I hesitated. I had heard a hoarse voice like his before in my first shop. ‘Are you…an oboe?’ I asked.
‘You got it. You’ll have to forgive me, but I have an ongoing problem with my reed. I don’t normally sound like this.’ There was a silence. Then he squeaked, ‘Why you in here, Flute?’
‘I’m called Pearly.’
‘Why you in here, Pearly? Got a dent?’
‘No, not a dent.’ I felt a fresh pang of grief. I could hardly admit to it… but I did: ‘My girl… got a new flute.’
‘Oh,’ said Obi. ‘I’m sorry. No, really I am.’ He sighed again. It sounded like a creak in the floorboards. ‘You know, you’re lucky you had a nice kid for a while at least. I’ve had two kids, and both of them gave up after less than a year. They didn’t like me.’
‘Of course they liked you.’
‘No, no, they hated me. They didn’t want to practise, like, ever. I tried, but I ended up hating them too… horrible sticky fingers. Spoilt brats wanted to know everything from the off. So I just clammed up.’
‘Oboe?’ I said.
‘Obi is the name.’
‘Obi….I can’t…I can’t…I’m lonely,’ the draught whispered through my hollow frame. I was afraid a sudden gust would make me sob.
‘Look kid, you have to make the best of it. Hard I know. Hey, you haven’t met Shelley. Shelley!’
An irritated twang and a puff of dust came from the corner.
‘Shelley, we need you. Dissatisfied customer!’
There was a clatter of wood on strings. ‘Aaargh, can’t a girl sleep? It’s the middle of the night.’ Shelley’s voice was a buzzing hum.
‘Shelley’s a cello,’ explained Obi. ‘She…had an accident.’ He lowered his voice. ‘She was dropped from a train onto the platform at Stevenage station.’
‘Ooh,’ I winced. As an instrument, you become very sensitive to stories about man-handling.
‘Yeah,’ rasped Shelley. ‘Cracked and broken, that’s me. Can’t be properly strung now or my neck will break. Strings flappin’ in the breeze. Oh yeah.’
‘So, are you guys…for sale?’ I asked.
They didn’t answer me. There was a pause.
‘Obi’s not telling you the whole story,’ clunked Shelley at last. ‘Obi, tell her.’
‘I can’t,’ moaned Obi, clattering his keys. ‘Every time I tell it, I get pains in my corks. You tell it, Shelley.’