“I am very fond of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto”, she said. “And from now on, this piece will for me always be connected with you, and for you with me, yes?” And so it is. Every time I hear Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, which apparently is number one favourite at Classic FM that I listen to in my car; every time I hear it, I remember her.
I was eleven, and she was fifty, and we were at the composers' holiday home in Karelia. I ran wild with other kids. We made model boats and sailed them in the huge, dangerous Ladoga Lake. Maria Pavlovna, a fifty-year-old librarian from Leningrad, watched us. She told me about the book by Alexander Grin, Scarlet Sails, which became a great favourite for many years to follow. Her association was merely that we played with boats.
For the next year, we corresponded. Looking back, I wonder why MP bothered to write and receive letters from an eleven-year-old. She wasn't married and had no relatives. I wrote to her because I was a passionate letter-writer. I told her about what happened at school, who my friends were and what we did, what books I read, what concerts I went to and what art exhibitions I saw. I sent her my poetry which I normally didn't share with anyone. She wrote about her work and her friends, and about her childhood. She called me Little Grasshopper after a nursery song.
Next summer we met again, and I was adopted by four ladies who hiked, rowed, played party games and treated me as an equal. One evening we listened to Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto on an old record player in the music room. Then another year of correspondence, and another summer. She only came for four weeks of her summer leave, I stayed for the whole summer. I cried when she left. My father scolded me. “When a stranger leaves, you cry. When you mother comes, you don't care”. It speaks volumes about my complicated relationship with my mother. You needn't be a Freud.
Once I went to Leningrad with my father, and we were invited to MP's tiny room in the huge communal apartment. I felt awkward. Once she came to Moscow and was suddenly sitting in my bed sofa. I wanted to hug her, but didn't dare. My father's opera was performed in Leningrad, and I insisted on MP being invited. I was showing off and felt bad about it.
When I was fourteen I had, as I realise now, a very bad depression. There is nothing unusual about a fourteen-year-old having a depression, but looking back I wonder why nobody paid attention. In my letters to MP I was suicidal. She must have been torn between loyalty to me and her duty to alarm my parents. I don't know whether she actually contacted them, but if she did, it had no effect.
Then she told me a story that sounded like a Hollywood movie. When she was young, she had a suitor, but nothing came out of it. Not that she wasn't interested, but sometimes things just don't happen. He had moved to Siberia, she had lost track of him, but then somehow she found out where he was and sent him a card for his 60th birthday. Like herself, he was all alone in the world. They started a correspondence. I was allowed to follow the development of this incredible plot, and finally MP told me that they were going on a holiday together, meeting for the first time in twenty years. I was fascinated. I was perplexed that these old people, ancient people had feelings. I was fifteen, bursting with feelings and confiding in MP just as she confided in me. Why did she confide in a fifteen-year-old? No one else to share her belated happiness with? So sad.
For winter holiday I was allowed to go to Leningrad on my own. Accommodation was arranged with family friends, and I called MP to tell her I was coming. An indifferent voice informed me that she had died. I only had had a letter from her a couple of weeks before. At that time I didn't find it strange that an old, ancient person died, but she was merely fifty-four, far too young to die. I didn't bother to find out whether she had been hit by a car or had had a stroke. It didn't matter. And I knew no one who had known her, she had been all alone in the world apart from me and her friend somewhere in Siberia of whom I only knew his first name. I would have liked to write to him, but there was no way.
I had a bundle of letters left, which I eventually burned together with many other relics of my childhood. I have a photo. And I have Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto.