I liked to try, when I was working, to be a tidy man. It made up for my lack of conversation. My hole-punch and my stapler were lined up with my in-tray, which was lined up with the corners of my desk. Whenever I had hit my calculator – with stiff little pecks, like someone dabbing at a finger bowl – I nagged and tore at the receipt until it disappeared.
I had a job in an insurance office. It was a bland kind of corporate dystopia, with "smart" passcards and an open-plan environment, or pseudo-environment: there was a generator in the cellar that maintained an even flow of temperate air throughout the building. You couldn't switch your air-conditioning on without affecting the entire floor. We had to keep strip-lighting on as well, all day. Downstairs, the sponsored abstracts seemed to bleed into the walls. Two sculptures – clumsy-looking wooden armatures – stood in the lobby. They looked aggressive and disaffected. You had to answer the phone by rote, precisely, like you were reading something out at school. The intonation had to be just right; an actor speaking out into the first and second row.
"Good morning. Pensions. Simon speaking. How can I help you?"
Fuck it, I thought. May, not can. Brian, my immediate boss, gave a slight wince. He was compact and stern; bullet-headed, like a Russian scientist. Julian said,
"I've found him."
He was in a call box. There was an echo; an indeterminate space that you could hear expanding around his voice. I murmured,
"He's a friend of a friend of a friend. He plays in a restaurant. Plays, Simon. How about that?"
"Um", I said.
"Fucking hell. Say something."
"Well, that certainly is good news."
"You fucking stiff. You sound just like your dad."
He was enjoying the fact that I could only reply in a careful undertone. I moved a form from one side of my desk to the other, then back again. Despite its neatness, the relationship between the paper on my desk and the desk itself was almost entirely geometrical. I arranged a careful little pile on my blotting pad, then rearranged and disarranged it. I experimented with different criteria, ad-libbing categories, then stared blindly – bleakly – out at St Paul's. From here, it looked both grandiose and delicate, a figment of somebody's imagination. Julian was saying,
"He's playing tonight, if you can be at all arsed. La Cage Aux Pizza. Can you imagine what that place is going to be like?"
He was speeding again. Despite the proximity of his mouth, he was pitching his voice upwards and outwards.
"So limp your way down to the Student Union and I'll meet you out front at seven. Don't tell anyone you know me. Hide, if you possibly can. There's a cupboard by reception."
"Mmm-hmm", I said.
"Mmm-hmm my arse. Listen: gotta go. People to do. Give my love to Brian."
He blew a swift, ironic kiss and the phone clattered on its receiver. I felt, all of a sudden, the disparity between the boom of his voice and the office's surrounding silence. Brian's head was bowed, as though he was at prayer. I wearily rolled my shoulders, then squeezed my eyes. Three years, at 8%, minus certain fees, which were... Debbie brought me a coffee and I sipped at it, catching a quick glimpse of her thighs compressing as she sat down. She was a voluptuous bruiser; her hair looked brittle – it had been bleached almost white and was cut into a short back and sides – and there was a tattoo of a dolphin on her left upper arm. Watching her, I thought how much she would be attracted to Julian.
We'd been looking for a keyboard player for months. We'd been to gig after gig, in village halls and pubs and the back rooms of pubs, watching mod and speed metal and garage and "garage" bands. None of their keyboard players could play; the norm was a gently undulating wash that didn't seem to go anywhere. Sometimes, you could see them slowly place their fingers on the keys then hold them there. Whenever they had to shift them it was like watching me shift my leg in the car. Julian, meanwhile, was developing a set of little rituals. It was partly the drugs, I thought. He was taking them two or three times a week and there was a fault, as it were, in his perception; he felt that something could be caused by something else that was entirely unconnected. If he went down the stairs two at a time, for example, not touching the banister, then we'd find somebody that night. If he touched his chest three times, or had his coat hangers not touching in the wardrobe, or kept all of the pictures in the hall at exact right angles, then someone would have answered our advertisement when we got home. We had put it in the Melody Maker. It read,
"WE HAVE FOURTEEN NUMBER ONES! Talented keyboardist needed to rehearse sharp, melodic pop songs and help band achieve world domination."
The tone that we were after was one of contagious confidence but hardly anybody rang. There was a pub pianist – a middle-aged chain smoker with a walrus moustache – and someone who played with one finger at a time, like a clumsy typist. The rest of the band, though, had come surprisingly easily. Colin was studying art with Julian and they had started talking in the canteen one morning. Julian liked to make it sound like it was his hair or his coat, or something, that had led Colin to come over, but I think that there were only two of them there, and that it got to be embarrassing. In tan slacks and a sports shirt - with a long nose and slick-back hair - Colin looked like minor royalty on holiday. His shoes had the riverine glimmer of a moving record. Sometimes, he'd move his long, prehensile upper lip and he'd look suddenly like a music-hall comedian, as though his face's tense repose had been a deliberate deadpan. He'd tilt an eyebrow, say, or sigh and rake his hands across his head and even after knowing him, if you were caught off guard, you'd think a joke was on its way, despite the fact you'd rarely heard him make a joke - not a real joke. He did it on our first night, while I was playing him one of my songs. I had only just written "Broom Street" and was inordinately proud of it. I had got to the last part of the last verse, the declaration of love. I was singing it myself; I still didn't trust Julian to express it properly. I had my eyes closed and was straining my face involuntarily upwards.
"Some enchanted evenings make you wish you were dead."
I was barking more than singing. I could feel myself beginning to sweat.
"And I swear that I don't miss you, only the feeling I had
Watching your vague eyes deepen when I told you the truth
On Broom Street.
Still take me
To Broom Street."
I let the chord hang in the air. I was just coming to the last bit, where I sang, or shouted, "goodbye", over and over. In truth, all I had said to Sam was that I'd miss her, but even so. The song was becoming realer to me than the actual moment had been. Colin, I noticed, seemed to be smirking.
"Problem?", I said.
He looked surprised.
"Because it's just."
"If you don't, you know, like anything just say. Alright? Don't just."
I threw my guitar on the bed.
"Don't just sit there making faces, OK?"
We were in my room. There was a bed, a bedside table and a record player. Albums were everywhere, out of their sleeves: soul; glam; Sinatra; The Smiths. On the door, there was a poster of Fred Astaire. His right-angled legs, perfectly straight arms and triangular face were nearly as geometric as my desk at work. He formed a kind of archetype: grace, perhaps, or insouciance. I wanted us to take him as a kind of template; I wanted us to sound the way he looked. For now, though, there was all this clumsiness to be got through. Colin had no idea what to say; he shrugged, and floundered with his arms, and it was Julian, of all people, who eventually managed to smooth it over.
"Ignore him", he said.
He slapped me hard on the wrist.
"He's an artist."
He said it like he'd once said "diligent". I'd overreacted. Graciously, I let Colin apologise and then I consented to play "Easier To Love You When You're Gone". It was another fantasy-burlesque but it was darker, somehow, than "Fluctuating With The Pound"; the sensuality had become a kind of threat. (It was living with Julian that did it.) I gestured to him and he began, standing up in preparation and tilting his head slightly, so that his hair lapped at his face. He had started to modulate his singing voice, the way he did when he spoke, and it was working; he was just beginning to show how sexy he could be. Carefully, he sang,
"And last night's dress was the best you've ever worn
A real tight fit like you threw the night before."
He hadn't asked about the words but I knew he didn't understand them. He didn't have to: the way he stressed the sibilants on "last" and "dress" and "best" told its own story. I had asked him to bite down on the final consonants of "tight" and "fit", and Colin was riveted; he was staring at him unashamedly. In the end, he nodded, and smiled. (He had been careful not to move his mouth while the song was being sung.)
"I'm in", he said.
"Of course you are", he said.
Later, I tidied everything away. Julian sat on the draining board, his hands clasping his buttocks, and watched me do the washing up. We'd settled into a routine. I put the bin out, scrubbed the bathroom, cooked and hoovered. Julian dusted, only he didn't, and he was meant to do the shopping but he was so erratic that I ended up doing it myself. I made a show of minding but that was all it was. Deep down, I thought: it's the beginning of something. Most nights, once I'd got home from work and changed and cooked and tidied up, I'd go into his room and make him sing. He took it very seriously now. We concentrated fiercely, like we were bent over a difficult operation. If Julian failed to breathe or couldn't hit a note he'd curse and square his shoulders, then he'd start again. He'd watch my face to see if he was pleasing me. He could sound casually confident if he tried hard. He was developing, and extending, the sexiness that Colin had noticed, trying on roles – a raised eyebrow here; a slight breathiness there – or maybe just displaying differing degrees of cockiness. The last "gone" in "Easier To Love You" was like a prolonged sigh of satisfaction. He could produce low notes from his stomach now, so that they reverberated. I had to sit on the bed with my knees propped up or else I squeezed myself into a corner. There wasn't a single picture or photograph in the entire room. It was cold and hermetic and seemed at odds with all the sex he was having, and all the drugs he was taking. I realised, though, that he took drugs and had sex in much the same way that he had chosen this room: it was like he was punishing himself for something. There were nights when I could hear yelps and screams, like he was in a torture chamber.
Still, when we were on our own, there was a becalmed sense of domesticity and purpose that made me happier than I'd ever been before. I'd make him his dinner and I'd bring it to him on a tray. We'd watch TV together and then he'd sing, or else I'd write. I doodled on pads at work, designing flyers and logos. I wrote "Some Other Girl" and "Without Love" and "God Bless America", all in one week. We had our first rehearsal with Colin and he was so steady and resourceful that I ended up following him, rather than the other way around. He had brought his friend Clive along. He was big but timid, wearing a cardigan and little round spectacles. He looked like he was trying to stop the bass from running away from him but they came as a package, Colin said, so that was that. In any case, it was exhilarating, having a band behind you. Even though we faltered, and stopped, and started badly, I still felt terribly overexcited. It had felt like a strong tail wind, I told Julian later. I wouldn't be able to sleep, I said. He smirked.
"You want to try speed", he said.
And now, true to form, here he was again, licking his lips, I noticed, because his mouth was so dry. His eyes seemed to have been emptied out. It was still winter and he was affecting a long Isadora Duncan scarf. He had his crimson jacket on, and a pair of three-quarter length trousers. Grabbing me by the arm, he pulled me across Reception, yanked me out of the doors and led me down the Charing Cross Road, not caring if we were bumping into people, or if they were bumping into us.
"The point", he said, apropos of nothing, "is that this guy's meant to be brilliant. Bells and whistles. A concert pianist, with knobs on."
He was chattering rapidly; his cheeks were flushed and he kept turning round to check that I was listening. He was experiencing that first rush, I thought. As usual, I was having trouble keeping up with him. I was wheezing slightly.
"His name's Ian", he continued. "Of course, we'll work him over. You can do that thing again. You know, Simon The Serious Songwriter. Don't talk to him for half an hour, just sit there. Looming."
"Thank you very much."
"Well, God, you do. You glower, don't you? Poor Colin. Did I tell you Colin and Clive were coming?"
"Do you mind?"
"No. Of course not."
"Listen to him. 'No, of course not'. Sweet: we have to be seen to be their friends, OK?"
"You don't have to make small talk. Just lecture them about music, that's what you've been doing to me for years."
La Cage Aux Pizza was off Shaftesbury Avenue, but Julian led us in a circle, around Leicester Square and up through Chinatown. We were early, he said, and, anyway, he liked Leicester Square: it was full of drunks and weirdies. On the corner, a woman was sitting beside a shopping trolley and talking out into space, one hand busily worrying at the other. Beyond her, a crowd had gathered around an old man, bald and bare-chested, who was struggling theatrically under a burden of locked chains. He didn't attempt to take them off; he just ran in a circle. Julian nodded approvingly. In Chinatown, ducks had been opened out, like books. Someone had turned a beatbox on and it was playing a dopey kind of lolloping funk. A drunk – a chinaman with slicked back hair, like Colin's - was dancing to it, making slow kung fu passes with his hands. We watched him for a while. Julian said,
"It makes you want to wear a sarong."
"It makes you want to wear a sarong."
He giggled. I could see, now, that, actually, the speed was losing its grip on him; it was like he was freeing himself from the restriction of tight strings. Something – some assertion or apprehension – was reinhabiting his face. I felt a sudden urge to talk to him but he'd set off again, and, suddenly, there was the restaurant sign. It was like a hurried signature, in neon. The place itself was a grotto; you had to go down a set of iron stairs and, as you descended, you brushed past tinsel and long strings of tiny lanterns. Over a confusion of conversations, there was the sound of a piano playing "La Mer", the Bobby Darrin version, with swift syncopated chords and edgy grace notes. There was a scrum at the bar and then the dining area, where all the tables were squeezed tightly together. The waiting staff wore stripy T-shirts and oversized berets, like in a strip cartoon. Julian pointed up above the bar. There was a row of plastic legs, all decked in stockings and suspenders and high heels, doing the splits. He leaned into my ear. I could feel his lips and tongue and teeth as an insistent presence.
"I'm in Heaven."
I shook my head.
I still felt slightly put out. I had wanted him to want to stop and talk to me.
"It's Hell, decked out in twinkly little lights. It's what goes on inside your head, that's why you like it."
Clive and Colin were pressed up against the bar. Julian waved and Clive returned it, tentatively. Behind the bar, the barstaff were threading around each other, sidestepping in a quick curve or reaching over each others' heads. Every surge and counter-surge on this side was a movement that the people in the scrum made together, as though they formed a sort of hybrid monster. Julian dived into the middle of it without hesitation and I carefully followed him. The four of us had never socialised before, and Clive and Colin were looking uncomfortable. Colin leant across and shook our hands while Clive did another half-embarrassed little half wave. I nodded at him then mimed cupping my ears.
"What's he like?"
I was addressing it to both of them. In my mind they were a unit, and it was easier, anyway, than talking to them one at a time. Clive nodded eagerly. He was, I felt, a little afraid of me.
"He's good", he said.
I peered at him, and said,
"In what way?"
It was an unfair question and I didn't really need an answer to it. He held his head to one side, and waggled his hand. He didn't know what I wanted, and I was pleased: I felt like I was being deferred to. I nodded, in a show of seriousness, and walked away from them a little, the better to hear the music, or to be seen to be listening to the music. The pianist had finished "La Mer" and was doing "La Vie En Rose". His version was in keeping with the ambience of the place: a knowing, lascivious romp. He was displaying an impish and sophisticated sense of humour, and I feared for my songs a little. Sure, he could play, but could he hold a single note? Could he repeat a riff, pseudo-moronically, just for effect? I listened for a while, then squeezed myself slowly back to where they were standing. People were calling for the bar-staff everywhere, like anxious fans. Julian was saying something. He had toned things down for Clive and Colin; he had limited his gestures to a series of what looked like preliminary sketches. When he spoke, he murmured but he didn't lean on words the way he did with me. Clive saw me first and lurched over towards me. He looked sheepish; furtive. Quickly, he said,
"How was he?"
I paused, and rubbed my chin. I tilted my head at him (I wasn't sure, the gesture said) then spoke to Julian.
"What do you think?"
"I think he's wonderful", he said.
He peered over my shoulder.
"Of course", he said, "I can't actually see him. That thing's not playing itself, though, is it?"
He blew a wavering halo of smoke above his head.
I waggled my hand, like Clive had done.
"Oh God. What's wrong with him?”
"I'll have to meet him, I think."
"And what? Measure his fingers?"
"Well, like I said."
Grinning, he put his hands up in a show of surrender. I noticed that no-one had bought a drink. Coming back from the bar, I let him lead us down towards the restaurant. They were my songs, I had taken Julian to mean, and it was my band. Things weren't always so clear-cut. He was better at things like this: at marshalling people, and at small talk. He murmured something to the waiter, who ushered us over. Julian gestured for us all to sit down, mocking his own courtliness with a little flourish of the hand.
"Gentlemen", he said.
He took, and studied, the wine list. I was as awkward as Colin and Clive. I had never had to choose a wine before: I didn't know how to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff, not like music, and it was disorientating, like being asked to choose between shades of white. But Julian was clearly relishing his role. While ordering, he leant a little on the French, producing the lightest of accents. When the waiter poured him a taster, he rested it in his mouth for a moment and then nodded his approval. He was, I realised, imitating someone's father.
He drew us out. I did my best but I felt hamstrung; constrained, partly, by Julian's charm but also condemned by temperament to be this creaky, saturnine-seeming presence, a sort of cardboard heavy uncle or paterfamilias. I had to stop myself from looking down at my hands. Ian's stint had finished and Julian smiled and gave him a graceful thumbs up as he walked past. He followed him to the bar. The sound system was playing Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, hammering away at the restaurant's pseudo-Frenchness in much the same way that Julian could still overdo his sexiness, undermining it by trying too hard to remind you of it. Colin and Clive were talking about someone that they knew. I went to speak but I felt like I had reached for a lever that I suddenly realised wasn't there. The more I wanted to try, the more self-conscious I became. I noticed that I was looking down at my hands again. Thankfully, Julian reappeared. He was leading Ian by the shirt. Ian had sandy hair and freckles, and the softest handshake that I'd ever felt. I liked him straight away: his voice had a quizzical edge to it and contained a flicker of ambiguity. He looked from me to Julian to Colin and Clive then back at me. He spread his hands.
"So", he said.
I thought: Good. No more small talk. But then I wasn't sure what to say. I took a deep breath. I said,
"I don't know what Julian's told you."
"He's going to be huge, he says."
"Right. Well, he is."
My hands were worrying at the menu.
I took another breath.
"You see, the thing is."
I looked over towards Julian. He graciously waved me on.
"Please, Ju: help me out", I said. "Tell him about the songs."
He was sipping at a cigarette. He leant backwards in his chair and tilted his head to one side, looking slightly pained.
"Seriously", I said.
He didn't do serious, in much the same way that he didn't usually do enthusiastic. They got in the way of whatever he was trying to project: élan, or anomie, or whatever. He went to say something but then he stopped himself. I could see that he was making an effort.
"Good", he said, slowly. "They're good."
"They're great", I said.
I looked at Colin and Clive. They nodded, dutifully.
"They are", Clive said.
"Look", I said. "Songs are rare, right? Good songs are."
Julian shifted slightly in his chair.
"Here we go", he said. "I'd stand well back if I were you."
"You get what sounds just like it's going to be a song", I said, ignoring him. "You know, there's an orchestra and backing vocals and the drums are kicking off like something's about to happen and then you wait, and then there's.”
I was roiling my hands.
"Nothing. I mean, everything's telling you that it's a song – they've spent thousands of pounds trying to convince you that it's a song – but it isn't. It's… sodden. It's a songoid. Do you see what I mean?"
"I think so."
Ian was looking at me in much the same way Julian did when he was singing. I saw that Colin and Clive were listening, too. They'd never heard me say so much in one go.
"We've got songs", I said. "Songs. With choruses and middle eights. Real songs. I could write you anything you wanted. Jazz, soul, even sodding reggae. Because I understand it."
I thumped the table. Clive flinched slightly.
"Pop songs are about frustration, right? They're about rage and misdirected lust, and…"
"Yours are", Julian said.
Ignoring him, I said,
"They shouldn't ever be. Um."
"'Careerist'", Julian said.
His face was deadpan.
"'Grey'", he said. "'Sedentary.'"
He was reciting what I had told him, over and over.
"'Something your mother could love.'"
"That's right", I said. "They shouldn't. They shouldn't be any of those things, not if you're serious. I'm serious. We're a serious band. I want to sound like everyone. Like God's pub band. All the best bits, all rolled into one. And we can do it. I mean it: we can. I've always known I could do it, even before I put the band together. This is my dream."
I was leaning way over into Ian's space.
"We are so close. And you can help us do it. We are this far away."
I held my thumb and forefinger nearly together.
Ian was still smiling but he looked a little bewildered; I had been talking into his face, I realised. I sat back a little.
"Sorry", I said.
There was an awkward silence. Julian leaned slightly into the centre of the table.
"What he means", he said.
He paused, and smiled, sweetly.
"Is that I'm going to be huge."
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.