chapter one

The first thing I bought was a piano. At least in my head it was the first thing I bought, although I hadn’t actually got one yet. I would get one though. There could be no more of my allowing reality, or the excuses of reality, from stopping me. No more trying to do the sensible thing, living the continued normality, living the life that had been suffocating me. I needed to be able to express myself, to understand myself. Running away from it all, allowing my former life, my past decisions, to dictate who I was now, who I was with, what I was doing, was not an option anymore. I might have lost Alexis. My cautiousness, the hold of my previous self, might have caused me to lose the person I’d spent my lifetime not realising that I had been trying to find. My past had continued to shroud, to darken, my true being. It had prevented me from following my heart, from taking risks, from making that leap into me. My thoughts, my emotions, were a mess, and the only way I could think to make sense of them was by playing. By getting a piano and losing myself in it. By allowing my fingers to make order where my mind could not. 

It’s not that I saw my future as a pianist. As a musician, perhaps, but not as a pianist. In a sense I already was a musician, although I felt a fraud as one. I had no right, no experience, to be playing, to be performing. It wasn’t what I’d been trained for, what society deemed was destined for me. It was such contrast to my day job, where I had studied, trained and practiced for years. Years honing my skills to become an unfulfilled, frustrated expert. Years becoming the success that only everybody else saw. At times I loved my job, I felt alive. There were times when I felt I was making a difference, where I felt passionate about it. Pulling threads of ideas and thoughts together from months, or years, of work. The work of many people. Weaving those threads together and making real the picture of our understanding, delivering our story. Creating knowledge and finding purpose in the work that we did. Helping people to live their lives. But those times couldn’t sustain me through the months where I was just being. Where I was doing, but not passionate, not alive. Ten years I’d been in this job. Ten years, a lifetime. I knew it wasn’t right for me when I took the position. I knew it wasn’t me, but I thought I’d give it a go. Just for a year or two, to justify all the training I’d already done. To prove that I could do it, that I wasn’t abandoning the field because I wasn’t good enough. To prove that I wasn’t afraid to fail. 

But I knew the truth. I was afraid to fail, I was scared. That’s why I took the job, rather than taking a risk and changing path. I did what so many other people do: I surrendered to the normal. The cozy, happy, safe life. The steady job, mortgage, marriage, kids. Fitting in with convention, not taking any risks. Only living with controlled, muted excitement. The life that suffocates. Maybe it doesn’t suffocate everyone. Maybe most people like that life. The safe life, with the house, the car, the holiday. Maybe they are excited by the new cushions, the latest television show, the manicured lawn. Maybe the nightly glass of wine, the regular drunken dinner parties, thrown to prove they are still exciting, fun, alive, are enough for most people. But for me it was all suffocating. It stole my oxygen, slowly extinguished my spark. And once I was on that path, once the lethargy had started to take hold, I was engulfed in a fog. A thick, disorientating fog. I’d throw my light out, from time to time, but it would just get scattered and reflected, bouncing back to me. Blinding me, confusing and frustrating me. I knew there must be a way out. I knew I couldn’t stay trapped in this greyness forever. I both wanted, needed, to explode, and yet also I felt sedated. There was a limitless energy inside me, but the barrier to release it was immense. My lungs were filled with the blanketing fluid of dark, muting my screams and restricting my airways. The fog was heavy, viscous, unrelenting. My eyes were tired, my limbs aching. As I pushed against the grey, thick air with my hands, it would seep back through my fingers, past my arms, around my body. I’d sometimes clear enough space in front of me to get a quick gulp of clean, crisp, fresh air. Air that would momentarily revive me, give me hope. Make me believe that my life was out there. In these moments the sunlight that I knew existed, beyond the fog, was able to penetrate the gloom, illuminate the path in front of me, and give me a glimpse of potential, of what might be. But then the fog would rush back in, fill my lungs, choke me quietly. It would smother my flickering flame and send me back. Back into normal, to where I stood alone. Where I stood surrounded by ordinary people. There was no one inspiring me, challenging me, pushing me. I was engulfed by a nothingness, and it pressed so hard against me. I knew there must be an exit, that close by there must be a clearing in the fog. It must be that I’d be able to run again in the sunlight, to see the colours, to smell the world. A world that I needed to experience, and to live. But I just couldn’t find that path, I couldn’t find my escape, and so the years continued.

The music didn’t save me, or at least it wasn’t the music that first cut a path through the fog. It was an affair. Nothing that was ever going to last, nothing that was meant to be, but at the time it was filled with passion and desire. It loosened my shackles and allowed me to feel free. It gave me hope, made me alive. It let me see that there were possibilities out there, that I had the chance to change the direction of my life. I didn’t need to keep feeling normal. I could escape the fog and run free, run happy. Maybe I should have felt remorse. Maybe I should have felt guilty about my happiness. Certainly, it was sad that this was the end of our marriage, but it was sad because of the times we’d been through together. The challenges we’d shared as parents, and the joy that came from parenting as well. Yes, I’d been suffocating in my life, but we had shared happy times together as a family. We’d been parents together for years. Parents rather than partners. We had stayed together to give the children a stable, normal upbringing. The normal all children craved. The normal that allowed them to fit in, to be accepted, to not stand out from the crowd. But I knew I’d be a better parent when I was alive, when I was myself, rather than the soulless, joyless person I’d become.

I found out about the affair by accident, although I’d had my suspicions for some time. Her phone was on the kitchen worktop, sat by a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. It was always white wine. Not that I minded white, but it was some months before I drank it again. Why I felt I had to share a bottle with her rather than just getting what I wanted signified just how far my confidence had dropped. Red wine always gave her a headache, and it was romantic to share, apparently. Romantic to drink whilst watching trash on television, not talking. Just sat, not really being together, before going to bed separately. We shared a bed, but she always went up first and was asleep before I got up. That way there was no pressure, and we could continue just being. On the rare occasions we did go to bed at the same time it always ended badly, and so we kept separate, avoided the awkwardness, and just stayed as parents together.

Just as I wasn’t forced to drink white wine, I could have bought a piano. I could have just gone and got one, but she didn’t appreciate why I wanted one, or how I’d have time to play. After all, if there was time for me to waste just sitting and playing, then I had time to redecorate the bedroom, redesign the garden, and do all the household chores that just kept coming. The jobs and routine that would make us normal, make us accepted, and allow us to fit in. The things that would make us feel successful, fulfilled, and that we’d made it in life. And, of course, there was no room in our four-bedroom house, not for a piano. All of the space was filled with excuses. Even if there had been space, we didn’t have the money for a piano. Not for something unnecessary and frivolous. Money was always tight. We had a joint bank account, and the shoes, the clothes, the hair, all took precedent. Maybe I could have convinced her, or just gone and bought one, but the fog was too thick, too dense. I couldn’t make a coherent justification. I couldn’t show her my want, my passion, my need. Whenever I pleaded for her to spend less money, so that we had spare for things that really mattered, it just resulted in a fight. I was selfish, mean, tight. I was never willing to spend money, and was unable to see that what she bought was vital. That what she did enabled us to fit in and be accepted. And so I slowly gave up. I took the easy path, the path of least resistance. I gave up on us, on my life, on myself. 

My parents had owned a piano. They still had it. Still in the front room, rarely played. It wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty, but I enjoyed the sound, the touch. And the style suited my parents. It was functional, straight, low-risk. They had purchased before I was born, the year they bought their first house. It was my Dad who played. He must have felt a connection when playing the piano, in the same way I did, although I’d never talked to him about it. He had convinced my Mum to get it before they even had a washing machine, and for them at the time money was tight. So the piano must have been seen as an essential, as a way to fill a need. It’s strange to think of my Dad as passionate, but he must have been. I’m not sure what happened to that passion. His reality took over, I suppose. I remember him playing the piano occasionally, not often, as I was growing up. He’d play a piece, either from memory or by sight, but I never remember seeing him close his eyes and looking connected. It’s many years now since he’s played. I guess the connection between his emotions, his self, and the piano has gone. My Mum offered that I take the piano, that I get to use it, although I’m sure she hadn’t discussed it with him at all. I love that piano, but it feels far too personal to them for me to take it. It is part of them, and will stay in that room, where it has been for more than four decades, and will grow old with the room and with my parents.

I learnt to play on their piano, supported by lessons, all very formal. Scales and arpeggios, playing by sight. No improvisation or composition. It was very much focussed on function, on the order and timing of notes. The lessons were at my teacher’s house. I don’t remember his piano so much, except that it was a black upright, and that the feel was somewhat different to my parent’s instrument. Piano’s, like people, respond differently to touch. I found I had to attack his keys more to get a reaction, that I couldn’t use such a gentle, subtle, approach. But at home I did find I soon began to really feel the instrument. My fingers, hands, arms, body, all became an extension of the piano. My soul and emotions were transmitted through my touch and transcribed, released into the world. I’d caress the ivory, massage the keys, sing out the subtle beauty of the notes. I’d float lightly above them, skipping across the surface, kissing a song into being. And I’d push deep, forceful, and controlled, as I drove my passion through the piano. My body was the instrument as much as the keys themselves. When I really lost myself with the piano we became as one together. 

That connection and release of emotions, that purpose that I had felt when playing the piano, had faded into a distant memory over the years. My passion and confidence had been quashed by the fog, by the normal, by the loveless marriage. Finding out about the affair hadn’t been a trigger for me to buy a piano though, although in the three years since I’d often thought it would be good to get one. But I’d still had excuses that had stopped me. Where I was living was temporary and the space wasn’t right; money was tight and I was always so busy. Excuses that I’d used for years, and that I had still managed to justify to myself. It wasn’t until now that I realised that I actually did need one, that I needed a way to lose myself in my emotions and make sense of my world. I needed to stop the excuses that kept forcing themselves upon me and really, finally, find myself. I had to find my place in the world, my true being, and I needed that world to be with Alexis. 

When I found out about the affair I’d just got in from work. She was at the front door, gossiping with a neighbour. I passed her, mouthing hello, and went through to the kitchen, ignoring the wine and pouring myself a glass of water instead. The post was on the side. Just more bills. My cat pushed at my feet, hungry and impatient, and followed me closely until I went to get his food. As I put the dish down, her phone beeped. It was a message from Susan. The message was on the screen. All I had to do was look. I didn’t need to unlock the phone or search through messages. I didn’t even need to pick up the phone to read it. The message was just there, explicit and crude rather than erotic. Or at least that was my take on it at the time. I could hear, could feel, my heart beating louder, faster, and my hands became clammy. She was still busy at the door, chatting, laughing, unaware that our lives were moving towards a new chapter and that there would be no going back. I’d never heard a Susan mentioned before. The name had never come up in conversation. It didn’t seem impossible that it would be a women, after all, she had shown no interest in my body since getting pregnant with the twins. I closed the kitchen door and went back to her phone. I could have waited for her to come back in and asked for the truth, but I didn’t want to hear the lies. I picked up the phone and swiped it unlocked. The passcode had been left unactivated. Not really the sign of someone having an affair, not unless they wanted to be caught. Maybe this had been subconsciously planned. Maybe she had wanted our end as much I, without knowing, had needed it.

There were dozens of messages between her and Susan. Flicking through them quickly, my eyes darting over the words they’d written, phrases just jumped out at me. Feel so different together…so quick but feel so in love…together all the time…feel of you against me…meet up again…party on Saturday. And then it all started to click into place. I’d been at that party. It had been at the house of one of her friends. Everyone had been drunk and demonstrating just how exciting and alive they were. I had tried to join in, but had nothing in common with any of them, and so I quietly got drunk, sat at the side, as they sang, danced, talked nothing. When we walked home at the end of the night she had screamed at me. How boring I was. How rude, unfriendly. She asked, accused, why I was not more fun, not more of a laugh like the others, like Phil. She didn’t want to hear anything I said, only her own voice, her own thoughts, and so we walked the rest of the way back in silence. I paid the babysitter and we went to bed, together and alone.

And then I read the next message she’d sent to Susan. Hope Sharon’s not suspicious. Sharon, Phil’s wife. She had often flirted with Phil whilst we were all out together, and I knew it upset his wife. He was lazy, always complaining and hardly a looker, so I never really thought that there was anything going on. But it must have been bubbling on under the surface for some time, although quite when it turned into something more I didn’t know. Whenever it had started, I knew that this was the day that our marriage finally ended, although really it had been broken for a long time. The affair was just a symptom. It felt like our relationship had been waiting for this moment for some years, with neither of us willing to accept it. If I hadn’t wanted the freedom from the chains of our marriage I wouldn’t have felt relief when I found out about the affair. Relief and excitement, freedom and potential. I certainly didn’t feel devastated. I didn’t even feel hurt or betrayed. We both knew, that day, that our marriage was over, that there’d be no coming back from this. We’d got a chance to move on, to find happiness again. It felt straight away like the fog had thinned, that I was able to breath more easily. I didn’t know where the paths went, but I could see the start of them. I could see potential in my future. For the first time in years the pressure of the air around me lessened and I was finally able to release my scream. I was able to start finding myself again, to start becoming the person that I knew I was. I was able to become the type of person that I knew I needed to be, and that Alexis would see and would want to be with. The type of person who would buy the piano and make it sing. The type of person who would make the future the one that it needed it to be.

The first chapter of Caressing Lost Keys is written below.  I'd be extremely grateful for any feedback, comments or suggestions, and hope the you enjoy.

You can watch a video of a reading of a later, hotter, chapter here 


Alexander Tor