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Kafka in Bronteland and other stories by Tamar YellinMr Applewick

a short story
by Tamar Yellin

Mr. Applewick finished dinner early and drove out to see his client. He put on his brown check suit for the occasion.

The Metro was still gleaming. It barely came out of the garage these days. Business was slowing down, but he didn't mind. It left him more time to himself.

He glanced at his image in the rear view mirror. His face was very clean, very pink. The pale blue eyes stared back at him, magnified through the thick lenses like marbles in a glass of water. His silver hair stood up very short and harsh, and when he put a hand to the back of his head there was nothing but bristles. He disliked the slight heaviness around his lips, for he did not consider himself a sensual man, but in all respects -- the tightly buttoned waistcoat, the severely knotted tie, the spotless trousers -- he was refined and harsh. He had in fact, Mr. Applewick noted with satisfaction, become what he really was.

His client lived only a short drive away, on the Moorcrofts. The address turned out to be one of those big, mock-Georgian houses without symmetry or grace, surrounded by hideous shrubs. He walked up, as always, with deliberation and without hurry, and rang the bell.

A sulky child answered the door and was swiftly removed by its mother. She fussed Mr. Applewick into the dining-room, steering his bulk around the draylon furniture and precarious knick-knacks, until they reached the object of attention.

Mr. Applewick put down his attache case and summed it up. It was a Broadwood, upright steel frame, walnut casing, probably made around 1910, after the firm had moved from Great Poulteney Street. The casing was in extremely good condition, polished to a high lustre which clashed with the oak veneer of the dining suite. It was remarkable how many people kept their pianos in the dining-room these days, where they wouldn't be a nuisance or interfere with the television.

He sat down, adjusted his seat and took possession of the instrument with a few chords. It was badly out of tune, some of the notes were sticking and strange resonances wheezed from within.

"It hasn't been played for a while," his client explained.

Mr. Applewick stood up.

"If you would mind clearing the top," he said. She hastened to do so. Mr. Applewick helped her, transferring the bric-a-brac to the table piece by piece. He had little respect for people who used their pianos as sideboards. The ornaments interfered with the resonance and even rattled when playing appassionata. But he removed them gently and would not have dreamed of showing his distaste, for he was a man of impeccable politeness.

He opened the top, put one knee on the piano stool and peered inside. The hammers needed refacing, the tapes replacing, it would want new check leathers and a general clean at least. Then, it was so long since it had been tuned that wires were liable to snap when the action was refitted.

He came off the piano stool.

"It was my mother's," the woman apologised. "I've never played it much, but now that Samantha's going to start lessons I thought we might as well -- "

Involuntarily his eyes wandered to her hands. No indeed: no-one with nails that long could be a serious pianist. He glanced up. The sulky child was peering round the dining-room door, sucking its thumb and looking none too pleased at the prospect of learning to play the Broadwood.

Mr. Applewick moved a hidden lever and the front of the piano came off. Mother and child started back in alarm.

"Oh! I didn't know you could do that," she said.

Mr. Applewick struggled under the weight of the front panel.

"If I might put this against the wall there -- " he gasped.

"Of course -- sorry -- " The woman scurried out of the way.

The piano tuner returned to his closer inspection of the interior, testing notes and examining the condition of the hammers and dampers. The inside was beautifully decorated with scrolls and leaves, now faded and dusty. There was a good deal of burnishing to be done.

"It will be a big job, an expensive job," he said at last. And he began to explain what needed doing.

"But is it worth it?" she wanted to know. "I mean -- is it a good piano?"

"Oh yes," said Mr. Applewick. "It's worth doing. I wouldn't suggest it otherwise." She did not know what a Broadwood was. He would have liked to abscond with the action.

"We'll do it, then," the woman compromised; and Mr. Applewick opened his attache case to reveal a gleaming array of tools, each lying in its own specially shaped well. He set to work removing the piano's action, taking each section out to the van, until the casing stood derelict and every footstep made a ghostly echo.

"I suggest you clean out the dust from there," Mr. Applewick said matter-of-factly, indicating the filthy ledge where the keyboard had been. The woman's face looked exactly as though she had failed to vacuum under the bed. Very gently, Mr. Applewick let down the lid, which sloped in now like lips do when the teeth are gone.

"I'll get in touch in about a fortnight," he said at the door, and gave the woman his card: A. J. Applewick, Piano Tuning and Reconditioning. (Caterer to the Musical Profession).

Mr. Applewick took the action through to the workshop at the back of his house and set it up on the bench. The workshop was a single-storey extension built by his father, with a large window overlooking the garden. The light was going now, and he switched on the fluorescent strip which drenched the white walls and threw everything -- bench, shelves, trays, tools, Mr. Applewick himself -- into high relief. Nothing was out of place, and there was not a speck of dirt. The metal trays he had fixed to the walls himself were all neatly labelled: Clip Felt, Wedge Felt, Check Leather, Loops, Tapes. A sweeping brush stood in one corner: he always swept up immediately. His cutting board was clean, his knives sharp. He never ate or drank in the workshop.

Perhaps he took things to extremes, but his was a precise, clean craft and he had his father's standards to maintain. Every element of his drill had been ingrained before the age of twenty.

Once, a long time ago, he had stepped inside an artist's studio, and been horrified at the apparent chaos: the dirty palettes lying here and there, the used rags and unwashed brushes, the half-eaten cake and festering coffee cup. He felt that nothing refined or clean could be created in such a place; and true enough, the paintings turned out to be chaotic daubs, without recognisable form and content, without, even, any recognisable talent or skill. They just broke the rules, and Mr. Applewick saw no benefit in that.

He should have waited till morning, but he had a sense of urgency about the Broadwood. It would be a big job. And he enjoyed working on it. He looked forward to seeing all the hammers fresh and firm, the springs responsive and the new tapes snapping back and forth. Even after forty years he had not lost that sense of achievement.

The first time he had finished a restoration entirely on his own he had hardly wanted to return the piano to its owner. He sat in the workshop, gazing at the fresh hammer felts which looked like the eyes on a peacock's tail, searching for any speck of dirt or adjustment still to be made, until his father came in smiling and said it was time to go. They had the Bedford then; the Moorcrofts hadn't even been built yet.

Mr. Applewick went to the window and took a look at the sky. It would be a clear night. Good. It was dark enough for the whole room to be reflected into the garden. His own face hung amongst the irises like a ghost.

He returned to the workbench, removed his heavy glasses and rubbed his eyes. Perhaps he was tired, after all, and should leave the job until morning. He laid the action face down and began unscrewing the hammers, placing them in a small box marked 'Hammers.'

A faint familiar odour of leather and glue hung in the workshop. He thought of his father, as he often did when he was at work because it often seemed to him that he was standing in his father's skin, performing his actions, wearing his expressions and even grunting the same grunts. They were of an age, now, too, and that thought gave him a little shiver.

They were both perfectionists, both of a scientific turn of mind, with a passion for order. Neither of them spoke much. In the workshop, talk consisted of: "Pass me the bushing now, please," "Set the glue on, would you?" "Steady, now, and lift!" They were always extremely polite to each other, as if in deference to the fine instruments on which they worked.

His father was religious. He believed that he had been given certain abilities by God, and no more. And so he taught his son a craftsman's pride in building pianos but a layman's humility in playing them. Mr. Applewick knew he had no musical ability. He could produce the necessary chords for testing the piano's tone and tuning; perhaps a few commonplace songs. The Knight in his living room was barely ever opened.

As he unscrewed the hammers, he thought, This Broadwood is certainly a noble thing. Mozart and Handel had played at the Broadwoods' concert hall in Great Poulteney Street and Chopin had given his last London recital there. Mr. Applewick did not care for Chopin. He admired Bach, Vivaldi and Handel. For him, elegance in music was everything. It stuck to the rules. Now that composers had broken the rules the result was chaos and it was certainly not music. Indeed it was not even composition.

Mr. Applewick often wished that he had lived in a previous century, when life was altogether more elegant, manners more courteous and customs more ornate. Either that or in the future, which had its own endless possibilities; but he certainly didn't care for the shabby little place the world was now.

In the old days, his father had subscribed to a number of educational magazines in an effort to improve himself. He had inquired into the world with a sort of wide-eyed wonder, marvelling at the works of God and man. He had the enthusiasm of a child running loose in the Garden of Eden, knowing that God has made everything for his investigation and delight.

Mr. Applewick was not religious and he knew that the garden was not only full of serpents but full of other people trampling on the flowers. He did not believe in God and he never had done and secretly he despised his father for being so naive.

When he was eleven years old he had become interested in astronomy. He saved up his pocket money and with some help from his father he managed to buy himself a second-hand telescope, a three-inch refractor which was hardly better than a pair of powerful binoculars, but it was a start all the same. He went through the usual teething troubles, leaning out of the bedroom window with no mount, going out into the frozen garden in the middle of the night with his pyjamas on, trying to make sense of over-detailed star maps by the light of a torch. But gradually he had become proficient, he kept his equipment in the garden shed and worked from there, he bought a decent tripod mount and began to learn the skies. And the more he learned the less he was able to believe in God.

His father had the exactly opposite response. Mildly impressed by his son's new avenue of knowledge, he allowed himself to be initiated, patronised and introduced to the mysteries of the tube. The boy half hoped that when he put his eye to the telescope, atheism would strike him like a revelation. Instead, Mr. Applewick senior adjusted his position, gazed long and silently, slowly panned the heavens and whispered with awe: "How many are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all."

The son could not help himself: he snatched his father by the shoulder and grabbed the telescope with a look of fury. It was the only time he showed such anger, and it was the only time his father looked through the telescope.

It had grown late. Mr. Applewick got up, switched out the light and went into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. Night hung at all the windows; he went around drawing curtains while the kettle boiled. He would not do any more work on the Broadwood tonight. Automatically he reached for his quilted jacket from the back of the kitchen door and put it on, then took his cup of tea and a biscuit into the back garden.

Just behind the workshop was a run-off shed he had built himself. Inside was a sturdy five-inch refractor on a large tripod. It was Mr. Applewick's observatory.

He pulled out a stool and balanced his cup and saucer on a nearby ledge, adjusted the telescope and began focusing it on Ursa Major. It was so cold that the bristles on the back of his head seemed to ripple. He smiled to himself. This was the moment of his reward: no-one could now enter the small circle which contained him and his telescope.

What he knew, what he had learned -- not just the constellations and the planets, but the advent of meteor showers, the existence of distant galaxies, the positions and magnitudes of almost ten thousand stars -- all this streamed within his blood like a kind of love, and revolved in his brain like a kind of hope. The limitless possibilities of the universe intoxicated him. He wished he could fast forward time and know what was to be discovered: the exploration of other worlds, the sun's death and earth's destruction, the wonderful contraction of the universe into cosmic egg and big bang and cosmic egg, the pulsating of a universe reborn over and over again, as new, with no previous knowledge. He wanted to see it all! If there was a God, he imagined Him working with a piece of clay, moulding it into a universe, then rashly impacting it once again, never satisfied with His production. But there was no such God, for not even God could survive such cataclysm.

Because he was a scientist and a lover of detail, he kept careful diaries of his observations. He had several notebooks now, immaculately written, though he did not pretend to himself that they were of any great usefulness. The useful work an amateur could do now was negligible, he accepted that. He had once met another enthusiast who wore out his eyes in a nightly hunt for comets. He yearned to discover one and have it named after him. Mr. Applewick thought the man conceited and absurd. One did not have to justify astronomy by sensationalising it.

He had, in fact, himself discovered a comet some while back. It was in the year his father died, so it was an unusual year in more ways than one. He had made his recordings conscientiously and written to the BAA. As it turned out, a mathematician had already computed its orbit and the comet was named after her instead, but whenever Mr. Applewick looked it up in the Handbook he felt an affection towards it.

The practice of astronomy, which seems so broad-sweeping and expansive, is in fact a science of tiny details and pedantic calculations. In this sense it did not sit so uncomfortably with the restoration of pianos. As Mr. Applewick measured and cut the leathers for his jacks, as he painstakingly glued each one in place, his nature was in harmony with his work. But in his mind he may well have been considering the primeval matter from which all things come, and the cosmic dust to which jacks, glue, leather and piano will ultimately return.

Whatever his thoughts just now, Mr. Applewick made a sudden movement, caught the teacup with his elbow and sent it clattering onto the concrete floor of the shed. He straightened up; all his joints were stiff with cold, and his back ached. He picked up the broken pieces of the cup, laboriously wheeled back the shed and stumbled indoors.

The next day he was up before dawn. Standing in the kitchen he sipped his tea; he would make an early start.

This morning, more than usual, he felt how his clothes were a little too tight under the arms and around the crotch, and as he ran a comb through his minimum of hair he became transfixed by his own reflection. Strange and impassive, the magnified eyes stared back at him.

He was at his bench by six o'clock. That morning he dismantled the dampers and found that during cleaning he had mislaid the tray. It was large and difficult to lose, but he could not see it anywhere. He made a careful reconnaissance of all his work surfaces; he found the hammers and levers nestling quietly where he had placed them the night before. He started to look in unlikely places; sweat prickled under his arms and on the back of his neck. Then, just as he was about to lose his temper, he found the offending tray on the floor beneath his workbench, just where he was most likely to put his feet. He could not understand how he had done anything so stupid, and picked up the tray with something like hatred.

He selected those dampers which required re-covering and began to scrape off the old felts with a knife. He was still a little angry and cut away at the felt with some ferocity. The red backing would not detach itself from the wood of this damper, but instead of fetching some methylated spirits to loosen it, he vented his frustration on it with the knife. He cut himself, and blood deepened the redness of the felt.

Among his labelled drawers were those marked 'Clip,' 'Wedge,' 'Split Wedge' and 'Parallel.' These were the four types of felt used on damper heads. He bought them ready cut from the suppliers, and had only to glue them in place.

It was something peculiarly concordant with that day, that first day, that he opened the drawer marked 'Clip' to find wedge, and the drawer marked 'Wedge' to find it full of split. He said aloud: "Someone's been messing about in my

workshop," but since it was obvious that the only person to have been in his workshop was himself, he choked on the final word and coughed.

He solved the problem very simply, by removing the labels from their metal frames and changing them round. Now all was in order once again. He took what he needed and returned to work.

He concentrated harder than usual during the glueing of the felts, checking several times that he was fixing the correct type to the correct head, ensuring that no glue dripped where it was not wanted. The day was getting on by the time he finished and he realised that he had not eaten. He would leave the dampers to dry and go and get a bite to eat.

It was odd, however, that despite having counted carefully, he now found that he had one wedge felt left over. He hunted the workbench and tray to see if there was a stray damper anywhere. But it seemed that he had accidentally brought over an extra felt, so he would just have to pop it in the drawer and go for some lunch.

Now he found that the drawer marked 'Wedge' contained clip; opening the drawer marked 'Split' he found it full of wedge. The Parallel drawer held split and the Clip drawer parallel -- in fact, all the drawers were as they had been before someone had changed the labels round. Mr. Applewick began to suspect some kind of jinx was on. He grew cunning. This time he changed the labels back stealthily, then made as if to walk away. Next he wheeled round and tore open the drawers, half-expecting to catch them in the act of transferring their contents. All were exactly as he had left them. He stared into them for a few moments, his eyes huge and watchful behind their thick glasses, then slowly pushed the drawers shut with his fingertips. He left the room backwards, almost swaggering, and shouted aloud, as if to some unseen presence: "I'm going to finish this job if it's the last thing I do!"

He did no more work that day.

From that time on, battle was engaged. The glue pot would fall to the floor and need wiping up; he would cut a piece of bushing wrongly and it would tear out of true. He seemed unable to tie a knot in a piece of string or to smooth out a length of tape. Impatience brought more mistakes. He broke the head off a rusty screw when he tried to force it with his screwdriver, and scorched himself with the casting lamp when he was loosening the tail.

A few moments of peace came with the burnishing of the jacks. With a piece of check felt and some black lead, Mr. Applewick felt once more in possession of his territory. He was making the Broadwood shine, and a burst of love passed through him. He was saving it from decay; he was saving himself from decay. In effect they were serving each other.

His nights he spent in observing the stars. He tried to imprint their discipline on his disordered brain. Yet it seemed to him that all the stars were speeding away from him at tremendous velocities, leaving him alone, a mere fragment of life circling a doomed sun.

This was strange, because the universe had always seemed a friendly place to him, with its rules and regulations. Only now, it began to seem rather impersonal, and for the first time in his life he felt lonely.

Back in the fifties, when the Russians launched Sputnik and cars had rocket fins, there had been a girl called Eileen who lent him science fiction and listened to Bach. They went to the pictures together and exchanged ideas on the future of the universe. At one time they had almost been engaged, but he had broken it off. He returned the books. He blotted out books, films and Eileen from his mind.

Mr. Applewick had no memory of love.

He sat alone in the middle of the night with his telescope, his workshop and the Broadwood, and the stars were all racing away from him.

Sixteen days later he was ready to return the action to its casing. Mr. Applewick took a bath and put on a clean shirt. He fitted himself into his brown check suit and his shiny shoes. He felt sweet.

It was exactly six o'clock when he rang the bell of the asymmetric house.

"Ah! Mr. Applewick. I'm so glad you've come to put the innards back in this thing. Every time you walk past it echoes as if it's got a ghost."

Mr. Applewick got down to work. Not a sound came from the rest of the house. Not so much as a cup of tea appeared. When he began tuning a dog started to howl somewhere in the distance, but that was all.

While he was tightening the strings one snapped with a sound like a bullet. Mr. Applewick put a hand to his heart. No blood. A terror was growing inside him. When all was reassembled and tuned and he began to play, perhaps the Broadwood would produce a cacophony, a travesty of music, exposing the chaos within him? Perhaps he had botched the entire job, made a farrago of the Broadwood's insides, something that could never function?

As he sat down to play the regulation chords his fingers trembled. He closed his eyes. The chords rippled out. He worked his way up the scale. It was a beautiful instrument. He had restored it.

Mr. Applewick began to play one of the tawdry songs which were the only pieces he knew. He longed to be able to draw something meaningful from the throat of the instrument.

Hearing the music, his client dared to re-enter the dining-room.

"That does sound good. What a difference!" She hovered behind him. "Are you all right?" For Mr. Applewick looked ill.

Mr. Applewick closed the top for the last time and invited his client to try it out.

"Oh -- well -- I don't think -- !" She sat down stiffly and played a few wandering notes with one hand.

"Yes -- oh, yes, that's fine. That's lovely, thank you." She got up quickly. "I suppose it'll want tuning every so often?"

"Well, regular tuning does retard deterioration of the action. You see -- " He began to explain why, speaking slowly and using terms she did not understand.

"How often, then?" she asked impatiently.

Mr. Applewick regarded the Broadwood with a mixture of sadness and affection.

"I wouldn't leave it longer than a year," he said at last.

When Mr. Applewick was found, cold in his bed, an examination of the house was made to rule out any possibility of accident or foul play.

The house was in a dirty state, and the soiled linen in the bathroom spilled over the floor. The kitchen sink was full of unwashed dishes and a thick odour of rotting vegetables hung about the downstairs rooms. The shelves held worn piano makers' manuals, bound copies of educational magazines and dusty piles of astronomical journals, star charts and calendars.

The workshop itself appeared to be the domain of an untidy and disorganised man: the floor and work surfaces were covered in odds and ends, tools lay scattered and dangerously concealed, drawers were torn half-open, their contents spilling onto the floor. Spiders had woven their webs in every corner, and the once beautiful felts and leathers were full of moth and mildew. All inside was confusion, chaos and decay; while outside in the overgrown garden, the run-off shed when pushed back revealed, rusted to its tripod, an old telescope with a broken lens.

© Tamar Yellin 2006.
This story also appears in the collection Kafka in Brontëland and Other Stories.

Tamar Yellin's first collection Kafka in Brontëland and Other Stories was published in February 2006 by Toby Press; ISBN: 1592641539.
Kafka in Bronteland and other stories by Tamar Yellin

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