Northwords Now

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Dark Island

by Rachel Carmichael

Photo by Simone Impei, Unsplash
Photo by Simone Impei, Unsplash

Laura put the tray in front of him, two cups of tea and a plate with three biscuits, one for her. He was sitting awkwardly, leaning on one arm of his chair.

‘You need to learn when to ask for help, Dad.’

‘Aye, I know. Impatient old bugger.’

‘What did you need from up there? I thought we’d cleared everything out.’

She remembered the day, and resolving to sort out her own house.

‘Over there,’ he said.

A squat black case was by the shelves of war stories and spy thrillers.

‘You’re not going on holiday?’

‘Ha. You’re meant to be the one with the good memory. Bring it here.’

Up close she recognised it.

‘The accordion.’ She smiled thanks at him.

‘I’d love to learn.’

‘Wait your turn, I’m taking lessons,’ he said. ‘Don’t laugh.’

‘I’m not laughing, Dad. It’s great you’re doing this.’

Laura could see he was pleased with himself. If he’d done this while Mum was alive, got off his backside and done something with his retirement. But it would have made no difference.

‘You know wee Amanda from the cul-de-sac? She’s Mrs Mackie now at the primary school, she’s teaching me.’

Laura could tell him things about Mandy. But no, she wouldn’t put him off.

‘She comes here Mondays and Thursdays after school. Awfully nice. She says I’ve got a good ear. Not for hearing, obviously.’

He excused himself and hirpled to the bathroom. It was good to see him this way. Embarrassing if he was flirting with Mandy, he was still capable of that. Though why care now.

‘It’s the co-ordination that’s hard,’ he said, wiping his hands on the sides of his trousers. ‘The two hands. Two hands and only one brain. Would you get it out for me?’

Its weight was awkward, but she turned it the right way and placed it on his lap as he settled on a chair brought from the kitchen.

He slipped his hands through the straps – had he always had those ridges on his fingernails, the white marks that might signify something? ­– then let the instrument expand and squeezed out a chord.

‘I might order a performance stool,’ he said. ‘Mrs Mackie recommends them.’

‘Are you thinking of touring?’

‘I may surprise you.’

Laura watched his fingers get their bearings on the keys and buttons.

‘They’re not that expensive.’

‘Good. If it makes you happy, Dad.’

His exhales had become slower and heavier this year, making him sound impatient even when he wasn’t. He put his hands in position, looked at her, smile fading as he concentrated, and he played. An old, mournful waltz Laura had grown up with, laughed at, then realised that she loved. The accordion had always been here, left to Mum by one of her aunts, waiting for someone to learn how to play it, but Laura couldn’t bear the thought of anyone hearing her practice. A few times when she was alone in the house she had taken it out of its case and worked out a tune, allowing it half of her attention while she stayed alert for the sound of anyone returning. Never expressing an interest. But they must have known.

She saw him watching her, his fingers stumbling slightly as her inattention distracted him, and she smiled and moved her head to the rhythm. Fumbling and unsteady, but the tune was there, and this pleased him. She used to know that feeling, losing herself in drawing or painting, and afterwards enjoying that it had made her happy. Double happiness.

He finished playing and she had to say something.

‘That was lovely, Dad. Well done.’

He squeezed the ends together and clipped them shut.

‘You don’t have another tune for me?’

‘That’s the only one,’ he said. ‘That’s the one I wanted to learn.’

He shook his head.

‘It’s tough, you know. It’s still tough.’

She lifted the instrument off him and put it back in its case.

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