Chapter 1: You Got To Be A Crazy Speed Freak To Survive Down Here (Part 2)
By: Jack Dempsey
George Taxos strolled up the steps of the tube station and out into the stifling hot afternoon sunshine of Charing Cross Road. The sun slanted in from across Chinatown and dazzled George’s eyes. He adjusted the saxophone on his back with a little jerk of the shoulder and squinted at the old newspaper seller, bent over and barking at the stream of people along the pavement. The Guardian of the Gate, thought George, selling tickets for the Underground Show.
The newspaper seller was old and short and hunched and in the last three months George had heard him say just one word – if you could call it a word. A low deep growl started in the back of the throat, gaining volume and power as his mouth opened wider and wider, until “Paaarrrggghhh!” came out of his mouth. Forty years before it probably started out as “Paper!” announcing to the world that newspapers were for sale at this establishment. The living utterance escaped his mouth, ricocheted off the buildings and ziz-zagged down the street, disappearing into the traffic.
The air was noisy and smelly and hot and thick and heavy, but George was glad to be away from the dull claustrophobia of the tubes. He’d had a good day, a pocketful of money and nothing to do but get drunk and play his sax. He walked over to buy a paper.
“Your mate was just here,” growled the old man. George was startled. This person can actually speak! A large purple nose disappeared quickly under his cloth cap and the old bent gnome fidgeted with his money tray, swishing his fingertips into the coins.
“Huh?” George’s eyes went wide and his jaw went slack. The newspaper gnome tried again.
“Oh yeah, who’s that?”
“That mad one, you know. Always running, don’t care about no-one.”
“He won’t get away with it for long. Can’t treat an old man like that and get away with it for long y’know.” George shrugged and leaned his head to one side. He opened his mouth to speak. The old man banged his fist on the flimsy table. The money jumped. He stared at George and immediately looked away, serving customers at a furious rate. George turned and stared at the hoardings across the road. He shrugged and started walking off. Old crank, he thought. A young girl, all smiles and ice cream and dangling with cameras squeezed past him and bubbled up to the old man.
“Excuse me sir.” She was breathless. “Do you know where…”
“Don’t know and I don’t wanna know!” he barked back and then shouted after George. “I hope he dies roarin’!” The girl screwed her nose up and skipped off. George headed for the pub.
The echoey sound of the footsteps in the tunnel began to reverberate inside the walls of
Danny’s head, louder and louder, but he couldn’t move. Strangely, amongst all the noise he began to be able to pick out one particular set of feet, slow shuffling steps, lazy and weary. He sensed they were coming towards him. The commuters rushed past. Clackety-clack, clickety-click. A pair of old boots shuffled into his view. A tatty pair of trouser cuffs flopped around them. He couldn’t take his eyes off his own sneakers. A hand came into
view, the tatty cuffs of an old overcoat down around the knuckles. Red stumpy weather-beaten fingers held a small picture if front of Danny’s eyes. He struggled to focus. He saw Princess Diana and that baby smiling up at him. A voice grovelled.
“Could you help me please? I’m stuck for a bed for the night. Fifty pence?”
Danny snorted. A smile flicked through his mind. He looked up and saw the dosser’s grizzled old face, straining to be charming and pleasant. Saliva dribbled over a quivering lower lip. In the man’s other hand was a carrier bag full of identical pictures, Danny dropped his eyes and shook his head.
“Twenty-five pence?” pleaded the old man.
He looked up slowly and saw Skinhead Charlie and behind him Lora Buchanan. Danny was surrounded by feet. He struggled up and pushed himself away from the wall.
Lora spoke like low soothing honey. “What happened to your guitar Danny?” The old man shuffled off with a disgusted grunt and began shaking his pictures in front of the passers by.
Lora leant on her guitar, heavy black smudged make-up surrounding heavy black lazy drooping eyes, a trilby cocked on the back of her head. Danny massaged the back of his neck.
“Somebody broke it didn’t they.”
“Why, what happened?”
“Some idiot on a skateboard. I was gonna do him but he fucked off.”
“Didn’t you stop him?”
Danny squirmed. “Er, couldn’t, he pissed off.”
They all looked sadly at the guitar against the wall. Two pieces of broken wood joined by bits of twisted wire.
“Shame,” said Lora.
“Tragic,” sympathised Charlie. “What you gonna do?”
“Dunno, fix it I suppose, get another one, I dunno. Do you wanna do this pitch together? I’ll bottle.”
“Hnnn,” mumbled Charlie, barely approving.
He frowned. “You’re no good at bottling are you?”
Danny snatched the trilby hat from Lora’s head as she got her guitar out. Charlie was already tuning up at the side of the tunnel. Danny moved across to the other side, nervously darting shifty glances into the eyes of the punters, unconsciously shaking the hat up and down.
“Give us an E,” Lora slurred. Charlie was deeply involved in tuning his B string and ignored her. Twang twang. He strained to hear over the noise of the footsteps. She waited.
Twang twang, said Charlie’s guitar.
“Give us a fucking Eeee will you?”
Charlie slammed his plectrum across the strings.
“I’m trying to tune up, moron.”
“Don’t call me a moron, you pig.”
“Will you let me tune up?” He put his head down near the sound hole. Twang twang. Lora looked over towards Danny and gave him a lazy shrug. He looked away quickly. He was holding the hat in both hands, shaking it up and down in front of the punters. At last Charlie was tuned up. He stared at Lora and slammed a very loud E chord. “Not a chord shitface, a string, just the bottom E string.” Charlie obliged. Lora started tuning and Charlie fiddled about with his new lead riff. “Will you shut up?” Charlie slowly looked at the ceiling and was silent, fidgety. Danny rattled money in the hat. He had already collected thirty pence.
“What’re we gonna play then?”
“Hang on.” Lora finished tuning up.
“What about Honky Tonk Women?”
“Blowin’ In The Wind?”
“All Along The Watchtower,” suggested Danny, “that always makes money.”
They launched into the opening chords at terrific speed and terrifying volume, badly out of tune. The tunnel shivered. All three began to scream…a gigantic wall of sound echoed through the whole place totally drowning out the footsteps. It was horrendous.
“…there are many here among us who think that life is but a joke…”
The pace of the footsteps in the tunnel quickened. Charlie jumped up and down, intently watching where his fingers went down onto the fret board. Lora was hard up against the wall, eyes bright with fear.
Danny stopped singing and moved out into the centre of the tunnel, frozen smile and yellow teeth gleaming at the punters. An old woman hurried by with her fingers in her ears looking like she had been eating lemons. Stupid cow, thought Danny, smile holding. A young businessman in a pinstripe suit rattled the money in his pocket as he came towards them. Danny lurched forward, hat held out, smiling widely. A two pence piece went in. Danny nearly lost his smile. Almost everyone was trying to get away from there.
“All Along The Watchtower…” sang Charlie and Lora, the rhythm settling down a bit. People walked in step. Some office girls giggled up to Danny and put some silver in. A bowler hatted gent strode up.
“What a racket. Can’t you read?” He pointed to the No Busking sign on the wall. “That’s illegal you know. It’s begging, I’m going to call the police.”
“Piss off fuck face,” hissed Danny. Aghast, the man minced off, piqued. Danny spied three arms coming down the tunnel holding out money. He rushed over in a neat zig-zag dash to collect it all. Suddenly the music stopped and the echoey footsteps took over.
“Oh nuthin’, Just told us to shut up.”
“You shouldn’t tell the punters to piss off you know,” said Lora, “he might go and get the police.” Lora was the voice of restraint when she was sober.
“What that old cunt? He hasn’t got the bottle. C’mon do another song.”
They breezed into Blowin’ In The Wind and the crashing of the chords and the jingle of the money was the rhythm of the footsteps going down the tunnel. They played a lot of songs. Maybe the police would come, but Danny didn’t worry ‘cos he would soon be getting drunk.