“Sheila” by Helen Chau Bradley11 min read

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Photo by Edu Grande

May shrugs her left shoulder to keep her bag from slipping, glances up across the classical vinyl section in search of wayward Mimi, and then back down to the slim cardboard sleeves, hoping to alight on something rare, something that would impress Mrs. Timoransky. After all these years, she would never dare call her by her given name, Ladislava—as formidable and angular as the woman herself. Mimi is prowling under a table stacked high with leather-bound composer biographies, surely scuffing her winter tights, probably on purpose.

“Mimi!” May calls, trying to keep her voice even. “Come out from under there, stop behaving like an animal.”

“I’m practicing!” Mimi growls determinedly. Impervious to shame, she shimmies further under the table, wool-clad butt fully visible.

May darts her eyes around the store, neck prickling. She’s wearing too many layers for this cramped space. The baseboard heaters are cranked, her skin is parchment-dry, even though her armpits are damp under her coat from the cold humidity of early winter. She feels bulky and clumsy as she fumbles through the stacks. She gasps at the sting of a paper cut—one of the album inserts. The owner materializes instantly over her shoulder, “You’ve bled all over it, you’ll have to buy it.” It’s a 1964 UK First Pressing of Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Moscow Philharmonic performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It’s not cheap. And a bit too popular for Mrs. Timoransky’s taste. “Everybody knows this Concerto, it is so often in Hollywood movies,” she imagines her old teacher sniffing. She slides the record out of its sleeve. It’s in excellent condition at least, and Mrs. Timoransky does love Ashkenazy. She’s already running late and being late today will mean the end. She hands over her credit card, wrangles Mimi from behind a pile of CDs, and hustles them back into the freezing Saturday morning air, towards the 97 bus.

There is a sprawling accident on Yonge Street, which slows everything to a crawl. Mimi squirms and kicks her booted feet, slush spraying the aisle. May slaps at the wriggling legs, mouths “Sorry” at the other passengers, but has no energy to admonish. She wills the bus to go faster, even though the chances of being on time are diminishing with every grey thud of the windshield wipers. She thumbs her phone on before remembering she’s used up her monthly data already. Plus Mrs. Timoransky is not the kind of person you can text.

The freezing rain is coming down thick by the time they make it to the house. Its stone porch, its recessed entryway, its wrought iron gate always seems to conspire against her. Two frowning gargoyles overhead complete the effect. She half drags Mimi up to the front door, trying to smooth her hair back down, pulling the skirt into shape, and brushing off the dirty tights, now flecked with sleet.

“Mimi, you need to behave. Remember what we talked about.”

May’s heart sinks when the doorbell goes unanswered. She rings it again, leaning on the button a little. A long pause. Then the unmistakable voice crackles to life through the intercom.

“May, you know I cannot see you and your daughter if you insist on being late. Already, last week, you have insulted me! Your Mimi has no respect, just the same as you. I cannot teach her.”

“Oh but please, Mrs. Timoransky,” she nearly lets the precious album slip from under her arm. “I know this was a special appointment, but the traffic was awful, and we’re only five minutes late. Please let us come in, if you’d let me explain! I’ve brought you a gift!”

Too late, she realizes this last statement is the wrong one.

“I cannot see you, May. And this is no time for gifts.” Her old teacher’s voice crackles with disapproval, a fine needle in its groove. “You know the rules. Your daughter is impossible and I think this is because you do not know discipline. This has always been your problem! Without discipline, there is no learning, and if she will not learn, she is here for nothing.”

Mimi shakes her head, does her panting dog imitation. May holds onto Mimi’s shoulders, trying to keep her in place. “I promise, she’ll behave in the future, she really, really will. It was just that last week I was working these long shifts and I had to leave her at the neighbour’s and it puts her in a bad mood—”

The voice cuts her off. “You know I have always wanted better for you, May. You were one of my best students, but you did not have self-control. In the end, you let the animal instinct take over.”

No sound but the slashing sleet. Even Mimi is quiet.

“Go now, May,” almost tenderly. “Do not come back.”

May considers leaving the record on the porch but thinks better of it. The weather will warp it.


Mimi strips off her wet tights the moment they get home to the chilly apartment. She throws them up in the air and they land on the light fixture, which sways alarmingly. May thinks they look macabre dangling like that but she can’t summon the energy to climb up on a chair and pull them down. Mimi does high kicks around the kitchen table and sings to herself while May throws leftover instant noodle stir fry into the wok and mixes some wilted greens into it.

“Are you mad at me?” Mimi asks with her mouth full.

“No, no, no,” May says as she wipes soy sauce off her warm round face. “But we both need to do better. We need to go to bed on time, and get up on time, and arrive on time, and pay our bills on time from now on. Don’t you want to be successful and rich? Live in a big house with our own bedrooms, a grand piano, big iron gates that keeps everybody out?”

“I guess.” Mimi is agreeable, especially when fed. She gets into bed without argument, tired from the day.

After washing the dishes, May examines the record. She managed not to get it wet on the way home. Mrs. Timoransky would have hated it anyway—too sentimental, too popular. She’ll sell it on eBay, maybe she can inflate the price. She’s short on rent. Plus all that filing she did at the house in exchange for the next month of Mimi’s piano lessons will now go entirely to waste. Unpaid. You’re an idiot, she says to herself. At least her temping job just got extended.

It’s a dangerous move, but she can’t help it sometimes. She gets the worn box down from the top of the fridge and starts leafing through it: Certificates of Merit, yellowed a little; First Class Distinction with Honours for every Conservatory Exam, up to the ARCT; notation booklets filled with Mrs. Timoransky’s jagged writing, her pencil so sure of itself that the letters are still embossed on the pages beneath them. The clear commands—“do not RUSH the Andante,” “more LEGATO in the left hand,” “discipline your fingers here, do not be LAZY.” Praise was never her way. “Leniency leads to failure,” one of the last scrawled lines in the most recent booklet, the one that is half-blank.

She moves onto the newspaper clippings that her mother once painstakingly cut out and sheathed in plastic: “Local Prodigy Puts Piano First,” “Pupil of Celebrated Concert Pianist Youngest Ever Winner of the Kiwanis Cup,” “Emerging Toronto Pianist Wins Provincial Qualifying Class.” She remembers the look on Mrs. Timoransky’s face when she won that last one. The way she sat bolt upright, as always, in the front row, dressed in layered greys and blacks. The way she glimmered with something like pride. But all May had felt was an immense dread. While playing, she was so aware of her altered state that she half expected all the adjudicators to stand up in a row when she was done, singing it out like children in the schoolyard: “May is preg-nant, May is preg-nant!”

Mimi comes trotting back out from their bedroom, chanting. “Mama-Mama-Mama! I know what to do!” She nestles into May. The top of her head smells like a good dream. “Mimi, you should be in bed. Mama is trying to figure out what to do about your piano lessons. About our plan.”

“But I don’t wanna do piano lessons! I told you, I have a better plan! Mama, listen to me!” May, fearing a blow-up, pulls Mimi onto her lap. She’s getting too heavy for this. Too old to be babied.

“Yes, yes, honey-honey,” she learned this from her own mother—repeating words to feign paying attention.

A bottle shatters in the back alley. Voices raise in its wake. May groans. Another thing on the back burner of her brain: find a new apartment that isn’t a half-basement. A high, reedy voice breaks through the mix. It reminds May of someone, she dredges her memory. Sheila Tan. From back in junior high. The two of them had always been unofficially pitted against each other, as the only Chinese kids at their overwhelmingly white middle school. Sheila and her giggles.

“I barely even practice,” she once bragged to May, after getting a standing ovation at the school’s talent show for a dazzling tap solo. It didn’t help that she was also a champion flirt who came to school in parent-approved button-ups but immediately changed into the halter top and booty shorts ensembles she shoplifted and stowed in her locker. She managed to juggle boyfriends, dance, volleyball, top marks, and joints in the parking lot, and still breeze by May and her bulky backpack as if to say, “Sure, you’re a piano prodigy, big deal—look at how hard you have to work for just a little of what I have.”

When Sheila’s family moved to California in the middle of Grade 10, May had been jealous but relieved. A year later, Sheila was killed while crossing the road on the way to a recital. Apparently she had just received early acceptance to the USC School of Performing Arts.

From then on, Sheila served as a cautionary tale for May’s parents. “Stupid girl threw everything away,” her father would huff. As if Sheila had been hit on purpose. They would intone her name ominously whenever May did anything they disapproved of. May secretly felt gratified by this. In the end, of course, her own “accident” was so terrible that Sheila was not invoked. May sometimes wonders if other families now wield her own name in the same manner.

“Mama,” Mimi is shaking her knee. “Can you make me a YouTube channel? Shelby’s mom made her one and she makes videos of her singing and doing dances and she has ten-thousand-and-seventeen followers, and she said they’re gonna make lots of money and her mom is gonna buy a condo-mini-yum.”

May sighs, “Mimi-Mimi, we talked about this before. There’s different kinds of famous. YouTube famous isn’t the kind of famous you want to be. You think it is, but that’s because you’re too young to know better. That kind of thing doesn’t last. We have to be smart about this, right? Remember? We have to work hard!”

“But mama, YouTube is easy-peasy! Me and Shelby did an animal dance routine video for her channel and it has lots of likes and comments already. Shelby’s mom said I’m cute! She said I’m almost as cute as Shelby! Isn’t that good?”

“Wait, there are videos of you on YouTube?!” A surge of panic, a parental sense of protection. There’s something else too that she tries to ignore, a hot stirring in the belly that she used to get whenever others were praised for doing things that came easily to them.

Outside, the Sheila voice is piercing, laughing, pitching above the deeper tones. The highest note on a scale, the lacerating scratch of a pencil, the pinnacle of an encounter, right before everything goes to shit. May is alarmed to find herself suddenly crying. Not just crying but heaving with sobs. She can sense Mimi stricken with concern, feel her crawling around on the couch, making soothing beast noises, until crack!—her small knees on the Rachmaninoff, the Rachmaninoff no more.

Helen Chau Bradley is a queer writer, musician, arts administrator, and former bookseller living in Tio’tia:ke (Montreal). Her work appears or is forthcoming in carte blanche, Cosmonauts Avenue, Entropy Magazine, Maisonneuve Magazine, and elsewhere. She writes mini-reviews as @notesofacrocodile on Instagram, and plays in the band Heathers.

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