Morning. Bright, crisp, dry. And sober enough to brave the walk home, thereby taking in the delights of an entire stretch of Hanger Lane in all its frost-tainted, litter-strewn, rush hour glory. It took less than twenty minutes and helped clear the fug from my pounding head. My flat was cold and forbidding, as ever, lacking the barest rudiments of comfort no matter how many times I rearranged my stuff. I made myself a strong, un-English coffee and stood, in my coat, looking blankly out at the endless lines of traffic edging, like thwarted ants, around Hanger Lane roundabout. Cars dipped into and out of lanes they perceived to be moving faster than their own to no great advantage. It was a rush hour without the rush, a crawl hour, a slug hour, people rushing absolutely nowhere.
Elaine hadn’t been there when I woke up. She’d left me a note saying she had to get to a meeting and that I should make myself breakfast and let myself out whenever I wanted. The note didn’t mention whether we’d had sex. I’d checked myself over, of course, and found no tell-tale signs, no leakages or incrustations, but that wasn’t necessarily conclusive. I had no idea how I ended up in her bed, no idea if I kissed her or touched her, no idea what she felt about me, but nothing was going to stop me wallowing in my sweet imaginings. I waited until ten to call her and, naturally, she wasn’t there. I was still feeling a little heady and slightly nauseous, but contemporaneously excited, edgy and delightedly guilty. I couldn’t sit still. Had to speak to someone.
’Chaz! Chazza! Mate. Whassup?!’
’Mike. Can’t really talk.’
’Need to see you, mate. Need to see you.’ I was closer to the legal limit than I thought but unable to do much about it. I must have sounded insane.
’Need to talk. Need. To. Talk. C’mon.’
’Today’s a bastard,’ he said. ‘Tell you what. How’s about a game tonight? I could do with a workout.’
Squash? All that running and bouncing? A squirt of bitter bile hit the back of my throat. ‘I dunno, feeling a bit delicate.’
’You pissed? You sound pissed. You’re not bloody drinking now, are you?’
’No! Had a couple last night, That’s all. I’m fine now. Fuckin’ top.’
’Are you in?’
Oh shit, go on then. ‘Eight?’
’I’ll book the court.’
I left two more messages for Elaine, neither of which she returned. Ben called later in the day to discuss my coming into the studio the following Friday to sit in on the recording of the instrumental tracks. I didn’t have the balls to ask him where she was. I met Chaz at the club at 7.45 by which time I’d slept off the queasiness and even managed a couple of slices of dry toast and jam. I slaughtered him, of course, but couldn’t muster the additional energy to gloat. He tried to jolly me along - abusive banter was integral to this ritual - but gave up after a while. Late on, and with the distracted air that allows muscle memory to do its stuff, I swung at the ball and caught it so sweetly I barely felt the vibration go through my arm. It whipped off the back wall with an almost silent beauty and back towards Chaz’s left cheekbone. He was sorely under-equipped to deal with such murderous perfection. He crumpled onto the wooden floor, pole-axed, unconscious and terrifyingly still. I ran across the court and slipped my hand under his slick, sweaty head. His cheek was bleeding and a huge blue welt was forming beneath his eye. And he wasn’t moving. I’d only gone and killed my best friend. Jesus, I’d already lost a wife...
After what seemed a lifetime, but was probably only a few seconds, his eyelids flickered and he began clutching at his face. He blinked, his eyes finally focusing on his assailant.
’Fuck,’ he grunted.
’Still my point,’ I said, dripping sweat onto his prone torso.
’No, I’m retiring hurt so technically, it’s a draw.’
And he meant it.
I helped him off the court and into the bar where the barman handed me a first aid kit. I stuck a plaster over the wound and gave Chaz a handful of ice from a bucket on the counter to press onto the throbbing lump. I’ve never truly felt sorry for Chaz - he’s just too bright, too damn successful - but just occasionally, and in the most irrelevant and trivial ways, marginally superior. But right now, as I scanned his damp little body swimming inside a shirt and shorts he probably bought in the Lillywhites boyswear department, I felt a pang of sympathy. It lasted fourteen seconds.
’Just bought a pad in Florida,’ he said, a propos nothing.
’Yeah. It’s a bit of a tax dodge, really.’
He was throwing money at his burgeoning global property empire just to get rid of it.
’Well bully for you.’
’Sorry, mate. Shit. Didn’t mean that to sound so boastful. I was only going to say, why don’t you go out there? On me, flights and everything. My way of saying sorry properly. ‘Cos I was an absolute shit.’
’No you weren’t. I was a spoiled brat.’
’A phenomenal prick, actually. But the offer still stands.’
‘’Cos you’re having a tough time, you’re living in a cesspit, you’ve got no money, no career...’
’Ok, but apart from that.’
’...and it’s fucking freezing. So go and get some sun, recharge your batteries. Point is, you need to be strong for Eurovision.’ Chaz clenched a tiny fist.
’Yeah, ‘cos it’s an assault course. All those songs and singers and Estonian girls in tinsel skirts...’ I shook my head at my Euro-git friend. ‘I’ve just written a song, Chaz. They won’t even want me there. You read the contract.’
’What about new material? That song wins, never mind the contract. You’re gonna be hot. They’re not gonna let you slip away into the night. So go and be creative. Write the follow-up hit.’
’Told you before, think positively.’
’I’m not being ungrateful, mate, but I prefer to be lonely and cold and poor somewhere near my kids. Anyway, I need to be around for the next couple of weeks. We’re in the studio next week and then it’s going to be hectic until Eurovision:You Decide.’
Chaz nodded. He understood. Sort of. ‘Ok. Got to concentrate on winning it first, haven’t you? You can always go there after you’ve blitzed Europe.’
I smiled. Maybe I’d go when - if - I had some of my own money in my pocket. And someone to take with me. ‘Yeah. Thanks mate.’’
’So, come on, what’s Howard James like. Tosser?’
’Dunno yet. They’ve got to wake him from his coma to lay down the vocals at some point.’
’You playing on it?’
’They’ve got proper musicians for that, and a whiz-kid producer who can make a fart sound melodious.’
I shook my head.
’So, apart from writing the song, what are you doing?’
’The fuck’s that mean?’ I shrugged. I had no idea. I’d just made it up. ‘They all right, this record company?’
’Yeah. Guy who runs it is a bit second division - I mean, you’ve never heard of anyone he’s produced - but he manages Howard and the BBC are insisting on having him, so...oh, and there’s this woman there called…’ I faked a stumble, ‘Elaine? Yeah, Elaine. She’s the guy’s PA but I think she’s the one who really makes the place tick. Elaine.’
’So when are you…?’
’Good looking lady, as it goes.’
’Ah-ha. So what about the…?’
’Gotta say, I quite like her. Not, like that, obviously, although in a parallel universe I’d...but, you know, she’s very bright, very...helpful.’ Helpful. Yes, That’s what I said.
Chaz stared into my eyes laser-fashion. ‘You fucking her?’
’For Christ’s sake! I’m still married. Just about, admittedly...but you know me better than that.’ I’d been trying to confess - to what I’m not sure - but now I was atop my horse, High Dudgeon, up on the moral high ground, where it was all very high.
’Well you went all glassy-eyed, so...’
’Yeah, she’s nice, big deal, but I haven’t written off my marriage, I can tell you that for free.’
’Good. Glad to hear it.’
’Nothing’s going on with me and…whatsher...Elaine. Ha! Jesus, come on!’ I chuckled incredulously. ‘As if.’
’It’s not over between me and Lisa. Not by a long chalk.’
’Well I hope you guys get back together, I really do. Nothing would make me happier.’
’Yeah. Thanks. Me too.’
Chaz checked his watch and jumped up off his chair. ‘Shit. Listen, mate, I’ve got to go. Up early tomorrow. Off to Barcelona for the weekend. It never fucking stops. Let’s talk Monday.’
What could I say? Chaz was my best mate again, assuming I was prepared to overlook the fact that he was going to Barcelona to fuck my wife the following day. And the day after that, most likely. I sat in stupefied silence as he sped off to the changing room, a glass of lager in my limp hand, staring into the crowd congregated by the bar. They all seemed happy enough. Plenty of laughs and smiles. Was it only me whose life was so irredeemably shit-soaked? Yes, I had the Eurovision thing to keep my spirits up and, arguably, I’d met a woman I liked enormously with whom I may have had some sort of physical conjunction. But these lone swallows did not even make a wet spring. If Elaine was interested in me, I was flattered, if not a bit excited, but I wasn’t seeking a relationship with her. I’d been vulnerable, lonely and, ok, maybe technically adulterous, but despite this smidgeon of moral ambiguity, at least she wasn’t my best friend’s wife. I wanted my family back. I wanted to be in amongst the cut and thrust of the daily routine, the quotidian grind, the normality. I wanted to be Dad, not a dad, and a husband to my wife...I think. But these simple dreams had disappeared over the horizon as I listed, holed below the waterline.
’Fuckin’ great! Fuckin’ amazing!’ Thus spake Ben in considered and perceptive appreciation of a guitar riff on In Love We Trust. Gilbert nodded, but then he did that most of the time. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking as he slid faders and twiddled knobs to infinitesimally minimal effect. The guy had musical dog whistle receptors. Inside the recording booth, a thin man with a shaven head was experimenting with guitar licks over the blanket of bass, drums and synth which had been laid down by three bored-looking session musicians that morning. Elaine wandered in from time to time to offer her own critique, which was infinitely more acute than Ben’s, throwing the occasional awkward smile my way; we really needed to talk. In Love We Trust sounded like a song I vaguely knew, but not the one I composed. The chord structure and lyrics were essentially the same, but the sweeping synthesised violins, grand piano (effect) and fake brass gave it a depth and breadth entirely alien to my original man-and-his-guitar version. Maybe Gilbert was a genius, or maybe he was a complete prick making mincemeat of a decent song. Until Howard James deigned to grace us with his presence, it would be impossible to know for sure if it had legs, and even then...
I’d been in recording studios a few times, mostly (and we’re going back a bit here) limited four track facilities that smelt like smoking rooms. I’d cut a few demo tracks with friends, but it was a case of maximising the potential of each precious track by singing and playing as many instruments on each as humanly possible before dubbing everything down into an incoherent mush. Prehistoric, unlike the software that had revolutionised the recording industry in recent years with its endless variations, gizmos, and effects, sufficient to make you delirious with choice. Gilbert seemed to be on top of it all but, in the end, the song’s the thing. And if it isn’t, it should be. Still, there was no more exciting or exhilarating environment for someone who’d always dreamed of making recording studios his principal place of business.
The session ended after six and I felt wired. I’d been too preoccupied with the process to allow images of Chaz and Lisa grinding themselves into oblivion to sully my day, but they might decimate my evening if I returned to my drab little tomb to cogitate. A Friday night piss-up in town struck me as the ideal way to maintain my high before slipping into unconsciousness without touching the sides. I passed Elaine’s tiny office on my way out and tapped on her open door. She looked up and returned
my smile, but quickly refocused on her screen.
’Bye, then,’ I said, starting for the outer door.
’See ya,’ she replied, still transfixed.
’Shall I just...?’ I took a step back and closed her door.
I was almost in the corridor when I heard a muffled voice. ‘Fancy a drink? I mean, if you can hang on ten minutes.’
I stopped, mulled momentarily, then continued on my way, the outer door swinging lazily into its jamb behind me. The one bum note of the day had been played by Elaine and I’d harmonised it pretty bummily myself. Two adults barely able to look each other in the eye all day and only able to communicate once backs were turned and doors were closed.
I set off up the mountainous Crouch Hill towards the station. Overground to...somewhere, then the Tube to, fuck knew where else. I’d improvise; I was bound to find a pub eventually. The air was dry, icy, and bit into my already chapped lips. I reached the underlit station foyer and bought a ticket from a machine. I turned to walk through the barrier and saw Elaine standing on the platform, smiling. God knows how she’d ghosted past me.
’I said, fancy a drink?’
I hate the West End, I really do, particularly on Friday nights when the shackles are off. So much needless shouting and whooping, groups of smokers and drinkers outside pubs blocking streets, people jaywalking and swearing at hooting cars. And That’s at 7pm. Four hours later, it’s Dystopia. Do I sound like an old fuddy-duddy? Don’t worry, I was like this at eighteen.
But tonight I craved the energy and buzz of W1, as opposed to Hanger Lane, the antithesis of life itself. Elaine and I steered a path from the studied frostiness of the day towards something approaching the intimacy of our night together. And, loosened by a couple of drinks or eight, I was finally able to ask that nagging question. Her response, charmingly prefaced by a farcical splutter into her wine, shattered all doubt.
’Sex? Oh do me a lemon!’
’Ok, so how the hell did I end up in your bed?’
’You stumbled in. I don’t know if you were looking for the toilet, or whether you were disorientated, but you just collapsed on the bed. So I left you there. I didn’t defile you, ok?’
’Phew, thank God for that.’ Stupid little wipe of the forehead.
’Repulsive idea, eh?’
’No! Oh, no, I didn’t mean that at all. I just meant…’
’You’re married, you’ve got kids, blah, blah. Boring.’
’Don’t apologise. Look, no offence but you’re not my type.’
She didn’t really mean that? ‘Ok, if you say so.’
’Mike, watch my lips. Seriously. I mean, I like you a lot, just not like that. You’re the polar opposite of the kind of person I go for. You couldn’t be less my type.’
Ok, so she meant it. At least that was that sorted. Except, knowing what I knew for certain now, I wished something had happened. Then I’d have felt almost even with Lisa, a puerile and primal response I know, but valid in my warped estimation.
I checked my watch. Somehow it had gone eleven and although Elaine and I could have bantered into the early hours, I had to pick up the kids in the morning and didn’t want to be late, much less hung over. Outside, we battled for a cab with the waifs and strays, finally stopping one in Wardour Street. I stood aside and guided Elaine inside, closing the door behind her. I leaned through the window and kissed her peachy cheek, reminding me of my last brush with Faye a few weeks earlier. Faye. I’d thought about her, a lot, mainly with regret. I’d let her slip away, even if she was never there for the taking.
I really liked Elaine, but Faye…Faye was special.
Here’s a tip. If you’re thinking about a family outing to the Science Museum, make sure it coincides with a major royal wedding, a World Cup Final or the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, otherwise be prepared for an interminable wait in the middle of a heaving scrum. In the rain. With your pissed off kids. Who’d rather be watching their Shrek DVD somewhere warm. I’m not much good when I finally get inside either. The yawning starts almost immediately and ten minutes in my watering eyes can barely focus. This does not, I hope, betray Philistinism on my part, though Lisa might argue. It’s just my body’s natural reaction to the energy-sapping shuffle through vast, airless rooms surrounded by other people’s squabbling children, as if my own aren’t enough. I like looking at the exhibits, I really do, but I can’t handle the enforced lingering. I can take in a lunar pod or a 1950’s Hoover on the move; no need to stop. It’s all very fascinating up to a point - which usually arrives after four minutes - but then I want to run, screaming all the way down Kensington Gore.
Forewarned is forearmed. A clear strategy was essential. So I picked the kids up insanely early amid searing protestations, got there in a flash, parked up and joined the queue somewhere near Wolverhampton. Hey presto, mere hours later, we were inside. We decided to start with a much-trumpeted laser light exhibition which, it transpired, comprised lots of coloured lights beaming mainly at walls. I then dragged the kids to a little exhibition of vintage household appliances. It was the only bit I ever enjoyed, probably because no-one else did and it was always relatively empty. ‘See that phone,’ I bored, ‘we used to use those. We actually had to dial numbers. With our fingers. Never mind buttons, or speed dial or address books.’
’Yeah Dad. Very interesting. Can we, like, get some chocolate?’ said Katia. ‘Just for energy.’
’Not yet. Hey, look at that mangle. See, nowadays we have dryers, but my mum used to go in the garden and…’
You make your own fun, don’t you?
Afterwards, we ate in a staggeringly expensive burger bar in Knightsbridge before making our way back to my flat via the multiplex cinema in Ealing where I slept through a mind-rotting American high school ‘comedy.’ The kids were in no hurry to reacquaint themselves with my charmless abode with its miserably inadequate TV, curtainless windows and yellowing furniture. It was purpose-designed to depress. But they didn’t complain, at least not to me. Maybe they were under instructions. We ordered in some Chinese from downstairs (Katia only ate the rice even though she had me casually order four other dishes) and watched, if memory serves, the Shrek DVD. Made a change. At around ten, I settled them into my bed and sat chatting with them until their eyes drooped. I kissed their buttery cheeks and turned out the light. Back in the lounge, I unfolded my creaking sofabed and lay propped against the unforgiving pine headboard watching the football.
I flicked off the light at midnight and wept myself to sleep.