There is an old piano with chipped keys and fine lines on display inside Whitechapel station. There is an official bucket tethered with a silver chain and a not-unworthy cause interleaved between two sheets of plastic.
For some, a chance to showcase.
Performances erupt intermittently, often during the calmer moments between rush hours. Songs are trialled with savage self-reverence. Almost all end prematurely with fingers stabbed into the keys in extraneous shows of force, leaving chambers of raw notes suspended across the ticket hall.
There are a variety of players throughout the day, ranging from the primed and suited, to the more bespoke and ill-defined. The instrument is a great leveller, a democracy of strings and hammers, oblivious to rings or manicure, or a tie tucked temporarily between the buttons of a shirt.
Outside, a walkway leads to the entrance. It is flat and street-like, risen from ten steps with a naked run of bolts dimpling the girders. It bridges over the westward track, safe above the passing trains and the immutable knots of weeds and graffiti battling beneath. Outside, bodies camp along its length, fixed to either side, tight between the hospitable right angles. Malformed tents are pitched unevenly among a corral of tinfoil, wool and crutches.
Outside, they listen for any changing sound. Any shift to grace.
Street sweepers appear at first light in luminesce singlets and heavy gloves, their faces set hard against their own Sisyphean struggle. They enquire with short jabs from sweeping brushes and pinches from limbed claws, moving delicately between the recalcitrant bodies.
One body has removed itself from the rest, subtlety detached from the harlequin spread of shelters laid out along the walkway. She has slept through dawn when it is safe, now she is awake. Her night has passed with cheap highs and lidless eyes, sitting sentry under a lamppost with a soft cuticle of light drawn around her, on guard against expedient charges of flesh and urine.
The sky is thin and blue, dropping a lighter shade into the horizon. The sunlight groans across her eyes and each thought skips quickly to the next; dull fractures of pain and hunger. Her face is one of many shapes carved into a landscape of incurables. Her hair is brittle and stiff, splitting at the top of her forehead and running past her temples in blond buttresses. Her skin is marked and her eyes are tired and unpractised, bereft of any meaningful contact. She is fully dressed beneath her covers with only her boots detached, skittled at the end of her sleeping bag. She holds a sandwich bag of possessions tight against her chest, filled with the scraps of life she has drawn together. Among her treasures are a deck of playing cards and a coverless paperback. The book is worn but unread; it is the safest place to store her few remaining photographs. Aubergine bruises cover her back and shoulders, and a weeping pain bleeds into her stomach. She struggles upwards, angling her body into a sitting position, tucking her knees tight below her chin.
Shrines of breakfast treats present along the walkway, considered by many as the most important meal of the day. The items are placed surreptitiously before the hooded sleeping bags and otherwise covered bodies. For those who pass, a strange avidity. Some bend and crouch in conversation, never once leaving the soles of their shoes.
She has been without a home since she was sixteen years old, ticketed between foster care and institutions. She has been cut loose and turned away. She has been down and out and beaten. There have been close grips and threats of violence, second chances and final warnings. She has been all the things that spring to mind. Her suffering as artless and sincere as the unwanted hair on her legs and the damp grit held between her skin and clothing – the coarse interlining of her life.
The trains break and shift beneath her, departing without incident. There is a sense of median aim and general direction. She knows the rhythm of the lines – they run deep and dry but are no warmer for it. She stays low. Any occurrence, sudden or devised, will most likely lead to further hardship. She ignores the tea spattered and skinned before her and proceeds to lay a selection of cards face up along the walkway, the selection dealt without pattern or challenge.
Those who spent the night beside her gather their belongings and walk off into the day. And where they go she always wonders. She pulls her knees closer to her chest and shapes her body into the stone. She will wait it out, each moment broken from the last. Every glance in her direction, everything done and gone, is just a small fragment of the whole. And she has no strength for what might happen.
Inside, the machines control the tempo as the station spits and swallows. The interior is edged with white plastic walls and coloured lines mapping out the city of London. Bodies stop and tap before passing through. Some will call for assistance, but onwards they will march. She counts each hand that reaches out for a newspaper, answering the call from the man in the street. She whispers to herself. The bodies keep passing and she whispers it again, weaker every time.
Inside, the piano is played and coins crash into the bucket. There has been a lively rendition of Happy Birthday and a Maple Leaf Rag; Imagine has been incredulously butchered; and a clumsy bump at Für Elise. The performances are rushed and insensible, a taunting presence in her mind.
Outside, she scratches her arm until it bleeds, the measure trailed in perfect harmony. A single drop of blood falls onto the stone.
Her room at the mission was bright and unadorned, with a single bed set neat against the windowsill and a metal sink opposite, closer to the door. The headboard was carved into a stave of urban folklore, warnings and declarations from previous tenants, stating their names and sharing their choicest truths. And although she threatened many times, she never once added her mark – the action deemed too cheap and administrative. A permanent reminder of impermanent harbour.
Her exit from the mission was keenly understood. The policy had been stated and agreed. She stood in the office as the lines were read back to her. The woman’s eyes rose from the paper, detailing what was found, her voice inflecting with each assertion of action and consequence.
Sent back to her room she prepared for her departure, raising the shade before packing her belongings, opening the window to the world beyond. She sat on the bed and shuffled through her photographs: The white cliffs of the south coast. Summers spent sitting on the shore, fingers stepping aimlessly through the rocky beaches. Her parents running through the water, calling out to her between the waves. The sound of the wheels turning in the gravel carpark. And later, the sound of the crash that left her on her own. Now mixed with the crossed calls and traffic drone of Whitechapel.
An orderly knocked at the door with a simple call of Time. She rose to answer, glancing at the shaved handle. She took as long as possible to slide her arms into the sleeves of her coat.
Guided down the stairs with the orderly’s presence at her back, each step separate, heavy and slow. Her nails drew soft against the wounded yellow wall, the thickness of the paint casting a numb feeling through her fingers.
Through the lobby she noticed the receptionist playing cards on the computer, and their eyes met with two helpless dying smiles.
She was shepherded from the mission with good will and the best intentions, with the hope that one day soon she might return.
The sun has set and shadows stretch across the walkway, the sharpest lines she’s ever seen. The streetlights struggle, squinting past their ashy casings. She sees the hours reaching out ahead. There are subtle clues and small moves to consider. She presses her head back against the railing, feeling its resistance through the muscles in her neck. She can’t quite remember the stars at sea, but she’ll search the sky for a target.
The last train is announced over the tannoy and some come running. There are comic screams at the situation and chips are thrown at one another. Half-empty bottles are placed against the base of an overflowing bin, softly fenced against a scab of polystyrene and dripping fat.
A member of station staff steps outside and positions a sandwich board at the entrance. He removes a packet of cigarettes from his breast pocket and raises his head to the world. His neon vest is stripped with a silver band across the chest and two matching braces running over either shoulder. He notices her body balled against the railing. He walks towards her with a tempered smile of recognition, offering her a cigarette with a sweeping movement of his arm. She pinches and pulls at the weakest stump, conscious of her fingernails, bitten to a dirty quick. He holds her gaze, his eyes warm and familiar, Indian green. He strikes a match and wraps his hand around the flame. It stands and strengthens behind the shelter. She holds the cigarette between her lips and leans forward to light the tip. She juts her chin when she deems it has taken, offering her eyes in a silent thank you.
He settles down beside her, tilting his body into hers with a gentle nudge, the glow from the streetlights reflecting from his shoulders.
I thought you were away? he asks.
I was. But here we are, she answers, her eyes balancing along the white length of the cigarette. Distance in her voice.
A moment passes with several beats a second.
Well, what happened? he asks, trying again with different letters.
Ah, the usual. I was just passing through.
There is small conversation about her day, awkward and polite. Nothing he can’t predict. And nothing he can help. His eyes search the shadows, eager for the same purview. The same view since his last shift. A shale of glass has scattered across the walkway and a vague tar has cured into the surface of the stone. The stains of the day, surviving until morning.
He skims his cigarette against the wire fence, flicking it over the barrier, out onto the track. He rises to leave, handing her his few remaining cigarettes. He lifts his sleeve to check his watch, although he is absolutely certain of the time. He draws his breath and asks her if she has any requests. A shyness rises in the corner of her mouth and she lowers her eyes to the ground.
The usual please. You know I don’t know the names.
He wishes her goodnight and shuffles back inside. Chalky steps on the station tile and the lonely sound of keys being chosen. He drags the barrier across the entrance and it snaps shut with a metal jingle, revealing itself like some steel flower. Fixed to the wheels of night and day.
The familiar sounds of closing: the reordering of bin bags and the water-burst of coins spilling from the machines. She waits and listens. The piano stool kicks against the floor and Clair De Lune begins. The first shy flights from the keys. The charming wise and soft pace of the notes tumbling down in waves, fighting to find the centre. Outside, they fall in a short, dry rain. The music tugs at her body and she rolls her neck to one side. She swims in the freedom of the moment, as the music cuts through the shout and rage of the night beyond. Her arms loosen, soft and warm inside her clothing. She exhales a swollen blend of steam and smoke from her lungs. She watches as it crumbles into the night.
Outside, she smiles, heartened by her own acuity. There’s a beauty and a terror inside every public piano.
Niall Keegan was Born in Dublin, now living in London, working as a Technical Writer. Former Assistant Editor at Dalkey Archive Press, Dublin. First-class honours, MA Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama, University College Dublin. Niall’s Writing has previously appeared in Crannog, Into the Void and STORGY.
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