Harpish By Dave Migman
Her face was wreathed in steam. “Primero aqui!” she screeched at the barman who ducked into the broiling air to retrieve my tapas.
I looked at the little dish he put before me: waxy globes in salsa… unusual. Were those eggs? Along the bar the locals tucked in regardless. A series of old men dressed in fading tweeds and all smoking pipes.
I had passed this tiny place a few days previously on one of my missions. Nothing more than a shady room from which there issued the beautiful sounds of a harmonica. All the way down the street that raucous and sweet sound followed me. In the evening it haunted me.
Consider this; apart from samba, salsa, flamenco, tepid fusions of all the above I had heard no other music for four months. I possessed one CD and that didn’t play. It was disc 2 of The Fall’s Peel sessions. The fact that it didn’t work, that it was there, existing in my room was a source of great consternation and hair pulling.
“Think they’ll do it tonight?” I wasn’t alone. Not today. Harry The Mead was with me. He was as desperate as myself.
“Might not be a full band. I only heard the harp.”
“Yeah, but still…”
I glanced about the bar… where was that harpist?
“Did you know I saw Connery yesterday?”
“Where? On TV?”
“No. In the street… he lives in Spain you know.”
“Could have been anyone.” My lips smacked against the cold glass as I knocked it back. Harry was always seeing famous people… they followed him wherever he went. He harboured the secret belief that he was actually the star of some clandestine reality show along the lines of ‘The Truman Show’. Celebrities paid the producers so that they might be photographed in his vicinity. Oft I found him scrutinising household appliances searching for hidden cameras. “They’re so tiny. Amazing technology, didn’t you know they can put implants in your eyes while you sleep?” Harry had way too much time on his hands.
As he mumbled away something caught my interest. Amidst the serpentine coils of smoke, on a table by the opposite wall, I saw an ancient Burroughs Calculating machine – solid and black with cast iron mountings, glinting keys, stainless steel like an overgrown antique shop till. There was something undeniably impressive about the beast.
An old man appeared from the rear of the establishment. He was short, his face fringed by tobacco stained ringlets. I nudged Harry.
Puffing out his chest he proudly seated himself at a high stool at the table. The machine dwarfed him. He reached up and began pulling and pushing the levers while fingering the keys of the calculus with his other hand. A quiet air of expectation gripped the bar so that when the girl cried “Segunda aqui!” there was a tremendous shushing and clicking of tongues.
Then the sound began. The most melodious harp I had ever heard… beautiful… transcendent… it sang and lifting notes and swirling plumes of smoke into the air. More heads filled the bar, drawn in by the auditory discourse. Like moths they were held trance-like.
The old man played several songs. Beer flowed, peopled cheered and clapped. Their tears glistened beneath the feeble lights.
When he stopped a woman appeared and whispered in his ear. I saw her slip something into his hand, he shook his head and began peering through the gloom. She stared hard at him and his shoulders slumped forward in silent resignation. He leaned over the machine and began fiddling within its depths, tuning some inner points, like a piano. How this contraption worked I had no idea.
The girl was not Spanish. She wore a long sequined dress that swished by her ankles. I recognised her as the very same woman who usually bawled from the kitchen. Now she traded kitchen steam for bar floor smoke. Positioned by the machine she began to crank the handle and stroke the keys… but the noise that issued forth was raucous, it pierced the air and the smoke disappeared so that we all faced each other in the brevity of our surrounding. I was instantly sobered. It was a tune that rode margins… that plied an uncomfortable edge between genius and noise… I was stricken into ecstasy… like a hypnotised cobra I was drawn through the dark figures who stared aghast at the player and the machine. I weaved amongst them, hairs like ice, each goose pimple a volcano issuing forth fine sprays of sweat.
For the duration of her number I was thus enchanted. When she finished she looked spent and there was no call for encore. Siesta time had finished. The punters filed out of the bar. Even Harry looked bereft and lost. He wandered out into the sunlight with the throng.
As the bar emptied I walked over to the girl.
“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard… when… how… why…”
She laughed. “Come here snake boy.” One arm fell languid about my shoulder. The old man brought her a drink but he looked at her angrily.
“Did ya see that? I broke their comfort zone… they don’t like that.” The ice rattled with her laughter and I wanted to move but her grip was firm and she guided me over to the contraption.
“Andreas invented the thing… found this ancient beast in a skip and he converted it into this… our machine of dreams! How talent-less we are!” Again her laughter rose high and delirious. I didn’t want to know what she was about to show me… I knew this, like something pre-ordained or dreamed…
She pushed me forward… “Look… look inside.”
Like an automaton I teetered forward and stared, over the keys, down into where the wide lever plunged. As if into the abyss. And there it was… a revelation like pops dressed as Santa… that short, that swift - the crushing blow of reality! The lever was attached to a small tape recorder, secured with scotch in the pit and the lever they cranked did nothing but look cool…
* * *
“Then, who is on the tape?”
“Oh, anything, we just put it in and it comes out all garbled like that, me, I like this one.” She waved a grimy cassette in my face too fast to read the words. “Wanna drink?”
I shook my head and stumbled out. The daylight hurt my eyes and I walked towards the park.
“Harry I want that machine.” He looked fazed. I explained all I’d learned. “You put any tape inside and it comes out transformed into harpish blues!”
“You want to steal it?”
“Well, I’m pretty certain they won’t let me buy it. They covet it too much I can tell.”
“What would you do with it?”
“I would buy old tapes, or make my own… I’d take it back to Scotland with me - imagine playing the Edinburgh Fringe festival with it, make a fortune, drive them nuts!” As I talked the possibilities became tangible before my eyes. It really could work.
“Why not just take the recorder?”
“This I thought about, but what if it only works in conjunction with the Burroughs adding machine?” No, I needed the whole thing.
The best way was to visit another day, during the afternoon session and wait until four, when they closed. I would slip discreetly under a table, hidden in the darkness by the cloth. Once they closed the place I would seek an exit or failing this bust out the front, Adding Machine Convert in hand. Harry would be waiting with his beat old car and we would make good our escape. Seemed easy.
The next day the session was luminous. Whatever cassette the old man chose created a congenial but spirited atmosphere. The woman took off her apron and finished the set with her chosen piece. Once again the song was devastating. It was the highlight of the afternoon… its irrefutable peak! People left in a stupor. We had taken a small table in the cavernous gloom. Wreathed in cigarette smoke I ducked beneath the table and sweated it out.
One by one I heard the scraping of chairs across the tiles, footsteps, shutters closing, a gentle murmur of Spanish and finally silence. Replaced by the sound of my heartbeat. I pushed aside the curtain and peered from my hiding place. The bar was dark and still. Several spots of daylight beamed through the shutters, illuminating magnesium discs. I crept out and located the table where the machine had been. It wasn’t there. Leaving my eyes adjust I headed for a black rectangle that marked the back door. In a single room fronted by a window was my prize, waiting for me like an altar. I gripped its cold casing but my resolve slipped away… was I a thief? Was this really the way? Surely any finance made from thievery could only result in back luck and tainted ju-ju… the gold letters stared back, empty and cold, BURROUGHS CALCULATING MACHINE. I sent a text to Harry and taking a bottle from the fridge returned to the table and ducked beneath.
I always meant to return to the little bar but for some reason my missions led me to other parts of the city and I was never in the vicinity. As the weeks passed I tried to remember where it was located and once even attempted to find it but it was one of a multitude of such bars, cafes, pulparias, cervecerias and I never did locate it or hear anything like the harpish tones of that strange contraption.