Rachel threw down the Evening Standard in disgust. Sometimes, the paper engaged her enough to make the journey home go a little faster, but there were occasions when it just made her angry. Who, she ranted inwardly, wants to know about murders, or corrupt politicians, or how many millions of pounds footballers get paid, or if the economic crisis is actually only the prelude to the apocalypse? There is no point knowing stuff you can’t do anything about! Rachel glanced at the woman sitting opposite, as if to see whether her co-passenger would sympathise with or object to her disapproval. But the woman was, of course, totally unaware of Rachel’s agitation. With crumpled office clothes and hair half-fallen-down over her face, she looked only tired and, thought Rachel, like someone who just wants to get home – which was, she reflected, all she wanted too. She did not really care about the paper; she was just getting crotchety and over-thinking things because she too was tired and bored and wanted to get home. At this time of the evening, the only people left on the train were the unfortunate few who had had to work late. And the noisy teenagers, of course, who had so far escaped any real commitments in life, and were still able to go out with friends on a weeknight. Rachel remembered now why it was that she had picked up the paper in the first place. It had been a desperate attempt to tune out the incessant chatter of the kids across the carriage.
“No, I don’t fancy Carly. He is fit though.”
“You so do!”
“No, I really don’t.”
“What about Sam?”
“No way. No way!”
“He’s well fit. And he’s into you.”
This was the way their conversation had been going on since they had boarded at Victoria. So far, it had been well established that the girls did not fancy any boys, but there were many boys who were keenly “into” them. Frequently, their dissection of the sexual politics of their apparently vast social circle left them shrieking with laughter. And after every laughing fit the blonde girl with the nasal voice sighed dramatically: “Oh my god, that is hysterical.” But Rachel, after a long day at work, was not amused. If they don’t get off at the next stop, she decided, I will move to another carriage.
The train jerked and ground into Temple station, and Rachel readied herself for the switch. But then the doors slid open, and a man stepped through. And, as he did so, the fluorescent striplights buzzed and flickered and, when they settled again, the light in the carriage was dim and orange tinged, and Rachel was still in her seat.
The man was tall and thickly built. He had a bushy, greying moustache and was dressed entirely in black, with a short jacket that resembled a cape, and a bowler hat. But the thing that had made Rachel, and everyone else, forget what they’d been thinking was the extraordinary musical instrument he carried. It appeared to have been tacked together from pieces of violin and at least two trumpets, the horns of which were ranged one on top of the other above the bridge and strings of the violin.
He surveyed his audience. The teenagers opposite Rachel were now pulling you-can’t- be-serious faces at one another, and nearly everyone else had suddenly become very interested in their papers, phone touchscreens, and iPod playlists.
A minute passed with no noise but the rumble of the train and the nervous giggles of the girls. Then the man spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his voice rich and thick. Eastern European, perhaps? thought Rachel. “I hope you are enjoying your evenings on the District line.” The woman across from Rachel looked her directly in the eye and grimaced, but Rachel did not respond.
“My name is Mateo,” the man continued. “I am going to play you a song that I wrote with my sister. She would be here to play it with me, but has unfortunately been delayed because of disruptions on the Metropolitan and Circle Lines.”
One of the girls snorted and there was a short burst of loud laughter from her friends.
“Oh my god. Oh my god,” wheezed the blonde.
But Mateo was unfazed and did not acknowledge the interruption. He placed the trumpet-violin on his shoulder, produced a bow from his jacket-cape, and began to play. The sound of the strings was high and whining but surprisingly smooth. Mateo closed his eyes. It should have been comical, thought Rachel, to see a grown man playing this clownish instrument with the conviction of a concert violinist but, perhaps because he looked so serious, she did not find it funny. With the instrument still balanced on his shoulder, and craning his neck to one side, Mateo now began to play the violin and trumpet parts of the instrument at the same time. The resulting sound was impolitely loud but expressed with assurance.
A question formed in Rachel’s mind: How does one become Mateo? How does one decide that one’s calling is to master an instrument that one must first invent and build before one learns to play it, and then to play it for audiences who mostly would rather not hear it? Rachel imagined Mateo’s frustration over the years as he cast off instrument after instrument – bagpipes, flute, mandolin – because he did not feel they could express what he had to say. She imagined him being spurned by other musicians who mocked his urge to frankenstein instruments together, searching for the right combination. But she did not pity him because she could tell that Mateo’s performance, however strange, was heartfelt. The music jerked and wailed and droned and did not move along in the way one’s ears might expect but, as he swayed gently from side to side, Mateo was enrapt.
One of the teenagers had begun to silently laugh so much that her body shook and she gasped for breath. The suited office workers at the end of the carriage were shuffling their papers loudly to make their irritation known. But it was obvious that Mateo did not care. His recital sped up, slowed down, and sped up and slowed down again. Rachel was toying with the idea of applauding to show support but, every time she thought Mateo was about to reach the final blaring flourish, the whining violin picked up again. And then, suddenly, he did stop; and Rachel, surprised, found she was too embarrassed to clap. But it is strange to watch a performance and there to be no applause at the end, she thought. Mateo opened his eyes. “Thank you,” he said, and wiped his brow.
As the train trundled into Blackfriars, the trumpet-violinist did not move to get off, but a third of the carriage occupants, including the woman opposite Rachel and the teenagers, rose to their feet.
“What a jackass. What a jackass,” one of the girls muttered, and her friends repeated the phrase after her, like a tiny echo. Through the windows, Rachel spied several people hopping back into the next carriage. Then, just as the doors were closing, Mateo rushed forward to help a young woman jump in.
“Marguerite! Marguerite!” He turned to those who were still on board. “This is my sister I told you about. Marguerite!” He smiled broadly, holding the young woman’s arm up in the air as though she were a victorious fighter. She was pale, tight-lipped, and wore a huge amount of black eye-liner. Her hair was up in a neat bun upon which bloomed a black, lace flower. Like Mateo, she was dressed in black, though her stockings were striped with white. A glistening accordion hung across her chest.
“This song,” said Marguerite, in the same accent as her brother, “is for our papa.”
With great solemnity, she began to work the accordion and then to sing in a language Rachel did not recognize. Mateo joined in, decorating the space between Marguerite’s vocal fragments, which could barely be heard above the sound of the train. But Rachel was impressed by the way the music flowed lazily and smoothly between them. She had been wrong, she reflected; Mateo was not alone in his artistic struggle.
It is a short journey between Blackfriars and Mansion House and, in less than a couple of minutes, the train had stopped again. Mateo and Marguerite drew their song to a close. A passenger walked up from the far end of the carriage to pass them on his way out, an old punk with a shaven head and shiny boots.
“That was good, mate. I enjoyed that,” he said to Marguerite and Mateo, and shook their hands. Rachel could see that both his appreciation and their gratitude was genuine. Marguerite had a sweet smile.
Then, apart from the two performers, there were only three people left: a boy with huge headphones who had probably been unaware of the entire event, a businessman who had never lowered his paper, and Rachel. The musical duo were heading toward her. Rachel remembered she had spent the last of her change at the newsagents by her work. Becoming flustered, she readied herself to apologise, but, without making any request, they passed her by. Mateo opened the door to the next carriage and let his sister go through, following after. The door clanged shut behind them.
The fluorescent strips flickered and the white brightness was restored. Rachel blinked. And then she began to laugh. Oh dear, I am so tired, I might cry. She laughed more. She had no idea why, but she had a sudden urge to jump up and run after Mateo and Marguerite. Take me with you, she imagined herself imploring them, I can juggle a little and play the penny whistle too!
She sighed and her sigh turned into a yawn. Oh lord, I am tired.
Rachel wished she was already home.