The Piano Tuner

When the war ended everybody had a hard time. Victory brought hope, but peace brought with it great pain. Many had a much harder time of it than me. I do not seek to excuse myself for my actions. To blame others and circumstances for my own wrongdoings would be a further sign of moral weakness. Many faced worse times than me yet remained upright. I only relate what follows as you instructed me to give a full account.

My father died in action on the eastern front when I was nine. My mother began work in a Field Station shortly after my birth, and I was put in the care of my Grandmother. I never met my Mother. Both of my older brothers were executed in the war. Karl had been hung for showing compassion to an enemy child that one of our officers had claimed for his pleasure. Johann had been discovered reading poetry, and was put before a firing squad.

When I was twelve the war ended. My mother had been promoted to First Class and serviced only high ranking officers, a position she maintained during the peace and regeneration period. I was told this by my Grandmother when I was fourteen. She said that my mother had always looked after me by sending money during the lean years.

My Grandmother was almost a model citizen. She was an active party member, and held an important office in the church. She brought me up as a model citizen too. I achieved top grades in the training institute, and became leader of the junior youth troop by the age of 14. But my Grandmother had a secret away from her public life, and because she did, so did I.

We lived deep within a warren of broken buildings and black wastelands. Our apartment was on the ground floor of a block that was otherwise destroyed, and we were surrounded by other crumbling and empty ruins. Hundreds of immediate neighbours lived in the high-rise crescent that towered behind us like a decaying tooth. We were also surrounded by foul stenches and even fouler sounds, against which we protected ourselves by wadding the walls and windows with thick layers of rags and  other materials. To go outside was to be assaulted by the thick stink of sewerage and rotting humanity.  The air hummed with screams, shrieks, wailing, trumpets blowing, drums beating, dreadful streams of cackling laughter, and the near permanent howling of sirens or the sharp thumping of security helicopters.  The savage, discordant bedlam never ceased, a perpetual vibration and shuddering that were thicker than gravity.

Our home  was  a cocoon, a near quietness kept fresh by the burning of incense.  There I was able to diligently pursue my studies in peace, and in almost everything I realise that I had a very priviliged upbringing. Except for one thing.

Grandmother had a piano, and she could not keep from playing it. Naturally I learned to play a little too. I knew that it was bad, and we both kept it very secret. I had no friends and no visitors ever came, but to be safe we kept the piano in a locked room.

There was a much more serious crime. Grandmother used to copy out music and supply  it to individuals across across the city. When I was old enough, aged about ten, I  became a delivery boy. Even then I knew that if I was caught I would be in very bad trouble. But after a few years I grew to love the excitement of the trips I made, and the people I met. I confess that on several occasions I visited the mansion of Perillo who was later exposed as a decadent and given a full state execution.

When I was fifteen Grandmother taught me how to tune the piano.  I enjoyed this much more than playing it. The tightening and loosening of the powerful steel strings, with intense fine attention to precise adjustment of the  tension. The beautiful light vibrations of the tuning fork against  resonanating bass chords that made my body throb. During the next year, I became totally disinterested in playing the piano and increasingly skilled at tuning it. To be honest, I was beginning to find piano music distasteful.

When I delivered  music to my customers I asked if they would like their piano tuning. I was paid well, and soon developed a network of eager customers. In order to establish a supply of spare strings and tuning pins, I would remove these from the machines of those pianists who seemed to me particularly decadent, and later denounce them to the authorities. My conscience was kept clean by this contribution to the growing health and wellbeing of the state.

Unfortunately, my Grandmother was becoming very senile. Often I was awoken by her operating the infernal machine deep into the night. I spoke sternly to her, threatened her,  deaf to her pitiful entreaties. Eventually I locked the piano and forbade her from ever playing it again. Then one night, at about three in the morning, I heard a horrible wailing noise. I went down the stairs and found my Grandmother  at the table playing an imaginary instrument, a dreadful torrent of crazy noises issuing from her deranged mouth.  Realising that her case was hopeless, over the next week I poisoned her meals. On my eighteenth birthday I came from my room and found her rigid and dead in the pose of a pianist, her wild eyes open and staring into an awful infinity of madness.  I gathered my tools and a few clothes and left my childhood home to make my way in the world.

In those days, of course, the security forces were occupied with more serious crimes than piano playing although it remained a treasonable offence and  received severe punishment if discovered. In practice, since the police and army concentrated their immediate attention upon unweeding the state of poets, philosophers and the cancerous scourge of trumpet players,  my career developed well as there was a large number of pianist deviants able to continue their neurotic behaviour relatively undisturbed. My contempt for these pathetic pockets of poison knew no limits. I continued to exploit their addiction, and felt deep satisfaction in exposing those who occupied important government positions, and presented themselves to the world as models of virtue.

At the age of 21 I had graduated First Class from initial training and was waiting to enter the Advanced Training Institute. By now I was living in one of the wonderful new apartment blocks constructed by the Party for  approved State citizens. Whenever I visited a pianist from the filthy burrow where I grew up I felt immense satisfaction that I had removed myself from the cacophonous scum of degeneracy that continued to stain our recovery.

Two factors combined to determine my future.

While trumpet playing and philosophising had been almost eliminated apart from in a few sink housing estates of semi-barbarians, the continuing prevalence of piano playing presented a problem that now required decisive intervention.  The second factor arose partly because of me.

I had denounced  a  female piano player who lived in a leafy suburban enclave of villas and mansions.  As she was a prominent and respected Party figure, I  eagerly anticipated her receiving the death sentence.  However,  she turned out to be a niece of our President, and there emerged a new approach to the problem of piano playing. An investigating committee was set up, and after three months presented a report which meant that from then on pianists were to be treated as mentally ill. From that point onwards, pianists became patients.

I  realised  then where my future lay. I graduated from the Advanced Training Institute four years later as a Psychiatrist. It was a seamless transition from my skills of fine tuning the strings of a machine to employing chemicals for delicately adjusting the diseased brains of a human being. I excelled. By the age of thirty I was respected throughout the world,  held twelve Professorships and had been appointed as State Vice President with responsibility for Mental Health and Wellbeing. My research had set in motion a cascade effect.  Once it was realised that even a trumpet player from the dregs of society could be controlled by the administration of appropriate medication,  police and military actions against moral decadence became less and less prominent. Perhaps my greatest achievement was in showing beyond doubt that not only could a patient be cured of their sickness, but that with a programme of basic training and an ongoing medication regime they could eventually take a place in decent society. The Social Inclusion project is among my proudest achievements: through it, a gratifying number of former pianists, poets, philosophers and even, though rarely, trumpet players eventually achieved the status of Citizen Third Class. This was accomplished by my introducing a moral education programme to complement the medication,  and the behavioural modification and  mental regeneration methods bear my name.

The above comments are intended as background to the events of the past two months. I repeat that I offer no mitigating circumstances. Indeed, since my behaviour falls into no accepted classification of mental illness, I fully accept that it must be considered as criminal. Should the diagnostic panel decide otherwise I shall fully comply with their verdict and willingly  submit to any agreed medication and re-education programme.  Should the matter be referred to the criminal courts I accept whatever punishment I fully deserve to receive.

To assist a decision on this, I come to the final and important part of my confession statement. You asked me to narrate my version of what happened. I will do this as honestly as I am able. It will not take long.

Two months ago I had referred to me a patient who displayed complex and enduring mental derangement. I was given to believe that the young woman was the daughter of a very prominent Vice President, and that absolute discretion must be maintained. When I read her case notes I saw that she had been allowed to play   a piano for no more than an hour a day, but  on several occasions  had been discovered playing a violin and even a clarinet. Worst of all was the horrifying episode of her mother coming across her in the garden playing a trumpet with loud and aggressive abandon. She was immediately admitted to the State Hospital. Subsequent investigations revealed a manuscript of philosophical writing  concealed  in her rifle case, and  hundreds of poems inserted into the lecture notes of her engineering course. She was sedated for a week and then prescribed an appropriate medication course which succeeded in stabilising her mood. After three weeks she was allowed home.

At first things went very well. Her mother reported that she sat in a chair by the window very quietly all day, and responded to simple requests.  The only negative symptoms were described as a very slurred voice and the production of quiet inarticulate sounds from her throat.  Unfortunately, after three weeks of being at home, her mother recognised that the noises she had been making  now had become melodic. Frightened at the implications, the mother allowed her a few minutes on the piano each day. Her condition deteriorated and she became angry and abusive if she were not allowed to play longer. The dosage of her medication was increased, and this seemed to work but ten days later it was discovered that she had procured a flute and taken to playing it in the garden shed. That was when I was asked to take over the case.

I decided to visit her at home prior to any necessary hospitalisation. As I walked up the long driveway to the mansion where she lived, the sound of piano music filtered through the trees. It occurs to me only now that I did not have my usual response of disgust. Her mother apologised profusely, said she thought that she was doing best by allowing her to play the piano as a way of reducing the danger of her doing something more serious. She said that she had sent the servants around the house and grounds to ensure there were no dangerous instruments lying around. I assured her that she had done everything for the best and asked to visit the patient.

When she opened a door, the music flooded out in a liquid light that poured in from an open french window. Her back to us, facing through the light to the sloping garden, the patient’s long blonde hair shimmered at the edges with golden sunlight. We stood listening for a minute as she danced through a fountain of notes which poured from the heart of a grand piano.  Then we moved beside her but she played on oblivious, he eyes wide and fixed on some beautiful infinity. Her mother lay a hand gently on her shoulder, and she stopped playing with a start. Seeing me, her face froze with anxiety. I calmed her, and told her who I was, and bade her mother leave us for a while.

We spoke for an hour, and I gradually gained her trust. I assured her that she would be allowed to continue playing her piano provided  that she promised not to aatempt anything bad with a pen or another instrument. As we spoke, her large green eyes began to soften and deepen to an intensity I found alarming.  Perhaps I should have heeded the alarm. When I left her, and driving home, and when I was in bed that night, I  was dreaming awake of piano music the shape of green forests and seas, and smelling of wet soil and roots. The next day, too, the music ran through my mind, impossible to stop, and I felt I must go back to her as soon as I could.

This I did the next evening, and the next, then every night, first for an hour, then for longer. Visiting sometimes in the day as well, I reduced her medication and encouraged her to talk about her problems. She became distressed that the piano was becoming out of tune. To maintain our bond I tuned it for her. She lamented  having no Chopin. I procured for her the music. Before long, I was living two lives in parallel, walking two parallel worlds. I maintained – and  I have no reason to lie about this – a perfect integrity with regard to my official work. Some people commented on how well I was looking, and I had several times to stop myself from whistling a melody, but otherwise I presented to the world a completely normal profile.

A fortnight ago I told her she was fully recovered, and  I expected that if her behaviour did not extend beyond piano playing she could expect to live a normal and active life in the future.  At the back of my mind was the idea that I could make a strong case for legalisation of piano playing under strict medical supervision as a cost effective way of  preventing relapse of very serious psychiatric conditions such as poetry.  Of course, such an idea  never became public, for on leaving her house that evening I was apprehended by police and charged with aiding and abetting the playing of piano music, and the further crime of procuring piano music. The accompanying psychiatric team sedated me according to standard procedure.

I woke in hospital a week later. Shortly afterwards you came to see me. I recognised your blonde hair and incredible green eyes immediately. You detailed my medication programme, and over the past week have conducted six therapy sessions with me. I have written all I can. I do not understand what happened or why. I do not understand my life. I do not understand my mind. I am in your hands.


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