Hilary Fannin: ‘Don’t wait to do what it is you want to do’

Time’s arrow points to wisdom of not putting off important things

My piano is  like an ancient yellow-toothed soprano, mouth shakily ringed in carmine, her best  behind her

My piano is like an ancient yellow-toothed soprano, mouth shakily ringed in carmine, her best behind her

 

The piano tuner is downstairs in the kitchen; things aren’t looking good. The piano hasn’t been played for a long time, so long that it’s forgotten it’s a piano. It thinks it’s a shelf that people dump books and old newspapers on; it thinks it’s an awkward laundry basket, more used to playing host to odd socks than five-finger exercises.

I can hear him putting the old girl through her paces. Thwang, bang, clang. The notes sound like tin and stone and broken glass. She’s a skinny old instrument, dusty and faded, slightly hunched. Although she’s game enough, grinning up at him when he lifts her lid and fluttering her ebony lashes, it’s clear that she’s failing to ignite under his professional fingers. Like an ancient yellow-toothed soprano, mouth shakily ringed in carmine, her best is behind her. She’s struggling to convince.

There are hairline cracks in the wood, the tuner tells me.

“I’ll keep tuning it as long as you want to keep paying,” he says, packing up. “But it’s a brutal piano, brutal.”

The piano flinches. I hadn’t realised pianos were capable of brutality.

“You will hear a thud some night,” the tuner continues. “You’ll come down to investigate. The piano will be cleaved open, dead.”

I watch him drive away, the soothsayer, then I return to the kitchen. The piano is having a drink of water (literally, from a jam jar he left under her stays).

“I’m sorry,” I tell her, gently closing the lid. “Comes to us all in the end.”

Later I go into town, battling my way up Grafton Street in the frosty dark, through bargain-hungry shoppers. I am going to meet an old friend, home for Christmas from the other side of the world, where he lives alone in peace and sunshine.

Drinks menu

He is a careful man; he dresses for the weather. I am about to order him a pint when he unpacks his spectacles from inside his well-insulated jacket to read the drinks menu on the wall of the bar.

“I’ll have a Hooker,” he finally concludes, neatly folding his gloves and scarf.

“You’ll be lucky,” I reply.

He’s aged a little. (Hell, we’ve all aged a little.) I notice it not in his face – he was always a boyish, good-looking man – but in the precision of his gestures, in the attention he gives to his accoutrements, his glasses, wallet, phone; in the clear, unflinching focus he gives to our conversation. He is recently bereaved. We talk about elderly parents, about generational loss, about shyly finding yourself on the frontline.

We speak with ease. We used to know each other well, working together in theatre when we were in our 20s, spending long nights lying around cold flats, imagining bright futures. I remember him gadding around wet parks in pancake make-up and cobalt-blue tights. You wouldn’t catch either of us doing that any more.

Around us, young women with tremendous hair and enthusiasm talk to one another in loud conspiratorial whispers, perching on bar stools next to solid young men standing shoulder to shoulder in the packed bar. The air around them is busy with plans and assertions, with new year promise, with sudden laughter that cracks like china.

We are joined by another old friend. I haven’t seen him since his wife died of cancer four years ago. I had known them both in younger years. I can read her absence in his face.

His wife was a woman with an exceptionally generous spirit. She was young, still in her 50s, when he found her one morning, sitting upright on the couch, her book on her lap. During those long nights of her illness, when sleep eluded her, she would take her book downstairs, he told me, so as not to disturb him.

Deeply united

They were deeply united, had married young, had children. She spent years of her working life on a factory floor. When the children were older she went to university, studied history and literature, worked, taught, found a fresh impetus.

She wanted to see Athens before she died, and Delphi, so they pushed the boat out, booked into five-star hotels. She found the breath; she had her wish.

“Don’t let anyone tell you loss gets easier,” our old friend says to us. “And don’t wait. Don’t wait to do what it is you want to do.”

After I leave them, I walk through the icy streets, past plundered shops, past mannequins, stilled mid-gesture, in festive windows.

“Make memories not plans,” my wise friend had said as I left the bar.

I thought about his words. About time’s arrow. Thwang, bang, clang, all along the frosty road.

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