenny was chatting to Geoff, her current boyfriend, she spotted Lucy and kindly drew her into the conversation saying to him, “Lucy is in the finals of the regional music competition at the City Theatre this Friday and is very excited. She’s an outstandingly good pianist and everyone says she has a really good chance.”

To both girls surprise the tall, popular boy showed immediate interest. “Are you one of the six finalists Lucy? Wow! You must be incredibly good. A friend of mine at Redcourt school is also one of the last six, but he’ll take some beating Luce.”

Lucy was so pleased at Geoff’s interest she could not resist asking, “R-r-really Geoff. What’s h-h-his name?” Geoff was quick to add to his first remarks about his friend. “Oh  it’s John Franklin. But his big advantage is that he studies under Emily Marshall, one of the best teachers in the county. John thinks she’s terrific.” Lucy was now even more surprised.   

“G-G-eoff, she’s m-m-my teacher too!” At this news Jenny joined in with a very upbeat comment. “Well, Luce, if you know them both there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be just as good as he is, or even better. Hey, you aren’t hiding an Adonis from us are you?”  She laughed as she asked Geoff, “Is he good looking?” 

At this poor little Lucy went crimson and Geoff could see Jenny had unintentionally hit on a very soft spot in Lucy’s teenage heart. He felt a bit sorry for her. “Well, yes, he is quite good looking, Jen, but Lucy probably only sees him on and off for lessons, eh Luce?”

“Y-y-yes G-G-Geoff, though he d-d-does smile at me and s-s-seems very nice. B-b-but he’s n-n-n-not my b-b-boyfriend or anything l-l-like that.” Lucy was almost embarrassed at having to say this.

Jenny patted her friend on the shoulder and said, “Well, stop wasting time, Luce, and try to get to know him better.”

This only made poor Lucy more confused. However, Geoff cheered up both girls by looking at Jenny and saying, with a wink that Lucy could not see, “We were wondering what to do this Friday, weren’t we Jen? Why don’t we go and watch them both?” Jenny agreed at once and Lucy could hardly believe that two of her school friends wanted to listen to her playing in the

Friday night finally came round, but oddly Lucy’s thoughts for much of the week were also on one of her competitor. All year she had occasionally thought of him until Geoff’s remarks made her realise how much she had grown to like John. As the final got nearer she almost did not want him to lose, but deep down knew how much she wanted the prize, and everything that would follow from it, very definitely for herself.

In the twenty minute recitals each musician had to play a five minute compulsory piece set by the judges and two more pieces of music of their own choice. John and Lucy were the only two pianists to reach the last stage. John was the second person to perform after a female violinist. He was followed by a clarinet player and then There was a thirty minute interval during which Geoff and Jenny had to agree that John was by far the best of the first three musicians so far, when they overheard an extraordinary conversation between two women sitting behind them.

“Margery, your son’s piano playing was really outstanding. Emily Marshall teaches him doesn’t she?”

At this the lady called Margery was about to speak when Geoff muttered to Jenny, “Heavens! It’s John’s mother behind us.” And John’s mother replied to her friend,

“Thank you. Yes, and he’s also a very thoughtful boy. John found out about one of Emily’s pupils, whom he knows slightly and who is very good indeed, but who could not afford to go on paying for lessons; do you know what he did Dorothy? He asked Adrian, you’ve met my husband haven’t you? I thought so, anyway he asked his father to sponsor her. Adrian was so touched by John’s concern for the poor girl that he arranged the sponsorship with Emily and paid all her fees for the rest of the school year. Emily assured him his money would not be wasted as she was a very promising pupil.”

Jenny and Geoff just looked at each other and gasped as they settled down for the second half. The percussionist was good but the second violinist was a young boy who really was sensational. After he had given a wonderful interpretation of a Paganini caprice everyone seemed certain he would win. Finally a petrified and shy Lucy took the stage. She began with the compulsory Chopin study set by the panel and then the audience sat up as she gave a flawless performance of a technically very difficult prelude by Rachmaninov. But Lucy had always known that to win she had to finish with something nobody would expect from a sixteen year old. 

She took the risk of her life with Liszt’s sixth Hungarian rhapsody which few people in the audience thought a sixteen year old girl could physically manage at all, let alone play really brilliantly. As she almost collapsed with exhaustion at the end of the last bar the whole theatre rose to their feet applauding and in no doubt who had won the competition.

As the clapping rose to a crescendo Geoff turned round to speak to Mrs. Franklin.She saw him first. “Oh, Geoffrey, I didn’t see you there. Wasn’t that little girl amazing?” Geoff grinned broadly as he replied,

“Not nearly as amazing as your really kind hearted son, Mrs. Franklin. She’s the ‘poor little girl’ who John so very kindly asked his father to sponsor for her tuition fees. But don’t worry, Jenny and I won’t tell anyone.” The friend, Dorothy, looked delighted at Geoff’s news but, for the first time in her life, Margery Franklin was left open mouthed and speechless.

Finally, to make her night complete, Lucy stood on the stage holding her bouquet and winner’s scroll while also tightly clutching the certificate to pay all her music education expenses for the next six years. And her heart missed a beat as John turned and kissed her on each cheek whispering, “Well done Lucy. You really were terrific! I do hope this means we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other from now on.”

Anton Wills-Eve