Annie used to say, “The maintenance men are coming any day now,” always with a handful of crumbling plaster.
We spent months waiting for maintenance. Sitting together in the small office where she, and I, and Frances – a hard-elbowed woman who’d been running the Gordon Trask Centre twenty years – ran the music service. I was Administrator (Band 1), so I did whatever needed doing, whatever they told me to do. Mostly writing numbers on ukuleles in black marker, or ringing round all of our registered string instructors, whenever anybody was off sick. It was me who let visitors in. From where I sat, I could see who was arriving, just by leaning back in my chair.
The Folk Club was run by two freshly scrubbed things just out of university, she with an accordion, he with a fiddle. Belle looked about the same weight as a grasshopper, and yet there was something about her: she might have been strong enough to lift a grand piano by one leg.
On the days when they came, I used to stand out in the corridor to listen. The long floor quivered as they stamped their feet, the lot of them together making a noise like a ship being hauled creaking from the depths.
It seemed right that they sang so much about the sea, since all around us the damp was getting worse. The downstairs practise rooms were so bad with it that we didn’t let anybody using them to switch on the lights.
Eventually a man did come, just one. In council overalls, carrying a toolbox the size of a vanity case. You only had to take one look at him to know that he on his own wasn’t enough to fix every problem with the building. And sure enough, when I came back from switching the dehumidifier on in the big hall, he was taping the stairs doors closed.
“Health and safety,” he said.
Which would have been fair enough, except for that beyond those stairs was our big cupboard, the one where we kept all of the large instruments. “But…” I began.
“I can’t allow you to put yourselves at risk,” he said, “Nor anybody else. Nobody should go down there – it’s too dangerous. What with the electrics and everything.”
“This is a bad sign,” Frances said, once he’d gone. “It starts with one corridor. Then before you know it, they’re closing the whole place down. And we’ve got nowhere else to go.” She led the way in, pulling the tape aside, so that we could wheel out the harp and the three-octave standing xylophone. “And now, I suppose, we’ll have to try to find somewhere to put all this.”
Annie said I should call the council, so I did, but there was nobody to talk to. Nobody could tell me who had sent the man, or who he was, or what we should do now that we couldn’t use half of our rooms. I spoke to Estates, to Buildings & Maintenance, to Central Education, to Children’s Services (which was no help at all – they had enough problems of their own), and six of the schools.
“Our building’s falling down, and we’ve got nowhere to put our things,” I told them, and they were all very sorry, but none of them could help.
Frances was not sure how long the groups and orchestras would last. They all practised in the large hall, but she didn’t think it would last forever. “At this rate, they could close us down tomorrow.” She had been at the council a long time, and knew how to read which way the wind was blowing. Put a licked finger out and it would tell you, she would always say, but instead of a licked finger you had to chart your course using meeting minutes and budgets.
“Rosie, go through all of the registers,” Annie commanded. “Work out how many children use this centre every week. Draw a graph, if you have to.” Paradiddling her pen on the desk: “How many are on free school meals, how many come from disadvantaged parts of the city… by postcode. And then…” she thought a bit more. “No. That will probably do it for now.”
“Good,” Frances said. “I can get on board with this,” and she had me buy thirty toy accordions with six hundred pounds of money she’d kept hidden from the council.
When I did the numbers I found out it was two thousand, with fifty in the folk group alone. Fifty children from the ages of six to seventeen, and half of those playing the toy accordions Frances had bought. Listening to them play, I could swear every single one of them was playing their own song. It was like walking through a Halls of Residence, and hearing a different playlist coming from every open doorway.
Annie did something with the figures, sent them to some person, though I’m not sure who. “You have to show that the building’s being used,” she said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t know.”
It was winter by then, and we were all sitting at our desks in our coats. I had an oil heater under my desk and four in the large hall, for all the good they did. You might as well have tried to warm the Houses of Parliament with a match.
It was a Friday, a dark morning with cold creeping along every metal surface, and the stars still visible in the sky, when I came to the Gordon Trask centre, and found that I couldn’t get in.
A man with a black moustache was standing with in front of the doors. “No entry, I’m afraid. Building’s condemned, due to the unsafe electrics. You work here?”
Even Annie wasn’t there yet. That was how early it was.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well then, here’s the good news.” He consulted his clipboard. “You’ve got till midday to get your stuff out.”
He was wearing one of those council fleeces, the ones that look like cheap versions of the ones from North Face, with the emblem on the front. Stuff, he’d said, as though it was only a couple of boxes.
I stared at him. Chairs, desks, all of the stacking seats in the big hall, hundreds of them. Computers, printers, the big dehumidifier… the rope lights and bubble tubes installed by a specialist company in the music therapy room at the end of the corridor. Cellos, double basses, pianos – we had six of those. Things kept occurring to me as I stood out there in the dark. I asked: “Is this a joke?”
“Look love, I’m just telling you what I’ve been told. You’ll have to take any issues up with Buildings & Maintenance.”
Frances arrived, blue-handed, muttering. “I knew it,” she said. Face sharp as a cornered stoat. “I knew there was something about that fella that came…”
Annie was right behind her, wrapped up in a fake-fur hat that came right down over her brows. “No use fussing about it now, Frances. We’ll have to do what the man says, and get everything out.”
The men watched us do it. They told us they were not allowed to help.
Teachers kept turning up, like always. Lana Handler rolled up at nine twenty, expecting to teach a lesson, and instead got sent away with as many instruments as she could fit into her car – thirty quarter-size student violins. Peter Pelks came at quarter to ten, and he got all of the Latin percussion, including two chromatic marimbas.
Annie left at twelve to go to a meeting, and Frances at one to try and find out what was going on. By four, I was on my own with the homeless office furniture, waiting for the van to come from Estates.
Night was falling again, a velvety, indigo darkness that softened the sky like evening over a beach. Ten after, a silent boy with ginger hair rolled up, carrying a euphonium in a soft case, a snail under its shell. There I was behind the clear desk, in front of an empty building with locked doors and the lights out, a receptionist for a ghost town.
“There’s no swing band tonight. Didn’t anybody tell you?”
The boy put his instrument down on the wide end and stared into the corridor. His eyes were the colour of puddles on a passenger deck.
“You might as well go home.” I pulled the office mobile out of my pocket. “You want me to call your mother?”
“No,” he said. “It’s alright.” He shouldered his instrument and walked away, his steps rolling side to side.
The council moved us into a city centre block, the same building as Business Services. We were on the third floor, on the side nearest the canal. My desk looked out over a tangle of wet shopping trolleys.
It didn’t have practise rooms, so we had to find all of the groups and orchestras somewhere new to work. It was not easy. Not many places had enough space, and certainly nowhere to store things. The jazz band went to a church hall off the ring road, and the swing band to a sports hall in one of the schools. Those first few weeks after the sudden closure of the Gordon Trask were extremely trying. In our rush to clear out, we’d sent most of the equipment to the wrong places. Nobody knew where anything was, and my phone rang constantly. I was always looking for double basses (difficult things to lose, you’d think, but you’d be wrong), or sheet music, or somebody’s set of special weighted drum sticks.
Belle called about a box of washboards. I’d put the folk club all the way down in the South of the city, because the only place large enough for them now they’d grown to the size of a Symphony Orchestra, was Wixton Academy – a specialist sports school which had a basketball court where most other schools had classrooms.
“They were in the middle cupboard, I think – in the lower corridor,” she said. She was trying to be helpful: she didn’t know this piece of information didn’t make any difference. “With a box of whisks – don’t ask – and a fifty sets of stick bells… which we need for the traditional English songs. I don’t know where any of them are.”
Nor did I. “Let me find out for you.” People were looking for all sorts of little bits of equipment, all over the city, and in their desperation they’d picked up things that didn’t belong to them. Teachers were making do with Claves instead of drum sticks, and half-size student Spanish guitars instead of ukuleles. Everybody had scrambled to find a bit of space to work in the schools, a bit of corridor or a portakabin nobody else wanted to use, and things were being left in corridors and in cupboards, and were getting broken or going missing. I didn’t like to say this to Belle, because she had such a good spirit about her – such optimism.
“Whisks,” I wrote. “Washboards. Stick bells. Anything else?”
“No, that’s it.” She added, “I won’t be able to drop the tapes off to you any more.” She’d been collecting folk songs in community centres, and bringing them to me to transcribe. Getting them to my desk now would mean catching two buses and she, like George, only got paid for two hours a week.
“Never mind,” I said. “You can drop by in the school holidays, maybe.”
“Maybe,” she said, and we both knew she wouldn’t.
It was much busier in our new office. Alex, who ran Extended Opportunities, had the desk opposite mine. He’d called the folk group CD “dirge music”, so Frances and I didn’t dare listen to it when he was in. His complaints to human resources were the stuff of legend. It was frequently said that Alex was the reason why nobody was allowed to bring any type of biscuits to any meeting, ever.
We didn’t want him saying anything about us, so we only ever put it on when he was out. On Tuesdays he conducted a Madrigal Group at St Thomas of Aquinas, so that was when we listened to it. Low as we could, heads together, so it wouldn’t bother anybody else.
Bella’s voice, clear as a brook, longing as a land-locked Fisherman’s wife. George fiddling counter in the warm alto register. And the children, on their toy accordions, making the sound of a stuck and jarring engine. I could almost see the look of concentration on their faces.
We listened to it most weeks until February half-term; I had it on whilst I collated registers from the woodwind tutors, making adjustments for illness, and the shortness of that first half-term. Frances was out, looking for some of the music sets, so I was by myself at the desk.
It was distracting, to hear those sounds, and it took me back in the Gordon Trask again. Hearing George’s sweet lament on the catgut, I could almost feel the draught coming up the corridor. Almost smell the burnt edges of cheese toasties from the cafe, breezing up on that damp air. I closed my eyes for a moment, and felt the three of us in the small office: Annie, Frances, and me, coats on, heaters under the desk, waiting hopefully for maintenance to arrive. Before any of this had happened.
I opened my eyes, and saw Mark waving at me from his desk in the far corner.
“Have you got an expenses spreadsheet you could email me?”
“Sure,” I said, turning the CD off.
Sounds dripped in to fill the silence. The ping of the lift through the closed double doors; the click of Mark at his computer, looking through his email. Sirens from the street below, three floors down, through the windows. Somebody moving their seat around on the floor above.
Looking for those washboards was like trying to find a blunt point in a safety pin factory. There were a hundred schools in the district, and sixty music instructors on our books. Nobody ever answered their phones and if they did, they still didn’t have time to hunt around. Those washboards and whisks could have been anywhere.
The receptionist at Berrybrown Primary, where I was sure they were, was a sharp woman with no telephone manner to speak of. “I’ve got no time to go rooting through cupboards to find – what was it again – wooden spoons?”
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll come down and have a look for them myself. On Thursday, maybe.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, and she put the phone down without even saying goodbye.
I found fifteen stick bells sieving through the Berrybrown Primary music trolley, my writing on the stems.
“There should be thirty more sets,” I said. “Where have they gone?”
“You know how it is in schools,” she said. “Things get missing, they get broken.” She looked at the whisks and bells I’d gathered together and added sharply, “And anyway, you can’t take those. Those are ours.”
I pointed out my writing on the handles and she said, “Yes, I can see that, but they’re ours all the same. Annie lent us twenty sets of bells, to use in our music lessons.”
They weren’t theirs, they were Belle’s: I knew it, and so did she. But we often lent things to the schools, so what was the difference?
It was coming up to the end of the financial year, and I knew there was a bit of money left over in the budget. Frances was always trying to think of ways to use it up. This would be perfect, I thought. “Keep them,” I said, pushing my way out of the door.
Only after Easter did I have time to go to Wixton Academy, on a Tuesday. There were no new bells to distribute – Frances had used the leftover money buying wheeled boxes, so everybody could move their stuff around. I had a few things I’d found in cupboards, things I hoped they might be able to use.
The place was huge, echoing – the size of an ancient theatre, and packed fuller than an inter-school grudge match. Belle and George were nowhere to be seen, and all I saw were small, bobbing heads – black and brown and blonde; children tapping their feet, keeping time. The sound of it clattered around the walls like ropes whipping a mast.
My hands were full of the boxes I had managed to fill. Odd things. I’d put in whatever I could find. Curved jingle bells and the few whisks I’d found, spoons, even. Something made me think Belle could turn her hand to these, teach the children to use them.
And here they were. Tapping, and at some invisible signal, the sound of the accordions started up. All one note, fifty thin sounds coming together to form a mourning drone: it no longer sounded like cogs competing in a machine, but like one band pulling together.
Then George’s fiddle started up, and all of a sudden I heard it. Belle’s voice, more beautiful than it had ever been. It was the sound of twinkling lights, drawing you in to shore; the sound of civilization, after a hundred nights lost at sea.
“Sing ho for a brave and gallant ship, a fair and fav’ring breeze,” she sang. “With a bully crew and a captain too, to carry me over the seas.”
They were behind her, their voices, a hundred of them sounding like a thousand. “To carry me over the sea, me boys, to my own true love far away,” they rumbled, voices cormorant-graceful: “For I’m taking a trip on a government ship, ten thousand miles away.”
With the sound of it, I was there again, in the centre. Not in my desk in the office but out in the corridor, with the mist coming up from the downstairs rooms. I was turning the dehumidifier on in the large hall, and sweeping up crumbs from the cafe; I was setting out chairs for the choirs, locking the windows at night.
“Then blow, me winds, and blow, and a-roving we will go,” they sang. “I’ll stay no more on England’s shore, to hear sweet music play.”
All of this music in one place – the folk clubs and the Swing Band, and the choir that came in from the day centre on a Wednesday. All of it together and nothing lost, and equipment staying where you had left it. That was where I was, weeping suddenly its loss.
“For I’m on the road to my own true love, ten thousand miles away.”
Annie said, though I never saw it myself, that parents still sometimes turned up at the Gordon Trask. Razed now to the ground, with diggers fenced in by wire. They’d lose concentration for a moment, and find themselves faced with a workers sitting on his toolbox, eating a sandwich.
“They sometimes forget it’s closed,” she’d say. “It all happened so suddenly.”
In quiet moments, I’d rest my face up against the window, and think about the folk club practising at Wixton. Swimmers in the pool hearing the sound of stamping feet, ghostly ukuleles chiming with tales of love lost at sea, as they swam lengths in the bright, chlorinated water. Would they enjoy it, I’d wonder? The long phrases of sadness, mingling with the pop music they piped in over the diving board?
And I’d feel the slight wobble of the window as my face warmed against it, and hear faintly in the background, always, the roar of engines and the constant, driving thrum of forward moving traffic.
First published in Disclaimer Magazine.