by Clare Cavanagh
I had never wished to learn how to play the guitar. When I moved to Phnom Penh, heartbroken and perplexed, I was a year away from my 30th birthday. I was completely unprepared for my next decade. Nothing set up back home to head back to. I was just not ready. So instead, I decided to create a bucket list to distract me, hoping that it would create a path of its own for me. I drew up a list of 365 days in which I would do the things that I’d never done before; that I had lived in fear of; that I had previously considered myself incapable of doing.
While travelling (before reaching Cambodia), I had spent evenings on many Southeast Asian beaches, watching unfamiliar faces lit up by sparkling firewood. That sound filled the silent air with a fizz like soda. It popped and hissed until a guitar emerged from behind a bearded man, who would begin strumming the chords to Wonderwall. The guitar was passed around, the same song on repeat. Everyone sang and swung their tanned torsos, basking in the happiness of not needing to be anywhere else but there.
To learn to play one song on the guitar was the first task on my list. I felt that I was missing something by not being able to share a familiar song – even badly. I knew I would never have the patience or eloquence to become a virtuoso but it didn’t matter. One balmy night sitting outside at a rum bar, I asked my Swedish friend Alex (an excellent guitarist) to teach me the basics. We agreed that I would bring takeaway food to his apartment every Tuesday. The plan being that he would teach me some chords for an hour, before we’d indulge in delicious curries and scandalous gossip in our other-worldly life.
“The strings drew me back to a time where I knew who I was.”
The weeks went by and my frustration grew in being unable to switch between chords. Alex told me that I would have to buy my own guitar. Practice was essential, he said. He gave me the directions to a guitar shop in the city and the following weekend I walked all the way there, perspiring in the 40 degree heat. The guitar shop was a healing sanctuary, the air conditioning breathing over me as I entered. The bell chimed above my head and a young man appeared, asking if he could help. I told him I was there to buy a guitar. His eyes lit up like matches. He led me to a large wall of guitars – every possible colour, shining like reflections on still water. I winced when I looked at one of the price tags. They were out of my league. I told him they were beautiful but asked, embarrassingly, if he had anything a little less expensive? He led me to the opposite wall, presenting them with his left hand sailing across them as if in a dance. I shook my head, shamefully. Anything else?
‘Oh. Cheap-cheap?’ he asked, the matches extinguishing. He nodded sadly and told me to follow him. He led me through a long dark corridor, up some rickety stairs into an attic. I looked around in sadness. An entire array of orphaned guitars – broken, stringless, sticker-covered, lifeless. He told me to have a look, that he’d give me a deal on any of them, and he left.
I wandered through them, touching each of them with care. And suddenly, there she was. Joni. She looked a little bare and bruised, but she was mine. I took her downstairs, showed her to the salesman, explaining that I was learning and that this was my first guitar. My excitement spread over him like a potion as he gave me the price, telling me that he would re-string her for me, give her a polish and throw in a guitar bag for free. We chatted for an hour as I watched him tenderly adjust the peg heads, tuning Joni to perfection. He put her in her carry case and I handed him $15 in crumpled notes. I left, walking home in the heat with my new joy on my back.
Two years later, having returned home to the real world, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. I underwent surgery which affected my speech, my words, my memory, my everything. That was until I reached for my guitar. The strings drew me back to a time where I knew who I was. The recovery would take patience but, in this moment, I could play my memories.
The moments in our lives are knotted together by invisible strings. Those seconds in which we make the unknowable choices that nourish us without our awareness bind our needs together, perhaps packing them away for the future.
Clare Cavanagh | @clarecavanagh1
Clare is a writer living in Edinburgh. She is currently writing her first book, a memoir entitled My Words Will Find Me, which won her a place at the WriteNow 2016 event run by Penguin Random House, and also a place at XPONorth 2017 Pitch To Publishers event in June 2017. She read one of her short stories in the That’s What She Said event (run by For Books’ Sake) in the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Clare is delighted to be a member of the Write Like A Grrrl community.