Thursday, 29 November 2012

Mapledune


‘They’ll be just the three of them today,’ he said, unflinching.
          ‘Oh right, thought Annie said it was five.’
          ‘It was five. But there was a situation last night. Now it’s three.’
          Though I felt warm sweat dripping under both arms – I wisely always wear dark shirts when working for Annie – I don’t remember projecting any kind of astonishment when he mentioned how there had been a situation last night. Guess I must have just done an amiable nod and carried on tuning up.
          He hadn’t introduced himself earlier when we met in the pissing rain outside the cage. Only that introduction above. But I knew his name was Gerry Castle. Annie had mentioned his name in the email along with the time I had to be here, a contact telephone number and the post code for Mapledune Secure Unit. The only other information – the workshop today was to last for four hours. She had sent me a text a fortnight ago asking if I was available for this job. I normally bite off her arm for work. But the job was one day in a secure unit. I immediately replied, expressing a natural concern. Nuffin 2 worry about they no me well just do ur usual ull b fine. i will email u details A x was the message concluding the deal.
          Annie had a scattergun approach to running her business. Her favourite three words to me have always been, you’ll be fine. I assumed all this today was part of a Silver Arts Award that she was presently running in this unit. But I wasn’t certain. That’s why I had been hoping to tease some information from Gerry Castle. But that prospect diminished fast.
          For a start, there were no handshakes when I got out of the van. He walked straight passed me, directing me round to the left side of the building, to the cage. A fenced in square portal, the place for me to reverse my silver Vauxhall Astra van into. Which I did. I think he grinned slightly as he locked me in and then vanished from view. I sat in the van for a good five minutes before he appeared on the other side, behind me, opening the rear of the cage, a tall gateway that allowed access into what looked like a regular school playground; there was a tennis court/five-a-side football pitch, two large wooden climbing frames, a basketball pole and net. I had to leave the van in no man’s land, in the cage, remove the keys, hand them to Gerry, and unload my equipment travelling diagonally across what I now appreciated was a bouncy tarmac playground; it was so soft underfoot, black marshmallow.
          I brought in all my gear without assistance. Gerry stood guard by my van and observed my nine odd journeys back and forth as I carried my own acoustic guitar and bass plus 35w amp and then all the junior size guitars and 15w amps, a mixture of bass and acoustic guitars all held by dangling arms and as much cradled under armpits as I could manage. As I thought I had five today I had brought along six electric bass guitars and six nylon string acoustic guitars. The aim as always is that the group get to experience the contrast between 4-string and 6-string instruments. I had brought along extra as no one with behaviour issues wants to watch me re-string a guitar should a string snap. All the while Gerry prevailed, leaning against my van, void of emotion, an unfriendly ghoul, watching me. I wasn’t exactly expecting a welcoming party, but I was understandably nervous about working in a Secure Unit for the first time and it was reasonable enough for me to have hoped for something more cordial than a creepy sneering. The room I was to run the workshop from was immediately adjacent to the playground. In truth I didn’t really take in too much of the surroundings or if anyone else was watching as I went back and forth to the van. It really did begin to rain again. Seriously piss down, hard and vengeful. A perfect gesture all considering.


Twenty-five minutes later in the dry I was sat in a very hot room on a chunky wooden chair tuning up the last of the acoustics; the bass guitars were all pretty much in tune and the strings required hardly any manipulation of tension. But the last acoustic I had was completely de-tuned. I knew the culprit. He was from my last workshop. A patch of white from the room lighting shone on Gerry’s small bald head. He had watched me set up in silence. I clearly wasn’t going to get a cup of tea. Gerry just stood there staring at me and not my parade of spectacular guitars, out of their cases, upright on stands, gleaming in the artificial light. The bass guitars are a mixture of red, black and blue. The acoustics, black and purple. Gerry was holding a fixed icy posture, one I understood so well from the short time I had been doing this as another means of earning money; the unfriendly teacher-like stance, the arms folded, not understanding or wanting to understand the good work I had been doing to have gotten this far in this job in such a short space of time. But I knew what the issue was. I was, in his eyes, like in so many eyes, a mercenary. Perhaps having a skinhead haircut did me no favours; even though many would argue I was more Jimmy Sommerville than Joe Hawkins. But I am in this for honesty’s sake. I like shaving my head. My new girlfriend likes the look too. I then wondered if his frosty vibe was because he was naturally bald and mine was by choice.
          With the last of the guitars in tune, I looked up and smiled into his miserable face, hoping the gesture would be returned followed by the offer of that cup of tea. But I was clearly not wanted here today. That was plain enough to work out and that’s all good but the fact translates as this: I am here today. I am here to do my work. This is a day’s money. Good money. Three times more than I get for sanding floors, slaving my guts out for Simon Quinn; my other line of work. And then he spoke.   
         ‘So you work for Annie then?’
          ‘Yes.’
          ‘Known her long?’
          ‘We’ve known each other a while.’
          ‘She’s not told me much about you.’
          ‘Hasn’t she? Thought she would have.’
          ‘Of course she mentioned that you’re covering for her today.’
          ‘Oh, right.’
          ‘That you do all this with the guitars, that you’ve had the odd success here and there in behaviour management.’
          Hold on a second. Odd success you say? Over twenty young students who have never had an opportunity in life or had anyone invest time in them before have not only all now got a Bronze Arts Award certificate further to time spent with me, but are also now working on Silver. And three of them I know for a fact – Ben, Azaria and Jack – are now avid bass players in the process of writing their own material and forming bands. I truly believe that they all now believe in themselves to the extent that they will keep to the path I have shown them is out there and that they will never end up in here.
          ‘Yes, I suppose you could say I have had some success.’
          My tone employed sounded very nervous. Gerry was not impressed. And waded in.
          ‘Listen to me. And listen good. We had a situation last night that became extremely unpleasant for all concerned. Extremely unpleasant. This is another level to anything that you have done prior to now.’
          ‘I know that.’
          ‘No, you think you know but you don’t know. You have got to lay down the law hard and instant. They will be waiting for one tiny spec of weakness and then you’ll be in pieces. They will tear your guts out and it’ll be us who has to clean up the mess. And I’m not in the mood for that again today. So make your mark. From the start. Go in firm.’
          I coughed because the air in this enclosed room was definitely lacking enough oxygen to share about. But I remained calm, my voice this time improved and committed.
          ‘Thanks for the advice Gerry but I have never gone in hard. I have my own considered approach that seems to work with all students. I will just go with the same box of tricks as I always use as it does seem to get me results. As the saying goes, no point fixing something that isn’t broke.’
          I was hoping with me now being all assertive that Gerry might at least loosen up, ask me about the workshop, what my approach was, the game-plan, relax and accept that I am more than accomplished in running a four hour guitar workshop in a suffocating locked room. Last night though, whatever had happened in this place, had clearly upset him.
          ‘Your box of tricks won’t provide magic in here. They’re not kids you know. Two are sixteen and one’s not far off that age. Firmness and order is what they will be expecting. Don’t give them false hope. They’ll break you if you don’t lay down the law from the start. If you'd been here last night you'd know full well what I'm on about. You have another twenty minutes to prepare yourself. We will be letting them out for breakfast the instant I leave this room.’
          And with that Gerry was out the door, the chunky wooden door then locked, me locked inside, sat on a chunky wooden chair nowhere to go. Facing me was a wall covered in influential people quoting handwritten famous lines out of inflated speech bubbles. All the usual suspects in this kind of environment. What they think will impress. These dead and living faces trying to inspire the misguided young. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, John F Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Bob Geldof. Behind me was a locked door that led to a slightly larger room, an arts room. To my left was a large rectangular double glazed window that gave visual access to the corridor and eating area. To my right the same size window was replicated, a view of outside, the bouncy tarmac playground. To the far left of the window, the door I came in through. I found myself gazing outside at the black surface now getting battered again by pissing rain. You couldn’t hear the rain from inside. In fact there was no sound at all.
          So I just sat there, foolish, the last of the guitars I had tuned on my lap, eyes back in the room, staring into space until I was interrupted by commotion. Doors being unlocked, murmur of new day voices, birds flapping wings free from cages, instructions directed by heavier voices, then outside of the thick pane of glass, the corridor became of colour, of life. Three boys in dressing gowns, sky blue, red, pink. They were all taller than I was expecting and made their inspection of me as they strolled idly passed. I smiled at them all. They just stared back. The impression was one of disapproving. My heart sank. Go in firm or they’ll have you in pieces. Gerry had me doubting myself. Was I out of my depth here? Had Annie really thought this through when booking me in? Even dealing with Jacob and the brick he threatened to smash over the head of another boy in the corridor outside my workshop at a school in West London seemed nothing to this environment. And back then that was a pretty grim day. They’ll have you in pieces. It’ll be us who has to clear up your guts. No, I couldn’t allow that to happen. I began to gently pluck the nylon strings on the acoustic with my fingers. Resolute, but soft. All open E shape – G to F to E, G to F to E on and on, soon locked in a gentle trance, strumming infinity.

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