The snow had stopped falling sometime in the afternoon, and that purity associated with the stuff and its colour was almost immediately lost. People muddied the blank ground with the tread of many feet, and the roads were salted for the cars to pass, and the late sunlight mushed the rest of the feathery surface.
When evening came, all snowmelt was refrozen. Even the untouched patches that were safely banked up in corners had a hard crust of ice.
Into this cruel bed stumbled a dog, torn between the needs to scrabble for food and to curl up and sleep. It picked its way along the streets, unnoticed, desperately alone, shivering beneath its mangy coat. And then by a wall it gave in to exhaustion. It lay down and tried to cuddle some warmth into its bones, never to rise again.
When he came for it, there were threads of music weaving through the brick wall. He nudged the dog out of its pelt and stopped its shivering for good. Briefly they sniffed noses and then it was gone. Fervent violins ascended, followed by an echo of celli.
The night was falling like concussion and the cold was a hammer. The corpse was chilling by the moment, but its fleas would survive.
Alone now, by the wall, he sat down on his haunches and watched some latecomers crunch hurriedly through the snow and into the music hall. With this set of senses, he could discern the murmur of their voices as they reached the door and stamped their boots; hopefully they could get in without disturbing the music, hopefully they hadn't missed much, hopefully nobody had taken their seats. They did not notice the dead dog. And nobody ever noticed him.
Another crescendo rose within, floating on the chill air. He stood and shivered, then withdrew from the world a little so that the temperature was meaningless. But it was numb. He was numb. The music curled and wavered and stopped, but he darted like a wraith through the wall to find that in fact there was still a knife-edge of pianissimo. Shaking himself of the numbness, he found it warmer inside the hall. A chamber orchestra was arrayed on a stage like figurines in a display cabinet. With neat black outfits and polished wooden instruments, they were all a matching set, almost passionless but for the way that they moved. A harpsichord jangled in their midst. The air was alight with music.
The audience sat, avidly he supposed, but they were in the dark and they sat so still and so silent that there was little of them to observe. When he looked closely, though, some were tapping feet or jiggling knees, some were twitching their hands as though they longed to be conducting or dancing; some stared so keenly and rigidly that perhaps their heartstrings, too, were vibrating at the mercy of the magicians' bows.
He did not sit, but stood at the edge of them, as though he was only going to stay for another moment before he left again. But he didn't. The air sang as the second violins rose, arching under the firsts with a counter-melody that almost took over the piece, before they sunk back down with the violas and the thrumming celli and bass. The music held him hostage.
For timeless moments he did nothing but listen, but then he considered the mechanics of sound and was struck with the thought that it was far more present than he was. The very atmosphere danced for it. People breathed its movements, felt its movements. They were here to observe it.
He was not even a shadow, not even a ghost, and the air did not even part for the space he occupied. He was utterly imperceptible. A nothingness. A presence that nobody could know of, except the dog that nobody cared about anyway and wasn't even in this world anymore.
Even if he was holding onto sensation, there was a kind of numbness that came with that thought. Something light and sad sad? or gentle, maybe seemed to float through him with the music. A ghost, a ghost, less than a ghost. Especially in this place where the only thing that mattered was the music and the people who carved it into the air, bounced it within the wooden bellies. There was something awfully intense about the way that they sawed wire with horsehair, right up and back from the tip to the frog, like lightning. Flash, flash. But no thunder, just song.
He listened and felt less than empty.
Did the people on the chairs feel so disconnected? Or were they saved by their physicality, by the fact that they could see each other stretching row on row? If they reached out their hands, they could touch the person next to them. There was all the possibility of connection. If he tried the same, there would be screaming.
So he was all but absent. They mattered because they were present, even though they were somehow odd and silent, nearly all old. The show was for them. The audience.
He suddenly imagined a performance without them. A scene identical to this one, but where the hall was empty, where there was no-one in the dark but the players still performed, still stood and bowed to the silence between pieces, even when there was no applause. The stage was lit and the music weaved, all for nothing, all for no-one. There was something very eerie about that scene. He didn't like to think about it.
A piece ended now. The applause filled the room, and the soloists made a couple of laps on and off the stage, bowing upon return to the centre. The musicians shuffled themselves and their papers and began to play once more. The harpsichord still plonked below the melodies, though. He didn't much like harpsichords, he decided. They were too twangy, especially beside the liquid timbre of the string family. But it wasn't overbearing, and he supposed it was nice for the texture of the sound to have some variety.
This turned out to be the final piece, and he left as the lights came on and the crowd began to murmur and move, a beehive waking up. His absence made no difference whatsoever. Now he had his job to do. But he didn't go there, not yet.
He became again the thin, robed man of a world that was less noisy or pungent but more brightly coloured, and appeared behind a bus stop. A fistful of students stood silently, just waiting. One stood apart. She knew. She noticed him.
"Hey, you," she said softly, though she hadn't turned around. It made him smile. He came closer, and she glanced sidelong at him as he drew alongside her.
"Hi," he replied. She took an earbud out of her ear and offered it, garnished with a faint smile. The bus beached itself by the curb as he took the tiny speaker. More sound, tickling the air, ready to obliterate the last of the strings playing in his head with a blast of 80s alternative rock.
They stepped into the immense humming vehicle and took the nearest pair of empty seats. At her side, he occupied space.