I watched as he pushed against the heavy wood framed door and staggered through when it gave in to his weight. Even from a distance of some twenty feet I could see the shattered face was covered in fresh reminders of some brawl or other or maybe several, it’s difficult to be sure. The broken nose pushed flat against his face reminded me of the Sphinx; a plastic surgeon’s nightmare. His left eye was a slit peering out of a huge swollen black eye, although it was more a dark shade of purple. This almost merged with the sickly yellow, tinged with blood-red bruise on the cheekbone on the same side. As he approached I could start to make out more cuts through the hard dark stubble covering his chin. Although I tried to stay focused on the zigzagging lump of a man bearing down on me, I could still see and sense people moving out of his path, their faces open-mouthed, wide-eyed in disgust, horror and fear. A toxic perfume of stale sweat, vomit, urine and cheap alcohol emanated from his clothes and body, surrounded his person like some new-age aura, assailing my nostrils long before he came to a stop in front of me.
I tried breathing through my mouth which wasn’t much better as the stench had a taste too. It did dilute the full effect of the fumes, though I could feel my eyes starting to fill up. He leaned both of his hands on the glass countertop that seperated us, propping himself up with knuckles swollen, covered in dried blood. An incomprehensible string of words tumbled out of one side of his mouth, the dry, cracked lips barely parting. Getting no response, save a puzzled raised eyebrow from me, it came again. This time with more force, raised in volume, tinged with impatience but accompanied by a nod in the direction of the tin whistles standing in their display box behind the counter. I picked one out by it’s red mouthpiece, the letter ‘D’ emblazoned on it’s brass body, knowing that was the one he wanted. He removed his hands from the counter and swayed backwards but steadied himself quickly and wrapped his fingers around the offered whistle pushing it down into the left-hand pocket of his grey coat. He would busk on the street for whatever miserable few cents passersby would shower him with in shocked sympathy.
Another bout of swaying was followed by the right hand crashing palm down onto the counter making me flinch backwards. When he took his hand away a small scattering of mixed copper coins, dirt, tobacco, a bent nail and a sweet wrapper were left in its wake. He watched as I brushed the pathetic pile off the glass into my left hand. A quick reckoning of the change came not even close to the value of the whistle but I wasn’t about to pull him up over it. When I looked up again he was already making his way towards the door and the busy street outside.
‘:Look after yourself Jim,’ I called after him.
His left hand raised in salute without missing a step or turning his broad back and then he was gone, swallowed up by the sunlight and the closing door.
Over the years Jim had become one of those characters who would visit the shop, regular in his infrequency, he might show up two or three days in a row and then disappear for six months, only to pop up again invariably in some state of disarray. I felt we were the final outpost before oblivion. His apparition would appear, acquire that basic musical instrument and then he could proceed onward with his journey.
A few months later as I rummaged through a dusty drawer under the counter on some mundane errand I sensed a customer standing in front of me. I didn’t need a second invitation to abandon my search and so eagerly raised my head to greet the stranger, who looked oddly familiar. His grin countered my puzzled amazement. The flash of yellowed broken dentures, craggy rocks from a violent sea, gave the game away.
He was positively beaming now, relishing every nuance of my reaction, I could only imagine what emotions my facial muscles must have been registering.
‘I’d like to buy a ‘D’ tin whistle, sir,’ he boomed at me in his thick country accent but perfectly understandable English. Shock made me hesitate a moment longer before retreiving the brass tube and placing it on the glass before him. I was intrigued but felt awkward and wasn’t quite sure how to phrase the questions running across my mind. He anticipated my thoughts and answered, ‘A nice young lady took me in and looked after me. I was fairly far gone. Sure you might remember that last time you saw me.’ I nodded in agreement.
‘Well, she let me stay in her house, and get myelf cleaned up and what have ye. Slept in a proper bed for the first time in a long time too.’
I took a moment to run my eye over the man opposite me. True enough his blue suit jacket was clean, a button missing from the left sleeve, (but what purpose do they serve anyway), the spotless white shirt open at the collar, the twine formerly holding up his trousers now replaced with a black leather belt. Clean calloused hands this time steadied him against the counter although there was no immediate need. No amount of bathing could ever fix that nose but the absence of cuts and bruises transformed the face into something approaching rugged handsomeness. It was a transformation worthy of a Hans Christian Andersen tale.
‘You scrub up well,’ I said. ‘You look great.’
‘Ah well, I’m off the drink too, yeh see.’ His right hand shot up to his left lapel and rubbed a pioneer badge between his thumb and index finger. ‘Haven’t touched a drop in weeks.’
‘That’s great. How do you feel?’
And with that his hand slid a five euro note across the glass toward me, ‘I’d like to pay for that whistle.’ As I entered the price into the cash register I wondered what manner of person was this woman who had found it in her heart to look beyond physical appearances and take this man into her home and inject him with new life. Amazing to think that someone like that existed in this world and yet there was the proof standing before me. If she had ulterior motives I couldn’t figure what they were.
‘What’ll you do now for the rest of the day?’ I asked him.
‘A bit of buskin. Won’t scare so many punters lookin like this.’ He threw me a wicked wink and headed towards the door. Rooted to the spot I watched him amble away and caught myself contemplating again the saintly donor of his alteration.
I could have just been snapped from that reverie, standing in the self same position fortyeight hours later, facing the doorway lost in some other thought when a horrible sight greeted me. The metamorphosis of Kafkaesque proportions was heart rending. I didn’t want to look but couldn’t tear my eyes away from the hopeless hulk careening in my direction. A rudderless vessel headed for the reef. It was too much. I couldn’t envisage there would be any survivors from this sorry shipwreck. I gulped in a deep breath and did my best to prepare my senses for the inevitable onslaught and reached for the tin whistles.