The noise has hounded Zoë for so long that she’s forgotten what silence feels like. To her, quiet is just the momentary lull between the roars of the freight trains, which run parallel to the flat on both sides.
‘The way you bolt upright like that, it’s enough to give me a heart attack,’ Percy complains again one autumn morning, yawning and stretching across the full width of their queen-size bed. Zoë’s still clinging, purple-eyed, to the duvet. She does not like the longer nights, which extend the hours that she’s trapped in the dark against the trains’ shucking. She waits for Percy’s complaints to stop, but he carries on as they brush their teeth, dress, and make breakfast.
‘I don’t think you understand,’ she interrupts at last. ‘You don’t even hear them, do you?’ She twists one of Percy’s half-price John Lewis teaspoons into her porridge, making patterns in the oat-starch.
‘Every night, like it’s the end of the world!’ He grumbles. ‘I mean for God’s sake, they’re just trains!’
She grinds the spoon into the white china bowl, imagining the scratch it’s leaving – something else for Percy to fuss over. Honestly. She’s the one who wakes up panicking. It wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t a signal right outside their flat, its red light shining through their mottled bathroom window. It makes the trains’ brakes clamp down as they approach, their wheels grating on the steel rails with an apocalyptic squeal, haunting Zoë in the uterine dark.
‘Zoë, please.’ Percy looks pointedly at the spoon in her fist. ‘It’s like nails on a chalkboard.’
She stops scraping the spoon against the bowl. ‘Anyway, how do you know I wake up if you’re not awake yourself?’
Percy’s response, after an inevitable sigh: ‘I’m only awake because you wake me up.’
Zoë can’t just stop. Her sleeping mind is strung out, as if she’s one of the birds on the overhead wires, fluttering up as a train passes, only to settle back in its aftermath, listening out for the next assault. All the while the rails’ melody rolls on pianissimo – for even in that hush between vehicles, the rails keep singing, a low twanging sound as the trains’ coursing motions make rubber bands of the tracks. It’s taken Zoë months to detect the movements of this industrial symphony. She wonders how many more it will take until she learns not to fear it.
The many-phased rail-song, with its diminuendo promises and ear-splitting crescendos, fills her days as well. Each one begins and ends with the trains, as they traffic her to and from her job in the big city. When she’d first started at the high-rise marketing consultancy (which was itself situated close enough to the station to feel the rumble of the tracks below), she’d been excited by the freedom and possibility the trains had offered. They took her away from the small town where she’d been born, towards the city she’d always dreamed of living in – even if her fantasy hadn’t been endless phone calls and tepid coffees. But over the months of commuting, the rail-song has become the soundtrack to Zoë’s drudging routine, an opera of steel that first coated, then suffocated, the West End-musical ambitions of her post-graduation years. Still, as Percy said when she gave up auditioning, it’s easier to comply with the cycle than resist it.
On the trains themselves, nobody speaks, creating a coughing, shuffling, scratching quiet born out of too many bodies and not enough voices. It veneers the train’s shuck-shuck refrain. Zoë recognizes some of her fellow commuters – the man with port-wine eyelids who snores in his seat; the woman who whispers into her phone; the builder who listens to Vivaldi on a grimy Huawei – but she never says hello. Instead, she watches through the window as the suburbs of her commuter-belt town are replaced first with green, then with the city’s steel and concrete. She’s as complicit in the treaty of silence as anybody else. At least, until she starts to hum.
The hum begins after Percy suggests they begin saving.
‘What for?’ Zoë asks, trying to focus on her TV treat for the week, a Handel oratorio broadcast live from the Met in New York.
‘What do you mean “what for”? A house, of course.’
‘We’ve got a house.’ She gestures at the sitting room walls, the tidy kitchenette.
‘One that we own.’ The second-hand leather sofa creaks as he shifts to get a better look at her.
Rolling her eyes, she puts the TV on mute and turns to him. ‘Haven’t we made this place our own?’
He looks about the room, taking in the decorations they’ve been carting from one rental to another: posters of the shows they used to go to during their Conservatoire years, each one lovingly framed with accompanying ticket stubs; his violin gathering dust on the shelf below her dog-eared music scores. He blinks dolefully. ‘Renting isn’t life.’
‘I’m not sure commuting to work every day is life either, but that’s the way it is.’
‘You have to have goals, Zoë. You in particular.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You’re becoming stagnant. We’re not in our early twenties anymore, you know, we can’t carry on living from moment-to-moment as if the future’s just going to magically sort itself out. I want to build a life with you – don’t you want that with me?’
Retorts spring to mind – that she holds down a better paying job than he does; that pretending to be an adult isn’t the same as being one – but each response will just continue the conversation, taking her further from her precious moments with Handel. ‘Okay. Fine. We’ll save.’
Percy is pleased and goes out to buy a bottle of celebratory plonk. The ring of their toasting glasses pings off Zoë’s eardrums, and the Prosecco’s cheap acidity screws her lower gut into a knot. Overnight, a tight cord grows inside her, winding from her heart down into her pelvic floor. The trains’ braking squeals echo in her chest. First the house, and then what? Her life stretches in front of her, all of it held at the red signal of what Percy wants. She wants to punch out that maroon-tinted glass disk and million-watt bulb: no train should be made to come to a standstill.
She wakes up humming. It’s so infuriating that Percy nearly throws his cereal across the room. She cracks a smile at that. Zoë hasn’t sung in months. Percy used to accompany her, but now he prefers re-runs of Friends and checking his bank balance. She’s not sure when stability trumped creativity for him, society just seemed to get its claws in. She envies that a little; he, at least, seems unaware of what they’ve lost.
Alone on the busy train, Zoë reflects that perhaps the hum has arrived to help her taunt Percy, reaching out from her dreams to blister his pious patience. Frowning, she tries to remember what she dreamt about last night. She had been running, she thinks, faster than she had ever run in her life. Without any further context for it, she bats the thought away and hums slightly louder, trying to cling to a handle of her own sound.
She continues to hum as she disembarks at the Zone 3 station that leads to her office, within sight of the city centre and its sky-scrapers, but not quite part of it. She hums at work, low enough that her colleagues blame the air conditioning. The water cooler bubbles a beat to her tuneless song, and her feet tap in time under her hot desk.
The hum continues on her walk back to the station too, but once she boards her homeward train, she finds the sound of the wheels beneath her drown out her song so entirely she has to raise her voice, until she feels the vibration in her nose. The sound rings between Zoë and the man in the next seat. He cocks his head a little and rustles his paper but makes no comment. Zoë isn’t sure she’d be able to stop even if the man asked her to.
She’s on a quest for a tune that will ring with her internal tuning fork, a sound she can make that is utterly Zoë, a score to her life that’s more than commuting and coffee and caving in and–
‘Will you quit that incessant noise.’ Percy snaps when she gets home.
She cuts the sound off dead, though the spontaneous notes keep simmering away inside her.
‘Can’t we have a discussion like normal people? Tell me how your day was.’
‘I got to replace the cartridge in the photocopier.’ She’s toneless, faking normalcy over the shuddering trains outside and the shaking hum within.
‘And was that nice?’
‘Yup.’ She doesn’t ask how Percy is, but he tells her anyway.
‘I spoke to my friend Nancy, you know, the estate agent–’
Zoë nods along, but the minute she steps onto the platform the next day, her hum returns, louder this time, growing in strength as her train pulls from the station. The engine’s growl kneads her, urging her to keep humming.
Across the weeks, the hum continues, louder and louder, until everyone in her carriage can hear its undercurrent beneath the cuss of tracks and wheels. Determined to uphold the mute treaty of silence, they say nothing, but the seat beside Zoë is increasingly unoccupied. The bolder commuters clear their throats and frown. They could be frowning at anything because they don’t look directly at Zoë, but she knows it’s her humming that’s making them uncomfortable. She relishes it. Serves them right for their dainty, repetitive lives.
Yet, like clockwork, the hum fails the minute Zoë steps into her flat, churning in her diaphragm until she makes her way to work again. Percy claims her nightmares are getting worse, and he must be right because Zoë wakes up each morning with a tiredness in her bones she’s never felt before. A lie-down-and-cry tiredness. A clay-in-your-skull tiredness. A lead-lidded, snap-mouthed, parched-in-the-joints tiredness.
Through humming, she tries to create something tangible that can counterbalance her leaden body, but it doesn’t matter which way she twists her vocal cords, she can’t figure out how to make the sound she feels inside. She tries unfurling the hum into a song, the noise garish in the train’s communal hush. If the other carriages weren’t so crammed already, Zoë is sure the other commuters would flee from her presence, but she can’t help it – if she doesn’t sing, she’s afraid she’ll stop breathing, drowning in the world of not-Zoë things.
As winter progresses, her antics increase. She recites Bowie, Tchaikovsky, Janis Joplin. She branches out into blues, opera, and, once when she’s unable to get a seat, a full-length air-guitar rendition of ‘Killing In The Name’ by Rage Against The Machine. This last so shocks a young schoolboy that he drops his apple and it rolls under the seats. The boy’s mother tries to clutch his ears and cover his eyes simultaneously, therefore failing to do either. Zoë sticks to non-explicit content after that, though the school kid always looks at her with hopeful eyes, as if one day she might voice those spectacular swearwords again.
Back at home, Percy maintains his obsession with creating a boxed-up life. ‘Oh no, we can’t do Glyndebourne this year, it’s too expensive.’
‘We didn’t do it last year, either,’ Zoë protests, trying to grab his attention away from the crossword.
‘Exactly. We’re saving for a house. Even more reason not to just spend money willy-nilly.’
Percy used to love Glyndebourne. Back when they’d first been dating, and they’d considered themselves exciting intellectuals with interesting friends, they’d been out every night for shows and concerts, waking each other up each morning with ideas for new compositions. They’d been filled with possibility, but it had all seeped away under the pressures of rent and day-jobs – things that were meant to be temporary bridges to greater creativity but had somehow become permanent and stifling.
Zoë strokes a finger through the film of dust that coats her songbooks on the sitting room bookshelf. ‘Do you ever think about composing again?’
Putting his head on one side, Percy looks up from his crossword. His eyes flick to the violin on the shelf beneath. ‘Not really. It’s not exactly sensible, is it?’
Zoë expects she’s not meant to reply. ‘We could play some Holst – remember how we used to?’
Percy, silent, clearly feels he doesn’t need to reply.
Later that night, while she’s washing up, she hears Percy in the front room. He tunes his violin and plays a few bars from one of his last, unfinished, pieces. He’s out of practice and presses too hard with his bow, making the strings wail. She hopes it might be a turning point, but Christmas comes, then New Year, and while she practices her singing on the train, he doesn’t play again.
In January, Zoë works her way through Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, and Lady Gaga. She tries the Holst, but it’s not the same without Percy. With each note her volume increases and she stands taller, until her mere presence takes up the entire coach. Under such duress, her fellow commuters finally succumb and pack themselves into other carriages, but still Zoë will not stop. In fact, her singing becomes more important, when she realises she isn’t singing against the rail-song, but with it, as if the brutal shucking of the tracks has climbed inside her, looking for release.
Her performance review comes up at work, during which her line manager suggests she takes some time off.
‘Why?’ she asks, all innocence. She’s been keeping her singing to a minimum at work, sticking to her initial hum.
Her line manager twirls his pen, his mouth wilting. He shifts his bulk in his flame-retardant, stain-resistant chair. ‘It’s the humming, it’s disturbing some of your colleagues.’
‘Oh, that.’ Zoë puts on a large smile. ‘I’m just cheerful. Not to worry, I can keep it down.’
‘Because you couldn’t when Ben in Ops asked you yesterday, or Georgie in Comms last week.’
‘This time, I swear, I can.’ Time off sounds bad. Time off sounds like something she couldn’t explain to Percy.
On her way home, halfway through an epic interpretation of ‘The Queen of the Night’s Aria’, station security come and cart her off to a small break room labeled ‘Private’. Evidently, somebody – somebodies – have made complaints against her recent behaviour.
‘See, we can’t let you travel if you insist on making this hullaballoo every day. It’s verbal abuse.’
The station security man lifts his cap to scratch his forehead. ‘Look, love, we understand something’s going on for you, but we need you to keep it down, okay?’
She forces another smile. ‘Okay.’
But she sings Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ at the top of her lungs walking home from the station.
‘How was your day?’ Percy asks, a little too brightly. ‘Same as usual? Well, never mind, we’ll have a nice house of our own soon, and it’ll all be worth it. Listen, the estate agents were in touch today about a place nearby, still in commuting distance for you, but nearer the park–’
Zoë lets his thoughts flood over her in a grey wash. She nods when she’s meant to, assents as required, all the while sinking deeper into the freedom-fight sway of the rail-song. The seven thirty-five cries to a halt outside the kitchenette window, carrying its usual load of coal and wood-chips. When did the carriages passing behind the pliant garden fence start holding more meaning than Percy’s plotting?
‘For God’s sake, Zoë, you’re not even listening to me.’
He tuts and rolls his eyes. ‘What is it you want, hmm? Because sometimes I think you’re not really invested in this. In us.’
‘No, I am.’ Theoretically, she can see the appeal of settling down; but settling into an empty cage is no comfort at all. That’s what she can’t seem to express to Percy. She’s never been handed the vocabulary to figure out quite what she wants, let alone to explain it to someone else. She wants… not-this.
That night she wakes up and for several minutes she can’t fathom what she’s feeling. It isn’t until she touches her cheeks and finds them wet that she realises she’s sad. Weeping but silent, her song repressed. She sinks onto pillows that had once been hers, but are now covered in Percy’s thin, uprooted hairs. She lets her eyes leak sideways and listens to the squeal of another train braking in the dark. It resonates inside her, the same sound she’s been trying to express all along: an impatient roar. The train’s beast-halt shout and her house-cage tears tumble together. You shouldn’t force creatures like us to brake.
As the train pulls away again, it laughs and chatters, pushing into the liberty of the tracks. Zoë sits up in bed, listening to that freedom singing out. At last, she understands that the vocabulary she’s been looking for isn’t made of words at all; it’s a collection of metallic harmonies.
Rising, Zoë tries to find herself in the bathroom mirror, but where she wants to be bright-kind-happy, she sees only numb-not-free. Another train passes outside, this time without stopping, the light from the green signal seeping in through the bathroom window, allowing it to sing-sing-run-sing along the rails.
Zoë doesn’t take a handbag, or even her house keys. She just puts a coat over her pajamas and leaves, the orange streetlamps lighting her path. After so many months of noise, she’s become slack-jawed and silent. But the melody keeps going in her head, growing louder with each step as she’s led away with the rail-song.
When she comes to the train platform, she can hear the tracks vibrating with their own endless rhythm and the draw of the music strengthens.
Checking for the presence of guards, she slumps onto the tracks, hopping over the live rails and sleepers as she listens out for the slinky-down-stairs vibrations that indicate a coming train.
She follows the tracks to the train yard, deserted but for the slumbering engines, their song diminished to sighs and snores. Stroking her arms over the empty carriages’ hard, strong bodies, she wakes them one by one – and as she does, each sings her a note that she hums back, teaching her a new melody crotchet by crotchet, bar by bar. The notes are unintuitive, with reverberation of Tibetan singing bowls, opening cutlery drawers, church bells. To make the sounds, she has to shape her mouth as if she’s trying to hold a ball-bearing on the back of her tongue, and rip breath over her throat and palette. It’s painful, like she’s spent too long in a nightclub or had a bad shouting match. The last note in the song stitches an itchy seam in the roof of her mouth – but she can’t stop now. She has to repeat the song or she’ll forget it. The seam unpicks into a white-hot agony as she belts the rail-song from beginning to end. The trains lu-la-by her with encouragement as she gives in to the furnace and throws her head back, the melody emerging from her mouth in a magnesium fire, blinding against the night’s womb. For a moment, her veins pulse with mercury and her muscles become taut with iron as she pours herself into the rail-song’s promise. This is how solid she could be; how sturdy she could stand; how sonorously she could sing.
When the song’s diminished, the dark is twice as deep, but the roof of her mouth still itches. She sticks a finger between her lips, scratching her palette with a nail, and the irritated gum peels away as easily as orange rind. She spits onto the sidings, grateful that the shadows obscure whatever of herself she’s leaving behind, and runs her tongue around her raw mouth. Her palette is firmer than before – tough – and warm in the way of lizards and radiators, as if when left to its own devices it would very quickly go cold. Fumbling at her neck and body, she finds the rest of herself remarkably unchanged. The flavours of iron and rust pass over her tongue and nose. This new roof of her mouth should feel strange and wrong, but the song of the trains and the song in herself are melding into a unison-me-tune, binding her into her skin after years of not quite fitting it.
Stroking the side of the closest train, she presses her ear to its skin. The rails are in their interim rubber-band fermata and a fox howls – but the song inside her has fallen quiet, playing out pages of rests, biding its time until it’s needed. She holds her hands to her chest, heart beating beneath the layers of pajama and coat, and cleaves to that sing-sing-run-sing the trains have given her.
A blackbird sings the morning’s first hollow-bone-thick-flesh tune and she smiles: time to turn home. At the front door, she remembers that she has no keys – that when she left the house she wasn’t sure any road would bring her back – and that version of her feels far-off-old-and-done, a skin she shed with the gum of her palette in the train yard. She places one hand on the doorknob and the other on the lock, then hums a snippet of rail-song. The door shrugs, opening with a knife-butter sigh. Inside it’s almost as cold as out; Percy’s been rationing the heating so they can save more. In the mirror over the non-functioning fireplace, she still technically looks the same – same eyes, teeth, nose – but she seems more herself, as if something tectonic inside has shifted, and when she opens her mouth and leans her head back, her palette glints silver. She circles the sitting room, flicking through her songbooks, feeling the rail-song playing out its rests. How long before her voice picks up the music again? She picks up Percy’s violin, unseals the case in a puff of resin dust and releases it form its red silk shroud. She plucks the strings, all out of tune, the ‘G’ so loose it flops against the fingerboard.
In the bedroom, Percy’s alarm shrills, followed by his shuffle into slippers and towards coffee. His footsteps pause behind her. She stares at the violin.
‘What are you doing?’ She doesn’t need to turn to feel the snarl.
‘What am I doing?’ She frowns. What is he doing? ‘Play it.’
‘Zoë, it’s six thirty in the morning, don’t be ridiculous.’
She turns to him, cat-eyed, screwing the red silk into her fist. ‘Play. It.’
His eyes flick between hers. It’s written all over his face that he knows what she wants –after all these years he must know – but his snarl only deepens. ‘You’re being childish.’
He turns to the kitchenette, the spin of his shoulder and heel so crisp it slices her. She catches her breath as he opens the drawer with the John Lewis cutlery, and the cupboard overhead with the Habitat cafetiere. The umbilical-romance-honeymoon thread that’s always held them together stretches, wincing, and threatens to split, resting on a fray years in the making. But she won’t let it break. Not yet. People don’t just disappear.
Her heart buzzes, filled with train track resonance. That violinist is still inside him; it has to be. Her Percy has string-calloused fingers; and ears for tuning; and forgets to go the barber because he’s caught up in Paganini; and shakes his hair from his eyes while his hands are full of bow and violin neck; and plays such a pure sound the birds stop to listen and the air itself becomes honey for him. He cannot have just disappeared.
After months of searching for the right sound, she finally understands how it’s made, the pressure of longing and grief and desperation, underpinned by that neglected base note, love.
She runs her tongue over the roof of her new mouth. ‘Play for me.’
The cutlery shudders and the violin strings quiver.
Not looking at her, he opens his tin of single-source, Peckham-roasted, fine-ground coffee.
Percy slams the tin on the counter. ‘No.’
Why can’t he see? She has to make him see. ‘Play.’
‘Play the damn instrument, Percy!’ The rail-song bursts though her words, persisting beyond them, her mouth an amplifier for a sound she didn’t know she needed to make. The violin strings tremble, then melt, welding to the body; the hands on the clock drip onto the couch cushions; the lights flicker, buzz, and dim; the cutlery in the drawer bubbles into a molten lump. She rejoices in her own earthquake noise, her own run-run-sing-run, shuck-shuck-run, shuck-shuck-sing.
But then, finally, she looks at Percy – really this-human-here looks at him – holding his ears and cowering in his bobbled dressing gown and holey slippers. And she stops.
She trembles. He pokes the fused cutlery. His jaw works, like he’s trying to make a sound, but he can’t. Poor thing, like a boy, all overwhelmed. She reaches to him but he flinches and gazes at her with surprised, stop-it-just-stop eyes, and she realizes how exhausted he is by her. How fed-up-damn-this-I-was-promised-more knackered he is with the whole charade. How long has it been since he vanished?
‘I’m sorry, Percy, I didn’t mean to…’ She trails off and steps back, panting from the effort of subduing the rail-song. ‘I don’t want this. I don’t want to be like this anymore.’
In their room, she throws on yesterday’s clothes and packs hastily, scrambling her favourite clothes and books into a suitcase. Downstairs, slipping into scuffed pumps, she stuffs her songbooks and laptop into her backpack without looking at Percy.
‘What did you do to the cutlery?’
She begins to say ‘I didn’t mean to’ but finds she can’t lie.
‘I don’t understand.’
She looks at him, trying to figure out how to express her anger and sadness, her stupid-humble-how-did-you-not-see. They share a look neither of them understand and she closes the door quietly on its useless, melted lock.
The suitcase drumrolls down the street, earning glances from the early morning commuters. She doesn’t cry, but her throat hurts like she might, and her heart thuds harder than it should as she buys her ticket and drags her suitcase to the train platform. The train comes, answered by a resounding rush in her chest. Don’t get on board tired-in-clay; not-today; not-today.
She stands back, tugging her backpack straps like a schoolgirl. This is her train, the 07:32 to Vauxhall, stopping at Martins Heron, Ascot, Sunningdale, Longcross, Virginia Water, Egham, Staines– Her feet feel a familiar tug, but the rail-song holds her in place. She hasn’t been given it just to carry on the way things were, but nor does she want to become a welder, a blacksmith, or a jeweler, even though the rail-song might give her those powers. No, the rail-song is for one thing only: it will be her tuning fork, and she will ring.
She gets to Waterloo before the riptide of commuters is at its worst; 6.30am, the sky a cobalt wash through the glass roof. She defends her spot ferociously if anyone suggests she move. It’s only ever because one of the Underground buskers wants some daylight, but she’s too good to remove from the station proper, and the admin staff soon back down.
‘Should be on the West End!’ The ticket man crows as she lugs her amp through the luggage gate.
‘Morning Clive! How’s the family?’
He shrugs, nods, shakes his head. ‘Same old, wouldn’t change it for the world though!’
She sets up amongst the clatter of unloading shop keepers and scent of baking bagels, putting out her amp, mic, iZettle, and hat – busking’s changed a lot since she started, but mostly since the pandemic. It’s all about hybrid payment now. She taps the mic and hums warm-up exercises, starting the day with a gentle Cornish folk song to return the blood from her freshly-breakfasted stomach to her throat. A few musicians she knows stopped playing during the pandemic. They lost their mojo or got self-conscious without their practice rooms. She gets how it might happen, but it couldn’t happen to her, not with the rail-song pushing her through. She doesn’t use it much anymore, but she needed it in the silence. They say everyone started a new hobby during lockdown: hers was using the rail-song to do teaspoon tricks that would make Uri Geller weep. Not that she’d ever show off about it.
An elderly woman shuffles past, morning newspaper in an arthritic paw, and chucks some pennies in Zoë’s hat. Back when she first started – before she was making enough to unionise – Zoë put a little rail-song in her music, melting coins together in listener’s pockets so they threw her a pound instead of a penny. She doesn’t need the tricks so often now, though the hat’s still the same old beret she picked up on a Conservatoire trip to Paris. Ten years of being thrown on the floor and it still looks good as new whenever she chucks it in the wash.
The day warms with her voice, and the station busies. Clive and one of the Information girls bring her coffee and a Krispy Kreme during her break, but she only stops for ten minutes. She just has the morning, she has to make the most of it.
As in her commuting days, she still sings a variety of songs too broad for any one ear to handle, but because people rarely stop for even a single full song, there’s no time for them to complain. She follows the backing tracks she’s got on shuffle, relaxing into whatever comes next. She rolls her eyes when its Maroon 5’s ‘Memories’. A pandemic anthem that somehow hasn’t lost its sentiment with her audience. She didn’t mind the song the first thirty times, but even then it wasn’t really her. She only keeps it on the roster because she always makes more money in this song’s three minutes and nine seconds than she does in the preceding hour.
Halfway through, she spots him, standing a little way off in a suit and tie. Must have been a decade since she last saw him, but she recognizes the angle of his neck sloping into his collar as if it were this morning. Percy’s listening, but he’s not watching her, focused firmly on the woman and girl next to him. The girl is delighted by Zoë’s Maroon 5 rendition, and she tugs Percy’s trouser leg, whispering. He fiddles in his pocket and extracts a coin. She snatches it, toddles over, and deposits a clammy fifty pence piece in the beret. Zoë winks her thanks, but the girl turns shy and runs to hide behind her mum’s long, polka-dot skirt. It’s the kind of thing Percy wanted Zoë to wear towards the end.
His wife is well put together, with a tidy waist and dyed hair. Zoë’s got a few fly-away greys nowadays, and her jeans are kicked-out at the knees. The rail-song wraps around her spine and holds her up. Does Percy recognise the hat his kid just dropped a coin in? He was with her on that Paris trip, even made love to her in that beret, crammed into the bathroom of a Montmatre blues bar. That’s what they were like back then. Funny, she hasn’t thought about that in years. But when he finally looks at her, she can tell he’s forgotten, the memory’s vanished along with the violinist. He knows who she is of course, cocks his head to one side as if he’s still trying to figure out what happened to his John Lewis cutlery, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any lingering affection, nor much of anything else. He herds his family away as the song closes, heel and shoulder turning as sharply as ever. In the pause as her phone shuffles music, she considers melting all the change in his pocket together.
Then the next track starts and she knows it within notes: Holst’s four songs for violin and voice, which Percy introduced her to, explaining how Holst composed it during the last years of the First World War. It’s unmetered, just one voice and one violin working together to figure out their own tempo, so it rarely sounds the same twice. Except she and Percy played it so often and knew each other so well in those early years, they developed their own version; the same rhythm, time after time, theirs alone. It’s his recording, actually, the one he gave her tipsily on a mix CD after graduation in celebration of everything he hoped lay ahead of them.
‘My soul has nought but fire and ice, and my body earth and wood…’ The words spill out in their secret cadence, which only he and she have the ears to pick up.
He glances over his shoulder, eyes broad with astonishment – and there’s the vanished man, just for a moment – callous-fingered, tuning-eared, barber-forgoing, hair-flicking, violin-wielding… Even though it’s only a recording, it’s his bow reaching from the past, spinning honeyed possibility out of thin air. For a split second, eyes catching, they both remember it all from the same vantage point.
His daughter catches his hand, and the violinist vanishes as Percy swings back into his world. As the music that was the best of them fades, Zoë likewise returns to hers: her scant but attentive audience, and the rail-song with its exquisite impulse to sing-sing-run-sing, sing-sing-run-sing, sing-sing-run-sing.