For Stefan it had little to do with the money or the music, but the people-watching. In London, one could stand and play and watch folk the like and variety of which you’d never see back home. Plus, even while he’d largely disappointed the expectations of his parents, he felt playing his instrument for the meager amounts of money he was tossed at least meant he was applying the skills he’d learnt through his parents’ investment. He’d attended a prestigious music conservatory back home and played violin superbly. Getting the necessary permit to busk on the London Underground wasn’t much trouble at all. And he made sure to only do it on one of the permitted busking spots, the ones sponsored by a large oil and gas conglomerate he remembered an uncle of his may have worked for.
One day, after another session earning a not derisory amount of money, he stood on the tube platform waiting for the train home. It was late, a weekday, and the platform was practically empty. The train was delayed and so to pass the time he got out his violin and started playing, quietly at first, but then as he got more absorbed in the meandering improvisation, he played with more vigor. After an indeterminable amount of time he cut himself off mid-bar to adjust a tuning peg and heard from the adjacent platform—just a short passageway across from the one he stood on—the completion of the truncated bar, a neat flurry of notes from a viola, if his ears didn’t deceive him. He played another bar, then stopped. From the other platform came a response. He played again. Another reply. He played again. The viola played a couple of bars this time in the relative minor. He played for longer. After an eight beat count, the viola joined in, harmonizing a couple of octaves higher. They played together for a while, Stefan not giving much thought or expending much curiosity as to who it might be on that other platform.
After a couple of moments of playing, he noticed the sound of rapid footsteps, coming towards him down the passage from the direction of the other platform, then retreating again. He cocked his head and saw a girl filming him on her mobile. Nothing unusual in that; everyone filmed everyone in London. Then she skipped off back round the corner. A moment later she was back again, still filming. She looked young and wore a corduroy skirt and tights with a strange pattern. She had a big thicket of voluminous hair with dyed tips splayed across a hoodie with a university name on it. She was grinning and her eyes shone with the type of enthusiasm only the young and still hopeful emanated. After a moment, his self-consciousness got the better of him and he stopped playing. The player on the other platform played for a few seconds more, then also stopped.
The girl gave an embarrassed laugh. “Oh…no…don’t stop playing because of me. It’s just…it’s…it’s such a great moment. It really captures the essence of the city, the romance of it all—I mean, don’t you think?”
Even though she spoke like the newsreaders on TV, it was much faster and the pitch of her voice seemed to skip up and down with excitement, so Stefan struggled to understand the whole sentence. He shrugged. “Yes. Music. It very nice.”
From around the corner came a woman about Stefan’s age with long black curls wearing a black hoodie with a jagged and indecipherable logo on it. She looked severe and suspicious. “You were filming me. Why?”
“Yeah. Sorry, it just seemed like such a nice moment.”
They all stared at one another a moment, the girl bouncing on her toes with excitement, Stefan and the woman looking blank.
“You don’t know each other, right?” said the girl.
Stefan and the woman shook their heads, then, feeling like some social code should be followed, leaned forward and shook hands. The woman introduced herself as Agatha. She had an accent Stefan couldn’t place—southern European maybe. The girl let out a high-pitched little squeak as if she was witnessing the completion of some long-fought-for accord.
The girl continued to gush about spontaneity this and The Situationists that and finding purity in the city or some other such fuck. All the while she was looking down at her phone and typing. “Twitter’s going to love this!” she said, finally. “What’re your handles?”
Stefan did have Twitter, but had never really bothered with it. He shrugged.
“I don’t have Twitter. It’s stupid shit,” said Agatha.
“Oh, bollocks,” said the girl. “I was ’sposed to be in the theater half an hour ago! Bye! So nice by the way!” She bounded off in the direction of the other platform where the rumbling and screech of an oncoming train was coming from.
“I get this train too,” said Agatha, then added, “in different carriage to her. Nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” Stefan said.
The next day, he noticed something different. He was looking at the people go by as usual, but they’d started looking back at him. And not just staring blankly, but smiling, sometimes even winking, sometimes even waving. They could have been drunk—here at least a couple of people were drunk at any given time of the day—but not this many, not on a Tuesday mid-morning. He couldn’t people-watch as he had done before. Usually even the few who dropped coins into his violin case seemed to want to avoid his eye and he felt pleasantly invisible—a sound but not a sight. Now it was the opposite. People were pointing. He wondered if his violin was out of tune and somehow he himself couldn’t detect it. He wondered if he was playing a song that was taboo or embarrassing in the U.K. He wondered if he had something on his face.
On the way home he noticed people staring at him on the tube train. A few of them were reading the free newspaper, unsubtly looking from the paper to him and kind of surreptitiously, but somehow also ostentatiously catching his eye and smiling. He wanted to tell them to fuck off. “Fuck right off, mate,” was one of the phrases in English he could spit fluently. Suddenly there was a tap on his shoulder. A middle-aged man was sitting next to him, also reading the paper, which he presented to Stefan. “I think this is just lovely,” the man said. “It’s just amazing what music can do, isn’t it? Thanks so much. And…and remember,” now the man grasped Stefan’s wrist. “You’re safe now.” Then the man got up and left as the train arrived in the next station.
Stefan grabbed the newspaper off the now vacant seat. The first thing he saw was himself—a grainy image, but he couldn’t mistake his own profile, especially his profile whilst playing; his grandparents had taken numerous videos of his performances back home. Then next to him was another picture—that woman from last night, Agatha. The article was syrupy nonsense and full of inaccuracies. He couldn’t speak for Agatha, but he wasn’t poor, he wasn’t a refugee, he wasn’t busking “just to make ends meet” (he had to look that one up) or “just to get by” (he knew that one, it was like “survive.”) Splashed between the two pictures was a tweet—that girl with the optimism and stupid tights. He read the whole article again. He almost laughed out loud imagining his proud businessman father reading about his impoverished son fleeing from his broken life in his native land!
Then the calls started. He deliberately practiced the pronunciation of “How did you get this number?” just so he could project across the phone line some kind of agency. Speaking on the phone in English was a nightmare. None of the journalists or music people (if that’s who they really were) spoke slowly when he asked them to and used all kinds of phrases the individual words of which he could understand but together made no sense. Get a foot in door? Put the market in the corner? Rags and riches? Horse? Mouth? Gift? In these situations he always felt helpless and dim-witted, like a suggestible child.
That’s the only reason he could give for ending up in that pub on that afternoon with Adrian and Agatha—he just gave up on dialogue and interpreted them as orders.
“So, wait, you’re not poor?” said Adrian, looking crestfallen that Stefan wasn’t destitute. “Not even a little?”
“My parents have the money. Me less. They pay for all that I need and I pay the rest with the money I win from busking.”
“‘Earn’,” said Agatha, rolling her eyes. “The money you earn from busking’.”
“And you’re not a refugee either, Agatha?” said Adrian.
“No. My father has helicopters.”
“Shit,” said Adrian, slapping down his pint glass. To Stefan, he couldn’t have been any older than himself, with transparent spectacle frames and immaculate, bright sneakers and a blazer worn over a T-shirt with a band name on it, but he fidgeted and squirmed and rubbed the stubble on his chin just like the middle-aged managers of the contract companies his father employed.
“But Cyprus,” Adrian said to Agatha. “I seem to remember it’s a bit fucked, right? The army is still there, right?”
“Your army is also in Germany.”
Agatha gave an irate sigh.
“But Cyprus was fucked.”
“Where wasn’t fucked one time? Most places are fucked. London is fucked if you’re poor. Look at Chile right now.”
“Yeah, right—Chile,” said Adrian, frowning.
They sat a while longer. Eventually, Adrian’s phone buzzed.
“Shit, it’s the office,” he said, then seemed to come to a decision. He got up to leave and began putting on his jacket; “Look, I think there’s an opportunity here if you just kind of play along. A big opportunity. That tweet’s already done most of the work. We can…adjust parts of your backstory. For Brits, anywhere foreign can be impoverished, especially if they’re not totally white, or Caucasian, or…” He gestured to both in turn and frowned. “Whatever you’ve got going on here.” Stefan and Agatha gave one another a searching look as if seeing each other for the first time. Adrian tossed two cards down on the table. “Wait? Do you have a lot of friends?”
“I have no friends here, I here only a month more or less,” said Stefan.
“Great!” said Adrian. “That should make things easy. And you, Angela?”
“And you, Agatha?”
“I have many friends. But they will shut up when I say that they shut up; if not my father when I call him can—”
“That’s great—we’ll talk,” said Adrian, one foot already out of the pub door.
Agatha scooped up one card and got out her phone.
“What are you doing?” asked Stefan.
“Putting his number into my phone. You do it also, in case you lose the card.”
“But it’s a bullshit.”
“It is bullshit. Bullshit is an adjective. Where did you learn your English?”
“I cheated in the exam. So fuck?”
Agatha rolled her eyes.
“Nobody ever cheats in Cyprus,” said Stefan dryly. “It’s why it such an economic power horse.”
Agatha glared at him; “Power house, not horse. Look, idiot, we can make money. Make some good money really quickly then leave. Famous for five minutes. Pretend. Act. A few gigs. Disappear. Done. Everyone forgets everyone eventually. You don’t need money?”
“No, I don’t need money.”
“Pardon me—want money? There is nothing in London you can’t buy? Maybe some more English lessons?”
Stefan glared at her and thought about the grief he got from his family for being dependent on his father’s monthly allowance. He thought of the price of rent and where he lived and the length of the tube ride just to get to his busking spot. He thought about how London, as advertised, seemed always to be behind a series of paywalls, that even when you were in it, you somehow were never experiencing the premium edition. And the price of the soccer. He wanted to see Arsenal, take a picture inside the stadium, and send it to his cousin. When he’d seen the ticket prices, he’d felt dizzy. Maybe he’d be able to buy a season ticket. Every weekend—Arsenal. Imagine.
Of course it was a bit more complicated than just Arsenal, but his reasoning over the next two days took in so many different avenues and alleyways and switchbacks, it was the only solidly clear manifestation of his rationale he could remember. Either way, a mere three days later he was on the radio playing with Agatha. Adrian did a lot of the talking, Agatha chipped in a fair bit, then Stefan made the odd single word or short phrase contribution. That was fine, said Adrian, it contributed to the whole helpless probably-poor-refugee-but-also-undiscovered-music-prodigies-and-will-they-or-won’t-they? romantic mystique thing they were going for. The political questions made him uneasy—things about immigration policy and freedom of movement and the EU and other things he’d never had to think that much about. The playing was fine, a pleasure even, just like busking, but warmer and people bought cups of coffee and the acoustics were fantastic, far from the echoey shrillness of the London Underground. Also, Agatha was brilliant at her instrument. She’d played with some metal band he’d never heard of, but the name of which seemed to impress the studio people. The money he made over those several weeks was decent, as much as the amount he received from his parents every month. And he saw Arsenal. A couple of times in fact.
Meanwhile the radio and TV appearances greased the joints of the social media perpetual motion conjecture machine, which in turn gave license to the newspaper gossip columns and the offhand speculations of the guests on the morning chat show circuit.
But it was also bullshit. When he went back to busking on his own, more people tossed more money into his violin case, even the poor-looking people and the teenagers. He wore his new Arsenal shirt, that season’s, to show he wasn’t destitute. He wanted to be invisible again, heard and not seen. He appealed to Adrian and they met up in the same pub.
“It’ll die down eventually. It already is. These acts—your kind of act— have short shelf lives.”
“They don’t last long.”
“Just let it die down, and for fuck’s sake, don’t spill the beans—sorry—don’t tell anyone the truth.”
“Then we will be fucked,” offered Stefan.
Adrian hesitated in his reply. “Maybe not so much ‘we.’”
“Nothing. Just let it die and we’re sitting pretty.”
“We’re safe. Done. We’ve won.”
They sat for a second longer in silence, until a matter he hadn’t considered occurred to Stefan. “And then what?”
Adrian looked puzzled with his glass halfway to his face. “And then what, what?”
“What I going to do next?”
“Well, don’t take it personally, but it’s not really my job anymore, mate. I’m not your spirit animal.”
“But when do the lie end. A lie is a lie forever, no?”
“Fuck knows. Maybe in fifty years you’ll get drunk one Christmas and tell your grandkid and he won’t give a shit either way. I mean, it’s not like we’ve faked the moon landings. It’s not Hitler’s diaries. No one will care eventually—eventually.” He gestured at Stefan with his glass. “Until then—”
“Don’t steal the beans.”
Adrian smirked. “Exactly. No stealing of anyone’s beans.”
In the end, it was taken out of Stefan’s hands. A cousin he sent the Arsenal photos to—ones of himself in the stadium—took the gesture as a gloating boast and found out about the charade through a series of unlikely connections involving a mutual second cousin and a brother-in-law music teacher in Manchester. His cousin contacted a rival London paper who informed the original paper and the promo agency that the story they’d run was a fabrication and that they’d be running a story revealing Stefan and the agency as frauds. Legal mechanisms shifted into gear. Negotiations ensued. Revolving doors revolved. Leverage was levered. A mysterious phone call was made to both newspapers’ editors from an unknown location somewhere over the Mediterranean.
Stefan was already fucked, but as long as nobody had anything solid on Agatha the whole thing could be contained in a quarantine zone inhabited solely and exclusively by Stefan, who had—the line went—misinformed everyone in bad faith and was merely an inadequately vetted bad apple in a barrel of otherwise well-intentioned and honest good apples.
Adrian informed him of all this in his usual skittishly detached way in their last meeting, in a much less affable pub than before that didn’t have any trendy beers on tap, but did have a couple of old washing machines and a car engine in the corner.
“I dunno. Just keep your head down. Dye your hair. Grow a beard. Maybe avoid going outside for a couple of weeks. It’ll all die down after a while—the public rage, I mean.”
“This seem very unfair to me.”
“I don’t need to be here, y’know, giving you this advice. This isn’t my jurisdiction. Oh, and by the way, you can’t mention Agatha more or less ever again in your life.”
Stefan put his hand on his heart and spoke earnestly. “I wasn’t going to. I wouldn’t—”
“Well, I mean you can’t either way, it’s in the contract. A kind of built-in nondisclosure thing.”
On cue, Agatha marched into the pub and slammed the contract down with such force the rickety sorry excuse for a table almost collapsed. The contract, opened at one page, had several paragraphs circled in red marker pen. “You can’t fucking touch me,” she said, pointing a black nail firstly at the page then at the two of them alternately, then down at the page again. As abruptly as she’d arrived, she left again.
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Adrian. “She’s canny as fuck, that one.” He drained the last of his pint. “Don’t worry—you’ll be forgotten in a week or two.”
“Your solution to everything: wait, everyone forget at the end.”
Adrian clapped him on the back. “You’d be surprised how far just sitting on your hands and shutting up can get you in some industries. There’s always some Olympic thing or an election or terrorist attack or whatever to put your scam into perspective.”
“The scam is not with me!”
“There’s a one-hundred-page backroom deal that you nor I will ever see that says it more it less is, mate.” Adrian slapped him again. “At least you have the money!”
This was true; he did have the money, or at least that money. He did, however, lose his principal source of income when his father, enraged by the shame brought upon the family name (and business name, and impact on said business’ public relations back home and the subsequent impact on that month’s bottom line), cut him off. Busking alone wasn’t going to pay the rent on his current flat, thus he found himself two tube zones further out of town in a flat share with an Australian student he couldn’t understand and another he still hadn’t met after two weeks in his new room. When he tried to practice his violin, the downstairs neighbor either banged on the ceiling or turned the TV up obnoxiously loud late at night—anything other than actually coming up one flight of stairs to talk about it. The English never seemed to want to discuss. Unless they were drunk, then they only wanted to fight. He’d noticed these kinds of irritating traits more during his two weeks of financial independence/familial estrangement.
In the end he took a job as a food delivery driver and office cleaner, the combined income of which just about kept him afloat. “That’s a bastard of a story, mate,” a new colleague told Stefan one break time as they huddled under an awning to avoid the falling rain. “Really captures the essence of the city, though—the total shitter of it all, I mean.”
One night several weeks later, he heard from the TV in the flat below a familiar voice, with a cadence he recognized but couldn’t quite place. He turned on his own TV and flicked through the channels in search of a face to put to the voice. He landed on a news entertainment item. It was the girl. From the tube platform. With the stupid clown tights and the phone. Here she was on TV looking earnest and talking about movies with a bunch of other people with stupid hair or weird glasses or non-functional scarves, now, apparently, one of the approved of the species bestowed the role of artistic tastemaker. He peered at the screen with a frown not of anger or shock, but of resigned pensiveness. He wondered if she knew; he wondered if she’d followed to the end the story she herself had set rolling; he wondered how much she was to blame. He tried to remember the tweet—had the lies started there or had the journalist simply padded out the missing details with typical disregard for the truth? He couldn’t remember. Come to think of it, had he even read the tweet? And what had transpired since the night on the train platform to set her on a trajectory seemingly so different to Stefan’s? Maybe nothing more than the difference between her action and his passivity; him the passenger and her the driver, and where those differences originated was such a dense tangle of unanswerable questions and vagaries as to leave the very concept of blame so redundant as to be not worth entertaining at all.
But still, he felt a deepening need to—not confront or accost, but inform; make sure she knew what she’d set in motion and let her do with that information what she liked. He checked the time. He checked the show was live and filmed in London and five minutes later was running to the tube station.
Although it was late the studio was central enough for there to still be a decent amount of people around and Stefan sat in the window of a pub across the road, nursing a pint of their least expensive lager and searching on Google translate for the best choice of words to express a sentiment that still hadn’t formed in his mind.
And then suddenly she was there outside the building, reading something on her phone and looking up and down the street with a look of wearied impatience on her face. He rushed out of the pub and almost stumbled into the path of an oncoming bus which blared its horn and made everyone nearby, including her, look up. She stared dumbly for a moment, then her faced rearranged itself into something between shock and terror, and she started looking left and right not with weariness or expectation but panic, as if looking for a door to appear through which she might exit. And then before he or she knew it Stefan was on her side of the street with neither of them knowing what to say at all.
John Miskelly lives in Gijón/Xixón, Asturias, Spain.