At last! An interview for a job I could actually do. I’d spotted a small ad posted on an obscure web site and followed it up with my customary ho-hum lack of optimism, but they’d responded inside a week. A tiny IT support company in Crouch End was looking for someone just like me, though probably not me, and it had to be worth a punt. ‘Experienced’ the ad said. In the IT world, that means twenty-four. They obviously hadn’t read my CV properly and were in for a shock.
A week had passed since depositing half my innards over Don and Lisa hadn’t uttered a single word to me that wasn’t purely functional. I couldn’t blame her. In that mood, there was no point even trying to mollify her. I’d just have to let the ire subside in its own good time. I’d probably be counting liver spots by then. But maybe...maybe if I got the job, we’d have the makings of a bridge.
I donned a safe pair of M & S jeans, trainers and a nicely ironed t-shirt. The interview was with a ‘young, vibrant company’ after all, so ‘cool’ was my watchword even if ‘cool’ and I were barely on nodding terms. The night before, I’d locked myself in the bathroom with a bottle of light brown hair dye in an attempt to hide the grey flecks which had started to cluster around my temples. If I say so myself, I did a pretty decent job of colouring my hair, as well as my scalp, ears, a little patch of forehead, the floor and several wall tiles.
I had to get across to north London for nine, so gave myself plenty of time. Taking the car would have meant stewing in a fuggy metal box for two hours and parking closer to home than Crouch End, so public transport it was. I’d asked Lisa to walk the girls to the bus, her grunt signifying agreement. As I left the house, she checked me over, starting low with my too-white Dunlop Green Flash, and finishing - via my baggy-at-the-crotch jeans and green Fruit of the Loom tee shirt (six for £10) - at my blocky, mauve hair. I thought I detected a smile - pitying? mocking? - but maybe she would only give it full expression later when she returned to her new base in the study. She turned away, got on her haunches and started fussing around the girls. Over her shoulder, Millie shook her head wearily as she surveyed my failed attempt at ‘cool’. She was thinking I looked shit.
Crouch End is a bastard to get to from anywhere - even Crouch End - much less west London. It has no station at its centre and no buses arriving from anywhere useful. West to north entails an initial journey east or south, unless I’ve totally misunderstood the railway map. I’d left stupidly early but arrived with only couple of minutes to spare and was still sprinting up and down Crouch End Broadway looking for Flowerpot Mews fifteen minutes after my appointment should have started. First impressions. Didn’t anyone know where it was? Flustered and angry, I finally stumbled across an alleyway between a record shop and a bakery and scurried down it. No flowerpots, just a motley selection of buildings and garages converted to commercial use. At the end was a battered blue door with a sign bearing the exotic legend: ‘PC Repair (Crouch End) Ltd.’ I pushed a button and was buzzed in, then walked up a steep, narrow staircase covered in a threadbare carpet and piled high with old phone books and unopened post. The woodchip-covered walls either side were gouged and scuff marked. I arrived at a small landing at the top and noticed a blue door partially off its hinges. I knocked gingerly and heard a male voice beckon me inside. Wading through dead motherboards, circuits, keyboards and monitors, I entered a tiny, cluttered room at the rear. A chubby young man rose to his feet and extended a hand for me to shake. It looked clammy and yellowed from cigarette smoke.
’Yoh,’ said Marcus Dale without quite making eye contact. Marcus was a squat twenty-three year old man-boy with scratchy fuzz surrounded his cherubic face. He was prematurely receding but had formed his hair into a long, straggly wattle to disguise the fact. His Goth-logo’d black tee shirt strained to contain a belly which overhung soiled khaki shorts and workmen’s boots. I was massively over-dressed.
’Soooo,’ he said as if scanning my CV for the first time. ‘You’re over-qualified, aren’t you.’ It was a statement.
’I don’t know. Am I?’
’Well, like, basically we fix PCs for small businesses, shops, a few home users that kinda...and we also look after small networks, do a bit of anti-virus stuff, et cetera et cetera. It’s mainly getting people up and running and saving on the downtime. No rocket science. Yet. But, like, you’ve got to start somewhere, you know? We’re a young business but, you know, we’re getting a foothold, looking to build.’
’Absolutely,’ I said as though he’d just described a new rival to Apple. ‘Sounds like a happening business.’
A happening business? I heard it but surely I couldn’t have said it.
Marcus ploughed on apparently unfazed. ‘What happened at your last place, then? Says here you were working on a contract for Virgin?’ He pointed at the specific fabrication on my CV which I’d typed in bold to ram it home. ‘Sounds a bit high-flying for us.’
’No. Not really. Lots of us were pitching for it. It was pretty tough for us guys fighting it out for the big ticket contracts. I mean, I probably could’ve swung it with Richard but...I just got a bit tired of the whole rat race thing. Decided to have a little bit of (I couldn’t believe I was going to say this) me-time.’ Shit, I did. Put that man in Green Flash and he turns into a twat. ‘I mean, basically, I needed to re-charge my batteries. I’d been thinking about going back in at grass roots level and getting that buzz again, so...I’m a techie at heart. I like getting my hands dirty.’
’Right.’ Marcus mulled that load of cobblers over as he scratched at a livid spot on his forehead. He finally looked me in the eyes for a brief moment. ‘I can’t say there’s much buzz here, really. It’s just going out and fixing stuff.’
’But That’s what I mean. You know, getting someone back up and running when they’ve crashed - it’s a good feeling.’ No it wasn’t. What the hell was I talking about?
’So you weren’t fired.’
’Fired?’ I scoffed. ‘God, no way. It was just a mutual parting of the ways. I’d had enough.’ I ascribe my own meaning to ‘mutual’ which I know not everyone shares, but I was confident in my loose interpretation because I knew Pete would back me up if it came to it.
’Ok. Well, look, I need to speak to my partner Alex?’ Not a statement, this time; a question. ‘He’s over the road at the butcher’s sorting out their cash till. Trotter got stuck in the drawer. It’s not really what we do, but why not? It’s all about goodwill. But we’ve got more work than we can handle which is why…’
’…you need an extra dude to help out. Yep. Got it. Well, I’m up for it if you are.’
’Er, well, I...ok,’ he stuttered at The Dude, ‘I’ll call you?’
Crouch End is not short of coffee bars. I’d estimate that it has one for every three local residents, serving up coffee in variations undreamed of when the first bean was ground. With so many hip and cosy-looking places to choose from, I stumbled into a dingy hole called Arabica and ordered a skinny latte, hold the flavour. I was on a diet, which had got off to a flying start that night at the gallery.
I sat reading The Times for a while, feeling disinclined to go home any time soon. It was warm and fuggy in there and, with a soothing jazz CD playing over the speakers, I soon drifted off, waking fifteen minutes later with the kind of embarrassing start I saved for public places. I wiped the drool from the corner of my mouth and squinted into the sunlight beyond the window. It was then that I spotted a familiar-looking frontage across the Broadway, though couldn’t quite think why. It took a minute. Of course! It was the dingy brasserie where my musical gifts had finally found their natural habitat. And where Lisa and I had first met.
It was still a restaurant, though now called Jaques rather than Debussy’s Dilemma (it was the eighties). It hadn’t even crossed my mind until now that Crouch End, and specifically that restaurant, was where I’d spent so many middling-to-pleasant evenings. I had to go and check it out...sorry, have a look; the interview was over. Maybe I could relate this nostalgic moment to Lisa tonight and...then I pictured her flinty eyes and thought maybe not. I dodged across the Broadway and peered through the window. It was dark inside. Chairs were piled upside down on tables. I couldn’t make out the décor. In the window, a sign read: ‘Live Music Every Thursday. This week, Gunther Hrübisch sings with his synth.’ It didn’t hold obvious allure, but I suddenly felt envious of Gunther, with or without his synth. He was going to be singing in here, tonight, with a captive audience of, I dunno, maybe as many as twelve, just like I used to, and a squirt of the old performing juices shot through me. Then, through the gloom, a dark haired man of medium build entered the restaurant from a door to the rear. He noticed my nose pressed to the glass and headed towards me. I waved an apologetic hand and started to leave, but he unlocked the door and popped his head round the jamb. ‘Mr French?’
’No. I’m just...having a look.’
’Oh, sorry. I’m waiting for…’
’Mr. French. Yeah (comic pause) Il n’est pas arrivé pourtant.’
Have you ever said something so ineffably stupid, so utterly, painfully banal that you wished you could cut your own tongue off with a chainsaw, stick it on a skewer and barbecue it?
’French?…joke…bad joke.’ He was too distracted by Mr French’s imminent arrival to be properly appalled by my cretinous remark.
’Are you the owner?’
’Yeah. Kevin Ingle,’ he said extending a wet hand which he dried on his apron before shaking mine. He scanned the street either side of me. Mr French was spooking him out.
’Mike Kenton. I was just reminiscing. I used to play here about fifteen, twenty years ago. Guitar, vocals that sort of thing. Standards. A few originals.’
’Really.’ He couldn’t have sounded more disinterested.
’Yeah. Good to see you’re still doing live music here. So important to keep it real,’ Oh for fuck’s sake, stop it.
’Mmm.’ Kevin seemed a little nonplussed. ‘It’s always had a music night so I didn’t want to mess with tradition when I bought it.’
’That’s great. Excellent.’
’Yeah.’ He was desperate for Mr French to arrive now.
’I still play a bit,’ I ventured.
’Yeah? Good. That’s good.’
I was going to have to work a bit harder here. ‘Well, I dabble really. You know, kids, wife, mortgage,’ I said with the dull predictability of another ageing never-was.
There was a moment here. Should I seize it? ‘Yeah...although…I have been thinking about getting back into gigging.’
’Yeah?’ said Kevin, finally making eye contact. ‘Well good luck with that. I’ve got to, err…you know.’
Not quite the response I was after. ‘Sure. No problem. Mr French.’
’Yeah, Mr French.’
Kevin nodded, then turned to go back inside.
Come on, you oaf, say something. ‘Kevin? Mr Ingle. Er…just thinking, do you...have you…?’
He turned again. ‘Sorry?’
’Ok, this’ll sound a bit…look...you think I could, maybe, play here one night?’
’Ooh,’ inhaled Kevin like a builder about to deliver a massive estimate. ‘You’re a bit…you know…’
Old? Staid? As unhip as a very unhip person? ‘Oh, no, I mean, I can play anything. I’m pretty capable.’ Meaning what? Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Kenton will now sing to you pretty capably.
’I had a record contract once, way back, so, you know…’ This was right up there with Virgin.
’Oh yeah? Who with?’
’Small label, gone out of business now. Not because of me, I hasten to...ha ha...hasten to add...ha ha.’ Was he buying this shit?
’Tell you what. Come back tonight at, say, six, and do a little audition for me. Before it gets hectic. Can’t hurt can it?’
’Great!’ I over-enthused. ‘I’ll bring down the guitar and drum machine, do a few songs from my….’
Kevin’s eyes were now elsewhere. Mr French introduced himself. He looked pretty harmless to me. Apart from the gun. Ha. They shook hands and went inside.
’So…six then?’ I said, pretty capably, to the closing door.
By the time I’d completed the return trek to Chiswick on a succession of lethargic trains and buses, I only had a couple of hours left to rehearse my audition set. I tried to picture the restaurant, the kind of diner it attracted, get a feel for what would and wouldn’t work there. I decided to start with Easy Like Sunday Morning to show off my solid MOR credentials, then bash out Babylon a la David Gray. Assuming, after those two, Kevin didn’t eject me to finish my set for the benefit of the toothless guy selling the Big Issue on the Broadway, I was going to hazard one of my own compositions, Someone Like You, a sweet ditty with a tortured lyric, written after a teenage girlfriend dumped me for a friend of mine, though not Chaz, of course. Imagine! I didn’t just want him to take me on to sing standards. I had my artistic integrity to think about.
Things weren’t going well. Co-ordinating strumming and vocals ought to have been a cinch for someone with my aspirations - same as a chef needs to be able to turn the oven on and stick a chicken in - but there’s a world of difference between playing for fun and being performance-tight. I needed more time, but I had to collect my mother from her house in Twickenham to come and babysit the children who were under instructions to tell mummy, if she bothered to ask, that daddy had a late interview. Millie, perceptively I thought, asked why I needed my guitar for an interview, but I could handle a seven year old. I was just putting it in the car to take it to the repair shop on the way, wasn’t I? Millie smiled and shrugged. ‘Yeah, right,’ she said. I think she bought it.
I dropped my mother off outside the house, almost killing her as I sped away before she’d quite got out of the car. There goes the other hip, I thought, though, in fairness, she only limped for a couple of strides. No time to waste on that. Shepherd’s Bush was my destination, barely two miles away, but the car was screaming for a change up into second gear by the time I crawled into a car park behind the decaying shopping centre on Shepherds Bush Green, long since eclipsed by the sparkling monstrosity that is the Westfield. I found a spot inside twenty minutes and ran for the station, my guitar case clattering into a couple of traffic-mired cars, various knee joints, a small, angry dog (deliberate, that) and finally the railway turnstile which clamped shut around it forcing me to yank it free with adrenaline-fuelled desperation. All in vain, of course; I arrived on the platform just in time to wave farewell to my train as it disappeared into the tunnel. I waited seventeen minutes for the next one, a train so packed, the passengers had started to melt and homogenise. I squeezed in, my guitar case quickly becoming the focus of the many commuters into whose buttocks, hips and legs it now jutted. I changed onto another train at Oxford Circus which was solid with stinking humanity by the time we arrived at Finsbury Park. Nowhere near the door, I barged my way out, colliding with a huge, shaven-headed man who muttered, ‘Fucking arsehole’ through a half-set of teeth. Working on the theory that he was probably carrying a weapon, I jogged towards the stairs, but could feel him looming up behind me. He accelerated and crashed into my back, forcing me to touch down on the stairs. He carried on past me, spitting, ‘Look where you’re going, wanker,’ words which echoed off the tiled walls. I wasn’t going to let that pass without comment and unleashed a stream of fierce invective as soon as he was out of earshot.
I caught the boiling W7 bus which lurched like a wounded rhino all the way to Crouch End Broadway. I jumped off and started to run, sweat stinging my eyes. It was already 6.25, so reliability was now likely to be as much of an issue as my ability to sing in tune. I slowed as I neared Jaques to gather myself and wondered, for no good reason, whether Jaques was Kevin’s middle name. It seemed unlikely. Ten yards beyond, an oddly familiar figure lumbered out of a pub. We each caught the other’s eye but I was in too much of a fluster to register this shambolic man. That was until I caught sight of his bare, chill-reddened knees and bulging Goth tee-shirt and realised it was my inquisitor, Marcus, holding a tool bag, looking gormless.
’Hi…Marcus,’ I stuttered as moved towards him.
’Yoh, Mike. You still here?’
I assumed he meant Crouch End. ‘Couldn’t bear to leave. Such a happening vibe here.’ Oh God. Stop it.
We fell silent, the effort of finding another strand of conversation seemingly beyond us. Until he spotted my guitar. ‘You a singer then?’ he said, unfurling a sly, yellow smile, as though the very idea was preposterous. This was indeed a dilemma. The truth might confer cred and clinch me that job. Or he might think I had bigger fish to fry than fixing the knackered old Amstrad in the bicycle shop.
’I…yeah, I do a bit of singing.’ I went the cred route. ‘Used to be in a band, actually, did quite well, had a record contract at one time. Before you were born, probably,’ I added with instant regret. I’m not only old but I’m condescending. Here’s a tip - if you’re going to lie, at least ensure that some benefit accrues to you.
’Wow,’ he said, happily missing the nuances. But I knew what was coming. Doctors always get asked for impromptu diagnoses at dinner parties, don’t they? ‘Give us a song, then.’
’What...here, in the street?’
’But, I mean, I can’t really, I’ve got….’
’Ahh! Only kidding, mate,’ he said, giving me an insight into the sparkling world wherein lay his razor-sharp sense of humour. ‘Maybe in the office one day, yeah?’
’Er, yeah,’ I said, genuinely surprised.
’Lucky we bumped into each other actually. Saved me a phone call. Had a natter with Alex and we’d like you on board. If you’re up for it.’
What, no other applicants? ‘Oh. Yeah! Definitely,’ I said, inexplicably excited.
’Give me a bell tomorrow and we’ll talk terms and stuff. Ideally like to get you started in a couple of days ‘cos we’re swamped right now. Punters will start trying to fix their own computers if we don’t get to them in time, and you know where that could lead.’
’Boom, meltdown, man.’ Shoot me. Please.
He looked at me as if I was insane. And suddenly unemployable. ‘Er...yeah.’
’Ok, so...I’ll call you tomorrow?’ I said, holding my hand to my ear in the shape of a phone in case I wasn’t making myself clear.
We shook hands and Marcus clomped away like a new-born walrus. I stood motionless for a couple of seconds, smiling inanely, then realised that another five minutes had ebbed away. ‘Shit!’ I muttered as I ran the last few yards to Jaques. I crashed through the door in a panic. The lights were on and a slim, attractive, olive-skinned waitress was pottering about preparing tables. The restaurant was now open for business. ‘Hi,’ I said to the girl in her regulation all black outfit. ‘Is Kevin about?’
’Back there,’ she said with a dismissive nod of the head.
I approached a door with a small porthole window at the top. Kevin was inside lugging a plastic tray over to a dishwasher. A man in dirty white coveralls listlessly chopped root vegetables at a metal table. I went inside and waited for Kevin to catch my eye, but he was consumed with loading crockery into the tray. ‘Kevin?’
He carried on loading. ‘Yeah?’
’Mike? For the audition?’
’What?’ he said.
’I was here this morning. You said come along at six.’
’It’s half past.’
’Yeah, I know. Terrible journey...trains. You know. Really sorry.’
’Well I haven’t got time now,’ he said. ‘That’s why I said six.’
’Couldn’t you just give me five minutes?’
’Too busy. Sorry,’ he said unapologetically. I blamed Mr French for all this. Kevin had been perfectly pleasant before he showed up.
He finally emptied the tray and carried it across to the other side of the kitchen where he crashed it down onto a stainless steel counter. The prospect of my new, albeit mediocre job after so long in the doldrums ought to have imbued me with sufficient pride to walk away. But I’d come here to sing. So, slipping pride into a back pocket, I unpacked my guitar and hung it around my neck. I didn’t have time to fiddle about tuning up, so launched straight into Easy Like Sunday Morning. My throat, still cold and dry from the icy February air, rendered my voice pleasantly husky.
’I know it sounds funny but I just can’t stand the pain…’
Kevin and the hitherto catatonic chopper looked round. The port-holed door swung violently in and cracked my shoulder, sending me shooting forward as the waitress entered behind me. My left foot squelched into a plastic container full of animal fat and my leg threatened to get away from me. I just about hauled it back and regained my balance. A little thing like an involuntary splits manoeuvre wasn’t going to stop me.
’Girl I’m leaving you tomorrow…’
The D string was a bit out, but I was in full flow now and I had an audience listening with, I sensed, grudging admiration.
’Seems to me girl you know I’ve done all I can…’
I ploughed on, got through to the chorus, belted it out, and stopped. I’d laid myself bare and could do no more. There was pin-drop silence, genuine stupefaction painted on their faces. I waited for the applause. The waitress was the first to speak: ‘Kev, can you chuck me over that J Cloth? Table seven’s fucking filthy.’
Kevin did as he was bid. Chopper resumed his indolent chopping; he’d moved onto turnips. Kevin crossed to a battered fridge and took out a huge lump of cheese wrapped in Clingfilm. I eased my foot out of the fat, shook it a couple of times and started to pack up my guitar without bitterness. All performers find themselves playing to unappreciative audiences at some time or other. It happens. ‘Ok, well, thanks for listening,’ I said over my shoulder as I pushed through the kitchen door. I trooped through the restaurant leaving a one-footed trail of grease in my wake. The waitress, who was now scrubbing the mucky wooden surface of table seven, watched me leave, realising I’d left her another vile mess to clean up. ‘See ya,’ I said.
Out on Crouch End Broadway, the frigid wind was a shock to my system and I pulled my coat high around my neck and shoulders. I walked slowly away from Jaques towards the bus stop feeling more dejected than I’d anticipated. It was going to be a long trek home. I replayed the sorry scene in my head, but felt I’d done myself justice in pretty difficult circumstances. And stepping in the fat - I mean, come on, it was bloody hilarious. Maybe they had a comedy night. Then, behind me, a voice pierced the traffic as it thundered up and down the Broadway. I turned to see Kevin standing outside Jaques, beckoning me towards him. This was my moment to show my distaste, to demonstrate that I was the bigger man, that I didn’t need him or fucking Jaques.
I trotted towards him like a puppy chasing a stick.
’That was actually pretty good,’ he said. ‘Sorry, I was…I’ve had a shit day…’
’Don’t worry, ’I said, ‘me too.’ Not entirely true, but it seemed the appropriate thing to say.
’Look, tell you what. Next Thursday, come and do twenty minutes for me. I’ve got a headliner on but he doesn’t get here till nine so I could use a support act.’
’Seriously?’ Kevin nodded. ‘Sure. That’ll be great. That guy’s going to have a tough act to follow, though.’ Ha ha. How droll.
’What, Eric Trevillion?’ said Kevin reverentially, eyebrows arched, as though Mr Trevillion was deigning to pop in on his way home from supporting the Stones at Wembley. ‘Don’t think so.’
Nice to think that even the great Eric Trevillion was happy to
play to a crowd of fourteen in a grotty Crouch End eaterie for twenty quid and a pudding.
’Can’t pay you or anything, but I can probably rustle you up a burger or something.’
’On stage at eight thirty…prompt.’ Kevin launched a hitherto dormant smile.
’Eight thirty. Got it.’
My first week at PC Repair (Crouch End) Ltd was notable only for the fact that, on my second morning, I reconnected a wireless network at a local travel agency by plugging in the router. Someone had probably kicked the plug out on their way through to the grubby kitchenette, but I wasn’t there to point fingers. I was hailed as a genius and lauded by every member of staff as though I had saved lives, delivered babies and solved world hunger. I adhered to the core principles of the Techies’ Manual - car mechanics swear by them - by suggesting that although I had had to push all known technological boundaries into uncharted waters to effect the repair, it was all in a day’s work. Other jobs might be more glamorous (any jobs, I would contend), but this little scenario did make my lie about deriving pleasure from getting people up and running again feel a shade less deceitful. It really was quite rewarding in a sad, parochial way, and highlighted the pathetic dependency of the western world (including Crouch End) on those bloody machines and the people who service them.
I’d managed to push Marcus up way beyond his intended salary cap, so that I was now earning nearly a quarter of my previous salary. Still, it was considerably more than I’d been on for the past few weeks. And there were significant benefits on top like doughnuts on Fridays (if Marcus left any), a coffee machine which dispensed an odious but free brew and the use of the female toilet on our floor (no females in the building; they had more sense). Lisa was fairly sanguine about my professional resurrection, but at least we were talking again, if stiltedly, self-respect having been partially restored. She even re-inhabited her side of the marital bed, although the merest accidental physical contact sent her shuffling to its outer edge. I would, of course, need to ensure that she never got to within a hundred miles of the shithole where I spent most of my working day if I wanted to avoid sabotaging all my good work. Lisa had persuaded Bea to return to the fold now that I was out of the way, and she graciously reprised her role as tormentee-in-chief. Like Lisa, I started to time my re-entry to the house just as Bea was ready to leave. I didn’t want any more trouble. I even bumped into Lisa one evening as she cowered behind her favourite tree waiting for the clock to tick round to 6.59, something which prompted an unguarded spurt of laughter until Lisa stamped it out like a lit fag.
Marcus was proving to be an undemanding boss. I think he was slightly in awe of me, his inner geek - he had ‘geek’ running through him like lead through a pencil - tragically impressed by my knowledge of the workings of various prehistoric machines. He would sit, mouth agape, caster sugar glistening in his beard, as I related stories of cacophonous dot matrix printers and Atari consoles as though I was the Darwin of the personal computer. I never saw Alex. He apparently worked from his van, dealing with some of the more complex computer architecture within the N8 postal district, while Marcus and I serviced the prosaic and the mundane. I’m not convinced Alex actually existed. Perhaps he was a figment of Marcus’s comic-boy imagination, invented to give the impression that the company handled more glamorous work than the crud Marcus and I were lumbered with. I was busy but not overwhelmed and as I passed Jaques every day on my way to and from various site visits, I became increasingly consumed with my impending comeback.
On the Thursday of the gig, I awoke in a sweat at four thirty. I’d
been having that dream again, the one where I’m alone on stage at a packed venue, guitar over my shoulder, but without a single lyric in my head, much less a chord. As I try to ad lib, the crowd grow restless and start spitting and hurling bottles at me. It was ducking into one and cracking my skull on the headboard that woke me so irretrievably. I slipped on my dressing gown and shambled into the freezing spare room where I flicked on the fan heater. I sat on the sofabed and directed the hot gust between my legs, making my shins hot and itchy. My guitar sat forlornly in the corner begging for attention. I knew I ought to rehearse, but feared that doing so would only highlight my ineptitude. I’d been working on my set for days, but was still fluffing chords and forgetting the words. I could pull out, of course, citing any number of ailments, but I knew that would mean never playing to an audience again. While this may have been a relief to audiences everywhere, I couldn’t let this last chance slip. I’d never forgive myself.
I hooked the guitar around my neck, shuddering as the cold, smooth wood made contact with my bare thigh. I waited for it to warm up, then began strumming, my frigid fingertips smarting as they pressed into the cold metal strings. I sang in a mousey whisper, but punctuated and syncopated as though in full performance mode. I had ten songs in my repertoire but would probably only need six which I’d select as I went along depending upon the response - if any. I began to gain a little confidence as the songs took shape, imagining myself now on the makeshift stage with the audience glancing up at me between forkfuls of faux French food. And it felt good, inspiring, terrifying. I was determined to make myself indispensable to Kevin and maybe, in time, establish myself as the go-to music guy for every third division eaterie from Hornsey to Stroud Green. Then the floodgates would surely open; I might eventually scale the heights hitherto dominated by His Eminence Eric Trevillion himself and conquer Ally Pally and Wood Green as well. Something to aspire to, no? It wasn’t a career move - even I wasn’t that deluded - albeit twenty-five pounds a night, once a week, represented a decent Saturday night out with the kids at Pizza Hut, to include the main course salad bar. This was about doing something for myself, rediscovering that beautiful, cherished part of my life which I had allowed to die after I met Lisa.
Not that I’m blaming her, you understand.
I’d told Marcus I’d be a bit late - it wasn’t like he was keeping records - to give myself time to walk the kids to the bus, get home, have a little practise and pack up my stuff. Lisa would be long gone by then and I’d be free to leave without sneaking out, guitar case over one shoulder, a little holdall containing jeans, a fresh shirt and a few Boots Essentials over the other. I couldn’t tell her what I was up to. We were only just re-laying the marital bricks and mortar and any inkling of this middle-aged regression to the fripperies of my musical youth would only strip away the fragile patina of recovery.
I arrived at the ‘office’ - if That’s not too highfalutin’ a term for the cluttered hovel at the top of the stairs where I wiled away the hours between thrilling call-outs - and knew I’d have to assuage Marcus’s curiosity when he stopped gorging on his all day breakfast and spotted the guitar case. Fibbing was pointless, although usually my first resort. I felt reasonably secure in the notion that I’d become a key member of the company - if That’s not too highfalutin’ a term for the motley founder, his ephemeral partner and the crummy, Conference League business that was PC Repair (Crouch End) Ltd - so didn’t feel I’d jeopardise anything by inviting Marcus along to the gig. What was the worst that could happen? He’d laugh all through Three Times A Lady, have a drink and spend the next couple of days with his head buried in Danish pastries and chocolate trying not to catch my eye. But when I extended the invitation, he started making dithering excuses about a pre-existing social arrangement, so I knew he was lying. Marcus didn’t do ‘social arrangements’ and if he did, I wouldn’t want to meet his crew. Even the mention of the great man, Eric Trevillion, couldn’t sway him. What was the world coming to?
I couldn’t concentrate, of course, my head spinning with lyrics and guitar riffs. Pressure. What if I forgot a key phrase or chord progression? Or what if it was all going too perfectly? I’d only spoil it by worrying about making a catastrophic mistake and then make one, the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. And what about my inter-song patter, my hair, that old D string which might ping at any moment, the sheer folly of putting myself through this in the first place? Fortunately, concentration was not the most crucial requirement for the tasks of changing a plug fuse (the scented candle shop), wiping the dust from a monitor which had ‘gone a bit dull’ (Saxon Menswear) and replacing a sound card (the music shop, where I spent an extra forty five minutes messing about with the guitars to the obvious irritation of the lank-haired staff).
I called Lisa at two and told her I’d forgotten that it was my turn to be ‘on call’ tonight - a novel concept I’d invented, after much deliberation, on the train that morning. Did that make me sound indispensable or tragic? A grown man who, in a former life was of respectable middle management stock, required to wait around for calls from minor local businesses in case anyone stupid enough to be working after six actually needed a computer repair which couldn’t wait until morning. It was all a bit unlikely, but she didn’t seem over-concerned. She, too, was on call in her own way - a pseudo-art loving American internet billionaire had flown in unexpectedly and absolutely insisted on taking her to The Royal Opera House (his own box, naturally) followed by dinner at a restaurant which charged the same for a bottle of sparkling water as the four course special at Jaques plus wine. Lisa left it to me to call Bea to ask her if she wouldn’t mind looking after the kids, which would involve her sitting, Sphinx-like, as they commandeered the remote control and went to bed wired and much too late. Amazingly, unlike Marcus, she had no wild social arrangements lined up. Bea never went out, we were reliably informed (by Bea), as she had to study so hard. There was just no time otherwise, doubtless, she’d be out there razzle-dazzling with the other crazy nannies. It occurred to me that Bea was someone who needed a good screwing to save her from early-onset-spinsterism, but the only likely suitor would be a male version of herself. Frankly, I didn’t like where this ugly thought process was leading. Anyway, time and a half was ultimately persuasive and meant I didn’t have to drag my (always-available, rather offended-when-not-asked-actually) mother into the fray again.
Marcus heaved his lumpen frame off the premises at seven, leaving me alone for an hour or so nestled amongst the detritus of dismantled computer hardware, techie magazines and several days’ worth of his leftovers, sweet wrappers and too-late-the-damage-is-done diet drink cans piled high on the floor and every available surface. Understandably so; the wire bin beside his desk was already solid with the previous two weeks’ compacted shit. I removed my guitar from its case and ran through my song list, forgetting every third word and botching alternate chords. It augured well. In a few short minutes, I’d be standing in front of an expectant audience battling to escape this funk of incompetence and turn in a performance which might ensure their food went down their gullets rather than tossed in the direction of the hapless singer. My fingers felt clumsy, twice their normal girth. I clanged out another hopeless riff and started visualising myself on the next bus out of Crouch End, racked with regret but utterly relieved, a warm, safe option and so much better than the prospect of the twenty minutes of humiliation which lay ahead if I went through with the gig. Eight thirty was closing in on me like a thick smog now. I could only fuck this up.
I emerged onto Crouch End Broadway, my breath clouding in front of me as it spurted from my constricted lungs. The bus stop was off to my left, Jaques to my right. I stood there for five minutes, lurching occasionally in one direction or the other before returning to my position in the centre of the nightmare. It was cold, yes, but I was trembling like a drowning man in an Arctic ice pool on a particularly bitter day. ‘Come on. Make up your fucking mind.’
But I knew I had to face it. So I was terrible; so the audience hated me; so I’d never sing again. So what? Embarrassment, ignominy, humiliation? All relative concepts. Tonight’s audience would comprise only strangers and I would survive the transient hot flush of shame. They wouldn’t remember me in the morning anyway; they’d be too high on Eric Trevillion. What did I have to lose?
So, bolstered by quack psychology, I marched towards Jaques to meet my fate.