By Amy Wood
I don’t know who the old fiddler man is. I like him, I think. But I don’t know who he is.
He plays every day; rain or shine, snow or wind. Whether the skies are blue or grey, he’s there, same place, scraping away on his worn out fiddle with his worn out bow. Why he plays in the poorest part of town, God only knows, he can’t be hoping for much more than a ha’penny or two.
I often look at him as I pass by, how old is he? His face is lined enough to have seen at least seventy winters, I reckon, but his eyes are always bright. He sometimes sees me and winks as though he knows what I’m thinking – that he’s old enough to know better than to expect the poorest mice to pay for music when they can barely afford bread.
There’s a hole in his trousers, over his knee. The bottom hems are frayed and his boots were ancient when I was born. But somehow the old fiddler man seems like he ain’t poor, not like the rest of us. The look in his eyes ain’t the same, no despair in him. He’s different.
It’s a Tuesday when for once the sun shows its face and the warmth changes the streets into playgrounds of sparkling puddles left over from last night’s rain. Women gladly send ragged children to play in the road and they go without a fuss; the puddles don’t stay bright for long.
The long tramp up the hill from my little mousehole of a house to the foundry leaves my knees burning. Each day it seems I climb a mountain just for the privilege of wearing myself out for twelve hours but with the sun on my back, it’s not so bad.
Children yell and splash and one kicks me a ball, wasn’t so long ago I was one of ‘em, another scruffy urchin more at home on the street than inside four walls. But time is cruel and like everyone else, I grew up. With three brothers and sisters to help feed, I ain’t got time for being young. I kick the ball back and keep on climbing.
At the top of the hill I stop for just a minute to get my breath. The view down ain’t much to inspire a man but it’s where I come from and some strange part of me wants to be proud of it. Tumbledown houses pile on top of each other, tiny streets wind around them, brown ribbons through the maze but there’s no lustre to ‘em. No silk ribbons here. This part of town lost its sparkle years ago, so far, the people are too tired to worry about getting it back.
All of a sudden it makes me sick: the poverty, the neglect, the disgust of those born more fortunate. I want to rage and shout, to do something, anything, to show the high-born folk who look down their noses at us that we are more than just rags and dirt. But what can I do? Nothing, same as always. The sun’s lost some of its warmth, I pull my thin coat tighter and turn away from the view down the hill.
The old fiddler man’s sitting in his usual spot as I turn the corner by the foundry. His cap is more battered, his coat more worn, his boots cracked and dirty. But he smiles at me as I pass and plays a little jig. The thousand lines on his face crease up into something kindly. Inside me, something breaks and wants to cry.
On the cobbles in front of him, the old man has his usual scrap of canvas, his collecting tin. There’s a fair few coins there, he’s done well, even with it being early in the day. Perhaps folk are feeling generous, maybe the sun’s done ‘em good.
I realise I’ve stopped, I don’t want to walk down the lane to the foundry, I want to stay and listen to the old fiddle scrape out forgotten songs. The warmth comes back into the morning and it’s as intoxicating as Ma Bellow’s illicit gin.
The old man looks at me and nods, just a slow up and down of his head. No smile now, his eyes are sad. He plays something soft and melancholy, impossibly lovely. I stand and let the notes wash over me, there’s precious little time in life to just be still and I know I should be moving now but the fiddle talks to me, sings at me, catches me deep inside and doesn’t let go. How long I stand there I don’t know, could be hours, days even. Those soft notes are too lovely to walk away from. But all things must end and I find myself standing in silence, staring at the old man’s wrinkled hands.
When I draw breath it tastes like the sweetest of honey cakes, the air in this bit of town ain’t so good sometimes but today it’s warm and thick as soup, a delight to every sense. I let it settle down into my lungs like pipe smoke, the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
The smile comes back onto the old man’s face and the jig slips from his fiddle again. A woman passing by, not more than twenty but worn down by her lot in life, suddenly beams and skips a step or two. I don’t dance but when I make my feet move and head down the lane, it’s with a lighter heart than before. As I reach my destination, I look back over my shoulder, the old fiddler man is just visible, his bow flying up and down, his cap bobbing in time with the music.
Usually I feel defeated, exhausted by the time I reach the foundry, but today there’s a lightness about me that even the blazing metal and crashing machinery can’t shatter. I take one more breath of sweet, blossom-flavoured air and close the foundry door.
Twelve hours later I’m free once more and the sky is the faded blue of early twilight. There’s a chill blowing in on the breeze and the sun of earlier is forgotten. Folk hurry past me, heads down, coats pulled snug. A washed-out day moon hangs in a corner of the sky, it looks tired but determined to show its face regardless.
I stumble over cobbles and mutter curses to myself; I’m tired. Children run screaming past me but I’m too old and spent to join in their games. Each step is hard work, one foot in front of the other is an agony of concentration. My ears buzz from the foundry noise and I try to blink away a headache.
After an hour or two – or maybe it’s only a minute – I reach the old fiddler man’s corner. He’s still there, as I expected. I pause nearby and drink in the music but this time he ain’t playing for me. A little girl stands in front of him, not more than four, her short legs chubby and round, socks falling down as she twirls. Her dress is patched, homemade and old but to her it’s the greatest of gowns. Round she goes, eyes squeezed shut, little hands reaching out for the partner only she sees.
The old man taps the rhythm, quick and sharp. She never misses, each change in note, each stroke of the bow sends her flying, little feet barely touching the ground. Her bobbed hair is a dirty halo as she twirls. A tiny Cinderella, squeezing every last drop of joy from the music and savouring it as only the innocent can. She’s beautiful. I feel old and irrevocably broken.
Eventually the old man draws out one final note and lets it melt away into the evening. The little girl faces him, chubby hands on hips, brows drawn into an outraged frown.
The old man laughs and shakes his head. “Tomorrow.”
It’s the first word I’ve ever heard him say, but little Cinderella ain’t surprised. She smiles and bounces over to fling her arms round his neck, holding him tight.
A nod from the old man.
Satisfied, little Cinderella lets go and backs away, humming to herself and dancing a step now and then. As she turns to go, the old man whistles and points at the coins on the canvas at his feet.
She smiles again and shyly picks up a penny. At a cough from the old man she takes another two. Nodding, he plays a jaunty tune as she skips away, her treasures clutched tight to her chest. I watch, spellbound.
His eyes are on me before I can escape. The gentle tune of earlier is in the air again, slow and lovely, wrapping itself round me. I sway on my feet, it’s been a long day, I should be getting home. Blinking takes an eternity, my eyes stay shut of their own accord and it takes everything I have to force them open. When I do, the old man nods and changes the tune. It’s still soft and low but the melancholy has gone, it’s a quiet ghost of the merry jig little Cinderella so enjoyed.
I’m too tired to dance and even if I wasn’t, I could never match the little girl for sheer unassuming joy, but the music does me good. A glow within me builds and spreads and I’m all the better for each note. Just as before, I barely notice when the old man stops playing, I go on staring at the fiddle, reliving the gentle loveliness in my mind.
Eventually, I rouse myself and remember where I am. Time to go home, the chill is setting in more and I’m shivering. My teeth chatter and the colder air hurts my throat as I breathe.
I suppose I should say something, thank the old man or tell him how wonderful his music is, but I can’t find any words. I just stand, frowning at my own incompetence, until he presses a coin into my hand. His fingers are warm, like sandpaper worn down to almost-smoothness. He smiles and pats my arm.
“For your mother.”
I look down, there’s a tanner, sixpence, in my hand.
“I can’t—” I begin, but he shakes his head.
“You can,” he says, very soft and very sure. “She danced as well. Take it.”
The bow settles back onto the strings. I stare at the sixpence. Is this what he does? Is he some kind of toff, come to the poor part of town to give away his wealth? If that were true, he’d be mobbed, folk here know the value of coins and I’ve seen fights over pennies. But nobody glances the old man’s way, everybody trudges on, heads down, with eyes for nothing but their own struggle.
Whatever the old man’s playing now, it puts me in mind of green fields and swooping birds and gentle breezes ruffling through trees. I ain’t seen real green fields but the once, sunday school trip, it was. Can barely remember what grass smells like. But his fiddle makes pictures dance in my head and it almost breaks my heart when I look at the poor town I call home.
“Who are you?” I ask.
He looks up at me and smiles a bit. The bow dances on the strings, dances like the little girl, my mother’s waiting for me at home, he said she danced as well, my mother ain’t never even whistled never mind danced, perhaps I should ask her about the fiddle and the music—.
I close my hand around the sixpence. The old man’s smile grows as his notes dip and swirl around me.
The sun’s slipping under the horizon by the time I make my legs move toward home. Brilliant reds and pinks streak the sky, staining the faded blue. Might be a nice day again tomorrow.
Each step I take closer to home, the more the old man seems like something out of a dream, almost forgotten already. When I reach my tiny mousehole I look at the sixpence. Gentle notes echo in my ears; swooping birds on breezes of music, rolling hills and perfect skies, flowers and trees and all things good. I remember the little girl, her eyes tight shut, twirling and turning, little Cinderella.
The world seems less grey as I step through my door. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.
Amy Wood is a British writer whose stories feature in Opening Line Literary ‘Zine (Sept. & Dec. 2014), Flashdogs: An Anthology (Dec. 2014), Spelk Fiction (22 Jan. 2015), Flashdogs Solstice: Light & Dark (June 2015), Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal (December 2015), Magnolia Review (January 2016), Flashdogs: Time (2016), The Galway Rewiew (Feb. 2016) and Short Fiction Break (2 June 2016).
She spends her time trying to write amid family life and wondering where she left her knitting. Also coffee, because it’s basically a foodstuff by now and words would never happen without it.