Ian McMillan: Strung along by interlude at paper shop

A casual visitor coming into the paper shop in Darfield the other morning would have been forgiven for thinking that they’d stumbled upon the last act of a shadow-based tragedy. A small group of people were standing around by the magazines and teacakes gazing into the air; brows were furrowed and chins were being stroked. Movement was minimal but somehow momentous. The casual visitor would have gaped for a moment then beat a hasty retreat through the less-than-hasty automatic doors and left us to our private musings.

Because yes, gentle reader, I was one of those people in the paper shop. I was the one whose brow was most furrowed, whose chin was most stroked. Let me explain: I’d got to the paper shop early, as I always do, although I can never get there before Cyril or Elsie, who I sometimes imagine camp outside the shop all night like people queueing for bargain microwaves in the sales.

The bloke behind the counter had been trying to think of the name of the musical instrument that he’d had played at his wedding and, because it was early morning and he had newspapers on his mind, he couldn’t think of the name of it. “It’s a solo instrument,” he said, adding unnecessarily “you play it on your own”. “Flute?” I said. He shook his head.

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“Lute?” I said, speaking in rhyme because I’m a poet and remembering a wedding I’d been to where they’d hired a lutenist which, in words that have echoed down through history, must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The thing to note here is that the lute is a relatively quiet instrument and weddings can be relatively noisy affairs. The lute playing was to take place as people milled about just before they went into the reception and the lutenist was sitting in a corner. I spotted him from the other side of the crowded room and at first I thought he was just a bloke flicking flies away from a lute because I couldn’t hear a thing, but then I realised that he was flailing the lute for all he was worth but he still couldn’t be heard above the sound of Auntie Joyce blubbering and Uncle Trevor telling his chess anecdotes, the ones that always ended with him shouting “Checkmate!” and slapping somebody on the back. I walked over to the lutenist. Even when I was close enough to smell his minty breath, I couldn’t hear a note. Note to wedding planners: book something louder than a lute.

Back in the paper shop, we’re still trying to think of the name of the instrument. “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” the bloke behind the counter said. Oh, I know that feeling; you can see the shape of the word, you can hear the music of the word, you can just about say the word but it just won’t complete its passage from brain to mouth.

None of us can help him; like a man floating in deep space, he’s on his own. Then he does what he should have done all along. He mimes. He mimes a bow squeaking sideways across some strings. Now we all know. “Cello!” somebody shouts. “Cello!” the man in the paper shop says. Phew, that’s a relief, and that’s the power of mime!