As a child I was never slender. So, as with all substantially built children I tended to ally with others of equal stature, and, ideal ‘forwards’ for the school rugby team that we were, this collectively gained us a certain amount of respect. After all, if we disliked someone sufficiently, we had always the option of sitting on them.
One such heavyweight alliance was my friend Peter. To say Peter was ample would be to pay a simple adjective an undeserved disservice, yet this blunted none of his enthusiasm for life, or his confidence in himself. Peter, Peter had decided, would become a great musician.
It was an ambition I did not share. From mother’s knee upwards I strove to learn an instrument and failed. It mattered not that my mother was a talented pianist, a fine contralto, or that my blind aunt Christabelle’s virtuosity with the violin could send cats three blocks away into spasm – a sensitive child, I loved music, but music was indecently resentful of my attempts to make it. I could discover notes that had lain undetected for centuries, and still sing them out of tune.
Not that I would be deterred from trying, or found wanting in support for my friend’s musical ambitions; oh no. When Peter’s parents bought him a chromatic harmonica, and after my parent singular had refused point blank to buy me an expensive equivalent, I purchased a little ‘Bandbox’ from my own infinite resources and dedicated myself to supporting Peter’s rigorous regime of practice.
Our hours together came to fruition when we were invited to give a rendition of a jazz or rock number for the school concert. In the secrecy of our lair on the village common we conspired: “Let’s do ‘Sea Cruise’.” Peter said. I suggested: ‘There’ll never be anyone else but you’.
Here I must explain a childhood ethic. He who has biggest wins. You can interpret that any way you like, but in this case we are referring to the biggest harmonica. I knew, in my heart of hearts, a fast number like ‘Sea Cruise’ was out of my league, which was why I pleaded passionately for the ballad, but Peter’s harmonica was the biggest, so…
We rehearsed assiduously. I even persuaded myself I was becoming quite good, little noticing how cunningly Peter reduced my contribution until I was merely providing the rhythm.
The fateful day approached.
Childhood is a precious time, they say; a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers time of glittering dreams and golden memories. Childhood, in our village home, was rather more a business of grit in the shoe and cowpats avoided, and Fred’s fairy feet were unlikely to grace a village barn dance, although there were plenty, after sufficient cider, willing to have a go.
As my confidence increased, I felt better placed to share my music with an eager population. And so I brought upon myself the day when I finally surrendered all pretensions to musicianship.
‘Doing my moves’ about the village streets, tootling tunelessly, I came upon Old Walter, he who looked and smelt as though he was constructed of pipe tobacco. He was seated on his front wall, attended by two Jack Russells and a ferret.
“You got a ‘monicky, then, young ‘un?” Walter perched the ferret on one shoulder. “Give us a go, will ‘ee?”
Too embarrassed to make a run for it or simply refuse, I meekly offered my ‘’monicky’.
Walter’s luxuriant moustache bore evidence that suggested he’d had soup for lunch – inwardly groanworthy, but not insurmountable. However, he also had a set of porcelain teeth, which he took out and laid neatly upon the wall. The evidence was conclusive: that soup, judging by the material residue, was vegetable – with maybe bits of meat. Walter grasped my mouth-organ between brown nicotine fingers and raised it to lips which, lacking support, had retreated to somewhere in the back of his throat. The mouth-organ vanished into the cavern, and although the notes it emitted from the old man’s mouth were, to be fair, quite tuneful (a sea shanty), I was mortified.
So, Walter, you were responsible. You ended my musical career – my candle of inspired composition was never burned, the world deprived of my genius. Because, after retrieving my mouth-organ from your grip with reluctant forefinger and thumb I dangled it home, placed it in a drawer, and never played it again.
I dreaded confronting Peter with my retirement, though I need not have worried, because he was extremely supportive and possibly – although I am sure I was mistaken in this – pleased. He would do the number solo, he said. I could watch from the audience, and after the performance, tell him what I thought.
The concert afternoon arrived, I was in the front row. Peter was announced, unaware he was to be accompanied by the school music teacher, ‘Bert’ Reed, on the school piano. The school piano was re-tuned at the Council’s expense once a year. This was month eleven. Peter started up gamefully, ‘Bert’ followed discordantly. Somehow they discovered some common ground and the number some purpose. In fact, it would have been a competent, if uninspired rendition, had Peter not decided to enliven it by improvising.
Added vibrato and rapid key changes, elements of the duck walk and Presley hip rotation take on an added dimension when performed by a sizeable lad of thirteen on a wooden stage; impressive? ‘Bert’ was certainly overawed. He stopped playing. I think the audience were impressed, too – certainly Peter’s parents were rendered speechless.
For my part, I was silently grateful to Walter. I never told Peter what I thought of his performance, though I’m sure his parents did, because in the new Spring Term he started to teach himself the trumpet.