A Fine Old Lady
I’ve been silent for so long that I can barely remember the sound of my own voice. On the surface I am well looked after; I’m warm and dry and spotlessly clean. But something is missing, you could call it my heart. For what use is a piano if it is never played?
I’m hoping that today will be different. There are signs that a tuner is coming: the spider plants that normally rest on top of me have been removed and a piano stool has appeared. There was talk of a tuner, I’m sure there was. But I lose track. I think it is the silence; and the solitude – it takes some getting used to. Pianos are delicate creatures, you see, and highly strung.
I’ve been at Sunnyvale Nursing Home for seven years now. They put me in a corridor next to a window, the only place they had for me. I have a view across fields and trees to houses beyond. The view never changes but day by day I can feel my strings slowly sinking out of pitch.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was young I was at the centre of the family. I was the one who brought them all together on rainy afternoons and in the evenings after dinner. Back in 1911 is where my story begins. I belonged to the Nutbrowns then, a wedding gift from a generous aunt. Those were the golden days – nearly every household had a piano. Uprights like me were a popular and economical choice. In England they churned out more than 35,000 pianos a year, and many were exported to New Zealand. Did you know that a piano even accompanied Captain Scott on his expedition to the South Pole? It was taken to first base-camp and played on the ice.
I stayed with the Nutbrowns for 60 years, through two world wars and three generations. I got to know them well. I was part of the family and they knew all my little foibles. The way I played lazily just before a storm and how my middle octave is particularly temperamental. They had me tuned regularly and placed jars of water in my base beneath the keys to counteract the effects of electric heating.
I watched so many children growing up: their fumbling fingers gradually becoming practised and skilled. My sounding board hummed to nursery rhymes then minuettes and party pieces. Most of the children soon tired of me, and the discipline of daily practice, but there was one who was different.
I suppose you could say he fell in love with me. We spoke the same language, you see. He was so faithful; he sat at my keyboard every day without fail, practising his scales, arpeggios and broken chords. Slowly, methodically he would master a piece and then, when he knew it by heart, oh that’s when he would make me sing. Bach was his favourite – and mine – and we lost hours to counterpoint. Of course, with talent like that he sped through the grades and was soon thinking of music college. All too soon he needed a piano that could give him something more. There was no room in the house for two pianos and I had to make way for some well-bred baby grand.
He donated me to Madame Bouvoire’s School of Dance. It was 1971 and although I was 60 by then, this was no early retirement. Every day the flamboyant Madame hammered at my keyboard as the young girls with their heads full of prima ballerina dreams pirouetted around the studio. She kept a steady tempo, I’ll give her that, although she was terribly heavy handed. With questionable technique she belted out polkas and tarantellas, and I can still remember the sound of the sprung floor creaking beneath the clumsy little ducklings’ feet.
When Mrs Bouvoire died I came to Sunnyvale. It seemed like a good idea all round, although the nursing home didn’t really have room for me. But they found a space in the corridor. I came to accept that my dark mahogany frame and brass Art Nouveau candlesticks had taken on an ornamental purpose. Then, just a few months ago a new nurse came to the home and she immediately saw my potential. She imagined sing-alongs and music hall nights; even tea dances if they could clear enough space. She wondered if any of the residents could play, or whether they could have lessons. She asked if I could be moved to the main sitting room and I was so excited. But her colleagues couldn’t see the point.
‘Who would organise all these extra activities?’ they asked. ‘Wouldn’t it mean more work in our already busy schedules? And what if we hurt our backs shifting the thing?’
It was too much hassle; too much risk. The nurse had to accept it. After all, she couldn’t move a piano on her own. But she persuaded them to have me tuned, at least I think she did. So here I am waiting for my tuner.
Hold on, there is someone being led towards me? A middle-aged man with white hair and a stick to match – it must be the tuner. Resting his cane beside me he is feeling for my keys. This is a good sign. He’s not automatically ripping me open and applying spanners and tuning forks, like so many of them do. No; he’s playing me first – and he is listening.
The tradition of blind piano tuners goes back a long way, or so I have heard. The tuning department at the Royal National College for the Blind was set up in 1873 and blind piano tuners still have their own Association – that must be where the nurse found him. As he follows the scale up my keys, he stops here and there, easing a string and then tightening one, comparing and adjusting, until I am back to the old me. Then he plays me again, a flourish of Rachmaninov, and I feel my spirits soar – I can be useful again. They say that when you are blind your other senses, such as hearing, are enhanced. Maybe that’s why he has tuned me so well; or maybe it’s because he is not distracted by the ivory, wood and wires, and can appreciate pianos for the complex individuals that we are.
“What a fine old lady,” he says to the nurse. “She has a remarkable voice for her age.” The nurse agrees.
But as the tuner prepares to leave I feel a shadow fall across me. I long for him to play me some more, let me live in the music and be what I was made to be. Rachmaninov, Chopin and Greig – I would sing them all. But he is closing his briefcase, standing up and reaching for his cane. The silence beckons – and how long will it be? Before the piano tuner closes the cover over my keys he plays a final chord. I hold on to the note for as long as I can, until the vibrations fade into nothing.
First published in 'Her' magazine. c Celia Coyne