He first saw her behind a slanted chair, on an afternoon when the wind blew the trees so violently he thought the world was ending. She had spilt boiling water from a small emerald teapot over the café table. Having attempted to mop it up with one white serviette, it had resulted in a soggy bundle of paper left on the saucer and a pool of water around her teacup. When a waiter came around moments later to ask her if she wanted him to clean the table, she didn’t respond, instead staring out the window with her teacup between her hands.
He found himself at her apartment three months later with a ladder and a tool belt. He could see her waiting on the sofa through the front window. A pot of tea at her side, an open book in her lap. He knocked and she opened the door with the wide eyes of a child.
‘Alison, I’m Daniel. You have a light fixture that needs installing?’ She didn’t say anything, just smiled softly and stood by the door, pushing it back until it rested flat against the wall, waiting for him to let himself in. A white cat lingered by the far wall, the soft hairs of its coat floating up towards the light as it ran towards the back door. He stepped inside.
‘Have you been cooking?’ he asked. Ginger and cardamom hung sweetly in the air. She shut the front door and began to walk back through the house, gently, as if trying not to disturb something within. He was careful with the stepladder, terrified of breaking the small decorative teacups she had in cabinets and side tables. She paused in the kitchen, and he opened his mouth to swallow the rich fragrance of roasted spices. Reaching up to get a mug from the top cupboard, her stomach pushed against the kitchen counter and he noticed she was barefoot, her toes pointed to the ground as she lifted one leg to reach further. There was something boiling on the stove. She lifted a saucepan and poured a milky liquid into the mug. She walked to him, held it in front of his chest.
‘Chai,’ she said, so quietly that he had to lean in close towards her, just catching the ai to understand what she had said.
‘Thank you.’ He took it from her and blew across the top of the mug. He dipped a finger in, pulled the milk skin to the side of the cup and drank. The summer winds hit the weatherboard. He was reminded of England and its cliffs. The feeling of falling as the atmosphere the wind brought tightened around his chest. Of staring out across the ocean, longing for moments to come back to him. For someone to come back.
He watched as she wiped the bench with a cloth, cupping a hand underneath to catch the small crumbs on the surface. She rinsed it underneath the tap and then folded it twice, leaving it on the counter. Ginger stung the back of his tongue. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt he could not speak around her, felt he might break her if he did. The size of her astounded him. Her waist the size of one of his thighs. As she led him to the back room, she looked weightless, like the whisper of a body.
He saw the piano in the back room immediately.
‘You play?’ he said, edging towards it. The piano was positioned in the corner of the room, pressed up against a faded blue wall, beside a large bare window. The sky was reflected in the keys. Specks of dust settled on the edge of the wood and as he walked towards it, they flew into the air momentarily. She didn’t respond, instead pointing to a globe suspended from the ceiling. He suddenly noticed how dim the rest of the room was. She pulled a light fixture from a box on a side table and held it towards him proudly, like she was giving him a piece of herself. It looked like a flower in bloom. A lead carving of stem and leaves holding the petals of the globe.
‘This will look beautiful in here.’ He smiled. He noticed that she watched his lips intently as he spoke, and became self-conscious of the way he moved his mouth, his tongue. He put the fixture down.
‘Won’t take long,’ he said. As he set up the ladder, she left without making a sound. He stared at the piano again, wanting to play it. Wanting nothing more.
He had learnt to play the piano for someone once. She had loved Tchaikovsky. He had learned all twelve months of The Seasons. He would play them in order, over and over as if counting down to some unknown moment of consequence. There was something about “October” that he loved. She had joked that it was because he was an October baby, but he knew it wasn’t that. He sensed himself inside it. And he knew it now more than before. It was the deep slow sadness of having lost so many things combined with a fragile melody rising towards forgetting it all.
Up on the ladder, he inspected the globe. The delicate wires inside were broken and he wanted to ask her how long the room had been left in the dark. She appeared beneath him, holding the light fixture up towards him, the cat at her feet. The bones in her shoulders protruded out from her skin and he wondered at its elasticity. Taking it from her, he steadied his feet. He began to secure it to the ceiling, looking down at her occasionally to see that she was never really looking at him, but at his hands moving and contorting.
‘I saw you in a cafe a few months ago,’ he said, quietly. The cat jumped around the room following the reflection his watch made across the walls. She continued to watch him, and he burned with embarrassment. Before he had even finished, she was at the light switch. When she turned it on, her eyes suddenly became amber and the room glowed, and a golden light cast across the smooth wooden surface of the piano. He stepped down and reached out towards it.
Someone had once told him that time was the only indicator of love. In the moments when it felt like it slowed, watching the movement of someone’s body. The crossing and unfolding of legs, the motion of teeth biting a bottom lip. Or in the moments when it rushed by, tracing the outline of their face at 4am, forgetting the hours passed. So far, he had only ever found it in the moments of waiting and how minutes felt like years. In England he couldn’t wait any longer. Holding himself against the wind, he told himself he needed to go home. In Australia, the wind didn’t feel like ice.
‘Forgot my invoice book,’ he said, turning back around to face her. He moved quickly through the house, his shoulders high, ready to brace himself against the gale outside. He tipped out bags full of papers into his ute before finding the book. Through the window of his car, he stopped momentarily to watch some children playing on the other side of the street. The fall of day cast a coral sunlight across the houses. He looked back at her house. She was stood by the window, watching the horizon too.
The cat was waiting for him at the doorstep. He walked back to the house, picking the animal up as he stepped inside. The dying wind licked at the edges of the door as he shut it. He carried the cat to the kitchen, and placed it on the floor. While he wrote out her invoice, it weaved through his legs, purring and biting softly at his jeans.
‘All done,’ he said as she moved around to the other side of the bench. She silently mouthed his words back to him.
‘You can’t hear, can you?’ Her hands were pressed against the kitchen bench. Her knuckles red, fingers trying to dig into the marble. The cat continued purring as they both stood there in silence. He looked back over the invoice and folded it up, sliding it inside his back pocket. On the back of a blank invoice he wrote, ‘Can I play you something?’
As he led her down the hall, a golden light glowed from the back room. It reminded him of the Australian sunset, of amber light casting crimson hues ablaze across dry mountains. The view from the plane as he looked down upon the vast sands of this red country to which he was now glad to have returned.
He sat on the piano stool and rested his fingers on the keys. The contours of the black against the white, a touch he hadn’t felt for so long. She placed her hand over the lid of the piano. He began to play and the hammers hit tiny vibrations into every part of her. He played “October”. They didn’t speak. And for some reason, he began to forget all of the days that had come before.
Image: Laura D’Allesandro
Elsie Mellor is a piano teacher and writer from Victoria. She prefers the old Romantic’s approach of holding a well-loved book and writing by hand, and is currently penning her first novel.