by Ian Ashmore
coffee in a paper cup
As I followed the curve up Perry Street, I paused at the sudden crash of a cymbal, muffled by what sounded like glass. In the warped window of a shop I had not seen in town before, there was a professional drum kit. Aesop and Godot’s. A peculiar name for a music store, but I did not pay any attention to that fact. My eyes tracked the glistening hoops of the toms and snare, encircled the bass drum, then scaled the cymbal stand. It was perfectly still.
It was perhaps unusual for a woman of my age to stare at drums like that, but—hang on—where did that old lady come from and why is she staring at me in the window? That’s a nice coat. Expensive too. Matches the colour of the drums.
I shifted focus between the drums and the woman until they became superimposed ghosts from either side of the glass. Her look was oddly affectionate for a stranger’s.
‘Can I help you?’ I asked while I continued to watch her distorted and transparent image.
She smiled and bounced contently on the back of her heels. The woman looked familiar although I was unable to remember where we might have met. ‘I’m sorry, do we know each other?’
‘I do, but you do not. Not yet. And I am actually here to help you.’
OK. She was either a nutter or she had bolted from a nursing home, because she was clearly—
‘As crazy as a canary in a box of cornflakes?’
How did she know—?
‘What you’d think? Because I know your thoughts. They were once mine. They are ours.’
I had to check my phone. No, it wasn’t Halloween. I also rifled through my handbag for any ticket stubs. Nothing. Pockets? Empty, except for a raspberry lip balm I had forgotten about. Expired. No Halloween and I had not bought a ticket. So, why was I in this freak show?
‘Let me explain. I am you, in twenty-five years’ time. I am sure you don't believe that, but you’re looking at the drums because you wanted to play in a grunge band ever since you were twelve years old. You always liked “The Art” as a name for a band, although you never checked whether it was still available. I guess you didn't really want to find out. Nevertheless, you never had a drum kit because your parents disapproved; it was unbecoming of a young girl to play such a raunchy instrument. Harp or organ were respectable, but drums were off limits. Beyond that, you were never popular in school or at work, and while there was a tiny chance you’d become famous, you never expected that to happen.’
Pfft. Anyone might have guessed that from seeing a grown-up ogling an instrument in a shop window. Still, the old lady had intimate knowledge of details I had told no one, let alone dared admit to myself.
‘Sceptical as always. Listen,’ she continued. ‘Aged sixteen you pretended to drum with breadsticks at the dinner table. That wasn't the first time but it would be the last, because mum grabbed and broke them in front of you. In return you nabbed two of her favourite knitting needles. They were taped to the bottom of a drawer in your room. I seem to recall there were lyrics and doodles of cover art stashed away inside that drawer. Anyway, it was an act of defiance, but you never air-drummed with the looted sticks, not even with the door locked, fearing what else she might take away if she ever found out. Also as a result, you have not eaten breadsticks since.’
The woman’s eyes traced my left eyebrow upwards across the window. There it stayed, perched atop the hi-hat. Was she a psychic?
‘And now you’re contemplating buying that full-sized kit. You could, at least, financially I mean, but there is always a reason not to: the neighbours, too old to learn an instrument or even start a band, and so on.’
‘All right. Let’s assume you are me, twenty-five years from now,’ I posited. ‘And let’s also assume you’re here to help. Well, go ahead. Advise me.’
One side of her mouth wrinkled up as a scornful puff made its way to my nostrils. I recognised the bittersweet aroma of hazelnut coffee, my standard breakfast. She had good taste in beverages as well as outerwear.
‘You of all people ought to know you’ve never liked anyone’s advice, especially your own,’ she said.
‘You can picture yourself as a superstar, filling stadiums with screaming fans and accepting awards, but you are incapable of seeing the road that leads there. Or maybe—maybe—you fear going down that road, because you may never reach the destination, or whatever you presume to be the end of the journey, anyway.’
As far as advice went, that was painfully true but also useless. Here I wanted to learn about my future, her past and present, not listen to a best of last night’s fortune cookies. The woman sighed and shook her head.
‘At least tell me if my best days are still ahead of me. Please.’
For a moment she closed her eyes and contemplated the query. A deep breath, a blink. I had wondered about that. Why do people blink when their eyes are closed? Another breath clattered across the empty street around us.
When she opened her eyes, she admitted she could not tell me that, which either meant the best days of my life had passed by without a remnant of a memory, or—I don’t know what to make of anything anymore.
‘It’s such a downer to see myself at your age,’ I blurted out. ‘I cannot believe I turn out to be so—dull.’ Regret settled on her demeanour. ‘At least I won’t be grey at 65, which is a small miracle and a minor comfort, I suppose.’
An embarrassed smile twitched across her face. She whispered something between two soft, articulated bass drum hits. D’d. Dyed. Surrounded by an awkward silence, our eyes shared the lift down to the cobblestones.
The wind, or perhaps the vacuum of my existence, moved a lock of hair across my cheek. Before I could flick it back, a crunching noise pulled our gazes back up.
‘What are you grandmas looking at?’
Grandma? I smirked. Both of us. Both of me? It was confusing. I remembered that jean jacket with the zipper trim along the pockets. I never quite knew where the jacket had gone or why I had stopped wearing it. The buttons on the breast pockets were discoloured though, which is why I had always covered them with the pocket flaps. I should have just removed those buttons.
She had no inkling she was standing beside her future selves. With the deftness of an entertainer in a circus, she slid the remainder of a breadstick down her throat, which left a trail of crumbs on the lapels. I never realised I looked that bizarre while snacking. Despite that, in her mind, we must have been the freaks.
The adolescent’s eyes, all our eyes, were fixed on the drums again. The sparkle of a dream not yet rubbed away in the morning was visible in her glance. It skipped across the drums' polished metal. How I longed to have that dream still alive within me. Occasionally she’d peek at us geriatrics from the corner of an eye.
‘I am you, or rather you will become me,’ I said.
‘Check your medication, lady. If that were true, gravity must turn into a bigger bitch than it already is.’
We looked at our saggy reflections. They drooped more the longer we observed ourselves. The glass did not help, but she had a point. I straightened my coat.
I recounted my life’s story, our past up to the girl’s present, the leitmotif. A lot of the details that must have seemed significant at the time had since been taped over.
‘How come you know so much about me? Have you been following me?’
‘In a way, yes,’ I said. ‘In fact, I’ve lived your life, a version of it. My version.’
I stopped there because I doubted having a cup-a-soup with a dry cracker for lunch every day at a hot-desked spot in a drab office would quite live up to playing Madison Square Garden or Wembley at full capacity.
The retiree I would one day crumple into had become quiet, so I unloaded whatever advice I could muster onto my perkier alter ego. Another hope dashed with every morsel of wisdom I offered. Gradually her mood slipped from disbelief to disappointment. She trusted me. Unfortunately.
‘What people are afraid to do themselves, they will tell you not to, to avoid feeling terrible about themselves. Projection is a powerful antidote to one’s confidence.’
She raised her eyebrow. The right one. I never knew I could once lift that side's. I made an attempt but only achieved a grimace. Interesting. The fifteen-year-old must have thought I was having a stroke. No, she wouldn’t. Constipation would be what she’d think of. My lips curled into a grin.
‘No one cares more about what you do than yourself, so don't do anything to impress or to please anyone but yourself. Only you can make things happen.’
‘It’s good advice,’ our elderly friend eventually chimed in. ‘But worthless without the context, without the experience that led to it.’
‘What?’ the young girl and I said in unison. The surprise at agreeing on something made us briefly wear the same look, with a quarter of a century in-between.
‘In life you can either run after a dream you can never quite catch up with, or you sit around and wait for a day that never comes. You see, you are trying to tell her how to live her life based on your experience, but that experience is not hers. Not yet. She cannot change her life, our lives, because you or I want it, only she can do that, and only for reasons that she can relate to.’
The tart blend of confusion, despondence, and exasperation gathered in the back of my mouth. She must have sensed it.
‘You cannot be a drummer unless you can play the drums, right?’
‘Well, then why do you not learn to play?’ she hurled at me. ‘You don't have to be in a band to enjoy drumming.’ Pointing to the girl, she said, ‘And why do you not do something about it right now? Give it a go. If you try, you may or you may not fail. But if you do not even try, you will never succeed.’
It sounded too obvious. A bit backwards perhaps, but obvious, nonetheless.
The shop blurred in a timeless stare.
‘Are you all right, miss?’
I peered over my shoulder. It was the postman. Of course I was all right.
‘That shop’s been shut for, oh, about a year now. It’s a pity, such lovely flowers they had. Anyway, on me way then. Good day.’
Flowers? I turned to see a florist’s, boarded up. The colour on the embossed sign by the door had eroded, but the number was still visible: 226. In the display a shrivelled cactus lay tipped over in a dried-up patch of earth. The girl and the old woman had disappeared. The drums had gone too. I looked around and saw an empty street. Not a hint of the postman either.
In my hand I held a paper coffee cup. The fragrant steam eddied into the air. Hazelnut. With my other hand I whisked the ribbon of vapour away. Van Gogh could not have swirled it better.
The shuffling of nearby feet, my own. With the cuff of my jacket I wiped the condensation from the window. I was in my living room, one hand holding a mug and the other fiddling with the denim threads stuck in the tack buttons I had ripped off.
Stepping backwards with my gaze towards the alley between the houses, I gently brushed against the boom stand. The light danced on the golden cymbal. It gyrated like Elvis in Chicago of ‘57.