As new year’s eve approaches I am moved to reflect on new years past. One I remember particularly I spent with my brother Patrick, sadly no longer living. I was 16. He had just finished his first term as a dental student at Guy’s Hospital. I’d hitched to London to visit him – 100 miles up the A40. It was a journey I was familiar with for other reasons – a girl I knew in Clapham – but that would be a different story. And unlike those other trips, which ended with me slipping back into the house in the small hours of a Sunday morning (unmissed, thanks to the random comings and goings of large-scale family life), this new year’s visit was probably made with the knowledge and consent of the parental authorities.
As midnight approached, Patrick and I were making our way down Charing Cross Road towards Trafalgar Square. Patrick had learned to play the trumpet but liked experimenting with other instruments. His favourite at that time was a baritone horn (an upright brass instrument like a small tuba) which he’d found in a junk shop. It was battered and tarnished and leaky around the valves, but he could knock a decent tune out of it. As we wove our way down the street, Patrick was blowing air into the horn to warm it up and working the keys with his fingers. Was he wearing fingerless mittens as I picture him? Quite possibly.
Suddenly we were confronted by a drunk, a wreck of a man, his bloated drinker’s face sallow under the streetlights. He pointed an uncertain finger at the horn and said, ‘Bet I could get a better sound out of that thing than you.’ He wasn’t quite steady on his feet, and it had been a struggle for him to get that sentence out, so Patrick must have reckoned he was safe. Since he was holding the instrument, he went first. A small crowd gathered. I fancy he played Auld lang syne, but I might have imagined that detail, or imported it from another memory. When he’d finished there was applause and some raucous cheers, and Patrick handed the horn over.
Cradling the instrument, which looked smaller in his arms, the drunk reached deep into the pocket of his rumpled mac. I thought it was a handkerchief he was after – he could have used one. What he pulled out was a mouthpiece. That’s when I began to think we might be in trouble. He removed the mouthpiece from the horn, passed it to Patrick and fixed his own in place. He played Abide with me and gave that thing the kiss of life. The crowd where we stood fell silent. I’d never imagined such a sound could come out of such a ruin – the horn or the man.