Round The Corner (Part One)
The best spot is the Parliament Street boulevard, as long as they’ve not got a special market or a bus advertising the festival of something or other. King’s Square, just the other side of the market, is also good. It’s got posh new paving and local brewery pubs selling Artisan Beer, and it’s ripe for catching punters coming up from The Shambles, the city’s most picturesque street. That’s where shopkeepers used to butcher animals and now butcher tourists’ wallets with the same forensic precision.
I prefer St Helen’s Square in the summer, though. It’s tourist central, with a great view of the Minster if you look down Stonegate. There’s punters queueing up for Betty’s Tea Rooms, sitting at tables outside The Ivy, flopping on the steps outside Harker’s pub, coming to and from Jamie’s Italian and the shops in Coney Street. Not to mention weary shoppers and trippers plonked on the benches round the heritage lamp posts, calming their souls with the scents from the hanging baskets. You can make a fair bit in St Helen’s Square on a nice day.
At least you don’t get the circus acts there. The fire eaters and the balancers and the jugglers. King’s Square is their place, when they can’t get Parliament Street. They tend to look down their unicycles at people like me. Not really open to negotiation about time slots. They regard themselves as trained professionals, not just a bloke who picks up his guitar and plays.
Yeah, well, I’ve served my apprenticeship, mate. Flogging round every open mic night in the city. Out on the streets in all bloody weathers, when you can barely move your fingers and your throat makes sandpaper feel like silk, and you’re driven mad by the aroma of a Ginsters you can barely afford.
So I’ve put in my time and now I’m getting some decent gigs, and I’ve got a pub residency on a Saturday night, but a lot of the rent money still comes from busking. Not that I’ll be needing rent money for a bit. Carrie chucked me out of the flat again this morning.
Nothing to do with failure to pay bills this time. I’m not sure what it was, to be honest. Some people get the whole musician’s life for me bit, and some don’t. I’d been a year with Carrie and she still thought it was something I’d grow out of. The day after my thirtieth birthday I could see the renewed expectation in her eyes. I suppose I should have started making arrangements for my stuff then, but I just thought, surely she must get it by now. And I suppose she thought pretty much the same thing, the other way round.
Previously I always knew she’d let me back, because we were in love, no matter what. But this time – this time, I knew she wouldn’t take me back because, honestly, I didn’t want her to. So that was that.
She gave me a week to clear me and my stuff out of her place, so just after one I set out to go round to Charlie’s to cadge sofa space and room for a couple of boxes. He hadn’t answered his phone when I’d rung, but he was usually OK with it, unless he had a new bloke on the go. Anyway, he was less likely to turn me down to my face.
Our place – Carrie’s place – is by the river, and I got all morose as I went down the outside steps and thought that I wouldn’t be doing that for much longer. Light was sparkling on the water, a couple of eights from the university were sculling along like something out of Brideshead, and happy people were sitting outside the King’s Arms on the opposite side, drinking lager and sunlight.
Mrs Lindsey was standing at the bottom of the steps, watching the river and smoking something that may or may not have been tobacco. She’s out there in all weathers, with her tabby cat. She’s sort of ageless: a bit thin, a bit well-worn, always in faded slacks and either a t-shirt or a jumper, depending. I don’t know if she even lives in the flats, to be honest, or whether she and the tabby just choose to stand there, watching the world go by.
The tabby watched me, neither friendly nor unfriendly, as I came down the steps. It’s a little ball of a thing, a bit faded, like its mistress, neither over nor under fed, with the occasional glimpse of sapphire peeking out from the glittery collar nestled in its fur. It’s somehow typical of Mrs Lindsey to give it a glittery collar, with a tiny gold bell that chimes louder than you would expect. You just know Mrs Lindsey lived in a commune, back in the day.
Normally she just nods, but today she said, ‘Never mind, lad, you never know what’s round the corner.’
I stared. Whatever else, I hadn’t expected Carrie to inform the local hippy-dippy she was chucking me out.
I waited for her to say ‘Plenty more fish in the sea’, or something equally vacuous, but she just sucked on her possibly-tobacco.
‘Well,’ I said, a little sharply. ‘It would help if I knew what corner I was supposed to look round.’
She looked down at the cat, then back up at me, and they both yawned.
I walked off, muttering. Charlie phoned me back, and he sounded cagey. It was obvious he had someone with him, and he didn’t want to commit to having a lodger until he knew if he was going to get a better offer.
I was due in the Square at two, to take over from the one-man-band, but I was half an hour early. I thought about going to Pietro’s, where they do all-day-breakfasts for at least a quid cheaper than anywhere else but decided that if I did I probably wouldn’t want to get up again, so I just made my way to the Square, wondering why I couldn’t hear cymbals, drum and accordion from half a mile away as normal.
When I got there, a woman was just setting up.
I’d never seen her before. I assumed the one-man-band had done himself a mischief with his cymbals and given his slot to her, in which case he should have told her she’d be needing to shift at two.
Normally I’d have gone up and had the conversation and hoped she’d be reasonable, but that day I couldn’t be arsed. I’d wait until she’d done her bit. It was a sunny afternoon and I had nothing else to do and no-one to do it with.
My heart was aching. I knew Carrie and I were over, and it was right that we were, but my heart was still aching. It was entirely possible I would choke up during ‘Stand By Me’, which was one of her favourites. I suddenly had this fantasy that Carrie would arrive while I was giving it my best Ben E King, and I’d sing it to her, and she would. Stand by me.
No, she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t come and even if she did, her days of standing anywhere near me were over. I didn’t blame her. Carrie was pretty and smart and destined for a glittering academic career. A hairy bloke in flat cap and braces trying to be Ben E King wasn’t going to be any part of that.
I watched the woman setting up. She put down her guitar case, to catch whatever coinage came her way, and started doing a bit of tuning. I wasn’t optimistic. She was an older woman, forties at least, with long, faded brown tresses, and she was wearing an ankle length, light blue, sleeveless dress. She had a shiny blue Alice band nestling in her hair, that glinted as it caught the sun. She wasn’t exactly slim and she wasn’t exactly fat, and she held the eye because she looked entirely comfortable in her skin. Very few people look like that.
That is, she held my eye. No-one else seemed to be paying any attention. They were just chatting, eating, drinking, staring vacantly into space, consulting lists, rummaging through carrier bags or rucksacks. I suddenly felt anxious for the woman. I didn’t want her to do her thing, however half-arsed, to complete indifference. She looked up from the tuning, and I smiled what I thought was an encouraging, fellow-performer kind of smile. She didn’t smile back. Just gazed at me for a moment, then got on with her tuning.
Oh well. I’d seen the type before. Been hoiking that guitar around folk clubs for years and had a disdain for anyone under thirty-five and whom she hadn’t seen in any of those places. Fair do’s. We’ve all got to despise somebody, to preserve our place in our universe.
She started playing.
She was better than anyone has a right to be. Her fingers flowed over the strings, and a waterfall of notes danced and sparkled their way down to the pavement, bouncing and leaping around the square, splashing among the benches and the heritage lamp posts and the hanging baskets. Then she started to sing, and my heart opened.
Slowly, reluctantly, the ache emerged. It didn’t want to. It wanted to stay curled and huddled up in my aorta, demanding nourishment. But it couldn’t resist the music. It couldn’t resist the contralto that lifted it, faintly protesting, and carried it to where the spectrum of dancing notes received it, swathed it, and bore it away.
I didn’t know the song, but I knew the music. I’d never heard it before, but I knew every line, every note before it arrived. Slowly my heart closed again, over a space that was lighter and content to wait, now, for whatever would come next.
Part Two is here: https://www.abctales.com/story/airyfairy/round-corner-part-two