I’m on a train to London, and the train guard is making his announcements in a trusty broad Yorkshire accent.
It’s the usual rehearsed script of where the train is due to stop, the estimated time of arrival, the shameless promotion of overly priced food and beverages before informing parents, lovers and friends saying goodbye to loved ones that unless they want to be charged an arm and a leg for an unintentional trip to London, could they kindly get off the damn train before the automatic doors slide shut, thank you very much.
He pauses for what feels like a few seconds, and proceeds to advise passengers not to hesitate to report anything suspicious.
“Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”
There is a noticeable change in his diction as he emphasises the last few words, the formulaic drone in his voice giving way to a grim seriousness.
On hearing this I feel myself squirming incriminatingly in my seat like a misbehaving child sent head-hanging and red-faced to the headmistress’ office. Nobody has said a word to me, nobody has cut me with a rueful side glance to suggest they aren’t happy with my being there. But today I am overly cautious of the fact that the hijab on my head might bring unwanted attention. I should have worn a turban, but in the mad rush to the train station, an overfilled Ted Baker shopping bag weighing me down in one hand, cracked iPhone in the other, the hijab I flung over my head went from being wrapped acceptably in my trademark Iranian Elvis Presley style, to a monstrous rag with tufts of static hair pointing out front like a mohican. People might take me for an anarchic, hijabi punk-rocker or worse, a Tina Turner impersonator with a hijab. So you can imagine why I am feeling slightly paranoid.
Two hours later, the train pulls into Kings Cross. I still have a few hours before I need to head off to watch a play in the evening. I don’t want to leave without playing on one of the pianos inside St Pancras station next door, a small rite of passage whenever I pass through. My heart is set on one particular piano, a black, sleek beauty gifted by Elton John. It’s like the holy piano of all public pianos, and it’s never not being played. But for once, there’s nobody on it. With nothing between us, I rush towards it to claim my prize. Out of nowhere a woman brushes past, her arms thrust purposefully back and forth, eyes magnified like those pestilent bottle-flies by the oversized Jackie O sunglasses she wears shutting out the sun blazing outside and the world with it, a Mulberry bag looped elegantly around her arm. She wrinkles her nose at me as if she just touched a leper. She’s bad and bougie. Fortunately for her and for my bruised ego, my musical bae is waiting, and nothing can dent this sunny disposition of mine.
So there I am, poking and prodding at the keys of the piano like a fool out of a Morecombe and Wise sketch. Commuters headed from Paris to Nottingham, pull their hand luggage behind them with wheels whirring and spinning over the smooth floor, shooting past on either side of me as I play. I feel like the prophet Moses parting travellers and commuters with the celestial power of my music, but the few bum notes I hit are a humbling reminder I am no bloody Alicia Keys. The tannoid sounds again, this time in the station:
“The threat level has been raised to critical. If you see anything suspicious, please do not hesitate to inform a member of staff or contact the police. Remember, see it, say it, sorted.”
The country’s terror threat has been raised to the highest possible level, but the way the faceless man on the tannoid says it, is in such a matter-of-fact way, you’d think he were an employee at a supermarket announcing a spillage on an aisle after a screaming child smashes a jar of baby food that splatters on the floor like a Jackson Pollack painting, in protest at being refused sweets before dinner. They don’t say “Keep calm and carry on” for nothing; such is the British way. But there creeps that gnawing sense of vulnerability again. Big Brother might be watching…
At this point a woman with long, flowing braids and a green hat perched on her head stops to listen to me play. After a minute or so, she asks if she can film me.
“Feel free, but just to warn you my fingers have a habit of freezing up when the camera is on.”
“I’ll just pretend I’m not here” she says, sitting on the metal railing snaking around the glass elevator the piano is placed in front of.
I’m not being modest. My fingers freeze and the notes stop melding together as I become conscious of her watching me play. After a few minutes, I give up and insist she has a go. She sits on the stool and plays a few songs, all her own compositions which she modestly says are a combination of chords she mixed together. I’m not one who gets emotional very easily, but all of a sudden I’m having to swallow a lump in my throat. Her face is radiating so much joy, so much soul as her fingers dance gracefully over the keys. As she slides off the stool to let on two guys watching on the side, we sit down and talk for a while.
Her name is Sophia, and she is visiting from Chicago. She’s been pining to play the piano for a few weeks since coming to the UK, but couldn’t find one until today. Anyone who loves to play will know that feeling of piano withdrawal which sets in when you haven’t played for a while. We talk about her stay in London so far, about our shared love for theatre and period dramas. The subject of period dramas opens up a whole discussion about how Colin Firth made the best Darcy (apologies to anyone who is camp Macfadyen), and how period dramas are so translatable to south-Asian family politics.
We pause for a moment to glance over at the two guys who went on to play earlier; they’re now playing a duet. Observing how friendly we are with each other, all four of us exchange confused glances.
“Do you guys know each other?”
“No we just met. Do you know each other?”
“No, we just met too!”
That’s when the St Pancras piano gang of two suddenly becomes a gang of four.
Our other fellow piano lovers are Luis and Tawanda. From John Legend, Ludovico Einaudi, Adele, to Alicia Keys, they drop song after song for the next hour. Luis casually flicks his hair to the side, his skateboard tucked under the piano as he plays a song we all recognise with lightning speed. Then Tawanda gets on and blows us away with his cover of John Legend’s ‘All Of Me.’ The sun is blazing, Tawanda and Luis are jamming away, Sophia is now singing like a songbird, and I’m stood here awkwardly squawking the odd words, swaying like a palm tree. I’m not sure what the armed policemen briskly walking up and down in their high visibility jackets make of us, but we’re the most unlikely band going. Here we are, an American, a Zimbabwean, a Londoner, and a hybrid Londoner-Bradfordian, four complete strangers united by our love for music.
What happened to those legendary stone-faced London commuters who don’t stop for anything, I don’t know. All of a sudden, strangers are approaching us, thanking us for playing such beautiful music. I’ve spent a lot of time at St Pancras, but today it feels like there has been some kind of unburdening, almost a heavy sigh of relief as people stop by longer than usual to soak in the sound of the music. Even as sirens howl like wolves in this city, I’m so thankful for the small moments of beauty that float up unexpectedly out of the sand storm enveloping us right now.
Here’s to random encounters. Here’s to strangers who light up your horizon as they come streaking into your life for a moment like flaming comets. And here’s to the day when I’ll finally be able to wrap my hijab like a YouTube blogger.