Under the pines and the power lines
By Parson Thru
Under the pines and power lines, I finally find a spot.
The landscape comes straight out of romanticised images of García Lorca or Hemingway:
rolling groves of Iberian pines and oaks casting their dappled shade over yellowing knolls
where ants the size of perritos swarm over roots and along the grooves of cork-like bark,
shiny black, red-abdomened, set to unknown errands.
My spot has fewer ants, the smaller kind, minding their business deep within the weave of grass. I lay the towel, drop my books, unzip the gig-bag and pull out the guitar, Spanish one. I’d agonised, should I bring the Yamaha, dreadnought, Americano, narrow neck? Too big, too heavy for the Metro. Maybe damage it.
In the hour before waking up I dreamt that the soundboard of the Spanish guitar was smashed in – two big gashes in the body. It had been an accident – the cleaner, not her fault. They were sad dreams, full of leaving. Trying to rinse the silt and muck from someone’s bathroom after showering my filthy self. Working out how I was going to get my stuff on a bicycle, to ride the hundreds of miles home and do it before dark.
I tune the nylon strings as best I can – not used to nylon’s tendency to slip. The Spanish guitar is a looser instrument: the strings move more freely, need more space, are less likely to stay in tune than steel. Two years ago, I put it away. The neck too wide for my reach. My fingers slipping off position. I couldn’t get a sound out of it and zipped it into its gig-bag.
“Don’t Think Twice”. Good tune to start with, and it’s been in my head all morning, haunting me down the broad slope of Gran Vía between Callao and Plaza de España, scene of Hemingway’s “Night Before Battle”. I set the waist of the guitar on my left thigh – classical-style – and play. Usual arthritic start. Normal. But I play on. There’s no one around. The road with its parked cars is way through the trees. Upper floors of flats are just visible behind me, beyond the power lines. Clusters of picnickers are lost among the folding contours.
The neck is much easier than I remember: the reach, finger ends sitting squarely on the strings. In a few moments, I’m into the song and the fingers know their way. A mountain biker comes pumping along a sendero. He’s engrossed. Earphones in. A woman walking two dogs. Pauses to call the smaller one. When I look up again, she’s gone.
I play “One Too Many Mornings”. Not feeling much like singing, I hum the melody. Groups of men sitting in the shade, talking, smoking, passing round a skin of wine, then the image is gone. I clip the capo on the neck – second fret. “Tangled Up In Blue”. My fingers have forgotten their prejudice. Capo on the second fret seems to flatter the guitar, or me, and the song rings out. I sing the seven verses from memory. It feels good. The stresses of the week have upped and left, though yesterday’s bender might have contributed.
I rest the guitar across my crossed legs and lean back against the tree. This is when I wish I still smoked. A thin man comes walking along the sendero, tee shirt bagging, thick, curly black hair and beard giving him the appearance of a guru. He looks at me and smiles. Gives me a wave. I wave back. I wait for him to disappear among the trees, then play “Don’t Think Twice” again. This time with the capo. If I was ever going to audition, I’d use this song. I sing the lyric out. The playing’s fluent. No effort. It feels good. I’m not embarrassed. I take the capo off and tune the guitar. B and G strings have slipped. Low E, too.
Four years in August. I can just about hold a conversation in Spanish. I bought some reading books for learners last week – Intermediate. Short stories and a biography of Che Guevara. Teaching-wise, I feel I can walk into any situation. We all have our own style and mine isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but horses for courses – when it works, it works. And guitar. I’m still only a strummer, but I remember sitting in Beale Street thinking I must have some kind of motor coordination problem. Not now. All those hours in the “garret” paying off. Seems I can swap between instruments no trouble.
Swallows and swifts are screeching in the blue space above the trees. Magpies chatter in the lower branches. Two have been watching me. David and my dad. Turbofans whine in and out of Barajas. An excited commentary somewhere – there’s an amusement park through the trees near Batán, while over in the city centre, three Metro stops away, the San Isidro festival is gearing up. There’s never silence; but there is peace.
Gentle peptic eruptions burn and I have to sit up. A loose medley of “Positively 4th Street”, “Blowing In The Wind”, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”. A breeze passes noiselessly through the pines. Two mountain bikers grind up the path – man and wife perhaps. He’s thirty metres ahead. I belch the acid. That’s better. One more song.
“If You See Her, Say Hello”. Capo still on fret two. The key works for my limited range. I sing it to the pines and the power lines and ghosts that loiter in the shade. It feels alright.
“...I know every scene by heart, They all went by so fast...”
perrito = a small dog
sendero = a track or forest walk
“...I know every scene by heart, They all went by so fast...” = from “If You See Her, Say Hello”, Bob Dylan, 1974.