The mall was crowded today. But I wasn’t surprised. Christmas Eve would usually be this way. The prediction had been for a white Christmas, and for once, the weatherman had got it right. Snow was falling steadily as I left the warmth of the mall and went outside.
I was greeted by the music of a harmonica. It stood out from the continuous chatter of the crowd and it was music that took me to my childhood. I loved to play instruments and I would buy a lot of them to try and learn. Being a “spoiled rich brat” had its perks and it helped me a lot, music.
At the corner of the street, the musician sat on a box. He seemed oblivious to the chorus of feet that went past him. He was wearing a patched-up coat and a muffler around his neck, and ear-muffs below a beret. He was unshaven, sporting a thick beard. His eyes were closed as he lost himself to his music and played. I could understand that. What I couldn’t understand was how no one stopped to admire his skill, the music that came out of him with ease.
In front of him, an empty violin case lay open. I saw some dollars in it, a little change. But it wasn’t much; perhaps ten or twenty dollars at most. I took a ten-dollar note from my wallet and put it into the violin case.
“That’s a ten dollar note you know,” he said, looking at me.
“Yeah I know. I put it in because I wanted to,” I told him, giving him a smile.
“Very generous of you, lad. I’m grateful.”
It felt very strange to be thanked by a man much older than me. He was perhaps fifteen years older, maybe even a little more.
“That’s okay. You play beautifully. Do you play the violin too?”
His smile fell, and then he gave a half-smile. But he seemed in a mood to talk, even if it was to a stranger.
“I used to, long ago. Fifteen years now since I last touched it.”
“Why would you stop?”
“Once you start, if the music is true, you can’t stop on your own. I never did stop. Hard times call for hard decisions. I used to play at this very corner back then. The violin was my grandfather’s. He gave it to me when he died. My father, he told me, was not the musician. So I took it and started playing it. He taught me before he died, and I took some lessons afterward. Played some gigs when I could. Then fell out of luck. Wasn’t able to get gigs, make money. But I kept fighting, kept playing. Used to draw a crowd even at this corner you know. I’d not make much, but kept the violin close. It had my grandfather’s monogram on it; a “W” and an “M” with a dash between… the initials of the great William Mansfield. Then one day, a man offered me two thousand dollars for my violin. That was money I couldn’t turn down, not then. I had my harmonica, I kept the case. I wanted a part of gramps still with me.”
“That’s some story. I’m sure you have more stories to tell, and I’m a sucker for good stories. Would you tell me? I’ve to get back to the kids, but I’ll be back in an hour. We could go have some hot chocolate maybe.”
It wasn’t every day that a stranger became close so quickly, but he seemed interested to talk more. He accepted.
He was drawing a small crowd when I returned an hour later. But his violin case still hadn’t seen better money. When he saw me, he smiled, closed the case and stood up. We walked inside the mall, and to one of the coffee shops.
“You know, it’s hard to find such generous people. It must be my lucky day I think,” he told me as he sipped his coffee.
I smiled. “Actually, I think it is mine. I wanted someone to teach my kids the violin, and I wasn’t sure of any of the teachers I met before. The way you speak of music, I know you are the one. And…” I turned around to see my chauffeur come with it, “… I may have something that belongs to you as well.”
I gave him a violin case, which he opened. Inside was a violin, an old one, with the letters W and M on it.
“I was once a spoiled brat. I crossed this corner with my father on the way back from school, and I saw someone play an instrument. I didn’t know what it was, but I was determined to have it. My father told me he’d get me another, but no, I threw a tantrum and he, as always, melted. And the next day, I saw it on my bed when I returned home from school.”
He tried to speak, but I stalled him.
“If the music was true, I’d not have stopped on my own, but I did. I haven’t played it in years now, but I didn’t feel like selling its music. Now, I can return it to its rightful hands.”
He looked at me, unsure what to say. Then he smiled.
“I don’t know how to thank you, lad. This is much more than I expected to get this Christmas. I will be delighted to tutor your kids.”
I smiled, and told him to play a tune.
When he did, the smile on his face grew with each note.
And I was sure, the violin was smiling too.
(25th April 2014)