Negative Press London is excited to post the winning story of the Still/Negative Press London/Foyles short story competition. To celebrate the publication of Still, writers were invited to write a story up to 500 words, inspired by the photograph ‘The Stage (Piano)’ by Roelof Bakker.
The winning story, ‘Piano’, is written by AJ Ashworth and was selected from over one hundred submitted stories. Judge Evie Wyld said: ‘It was the voice that attracted me and Nicholas Hogg to this one. Her story is strong and understated at the same time.’
‘Piano’ is also on display at Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road until the end of November 2012.
This is not the place she thought she’d return to.
She imagined she’d be with Arthur. Strolling up the promenade as grey, northern skies broke open above them. Or lying beneath him, as he moved over her that first time – the second night of their honeymoon in a B&B in Blackpool.
Perhaps she might have returned to the births of their three children. To the first glimpse of each old face in her arms. Each a miniature Arthur, right down to the wrinkled brows and thin lips, the pale, translucent skin. All of them with long pianists’ fingers too, just like her own mother, even though none of them ever played or ever showed any interest in wanting to.
If they had, perhaps things would have been different for her. Better.
But no. Her failing mind has brought her here. To the stage of the concert hall. Standing in the wings and hidden by the curtains – those heavy ripples of yellow velvet which she would touch, if she knew she wouldn’t get her hand smacked for it.
Her mother stands just behind her, not touching but close. She can’t see her, facing towards the piano as she is, but can feel her, as if the woman is a tall, thin planet at her shoulder. Pulling on her and dark with gravity. Unaware of how she is able to draw in whoever she wants, whenever she wants them – even those she doesn’t.
There is a burst of noise from the auditorium, sudden as rain on a tin roof. The announcer looks at her his hand out towards the piano. He says her name again and then, ‘Young pianist extraordinaire’, his eyes growing wider each second she fails to move.
Finally, her mother pushes her arm. ‘Go on then,’ she says, the applause dying. ‘And don’t embarrass me.’
And she is out, beneath the hot lights, walking towards the piano. Scraping the seat out and sitting down as a sigh of air escapes from a small hole in the side of the cushion. She notices the overwhelming smell of lacquer and, then, how a tiny yellow thread from a duster has become trapped by a hairline crack in one of the keys.
‘In a grand piano,’ she recalls her mother saying during one of her lessons, ‘it’s gravity that brings the hammer to a rest after it’s hit a string. It helps you play faster.’
But when she tries to lift her hands from her lap to place them in their starting position, nothing happens. It is as if they too are being pulled down by gravity.
‘Nobody should have been left there like a sitting duck,’ her father said, later. Her mother in the mirror fussed with a curl at the back of her ear.
She’d never had another lesson after that – not from her mother, not from anyone. In all honesty, she’d probably never had the right kind of hands.
AJ Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and is a former journalist who now works in publishing. She is the winner of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize 2011 and her debut collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here was published in 2011 by Salt. This collection of short stories was also shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize and nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
A Q&A with AJ about her life as a writer will be posted here soon.