I’m the first person to hyperventilate when I see lone, middle-aged men sitting in their cars watching young children emerging from school. But that was me, cowering behind the steering wheel across the road as I waited for Katia and Millie to frolic through the school gates. Lisa and I had agreed that it would be sensible not to mess with their emotions and possibly interfere with their school work by popping up unexpectedly. Better to ring ahead and make a date. But I’m a dad. Dads, in the main, want to be with their kids. If wasting the day in my Hanger Lane hell wasn’t sufficiently soul-destroying, the post-school hours between four and eight minus the accompaniment of their chattering, excitable voices, their curiosity and humour, their proclivity for incendiary fury followed by sweet tenderness was a living death. So I took to driving to Chiswick every day to observe them for the minute it took for them to leave the school and file into Lisa’s BMW - one of her many gallery perks - with Bea at the wheel. They always looked happy, chatty, animated, and while on the one hand this filled me with delight, I think I’d have preferred them to look distraught, with painted signs around their necks reading: ‘Come Home Daddy. Mum’s a bitch.’
But she wasn’t. A bitch, I mean. She was a good mum and they knew it. We spoke two or three times a week initially, mostly cordially, but the calls waned and we did little more than acknowledge each other on Saturdays, alternate Sundays and the odd weekday when I collected and delivered the girls. Finding somewhere fascinating to take your children once a month is hard enough. Try doing it twice a week, or more. We ran the gamut of museums and London attractions, ventured out to the Cotswolds and Brighton, even had a go at swinging from trees in an adventure park. But it became a strain and, as my vapid life withered still further on the vine, I found it increasingly difficult to summon the requisite energy and enthusiasm to keep things fresh. Soon, we were settling for crappy films followed by a McDonalds or something less nutritious. The conversation began to feel forced - how many times could I ask them how they were getting on at school or what they’d been up to all week? It’s surprising how little common ground there is between a forty-two year old adult and children under the age of ten, even his own, especially under the constraint of time limitations and formality. When we were a family, there was no compulsion to make conversation. Life simply happened, a natural ebb and flow. My time with them grew shorter as the entertainment on offer grew thinner. I loved their company but, increasingly, I felt they could do without the disruption of compulsory weekly expeditions stretched out to fit the hours we were supposed to spend together. I’d drop them off and watch them race to their rooms like mad things, free at last, pleased that it was over, and knew I had to take a step back. I didn’t want to relinquish my access to them, knowing also that it might count against me later, and nor did I want to be uninvolved, but even though I was still clocking up more hours in their company than Lisa, it was becoming increasingly stressful. They wanted to get on with their own little lives with minimum disruption. No point punishing them for our inadequacies.
Lisa’s career continued to soar. The parties, the schmoozy dinners, the globe-trotting were multiplying exponentially while my career (sorry, my ‘career’) had smashed through the buffers and into the station concourse, like in that Die Hard film, the one Lisa refused to see with me. In desperation, and for something to do lest I go bonkers, I found myself a part time job advertised on one of those suspicious, hand-written cards in the newsagent’s window. Peter Schofield ran a little business-to-business telesales company which he operated from the lounge of his achingly vile 1930s semi. Just a couple of minutes’ walk from my flat, it was nevertheless in a relatively quiet road with no direct views of the Hanger Lane Gyratory System which must have played havoc with its valuation. My twenty-two hour week involved indulging in inane and largely unproductive conversations with apathetic and occasionally aggressively disinterested targets. Peter, a stout man in his late thirties, who sported the full range of M & S Argyll jumpers for men twice his age and half his girth, was mostly too wrapped up in his own activities to manage his team properly. There were usually eight to ten of us crammed into that seedy room, and we spent much of the day chatting. Most of my colleagues were students and foreigners and the atmosphere was largely jolly. If nothing else, it enabled me to live outside my own head for a few precious hours. The money was abysmal, sufficient to give a single man a smidgeon of financial independence, but too insignificant, if we divorced, to merit more than a judicial snigger in the financial shake-up.
I kept the flat tidy, a fairly simple task given the absence of children and my preference for food straight out of a box. I’ve always been a bit of a stickler for a clean bathroom and properly disinfected work surfaces and, in fairness, I wasn’t lacking in available time to ensure that my usual standards were met, nay exceeded. I welcomed my trips to the launderette every other day. It was somewhere quiet to go with a newspaper. Keeping up with current affairs whilst doing something both productive and essential? That’s multi-tasking, my friends. I watched TV, jogged most days around Gunnersbury Park, caught up with all those books I meant to read, sang a few songs and kept myself clean. A basic life, a life without colour or definition, a bit like an own-brand bag of sweets from Superdrug.
My phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook, or whatever it is modern phones do. Chaz’s calls were unwelcome but nobody else seemed that interested in what I wasn’t doing, and I managed to maintain a measure of muted civility without encouraging a resumption of the friendship. My mother, initially distraught about the break-up and its effect on the girls, resorted to platitudes about it ‘being for the best’ after I ruled out the possibility of a reconciliation. She called every other day, supportive as she’d always been despite my having given her so little to be proud of. And occasionally, if I was particularly down on my luck, she’d drop off a crate of plastic containers heavy with inedible soups and stews. But otherwise, I waited for the kids’ mid-week call to raise my spirits. Millie was always garrulous until she lost focus or a cartoon started, but Katia became increasingly reluctant to come to the phone, preferring to shout the odd ‘hi, Dad’ from a safe distance. Rightly, she reasoned it was better to save up her news so that we could discuss it all in about four minutes at the weekend. I played the occasional game of squash with a couple of the guys at the local leisure centre - Tim, an interior designer with a Trump-like quiff which occasionally came loose and threatened to take an eye out, and Gordon, a ferociously sweaty BBC cameraman who I usually let win rather than risk bumping into and getting splattered. We’d have a drink afterwards and indulge in a little shallow conversation, but nothing more. They were both married with kids and living in relative harmony and I…well I wasn’t, so they avoided what should have been comfortable topics of conversation for fear of upsetting me. We pared it down to football, beer and an occasional leer.
So there you go. Forty-two (which I’ve mentioned), friendless, alone and bordering on pathetic. My life in a nutshell.
Of course I thought about calling Faye, but our last meeting had ended badly. And I’d have to tell her that Lisa and I had split up, which would sound opportunistic, desperate, like I was saying the coast was clear. Which it wasn’t. She had a boyfriend. That, and the fact that she never fancied me in the first place. And, more importantly, I couldn’t help labouring under the delusion that Lisa and I might still get back together. Calling Faye would be to admit - to myself - how I felt about her, and I couldn’t allow that to interfere with the possibility, however remote, of reclaiming my family.
Kevin’s fey Scottish brogue, made feyer by the sibilant hiss of my mobile phone, its prima donna-ish protest at having to function in the pervasive Hanger Lane smog, was as unexpected as it was welcome. The Irish folk singing combo, Craic, who were due to headline that night had cried off at the last minute and he was desperate. He was prepared to pay me the same as he was going to pay them, a fee intended to reward an entire band just for little old me! Sadly, Craic had been prepared to split sixty lousy quid three ways but it would, at least, be a significant advance on my previous fee. The man was begging. What was I to do? I’d been at the coalface for seventeen years, acquiring the hard-nosed negotiating techniques and business acumen now serving me so handsomely in my key role as a part time telesales marketer with a pan-Ealing client base, so naturally I haggled. I insisted that the post-gig meal comprise two proper courses rather than just a bit of left over pudding. He folded under the pressure and the deal was struck. I had intended to go into the office - sorry, Peter’s lounge - to put some hours in but, unaccountably lifted, I decided to rehearse instead. The guitar in my hands, vocal cords rippling, purpose coursing through me, it was truly a joyous couple of hours and I could hardly wait to get up there and share my gift with my audience.
A bright, clear day became a bitterly cold night punctuated by horizontal snow flurries and drifting fog, limiting my audience, at its peak, to seven. That, though, wasn’t their fault; I couldn’t take it out on them. At least they bothered to turn up and I owed them a performance. My sixty quid fee would be somewhat disproportionate to the night’s takings, and with my free two-courser on top, Kevin was taking a hit. It can be a tough old world, show business. What we lacked in numbers, though, we more than made up for in intimacy. We were all in this together and an unpromising prospect turned into a lively and pleasant evening. The appreciation was warm and genuine and I felt I’d done a good thing, given that Kevin had asked me if I wanted to pull out. In fact, he may have begged me to pull out, but I’m way too professional to do something like that.
I finished my set and strolled through the crowd to receive seven individual accolades; it was probably too embarrassing for the other six not to throw some praise my way after a lonely old fellow at the first table shook my hand and likened me to the young Elton John. I sat down at the table nearest the bar at the back and waited for Kevin to serve up a grudging plate of lamb stew. At the next table sat a slightly rotund man of about fifty-five with an ebony widow’s peak which didn’t fit his face and screamed Just For Men. At the nape of his neck, his hair was gathered in a shapeless bush rather than a mullet, untamed by the wet-look gel he’d slathered all over it. He wore a white, collarless shirt with dressy, silken stripes, silver buttons and huge matching cufflinks, a thrilling ensemble gift-wrapped in a black waistcoat with a satin rainbow lining. I’d gathered he was American when he congratulated me on my set, but he looked more like a cruise ship magician from Barnsley. Opposite him sat an attractive, dark-haired woman of about thirty wearing a contrastingly uncomplicated white blouse and jeans. They were huddled over the table talking, occasionally glancing up and smiling at me. I reciprocated once or twice as I chewed on Kevin’s sinewy lamb which, pre-slaughter, had probably spent some time working as a steroidal professional bodybuilder, but was in no mood for a conversation. Still they looked over as I battled gamely on, but I was all smiled out and decided to don my blinkers at least until pudding was served. A few minutes later, I was aware of them rising and moving towards me. Ok, fine, one more handshake, but then I really just wanted to be left in peace with my soggy lemon meringue pie. I lay down my spoon and prepared myself for a pat on the back, or an autograph request perhaps, but instead the man asked if they could join me for a minute. He extended his right hand which bore at least three diamond encrusted rings.
’Hi, Ben Stern,’ he said in an accent which, based on this tiny sample, was probably acquired in the Bronx.
’Mike Kenton,’ I said, half standing to shake his hand.
’Pleased to meet ya, Mike. Again! Oh, where are my manners? Elaine Sturgis, my assistant.’
I shook Elaine’s slender hand, her pretty hooded eyes crinkling as she smiled. ‘Hi,’ she said. American? Not enough to go on. They sat down opposite and Ben opened the batting.
’Great show. Great show. You’ve got a pretty good setalungs.’
Ben reached into the top pocket of his waistcoat and plucked out a card which he handed to me.
Benjamin A Stern
Underneath were two addresses, both on Broadway, one in New York, the other in…Crouch End. President Records’s suite was in the converted church - just off the Broadway, in fact - where numerous pop luminaries had recorded a string of hits during the nineties. It was no more than three minutes’ walk from where we were sitting.
’So, here’s the thing,’ he said.
Elaine opened a spiral notepad which Ben consulted as he spoke. Was this that recording contract I’d always yearned for? And only a mere twenty years too late.
’Your third song tonight…’
’In Love We Trust,’ piped Elaine. Londoner. Possibly north of the Thames. Or south.
’Yeah…In Love We Trust. Loved it. Loved it.’
’I heard you play it last time I was here. Great tune,’ said Ben beaming a fine row of veneers. ’Great tune.’ Toon.
’Ok, here’s the thing…’ he repeated. ‘I’m a record producer - maybe you heard-a me?’
A non-committal half-smile seemed politic. The head shake was involuntary.
’Ok, why should you?’ Ben chuckled with the disappointed mirthlessness he’d probably been choking on for years. ‘I was a musician like you a thousand years ago, back in the day. Played in a few bands, wrote a coupla songs. Never got too far till I started producing. Right off the bat, I got involved with The Llamas? Heardathem?’
’Everyone knows The Llamas.’ They’d had a few hits without ever really breaking through.
’Celia Weston? Barry Lane? The Capsules? Produced them all.’
And I knew them all - vaguely - British acts who’d flickered briefly and quickly drowned in the cesspit of pop oblivion...
’I set up over here just after Glam Rock died. Small label, but we got some pretty hot names. Hey, hearda Nate Kyle?’
At last, he’d actually struck a meaningful chord. Nate Kyle had had a number one hit a few months earlier with a soulful ballad. ‘Yes, of course.’
’Well he’s the kind of act we’re looking for now.’
’I see.’ I certainly wasn’t that kinda act.
Ben paused, leaned forward and shrugged. ‘Can I level with ya?’
’Nate Kyle you ain’t’
’If only I was black and twenty-three.’ I scooped the final lump of pie off the plate and slid it into my mouth.
’You’re a little...mature?’ Matoor.
Elaine smiled and appeared to scribble this nugget down in her notebook.
’Ok. You’re old,’ said Ben, ’but you can write, man. Whoo, can you write! And…ok, here’s the thing.’
The thing again.
’In Love We Trust,’ I prompted.
’Yeah. Ok. Well how would you feel about entering it in the Eurovision Song Contest?’
I spat a tiny chunk of lemon rind onto the back of my hand. ‘Well…That’s a bit of a…the Euro...what?’
’Here’s the thing. The BBC approached me a while back to ask if one of my acts wanted to put up a song. You know Howard James?’
’Lead singer with…errr…that band with the…’
’The Cupid Stunts.’
Geddit? The BBC wouldn’t play any of their stuff for years till they got over themselves. I mean, if they were going to let Frankie fellate...
’Coulda been huge, bigger than, I dunno...Queen. But Howie, well, he likes his booze and his pills and his weed. Crazy fucker. Blew it all. Talented writer, great singer, That’s the tragedy. Fuckin’ idiot…oh...’
Elaine smiled reprovingly and tutted. Were they sleeping together? I hoped not. That wouldn’t have been fair or right. She was too young, too attractive; not beautiful in the conventional sense - her nose was too wide, her jaw too square, her eyes cloaked beneath slightly puffy lids, but the sum of the parts transcended these individual imperfections.
’She don’t like me cussing.’ Ben shot her an enigmatic smile.
What did it mean? ‘Anyway, the BBC thought it’d be fun to bring him back, stick him in front of the country and see what happened. Curiosity value, I guess. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t. So they came to me...because no other idiot will manage him.’
’So he’s doing a song…for Europe? The wild man of rock?’
’Not exactly,’ said Elaine. ‘He can’t write any more. He brought us a couple of songs and they were....’
’Fuckin’ abysmal,’ said Ben, forgetting himself. ‘You’d have to be The Darkness on speed to even think about inflicting them on the public.’
’Worse. But they still want him out front, so we’ve been looking for songs. And, man, we’ve listened to a shitload…but they’re either crap or the composers don’t want them on Eurovision. They’ll let him record them but, you know...like, God help them if they make a million writing a Eurovision winner. Embarrassing, huh? Artistic fuckin’ integrity. Do me a favour. Assholes.’ Ben touched a finger to his lips and smiled at Elaine like a naughty schoolboy.
’We were in here a couple of weeks ago when you were playing,’ said Elaine.
’Just catching a bite, you know?’ Ben interrupted. This was his story. ‘And then we heard you and that song and we started thinking. We had nothing for Howard, and Eurovision:You Decide is coming up, like, next month.’
’You’ve lost me.’
’The qualification show? BBC tried a few other ideas - as if fuckin’ Lloyd-Webber’s gonna write something worth voting for. Or that other guy?’
’Pete Waterman,’ piped Elaine.
’Yeah. Forty number ones, can’t write for shit.’
’So now they’re starting with the singers and getting them to write something,’ said Elaine. ‘Mostly acts who are already popular around Europe. Howard never went away in Germany, Scandinavia...’
’Winner goes to the final in Paris in May,’ said Ben. ‘All we need now is a fuckin’ song.’
’That’s why we asked Kevin if he’d get you on again,’ said Elaine, rifling through her notebook. And I’d thought I was Kevin’s go-to guy. ’Look. I wrote it down last time...see? In Love We Trust. We’ve heard nothing better since then. Not even close. It’s the one.’
The song I’d written for Faye Lester. Was this an elaborate practical joke? Where were the cameras? ‘So...you...want to give my song to Howard James...to sing on Eurovision?’
’Nutshell,’ said Ben.
’And what about my artistic integrity?’ I said, just in case I was being filmed. I was in on it. Ha.
’Fuck, man! You don’t got any, singing in a joint like this!’ Ben was playing his part wonderfully well, too well. I was beginning to think he was for real.
’It was just a joke,’ I mumbled, having exposed the vast Atlantic humour divide like a raw nerve. Assuming I’d been joking.
Elaine leaned towards me. ‘We’re desperate. That’s the honest truth.’
I frowned in mock offence. She didn’t get me either.
’Oh! No! I don’t mean we’re so desperate that…no, I mean...’
’It’s ok,’ I said, waving a hand.
’It’s a really good song, Mike. Isn’t it, Ben?’
’But we’re...tight for time. We’ve only got a couple of weeks to get ready for the show. The BBC are going to blow us out if we don’t come up with something. It’d be a huge opportunity lost.’
She sounded like she meant it. Maybe it was time I started buying into this ridiculous fiction. ‘Let’s just say I was interested; it’s not the kind of song Howard’s known for, is it? It’s too poppy, too mainstream,’ I said, looking this gift horse squarely in the mouth.
’The guy’s not a kid any more, Mike,’ said Ben, ‘he can’t pogo, can’t even spit. This is grown up Howard, mature Howard, on the wagon Howard. Sure, we’ll rock it up to suit his voice, but he could surprise everyone with this, especially himself.’
’We really need to make a decision now, Mike,’ said Elaine, ‘otherwise we’ll have to go with something else, something not as good.’
’Look. Here’s the thing,’ said Ben. ‘God’s truth? Howard will go to pieces again some time soon. Guy’s gonna wind up in a sewer whatever happens, but if we can squeeze this out of him, get a hit, raise our profile, start attracting some better acts…you know?’
’Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ continued Ben, ‘it’s heartless. But it’s business. That’s all it ever is. That’s why artistic integrity is a crock. We can all make some money here if we’re smart. And you…you won’t have to sing in shitholes any more.’
I shrugged, confused, still not certain they were for real. Maybe they were a couple of local perverts who got a kick out of this kind of thing and followed it up with a bout of ferocious intercourse. Each to their own, of course. But they sounded so earnest, so desperate. Hmm. So, ok, thinking out loud here, has a Eurovision song ever picked up the Mercury Prize? Oh shit, they had me, didn’t they? And I wanted to be had.
’We won’t be able to credit you with the song but…’
’Hang on. What?’ That snapped me out of my reverie.
’Howard will take the credit. That’s the whole schtick this year. Singer/songwriter. But you’ll get a cut. A good cut. And, like I say, it’s about the doors that’ll open after…’
But I’d stopped listening. Maybe artistic integrity was a crock, but this didn’t even sound like good business. I was being used. If Howard won, all the fuss would be over him, not me. For every Abba, there are a hundred Estonian/Norwegian/British flops who’ve wound up collecting shopping trolleys in the supermarket car park. I, the uncredited, anonymous composer, might make a few short-term quid under a confidential agreement with Ben, but unless he was going to offer me a song writing contract as well, I’d be lucky to get a job oiling their wheels. Or worse, wind up back here in Jaques singing, till kingdom come to seven people who only came in to get out of the rain. But - and this was all I had - Ben was on his last chance, so much so that he’d turned to a complete unknown, someone else on his last chance. I’m no negotiator, no salesman - that much we know - but this was my sole bargaining chip.
’So what’s my cut?’ I said, all nasty-cop eyes, but wobbly inside.
’Hey, don’t worry Mike, we’ll talk about that…’
’Talk about it now.’
’Wow, tough guy.’
’I don’t want to get shafted.’
’No-one’s gonna shaft you, Mike.’
Americans always overuse your name, don’t they? Especially when they’re shafting you.
’Ok,’ he said, his face beginning to glisten. He’d anticipated fawning gratitude, not a negotiation. ‘Basically, and I’m just talking basics here…you’ll get…I dunno…we’re looking at…just north of twenty per cent.’
That didn’t sound enough. ‘Of what?’
’Of the whole thing. We’re talking record sales, downloads, royalties, residuals. It’s a good deal.’
’Oh, well where do I sign?’
’And who creams off the eighty per cent?’ I knew nothing about anything, but this was manifestly unfair. I think.
Elaine looked uncomfortable and jotted a note which she shoved under Ben’s nose. He forced a smile. He could see he was dealing with a player. ‘Ok, forty per cent. Final offer. We’ve got overheads, Mike...promotional costs, musicians, producers, the whole schmeer. Your cut’s from gross, not net, but we still gotta pay all that shit.’
I stood up and looped my guitar case over my shoulder. I’d pushed him from twenty to forty in five seconds. It had gone way better than my Virgin negotiations. I couldn’t remember feeling this bullish since 2003. I extended my right hand which Ben ignored. ‘Tell you what. I’m going to think about it and then I’m going to call you tomorrow. How’s that?’ Ach, tomorrow? Too keen. ‘Or the day after. Whatever.’
’We need to know now,’ said Ben. ‘We’ve got a fu...’
’Tomorrow, if you can, Mike. Time is of the essence,’ said Elaine.
As I drove home, the slushy rain spattering the windscreen too insistently for my ailing, shredded windscreen wipers, I pondered my strategy. Wasn’t this a dream come true? Shouldn’t I have grabbed this opportunity at any price? So, I wasn’t going to get the credit. Did that matter? This was about one song and getting paid for it. I could never prove it was mine; I’d never written anything down, never deposited a tape at the bank and the few inebriated Jaques customers who’d heard me sing it would never remember who, where or when. Not forgetting that Ben’s lawyers would gut me with a hunting knife if I attempted to assert my authorship. So this was all about the application of sound commercial principles, business expediency. Best case scenario, the song wins Eurovision and sells millions - stranger things; more realistically, Howard records it, sells a few copies and I’m a few thousand pounds to the good. I could use the money to set up a small IT consultancy or...ok, fuck that, but at the very least I’d be less dependent on hand-outs from Lisa until I got a job I really, really fancied. What’s not to like?
But still that insistent little voice, the one that had shouted so loudly twenty years ago, wouldn’t be silenced. Maybe, with a following wind and the luck of a triple lottery winner, this venture might yet open the door to the one industry I’d always dreamed of working in. I’d only ever had a job, a career, but music was my passion. Jesus, what if Ben told me to go screw myself? What if he didn’t like the uppity Brit playing hardball? What had I done? As if my dying marriage, distant children, neutered career and miserable abode weren’t sufficiently stress-inducing, I now had another reason not to sleep.
And, of course, I didn’t. I lay there fidgeting, turning it over in my mind until the sweat threatened to drown me. What the hell was I playing at? Maybe it was all a scam...but what if it wasn’t? Was I scared? Had I spent all my life praying for this opportunity only to run away from it when it landed on my doorstep? I finally dropped off around five, waking at seven feeling groggy and displaced. In my semi-conscious haze, I imagined everything was ok, that the nightmare was over, that Lisa’s smooth leg was draped over mine, that the kids were bickering about nothing on the landing. Then the building trembled as some monstrous pantechnicon rumbled past and I opened my eyes to that same threadbare little room.
I got up and made myself a cup of builder’s tea; two bags with sufficient caffeine to kick-start a fossil. I’d decided, at some lonely, chilly point in the middle of the night, that I was going to call Ben, a resolve designed to persuade my over-revving head to shut up for a minute so I could get some kip. I knew the fact that he envisioned my song as Eurovision fodder suggested it was essentially meritless, but if he was right, if it sold like Euro hotcakes (and/or bratwurst and/or snails and/or paella) maybe he’d acknowledge my genius for lowest-common-denominator pap and let me loose on his stable of second division acts. I could
write album tracks for ever.
I began to feel positive, energised, up for the task. I’d been validated as a song writer, never mind by whom or why. It was a good thing, something to build on. I dressed, nipped out to get the paper and settled in for the morning on a chair by the kettle. No telemarketing today, not with my musical career finally in the pre-launch phase. I was a bit too starry for that kind of drudgery now. My heart beat hard all morning, not fast, but with weight, gravity, as if to remind me how important this could be. I didn’t want to call Ben too early; chapter one, page one, para one, Negotiating Made Simple: don’t be too eager. But what if he was spending the morning scouring the planet for another song? Maybe he’d find something even crappier than mine at half the price.
Eleven o’clock. Couldn’t settle, couldn’t find my inner calm. But I couldn’t call then, on the dot. That would be too obvious, a dead giveaway, like I’d mapped it out. I’d try at eleven thirty seven, an arbitrary time, thus demonstrating my complete indifference. That’d show him what kind of a player he was dealing with.
God, those thirty seven minutes were taking a fucking month.
Eleven thirty. Oh fuck it: ‘Hi, can I speak to Ben Stern please?’
’Who’s calling?’ said a disembodied Mockney voice. Female, I think, but a smoker.
’Does he know what it’s concerning?’
’Yes.’ Of course he fucking does.
’Just a moment.’
There was a click, followed by a dreary dirge presumably by one of Ben’s hack protégés. Awful. And I had to listen to all of it. And the next track. And the beginning of the one after. Ben was playing hard to get. Or he was in the toilet.
’Putting you through,’ said the voice.
Click. Click. Come on!
’Mike!’ bellowed Ben, forcing me to pull the receiver away from my ear.
’Morning Ben.’ Starchy, English, formal.
’So, we’ve got a deal, right?’
’Well…ha…not exactly…no… well yes…’ I was turning into Ronnie Corbett.
’That a yes or a no?’
’It’s a yes...but…’
’Good job! Whoo!’
’…but we need to talk about the cut...and everything.’
’Listen, Mike. Get your beautiful, talented British ass in here and we’ll get everything signed and sealed. We’re not gonna have any problems, you and me. Hey, whyntcha come for lunch?’
President Records’s enclave was surprisingly stylish, considering their Chief Executive’s criminally misbegotten fashion sense. I’d expected to be met by garish, over-the-top tat, flashy décor, shiny brass door fittings, a couple of cheap chandeliers, that kind of nonsense. Instead, both inside and out, the place was a pleasing mix of tasteful modernity and faded grandeur. I climbed a flight of quirky stone stairs and entered the reception area through an unassuming door. Inside, it was unexpectedly large and crisply furnished with modernist leather sofas, glassy, minimalist tables and banks of expensive looking hi-tech equipment. The original Gothic windows lent the offices a majestic mien and the sturdy, bare stone walls were at once cold and comforting. Ben welcomed me with a bear hug - I went rigid, of course, being English - and took me on a tour of the studio suite which comprised a large, main chamber with a magnificent grand piano at its centre and several racks loaded with guitars, percussion instruments and electric keyboards; a couple of small, glass-walled vocal booths nestled towards the back; the control booth was compact and dominated by a vast mixing desk alive with faders, lights and knobs. Above it sat three linked Apple Macs and a set of burly, high spec speakers. In an age when any idiot can record a hit using thirty-five quid’s worth of software and a PC in a bedroom, it was a relief to see that Ben did things properly. Call me an old fart.
We took another door out of the control booth and into Ben’s office which maintained the generally tasteful theme, save for a self-congratulatory wall of photographs of him, shiny-faced, in his more hirsute heyday, shaking hands and making pally with a variety of music biz nonentities. He guided me to an expansive cream leather chair which swallowed me whole. Without saying a word, he pressed a button on an elaborate remote control, unleashing a song which boomed out of a pair of speakers behind his desk. It was pretty catchy, a mid-tempo number with real heart that had me nodding and tapping my fingers appreciatively on my knee. Ben pressed ‘pause’ after a minute or so, arched an eyebrow and asked me for my opinion. I told him I liked it, that it had energy and a memorable hook, thereby completely undermining my negotiating position. This, it transpired, was the song he was going to go with if I didn’t want to play ball. I couldn’t very well hold out for a hundred per cent now, but forty-seven, the number I’d finally and arbitrarily arrived at overnight, was attractive enough for Ben to type into a document on his PC. He swivelled his screen to show me some projections on a spread sheet. I stood to make a chunky sum of money, subject to Howard liking the song, getting a good producer on board, the BBC accepting it, winning Eurovision:You Decide and storming Eurovision itself. The odds, admittedly, were insanely long.
Elaine arrived with a tin foil platter of de-crusted sandwiches, a few bottles of lager and water and a glutinous looking fruit based drink for Ben. This wasn’t going to be the most lavish of celebratory lunches. Elaine sat on a leather chair opposite me and crossed her legs, a pleasing swish emanating from her denim clad thighs. I caught her eye and lingered there for a moment, hoping for some sort of sign that the air was rich with sexual chemistry - we can’t help it, remember - but she quickly turned her gaze to her ubiquitous notepad and started writing. Nothing much had been said; maybe she was drawing a cartoon of a man about to swallow the stupidest deal of all time. Ben had already prepared the contract, a little presumptuously, I thought, but then he’d completely out-manoeuvred me so who could blame him? I read it to the accompaniment of the same song on a loop, lest I forget what I was up against. I needed to get a professional opinion, I said, but thought it looked ok. Ben gave me twenty-four hours, but assured me he wasn’t being bullish or trying to screw me over, which made everything fine then. He just needed to make a quick decision, he said, simple as that. No other agenda. I trusted Ben in the way America trusts Iran.
A few hastily swallowed sandwiches later and the meeting was over. Ben slapped me on the back, done-deal fashion and told me to call him the following day. Elaine led me down the gently curving staircase, our footsteps echoing off the cold, stone walls, and reached the door to the street. Despite the lack of compelling evidence, I took her invitation to go out for a drink some time to celebrate as a clear indication of her nascent attraction to me, though it might have been more compelling if she’d simply asked me out. Was she merely doing the Devil’s work and tightening the presumptive screw?
I didn’t know any solicitors, although if things continued on their current downward spiral, I’d soon have to make the acquaintance of at least one of this odd breed of professional when Lisa filed for divorce. What do you do in these situations? I mean, when someone wants you to relinquish your ownership of a song so that someone else can sing it in the Eurovision Song Contest? Do people specialise in that branch of the law? Not if the Yellow Pages was anything to go by. I couldn’t find a single Eurovision song: signing-away-all-rights-thereto-followed-by-eternal-obscurity expert. Not one. I’d need a sharp showbiz lawyer for sure, but had no idea where to look. A sudden inspiration prompted me to call the Law Society who gave me the names of several firms. But which one to choose? And how would they react to my simple opening question: are you cheap? by definition, a stupid question. Though not to me, because money was tight and I wanted to avoid involving Lisa in this folly by asking her to shell out for a £350 per hour smartarse in a Savile Row suit who’d find a way to take 10 hours over a three page contract and charge a couple of grand for stamps and photocopying. The sad truth was, I couldn’t tell Lisa anything. My Eurovision odyssey was not something she would celebrate. For her, any involvement in this annual kitsch-fest would be embarrassing, something she’d go to great lengths to conceal from the culture cronies and sophisticates who populated her world. I didn’t want to have to explain it or justify myself to her. Given the improbability of anything coming of it, I could live without her icy opprobrium.
Yet she ought to take a measure of pride, if not in the achievement itself, then in the fact that I’d got off my backside and made something happen. After all, wasn’t my professional demise and subsequent inertia at the root of all this animosity? Even if she had no regard for my musical ambitions or abilities - and she didn’t - surely if I made some money or signed a song writing deal, it would repair some of the damage, give us a platform, allow us to reconstruct the family unit. But I was confused, hurt, depressed and wasn’t sure what I wanted any more. Yes, I needed my girls back, but not necessarily on those terms. Maybe I just wanted to bloody show her I could do something. Did I still love her? God, I had no idea. That wasn’t even the point. In the end, I had to make this work because it was all I had to cling onto, a last chance saloon at which there was a bit of a run on the booze.
I was getting nowhere in my search for a solicitor. I made several calls but rarely got beyond reception, perhaps because my opening query about ‘ball park’ fees followed by a whispered ‘shit’ after they hit me with it, rendered further discussion redundant. Promised return calls were slow to materialise. You’d have thought solicitors, of all people, would be quick to latch onto any prospect of generating fees, but perhaps my patent anxiety, pitiful financial constraints and the fact that I used phrases like ‘I only need a tiny piece of advice’ or ‘it’ll only take five minutes, if that,’ deterred even the most voracious of them. One who did come to the phone, couldn’t see me for two days, and another said he couldn’t help but would speak to a colleague when he returned from the Maldives in a couple of weeks’ time. Good luck to him, but I couldn’t wait.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. There was only one man I could turn to. Chaz. His was the only name I could muster from my slim lexicon of well-connected friends, but I was damned if I was going to call him. He wouldn’t exactly be blown away by all this Eurovision nonsense. He’d find the whole thing laughable, beneath him. I could hear him scoffing now, up in his rosewood-clad office suite. But, fuck it, I needed him. He’d always been the first to help, whatever the problem, but having witnessed him in his professional milieu, I now perceived him to be a selfish, power-crazed egomaniac. There wasn’t much supporting evidence, to be honest; more a case of allowing that old business/pleasure thing to get in the way and cloud our (my?) judgement. Still, undoubtedly our friendship had changed over the years. Whilst we clung onto some of the puerile esoterica that always made us laugh, I felt he enjoyed feeling professionally superior because, in every other respect, he was quite the opposite, a little man with myriad complexes, locked in a flat, childless marriage. I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable towards him, I think it’s fair to say, and I wasn’t about to forgive and forget. Oh no. I’m a grudge-bearer, right up there with Iago, if you know the guy. But I was in a situation, here.
Glaziers’s building in Baker Street is a ghastly thing to behold from the outside. A product of the architecturally bankrupt sixties, it resembles a play set of featureless interlocking boxes with not a single embellishment to liven it up. Inside, though, it’s quite a different story, the firm having lavished millions on the say-so of one of their clients, a high profile TV star interior designer with unfeasibly long hair who’d made a name for himself fucking up people’s homes. I stood in the doorway of the Santander just along from Glaziers’s entrance dressed in my smartest jeans, a neatly ironed white shirt and the half-decent woollen jacket I’d bought in French Connection a year or two earlier. My balls were freezing off. It was lunchtime, but I’d arrived at eight hoping to catch Chaz on his way in, forgetting that a driven little bastard like that with nothing much else to live for probably arrived way earlier than that. Having miscalculated, I took off around nine and had a damp little cake for breakfast in a nearby Starbucks, before wasting a couple of hours wandering up and down Oxford Street. I knew Chaz liked to get out for lunch if he could; I was banking on it, if my sophisticated plan to ‘accidentally’ bump into him without the whole thing looking staged was to work. It would be funny (both ha-ha and the other one) and open the door to a muted but beneficial - for me - rapprochement. All this without having to climb down off my high horse and eat shit. Clever stuff, I think you’ll agree.
Men in suits, couriers in leathers, women in skirts - people with things to do - filed in and out, faceless, anonymous, going about their business. But Chaz would be an instant spot, a tiny man in a sharp bespoke suit, a man I knew like a brother. At around one fifteen, a large, top of the range Lexus drew up outside. This was my moment. Chaz bounded out of the front entrance, all urgent importance. I had twenty yards to make up while he only had to cover five. I started jogging, but he was jaunty, almost at the car door. I picked up speed. As he was about to slide inside, I thundered past and barged my shoulder into his. The poor little man careened into the open door, bounced off it and hit the pavement. I stopped and turned, all stunned amazement. I was good at this. Chaz was sitting there, on his backside, bemused, blinking. I darted back towards him and looked down at him sitting there like a baby, legs akimbo.
’Chaz?’ I said, then, ‘Chaz!’ I’d nailed the relevant range of vocal inflections perfectly. ‘Fuck.’ I leaned down to help him up but was muscled roughly out of the way by the chauffeur who scraped him up off the floor.
’Mike? The fuck you doing?’ he gasped, dusting himself down.
’Chaz. Sorry. This is unbelievable. Jesus! I’ve got a meeting up the road and I’m running late, of course, and…I can’t believe this! Bloody hell.’
Chaz manoeuvred the chauffeur gently out of the way. ‘What meeting’s that?’
Had he seen through me already? ‘Oh it’s...nothing...a record company.’
’A record company?’
’You won’t believe this if I tell you.’
’Tell me anyway.’
’One of my songs, it’s...this is fucking embarrassing, mate...it’s being entered in the Eurovision Song Contest. There, said it. Bloody ridiculous, I know.’
’You’re joking! How’d that happen?’ A weird smile began to warm his ashen face.
’Oh…guy saw me sing at...that place,’ I said, waving airily, ‘record producer...liked one of my songs, next thing you know...I know, it’s naff, but what the hell?’
’The Euro-fucking-vision Song Contest!’ he blurted. Here it came. I braced myself for the ridicule. ’Fucking brilliant! Love it.
Never miss it. It’s a ritual.’
You think you know someone.
’What you talking about, love it?’
’Yeah, me and Lou…in a post-modern, ironic sort of way,’ he said without convincing. Suddenly I had noxious visions of him and Loiuse bopping in their blue satin jumpsuits and white platform shoes whilst marking their scorecards. ‘Why not? We make a night of it, have some people over...’
’How long’s this been going on?’ I said. This sounded more warped than swinging.
’A few years.’
’And you never invited me.’
’You? You’d just be sitting there taking the piss and we’re serious...in that post-modern ironic way I was talking about. And Lisa? I mean, can you imagine her watching that for three hours? She’s cultured.’ Chaz laughed. ‘And now you’re in it! Fuck me! Magic.’
’Well, ok, hold your horses,’ I said, ‘not yet. First it’s Eurovision:You...’
’...You Decide, yeah. With Gordon O’Hara. Brilliant.’
’Actually, you know what? You got a minute? You could help me with something.’
’Shit,’ he said checking his watch, ‘I’ve got a bloody meeting I’m already late for because some nutter mowed me down in the street.’
I whipped a folded document from my inside pocket, ‘Just have a quick look at this for me will you? It’s the contract. Tell me what you think. I’ve got to give them an answer today.’
’It’s not really my…’
I winced and gave him my best ‘everything-hinges-on-this’ shrug.
’Ok, I’ll have a look. Maybe I can run it by a mate of mine. Alan Welby. Solicitor. Owes me a favour; owes me lots of favours actually, the wanker.’
’Any chance you can get back to me by, I dunno, three?’
Chaz blew out his cheeks, then slapped me on the shoulder. ‘Yeah, course. I’ll call you.’
I’d intended to use Chaz, to take advantage of his contrition, rather than manipulate a reconciliation. The memory of him and Lisa virtually necking at my gig and his self-important arrogance when I raised my concerns about the loathsome Jerry still stuck in my craw. But maybe I’d been too hard on him, lashing out at my closest friend when, in reality, he’d had little to do with my descent into hopelessness? He’d strenuously denied an affair with Lisa, thought the very suggestion risible, and I had to concede that the evidence was less than sketchy. And I could see how I must have embarrassed him when I started moaning about the job he’d gone out of his way to secure for me. It was ungrateful, ungracious. It wasn’t his fault I couldn’t get along with Jerry. No sane person could, but others, more sensible than I, let it wash over them. He’d stuck his neck out for me and I’d chopped his head off. I’d sought a nepotistic favour, then crossed the line and placed an intolerable strain on our friendship. Yet I was the one who’d strutted off in high dudgeon. I should have hung on in there for a few months, taken it like a man, and slipped away quietly when no-one was looking.
Now Chaz was kow-towing to me, desperate to re-rail our relationship when he’d done nothing much wrong. Ok, he was a bit full of himself, an otherwise insignificant man keen to have his success acknowledged. What was wrong with that? And I couldn’t help but find his newly discovered obsession with Eurovision, if a little tragic, oddly endearing.
Any call from Lisa was a surprise now, even one as routine as this. She wanted me to collect the girls from her sister’s house in Hammersmith on Saturday morning as she was going away on the Friday and wouldn’t be back until Sunday. Bea didn’t do overnighters, so Rachel, a chubbier, less up-tight version of Lisa, was helping out.
’They could stay with me on Friday,’ I said.
’No. Too much hassle with picking-up and homework and food and everything.’ Don’t you start.
’It’s not a hassle...’
So that was that. Move on. ‘Where you going?’
’Barcelona. I’m meeting an artist over there, Jorge Ortiz, whose work is absolutely breatht…sorry, I know this is boring for you.’ Yes, it was all a bit highbrow for the Philistine. How on Earth had we got together in the first place? ‘Plane gets in on Sunday at 4 so I’ll collect them at 6.30. Ok?’
’Look, it’s not a hassle,’ said the Philistine, pissed off about his wife controlling everything. ‘I mean, you could at least have discussed it with me.’
’Yes,’ she said, ‘I could…’
Ominous silence. ‘What?’
’It’s just…your place is a bit…’
’A bit what? You’ve never been here.’
Another silence, stony this time. Then it hit me. The kids didn’t want to come.
’They’re happy to stay on Saturday nights, Michael. It’s just, you know, two nights is a bit much for them.’
’I’m a bit much for them. That’s what you’re saying.’
’Don’t be stupid! The flat, I mean. They just think it’s a bit…small.’
For two little tiddlers? When I were a lad, it would have represented luxury on a grand scale. Actually, no, it still would have been a shithole. ‘Jesus,’ I mumbled as the prospect of losing the girls
altogether began to bite.
’They love you, Mike.’
’Yeah,’ I said, coughing to release my tightening throat.
’Oh come on, don’t be silly.’
I put myself in their tiny shoes. ‘They’re right, it is a bit small. And not very nice. Can’t blame them, really,’ I said. I couldn’t bear for Lisa to hear me sound broken and summoned all my bravado. ‘So. Anyway. Barcelona, eh? Very nice.’
’It’s just work. I won’t get to see anything.’
’When were we there?’
Oh God. Keep calm. ‘Before Katia was born, wasn’t it? Yeah, you were pregnant with her.’
I was silent. Had that trip been expunged from her memory? What else was gone?
’I forgot. Sorry, Mike,’ she added, finally on the back foot, ‘and it was lovely, a really great weekend.’
It was a midweek trip, but I wasn’t about to nit-pick. Lisa’s voice had softened momentarily and it sounded nice, how it used to. But it was soon back to business. ‘Anyway, is that all ok for Saturday? About 9.30?’
It was nearly four by the time Chaz called. I’d decamped to Crouch End and was entrenched in another of its hip coffee shops - The Bean Thing; God help me - anxiously reading the Standard. I’d taken the precaution of calling Ben earlier to tell him I was coming in later on to sign.
Chaz sounded enervated. ‘Mike, sorry. I’m running around like a madman. Stepping into another fucking meeting in a minute.’
’Haven’t you made enough money yet?’
’Louise said she’ll let me know when I can stop. She’s already spent everything I’m going to make in the next five years.’
A private joke. Louise was frugal. It was Chaz who liked to splash out on boats, foreign property, gadgets and insanely expensive hi-fi equipment.
’Anyway, listen,’ he said, ‘the contract’s fine, legally. Alan had a look over it. Nothing sneaky. I presume you’re happy with the terms?’
’Because I think - as does Alan - that you’re getting a bit screwed here. You wrote it, it’s yours. You should get the lion’s share, not them.’
’It’s that or nothing. They’ve got another song they can use and it’s probably better than mine.’
’Ok, mate. If you’re happy. Listen, sorry to rush. Gotta run. Catch up later, yeah?’
I heaved myself to my aching feet, waited for my head to stop spinning and stepped out onto Crouch End Broadway. Fluffy snow was falling in apologetic flurries and the air was frigid. I huddled into my coat and moved at pace towards Ben’s office. He welcomed me like a long lost relative, squeezing the air from my lungs. Stop with the bear hugs already. With scant preamble, he produced a bound copy of the contract which I struggled to sign with my cold-stiffened hand. Ben countersigned and the deal was done. Just like that. Elaine came in on cue with a bottle of champagne which we finished rather too giddily.
On wobbly legs, Ben led us through to the control booth to watch a hapless female singer in the voice booth with half-cocked dreadlocks fluffing notes with tragic regularity. We all smiled encouragement at her through the window, which only flustered her further. Even Ben, who specialised in never-will-be’s, couldn’t disguise his pity. The producer, a wafer-thin man with long, lank hair which covered his eyes like an Afghan dog, looked to be about thirteen. He seemed unconcerned by the singer’s vocal waywardness. No doubt he would tweak it through the Vocoder or, perhaps, just find someone who could sing. Ben introduced me to Gilbert, the ‘hottest young producer in the country right now.’ Gilbert didn’t seem overly embarrassed by the accolade and extended an elegant hand for me to shake, eschewing eye contact. I’m all for the firm, manly grip, but I was too afraid of rearranging his metacarpals if I really went for it. Gilbert returned his attentions to the increasingly emotional singer, whose thick coating of Gothic make-up couldn’t hide her tears.
’Hannah Field. Gonna be a huge, huge star, huge,’ said Ben, though you could see even he didn’t believe it.
Gilbert shushed Ben without looking up, drawing an indulgent smile from his erstwhile boss. Ben put his finger to his lips, pointed at Gilbert’s nodding head and mouthed ‘genius’ to me. From Ben’s subsequent gesticulations, I guessed the great Gilbert was going to produce my song.
Back in Ben’s office, over another bottle of bubbly, he assured me that Gilbert would respect the song and my musical integrity, that he would make it sound unique, perfect for Eurovision yet still geared to the contemporary, music-buying public. Howard James was excited about it too (even though, it seemed, he’d never actually heard it) and there was every chance the song was going to be a big, big hit. Big hit.
Did Ben ever stop talking shit? Ever?
I stood just inside the doorway and rubbed away a small porthole in the misted glass. The snow was beginning to settle on the pavement, while an incessant procession of vehicle headlights reflected brightly in the glistening Crouch Hill road surface; merely wet now, but it would be ice by midnight. It wasn’t too inviting out there, but I felt lifted, as though I’d finally committed to something, even if my involvement from here on in was going to be limited. Maybe the champagne was making me a little buzzy too. I was ready to brave it when I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Elaine in her long woollen coat.
’Nice out,’ she said.
’Suppose so,’ I shrugged.
’Fancy a quick warmer first? Or a bite?’
’Erm, well, to be honest…’
’It’s ok, don’t worry. I’m not making a pass or anything.’
’No. Sorry. I know. Why would you? Ha ha. It’s just…it’s not that I don’t want to.’ Where the hell was I going with this?
’No. I mean, I’m married. Which I know is irrelevant, because you’re not making...shall I shut up?’
Elaine hooked her hand through my arm and tugged me gently through the door. ‘Let’s just go and get a hamburger, all right? Then you can go home to your wife. We’re in business now, That’s all. We’ve got things to discuss.’
I wasn’t particularly hungry, if truth be told. Yes, I forced a massive sizzling bacon burger down my face, together with some thick cut chips and fat-smothered onion rings, but I could have done without it. As, indeed, could I have passed on the Banoffi Pie and ice cream. Elaine had a sensible looking tuna salad without making me feel in the least bit guilty. My growing paunch bore testimony to my current lack of discipline. The conversation was light, free-flowing, interesting, amusing and hugely enjoyable. This was what I believe was called ‘having fun,’ the rudiments of which I had completely forgotten. I wasn’t sure if I was flirting, if something was happening between us, but a frisson in my midriff spent all evening despatching little sparks both north and south. Elaine was unconventionally attractive, the type of woman I’d always gone for before settling for perfection. She had an easy, unruffled charm, a sharp mind and a healthy smattering of cynicism. As the alcohol set in, the line between business and pleasure became a bit of a blur, for me at least. Hadn’t I made this mistake before?
’Howard is a complete arsehole, everyone in the business knows it, but he’s always sold records. Who knows why? Never over-estimate the public, someone said. Was it Simon Cowell? Even when he’s been completely out of his tree, turned up in a gutter somewhere, he’s never lost them. They’re curious about him. He’s got, I dunno, an aura. And now we’ve got him doing Eurovision.’ Elaine chuckled in astonishment. ‘I mean, it’s so absolutely weird, it’s got to work, hasn’t it?’ Her cheeks dimpled, her eyes crinkled and I wanted to lean across and kiss her wonky lips.
’I hope so.’
’He’s the one guy who can do Eurovision without losing credibility. And, with the right song - and this is the right song - we’re going to make some money. You’re going to make some money.’
’Well it wouldn’t hurt,’ I said. ‘I just don’t want this to be where the story begins and ends.’
’Listen,’ said Elaine, leaning forward, her elbows splayed on the chunky wooden table, ‘if this works out half as well as we think it will, Ben’s not going to let you drift off into obscurity again.’
’Sorry,’ she laughed.
’No. That’s fair. Look at me. This is what obscure looks like.’
’Have you been working the circuit for long?’
’I used to sing around the place twenty-odd years ago, but I’ve only just started again. For the hell of it, really. I mean, I’ve got a sensible job, and everything. I.T. All very dull.’
’What does your wife think?’
’Oh she’s right behind me. Very supportive. Amazing woman.’
I was off again, praising Lisa to the skies, trying to put Elaine off the scent. I’d done the same with Faye. I don’t think it was guilt. Maybe I just couldn’t let go, or maybe I didn’t want to jeopardise the possibility of gluing the broken pieces back together. Or maybe it was Elaine’s apparent lack of interest in me (cf Faye) that made me defensive.
’Good,’ she said. ‘That’s important. You need to have the people who love you right behind you.’
’Absolutely. And my kids are going to be really excited.’
’Two little girls.’
I stopped short of producing slides from my wallet and setting up the projector, but I’d now completed the job of repelling this compelling woman forever. Kids. That was the clincher. I was getting my rejection in first to save her the trouble.
’Ahh. That’s great,’ said Elaine, settling back into her chair. ‘They’re going to be so proud.’
She hadn’t met them yet.
We stood beneath Elaine’s pitifully inadequate folding umbrella at the top end of Crouch End Broadway. The snow had turned to insistent, biting sleet and taxis were in short supply. Finally, a yellow light began weaving its way down the hill and I stepped into the road to flag it down.
’You take it,’ said Elaine.
’Don’t be silly,’ I said hoping to sound chivalrous, ‘I’ll take the train.’
’Where do you live?’
’Fine. We’ll share. I’m in Ealing.’
’I’m sure. Ben’s paying.’
The taxi stuttered along the wretched North Circular, slowing to walking pace as it passed the eternally teeming Ikea and the Wembley Stadium arch, lit and imperious, a few hundred yards behind it. Things had turned awkward, the conversation drier than desert sand. I’d portrayed myself as the contented, gainfully employed family man, but Elaine was doing something to my innards and I think she knew it. Her wide nose threatened to dominate her face if you stared at it too long and her eyes were almost invisible, yet she looked startling in the orange glow of the fuggy cab. She was about as far from Lisa as you could get, but maybe I was learning to be less superficial in my old age.
The Hanger Lane roundabout was heavily backed up, giving me time to consider whether to jump out there or maintain the fiction that I lived in Chiswick. It was a tight one. I decided to stay in the cab, partly to postpone my return to the chilly wasteland of my flat, partly to inhale Elaine a little longer. As we finally extricated ourselves from roundabout stew, she directed the surly driver to turn off to the right and take a complex back-doubles route culminating at a grand old block of flats on Haven Green.
’This is me,’ she said without making a move to open the door.
’Here?’ I said. Pointlessly.
’Yeah, right here. This place.’ Elaine smiled sweetly and began fishing in her purse. She pulled out a £20 note. ‘Here, take it.’
’No!’ I said with misconceived chivalry.
’Ben’s paying, I told you.’
I took the note, but had the grace to feel ungentlemanly about it. Elaine looked at me and we both smiled through the ensuing awkward silence. Twenty years ago, the next question would have been, ‘do you want to come in for coffee’ but...
’Do you want to come in for coff..?’
’That’d be nice.’
Coffee was the last thing anyone of my generation actually drank when the invitation was taken up. It was very un-English. Still is, of course. It was usually a cup of tea, a Penguin and a quick grope without waking her parents. In fact, the cup of tea was often as good as it got, the Penguin a bonus. Significantly more sophisticated now, I took the glass of red wine Elaine proffered, followed by another and another and soon began to feel pleasantly fuzzy. I remember looking at my watch at 2.15 and again at 4.20, but each time only to marvel at the swift passage of time when it was so pleasantly spent. Her flat was small but ambitiously grand, her landlord’s classic furnishings offset by a few tasteful modern pieces. The lounge was cosy, its walls adorned with wonderful pencil sketches of the human form which Elaine told me she’d drawn as an art student. I imagined Lisa appraising these stark and simple images with her gimlet eye, her mouth turning down at the corners as if she was sucking anchovies. She was into odd shapes and structures, modern abstract impressionism - or something - and looked down her nose at straightforward realism.
Elaine and I sat, cross-legged, facing each other on the carpet, our stilted hour in the cab long forgotten, replaced by easy familiarity and conversational flow which belied our scant acquaintance. A buzzy, boozy warmth pulsed through me, prompting a deepening urge to leap on top of her and kiss her mesmerising, wine-moistened lips. I somehow resisted, hoping she’d make the first move. I was in for a long wait.
I’m not too good with alcohol - as my little mishap at Lisa’s gallery would testify - but mixed with this rare contentment and gut-deep desire, I found myself welling up, a confusing and unwelcome emotional response which I hoped I was concealing. I didn’t want this night to end, but at around 5, Elaine got up, stretched and said she needed to get some sleep. I was welcome to crash on the sofabed. Given her clear message, I should have gone home but I reasoned that I was bound to stagger onto the wrong bus - if they were even running at that time of the morning. Walking was out of the question; I didn’t trust myself to make the mile and a half trek back up Hanger Lane without ending up in a puddle of vomit on the verge. And a mini cab struck me, perversely, as extravagant. What was a boy to do, especially one who wanted to stay just in case? I recall undressing, a little prematurely I think, down to my tee-shirt and underpants and feeling mightily uncomfortable for a few minutes, my hairy legs quivering in the cold while Elaine pottered around rustling up bedclothes and pillows. Then nothing until I awoke at around 8.
In Elaine’s bed.