The rim of the callus had peeled away from the finger tip, forming a stiff bloom of dead skin. Barry started working around the edges with his teeth, chiseling delicately under it.

He should let it to grow into an even shell on his index finger and so give himself the protection to hold the strings a bit longer, a bit tighter, making the notes a bit crisper and purer. But he only decided this once he started gnawing. By then it was too late. The callus was half off, and he was enjoying the sharp sting of its rim on the tip of his tongue.

Today, he was doing it at the train station. He had done it queuing for the ATM, in the supermarket and a few times at lunch and dinner. As habits went it was not as disgusting as some, but he dropped his hand, the callus still attached, anyway and smiled awkwardly at the young woman watching him.

It was an ‘okay-I’m-sorry’ smile, but there was no way she could tell it wasn’t a ‘despite-my-habit-I’m-not-that-disgusting-and-we-should-meet-up’ smile. The difference was only obvious in the intentions of the smiler, and those intentions were in the smile. The woman got on the train and Barry jogged for a wagon further down.

*

Barry played guitar. Not as often as he promised himself, but better than most people he knew. Not as good as Milton though. Milton was a freak, a freak for finding the angels down in the neck, a freak for choosing the worldliness of office management. Barry figured he did it just to rub his talents in, to show he was so good he didn’t have to pursue them. He just waited for the occasional team building weekend to remind people of what he could have been.

For Barry, hydrology was the only choice, and he could never quite practice the guitar enough. He mastered songs, was especially good at difficult chords, could make each group of notes sing in close unison, but it never had that majestic ease of Milton. Barry was good. No question. What mattered was brilliance.

There’d be no practice tonight. His freshly plucked finger was too raw to commit to the strings. The callus had been bitten off surreptitiously in a meeting. Besides, he wanted to watch the first episode of that new zombie series. More than anything he just wanted to sit and stare and flush the day out of him with a bottle of not too shabby cab sav he picked up on the way home.

*

He really really should’ve left the callus. He couldn’t pin the strings down to get the notes out of them. They were an egg slice, and his fingers were egg whites whereas they should be like over-cooked steaks, leathery and unresponsive.

 

Tonight’s practice had to be the simpler songs. Three finger chords. Creedence, Dylan, REM. His catalogue took about an hour to go through. He needed to slow the tempo. That was another one of his problems – a folkie’s ear with a punk’s approach. The pain made him hurry even more.

He had to nail the songs by the end of the week. Then he could call Milton and the two of them could jam. Barry knew the chords, the scales, the keys. It was just his technique that had rust. One solid week of practice every night straight from work would do it.

The solid practice would have to start tomorrow. His finger tips were as raw as the day he started. The pain made the tops feel dented, hollowed out, the soft underside somehow scraped away leaving a tough rind. But never tough enough. There was still some of that cab sav left. Then maybe FaceBook. Maybe some porn.

*

What a day! The boss had asked Barry to estimate the water consumption for the coming summer. Now that Barry had done it the boss thought the results would be too unpopular to release. Barry had spent the better part of the week working on that. He delayed switching the plant to solar power because of that. He missed drinks that afternoon with Milton because of that.

And there was nothing in the fridge. Nothing to drink. He could nip down and grab a couple of long necks. He could already feel the glass warming in his grip, hear the muted chime of the bottles. Pale ale and pizza. First some guitar.

He dragged his fingers across the strings, which were still in the open E tuning, and filled the flat with a warm choral hum. He put his keys and wallet back in his jacket, which he still had on. The pale ale was better from the tap and the pub was doing half price steaks.

*

The woman at the train station had mistaken his look for the second option. Fortunately, she didn’t mind. Her name was Diane. Diane was a stable name. All the Dianes he’d known had good jobs and few hang ups. This Diane ran a design company, which meant she was creative but could still go to a decent restaurant. She was even gracious enough to listen to him explain how the desalination plant worked as they rode the escalator from the platform. There was even a smile and a wave, like the kind where someone’s playing castanets.

At the train station the next morning she suggested that they meet for a drink. Barry’s number jumped from his phone to hers. He didn’t ask her to reciprocate. She might think he was desperate. She might think he was burnt, and no one wanted remains.

Should he tell her about the guitar? There were some good anecdotes to deploy for a laugh. His favourite was when he had a band at uni. They were so loud they couldn’t hear the neighbour who had let herself into the garage to complain about the noise. It was only when Barry saw the drummer abruptly stop that he realised.

Diane would probably side with the neighbour. There was something in the way she talked, the confidence with which she handled her phone calls, or the directness she suggested the date, that said she would tell him what she thought. Plus, she might want to hear him play and he knew he wasn’t ready. When she found out how long he’d been practicing she might suggest that he give up.

If he took a cab, there would be a bit of time to practice. Besides, a cab would look better than the bus. His fingers didn’t feel as hollowed out as before.

*

He’d fallen into a hole and come up Sunday. It was too easy to stay another night. He kinda wanted to stay more, and he suspected she wouldn’t mind, but he didn’t want to go too fast, get his hopes up. He told her there was some work to finish for the plant. Really, he’d sit on the couch. Maybe look through eBay.

Thank god for the plant. Without it, he doubted he would’ve had much of a chance. She even wanted to know where the sea went. He tried to explain that it didn’t go anywhere. It was still there and would be there for hundred of thousands of years. Probably millions. She reached down for her wine glass and, while still looking at the floor, said it had to go somewhere. He wanted to assure her that the relative amount of water was so small the fish and other lifeforms wouldn’t be harmed, but by the time she was sitting upright again, she had an ‘enough-of-that’ smile on. She wanted to talk about what they would do later.

Her music collection suggested that she would be too dismissive, too detached, for desalination. Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and a whole bunch of other bands he’d never heard of. He suggested putting some stuff on but she wasn’t in the mood. Nor was she that interested in what he listened to. He was tempted to tell he could play, but then he hit on a better idea. He’d practice some Cohen songs and surprise her if she came to visit. When. When she came.

*

The bud of a new callus was starting to form. The Cohen songs were not too hard. Mostly minor chords. One had an awful change from A minor to F. Even after spending the whole night practicing it. He was an eighth of a beat out.

Afterwards, he had Leonard Cohen in his head all day. He hummed ‘Suzanne’ while his boss sprang a meeting on them. He was too satisfied with his new callus to pay much attention. By the end of the week he figured he would’ve worked out most of the songs. He even attempted some of the Nick Cave ones. They sounded like rudimentary Johnny Cash. He didn’t see any of that in Diane’s collection.

*

She was peeved that he hadn’t called. The displeasure was pacing there under her words, a big cat in a cage. Part of him was hoping for that reaction. It let him know where they were. On Friday she had some industry drinks to go to. She’d like to invite him but she knew he’d understand. Saturday was good. He didn’t mind. It gave him another day to practice.

The finger tip was starting to toughen. His former guitar teacher had showed him his and said that it came from forty years of constant playing. It was the shape of a small egg, yellowish and rimmed with a painful red. Milton had a similar one.

The tip of Barry’s finger slid down the smooth unresponsive line of the high E string. He could barely feel it pressing in. His chord changes were better, precise, taut, enclosing around the beats. He’d even managed some old blues licks his teacher had once shown him.

*

The callus came away painlessly. The check out attendant was staring at him while he put down his bottle of cab sav to bite it off.

The glass was serene on the fresh pink skin. It would be good to put his feet up with a glass of wine. The practice could wait until next week.

Diane liked cab sav too. He was sure she’d need one after the text message. ‘Horror afternoon with client. Explain tonight. Di x’ One bottle should be enough for the two of them. If not there was a place that delivered.

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