The Busker: A Haunted Melody (A British Dark Story from Jonathan Thomas)

Right from the moment that I first saw him, he somehow evoked a deep sense of foreboding; something malevolent and sinister, and I took an immediate dislike to him. Of course, I can’t say much about him now because he isn’t here anymore, but I'm sure that he had something to do with the whole state of affairs. I think that an explanation is in order.

I work as a trainee bank clerk in the city of Birmingham, having graduated from university in London. I quite like the job; I'd always fancied working in a bank, and my teachers at school repeatedly told me how I had a head for figures.’ Anyway, I'd been working in Birmingham for two months - enough time I might add to get fairly well, accustomed to a city that I'd never come within twenty miles of previously -when I saw him for the first time, one lunch break. The Busker.

Of course, there are lots of buskers in Birmingham — down the markets, by New Street Station, in the shopping centers or on street corners — so the fact that he was there didn't surprise me. However, as I walked past him, the air seemed to grow colder all of a sudden; I caught a mental whiff of the presence that he exuded, which made my skin prickle. Don't get me wrong, he was an ordinary - enough-looking bloke;shortish, rather plump around the waistline, mustache, ruddy complexion, and untidy brown hair. Yet there was something about him which scared me a little.

And then there was the music that he was playing. Previously, I had always thought of buskers as either guitar or mouth-organ playing musicians, conjuring up lively and (to a limited extent) inventive tunes, designed, to capture the attention of passers - by and to liven up the usually drab street surroundings. Yet this busker was playing a flute (I think it was a flute; I know next to nothing about musical instruments, but it was definitely a member of the woodwind family), and he was playing a sombre, haunting melody. If the rest of the people hurrying past were anything like me, the music did anything but liven up the stairway on whose landing he stood.

Quite the opposite, in fact; the melancholy tune echoed up and down the stairs, diminished only slightly in volume by the sound of people bustling past. Come to think of it, the music reminded me of Latin America or the Orient.

As it happens, I only stole a quick glance at him, for I would have appeared rude had I stood and gazed at him. Besides, for a reason that I can now hazard a guess at, I somehow felt an overwhelming urge to leave his presence as soon as possible. Tucking my hands into the pockets of my suit trousers, I hurried on my way, the tune still ringing in my ears.

Strangely enough, the passers-by seemed to like this curious busker's music, for his unzipped canvas bag was always generously smattered with silver coins; it was either that, or he was the object of an unusual compassion. As a result, he was always in his usual place every time I walked that way, on a dingy landing of the steps connecting the shopping center with Station Street. Every day he continued to play his flute with renewed enthusiasm, although his tunes varied little and all of the ones I heard were of a melancholy nature. Indeed, during one Saturday shopping trip, a young girl of about six burst into tears when she passed him, burying her face in her mother's chest. I was a couple of steps behind the woman and her daughter, and I stole a quick glance at the busker. To my surprise, his face remained blank as he concentrated on his music, either unaware of or choosing to ignore the girl whom he had just upset. And I had always thought that buskers were rather friendly people, likely to stop playing and soothe distraught children such as this girl.

Once, not long after, I saw someone attempt to converse with him. A tall, gangling student-type with a receding hairline and a big bony nose dropped a twenty-pence piece into the man’s bag where it tinkled as it landed, indicating that he was doing quite well for himself as usual. The youth nodded at the busker's flute. That's a funny tune. What is it?''

He received no reply. The busker's eyes remained shut as if he was deep in just within sight of the pair; I don't know why, but I was intrigued. ''Play down here often, do you?'' Persisted the youth, his accent distinctly north country.

A couple of seconds passed and stiff the man ignored him. The youth shrugged to himself and went on his way, passing me as he hurried down the stairs. The busker continued playing as if nothing had happened.

This went on for nearly a month. Then, events in Birmingham took a dramatic turn. I picked up the newspaper one morning to find that a teenage girl had been brutally murdered outside the Bull Ring Bus Station. Her butchered corpse still warms, had been discovered shortly after midnight by two students returning from a nightclub. The luckless girl had been completely disemboweled.

A nasty feeling crept into my stomach, taking a firm grip and refusing to let go. The first thing that struck me was how does the corpse had been to the busker’s usual haunt (Forgive the pun.).I tried to shake off the feeling, but somehow I couldn't help suspecting that he had something to do with it. In the subsequent police inquiries, nothing about the killer could be deduced, except that the murder weapon was definitely a knife, and whoever had committed the murder knew how to use it; apparently, several of the policemen who appeared on the scene had thrown up.

Just three days later, a twenty-year-old youth was killed after he fell in front of a bus in New Street. The horrified driver had just taken a right turn into Corporation Street when he saw a boy fall out of a seething throng on the pavement, right under the front wheels. He jammed on the brakes less than a split-second later, but he was still able to the disc em the dull thud above their screeching and felt the tires hit the obstacle in their path. Disembarking, the driver joined the horrified mass on the pavement, staring down the dumb-struck at the boy. A very macabre description had been placed in the Evening Mail (Reading it, I was glad that I hadn't been eating at the time.) , painting a gruesome picture of the youth's body, a huge indentation in its torso where the tires had gone over it. The man's rib cage had been crushed to a pulp, thus, compressing the organs underneath to bursting point.

Needless to say, talk in the local pubs was of little else; two particularly violent deaths in the space of four days, both in the city center. Yet still the busker played his flute as I walked past his eyes always closed and his bag showered with coins. Gradually, however, my overall fear of him spread; as each day went by, I noticed that passers-by began to hurry past him, casting the dad the nervous and apprehensive glance at the man with the mustache, and not stopping to root out any spare money. Mothers bustled curious children past him, hardly daring to look over their shoulders as his sombre music filled the air. . .

I was actually there when it happened. It was Friday, nearly two weeks after the young man had died on a New street. At the end of the week, I always treat myself to a visit to a food outlet during my lunch break; what the hell, it saves me cooking a meal when I get home. This time I had settled for McDonald's, although in the past I had tried a wide variety - Wimpy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Deep Pan pizza to name but a few.

I entered at about ten-past-one; it was crowded as usual, and the shortest available line must have been composed of at least six people. However, I had a whole hour to kill, So I was in no hurry; in addition, I think I'm a very patient person. I reached the counter, after not too long await and gave my order to the member of staff in front of me, a short, petite girl whose flowing dark hair was tucked underneath her green company cap. I ordered a McChicken sandwich, regular fries, and a vanilla milkshake; once the food arrived, I took one look at the cowed, unappealing ground floor and headed up the stairs. When I reached the top, I darted over and successfully captured a comer seat previously vacated by a fat gray — haired woman with a wrinkled face and wearing duffle — coat. Sitting down, I tore the cover off the small sachet of salt, sprinkled it over my chips and inserted the red and yellow striped straw into my milkshake, taking a big slurp.

Two minutes passed, during which I had consumed half of the sandwich and a few handfuls of fries. I wiped my mouth and was about to wash the food down with some of the milkshake when I heard a commotion downstairs.

A few people sitting near the top of the stairs threw a casual glance down, but they couldn't have seen as much as their attention soon returned to the food in front of them. Sipping at my milkshake, I wondered whether to wander over and have a look down, but one glance at the handful of people awaiting a table cast this from my mind. As I set down the plastic cup and picked up the half-eaten sandwich, a shrill scream rent the air fire!'

I dropped the sandwich, the mayonnaise in the middle squirting out onto the table surface. By now, there were people screaming downstairs, and my nose had begun to detect the faint odor of smoke. Most of the people upstairs stood up (A few continued to wolf down their food; I can guess what became of them) and turned round, hurrying over to the stairs. Some looked puzzled, while others wore a look of fear. Having been one of the first to reach the stairs, I took a few steps down and stole a glance at the ground door.

At first, my brain simply refused to comprehend the scene my eyes took in. I believe this happens to you sometimes; there are some things that your brain simply disallows. Terrified people were streaming out of the double-doors, away from the roaring flames which were licking the service counter. Some of the harried members of staff were attempting to quell the blaze with fire extinguishers, but evidently having little success as they turned and vaulted over the counter, ending up behind the demented mob trying madly to escape. The air was thick with dense gray smoke, and the terrible screams were punctuated with fits of coughing which varied in intensity.

And then, horror of horrors, the doors jammed. The screams doubled, and most of the rearmost people turned, only to be confronted by an advancing wall of fire. Through the big windows I could see the people on the pavement outside, staring helplessly in horrified fascination at the scene in front of them.

From what I'd read in the papers about previous fires, the smoke is always twice as likely to cause death than the actual flames themselves. Consequently, yanked off my tie and wound it round the lower half of my face so that it covered my mouth and nostrils. Just as I had finished doing this, I heard a muffled, rumbling bang-which I later learned was one of the chip machines, full of boiling fat exploding. A sea of flames roared towards me, rushing forward like an unchecked tide of water and then several screams from behind me reminded me that it was time to get moving.

I darted down the stairs, wincing as the flames grabbed at the right-hand side of my face but not stopping. When I got to the bottom, I threw my arms up over my face and sprinted towards the window, taking a tremendous leap just before I reached it. I fell, hearing the glass shatter and my legs buckled from underneath as I landed...

The next thing I knew was feeling the cold November air on my cheeks and the hard concrete of the pavement underneath my back. In the distance, above the screams, shouts and roaring of the fire, I could hear the sirens of the fire engines.

And that's what happened. I was praised for my heroics and later learned that I had saved a great number of lives, but when I woke up in hospital, with a badly burnt scar on my right cheek and ear, I learned that twenty-two people had died, mainly from asphyxiation. Sorry to leave you in suspense, but I never discovered the cause of the fire; you'll have to guess that one for yourselves.

Yet now comes the most intriguing part of my tale. When I was eventually released from the hospital, I found the busker had vanished; never again did the sound of his flute echoes through that dark and dingy passageway on Station Street. Through some extensive inquiries, I learned that he had disappeared shortly after the McDonald's fire. Disappeared, as they say, never to return.

Now a year later, I am wiser. I have carried out some research in the local library on material which I scoffed at in the past. I've come up with two things. Firstly, I now believe in what are commonly known as 'harbingers of doom-beings from beyond our world whose appearance signifies the forthcoming of some dreadful catastrophe. The history books are littered with references to such beings.

Secondly, I now know the tune that the busker played that used to frighten me. It was used regularly in Ancient Egypt as a lament for the dead.

So I now avoid and fear buskers; yes, even those who stand smiling on street comers or in subways, and cheer people up with their lively tunes.

#story #mcdonalds #eatanddie #fiction #darkfiction #shortstory #birmingham #britishstory #mysticstranger