I celebrated my 67th birthday recently. By the age of 67 my vocabulary should be just about complete: now that I’ve reached the age of forgetting, I’m not likely to remember new words.
But my eldest grandson believes otherwise. His present to me was a list of words that Shakespeare coined. He thought I’d appreciate them. He tells me they are swear words.
I drove that 10-year old and his seven-year old twin brothers to school today. In a chorus of loving name calling that began with the familiar “Captain Big Nose” they quickly turned literary.
“You Huge Hill of Flesh!” was something to contemplate.
“You Huge Bombard of Sack!” had me looking down to my lap.
“You Swollen Parcel of Dropsies!” was pleasingly clinical and accurate. My calcium channel blocker does in fact cause me some fluid retention.
“You Prince of Wales!” puzzled me. Surely no insult, unless we are supposed to hear Prince of Whales – the prince being the Sperm Whale – and the ejaculation some sort of perverse tribute. As I frowned in contemplation of the words of the Bard, the three kids were helpless with hilarity. This epithet somehow became me. The more they chanted “Prince of Wales” the funnier it became and the more we all four enjoyed it.
Eventually the ten-year old Shakespeare scholar moved on to “You Bull’s Pizzle!” He realized from my facial expression that this was a winner. Once they learned that the pizzle was the phallus of a farmyard animal (famous as the projectile with which Jude woos Arabella in the Hardy novel) they wouldn’t let it go.
I was a Bull’s Pizzle all the way to school.
As they dismounted from the car in high good spirits, they added “You Foot-Licker!”
I farewelled each with a kiss and “You Vile Standing Tuck!” – the last word from Captain Big Nose.
It is lunchtime in Elizabeth Street and the foot traffic is in a
hurry. I am in a hurry, hurrying to my coffee, weaving in and out of
traffic before hurrying back to work. One pair of legs is stationary
in all this traffic and fret. The legs stand against a shop window,
long legs in shabby grey trousers. My head swivels and my gaze works
upwards past a jacket of crumpled grey to a stubble of stippled beard
on a thin and craggy face.
A hand is raised to the face. It holds a harmonica which is applied to
a toothless mouth. Flabby cheeks inflate and empty, bellows for
On the footpath at the musician’s feet is an upturned grey flannel
cap. He is a street performer, and as an habitual supporter of the
arts, I reach for a coin, but the tides and eddies of Elizabeth Street
carry me well past the busker before I can contribute.
Next time, I promise myself.
Next time I am in Elizabeth Street, I sight the man in plenty of time
to steer over towards him. Up close now, I see the same harmonica,
the same hat, the same performance. The hat is empty. So, it seems, is
the harmonica, which is mute despite the musician’s respirations
through it. It appears that his lungs are so wasted away by time and
tobacco that the tides of air pass silently across his instrument. The
man is breathing: that is the totality of his act.
Upon him now, I reach into my pocket for coin, but the fob is empty,
and I have passed.
Next time, I promise myself.
But the next time I am in Elizabeth Street at the busking hour, the
harmonica man is not there. Is he breathing his art elsewhere? Is he
breathing at all?
Weeks pass. The chill of early winter gives way to the deep cold of
the solstice. A wind blows from the Antarctic, driving the coffee
crowd before it in its overcoats and its scarves, into safe cubbies of
caffeine and warmth.
And there, there in the thin grey pants and coat is the mouth
organist, breathing still, breathing inaudibly into his organ of mime.
The winds of winter and the moving feet make the only music in
On what does he subsist, this insubstantial being? Aged, alone in the
multitude, unfed, barely clad, unheard – where does he go at fall of