Jack Fosdyke, otherwise known as Joe-Jack on account of his stammer, stubbed out his cigarette, swung his feet from the counter and said, "Cuh ... cuh ... can I help?" in the softest voice his nicotine-roughened throat would allow.
The middle-aged woman, hesitating at the door of Jack’s Axe, looked up sharply. "Yes ... I hope so," she said. Her accent was neutrally correct.
She wore an expensive-looking fawn coat with rain-darkened shoulders and carried a half-folded umbrella and a briefcase. The case, tatty to the point of shapelessness, jarred sharply against the woman’s persona; which was middle class, affluent.
There was an awkward pause, the woman hovering at the door, Jack, now on his feet, waiting behind the counter. November rain drummed against the music shop’s plate glass and blurred the facade of the kebab take-away on the opposite side of Ipswich’s Orwell Street into a paint run of molten drab.
Jack could understand the woman’s reticence. Jack’s Axe was a musician’s shop, every inch of available space taken up with the new and secondhand hardware of electric rock and roll. It confronted rather than welcomed, barred your way with keyboards and sound equipment, hemmed you in with drum kits and percussion, threatened you with guitars.
Guitars and more guitars, Jack’s own instrument, his specialty and Great Love. They were all there; Les Pauls, Fenders, Yamahas, Gibsons, and Rickenbackers, acoustic and electric, original and copy.
Where there were no guitars, there were shelves laden with sheet music and how-to-play books; there were strings, plectrums, leads, plugs, pedal switches and boxes and boxes of secondhand CDs and vinyl. There were also posters and flyers, on the wall behind the counter, in the window; bands for hire, equipment for hire, musicians wanted for bands, bands wanted for musicians, forthcoming gigs.
Jack himself blended, chameleonlike, with his shop. Bearded, gaunt, his hazel eyes sunk deep into their sockets, his shoulder-length hair, gray-peppered, Joe-Jack was an old rock soldier, an ex-session man, as war-scarred as the briefcase in the woman’s soft-gloved hand.
"I understand you buy second-hand musicware," the woman said.
Musicware? Like Tupperware, Jack supposed, and said, "I d ... d ... do," then hurried out from behind the counter to assist her. He took hold of the briefcase’s carrying handle and for a moment they shared its weight. Jack caught a tantalizing waft of perfume.
He noticed that her makeup only partially hid the deep webbing of lines about her eyes and mouth. Her fortysomething years had been hard ones.
Yuh ... yuh ... yours and mine both, he told her silently.
Jack hefted the case onto the counter. Water droplets glistened on its scuffed black surface, some forming rivulets that ran, sweat-like, down its flanks. He drew it to himself, flicked open the clasps, made to lift the flap, then hesitated and glanced up at the woman. She was staring fixedly at the case. The intensity of her concentration unnerved him, so he opened it, quickly, tensing, but not knowing why.
The case contained a plump sheaf of paper. Jack reached in and drew a handful out. And found himself looking at a dog-eared, slightly yellowed A5 covered with musical notation written in black ballpoint. It took only a moment for him to realize that it was for guitar; rock riffs, blues figures.
Jack’s concentration must have looked like suspicion because the woman was suddenly talking. "Look ... Look, I’ll tell you the truth." There was a tremor of confession in her voice. "I’m in the middle of a divorce, moving out, taking my share." She stumbled to a halt, head bowed. "This is the last thing I have to deal with. I was putting it off." She laughed, a humorless, bitter sound. "I’ve been putting it off for years. I thought I’d be all right about it, but there are too many bad memories ... perhaps I should have burned it."
"I’m glad you didn’t."
"Are you?" She stared at him, her eyes steady now. "Perhaps you wouldn’t be if you knew who wrote it. Where it was found."
"Truh ... Try me," Jack said, his curiosity aroused. "Huh ... huh ... who did write it?"
"My brother Andy. Andy Crane."
"Cuh ... Cuh ... Christ," Jack snapped, and felt the paper slip from his suddenly nerveless fingers.