His breathing labours over my shoulder, huffing out breath perfumed with ham and disappointment. My hands clunk over the keys, slip off the C sharp, snag on the C. I can feel the wince behind me.
Eight bars to go. I stretch out the middle finger, labouring too long in the shift in chords on the left hand, out of time. Rest for one, back in on an F. Should be sharp, it’s in the key signature. My shoulders tighten.
No retribution. Maybe he didn’t notice. The last bit is easier. I accelerate the movements, trying not to let the slick of sweat affect it. The last chord is fiddly. Shuffle the fingers around, make sure it’s in the right key. A bit of a pause, but there it is. A harmonious exhalation.
I slump back, twitching my feet off the pedals. Last week he let loose a tirade, the importance of practising every day, little flecks of white gathering at the edges of thin lips. He must be gathering the words, preparing the shape of his discontent.
A soft gurgle. I shift around, my school skirt rucking up against the piano stool. His chin is stooped against his chest, breaths ruffling the hairs poking out of his nose. He’s asleep.
I could wake him, dart my hand out to those skin-wrapped bones, slackened on the edge of his navy trousers. They always move slowly, look like they won’t be able to grip the cheque I place between them every four weeks, carefully filled in with Mum’s looped letters.
Until they’re on the keys. Swooping over them, barely touching, the pressure so light. Reaching impossible distance in semiquaver speed. Not like the plodding gait of mine. So smooth and pink, you’d think they could race, leap over the spaces.
The clock slices out time, gold against flowered wallpaper. Each minute costs 50p. Mum shoved that comment at me over the dinner table the other day when she asked why I hadn’t done my scales. Waste of money, she said.
His head pops up.
“Let’s have that again,” he says.
I bring my hands back up, clawing the ends like he showed me, the top of the pads on the keys. Another attempt is granted, possible redemption.
Even if it did cost mum £3.50.