|Drum beat, heartbeat.|
By David Nutt
It would soon be his eighteenth birthday. His parents had promised him a new drum set. He looked around his cluttered room littered with drums in various stages of repair. There were even a few drums hanging from the ceiling. One wall was covered with drumsticks arranged in a formidable formation that would make a sergeant major stand to attention. Richard was planning to put the new set in the corner by the window. This meant moving his desk to another room, an act that would, no doubt, upset his parents. He saw no alternative.
At an early age drumming had become an obsession. Once his little fingers were big enough to hold a drumstick he started tapping. He tapped on everything, kitchen pots, drainpipes, the family car (much to the annoyance of his father), his grandmother’s glass case, and the toilet seat, even the family’s dog’s head. To his surprise the silly animal seemed to enjoy it, but he soon gave it up for the sound was nearly inaudible and decidedly dull. His parents thought this incessant tapping was simply a passing phase. How wrong they were! The tapping, like raindrops on a corrugated iron roof, pursued its incessant beat. The drumsticks became an extension of his hands, as if they had been there at birth.
At ten he made his mother put long pockets down all his trousers. By the time he was twelve he could throw the drums sticks in the air, catch them, and continue drumming. At fourteen he could drum on the top of a hard-boiled egg making it crack in exactly the right place so the top came smoothly off, an act his father thought extremely funny. His mother always knew when he returned home from school: she would hear him drumming on the fences as he came up the passageway to their home. At first the neighbors complained: he paid no attention. Finally they gave up; the beat of his sticks became part of the neighborhood’s sound. Occasionally he heard Polly, the parrot next door, trying to imitate him. This always made him smile.
Richard was a lonely boy. Both his parents worked, spending little time with him. As a small and only child he had been the cherubic angel every parent desires. But as he matured into a teenager something went horribly wrong. His head grew out of proportion to his body and his arms were decidedly too short. The curly blond hair of his early years turned dark and straggly. His appearance didn’t improve matters with his parents. Sadly, he thought these handicaps, in some subtle way, distanced him from them. On his fifteenth birthday he distinctly overheard his parents discussing his dubious future. The elevated ambitious dreams they had for him at his christening were not to be. His father’s adamant conclusion was to leave the boy alone. That night he played a particular forceful roll of the drums.
School was difficult at first. Richard was teased unmercifully. His only haven of peace was the toilets where he would tap various tunes to consol himself. Eventually his school chums got tired of their teasing. Richard grew timid and withdrawn. He became an avid reader, a discipline that could have easily put him at the top of the class, but that was a distinction Richard felt he could not cope with. His room where he was surrounded by drums and books was the center of his univers. He often wished he could build a drum big enough to crawl in and play the instrument from the inside.
One of Richard’s great delights was to watch the school’s marching band. At sixteen he plucked up enough courage to ask for an audition. People first laughed when they saw his name on the list; when they heard him playing the same people stepped forward with congratulations. He was admitted as a full member of the marching band, and march he did.
In some strange way Richard’s deformity was lost in the band’s uniform. His handling of the drumsticks was a delight to the eyes, and his body floated with the music; even his parents were surprised.
At every possible occasion Richard marched. With every march, with every beat of his drums, his colleagues gave him a little more consideration. Finally he became their mascot, their drum leader. The days the school band stepped forth, Richard felt wanted and confident. But once the music stopped, he returned to his lonely ways.
During the early marches, Richard’s timidity made him keep his eyes to the front, erect, concentrated and devoted to the music. Slowly, as he gained more confidence, he started glancing at the crowds that lined the route. He particularly liked casting his eyes over the little children who squeaked with delight, and the dogs that poked their noses through tiny legs. He was often tempted, when passing by, to give them a little tap on the head. On occasions he would throw his sticks into the air. This was done without thinking, driven by the sheer delight of a moment.
The school and town were proud of their marching band. Marching was considered a local honor. The band played regularly and always took the same route. Richard started to recognize familiar faces in the crowd. It was like regularly meeting an extended family. One day amongst the crowd he noticed a young girl who was standing outside a baker’s shop. There she stood dressed in white, no doubt her working clothes, eyes bright with joy as the band passed, her hands cupped before her as she clapped. Richard would looked for her every time they marched. She was always there. His desire to meet her became uncontrollable. Many evenings after school he would past by the bakery, peering in the window to get a glimpse of her. Spying only brought frustration; the shop window was over flowing with cakes and loaves of bread to see properly. He just had to muster enough courage to go in and buy something.
The day of courage came. Agitated, he walked into the store.
He blushed as he selected a pastry. While she removed the selected cake from a shelf he had time to take a good look at her. Up close, she was a lovely as he had imagined- creamy skin, long delicate fingers, and bright blue eyes, slightly dulled with sadness. He was captivated. The chosen cake was passed across the counter without her even rewarding him with a kiss.
It was as though he didn’t exist.
Upon leaving Richard heard her greet somebody with a cheery. “Hello, how are you today?” Her voice was lyrical. The sound followed him out into the street.
As he walked away he saw his reflection in the window. The head, the arms, did the profile call for pity or repulsion?
That night he had difficulty falling asleep. In his anguish Richard stared up at the ceiling and saw the girls face shining down at him from one of the hanging drums. An idea crept into his brain. Why not ask if he could play a solo drumming session as the band passed the bakery? These individual performances were not encouraged but as he was the lead drummer they were occasionally accepted. He fell asleep with the comforting thought that she would be forced to notice him.
It was agreed. He would give a signal to the band on his drum when he wanted to do a solo performance. The bandmaster assumed he wanted to show off before his parents. The day of the next march came with clear blue skies. Richard begged his mother to take special care in pressing his uniform. It took him ten minutes to select his drumsticks and another ten minutes to straighten out his hair. He stood there in front of the mirror for one more look. Uniform impeccable, shoes highly polished, a spotless drum tuned to perfection dangling from his shoulder strap. White gloves, a little small round drummer’s cap perched on the back of his head, his sticks held tightly in his right hand. He was ready.
The march proceeded at its usual pace, across the school playground out into the streets. The crowd following the procession seemed larger than usual; this, no doubt, was on account of the weather. Children and dogs ran alongside shouting and barking words of encouragement. The band marched down Harrison Street, turned right at the bottom, climbed up the hill, and then they turned left into Main Street. There, half way down Richard saw her standing outside the baker’s shop. He gave the predetermined signal. The band stopped playing. He was on stage. He let his drums roll in abandoned joy. Just as he reached level with the bakery he did something he had never done before. He threw up his two drumsticks, turned in a complete circle, caught the sticks as they came down and continued playing. For a moment he thought the band had started up again, but it was the crowd clapping and shouting. His little angel in white, all smiles and vigorously clapping, had finally noticed him. Twenty paces later the band started up again. That afternoon Richard could have marched on forever.
Two days later he was in the bakery buying a cake. This time she looked at him with admiration.
“Aren’t you the drummer everybody is talking about?”
Richard blushed for the second time.
“Yes,” he stuttered.
“It was wonderful. You played beautifully. How have you learnt to throw up your drum sticks like that?”
Richard was not sure how to reply. “Practice,” he said.
Richard’s blushing and timidity brought the conversation to a dead end. Then suddenly for no apparent reason he blurted out. “ Will you go to the pictures with me on Friday evening?”
He could not believe his ears; the answer came tripping across the counter, “ I would be proud to.” Richard in his excitement forgot the cake.
When they met outside the cinema on Friday evening, his date introduced herself as June. Her first act was to hand him his forgotten cake. Richard blushed for the third time. As they found their seats in the darkened cinema she put her hand on his shoulder to steady herself. Richard felt an emotional shudder creep down his back. The film proved not to be very interesting, but just sitting next to her in the dark was excitement enough. After the film he tentatively suggested a cup of coffee. As it was a warm evening she suggested sitting in the park and talking for a while.
June seemed as shy as Richard felt. He wasn’t even sure how to start a conversation. In his distress he looked down at his feet. Slowly he turned his head towards her.
“ Do you have a boyfriend?”
There was a moment’s silence before June replied. Then in the lyrical voice that had followed him out into the street, she said.
“No, I have never had a boyfriend.”
She paused. In a quiet emotional voice she continued. “I have something to tell you. When I was a little girl I had a serious accident and lost my left leg. In its place I have a wooden leg.”
To prove the point she slightly raised the hem of her skirt above the left knee. Without thinking Richard drew out his drumsticks and started to play a little tune on the wooden leg. As the tapping sound rose in the clear night skies it was followed, first, by a young girl’s uncontrollable laughter, within seconds, by the deeper laughter of a young man.
June had a boyfriend for life.