Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.
There was a little more to it than that, because in choosing Violet to be his wife the piano tuner had rejected Belle, which was something everyone remembered when the second wedding was announced. ‘Well, she got the ruins of him anyway,’ a farmer of the neighbourhood remarked, speaking without vindictiveness, stating a fact as he saw it. Others saw it similarly, though most of them would have put the matter differently.
The piano tuner’s hair was white and one of his knees became more arthritic with each damp winter that passed. He had once been svelte but was no longer so, and he was blinder than on the day he married Violet — a Thursday in 1951, June 7th. The shadows he lived among now had less shape and less density than those of 1951.
‘I will,’ he responded in the small Protestant church of St Colman, standing almost exactly as he had stood on that other afternoon. And Belle, in her fifty-ninth year, repeated the words her one-time rival had spoken before this altar also. A decent interval had elapsed; no one in the church considered that the memory of Violet had not been honoured, that her passing had not been distressfully mourned. ‘… and with all my worldly goods I thee endow,’ the piano tuner stated, while his new wife thought she would like to be standing beside him in white instead of suitable wine-red. She had not attended the first wedding, although she had been invited. She’d kept herself occupied that day, whitewashing the chicken shed, but even so she’d wept. And tears or not, she was more beautiful — and younger by almost five years - than the bride who so vividly occupied her thoughts as she battled with her jealousy Yet he had preferred Violet — or the prospect of the house that would one day become hers, Belle told herself bitterly in the chicken shed, and the little bit of money there was, an easement in a blind man’s existence. How understandable, she was reminded later on, whenever she saw Violet guiding him as they walked, whenever she thought of Violet making everything work for him, giving him a life. Well, so could she have.
As they left the church the music was by Bach, the organ played by someone else today, for usually it was his task. Groups formed in the small graveyard that was scattered around the small grey building, where the piano tuner’s father and mother were buried, with ancestors on his father’s side from previous generations. There would be tea and a few drinks for any of the wedding guests who cared to make the journey to the house, two miles away, but some said goodbye now, wishing the pair happiness. The piano tuner shook hands that were familiar to him, seeing in his mental eye faces that his first wife had described for him. It was the depth of summer, as in 1951, the sun warm on his forehead and his cheeks, and on his body through the heavy wedding clothes. All his life he had known this graveyard, had first felt the letters on the stones as a child, spelling out to his mother the names of his father’s family. He and Violet had not had children themselves, though they’d have liked them. He was her child, it had been said, a statement that was an irritation for Belle whenever she heard it. She would have given him children, of that she felt certain.
‘I’m due to visit you next month,’ the old bridegroom reminded a woman whose hand still lay in his, the owner of a Steinway, the only one among all the pianos he tuned. She played it beautifully He asked her to whenever he tuned it, assuring her that to hear was fee enough. But she always insisted on paying what was owing.
‘Monday the third I think it is.’
‘Yes, it is, Julia.’
She called him Mr. Dromgould: he had a way about him that did not encourage familiarity in others. Often when people spoke of him he was referred to as the piano tuner, this reminder of his profession reflecting the respect accorded to the possessor of a gift. Owen Francis Dromgould his full name was.
‘Well, we had a good day for it,’ the new young clergyman of the parish remarked. ‘They said maybe showers but sure they got it wrong.’
‘The sky -?’
‘Oh, cloudless, Mr. Dromgould, cloudless.’
‘Well, that’s nice. And you’ll come on over to the house, I hope ?’
‘He must, of course,’ Belle pressed, then hurried through the gathering in the graveyard to reiterate the invitation, for she was determined to have a party.
Some time later, when the new marriage had settled into a routine, people wondered if the piano tuner would begin to think about retiring. With a bad knee, and being sightless in old age, he would readily have been forgiven in the houses and the convents and the school halls where he applied his skill. Leisure was his due, the good fortune of company as his years slipped by no more than he deserved. But when, occasionally, this was put to him by the loquacious or the inquisitive he denied that anything of the kind was in his thoughts, that he considered only the visitation of death as bringing any kind of end. The truth was, he would be lost without his work, without his travelling about, his arrival every six months or so in one of the small towns to which he had offered his services for so long. No, no, he promised, they’d still see the white Vauxhall turning in at a farm gate or parked for half an hour in a convent play-yard, or drawn up on a verge while he ate his lunchtime sandwiches, his tea poured out of a Thermos by his wife.
It was Violet who had brought most of this activity about. When they married he was still living with his mother in the gate-lodge of Barnagorm House. He had begun to tune pianos — the two in Barnagorm House, another in the town of Barnagorm, and one in a farmhouse he walked to four miles away In those days he was a charity because he was blind, was now and again asked to repair the sea-grass seats of stools or chairs, which was an ability he had acquired, or to play at some function or other the violin his mother had bought him in his childhood. But when Violet married him she changed his life. She moved into the gate-lodge, she and his mother not always agreeing but managing to live together none the less. She possessed a car, which meant she could drive him to wherever she discovered a piano, usually long neglected. She drove to houses as far away as forty miles. She fixed his charges, taking the consumption of petrol and wear and tear to the car into account. Efficiently, she kept an address book and marked in a diary the date of each next tuning. She recorded a considerable improvement in earnings, and saw that there was more to be made from the playing of the violin than had hitherto been realized: Country-and-Western evenings in lonely public houses, the crossroads platform dances of summer — a practice that in 1951 had not entirely died out. Owen Dromgould delighted in his violin and would play it anywhere, for profit or not. But Violet was keen on the profit.
So the first marriage busily progressed, and when eventually Violet inherited her father’s house she took her husband to live there. Once a farmhouse, it was no longer so, the possession of the land that gave it this title having long ago been lost through the fondness for strong drink that for generations had dogged the family but had not reached Violet herself.
‘Now, tell me what’s there,’ her husband requested often in their early years, and Violet told him about the house she had brought him to, remotely situated on the edge of the mountains that were blue in certain lights, standing back a bit from a bend in a lane. She described the nooks in the rooms, the wooden window shutters he could hear her pulling over and latching when wind from the east caused a draught that disturbed the fire in the room once called the parlour. She described the pattern of the carpet on the single flight of stairs, the blue-and-white porcelain knobs of the kitchen cupboards, the front door that was never opened. He loved to listen. His mother, who had never entirely come to terms with his affliction, had been impatient. His father, a stableman at Barnagorm House who’d died after a fall, he had never known. ‘Lean as a greyhound,’ Violet described his father from a photograph that remained.
She conjured up the big, cold hall of Barnagorm House. ‘What we walk around on the way to the stairs is a table with a peacock on it. An enormous silvery bird with bits of coloured glass set in the splay of its wings to represent the splendour of the feathers. Greens and blues,’ she said when he asked the colour, and yes, she was certain it was only glass, not jewels, because once, when he was doing his best with the badly flawed grand in the drawing-room, she had been told that. The stairs were on a curve, he knew from going up and down them so often to the Chappell in the nursery The first landing was dark as a tunnel, Violet said, with two sofas, one at each end, and rows of unsmiling portraits half lost in the shadows of the walls.
‘We’re passing Doocey’s now,’ Violet would say. ‘Father Feely’s getting petrol at the pumps.’ Esso it was at Doocey’s, and he knew how the word was written because he’d asked and had been told. Two different colours were employed; the shape of the design had been compared with shapes he could feel. He saw, through Violet’s eyes, the gaunt façade of the McKirdys’ house on the outskirts of Oghill. He saw the pallid face of the stationer in Kiliath. He saw his mother’s eyes closed in death, her hands crossed on her breast. He saw the mountains, blue on some days, misted away to grey on others. ‘A primrose isn’t flamboyant,’ Violet said. ‘More like straw or country butter, with a spot of colour in the middle.’ And he would nod, and know. Soft blue like smoke, she said about the mountains; the spot in the middle more orange than red. He knew no more about smoke than what she had told him also, but he could tell those sounds. He knew what red was, he insisted, because of the sound; orange because you could taste it. He could see red in the Esso sign and the orange spot in the primrose. ‘Straw’ and ‘country butter’ helped him, and when Violet called Mr. Whitten gnarled it was enough. A certain Mother Superior was austere. Anna Craigie was fanciful about the eyes. Thomas in the sawmills was a streel. Bat Conlon had the forehead of the Merricks’ retriever, which was stroked every time the Merricks’ Broadwood was attended to.
Between one woman and the next, the piano tuner had managed without anyone, fetched by the possessors of pianos and driven to their houses, assisted in his shopping and his housekeeping. He felt he had become a nuisance to people, and knew that Violet would not have wanted that. Nor would she have wanted the business she built up for him to be neglected because she was no longer there. She was proud that he played the organ in St Colman’s Church. ‘Don’t ever stop doing that,’ she whispered some time before she whispered her last few words, and so he went alone to the church. It was on a Sunday, when two years almost had passed, that the romance with Belle began.
Since the time of her rejection Belle had been unable to shake off her jealousy, resentful because she had looks and Violet hadn’t, bitter because it seemed to her that the punishment of blindness was a punishment for her too. For what else but a punishment could you call the dark the sightless lived in ? And what else but a punishment was it that darkness should be thrown over her beauty? Yet there had been no sin to punish and they would have been a handsome couple, she and Owen Dromgould. An act of grace it would have been, her beauty given to a man who did not know that it was there.
It was because her misfortune did not cease to nag at her that Belle remained unmarried. She assisted her father first and then her brother in the family shop, making out tickets for the clocks and watches that were left in for repair, noting the details for the engraving of sports trophies. She served behind the single counter, the Christmas season her busy time, glassware and weather indicators the most popular wedding gifts, cigarette lighters and inexpensive jewellery for lesser occasions. In time, clocks and watches required only the fitting of a battery, and so the gift side of the business was expanded. But while that time passed there was no man in the town who lived up to the one who had been taken from her.
Belle had been born above the shop, and when house and shop became her brother’s she continued to live there. Her brother’s children were born, but there was still room for her, and her position in the shop itself was not usurped. It was she who kept the chickens at the back, who always had been in charge of them, given the responsibility on her tenth birthday: that, too, continued. That she lived with a disappointment had long ago become part of her, had made her what she was for her nieces and her nephew. It was in her eyes, some people noted, even lent her beauty a quality that enhanced it. When the romance began with the man who had once rejected her, her brother and his wife considered she was making a mistake, but did not say so, only laughingly asked if she intended taking the chickens with her.
That Sunday they stood talking in the graveyard when the handful of other parishioners had gone. ‘Come and I’ll show you the graves,’ he said, and led the way, knowing exactly where he was going, stepping on to the grass and feeling the first gravestone with his fingers. His grandmother, he said, on his father’s side, and for a moment Belle wanted to feel the incised letters herself instead of looking at them. They both knew, as they moved among the graves, that the parishioners who’d gone home were very much aware of the two who had been left behind. On Sundays, ever since Violet’s death, he had walked to and from his house, unless it happened to be raining, in which case the man who drove old Mrs. Purtill to church took him home also. ‘Would you like a walk, Belle ?’ he asked when he had shown her his family graves. She said she would.
Belle didn’t take the chickens with her when she became a wife. She said she’d had enough of chickens. Afterwards she regretted that, because every time she did anything in the house that had been Violet’s she felt it had been done by Violet before her. When she cut up meat for a stew, standing with the light falling on the board that Violet had used, and on the knife, she felt herself a follower. She diced carrots, hoping that Violet had sliced them. She bought new wooden spoons because Violet’s had shrivelled away so. She painted the upright rails of the banisters. She painted the inside of the front door that was never opened. She disposed of the stacks of women’s magazines, years old, that she found in an upstairs cupboard. She threw away a frying-pan because she considered it unhygienic. She ordered new vinyl for the kitchen floor. But she kept the flowerbeds at the back weeded in case anyone coming to the house might say she was letting the place become run-down.
There was always this dichotomy: what to keep up, what to change. Was she giving in to Violet when she tended her flowerbeds ? Was she giving in to pettiness when she threw away a frying-pan and three wooden spoons? Whatever Belle did she afterwards doubted herself. The dumpy figure of Violet, grey-haired as she had been in the end, her eyes gone small in the plumpness of her face, seemed irritatingly to command. And the unseeing husband they shared, softly playing his violin in one room or another, did not know that his first wife had dressed badly, did not know she had thickened and become sloppy, did not know she had been an unclean cook. That Belle was the one who was alive, that she was offered all a man’s affection, that she plundered his other woman’s possessions and occupied her bedroom and drove her car, should have been enough. It should have been everything, but as time went on it seemed to Belle to be scarcely anything at all. He had become set in ways that had been allowed and hallowed in a marriage of nearly forty years: that was what was always there.
A year after the wedding, as the couple sat one lunchtime in the car which Belle had drawn into the gateway to a field, he said:
‘You’d tell me if it was too much for you?’
‘Too much, Owen ?’
‘Driving all over the county. Having to get me in and out. Having to sit there listening.’
‘It’s not too much.’
‘You’re good the way you’ve patience.’
‘I don’t think I’m good at all.’
‘I knew you were in church that Sunday. I could smell the perfume you had on. Even at the organ I could smell it.’
‘I’ll never forget that Sunday’
‘I loved you when you let me show you the graves.’
‘I loved you before that.’
‘I don’t want to tire you out, with all the traipsing about after pianos. I could let it go, you know.’
He would do that for her, her thought was as he spoke. He wasn’t much for a woman, he had said another time: a blind man moving on towards the end of his days. He confessed that when first he wanted to marry her he hadn’t put it to her for more than two months, knowing better than she what she’d be letting herself in for if she said yes. ‘What’s that Belle look like these days?’ he had asked Violet a few years ago, and Violet hadn’t answered at first. Then apparently she’d said: ‘Belle still looks a girl.’
‘I wouldn’t want you to stop your work. Not ever, Owen.’
‘You’re all heart, my love. Don’t say you’re not good.’
‘It gets me out and about too, you know. More than ever in my life. Down all those avenues to houses I didn’t know were there. Towns I’ve never been to. People I never knew. It was restricted before.’
The word slipped out, but it didn’t matter. He did not reply that he understood about restriction, for that was not his style. When they were getting to know one another, after that Sunday by the church, he said he’d often thought of her in her brother’s jeweller’s shop, wrapping up what was purchased there, as she had wrapped for him the watch he bought for one of Violet’s birthdays. He’d thought of her putting up the grilles over the windows in the evenings and locking the shop door, and then going upstairs to sit with her brother’s family. When they were married she told him more: how most of the days of her life had been spent, only her chickens her own. ‘Smart in her clothes,’ Violet had added when she said the woman he’d rejected still looked a girl.
There hadn’t been any kind of honeymoon, but a few months after he had wondered if travelling about was too much for her he took Belle away to a seaside resort where he and Violet had many times spent a week. They stayed in the same boarding-house, the Sans Souci, and walked on the long, empty strand and in lanes where larks scuttered in and out of the fuchsia, and on the cliffs. They drank in Malley’s public house. They lay in autumn sunshine on the dunes.
‘You’re good to have thought of it.’ Belle smiled at him, pleased because he wanted her to be happy
‘Set us up for the winter, Belle.’
She knew it wasn’t easy for him. They had come to this place because he knew no other; he was aware before they set out of the complication that might develop in his emotions when they arrived. She had seen that in his face, a stoicism that was there for her. Privately, he bore the guilt of betrayal, stirred up by the smell of the sea and seaweed. The voices in the boarding-house were the voices Violet had heard. For Violet, too, the scent of honeysuckle had lingered into October. It was Violet who first said a week in the autumn sun would set them up for the winter: that showed in him, also, a moment after he spoke the words.
‘I’ll tell you what we’ll do,’ he said. ‘When we’re back we’ll get you the television, Belle.’
‘Oh, but you — ’
‘You’d tell me.’
They were walking near the lighthouse on the cape when he said that. He would have offered the television to Violet, but Violet must have said she wouldn’t be bothered with the thing. It would never be turned on, she had probably argued; you only got silliness on it anyway.
‘You’re good to me,’ Belle said instead.
‘Ah no, no.’
When they were close enough to the lighthouse he called out and a man called back from a window. ‘Hold on a minute,’ the man said, and by the time he opened the door he must have guessed that the wife he’d known had died. ‘You’ll take a drop?’ he offered when they were inside, when the death and the remarriage had been mentioned. Whiskey was poured, and Belle felt that the three glasses lifted in salutation were an honouring of her, although this was not said. It rained on the way back to the boarding-house, the last evening of the holiday
‘Nice for the winter,’ he said as she drove the next day through rain that didn’t cease. ‘The television.’
When it came, it was installed in the small room that once was called the parlour, next to the kitchen. This was where mostly they sat, where the radio was. A fortnight after the arrival of the television set Belle acquired a small black sheepdog that a farmer didn’t want because it was afraid of sheep. This dog became hers and was always called hers. She fed it and looked after it. She got it used to travelling with them in the car. She gave it a new name, Maggie, which it answered to in time.
But even with the dog and the television, with additions and disposals in the house, with being so sincerely assured that she was loved, with being told she was good, nothing changed for Belle. The woman who for so long had taken her husband’s arm, who had guided him into rooms of houses where he coaxed pianos back to life, still claimed existence. Not as a tiresome ghost, some unforgiving spectre uncertainly there, but as if some part of her had been left in the man she’d loved.
Sensitive in ways that other people weren’t, Owen Dromgould continued to sense his second wife’s unease. She knew he did. It was why he had offered to give up his work, why he’d taken her to Violet’s seashore and borne there the guilt of his betrayal, why there was a television set now, and a sheepdog. He had guessed why she’d re-covered the kitchen floor. Proudly, he had raised his glass to her in the company of a man who had known Violet. Proudly, he had sat with her in the dining-room of the boarding-house and in Malley’s public house.
Belle made herself remember all that. She made herself see the bottle of John Jameson taken from a cupboard in the lighthouse, and hear the boarding-house voices. He understood, he did his best to comfort her; his affection was in everything he did. But Violet would have told him which leaves were on the turn. Violet would have reported that the tide was going out or coming in. Too late Belle realized that. Violet had been his blind man’s vision. Violet had left her no room to breathe.
One day, coming away from the house that was the most distant they visited, the first time Belle had been there, he said:
‘Did you ever see a room as sombre as that one? Is it the holy pictures that do it?’
Belle backed the car and straightened it, then edged it through a gateway that, thirty years ago, hadn’t been made wide enough.
‘Sombre?’ she said on a lane like a riverbed, steering around the potholes as best she could.
‘We used wonder could it be they didn’t want anything colourful in the way of a wallpaper in case it wasn’t respectful to the pictures.’
Belle didn’t comment on that. She eased the Vauxhall out on to the tarred road and drove in silence over a stretch of bogland. Vividly she saw the holy pictures in the room where Mrs. Grenaghan’s piano was: Virgin and Child, Sacred Heart, St Catherine with her lily, the Virgin on her own, Jesus in glory. They hung against nondescript brown; there were statues on the mantelpiece and on a corner shelf. Mrs. Grenaghan had brought tea and biscuits to that small, melancholy room, speaking in a hushed tone as if the holiness demanded that.
‘What pictures?’ Belle asked, not turning her head, although she might have, for there was no other traffic and the bog road was straight.
‘Aren’t the pictures still in there? Holy pictures all over the place ?’
‘They must have taken them down.’
‘What’s there then?’
Belle went a little faster. She said a fox had come from nowhere, over to the left. It was standing still, she said, the way foxes do.
‘You want to pull up and watch him, Belle ?’
‘No. No, he’s moved on now. Was it Mrs. Grenaghan’s daughter who played that piano ?’
‘Oh, it was. And she hasn’t seen that girl in years. We used say the holy pictures maybe drove her away. What’s on the walls now ?’
‘A striped paper.’ And Belle added: ‘There’s a photograph of the daughter on the mantelpiece.’
Some time later, on another day, when he referred to one of the sisters at the convent in Meena as having cheeks as flushed as an eating apple, Belle said that that nun was chalky white these days, her face pulled down and sunken. ‘She has an illness so,’ he said.
Suddenly more confident, not caring what people thought, Belle rooted out Violet’s plants from the flowerbeds at the back, and grassed the flowerbeds over. She told her husband of a change at Doocey’s garage: Texaco sold instead of Esso. She described the Texaco logo, the big red star and how the letters of the word were arranged. She avoided stopping at Doocey’s in case a conversation took place there, in case Doocey were asked if Esso had let him down, or what. ‘Well, no, I wouldn’t call it silvery exactly,’ Belle said about the peacock in the hall of Barnagorm house. ‘If they cleaned it up I’d say it’s brass underneath.’ Upstairs, the sofas at each end of the landing had new loose covers, bunches of different-coloured chrysanthemums on them. ‘Well no, not lean, I wouldn’t call him that,’ Belle said with the photograph of her husband’s father in her hand. ‘A sturdy face, I’d say.’ A schoolteacher whose teeth were once described as gusty had false teeth now, less of a mouthful, her smile sedate. Time had apparently drenched the bright white of the McKirdys’ façade, almost a grey you’d call it. ‘Forget-me-not blue,’ Belle said one day, speaking of the mountains that were blue when the weather brought that colour out. ‘You’d hardly credit it.’ And it was never again said in the piano tuner’s house that the blue of the mountains was the subtle blue of smoke.
Owen Dromgould had run his fingers over the bark of trees. He could tell the difference in the outline of their leaves; he could tell the thorns of gorse and bramble. He knew birds from their song, dogs from their bark, cats from the touch of them on his legs. There were the letters on the gravestones, the stops of the organ, his violin. He could see red, berries on holly and cotoneaster. He could smell lavender and thyme.
All that could not be taken from him. And it didn’t matter if, overnight, the colour had worn off the kitchen knobs. It didn’t matter if the china light-shade in the kitchen had a crack he hadn’t heard about before. What mattered was damage done to something as fragile as a dream.
The wife he had first chosen had dressed drably: from silence and inflexions - more than from words - he learned that now. Her grey hair straggled to her shoulders, her back was a little humped. He poked his way about, and they were two old people when they went out on their rounds, older than they were in their ageless happiness. She wouldn’t have hurt a fly, she wasn’t a person you could be jealous of, yet of course it was hard on a new wife to be haunted by happiness, to be challenged by the simplicities there had been. He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.
Each house that contained a piano brought forth its contradictions. The pearls old Mrs. Purtill wore were opals, the pallid skin of the stationer in Kiliath was freckled, the two lines of oaks above Oghill were surely beeches ? ‘Of course, of course,’ Owen Dromgould agreed, since it was fair that he should do so. Belle could not be blamed for making her claim, and claims could not be made without damage or destruction. Belle would win in the end because the living always do. And that seemed fair also, since Violet had won in the beginning and had had the better years.