‘You have a bit of a problem, my friend.’
Palamid froze. He had known he was taking a risk, daring to play in this corner of the market square, but he had thought he knew all Snub Nose’s thugs and had been keeping his eyes peeled. The foreign vagabond had not seemed dangerous—but how could he have overlooked that those rags were suspiciously, almost unnaturally clean? He knew from experience how difficult it was to get access to a sufficient supply of water round here if you were poor.
The stranger stretched out his hand towards Palamid’s guitar.
‘Give it to me.’
Oh no. This was worse than he had feared. Palamid’s guts contracted as the stranger’s fingers closed around the guitar’s neck.
‘Please,’ he said, tears in his eyes. ‘Not the guitar. Please don’t break my guitar! I promise I will go away and never try to play here again! I really do.’
The stranger blinked.
‘I’m not planning to break it,’ he said, in a soothing tone of voice. ‘I’m going to make it sound better.’
He gave the guitar a little tug. Helplessly, Palamid let go and watched, in mingled hope and disbelief, as the stranger actually began to tune it! He took his time about it, too—twiddling a peg, plucking a string, giving the peg another little turn…
‘It’s old and has seen much use,’ the stranger said, without raising his eyes from his task. ‘But a decent instrument nonetheless. It deserves care.’
As Palamid watched in fascination, he realized there was something not quite right about the movements of the stranger’s right hand, but he couldn’t get a clear view of his palm. Anyway, the stranger was done now. He swept his hand across the strings. It was a simple chord, but the notes rang astonishingly clear and true. The stranger was right; Palamid’s poor old guitar had never sounded so good.
‘Hey you! Whaddja think yer doing?!’
Palamid had been so preoccupied with the odd ways of this pale foreigner that he had completely forgotten to look out for Snub Nose’s thugs. This one, Cauliflower Ear, was way, way too close, practically breathing down the stranger’s neck. Palamid gave a strangled cry and flattened himself against the wall behind him.
It happened so fast that he couldn’t see what the stranger did. Suddenly, Cauliflower Ear was in the gutter, not dead, judging by the groans, but possibly wishing he were, right now. The stranger, it seemed, wasn’t even out of breath. The guitar, to Palamid’s great relief, was intact.
‘We seem to be attracting the wrong kind of attention,’ said the stranger to him. ‘Let’s go.’
He walked off, still carrying the guitar. Palamid hurried after him.
‘Where are we going?’ he dared to ask, when they were far enough away from Cauliflower Ear.
‘To a music shop, of course’, the stranger answered.
By that evening, Palamid was the proud possessor of a pitch pipe.
The words of the stranger still rang in his ears: ‘No use deluding yourself you’ve got perfect pitch if you don’t. Even some of the best musicians don’t. So use that pipe!’
It would take time to work it out, thought Palamid, gazing at the pipe again, then putting it away.
The stranger had just swept out of his life again as suddenly as he had appeared, striding away as the sun began to set, vanishing into the gathering dusk. Although he had bought a substantial supper for both of them before he left, there was an odd hollow feeling to Palamid’s stomach. He looked up. It was late autumn. A thin new moon was riding high in the sky.