How we met was, I was sitting on a table tomb in the cemetery outside the school, beside St. Nicolas church and the priory grounds, when he stepped off the path, out of the mad rush of students in blazers and school scarves charging off to lunch, and hiked up through the long grass between the crooked gravestones to introduce himself. He held out his hand.
‘Hiya,’ he said. ‘My name is Chris. New lad.’
I didn’t like new lads, as a rule. I certainly didn’t like new lads who said, Hiya.
‘Telly,’ I said.
We shook hands. I didn’t particularly care for shaking hands either.
‘Not the sort of name you expect to hear round these parts, is it? Must be short for something. Probably not television.’
When he realized that I was not going to be more forthcoming he shrugged and sat down on the stone beside me. I lifted my blazer out of his way. Shorter than me by an inch I’d say, and quite slight, slender, not likely bound for the senior rugby squad.
‘I hope you don’t mind but I overheard you talking to your friends about playing in a group. I was curious to know what sort of group. If I’m being nosey, tell me.’
The crowd on the path below us was already starting to thin, the rush over until they all came scuttling back up out of the town in forty minutes or so.
‘Not my friends.’
‘I hung about with them a bit last year.’ I refolded my jacket over my lap. ‘I don’t think they want me being around now.’ I shrugged myself. ‘And I know when I’m not wanted.’
‘Well, sounds like you’ll be busy anyway with the group. What sort of thing will you be playing?’
I turned to look at him more closely. He was wearing his jacket even though the weather was still quite warm, and his tie was done up proper and snug.
‘There is no group.’
‘But I heard you talking about it.’
I turned away again. ‘Like I said.’
‘Ok. But if there had been a group what would you have played?’
Persistent bugger. ‘I’m the next Jack Bruce.’
‘Oh, I see. What sort of bass guitar have you?’
‘You know anything about guitars?’
‘A little bit.’
‘Well, I won’t tell you porkies then will I? I don’t have a bass guitar. Someday maybe.’
‘No other bugger sitting here mate.’
‘I do. I have a guitar. That’s why I was interested when I heard you talking in the corridor. I thought maybe someone to jam with a little bit.’
The next day, when the lunch bell rang, I actually looked out for him. Not like I had anyone else to chat with. I walked through the archway from the quadrangle, stepped out through the old gate onto the church walk and ambled along towards the top of the Applegarth, sort of hung about waiting, looking out over the fields. I was about to give up when I heard him behind me.
I turned and lifted a hand in greeting, nonchalant as I could manage, and offered him a stroll down to the Whitby Road and back round into the town.
‘If you fancy it like.’
Who the fuck says love to at eighteen? We stepped through the kissing gate one after the other and headed off down the path beside the high east window of the priory, fields on either side and woods up ahead. The top of the moor ranged across the sky behind everything.
‘Why is it called the Applegarth?’
‘Haven’t a clue mate.’
‘Isn’t garth something to do with walking?’
‘Like I say, you’re asking the wrong lad. Not very bright, me. But if it is anything to do with walking then I reckon we’re on the right fucking road.’
I got a look from him then.
‘Where are you from?’ I asked him.
‘West of London. Berkshire. Near Reading. You know it? Have you ever been down that way?’
‘Every chance I get, weekends mostly.’
Another sideways look.
‘I’d like to see London though. The clubs and that.’
‘Right, like the Flamingo and the Marquee, those places. Where the big groups all started. Have you ever been?’
We were approaching the line of trees, planted by monks by all accounts, through which the path dipped to the Whitby road.
‘You don’t have clubs up this way? In Middlesbrough maybe?’
‘Not that I’m aware of. We have a club here actually.’
‘In the town?’
‘Folk club. Globe Hotel on a Friday night.’
‘I’d like to go. Will you take me along sometime?’
‘You like folk music?’
‘I like live music. Plus, somewhere to go isn’t it? We could meet up, have a laugh.’
We walked through the gloom of the trees and then through another kissing gate, this one clogged with sodden leaves, onto the path at the side of the Whitby Road. We turned to the right to walk back alongside the beck into town. We didn’t say much until we reached the bottom of Bow Street, which led up to the market cross. As we turned past the old cottage hospital on the corner I pointed back across the road, to the entrance to another street.
‘Up there, that’s Belmangate. It’s a nice walk up to the bottom of the moor. It’s part of an old monks’ route, a trod as they call it, which leads from the mouth of the river Tees, up and across the moors all the way over to York.’
‘The route of a pilgrimage?’
‘Well, yes. And there were one or two archeological digs going on through the summer, further up the lane. To do with a leper colony I think. And you can walk round the bottom of the hills from the top of the lane and come back into the town just about anywhere.’
‘Like Hutton Village?’
‘That where you live then?’
‘It is, yeah.’
‘I don’t know about that.’
‘Yes you do. I lived on a council estate up until a year or two back. And that across the road, up a little bit, that’s the Anchor pub. That’s my local.’
He frowned. ‘How old are you?’
‘Been going in there since I were a nipper. A bairn. Pint touch a lager of an evening like. Set you right that will. Ee by gum, nowt like it.’
We started up through Bow street, past the Fox and Hounds and the photographer’s shop, towards the market cross.
‘My name is Thelonious Edmund McLean.’
I didn’t like people who said gosh. But here I was.
‘My dad gave me that name. He couldn’t just name me after some obscure fucker in the family, a war hero, or a dodgy uncle. Telly MacLean. And it could just as easily have been Willy MacLean. Or Tommy.’
‘I only know of one Thelonious.’
‘The jazz pianist.’
‘You know him?’
‘The Genius Of Thelonious Monk.’
‘Well I wouldn’t know about that.’
‘No. That was the name of the record. Possibly Volume 1. An import, obviously.’
‘And Willy “The Lion” Smith and Thomas Wright Waller.’
‘You should be thankful he didn’t call you Fats then.’
I looked at him. ‘You know these people?’
‘You do. I really have no idea where he got his taste for that music. One of his projects I expect.’
‘Edmund, because my dad enjoyed hiking and climbing all over the place before I came along. By all accounts, my mother’s account, he was quite an accomplished climber. No Himalayas, Andes nor Alps, but still, all up through the Highlands, even down into Wales, along the Peak District, wherever there were hills and crags to be tramped, ropes to be flung across his shoulder in manly fashion, all big boots and a rugged look about him. That was my dad when he was young. It could have been worse, I suppose. According to my mum Hillary was a distinct possibility.’
We walked up past the market cross into church street and through to the path past the church along to the school gate.
‘Ta ra then.’
‘Will you show me another part of the town tomorrow?’
I stopped on the path and looked at him. ‘Do I look like a fucking tour guide to you?’
He smiled. He nodded.
We walked Across Church Square into Church Street, down into the high street.
‘Who’s your favorite guitar player?’
‘I told you. Jack Bruce.’
‘No. Guitar players.’
‘The bass is a guitar.’
‘No it isn’t. Ok, it is, but I mean guitars with at least six strings, and I knew you were going to say Jack Bruce. Do you know any other bass players?’
‘How did you know I was going to say Jack Bruce?’
‘Eric Clapton then.’
‘I knew you would say that too. How many guitar players do you know?’
‘Oooh, listen to mister fucking Melody Maker! If you knew that then why’d you ask? As a matter of fact, loads.’
‘Tell me some. Tell me one who doesn’t play for Cream who you listen to when you go home from school and do your homework.’
‘I don’t do much homework as a rule. I’m allergic. And there’s no more Cream anyway, smartarse.’
‘In the evening, in your room, after you’ve had you’re tea, whatever you’re doing. And don’t say Jimi Hendrix. That’s too easy.’
‘And anyway, he’s dead now.’
‘He could still be your favorite.’
‘Jimi’s half-brother. Younger. Much better player, to be honest. Less well known, obviously, although he’ll probably come into his own a bit more now.’
He puffed out his cheeks. ‘Who else?’
‘Dave Clapton. Much overlooked as a session player. But on his day? By golly! Works a lot in Europe, what I’ve heard.’
‘There you go, see? George’s aunty.’
‘The real talent behind a lot of their stuff.’
‘Died young though.’
‘I do like Peter Green.’
‘I’ll give you that one.’
‘I saw them last year in Redcar, at the Coatham.’
‘Was it good?’
‘It was. Very loud. I never thought I would say it, but Albatross sounded better live than on the record. What about you?’
‘What about me?’
‘Who do you like?’
‘You really want to know?’
‘Well I wouldn’t ask otherwise, would I? And anyway, you started it!’
We were all the way down at Allison Street. I pointed across the road. We were still in the high street, but away along from the town center now.
‘We used to call this the old playground. I grew up beside the new playground, over that way, which is actually the King George Fifth playing fields, by its proper name. It stretches the entire length of both sides of Venables Road as it was then, when I was little. Venables Road East and Venables Road West. Now the west end is called Woodhouse Road. But we used to come over here, me and my mates, Jack and the others, Davy and Smiffy, when we were little, because, even though it’s just little, at the other end, The Rectory Lane end, through there, is the beck. And we loved messing about along the beck. And in it. And over it.’
‘We’re away from guitar players then?’
‘Well I can’t compete with Wes Whateverhisfuckingnamewas, can I?’
‘What’s a beck?’
‘Does it have a name?’
‘We do run to names for things up here y’know. Chapel Beck.’
‘It must have been nice growing up next to a big playing field though.’
‘It was yeah. Where I got married as well.’
‘Weather’s a bit bleak isn’t it? If I didn’t know any better I would say it was going to snow sometime soon.’
‘Who did you get married to? You’re not married.’
‘Jennifer. My neighbor. As was. Very pretty lass too, last time I saw her. So was her mum if I’m being honest.’
‘They moved away, over to Hunter’s Hill. When we were six years old all our mums in the cul-de-sac thought it would be nice one summer day for the kids to do something special. I can’t remember what the circumstances were. All the mums joined in and, at the end of the day me and Jennifer got married and another little lad was the vicar and Eddy, my neighbor, was my best man and there were bridesmaids and jelly and custard and cakes and all sorts. I wore long pants and a proper shirt. Jennifer wore a party dress. She had daisies in her hair and a daisy chain necklace and bracelets and the ring was a buttercup stem with the flower on top.’
‘You remember all that?’
‘I do actually, yeah. And there’s photos. Someone took pictures. It was like a big event in the street. There’s one photo with the whole gang gathered together and the mums in the background, and me and Jennifer at the front in the middle holding hands.’
‘You should do yourself a favour and go into Middlesbrough to a record shop, a good one if they have such a thing, and find a copy of Smokin’ At The Half Note.’
‘What’s that when it’s at home?’
‘Really? Is this your first time up here? Me and Alan used to run up here all the time for cross country training.’
A Saturday. We’d spent the morning listening to records in his room.
‘What’s it called again?’
‘It’s quite high up.’
‘It is yeah. Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall.’
‘Alan is your friend?’
‘Yeah. Not all the way up to here mind, it’s too steep. But to the top of Greenhill down there, and then we’d climb the rest of the way up here and rest a bit so Alan could have a fag. I know. Imagine. You put all that work in and then you have a fag. Rolled his own too. Carries his bits and pieces everywhere with him in a baccy tin. Smashing view though, isn’t it?’
‘Where is Alan now?’
‘He was a year up on me. I don’t know how he did it but he got a stunner of a job straight out of school, with Shell Oil at Teesmouth. Over there.’
I pointed out across the vale towards the woods on the far side, beyond the town.
‘That there, above the woods, that’s Eston Nab. You can see it sticking up. There. And then down the other side you’re into Teesside and the mouth of the river and Stockton and Hartlepool on the other side. And there, that’s Redcar and that’s Saltburn further to the right like, between the hills. There. No. See there. Lean over this way and follow my finger. Put your head there and look along.’
He rested his head against my outstretched arm.
‘See? That’s Saltburn. I like Saltburn. I worked a summer there one year. In a café. Not a caff mind. A café.
‘What’s the difference?’
‘Better clientele. Fancier teapots and mugs. Have you been to Saltburn? They have a funicular railway. You know what that is?’
‘Yeah.’ He was speaking along my arm.
‘Aye, I should’ve known. And there—come on, shift yourself—that’s where I grew up. That’s the Howlbeck council estate. And behind it see? That’s the playing fields I was telling you about.’
‘Where you got married.’
We were sitting side by side on the top of the nab. I leaned back a little and turned to look at him. Our faces were quite close. He had a very pleasant looking face I have to say. Open and bright, almost but not quite oriental looking. And big brown eyes. I turned back to the view.
‘And you can see my house where I live now. Down that way. See the rows? See? Over this way. Up from the high street. That’s Holymead Drive, then Hedley Street and then Gill Street, one after the other. I’m Hedley Street. Far end. Come here. See? Put your head there again and look along my finger. You remember that joke about Jesus on the cross? See? You’re hurting my arm now! To be honest I can’t believe you’ve been here in the town a year and more and you’ve never been up here. Jesus says to Peter, Come here. You’ve never heard that one? And Peter takes a step closer to the bottom of the cross…’
He sat up straight and looked at me.
‘Why would I though? Why would I come up here? The view is great and everything but, besides the view, why would I bother?’
‘Because it’s fucking beautiful! You can see for miles! You can see the sea! Look! I spent most of when I was a young lad up here, I did, and over there in those woods on the other side. And back that way…Stand up a minute. It’s ok you won’t fall. I’ve got hold of you.’
I took hold of the back of his shirt, my arm most of the way round his waist.
‘Step back up onto the track here.’
We turned away from the edge of the nab.
‘Look. Over there that’s Roseberry Topping and then further off see? Way over there? That’s Captain Cook’s monument. You know who Captain Cook is, yeah? Was.’
‘You know, it’s funny what you say about never having come up here the whole time you’ve been in the town. Well, I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never been over to Captain Cook’s monument.’
‘Not once. I’ve been up onto Roseberry Topping a few times, messing about. And Hanging Stone is on the way and it’s a nice place to stop and sit for a picnic.’
‘Someone was hung there?’
I looked at him.
‘Why is it called that then?’
‘Because it’s a great big fucking stone poking out the edge of the moor, at the edge of the escarpment, hanging like, and looking like it wouldn’t take much for it to topple and roll all the way down the hill through the trees. You walk out on top of it and sit at its edge and you can look out over the whole countryside, like this only better because it feels like you’re on a balcony. When you sit at the edge of the stone the treetops are right under your feet. To be honest you should almost be able to see it out your kitchen window. I’m pretty sure it’s just about right over top of your house. Maybe one Sunday morning there’ll be a crash and you’ll wake up and it’ll be sitting in your garden with a gnome’s head sticking out from the bottom. It’s not big like Highcliffe though. Like this.’
‘Could we have a picnic there? We could stop there on the way to the monument.’
‘Could I throw you off this fucking cliff?’
‘What’s wrong with a picnic? People have picnics. I like picnics?’
‘Fucking hell. Come on.’
We climbed down round the side of the cliff and then down the steep face of the escarpment. At a couple of places, when he started to slip on loose stones and dirt, he grabbed for my hand and I took it to hold him from falling, helped him down to the forestry track at the bottom and from there we walked down into the Hutton estate.
‘What you want to do now then?’
‘You want to walk down into the town?’
He shrugged. ‘It’s nice.’
‘Go on then.’
‘You still hang about with your friend? Alan?’
‘Not so much anymore. Sometimes we go for a pint. Understandable I suppose.’
‘Well, he has a girlfriend doesn’t he? Actually, more than a girlfriend. They’ll be getting wed soon enough I suppose.’
‘Got a flat in Boro now too, he has. I helped him paint it. We painted his bedroom purple. She didn’t like that. Got a bit snarky about it, she did. And she didn’t want him hanging about with a schoolboy anymore, either, which is fair enough. We meet up now and again. We went through to Whitby one evening, had a pint down at the harbor and came back.’
‘You liked the Wes Montgomery?’
I didn’t answer for a minute. I didn’t want to offend him. I thought it was rubbish. Tinny sounding and weak if I’m honest. Not anywhere near Eric or Jimi or Peter.
‘You said he played octaves. That was incredible. Really.’
‘I talked too much though didn’t I?’
‘You know a lot. All that stuff about Robert Johnson and where the songs came from for people like Eric and whatnot. John Mayall. I never heard of Skip James or Elmore James. Bukka White. What was the other one? Willie Dixon. I didn’t know he wrote Spoonful.’
‘It tells you on the cover. Of the record.’
I took him up Belmangate and all the way round the bottom of the moor to Hutton village and then back down to his house. We were slogging it a bit by the end, huffing and puffing, especially in such snotty weather, with sopping wet feet and shivering like a pair of fucking refugees.
‘You told me your dad liked doing projects.’
And the wind was in our faces right off the bat, out from Bow Street and up past the Anchor and the cricket fields, the rugby club. We both had on anoraks but we were shivering.
‘Oh yeah. He’s tried all sorts.’
‘First one I remember was the bower in the back garden, up against the back fence. In Venables Road.’
‘Yeah, like a little shelter sort of a thing. He wanted to build a place for him and my mum to sit in the nice weather. Somewhere to put a deckchair. He dug a hole and put in a kiddie’s paddling pool, disguised it with stones and dirt and whatnot to make it look like a pond, and then sent me to go and fetch newts and frogs from the workings up at Black Wood.’
‘Abandoned mine works. I caught too many. Half of them were dead time I got the bucket back home. And then he lost interest and the rest of the newts and frogs fucked off.’
‘Sounds like it would have been nice though.’
‘Bollocks. Guisby gets three sunny days in a year. Then he built a big sandstone fireplace, with a mantlepiece and everything, for the fire in the living room. He finished that one. He did a bang up job if I’m honest. That was about two years ago, before we moved over to Hedley Street. He almost didn’t finish it though because, right in the middle, I got myself arrested for shoplifting in Middlesbrough and then the heavens collapsed round us and we were going to pack up and go back to Glasgow.’
‘Yeah and you can shut it. I’m not talking about that so don’t fucking start mate.’
‘Yeah but…you were arrested? What was that like?’
We were just passing the old miners’ cottages before the railway embankment, leaning into the wind. I looked at him, gave him the look which usually worked to shut him up.
‘It was nothing. We were daft kids. The thing was though, what finally got me the thick ear, because my dad very rarely gave me a walloping, was always my mum took her shoe off, was when I pointed out to him that he was the one hoiking sandstone blocks from all over the shop, stealing from all and sundry, walking round the countryside like a daft bugger in his wellies with a wheelbarrow in the middle of the night.’
‘He didn’t like that.’
‘No he didn’t. Drawing was another one. Sketching. Fancied himself as Vladimir Van Gogh I think.’
‘He still has sketch books all over the house. Pads. Big ones and little ones with really thick pages in them.’
‘Alright for paper aeroplanes I suppose.’
‘I meant the drawings.’
‘I know you did son. Shite. He’s my dad, but rubbish. He asked me what I thought once. Just once. I told him he should draw naked women and then I would bother to look. Faces and cats on every fucking page, looking in the same direction, is boring I said. Draw me mam with no clothes on. She could pose in front of the fire. I wouldn’t look.’
‘You didn’t say that!’
‘He threw a fancy drawing pen at me.’
‘What’s a drawing pen?’
‘And then the golf. That was the latest. The last before the drinking started.’
‘He was good at the golf. I caddied for him to start with and then I couldn’t be arsed. He played at Wilton Castle and that’s where he met all his new mates.’
‘He never had friends before?’
‘And then he lost interest. Neighbours and the like. But no real friends to speak of. And never drinking like that.’
‘What’s he onto now then? What’s the latest craze?’
‘Shagging his best mate’s wife.’
We were quiet for a while after that. We walked round past the shale heaps, tailings from the old iron ore mines cut into the edge of the moor, and then round the bottom of Greenhill, beneath Highcliffe, and down into Hutton Village and back to his house by which time we were both drenched and shivered to the bone.
His mother was home. She introduced herself. Miriam.
‘Follow me young man or you’ll catch your death. You can’t walk home like that. Christopher, put the kettle on and put cups out. Mugs. Me too.’
She led me up to a cupboard at the top of the stairs—what my granny in Glasgow would have called a press—in the wide hallway before the bedrooms and pulled out some clothes and handed them to me. She pointed to the door of Christopher’s room.
‘Go in there and put these on, bring your own things back down the stairs and I will put them in the wash along with Chrissy’s things and then dry them. You’ll stay for tea as well.’
In Christopher’s room, lolling on his bed wearing one of his T-shirts and a pair of his tracksuit bottoms, I asked if I could see his guitar again. He got down on his hands and knees and, holding his hair back with one hand, pulled the case out from under his bed, flipped the latches, opened it and lifted the guitar out. It really was stunning in its beauty. Rich red brown body, gleaming pick-ups, frets catching what light there was in the room. I sat up as he handed it to me.
He hadn’t had many chances since we’d been hanging about to give me a look but he did then. And of course I knew I was well over the line.
‘Fair enough. Sorry mate. I handed the guitar carefully back to him. Go on. Play something.’
He was much more casual with it than I was, obviously used to handling it and playing it. He juggled it from hand to hand to plug it in to the amplifier and switch on, adjusting the knobs to where he wanted them. And then he sat down in the chair at his desk and started strumming, gently, with his thumb. He adjusted the tuning ever so slightly.
‘This is how Wes does it. He had to find a way to play quietly because his wife didn’t like him to play loud. If you ever see him play on the television you can see he uses his thumb like this, except that his thumb is bent much further back, almost dislocated. And this is how you play the octaves.’
He spread his fingers and started to move them up and down the neck to play a scale and then some sort of melody, easily and smoothly, perfectly, precisely and with a graceful sort of flow. I have to say I was stunned. I had never seen anyone, never mind a lad my own age, play that well before, with so much easy confidence.
‘Play us something from what we listened to.’
‘Aye, go on.’
He played the opening to one of the tunes from when we’d had our listening session.
‘That’s Four On Six.’
Honestly, I was speechless.
‘I’ll show you some things to play and you can have a go if you like. I’ll show you how to play Outside Woman Blues. Or Steppin’ Out. If you want me to. D’you want to talk about your dad?’
‘Nah, you’re alright. But thanks anyway.’
I turned on the bed to look out of his window to see if I could see Hanging Stone. The rain was raking across the panes though and I was never going to find anything through that mess. I couldn’t even see the top of the moor through the downpour. And I wasn’t sure why tears were stinging my eyes then either.
In the end Chris and his father took me home in the car, dropped me off outside my door still with the rain lashing down round us. Chris sat up front with his dad and I sat in the back seat. I could have played footy back there! My dad was already gone out and my mum was sitting on the sofa watching the telly, having a fag.
‘Hallo son. You alright? You get soaked through did you?’
Her eyes were red. They were always red nowadays.
‘Nah. Me mate’s dad brought me home. He has a Jaguar.’
‘Where does your friend live?’
‘Up Hutton. Up at the top. The village just about.’
‘They have a wee bus for there now you know.’
‘I know but his dad offered. You want the kettle on?’
‘Aye, love. There’s Jaffa cakes in the cupboard.’
‘There’s a blues night at a pub in Great Ayton. Is that far?’
‘It’s just down the road.’
We were sitting on a bench in the church square with the wind blowing all round us, all round the war memorial, kicking up rubbish and leaves and flaps of paper. The sky over the church tower was a jumble of racing clouds.
‘Would you like to go?’
‘Are you going to play?’
‘No. I just wouldn’t mind to go and hear some live music. I told you before. I like live music.’
‘Check out the local competition?’
‘You would play them off the fucking stage anyway though wouldn’t you?’
‘I just wouldn’t mind going somewhere and doing something. Friday night. And then it’s the holidays after that.’
‘Oh aye, so it is.’
‘Why is it called Great Ayton. Is there a Little Ayton?’
‘Don’t be daft.’
‘Well if there’s a Great Ayton you would think there would be a little one, or a small one. Ayton Minor.’
‘I’ll give you one in a minute.’
‘What’s bothering you now?’
‘Is there a bus?’
‘To Little Ayton? I doubt it. I think it’s going to snow.’
He jumped up. I could tell he was irritated.
‘Right. The bell’s going to go in a minute and I need my books for biology. Blues Night at the Royal Oak in Great Ayton tomorrow night and it starts at eight o’clock. My dad says he will take us through but we will have to get the bus back home. I can’t say when the last bus will be but I think the program finishes up by ten or thereabouts and there should be a bus still running by then.’
‘The music. My dad says that it’s easier if you walk home with me after school tomorrow and then he can go straight over the Avenue to the Stokesley road rather than having you wait on the main road at the bottom of Hutton Lane. He paused. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Why can’t he bring us back home as well then?’
I liked the idea of going and coming in a Jaguar.
‘I think they have something on themselves. I think they have company coming and they’ll be having drinks.’
‘Oh, jolly good.’
‘And my mum says that you should tell your mum and dad that you will stay at my house overnight in case it’s late when we do get back. Instead of walking by yourself all the way down into town. Come on. We have to be off. Don’t forget tomorrow to bring gear to wear.’
‘Can’t I wear your trackie bottoms again?’
In fact it was a very good show and a very decent crowd in attendance. Nicely done, I thought. No blues groups as such, nothing heavy, no big amplifiers. More like a folk blues thing I suppose. They had a duo, a trio and one or two single acts, one of which gave a very rousing interpretation of Smokestack Lightning which got the mostly folky crowd going, banging tables. I enjoyed myself.
‘It were alright, that,’ I told him as we stepped out from the pub into the road, into the cold air of the night. Chris stopped on the edge of the road to do up his toggles and tug his bobble out of his pocket, pull it onto his head. All I could see were his big brown eyes under the edge of the woolly hat.
‘Don’t say a word.’
He snugged himself into shape and then stepped up beside me.
‘Which way is it?’
‘Come on, I said. It’s this way and I’ve a treat for you as well. I don’t think we’re going to get a bus though. Not at this time of night.’
In fact it was close to half eleven, what with all the last calls and encores and whatnot. Encores in Great Ayton. Imagine! We had even managed a few pints between us which was nice. But it would be well after midnight before we got home. First thing though, I took him round the corner to see Captain Cook’s cottage. It was starting to snow, in a really nice, fluffy sort of way, especially in such a pretty village.
‘There you are son. Don’t say I don’t do owt for thee.’
Chris had his hands deep into his pockets. ‘Was he born here?’
‘I don’t think so. He were a little lad though. There’s a school house about here somewhere as well which he attended. He left school and went off to work in Whitby I think it was, or Staithes, and then away he went, across the oceans of the world to find fame and fortune. All from right here. Anyway, there you are. History mate. Not like down south no doubt but still, something.’
‘It’s great. Thanks.’
We took a piss up the side of the old house and then headed back to the river and onto the main road.
‘This is us. That’s the Guisby road right there.’ I sang, ‘Ten more miles to travel lads, along the Guisby road.’
‘It’s not ten miles though is it?’
‘Nah. More like four. Through Newton and then home. Be there in a jiff.’
The village high street was already quiet and empty and snow was falling through the street lights. It was chilly. The snow was going to settle and we’d wake up in the morning to a white weekend. A few minutes later we were out of the village into the countryside and it felt like the snow was coming down more quickly. I was wearing my anorak over a big thick jumper and Chris was wearing a duffle coat. When he took it down from the peg and put it on in their kitchen, before we got into the car, I teased him about it.
‘Who are you then, Paddington Bear?’
His mum laughed. He didn’t. His mum gave me a bobble hat to wear as well.
‘You can have that one,’ she said. ‘Chrissy never wears it. Keep it.’
I didn’t even hesitate. I said thank you and pulled the hat onto my head and gave Chrissy a great big smile, in return for which I received a growling scowl.
In the dark countryside it felt like it was already late into the night.
‘Will your mum and dad worry?’
‘I don’t think so.’
He was walking close to me though, swinging his arms and bumping against me now and again, shoulder to shoulder, as we made our way along the side of the road.
‘So. When will you go off to find your fame and fortune?’
He turned his head to look up at me.
‘Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it, or talked about it with your mum and dad. I mean, I know you’re a brainy bugger, and I know they’ll want you to go to university, but don’t you want to see what you can do first? What you might be capable of? I’m no expert but I think you would be…I’ve never heard anyone play like you!’
‘Not even Dave Clapton?’
‘Nor young Tommy.’
He laughed. He swung his arms out higher. He was enjoying himself. What, with the beer and the music and the good fun we’d had, and walking in the snow, I think he was feeling pretty fair.
‘I have actually talked to people.’
‘No, don’t make fun. You asked me and I want to tell you because it’s important for me to tell you.’
‘Go on then.’
‘I’ll probably finish here, two years, a year and a half now, and then go to university but it will be a music program that I take. Not bachelor of this or that. Well, bachelor of music studies I suppose. Arts maybe.’
‘Is that what you want to do though? I mean, wouldn’t you rather go to London and join a group? Form a group?’
‘Eventually I will, you’re right. But not rock. Nothing like that.’
‘Like what then?’
‘I want to play jazz.’
The snow was lying quite thick on the road surface now. Not a single vehicle had been by.
‘My parents could end up anywhere at any time you know. I might not even finish here. If he gets posted somewhere else then we all have to pack up and traipse after him. Even if it’s back over somewhere far away. My mum has told him that she can’t do that anymore, that he will have to go by himself from now on. She told him, Now is time for Chris and me. We have to do things we want to do.’
‘So are there special colleges and universities for music? Or will you go to somewhere like Oxford? Do they have that sort of thing in those places?’
‘Oh yeah. I have to get my A-levels first and then decide where to go. My mum is convinced that music is my future. She has listened to me play. I can read music perfectly well. But dad isn’t so sure. He said, What if the guitar is a fad?’
‘Fuck sake! Has he heard you play?’
‘Yes, he has. Did it sound like it was a fad to you?’
We walked along a bit in silence.
‘It sounds like I should start training to be your fucking roadie.’
He stayed quiet. The snow was getting heavier. And then the lights of Newton-under-Roseberry were faintly showing up ahead.
‘I’d make a good roadie I would.’
‘What you think?’
I stopped in the road and waited for him to slow up and turn round. I put my arms up like a body builder.
He looked at me, arms by his side, toggles done up all the way up to his chin, bobble hat pulled down, snow falling between us, not a sound, not a whisper in the night, and then walked back towards me. Up close he looked down at the ground for a minute and then looked up at me. I let my arms drop down to my sides.
‘I don’t know what’s going to happen Thelonious. But if it had ever crossed your mind to kiss me that would be ok. I wouldn’t mind that.’
He looked straight into my eyes.
At first what he said didn’t register in my head, he said it so quiet and calm. And then I backed up, backed away from him, scuffing the snow, and I have absolutely no idea why but I held my arms up like a body builder again. Or as though he had pointed a gun at me.
‘Fuck off will you!’
Loud and harsh and squeaky and weak. And then I walked back towards him, quickly. I was going to walk right past him, all full of indignation and disgust, and head straight for home but I didn’t. I stopped and turned on him and gave him a quick, fumbly, pushy kiss, noses colliding.
All drama and fluster and it means nothing to me anyway kind of a thing, regardless of what you think. And I gave him a hard shove, hands in his chest, backward across the road. I have to say, even then, even in such a moment of tumult and anguish, I felt like that was a poor thing to do. He’d not been aggressive with me. He was a nice lad. I liked him. We had become good friends. Mates. All our walking round the town and the moor and talking and chiding each other, making jokes and whatnot, listening to his records and listening to him play. He hadn’t dragged me howling into the woods to have his frantic, vicious way with me in the hedgerows, in the muck and the snow in the fields. He barely came up to my shoulder for fuck’s sake. And I was bullying him because I was frightened.
But then he caught his balance and stood straight in the roadway.
He stepped back up to me quick like, pushing his bobble hat up his head, and put his face to mine and kissed me, gently but yet with intent, with his hands up to my shoulders. And God forgive me, I didn’t pull away. I let him kiss me. And God forgive me again but – and I really don’t know why I’m bringing him into it – when he made to step back I held onto him. I put my arms round him and pulled him in and kissed him back and that kiss, God help us both, lasted a long time, all full of salt vinegar crisps and beer and snow and tears.
When he finally pulled away he wiped his eyes and said, ‘See? The world didn’t stop did it?’ He pointed over his head. ‘The snow is still coming down.’ He leaned and kissed me again, briefly, and then turned and started walking along the road.
I stood where I was until he was almost out of sight, swallowed by the weather and the night, my heart slapping in my chest like a cat wanting out of a cupboard and then I hurried after him and caught him up, and it wasn’t long after that, after we’d passed by Newton, the Topping somewhere off to our right, that he put his hand in mine and we walked holding hands. And then we just walked close and shoulders bumping and joking around, and then kissing again, with my heart strenuously attempting to swallow Yorkshire. Then holding hands, then letting go as we reached the Stokesley road and turned towards the town. We walked over the whole length of the Avenue across to Hutton without saying a word and then, in the driveway of his house, behind the towering hedges and holly bushes all covered in snow, we kissed a last time before he banged on his front door and the hallway light came on.
In the morning the sky was crystal clear and snow lay over the town. It was beautiful. I slipped and fell twice on the bank down through the Hutton estate. I fell on my arse again going over Cobble Carr. But I didn’t care. My chest felt like it was swollen. My head felt like it was full of light. I kept wanting to shout. I banged on the door when I got home and my mum let me in. She’d been crying again. My dad was still out. He’d been gone the entire night. When I had called from Christopher’s house, after his mother had let us in, my mum had said nothing, and when I complained to her, the two of us standing in the kitchen with the kettle hissing and my sister banging about on her trike outside in the yard, she told me that she had wanted me to stay where I was and have a nice time.
Which, of course, I did.
And then that was that. Chris and his family moved away over the Christmas break. He started at a special school for gifted children in the arts, near London. Imagine. We wrote letters and then we didn’t. We said we loved each other and then we didn’t. I promised to visit but I never did. I finished the school year and went off to Canada. I never saw him again.
Springtime (Crossfield, Alberta, 1975)
I had been in Canada already three or four years, was married and going about my business building a life, when I heard the song for the first time. We had quite recently moved down from Edmonton for my wife’s first teaching post and we were living on a farm a little ways north of the village of Crossfield. We rented the house and the owner leased the land to a local farmer. I was on a day off and my wife was at school. I had some coffee from the pot she had made and wrestled with the dog a little bit, chased him round the yard, took care of whatever chores needed doing, dishes and running the vacuum cleaner and whatnot, and then I got in the truck and drove the couple of miles into the village to check the mail. My plan was to get breakfast in town and then run down to the city to poke about in the record stores and the bookshops along Seventh Avenue, downtown, before heading over to Seventeenth Avenue to check out the music stores, look at guitars. When we go into town together on the weekends it’s a big production, with buying groceries and visiting people and so forth, and I don’t get as much time as I would like to look at what I like looking at. So this was a treat. It was not a long run into the city, no more than a half hour, and I would be back in plenty time for the wife getting home. When I heard the car roll in along the yard lane from the road, past the vegetable garden beneath the kitchen window, I would put the kettle on and make tea. She loved a cup of tea whenever she got home from work, before she started dinner. I pulled up outside the post-office and hoisted the stick into park but I didn’t shut the engine off right away. The radio was playing and the song came on—I had never heard it before—and it caught me off guard. I listened to the intro building off the drum step and then I heard the words, the very first words of the song, and I started to cry. My throat swelled up and the tears came rolling and all I could see was his face looking up into mine in the falling snow. And when the girl whispered to me to be quiet, big boys don’t cry, I cried even harder! I blubbered, all salty snot and heaving shoulders. I sat in my truck with the grain elevators and railcars and a thousand miles of sky at my back, folks walking back and forth in front of me on the sidewalk, and sobbed as broken-hearted as it was possible to be. I could see his eyes and the hurt when I pushed him, and the way he… And then the song was finished—just a silly phase I was going through—but I continued weeping for a very long time afterward.
Lyrics in final paragraph paraphrased from “I’m Not In Love” by 10cc.
Mark Cassidy was born in the UK, emigrated to Canada, and is living in Texas.