The tenor is on his way home when the train breaks down. It stops at Grand Canal Dock station and refuses to start. The lights go out in the carriage and a half-heard announcement asks people in the train to get out onto the platform and wait. Eventually they all obey.
He is tired. All afternoon he has been giving singing lessons in the south Dublin suburbs and the pupils seem more recalcitrant than usual, more resistant to improvement. Their mothers have sent them to him, of course, on account of his reputation. Good enough to teach, not so good that his ego might outshine theirs.
The shoppers complain and shiver as carols blare through speakers onto the street below. Christmas, making its business known throughout the city whether people want it to or not. On impulse, the tenor leaves the station, even though he has three more stops to go before a twenty-minute walk to his apartment in Glasnevin. He hates waiting.
As he passes through newly-installed automatic gates at Grand Canal Dock station, he loops his scarf ever more tightly about his neck. He, more than others, cannot afford to let the raw, wet slap of the wind get into his throat and lungs. This time of year is a busy one for him.
Heading down for the docks, he passes the new theatre, the offices around it lit up like chessboards, the long, stone seats with green strip lighting, the spotlights set in the ground, at last making his way over to a group of luminous, red poles bent at angles like miniature towers of Pisa . Tiny droplets of rain brush his cheek. He coughs – and in the pause following that cough he hears someone singing.
She is standing at the water’s edge, coatless with long dark hair. The melody he can divine immediately; it is the Dance of the Maidens from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the alto line beginning “There beneath the burning sky”. But she is not singing in Russian.
“…for I is nothing, I is less than end, I plus plus, open bracket, end plus plus, and close it again…”
He does not know what she means. He can, however, tell that her voice is untrained, a little weak around the higher notes, but tuneful enough. She sways from side to side as she sings, as if in a trance. As he stands there watching, her skirt moves a little in the breeze and he sees, with a thrill of intimate shock, that she is barefoot. Barefoot, in the middle of December! Scuffed black pumps, the kind worn to work by millions, are lined up a few feet away, as if waiting to walk into the water by themselves.
Here is where he should tap her on the shoulder and say “Excuse me, is everything all right?” But for all his geniality at a concert’s end, his shaking of everyone’s hand after a demanding performance – for all that, he is now overcome with a shyness that breaks across him like a warm wave. Here, out in the open, he is a man well into middle age, a man not so forward, not so courageous. His intent might be misconstrued. There might be trouble.
So he listens from a distance as she repeats her melody, not interrupting until she reaches the bar before “I is nothing”. Then he comes in with his line, leading into the next verse. It is much easier, he finds, to interrupt a stranger when one is singing rather than speaking. His voice, trained and in full power, stops her almost instantly. She turns around and watches him as he sings the rest:
As we sang together, languid breezes cooled us, there the cloud-capped mountains sailed above the silver sea…
“Who are you?” she says when he comes to a stop. In the garish light of one of the nearby tubes, he can see that she is dark-skinned, though she sings and speaks with an Irish accent. She looks about twenty-five.
“Someone who likes Borodin,” he says.
She pulls a cardigan around her. “Do you know how he died?” she asks.
“Here, you’re cold, take my coat.” For all his worry about catching a chill a few moments ago, he is now putting his coat around her shoulders, its wool-fibre thickness helping to keep his wary hands at a distance. Even so, she still hunches her shoulders, her entire body contracting in that one movement as she ducks from him. But she puts her arms in the holes.
“He was dancing at a party,” she says, “and his heart exploded. Just like that, in the middle of a dance. His aorta just burst. He was only fifty-one.”
“I’m fifty-five.” He has no idea why he just said that. She says nothing, shrinking into that coat, shivering more with it on than off. Although he is not a large man, the coat is still far too big for her. He is reminded of a poem by Ezra Pound, part of a collection of poetry books on his bookshelf. “Portrait d’une Femme”, he thinks it’s called. He will have to go back and check later. But why is she here? She is obviously distressed about something, to be barefoot in that state and rambling about Borodin, the poor child.
“You’re wrong, you know,” he says, deciding to comfort her.
“Being less than zero. You’re not. You’re worth so much more. Time will show you, I promise.”
He means to impart experience to her youth, but it comes out all wrong. His voice, for a start, too high-pitched and boyish – an annoying professional hazard – and the words themselves, lacking gravitas. From the look on her face, he has got something wrong. She stares at him for a while and then starts to laugh as he struggles to guess his error. Her laugh is a high-pitched breathy ha-ha that seems out of kilter with her singing voice.
“It’s C++ code,” she explains. “I was reciting a FOR loop and putting it to music. ‘I’ isn’t me, it’s a variable whose value increases as I go around the loop. It starts off being zero and each iteration means it goes up one in value. “Plus-plus” means plus one. It was something bothering me at work last week.”
He looks at her quizzically.
“I’m a programmer. C++ is the language I write code in.” She allows herself a little smile, the corners of her mouth turning up.
“A programmer!” he echoes, trying to conceal his surprise. The wind is beginning to bite; he can feel his shirt billowing against his skin. He would never have guessed, not in a million years, what she did for a living. He did not grow up in a time where girls went near machines, even though heaven knows it is commonplace enough now.
“Yes, I’m a geek,” she says, her smile now a fully-fledged grin, “and what do you do?”
“For a living?” She is as surprised as he, looking at him in disbelief.
“It’s been known to happen,” he says, slightly affronted. “I’m a member of the Aula Cantata.”
“I thought you were a banker. You look like one.”
He decides to ignore that comment. “Did you come here from work?” He glances at her shoes once more.
She looks at the ground, embarrassed at where his eyes have wandered. “They fired me this morning. Said they wanted to move forward. They meant me to move forward out of their office and never come back. Ever since then I’ve been walking round in circles. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know who I am.” Her voice cracks at that point and she swallows quickly, half-turning away from him.
“Please go on,” he says gently.
Although he is a talkative man, he knows when to be patient. Without interrupting, he listens as she tells him about her roommates giving her the “talk”. They want her out before the end of the week. They are angry at her, it seems, for taking a man into her room, a one-night stand rather than a regular, live-in boyfriend. He recognises the type of woman she is talking about. The mother of the girl he almost married thirty-three years ago treated him the same way. He would not do as a suitor for Eileen Fennell; he was too eccentric, too open. Too Protestant, though she never said it in so many words. Strange, that something so long ago should stir up such anger in him.
He met Eileen Fennell again a few months back, on Grafton Street, for the first time in years. Like him she has aged and thickened, but the light in her eyes was still there when they met. Eileen Corless, she is now. He fielded her questions, joking about his eternal bachelor status, enquiring about her husband and family. She was up for a hospital appointment. Tests, she said. The many shopping bags she carried made him suspect that her husband and children knew nothing of the true purpose of her trip and that the results were potentially more serious than she was letting on. The bags were just a decoy. They stood in the flow of pedestrian traffic making small talk – each, he suspected, pitying the other’s fate – before walking away.
“I suppose you’ll judge me too.”
The girl is addressing him, her chin pointed defiantly upwards.
I have wasted my life, he thinks, and the force of the thought almost knocks him backwards. He is trembling now, shivering in his shirt; the pretence of being cold helps mask his inner turmoil. He hopes so, anyway.
“Those women did you wrong,” he says, finding his voice at last, “because they were afraid of you. Most people don’t tolerate people like you and me. We have to make do the best we can. Keep going around the loop, as it were.” He smiles at her and throws a few notes in the air, going up from middle C to G and back down again. “Ah – ah – ah – ah –ah –ah – ah – ah – ah –”
“Stop!” she cries.
“You’re not the only one who can do infinite loops, my darling. I could sing this all night.”
“Please don’t – even if it is lovely.”
There is a pause. He can tell she does not want to go home; for his part, he does not want to sound too eager to keep her there. No-one is waiting for him in that demure, lifeless terrace in Glasnevin, no-one apart from Ezra Pound.
“I’d better go,” she says, breaking the impasse, “it was nice to meet you.” She walks up beside him and whispers in his ear. “I was thinking of jumping. It’s shallow though. I can’t even get that right.”
Then she puts her palm on the small of his back, between his shoulder blades. His shirt fabric is thin; he can feel the warmth of her hand pressing that tender spot, very gently, just for a few seconds, a benediction. He sighs lightly, involuntarily, at her touch.
She lifts her hand and drops his coat at his feet. “Goodbye,” she says, walking away quickly. Now her step is decisive. Watching her, he sees that she no longer sways from side to side. He does not move or speak while she is still in his vision, waiting until her shape gets smaller and smaller in the distance until it disappears into the dark.
That night, the tenor walks the whole way from Grand Canal Dock to his apartment in Glasnevin. When he finally lets himself in, his rooms are shrouded in darkness, no sound to be heard but the hum of the fridge. He imagines the girl arriving at her rented place for her last few days, inching quietly into her bedroom as the other girls watch soaps on the television and throw their weight around the kitchen, having made it clear to her that she is there only on sufferance.
Without turning on the light, he lifts the piano lid and plays a chord, an augmented fourth. Ouch. Then he begins to sing. He does not know what it is, or how loud he will be. He doesn’t care if neighbours complain. Just for once he will love the song once more, not think of the money or lost opportunities or an uncertain future. No expectations: there is not much future left anyway, certain or otherwise.
He is unaware that fingers, their bitten nails pale against dark skin, are typing“Aula Cantata” into an internet search engine in a laptop in a poky third bedroom in a southside Dublin flat. Nor does he imagine that a quick glance at the website is all that is needed to ascertain his name; that a search on his name in turn elicits his e-mail address and phone number, left carelessly around the place like small change. No, he does not yet know what is to come. But tonight, he sings for love. That is all that matters.