Seed money, he called it. The few coins tossed into the violin case at the start of the day. No, the viola case. He would always correct me on that, and eventually it became our joke. How’s the violin practice going? It’s a viola, and I need as much practice as you need lessons in cheek. At that I would put whatever change I had into the case. Always I had some money, carefully preserved from whatever I’d bought earlier that morning.
If I didn’t have anything, I would avoid his patch, skirt round a back road out of earshot. I couldn’t stand the thought of hearing his music – all self-penned; deep and bewildering compositions that would glide, much later, into your mind without warning and remain there all day – and not paying him anything. It would seem like stealing. No, it would be stealing. I wonder if he knew I did this. I wonder if anyone else did this, if anyone else was as mindful of his work or just thought of him as a slightly peculiar busker.
One day I couldn’t hear him at all. I had money, ready to go, but the streets were silent. No, that’s not right, not true. The streets were crowded tight with noise, with the chatter of people, the dull, aching growl of traffic and the ever-present background roar of a giant city that could not be quiet. But through all that by the time I reached the lights I could always hear his music, dancing between the footsteps and springing over the predatory snarls of the cars. My heart thumped once, sending a wash of panic through me, a wet pounding of blood in my ears. Was something wrong?
He was sat, legs sprawled open in front of him, next to the case. He was turning some of the seed money over in his fingers. Look lad, he said to me and I didn’t bother to correct him. This is a quarter dollar. You’d think it was a tenpenny piece, but see? That’s not Her Majesty is it? Some dead bugger in a wig. Look at it. Struck thousands of miles away, it’s ended up in my case. It’s… he faltered, his eyes screwing themselves up as if he was preparing to charge at some distant target.
I looked at the coin. Its design was complex, pictorial. The casting had made it ripple, somehow, giving the effect of an image springing from the surface, of a great depth it should not have. It was a story from far away, embedded in metal, here used as bait for whatever coins passers-by could spare.
He stood up, collecting himself. Put it back in, put it back. That will bring good luck that one. That’ll bring in the Yanks, call to them from home and they won’t even know it. He played on, and I walked away, wondering about luck. I only realised when I got home that I hadn’t paid him.