‘Well, here we are.’
It was a rather obvious and superfluous statement, but better than saying something corny like ‘Welcome home’, which would only have got me riled. Tom unlocked the front door, explaining that Mike was out. So, no welcoming committee, I thought, managing a small smile. I was going to need some humour if I was going to survive this.
My first impression of the house as we walked in was that it was cramped. And not in a cosy sort of way, either. The ceiling was much lower than in our place and the walls seemed to be bearing in on us. Tom wasn’t much of a guide. The grand tour of the house consisted of Tom opening doors and, quite redundantly, describing their purpose.
‘There’s the kitchen, that’s the living room and, down there, the second door on your left, is the bathroom.’
I suppressed a smart remark and followed Tom as he led the way, coming to a stop at the very bottom of the corridor. ‘This here is my study.’ Tom revealed a poky box room which looked more like an expanded junk cupboard than a room in its own right. All manner of things lay strewn around, along with traces of Tom’s various DIY attempts. ‘I thought you could use this room to practise in?’
Aghast, I surveyed the tiny space. Not only would the acoustics be terrible given the dimensions, but no amount of clearing up was going to make this room feel like a proper habitable space. It was very depressing. The only natural light came from a tiny window high up, with frosted glass, which also meant there was no view, even though I assumed that the garden, such as it was, lay beyond that wall. I was still staring at the room in disbelief, when Tom beckoned me upstairs. As I climbed the stairs, I wondered when would be a good time to tell Tom that his study was no good as a practice room for my piano. Probably never.
‘You’re here, in the guest room.’ Tom indicated towards the door closest to the staircase.
I peeked in. It was hideous. Bland and devoid of any personality, it was painted in cream and the bed was draped in a duvet of the most awful shade of burgundy. On either side of the bed there were two identical, tacky gold vases filled with plastic branches.
‘Okay,’ I said, wondering if Tom was expecting me to say it was nice.
Part of me was relieved I had been put in the ‘guest room’, as that is exactly how I wanted to regard my stay here – as a temporary guest. But there was another voice angling for attention in my head, the voice of the little kid whose father had one day left her without a word of explanation, and that voice wanted to scream out. It wanted to ask Tom how he could treat his own daughter, his own flesh and blood, as a guest. I told Tom I’d take a moment to settle down, so as to have some time to myself. I didn’t want to start an argument and I needed to take a minute to calm down. Tom appeared to be just as relieved as I was that the tour was over.
To my surprise, I actually slept quite okay in my new bed on that first night. It was weird to have such silence at night. Having spent all my life so close to the city centre, I was accustomed to sirens and traffic the whole night long. Sounds of water running and footsteps woke me. It was almost seven. I emerged out of the bedroom, tying my bathrobe around me. The bathroom was in use; judging by the singing coming from within, Mike was inside. Downstairs, Tom was putting his shoes on, about to leave for work. He looked up.
‘You’re not going back to school already, are you?’
I resented the judgemental tone in his voice. And I hated that he was not completely mistaken – I wasn’t sure if I was ready yet, myself. But the panic over missing even more classes and practice hours, plus the dread of spending an entire day on my own in this alien house, made me think that resuming my school routine was the lesser of two evils. If I’d had my piano here, I could at least do some playing, but the piano was not due to arrive until the next day. As Tom seemed to be awaiting a response, I simply shrugged my shoulders. It was too early in the morning to start a verbal sparring match.
‘Make yourself at home – help yourself to whatever you want,’ he said and then shouted a goodbye to Mike upstairs and hurried out.
I entered the kitchen. It would have been nice to have been shown where everything was. Instead, I spent an inordinate amount of time just trying to locate the coffee plunger, which obviously wasn’t used very often in Tom’s household given its place at the very back of one of the top cupboards. Next I went in search of coffee. For a moment it looked like they only had instant coffee, but then I discovered an unopened packet of ‘proper’ coffee. Even though I was a bit hungry, I decided to wait and grab something in town, as I couldn’t face yet another search through the many shelves. I looked at my watch. All this faffing about had taken far too long and it was already close to eight. I wasn’t sure how long the commute into the city would take, but I guessed I hadn’t left myself enough leeway. Grabbing the coffee cup with me, I raced upstairs and quickly threw on some jeans and a cardigan. I ran back down, leaving my half-finished coffee on the kitchen counter.
I would soon discover that the move from NW1 to N16 was not merely a matter of living at a different post code. Getting anywhere took so much longer. Instead of hopping on a bus for a couple of stops, or walking if the weather was nice, I now had to switch lines several times before reaching my destination. Blocking out the outside world with my iPod, which was playing classical music, I tried to clear my mind of my home life and focus on what mattered right now – my big plan. The Yang Fellowship was an important stepping stone towards that plan, so my first port of call was to check in with the school receptionist. As I entered the school, I passed ballerinas and students carrying instruments of various shapes and sizes. The one advantage of being a piano student, I mused, was that you weren’t expected to lug your own instrument around as the poor cellists or trombone players had to.
As I was finishing up with the receptionist, I was rendered momentarily speechless at the sight of Ed. In his usual uniform consisting of a bow tie, a shirt starched to perfection and a tailored jacket, Ed’s friendly face was not what you’d expect sitting atop the somewhat severe outfit. He also looked younger than his early forties. When he spotted me, he, too, was stopped in his tracks.
‘I… I’m so sorry.’ Ed recovered first from the surprise encounter.
‘It’s okay. I’m okay.’ I desperately wanted to escape the painful topic of conversation.
‘The funeral was beautiful.’ Ed wouldn’t let it go, though.
‘Thank you.’ I hoped he’d get the message after another non-committal remark.
‘You sure you’re ready to come back?’ Ed asked gently.
I nodded my head vigorously. ‘I’ve missed too much already. I can’t afford to waste any more time.’
Ed observed me, looking impressed by my attitude. ‘Good… So you’ve got your mother’s piano.’
‘Not the way I wanted it.’ I smiled sadly. ‘But she is a beauty.’ Even after all these years of playing the Steinway, I didn’t think I’d ever lose the awe in my voice when talking about it.
‘Claudia would have wanted you to have it,’ Ed said reassuringly.
‘Well, we’ll never really know…’ My tone became distant.
It was not that I doubted my mother would have wanted me to have her piano. What bothered me was the sheer number of well-meaning family friends and acquaintances that had suddenly turned into mouthpieces for Mum, as though privy to what she would have wanted for me. Poor Ed was not to know this, though. An awkward pause ensued.
‘Perhaps we should get started.’ Ed motioned towards the practice rooms down the hallway.
I smiled gratefully. That was exactly what I wanted to do.
‘The Bach concerts are coming up. And, of course, there’s the… memorial.’ Ed listed, noticing me swallow hard. I managed not to tear up.
Feigning a nonchalant tone, Ed then added, ‘And the Juilliard auditions are soon...’ From the grin spreading across his face, I could tell he had been dying to break this news from the moment he’d seen me.
‘They’ve posted the audition dates!’ I squealed with excitement.
‘We’ve got five weeks till the audition of a lifetime!’ Ed was equally excited. He knew how much this meant to me. It struck me that, now that Mum was gone, Ed was the only person who truly understood the significance of this audition. Even Amy couldn’t fully fathom what this represented, as she wasn’t a musician.
‘Oh my God! Juilliard, New York!’ I gushed, losing myself for a moment in the dream that had captured my imagination for most of my school life.
For Juilliard was my big plan in life. It was my mission, my goal, my dream. And now I was closer than ever to turning that dream into reality. Juilliard was one of the world’s most esteemed conservatories in the world, where every year thousands upon thousands of dancing, acting and music candidates applied, in the hope of being among the few selected. Entry into the conservatory was notoriously difficult, but Mum had instilled in me a strong practice ethic and an unwavering belief in my talent. The two of us had been preparing for a life at Juilliard ever since I had first sat down at a piano.
I looked up at the poster that was advertising an upcoming memorial concert. For my mother. There was a beautiful photograph of Mum and, beneath it, the text read: ‘IN MEMORIAM: A SPECIAL CONCERTO, 10th September. Claudia Jennings: 1960-2011.’ I stared at the poster for a moment. I realised I had already started to forget the contours of her face and how beautiful she used to be before the illness had ravaged her features. My left hand hovered over the poster, as though tempted to touch her face, but then I made a conscious effort to peel myself away from the notice board. I couldn’t wallow in grief anymore. Mum wouldn’t have wanted that. Claudia Jennings, the esteemed concert pianist, would have wished for me to be fully focused on getting into Juilliard.