LATEST WINNER: THE OTHER PIANIST

By David Allard

David says:  Inspiration comes from small, observed scenes and then imagination takes over – if good fortune is there. I am from North London and write poems, short stories and am completing a novel. Editing, ah, what’s not to love.

“Ya know, I always hated that Polanski film, the horrible film with Ade Brody looking so miserable. It was kinda one note, ya know. I mean, OK, he survived, that is to say, his character survived while so many others perished, but really? Isn’t life too short for such endooring sorrow?” 

Schneider pauses and takes another sip of the 20 year old malt, trying not to slurp. He places the drink on the bench within easy reach and lets his fingers move randomly, hovering a bare inch or two above the keyboard. 

Schneider’s suit is well worn, the seat of his pants shiny. A button on the left cuff hangs loose. He has a short-sleeved shirt beneath the suit but prefers not to expose his arms. He has always wanted to make sure to flip the tails of his jacket over the bench as he sits down, but this evening he has forgotten.

The blood-red light suffusing the Jerusalem YMCA opposite the hotel, saturating its beige stone, catches his eye through the picture window. He stops breathing for several seconds, mesmerised. If he steps outside now, the air will be magical, liquid and lightened by the sweet, sad smell of pine cones.

The street outside is quiet; the roar of evening traffic still to come. 

“I am surprised, Stephen, that you watched the film, with your family history.” It is a familiar, honeyed voice, with the faintest of accents.

Hakim always comes over for a chat at this time; the hotel dining-room is spick and span and ready for the evening meal, but the meal itself is an hour away.

The 20 year old malt is his weekly gift to Schneider; a tribute to a different kind of loss to his own.

“Hakim, it’s history. Where I come from, history is for celluloid, ya know?”

Hakim doesn’t know, and raises an eyebrow. It is a useful device when faced with difficult diners, of which there are too many.

Schneider probably deserves better than that, as he never asks for anything.

“What? I never told ya? I’m a Californian. L.A., man. Home of Hollywood. “

He plays a few chords and half-sings, half-chants:

All the leaves are brown/And the sky is grey/I went for a walk/On a winter’s day . . .”

His voice is croaky by the end of the stanza.

“Mr Schneider, do you still smoke so much?”

“Sure, why not. Hey, you only die once, Hakim. Don’t you have any vices yourself?”

He does not wait for Hakim’s answer; plays a few gentle, rippling chords and begins to sing again:

You only live twice, or so it seems/One life for yourself and one for your dreams.” 

He looks up at Hakim who is adjusting his bow-tie minutely. Hakim, as always, is impeccably dressed..

“Lemme repeat myself: don’t you have any vices?”

Hakim gives Schneider his most charming smile.

“For myself, no, I can honestly say, but our people have always liked feuds, sometimes war.” Hakim paused. “But your people? They have come to war recently, and love war greatly.”

Schneider shrugs. “I guess you’re right. Once you start dishing it out, instead of being on the receiving end, it gets to be a habit. We’ve always had feuds though. We call them family get-togethers. Friday night meals, Passover, whenever, whatever.”

“Ah yes. A family gathering. That we share, for sure.”

Stephen Schneider takes a burgundy dust cover from the top of the piano, and lays it reverently across the ivory keys. Getting up, he feels his knee joints crackle and winces. He checks the sofas and chairs scattered around low tables in the reception area.

“No-one yet, Hakim.”

“The first couples will be along soon. Why do you always mention this, Mr Schneider?”

“Oh, I like to watch and imagine that it’s my Deborah who is there and she is meeting someone nice, a good boy with a kind heart.”

“Is that possible?”

Stephen Schneider shakes his head, and grins.

“Of course it’s poss – i – ble,” he said, dragging out the syllables. “The Almighty might intervene. That’s possible, isn’t it? No more of that Esalen bullshit.”

“Of course.” Hakim echoes, and grasps Schneider’s wrist for a moment, calming the hand’s tremor. “Pardon me for asking, but what is S L N, please?”

“Ach, California dreaming. Self-realisation. You shouldn’t know from such an abomination. Navel-gazing.”

Hakim looks away. He has no idea what Schneider means and wonders how quickly he can get away, while showing the due respect and courtesy the pianist deserves, however cranky he is becoming. He looks back when Schneider tugs on his sleeve. 

“Hey, Hakim, lookie lookie. The first couple is arriving.”

It is true. Carefully walking a few feet apart, two young Orthodox Jerusalemites have entered the hotel, in full public view.

“Ya know, it beats me.” Schneider is speaking in a stage whisper now: “If the matchmaking works, they won’t even hold hands before they get hitched. That gets me every time.”

“It was the same for my wife and myself before we got married.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.’

Hakim has told him the same thing at least twice before but Schneider is, in one sense, a hotel guest so he does not correct Schneider.

“Let us observe then,” says Hakim. “I will top up your whisky in a minute.”

The couple has sat down. The man is leaning forward across a low black table, his hands waving; he has removed his broad-rimmed black hat, exposing the skullcap beneath, also black.  

The young woman sits opposite him, as is customary. Her arms, tightly folded, rest on a large handbag and she sits well back in the high-backed armchair. Her thin face is rigid yet watchful, a parody of paying attention.

“Not good, not good,” says Schneider. “He looks the boastful type to me. Just talking about himself.”

“She will take a phone call in ten minutes and leave. I have seen her do this last week.”

“Are you sure? I haven’t seen her before.’

“It was later in the evening. You were playing your medley from South Pacific. Your eyes were shut.”

“Two old voyeurs.” Schneider walks beside Hakim to the hotel bar, his back just a little more hunched than a week earlier.