The Piano Lesson

Kathy Mansfield

Photo Credit: Damien Farrell/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Damien Farrell/Flickr (CC-by)

They fell out of the back of the pickup in a jolted heap of cast-off jeans and worn out trainers, clutching half-bottles of cane spirit and dirty cartons of Chibuku beer, mostly empty now, filling the air with forced laughter. One had a tinny radio and a couple of them moved to the insistent beat of a township jive, their thin limbs poking into the air in some sort of time to the complicated rhythms. Without looking at the white people directly, and for Tonderai it was easier not to look after that first glance, easier to lose himself in the small sweaty mob, none of them really listening to final instructions before the big man drove away in a spray of spitting gravel, but they all knew they were there, watching from the stoep of the neat bungalow.

Nobody wanted to be the first: the first to open the inoffensive garden gate, secured only with an ordinary latch, no razor wire, no security fence. He certainly didn’t want to be the first to force himself to saunter down the short drive and up the three wooden steps to face them; the first to push their way through the front door, deliberately light a cigarette and blow smoke into their faces, drop the fading but still hot match onto the precious carpet, and start what they had talked about on the way in the back of the truck: how they would do it, the job they had been brought here for.

Tonderai, the thinnest of them, the tallest, the one whose nickname on the streets was Stick Insect, found himself first down the drive, the pack close behind, gulping down the last of the alcohol. There were two madams and in front of them, trying to be the one to face them first, an old baas—scared to death and trying not to show it—a bald head, stocky, tough looking, still some fight left him in. There were no guns.

The others were crowding round his back now—come on—just get in—what are you waiting for—ignore the old people—get past them—just get in—

He could see the women did not understand the language, but the baas did. ‘What do you want? What are you looking for? There is no land here—it’s just this garden.’

What’s he saying?—do not listen to him—the old snake—get in there—just get in.

They suddenly exploded behind him and all five of them burst across the narrow stoep and crashed into the cottage sitting room, jostling about among the old furniture, caught in the light of the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows, the distant purple of the Nyanga mountains looking like a poster Tonderai had seen once in a travel agent shop in Harare. He’d never dreamed he would one day find himself in this place, where the big people come for their holidays and yet here he was, pressed against the view while the others crowded about and sorted themselves out. They remembered their plans and lit their cigarettes, and dropped their matches and blew their smoke.

The white people followed them inside, the two women both held a hand up to their chests, clutching at their hearts; he had seen his mother stand like that with his grandmother at home, waiting to be told of another calamity about to fall around them, like the day the headmaster had sent home all the children whose school fees were unpaid. After some pushing and shoving and throwing cushions on the polished floor, the others sprawled in unaccustomed armchairs, two of them spread-legged on an ancient sofa, letting ash fall, tossing their empty cartons on the floor, not quite sure what next, leaving it to him to tell them what the boss had told them to say.

‘You have to get out of this place, baas.’

‘What do you mean? Who are you?’

‘We are here on the business of Comrade Mutasa. He is the one that sent us.’

‘But what do you mean? He was here last week and we heard he was to take the property at the end of the road. Nobody mentioned this one.’

Tonderai knew nothing of the ins and outs of the Comrade’s decisions, just that this property was now on his list and his boys were here to make sure the baas and his family left. They had twenty-four hours to pack and leave.

It wasn’t as bad as he expected: the man turned to his women and explained in English and only one of them burst out crying. He could see they were sisters, same grey eyes and pointed noses, he’d grown up seeing women like them on the streets of Harare, stepping into the fancy shops on First Street—Barbours, Greatermans—never a hesitation. The one who didn’t cry, the wife, remained steady, a homely face, like his mother in a way, her eyes gazing wide at him without a flicker, her hand still on her heart. The husband did not remain calm.

‘What the hell’s the matter with you people? Haven’t you taken enough from us already? We’ve nothing left. Where do you think we can go?’

‘Bill, that’s enough. These boys can’t do anything about it. Get the suitcases. The packing cases are out in the garage.’

He had been told this couple had been chased away from their fruit farm two years ago, and were used to it, so Tonderai wasn’t surprised they would just get ready and go. The boss man had said they were old, that five of them would be enough to scare them off; there would not be any fight in them. The others shifted themselves up and out of the comfortable furniture now the talking was over and it was all settled, and set off prowling round the room, shouting at each other to look at this crazy picture of white men in red suits on horses, or that pot thing in the shape of a fat man’s face with ears for handles. The Shona rang out, clattering among the teak shelves and beloved mementos—more fragile now than they had been for generations. They moved through the kitchen, banging down a pan or two as they passed, thought about smashing cups and plates from the counter top, but couldn’t bring themselves to follow through—the waste.

They marauded through to the bedroom part of the house, peering in at a small bathroom, too luxurious with its hot and cold taps and white rolls of toilet paper stacked high on a shelf. One of the boys seemed unable to help himself and strode in, turning on both taps, taking the round pink soap that matched the towels, holding it in his palms under the hot water, feeling the silky heat of it through the suds. He turned and threw the soap into the bath where it fell with a loud skittering bang, marched out to join the others, leaving the water to pour, bountiful and wasted, into the sink. Tonderai wanted to tell him to turn off the tap.

They were crowding into a bedroom now, staring round at the heavy wardrobes and a double bed, neat under candlewick with a matching cushion on the pillows. A cross over the bed, crucifix paintings on more than one wall—Jesus dead in despair—photographs in frames on bedsides. The wife turned round from her dresser, watching them jostle round her room, and said to Tonderai, ‘Please get those two suitcases from the top of that wardrobe,’ and she pointed to them behind him.

His long, skinny arms easily lifted them down, dropping them noisily at her feet as the gang exploded with whistles and taunts and repetitions—please get the suitcases—please get the suitcases—please—please—the suitcases. Shouting the words to each other, falling away pushing each other, laughing away down the corridor, still pumped up by the alcohol.

Then they found the television and collapsed in front of a football match—Sunday afternoon, there was always a football match. The white people went about their business: books were collected from shelves, ornaments and Jesus pictures disappeared into tissue paper and boxes, curtains were unhooked as the afternoon slid away and the boys slumbered in drink.

Tonderai felt a hand on his shoulder, soft, shaking him. He snapped awake and to his feet, glaring at her. ‘Are you hungry?’ His mother’s face. ‘We’ve cooked sadza for you and your friends.’

He kicked their ankles and told them—the Madam has cooked food for us. They woke and strolled outside into the garden, pissing away the alcohol, and then remembered the bathroom and the pink soap and hot water, but she had a tin bowl and a jug to pour over their hands, in their own way of washing before they sat at the table, the plates they had not smashed in front of them and she and her sister served the sadza and plenty of good goat stew. They were as ravenous as they always were, but ate neatly with their washed hands and didn’t speak until there was none left, and then there were big tin mugs of sweet Tanganda tea. Full, they stood and thanked her, clapping hands as the men do, polite now, and trying not to be ashamed.

‘Where is the baas?’ he asked.

‘He is still packing.’

The others went out into the twilight, sitting on the floor of the stoep, backs against the house wall, smoking, picking teeth, and murmuring now and then, as if they were interested, about the football scores for Dynamos this season. But mostly they were quiet. Tonderai went back into the sitting room, couldn’t sit down but moved between the pieces of furniture round the room, touching, feeling solidity with his fingers.

‘How will you take this furniture, Madam?’

‘We have a friend with a truck. The baas called him. He will help us. He’s done it before.’ She moved round him to empty a small bookcase. ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ Standing there, holding some photographs in their frames to her chest.

‘We have nothing to do, Madam. I am in Harare doing nothing every day. There is no work for us.’

‘But why this?’

He shrugged, ‘We were at the market. Those two youngest boys—they were selling airtime, and that other tall one he is my friend Julius, him and me were making a plan to get vegetables from Mbare market and sell to the white ladies in Avondale. But our problem was we had no money. That other one, with the dark complexion, I do not know him. He was just there when the boss came to us.’

The pickup had stopped and they were called over, offered beer and cane spirit and thirty dollars each, US dollars, given instructions by somebody it was better not to ask questions of and driven the three hours there and then, out of Harare, here to the Highlands, and off-loaded at her gate. ‘I finished Form Five Madam, and still I have nothing for my mother.’

‘You did your ‘O’ levels?’

‘Yes Madam. I got my English and Shona and Maths.’

‘You should get a job with qualifications like that.’

‘There is no work, Madam. The factories are closing everywhere.’

His nervy wanderings took him to the piano in the corner: high polish, beloved, tuned and much used. His hands moved onto the white and black keys, the way he’d seen keyboard players do it in dance halls, but when he did it now, jarring them down, the noise was ugly and meaningless.

‘Here, let me show you.’ She sat down, moved her hands and something beautiful floated out into the quiet room. ‘Sit here.’ She patted the stool and moved to make space for him at her side and he could smell the pink soap of her as he sat. She showed him how to hold his long-fingered hands to crouch over the notes, their thighs touching through the fabric of her skirt and his threadbare jeans.

She explained there were only seven notes, repeated over and over along the long length of the keys, and let him press them and hear the octaves change. She showed him how to find middle C, and called it The Cat and showed him the patterns of the black and white notes and they found all the Cats on the keyboard, always the same distance of eight notes apart. After C, next to it came note D—The Dog, with its two black notes looking like dog ears, close together, then The Elephant, E, always next to The Dog. After that The Frog and then The Giraffe, and Ant and finally The Bear. Then the animals all started again: C< D< E< F< G < A< B always in the same order, living in the notes and working with each other, not so mysterious as a piano had always seemed. He pressed the notes and repeated their names, easy to remember the animals in a line following each other.

‘What is your name?’

‘My name is Tonderai Chiyangwa, Madam.’ He wouldn’t dream of asking hers.

‘Watch carefully now, Tonderai.’ Her skillful fingers spread wide across the animals and she sang the Happy Birthday song, with his name, very quietly. ‘You try.’

He couldn’t get it at first, fingers not obeying, animals not in the right order.

‘Relax. Try again.’ She took hold of his hands with their dirty fingernails and laid them gently where they should be to start off, finding the D and the A notes. ’Like this.’ And this time it sounded like it, the tune he heard sometimes dropping out of cafes in Harare when the waiters gathered round with a sparkler firework on a cake, singing to some happy customer surrounded by a celebrating family.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Tonderai jumped up as if the piano stool had suddenly caught fire, backing away from the white baas, advancing across the room. ‘What in hell’s name are you doing, Clara?’

The shouting brought everybody piling into the room, crowding towards Tonderai, not sure what was happening.

Clara looked down at her hands, resting on the keys, ‘I was giving Tonderai a piano lesson.’ The baas snatched up a last photo, a large one in a silver frame from the top of the piano.

‘That’s Robbie’s piano! For Christ’s sake how can you do that?’

Everybody waited for her, looked at her sitting alone in the corner of the room on the piano stool, her hands still spread over the keys, hearing her breathing almost.

‘It’s exactly for His sake. He has His reasons for everything served on us. Look at him—they would be the same age.’

‘What’s got into you, Clara? A street boy… a… a terrorist, forcing us out of our home. How can you mention our Robbie in the same breath?’

‘Give me the photo, Bill.’ She held out her hand, swiveling round to face her husband and take it from him.

‘See.’ She held it out to Tonderai—a photo of a tall young man, face almost hidden under a crash helmet, straggling legs astride his motor bike, careless, laughing at his mother’s anxiety before setting out to ride his bike on the country’s potholed roads.

That night the boys bedded down together on the rugs in the sitting room, wrapped in the family’s blankets. They heard the Madam playing hymns on the piano each time one of them rolled over; Tonderai shushed any of them who complained and they listened to the music softly there, playing the familiar church tunes they had grown up with, hearing her small voice singing praises to her God. The next morning she and the sister fed them soft porridge with as much sugar as each wanted and as they were getting themselves up from the table she asked them, ’Will you accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour?’ They all looked at each other without speaking and Tonderai knew what would happen. Each one of them agreed. Yes, madam, they would. They fell to their knees on the hard stone floor and closed their eyes as she stood over them and blessed them, her silent sister by her side.

Tonderai asked her, ‘If I see you in Harare, Madam, will you know me? After this?’

Then they carried out the instructions of the white baas to pack the vehicles with the boxes and furniture and suitcases exactly the way he wanted. The piano was the last item to be lifted and fixed securely with ropes and cardboard. And when the family left they sat in the shade on the steps smoking the last of their cigarettes, waiting for the Comrade to come from Harare to take them back to the streets they had come from.

pencilKathy Mansfield is a Brit, living in the UK now, who has spent her professional life working mostly in African countries. She writes about ordinary people living in sometimes extraordinary circumstances in these countries, though not about stereotypical ‘African’ tragedies: famine, war, destitution—plenty of people write about these issues. She writes about the other Africa: a complex, energetic, and optimistic continent of fifty-four very different countries. Her current project is a collection of short stories set in the context of Zimbabwe. “The Piano Teacher” tries to explore some of the human interactions and complexities that lie behind the headlines. Email: kathymh18[at]

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