It was one of the songs that was on the soundtrack of my childhood: a constant on the radio, like Hey Jude or Delta Dawn or any one of a number of other ubiquitous early 70’s hits. In retrospect I think what I grew up hearing was the 1971 Roger Whittaker cover rather than the 1969 Ralph McTell original; the echoed voice in my memory sounds like Whittaker’s smooth, mellow, quintessentially 70s tones:
And how can you tell me that you’re lonely
And say that for you the sun don’t shine
Let me take you by the hand
and lead you through the streets of London
I will show you something to make you change your mind.
What the singer promises to show you, to take your mind off your own loneliness and sadness, is the parade of poor, homeless, marginalized people on the streets of London — not a tactic that’s actually proven to cheer anyone up.
But the song’s word-pictures haunted me as a child, especially the line about the homeless man kicking up “yesterday’s paper, telling yesterday’s news,” and the old woman “carrying her home in two carrier bags.”
It was one of my first experiences of the beautiful, painful melancholy a song can bring, taking you to a place far outside your own experience and making you cry for reasons you don’t understand. I would have been 6 or 7 or 8, listening to that song in Aunt Gertie’s kitchen, knowing nothing about homelessness or poverty: wanting to cry.
A long time ago, I used to be a mommy blogger. This was a mommy blog.
Well, not entirely. I blogged about a lot of things, when I started this back in 2006. One of the things I wrote about, as many women did at the time when the internet was first giving us a free publishing platform and an audience, was raising kids. I wrote about being a working mom and a writing mom and trying to be a good mom. My kids featured a lot in this blog’s early years.
In 2016, when my blog was ten years old and my human children were 16 and 18, I wrote about why I’m no longer a “mommy blogger” and it boiled down to this: parenting teenagers is different from parenting young kids, and they are their own people with their own privacy, and not fodder for my writing.
So while I occasionally brag on social media about Emma’s writing or Chris’s music or something else cool that my now-young-adults are involved in, they pretty much disappeared as characters in my blog around the mid-2010s.
It’s been four years since I heard the busker singing “Streets of London” on the streets of Bristol, and I haven’t blogged about it. Until now.
After years of family vacations, England in 2018 was a return to just me and Jason travelling together. We spent a week together in London, doing the kind of things you don’t do when you travel with small kids or opinionated teenagers: we walked miles every day around the city, ate in whatever restaurant looked good, and bought half-price tickets to any West End show that was on sale in the evenings. We did all the things we love best about being together, with no responsibilities other than having fun.
I loved the family vacations we took over the years, but I also loved that freedom, that irresponsibility, of a vacation that reminded me of the ones we took BK — Before Kids.
But this wasn’t Before Kids. This was After Kids. This was During Adult Kids. This was a couple in their early 50s who had left an eighteen-year-old at home to house-sit and dog-sit, who checked in with her by text multiple times a day to make sure everything was OK. Emma had just graduated from high school and was heading to university out of the province in the fall. She was poised between lives; I was torn between confidence and fear, terrified of what might happen when she was far from home alone.
We dealt, long-distance, with the small crises of her being home alone — a trial run, perhaps, for true independence. She took the dog for a walk and the dog ran away (she got the dog back; I processed all this with her over a phone call outside St. Paul’s Cathedral), and tried not to think too much about the bigger crises she’d be dealing with long-distance in the fall. She was nervous about staying in the house alone and I was nervous about her staying there, but mostly, it was OK.
Chris was twenty that summer, not living at home. He moved out a few months after high school graduation to share a place with friends. He started college, but it wasn’t the right time for him, and he didn’t stay with that program. All he’s ever wanted was to be a musician, and that summer he was making music, as well as working overnight at a gas station convenience store. The time difference between the UK and home worked well for keeping in touch: I would text him in the morning, and he’d answer me from work.
I was worried about both my kids — I always have been; worry is the normal state of motherhood. But that summer, even though Emma was the one soon to move away, I was more worried about Chris. Worried that he hadn’t found his path in life yet; worried about a lot of things that make up the tangled complex of reasons why parents of teens and young adults don’t write mommy-blogs.
If I texted him and heard back quickly with his latest funny update about the customers who wandered into the all-night gas station at 3 am, I felt OK for the rest of my tourist day. If I texted and didn’t hear back for hours, the thin edge of worry would slice through my day, leaving little nicks and flaws in my enjoyment of London.
After London, I went to Bristol alone. Jason went back home and to work; I had more time off, and some research to do for a novel set partly in Bristol. I enjoyed travelling as a family when the kids were young; I enjoy travelling with Jason. I also really, really love travelling entirely alone, at least for short periods: having no-one’s schedule or interests to think about except my own. Travelling by yourself is a basically selfish endeavour, and after 20 years of child-raising, I didn’t mind some selfishness, even if it was made respectable by research.
I wandered the streets of Bristol for hours. I wrote some; I visited the museum; I went on guided tours of the city; I took pictures and made notes — but mostly, I walked. Did that historical-fiction-writer thing of walking around a city in 2018 and trying to imagine how it might have looked in 1610. The weather was perfect; the days felt endless.
I walked to the waterfront a lot, took a short harbour tour on a replica of a historic ship, because my novel is about people who leave Bristol. Characters who get on ships that sail down the river to the sea and west over the unthinkably vast ocean, to the place they called the New Found Land.
Also, there was plenty to see and do on Bristol’s harbourfront in 2018, including going to the Watershed, a “multi-arts venue” with a cafe bar so nice I ate there twice during my week in Bristol. I saw a film there one evening. On the pavement outside the Watershed, tourists wandered, dog-walkers strolled, and a busker with a guitar sat on the ground and sang.
When I saw him, I stopped dead in my tracks. If you know me and my family in real life, you’ll immediately know why.
I snapped this picture when his face was turned away from me, sent it to Chris with the text: “How did you get to Bristol?”
I shared it on Facebook and everyone who knew my family had the same reaction: it looked as if my beautiful young musician son, who was back in St. John’s, had somehow been transported to Bristol to sit on the ground outside the Watershed with a guitar.
When he turned to look my way, the resemblance was not quite as startling: he had Chris’s height, build, colouring and haircut, but not the exact same face. Combined with how easily I could imagine Chris busking on a busy harbourfront, though, the similarity was enough to make me at once fascinated and uneasy.
Also, he was singing “Streets of London.”
Was he? The first time I saw him? Maybe not. I passed him a few times on different days; I heard him sing several songs, but I only remember one.
Chris replied to my text: agreed the busker looked like him. For the most part, that week, he wasn’t answering my texts. I wasn’t sure if he was still working at the gas station. I wasn’t sure about much. Sometimes — on that trip and other times — I would text him and say Just let me know you’re okay. Or at least that you’re alive.
I was so far from home.
The second or third time I saw the busker, I made sure I was carrying cash. This time when he sang “Streets of London,” I stood a little distance away and listened to him, watched him sing, for the whole song. It took me back to childhood memories of hearing that song, and it took me ahead to a frightening place, where a young man, far from home, sits on a pavement with an open guitar case — on the streets of London, or the streets of Bristol, or any big city. Perhaps he’s carrying his home in two carrier bags.
When the busker sang, his accent sounded generic, a bit like Roger Whittaker’s. But someone stopped to speak to him, and he replied with an accent that was very much not British — he sounded Eastern European, though he didn’t speak long enough for me to be sure. Maybe Scandinavian, given the fair hair. When we had visited Denmark a few years earlier, I teased Chris that every boy we passed looked like him. When Jason and I were in London on that 2018 trip, every young person who served us in a restaurant or shop had some kind of European accent. “How are they going to run this country after Brexit?” I asked Jason.
So, I knew the busker was far from home, though not how far, or why. Perhaps he was launching his musical career, or off having a grand adventure. Or perhaps he was hungry, and lost, and in desperate need of those coins people tossed in his guitar case. I listened to him sing and thought about lost and lonely people on the streets of every big city, and I thought how most of them probably had mothers somewhere, and some of their mothers cried when their texts went unanswered.
When the song was over, I walked over to the busker with a few one-pound coins in my hand.
This is the point at which this should be, could be, a better story.
What I wanted to do was go over and put the coins in the busker’s guitar case. I wanted to say, “That was beautiful; I love that song.” I wanted to say, “You remind me of my son — you look so much like him.”
I don’t know what he would have answered, but surely he would have said something, and then, in my imaginary encounter, I might have said, “My son’s a musician too. Where are you from? Is your family still back there?”
And if it was, as I suspected, somewhere far away and his family was there, I would have said, “When was the last time you talked to your mother? You should call her, text her. She’s probably worried about you. I bet she wants to know you’re all right.”
Well, of course I didn’t do that. Have you met me? I have so much social anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to have that conversation even with someone I’d been properly introduced to, much less with a stranger on a Bristol waterfront whose only connection was that he sang a song I loved and he looked almost exactly like the son I loved.
It’s easier to tell this story now, almost four years after it happened. Four years have gone by and while I will never stop worrying about either of my kids, I am a less stressed parent than I was in 2018. Chris’s life at twenty-four is very different than it was when he was twenty; he lives next door to us, in a house we own that we rent to him and two friends. He’s finished a music program at college and is teaching at a music school, and performing and recording with several different bands. I know that he’s safe, and he’s okay right now.
And yes, Emma did go away to college, and find her way in an unfamiliar world, and make friends. She is, at the moment, also okay.
When you have adult kids, you never get a moment of feeling, “That’s it. They’re doing well. Everything is fine, forever, now.” You only get moments — like the one I’m living through now — when the tight knot of fear that coiled in my stomach in the summer of 2018 relaxes, un-knots itself. When you know that everything is all right for now. When you know that while your beloved boy will always play his guitar and sing for money, he won’t be doing it in a city far from home where he not only plays, but lives, on the street.
Streets of London; streets of Bristol; streets of St. John’s. They are so hard and cold, when our darling children step out onto them. I imagined the busker’s mother, in Warsaw or Oslo or Budapest, texting his number. Texting, in her own language: Please, just let me know you’re okay.
I walked over to the busker, put my pound coins in his guitar case. “Thanks,” I said. “I really love that song.” And I walked away.