When it gets to ten past six I assume he’s not coming, and settle down to some Rachmaninov. I get so absorbed that, when the doorbell finally intrudes, my fingers skid along the keys, bringing the piece to a halt in a violent crescendo. I set down my music and make my way to the front door, stooping to pick up the Evening Post from the doormat before sliding back the chain.
“Hello, Miss Grainger.” In his black and white football top, Nathan looks more prepared for a kickabout in the park than for his music lesson.
“Come on in.” I lead him through to the parlour and place the folded newspaper on the sideboard between the carriage clock and the cut-glass rose bowl, while Nathan unpacks his music. “Have you practiced this week?”
“You really must practice,” I say. “A once-a-week lesson isn’t enough on its own.”
He grins, as if it’s all beyond his control, and shuffles onto the stool.
“Let’s work through the scales, as usual. Start with C major.”
The boy’s fingers jab at the piano keys, a frown of concentration on his freckled face. I find myself irritated by a smudge of dirt on his nose. How can he hope to make music looking like that? I steal a glance at my newspaper. Just over half an hour until I can rest my legs and catch up on the local gossip with a glass of sherry. “Okay, and again!”
My gaze is drawn to the front-page headline. Local Girl, it reads, under a photo of a teenager with her hair scraped back from her face like a ballerina. “Now, let’s try G major.”
I edge closer to the sideboard, doing a little pas de basque to the accompaniment of Nathan’s plonking. “Don’t pause before the sharp!”
What a wonderful surprise: Melanie Price smiling at me from our local paper, as proud as if she’s just been told she’s the youngest student ever to be admitted to the Royal College of Music. Even the FCUK T-shirt she’s wearing cannot detract from my pleasure at seeing her picture after all this time. “Right, F major, now.”
Nathan prods at the keys, up and down, up and down. Just going through the motions. No feeling in it, like one of those computer games. So different to Melanie. That girl had talent. I always knew she’d make a success of it. “Okay, let’s leave the scales for today.” I step across to the piano and rearrange the music sheets. “You can have a go at the Brahms.”
Nathan takes a deep breath and plunges in. He stumbles over the notes; even transcribed into F major, it’s too hard for him, but what can I do? The mothers are never satisfied unless they have something to show for their money. Never mind the quality of the playing, they always insist on their children having a party piece to rattle off at family gatherings.
I glance back at the newspaper. Local Girl. There has to be more to the headline than those two words, but the rest is under the fold, hidden from view. What if she really has won a place at the College? Now that would be something to celebrate with my seven o’clock sherry.
I wince at a note a semitone out. “B flat, Nathan. B flat. And don’t rush it!”
I realise it isn’t only the boy’s playing that irks me. I can’t think of Melanie without being reminded of her mother and her bitchiness that last time. Calling me controlling! The nerve! And interrupting the lesson like that to drag the poor girl away to that other teacher. No Let’s sit down together and discuss it calmly over a cup of tea. No Thanks for all your years of dedication to my daughter, Miss Grainger. Just How dare you presume to know what’s best for my child. How dare you presume? Some people have no sense of decorum.
The thought of that miserable scene still gives me the goosebumps. “Andantino, Nathan! You’re supposed to be lulling a baby off to sleep, not giving them a wake-up call in Hades.”
I step towards the sideboard and lean against it, my arm brushing the edge of the newspaper. I’m eager for the boy to be gone so that I can read the report. As long as they acknowledge me, mention that I was the one who saw her all the way through to her Grade Six, I won’t feel so bad. I won’t mind that the seven o’clock slot on a Friday has been vacant for the two years since Melanie left.
I flip the newspaper over to see the rest of the headline. I gasp, step back in alarm.
“I know, andantino,” says Nathan.
Local Girl Missing, the headline reads. Not Local Girl Gains Top Marks in Music Exams. Not Local Girl Owes Her Success To Her Former Teacher. There must be an explanation in the text but I can’t make out any more without my glasses. I dread to think what could have happened. It must be something serious; a sensible girl like Melanie wouldn’t wander off for no reason.
Somehow I get through the rest of Nathan’s lesson, although who knows how many wrong notes I let go by. At seven o’clock, he seems as eager to get away as I am to be free of him. As he runs out into the street he almost knocks into a young woman who is approaching my door with a music case in her hand. Her hair is pulled into a tight pony-tail and she’s wearing that unfortunate T-shirt from the newspaper photo. It’s an incongruous baby pink. “Melanie!”
It’s only now, seeing her safe, that I realise how worried I was. You hear of girls going missing and then there’s nothing more until their mutilated bodies are nuzzled out of the woods by sniffer dogs.
She puts a finger to her lips, shushing me, and walks into the house for all the world as if she’s come for her normal Friday lesson. Bang on time, too.
I approach to give her a hug, but she steps back. Of course, she’s practically a grown woman now. She needs her space. “Sorry.”
She strides into the parlour and takes her seat at the piano, clearly delighted to be back where she belongs.
“Melanie, what happened? The paper said you’d gone missing.”
The girl shakes her head, too distressed to explain just yet. Instead, she caresses the piano keys, coaxing them into a melody as different to Nathan’s effort as a nightingale’s song to the squawk of a seagull.
“Did you have a fight with your mother?” Some mothers just don’t know how to handle teenagers. “Does she know you’re here?”
Melanie shakes her head and continues playing. It’s only right and proper she should come to me, to lose herself in her music after who knows what awful things she’s been through. But her family should be informed.
“Melanie,” I say, “you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want to, but we need to let people know you’re okay. Why don’t you ring your mother, while I go and put the kettle on?”
The girl thumps out some sombre chords down on the bass notes. Poor Melanie. That woman must be impossible to live with. Her possessiveness. Her jealousy.
Nevertheless, I can’t leave Mrs Price fretting. “Well, I’ll call her then. Just to let her know you’re safe and sound.”
Melanie stops playing and looks at me, horrified. “Don’t tell her I’m here!”
I’m seriously worried now. What did that woman do to her? I hesitate. “Tell you what,” I say, “I’ll do it anonymously. Just to put her mind at rest. Then I’ll make you some supper and you can tell me what this is all about.”
That seems to satisfy her. She resumes her playing: a cheerful little tune I don’t recognise. Maybe she could teach it to me later this evening. I smile as I pick up the phone and dial the still-familiar number.
“Who is this?” Mrs Price snaps at me when I tell her the news.
“I’m sorry, I’m not at liberty to say.”
“I recognise that voice. It’s Iris Grainger, isn’t it? What do you think you’re playing at? How could you? At a time like this!”
“Don’t be upset. I was only …” But there’s no time for explanations. Melanie’s mother has slammed down the phone. I sigh, try to see it from her point of view. It must be hard to discover that her daughter would rather stay with her old music teacher than go back home.
The phone rings again almost immediately. “Miss Grainger? Iris Grainger?” It’s a male voice, not the mother ringing back to apologise. “Miss Grainger, this is Detective Inspector Forrester. I must ask you to leave Mrs Price in peace …”
“But Inspector …”
“Miss Grainger, I’m not sure you understand the seriousness of your behaviour. You could be charged, you know.”
I feel my cheeks burning, but Melanie’s serenity at the piano reassures me. “Inspector, she’s here. I only wanted to let her mother know she’s safe.”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Why Melanie, of course.”
On hearing her name, she smiles across at me. But the strain of her ordeal is evident in the pallor of her face. As soon as I’m finished with the police I’ll sit her down with a cup of strong tea.
The Inspector gives a coarse laugh. “Melanie?”
“Yes, I’m looking at her right now.” The pink of her T-shirt looks lighter somehow, washed out. It must be the night drawing in.
“But that’s impossible, Miss Grainger. I know you’re upset, but this is ridiculous.”
Melanie presses her foot on the soft pedal, and the music takes on a mystical tone. She has wonderful control over her instrument, that girl. With my free hand I wipe a tear from the corner of my eye. There’s no shame in being moved by a pupil’s achievements.
The man on the phone keeps repeating something, but the words make no sense. “She’s dead, I’m telling you. We found her body in the woods this evening. So stop this nonsense!”
I put down the phone and look at Melanie, crouched intently over the keyboard. She is playing pianissimo; so quietly I have to strain to hear it. She looks ever so anaemic, poor girl; her skin is almost transparent.
And then she stops playing, turns to me and waves goodbye.
When I can bear the emptiness no longer, I pick up the Evening Post and place it on the music stand. I take my seat at the piano, staring intently at the dead girl’s grainy photo, as my fingers search the keyboard for Melanie’s last tune.
Anne Goodwin's short fiction has been published online and in print. She has two novels in progress: Underneath and Sugar and Snails. Her writing website is at <http://annegoodwin.weebly.com>