Coming out of the shop into the white afternoon light, I saw a slight, rather stooped figure gazing through the windows at the musical instruments on display. He was carrying a cheap cardboard suitcase and looked like someone who was really not at all comfortable in his skin. He seemed ill at ease. He noticed me as I went out onto the pavement, and asked me if I knew the way to the railway station. Well, I did, I thought. And if I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here. For no particular reason I could think of, at that moment and in that place, it seemed an odd question to ask. He must have been lost, or not from round here; he was far out of his way. No-one going on foot to the railway station would pass through here unless they were completely unfamiliar with the nuances of the town.
I’d gone to the shop to buy a new E-string for my guitar. I’d bought the guitar in that very shop, a year or so back. It was a bottom of the range Fender acoustic, and it cost me £115 new. And I had snapped an E-string. As you do, from time to time, when tuning up. I always worried that when the top E-string snapped, it would take my fingers off, but of course that was a quite irrational fear. In the shop, there was your actual Guiseppe, an engaging and entrepreneurial fellow whose blood I could never quite place. His name was Italian, and he was clearly of Latin blood, but I was not entirely sure that he was Italian at all. I’d known him and his brother years back when I was a boy. Guiseppe had been at my school, though he left the year I arrived. His younger brother was at a different school – Willowfield. One day he’d come to a bonfire at the Scout hut, and I became aware that a number of my fellow Scouts were moving in a certain way. I realised after a while that they were keeping the blazing light of the bonfire between them and this younger brother – Federico was his name.
“What’s goin’ on ‘ere?” I asked.
“It’s ‘im over there” said my friend darkly, indicating with his head across the fire to the other side, where Federico stood. “’ardest in Willowfield.”
Federico was something of a tearaway. Always in trouble with the law; arrogant, untouchable, hard, brittle. He got broken in the end, poor fellow. Eventually the poor chap committed one too many assaults or robberies, and he got sent away to a proper prison. This would have been when he was 18 or 19 or so. I remember seeing him not long after he came out, and in his early twenties he was a limping, broken man. He was like a man used up, slung aside, disposed of. It’s quite put me off going to prison.
But his older brother Guiseppe was a man of an altogether different stamp. Almost you might question if they had different fathers. But that would be idle and inappropriate speculation. Guiseppe was urbane, civilised, and liberal. He was knowledgeable about all manner of things, and was quite capable of running a music shop. He wasn’t the owner of course, just a hired hand, but he had a future; he was going places.
It was one of those Spring days when the sky seems bright, yet the sun does not break through. “Overcast” would not do; it was not a gloomy day, more a day of thick white light, where the sun could not quite break through a thick layer of lingering ground mist. I went in the shop and I bought my E-string, and me and Guiseppe stopped to talk and pass the time of day. What’s that line from “Baker Street”?
“He asks you where you’ve been, you tell him who you’ve seen, and you talk about anything”
Soon though I thought I had better get on. And I turned to leave the shop, a little oasis of civilisation, almost. And it was as I left the shop that I saw this fellow, with his cheap suitcase and odd question, and even as I looked at him, I knew him.
He looked at me, and I looked at him, and in that instant, he knew me too. It was Mad Billy Brown.
“It’s Billy Brown.”
“Hi Billy. How’s it been?”
“I came back here today for a funeral. Been burying my uncle.”
“I’m sorry”, I murmured automatically. “Where do you live these days?”
“I work at an oil refinery, down in Essex” he replied. “I just came up for the day for the funeral. Not been here for years. It’s changed a lot.”
Has it? I thought. Still a dreary provincial town. But I never said that out loud.
Billy Brown’s story was tragic, as tragic as any you might hear. We’d been friends as boys at when I was little. I recall one sunny afternoon playing with him on some recreation ground; my father had been an amateur referee and had been refereeing a friendly football match. Interesting what one remembers. I remember my parents discussing what he should wear as a ref – for my father had no referee’s kit to mark him out as different. In the end he’d worn an old jacket. I remember him tearing round the pitch in it. But me and Billy and his brother had played the afternoon through, on a grassy and tree-lined bank above the pitch.
Billy Brown: the man before me seemed uncomfortable, in ill-fitting clothes, as it were. The boy I remembered had stark, staring eyes. And well he might. For Billy had seen things. He’d seen things that no-one should see, and that before he was ten years of age. From time to time one meets people so tremendously damaged by their early experiences that there seems no hope of healing until they get to heaven, when all tears will be wiped away, and all scars will be healed. Sometimes such people soldier through life with a spiritual limp, all twisted up inside. Sometimes they are literally bitter and twisted; other times, just seemingly a little inadequate or ill-suited to their lot in life. Some people are so damaged by their early experiences that they never make it on their own at all, and remain all their lives dependent on the grace of others to survive.
Billy Brown was one of those who was able to limp through life bearing the scars dealt to him by what he had seen. His name had become a by-word for strangeness amongst local kids. Parents whispered, “you don’t want to become like Billy Brown”. What had happened had become a channel marker, a point of guidance, a cairn or pillar by which to navigate our young lives.
For Billy had been involved in a terrible road accident. Parents wanted us to cross the road safely, so they reminded us of what had happened to Billy Brown. For Billy was an identical twin. He and his twin brother had been walking to school together, along a quiet street. They crossed the street. And a driver had come along, out of nowhere, and all of a sudden Billy never had no twin brother no more. Billy saw it all, poor fellow. He saw his brother as he was taken from him. One second crossing the road with his brother, the next, crossing the Styx on his own. He was never the same after that. Billy Brown’s twin brother was taken, and a part of Billy went with him. But Billy will see his brother again, for sure, in the hereafter, and the scars he walks with will be healed by the great God above. But meantime, he soldiers on alone under the sky. I told him how to get to the railway station; we said our goodbyes, and he set off, all alone.