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Westminster Quietitude

             As I descended into the concrete pit, allowing the street to swallow me, taking me into the city’s bowels, it was difficult to hear—well, to understand—anything.  The roaring of the crowd on the street mingled with the din of the tube station, eventually giving up and allowed full rights of noise to the platform.  People shouted to each other through the sea of flesh, sound reflecting off the walls and reverberating through the tunnel.  As I studied the map, a rhythmic clack-clack, clack-clack approached.  I studied the haphazard mesh of green and yellow, brown and blue lines—District and Circle, Bakerloo and Piccadilly…the crowd’s noise subsided, giving way to the growing volume of the approaching train.  From Westminster, I’d have to switch lines a few times…the train arrived.  I could hear feet shuffling as the brakes whined, brief confusion as the doors slid open, a few bustling murmurs of “excuse me” below the Tube’s pleasant British voice, saying, “mind the gap” on the loudspeaker.  A child screamed as I made my way down the platform.  Through the noise of the train’s departure, I could hear the mother’s reprimand.

            Turning into a white-walled tunnel, I listened as the platform gradually reduced to a distant, jumbled echo still loud enough to shatter any peace but far enough to be little more than a fog of volume.  I continued to follow the signs leading to “Northern Line.”  Even in the lonely tunnel, removed entirely from the crowds, the air refused to let go of the cacophony all subways seem to share.

            Then, above the unpleasant rumble of trains and jostling strangers, I felt—more than heard—a low hum.  Moving through the white labyrinth, the hum strengthened, taking different values and weaving itself into the Underground.  Slowly, the hum replaced all other sound, wrapping itself in silence until it was absolutely pure, slowly waltzing into my mind, then suddenly jumping into a manic frenzy.  In circles it ran, a musical sprint, exhilarating in its breathlessness, until it dove into a low, almost mournful note.  I turned a corner, and there he was.  A young man, perhaps twenty-five, fervently drawing a bow across a cello, dragging the notes down, down, down, before pulling them back up quickly, to notes surprisingly high.  He stood, hunched over the instrument, long dark hair falling about his face.  Sweat slid from his skin, vibrating and atomizing in the electrified, musical air.  He knew nothing but his music, was alive by it, was immersed in it.

            His music, so involving, cultivated a silence that lent it an aetheric, almost supernatural quality.  All other noise stilled as it encountered the cellist’s invisible curtain.

Where the music alone washed the walls, there was a peace, a utopian aspect to the subway.  I was stunned by its magic.

            I have no idea how long I stood there, watching the music play upon the hallway’s still air.  I remember, though, the terror I felt when I saw the man in the Underground uniform.

            Purposefully, the groundsman strode toward the cellist.

            The magician, deeply involved with the controlled undulations of his bow, did not see the approaching danger.

I, held by the music, could make no noise or movement.

            The uniformed man stopped just short of the cellist’s case.  Raising a smooth, clerical hand, he moved to speak; the music spun, evading him in a twist of notes.  He hesitated.

            Again, the hand rose in protest.  Again, the music slapped it aside.

            But the third time, he brushed the cellist’s elbow, almost by accident, sending the bow off course.  The note went sour.  The spell was broken.  The music was gone.

            Suddenly, painfully, my ears were torn by the sounds of the subway.  In a cataclysm of noise, the screaming child, squealing brakes, and screeching doors engulfed me, flooding my mind.  I heard the uniformed man mutter a useless apology, asking the cellist to clear the hall; his large instrument was blocking the path, creating a nuisance.

            Through the hall of noise, I wandered down the hall.  As I passed the forlorn cellist, I tossed a meager handful of coins, the only few in my pocket, into his case.

            Reaching the platform, I waited.  The shouts and rumblings blinded me.  Clack-clack, clack-clack, came the train, each percussive beat flashing a harsh light into my mind.  The child screamed.  The brakes squealed.  The doors screeched.

            “Pardon me.”

            “Mind the Gap.”

            “Oh, so sorry.”

            “Mind the Gap.”

            As the doors screeched shut once more, my eyes found the platform through the window.  From beneath dark bangs, blue eyes met mine, and the cellist smiled as the train left him on the platform, his cello sustaining him at its side.


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Copyright ©2000 Adam Rutledge