Drums

by Ed Wilson

Image for cover of Ed Wilson's book Drums Friday 15th September 1995

Where I stood, the wheels passed at eye level. Too far to touch but near enough to feel, through the ground, through the air. You could fall under those wheels. People do.

A steady trickle of trains came this way, up through the trees after a long, slow climb, the branch line nudging its way into dozens of criss-crossing tracks to lose itself in the approach to the city. I stared, half-focused, but as ever it was the noise that took me over.

The wheels rumbled on, grinding and knocking, but the people, shadowy shapes behind the dirty windows, would only hear a muffled version of it all. They wouldn't see me, out here, the bit of the world I was standing on thumping and shuddering. There were enough carriages on some of those things...

The freight trains were commoner, and no passengers to think about. They'd pull up to the junction, slow on the hill, watching for signals, but keeping the speed up high enough not to stall. I could count wheel after wheel passing me by, and I could wish it would go on forever.

My elbows rested on the broad, flat, top rail of the fence, and my hands were folded under my chin, long fingers crossed. The wood had once been painted white, and there still were some streaks of white, but most of it was cracked and grey, opening up along the grain. A few sections, in and out of the overgrown hedges, had collapsed a long time ago.

The clunks of weight shifting from one rail-piece to another, one sleeper digging in further than its neighbours, pushed gently at my hands on that rail, kicked at my feet from underneath. The big noise was everywhere, but there was room for smaller sounds - squeals of metal on metal, rattles, inexplicable rhythms which took hold for a second, then let go.

Sometimes the guard looked out and waved, though none of them knew me. Occasionally they seemed to be saying something - you could see the lips parted, the effort in the chest - but the words were lost in the clatter, the rumble, the noise. Maybe the man was singing, or talking to himself. No point trying to say anything to me.

I turned away. I was hungry, and Mother would be waiting. Tapping her fingers, like it was every night these days. Late for tea, and all I wanted was to think about nothing. Finding my way back through the bushes, I started reluctantly up Scout Lane. Away from the junction.

Hundreds of small birds rose and fell as my steps lengthened. The open land round the yards and workshops was good feeding ground, and the flock was always there at this time of year, picking the seeds from a million stems. A sound, a figure, a cloud in the sky, would alarm them, then the food would draw them back down, like a sheet, tossed impatiently, never falling quite the same way twice on the bed.

Shoulders hunched, I watched my feet picking their way with uneven steps up the cracked and dusty road. There were stones that cried out to be held in the hand, loose or nearly loose in the crumbling surface. Ahead, up the hill, the lines of storm runoff stood out - snaking, dry rivulets of half-exposed pebbles, almost white in the low sun, though most times they'd show their true colours of dull grey enclosing half-hearted yellow.

She'd ask me where I'd been, tell me the food was ruined, and I'd mumble something about talking after work, even though she knew I ran from the place as soon as I could. Another few weeks and it would be too dark to fit in a visit like this anyway.

The thunder and rattle of the railway lingered in my head, but no signals came through the ground to my yearning feet. It was too far now.

****

I cleaned my plate with a stick of celery, scooping up the last smears of sauce. The salty taste cut through, and I sat back, feeling pleasantly full. Mother had started to clear the table, but now she sat down again, watching me.

"Where to tonight then, Laura?" I took another bite, and studied the curling green strings it exposed. I had a full view of her without looking up, the dark hair still pulled back over her head and gathered in two combs at the back, her face a more solid version of mine. The pot she'd served from was dark brown, which stood out starkly in front of the standard-issue lemon-and-lime supermarket blouse.

From anyone else, that question would have brought a flush of pride, a rush to explain. I had a new drum, the first really big thing I'd bought since I started the job. It might be something to put back into the pool for the others to choose from, a way to start repaying some of those years of favours. At this table, though, I could only mumble "the yard" and keep my head down. Her snort of exasperation was quite clear, her question almost a yelp.

"And when was the last Friday night you went anywhere else?" She was twisting the ladle in her hands. It was a familiar lament. "I don't feel right you being down there. I'm sorry."

"So don't go on about it... Mother, we've been through all this a dozen times." And we had, but it was going to happen again. "What have you got against it this time?"

She chewed her tongue a few seconds, then "Where's it going to get you?"

"Where d'you want it to get me?" Wasn't the job enough? "It's called a hobby, for Christ's sake. You want us touring the country, like Pete's old band, scrounging chips in a rusty van?" It didn't matter what I said.

"But I don't know who you see down there."

"You do, because I tell you, and you know them all... most of them. Wilbo stopped coming a couple of months ago, and there hasn't been anybody new for ages." Mother's eyes looked tired, but for some reason she had to go through with this. "Sue and Barnaby have been solid since their last year in college and Eddy's come just about every week since he got his first class degree." I laboured the point - she kept saying we were a load of weirdoes - and then spoiled it. "Of course Pete fluffed his A-levels due to nerves, and Jude and I had our lives fall apart, so I'm sorry: less than half of us actually have decent qualifications."

"It's hard to believe you can spend a whole evening just playing the drums." Was she even listening?

"You'd rather I got through Friday night sitting on somebody's wall outside the off-license drinking whatever I could con someone into selling me or buying for me? Would that be easier to understand?" She took a long breath. "Why don't you come down and see us? We keep our clothes on, generally, and..." a set-up.

"What d'you mean, generally?"

"Sorry Mother. Joke. When it's a fine evening, outer garments may be removed. It's warm work."

"But are you safe? It's a long way from home." Sometimes it felt like it, too, but we really hadn't encountered any serious trouble.

"It's less than two miles, and there's always at least six of us, and on the way back it doesn't get below three or four walking together before I peel off." I took the final bite of celery and stood up, moving back to lean on the wall by the door to the hall. On my way out.

"But you're a girl, and you're not eighteen yet," she almost whimpered, her eyes a little lower than mine.

"Yeah, I know. But nobody's ever got pregnant drumming."

"What?" Nothing. Maybe another joke, I wasn't sure. But I couldn't unsay it.

"Just the story about Hazel Johnson." I watched her, wondering whether she'd recognise the name. It was a notorious local teenage abortion - sixteen I think she was - but would Mother have heard the same story I had? Her eyes set hard.

"That lot. Like you said, milling about by the shops before they go and break a few windows or wreck a bus shelter. Or get some poor little fool drunk and cheer on while their mates rape her in a doorway." She had heard. My information was that it was a bet, but Hazel's own mates set her up, so rape was about right.

Her mouth was half-open as if she was going to say more, and something made me remember a piece of paper by the front room clock.

"You're not going to that meeting?"

"Why not?" It was a residents' get-together, in the hall of my old primary school, to address the subject of youths getting pissed and breaking people's things and occasionally people's heads.

"It won't do any good. Everybody knows who they are."

"So why won't you tell me who they are?" I stared at her, and she held my gaze. There were two answers, and I wasn't about to give either one.

Firstly, though "everybody" might have known who was involved in the various mini-riots we'd had, I only knew a couple of names and faces. And secondly, even the sketchy evidence I could remember might be enough to have some of them decide to come and break our front windows as well. It wasn't safe even to have a memory.

"There's a rumour going round that everybody who goes to the meeting will come home and find their houses burgled," I said sheepishly.

"We'd thought of that one." She didn't elaborate, and took the pot and the ladle over to the sink. But she paused there, and I could see it wasn't over yet. She came back.

"It can be hard to explain to people."

"What people? Is it really so difficult to tell your friends that you have a daughter who goes and plays drums with her friends? Compared with what's-her-name? Carole? With that drug-sodden Avril or whatever her name is?"

"Yeah, almost." She leaned over to take my plate. "It's stupid really, I suppose." I nodded, high and low, mouth stupidly open, but she was smiling to herself, probably as satisfied as she ever was with the outcome of the pointless repeat conversation. It would have been best to let it rest there, but I was fed up with her. And the door frame was eating into my back.

"So you only disapprove because you don't know how to explain it to your friends. And of course because it's your daughter who threw away her school career and ended up in a shitty job dealing with people's holiday snaps and dirty photos." She stared at me, hurt, resentful, but saying nothing as she took the last few things to the sink. Then she turned.

"OK. I will come down some time. Next week, maybe, so I can see what you do and know exactly how proud of you I should be when I'm swapping tittle-tattle with all the other stupid women in my own shitty job." I stood there, waiting to go, as she wiped the table, but she looked at me so I couldn't sidle out. "And of course I'll be here when you get back tonight." The fight was draining out of me, but I ran upstairs before I got meek.

****

That night I took the new drum, and Jude was late. There were seven of us in the yard by eight o' clock, and no word from him, so we got started.

The sky was almost dark when we saw him, walking in from the end of the road where it petered out in the weed-shattered concrete, and in the shadows his face didn't quite register at first. We'd been playing a pattern for a few minutes, and we just waited for him to join in.

It was Christine's turn to start us off, and we'd kept it quiet, medium pace, mostly hands rather than sticks and beaters. I was using her tabla set - two little hand-drums on my lap - though I didn't really have the technique (especially with the best part of a litre of rough cider inside me). It was feeling pretty good, though - one of those sessions that made the whole evening out there sit contented and listen.

Wisps of smoke - tobacco, hash - tickled my nostrils and from time to time a word or a laugh made itself heard. There was the grand total of six in our audience as far as I could see.

Jude had his two bongos with him, and I remembered later that he put one of them down carefully, with an odd movement. The other he attached slowly to its shoulder strap, then he stood side on, a few steps away, a mask of shadows waiting for his moment.

His hands started to move with the pulse, and I couldn't hear him at first. Then he picked it up and Christine eased off, playing on-beats only to give him space to come in. When he did, it was with an urgency which hadn't been there before. His thumbs and palms seemed to stab at the drum-skin, and the tempo quickened.

It wasn't unusual for one player to start a pattern and another to take it over, but this was something else. Within half a minute Jude had switched the mood completely. It was now a straight four, the basic pulse medium fast, but his playing was frenzied. It kept coming in waves - a flurry of beats, a drawing back, then on as if his hands could never move fast enough.

One side of his face was still in shadow, but I started to piece the rest together in the odd combination of lights - a moon washing weakly over everything and the starker leftovers from the floodlights on the other side of the engine sheds. He was staring off to my left, not looking at any of us. And he was crying.

I was the first to stop - the tabla couldn't compete with that kind of intensity anyway. The others started to tone their contributions down, at first to complement and support Jude's playing, then just to keep a pulse going.

They must have seen what I saw, because they dropped out one by one. And after one and a half flurries on his own, so did Jude. He stood there, the drum dangling at his waist, and he sobbed. We could hear him now in the sudden silence.

Pete was the first to move, and Christine and I were right behind, wanting to reach him but grateful to follow. We stood round him without a word. One of the distant flood-lights shone over his shoulder into my eyes, and the contours of his face were still too dark. Pete lifted the drum and Christine took the strap. Jude flinched as it went over his head.

"Christ," I hissed. "What's he done to you?" Pete put the drum down next to its partner, but he didn't straighten up. His hand brushed the second skin.

"Oh no, Jude." It was breached, torn away, flapping down uselessly inside the body. "What happened?"

Up to this point Jude had resisted meeting anyone's eyes. Pete was at one side, Christine at the other. They'd done the business, relieved him of his immediate burden. I was right in front of him and I got the full force of that look when it came.

Tears smarted in my eyes and I felt as if a handful of my innards had simply ceased to exist, the rest collapsing in to fill the gap. I gasped for air, and almost toppled as Jude fell on me. Now I could feel his sobs. He panted on my neck, and his nose smeared me with warm wetness. I held him as gently as I could.

Jacko brought over a bottle of vodka, maybe a third full, and somebody's friend was dispatched - the roar of the bike disappearing up the hill thundered in the silence - to get some more. There wasn't much more playing that evening. Only Eddy, who wasn't very good at emotions, kept a slow, gentle beat going in the background. I don't know about Jude, but I was grateful for some kind of anchor.