Stories Drums of Zaragoza

Joe Dunthorne

We practiced in the attic of her father’s orthodontic surgery. Stacked neatly against the back wall were hundreds of small white boxes each containing chalky casts of patients’ teeth. Orthodontistry is a good source for band names. We settled on Acid Etch, the process by which teeth are readied for brackets. Eda played guitar, had inconsistent hair and men’s ears. People tend to think it impossible for girls to have substantial ears but they have not met Eda. I was nineteen years old and had lost a parent, as they say. We were the only boy-girl speed blues two-piece in South Wales whose equipment was paid for by life insurance dividend. An emerald green Warwick five-string with gold-plated tone pots, a Japanese Telecaster, a Gallien-Krueger RB-II, and a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier, loud enough for large halls and small arenas. Our authenticity was unimpeachable.

Eda had appointed me lyricist since I was the damaged one—but whenever I tried to think upsetting thoughts, nothing came. In the end, she took over, wrote songs with titles like “Fixed Retainer” and “Pulp Chamber” and, when we started to find the dentistry theme restrictive, “All The Pretty Corpses”. It was a relief, actually, to have Eda blunder around in the realm of death and mourning. She had four living grandparents. I loved to watch her TV-grade teeth as she bawled into the microphone. During the outro for “Pulp Chamber,” we let the feedback build until the dental casts chattered in their boxes. It sounded tremendous. We knew we needed a drummer.

His name was Gabriel-i-Casals, a.k.a. Yell, and he lived in the basement beneath a shuttered-up corner shop on Constitution Hill. The darkness in his room had a taste. His mattress was on the floor and his dirty clothes were stuffed inside the kick of his Tama nine-piece. His kit was decorated with stickers from his old band, Hurts Less, with whom he had toured Scandinavia and even played main support for Dig The Patio before they split.

A month later in the back room of The Coachman, we performed to eleven people: my Dad, the landlord, the headline band, the parents of the headline band. Yell broke three sticks. Eda watched the way he moved—we all did. Bikers came through from the pool room and looked past us to Yell, down-lit by a halogen bulb in the pub’s low ceiling, topless for the finale, shoulders glistening. His chest hair made the shadow of the A-bomb.

My father, who had not complained when I blew thousands of pounds on equipment, made a stand against my purchasing a tour van. Yell wanted to book us gigs and said we should invest in transport. Eda felt this was just the kind of commitment our band needed.

Instead, my father agreed to a people carrier, a family vehicle with flexible seating and a good safety record, something that had uses beyond my music career. Twice a week he took me to the hospital car park and we practiced emergency stops. By that time, my mother’s death had been memorialized by traffic calming textures at the Kingsway roundabout. When you drive over them, your teeth rattle. Dad preferred to take the long way round.

While I was still learning to drive, I put Yell on the insurance. He had six points on his license. He immediately borrowed the car to buy a custom snare from London, or so he said. He brought the vehicle back in the morning with sand in the footrests. He’d left a CD of Hurts Less in the player and all I could imagine was that he’d picked Eda up from hers, driven out to Caswell Bay and they’d gone at it, all night, she watching his torso while his own drum solos played on the stereo.

Yell started borrowing the car after every practice and each time put exactly three hundred miles on the clock. I half expected him to just leave with it one day, but he kept coming back, his eyes rubbed red, his caffeine pills and condoms in the glovebox.

I passed my driving test on second attempt and pulled up to his flat, beeped until he came outside. “Twelve minors, no majors,” I said as I drove him down the steep cobbled hill then parked
slowly but neatly.

We turned in our seats to examine each other. I wasn’t used to seeing him in daylight; he seemed older, had way more pores than I had imagined.

The first and only date of our tour was at The Black Brush in Southend. That made it an international tour since we had to cross the Severn Bridge. I’d not driven on a motorway before so Yell was at the wheel. We had the kick drum, tom toms, guitars, pedals, stands and leads in the boot, the floor tom in my footrest, the Zildjians secreted in the seat backs, the Gallien-Krueger on the left passenger seat, Eda—whose hips were slim—in the middle, the Triple Rectifier on the right. The way the amplifiers were positioned meant Eda couldn’t plug in her seatbelt. She carried the snare in her lap and, as we went above eighty, its metal wires made a sound like something frying.

“Don’t worry,” Yell said. “At this speed it wouldn’t make a difference.”

I laughed and hated myself for doing so. After that, I couldn’t help but imagine the crash, her launching forward, and I wondered if I’d reach out and stop her or if she’d hit the dashboard, teeth-first, and whether her injuries would be enough to make her want a different drummer. I would be mangled too, of course, crushed by two thousand pounds of top-end valve amplifier.

It was dark by the time we came off the orbital and nobody was talking. We were listening to the version of Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers that had been mastered at the wrong speed, too fast. We passed through the industrial park at the edge of town. Yell kept checking the rearview and I guessed he and Eda were looking into each other’s eyes.

Then he pulled over, got out and, without explanation, disappeared down a narrow alley into a low-rise estate. If I’d checked the odometer I might have registered that we’d traveled exactly one hundred and fifty miles. The CD ended. The engine ticked. When we saw Yell coming back, I said: “I’ve seen you looking at each other.”

“There’s three of us, Liam, where else should I look?”

Yell got in the car and we shut up like kids do when a teacher comes back in the room. He had a four-pack of own-brand energy drink and we watched his throat pulse as he necked a can. Then he pulled a pipe from the pocket of his hoodie—a little wooden one-
hitter. He leaned forward with both hands at the top of the steering wheel and lit a bowl of something foul smelling. The smoke fed through into the back of the car and I imagined Eda taking deep breaths.

We arrived at the venue, a black-windowed pub on a side street. None of us spoke as we set up. It was lucky that scowling fit so well with our stage personas. We played for forty people and it was the best gig of our careers, no question. During “Pulp Chamber” five people in the front row swung their elbows in the low light. Eda and I even started to enjoy ourselves, eyeing each other across the stage during the call-and-response chorus.

I edited out the swearing because I’d noticed there was a little boy and his mother at the back of the bar. The boy was standing on a chair. He wore ear protectors and clapped whenever Yell broke a stick. His mother was drinking coke with a straw, wearing a stretched jumper, reading her phone. Before our final song, Yell whipped his top off and there were whistles and hell-yeahs but she was the only person in the room who did not look. Yell balled up his t-shirt and, with careful aim, lobbed it over the crowd and into the boy’s arms. We finished with “Pretty Corpses” and, after the feedback had faded, we turned round to thank our drummer. His cymbals were shivering but he’d gone.

Eda and I stayed in the club and drank and celebrated with our fans—they said we could call them that; we asked. In truth we were happier when Yell wasn’t around. We recounted how we’d both jumped in time to the key changes, how she’d shredded her solo, how my bass was loud enough to make bowels collapse and yes, later, in the green room, we used the edge of a two-pence coin to scrape ACID ETCH into the paint on the wall with all the others. Yell’s old band had their name spray-painted above the cracked mirror. Later still we drank snakebite and kissed and she tasted of artificial sweeteners. I ran my tongue along her teeth and could feel the teeny tiny irregularities. I thought about the fact that, all through your life, your teeth keep shuffling for position like a rugby team posing for a photograph.

We awoke in Southend on a Wednesday, without a drummer, without certain garments, on the reclined front seats of a family vehicle as shapes moved past the steamed-up windows. We rubbed portholes with our sleeves. People were on their way to work, umbrellas angled to the sideways rain. We rang Yell but he didn’t pick up. When we tried again, it went to answer phone. We checked park benches and shop doorways, the beach and the bus station, then agreed that he was a grown man and could look after himself.

It was the first time I’d driven on the motorway. It was raining hard and our windscreen wipers swayed along with The Black Keys, a band so white, so popular, we’d never have dared to listen with Yell in the car. I’d like to say we were breaking the speed limit but that’s not my style. I’d failed my first test for driving too slow. Lorries overtook, spritzing our windscreen as they passed. That’s when we saw him, Yell, standing in the hard shoulder with his thumb out. He was wearing the same brown hoodie as the day before, now darkened by the rain. The sign he was holding said: SOUTH COAST.

I pulled over and put the hazards on and we looked through the back window at the gray. The shape approached and became two shapes: one big, one small. The rear passenger-side door opened and we saw a boy, maybe seven-years old, with dark eyes, colorless skin, his fringe pasted to his forehead. I realized he was the boy we’d seen wearing the ear protectors in the club. I remembered his mother, who had not clapped between any of our songs. There was no room on the back seat, so Yell without hesitation unpacked the drums and stood them out on the hard shoulder. Floor tom, snare, cymbal stands, everything but the Zildjians. We could tell by Yell’s eyes—lids at half-mast, the whites turned pink—that he’d not been to sleep. The engine was still running and I admit I thought about putting my foot down, screeching off, fishtailing across the sodden tarmac, but I wasn’t that kind of person. Instead I ran my tongue over my furry teeth. I hadn’t brushed in twenty-four hours.

“This is my son, Jack,” Yell said. “Say hello, Jack.”

“Hello Jack,” the boy said, and he climbed in, his raincoat drenched, the hems of his jeans dripping.

We drove with the heaters blasting. Sauna-conditions by the time we hit the M25 and the boy asleep with his head on Yell’s knee, both of them steaming gently.

“So where are you going?” Eda said.

“Portsmouth,” Yell said.

“Where’s his Mum?”

“I’m giving her some time off.”

“What’s in Portsmouth?” Eda said.

“The ferry. Then Zaragoza.”

To hear him pronounce Zaragoza was to remember how far he was from home. Still, I did not get it. With my hangover and the motorway and the uniformity of Eda’s teeth visible in a love bite on my neck, I had excuses for being slow to wonder why they had no luggage, no money, and were trying to hitchhike to Spain.

We cruised round the M25 south, going beneath underpasses, hitting patches of traffic. Yell fell asleep against the window, his hair making a scribble of grease marks against the glass. Jack was curled up in the middle with two seat belts fed round him in an elaborate harness. Eda reached back between the seats and rocked the boy awake. I was in fifth, cruising at just under sixty, tucked in behind an Eddie Stobart eighteen-wheeler.

“Morning sweetheart,” she said. I didn’t know Eda had a special musical voice for speaking to children. This was new.

The truck ahead indicated to change lanes.

“Are you okay, little man?” she said.

I checked my rearview and there was something big behind me, too, close enough that I could only see the cab, the word MACK in silver capitals on the grille.

“Does Mummy know where you are?”

The lorry behind flashed its hazards, orange flares in the
tire-spray.

“And would Mummy be upset if she knew?”

At that moment, I noticed the motorway was narrowing, a row of bollards sweeping in from the left.

“Do you want me to call her and explain?”

I dragged across lanes without indicating. A truck’s air horn filled our heads. Eda swung back into her seat and braced against the dashboard but we did not crash.

After a moment, Yell’s voice came from the back. “Which junction is this?”

I could feel Eda looking at me.

“Still a long way to go, dude,” I lied.

Then she put on the Hurts Less album.

Soon Yell was drumming with his hands on the seat backs. I was thankful the road signs were blurred by the rain as we let the turning for Portsmouth slide by without note. I waited for Yell to say something but he was oblivious, rapping out a snare roll on his knees. As we headed on a full loop of the orbital, Eda turned the heaters back on.

When we pulled off for Southend, the boy was awake, upright, listening to the cadence of his sleeping father’s nostrils. We saw the drum kit had disappeared from the hard shoulder. The roads were drying off as we drove back through the industrial estate. We found the bus shelter where we had stopped the first time round and, with the most graceful clutch control of my young career, I parallel parked, slowly but neatly, keeping Yell asleep. The boy was stuck, his father on one side and my amp on the other. I helped him climb forward between the seats while Eda got out and held her door open. We watched him run down a path between houses. In the back of the car, Yell rubbed his eyes with his palms.

“Is this us?” he said.

“This is you,” I said.

Yell looked at the two seat belts where his son had been. I waited for him to get angry or indignant or whatever happens to drummers or fathers who don’t get their way. Lowering his window, he stuck his head out, took some breaths, then released a raw and lengthy sound that justified his name. He and Eda watched each other. It wasn’t long before we heard the police sirens. Yell looked up at the sky.

Driving home in the dark at a conservative speed, Eda and I stopped at a Welcome Break big enough to have a chemist. We split the cost of the emergency pill. She took a swig from a drinking fountain, tipped her head back, opened her mouth, then signaled me to drop the tablet in.

We had just passed the Severn Bridge toll booths when she started to feel sick. Unfolding the booklet, she read aloud an exhaustive list of possible side-effects. We got out and leaned over the barrier. “My dad says the acid in vomit rots your teeth,” she said, just before her stomach convulsed. She wailed out her insides. Even now, her blues voice did not convince. Nobody would mistake her for someone with a past. I did my best to hold her hair until the noises fell away.