It was five o’clock. I had just passed through Covent Garden and was walking towards the Thames Embankment. Throngs of people… Londoners, mostly business people in proper navy or gray pin stripes, heads down, faces serious, mingled with talkative tourists dressed in jeans and sandals. Everyone hurried…a dash to the underground, a bar, or yet another of the small shops dotting the area. The sound of rushing footsteps was occasionally punctuated by strains of violin or accordion music provided by street musicians eager to add a few more coins to their day’s earnings. A corner pub cast its calm, benevolent gaze over this mass of bustling humanity. Cascades of brilliant violet petunias and flaming marigolds overflowed the flowerpots hanging under its eaves. “Old Nagshead”, written in elegant, gleaming gold script, graced the black border that ran across the building’s facade.
Suddenly, I noticed a small crowd forming a semi-circle at the corner opposite the pub. All eyes were fixed on a strange, otherworldly figure standing by the lamppost and facing the group. An oasis of silence had been cast amid the bustle and rush of the crowd. The figure, painted in silver from toe to head, glistened in the slanted rays of late afternoon sun.
Silver shoes…large with bulbous toes; silver trousers…tightly stretched across a bony frame; silver, close-cropped jacket. Hands, fingers…all painted silver. My eyes traveled upward to his narrow shoulders and high collar centered by a wide, silver four-in-hand. Then to the face…again, silver. A faint, enigmatic half-smile wavered on closed, silver lips. At last a respite…his eyes, laced round with dark lashes, were shiny brown orbs framed in white. A silvery frown creased his forehead as those dark, expressionless eyes surveyed the group of curious, silent, gathering spectators. He carried a small, silver umbrella in his left hand, and slowly, ever so slowly, raised it over his silver, peaked cap. Gradually it opened, protecting him at last from the setting sun filtering down over tops of shops and restaurants. He lifted his right foot ever so slightly… paused…then after a moment or two, carefully closed the umbrella and placed it deliberately on the sidewalk beside him. He paused again, then solemnly reached into his trouser pocket and leisurely removed a gray, string-like object. He raised his hand to his lips, and with measured breaths began to inflate the limp mass.
My gaze strayed from this hypnotic figure and rested on a young boy who stood at the front of the onlookers. He couldn’t have been more than six or seven. His red hair was close-cropped; his skin pale and freckled. Head tilted, thin mouth ajar, a frown creased his forehead. A mixture of puzzlement and wonder filled his blue eyes, eyes which never for a moment left the bizarre figure of the silver man.
Soon a form emerged from the mouth of the man…a dark, silvery gray transparency of a dog…a curly balloon tail; short, pudgy balloon legs; long body and small head topped by the tiniest of balloon ears. With each blow of silver breath, the boy’s knees pumped as if to help his mysterious friend complete his magical task. At last the creation was complete. The silver man held it up for the boy and all around him to admire. He slowly, oh so very slowly, turned in a triumphant half-circle, the same, never-changing half smile grazing his silver lips.
Abruptly, in mid-turn, and for no apparent reason, the silver man jerked to a stop. He raised his arm, seized the silver cap from his head, and tossed it on the sidewalk where it landed near a box sparsely filled with coins. He then squashed the balloon-creature and tossed it casually into the corner waste bin. The spell broken, he paused, calmly took a cigarette from his silver trousers, lit it, then squatted down on the curb, eyes averted, waiting for the next group of passers-by. “Old Nagshead”, steadfast, continued smiling down, but the crowd, anxious to get on with its concerns, dispersed as quickly as it had gathered.
I saw the back of the little boy, head down, shoulders hunched, clutching the hand of his father as his small legs struggled to keep up with the rushing crowd. He did not look back, and I did not wish to see his face.