The Piano Tuner of Versailles
by Darran Brennan
Leo ran his finger over the gold leafe applicae carved into the Roccoco white polished lacquer before he closed the lid of the concert grand. To him, a piano had a life inside it, and when it was tuned it needed to rest for a day. He found as much joy in the fallboard meeting the key bed with a muffled thud as he did in getting to play such a unique instrument. His love for it was so strong that he had thought about fabricating a problem with it and offering to buy it, but he could never afford it even at a quarter of the price. He pressed his deck shoes onto each of the three gold pedals once more to check that the tension in the springs were to his liking. Switching from hard to soft soles made all the difference to a virtuosa like Katrina Valentina. Once a month he let himself into Katrina’s home to tune her Blüthner Supreme Special Edition with 24k gold inlay. In six years, he had met her only three-and-a-half times. Hired by her manager after a recommendation by composer, Alfred Shumer, he had managed to spend two afternoons a month inside her home without encountering her for a year.
Their first meeting transpired when she descended the spiral stairwell in the hall, pausing in her white chiffon negligee to huskily enquire if he could pay special attention to the damper. He could only nod, so struck was he by her lonely, enigmatic presence—her body reposed along the bannister like a bass clef. Afflicted by a concern for her that she left inside him that day, heavy emotions remained with him whenever he returned. Hence, he had longed to meet her again to discover a little more about her and perhaps comfort her.
The second time they met was an accident. He was exiting her home one morning with his little brown leather bag of tools. She had arrived with her arm linked by a dismissively brash man in a tux, sporting a thin moustache and impeccable skin. Her eyes barely met Leo’s but said enough to him to animate worries about her safety.
The third time was a day later when Leo returned to hear the Blüthner after its rest day and to make any minuscule adjustments needed. Katrina’s offer of tea was warmly accepted as she seemed composed. However, Leo’s passion for his work would not allow him enough of a break in concentration to notice she was naked beneath her robe as she passed the rear bay windows. Despite the subtle invitation in her voice, every finite turn of his tool was, he imagined, equal to her perfectly weighted key presses. Perfectionism was as tuned into his body during his work as if it was his concert.
She had offered lemon tea, her body turned halfway to the stairs, empty eyes looking back. Something in her quivered like a sustained E-4 in need of tuning, he noted as she sulked back upstairs, sipping coffee from his flask.
He turned a screw an exact sixteenth of a millimetre and gave the C5 three little taps.
Clink, clink, clink.
“Perfect,” he muttered. Perfect in that he liked it to be imperceptibly flat, which felt more human to him. “We will breathe life into the again, Katrina.”
Their third-and-a-half meeting occurred one year later. She had asked him to come at a specific time. Being flustered that they might meet again, he arrived without his soft shoes and decided to return the next day instead. The sound of her playing drifted through the open window and made the hairs on his neck stand up. He had never heard Clair de Lune played with such humanity and precision.
It was this half meeting that gave him the most insight into Katrina, who assumed no audience. Hearing the piano sound so pure, authentic and unaffected filled him with a passion he knew would linger for days. A light rain soaked heavy into his wool coat as he wondered if a woman like her might ever consider falling in love with him. They possessed, after all, passion, perfectionism and a love of piano. Since meeting her, he was forced to admit that getting lost in his work could no longer keep at bay his own troubling loneliness. As he left, he shook himself free of the fantasy. Katrina might not have been so put together in reality as she was behind the piano, but there could be no real interest in him, dishevelled and wild-eyed as he was. He would continue being content as the unsung magician behind her music.
Returning the next morning, the day before Katrina’s biggest concert in the Opéra Royal de Versailles, he lets himself in with his key. He hadn’t paid much attention to the ambiance inside the house until its absence—life has left. She must be out. Sitting on the stairs where he first glimpsed her bent over the banister, he wiggles his toes into his deck shoes, and turns his thoughts towards the acoustics in the piano room. A touch on the A#5 is all she needs, perhaps a little on the F4. As he turns his head, his eyes find a sight his mind refuses to comprehend. Katrina lays lifeless on top of the keyboard.
He scrambles towards her, his voice breathy and with a hi-pitched pine for that lonely day they first met on the stairs. He stops over her and looks at a scrawled note left on the music rack:
Thank you for your wonderful work. Alas, to be so perfect we must be alone as I now know you understand. It’s a madness and sickness that I could no longer be. The piano is yours.