Friday night I played another piano bar. If you’d told my younger self that all those years of practice would amount to this… Well, I probably would have been ecstatic, to be perfectly honest. But I was young and dumb and I didn’t know what the world was. I didn’t know what anything would amount to.
If one more person requested “Piano Man”, I was sure I’d be one step away from smashing my glass on the table and running it through their stupid faces. Friday nights always seem to be the worst for that song. Drunk office types from the East with money too crisp for their wallets. They always wanted Piano Man. Or occasionally you’d get the wanker who requests Bohemian Rhapsody. Jog on mate, I am but one person. I do it, though, then I hate myself as I remember that it seems to universally invite people to wail over the top of me, violently out of tune.
But I’m the only chump in Soho who can play any song they want to hear. And they pay well for it. I’m a hit at parties.
There was a time when I didn’t take requests. I’d lived a life before I met her.
She had the imagination of a visionary. And long blonde hair. Her deadbeat dad called her Rapunzel and she hated it. She hated it almost as much as she hated fascism and gravy on chips. I loved gravy on chips, but I would never have told her that.
I was 21 when I met Jenny. I was playing with a guitarist then, which was exhausting. He was the front man type, always had to be the diva. It wasn’t really for me, but it served a purpose at the time. Everything in life tends to do that. Things don’t have to last forever to have been useful.
I remember that night so well, the first night I saw her. She was sitting at the bar with a girlfriend, they were sipping martinis. The friend was loud, though she didn’t request Piano Man. I wasn’t taking requests back then anyway. Jenny stayed out long after her friend went home. We chatted about everything. None of that surface level chit-chat, we went deep. She told me all about her family and her upbringing. I tried not to say too much about mine.
I invited her back for a drink after the bar closed, which was uncharacteristically forward of me. I was living in a tiny bedsit in Soho. I have no idea how I could afford it. I wasn’t making much off the “band”, if you could call it that, but I could just scrape by. Everything seemed more affordable back then.
She smoked out of my window as I tinkled on my piano. I loved that piano. A friend of a friend came across it being given away for free, and we lugged it up the stairs into my apartment. It was a shiny black upright. There wasn’t much in the apartment around it, just the bed, a tiny kitchen and a shambolic lump of cushions which passed for a sofa. She sat with her legs out the window, folded up in front of her, resting on the eave of the roof below. She would occasionally tap her cigarette ash on the windowsill.
“Play me Nina Simone,” she said.
I started playing “Feeling Good” and singing it to her. She started to sing along with me too.
“It’s one of my favourites,” she told me when I’d finished.
“Mine too,” I replied.
She wasn’t a singer singer, Jenny, but she could sing. But I later learned how shy she was in situations when lots of eyes were on her.
“Play me Ella Fitzgerald,” she said.
I started playing “Lullaby of Birdland” and singing it to her. She sang along with me too.
And that’s how it all started. Both our love affair, and the beginning of me playing requests.
I dumped the guitarist and started playing on my own. Requests became my niche. I could play anything for them because I’d played it all for her. We stayed up every night drinking wine, her smoking by the window and me taking her requests. She liked to try and stump me. Sometimes she did, just sometimes. I would make sure I knew them by the following evening, though.
“How do you do it?” She asked me once.
I shrugged. “I’ve played piano for so long, if I know how the song sounds, I can mostly play it.” Sometimes the lyrics tripped me up. I don’t know all the lyrics to every song, even if I can play through the chords. Jenny would go rummaging in shops to find cheap sheet music. Or pick up old records and we would learn the words together.
“Play me Janis Joplin,” she said.
I started playing “Summertime” and singing it to her. She said it was a cheeky choice on my part, but she sang along with me too.
People were starting to talk about me and bring their friends to the bar to hear me play. They would all try and stump me.
I laughed the first time they said: “Play me Piano Man.” I played it, of course. I didn’t mind that song. At first. Until they asked for it every night.
They always asked for something I didn’t want to play. The nights got longer.
Jenny started smoking more and requesting less.
She got bored of thinking of songs to ask me to play.
I got tired of playing them anyway.
Then one day she left.
Soho isn’t what it once was. Back then it felt wistful and purposeful. These days it’s just banker wankers with money too crisp for their wallets. But occasionally someone comes in who reminds me of Jenny, and I dare myself to dream just for a moment, that she may one day find her way to my piano bar again.
Jen Eve Taylor is originally from Sydney, Australia, but now lives in London — the city she considers her life’s one great love story. When not writing short stories, essays, making music or working on her novel, she can be found tackling the ups and downs of life on her website www.thecancerchronicles.blog.