Passing Through

George brushed his lips against the harmonica and began to play. He sat against the railings of Leicester Square, green cap lying at his feet, and watched the tides of people dance like bees about a garden. He glanced at the January sky and saw the dark clouds: it would rain soon. He did not know that forty minutes earlier, while kissing his wife goodbye, a man named Brian had been distracted by the glint of a metallic case.

As was his custom, George began with ‘Let it Be’. He closed his eyes and felt the first of the day’s drizzle patter onto his fingers. There came a jangle and he nodded an automatic thank-you. A moment later there was a soft whistle, which rose into a full note.

Brian, flute in hand, followed the old man’s lead as best he could. After a momentary surprised falter, his companion had nodded and resumed his concentration. Brian played for fifteen minutes, then continued to his office, telling nobody. He did the same the next day, and this time there was no pause from the harmonica. Passers-by gave strange looks to the beggar accompanied by a suited businessman, and some smiled. Brian hoped more were digging into their pockets, too.

After two weeks they were joined by Martha, who carried her recorder. They never spoke, so the others couldn’t know she worked as a waitress in a small cafe on Bear Street. As the days passed she began to notice familiar faces in the crowds. Some threw coins, a few frowned, others seemed not to notice.

Another three weeks brought James and Jarvis, who had a guitar and trumpet respectively. Jarvis studied at King’s College while James was a street entertainer waiting for the summer sun to bring in the masses. The daily performance of 70’s tunes ended at 8:55, when after brief nods they scattered into the rivers of humanity.

By mid-March they were eight strong, with a violin, saxophone and second guitar. The saxophonist, Rob, brought along his iPod and recorded the fifteen-minute improvisations with a microphone placed next to the battered cap. Every evening he uploaded the track to his website, describing it with only the times and dates of the performance, and alerted the online musical directories to the addition. After a month, by which time they had been joined by a ukulele, they were chosen as a featured download on Podcast Alley. The recordings quickly moved up the charts, eventually stabilising at 12th position. Brian began to notice the same faces stopping to listen, and once or twice there was even spontaneous applause. Jarvis brought along a top-hat as an overflow for change, and still not a word was uttered by George’s musical entourage.

George remained in Leicester Square, seemingly oblivious to the extra attention. He slept on a nearby bench and bought hot drinks from the Odeon, whose staff had taken pity on him. Food came from a hot-dog stand and was free when the young attendant’s boss wasn’t around. Martha once saw George passing large handfuls of change to the square’s Help the Aged collector.

On April 30th a local news crew filmed a few minutes (Brian hurriedly called his wife before she saw him on the television) and failed to get any interviews. James was happy to see that each crew-member threw some change into the hats. The resulting coverage drew a larger crowd for the next few days. Ian, the second guitar player, didn’t come again.

June brought a second flautist, but Martha moved jobs and Jarvis graduated. Early-morning tourists bunched, whispered and snapped photos before moving onto the major sights of the city. Tourist websites began to recommend them as an ‘other attraction’, and the new edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to London contained a small insert, with picture.

George passed away on the night of July 2nd, and the players spoke for the first time. They hung small signs from lampposts, which were ignored by the police, and Rob’s daily podcasts asked for a small donation from those who’d enjoyed listening. After two weeks they had raised enough for a cremation, and on July 19th the nine reunited to play ‘Let It Be’ as George scattered into the winds.