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Silver Guitar Strings
Mum’s in one of her moods again. She’s lying in bed with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other, playing love songs at the loudest volume and contradicting every other line at the top of her voice.
I don’t like her when she’s like this – which is pretty much every day these days – so I’ve come outside to sit on the wall.
I love this wall. I don’t know why; I just always have. It’s always been my favourite place to come and swing my legs and watch the world. You can hardly hear mum from here, either. Just the occasional curse every now and then.
It’s not fair. She was getting better! She even signed up for alcoholics anonymous and everything. It’s the guilt; she can’t handle it.
It’s sort of ironic – dad spent years telling mum the drink would kill her, but it ended up killing him instead. They had a massive row and mum ran out to the pub. Dad ran after her and got knocked down by a car. I saw it all, sitting on my wall.
There wasn’t any blood – there’s always loads in the movies – so I thought he was okay. I waited. I nudged him. I called his name. I begged. But he didn’t respond. He just lay in the road, eyes wide and staring, ghostly pale, motionless.
Since the accident, mum’s done nothing but drink. I find that pretty insulting on dad’s behalf. I mean, they wouldn’t have rowed in the first place if it wasn’t for her drinking, and if they hadn’t rowed mum wouldn’t have run out and dad wouldn’t have followed her and died. You’d think she’d have learnt her lesson.
I shouldn’t think like that. When I do, I get angry and blame mum. And it wasn’t her fault. Not really. She loved dad – that’s why she’s so sad all the time. She’s ill. Dad explained it all to me; alcoholism is an addiction and we mustn’t take it to heart if she says mean things. It’s just the drink talking.
But some things aren’t easy to ignore.
Sitting on my wall, brooding about mum and dad, I was getting pretty down. So down that I didn’t notice I had company.
“What you thinking, kid?”
I started and looked up to see I had been joined by a homeless man. He was really old, with more wrinkles that I could count and mud-brown skin so dry he looked as if he’d been roasted for supper. He wore a long, brown leather coat, a green beanie hat and fuzzy gloves with no fingers. A guitar rested against his legs and he was chewing the end of a stubby pencil.
“I don’t want to think.” I told him sourly.
“Good for you,” he said, sucking on his pencil. “Too much thinking is bad for the heart.”
I nodded. I knew.
He laid down his pencil beside him and lifted his guitar. “Don’t think now. Just listen.” And he played.
He was pretty darn good, too. He and his guitar must have had some kind of special powers, because I found myself daydreaming blissfully of sea and sunlight and peace.
When he was done, he held the guitar out to me. I have never played before in my life, but it felt good sitting there in my lap. Like it was part of me.
“You have her, sonny.” he said. “She needs new blood. Tired of my old scabby fingers.”
Then he put his pencil back in his mouth and trundled off.
He came back though. He taught me all kinds of tricks and songs. Classical, rock – a bit of everything.
Once, I asked him his name. He said he didn’t rightly know – he couldn’t remember – so we christened him Bill.
He was a good teacher, and soon I could play Ziggy Stardust off by heart with no mistakes.
It sounded pretty cool, almost like Mr Bowie himself. Even mum said so! She heard me when I was practising one day, waiting for Bill. I played the whole song through and when I finished, I looked up to see mum standing there. She hadn’t dragged herself out of her pit for days, so I thought I was going to be in for a right rollicking.
“Oh it’s you is it?” she said instead. “It’s good.”
I smiled at her. “Thanks.”
“One of my favourites, that is. You must play it well or I wouldn’t like it. I can’t stand shabby covers.”
I was thrilled with the compliment, and I dared hope this was the end of her depression. But she smiled at me vacantly and then turned and went back inside and I saw the familiar vodka bottle swinging in her hand.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is she said I was good. And I was good, thanks to Bill.
Bill taught me a lot of other things too, like how emus can’t walk backwards and how there are more people alive today than ever have died and how a ducks quack won’t echo. He knew a lot of things. But some days we just sat and strummed in silence. You didn’t need words when there was music, he said.
Then one day, Bill took his guitar away with him. I was disappointed to say the least. I had grown to love that guitar, but I guess it did belong to him.
The next day, he came back and presented it to me with a flourish.
“There you go, sonny. Whaddya think of them?”
I looked down to see the guitar had been restrung. With silver guitar strings.
“Wow!” I said, running my fingers over them. I loved them! “Are they real?”
“Real silver? Are you joking, boy?”
“They’re really nice.” I told him. “Thanks!”
He nodded. “Try ‘em out then.”
So I did. My fingers played them like they were old friends.
Bill clapped me at the end. “Best yet.” he told me. “Really great.” Then he shook his head and laughed throatily. “Real silver! I ask you!” He hooted with laughter, but suddenly it turned into a coughing fit. He didn’t sound too well.
After that, he didn’t come again. I guess he died. Of drink probably; he always stank of alcohol. He never went mad like mum though. Maybe it was just his cough. Maybe he coughed so hard his lungs collapsed. Who knows? Maybe he’s not dead at all. Maybe his musical talents got discovered and he’s in some recording studio earning megabucks. Maybe.
I still sit out on my wall. There’s nowhere better to play. I miss Bill, I really do. He taught me more than anyone ever has. But imagine not remembering your own name!
I don’t play as well without him. Sometimes I don’t feel like playing at all.
I’ve been out here for half an hour and I can’t get up the energy to play. I’m thinking again. Bill always said I think too much. Bad for the heart.
But Bill’s not here, is he? He left, just like dad. I’ll think all I want. He can’t stop me now.
Maybe I’ll run off to the pub and get myself drunk too. Maybe I’ll go mental like mum and spend every day lying in bed talking to myself. Who’s going to stop me?
Why should mum get all the pity? What about me? Don’t I deserve some attention? I lost my dad! It was all her fault anyway! She deserves the guilt!
I ran into the house and upstairs to her room, intending to give her a piece of my mind. I’d held it in long enough!
I burst into her bedroom and towered over her. She was lying in bed, fast asleep, a smouldering cigarette dangling from her fingers. She looked peaceful for once. She wasn’t shouting or crying or falling over.
A bottle of whisky hung loosely from her hand. I plucked it from her grasp and set it on the floor.
I sat beside her on the bed and stroked her hair from her face.
I missed dad. I wanted to go and be with him, wherever you went after death. Maybe I’d see Bill, too.
Mum stirred in her sleep.
“Where’s my Steve!?” she mumbled. “Give him back!”
I made soothing noises to try and lull her back to sleep but she was wide awake now.
“Give me my Steve!” she snapped, clutching her shirt.
I shook her off. “Dad’s dead!” I hissed. “You killed him remember?”
Her eyes darted from side to side like she was looking for an escape route, her throat working furiously as she searched for the right words. “Threw him off a bridge, did I?” she muttered. “Poisoned his beans on toast? Tied him to a brick and threw him in a river? Gave him to a hungry old goat?”
I watched her as she grew more and more agitated, her hands raking her matted hair.
“See? See? I didn’t. No. I didn’t kill him. The car. The car. The big red car. The car killed him. Not me. Never me. I love Steve. Steve loves me. Kill him? No. Never. Threw him off a bridge. Hungry old goat.”
“Stop it, mum.” I begged her. But she wouldn’t listen. She was searching for her whisky now, rummaging under the bed covers.
“Beans on toast. Hungry old goat. Love. Kill. No. Never.” She wrapped her arms around her body. “No. Never. Big red car.”
“Mum, stop!” I said, moving closer, putting my hand on her arm.
“Get away! Don’t follow me! Big red car, remember?” screamed mum, putting the covers over her head. “Don’t leave me though. Steve left, but you’re still here. You’re all I’ve got now.”
I stayed with her as she calmed down. I couldn’t tell if she’d fallen asleep or not, but I knew she needed me.
“Yes.” I whispered. “I’m still here. Dad left, but I’m still here.” I sat beside her and played her favourite, Ziggy Stardust, over and over, my fingers stroking the silver strings like they were old friends.