The music school was in an ordinary terraced house on one of the main roads leading out of London, to the north. The front was pebbledash, like its neighbor; there were lace curtains and neat, cared-for roses growing under the bay windows. A curved archway of red bricks framed the front door, to the left of which hung a black sign, with gold lettering in confidently varying fonts:
Miss Lorna Middleton
Teacher of Pianoforte & Ballet Dancing
69 Carlton Terrace-New Cambridge Road
Hardly anyone called her Lorna. Her first name was Kathleen; she signed letters Kathy or Kay. She was, to almost everyone that knew her, Miss Middleton. She played the piano beautifully, with small hands. She had dark wavy hair, buck teeth and a pronounced New England accent, which combined with a degree of innate personal magnetism to make Miss Middleton an object of some fascination in post-war Edmonton. Pupils joined her classes from the ages of three or four. Many remembered her as a singular figure for the rest of their lives.
Miss Middleton never just walked into a room, or stood around. She moved. She posed. Her school followed a syllabus that, she claimed, had much in common with the tuition on offer at Trinity College, the Guildhall and the Royal Academy. But each of her dance classes began with her rolling up the carpet in the front room and shifting chairs out of the way, while six girls, and occasionally a boy, filed in and found a place to practice their port de bras while leaning on a bookcase. Miss Middleton played the piano with her back to her pupils, swiveling on a stool. The furniture around her was dark and somewhat distinguished. A leather sofa with brass studs sat under the window, a note of inherited wealth that was out of keeping with the cheap reproductions of cavaliers and shy eighteenth-century beauties hanging on the walls, and the paper notice, warning of missed classes and late payment, taped to the glass of a display cabinet. Out in the hall, the next class waited on the stairs, trying to stay out of the way of Miss Middleton's small, fierce mother, Annie, who had once been a great beauty and, it was rumored, a courtesan in Paris.
Miss Middleton called her pupils the Merry Carltons. Several times a year, she would stage ambitious school performances, which caused her great anxiety. Annie would sew the costumes while Miss Middleton would rehearse pieces with as many as forty children, as well as an ensemble to be performed by the group, perhaps a musical comedy, which she regarded as her great love. During the preparation for these shows, the Merry Carltons would be reminded, more than once, that Miss Middleton had enjoyed a dancing career of her own. The front room at Number 69 was scattered with performance programs with the dates carefully removed: a newspaper clipping from the time she danced on Boston Common, before a crowd of fifty thousand; a photograph of a young woman performing a grand jetŽ, by a "Bruno of Hollywood."
Nothing was ever spelled out. Miss Middleton's pupils only shared a sense of something grand that never quite happened and the understanding, which developed over time, that their teacher's ambitions exceeded their own. Miss Middleton often parted ways with her students when they became teenagers and started to take their lessons less seriously. In turn, her pupils noticed that they rarely saw Miss Middleton outside the front room of Number 69. They picked up gossip that her American accent might be affected or put on. She was not someone you saw grocery shopping in Edmonton Green. Although she was not old (how old, it was genuinely impossible to say), it was obvious that the great hopes of Miss Middleton lay in the past, that her true dreams had gone unrealized.
Late in her life, Miss Middleton typed out a list of her instructions for teaching music. The intended readership was unclear. Rule number five is addressed to pupils: "Do not play by ear." Number seven is a teaching tip: "Octaves should be taught as soon as possible." Number nine is blank. Many of the rules are not really rules but Miss Middleton's observations or personal entreaties.
12. Play as accurately and as well as possible bear in mind the teacher can get a headache and lose patience as well as the pupil.
22. Story of pupil who wore gloves while practicing.
26. Do not keep repeating everything.
On a cold winter's day, when Miss Middleton was about seven years old, she came home from school for lunch and watched her mother frying eggs on the stove. "After about two minutes, and without warning the egg lifted itself up. It rose up and up until it almost touched the ceiling," Miss Middleton wrote in a self-published memoir, which appeared in 1989. She was excited by the sight and raced back to school to tell her friends. "By the time I had re-told the story a thousand times the kids expected me to take off and fly into the clouds," she wrote. But Annie was concerned. She consulted a fortune teller, who told her that an egg that flew out of the pan symbolized the death of someone close to you. A few weeks later, one of Annie's best friends, who had recently married, died and was buried in her wedding dress.
"I cannot say what I really felt or indeed what I feel now," Miss Middleton wrote. She experienced premonitions, in one form or another, throughout her life. She compared the feeling to knowing the answer in a spelling test. Names and numbers would appear to her. "I am drawn to these events by what appears to be a blaze of light," she wrote. "An electric light bulb." When Miss Middleton was eleven, she felt an irresistible urge to contact her piano teacher, a young German man, who had recently been hospitalized for nerve trouble. After cajoling her parents to call him, she found out that he had poisoned himself in his apartment. "It was probable that fate would have intervened and his moment of death was there," she reasoned. "But I could not rid myself of the thought that if I had managed to contact him he would have returned for supper and any problems could have been discussed." Miss Middleton was an only child and she sensed a world that was particularly responsive and legible to her. "Everything happened just as I knew it would," she wrote to a cousin. Her mother asked her to stop saying what would happen next.
Miss Middleton considered her childhood to be the happiest time of her life. She liked to reminisce about the "large house of twelve rooms" where she had lived, and how her father "had been offered a position" in America. The truth was much more modest. Annie and Henry, her father, were English. Henry came from a prosperous family which owned a furniture-making business and thirty properties across Islington and Hackney, in north London. Annie was one of five children from Liverpool. They met in Paris, not long before the First World War, and sailed to America on a ship named the Bohemia in something of a scandal. (Annie left behind an infant son in France.) In Boston, where Miss Middleton was born in 1914, Henry worked on the north docks as a machinist at a canned goods store that was known for its deviled ham. The family lived in Dorchester, on the edge of the city. Guided by Annie, Miss Middleton took piano, dance and elocution lessons. She had a Russian ballet teacher and went to a progressive high school, where she learned dress design and how to fix cars and radios. She had a friend, Gloria Gilbert, who made it to Hollywood, where she became known as "The Human Top," for her spins. But Henry's work dried up. In 1933, the family sailed back across the Atlantic, pursued by debts.
The return to England was humiliating. Carlton Terrace was a street of furriers, paper cutters and carpenters, a quiet, suburban realm quite apart from Paris, Hollywood and the rest of the Middleton family. At the age of fifty, Henry found work as a lathe operator. Less became possible. Miss Middleton auditioned at Sadler's Wells but could not afford the necessary tuition. When the Second World War began, she was working as a dance teacher at Prince's Dance Hall, a mile and a half away across north London, in Palmers Green. She took piano lessons by candlelight from an elderly organist named Mr. E. A. Crusha, whose windows had been blown out during an air raid.
On a Saturday night in March 1941, Miss Middleton was preparing to go out for the first time since the start of the Blitz the previous autumn. There was a St. Patrick's Day celebration at Prince's Dance Hall. The place would be crowded with people that she knew. The air raid sirens had sounded and there was the rumble of bombs falling, but Miss Middleton was determined to go. She was just about to leave the house when a friend stopped by. They discussed whether it was safe to head out, and Miss Middleton decided that they would.
It was only after setting off that Miss Middleton experienced what she later described as "a most strange sensation." She took her friend's arm and they returned home, where they sat and played cards with Annie. While they were playing, at 8:45 p.m., a German bomber was hit by antiaircraft fire and jettisoned its payload of high explosive over Palmers Green. Prince's was filled with dancers. A sixteen-year-old girl named Wyn was sitting with her friends, watching couples turn in front of her, when she felt a great rush of wind as the side of the building came off. "You don't hear anything. That was when the bomb dropped," she told the BBC in an interview. "Everything went dark." A sailor called out, telling people to stand against the walls. Wyn was pulled from the rubble. The casualties from the dance were laid out on the pavement outside. Only two people had been killed. Outside the hall, however, on Green Lanes, an electric trolley bus had been caught in the heart of the explosions. A firefighter, George Walton, arrived within moments and boarded the bus, which had been on its way to Southgate Town Hall. Forty-three passengers, quite dead, were sitting, standing and reading their newspapers, waiting for their stop.
It was not unusual, during the Blitz, to believe that your life had been saved, or altered, by a premonition. The shattered streetscapes and possibility of death made the city an uncanny place, in which it was not necessarily easy to delineate what was real and what only existed in people's minds. During almost nightly bombing raids, Londoners sought sense, and solace, where they could find it. A fire watcher, whose job it was to look out for falling bombs and put out small fires, noticed that whenever he cleaned his rubber boots, a bad night seemed to follow. So he left them dirty.
In the spring of 1942, a survey by Mass Observation, a social research organization that was set up to record experiences of daily life in Britain, asked people about their beliefs in the supernatural. Around a quarter of respondents believed in some form of the occult, roughly the same proportion who thought there was an afterlife. Many challenged the premise of the question, asking how it was possible to distinguish between what was magical and what was simply yet to be understood. "I don't know where the 'supernatural' begins and the 'subconscious' ends," a fifty-one-year-old teacher from Barnet replied. While categorically spooky things like ghosts, or ectoplasm, belonged in the realm of the supernatural, there was much less agreement in mid-century Britain about things like telepathy and apparently common occurrences, such as premonitions, which hinted instead at undiscovered reaches of physics and of the mind. One respondent to the Mass Observation survey wrote:
I sometimes have very strong sensations that certain happenings will take place. Without rhyme or reason I know. At times the feeling has a logical background at others none at all. Until recently I didn't consider them or notice them seriously until after the event had occurred. Now I remark at the time and find that the expected results occur.
In the summer of 1944, the somewhat predictable terrors of the night-time raids of the Blitz were replaced by the haphazard arrival of flying bombs. The German V1, and later V2, rockets could strike at any time of the day or night. For many Londoners, frayed by five years of war, the flying bombs were more terrifying than anything they had experienced before. In order to confuse German spies and the rocket-aiming crews in northern Europe, misinformation about the times they came down was given to the newspapers. It was hard to make sense of what was happening. Citizens devised theories about which parts of the city were safe, which were not, whether the rockets could be aimed and if they fell in clusters. "I wasn't frightened in the war until the rockets started coming over," Wyn, the girl who survived the dance hall bombing, recalled in her interview with the BBC. A V2 destroyed an army uniform factory in Edmonton, not far from where she and Miss Middleton lived. "It was lucky it was the night," Wyn said. "It was absolutely flattened." In 1946, Roland Clarke, an actuary at the Prudential Assurance Company, who had worked in military intelligence studying V1s during the war, published a one-page paper describing their distribution across London. He showed that for 144 square kilometers across the south of the city, where most of the rockets landed, the V1s struck almost perfectly randomly, fitting a mathematical formula named Poisson's Law, which had been used equally well in 1898 to calculate the number of Prussian soldiers accidentally kicked to death by horses.
By the mid-1960s, Miss Middleton had been teaching in the front room of Number 69 for almost a quarter of a century. When Henry and Annie were in their seventies, they inherited four houses in Holloway, a working-class neighborhood in north London, and died not long afterward. Miss Middleton kept cats, which multiplied. At one point, Les Bacciarelli, a Polish ŽmigrŽ who worked for the Post Office, moved in. Bacciarelli was an old flame of Miss Middleton's from the war. He became her lifelong companion. She described him as her lodger.
Premonitions continued to inform and change the direction of her life. After her mother died, Miss Middleton pursued an intuition which had first occurred to her as a child-that Annie's long-abandoned son lived in a pretty house by a river in France. In 1962, with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, Miss Middleton found her half-brother, Alexander, living in an old house in a small town on the banks of the river Sarthe, to the southwest of the city.