The Forest Sings by Celia Hutchison
Last night I dreamt I was being chased by a pack of terriers, our Daisy in the lead. They bore down on me, knocking me to the ground. I woke to find Daisy standing on my chest barking. The forest fires were dangerously close, and we had to get away.
I had to keep wiping the ash from my eyes and hair as I scrambled to load up a few belongings. Daisy resisted my efforts at getting her into the car with all her little bony might. Then she stood up on the seat staring through the rear window and whimpering until we turned the corner. Acting on instinct, I drove on into the city towards the concert hall, arriving as the sun came up. And I was right, because here you are in the choir seats waiting for me!
So let me get my apologies in straight away. Honestly, I just wanted to get our things safely into the concert hall. I’ve brought our photo album, some music and Daisy’s grooming brushes. Honestly, I only wedged the door open for a minute to carry a box in when I heard a shout, then Daisy’s bark rising to a scream of terror as she tried to flee, followed by gunshot. I saw a woman grabbing Daisy in the nick of time. Another woman stood holding a gun, as a Rottweiler ran off.
A quivering Daisy was put into my arms, and we slammed the door behind us. Well, I couldn’t send them away after that. They’re called Karen and Monica, and I must admit, it was good to exchange news over lemonade and chocolate cake. They’re going to join some people getting together at the coast. Now the contagion’s blown out, it’s all hands to the pump, they say.
"I don’t think I’d be much use," I said. “I’ll be alright here. I’m the piano tuner, you know.”
Anyway, the women are off foraging, as they put it, and I’m free to roam backstage. It feels good to have Daisy snuffling along after me. The lights are still working, but the faint toffee smell of floor polish is replaced by sour neglect. The place is silent apart from the click of Daisy’s claws and the hum of the air-conditioning.
I know you're standing behind me as I tap in the door code for the piano storeroom. Three great shining beasts are hunkered down here, jostling to be chosen by today's maestro. Only me, I tell them. I'm walking round placing my hands on their cool black surfaces, soothing and comforting them. I know that's silly, but it's how it feels. You understand, don’t you? I try a few notes. They've held their tune well, and so they should, considering I've dedicated twenty years to their service. I’ll just do a little maintenance work. Well, you didn’t think I’d leave my work tools behind, did you? My tuning lever clicks gently onto the first pin. I feel at home now, tending strings and hammers, tweaking and adjusting, coaxing sweet sounds from these great machines.
Every piano has its personality, and I know each one like a handmaid knows her mistress. Here’s the go-to instrument for the big romantic concertos. You old show-off, you. The one next to it is softer, more delicate in tone. But this one is my favourite. All wood warmth, its lower register seeps into your guts; its upper notes are shimmering pearls. Hello my beauty.
A piano, I used to tell you on our woodland walks, is a forest bent and stretched, polished and honed to man's will and fancy. And you would nod and smile and pretend you hadn't heard me say this a hundred times before. Then we’d splash through a puddle because you’d seen an insect that must not be disturbed.
Time for one more tune, I think. I disengage the brakes and start to heave the piano round and out into the corridor. Manoeuvring nine feet of aristocratic obstinacy is no easy task on your own. Like a massive shopping trolley, it will struggle to negotiate corners, then attempt to run away from you once you are on the straight again. Finally, we reach the stage, Daisy running ahead. The auditorium is drenched in a thick silence. There's no-one here to shuffle in their seat or cough in the quiet passages; no-one checking their phones and twittering, or whatever it is they do.
I wheel the piano to centre stage. I open the lid to expose the soundboard, so now it's squatting in front of me like a great half-winged beetle poised for flight. Someone’s left a piano stool by the stage door. I take my seat at the keyboard, adjust the height, flex my fingers. You remember, Peter, how I used to accompany you when you'd sing at home. Sometimes you'd indulge me in a piano duet, and we'd sit shoulder to shoulder, hands crossing and touching while the last embers glowed in the hearth and the night cradled us in its arms. I’ll play your favourite Chopin nocturne, the one that sounds like a waltz. It was the last music we heard before the radio went off last week.
“Let’s dance,” you said.
And we did, me supporting more than leading, your breath warm on my cheek.
Two days ago, I laid you down under the oak tree in our forest clearing and covered you in leaves and branches. And now the fires that have consumed your body will have charged up our lawn and barrelled through the rhododendrons. They will have ransacked the house, a bailiff come to take what we thought was ours.
As my final chords die away, there's a round of applause. Karen and Monica are sitting in the stalls. They’re complimentary about my performance, but impatient to leave. I get up from the piano stool and close the lid. I’ll come with them on one condition, I tell them. We take the piano. There is a long pause. The two women look at each other. Then Karen nods.
While Karen reverses the lorry into the loading bay, Monica and I start rolling the piano out. It bowls along happily, breaking free of us in one alarming moment to skip onto the van and take its place among the supplies.
We can hear the town dogs in the distance now. They're getting closer. Daisy's shaking in my arms as Monica helps me up to the passenger seat. They're in the yard now, led by a large Alsatian. Monica slams the cab door shut just in time. Karen blasts the horn to scatter them. One last look back, and we are away.