La Bamba

‘Mademoiselle et Monsieur, sils vous plait, ecoute, live music…’ He pressed the button on the back of the beige, Bakelite tape recorder that was strapped to his small trolley. It had a small amp and a collection of Miguel’s stuff in a neat pile, bound with bits of string. At nine years old he was the youngest performer on the Metro, a title he’d held for the past two years. He threw back his head and vivaciously began singing ‘La Bamba.’

A young couple fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats, the man was doing everything he could do to avoid the small boys gaze, but this did not deter the Miguel, who sang on. His voice high and clear through the makeshift PA system, echoing down the carriage. Some people tapped along with the tinny backing track, smiling as they tried to ignore the situation that brought them entertainment. Others were lost in thought and the music of their own lives and some simply didn’t care. The train ground to a halt at another station and a couple of people shuffled out the door. Miguel leant his head back and continued to sing, he bobbed his head back out again checking both ways for security people, the police or Stefan the crippled thief he knew variously as manager, friend and Papa. Miguel prayed that Stefan had got stuck behind some tourists or with any luck had fallen again. He knew that if he could get five stops ahead then he had a chance of a break above ground and the opportunity to spend a little of his money on something to eat or drink, rather than putting it all on Papa’s next bottle of vodka. A few months ago Stefan had got caught on a broken train for 30 minutes. That half an hour had been filled with bliss as he’d basked in the afternoon sun and ate a delicious iced cream. He’d seen thousands of tourists slurping at the multitude of coloured treats; he somehow felt a little more alive for having tried one. He could no longer remember the flavour, but would never forget the delicious cold sensation on his tongue or the strangely beautiful pain at the back of his head when he’d gobbled one large mouthful too quickly, after mistaking a limping figure for his father. He knew Stefan would eventually catch up, as he always did. It reassured him to know the old bastard was nearby when the evening got closer, the passengers moods darkened as the scent of wine and spirits filled the air. It wasn’t unheard of for one of them to take a swipe at the young singer or worse. Stefan stayed close in the night trains with his stick ready for anyone who didn’t appreciate live music.

The young couple conferred and made a dash for the door leaving the carriage half empty. Miguel tried to hide his disappointment and continued the song full gusto. He’d been singing since eight that morning and now it was close to six. He didn’t know how many times he’d travelled the line, but the ache in back and legs told him it would be a long night, and he should have little trouble sleeping. The metro closed around 2am and they would finish with a farewell song on the last train, wherever that left them. So far he’d managed to stash away enough coins for a loaf of bread and some milk and he had half a jar of jam in the back of his speaker. Dinner would happen. Stefan had the rest of the cash, which he collected at regular intervals with a hug or a slap depending on mood or if he felt Miguel was holding out on him. He’d learnt he could only stash a few coins at a time or Stefan would know right away. The best method was to take a bit at a time when it was busy and hide it quickly. He had a crack in the sole of his shoe that could hold a bit, but he had to be careful when he walked. His best hiding places were scattered across the quieter stations, behind a brick or under a vending machine. No one cleaned up that well and few were interested in such small amounts. They still went missing sometimes and Miguel suspected the bird lady. He had seen her once from across the street on one of his daytime trips above ground. She had been crouched in the gutter with her bags all around her, as she watched a pigeon pecking at crumbs on the side of the road. Her hand had wavered above the bird, as she balanced the other on one of her bags. Miguel had watched in fascinated terror as she grabbed it by the wings. The bird struggled in her pincers, but was unable to free itself from her grip. With no expression on her wrinkled face she reached into one of her bags and brought out an old shoe box, then in a seamless motion put the bird inside and closed the lid. She took a stick and stabbed six holes in the top before returning it to one of her bags. The lady had stayed crouched for a moment then looked up and caught Miguel’s eye, smiling and waving as she walked away. The bird lady scared him more than anything he could imagine.

As the doors closed, Miguel perfectly timed the end of his song and produced a small plastic cup. He wandered up the train loudly announcing ‘merci’. He walked up both ends of the carriage offering the cup in every direction. Older women and families paid most often. Others stared through him and he sometimes wondered if they saw him at all. He noted their patterns, timings their usual destinations, but not a single name. There was just enough time to make both carriage before the next stop and he collected a healthy weight of coins from the small audience. Children from two families had insisted on paying for their entertainment convincing their straight faced parents to give them a coin each for boy with the beautiful voice. The parent gave in without a word and only a glimpse of sadness betrayed their misgivings. The doors jerked open at the next stop and Miguel took his cart having to push past an elderly woman who had given him a handful of coins and told him he looked like her grandson. ‘Pardon’ he shouted as he looked back and caught a man checking for his wallet. He pulled the cart off the train and breathed a sigh of relief. The next track on his tape was vocal and he could never remember the words, if he got stuck he was reduced to dancing and clapping a rhythm, which made him feel silly; he suspected he was not made for dancing. Miguel ran down the station and jumped on the next carriage before the doors slammed shut. It was busier than the last and Miguel had a good feeling about this one. He saw the young couple who’d hurried out of the first train were now sitting at the far end. The man held his head in his hands and the woman stared out the window. ‘Mademoiselle et Monsieur, sils vous plait, ecoute, live music…’ He pressed the button.


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