Chapter Pending: The Piano

 

Author’s Note:

 

This is the fourth chapter in the pending musical series. The three chapters leading up to it can be found before this one on this ‘MUSIC’ section.

 

 

Standing on the threshold, Phil surveyed the parlour.  It was large and airy, like the drawing room, but housed a baby grand, its smooth mahogany lid glimmering in the day’s first light.   The fact that it was smooth, without a single fleck of dust, suggested that it had been polished recently – so, therefore played perhaps?  That was a question though, because with the home’s sole dweller dead, there was no way of knowing if she or anyone else had played the piano in the days or hours before her death.

Phil lumbered over to the instrument, opening the ornate stool, and peering at the music stacked inside.  Struggling to his knees, he rooted through a set of handwritten manuscripts, one-after-another of them, all instrumental pieces with Aubrey J. Holloway written at the top.  Part of him wished that he could pluck one from the pack and see if he could play it, Latex gloves, and all, but he knew Detective Redmond wouldn’t go for that.  He could hear her caustic voice already.

‘What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?’

Yep.  That was her alright, burning a hole in his imagination.

‘This isn’t masterpiece theatre, you know.  We’re in the middle of an investigation.’  He felt like she was right behind him.

But she wasn’t, even though he sensed a shiver down his spine.

Setting the stack of compositions on the floor, he came across a selection of published sheet music.  It was dogeared and sepia, its cover pictures faded.  Lifting the collection from the bench, Phil leafed through it carefully, immediately recognising the wartime hits, songs his grandmother had sung with bits and pieces of the lyrics missing. The titles – It’s Been a Long, Long Time, Deep Purple, Only Forever, White Cliffs of Dover, A Kiss to Build a Dream On, You Forgot to Remember, One Day When We Were  Young, Tea for Two – brought back his grandmother’s rickety voice so strongly, he could almost see her in-and-outing through her cigarette smoke, crooning away in front of the nightly news as if to drown the current problems out with her crotchety voice.

That made him think, that did.  About when his lot hit the nursing home.  What would they be croaking out in 2041?  Stairway to Heaven or Highway to Hell would be perfectly sound options, would they not?  Or, if things really got weird, Hotel California might be good, because, just like in the song, when it came to nursing homes, you were all prisoners there of your own device, not to mention you could check in but you could never leave.

Shuffling the music back into a neat stack, Phil smoothed his hand over Louis Armstrong’s faded face staring up at him from beneath the title ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Time’.

“It certainly has,” Phil muttered, thinking upon the dreaded piano lessons of his boyhood, all the Monday nights he’d sat at the piano, cowering in the Human Metronome’s shadow, massacring the pieces he hadn’t practiced.  He’d called his teacher the Human Metronome because she’d always stood behind him, tapping her pointer on the floor with varying degrees of vehemence, hassling him to “obey” the given tempo.  I mean, seriously, when he really thought about it, he should’ve gone onto study Italian because he’d heard enough of it.  How many nightmares had he had with his teacher’s voice echoing distorted in his dreams?  ‘Obey the music, Philip!  Presto!  Andante!  Vivace!  Boom—boom—boom! Let’s get moving.  Does it say ‘lento’ o ‘largo’?  No, it doesn’t!  Presto, Philip.  Presto!’

Personally, even at the tender ages of eight, nine, ten, he hadn’t understood why he hadn’t been able to take a little creative liberty with the tempo, just to make things interesting.  Once, he’d taken it upon himself to suggest he challenge the composer, citing Picasso as the prime example of a man who’d turned art on its head to which the Human Metronome had replied, “Well, Picasso had to master the traditions first before he turned art on its head.  There are creative stages, Philip.  You can’t just bypass them all and get to the rebellious part.”

“I don’t see why bloody not,” Phil muttered as Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb drifted into his brain because, to be honest, that’s what he’d become these days, no drugs necessary; life itself – which, with inflation, cost more than drugs these days – was a natural sedative if ever there was one.

And then, he realised –

The music he hadn’t been able to hear whilst walking through the other rooms had suddenly come back.  Likely because of the ‘elephant-in-the-room presence’ of the baby grand, Phil thought.

“Come on, mate,” Phil said to Louis’ Armstrong’s picture, knowing full well that now, mid-investigation, wasn’t the time to be comfortably numb.  “Sing to me.  Remind me of Gran.”

And yep – the universe complied for all of five seconds – because there his grandmother was, front and centre in his imagination, out of her chair, arms folded, cigarette a-sway, asking his boyhood self to ‘kiss her once’, ‘kiss her twice’, and ‘kiss her once again’, offering him the raggediest cheek ever for a smooch which he gave with an understandable mix of love and repulsion because, well, he adored his gran, but wasn’t a fan of the leather-to-lip sensation as he planted kisses on her cheek est. 1916.

“Haven’t felt like this my dear –” he found himself whisper-singing in his atrocious voice.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, Owens?”

Phil snapped out of his reverie because, if that weren’t a case of thoughts becoming reality, he didn’t know what was for that was Detective Redmond’s voice all right, exactly how he’d imagined it a few moments earlier.  Twisting around to the best of his 250 lb ability, with the stack of sheet music still in his grip, he looked up and yep, there she was in her pale blue haz-mat suit, cap, and puffy shoe covers, glaring at him from the threshold.

“This isn’t masterpiece theatre, you know,” she snapped.  “We’re in the middle of investigation.”

My God.  He’d predicted her part of the dialogue to a tee.

“I told you to take a good look around,” she continued, un-amused.  “Not take it upon yourself to start dabbling in outdated pop songs.”

“That would be jazz, actually,” Phil risked.

“I don’t care what it bloody is, Owens,” Detective Redmond said.  “Put it back in the bench and continue on with your walk about.”

“There’s quite a lot of music in the bench, Detective,” Phil ventured, struggling up with the wartime collection cradled in his arms.  “Including music which seems to have been written by the victim.  Do you think it could be important to us?”

Detective Redmond marched over and peered down at the piece of music on top of the pile.  “Is it all instrumental?” she asked.

“Yes,” Phil replied.  “There are no lyrics.”

“If there are no lyrics, then the dead girl couldn’t have had anything worth saying and therefore nothing worth us wasting our time reading.  Just put that wartime pop back –”

Phil flinched.

“– and get on with things!”

“But what about the jazz?” Phil pressed.  “Do you think it’s of any significance?”

“For God’s sake, Owens, no, I don’t think the wartime pop is of any significance.”

“Right, then,” Phil said.  “I’ll put the jazz music back in the bench.”

“Yes, you will,” said Redmond sternly.

“And you’re sure the music isn’t useful?” Phil continued to venture, meekly as he returned the music to its place and closed the bench.

“For God’s sake, Owens,” Redmond returned with a glare.  “You go to any house in England with a piano and I’ll bet you if you dig deep enough in the bench, you’ll find songs from the war.  Wartime sheet music is as much a layer of the British household as layers of old wallpaper.  My own grandparents had loads of the stuff in their bench.  When it comes to our age group, whose didn’t?  Besides, this was a wartime house,” Redmond added, coking her head toward a black and white photograph of a 1940’s beauty beside her beau in his RAF uniform.  “And there’s Mrs. Clara Holloway’s picture to prove it.”

She was the victim’s grandmother?” Phil asked, surprised. “The victim was a bit young for a wartime gran, don’t you think?  I mean, seriously, my own gran was about that age and I’m almost thirty years older than the victim.”

“Yes, well,” said Redmond.  “As it happens, the victim was the product of a second marriage.  After divorcing wife #1, her father, who’s in his seventies, married Aubrey’s mother, a much younger wife, and he hadn’t had any children with the first one.  And old Clara here –” Again, Redmond cocked her head toward the picture.  “Only died eighteen months ago.  Made it all the way to ninety-nine, she did.”

Phil closed his eyes momentarily.  Having already gone through ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Time’ in a matter of minutes, he braced himself for the morning’s reprise of the chronic ‘soundtracking’ affliction that had been getting worse as of late.

“Quite remarkable, really,” Redmond said. “Fancy that.  Ninety-nine.”

And yep.  There it was.

NENA’s 1983 hit ‘99 Red Balloons’ hit his brainwaves, with a split-second shift from English into the German ‘99 Luftballons’ which, thanks to the English version, made him 100% bilingual for as long as the song lasted which, this time was only long enough for him to realise that the concept of releasing 99 balloons of any colour was lethal for the birds.  99 balloons floating in the summer sky = a couple less winged whatevers to moan about over a roast chicken dinner.  But hey.  Human Hypocrisy 101, mates.

“Is everything alright, Owens?” Redmond asked with no concern whatsoever.

Phil opened his eyes.

No, everything was not alright.

Phil was sure he was suffering from some sort of ‘still-to-be-identified’ condition of “hearing” music of all sorts to increasingly larger portions of his life. These days, it was triggered by anything:  objects, statements, feelings, memories, you name it.  Even people had theme songs, which brought him back to the last of the songs he associated with Redmond: the theme song to The Pink Panther by Henry  Mancini.  Of course, Phil wasn’t an idiot.  He knew this music cropped up in Redmond’s presence because of her detectiverish nature, the way you didn’t know she was there until – [insert jump start] – pure stealth, she was right there with her expressions like ‘it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye’ and ‘when it comes to police work, you’ve gotta go for the jugular’ and stuff like that.

As Phil stared at Redmond now, it was the Pink Panther theme song, full on, triggered by the baby grand and memories of his piano lessons.

And why?

Because he’d BEGGED the Human Metronome to let him take a break from the kidified fugues and sonatas to learn Mancini’s masterpiece just so he could creep-thump it out as his mother rooted around the house for her missing cigarettes.  Come to think of it, he’d always had a soundtrack problem because even then, he’d heard the imaginary orchestra jazzing it up beside him as his mum had bloody-helled her way through the house leaving no cushion unturned in hot pursuit of the next nicotine fix.  Acknowledging the signs of soundtracking had been there since day one, Phil knew that he was definitely not alright.

“Owens?”  said Redmond.  “Snap out of it.”

“Yes, sorry, I’m alright,” Phil lied to the detective.

“Jolly good then,” Redmond declared.  “So, get on with it.  You shouldn’t be here, wasting your time with the piano music.  I shouldn’t even need to tell you this.  You need to be giving these rooms and the grounds a thorough once over, then coming up and searching the other top room.”

“Yes,” Phil replied.  “I’m on it.”

In the wake of Redmond’s departure, Phil looked at the piano more closely.  It was a Chappell, from London.  Lifting the lid, he peered inside and saw a coat of arms on the frontal wood inside.  ‘BY ROYAL COMMAND OF HIS MAJESTY THE KING OF SPAIN’ was inscribed in an inverted semi-circle underneath.

Bloody obnoxious announcement, if ever I heard one, thought Phil, about to silently go-off about the Spaniards, until he thought about all the British foods he loved endorsed with a coats-of-armsy insignia bestowed on said food by Her Majesty, the Queen.  Take his all-time fave HP Sauce for instance.  Every time he twisted off the cap, he had to read ‘BY APPOINTMENT TO HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN, PURVEYORS OF HP SAUCES etc., etc.’  I mean, was the Queen really an enthusiastic consumer of HP Sauce?

Shifting his focus from the Chappell’s insignia, Phil eyed the harp extended.  It was beautiful, he thought, a world waiting to be played again, by someone – sadly, not by the victim.  As he had before Redmond had startled him, he felt the urge to play a note or two, just to see the little wooden hammers rise and fall and hit the strings, creating that reverberating sound, a sound he knew would echo through the rooms exquisitely.  Cause and effect, he mused.  Like domino-after-domino falling against one another.  And then he thought about the antique dominoes, the ones he’d seen across the hall in the drawing room. He’d wanted to play with those too, but hadn’t, of course.

Life was so bizarre, he added, thinking about the piano.  The way that weird stuff came together to form a natural whole.  A hand.  A key.  A hammer.  A string.  And then – a sound – and then – an echo – and then – a feeling, perhaps an inspirational call to act.  Phil rather liked that idea: things that would’ve seemed a hodgepodge once, proving they worked together.  Seemingly incongruent things discovering they were ‘meant-to be’ after all as if they’d always existed.  Like a dance.  Or a song.  Or the can opener and other mechanical wonders that went unquestioned in the comfortable numbness of the day.

But forgive him – he digressed – unfortunately, as usual.

Because if his first condition was ‘soundtracking’, then ‘going off on mental tangents’ was his second, and if he were being truly honest, the two afflictions often coincided, sometimes to the point he felt like he was losing his mind.

Closing the piano lid as gently as he could as not to send an echo through the house, Phil suddenly shivered, for he heard something he’d never heard – the first few measures of a piece of music – in his head, of course.  Or was it in his head?  Don’t be daft, you fool, he told himself.  Of course, it’s in your head.  Where the hell else would it be coming from?  The piano keys, dead still, confirmed that diagnosis.  But from wherever the music had hailed, it was harrowingly strange because it was familiar and alien, heard  before yet never heard.  Perhaps, he’d heard it once upon a time whilst fumbling for a radio station in the car, or in the toilets at the Chinese buffet, those teensy stalls where popular music wafted through the speakers classify-ed in an elevatorish kind of way, playing with your head because you knew you’d heard the pleasantry before, but in its altered state, you couldn’t pinpoint where.

Contemplating classivator “music” now, Phil wholeheartedly agreed with himself that it was travesty, really, squeezing the life out of perfectly reasonable music and pumping it full of rainbows and butterflies (don’t you dare go thinking of Maroon 5’s ‘She Will Be Loved’, but it was too fucking late because –), that was the problem, just like the song impressed, it was most definitely NOT all rainbows and butterflies, but the classivator people seemed to think so; plus, whoever these, pardon his language, pricks were in their bubble-gum pink padded conference rooms, they had the audacity to ooze unicorns into the mix (oh, and don’t forget the stardust and make it sky-blue-pink).

Dazed, but not confused in front of the Chappell, Phil was fully aware that he was having a Narnia moment. Just like the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Narnia days were seconds in the “real” world, he was disappearing into long thoughts which took place in the blink of an eye.  All of that – the Chinese buffet musings – had taken place in a matter of several breaths.  Parts of Phil’s brain were exactly like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ classic.

Or, better yet, they were like those interruptions in his all-time favourite series from the 80’s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the narrator would break into the story to share informational tidbits from the actual guide before the story-story would resume.  If his life were in print, he’d need a Narnia wardrobe, Phil reckoned.  And if his life were on TV, he’d need multiple interruptions, like on Hitchhiker’s, to showcase all his tangents which were happening more and more these days.

Three breaths and two blinks of an eye later, Phil was re-focussing on the piano, again, hearing the first few measures of unfamiliar music he recognised.  The melody was soft and floaty, in a minor key, so therefore, sad – but wistful sad, not despairingly sad. If the Human Metronome were with him, she’d ask  him what the tempo was.  Closing his eyes and rummaging through the dusty terms, he decided it was ‘andante’. And the dynamic? Mezzo Piano, he decided – gentle, but not overly gentle.

But seriously – what did he think he was playing at?

It’s not like he’d been any good at music.  He’d endured his lessons for five or six years, hating every minute of them, always deviating at the home piano, tinkering with his own stuff, except when he was walloping out the afore-thought theme song to The Pink Panther which, he couldn’t say enough about.

But there you go.

Did it matter that he hadn’t been a musical virtuoso?  The fact of the matter was that he was hearing music now – music that clearly wasn’t being play-played, but rather thought-played.  And so, by way of some twist of fate, he found himself contemplating his old piano lessons and his rocky relationship with music (rocky because his parents didn’t like him tinkering with his own stuff).

And just to stipulate, what was taking place in the Chappell’s presence now wasn’t like the usual soundtracking.  The music was eerie and unsettling, not just in tone, but too, because he couldn’t place it.  It was bizarre, like when you weren’t sure if you’d said something, or thought it, but you were sure you’d said it, but everyone around swore you hadn’t.  It was like that, dragging your own sanity into question.

Casting a furtive glance over his shoulder, Phil struggled down to the floor again, opening the bench and lifting out the stack of manuscripts, quickly leafing through them to see if he could find one in a minor key.  From the looks of it, he couldn’t.  The compositions were simple enough – in C+, D+, F+ and G+ – that he could rule out minor keys.  He could rule out ghost sound then.  At least the victim’s music wasn’t calling to him from the bench.  But that unnerved him too.  Like when his medical tests came back negative, giving him an instant of relief, but opening the door to a gazillion other ailments for which he hadn’t been tested.  It could be ‘anything-goes’.  And yet, those melancholic bars played on, unsettling him to no end.