by Nadia Kingsley
“SISTER Sledge” James says
The man that’s sitting behind the counter looks up from his magazine, over the rim of his old-fashioned glasses.
“That’s Sister Sledge”
“The tune you’re humming” James mumbles, looking down at the pack of guitar strings he is holding. “Dreadful song, of course.”
“I didn’t know I was humming”
“Oh”, says James, putting the thin square cardboard pack on to the counter, “well, you were – and it was a song by Sister Sledge”
“We are family? Dear God, tell me it wasn’t that? I’ll take myself down the Knacker’s Yard if it was that.” The man laughs, then wheezes, then coughs. Spittle slips out of his mouth and into his beard. He wipes his hand across, then wipes that on his trouser leg.
“No. It was Lost in Music. Kinda suitable too.”
“Yeah, well here you are surrounded by instruments and sheet music all day, every day, reading some kind of music mag”
“It’s Mojo, not some kind of music mag”
“Yeah, well that’s not important…” The man’s eyebrow raises, one of those eyebrows that is bushy and wild in places and completely devoid of hair in others, so James pushes the guitar string packet across the counter towards the man and then reaches into his right back jeans pocket for his tenner, “My point was, is…”
“Anyway you’re wrong”
“Wrong?” James’ left hand is now feeling in his left back pocket.
“Le Chic. Or is it just Chic? I never really knew which was right. Anyway – that’s who recorded the song you say I was humming”
James looks at the man. Properly now. The man seems to be accusing James of lying. James notices the man’s beard is speckled with grey, his fingernails and surrounding skin are deeply ochred with nicotine stains, and his face is creased, and sagging. James decides he hasn’t got all his marbles any more, while with both of his hands he starts searching the front pockets of his jeans.
“That’s interesting you say that” says James, in a brighter more conciliatory tone, “because two of the guys from Chic did actually produce the record, but it was recorded by Sister Sledge. In 1979.” James is now feeling in his donkey jacket pockets for the money. The man looks at him, just looks at him, then puts his magazine down as he stretches over the counter and picks up the guitar string packet. “For my sins, I remember everything I read,” adds James.
“Good make – D’Addario” says the man turning it over, and punching some buttons on his till. “Last packet too. I’ve ordered more. But who knows when they’ll finally turn up.”
“Important gig today” says James.
“Are you buying anything else today, Sir?” To James that Sir had a certain sarcastic emphasis to it. He holds his breath, lets it out as slowly and quietly as he can, as he, more frantically now, keeps on searching all of his pockets, then starts over with the ones he’s already checked.
“No. Just the guitar strings” James says.
“That’ll be just £9.99 then”
James stands for a moment, hands drop to his side, limp, looking at the man.
“Um. Could I just look at them again. Check they’re the right sort and that.”
The man looks at him. He turns the packet over. Brings his glasses up from where they are hanging on his chest, peers through them. “They are Pro-Arté” he says, ” EJ46. Is that what you were after?”
“I need to look at the packet,” says James, his long right thumbnail starting to pick at the skin around his others. “I’m more of a visual person, me” he offers.
The man lets his glasses drop on their chain. They bounce then settle on his tweed jacket. He then carefully, but very firmly, holds the guitar string packet along two of its edges, using both of his hands and all his fingers, then stretches his arms towards James, just a little way, for him to look. James leans forwards a bit.
“Can I hold them?” James croaks.
“Do you have the money or not?” says the man. “If not, then I’d be obliged if you would vacate these premises now, and let the real customers get on with their business.”
James looks around the shop. Apart from a wall of stringed instruments, an upright piano and an arrow pointing up some narrow stairs saying Brass instruments Sheet music there’s nothing much else to the shop. Certainly, no customers. He opens his mouth to point this out, then closes it again.
“I have the ten pounds,” says James. “I just can’t locate it in my pockets right now. Perhaps I left it at the B & B… Yeah. That must be it. Look” James bites his lip. The man is still holding the packet, “Man” James looks around him. “Sir…” he begins. The man stops holding the packet with his left hand, and starts to move his right to somewhere below the counter “Please…” says James. The packet is now hidden from James’ view and the man is reaching for his magazine. “I really need those strings.”
“And how is that my problem?”
“Look. I was probably wrong about Chic. Yeah. That’s it – of course – I was wrong. Man. Yeah, you know your stuff, that’s for sure. Hats off to you, man. Yeah… The thing is – I’ve got this really special gig today – you know – once in a lifetime stuff – high-up people coming, all of that – it’s my big chance, man, sir, my big chance, and then, can you believe it, there I am, practicing this morning and the top E breaks, snaps, almost takes my eye out – see” James leans forwards pointing below his left eye ” see? Scratched me. It was kinda scary for a moment.” The man lifts up his glasses again – doesn’t put them on this time – just holds them there, then lets them fall, ” I’m good for it man, sir. I’m good for it sir. I’ll come back with it just as soon as I’ve played. I don’t have the time to go to the B & B then back here now, you see – not to reach the venue in time, register, string her, I need to play the strings as much as I can don’t I? Well you’ll know that – being a connoisseur of music, that’s obvious to anyone – it’s obvious to anyone that you’re that. I have to do that, they’ll go out of tune and my big break…I’ll come straight in with the tenner as soon as I can. It’s only a tenner. I’m good for it man. Sir… ”
“You any good?”
“Am I…?” James looks round to the wall. “May I?” he asks, pointing at a Martin.
“Try this one” says the man. “If you’re any good – you’ll make any instrument sing” and lifts up a battered guitar that James hadn’t noticed, propped behind the counter.
James just looks at it. Realises his jaw is hanging down. Snaps his mouth shut. “Okay” he looks straight at the man. “Hand it over”
The man looks at him. “One moment. Walk with me to the door so as I can lock it. I don’t want you legging it with my valued customer’s instrument. What would I say to him when he comes in later to pick it up?”
“I. What? I’d never…” James looks at the man. Looks at him, while shuffling on the spot. “Fine. Whatever” and James just stands there, head down as if praying, until the man has got the key chain from out of the till and emerges, holding the guitar and then James walks alongside him to the door, waits while the man turns the lock, inserts the key, turns the sign, walks to the piano.
“Sit on there” says the man and then, only once James has sat down, does the man hand it over.
As James’ arms fold round its curves, and his fingers touch its strings he looks up at the man. “You’ll let me have the strings? If you like what I play?”
“Hell. If I like what you play – I’ll get you a private session with the guy you’re wanting to impress. That’s his guitar. His sister’s guitar. I know the event you’re talking about. He told me, when he brought this in. We go back a way” the man says.
James looks at him. Looks back at the guitar. Looks at the man again. Smiles.
“What shall I play?” asks James. He is ready now. This is turning out to be the big break. Not the gig, with all those other wannabees. Here and now. He can’t believe his luck. He is comfortable in his abilities. He has his 5 minutes all planned for later. Planned and practiced. It’s surprising his fingers aren’t bleeding from the amount he has practiced. Practiced and honed. This is the moment for Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra.
The man looks at him. The edge of his mouth curls up. He looks up at the ceiling and strokes his beard.
“Hmm” he says as if savouring a whisky. “There’s a question. Well. You know what I’d really like to hear?”
There’s a pause. James can’t take his eyes of the man. The man appears to be thinking, but James isn’t sure. James was expecting him to say Impress me, Anything you like, or something in a sarcastic tone – like why not do your party piece?
James wasn’t really asking. He knows what he is going to play. But he went and said it, he asked it – and now he just has to wait.
The man clears his throat, wheezes; it turns into a cough.
“I know” he says, and the pause is like on a reality show when they are about to announce who is going out that week. “How about…” James notices his heart – it’s beating as loud and as fast as, well, he doesn’t really know what because he has suddenly realised that the man, this man – with his poxy jacket, ageing hair and discoloured flagging skin; his tiny insignificant shop with mostly mediocre instruments and the smell of death hanging in the air almost ready to cut – this man, and his choice, might affect James’ future, might make or break his career, all for the lack of a tenner. “you play…” James attempts a smile, and places his fingers on the frets, feels the guitar’s weight against his chest, feels its curves, readies himself “something… well, why don’t I just hum you the tune?”
© Nadia Kingsley 2016