Samuel Dewar looked up and down the street. For what? A reason not to go inside, that’s what.
Here he was, back again, outside the pub, checking the time printed on the ‘Open Mic Night’ poster. Still had thirty minutes to go.
He hugged his guitar case to his chest as two guys walked past him heading for the pub door. He followed, pulled by their wake, and stopped the door closing with his foot. He side-stepped through into a wave of damp heat and raised voices.
His chest tightened and his windpipe constricted.
He put the guitar case down, fumbled in his pockets for his inhaler. It wasn’t there. His throat closed tighter. Then he saw it, clear and sharp in his mind’s eye, sitting on his bedside table. He turned. Fumbled up the guitar case. Wheezed. Watched the door settle into its frame. He sucked in a hard breath. He stared at the door, his back to the room.
He could still breathe.
He was here and he was breathing and he was still clutching his guitar.
He rubbed his nose against the back of his hand, trying to coax his airways open. Several strands of hair had fallen over his eyes.
He turned back to face the room.
The stage was a small, raised platform on the far side away from the door. Sitting before the stage was a table with a sign on it: “Open Mic Registration”. Samuel was relieved to see that it was the same setup as last time.
A man stood behind the table who wore a bright orange t-shirt with the letters ‘MC’ printed on the front. On Samuel’s side of the table stood two tall blonde girls with short skirts and halter tops. Samuel saw the MC take shameless eyefuls as he talked to them.
Samuel adjusted his burden, his breathing tight. He moved towards the registration desk being careful not to nudge anyone. The crowd thinned as he neared the desk. A “Kit Here” sign that pointed to a deep alcove beside the stage. The blonde girls were not finished being ogled by the MC, so Samuel took the opportunity and left his guitar case in the kit alcove next to a row of four chairs. Samuel’s chest felt heavy, like someone was sitting on it, so instead of going back to the registration desk he swerved towards the bar for a beer. A beer usually managed to equalise the pressure in his chest a little bit. And there was still plenty of time.
He navigated by focusing his attention on a triangle of floor in front of his feet. He caught sight of the bar’s brass foot rail. It was scuffed and dirty. There was a mirror behind the bar, but he kept his eyes averted. His hand came to his top lip and smoothed the thin hair of his moustache.
Samuel looked up. The barman was young and had short straight hair. Samuel looked away, not wanting to make eye contact, straight into the bar mirror and saw, oh shit, Lilly approaching behind him. He watched her as she walked up to the bar. She was in animated conversation with her friend and ended up standing next to him. He sat behind her in Psychology lectures when he could. Her perfume was always sweet and fresh, and it somehow made it easier to breathe. He could smell it now.
He looked back at the waiting barman.
“Pint of Tennant’s,” he said and put one foot on the brass rail.
Samuel watched the barman’s hands pour the pint. He was very aware of how close Lilly stood beside him. His pint was placed on the bar towel.
Samuel gave his money and his thanks to the barman. He lifted the pint and took a sip, stole a glance in the mirror at Lilly, and continued to breathe her scent.
Just say hello, you idiot.
The barman put the change on the bar towel and turned away to serve someone else.
Samuel put the pint down and leaned over to pick up his change. He looked to his right, trying to see Lilly out of the corner of his eye. His foot slipped off the rail and he stumbled, his hand reached out to grab the bar to stop himself from falling, but instead he grabbed Lilly’s forearm. His forehead was inches from her back and a curl of hair tickled it.
Lilly twisted towards him. “Hey!”
He was touching the skin of her forearm. It was warm and softer than he had imagined. He should be getting up now, apologising, laughing it off, but instead he was still bent over, still holding her arm, it was like he was magnetised to it. His chest was full and bursting with something that wasn’t air.
Samuel straightened up. He cleared his throat. “Sorry, I, uh, slipped.”
“So you did, Samuel,” Lilly said. She looked down at her arm. “I don’t think you’re going to fall now.”
Samuel jerked his hand back. “Sorry, I…” Now that he wasn’t touching her he felt his chest caving in. While there had been skin-on-skin contact everything had seemed better, he felt fuller, more there. And now? He could feel his eyes starting to fill up with moisture. “…I gotta go.” He grabbed his pint and gestured in the general direction of the stage. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay, good luck Samuel.”
Good luck? What did she mean? It was a nice thing to say, wasn’t it? Then he heard Lilly and her friend laugh. At him? Of course it was at him.
When he was halfway towards the registration desk his chest felt like he’d sunk several fathoms. The weight felt heavy enough it might crack a rib. He didn’t want to go to the desk, he didn’t want to play to a room full of strangers, he only wanted to be close to Lilly, breathe in her perfume, touch her. He wanted, needed, that ward against his asthma. It was a balm. The closer he got to the desk, the harder it was to breathe. He veered towards a wall covered in posters and fliers and pretended to read about quiz nights and live music. He sipped his beer.
“You chickening out, Sammy-boy?”
Samuel jumped. Beer sloshed out of the glass. He bent his body away from the spill, holding the glass out. His hand was wet. “Jesus, Kris!”
He checked his jeans. They were dry. Thank God. What would it have looked like? It would have looked like he’d peed himself, that’s what.
Kris looked down at him: laughing, mouth wide. With his luxurious moustache and permanent five o’clock shadow Samuel thought he looked like a great ape.
“Don’t call me that,” Samuel said. He swapped the glass to his other hand and licked the beery wetness from his fingers.
“Don’t call you what?” Kris said.
Kris was a year or two older, but they were on the same floor in halls and had a lot of the same classes. He shook his head. “C’mon, Sammy-boy. Don’t bottle it.”
“Just go away, please. I got to register.” What he wanted to do was ask Kris to come with him.
Kris’s teeth showed white in the shadow under his moustache. “Okay, sure. Go get ‘em, Sammy-boy!”
Samuel watched Kris walk away, arrive at the bar and begin chatting up Lilly and her friend. It was as easy as that, apparently.
Samuel clenched his teeth. He turned his back on them all and walked to the registration desk. I’ll chicken out, will I? Bottle it, will I?
“You wanna play?” the MC said.
Samuel swallowed. The airway to his lungs had shrunk to the diameter of a drinking straw. He managed a quick inward whistle and exhaled one whispered word: “Yes.” Fuck you, Kris. Immediately it became easier to breathe.
“Samuel. Samuel Dewar.”
“Right, right. Was it sax you played last time?”
“Cool, cool. Second on do you?”
“Alrighty, kid,” the MC said and pointed to a line on the ruled notebook in front of him. “Make yer mark.”
Samuel wrote his name on the list under “Aimee and Ash”.
He looked up to see if Kris had been watching. Nope, he was still talking to the girls.
Samuel sauntered up and stood next to them, close enough so that it looked like he belonged with the group. He laughed along at a joke Kris told. Caught a moment of eye contact with Lilly, sharing the joke, and when the laughter died down, Samuel ducked his head in between Kris and Lilly and said: “I’m on second.”
Samuel could feel the girls staring at him and he glanced at the friend and then at Lilly to see that were both looking at him.
“Second? No way,” Kris said.
Samuel nodded, his hair swaying about his face, and stared at the line of Kris’s moustache. He wanted to look at Lilly again, but this seemed safer.
Kris patted Samuel on top of his shoulder, then turned to the girls: “My boy Sammy’s going on stage tonight.”
Samuel felt himself grow hot.
“Guitarist,” Kris said. “You know what they say about guitarists, don’t you?”
They shook their heads, leaned closer.
He drummed his fingers on his glass. “You know.”
“Know what?” Samuel said.
“All that fret action?” Kris said. “World class fingering?”
He played an exaggerated air guitar that seemed to emanate from his crotch. He wiggled the fingers of his free hand and stuffed it between his legs, making a big ‘O’ face. He laughed and the girls laughed, and Samuel forced a laugh too. He took a long swallow of his pint and looked over at Lilly. Her eyes were on Kris.
He downed the rest of his pint and put the glass down. “Gotta go get ready,” he mumbled and walked away, past the registration desk into the alcove by the stage.
She smelled so sweet. And her laugh! Pure melody. He wished he had been the one to make her laugh like that. If she had looked at him that way, if she had laughed with him that way, well, that would have been brilliant, wouldn’t it?
Stop it. He looked at his watch. Just stop it. Concentrate. Deep breaths. Calm down.
Samuel found his guitar case, sat on one of the chairs and pulled it onto his lap. He felt hot now, and his hands were clammy. He unsnapped the case and lifted the lid. He looked at his guitar. He had polished it with lemon oil before he had left. There were no smears, no fingerprints, it shone. The smell of lemons filled the alcove. How could he take it out and not mar the perfection?
He closed his eyes and inhaled. He saw Lilly laughing at the end of the joke, and then she was looking at him, sharing eye contact, smiling. Lemons? No. It smelled sweet and fresh. Like her.
He frowned and shook his head, trying to shake the image off like an annoying fly. Please stop. He took one more deep breath.
Samuel heard the MC bellow down the mic to introduce the first act, and only caught the words “Aimee and Ash” before the male portion of the crowd showed their appreciation at what they were seeing.
Samuel grabbed the neck of the guitar and pulled it out, allowing the case to fall away beside him. He held the guitar to his chest, could feel the shape of it as he moulded himself around the curves of it’s body, his arms around it’s waist, feeling it flare out around the bridge, holding it snug in his arms, comfortable and familiar and exciting.
His breathing slowed, his throat and chest relaxed, and the wheezing stopped. His arms let go and the guitar seemed to move into a playing position of it’s own accord. Samuel sat, one hand lightly holding the neck, one arm resting on the flare of the waist, the lower bout of the guitar resting between his legs. As he tuned up, he had no thoughts for his inhaler or the girl. He strummed a quiet G chord and let it ring. He felt the sound as it vibrated through the back of the guitar and into his chest. An E. An F. An A minor. Back to G.
He became aware of cheering and claps as the girls finished: whistles, catcalls, and a hooting ape-like call of “Taps aff!”. Kris was a complete tool.
The MC jogged onto the stage and shouted into the mic: “What amaaazing taaalent. And the singing weren’t that bad neither!”
The girls walked past the alcove laughing and looking amazed with themselves. One of them glanced in at Samuel. Was that Aimee or Ash? She smiled and held up her hand with her fingers crossed.
He nodded, didn’t speak.
“And now, as they say, time for something a wee bit different. A guitar player,” the MC said. “Let’s hear it for Sammy Dewar!”
Samuel hugged the guitar and squeezed his body against its rigid volume.
There was a light smattering of applause. Samuel looked up to see the MC walking towards him, finger pointing. “You! What are you doing?” the MC said into the mic. “Let’s go, kid.” Everyone who could see into the alcove was looking at Samuel. There were whispers.
He stood on wet noodle legs and shuffled toward the stage having lost all will or desire to do so.
He stepped up beside the MC and gestured for the mic. The MC handed it over and Samuel slotted it into the mic-stand and lowered it so that the mic’s diaphragm was pointed at the sound hole of the guitar. He adjusted the guitar strap. He held his head low, his eyes cast down. His hair covered his features and flowed over the waist of the guitar. He stood and waited, although he wasn’t completely sure what he was waiting for.
“DON’T BOTTLE IT, SAMMY-BOY!” Kris shouted.
Samuel’s right hand batted an open discord over the heckle. He adjusted his position in front of the mic for the best pickup.
Any nerves, gone. Breathing, easy.
Thanks, you big hairy fuckwit.
He started with a slow pulsing rhythm. He tapped in time with his left foot. Then, after a few bars, he began to nod his head. His hair swayed just behind the beat. He kept it going. Patient. Someone near the stage started to clap. He looked up fast, head no longer weighed down, and his hair flew back. The stage lights were bright, but he saw enough to know that the clapper was Lilly. He smiled at her. He turned towards her and wove another rhythm under the driving pulse of the first. In counterpoint to the forward motion of the main beat, it darted fast then slow, fast then slow, near then far. It flew around the initial pulse, always behind, yet keeping up without seeming to try.
More people began to clap. Samuel layered a third rhythm on top of the others. As Samuel’s gaze flicked from face to face the rhythm changed to incorporate aspects of each clapper’s style. He added all their rhythms to the song: Kris, Lilly, Aimee and Ash, even the MC. Everyone.
He had them. Knew it, felt it.
He added more pace to his strumming and chord changes. Someone shouted “Yeah!” at the back of the room and Samuel incorporated that off-key exclamation into the music.
The chords rang in the air, in the crowd, in his chest. He breathed as if his lungs had doubled in size.
The music did not exist within him, or his guitar, but existed within the entire room. The rhythms of each person were transmuted through Samuel into steel string vibrations, which shook every body, every mind into a seamless feedback loop. Their hearts kept syncopated time, but the original underlying beat stayed the same. It tied them together as one resonating mass.
Everything Samuel reached for, he found. Every theme, every melodic variation, every rhythmic device came as he needed them. His left hand was assured and confident on every chord change: it made chord shapes he had never played before, it moved to positions with ease and speed even before he knew where he had to go. His right hand bashed out the rhythm. Sometimes it was a steady thumping movement, striking the strings with power, sometimes a blur as it thrashed out all the personal melodies of the room, his instrument. He was flawless. Perfect.
Samuel lost track of how long he had been playing but eventually all the threads of the song wove together or were snipped off, and those that were left surged forward together into a mutual musical climax.
The last chord rang. And faded.
The pub was silent.
And then as one they roared their joy and delight. Samuel soaked up the surge of approval that filled the room like the music. It filled him in a way that air could never match.
He felt expanded, colossal.
Samuel turned and moved off the stage, into the alcove and shoved his guitar into its case and headed out.
For the first few steps he walked tall, his head held high, but already it didn’t feel quite the same.
Kris rushed up and patted him hard on the back. “Wow, Sammy-boy, in-cred-eeblay,” he said.
Samuel saw that Lilly and her friend were right behind Kris. Their faces were lit up with delight, still flushed from the music.
He walked past Kris and stopped in front of them. Lilly was smiling.
“Samuel, that was amazing…” she said and reached out to touch his arm.
He didn’t hear anything else she said because her touch burst him. Everything he had harvested on stage rushed out at once and it took his breath and poise away. Now he was open, way too open, raw, he had no defence, he felt the tears come, already rolling down his cheeks.
“Is he crying?” said Lilly’s friend. Behind Lilly others were approaching, crowding in, he couldn’t catch his breath. Too close.
Lilly squeezed his arm.
No. It was too much to ask for, too much to hope for, too too much. His inhale sounded like a sob.
“I can’t, I gotta, uh…” he said as he pulled away from Lilly. The removal of her touch sent him adrift and he sank, the pressure building around him. Tight chest. Couldn’t breathe. Bad bad bad. Inhaler.
He moved past her and into the throng and felt their bodies press against him, some soft, some firm. Before he’d taken five paces his shoulders had slumped forward, his head had fallen, his hair, damp and stringy with sweat, hid his features. His eyes sought the floor. He was sinking deeper, the pressure mounting.
Samuel nudged the door open with his hip, and even though he twisted to the side he still bumped the guitar case against the door frame in his hurry to get out.
The MC was shouting into the mic as he started to introduce the next act. The door swung shut behind Samuel and muted the sound from inside.
Outside he surfaced fast, no fear from the bends, the pressure was gone, from his chest and his mind. He had space around him again. The night air was cool and felt good as it caressed his face, but when he breathed it in, it was icy and hurt all the way down to the bottom of his lungs. He walked away from the pub.
He heard the noise from inside increase in volume. Someone was coming out.
He kept walking. No, it couldn’t be her. Although a thrill made him catch his breath that had nothing to do with asthma.
It could, it really could. He stopped, turned slowly.
Lilly jogged up and stopped in front of him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Samuel said gesturing to the street. “Fresh air.”
“Really?” She studied his face.
“I’ve got asthma, bit of an attack,” he said.
“Oh, no. Is it bad?”
“Yeah,” he said. But he felt fine and the air wasn’t freezing his lungs anymore. “I need my inhaler, I left it back at halls.”
Lilly nodded, and glanced back at the pub door and then at Samuel. “Do you want company? Y’know, make sure you get back okay?”
“Nah, it’s alright, better anyway, now that I’m out of there.” Bottled it. Kris was right after all.
“Alright. If you’re sure.”
“Yeah, thanks though,” he said and because he didn’t know what else to do, he added: “Bye then!” and turned and started walking away.
He had walked maybe ten paces when Lilly called after him: “I loved the song, by the way!”
Samuel turned around to face her and walked backwards. He smiled. “Cool,” he said and smoothed his moustache. “I’m playing again next week, y’know, if you want to hear more.”
“Great, I’ll be here,” she hesitated. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Go get your medicine,” she said.
“Right,” he said. “Goodnight.”
“Take care, Samuel.”
He turned and walked away. He didn’t remember much about the walk home because all he could think of was her squeezing his arm and the smell of her perfume.
As he approached his front door, he started to worry about what the hell he was going to play next time.