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Torfaen Tales

Guitar Man

Saturday was a rotten day. Come to think of it, the whole week had been pretty lousy. On Monday morning it rained heavily. Glenda who's just passed her driving test splashed through a huge puddle outside No. 23 and I copped the lot: soaked from the chest down. The parts she didn't reach got wet from the steady downpour. Okay, I forgot my coat.

Glenda shot me an apologetic look and mouthed 'sorry' as she trundled by at 10mph but the damage was done. By the time I got to school I looked like I'd had a bucket tipped over me, and I had to sit like that through double Maths. Only a sadist would timetable double Maths first thing on a Monday morning. I didn't stop shivering until lunchtime.

When I got home on Tuesday after football practice I could tell something was up from the hushed voices in the kitchen which stopped as soon as they realised I was there. One look at Mam's face told me it was something serious. Her eyes were red from crying.

"I'll be off then, Ange," said Aunty Lil, picking up her handbag from the kitchen table and giving me a stern look as she headed up the passage.

"What's up, Mam?" I asked as soon as the front door closed behind Aunty Lil.

Mam's lips tightened and her face looked like her heart was broken. After a moment she spoke.

"It's your Uncle Gwilym. He's been killed in an accident. He was crossing the road by the Co-op and ..."

She broke into fresh sobs. Feeling really inadequate I put my arm around her shoulders but that didn't seem to do much good.

So the whole week was blighted by Uncle Gwilym's death. I was sorry, don't get me wrong. He'd been a good Uncle. Younger than my Mam, into rock music. Introduced me to some cool stuff from his teens, like Whitesnake and Santana. And last Christmas he'd sneaked me a shandy while Mam and Dad were playing Monopoly. Yes, I'd miss Uncle Gwilym.

I wasn't looking forward to the funeral. An afternoon off school didn't quite make up for having to put on a suit and meet up with all sorts of boring old relatives who always seemed to say the same thing: 'Hasn't he grown?'. There'd be something seriously wrong if I didn't grow from one year to the next.

Mam made me try on the suit I'd had for Glenys's wedding when I was ten, and guess what: it didn't fit me any more. So instead of going down the field on Saturday afternoon and playing football with the lads I had to go into town with my Mam to buy another suit.

"Think yourself lucky, Our Alun," she said more than once. "Not every boy's parents can afford to buy him a new suit whenever he needs one."

Round and round we went. In and out of all sorts of shops. Of course Mam also had to buy herself a new outfit for the funeral. That was more of a palaver than my suit.

We were almost done, then she saw a hat in the window of a shop not far from the bus station.

"I'll wait here," I said before she had a chance to drag me into yet another shop full of old ladies talking nineteen to the dozen.

Then I noticed the shop next door to the hat shop. It was dark and dim, and the lettering on the window had seen better days. Master Music, it read. Out of curiosity I walked closer and peered into the interior past a haphazard display of musical instruments.

I heard the music before I saw the man playing guitar. Lilting, full of feeling. Wanting to hear more clearly I pushed through the rickety door. The guitar player was sitting on a chair at the side of the shop, completely immersed in his music. I recognised it as one of Santana's tunes: "Black Magic Woman". Uncle Gwilym always liked that one. The man played with his eyes closed. How did he know which notes to play? I watched his fingers moving up and down the fretboard, and watched the plectrum strike the strings with uncanny accuracy. And without even opening one eye he moved straight into another song, something I hadn't heard before but which I immediately liked. Full of fast-changing notes. Wild and free.

After that I guess he could sense someone was watching him, for he opened his eyes and fixed me with a knowing stare. His eyes were blue and sharp, and stabbed out at me from beneath his straggly grey fringe.

"Like a bit of Clapton, do you?" he asked in a gravelly voice similar to my Gramp's.

Gramp always had a cigarette in his mouth. The guitar man wasn't smoking but I would have laid money on the cause of his rough voice.

"What's Clapton?" I asked, instantly regretting it.

The guitar man laughed, which set him off coughing. When he'd finished coughing up his lungs he repeated my question incredulously: 'What's Clapton?'.

"Clapton is Eric Clapton, sonny," he elaborated. "Also known as God. One of the greatest guitar players ever born. Don't tell me you've never heard of him!"

I shrugged, feeling inadequate. "I liked that first song you played. I know that was called 'Black Magic Woman' by Santana."

"Ah, the boy shows taste," said the Guitar Man to no-one in particular. There was another man in the shop but he was fiddling around behind the counter and had his back to us.

Guitar Man launched into another of Santana's numbers, 'Evil Ways'. Then I remembered my mother. I turned around and sure enough, she was standing outside the hat shop looking a bit panicked, twitching her head this way and that in search of me.

"Sorry. Gotta go," I mumbled as I dashed for the door.

"Come back sometime, kid," the guitar man called after me.

I got through Uncle Gwilym's funeral without too much bother. Actually it was quite cool: they played 'Evil Ways' in the church. Apparently Uncle Jeff insisted on it. And there was me thinking that you always had to have hymns at a funeral.

The day after the funeral Mam told me that Uncle Gwilym had left me his guitar and his collection of CDs, tapes and vinyl in his will. How cool was that! The only problem was I'd probably have to wait about six months before I could get my hands on the stuff due to something called probate. Why does grown up business have to be so complicated?

I couldn't get the Guitar Man out of my head. I kept thinking of the tunes he'd played. I got told off for humming during English.

On Thursday I went into town on the bus after school. Dai and Andy wanted to hang out in McDonalds, but I slipped away and headed in the direction of the music shop. But the Guitar Man wasn't there.

I asked the man behind the counter.

"You mean Martin? Oh, no. Only on Saturday afternoons."

The following Saturday I scraped together enough coin for the bus fare into town. Sure enough, when I got to Master Music the Guitar Man was there. Playing up a storm. I sat and listened for quite a while.

Of course I couldn't hear my mobile ringing while I was listening to the Guitar Man's music. And I forgot to check my voicemail after I left the shop.

When I got home Mam was in a total uproar.

"Where have you been? Why didn't you ring back?" She fired questions at me like a mad woman with a machine gun.

"Sorry, Mam. I went into town."

She was determined to have a piece of me. "You are not to hang about with those those gangs of hooligans in the shopping centre. We've brought you up properly."

"But I haven't been with a gang of kids. I didn't even see any gangs in town."

"Then what were you doing?"

"Oh, just hanging around the shops." I knew it sounded lame.

"Well I don't want you doing it. Next thing I know there'll be a policeman at the door bringing you home for shoplifting!"

"But Mam ."

Her mind was made up.

Luckily Dad was on my side. He came into the kitchen and talked to me while I was feeding the dog.

"Your mother doesn't mean it, Alun. She's going through a rough time what with your Uncle Gwilym dying. She's scared something's going to happen to the rest of us."

"That's silly."

"I know, son. Just go easy on her. It'll pass."

"Okay, Dad. But I think it's a bit heavy not being able to go into town."

"I'll take you into town next Saturday if you like."

I thanked my Dad but wondered how it would be. Would he mind hanging about in Master Music listening to some bloke playing a guitar? I'd never known my Dad to be keen on music. It was a compromise being able to go into town with my Dad, but somehow the shine had gone off it.

That night my little sister Cathy had a whole load of her giggly school friends around. They shut themselves in her bedroom but you could still hear them with their stupid boy band records. Still, I got to stay up late and watch a gruesome movie with Dad.

The week passed uneventfully. Sure enough, on Saturday morning after Dad had washed the car he reminded me about our visit to town.

"Won't be long before you're old enough to learn to drive, son," said Dad as he inched the car into a tight parking space in the underground car park.

I was a bit shocked to realise the prospect didn't thrill me. Dai was mad about cars, always going on about engines and carburettors and stuff. Owning Uncle Gwilym's guitar before too much longer was the main thing I was looking forward to.

"So, where do you want to go?" asked Dad as we stood outside Woolworths.

I didn't want to make a bee-line straight away for Master Music. I felt embarrassed. What if Dad laughed at me? First of all we spent some time looking through CDs in Woolworths. Then we went into a shop that sells all sorts of gadgets. Dad spent ages playing with a toy aeroplane. Then I steered us into another big music shop to flip through endless racks of CDs.

Dad was holding up well. He even expressed a liking for Thin Lizzy, another of the bands I remember Uncle Gwilym talking about.

Then Dad looked at his watch. "Three o'clock, son. I'd like to get back soon, watch a bit of the match on TV."

I panicked. How was I going to get him to Master Music?

I remembered the model train shop which wasn't far from Master Music.

"Thought you'd be a bit too grown up now for model trains," said Dad.

I shrugged.

It was easy enough to pause by the window of Master Music and admire the guitars. And the Guitar Man was there!

"Look, Dad. There's a man playing a guitar. Can we go in and listen?"

I was through the door before Dad had a chance to protest. Guitar Man didn't see me, he was playing with his eyes closed as usual. Something with a lot of fast notes.

I turned to look at Dad. "He's good, isn't he?" I mouthed.

He nodded and smiled.

Guitar Man opened his eyes when he'd finished.

"Hello, Mart," said my Dad. "Long time no see."

You could have knocked me down with a feather. My Dad knew the Guitar Man! They chatted away for ages. So much for the match on TV. I wished they'd stop so that Guitar Man could play some more, but they had a lot of catching up to do. Apparently Dad and Guitar Man had worked together some years before. I couldn't imagine my guitar-playing hero in an overall assembling car parts, but I suppose everyone has to make a living.

"So this is your lad," said the Guitar Man, whom I now knew as Martin Williams, lead guitarist with local band Hard Work.

"Yeah. He likes all the old rock music. Gets it from the wife's brother, who sadly died recently. Gwilym Archer."

"Oh, yeah. I heard about that. Nasty accident. Gwilym was a fine guitarist. We jammed together from time to time down at the Star. We’ll miss him.

"I'm getting Uncle Gwilym's guitar in his will," I said, adding my ten pence worth to the conversation in case they'd forgotten I existed.

"So you're a guitar player too?"

My heart sank. "No, I just listen. I've never tried to play," I confessed.

"No time like the present," said Martin, slipping the strap off his shoulder and adjusting the buckle before saddling me with the weight of his well-worn Stratocaster. It felt great! And when I tweaked the strings with the plectrum for the first time it was just magic! Okay, Dad and Martin winced a bit at the horrible racket, but I was enjoying myself.

It was the greatest afternoon of my life thus far. I sailed out of the shop nearly an hour later with the fingers of my left hand throbbing and the promise of lessons from Martin on Monday nights. As we got in the car I could have hugged Dad, but he saved the soppy moment by punching me on the shoulder and winking. On the way home he fiddled with the radio until he found some suitably heavy rock music, and we sang along as we motored up the bypass.

By Karenne Griffin


Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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