collage by Jennifer Federico

The Busker Part Two by John Miskelly, a short story

NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part story. The first part must be read in order to fully enjoy this one.

Adrenalin: that was the easiest explanation for the torrent of overfamiliarity Laura had gushed all over the tube platform that evening—adrenalin aided by coffee facilitated by beer enabled by whatever brain chemicals might explain such a lapse in self-awareness.

Several hours previously, Laura had bumped into Jessica in the lobby of the arts center, still with the sweaty-palmed rush of having stood up in an auditorium and asking a semi-famous person a semi-coherent question. Liv Gardner, respected writer and producer, had even described it as “pertinent” and asked her her name. Several people in the audience had shot resentful, jealous stares at Laura—a good as sign as any that she’d made a good, albeit fleeting, impression.

It had been her second lecture that week. She’d made four pages of notes, maybe a fraction of which would be useful; not a bad return on the twenty-pound entrance fee, better than usual anyway. Most of the lectures she convinced herself to attend were useless—desperate post-grad cash dredgers beneficial only to the speakers and the venues. But you never knew what tidbit you might come out with that could give you that half inch difference over your competitors, that name you could drop, that reference to the school of thought that might make you stick in the mind of an assistant to the secretary of the industry gatekeeper.

So she’d gone to get coffee with Jessica—Jessica, who scolded her during lunch for holding her knife and fork incorrectly, who shamed her for skipping the dress rehearsal of the school play to smoke up on the hill behind school, who belittled her for not being good enough for the school play in the first place; Jessica, who ran the secondary school social hierarchy like a saccharine-smiled benevolent dictator with the blessing of the administrative higher powers. All these incidences are miraculously transformed into an unacknowledged shameless revisionism by four pound coffee, wherein what were vaguely and rarely overlapping friendship groups are remembered as intimate and formative shared moments.

The buzz of the caffeine had then manifested as reckless abandon in the only form it can as adults in the center of the city—the consumption of alcohol before 6PM—thus, even more social fraudulence had ensued. Call it the jettison of surplus social goodwill. After all, Laura hadn’t seen any of her real friends for weeks, living as they did several tube zones away from her—different sides of a continent as far as London went.

Scrolling through her messages while Jessica bought another round, she came across a two-week-old invitation to a play she hadn’t replied to. Curtain-up was later than usual. She checked her watch: 8PM. She could make it. Giddy with toxins, she tapped out an exclamation mark-ridden reply in the affirmative. A friend would have called it hot-headed and reckless—Jessica, of course, endorsed and encouraged it with the performative romanticism of someone emotionally and materially removed from the consequences; the armchair revolutionary inciting the crowd to Molotov the town hall. “It’s London, Laura, you have to really live the city.” She leaned across the pub table and fixed Laura with an earnest stare. “Worry about the money at the end of the month—coffee can get you through tomorrow.” She averted her gaze. “But do you have time to go home and change?”

“I’ll never get to West Croydon in time.”

“West Croy—Jesus, that’s all the way in Zone 5. I mean… those tights.”

“It’s laundry day.”

“That T-shirt—I mean, I was never a festival person, but I genuinely can’t even remember half those bands.”

“It’s laundry day.”

A flash of the old, scolding prefect Jessica; “Laura, you really need to plan your schedule. You must have known you’d have to leave the house today. Look, the tights we can’t do anything about, but put on this hoodie.”

It wasn’t an offer, but an order. Jessica rummaged in her bag, pulled out a university hoodie, and hurriedly dressed Laura like a matron might a difficult child. “There, now you look like a first-year student and not an actual teenager.”

For a second, a flash of Laura’s old disdain for Jessica crept into her face. The latter noticed and offered a conciliatory crumb. “Great boots, though,” said Jessica.

“Thanks. They’re nice, right?”

“Really great.”

“Good boots.”

“Excellent boots.”

When she’d encountered Stefan and Agatha on that train platform, she’d just left Jessica amid a swirl of platitudes and hugs and strategically imprecise offers to meet up in the future. And Laura lapped it up and carried it and spilt it all over the tube platform and into the Twittersphere.

So that’s why she’d acted like she had, acting the age she’d looked, like a gushing first year student, all babbling enthusiasm for art and learning and the city and everything the city could offer.

The next day was a haze. She didn’t not remember the events of the evening and night before—she hadn’t drunk that much, but she also didn’t remember the version of it she read in the newspaper that next day, after waking up to torrent of tweets, messages, and missed calls from well-meaning friends congratulating her in various roundabout ways on whatever they thought she might have intended. She deleted her Twitter account immediately. She logged onto the newspaper’s website and read, horrified, at a stranger’s version of a version of herself. The tweet was ludicrously mawkish, the video horribly shot, the grainy screengrabs used to illustrate the piece even worse. How could there possibly have been a news day so slow as to justify a two-page spread on her own idiotic antics? How could they have got so much information about the background of the pair in so little time? Suspiciously, there were no direct quotations from them, only her tweet, and she hadn’t asked them anything—she’d been too absorbed in the prospect of contributing something mildly meaningful to her timeline.

Her phone chimed incessantly for the remainder of the day. She shut it in a drawer and left it there until she retrieved it to call her father.

“I actually thought it was a lovely moment,” he said, in the same way he always said things that might possibly be interpreted as betraying any kind of emotion, by frowning, pushing his glasses up his nose and looking away as if distracted by an arresting headline slightly to the side of the other person’s face.

“Which I ruined by making an absolute spectacle out of. I cheapened it, made it into tabloid slop.”

“The tabloids made it into tabloid slop, dear.”

“I helped. I should’ve just enjoyed it in the moment for what it is. I feel like such a Zoomer.”

“Behavior more in line with a Millennial, as far as I understand the definition.”

“Which I am. So can I blame it on peer conditioning or something?”

“I have no idea, Laura. Maybe if you’d studied something applicable like psychology—”

“How’s mom?” Laura interrupted.

“Job hunting,” her father said. “She’s determined to get the kitchen done and there’s no way my pension will stretch to it.”

Things were becoming decidedly lower-middle class, a frustrating dynamic in a generation obsessed with background and privilege not just checked, but examined, verified, interrogated, and judged.

These details always put a small knot of concern in Laura’s stomach, the suggestions of those early tell-tale symptoms of not poverty or even anything close to it, but a lowering of what they had once been accustomed to. Her upbringing had been solidly middle-class with trappings of upper-middle, but things were becoming decidedly lower-middle as the years went by, a frustrating dynamic in a generation obsessed with background and privilege not just checked, but examined, verified, interrogated, and judged. Laura had none of the financial security her upbringing might suggest, but equally none of the consolation social clout of a working-class kid done good. The safety net was shrinking, but the class guilt of not having completely struggled remained ever-present.

All social media accounts locked down and phone quarantined, Laura spent much of the rest of the day pacing around the house with nothing to do but brim with useless anxious energy. The next day, she tentatively retrieved her phone and found significantly less mealy-mouthed messages from hacks who had somehow acquired her number and email address. She searched and re-searched for incarnations of the original tweet, but found only a couple of references to it in the last twelve hours or so. God bless the accelerated metabolism of the modern news cycle. Moderately relieved, she ventured into the kitchen and joined her flat mates Craig and Brendan, Canadian and Australian respectively, somehow related in ways she couldn’t remember, and both partners in YouTube project Pimp my Ramen, having concluded there was more of a future in semi-ironically adding truffle oil to supermarket own-brand instant noodles than either engineering (Craig) or anthropology (Brendan). They’d only recently graduated, a couple of years younger than Laura, but at times the gulf seemed immense. How she’d ended up living them involved an intricate web of friends and friends of friends moving in, going broke and moving out, or getting lives and moving out, or just moving out.

“Oh look, it’s Louis Theroux,” said Craig as Laura entered the kitchen.

Laura responded by slamming the kettle onto the burner with a little more force than usual.

“Who’re you going to document today, Laura? Maybe a refugee feeding the birds at Trafalgar Square?” offered Brendan.

“You’re not even allowed to do that anymore,” shot Laura.

“Sick,” continued Brendan. “So you’re moving into true crime then?”

“Wise move—lot of money in that, Netflix series guaranteed,” said Craig.

“Lolz,” said Laura dryly, sweeping several empty ramen packets off the worktop to make room for her mug. She opened the fridge. “Where’s my oat milk?”

“We needed it for this vegan carbonara ramen we were trying. Didn’t work—the carbonara, I mean,” said Brendan.

“You can use my regular milk,” said Craig.

“Sort of defeats the purpose,” mumbled Laura, sitting down at the table and eyeing the various bowls of different colored mush. “So are you guys millionaire celebrity YouTubers yet or what?”

Brendan ignored the sarcasm. “We’re still perfecting recipes. Then we need to get some sick cameras. We thought you might be able to help with that.”

“You want me to shoot it? I mean, I didn’t go to film school for three years to—”

“Nah, I mean what’s a cameraman really but a glorified tripod? We just want to borrow some shit.”

“Right,” she said.

Within a day or two, the matter of the train platform buskers seemed to have fallen out of the collective consciousness all together. And then, a week or so later, Stefan and Agatha were everywhere again, or at least everywhere Laura never was—radio shows, morning television, and tea-time variety shows. It wasn’t until Laura, walking home from the supermarket, passed a homeless person with a dated digital radio hanging by a string off of the side of her trolley stuffed twice its own height with belongings did she recognize a semi-familiar voice. She adjusted her pace to walk alongside the woman until the voice clicked into place in her memory—Stefan, his sentences truncated and stunted by his inadequacy with English, then Agatha, more confident, but still curt and abrasive. She continued to walk with the woman for several more minutes, until the woman began to shoot ostentatious sideways glances at her new travelling companion. Laura fished a couple of pound coins out of her jacket and put them in the cup hanging by a string to the trolley. Apologetically, she thanked the woman and speed-walked home.

Craig and Brendan were in the kitchen once more, hunched over a laptop, perusing various potential ramen bowls and arguing their photogenic qualities. Laura swept in.

“Do we have a radio?”

“I don’t know, let me page 2003 and I’ll ask,” said Craig, not looking up from the laptop screen. “No one listens to the radio except boomers and…and—”

“And the rest of three quarters of the country,” said Laura. “Not everyone’s listening to Joe Rogan for their news content.”

“Ouch,” said Craig, still barely adjusting his register.

“What station?” asked Brendan, at least doing Laura the courtesy of eye contact.

“Shit, no idea. Wait—I heard the jingle. One of the London ones; it mentioned London.”

“This is the one I listen to,” said Brendan, clicking a tab on the browser. “It’s the biggest London one and only has a pretty low ratio of racist hosts on it.”

“How do you know this?” asked Craig.

“It’s about London. We live in London. It has news about London. Where we live,” said Brendan, flatly.

Craig gave derisive snort. “What news? ‘Breaking news: it’s still raining.’”

“As opposed to Australia; ‘Breaking news: it’s still slowly burning itself to extinction.’”

“And Canada? ‘Breaking news: there’s probably a bear in your garden.’”

“Breaking news: racist with mullet surfs wave, drinks tiny beer.”

“Breaking news: snow.”

“Breaking news: skin cancer.”

“Shut up!” snapped Laura. “Please.”

Agatha’s voice again. “Twitter is very pathetic and I hate everyone there, but I think on the other side, it did us a help.”

A new voice, animated and unnaturally cordial—the presenter: “And your families back home in your respective countries, they must be thrilled to see you doing so well, after the struggles you might have been through.”

There was a pause, then Stefan’s voice. “Yes. They are proud.”

“Yes, pleased for us,” added Agatha, meekly compared to her usual bellicose tone.

 “And I see you’ve got your instruments here, so shall we have a tune?” said the presenter.

The three sat for a moment as Stefan and Agatha played.

“Wow, I mean, I don’t know anything about this type of music, but it sounds like all the notes are right,” said Craig.

“I guess they really lucked out with your little Twitter interview.”

“Guess so,” said Laura, trying not to betray in her voice any of whatever it was she was feeling in that moment.

For the next few days, Laura couldn’t help returning to her phone or laptop and searching for Stefan and Agatha’s latest performances. If she couldn’t find a new one, she re-watched the old ones. She imagined how much they might be making from each appearance, each interview, every time they entered another TV studio and sat on another sofa to be interviewed by another presenter. She told herself it was merely out of curiosity, even gratification on their behalf, that they’d got their piece of the pie despite whatever they’d been through. But there was something else hidden under the goodwill, something that, however she labeled it, felt ugly and shameful. 

One Sunday, Laura sat silently at the kitchen table, her head propped in the heel of her palm, while she watched Brendan methodically mix a tahini sauce. Craig was deeply involved in an article on his phone.

“So what’s eating you?” asked Brendan.

Laura spoke out of one side of her mouth, the other squashed by her own palm. “Dunno. Sunday afternoons. So boring.”

“You can say it, admit it. It’s obvious anyway,” said Brendan.

“What?”

“You want your own bit of luck, don’t you—you want your foot in the door chance like you gave them.”

“What! No.”

“They got their big break through your self-perceived humiliation and now you’re wondering where your payoff is.”

“Bollocks,” muttered Laura.

“Not bollocks.”

Brendan gave her a hard stare. Defeated, Laura let her head slide off the heel of her palm, off her forearm, and onto the kitchen table. “Not bollocks,” he repeated.

Laura buried her face in the crux of her elbow. “I don’t want to be, like, a Twitter mercenary, cashing in on this thing I accidently did.”

“But they are,” said Brendan, gesturing randomly out of the kitchen window.

“They’re different—they needed it.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re poor, they’ve probably been through a lot.”

“You don’t even know that. You’re assuming that because they’re busking and have foreign accents and slightly darker skin they floated here on a dinghy last week?”

Laura didn’t reply.

“Do you think this needs more maple syrup?” said Brendan.

Laura took the spoon he offered and licked the paste of it. “So good. I can’t believe you’re gonna just pour that over some Tesco’s own brand noodles.”

“It’s gonna be a kind of noodle salad,” he said, then after a moment: “So why don’t you give some of those numbers a call back from the other week, see what they’re offering?”

“It’s probably too late anyway—it’s old news.”

“They’re still on the radio, like, twice a day. I heard this morning there might be an album.”

We’re all already so lucky just to be here, just to survive in London without having to deliver food on a moped, just to have our foot in the same postcode as the door.

“It’s just dinghy or no dinghy, we’re all already so lucky just to be here, just to survive in London without having to deliver food on a moped, just to have our foot in the same postcode as the door. It feels… gaudy to cash in on a slightly viral video.”

“But you’re not exactly aristocracy buying your way on the board of directors. Everyone has the right to a moan every once and a while, privilege or no privilege. You gotta indulge your own sense of—”

“… entitlement?”

“Yeah! Fuck it, everyone’s entitled to their own ration of self-entitlement.” Brendan splattered the wall with droplets of sauce as he gestured with the wooden spoon. “Okay, I have running water and healthcare free at the point of service and I get that that’s fucking insane compared to other places—I get it—I’ve won the global lottery of life, but also, I wouldn’t mind some sense of personal achievement on top of that.”

“I guess. Like ‘give us bread, but give us roses,’ for the twenty-first century.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“I think it’s what you just implied, maybe?”

“What I’m saying is that these two are making hay while the sun shines. You can co-operatize the farm later, but in the meantime you should get yours now.”

“What I’m saying is that these two are making hay while the sun shines. You can co-operatize the farm later, but in the meantime you should get yours now.”

Craig leaned across the table and dipped his finger into Brendan’s sauce. He sucked the sauce off his digit then pointed it at Laura; “Also you work in TV. It’s not exactly the fucking UN Agency for Human Rights and Robin Hood and Free Chocolate for Everyone is it?”

Laura, taken aback by Craig’s sudden intervention took a moment to gather herself; “I mean long term I’d like to do something—”

“And I mean why would you enter an industry full of assholes and then complain when you end up covered in shit?”

“He’s not wrong,” said Brendan, by way of a reply to Laura’s stunned stare.

“I say just get stuck in,” said Craig.

That afternoon, Laura searched through missed calls, pulled one at random and listened to the message. It was hurried, curt, young, educated voice with an almost affected disinterest. “I assume I’m talking to the girl with the Twitter account with the refugee buskers or whatever? Yeah, there’s a slot for you on this panel show about films, if you want it? Call back or something.”

She called back. It was a show she’d seen once or twice. A late-night thing talking about films released that week. The assistant gave her the address and times and a dress code. Laura couldn’t resist. “Why… how… why did you think of me for this, by the way?”

She could have sworn she heard the assistant actually spit. “How should I know? Someone dropped out and your name came up. New blood, fresh…” (a heavy pause) “…talent. Plus social media, or something? Christ, I don’t know. The movements of the fucking planets? You know I don’t even get minimum wage for this, right? Anyway, I’m sending you films to talk about. Get them watched before tonight and have some kind of opinion about them.”

And with that, he hung up.

She watched the films—three in one afternoon—read a couple of reviews, and, frazzled from screen time, got her things together and left the house.

Studios she was familiar with from a couple of runner jobs and extra work; a lot of rushing to wait, insincerity, and sideways looks. She met the runner she’d spoken to before, then the producer who somehow seemed even more disinterested and didn’t appear to have seen any of the films herself.

“Thanks so much for this, by the way. I really didn’t think that stupid video would lead to anything.”

“Huh?”

“I mean I wasn’t fishing for something like this when I did it.”

“Oh right that was you, was it? That isn’t totally why you’re here. Liv put your name forward.”

“Liv?”

“Liv Gardner.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah. You her niece or something?”

“No. I asked her a question once at a talk.”

“I mean, that’s cheaper than a university degree I guess.”

Laura waited but didn’t see Liv until she herself was coming out of the makeup room, and Liv, hurried, obviously late, swooped in, shedding a bag and coat onto the nearby sofa. To Laura’s greeting, Liv only smiled back, giving no indication of any recognition. Laura idled in the doorway a moment more as the makeup artist draped a cloak across Liv. She had to take the plunge before any small talk between Liv and the makeup artist might be initiated, and any incursion by Laura an imposition.

“Thanks by the way Liv, for in the invite, I mean,” she said.

Liv shot her the same cheery smile that betrayed no clue of recognition.

“Sorry, I’m Laura, the producer—”

“Ah yes! Of course, from the lecture I gave the other week. Yes, I remember your question—or rather I remember it being insightful. I always make a note of names—gives me a chance to give an opportunity to someone who’s not the daughter of a Lord or something.”

“How on earth did you track me down?”

“Oh, I don’t do it. People do it for me. I mean, in your case you popped up organically with that tweet you sent.”

“Oh, you saw that then.”

“Yes. You were right, it was a nice moment, although you kind of stole the show with your… improvised narrative.” She paused for a moment, then looked directly at Laura for the first time in the conversation. “It’s a shame how things ended for that boy. Although I do love the audacity of it all, there’s a Robin Hood nobility to it, although it’d work better if his parents weren’t fucking minted.” She gave a burst of laughter, “Or maybe that makes it even better. There’s definitely something there.”

Laura nodded along dumbly, oblivious.

“Oh dear. You don’t know. I thought people your age were basically omniscient with all your social media. Look, you see my bag there? Have a root around, there’s a little plastic box of cards. Take one and let me know how you get on. Can you use a bit less blusher this time, Rob? You made me look like a fucking Christmas elf last time.”

The conversation was over, but Laura located the bag, stole a few more seconds that weren’t strictly necessary purely for the sake of snooping around Liv Gardner’s private property, then took two cards.

Seconds before airing, Laura was a mess of tangled nerves. For the first several minutes of the discussion of the first film, she said nothing. Even as the presenter was articulating a question specifically for her, she couldn’t trust her vocal chords to function, feeling as if they were gripped in a fist, and any attempt to talk would cause them to explode out of her throat. But they did work. And after that it was easy. It was what she did in her head all the time, on the bus, cooking, trying to sleep—she focused on the untied shoelace of a cameraman and spoke until she was interrupted. After that, it was almost fun.

Within twenty minutes of the show having aired, she’d forgotten anything she’d said, the memory already drowning in adrenalin. People spoke to her less tersely now, a good sign, although the producer’s attitude hadn’t changed. “That was… fine. You went on a bit, a few to many weird references. We might ask you back but, who knows.”

With that, she thrust some more forms under Laura’s chin for her to sign, then Laura stole away to a corner and addressed something that had lodged itself in and occupied a section of her mind since the conversation with Liv.

She scrolled for a good twenty minutes, reading all about Stefan’s fall from grace, until she was shooed away by a studio staff member. She gathered her things and loitered for a moment, searching for someone to whom she might take her leave. But everyone who still remained in the studio had since become their own islands again, the machine requiring their cooperation and communication having been satiated for another week.

She left, turning the recent revelations over in her mind, searching for an opinion or a feeling on the subject. The context of their interaction and its aftermath had been flipped, to her vindication, or otherwise she didn’t know. He’d cheated, but she felt no disgust for Stefan—the tone of the articles revealing his dishonesty would have been punishment enough, the comments she’d resisted reading probably even more severe. Between the hypocritical self-righteous disgust of the tabloids and the staid, deliberately bloodless form-letter statements of the corporations, the only voice missing was his.

The cold and noise of the city street compared to the smothering heat of the studio took her by surprise. She gasped and the air caught in her throat. She took a moment to orientate herself, trying to remember in which direction the tube station might be.

Then suddenly he was there in front of her, crossing the road and coming towards her, like a holographic projection of her own thoughts playing out in front of her. His expression was hard and determined; he seemed to be holding his breath, but more from confusion than anger, and she felt no threat from him, even as he stopped in front of her, looking as if he might burst with vitriol.

“So you’re not a refugee then?”

Her tone was so innocuously conversational it seemed to hit Stefan like a punch. He blinked repeatedly. His jaw, formally rigid with tension now slacked, fell open.

“No,” he finally managed. “Never. But it was not my fault all together. Or, yes my fault, but not my idea. I hadn’t no choice. They. I…”

Here was a fellow passenger, not impoverished but not in control either, with no say over direction or route, another human living under the whims of a city and ecosystem… that reduced everyone to reductive roles.

Stefan trailed off and gasped with the toil of articulating emotions in a second language. And Laura saw it all even without knowing. Here was a fellow passenger, not impoverished but not in control either, with no say over direction or route, another human living under the whims of a city and ecosystem—a withdrawn, inhuman, semi-arbitrary administrator of people—that reduced everyone to reductive roles. It might not always crush universally, but it certainly flattened them out, filing away their dimensions, lifting them, dropping them, packaging, selling them.

They stood opposite each other, not talking, idling, as if waiting for a bus on two separate pavements in two separate timelines. Laura dug her hands into her pockets and felt the sharp edges of Liv’s card. She turned it over her hands several times, recalled a conversation that already seemed weeks ago. An idea, a possibility was forming in her head.

“There’s a pub down there,” she said.

“Okay,” said Stefan.

“Shall we go there and try and sort this out?”

Stefan didn’t answer but continued to look down the street in the direction Laura had gestured towards, as if already in front of the pub and weighing its suitability.

“I think there might be a way we can both help each other. I mean, mutually, together,” she said.

“Okay,” said Stefan again.

///

John Miskelly is 35 years old and lives in Gijón/Xixón, Spain.