Ragtime

by Milla van der Have
Sometimes she plays the piano to chase out the ghosts. It never really works. Even though her fingers smoothen up real soon, somehow she can't get into the music. The notes just won't fall into structure, into song. Instead, they echo defencelessly off the walls.

The house is old and has its own way of doing things. Doors and windows jam. The floor is warped and a musty smell lingers all over the place. A persistent draught draws through the chinks. Sometimes, all she hears in a day is the sound of her own breathing, shallow and haunted. Sometimes she catches herself just saying stuff out loud, a feeble attempt to outwit the silence. Sometimes – and that's probably even scarier than her own slipping mind– the house talks back to her. A stair squeaks out of nowhere. High up in the ridge small feet patter, almost a mockery of her own gloomy footfall. At night a hellish ticking in the pipes keeps her awake. She stares into the overwhelming darkness and tries to break the code. What is her old home trying to tell her?

No wonder everyone thought her a fool to leave. She gave up on a perfect little life and a perfect little family, for this: a ruin in a nowhere land, at the end of a road going nowhere, close to a remote village known to nobody. At 18, she was only too happy to leave it. And now she's back. No one really understands why. He took her leaving hard, even if he knew it was about time to give up on the idea there's anything between them but a shadow and a thought. Still, he acted as if his whole world was falling apart. She strikes a key and then another one. Not even the beginning of a song.

The only thing to prevent the house from driving her mad with its sounds, is the piano. A shabby old backnumber it has become, nowhere near as shiny as it used to be. Nevertheless, it fits amazingly well with the rest of the dusty furniture, another reminder of things that were. Back in the day, she wouldn't even touch the thing. Still, they made her. Almost broke her fingers on those dreadful études they wanted her to play. Now, she will grab any opportunity, no matter how off-key, to make this house feel like home again. Before she can touch the first key, the house lets out a heavy sigh. But she won't back down. Like her, the house will have to get used to her being here. Trying hard to look resolute, she lets her fingers rest lightly on the keys. The only time she could ever bend this piano to her will, was when she came over. Next to her, she'd ease up. The two of them played ragtime like mad, their hands touching softly ever so often. They'd rag on until the inevitable scolding. Then, she'd be left to her lonely practising, while the girl next door skitted away through the garden, giggling. She smiles. Slowly, the piano gives way. She caresses the keys, willing herself not to look at the empty place next to her. And then she starts playing Maple Leaf Rag, a small call-note in a vast emptiness.

She keeps to herself. Even in her own mind, she has turned into something evil, straight out of a story. A treacherous wife. A heartless mother, abandoning her children to chase after her own happiness. She doesn't even want to imagine what others might think of her. People only see what they want to see and then, before you know it, what they think you are is what you have to be. They write a tune and you have to dance to it. That kind of thing doesn't leave much room for doubts, for having no options left. There's no tune for climbing into a car with just a few rusty memories of the road back home. And there certainly is no tune for what comes after that, for being stuck in the part they never really tell you about. Here she sits with her piano and her house and she isn't happy at all. Something keeps tugging at her. But she won't go back, so she can only go forward and hope for change. Forward, however, is a limited motion. She only ventures out after sunset. When darkness has set she circles the grounds, slowly reacquainting herself with them. Each time, she dares to go a little further, until finally, one night she can see the neighbouring house. It's the only thing standing between her and the world. At least that hasn't changed. The house looks smaller than she remembers. The red stones have long since lost their charm. This house used to be filled with life, with people. Now, it stands faded, daring her to finish what she started. As she backs away, a dog barks. She can't help smiling when she hears the growl that used to make her tremble. She couldn't have imagined she'd welcome that sound one day. Now she knows there's someone out there, someone to hear her, to respond to her simple call.

Spring just pops out of nowhere. First, there is nothing, not even the idea that something could change. Then, one day she looks out of the window and all spring has broken loose. A flock of geese has decided to make her garden their preferred resting place. A heron, carrying a ridiculously small branch in its beak, circles its nest in slow swoops. It's in no hurry; it takes its own sweet time to get there. It's, as they say, enjoying the ride. And rightly so. It's about time she starts enjoying as well. So she returns to the piano, willing herself each day to practise every scale, every beat and every chord until she can play every doggone ragtime she remembers. This time, notes gently fall together to form clusters and patterns until, at last, both she and the house get into the swing of things. For weeks she practices, as if to let both the house and the world know that resistance is futile. As usual in these parts, spring just turns into summer overnight. On nights like these, she'd sneak up to the neighbours, to where the girl next door would be waiting. They'd hide up in her room, smoking secret cigarettes, playing old hand-me-down records. Bessie Smith mostly. It made them want to look for an end to the blues in each others arms. Often, they'd fall asleep like that, only to wake up fifteen minutes later and pick up exactly where they'd left off. That evening, she opens the door to the garden and plays. Sounds fill the house, stretch out into the open air. She can almost picture them tumbling out into the garden. Like the heron, they are, as they say, enjoying the ride. And she's enjoying with them.

'Ragtime.' Still carrying her telltale cigarette in the corner of her mouth, the neighbour steps in. The transition from girl next door to next-door neighbour hasn't been immaculate. Something has drawn deep lines in her face. Still, something of her girlish charm remains. Maybe it's in the way she snaps her fingers, in the wicked grin that emerges at the sight of the piano, or just in her eyes, that still seem to go right through her. In her tracks, as always, follows the dog. That's what finally makes it real. That rotten dog. It used to exercise a nerve-wracking whine all through the night. It was the dog that got them busted in the end. They'd locked it out, so they could have some time alone, but it wouldn't back down. Scratching and barking like mad, it made every parent in the vicinity grow suspicious, making them break down the door. It doesn't look half as fierce now, as it sheepishly hides in the corner. Maybe it has seen the error of its ways.

Without so much as looking at her, the neighbour sits down in her old spot. There's so much they don't talk about there's hardly anything left to say. So they just stare at the piano, as if their old go-between can help them find a way to cheat time. A way to forget her readiness to follow the beaten track. A way to ignore the bitter end that was in store for the neighbour, who seems to have headed down her beaten track without reserves, head first. 'Ragtime,' the neighbour repeats, almost as if in thought. She sounds sad, but then she seems to reach a decision. She straightens up and starts to play.

It doesn't take long for her to recognize Chrysanthemum. As a girl, she loved this song. Couldn't get enough of it. Now, it makes her ill at ease. She wishes the neighbour had picked something else to play. Surely, there are other rags? The dog agrees. Its high-pitched whine rises up from the corner. 'Some things don't change, huh?' says the neighbours, glancing a warning at the dog. But she knows it isn't true. Most things do change and not for the best. Like this. Here they are once more, hip to hip, hand to hand. And yet, they seem further apart than ever, an invisible wall separating them. Play ragtime all they want, they just can't tear it down. She wants to speak, to say something, even if it's meaningless, but she can't make a sound. Only a sigh comes out and the dog yelps up once more. Instead, she tries to grab the neighbour's hand, to hold her like she used to. But the woman just withdraws her hand to the piano. What can she do? Erasing her marriage may have been easy, but that doesn't mean it's just as easy to go looking for times lost.

When the dog settles down, the neighbour plays some more tunes, none of them familiar. She tries to like the songs, but now that there's no more ragtime, she quickly loses interest. From the back of her mind other thoughts start vying for attention. Images of a sharp bend in the road, a set of blinding headlights, then nothing. A cold dread rises in her, while the neighbour plays on, unaware of how, next to her, she places her hand on the piano too. Black and white, she sees the keys shining up through her hand. She can't even manage to feel their cold touch against her skin. She looks down. Her legs are twisted in a way she didn't think possible. The neighbour nods sadly. 'It's time,' she says. She knows it's true. It's been time all along. Time, that old culprit, and conformity. Now that she finally run out of the latter, there's nothing left of the first. The neighbour gets up and closes the lid on the piano so fast she can't even jerk back her hand, but there's no need. The lid goes straight through.

She watches the neighbour making her way through the half-dark.The dog, happy to leave the house, runs out before her, tail held high. After they're gone, the house falls silent. There's nothing left to say. She has taken her own sweet time, she realises, but her presence here is slipping. She is drawn back to that bend in the road, looking down on a body she hardly recognizes as her own. There's broken glass everywhere. Amidst scattered groceries her children sit crying. Still, summer warmth is slowly giving way to the night. Ages ago, a night like this would make her feel like anything was possible. Thinking of that always made her dizzy in the end. Now she knows there's only one way she can go. Like ragtime, life has a prescribed structure and, syncopate what you will, there's no escaping it.
Milla van der Have (The Netherlands, 1975) wrote her first poem at 16, during a physics class. Since then she has written poetry, short stories, and fairy tales. She has (self)published two poetry books. Since 2008 she has changed to English as a writing language, because she feels English enables her to create the fiction and poetry she has in mind.

© 2011, Milla van der Have