On the first Monday of autumn there suddenly appeared, in the centre of the train station’s concourse, a piano. Nobody saw it arrive, but there it stood, a dishevelled sandy brown, with a third of the ivory chipped off its middle C key, looking like it had just escaped from the Wild West. It didn’t have the shiny grandeur of a Steinway or the elegant curves of a Bechstein, but it did have a strangely affecting quality of sound; warm and comforting like the voice of a wise great-uncle.
Tacked in landscape orientation above the keyboard was a piece of A4 paper with “Play Me” scrawled on it in black marker pen. Despite the invitation, nobody touched the station’s newest arrival until that evening, when a small boy, who lived a stone’s throw from the station, arrived to meet his dad from work.
The boy didn’t play a song, a tune or even a chord. Instead, he firmly struck the chipped middle C with his right index finger. And then stood still, listening to the sound as it reverberated at 761mph, outwards in all directions like three-dimensional ripples on a pond. Across the concourse the middle C ran, climbing fifty feet into the Victorian structure’s ceiling where the lattice of steel girders had evolved into a city for pigeons.
For an instant, the commuters stopped like dogs hearing a key in a door. Then, they dissolved back into their phones and their thoughts, some vaguely irritated by the disruption to the continuity, but not sure why.
The following evening, passengers arriving home on the 6.36 passed through the ticket barriers into a cathedral of sound like nothing they had ever heard. At the piano sat what appeared to be an elderly man, dressed in a scruffy chestnut-coloured herringbone coat and wearing a mask; the sort of kids’ party mask you might see in a pound shop, with a smiling chimp on it.
He was playing a piece with a similar cadence to, say, Chopin’s Tristesse, but which was, as far as anyone could tell, an original composition. He caressed the keys with such emotion that several passers-by were immobilised by its beauty. Most were too busy to stop; one lady muttered “nice gimmick” as she shuffled past.
The following day the old man was there again. Playing the same song, but this time with even more intensity. Every cubic millimetre of the station’s empty space sparked and buzzed with the aliveness of the notes. This time, more people stopped to listen, including the boy, whose dad had just arrived on the 6.36.
Every weekday that month, as the evenings lost their light and the trees shed their leaves, the man in the chimp mask played for the passengers disembarking the 6.36. Each time, just as everybody assumed his playing had reached the limits of sublimity, the sound became even more divine. And every day, ever more people stopped to listen until, by the end of October, almost the whole train regularly paused to hear him play.
It wasn’t only the inbound commuters who were arrested by the music: everyone waiting for the other trains would crowd around him, the workers in the station’s shops left their posts to come outside. Infants stopped screaming; dogs lay down; birds began to sing; people of all ages were moved to tears as the music conjured within them depths of passion that had lay dormant for years, concealed beneath layers of worry and regret.
Whispers started to circulate about the man’s identity. Some suggested he was a reclusive concert pianist who had fallen on hard times. Others felt the need to pay him — he looked like he needed a new coat, after all. But there was nothing into which to throw money, so piles of coins began to appear on the piano’s scuffed wooden top. For days the coins were left untouched, until they started to topple over like crumbling pillars at an ancient temple ruin.
Then, one Friday, a note appeared amongst the cash, alongside a crimson biscuit tin encircled by a rim of rust. It read “Thank you for your kind contributions, but I do not need any money. If you are enjoying the music, maybe you could throw a daisy into the tin. For each one I receive I will give a pound to charity on your behalf.”
Most people considered this a sweet idea, and for a while the daisies trickled in. But, as winter tightened its grip on the town, the novelty began to fade and attendances for the man’s performances dropped. “He must be rich,” people would say. “He doesn’t need our money. And why does he always play the same song? Doesn’t he know any others?”
By late November only a few people were regularly stopping to hear him play, and by the start of December he had a regular audience of just one small boy.
One Monday, for the first time in months, the man wasn’t there. Nobody noticed. Apart from the boy.
That night, while his parents were asleep, the boy pulled on his red boots and grey duffle coat, gathered a bucket and a torch and headed to the park. There he crouched, collecting flowers until the sun’s tangerine glow lit up the leaves on the ground around him. By dawn, his spine burned hot and stiff like a tower of smouldering coal; trails of snot caked the front of his coat; his fingertips were worn red with friction and numbed by the frost.
Just after sunrise, before his parents woke, he left his bucket of daisies by the piano at the station and sneaked back home to his bedroom.
When he returned after school to meet his dad off the train, the bucket was gone. In its place sat a plastic monkey mask. The boy put it on. And the birds sang as he began to play…
Words by Gary Rose, music by Mount Bank