His father retrieved the box from
the loft. It had an alpine scene on the front and inside
was a long double sided metal harmonica.
The boy looked at an old black and white photograph, creased
then flattened with little tears at the edges. It showed
a man in a collar and tie with a waistcoat and he wore a
cloth cap. He stared straight into the camera as he smiled
and his hands displayed a harmonica in front of him on a
velvet cushioned base.
It was not the same harmonica and the boy felt a tinge of
“Your granda won that harmonica in a music competition”
His father pointed at the photograph.
“That’s an engraved gold plate on the top, it
says Wor Gor, short for Goddard. He took that harmonica
everywhere and he used to take his teeth out to play the
Highland March. When he died my uncles all wanted it, especially
uncle Alf. I put that harmonica in his coffin to stop all
The boy wished he had heard him play. He wanted that harmonica.
It was a cold winter afternoon. The bus crossed the river
and stopped under the shadow of disused cranes by an isolated
church. The boy got off and entered the graveyard. The ground
undulated and the organisation and symmetry of the tombstones
was broken. Headstones had been pushed flat, some smashed,
large ones were burned up one side and graffiti was blazed
The ground dipped and there was a yew tree and a holly bush.
He looked more carefully now and in the late afternoon sunlight
caught part of a weathered inscription
He went over to the grave, tore a tuft of grass to scrub
the moss off the headstone and a word emerged: Goddard.
He stood in contemplation then reached for the harmonica
in his pocket. He cradled it and sucked tentatively. The
sound was forlorn in the cold still air. He looked around,
felt a sudden anxiety that hidden eyes watched him. The
sun disappeared and it felt colder now. He blew again, tried
to find a tune while the harmonica protested. He stared
hard, focussed on the headstone and his eyes widened as
a watery image appeared and floated within the granite.
It was a man in a cloth gap who looked him hard in the eye
then reached in his top pocket for a harmonica. The man
laughed showing bare gums and began to play with cupped
hands. He paused, then held the harmonica up and pointed
it as an invitation to a duel. Then he played on, faded
The boy felt his heart thump fast. He walked out of the
dip and looked towards the gate. A mist had risen. It started
at ground level, only the tops of the headstones visible
as it spread from the fence towards him. His feet scrunched
on the gravel path to the road.
The mist thickened and when he reached the gate he could
only see a few feet ahead of him. It was eerily quiet the
way mist clamped down on sound and movement and held everything
taut and still. A clip clop came closer and out of the mist
loomed a high wagon pulled by two horses. Two figures sat
side by side at the front on a bench: a teenage boy and
an older man with a cap and a thick moustache smoking a
pipe. The wagon was loaded with full sacks in front and
empty sacks folded flat at the back. He could smell wet
black coal. Dust and small fragments bounced, dropped off
the back of the cart and left a trail of black grit down
the road. The man nodded to him and the wagon trundled past
and disappeared, clip clops faded, absorbed in the fog.
He turned onto Walker Road towards the County pub. He stepped
across the road and found cobbles where he expected tarmac.
Out of the murk yellow light reflected from the amber tiles
and engraved plate windows of the County. He pushed open
the door and entered.
The bar was busy. The room was full of men in cloth caps,
smoky with a closer smell of wet wool and sweat. Faces turned
and looked at him, direct eye contact, then they turned
away and the bar noise resumed: a clatter of dominoes on
wooden tables and thud of steel into cork at the dartboard.
The boy could hear music from a group clustered in the corner
where a slight figure played a tune on a mouth organ. As
he eased through the crowd a drinker with a satin backed
waistcoat stood up from his stool, lifted a mouth organ
and played over the top of the first player. He took the
tune up, swirled it away into a chorus while his boot stamped
the beat. A third man with pinched cheeks faced him, jumped
up on a bench and cupped his hands and bent to his own harmonica.
He took the tune from the chorus, crouched then stood upright,
pushed the harmonica across his mouth, cheeks sallow, concave
then filled. The group banged on the tables with their pint
glasses and he played on possessed, faster into a whirl
of a jig then he stopped and lowered his harmonica. He looked
straight at the boy, gave a toothless grin and wiped his
sleeve across his mouth. He reached for his glass, took
a long drink and laid his harmonica on the table. The harmonica
was steel with a gold plate on the top.
The boy looked and Gor’s eyes broke into mischief.
He stood, put his hands on the shoulders of the men who
sat on either side and laughed. They looked and laughed
with him. The boy saw the same chiselled features, hard
and angular. They shared a lean sinewy strength and he realised
they were brothers.
The bar door crashed open and the place turned as one. The
man’s face was scarred, his donkey jacket hung open
to show blue gabardine overalls from the yard. He stared
to see if anyone caught his eye.
The men at the bar greeted him quietly, nodded and then
turned away. He ignored them and looked over at the corner
where the musicians sat. He pushed people aside to get to
the table. He looked at the harmonica on the table and glared.
“Aye, ye couldn’t wait two minutes to bring
that here could ye?”
Gor shrugged a small acknowledgement
Alf set his head forward and rolled his shoulders
“The whole yard’s nivvor stopped yammerin’
aboot that bloody gold harmonica. And heor ye are agin,
showin’ it off. A’ve had it up to heor wi’
He jerked a calloused hand to his forehead
“Ye’re like a spoilt bairn and it’s time
ye had it knocked out of ye”
Alf shook out of the donkey jacket.
He turned and pushed through the back door to the alley.
The men at the bar looked at each other, put their drinks
down and followed. The brothers muttered, shook their heads,
filed out. Gor looked at the boy.
“It’s a canny job ye come in son. Aa’ve
summick for ye - a gift”
He pressed the harmonica into the boy’s hands.
“Tek it, gan hyem and divn’t fret. Alf’s
in nae fit state”*
Gor pushed him towards the front door then stepped out the
back into the alley.
The boy stumbled out of the bar. He passed the top of the
alley and stopped. He wanted to go down but he was fearful.
He heard the scrape of boots on cobbles and could see a
throng widen in the darkness to make a rough circle.
He walked away down the street, looked ahead and could see
streetlights. He realised the fog had lifted and he saw
cars parked on tarmac at the kerb. He looked over his shoulder
at the pub and then walked back. A shaven headed smoker
stood outside and glanced at him without interest. He pushed
open the door. The bar was almost empty. A single drinker
in a tracksuit, unshaven with greasy hair sat with a pint
of lager and watched Sky Sports on TV. The barman leaned
on his elbow on the counter.
He backed out dazed and patted his coat to check the harmonica
in his top pocket. He went round the corner and in a minute
or two his bus came. It was almost empty and he sat upstairs
at the front. He pulled the mouth organ out of his pocket
and examined it. There was no gold plate on either side.
He tapped it and pondered then he put it to his lips and
began to play. He breathed slowly, gently seeking the sound.
Gradually his tongue found the notes and his cupped hands
moved. He sat and swayed with the bus, sucked the air from
his cheeks then filled them and blew. He took the chorus
from the old man and he played the melody of the Highland
March faster and faster and his spirit soared.
* Author’s note “gan hyem” go home