This is Where I Gave up the Piano, a short story by John Miskelly
Illustration by Abdul Vas
Josh took another swig of beer and felt a familiar serpentine wave of something ascend from his guts to his throat and slither back down just in the nick of time. He placed the glass back on the table slick with a film of spilt booze.
“I think I’m done here,” he announced to the pub in general, his voice a muffled speck in the cloaking hubbub of drinkers, an hour short of closing time.
“Can you manage another half pint?” said Malcolm, going to drain the last of his own pint, only to be shunted from behind by the buttocks of a large middle-aged man and spill the final mouthful down his jumper.
“Fuck’s sake,” he muttered, pawing pointlessly at the stain of damp.
“Language please, Mister Ebleton.”
Malcolm swiveled on his stool and looked up at a familiar face from his past.
“Sorry sir,” said Malcolm, straightening up on his stool, and then just as suddenly shrinking into himself, an expression of resentful confusion on his face, as if his voice had been hi-jacked and used against his will.
“Not a problem, Malcolm. Well, not my problem these days, anyway,” said Mr. Finnigan.
To Josh’s side, a slumped figure in a too-big parka gave a lurch and a laugh. Josh grabbed Brendan’s shoulder and gave it a brisk shake.
“I think he’s a bit… under the weather,” offered Josh.
The pub in question, preceding as it did by roughly two hundred years the contemporary trend for open-plan architecture, was a network of low-ceilinged nooks and crannies connected by a series of narrow passages. Mr. Finnigan, a large man, thought better of attempting to squeeze between a wall and a newly arrived trio of drinkers. When a fourth woman arrived and greeted the trio with the type of hugs and platitudes and “when did you get back into town?”s that didn’t suggest any kind of moving on any time soon, the burden of more small talk seemed too imminent to avoid.
Mr. Finnigan cleared his throat. “Christ. Crowded in here isn’t it?”
“Tis’ the season!” bellowed Brendan, too loudly and swinging his arms open with such abandon that he knocked a wreath and three reindeer ornaments off the wall behind him.
So remind me where you three all ended up?” said Mister Finnigan.
“I’m living in Manchester,” said Malcolm, still having to twist awkwardly in his stool to look at his old teacher.
“Brighton,” Brendan managed.
“I’m just about hanging on in London,” said Josh.
“Good,” said Mr. Finnigan, sounding satisfied. “Good to get out of the Shires and put a few hours between you and home. This can be a bit of a boomerang town, you know. What year did you leave the old place? 2006? Suppose you’re firmly on the career ladder these days?”
Brendan made his feelings clear with something between a raspberry and a guffaw and an expletive.
“Certainly trying to, Mr. Finnigan, onwards and upwards, saving up for the deposit on a house,” said Josh, grimacing even as he said it.
There was a polite commotion in the table next to them as a party of five left and the four newly acquainted women took over the vacant seats. Coats, hats, scarves, and people rearranged themselves like marbles in a bag. Mister Finnigan took his chance and sidled away, throwing a farewell over his shoulder.
“Well, season’s greetings, chaps, good to see you!”
“Bye fishy fingers!” Brendan shouted after him, which Mister Finnigan either didn’t hear or chose to ignore. “Thanks for not sexually abusing us!” He turned to his two friends and touched his nose. “A lot of that going around those days,” he added knowingly.
A silence settled over the table.
Malcolm chuckled to himself. “What?” said Josh.
“‘Onwards and upwards’, sir,” Malcolm said, in an exaggerated Queen’s English mimicry of his friend. “‘Getting on the property ladder like a sensible adult man, sir.’”
“Piss off,” said Josh.
“You can take the private school boy out of the school and put him in German squat for a week but you can’t—”
“You can fucking talk; you nearly chocked on your pint. ‘Oh, terribly sorry, sir, for cussing so dreadfully, I shan’t ever do it again.’”
“Ya both posh wankers!” shouted Brendan, causing more than a few thick necks in university rugby jerseys to turn in their direction.
“We need to get this one home,” said Josh, elbowing Brendan in the ribs as he began to slump into his lap.
“Right, before he gets us bundled into the trunk of a muddy Volvo Estate.”
It was the type of English town so comfortable and complacent in its picture postcard beauty that it saw no reason in developing any kind of real substantiality, surviving almost exclusively on American and Japanese tourist dollars/yen and the taste for the medieval gothic/Dickensian/ye olde Englishness that, for the aforementioned, seemed all to come under the collective umbrella of the “It looks just like Harry Potter, doesn’t it?” aesthetic.
By the time they got to the market square, any residual warmth from the pub had left them, and they buried their hands as far as they’d go in the pockets of their coats and wished they’d worn thicker socks. But the air was crisp and fresh and laced with a fog that tickled the throat, revitalizing after the fuggy damp inside the pub.
Eventually, cobbled side streets gave way to terrace housing, then underpasses that traversed the dual carriageways on the edge of town. The three of them trudged wordlessly up the hill together, Brendan managing on his own now, seemingly lost in the rhythm of his heavy panting and workmanlike strides.
“So I was thinking that if things go on like this,” began Josh, taking sharp breaths between clauses, “we’ll be embarrassing our grandkids by our political correctness.”
“You mean like, ‘OMG so embarrassed black guy dropped his shopping and grandad bent down and helped him and even shook his hand it was so gross’ type stuff?” replied Malcolm.
“Yeah, and they’ll be hiding our Rage Against the Machine albums like we hide our grandparent’s gollywogs,” added Josh.
“They’ll be laughing at us behind our backs with their asshole Aryan alt-right partners.”
“And on the drive back they’ll be all like, ‘Sorry baby, I can’t believe you had to see that album just sitting there, so backward. Did you know the singer of that band was Latino? Did you know they let Latinos read and have microphones back then?’”
“There’s a whole dystopian future there. A screenplay: Trump 2036.”
“And their car powered by Syrian refugee blood,” slurred Brendan. “Or just drawn by minorities. Can’t power cars with blood.”
“Right. That might push it past PG13. The blood idea,” said Josh.
Brendan looked as if he might protest, then vomited.
They stopped to observe this spectacle.
“Or everything could just sort itself out,” said Josh.
They walked on in silence for a moment.
“My Rage albums are already hidden in my mom’s attic. For different reasons, obviously,” said Malcolm.
“They’ve aged a bit badly, to be honest,” said Josh.
“It was essentially nü metal. Pretty agro. There were so many huh!s,” said Malcolm.
“Instead of like a yeah! or hey!”
“Like there’d be a crescendo and the guy would be like urgh!”
“Blurgh!” vomited Brendan, again.
“Yeah a bit like that,” said Malcolm. “He was headbutting American neocolonialism right in the kisser. Vete a la Mierda NAFTA! Urgh!”
The hill flattened out and they found themselves in front of the monolithic black shape of the school, standing grand but dormant in its holiday time desertedness. Inside its grounds, generations of friendships had formed between pasts now so distantly removed from their presents as to leave no visible clues of any connection. And yet as distant as they’d become from those versions of themselves, it was each other that linked them all to those origins, through trajectories that had evolved and informed one another over so many years and events and shared experiences that the tethers had crisscrossed and bound to each other so completely as to form one rope anchoring the three of them to the ghosts of the children they had once been.
“Right then, well I guess I’ll see you guys in the dead zone. I’m around until the 30th, so any time after tomorrow,” said Josh, his teeth beginning to chatter.
“I’m usually comatose through Boxing Day, so from the 27th,” said Malcolm. “Brendan?”
Brendan wasn’t listening but facing the school with his chest out and his hands on his hips like a folk hero confronting something giant. “Who bought the Molotovs?” he said.
“You say that every year,” said Malcolm.
“Let’s break a window,” said Brendan.
“Let’s not,” said Josh.
“Fuck this place,” said Brendan.
“I’m cold,” said Malcolm.
“I’m going to have a look round the old bugger, and maybe burn it down,” said Brendan, marching towards the fence and clumsily attempting to find a foothold in the wood and tearing handfuls of ivy from the fence.
Josh and Malcolm stood and stared at their friend’s attempts for several moments as one might a squirrel attempting to fit a whole chestnut in its mouth.
“He won’t make it. Can we just go home?” said Malcolm.
“We can’t leave him, he might… gouge himself on a nail, or something?” said Josh.
“Oh shit, he’s doing it.”
“He fucking is as well, he’s doing it.”
Brendan’s black shape disappeared, then a split second later there came a thump, a rustle of leaves, and a childish yelp from the other side of the fence.
“We better follow him,” said Josh.
“Mate,” said Malcolm, half turning towards the road that led to his parents’ house. “There’s cameras. There’s probably security guards.”
“We’ll just say we’re alumni.”
“How’re we going to prove it?”
“You’re wearing a keffiyeh with Doc Martins; it’s obvious you went to a private school.”
“Fuck you,” said Malcolm, and vaulted the fence in one jump.
“Jesus Christ, those rugby posts send a chill down the spine,” said Malcolm, bouncing on the balls of his feet to make his blood pump faster. Ahead of them, the dark green of the grass, visible under the security lights, faded to black as the pitches stretched away to an infinity of darkness. The rugby posts loomed like giant popsicle sticks, whiter than white against the black night sky.
“It’d be child abuse these days. Do you remember old Jenkins making us play in the snow that one week?” said Josh. “I feel like a lot of what we were taught here was how to suck it up and suffer.”
“And then sit in cushy offices and tell the working class to suck it up and suffer so our bosses never have to suffer anything,” said Malcolm.
“Fascist dickholes,” offered Brendan.
“That’s another way of putting it,” said Josh.
“Goddamn blood sport. It was fun doing the Klinsmann slides through the mud after we won, though,” added Malcolm. “And then match dinners after. Sausage, chips, and beans—best meal of the week.”
“If you say so,” said Josh.
“It was good practice for the pit, too,” said Malcolm.
“For you it was. You made moshing into an Olympic sport. You’d review them after show like a football pundit.”
“I learned my best moves on this sacred ground,” said Malcolm, then sighed and hurriedly added, “But yeah, team sports, fucking nightmare.”
“Don’t you still have your first 15 team shirt?” asked Josh.
“Well, yeah, I mean, my mom does.”
“You got all your teammates to sign it after the last match.”
“That was a tradition.”
“And framing it?”
“Yes,” Malcolm snapped, and lit a cigarette.
“Dude,” hissed Josh. “Someone might see.”
“We’re in our old school, Josh, not behind enemy lines.”
They snuck across the playground and ogled the ultra-modern white curves of the architectural additions to the buildings, the too-perfect AstroTurf where there was just grass in their time, and remembered classrooms and teachers and corrected one another on the geography of the place—which corridors led to which rooms and which shortcuts weren’t. When they passed the tennis courts, Malcolm stopped.
“Wasn’t this your stomping ground?” he said.
Josh sensed the casting of bait that would lure him to a reprisal for the rugby goading he’d given to his friend earlier and decided to call his bluff.
“Yeah. Good times. Spent whole summers out here with Miss Martinez and the rest of them.”
Brendan nodded vigorously and frowned with admiration like a middle-aged man admiring a classic sports car, “Miss Martinez, now that was the kind of tennis coach slash biology teacher I’d like to experiment with.”
“She was easier on the eye than Mr. Jenkins, is what you’re saying,” said Josh.
They stood in silence momentarily lost in their dovetailing memories.
“Still lives in town, according to my mom,” said Josh.
“Who? Jenkins or Martinez?” said Malcolm.
“Martinez. Says she’s seen her around with a couple of kids.”
“I wonder if she still works here.” Malcolm blew out a stream of smoke and flicked the butt onto the court. “Let’s see what kind of kit they’re running in the IT room these days. Bet it’s flash as fuck.”
They crunched their way up the narrow gravel path that divided the tennis and squash courts, while Brendan regaled them in faltering speech and chattering teeth with a story of an emergency evacuation of his bowels he’d once deposited on that very path.
“Precious memories,” said Malcolm, then to Josh. “Why’d you quit if it was so damn idyllic?”
“Tennis? Dunno. Like you said, team sports. Organized fun. Organized anything, just… wasn’t. Dunno, it just didn’t fit into life anymore. I probably wouldn’t have the posture I do know if I’d kept it up though.”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“Also, I seem to remember I spent most of our last two years copying CD-Rs for your listening pleasure.”
“Still got ‘em.”
“In your mom’s attic?”
“Nope. In my pocket right now—the choice cuts, I mean.” Malcolm pulled out his phone and waved in front of Josh. “The classics never go out of style.”
They reached what was the IT department, put their faces to the glass, and peered inside.
“Wow. It’s just board games,” said Malcolm, “Look, they’ve even got Mouse Trap. That was a total bitch to set up.”
“There’s a shit load of marbles and Lego as well,” said Josh, “I can’t tell if this is some small ‘c’ conservative wholesome bullshit or if hipsterdom has reached the English private school system.”
“Dude, it’s totally the latter. I bet there’s a yoga room somewhere. And vegan options at every meal. It’s the modern Bobo class of parenting.”
“Bobo?” repeated Josh.
“Bourgeois bohemian. All aboard the Hybrid SUV Sunday morning—charge down to Cornwall for a surf session, soy latte in the cup holder, Bright Eyes on the stereo, back up the M4 Sunday night, back on the trading floor first thing Monday morning with a long board under your arm.”
“I wish I’d got the memo that you can be rich and right-on at the same time.”
“I’m still withholding judgment on that,” said Malcolm. “I wonder where the IT building is now?”
“Probably in one of those shit hot new buildings with the curvy metal.”
“Probably bought every one of the little shits an Apple Air whatchamacallit all to themselves,” said Malcolm.
“Man, for the fees they charge these days, they should.”
“My mom told me. Can’t remember. Fucking high. It’d give you nightmares.”
They kept their faces pressed to the glass.
“Damn, we had it good here,” said Josh.
“Didn’t even know we were born, as my nan used to say,” said Malcolm. “And all we ever wanted to do was get the hell out.”
“Whereas if we’d actually, you know, used some of this shit, gone to the library—”
“We went to the library,” said Malcolm. “I distinctly remember the library.”
“If we’d gone to the library other than to slack off and flirt and think everything that took a bit of effort was—”
Malcolm pulled his face away from the window pane and made air quotes with his fingers, “Gay? Lame? Selling out to the fascist dickholes?”
“Yeah, if we didn’t think it was those things.”
“What? We’d all be human rights lawyers?”
Malcolm took a step towards his friend and lowered his voice to a melodramatic whisper. “But then would we still be us, though?” he said, unable to suppress a grunt of a laugh.
“Okay, that does it,” said Josh. “We need to get out of here. The cognitive dissonance is fucking overwhelming.”
“Hey, Brendan—Where’s Brendan?”
They both turned away from the window, leaving dripping circles of disturbed condensation on the glass, bracketed by the curves of the side of their hands.
Brendan was peering through another window. Malcolm and Josh walked up and looked in themselves, at a room full of odd and angular figures arranged neatly in the dark, the metallic surfaces of some of them glinting faintly in the weak moonlight.
“Hasn’t changed much at all to be honest,” said Malcolm. “Do you remember we all had to learn the recorder in the first couple of years?”
“This is where I officially gave up the piano,” said Brendan abruptly. “Right in this room. I did it for five years. Got pretty good. Dickheads used to be on my case about it the whole time so in the end I persuaded my mom to let me quit. Fucking begged her actually. But I never had a good answer when she asked why—dickheads isn’t really a legit reason for a parent, right? I made some guff up about concentrating on my academic work. Mrs. Atherton looked crushed when I told her, she could probably see straight through my bullshit.”
Brendan kept his face against the glass. Malcolm and Josh waited for him to think whatever it was he was thinking.
“Actually, a piano really would have differentiated our band,” said Malcolm. “Added a little something. I guess you’d already quit by sixth form.”
“Pianists are gold dust since synths became a thing again,” added Josh.
“What’s the word for nostalgia but when it feels bad?” mumbled Brendan.
Josh and Malcolm stared at one another.
“Damn. Good question, actually,” said Malcolm.
“Isn’t it just plain regret?” offered Josh.
“Still wanna burn the place down, Brendan?”
Brendan pulled his nose away from the glass with his face scrunched up into serious thought. “I really do, but I also… sort of don’t. Maybe we could keep the ashes and spread them somewhere decent. But also piss on them?”
From behind them there came the sudden sound of heavy boots on concrete. There was a clunk and a security light exploded into operation. The three of them spun round in fright and squinted at the silhouetted form before them: a large man, so bundled up in winter clothing he appeared almost circular and extraordinarily muscled. He stopped and pulled the heavy woolen scarf away from his face.
“Jesus Christ, it’s Fishy Fingers!” cried Brendan.
“Hello again, boys,” said Mr. Finnigan. “Bit surprised to see you on school grounds again.”
Josh recovered himself. “We just—we just thought we’d take a quick look at the old place.”
“Sorry,” blurted Malcolm. “We’ll get going now.”
“It doesn’t bother me, to be honest. I come here most years at this time for a snoop—it’s become a bit of a habit actually. Although a simple ‘Simon’ will do nicely, Brendan.”
The three of them stood awkwardly about, looking through the windows or at the sky or at something in or on the next building along.
“Although it can get a bit existential at about this time of the night,” continued Mr. Finnigan. “Thinking about the different… possibilities. I worked here for twenty-one years. You can’t help entertaining a certain amount of ‘what if’s when you’ve logged that kind of innings.”
“Twenty-one years,” repeated Malcolm, unable to disguise the trace of pitying disgust in his voice.
They resumed standing and observing until Mr. Finnigan abruptly clapped his gloves hands together. “But it’s very late, we’re technically trespassing and,” he checked his watch, “it’s also technically Christmas. My daughter’s bringing the car round and I’m pretty sure—in the spirit of the season and what have you—she won’t mind giving you all a lift.”
And with that, they began their walk back through the grounds, passing the tennis courts, squash courts, new, old and improved buildings, and the rugby pitches.
“Did—did you jump the fence as well, sir? I mean, Mr. Fi—I mean, Simon?” asked Josh.
Mr. Finnigan reached into his pocket as he walked. “I still have one of these from the last time I was on car park duty,” he said, waving a key in front of him.
And they crossed the car park and left through the still-open school gates.
John Miskelly is thirty-two years old and attended a private school for nine years. Maybe if he’d concentrated a bit harder he’d be making fat stacks in his hybrid SUV, and not writing this at a child’s desk in a tiny flat in Asturias.
Hey there! If you appreciate what we post on this site, please consider making a donation during our donation drive. You can see all the donation-only gifts we have available and donation info here. Thanks!