As Cool As Gainsbourg
Nero had taken another Diazepam when he went to bed and only managed two pages of The Book before he nodded off.
Some hours later, a strong urge to pee opened his eyes and eventually forced him from the horizontal. He looked at the clock: 7:48.
It was now customary for him to feel a drug-induced grogginess each morning. The day would gradually come into focus as he struggled against the urge to roll back over and sink into his dreams once again. The room was cold and he shivered slightly as he pressed on to the bathroom.
Aubrey, having chosen to wear a dark green moleskin shirt with a plain maroon wool tie and tweed trousers that day, was already tucking into his breakfast of grilled kippers when Nero arrived in the kitchen.
“Fancy a couple of these? I could open another tin. Full of Omega 3; keeps you supple.”
Nero twisted his face with magnified revulsion. “No, not for me, thanks, Aubrey. Just toast will do.”
Aubrey had that day’s copy of The Independent laid flat on the kitchen table, reading intently. He coughed on his latest mouthful, reacting to an article.
“So the recession starts here, according to this. I have to confess there’s a devilish part of me that enjoys seeing these bankers running around in a blind panic. It’s hard to believe that so many apparently highly intelligent men – as it generally is men of course – could fall for such an obvious confidence trick.”
He was referring to the cocktail of catastrophes brought on in part by the lack of regulation in the money markets, and more notably, the collectively mistaken belief amongst economists and hubristic hedge fund managers that their elaborate equations in predicting perpetual appreciating property values would actually work. Nero was clearly not interested in getting into any kind of discussion on the subject. The thought of the financial world teetering on a precipice only added to his tension, so he chose to ignore it. Before Aubrey could elaborate further, Nero re-directed the conversation, as if swinging a lever on railway points.
“So we’re off for a walk after breakfast?”
“Yes. As soon as you’ve finished yours we’ll be on our way.”
Before the toaster popped, Nero went to retrieve Alain’s scrawled message from the bedroom table.
Autumn proper began that morning; the cut in the air reddened their faces, and Nero was grateful for the loan of Aubrey’s old Crombie overcoat for their ramble along the lanes. Aubrey had been using it for several years as an additional warm layer for use in the garden on extra-cold days, so it had become slightly soiled and threadbare. Wearing it, together with the best part of a week’s stubble, gave Nero the appearance of a rural derelict.
Wild harvests of conkers, oak apples, and an assortment of colourful berries were mashed underfoot as they hugged the right-hand verge of the lane; the occasional Land Rover or farm truck passing them every few minutes. The pair exhaled clouds of breath into the mist as they ventured through Aubrey’s backwoods bailiwick.
Like a dog on an unfamiliar path, Aubrey stopped every couple of minutes to examine a hedgerow or loiter behind a tree, locked into a cryptic routine that thankfully eschewed urination. Sometimes he would linger for only a few seconds, at other times for a minute or two, squinting through his binoculars or making hushed and deliberate steps towards the seemingly invisible focus of his attention. Nero didn’t interrupt him but instead stood quietly, hands in pockets, listening to his whispered commentary on the changing landscape and sightings of cautious wildlife.
Aubrey had considered Nero’s trainers unsuitable for the job, substituting them instead with a pair of Luda’s walking boots, which fitted perfectly. They kept his feet dry over the muddy fields, but his jeans were soaked from the knees down from repeated marching through sodden grass.
Each time Aubrey alerted Nero to a buzzard, a rabbit or a deer, it had long disappeared by the time he was looking in the right direction. And so they would continue, heads to the horizon, until the next creature flung itself into their path.
More than two hours had now passed; Nero’s legs were feeling heavy and he longed to return to the cottage for a warm drink and a nice sit down. Aubrey, however, was light-footed and enthusiastic, generally several paces in front of Nero, who was continually making short spurts to catch up. Then Aubrey turned around and pointed ahead to one of the exposed gable ends of the Hall which was just visible through a thinning copse.
“Five minutes and we’ll be there.”
“Brilliant. I’m knackered.” Nero replied through panting breaths, his pace quickening in anticipation of imminent rest.
As they crunched across the gravel of the drive, Aubrey pointed towards a sapphire blue Bentley Continental which was parked in the converted stables.
“Roger’s about, I see; tends to migrate home again once the public are off-season. Place to himself now until Easter.”
At that moment, Aubrey caught sight of his brother through the office window, waving at him and smiling as he and Nero veered towards the door. “Let’s get our boots off.”
Nero braced himself for the encounter and wondered what he should say; feeling more than a little out of his depth in meeting some kind of almost aristocrat. Aubrey greeted his brother with a friendly insult or two and then introduced him to Nero. Brother Roger leant forward and shook his hand. In contrast to Aubrey’s usual slightly flamboyant ensembles, he was dressed far more conventionally. Roger’s suit was sober and well-cut, though to Nero’s eye his pastel blue silk tie jarred somewhat with his pink gingham shirt.
“Nero. That’s an unusual name around these parts; any Italian blood?”
“No, I’m from Coventry.”
Roger gave a well honed polite snicker, with a slight tilt back to his head, narrowing his eyes slightly, imagining he was the recipient of dry Midlands wit. “Let me introduce you to Angela. I rely on her entirely – don’t I, Angela? She knows everything that’s worth knowing around here.”
Angela lifted her smartly coiffed brunette head with reserved acknowledgement as she tapped away at her computer. Probably in her mid-thirties, attractive in an understated sense, she gave the impression of being demure and unflappable. Thinking back to the night before, Nero was sorely tempted to remark that he didn’t recognise her with her clothes on. He tried his hardest to resist recalling what she looked like naked.
Aubrey broke off from his loud and spirited conversation with Roger to ask Angela if Nero could borrow the computer for a short while. “He needs to get on the internet; you know how tricky it is on mine.”
“Of course he can. I’m just about due my break now anyway.”
Angela minimized her work on the screen and invited Nero to sit as she vacated her seat.
“Hello Nero, nice to meet you. Can I leave you to it?”
“I’m not interrupting your work am I?”
“No, not at all. I’ll be back in about ten minutes. Is that enough time?”
“Thank you, Angela. Perfect “
“Help yourself to coffee.”
He caught himself watching her bottom as she left the room. Since the other day with Tonya, sexual thoughts now came bundled with guilt.
First of all, Nero logged-in to Simon’s Ebay account. As promised, he’d put Nero’s guitar, with plenty of photos, into an auction ending at eleven that evening, the Tuesday. Simon had done a bit of research and found that Gibson L5s had been selling for around four to five-thousand pounds. There had been no bids. Still, it was early days yet.
Being aware of time running out, Nero opened Google and typed in the instructions from Alain’s note: ibogabeta reboot FAQ.
A website loaded onto the screen which looked to be a university study of some kind. It explained that Tabernanthe iboga was a shrub native to a small area of West Africa which was worshipped for its visionary properties by tribes following a spiritual path known as Bwiti. The page added that for more than twenty years the alkaloid derived from the root of the iboga plant had gained controversy in the West for its use in treating opiate addicts; being effective in alleviating symptoms of withdrawal. However, there was little chance of profits for large pharmaceuticals companies due to it being a natural substance which couldn’t be patented, and that it generally needed only a single dose – so no investment opportunities. And junkies didn’t make a reliable customer base.
At this point, Nero decided to open a Word document so he could copy some of the information over to print out and read later, though at this point he couldn’t understand its relevance to his own predicament.
The FAQ page continued to describe how in addition to its use in interrupting drug addiction, iboga was also increasingly being used for its therapeutic potential in personal insight and growth. Nero began to suspect it was all appearing a bit New Age, and he started to lose interest.
Then, before the next paragraph, he scrolled onto a photograph showing the tribes people from Gabon crouched in a circle, laughing with... Alain. Nero did a double-take. But it was definitely him. He looked a little younger and scruffier, crouched there in drab, green sweaty T-shirt and shorts, but there was a caption showing his name underneath the picture. It described him as an anthropologist and psychologist “studying the healing aspects of psychoactive substances.”
Scrolling further down, he began to read how Alain had been involved with a chemist in the formulation of a refined version of iboga, provisionally known as ibogabeta, which was being aimed specifically for use in conjunction with regression psychotherapy. The blurb claimed that existing dysfunctional behaviour patterns such as depression and anxiety could often be mitigated by the combination of this new drug, together with conventional talk therapy. “With the aid of ibogabeta, patients vividly relive the point at which their fears or negative thought patterns began, and in time, undo them. Though in the process, they can also discover the emotional wounds they have inflicted on others during their life.”
“Manage to do everything you wanted?”
Nero snapped-out of his concentration on the screen. It was Angela reminding him politely that she was ready to start work again.
Back at the Lodge, while Aubrey was out burning leaves and twigs again in the garden, Nero laid-out several sheets of A4 onto the sitting-room floor and re-read what he’d skimmed through earlier on the computer. Clearly, Alain believed he should take this drug. There were benefits, but he’d also read about some of the more unpleasant aspects of the treatment some patients had experienced, like vomiting, hallucinations, and deep feelings of regret for how the subject had treated people close to them in the past. It sounded a bit scary. But most of those who had been through the course of therapy also felt as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders; that they had dealt with various personal demons which had held them back in their lives. Nero believed he could trust Alain, so decided to find out more.
One section explained who to contact for more information. The only address in England was in Oxford – at the Littlemore Hospital that he’d left so hastily just days before – with Alain being the principal contact. There was no way he was going back there; not risk being seen by Dixey or one of his mob. But there was an email address too. Nero felt peeved at not having any easy internet access, something he’d taken for granted back in his flat. It would keep until tomorrow.
Next morning, Nero’s muscles were aching. The previous afternoon Aubrey had got him chopping logs for a couple of hours. He’d forgotten to take his Diazapam, but gone out like a light when he’d got to bed. The shock of hard physical work must have distracted his worries for once.
That morning he was more alert, free of the usual grogginess that had blunted his brain for nearly a week. Looking over at the bedside clock, Nero saw it was still before 8am, and he couldn’t hear Aubrey up and about yet, so thought he’d read a bit more of The Book.
Chapter one sought to identify the symptoms concerning the “sick society” referred to in the title. As his weapon, Aubrey had chosen the rapier rather than the bludgeon in presenting his opinions. His style was that of a concerned observer of human nature. Careful too in not resorting to the it-was-better-in-my-day approach, Aubrey instead favoured an amused bafflement in the way many of us lead our lives; seeking to show rational alternatives and paths out of our frequently short-sighted and selfish modern Western lifestyles.
Though Aubrey’s thoughts had been written at least two years before the onset of the present financial meltdown, they now caught the mood of the time perfectly. Few people in 2006, during the peak of exuberance in property prices, with apparently sensible economic forecasters predicting mortgages ten times or more the salary of the buyer, would have listened to an old buffer questioning the sense of handing down enormous debt to children and grandchildren in the mad scramble to purchase a modest pile of bricks in the suburbs. Or, the cash-strapped buyer who might have considered purchasing a 25% shared equity mortgage for a cramped flat, just to get on the first rung of the property-buying ladder, renting the rest. By way of comparison, who at the time would have seen the sanity in buying only a quarter of their car, or maybe just a third of their television set? It was absurd, looked at now the scales had fallen from the nation’s collective eyes.
“Cup of tea, Nero?” Aubrey enquired in a low voice whilst giving a couple of light knocks on Nero’s bedroom door.
“Yes, come in. Thanks.”
“Ah, delving into my masterpiece I see.”
“I’m still on the first chapter. I’ve found myself nodding in agreement with a lot of it.”
“Well, if you find anything needs clarifying...” he tailed off, followed by a, “Sleep well?”
“Best night for ages, ta.“
“Excellent. Spot of breakfast and then off for the customary yomp across our little corner of Powys, yes? Do say if you’re finding all this tiresome, won’t you.”
“I’ll be honest, yeah, it is taking a bit of getting use to, but I think I’m starting to feel the benefit.”
“I thought we might pop into Lugmede today; gather a few provisions. Get some razors too, unless you’re planning on a full beard by the weekend?”
Nero rubbed his pepper and salt whiskers. “Yeah, I guess I do look a bit of a mess. Though I thought it might be a good disguise against Dixey,” he joked, though with more than a hint of seriousness.
“In case his spies are about, eh? We can take the bus part of the way – a bit far on foot even for me.”
On arrival in Lugmede, the two of them set off in different directions: Aubrey to the shops, and Nero to the library, as he was keen to get online again. The librarian handed over a small piece of paper with an access code for him to tap into his assigned PC. Nero couldn’t help but repeatedly glance at the friendly and helpful man’s unconvincing nylon wig. There was a chance it had started off in his possession the same shade of ginger as the remainder of his own wavy locks, but it was more likely that he’d greyed somewhat since, leaving a two tone effect that only emphasised its synthetic nature. He wondered if the man was aware of its implausibility, being simply unconcerned, or if he genuinely believed he was doing a credible job of convincing the public he had a luxuriant head of hair.
Nero thought back to a boy at school who was forced to wear a horrible, cheap NHS wig after he accidentally tipped a saucepan of boiling water over himself when he was an infant. Nero recalled being fascinated by the scars that covered the one side of his face, and at the same time ashamed at the way he’d joined in with the teasing comments of his schoolmates. Back then he couldn’t put himself in that boy’s position; how he must have felt.
The broadband connection was tortuously slow, and he could see his timed session of twenty minutes ticking down in the bottom right corner of the screen. Eventually he was into his Hotmail account. There was an email from Ebay waiting in his inbox. Bad news. The Gibson hadn’t met the reserve price Simon had put on of £4,500. And it was too late to start another auction. Maybe it was all the talk in the news of looming recession that had given people the jitters; deciding to keep their financial horns safely held in. The highest bid had been way short.
That was it. His best chance of paying off most of his debt to Dixey had gone. But he felt mixed emotions; the thought of losing that guitar would have been a bigger price than whatever it was worth.
Ten minutes remaining, so Nero tried his best to put the disappointment to one side and concentrate instead on gathering more information about ibogabeta. If visiting Alain in Oxford was out of the question, he wondered if he could simply get hold of some iboga and take it himself. He found a forum based in the States which had a wiki section covering many of the questions he’d raised in his own mind. There were dozens of people on there who had sent off for the powdered root itself, and pills containing active ingredients derived from it. Some had even purchased the seeds to grow at home. But on the webpage, Alain had stressed using ibogabeta rather than simply the basic iboga root bark, or ibogaine, which was aimed more particularly at drug addicts. He read that patients who used ibogabeta for its therapeutic effect were recommended to take it in a clinical setting, not by themselves. Nero still had big doubts about it all, whether it was worth getting involved at all, or if it was simply just a magnet for credulous middle-class neurotics. He decided to email Alain and ask his advice.
Before his session ran out, he emailed Kevin, asking him if he’d been removing any post that arrived at his flat. He couldn’t imagine that he’d stuck with it. Nero tried to divert his anxiety over the situation by imagining Lorcan would be too busy to keep going round to his flat and checking for mail. Even if he did owe all this money, how important was he in the great scheme of Dixey’s squalid empire?
If anything, Lugmede was even quieter than Temeton; time seemed to go at its own preordained pace. One of the shop windows was lined with orange plastic sheeting – similar to the Cellophane used to wrap old-style Lucozade bottles – to protect its already fading stock from the sun. He entered a tiny supermarket in the High Street; about the only display of brash colours amongst the muted natural reds and greens of the other shop fronts and their sun-bleached window displays. There was a friendly and unselfconscious shabbiness to the town. Nero felt nothing bad could happen here. No sense of bustle or clamour; no apparent urge to keep up with the times. In fact, the town seemed to have stepped out of time, moving to an older, wiser rhythm.
Aubrey was chatting to a cheerful, rosy-cheeked woman at the checkout – no doubt another to have displayed her charms to Aubrey’s lens at some point – as he stuffed groceries into his rucksack. Nero found a packet of razors and joined Aubrey at the till.
“Ah, there you are; all done on the computer?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Here, put some of that in my bag; save you carrying it all.”
“Thank you. Dilys, this is my guest, Nero, I was telling you about.”
Must be a bit dull for you, being so quiet here, if you’re use to the city?” she inquired, affably.
“This time last week I’d probably have agreed with you. But no, I think I’m starting to slow down enough to appreciate what it has to offer.”
A little before 3pm, the bus deposited them at the closest point it came to Aubrey’s Lodge. They walked the remaining two miles under milky sunshine and to the barely audible murmur of moist, mossy verges that seemingly teemed with tiny lapping tongues. It was milder too than the last couple of days. Nero unbuttoned his overcoat and wafted air onto his body to cool himself down. He was aware of several other areas of discomfort too, including the little toe on his right foot which had begun rubbing against the inside of his boot, causing him to limp. Both of his calf muscles felt like concrete and his lower back hurt with every step.
Going to the shops back home had never been the expedition it was here for the non-car owner; God help you if you forgot anything, with the prospect of either doing without or another long journey back to town. Everything they had just bought he could have got from literally just over the road from his Oxford flat. It was generally just convenience food though. No real choice. In Blackbird Leys, there hadn’t been much call locally for fresh bread, fruit or vegetables – ‘the devil’s food’ – on the estate. More often than not he would have reached into the chest freezer and plucked out some unnaturally coloured burgers or a microwaveable ready meal. Aubrey, on the other hand, prided himself on seldom buying processed food. He was hauling all manner of ingredients.
“How does garlic bread and French bean soup appeal for when we get back?”
“Brilliant. My little legs can’t get there quick enough.”
They’d made it back in less than an hour and were scraping their bowls clean within thirty minutes after that. Belly full, Nero began to feel a bit drowsy but it was clear Aubrey had some form of activity planned. He wondered where he got all his energy from.
“You wouldn’t be a chum and help me gather up all those leaves from the garden would you? Be done in no time if we’re both onto it.”
Nero felt like asking him why he didn’t just wait until all the leaves had fallen off the trees before gathering them up, but instead desperately searched for an excuse that wouldn’t disappoint Aubrey, what with all his recent generosity. “Oh, OK. But my back’s not too good, what with all the walking we’ve been doing.”
“No problem at all. There’s a lovely long handle on the rake. If you scoop them up and pop them in the barrow I’ll burn them. That bit of sunshine might have dried them out a little.”
Imagining a well-deserved rest once the lawn was spick and span, Nero was thwarted once again. Aubrey had pointed out that seeing as he’d provided the soup it was Nero’s turn next to cook. He tasked him with preparing a casserole. This was definitely beginning to be too much like hard work. Nero must have appeared dejected, seeing as Aubrey chose to hasten his step and grip him by the upper arm as they returned to the kitchen, attempting to reassure him.
“Nothing to it – boots off before we go in, remember – you can use the diced venison with some veggies, and I’ll show you how to make some stock.”
Several hours later and Nero was seated at the dinner table, creating a satisfying bow wave of gravy with a chunk of garlic bread circling the centre of his plate. Aubrey was on the phone to Luda. As far as he could tell from listening to his end of the conversation, everything seemed to be going well enough in Düsseldorf. Mopping up the last of the gravy, Nero caught Aubrey’s eye, and by lifting The Book with one hand and pointing towards the sitting room with the other, he gestured that he was off for a read.
Noticing the fire becoming a little low, Nero got the poker to it. Lumps of coal crackled and spat, revealing shimmering reds and flashes of rich purple flame. A real fire was compelling in its unpredictability, unlike the uniform orange glow of the gas fire at his old flat. Sinking into what had become his usual armchair, Nero realised he was actually feeling comfortable and relaxed. He was unaccustomed to this experience of late and became unsure quite how he was able to separate the turmoil of his present uncertain situation with that of the contentment that suffused his body like warm brandy. It wasn’t comparable to the numbing effect of his Diazepam; he remained alert and open to the sensations of his surroundings. Perhaps distance had something to do with it, or a calm resignation to his fate, however it would pan out. He wasn’t sure. But thinking too much was partly responsible for his recent overwrought frame of mind, so best just concentrate on The Book and see where it steered him.
The Book spoke of all those lives spent towing the line, stuck in jobs which bore us; or in jobs that stimulate us but don’t pay enough to keep our heads above water. High pay was seen as the main incentive in attracting world class commodity traders, but at the other end of the income scale the Minimum Wage should supposedly provide sufficient inducement to inspire the very best cleaners or personal carers – the most able and least able were expected to compete for the same miserable hourly rate. It struck Nero that he couldn’t recall hearing reports of bus drivers or shop assistants fleeing low paid Britain to similar positions in supposedly more generous climes, which is generally the threat that high flying City personnel express when seeking sufficient financial reward for their talents at home. There seemed an implicit suggestion that the poor and downtrodden should be grateful for any job that came their way and accept any money they were offered – unsurprisingly, this in turn often led to workers suffering feelings of low self-esteem and helplessness.
The Book remarked too on the habit of the government constantly imploring us to put money aside for private health insurance, educating our children, and to make pension provision, while also expecting us to be continually more “flexible” in wage demands; in other words, accept less. It didn’t square. How were we to cough up for ever increasing property prices and living expenses and save for our future too – it was a frustrating rhetorical question. If we weren’t doing that well in life we were encouraged to believe it was down to our poor personal work ethic or lack of ambition. It was our own fault. We shouldn’t moan too much in case we attract too much attention from our peers to our personal deficiencies. Best to just to put up and shut up.
Later on, The Book suggested that readers should ask themselves whether they were content to lead their lives in this way. If they weren’t, there were alternatives. Chances are the workaholic nose-to-the-grindstone types wouldn’t be reading this kind of thing anyway; the self-flagellation of unceasing desire for new possessions and status would keep them too preoccupied to reflect on their lot. But even if the reader was genuinely looking for a way out, then it wasn’t going to be easy, but it could be worth the effort in trying.
Circumstances looked to be pointing in the direction of change for Nero. He knew he’d been cruising in neutral for too long, allowing all his blighted hopes and accumulated resentments in life to snag his progress – like walking through goose grass.
Thursday dawned blustery. Nero was woken early by spatters of rain and urgent gusts of wind rattling his bedroom window. Opening the curtains revealed a low and leaden bank of stratus hurrying across the morning sky. He felt cosy and safe, protected from it indoors.
Another night had passed without chemical assistance to aid his sleep. Nero’s usual pattern of late starts was gradually slipping backwards; 7am no longer seemed such an unearthly hour to be up and about. Aubrey surely wouldn’t be burning anything today. That thought led him to ponder if he would still be expected to tramp the lanes in a downpour this morning. He got his answer at breakfast.
“Looks like indoor tasks for today – unless it clears.”
Nero tried not to betray his sense of relief. “What’s the plan, then?”
“Apart from a couple of letters to write and some fruit preserves to make, I’m open to suggestions. How are you getting on with The Book?”
“It’s certainly got me thinking. I’ve still got to get to the part where you
begin to make suggestions.”
“Well, I don’t make suggestions, more a weighing up of options; I’m not attempting to lead people by the nose.”
“There must be loads of people out there who are fed up with their lives. You know, feel trapped”.
“I often hear when I get talking with someone on their own after a few drinks, that they’ve found themselves living up to family expectations that haven’t been in tune with their own dreams. You know what it’s like, when we’re young, well-meaning parents can dismiss them as unreachable fantasies. It’s natural of course for them to want us to be safe and secure, but it can be so stifling. Then, before we know it, we’ve studied for that degree which will guarantee us a steady income, settled down with a sensible partner, and then find ourselves on a course of dreary decision making; everything hinging on paying the mortgage repayments, and so on. I’m sure you must have experienced it in some sense.”
“I never got as far as getting a mortgage – I didn’t get the chance.”
“Like I’ve said, Nero, it’s all too easy for us to become slaves to habit, remain with the familiar and never take chances: move to a new town, a new country, or a completely new career.”
“There’s nothing really been holding me back from upping sticks and going anywhere, really. I just never wanted to. Not the type, I suppose.”
“Yes, I’d say I’ve observed as much while you’ve been here. Wouldn’t you agree that in hunkering down in Oxford for all these years, and what led up to your experience last week, that you weren’t really suited to stagnation either?”
“I know, I know. You’re right. It was obviously a lesson I had to learn the hard way. And to be honest, it’s surprised me how little I miss the place – Oxford can be sticky; it gets a grip of you. But I can’t blame a city for what’s happened to me.”
“More honey for your toast?”
“Yeah, go on. It’s really good – from town, yesterday?”
“No, it’s my own – not, I should add, by means of any personal bodily secretion, but that it’s produced here, in the garden”, he remarked, rising to his feet with a chuckle, followed by a sudden look of distraction aimed through the window and out into the garden.
“I’ll show you the hives when the weather improves.”
Nero nodded his approval, then paused for a bite and chew, swallowing as he thought. “Seeing as my week’s up tomorrow – you know, with getting the money together – and as the Gibson didn’t sell, what do you think I should do... in your opinion?”
“Well if I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t let it concern me too much. Try and get on with your life; your new one. I know it’s easy for me to say, but it’s not going to achieve anything constantly fretting about this chap getting his hands on you.”
“What, so you reckon I should just try and find a job and somewhere to live up here?”
“Well, you could. But do you really want to do that; get in the same pattern again?”
“But I’ve got to live somehow; I haven’t got much in the way of savings left.”
“Look, if you really want to have a go at sorting yourself out, I think you need to try giving a different way of living a go – and I don’t want to sound like I’m pushing you out, you know you’re welcome to stay.”
“No, you’re all right, I didn’t think that – and thanks.”
“Only a suggestion, but if you do, there are people I know who would give you somewhere to stay and something to eat in return for helping out.”
“Usually getting stuck in with various tasks... erm, growing food –”
“What, gardening and stuff?”
“Yes, it might be on a farm of sorts; woodland work; helping look after animals; sawing logs, even – you’re already used to that. All sorts. Would it bother you at all doing that kind of thing for a while?”
“Suppose I could give it a try. Do you mean some kind of commune?”
“Probably not in the way you’re imagining; not necessarily ‘hippies’ – though I’m not sure quite why you have so much difficulty with the thought of them.”
“I haven’t really, it’s just that they can be a bit... well, you know...”
“I imagine your generation were rather anti the sixties?”
“Well no, not the original sixties thing; a lot of that was good, you know, idealistic, revolutionary stuff; especially the music – I mean, it’s why I got into it in the first place. No, it was the ones that had gone to seed in the seventies; all that laid-back ‘whoah, man’ nonsense – and the mellowness.” Nero pulled a face as if he’d found excrement on his shoe.
“I think you’re over generalizing just a touch. But as I was saying, some share religious or spiritual beliefs, others are ideologically based; they’re very varied. But yes, a number of people tend to share a house or live together in a small community.”
“I used to share a house once – well, a squat really. It was the band I told you about; years ago when I was still a kid; around eighteen or so. Simon was studying up at Reading Uni by then, but he was still performing with us; came over for weekends and that. We were playing gigs in Oxford, including the Oranges & Lemons a few times. It was this little pub up St. Clements that had loads of the original punk bands play there. It stank of piss but it was great. You’d get The Buzzcocks, The Ruts –”
“Anything but mellow by the sound of it.”
“Yeah, I mean most of them couldn’t play properly or anything; it was a right old racket most of the time, but it was alive.”
“I haven’t seen you as animated as this since you’ve been here.”
Nero gave a self-conscious smile before continuing. But it was an amazing time... but, you know, not all brilliant. Anyway, we were playing at the Oranges and also getting support slots for bigger bands when they played in the area. That’s why I ended up moving to the squat. A few of Simon’s musician mates lived there; it was a big, detached, mock-Tudor place up in Summertown. No idea how we got away with living there, no-one tried to kick us out. We each had a bedroom and had all the equipment permanently set up in a downstairs room for recording.”
“A thriving little artistic community, by all intents?”
“Kind of. This bloke, Ian Duffy – ‘Kammo’ we called him – always in Army Surplus camouflage gear – had connected up the gas and electric. Good basic drummer, but he was a bit of a dodgy character, and secretive. He’d always have his van backed right up to the garage doors; never let anyone near it. We found out later he’d got loads of knocked-off stuff in there; nicked for it in the end – right before our first proper tour. Turned out the PA was stolen and half the amps and other gear too. He’d taken money from us as well, saying he’d do us a good deal getting it all – the bastard! So we had to hire it all in for the dates – plus a van – and ended up making a loss. Typical. He went inside for six months, so we went back to using the drum machine.
Aubrey was largely unaware of the late-seventies punk scene, and what had reached his ears hadn’t agreed with him, but he patiently listened to Nero open up and tell his story.
“Then there was ‘Von’ – though he hated us calling him that. His real name was Kris Winkel. He was our bass player. We called him ‘Von’ coz he was German – well, half; his mum was English. He was Simon’s mate, as he was into to a lot of ‘out there’ cool music they’d discovered between them.”
Aubrey smiled in acknowledgement but in reality was starting to glaze over. Nero chose to curtail his fuller explanation. “I’m sorry, I’m going on a bit. Not your type of thing, I suppose?”
“Sadly, no. I’m more of a Coltrane and Lester Young man.”
Nero got up to pour another coffee, now picturing the events in his mind’s eye. He’d wanted to tell Aubrey – or anybody at that moment – how Kris had introduced them to lots of new and arcane areas of music they probably wouldn’t have ventured into: exotic Arabic rhythms and deep, minimalist dub reggae by the likes of King Tubby and Prince Far I. Later on, around ’78, Kris had turned them on to Chic’s disco-funk, encouraging Nero to integrate the infectious, chattering guitar of Nile Rogers on Le Freak with Berlin Bowie art-rock. The result was a more accessible, radio-friendly sound that girls as well as ardent and overcoated lads could get into.
Gordon and Betty had been pestering him over not staying on at school to get his exams, or getting a proper job since he’d left. They’d banned Kevin from visiting the house, seeing him as a work-shy and distracting influence, so the pair of them fled their collective nagging relatives for the squat.
Sparing Aubrey any more musical details, Nero went on to explain how by this point he and Laura had been in a relationship for over three years; three years of furtive intimacy while the parents were away, or at friends’ flats, or even out in the open again. At this stage, with Nero having his own place, they still couldn’t live together properly. Laura had been away sharing university digs in London, and like Simon, only managed to visit the house at weekends and holidays. This had made it doubly awkward for Nero, as at just the times he was able to do some proper rehearsing with Simon and the rest of the band, to work on new material; it was also a frustratingly fleeting chance to spend time with Laura. She’d put up with a good deal of aggro from her mum and dad over sticking with him; as always, Nero had been labelled a useless deadbeat. But it had just made her more determined for them to be together, even if it was just for snatched days here and there.
Inevitably with a group of young guys given free reign in a house of their own, there was good deal of booze, drugs and female company. Several nights a week there would be something going on: parties, rock discos, or blaring, Blast Manifesto living-room mini-gigs for the benefit of house mates and their various hangers-on. Musicians from other Oxford bands would often turn up and jam. Frequently, the mornings following such revelry would result in pleading notes for quiet pushed through the letterbox from despairing neighbours – they must have appeared too intimidating to the genteel local inhabitants to tackle in person.
Kris generally possessed a willing harem of around three or four girlfriends at any one time, which mystified Nero as he was quite a short bloke who wasn’t conventionally good looking. Kris was laconic, self-assured and as cool as Gainsbourg. He always maintained his uniform of black: shortish back-combed hair, tight-fitting zip-up leather jacket, skinny denim jeans and Doc Marten boots.
The girls who clustered around Kris were generally tall – taller than him – slender, and the type other lads would chase and ultimately fail to chat-up. He generally met them at the record shop where he worked in town; and with a seemingly effortless technique, enticed them back to the house. The other guys had girls too who came and went – except Kammo, who everyone else in the house presumed had to pay for it. He was a pigeon-chested, weasel of a youth with zero charisma and the frustrated leer of an unsuccessful rapist. Nobody could recall who’d originally invited him to stay; he’d just turned up one day.
One evening, Kris suggested everyone gather together in the sitting room, switch the lights off, and play Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra album in total darkness. The room filled with spookily instrumental washes of unearthly, shimmering Moog synthesizer, haunting flutes and ominous, pulsating Mellotron. It was a test of everyone else’s patience to sit and listen until the final microphonic judder from the run-out groove. But it was merely minutes before Kevin could resist the temptation to try and scare the girls with ghost impressions.
Aloof from it all sat Kris, cast under a spell.
By ones and twos the room emptied, including “the cool one’s” latest squeeze: curvy, bubble-haired Cheryl. She’d tried getting amorous with Kris on the sofa, in the Stygian gloom, but he was too absorbed in the spectral sounds. The other guys in the house would never have passed up on even a quarter of a chance of getting laid with her, but right then for Kris, sex wasn’t on the agenda.
At this point in his re-telling of the evening’s events, Nero’s mood began to darken and the spaces between his words lengthened as he recalled a peeved-looking Cheryl flouncing out into the hall as he’d emerged from the kitchen, chomping into a fried egg sandwich. She’d played with him, flirting and grumbling about Kris, saying she was bored, and demanding a bite herself. Cheryl had grabbed the remains of Nero’s sandwich and finished it, wiping a small blob of yolk from the corner of her mouth with a mannered, coquettish fingertip and a circling lick around her lips.
“I tell you, Aubrey, the times I’ve gone over what happened next – you can guess what – and wished I could go back and tell myself what a pillock I was being.”
“I’m not without sin myself in these matters.”
“I mean, the one time I weaken ... I hadn’t even thought about other girls. Laura was the one for me. I loved her, I really loved her. There was no excuse; I know it was handed to me on a plate, but I just can’t believe I was stupid enough to give it all up like that.”
“So Laura found out at some point?”
“She walked in on us later that evening; we were asleep in bed – our bed. I woke up to see Laura standing above me, in tears. That bitch Cheryl just laughed when she worked out who she was. She told Laura she could have me back, that I wasn’t that good at it anyway. She stormed out, slamming the doors. I tried chasing after her, apologising, but how could I defend myself? I just kept bleating about how sorry I was. Turns out Laura had planned on giving me a pleasant surprise; she’d managed to get over a day early from uni. Her tutor was off with the flu so she was able to get away.
That was it, I never saw her again. It was all over. I let the right girl go; the only girl for me. Such a fucking idiot! Kept going round to her house, trying to catch her in, but she never was – or they weren’t answering. I bet her parents loved all of it; the waste of space was finally out of their daughter’s life. Well they were right, weren’t they, that’s what I was...”
“A wretched business. I’ve been caught in a similar fashion more than once, but I confess I was never as close to the women I deceived as you obviously were with your Laura; more of a game, really – for them and me. It wasn’t fashionable to be too possessive back then, though jealousy invariably raised its head. No proper love of my life until Luda. My feelings go out to you. It must have been the real thing if it’s affecting you this long afterwards.”
“There’s been no-one like her since. Not even close.”
“I think I now begin to see how the negativity crept into your life.”
“You’re right. I didn’t know what had hit me. I’d been a full-of-beans kind of kid till then: open, up for doing new things, yeah – before I lost Laura. But afterwards...”
“The rot of depression set in?”
“Yeah, I lost my self-confidence. I mean, those couple of years after Laura, the band was at its peak, such as it was; I should have been in hog heaven. But it was the opposite. I was withdrawn. You have to be pretty thick-skinned to take the pace of that life, and I wasn’t. I hated it out on the road, night after night – all those people – playing the same set, and trying to come down afterwards. I was never into the drugs thing, but I laid into the bottle for a while – ‘Comfortably Numb’, as the song goes...”
“Right. Time to lift you from this slough of despond. It’s starting to look brighter out there, and the rain’s stopped. Have you ever used a shotgun?”
“Well, there’s a field on the estate where Roger takes his friends for a spot of clay shooting. Fancy having a go?”
Snapping himself out of the past, Nero raised himself from the slumped and staring position he’d sunken into at the kitchen table, straightened his back, and tried his best to appear alert and positive. “Yeah. Sounds good. I’ll probably be hopeless, though.”
Contrary to his pessimism, Nero got the hang of the twin-bore once he’d got used to overcoming the worst of the recoil; placing the gun firmly up against his shoulder before pulling the trigger. He missed all the clays until he got the knack of following each one through the air, in front of the clay, and not stopping abruptly the moment he fired. It seemed to do the trick. Aubrey noticed how enthusiastic and determined he’d become in obliterating as many of the projectiles as possible, whooping with satisfaction at every hit.
At lunchtime, they returned the still warm weapons to the house, and Aubrey sought out his brother to thank him, and to point out he would need to stock up on some more clays. On finding Roger, he noticed he looked fraught. Seeing Nero hovering in the doorway nearby, Roger placed his arm round Aubrey’s waist and guided him towards his study, asking him if he could have a private word.
While they were holed-up in there, Nero looked down the corridor towards the office and noticed Angela putting on her coat.
“Hi, Angela. Lunchtime?”
“Hello, Nero. Yes, I thought I’d take it while Roger is seeing Aubrey. Do you need to use the computer again?”
She appeared serious and preoccupied, but Nero decided not to enquire why. “Actually, yes, it would be useful. Thanks.”
“Feel free to print anything out.” She brushed past him breezily, and he sensed she wasn’t in the mood to chat.
Nero saw an email from Kevin. He’d only been to the flat once to check for any mail. No surprise there.
Alain had replied too, relieved that Nero had followed up his advice and was looking into ibogabeta. He understood Nero’s reservations over using the drug and tried to reassure him by suggesting he visit an ex-patient of Alain’s, Malcolm Flannery, who was now following his therapeutic techniques and offering a low cost alternative to people who couldn’t afford the expensive course of counselling from private psychiatric practitioners. NHS doctors, in the face of so many apparent successful outcomes, still chose to ignore ibogabeta as there had been no peer-reviewed evidence that it was either safe or effective as a legitimate treatment. Alain wrote that Flannery would be happy to take a voluntary donation for his work if money was a problem. Nero emailed back with a tentative ‘yes’.
Aubrey had become uncharacteristically taciturn on their walk back over to the Lodge. Nero asked it he’d got something on his mind.
“Roger’s got himself into a bit of a pickle. I can’t really say much, but his financial situation is far from what it was – this banks business.”
“Really? You kind of imagine people like him being immune to it. No offence, but it’s as if families like yours have got money in their DNA, you’ve had it so long; what with the Hall and everything.”
“There’s something to what you say. I’ve been used to living on rations for years, in a sense, but Roger would find it terribly hard readjusting his lifestyle to resemble anything like penury – though I seriously doubt he would find himself in that position.”
“Sorry if I’m being nosey...”
“No, don’t worry, old chap. Go ahead.”
“So, I was sort of right, then, saying he’s immune to it?”
“Indeed, while he’ll doubtless emerge with a bloodied nose, he has some very useful friends who’ll ease the pain somewhat.”
“Not give him cash?”
“No, they would ‘facilitate assistance’. These matters are taken care of very discreetly. Quid pro quo maintaining the status quo, as it were.”
Aubrey took his usual walk while Nero stayed in and continued to read The Book. His mind wasn’t totally concentrated on the text. Thoughts meandered around his head of the various possibilities of what he might do next. He was itching to see if the ibogabeta therapy would work, and daydreamed of the new life it might provide. Whatever it would turn out to be, he would seek it out miles away from the burden of bad fortune that was threatening to drag him down.
Nero recognised the value in the time he was spending with Aubrey, and that his advice was helping him to drill down into important areas of his past, but there was now an overriding impulse from within to extract himself from the much less rewarding hole he’d dug; to use what he’d learned so far and move forward. Nero resolved to inform Aubrey over dinner that evening that he would be leaving the next day.
Friday morning was crisp and sunny. Aubrey had been disappointed that his visitor couldn’t stay longer, but understood Nero’s reasoning. They shook hands on the road in front of the Lodge as the bus came into view. Aubrey presented Nero with a newly signed copy of How to Survive in a Sick Society, and asked for an assurance from his imminently departing guest that he would read it all, and be sure to get in touch should he have more questions – or simply desire someone to talk to.
“Try to persevere, old chap. You’ll get there.”
“Wherever ‘there’ turns out to be. And thanks for inviting a comparative stranger like me into your home, Aubrey, and for the advice.”
Nero raised his right arm to the approaching bus and started to walk towards it, while turning and waving to Aubrey.
“All that’s best for you,” he shouted back, as Nero climbed aboard.