By Katherine Skipper
Late evening and the bus is almost empty, the accordionist sits alone by the window with his chin on his hands and his hands on his music case, humming gently on his knees as they swing through the deserted streets. He keeps drifting off, and he watches through half closed eyes as they turn onto a row of terraced houses; each one is an aquarium of orange light and illuminated as they pass by he sees bright countertops and flashing television sets, figures which dart across his vision and are gone before he can catch their faces. Like a cat dreaming of hunting mice, his fingers twitch over imaginary keys.
Sharp rills of night air whistle under the windows though he is only just beginning to feel the cold; sweat chills and dries stiffly on his shirt and his body aches, as he shivers and hugs the accordion to his chest he thinks longingly of the warm village hall, its glowing parquet floors and the gentle hubbub of voices. With that final tune still turning in his head, he taps his foot to the sputtering staccato of the engine. An eightsome reel to end the evening. The band standing in furious absorption over their instruments as the music swelled and pitched, faster and faster, and the dancers only just keeping pace with their own whirling shadows. All of them caught in a spinning vortex of light. And then it was over; the dancers paired off and walked two by two to their cars, the lights in the hall went off and the headlamps went on, until at last only the accordionist was left, watching from the roadside as they disappeared into the night.
The driver pulls over for two passengers; girls in skirts and heels who nudge each other and stifle laughter when they see him, slumped like a drunk with his face against the window. He is half dreaming in the blue dark, of chilly autumn afternoons where he watches the sun set from a classroom and then walks home between turned fields, along a rutted track where icy water pools. He dreams of steam running down a kitchen window, warmth pressed up against the glass, and someone inside who puts the kettle on to boil at four and waits for him with the accordion on their knees, so that he hears it before he reaches the gate; the notes of a nameless jig or reel carried like a flurry of dry leaves on the wind. He knows the door is always open, but he waits sometimes shivering on the steps, feeling the music seep out into the cold, and not wanting to interrupt the player inside.
The bus rounds a corner and he jolts awake; the houses are starting to give way to trees and fields as they get further out, and he wants to say Slow down. Slow down, I’m not ready yet. The song isn’t even over.
Photograph: Heather R via Creative Commons and Flickr