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Borough

Bond Street at night.

Picture by On Alien Cinema: Late night lines

For a couple of weeks the station’s quiet; Lottie assumes, a little sadly, that the tiny buskers have been caught at last. And then one Friday morning she heads back from Borough Market to find big-band swing filtering up the spiral staircase, jubilant and undimmed.

She skips the lift and runs down the steps in time to the music, grinning, but her arms are full of groceries and she resists the urge to dance — at least until the drum solo starts, when she transfers her bags to one hand, holds onto the banister with the other, and gives a graceless kick just as a station employee passes her on his way up. Oops.

The music speeds up as she gets to the bottom, and seven shin-high men dart across the corridor in front of her, running on black and white tiles, playing urgently as they go. A few seconds later another station worker runs after them. Lottie gets in his way for a moment, tangling his fishing net with her bag of cheese, not quite deliberately but not quite accidentally either. The buskers are so small: they deserve a sporting chance.

“It’s ridiculous,” a woman says to nobody in particular on the platform. “It’s been months, and that’s the best they can do? Butterfly nets? They should get the exerminators in at night.” Lottie moves further down the platform. As she does, she hears music again, quieter this time, and tense.

She can barely make it out, but she follows it toward a “no passengers beyond this point” sign at the far end. On the other side, tiny Benny Goodman clusters with his tiny orchestra, playing very softly.

He jumps as she squats down, and gestures for silence; the trombonists pause, the drummer holds his sticks suspended in the air, the trumpeter’s note stands alone. The whole orchestra is very very still.

“Guys,” Lottie says, “you’d have a much better chance if you actually stopped playing while you were in hiding.”

There’s no response; they stay frozen, staring at her. The trumpeter’s note fades.

“It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you,” she says.

They still don’t move. Tiny Benny Goodman takes one step backward.

“Come on,” Lottie says. “I’m on your side, but you’ve got to be careful. They’ll come looking for you here in a minute. Are there some drains or something you can scuttle into?”

Tiny Benny Goodman frowns. “Do I look,” he says, “like a man who scuttles into drains?”

He doesn’t. His trousers are uncreased, his glasses set straight. He’s wearing a bow tie. He lifts his clarinet again, and taps his toes against the floor. The drummer begins.

“Shhhhh,” Lottie says loudly. The drummer pauses.

“Yes?” says tiny Benny Goodman. “Can I help you?”

Lottie sighs. “No,” she says, “I think I’m going to have to help you,” and she tips her grocery bags out, piling the bulkiest food out of sight behind the sign. Potatoes, half a dozen plantains, a pound of lamb hearts that she has no idea how to cook. Two punnets of raspberries; she hesitates and picks one punnet up again, squeezes it into her handbag. “Get in,” she says, holding the almost-empty bags open.

Tiny Benny Goodman looks at her. “It’s me or the butterfly nets,” she says. “Just get in, okay? The train’s coming.”

The second trombonist takes a step towards the bags, then stops when nobody follows him.

“You must have heard,” Lottie says, “what they did to the tiny London Sinfonietta.”

Benny Goodman finally lowers his clarinet. “Yes,” he says. “I did.”

“Then hurry up. The train’s coming.” And there’s a bustle at the far end of the platform that looks like danger.

She holds the bags open so that the band can climb in, then stands up, careful not to jumble them around. Oh, the groceries sitting on the grubby platform. Twenty-four pounds she spent at the market today, and what’s she going to have for dinner now? Maybe she can fit some of the vegetables in around the musicians — but the train draws in and opens its doors and she doesn’t have time to try.

As the doors slide shut and the carriage leaves, she looks out of the window to see three more station attendants with their nets, working their way down the platorm, one peering down corridors, the other two poking behind signs, pipes, posters, tapping at the ceiling.

A clarinet sounds triumphantly from her bag of cheese; she jiggles it into silence and smiles tightly at the rest of the carriage. With any luck, she thinks, she’ll be able to leave them somewhere safe when she gets off at Balham, or find them a place to live in the park. She’s not sure whether a tiny orchestra counts as a pet or a housemate, but she’s pretty sure the terms of her lease don’t allow for either.

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  1. This is great.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Minor Delays: a short story for every underground station « linked to this post on February 27, 2012

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