Lips painted crimson.
The same as my silk shirt. I let the heavy curtain fall against the wall. She promised she would be here, seated middle, front row. Amelia kept her word. My fingers shook, from nerves, from the desire to play. Another glimpse into the audience, the judges sitting in the centre of the room, illuminated by the ambient glow from the stage.
‘Henry Thorn will now play Chopin Polonaise Op. 53 in A flat minor,’ a disembodied voice read. I smoothed down my shirt and walked into the pool of light that engulfed the piano. Silence in many shades of anticipation. Respect, curiosity, desire, expectation all governed the demeanour of each person in the chamber. I bowed, not daring to search for Amelia’s eyes. Instead I pretended we were in the college music room, her body laid out on the floor as she listened.
She guided me to the keys and told me to play. I did not need more encouragement to begin than the urge to speak to the music and let its stitched together sounds whisper back. This piece had been my tormentor but now it was going to save me.
‘Again,’ my father said, newspaper crinkling in his hands. Eight years old, and a pair of notes reversed by accident. I flicked through the pages, finding the start of the piece and began again. My ears strained waiting for the sound of the newspaper: that short sharp crackle. I couldn’t hear the music anymore; my fingers did as they were instructed, leaping between keys to the thrum of the metronome. Halfway through, not another mistake made, my father stood and took the paper away.
He returned to hear the final notes.
‘Excellent job son,’ he said, ‘I have a treat for you.’
A smile. A true smile of joy. Years later when they called my father an abuser I would shake my head. He loved me. When they blamed him for my breakdown I wished I had the ability to convince them they were wrong.
The treat, ice cream and a new cassette to listen to in the car, one without classical music. Playing for him was terrifying but at eight the rewards were immense.
He played part of a piece I was to learn. ‘Do you hear it? What the music is saying?’ he said.
I listened as his fingers scaled the keys. There was his breath, metred, the creak of the piano, random. And then there was the musical instrument’s inner workings.
‘What do you hear?’ I relayed the sounds. He shook his head. ‘The music. Listen to the music.’
Eyes closed, filtering out other sound. An ebb and flow of music. I could hear it speak, telling a story. Let’s reach a crescendo. The harmony tremors. Feel your heart pounding in your chest in time with the accelerando? Will you let me live, breathe, share this sensation?
The music stopped and the voice fell silent. Startled, I opened my eyes.
‘It had more to say,’ I said, ‘You didn’t let it finish.’
‘I can’t hear the words Henry. That is your gift and why you must free the voice.’ His hand clasped my shoulder.
I needed to keep that beautiful voice alive.
Amelia sat on the seat beside me, a hand on my thigh, head resting on my shoulder.
‘Where did you learn to play?’ she said, eyes half closed.
My fingers continued to sweep across the keys. Her voice blended with the melody.
‘My father taught me to play,’ I said, ‘When I was twelve I played at the Conservatorium on my school teacher’s suggestion. My father agreed, he always wanted to share me.’
‘I think he just wanted to show you off.’
‘He got his wish, I guess. A scout watched me perform a few years later and I won a scholarship to study in America but my father wouldn’t let me go.’
‘But he is the one who wanted you to play?’ Amelia said. Her brow furrowed.
‘I was fourteen, he was just protecting me.’
‘Oh,’ she said, pausing, ‘Well, I’m glad I had the chance to meet you. If you had gone to America-’
‘-It would all be very different.’ A laugh split my lips, something more musical than what an instrument could capture. Amelia chuckled in response, resting her head on my shoulder.
Chopin Polonaise Op. 53 in A flat minor was one of the more complicated pieces I had ever played. But I loved the story it told.
The music whispered to me and I spoke back. I was setting it free.
Let me take you on an adventure. A grand journey. Off we go.
Run down the hill. Let the breeze catch your clothes and your hair. Roll through the grass. Lay down in the sun.
Mother and father are here. Smiling. Brother and sister. Grinning.
We play and eat. Listen to the cassette in the car. Fingers stroking phantom keys.
It starts to rain.
Run up the hill. Bags and shoes. Shoes and bags. Laughter. Fear.
What a grand adventure.
I play the final notes, force behind each stroke. It is alive. The room can feel it. Every person has been satisfied, hearing what only I could share with them.
Pause then applause. I stand. I bow. A new kind of music. I search for Amelia’s face but I can’t find her. There are no judges either.
As I walk off the stage it feels like I’m forcing myself to plunge into icy water. Why can’t I stay in the warmth where I am loved, cheered even? But I have shared my gift tonight. Any more would spoil that magic.
In the brightly lit corridor behind the stage I noticed my hands. Oh how Amelia loved my soft, slender hands. Time was a cruel master.
A woman guided me back to the change room. She was young, speaking into an earpiece. Her job done once I was seated before the mirror. The truth returned as if having been on some long winded holiday.
Amelia was gone. I was old, alone, unable to pass on my gift. Wrinkled face, veins protruding on the back of my hand. An Amelia that was no more than a figment of my memory.
A series of coughs shook my body. Had I done my father proud?
A flash of colour in the mirror caught my eye.
Crimson painted lips.