Short story - Busker
A short story about change.
John Paul was tall and gangly. He was pale, even in summer after a holiday in Greece. It was something in his genes on his mother’s Irish side.
We met at work. John had already languished six months when I joined the company. I invited him to play five a side football in Camden Town. So we became friends. At that time I was trying to move closer to work, the commute from North London was killing me. I searched for months and saw a litany of overpriced hovels (all landlords are evil John said, even the nice ones). Finally, with a piece of luck, everything fell into place, a friend of a friend, who was rich, was about to go travelling in South America and he needed someone to rent his flat. I got a good deal. The flat was close to John’s, so we often met in the morning as we walked to work. It was blissful to be able to walk to work while the weather was good. It took twenty minutes and meant extra sleep and no crowded tube trains.
We passed through the subway to get to work, under the traffic on Hammersmith Broadway. The busker was nearly always there. He played old tunes, Crosby, Stills and Nash and America and Fleetwood Mac, with a reedy voice and a Spanish guitar. He played with heart and stood apart, literally, as the rest of the world walked by. He was skinny and his bones stuck out at the wrist and elbow. He had a beard that sometimes bore flecks of breakfast. On the mornings when he felt the day would be well, John would chuck a coin into the busker’s flat cap. It was part and parcel of the flow to work. The walk became a ritual.
The busker would be there for weeks and then he would disappear for a few days and then reappear and remain for weeks without fail. Then in autumn we noticed a longer absence and then we noticed the busker was gone and it seemed he was gone for good. The space where he had been felt empty for a week until enough people had passed to fill up the void and then, the busker was truly gone.
Some Saturdays I met John at the local greasy spoon, 'The Full Monty', nursing hangovers but we were young and they didn’t last long. On this Saturday we had a large English breakfast and washed it down with sweet tea. The food and tea eased any complications caused by the night before. We took a stroll down to the shops. John liked the charity shops. He liked to find a bargain. Half the clothes he stood up in were purchased this way. On this occasion he saw the guitar in the window and he remembered the busker.
-Reckon that’s that busker’s guitar, he said.
-Yeah, he’s on eighty grand in the city now. He’s bought himself a Stratocaster, sold out and gone electric, I replied.
He bought the guitar. We didn’t know if it really was the busker’s guitar but it was one just like it. Now it was John’s. The old lady who worked in the charity shop stuck the instrument in two plastic supermarket bags, one for the neck and the other over half the body just covering the sound hole, which was a good thing as it rained on the way home, without a strap the guitar was awkward to carry to avoid the rain falling inside.
At home he sat with the guitar on the sofa. It folded over his thigh and he thumbed the open strings. He plucked a few notes. He hadn’t played for years. He sat and picked a tune he had learnt - the riff from The Beatles' Day Tripper. He reminded me of Picasso’s blue guitarist because of the way he curled around the instrument with his long limbs. He played for hours until he noticed he was hungry. He ate something microwaved and quick so he could play again.
On the following Monday I didn’t meet him on the way to work. In the subway a homeless man was sitting on cardboard in the busker’s spot. John wasn’t at work that day. He wasn’t there Tuesday. On Wednesday nobody had heard from him. I called him at lunch time.
- Meet me Terminal 1, he said. His voice was excited. He said he would explain.
In the evening, after work, I took the Piccadilly line to Heathrow. I found John. He was standing with a rucksack over his shoulder and the guitar - now in a soft case - was hanging from his left hand.
- I’m off to Spain. Going to learn to play this thing properly.
We went to one of the airport bars. We sat and talked. He told me how much he hated working at the company. He wanted to do something else. He said he had hardly stopped playing since the Saturday. His eyes were shinning and unblinking. He had worked everything out. He knew someone in Granada. He could take lessons from a flamenco master and teach English to get by. I wanted to dissuade him but it wasn’t my madness. And leaving wasn’t so mad. It was better than a slow death in an office.
-You take care son, I said.
I watched him go through the gate for the flight to Malaga. I turned and wandered outside thinking I’d catch a bus. I didn’t want to be back in a tunnel. I looked up into the night and saw the aircraft lights stack in the sky. I felt an emptiness that needed to be filled.
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