A Music Lesson
A few minutes after Ephraim had received the black cast-iron key from the old man with the fiery orange hair, he heard his uncle calling out his name.
“I think I have to go now,” Ephraim said to the man but as he turned around to face him, he was gone already. “Thank you,“ he said into the empty room, hoping the man could hear it anyway.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Ephy.” His uncle Patrick was just putting on his coat, struggling with the thin folders he was holding. “Who were you talking to?”
“A man; he has bright orange hair. Do you know him by any chance?”
Uncle Patrick frowned. “No, never seen a chap like that here. Especially not after closing hours. And I know every colleague of mine. What were you talking about?”
Unsure whether Ephraim should tell him the whole story, he only said, “Nothing. He was just explaining some paintings to me.”
“Ah.” Patrick nodded. Apparently he was losing interest already, which was sort of ironic as paintings were his life-long obsession. “Well, you can’t know everybody in London, can you?”
Since that evening, Ephraim hadn’t been sure what to do next with the key. He had chained it around his neck, often pulling it out to have a closer look at it but that has been it.
But now he was wandering through Tate Britain again, looking around in hope to find a painting that would catch his eye.
It was still half an hour until they would ask the crowds to leave the building, never mind the time the visitors actually needed to be gone.
Ephraim ended up being back in room 1840 where the painting of poor Ophelia was hanging. When he walked past her he gave it a long glance. He felt a bit sad that he wasn’t able to help her, and seeing her floating into her death now wasn’t making him feel any better.
He was strolling through the room, then back on the other side with the pictures up to the high ceiling on display. The room was slowly beginning to empty; only a few loners were still in front of Millais’ famous painting of Ophelia.
On the opposite wall, while Ephraim was looking at the colourful display of art, a dark spot caught his eye. It felt kind of strange to him to find such a miserable, gloomy picture in between all the others. Not that the choice of colours was really a distinction but the scenery was. The painting showed two young girls sitting on a piano. Ephraim looked for the title and painter: A Music Lesson by Frank Huddlestone Potter, painted 1887.
Turning around to check if the room was clear already, Ephraim pulled out the black key. The only few people in the room were – as so many before – fascinated by Ophelia and so turning their backs on Ephraim. Now or never, he thought.
A bit anxious about demolishing the painting, he held the key in front of the painting, pushing it very slowly towards the surface, in case it had all been a trick or even a dream after all. But the key glided into the front as if there wasn’t one at all. Ephraim sighed with relief, turned the key around, and after he heard a little clicking sound – indeed – he pulled himself unto the frame and into the painting. His action of climbing into it wasn’t half as elegant and easy as it had been when the old man did it; maybe that’s one thing he had to learn too.
As soon as Ephraim fell to the ground on the other side of the frame, he heard low gasps behind him. Turning around, he stood face to face with two children sitting in front of a piano right in front of him. Their eyes were wide but they didn’t scream at the sight of him. Perhaps because of the dark surroundings; it was really hard to see anything at all in Ephraim’s opinion. It took him quite a while to adjust his eyes to the darkness but then he was able to make out a small dark room with a cosy fire burning on the right side, which seemed to be the only source of light. The fireplace hadn’t been visible from outside the frame. “Interesting,” Ephraim thought.
The piano was old and wooden, maybe mahogany, with keys stained and yellowed, and slightly out of key he noticed as the smaller girl started playing again. There was a rounded glass used as a vase on the top, with a dark purple flower in it, and above on the wall hung a portrait of a pale woman with dark hair. Maybe the mother or another older sister, Ephraim suspected. Further, there was a small dining table covered with a bright tablecloth on the right, and dark green curtains on both sides of the piano. He could make out a door behind the left one, a couple of centimetres opened.
The older girl on the right, dressed in a long reddish dress, was still looking at Ephraim – she must have been about his age. Her arm was still lying on the key cover, pointing at the bottom on a music sheet. Apparently, she was teaching her smaller sister a piano piece.
“Who are you?” she asked. Her voice was soft and cautious.
Ephraim suddenly felt uncomfortable. He hadn’t thought that people behind the frame would start talking that willingly. Now he had to explain himself why he was among them all of a sudden, or in this case even standing in their home.
“My name is Ephraim,” he started.
“Hello Ephraim,” the girl said friendly. Her hair was pinned to the sides, so her face was well visible. Despite her shy smile, her eyes looked rather sad. But maybe it was just the dark lighting again. Her little sister had stopped playing and was staring at him now with wide, innocent eyes.
Before Ephraim could open his mouth again in order to somehow get himself out of the embarrassing silence that would directly follow, the elder girl addressed him again.
“Please, have a seat. I was just explaining to Theo the last part of Beethoven’s sonata in C-sharp minor.”
Ephraim frowned. “Theo?” he asked, looking surprised at the young figure next to the girl.
“Oh, yes, I am sorry, where are my manners!” She stood up from her dark chair, flattening her skirt. “My name is Laura, and this,” she says while making a small gesture, “is my little brother, Theodore.”
The child she just introduced answered with a quiet but polite voice. “Nice to meet you, sir.”
“Uh, it’s nice to meet you too.” Ephraim was so astonished that he didn’t know what to say first. Because of all that hair on the child’s head, he had thought the whole time that he was a girl. Well, now he knew better, thanks to the black key.
Ephraim gave a little smile, then spoke again, pointing at the sheets on the piano. “I’m impressed that you can read those with that little light.”
“Oh that’s okay,” Theo said softly. “I know the piece already, I just have to practice more, that’s all.”
Laura by his side smiled proudly.
“I have been teaching him the last four weeks, since mother fell sick. She taught us to play, you know, she is a wonderful piano player.” Though still smiling, that thought seemed to sadden her.
“Where is your mother now?” Ephraim asked carefully.
“In her bedroom, of course. Father is with her, so is the doctor at the moment.” Her voice was almost a whisper, and her eyes showed the first signs of tears, but she wept them away quickly. “She is very sick and is not allowed out of the bed. Our aunt Marion said that we have to prepare ourselves.”
She looked down at her little brother, laying her hand on his stubbornly full hair. “He is so small, he does not understand the meaning of all this. So I try to distract him with music; that is what mother always did.”
“I’m sorry,” Ephraim whispered. He actually hadn’t expected so much sadness in this painting, so he was taken aback by the harsh story they were telling him. Swallowing hard, he thought suddenly of other paintings and what stories may lie behind their frames.
“She will be alright soon. In Heaven God will take good care of her, there she will be well and sound.”
That girl Laura sounded so confident that Ephraim almost believed her, although he never really believed in the existence of God. But until now, he didn’t believe in magic either, or what else was stepping into pictures?
“Do you want me to play it for you?”
“Huh?” Ephraim was wrenched from his thoughts. “Oh, yeah, sure.”
Theodore, the little boy, turned around to face the piano keys and started playing. Ephraim barely knew any classical music, but he did recognise the melody coming from the piano quite quickly. He observed how those little hands flew over the keys and how Laura in her shadowed red dress kept correcting her little brother when he made any mistakes. She was a kind teacher, Ephraim noticed; very patient and understanding. Out of a sudden, he wondered what their mother was like, and whether she was really dying.
Since his encounter with Ophelia, he was constantly thinking about the effects of his entry. The scene – or more so the outcome – doesn’t change at all. But as the old, orange-haired man had said: she didn’t want to be saved, didn’t want to change anything.
But what happened if a sitter wants to have a change? What would happen to the scenery? To the painting?
Ephraim sat in an armchair a few steps away from the frame he had come through. His right side was burning up by now; as dark and dull as the room had seemed from outside, it was warm and cosy, despite the fact that death was practically knocking on the door.
The first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata was nearly finished and while Laura gave last instructions on what little Theo had to consider in the last few bars, Ephraim heard steps coming down some stairs. Laura stood up, insinuating her brother, who watched her, to keep playing while she tiptoed quietly to the door on the left. Softly pushing the dark green curtain aside, she eavesdropped on the voices outside.
“What is it?” Ephraim whispered.
Frowning, Laura hissed, “Father and the doctor have just come down the stairs from mother’s room. No, Theo, keep playing,” she said to her brother when he turned away from the piano.
“But I want to know!” he hissed back, so he sneaked up to her side and lay an ear towards the open slit.
Ephraim didn’t want to disturb but he was too curious to just sit back and wait for nothing. Slowly, he managed to step towards the two children without making a sound. A grave voice was speaking, undoubtedly about the state of the mother.
“I am sorry, sir, but there is nothing more to do. Your wife is too weak to be taken to the hospital now. But even so, it would not save her, I am sorry.”
A choking sound came from the other person, Laura’s and Theo’s father Ephraim believed. Then, a door was opened and shut again, and heavy steps were coming towards the door the three were standing eavesdropping.
Laura didn’t even try to stand back, but Ephraim was suddenly very aware of his own presence. He really didn’t want to be found here in such a time.
“I should probably go or hide or something,” he quickly said to Laura who just nodded silently. A few seconds after Ephraim managed to hide behind the dark curtains on the other side of the piano, the father opens the door. Ephraim could barely see his face but what he saw was enough.
Laura took her little brother’s hand when their father bent down and hugged them both at once. Some words were mumbled, then the three of them walked out the door, unhasty, hand in hand. He could hear the soft footsteps going upstairs, then after another few seconds another door closing.
Hesitantly, Ephraim appeared from behind the curtains and took his seat in the armchair again.
What should he do now? Wait for Laura and Theo to come down so he could say good-bye to them? That thought seemed just wrong to him at this time, to say the least.
Steadily he pushed himself out of the armchair, when at the next moment he heard the door next to piano being pulled open and Laura appeared, her facial expression numb. Only in the corner of her eyes were signs of tears.
“I thought you might not be here later, so I wanted to bid farewell.”
Having a lump in his throat, Ephraim could barely answer. “That’s fine, really. You do have more important things to worry about.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Still it was nice to meet you, especially in this time of worry and sorrow. But I understand that you have to go now; however, we would be pleased to see you again whenever you like.”
Ephraim couldn’t help but smile. “That would be nice indeed.”
Without a warning, Laura stepped towards him and gave him a hug. He was so surprised by her action that he stiffed. When he felt soft, wet drops on his neck, he shook his head and hugged her back.
“Give my regards to Theo,” Ephraim said slowly, then they parted and he could see Laura crying silent tears while still smiling weakly.
“I will. I don’t know how or where you came in but–“
“Don’t worry”, Ephraim interrupted her. “I will leave the way I came in. You better go back to your family now or they might start wonder where you are.”
She nodded. “Yes, yes. I just have to fetch Aunt Marion anyway, so it’s alright. It will be alright.” She nodded again before turning to the door into the hallway. She looked back a last time, then she was out of sight.
Back in the Tate, Room 1840 was quiet. Every guest was gone by now and Ephraim was the last one left in the room, however he couldn’t bring himself to leave the painting he just pulled himself out of. The scene was the same before he entered it, but his feelings for it were changed completely. The lost he had felt when leaving Ophelia behind in the stream, the sad he felt now looking at the two children at the piano, knowing the story behind the frame.