There was music pounding out from somewhere deep within the basement, the thin thread of a voice underlined by the gargling reverberation of the bass drum. From the front door the song was unrecognisable, the muffle of closed doors and solid brickwork removing everything but a rhythmic kind of angst.
Natalie was already five minutes late for her piano lesson but still she paused. There was an entry system to the left of the front door with more than twenty buzzers, a patchwork of names and initials written on labels in varying degrees of fade and unstuckness. Only one was printed and encased in its original glass and gilt frame, the letters in graceful italics; Stanley Cooper (Dip Mus MA Hons). Her finger reached towards the tarnished brass button. She could sense him waiting inside, she could imagine the twitch of his impatience, his bottled-up frustration almost in the tangible in the cool, green spring air. But then she withdrew her finger; she didn’t ring. A tabby cat appeared on the pavement and started to wind itself around the flaking railings. She sat down on the cold stone step and watched it.
Number 5 Ruskin Crescent had been divided into bed-sits many years before. While all the other houses in the Victorian terrace had been converted into generous flats, their stone work sandblasted back to its former glory and their gardens landscaped, this house alone, hunched behind a row of mature lime trees next to a busy intersection, still wore the smut black of a century’s worth of bad air. Even the dandelions and wild yellow poppies in the piece of waste ground that a real estate professional might label, ‘the garden’, struggled to circumvent the old mattresses and broken furniture that was strewn across it like bomb-site debris.
On the ground floor, bed-sheets held in place by drawing pins sagged from windows as filmy with dirt as eyes with cataracts. Inside, in once-large rooms chopped up into smaller ones by flimsy wooden partitions, televisions threw their blue glow into air that was thick with the fug of tobacco cut with marijuana and the sticky residue of fried food. All of a sudden the music was turned up louder, the volume knob, she imagined, twisted as far as it would go.
‘Hey baby!’ whined a real voice along to the record. ‘Do it to me naaaw.’
And then with a shrug of sound, a twang of dusty string and the crackle of a dodgy lead, an electric guitar began to play along.
After a few agonizing moments, a window somewhere above opened and a cougher coughed. It was not so much a clearing of the airwaves or a sign of congestion, as an expression of something else, a futile announcement of territory or maybe personal space. ‘You are subjecting me to pain,’ the cougher seemed to be saying. But who was there to notice? Certainly not the guitar player.
Stanley Cooper’s flat was on the first floor. He had the original drawing room, a space that had somehow escaped the chop of the room divider. It was a cavern of a room with a two-ring cooker in the corner and a single bed that was turned by day into a velvet cushion-strewn sofa. The ceiling was high, the cornicing ornate and a vast mirror above the fireplace flaky with age. Judging by the settle of his belongings, the way his books had been tightly stowed away in dust-covered rows and the toppling piles of sheet music and yellowing newspapers, Stanley Cooper had been living there for some time. The air smelled of mothballs and dust, of battles fought half-heartedly with mites and moths and lost. Infested was a word that Natalie liked to say to herself when she noticed the casual flitter of a moth out of the curtains. Only his grand piano, positioned in the bay window so that shafts of sunlight revealed small galaxies of dust motes, looked in good condition, the wood squeaking beneath her finger tip as she placed her music on the stand.
A bus screeched to a halt on the main road. Natalie stood up and smoothed down her school skirt, re-stitched by her own hand to turn an A-line into a far more provocative V. Now she felt guilty. She knew that when she finally appeared for her weekly lesson, with so many excuses they were obviously all invented, he would give her a strained smile with eyes pitched in disappointment. ‘Better late than never,’ he would mutter as he ushered her in. ‘They come in flocks, those buses, like starlings.’ But what was he doing with his time, she countered? Nothing much.
Stanley, please call me Stanley, don’t want to sound like a fusty old school teacher, was tall and thin and was, indeed, old. At least thirty, Natalie guessed. His hair was on the turn to grey and he had long, twig-thin fingers. His clothes were always just a little bit wrong. A tie pinched by a button-down shirt, trousers that skimmed his ankle, rather than the top of his lace-up shoes and clothes in those colours, pale brown, puce green and jaunty orange, that mark the ones that always populate the sale rail. And nobody, Natalie often felt like consoling him, nobody in Scotland, in this damp climate, looks good in tangerine.
It was after she had pressed his bell but before Stanley had raced down the communal stairs to answer, that the door swung open and a boy, not much older than herself, came out. He glanced up at her from beneath his haircut, or possible not cut, but fashioned into fringes and peaks and licks that had been dyed an unnatural shade of jet black.
‘Are you going in?’ he asked with a nod of his head. He was all chin and cheekbone, churl and chafe.
‘Thanks,’ she said. She picked up her school bag and hoisted it over her shoulder. Even with the customised skirt, however, she wasn’t fooling anyone. Her school uniform was hideous, and had been chosen by the nuns who taught her, some of the other girls said, to act as a kind of chastity belt in polyester serge. The boy looked away as she passed; she was not even on his radar, his face seemed to say, and would be placed with the rest of the invisible people such as traffic wardens and mothers with pushchairs.
‘You’re here!’ said Stanley when they met on the stairs.
‘Someone was coming out,’ she said. ‘Sorry I’m late.’
He nodded. She wasn’t really sorry and they both knew it.
The lesson was the same as the one before, her playing displaying the fact that she had barely touched the piano since the last lesson, and his body tensing up when she played wrong note after wrong note. She was, she supposed, his worst pupil.
‘Ok,’ he would say, when she has just blundered her way through another piece. ‘What can I say?’ And he would blink and bite his lip until it was clear that what he wanted to say was do not ever open a piano lid again. Do not ever touch the keys on pain of death. But he couldn’t. He was paid to teach her. And so he would play the piece himself to show her what it should sound like.
‘Do you see?’ he would ask her.
‘Yes,’ she felt like telling him. ‘I see that you are good and I am rubbish and always will be.’
‘Better,’ he would say when she played it just as badly for a second time. Or, ‘getting there,’ with a triumphant shake of his fist.
And then they would go through the piece section by section and note by note.
‘C,’ he would say, his voice rising in pitch. ‘Not A, but C!’
When he leant forward to point out the note on her sheet music, she could smell him; shaving foam and coffee.
‘Where?’ she asked. ‘You mean middle C?’
He lifted her hand and, with his on top of hers, he placed her index finger on the key.
‘This one,’ he said.
Something passed from his finger to hers, a tremble, perhaps, and the faintest hint of a lemon sharpness, the tiniest trace of a scent that she had only recently become familiar with at the youth club disco. She turned and looked at him, at the rise of his chest and the flush of colour in his cheeks. He withdrew his hand suddenly and folded it into his lap.
‘Go on,’ he said with a nod. ‘From the beginning of the bar.’
But it was too late. She knew.
A week later, she was on time. Her music had been practised and her school shirt unbuttoned so the lace top of her pale blue bra was clearly visible. She wore two lines of black kohl around her eyes and lip-gloss that tasted of strawberries and lard. As she waited, she glanced up and caught the face of the boy she had seen before, staring from a window to the left of Stanley’s.
This lesson, however, was one of her worst. Even though she had practised, her fingers seemed to forget where they were going, her mind to blank when he demanded to know which note was which. Finally, he sat back in despair.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Maybe the piano isn’t for you.’
It was then that she stood up.
‘I have practised,’ she insisted. ‘I love the piano.’
He looked at her and blinked. And so she turned towards the window as the tears began to spill out of her eyes, hoping that the pale northern light would illuminate her face in a flattering way. Here was the point where he was supposed to step forward and comfort her, to tell her that he was sorry, to let his long fingers stray through her hair. Instead, the moment tipped. He was now staring at the floor more in embarrassment than empathy. Everything hit her like a minor chord. What had she been thinking? He was just a seedy old man in a seedy old flat.
She grabbed her school bag, stuffed her music inside and left. Even though it was five minutes before the end of her lesson, Stanley didn’t stop her.
The boy was standing on the landing running his hand over the artwork of his hair. He wasn’t aware of her until Stanley’s door closed with a loud click. And then he turned and took her in, the small breasts heaving beneath the provocatively unbuttoned shirt, the skirt taken in to hug the angles of her hips, the black make-up now streaked across her face.
‘Hey,’ he said.
‘Hey,’ she replied.