Dollar coins. A shimmy of silver and an orange. Liam stoops and checks the contents of his canvas cap and pats Charlie, his wiry dog, who is curled up on a dusty blanket. In a couple more hours, he might have enough to pay for a hostel tonight.
Feet clatter past.
Liam rises. He’s down a guitar string; it bust yesterday. No one will notice but him. He strums a chord; it rolls through the subway accompanied by ringtones of glossy phones and texts that ping and ding. He takes a belly breath and sings.
His leathery voice spills into commuters’ ears, most don’t hear it and look straight ahead at their thoughts.
‘Can I pat your dog?’
Mum and young daughter.
Liam nods and smiles. Keeps singing. They drop change in his cap. The girl pats Charlie for too long; mum tugs her on.
His voice tumbles down the stairs. Paints the tiles. Coats the prime-space ads for house insurance and miracle face cream.
‘Get a bloody job, mate.’
Gruff boots thud past.
A slab of shame thumps Liam’s heart. He stops strumming, strokes his warm mottled dog.
Liam scorches. Boiling water’s been thrown into him. He wants to explain, but people who shout like that don’t listen.
He clears his throat. Plucks a chord. Plays the chorus, then the first verse.
A woman with a swinging ponytail stands in front of him, sings along. Together, their voices echo in the tunnel.
She stays awhile. Her and her smile. Her and the songs she knows. Her. They sit down and share Charlie’s blanket. She asks to play Liam’s guitar. Her fingernails are painted blue. Chipped.
Her voice is quiet. Golden. Liam thinks … she’s singing to her bone marrow. Arteries. Skin. She stops. Reddens.
They share a moment on the ground. It feels like sun. Liam hasn’t sat in the sun for a very long-time but remembers it.
Boots scuff into Liam’s peripheral view. He looks up. The station security guard looms over them.
‘Move on, no buskers here. You know that. And no dogs.’
The guard offers Liam a narrow smile and waits.
Liam stuffs Charlie’s blanket into his bag. Picks up his cap, carries his guitar. The guard escorts them to the end of the subway. Liam and the woman stand by the exit. He wants to ask her name. Wants to sing more songs with her, but the invitation is a shemozzle in his throat. He wants to touch her as she did him, beneath skin. He wants to thank her but blushes instead. She smiles and waves goodbye.
Later, when the subway fills with theatre, pub and restaurant-goers. Liam puts Charlie’s blanket and his cap back on the ground.
Australian Writers’ Centre
Furious Fiction: Shortlisted February 2020
The judges said…
What we liked:
There’s a grimy realism about these characters and location – with a narrative that moves freely even though the action is restricted to such a small space. Such is the juxtaposed setting in decorating a busy subway scene with lovely melodies and tiny human moments. The guard was fleeting (but that was all that was required), yet familiar to our musical protagonist, while the other criteria were nicely entwined throughout. In all, this story made us dig around for change to put in its cap.
- Each story had to include a GUARD of some kind.
- Each story had to include the words NARROW, GOLDEN, LEATHERY and GLOSSY.
- Each story’s first and last sentences had to each contain just TWO WORDS.