there are textbooks and papers scattered about the scratched linoleum floor when we enter; with my fingers still tangled with Mo’s i pick my way across the room to the instruments. upon catching the questioning look on my face, gavin informs me:
i told my dad we were studying tonight instead of having band practice. we’ve got to keep the noise down. he should have gone home by now, but if he comes in, grab a textbook and pretend to be abnormally interested in trigonometry.
right, i chuckle. got it. anything good for me to play tonight?
he shrugs. it’s a new one; he’s not quite done with it yet. see what you think.
the guitar i will use tonight is an old one, but exciting nonetheless; it’s electric, something i don’t play often. the metal is tarnished, the paint scratched away to reveal the frame underneath, and the pegs are in desperate need of replacing. but i have a feeling it sounds a lot better than it looks.
when i emerge from the garage, the back room of muso’s is a frenzy of voices and movement. nina swivels on gavin’s stool while he tightens a bolt on his drum kit, gecko groans at sven’s wailing into the microphone, and Mo sits cross legged on a table wedged up against the wall, her hair a veil that hides her face as she studies the pages of her philosophy book. it feels like home.
a smile creeps across my face, one that seems almost too big for this ordinary moment, when my friends are so lost in the awkward hilarity that makes them them. but i remind myself that these are the moments i look for and the moments i love; i sit on the scratched lino floor, taking in the ordinary and translating it into wonder and forgetting, blissfully forgetting the reality i try so hard to escape.
ready? gavin half-shouts over the interlocking words of sven and gecko as they argue about the importance of yet another swedish rap song that (thankfully) i have yet to hear. i decide to answer for them. we're ready, i reply, prodding sven with my foot and aiming a sympathetic eye-roll at gecko. what's first?
weightless! it's nina's voice. i smile; she sits behind gavin's drum kit, watching the chaos unfold, fuelling it. her song request doesn't go unnoticed. gavin counts us in and, mercifully in time, the music is upon us. it's a while since my fingers have shaped these chords, since i've heard the rawness of sven's voice as he reaches for the melody, as the lyrics hit all of us each in our own way. for me it is not a moment of epiphany but rather a gradual introduction to the relevance of the words - the curious idea that such words can be written by someone entirely unknown to me yet describe my now so perfectly. music has a way of describing now as if it hasn't happened yet, or as if it is long gone; music can reinvent time and tell you things you thought you knew but of course you don't, you won't, but music breaks that to you in the most wonderful of ways.
make believe that i impress
every word by design turns a head
i wanna be reckless, i wanna live it up just because
i wanna feel weightless
and that would be enough
gavin makes magic with his drumsticks and sven drives the song home, his eyes scrunched shut, hands gripping the microphone, head bent low as he sings the final lines. i have reached that escape i always crave; the music is a part of me and the whole of me, it has taken over me yet i can still feel the thrill of it, brightening up my darkness. my fingers work of their own accord. i strum harder now, darkness blessing my eyes in a heavenly surrender. i can feel the climax hit us like a tidal wave, i'm going under...
... i've been going crazy,
i don't wanna waste
the song ends as abruptly as it all started, reality settling its burden on my shoulders in the ringing silence that follows. we are breathless, grinning, playfully proud. nina nods at us with a smile. Mo's sparkling eyes are fixed on me. what's next? gavin asks, twirling his drumsticks effortlessly. i liked that.
i break into a smile. me too.
sven smirks, tapping his fingers against the microphone to create those uncomfortable little bursts of faceless volume, the kind that is as ambiguous and loud as a drum beat. gavin does not look impressed.
i know! he switches a look of frustration to one of mischievous inspiration. let's slow it down a bit...
he introduces us to a slow, drowsy rhythm, one which gets my foot tapping along immediately on the dusty linoleum floor. i am instructed to strum a pattern of chords against the backdrop of the beat and soon sven hums a lazy tune. this song is new to me, but i like it. i am discovering. surprisingly, sven seems to know it better than i do. (for a second i worry that gavin has been somehow indoctrinated regarding the genre of swedish rap music. fortunately, the words sven begins to sing are in english.)
we were at the table by the window with the view,
sun was pushed through
spoke a lot of words
i don't know if i spoke the truth
the words fall from between sven's lips in a quieter way than i am used to: they sound lower, feel heavier, as if i am listening to them on an old record player. his eyes are closed and his hands are wrapped around the end of the mic almost protectively. i keep on at my four chords, strumming as steadily as i dare to breathe when the demons are not invading. this is natural, though i do not know it: it feels familiar to all of us.
if gavin is the backdrop to this scene, i am the ground on which we pave out our journey. and sven is painting the clouds, with a voice like brass and birdsong and ennui.
got so much to lose,
got so much to prove;
god don't let me lose my mind.
when Mo used to recommend songs to me, i would go home and listen to them in the dark. wait till everyone was asleep - everyone in the world, it seemed – turn the lights off, bury my phone under my mattress, pull the curtains closed, and let the music replace the dimly colourful shadows that slid across the darkness between my eyelids as i lay, still, silent, feeling every lyric and drumbeat, every melisma and note-change, every flexure of the music as it hit me with a kaleidoscope of nows. (that’s another thing music does with time: plays with it. taunts you. makes minutes turn to centuries; and then it hands you one hundred different ways to feel, all at once, yet only seconds have passed while you have tried to cope with your heart switching from metronome to morse code.)
you see, the darkness cuts off all distractions. it forces the music into every crevice of you, every fibre, every pore. when the light returns, it attacks. reality attacks. right now, i feel as though we are in darkness: sven’s reposeful, stormless vocals float around me like a cloak, like the kind of darkness i enjoy, the peaceful kind, and not the abyss that pulls at me when in the presence of the demons. this now feels like that peaceful darkness, and i am dreading the return of the light. i close my eyes, focus on the music, let it fill me and empty me all at once. the last chorus is approaching; i open my eyes with a content half-smile. Mo has her eyes glued to her philosophy book, head tilted so that the music is hitting her full on.
she doesn't look like she is enjoying the darkness; she looks like she has been contaminated by the light.
i can't describe it exactly, whether there is a moment when i believe something is wrong, or a feeling i get, or something i can see on her face. but like Mo understands me, i understand her, and i understand that something is just... off. i guess the demons don't attack her in the brutal and rather obvious fashion that they use on me - but then Mo has never been one to draw attention to herself. her discoveries and thoughts and emotions are more concealed, quieter, somehow. it takes a lot to dig deep enough into her; most of the time Mo just settles for what's on the surface. she says it is less painful to keep it contained than to pull it all up, like skeletons under the ground. if that's what she feels like, a skeleton made up of skeletons, she is the most beautiful graveyard i have ever seen.
the song finishes and slowly i lift my head to nod contentedly at my friends. sven tosses me his signature smirk, taking one hand away from where it rests on the microphone to ruffle his shock of white-blonde hair, a casual demeanour that makes it seem like he has just stepped off stage from a gig. gavin, however, is more subtle in his pride; we exchange rueful grins, unsaid words colliding in the space between us - that was pretty cool. gecko gives me a thumbs up while not taking an eye of the textbook in front of him; nina gives gavin an energetic high five (he blushes, sven wolf-whistles). Mo is silent. she is lost in her head. usually i am jealous that she is allowed to spend so much time wrapped up in those beautiful thoughts of hers when i can only glimpse; now i wonder if she is suffocating. i want to rescue her from her own head, but of course i can't. that's the catch, the moment the beautiful mess of humanity backfires: our conscience can kill us. i hope she's holding on. can we take a break? i ask hurriedly. gavin shrugs. the energy captured as if in a vacuum slowly falls away, replaced by dull chatter.
i lay my guitar to rest on the floor and join Mo at the back of the cluttered room. her legs are folded on top of the graffiti-covered table, and though no one is looking at us, i yearn for privacy. so i take her hand, gently, balancing the spine of her philosophy book on one palm and sliding it gently onto the floor. then we sit with our backs against the wall, heads arched, legs crossed like before, under the table. it feels safe. (albeit a little cramped, and it smells slightly musty - but it feels safe.) that's the beauty of having such a wonderful, marginally dysfunctional group of friends: no one ever seems out of place.
hi, i say, because it feels like i haven't talked to Mo in a while, and she seems sad, and it hurts me that she's hurting. hi, i say again, because she's still not answering, just staring straight ahead, a forced smile pulling at the corners of her mouth, one which is so sad in that it absolutely doesn't make her look happy; oh god. hi. i say. and then, because it's killing me and i really can't think of anything except: you're sad. why are you sad? the words are quiet but i am desperate, i am bracing myself. she doesn't answer. Mo. i'm sorry. it's just i saw you across the room and you were reading something and then you felt something and i don't think it was something good and you're still feeling it and -
charlie, it’s alright, she says, and offers me that paradoxical smile again; my concerned expression amplifies. a sigh escapes from her parted lips. charlie, it’s… complicated. she drags a hand across her face, her fingers travelling down to get tangled in her hair as she glances mournfully at her philosophy book. it’s just those lyrics and these words and i can’t… it’s all coming at me so fast, charlie. do you ever get that? it’s coming so fast. i just can’t separate all the lies from the untruths.
at this i am puzzled. Mo shakes her head again. today in philosophy there was a quote on the board – she flicks frantically through her book – i never make the same mistake twice. unfortunately there are an infinite number of mistakes, so i keep making new ones. and there’s this thing – this problem – that i keep going over in my head, and i don’t know whether i am mistaken or if it is a mistake and it’s exhausting, charlie.
those eyes of hers are on me while i contemplate the words hanging in the air and i’m trying, i know i must be quick or else –
forget it, she says, her expression a contradiction, her tone a declaration of lost hope. i’m confusing you. and myself, she mutters. i’m confusing myself.
Mo… her name drops from my lips with a sigh. can you at least tell me something?
she tilts her head to look at me, shoulders hunched under the table. it’s about my dad, she tells me. unsaid words flicker and buzz around us, i can feel it, i can feel something, but after a while I give up trying to translate the white noise into speech. it’s like turning the television screen to a channel that doesn’t exist and trying to make the sharp mess of black and white into letters you can read; like cloud-watching with a sky where all the clouds are exactly the same. there is nothing for me to decipher, no complex metaphor for me to undress or hidden meaning for me to uncover. i am so used to Mo blessing me with beautiful answers, but this time she hasn’t even given me a question.
simplicity, i decide, has rendered me useless.
and so i spend the night shrouded in discomfort, in uncertainty, in a curiosity that wavers between worry and confusion. after what seems like an eternity, Mo and i depart from underneath the table. we join our friends on the cold linoleum floor, with various instruments scattered around us like corpses on a battlefield; we bring the emptiness back to life, but not with music this time. gavin tells stories about customers at the shop, and how his dad is currently pursuing the talent of ukulele-playing (although not, gavin emphasises, with much success). gecko imitates sven’s annihilating-the-microphone face, the unpleasantness of which sven puts down to jealousy. i perform my best impression of a doting (yet, as always, excruciatingly patronising) miss mirlott, received by a flurry of applause, and the night wears on. cool air drifts happily through the open windows, making way for sounds of sirens and planes. the streetlamps cast their orange pallor onto our backs, shadowing the room like dark circles beneath hollow eyes. i laugh, i sing, i applaud – but i feel constrained by pretence. i am not worthy of such a worry-free existence, at least for this very brief moment in between exams – not with Mo sitting silently, brooding, next to me. she once told me that it is a lot easier to be a poet if you are brooding over something. we should always brood, she said. I wonder if it is worth the pain, now, staying true to her words. i can feel it, though. i can feel her truth. she creates poetry just by sitting there, the lines and the curves of her, the light and the dark, like italicised words and brushstrokes and smooth chiselled marble: she is all of the art, all at once. silence becomes a martyr just for giving itself up to her speech; in that moment, i wish for nothing more than the death of the steady nothingness undulating between us. this heaviness weighs me down as we walk home together, the same words moulding together in my head:
got so much to lose,
got so much to prove;
god, don’t let me lose my mind.