Timothy awoke to the pleasant sound of a piano being played in a far-off room. He lay dozily for a few moments, letting the gentle notes wash over him, feeling the slow flow of consciousness seeping back into his limbs. Then it came to him, in a moment of singular clarity, that there was no one else in the house.
He arose from his bed, cautious, alert. Almost imperceptibly, the notes had quieted and stopped, leaving a broad silence in the house. He pulled on his dressing gown, pushed his gnarled feet into slippers, and set off to investigate.
The drawing room was flooded with a bright white light, early morning sunshine streaming through the tall dusty windows into the room. The furniture lay dormant, shrouded in white cloths. It gave the room the air of a disused studio. By the windows, the piano lay uncovered. The sheet had been tossed carelessly to the floor, and the warm brown wood glowed, the only coloured thing in the room. Its smooth curves were pristine, no dust to be found – it must have been uncovered quite recently.
He stood quite still for a few moments, watching the dust motes’ slow descent through the sunbeams, thinking. He must speak to Mrs. Hill about this.
Mrs. Hill was as perplexed as he was, shuffling around the piano. “Ah didna touch it, sir,” she vowed. “Perhaps you have been about in your sleep.” She set about pulling the cloth back over the piano.
The next morning was the same. The soft notes floating in, the pale light. He entered the room more quietly this time, but already the music had faded into nothing. The cloth lay fallen as before, folds of fabric rippled on the floor. There was something majestic about the piano, something quietly warm and alluring. He was at the same time drawn to it and slightly afraid of it. The dust that spiralled around it seemed charged with a sort of magic.
That night, he crept out of bed like a guilty child, stalking through the great halls of the old manor in his slippers. With a gentle click he opened the door to the drawing room and slipped inside. Moonbeams, now, gleamed through the tall windows. Everything seemed to be in its place. The piano was silent and shrouded in the moonlight. He sat down across the room, gazing at it.
A childhood memory came back to him. His mother in her best dress was laughing with the choir ladies downstairs, and he had walked timidly into the dark, empty church. He thought he would go up and have a good look at the altar, creep around where the wine turned into blood, go and touch the smooth statue of Jesus on the cross. But some powerful force kept him at bay. He had sat perfectly still, terrified, in the pews. Something huge, something almost tangible, filled up the cavernous space. The same feeling of pressure came to him now, held him in his seat.
He dreamed of his wife for the first time in a long time.
She was playing scales, her slender fingers gliding along the keys, her red hair drawn up in a knot at the top of her head. Peter was hopping on two feet while Harriet played clumsily with a set of wooden blocks set beside the piano. Edward was not yet born. With a sly look Peter pinched Harriet’s plump arm, and she burst into tears. Their mother stopped playing with a crash, and the children’s teary eyes widened with the boom of notes echoing in the belly of the piano.
The crash woke Timothy up. The piano was uncovered again.
He thought he must be going mad. He checked the house for signs of intruders, but the doors were locked, the windows were closed. Everything lay perfectly still, except a light had come on in Mrs. Hill’s house across the lawn, and he saw her rounded form approaching, bundled in a housecoat with a flashlight in hand.
“Is everything all right, sir?” she asked, gazing around the room, her grey hair a little dishevelled. Her eye fell on the exposed piano. “I heard some loud noise.”
He could see himself reflected in her glasses: a doddering old fool in a nightgown, caught guiltily in the thin beam of her flashlight. Wandering the house at dawn, apparently banging on the piano. He hated to think what she would tell his children.
They would want to put him into a home. He could imagine them snatching up his possessions like magpies, greedily stocking their nests with shiny things. He pictured them pulling the very walls of the house apart, long nails like claws.
“Everything is fine,” he said, with as much dignity as he could muster. “Thank you, Mrs. Hill.” He went back to his bed, and slept until the early afternoon. No sound interrupted his slumber.
That evening he began to feel a little peculiar. Fine beads of sweat broke out on his forehead; his legs grew weak. He went to bed earlier than usual. When he awoke he couldn’t tell if it was closer to dusk or dawn. His fever had broken, and the house lay dark and silent. He felt as though something important had just happened – some unremembered dream? The door to his bedroom was slightly ajar. He got up, trembling a little, to close it, and caught a whiff of perfume on the air. Struck by a sudden urge, he tottered down the hallway to the drawing room.
As he opened the door, he thought he saw the white cloth ripple slightly as though it had only just hit the floor. The moon shone silently in.
Trance-like, he walked up to the piano, and sat down upon the wooden bench. He raised his finger to the keyboard and pressed a single, ivory key. The note hovered in the silence. He began, haltingly, as through drawing it from ages past, to play a tune.
In the morning, Mrs. Hill found him cold and still, draped over the piano. “Poor bird,” she murmured, and drew the cloth back over.