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An Extract from the Diary of a Lady Piano Shifter

Updated on December 10, 2017
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Sally has been a prolific writer of wet felting tutorials for several years with the occasional foray into literature and much more.

Grand Piano Stringing
Grand Piano Stringing | Source

An Extract from the 'Diaries of a Lady Piano Shifter'

The idea is to spend some quality time with Chris, trawl London for some” free to good home pianos,” have a night out camping under the stars and come home with a load of pianos before he heads off for a week’s piano playing on a French ferry. We will later work on the pianos and restore them to their former glory and hopefully earn some money too! Oh aye, it is that quality time we are after!

The day starts out with us packing the car and trailer with camping gear; some food and also the gear for moving what we hope will be at least three pianos.

We set out late, three thirty in the afternoon. Chris had just rather successfully closed the sale on his own old personal Yamaha Portable Grand Piano just before we leave so he is in fine spirits. This has lain in storage for several years gathering dust. He had reluctantly placed an ad in the local Ad Trader. It just simply had to go! It is nice to think that this treasured item would be going to someone who understood the uniqueness of it though.

.London is so beautiful today. We pass the London Eye, Westminster, and the Thames and then drive past Hyde Park. It’s full of people enjoying the long late summers day. I do wish we were stopping longer, but I keep on snapping away with my digital camera, trying to capture the moment. I take a glorious shot of a big black mamma talking on her mobile phone. Her bags are all spread around her, so reminiscent of my years spent in Africa. She talks at the top of her voice but she is too far away for me to hear what she is saying, Shades of Africa perhaps! I think of someone who once told me that it is custom for black folk to talk loudly whilst out and about in the streets of Africa. That way they can never be accused of talking behind anyone’s back! The English sure have a lot to learn!

She reminds me of my time spent in Africa
She reminds me of my time spent in Africa | Source

Piano No 1

.We pick up piano number one, all pretty straightforward. The ground is level, access is a breeze and it’s up with the piano and out the house straight onto the dolly and out into the trailer. She’s all strapped in and ready to go and then we are soon on our way to pick up number two. Second one on board and it’s about nine thirty in the evening and we’re heading for our final destination. This is a campsite in the middle of nowhere!

It takes us forever to find the village. We have the details from the Internet, but no map. We eventually stop a man walking in the dark to ask the way. It turns out he’s as drunk as a skunk! He slurs, “It's a hundred yards down the road, on the corner just past the church”. His hundred yards turns out to be something like three miles but this we only find out much later! At last, Chris concedes defeat! He phones the campsite. Good thing they are still expecting us! It’s now eleven-thirty, late in the evening.

The campsite, when we do find it is nothing more than a piece of grassy land at the back of a house. It is equipped with only one toilet and one basin for all the guests! I’d been told there would be few frills, but I didn't expect this! So much for that romantic weekend away camping! A shower thrown in would have been good!

The camp is in darkness and everyone is tucked up in bed when we arrive, except the camp-site owner - who greets us in her nightgown.

We pitch our tiny tent by the light of the moon with the help a small battery-operated torch. Tiredness consumes us and I sense we are both struggling to remain calm. We try to focus our minds on our own individual tasks and thoughts!

We have a moment of unexpected excitement when the gas stove ignites, threatening to explode. Chris, in a panic throws it onto the grass, and the grass instantly catches alight. (This is so reminiscent of a time when he told me he burnt the tent down as a kid!) I remain outwardly calm, inwardly I am quite terrified and keep on waiting for the explosion but it does not come, so I calmly stamp out the flames and slowly but carefully ease the gas cylinder back onto its base. At last the flame can be turned down.

I settle down, back to cooking a routine pan of sausages. Hungry and tired, we eat our plain bread and sausage sandwiches in silence. I have forgotten to bring the butter, but at least Chris has a bottle of wine and I have a coke.

For what seems ages, we pump air furiously into the air mattress, I’m hanging onto the end of the nozzle in case it pops off. As it pumps it sort of snorts and sighs and it’s hard for us not to get the giggles as we try desperately to be quiet in case we wake up the other sleeping campers. I can hear a little child whimpering and whining and I feel guilty because I know we have failed!

A sticky restless hot night and we are both up early, decamped and still unable to take a shower. We have a quick wash, brush our teeth and we are on soon our way to pick up the next piano.

First, we stop in a local car park to do some very necessary re-arranging in the back of the trailer! This means having to take one piano right out and shift the other about to make room for our next piano. I’m inwardly cursing at our stupidity for not getting it right the first time and reluctantly concede that this is the only way, just get on with it!

We had hoped to gain enough space for four pianos because it’s four appointments we have! All our efforts indicate that now we won’t have the space for number four! We discuss the issue and agree that if the next one looks even remotely like “a dog”, we won’t pick it up. We’ll make some excuse or other and move straight on to the next place. Our prediction of it being 'a dog” turns out to be quite correct. This is just as well because Chris says he knows that the fourth one is likely to be just the ticket, a nice old one and a small one too boot, just what we needs for a customer.

"There is nothing, he says “that could have persuaded me to pick up that last dog” anyway. I hate to say it, but there was that time when someone was so desperate to get rid of their piano that they managed to persuade him to accept real money to take it away. Thankfully this is not one of these occasions so I don’t need to remind him!

There seems to be a rather strange noise coming from the trailer! We hear the unmistakable sound of a flat tyre, flip, flop, flip, flop it goes. Here we are on the side of the road stuck in a lousy housing estate and without a decent jack, with a half ton of pianos on board and not a chance of managing to keep the jack up long enough to get on the spare wheel!

Chris has a flaming headache; it’s the heat and lack of water. We have had little to drink since yesterday and are both now completely dehydrated. He persuades me to leave him to go off to go off to a little local shop to hunt out some water and some painkillers. I can sense his frustration and his reluctance to ask someone for help and he’s moaning like a drain about the lovely hydraulic jack he has at home! He complains bitterly about how awful the jack is which was supplied with his car! Worst of all, I can see how when he bends down, it’s obvious he’s in pain. It’s clear his head is throbbing like a beat out engine, so I leave him to it!

Back again and being the woman I am, I don’t have the same inclination to battle this one out on my own! It’s not long before I have enlisted some help from a friendly neighbor. First, we borrow some bricks to raise the distance needed to get the spare on. The jack keeps on slipping, so with the help of a friendly hero and his hydraulic jack, we are soon on our way! ‘Salt of the earth,” says Chris, “salt of the earth”. I could not agree more! Why then is it that men find it so difficult to ask for help?

We have no idea of what to expect at our next stop, but Chris, being the expert in these matters, assures me,” It’s sure to be a really nice small piano, just the right size to take up that nice empty space in the trailer” but as we drive up the road towards our destination, I notice with astonishment, the gradient of the hill that we are going up It is steep, really steep, something very unusual for this part of London

'Nothing was ever mentioned about the access to this house was it Chris?’ I say. I can see the number of the house we are looking for. It’s the large house right at the top of the hill, the one with very narrow steep steps running each side of it! They are the height of the double garage built below the house and my heart sinks. This move looks to be fraught with difficulty, if not impossible for just the two of us!

It seems the couple at the house have the same thoughts running through their heads when they greet us at the door. ‘We thought you would be bringing a couple of burly blokes’ he says looking from Chris to me. Chris is maybe five foot three tall and then there’s me, his lady Shifter, just a tad taller and just a tad wider!.+

We all stand together, looking at the massive full size piano standing before us. We are standing in the presence of a quality piano, one which only a real musician could appreciate!

Bill says, “It took four strong blokes to get this one up into the house. That was fifteen years ago.” he says and I’m thinking that it might be here for the next flipping fifteen too!

What a piano. It smacks of quality! It’s both ‘over strung’ and has a full size keyboard. It is far more piano than we could have hoped for. It is certainly not the small perfect little piano Chris was expecting! This one won’t hang around if we don’t take it today! Thank goodness, It seems we won’t have to go home without it!

It turns out that somewhere in the house we have one of my ex-Countrymen. We are told he is the boyfriend of the daughter of the house and South African male who is at this very moment dressing to go out for the afternoon with his girlfriend, the daughter of the house. It seems “he could be persuaded” – “if we cared to cross his palms with silver or even pounds” - to help us move this brute. My hope is that when we are finally introduced, he will turn out to be a regular rugby player, all big and burly just like some of the South African men I once knew.

He’s small and slight, dressed in black and purple and, my Goodness, he’s wearing a skirt, much like a kilt, only longer! His shoes have six-inch, solid rubber platform heels. He and his girlfriend are both dressed to go out, all set to join up with some local Goths in Camden Town for the afternoon. His face is carefully made up. He has freckles painted on his forehead and cheeks. His hair is dyed jet black and in conversation, he boasts, ‘I used to be a regular surfer boy back home, with long blond hair.” I can’t help myself, I ask “What happened?” and he says “I found myself tarnished by the British culture and the Goths”.

I hope my face dose not show it, but I’m finding it hard not to laugh. I am wondering how I am going to explain to Chris that he’s not really your regular type of South African guy, even though secretly I’m full of admiration for this young lads courage to walk the streets dressed in a skirt. It turns out too that he and one of his mates were once recently set upon by a mob who did not like Goths. His friend did not manage to get away and got beaten up quite badly and I’m wondering how he managed to get away dressed wearing a skirt and his six-inch rubber platform heels. I resist asking!

I suggest to my countryman that ‘If you do not mind, it might be best to change your shoes before we start.” He says, “I’ll change my skirt too!” . He then borrows some flat shoes from the lady of the house and changes his skirt for a pair of slim fitting denim jeans. He has this purple V necked T shirt on. It shows off his cleavage beautifully, what there is of it! It has long sleeves, fits him like a glove and does nothing to disguise the fact that this man is definitely very feminine in looks and very slightly built. Feminine or not, he’s perfect, a man willing to accept a challenge, wonderful! We accept his offer gladly and gratefully. He says he’s willing to do it for nothing. We say that payment is part of the deal.

First we begin by stripping the piano of any additional weight, front panel, and bottom panel come are removed. The action and key cover are carefully carried down the stairs into the trailer. We put the piano on its end, so it can go around the first corner. There is simply insufficient space to manoeuvre it out any other way! Then it’s back onto its castors and onto the piano dolly and out through the front door. We then proceed to build our own stairs, over the existing ones using boards with the help of a few bricks and planks and foam which we always carry with us. The piano is wheeled out onto our first makeshift deck. The first hurdle is over. We then remove the first boards and begin again. We build another set of wider stairs in front of the piano to take it down the next gradient. Three times we do this. The heat is oppressive and the sweat pours unchecked from all of our faces.

The last stage looks insurmountable and I have a sneaky feeling this piano might still have the last word. The angle is far too difficult and there is just insufficient space on the narrow stairs. I begin to see the possibility of laying our last board over the low growing conifer plants growing alongside the steps. Their growth is thick and strong, a perfect platform for us, but will these kind people go along with it? I doubt the plants will suffer any long lasting effect! They are far too well established to take a serious knocking! This has to be the only way to do it! From there we will then be able to up- end the piano onto a large piece of foam, right out onto the pavement.

Suddenly it seems all too easy as we put my idea into action. In no time at all we have the piano back on the piano dolly and are gently lifting our prize into the back of the trailer. The relief and sense of achievement is amazing. The smoothness of this operation is quite astonishing! We all share in the triumph and delight of our joint achievement!

We are now the owners of three beautiful “free to good home” pianos. This one will require little restoration; just a new set of hammers and it has the potential to make some really beautiful music, wonderful! We are, as they say around here “ Very well pleased, very well pleased indeed’!

Its tea and beers all around as we spend the rest of the afternoon in the back garden enjoying the lovely day. Our unusual occupation has caught the imagination of these kind people and they open their hearts and their home to us. For a few hours, they too have been caught up in the magic of the moment. For a while I think they actually wish they could change places with us! How extraordinary! It is a rare time for us to savor good conversation, to talk of music and music makers and a time to talk of digital photography and the great jazz players of our time.

I wish I’d captured it on film but one can’t do two jobs at once, still, “I Never would have believed it, if I had not seen it with me own eyes.” I think that too is what they say around here. .

“Quality time, Quality time, Oh yeah”. I think I heard that once, somewhere, sometime before.

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© 2013 Sally Gulbrandsen


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