Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 8

I love Facebook. There, I’ve said it. I’m only a recent convert, but I’d recommend it to anyone. There’s nothing like finding out that the class genius ended up as a probation officer in Slough, or that the little kid you suspected of being gay is married with seven children and works in air/sea rescue. I can’t get enough of the appalling grammar, the big-upping, the profiles that hint at something mysterious like a job in Thailand with an unnamed employer. And I particularly admire those middle-aged folk foolish enough to upload current head shots. A few affect wry self-awareness with an accompanying ‘what-can-you-do-we-all-get-old?’ caption, but most of these pictorial treats are offered up by the nerds and no-marks, the ones who were always going to be gargoyles. They look exactly the same, only older and gargoylier, but secretly hope someone will comment on how much they’ve changed for the better. But it’s the ones who think they look pretty darn good now, who imagine their photos are eliciting envious coos, who really make a trawl so rewarding. Like the guy who’s hung onto his hair and now wears it swept back in a greased-up fuck-you-Jack quiff just to make you feel inadequate. Never mind that beneath the splendid pompadour resides a ruddy face bloated by the years, the once sharp features now pudgy and ill-defined. Personally, I’d like to see more girls (women?) offering up some present day photographic evidence, but they’re usually a little too coy and clever for that. So perhaps That’s why finding a current photo of Faye Lester on her profile was so surprising. I remembered Faye as down to earth, humble, someone who was virtually unaware of the mesmerising effect she had on everyone who entered her orbit, so I knew she hadn’t put it there to show off her still radiant beauty. Quite the opposite; she probably thought she needed to jog a few memories in case no-one could quite remember who she was. But I was never able to forget her, and not just because of her looks. Thoughtful, funny, bright and generous, she never fudged, never said anything that wasn’t true, never left anything hanging in the air. Maybe That’s why she made sure her profile was complete, photo and all. Faye understood that she was considered attractive - even if she didn’t quite know why - without ever abusing her gift; she had no side, no conceit. And that was the Faye I chose to believe I was looking at now, the Faye I last saw at Brunel University twenty-one years earlier.

I know I’ve mentioned this before - old people repeat themselves - but I always liked Faye. No, I mean I really liked Faye. What I actually mean is...ok, what the hell? I loved her. I wrote a song for her, didn’t I? And it wasn’t just hopeless adolescent infatuation but proper, right where it hurts in the pit of the stomach-type love. The sort of love you never quite get over, not least because it was unrequited.

Even at eighteen, she was completely together, the antithesis of the dissolute drunkards who posed as young adults on a quest for knowledge. She seemed older and more sensible than the rest of us, without forgoing her girlishness when the occasion demanded. You could have a proper chat with Faye, and a proper laugh. Of course, I mainly wanted a proper fuck with Faye - as a precursor to a serious relationship, you understand - but I wasn’t alone in that ambition. To the massive disappointment of every straight (and, I daresay, half the gay) guys at college, she settled into a relationship with an unremarkable engineering student called Ray for a couple of years, which effectively stymied every attempt I made to make her see the light. She probably knew how I felt from the start although, if she didn’t, I’m pretty sure the night when, through an alcoholic haze I said, ‘I really love you, Faye. And I want to stroke your breasts,’ she got the message. I continued to flirt clumsily with her for all I was worth, but she batted me away with affectionate, sisterly charm. We were close, but not nearly close enough for my liking. We lost touch in the third year as our respective courses diverged and I found myself in a non-exclusive, predominantly sexual relationship with a rake-thin posh girl called Rula (which, for me, remained resolutely exclusive, albeit not for the want of trying). But at a final party to celebrate our graduation, a party at which Ray was not present and Rula was non-exclusively surgically exploring some bloke’s windpipe with her tongue, I had one last go at making something happen. Uncharacteristically, Faye was drunk as opposed to her usual in-command-tipsy and, bolstered by Blue Nun courage, I extended an arm in a mock-gallant gesture and swept her onto the sticky carpet as Kool and The Gang’s Too Hotblared from an overworked ghetto-blaster. I swirled her around in something I imagined to be ballroom fashion, then reeled her in, pressing myself into her luscious body. I was immediately betrayed by an erection which took the edge off my ham-fisted little show and forced me to move off to the side, left thigh against left thigh, so she wouldn’t notice. ‘Have you got a stiffy, Mikey?’ she slurred. She’d rumbled me, but I took it as a one time only invitation to kiss her, so I did. And she kissed me back, her sweet alcohol breath and busy, moist tongue sending me to the very limits of consciousness. Pushing my luck and misreading the signals, I suggested we go somewhere quiet. Turned out it was a surrogate fuck, a pity-kiss. She stroked my hair, smiled and said, ‘Have a great life, Mike.’

And that was the last time I saw her.

So that photo of Faye on Facebook was oft-visited during my fallow period at home and even now - especially now - as I whiled away the hours holed up in the Crouch End shitter between call-outs, I frequently clicked to her page to study her pert nose, twinkly green eyes and wistful smile. My own profile bespoke my happy marriage to the wonderful Lisa, my successful career in high-end IT systems maintenance/sales and my continuing interest in music. Run that through Google Translate and you get ‘fucking bore.’ Perhaps I should have added my hobbies and interests - cinema, sport - to highlight the sorry blandness of my existence as I waited to die. Her profile told me nothing about her and I felt uncomfortable about sending a friend request. It was out of the blue, pushy, presumptuous, voyeuristic. Maybe I should send a message first. But what if she didn’t reply or, worse, didn’t remember me?

But, the day after the gig, as I sat ruminating between call-outs to fix the letter ‘J’ on the keyboard at the hairdressers over the road (Mane Attraction - hair clip stuck underneath) and replace a bit of cabling at the police station in Hornsey (PC Dildo tried to fix it himself with that special non-stick Sellotape and electrocuted himself), I decided to take the plunge. With breathless trepidation, I started typing:

Hi Faye. So what have you been up to these past twenty years!

That exclamation mark had to go. In fact the whole sentence had to go.

Hi Faye! I was just having a gander around Facebook and found your profile. The years have been good to you! You look younger if anything! Unlike me!

Ok, total shit. Total shit. Exclamation mark overload, witless, stupid. I had to do better. I needed to calm down, be a little more business-like. She wasn’t that sweet, innocent girl any more, was she? She was forty-two, a grown woman who’d lived a life, done stuff, maybe got married, had a career. I couldn’t get away with tweeness or lame, mirthless quips. If she remembered me at all, I didn’t want to reinforce her perception of me as a gauche little chancer.

Dear Faye. Last time I saw you was at a party at Brunel (I think). A lot of water under the bridge since then. It’d be nice to hear from you.

Oh for fuck’s sake. The (I think) was a dead giveaway; ’water under the bridge’ beyond prosaic. Cretin.

Dear Faye. Remember me? Hope you do. You popped into my head the other day because I was singing this song at a gig and - this’ll make you laugh - I remembered that I actually kind of wrote it for you and...

Are you out of your fucking mind?

I couldn’t believe I was about to do this but, devoid of inspiration, I decided to ask Marcus for his input. Desperate times...‘Yoh, Marcus,’ I called out. He looked up from a specialist magazine for diode fanatics, the remnants of a Flake tumbling lazily through the filaments of his fuzzy, schoolboy beard. ‘Say you hadn’t seen someone for twenty-odd years, someone you quite liked. How would you write to them without sounding tacky or desperate?’

’Twenty years? I’d probably say something like, remember that rattle you nicked out of my pram? I want the fucker back.

Marcus laughed like a bear choking on bark. ’Yeah, ok, I know you were really young twenty years ago. But imagine you were my age, ok? however appalling that might be. Come on, give it a shot.’

Marcus looked up ruminatively at the suspended ceiling which had more gaps than tiles and stroked his beard with a grubby, food-soiled hand. A painful minute passed. ’Ok. How about Hi. It’s been a while. Fancy getting together for a coffee?

Blow me if the big lump hadn’t absolutely nailed it.

’Hi Bea,’ I said as I floated in that evening, high on my almost instant reply from Faye Lester. The boy Marcus had a gift.

’Hello Mr Kenton,’ she prissed. She wasn’t wearing her glasses and her mousey hair hung loose, released from its tight bun and, for a split second, I mentally ran that age-old scene in which plain Jane shakes her head, undoes her top button and metamorphoses into a ravishing beauty. Bea didn’t actually look that bad, I thought, but I was in a buoyant mood and it was as fleeting a thought as fleeting thoughts get. I’d had no sex for weeks and it was obviously making me bonkers.

’Mike, please Bea.’

’Ok,’ she said knowing full well she would never utter the word ‘Mike’ in my presence.

’Kids ok?’

’They’re fine.’

’Good. Excellent.’

Our conversation had reached the end of its natural life. Except Bea suddenly, unbelievably, said, ‘Is that your guitar?’ as she eyed the soft case hooked around my shoulder. I don’t recall Bea ever proffering a remark unbidden. Bea merely responds, miserly with her monosyllables. Maybe she was now wearing contact lenses and her whole life was suddenly bathed in brilliant light, bestowing on the world a whole new Bea, a Bea endowed with colour and personality. I’d dumped the guitar off at the office after the gig in case Lisa was up when I came home, knowing I could bring it home with impunity the following night if I made it before seven. Except Bea had seen it. I had to believe she would revert to type and fail to volunteer the information to Lisa, unless Lisa came up with a question to which the specific answer was: Mr Kenton walked in with his guitar over his shoulder.

’Yeah. Just had it reconditioned.’ Might as well embellish the lie I’d told Millie. The guitar thing was going to come out one way or the other so no harm in seeing what it sounded like. Not bad, actually. I made my way the stairs.

’Oh,’ said Bea with an animation never previously in evidence. ‘Can you play something?’

What?! Who was this alien? No glasses, hair down, not entirely plain and apparently now inhabited by a particularly playful sprite; or maybe she’d eaten some of the kids’ processed dinner and accidentally overdosed on artificial additives. ‘Oh, I don’t really play any more. I’m selling it, actually,’ I twittered, trying to escape.

’Oh go on, Mr Kenton. Please.’

I couldn’t throw her off the scent. And it was about to get worse. Millie thundered through the hallway, a flaccid polythene tube of fluorescent blackberry yogurt hanging from her teeth. ‘Dad’s really good on the guitar, aren’t you dad?’

’No I’m not.’

’He is Bea, he’s really good. And he sings as well, don’t you dad? although his voice is a bit rubbish.’

I was desperate now. ‘Actually I’m shit.’

Millie gasped with utter delight, her hand over her mouth. ’Dad!

That’s the ‘s’ word! You always tell me not to say it.’

’You’re seven,’ I said, although I couldn’t help smiling. ‘Sorry, Bea, that was inappropriate. It just slipped out.’

Bea’s already pallid face blanched. The ‘s’ word had done the trick. Phew. She retreated into her shell and scurried away mumbling, ‘I’ve got to tidy up anyway.’

I’m sure her hair was back in its bun before she reached the kitchen.

I went into the study, placed the guitar on its stand and flopped down into the chair. I woke the slumbering computer and opened up the Hotmail account I’d set up specifically to receive the yearned-for reply from Faye. I re-read it: ’Hi! So great to hear from you!’ See that? Great to hear from me. Actually, ‘so’ great which, I think you’ll agree, is even better. But wait. There was more. ’Love to get together.’ Love to. Already using the ‘L’ word. Whoa there, Ms Lester! ’Give me a call.’ She wanted me to give her a call. Faye Lester! And she gave me her number!

Yes, I know, I was a married man and everything, but this was Faye we were talking about, so I was entitled to be excited about such a positive, frothy reply. But, bottom line, it was still just a bit of harmless, innocent fun, a sating of curiosity, a chance to catch up, so why not? Convinced? Me neither.

Bea left a minute early, spooked, no doubt, by my unforgivable cuss. By the time I heard the stopwatch-timed door slam as Lisa entered five minutes later, I was in the bath marvelling at how things had taken such a distinct turn for the better. I ran through the positives as I broiled, starting with Faye, of course, who lingered in the steam longer than was probably appropriate. Then there was the job which, if unquestionably pathetic, had at least restored some structure to my life. Not forgetting my re-nascent musical career. I was going to call it a career, even if some might define it as the tragic hobby of a delusional middle-aged buffoon.

The gig had gone well, you see. I hesitate to say that, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. I didn’t go around the audience asking for feedback exactly (it had swelled to twelve by the time I finished) but two of them came up to me afterwards and said they’d enjoyed my set. Kevin nodded appreciatively a couple of times and, as I was leaving, he asked for my number with a view to a future booking. Even El Magnifico Eric Trevillion slapped me generously on the back.

My nerves had settled as soon as I started singing, extraordinary that, given my crippling trepidation. My fingers settled on impact with the fretboard, feeling oiled, grooved; my voice emerged both solid and soulful; and my patter was chummy, larky, pitched just right for such an intimate gathering. ‘Where’s everyone else? Is there a train strike? Shall I wait?’ staples I’d developed through years of playing to single figure crowds. And as others ambled in and took their seats, I was relaxed enough to greet each of them with a gentle quip. The atmosphere was warm, unthreatening, and at the end of each song I was rewarded with a decent smattering of applause. I held their attention, as far as that was possible with waiting staff flitting between tables, orders being taken and cutlery clacking on crockery. No encore, granted, but I left the ‘stage,’ a tiny patch of floor you’d have struggled to fit Earth, Wind & Fire’s drying socks into, to as rousing a reception as twenty four hands can muster. A triumph? Not exactly, but far from the disaster I’d anticipated.

I was back, baby, I was back.

I was sweating profusely now, salt running into my eyes as I steamed the grime and stink of the foetid ‘office’ out of my pores. Lisa popped her head round the bathroom door and acknowledged me with an odd half-smile before disappearing. Was that a look on her face, one I ought to have recognised? I suffered a little longer in the scummy water, then showered off and washed my hair. Lisa was undressing in the bedroom when I entered, occasion for me to marvel at her taut musculature, silken skin, needlepoint shoulder blades and swan’s neck. I could only take in so much at a time; there was much, much more. ‘You ok?’ I ventured, wrapping my towelling robe around me.

’Yeah. Fine. Just absolutely shattered.’

’You in tonight?’

’Yeah. Thank God. Just going to chill out with a glass of wine and get an early night.’

’Right.’

’How was your day?’ At least she asked.

’Busy. Pretty busy.’ She was already glazing over. ‘Major crash to sort out at the opticians. No virus protection, idiots. It’s just a simple bit of softw…’

’I’m going to take a quick shower.’

’Sure. Ok. Enjoy.’

She made to leave but stopped at the open door. ‘Oh, Millie says you came in from work with your guitar? What’s that about?’

She can forget about her next Christmas present, little snitch. ‘Did she?’

’Yeah. Why?’

’Why did she say that or...?’

’Why did you take your guitar to work?’ Weary tone. Trouble looming.

’I didn’t take it to work.’

’All right, if you don’t want to tell me…’

We both knew Millie was scrupulously honest, while I liked a little fib now and then when it was for the greater good. Which this would have been. But I was cornered. ‘I just…ok, look. Keep calm, ok? I just got an urge to do a bit of performing again. It was just a nothing gig in a piddly little bistro. Twelve people in the audience, right? Nothing.’

Lisa closed the bedroom door, a sure sign that this was going to escalate. She assumed a defensive, arms-folded stance as she leaned against the wall. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

Was she upset because she’d have liked to have been invited to my musical rebirth, or was it because a husband tells his wife about things like that rather than fabricating stories about being on call-out? More likely it was because it confirmed my quintessential fecklessness, my predilection for folly, my fuzzy career focus.

’Look, it was just a one-off, after work, twenty minute gig in a dump. Not a bloody career move. I just fancied it, ok?’ I said, my voice swathed in self-righteous indignation. I didn’t think mentioning that the dump was, in fact, the romantic little bistro where we’d met all those years ago was going to help. ‘It didn’t interfere with my job which, incidentally, is going very well, not that you really care, you’re so wrapped up in your bloody gallery. I mean, do you give a damn that Marcus has already begun talking to me about taking some equity in the business? Huh? Do you?’ Equity? Where the fuck did I dredge that one up from? I think it hit home, though.

’Why couldn’t you just tell me?’ Wrong again. My

impending fake shareholding in PC Repairs (Crouch End) Ltd

wasn’t cutting the mustard.

’Why? Why? Because of this. Because we’d have had this pointless, stupid argument before I did the gig instead of after, so what’s the difference?’

’It’s the deceit, Mike. I don’t care that you did the gig. That’s your business. I’m your wife and yet you go off and…then you cover your tracks with some stupid story. God!’

’That’s not why you’re angry, and we both know it. But you can relax; I’m not doing any more gigs, ok?’

’I’m not saying don’t, Mike. I know you used to love performing. Why shouldn’t you if you want to? Just tell me stuff like that, ok? Don’t sneak around and leave me to find out from the kids. It’s about trust.’

’Trust, yeah, ok. Fine,’ I said, sounding like one of them, only more puerile. ‘Can we just forget it? It’s not a big deal, is it? I don’t need this, Lisa. There are more important things to worry about.’ Like unsticking the letter ‘V’ on the keyboard in the Indian across the road the next morning.

Lisa headed for the bathroom looking hurt and thinking, I’m pretty sure, that her husband had taken yet another misguided turn in the general direction of oblivion.

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