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Guitar Gifts, part III

A short story in small installments.

And here they were again.

“Mama, teach me to dance!” cried Arrietty, hopping up and down. Brasilia laughed.

“Of course, Parakeet! Let’s go home, and we’ll practice.” She took her daughter’s hand, gave Gifflet one last brilliant smile, her face still glowing from exertion and joy, and headed towards The Old Boathouse. Gifflet watched them go with a muddle of emotions constricting his chest. He knew that Charming Tom earned so well that he was often hanging around The Old Boathouse rather than prowling the streets like the rest of them; and Gifflet had seen the way Brasilia cast appreciative glances at Charming Tom with his handsome face and glossy curls . . .

Gifflet went in the other direction. Busking here would be no good in the aftermath of Brasilia. He walked out of the Water Market and right to the end of the long, high street to the Plaza of Statues where the nation’s heroes were memorialized. He slung his guitar from his back to his front and plucked his way into While My Guitar Gently Weeps. He knew he always did better with instrumentals because he was good on guitar, but his heart wanted to tell the song’s sad words; so, he chanted. You couldn’t really call it singing.

Heads turned, then looked away. He sang louder, and a couple sitting on a bench nearby got up and strolled off. He kept singing.

He circulated through the area, changing spots frequently. Other buskers came and went. A man with an accordion arrived. He started up with a boisterous tune that completely drowned out Gifflet. People crowded around the man and he smiled at them with his round, shining face. Gifflet heard the clink of coins. The accordion man had barely done anything, and already people were throwing their money at him! Gifflet slung the guitar onto his back and left. He went to the furthest end of the park and was just about to settle into a shady corner when he noticed Professor Vespers. He was holding up his wizard robes so as not to trip and was trying to chase away the tumbling monkeys, who had pushed over his organ. Professor Vespers had been having a lot of trouble recently with the appearance of tumbling monkeys. They were no bigger than hedgehogs, but very adept at creating havoc. The crowd laughed and threw money into the cup. The little beasts grabbed the coins and flung them at the crowd, which roared with delight and gathered up the coins to put back in the cup. Best to stay away from that.

Gifflet went to a street nearby that was flanked by a sprawl of curiosity shops at one end and an immense fountain at the other. The block was lined with cafés and bookshops and intimate restaurants. There was no traffic here—only strollers, friends debating politics, parents with small children seeking diversion at the shops, and lovers holding hands at tiny tables set on the uneven paving stones. Gifflet walked past all this, shoving away the gnawing he always felt when he saw couples and happy families, and he stopped in front of the fountain, just out of reach of the spray. He set his mug on the ground.

Oh, where have you been—

Heads turned towards him, then away, but he carried on.

—I’ve stepped—

Heads turned towards him again, but when he got to And it’s haaard, there were frowns. He heard a man at a nearby table say to his girlfriend, “Yeah, it’s hard listening to this. He can’t even sing.”

Gifflet felt his face grow red, and he stiffened it. He knew his voice wasn’t dulcet, but what about Bob Dylan? This song had always been sung roughly. And what about Louis Armstrong? What about Leonard Cohen? There were plenty of singers with imperfect voices. Gifflet sang louder.

The man made a huffy noise.

Louder. Gifflet’s guitar got choppier.

And the images began. At first, it was just scribbles on the fountain behind him, and he didn’t notice. But people’s eyes narrowed and, in his peripheral vision, Gifflet saw something growing—a foul beast, flesh-coloured and mottled grey, its many limbs unfurling and evil eyes opening, and in the middle, a black hole, like a great, sucking mouth. People murmured and pointed, and parents turned their children’s faces away.

“Oy!”

“Horrible.”

The man who had insulted his singing got up and dug a bill out of his pocket. “Here,” he said, handing it to Gifflet. “Just get out of here.”

Gifflet’s face burned. He didn’t want to go. A busker must never be defeated. A busker had to keep trying. He didn’t want to accept the money, but he needed it. He took the bill ungraciously, struggling with his inner turmoil.

“That’s right, get outta here!” said someone else, and Gifflet boiled.

“Scrofulous—ungrateful!” he cried, and he flounced away, his guitar banging against his back.

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