‘Pianissimo’, Alan Frackleton

Illustrations by Cécile Matthey © 2007

Two days after I learnt that Rachel was dead, Dave Rose offered me the job.

I was still trying to decide what to feel. Craig hadn't gone into details in his email—car accident, what did that mean? Was Rachel driving, was she a passenger, was there more than one car involved?—but the sleep I lost on Friday night wasn't wholly down to speculating about what might have happened. I'd stared at the six brief lines of text for so long the words actually began to lose their meaning, and I found myself trying to think in sentences as short and brutal as those on the screen. I haven't spoken to her in two years. We only slept together once. She was beautiful.

Rachel is dead.

And for the rest of that long night, and all through Saturday, I just couldn't decide what to feel.

I thought you should know, Craig had written at the end of the email. Did that mean Scott hadn't wanted me to, or was Craig just assuming that was how Scott would feel? Whenever Craig had contacted me with news of Scott and Rachel, I'd never once emailed back making it clear that I didn't want to know. In fact, I'd hardly even mentioned them at all. Not when Craig passed on the news of their 2:1s, not when he mentioned they were moving in together, not when he'd hinted at the possibility of marriage somewhere down the line. That had been, what, five or six months ago? It was unlikely that I'd saved a copy of the email, but on Saturday I spent a fruitless hour searching for it anyway.

It wasn't there.

But what did it matter? Rachel was dead.

And what I felt was like not feeling anything. Anything at all.

 [ Pint of beer © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] When I strolled down to the White Hart at lunchtime on Sunday, I wasn't really looking for company. The pub was decked out in red and white and valiantly screaming for QPR on the big screen TV, but I only swapped a few polite greetings before taking my pint out into the relative quiet of the garden. Half an hour passed and I was still there nursing it when Dave Rose joined me at the table.

"Danny," he said. "You still looking to make a bit of extra cash?"

When I'd fled from university only a few months into my second year, I knew I couldn't just sit around on my arse doing nothing. My roots were in west London, and that had seemed like far enough away from the damage I'd done to make the prospect of dealing with my student loan and a £1,400 overdraft almost welcoming. Dad was happy to put me up, but there were clear conditions: get a job, save some money, find somewhere else to live. But he wouldn't have understood why I'd had to come home, even if I had told him the truth. I just wanted to keep busy, move on with my life, but I couldn't kid myself I was qualified to do much of anything. In the end I couldn't really summon the enthusiasm to look beyond the first opportunity that came my way.

The name Dave Rose wasn't new to me, of course. Businessman, entrepreneur, local-boy-made-good, he owned one cab firm, shares in at least half a dozen local pubs, numerous flats and bedsits, and Rose Secondhand Furniture, a cavernous warehouse of a building near Acton Town where old furniture went to die. On the other hand, there were the rumours. They ran the gamut from drugs, prostitution and loan sharking to bootlegged DVDs, stolen mobile phones, and even dodgy meat supplied to burger vans all over the city. Nothing had ever been proved, and the simple truth was I needed to start earning, so I didn't think twice when Kelvin let me know Dave might be able to put some work my way. I trusted Kelvin—we'd been mates since school—and Dave had taken him on as a driver at around the same time I was heading off to university. "It's decent money, decent hours, we'll have a laugh—what more do you need to know?" And if I didn't like the look of it, I'd just say thanks but no thanks, and look elsewhere.

That was two years ago; I'd been picking up and delivering cheap dining tables, sofas and wardrobes ever since. Sure, there had been one or two suspiciously small parcels Dave had asked us to drop off here or there because our pickups were taking us in that direction anyway, but I learnt not to ask any questions, and there was always an extra £50 in my wallet at the end of the week.

Within a year I'd moved out of my dad's spare room and into a flat of my own in Northwood Hills. A car was the next thing on my list. I'd been saving steadily towards a nice Audi TT Quattro for nearly a year, when a decade's worth of ancient pipework ruptured in the flat directly above mine and a mutual neglect of insurance left me with no choice but to pay for the repairs myself. I gritted my teeth and started saving towards the car again, but getting as close as I had and then having to start again from scratch had made me impatient. A week before I came home to find Craig's email waiting in my in box, I'd mentioned to Dave that I could do with earning a bit of extra money, not as bothered as I used to be about what I might be letting myself in for. He told me he'd see what he could do, but I hadn't heard a word about it since.

When he joined me at my table in the pub garden that Sunday, the news about Rachel had shoved everything else out of my mind. It took me a few seconds to work out what he was talking about.

"Sorry Dave, I'm not really with it today," I finally said in answer to his question. "But yeah. If you think you've got something for me, then I might be interested."

Dave's expression was even more non-committal than my reply. But then, everything about the man was subtle. His broad, angular face rarely gave anything away, and any hint of what he might be thinking was buried deep in his eyes. He believed in eye contact; he'd once told me the eyes were the only place where you could never hide. So I held his gaze, and waited for him to reveal what he thought mine were telling him.

"Okay," he finally said. He took a slim notebook from the inside pocket of his jacket, and freed the chunky silver pen from the spiral. "Meet me here at half nine tomorrow," he said, tearing free the page bearing the address once he'd written it down.

He folded the paper and handed it to me.

"Sure," I said. "Thanks Dave."

"See you tomorrow," he said, then disappeared into the uproar that came with QPR's 5-0 defeat to Southend.

I glanced at the address—somewhere in North Wembley—but I didn't think about it much after that. Instead I finished my drink and headed home, and spent the ten minute walk trying to decide whether or not to answer Craig's email. Or I could give him a ring; it was a good three or four months since we'd last talked. But I scrapped that idea pretty quickly. At least in an email I could take the time to really think about what I wanted to say, removed from the immediacy of an actual conversation. The problem was, though I switched on my PC as soon as I got in, all the questions I'd thought I wanted answers to were crowded out by memories I'd rather not have to deal with. In the end I just sat there staring at Craig's message, reading the same words again and again and again.

Why hadn't Craig mentioned Scott, how he was doing? I shook my head; the question really was as stupid as it sounded. What did I expect Scott to feel? Or maybe he was like me, he didn't know what to feel yet, what to allow himself to feel... No, if Scott was numb, it was for different reasons.

I'd loved Scott, too, but it was two years since I'd last seen or even spoken to him.

Even so, along with Rachel, he'd been with me every second just the same.

They visited me in dreams that night.

It was only Scott and I to begin with, kids again looking for something to do that didn't involve school, ties and blazers stuffed out of sight in our rucksacks, passing back and forth one of the Superkings I'd pinched from my dad's pack of twenty. It was a dream; it made no difference that in the waking world we wouldn't actually meet for another two or three years. The dream was supercharged with colour, sense, feeling, but nothing much really happened, and everything we said seemed to fly from us and vanish before meaning was clear.

 [ Rachel's Tattoo © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] There was no clear transition, no sense of having grown up and moved on, but suddenly we were in Spoofers, a pub just across the road from university, and Rachel was there, her back turned to us, leaning forward at the bar as she ordered the drinks. All I could see of her face was the merest of profiles, as if she'd almost turned but thought better of it; she was smiling, I was sure that she was smiling. The cropped sleeve of her t-shirt cast a sliver of shadow over the tiny green hummingbird tattooed high on her right arm. But she did not turn around. I sat there and waited and watched her, but she did not turn around...

I was standing outside the address Dave Rose had given me at twenty five past nine the next morning. It was a fairly modern end of row semi with blank curtainless windows and a narrow front garden no one had paid any attention to in years. The place looked empty, abandoned, but the connection to Dave Rose turned it into a question mark.

He arrived a few minutes later, in a green Transit van someone else was driving. Dave was dressed for work, heavy-duty Caterpillars and paint-stained jeans, and I wondered if all he needed was help clearing the house before he got to work turning it into flats. He offered me his usual curt nod in greeting and I followed him along the cracked stone path to the front door, turning to watch the van drive away while he sorted through a hefty bunch of keys.

Inside the picture of abandonment was completed. Walls stripped back to patches of brown and grey plaster, a naked flight of stairs, doors removed to reveal partial views of equally empty rooms. The weak morning sunlight that followed us in through the pane in the front door seemed to fade too quickly, the gutted space depriving it of any real purpose.

"We're up here," Dave said.

Saying nothing, I followed him up to the first floor. There was barely any improvement, the same stripped walls and dust floorboards, but at least the rooms at either end of the landing had doors to hide them. There was even some furniture: a straight-backed wooden chair had been placed against the wall opposite the balustrade.

Dave walked over to the door at the far end of the landing. He took out his keys again, separated one, and used it to unlock the door.

"Just look," he said.

He opened the door—at some point the frame had been altered and the door itself re-hung so it opened out onto the landing instead of in and away from it—and I found myself staring into yet another empty room. It was small, a second rather than a master bedroom, but every surface—walls, ceiling, floor—had been painted white. There was even a pale, semi-transparent gauze curtain hanging limp across the single tiny window.

Then Dave took one step back, opening the door a little wider, and I saw that the room wasn't empty after all.

 [ The Piano Room © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] An old upright piano occupied the far corner of the room, the heavy, varnished wood as dark as the rest of the space was light. I don't know why I thought old, maybe just because the lid was up and a hint of muddy yellow on the keys suggested ivory. It looked like an heirloom, a little scratched and beaten but nevertheless cared for. There was no stool to sit on, which struck me as odd, but then again the fact that it was there, in that room, in that house, was already strange enough.

Dave closed the door once he was satisfied I'd seen all there was to see. He did not lock it.

"First off," he said, "you do not go into this room. People will show up to spend time in there. You let them in, show them up, unlock this door for them, and then you lock it again when they leave. Sometimes they need a hand getting back down the stairs. That's what you're here for, but otherwise you don't talk to them and you don't interfere. When the room's occupied you don't go near it—you sit over there in that chair. You get here at ten every morning, Monday to Friday, and you don't leave until I come back and tell you to. Five hundred a week.


The question was my cue to turn the job down, and if I hadn't just seen for myself that the room was empty—empty apart from the piano, that is—I might have read the obvious implication into what Dave had just told me. But whatever the house was, it wasn't a brothel. My first instinct was still to say no, but five hundred a week? That was nearly double what I'd been making as driver's mate to Kelvin.

And, instinct aside, I was intrigued, I couldn't deny that.

I knew Dave well enough to know he'd probably told me as much as he was going to, but there was one question I just had to ask.

"What do they do in there?"

He didn't even blink.

"Do you want the job or not?"

I had more reasons to say yes than no. I nodded.

"Good," Dave said. "The room at the other end of the hall's the bathroom. If you need to use it and someone's here, too bad. You wait until they leave and you remember to lock this door first. Here." Dave removed a key from his ring and gave it to me. "You return that to me at the end of every day. Try it."

I used the key to lock the door.

"So that's it?"

"That's it," Dave said. "You get paid Friday."

He pocketed the rest of his keys and I followed him back across the landing. "I'll be back around threeish," he called up from the bottom of the stairs, and then all I heard was the rattle of the letterbox as he closed the front door behind him.

The first visitor arrived just before eleven.

As soon as Dave left I stood for a time just looking at the door; dozens of questions were waiting for me behind it. Five hundred a week just to lock and unlock it, and otherwise sit in a chair doing nothing? But I was curious, not stupid. I knew full well Dave had threatened me, putting a particular stress on the word 'don't' as if each repetition corresponded to a finger stabbed against my chest or a tightening squeeze on my arm. Some of the rumours surrounding him may have had their quota of embellishments, but there was a strong enough thread of continuity running through them that I'd be foolish to discount them completely.

Even so there had to be more to it than what he'd told me.

Playing it safe, I decided to check out the rest of the house. It took all of five minutes. The bathroom was a small oblong box that offered no surprises, and the larger of the two bedrooms was as empty and featureless as the rooms downstairs. Even the kitchen had been gutted, but there were hints amidst the jungle at the back of the house of the neat and well-kept garden that once might have thrived there. The back door was locked and bolted, so with nothing left to see I returned to the landing, pausing to test the chair with my hands to make sure it was stable before I sat down.

My eyes wandered across the bare walls and up to the small square window above the turn in the staircase, its grimy surface struggling to let in much light. People will show up to spend time in there, that's what Dave had told me. Doing what, playing the piano? It was plausible based on what I'd seen, but made no sense at all in context of Dave's instructions. There was one corner of the room I would have had to walk all the way inside to see, but judging by the size of the rest of the room, that corner couldn't have contained a bed, let alone much of anything else.

A small white room empty except for a piano.

I was still sitting there, trying to cancel out each question with an even halfway satisfying answer, when someone quietly knocked on the door.

I actually started to turn my head to look along the landing before I realised the sound had come from downstairs. I checked my pocket for Dave's key as I hurried down to answer it. All I could see through the glass pane was the murky silhouette of someone's head and shoulders; the silhouette froze as I turned the latch and pulled open the door.

He was a middle aged man dressed in a full-length coat as black as the suit he wore underneath it. His short greying hair was neatly combed, his face neatly shaved, but none of that could distract from the haunted look in his eyes. I almost asked him when he had slept last, it was so obvious he hadn't in longer than I could guess at. I waited for him to say something himself instead.

"I'm here for... " he finally managed, but that was all.

"Right," I said, and stood back to let him enter. He paused for just a moment, and lowered his head slightly before stepping forward to join me in the hall. Then he did something that told me he'd visited the house before: he moved to the foot of the stairs, but waited for me to join him and lead the way up.

I could smell his aftershave now, and though I couldn't name the scent it reminded me of my father. Something all the young men about town doused themselves in back in the sixties and seventies. Everything about the man spoke of preparation, as if he had been up before the sun readying himself for whatever it was he had come here to do. And then I realised something else, why he had seemed so bewildered when I opened the front door.

He'd been expecting someone else to let him in.

Which meant someone else had been doing this job before Dave offered it to me.

Who? And why weren't they still doing it now?

The stranger followed me across the landing, hovering a step or two behind while I fished the key from my pocket and unlocked the door.

Was I supposed to wait? I wondered. But the fact he hadn't come forward to enter the room told me not to.

In the time it took me to turn my back, cross the landing, and sit down, he'd silently opened the door and slipped inside.

Nothing happened. I expected music, a brief flurry of practice scales before Beethoven or Bach or Liszt filled the house—any instrument would surely echo in that empty room—but five minutes passed and there was only silence. I stayed where I was but glanced across at the door, and the four blank, untreated panels stared back at me. What the hell was he doing in there? I pictured him sitting down and carefully stretching his fingers in preparation to play before I remembered there was nothing for him to sit on.

Another few minutes ticked by. I spent them wondering what would anger Dave more; if I opened the door to look, or only stopped outside to listen?

I made it halfway across the landing before I heard the muffled sound of weeping.

It wasn't much louder when I reached the door and leaned in close to listen. The man inside the room wasn't sobbing, and there were no words, just the hitching exhalations and frequent ragged intakes of breath that suggested the heartfelt release of some painful emotion. I didn't linger, and the sound had faded almost to silence by the time I'd returned to my chair. When the man opened the door and left the room a short while later, one glance at his moist, red eyes was enough to tell anyone that he had been crying. He said nothing to me, but as soon as I started to rise he lifted a trembling hand to indicate that he could manage. So I sat there and listened to him make his slow way back down the stairs, and then carefully pull the front door shut behind him.

Once I'd remembered to lock the door across the landing, I had less than twenty minutes to try to process what had happened before the next visitor arrived. I got nowhere; my mind wanted to shut down every time I tried to pin the last quarter of an hour down and really examine it.

She was an older woman; late fifties, early sixties. She offered me a polite, "Good morning," as soon as I opened the front door, but that was all. Like the man preceding her she waited for me to lead the way upstairs, and like him she waited until my back was turned before opening the door and vanishing into the white room.

This time I didn't hesitate before going back to listen.

I pressed my ear to the cold bare wood and waited to hear something other than the dull roaring of my blood. After only a few seconds I heard the woman take half a dozen steps across the room, and then something that might have been a sigh. I closed my eyes, but for the longest time there was only more silence. Then, just as I was about to step away, I heard the woman laugh.

It was a quick, almost a girlish giggle, something she'd been surprised into revealing about herself. It tapered off into silence, and this time the silence remained. Nothing else, she did not speak, and I did not hear so much as a single note of music from the piano.

I was sitting down again long before she opened the door just enough to slip out onto the landing. "Thank you," she said, with a smile that made her, briefly, the younger woman whose laugh I had heard through the door.

There were two more that day. A young black woman who couldn't have been much older then me; she quickly lowered her head when she saw me staring at the poorly healed scar that arced across the right side of her narrow face. She spent nearly half an hour in the room, and wept too, but only towards the end, a brief, anguished punctuation that followed the long unbroken silence I had forced myself to stay by the door and listen to. The last visitor was a tall, painfully thin young man who greeted me with cold indifference when I opened the front door, but who paused to thank me when he left the upstairs room fifteen minutes later.

I wasn't sure, but I thought I'd heard him dancing.

It was after two when he pulled the front door shut behind him. I wondered if there was time for any more visitors before Dave returned. I hoped not, but at the same time I strained my ears to catch the sound of someone approaching the front door. All I could hear was the occasional rumble from my stomach; I hadn't eaten a thing since breakfast, but the hunger only caught up with me as three o'clock approached.

Something happened to them in that room... something.

Long before I heard Dave's key in the lock, I knew what my answer would be if he asked me whether I'd be back tomorrow. But when he came up to join me, it was only to check that I'd remembered to lock the door (I had, burying the temptation to go inside as deeply as I could) and to hold his hand out for the key. Then all he did was tell me not to be late in the morning.

He didn't follow me back down to the ground floor, and I didn't wait for him.

The questions I'd known I couldn't ask Dave followed me all the way to Wembley High Street, where my hunger finally made itself too big to ignore. The first place I came to was a little West Indian takeaway with barely enough room for the three minuscule tables crowded together inside the front window. I was the sole customer, and sat down to eat my two steaming-hot vegetable patties while a million questions clamoured in my mind.

Empty of answers, all I could do was push them aside.

But all that did was leave room for Rachel.

 [ Rachel © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] I realised with an almost painful jolt that I hadn't thought of her all day. Not once. Was that even possible? Every moment of the day was clear in my mind—how could it be otherwise—but Rachel wasn't there, and I couldn't believe that all those hours had passed without even one brief moment when I'd thought of her. As if to make up for it she came flooding back, a rush of thoughts and memories and emotions that struck me like a sudden hit of speed; for a moment I was dizzy with Rachel, high on Rachel, and then just as quickly gutted by the simple, terrible fact that she was gone.

Scott and I had actually joked about who saw her first. We'd been sitting together in the slowly filling lecture hall on the first day of our second year at London Met, as ready as we'd ever be for someone to come and teach us all about the Nineteenth Century English Novel. We chatted about the reading list, dreading Henry James and deciding Lady Audley's Secret might be worth looking forward to, every now and then glancing down towards the doors when someone pushed them open. It's perfectly possible that we both saw Rachel enter our lives at exactly the same moment; saw her push the door open with her hip, saw her pause to double check the number on it against something written on the sheet of paper in her hand, saw her quickly scuttled aside with a smile for the half dozen students who were waiting to enter behind her. She'd recognised a tall blonde girl, and together they sat down a little forward and across from me and Scott, but I think all either of us noticed about her friend was the colour of her hair.

"Fuck me," Scott said.

And I'd smiled. "I know."

That was as far as it went until the end of the lecture, when the lecturer paused to allocate spots in the subject tutorials. Scott and I were both pursuing a degree in IT & English Literature, and our 1p.m. Web Design 2 class meant we'd already been selected for the 11:30 to 12:30 seminar directly after the lecture. Amongst the mandatory gaggle of students trying to fit another hour of class around their own schedules was Rachel, and we heard her mention her own 1 p.m. class to the lecturer as we passed the lectern on our way out. That's when Scott laid claim to having seen her first. Naturally I said I had, but he insisted, so I said no I was sure it had been me... It went back and forth like that all the way to the seminar room, even though we hadn't lingered long enough to find out whether Rachel would get her way and join us.

Maybe it's only a detail I fabricated later, a little barb I could hook into myself whenever I decided I hadn't been punished enough, but every time I look back on it now I swear I sensed something change between us when Rachel entered the seminar room a few minutes later, and Scott and I got our first proper look at her.

It's true, but saying Rachel was beautiful doesn't really tell you anything. Her hair, a rich brown dark enough to be mistaken for black, was cut just on her shoulders, loose but pinned back behind her ears so nothing of her face was hidden. Deep hazel eyes, a small, full mouth that could never get enough of smiling... I once heard Craig describe her as "All right," and maybe to him and a hundred thousand other blokes that's all she was, but I've never thought of her as anything less than beautiful. And Scott clearly agreed—he quickly scribbled something at the foot of his lecture notes and turned the A4 pad so I could read fuck me!!! in giant-sized letters. I laughed, and maybe that's what made Rachel notice us; she pointed across the room, and then said something to her friend—Annie, I think her name was—before they came over and claimed the last two empty seats at our table.

The woman behind the takeaway's counter looked none too pleased when I left most of my second pattie uneaten, and I smiled a quick apology before I left the shop. Without a car my journey home involved two buses and the Tube, but I felt like walking, and made it all the way to South Kenton before catching a 223 and then the Metropolitan Line to Northwick Park Station. Rachel still hovered there in the back of my thoughts, but now she'd been joined by the white room with its lonely piano. Would I dream about the room the way I'd dreamt about Scott and Rachel the night before? It was one question I'd be happy to see go unanswered.

My mobile rang just as I was letting myself into my flat, but it was only Kelvin wanting to know what Dave had had me doing all day. Not much was the first safe reply that came to mind, but remembering that Kelvin had worked for Dave longer than I had, I found myself asking whether he knew something about a house in North Wembley.

"Gutting the place for flats is he?" Kelvin asked back and, as was his habit, went on to answer the question himself. "Yeah, I've heard he's been expanding in that direction. So if you've been knocking in walls all day does that mean you're too tired for a jar or two tonight?"

I almost accepted, but quickly decided company wasn't really what I needed. It was just as well; my replacement wasn't up to much, Kelvin told me, so it was a safe bet he would have spent most of the evening complaining. I told him maybe at the weekend, once I'd been paid, and then wondered what the hell I was going to do with the rest of the day instead.

Think about that room some more, at least to begin with. It would have surprised me if Kelvin had known something about it; I imagined very few people were aware of that particular house. There was no question of anything illegal, not as far as I could see, but whatever those people went there for, whatever it was that happened to them behind that cheap pine door, it was... private. Between them and the room. Maybe that explained why I'd been reluctant to take a closer look, despite giving in to my growing curiosity just enough to eavesdrop. After all, there was no way Dave would know I hadn't followed the rules unless I told him.

No, he'd know. One look into my eyes and he'd know.

Despite turning down Kelvin's offer of a night out, I toyed with the idea of phoning Callie, a girl I'd been seeing on and off for the past few months. It was a while since I'd last been in touch—I had to think a moment to remember the date—and she'd want a very good reason before even entertaining the idea of meeting me somewhere for a drink. I wasn't really sure what I wanted from her, that was the problem. Sex, but that was obvious, and I had to admit she could be fun in a light-hearted, meaningless way... No, there was too damn much I wasn't sure about these days, that was the problem, and a few hours with Callie wouldn't fix that.

So instead of picking up the phone, I switched on the computer. I think I'd known I would all along. Double-clicking to open Craig's email felt inevitable.

Were the police investigating the accident? And what about the funeral? The email didn't mention either. All I had to do was reply, and I knew Craig would tell me.

I got as far as watching the cursor blink inside the subject box before giving up. Nothing I was thinking seemed like the right thing to say.

Craig had stayed, and I hadn't.

I'd never quite figured out why he'd kept in touch. The only real thing we had in common was having shared the same flat with Scott, but maybe Craig placed more value on our relationship than I ever had. I'd always thought of him as Scott's other flatmate, a decent bloke but not someone I felt particularly close to. He'd been fine when Scott introduced us and said he wanted to rent me the spare room, and even though he and Scott had known each other for years, he'd seemed to accept the obvious depth of our friendship, as content to make plans of his own as join us for a night out whenever we invited him.

God, that had been the best year of my life. What happened later didn't make that any less true. Maybe it was that as much as the habit of contact that prompted Craig to let me know about the accident.

Maybe he thought the memory of that one good year would be enough. Not just Rachel is dead but Rachel's dead and Scott was your best friend.

"I know he was," I heard myself admitting to the empty room. But I went ahead and switched off the computer anyway.

"What's in the bag?"

It was the first thing Dave said to me when I met him outside the Wembley house the next morning.

"Just a book," I told him, "and a bite to eat."

That seemed to satisfy him, but I had nothing to hide if he decided he wanted to check for himself. The small HMV bag contained a hastily prepared ham/salad sandwich wrapped in cling-film, a bottle of Highland Spring, and a fat paperback of vintage noir short stories. I'd added the book as an afterthought just before heading out the door. What better way to indicate that I wasn't the least bit interested in what went on in the white room? The ruse seemed a bit contrived once I reached the house, but anyway.

Dave didn't say anything else until we were upstairs, when he let me know he wouldn't be back to fetch the keys until sometime after four o'clock.

"No problem," I said.

"Good man. Enjoy your book," he added, and then left me to it.

 [ Piano Room Door © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] I didn't even take it out of the bag. Instead, and despite knowing there was no possible reason to, I crossed the landing and pressed my ear against the door to listen. There was nothing for me to hear, of course, but I stayed like that for another minute or two. All I had to do was unlock the door and step inside...

I sat back down to wait instead. Another twenty minutes passed before I moved again, to answer the first quiet knock on the front door.

She was carrying a single white lily; a few years older than me, late twenties or early thirties, and as pale and elegant as the flower she clasped in her hand. Her eyes moved past me to the stairs, so I knew that this wasn't her first visit. No words passed between us, and I knew that once we were upstairs she would wait for me to turn my back and walk away before she opened the door.

I didn't sit down, though. I gave her a moment, then returned to the door to listen.

That established the pattern for the rest of the day. There were four more visitors, three men and one more woman, and seemingly the only thing they had in common was whatever it was that brought them to the room. I heard each of them weeping, at one point or another; the woman carrying the lily sobbed with such awful, gut-wrenching force I wondered if people passing by outside could hear her.

She left the room empty-handed, but I locked the door without checking to see what had happened to the flower.

I ate my sandwich, drank some water, even scanned a page or two of my book. They were all just things to do in the lulls between visitors. I was waiting; I just couldn't say with any certainty exactly what I was waiting for.

The final visitor arrived just before two, a small, overweight man with thinning red hair who smiled warmly when I let him in. It was routine now; he followed me up to the first floor landing, stood behind me as I opened the door, entered the room only once my back was turned. And then my own routine; I paused, counted slowly to ten, then went to the door and pressed my ear against the wood.

The first thing I heard I wasn't sure of, but then it came again.

A name. He had whispered a name.

"Judith... "

Inexplicably I felt close to tears before I heard the man behind the door give in to his own. There was something in the sound of his weeping other than sorrow, and it was that something else that seemed to reach through the door and into me, but I'd moved away before I could give a name to the emotion. Still, I could feel it pull at me, even as I stumbled past the chair and into the bathroom. Then I blinked and seemed to lose a moment or two of time. The next thing I was aware of was bending over the sink and cupping my hands to catch the thin trickle of cold brown water from the tap. I must have turned it on, but I had no memory of doing so. I glanced up at the bare wall above the sink, and wondered what my face would have told me had there been a mirror there.

I gave up on the water and shook my hands dry, turning the tap off before returning to the landing. Could the visitor have left in the—what, minute, minute and a half—I seemed to have lost?

I would have to go back over to the door and listen if I wanted to be sure.

I couldn't do it. I sat down to wait, and when I heard him leave the room a few minutes later it was all I could do not to look at him. I didn't want to make eye contact, make a connection; I didn't want to believe he might answer me if I asked him whether he'd noticed the lily the day's first visitor had left inside the room.

Once he'd left I felt restless. I locked the door, then went downstairs, wandering from one empty ground floor box to the next, what had once been a front room, a dining room, a kitchen, but I already knew there was nothing those rooms could tell me. All I could hear was the echo of my own progress briefly filling the empty spaces, the murmur of traffic from the road outside, the occasional voice that I knew had drifted in from outside too. I'd returned to the front room when I heard someone walking along the path to the front door. As soon as I heard the key turn in the lock I knew it could only be Dave.

I looked at my watch—it was ten after four. Had I really been wandering around those empty rooms for over an hour?

Dave had let himself in and taken half a dozen steps towards the stairs before I forced myself to step into the hall to meet him.

He was dressed in a crisp grey suit today. He stood at the foot of the stairs with one hand in his pocket, the other making a loose fist around his keys. His face was unreadable, but that could mean anything.

I waited.

"You like to listen, don't you," he said at last.

It wasn't a question.

"I don't know what you mean," I said. It was an utterly pointless denial, but I had to say something.

"Tell me Danny. Why do you think I gave you this job?"

He hadn't moved, one hand still in his pocket, the other still gripping his keys. His voice gave as little away as his stance or his expression, but I didn't feel threatened. At least, I didn't feel threatened by him.

So I tried to answer his question.

"Because I needed it. I mean, because I told you I could use the extra cash."

"No," he said. "I meant this job."

He'd lost me. I shook my head.

"It's obvious, isn't it? Because there was a vacancy. And that look on your face... The guy who had this job before you, he got that look too. It took longer for him though, nearly three months in the end.

"The point is," he continued, once I hadn't replied, "I'm prepared to give you the same choice I gave him. The choice I give all of them once they get that look you've got now. The job's still yours if you want it, same deal as before, but if you don't you can just walk away. Simple yes or no. If it's no you don't have to worry, I'll find you something else. So, what's it to be?"

"I don't know," I said. Just then it was the one thing I was certain of.

"Fair enough," Dave said. He took his hand from his pocket and placed it on the flat square top of the newel post. "Follow me."

He headed upstairs without waiting to see if I'd join him. I told myself the same number of steps that would take me to the foot of the staircase would also take me to the front door.

Then I told myself I really didn't have a choice.

He was waiting for me outside the door to the white room, and as I crossed the landing he held out his hand for the key. Watching him unlock the door, I waited for the sense of wrongness I'd felt every time I stood outside to listen, like a voice saying don't so quietly I couldn't actually hear it, only feel the effect of the word like a firm hand pressed against my chest. But then Dave got the door open, and I felt nothing. I watched him walk all the way across the room and turn around.

"In you come," he said.

I walked across the white floor to join him. The floorboards were actually more grey than white, the dust scuffed here and there with footprints, a mess of swirls directly in front of the piano where I pictured visitor after visitor sitting down. It was just a room someone had doused with Dulux Brilliant White, occupied by nothing more than an old upright piano.

 [ The Lily © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] The only difference I could see was the single pale lily lying across the instrument's silent keys.

"Flats," Dave said, but I couldn't drag my eyes away from the piano. "That was the idea anyway. Used to be you could snap up a place like this at auction for under a hundred K if you were lucky. Cheaper, if you knew the right people. Two, three grand to gut it and turn it into flats, rent them out for one-twenty, one-fifty a week... Aren't you curious to know why my plans changed, Danny?"

"I'm listening," I said.

"Ah, but you can't hear it, can you?" Dave said. "The music. It doesn't matter, I've never heard it either. I could try to explain it to you, tell you all about the old guy who used to own this place and what happened to him when his wife died... but that doesn't really matter either. They can hear it, that's all that matters."

At the same time I was listening to Dave tell me these things, I was trying to concentrate on the silence that seemed like a solid force occupying the rest of the room. I didn't expect to hear anything beyond Dave's voice, but I couldn't help listening for something else anyway. But Dave was right, there was nothing. His voice. The sound of my breathing. Nothing else at all.

"How much?" I asked him, to fill some of that silence.

"How much do I charge them? Depends. What they can afford, some of them. But most pay whatever I ask them to, once they know what this place can do for them."

What did he do, I wondered, put an ad in the paper? Hang around cemeteries propositioning mourners? And what about the ones who could no longer pay? What if they hadn't found what they were looking for? What happened then?

"That's the beauty of it," Dave said, as if he could hear the questions I was asking myself. "People always die, and people are always left behind.

"So," he added abruptly, the change in tone clearly indicating he was bringing the lesson to an end. "The job's still yours if you want it. If not I'll pay you for the week anyway and set you up with something else."

"The others, the ones who had this job before me. Why didn't they stay?"

"You'd have to ask them," Dave said. "So?"

"I'll be here tomorrow," I told him. I wasn't sure if I believed it, but as Dave took a moment to study me, absorbing my answer, I realised it was true.

"Good." He walked over to the piano, and for one terrible moment I thought he was going to play something.

But all he did was pick up the lily and toss it to me.

"Get rid of that on your way out," he said.

Hi Craig.

I'd been sitting in front of my computer for twenty minutes, but those two words were as far as I'd got.

The lily Dave had told me to throw away was on my kitchen table, where I'd left it as soon as I got home. I'd had to snap off part of the stem to fit it in my bag, but otherwise the journey home hadn't damaged it too badly. The scent seemed to cling to my fingers, and obscurely I wondered if that was the reason I'd only managed to type two words in nearly half an hour.

Don't fuck everything up, Craig had told me when he found me in my room packing a suitcase. But as far as I was concerned I'd already done that. I hadn't made up my mind to quit university altogether, kidding myself that all I needed was some time away. But I guess Craig wasn't fooled, and maybe that was part of the reason he'd stayed in touch, hoping to lure me back one day. He was stubborn, I had to give him that. It was two years later, and he was still trying.

What friends are for, I thought, as I stared at the words on the screen.

But it was true, I'd always been closer to Scott. It wasn't just the little things, like a similar taste in music or TV or books, it was the way our view of the world through the window was the same. Craig was a mate, but Scott was my friend; for that year and a half he was the best friend I'd ever had. Even when it became so obvious that he really did like Rachel, and once I accepted the fact that her attraction to him had done nothing at all to blunt my own feelings for her, I still thought of Scott as my closest friend, someone I'd do anything for. But in no time at all Danny and Scott became Danny, and Scott and Rachel. She was there all the time, during lectures, in the pub afterwards, back at the flat, and as I watched them flirt, watch them draw irrevocably closer and closer to each other, I felt no jealously towards my friend, only an undeniable desire for the girl he was falling for. I honestly don't think either of them were aware of it; I picked up no warning signals from Scott, and Rachel was as warm and open with me as she had been since the beginning. I even fantasised there had been a moment or two, early on, when she'd flirted with me too, as if there had been some small degree of attraction for her as well. But it was Scott she fell for. I knew that, never once doubted it, but the facts changed nothing. I could not get Rachel out of my head.

 [ Halloween © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] The night we threw a Halloween party at the flat, that really should have been the end of it. Scott and Rachel were barely a foot away from each other from the moment she arrived. If they weren't dancing they were sitting together in the garden, their intimacy like a barrier that closed them off from the rest of the world. I knew they hadn't slept together yet; Scott mightn't have told me in so many words, but he would have told me. When he said he was taking Rachel home, I knew instantly what that meant, and I managed to smile, even managed a jokey reminder about our nine a.m. lecture. When they were gone all I could think was that I didn't want to be alone, but the next morning all I knew about the girl I'd spent the night with was that she was from Coventry.

For weeks after that Scott couldn't keep the grin from his face. "She's amazing," he told me more than once, and I could see how happy she made him, how happy being together made them both. When I said I was glad for him, I meant it, but buried beneath that as deep as I could push it was the simple wish that Rachel had chosen me instead. Every time I saw her I felt it, a savage little ache that refused to heal.

I didn't want to hurt Scott. I didn't want to hurt either of them.

They'd been solid for nearly two months when it happened. My feelings hadn't changed, but I was starting to believe that, given time, they would, sure that if I only believed it hard enough it had to happen. It was a Saturday, and I had the flat to myself. Craig had driven down to Brighton for his older brother's stag do, but Scott and I had both turned down invitations to tag along. I just wasn't in the party mood, and I'd assumed, because he had not come back to the flat the previous evening, that Scott wanted to spend the weekend with Rachel.

She phoned me first, looking for him. Apparently Scott had mentioned the Brighton trip to her the day before, wondering if Rachel wanted to drive down with him, a suggestion that for some reason ended up as an argument. I never did get a handle on what they had really been fighting about, but it seemed that Scott had headed off to Brighton anyway, a fact Rachel had phoned the flat to confirm. I called Scott as soon as I'd spoken to her, but Craig answered and told me Scott was still sleeping off the night before. It wasn't too late for me to jump on a train and join them, he pointed out, but I told him to have a good time and I'd see them on Monday.

Rachel showed up at the flat an hour later, carrying two bottles of wine.

 [ Two Empty Bottles © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] I didn't try to tell myself inviting her in was a bad idea, or that getting drunk with her was an even worse one. There was no agenda; it just happened, and I let it. She was there and I was the focus of her attention, and that made me happy. I don't remember thinking about Scott at all after the first few glasses of wine. Rachel wanted to talk about anything but him anyway, and the conversation flowed from our studies to music, films, childhood reminiscences, and when the bottles were empty Rachel sent me out for more while she hunted through kitchen drawers for takeaway menus. When I got back she'd put on one of Craig's Bjork CDs, and she was dancing all alone to the music. In that moment it was real, she was there alone but waiting for me, and I could have stood there all night just watching her.

We drank more wine and ate the margarita pizzas when they finally arrived, and we talked some more, and we laughed, and then it was night and she was close to me and we were kissing. To this day I don't know who initiated it, but once we'd overcome a brief, electric pause when it might have gone either way, neither of us tried to stop it. I don't have to justify it in those terms, because Rachel was as much in the moment as I was. Her reasons weren't mine, that's the only difference. "Not here," she said, taking my hand and leading me into my bedroom, and those were the last words either of us spoke. The only light came in through the window, but that was enough, and every part of her I looked at I tasted with my mouth, touched with my hands.

She was asleep before I was. When I woke up she was gone.

For me that Sunday morning was almost the worst of what was to follow, but not because I was worried about Scott. I phoned Rachel five times in the space of half an hour before she finally picked up, but everything she said was compressed into the last five words she spoke before she ended the call: "I have to tell him." The rest came back to me later, mistake, shouldn't have happened, I love him, but all I did was try to erase them with the memory of the night. Alone in the flat I could still taste Rachel, still feel the heat of her on my fingers. But that was only as true as the words she'd spoken on the phone. No more, no less.

I didn't doubt that she would tell him, only I couldn't decide what that would mean. It had to be the end for them, I told myself, just as it had to be the end of my friendship with Scott.

The question I asked myself was, was Rachel worth that?

Yes. Even if last night had never happened, the answer was absolutely yes.

She borrowed her sister's car and drove down to Brighton that afternoon. Craig came back first, alone, about six hours later: he told me Scott and Rachel were on their way. If he'd asked me I suppose I would have tried to explain it to him, but he only stayed long enough to drop off his bags. Maybe the empty wine bottles, the two glasses, the two plates, told him all he needed to know. I cleared everything away once he was gone, and waited.

The only thing I didn't want was for Scott to ask me if I was sorry, because I didn't want to tell him the truth.

I didn't want to tell him no.

Rachel hadn't lied, she really did love him. And, in the end, Scott couldn't deny that he loved her too. There was time apart, but they got back together, and I wondered if my decision not to return and pick up my studies had had anything to do with that.

Maybe if Scott had done something, anything other than look at me the way he had before he turned around and walked out of the room. . .

But that was it; I never saw either of them again. Everything I knew about the way they had slowly built a life together I learnt from Craig's emails and occasional phone calls. But now Rachel was dead, and I couldn't get beyond the first two words of my reply to the email Craig had sent to let me know.

In the end I just had to force everything out of my mind except for the one thing I really needed to know:

Hi Craig.

When's the funeral?


Craig replied with the details less than an hour later, Friday at 10:45 a.m., and the address of a cemetery in North London. Nothing else, but maybe the fact I had asked at all told him I'd already decided to go.

And I had decided, but I needed to speak to Dave first.

Despite hardly sleeping at all that night I was at the house on time the next morning, but before he could hand me the key to the white room Dave and I had a conversation. He listened first, and thought about it for a long time before replying, his eyes never once leaving my face. He made me a deal; he would cancel all the appointments he had lined up for Friday, and leave the key to the white room plus the front door key with me on Thursday afternoon. When I was done I would return both keys to him. In return, I owed him. Whatever he needed done, it was my job to do it. I didn't ask him for how long; I knew it wasn't that kind of deal. It was yes or no, and no going back either way.

"Yes," I said.

It was the first time I had ever really seen Dave Rose smile.

In the meantime I still had the rest of Wednesday and the whole of Thursday to get through. The visitors came to the house, and I did my job, but I no longer went to the door to listen. After work on Wednesday I took my one good suit to be dry-cleaned, paying extra to ensure I could pick it up on my way home on Thursday. Dave's house key and the key to the white room were safely in the coin-hold of the wallet. The only other thing I had to do was phone Kelvin and talk him into letting me borrow his car.

At home on Thursday, I spent hours listening to music. I sampled every CD I owned, and even dug out a box of cassettes I hadn't listened to in years, staying up till three in the morning surfing through radio stations once I'd tried them all. Rock, pop, classical, ragga, dance, jazz, drum & bass, folk, bangra, R&B... .nothing I listened to was right. I don't think I really expected to find anything, but trying seemed necessary. It seemed right.

But I didn't cry.

My friend and the woman I still loved filled my heart, my head, but I did not once cry.

I arrived at the cemetery a good half hour early, and once I'd found somewhere to park Kelvin's Civic I looked around for a quiet spot where I could watch and wait. I knew I wouldn't approach Scott until after the service, but I wanted to be there, and there was no one around to direct me to the site of Rachel's grave.

What was soon to become Rachel's grave.

When the first black car rolled through the gates at twenty to eleven, the first familiar face I spotted through the windows was Craig's. I waited until all five vehicles had driven through and disappeared around the curve before following. I hadn't spotted Scott, but then I'd barely been able to tear my eyes away from the sight of RACHEL spelled out in pale yellow blossoms inside the window of the hearse.

It wasn't cold, but I could not stop shivering.

I found a vantage point above and slightly to the left of the mourners, watching as they slowly left the cars and gathered beside the grave. Scott had let his hair grow out, I saw; he walked at the side of an older woman I assumed was Rachel's mother. The older man supporting her on the other side had to be a friend, or a relative, because I knew Rachel's father had died when she was a child. I thought one or two other faces were familiar, probably from university, but I couldn't put names to them.

 [ Rachel's Grave © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] Murmurs, that's all I heard. The priest's voice, Rachel's mother quietly sobbing, hushed 'Amen's'. I watched Rachel's mother sag into the support Scott tried to provide for her, and the strained mask of his face, and the way his hands seemed to tremor under the weight of the earth he scattered onto the coffin. I did not stop shivering until it was over and people began slowly drifting back towards the cars.

Only Scott lingered at the grave, Craig by his side.

It was Craig who looked up and watched me walk towards them. One or two people by the cars turned to look as well, but I paid no attention to them; I was studying Scott's face to confirm what I already suspected.

He hadn't cried during the service, not once.

"Scott," Craig finally said, because I had almost reached them and Scott still hadn't noticed me.

I stopped a few paces away. I could have reached out, offered my hand. Craig seemed uncertain about whether to linger, but I glanced at him briefly, and that was enough.

"I'll wait by the car," he said, and moved away.

"You... " Scott said, but that was all.

I felt it. Something. It was enough.

"I need you to come with me," I said. I didn't want to have to explain; I didn't think I could. I just needed him to listen to me and somehow understand, if that was even possible.

"Did you hear me Scott?" I tried again. "I need you to come with me, now."

He blinked. "Where?"

"Somewhere... It's in Wembley. A house... it isn't something I can describe, Scott, you just have to come with me and see for yourself. My car's parked outside. Will you come with me?"

"I don't know what you're talking about... "

"I know that, I know. But this is important. I came but now I really need you to come with me."

"What's going on?" Craig said, coming back to join us. "Look, Danny, we have to go. It's all been arranged, back at Gloria's. Are you coming with us?"

"No. I need Scott to come somewhere with me first."

"What are you talking about? Go where -"

"It's all right," Scott told him. He hadn't once taken his eyes from me. "You go on ahead. Tell Gloria... just tell her there's something I have to do. It's for Rachel, tell her that. I'll see you back there later."

"Scott... "

"Go on," he said again, already walking along the grave towards me. "I'll be all right."

I had already turned and started along the gravel path towards the exit, and after a moment I heard Scott fall into pace a little way behind me. "It's the blue Civic," I told him, as soon as we were through the gates, and only looked at him again once I was behind the wheel and he'd climbed in beside me. His face reminded me of Dave's, solid, firm, but essentially expressionless. He stared straight ahead, only moving to pull the seatbelt across his chest and firmly lock it in place the moment as I started the engine.

We didn't speak. There was no threat in the silence, no anger, but two years is a long time. Had Craig passed on news about me the way he'd passed on news about Scott? I couldn't imagine it; there was hardly anything to tell. Maybe the occasional I heard from Danny, he's doing okay, but that was all. That was all.

We'd been driving in silence for a quarter of an hour when Scott started talking.

"Drunk driver," he said, his voice as expressionless as his face. "Did Craig tell you? Fifteen years old. He died too. Three and a half hours in surgery but he died too. And she loved that little Ka. K-a, you know the ones I mean? She was still trying to decide on a name for it. I remember... I remember... "

"I'm so sorry Scott," I said, when he couldn't finish.

"You weren't the only one to blame," he said. "But you shouldn't have walked away, Danny. You shouldn't have walked away. We could have worked it out."

"No, we couldn't have."

I expected him to argue, but he already sounded so defeated.

"No," he said, "you're probably right. She didn't really think so either." I sensed him turn his head, briefly, to look at me. "I knew."

"Knew what?"

"Don't be so fucking dense Danny," he said, with sudden vehemence. "What do you think I'm talking about? The way you felt about her."

The truth was there, and I let it come. "It never went away. I wish to God it had, but it just never went away."

"When she drove down to Brighton to tell me, do you know what she said? 'He wasn't you.' I knew who she meant right away, and if you'd been there... oh man, if you'd been there I fucking swear I would have killed you. It was that strong already, what we had. Do you know what I mean? She felt it too and it terrified her. I'm not saying she used you, she'd never do that, but what happened with you... Afterwards she was still scared, only it wasn't the same. She was scared that she might have lost me. I hope one day you know what it feels like to have someone say that to you, I really do. It's incredible. It's just the greatest feeling in the world."

I concentrated on the road. It wasn't far now. I wondered if he'd only come along so he could say that to me, if he'd spent the first long minutes of the journey calmly selecting just the right words, but deep down I didn't really believe it.

They must have been so happy. They were right, it was that simple, and all along I'd known that.

But I had done the right thing, I knew that, too. There was no way I ever could have stayed.

"Did she believe in God?" I asked Scott, as we approached the left turn that would take us to the street.


"The service."

"Right. No, she didn't, not that way. That was more for her mum's sake. Gloria. But I knew she wouldn't mind."

I parked Kelvin's Civic outside the house and cut the engine.

"Where are we, Danny?"

"Just come with me," I said.

 [ Piano Room Door © 2007 Cécile Matthey ] I got out of the car and walked along the cracked stone path to the house. After a moment I heard Scott close the passenger door and follow me. Inside I moved straight towards the stairs, and glanced back to see Scott close the front door and frown at the bare walls, the dusty floors, the empty rooms. But he followed me up to the landing without asking any more questions.

I was shivering again by the time I'd reached the door and unlocked it. I wanted to ask Scott how strong he thought he was, because I knew we'd only be able to do this once.

"Rachel," I whispered, before he was close enough to hear me.

And then I opened the door.

© 2007 Alan Frackleton

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