The old queen possesses a cold stare that no doubt caused those around her to tremble uncontrollably. I suspect she never smiled during what my grandmother referred to as “Her Majesty’s sixty-three year reign.”
I look up at the yellowed photo hanging on the wall, finally deciding that rain is a very fitting word. She looks as though she “rained” over a lot of people. My grandmother loved the old Queen maybe more than she loved the pump organ she played right up until the week before she died. Whatever the case, it hardly matters now that my mother is the rightful heir to both of these relics.
I jump off the organ stool, spin it a few times each way and settle my rump back down. Practise makes perfect. I clear my throat. Silently wince. Position my fingers and begin reaching for the ivory-white keys.
It is mid-morning and the day is sultry, sticky as a handful of liquorice candy. My mother is rummaging about upstairs in search of a pair of dungarees; a pair left over from the days when she worked at the creamery way back when the war was on. My father left the house last night in a fit of anger and hasn’t returned. The thumps and bumps coming from upstairs tell me she’s still fuming over the argument that sent him away.
Yesterday Millie from the creamery stopped by for tea. She and my mother sat at the table and talked about old times. Mesmerized by the sparkle in my mother’s eyes, the way she tilted her head in laughter, I wondered about this strange woman. How was she able to evoke such a response in my mother, something I’d never seen before?
“Come back to the creamery. A few days a week even. Come on. It’ll be fun. Like old times again,” Millie urged, sitting on the edge of her chair.
“But I’m married now,” came my mother’s hesitant reply as she looked my way.
“Good grief! You’re married not buried,” said Millie.
“Millie Flankhorn should just keep her big mouth shut,” I overheard my father say right before he stormed out of the house last night.
I begin pumping my spindly legs back and forth on the organ pedals, listening for the familiar sound of air to begin circulating. I can’t help from praying that something will free me of the promise I made my mother just before summer vacation started. It was a foolish promise, the result of a sudden impulse that came over me one evening as I watched her setting the supper table.
“I’m going to practise playing every day this summer,” I vowed.
“Your grandmother would be so pleased,” she said, stroking my cheek.
There was no mistaking the look of misery that had been plaguing her this past while, and so I revelled in that small gesture of hers for hours afterward, thinking I had found the secret way into her heart again, something my father had been unable to do.
My grandmother was the church organist at St. Paul’s for forty-one years and when the organ arrived shortly after her death I saw my mother attempting to play. Her fingers started and stopped, reached and retracted. The notes she produced were jagged and uneven, until finally out of frustration she beat her fists upon the keys sending a sequence of notes face first into the air.
“We haven’t the room,” my father had said the day Uncle Jim’s truck turned into the driveway with the organ on back, “and you can’t even play, Jennie. You can’t play a note.”
“I don’t want it, either,” she’d said, her eyes wrapping invisible hands about my father’s throat and squeezing tight. “But she left it to me. It’s mine. Mine to say if it stays or goes.”
A place was cleared in the dining room and my mother hired Mrs. Porter to give me lessons. She hung near the doorway the first day Mrs. Porter arrived and I ordered her to leave.
“She’ s anxious to hear you play,” said Mrs. Porter smiling, her flabby arms sifting through the pages of sheet music she’d brought.
“Maybe she should take the lessons,” I sputtered, and Mrs. Porter made a clucking noise.
Now, three weeks into my promise I’m beside myself. The first week of vacation had been dreary and wet. The droning notes from the organ seemed a most fitting sound as I attempted to churn out some standard hymns. I was stupid to have made such a promise. I was spurred by the thought that I was making my mother happy and the fact that there was little else to do, the weather being what it was. Besides, the old Queen was raining over our household too, looking down at us in silence, her puffy face and bare arms soaking up the humidity like a kitchen sponge. I suspected she knew more than she was letting on, that hiding behind her dreary exterior was some heavily-guarded secret that would one day affect us all.
As the summer progressed I became even more aware of a growing tension inside our house. Most days I was sympathetic toward my father for it seemed he was forever on the receiving end of my mother’s changing moods.
“Your mother is unsettled,” he said one day while we sat out on the verandah together. He had just finished mowing the small patch of grass in front of the house and we were enjoying an iced tea. “It happens to women sometimes for no real reason at all. We need to be patient.”
A small bead of sweat formed beneath his nose as he finished his drink. I had no idea what he meant by unsettled, but I nodded my head, took a sip of my tea, and pretended to understand. The smell of cut grass dithered along a thin narrow streak of fresh air. I thought of the day my father first brought home the lawn mower; the first one of its kind in our neighbourhood.
“Look at him. Like a child with a new toy,” my mother grumbled from the living room window. “Getting ahead of the Jones’. That’s all that is.”
“Why don’t you try using it? It might be fun.” I said. She gave me a peculiar look and closed the curtain with a snap.
The house is quiet as I sift through the sheets of music, deciding what to play next. Mrs. Porter will be coming later this afternoon and is expecting to see some marked improvement. She constantly complains to my mother that I’m not taking it seriously.
“I can’t be expected to teach someone who obviously lacks interest. Give me someone with interest and I can work miracles,” she’d said one day.
“For goodness sake you could at least try, Becky. This is costing a fortune,” my mother has whispered as Mrs. Porter headed for the door.
Before striking another note on the organ I hear the familiar whirr of the lawn mower outside. Realizing that my father has finally returned, a flash of relief flickers through me. I hurry toward the door anxious for some explanation, a reason befitting his absence. But when I reach the verandah I am caught suddenly off guard at the sight of my mother in her dungarees, the ones left over from her creamery days, pushing the lawn mower, the air singing with approval, bits of grass leaping and swirling, swirling and leaping.
Later, my mother and I sit on the verandah and drink iced tea. I gather the look of satisfaction on her face and cradle it in my arms afraid to move, afraid that it will fall flat to the ground and break.
“You don’t need to practise any more,” she says staring out across the newly cut grass. Filled with relief by the magic of her words, I throw my arms about her neck. We do not speak another word, only sit there and wait for my father’s return.
The grass scatters chaotically as my father now pushes the mower around the backyard. The music coming from inside the house is slow but steady. I can hear Mrs. Porter instructing my mother as to where to place her fingers on the ivory keys. I smile, turn my face up to the bright, clear sky, and hold this image close to my heart. The old queen’s rain has come to an end.
Thank you, Laura; my anxiety built with the narrator’s right to the end – but the old queen didn’t win, after all!
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Great story, Laura. I well recall the Queen on the wall in many locations.
Great story Laura!
I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and always appreciate your excellent writing, Laura.
I also find the painting by Carol Morrison quite interesting.
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