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264 pagine
4 ore
Nov 20, 2015


"Music never stopped a war or put an end to greed or the hunger for power. But it was never supposed to. It has no reason, just as life has no reason. It just is. And what it is is the best that we can hope to be." Music is the talent - and the curse - that spans three generations to link Alex Rivera with the secrets of his family's past. Plucked from obsurity and thrown together with four other musical "prodigies", Alex rides the power of his music to fame and fortune as the lead-guitarist for Asturias, the latest creation of the music industry machine. But will the forces of commercialism and the stresses of fame destroy them, just as a bloody civil war tore apart another group of young idealists six decades earlier? How could anything go wrong? Everything's on track. You're on top of the world. Which is great. As long as you don't look down ...
Nov 20, 2015

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Asturias - Brian Caswell





24 May 1984

The boy closes the door quietly behind him and holds his breath. The house is quiet. His father’s car has gone from the driveway and Abuelito, his grandfather, is taking his siesta on the back verandah.

It is safe.

The room is almost dark. It smells of old age and forgotten dreams. The bed leans lopsidedly against the end wall, unmade as usual. The bed-covers and sheets pool where they fell a few hours earlier, when the old man struggled to find the floor with his feet. Later, when his shift at the factory is over, his father will enter the room and make up the bed, in time for the old man to climb painfully back in and begin the cycle again.

The rays of early afternoon probe into the gloom through the gaps around the old pull-down blind; tiny bright shafts that seem to die on contact, absorbed by the solid darkness of the room, lending only a ghostly illumination to the black shapes ranged around the walls.

The boy reaches up for the light-switch. He is just five years old, and not big for his age, and the switch is barely within the range of his extended arm.

The globe in its heavy shade gives out a dull yellow light, but it is enough. Suddenly the room comes to life.

The huge black dressing-table with its mottled mirror squats in the comer, two of its drawers not quite closed, three framed photographs the only objects on its dusty surface. And standing tall against the adjoining wall, the wardrobe, black and solid and mysterious, holds its secrets behind scarred doors, which the boy has never raised the nerve to open.

Against the wall stands a small wooden chair, and beside the bed the small chest is cluttered with necessities: a half-full glass of water; two bottles of pills; his grandfather’s wire-rimmed spectacles and a paperback book, in Spanish, which lies spine up, open at the page which sent the old man to sleep the previous night.

But none of these is what has drawn him to the room.

Slowly, the boy turns.

Hanging on the wall, just to the right of the door, are the treasures that have led him so often to break the taboo of Abuelito’s domain. Two guitars: one large, one small. The only objects in the room without a trace of dust on them, they shine in the dull light like polished gold.

The boy reaches out a hand and gently strokes the strings of the large guitar, highest to lowest, listening to the magic of the notes they sing, feeling the vibration as he places the tips of his fingers against the wood of the sounding board. Then lowest to highest, slowly, one string at a time.

He closes his eyes and smiles, lost in the sound …


Abuelito, my grandfather, is old.

So old that there is no one left alive who ever calls him by his real name. Manuel Moreno, he was baptised, seventy-eight years ago in Consuegra.

Consuegra is a mid-sized town, about a hundred and fifty kilometres south of Madrid, on the other side of the world. A town which remains in his memory, unchanged, exactly as it was when he left in 1952 with Abuelita, my grandmother, and Maria, their baby daughter, my mother.

1952. The year he finally turned his back on Spain, and all the broken dreams, never to return.


Until I was ten years old, I didn’t even know that was his name. To me, since the time names came to have any meaning at all, he had always been Abuelito. Grandfather. And when I found out, my image of him suddenly changed.

I came up behind him and spoke the name aloud.

Manuel? I said, and waited.

Slowly, he turned as if he expected to see someone else. Then the expectation faded, and the look that replaced it spoke of such loss that I ran from the room.

Later, he said nothing. Neither did I. But the name has never passed my lips again in his presence.

Abuelito, my grandfather, is old.

And being old, his life has become that peculiar mixture of mystery and revelation. The familiar stories that mask the deeper truths. The tips that hide the icebergs beneath the surface. The events that replay again and again, like items on a highlights tape, which give no true picture of the game as a whole …

Late that night, when it is dark and the candles are burning down, they come for us.

He uses Spanish when he speaks to my father, but he always speaks to me in his strange, tenseless, almost-English, so I’m used to the way he reinvents the language sometimes. Even so, when he talks about the old days, about the Civil War in Spain, his accent thickens, and his eyes glaze over, as if he isn’t really speaking to me at all.

Old age is a strange place, full of memories that seem more alive the further they retreat into history. Abuelito is seventy-eight years old, but sometimes it’s like he’s eighteen again, with the battles of sixty years ago still firing his eyes and echoing in his ears.

And always, in the end, it comes around to Ávila, and what happened there. To Francisco, to Conchita.

To Ardillo …

I listen. I always listen, but the words never change. Like a prayer, or a child’s bedtime story, they have a life of their own, and demand to be spoken.

And so he speaks them.

Francisco is on guard, he says, but he is only fifteen … hermanito … my little brother. I tell them many times. ‘Fifteen is too young,’ I say. But do they listen? ‘Is old enough to be shot by the Fascists,’ they say, ‘is old enough to fight for the Republic.’

At that, my grandfather laughs, but sadly. Then he looks at me for the first time, and his gaze is searching, as if he sees in me … an echo of something lost.

"Was old enough to die … Francisco, he fire one shot, and shout to warn us, before they kill him. We have only one chance. We grab our guns and run outside, out from the back of the house, just before they throw inside the grenades.

"I am running, and I feel the blast, but Ardillo he is behind me. I turn, I see him fall on his knees. Then he gets up and follow me. But his arm just is … hanging. By his side.

We stop in trees south of the town. Ardillo, Juana … and me. My brother Francisco is dead. Ramon, his friend, he will die later inside the Alcazar in Segovia, before they can make him talk, and Conchita …

He always stops when he speaks her name.


He keeps an old photograph of her on the dressing-table in his bedroom. It was always there, my father says, even while my grandmother was alive. Right beside the one of Ardillo playing his guitar.

Conchita. In the picture she looks about eighteen, maybe younger. A dark Spanish beauty who never lived to grow any older. I know his feelings for her haven’t changed for over sixty years, but he never opens up. Not about her.

Ardillo he talks about.

How the explosion drove the shattered window into his shoulder like a hundred tiny bullets; razor-sharp, cutting through the muscles and the nerves, leaving his arm useless; hanging like a damaged branch on a still-living tree. No hope of a cure. No chance that he could ever again caress the strings of his guitar and make them sing.

Francisco his little brother was dead, his throat tom apart by a Fascist’s bullet. Ardillo, at least, was alive.

But who was the fortunate one?

On that night, my grandfather says, I watch Ardillo. I see the life go out from him. And nothing can we do. Juana, your grandmother, she touches his cheek, but he turns away. Later, when he thinks we all asleep, I see him swing his useless hand against a tree. Bang, bang, bang. I hear it thump, but I know he feels no pain. That night the music goes out from him. And the life …

Abuelito’s gaze has moved out beyond the window, and I know that he is beyond me. That he is back in the woods of Castilla with Ardillo, the brother he idolised but could not save. Back at the moment when his life turned on its hinge, and he passed beyond a doorway through which he could never return.

Ardillo died in 1941.

The rest of the world was at war, but in Spain the war had been over for two years. The Nationalists were in control, the survivors of the International Brigades were safely back home or fighting for liberty on other fields. And the dream of freedom was no more than a bitter memory.

Ardillo has been dead for more than half a century. I know it. When my father took me back to visit Spain, I even saw his grave in the hills outside Consuegra.

He’s dead.

So why do I keep mentioning it?

To prove — to myself at least — that I’m not mad.

You see, when I was five years old, Ardillo Jesus Moreno, my grandfather’s dead brother, taught me to play the guitar …

… The boy reaches out a hand and gently strokes the strings of the large guitar, highest to lowest, listening to the magic of the notes they sing, feeling the vibration as he places the tips of his fingers against the wood of the sounding board. Then lowest to highest, slowly, one string at a time.

He closes his eyes and smiles, lost in the sound.

She is a fine instrument, Alejandro, but a little too … grown-up for those hands, no?

Spinning around, the boy draws a breath. Sitting on the bed, which only moments before had been empty, is a man in his mid-twenties. His shirt and trousers are white, and not too clean, and he wears no shoes. But his eyes are bright. And familiar.

Glancing across to the dressing table, the boy seeks out the framed photo in the centre. It is too far away for him to see clearly, but he knows the face. He has studied it many times.

Ardillo … The name slips out almost unconsciously and the man on the bed smiles.

Very good, Alejandro. No, it is Alex, is it not? Alex, Sandro, Sandy … Names are … changeable things, no?

The boy remains silent, not so much scared as fascinated. Like a mouse before a snake. The figure stands up and closes the gap between them, reaching out to touch the boy’s face.

His touch is cold.

Alex … He takes the boy’s left hand in his own, and traces a fingertip along the length of each of the boy’s fingers. Good hands. Long fingers. Perfect. But not for this instrument, eh? He allows the hand to drop, and runs his fingers across the strings of the large guitar. No sound comes. For a moment the boy sees his shoulders slump.

Then he turns back and the smile has returned.

Take down the small one. Don’t be afraid. My brother will sleep for an hour at least.

Still the boy does not move. The thought of this young man and his old grandfather being brothers … He looks towards the small guitar, but does not reach for it.

It is more your size. It was made for me in Aranjuez by Manito Catala, when I was … just about your age. If I am going to teach you —

Teach me? Finally the boy finds his voice.

Of course. It is what I have been waiting for.

No reply. For a moment he remains silent, then he continues, They took my music from me. Again he reaches across and runs his fingers over the strings. But again no sound comes.

Forty-three years, and … nothing. I thought your mother might —

My mother? You knew my mother?

We never spoke. She had no interest, you see. Never once did she touch the strings. So I had to wait. For you.

I don’t understand. In spite of his confusion, the boy is beginning to relax.

No, I do not suppose you do. It has been almost half a century and still I do not understand. Except that something is … unfinished. Take down the guitar. This time the boy does as he is asked. Now, we will see if Señor Catala’s instrument needs a little tuning. Do you know how a guitar is tuned?

The boy shakes his head.

Well, Alejandro. Every journey begins with a small step. Bring over that chair and we will begin.




What we play is life.

Louis Armstrong

Relax, said the nightman,

"We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave."

The Eagles, ‘Hotel California’, 1976




I wanted to kill him.

Break his fingers, cut off the power; anything to shut down the noise.

Beethoven is tough enough to master, without some headbanger hammering out a mindless heavy metal riff right next door. At full distortion.

I slammed my fists down on the keyboard and stormed out of the room.

He hadn’t even closed his door properly. I pushed it open and stepped inside. He was facing away from me, towards the amp, leaning over his guitar. I reached down and pulled out the plug. The noise died.

He turned and looked up at me. He was about the same age as me. Seventeen, maybe eighteen. His T-shirt was black and so was his hair. He wore it long and tied back in a ponytail. Typical! I still had the plug in my hand and I was ready for almost any reaction. Except the one I got.

He smiled.

Why’d you do that?

He stood up as he spoke and leaned the guitar on the amp. He was relaxed, at ease. And hot …

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not some airhead, who gets an attack of the hormones every time she sees a good-looking guy. But I don’t mind looking. And he was definitely worth looking at.

He reached out to take the power-lead from my hand, and I dropped it deliberately on the floor at my feet. He looked at it, then back at me, and the smile never left his face.

I had to remind myself that I was mad with him.

I’m trying to practise my music next door.

No kidding? He was laughing at me.

I suppose it was a pretty dumb thing to say. What else would I be doing in a practice studio? I attempted to rescue the situation.

It’s impossible to do anything with that … cacophony going on! Hell, I was beginning to sound like my mother!

He looked at the amp, then back at me.

I thought these rooms were supposed to be soundproof —

For music, I cut in. Not industrial noise pollution.

The smile didn’t waver.

That was classic Jimmy Page … I must have given him my blank look. He tried again. Led Zeppelin? The ‘Old Man’ album? It’s called ‘Black Dog’. He began humming the riff that he had been playing earlier.

I began to get mad again. He bent down and pushed the plug back into the power socket. I spoke to his back.

Beethoven is classic. Mozart is classic. That’s … shit! He stood and faced me, just a few centimetres from my nose.

Says you. He was still laughing at me.

I took half a step backwards. Says me.

He closed the gap between us, but there was no threat in the movement.

Then I can see I’m going to have to … educate you. He made it sound like a proposition. I was lost for words — not my normal state of being.

I turned and made what I hoped was a dignified exit, even though I felt like a complete dork.

And that was when I heard it.

The most amazing, unexpected … For a full minute I didn’t move. I just let the notes flow out of the doorway. Then I went back in.

He was sitting on the amp, facing the door. His eyes held mine, flicking only occasionally to the strings of his guitar. But he never missed a note.

‘Asturias’ … by Isaac Albéniz. Eighteen sixty to nineteen oh nine, I believe. Like it?

All I could do was nod, hypnotised by the power of the music.

He smiled. Sounds better on acoustic, but … He shrugged and went on playing. Personally, I always thought Mozart was a bit too … controlled. And I don’t believe Beethoven ever wrote anything for guitar. I prefer Albéniz or Rodrigo … or Leadbelly …

And without missing a beat he slipped into an up-tempo blues progression, bending the strings and sliding his fingers up and down the neck so smoothly that they seemed to become a part of the instrument.

Finally he stopped. And I realised that I’d forgotten all about breathing.

I — I’d better get back to … You know. I nodded towards next door.

He smiled. Beethoven … Ludwig van … seventeen seventy to eighteen twenty-seven. He was trying to impress me. It was working. You know Beethoven was stone deaf when he wrote some of his best stuff?

I nodded. That much I knew.

He was staring at me, measuring me up and down. I should have been insulted, or embarrassed at least, but what I felt at that moment left little room for any other emotion.

He continued speaking.

I couldn’t imagine anything worse. They say he could hear music inside his head that there was no way of ever putting down on paper. But he could never hear his own masterpieces played. It’s no wonder he was so hard to get on with. Terminal frustration.

I was backing out of the door. I didn’t trust myself to talk.

I reached the safety of the hallway, just as his voice drifted out. Alex … Rivera. Nice meeting you.

I smiled, facing the door to my own studio. Claire … Gordon.

My hand was on the door-handle as his reply reached me.

I know.

I sat down at the piano, but I couldn’t bring myself to play anything.




The first time I met Max, I didn’t take much notice of him. Sessions are like that.

I was seventeen and I’d been doing them for maybe three or four years. It’s a pretty good way to make quick money. What they pay you to play on a backing track is more than I could earn at McDonald’s in a month. And I was beginning to build a rep for myself. Rock, blues, jazz, even a bit

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