Recording took three attempts. Nerves, a talking-piece to camera and a certain “Are we really doing this?” got in the way. But once complete and sent, it was only minutes before he’d had the first reply.
“Harry they’ll love the pieces. It will mean a lot to hear you and see you. It’s really hard with so many staff off. And we’ve lost fifteen.”
Fifteen. In a month.
Before my next thought began to appear I pushed it away, refusing to undertake the mathematics of comparison. The what might it have been anyway question.
Through the winter my son had been learning to drive so sometimes I would wait in the car for the hour’s performance to be over. Newly-painted car park bays. Damp, perfectly planted hebes. Me catching up on messages. Once or twice I’d creep into reception and chat with the ‘ents officer’-cum-caretaker and then watch him in the wide, overwarm room with the old Sunday School, out-of-tune piano. A sea of faces gazing towards the sound. I would scan for smiling eyes and tapping canes, before watching out for obstacles and frames on the way out.
For the last two years he has visited four different care homes each month to play the piano. He pitches up at a set time, chats with residents and the staff, then plays for an hour running through the pieces he’s prepared, a mixture of old and new, films and classical. They all sing along. He loves the way that music creates a genuine response, unlocking memories, seeing people who are often lonely smile and join in. But what they probably don’t appreciate is how they have played their part in his own transformation, knowing he is doing something really important. And now of course he’s not allowed in, and he misses them all. So he had put together a recording.
It’s always deep blue irises in the reception vase. Back outside towards the car, I walk past bright promises on the corporate signs promising high-quality care, themed days, chiropody, Knit and Natter. I wonder about my parents. What they’d hope for and what I’d want for them. When that time comes.
He always talks the whole way home:
“Agnes asked for the Chopin, Dad. Again. I told her I played it last week. She cackled. They loved ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Doris wants lessons. She’s 94, Dad.”
Which fifteen, I wonder. Is it the same number for each care home he plays for? I think of the families. Who will tell them. What exactly do they say? What about funerals? There will be empty spaces when Harry returns to play after all this. Men and women he knew, and I never met. There’ll be fewer wheelchairs, less shuffling, less background coughing. More upbeat chat from the key workers to cover the gaps.
After the recording I nose around the garden with the dog, looking for a bit of space. Children are playing in the garden next door. We tried to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday last week. You can’t birthday quietly. I hear giggling ripple over the fence followed, suddenly, by a proper belly laugh. I can’t remember when I last heard that.