White Noise

It was as close as I would ever get to the Museum of Natural History in my youth. Not that I’ve actually been yet, of course, though the occasional fantasy sometimes seems grander.

For years I visited here instead: these appointments, scheduled as they were once, sometimes twice, a week, a metronome to measure those years where my feet dangled hopelessly above floor and pedals.

Every time it was the same waiting room: off-white walls, an indestructible and miserable pot plant, and a single image protected behind glass. Back then it was a source of boyhood wonder, the intricate unveiling of a piano’s secret mechanics in all its compositional glory. All its hidden fibres, strings, concealed parts stripped bare. With time, or in retrospect, it seemed to take on all the menace of the T-Rex’s reconstructed, looming frame. (All the museums of my youth seem to blur soundlessly into one another.)

Arraigned within that chamber, awaiting the door’s opening, I counted time before I would be ushered in and asked to offer myself up to the beast. Satchel guarding my knees, holding its pencil-scarred leaves, sheets that had become folded and crumpled from lack of care. Oh, I had looked at them, played them, tried to enchant them with life, entice them into emotion and resonance and soaring song. Lazy I might have been, at times, but I adored music, reveled in play. But I felt no connection to these assigned pieces, other people’s stories. The older I became, the more my conscripted missions seemed to descend and decline, a historical diminuendo, resurrecting the grand masters from their graves. It was a bizarrely archaeological pursuit.

I stared at the photo, its beige and ivory teeth.

We were in limbo, you see. Here the unspoken assumption was silence: muffled chords emerged from closed rooms. Noise came only from within, from far away and further down the river. What foul torture took place in that unseen darkness young minds could only conjure and sweat. Hands were surely being slowly constricted, slapped and bent. Worst of all was silence. Silence meant they were going after your soul.

Russian teachers, appearing decades older than their years, in shawls and coats that dripped down past their waists, barked orders and pitiless commands. At you, your fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms. We couldn’t hope to win this war, only that it might end in a ceasefire, a truce. Poor luck would see you up against a General whose every tilt of the head and brow, each pursing of lips, seemed to signal a mix of hopelessness, indifference and bitter condemnation. You would never measure up to their expectations, never justify all their wasted hours and years. You, pitiful little creature with your lack of practice, lack of fingering, lack of genius, lacked the vitality and fortitude for these battles. Snarling silently, they pressed their thighs against yours as they brushed you and the pages aside, a sweeping authority demonstrating exactly what your small, incapable hands could never muster. Here, here is how you stretch apart to reach the octave. Replaced with their own bent, spindly little fingers worn down from years of cracking the keys, they webbed and spun their way across those glazed bones. This! This is how you have failed!

(They drag you before the onlookers, knowing you are not ready. It is well enough a public hanging.)

But before they had a chance to slash you with their words and glances, you waited. Before you found the chance to take took your seat at the altar, the poster of a different world kept you company. Reminder of fantastic worlds, sights, noises, a different music.

You held your breath, enraptured, contemplating the stories that frozen window told a hundred different ways. You held your breath and waited until at last, again, you would enter. And then, surely, your fingers would slip and graze themselves, wounded on those thin white teeth.

On a separation (22 August)

You demanded fealty, unswerving trust,
Constant devotion. In return came
Taunting, childish threats to
Douse the string, watch it burn.

Can you still recall barked orders,
Inked ransom notes camouflaged in
Birthday cards: gift-wrapped futures
Bow-tied if only I would kowtow?

Everything had – has – its sticker price,
I’m sure:
That sweet spot, tipping point with
Life weighed up and ground down to the cent

Except me

For whom cotton-ball skies
Were not then a metaphor, and
These games echoed with Faustian menace,
Even if the rules were vague.

You raised me a future;
I settled for a separation.

In retrospect (15 August)

Because it’s easier
To offer the right path,
When we took the other
And questioned our way.

Because our shrouded view
Will not be cleared by time,
Instead doubts and details will be
Replaced by all-concealing story.

Because setting out we have
Yet to choose, yet to see
What these green tracks
Hold beyond the curving way.

So we feign knowing and instead
Lend drafted maps to blank spaces
Uncharted territories awaiting
The first brushstrokes.