Let's Get It On
For six months it was everything I'd ever wanted. Right from the first rehearsal, when Ian hauled his Yamaha in and showed us all the sounds it made, I knew that I had my band. I did a quick count in and he stood and listened, frowning, then started to worry at the music, pushing and pulling until, suddenly, it was like origami, that moment when the paper snaps open and surprises you, disclosing itself as a shape in three dimensions. He added a teasing three-note organ figure to "Easier To Love You"; it drew you in but then it kept you at arm's length, refusing to resolve. He plumped out "Without Love", my Buddy Holly song, so that you couldn't any longer call it sparse, or clattery. More, he took "Too Much In Love" – a terribly cheesy thing; a faux Phil Spector song that I was fond of way beyond its merits – and made it into something almost plausible. He played long, gorgeous runs up and down the keyboard, creating a landscape in which the overripeness of the song seemed almost appropriate.
He keyed us up. We'd thought that we were good before but now we saw how good we really were, or could be. I spent weeks worrying at the order of the songs, trying to work out a set-list with highlights and with a final satisfying climax, like a film. We started working on the Gershwin song. Julian wasn't sure at first – he thought that it exposed his voice too much – but, once he heard the introduction, he embraced it like it was his own idea. Ian and I had worked the way that Julian and I still did, back at the flat. I'd gone round his flat in Colliers Wood and he had hammered at the piano while I shouted encouragement, or else we'd toyed with single notes, weighing them like chemicals until we'd worked out which of them, in combination, were likely to combust. At moments like this, I felt quite close to him. Julian, meanwhile, was practising the songs that I was writing on a weekly basis. He was hardworking and appreciative. He seemed to be savouring them, just like he had the wine. Colin and Clive were also working hard. I made sure Colin was drilling Clive; they were starting to play together, so that they sounded like the unit that I'd always taken them for. There weren't any gaps, now, that you could feel yourself falling through. Here it was, I thought: my dream, made flesh. It was exactly how I had imagined it, even if some of the details were slightly different; even if a roll on the drums, say, or a cascade of notes wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind. Most of it was; most of it I'd worked out previously. I was able to talk to Colin and Clive, I found, as long as it was about music; as long as it was about what we liked, or didn't like, and what my expectations were. The only problem was our equipment, which made it sound like you were hearing Julian from far off in another room. I was saving for new amplifiers. Whatever, I was doing exactly what I'd always wanted to do. I could barely stand to be at work now. I called rehearsals three or, sometimes, four nights a week, and sometimes we didn't finish until one in the morning.
"It's like", I said.
I was roiling my hands again, and looking off into the middle distance. At last, I shrugged.
"Fuck it", I said.
Debbie pushed me on the shoulder.
"Don't be such a prick."
"It's gone. I'm sorry."
"I'm shit at this."
"Go on, for fuck's sake."
She was leaning into me in much the same way I'd leaned into Ian at La Cage Aux Pizza. She turned and flicked her ash into the ashtray, toying with it so that she ended up pushing it into the outer edges. She smoked differently to Julian. She was unwieldy; ash went everywhere.
"It sounds stupid", I said.
"Just take a deep breath. Go on."
We were in a pub in the City. It had wooden panelling and newspapers on poles, like flags. It was Brian's birthday and he had taken us down here for a celebration. On these occasions, he seemed almost animatronic; he held his body rigid while awkwardly dispensing largesse. When he smiled, it looked more like a wince. We'd finished work early and had got down here before the rush. The bar had had a hushed air, like a gentleman's smoking club, but then it had filled up. You had to shout in order to be heard. I had hovered on the outskirts, gesturing uselessly, but now it was only me and Debbie, perched on a banquette in the corner of the room. It was nearly ten, and we were drunk. Her own gestures were measured; it looked like she was having to think about them. Now she was peering down into the ashtray just as though she had lost something.
"You don't want to hear this", I said.
My tongue had thickened in my mouth.
"Coo, fucking hell. Just get it over with."
I squared myself up to her, just like I'd done with Ian. This was different, though; I was deliberately exaggerating it. It was a bodily fanfare.
I made a flourish.
"There you go. You see? You can do it if you try."
"And expressed, you know?"
I up-ended my bottle into my mouth.
I banged the bottle back on the table. It nearly toppled over and I had to catch it.
"It's like the songs are talking for me", I was saying. "Like they're bigger than me, you know? They're more confident, and graceful; it's like they represent me better than I do. Like they're more me than I am."
Debbie was nodding sagely. Still nodding, and laughing now, she said,
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
Normally, her face was like a pug's but she looked charming when she laughed; it seemed to make sense of her eyes and nose and mouth. Even when she wasn't laughing I quite liked the way she looked. I didn't mind the thin, near-masculine line of her mouth or her strong chin. It felt seductively transgressive to be attracted to her. She had bulked up at the gym but her nails were shapely and had been painted the colour of blueberries. It suited her long slender arms and fingers. Her tattoo was sexy in this context, like a shouted obscenity.
"God", I said. "For a moment."
"You thought that someone finally understood you did you, love?"
"Well, you know."
She considered me for a moment.
"I do sometimes."
"You never talk to me."
She was pointing a finger at me. I grabbed it and held it down.
"Fuck off you do."
"I say 'good morning'."
"Big whoop. You just sit there. You get a face like this."
She held her chin down on her neck.
"Like an old man. Like you've just shit yourself."
"Thanks very much."
"'s a pleasure."
Daintily, she withdrew her finger. She was a little embarrassed. We both were; it wasn't what we'd said so much as what we hadn't. There was a pause. She was looking away from me now, fiddling with her earring. I could feel a tingle, like electricity, running up and down my legs. Slowly, I stretched my arm and touched her cheek then, when she didn't resist, I traced my finger down towards her mouth. I was amazed at myself, but I also knew that I was doing it because she'd let me know I could. She looked back at me, mildly defiant, like she was challenging me.
"Well?", she said.
I kissed her. Her lips were softer than I had expected. After a while, she said,
She pulled me up and out and, hand in hand, we ran to the tube station. The rain was a palpable presence; it slapped at us every time we turned a corner. We slowed in the entrance and kissed again, then kissed on the escalator and the platform, letting several trains go past. I opened my eyes and studied her. She looked rapt: her eyes were closed and her eyelashes were so thin that they seemed to consist of the light that defined them. Emboldened, I pushed myself slightly against her. She didn't resist. She felt muscular. I liked it. Eventually, she slowly pulled away. Her eyes moved from my forehead to my eyes and mouth then back again. At last, she said,
"You coming back or what?"
She had blurted it out. There was a hint – a top note – of embarrassment, but it was masked by toughness. She wanted but didn't want to let me know how shy she was. I nodded. She studied me.
"You're not allowed to do a runner afterwards."
I was genuinely surprised.
"Why would I?"
"Fuck off why would you."
"I never have."
She was, or she was going to be, the second girl that I had slept with. She studied me again.
"Well just be warned", she said. "You walk and I'll tell everyone you slept with me. It won't be easy to live that down."
She lived in a flat above a row of shops in Colliers Wood, not far from Ian. She led me up a flight of stairs and along a dark concrete walkway between dustbins and clothes lines. It had stopped raining. We had been walking hand in hand but now she let me go, finger by finger. Clumsily, she unlocked the door.
"Ignore the mess", she said, pushing her shoulder against it. It slowly shuddered open. Looking past her, I said,
She punched me lightly and then led the way into the kitchen, on the left. We stepped over tottering piles of newspapers and I spotted a trike, and a skateboard, as well as three bin liners, all of them overflowing. In the kitchen there was a pair of bathroom scales, a grown-up's bike and several trailing plants, parodying the cracks in the ceiling. She was already hunting through the cupboards.
Her head was obscured from view.
"We've just the house, I'm afraid.”
She pushed herself further in. All the pictures on her pin board were of other people. There was a child, his snub nose looking a little like Debbie's. He was grinning, or gurning.
"Not yours?", I said.
She turned and looked at me. There was a pile of incongruous flotsam all around her now: shoes and a bathroom plunger, dog leads and a tiny rosary of hair clips.
"God, no", she said.
"I thought. You know: the trike."
She pointed at a picture of a girl whose lashes were accentuated, forties-style, with a calligraphic upstroke of mascara. She had high cheekbones and a hungry-looking mouth.
"Sasha", she said. "The pretty one."
I didn't know what to say. I couldn't think of anything that wouldn't have sounded faux-seductive or unwieldy. Debbie closed the cupboard door behind her.
"Sod it", she said. "Anyway, it's piss."
She stood up, grinning. I was still trying to think of something to say when she pushed me against the wall. She kissed me, thoroughly, then led me in a kind of slow, three-legged race back up the hall and through her lounge. I had the confused impression of tall windows and several rugs. There was a picture over the mantelpiece; a black-and-white photo of a man and woman running hand-in-hand along a bridge, smiling tremendously, as though they were about to sing, or take off. It was as compelling an image of romance as my Fred Astaire picture was of neatness, or of grace, then it was gone. Her bedroom was on the left. It looked as though somebody had emptied all of her clothes onto the floor. There was a fault line of dirty plates and cups and cutlery from the door to her bed. I saw it all tangentially, as from a moving train. She struggled with my buckle, and her own, then with my shirt, tugging at both the buttons and the bottom so that, in the end, she yanked it over my head. I dithered at her buttons but she became impatient, ripping them apart and pulling her shirt over her head so that her breasts seemed to be nodding at me. She wouldn't let me try to take off her bra. She was in too much of a hurry: she worked quickly at the catches then flung it across the room and pushed me onto the bed. She bit my ear. We floundered, clumsily, and then we slowed. Her mouth was a taut line and I could see the muscles of her arms bunched up as for a blow. I was trapped beneath her – her hands were gripping my hair – and all at once I found her terribly sexy. I couldn't hold on.
"That's right", she said, "that's right."
I thought there'd be rage, or tears; she looked, up there, like she was capable of terrible retribution. Instead, after a moment's breathing space, she hugged me and then softly kissed my ear. I rested my forehead on her chin, mumbling an apology. She put her finger to my lips.
"Next time", she said.
I didn't say anything. She said,
"If there is one, of course."
Her body had become emptied of meaning. I was struggling, again, with what to say. Gradually, though, her Debbieness reasserted itself. The things we'd talked about tonight came back to me in this new context, de-eroticised, so that I started to feel comfortable with her. We talked about her sister, who lived in Staines. She was a dancer, or was trying to be. Debbie had always measured herself against her. Currently, it was the baby and the cheekbones. She had fancied me for months, she said. At last, she fell asleep. She slept on my left arm, curled up against my side. I had been less excited the second time, and marginally more impressive. In the morning, she gentled me awake, then, afterwards, she made me breakfast; tea and triangular pieces of burnt toast. Julian would be out this morning and I didn't want to go, particularly. It was pleasant just to lie and listen to her talk. Every now and again she'd pull her head back and she'd check that I was listening. She'd joke, her face tilted away from me, and then she'd check me slyly, making sure I was amused. In the afternoon, she made us get up. The sun was shining, and the bricks of the houses opposite were an impossibly rich russet against the pale blue of the sky. We walked down to a stretch of green and Debbie tried, and failed, to climb a tree. She did it deliberately, to make me laugh. She clambered out of the lower branches, brushing at her hair.
"I must look a right sort", she said.
I dabbed at the leaves that had become stuck to her collar.
"I'm making the most of you", I said. "You're my first groupie."
Half-smiling, she battered my hands away.
"I don't even know what you sound like", she said. "I bet you're terrible."
"That's not the point. Admit it: you like the thought of it."
She linked her hands behind my head.
"Listen", she said. “I don't care what you do. For all I knew you were an insurance clerk. You could be a."
"...organ grinder for all I care."
I didn't know whether to be pleased or not. I said,
"And that makes you?"
She flounced away but didn't get very far. She had made herself up again this morning and the sun was briefly glittering on her cheek. I liked the way it made her look incongruous, like she was impersonating something. You could still see the down that covered her earlobes and her upper lip. She sometimes had an awkward-looking swagger. She led me into a florist's.
"Penance", she said.
She chose some tulips and as I paid for them I felt both sturdy and proprietorial. She grabbed my arm and hung on to it; she was, I could see, delighted with me and, as I led her around the shops, I was proudly aware of her. I felt human – this was what humans did – and simultaneously as though I was in a film. When we got back, she arranged the flowers in a half pint glass. She gave me a bin bag to carry outside and I felt suddenly, and gratefully, like a sitcom husband. Later, back in bed, she pointed to a picture on her dressing table.
"Mum and Dad", she said.
It was like she was introducing me to them. Her dad was bald. His eyes were half-closed in the sunlight. His face was an older version of Debbie's, but it was also rodent-like, with prominent teeth and a long, thin nose. His eyebrows were out in tufts. His wife had jowls and a double chin.
"He's a builder", Debbie said. "Not a raggedy arsed one, a real one. He's pukka."
She had guyed the word, but she was also serious. She did a little roll of the shoulders; a stationary version of the swagger she'd done outside.
"He built our house, virtually. It's all trapdoors and stuff. He spends his free time tinkering."
"Oh please. Nobody's father tinkers. Not outside The Waltons."
"And when it's time for dinner you send the dog to fetch him. And there's a pine table, and elderflower wine."
"Piat D’Or. But there is a roaring fire, when Dad can be bothered to get it going. And Mum makes scones."
"Of course she does."
"She's great, my mum. Completely barking, but she's great. She's never worked. She tells her friends that I'm 'in business', like I'm a prostitute."
There was nothing glamorous about them – nothing to catch, or hold, the eye – but they were clinging to each other like they were keeping each other upright. I puzzled over them for a moment, but then I lay back on the bed. Debbie was sitting up, her hand on my chest. She had a mole, I noticed. It was dark in the centre but then it lightened outwards, like a stain. I smiled up in her general direction. She was slowly ruffling my hair.
"Happy?", she said.
She was smiling, but her voice had contracted slightly. There was some gap – a disparity in attitudes – that she was anxious to close but I was only imperfectly aware of it.
"Deliriously", I said.
She sat up a little.
She looked down at my face. After a while, she said,
"No don't. Forget it."
"I'm sorry", I said, "I don't know what."
"No, really, it's OK. I was being."
She made a clumsy, attenuated shape in the air.
She nodded unhappily.
She seemed to be looking through me, or beyond me. I leaned up, on one shoulder.
"What is it?"
She shrugged, and drank off the last of our bottle of wine.
"Work", she said.
There was a drop of wine on her shoulder, like a fleck of blood. I licked it off. She said,
"You know: Monday."
She paused, and I saw her make the decision to go on.
"I don't want it to change", she said. "You. Me."
Her gesture took in my clothes, mingled with her clothes, the bed, me.
"Why would it?", I said.
She shrugged again. She wouldn't look at me. It was an enlivening novelty, all this. I chose to enjoy it, rather than listen to her properly. Gently, I eased her down. I said,
"Nothing is going to change."
She touched my face.
I kissed her cheek. Just for a second, I wondered where Julian was. Who was he with? Smiling, I said,
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.