One of my most unfailing friends in adolesence was a beautiful, sleek Yamaha upright; one that required a soft touch and had great aptitude for romantic repertoire. We bonded easily and became fast confidants; my first port in times of outrage and euphoria alike. I was never fond of following proscribed lessons; instead, I played what I pleased - sometimes Rachmaninov, perhaps Chopin, a sprinkling of Bendel, but always Debussy - and my friend always yielded without a note of reproach.
And to the present day. London has many distractions; but the greatest motivator (and source of stress) in recent years has been the quest for professional fulfilment. A legal degree was always a forerunner to a precursory shadow who turns the corner always a pace or two ahead, of a quest whispering droll promises of metropolitan grandeur. I wrestle with the financial news, I undertake internships in glassy offices, I enjoy champagne parties in lounges suspended high above the City. Of those indulgences I have left by the wayside, I think (fleetingly): ah, the luxury of youthful fantasy! the exotic extravagance of musical ache! I believed, perhaps indolently, that such personal weaknesses are the mould of formative years and thus serve little purpose now. On one particular evening, goaded to play a few notes on a wondrously full-bodied grand during an ignoble reception, the droll beckoned and a jazzy, insincere but well received rendition of 'somewhere over the rainbow' was duly dispatched. There, was my smug thought, see - those years of tutelage are a means to the same end as well!
But the summer season has a disruptive quality. The City empties, universities wind down - the weather is even balmy. Forced to stay put by regretted commitments, I spend my days wandering listlessly and wishing for rain, disrupted every now and then by menial tasks, one of which is the arduous process of changing digs. Our new abode - an aesthetically pleasing and dignified townhouse conversion - has the added attribute of being near to St Pancras Station, a destination I often think of with the greatest fondness; the building's colonnaded arches where the first thing I spied when, wide-eyed, the train arriving from Scotland terminated and we tumbled out coltishly into a new life. It was with the same sudden twist of nostalgia that, one warm evening, spurred by itching impulse, I walked the small distance to the station, an hour before midnight.
A train had arrived just as I entered; people streamed past, some irate, some jovial, most wearied by travelling on a Friday eve. The shops lining the long corridors had closed for some time yet a few things remained; friendly round tables around which groups laughed, a perpetually open Starbucks and - most surprisingly - three pianos, lined just out of earshot of each other, facing north.
The first was empty when I approached, the black and yellowing keys friendly. Buoyed by a stab of loyalty, I chose to play. Yet, I found the first few notes embarrassing, like arthritic feet trying to remember a youthful jig. I heard phrases and melodies in my mind, but those dratted fingers that had fallen out of properly proficient practice - they refused to cooperate to the same accomplished level I had once been so securely capable. Aggrieved, I stopped after two stilted Mendelssohn pieces - only to notice three prone figures to my right. I turned to see three young men holding backpacks and listening with interest.
At once, I felt regretful, feeling the odd compulsion to explain myself. I was once much more proficient! I wanted to call. Apologetic, I raised my fingers to the keys once more - and they found, of their own accord, the low B flat octave that marked the beginning of the most treasured piece in my repertoire; a little known Debussy nocturne, a fearsomely complex piece I had not attempted in a year. That first silken octave note, no more than a low murmur, was transportive. At once, I was sixteen. Emboldened, I continued - it is an odd thing, muscle memory! My mind no longer held a perfect score, but the fingers continued unbidden. They knew, not only the notes, but the touch - the caress that is applied to the muted opening arpeggios, the interchange of phrase between passages. They needed no direction, no thought to mar a bittersweet reunion with a fickly abandoned friend. The body can sometimes identify needs more pertinently than the mind; something innate released at that moment, a breath after holding still underwater for so long. It was then I remembered dreams that are chased away by dawn - the feeling of painted wood beneath the very tips of the fingers, the medium of control snapping at anticipating wrists, the curl of the fourth and fifth digits. I mourned in penitence; how could I have left you so?
I continued to play for an hour or so as the last trains pulled in, occasionally stopping an eclectic crowd, some of who spoke to me: a businessman who, having missed his train, bought a sandwich and sat around the corner to listen; Chinese tourists who, awkwardly, pulled out their smartphones to film; a PhD student at the same university, on his way home for the weekend; a slightly inebriated but talented young businessman who insisted on playing the left hand to my right hand for the Pathetique sonata. Demonstrating the strange pull of music, some spoke of their own musical experiences, their affinity for certain composers; they wished to share, it seemed, to relate, to articulate certain feelings. But most memorable of all was a middle-aged, mullet bearing European migrant who, plopping on the bench next to me with an almighty groan, proceeded to pull out several very crumpled and smudged sheets papers, while listening to heavy rock blasting from his earphones. I paid him no heed at first, thinking he was rooting through his bag for some lost item. But after several pieces, and a return to the Debussy nocturne, he turned and said (in a thick, almost impenetrable, accent);
"That's Debussy, isn't it?"
I told him I was surprised he recognised the obscure piece.
"I like it," he said simply. "You play it particularly well."
It was only then that I realised that the extremely tattered pieces of paper he had been perusing was sheet music. I asked him if he wished to play.
"I come here often - I have no piano. I can wait."
And so he did. I finished fairly quickly after that, partly out of courtesy, and partly because it was now past midnight. We exchanged a few words - it transpired (or so I think, beneath that accent) he was a manual labourer of sorts, not having been in the country for very long.
He had deep lines on his countenance, but they softened when he played.