There was a piano in the room, its two lids closed. It wasn’t a Steinway exactly nor an upright and I wonder if Winifred Atwell or Mrs Mills would have found it suitable for their singalong medleys. Whatever the case, I imagined it to be haunted by all the piano-players that had once run their fingers over the black and white keys. The room – an old-fashioned doctor’s waiting-room in a Victorian house – was not itself haunted. It was the piano that had the ghosts inside.
One lid was over the wires and hammers and the other protecting the keys. A cross between a concert grand and old ‘joanna’, neither one thing of another, with a slight taint of mechanical organ using a piano ‘stop’ to mimic Richard Clayderman or Liberace or Semprini or Ferrante & Teicher…
I lifted the business end key-shutter, squatted the stool while twisting down its height control to my size and then prepared to play ‘The Theme from “Exodus”’, a tune that charted on 1960s Radio Luxembourg – now played whether as an exorcism or simply a way to release the ghosts, give them their ‘grand’ exit. Some of them had been patients of the dead doctor who once practised his surgery in this suburban establishment. He told lies to his patients, gave them placebo panaceas, white tablets with no ingredients but chalk. They had sat patiently in this room waiting to see the dead doctor, staring into the distance or mindlessly glancing at stale colour supplements that rested on their laps with old West End Shows depicted on the covers.
The room still had the scars of irritating toddlers on the wallpaper and the gas fire in the chimney breast – a white bone grid, now blackened and up which the lit gas had once climbed gradually but hardly giving out any heat. The lamp-standard gave out more heat, it always seemed!
I came to the end of ‘Exodus’ with a flourish. But I realised that the whole performance was its own lie. I had no idea about music or how to play it. I just wanted my own back. A new Genesis.
Like Joe Henderson, my middle name was Piano — but I watched the white keys crumble into dust. And the black keys grew soft but without losing their integral shape: moulded from honey made by sick bees. Seemed a funny thing to think.
I called out: “Mrs Mills! Mrs Mills!” I knew the old receptionist-cum-nurse. She used to do everything for the dead doctor, booked the patients in with a weak smile and booked them out with a glance of finality; she even issued prescriptions with bad handwriting, and whatever else was needed.
Another lie. Mrs Mills was me. Even though I played the piano like Eric Morecambe not my namesake.
I fell off the stool, from thinking about it. I had been side saddle anyway, not astride or squatting. Toy balloons on the carpet didn’t break my fall. Floyd Cramer will come and kiss me better. He was always better than Russ Conway. I never liked pianists smiling.
Not black lies, I assure you. But mere fibs or white lies. The ones that didn’t stick.
[A slightly edited version of my speed writing exercise last night at the Clacton Third Thursday Writing Group]