Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 20

I was lost in music. Someone ought to write a song about that. Maybe a disco number. Gilbert, who I now acknowledged to be a semi-mute genius, extracted a performance I didn’t think I had in me. I’d always sung songs as they came out, never worrying about emotion or feeling or any of that old bollocks. But Gilbert, with an esoteric array of inspired grunts and gesticulations, forced me to think about inflection and timbre, about complementing the drift and swell of the backing track with volume, tone and phrasing, about lending weight and nuance to lyrics in ways I’d never dreamed of. I was pretty proud of the final mix. It didn’t even sound like me, or perhaps how I perceived myself to sound. Gilbert had churned my voice through his magic maze of software, creating a perfectly balanced, expertly syncopated vocal performance. A camera crew fussed around me as unobtrusively as possible, filming me in action in the booth and as I chatted in the control room, drank tea, ate biscuits and went for a piss, for all I knew. We were going to give the world the real Mike Kenton, the laid back, unguarded, cool-as-you-like, unpretentious pissing charmer from nowhere, even if it took us a hundred takes to get it right.

So, yes, I was lost in music and all the attendant paraphernalia and thus able to keep the demons largely at bay. The insidious, nauseous lump in my stomach was saving itself for later when I only had silence for company. Mary buzzed around the place, mobile phone fused to her ear, my heart sinking ever lower as she bellowed out each new media commitment. An interview here, a supermarket opening there (‘there’ being Croydon, just to cheer me up). Britain was right behind its have-a-go hero and the fascination, fuelled by Mary’s remorseless PR assault, was showing no signs of abating.

Towards the end of another exhausting day, Matthew Roberts called to say that the legal formalities were in train and that he had already opened negotiations with Lisa’s solicitor, Derek Scott, a plummy nerd who fluttered around the edges of Lisa’s chinless Oxbridge coterie. He cropped up at the odd party and was pleasant enough, the kind of man I humoured but never bothered to befriend, but he didn’t strike me as someone to fear if things turned nasty. Naïve? Almost certainly. I told Matthew about the agreement Lisa and I had reached and emphasised that we wanted to remain amicable. He scoffed. I told you. Solicitors.

Jaques was absolutely teeming. Well it would be, wouldn’t it? what with the UK’s fêted Eurovision contestant headlining. Hastily prepared photocopies of a newly word processed menu sat gathering candle wax on every table, Kevin having upped his prices by about 50% on the strength of the anticipated demand. I agreed to do two shows so he could arrange a second sitting. I owed him that much and had no intention of asking for a fee. Mary said we could ‘exploit the hell’ out of my generosity, but that was never my motivation. Kevin added more tables, making an already poky room pokier, with sardine-style standing room by the bar for anyone prepared to eat and drink without using their hands. It was almost certainly illegal, but he was entitled to a bumper night.

I’d come straight from a turgid afternoon chat show on Channel 4 and arrived feeling mentally drained and emotionally cleaned out, but the enthusiastic response to my first song, the genuine warmth and goodwill, eased the tension from my muscles and adrenaline took over. I don’t recall enjoying a gig so much, and even as I rattled through my repertoire for the first time to ever more rapturous applause, I was already looking forward to the second show.

I rested up during the break in a small, stinking room above the

kitchen, which I shared with industrial sized cans of cooking oil, overflow freezers, some suspiciously green substance in Clingfilm and a batch of filthy saucepans. With only half an hour to recharge, I gobbled down a massive steak sandwich, an alpine mountain of chips and a knee-high side salad kindly supplied, gratis, by the ebullient Kevin. There’d have been leftovers if he’d served that lot up to a famished chain gang. Bloated but replete, I clambered past the pots, pans and cans strewn all over the narrow staircase and re-entered the restaurant from the rear to a ripple of anticipation. Elaine had found a tiny pocket of space to the side of the bar and pinched my bum as I passed her. I turned, smiled, then threaded my way through the micro-gaps between tables and chairs to take up my position behind the microphone. There was a palpable electricity in the room as I stepped up and introduced myself, rather formally, forgetting I was no longer Mike Who? I strummed the intro to the song to a rapturous reception which only faded halfway through the first verse. I’ve never lived to perform, but when an audience gets behind you like that, I can understand why some people breathe the love like oxygen. I was floating now, my voice mellifluous, resonant and tuneful, Gilbert’s sage insights adding new polish and professionalism. The first audience had been enthusiastic, but this lot erupted at the end of In Love We Trust, their fervour almost sucking the air from my lungs. I winked conspiratorially: Hey, come on, we’re all in this thing together, aren’t we? Thanks for your support. I love you all. I drank it in, savouring the moment, wishing I could take this feeling home with me, knowing it would be a chimera as soon as Hanger Lane enveloped me in its loveless embrace. But I wasn’t going to let that get to me. I had a set to finish and I was surfing the wave. A complicated riff got the second song under way. I launched into the vocal buoyed by a confidence I’d never felt before. I was feeling the lyrics, emoting, living the music. Until my eye alighted on a couple standing at the bar and I completely lost my thread.

Faye. And beside her, a tall, thin man with a massive Adam’s Apple, a military haircut, rimless glasses and a sensible M & S shirt, one button undone, not two. Tucked in. Louis, if I wasn’t very much mistaken. Trust me, I’m not stereotyping here; take the straightest die, straighten it, then straighten it a bit more and, hey presto, you’ve got yourself a Louis. I may have missed a couple of lyrics as I lost my way, but the audience was too pumped to notice and I somehow recovered my poise. I wasn’t going to let anything ruin this gig, not even the sight of a palpably unsuitable man with his arm around Faye. My Faye. No, not tonight, not when I was having the gig of my life.

’Gosh, an actual pop star,’ said Louis with what would, from anyone else, but not from him, have been a drizzle of sarcasm. ‘It must be great.’

’Not really,’ I said.

’Come on Michael,’ said Faye, ‘you’re having the time of your life.’

’I’m certainly having a time in my life; just don’t think it’s the one.’ I shrugged, as you would following such an asinine remark. ‘I’ve had worse.’ Like you sitting there with him slathered all over you.

’Beats working in an office, I bet,’ said Louis, poshly, straining for insight.

’Well, anything beats that,’ I said trying not to sound like I was taking the piss. It was hard. ‘But, you know, each to their own. You probably enjoy it, working in an office?’

’Hate it,’ said Louis with a stern face, which gave way to a braying laugh. ‘Only kidding. What am I saying? I bloody love it. I was made for an office. I am office. Look at me. Where else could I work? I couldn’t do what you do if you paid me.’

’And you sing like a castrated cat,’ said Faye.

Oh, Louis loved that! More equine snorts, followed by a dopey head butt into Faye’s neck. Stop it, you two, for fuck’s sake, you’re killing me.

’It takes a bit of guts to stand up there in front of all those people and bare your soul like that,’ said Faye, who had the good grace to look slightly embarrassed by the antics of the Straight Die Man.

’Not really.’

’Well I reckon it does,’ agreed lapdog Louis.

’He’s being modest,’ continued Faye. ‘I mean, you know if they like you or hate you straight away, don’t you? You can hide away in an office for ten years without anyone really bothering you.’

’S’true. I know I did,’ I said.

’Well I’m proud of you Mike,’ continued Faye, who looked at Louis and said, ‘he was such a dreamer at college. Nobody thought he’d amount to anything.’

Cheers.

’He honestly thought he could be a musician! Idiot!’ added Faye, drawing a disturbing guffaw from Louis. Yet, still she appeared to be unembarrassed.

’Well you’re doing all right now, aren’t you?’ said Louis. ’Doesn’t matter when you make it, as long as you’re young enough to enjoy it when you do (comedy pause)…and you just about are.’

Louis’s rancour-free chuckle said everything. He was a good man, a kind man, an earnest man, a man without side. What the fuck was Faye thinking? That ex-husband of hers had a lot to answer for. He’d sent her so far the other way, she was about to marry an ironing board.

Louis was back to serious mode again: ‘I think it’s absolutely fantastic, I really do, Michael. Good on you. I hope you win. I’m certainly going to be watching.’

I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. No-one could. And I could see in his eyes how much he worshipped Faye. He was never going to shit on her. I couldn’t blame her for attaching herself to this paragon.

Jaques began to empty, but not before I was back-slapped and hand-shaken into oblivion. Do surgeons or UN peacekeepers or Save The Children volunteers or nurses saving lives in Africa receive such fawning admiration for all their important work? I doubt it, but then how many of them have scaled the Olympian heights of not just composing but also singing a vapid Euro-pop song? Not many, I bet. Our glasses were empty and Louis was ready to go, but not before he toodled off to the toilet for a Jimmy Riddle. I kid you not, That’s what he said. I looked at Faye for any sign that I’d been had, maybe a smirk, a tell. When was Louis going to spring out shouting: ‘Gotcha!’

’I told you he was a nice bloke, didn’t I?’

’And you were right. Charming.’

’So, you’ll come to the wedding? It’s in August.’

’Course I will. That’d be great.’

’Bit cheeky, but would you do a couple of songs for us? I don’t know any other famous musicians I can ask.’

I smiled through a silent cry of anguish. ‘I’d be delighted.’

My mobile trilled as I lurched up the North Circular. I parked up to take the call, of course. Doesn’t everyone?

’Hi.’

’Elaine. Hi. Where did you get to after the gig? I was looking for you.’

’Sorry, couldn’t stay. Just wanted to say you were bloody great tonight.’

’Well thank you,’ I said.

Elaine paused. She had something on her mind. ‘So, I was talking to Faye.’

’Faye?’

’You know, Faye? The pretty one you can’t take your eyes off. That Faye’

Ok, now I did pull over and park up.

’My ex-boyfriend knew her ex-husband. We’re going way back,’ said Elaine.

’You…and Faye…were friends? That’s what you’re telling me?’

’Didn’t say that. We just saw each other around the place, you know, parties, the odd get-together, that sort of thing. Rob...her ex., I mean, we’re talking absolute horror. Arrogant, self-centred...ugh. Pig. I avoided getting too matey with them, you know?’

I was stunned.

’So she said you were at college together.’

’Yeah.’ It was all I could manage.

’You had a bit of a thing for her, didn’t you?’

’She tell you that?’

’No.’

Elaine waited for me to respond, but hers was a particularly potent form of female intuition obviating further embellishment.

’Mike?’

’Gotta go.’

You know how, when you were a teenager and you got dumped by a girlfriend (or boyfriend - this applies to everyone, so pay attention) and it hurt like hell but you were friendly with one of her best friends and you kept pumping the best friend for information, hoping your ex-girlfriend would confide something vaguely encouraging in her that might give you cause for hope? Just me? Well anyway, that’s kind of where I was with Elaine. She knew Faye, however distantly, and Elaine obviously knew how I felt about her, so maybe, just maybe, she could talk to Faye and see if she offered up anything which might suggest she’d made the most horrendous mistake and actually desperately wanted me to ride by on my white charger and whisk her away to a faraway forever land.

These are the kind of idiotic thoughts that churn through the tortured mind of a restless man lying on a bed of nails with the sound of juggernauts raging relentlessly past his bedroom window.

’Dad! Dad! We saw you on MTV,’ bellowed Millie down the phone.

’Did you? Was I any good?’

’No, absolute shit. But it was, like, great ‘cos we had Lauren and Mandy round and when you came on we said That’s our dad and they didn’t believe us, so I got the photo album out and showed them some pictures of all of us together in Nice that time and then they believed us and they were like, no way!’

’Really?’

’Yeah.’

’Well listen. Now I’m so important and famous, I’d really like you and Kattie to come to the Eurovision final in Paris. How about that? I’ll take you backstage and you can meet all the famous singers…’

’They’re not famous to us, though, are they? They’re all foreign?’

’Ok, but it’ll still be amazing.’

’Is Mum going?’

’I don’t know, sweetheart. Maybe. But if not, maybe grandma will bring you. Hey, you can go on the Eurostar.’

’What’s that?’

’It’s a fantastic train that goes under the Channel and goes straight to Paris.’

’A train? Boring.’

’Well...ok...but it’s very fast.’

’Is it?’

This was proving to be a tougher nut to crack than I’d anticipated. ‘So I’ll get everything arranged and we’ll all have a great time there, ok? We’ll see the Eiffel Tower…and…the...lots of other fun things.’ Little lamb wouldn’t recognise any other Parisian landmarks. And I couldn’t think of any.

’Ok,’ said Millie. ‘Maybe.’

Matthew Roberts was right. Of course he was, the smart-arsed, trainer-footed little sod. We were only in the early stages and already there were skirmishes in the foothills. Derek Scott was playing hardball on behalf of Lisa who surely knew nothing about it. He didn’t want me to have open-ended access to the children ‘or anything of the kind’. Who was that little bastard to say when I could and couldn’t see my children? And he was suggesting I pay maintenance to Lisa. I’m not joking; it was in a letter which he’d actually signed. Obviously I was more than happy to pay my share towards the kids, but Lisa didn’t need half of what would be left over after that (can you divi up zero?). Apparently Derek was under the impression that I was earning serious cash from my late-blossoming career and he felt Lisa should get her slice. Which, of course, reminded me that I hadn’t received a penny from Ben so far. The song was due for release in two days’ time and Chaz’s lawyer friend had inserted a clause providing for a £20,000 advance against future sales. I called Elaine and asked her to look into it and an hour later a cheque arrived by courier for the full amount. My God she was good. No wonder Ben worshipped her, although probably slightly less ardently after she forced him to sign that cheque.

So now I was flush.

And nowhere near happy.

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