The Keys

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Every Saturday, Nneka’s mother sent her next door to deliver Mrs Baratunde’s groceries. The youngest of four, with the other three being teenagers, Nneka, at seven years old, was the only one of her siblings awake when the groceries were delivered each Saturday morning. She enjoyed going into Mrs Baratunde’s house; it smelt of Nigeria. At least that’s what she assumed Nigeria smelt like; though she had not yet been to the country, it was the smell that poured out of her aunties’ suitcases when they came back from their holidays back home. 

The fence separating Nneka’s garden from Mrs Baratunde’s garden had collapsed so she could carry the shopping bags in through Mrs Baratunde’s backdoor. Nneka would pass through the living room, through the corridor and then on into the kitchen, where she would offload the items into his fridge and cupboards. Most of the rooms were sparsely furnished, but in the living room, there was a large piano. Nneka could often hear Mrs Baratunde playing it in the evenings. She would sometimes linger at his door with the shopping bags because as soon as she knocked, the music would stop.

One summer’s day, Mrs Baratunde’s door was open. Nneka could see her seated at the piano playing. Hearing the sound in person for the first time, unencumbered by walls or doors, Nneka was surprised by the way the music felt. It was more than a sound; it was a physical force that seemed capable of sweeping her off the ground. Mrs Baratunde appeared to have no interest in supervising grocery transportation that day, so Nneka carried the groceries into the kitchen and put every item in its rightful place. She then returned to the living room and stood beside the door, listening to Mrs Baratunde play until she finished. 

Nneka had learnt not to be noticed. Her siblings were too old for her to play with. Her sister Amaka, the oldest at seventeen, was busy with exams and only a few months away from leaving the house to go to university. The boys Chinedu and Ikechukwu, at 13 and 15, were glued to their games console when they were not studying. When she was not at school or doing homework, Nneka simply found a corner or cupboard in her house to sit in and listen to music. On subsequent trips to Mrs Baratunde’s house, Nneka took her tablet with her. She had an app that could name any song. Now, interspersed between Aṣa and Stromae, she had Beethoven and Chopin on her playlist. 

***

“Can I play?”

Mrs Baratunde did not turn around. She had just finished playing a piece, but she did not even acknowledge Nneka’s question or her presence. Nneka had spent the best part of three weeks preparing to ask her question so she couldn’t let the silence deter her, “I would like to learn how to play the piano.”

Mrs Baratunde passed her right hand gently across the white keys. 

“I’m not a piano teacher,” she said, still not turning towards Nneka. 

Her tone was dismissive; Nneka suddenly felt uncomfortable, like an alien, an invader, so she left. A few days later, she found her courage renewed.

“You don’t have to be a teacher to teach me,” she said. “You know how to do it, so you can show me, and I can learn.”

“It’s not that easy,” Mrs Baratunde replied sharply.

Nneka was right beside her. She reached forward past Mrs Baratunde’s right shoulder and played the right hand of the end of the song she had just finished playing, which according to her app was Christian Petzold’s Minuet in G. Mrs Baratunde stared silently at Nneka’s hand. After a moment, she slid her stool back and gave Nneka access to all of the keys.

“Both hands?” she said, simultaneously a question and a command. 

Nneka played the whole piece, savouring the feel of the keys under her fingers.

***

In the following weeks, Nneka learnt notes, chords and scales. She memorised every distinct sound that the instrument could make. Then one day, once she had finished unpacking the groceries, Mrs Baratunde motioned for Nneka to sit beside her on the stool.

“I will play something, and then you play it,” Mrs Baratunde instructed; Nneka was already walking towards the door.

“I don’t have time today,” said Nneka.

She longed to get her hands on the keys, but she knew she would get in trouble if she did not get her homework done before the end of the weekend.

“If you want to learn, I’ll teach you now,” Mrs Baratunde said, emphasising the last word.

Nneka sat down beside her and said, “OK. Play.”

Mrs Baratunde began to play a piece that Nnneka would later learn was Bach’s Prelude in C Major. It was short. On her first attempt, Nneka fumbled a couple of notes. She practised it a couple of times until she could get through it with almost no errors. 

***

Nneka sat around the table with her mother and her siblings. On weekdays, the shift patterns of her two jobs usually kept Nneka’s mother away at dinner times, so the family made a point of eating together on the weekend. Nneka had left Mrs Baratunde playing, and she was still playing, providing faint background music as the family ate dinner. 

“What is it, Nneka?” asked her mother. “You seem distracted.”

“I’m listening to the music,” Nneka replied.

“It’s so annoying,” said Chinedu. “We need thicker walls.”

“I like it,” said Nneka.

“Of course you do,” said Chinedu.

Mrs Baratunde kept playing late into the night. Nneka lay still and silent on the bed in the bedroom she shared with her sister. As the music came through the walls, it was like sunlight streaming through the windows of a dark room. Each note brought illumination, and as Nneka lay in her bed she felt as if her body was absorbing the music. 

***

The following Saturday, Nneka learnt Für Elise by Beethoven very quickly and easily. She was getting used to playing the keys. Mrs Baratunde then said that Nneka was ready for some more challenging pieces. She played Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca and then motioned for Nneka to play it. She had been watching Mrs Baratunde’s fingers intently as she had instructed, but when her turn came, she kept getting confused and missing keys. 

“I guess it was too hard,” Mrs Baratunde sighed.

“No, I can play it,” Nneka insisted. “Your fingers were moving too fast.”

“That’s the speed of the music.”

“I know I can do it,” Nneka said, staring at her hands. “It’s just that the fingers are confusing.”

Mrs Baratunde rubbed her chin, then she said, “Go to the door.”

Nneka wanted to protest, but she followed the instruction.

“Stand there with your back to me and listen.”

Nneka stood as she played another new piece, Mozart’s Eiine Kleine Nachtmusik. She listened to the notes, and she recalled the keys that made the various sounds. By the time the five and a half minute piece was over, she was feeling less sad and was eager to get her hands on the keys. 

“Now you try,”

Nneka sat down and began to play. She had never heard the piece before that day, but she could remember every note Mrs Baratunde had played. She knew every note on the piano. Her brain matched the two, and she played the whole song perfectly. 

***

The following week when Nneka went to Mrs Baratunde’s house, there was another woman there. She was younger than Mrs Baratunde. 

“This is Mrs Raji,” said Mrs Baratunde. “She’s the music director at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre.” 

“I run the community music group,” Mrs Raji explained. “I also teach piano at some of the local schools.”

“OK,” said Nneka; she was a little bored and wanted to get to the piano.

“I have a piece that I want you to try,” said Mrs Raji. “I can send it to your tablet so you can learn, and I’ll come back next week to hear you play it.”

Once the file had been transferred, Nneka played the song and sat at the piano. She recognised the song.

“I know this one,” she said. “It’s the moonlight song, it’s on my playlist, but I haven’t tried it yet.”

“Yes, it’s the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven,” said Mrs Raji. 

Nneka started testing some keys, “Hold on, I think I can play it.”

After testing a few more keys, she paused, took a deep breath and played the entire seventeen-minute piece. When she had finished, the two older women stood in stunned silence. 

“Perfect pitch..” Mrs Raji said softly.

“And an echoic memory,” added Mrs Baratunde.

“What?” Nneka said, confused.

“Perfect pitch means you can identify and replicate any note you hear, and an echoic memory is like a photographic memory but for sound,” explained Mrs Raji. “It means that you can remember everything you hear in precise detail.”

“How old are you, Nneka?” asked Mrs Baratunde. 

“I’m seven,” replied Nneka.

Mrs Raji gasped, “She’s a musical prodigy.”

“A what?” said Nneka.

“You’re a genius Nneka,” said Mrs Raji.

“It’s not that hard once you have the keys,” Nneka said shyly. She inched towards the door. “I have to go now. Mummy is taking us to a party. See you next week, Mrs Baratunde. Nice to meet you, Mrs Raji.”

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