Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 15

Everyone, it turns out, was right. Howard James was a complete tosser. He hadn’t changed much since his multi-coloured hair days, except that there was less hair to multi-colour now. From his high forehead down, his face was worryingly gaunt, pallid skin stretched to breaking point over the sharp architecture of his face. The bridge of his nose looked about ready to collapse. One severe cold should do it. His teeth were crooked and yellow and he was dressed in the same long-tailed purple overcoat he wore in his heyday. But, somehow, he could still sing. The instrumental tracks had been teased rather magically by Gilbert into a sumptuous melange of strings, horns and percussion. The guitar solo worked beautifully and with Howard’s reedy, unique vocals overlaying this confection, my song sounded, well, fucking fantastic. Too classy to win Eurovision obviously, but maybe good enough to make the charts.

Howard barked orders from the booth, demanding more echo, less treble, more Coke (Diet - he was all business in there), a tuna sandwich with celery and mayonnaise and cheese and onion crisps. He barely registered my existence. I doubt he even knew I was the song’s composer, much less cared. I was just some bloke nodding in the corner, although Ben had introduced me as a musical consultant, which sounded grand albeit my consultancy services were not sought once throughout the entire process. I wondered whether Howard actually believed he’d written it, perhaps in a drug-addled trance. He certainly claimed proprietary rights over the final mix, although I knew the sanguine, unflappable Gilbert was going to do whatever he bloody-well pleased with it later on when Howard was busy tripping in his Hertfordshire mansion. The session ended just after four and Howard, Gilbert, Ben, Elaine and I went out to celebrate with tea and inedible organic cakes in a Bohemian little cafe opposite the studios. The inscrutable, mute Gilbert was lost in his mental remix while the rest of us chatted excitedly about the next couple of weeks leading up to Eurovision:You Decide - the TV promo, the press, the photo shoots and so much else. Howard disappeared after downing his Earl Grey, re-emerging ten minutes later, his nose dusted with fine, white powder, to wolf down a pastry before being chauffeured home by a terse little man in an expensively hired limo. Ben was pushing the boat out on this one. This song had better do some business, I thought; we all thought.

I didn’t return to the studio with the others, electing to head back home. Elaine had twinkled all day, her conversation, her coy, private, smiles, her endless good humour rendering me woebegone and confused. She didn’t like me like that, did she? Or did she? Maybe, just maybe, she was beginning to see me in a different light. Was that even possible? I knew nothing any more. Whatever might or might not have been bubbling under with Elaine, I had to confront Lisa and/or Chaz at some point. I needed ‘closure’ (yeah, sorry). I knew, though, that I couldn’t take Lisa on at the house, not with the kids there; frankly, I wasn’t sure when I’d be ready for such a traumatic conversation whatever the venue. Chaz, on the other hand, was small and not actually that strong or wiry, and so while he may have been able to parry my line of questioning with his gift for methodical reasoning, I could just beat it the fuck out of him.

My laptop glared brightly in the gloom of the living room, if you could apply the word ‘living’ to any room in that flat. It was giving me a headache. I was glued to Faye’s Facebook page and marvelling at her photo for the umpteenth time. My little arrow flickered over the ‘+ New message’ button for an age, challenging me to left-click, taunting me. I wanted to send her a message, just to know that, for the brief moment it would take her to read it, I’d be in her thoughts. I wanted to tell her that my marriage was over, that I was an unencumbered single man again and that I’d like to see her. But then counsel for the sane argued that I was barely a friend, and I’d pissed her off anyway. But what if I told her about my Eurovision adventure? Surely that would elicit some sort of positive response, something pleasant and congratulatory. So what if my contract forbade me from telling anyone I’d written the song? Faye wasn’t anyone, and who was she going to tell? It was something, and maybe it would squirt some oil on the rust-stiffened hinges of that door. On the other hand...

I sat and I stared, and I stared and I stared.

I was never going to click on that button.

I only have to say the word ‘squash’ and Chaz is there in his baggy, Corinthian shorts hitched high above his shapeless waist, bouncing nimbly on his Green-Flashed toes, full of hope and intent. Sucker. Doesn’t he know he hasn’t beaten me in fourteen years (since I tore ankle ligaments chasing a short one - he was 7-0 down at the time and claimed it)? I arrived deliberately late and didn’t apologise. We met on the court, no preamble, no pre-match banter. He was already sweating, having got in some sneaky practise while he waited, like it was going to do him any good. I forsook a warm-up and insisted we get under way. I immediately took command of the ‘T’, thwacking the ball from side to side while he scampered fruitlessly around behind me like a hamster in a wheel. Just when he thought he’d got the measure of me, I’d chip one in short and wait for him to scramble it back before smashing it away for a winner while he stood stranded and breathless by the front wall. I varied it occasionally, pinging a couple of straight ones along his backhand side, the ball adhering to the wall, forcing him to smash his racket frame trying to gouge it out. This was fun. I let him have one point in the first set (he mis-hit one which died in the nick and I couldn’t be arsed to chase it), none in the second and one in the third (he actually hit a decent shot which kept low). He was drenched with sweat as we entered the fourth set so I stepped up the pace. I even took my jumper off. I toyed with him for a while, then brought him in close so that I could barge him ‘accidentally’ to the floor. I’m not a violent or physical man, but I suddenly understood the simple, primal pleasure of knocking a man flying. That beefy moment of impact, the grunt as air is bullied from the lungs, the clatter of limbs hitting solid wood. I wanted some more of that. The next barge sent him spiralling into the side wall. He yelped and dropped his racket, then stood there in a crouch, buttocks against the wall, rubbing his protruding shoulder bone for a minute. Chaz was too proud, too competitive to tell me to cool it which rather played into my hands. The next rally ended with a nasty little drop shot and I strolled to set point with a sumptuous wrong-footing volley. I started the next rally by bringing him in close again, and had him buzzing around me, mosquito-fashion, for the next few shots. He was within my swinging arc and, after he’d scooped up a dolly, I took a ferocious swipe and caught him square on the hip with the end of my racket. It made a fearful crack and my old wooden racket snapped. Chaz collapsed clutching himself in agony. I glowered over him, dripping sweat into his face and said: ‘That’s going to hurt next time you fuck my wife.’

Men? We’re just stupid kids who never properly grow up. Male adulthood, with all its familial and financial burdens, is a front. Underneath it all, we’re always pre-pubescent. I remember having a fight with a kid called Paul Knight when I was about five. Knight was the school toughie; you didn’t mess with him. But I knew I was strong and fast and, crucially, twice his size, and even though I was regarded as vaguely academic rather than Neanderthal, I wanted to take him on. I provoked a fight on the field at the back of the school, making sure my classmates were there to witness it. We pushed and jostled for a bit until I karate-chopped him on the back of the neck. Knight crumbled and I strolled away triumphant and glowing, kudos enhanced. But afterwards, when the glow of victory had faded, I experienced an unbidden self-loathing, a recognition that I would never fight anyone ever again, reasoning that there were better ways to prove you were macho, albeit I’m still looking. And, on a practical level, I’ve always felt that if you had to take some pain for ultimate gain, you could keep the gain. So I’ve always preferred to rely on an acid tongue and scathing sarcasm, on the strict understanding that I’m pretty quick on my feet if things turn nasty.

But beating up Chaz was easy, well merited and, I’m ashamed to say, rather satisfying. For all his money and status and smug contentment, for all that he was screwing Mrs Kenton, I left him as nothing more than a pathetic heap of humiliated bones.

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