In Grandma’s house when we arrived on leave
the grand piano yawned and woke from two years’ sleep
and bared its gleaming teeth – black-gapped and white –
sprawled out, a friendly beast across the sunny parlour floor.
There was a box of sandstone bricks
for building castles by the fire. We had a
satisfying way of making thunder for our cannon
with a fist of lower keys until the staircase thundered too
with Mummy’s tread: “Don’t touch it!” and we stopped.
The whole house hummed the taut strings’ tune
when Daddy played sonatas on our last night in that room
– every note touched lovingly like trembling light and air –
and Mummy leaned with eyes that gleamed
and smiled that wicked smile behind the curtain of her hair.
When Grandma died the grand piano
swelled its bulk to fill the tiny Highgate flat,
absorbed the little light and bullied all the crowded room.
Its lid was weighted shut with books and wedding photographs -
my mum and dad both still alive in black and white,
the old ones dead and fading faintly into yellow like the pegs
that filled the grand piano’s wide and sulky mouth.
At the end of one summer mum was sick
and no-one came to tune the strings.
Father banged out booming muffled thunder -
angry rock and shaky ragtime tunes,
the bloody pedal held down far too long.
And then the music stopped.
My mother died that English spring, the age I am today.
My father went abroad to work. We cleared the flat.
The bits and books were taken home, or sold
or carried to the skip that we had hired. We drank.
The old piano - Boosey - had a name that fit the time
but no-one wanted it or had the room.
Some smudgy men appeared and fingered what
was left. They wanted fifty quid we did
not have to haul it down the path. They’d take
it to the tip, or so they said. It stayed.
At first it was screwdrivers and blisters on our palms.
The lids. The legs and pedal spindles. The body on the floor
and all the length of keys and hammers dragged
and twisted out and lugged along the path.
Varnish thick with polish, immaculate for all those years - clawed.
Then other hammers and a borrowed saw. We smashed it up.
I keep with me a dozen stubs of keys –
a memory like my mother’s jaundiced skin.
The night before she died her eyes were closed
and thunder – really – rolled far off. Of all
the many light and loving words she spoke
only the last three remain: “Don’t touch me”.
Half a world and life away my mother’s
wedding photograph is here, upon my wall –
the eyes alert, direct, not weak; about
to wrinkle in a smile, about to reach
the mischief round the mouth – about to speak.
This poem first appeared in Issue 3 (May. 2008) of Cha