Patrick unhooked a ukulele from the straps of his backpack and Paul pulled a long travel guitar out of its black case. Their discordant plucking soon tuned into harmonic sounds and I tried to keep the beat by drumming on our wooden bench in Victoria Tower Gardens. Paul leaned forward as his fingers strummed faster. He usually looked more like a leprechaun with wavy red hair and a big red beard but he was neatly trimmed for our new journey. Paul is a natural musician and a clever engineer, which means he can make an instrument out of almost anything but the guitar would do for the moment. Patrick bent over his ukulele, his face distorted into grimaces and his body squirming. He always looks like he’s in pain when he’s making music, almost like music is too much a part of him to let go of too easily. “People walk a tightrope on a razor’s edge,” he cried with his eyes squinted and his legs kicking up, “Carry their hurt and hatred and weapons/It could be a bomb or a bullet or a pen/Or a thought or a word or a sentence.”
As our music got louder and our voices sang more freely, curious passersby briefly slowed down in order to catch a few chords in the breezy air. One smiling tourist snapped a few pictures of the three rugged bums on the park bench by the River Thames. Our voices mingled beneath the sound of footsteps on crunching leaves: “The wind blows wild and I may move/The politicians lie and I am not fooled/You don’t need no reason or a three-piece suit to argue the truth.”
Earlier the three of us walked out of a dark subway tunnel into the sunlight at Piccadilly Circus. Our journey from Houston to Tel Aviv was broken by a fifteen-hour layover in London and we decided to take advantage of it by spending the day in the city. We followed a map on a few pages cut from an old Lonely Planet guidebook, leading us past red telephone booths and statues of Lord Nelson. Parliament soon stood before us like a towering cathedral with hundreds of windows like eyes. Big Ben slowly wiped his face in time with each passing minute.
A row of dust-covered tents on the other side of the street paralleled the immense government house. A large sign was propped up next to the end of the tents: “On Strike for Peace: 24hr peace picket, parliament square,” and other protest signs lamented the disasters in Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Gaza. Stained and tattered flags struggled to rise even when the wind encouraged them.
A man stood in front of the tents. He leaned on a pair of metal crutches and his suntanned leathery hands were joined in front of him as he stared at the sidewalk. The three of us walked across the street toward him with Parliament in front of him and Westminster Abbey behind him. He greeted us with a thin smile framed by a greasy peppered beard. His bloodshot eyes were darkened beneath a deteriorating miner’s hat that disappeared beneath protest buttons. He spoke quietly, almost inaudibly, as if he was afraid Parliament would overhear. As he told us about the corruption of the British government and the complicity of churches in organized murder, he glanced over our shoulders at the bobbies patrolling the gates of the government seat. He seemed worn down by the authorities’ disregard of his protest. He stared at the parapets and spires but the hundreds of windows like eyes ignored him. No one was listening to his conversations and he spit out the word “Parliament” like it was bitter and burning his mouth. The lonely protester soon forgot we were there and began staring again, waiting for any hint of recognition. I noticed a small sign as we began to walk away: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do; Children forgive us for now we do.”
The trees in the park reached over the stone wall and dipped their fingers into the water. Shadows and sunlight conversed above fallen leaves on the pavement. We wiped the crumbs of our trail mix onto the ground and Patrick and Paul began strumming again: “The air on my skin and the world under my toes/Slavery stitched into the fabric of my clothes/Chaos and commotion wherever I go, love I try to follow/Love will come set me free.” Paul put his guitar back in its black case and Patrick strapped the ukulele to his backpack. We sat silently and looked at the boats speeding under bridges on the river. We listened, but all we heard was the whispering call of love and justice, which “is what love looks like in public,” and it was calling us to chaos and commotion. So we stood up and followed.