Hello, dear friend. Come in and warm yourself by the fire. It’s cold outside, and you’ve travelled far. Come, sit by this lovely open fire. Watch as the logs crackle and crumble and cremate in the hearth, as the black smoke plumes dance majestically up towards the heavens in their stone cabin. Feel the warmth radiate through your weary bones. That’s it – take your boots and socks off. Sit down. Let the old leather envelop you. Feel its skin on your skin. Hear it creak as you settle in for the night. Settle in to drink your 30-year-old whiskey. Hear the ice clink against the crystal glass – that one is a family heirloom, isn’t it? Yes, once belonged to your old granddad. I remember your granddad. Yes, I do. I remember him well. I remember all of your family. I remember them going back many, many generations. I know you better than you know yourself.
Settle in, dear friend. Settle in and rest in this darkened room. The only light is coming from the fire, and it plays patterns on the dark green silk wallpaper which covers this rather masculine room. It’s been there for generations, too. Just like this chair. And that old mahogany desk. And the frayed Turkish rug. And the bookcases covering the walls, displaying the vast collection of books, none newer than your granddad’s childhood, all covered in dust, none opened in many a year.
Settle in and I’ll tell you a tale. I’ll whisper it in your ear. You won’t even know that I’m here.
It’s a tale that goes way past your granddad’s time. I mention him because you know him. I know him. You don’t know the boy I’m to speak of. I know him. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been waiting for you.
Many years ago, there was a boy. He lived in this very house. He lived here with his mother, and his little sister. His father had passed on when he was very young, and he did not remember him well. His mother, though overcome with grief, had raised him. Raised him to the boy he was now, aged 10. Raised him, and taught him right from wrong with the back of a cane.
She was very harsh, his mother. Because she wanted the best for him. With his father gone and very little ready money in the family, she needed him to provide.
He was stupid, though. The boy was not bright. He would not be able to provide in the traditional sense. Even at that young age, it could be told he would not be a diplomat, nor a gentleman, nor represent his county at parliament. He certainly would not be a teacher. His options were limited. Perhaps the clergy? His mother had other ideas.
Her son, she decreed, would be a fine pianist. He would play concertas around the world, and mix with the very best of people. He would mix with kings and dukes in Europe. He would be the toast of not just the country, but the continent beyond it...
...but he could not play. Try as he might, he could not play. She drilled him. She shook him. She forcibly pushed his fingers along the keys. But still, he could not play. Tone deaf, dear friend!
She would not have it. The thought, once there, became stuck. Her son would play. And play well.
The daughter, she was indulged. She was embraced. She was spoiled.
But the son, he was thrashed. When he played badly, he was thrashed. Thrashed until he could no longer play, and then she would thrash him some more for not playing.
Do you see what a vicious circle we find ourselves in, dear friend? The more she thrashed, the less he could play. The less he could play, the more she thrashed. I know what you’re thinking, friend – why did she not just give up? This mother, she had become possessed. She would hear nothing more. She would think of nothing more. Her son would play.
And so her son, one day, to escape his mother, ventured to an area of the house he had never been. He was always forbidden to mount the stairs, and never questioned this. Since his father had passed, the family had been confined to the first floor. But he just could not face another thrashing on this day. The hour of practice chimed, and he ran. Ran up the stairs. Up the creaking, old wooden stairs he had never before looked at. Ran, and stood there, in the middle of the floor, panting, as the early daylight shone through the cracks in the roof and the dust played around his vision.
He stood there for none knows how long. Motionless. Eyes tightly closed. If he could see none, none could see him. Trying not to attract the attention of his mother, who he could hear calling him, and moving around below. It was because of his perfect stillness that he felt the presence behind him, and then in front of him.
His tightly shut eyes snapped open. In front of him stood a figure. A man. In a hooded cloak, black velvet. A man. A faceless man. In the hood, there was none but black. But from within the nothing came a voice. It asked him: do you want to play? He replied that he did not. The voice asked him: your mother wants you to play? He replied that she did. The voice asked him: would you like to please your mother? He replied that, more than anything in the world, he wanted to please his mother. The voice asked him: because you want to avoid the beatings? He could not reply; he hung his head in shame.
The voice from within, the faceless man, and the boy set upon a pact. The faceless man told him he would help him with his talent, if the boy would promise one thing. He must promise that he would stay with the faceless man for all time. The boy, being, at the age of 10, too young to understand the concept of “for all time”, hastily agreed for the sake of the thrashings. And the voice said: then it is done. And the voice said: you are mine; anything you want you must only ask. And the voice said: I will always be with you.
And the boy was pleased.
He ran down the stairs, taking care to avoid his mother and her cane. And he walked carefully into his music room – which was, at the time, a music room, complete with a scratched black Silbermann piano and lovely large window overlooking the gardens outside, but is now this very room we sit in, dear friend – and he stretched his fingers out in front in that grand tradition of pianists, and he began to play. And the faceless man, as he had promised, watched over him.
And the boy played well.
The boy played more than well. The boy played like a genius.
His mother, at once hearing the piano and thinking an intruder had entered her home, stopped searching for her son and ran to the music room. And found him there, at the stool, playing Bach like a prodigy. And she ran up to him. And she thrashed him. The boy asked: what was that for? I am playing well, mama! And she said: because you should’ve been playing like that all these years!
And so the relationship continued. The boy, bearing the scars of his mother’s thrashings and thinking they were finally over, continued to receive the thrashings. And the faceless man would make the boy play better, like someone well beyond his years. And still it was not enough for his mother. And so the faceless man would bring to the door a noted European talent finder, who proclaimed the boy the best he’d heard and asked if he could take him to play at Court. And still it was not enough for the mother.
I have said, dear friend, that she was a woman possessed. She could not hear the genius in the boy’s playing. Still she thought it not good enough. Still she favoured the daughter over the son.
Months into the arrangement between the boy and the faceless man, the boy began to wish away his sister so that his mama may stop favouring her and perhaps stop thrashing him. And the faceless man made it so. His sister contracted the consumption. And she died. And her mother was in hysterics again, like after papa had passed. And she thrashed the boy even more. She still was not satisfied with his prodigious playing. Nothing he could do would please her. She had him playing 12 hours a day to improve. She had him up before the sun and playing well into the night. She was unhappy with his ability to hear what he was playing, and became convinced if he could not hear, he would need to merely read and move his fingers, and he would play better. She burned his ears in the night. She then became convinced if he could not see, he would need to feel the music, and he would play better. She gouged his eyes as he played. And still the faceless man watched over him. And the faceless man did not intervene. The pact was done, and he made the boy play better.
Deaf and blind, the boy soon came upon a new wish. He began to wish away his mama. He did not know why this had not come upon him before, but he knew with certainty one thing: his mama gone, he would surely not have to play. And the faceless man heard this wish.
It took several weeks, but it did happen. Just as that day had happened when the boy had run to hide from his mother, another day came when he could take no more. He was up before dawn to play. His mother was thrashing his fingers as they ran along the keys, black and white. She was shouting that he was not doing it right (though he was). Of course, he could not hear her shouting, only feel her thrashing. And that told him where she was. And the faceless man gave him strength. And he reached up and grabbed her by the neck, and he placed his mama’s head among the piano’s wires and hammers, and he slammed it repeatedly, and he broke her neck.
She had gouged his eyes, so he did not see the blood. She had burned his ears, so he did not hear her screams, nor the snap of her neck as it came away from her spine, nor her dying breath.
And the deed done, he continued to play. And the faceless man continued to watch over him. The pact was still in action.
For many years, and many generations, those walking along these moorlands, walking past the ruins that had become of these walls and gardens, would hear the strains of Bach echo along after them. The boy was at his piano; his mother decomposing alongside him, the faceless man watching over him. Of course, those outside did not know any of that, nor what had happened between these walls. The family was forgotten, the years passed on.
And the boy continued to play.
He did not age. At all, the boy did not age at all. His pact with the faceless man had ended that privilege. He had promised the faceless man he would stay with him for all time, and that he would – exactly as he was. Aged 10, gouged eyes, burned ears. A piano prodigy. He would pass eternity in the hell he had been trying to avoid – playing piano from dawn til dusk, playing well, and still not pleasing his mother. Oh yes, he could feel her there, still. He could not see her thanks to her own hands, but he knew she was there. In his head, she was telling him faster, louder, slower, pianissimo you delinquent boy. She was there, with the faceless man, in the old music room, listening to him play.
For all time.
And so, dear friend, we come to present day. Your family has been attached to this house for centuries – did you know that? No, I fear you did not. You only inherited it from your dear old granddad. Yes, I knew him. I knew them all. I have watched them grow. I have watched them born, live, die. I have become intimate with every member of your family. Until they moved away, that is. Your grandmamma, she could not handle the playing.
The old music room had long been boarded up. The house had been found abandoned by a distant relative who came to visit, unnerved by the lack of contact, and, this house being larger than theirs, they moved in. And so began the constant stream of people. Generations won and lost, all through these walls. But never these walls – these particular walls. No, this room was off limits.
Until you arrived.
The others, they couldn’t be in here. They knew the story. They knew what had happened. They felt what had happened. They saw the books be thrown across the room. They saw the glasses drop. They saw the fires light and unlight themselves. Electricity came in, and they saw the lights flicker and dim.
They heard the playing.
They heard my playing.
Yes, dear friend. I’m still here. I’m still playing from dawn til dusk. And I really don’t like to be interrupted.
I wish you’d stayed away. The others did. The others, they knew the stories. Does no one believe old family tales anymore? You should’ve known. You should’ve stayed away.
But here, let me play for you. I’ll play some Bach, and you can listen. You can hear my playing – it’s really very good. Mama doesn’t think so, do you mama? She doesn’t know anything. And she knows what happens when you criticise my playing, don’t you mama? She’s been here, and will be here, with me for all time. Listening to my playing. Did you know Mr Haydn complimented me on my playing? But mama would not let me go, would you mama?
No, dear friend. Sit down and rest your weary bones. Warm yourself by the fire. It’s cold outside, and you’ve travelled far. You really shouldn’t have bothered.
Settle in, dear friend. Settle in and rest in this darkened room. The only light is coming from the fire, and it plays patterns on the dark green silk wallpaper which covers this rather masculine room. It will soothe you as I play.
And meet my old friend, dear friend. Do not let his faceless nature disturb you. Look into his darkness. It will make the end come sooner...