It was ridiculous. Suddenly there was a new microphone, a fender bass and brand new cymbals. Julian was going to Vidal Sassoon. There were black roll-neck sweaters and Desmond had hired a sign-writer to paint a logo on Colin's drum kit; a reclining Buddha, one hand behind his head and one raised in a cheerful blessing. He looked like he should be in a deckchair, or on a lilo. I'd got the phrase from a book jacket and hadn't known it was a Buddhist riddle but, even if I had, I wouldn't have liked the logo. It was something for pub posters and party invites: a simplification.
As was our set. Out went "Too Much In Love" and "Without Love", "God Bless America", "Broom Street" and "Someone To Watch Over Me". I was encouraged to write quickly; to knock up a few fast ones. They didn't like my one chord song – it was a drone, they said; what was the point? – but they liked the dance track I had been doodling with and it became "You Need Someone To Talk To". It was a throwaway; a euphemistic stab at an extended chat up line. There were more throwaways: a Jackson Five song (titleless; we called it "La La La"); a fast calypso called "Dancing Cures Everything"; "My Haircut Doesn't Matter Any More", which sounded like Madness. Other new songs, ones that I'd taken time over, were cast aside. "I Don't Know What I See In You", in which I had tried to follow the graph of a Dusty Springfield song, was too slow. "One Hand Clapping" – my "theme tune"; my attempt to help define the band – was way too light, they said; it was too jazzy. They couldn't get their teeth into it.
I had agreed to come back into a democracy, and now I had to let them get on with it. The point was, Desmond said, to work the audience into a frenzy; to keep hammering and hammering at them until they surrendered.
"You want to get those tushes shaking", he said, shaking his own.
He had a huckster's instincts: give the public what they want. His fat lips slavered happily as he went twisting around the carpet. It all went with the logo; everything ended up simpler than when I'd brought it to them. There was a formula: crisp, four four drums and billowing organ chords, no matter how the song had started out. More often than not, I found myself chopping, unhappily, at my guitar.
"We're like a pub band", I said.
Ian was rubbing his hands together, trying to get them warm. He said,
"I thought that's what you wanted."
"God, no. Not a real pub band. That was meant to be a metaphor."
We were in the tube. Above us, right in front of us, there was an advert for a tropical beach, with palm trees. It had been digitally remastered: the blue of the sky was like the blue of a sky in a dream.
"But, see", he said, "that's the trouble. You can't play metaphorical pubs. You have to."
"Hammer them. I know."
We were travelling down to Collier's Wood. I was still seeing Debbie, although she wouldn't speak to me about the band. It was my fault, she said, ambiguously. Whenever Julian rang, she wordlessly handed me the phone.
"You know what Desmond says", said Ian. "This is a 'transitional phase'."
"I'm feeling the pinch as well. I hardly move my fingers, some of the time. But once we've got 'em."
"I know. I know. The second album."
"Or the third", he said, pedantically.
He blew on his hands.
"It's coming together", he said.
"We've got a sound now, don't you think? It's all of a piece. It's like a brand."
"It marks you for life, you mean?"
He waved a finger at me.
"The second album", he said.
"Or the third. Or maybe this is it; we're stuck: the only band that tries to sound like a covers band."
Up in the world, the light was dull and dispiriting. On the corner by the tiny library, an old man made a crab's claw of his hand to take his roll-up out. He was huddled up against the wind. One last, long pull – his cheeks went in like quicksand – then, decisively, he flung it away. Someone was doing squat thrusts in the gym; a mechanical-seeming set of repetitions, like the man in Leicester Square. I studied Ian again.
"So you're in for the duration now?"
He was embarrassed.
"Well, you know."
"At least for the third album."
He grinned, uncomfortably.
"If you can do it."
He had to turn left, down an alleyway. I watched him go. He seemed slightly diminished these days. He wasn't disengaged, the way he used to be. I could have done with it now. I missed his air of slight superiority. He'd slotted himself in.
Like I had. Debbie's flat was just up here, above a carpet showroom. She would kiss me on the cheek, demurely, and then cook tea. She wouldn't ask about my day. Later, there may be sex, or there may not. Frank might be there, in which case I'd have to try and make conversation. I wasn't allowed to bring up what was bothering her. It was present in all the things we said: a ghost narrative, doubling everything. What was I doing? Why hadn't I left?
Well, for one thing, Desmond was clearly making a difference. It wasn't just the money. (Or, should I say, his father's money. His father owned three pubs. We were a hobby that he was indulging.) He had tremendous energy. We were playing our second gig in just over a week, and there were posters everywhere. Desmond had employed a group of teenagers to cover London. They smothered lampposts and shop doorways and those mysterious-looking metal cupboards that you see on street corners. The poster was A4 size, with our logo in the middle. At the top, in the kind of smokey script that looked like it had drifted from the end of a joint, he had written, "What is the sound of One Hand Clapping?". It was the kind of writing that was associated with Haight Ashbury in the sixties. At the bottom was the date and time and place of our gig. He had booked an advert in Time Out that called us, incongruously, both "kick ass" and "craftsmen" and he was ringing music mags and radio stations and record companies, trying to get somebody down there. True, he was being brushed off but you could tell that he would keep on trying. He was a salesman, just like I'd said. He was crass, sure, and ill-informed, and he made terrible jokes, but he was tenacious and he didn't care what you thought of him. He bulldozed his way through secretaries and receptionists. He spoke to people like he'd known them all their lives; like he was doing them a favour. Julian was right: I could never have done it.
He was careful, too, to treat me with exaggerated respect. He called me "maestro", as did Julian. Julian was talking to me; flirting almost. Even after all this time, his attentions were flattering. I felt included again. More: I felt singled out. He could see how difficult it was for me, he said. I was being very sensible, he said, very pragmatic. He talked about the need for simplicity. It was a matter, he said, of "defining yourselves for other people". Once you'd done that then the world was your oyster, or the sky was the limit, I forget which. I tried not to notice that it was obvious, from the ripeness of the clichés, that it wasn't really Julian talking. It was Desmond, talking through him.
He was spending days at Desmond's, being groomed. He stayed over sometimes and came to rehearsals, beaming, in clothes that were, or looked, top of the range. Desmond hovered around him. He did silly things, like open doors or, once, pull out a chair for him. Julian seemed to float, which was partly the marijuana he was smoking. He was developing – and Desmond was encouraging – an air of otherworldliness. Even when he was singling you out, you felt that part of him was elsewhere. He was already starting to do that staring off into the distance thing. He looked just like a figurehead.
But he was also becoming more erratic. He was forgetting to eat, I noticed. He was spending too much time arranging, then rearranging, the pictures in the hall. His shoes, and boots and slippers and trainers, were all perfectly aligned under his bed. He took the steps three at a time – three was more powerful than two – but had to start again from the top step if he touched the white gap bordering the carpet. Going out, he locked the door, unlocked it (checking it) then locked it, slowly.
One night, we were in my room, smoking. I was on the bed and he was on the floor, staring up at my Fred Astaire poster. I could barely move – my head felt weightless, like something kept trying, and failing, to click into place – and had given up stretching over for the joint. I can't remember what was playing; something to dream along to, like Kind Of Blue or Astral Weeks. Suddenly, Julian sat upright. He hurried upwards and pointed at the poster.
I couldn't see from where I was lying, but he was insistent. I rolled slowly over. It seemed to take forever; I felt like one of those pictures of motion where your back becomes, in a kind of fission, an infinity of backs. Julian's arm was fully outstretched. It was a gesture of his mum's; a silent movie gesture.
"Look!", he said again.
There was a rip, exposing the dull cream of the walls. It looked like skin was coming through the trousers. It had taken me a moment to see what I was seeing, and, by the time I was focusing properly, Julian was already panicking. He went to the kitchen for some sellotape and tried to match the edges exactly but there was still a tiny circle around the area that he'd mended. He was breathing heavily now. I said,
"It doesn't matter, Ju. Don't worry about."
But he had disappeared. He came back with a marker pen and started to colour it in. He stepped back and peered at it.
"Fuck it", he said. "It's a different shade."
I felt like I was watching him through the wrong end of a telescope. It was like a play, or a TV show; otherwise, I would have tried to stop him. He had started to go over the legs and the jacket, trying to make it all one thing, but it got worse and worse. It was shiny, and Chaplinesque. In his haste, he went over the lines, then anxiously tried to re-establish a clean edge, so that the suit got baggier and baggier, ballooning comically outwards. The picture's hands looked stupid, now; prissy and effeminate. The colouring looked uneven, too, so that he tried to scrub harder at it but then the picture concertinaed and started to come away from the wall. He tried to slow down but he was soon working briskly away again, panting, until there was a moment like the moment just before a newspaper bursts into flames: the paper became glossier and glossier and then almost transparent and then he ripped a hole right through the middle of the shirt. He stood and stared at it, whimpering slightly.
"Ju", I said.
I waved my hands downwards, ineffectually, but he had already picked up the sellotape again and was trying to fix it. You could see the concertinaed ridge that ran from one corner to the other, like a scar. He stood back to study it. He slowly tilted his head from one side to the other then, suddenly, yanked the poster off the wall and tore it into pieces, scattering them around him. You could see a lighter-coloured rectangle now, where it had been taped up; a window that backed onto nothingness. He sat down on top of the paper and tried to light a cigarette. He had to put it down; his hands couldn't make the flame and the cigarette-end join together. I looked at him, dumbly.
In the morning it was exactly like it had been when we'd had the conversation in my room. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. Julian did what he had done before; he came wafting into the kitchen for an orange juice and acted as though nothing had happened. He had already sparked up a joint. He looked pristine, with perfect hair. It was like he had somehow shed my room – the curtained dark; the fug; the bits of paper like the aftermath of a storm – to become this languid and preposterous butterfly. I should have resented it. That week, I bought another poster, of Bob Marley, but he never alluded to it. We never smoked in the flat again. I would have, but he never suggested it. I never smoked on my own. I felt removed enough from things already.
I didn't like coke, either. I tried it once, with the rest of the band. Desmond produced it – he and Julian had already tried it – and, for a couple of minutes, we all sat staring at it. Julian had made an aficionado's "after you" gesture but now he lost patience with us, ploughing his nose along a line. He sat up, gasping, then ostentatiously fluttered a hand under his nostrils. Colin was next, then Ian. Clive and I both did it gingerly. I had one hand holding the table, as though I was scared I might be thrown half-way across the room. For a while we were all chattering excitedly. I found myself flailing wildly at my guitar, convinced that I was writing something wonderful, but then, at last, I retreated into a corner. I felt certain that they were talking about me. I could hear everything they said – I even took part in the conversation – but their contributions all seemed coded, somehow, like I was being deliberately excluded. I sat with my back to the wall and scowled down at my guitar. I refused to have any more and, in future, when they did it, I left the room.
It had been like the volume had been turned up on a feeling that nagged at me normally. These days, I always felt slightly to one side of things. Colin was terribly businesslike now. He drove the rehearsals forward ruthlessly. His drums were like a quickened heartbeat; it was the same edge-of-panic thumping that you felt when you were dancing or afraid. He was impatient with anything artful, or deliberately artless. We had to be competent, he said. He was aggressive about it, visibly keeping his temper when Clive fluffed something or when Ian couldn't resist a light-hearted trill or arabesque. Clive's eagerness had increased. It was anxiety, I realised. He was constantly out of his depth. He followed Colin in the same way that a person in the dark holds on to your coat-tails. I didn't say anything. Colin was always polite – appreciative of the way my guitar was deftly unobtrusive; of the way my songs were foursquare and upbeat these days – but we never really spoke. We circled around each other. We didn't socialise, but then I didn't socialise with any of them.
The songs were arranged by committee, or, rather, by a process of accretion in which we built things up around the drums. I hadn't organised the gig and I had little to do with the set list. Everything, right down to the transport and the clothes that we were going to wear, had been arranged by someone else. I look back now and I can't believe I let them do it. I could see it in Debbie's eyes sometimes: what was the matter with me? Well, it was Julian. What can I say? It was Julian.
Visibility was Julian's knack; his curse. He couldn't go anywhere without somebody approaching him, or staring at him. Desmond had set up an interview at the college. We sat in stackable chairs, in an anteroom that backed on to the Student Union bar. This wasn't Desmond's college – we were playing that next – but even so he had a sure sense of the layout of the place. He'd organised drinks and rolls and now he was sitting in a corner, beaming at us encouragingly, playing the manager. I was attentive, sitting upright in my seat, as were Clive and Colin. Ian had his legs crossed and had cupped his chin in his hands. He seemed distant again, as though he didn't want to look too involved now that he was back in a university. Julian, meanwhile, was sprawled half-way across two chairs. We were all, apart from Julian, in our roll-neck sweaters. Julian was wearing jeans and a startling T-shirt: it had a picture of a naked man, crouched in a foetal ball, against a black background. The interviewer leaned forward earnestly.
"So", he said. "'One Hand Clapping'. That's an unusual name."
He was addressing Julian directly. Julian smiled, and gently inclined his head. He didn't say anything. Slightly unnerved, the interviewer said,
"Do you want to talk a little bit about that?"
"We just liked it."
He spread his hands.
"It's a cool phrase. What can I tell you?"
I had been told not to say anything. It was part of our strategy, Julian had told me. I had assumed that Julian would be taking charge. The interviewer looked at Colin, a little reluctantly.
"So you're not Buddhists or anything?"
Colin smiled. He spread his hands still further. It was a gesture that looked as though it had been learned; like he had diligently practised it in front of the mirror.
"It can mean whatever you want it to mean", he said.
And so on. The interviewer asked: what were our influences? Gosh, well anything, really. We were very eclectic in our tastes, that's what made rehearsals so interesting. The songs belonged to all of us, in a sense (I loved that "in a sense"). And so on. I began to see what they were up to. Colin provided the information – or the pseudo-information; the stuff that reinforced our image as a proper band – while Julian looked mysterious and unattainable. The paradox was that, even when Julian looked barely there, you felt the need to look at him. The interviewer kept trying to get him to answer but Colin kept steering him back. Occasionally, a knowing smile – a challenge – would flitter across Julian's lips. He and Desmond knew exactly what they were up to. You could see that, by the end, the interviewer wanted to shake him, or wrestle him to the floor. Slyly, he turned to me.
"So you don't mind?", he said.
He'd gestured at the four of us.
"Well, this. This… dynamic."
He had leaned forward even further. Now he pointed at Julian.
"You do realise that he's going to get all the attention? Regardless."
"Actually, it's Simon. Everybody goes mad for Simon. Julian doesn't get a look in.”
And we all laughed. Afterwards, the interviewer lingered a little. He tried to engage Julian in conversation, and to shake his hand. Now that the tape recorder was off, Julian allowed himself to utter a few soft monosyllables and he proffered his hand like he was expecting it to be kissed. The interviewer was amused, but he was also impressed. As he was leaving, he turned at the door and said,
He nodded at Julian.
"I hope your singing lives up to it."
The next day, there was a photo shoot. It was for the college magazine; a moody, windswept shot, next to the Thames. Desmond had us all, even Julian, in black, in the roll-neck sweaters he had bought for us, and we were arranged so that Julian was a little way in front of us. The cameraman was our age, and just as serious; he had a tripod and a light meter and he kept going down on one knee, framing us with his hands. He stood and stared at us, holding his hair away from his face. He encouraged us to play up to the camera – to pretend that we were actors – and even I was starting to enjoy it. You weren't expected to grin, or smile encouragingly; you were being asked to look moody and troubled, which I could do in my sleep. We stood, the four of us, with our hands against Cleopatra's needle, like we were in West Side Story, while Julian stood in front of us and crossed his arms. The message was: us against the world. We sneered and frowned and tensed our arms and legs. We stood with shoulders touching, hands down by our sides. But we might as well have hidden behind the embankment wall. When the pictures came back, all you could see was Julian. It was in the way he stood; that feeling of entitlement he had, that all eyes should be on him. He looked lordly, an heir apparent, while we looked like we were staggering in his wake. In one picture, I had failed to take my hand away from my nose. It looked like I was thumbing it at him. But it also looked like I would whip it away as soon as he turned round. It made me look even more submissive than the other pictures had done.
The gig was that Friday, in the Student Union bar. The room was long and thin, with a wooden dance floor round the stage, like a moat. The headliners were generic. Etiolated and sensitive-looking, they could have been anyone. The singer's head appeared to be too big for his body. The songs were linear, and horizontal, everybody playing the same thing simultaneously in an attempt at a hypnotic effect. They had had a minor hit and, at first, there were the beginnings of a moshpit; people were mashed up tightly against each other and loudly baying at the band. As the gig unfolded, however, this knot of people slowly loosened. People began to wander away.
It had been the opposite with us. After a while, a crowd had gathered. People had begun to dance. I suddenly saw the sense of our arrangements; how they worked on people's bodies, making them twitch, slightly, at first then pitch from side to side then yaw and bob. More, I could see how we were there to support Julian. The arrangements had been boiled down so that when Julian started to sing, or move, it was almost a relief. "Louise May", "Dancing Cures Everything", "Julie Doesn't Mind"; they all benefited from his presence. At the end of each he leaned into the microphone and said thank you in a small, lost-sounding voice. He simpered, almost. By the end, the crowd were eating it up. Someone threw her knickers at him. Somebody else tried to clamber up onto the stage, but was dragged off. Julian stood in a lemon spot and tried to look like he was surprised, bending his head and scratching it and turning round to give us a furtive grin, and I finally understood: this was what we had all been working towards, this moment when all eyes were on him. You could see it properly now. He was going to be huge.
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.