the pianist

For maximum immersion, here’s a piano piece to put on while you’re reading.

It’s November. The rush hour is over and the Christmas crush has not yet begun. In the ticket hall of King’s Cross station, warm sounds rolled from hammer striking thread, and somewhere between pulling the ticket from my pocket and slotting it home, their waves caught me. Instead of doing what I do every day, I wandered over to the source of the sound, and leaned against a pillar.

He played piano the way most people breathe, rising and falling, uncoupled from the burden of consciousness. I could not name what piece he was playing – my knowledge of piano music stretches only as far as Debussy’s Clair de Lune and the theme song from Amélie. 

Customer information. Please take care when using the escalators. Always hold the handrail, and, if you are mobility impaired, have luggage or a pushchair, please use the lifts.

In amongst the notes and in between the pieces, the sounds of the city creep in, unasked for. The pianist picks up his coffee, slurps at it, puts it down. A pulled suitcase rolls over the gaps in the tiles. 

Click click. Click click. Click click.

Still the pianist plays. Tom shuffles past, studying my face inquisitively. Because we’re both often found around these parts, we’ve become friends of sorts. He’s been on the streets since he broke his hand and lost his job. I put a pound in his street-stained cast. We chat and he walks off gratefully.

Further down the station, a man walks into him, quite deliberately.

“Never learned about reality then, mate? Don’t wanna get a job, yeah?”
Tom walks on, silent but for his smile, which speaks volumes.

Still the pianist plays. At times delicate, at times warm and bubbly, he slows, then picks up speed, like trains pulling in and out of this station. The passing of time is made beautiful, grey walls ooze colour, the cement holding the grubby tiles cracks and starts to smile. 

The music he plays takes on that epic feeling that great soundtracks have. I look around for cameras, for surely something incredible is about to happen to two characters – a kiss, a death – and while there are plenty of people around, no one is stopping except to stare into a glowing device. Two characters enter my field of view, encroaching on the music with end-of-night formalities. 

“Nice to see you again!”

“Yeah! Let’s not leave it this long next time.”

“Damn right. Text me when you’re home.”

“Alright, I will. Night!”

And maybe no one’s capable of being the lead character. Maybe it’s all on me, and something incredible and life-changing is about to happen – to me. The keys on the piano know it, the pianist knows it, the extras around here know it – but I’m still in the dark, like I’m in a choose-your-own-adventure that won’t show me the next page just yet. 

Or maybe this is the incredible happening – seemingly as mundane as every other moment leading up to it in my life, yet now enhanced by one man playing piano – the accidental aligning of people and place and the power of sounds to turn a dull station into paradise. The music falls into a sequence, over, and over, up and down, forever and ever, and maybe, just maybe, this man will play for the rest of my life and through whatever follows.

His sand-timer coffee cup looks nearly empty. I watch him tilt his head way back to drink it as he plays notes one-handed, not even looking at the keys. The sound which emanates seems to fill the air, coming not from any particular place but echoing from all around me. The sun is shining inside the underground ticket office, the faces that pass are filled with light. 

Slowly, slowly, he slows, though in my heart I pray for him not to. If he ends, this film must end. Slowly, ever so slowly, he lifts his left hand, then his right, then his foot from the sustain. Slowly, slowly, a cloud passes in front of the sun and the walls revert to grey. 

If you see something that doesn’t look right, please speak to a member of staff or text British Transpo…

I walk over to him as he pulls his coat back on.
“Thank you,” I say, shaking his hand.
He puts his two hands together and bows his head to reciprocate. I start to ask him where he learned to play like that, but I’m interrupted by a man wearing white shorts and black suit shoes who seems to know the pianist, and pulls him into an embrace. 

As I turn to leave and the film’s credits roll, I notice the two men have started signing to one another. The pianist communicates with his hands off the keys the same way he did with his hands on them. I can’t tell what they’re saying, but one thing is clear: the man who brought so much colour to my world, knows so little sound in his own.

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Want to read more CableWrites? Head to his website here: www.olivercable.com.

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