With breathless trepidation he determined to feel the pulse of the street for himself. Completely out of character for a such a shy sort as he, William folded two 5-ers and a 10 into his front left pocket of his dark blue Levis, slipped the brass front door key into his right then made his way down the narrow staircase from his garret to the garden stoop outside the front yellow door to see what madness this pageant held.
Immediately, his face felt that the air bore a different texture than the morning. No longer soft and lilting with an arpeggio breeze, the density of it had changed, having become sodden from the press of bodies and their collective scent, pungent like a wrung out sponge left on the kitchen sink. His ears shuddered from the low bass timbre of the parade, coming up from the ground through his legs along the spine and into his brain, vibrating with the beat against the insides of his skull. He did not hear the music, if one could call such cacophony music at all, so much as feel it, all encompassing in each and every atom of him. The smell of meat roasting mingled with the distinct and unmistakable aroma of urine from the sidewalks behind the row of rubbish skips across the road, overloaded with aluminum cans and glass bottles emptied of their contents, the labels belying various and sundry beers, wines, and whiskeys, the remnants mingling on the concrete with the excretions of nameless bladders.
From his lookout on the porch behind the white wooden gate he scanned the crowd blocking the entrance to the street, providing at once an insurmountable obstacle and protective stopgap so that one might wander freely on his side, but dashing any hopes of crossing beyond. With his decision made for him, William turned toward the Cock and Bottle. He could see from down the block it was too full. The tables outside were all taken, packed close, it was a beautiful day after all. He passed by on the church-side, too wary of the malingerers wobbling from drink to venture in for a pint now. Content to meander, he carried on away from the chaos, curious to explore what eccentricities the day may bring.
There was no escaping the carnival. Each street corner was a destination, a venue for musicians and vendors with hand-scrawled signs on torn cardboard with scribbly marker selling goat stew and jerk chicken, or Red Stripe, or Guinness, or Jamaican flags, limp in the windless heat. Bands played in every square. People moved in small rivulets, flowing over curbs and around cars parked on the roadside toward the Portabello Road, a gaggle of dewey young women dawning from a cafe here from the left all twitter and frill, a tumble of rakish men spilling from a pub on the right, all joining the stream, ever widening as it made its way West.
As the current coursed toward the market street William became again aware of an intriguing sense of his own otherness. He felt the air around him, it had a different texture on his skin, all pricklepear and ginger, a warm breeze from the East. Along the edge of the road he was taken with a peculiar scene. Amidst the bustle of passersby, a small bent man of perhaps 60 years in a black suit with white flowing hair was pulling down wooden shutters with a long shepherds crook over the glass windows of a indistinct shop front. To say ‘indistinct’ is not enough, because the façade was so nondescript in comparison to its counterparts bedecked with brass placards and flowerpots of various hues that it projected an aura unique among its neighbors despite itself, a stolid remnant of another era beside an array of eager architectural dilettantes. There was something otherworldly about that instant, as if something unseen held his attention there, causing his consciousness to acknowledge its own dislocation. William watched the gentleman from across the avenue, for he was dressed as such, a matching vest beneath the jacket with glint of gold watch chain tucked away, going about what seemed like it must have been some manner of daily routine. He might easily have been mistaken for an undertaker had it not been for the royal blue necktie fashioned in a Windsor knot. So curious a figure did the man cut, calm amidst the commotion, unbothered by the interlopers chattering and full of go, in search of their next chapter of the unfolding party, that William could not help but forget the purpose of his own peregrinations altogether. Although he could not see the details from such a distance, he imagined the man’s shoes to be handmade, the shine reflecting like glass from the polished black leather. Once the man completed his task and went inside, closing the door behind him, William felt compelled to cross the road. A small hand lettered sign in the transom window above the door of deep vermillion read ‘Vita Brevis Arts Bureau’. Black type, hand blocked, cursive script on a white wooden shingle. He didn’t dare ring the bell.
As his mind argued against reason whether or not to impose himself upon the curious gentleman with the shepherd’s crook, he was abruptly dismayed by the distinguished scent of what he immediately understood to be the passing of a woman on the sidewalk behind him. Lavender and lemon rind atomizing the air of his inward breath, his head turned by instinct, involuntarily, red curls the color of burnished copper bouncing just below the shoulder, a lilting black dress cut expertly six inches above the knee. It appeared to be chiffon the way it rustled gently in her wake, her gait unbroken by his presence, dumbfounded on the street before the battened shop.
As he watched her fade into the mingling crowd he felt lost at the prospect that he’d never know her name. Compelled, involuntarily as if by instinct he felt his shoes lightly shifting, lifting themselves in the same direction as the girl whose face he’d still not seen. It was inevitable that he’d soon lose sight of her, that a new gaggle of festival meanders would block his line of vision and absorb her amongst its midst. But he knew somehow that this encounter was not insignificant.
There was something of the squirrel about him, this young man from Memphis. However sparkly a thing may enchant in the moment, he possessed a near preternatural capacity for storing away morsels of visual knowledge, be it an elegant stroke of typography seen on the street, the hem of a garment impeccably stitched, or the particular refraction of light at a certain time of day through a window of a forlorn café. These caches of aesthetic, synaesthetic, and even ecstatic, ethereal experiences he folded into the furrows of his mind for later use, inspiration for when he had the right amount of time and a suitable space to be an artist and make his paintings, he told himself. Paintings that would never materialize in pigment on canvas, but rather accrue only in their perfect form as ideas captured as hand scrawled lists in disposable ink pen script across a litany of tattered pocket notebooks, waiting in boxes and suitcases and coat pockets and satchels for an as of yet elusive magic day of creation. Even if he forgot where his acorns might be buried, or that he’d even gathered them at all, there could still be benefits from the oak they might later become. While he would revisit these on occasion when another encounter might trigger a reminisce and spur a torrent of fervent action involving intent visits to the hardware store for various viscosities of enamel or latex and brushes of all sorts various and sundry, for the most part he remained but a dreamer of ideal pictures rather than an actual creator of images anyone else would ever see. As such, he was not an artist so much as an enthusiastic yet absent-minded collector of art supplies. But this episode was different. He would remember this girl. He would return to explore the Vita Brevis Arts Bureau.