Promises

We go to Francis’ and Mattia’s farewell drink, planning to drop in on our way to A’s, so we’re unfashionably on time and only the two celebrants are there when we arrive – they’re sitting outside on this slightly chilly, bright evening and looking even younger without their aprons or their shirts and ties, their uniforms. We get our drinks and go and sit inside in the section they’ve reserved; I remark that the barman looks as if he’s in a band, not realising that Francis knows him, and ‘he is’, he agrees, wide-eyed, ‘…they’re rubbish’. He’s obviously younger than me as well, which makes me feel funny.

Francis phones our mutual friend P, gets me to talk to him to convince him to come along, but he’s not co-operating, and when F realises that P and I have just got into one of our interminable chats (apparently he’s got a great story for me about a swing) instead he snatches the phone back: ‘Stop stealing my minutes!’ We agree that P’s action – or lack of – is lame, but really I wish he were there because I feel so unselfconscious when I talk to him; it’s just familiarity, I guess, he’s part of my comfort zone. Soon we’re joined by Lewis, who was such a sweetheart and who I haven’t seen since he left, maybe six months ago; and some more friends of Francis’, a girl and a boy who are laden down with instruments, they have been out busking. She greets him as Frangipane, which makes me smile because it reminds me of my and P’s (but mostly my) many silly nicknames for him – Mad Frankie Lister, Francesco, General Franco, Frankenstein, Bacon, Teenage Kicks, Assissi. Obviously, he’s just an inherently nicknamable lad. We all talk about this and that – work, people we know or used to, summer, Italy, Portnoy’s Complaint (I’ve bought a copy for Francis, wrapped it in bright tissue paper and curly, lustrous scarlet ribbon which I find myself looking at, bunched up on the table in a little spray, when I’m too shy for eye contact) – with a slightly polite, slightly restrained enthusiasm, as befits the group. We all laugh when Lewis and F, like a tag team, tell us a funny story about a woman asking for squid in the deli where L works now; the laughter is uproarious, mostly because it’s a funny story and they tell it well, partly because laughing is free and easy and come-as-you-please, it’s a release, or a relief, or probably both.

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Eventually the conversation will turn to music and the many instruments of the two (are they a couple, or just friends? I can’t tell) who arrived with Lewis, the two who I forget the names of almost as soon as I’m told. She’s the wind section, plays a mouth organ and a penny whistle; she can do guitar too though, and something else, flute perhaps? but she doesn’t have one on her. He can play guitar too, and most excitingly, sitar; he takes it from its case to show it to us, quiet, careful, not so much proud as reverent. He’s slim, this boy, and he gives the impression of slightness and delicacy, though he must be taller than me in my boots and I’m sure he’s not actually unusual in proportions or dimensions at all. Perhaps it’s his facial features that are delicate, softly sculpted; his hair is wavy and overgrown, his gaze is shyly averted and his lashes long. There’s something coltish about him, something not awkward, but not quite yet grown into his skin, a looseness of limb, maybe, and something hushed, it’s as though the unkempt fringe is there to shade or veil him from the world, or it from the intensity of him.

He’s eloquent when he plays, he’s at his best then; when his eyes are fixed on his own fingers and his face is relaxed and peaceful. The sitar is a remarkable object, the body, he tells us, fashioned from half a pumpkin or gourd and the neck incredibly, disproportionately long and covered in little tuning knobs all the way up; it looks as though there are more strings, many many of them, at the bottom and then some of them are shorter and the ends wind round these little turnable keys halfway up and further, by the time you get to the actual head of the thing there are only four or six left.

We go outside where it’s quiet to listen to him play. He sits down on the corner, on the little bit of wall at the bottom of the railings and he touches, tickles the sitar and these amazing sounds come out and ripple around us, caressing us, and spill raucous into the broad New Town street and the deepening blue air. It’s so beautiful that I want to laugh. The music strokes everything, touches everything like light does and stains it with beauty; there’s a full moon and the sky’s getting inky now and the clouds are scudding by fast and it makes me feel small to look up at them; the world is spinning around and untiringly around and the big bright moon is spinning around it and the whole thing is spinning around the hidden vital sun and here we all are, on the street corner, listening to this boy and his sitar. He’ll do requests. Someone says ‘paint it black’ and he can’t remember how it goes, so someone, the girl I think, sings ‘do do do do-do do do do-do do-do doo’ and he does it, plays the intro and then some improvised little curls and some of the middle in a way we’ve never heard and this time I think we do laugh a little, not an amused laugh but a delighted one, as though we’re surprised, like when you see a magic trick. Music is like magic, sometimes, for me; I don’t know how it’s done and I don’t really want to, I like the way it’s beyond my experience and perhaps I just want to think it comes from somewhere else, somewhere outside the quotidian and what humans do, that it’s… real.

This boy had been a bit down on himself, before, inside; not in a dramatic or attention-seeking way, not in a compliment-fishing way but genuinely, slightly embarrassed because he’d finished (or left?) sixth-form and hadn’t got a job yet and had been looking for a month. He’d talked about coming to work at V&C and I tried to warn him, and of course he knew all that from Francis, but said to e-mail me if he really wanted to, but we might not get it because of the spam filter being broken so he should come in, I guess. He was casual about it and he didn’t get upset, but I knew how he felt, I remembered it; he laughingly said something about just being a bum, and sleeping too much, and having to busk for his supper before too long.

Then when we were outside, in the fresh air, a cold little wind blew and I wrapped my dark red coat around myself and stuck my hands in my pockets, but I wanted to hug him, I wanted to say ‘don’t be mad, a month is just a month, you’re so young and you’ve got forever to work for other people and feel compressed, opressed and tired of taking their shit; a day is just a day but for you it’s a chance, a chance to do this and make this music and make people happy, make them peaceful, make every bad thing melt away, even just for a few minutes while they listen to you. You’ve got something so awesome here, so special, and you make everyone richer, and you just do it and look so natural and perfect and you’re just a child; you’ve practically seduced a woman five years your senior here, if you wanted to, do you realise?, and fuck, if I could have done that when I was eighteen – well, let’s just say I’d be proud. And you’re not proud, I can tell, not cocky at all and I guess that’s one of the things that’s great about you, and I’m just so happy to be here now tonight with the sky so blue and the air so crisp and the music so perfect I want to stop time for this moment, not with my camera like I always do, but just want to catch it with my hands and scrunch it and roll it, fold it up into a little mass that feels like clouds and smells like springtime, and I’d lock it up to keep it clean and fresh in a tiny blue box with a silver key with a heart for a handle, and I’d take it out again and stretch it over my hands and my face, soft like silk and light like feathers, when I felt cynical and tired, and I’d look at it sometimes before I went to sleep so that I’d dream good dreams, and maybe I’d look at it again before I die.’

But I didn’t, I said ‘Nice to meet you, good luck, maybe see you again some time’ and then we were off.

On the way up the street we saw Monika but I didn’t recognise her at first, I was glad that someone else was going to see them, for every reason.

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