Friday, August 19, 2011

The New Piano: Part 2

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. 

This is the second part of the story.

The rest of that day was spent helping Mama make cherry pies to sell to the neighbors, but the next afternoon Pippa returned to her piano. Instead of sitting down on the bench she examined the instrument from top to bottom, poking and prying and stroking. It was in better condition than she had thought at first, though the top was warped and it was very scratched, the rest was sound enough.
She didn’t know what she was looking for—perhaps a secret drawer that would pop out all of a sudden and tell her the secret of the piano’s great powers. Perhaps she searched for little elves that made the music. Whatever she was expecting, though, it probably wasn’t what she found.
As she crouched underneath the piano, staring up at the underside of the keys, she noticed faint scratch marks that seemed curious and deliberate. Pippa got a damp rag from the kitchen and bent to scrub the grimy markings. Gradually, she made out a single word: “David.”

“It frightens me, Philippa. Three years and you still know nothing!” Monsieur Cupide glowered under his bushy white eyebrows. Pippa often wondered if all the hair he had lost from his head had migrated to the spots right above his eyes.
“Now play that drill again. Light, quick, excellent. That is all I ask.”
Pippa tried again. And again. And again. Finally she cried out, “It won’t let me!”
“The piano won’t let me play the drills. Can’t you let me try a real piece?” His face began to swell and turn red, but before he could speak Pippa flew into a flurry of chords and trills, racing up and down the keyboard like lightning to a melody that had been playing through her head all night long. It lasted a good five minutes, and there was silence for another two after she had finished. She didn’t dare glance at M. Cupide.
Where did you hear that?” She swiveled to face him, and saw with alarm that his face had blanched white.
“I—I heard it in my sleep Monsieur.”
“I did! I was just about to fall asleep—”
“But how could you play it? You are pathetic, you are an embarrassment to my teaching! How could you play a piece with such spirit, such expertise?”
“Is there nothing I can do to please you?” Pippa was sitting up straight, glaring at the short Frenchman with all the sternness she could muster. “If I play poorly, you hate it, if I play well you don’t believe me. Can any of your students ever please you?”
Monsieur Cupide looked dazed. A moment later he mumbled, “Yes…yes…long ago. David….”
Pippa’s face transformed into eager curiosity, “David? Who was he? Was he a musician?”
He turned away from the girl and began to pace back and forth across the tiny room, scratching behind his protruding ears, mumbling to himself. “Yes…yes. He too had a piano.” Turning all of a sudden, he blurted, “Where did you get that piano?”
“At the piano store, of course, where else would we get a piano?”
“You lie. It was at a junk shop, was it not?”
“Ah well, it hardly matters.”
“Who is David?”

“Only the most talented musician to bless this miserable little country in a century! Only the creator of a fine, new, expressive style that no one else could imagine in their wildest dreams! David was a prodigy, a genius, brilliant, genial, and I am the one who taught him his Cs from his Fs.”
“Is he still alive, Monsieur?”
The old man’s face fell. “Non. That was a very long time ago. And he was one of those whom Nature takes too early. If he had lived, though, he could have been the richest man in the world! People would pay anything to hear that boy play.”
Pippa glanced at the abused piano, wondering if, just possibly…. “Do you want me to play the drill again?”
Nom de nom, certainly not! That will be enough for today.” And with that M. Cupide took his leave.

          That evening Pippa continued to practice. Her fingers tripped lightly over the keys and a thrill unlike any she’d ever felt filled her body. She knew it wasn’t her, but it felt like her. It felt like she was bringing the piano to life instead of the other way around.
          All of a sudden she heard a floofing sound from behind. Spinning around, she saw that Dada had just fallen into his armchair, and there was a look on his face that he only ever had when he listened to an especially beautiful record. “That was you, love? I was so sure someone was playing a Haydn record.” Pippa bit her lip and stared at him for a minute, desperately trying to decide whether she should tell him or not. It’s not me, Dada, it’s just the piano! But she couldn’t bear to wipe that look of pride and joy off his face. So she turned back to the keys and played another piece, just as wonderful as the last.

The public library had always been Pippa’s haven when things did not go right. Sometimes Dada came home with a sad look in his eye and he and Mama would close themselves up in their bedroom for a quarter of an hour. When they got out they would be very quiet. Pippa knew it was about money (it was always about money). She also knew that Gabriela’s parents were never upset over money. And that is why Pippa went to the library.
But she was not going to bury herself in bright-backed novels today. Instead, Pippa went to a section she rarely explored and pulled down a few musty volumes. She then sat down to a rickety table to peruse her findings. For several hours she flipped the thick old pages, flinging dust into the air, scanning reams of text looking for a certain name. After dredging up countless old musicians, composers, performers, writers, poets and vagabonds, she felt lightheaded and almost tearful. Finally she gave a gasp and pulled a huge tome closer to her, staring at a lovely sketched portrait and the name beside it, “David.”
She read and read and read it again. It seemed that the handsome youth in the picture (“What curly hair!”) had been a genius of his time, able to create and play music that no piano had any business making.  Crowds were awed, ladies fainted, men staked fortunes on his career, and David was catapulted to great heights of fame.
But then something tragic happened—he caught a cold. Just a simple head cold at first, but then something highly technical happened and he was dead at the age of twenty-one. Pippa almost cried at the description of his funeral, and vividly imagined the grief that engulfed the musical world when that bright soul passed into a place where no one could hear his angelic music. Dada must have been around at that time. Had he never spoken of it? She could almost hear his voice, “Pippa, that was the saddest day in the all the world; the day that David died.” Maybe he had told her about it, and she hadn’t been interested.
She was interested now. Her piano had made her play as she’d never played before, and her piano said, “David”. It had to be this David. Placing one finger at the top of the page, she ever-so-gently tore out the sketch. Folding it two times she slipped it into her pocket and put the pile of books back onto the shelf. When she got back home she took a pot of glue and stuck the picture up underneath the keys beside the name, right where it belonged.

“Don’t you think it’s time we had some guests over?” Mama looked expectantly at Dada, who retreated into his wooly cardigan. Poor Dada hated company, but Mama had spent the entire day scrubbing the flat from top to bottom and was now looking hot and dirty and very pleased with herself.
“Why, love? Didn’t we just have the Becks over?”
“Three months ago! I want to have a lovely little party—finger sandwiches and all—so that all our friends can hear Pippa’s wonderful playing.”
Pippa blanched and glanced from parent to parent. She had never played for an audience before. Dada smiled wanly and gave his girl a pat on the back. “Of course, why hadn’t I thought of that?”
Mama burst into a huge smile. “Oh, Seamus, she’ll be playing at the Royal Albert Hall in no time!”
Pippa gulped.

Mrs. Blacklock and the Evansons arrived first, then the Denbys with their cherubic twins. Three spinster sisters and one of Dada’s clerk friends turned up and then the party was ready to begin. Finger sandwiches in hand, the guests seated themselves around the room, and Mama barely grimaced when Ms. Schultz sat on the wobbly settee.
Pippa hadn’t eaten anything, she was too busy thinking of music. She had greeted her friends with glazed eyes, half hearing them and half hearing chords and trills and movements. When the whole room got quiet and Mama and Dada looked at her with expectant expressions, she knew it was time. She took her seat at the piano and slowly, surely, began a piece she had just discovered yesterday. A small gasp circulated the room, and by the time she was finished she could see tears glimmering in the corners of Dada’s eyes.
She played on, and with every note grew less and less conscious of the eleven pairs of eyes boring into her back. Then, near the end of a melody reminiscent of a Chopin work, Pippa’s ears perked up at the sound of a spinster’s voice, “Never seen such talent in one so young. Laura, doesn't she remind you of David? Her style?”
Suddenly the music went dead and Pippa lost the feeling of magic. She played for a few more lackluster minutes before turning to Mama, who immediately said, “Well, hasn’t this been a lovely evening? But Pippa’s tired now, everyone. She needs her rest.” Pippa said quiet goodbyes and fled to her room. She couldn’t bear the look of satisfaction and pleasure in Dada’s face. He was so happy that his little girl was turning out to be just like his genius father, when in fact it was nothing but an old piano from the junk shop.

Two days later Pippa heard her parents talking together before going to bed. Mama said, “I’ve talked to Laura Carlisle, and she seems to think that she could get Pippa an invitation to play at Madame Loisette’s next event! You’ve heard of Madame Loisette’s events, haven’t you? Some of the greatest names in music play in her drawing room.”
The next day a letter came from Mme. Loisette, and Pippa learned she was to perform for a circle of the lady’s most influential friends on an evening next week. She felt a stone drop into her stomach and left the room where her parents were singing her praises, saying they “always knew this day would come.” Pippa walked over to her piano—David’s piano—and all of a sudden felt as if she could smash it into little pieces. They all thought it was her, thought it was her “genius”. But how could she play at a posh event—in front of all those people—without her piano? Madame Loisette would have a great, expensive instrument, and Pippa would be able to play nothing but drills.
Her face was covered in hot, bitter tears, and she slammed down on the keys with a furious fist…only to produce an infuriatingly beautiful chord.

At the beginning of her next lesson Pippa got up the courage to ask Monsieur Cupide, “Would it be possible for me to take this piano to play at Madame Loisette’s? Could we bring it to her parlor?” There was just the slightest chance….
Absurdit√©! This is a terrible piano.”
“It’s not terrible!”
“I know pianos, and this one is a bad egg, a very bad egg indeed. In fact…” he banged a few keys. “Go and get me a screwdriver.” Perplexed, she obeyed the order, and was horrified when her teacher pried open the top of the piano and began fiddling around inside.
“Monsieur! What are you doing?”
“There is a note that is flat, my girl, and I am fixing it.”
“There’s nothing flat about it!”
“You know nothing. I am a tuner, I do this for a living.” He grunted, hit something inside the piano very hard, and then emerged with a triumphant flourish. “There, it is all better now. Try it.”
It was awful. Suddenly everything Pippa played seemed a bit off. “Look at what you’ve done! You’ve ruined it. Get it back to what it was, get it back, please!”
“Nonsense. It is just as it should be.” He looked very pleased with himself.
“But it’s not all right!” He would not listen to her. When Pippa left the room to put the screwdriver away she returned to find him fingering the keys and humming to himself.
“This is a very bad piano. It cannot even hold a tune.” He almost sounded happy about it.
Pippa tried not to be upset. She tried to act as her genius grandfather might have. Holding her chin high, she took her seat on the bench and continued the lesson, haughtily ignoring Monsieur Cupide. She would have to think of something else. 
To be continued....
-dusted, a photo by ercwttmn on Flickr.
St John's College Old Library - Corner Shelf, a photo by ben.gallagher on Flickr.

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