Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt:
Repairing things is a highly specialised skill. There is a repair person for nearly everything. Choose one of the jobs from the list below and tell the story of the oddest repair they might have encountered. (‘Piano Tuner’ was chosen from the list).
The Piano Tuner
By Caroline Stevenson
I don’t repair doorbells as part of my day job, but my customer’s doorbell that morning could certainly have done with a little work. It was pleasingly old school, the descending two-note refrain which typically heralded a tannoy announcement made at an airport. Ding dooong. The second note, however, had crept up to be higher it ought to have been, and was sounding discordant as a result. My sensitive ears are bombarded by minor irritations like these in my everyday life, and sometimes by major ones too; in the sense of a set of notes sounding happy when they ought to sound sad. I once had to console a customer in an awful state because they hadn’t got their piano tuned in time for a low-key funeral and inadvertently played a jolly-sounding funeral march. So let that be a lesson to you piano players out there. It pays to keep your piano in tune.
I had been summoned to this morning’s address as a matter of urgency, my phone having vibrated furiously to inform me I had ten missed calls and voicemails when I awoke at 7am.
“Please, I’ll pay to cancel your other clients today, you have to save my piano first!” cried the first message. “Oh yeah, and here’s my address…” began the second.
As it happened, I had a free schedule that morning and could have called round immediately, but I had already decided to delay my response after listening to the first voicemail. A prospective customer should always include their name in the first message. In the fifth voicemail I learned that it was a man called Louis who required assistance, by which point I was really rather irritated by his needless repetition. A note that’s out of tune is out of tune whether it’s loud or quiet, and you don’t need to strike a note multiple times to hammer that point home.
Eventually though, curiosity got the better of me, and after opting to take the scenic route through the local park now that it was in its springtime bloom, I rang the doorbell at 8 Thistlewood Avenue at 11am. Judging by the sound of my client scrambling to answer the door, none of the urgency had abated. Either that, or he was partway through practicing a John Cage composition, presumably entitled Overture for Smashing Crockery, Displaced Fluttering Papers, Stubbed Toe and Yowling Cat. He squinted in the sunlight’s glare as the door opened. He had the dishevelled appearance some might associate with an artist consumed by creative efforts. Still in his stained dressing gown at eleven in the morning, he had a wild look in his eyes, and mismatched slippers.
“Lydia Cadence??” he bleated in desperation.
“It ain’t perfect if it ain’t in tune,” I replied with my business slogan.
“Come in, come in…”
I picked up my first-aid kit as he motioned me through to the patient in the conservatory requiring immediate assistance. A forlorn-looking creature, certainly. A fine model – a Steinway – but suffering years of neglect. I could hear the dissonance already just looking at the tarnished keys and the dust which had settled over the wing and coated the strings underneath. I played the middle C and a yelp of pain emitted, like I had just prodded a soldier’s open wound. I lowered the lid briefly to try and lend it a moment of dignity.
The wing was open, and he had put his iPad on top of the strings. My website photo was staring back at me. I immediately picked it up and pretended I was going to hurl it towards the ground by raising it above my head –
“What do you think you’re doing, you’ll smash it!” he cried.
“And I’d have still shown it more respect than you have shown to this poor piano. A fine specimen, in woefully poor shape,” I replied, thrusting the iPad into his hands. Suitably chastened, he placed it gingerly on the coffee table which was littered with mug stains.
“My grandmother bought the piano for me when I was five and paid for my piano lessons,” the customer explained sheepishly. “She always wanted a musician in the family. Thing is though, she lives out of the country most of the time and I never went to the piano lessons.” He gestured towards a skateboard propped against the wall. I observed the bruises on his knees and joined the dots.
“But today’s her 80th birthday and she’ll be here this afternoon with the whole family. She had requested that I play Happy Birthday, and I’ve no idea how to play it!”
“And how old are you now, if I might ask?”
“And these lessons have been paid for every single week for fourteen years?” I just about managed to stifle my urge to blurt out And you can’t even play Chopsticks?!
Louis remained silent, too ashamed to meet my gaze. Looking at the state of the place, I couldn’t help but wonder what the money for the piano lessons had gone towards instead. From what I could deduce, skateboarding was largely a self-taught activity, so no expense required for a teacher. As if in answer to my silent question, a flatmate in a Nirvana T-Shirt who was definitely too young to remember Kurt Cobain’s untimely death wandered in, emanating the distinct smell of weed.
“Took some of your stash. I’ll replace it,” he announced as he clapped Louis on the shoulder, whose cheeks subsequently turned a deeper shade of scarlet. “Have a nice time with your family, yeah?”
“Thanks Kev,” Louis mumbled as Kev shut the front door behind him.
14 years of lessons. This grandmother might be no musician herself, but her suspicions would certainly be raised if Louis delivered a flailing rendition of Happy Birthday with just one hand. That would be akin to rustling up a cheese and ham toastie after training with a Michelin-starred chef.
He had a hand span which could tackle Rachmaninov more easily than most players. It seemed rather a shame he had never put it to melodic use.
“I’m sure you’ll have noticed on my website that I am a piano tuner, not a teacher,” I said curtly.
“Oh, I know,” Louis replied. “And I’ve tried teaching myself by watching YouTube, and honestly, I’m hopeless. But I’ve got an idea which will probably be quicker than learning the order of the notes. What I was thinking was… how about if you just tune the keys so all I have to do is play the white keys from left to right, and hey presto, the Happy Birthday tune is set up and ready to go. Plus that way, I get to use both hands so it looks more fancy.”
I paused for a moment as I considered which element of this request was the most galling. Was it his use of the word “just”? The irony of someone with no musicality whatsoever using the term “presto”? The fact that he had winked at me upon saying “fancy”? Or that he looked pleased with himself?
A piano has 88 keys in total. Of course, in normal circumstances and with any level of aptitude, only 8 keys would typically be required for a rendition of the ubiquitous melody in question. In Louis’ suggested set-up, however, 25 keys would be needed to play the Happy Birthday tune from left to right.
I attempted to explain that the task was in theory doable, but the results wouldn’t sound satisfactory. It wasn’t just a case of getting the right pitch, there was more to tuning a piano than that. Harmonics. Temperament. He might as well have asked me to make a violin sound like a clarinet.
“If I re-tune the middle section of the piano according to your suggestion, then it will sound like –“
“I don’t have time for this.” Louis pointed at the clock above the sofa. “I need it done by 2pm.”
I exhaled audibly. The piano’s predicament wouldn’t improve if I were to turn round and abandon it now. But I would have to do something dreadful in order to remove it from its abusive owner.
“Very well,” I said. “If that’s what you want.” Forgive me for what I am about to do, I uttered in a silent prayer to the piano. I set to work, lowering my visor and lifting my tuning lever. The resulting jolt of the first twist sent reverberations throughout the house and a cloud of dust rose into the air. Most likely some pigeons were also startled off a nearby rooftop. It is a painstaking and slow task to significantly alter the pitch of a piano key. Each one has three strings which need altering individually. I didn’t look up from my work once but gathered from the smell of furniture polish that Louis was making the living room more presentable for visitors. For the first time in my life, I wish I had brought noise-cancelling headphones to work. It was disorienting to have the sound so mismatched to the position of the hand on the instrument. My fingers recoiled. Like punching the horn of a car, only to hear the whooshing of windscreen wipers instead of the quintessential honk.
When I came out of my trance, Louis had ditched the dressing gown in favour of a suit which had been too hastily ironed.
“Start with this note here.” I pointed to what used to be middle C.
“That one?” he responded, immediately prodding the wrong key.
Despite Louis’ cleaning efforts, there was still a stray post-It note on the floor. I picked it up and stuck it onto the starting key. He drummed all fingers and thumbs of one hand down on the keys like someone would drum on a desk when bored, then alternated hands, instead of gliding his thumb underneath the fingers to play a one-hand melody in the more dexterous manner of a trained pianist. I put my hands over my ears behind him. Louis wasn’t aware that the keyboard landscape was so unnatural since it was his first true encounter with one. I felt a kind of motion sickness watching him work his way through the tune, the way a cartographer would feel bamboozled by the Pyrenees and the Rocky Mountain ranges trading places with each other on a map. I had to turn away from the instrument in shame. The piano knew it was being mocked. Not much longer, I reminded myself.
“You’ve saved me!” he exclaimed! Not a moment too soon. The doorbell whined, heralding the arrival of the birthday party guests. “How can I repay you?!”
“I’ll send you the invoice.”
“If you wouldn’t mind exiting through the back door, because – “
I had already fled the scene of the crime before he could finish his sentence. In the garden, I whipped out my phone and called My Crew, making sure I couldn’t be seen from the window.
“I’ve got a rescue mission for you. Yes, there are people in the house at the moment, but when has that stopped you? You made a big buck from the piano I tuned for that auction. The one where the white keys were tuned as black keys and vice versa, remember? Yes, the one saved from that funeral fiasco. I’ve got one here tuned to play Happy Birthday from left to right. We swoop in, donate it to a museum with some backstory about how it was an especially constructed prank for a member of the monarchy and Bob’s your uncle. Get here ASAP.”
“Roger that,” affirmed The Crew’s Captain, who shall remain anonymous.
The family members – mother, father, little sister with plaits and the Birthday Girl in the middle – were all seated on the sofa with their backs turned to me.
The recital began. I winced. Judging by the flinching silhouettes of the guests on the sofa, I wasn’t the only one. Indeed, it takes something ghastly to keep you oblivious from a helicopter landing in your back garden. I nodded a greeting to The Crew Captain and his two henchmen. They all had an intimidating physique, the kind which was the very last a person would wish to encounter in a dark alleyway.
The recital reached its pitiful conclusion. A silence descended over the conservatory and its captive audience, which was broken by the grandmother’s frail voice.
“Lou-Lou, my darling, that was very sweet of you, but… when did you last get that thing tuned?” Through the double glazing, I thought I could detect a hint of a Polish accent.
“I… what?” Louis’ jaw fell to the floor.
I gave the signal to The Crew, and in they went, kicking down the back door and donning their balaclavas, the henchmen hoisting the piano board, blankets and bubble wrap under their arms. They closed the curtains, thus blocking my view of the operation. Louis’ mother screamed at a pitch which would have given a soprano singing Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria a run for her money. Porcelain cups shattered. That poor cat yowled an encore. Louis should be thanking his lucky stars his grandmother never requested an encore from him.
In record time they had dissembled the piano and secured it to the board to get it out of the back door. The Captain came out last, still pointing his gun towards the house.
I suppose I am a teacher of sorts, I reflected as I grabbed hold of the helicopter ladder in the nick of time. I taught a lazy man that he ought to respect his elders and that attending his piano lessons would have spared him a whole lot of trouble.
Sunday Wrters' Club member
Portrait of Caroline courtesy of Markus Raffeis