All I see are eyes, staring at us as we leave London Waterloo Station, carrying our heavy load across York Road, passing a heap of green plastic bags.
Papa says people can recognise him even under the shade of his black bowler hat. He points a bony finger up to the rim, then readjusts the long box under his arm.
Pavarotti and Botticelli are begging to have a concerto with him, he explains as we pass a blue neon sign saying STEAKS & COCKTAILS, with the lights off on TAILS.
“But Luciano is too easy on the booze,” Papa groans, placing the box against a No Parking sign nailed to the railway bridge’s short pillar. “And Andrea only wants to outshine me,” he adds as we stretch out the ironing board I’ve been carrying. There’s a pancake-shaped burn in the middle, from the time I tried to surprise him with a crisp shirt for his 40th.
Papa pulls out a synthesiser from the no-parking box, setting it up on the board. He unfolds a black plastic chair, “Ready for our guy?,” and winks at me, “A mi fiúnk.”
I smile and nod.
Rolling up his white shirtsleeves he inhales and rests a middle finger on a key.
I hum together with Papa’s first deep ta-damm, but my voice isn’t low enough for the other four keys that join in, echoing an even deeper, guttural ta-dammm, like a statement; I am here and you cannot ignore me.
The notes rise on their tiptoes, reaching for another ta-damm, and duck down again, slinking towards that world-famous tune everybody, including Papa, knows from a Tom & Jerry episode.
He skips some scales that rush too high, but the small semi-circle of people gathered around us doesn’t seem to notice. Papa says he’s allowed to do that, as he’s also a world-famous composer.
I watch the soft, gold, twinkling sounds now appearing above his balding head, only to descend again, like nameless falling stars.
After about five minutes, depending on how well his fingers can catch the tunes, one of the lowest keys, alto, Papa says, arches above the crowd – with phones sticking out, filming it – and announces one last, resounding ta-dammm.
Papa lifts his hands and rubs wet palms against grasshopper thighs.
Silence waits for more.
But Papa looks around and talks, “Alright folks. After this part, it gets really fast and hard”.
He smiles – his world-famous smile, he always says – “Like life”.
Standing up, he bows, circling a hand before him twice, then extending his arm towards his hat I put on the ground.
People laugh and clap. Coins tinkle, and notes, like music, float into Papa’s hat. We hear the accelerating rattle of a train above, shaking the ground, throbbing in our knees.
Originally published in Janus Literary’s Issue 7.
Shortlisted for the Fractured Lit flash fiction prize 2021.