I hate this place. I hate the way that the car-park pay station is next to a vending machine full of chocolate and crisps. When I come here, I get Alex to stay in the car while I pay, so that he won’t ask for something from the machine. You can’t expect a twelve-year-old to understand that he’s being tricked. At twelve, boys are just appetites held together by attitude. Alex isn’t so bad, but we don’t have the money for stuff like that.
We’ve struck a deal. He gets to spend time at the Blues Guitar Day in ourl ocal music store, if he helps me stock up at the Weigh ‘n’ Save. He hates the Weigh ‘n’ Save as much as I hate the car-park. He hates the big bins full of cheap generic foodstuffs; gravy browning, corn flakes, cake mix. He hates the big plastic bags that I fill with breakfast cereal and instant coffee powder. He wants to buy food in packets and jars, but we can’t afford that. It’s ‘either or’ in our flat. Either guitar lessons or Kellogg’s cereals. Either cheap trainers or a new coat.
We start with the guitars, of course. He’s been buzzing with this for weeks now, giving off the high pitched energy that pre-teens generate. It’s been making my head ache, his manic happiness. For the whole week it’s been, “They’re Blues guitars, not just blues guitars, Mum. The best guitars in the world!” I try to be enthused, I really do. I know it’s important to him, and I thank God daily that he has this hobby, this love of music, which might get him through his adolescence without drugs or crime taking hold of him. “Django Reinhardt had one, and George Benson has got two!” I smile, feeling old and worn thin. Was I ever this enthusiastic about anything?
“Carlos Santana, Gary Moore, Mark Knopfler has one with a jade inlay, Bryan May ….”
So here we are; me and my stick-thin boy. Standing outside Donnards. There is a crowd, but we edge in, finding ourselves at the back of a lot of backs. Most of them are large and wearing leather jackets. Some are maroon sweat-shirted Donnards employees. Alex wants to work here when he grows up.
Either that, or be a world-famous guitarist. We can’t see a thing. The jackets, which creak and smell like old saddles, are surrounding the guitar display. Alex cranes and jiggles, he must be catching glimpses of the guitars because he’s starting to move the way he always does when he sees one. His left hand goes up in the air and his right hand starts to pluck at nothing. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it.
Last week I left him outside the post office while I collected my Child Benefit, and came out to find him playing air guitar to a bemused Jack Russell Terrier that was tied up in front of the chippy.
Then he vanishes. He ducks down and he’s gone through the legs of the
Jacket men. Okay, it’s smart, and it makes me smile, but on the other hand, as I tell him all the time, ‘This is London; you have to be careful. I know you think you’re a man now, and with no Dad at home you have to take onresponsibilities, but you’re only a kid, Alex, and London isn’t safe for kids any more.’
I’m weaving away at the back of the crowd, trying to see Alex and make sure he’s okay. Eventually I start to push, and by working my elbows and not being fussy where I put my feet, I wedge myself into the wall of leather and prise a path to Alex’s side. The guitars are still being set up. All this standing around, just to watch some men take guitars from cases and put them on stands. I get a good grip on Alex’s elbow and pull him backwards out of the store. The Jackets close around the gap. I don’t think they even noticed we were there.
“Come on,” I say, “Let’s get the shopping done and we can come back afterwards.” Before he even speaks I can see what is going to happen. His bottom lip curls down like a salted slug and he says, “Oh Mum! That’s not fair! You said I could look at the guitars before we went shopping and they haven’t even got them on display yet. Anyway I hate the Weigh ‘n’ Save. Why can’t we have proper food like normal people?”
“Because we’re poor,” I say, and although that’s true, it’s not the whole story.
“Because we’re poooooor,” he mocks, stretching the word to ridiculous length.
“You’re not too big for a slap if you get facety,” I say. We both know he hasn’t been slapped since Rodney left, a decade ago. It’s an empty threat.
“Yeah, right,” he mutters.
We load our basket in sulky silence. I weigh washing powder, flour, sugar, rice, and coffee into bags and he stares through me, pretending … what? That he’s not here? That I’m not here?
Until a year or so ago, I could read his mind, but now he’s opaque. Partly it’s because the music has changed him, made him more complicated and distant. Partly it’s his age. Chunks of his life have closed off from me. It’s as though he’s gone round a corner and however fast I move, I’m never going to catch up with him. I’ll only see his back as he moves away. I have a sudden image of him as a man in a jacket. A Jacket man.
We walk back to Donnards. Before we get there I can hear a guitar. It’s as sweet as honey. The notes pour out of the door and slide along the pavement, tingling the spines of passers by, who pause to listen. Sad music, break-your-heart music, but beautiful.
“Stormy Weather,” my son says, knowledgeably. “Style of George Benson, nice ….”
This time, when Alex eels his way through the crowd, I follow him. We arrive in front of a platform holding the guitars. Even I can see that they are worth money. They gleam. The guy who is playing Stormy Weather is bent so far over his guitar that you can’t even see it. Big amps though, billowing the sound out. Alex tugs my sleeve “He’s a Demonstrator,” he whispers, “they actually get paid to do that Mum; they get paid to play music like that. Isn’t it great?” As I look at him, I see the little boy he once was, beaming out at me from the face of this skinny youth, and I am so swallowed up in love and fear that I can’t answer. I smile back at him, and hope that it’s enough.
He wants so little. Just to play music. He has talent too. They’ve told me that, over and over again. Real talent. But there is only so much money and I’m not going to ask his father for anything. The day Rodney left, was the day our lives started – and I won’t let him back in. ‘Either or’ is good enough. We’re managing. Okay, we can’t afford a Blues Guitar; Alex nearly owns a £39.99 acoustic that I’m paying for weekly from a catalogue, and he has an electric guitar we rent from the Schools Music Service. We find the money for lessons though. He practices every day. We don’t need money from Rodney to buy expensive guitars, even though the school thinks it’s a good idea to ‘involve Alex’s father in decisions about his future’.
What they mean is, I should get Rodney to foot some of the bill, but they don’t know what the cost might be.
We wait for the end of ‘Stormy Weather’ and then all the Jackets rush the stage. We are pushed back until we find ourselves on the edge again, watching the big men grabbing guitars and interrogating the staff about prices and hire purchase agreements. Alex stands beside me, hands twitching. The demonstrator places the guitar he was playing back on its stand and as Alex moves towards it, a Donnards employee grabs it and hands it to a fat, leather-clad man. Alex’s hands dangle like broken wings.
For ten minutes, Alex tries to get a guitar. Each time one gets put back on the display, he moves towards it, only to be cut out of the action by a Jacket or brushed aside by a staff member. He is nearly crying, but he won’t give up. And me, what am I doing? I’m useless. I don’t know how to deal with this kind of thing.
The first time Rodney hit Alex, it left welts on his fat, toddler leg. I heard Alex scream like a train whistle and got there in time to see the finger-marks still rising; first the colour of old ivory, then pink-red and finally the colour of the purple plums on the stalls in Camden Market. They showed dark on his leg for a week – I put him in long pants on Sunday when we went to church. I should have made Rodney leave then. The second time, about a month later, he slapped Alex around the head. The third time it happened, I rang my Mum and then locked myself and Alex in the bathroom.
Rodney slammed out of the house and I waited until I heard my Dad, yelling to me from outside, before I unlocked the door and went downstairs. He drove us back to their house and then he went back to the flat to wait for Rodney. I don’t know what happened after that. Dad wouldn’t tell me. I never saw Rodney again. He pays maintenance, but the amount hasn’t increased for five years.
Dad died two years ago, and since then I worry about Alex. Who’s going to teach him the things he needs to know, now that his Grandad is gone? Who’s going to show him to stand up to the Jacket men?
The Demonstrator goes over to a case and opens it. Inside is the most amazing guitar I’ve ever seen. It’s green. It’s gorgeous. He puts it on the stand in the middle of the display. Then he unlocks another case and takes out a guitar with an inlay of piano keys along the frets and a golden saxophone chased into the soundboard. A third case reveals a guitar set with tiny birds. Alex is crouched down, staring at the piano and sax detailing. The demonstrator picks up the green guitar and plugs it into his amp. The sound soars out over us like an emerald wave. Alex grins. The music is awesome. It’s blues, the kind of blues that makes your eyes ache with tears, even if you aren’t naturally prone to weeping. It’s got me. I am holding my chin up high and gritting my teeth to try and stop the world knowing that my whole life is leaking down my face in big salty drops. All the Jackets have turned to face the Demonstrator and Alex sees his chance.
He grabs the bird guitar. He sits right down on the edge of the platform and hunches over it like a miser with a gold coin. All I can see is the top of his head and his knees. And right then, before he gets properly settled, while his fingers are still finding their way across the frets, a burgundy-clad figure snatches the guitar from him. “You can’t touch that,” the staff member snaps at him, “it’s worth a bloody fortune. Nobody’s allowed to touch the special guitars except the boss”
We walk out on a wave of sad, green music. I take him to the coffee shop.
We can’t really afford it, but he deserves something. His face is drawn tight and he is shaking. I try to tell him that it won’t always be like this. “One day,” I say, “You’ll walk in there and they’ll fall at your feet. They’ll beg you to buy their guitars. They’ll put a poster in the window saying ‘Alex Summer once bought a guitar here’ Probably the only person there today who’ll ever be able to afford one of those ‘special’ guitars, is you. When you’re famous you can tell this story on MTV.” I’m not getting through to him. He’s staring through me again.
“Mum,” he says, then stops. He drinks his coffee and looks at the tabletop. Then he tries again, “Ease up, Mum. It doesn’t matter. What happened in there … I don’t know how to say it, but that guitar; it really liked me. It’s okay, Mum. It’s cool.”
I can feel my heart breaking. Not cracking, like people say, but melting into puddles of pain. How can this be right? They shouldn’t treat him like that. Nobody should be treated like that. I walk him to the car and tell him to wait for me. I am going to put things right. I march back to Donnards, ready to tell them all the things I’ve been storing up. But it’s not that easy. I can’t get them to pay attention to me. I’m just a woman, the mother of the brat who picked up the expensive guitar. The employees avoid me.
One of the Jackets is buying a guitar. Not one of the ‘special’ guitars, just an ordinary one, but it still costs more than I earn in a month. All the other Jackets and the staff are crowding round to congratulate him.
I look at the display. The bird guitar is right there. I reach out my hand and touch it. It’s just a guitar. I pat it, getting ready to leave, facing the fact that I’ve failed to fight another battle for Alex, when he appears in the doorway. My boy. For one second he looks like the man he’ll become.
In that instant, he’s as cool as George Benson, as strong as Muddy Waters and as sexy as Phil Lynott. And under my hands, I feel little birds flutter their wings. The guitar likes him.
We walk out together. In the doorway we turn, and look at the guitar. The bluebird and the mockingbird, the peacock and the dove, they all bow their heads to him – to my boy.
“Okay Mum?” he says.
“Yes child,” I say, “fine. Everything’s just fine.”
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