Loose limbs stroll down the street. She almost bounces off the flagstones. But she's too heavy, weighed down by a cracked fairy statue inked on her ankle and taut muscles between skin and bone. The other woman walking beside her could be her sister. Same tall, lanky stride. High cheekbones. Brown hair — straight, plain, greasy — flops against her back. They're chatting happily, smiles as wide as the necks of their blouses — they gape around those thin leathery buttresses supporting almost skeletal faces, strong but sharp with malnutrition. But they laugh in the sunshine, like everyone else in the street.
Their heads turn to the music, a guitar thrumming, a male voice lilting, "Come sail your ships around me..."
"... And burn your bridges down."
Feet tap. Two heads sway. One turns now and looks at him. The rest are resting back on their elbows across the square's limited patch of grass or stretched out on benches to take in the sun. Most kids running about are even less interested in him than their parents. But he sings on.
The guitar looks new, rich in sound and colour, browns warm and bright. It's precious to him, the way he clutches it. The yellowish front almost matches his hair, curls radiating around his head. The shaded corner he's chosen to busk in makes them look darker than they are. The sun still catches the coins, though, among the banknotes in the guitar case at his feet.
A little boy adds some change to the pile, tossing it in, piece by clinking piece. The musician smiles at the kid before it runs back to its mum. He resumes his demure pose, but the people's appreciation growing in the case makes him stand straighter, pluck sharper hums from the guitar's strings and more gusto from his voice.
Two thin but jolly women wonder towards him, their energy flaring his even more.
"Your face has fallen sad now, for you know the time is nigh, when I must remove your wings and you..."
"... you must try to fly."
One sister, the closest to the busker, winks at the other and bobs her head to the song. She mouths the lyrics as they near him. His eyes crinkle in welcome above a polite smile. He can't seem to control the rhythm in his blood; it vibrates in unison with the guitar.
She pulls her right hand out of her pocket and leans in towards the guitar's case. Another happy customer. The busker's between verses, just strumming as he catches his breath. Her fingers uncurl over the coins and notes strewn at the bottom.
"Thank you," he manages to blurt and inhales at the cusp of the next verse.
"Thank you," she chuckles. And plucks a five-pound note from the case, rolling it into her fist and up into her sleeve.
The busker sputters and chokes on the song. The strings screech and go mute. He clutches the guitar as if the woman was stealing it instead. A frail, "Hey," quivers out of his mouth but falls flat, only making the sisters smirk as they stroll away. His body twitches between instincts: chase the thief or protect what he still has?
His pleading gaze becomes a magnet; the repelling kind. Eyes turn away from his. Walls, flagstones, the contents of handbags. They lap up attention in such awkward moments.
The busker's fingers tug at a string. One shaky discord whines with indignation. He looks down at the case and its collection, the single remaining banknote shrugging at him with upturned edges. It's an urban jungle, man, it seems to say. What did you expect?
The busker tears the guitar strap off his shoulders. He rests the instrument on the ground and squats over his money. He glares at each coin as he shoved it into a purse, which soon bulges pleasantly. By no means a meager haul.
As he reaches for the note, something drifts into the case, whirling down until it rests against his frozen wrist. It's a bit of white paper, torn into a rectangle and drawn on. A green smiley face with yellow curls in the middle. An abstract black and purple guitar on one side. An orange sun on the other with a toothy grin of its own. The busker's jaw is still slack when he looks up, puzzlement furrowing his wide eyes.
That boy stands beside him, twitching from head to toe, but without releasing the dimpled smile pressing his lips into nothing. His eyes, brown and bright, jump between the guitar and the busker, who finally chuckles back.
The guitar swoops back into his arms; the purse nestles in a pocket. The case now yawns empty but for the drawing, propped up against the lid.