He was an unremarkable seeming man, short, dark, balding and slightly tubby, with sad, doe like eyes and a faded light blue jacket, travelling alone on the Brussels metro to the cafe where he played the piano. In his left hand he carried a battered briefcase full of the music he never looked at any more, but always carried with him just in case. He was the kind of man who did a lot of unnecessary things just in case.
The tram was almost empty when he squeezed through the narrow doors at De Brouckere, and the platform was completely deserted but for a couple too engrossed in one another to notice that they had missed their tram. He looked at them for a while, and then looked away. When the noise of the tram disappearing into the tunnel had completely faded the station was utterly silent. The only sound was of his own footsteps, first on the black plastic flooring, and later on the metal of the static escalator. He felt a little giddy as he climbed it, unable to rid himself of the city dweller's instinct that the stairs he was climbing were themselves moving. They should have been moving. It was, after all, an escalator.
Outside, the dull cold of the winter afternoon shook him through the melting snow to the shopping centre that he always walked through to get to the cafe. It was a brief respite from the chill wind and the slush that always threatened to penetrate his thin leather shoes. As he passed the shoes-repaired-while-you-wait shop he wondered briefly if he ought not have his shoes done, just in case. It looked a little like a bar, with its long counter and high stools, but no drinks were served there, and the customers had nothing on their feet but socks. It would probably be foolishly expensive here, in the centre of town, he thought, and made a mental note to look for a cheaper shoe repairer in the suburb where he lived alone with his CD player and his piano. There ought to be one there. There ought to.
It seemed that few people had decided to brave this particular winter afternoon. The shopping centre was not at all crowded, and when he emerged on its far corner he found that he was able to cross the road immediately, there being no traffic. A few tourists in thick and expensive coats gathered in groups on corners to consult maps, or to gape at restaurant menus, but the wind blew him directly to the cafe where he was to play for the rest of the afternoon.
The cafe was warm, and he was pleased to see that the new waitress had remembered that he always had a coffee before he played, and was already busy with the machine, making steam jet here, water bubble there, and arranging a small plastic pot of milk, two sugar cubes and a biscuit on a saucer for him. He had played at the same cafe for some years, and had always had a coffee before he played. It seemed odd to him that they still put the sugar cubes and the biscuit on his saucer, for he never touched either of them. It was a kind of ritual - this twice weekly offering and rejection of sugar and biscuits. There was no reason to suppose that anyone working there should know whether or not he took sugar in his coffee, or whether he felt hungry and wanted a biscuit. No one had ever asked him. It didn't matter to him at all. It was the cafe's problem.
He sat down at the table by the piano, and poured the milk from the tiny plastic pot into his coffee, peering through the steamed up window at the wind and the snow outside. The cafe was long and full of whisperings from the few customers and from the quiet radio. The radio was tuned to a music station, but the volume was set at such a level that the music itself was barely audible, and when the disk jockeys bantered, as they always did, in between songs, all that could be heard was a distant whispering, and it was impossible to tell whether they were bantering in French or in Dutch. Most of the songs they played were in English, but that made no difference to anyone in the cafe, because no one really listened to it anyway. All that mattered was that it was there, it was a small but significant bulkhead against the weight of silence.
One day, he remembered, the radio had broken down a couple of hours before he had arrived. The place had been in pandemonium - a waitress had dropped a tray of beers on a customer, the owner of the cafe had had a screaming row with the cook who had stormed out in rage, never to return, all the tables were laden heavy with empty coffee cups and beer glasses, scraps of paper and torn serviettes, half full plastic pots of milk and plastic wrappings for biscuits. There were crumbs on the floor, and on one place on the wall, a dirty stain left by a glass of beer that had been thrown by the cook during the argument. The chairs were in disarray - some tables had five or six chairs around them, packed closely like spectators in a stadium, while others had only one or two, and looked empty and forbidding. Only two customers had remained, both regulars, sitting as usual at the far end of the cafe, reading the newspapers which the owner provided for customers to read, and which he shackled with wooden bars, so that they could be hung up on a rack when they were not being read, and so that nobody would steal them, leaving nothing to read in the cafe, and no connection with the events of the previous day.
While the piano player was drinking his coffee, the owner of the cafe came over to him, and flung himself into the seat opposite, as if he were a very heavy man, or as if he was very tired. He was tall and thin, with thick glasses, and a thick beard, and he was neither heavy nor tired. He asked the piano player how he was, and without waiting for a reply, asked him if he could play a particular song for him that he wanted to hear. He hummed a few bars of the chorus, and apologised for the fact that he couldn't remember the name of the song, but he thought that it was either about a butterfly, or about the sea. The piano player was unsure that he could remember how to play it, but promised that he would try, and the owner thanked him and returned to the kitchen where he spent most of the day, having decided not to hire any more cooks. The piano player finished his coffee, and placed his jacket carefully on the back of the chair in front of the piano. The jacket was too heavy to play in, and, safely on the back of the chair, demonstrated to anyone that might stray into the cafe that there was somebody playing the piano that day already, and that the piano was not to be touched, even if he himself had taken a short break or had gone to the toilet to void his bladder of all the coffees that he had drunk. He flexed his fingers, and remembering the ring he always wore on the little finger of his right hand, removed it and put it in his trouser pocket. A butterfly, he thought. The sea. He began to play.
The couple who had been necking at the metro station had stopped when the platform began to fill with people. She had not wanted to, but he always felt inexplicably embarrassed to be so demonstrative in a public place when the public was there. 'Do you love me?' she asked him, and he smiled, and said that of course he did, it was just that, well, he wasn't sure but... and she interrupted him and said that it was alright and that she knew. They had missed two trams while the station was empty, and were now having to wait some time for the next one. A woman with a long face and pointed glasses had come to stand next to them, waiting also for the same tram, and after fifteen minutes, had disappeared for a moment, coming back to warn the couple that her friend had told her that all the trams would be delayed today due to the bad weather. She had asked them where they were going, and if they wanted to share a taxi, but they had had to say no, because they could not afford a taxi. She disappeared again, but was to be seen later, at the other end of the platform, reading a romantic novel and eating a bar of chocolate that she had found in her handbag.
The couple discussed walking for a while, but decided that it was far too cold, and that they would wait for the tram no matter how long it took. After all, if it turned out that it was not coming at all, surely someone would tell them. There was no hurry.
The platform was filled with the sound of people waiting, shifting from foot to foot, rustling in bags to check that things were still there, clicking the buttons on personal stereos and unbuttoning heavy coats that became uncomfortably warm in an enclosed space. A few conversations in low voices drifted along the platform in whispers, and somewhere a girl laughed suddenly. You could tell from the way she laughed that she was a teenager. It didn't matter.
The couple started suddenly as the sound of a tram approaching began to drown out the subdued noise of a hundred silent people in a small space. The rails creaked and bells rang above a deep and distant thunder that spiralled along the tunnel, coming ever closer, but it was not their tram, it was going in the wrong direction anyway.
'Perhaps our tram will come soon,' she said to him, 'it often comes a few moments after that other one in the other direction,' and he agreed, and said that yes it did, but that today, what with the bad weather, signals and signs like that were unlikely to be reliable. She kissed him, and he pulled away very slightly, because there really were too many people in the station, but he was glad that she had kissed him, and steeling himself, kissed her quickly too, hoping that the three toughs with the shiny jackets were not gawking at her over his shoulder.
'Perhaps it will,' he said.
At the far end of the cafe from the pianist, the owner was talking to a young man who had telephoned him earlier about the possibility of playing the guitar in his cafe for money. They had both listened to a cassette that the young man had made, upstairs in the office, and had now come down to have a coffee and to discuss the deal.
The owner said that the problem was that all the songs on the tape had had singing in them, and that he liked the music, but he preferred to have live music without singing in his cafe, because when people sang they tended to disturb the customers. 'It becomes intrusive,' he said, 'when there is someone singing in the cafe, and most of my customers do not like that. You sing well, but I have to think first of my customers.' The young man was obviously nervous about the whole thing, and nodded, and said that he could just play without singing if that was what was needed. 'Like this,' said the owner. 'Like this guy here on the piano. He plays popular songs, Beatles and Frank Sinatra, but he doesn't sing, he stays in the background. Unobtrusive. That is what I am looking for. This is not a rock cafe.' The young man said that he understood, and began to feel that perhaps he had not blown it all completely when he had failed to recognise the song about the butterfly and the sea that the owner had hummed to him upstairs, in the office. 'You should listen to this guy here on the piano. He is like a machine. You can ask him to play anything and he will. Even if he doesn't know it. You just hum him a few bars and he picks it up. It is incredible. Like a machine.'
At the other end of the cafe, the pianist, who had, as usual, drifted off into a dream while he was playing his Beatles and Frank Sinatra songs, caught the drift of the owner's conversation, and realised that he was being talked about. His heart swelled with a thin pride, as his fingers continued to glide over the keys in perfect time and harmony, following the logical progressions of the simple melodies that paid his rent. The tunes slid softly through the warm damp air of the cafe, and out into the street when the young man opened the door to leave.
The city was still, that cold winter afternoon, as the young man returned to the metro station through the slush and litter of the streets, with the sound of the warm damp cafe piano still in his ears. As he clattered down the broken escalator to the crowded platform, he could still just make out the melody of some classic popular song that had lasted for so many years and which would last for so many years, until all the people who had fallen in love or made love for the first time while listening to it or humming it had died, and it had been replaced by new popular songs.
A full tram whined into the station, and there was just about enough room on it for most of the people on the platform to climb aboard, after all those who had wanted to get out had left, but the young man was unlucky, and there was no more room to squeeze in through any of the doors by the time that he had reached them. A woman already on the tram smiled weakly at him and shrugged as the doors closed and the tram pulled away.
Turning, he found that the platform was deserted, but for a young couple necking at the other end of it, who had also been unable to get on the tram. He could still hear the soft and sickly piano from the cafe, and had originally thought that it was only in his head, but he noticed that the couple could hear it too, and were looking up at the ceiling to try and find the speakers. He looked up also, momentarily, but he knew in his heart that there would be none to find. He knew that the Beatles songs and the Frank Sinatra songs would pipe their way not just through this station, but through the whole Brussels metro. They would continue until the short, dark, balding, slightly tubby man with the sad, doe like eyes and the faded light blue jacket, who played the piano at the cafe, had stopped playing, and had picked up his shabby briefcase to travel home, alone, through the metro that would always be, for him, utterly silent.