Wind sang through the branches of the willows lining the drive. It whistled through holes in crumbling brickwork and shattered, glass panes. It rattled doors in their frames, set rotting wood to creaking and popping, and yet Rachel felt she was coming home. Her measured pace took her up the weed-strewn gravel drive, allowed her a slow circle of the decrepit statue of the founder before she turned to face what remained of Willowbrook Girls School – Established 1875. The sign above the vast double entrance doors hung yet, albeit by a single nail, but it clung.
Rachel rose slowly up the sweep of cracked steps and placed her hand on the ornate brass handle of the left door. Another sign, newer, of less presence, hung to the right, warning of the unsafe structure, of danger to life and limb. The words circled a stern hand, held up, palm out; Stop! Smiling, she turned the handle and shoved. The door proved awkward, clearly undisturbed for many years. A heap of general detritus stood firm, but it was no match for Rachel’s determination. Shoulder to flaking paint and spongy wood, she gained ground, enough to allow her to slip inside.
Dust sifted through bars of light which speared down in strange places, illumination bent and distorted by fallen beams, draped furniture and the cut crystal clarity of shattered windows. The light was almost sepia adding to her sense of entering another world, another time. The reception hall showed signs of children other than pupils. The ghosts of long-dead masters could almost be heard shuddering at the graffiti poets and their abuse of the hallowed English language.
An elephant’s foot, once the home of uniformly black umbrellas, had been dragged front and centre, staged now in a glitter of broken bottles and phials, coated in charcoal from countless fires ignited in its depths. Patrons and masters alike peered down through sheens of dirt or seemed horrified by the addition of moustaches gifted by teenage artists. Rachel moved on.
Class after class revealed itself behind crumbling or beaten down doors. All retained their regimentation, some chairs still stacked atop desks, waiting for the morning which never came. Final lessons taught across the years in faded white chalk on scuffed rotary blackboards. An occasional pencil sat in the desk grooves. Inkwells stained forever occupied their correct holes. She riffled through a couple of abandoned exercise books, smiling at the rank and file of tables and verbs. She moved on.
The stairs to the upper floors rebuffed her. Vast chasms of broken treads and risers riddled with termites or mouse holes offered only broken bones. She turned her back and headed for what had once been her favourite place in the world.
A glass conservatory, the preserve of potted palms gone wild, stood silent, flooded with icy winter light. The smell was close to unbearable and she saw instantly where it belonged. Bookshelves lined the entire lower half of the room and every shelf contained rotting, mouldering books. She wandered in, finding something happy in the mushrooms and lichens growing from the books she had once cradled in her lap when this had been her territory.
Knowing her destination had been reached, Rachel turned to the centre of the room. The piano remained. Its sleek black finish was pitted and cracked. The ivory keys, once whiter than snow, now sat like yellowed teeth in split wooden gums. Seeds from the numerous weeds in the conservatory blanketed the piano thickly. She brushed a clear space on a handful of keys, played a few notes but did not hear the silent thud of dead song. Instead she heard…
…him call her name. Saw his mane of dark curls before his face popped above the bookcases. Heard him ask what she was playing. She watched him climb in the window, felt him sit beside her, solid, warm, smelling of sweat and earth. Knew he would ask her to play something soft for him, her hands already hovering over the keys for Fur Elise. She smiled as his hand slipped about her waist, slid round and caressed the curve of her breast, playing on, never missing a beat.
She felt his breath against her neck, his lips on her shoulder, her breath a little quicker, her tempo unwavering. She held fast until he lost patience. She laughed when he swept her up, laid her on the piano and the music danced in her mind as his hands played over her, as his body synched to hers. She reached crescendo in head and body, matching with him.
Moments later, as he left, he’d thrown a rose to her. She’d laid it across her hands as she played him out and back to his gardening. She’d promised herself one day she would write a piece for them, for the Musician and the Muse, but she never had… because he’d been taken with the bomb which had fallen on the school.
She kissed the rose in her hand, laid it on the keys and left quietly. She wanted to be elsewhere when the wrecking ball came in the morning.