7 years earlier
“Mummy, is lunch ready?”
Silently, I watch as the girl jumps into her mother’s arms. The woman smiles. An apron is wrapped around her waist to protect her clothes from stains while she’s cooking. I watch her hugging her daughter and giving her a peck on the top of her head, just like I’ve seen in movies before. Like it always makes me wonder what it must feel like.
I’ve never gotten the chance to call someone ‘mummy’ and I’ve never been able to come back home to a properly cooked lunch. All of this seems strange to me while, at the same time, it awakes this craving inside of me. I want this too. A mummy who hugs me when I come home from school.
But when her gaze falls on me, the woman’s eyebrows pull together in discontent before she whispers at her daughter, “Elizabeth, you’re not supposed to bring friends over without asking me first.”
“I’m July,” I say, even though the woman hasn’t asked me yet. But I don’t want her to be angry with my new friend. Lizzy is nice, she was the first kid that came to talk to me today. And the only one.
The woman now turns to me again, but she doesn’t look unfriendly anymore. “Hello July, I’m Melanie. Pardon my words, I wasn’t aware Lizzy would bring a mate home. Where’s your mum?”
“I don’t have one.”
“So, your daddy knows where you are then, love?”
As an answer, I shake my head. Dad never asks me where I am or how long I plan to stay out. As long as I come back before it’s dark outside, I can do whatever and go wherever I want.
“How about you give me his number, then? I’ll give him a ring while you girls go play in Lizzy’s room.”
When Melanie hands me a piece of paper and a pen, I write down the phone number I learned. Dad let me repeat it to him three times this morning. ’In case you get lost,’ he’d said.
After scribbling the number out for her mum, I follow Lizzy out of the kitchen to do as we were told. To ‘play’ in her room.
The small hallway looks weird. In fact, everything about this house is weird to me. It’s small. It has carpets everywhere, even on the staircase! Also, it’s dark. I thought the house Dad and I live in now was dark, but this one is even darker.
I miss our house back in California. All rooms were white and bright, with gigantic windows letting in the sunlight. Our new house in England has got dark-coloured walls and tiny rooms. And whenever I look out of one of the dark, wooden-framed windows, I see a grey and rainy sky instead of the bright blue one I’m used to from home.
But what I miss most is our garden. It was big, so big, I never met our neighbours. And it had a pool! Our garden in England isn’t as large and it’s framed by a hedge and so many trees that it doesn’t allow any light in. It’s as dark as everything else. Dull and boring.
Our neighbour is the worst part of our new home, though. An old woman who does nothing but nag in her strange accent, which makes it impossible for me to understand what she’s nagging about. Lizzy has that accent as well, so does Melanie and everyone I met today. At school.
It was the first time I ever went to a school today, to a real one, with teachers and classrooms and pupils. Children who all looked the same, including me.
Dad had made me wear this awful uniform. A grey skirt, a white blouse, a dark green sweatshirt, and kneesocks of the same colour. The exact clothes almost every girl I saw today was wearing. He also tried braiding my hair into two pigtails this morning. It twinged terribly and it looks even worse. But he was so excited about it that I didn’t dare to complain.
’Your mum would be so proud. Going to a school like a normal girl, she would have wanted this for you,’ he’d said and if Mum watches me from heaven, I want her to be proud. Even if I hate this uniform and having my hair tied away. Even if I hate the school I’ve got to go to from now on and this country with its darkness and unison and carpets.
Lizzy’s room has carpets too. It’s neatly organised, each doll, and toy, and teddy seems to have a designated spot. My own room is never clean nor organised, but Dad and I love the mess. He says it reminds him of touring.
We used to always be on tour. When we weren’t in our house in Los Angeles, we lived in hotels or on a bus with magazines and CDs lying around in every corner. Together with broken strings, guitar picks, drum sticks, and empty bottles. Sometimes people too. Some women I’d never met before but whom I was told were friends with Uncle Brad or someone else.
We were never alone. On tour, we’d always had our family with us and when we were at home, like on Christmas, Uncle Brad used to come over every second day to spend time with us.
I loved everything the way it’d been and when Dad told me two months ago he wanted to bring me back to England, where he’d grown up, I didn’t like the idea at all. He said he wanted me to have a real home, to find friends, and to go to school like every other nine-year-old girl. But even though I’d never had a friend like Lizzy at home, I never felt like I was missing out. I was happy with the life I had. Happier than I am now.
“Do you want to play school?” Lizzy asks, her blue eyes lighting up with excitement while I’m trying to figure out what she’s talking about. What does she mean, ‘play school’? How do you play that? Sit around and do nothing for hours? We were at school all day and that was bad enough.
“That sounds boring,” I answer her honestly as I go over to one of her dolls to have a look at it. Without a warning, it opens its eyes and screams like a baby, making me drop it again and step away. I don’t have any toys like this, I have guitars. And pianos. And drums. I’m more comfortable when it’s me who’s making the noise, not my toy.
“Why? You can be the teacher.”
At Lizzy’s suggestion, I turn back around to her. I still don’t know what game she’s thinking of playing, though, she’s only making less sense.
“I can’t be a teacher, I’m too young!”
Before today, I always had a teacher who travelled with us. A nice one, who never scolded me for speaking my mind like the one at school did today. But even though the teacher I used to have didn’t work at a real school, both had one thing in common. They were adults!
My answer must have surprised Lizzy, though. For a moment, she simply stares at me. Then she opens her mouth again, but before she gets to say anything, a door slamming shut next to us interrupts her.
“Hey!” I hear Melanie’s yell from downstairs, then a lot of nagging follows that reminds me an awful lot of Misses O’Connor, our terrible neighbour here. But instead of her annoying dachshund joining in with his barking, Melanie’s yelling gets drowned out by something else. A guitar!
Someone is playing the guitar! Here, in this house.
Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to the sound. I have to know who’s creating this beautiful melody, gentle and calm, yet heart-wrenchingly painful all the same. Without a look back at my new friend, I march out of the room, my ears leading me to where the music comes from. Back down the hallway to the room right beside the staircase. Without a thought, I open the door that got slammed shut a few moments ago and enter.
A boy’s sitting on his bed, his hair brown as Lizzy’s, only darker and messed up as if he’d just woken up. His eyes are closed, a thin line showing between his eyebrows while his fingers slide over the neck of his guitar. He’s lost in his music, so far gone, he doesn’t even notice me coming in.
’When you play, you don’t just play, Songbird! You’ve got to become the melody, you’ve got to feel the music. That’s what sets a good artist apart from a truly great one. Making music isn’t science, it’s heart and soul. It’s not about the right technique, it’s about the right emotion. When you ever find someone, who doesn’t play with his body and brain but with his heart and soul, then you know you’ve discovered true talent!’
My father’s words shoot through my head as I watch the boy play. This is exactly what he always talks about, this boy doesn’t play the music, he feels it.
He makes me feel it too. I can tell he must have had a bad day because the song is set in a minor key and the diminished chords he’s using make my heart feel heavy. He’s sad. Maybe for real, maybe for the song. But I feel it. I feel what he’s feeling because he’s capable of telling me through his music.
“Do you want to ask my brother if he wants to play with us?” Lizzy’s question disturbs the song without a warning and ruins everything the boy had managed to create. I want to continue listening to him, sink deeper into his world, and feel more of what he’s willing to show me, but he has already stopped playing. Caramel-brown eyes shoot up to me, curiously travelling over me from head to toe as he straightens.
“Who are you?” He asks me, carefully laying his guitar down on his bed. It’s an old one, made of dark brown wood that matches the colour of his hair. I don’t know the brand, but I like the look of the instrument right away. It’s not polished like my dad’s guitars, it’s abrasive. Special. Like that boy who played it.
“I’m July. Lizzy’s friend.” With my eyes on the guitar, I shuffle my feet closer to him. To his instrument. It’s beautiful. And I love the sound of it.
“Do you play?” The boy asks me another question and I respond with a nod as I sit down beside him. My fingers reach for the guitar, slowly gliding over the wood that feels raspy against my skin. So unlike any other guitar I ever touched.
The boy watches me silently as I feel the strings next. Steel. “Do you want to try it?”
I tear my gaze off the instrument at his question, nodding my head to answer. Yes, I want to try it. Really bad.
The boy picks the guitar up again, his eyes looking into mine as he hands it to me. I can’t help but smile as I take it, crossing my legs on his bed before I place it on my lap. My fingers slide up its neck first, then I position them on the strings.
I’ve been playing the guitar since I was old enough to hold one and I don’t have to think twice about what to play. The world that boy has created before is still alive in my heart, and as I close my eyes, I try to develop it further.
My fingers move over the strings like they always do, pressing down and tugging at the right moments and spots. It feels natural to me, as easy as speaking. Maybe even easier than that, at least in this country. So, I play. Until eventually, I’m running out of chords to use, out of strings to plug.
When I look up again, the boy watches me with wide eyes. “Holy shit, where did you learn to play like that?”
His choice of words makes me grin as I return the guitar. He said ‘shit’.
Aside from my dad, I haven’t heard anyone use a curse word since we moved here and it makes me feel strangely at home. ‘Shit’ hasn’t even been considered a bad word where I grew up, but everyone here always seems offended when I use it.
“Dad taught me to play the guitar and my uncle Brad taught me how to play the piano and how to sing,” I tell him, and again, I can see he’s impressed.
“You play the guitar, piano and you sing? Are you some sort of genius kid?”
“No, I’m just bored a lot,” I answer him honestly. “I love the piano the most. And singing. I also like drumming, but I’m better with the guitar and piano. I like creating melodies.”
“Shit. How old are you?”
“I’m nine. And you?”
“I’ll turn twelve in December. Who-”
“Lunch is ready!” Melanie’s call interrupts him and with an awkward smile, he hops off his bed to hurry downstairs. I follow my new friends to the kitchen, sitting down at the table beside Lizzy. And across from the boy.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a hold of your dad, Sweetie, but I’ll drive you home after lunch,” Melanie tells me as she hands me a plate with spaghetti. I don’t know what to say, so I simply nod before I focus back on the boy.
“Did your dad teach you how to play the guitar?”
“No, I learned it on my own. No one taught me,” he answers me, and this time, it’s my eyes that widen in surprise. He’s good. Really good. I can’t believe no one taught him how to play!
“Wow!” I gasp, feeling impressed. “You play exactly like Dad says only the most talented people play. Maybe he’ll teach you as well.”
“I want to be a singer one day.” A little smile shows on his face as he looks down at the table. “Maybe I’ll even have a band. Then I’d be a real rockstar!”
“Dad and I were in a band, maybe he can help you with that too. Or Uncle Brad, he always comes on Christmas to take me out for some ice cream so Dad can be alone. Christmas makes him sad.”
“Why is your dad sad at Christmas, dear?” Melanie asks, but I don’t know what to answer her. All I know is what Uncle Brad told me once.
“Uncle Brad says he misses my mum, but I think he misses playing concerts. He was happier when we were still with Sinking Ship. No-”
“Oh my God!” The boy’s gasp interrupts me, making me look back at him. His mouth is wide open, his large, brown eyes staring at me once again. “Don’t tell me your father is fucking Jim D!”
“Nathaniel Mason Fox, if I hear a word like that from you ever again, I will wash your tongue with soap!” Melanie scolds the boy’s language, sounding shocked by his choice of words. But I don’t care. I know his name now. Nathaniel.
“I’m sorry, Mum,” he mutters quickly, his eyes never leaving mine, though. “I love your dad, he’s the best guitarist ever! Do you think he would actually give me guitar lessons? And… I’m Nate. Only Nate.”
Again, he smiles at me and I return it with an even bigger one. I think the chances of my dad giving him lessons are good. And my chances of seeing and hearing a lot more from Nate in the future are even better!