❉ Writer Nick Myles contributes a ghost story for We Are Cult…
As a girl then, and as a woman now, I loved my aunt. I loved my aunt’s house. And I especially loved my aunt’s piano.
Aunt Iris had not been a particularly cuddly person – she was rather flinty and unsentimental – but she had a sly sense of humour that showed itself at unexpected moments, and she always encouraged independent thinking and creativity. I was a naturally curious child, and Iris was pleased to have a niece who loved singing and dancing, and who at an early age demanded to play the piano. Iris had paid for my lessons, and always insisted on hearing what I had learnt whenever the family visited her little cottage in Wiltshire. My older brother George displayed no musical inclination, and Iris – while never outright dismissive of him – didn’t do much to conceal her lack of interest in her nephew.
I associated my aunt’s house with Christmas because for many years the tradition had been that we would drive down to see her on December 26th, and it was like having Christmas Day all over again: a fresh round of presents to exchange, more food and drink, games of charades, and of course a chance for me to play my favourite piano.
Standing at Iris’s door on Christmas Eve so many years later, I felt a flock of sorrows surround me. Sorrow for her lonely death from heart disease two months before; sorrow that if George got his way this house that I loved would be sold off to pay his children’s school fees; and a self-pitying sorrow for myself: a childless woman past forty with very little to show for her time on Earth. I also had the beginnings of a cold that I felt was going to blossom into misery: my throat was as scratchy as horse hair and frequent coughs rattled my bones.
Upon Iris’s doorknob I hung the holly wreath I had brought with me. It seemed doubly appropriate, as a festive greeting and a gesture of mourning, the leaves verdant but spiked, the berries like pearls of blood.
Opening the door, I flicked the light switch to illuminate the familiar scene. The short hallway led straight into the living room, the kitchen to the right, the staircase to the left. Well worn carpets, rugs and furniture, the fireplace and the coal scuttle, and in pride of place against the wall so it was the first thing to be seen: the piano.
I realised that internally I had said “my piano”. I hoped it would be – surely George wouldn’t prevent me from having it? I felt a glow of affection as I admired it. It showed its age but was still a fine sight: the upright body a sturdy hulk of walnut, the legs simply but elegantly turned, and tucked under the keyboard the long stool upon which my aunt and I had sat side by side so many times. I gently lifted the lid to reveal the keys – that wonderful black and white scroll of weathered ebony and ivory, a magical pattern of latent melody. I stroked the keys wistfully.
“I miss you, Auntie Iris.”
* * * * *
After I had stowed my things in the little bedroom upstairs, I made up a fire in the grill and opened a bottle of wine. I’d been medicating my cold with whiskey from a flask on the train down, and although my head was starting to feel a little foggy, I decided that Iris would approve of me sharing some full-bodied Italian comfort from her wine rack. I curled up in her armchair and lost myself in thought as I gazed into the flickering fingers of the fire.
The first piece I played when I emerged from my reverie was a Chopin prelude. Not that overexposed E-minor dirge, but the simpler, less pretentious B-minor piece that I’d learned long ago and with which I had once won a school competition. As my left hand climbed up and down the arpeggios and my right marked time with delicate chords, I felt transported back to the first time I’d played it for Iris, and I realised that I was crying.
Every piano is unique, with a sound and a feel that’s not quite like any other. Playing Iris’s piano felt like wearing a pair of gloves that had been perfectly fitted. The give and bounce of the keys chimed exactly with where I wanted to take them, the tone took on precisely the voice I aimed for – it was a miraculous synergy, and my whole body swayed into the performance we were creating together. I could almost swear that when my fingers were about to mis-step, the piano itself guided them back onto the right path, as if it wasn’t me alone who was playing. It was a lovely experience, and when at length I closed the lid over the keyboard and crept up the stairs to bed, I was the happiest I’d been for a long while.
* * * * *
I woke, and knew immediately that my cold had escalated. Beyond that, it took a while for reality to set in. I knew that I was shivering in a bed, but the bed – though familiar – wasn’t my own. My feverish brain gradually managed to reconstruct the facts of the situation, and seeing by the bedside clock that the time was approaching three in the morning, a penny dropped and an instinctive joy in me registered that it was officially Christmas Day.
A sneeze shook me further awake, and I realised another thing: I could hear music. Sick, and sentimentally pissed as I had been, I must have left the radio on. Fair enough. No problem. I would just go down and turn it off.
I was halfway down the stairs when I remembered Auntie Iris didn’t own a radio.
I don’t think I moved an inch for half an hour. I just stood on the stairs, my brain boiling. Who was playing the piano? Someone must have broken in – but what sort of burglar would give themselves away so recklessly? Eventually, incredibly slowly and unsurely, I put one foot in front of the other until I reached ground level and was in the living room.
The lid of the piano was open, and it was playing itself! The keys rippled up and down under the command of invisible fingers, the pedals depressed and released with perfect sympathy. I recognised the piece as a Schubert scherzo I had tried to master many times… And then it stopped.
I stood fixed to the spot. Had I dreamed it? Was I dreaming now? Part of me was straining to run back upstairs, disappear under the covers and pretend it hadn’t happened. But I didn’t move – I just stood and stared, my heart in my throat, barely daring to breathe. My fear and amazement and uncertainty swelled with each passing moment, until the tension became intolerable and I had to break the silence.
I don’t know what sort of response I expected, but none came. My greeting disappeared into the air and the disarming silence descended again.
“Is there anybody… here?”
Nothing. The room and the piano were weighted with stubborn soundlessness.
Still nothing. Was it – whatever it was – over? Real or delusion, I was surprised to find myself sad at the prospect. Shocking though the sight of the un-manned piano playing itself had been, the silence seemed somehow worse. Impulsively, I took a step towards the instrument. Then another one. And another. I was almost on tiptoe, my breaths short and shallow, the tension like a tightening knot in my stomach. Reaching the piano, I felt a small relief that I had completed the journey, though I couldn’t have said what I feared might happen. This was just too strange for reasoned analysis.
Tentatively, I stretched my right hand towards the keys. I had a vision of the lid snapping shut on my fingers, but it mercifully stayed open and I very brought my second finger down on the F two octaves above Middle C. The single note sounded, reverberating for a few moments and then began to fade. Before it had quite vanished altogether, the lowest F on the keyboard independently went down as if in answer.
I snatched my hand away as if scalded, but managed to resist the impulse to flee. Collecting myself as best I could, my feelings a mix of terror and fascination, I reached out again and played the B-flat above my first note. This time the response was instant: the F below and the D above magically depressed themselves, combining to make the B-flat major chord. In the midst of the strangeness, I couldn’t help but smile. This was crazy… bizarre… demented… but also weirdly wonderful.
My next gambit was to finger the opening phrase of the scherzo I had first witnessed the piano playing. As my right hand stumbled through the piece, the piano joined in with the left hand accompaniment. The counterpoint and the harmony were amazing. I didn’t know the piece by heart, but each time I faltered the piano helped me, sounding the right note and guiding me back to the correct path. As we reached the conclusion of the piece I felt a surge of joy – astonishment and pleasure had crowded out fear. Music had triumphed over Death.
Was that it? Was I playing with the spirit of Aunt Iris? Or was the piano possessed by an older presence? A bit of both? Could something as outrageous as this ever be explained for certain? In the moment, all I knew was that it was making me happy.
After the Schubert, I was wondering what to suggest next, when the piano made the decision for me by rolling out the left hand part of the Chopin I’d played the day before. I automatically took the top part, but was mesmerised by the gorgeous tone the piano brought to the lower voice. I felt lucky to be duetting with such an expressive companion.
By the time the sun’s weak wintery rays infiltrated the cottage, we had established a spectral rapport, Aunt Iris’s piano and I. We progressed from dividing solo piece in two, to genuine duets, our four hands (albeit two invisible) crowding the keyboard to supremely noisy effect. And that was how I spent a remarkable Christmas Day.
* * * * *
I had brought with me a generous cheese board, some cold cuts and crudities, so I had plenty to eat. Plus we had Auntie’s ample wine rack to help us out.
When we weren’t playing together, I would listen to her expressing her amazing self. Her Bach ticked with clockwork precision, her Mozart was meticulous, but she really excelled with the Romantic composers – her Rachmaninov was a splendidly sweeping adventure that held me spellbound.
It was late in the day, while I was stuttering through a Beethoven sonata, with the piano improvising a tinkly accompaniment on the top notes, that there came a sudden and frightening CRACK!!!
It was so loud and close that my first thought was that someone had fired a shotgun into the room. I dropped to the floor and clung to the piano leg for safety. My ears were still ringing as I peered around the room, half expecting to see a shattered window and gunshot peppering a wall. But there was no sign of violence at all. What could have made such a calamitous noise and left no evidence of itself?
After some moments, the piano began to repeat a scale, low in its range and missing a note. I rose shakily to my feet and saw that as the keys went up and down in sequence, one of them wasn’t producing a sound. It was being depressed and released just like the others, but with no result. I realised what must have happened.
I lifted the top of the piano on its double hinge, and looked inside. She was still playing the scale, and I could see the mechanism in action, the hammers with their felt heads being pivoted by the keys to strike the coiled wire of the strings. But when one hammer – that for the lowest G of the instrument – swung forward, there was nothing for it to strike but a limp strand of metal swinging lifelessly from its post. Stretched to incredible tautness across the iron frame of the piano for however many years, the string had finally snapped, and the whiplash force with which it had done so had struck the piano’s sounding board with such strength that it had produced the shocking sound that had scared me half to death.
“You can stop now – I see it” I said to the piano, and she did. Fetching the tuning tool from the storage space inside the piano stool, I attempted to unscrew the metal post to which the snapped string hung. It was tough going, as by necessity these were screwed incredibly tight, but at last it shifted and I was able to recover the string. It had broken close to the base post, where an inch or so of wire remained, but the majority of it I released from the top post, after which I closed the lid of the instrument.
I felt pained, as if in sympathy for a friend in need. I looped the string’s yard or so of length into a coil, its wound metal ragged against my fingertips, and placed it on top of the piano.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get it fixed.”
I went up to bed slightly upset at the way the day had ended, but still thinking optimistic thoughts. As soon as Christmas was out of the way and normal life resumed, I would find a piano dealership and arrange for the string to be replaced. It was my responsibility. My duty. And with that thought came the realisation that I should stay here and be with my piano on a permanent basis.
I would need to reason with George, who was due to arrive tomorrow to check the inventory of Iris’s possessions. My brother and I didn’t have a close relationship any more, but as a child I could remember almost adoring him. I had seen my older sibling as a brilliant pioneer, striding into the adventure of “growing up”, and I recalled him reciprocating the affection which I felt for him. Just because we had subsequently developed in different directions and no longer shared much in common didn’t mean we weren’t still family. Once George understood how I felt about Iris’s house, and the piano, I was sure we’d be able to reach an accommodation. Exhausted, but hopeful, I closed my eyes upon the most extraordinary day.
* * * * *
Boxing Day dawned with a prolonged hammering at the door. Blurry with flu, emotional exhaustion and maybe a touch of hangover, I slipped on a dressing gown and stumbled down the stairs to let in George.
He was talking on his phone, and pushed past me without a greeting of any kind. He carried a takeaway coffee cup which he blithely deposited on top of the piano as he continued his conversation.
“No, she’s finally let me in after half an hour of knocking. Did you send me the inventory?”
He could have been speaking to his wife or his lawyer for all I could tell. I removed his coffee from the piano with a whispered “Sorry about that” as George wittered on into his phone.
“I just need to check she hasn’t pinched the silverware and that. I’m not staying longer than I have to.”
The hope I had held of reaching an agreement about the house started to wither.
“It’s not my fault they close half the rail network every bank holiday!”
Something about his petty whining made me realise George was not about to soften into a sentimental state of reasonability. My heart sank.
“I don’t care about your mother’s arthritis! What am I – a bloody rheumatologist?! Give her an aspirin and make her lie down somewhere out of the way.”
Into this house of love and magic and music had come a veritable troll of crassness. Was I really related to this monster?”
“They’re your kids, Stephanie – you deal with them!”
George ended the call with a snort.
I tried to be pleasant.
“Hi George. You’re looking well.”
My brother sneered at me with undisguised disgust.
“You look fucking awful. What’s wrong with you?”
“I’ve got flu…”
“Well don’t fucking give it to me. Christ, this place is a tip.”
He gestured to the area around the armchair and the coffee table. Admittedly, I hadn’t tidied much, so there were some dirty plates and empty bottles still on display.
“And you’re managing your cold by drinking the house dry, I see.”
“George, please don’t be angry.”
“These bottles are part of the estate, not yours to help yourself to.”
“I’ll replace them if you want.”
“That’s not really the point, is it?”
I had to try to connect with him, to explain about the piano and what had happened.
“George, I need to tell you something.”
“What else have you pinched?”
“There’s something special about this house. And the piano.”
George reacted to tenderness as if to plague.
“Give me a break. If you want the piano you can make an offer for it. And add the price of the wine.”
“I didn’t think Iris would have begrudged me a bottle or two to toast her with.”
“Well she’s dead now, so it’s not up to her.”
George’s phone rang, and without hesitation he answered it.
I was standing beside the piano as he turned away to resume his diatribe. Somehow the coil of the broken piano string was in my hands, and somehow I flipped it over George’s head, pulling it tight around his throat.
Since we had finished growing, George had resented me being an inch taller than him, presumably feeling that as older brother he should have a height advantage. I’d sometimes felt a bit guilty about it in the past, but now I was glad of it as I pulled the noose with all my might. The metal smarted in my fists, and I could see it immediately biting into George’s skinny neck.
George’s arms flailed wildly, grabbing frantically at my wrists, my head, my hair. But I was oblivious, gripping the piano string as if my life depended on it, possessed of a strength I didn’t know I had within me. It was as if a secret well of fury had burst into my soul, sweeping every other thought and feeling aside. I pulled and pulled on the wire, as gradually George’s struggles subsided. His hand flopped onto the piano keyboard, making a messy, ugly sound. I pulled harder.
When it was over, I finally released the wire, and George’s body slumped to the floor. The strength that had flowed through me moments before drained away, leaving me faint and dizzy. Two livid lines scored my palms where the piano string had pressed into my flesh. I was dimly aware that they hurt, but my mind was too weak to be troubled by it.
What now? A soft creaking drew my blurry eyes to the piano, and I saw that its top had lifted open.
A foolish idea formed in my fevered brain: hide the body in the piano.
Ridiculous! George was a small man, but even so…
It took some time and effort. George’s head, with its bulging eyes and lolling tongue, only just fitted between the strings and the front panel, and I had trouble folding his legs. But in the end it was done. I pushed the piano lid down firmly, opened another bottle of wine and disappeared into oblivion.
* * * * *
I woke to find with relief that the worst of my cold was over. My head felt free of the clagginess of the flu, and I was no longer feverish. I lay in grateful stillness, savouring the absence of illness from my body.
It was only when a puzzling soreness drew my attention to my lined palms that I remembered…
I was a murderer. In cold blood I had strangled my brother and stuffed his corpse into my aunt’s piano. But had I really done that? Me? I could recall the events, but not any sense that I had taken part in them. Another person had killed George, leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless – not me.
Approaching the piano, I prayed for it not to be true. Please let me open the top and see nothing but the iron frame, the strings and the felted hammers. Please let the piano be empty. Please…
I actually closed my eyes as I pushed up the hinged top. And when I opened them, the piano was indeed empty, just as if my prayer had been answered. Not only was there no body, but the low G string was strung between its posts, intact and unbroken.
Surely the whole thing couldn’t have been a fantasy – a deranged fever dream? It was too vivid, too detailed. And yet – where was George’s body?
I grasped desperately at the apparent truth. Addled by flu and wine, my brain had manufactured the whole nightmare as some sort of grotesque self-punishing trickery. However disturbing the experience had been, it wasn’t real and I wasn’t a murderer. I sighed with massive relief.
And then George’s phone started to ring. Picking it up I saw that the call was coming from Home. I let it go to voicemail, and read the message 7 missed calls.
Confusion and chaos raged in my head. What on Earth…?!
I opened the top of the piano again. Still no body. This made no sense. Then I spotted, at the bottom of the cavity, something glinting in the shadows beside the base of the iron frame. It looked very like the signet ring my brother wore.
It was only now that I noticed a distinct change in the piano’s appearance. It seemed to have a gleam of newness about it, the grain of the walnut body more lustrous – almost fleshy – and the ivory keys bright as newly whitened teeth or polished bone…
I sat at the keyboard and rested my fingers lightly on those shining ivories. My brain had given up trying to process what was going on. Was I mad? It seemed too stark a notion to comprehend, and if I didn’t entertain it, perhaps that would be enough to keep it at bay. I didn’t want to question myself any more. I had abandoned any interest in truth. Only one thing mattered. There was just one next step to be taken by my piano and I…
What to play now?
❉ Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles