Something physical” my therapist suggested. “Is there anything you’re curious about? You need to open yourself up to the universe.”
‘F**k the universe,’ I thought as I undid the rusty latch on the gate. It snapped shut behind me loudly. Up until that moment I was free to change my mind, now there was no turning back.
Had she heard me? Could she see me? Possibly.
This was insane. What was I doing? Starting something new at 42? I had promised myself one lesson, nothing more. But it was a silly idea. I would just go down and say I’d changed my mind, that I was sorry, I could still pay for her time.
The garden was kind of chaotic, but very beautiful. My mind softened a little. It was early, but already a crescendo of cicadas buzzing. A small stream trickled gently alongside the path that meandered down to the house. Sparrows ruffled their feathers in a broken water fountain. Sunflowers arched down the walkway. Tui sucked the nectar out of the tall blooming harakeke. A plum tree’s ripe juicy plums were ready to fall into a basket underneath. Washing on the line swayed in the wind with what looked like circus costumes, rather than everyday smalls. A vegetable garden made of driftwood was abundant, and huge pots of herbs on the porch were all overgrown, and wild. The smell of mint, and coriander floated up the pathway.
Arriving at the open doorway, I could see right through to the other side. An entire ocean spilled waves through open floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of the house. I felt I was intruding, but couldn’t stop looking at the view.
“Voluptuous, isn’t it? We get dolphins and whales sometimes,” she said, looking out with me. I had no idea she was there. I hadn’t even knocked yet.
“Come come,” she said quietly lifting a tray of steaming flutes out of the dishwasher. I glanced at the fridge. Out of big square alphabet words, someone had composed ‘Come Get Your Thrills’.
The piano teacher spoke as she ushered me into the lounge and held out her hand, “I’m Magnolia,” she said, “as in the tree, but most people call me Maggie.” Her voice was warm and soft, a little hoarse, like she had just woken, or sung her heart out the night before. She wore green velvet pants, and a brightly coloured robe that hung loosely over a camisole. She had hoop earrings, a wrist full of bangles (no rings I noted) and a pink heart pounamu around her neck. Her hair in a messy top knot bun, her nails painted bright canary yellow.
I caught a glimpse of a large kingfisher tattoo as her robe fell off her shoulder briefly. I was embarrassed of my old Adidas tracksuit, afraid my darkness might stain her light.
Frankincense incense was burning from a large Buddha in the corner. Little vases of wildflowers were everywhere and small jam jars of candles still flickered in the morning sun – had she been up all night?
Peacock feathers brushed my arm as I walked in and books sat on every surface, the sunroom overflowing. A lover of literature obviously, like me. I took it all in.
Soft orange retro curtains blew gently in the sea breeze and there were cushions of every colour, like a Turkish den. A disco ball hung from the ceiling, still softly spinning diamond prisms around the room. A piñata in the shape of a black unicorn sat next to a baseball bat, still intact. There were bird cages filled with cactus, a bowl of crystals and a tank full of rainbow tropical fish. Also scattered around were Russian dolls, African masks, tall orchids and Birds of Paradise in vintage pots. An old original fairground clown with a wide open mouth and a ping-pong ball lodged permanently inside its bright red lips sat resting up against the window.
The shambolic chaos was to be interpreted, a puzzle. Did she have children, a family, a lover? There was a mural on one wall, the goddess of healing, several art works and a harmonica collection in a china cabinet. I was mesmerised, like Alice in Wonderland entering the hazy world of dream. It was all slightly surreal, like an Anaïs Nin novel. Everything evoked living, like a deep breath, that woke my dormant self.
I caught a glimpse of the bathroom, black lace thigh-high stockings hung over the claw foot bath, I wanted to go in, touch them.
She saw my gaze that lingered a moment too long and I blushed.
“Bit of a shindig last night, a little out of control,” she laughed. A glorious laugh that pulled me into her world of elegance, and decadence.
On the long dining table was a carved pumpkin face, a candelabra with melted wax in every colour, and conch shells. A strange fuzzy-green felt rabbit sat in the middle beside a large glass skull with fairy lights inside. There were small figurine saints, angels, the Virgin Mary and a crucifix. The remainders of a two-tiered gateau with cream and berries sat half-eaten with miniature forks and a half-eaten chocolate fondue. I wanted to dip my fingers in, be one of her party people. It felt like a wedding, a funeral, and a festival all at once.
Whose birthday was it? I wondered. I longed to be there the night before, beside her on the dance floor. What on earth was stirring in me?
“A death table,” she said. “To honor the dead, instead of all that Halloween bullshit.”
“Yes.” I stuttered, “Quite right.”
“I have herbal tea or stove top coffee?” The aroma was already wafting in from the kitchen.
“Coffee please,” I said shyly, even though I had given it up years ago.
“I just want to learn a song, you might not know it, I don’t even know it? My mother used to play it.” I called out, finding my voice easier when she wasn’t in the room.
“Can you hum it?” she asked, before arriving with two small pottery mugs of black coffee. She didn’t offer milk, which pleased me for some reason. Black was so adult.
I took the cup she offered, and nervously tried to hum the first few bars.
“Oh darling,” she said with a hand to her heart, “‘Clair de Lune’, by Debussy, one of my favourites.” Darling hung in the air. I wanted to grab it, eat it. Everything she said sounded like an invitation, a temptation.
I noticed more as we sat and sipped from our mugs. An old typewriter, black and white photographs on the wall, Aretha, Eartha, Nina. A record player and a wall full of vinyl. An old-school microphone.
“I’m just going out for a smoke, then we’ll give it a go shall we?” I nodded. “Sure, lovely.”
‘She’s breathtaking,’ I thought.
“Make yourself at home,” she said, her eyes glancing over to the bedroom, did I imagine that?
She walked over and pulled the door to but I saw a glimpse of nakedness, perhaps a man’s, sprawled half under a white sheet on the unmade bed.
“No idea who that is!” She whispered, then that glorious laugh again.
She went outside and I could see her reflection as she lit up, completely serene as she inhaled, and exhaled, like a film star looking out to sea, in the sepia morning light.
The piano itself was sitting in the corner but there were other instruments too, acoustic guitars, a trumpet, a violin, several tambourines, a small cello, some bongo drums. All that looked like they had been left where they lay, after a lively jam session.
Magnolia returned and sat down to play. “Right,” she said. “Let’s warm up.” She went straight into a mix of The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’ and Nina Simone’s ‘I want a Little Sugar in my Bowl’, singing the lyrics as she played. Slowly she merged into classical tunes, and finally softly, Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’, the song I had had in my head for years.
Never had I seen anyone up close play so beautifully, so brilliantly, like she was in trance. Her fingers swift, as she blended harmonies and melodies, creating a tension and texture that was utterly spellbinding to watch. I felt like I was witnessing a private ceremony and tried to stop staring, so focused on her hands. Her fingertips and the keys were one, an extension of each other. There was only the music, and the waves crashing. It was intoxicating.
As she played, the memories resurfaced. The two of us laughing on the beach, dinner together at dusk, long hikes. Day trips to waterfalls, diving in. Sitting together reading, with the fire going and RNZ in the background.
I had loved her since I was 17, although I never told her so, but the visits and annual catch-ups became more frequent, until one night she asked me if I felt the same way as her. “Of course I did,” I replied, have done for years, but was too nervous to say anything. After that we were inseparable, she sold her house up north and I made way for a new set of drawers, she didn’t bring much else. It was all so easy. I think of the missing years, how much longer we could have had. How much more we could have done, if only one of us had been braver.
She had died on my 38th birthday and I see now that I died too. Life had been unbearable. Crawling through the days in a depression, black and heavy with the weight of her illness, but now softened by the sound of the piano. Grief dusted off my skin, relief simultaneously settled on my limbs. “She died, Delilah, you have to live.” The therapist’s words echoed in my ears.
“You have to let go when you play,” Magnolia broke in, as if reading my thoughts.
Eventually she tapped the sheepskin next to her, and I joined her.
Is that what she was asking me to do? I would not have said no to anything at that point.
“Have you played before?”
“As a child,” I said. “Occasionally.”
“A good start, you’ll have the intuition of the piano in your bones.”
She touched down on the keys, only a few notes at a time, then motioned me to follow, we did this for over an hour. Momentarily her fingers brushed mine. Electricity, a spark, an energy I thought had long gone. Did she feel it? Or was it my imagination? I didn’t trust myself.
Occasionally she said things, magical musical things.
“You can play these notes quiet or loud. Think about rain on a tin roof, quick little punches of sound. Make it bounce. It’s all nature, sweet summer nights, cold winter days, a violent storm, the calm of dawn.”
Time passed quickly, and then it was over. I wanted to keep going.
Would have, had she asked.
“So, have a think about it, I can do this time every week, if that suits you?”
At that moment I committed every Sunday morning, forever.
I tried to hand her some dollars for the lesson, but she said simply, “First one’s free, and brushed it away. The rest of the day I found myself wondering about her.
If I was the darkness, perhaps she was the stars.
I knew I would always call her Magnolia.
About the Author: Danielle Deluka
Danielle Deluka is a community librarian in the town of Paekākāriki in Kāpiti. She loves beautiful things that are free, especially the sea and the library. She studied Literature and Creative Writing at Victoria University, and reads and reviews as many books as she can, whilst sitting by the fire. Danielle writes short stories, articles about the quaintness of living, and is working on a bohemian seventies novel. She loves swimming in wild places, long walks, deep conversations over black coffee, and hanging out with her children.