The movers had arrived early, but I was home in time to let them in. I had just changed into my favourite pair of jeans when the doorbell rang. Pulling a white jersey top over my head, I rushed down the stairs. Fortunately, there was no one else in the house, which meant I could direct the workmen without any disturbance as they manoeuvred my mother’s piano into the house. There was one difficulty, though. The piano was grand, and the living room was anything but. Tom lived in a modest terraced house, and the living room was already filled to bursting point with African-inspired furniture, leaving scant room for the Steinway.
The African theme in the décor was not a case of random taste but was, in fact, the imprint Tom’s second wife had left on the place. Despite the fact she had left him a year ago to go back to Africa, which I couldn’t help but feel was an act of karma, it seemed Tom was reluctant to let go of any of the pieces. Although, the truth may have been that he simply didn’t feel like forking out on a new living room.
‘Okay, keep going, keep going…’ I instructed the movers as they attempted to get the instrument through the doorway.
‘Slowly, slowly… Easy!’ I winced as the piano nearly bumped into the wall.
‘Wait!’ My shout caused one of the movers to buckle, and it was thanks to the other two holding it up that the piano didn’t come crashing down.
I sensed the movers’ irritation.
‘I’m sorry. It belonged to my mother,’ I tried to explain, but my words appeared to fall on deaf ears.
All three of the men slowly placed the piano on the ground for a brief respite, before resuming their arduous task. However, just as they got the grand piano poised in the air once again, another voice boomed out, causing them to stop.
‘Watch the walls!’ Tom appeared in the doorway. The piano blocked his way from actually entering the room. ‘What’s going on?’ He stared at the piano, then looked at me pointedly. ‘I thought we had an agreement?’
Annoyed at his interference, I stood defiantly, arms akimbo.
‘This thing goes in the back room,’ Tom said in a decisive tone, prompting the movers to lift the piano and begin reversing.
‘The acoustics are much better in here,’ I challenged Tom.
The workmen, lumbering under the weight, began to emit stifled groans.
‘Carry on,’ I told the movers firmly.
But Tom was not so easily played. He inserted himself between the workmen and the spot that I had designated for the piano.
‘The condition for you bringing the piano into the house was that it would go into a room where you can shut the door and not disturb the rest of us.’ Tom tried to stay calm, but I could see he was struggling.
I particularly resented the way Tom was now presenting the situation, as though it had been settled in some iron-clad contract. He had never once told me that there was an actual condition on the piano being brought to the house. Him showing me the study as the room he had designated for the piano did not constitute an agreement. And even if, in Tom’s mind, such a statement equalled to a stipulation, surely any agreement was based upon both sides actually agreeing? I didn’t recall saying anything about it. But why was I so surprised? Tom had never given me reason to believe he was either reasonable or understanding.
‘Take your time, why don’t you? This thing’s light as a feather,’ one of the workmen interrupted us gruffly.
‘But this is the best room for it,’ I pleaded, frustrated that I had to practically beg. With all that I had been through, Tom should have been trying to make my life easier, not harder. Especially if he wanted to show me he was willing to make up for not being there for me. The situation was beyond exasperating.
‘I can’t have you disturbing the whole house,’ said Tom, folding his arms across his chest.
‘It’s nice to know you consider my music a disturbance,’ I wanted to say, but didn’t. ‘Once I start performing professionally, there will be plenty of people willing to pay lots of money to listen to me play, so you should consider this a privilege, not a penance.’
The sound of the front door opening interrupted our stand-off. Mike was back from school. He whizzed past the door, then spotted the piano.
‘Yo, Mozart in da house!’
‘Mike?’ Tom shouted after him, but Mike was gone. ‘How was school?’ No response.
Tom sighed and turned back to me. He suddenly looked old and worn out. After all that had happened, I couldn’t believe I was actually beginning to feel sorry for him. Feeling tired of this push and pull, I finally relented.
‘Fine.’ I turned to the by now very disgruntled movers. ‘You can take it into the back room.’
‘Sure. If you change your mind love, just let us know!’ one of the movers shouted sarcastically as they steered their way out of the living room and down the hallway.
‘It’s only temporary, anyway,’ I stated, before marching out of the room.
I glanced behind, and saw that Tom had plopped onto the sofa, rubbing his face wearily. It hadn’t been a full week yet since I’d arrived, and already he was feeling worn out and fed up. Not that it was a surprise, but still. I realised I’d had slightly higher expectations of him. Serves me right, I thought, angry at myself for not knowing better.
Once the piano had been installed in the so-called study, and the workmen had left, I wasted no time in setting myself up. Taking out my ‘Young Pianist Award’, I placed it on top of the piano, then lifted the lid. With great affection I ran my fingers along the keys, as though greeting an old friend. I tried to ignore the detritus of the study around me, even though Tom had attempted to tidy it up. Only if he’d actually thrown all that junk out would he have been able to clear the space. With my eyes closed, I began to play.
Barely a few minutes later the door opened, revealing Tom.
‘Please be sensible about this. We have to live here, too,’ Tom warned.
I kept on playing, hoping Tom would just disappear.
‘No playing after ten o’clock, okay?’ Tom wouldn’t leave before reaching some sort of an agreement.
I abruptly stopped playing and swivelled around on my piano seat to face Tom.
‘Eleven!’ Inside I was furious but, in order to win this battle, I knew I had to keep a calm exterior.
Tom watched me for a moment, then nodded. ‘Eleven.’
But as I turned back, my fingers poised over the keys, Tom’s voice once again stopped me.
‘And no playing before eight o’clock in the morning at weekends.’ Could he not let anything pass without making a fuss over it first, I wondered.
‘Six.’ This time I didn’t turn to look at him.
‘Seven-thirty,’ Tom rallied back.
‘Six-thirty.’ My window of compromise was quite narrow.
‘Seven.’ Tom gave in.
‘Fine. Seven,’ I replied curtly, not wanting to show Tom that I was secretly pleased I had scored this little victory, after having lost the living room battle. For Tom didn’t know that I never started practising before seven in the morning. Just like he didn’t know anything else about me. And I was resolved to keep it that way.
As Tom walked down the corridor, I switched to playing a different tune, a more aggressive and faster-paced one, increasing the volume. Tom was no musical expert, but I knew that he would have no doubts as to whom my piano rage was directed. For music, if cleverly used, could also be a powerful weapon.
As I vented my frustration with a bit of help from Beethoven, an unexpected realisation dawned on me. All these years I felt I had missed out on having a proper father. But I suddenly knew that having to live with him would have been a challenge all of its own, and I wondered if I had actually been better off without him. The joyless pedantry and the emotional aloofness I had already witnessed during the few days of living with him had made me thankful I hadn’t been around him while I was growing up.