Spent quite a while getting the first novel to a place where I was happy enough with it to release it to the wider critical audience. I know you will never please everyone all the time but it is a nerve wracking moment. As part of my full time job I recently curated Nicky Wire’s first solo art exhibition and despite the fact that he has performed with the Manics in front of audiences of several thousands, he was so out of his comfort zone the night of the opening, This helped to give me courage to be brave about my written work and not to shy away from critical review. (Still have moments of cold sweat though!) So I am presenting here a short story in its entirety (I know – blogs are supposed to be short and snappy so please stop reading here if you wish!) as it was a piece I wrote whilst giving thought to the novel. I hope that you enjoy it!
“Among the garbage and the flowers”
Each Saturday, though the naming of days meant nothing to him, he would seek out the same spot, parenthesised between the chemist’s antiseptic and the leather of the shoe shop, the warm smell of pasties from the bakery across the street carried upon the whirl of passers-by nosing him with a mix of comfort and longing. He would lay flat his hat, retune his guitar and the ritual would begin.
With patience as thin as the edge of a razor they trooped past him in a bustle like hectored refugees, carrier bags fit for bursting and rustling in the wind. He remained there on the borders of strained consciousness, plying his trade, doing what he did, a background harmony. He seemed to pay little heed to his audience’s lassitude. It appeared as if he was playing for an invisible force that made its presence known only to him.
Music hath charms, it was written. He witnessed little evidence of this but not everything was what it appeared to be, he knew that well. Work had temporarily subsided into time off and for many, he observed, this seemed to initiate a panic and they swirled through the streets like smoke from a snug with their thoughts of haircuts and vegetables, laundry and charity shops, lottery tickets and ticking off endless lists. He would smile at them whether they noticed him or not and let the instrument speak for him. Their lack of interest was no disappointment and he never questioned himself about his motifs. The choice was his and he was glad. Beneath fingers that would have failed exams and broken plates and fumbled away lovers, the wooded fret and steel strings, punishing in the crisp cold air, were the chorus of lucent angels caught in a euphoric celebration of life. The fingers moved relentless, dancing without thought or pause over tunes made unrecognisable with their grace. The B flat, the A7, the F. The mellifluous mourning for a lost love. Lamentation made beautiful by the thrum and twang. The blossom of flowers in the pluck of the notes, colours conjured and senses provoked. Nothing sounded as it should; it sounded so much better.
If anyone had thought to ask him he might have told them that, through the devotion of playing, the tips of his fingers on his left hand felt as if they had been blistered by a hot plate. He may have offered that in the chill his wrists tightened as if they were being contorted in a vice, the knuckles on his hands swollen like pea pods. But no-one would have known by listening and indeed no-one ever asked. These were not the sounds of suffering. And at night he would blow cold breath on the calluses and try to return some life to the numbed hands, the finger prints worn flat.
Six years he had survived out here with little more than his guitar and a repertoire plucked and adapted from memories of his father’s old vinyl collection, with the scratches and hiss wiped clean. Most were lucky to survive less than half of that, with the cold winds and lack of nourishment and sleeping with one eye left open and the drinks mixed with whatever could be found, lethal cocktails designed for forgetfulness. All he owned were the clothes he stood up in and the instrument that fitted his hands comforting as a crucifix. And the talent, that remained his alone. But this was his life, the path chosen, the first footsteps of a longer journey. He gave no thought to another life. His world was not in an office refilling staplers or counting through the stench of money, controlled by those who spoke a lot but knew little. His world was not a builder’s yard, coughing up phlegm from hardened lungs thick with dust. His world was not a suit and tie and neatly pressed shirt and shiny briefcase marked out from others only by monogrammed initials. His world transcended such a life. His was a world of giving.
That day was much like any other day. The shoppers hurried by as he unpacked his instrument, the children bored, the fathers dragging through the treacle of minutes, the mothers dreaming of far off shores and a handsome Lothario to carry them away or at least to do the dishes. Yet for him it was anything but a normal day. Slowly he plucked the strings; his right hand dappling soft like light on water whilst the left moved quickly over the fret board and the world moved rapidly below him. This world seemed a sadder place to him today, destined as he was to leave it, and everything that had appeared so bland and traditional was now haloed in a luminescence that found its way into the music, that played poetic in the words he sang with a voice he felt betrayed the tremolo of his emotions. In his mind he created questions that could be asked regarding his whereabouts, weighting his departure with a heavy sense of nostalgia, but he did not want to stir memories other than the sounds he offered. He dreamed in bar-lines with minims and crotchets, clefs and semi-clefs floating before his eyes like fronds beneath the surface of a pond. He had strained for the perfect diatessaron like a knight pursuing the grail. And after today the quest would be over, his time would have passed and he would be gone, moved on.
In the diminuendo of days he played on. The shoppers glazed by. Litter blew in the wind, pirouetting around his feet like a graceful ballerina or a hungry dog. His fingers never strayed, modulating a fugue here, a serenade there. The clock struck one, two, three and still he pursued the song, chasing it down with the beat of his shoe flapping at the sole, grasping at its hems with the span of his hands. And always the shoppers mooned by. The clock struck five. Dusk had settled and the chill had come. The lights were on, the day done. Weary he unslung his guitar from around his shoulder and zipped it away in its pouch. He stood for a moment and watched as the lights twinkled in the windows and the streets emptied. He smiled. The song was sung. The questions were yet to come.
“What colour were his eyes? What colour was his hair? How old was he? Do you know his name? Could you describe the clothes that he was wearing?”
And after much consideration, their voices humming a long gone tune, their fingers tapping a syncopation upon the table top, the cadaverous skin of his face, the kohl black shadows beneath sunken haunted eyes, the thinness of the body all forgotten or never noticed, they would open their mouths and say in answer as if they had only just thought of it, as if the questions had not been asked or had no significance, as if this reply was a defence, “But he played such beautiful music, he played like an angel.”
And slipping away with the price of a cup of tea in his frayed woollen cap, more than enough to sustain a journey home, the streets were suddenly filled with an immense silence that echoed down the alleyways.
Copyright (C) Mark Lewis, 2018
All rights reserved – no part of this script may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the author.