She always loved coming up the final stairs of the tube on nights when there was a gig on. It had rained all day, and cars threw up spray as their headlights passed her by, making the streets shimmer. Ticket touts bought and sold at the top of their lungs, competing for attention from the crowd who arrived after hours of pre-drinking. Buskers laid guitar cases down and played as warm-up to the main acts at the Academy nearby: imagine all the people, sharing all the world. The incense the street-sellers sold down the road floated into her face. That’s what gave this place life.
“Scuse me love, don’t spose you can spare a bit of change?” A dishevelled man was in her face, holding out a dirt-streaked hand.
“I’m flat out of change, sorry mate.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got any food in yer bag yer not wanting?”
“Thanks anyway. God bless.” He turned and was gone into the melee.
The main act had already started when she arrived at the venue, and the room was packed. She found a spot towards the back and craned her neck to catch views of the band through swaying heads. From here, she could see the double bass and the sax player. Unseen, the drummer played mad things that hung around the beat. She couldn’t help tapping her foot, then swaying as the music took more of a hold. She felt her job, the crush of the Tube and the day’s rain wash away, to be replaced with audible beauty, magic from mortals on stage. It rose to her chest, then her brain, swaying her head, and she looked down to the darkness of sticky floor and unlit bodies – starving her eyes of senses, living through her ears. Then she shut her eyes and swam through the sound, reaching out and touching the waves, the piano keys rising up and out of the dark to fill her field of view, the bass drum replacing her heartbeat. The music became her, and as the sax played a solo she scrunched her eyes tight, colours blending with sound into an overwhelming, all-encompassing sensory bath.
As the piece came to an end, her head rose above the surface again and she felt herself release her breath. Around her, people whooped and clapped, leaned in to talk to one another. The band started another and she shut her eyes again, diving underwater. At times her eyes opened just a crack, seeing backlit screens held up and faces eerily illuminated. This was not the world she wanted to be a part of. Down, down, still further down she went, until the occasional flash of a stage light crossing her face could have been a deep-sea submarine gliding over the sea-bed, the slow ride cymbal the sound of its sonar. She’d lost all awareness of her body in this crowded room. Nothing existed but the music – it had built a whole new existence behind her closed eyes, one where she longed to stay as long as possible. Another solo, another cheer, another song, another rise and fall of beauty, like breathing, like the waves.
And then the music seemed to start coming from a different direction, then getting quieter, less all-encompassing, and her mind started the long swim up from the sea bed. As she surfaced and opened her eyes, the drums had been replaced by drops of rain on an umbrella above her head, the sax by car horns. She was sitting down on the front steps of the venue – how on earth had she got here?
“You okay?” a man in a bomber jacket asked. “She’s awake,” he said into a radio.
Where the hell was she? Where was the music?
“Can I…go back in please?” she asked, half-confused, half-indignant.
“Afraid not, love,” the man said, passing her a bottle of water. “Here, drink this.”
“I don’t need water, I’m fine,” she said.
“You were out cold,” the bouncer replied. “They were shaking you, shining lights in your face, you didn’t respond.”
“I wasn’t…I was…” well, where had she been? “I was enjoying the music.”
“Been drinking, yeah?”
“No!” Exasperated now. “Can I just please go back inside?”
“I think it’s best if you don’t, you know. Is there anyone here with you?”
“Then I’ll get you a cab. Where d’you–”
“I don’t need a cab!” Through gritted teeth now. She stood up from the steps as a group of guys came out through the front entrance. Through the open doors she heard strands of music. She tried to push past the bouncer, up the stairs to where the beautiful submarine world lay.
“No,” firmly now. “You’re not getting in. I suggest you make your way home – get some rest.”
She turned angrily, and pushed past the two security on the gate, out into the rainy night, wishing them all manner of unpleasantries under her breath. She stood for a long time at the corner, the traffic light going green, then red, then back to green several times before she eventually walked. You’d think she’d started a fight, the way she’d (she assumed) been bundled out, made to do the walk of shame before the end of the gig.
Where else was open? Were her friends out anywhere? What was she even in the mood for, anymore? She was now near the station, and hated the thought of giving up so easily, but couldn’t see another option. Resignedly, she plodded down the steps to the Tube.
At home, feeling empty, she laid down on her bed. Sleep took a long time to come. When it did, it was patchy and full of discordant noise. In the moments before she surfaced from shallow sleep, she was sure she heard the long, slow ringing of the ride cymbal calling out, seeking other underwater life, returning blank each time.