Jennifer Falkner

The varied smells of the hospital, antiseptic and animal, still drift round her as she tosses her keys on the hall table and, without removing her coat, mounts the stairs to the music room. Between the hospital and home it settled on Erika like a conviction: the piano must be tuned.

Apart from a battered blue loveseat at one end, piled high with sheet music and singularly failing to provide somewhere to sit, the piano is the room’s only furniture. On the Valentine-red walls hang posters from some of Marcus’s more celebrated concerts and recitals. Most are in English, but some are in French, German, Japanese. He was a big hit in Kyoto. Erika’s own instrument, her violin, and its music stand are downstairs in the living room, out of the way. She doesn’t have any concert posters. Which is fine, really, as long as she has Marcus to play for.

She props open the licorice-black baby grand and retrieves her tuning kit from inside its bench. Marcus’s piano, her tuning kit. That’s the way it goes. She even packs it with her own things when she accompanies Marcus on tour. He can’t expect all those foreign pianos to be perfect. Inevitably one or two need some adjustment before a performance, especially in notoriously damp cities like London or Tokyo.

Erika plays a few major chords. Listens. Lets the notes die away. It’s hard not to remember this room filled with sound or the way Marcus’s intent expression freezes at the end of a piece, his fingers arched like a cat over the keys, still ready to pounce. The way neither of them moves or speaks until even the motes of dust in the sunbeams stop pulsing. He pounded out his truest self on these keys, translating intellectual Bach, triumphant Beethoven, anguished Satie into his own argot. The walls throbbed with it.

Her hands tremble. If Marcus was home, she would not dare continue. He would not risk any kind of damage to the piano.

Some professional tuners tune A4—the A of the middle octave—just a shade too sharp, instinctively knowing how much it would flatten as the rest of the piano is adjusted. Erika doesn’t trust her own instinct that much, though one of the few things Marcus praised her for was her sense of perfect pitch. She doesn’t even own an electronic chromatic tuner; she doesn’t need one.

She unpacks the tuning fork, the small hammer—which is really like a wrench for turning the pins—and the rubber mutes from their zippered case. She inserts the wedge-shaped mutes between the strings either side of A4 so they won’t vibrate and muddy her tuning. Leaning down she taps the fork against the bench leg. While the piano is glossy and pristine, the bench is less well cared for and the edges are dented and scratched.

The vibration is pleasing, a little ticklish as it travels up her fingers. She strikes it again and closes her hand around the tines. They shiver against her palm and push ripples of sensation up to her elbow. Is that pleasurable? Not entirely, but her hands feel steady against the metal’s agitation.

Erika taps the fork a third time: time to get to work. She cocks her head, absorbing the sound, and plays A4. Definitely flat. And oddly unnerving. She plays it again, with force this time, and there it is: an echo of the ambulance’s siren, its two-note discordant howl. Erika steals a breath—a little shaky on the exhale as she pushes the memory aside—and tightens the pin. Plays the note again. Tightens again. How many times could she turn the pin before the steel wire snaps? But no, that would never happen to Marcus’ sturdy instrument, only her own strings. She keeps a cache of spares (nylon, not steel) in her violin case because she needs to replace them so often. Heartstrings should be so replaceable.

One last time. Get A right and she can tune the rest of the piano to it. Her coat sleeve, looping low from her wrist, brushes against the fork perched on the piano’s edge and sends it tumbling into the piano’s warm cavity. It comes to rest beneath the fretwork of strings, out of reach. Marcus might have reached it with his thin, long fingers. But Marcus isn’t here.

Erika stares at the fork, uncertain. She looks around the room as if there could be someone in it who could help. There’s nobody.

There’s nothing. In the heart of this house that she and Marcus shared for sixteen years there’s nothing that even belongs to her. Not the posters, not the piano. The loveseat came from Marcus’s mother’s house. The sheet music? Erika hoped there might be a piece or two, some Chopin perhaps, that they played together years ago, but she rather doubts it. And the bench, Marcus’s, from childhood.

She’s angry now. Why did Marcus have a piano with such inaccessible recesses? No one has fingers like his, how could he expect anyone else to rescue things lost inside?

She still wants to tune the piano. It’s the last thing she can do for him. But she also needs to smash it.

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