Turning the handle slowly, I let the door swing open. I’m not expecting a miracle.
Nestled in the corner where my old, permanently out-of-tune Bechstein had once been is a Yamaha U1 — the piano I fell hopelessly in love with after playing it at the store. It has an old feel to it; the keys are well-played and as smooth as butter, and the sound is rich, deep, and honey-sweet. It is well beyond what my family can afford.
But here it is in my living room, its ebony cabinet gleaming. Beside it stands my grandfather, tall and thin, peering curiously inside the lid. He likes to see how things tick.
“Isn’t this a grand thing?”
“Isn’t this a grand thing?” he announces, prodding the hammers and tinkering with the strings, giving me time to recover some composure.
Yes, I think, it really is.
I hug him fiercely. I know without a doubt that he bought it for me. No one ever says a word about where the piano came from, and I never ask.
The piano starts to become a part of my daily life. Whenever he drops by, it’s a part of my grandfather’s life too. He wanders over to the keys and touches a few with a nostalgic air. Though he loves the instrument, he’s never had any talent for playing it. So he settles for dancing instead.
“Can you play: dum DUM dummmm dum?”
I’m left to puzzle out what those tuneless humming noises actually are. It’s usually a waltz. He loves waltzes.
“Uh, sure thing. Is this it?”
“No, no, no! Dum DUM, Dum DUM!” The heavy emphasis doesn’t enlighten me any further. I make a few more attempts and then give up altogether, settling for the only waltz I know how to play: “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”
“Ahhh,” he says, dancing around the room with his eyes closed. It’s a feeling I understand well. There’s nothing better than getting boundlessly lost in the music.
The beginning of “The Blue.”
Years pass us by swift as an arrow. Although he drops by often and listens to me play, he begins to decline the offer of a waltz. He complains of an ache in his back, a niggle that won’t go away. He still touches the keys, but just a few notes: the beginning of “The Blue.”
Not long afterwards, he dies, and the colour drains out of my life. The world is a darker place, less sudden, less intense. Nothing really surprises me anymore. My reactions are muted and automatic.
For the first time since it arrived, I shut the fallboard of the piano. Dust settles on it, dulling the once-brilliant shine. Too much memory is locked up in those keys, and for months afterwards I automatically switch off radios and wear headphones just to hear silence. Music hurts. Everything sounds wrong, out of tune somehow. It grates against my ears.
One day, after my mom cottons on to the fact that I’m avoiding anything musical, I find a book lying on my bed. Piano keys grace the cover. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank.
It doesn’t feel right to enjoy music.
Sighing deeply, I begin to read, not expecting anything at all. An hour goes by, and I’m still reading the book. I keep reading, flipping page after page, hungry for what comes next. The old familiar urge to play begins pulling at me, but I can’t, I won’t — it feels like a betrayal. It doesn’t feel right to enjoy music, not without him in the world.
I reread the last sentence, and pause.
“Life is a river… and we all have to find a boat that floats.”
I put on my Sennheiser Momentum headphones and press the play button. The first beats of “Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor” hit my ears. It’s a song I was trying to learn. Before. Turning the volume to the max, I grimace — it is uncomfortably loud.
I follow the jangling, frenetic music, conducting along with my hands, punctuating the heavy bass notes. The song feels like descending into a well of insanity, into chaos, and I’m glad. It is the first thing that feels real to me. Life isn’t a well-ordered event; shit does in fact happen, things do go wrong. It’s up to me to deal with it, to get through it any way that I can. Music will be my boat.
The song finishes and I take the headphones off, half deaf, but almost smiling. Sweat sticks the hair to my neck, and I make my way to the bathroom and splash a shock of cold water on my face.
That’s when I hear it.
Two notes. On the piano. Which is downstairs, and no one else is at home. I frown to myself as I proceed down the steps and look into the room. No one there. I must have imagined it.
Just as I’m about to turn away, I realize something strange. The fallboard is open. By unspoken rule, no one has touched the instrument since I’d shut it.
I walk over and play the exact notes I’d heard. A memory rushes over me in a wave. They were the first two notes to the waltz: his waltz. “The Blue.”
Our time together, with the music, these beautiful sounds, will forever be ours.
How often had he touched those keys, played those exact notes, unable to play any further? I think back to when he bought it for me; could he have known that this piano would outlive him? Has it outlived him? Pondering this, I begin to realize that I will always have this, this part of him. Our time together, with the music, these beautiful sounds, will forever be ours.
I sit down, resting my hands lightly on the keys. I smile to myself. His memory can never truly die, not while I have this piano.
Briefly, I hear a tuneless hum over my shoulder, but I don’t look.
Without pause, I begin where he left off.