The piano stands upright and proud in a corner of a spare room. The keys have not been touched for a generation. Many are the colour of bad teeth. The name Bluthner is inscribed in gold leaf on the dark wood, a name so foreign sounding Jessica imagines it might have come from Africa, a place she has been reading about in an old encyclopaedia her Aunt Lydia has given her. A dark and sinful country, it would be sure to have tribes of Bluthners she thinks.
One afternoon she walks up to the instrument purposefully. She knows what she must do. The house is quiet, her aunt is in the kitchen happily occupied baking a cake. She sits herself on the stool with its faded crimson cushion, places her feet gently on the pedals (she has been reading up on Piano in the encyclopaedia), spreads her fingers and counts slowly and deliberately from left to right until she identifies middle C. She pushes it down with her thumb. But there’s no sound. The piano is mute. She tries again. Still nothing. The key sticks and does not rise. She pushes the key to the right, which she has read is called D, and this time there is a response. She does it again, listens intently, is dissatisfied and moves to the next and the next and the next until she reaches the end of the keyboard. She goes the other way and does the same. She remembers how many keys have stuck, closes the lid, tucks the stool under and runs to the kitchen.
– The piano does not sing, she tells her aunt.
– It has lost its voice, Lydia replies, offering Jessica a spoon covered in a sweet creamy mix. We will have to bring it back to life.
The piano tuner is booked for late morning when Lydia knows her husband will be absent. He is an old man, unshaven smelling of drink. The truck he drives is battered, belching grey smoke. He strips the instrument of its outer skin, revealing the massive upright ironwork frame inside, takes some tools from a blue canvas bag and sets to work. He shakes his head a lot, mutters incoherently under his breath, closes his eyes to assist concentration, or because he is tired, and after an hour tells Lydia: It’s not worth the trouble, nor the money. It’s too far gone. Only value is firewood.
Jessica is upset when told the news.
– It has a soul, she says, surprising her aunt. There must be someone else, someone who will understand?
Lydia contacts another firm who send two young men driving a shiny white van, the company name in black copperplate on the sides, underneath the statement: Piano Surgeons. She feels more confident this time and is thrilled when they tell her after their preliminary examination that the Bluthner is worth restoration, that it is: A marvellous instrument, one of the finest of its age we have ever seen. Sure, it is rather sad at the moment after decades of neglect. But the soundboard is in excellent condition. We will restore its spirit for you, young lady.
– Are you the pianist in the family? The other asks as they prepare to manoeuvre it into the van.
– I will be one day, she says.
Lydia engages a piano teacher. Her name, appropriate for a piano teacher, is Ethel, Ethel Jonkins, and she is, it will come as no surprise, a spinster. Jessica is delighted and can barely wait for the first lesson with the thought of meeting a real spinster. She hopes she is friendly.
She is bitterly disappointed.
The lessons go badly from the start, Jessica complaining that Miss Jonkins must be a witch because she stinks of something awful, foul smelling. Mothballs, Lydia can tell, very strong ones too.
She asks around and is directed to a Jonathan Swift. She visits his house on the edge of town and is impressed by the two grand pianos in what he describes grandiloquently as his music room. She examines the framed certificates hanging on the wall, the most impressive from the London College of Music, 1947. She likes the fact he is the namesake of a famous writer. It adds another dimension and he is pleased also she has made the connection. Few in this town are as well read as you, he says.
– Is he a spinster? Jessica asks.
– He is a bachelor, she answers, adding, It’s the same as a spinster, but for men.
– Does he smell?
Lydia says no, while recalling there was a dampness about the room.
Jessica is happy and the lessons proceed well for a few weeks, if made more difficult by the lack of the Bluthner at home. Mr Swift says she is welcome to drop by any afternoon to practice, an offer Lydia accepts with enthusiasm, discreetly leaving a few dollars on a table in the hallway as a gratuity, though the teacher insists he is doing this for free because Jessica is such a delight to have around.
– I have few visitors, he says.
Jessica listens to his stories about Mozart, the child prodigy he calls him.
– The greatest musician who ever lived bar one: the incomparable Bach.
He turns his back on her, breathes deeply. She watches his shoulders relax, his long hands rest on the black and white keys and, though she cannot see them, knows his eyes are closed. Only then, settled in a space far removed from this, does he begin the sublime aria from the Goldberg Variations.
On the dusty drive home Jessica tells her aunt she is going to learn that piece. Lydia is thrilled. It is one of her favourites. She still has a treasured vinyl recording of Glenn Gould’s interpretation, something she has revealed to no one. Nor this. That when she was young she too wanted to play the piano but her parents could never afford lessons, let alone the price of an instrument. Instead, she listened to the radio and, when she was old enough to work at weekends, saved hard to buy a record player.
She remembers sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the magic box, entranced, marvelling at how a needle trapped in a spiralling grove can reproduce this polyphony of sounds. She watches it bobbing this way and that, waiting for the moment at the end when it rises, moves back across the surface of the glistening black disk and, with a sharp click, comes to rest from where it started. Decades pass, she marries, moves to the property and there, in a room, is the Bluthner, left by the last owner, or perhaps the one before. Who knows. Her husband wants to get rid of it but she talks him round.
– Maybe when we have children they might show an interest, she ends.
He acquiesces and soon forgets about it as work takes him criss-crossing the country, leaving him exhausted on his return, the last thing on his mind a battered piano. Finding it unplayable Lydia forgets about it too. Until the day Jessica sits on the faded crimson cushion.
Bach now occupies Jessica’s thoughts. In her encyclopaedia she reads the entry about him over and over. Though there are lots of words she does not understand – cantata, counterpoint, fugue – she believes she has found a soul mate, even if he is an old and dead German composer. That night an electrical storm breaks the silence, igniting the sky with jabs of white, filling clouds with bursts of light. In bed, restless and agitated she finds comfort humming the Goldberg aria.
To be continued….