Page 16 - WTP VOl. VIII #7
P. 16

 It crawled out of the opened box; the two outer clasps undone. It sniffed nervously around our feet, produced a small stool, then attempted to scuttle back inside its protective shell. A woman’s stamping foot barred it from doing so. This was my first time ever seeing one. The woman selling it refused to open the inner clasps: it should remain muzzled while we bargained. So, for a few minutes we all stared in mute fascination at its scratchy frightened movements.
The shiny leather straps and opalescent effect of the bodywork made a deeply unpleasant first impres- sion on me. There was that cold feeling in the gut, of potential exposure to the unknown. I was a boy who liked to go unnoticed. This instrument would require a commitment, an undertaking, an approach even, towards something beyond me; it would create not so great expectations.
Our attempted wrangle was from a woman who had reached the end of her tether with the instrument. ‘Her nerves must have been at her’ was how she was later described by my father to our extended family. She was chain smoking cigarettes, with brown stubby fingers belonging to a blue-veined, shaky hand. The instru- ment’s asking price was next to nothing. Her desire was to part ways with it on favourable terms. My father wouldn’t even give her the pittance she was asking for. He shook his head and walked away. It had all been a waste of his time. Her response was to light another cigarette and shrug her shoulders. More like a waste of her time. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. No deal was likely to happen while they were both so angry by all the time that had been so egregiously wasted.
Of course I was too young then to understand that this wordless terse struggle was all just part of the bargaining dance. All part of the preordained moves of undervaluing and running into the ground the item that you secretly desire and on her part the take-it or leave-it shrug of shoulders about a thing you desper- ately want to get rid of. I did not know the steps, and yet was dragged, kicking and screaming, out onto the dancefloor when my father told me to give it a try on for size, at the very least. To see if I even liked it. As if liking it had anything to do with anything. As if liking it made a blind bit of difference to a man blinded with grand notions, a man who had already decided that his son would gain mastery of this instrument for the greater glory of our family name.
To appease him, the seller reluctantly strapped me into the instrument and the leather fastenings were
pulled taut across my back, the tightening of each one with the ache of leather, pushing the air out of my lungs in a protracted wheeze. Across both shoul- ders and over the back of my right hand every strap was tightened and strained with the full force of an angry and humiliated stranger. It was like an ortho- paedic attachment by the time she’d fully secured me to it. I could barely breathe with it strapped on to my chest, my thin lanky frame sagged forward, under its astonishing weight.
‘Play something there,’ said my father.
Never having touched one before, I didn’t know where to start, I mean there were keys on one side and buttons on the other. So many keys and so many buttons. There was too much to choose from. So, he shoved my elbow. Nothing happened. The woman had to undo the two inner clasps. Then he shoved my elbow again so that I pressed down on one white key and keeping it depressed the entire time, opened out the instrument as far as it would go like a peacock’s tail—then pulled it all back inwards again in one long continuous groaning dirge of ear-splitting honk. My father’s face decompressed into the shape of a singular pained rictus grin; the woman began to dry retch until she developed a self-sustaining coughing fit that turned her face puce, and as for me; I caught a bout of painfully elaborate hiccups that lasted for the rest of the day.
It was in that first desperate honk of the instrument that I knew with absolute conviction that I would never in my lifetime produce a sound of any beauty with it. I knew from that very first moment of con- tact that there would be no love between us; to be truthful the instrument detested me. The instrument hated my adolescent guts. I really wanted to take
it off my shoulders, but of course the adults were arguing over the price. My hand was stuck in a place where the smaller buttons pricked me, as the edges of the bellows jostled me in the ribs, and as my back began to ache from the weight of the thing. When their eyes were averted I punched the body of the instrument and growled at it, like a dog; in retalia- tion it closed itself on my finger, trapping it painfully among the foldings. It was voicing its displeasure
at being squeezed, poked and man-handled, by an acne-covered teen with not even a whiff of underarm musicality.
Father wouldn’t listen to my protests. Instead he
The Instrument
BRian Coughlan

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