I’d been busking up and down the street all summer with little success. Man, this town was tough. You were judged on how you looked before you had a chance to do what you do best. Me? I’m a Plain Jane with my heartache on my sleeve, a song to sing, and the guts to sing it. Trouble is, no-one here wants to hear you sing the blues. Welcome to Happy City — no pain or ugliness allowed.
Boy, did I pick the wrong place to blow into.
I pick up my hat and check the morning’s take. There are four dollar coins, a ticket for a free consultation at the ‘Happiness Is YOU Centre’, and a business card engraved with the words ‘Madam Zola, Medium’. I throw the ticket away, but feel compelled to keep the business card. Something about the tagline underneath the name – ‘More than medium, better than extraordinary’.
I wander past the convenience store where old half-blind Joe is begging. His tin cup holds only ten cents, two buttons and paperclip.
“Doin’ OK, Joe,” I say as I chuck in two of my dollar coins. Not the first time I’ve shared with Joe. Don’t expect it will be the last.
“You’re a fine person, Jane,” he calls after me. “And you sing good songs.”
The sun and heat are relentless in this part of the country, so I head for the old-fashioned arcade over the road. The only place open is the ice cream store. It’s a throwback to the 50s, all warm pinks and sunny yellows with black and white tiled floors, not the cold blue and white décor you get in so many modern places.
It is empty except for a lone waitress. I sit down, and she glides over to take my order. I’m wondering what I can possibly afford when she gives me a wink.
“We have a $2 special today,” she says, her voice pure honey. “Cherry-chocolate fudge sundae.”
She reminds me so much of my mother it hurts, and I feel the tears prickling at the back of my eyes. I try not to look at her as I order the $2 special.
“You okay, sweetie?”
I swallow hard and nod. “Just a little tired.”
“Well, how about a piece of hummingbird cake? On the house.” She smiles, and I can’t say no.
So I’m sitting there waiting for my order when this gypsy-looking woman rocks up.
“Ah, there you are,” she says and sits opposite me.
“Do I know you?” I ask.
“Now you do. I am Madam Zola. You have my card.”
Before I can respond, she opens an ancient hobo bag, patched with what seems to be a piece of every material that ever existed. She whips out a crystal ball, places it on the table and peers deeply into it. I haven’t the heart to tell her I think this type of mumbo jumbo is a crock of you-know-what.
“I see you have a generous heart and a song to sing, but no-one will listen. Am I right?” She peers up from the ball, eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring. “Pfft. Of course I am right.” She turns her attention back to the ball. “There is second-hand store two streets away in the old part of town. In the back of the store is a ukulele. It is yours for $10.”
I start to protest that I can’t play the ukulele nor do I have $10. She tuts loudly.
“Do not argue! It is yours. The moment you touch it, you will be able to play it. It is a magic ukulele, but its magic is only for you.”
With that, she rises dramatically, drops the crystal ball back into the hobo bag, and sweeps out of the store.
“Ah, she’s a character,” laughs the waitress. “Often drops in here. Never fails to amuse.”
She starts to clear the table. “So are you going to buy the ukulele?”
I shake my head. “Don’t have the money, don’t play anyway, and don’t believe in magic.”
“I’ve heard you sing. You got plenty of magic inside you to sing like you do. I think you should buy the ukulele.”
She puts $10 on the table in front of me.
“I can’t take — ”
“Yes, you can, honey, and you will. I want to hear you sing happy songs and nothing is happier than a ukulele song.”
“Thank you… what is your name?”
“Pearl. Just call me Pearl.”
So I buy the ukulele and like Madame Zola said, I can play it the moment I pick it up. It’s a fancy little thing with a mother-of-pearl inlay of a hummingbird. Yeah, yeah. Don’t think I don’t see the coincidence. I laugh out loud when I see that hummingbird, and I’m sure Pearl will as well.
I go back to the ice cream store, but Pearl isn’t there. I ask the other two waitresses when she will be in again.
The large red-haired waitress looks at me strangely. “Nobody here called Pearl, hon.”
“But she was here this morning,” I protest. “Served me hummingbird cake.”
“We weren’t open this morning,” says the frowsy blonde waitress. “Never open before 12pm on Wednesday.”
“And we sure don’t have no hummingbird cake in this dump,” laughs the red-haired waitress.
So I go back to the street and set up ready to busk — hat on the ground, ukulele in hand. I take a breath, feel my voice ready to fly.
“Wherever you are, Pearl, who looks like my mother, this is for you.”
I start playing and singing, and people gather round like never before. Pearl was right. Nothing is happier than a ukulele song.
Karen Bayly is a writer, ex-actor, ex-muso, sometime scientist, and reluctant IT bod. She is currently working on a Steampunk-inspired novel but advises friends and relatives not to hold their breath waiting for the first draft. She loves animals but has a huge gooey spot for cats, horses and birds.
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