‘What instrument would you like to learn?’ asks my Dad. I am 12 years old, maybe, and my younger brother has just started learning the guitar. I’m jealous. Looking back, I guess I’d made my feelings pretty clear and am pretty sure there may even have been some spectacular tantrums or possibly even one of my world famous ‘cats bum’ sulks (a humiliatingly accurate description provided thoughtfully by my step dad who has clearly witnessed more than his fair share).
‘The piano,’ I say. I loved the romance of the piano. The long, sleek lines and the monochromatic mystery of the keys. Keys that when played in a certain way could produce music so light and ethereal it lifted my heart carried if somewhere light and free and wonderful. I wanted to make music like that. Free, of, the heaviness of living, the hardness of it all. Free of the lies, of the mistruths, the half truths and the quarter truths, free of the rules that this living seemed to require. My parents were divorced, and had both remarried, but sometimes my dad didn’t speak to my mum, and sometimes my stepmom didn’t speak to my mum, so that even if for some reason my mum and dad had managed to broker a truce, my dad was then no longer allowed to speak to my mum. Sometimes my stepmom did speak to my mum, but it was usually loud and involved more swear words than I knew existed. My grandparents were also long divorced by this time, which meant my grandma didn’t speak to my grandpa, she had already helpfully explained to me that were I to ever get married she would not come to my wedding if my grandfather was there. I didn’t even like boys yet. This stance, is, of course, the reason that she and my dad were no longer speaking. He had invited my grandpa to his second wedding, and my grandma had chosen not to come. Looking back, I now know there was a lot more to that story, but that was the ‘official’ reason. Either way, my dad didn’t speak to his mother for 8 years, and they’ve never really been able to repair their relationship.
Given all of this drama and intrigue, it’s easy to see how the words ‘don’t tell your….’ became a part of most of the interactions of my childhood.
So I wanted a piano. I wanted lightness. Freedom. Beauty.
‘No,’ my father told me, in no uncertain terms, ‘it’s too expensive. Pick something else.’ Or at least that’s how I remember it. I dare say he was much kinder than that, he loved me very much, it’s funny how kids don’t always see that, though. I look forward to hearing my children’s own versions of similar things in time! But I didn’t want to play anything else, I only wanted to learn the piano. I’d played the recorder at school, and I’d learned the guitar a little, none of it made my heart soar the way the piano did. I knew it was expensive. It was way too expensive for my Mum. But my Dad owned a really popular nightclub, he pulled wads of cash from different pockets, and he drove around in a burgundy ‘stretch’ ute, which it turns out is a thing. It’s like a car but also a ute, I didn’t really understand it, I still don’t, but it was cool when he dropped us off at school and everyone looked at us. I felt special. My dad would tell anyone who would listen, that the car was crafted especially. In fact, there were only 12 of them in existence. I used to tell the kids at school the same thing. It made me feel special.
‘Did you want to try the saxophone?’ offers my first stepdad. It was his father’s, he had inherited it. My stepdad felt the same way about his father’s saxophone as I did about the piano. I tried it. I wanted to love it. I desperately wanted to love it. But it was too heavy. It hurt my hand, and it was awkward to hold. More than that I didn’t love the sound. It was too haunting, too melancholy, too bright and brassy, it was too much. I wanted something softer. Eventually, I stopped and the saxophone, along with my dream, was returned to its beautiful blue velvet lined box.
‘I want to rent a piano,’ I tell my husband before we leave Melbourne. I am reading that book again, the one about the Australian woman who lived in Amsterdam for a year or two, and I am lying on the couch, ignoring the washing that needs to be put away and the suitcases that really need to be packed. Until that moment, I didn’t even know renting a piano was a thing. I don’t know why I never thought of it before. I briefly wondered if maybe I could rent one now, we still had another four months before we left. I wanted a piano. I wanted it with all the irrational passion my disappointed 12-year old self could muster.
Before I had even figured out where all of our belongings would go in the new house in Amsterdam, I was researching piano rental companies and sending emails out into the ether. I made an appointment with the first company that responded, hopped on my bike and followed google maps around the city and out to newly budding tree-lined streets I’d never seen before. In the shop, I gingerly touched the keys, not really knowing how to make a sound that wouldn’t instantly give away my complete lack of experience. I wanted to pretend I was a musician, that I knew my instruments, that I could tell one piano from another. I wanted to impress this very tall, elegantly dressed man who walked and moved as though he himself were made of music. His bright blue eyes saw through me, kindly, but I knew there was no point pretending. I played different keys on different instruments. I listened to the music each piano made as his fingers moved the way mine do across the keyboard on my laptop.
‘That one,’ I say when I hear a sound I like. It is resonant, it is light, it is soft, it is loud, it is perfect. I balk at the price, but I don’t negotiate. I think about it, but the agony of possibly doing the wrong thing and the piano being taken away from me stops me. I just want the piano. I sign the papers, committing my husband and I, to double what he and I had agreed, for a minimum of two years, despite the fact that we are only planning on staying six months. We’d figure it out, though. I was in love. Maybe, I thought to myself as I cycled home giddy, maybe we could stay for five years, and then this sleek, black, tuxedo-like piano would really and truly be mine, forever.
‘What are you doing?’ asks my husband hours later. I am walking around the lounge room, looking at the wall at the back, at the corner near the window. Rearranging it in my head to fit my new piano.
‘Working out where the piano is going to go. It’s coming tomorrow.’
‘Show me the contract,’ he says, knowing already that it was not what it was meant to be.
‘It’s more than we agreed,’ I start, biting my lower lip and playing the role of the bad wife.
’88 euro.’ I say, turning away slightly, feeling guilty.
‘For how long?’
‘Two years,’ I say quietly, the reality sinking in, the thrill fading slightly, as the guilt curls in my stomach. I am ten years old and I have to tell my father I knocked over his very expensive elephant statue and broke it.
‘You’ve been very bad,’ my husband says, his smile too big; too sleazy; all white capped teeth like Martin Sheen. ‘You’ll have to work it off.’
I wrinkle my nose, and bend over slightly, he smacks my ass. The guilt now an adult’s thrill.
‘Add it to my bill.’