I would see our trumpeter on visits to the town. A scruffy but amiable figure, standing outside the old museum. He had worked in the same office job for as long as most could remember. But a dispute broke out. These are difficult times. He lost his job. Anyone could tell you a similar story. Not long after, he appeared in the town centre: brandishing a trumpet bought from one of the local junk shops, the case open at his feet inviting spare change.
When he began to play, the halting notes carried across the square. My Funny Valentine. Kind of Blue. Somewhere Over the Rainbow. As a musician, it soon became clear that he was remarkable only for the absolute amateurishness of his playing. Friends reported that he saw his music as one long piece of performance art. As he learned and developed as a trumpeter, so we would learn and develop as an audience. Some criticized him, but most endured his folly. The saddest times have need of the holy, however foolish they might seem.
Later, the second trumpeter appeared.
A market day. It had rained that morning. I patted through shallow puddles on my journey into town. Fluid music haunted the streets: above the vinyl canopies of market stalls, above the heads of shoppers. It seemed that our trumpeter has been practicing. A new subtlety animated his playing. I detected nuance, timing; I felt a sense of strange pride. As I got closer, I could see that a crowd had gathered outside of Woolworth’s. A man wearing a dark blue cap and a leather jacket stood at the centre. A black man, with a beard like a cube of coal. He held his trumpet with an easy grace. His case lay open on the ground, offering CDs for sale. When he finished his song, everyone began to cheer.
On the edge of the crowd, I could see the first trumpeter.
The next market day, I approached from the north streets. I could hear the thin high melodies of the second trumpeter, uncoiling through back alleys and pathways, where the stone has been smoothed by the footsteps of hundreds of years. A few spectators stood listening to the second trumpeter, but a larger crowd had gathered outside the old church. The first trumpeter had reinvented himself. Gone were his military trousers and T-shirts. His face and hair had been painted gold; an old denim jacket and combat trousers had been similarly sprayed. He stayed perfectly still until a passerby tossed a coin into the case at his feet and then – the wonder!- he brought the trumpet slowly to his lips, and played a few notes. Once finished playing, he would assume his frozen position, a golden golem decorating the town walls.
The second trumpeter had walked down the street. He held his trumpet cradled in his arms, cupped his beard with one hand. For a moment, it looked as though he might approach the first trumpeter, that they might share a few pedantries of trumpet lore. Instead, he shook his head— wearily, disdainfully— and returned to his patch.
From there, the rivalry spread quickly. The first trumpeter edged closer to the other’s territory. The second trumpeter timed his most incandescent solos to coincide with the other’s more pedestrian playing. One time, the second trumpeter returned from a break to find his CD cases scattered across the pavement. Reeds were bent or broken. Gold paint was mixed with washing up liquid or, worse, solvent.
Eventually, other performers took their place in the town centre. A street dancer. An old sailor playing a zither. A gymnastics troupe. A religious fanatic singing hymns accompanied by an electric keyboard. Now that they had been pushed away, the two trumpeters continued their competition around darker corners. People spoke of solo battles in the early hours, of punk dirges translated aggressively into brass. How strange it was: that these two, who had chosen to dedicate their lives to the same instrument and pursuit, should be guided by such mutual enmity.
One night, I walked the old town. The cramped streets, the tall dark houses offering distant squares of yellow warmth. I paused at a corner, leaning on a lamppost. Every day, it seemed to take me longer to reach home. I heard footsteps in streets beyond me. A wind blew down an alleyway. Dust accumulated in tumbled blossom. A sharp note sounded, its tone cut off swiftly, strangled by the breeze.
Words © Daniel Bennett