Old Blue John – Helen Moat

He was leaning on a half-rotten fence, chewing on a piece of grass that dangled from his mouth. His eyes fixed on the middle distance, he didn’t see her coming down the track off the hill, her mud-matted mutt padding behind, until she was almost level with him.

“Morning,” she called out in warning, not wanting to shock him: he seemed to be in another place.

Mixie continued on down the track breaking the early morning fog, a fluid sheet of cotton wool lining the valley floor. The chilled air sliced through her throat as she headed home through the village main street.

He was there the next morning – and the next and the next. It seemed she wasn’t the only person who rose to greet the winter dawning. After a week she felt she should say hello.

“Hi, I’m Mixie,” she called.

He gave a strange little bow and grabbed her hand with his weather-worn one.

“Mixie, Mixie.” he jiggled the word around his mouth with a giggle as if savouring it.  “I’m Blue John.”

“You just moved into the village?” He asked. Mixie nodded yes, taking in the beaky nose and the dancing grey-blue eyes, the scraggy hair escaping from the woollen beanie and the rough stubbly chin.

“You’re my kind of person,” he said. “You start the day at the beginning, a good place to start.” His words were full of laughter as if life was still a surprise and a source of delight.

As Mixie met the villagers: the postmistress, the egg-man, the bread-man and milkman; the farmer up the lane, the girl across the road, the shopkeeper and greengrocer, she asked them about Blue John’s name.

“Who knows,” the postmistress said with a laugh, slapping stamps onto her parcel. “Maybe it’s an antonym. Lovely man, always smiling, but he doesn’t mix much with the village.”

“I’ve never asked, 2,3,” said the egg-man in a distracted voice as he counted eggs into her bucket.  “4,5,6, Maybe he’s mined Blue-John in the Cavern.”

“Doesn’t he always wear blue?” smiled the shopkeeper as she weighed the ham. It was true: he always wore navy combats and the same powder-blue jumper frayed at the cuffs and neckline – and the matching beanie.

“Haven’t a clue,” said the greengrocer as he scooped up mushrooms. “I’ve never spoken to the man. Don’t think he’s from around these parts.”

Mixie’s and Blue John’s lives become entwined. She spent more and more time with him. At first, it was just in the early morning as she came off the fells. He was always there at the fence, as permanent as the hills that surrounded him, embedded in the landscape.

“Good to start at the beginning,” Blue John said one day. “But you shouldn’t miss the end.” Mixie frowned. Blue John was always talking in riddles. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“You should be up on them hills when dusk falls. See the world under a full moon. It’s a different place.”

So the twilight walks began. Mixie was sure Blue John was a magician. When she was with him the world around her was larger-than-life and slightly off-kilter: The clouds storming across the sky, the sun a seething blob of white; the horizon curving an orange neon strip; the earth on fire; the light, cold and luminous; the huge paper moon taking on form; the night-sky, an electric purple; the Van-Gogh stars swirling around them.

– And one night, the stars falling like darts of rain, a tropical monsoon in the sky, a meteor shower that seemed to last forever- and the rocks on the moors taking on monstrous proportions: she was sure they had come alive.

“Why are you called Blue John?” she’d asked him over and over, but he never replied.

Then one evening as they sat on the saddle of the hill, Blue John said. “You wanted to know why I’m called Blue John,” he said. Here’s why.”

Blue John pulled out a battered guitar he’d hidden in his large rucksack.  He started to play, his fingers moving across the fret like lightning, his voice filling the space – gravel and gold flung across the hills. There was such melancholy and joy in the music. Mixie had no idea: all this time she had known him, he had never once mentioned the guitar.

“The blues,” Blue John said simply. “That’s how I got my name.” They sat on the hillside lost in a soundscape and landscape that had slowly became one. Shadows slid cross the hills and valley, the light dissolved and the night spread black ink across the earth like blotting paper.

Blue John’s voice came out of the dark. “To every beginning there’s an ending, and to every ending there’s a beginning. Just remember that.”

The next morning Blue John wasn’t leaning on the fence. He wasn’t there the day after – or the day after that. Finally Mixie pushed the cold, rusting iron-wrought gate to the cottage she had never visited. She knocked on the peeling door but there was no reply. She peered through the grimy window and saw Blue John sitting in a chair, motionless. Mixie called to him. He didn’t move.

She pushed the front door and went inside. Between the shafts of dusty winter light, she saw the room was filled with guitars: guitars on walls, guitars on stands, guitars strewn across sideboards and propped against furniture.

“Blue John,” Mixie whispered. ”Wake up.” But she knew he was dead.

The twelve year old girl knelt down and took the leathery hand in hers, glad her parents had allowed her to befriend the old man 70 years older than her; glad they had allowed her to walk the hills with him.

Then she noticed a guitar on the scratched oak table had a note on it with her name. It was the guitar on which he’d played the blues for her. Mixie opened the note and read: To every beginning there’s an ending, and to every ending there’s a beginning. This guitar is for you, Mixie. Learn to play the blues and feel the joy.



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