Aunt Maude kept a pianist in the conservatory. From early morning until late in the evening, he played beautiful music, music that drifted through the house, touching every room .
Today there’s no beautiful music. As soon as my mother and I are shown into the office, I look around for the pianist. I know he will be here. He is. Sitting at the end of the front row, staring straight ahead. I would sit next to him but there’s only one empty seat. My mother pulls me into a seat at the other end of the row, next to Uncle George and his wife.
There are twelve chairs set out in two rows, slightly arced around a huge dark oak desk. The row behind is filled by Uncle George’s daughters and their families. The children are restless, wriggling in their seats.
Uncle George’s wife pats my mother’s hand, makes whispered comments, ‘funeral went well, lovely spread, such a shame, George so busy, President of Rotary, couldn’t see her as much as would have liked’.
A side door opens and the solicitor strides in. A tall thin man, he stands behind his desk, glances around. He nods the briefest of greetings before he sits, places his briefcase on the desk and opens it. He takes out an assortment of papers and sorts through them. He is not in a hurry. Uncle George shifts his weight in his chair. He drums his fingers on his legs. His wife pats his hand. Yesterday, at the funeral, she patted mine.
I glance across at the pianist. He is still staring, apparently at the portrait of a judge on the wall behind the solicitor, but he is nodding almost imperceptibly. I know he is keeping time with the music he plays in his head. I wonder what it is and try to guess from the rhythm whether it is merry or mournful.
At last the solicitor adjusts his glasses and speaks. ‘Good morning. Thank you for coming.’
The pianist glances around, sees my mother and me and smiles. I smile back and then raise my finger to indicate that the solicitor has started to speak. The pianist and I both give him our full attention.
But I am not good at concentrating and soon my thoughts wander from this room to the conservatory.
The conservatory is full of light even though there are blinds drawn at each of the long windows. The rest of Aunt Maude’s home, a solid Victorian detached house in large grounds, is dark and rapidly deteriorating but the conservatory is wonderful. In the centre is the very grand piano at which the pianist sits. His name is Edward but no-one ever calls him that. He is always simply the pianist.
When Aunt Maude first bought the Steinway Baby Grand and declared her intention of keeping it in the conservatory my mother asked if it were wise, wouldn’t the fluctuating temperature affect the performance of the piano, even maybe damage it permanently. Aunt Maude had already considered this. The next day the builders moved in to repair the cracks in the window-frames before installing a thermostatically controlled heating and humidity system.
The pianist arrived the same day as the piano. He was installed in a guest bedroom and stayed there until the day Aunt Maude died. He insisted on moving out then, to a bed and breakfast place in town.
Uncle George is asking a question. ‘Which painting does the cleaning woman get, d’you say?’
The solicitor raises his eyes above his glasses. ‘The seascape by Gerald Richards.’
‘Which one’s that?’
‘You remember, dear, the one in the hall,’ his wife tells him.
‘I think you’ll find it above the fireplace in the dining room,’ the solicitor says to her.
‘Oh, that one, of course, yes, silly me.’ She pulls her handkerchief out of her handbag and dabs her cheeks.
Uncle George gives her a look and she shrinks back in her seat.
I only ever remember him coming to Aunt Maude’s house once. My mother and I visited her every Wednesday throughout my childhood, and then as she grew older, one or other of us would call in most days to see her. Her sight started deteriorating when she was in her eighties but rapidly worsened when she passed ninety. I was there one day when she tripped over a turned-up corner of a rug. I hurried to help her and realised she was crying, ‘Aunt Maude, have you hurt yourself?’ But it wasn’t pain that made her cry.
‘Damn, damn, damn. These blasted eyes of mine, letting me down when I need them. Stupid eyes, stupid, stupid.’ I helped her into a chair and went to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. When I returned, she was sitting back in the chair, fingering her glasses. She leaned forward, waved her glasses at me, and said, ‘Right, Kathryn, I might be losing one sense but I still have the others. It’s time to put my grand plan into action.’
The grand plan was to compensate for the loss of one sense by lavishing treasures on the others. It was then that she bought the piano and began filling every room that she used in the house with highly scented lilies. Throughout the year she had a twice weekly delivery from the local florist.
It was a sensory experience to enter her home and I delighted in it. The music of the pianist distracted visitors from the shabby wallpaper and frayed carpets and the perfume of the lilies overpowered the decaying smell of the old house.
The time Uncle George came, he grumbled about the scent. ‘What’s that damn awful smell?’ He sneezed. In the background, the pianist had reached a particularly intricate section. ‘How d’you put up with that damn noise? Can’t hear yourself think.’
He didn’t stay long. ‘Meetings, you understand, vital. Get wife to call in. Make herself useful. Make a change.’
His wife now nods sagely as the solicitor continues to explain minor bequests. I look again at the pianist, longing to ask him what music he plays in his head so I can hear it too, instead of this legal talk.
I am so used to the house being filled with mazurkas and sonatas of Beethoven and Chopin that to enter it yesterday, before the crowds arrived, to silence made me cry, more than I had cried before. It was a silence so heavy that I could understand how the pianist must feel and I wondered if that was why he played so incessantly. To stop others from knowing the oppression his deafness brought on him. I was glad when the mourners arrived.
The pianist went for a walk during the funeral tea. I had hoped he would play but my mother said it would be unfair to ask that of him. So the only music that afternoon was the discordant tones of the whispered murmurings that grew louder as the afternoon went by.
I watched people, people I’d never seen, study the ornaments, touch and handle them, turn them over, looking for a hallmark or famous name. Some said loudly, ‘Maude always promised me this was to be mine after she was gone.’ They had short shrift from Uncle George, ‘It will be in her will then, won’t it?’ he’d say, returning the object to the wrong place on the shelf.
As it turned out it was a good thing the pianist wasn’t at the funeral tea as guests persisted in putting their cups and saucers on the closed lid of the piano. Between us, my mother and I kept guard, gathering up the dirty crockery instantly and polishing the lid with our sleeves.
Now the solicitor is saying something about the pianist and I listen properly. ‘For the immense pleasure his music has brought me over my last years, I leave him the piano, with my eternal thanks.’ Uncle George, his brow wrinkled, leans forward and grunts in the pianist’s direction. I imagine he is working out the value of the piano.
Meanwhile the solicitor begins to speak of Aunt Maude’s vast collection of books including some rare first editions. She has left her entire library to my mother and me ‘in the certain knowledge that it will bring them as much joy as it brought me.’
I can’t help smiling as I remember. When I was about seven, while her eyesight was still reasonably good, she led me into the hall one day and told me to stand on a chair. Then she pointed to a small embroidered wall-hanging. ‘Can you read what this says, Kathryn?’
I studied the words. The stitches were fancy and faded but I could just make it out. I nodded.
‘Then read it aloud to me,’ she said. ‘Can you do that?’
‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness;’ I stumbled over some of the words but Aunt Maude was nodding so I carried on. ‘but still will keep a bow-er quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.’
‘Now, Kathryn, that was written more than a hundred years ago by a man called John Keats. It is one of the truest things you will ever hear.’
She helped me down from the chair. ‘Love and beauty, Kathryn,’ she said. ‘Love and beauty are all that matter.’ She sighed, ‘I have been fortunate in my life to have known such love and beauty. And now that you have shown me what a good reader you are, it is time you helped your mother.’
Every week when we went to Aunt Maude’s house, after tea, we would sit in the parlour and my mother would read aloud to us. It was all her old comfy favourites in their worn covers that Aunt Maude preferred, the ones that would fall open at a beloved poem. She would often join in and recite those she knew by heart and my mother would stop reading, draw me close to her, and we’d sit back together and listen. From then on, my mother and I took it in turns to read aloud to Aunt Maude.
I put my arm through my mother’s then I realise she is crying. I rummage around in my pocket for a clean tissue but she finds one first and blows heartily.
The solicitor stops reading for a moment.
‘Shall I continue?’ he asks. ‘Or would you like a short break?’
‘Get on with it, man,’ Uncle George growls. ‘Haven’t got all day.’
The solicitor looks at my mother who nods her acquiescence.
‘Very well, there’s not much more. We now come to the remaining estate.’
Uncle George and his wife both lean forward in their seats, while their daughters loudly shush the children. Uncle George has, on his forehead, shiny globs of sweat. His lips are parted and his tongue darts in and out.
‘I wondered long and hard about this decision,’ the solicitor reads from Aunt Maude’s will, ‘and it is not one I have made lightly. I considered the pianist but decided it would be an unnecessary burden for an artist. Then I thought of my two dear girls who have read to me so faithfully — but for them also the responsibility would weigh heavy’
Uncle George’s wife pats my mother’s hand. ‘She did it for the best reasons, I’m sure, dear,’ she says.
The solicitor looks up, raises one eyebrow.
‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ Uncle George’s wife purrs.
‘So, after much consideration, I am leaving my estate and my business affairs in the safe hands of my nephew, George, who will know how best to deal with it.’
There are a few more paragraphs in the same style before the solicitor puts down the will and takes off his glasses.
‘Can we go now?’ the youngest of Uncle George’s grandchildren begs. Her mother quietens her with promises of ice cream before she leans over and tells her parents that she will speak to them later. She congratulates them, which seems strange to me. They haven’t done anything. I begin to feel slightly resentful. I realise that I had been hoping the house would be left to my mother and that the pianist would be able to stay. We have a spare room in our house but I doubt if we’d get a grand piano in the dining room.
I notice the pianist has left. I am sorry that he didn’t say goodbye to us. I wonder if we will meet again. The general hum in the room lessens as the children are led away but it is necessary for the solicitor to almost shout to attract our attention.
‘There are a few more things that Maude wanted me to say while you were together,’ he says. ‘About the value of the estate.’
This seizes Uncle George’s attention and he shakes his wife’s hand off his arm as he re-arranges himself in the chair. By the time the solicitor finishes speaking of loans and debts and re-mortgaging, Uncle George is slumped back in his chair, his mouth hanging open. His wife fans herself with an estate agent’s brochure she has in her bag. My mother and I avoid each other’s eyes.
We thank the solicitor and leave. The pianist is waiting outside. ‘Did you know?’ my mother asks him.
We return to the house once more and the pianist plays. My mother and I lean on the piano and watch. My mother’s eyes are on his face but I watch his hands. I love to see his fingers fly over the keys. He begins to play a polka and I grab my mother’s hands. We dance around the conservatory.