‘busk: to perform music in the streets and other public places for money’
That’s the official dictionary definition. I checked it on Dad’s computer before we came out, while I was waiting for Ava to remember where she’d put her flute case. But there was another version underneath:
‘busk it [informal]: to do something as well as you can, without much preparation’
That’s the one we need, my sister and me. We aren’t so much busking as busking it. And I have a feeling it shows.
‘Are you sure this is working?’ I mutter, as Ava puffs her way through the final chorus of ‘Yellow Submarine’.
She finishes with a flourish and a smile.
‘We’re fabulous. Trust me.’
Trouble is, I don’t. The last time I trusted my older sister was in primary school, when she assured me that it was normal to wear a Buzz Lightyear costume (complete with wings) to gym club if you accidentally left your leotard at your granny’s. The teacher made me do the whole class in that costume, including the hula hoop sequence. Ava giggles whenever she thinks of it. Some memories haunt you to infinity and beyond.
But she’s promised me a third of the proceeds today, which sounded tempting at the time. I was hoping to earn enough for some new shading pencils.
‘Jesse’s cousin got fifty pounds last week,’ she says, reading my mind. Her eyes have the dreamy look she always gets when she mentions her boyfriend in Cornwall – or even, it seems, his relatives.
‘What, Jesse’s cousin, the classical violinist?’
‘Who’s in an orchestra?’
‘Well, yes,’ Ava admits. ‘But she was busking in Truro, which is miles from anywhere. And look at us.’
I look at us. Location-wise, we’re perfect: Carnaby Street, in the heart of London’s West End, surrounded by Saturday shoppers taking advantage of some early summer sun. If we were Ava’s boyfriend’s cousin, we’d probably make a fortune. But I bet she wasn’t playing ‘Easy Beatles Tunes for Beginners’. And I bet she didn’t give up her instrument at Grade 3, like Ava did two years ago. And I bet she wasn’t accompanied by a girl who only took up the tambourine that morning, like I did.
It. We are so busking it.
‘I reckon we can make at least double what she did,’ Ava says confidently. ‘All those people have been stopping to look at us.’
‘That might have something to do with that top you’re wearing.’
‘Why?’ she says, looking down. ‘What’s the matter with it? It’s a lot more interesting than your t-shirt.’
‘Nothing’s the matter with it,’ I sigh.
Ava spent forty-five minutes this morning choosing the skimpy lilac top and cut-off jeans she’s wearing now, and another twenty-five perfecting her makeup. She looks fantastic as always: glossy-haired and violet-eyed, curvy and sparkling – well, not quite as sparkling as usual due to her virus, but still super-hot. We must make an odd couple: the stylish sixth-former, looking like an undercover film star, and her gangly younger sister, looking like a lamppost in shorts.
I wish I could copy her, but I’ve tried and it doesn’t work. I just don’t have the required va-va-voom. When she bent down to pick up her flute she actually got a round of applause from a group of passing builders. As soon as she started on her version of ‘Yellow Submarine’ they moved on pretty quickly, though. Even builders have sensitive hearing, it seems.
‘Anyway, how much have we made so far?’ she asks, hopefully.
I check the open flute case at our feet.
‘Two Starburst wrappers, a piece of chewing gum and a parking ticket.’
‘But there’s a guy down the street who keeps staring at us. Over there, see? He might give us a pound or something if we’re lucky.’
She sighs and looks tired for a moment. ‘It’s hardly enough for a ticket to Cornwall. I’m never going to see Jesse at this rate. Let’s give them “Hey Jude”. My last performance “had to be heard to be believed”, remember?’
I grin. I do indeed remember that quote from the school newsletter last Christmas. I’m not sure they meant it the way she took it, though. I’m starting to understand why she couldn’t con any of her friends into coming along today, before she asked me.
Ava does a couple of test breaths, then launches into the opening bars. I rattle my tambourine as best I can, trying not to catch the eye of anyone nearby. I think I’m supposed to ‘take a sad song and make it better’, but that’s beyond my musical ability. I’ll just have to settle for making it louder.
Meanwhile, the guy down the street is slowly heading in our direction. It suddenly occurs to me that he might be a plainclothes policeman, if plainclothes policemen wear leather jackets and carry orange backpacks. Maybe we’re not allowed to play here and he’s about to arrest us. Or worse, he could be a kidnapper, sussing out victims. Thank goodness I did judo in my last year of primary. And for once, my height could be useful. While Ava got her film-star looks from Mum, I got all the genes from our tall, lanky dad, who’s six foot five, even without the mad hair – which I also inherited, along with his bushy monobrow. I’m not Dad’s height yet, but I’m definitely taller than leather jacket guy. I’m pretty sure I could take him on in single combat, if I had to. As long as he hadn’t done judo too, of course.
When I look round, Ava’s not there. Then I realise she’s sitting down on the cobbled pavement, with her head between her knees.
‘Are you OK?’ I ask. She should definitely eat more breakfast.
‘Yeah. Just needed a rest. “Hey Jude”’s a lot tougher than I remember. I finished ages ago, by the way. You’ve been rattling that tambourine by yourself for five minutes.’
‘Oh, have I?’ I bet she’s exaggerating. I hope she’s exaggerating. I stop rattling. ‘I’ve been watching that guy over there. D’you think he’s a policeman? What’s that he’s holding? Is it a walkie-talkie?’
Ava follows my gaze. ‘No. I think it’s a camera. Ooh! He might be a scout.’ She gets up to have a better look.
‘I don’t think so,’ I say. ‘He’s too old and he isn’t wearing a woggle or anything.’
Ava rolls her eyes. ‘I mean model scout, not Boy Scout, you idiot. Lily Cole got scouted round here.’
‘Famous supermodel. Do you know anything about fashion, Ted?’
‘Mum says “blue and green should never be seen”, although I’ve always thought—’
She interrupts me by digging me in the ribs. ‘Hey! He’s coming over. Act natural.’
Oh, no. He is a policeman. I can just feel it. We’re about to get a criminal record. At least, Ava is. I think I’m too young for one. Plus, her rendition of ‘Hey Jude’ was definitely more criminal than my tambourine playing.
‘Hi, girls,’ the man says, with a disarming grin. ‘How are you today?’
‘Fine,’ Ava answers, coyly. She looks up at him through her long lashes, while I try to remember my defensive stance and blocking manoeuvres.
‘My name’s Simon and I’m from a model agency. D’you mind if I take a picture?’
‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ Ava blushes. ‘I’m not really—’
‘I meant you, actually,’ Simon says, gazing past her.
Ava’s watching me now. Come to think of it, Simon’s definitely looking in my direction. But that can’t be right. I stare back at him, confused. He looks straight into my eyes and his grin widens to a dazzle.
‘I’ve been watching you and you’re amazing. Have you thought about modelling?’
What? Amazing? Me? Modelling? No.
Suddenly I feel dizzy. This must be some sort of prank. I assume we’re being filmed. Is Ava in on it? She looks as bewildered as I feel. Why is Simon talking to the flat-chested freak with a monobrow, when the gorgeous one with the film-star face is standing right beside him?
He hasn’t stopped staring at me. I guess I’m supposed to say something, but my mouth has dried up. I shake my head.
‘You should consider it,’ he goes on. He delves into the pocket of his trendy black jeans and hands me a card. It has a logo on it of a jagged black ‘M’ inside a pale blue circle. He says the name of the agency, but I don’t catch it because my ears are buzzing. ‘Look us up. How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?’
My mouth is still dry.
‘Fifteen,’ Ava tells him, less bewildered now and more suspicious. ‘She’s too young. Look, we’ve heard about people like you.’
He looks confused for a moment. ‘Actually, she’s not,’ he says. ‘Fifteen’s great. Too young for catwalk, but we’ve got fourteen-year-olds on the books. Come and talk to us. Bring your parents. We’re one big family. Picture?’
He holds up the camera again. It’s larger than average: a Polaroid, designed to spit out instant snapshots. I wonder what they’re like.
‘No you can’t,’ Ava says firmly.
‘Well, at least tell me your name,’ he says to me, dazzling me with that smile again.
‘Ted.’ My voice is a croak. ‘Ted Trout.’
I nod, but is anything serious round here? I’m still waiting for the camera crew to leap out from wherever they’re hiding and fall about laughing.
‘Nice meeting you,’ he says. ‘And think about it. Call us. You’ve got something.’
You’ve got to be kidding, he means. As he looks away, the spell is broken. There will be a comedy video of me on YouTube any day now: the human beanpole who thought she was Kate Moss. But by the time I’ve stopped feeling dizzy and the buzzing in my ears has faded, it’s all over. Simon has disappeared into the crowd and if Ava wasn’t standing there, staring at me like I’d just sprouted a second head, I would swear I’d just dreamt the whole thing.
end of extract
The Look is out in the UK from 1st March 2012