Respite To Reboot
As he was pouring out his drink, Nero heard a tapping sound: “Listen. That got be Kevin outside. He must have smelt the booze.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. I’ll go and let him in before he wakes Lori.”
Simon opened the front door to reveal Kevin standing on the step, hugging himself against the chill autumn air: “Thanks, Sime. I’m dying for a piss. Where is it?”
“Er... second on the left.”
As Kevin hopped along the hall with his legs half crossed, Nero lifted a resigned eyebrow to Simon. “You can tell he’s on his best behaviour here, he’d normally just do it in the garden.”
Within a minute, Kevin was entering the room, still doing up his zip, accompanied by the muffled whistle of the cistern.
“A brilliant pub, that; great bunch of blokes came in after you went.”
“What you mean is they bought you drinks all night.”
“This is what I have to put up with, Sime! They bought a couple, yeah. But no, there were a load of characters in there. A couple of them are out ferreting for rabbits tomorrow; they said I could go along.“
Nero contorted his face in disbelief: “What, a confirmed townie like you going ferreting, Kev? So you’re not having your normal Sunday lie-in then?”
“Yeah, very funny. I can get up early when I want.”
Nero did his best to persuade Simon to the contrary with exaggerated gestures: “But you never want to. You’re rarely up before midday. Anyway, how did you get back; you didn’t walk all the way did you?”
“No, a bloke called Spider dropped me off at the bottom of the lane; the one I’m meeting tomorrow.”
Simon butted-in: “Kevin. Lori’s left you some chilli if you’re hungry.”
“Oh yeah. That’d be great; ta, I’m starving. The meals were too pricey there.”
“It’s in the saucepan on the stove; help yourself.”
Kevin didn’t waste any time and headed straight towards the kitchen.
Simon looked at his watch: “Now Kevin’s back I think I’ll head for bed. I forgot to mention it earlier but we’ll be having a couple of friends over for dinner tomorrow: Aubrey and Luda, from a few miles down the road; the first people we got to know properly when we first moved down here. I’m sure you’ll get on together.”
“Oh, OK. Right. I’ll be off myself in a minute.“
“Perhaps you could point Kevin to his room as he wasn’t here when you took your things up?”
“Yeah, fine. I’m sure he’ll have wolfed that down in a couple of minutes. I’ll see you tomorrow then. Oh, what time are you normally up?”
“Don’t worry. Lori will be up and out early to give her class in town, but I tend to languish in bed for a while; read the papers. Do you think it’s worth her giving Kevin a knock when she goes?”
“Yes, why not. Whether he’ll get up is another thing. Anyway, see you tomorrow then.”
“Night, Nero. Night Kevin,” Simon shouted in a whisper.
Nero sat back on the sofa, wincing at the sound of Kevin scraping the bottom of the Le Creuset casserole dish with a metal spoon.
Within minutes, Nero’s tension returned and gnawed at his neck, so he reached into his pocket for the Diazepam, swigging a tablet down with his last mouthful of beer. Looking at the bottle, he hoped the last remaining one would be enough to tide him over until he could see a doctor on Monday. Then he worried what he would do if he couldn’t get to see one. He breathed in and out slowly – planning to do ten – but got distracted after the fourth when he spotted Kevin returning from the kitchen.
“Are you done then? I’ll show you where you’re sleeping. I got your stuff from the van earlier.”
“ Ta, mate.”
Nero looked at his watch: almost 8.45am. He’d managed a proper night’s sleep at last but was still feeling a touch groggy, but his mind was clearer and less detached. On his way to the bathroom he tapped on Kevin’s door. No answer, so he carefully opened it and peeped inside. Nero was surprised to see an empty bed. The bathroom was free too. He concluded that Lori must possess amazing motivational powers if she’d persuaded him to get out of his pit before the morning was into double figures.
The house was quiet, apart from the friendly tick of the short-case clock in the hall, as Nero walked downstairs to get his breakfast. A surly black cat eyed him briefly before continuing to lick from its saucer of milk on the kitchen floor. Nero put the kettle on, cut some wholemeal bread; slotting a couple of slices in to the toaster, and searched the cupboards for some marmalade. There wasn’t any, so he chose some expensive-looking honey instead.
While he waited for the tea and toast, he sat at the table and noticed it was a dreary, dull day out there through the window. The colour and sharp shadows of yesterday’s fields and trees had washed out to a flat, grey monotone. He tried to picture Kevin clomping around in a muddy field attempting to separate a ferret from a rabbit’s neck, and couldn’t help smiling to himself.
When Simon got bored of leafing through the various articles of predicted doom in The Observer (the looming recession could be either V-shaped, U-shaped, W-shaped or L-shaped, apparently) he went down and joined Nero for breakfast.
“Been up long?”
“Only about half an hour. Looks like Kevin managed to shift his lazy ass; there’s no sign of him.”
“I was thinking, as he and Lori are out, do you fancy going in the studio and having a mess about? I saw you’d brought your guitar with you.”
“Yeah, why not.”
“Right. Hand me a piece of toast and we’ll go over.”
Nero quickly fetched his Gibson from upstairs and followed Simon outside, between the square wooden plant pots, to the door of the studio. Simon punched-in the code for the alarm and switched on the lights, then the mixing desk; an array of dim amber VU meters flicked into life.
“Here’s a lead, plug your guitar into the desk and I’ll patch-in some FX. Your L5 must be quite collectable by now.”
“Yeah, Kevin said as much yesterday. I’ve been thinking of selling it.”
“What, this debt thing?” Nero didn’t answer, but just looked down at his guitar fretboard with a resigned nod. “See you’ve still got the original pick-ups I put on – those cheapo ones I got out of an electronics catalogue.”
“Saw no point in changing them; they sound fine. But seriously, I’ve got to sell. I was wondering if you could help me sort out flogging it on Ebay.”
“Yeah, if you want, but it seems a real shame.”
Nero gave a point to the desk. “Just give me a bit of hall reverb to start with.”
While he tuned-up the Gibson semi, Simon played back a basic drum loop over the monitors: a drowsy shuffle mixed with an unfolding mathematical, sequenced synth-bass from one of his keyboards, creating a mood of neon night-time; loose, intimate and distant. “I’ve been working with this track for a while but couldn’t really get anywhere with it. It’s in G Minor.”
Over the space of ten minutes or so, Nero tweaked his tone to compliment the ambience of Simon’s shimmering sounds and openly intimate spoken-word vocal. They were unsentimental observations of the seasons and of fragmentary conversations at home; sparse evocations that hinted at thoughts being spoken out loud; a private glimpse into the cyclical nature of things and moments between events. There was great warmth to them and a sense of quiet awe at the commonplace.
The mood changed. A catchy but unusual Eastern-tinged guitar phrase emerged, opening a new dimension to the track. Simon noticed how relaxed and totally focussed Nero had become, immersed in creating one of his magic spells in minutes flat. Within half an hour they’d nailed it and eagerly listened to the playback; Nero alternately stretching and fisting the fingers of his left hand from their unaccustomed recent exercise. They both smiled at one another with surprise and satisfaction.
“God, how long has it been, Sime?”
“I don’t know – fifteen years, it’s got to be. It’s great when it just comes together like that.”
“I don’t know why you didn’t start another band or something.”
“I can’t be bothered with all the shit involved, you know; rather just do my own thing...”
“But I can’t understand why – and don’t take it the wrong way – but why do you do those dead-end jobs when you could be doing this.”
“Dunno. I just don’t want it to be work, you know?”
“Fair enough. But it just seems a waste, that’s all.”
Nero shrugged as he lost attention, to extemporize around some luxuriantly melancholic jazz chords, conjuring up Monk’s Round Midnight.
Lori was back, cooking Sunday lunch, with occasional assistance from Simon. It was almost 2pm when she heard the throaty throb of a motorbike exhaust.
“That’ll be them now. Keep an eye on the gravy, hun; I’ll just go and let them in.”
A deep red BMW R1200RT pulled to a halt as Lori stepped outside. Aubrey waved from the pillion seat as Luda switched off the ignition and lifted her crash helmet visor to reveal the suggestion of a smile. The bike squeaked as she leant it on the side stand. They both dismounted and strode towards the house in their matching grey one-piece weatherproof suits; helmets under arms.
“Hi, come on in.”
Aubrey had retrieved two bottles of red wine from the side panniers. “A couple of Rhône to go with the feast – you did say it was pheasant?”
Lori smiled her thanks. “Wonderful. Yes, it’s pheasant. I hope we aren’t depriving you of your precious cellar stock.”
“Nonsense! It exists to be drunk – much like myself.”
Most people wouldn’t immediately put Aubrey and Luda together as a couple. He was mid-sixties, shorter than her and brimming with benevolent, nervous energy. She, Russian and roughly twenty years younger, was statuesque, with long silver-grey hair framing an angular face, possessing a calm and detached authority; rather direct on first meeting.
Helmets on hat-stand, Aubrey followed his nose towards the smells of cooking while Luda chatted with Lori in the hall.
“Hello Simon. You look like a chap who knows what he’s doing; I’m so impatient in the kitchen, it all tends to get too much and things spoil.”
“Hi, Aubrey. Good ride over?”
“Yes; exhilarating as usual with Luda at the helm. Corkscrew about? I’ll pop these open and let them breathe a while.”
Lori and Luda entered the kitchen as Simon, briefly released from gravy duty, walked over to the dresser.
“I’ll get you one. Oh, I must introduce you both to Nero; remember I told you we played in a band together years ago?”
“Yes, I do recall something.”
“He’s up for the weekend with another old band-mate, Kevin – he’s off ferreting at the moment.”
“Bit of a countryman, eh?”
“Well, let’s say he’s more of a recent convert,” replied Simon, diplomatically.
Lori took a step closer. “Nero, this is Aubrey.”
“Hello, old chap.”
Nero then turned his attention to Luda.
“Hello, Nero. Please call me Luda.”
She had a confident, firm handshake.
“Hi, Luda. That’s a nice bike.”
“Thank you. It goes like the North wind; I love it – and my darling husband too of course.”
Luda pulled Aubrey towards her with a one-armed hug and a kiss on the top of his head.
“Though I tend to go like more of a warm South wind myself, especially after a curry!”
With perfect timing, Kevin turned up clutching two rabbits held to the air in triumph.
“Hiya! We got nine more of these. Spider said he’d paunched them so they’re ready to cook – well, once you’ve skinned them.”
Lori eyed them up warily. “A little late for today, but thank you Kevin.”
“Ah, the hunter returns,” commented Aubrey.
Lori introduced Kevin to the couple.
As everyone tucked into the meal, the conversation flowed easily and Nero gradually became more comfortable with Aubrey and Luda – Kevin, on the other hand, needed little settling-in time on meeting new people; he was always just himself:
“This wine’s good, mate. What’s the ABV?”
Engaged by the unaffected enquiry, Aubrey smiled benevolently before he replied. “I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I’m glad it meets with your approval.”
Kevin grasped one of the bottles and closely inspected the label: “12.5%. Not bad.”
Nero leant across the table towards Aubrey and announced, “That’s all that concerns him with wine – he’s not fussed as long as it’s above ten.”
“Well, whatever his criteria for enjoyment, that’s fine by me. The pair of you and Simon go back some way, yes?”
“Most of our lives, I suppose – though not so much recently with Simon moving away from Oxford.”
“Ah, Oxford. I recall a very agreeable August there with a girl from Somerville – long before your time of course, my love – I was still lissom and fresh-faced back then. Must have been ’64... or perhaps ’65.“
“Aubrey, darling, I have always preferred men to boys, you know that.”
Aubrey fingered his manicured grey beard and grinned adoringly at his wife. Lori decided to fill in some detail on how they got together, for Nero and Kevin’s benefit: “Aubrey met Luda while he was on a photographic assignment in Russia, back in the early nineties.”
“Yes, Luda was one of several conceptual artists at an exhibition in Moscow I’d happened upon. I have to confess that even to this day it isn’t an area of endeavour that normally attracts me; I’d especially gone to photograph the Futurist roof mosaics in the Metro, but fate had other plans –“
“Fate had nothing to do with it. Aubrey had the hots for me.
He was handsome – and so... English. I took him to my bed that very night, didn’t I, my love.”
Kevin had his “thinking” face on again and decided to quiz Luda:
“‘Conceptual’. Do you mean all that sharks cut in half and unmade beds and stuff?”
“And you forgot the pile of bricks and the light-bulb going on and off too, I think,” added Luda with undisguised sarcasm.
Simon decided to intervene when he saw that Nero was staying well out of this one: “I don’t think Kevin meant to be rude, he –“
“– is ignorant of the subject. Don’t worry, I’m use to it. You no doubt know what you like, Kevin.”
“Yeah, but couldn’t anyone do that kind of thing? I could just choose anything on this table – the corkscrew, say – and call it ‘art’.”
With a look of weary familiarity concerning this line of incisive art criticism, Luda gave a clearly well-used defence.
“Yes, you could pick anything you want and call it ‘art’; all the way back to Duchamp’s Fountain. But it’s the idea behind what the artist chooses that is significant. The concept creates the art: the work itself could take seconds, months, years – or need not physically exist. It is there to give your mind a shake, Kevin. To make you look at the world afresh, as a child does; to confront you with new perspectives.”
Luda first became known in the Art world following the demise of the USSR, when she exhibited her own faeces reconstructed from 18-carat gold – referencing Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit in a can; her own take on consumerism and the gullibility of greedy collectors. More recently, Luda – and her small band of young acolytes – had visited large European cities to rattle donation tins, asking passers-by to “Give generously, and help us find a cure for religion – together we can save mankind from superstition!” The proceeds were to go towards scientific research into studying why so many humans are fixated on apparently arbitrary belief structures that defy reason, hampering – as she believed – our evolution as a species. The £1,258.42 she raised didn’t even cover expenses, though she did get bemused TV news coverage wherever she travelled – this itself, in her eyes, advancing the cause.
Aubrey decided to diffuse the slightly earnest atmosphere brewing, though Kevin was oblivious to it, by naming Luda as his own favourite work of art.
“Thank you, darling.”
Lori, in turn, continued to steer the conversation into calmer waters by mentioning Luda’s imminent journey.
“So you’re all packed and ready to go tomorrow, Luda?”
“Yes, I can’t wait. I’m catching the ferry at Harwich tomorrow evening – though I will miss my Aubrey of course. Three weeks apart.”
“Luda is riding the bike all the way to Düsseldorf, to oversee her latest exhibition.”
Nero looked concerned: “Won’t you be cold on that bike? It’s already below zero at night.”
“It’s not what we would think of as cold in my country. It will be stimulating.”
During the apple pie and custard, the topic of conversation moved to travel. Nero recalled his own visit to Düsseldorf.
“It was about a year after you left, Sime – ’81, I think. I can’t say I really saw any of the place. We’d played Bremen the night before and I was asleep in the bus all along the autobahn. It was dark when we got there, and the middle of the night when we left; we’d got another gig at some festival in Holland the next day.”
“Yeah, Rock and roll. Definitely one for the memoirs that, mate!” bounced back Kevin, getting one in for a change.
Simon and Lori began to clear the table as Luda lingered to talk; while the others gave thanks for the meal and headed in the direction of the sitting room. Aubrey was first out, avoiding any possible requests to help with the washing-up, quietly singing to himself, “With a little bit of luck, someone else will do the work”, as he settled into the comfiest armchair.
Kevin was close behind him, beating Nero by a short head.
“You were quick off the mark there, Aubrey. I can see Kevin’s full of admiration for you.”
“Ah, now if it were the other way around, I would of course fulfil my hostly duties.”
As Simon loaded the dishwasher, Lori joined a now Marlboro-sucking Luda outside to continue a conversation about her new book. Lori had just finished her fifth Professor Dickiebow children’s story, which was a good seller – with talk of an animated TV series – and was showing her the proofs of the artwork. Luda did her best to appear interested and make the right noises – a couple of years before, she’d been grateful for Lori’s help in finding a publisher for Aubrey’s witty self-help book, How to Survive in a Sick Society. To his surprise, it had been quite a success; nudging the lower end of several Non-Fiction Best-Sellers lists for a few weeks in 2006.
Kevin had found the TV remote and broke the Sunday silence by flicking through channel after channel of repeats and rubbish: brief bursts of antiques valuations, property shows and celebrity cooking programmes – he settled for a snooker semi-final.
Simon was now making coffee. Lori and Luda joined the others and scanned the room for somewhere to sit.
“Darling, have you seen Lori’s illustrations for her new book?”
Aubrey snapped out of what was beginning to turn into a snooze as Luda handed them to him.
“No, I haven’t. Let me see.”
Kevin was too absorbed in a high break to notice, but Nero craned his neck from the sofa to have a look. Several times he turned his head from the book illustration and then back to Aubrey.
“Isn’t there a.... this Professor Dickiebow looks a bit like you.”
“He’s got it! I’m still not sure if I should be flattered or saddened at my resemblance to a two-dimensional children’s character. But how can I even think of complaining after all your help with my own little volume.”
Simon entered the room drying his hands with a tea towel, tossing it onto his left shoulder as he joined in the conversation, aiming his first remark at Nero.
“Aubrey’s referring to the book he had out a couple of years ago. I think there’s a chance it could be some use to you – after what you were telling me.”
“Oh yeah, what’s it about?”
Simon interceded. “I don’t think he’ll mind me saying, but Nero is at a sort of turning point in his life at the moment, Aubrey.”
“Well, all I was really trying to do with the book was offer up a few suggestions... alternatives: various approaches to living; not just settling for the conventional, if you know what I mean. When I was much younger – still a boy, really – I had my eyes opened by certain events; it set my life on a different course. Certainly different to the one my father had mapped out for me.“
“What, a bit of a rebel were you?” enquired Nero.
“No, not a rebel exactly; I believed his ways to be unjust and intended to follow my own moral code, though at that age I hadn’t formulated any great plan – still haven’t, I should add. It was an instinctive reaction to go my own way.”
Lori and Luda were engrossed in their own conversation again – this time furtively giggling about Lori, Iggy Pop, and a pool table in 1979 – while Kevin was still focussed on the snooker, so Nero felt a little less self-conscious in talking about his predicament.
“Simon’s right. I could do with any ideas I can get at the moment. A whole pile of things have been getting on top of me recently, kind of coming to a head; and I haven’t been well...”
Aubrey nodded sympathetically and appeared concerned at Nero’s situation.
“How long had you planned to stay with Simon and Lori?”
“Well, we hadn’t really settled on how long... a few days, a week perhaps.”
Simon nodded: “That’s right, we hadn’t really settled on anything.”
“I tell you what, Nero – now don’t feel you have to accept – but would you like to come and stay with me, while Luda is away?”
In normal circumstances, Nero’s diffident nature would have prevented him from committing himself to an impromptu stay with a stranger – it made him ill at ease and prone to bumbling verbosity – but over the last couple of hours he’d grown comfortable with Aubrey and trusted him.
“Well, I don’t know. Erm... yes, if –“
“It doesn’t really suit me being alone too much, and I’d be more than pleased to have the company; your company that is. And, to explain any questions you might have about the book – should you wish to read it of course. I don’t want to appear presumptuous.”
“No, you’re not. Yes, of course I’d like to read it. But at the same time I don’t want...“
Simon noticed Nero look awkward over potentially abandoning him and Lori: “Look, don’t feel you have to stick around with us. Of course you can carry on staying here if you prefer, but neither of us will be about much; what with work and the like. I’ve got a feeling you and Aubrey could hit it off.”
“Well, if that’s all right with you, Sime. Right, yeah, I will. Thanks, Aubrey. When would it be?“
“Anytime, old chap. How does tomorrow sound?”
“Well I’ve got something to sort out in town in the morning; I’m not sure how long it’ll take...“
“Tomorrow, Tuesday; whenever you can manage it.”
“Yeah, right. Thanks again.”
Simon smiled his approval.
We’re not all that far from here; this side of Lugmede. Is that your van outside?” enquired Aubrey.
“No, it’s Kevin’s. I’ll ask him to drive me over.”
Clearly, Kevin now had half an ear to the conversation.
“Sorry, mate. Muriel phoned me earlier on. She definitely wants me to make a start on her back garden as soon as I can – remember? I’m gonna have to make a move first thing in the morning.”
“Oh. Right,” replied Nero.
Aubrey contributed a suggestion: “We’re only about half a mile from a bus stop, if it’s any help.”
“I could drop you over there,” offered Simon.
“No, you’re all right. I’ve hardly got anything with me. I don’t mind riding there on the bus – it’ll give me more of a feel for the area.”
“If you’re sure; the offer stands though.”
“Right, that’s agreed then. I’m normally out for my walk until ten or so. There’s a bus that arrives just before eleven, then another before three, if I recall. If there’s no answer, try the back garden.”