The first time Alin walks by the woman in the corner, she barely notices her. There are too many distractions, detractions, voices in her ear — the harried man waving down a taxicab, the aging street vendor hawking his wares — to separate any one sound from another. It’s all noise, and Alin is used to noise.
She doesn’t notice her the second time, either. It’s only luck that she ends up doubling back, returning to the bookshop to process an order she’d forgotten. The bustle of rush hour is still going strong when she politely elbows her way up the street, wading through the thronging crowd. The incessant hum of the city clings to her clothing.
It’s the third time, exactly two hours and forty-three minutes later, that it finally happens. Alin is leaving work, huddling into her coat. The streets are quieter, the winter sun having long since dipped out of sight, and the air is frigid. The woman, shrouded in the shadow cast by the wall, is standing straight and tall in the corner, still and perennial as a statue. Alone.
Alin doesn’t see her. It’s too dark to see her, but she notices — something. And for a moment, she catches onto the drifting of a melody, set loose upon the wind.
It’s only for a moment, though. In the next, Alin is walking by again, tugging up her collar against the cold.
The bookshop has had a grand total of two customers by the time Alin takes her leave. The latter one tells her to have a good day, which sort of takes Alin by surprise, though she can’t say why. Maybe it’s because Alin herself wouldn’t do the same. She can’t remember the last time she wished someone a good day and meant it.
The interaction sticks with her. She’s thinking about it on her way home. She’s thinking about it — have a good day — when she glances up, haphazardly, and meets the gaze of the woman with the violin.
It’s bizarre. Alin has the urge to stop walking, to come to a standstill in the middle of this busy street, and stare.
The woman is beautiful. That’s obvious. It’s probably, at least partially, the reason for the nebulous audience that surrounds her. But it’s not what leaves Alin stumbling over a sidewalk she’s crossed a hundred times before.
No, that would be the music.
It's a melody as close to perfect as she’s ever heard. This one doesn’t drift on the wind; it doesn’t drift anywhere at all. It barrels right into Alin’s ribcage, furious and raw, rich and deep.
The impact of it is what confuses her. It’s enough to make her trip over her own feet on a road she knows too well to misread. It’s enough to make a book trip out of her bag alongside her, skidding haplessly between the legs of the crowd.
The woman’s eyes — Alin can’t tell if they’re green or blue — flick down to the book’s cover. It’s face up, something Tolstoy. Alin doesn’t know for sure because she hasn’t read it. Hasn’t even really looked at it. The spine is damaged, Alin has a repair kit at home, so in the bag it went. And out the bag it flew. Alin may work in a bookshop, but she no longer has the attention span to read people like Tolstoy.
She knows how it makes her look, though: well-read and literary, a little cerebral, exactly the kind of person who can listen to violin music and let it crash, unimpeded, into their chest.
The music slows, then stops. Alin watches as the woman bends to retrieve the book and passes it to the man at her left. She makes a gesture towards Alin, the bow still held firm between her fingers. The weather is wintry, and her hands are ungloved, but she waits, straight-backed and poised, as the book makes its way into Alin’s possession.
The man gives her a genial smile when he holds it out to her.
“She’s good, eh?” he says. “A real talent.”
Alin can do nothing but nod, wordless, as the man returns to his spot in the crowd. The music restarts, vibrant and too warm for the permeating chill. Alin looks down at the book’s title: Anna Karenina, embossed in elegant gold lettering. The colour of the words matches the woman’s hair.
Anna. The name cuts through Alin like the music slices through the breeze.
The woman plays. Alin listens a few moments longer, then turns and keeps walking down the street. The words have a good day dart again through her mind, flaring bright and brief, before fading once more into the quiet.
Alin doesn’t look the way she does.
It’s the first thing she thinks, on the third day, when she sees her again. The woman with the violin is tall and seamless, with long and wild hair that belies the grace of her playing. She’s wearing a fitted, silken blue suit — which is a little ridiculous, Alin figures, since the only reason she even knows it’s a suit is because the woman's left her coat open to the cold.
It’s a good coat. Alin sees no reason why someone wouldn't make full use of it, especially now, in the first days of January, at the frostbitten start of the year.
Maybe the zipper is broken.
It’s this thought — this excuse — that lets Alin propel herself forward, to the middle of the lingering crowd. There aren’t as many people as yesterday. It could be because the tune is different this time around, nowhere near the fevered and ardent barrage of the day before. Today, it’s almost mournful. Sad.
The music hits a high, reeling note that makes the shifting audience take a breath. Alin glances once more at the woman’s open coat, her fingers, playing with single-minded intensity, then looks around for a tin, or a hat, anything a busker might use for donations.
There’s nothing. The ground is bare.
Alin frowns, looks some more, but there really is nothing — only a violin case, propped against the wall and beyond the reach of any aspiring do-gooders. She glances back up, and has the misfortune of doing so during the woman’s rare visual sweeps of the crowd. Their gazes collide. Alin takes in a helpless breath. The woman’s eyes don’t leave her as she plays, and plays, and plays.
Alin thinks, abruptly, Anna. Then she thinks, maybe I should read more Tolstoy. Then, maybe I should say hello.
This last thought almost makes her laugh out loud. She doesn’t. Instead, she turns on her heel, away from the woman, and walks back the way she came.
At home, Alin considers it again. The woman with the violin is everything Alin isn’t — calm, ethereal, steadfast, and so talented she can make a whole group of people collectively gasp with only a twitch of her fingers.
There’s a mirror down the hall. Alin doesn’t need to look in it to know what she’ll see — dark hair, darker eyes, and too many scars to mean anything good. No smile lines. No smiles.
The repaired book sits on the desk a few feet away. Alin hasn’t returned it to the shop yet. As far as she knows, it’s been tucked onto the same shelf for years, unbought and unlooked for, falling to pieces. Even if she kept it here, who would miss it?
It’s with this thought in her mind that she grabs it and resettles on the couch, cracking it open. The first line is something about the relative uniqueness of unhappy families, and the laugh Alin had smothered earlier rears its head.
Maybe unhappy families really are unique. Alin certainly wouldn’t know the difference.
“What happened?” says Anna, with a frown. “You’re bruised.”
Her hair is tied up in a braid today, and Alin feels a little throb in her chest when Anna’s gaze sweeps over her, well-meaning and, as ever, a little imperious.
“I’m fine,” says Alin. “I knocked over a bookshelf.”
“A shelf?” Anna leans closer, scrutinous. “You’ve got a black eye!”
“An encyclopaedia to the face will do that.”
“There’s no encyclopaedia,” Anna mutters. She grabs her violin and stands in the corner, bow in hand. “There’s never any encyclopaedia. Or telephone pole. Or staircase. Or rake, poorly hidden in the leaves.”
Alin smiles, even though it makes her cheekbone twinge. “Say encyclopaedia ten times fast.”
Anna ignores her, shuffling sheets of music on a stand to her left. “I’ve told you before that you can come live with me.”
“And I’ve told you before that I’m fine. Plus, you don’t need me getting in the way of all your . . .” Alin waves a hand at the musical detritus that litters the room. “Stuff.”
That isn’t the real reason Alin always turns Anna down, of course, though it makes a decent excuse. No, the real reason is that if Alin started living full-time with Anna — elegant, forceful, brilliant Anna — Alin is reasonably sure her heart would give out.
Besides, even if she moved in today, it wouldn’t last long enough to matter.
“Did you find an apartment yet?” Alin asks, staring at the ceiling from where she’s flopped on Anna's couch. “One that’s actually affordable, I mean?”
There’s a pause in the paper-shuffling before Anna speaks. “Yes,” she says. “My grandfather agreed to help pay tuition, so I’m not too worried about making ends meet.”
“That’s good. At least you won’t have to, I dunno, cover rent on your own.” Alin grimaces. “Not that I know what the going rate is on downtown London real estate, but I figure it’s not low.”
Anna says nothing again, but Alin knows her well enough to recognize the tension beneath the quiet. Hell, Alin’s whole life has been a study in slow, dangerous silences, but at least she knows this one won’t end in a hospital visit.
Alin gives it another moment before prodding, carefully. “Everything okay?”
The moment stretches, before Anna releases a breath. “My grandfather is keeping this apartment on hold for me while I’m gone,” she says. “So stay here. Move in. You don’t even have to pay rent. It’s all covered.”
Alin stiffens. It’s very kind, in a borderline-belligerent sort of way. And Anna’s many offers to pay Alin’s way through life are nothing new — simply the product of being brought up with money in a world where most people weren’t. It’s harmless, Alin usually convinces herself. Anna’s only being nice. She doesn’t mean to condescend.
But this time, something about Anna’s phrasing . . . prickles at her.
“Did you, um.” Alin sits up on the couch. “You didn’t ask your grandpa to keep paying for this place specifically so I could have it, did you?”
Anna doesn’t even hesitate. “Of course I did,” she says bluntly. “You need a place of your own. I have one. Why wouldn’t I ask him to help you?”
Elegant, forceful, brilliant Anna. Sometimes Alin got so caught up in their friendship, in how she felt, that she forgot how fundamentally different the two of them were.
“Anna,” Alin says, slowly. “I appreciate the offer, but I can take care of myself.”
“Can you?” Anna demands. Alin hears her round the couch, sees her stand before her, tall and proud, bow in hand like it's a weapon. “This says otherwise.”
Before Alin can argue, Anna’s fingers are on her cheekbone, brushing delicately over the bruised skin there. Her touch carries all the gentleness her words lack.
Alin feels her face go scarlet.
“I can take care of myself,” she repeats, tightly.
Anna makes an abrupt, frustrated sound. She collapses on the couch beside Alin, the bow dangling from her fingertips. “Fine! I know you can. What I don’t know is why you won’t.” Her voice drops, just a little, into what almost sounds like despair. “I can’t force you to move, Alin, but do you really plan to stay in that — house — forever?”
The mix of embarrassment and anger and something else that’s contributed to the burning in Alin’s cheeks leaches away under Anna’s concern, leaving behind only the guilt of vilifying her good intentions. And, somewhere quieter, deeper, the shame of knowing that she's right.
“She’s my mother, Anna,” Alin says, tiredly. “What else am I supposed to do?”
Anna looks down at the floor. Her hand moves towards Alin, wavering, as though she’s unsure how to proceed. Alin watches, more curious than anything, until the hand comes down on her arm, drifts idly to just above her knee, and squeezes.
Alin can feel the warmth creeping back up her neck.
“Just . . .” Anna says, uncharacteristically hesitant. “Will you think about it?”
Alin glances down at her hand. She considers taking it. She considers a lot of things, briefly: living in this apartment, texting Anna in her free time, being with her, here, when she returns on break. No money for an English degree, but maybe living here Alin could work at her favourite little bookshop, manage the commute in a way she couldn't back at her house.
Then she considers her mother, growing older, who made up in vitriol what she could no longer accomplish with strength. Her mother, who didn't love her, but didn’t hurt her as much, nowadays. Her mother, who had no one but Alin.
“Yeah,” Alin says, keeping her hands locked firmly in her lap. “I’ll think about it.”
Alin wakes on the couch with the book open on her abdomen. Tears are pressing on the back of her tongue even before she’s fully aware — and she is. Aware. She’s aware of herself, of her scars, in a way she hasn’t ever been before.
Alin hates it. She hates it.
She’s never wanted to know where they came from. She still doesn’t. She’s afraid to go back to sleep, afraid to see the woman with the violin, afraid to put a name to the face. She’s happy enough. She doesn’t need to remember a mother she doesn’t know, wounds she doesn’t recognize, a lifetime of pain and sadness and why won’t you love me with only one, one, one bright spot that’s lost to her now.
And even if she felt the way she did then, it’s not like Alin could tell her so. Not when she’s so — fragmented. Broken.
Because it’s too late. She remembers.
Alin grips the book tighter against her chest and cries long, silent, cathartic tears that don’t have a hint of music to them, not even a little bit, not at all.
The woman with the violin walks into the bookshop, head held high, but with a falter to her step that is unusual.
Not that it matters. There’s only one person who would notice something like that, and Anna hasn’t spoken to her in almost a year.
“Hello,” Anna says to the clerk at the counter. “I’m looking for Alin.”
“Oh, sorry,” says the woman, smiling apologetically. Her name tag reads Fadumo. “Alin’s not working today. Are you a friend of hers?”
“I’m —” Anna pauses. “Yes. I’m her friend.”
Fadumo’s smile grows genuine, and she waves a hand in a gesture Anna has come to associate with impending, good-natured gossip. “That’s nice to hear. I worry about her, you know. Always alone, and everything.”
Anna frowns. “What do you mean?”
When it came to the two of them, Alin had always been the more socially-inclined. Anna had thought that — well, she’d thought a lot of things, until the day Alin stopped speaking to her and Anna stopped thinking entirely.
Fadumo’s eyes go wide, and then fill with pity. Anna bristles, before realizing the pity's not for her. “You know,” Fadumo says. “After that terrible accident. Poor girl — with her mother in the car, and all the — complications, afterward.”
Anna had been isolated in London. No friends, no family, beyond her elderly grandfather — no outings with her peers, only forcing excellence, being the best, in order to forget the aching absence of someone who wouldn’t return her calls, who she couldn’t come home to and see because she was anchored in a lonely country she was starting to hate.
It had taken all her courage to come back, during her first break in nearly a year, and track her down. To play outside her bookshop, and wonder. Isolated, distanced, respectful, even — and hopeful.
And it's this isolation that lets Anna lean forward, unsociably brash, violin case clattering to the ground, to say “What accident?” in a voice like thunder.
Fadumo’s eyes go wider, and she stutters. “Car accident. About a year ago. Alin was driving, and they got — there was another car. Not Alin’s fault, but her mother was killed on impact. And Alin . . . well.”
Fadumo hesitates, like she’s only just realizing Anna is practically a stranger. Anna sighs.
“Please tell me,” she says. “I’m her friend.”
Fadumo drums her fingers on the counter. “Alin lost her memory,” she says, and now the pity is all for Anna, Anna knows it is, because she cannot breathe.
“There’s more?” Anna says, because somehow that seems too cruel.
“Just . . . one more thing,” Fadumo says softly. “Alin — she’s got something called vocal cord paralysis. She can’t — she can’t really speak.”
It’s only when Anna feels the cold wind on her face that she realizes she’s outside, that she's running, that she’s crying, and that she’s left her violin behind.
The woman without a violin shows up at Alin’s door — in a house she recognizes, now, as a place of nightmares rather than a comforting haven — and Alin can only think one word. It's a word she knows, and loves, and has missed more than she knew.
Anna, she thinks, and wipes her eyes, and smiles.