Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The New Piano: Part 1



This is a short story that I wrote after a moment of inspiration. I was practicing piano (very badly, I assure you) and suddenly "heard" what sounded like an angelic choir coming through the music. That was enough to get me thinking: what if my piano had the power to make every piece I played sound extraordinary? It was an intriguing concept, and I immediately began formulating a plot. This story distracted me from my novel for a good long while, but I finally got it all down. 


Hope you enjoy it!
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There was always music playing in the Walshes’ flat. It usually came from a scratchy record player that sat beside a well-beloved armchair. Beethoven, Clementi, and Mozart were enjoyed there by a thin, bespectacled Irishman and his English wife and daughter. Dada had always been very fond of music—though he said that he couldn’t play Twinkle, Twinkle to save his life—and when he returned home after a hard day of clerking for a small-time textile manufacturer, he liked nothing better than to sit back and listen to the warbling strains of a spirited sonata.
Dada’s genius father (Pippa’s genius grandfather) had once been a well-known pianist, and Dada wanted his little girl to play as well. “He could play a piece of music and give it wings,” he would say in his sweet Irish lilt. “You can give it wings, too Pippa.” And Pippa would look up over the top of her book (she had spectacles just like Dada) and give him the look. Mama would come over and give her a big hug, rubbing her red nose in her girl’s hair, and say, “Pippa, you do like playing, don’t you? You’ll play in a big concert hall one day.” Mama’s voice was the best in the world, low and brusque and comforting.
So Pippa played piano. She didn’t do it very well, but perhaps she would have done better if she had truly enjoyed it. She didn’t play for the music—the rise and fall of notes and the feeling and sense of a melody—she played for Dada and Mama. She played for the dreamy look she saw in Dada’s eyes whenever he sat beside his record player, and she played for the sad way Mama tried to get the spots out of their ancient tablecloth. In a few years she would be playing in a concert hall like her genius grandfather and making buckets of money to buy her Mama a new set of sitting room furniture.
Her piano teacher was a certain Monsieur Cupide, who didn’t speak very good English and was a mediocre player at best. He was, however, the best that the Walshes could afford. Pippa squirmed every time she heard his thumping tread in the hall, and never looked forward to seeing his stout figure, eagle eyes, and bushy eyebrows. His wrinkled jowl always wiggled unpleasantly whenever he said, “Now, Philippa, to your lesson.” He always said “lesson” with a special French flourish, and Pippa shuddered.
One day Pippa’s piano fell apart. She was going through the hundredth drill in the key of F and suddenly one key went dead, then another, and then another. Monsieur Cupide frowned and muttered some words in French (Pippa imagined they were probably not very polite words) and borrowed a screwdriver from Mama. Half an hour later the piano was in a dozen pieces on the floor and Monsieur threw down the screwdriver with a flourish. “Ruined, Madame, ruiny. It must be taken away.” Mama’s face convulsed for a moment, and Pippa watched as she raised a trembling hand to her chin. They both glanced at the sitting room settee—the fabric was worn away in places and one leg had broken off. There would be no replacing that if they were to have a new piano.
But all Mama said was, “Thank you, Monsieur.” And Monsieur Cupide left the flat.

Pippa had grown up hearing about her genius grandfather. For a long time she had thought that Genius was his given name, but Mama corrected that. Pippa was sure that she wanted to be just like him one day, but she could not imagine playing the piano for so long that she got to be a genius. Monsieur’s interminable “drilling” had not made her a genius in three years. She wondered how long it would take.
One day after the collapse of her piano, as she walked home from school, Pippa noticed Dada standing in the doorway of the flat—half in, half out. His thin face was unusually red, and he seemed to be pushing against something big inside. Skipping up the pavement, Pippa said, “What are you doing? Fighting someone off?”
Dada gave her one of his smiles. “Nah, love. Just see what we’ve got for you.”
Peeping inside, she blinked twice before she quite comprehended it. It was a piano, of course, but what a piano. The finish was worn off on all sides, the keys looked battered and bedraggled, the music rack was hanging on by one narrow pin, two of the pedals had gone missing, and one of the legs had cracked and been clumsily patched. Dada was beaming, though, running his hands over the scratched surface and murmuring something underneath his breath. “A really nice one this, it’s a Corklin. I’ll be you’ve never played a Corklin before, have you?” Pippa had only ever played two pianos in her life, the one that had fallen to pieces and the big black one that belonged to Aunt Madge. But of course she didn’t say that.
She didn’t dare to say anything as Dada hauled the cumbersome thing into the sitting room and set their old piano bench in front of it. She was not exactly displeased, but perhaps the smallest bit disappointed. She imagined that if she had hated to play drills on their late piano—which had been shiny, with little curlicues in gold paint on the upper panel—what would they be like on this ancient monster? She stood silently in the middle of the room, pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose, until Mama came in and started smoothing down her unruly brown hair. “Isn’t it sweet, Pippa? Your Dada got a real bargain.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Well, at the piano store, dear, where else?” There was a look of evasion in Mama’s eyes. Yes, thought Pippa, they’d got it at the junk shop, where they got everything. Once, just once, it would be so nice to get something that didn’t come from the junk shop. Gabriela never got anything from a junk shop. Gabriela Mason was a golden-curled girl who went to school with Pippa, and she was always talking about her parents’ “income.” She got all of her dresses with all the latest frills and furbelows, and even her books came from a bookstore, not rented from the library or falling apart at the binding like Pippa’s. But she wouldn’t think of that. She had to try out her new piano.
“No, love, don’t try it now! It’ll sound that terrible. Give Monsieur Cupide a chance to tune it for you. Probably hasn’t had a proper tuning in years.” Dada looked excited, but Mama turned pale and sat down on the settee, which promptly buckled beneath her.
“Oh, this leg is done for. Pippa, do prop it up with a few of our old books.” Biting her lip, Pippa picked up a few moldy volumes—the very thickest she could find—and shored up one side of the settee. Dada put on one of his favorite records, and the smell of sausages came swimming out of the kitchen.

Monsieur Cupide came the next day to tune the new piano. Huffing, snuffling, and rattling his dangerous-looking toolkit, he disassembled the instrument and began plinking notes. Dada had been right, the thing sounded awful. Pippa sat in her chair by the window, feet tucked beneath her, nose buried in the pages of The Grindensag Locket (a riveting story of love, loss and betrayal). Mama clanked pots in the kitchen—presumably to drown out Monsieur’s discordant banging.
At last the ordeal was over and M. Cupide called Pippa over to the bench with pride in his voice. “Despite being the worst piano I have ever played, I must say that I have tuned it to perfection. Try out your Bagatelle. Biting her lip, trying not to notice Mama standing in the kitchen doorway drying her hands on a tea towel, Pippa sat down on the creaky bench and placed her fingers on the keys. With tremulous, slow movements she picked her way through an old piece she had almost forgotten. It went very badly, but she got through it in the end.
Monsieur had that stiff upper lip that signaled displeasure, and Pippa gently extricated herself from the piano bench, walking to her room without a glance at Mama. Monsieur sighed. “It will get better with time. A few more drills and she will be—er—competent.”

The next lesson started off terribly. Pippa was not yet used to this new instrument, and her fingers felt large and clumsy on the keys. M. Cupide did not help much. “Faster, faster! You are so dull. Pitoyable. You know nothing.”
Finally Pippa turned to face him and said, “I am awfully tired of drills. Can’t I learn another piece? Please? I haven’t tried a new one since autumn.”
“No, no, and no. You cannot expect to have skill if you do not work at your drills.”
“But it’s been three years, Monsieur. Can’t I—”
Absolutely not.
And that was that. Pippa wondered how she was ever going to become like her genius grandfather at such a rate.
When M. Cupide left Pippa remained on the bench, overcome with that youthful kind of despair that makes the whole world feel bleak and empty and hopeless. Listless, with a heartless languor, she poked at the F drill. Slowly at first, then faster and louder, banging at the helpless ivory and hitting more wrong notes than right ones.
“Pippa, dear, maybe you ought to try playing something you like.”
Pippa swiveled to face Mama, who was cleaning the tablecloth, scrubbing a hole right through it. “I’m awful at all my pieces, they never sound right.”
“Oh just try, dear. It can’t hurt to try!”
Mama was always optimistic.
The little musician tried a simple, slow movement she had once been able to perform quite well. It started out all right at first, but soon slid rapidly downhill and her fingers struggled to hit the right keys. She tried another piece, then another. It wasn’t working; it was worse than before! Almost in a panic now, Pippa stared at the dusty keyboard in horror. It’s not letting me do it! It’s not letting me! The piano was like a living thing—ugly, damaged, old, fractious—preventing her from playing anything.
“How about you make something up?” Mama sounded desperate.
Pippa gave a sigh, then tentatively fingered the keys, as if fearing to be bitten. She played a C, then she played an F. She’d never improvised before. Remembering a simple chord progression she went into that, then complemented it with a simple tune on the right hand. Slowly, a theme began to emerge. D, F, G, A, G, F…. The melody was sad, slightly sinister, and it held Pippa’s imagination. She played the notes over and over again; they made her think of a poor little orphan boy in a book she’d just read.
A moment later she realized that her left hand had begun to accompany the right in a sing-song pattern. Her excitement began to build as she heard herself—felt herself—playing a piece she had never heard before. But at the same time it felt as though she had heard it, heard it in every sad story she’d ever read, heard it in every one of Mama’s little crying fits. And it had come to her now (into her head or into her fingers, she wasn’t sure).  It was a song that needed to be played, and somehow this old piano was doing it.
Because it had to be the piano. Pippa wrapped up the first song and went right into another one; this one was like a chase—first suspenseful staccato in a minor key, then a rush and a thrill. Later a kind of rainy day melody came to her, and the sound of cool spring raindrops filled the dusty flat. Two smaller pieces came next, and though it was a bit difficult at first to get the right chords, she managed at last to bring out a happy, skipping kind of tune, and then a sweeter, lovesick thing with a fingering Pippa could hardly believe. She couldn’t believe any of it, really, but had to keep going for fear it would stop and she’d have to go back to drills again.
Mama’s fluffy, curly head poked out of the kitchen door. “My word, Pippa, you’re goin’ on like a real concert pianist! All your hard work is finally payin’ off.”
“It’s not my hard work, Mama, it’s this piano! I don’t know how it works, but it’s magical!”
Mama gave a small smile and shook her head, as if it would be quite a few more years before Pippa knew exactly what she was talking about. “It would seem that Monsieur Cupide was a better investment than we thought.”
“But is wasn’t Monsieur Cupide!”
There came that smile again, and Mama disappeared back into the kitchen.
Pippa was confused, but very, very happy. It didn’t really matter how this was working, only that it was working. But had telling Mama broken the spell? Pippa fingered the keys once more, half afraid that everything would now be different and it would be an ordinary, broken-down piano and she would be an ordinary, lousy pianist. She played a few halting notes, then fell into step with a tune that somehow sounded familiar. The longer she played it the more she realized—it was a tune that Mama sometimes hummed. Charming, and strangely reminiscent, the melody ebbed and flowed around the room until Pippa was almost certain she heard sniffling in the kitchen. Stopping abruptly, she ran and hugged her Mama tight around the waist.  
To be continued....
-dusted, a photo by ercwttmn on Flickr.
joe's hands, a photo by katinalynn on Flickr.

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