band practice usually involves neither band nor practice. i can't remember why exactly, but a while ago sven decided it would be a laugh to start up a band. he knew i could play guitar and i knew he could (sort of) sing, and so we messed about in his bedroom playing various instruments that we didn't know how to play, and singing songs that we most definitely did not know how to sing. gecko is useless at music but he came along anyway just for something to do, and soon enough, this so-called band practice became a comedic, rather pointless tradition.
the comedy and pointlessness was lessened, however, when gavin, a shy, scottish, ginger-haired kid from our year, mentioned something about his dad Mark owning a music store. sven pounced on the opportunity to play some actual instruments and make some actual music, and - although i still don't know how gavin agreed to it - we found ourselves in the back room of gavin's dad's shop, confronted with a drum kit, some microphones, and a lot of very expensive equipment that we all knew we shouldn't be allowed to use. but somehow, no one seemed to mind - as long as we weren't too loud and made sure not to break anything. despite my doubts, gavin was an expert on the drums, and, with me on guitar and sven annihilating a microphone by screaming (swedish) heavy metal songs, we had ourselves a band - to some extent. i told Mo, who loved the idea, and hasn't missed a meeting since, and gavin brings along some girl from school who he said was his friend but acts a lot like his girlfriend. we have fun, even though we haven't got any idea what we're doing. we just act like we are, and that is enough.
on this particular evening, after finally finishing what feels like an entire century's worth of revision, i come out of my bedroom for what is only the second time that day, get dressed, dully inform my parents of where i am going, promise not to do anything illegal, and walk to Mo's apartment. she greets me almost immediately, and, to our delight, we can finally begin to catch up after a week of much-too-brief exchanges.
i learnt something today, she says, swinging my hand back and forth in hers like she always does. she is dressed in dark jeans, a peplum top with the words we need to live more printed across it, and, of course, a pair of doc martens - today they are red, though, unlike the old black patent pair she wears for school. she looks beautiful; but then she always does, i just never get used to it.
you did? i ask. that's more than i've done today, and i've been working for hours.
she kisses me on the cheek. you did well, charlie bucket, she says, don't doubt yourself. if only i could follow her advice.
so what did you learn? i ask with a smile.
i learnt that, of every hour's work you do, you retain only twenty minutes. she says firmly. now tell me this education system isn't messed up. how am i supposed to remember everything i need to remember if putting hours of work in means practically nothing?
no, i say desperately. no! don't do this to me. how is that possible? how? what? why?
she laughs. it sucks.
it sucks! i agree.
she shrugs. but it's just another flaw in what's expected of us. i want to know, not just remember. especially, she says, if remembering means nothing at all.
i nod, the demons in my head taking the opportunity to claw at my thoughts in the silence. i push them away and try not to think about the implications of what Mo had just told me. after all, who am i to let an exam result decide my fate? a piece of paper will never and could never define me, especially as i know that no matter what grade i achieve, i have still worked my hardest, and no one can say otherwise.
i just have to hold off the demons for as long as i can. that is proving to be harder than i anticipated.
so, i glance at Mo, trying desperately to distract myself from my raging thoughts. i haven't heard one of your quotes in a while.
she smiles, eyes sparkling. i never thought the colour brown could ever be anything but brown until i saw Mo's eyes. brown is not just a colour for her. it is a vortex, a galaxy that i can get lost in every time we come face to face. you know me too well, charlie bucket, she replies. let's see... in philosophy last week we were doing morals and pathways and decisions and things. and my teacher said this one quote - i wrote it down on my book - and it went something like, what's right is what's left if you do everything else wrong. and i think that's so true - of us, of everything, of now. because it's not often that you get something right first time. and there's a certain beauty in mistakes, you know? you can call them mistakes, or you can call them chances. i guess it's all about perspective. but you mess up, and you mess up, and you learn and you mess up and you try again until eventually, you do it right. you eliminate all the other options until all you're left with is success. i mean, yeah, it takes a while, but life would be so damn boring otherwise, don't you think? we'd all get so sick of perfection if it's all there ever was.
the words hit me just like they always do, slowly at first, and then the meaning begins to trickle between my bones and i understand it, and i can relate so enormously to what she is saying. that, i say after a while, is beautiful. i'm walking with her down the deserted streets of london on a saturday night and i can hear music from clubs and the wailing of sirens as they flash past us and the moon is just bright enough to be seen through a hazy mist of clouds that have not yet evaporated into darkness. and i am aware that we don't know; i am aware that i should accept that, but i am sure that if i could ever be certain about anything, it is that time spent with Mo is the most precious and the most enjoyed. i love her more with each heartbeat and each footstep and each word that falls from between her lips and mine. i may have my entire life ahead of me and i may believe that all we have is now but all i have is Mo, and she is all i need.
i stop for a second to look up at the sky, and to glance at her in the moonlight, and to rearrange all the sentences in my head just to make sure that what i tell her next is honest and it is true. because i have never been able to express how much she means to me, and i don't want to mess it up.
you know what i learnt? i say quietly, with my head tilted upwards and my hand in hers. i learnt that we make 35,000 decisions a day. and i don't know anything for certain, but if i did i'd say that every single one of those decisions i make every day involve thinking about you.
she smiles, that kind of genuine smile that lets me know that she's feeling something, and in the moonlight i could have sworn i saw a tear trace a line on her cheek. and then her lips are pressed to mine so unexpectedly that my mind is filled with a numbing pleasure, a marvellous nothingness, and she is whispering i love you, charlie bucket, into my ear. i smile and then let out a laugh at how wonderful bizarre it all is, all her charlie and the chocolate factory references and my inexcusably cliché confession but i love it, and i love her, no matter what. you ready for some music? she says and pulls away, and up ahead i can see the neon sign of gavin's dad's shop flickering obnoxiously in the darkness.
yes, i answer. because i am ready for anything; i always am, with her.
we cover the last stretch of cracked pavement at a run, Mo laughing as i pull her along, her chestnut hair billowing in the wind. she pulls on the sleeves of my hoodie to get me to slow down and all of a sudden we are hit with a welcome blast of warm (albeit a little stale) air as we enter the shop. muso's, despite being a little run down from the outside, is pretty impressive on the inside. its grey-brick and slate covered exterior conceals two large rooms filled with amplifiers, microphones, looping machines, and several different types of numerous different instruments. band practice is held in a store room behind the tills: amongst shelves and shelves of old records and new stock sits a drum kit, some battered microphones and an amp. every week i play a new guitar - gavin's dad Mark's old cast-offs that are still in fair condition but not perfect enough to be sold. they're good enough for me, and we all get by just fine with what we've got.
Mo and i arrive to find gavin setting up his drums at the back with his (girl)friend, nina, perched on a stool beside him. sven is nowhere to be seen; this is not at all surprising.
hey, charlie, gavin tosses me a glance. glad you could make it.
i shrug. sure. got a guitar for me this week?
he grins. out back. it's a little rusty, but dad said it should sound okay.
i mutter a thank you before heading to the old garage connected to the store. this is where all the junk is - the broken instruments and battered sound equipment, and piles and piles of old music books and sheet music. nestled among a box of dusty, scratched records is mark's latest project. this is what he does - buys ancient guitars from auctions and fixes them up. he always says he needs someone to test them out. i pull the guitar towards me and examine it in the sickly half-light from a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. it's a good one this week - an old martin guitar, small but still useable, its back and sides covered in duct tape and sharpie markings. i pick my way over the scattered junk and back into the store room, itching to give it a go.
like it? gavin is seated on a drum stool next to nina. he twirls his drum sticks between his fingers and taps out an absent-minded beat on the snare.
it's nice, i answer with a grin. thanks. pulling up a chair in front of the drums i settle the guitar in my lap and slide my fingers across the strings, testing for buzzing, for firmness, for tone. i twist the pegs until the tuning sounds right and then i start to play some chords, fitting sounds with different rhythms, getting used to the instrument in my hands. Mo sits across from me on the floor. i don't even need to look up to know that she's smiling at me. she and the music are the only two things strong enough to silence my demons, and i am thankful for both.
bonjour bitches! sven's voice invades my ears. (he seems to always greet us in every language except his own). let's get this show on the road.
Mo tosses me a smile as if to say it's begun. i return the expression with a roll of my eyes. taking his place at the front, sven shouts into the microphone, what's first on the agenda, then?
Mo winces and covers her ears. we can hear you fine, you know, she says.
sven grins wickedly. oh, i know.
is gecko coming tonight? i turn to him. he shakes his head. he's at home revising, the over-studious bastard.
(i wonder at which point in his english studies course did sven pick up the phrase over-studious bastard. i decide it's better if i don't ask.)
how about all the small things? Mo suggests helpfully. i nod. blink-182 has the kind of energy that fills me up, somehow. revives me. sven raises a hand to object - of course - but gavin's followed our lead and is already tapping out a rhythm. my fingers mould into the position of the first chord and suddenly we're swept up in it, the lyrics and the melody and the beat. sven starts to sing, each word dragged from between his teeth in a slow, melodic drawl. his accent sharpens the lyrics so that you've got to really listen to understand: it pulls you in, ties you to the music.
say it ain't so
i will not go
turn the lights off
carry me home
the end of the chorus brings a whirlwind of sound, gavin's drumming spiralling into an adrenaline-fuelled flawless freestyle, sven somehow still managing to keep up. i abandon my plectrum and strum hard with my fingers. the pattern is fast and energetic but there is an underlying rhythm like there always is. i've got to get that balance between focus and recklessness, power and control. my hands know these chords too well; i close my eyes and let the music guide each transition, each strum, each sound. fireworks explode beneath my eyelids and there is nothing in my mind except now; this wonderful, chaotic now. sven does one last chorus and with a drum roll from gavin and a final power chord from me, it's over, and my ears are ringing and Mo and nina are cheering, gavin looking sheepish. well, sven says breathlessly. that was delightful. next? i was thinking some swedish hip hop, perhaps, or -
he is cut off by a chorus of resounding rejections by every other person in the room. the only things that seem to associate sven with his home country (apart from his mother's delicious homemade meatballs) is his overwhelming obsession with swedish rap music. every week he tries to persuade us to play one of the boisterous foreign tunes and every week we object.
no swedish hip hop, gavin says firmly, shooting sven a glare as he continues to whine. any other suggestions?
Mo smiles up at me from her position on the floor, her eyes glittering. i don't know how, but those eyes can instill some sort of confidence in me. something that mutes the voices of the demons long enough to my own voice to be heard - something rare, and equally terrifying. but she believes in me; she doesn't even have to say a word.
i've been working on a cover of my own, i admit, my gaze fixed firmly on my feet.
yeah? gavin pipes up from the back. let's see.
the nerves rise up in me like they always do. it's okay, i say hurriedly. it's probably pretty bad anyway -
no it isn't. surprisingly, it's nina who speaks next. Mo's still got that look in her eyes which tells me that i should try. if nothing else, i should try, for her.
and so, because of the unexpected request and my newfound confidence, i find myself shifting in my seat and preparing to play in front i've people i've only ever played with - not performed to, not on my own. but i close my eyes and strum the first chord and let the music wash over me like it did those few weeks back in the deserted practice room; like it does every time i give it the power to overtake me, because that's how i like it best. there are no voices, no prying eyes to distract me. i can let myself believe it is only me and the sounds i can create. the more i put into this, the more i can pretend i don't exist; the more i can disappear into the music so that it is all that's left of me. i pluck the strings softly and slowly, stretching out the melody, letting it grow and linger and fade. my voice is quiet at first but each word makes me more confident, more relaxed, more free. i've let go. i'm singing and i'm playing and they're listening but i'm listening, too, and for once i don't mind what i hear.
a spattering of applause from my friends echoes through the cramped space as i pluck the final melody and the sound fades until i am just me again, with nothing to hide behind. i drop my gaze to the floor once again, my cheeks burning, fingers shaking.
that was cool, charlie, gavin says. we can work something out together with that one, forsure.
sven glances at me with a hint of a smile. i approve, he says with his nose in the air. i shake my head, laughing. and still Mo has that look in her eyes, but they're wider somehow, and her smile is a little to big for her face, the way i love to see it. she leans forward ever so slightly and whispers: that was wonderful, charlie bucket.
and that is all i need to hear.
the next hour is filled with mess ups and fix ups and the occasional well-played song, the way band practice always is. sven manages to play approximately thirty seconds of his precious hip hop music before gavin's dad storms in and tells us all to pipe down. from then on it's nina and Mo shouting requests, and the rest of us attempting to fulfil them.
green day! nina shouts with a grin. gavin puts his head in his hands. you know how fast the drumming is -
but i am strumming and sven is singing before gavin can back out. i clutch my plectrum between my fingers and scratch hungrily at the strings, hands numb with each chord, each verse, each chorus. sven tilts the microphone to one side and goes for it, screaming the lyrics to american idiot so loudly that i'm surprised we're not kicked out halfway through; i even manage to sing a few words myself. the noise is immense; and that's what it is, noise, melodies and rhythms blurring together until the power makes us lose control. but we enjoy it. we always enjoy it.
charlie! gavin yells from behind me. hold it out till the finish!
with a grin i press hard on the last chord, my fingertips white with the effort, and strum blindingly fast with my other hand. gavin joins the commotion with a crazed drum-roll and shouts a final countdown until, seconds later, it all cuts off. the girls' laughter fills the static silence that follows; gavin nurses his aching wrists and i do the same to my blistered fingers. sven, however, manages somehow to look as if the last three minutes of screaming did not affect him at all.
he clears his throat. gentlemen, i think we should call it a day.
i cannot help but agree with him.