the joy of song (short story 3,443 words)

Section 1
Stood in his narrow
kitchen, staring vacantly at the blister pack held between his fingers and thumb, the new pills – Johnson concluded, simply weren’t working. Like the ones he’d been placed on before, and the one’s before the one’s before. The same as always, his deep depression, chronic introversion and social anxiety paralysed him. This, despite the elapse of two years since his first prescribed treatment.

Certainly, after the dosage had been increased to the maximum, his mood hadn’t worsened and he slept better. Somehow, he’d lost some weight. The patient information leaflet advised of an opposite possible outcome, concerning side effects. For someone else, shedding ten kilos would be a reason to celebrate and yet Johnson felt certain the weight loss had been broadly circumstantial, probably having nothing to do with the drugs.

Out from the kitchen, stepping over three contented cats crouched over their individual bowls eating breakfast, Johnson wished to be a cat. He peered through a gap in the curtains drawn across dirty windows, looking straight out onto the road. Saturday morning had already gathered a head of steam. Cars streamed past, the usual cosmopolitan mix of people were filling up the pavements, a pneumatic drill that Johnson had awoken to, broke up the tarmac around an ever enlarging hole. As uncomfortable as he felt about the idea, he knew this morning, he must venture outside.

Don’t overthink this, he’d told himself as he shrugged on his jacket and grabbed his keys, what could possibly go wrong on a local shopping trip? Picking up a pen and a crumpled piece of paper, he added tobacco to a list already containing bread, pancakes, baklava, fish and wine. A religious theme came through the words he’d written. 
Maybe not the tobacco, he’d thought to himself. A vision of Christ with a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip came and went.

Section 2
Outside, stood with his back to the front door, the urban soundscape ramped up the volume by several notches. On the pavement, Johnson’s senses had automatically switched across to heightened alert. Unrecognised faces advanced towards him. His natural curiosity lead to awkward eye contact – hastily broken away and actions taken to avoid head-on collisions with people. 
Just make it to the cafe, and then from the cafe to the bakery, he told himself as he approached a pedestrian crossing.

‘WAIT’, suggested the illuminated push button control panel. Soon, the red pictogram changed to green and a piercing, high-pitched beep added to the engine noise, the road works, car horns and sirens. Stepping onto the crossing, Johnson pressed two fingers into his right ear in a vain attempt to dampen the din. 

Opposite, he saw an old woman bent double, clutching at a shopping bag, hobbling towards him. Algorithms in his head had already begun calculating the best side on which to pass her – when – after she’d taken four small steps, messages of imminent danger flooded into his brain. Time slowed, allowing Johnson to analyse where these signals were coming from and what they meant.

The bus hasn’t stopped, he told himself, the bus, hasn’t, stopped!

Distracted by a chatty passenger, the driver had taken his eyes from the road at the exact wrong moment. With a burst of adrenaline coursing through his limbs, Johnson broke into a sprint. Grabbing the woman and tucking her under his arm like a rugby ball, they made it to the other side of the road with centimetres to spare. Desperate to decelerate fast, he grabbed at the traffic light pole with his hand, sending them spinning around, until on the final revolution he’d been able to gently place her down upon her feet.

Her eyes were tightly closed, causing her nose to wrinkle up, much as he would do on the rare occasions he’d found himself on some godforsaken fairground ride.
“Are you alright?” Johnson asked, he could feel his heart thumping in his chest. One eye opened up to him, while the other remained tightly closed.
“Meh! I think I am,” came a small screwed-up reply, as she adjusted her polka-dot patterned head scarf,  “where the fuck is that bus? I want to give the driver what for – that’s for sure!” She swung her tote bag in the air causing a variety of root vegetables and herbs to spill out onto the pavement. With a degree of exasperation, Johnson bent down onto his haunches and gathered together the spillage, returning everything into the bag as swiftly as possible.
“You’re sure you’re okay?” he said, thinking to himself that if she showed this much grit, then she couldn’t be in too bad a shape.
“Yes young man, I am and it’s all thanks to you. Bless your heart for being there, bless your cotton socks for doing what you did – they’d be scraping me off the road if it hadn’t been for you!” She pulled at the hem of her home-knitted jumper and harrumphed as she straightened her long flowing pin-striped skirt. 

Johnson could see the bus up ahead, weaving it’s way around the roadworks. Nobody walking past appeared the least bit interested in what had just taken place.
“Look, I am sorry I grabbed at you like that, I -“
“Don’t apologise,” she touched Johnson’s hand, her fingers encircling his wrist, “may I ask you something?”
“Yes for sure,” he said, feeling the warmth from her hold, “is there someone I could call for you?”
“No – no my dear, I wonder if  I can do something for you?”
As usual, when having to deal with a direct question, Johnson’s mind blanked. 
“I – I don’t think so, thank you.”
Clumsily, he motioned to move away,  to put some physical distance between himself and the old lady. As he did so,  Johnson felt her grip tighten ever so gently, before reluctantly letting go.
 “Al-right,” she said, her hand now rummaging in her bag, “let’s see if I can’t gift you something.”
“Aw, no, really – please, that’s not necessary.” Johnson felt encased by an intense, prickly awkwardness.
“Here!” she said with a satisfied grin. Ignoring his protests, she pulled out a few spindly strands of lavender and began weaving the stems together. Another search produced a small square of aluminium foil, into which she spat and wrapped around the base of the miniature bouquet she had created. Then, reaching up she threaded the finished article into the lapel of Johnson’s jacket.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, “that’s very, very kind of you, thank you.”
“One good turn deserves another,” she said, drawing the palm of her hand down the side of his face, “you look after yourself young man. Be bold – you go out there and live your life.” At this, she turned away, “I’ll cross over a little further on down the road.”
“Okay, you take care.” he called after her, watching for several seconds as she hobbled away. 

Section 3
Johnson walked on, replaying the previous five minute micro drama in his mind. The re-imagined scenes played out to a rousing musical backdrop, an Elgarian classical composition, which soon had him humming.

Arriving at his favoured cafe, the images had dwindled and the music had receded. Johnson held the door open for a woman with a young child in a buggy. As they passed each other, he sensed a subtle perfume, which he found pleasing, mildly uplifting and at the same time, calming. As the door closed behind him, he realised the scent’s actual source: the lavender boutonnière.

As well as good coffee the cafe sold music, on vinyl and CD. A jazz blues standard played through speakers as Bob – the owner, tray’d over a caffé macchiato and biscotti to a table hosting a bespectacled woman with laptop. 

Having eliminated the uncomfortable need for decision long ago, Johnson waited at the service counter without need to look up at the blackboard. 
Bob returned, wiping his hands on a tea towel. 
“He-llo and what will it be?” 
Johnson knew the answer, but instead of just saying it and without explanation, he found himself singing his answer back to Bob.

Mi-ster Bob 
It's so nice you asked
Yes-it-is, oh yes it is...
Ev-en though 
By now you know 
What's on my mind
I-think-we-both-know-for-sure, yes-we-do

It's al-ways a flat white
Putting my own sugar in
The same biscuit 
Twice-baked, crunchy
and oblong-shaped!

Mi-ster Bob
You-know that'll do me
Do me real fine for now...
Oh yeah...

(sung to the melody of 'Further on Down the Road' - Taj Mahal)

Bob’s eyes had grown larger, increasing one third larger in size than their normal resting position.
“Hey dude, that’s kinda weird and cool at the same time,” Bob gave a chuckle, “find yourself a seat man and I’ll bring it over to you.”

Sat at a table, absent-mindedly flattening-out the crease folds in the vinyl tablecloth, somewhat nonplussed, Johnson pondered the out-of-character happening that had taken place. Had he experienced a hallucination? A few minutes ago, no matter how bizarre the reality, he’d actually stood in the cafe and sang his coffee order to Bob. He noticed the bespectacled woman with laptop, holding her hand in front of her mouth, shielding involuntary giggling and failing to keep a straight face.

When Bob arrived with the coffee and biscuit, Johnson remained tight-lipped and simply rolled his fingers on the table top to indicate thanks. Unable to accommodate this code red level of discomfort, he consumed his purchases swiftly and exited the cafe with as much decorum as he could muster.

Back outside, he soon lost himself in busy street life. Unfolding the scrap of paper that constituted his shopping list, he reminded himself of his next destination: Manos the Baker.

Section 3.1
Thirty seven essential steps, that’s all it was, from the cafe to the artisan bakery. As was normal for a Saturday morning, the queue extended outside the shop. Joining the line of people, Johnson attempted to clear his mind by quietly drawing deep breaths in, holding for a few seconds, followed by fully exhaling and a similar pause.

Not that anyone noticed. Several nearby heads craned over mobile phone screens, while others indulged in small-talk with friends, lovers and strangers alike.

Soon enough, he found himself beyond the entrance threshold, watching Manos and several hair-netted assistants wrapping up floury crusted loaves of bread in thin white paper. Arms extended across the beech wood service counter from both directions, baked goods being exchanged for cash. After checking himself over for feelings of anxiety, Johnson concluded he’d reached the state of equilibrium necessary, feeling as ready as he ever would be, to re-engage with normality.

As before in the cafe, he knew exactly what he wanted: a loaf of tsoureki bread, half a dozen pancakes and two filo pastry baklavas.
Nothing complicated about that – he thought.

A new face at the bakery he didn’t recognise but felt immediately attracted to, offered up a smile and greeting. Her name badge read ‘Olga’.
“Good morning sir, what can I get for you?”
Without hesitation, Johnson broke straight out into song.

It's been a hard road
Getting to here from there
But somehow I've made it
And now I'll make my intentions clear

One of, your braided loaves of bread
Six of your finest yo-ghurt pan-cakes
Two baklavas, you know I can't resist
And that'll be all for today

Not seen your face, here before
Lemme guess Olga, you're Ukrainian
With sky blue eyes, and fair'ish hair
A slavic accent I can't quite pinpoint
Just how much, does this all cost?
I'm sure I have the correct change on me

'cause I've got faith (I've got faith)
I've got love (I've got love)
For you and Greek ba-kery goods...

(sung to the melody of 'Faith of the Heart' - written by Diane Warren)

A ripple of applause broke out on the customer side of the counter. Manos himself appeared confused, not sure whether to laugh or join in with the clapping. Instead, he slipped his traditional bakers hat off and ran his fingers through his black curly locks, giving in to a smile and shaking his head.
“Crazy,” he muttered, “you-know you English, I ne-ver stop being amazed…”
“We-ll…” said Olga, as she scooped the baklava into a small card tray and paper bag, “that’s never happened before.”

Section 3.2
Johnson had a singular thing on his mind: fish. Correction, two things: fish – and walking at a good strong pace to get away from the bakery. What exactly, was going on? Why had he broken-out into song, in public, twice in one morning? For sure, he sang in the shower, making out he had the talent of an operatic singer – like anybody else does, from time to time. And in the car – yes, he’d admit to acting out the fantasy of being in a pop video whilst driving and listening to music, occasionally. Occasionally-frequently perhaps. But right out there in public? No, never-ever had he done so before this morning. What the heck in his world, was going on?

Dashing halfway across the busy road to a pedestrian island, it struck Johnson that maybe the answer lay in which side of the road he walked. Perhaps his crossing of the road earlier, had caused a tear in the universe and he’d walked into a world where he sang instead of spoke. Perhaps Singin’ Johnson had slept-in that morning and Car-and-Shower-Singing-Only Johnson had taken his place. If he could just get back over to the other side, things might return to normal. Although concluding his theory might not be water-tight, nor pass a test of rudimentary rational thinking, he hopped past a group of serious cyclists, slipped in between two parked cars and safely back to the original side of the pavement where he’d begun his journey.

Gale & Lee the Fishmongers lay only a short distance ahead. Checking himself over, Johnson concluded he didn’t feel as if he was about to burst into song. While walking, he tried a short yodel.
“Yodel – Ay – EEE – Oooo,” it sounded terrible, “Nah, it’s gone.” he told himself. With a rounded sense of renewed confidence, he admired his reflection in the large shop window, without a care for anyone thinking him vain. Noticing the spray of lavender in the button hole of his lapel, Johnson drew in the diminishing fragrance with a compensatory deep breath.

Inside the fish shop with three customers ahead of him, Johnson had time to peruse the display cabinet and consider his choice. He had an idea, but one can never be certain of what the fishermen may or may not have caught on any particular day. One hundred pairs of lifeless eyes stared out at him. Pilchards were what he wanted – just two, each measuring anywhere between 20 and 27.5 centimetres. This would be adequate to provide his pet cats with a delectable Saturday supper treat. Confident he had identified his quarry, he waited his turn.

Mrs Gale in her white overalls, navy blue and white striped apron showing the stubborn stains of fish guts, called out for the next customer’s order. Johnson acknowledged the request and set himself ready. As he went to speak, he felt his lungs fill with air slowly drawn in through his nostrils. His posture adapted to accommodate the extra oxygen, taking on a positively proud stance, like that… of a pumped-up tenor.  

Sono venuto a comprare le sardine,
(I have come to buy pilchards)
Ho visto quali voglio.
(I have seen which ones I want)
Quei due, lì!
(Those two, there!)
No, non quelle due.
(No, not those two)
Sì, questi due qui.
(Yes, these two here)
Questi, due qui!
(These, two here!)

(sung to the melody of 'Nessun Dorma' written by Giacomo Puccini)

“Would sir like his pilchards filleted?” asked Mrs Gale.

Section 4
As he made to leave, a young man stepped directly in front of him, shaking his hand vigorously and presenting him with a red rose retrieved from a bunch of twelve he carried. Despite Johnson’s protests – reasoning that a lover may feel slighted if presented with only eleven roses, the young man remained insistent.

A public bench decorated with the tag of a local graffiti artist, formed a much needed resting point. The aria had taken it out of him.
“And when exactly, did I learn Italian?” Johnson asked out loud to three pigeons who were pecking on the ground in front of him. He turned the red rose  around in his fingertips, observing the petals up close. “The first day in my life I’ve ever received flowers as gifts.”

The bench lined-up opposite his last stop-off point, Previn’s independent off-license. A vaguely familiar, blurry shape appeared in Johnson’s peripheral vision. As his field of view adjusted, a crouched figure came into focus and could be heard muttering to herself. A blue coloured bottle of gin slipped in and out of a hessian shopping bag, as the old lady tried to fit her latest acquisition amongst her other groceries.

Johnson watched on. Glancing at the lavender jutting out from the button hole in his lapel, he remembered the words she had said to him.
Be bold, go out there and live your life
 He thought the phrase again.
Be bold, go out there, and live, your life
“Inarguable advice,” he told the pigeons.
Go say ‘hello’
“Go say hello? Who said that?” Johnson could have sworn he’d heard the invite out loud. One of the pigeons, despite a constantly bobbing head, stared up at him expectantly.

“Excuse me, Mrs…” he had no idea of her name, “we met earlier today.”
“What?” her facial features scrunched together, just as before, one eye open.
“We met earlier today,” Johnson repeated, “you made me this lavender button hole.”
“Oh yes, you’re the young man who picked me up, ran with me and spun me around – aren’t you?”
“Um, yes – I am sorry about that.” Worried what a casual passerby might think, his cheeks flushed to a reddish hue. “I – I just wanted to say, that since meeting you, I’ve had the most unusual morning.”
“Unusual you say,” her answer slightly guarded, “unusual in what way?”
“Well, it’s all been rather out of character for me. After we’d gone our separate ways, I found myself singing in a cafe, singing my order to Bob – the owner”
“Okay, so that was a good thing?” the old woman asked tentatively.
“Yes, yes, on reflection, it was quite fun. Why do you look so concerned?” he said.
“Well, because the lavender gift I gave you may of had something to do with that.” she said.
“Oh really?” Johnson said.
“Yes. You’d shown such bravery and kindness towards me, attention I rarely receive. I wanted to give you something back, a little enchantment.”
“You put a spell on me?” Johnson asked.
“Well, on the lavender to be precise. I have no control over what turns out – that is something you decide. The enchantment merely puts wind into your sails – that’s all.”
“What, so I went through three establishments this morning,” Johnson sounded sceptical, “singing my heart out, because you worked a spell?”
“No – don’t be silly, I said a little enchantment. You remember I spat into the foil I wrapped around the lavender stems?”
“Y-es.” Johnson said, unable to suppress a slight grimace, recalling the incident.
“Well, that would have all been used up after ten, maybe fifteen minutes at best, believe-you-me. What ever happened after then young man, would have been all down to you.”
“What – so you’re saying my warblings in the bakery and in the fish shop that followed, these all came from me?”
“For sure, that’s what I’m saying. There is no doubt about it. Really, at my age, a ten minute enchantment is about all I can muster!”
“But Mrs…”
“Pidgley, Mrs Pidgley at your service.”
“Mrs Pidgley, I sang an aria in Italian, a language I am only vaguely familiar with.”
“Don’t look at me! You’re the one who did it.”

Shortly after they’d both made their excuses to leave,  the electronic bing-bong of the door opening into the off-license sounded. Previn, sat behind the till reading the forecasts for the afternoon’s racing, briefly acknowledged his arrival. Immediately, Johnson perused the dusty shelves of wine, focussed on the reds.
“You’re looking for anything in particular?” asked Previn.
Inside Johnson’s head, a repeating and hypnotic bass guitar lick sounded.

Bomm...  be-bom. Bom, be-bom bom
Bomm...  be-bom. Bom, be-bom bom
We don't need no New World wines
Bomm...  be-bom. Bom, be-bom bom
No over spiced dark red blockbusters
Bomm...  be-bom. Bom, be-bom bom
Old world wines remain the best
Bom-be-bom, bom, be bom bom
Especially vintage years ending in a five or zero!
All in all a Mâcon rouge of Burgundy, 
Suits me just fine
All in all a Mâcon rouge of Burgundy, 
That's all that I want.

(sung to the melody 'Another Brick in the Wall Part 2' - Roger Waters/Pink Floyd)

Johnson, was enjoying himself.

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