Have you ever experienced a moment in life where something caught you *so* by surprise that you could barely breathe for fear of breaking the moment and having it end? I’ve had a few, and they stay with me, tucked away in my memories in a snug, tiny box marked ‘Here be Treasure’.
When you blow the dust from the lid of that box (because somehow in spite of the wonder of these memories, I let them out far too infrequently) and smudge the pad of your thumb across the grimy top to check the label, you’ll see that this tatty, filth-coated thing really is the right box, and you can lift the small lid, probably shaking the box a little as you do so. As soon as there’s space, minute, dancing sparkles of light dance out, hanging in the cloud of still-settling dust like tiny stars. The lid removed, you can look in and be nearly blinded by the dazzling rainbow-bright-whiteness of those memories.
Let me show you this one…
It was probably five years ago now, and a group of friends and I had gone out for the evening. We’d hopped through a few places and not found anything we liked until we got to this tiny, tucked-away place called the Soul Cellar. We descended the stairs and found ourselves in a melting-pot of bodies, cigarette smoke, alcohol fumes and music. Ohhh the music!
It reverberated through the entire place, thrumming along with the dancers’ feet, the clunk and chink of drinks at the bar and the flash of sparkling jewellery on moving bodies, and our pulses quickened to keep time. We stayed there the rest of the evening and boogied and drank and laughed and had the most marvellous time of our lives.
It was a small bar and absolutely thronged; I mean, you couldn’t turn a sweet in your mouth! Yet the atmosphere was perfect – vibrant, lively, a little bit raunchy at times and always that wonderful sound from a live band – the insistent drum-beats catching your toes and making them tap; the double bass and bass guitar competing to bump and grind with your heartbeat; shimmering crescendoes of trumpet and saxophone which cut through the air and the whiskey-haze like knives through warm butter, leaving brass in the air and our minds blown.
The crowd weren’t tough, but there were so many of us – the bar staff (a chap and three girls) were hard pressed to keep up with the orders, and by the end of the evening they were taking aggro. Eyeing them through the slightly tipsy mist that I’d drunk myself into, I could see the strain in their faces and one of the girls was looking positively venemous as she fielded a large group of very rowdy lads, all shouting their orders at once, interspersed with their suggestions for what they might like to do with (or to?) her. The barman eventually intervened after she looked like she was about to lose it completely and bottle one of them.
At that point my friends decided they’d had enough, and were going to leave, but I was having too much fun and wanted to stay to the end of the set – I couldn’t get enough of that amazing sound, now I’d found it, so we parted company and I continued dancing.
I escaped later for a bit of elbow-room and a pee (did I mention I’d been drinking a little?) and afterwards rested my head against the cool mirror, letting the water run over my hands in the sink, feeling it soothe my tired skin and rejuvenate me ready for the final stage of the evening, and more dancing. I splashed my face, and as I did, paused, eyelashes stuck together with water, and hair dribbling, because the music had stopped and the noise of the crowd had grown louder.
There were shouts and the jovial noise that there’d been before rapidly turned ugly and aggressive. I heard fighting and banging coming up the corridor towards the toilets, so I turned the tap off, ran back into the stall and closed the door behind me, just as the fight exploded into the bathroom. I quickly locked the door and sat on the lid of the toilet, legs drawn up, shaking and wondering why the hell I’d let my friends leave me – what on earth had I been thinking? I put my hands over my ears as the shouting and banging raged, jumping once as something (or someone?) was slammed against the door of the cubicle I was hiding in. Blue lights flashed through the windows and cast their officious glare across the ceiling in staccato – the police were in attendance. I stayed frozen as authoritative voices stepped into the fray and started taking people out of the room. I could hear voices outside as more and more people exited.
I stayed, and eventually it was all quiet. The adrenaline rush was huge at first, but suddenly I felt drained and so tired, I lowered my head for a moment and closed my eyes.
I have no idea how long I was there.
It was dark when I came to, and the only light was from the street lamps outside. I fumbled to the door, tripping over debris left by the combatants, and felt my way back along the pitch corridor, towards the light of the large club room. There was only one light on – a high, dim spot over the stage. The barmaid – the one who’d taken the aggro earlier – was there, picking up the drifts of scattered sheet music and organising them in a pile on top of the piano. Her face was no longer venemous, but sullen and tired. I stepped forward, wondering about offering to help her – she’d clearly drawn the short straw at the end of her shift – when something about the way she was looking at the music made me pause.
She was reading it. Really reading it. And taking it in, with a look of such longing that I almost felt it echo.
She walked to the piano and lifted the lid, pressing a couple of keys experimentally, then as if making up her mind, she drew the stool to it, the sudden scraping on the wooden floor making me jump. She sat and rested the music in front of her, and a trickling, fluid string of notes leaped into the gloom, rapidly joined by the bassline I recognised from a piece earlier in the evening.
My eyes sprang wide in astonishment, as though electrified – this girl could play!
She finished the piece and segued into another, not pausing to change the sheet music. Waves of music crashed around the hall, filling it again with liveliness and fun – mocking the lack of dancers, and I nearly gave myself away because it was all I could do not to clap along or stamp my feet or *something* to be a part of that amazing sound.
Then the mood softened, became wistful and still, and she left the dance behind and began a piece which sent goosebumps rippling across my skin in time to the music. I tip-toed closer, taking care to remain closeted in darkness, but so that I could see her more clearly.
Her hands were strong, tendons rippling across their backs and up her arms as she played, clearly the mistress of the instrument. Her fingers were long, and the nails short and polished gold – they danced across the keys with well practiced lightness, yet firm too – drawing notes from the old piano of a shimmering quality I hadn’t thought it had left in it. She was tender, moving without showiness as the positioning of keys and chords required. Her hair fell in a curtain around her, the strands sparkling and swaying with each note as she played not just with her hands, but her whole body.
Her face, though, was transfixing. Her eyes were half closed, as though she were somewhere else, and as the piece unwound into the still air, I could see each emotion reflected on her countenance – wistfulness; sweet memories; determination; surging forwards; and finally, togetherness; wholeness and the joy of a journey shared.
I could hardly breathe.
I was closed in by the music and held utterly powerless in its spell – captivated by her face and the story she was playing, watching as she kept moving – kept playing – kept that dream swirling around the room, taking me from the sweetest, loveliest dolcissimo to the heartbreaking doloroso; through bright animato to soul-shaking con brio – her whole being invested in the playing, eyes fully closed now, face tilted upwards as though receiving a blessing from the music – lost, and taking me with her – until finally the crescendo hit, exploding out from the old piano, rending the air, punching into my soul rocking the core of me with its power.
Dizzy, I clung to whatever was in reach as she finished, lentando now – trickling the notes gently into the air, soft strokes of music to soothe the fevered aftermath and bring me back down to earth as the piece in a few, shuddering moments of espirando, finished.
The silence was deafening and the darkness pressed back in as she sat, looking as drained and fulfilled as I felt.
Unable to help myself, I blurted out into the darkness the only word I could think of: “Bravo!”
She jumped a mile, nearly falling off the piano stall backwards, and swore at me. But smiling. I stepped forwards into the light, tentatively at first, until our eyes met and we both grinned.
We chatted while she smoked a cigarette, and then I helped her finish tidying the wrecked bar, putting the chairs and tables back to rights, wiping surfaces and mopping floors along with the laughter and sharing of new and instantaneous friendship.
And at the end of the shift, as day was breaking and the cool light of dawn began to touch the edges of the room, she played again…