I noticed him huddled amongst the harbor masters and hussies in a down town bar. I don’t recall seeing a sadder more dejected looking fellow. What with that crumpled hat pulled over ears, a newspaper Rollie dangling despondently from lips. Sitting there conversing with an empty bar stool in-between sipping on a triple. Ubiquitous to down town Durban, most would dismiss him as run of the mill street loony. Brain decayed by cheap spirits, the type you encountered either cursing reflections in shop windows or raving against the tides of on coming traffic.
But this man was different, different for the Accordion that hung from his neck. I was fortunate enough to discover their music, when in a fit of divine and drunken inspiration he launched into an impromptu session of Accordion blues. It was a set he had lovingly dedicated to that same vacant bar stool. A set that left his brow sopping, finger tips bleeding and us -the unsuspecting bar stragglers- inconsolable with our gin soaked weeping.
To say his music had an effect on whom ever heard it, would be to underestimate his gift all together. To listen to him play was to have ones sadness, ones silt simultaneously dredged to the surface. An experience that lead me to consider, that this man, most commonly dismissed as mere deranged mortal, might in fact be the closest thing our city had to covert angel.
I never forgot that night, the man, his music. A few weeks later, upon leaving a wharf side restaurant, I heard his Accordion again, this time like a stowaway rat in search of a piper followed its strains to find him crouched amongst the Veggies pier fishermen. They invited me to stay a while, to sip from their communal bottle, which I did, taking a few generous sips before attempting to strike up a conversation with the man. There are many things I hoped to discover. Such as: what had bought this poet, this sentimental loon to haunt the cities streets and shore lines with his music? Was it Booze, bankruptcy or heart break? And who was it that sat beside him on that bar stool Synonymously laconic in his responses (god knows how many journalists had tried and failed to extract the myth from downtrodden maestro), he sat for a while eyeing me skeptically through the cloud of cigarette smoke that spouted from his lips. Then finally he rose to his feet and threw open his arms, exclaiming: For her, for her’. The fishermen laughed as I strained my eyes in all directions, eventually allowing them to settle on object of his immeasurable affection- the twinkling Cityscape, toes skirting the water’s edge, clad in her skimpy nightgown of salt and humidity.
Then he picked up his accordion and began to play a slow bluesy tune, shuffling on the spot while he spoke. He told me how during the day he’d let her relish in her reputation as the city where the fun never sets, but come night he’d devote himself to loving her shadows, nursing her bruises- the faithful guardian who, wouldn’t, couldn’t forget. Once her suitors had satisfied their lusts, retired to their hotel beds, it was up to him to repair her broken heel, pull out a bar stool and buy her a drink. Then sing to her, sing her and her children to sleep.
‘Children?’ I had enquired.
‘Too many to name …without a name’ he had sighed impatiently . ‘The ones that haunt the East coast avenues, feed from restaurant bins, pawning their paradises from traffic islands. The one’s who follow her,-begging, tugging at her breasts and tearing at her hair.’
‘That quite a relationship you’ve gotten yourself into.’ I smiled, but he failed to find anything humorous about his commitment/ predicament. To laugh at him was to deny her existence, the veracity of their love-an unforgivable insult. Best accept his flights of unhinged whimsy as fact, relinquish all reason and succumb to a world, where it were perfectly possible (and not in the least bit unusual) for whole cities to seduce men. Even the fishermen seemed to accept his fantastical delusions with an unwavering conviction. They spoke of her ability to withhold the annual sardine run and therefore encouraged him to appease her with his music. Whether they truly believed this or not I couldn’t quite discern, but I got the impression that they were careful to renounce superstition in instances where their livelihoods might depend on it.
It was a love, the Accordion man went on to assure me that she reciprocated. Once she had discovered that he spent his days’ combing the Golden Mile beaches with a metal detector, she had conspired to assist him. She did this by concealing the wedding rings of careless weekenders in her sandy pockets. Rings disengaged from life long commitments to fingers, shallow enough for his metal detector to detect. Only once he had collected enough of these tokens, would he trade them in at Point Road cash converter. Such was his disenchantment toward love, at least the type that insisted on the insecure affirmation of golden bands, that he felt no guilt for the weeping brides clawing up the beaches in bids to retrieve them. This was how he claimed to provide for them both, foot the nightly bar bill, and perhaps more importantly save up to purchase the Instrument, I now watched heaving and wheezing between his bony fingers.
That night I stayed on after the Accordion Man had embarked on his nightly vigil, entreating the fishermen to fill me in on what sketchy details they knew of him. They spoke of how he had relinquished a life in the suburbs, a burgeoning blues career on the world’s stages, to be with her. How over the passing months, they had watched him drink his spirit dry, satchel her sadness, shoulder each and every one of her hungry orphans.
‘I worry about him,’ said one of the fishermen, piercing a hook through the mouth of a wriggling shad, before casting it back into the water.
‘She’s a jealous Stekkie, that Missus Thekweni. Each night we watch him sinking deeper and deeper.’
‘In love?’ I had asked but they had shook their heads in mutual disagreement
‘Sadness my bra, sadness.’
The Accordion Man however seemed stoic to his burden. Over the years, he could be heard (seldom seen, for he favoured the shadows) weaving his melancholic tunes through derelict shelters, rusted South Beach playgrounds, Point Road alley’s shrouded in lugubrious neon. His music offering glimpses of respite to the anguished souls sleeping in funeral home doorways, crutched on Addington Hospital benches or peeping from beneath cardboard shelters.
Inevitably, he’d end his evenings’ efforts’ back where he had started- the harbor’s edge. It was here, that he told me, that his love would reward him by mobilizing herself into a languid, mesmeric dance. Her machinery waltzing, yacht sails rippling, floating cities defiant of tug boat dictatorships breaking free to greet him. When he spoke of such occasions, his lips would spread with the first discernable traces of a smile, his down cast eyes flickering with wild childlike intensity.
It was silence that marked his disappearance, silence that swiftly set about reclaiming his nightly routes and haunts. An unsettling quiet that led me to scour the alleys, the piers, the dingy point road bars’, but to no avail. The following day’s newspaper headlines mourned the absence of the annual sardine run while on the sixth page of that same paper, I came across a small paragraph claiming that a harbor master had witnessed a lone figure, wading out into the rising tide in the early hours of Monday morning. A body that was later recovered and identified for the Accordion that clung to its neck.
I wept to think that this terse, unimaginative paragraph of news print was to provide the epilogue to my friends richly imagined and tragically lived fable. Suicide they suspected and we must forgive them for thinking so. I cannot help but see it differently, believing it was ‘sacrifice’ that led him weary and lovesick to the edge of that moonlit expanse. That it was she who had summoned him. Summoned him in salt whispers to seek out her arms from the loneliness of his shore. Beckoned him by hiking the tide of her skirt high above her knees, revealing both wasteland and wonderland-inky puddles that inverted her horizon into portholes to alternate universes. And him ,no doubt enthralled by her beauty while underestimating the portability of her pain (a pain manageable beneath concrete and stone but out here on this tentative marshy surface- less so) had set out to meet her.
With each irrevocable step, each sad note, he had sunk deeper and deeper into her arms. The silt rising to silence his Accordion lung, fasten tight that selfless singing tongue. Leaving the crumpled hat of a saint with no name- the final keepsake for her tides to claim.