A day that had started off unclouded had quite quickly become overcast. A blanket cloud pregnant with rain had swept in over the river and blunted the city’s colour, drawing out grey in the sidewalks, the bleakly grand townhouses that lined the river’s banks, and the water of the Thames itself.
But this was unbeknown to her. She was perched on the trim of the riverside and upon her knees was perched a wooden instrument, a lap harp, its strings bowed with the weight of her wrists made heavier by the load of a book, in which she was now quite engrossed. With the turn of a page a solitary twang would ring, provoked by the entwining of its strings with the loose fabric of her hoodie’s sleeve. She’d picked the thing up for next to nothing, from one of those quasi-spiritual street vendors at Camden market, and it had taken her only a couple of weeks to master a few basic sequences, which were always the sort that sold best, anyway.
As the scene greyed and the cloud began to birth its shower a throng of street traffic thinned, before dropping off altogether. She felt mildly content, having had the guilt that came with procrastination exorcised along with her audience. Raising her hoodie’s hood over her head she set the book on the floor and balanced the harp on top, strings down. Without leaving her perch she stretched and straightened her spine, peering like a meerkat past her amplifier and into the open bag at the edge of the mat. She counted six, maybe seven quid in loose change, only 3 of which she’d planted herself to get the ball rolling.
It was a decent haul, really. She’d been out here for only an hour or two, and before the rains rolled in the sidewalk had been awash with people – native Londoners and a few tourists, though far fewer than usual. It was low season in London, as far as tourism was concerned, and today especially there had been a distinct deficit of selfie sticks, hideously beige cargo shorts and boxy, black DSLRs hanging heavily from cords slung around necks, or, in other words, her most loyal clientele.
She’d been at this for a while now, and had established a routine which worked well with the out-of-towners. She’d affix her eyes far up the sidewalk until she’d spotted a flock of sightseers, which wasn’t usually too arduous a task, tending as they did to stick out like sore thumbs against the dark winter coats and quick paces of more native Londoners. Chinese tour groups were her favourite, carrying as they often did a flag pole emblazoned with the name of their tour company, meaning they were quite impossible not to identify. As they approached, she’d dig into her 3-song repertoire and begin plucking at the harp’s strings with fervour, with the sort of vivacity that said she’d been caught in the whirlwind of a passionate solo for some time, and had been plucked from her surroundings by the bliss of expression
If she pulled it off, then one of two things would usually catch the eye of some amongst the flock, either the piercing sound of a violently-plucked melody, or the sheer physicality of her performance, ensuring as she did to whisk her head and torso forwards, backwards and side to side aggressively with the rise and fall of pitch. It was a virtuoso display, or one at least competent enough to pull a few from snapping the usual photos of Westminster Palace across the river, and into a semi-circle around her mat. She felt the weight of their attention but didn’t dare look up from the beech wood of her instrument. She could hear their impressed murmurs, and, on occasion, one or two would let slip a hearty chuckle, roused by the self-satisfaction that comes with identifying a familiar melody in a foreign place. Then the curtain would abruptly close, and she’d raise her head to greet her audience in a way which was synchronous with the twanging of her final note.
Her wages were paid in this moment. She knew from experience that just a second of silence was enough for an audience to realise that the show was over, and to swiftly shrink away from her orbit. For this reason, her wide gaze rose jointly with the final note. This way, the obligation to fork over a few pennies would precede performance end, and would often catch the crowd off-guard, provoking a fog of awkwardness that she’d found people were willing to pay handsomely to lift.
A youthful look and wide eyes were advantageous. They permitted a sort of innocently expectant gawk, much like that of a child who, having composed a doodle, awaits the praise of her parents or, if lucky, perhaps even a place on the fridge. She was determined to convey the same degree of expectancy, of inevitability, in her countenance. And, more often than not, the jingle of a few pockets worth of pennies followed, raining down into her oversized, black gig bag, which sat unzipped at the margin of her mat.
It was winter at the riverside, real winter, and the jingling of pennies had been exchanged for the pattering white-noise of rainfall on the Thames. Sifting through her collection of pennies, punctuated by the odd Euro, she peered upwards and felt the piercing comfort of a warmly lit, quaint little café across the street. It was winter, real winter, and she was contemplating coming in from the cold.