Charlie, Amy & the Piano

Posted by in March's Magazine

A short story from Katy Nixon who we fervently hope will be contributing many more!

When Charlie finally looked up from months of self-destructive excess autumn had moved quietly into Leith. He felt like time was laughing at him, throwing sudden red leaves at his feet. Every day since the beginning of the year Charlie had climbed the stairs to his flat and paused with the key in the door. Sometimes he would lean his head on the old wood and listen to hear if his old life had returned. But he was only ever met with silence. 


Illustration by David Lymburn

Without the anchor of Amy, Charlie had gone into a free fall through time. He had distracted himself from his past with her clear vision of what life should be like, allowing himself to get caught up in her technicolour world, as she described her day with the same wonder as someone who had just taken acid for the first time. Charlie would sit, hold her hand and just listen, happy that this was his life. 

It was a couple of months after Amy had broken up with him. The only thing remaining of her in his flat was the T-shirt she wore, still under his pillow. The pub beside his flat became a preferable place to be. It was here the past began to creep back, crouching in the corner under tables ready to pounce or lurking beneath the last mouthful at the bottom of a pint glass. Charlie started remembering his old life before Amy – he began to be haunted by the memories of the old piano in his granny Jean’s claustrophobic, nicotine stained flat. He hadn’t thought about it or Jean in years but now every time he was waiting for a pint after his work his hands absentmindedly played ghost chords on top of the bar. 

Charlie had hated it when he was wee. He could still, clearly feel Jean nipping his arm when he got a note wrong. She had him learning hymns, the kind that didn’t sound like a celebration of God but like grey laments to existence, it was unrelenting in its constriction. He dreaded the time after school. While all his pals would be at Pilrig park playing football he was stuck practising scales, feeling the electric heater burn a sickly heat into the back of his school jumper as Jean’s cigarette smoke formed a cloud above them. 

It wasn’t until he started spending the weekends at his Dad’s that he heard music that aligned his fingers with the keys in a way which made him feel like he was a conductor for some higher being. 

And then he begins to dream about the piano. He dreams about moving his fingers across the keys, there is no need for consideration or what to play next, all the notes he hits pour like water. And it sounds so good. It’s a wee bit off the beat, neo-soul – the kind of thing that you could dance nice with a girl too. Charlie wakes up in the morning, his hands trying to catch the disappearing music before it’s gone, like Amy. 

He needn’t have worried. It follows him. It follows him to work on the building site. It follows him when he’s drinking sweet tea in the cafeteria. It follows him when he’s walking down Leith Walk headed for obliteration in the pub. It follows him at home where he sits missing Amy.

Charlie starts to think about his Dad again. The way he used to pull out his records from an old box, blowing dust off them. They looked so old, but inside the sleeve Aretha Franklin with a whole orchestra and backing singers waited to fill up the bedsit with music just for them. He thinks about how his Dad wanted him to continue to learn piano, how he would sit proud and grinning, as Charlie was able to pick out by ear the right notes for Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares. He thinks about when he stopped one day, when he was too big to be told what to do by Jean, when he was seeing the scars of his childhood for the first time. Music didn’t seem as comforting as anger. He became an expert in playing rage instead leaving the piano behind like a broken lover. 

But now Charlie – sitting at the bar playing ghost chords on old wood – longs for the piano. He longs for Jean and his Dad. He longs for a chance to be that child again. If he hadn’t stopped playing, he would have played for Amy at night in their flat. Then maybe she would have seen that he saw the world in colours too. And his hands become fists as he realises he has only learned love in hindsight. 

One day he’s cutting through Waverley station, a few of those sudden red leaves following him in through the doors. He’s straight from work. He can feel the dust and dirt on his boots, in his hair, his hands tired from it all. And that’s when he sees it. A piano made of dark wood. 

” His fingers pause above the keys, then he crosses his arms, unsure if he can trust his hands with his memories

It sits unexpected like the belly rush of a first kiss. Charlie looks around to see if anyone else has noticed. As he walks towards it slowly, people move around him impatiently, desperate to be home. An announcer calls out the trains and platforms that will take them there. 

Charlie stands at the piano. He sits hesitantly on the seat. His fingers pause above the keys, then he crosses his arms, unsure if he can trust his hands with his memories. 

The dome of the glass ceiling above sends in the last light of day. Charlie feels like he’s sitting in the sky. His hands begin to play, the notes he’s hitting pour down like water. 

The world carries on around him, he grins until his mouth hurts, his eyes well up. The chords his hands play are no longer ghosts but infinite memories. 

Lessons that love never dies.

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