The Piano Tuner

by Alison Stedman
The first thing the piano tuner noticed when he woke up was the brightly coloured blanket Violet had crocheted for him long ago. It had taken her three weeks and was made up of large, clashing squares that still somehow, miraculously, retained their vibrancy. Red, orange, purple, green, brown, indigo, yellow, white. He liked to keep the blanket on his bed, no matter what, though he did not like to think of Violet. It symbolised a time—albeit a short one—in which he thought they had been happy. He sat up and looked around his room, casting his bleary eyes over the cracked old ceramic sink he could not bear to get rid of and finally locating his dressing gown, dangling like a shadow from the doors of the wardrobe. Harold heaved his bad leg over the side of the bed, hauled himself up and put it on with a sigh before making his way, slowly, to the kitchenette.

His spoon seemed to want to stay in the cornflakes this morning, wallowing in the milk and soggy detritus like a drunken submarine. Harold decided to let it have its fun, and sat for a while staring into the lounge with a little smile, his eyes fondly examining the baby grand that took up most of his living space. The piano had always looked startlingly out of place in his tiny flat. It was huge, glossy and black, but surrounded by beige and orange striped wallpaper, mint green carpet and ripped lace curtains—a shiny piece of perfection. Harold loved his piano. He called it Amadeus.

He plucked his thoughts away, with an effort, and sipped thankfully on his coffee—super strong, a little milk, no sugar. Today would be a busy day. He had to drive out to see young Mr Marazov, the concert pianist. He wouldn't be back until midday, he thought, and then had three appointments after that. No, if anyone rang, he would just have to say no. He couldn't cope with any more work. He had to slow down, he was getting older.

As if the telephone had read his thoughts and scoffed at them, it immediately let out a shrill brrring-brrring. He picked up the receiver. "Yes? Harold Kaye speaking."

"Wake up, Harold, you old fart, it's me."

"Who?" said Harold gruffly. He knew perfectly well who it was but didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing it.

"Bernie, you idiot—your only brother?"

"What do you want, Bernie?"

"Oh, nothing, I'm just ringing to let you know I'm off on a trip to Fiji with two old dames from bowls." Harold could hear him beaming. "I'll be gone two weeks or so. Can you pick up my mail now and then?"

"Suppose so," grunted Harold, rubbing his eyes.

Bernie chortled. "Ha, I'll be quite the playboy, don't you think? It's old Jean and her friend Lou. Did you meet them that one time you came?" His tone was faintly accusatory.

"No, don't think so," muttered Harold, knowing Bernie still hadn't quite forgiven him for not actually wanting to meet old men and women who acted as if they weren't in their seventies, and who didn't know the first thing about music. They had so much energy... they just made him feel tired and slow.

"Well, Lou's newly widowed but Jean's gagging for it so wish me luck. Thought you should know. Why don't you find yourself a nice lady friend? Cheerio."

Harold put down the receiver and sighed. Gagging for it? Bernie was the only person he knew who could sound like a seventy-three year old bowls player and a crass adolescent male at the same time. He went back to his cornflakes and ate them reluctantly, considering his watch now and then and mentally driving the distance to Marazov's country house.

Only as he finished did the phone ring again. "Yes, Harold Kaye speaking?" he answered briskly, mentally preparing himself to say no to a disgruntled customer who had left their piano tuning until the last minute.

"Don't say you can't do it."

Harold froze. "Ma'am?"

"Dear Mr Kaye, I know this is very late notice, but Archie is in great need of a tune!" came the sweet, steady voice.

"Mrs Partridge?" he breathed.

"Yes, it's Kitty," she said, "and will you come over?"

"Yes. Yes, I'll come." He gathered his senses. "This—this afternoon? Will that be suitable? I am engaged until about four."

"That will be eminently suitable!" was the reply. "I'll make you my famous sultana cake! See you then, Mr Kaye."

Harold sat down, gulping in a fresh burst of air. Kitty had phoned. He had not seen her for... a few months now. Where was it? Oh, yes—his cousin Joyce's eightieth birthday celebrations. Bernie had dragged him along saying he couldn't be a recluse all the time. The expected night of torment became something very different when it turned out that Kitty and Joyce's late husbands had been at school together. They had talked all evening, and he had even danced with her. It was lucky for him Bernie had been getting drunk, playing poker with his lecherous old friends, or he would never have heard the end of it. She had invited him to come round for morning tea that week so they could chat some more, but as fate would have it the few weeks after the party were especially busy ones for him... and he was too terrified to suggest another date. Then she had rung a few weeks later to ask him around for coffee, but she took him by surprise—he panicked and refused, citing another busy week, a decision that lefthim thoroughly frustrated with himself for a full fortnight.

It took all his resolve now just to stand up, retrace his steps to his bedroom and put on his clothes ready for the trip to Marazov's house.

His clothes were generally the same, day in and day out, but today he took a little more care, telling himself it was for Mr Marazov, whose sensibilities he could not afford to wound. He wore his normal brown cords and brown shoes, but today Harold added to the equation his special polo shirt, with a green collar and a big green pine tree beside the printed "Norfolk Island" (purchased on the Elysian-like trip his nephew Jamie had taken him on a few years before). He stood nervously to attention in front of the faded mirror, peering at his reflection.

"It'll have to do," he grunted out loud, pulling on his floppy grey felt hat, and picking up his old brown jersey in case the weather changed.

Marazov had a big home, out past Ashburton, with a sea view and modern decor. Harold always felt that people like him were not permitted there, yet there was never anything he could point to in the pianist's manner that was exactly condescending. It was very odd. Nevertheless, he always enjoyed his fortnightly visits to Marazov's Steinway. After he had finished tuning the instrument, he knew he would have a chance to test it, and he took a certain pleasure in knowing that when the piano was at its most perfect, it was he who played it, and not Marazov—because the piano was the closest thing to perfection that Harold had ever encountered. Every time, Marazov would come gliding to the doorway like a purring, unctuous cat, and watch the old piano tuner fling himself into the mind of Schubert or Chopin like a twenty-one year old prodigy. And as soon as the piano tuner finished, Marazov would clap smartly and mince into the room, clapping a hand on Harold's shoulder, as if to say, "Well done you! You have been practicing hard, haven't you? If only you had that teensy weensy bit more skill..." People like Harold made Marazov worried that prodigies were hiding everywhere, and one day they might all decide to leave their closets and expose him as the most ordinary of ordinaries. It was worth having Harold, though, as his piano tuner. He was the best in the business.

Today Harold contented himself with only a prelude. He almost didn't notice Marazov's hand on his shoulder, and he almost knocked over his glass of water in the rush to get up. He patted the piano in an apologetic gesture, and turned to Marazov. "Well, it sounds pretty good to me, sir; I hope you're satisfied?"

"Oh, yes, Mr Kaye. Thank you so much. You will send your bill as usual, yes?"

Harold was out the door as soon as possible, and driving off. Driving off to Kitty's, he thought, with a rush of excitement.

Kitty Partridge lived in a little bungalow with yellow curtains on a quiet street of suburbia. She grew roses in her front garden, and in the back, she had vegetables—corn, zucchinis and runner beans at the present. By her door she had a large, healthy lemon tree from which she always insisted any visitors take a handful.

As Harold finally collected himself together and walked up her driveway at 3:55 that afternoon, after the other three appointments, he could hear her playing. He smiled. 'Rule Britannia.' Kitty adored such music; she would sing along in her high, reedy voice and pound the keys with more panache than a polonaise player. He would never forget the first time he came to tune her piano, and saw her, through the open door, singing 'Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag' as if World War II depended on it. He had tuned her piano many times since then.

"Here you are, Harold!" she said as she spun around from her position on the piano stool. "I've been looking for you for hours. Archie is terribly out of tune, I'm afraid. I think it's all this hot weather." She stood up.

Harold took his hat off gingerly and cleared his throat. "Yes, I've had several customers with the same problem."

"Here, come in the kitchen first, though; I'll get you a cuppa. I'm afraid I haven't quite kept my promise—there'll be no sultana cake for you, I'm sorry, but I have made some fresh banana muffins, and they're just as good. It's a very long time since I've seen you, isn't it? I'm so glad you've come!"

Harold laughed. "Thank you, Kitty." He took the muffin and buttered it, watching her scurry around the kitchen like a spider, clearing up.

"So how have you been, Harold?"

"Well, you know, Kitty—I've been keeping myself busy. How about you?"

"Fairly good, Harold, fairly good. I've been tidying up this old house, taking old odds-and-ends to the Sallies. It's amazing how things pile up, don't you think?"

"I do," agreed Harold, his mouth full.

She turned to him again, beaming. "You know, Harold, I was thinking about Tom today, looking at some old photos of us after the war... and I was wondering, well, if you were ever married yourself?" She gave him a quizzical, laughing look.

Harold took a moment before he spoke. "Yes. I was."

"Oh, I thought you might have been. I am afraid she died, then, like my Tom?"

Harold gazed at the brown and orange flowers on her apron as she lowered herself onto the other chair. "No. Violet... she left me. Long ago."

Kitty raised a hand to her chest. "Oh. I am sorry."

"It's all right," he replied, blinking. This was the humiliating part, but somehow, it was different, with Kitty. "She, well, I suppose in reality our marriage was half-arranged. Our parents were friends, and we had always been meant for one another."

Kitty interjected. "Harold, if you don't want to talk about it..."

He shook his head. "I'm fine. I thought we were happy, you understand? I'd never been brought up to ask for more than was given me. She seemed happy too."

Kitty's hand covered his. "I know," she said. "I know."

"And then, all of a sudden, she just... she just... She met my cousin, Peter, and she just wasn't. She wasn't happy any more." Harold sighed. "I think they are both still alive. They have grandchildren."

Kitty sat back, a frown on her face. "It's a terrible thing, to leave a man like you. She shouldn't have done it."

Harold sighed. "Ah, well, sometimes that's what I think, and then sometimes I think it was the best thing to do."

"How could it be that?"

"If she wasn't happy..." He trailed off, and shrugged. "I just can't see that we would ever have been happy. I'm too... I'm just not... for a woman like Violet, I mean." He made a conscious effort to sit up. "Well, I suppose I'd better have a look at this piano of yours."

"Yes, yes," said Kitty, but she looked troubled. "Help yourself. Lovely shirt, by the way, Harold. When did you go to Norfolk Island?"

"Two years ago," said Harold, trying not to look pleased. "My nephew Jamie took me. He's a violin player, likes doing what he calls 'gigs' at Irish pubs. It was a good trip, that."

"He sounds like a nice boy."

"Yes, he is. Bernie says he thinks Jamie's... what do they call it? Gay. I don't know about that but he's a good nephew. I like him very much." He paused. "He understands music," he finished quietly. "It's nice to have someone who understands music."

Kitty nodded. "Sometimes we need people who understand us."

Harold shook himself. "Well, I suppose I'd better have a look at this piano of yours."

"Oh yes, Harold, sorry—I forgot! Off you go."

As Harold worked, Kitty clattered away in the kitchen with pots and pans, sporadically flitting through to the lounge to admire his work. "Sounds fabulous," she would say again and again. "Want another coffee?"

"No thank you, Kitty," he would murmur, listening for the notes and watching her out of the corner of one eye. The heavenly smell of a roast began drifting into Kitty's lounge and he heard her humming as she did some washing up. The piano was indeed out of tune, but it was almost as if the hot weather had taken a human form and tweaked only a few notes of its choice, on purpose—mostly, the piano was in no need of tuning. How very peculiar, he thought. He took his time, not wanting to leave the comfort of Kitty's house any sooner than was absolutely necessary. But there was always a point when he knew he could continue no longer.

"You're finished, Harold?" Kitty was leaning against the door to the kitchen.

"I am," he said glumly, packing up the piano again.

"Oh," she said quietly.

He picked up his bag and faced her, not looking into her eyes. "Thank you, Mrs. Partridge, for the lovely cup of coffee and those muffins. They were delicious!" He smiled painfully.

"My pleasure," she said.

"Well, I must be off!" he said, thinking of his flat and his piano and the technicolour blanket and the utter and complete loneliness of his life. He was at the door before he knew it. Getting up tomorrow morning would be more difficult than normal, he thought. "It's been lovely to see you, Kitty. Goodbye."

"Harold."

The piano tuner's hand relaxed on the door handle as he turned slowly around to face the old woman. "Yes, Kitty?"

She took a step towards him, clutching her blue gingham oven mitt to her chest. She suddenly seemed much less frail as she opened her mouth, looking directly at him. "Harold, I must tell you that an unhappy woman named Violet's failure to love you does not make you... inadequate. I think you are more than adequate."

The woman took the old piano tuner's hand and squeezed it. She stepped back as he looked down at her, a long moment passing with neither saying a word.

"Stay for dinner?" the old woman said with a sudden grin.

"I would like that," the piano tuner replied. He decided to throw the multi-coloured blanket away.
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2006, Alison Stedman