I can’t tell you when I first saw the man I came to call The Troubadour but I can tell now you that I loved him. I did not love him in the way that one loves a brother or a partner or even a friend, but in the way that one loves love and life itself – the kind of appreciative love that wants to reach out to touch rose petals because they’re soft and to stand in the rain because it’s cathartic and to hold hands with a loved one while walking down the street because it means you’re not alone. I remember watching The Troubadour’s weather-worn face and England-gray eyes and sensing a kind of sadness that ran soul-deep, as it does in so many of us who make art. And I remember having some instinct that of all the people I had come across in the world, The Troubadour would understand what I meant if I were ever to tell him that sometimes listening to the Cloud Cult cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was all that got me through the day. And I loved him for that.
The only thing I ever told The Troubadour was “Thank you,” but during the months I lived in Canterbury he was a fixture in my daily life. When I went to the city centre for lunch or coffee he would be there, sitting on a bench beneath a tree, strumming his guitar and singing folk songs. When darkness was cloaking the rooftops and medieval ramparts he would be leaning against the old Roman wall, playing his guitar, singing rock’n’roll songs and giving the money that passersby had placed in his case to the homeless man that sat beside him. And whenever I saw him my soul would smile.
As it happened, Canterbury had many street musicians, most of whom played banjos or just played “Wonderwall” over and over. The first song I remember hearing The Troubadour play was the Tom Petty song, “American Girl.” And while all the other street musicians would disappear along with the last golden-purple streaks of evening light, The Troubadour would remain. When the streets were empty and the damp chill of an English Autumn was whispering ghost stories of all the Canterbury tales that had come and passed upon those cobbled streets, The Troubadour would still play. I would see him there with his gray hair and cracked fingers and I would swear that he needed the music the way I needed the music and in my heart I would thank him for helping me to feel a little less alone in the world.
I was always with my boyfriend whenever I saw The Troubadour and I was always miserable. I felt stuck in my relationship and stuck in a world that was filled with people who were content to just be happy enough – people who never cared to question the meaning of things, people like my boyfriend. And I was worried that this was as good as it would get -- as good as I would get.
Whenever my boyfriend and I would happen upon The Troubadour I would smile and clasp my hands together and stand utterly transfixed in the happiest moment of my day. But I would be lucky to hear one full song before my boyfriend was pulling my away. He didn’t feel the pressing, pulsating need for the music the way I did and he had an outright, inexplicable hatred of street musicians. Sometimes I would wonder if he could love me the way he said he did if he couldn’t love what I loved or even just love how I loved it. The thing I loved most about myself was how I could fall in love with a song, how time and time again I could give my heart up to melody and verse and let them make me better and lovelier and brighter and more alive, if only for a few minutes.
One night in late November, when it was just me, my boyfriend, the homeless man, and The Troubadour, I paid The Troubadour for a song. I put some pound coins in his case and he thanked me. I was surprised to hear that he had an American accent. I thanked him in my own.
The song he played for me was “Mrs. Robinson.” His eyes moved back and forth between mine and his guitar. A terrorizing thought crept from the song to my heart as I wondered if he had heard me exclaim happily every time I had seen him in the street and if he had seen me stare back at him over my shoulder every time my boyfriend pulled me away. I wondered if he had noticed the way I walked around like my high heeled boots and pearl earrings and other pretty things could make up for how unhappy I was. I felt like he knew. I felt like he could see the art of misery painted in my eyes. And, in a way, I wanted him to. But really, it didn’t matter if he was playing the song because he was trying to save me or not; either way he was scaring me and I needed that.
Before the song was through my boyfriend was pulling me away. But even as we made our way up High Street and through the old city gate, the wind carried the sounds of “Mrs. Robinson” from The Troubadour to me.
It was snowing on my last day in Canterbury. The Troubadour was playing in the street outside the café that my boyfriend was hurrying me into. I promised myself that this time would be different – that after we had had our coffee I would go back outside and I would stand in the falling snow and I would listen until my soul had had its fill. When I came back outside The Troubadour was gone.
A year and a half later I returned to Canterbury. This time it was early May and the air was warm and tulips were bursting up in patches in the grass. The Troubadour was nowhere to be found but neither was Mrs. Robinson. And there was a new work of art hanging in my eyes; this one was called Happiness.