Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 17

It was easy to get swept up in the excitement. The TV appearances, the press interviews, the PR gatherings. I went to everything, eager to soak up this fame by proxy. I may never have this opportunity again, so what the hell? Howard never questioned my presence - in truth, the man was incapable of basic social interaction - and barely grunted in my general direction when Ben introduced me at each event as though for the first time. I was the music consultant. How could he keep forgetting? I hovered in the background wearing an amused little smirk, offering the odd sarcastic comment whenever Elaine was around, like it was all a bit beneath me. I think it was important, to me if nobody else, not to be seen to be taking the whole thing too seriously. I was above this trivial competition. I had artistic integrity. But it was serious; I had nothing else. I preferred not to think about the empty road that lay ahead of me if this all turned to dust. Ben seemed happy to have me around as long as I remained benign, and I continued to enjoy Elaine’s company even if any hint of romance was dead in the water. There was no time for that kind of nonsense anyway. Too much else going on.

I was still putting in the odd telesales shift, but finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate, my mind forever floating off into the world of celebrity, applause, awards, idolatry. What if we won? I couldn’t help asking myself that question as I sleep-walked through countless, by-numbers conversations with my disinterested marks. We’d have a massive hit on our hands, compelling Ben, surely, to draft me in to write Howard’s follow-up album in addition to songs for all the other artistes on the roster. With my reputation as the next big thing growing, I’d be flown out to LA and New York to write with and for Prince and Stevie and maybe even the great man himself, Lionel Richie. There’d be red carpets to cruise at the MTV awards and the Mobos (I know I’m not especially black, but you don’t have to be apparently) and I’d have a string of girlfriends plucked from the worlds of pop and fashion. And then, I suppose, natural progression would lead to the composition of Oscar Award winning film scores; Tom would ask for me by name. I’d be the go-to composer, the man. And you know what? I was going to keep my Hanger Lane shithole despite owning fabulous houses and apartments in every glamorous corner of the globe. It’d keep me grounded, remind me of the hard times. And it would also be quite handy for Heathrow, my gateway to the world, my playground. I’d install state-of-the-art studios in my pads in NY (Dakota Building), St Tropez (up the hill from Elton and Posh) and the Bahamas (an island next door Branson’s).

’Morning. My name’s Michael Kenton from PBJ Accounting. I’m calling to ask whether you’d be interested in outsourcing your bookkeeping to...hello? Hello?’

I’m hopeless with sombre news. My first reaction is to giggle. It’s nerves, I think, not a sign of disrespect. Lisa’s father passed away in his sleep. That’s the way to go, isn’t it? So they say. Personally, I’d rather go just after making love to the young Kim Basinger followed by a full English, but That’s me. Lisa called with the news as I was about to nip over the roundabout to Raj Temple for a lonesome curry. I uttered a few ‘I’m sorrys,’ and ‘maybe it was for the bests,’ but only through suppressed, hugely inappropriate laughter. I don’t think she noticed. He’d been battling prostate cancer for a few years so his demise was not unexpected. Even so, it’s always a shock, isn’t it? I liked the old buffer in a distant, far-from-matey way. We didn’t share many laughs or play golf together; there was no sporty banter or whispered, nudge-nudge asides about women. But we got along and never rubbed each other up the wrong way; a pleasant, formal relationship with a thoroughly decent man. I wanted to go to the funeral to pay my respects regardless of the state of play with Lisa and she and I acknowledged the need to demonstrate a unified front. Her mother knew nothing about our problems and Lisa, understandably, didn’t want to burden her with it now. We had to arrive together, stand together and leave together. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey but at least the kids were coming along to provide a pressure valve. I had no intention of discussing the state of our marriage, much less Chaz. There would come a day when I’d confront her about that little twerp, but this was not the right time. Indeed, nothing was going to be said - at least not by me - until after Eurovision:You Decide.

Funerals never move me. When my own father died four years ago, the ceremony was an unnecessary adornment. He’d gone and I knew how I felt. I didn’t need to celebrate his life with a dry speech in a cold chapel nor make public my sadness. You keep those things in your head and your heart. And I bristle when I hear the pat generalisations about parents and children, about goodness and reward, about achievement and contentment from people who barely knew the deceased.

The trip to the crematorium in Brighton was uneventful. Lisa seemed to be holding it together, coping. I wouldn’t have expected anything less. The girls struggled to maintain sobriety in the back of the car, but what do kids understand about death? Death’s for old people. Let them worry about mortality. The service was mercifully short and the whole thing over and done with in less than half an hour. There were too many more funerals on the list to dawdle. Death is a business like anything else, and we’ve all got a stake in it. Lisa accepted condolences with her customary grace while I shook countless hands, bent to receive the dry, papery, lavender-scented kisses of elderly female relatives and maintained mournful eyebrows till they ached. Testimony to Lisa’s standing in the art world was the attendance of scores of colleagues, artists and clients as well as one or two celebrities who caused quite a stir during the service. Wasn’t that David Thirwell, the hirsute and eminent presenter of many an arts and culture show? That was definitely Dame Harriet Lewis, the actress, blowing her restructured nose in the corner. And fuck me if that wasn’t old chocolate-voice himself, Don Ellwood. Did he remember me, the vomiting spouse? He bestowed his sly, oily wink on a privileged few, but not me. Instead, I received a cool handshake, a blank expression and a muttered, yet profoundly theatrical, ‘I’m so sorry.’ We didn’t have a lot else to talk about. He was rather warmer with Lisa, giving her his trademark squeeze on the hip as he kissed her cheek. Lisa smiled, her eyes a-twinkle, face glowing. I couldn’t remember the last time I engendered that kind of response from her. If ever.

Everyone trudged back to Lisa’s mother’s house for tea served up in bone china thimbles, and a range of one-bite-and-they’re-gone sandwiches. I bundled the kids upstairs to watch TV in the spare bedroom, their patience having worn dangerously thin after so much enforced reverence. Kids need to shout and create a little havoc or, at the very least, watch something mindless to stop them going haywire. Back downstairs, the low, respectful mumbling was occasionally punctured by the booming, look-at-me voice of Don Ellwood whose beautifully realised ‘expression tragique’ (made that one up) signified his very real grief. The disingenuous tit. Around seven, Lisa commenced the longest goodbye in history while the kids and I sat patiently watching her in the hallway. Sober relatives exchanged muted farewell handshakes and kisses while the art crowd indulged in hollow mwah-mwahs, gushing thank-yous and dramatic tears. At last we were about ready to leave I thought, but Don Ellwood ushered Lisa into the kitchen where he appeared to deliver an impassioned pep talk, followed by a longish but not quite inappropriate hug. Lisa patted his lapels as she gazed dolefully up at him, eyes moist, then turned to join us. As if dictating terms to her dog, she strode past and beckoned us to follow. Which we did.

We were silent for most of the return journey, apart from the odd cutting remark about some aunt’s garish dress or some family friend’s inapt remark. Lisa’s observations sounded mirthless and tetchy. Five years ago they’d have come across as sarcastic, hilarious. Back at the house, we tumbled out of the car and I crouched on my haunches to give the girls a hug and a kiss. They were like tense little muscles, itching to get inside, especially as a steady rain was now falling. I ushered them halfway up the front path before their patience expired. Duty done, they sped into the hall and flew up the stairs. Lisa stood at a respectable distance behind me as this sad little scene played itself out, then took my hand.

Thanks for coming. I appreciate it.’

’Of course. I wanted to be there,’ I said.

’Well, whatever, thanks.’

’Sure.’

She released my hand and started to walk towards the house, but stopped at the front step. Was she waiting for me to speak up? I didn’t have an awful lot left to lose. ‘Look, I know what’s going on so…it’s all right…well it’s not all right, but…’

’This is not the time, Mike.’

Which was a good point. ‘It’s never really the time, though, is it?’

Lisa stepped into the hallway.

’So, I’m going to get a solicitor,’ I said. ‘Ok?’

’Do what you want, Michael.’

I got back in the car and drove away, stopping thirty yards down the road when I was out of view. I stared hollow-eyed at the rain as it lashed against the windscreen, my eyes now watering as profusely as the sky. I was doing a lot of weeping lately. I hadn’t planned any of that, but standing there looking at that alien woman, it tumbled out and it felt right. I had to take control of things now. I’d been a passive bystander observing my own demise for too long.

Nobody likes solicitors. I mean, why would they? Not even their wives and children think much of them, probably. A jaundiced view, maybe, but it’s based on bruising experience, not lazy stereotyping or tabloid-style prejudice. I’ve had a few brushes with them along the way, you see, and always come away feeling like a little piece of myself has gone missing, my faith in humanity shaken to the core. I’m sure there are some smashing solicitors out there, fine, trustworthy, principled men and women who stand up for what’s fair and equitable and who seek a reasonable fee for work done. Yeah, right. Look, it’s just that those I’ve dealt with have been one or more of: greedy, thoughtless, pompous, unreliable, unpleasant. There was the local guy who handled our dispute with our neighbour over the maintenance of the fence, a trivial little matter which had, rather embarrassingly, spiralled out of control. Lisa had a bee in her bonnet; don’t look at me. Cost of mending the fence, £137, paid, eventually and grudgingly, by our neighbour; our solicitor’s fee, £580. He cited research as the pricey culprit, and apparently had allocated an hour to writing the single paragraph warning letter. There was another, an odious City slicker from a Magic Circle firm who, against my better judgement, Pete had called in to update our standard maintenance contract. £3,700 + VAT, that cost the company. On examination, he’d merely copied our existing documentation, changing a couple of words here and there. His weasley justification was that he’d had to consider our entire contractual position vis a vis clients before concluding that we were already adequately protected, omitting to mention that he’d seen us coming. I imagine he had a deskful of mugs with witty legal aphorisms like: Lawyer, n - Someone who prepares a 10,000 word document and calls it a brief and Hell hath no fury like the lawyer of a woman scorned. The only one missing would be: You don’t have to be a cock to work here…but if you ain’t, you won’t make partner.

As with my search for a specialist Eurovision lawyer, I had no idea where to start, particularly as I’d never got divorced before. Astoundingly, given my age and the middle class circles in which we mixed, I only knew one divorcee. Faye. What an opportunity lay before me here; as soon as I asked her for the name of the solicitor who handled her divorce, she’d know I was a single man. Bang. Result! Never mind that she didn’t fancy me, didn’t even like me much, was in a relationship and had a hundred other reasons not to take my pathetic bait, this was a one-off last chance to make her see sense.

My message was short and sweet (it took over two hours to compose):

Hi Faye. Hope you’re well. Bit of bad news, I’m afraid. Lisa and I are splitting up. It’s amicable, if That’s the right word! Anyway, just wondering whether you could give me the name and number of the guy who handled your divorce as I think you mentioned he was pretty good. Love, Mike.

I spent an hour over ‘love’ but went with it in the end. What harm could it do? I also took about forty-five minutes pondering the bit about her saying her solicitor was pretty good because she hadn’t, but without that fib the whole thing would have been transparently groundless. I clicked ‘send’ and waited. Ten minutes later, there was still no reply. Oh, shit. I’d really pissed her off. An hour later - nothing, and still nothing an hour after that. I eventually trooped off to bed deflated and rejected. Why hadn’t she replied? An acknowledgement would’ve done. I was never going to sleep now. My smart phone had no internet connection this deep into the grim underbelly of Hanger Lane, and the wire hooking my laptop to the router wasn’t long enough to stretch to the bedroom, forcing me to get up after twenty minutes to check, and again thirty minutes later. Nothing, nothing, nothing! At 3.30am, I concluded that unless she was now living in a different time zone, she was unlikely to be checking for messages for at least another six hours.

I drifted into a sour dream set in a freezing funeral parlour. Inside, the handful of mourners were dressed in black, their faces ashen and featureless. Only Lisa’s face was recognisable, characteristically beautiful behind her gauze veil. She smiled but all her top teeth were missing. She guided me to the coffin. Inside, a well-dressed man lay there with a tear on his cheek. The man was me. He/I got up, wiped away the tear, smiled, and strode out of the parlour without looking back.

There’s probably some pretty elementary dream analysis bollocks to be taken from that (apart from the teeth - inexplicable, very weird). Either way, I can tell you I was fucking freaked out and jumped out of bed at six in an icy sweat. I settled in the living room nursing a mug of tea, the fan heater char-grilling my shins, leaving the rest of me frozen. I’d never paid much attention to dreams, but this was a pointed message if ever I saw one, from me to myself: it was over, properly over but, far from being dead and buried, it signalled my glorious rebirth. I felt pretty charged up about that - whether Faye replied or not.

Chaz had finally given up trying to contact me - I’d been screening out any numbers I didn’t recognise in case he tried to sneak through the back door by using someone else’s. I suspect he even rang the doorbell a couple of times, but without a peephole - and as an inveterate ignorer of unannounced callers - I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t have time for him and his ‘innocent’ explanation. I’d have thought more of him if he’d had the balls to tell me the truth from the off. Even so, I’d been feeling nauseous about the squash court debacle. What did violence achieve apart from momentary macho triumph? I’d have been better off squealing to Louise about her miserable infidel of a husband, though she might have killed him and I didn’t want that on my conscience. Let her find out the hard way like I did.

But regardless of the rights and wrongs, the cheating and the deception, I’d come to accept that I wasn’t blameless, and it would have been naïve to think that my personal travails of the last few months were solely responsible for the collapse of our marriage. It ran much deeper than that. Still and all, couldn’t Lisa have screwed someone else, anyone else? That’s what really hurt. And it had obviously been going on while we continued to maintain the façade of an on-going, viable marriage which, I assume, meant she was having sex with both of us over a period of time. Not something I wanted to spend too much time contemplating.

Hi Mike. I’m well thanks. Sorry about your news. The guy’s name is Matthew Roberts. Don’t remember mentioning him to you but, anyway, here’s his email address. Best, Faye.’

I scoured this message for an hour analysing its many positives. Sorry about your news - so she was upset on my behalf and maybe wanted to get together to talk, to help me through this tough time; Don’t remember mentioning him to you - which could mean that she wanted to get together to fill me in about him before I called him. Best. Ahh, that was the big clue. No regards or sincerity, only her best, one step below Love. This merited a reply but I decided to wait. It was going to require some serious thought.

I emailed Matthew Roberts and received a fairly instant response which concerned me. It’s the same with builders. If they can start next week, they can’t be any good. I arranged to meet him the following morning at his offices in Maida Vale. Meantime, I thought a shift at the ‘office,’ for want of a better word, was in order given my imminent cleaning out by the aforementioned Mr Roberts. Telesales had lost much of its allure for me since, well since the first minute, but even more so since my brush with the glitz and glamour of the music business, but needs must. Why hadn’t Chaz or his useless solicitor friend advised me to insist on a clause providing for an advance on royalties? the useless bastards. Maybe because they knew Ben would tell me to go screw myself? I had to maintain a modicum of independence from Lisa, but I was going to be reliant on the divorce settlement to keep me financially viable given that telesales was probably my professional pinnacle, a thought so depressing, it was tempting to call Jerry and ask if I could buff his cufflinks on a full-time basis. Exciting as my Eurovision adventure was, deep down I simply didn’t believe it would lead anywhere, whatever Ben said about the song’s potential. He was a bullshitter, a serial low achiever, a small time operator who’d carved out an unspectacular niche for himself within an industry that was fast leaving him in its slipstream. He peddled minor artistes and has-beens, making a living out of back catalogues and compilations, peppered with the odd novelty hit. He had no musical vision, no master plan. He just went from day to day, snapping up bargains and grasping minor opportunities. If the song won, either Eurovision:You Decide or even the whole thing, I still wasn’t going to get the credit or recognition, so unless Ben was going to throw me some bones, my musical CV would remain stunted at the point I ducked a beer glass in a pub in Camden in 1986 and walked off stage in high dudgeon. And even Ben’s very finest bones would be little more than a few tracks on obscure albums selling in single figures. A healthy dose of realism like that can be quite refreshing sometimes. Other times, it can make you reach for the bread knife.

Matthew Roberts was the antithesis of every solicitor I’d ever met. His hair was unfashionably long, the back nudging distressingly into mullet territory. He wore jeans and trainers, an open-necked denim shirt and some sort of tribal necklace of the type people stopped wearing in 1979, unless they’re Richard Hammond. More like an out of touch A & R man than a serious purveyor of legal services. His office was a dank cell in a faded Edwardian mansion block, piled high with files and bundled papers tied with pink ribbons. His secretary, a woman in her mid-thirties with neon-cherry hair and stately cheekbones who, it transpired, was his wife, operated out of a cupboard next door. He called her his PA, but only when she was in the room.

I told Matthew everything, with much emphasis on Lisa’s infidelity with my best friend, their deception, the hurt. It was cathartic, moving Matthew to adopt a practised nodding mien, eyebrows knitted in a tight, empathetic knot at the top of his nose. He’d heard this kind of stuff before, of course, but he responded sensitively and patiently, a counsellor as much as a lawyer. He had his feet up on his desk as we spoke, but I didn’t hold that against him. It was his way and he was on my side. He walked me through the legal steps, the likely responses and the time it would probably take to settle. He also said that bitterness would inevitably flow. Au contraire. I explained that Lisa and I were amicable, that we were going to be sensible and reasonable, that the kids came first.

’Yeah, ok, but That’s all bollocks in the end,’ said the now jaunty Matthew. ‘No such thing as an amicable divorce. I know you think you’re going to do this without rancour, but somewhere down the line you’ll be arguing over who gets the Teasmaid. It always happens. But That’s what I’m here for. I’m basically a pragmatist, Mike, so I’ll try and steer you round the bull and make sure you see the bigger picture.’

’Honestly, I just want enough to get by. She’s the one with the money and she’s entitled to keep what she makes. As long as the kids…’

’Ok, stop you there. You need to get real, Mike,’ he said. ‘Guiding principle? Go for everything to get something. And by the way, who’s helped pay the mortgage all these years, who’s helped buy the kids’ clothes, who put up that set of shelves in the lounge? You.’

’Actually, it was a Polish bloke called Wotjek.’

For a guy with such a happy-go-lucky appearance, he was a shade humourless.

’You’ve made your contribution, Mike, you’re entitled to a fair reward.’

’Ok. Look, Faye says you’re good, and I trust her implicitly so...do your stuff.’

’Fees, Mike. How are we for fees? I’m not the most expensive solicitor in the world, but I’ve got to eat.’

’I’ll be ok.’

’I mean, ultimately, all the fees come out of the pot, but I’m going to need to keep ticking over.’

’Sure,’ I said, knowing full well that, at some point soon, Lisa was going to instruct a snake who would advise her to open a new bank account in her sole name and leave me to service Matthew’s fees out of my miserly telesales income. He’d dump me faster than I could say ‘Legal Aid.’

Hi Faye. Saw Matthew Roberts the other day. Seems excellent. Thanks so much for the referral. He says it’s going to be a fairly miserable ride but I don’t have to tell you about that, do I? Anyway, thanks again. Best, Mike.

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