The flowers were wrapped in a piece of white tissue paper my mother had been saving for an occasion, probably nothing like this one. I needed both hands to hold the bouquet. The door opened. The little old lady stood there smiling. ‘Hello, young man. Come in.’ The smell of lavender oozed out of her house.
‘Mrs Taylor,’ began my mother, but the old lady cut her off before she could launch into things properly.
‘Come inside and we’ll have a sit down.’
I felt absolutely nothing.
The Island had the decaying, weather-beaten, mood of somewhere that used to be a place people came on holiday by horse and carriage. Sand blew across the roads nearest the beach. Beach huts lined up in rows along the shingle and the better parts of the areas well above the high tide mark. The two remaining ice cream parlours smelled of chips and mice.
In the height of the summer the beach got moderately full with people from Colchester. The sand filled with fag ends and ring-pulls. The place was failing, growing old. What little life was left belonged to either the wealthy, commuters, or a small community of fishermen. There was a Yacht Club, a summer Regatta, and the large properties which had landscaped gardens running down to the beach held lavish parties until the beginning of September and the arrival of the onshore wind. All of it was in the hands of the richer folks, who treated the place like a private fiefdom. I’d swum in enormously expensive private pools, sailed on racing yachts owned by millionaire sons of wealthy stockbrokers who’s oak paneled offices in Mayfair I’d seen and felt overwhelmed in. The Island was an ancient last vestige of some place it used to be for everyone, not just the money-men.
Mrs Taylor lived in a modest wooden house at the end of a small road leading directly onto the sand. The street was quiet. On still nights she would have been able to hear the music and laughter from the parties further along the shore. Her house was painted green. Shiny green. It looked like a box of wax ready to melt in the August noon. The prissy rose garden was older than she was. She was grey-haired, small, plump. She’d led a life as a Teacher at a Public School, retiring to the coast when her husband had died. For the past two years she had been my piano teacher.
We lived around the corner. I’d walk round there with my sister once a week for our piano lessons. I hated the piano. I hated every aspect of it; the music stank, the exercises were tedious, and the future – my future – didn’t lay anywhere near a piano. Even aged 7 I’d worked that much out. Mrs Taylor, deep down, knew all of that too. But she kept on. She wouldn’t let me be. I’d boil and boil, keeping a lid on the rage, while she chastised me for some stupid mistake or other I was making on an instrument I didn’t want to learn, in a house full of the 1920s that I didn’t want to be in. The sun always shone into the room during lessons, which only made me think of everything I could have been doing that was good instead of sitting bolt upright on that stupid piano stool and playing ‘The happy chipmunk’ for the three millionth time. I swore I’d kick the first chipmunk I ever saw when I got older. But I never said a word of it to her; even as I laid on the flowery carpet for that mind-numbing half an hour of my sisters lesson and waited for my turn. But then, one afternoon in summer, my 7yr old emotional regulation failed. Looking back, I think it was the first time.
My sister’s lesson was underway, the mocking sunlight was blazing across the doilies and china, the sound of the badly played piano was screaming through my brain. ‘Mrs Taylor?’
‘Can I go to the toilet please?’
‘Of course, dear. You know where it is.’ She smiled and pointed down the hallway. I walked to the toilet and stopped outside the door. The piano was twanging and plinking. That was it. I’d stop these fucking lessons, the sounds, the whole bastard lot of it. I crept past the toilet, the flowery carpet masking my little footsteps, to her kitchen. I had to do something. Something bad enough to stop the hate and the anger. She had a large pan of liquid simmering on the cooker. Wispy steam gently rose up in front of shelves, above where…. there were – oh yes!- jars of what looked like medicine.
I pulled over a chair, stood on it, reached up, grabbed two or three jars of powder and quickly tipped the lot into the soup simmering in the pan. I took a wooden spoon that was laying on the table next to the cooker and stirred. It would kill her for sure. No more piano then. She’d die quick, by the look of her. She was almost there anyway. This would be quick and painless. No more piano for me. Or her.
I went back to the toilet, flushed it, then went back in for my lesson. I played the chipmunk song for what I thought would be the last time. Played it note perfect too.
The phonecall came the next day. Mrs Taylor wasn’t dead. The salt, sugar, and flour I’d poured into her soup had ruined her dinner, but she was none the worse for it. Salt, sugar and flour… In my head I felt sure it was medicine, poison even. My mother was angry but she didn’t tell my father, thankfully.
So there we were, sitting in the room with the piano the next morning. ‘What do you say?!’ my mother prompted.
‘I’m sorry, Mrs Taylor.’
She smiled. ‘It’s ok, Benjamin.’
It wasn’t ok. I was going to feel obliged to play that fucking instrument until the world ended. But the old lady had let me off the hook. Why, I don’t know. I never asked her. The next week lessons continued as if nothing had happened. I started to improve my playing, so she told my mother. I despised very second.
A few months later my parents bought a piano… I felt even worse.