- Mayookha Mitra-Majumdar
He sat in the tunnel that ran under Westminster Bridge. His left hand was poised over the strings, which quivered from the slightest contact with his fingers. His right hand held a bow. On the pavement lay his cello case, the worn blue velvet interior exposed. Within the case lay music books that had belonged to his grandfather, now so well-thumbed that the sable ink of the notes and of the crescendos, rallitandos, and fortes dotting an occasional measure had faded to rust brown. He waited for stillness, one that would never come, to begin.
Tension between body and instrument broke as he dragged the bow across the open G-string, which released a paroxysm of life as the first vibrations of music were wrung from it. As he played a second note, then another, and another, the cellist in the tunnel, as if out of a fog, came to the realization that the effluence of notes from the well-used cello had begun to give shape to Bach’s “Cello Suite in G Major.”
As the music mounted under his fingers, he glanced up. Nobody had passed through the tunnel. The cello case, which gazed hopefully up at the dim lights flickering on the ceiling, did not glint with coins. To his right, tourists and day-trippers idled around the London Eye. Families bickered over their next destination, and young couples whispered sweet nothings while they waited for the Houses of Parliament across the Thames to be lit. Beyond the oft-heard tirades about the litter that covered the walk, the gentle lapping of the Thames against the embankments could just be discerned. The cellist could see these things and hear these things, but they did not hear him. Rather, they did not listen.
The cellist knew that he inhabited the periphery of the scene. He did not know why he chose to sit in a half-lit tunnel once a week simply to be ignored. Yet he came, sitting in general opprobrium, isolated from the rush of people by the cello case that so unceremoniously hinted at contributions.
Every now and then, some passerby would drop a few pence into his case. He knew that their beneficence was not out of appreciation but rather pity or obligation. They would spin coins into his case, laughing to one another as they walked by, or awkwardly place a penny or two into the case, as if afraid of offending him, then skirt around him and out the other end of the tunnel. When he first began playing in the tunnel under Westminster Bridge, his face had burned at these little encounters. He played more passionately to atone for his seeming beggary. Of course, that was not the case. He knew that now.
As the cello suite progressed in its final passage, he glimpsed a girl out of the corner of his eye. She stood at the edge of the tunnel. She was leaning against the wall, watching him and listening. She seemed to know the music, for as he launched into the final run of the piece, she walked toward him, her right hand in a loose fist. Coming slowly to a stop in front of him, she waited for the cellist to finish one of her favorite pieces (though he did not know this). It was exhilarating to be listened to, not simply heard, for it was inanition of soul, of emotion, that he suffered from. As the last vibrations died upon the strings, he felt the tension return to his arms. A lassitude that would not normally have existed after even a lengthy performance inhabited every fiber of his body. He looked up in anticipation.
She smiled. “That was wonderful.”
American accent. A tourist.
He grinned shyly. “Thank you.”
She walked over to his cello case, her fist revealing a couple of pounds. She lingered over the books in his case.
The cellist watched as she straightened, glanced at him, and began to walk away.
She looked back and smiled.
The cellist waited in silence. He picked up one of his music books and flipped through the pages.
Glancing up towards the end of the tunnel, he fancied that the girl was still watching him. But then it seemed someone called to her. She gave him one last look and hurried away across the bridge above.
He wouldn’t see her again. She was thinking the same thing about the cellist in the tunnel.
At least, this is how she imagined it happened.