The Writers' Hub has become MIROnline. The site remains for archival purposes but will no longer be updated. Head over to our new website to see weekly short stories, poems and creative non-fiction from Birkbeck and beyond.
writers' hub
Michael Lawlor
Michael Lawlor

Michael Lawlor studied English Literature at the University of Roehampton, London. He went on to study Comparative Literature at the University of Limerick. He lived for several years in Galway City and has been published in Wordlegs and the Irish Independent. He now works and resides once more in London.

Lessons


Cathy Regan did not give the impression of being a murderer but then, I cannot say I would recognise one.

          She was a friend of the family, having been brought by a guest to one of my mother’s dinner parties years ago where she quickly won over my parents. She was Irish, which my father liked, having Irish roots himself, and was well-read, which of course impressed my mother. She moved to London twelve years ago after several years in the north. She claimed to have wanderlust and never gave any indication that she suffered from homesickness. I don’t know who suggested it but at eleven years of age, my mother would drive me to Ms. Regan’s Wimbledon flat for piano lessons, an hour a week. It lasted two years.

          At first, I was reluctant to learn but Ms. Regan was disarming and a very good teacher. When I arrived, she would have a pot of tea waiting for us. I quickly found myself wanting to impress her. In the beginning, I believed I possessed some untapped reservoir of talent that she would, in time, uncover and exclaim over. Instead, it became clear that I had no obvious aptitude and even with further lessons, I would never be anything approaching concert-worthy. I was secretly devastated, feeling I had been short-changed by a world that had yet to show me my great, saving skill. The most exceptional thing about those days was, it turns out, my piano teacher.

          The things Ms. Regan told me, during our lessons, turned out to be largely true. She had started learning piano when she was twelve. Her mother passed away when she was an infant and her father struggled to stay in work and look after her.  It was due to Mrs. Colleran, the school’s music teacher, who caught Cathy testing the keys of the baby grand in the music room one afternoon, that she learned at all. Mrs. Colleran taught her free of charge and was in turn rewarded for her kindness in witnessing the unmistakable talent in the girl. It was, I think, the only break Ms. Regan got.

          There was a piece published on her in the run-up to her sentencing, attempting to exonerate her by listing the bleaker aspects of her life so far. They made her sound haunted, hardly functioning. I did not recognise in its content the woman who had taught me.

          My prevailing memory of that time was listening to Ms. Regan herself play, something she would only do at the end of the lesson while I waited for my mother to pick me up and only if I could prove I had been practicing in her absence. We would work through different pieces; my halting, self-conscious turns followed by her deft and eloquent touch. The piano gave her more joy than anything else in life, something that was clear to me even at that young age.

          It was then she mentioned her husband. He had bought her a Steinway as a wedding gift. It was the only time she spoke of him and she went very still afterwards, before excusing herself to make more tea. I played a few bars, trying to imitate her seamless flow. I paused briefly, about to restart when I heard a noise. I listened and at once realised two things: the noise was coming from Ms. Regan and it was the sound of her crying.

          I was seized then by a peculiar horror. I felt as though I had trespassed into her room or gone through her belongings. It occurred to me I was holding my breath and still I could not let it go. I was frightened she would hear me and remember I was here, imposing myself on her grief. I could see her, in my mind's eye, weeping in the kitchen as the kettle came to the boil. I contemplated just leaving, snatching up my bag and fleeing the flat. But I was afraid to move, to remind her of my presence. I considered playing again but the noise of a single key would shatter the silence that now hung over everything, so solid I could feel it like a pair of hands against my throat.

          It was interminable, that minute, and I wonder now if I should have gone into her, taken her hand and held it. Then I laugh at myself and the thought of an eleven-year-old boy trying to comfort a woman weeping for someone dead by her own hand. So, instead, I sat, trapped in time. The sun was coming through the window in bars, revealing in the air a whirl of dust motes. I could see the trees in the park, bright and swaying in the breeze, their whisper mingling with Ms. Regan's own, private sighs.

          Then I heard the kettle snap and the splash of water hitting the base of the teapot, and I knew she was herself again and that her grief and guilt were put away once more, like photographs into a drawer. She came out, a pinkish glow to her features, the teapot in both hands. I was perched on the edge of the bench. She put the teapot down and told me to play Für Elise. I started, clumsy at first, and she poured the tea out behind me. I stumbled my way through the piece and felt her presence behind me, as though her shadow was a physical weight against my back, pulsating like a toothache.

          'Better,' she said. 'You still rush it though. You need to set a more leisurely pace.'

          This was the way she spoke to me, never down, never simplified. She sat beside me and I moved over. I felt relieved because I saw nothing had changed and perhaps we might even be closer going forward. She played then for a while and I moved to the armchair to watch, sipping my tea. At the end of the hour, she got up to see me out, as she always did. She said she would see me next week. I stood on the doorstep, awkward and lingering, then went down the steps to the car where my mother was waiting.

          Did she grieve that way often? It's possible. She pleaded guilty though she might have tried and fought it. If she was frightened of prison, it was not apparent. Maybe she had grown exhausted of a life lived waiting for the other shoe to drop and now that it had, there was a certain amount of relief at the prospect of being able to fall no farther, that at last you had settled gently and irretrievably against the sea-floor. Perhaps I would not think of this so often if I had not been there when they took her away. If she had simply disappeared from my life and my parents explained that I would no longer be seeing her for lessons, I would have thought less about her and her predicament. But it was during one of those afternoons that her life changed forever, in my presence.

          It was maybe halfway through the lesson and we were both in high spirits. I was discovering I could be funny and felt gratified by her laughter. I had become convinced I was her favourite student, the one she looked the most forward to seeing. She was walking me through Gymnopédie when the doorbell rang. She snapped to attention, the way birds do at sudden noises – all creatures, really, but I think of her as a bird, musical, canny, in flight – listening intently. No one called on her during our lessons. She could count on one hand the friends she had.

          'Just a second, Colum,' she said to me, rising.

          I must have felt it too, sensed her grave certainty because I did not resume playing when she went out to the door. I suspected the caller would be the source of her tears in the kitchen that day. It would be a long-lost partner, her husband even; come to make amends. I waited for the door to open but the sound never came. I knew she was standing by the door, watching it. Whoever it was rang once more and I stood and waited and she waited and again, time stretched to intolerable length. At last I heard the door open and a voice spoke, male, and I was sure it was her husband. Then I heard a second man. It was sunny that day too, so that my memories of those afternoons have extended into one long heat wave though it must have been winter at least twice. I recall the light always flooding in, the park always its greenest, no rain, and, of course, the crystalline sound of the piano.

          When Ms. Regan returned, she was with two policemen. They were huge beside her. She was explaining something to them.

          'I'm giving a lesson,' she said. Her eyes were distant, registering things altogether separate from this moment.

          The officers studied me, standing by the piano. One of them rubbed his mouth thoughtfully.

          'I'll stay,' he said to his colleague.

          The other nodded and stepped closer to Ms. Regan.

          'Ms. Regan, I'm going to handcuff you now.'

          'Yes,' she said.

          I had been watching this scene play out as though it were exactly that, a scene, a bit of theatre for my consideration. It was the first time I can recall experiencing the unreality that suffuses everything during occasions of monumental shock, the brain beating a retreat in order to survive the incomprehensible wallop of things. The skin of my face felt numb and too tight, as if I were wearing a mask measured for someone else.

          'Ms. Regan,' I said. I might then have called her by her first name. It certainly would have qualified as an appropriate moment.

          'It's fine, Colum,' she said.

          It really did appear to be fine, judging by her conduct. The officer gently took her arms and drew them behind her back, snapping on a pair of handcuffs. I could not quite absorb the whole thing. It struck me as a ludicrous gag, the policemen themselves laughably counterfeit, jobbing actors in cheap costumes.

          'What are you doing?' I asked.

          The officer who had handcuffed Ms. Regan did not answer. The other one approached me. For some reason, I expected him to belt me so I sat back down.

          'What's your name, young man?'

          'Colum Tierney.'

          'Well, Colum, my name is Officer McIntyre. I'm afraid Ms. Regan needs to come with us to answer a few questions but I'm going to take you home.'

          'His mother will be here in a few minutes,' Ms. Regan said in a low voice.

          'Is she in trouble?' I asked.

          Officer McIntyre smiled to reassure me, which I was not. He nodded to his colleague who led Ms. Regan towards the door.

          'Ms. Regan,' I called.

          I was terrified for her, for what they would do to her. Something exceeding the usual faculties of my eleven-year-old mind told me I would not see her again, that this was not casual or something to be dismissed but real and irremediably concrete. Ms. Regan looked at me. There was a puckered circle of scar tissue on her left cheek that had attracted my eye ceaselessly. When she came to my mother's dinner parties, it was hidden by makeup but during our lessons, it was visible. It was, I now know, from a cigarette burn.

          She did not say goodbye but she gave me a small smile. I can't imagine her thoughts just then. There were no hysterics. She walked sedately from the room, the officer following with his hand on her shoulder. I was left with Officer McIntyre.

          'Do you have a phone number for your mother, Colum?'

          'Is she going to jail?' I asked.

          'It's best not to worry about Ms. Regan. You give me your mother's phone number and I'll call her and tell her what's what.'

          'My mother picks me up here,' I said. 'She's probably on her way right now.'

          He nodded. Through the window, I saw the other officer putting Ms. Regan in the back of the squad car. She looked out. Her face was narrow and pale in the glass, partly obscured by the glare, already half-gone.

          'I'm going to wait with you until your mother arrives, Colum. Do you mind if I wait with you?'

          The squad car with Ms. Regan set off. Officer McIntyre settled into an armchair. I sat on the piano bench, thinking of Ms. Regan and prison, which seemed the likeliest outcome. It never occurred to me that she might be innocent. The police came for criminals and it was criminals they put away. Officer McIntyre asked would I play him something, hoping maybe to distract me from what had happened. He was trying to normalise the whole thing. I made no move to play and he did not ask again. Eventually, I saw my mother's car pull up and I ran out to her, Officer McIntyre in my wake.

          My mother went white when she saw Officer McIntyre and held me tight.

          'What happened? Was there a burglary?'

          Officer McIntyre explained that Ms. Regan had been taken in for questioning regarding the murder of Joseph Crane. My mother said nothing for a long time, then told him they must have made a mistake.

          'I've known the woman for years,' she said.

          McIntyre's tone was conciliatory but firm. 'We have reason to believe this woman is in fact Catherine Crane and is wanted in connection with the murder of Joseph Crane. This is a police investigation, ma'am, an ongoing one and I am not at liberty to discuss it further. I believe the best possible thing for you to do right now is to take your son home.'

          My mother had trouble processing this.

          'You'll see you've made a mistake,' she said. 'Get in the car, Colum.'

          It was of course no mistake. Catherine Regan was once Catherine Crane, married to Joseph, fifteen years ago. The papers called him a gangster but really, he was a thug and a con-man who owned a gun, which Ms. Regan – still, I call her that after everything – used to blow the back of his head off while he watched television. She discarded the gun and left Ireland the same day, taking nothing but her husband's rainy-day money, which he kept in the house. She moved around England a while before settling in London, next to us. They might never have found her if she had not featured in an article for organising a concert of local talent. It was seen by one of the officers charged with investigating the crime who remembered her and dug up the case.

          My parents tried to keep the story from me.

          'We don't know all the facts yet,' my father said. He no longer read the paper in my company. They turned the news off when I came into the room. They can't have really believed they could keep it from me. I read about it in the newsagent's, moving from one paper to another until I was asked to leave. After she confessed and was sentenced, my father asked me if I wanted to go for a walk and I knew it had come time to discuss it.

          We walked along the river for half an hour and stopped under the oaks, casting their collective shadow over a long line of benches. My father sat down and I joined him. On the water, a group was kayaking in a string of red and yellow helmets. My father massaged his fingers with great deliberation.

          'You're probably wondering about Ms. Regan,' he said.

          'It's weird,' I said.

          'It is. I just wanted to know, if, well, you had any questions you wanted to ask me. Your mother thinks it might be better to let the whole thing be but I think you liked Ms. Regan and you miss her.'

          'I do.'

          My father nodded, earnest and, I saw, a little frightened. We did not talk this way often.

          'Did she do it?'

          'Yes.'

          'She shot him in the head.' It felt strange to say it. My father nearly flinched to hear me reference such violence.

          'You've been reading about it?'

          'I just wanted to know why.'

          'Of course. Well. Her husband did some pretty awful things to her.'

          'So he deserved to die.'

          'No, no,' but he said it in a way that told me he himself had not made up his own mind. He had no idea how to explain it to me. It was the kind of event that elicited the same shake of the head from everyone which meant, What a shame, and was essentially a silent thanks that it was not your problem to live through or pass judgment on.

          We were quiet then, both of us thinking about Ms. Regan who would be returning to Ireland in the next few days to serve a life sentence. A duck flapped into our field of vision, settling gracefully on to the water.

          'Will she be able to play piano in prison?' I had never seen women's prison on television and imagined it was a great deal more pleasant than the men's, the same way their respective toilets were.

          My father blinked at my daftness. 'I don't know. Maybe.' I still appreciate the lie.

          It really was what concerned me the most at the time, possessed as I was by a conviction that so long as she could play, Ms. Regan would survive as she had done so far. My next question took some time to voice. His gentle tone and eagerness to be there and to have the right answers encouraged me to risk asking him something I would not have dared put to my mother. I also feared it was a subject we would most likely never touch upon again.

          'Could we visit her?'

          His expression changed then and I knew the idea was too unorthodox, too unnatural, too much the subject of gossip, for even him to entertain.

          'No, Colum. I'm sorry.' He took a breath. 'Ms. Regan is not a good person. I think you should try not to think about her. She's gone away now. We'll find you a new teacher and in a month's time, you'll have forgotten all about this.'

          I did not see another teacher after that. They wanted me to and I refused and showed them I could teach myself from this point on and that was that. My father was right though - I have more or less forgotten about Ms. Regan and those afternoons. But I cannot play the piano without thinking of her so I do not play often.


COMMENTS

RELATED PIECES

No related pieces

POPULAR FICTION

The Life of W. S. Graham Reenacted by Fleas
Andrew Pidoux
07.08.15

Hush: Excerpt
Sara Marshall-Ball
29.06.15

Ghosting: Excerpt
Jonathan Kemp
16.02.15