song of the slums

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Chaper 1: Astor arrives at Swale House

 

Astor and Verrol on the turret

 

Astor Plays the Drums

 

The Fight with Scarrow

 

Performance in the Royal George Hall

ASTOR PLAYS THE DRUMS

Wait a minute.’ Verrol was desperate. ‘Astor’s a talented musician too. Better than me.’

Granny Rouse obviously didn’t believe it. ‘Let’s see.’

‘Come on down!’

Astor had no choice, though she knew it wouldn’t work. She might be talented, but not on those instruments.

She slid down the side of the channel to join the musi- cians. When the young buzz guitarist offered her his guitar, she shook her head.

‘I can’t play that.’

‘Like a harp,’ said Verrol.

How could he be so absurd? ‘It’s nothing like a harp.’

He lowered his voice. ‘I thought you could play all sorts of instruments.’

‘Proper instruments. That thing doesn’t even have the right number of strings.’

‘Drums, then.’ He turned and announced it to Granny’s

Gang. ‘She plays the drums.’

The drummer was a spiky-haired boy of about ten, wearing a green-striped jumper full of holes. He rose from his seat and handed his drumsticks to Astor. They weren’t even proper drumsticks, just springy metal rods with leather-bound tips.

‘I can’t do this,’ she whispered to Verrol.

‘You can. You have to. It’s our only chance.’

Astor took her seat, which was an upturned box, and stared at the kegs, cans and pots before her. It was impossible. Didn’t Verrol understand that percussion was an entirely different skill? She had never played percussion in her life. But clearly Verrol thought this was their only chance to join the gang.

Verrol conferred with the other musicians, then nodded his head and counted them in. ‘One, two, three, four.’

He tapped on her drums to start her off. She recognised the same beat as the first tune they’d heard.

She began using her drumsticks, experimenting with the timbre of the different pots and pans. She added clever varia- tions and flourishes on top of the basic beat. Verrol danced in front of her, limbs gyrating this way and that.

‘Put more drive into it!’ he hissed out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Gang-music style!’

Astor tried her best, but there was something lacking. What else could she do? The guitarists played mechanically; Granny Rouse was shaking her head.

‘Harder! Stronger!’ Verrol was almost pleading. ‘Play for your life!’

What more could she do? She saw Granny Rouse shaking her head, and a rage swelled up inside her. Stupid drums! Stupid music! She would have shown them how she could really play if she’d had her harp! But the Swale brats had destroyed it! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

The frustration of this moment built on top of all the injustices of the day, on top of all the injustices of the last few weeks. Her pent-up feeling became a tidal wave. She might have thrown the drumsticks as far as she could throw . . . but instead she took out her frustration on the drums.

Beating them, battering them, hammering them! It turned into a delirium, a frenzy, as if every keg, pot and pan was the face of an oppressor! She just had to hit and hit and keep on hitting. Everything else disappeared into the distance.

Strangely, though, she never lost the beat. The musician in her still kept to the original rhythm – only a hundred times more fierce and savage. Sweat dripped off her face, and her hair fell forward over her eyes so that she could hardly see. But she didn’t need to see. Sheer rage possessed her. She was scarcely conscious of the other musicians except as elements in the storm she created. All sense of time disappeared. She grimaced and grunted meaningless words to herself.

It seemed she had barely begun when Verrol danced in front of her drums and leaned in until she could no longer ignore him. She couldn’t hear but she could read what he was mouthing: Stop now! Stop!

She didn’t want to stop, yet her musician’s instinct told her that the song had fulfilled its trajectory. Perhaps it was some- thing the guitarists were doing. She built the sound up and up, bringing in every drum, then concluded with a tremendous final crash – so tremendous that the rebounding drumsticks leaped from her fingers and flew ten feet away.

She pushed aside damp strands of hair. Everyone was goggling at her.

The silence was unnerving. Astor saw the shock in their eyes and wished she could vanish down a hole in the ground. She had made a complete spectacle of herself. She would have said ‘Sorry’, but the apology died in her throat. What she had revealed could never be recalled. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. She felt utterly exhausted.

She rose from the upturned box with a gesture to the spiky- haired boy. He only shook his head and made no move to reclaim his seat.

‘What did I do?’ she asked Verrol in an undertone. ‘Have I offended them?’

‘Er, no.’ He grinned. ‘Stunned them, I think.’

Then two girls from the crowd stepped forward. They had caught the drumsticks that had flown from her hands – and now gave them back to her. Not to the spiky-haired boy, but her. Doubt and hope waged a confusing battle in her head.

‘That was the best ever,’ said the young buzz guitarist.

It still seemed a mistake to Astor. ‘You liked it?’


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