When Lewis was six, he got into his first fight. It was a school holiday and his mum was working, so his dad, who didn’t have a gig till the nighttime, took Lewis to St. James’ Park to look at the birds. Lewis really liked birds. His dad would play old jazz records by a man called Bird in their living room. On nights when his mum was home, Lewis’s dad and mum would dance together and Lewis would sit at the piano and pretend to be playing. The jazz man’s name was actually Charlie Parker, but Lewis preferred Bird.
Lewis brought a bag of stale bread crumbs to feed the birds. He and his dad walked down the little dirt road and his dad whistled a song by Bird. Lewis knew his dad would play it at his gig later that night, and even though he wasn’t old enough to go into the jazz clubs, he always imagined a big stage and people dressed in fancy clothes with long gloves and top hats. That’s how people looked in the pictures of Bird playing in front of the stage, and to Lewis, his dad was just as great as Charlie Parker, if not better. After all, Lewis’s dad didn’t just play saxophone—he played piano and trumpet too.
Lewis was learning the piano. He didn’t think he was very good, because his dad was so much better, but his dad often clapped when Lewis played and turned to Lewis’s mum saying that he had natural talent. Lewis didn’t know what that meant.
He clutched the bag of bread crumbs and when they reached their usual bench, Lewis’s dad took a seat and Lewis ran over to the pond. He took a handful of breadcrumbs and threw them out to the birds. The ducks instantly swarmed over. They were always loud. The swans were aloof. They stayed at the edge till they deemed the offering of bread crumbs acceptable, then they glided over, a royal procession, scattering the ducks.
It was a grey London day, damp and just cold enough that Lewis had on a blue jacket with brass buttons. His mum had made it out of scraps from the shop she worked at. It looked rather smart. Lewis’s dad said that he looked just like a little jazz musician when he wore it.
Lewis was zoning out, methodically tossing bread crumbs to the birds, thinking of his dad’s big concert that night. He did not notice the boy who came up behind him and it was only after the boy actually shoved him that Lewis snapped out of his trance.
“Look at you, sissy,” the bigger boy said, then shoved Lewis again. This time it was harder and Lewis almost stumbled. He caught himself before he could fall and glared.
The bigger boy shoved Lewis harder. This time, Lewis did fall and he yelped as he collapsed onto the muddy shore of the pond. He knew his mother would scold him for the stains. She had worked very hard on the jacket. It had been a birthday present and it hadn’t even been two weeks. He felt the tears before they came but tried very hard not to let the bigger boy see him crying. Even so, a sob managed to crack through.
The bigger boy leered over, snatched the bag of breadcrumbs from Lewis, and then kicked Lewis in the side. Now there was a footprint on the side of the jacket. Lewis could handle the names and the breadcrumbs being snatched. What he couldn’t handle was this nice jacket his mum had made for him being ruined.
He leapt up, yelling, and then jumped onto the boy’s back. The boy yelped in alarm and tried to shake Lewis off, but Lewis wrapped his arms tightly around the boy’s neck and held on.
Someone grabbed the back of Lewis’s jacket and yanked him away from the boy, who stumbled backwards from momentum.
“Lewis.” It was his father who had grabbed him. “What the hell?”
“He pushed me!” Lewis pointed at the bigger boy, who scrambled to his feet and started to run up the hill to a lady pushing a pram who Lewis figured was his mother. The bigger boy was crying now and the mother was rubbing the dirt off his face. Lewis knew he was going to get into trouble. His dad’s hand was still on the back of his jacket and Lewis shrank behind his father, trying to hide away from the view of the bigger boy. He was going to get a scolding when he got home, he knew that. Maybe he wouldn’t be allowed to watch television for a week.
The lady with the pram stood up and started marching towards Lewis’s father, who squeezed Lewis once on the shoulder.
“I’ll handle this,” he said, and walked to the lady.
Lewis watched his dad and the yelling lady. All Lewis could see of his father was his back, but he seemed calm. Lewis watched them. Maybe they were talking about how they should punish Lewis. He hoped the lady wouldn’t suggest not having sweets for a week. He’d just gotten a big bag of candies for his birthday.
Lewis’s father was walking back to him now. He looked angry. Lewis felt like he was going to cry again, but then his father turned round to the lady again.
“Teach your bloody kid some manners!” He kicked the ground, and then turned back round. He grinned; Lewis didn’t know why. His dad ruffled Lewis’s hair and scooped him up. Lewis giggled as his father set him on his shoulders. He could see all of the lake from up here, all the birds pecking away at the shore, all the children running around. He clutched his dad’s head and his dad started to whistle one of their songs.
When Lewis was eleven, he got sent home from school because he punched an older boy in the stomach. Lewis had brought a bagged lunch to school that he actually had no intention of eating. His mum had made him a sandwich last night and it was cold because it had been sitting in the refrigerator. His dad had had a show that night and Lewis had started going to them, because his parents finally decided he was old enough.
The shows weren’t like the pictures he’d seen of the old jazz musicians. There were no velvet covered seats, no standing ovation, no elegant ladies in pearls, no men with monocles. They were usually in small bars or restaurants. The one last night had smelled like beer. The stage wasn’t even at the front. It was in the corner. And people weren’t watching.
The first time Lewis had gone to one of his dad’s shows, earlier that year, he wanted to yell at the people in the restaurant. They weren’t paying attention. They didn’t understand the music. Lewis could listen to his dad play for hours. These people were barely paying attention. He had asked his mum why they weren’t really listening and his mum told him that these people came for food and that the music was a sort of added bonus. Like how sometimes there was a toy at the bottom of the cereal box but that they never bought a cereal box just for the toy. Lewis told her that he would buy a cereal box for the toy and his mum rolled her eyes and told him that when he had the money, he could do what he liked.
Last night, his dad had played West End Blues and Lewis, who had just started learning trumpet, knew how hard that particular song was. He expected everyone to stand up and start clapping. But there was only some scattered applause.
He went up to his dad afterwards, when they were outside and his dad was holding his trumpet case with one hand and had a cigarette in the other, and told his dad that the performance had been fantastic. His dad chuckled but then took a long drag of his cigarette and didn’t say anything. His mum hadn’t gone; she said she had to get up early and was tired.
At school the next day, Lewis held his little bagged lunch and didn’t want to eat it. He was sitting outside, underneath a tree, watching the other kids run around. Thomas Fletcher, one of the ruder boys in class, came up to him and asked why he wasn’t eating. Lewis refused to answer and Thomas snatched up the bagged lunch and wouldn’t give it back. This would’ve been alright, but then Thomas said something about how it was a lousy lunch anyway, with the cheap sort of bread and margarine instead of butter and how not even a dog should be eating it, and that’s when Lewis stood up and punched Thomas in the stomach.
He was sent to the headmaster’s office shortly after that because Thomas had run off and told their teacher. They phoned home and since Lewis’s mum was at work, it was his dad who came to the school. He spoke with the headmaster briefly behind a closed door. Lewis couldn’t really make out what they were saying, only that it sounded loud and angry.
He thought he was going to get in trouble. He and his father silently walked from the school to the car (a small, beat-up thing they had only recently gotten). The ride was quiet. His father stared straight forward. Lewis tried to keep his gaze out the window, but he glanced at his father every few minutes, trying to figure out what was going to happen. He knew he shouldn’t have punched Thomas. He knew he was probably going to be suspended from school for a few days and that it would go on his record and that his mum would cry when she found out. He pressed his forehead against the dirty window of the car.
They didn’t take the turn that would lead them to their flat; instead, Lewis’s father took a left and pulled in front of a McDonald’s. He got out and held the door open for Lewis, cupping the back of his neck as they walked inside.
“Do you want the toy or are you too old for that now, Lew?” his father asked when they got in line. Lewis glanced at the little plastic toys in the display case and shook his head. He couldn’t remember the last time they were at McDonald’s. He’d been little then and he had asked for a toy. His father ordered two burgers off the value menu and a drink. After a moment’s hesitation, he got fries as well. He winked at Lewis. “A treat,” he said, pressing his finger to his lips. “Don’t tell Mum.”
They sat face-to-face in the little booth with their food and Lewis spent most of the time looking at the fries and avoiding his dad, till finally, his father cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry, Dad, he was just saying awful stuff and I wanted him to shut up and—”
“Lewis, I’m not mad.” His father sighed. “I’m sure he was saying some nasty shit. I know how kids are. You need to learn how to pick your fights, ok? Sometimes people are going to say some terrible things about you and you won’t be able to do anything about it. Sometimes it’s better not to say anything.” He looked straight at Lewis and Lewis ducked his head down.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
“It’s alright.” His dad leaned over the table and clapped him on the shoulder. “Now, you’re suspended for three days, but that just means we can get some music done.” He grinned at Lewis, who managed to smile back.
“Is Mum going to be mad at me?” Lewis asked when they were getting back into the car.
His father’s lips tightened. Lewis thought that maybe he shouldn’t have asked that. His parents were fighting a lot. Lewis could usually hear them from his room, even if he had music on. His mum wanted his dad to get a proper job. It used to happen only once in a while, but now it happened every other day.
“She’ll be fine in the end,” his dad said, starting the car. “She always is.”
When Lewis was fourteen, he had to go to the hospital because he broke three ribs. That was the year he started going to a posh secondary school. His mum and dad had separated the previous year and he’d gone to live with his mum and her new husband in a nice house and they went out to eat every week. His mum’s new husband, Harold, was nice enough, even though he was almost as old as Lewis’s granddad. He worked in a bank and had short, neat blond hair and light skin. Harold had two kids from his previous marriage—Eliza and Alex—and when they visited on weekends, Lewis’s mum fit in right with them, all fair and blonde. Lewis now found himself patting down his messy curls down when he walked past the big mirror in the upstairs hallway.
It happened when he was walking home from school. Three boys had followed him, close enough so that he knew they were there. He tried to shake them off, clutching at the straps of his knapsack, peering over his shoulder. He didn’t know what they wanted. Lewis took a shortcut through a park and it was then when the leader of the boys—Michael Oakley—yanked his bag.
“Heard that your mum’s a gold-digging whore,” Michael hissed.
Lewis froze. This wasn’t the first time someone had made a terrible comment about his mother. It was the buzz around this circle, the young, pretty shop assistant with no education who managed to woo an older, rich, recently-divorced man and left her husband for him. At the cocktail parties that Harold brought them to, Lewis noticed that none of the ladies really talked to his mum and instead, sort of talked over her. Lewis’s mum never let it bother her though; she just sort of smiled and nodded. People at school assumed the worst about Lewis’s mum, so they tended to assume the worse about him. Lewis didn’t like people talking about his mum like that, but he also knew that if they were still in the East End, no one would be calling her names or yanking his knapsack.
“Bloody stig.” The boy with glasses took a step closer. The one with freckles pumped out his chest.
They edged closer to him and Lewis started breathing faster. He ducked, trying to run away, but Michael caught him and shoved him to the ground. He remembered what his dad had told him years ago and knew that there was no way he could overpower these three. But he didn’t want to curl up and let them thrash him. He tried to get a few blows in, but they were just stronger and he was outnumbered. He didn’t, however, give them the satisfaction of crying.
He called his mum on the mobile that he’d been given for Christmas and she and Harold rushed over to pick him up and bring him to the hospital. He’d started crying then, because his mother had started crying. She was really weeping, asking him why these boys would’ve done this, why they thought it was ok. Lewis only felt a few tears on his face. They stung the cuts. Harold made some remark about how it was violent video games that were causing such schoolboy ruckus. Lewis wanted his dad.
“Can I call Dad?” Lewis asked in the waiting room.
His mum stroked his hair.
“I did, love. It went to voicemail. He’s probably very busy right now.”
The last time Lewis went to one of his dad’s gigs, he counted ten wrong notes. Lewis winced each time. The tempo on the third song was off. Lewis wasn’t sure if he’d noticed because his father had a bad night or if Lewis had just never paid that much attention before. He was really into his music nowadays; this posh school had a good music program and his teacher moved him up to the upper level classes within the first week because Lewis was that good. His father was very proud of him and had ruffled his hair and bought him some new sheet music. “The good stuff,” he had said. “You’re ready.”
Lewis wanted his father now. He couldn’t explain to his mum why Michael Oakley’s gang picked him, couldn’t explain that it was her fault and that he was angry at her, but he also pitied her and he didn’t know what to feel. His dad would understand, Lewis knew this. His dad would tell him it was all like a song and that things never had to make sense.
Lewis pressed his face into the side of his mum’s arm and closed his eyes.
When Lewis was sixteen, he came home with a bloody nose. It was a summer night and he’d been out with some old friends from when he used to live over by the East End. He often met up with them on the weekends when he stayed with his dad. His dad had moved from their old flat to a cheaper, one-bedroom one. When Lewis stayed with him, they’d cook hot dogs in the microwave and watch Monty Python. His dad didn’t care that sometimes Lewis would bring girls home. In fact, he always made tea in the mornings and greeted whoever had spent the night with a cheery wink. When his dad had a gig, Lewis would come along. Sometimes, Lewis would play with his father. Those were the nights they got the most tips. He knew why, but he didn’t know if his father knew. He didn’t know if it was better if his father knew or not.
Lewis had been thinking about music a lot. His music teacher told him that if Lewis really wanted to, she’d write him a glowing letter of recommendation to the top conservatories. She had connections. She could get him a spot. He told her he’d think about it.
In the last few months, Lewis started staying with his dad a little bit less. He’d also started dating this rather posh girl, Anita, from school. She had red hair and was the type of girl who went on ski trips to the Alps over the Christmas holiday and never thought twice about ordering drinks and dessert at restaurants. Lewis sometimes caught himself checking the price of drinks before remembering that he didn’t have to worry about money anymore. Harold paid for everything. Anita had met his mum and Harold a couple of times. They thought she was charming. She often asked about his father. Lewis always made some excuse.
Anita was in Venice for the summer, so Lewis was out with his old East End friends that night. They went to one of the pubs on the corner of the street where Lewis used to live. The bartender recognized him, he’d known Lewis’s dad. They got a round of drinks on the house and as Lewis toasted to old times, some fellow in the corner scoffed.
“Got a problem, mate?” Lewis always was a bit brasher when drunk.
“Your old man’s a waste,” the fellow said, tipping back his own whiskey. “Can’t get a gig nowadays. Don’t know how he ever did.”
“He’s in Edinburgh right now,” Lewis leaned over to this man, “at a jazz festival.”
“That’s what he told you? He’s always in here, wasting the little money he has on liquor. No doubt he’s gone to Scotland to do the same.”
Maybe it was because he had a bit too much to drink or maybe this man’s words had a ring of truth to them that Lewis didn’t want to admit, but whatever the case was, before he could stop himself, Lewis punched him in the face. This fellow was not one to cower away, so he hit Lewis back. They both managed to get a few swings in before the bartender broke up the fight. Lewis’s friends were cheering him on and they held up his hand in victory when they left the bar. Lewis ducked down his head in shame. The blood trickled down from his nose and he tasted it on his top lip.
He found his way back to Harold’s house well past three in the morning and tried to tiptoe slowly inside, without waking up anyone.
“You said you’d be back at midnight.”
This was his mother, who was sitting in the dining room, in her pink satin bathrobe, arms crossed over her chest. Lewis had just closed the door behind him and stopped still in the hallway.
“Mum, I’m sorry, I—”
“You can’t keep doing this!” She stood up, her voice starting to break. “Do you know how much I worry about you, Lewis? Do you even think about your future?”
He’d been apologetic before but now he stood up a little straighter, his voice edged.
“I am thinking about my future. I told you. Mrs. Carter said I can get a good spot—”
“Oh, yes that’s what this family needs. Another musician.” His mum was really shaking now. “Lewis, do you remember how poor we were? I couldn’t even get you proper birthday presents. We had to keep the heat off in the winter. I had to sell your grandma’s jewelry to pay rent. You’re so good at school. You could get a good job. You could be something.”
“I’m really good though.”
“That’s not enough. You never know. Do you want to live in a shitty flat your whole life and have to worry about paying for water?” Her voice cracked and Lewis saw that her eyes were red. She had been crying. “I don’t want to worry about you when you’re older. I don’t want you to have to worry about buying groceries or paying rent, Lew. We got out of that. You can stay out of that.”
There was a distance between them, Lewis still in the hallway, his mum in the dining room and Lewis didn’t know how to close it. He felt angry, he knew that, at his mum mostly, but there was a snaking feeling of anger towards his dad. If his dad had regular gigs, Lewis could do it. If his dad brought in money, his mum wouldn’t have left and they’d be ushering Lewis off to school. He clenched his fist, thinking of his dad in Scotland now, wondering if he was playing a gig or if he was just drinking, like the man in the pub had said.
And then, Lewis felt the guilt bubble up and close around his throat, almost suffocating him. He unclenched his fist and, looking away from his mother, away from the pictures of Harold’s family in the hallway, Leiws rushed to his room.
When Lewis was twenty-one, he went to one of his dad’s shows. He’d dressed up for it, in a smart jacket and a tie, and combed his hair back so it didn’t stick up everywhere. It was going to be at a good location, that’s what his dad told him on the phone, the type of place where people actually went to listen to the music and not just eat.
Lewis was back in London for the summer. He was studying accounting at university. He’d always been good with numbers and accounting offered a steady, reliable job. Harold said he’d be able to help Lewis out with jobs when he graduated.
His girlfriend, Sam, was with him tonight. Lewis had wanted to go alone, didn’t want to drag Sam along for this, but Sam was the sort of person who didn’t really understand music but loved it nonetheless, so she wouldn’t know that Lewis’s dad played a few wrong notes. Also, Sam really wanted to meet Lewis’s dad. Lewis was hesitant to bring her along at first, but as they walked into the venue—a rather nice restaurant with a big stage up front and elegant waiters with bowties—and he felt Sam’s hand on his back, he was thankful that he wasn’t alone.
His dad had invited them backstage and Lewis talked briefly to the maître d’ and, with Sam close behind, headed through a hallway and behind the stage. The musicians, all dressed in black, were readying their instruments, emptying out the spit valves, blowing a few notes, adjusting their reeds and mouthpieces. Lewis’s dad spotted him before he did and raised a hand.
“That’s my boy!”
The rest of the musicians glanced up, offered a nod or a brief wave, and Lewis’s dad walked over, trumpet in hand and embraced Lewis.
“Hey, Dad.” His dad smelled faintly like cigarette smoke and valve oil—familiar scents that Lewis hadn’t smelled in a while. He held onto his dad for a bit longer.
“Lew!” His dad clapped him on the shoulder and then ruffled Lewis’s hair. “My God, it’s been ages. This is Sam isn’t it?” He stuck out his hand towards Sam, who smiled sweetly and shook it.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Tyler.”
“Just call me Will.” He turned back to Lewis. “How’s your studies going? What is it you’re studying again…?”
“Accounting,” Lewis said.
His dad laughed and then shook his head, turning to Sam.
“All the talent in this one—that pure, raw musical talent—and he picks accounting.”
“I like maths, Dad.” Lewis was blushing. He felt it in his cheeks and when his dad tried to make eye contact, he found he couldn’t hold it for long. He didn’t know why he felt the need to justify himself, but he wanted to. “And I can get a good job straight out of uni. All big companies need accountants. It’s the practical thing to do.” There was an edge to his voice that he didn’t realize till he finished his sentence. His dad, who had been smiling just before, now had his lips drawn in a thin, straight line. He didn’t say anything in response to Lewis, just fingered the valves of his trumpet.
“Say, Lew…” His father spoke finally but was looking more at his trumpet than at Lewis. “I spoke to the conductor and he said it’d be ok if you wanted to play the piano for a song. It’d be a good thing for the crowd, y’know? Father and son, like the old times…” He glanced up at Lewis, smiling unsurely.
Lewis wanted to say yes. Or maybe he wanted to want to say yes. He thought of Mrs. Carter back in secondary school who could’ve put him in a conservatory. He thought of how he had met Sam, how he’d been playing the piano in a bar while a bit drunk and Sam had come up and said that his music was lovely. He thought of the way the keys of a piano felt beneath his finger tips, slightly slick, and how sometimes the keys stuck together and how each piano had a different feel. He thought of his father’s hands on his own, showing him where Middle C was, showing him how to press the pedals, clapping him on the back and saying that Lewis had natural talent. Then he thought of the yelling. He thought of wrong notes at performances, scarce applause, bored gazes. He felt a lick of heated anger in the back of his throat but as it rose, it turned to a chilling numbness.
“I haven’t played in a while, Dad,” he said, looking away. “I wouldn’t be any good.” He paused, glancing briefly at Sam, who was smiling to herself, then back at his father. “We’ll watch the show. I’m looking forward to it.” He reached to touch his dad’s shoulder. His father stared at him and then nodded slowly. Lewis saw the creases on his father’s forehead, deep and weary, before his father smiled.
“Ah, well, that’s a pity. I hope you like the show, though.”
When Lewis and Sam took their seats, at one of the tables near the middle, and after they had ordered their drinks, Sam leaned over to Lewis.
“You played just the other week,” she said. “At Grace’s party. You were rather good.”
“It would be so nice if you played with your father,” Sam said, with a sigh.
“The show’s starting.” Lewis looked straight ahead, not at Sam.
The curtain at the front of the stage rose. The jazz band had about twenty people. Lewis’s dad was fourth trumpet or something like that. Or maybe he was the second third trumpet. Or the third second trumpet. Whatever it was, he wasn’t the first. The song they started off with was one by Bird. Lewis felt a lump in his throat. He knew this song well, knew its insides and outs and where the tempo picked up and where it fell and when the right place to take a breath would be. He watched the band, unable to look at his father initially, because he didn’t want to see his father make a mistake. Towards the middle, though, his favorite part, the part he used to sing along with his father to, he let himself look.
His father held his trumpet up and his eyes were closed and the way the stage light shown on his face made the creases and lines disappear. Lewis didn’t know whether he should be happy or sad. He just reached over for Sam’s hand and tried to enjoy the song.