Learning the Pipes
story and photo by Carol Reid
“You’re a fraud, Miss Cathie,” Nanny said. “Finish up that bit of soup now and wash your face.”
Cathie’s eyes stung from crying. She was certain she would die from dehydration, very soon, with all the tears shed since Thursday evening!
“She’ll have none of your histrionics,” Father had said. And off he'd gone to Glasgow.
Cathie was certain that Nanny had never even heard of histrionics. Nanny was an ugly, flat, grey stone. Cathie set her mouth in a determined line and folded her little hands in her lap.
“The cat will be glad enough to have your leavings,” Nanny said at last. “Go on then, tip your bowl into her dish.”
Cathie slowly poured the remaining broth into the bowl at the garden door, rinsed out her own bowl and daubed her face with icy water from the spigot. She went up on tiptoe and looked through the leaded pane at the long green rectangle of lawn and the drystone wall to the west that separated their land from the vast, mist-draped field in the distance.
Nanny crept up behind her. Cathie could smell the damp wool of her overcoat and gloves.
“Come on then, get on your boots. I’ll walk with you to the end of the drive.”
Cathie slipped on her beloved red plaid coat and blue rubber boots. Her lesson book lay in the thin layer of dust on top of the piano, untouched since the Saturday before. She tucked it quickly into her satchel.
Mr. Barrett was quite fed up with her. She knew it would not be long before he spoke to her father and said that Cathie was not making the effort required for any kind of progress with the piano. Cathie had decided that she did not believe in practice. Making her fingers work the scales a hundred times a day would never turn her hands into Mr. Barrett’s hands, which plucked the notes from the keyboard as easily as the birds plucked berries from the trees. There could be no other reason for his ability than magic; a magic that adults kept secret and paraded cruelly in front of the noses of poor wee children as herself.
They had come to the foot of the long drive. Cathie pinched Nanny's hand, then turned and made a cross-eyed curtsey at the old horror. Her giggle died in her throat at the sight of Nanny's grimace and upraised fist. Cathie tripped backward and the back of her head connected hard with the rocky ground. Nanny groaned and covered her face with her hands as Cathie scrambled to her feet and ran into the lane, toward Mr. Barrett’s property.
The wind came up in big, pillowy gusts that chilled her ears. She had lost her woollen scarf the day before – that is, dragged it behind her playing with the cat and left it in the mud. She cast a glance behind her but Nanny was nowhere to be seen. Her eyes watered and her scalp tightened in the cold.
She skipped along, shivering, humming whatever tune the wind seemed to be keening through the heavy branches. She reached the top of Mr. Barrett’s pathway and stood still, attending to the tattered grey clouds that scraped the treetops and a low whistle that was certainly coming from the shadowed woods.
Her neglected lesson book hung heavy as a sin in her little satchel. She dropped the bag onto the damp ground and dawdled into the copse of creaking trees. The darkness there was not as oppressive as the heavy grey sky and the earthy air was a comfort to her eyes. The music took a rest and she listened to the tender sighs of the forest about her. Fairies, she thought. How lovely it would be to catch one and keep it in a jar!
“Go on,” she said to whatever was there.
A surprised cry came from behind a tree and a small white face ducked
out and peered at her.
“Who are you?” she said, taking a cautious step backward.
“Donald Cove,” the boy replied, then puffed out his narrow chest and
said in a stronger voice, “Well, I’m the ghost of Donald Cove. My uncle killed
me and threw me in the well.”
Cathie took another step back. The boy was thin and dirty and very pale,
much worse off than any of the boys at school.
“How did you get out?” Cathie said.
“Was a dry well, shallow and dry. I clumb up the stones and came back
up above ground. Was not so hard. Who are you, then?”
“I’m Cathie Mudrie. I was to have my lesson down there with Mr. Barrett but I’ve not done my practice.”
“I think you must be a ghost too, else you couldn’t see me.”
“Wouldn’t I know it if I was?” Cathie snapped at him. She felt an odd prickling under her skin and a swimming in her head, as if she might faint away.
Donald blew a few notes on his pipe, which did sound very ghostly to Cathie’s ears. But she could smell the old boots on his feet and a musty, faded mothball scent that reminded her of hunger.
“I think you might be daft,” she said.
“Well, do they take any notice of you at home?”
Cathie could not remember the last time her father had taken any notice of her, not really. Long ago her mama had gone down to Glasgow to finish her studies, something that was owed to her, her father said. Once in a while he would tinker with the big black Daimler until it was in good running order. Then he would visit Mama in her rooms for a night or two and return more distracted than ever and even less approachable.
“Only Nanny," Cathie said in answer to Donald’s question, “and she’s awful.”
Donald leaned back against the tree trunk and nodded.
“That’s because you’re haunting her. Are you a great torment to her, then?”
For the first time in ages Cathie felt a real smile threaten to split her face.
“Oh, I am,” she said, “but why would I haunt Nanny?”
“Well, it was her that killed you, wasn’t it?” Donald said as he took up the pipe again.
Cathie remembered Nanny’s upraised hand and a blast of cold wind at her back as she ran down the lane.
“She must have knocked me on the head and broken my poor neck!” Like the robin the cat had lain at the doorstep, little head drooping and tucked into the rusty feathers of its breast. “Or fed me poisoned soup!”
Donald nodded again and played another snippet of melody, as if there needed nothing more said. Like a puzzle suddenly solved, Cathie understood why her fingers felt useless and leaden on the piano keys, why she had no liking for the broth or oatcakes or sweet soft apples that Nanny set at her place at breakfast, why her tears moved no one, why her complaints remained ignored and swept aside.
The tune from Donald’s pipe hung listlessly in the air between them, the lonely tones fading and disappearing before they were properly heard. The air was growing colder and new stirrings of unease fluttered across Cathie’s heart.
“Do we just stay here in the cold, then, with no one to hear us?”
“We can do just as we like,” Donald answered. “We can sleep in the trees and drop chestnuts on whoever passes by, or whisper as they go along in the dark.”
“Can I learn the pipes too, then? Would you teach me that song?”
“Oh, I could, but it’s useless to try to make them hear it. It’s only we ghosts who can hear the music.”
Cathie shrugged and circled the tree, picking at its rough bark.
“Is there nothing we can do to make them notice us?’
He pushed up his dirty sleeve to reveal a thick crust of scab and a mass of bruises.
Cathie put her hands deep into her pockets and looked down at the
“But they can’t hurt you now, Donald,” she insisted. “There must be
something we can do!”
Donald shook out the pipe and dried the mouthpiece on his collar. He
gestured to Cathie to come along and they trotted out of the wood onto the twilit lane. She left her satchel where she had dropped it. Someone would pick it up and take it home to her father or the gypsies would come and take it for themselves. She cared little, either way.
She took the lead as they neared her property but came upon her house like a stranger. It was a structure like any other, dark except for a soft glow in the kitchen window. The packed gravel was silent under their ghostly feet.
The long nose of her father’s car poked out of the garage. Home now, was he? If only he had stayed home and kept her safe from Nanny.
Cathie and Donald crept up to the parlour window and she saw his eyes grow wide. Inside, Nanny was bustling around the bookcase, dusting the leather-bound volumes with a chamois cloth. He slipped into the space between the boxwood and the glass and she heard him sigh.
She saw what he saw. A blue vase of mums on the polished table, a glass-fronted cabinet filled with pretty china cups and glittering crystal sherry glasses. Lovely, fragile things she had been forbidden to touch. She saw in Donald’s gaze what she was meant to do.
She was through the big oak door in a moment, sweeping the vase off the table, flinging open the cabinet doors, knocking everything she touched to the floor, a wet, shattered mess. Whatever landed intact she grabbed and threw at the walls.
Her arms burned and ached from her efforts. She was panting, gasping for breath when a deep voice called her name but she kept on, careless of the litter of crystal shards. Her fingertips dripped blood.
Then his arms were around her, holding her rigid. With each utterance of her name her rage softened and abated. She saw that she was in her father’s arms. His dark eyes, immeasurably sad, focused only on her face. The blood from her fingers stained the white cotton of his shirt, yet he held her still, murmuring, “Oh my poor girl, my poor darling.”
She must have fainted then or fallen into a fevered sleep and in her dream she was leaning into the foul opening of an old well, calling Donald's name, begging her father to come and pull the boy to safety. She dreamed that she opened her eyes and saw Nanny weeping. Imagine, a stone leaking tears!
Late in the evening, when she awoke, she was allowed to eat chocolates in bed. Her father spread out a lace-edged linen napkin on the top sheet and sat in a chair beside her. She dozed and awoke many times in the night and each time she opened her eyes he was still there, softly snoring.
Once or twice came a fleeting thought of the boy in the wood and whether men should be sent to look for him or perhaps look for his body in the wells. The drowsy thoughts drifted and waned and she put them aside. But when dawn broke, the sight of her own fingers bound with soft cloth brought on the memory of the boy's scarred arms.
“Father!” she said, jolting him awake. “Please, you mustn't leave me anymore
with awful Nanny!”
He held her hands gently, then stood and drew back the bedroom
curtains to let in a little light. When she was calm enough to listen, he assured her that Nanny was quite gone, poor woman. Hearing Cathie's fevered cries, she had told a wild tale of her own young son, said to have run off many years ago after being sent to work for his uncle, a rough customer name of Tom Cove who held a scrap of land on the other side of the village. She had walked out in the wee hours, with not even a coat for warmth.
“Was it her old yarns fleyed you to such a state?”
Cathie fell back against the mound of pillows and shook her head at the offer of another chocolate. As the sky outside slowly paled to morning she saw that in a corner of her bedroom window a circle of mist had formed, and within that circle, a greasy imprint of a small, open hand.