Northwords Now

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by Anna Levin

The way he’s looking at me, he knows she was at mine. He’s two ahead of me in the checkout queue at the Coop, hackles raised, puffed up and bristling like an angry cat.  He stares ahead then glances back, glowering, but he looks kind of wobbly, and I’m not sure if he’s going to thump me or burst into tears.  I don’t know what the hell to say or how to explain. The truth is I never touched her, despite what they’re all saying, and the rest of the band all smirking and giggling like schoolgirls. Not that I didn’t want to. Jesus I did, but it wasn’t like that. I mean I didn’t, we didn’t… it wasn’t… nothing happened.

Nothing happened? Yet something did.

This is what happened.  

I was down by the harbour last Saturday afternoon, just coming out of the hardware store, when I heard this tune – no, I felt this tune, it stopped me in my tracks like a physical force, right there in the shop doorway. It seemed to be coming from all around, a mesmerising, lilting melody, lifted up by a strong rhythm and spiralling sweet and high. Now I’ve been playing music as long as I can remember, but I’ve never heard a tune like this before – so strange, but immensely satisfying, it would get to exactly where you wanted it to go, but by all sorts of twists and turns along an unexpected route.

I was enchanted, first by the tune, and then by the girl playing it. She was sitting on the steps of the harbour wall, and the music was coming from the accordion in her arms. Not a piano accordion like you’d normally see here, but rows and rows of buttons on each side. She played with her whole body – her foot beating a rhythm on the quayside, her head moving gently from side to side, her arms strong and steady while her fingers leapt and danced in intricate steps across all those buttons.

She played, and I listened, until clouds coming in from the bay brought the first splashes of rain. Bigger, darker clouds were muscling up behind them. She glanced skywards, scooped up the coins from her case and packed up to go.

Dazed, I returned to my shopping, the tune still rippling and rolling in my head as the rain came lashing down. I ran in and out of shops, forgetting in each what I was looking for, then dashed home to light the fire and make something to eat, but found I wasn’t hungry, my stomach was tense.

By the time I got to the pub that night, the session at the Anchor was in full swing. It was packed, the musicians all squashed into a corner and the tunes pouring out and swirling above the chatter of the foot-tapping crowd. They were rocking through a set of reels, the fiddlers going full throttle and the music surging and rushing forward like a river in full flood. There she was at the heart of it all, playing with grace and guts, those strong arms pushing and pulling away. I squeezed alongside Martin, who was having trouble already accommodating his double bass and his elbows in the crowded corner, reached for my fiddle, tightened the bow and plunged straight into the racing current.

It’s become customary for the session to drift round to my place when the pub eventually closes at some random hour of the night. The flats above and below are now holiday homes, only used a few weeks a year so there are no neighbours to disturb. I didn’t dare ask her to join us, but then I’ve never asked anyone, they all just drift along. I was walking ahead with Martin and glanced back, pretending to check that Matt had remembered his banjo, and I saw that she was coming with us. My heart did a strange, fluttery dance.

Back at the flat we chucked some logs on the fire and it was soon blazing away nicely. Someone had brought a bottle of whisky and Martin’s cousin had brought her clarsach. Sometimes the session just carries on rolling at mine, all blasting away, but other times there’s a different quality to it, and we listen more and learn tunes from each other. That Martin’s cousin played a lot, gorgeous rippling airs. We joined in a bit, but mostly just basked in the warmth of the fire, the whisky and the music.

Gradually people drifted away and somehow it happened that everyone else had gone. Of course I found out after that they’d slipped away deliberately – ‘You didn’t take your bloody eyes off her all night, thought we’d better leave you to it,’ Matt said later  – but at the time I thought it was just amazing synchronicity that, miraculously, there were only the two of us left there.

She was looking down into the accordion, her face bright with the firelight, figuring out some of the tunes the harpist had played, experimenting with different chord sequences.
‘The tune you were playing on the harbour steps,’ I said. ‘Will you teach it me?’
We sat together by the fire and she played the tune slowly, phrase by phrase. I found it hard to learn, all those twists and turns, unfamiliar keys and accidental notes.
‘Put down the fiddle and sing it,’ she suggested.
‘Sing it?’
Embarrassed, I hummed and diddle-dummed along, she kept me at it until I could diddle-dum it with conviction. Then I picked up the fiddle again, and suddenly I had it. Something clicked, my fingers grasped the dance, they knew exactly where to go and the bow flowed smooth and easy. The fiddle blends so well with the sound of the accordion that I could hardly hear myself, just became part of her big, complete sound. The end of the tune lifts and swirls into the beginning and so it circles on and on. As we turned into yet another repeat, she caught my eye and we both laughed out loud.

The next time she held back, playing only chords and checking I was secure with the tune, then she slipped away into an exquisite harmony. I stared at her, delighted and exhilarated, hanging on tight to my melody as the tunes looped and twisted around each other like otters at play.
‘Now you,’ she said.
‘Be brave,’ she commanded. ‘Relax. Make it up.’
I panicked then, I didn’t know how to make it up, didn’t want to screw it up now. But somehow my bow came down across the strings and music came out, flowing and weaving its own meandering way around the tune.

We played on and on, relentless, like children wanting endless repeats of a bedtime story: again, again, again. We drank in the melody like thirsty creatures sucking at some vital nutrient. Circling round and round, and round again, on our enchanted carousel.

I think it was me who broke the spell when I finally stopped to go for a pee.
She glanced at her watch.
‘Oh shit!’ She looked genuinely horrified.
‘What’s wrong?’
‘It’s nearly half four! Oh god, I’ve got to get back, Ruaridh will be worried sick’.
‘My boyfriend.’
‘I’ve been living in London, I’m staying up here for the summer with him…’ she started telling me hurriedly, packing up her accordion as she was speaking, as if she’d suddenly realised we haven’t had a single conversation all night.  I don’t even know her name.
‘He works late in the restaurant up on West Brae, but he’ll have been back for hours now and wondering where the hell I am...’
‘Ruaridh Anderson?’ I asked. She nodded. Big guy, a few years ahead of me when we were at school.

I walked her back, through the dark streets, past the docks and down towards the harbour. There was a wild wind coming off the sea, the fishing boats all tucked in snug against the harbour wall, but the yachts tethered out in the bay were tugging at their anchors like wild animals trying to bolt, their white masts swaying as they reared and rocked in the swell. I hunched into my jacket, my hands deep in the pockets and she slipped her arm through mine, leaning slightly with the weight of the accordion on the other shoulder.

On the corner of the street she wriggled her arm free and said goodbye. I moved towards her, as if to kiss her, what was I thinking? She stepped back slightly, deftly avoiding me, but she smiled.
‘I’d better go,’ she said quietly.
And she went.

So that was it. As I said, nothing happened, but something happened. But how to explain all that to a glowering boyfriend in the Coop queue? We didn’t so much lose track of time as transcend it altogether, time lost track of us and set us free in an altogether different space. We’re through the checkout now but he’s still there, pretending to read the notice board so I can’t go out without passing him.
‘Err…sorry it got late the other night,’ I mutter simply, stupidly, as I pass. Better to say nothing. ‘We were just playing music,’ I continue, against my better judgement.
‘Till four in the fucking morning?’
He looks bewildered but I can’t think of anything else to say. At least he doesn’t thump me or burst into tears, just frowns and walks away.

Nothing happened, everything happened. That night changed me. Like I’m still here, the same person doing the same things, but looking at it all from a completely different angle. Am I in love? I’m dazzled by her, excited by her and her music, but also by something in me, the way I played when she was with me.

Fortunately there’s not much time to ponder whether or not I’m in love with someone else’s girlfriend. My changed perspective focuses all my energy on an urgent matter: my band have got a support gig at the Town Hall in a few weeks. It’s by far the biggest venue we’ve ever played. It’s the first time my own songs will ever be performed in public. And the band are shite. Not impossibly, irredeemably shite, we’re all competent enough musicians, but we’re not holding together well. Something is kind of sagging. I know what I have to do.

Now I’ve never pinched anyone’s girlfriend, and, come to think of it, I’ve never dumped anyone either, but now I have to ditch our bodhran player and steal a drummer from my brother’s band. My brother’s band really are shite, irredeemably so, and they play crap covers of crap songs. And they’re totally, utterly outclassed by Simon, their shining jewel of a drummer.

Simon hangs around after school with my wee brother, so he’s often round at our parent’s house. When I call in, he’s there – sitting at the kitchen table, floppy hair and blue school blazer, holding a pen loosely like a bodhran beater and drumming away as he chats. He’s always beating out a rhythm with whatever’s in his hands – a pen or cutlery or the remote control for the TV – and if there’s nothing in his hands, his feet tap away or his fingers dance on the table, adding incredible rhythms to whatever’s on the radio, or ads on the telly, or dad playing the odd tune on the banjo – anything.

My parents think the world of him. I remember one time we were all in the kitchen making pancakes, and Simon picked up the mixing bowl and whisk and began to beat a rhythm, moving the whisk back and forward through the mixture and against the side of the bowl. Dad fetched the banjo and played a jig and Simon kept on beating, keeping perfectly in time as the mixture thickened. At the end of the tune he had a bowl of perfect, creamy pancake mix and handed it back to my delighted mum.

Despite my brother’s indignant scowl, Simon’s keen to join my band. He turns up for rehearsal after school on Friday with a bodhran and a strange percussion contraption that seems to be composed of bar stools strapped together with bits attached. Another guy comes with him, presumably to help him carry it all, but he turns out to be a flute player called Mike, who joins us as well. Simon takes charge, this floppy-haired 17-year-old in his trainers and baggy jeans, a boy too young to buy a pint, he sorts out the running order and even who stands where on stage.
‘You need to lighten up,’ he informs me half way through.
‘But I thought you said we needed to be tighter?’
‘Yeah, lighten up, tighten up.’ He likes that, he’s found another rhythm: ‘lighten up tighten up lighten up tighten up’, and he beats it out on his barstool drums.

Now I can pick up a bodhran and join in a session, playing along with any reel or jig, but that’s just the thing, I’m playing along, keeping the beat – when Simon plays, whether he’s tapping away with a ball point pen or pelting a drum kit, he’s creating the beat and everyone else plays along. In rehearsals he picks us all up with his crazy rhythms, takes us wherever he wants to go, but carries the whole band with him and never drops anyone.

A week to go, and things are good. We’re a tight, five-piece band now: Simon and Mike, then me on fiddle, Martin with his double bass and Matt on guitar, mando, banjo, occasional bouzouki and anything else going. I teach them the tune, her tune, and it works. The flute and fiddle swoop and soar, and the guitar meets us with a rocking accompaniment and sprinkles of delicate notes. They’re all grinning, loving it too. We’re going to start the set with it. I feel elated, triumphant. We’ve got something solid here, it won’t let us down.

After the rehearsal I head down to the chip van on the pier. I eat my chips hungrily, three at a time, staring at the sea and feeling full of hope. Then I feel someone’s watching me. It’s her. She peels away from two other girls who are heading for the chip van and comes towards me.  My mouth is full of chips.
‘Mmmh. Oh. Hi!’ I manage eventually, swallowing and rummaging clumsily in my pockets for something to wipe my hands on.
She smiles, says hi, and: ‘still got that tune?’
‘Yes!’ I say, too emphatically. ‘We’re going to play it… my band! …next Saturday at the Town Hall…’
‘You’ve got a band?’
‘Yes!’ I answer too loud, and all the bum notes we’ve ever played and the corny lines I’ve written rear up around me as I say it. ‘Will you come?’
‘Hope so,’ she smiles and walks away to joins the other girls at the chip van.

The week slips by and now it’s Saturday. The Saturday. Memories come rolling out to meet me like waves as I enter the Town Hall: of drunken teenage nights, of visiting bands, discovering music, wondering what it’s like to be on the stage. Now this is me. Here. Doing this. Now. Tuning up, plugging in, taping set lists to amps. We’ve got a nice mix of tunes and songs, but I’m nervous about playing my own stuff, feeling exposed and vulnerable. Will she like them? Will she be here?

The hall is filling up now, packed tight around the bar. I feel strangely sick. I pace and glance nervously around, scanning the crowd, praying she’ll be here, then almost hoping she won’t be. But imagining her not here, I feel a sudden stab of emptiness. No, I want her to hear this. I want to play for her.

Shit this is it. We’re on. I knock back a whisky and take to the stage. I’m weirdly disconnected from everyone and everything, watching past versions of myself out there in the hall and wondering what am I doing up here? I’m talking, but I can’t make any sense of what I’m saying, words are coming out of my mouth in strange hieroglyphics. I look to Martin, panic stricken, and he offers me a reassuring smile and some stirring notes on the double bass. The tune – her tune – has begun and the others join in one by one, building up the music in soft, sweet layers. Then my bow moves to my fiddle and I’m playing too. It’s going to be OK. With the lights on us now I can’t see the faces in the crowd anymore, but I play for her anyway, just in case she’s here, or sending the tune out towards her wherever she is.

The music circles up and on, and I’m back on our carousel again. But Matt is looking at me, trying to catch my eye, raising his eyebrows with a quizzical look. Something is happening out there in the crowd. A movement, a muttering, a prickle of electricity. Is it the tune – are we creating this? Can they feel what I feel when we play it? But hang on, the hall is emptying from the back, layers of our crowd peeling away. They’re leaving! There’s no panic, just a pulse of excitement, something being communicated. The tune carries on, and carries us along, but they’re all looking to me, asking should we stop? But I don’t know, don’t know where to stop, what to do, I can’t remember how to stop, I’m trapped on the roundabout and keep on circling until there’s hardly anyone left in the hall, just a few guys slumped over their pints around the bar.
It’s Matt who finally breaks it, he doesn’t even finish the phrase, just stops dead, puts down his guitar and says: “What the fuck is going on?”

We put down our instruments on stage and follow the crowd out of the hall and on to the quayside. It’s raining gently, a soft drizzle, and there are loads of people out here. Kids as well, though it’s late at night. Everyone’s packed against the railings, staring into the dark water.  We squeeze into the crowd and look where everyone else is looking. The water’s surface is quite still, gilded with splashes of orange from the streetlights and lightly pockmarked with raindrops.

Something is moving in the water, I can see pale flashes and an enormous dark bulk rising fast towards the surface.
“It’s a fucking submarine,” whispers Matt beside me.
A thin black triangle slices through the water, and someone screams “Shark!” But there’s a soft explosion of sound, ‘phteweeee’, and a burst of spray catching the streetlights. The black fin is getting taller and taller, and a huge gleaming shape rises up. Jeesusfuckingchrist it’s a whale! And another looms beside it, this one with a curved fin, smaller but still enormous. Pale streaks behind the black fins. Killer whales. They curve back in to the water again, then reappear, breathing out, ‘phteweee’ and the assembled crowd breathes in with a collective gasp.

Everyone’s standing completely still, watching, waiting, mesmerised, but I’m full of restless energy, still rushing with adrenalin. I slip away from Matt and pace through the crowd, hearing snatches of whispered conversation.
‘Aye you see them sometimes, they pass by the islands in the spring, heading North’… ‘loads of them up there, they chase the seals right up on to the beaches’…‘They’re called orcas or killer whales and that’s called a dorsal fin’ …‘Mummy do they eat people?’

Then I see her. She’s standing by the harbour wall, slightly apart from the crowd, holding on to the railings as if to steady herself. There’s rain in her hair. Her mouth is slightly open. She’s gazing at the whales, and her eyes are shining.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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