Michael Harding: Maybe that’s where our souls are hiding, in our feet
Here we are, holding the song and the pain together with the sly beat of a foot on the floor
Sole searching. Photograph: Nina Hilitukha/Getty Images
There was a beautiful young woman at the kitchen table, wearing headphones, and a pyjama top as long as a grandfather shirt. She was eating cornflakes and singing under her breath along with whatever music was sinking into her skull from the earphones. One leg was crossed over the other and the foot on the floor kept time with the music. I looked at her bare foot under the table and thought, “That’s her soul down there. In her foot. That’s where she keeps her soul.”
After a long time waiting for the kettle to boil I asked her what she was thinking.
She took off the headphones.
“I was thinking of last night,” she said.
“We went to a club. Me and this guy. And I hadn’t been to a club for a long time. I usually don’t have good experiences. But I was drunk. And I thought it would be kind of weird going to a club with him, because he’s a little bit older than me.”
“How much older?”
“He’s 35,” she said.
“That’s not too big a gap,” I suggested.
“People are going to think he’s like a sugar daddy,” she said. “But he’s not.”
She continued humming and eating and tapping her foot. The kettle boiled. I dropped a tea bag in a mug and poured hot water in.
Her cornflakes bowl was empty, so she took a paper box from the fridge and scooped chicken fried rice into it.
“That’s an odd breakfast,” I observed.
“It’s leftovers from work,” she explained.
Not knowing what to say I tried to introduce a new idea.
“I read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way.”
“No shit,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “And furthermore the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, according to some physicists.”
“No shit,” she said again.
Then all of a sudden she became self-conscious. “Excuse me,” she said. And she lifted her spoon and the bowl and left the room. If she considered a man was old at 35 she may have thought I was a talking beetroot from outer space.
Later I strolled around the dry streets of Clifden, gawking into shop windows displaying tweed hats and waistcoats and I passed little restaurants with endless possibilities of fish on their menus. It was the beginning of Clifden Arts Week.
And by accident I sat outside a coffee shop on the square, just beside the festival caravan where a young man called Bam from Jamaica was singing.
He was wearing a grey jacket and cap, and a scarf hung casually around his neck. His two feet tapped out the rhythm of each song on the pavement.
“I’m going home child,” he sang. His voice like a long slender ribbon of silk, furling itself around the street and mesmerising everyone. No one stirred in the pub doorways or at the outdoor tables. No one stirred outside the Basmati Indian restaurant. Or in the coffee shops. No one stirred as they stood beside their parked cars, with buggies. Clifden had come to a halt. Everyone was holding their breath beneath the grey clouds.
“Got a mean bulldog in the front yard,” he sang.
“Got a mean bulldog on the back porch.”
His gorgeous voice poured out from the speaker and the sound of his shoes on the street filled the air. He was as thin as a rake, sitting on the speaker, beating the song with his shoe leather.
“Bury me deep in the cotton field,” he sang. “My daddy used to tell me, you must work on.”
“What’s your name,” I asked, between songs.
“Bam,” he said. “Artist/Artiste.”
“I keep singing about the cotton fields,” he added. “But I’ve never been in a cotton field in my life. I suppose poverty is catching.”
Then he sang more; his foot still measuring the melody, just like the young girl at the breakfast table. Like a child singing at a Feis. Like a sean-nós singer in a London pub. Like ballad singers down the centuries, holding the song and the pain together with the sly beat of a foot on the floor.
The foot pumped and the song came, like light from a Tilley lamp. Maybe that’s where his soul is, I thought; in his feet. Like all the travellers of the world who cross the oceans in hope of a refuge, or a place to sing. Maybe that’s where all our souls are hiding: in our feet.