The Co-Conspirators

Rupert is taken shopping in London by his grandmother.


"Don't let it go to the boy's head," his father said, staring down at his own mother over his reading glasses. "It was just a tournament."

"Don't glower so, Peter. He's scarcely a boy any more. And he's a better fencer than you were at that age. He deserves a bit of a treat, don't you, Rupert?"

"Thanks, Gran," Rupert said, obediently, not looking anywhere near his father.

He was looking forward to the day in the city, he had to admit. It got him away from home, and Father's threat of Sumerian lessons to occupy him over the hols, commencing immediately. Gran was old, but she'd been places with her Slayer and done things, exciting things, had had adventures far wilder than any his father had had. And her idea of London shopping was much more interesting than Rupert's mother's idea. Perhaps they'd go to a occult bookshop. He'd been reading about Enochian sorcery of late, but his father's books on the topic were locked away. If he could find one of his own, even an introductory grimoire, perhaps he might get somewhere. So he cheerfully put on his jacket and carried his gran's world-spanning umbrella for her on the walk to the train station. Strange: he hadn't noticed until just now that he'd grown taller than she.

The train ride went quickly. Rupert was in luck, and his grandmother was in a good mood, and she told him stories about Nazi vampires and her Slayer's run-in with Goering, before the war. It was filthy wet when they emerged from the Underground in Soho, far wetter than it had been in Somerset. Rain danced on the pavements and ran gurgling in the streets. Gran grumbled under her breath, and Rupert hastened to haul open the umbrella again.

His hopes for the day began to fall when she didn't let him buy the books he wanted in Pudge's. Then she cast a most suspicious gaze upon him when he climbed up the ladder to the demonic-languages section of Jobson's. Rupert was near sulking throughout lunch, and it was only with effort that he recalled his good manners. She hadn't missed his mood, however. His grandmother missed nothing, sometimes. Getting around her was as difficult as trying to put something past his father.

"Rupert. Stop slouching. Your father gave me express instructions on the topic of grimoires, so there's no use pouting." She made an exasperated noise. "If you ask me, he keeps you on too short a leash."

Rupert sighed and relented. "It's all right, Gran. I know what he's about. He wants the next Slayer."

"Oh, does he, now."

"And he's afraid if there's a hair out of place Travers will get it."

"Travers is a pompous ass." Gran's tone was measured, thoughtful, as if this were a mere tactical issue. "But he plays politics well."

"Meanwhile," Rupert said, gloomily, "I have to be perfect at everything, so he looks good."

"Pshaw, Rupert. He wants you to do well for your own sake. He's proud of you."

"Wish he'd say so," Rupert muttered. Though it was pointless wishing.

"Well." Gran stood up from the table and gathered her parcels. "I know what's needed. To the swordsmith's with us. We'll have something made for you, something suited to your current skills. You can work it out by sparring. Come on, then. "

"Yes, Gran," Rupert said, mollified somewhat.

They took a shortcut through Denmark Street, on their way to somewhere near the Museum, to an artisan Gran had commissioned work from before. The shop signs were for musical instruments-- shop after shop, all music shops. Rupert stopped and stared in the nearest window. An entire shop dedicated to bass guitars. And the next one was all electric guitars. He stared, consumed with longing for something he couldn't ever have. Guitars were like the grimoires: not for the likes of him, for boys who were going to be Watchers. He wanted them anyway. His grandmother had moved on down the street, but Rupert stood, getting wet and not minding it.

The umbrella appeared over his head again. His grandmother was at his side.

"Have you taken up an instrument?"

"Been playing a bit on Eppings' guitar. He's my roommate, at school. I asked for one for my birthday, but--"

"So that's what your father was muttering about last night. Let's take a look inside, shall we?"

Rupert gulped and followed his grandmother in through the door.

It smelled strange inside. Like wood and varnish, incense and burning electronics. Guitars were everywhere, hanging from the ceiling like apples on an overburdened tree, leaning on stands on the floor. Being played by scruffy people who looked like hippies. His gran was the only woman there, and also the oldest person there by miles and miles.

The clerk who approached them had more hair than Rupert had seen on any human being in person before, though he'd seen photos of Clapton with a lot. He wore a floppy paisley shirt and battered jeans with patterns painted on them, and Rupert could tell his grandmother hated him on sight. Her voice when she spoke was starchy.

"Good afternoon, young man. My grandson is interested in guitars. Be so good as to show him what he's after."

The shop clerk snorted, and made as if to say something, but a look from Rupert's grandmother made him reconsider. The glare was effective. Rupert had to admit that, even though he wanted to sink through the shop floor and vanish from sight. Was everybody looking at them? He shoved his hands even further into his pockets and slouched as he followed the clerk over to another part of the shop. He tried to look cool. Not that he could, dressed like he was.

"What are you after? Tele? Strat? Rickie?"

"What Clapton plays. A Gibson."

"Clapton fan, then?"

Rupert nodded.

"Blind Faith?"

"Cream," Rupert said, on sure ground at last. "Disraeli Gears was dead brilliant."

The clerk nodded back, conspiratorially, either won over or willing to play along for the sake of a sale. He went over to a line of guitars hanging from the ceiling and took one down. It was made of some dark red varnished wood, and it was heavy in Rupert's hands. It was a right-handed guitar; they were all right-handed guitars. But so was his mate's, so that was how he'd learned. Rupert played all the chords he knew, in succession. It was easier to play than his schoolmate's acoustic. It felt right, somehow. He played the D again, leaning his head down to hear over the music shop noise.

"SG Custom. Sweet axe. Great for blues. What d'you think of her?"

"Haven't played much," Rupert said, flushing.

"Can see that."

The clerk snatched the guitar back from Rupert and walked over to a huge stack of Marshalls. He plugged in and snapped on the amp. There was a moment of silence, then a faint hum as the amp warmed. He ran through some riffs, including the one from "Sunshine of Your Love", and then something Rupert recognized as the first song on Tommy. It was loud, amazingly loud. Rupert had never heard anything so loud that went on so long. The clerk had struck a pose, with his foot up on the rung of a stool, his hips grinding against the guitar. His fingers moved over the frets so quickly, so smoothly. It looked impossible. Rupert leaned close to study his technique.

The noise suddenly cut out. "That's enough of that, young man."

Rupert's grandmother had her hand on the amp's power switch. Rupert groaned inside. The clerk didn't look abashed. He unplugged it and handed it back to Rupert, who slung it over his own shoulder again. He stroked his hand over the back of the neck. Smooth. Solid. It felt real. So much more real than the cheap thing he now know his mate's acoustic to be. And it was alive, somehow. Rupert understood, now, why barmy musicians sometimes named their guitars. He imagined himself playing lead guitar in a band, doing Clapton's solo on "Crossroads", the center of attention. Girls would look at him. They might do more than look at him. Girls and boys both.

Rupert fingered a G, painfully, and wondered what it would be like. He wanted it so much it hurt his chest.

The clerk, indifferent to his moment of emotion, reached out and lifted the guitar away from him. "Yeah, see? That's what you want. Quality workmanship. Gibson, you know."

"Is this what you want, Rupert?"

Rupert felt a stab of guilt. "Gran, it's too much. You can't--"

"I most certainly can. And I think a fencing tournament result like that ought to be rewarded."

Rupert flushed again, but this time it felt better. His grandmother's approval wasn't easily won.

"Is this the one?" his grandmother asked again. Rupert nodded. His hand closed convulsively around the guitar neck. Was this really going to be his? "Right then. We'll take it. Young man, you just give him the rest of what he needs to get started, and I'll have a talk with your employer."

Gran left them to go over and talk to the man in the tie behind the counter. The clerk went over to a bin and came back with a thin paper-covered book. He tossed it into the guitar case. Rupert read the title: Mel Bay's Modern Guitar Method. There were chord charts inside, and other useful things. This would be pure gold. Next the clerk gave him a handful of plastic plectrums, and a small paper packet. Rupert turned this over in his hands. The label said Rotosound. A spare set of strings, then. The packet crackled in his hands. The Who used Rotosound strings. Bought them in shops just like this one.

He glanced around himself, wondering who here was famous. But all he saw was his grandmother coming back to him and snapping her purse shut. She had a satisfied look on her face. And then they were back out on the street, walking into the noise and the rain, only now Rupert clutched a guitar case in one hand and the precious instruction book in the other. His grandmother popped open that enormous umbrella and held it over his head.

"Your father will have a fantod."

Rupert froze in place on the pavement, suddenly afraid he'd lose what he'd only just won. Then he saw that his grandmother was grinning at him, with a wicked look on her face like the one he sometimes saw in the mirror.

"Ignore him. Keep your head down and satisfy him with your Sumerian, and he'll recover. And perhaps we'll see about the amplifier at Christmas."

Rupert grinned. "Yes, Gran," he said.

The Co-Conspirators

gen general

1800 words; reading time 6 min.

first posted here

on 2008/02/24

tags: authors-favorite, c:giles, family, guitars, pre-series, tagfic, f:btvs, p:gen