Second fiddle

He packed the violin case carefully. He was always careful about that; never more so than today. Even after all these years he loved the feel of the upholstered interior of the case. Perfectly formed to fit the shape of his fiddle.

It was getting late. Susan was out. Bit by bit, since the loss, their lives had separated; diverged at the junction of their distress. Now they were on different lines, travelling apart.

In any case he had to be away frequently. There were concerts throughout the country, some abroad and then often condemned to a cruise ship that meandered up and down the coast of Florida, sampling the nectar of American popular culture. Often he would spend whole days in his cabin, immune to the attractions that were offered outside.

Susan and he had tried to re-establish. They had sought help and that had made a difference for a while. He liked the therapist so it had not been difficult to build a rapport. It was not the same for Susan, though; she never seemed to commit herself to the process and, in the end, she refused to go.

Always the chronic lack of money which did not help. A second violinist in a string quartet did not command large fees so generating an income for them both to live off, even with Susan’s job as a carer, was not easy; he was temperamentally unsuited to it. So many years of playing the inside parts had left him subservient and dependant.

In the bottom of the case was a concert bill, a programme of Mozart and Beethoven at the newly-opened Waterfront Hall, Belfast. That had been a surprise. It was not often that they were booked to play such a large hall and it had been almost full. Those few days in the province had been good

He closed the lid gently. Leaving the case in the front hall he sat down at the bureau in the front room. He loved the smooth way that the lid came open, offering a flat empty writing space. Taking up a pen and pulling a sheet of blank paper from one of the cubby holes he started to write.

In five minutes he was done. From the inside pocket of his jacket he drew out a thick pile of notes. He counted out ten £50 notes and left them with the letter. He closed the bureau.

There was a very final click of the Yale lock as he closed the front door behind him. He held the small, golden key in his right hand, the violin case in his left. He was conscious of the thickness of the contents of his inside pocket. He dropped the key down the drain at the edge of the pavement. The small splash echoed briefly.

He walked slowly but steadily, trying to excite as little attention as possible. He was used to that. Nobody noticed Hugo Grinley, down at the heel musician. He could have been anybody.

That small market town was lucky enough to still have its own diminutive train station. This had been scheduled for closure in the past but had managed to struggle through the post- privatisation era to survive until now. Perhaps New Labour will reverse all that, thought Hugo in a desultory rumination. The station, which only had two platforms, had been left looking distinctly seedy and empty; empty of staff.  Hugo believed that stations should have a Station Master at least. The trains, more and more like buses on rails, had taken to being called extravagant names like ‘The Cathedrals’ Express’ or ‘The Hop Pickers’ Special’. They passed through the station without announcement, nor was there any trace of a man waving a green flag. This was do-it-yourself railways; passengers interacted with flickering television screens and made their own way on and off the trains, buying their tickets from automatic machines, humping their luggage on their own. Hugo awaited, with no enthusiasm, for the day when even the trains were driver-less, guided by a faceless operative sitting at a console, one hundred miles up the line.

That evening the station was totally deserted. No other passengers and certainly no railway staff. Only two or three video-surveillance cameras that had the platforms in their view.

He knew he was being watched.

He did not buy his ticket immediately. Instead he sat down on the a long bench that allowed him a good view of the television screen that was slung from the underside of the platform canopy. The screen flickered and went blank. He watched it for a good while but nothing happened.

He wandered down the platform to discover a telephone hand-set. ‘In Emergency lift the Phone’. Here was a dilemma. Was this an emergency; the fact that he could get no information about the trains? Would he reprimanded for abusing the Emergency Service if he lifted it? To such was the degree of subservience that this second violinist had been driven.

He lifted the phone in a tentative fashion as if it might open its jaws and bite him. Immediately he heard a dialling tone. There was no keypad to dial a number, even if he had known what to dial. Then the dialling tone changed to a ringing tone. He waited.

After two minutes there came a series of clicks and a disembodied voice announced “All our lines are engaged at present. Please hold and we will connect you as soon as possible.” This followed, of course, by the Bach Double Violin Concerto played on something that sounded like a cross between a sheet of tin roofing and a series of snapping bicycle spokes. Hugo held the handset far enough away to be able to ignore this noise but near enough to hear when the line was connected.

Five minutes passed. The air was quite still. He saw no-one. When would he hear?

The Bach stopped and was replaced by a ringing tone for a moment, then another voice.”If you wish to speak to a Customer Service Operator please press one, if you wish to renew your season ticket …”

Hugo slammed the phone down. He could take no more of this. He returned to his seat. The uncertainty, the lack of information, was getting to him. They had said he would be told. He noticed his neck muscles taut, his fingers drumming on the violin case.

Just then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that something had appeared on the television screen. It simply said ‘Paddington. Platform 3.’

Was this a train? If so why did the screen not give a time, a list of stations passed through on the way to Paddington? After a minute the television screen went blank.

Hugo was becoming overwrought. The thick wad in his inside pocket felt heavier, more oppressive. He knew what he had to do but he needed clear instructions. Where these them? For a moment he thought of turning tail, of retracing his steps back home but then he remembered that Susan would probably be home by now. She would have discovered the letter and the £500. In any case if she were not at home he would not be able to get in without his key, now sunk in the sewer. His mouth felt dry with fear.

He heard a ringing. It was the phone down the platform. He ran to snatch it up.

“D734F” said a voice with a trace of an accent and the phone clicked off. He looked down the line. A train was approaching. It carried a sign that said ‘Paddington’. Hugo was not certain that there was a driver in the cab. The train drew to a halt. It was empty. The automatic doors opened.

He was distraught, not knowing what to do. He was aware that the surveillance cameras were on him. He knew that by now Susan would have discovered the violin  where he had left it on the piano. With quick movements he opened the case and punched in the letter and digits. He clicked it shut and jumped on to the train just as the doors closed.

He had left the violin case on the platform seat, out of sight of the video-cameras. No-one approached it.

Two hours later he got out at Paddington. He glanced across at Platform 3. It was full of people. With some relief he set out on his new life.

The little station was never repaired after the blast. Trains no longer stop there.

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