There were three of them sitting at the table near the window. At that time of the afternoon the Duke’s Head was quiet. The plump barman wiped the smooth, stained teak in front of him. At the end of the bar a haggard man sat like a lone penitent in a cathedral and slowly sipped his flat beer. Somewhere across the street somebody was playing a piano. The three at the table were drinking beer and port and talking quietly.

‘It’s easy,’ Moos was saying. ‘Frog will be outside holding candle. You and I, Harry, will get in and floor the watchman. Hell, Harry, you aren’t listening.’

Harry was listening to the piano across the street. The music came through the open window, now tinkling like water dripping into a fine china bowl, now throbbing and booming with the sound of many beautifully tuned gongs, rippling away and rising again in great waves.

‘God, what playing,’ Harry said, as the piece ebbed to a gentle finish. ‘Did you rookers hear that?’

‘—,’ Moos said. ‘Classical stuff. Just a helluva noise. Give me a wakker jol any time.’ He dismissed the subject by taking a swallow of beer. ‘Now listen. We’ll go over it again...'

‘I know, I know,’ Harry said. ‘Frog is outside keeping watch. We’ll be inside fixing the watchman. Now, what time do we meet?’

‘Nine,’ Moos answered. ‘I’ll pick Frog up and we’ll get you outside the Modern.’

‘How much you think we’ll pick up ?’ Frog asked, drinking some of his port. The piano started again, the music drifting cautiously into the barroom.

‘About a hundred and forty or fifty,' Moos said. He was aware of the sound again, but ignored it. Only Harry continued to listen. He sipped his port and let his mind lap at the music. The gentle, perfect notes touched something inside him, and he got a strange feeling, but did not try to fathom it. He kept listening. He tried the air under his breath, struggling with it like a terrier with an expensive slipper, and gave it up to listen again. The piano music quivered and undulated. Once a car passed and drowned it momentarily, but it emerged again, gentle as the drop of tears. It was the Nocturne No. 2, in E flat major, by Chopin, but Harry did not know that.

Moos and Frog began talking about other things as the piano drifted into the Fantasie-lmpromptu. Harry was completely absorbed in the music now. It held him in its spell, tying him to itself with wires of throbbing sound, drugging his mind into a coma of swelling and fading rhythm. The music went on, seemingly inexhaustible: Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody pounded and crashed, the theme from Tchaikowsky’s Pathétique wept quietly, waltzes and minuets pranced and cavorted, pieces of Beethoven marched sombrely, and Spanish gypsy dances whirled and stamped. Schubert’s Serenade called longingly to some unknown lover in a darkened room. The Nocturne came again, drifting with the step of fairies on moonlit grass.

The Duke’s Head began to fill up steadily with the six o’clock crowd, until the music was lost in the steady hum of voices. Harry got up and wandered to the bar. The spell was broken. He whistled softly through his teeth, trying to capture a tune, but his mind had not drunk deeply enough of the music. He joined the three-deep line at the bar and shouldered his way through until he could order half-a-pint of white wine. He leaned against the wet teakwood and drank quietly, still trying to remember. Around him men discussed every topic imaginable: work, races, politics, women, wine, bioscope, religion. A dirty and dishevelled man came in, selling pickles and curry pies. At one end of the bar an argument developed, and for a few moments there was uproar, until the plump barman broke it up.

Somebody tapped Harry on the shoulder and he turned his head. It was Moos.

‘Nine o’clock. Don’t forget.’

‘Okay. Okay. See you later.’

Harry did not watch Moos and Frog go out. He finished the white wine and then extricated himself from the jam at the bar and pushed past the swinging doors into the street. He paused on the pavement. It was growing dark, and the street lamps were on. From diagonally across the way the piano music was still going on, a little louder now that he was outside. It came from an old two-storey building, one of a row that formed one side of the grimy street.

He stood for a while and listened, and then strolled down the pavement, looking across at the house, drawn by the music like an alley cat drawn by the scent of fresh and tender meat.

Drab and haunted-looking people sat in doorways looking like scarred saints among the ruins of abandoned churches, half listening, gossiping idly, while the pinched children shot at each other with wooden guns from behind overflowing dustbins in the dusk. Harry crossed the street and paused, hesitating, outside the house.

The music gripped him again. It came from a half-open window on the first floor, bubbling out like a spring of cool water in a wasteland. Then he made up his mind suddenly and climbed the chipped front steps and edged into the house. The hallway was dim and smelled of stale cooking and carbolic water. The sound came from the upper landing, slipping down the worn staircase, echoing from the gloomy corners and the high, stained ceiling. He climbed the stairs slowly, advancing into the crescendo of Ravel’s Bolero.

Outside the door he stopped, nervous now, a little afraid, but soaked in the music. He stood there while the Bolero ended in its crashing chords. Sound came again, tirelessly, gently, moonbeam quivering on quiet waters, on trees and grass along a lonely river bank, sighing for love; and he placed his hand on the doorknob and turned it.

The music faded away like a cataract in a little mountain nook quietly running dry, and the girl at the piano looked at him with sudden surprise.

‘I’m sorry if I scared you,’ he said, holding the door open. ‘I’ve been listening to you playing from across the way. Real good music.’

‘Thank you. Do you like it ?’

‘Don’t know anything about it. But it sounds pretty.’

‘Come in and sit down if you want to,’ she said. ‘People around here often come in to listen.’

‘Thanks, miss.’

He entered, awkward as a tramp being admitted to a parish tea, and was suddenly conscious of the port-wine smell on his breath. He sat down on a straight chair as if he expected it to collapse under his weight. The room was neat, dustless, polished, the little tables cluttered with bric-a-brac, framed music-school certificates hanging with Queen Victoria, wedding groups, and God Is Love along the papered walls. Another door led to an adjoining room. The whole place seemed to struggle for survival with the surrounding dilapidation, like a Siamese cat caught in a sewer.

‘You learn to play by yourself?’ he asked, scarcely daring to speak aloud.

‘Oh, no. I studied in a convent.’

‘What’s it bring you? It’s pretty, but what’s it bring you? Money?’

‘Money’s not everything. People come up here to listen.’ She smiled at him and ran her fingers along the keys. Her face was dark and fine and delicate as a costly violin. ‘What do you want me to play?’

Harry cleared his throat and said: ‘That piece you were playing when I came in. It sounded good.’

‘The Moonlight Sonata.’ And the music welled up again, falling on him like a gentle rain. He sat straight up, listening, and his muscles relaxed and his mind forgot the nervousness and he sank back in the chair.

‘I never had a chance to listen to this kind of stuff,' he said, when it had ended. ‘High bugs go to the City Hall to hear it.’ He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and went on: ‘There’s another piece I heard you play. Goes like this.’ He pursed his lips and struggled with the tune and managed a few notes while she listened. He tried again and managed a few jumbled bars this time. Then he gave it up, shaking his head and grinning shyly.

But she had caught it and her hands moved again, gentle as the fall of a hair, and the music poured from her fingertips. ‘You mean Chopin’s Nocturne.’

‘Is that what it’s called ? Yes, that’s it.’

He leaned back and shut his eyes and whistled soundlessly with the music, taking it in completely. She played it twice and his head nodded in time.

After that the old-fashioned clock on the sideboard caught his eye and he remembered with a little start that Moos and Frog would be waiting for him. He got up quickly and said: ‘I won’t keep you any longer. I’ve got to be going, anyhow.’

‘Did you enjoy it?’

‘Really. I’d like to come again, some other time.’

‘Of course. Come any evening.’

‘Thanks, miss. Well, good luck.’

‘Good-bye. Thanks for coming in to listen.’

He was out in the dark street again and hurried up it. The doorstep sitters had withdrawn now and the windows of the tenements were yellow with lamplight. Babies wailed here and there, hangers-on lounged against walls, couples made furtive love in doorways. Somewhere beyond, neon signs made a glare against the sky, like a city after a bombardment.

Moos and Frog were waiting impatiently in the light of a shopfront, smoking and cursing fretfully.

‘Where the — you been?’ Moos asked angrily. ‘We been waiting.’

‘Awright, awright. I’m here now,’ Harry said. ‘Let’s go.’

They walked down the street together. Harry was still thinking about the girl who played the piano, and that he didn’t even know her name. He whistled quietly. Knock something, she had said it was. Funny name. He thought, sentimentally, that it would be real smart to have a goose that played the piano like that.