“Piano means quiet in musical terms, did you know that?” Maggie tells me.
Her usual sparkling emerald eyes have dulled to a murky myrtle tone in the dimmer lighting of the bar we sit in. Good. Less temptation that way.
“I didn’t know that,” I admit. How did I not know that?
I made a mental note to fact check this before the story went to print.
“So Maggie, uh, I guess we should start at the beginning. What’s your relationship to Ernest?”
Her eyes dipped towards the voice recorder, sitting obtrusively in the middle of the heavily lacquered mahogany table.
“I can move it elsewhere if you like. If it’s distracting you,” I said.
She shook her head, and pushed a stubborn strand of hair back behind her pixie-like ear.
“No, it’s fine.” Her voice was sad. “I’m just afraid I won’t do his story justice, you know?”
I smiled, trying my best to convey warmth and empathy through the irritation.
I was done with reporting on these kinds of stories.
I wanted to write real stories about incredible people who had actually done something remarkable in their lives. Not 90 year old geezers who kicked the bucket mid-way through an impromptu piano performance at the local retirement village.
“I’m sure you will.”
She nods and that pesky hair slips back out and curls its tail under her chin. I fight the urge to lean over and push it back into place. No. Don’t go there. You’ll regret it like you always do.
“Well, as you know, Ernest was my grandfather...Huh. it feels weird calling him by his name.”
“You didn’t call him that?”
She looks at me like I’ve just told her that I can burp the entire alphabet.
“Of course not. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t just refer to their grandma or grandpa as...just that.”
I ignore the heat bubbling beneath the surface of my cheeks. Wow, my interviewing skills have seriously suffered from this gig.
She sees my momentary horror and that seems to comfort her. The words come quickly, spilling from her mouth in a rhythmic tempo.
“I know he had a bad childhood. His mother was a strict woman with no maternal instinct. His father was an alcoholic and abusive.”
I scribbled this into my battered Moleskine as she continued.
“My grandmother has a photo of him standing beside his mother watching her play the piano.” She paused. “You can see anger in her face and wonder in his,” she said, her tone quiet and pensive.
“I think he learnt it from her,” she continued.
“To play the piano?’
“Not so much that...to...to express his emotions through music.” She smiled but it didn’t touch her eyes.
I tried not to roll my eyes at the cliché. Being a writer meant I had a particular propensity to cringe when encountering such phrases.
“That’s interesting,” I lied. “Go on.”
“Well, when I was young he used to play Clare De Lune for me.” Her smile was more genuine this time. There was a long pause as the memory replayed in her head.
“The way his hands just hovered over the keys and touched them so lightly like they were as delicate as eggshells, but the sound it made... the sound...it was...”
She huffed, causing the stray strand of hair to fly outwards in shock.
“I can’t describe it.” She shot another frustrated look at the voice recorder.
I raised an eyebrow. “Maggie. Do you want me to move the recorder?”
“No it’s fine.” She stared at a dark circular stain on the table. “It’s not that. My whole family are bad with words. It’s our thing.”
I let out a short laugh. “You’re not bad with words at all. I’ve heard much worse, trust me.”
When she didn’t respond, I added, “My last interviewee used ‘literally’ in an opposite sense in almost every sentence and referred to coffee as ‘expresso’ so...”
This tickled the corners of her lips into a coy smile. “Yeah I guess that’s worse.”
I mirrored her expression and poised my pen above my notebook to signal her to continue.
She took the bait.
“And then when I was around 12 years old, I remember he played Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 and I’d dance around like a happy drunk, waving my arms around and kicking out my legs. Sometimes grandma would join in if she was feeling especially confident in her hips.”
She shifted and flattened her spine against the sticky red plastic of the booth seat we sat in. Her expression was blank.
“I miss those days.” The words were exhaled in barely a whisper of breath.
“The music was happy so we were happy.”
I glanced at my cheap Casio watch. I hoped the story would take a turn soon. I wanted to be home in time for the Manchester vs Liverpool game at 7:00pm.
Time to speed this up.
“So how did he become the man he was? The prolific pianist of Piccadilly Retirement Village?”
Genius alliteration. Possible headline?
I wrote the phrase down so I wouldn’t forget it.
“Pain.” The word shot out of her mouth like a bullet. She wanted it to sting, to pierce through my skin, to lodge inside my heart and make it bleed.
I met her steely gaze with an inviting expression. Please, by all means, murder me with your words.
“He...didn’t have an easy life. Being a musician was not exactly the kind of career that gained respect in his time. There were money troubles. Fights with grandma. Trying to support two hungry kids on next to nothing.”
“And then...the, uh, brain injury. “
I sat up straighter.
Oh great, a sob story. Old mate Bill will love this. He’ll rub his chubby little hands together with glee. “That’ll boost our readership, Joe! ‘Atta boy!”
“It was a slip in the shower that did it. He was practically dead. I was fifteen.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I was a robot repeating the generic acceptable response to those grieving.
She picked up her untouched glass of water. I watched her Adam’s apple bounce with each swallow.
She shrugged her shoulders and returned the glass to the little circular wet patch from whence it had left.
“He couldn’t play for a while after that of course. He’d lost the entire use of his right side. He’d sit in his wheelchair by the window and just stare out of it. All day.” She sniffed and rotated the water glass a few times, watching the water slosh against the sides in protest.
“He also lost his ability to talk in proper sentences. He’d try, of course, but the words weren’t what he wanted to say. It was all muddled and choppy. He’d shake his head in frustration and say, ‘no, no, no’ over and over and over.”
“I’m sure that was hard for you,” I said.
“Harder for grandma and mum,” she snapped back.
Upon realising her rudeness, she cleared her throat and muttered, “Sorry.”
“Since he couldn’t play piano, he tortured himself with listening to it. He’d put the old records on and cry. And grandma would cry with him.”
Her eyes were glistening. It reminded me of the early morning dew that collected on the leaves of the Ficus plant just outside my front door.
“That was when he became obsessed with Beethoven. He’d play nothing else but Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14...Moonlight...” A long pause. A shaky breath in.
“Have you heard it? Moonlight?” she implored, her eyes wide and waiting.
“I have not,” I answered.
She nodded. “That’s good. It’s soul-sucking.”
While I made a note to reference that quote in my notebook, she continued, “He was different too. Angry. The doctors said that sometimes those kinds of injuries can do things like that. Change a person’s personality.”
She looked up at me and I could almost see the anger she was describing there behind her eyes.
“He became the music. He became Beethoven.“
She took a deep breath in.
“After that, mum stopped taking me to visit him so much. I think she saw how much it affected me...to see him like that...to hear his pain.”
“And then, of course, this happened,” she gestured towards me as if I was the reason he had died.
“I hadn’t seen him in over 5 years. I grew up, you know, and I just started to live my own life. He was placed into care. Grandma was devastated.”
There was a quiver in her voice. I shifted in my chair. Please don’t cry. God, I hate it when they cry.
“We...we didn’t even know. Can you believe it? To have achieved something so incredible as to play the piano again and we weren’t even there?”
She sucked in another breath and sighed.
“Mum only found out afterwards from the staff at the respite that he had been using the communal piano as a kind of physiotherapy. I guess they just didn’t think to tell us.”
“That’s awful,” I said. And I meant it. I could see it would have meant so much to her to be there for that moment.
I knew what was coming next. I’d heard the basic rundown from Bill.
“When he died, the young nurse on the late shift said he was playing a beautiful melody. Not perfectly, but enough to captivate the rest of the patients there.” She smiled.
“Do you know the song he was playing?” I implored. I knew the song. Had she not seen the video?
She looked at me, her eyebrows knitting together in the middle.
“...No? Do you?” Oh, this is awkward.
“Um, there’s a video. Taken by a staff member. Have you not seen it?”
She sat up straight in her chair. “Show me.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea.”
Her hand gripped my forearm. “Please.”’
“Are you sure?” Christ, I don’t want be here when a granddaughter witnesses her beloved grandfather die.
She nodded three times and tucked the strand of hair behind her ear, learning forward as she did so.
I sighed heavily and retrieved my phone from my pocket. A few messages from Dan about the game tonight flashed onto the screen. Sorry man.
I opened the email from Bill with the video attachment.
“You’re really sure about this?”
“Yes, please...Joe.” That was the first time she had addressed me by my name.
I opened the attachment and pressed play, positioning the phone in front of us both.
The image on the screen shakes slightly as the camera person pans across the room of smiling oldies, swaying and staring pensively ahead like churchgoers. It rests rather abruptly on the side view of an old gentleman sitting in a wheelchair at a decrepit piano, his hands tapping away on the keys. Slow and methodical, but recognisable.
“Clare De Lune,” Maggie whispers.
The camera zooms out. The oldies are like stunned fish in a barrel. And to be honest, I feel the same. The music is...is...
There’s a worried shout as the person with the camera realises that the tune has stopped suddenly and the old man is sitting with his head resting back against the headrest of his wheelchair, his eyes closed and the ghost of a smile fading from his lips.
A frail hand still resting on the piano keys.
I push the pause button. There was no need for any more.
Maggie sniffed and a tear dropped onto the table, forming it’s own neat little water circle.
I think about the old man’s hands on the piano, his face peaceful at last, and realise that Maggie has won. My heart bleeds.
After a little while she said, “Do you know what the opposite of piano is in musical terms?” her voice catching on the word piano.
“No,” I say. “Tell me.”
“What does that mean?”
Ah, now there’s the right word.