Sheet-music Piano Stool Piano Oak Flooring
 

When the Universe Listens


 

Short Fiction by Alison Theresa Gibson

 

The rain made plastic splats as it landed in the bucket. Valerie watched, her coffee in one hand and phone in the other. She should call someone. The rain was in its fifth day with no sign of stopping, and the bucket – sand still encrusting the handle from last summer – was not really a solution to the leaking roof. She should talk to Ray. He was the one who usually made these calls. He made the blokey banter and negotiated prices. She would probably pay too much, and Ray would laugh when he got home next week.

Maybe if the rain stopped, he’d never know about the leak. She put the phone down.

“Mum!” Connor’s voice echoed down the hallway. Five days of rain. All the toys had been dragged from the cupboard, played with, and thrown aside in disgust. Valerie had tidied everything away, unable to face a fight without Ray to back her up. In the kitchen was a banana loaf, a carrot cake, and three sets of chocolate-chip biscuits. It was far too much sugar for a three-person household, but cooking was one of the few things which took up time and didn’t involve a screen.

“Mum!”

A fly was stuck on the window ledge. It had been there for hours, huddled under a stray leaf getting pelted with rain. She knew how it felt, biding its time until it could make a dash for freedom once the rain let up. She left her cup by the kettle in the hope of making a fresh coffee.

She found Connor still in his pyjamas. Standing in the middle of his room, toys scattered around the place, he stared at the rain covered window with murderous eyes.

“What’s up, Bugs?”

“It’s still raining.” At five years old, he seemed to blame her personally for the bad weather.

“I know, Bugs.” She picked up his train-shaped pillow, complete with puff of smoke, from where it had slid onto the floor.

“What are we doing today? Can I go to Jeff’s?”

“He’s still away, remember? And Dad has our car.”

He threw the Thomas the Tank Engine book he’d been holding to the ground. It did a half-cartwheel and collapsed.

“Pick that up, Connor,” she said, but he crossed his arms instead.

“What are we doing today?”

She felt terrible for wishing it was September and he was back at school. Did other parents wish that? The swish of a car on the road outside the window carried the faint sounds of a radio and made her long for the freedom of her own transport.

“Why don’t we cook –”

“No! I hate cooking. Can we go to the pool?” She hadn’t worn swimmers since Connor was born, but even when all she did was sit by the side of the pool, they still charged her an entrance fee. It was such a waste of money, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to put on her bikini and get her money’s worth.

“Maybe this afternoon. Why don’t you go out on the deck? You can stay under the roof.” His head was lowered, and he was glaring over his crossed arms. “Come and have some breakfast.”

He trailed after her.

She let him have Coco Pops even though it wasn’t Saturday, but all it did was confirm in his mind that everything was her fault and that she was trying – and failing – to make up for it. His spoon clattered to the table when he was finished, and he stared at the chocolatey milk as though to say, “What now?”

“Why don’t we Skype with Dad?” His mouth twisted as he battled the desire to say no with his need to talk to his father. “I’ll set it up,” she said, before he could protest.

She opened the laptop and pressed the keys gingerly, hoping the programme would load, silently begging Ray to be available. Connor sidled up and leant against her, staring at the screen.

“Hey there.” Ray’s chin appeared before he extended his arm and his face swam into view. “Morning, you beauties. What’s going on?”

“It’s still raining,” Connor said, but without blame. This time, he was just sharing news. Ray didn’t buy it though. His eyes narrowed as though he was trying to think of a solution.

“That’s tough luck, you must be getting cabin fever by now.” Valerie nodded from behind Connor’s head. “So, what do you think you’ll do today?”

“Nothing! It’s so boring Dad. When are you coming home?”

Valerie wished she could put him on a plane immediately and send him to his father.

“In a few days, mate. But I’m sure you guys’ll have fun. There’s loads you can do at home!”

Valerie opened her mouth to ask for suggestions, but Ray looked away, and nodded at a murmured voice. “I gotta go, we’re heading out. But have a good day! Stay dry!” The image disappeared.

“No!” Connor said, sitting back in a huff and crossing his arms. For the millionth time that week, Valerie tried to remember how she had spent rainy days as a child. She and her sister had entertained themselves. Maybe it was because Connor was missing a sibling that the responsibility for filling the days fell on her. As children, she and Elise had spent hours drawing, cutting out paper dolls and colouring clothes on them, or playing duets on the piano.

The piano.

“Go choose a DVD, Connor.”

His eyebrows rose in disbelief, but he didn’t dare question the sudden relaxation of the no-TV-in-the-morning rule. He scampered out of the room.

She nudged open the door to the smallest bedroom, as though afraid of what was in there. It was not unexpected, she dusted in here every couple of weeks after all. But those days were hurried visits, duster in hand, her eyes focused on the task. Now her eyes roamed, hungry for memories of the room. The dismantled cot lay in pieces against a wall, the bookshelf with the colourful books Connor no longer read was slightly slanted, the rug of the globe had a stain over Brazil. And in the corner sat the small, mahogany piano. She used to play when she was pregnant, all those times. She had sung lullabies to the babies she had never held. When Connor couldn’t sleep, she had sung to him of adventures he would have with his brothers and sisters. She hadn’t opened the lid in years.

The wood was cool. It was protected from the glare of the window, she knew that was necessary to preserve the condition. And there was no dust, she took care of that as well. The lid creaked as she opened it. The keys were yellowed but their touch was familiar. Cool, light, strong despite a certain fragility. The piano stool wobbled as she sat, and the wood made a noise, a sigh of relief that she was back.

She rested her fingers on the keys for a long moment and then slowly she began an A minor scale. Three notes in and she pulled her fingers back in shock. It had settled so far out of tune as to be painful. Her throat tightened at the thought of all those years she might have spent sitting here, loving the music and sharing it with her son. Instead, she had kept the door closed.

She tried again, an F major scale, and again had to stop. The keys had forgotten how they were supposed to sound. And yet she felt an overwhelming urge to play, to send music through the open door and into the house. Her fingers tapped against the keys, too lightly to make a noise, just for the feeling of it. The familiar texture, resistance, silkiness. There was no music she could make, but she couldn’t bear to close the lid. It had her attention now.

“What are you doing?”

Connor was in the doorway. Cheering and clapping from the television echoed shrilly down the hallway.

“I thought I might play something, but it’s out of tune.”

He sidled forward, as though the instrument was a stranger he was unsure about meeting.

“Why?”

“It hasn’t been played in a long time. Or tuned.”

“Can you tune it?”

Connor had seen his cousin tune a guitar just a few months ago. He must be imagining a similar situation, as though she could open the top of the piano and twiddle a few strings. She couldn’t of course, but he was interested despite the suspicion evident in the tilt of his head.

“I can’t. But I could call someone. And then I could play for you. I could teach you one of the duets I used to play with Aunt Elise.” She took his hand and went back to the kitchen. While he kept half an eye on the television, she googled piano tuners.

 

He wore overalls over his skinny frame and his hair, what there was of it, was thin and white. His shoulders had shadows of the rain on them. He looked down at her, arms crossed with his fingers tucked under his arms.

“I’m Phil. I hear you have a piano in need of tuning.”

“Yes, we do.”

Connor was half-hiding behind her, staring at the old man. He didn’t see many old people.

“You had better show me, then, and I’ll see what I can do.” When he looked at Connor he didn’t show the usual interest of an adult wanting to make a child feel special.

Valerie showed him into the smallest bedroom and he went straight to the piano. He was so tall he almost bent at a right angle, his eyes hovering just inches from the piano keys. Despite the lack of dust Valerie had the impression he knew it was rarely played, even before he heard how tuneless it was. He stood tall again, his eyes now focused on Valerie, and breathed deeply.

“How long since it’s been tuned?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. Years.” Valerie felt like a child who had disappointed a teacher. Connor looked between them, biting the skin on the corner of his thumb. Phil watched for a moment, until a sudden crash of thunder and a roar of heavy rain interrupted the silence. Connor scuttled to Valerie’s side, his eyes focused on the grey window.

With a shock, Valerie realised the bucket must be almost full of water from the leaking roof. It would have been sensible to call a roof repairer rather than a piano tuner. She ran her hand through Connor’s hair, feeling foolish. Phil had been watching them, but now his gaze travelled over the dusty baby objects in the room to the new ones that had the faded look of having never been used.

“So,” Valerie said, wondering if there was any chance he could fix the roof instead. “How does it look?”

He sighed again, his eyes on the window like he was as tired of the rain as Connor.

“You don’t play it much,” he said. “It needs music to stay healthy. Like people.”

He turned abruptly and opened the top lid, watching inside carefully as he played a note. When it had faded to nothing, he played a second, then a third. He dropped his head and closed his eyes, his forehead pulled tight in concentration. Connor edged closer, watching Phil’s curled fingers press each key firmly.

“Right. Now,” Phil said, opening his eyes, a look of surprise on his face at the sight of his attentive audience. “What do you think? Do you think it sounds right?” He peered at Connor. Connor stared, his mouth open so the edge of his teeth was visible. “Well, do you?” Connor shook his head vigorously. Another crash of thunder, but Connor’s eyes were only on the old man. “I think we need to help her find the right notes again.” Connor nodded. “Yeah? You agree? Are you going to help me? Because I’m not sure I can do this by myself.” Connor nodded again. His eyes were wide, as though sure this man was an illusion about to disappear. “Good. Mum, we might need another chair.” He looked up at Valerie and she was sure she saw the ghost of a wink.

When she returned with the chair he had removed the front panel and the lid from over the keys, exposing the inner workings of the piano. It looked more mechanical than she remembered. The combination of music and machinery was odd, as jarring as the notes from the neglected piano. Connor scrambled onto the chair. She reached out to help, but he shooed away her concern, and turned slowly on the wood until he was standing as tall as the piano tuner.

“Now, see this?” Phil struck middle C and pointed into the piano. A single hammer jumped out of its place, striking a string and creating a sound nothing like middle C. Connor’s tongue poked from between his lips in concentration as he studied the neat little world that had been revealed. He nodded. “So, I take this,” Phil continued, sliding something until the strings made a muted protest. “Each key has three strings, you see that?” Connor nodded again, his palms leaving damp marks on the mahogany of the piano. “And what have I just done?”

Connor’s eyes jumped to Phil’s face, searching for the answer as though being incorrect might get him banished from the room. Valerie’s heart raced faster with sympathy adrenalin. It was the feeling she had had every day at school. The teachers had asked her questions, and she had looked at them knowing the answer but always too terrified of being wrong. She stepped forward intending to save Connor from the humiliation, when he said,

“You made the sound stop.” His voice was quiet, but not a question. He was sure he was right.

“I did. And do you know why?”

“To hear better.”

Phil nodded solemnly, and played the key again, the two tones jarring the air in the room. He ran a dull metal object up the string to the pin and turned it slightly. The tones melded together, the tension in the air was released, and Valerie immediately relaxed. It was like turning into the shade after squinting in the sun. Phil’s face had become smooth, as though he had forgotten he was working and was simply trying to create beautiful sounds.

“And so, we do it again, see that?” Even his voice was smoother, softer, as though he had forgotten to blame Valerie for her out-of-tune piano. Connor was watching, rapturously, as another note was brought into harmony.

Valerie shuffled to the rocking chair and sat, jerking slightly at the sudden movement beneath her. Relieved to have Connor’s attention diverted, she picked up a magazine from the side table. She had moved it so many times to dust the wood underneath, but her eyes had always glanced off the cover, refusing to see. Now, distracted by the man showing her son the inner workings of the piano, she opened it at random. Glancing down, she cried out.

“Are you okay?” Phil called over. Connor’s nose was almost touching the strings, cross-eyed in curiosity.

“Yes,” she said, her voice faint. “Yes,” she said again, stronger. “Ignore me.” She could feel Phil’s eyes on her and forced herself to turn the page of the magazine calmly, her eyes skimming the words of an article about homemade Christmas decorations, while her mind was on the card. The silver bassinette on the front, with a tiny hand reaching up from the depths. The edges of the paper soft with use. Ray had given it to her the day they brought Connor home from the hospital, and she had propped it up on the table to look at while breastfeeding. She knew the message without opening it but had driven the words from her mind.

Our growing family…

A house full of noise and love and laughter…

A tribe of Sullivan’s to take over the world…

Her throat made a strange squawking and her fingers clutched at her necklace as though it had begun to choke her. He was meant to be the first, not the only.

“Mum!” Connor said, demand in his voice. “Listen!” Her breath was still jerking through her chest, but she forced it to be quiet as Connor played middle C, A, B. “We’re fixing it!”

“Of course, you are Bugs,” she said, breathlessly. “Phil, would you like a cup of tea?”

“Thanks Valerie, I’d love one.” Through the haze in her mind, she felt his eyes on her as she tried to walk straight. She almost made it to the kitchen but had to rest her hand on the cool wall before turning to the kettle.

They had tried for years before Connor was born. Years of trying, of hoping and crying. And then the miracle of him, love and exhaustion entwined, and always the expectation there would be more. Until, at an appointment she happened to schedule on his second birthday, the devastation of hearing the doctors say he wouldn’t have any siblings. She had returned home to host his birthday party, the guests presuming her tears were for the emotion of her baby growing up and not the gaping hole she now saw in her future.

All his life, she had looked at her body as a failure while trying to teach him to love the world. She and Ray had always been gentle with each other, but they had never spoken explicitly about what their lives would be like with an only child. Their futures had emptied, out of their control, and she had no idea what her husband thought about it. She was the one who had done all the bleeding, her thoughts had been on her own loss. But he had wanted a tribe.

The kettle clicked off and she filled two cups with hot water, a tea bag in each. She took a juice carton for Connor. Approaching the doorway, the three drinks balanced on a tray, she heard the tinkling of notes and Phil’s voice indistinct. Suddenly Connor laughed, that infectious giggle that she hadn’t heard all week. Stepping into the room she saw them seated on the piano stool, Phil’s hands gently guiding Connor’s fingers on to the keys. With each press the strings jumped, and Connor laughed. “Magic isn’t it?” Phil said, glancing over his shoulder at Valerie. Connor hit three keys at once, his mouth wide with glee. Valerie put the tray on the table and handed Phil his cup of tea. Sticking the straw in Connor’s carton she pushed too violently, and juice squirted over the keys of the piano.

“Oh, shit!” The word burst from her and Connor looked up in surprise before descending into giggles. “No, no, I didn’t mean to say that, that was very bad of Mummy.”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Connor whispered, squirming on the seat. What would Phil think of her, going to pieces over a magazine and swearing in front of a five-year-old? He had wiped the juice off the keys with his sleeve, though, and said,

“Don’t worry, it just shows it’s loved.” He reached down and replaced the wooden panel on the front of the piano so that the faint diamond pattern aligned.

“I’m all done here,” he said, closing the lid with a muted thump. “Unless,” he looked at Valerie. “Unless, you’d like to play a duet?”

“Oh!” A crash of thunder filled the room, giving her a few seconds to stare out the shuddering window before she answered. If he spent his life with pianos he must be very good, it would be one more failure for him to witness. “Yes, okay.” She really didn’t want to, but she had never been able to say no.

Connor wiggled off the seat and leaned against the side of the piano, his straw in his mouth, and Valerie sat.

“I think you probably know this one,” Phil said. His fingers touched the keys lightly. The melody was so familiar it was like a bite of a favourite meal. His rheumy eyes were kind as he watched her reaction. His right hand dropped off the keys and guided her fingers to their place. “From the top?” he said. Pausing for just a moment, then with an instinct she had thought was lost, she began playing. The music flowed down her arms and through her fingers.

“Wow,” Connor said. She had forgotten he was there.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Phil said, as his hands settled on the final keys and Valerie added the last few notes.

“Can I play it?” Connor was still slurping at his juice, but all the liquid had gone and the straw was making only a dry, gasping sound.

“I’m sure you can, with a bit of practice,” Phil said standing slowly, his hands on his thighs as though to take the weight. “I’ll be off, you two have fun.”

“I’ll show you out,” Valerie said, trying to slide off the seat without knocking the piano.

“No, no,” Phil waved a hand. “I know the way. You stay and teach your son that duet.” His bag rattled as he slung it over his shoulder and he shuffled to the door. “Oh, and Connor?” Connor had already taken Phil’s seat but on hearing his name he spun around. “Treat that piano kind. It’ll be a good friend to you.”

“Okay!” Connor said, and turned back to start making music. Outside, the rain had stopped.

 

 


alison-gibsonAlison grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and now lives in Brighton, UK. In 2018, she placed second in the Winchester Writer’s Festival short story competition. She has been published in Meanjin, Scrittura, and has a piece upcoming in Riggwelter Press. She is writing her fourth-time-lucky novel while working at University College London. Find her @AlisonTheresa87 and alisontheresa.com.