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Harmonica
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 disappointment.
“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 their arguments”.
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 across others.
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
“dearly beloved…God…..”.
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 and disappeared.
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.
“Alreet Alf”
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’ ye”
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.
“Ootside now”.
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

Glenn Carver

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