I Want You Back
It happened soon after that.
The second gig, the one in Desmond's college, had been arranged for January. We were at the bottom of the bill, but I didn't mind; I felt that things were beginning to happen for us. We had just got our first review, a single paragraph in the New Musical Express that called us "sprightly" and Julian "ethereal". The next day, we went into the studio. Desmond had decided that "Julie Doesn't Mind" should be the first single and it took us a full day to record it. We were intimidated. The space we were in was both cramped and impersonal and there were wires everywhere, far worse than when you were on stage. We were too busy concentrating on not bumping into each other, on squeezing our arms up by our sides and standing in one place, to play the way we knew we could. Desmond sat behind a glass panel. He was with the producer, a friend of a friend in dreads and a tour jacket, like a baseball jacket, who had once worked with The Motors. They kept leaning into the mixing desk and suddenly surfacing, slapping at their nostrils with two fingers.
It was exciting but it soon became something that you did by rote. I had wanted to take a look at the mixing desk but instead I found myself fluffing my part continually. Clive could barely play; his sweaty fingers kept sliding over the strings. Only Colin was perfect. He became politer and politer, stiffly encouraging us while slowly rubbing his forehead and his eyes. Even now, on the tape that I kept of the session, you can hear me catch a note incorrectly, right at the beginning. It thuds slightly, then buzzes, so that your attention is momentarily deflected. Later, when it was as though I'd never played on anything, I made myself listen to it, partly to stop myself from going mad: I could remember the slight pain in my thumb and the swift, reflexive glance at Colin, who was trying, and failing, to look impassive, and the producer making a rapid rowing gesture, over and over, that was meant to signify that we should carry on. It isn't just that note, though. I can tell that it was me. I never fitted in. George is better. I used to lag behind. I was always trying to pull the songs back to their original version.
I had given them one last song. The way it used to work was that I would play and sing while Julian read the words on the sheet that I had given him. Ian absorbed everything, he could reconstruct an entire song, the chords and melody, from scratch, only moments after you'd played it. Julian always kept the sheet. I never thought anything of it. "Albert" was a departure; a song about somebody else, a tramp who I had seen waltzing alone, near Debbie's. He had placed his overcoat carefully on the ground and then plodded, unevenly, backwards and forwards in front of the shopping centre; you could see his buttocks shivering as he executed the turns. I was sick of writing songs about myself. Debbie and I had settled into a routine, and there wasn't anybody, or anything, that I wanted to write a song about. I hurried back to Debbie's and wrote it in one night. I gave him a friend, laying, half-dead, in the road. I put him in front of Liberty's in Regent Street so that he could describe himself by looking in the window. It was fun, like writing a story, and I was excited – I was already envisaging it with full orchestration; a richly dissonant version of Ian's piano playing on "Someone To Watch Over Me" – but it was too slow, they said, and, anyway, did I not think that it was time to stop being so derivative? We were forging our own identity, they didn't want to be learning songs that sounded like "Life On Mars". Colin said this while Julian was folding the lyric sheet and putting it into his trouser pocket. Ian, meanwhile, was doodling a free-form version of the melody line. I was disappointed, of course, but I could see the sense in it, just as I could see the sense in our new posters featuring nothing but Julian's face. I had thought, when we had got back together after Christmas, that Desmond would keep his distance from him, but he seemed to be as keen as ever. It was difficult to tell with Julian but he was still staying with Desmond and he still seemed to be enjoying the clothes and the expensive hair cut (an extravagantly layered version of the Scott Walker). He was certainly keen to see himself in profile, smiling elusively, all over London. The interview had been published in the college magazine and it had turned out to be a prose poem, a tribute to Julian's "feline grace" and "retroussé nose" and "dangerous smile" interspersed with brief snatches of dialogue. It was accompanied by one of the pictures that we had had taken on the embankment; the one where Julian lay in front of us, looking up at the sky, his hair arranged around him like tiny hawsers. You couldn't see us, we were just a blur in the background, but he looked elfin and otherworldy, and, as usual, you couldn't take your eyes off him. The NME were coming to our next gig, and Desmond hinted at another guest, a friend of our producer, who might or might not have something to do with a record company. It was all very exciting.
Looking back, I should have realised that something was wrong. For one thing, Julian wasn't talking to me. I hadn't seen him alone since Christmas Eve. I was still living half in our flat and half at Debbie's but he had managed not to bump into me. I'd tried to ignore this at first, attempting to assimilate everything, but then I'd thought, fuck it, this is Julian, you know full well he's mad, and so I had tried to ring him. He wasn't at our flat and I rang Desmond's, but he wouldn't come to the phone. He was sleeping, Desmond said, and then the next day he was out. The last time, the day before we were due to go into the recording studio, Desmond said that he was "indisposed". I could hear Julian giggling in the background. In the studio, he still wouldn't talk to me. He relayed his requests through Desmond and Colin, so that one or other of them would sidle up to me and ask if I could turn it down slightly or else leave a bar of silence, a sort of clearing, for Julian's voice. He was in another snit, I thought, and although I had felt my stomach give a little lurch I wasn't unduly worried. He was almost a star now – we could all feel it – and these squalls were clearly going to be part of it.
Then, after the second gig, we all went for a meal. It had been wonderful; there had been cheering, and dancing, while the headliners had barely managed to hold the audience's attention. Julian had flung himself into the crowd and had been passed from hand to hand, his arms stuck out like he was on a water slide. Afterwards, he had disappeared with Desmond and the man from the record company and now his eyes were glittering and his nose was running slightly. We were all digging into a pile of Greek food. There was, I thought, a real sense of camaraderie and I had high hopes that Julian would talk to me. I was almost opposite him. Desmond and Grant, the man from the record company, were flanking him. There was a man on a slightly raised dais, singing standards. He was sitting on a stool. Grant was saying,
He reached over and speared a piece of bread. He had manicured fingernails and a pinky ring. His hair was in a pony tail and his face was covered in blotches, like a shaving rash. He was still wearing sunglasses. It was possible to see him as a smug, older version of Desmond. Again, he said,
He took a long draught of wine.
"You're going places, boys."
He sat back, smiling. Colin said,
"What does that mean exactly? Going places?"
Grant stroked his chin. I knew I shouldn't trust him, but I wanted desperately to. We all did. We were drunk, and slightly hysterical.
"I'll have to iron out the details with your man Desmond here, but I'd say that you'll be recording for us in the not too distant future."
We all of us, all bar Julian, cheered and banged the table. Even Julian tapped in a ladylike way at his plate. Desmond looked relieved. He didn't have any other gigs lined up and I had wondered how many other contacts he was going to be able to call on. Ian said,
"How long is the not too distant future?"
"Oooh. A couple of months?"
"Wow", Clive said.
"And I presume", Colin said.
He was looking down at his plate. He was as drunk as I was, but he was doing his best to look serious. When he looked like this, with his long, comic-looking upper lip stretched downwards, he appeared to be privy to something, to some secret that he was trying not to laugh about.
"That there'll, you know."
He joined two streaks of wine together.
"Be contracts and stuff."
Grant had crossed his arms, comfortably.
"Oh, sure", he said.
Colin was looking at Desmond now.
"And that we'll see them?"
Desmond nodded. Colin glanced at me. Clive was saying,
"You should get up there, Julian."
The man on the dais was singing "Where Do You Go To My Lovely?". At the beginning of each "where" there was a slight expiration of breath, like he was blowing out a candle. Julian said,
"I don't do karaoke, Clive."
"Clive's from Essex. They have karaoke gangs down there."
"Simon should do it."
I thought that he was about to talk to me, but he wasn't. He called over a waiter and muttered something in his ear. It was late, and we were the only ones in the restaurant. I was shaking my head but the waiter was already walking over to talk to the man with the guitar. He stopped, right in the middle of the song, and, smiling, unbuckled his guitar and offered it to me. The waiter was also smiling. He was looking at me and applauding. Apart from Julian, everyone looked slightly uncomfortable. I tried to refuse, but Julian said,
"Go on. You're embarrassing him."
"No. You are."
"Simon. Go on. He can't stand there all night."
"This is ridiculous."
But Grant was looking at me now.
"Show Grant the other stuff we do", said Julian. "You know. The ballads."
Grant was smiling, encouragingly.
"I'm sorry", I said, but Julian said,
There was a long pause. The waiter and singer stood as if suspended. I could see that they weren't going to let me off the hook. Grant was still smiling. Julian grinned. I finished my drink.
"You bastard", I said.
But I was already easing myself up out of the chair. I limped across the room and, with my back to them, I strapped on the guitar. Someone applauded. I turned round, cleared my throat and started "Broom Street". At first, I kept my eyes up on the ceiling. My voice wasn't up to it – I'd known it wouldn't be – and I was having trouble hitting the high notes. It was partly embarrassment. I wasn't sure how I should stand; I was unwilling to sit down but I felt stupid shifting from side to side like this. I tried looking down and playing to Grant. He seemed mildly interested, as though he was watching one of his friend's children, but, all around him, I saw that the band were debating something. Clive was making an attempt to watch me but even he was talking, shaking his head then having to shift his glasses so that they rested properly on his nose again. Were they glad to be rid of me? Desmond was calming them, moving his arms rapidly downwards and shushing them at the same time. Grant was above it all, he didn't seem to be paying attention to them, but he wasn't really listening to me, either. Finishing "Broom Street", I launched myself, straight away, into "I Don't Know What I See In You". I was asserting myself now. My voice was stronger and louder. In its own way, it had always been stronger than Julian's. True, it seemed to splinter on the high notes and on the low notes it sometimes seemed that I was talking rather than singing but it felt right; it was my voice. Sometimes, when Julian was singing, I could hear the tune the way that I would do it, as though it were overlapping, insisting on its own set of pauses and emphases. I could hear the gap between the way that Julian sang it and the song itself. Well, now, at least, there was no gap.
Ignoring the lack of applause, I went straight into "Albert", laying claim to it. Desmond was talking to Julian now. Colin had called the waiter over and was ordering drinks for everyone. Ian had tried to pay attention, but he had soon got bored. I stared at Grant, willing him to look at me, to listen, but he was watching Desmond and Julian, occasionally making a statement that made Desmond nod quickly over in his direction. I'd finally got to perform my songs but I seemed to have come full circle. I'd been returned to why I had written them in the first place, to the dispiriting sense of being on the periphery. No-one was listening; they were barely aware that I was in front of them. It was like being back in the sixth form common room. I finished, and there was a pause while they registered that something, somewhere, had changed. Desmond and Grant and Clive applauded, briefly. Ian was busy with something; with doing up his shoelaces or brushing food from out of his lap or else just checking under the table. He didn't seem to notice that I had come back to my seat. Grant was talking to Desmond and Julian again. I tried to get Julian's attention – I wanted him to acknowledge, at least, that I'd done what he asked – but he wouldn't look at me and then he didn't talk to me all evening.
Three days later, I received a letter. It was typed and, tearing it open, I noticed that it was on Student Union notepaper. I had just come home to our flat from work, and I was pulling off my tie as I read,
We are sorry to have to inform you that we no longer require your services. We have given this a lot of thought and we are sure that you will agree that there are other guitarists who would be better suited to the type of music that we play now.
We know that this will come as a bit of a shock to you but we assure you that we have your best interests at heart and will always think of you with love and respect.
We wish you every success and hope that you manage to find a band whose music is more to your tastes.
One Hand Clapping."
I had to read it twice. Throwing the tie across the room I said,
Who was I talking to? It was the equivalent of whistling loudly in the dark. I could feel my forehead being squeezed by something and my stomach had started to flutter slightly. I went into Julian's room and checked it, hopelessly – I did this every night to see if he was home – but there was nothing, no pictures, nothing, and now I noticed that there wasn't even an alarm clock. Had it been there yesterday? I couldn't remember. I was having to take two breaths to get air all the way in. I opened Julian's wardrobe. Again, nothing: fluff, and a shirt button, that was all. Even the hangers had gone. No socks; no boxer shorts. I realised that I was feeling the same chill and sense of imminent danger that I'd felt outside The Blue Boy. It was like electricity; like somebody had thrown a switch.
I blundered along the corridor. Upset, I wasn't properly aware of its dimensions and I bumped into the edge of the banister. I knew I would feel it later but, for now, it just compounded my sense of the treacherousness of things. My leg wasn't working properly and I was suddenly aware of my own bulkiness; of what a comic figure I must be making. If I was graceful – if I trod lightly, and was effete and charismatic – then this wouldn't be happening. I still wasn't quite sure what "this" was. All of it, I supposed, the dread and the discomfort and the shortness of breath.
I picked up the phone and made myself calm down. I counted to ten, slowly, then breathed slowly outwards and forced myself to do it again. I rang, and there was Desmond's voice, its irritating rise and fall. The trajectory was almost predictable, like the siren on a clown's fire engine. I took another breath and said,
"Desmond. Hi. Simon. I got your "letter"."
I was trying, and failing, to sound amused.
"Very funny. Give me a ring tonight, please."
Ringing off, I rested my forehead on the receiver. It struck me that I didn't know Clive or Colin's number. I rang Ian, but he wasn't in. My hand was at my chin then at my neck, my ear, and then my chin again. I couldn't ring Debbie; she was going out with someone straight from work. I was pacing in my room now, and counting. Five paces to the picture windows and then five back to the door. Eight lengthways, wall to wall. Five, then five, then eight, then eight, then five, breath coming and going so fast that it felt like it was barely entering my lungs.
I made myself sit down, stood up, then made myself sit down again. I was doing a drum roll; a military tattoo; "Wipe Out", all on my knees, feet joining in, legs pumping up and down. I was whimpering, too, ever so slightly, whenever I breathed out. I didn't even know what I was so scared of. What could they do? They were my songs. Even this, though, didn't feel strictly true. Thinking about my songs increased the anxiety rather than diminished it.
I put the TV on. There was a comedy repeat, with people lurching in and out of doorways. I tried to calm myself by concentrating on it, but it seemed to have been emptied out so that it was abstract – choreography rather than narrative. My hands were moving uncontrollably. I was, I realised, acting like Julian.
"Think", I said out loud. "Slow down. Think."
What should I do? Should I go over to Ian's? He might be in – he would probably know why I was ringing him and he might be ignoring me – in which case I should go and make him talk to me. I pushed myself up out of the chair. I looked out of the window, at the trees that were being shaken from side to side. The drama of it seemed appropriate. The cars looked hunched against the wind, nose to tail. A garden gate was butting at its post. I could see myself struggling through the elements, forcing Ian to sort things out for me. I felt better now; calmer, and more decisive. I was reaching for my coat when Desmond rang.
He had the same voice he had used with the barman in his father's pub: adult; a little distant; moderately reassuring. All the enthusiastic encouragement had disappeared. He had barely said hello before I was demanding,
"What's going on?"
"You got the letter."
"Yes, I got the letter. It's a joke, right? Tell me it's a joke."
Retarded by adrenalin, the sound of my voice seemed to be coming through several thicknesses of gauze.
"No, Simon, it isn't a joke."
I managed a weak,
"I don't. I'm sorry, I don't."
I was shaking my head. I was trying not to alienate him. I wanted him to explain it to me. If it was explicable, then it was resolvable. I felt like I was being suffocated; that the predicament was somehow physical and that it was strangling me.
"Desmond, please", I said. "I don't understand this."
"We're sorry, Simon. It's just that the band felt."
"Yes. They felt they couldn't work with you any more."
"The band did."
"It's, what do you call it? Musical differences."
"Fuck, come on, Desmond. Musical differences?"
"You're going in two different directions, Simon. I think if you think about it you'll see that it's been true for a long time. I don't think you've ever really liked the way the music's going."
"You're hung up on the way things used to be. Things can't move forward properly when you're like this."
"Well, fuck you too."
I couldn't help it, I had felt the anger sweep in like a fire. I was powerless against it; I had been lifted up and shaken by it, like a scrap of paper.
"Fuck you, Desmond. And fuck Julian. This is him, isn't it?"
"I can understand why you're angry."
"This is Julian."
"You saw. Come on: you saw exactly what I did. At Christmas. This is about that, isn't it?"
"He doesn't want to work with you, Simon. That's his prerogative."
There was a new sharpness in his tone. My reference to Christmas had made him uncomfortable.
"What, and that's it? I'm out."
"Just like that?"
He didn't answer.
"You bunch of bastards", I said, at last.
I kicked the door of my room, so that it banged against the wall.
I had stood up and I was pacing now. I was hindered by the cord, so that I was walking round and round in a tiny circle, like an animal at the zoo.
"OK", I said. "Alright."
I took a long and ragged breath. I could feel something approaching. A terrible panic; the earthquake that was going to accompany the fire.
"Then it's my 'prerogative'."
I had spoken slowly, measuring out each word with a downward stroke of my index finger.
"To take my songs and start another band."
"Well, there's a slight problem there, Simon."
There was a catty edge to his voice, now. I'd never heard it before. It was disturbing. He wasn't as ill-suited to Julian as I'd thought he'd been.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, they're not your songs, are they?"
I had misunderstood. I thought he meant they were the band's, by right. But I was also scared.
"I wrote them, Desmond."
"No, you didn't."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Well, Julian owns the copyright. So that must tell you something."
It took me a moment to catch up. I heard the words but then I had to go back over them. Even then, I was speechless. Desmond was all business now.
"I'm sorry Simon, but there it is. Oh, and I'll be sending you a cheque for the amplifiers. I presume that you won't be needing them. I have to go. Good luck with everything."
But he had already hung up. Quickly, I rang him again, but I could only get the answerphone. I tried again.
"Cowards", I shouted. "Pick up."
I wondered who was there. Just Desmond and Julian, or all of them? It struck me that I'd never known where Desmond lived; that he had only ever seen me at a gig or at rehearsals. Was that deliberate? Somewhere in Kensington. I'd never asked. I hadn't wanted anything to do with him. I found that I still had my coat in my hand and, without thinking about it, I was suddenly thumping down the stairs and out of the door. The alternative – just sitting in my room and considering what had happened – was unthinkable.
It wasn't that I didn't feel the wind so much as that it bolstered me; it confirmed my sense of the situation. Out on the main road, there was a queue of traffic down to the North Circular. Two or three drivers had pressed their horns and the noise and the wind and the imminent rain seemed to be underlining what had happened. The lights in the shops made me feel even more alone. The tube, too: all those people, all staring into space. I was trying not to think things through. I was determined to think that Ian would put a different slant on things. I allowed myself to shake with the shaking of the train. In Colliers Wood, I struggled up the escalator, past the gym (more people staring, grimly, into space) then left, along the alleyway. Ian had been asked for money here – it had been an aggressive near-mugging, with two guys squeezed on either side of him – and I usually avoided it in the dark. Tonight, though, I didn't care. I would almost have welcomed it.
He had a ground floor flat on the corner, where the alley opened out into a square, and then another square, of houses. His curtains were open, and the living room was empty. Everything had gone. He had moved, I realised, without telling me. I felt as though someone had kicked me in the stomach. Groaning, I pushed my forehead up against the glass. It was official then.
I only have a confused recollection of what happened in the next few hours. I wandered up and down, not sure of where I was going. I knew that I didn't want to be on my own but Debbie's mobile had been switched off. I didn't want to go into a pub, either; I would have felt the disparity between myself and the warmth and the light too keenly. I still didn't want to think about things properly. Wandering wildly up and down, pacing backwards and forwards along the same stretch of road, was my substitute for worried thought. In the end, I just sat on Debbie's doorstep. It was raining by now. I didn't even try to find shelter; I just sat there, my breath going in and out like a set of bellows. I wasn't always sure if I was crying or not.
At last, I could hear Debbie's voice. She was laughing, and going "shhhhh". Who was she with? She was leading whoever it was by his tie. She saw me, let the tie go and said "Simon", too loudly. Whoever it was stood where he was for a moment and then came round the corner, trying to look sober. It was Frank, I saw, before I registered the look of shock on Debbie's face. She was leaning down and staring into my eyes.
"Simon. What's the matter?"
I was crying now. Moaning, and rocking from side to side.
She had her arms around me. She could barely hold me, what with the shaking of my shoulders. I said, or thought I said,
"What am I going to do?"
"What?", she said. "Simon, what is it?"
I said it again. The last word broke up into a series of jagged sobs. Frank carefully skirted round us. Debbie kept holding on.
"''s OK", she said. "Shoosh. It's OK."
I dug my fingers into her back. I couldn't seem to stop.
"Shoosh now. That's it. Shoosh, baby."
I heard Frank go up the stairs. His expression had seemed to confirm what I was thinking about myself. That I was pathetic; a dupe. Making an effort – trying to rein in the sobs – I said,
"I haven't got a band."
I felt as though my words and breath were vying for space.
"They stole my songs."
Debbie hugged me.
"Ssh", she said.
She kissed my forehead.
"Ssh. It doesn't matter."
Doesn't matter? Christ, I thought. I sighed, and she squeezed me more tightly, interpreting it as a good sign; that I was calming down. I allowed her to hold me. What else was I going to do? She was all I had. I closed my eyes and put my head on her shoulder, trying to make the best of it.
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.