As she entered the cafe, Monique did not immediately notice the small shabby man in the heavy black coat who sat cowering at a corner table. She walked straight past him, and leant heavily against the bar, demanding beer for herself and her friends, who were just coming. She didn't want the barman to think that she was going to drink all the beers herself. She could if she wanted to, which she pointed out to him with a muscular hand gesture, but she did not want to. The barman, who knew his employer of old, and was under no doubt whatsoever with regard to her ability to take drink, on occasion, smiled, nodded, and continued pouring the beer into glasses, which was what she paid him for. She turned her back to him, spread her arms out along the bar, and surveyed her clientele: a group of tourists consulting guide books and practising their French in heavy accents, three local regulars engaged in heated debate, and a couple of students, each sitting alone with a book, a frown, and a half drunk coffee, no doubt by now cold. The small shabby man in the corner table seemed to draw himself further into his coat as she looked round, as if he was trying to hide from her, which he was. Monique did not notice him. No-one ever did.
It was a middling cafe, which was how she described it when she was drunk enough to allow her natural honesty to overcome her businesswoman's veneer. It was neither particularly small, nor particularly large; it was neither particularly lavish nor particularly dingy; it served exactly what one would expect a cafe located in the centre of Brussels to serve - several more varieties of beer than the cafes of other major European cities, croque monsieurs, sandwiches, and the occasional spaghetti bolognese of dubious provenance but generous proportion, piled high with cheese bought ready grated in industrial size bags. It had been an exciting venture for her, fifteen years ago, when she had left Jacques, her increasingly alcoholic husband, announcing that he could keep everything, but she never wanted to see him again. It had been even more exciting five years after that, when it had briefly become fashionable, and her business had boomed so much that she had been able to open two other cafes in suburbs of Brussels and one in Antwerp. She had solved her first problem, that of getting her customers to be happy, and to spend their money in her establishment, but it proved more difficult still to keep them that way.
That she had massively overexpanded was not initially clear, due to the amount she worked to keep hidden any cracks in the facade of her success, until the day Jacques appeared in the original cafe on a Friday evening just as the place was beginning to fill up. He had wandered in purely by chance, he claimed, but after he refused her stiffly worded request to leave the premises immediately, and began to yell obscenities at both her and the clientele, he answered her threat of calling the police by producing a knife and attempting to stab her with it. She sustained a small flesh wound; his arm was so badly broken that none of the doctors in the prison hospital were sure that they had ever seen anything like it.
If her business took a blow that evening, this was not to do with an immediate falling off of clientele, for cafes in central Brussels are notorious for doing good business regardless of how many people have been murdered outside their front doors that week. Other cities never sleep; only Brussels is the city that does not wake up.
It had been the amount of time that she had had to spend on the court case that had led to Monique's decision to sell all the cafes except for the first one, and hope for better times to come. The Antwerp venture failed first - the other two soon followed. Without her tirelessly energetic presence, the unprofitable parts of her small empire crumbled into nothing, were boarded up, vandalised, sold at a loss and eventually, in the case of one of them, burned down accidentally by squatters. It had made her very depressed to see the fading 'Chez Monique' signs, prominently displaying her failure to all that passed, but she could not but feel that this was a reasonable price to pay to ensure that her clearly quite mad ex-husband was put away, as should have been done to him long ago. She could start again, from scratch if necessary.
Nothing scared her. Not even the most pointed of disparaging remarks on the part of the four business associates whom she was plying with beer under the nervously watchful eye of the small shabby man in the corner could ruffle her composure. She was a big woman, heavily built, with muscular limbs, short cropped dyed blond hair and the kind of erratic attitude to clothes that made her seem stunningly attractive one day, and entirely asexual the next. Stefan, the barman, maintained, in discussing her with the other staff, that her clothes were nothing to do with it, and it was rather her particular level of confidence that day that determined her appearance. "She glows from the inside," he would say. "It's on the inside." None of the waitresses had ever agreed with him on this point, which was one of many things about the world which he found inexplicable. He commended to himself the story of the previous barman, however, a young Londoner who had lost his job the day after he had failed to adequately translate the expression "brick shit house" to his employer. It would not do to worry too much about some things.
Nothing scared her, but when, towards the end of the evening, the small shabby man who she had still not noticed came and sat down opposite her as she wolfed down positively her last sandwich of the night, she felt an inexplicable twinge of nervousness. The moment soon passed, for if anyone was to be feeling nervous at the interview, it was surely him. He was shaking so much that it looked as if he was going to fall to pieces, or at least tear his heavy black coat. He was in his late fifties or early sixties, his French was terrible, and heavily accented; although his name seemed Germanic, he looked more Italian, and she could not place the accent at all. In short, staccato bursts of panicky syllables he introduced himself as Josef Baum, a semi-retired piano tuner by profession and circumstance. It seemed that he had been coming more or less regularly to the cafe since it had opened, and he had something to say which he needed to say to somebody that he could trust.
Monique had laughed at him at this point, but he continued by saying that he knew what a strong woman she was by what he had seen her do to her ex-husband's arm, and added that he was used to people not noticing him, for there was no reason to, especially in Brussels, the world capital of entirely interchangeable insignificant small shabby men in heavy long black coats. In fact, he did not want to say something to her, so much as to ask her a favour. He wanted to show her something. He needed to show it to someone that he could trust, and, since he led an entirely solitary life in Brussels, outside of work, he had come to the conclusion that the nearest thing to someone he could trust was the indomitable Madame Monique.
There was no doubt in his mind that now was not a good time, but could she perhaps spare an hour the next day to come to his workshop, perhaps in the middle of the afternoon, when things in the cafe were quiet? The workshop was not far, and he was sure that it would not take long. It was, however, very important for him to show her what he had to show her. It was hard to explain, even if his French had been good enough. He would have to show her.
The whole thing amused Monique greatly, and she decided, entirely on a whim, to leave the closing up of the cafe to Stefan, who was reasonably trustworthy, and to get the thing over with immediately. The piano tuner's face lit up like a match, and he began verbally to fall over himself in an effort to thank her for her generosity and goodness of spirit. With what seemed like one large sweeping motion, she explained her plans to the barman, said goodnight to as many of the waitresses and regular customers as appeared in her line of sight, put her coat on, and pushed the hapless Baum through the cafe door before her, into the apathetic bluster of the late Brussels winter.
The 'workshop' was a tiny room, accessible only through a door set in the middle of a fading and incomprehensible graffito that had never been coloured in, as its artist had been arrested after drawing the outline and starting with one small patch of green on what was presumably the first letter, in a dark street, most of whose buildings stood derelict. Baum had begun to calm down a little, though he could hardly have been said to have been put at ease, and he was jabbering excitably at his increasingly bemused companion in a variety of languages.
It was clear that he was the only person who ever normally entered the workshop. Dust lay thick on those parts of the shelves and the cluttered workbench-come-desk that were not in constant use. A small filing cabinet stood in one corner, with loose papers and bottles of viscous looking liquids jostling for room on top of it, ice-cream tubs full of piano parts of different sizes stood all over the floor, and parts of dismembered pianos were distributed liberally about the room. There was only one chair, which a previous owner had apparently seen fit to splash with a few drops from every paint pot that had ever come in range, and this was itself encumbered by the weight of a shabby grey cardigan with holes in the sleeves and three plastic boxes full of dampers. A single electric lightbulb hung precariously in the centre of the paint which peeled from the ceiling, looking as if it was being held up by the cobwebs which were festooned around it like faded party decorations from limbo. Behind a large and awkwardly shaped piece of board stood a piano covered in a dirty sheet. A push button telephone balanced half off the edge of the workbench had been installed as if to ensure that the wire would always be in the way, no matter where the phone was positioned, and cardboard boxes and crates filled most of the rest of the floor space.
Baum smiled at Monique.
"Welcome," he said.
She returned his smile as he attempted to clear the chair for her without knocking the telephone off the workbench, thought he had failed, tried to catch the phone without letting go of the three boxes of dampers, managed to get the phone but lost the boxes and sent small pieces of wood and wire with felt glued to them flying in all directions. She started to kneel to help him pick them up, but on bringing her head closer to the floor she saw what it looked like and thinking better of it, edged round both a cardboard box and a by now positively manic piano tuner, and sat down on the chair.
"What do you want to show me?" she asked.
"This," Baum explained, pulling the sheet from the piano, which had a silver cylinder gleaming from behind a glass window set in the middle of the front panel. He had been to a government auction a year previously, and had bought this old mechanical piano. It had been in very bad condition, but he had got it very cheaply, and had seemed to him, on cursory inspection, to be basically structurally sound, and to require only a certain amount of work to be restored to a greater glory than it had, perhaps, ever seen. It had turned out to take somewhat longer than he had expected to get it mended, but he had finally finished it a week beforehand. Was it not beautiful?
Monique began to feel impatient. Her initial amusement was fading. She agreed that the piano was indeed beautiful. It was a piano that a man whose life had consisted in getting pianos in good condition had been working on for a year. What of it?
"Listen," he said. He opened the lid of the piano, switched on the power to the electric motor, and flicked a switch. The piano began to play. "Just listen."
As he listened to the music, his whole facial expression and posture changed. The worry lines on his face relaxed, his eyes closed and his body straightened itself visibly. At one point, it looked as if he was going to lose his balance, but he caught himself at the last minute, and continued listening to the subtle waves of delicate harmony and rhythmic device that echoed around the small workshop. As the piece being played swelled to its climax, so his smile spread across his face, until, Monique said later, it looked as if his ears were about to fall off. With the silence he opened his eyes, and sighed longingly.
"Did you hear?" he asked. "Did you see it? Did you hear that?"
Monique looked at him in disbelief. "Are you going to try to sell this thing to me, because you should know that I don't have a music licence, and I really am not interested.
He looked hurt. "No no no," he said. "No no no. Not at all. A thousand times not. No. I just wanted to show someone. Did you not hear, and see? Did you not get it?"
"Well," she replied, the mystery beginning to poke new life into her faded amusement at the whole thing, "I heard the music, but I don't think I understand what you mean by getting it."
"You did not close your eyes," he said. "You must close your eyes."
Without quite understanding why, she accepted another listen with her eyes closed. She heard the same piece of music that she had just heard, but saw nothing. He was deeply shocked to learn this. Seen nothing? Had it not made her happy, though? That was the main thing.
"I must be honest," she said. "Not really."
Perhaps it was the wrong piece for her. He had other cylinders. If she could spare him a few moments, he would choose another one, and then she would understand him. She agreed, but first asked him what it was that he saw.
"I cannot describe it. It seems unbelievable. Yet it is true. Let me explain to you." As he searched for, located and gingerly changed the cylinders, he explained that one of the first things he had found when he had started work on the piano had been an envelope tucked into a corner one of the internal panels. The envelope had contained a document apparently certifying that the piano had been constructed in Berlin in 1918, by a man named Katzen, who was not merely a musical instrument maker, but also, an accomplished chemist and a dabbler in the occult. According to Katzen's document, the wood of which the piano was constructed had been coated with a certain chemical before varnishing, which would, when the piano played, resonate with the wood so as to give off psychic vibrations that would first render the listener absolutely calm and relaxed, and would subsequently cause them to see, if their eyes were closed and sometimes even if they were not, visions of such beauty that they could not fail to make the listener happy.
He had not believed it himself when he had first read it, but, and surely she would feel it too when he found the right cylinder for her, for the first one was not one of the best, he knew, and was sorry, and in any case, when he had finally fitted the last of the missing parts of the mechanism and had sorted out the problems with the electric motor that he had installed and got the thing working, well, it had made him very happy indeed. Such visions! Such beauty! It had reduced him to tears. It still worked, and Katzen had been right. The occult chemical was still active. She should listen again.
She listened again, and although the music was indeed more to her taste this time, she saw no visions, and was, far from being rendered absolutely calm and relaxed, beginning to think about getting home.
"I saw nothing," she said. "I am sorry."
He seemed so upset by this statement that she decided that it was best to humour him, and added that it had definitely made her feel happy, though, and perhaps it was simply not strong enough to give her visions. It took a lot of drink to get her drunk, he should know, and perhaps the same principle applied here.
He brightened up a little. "You see, I am having to leave Brussels. I cannot afford to stay here, and my brother in Canada has offered for me to go and live with him. He is wealthy enough to pay for my ticket, but not to transport this piano with, so I will be unable to take it with me. I do not want to sell it, for I would never get anything like its true worth, and in any case, it seems the wrong thing to do. I want to give it to someone who understands it for what it really is, and so, I would like to make you a present of the piano. I would like you to have it in your cafe."
She gaped at him, realising that there was no way in which she could decline this entirely unexpected and unwanted gift. "When do you leave Brussels?" she asked him.
"As soon as I know that the piano is safe," he replied. "If I can deliver and install the piano for you tomorrow morning, I will take the first plane later that day. I have been prepared for some time, but I have been delaying, in order to find out if what Katzen said was true. Do not worry on my account - Katzen left instructions as to how to create the magic chemical which I will take to Canada with me, and will have made up in laboratories there, so I can treat more pianos.
She nodded gravely, agreed, and made an excuse to leave. She would see him tomorrow, yes. Nine o'clock sharp.
The first time a customer had tried to operate the mechanical piano, they had received an unpleasant though mild electric shock from the switch. Monique, as it was being manhandled into the cafe earlier that day, had decided to sell it as soon as possible, because it really did not suit the style of her cafe, and idiots and children would no doubt be endlessly trying to play it, and making a horrible noise. Now, she realised, it would require repair work to be done before it could be sold. It would never sell if it could not be demonstrated. After making a few initial enquiries to find out if the costs of having the thing repaired and advertising the sale could be covered by any likely price she might get for it, she became bored with the whole matter, and decided that she had better things to do. Stefan and the stronger waiters could help her put it on the van, and she would drive it to the dump. They would do this that afternoon.
At the dump, a team of men with axes had descended on the piano almost immediately, breaking it up into useful pieces of wood, after first ripping out the silver cylinder and the electrical mechanism. Stefan had stood watching them for some minutes, motionless, listening to the atonal discords that answered each blow of the axe. He had insisted on watching them, while she waited in the van, and on the drive back from the dump, she had reprimanded him for drinking during the day. He was grinning like an idiot, and laughing to himself for the whole journey. She warned him that if she caught him again, he would be sacked, and reminded him what the competition was like in Brussels for even experienced bar staff at the moment. When they returned to the cafe, she retired straight upstairs to her office, to go over her tentative plans for the reopening of one of the other cafes, which she had managed to buy at a knockdown price after it had been repossessed from the man who had bought it from her. She needed to find something other than mechanical pianos treated with occult chemicals to make her customers happy enough to keep her in business.
Back at the dump, the breakup men were more than usually satisfied with their day's work. They were sitting in the middle of the wreck of the piano, smoking cigarettes, passing round a bottle, and exchanging unusually beatific smiles. One of them, his eyes closed, was plucking at one of the strings and murmuring quietly to himself. They were happy.