Cauliflower ears. Broccoli noses. Banana-peel chins.
The audience served up a full range of fruit-n-veg injuries right at the heights of Judie’s mandolin solo. Right at the moment she usually got seriously carried away, the audience let them have it. Pelting them and letting them know that ‘getting carried away’ was the fate they wished on the entire band.
For his part, as he struggled to accompany Judie while fending off carrots and tomatoes with his drumsticks, Fergal wondered what kind of people brought such a quantity of groceries to a gig. Unless they were ordering food from the bar for use as missiles. But the stuff that was hitting him smelled a week old, unfit for inclusion on a menu, even in a relatively seedy tavern like the Pig & Lantern.
A soggy tomato exploded on the surface of his drum, splashing juice and seeds all over its skin and his shirtfront. Dampening his spirits and his effort to drum up support.
To her credit, Judie played pluckily on, although her strings were effectively silenced under the onslaught of jeers and boos and whistles. The rest of the band had given up, holding up their instruments as shields. Uriah, their tambourine man, was faring better than Geddy on the tuppenny whistle.
Finally a few too many cabbage-leaves got tangled up in the strings and Judie surrendered too. She wielded her instrument like a bat, knocking a potato or two to the back of the room as she joined the others in retreating to the rear of the stage.
They fought their way through the curtains, out the door and down into the cellar the landlord had allowed them to use as their dressing room. Fuming and seething, they picked vegetable scraps out of their hair and clothes, tossing it all as far away as possible. Some of it stuck to the dank walls, the beginnings of a mouldy mosaic.
The steps creaked under weighty footfalls. The landlord descended to stand at the base of the stairs and look at them all. A big man of ruddy cheeks and ginger hair that had mostly migrated from his scalp to colonise the outer regions of his face as bushy sideburns, he shook his head. And laughed.
“Well, I must say, you folks were really cooking out there!” His barrel-like belly quivered. His cheeks turned a deeper shade of beetroot. Which, right then, was one of Fergal’s least favourite colours. Along with orange, yellow, tomato-red and a host of greens. “What? Still too raw?” He chortled some more and mopped at teary eyes with the bar-towel he wore over one fatty forearm. “Never mind. What can I say, we gave you a shot. I’ve heard worse myself. But they’re an unruly crowd on a Friday night, hard to please. Tell you what, I’ll not charge you for the clean-up and we’ll call it even.”
“What?” Judie had her mandolin rested across her shoulder, still gripped it like a club. “You’re not paying us?”
“No. What I said was I’m not charging you. Also, yes, I’m not paying you. Of course I’m not paying you. You were supposed to draw in the crowds, entertain ’em. Now I’m going to be out of pocket, paying the staff to stay on late tonight. Extra cleaning upstairs.” He studied the veggie mural above the barrels and wine racks. “And down here.” He draped the cloth back over his arm and wagged a finger. “Now, I wish you all well on your travels. You’re all young and learning your, ahem, craft. I’m sure you’ll go down a treat elsewhere. But I suggest you clear off now. Get moving and get practicing, that’s my advice. Things can only go uphill from here, eh?”
“Now wait a minute!”
“Leave it go, Jude,” said Uriah, rubbing at a bruised nose with one of his bear-paw hands.
“I’ll leave the back door unlocked, you can slip out quietly that way.” The landlord nodded and winked amicably, before turning to trudge up the stairs.
The band members traded silent, sullen looks. Fergal, the drum hanging unusually heavy from his shoulders as though the extra weight of the squished tomato was too much, led the way up the steps. They filed out into the summer night, kicked a cobble or several in the tavern’s rear courtyard. Ambled past the outbuildings and under the archway to the small town square.
Where they drifted slowly to a stop. Four lanes fed off from the square but it was as though none of them knew which route to take. They circled aimlessly around the fountain. Lost, even if they all knew the way back to the inn they’d chosen for the night. The rooms were paid up, that was something. But Fergal didn’t feel like turning in. It was still light, still early. And that just made his mood darker.
The looks in the others’ eyes were just as black. Judie was fit to spit. She bounced off imaginary walls, searching for something to bash with her mandolin. Uriah beat the side of his head with his tambourine. Then gave it up with a sorry expression, as though apologising for making a sound.
Wiry-limbed Geddy leaned on the wall of the fountain and stared into the water. The centrepiece was a rust-plagued, moss-clad cherub that could only manage a pitiful dribble as he peed into the pool below.
“Well, that’s it then,” said Geddy. He twirled his tuppenny whistle in his fingers. Then chucked it into the pool.
It made even less of a splash than the peeing cherub.
“We can’t just give up!” Fergal rushed to the fountain, pulling up his sleeves, ready to fish out the instrument.
“Guess what? I already have.” Geddy threw up his arms. Then gestured to each corner of the square. “Four roads. That’s telling us something. It’s a sign. Time to go our separate ways.”
“We only just started,” grumbled Uriah.
“Yeah. And we only just finished and all,” said Judie. She walked to the fountain too, her mandolin hanging in a looser grip, set to fall as soon as it was over the water. “Let’s face it, we suck. Sorry, Uri, but like the landlord said. We gave it a shot. We missed.”
“But we can give it another shot. Can’t we? Things can only go uphill, he said. That means we have to climb, dun’t it?”
Fergal was with Uriah. But his voice seemed to have deserted him. He cast his gaze down into the rippling, softly splishing water. Thought about using his drumsticks like chopsticks to fish for Geddy’s tin whistle. Thought about chucking his sticks in there with it. Thought too about scraping all the pennies off the bottom in lieu of the payment they should have gotten for the gig. The scattering of coppers would pay for a few rounds of consolatory drinks at least.
He wasn’t proud of that thought. People had obviously thrown their loose change in there to make wishes. It would be like stealing their dreams.
He rooted around in his pocket, found a single coin amongst the lint. Laid it on the back of his thumb, he considered flipping it. But instead just let it drop – plop! – into the water.
It seemed to float down, slowly, slowly.
It sank all of two inches. Came to a rest. With no intention, apparently, of hitting rock bottom.
“Okay. That’s weird,” he said.
[To Be Continued…]
Note: My randomly determined set of images for this tale are depicted above – and listed below:
What do they conjure up for you?