This story was published in Prick of the Spindle Vol 4.4, The Eunoia Review, Hardbrackets and Mighty Mercury. It was published in print in Black Lantern Publishing Issue No. 4, summer 2011.
The Piano Lesson
It was the start of the year and the end of the day. I walked down through the park by the school fields, next to the high frosted hawthorn hedgerow. I walked slowly, with a bruised plum in my satchel and my cane in my hand. The snow was falling heavily, and the horizon was bleak: slate and ghost-white. The city was awaiting the thaw, or the blitz, or something to end this long, cold time.
Behind the hedge, the tumbled stone remains of the Orangery, from a different time, sat under waxy green ivy and rusty scrapped metal. Ma had told me about the Orangery one day, sometime ago, when we were taking a walk down here together. She said people from the city would come and pay money to walk around the grounds and touch and admire the bright citrus fruits. She said that in the disappeared days, servants would pick oranges and lemons for the Lord’s breakfast, when oranges were a luxury. The Orangery was now all but gone, save the rusty scrapped metal under the waxy green ivy.
A useless winch scratched and screamed in the wind from the sea ten miles west of here. The day was starting to lose whatever light it once had. A flood of starlings rose from beyond the factories into the wide-open sky, and twisted and dipped together in formation before heading eastward over the city.
A man driving an old open-top tractor with a battered snow plough was slowly ridding the sports field of the latest white drift. He was slumped over the steering wheel to keep the wind from blowing into his face. He sat up to turn the wheel when he reached the end of the field, to return for more snow.
I never had to compete in school sports, thanks to my disease. Ma said that people that play sports all the time are Philistines who don’t appreciate the arts, and that I should be thankful for my polio, as it meant I could devote my life to the arts. When I was diagnosed in the summertime a few years back, they gave me a cane. Ma said it was important that I learn to play musical instruments and read four books a week, so I could be a serious man and write books on the arts when I was older. I was lucky that I didn’t have to play sports and become a Philistine.
I picked a handful of cold, red berries from a holly bush in the hedgerow, and fingered them in my pocket. I put one in my mouth and counted to five before I bit into its tough skin with my back teeth. A dry and cold bitter juice soaked into the back of my tongue, like I knew it would. I spat out the remains into the snow as the swelling introduction to Moonlight Sonata drowned my thoughts.
I thought about Mr. Winter and ripped through the skin of the remaining berries in my pocket with my fingernails. My belly slowly turned, like my stomach walls were being sucked into a vacuum. My body was telling me to stop walking and go home. I thought about him dusting down each individual piano key as he did before the lesson. At the end of every lesson he would inspect the piano for scuffs or scratches and polish its dark surface.
I thought of him gulping air, low and slow like he was taking his last breath.
* * *
Mr. Winter picked up the cat from the chair, held her in his arms, and walked to the window. He looked over the city rooftops to the trees on the hills on the other side of the valley, where their old house used to stand, and remembered the fire. The thatched wheat roof had been the first to burn. It went up like a newspaper, burning bright and fast. The old oak frame gently blackened and splintered into the sky. The ancestral beams had protected the house and many families from cold winter gales for hundreds of years, but they disintegrated in hours. Once, they had supported the high ceiling of the farm kitchen. At Christmas, Mrs. Winter would stand on a chair and carefully tack Christmas cards along the length of the dark wood. He would return from a day in the woods with the spaniels and hang pheasants on the brass hooks near the stove to bleed. That night they fractured and burnt like matchsticks. The creaking wood swung up into the night sky, silhouetted by the low harvest moon. The house burnt into the night, but the strong stone chimney wouldn’t fall. For years the stone stack had channeled the heat and smoke from roasted quail and parsnips out into the cold sky. That night, the flames consumed it from the outside, but the fire could not topple it.
Mr. Winter remembered standing with his wife, watching everything they owned fall and burn into the soil from a safe distance on the hill. They watched everything but the chimney become razed into a useless heap of black dust and ash, and they knew that they loved each other as much as any two people could, and they knew that all they would ever need was each other. Now he looked out to the white city and remembered how the morning after the fire, the chimney was the only thing still standing. It was still warm to the touch a full week later, when the young men arrived in heavy, rusted-red machinery to knock it down and drag the debris away to fill a hole in the ground.
* * *
My fingers were wet and sticky from the berries, and my toes were numb from the snow. I left the fields and cut over to Glass Street, where the narrow red brick terraces had their curtains drawn. The chimneys from the factories on the East End spewed smoke into the dull, heavy sky. It was hard to tell where the smoke ended and the clouds began. This snow might never thaw.
I was only a couple streets away from his house now. I imagined a milk van coming around the corner, knocking me to the ground, so I walked out into the middle of the road, closed my eyes, held my arms in the air, but no milk van came.
I thought of his horn-rimmed glasses and his old eyes, always half-closed through drunkenness or tiredness, or both. His eyes, always slowly closing and never looking at anything, maybe they didn’t need to focus any more. I thought of his brown tweed jacket, covered in cat hair. His wiry hands, and the way they snapped at my wrists when I mistimed a note—I knew that it was coming, but it always made me jump.
His eyes, always closing. Slowly closing, and moist like he was about to cry, or sleep, or both.
I saw the house, just like every other house, but still so different from every other house. As usual, Mr. Winter was standing at the window staring into the snowy city landscape, holding the soft ginger cat in his arms. He was not looking into the street but far across the city.
I rang the doorbell. He eventually opened the door without a word, looked down at me, and closed his eyes. I climbed the stairs and hoped he was in a warm mood.
A glass vase stood on the piano with the same plastic lily, in the same position every day. The yellowing sheet music was always positioned in the same way, lit by an old brass lamp that buzzed like a wasp and was hot to the touch.
After politely declining a glass of water and running through my scales, I embarked on the piece, under the close eye and ear of Mr. Winter. I played through the famous opening notes of Moonlight Sonata before stumbling on the timing of the high A in the ninth bar. He plucked my thin wrists from the heavy piano keys, pinching with his finger and thumb like a claw crane, shaking his head in disappointment. As soon as I missed the key, I knew that he would remove my hands from the sacred keys to prevent me rattling on any further. My face felt cold, like the blood was draining through my body and into my cold, wet shoes. He rested his hand on my knee for a second before raising it to his mouth to contain a slow, scratching cough.
“Again.” Mr. Winter requested, and I began the piece once more.
Sometimes he would forget I was there, and even ignore my mistakes. At these moments, I imagined that he was thinking of his dead wife. The only time his eyes ever really opened was when he was staring at her photograph on the mantelpiece; it was then that I could get away with missing a note.
I wondered where they met; I imagined them down on the pier with ice creams in the sunshine before the war. Before the snow. I imagined him as a teenager, impressing her, swinging over the waves from the railings, with a three-piece suit and bowler hat. This image in my mind made me smile, and I must have started hitting the keys a little heavy.
“Pianissimo.” he whispered in my ear.
He was so close to my face that I could smell his warm port breath and the scent of old tweed.
He gently ruffled my hair with his hand.
“Pianissimo.” he repeated.
I began again, and was now past the dreaded ninth bar, playing nicely. The ninth bar was so similar to all of the bars around it, but for some reason it beat me every time. Mr. Winter turned the page for me and nodded along to the slow beat, as if pleased. Every time he lowered his head to the slow rhythm, his eyes would close and reopen as his head rose to the downbeat, like his head and eyelashes were on the same puppet string.
The cat jumped up onto the piano from the mantelpiece and Mr. Winter swung his arm, just missing my face, forcefully knocking the cat off the piano with the back of his hand. The cat squealed and disappeared into the hallway like a shot. I opened my eyes, stopped playing, and noticed that my hands were trembling. He rested his hands flat on his knees, the back of his hand scratched pink. He lowered his head and softly spoke.
“Sorry Dale.” I thought that this may have been the first time he had said my name. “Again,” he instructed.
In my first lesson several weeks ago, before the heavy snow, he had played the complete piece to me, and it resonated so beautifully. Now the melody had become so mechanical. The music terrified me. Every recent instance of my playing of the opening bars had ended with a scolding from him, and the forceful removal of my bones from the ivories. I had told Ma I wasn’t enjoying learning the piano. Ma told me, “Don’t force it, it will come.”
The introductory melodic triplets sometimes swam into my head when I was going to sleep, but it only reminded me of the smell of port on his breath, and the disappointment in his half-closed eyes. Ma had assured me that Mr. Winter was an excellent teacher; he had taught her, many years ago. This was probably before Mr. Winter lost his wife and started drinking. I wondered if back then he actually enjoyed the company of children. Ma had decided that I should learn from him too. Ma decided a lot. She had decided that I should take the day off from school when the city doctor came through with the new vaccinations. She had heard that the vaccinations made boys ill anyway, so I’d be better off without.
Cat hair was still floating amongst the white streaming light that sliced the room through the gap in the curtains. The lesson was nearly over. I asked for a glass of water. I knew this would give him an opportunity to take a swig of port in the kitchen, and might calm him a little. He rose and left the room without a word.
In the one photograph on the mantelpiece of Mrs. Winter, she sat in the same room, softly smiling, with the ginger cat curled around her neck. I imagined that this old photo frame was the only item in the room more precious to Mr. Winter than his beloved piano, including the cat. He returned to the room and passed me the glass of water.
“Please drink away from the piano.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Of course.”
“I like to keep my piano clean.” He paused, “Chloe is fine.”
I understood that he must have been talking about the recently scared cat, but I feigned ignorance and looked at him inquisitively.
“Chloe,” he clarified, raising his palm toward the cat, as she reluctantly returned to the room.
“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Of course.”
Chloe hopped back onto the mantelpiece via a dark brown leather arm chair, which was positioned to face the window. There was no television in the room, but a large wireless radio sat amongst the many dusty encyclopedias and biographies of long-dead German composers. Chloe settled onto the mantelpiece and watched us with her eyes closed, as if ready for a recital. I hoped she had learnt not to jump on to the piano again.
I began to play, and soon mistimed a C# early in the fifth bar. I awaited the wrist-grab, but nothing happened, so I continued to play. I made another mistake, but carried on. Mr. Winter made no sound and so the music would not stop. The pacing of melody suddenly started to make sense to me, and I even began to enjoy the flow of the music, and started to hit the keys a little harder despite the Pianissimo direction. I reached the end of the piece, but still, there was only silence from Mr. Winter. I started from the top, this time hitting the pedals with my good right foot, releasing the damper to create a glorious, thunderous sound.
* * *
Mr. Winter dreamt of the black cancer growing over her heart, like tar dripping on a red summer rose. Her eyes were still open and she sat at the piano playing and smiling, unaware of the blackness engorging her body from the inside out. Her clothes looked so loose, like only bones filled them. She played a crashing rendition of Moonlight Sonata that would have made the purists weep. She screamed an unearthly scream as she played, at first in anger and then in pain. He wanted to stop her screams, stop the sacrilegious rendition of the music, almost as much as he wanted to rip the black treacle from her lungs, but he couldn’t move. He knew he was dreaming, but couldn’t wake. The black seeped through her veins to her fingertips and toes.
* * *
I finished the piece a second time. I couldn’t believe that he had not stopped me; he must have passed out. I looked over and saw him, his hands flat on his knees as usual, but with his head bowed like the puppet strings had been cut. I moved my ear close to Mr. Winter’s face. The smell of port was strong. Sure enough, I could hear his fast, irregular snoring.
I looked over my shoulder, and now a cold, dusky half-light fell over the room. The only artificial light was the small, buzzing brass lamp that illuminated the sheet music. The room sat quietly, waiting for the music. So I played again and closed my eyes. I missed more notes, but it sounded better than ever.
I imagined a beautiful and unstoppable white wave of light spewing from the back of the piano and out of the window, igniting the dusty curtains as it passed. It crashed over the city, vaporizing the snow, revealing bright green parks, colossal oak trees, and busy streets. I saw myself running through the cut grass in the park with my arms reaching up to the sunshine. The red brick chimney stacks toppled into the river, smashing the ice, and rolled out into the North Sea. The river ran strong and fast.
I quickly glanced across once more to see Mr. Winter still sleeping, and so I continued to play with more vigor than ever.
* * *
In Mr. Winter’s dream now, she stood up from the piano stool and walked across the room toward him. The love he felt for her was the same in the dream as it had been in reality, and his heart quickened in the same way. He held her hands in his hands and drew her toward him. A fire burned around them, but her skin was cold. She removed his horn-rimmed glasses and let them swing, tethered with a leather strap, around his neck. She kissed him on the cheek softly but her skin felt like wax and her breath smelled like wetted ash. Now the fire disappeared, and they hobbled together into a desolate frosted park. She lay in the snow. She was gone; a snow drift from the north quickly buried her. He could see himself from above, crawling through the snow, pitifully trying to unearth her body.
* * *
I pumped the pedal with my right foot, and my crippled left foot swung around like it had a mind of its own. I hit the rising notes nimbly like my right hand had been made for this moment alone. The ivory keys and my thin, lame fingers were as one. My left hand, little finger, and thumb, splayed an octave apart, followed the bass of the chords in perfect unison, C #m, A, D… I stamped the pedals so hard that one of them ripped through a spring and detached itself from the piano, releasing a terrifying clanging sound like a bell falling down a well. The thin beech panel above the pedal ripped and splintered into my shin.
Mr. Winter awoke. Everything stopped and all sound disappeared into some kind of nothingness, save the wasp buzz of the lamp. Whatever chaotic sound had filled the room only seconds before was now a fast-fading echo in both of our minds. I feared for my life, and involuntarily whimpered. The blood drained from my face once more. He rose; his eyes were hollow and desperate; he looked to the broken wood at my feet.
He quietly walked to the mantelpiece and picked up Chloe. He walked to the window, holding the cat in one hand by the skin on the scruff of her neck, and opened the window with his other hand. The cold air filled the room like a flood. The city looked endless from here, the fluttering snow partially obscuring the view of the hills over the town. He removed his horn-rimmed glasses, and let them swing, tethered by the leather strap, around his neck. He squinted tightly and looked out over the city, through the white, to the trees on the hillside, and felt the weight of death lift from his shoulders.
He breathed slowly and deeply, and then gently rolled Chloe onto her back in his arms, lifting her to his face. He turned his head to the side, and placed his ear on her soft chest until he could hear her heartbeat. His grief was gone.
He returned to the piano to place Chloe on top, next to the vase. He sat, placed his aged hands flat on his knees, slowly exhaled, and opened his eyes. Chloe hopped down onto the keys, walking over the back of my cold hands, her warm soft fur caressing the back of my wrists. She jumped back up onto the top of the piano next to the vase, curled up, closed her eyes, and purred.
“Again.” Mr. Winter instructed.--------------------------------------------------