What's that sound behind you?
| My fingers dance over the keys, spinning a melody I’ve never heard before. Bell like chimes interspersed with low rumbles, forming one of those songs that digs deep into your skull and lodges there, forcing you to listen to it again and again.
I finish with a high note, getting up from the seat and turning to the audience, steadying myself on the piano as I rise.
The seats stretch into the distance, fading to grayness. Every one is full. Hundreds, no thousands of people have come to see and hear me play. They all raise their hands in unison, starting a slow clap.
I curtsy, my red dress swishing around my ankles.
Sunlight shines through the blinds, creating bars around my bed. I slip from under the covers, that song still playing in my head.
As if in a trance, I walk toward my piano.
I set my fingers on the keys, trying to remember the starting note. I get it wrong twice before hitting the right one, then my fingers work their way into the rhythm.
I feel the music surround me in a cocoon of happiness. I always feel my best when I’m playing.
I finish the song and sit back.
And then, I hear it.
Clap. Clap. Clap.
Three times, then silence. A beat.
Clap, clap, clap.
Someone is clapping for me.
I spin around, grabbing a heavy cut glass vase from the top of my piano. I hold it in front of me, my heart beating fast.
I live alone. I’ve lived alone since my husband died, 13 years ago.
The clapping has stopped. Gingerly, I lower the vase.
I shine a torch around every corner of the room, but I can’t find anything.
Suddenly, my printer starts up. The burr, burr, burr shocks me, because I never even turned it on.
It buzzes a little, then spits out a piece of paper.
Printed on it, in huge letters, is ‘Hello, Maria.’
I run into the other room, but my laptop is still shut. ‘Hello?’ I say cautiously.
The printer buzzes again, and this time the paper says ‘Don’t be scared.’
I say aloud ‘How could I not be scared? My printer has become sentient!’
‘I’m not your printer!’
I sense a note of indignation in the words. ‘Then who are you?’
‘I’m not going to hurt you.’
I snatch up the vase again. ‘You better not try!’
The printer stays silent. I stand for a few minutes, waiting, but nothing happens.
As I leave the room, I think I catch a whiff of something familiar, but that I can’t quite remember.
I’m jumpy for the rest of the day, but nothing else happens except I catch that scent a couple more times. Something is niggling at the back of my mind, but I still can’t quite remember it.
Just before I go to bed, the printer spits out one more piece of paper.
I ask it what it means, but it remains silent. I’m still puzzling over it as I lie on my side in bed, unable to sleep.
The thirteenth year since my second child left home? The thirteenth year since my husband died?
The scent is back, but stronger this time. I suddenly remember where I smelt it before.
It was how he always smelt; of pine and woodsmoke, with just a hint of cinnamon.
The bed creaks.
I turn over, and scream.
There is a dip in his side of the double bed. As I watch, the covers pull themselves up over the mound where his body would be.
I leap out of the bed, grabbing the lamp from the bedside table. My hands are shaking too hard to hold it steady.
I slam my palm against the light switch, and the room is bathed in yellow light.
The bulb flickers, makes a hissing sound, and dies.
‘You can’t get rid of me.’ he says. ‘But you don’t have to be scared.’
It’s his voice. That’s what makes me certain it’s him.
I’m shivering in my thin nightdress. ‘I can’t see you.’
Through our 26 years married, he was nothing but lovely to me. Why would being dead - and, apparently, invisible - change that?
Still shivering, I get back into bed. I turn my back to him and lie, frozen.
‘I won’t be long. I can only be here for 26 hours. One for every year we were married.’
‘Why are you here anyway?’
‘I’ll come back to see you every thirteen years. I’ll spend 26 hours with you.’
I almost turn to face him, but then I feel him touch my back. He wraps his arms around me, pulling me close. ‘Don’t turn around.’ There’s a note of pleading in his voice.
‘You won’t be able to see me. Just imagine everything is normal, and I’m alive.’
I curl into a ball. Our bodies still fit perfectly together. Amazingly, I feel... safe.
‘It was nice of you to clap for me.’
I feel his arms go rigid. ‘What?’
‘When I was playing the piano. You clapped for me.’
He sounds scared. ‘Maria... I never clapped for you... I wasn’t solid enough at that point...’
‘Then who was clapping?’
‘Something else must have come through with me...'