Ever since I moved into my flat I have been fascinated by the piano-playing neighbor who lives upstairs. When I go to bed, he is playing. When I wake up, he is still playing. I calculate he practices for 10 hours a day, endless arpeggios that weave into my dreams. Sometimes I am late for things because I cannot bring myself to leave the house until he finishes a piece. Even when the noisy French flat next door has a party, he can be heard through the din, plinky-plonking stoically on.
So when I receive an invite to a piano concert organized by the Polish consulate, I am delighted.
"A piano concert!" I think. "How lovely."
As I enter the concert hall I notice a little boy dressed in a long tailcoat and red silk sash, sitting with his parents. He can't be more than eight or nine years old, with neat black hair, bright eyes and a soft flushed face. He is impossibly cute.
The audience listens intently as two classical pianists deliver immaculate renditions of Chopin and Schumann. I am transfixed by the child. Assured, he nods along in time with the music, small hands twitching as if to conduct. He looks like a miniature version of the concert performer Lang Lang, uncannily adult in his composure. He catches me looking at him and throws me a curt nod.
After the recital is over, we are told we will hear a special performance from a young student, Joe. All heads turn toward the little boy as he gets up from his seat and dusts off his hands in preparation. His parents simultaneously raise video cameras and point them, rifle-like, at the ready.
Joe takes to the piano stool with the gravitas of a future world leader, black tails flapping authoritatively. The Mozart sonata that begins to fill the hall is like nothing I have ever heard, a dazzling, riotous display of talent. I immediately realize I am in the hands of a genius. His tiny figure dominates the grand piano like a cowboy commandeering a wayward rodeo bull.
"I've always wanted to meet a prodigy," I think. "This is even better than I expected."
I think back to learning music as a child, the painfully amateur efforts of our class plodding through "The Jolly Cow" on the recorder, my younger brother bargaining to get out of 20 minutes' guitar practice. The annual humiliation of grading exams. I begin to wonder if Joe is forced to practice for hours each day. But he doesn't appear to be a performing robot. He is just really, really good.
"Say what you like about tiger mothers, they get results," I think. Joe seems to have 100 hands flying over the keys, head bobbing, pedals pumping vigorously as he approaches the crescendo. I look over at his parents. The father smiles knowingly. "He shouldn't be able to do that," I think. "It's just not possible."
By the end of the performance the audience is red and excited but Joe has barely broken a sweat. He stands up and takes a small bow. A queue starts to form around his parents. When it is my turn to congratulate them I find myself letting forth an embarrassing torrent of admiration. "You don't understand," I want to say. "Children in England can't do this." I am unable to convey the impression that Joe's performance has made on me. "It was just amazing." I say finally, shaking my head.
Joe comes over and greets us with the gracious air of one used to dealing with adoring fans. "It really was wonderful," I tell him. "I'm sure you're going to be famous one day."
"Thank you very much," he says, in perfect, clipped English. "It's really nice of you to say so."