I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself
That week, they called a meeting at La Cage Aux Pizza.
I would have called it, usually, and it would have been in my room. They would have stretched across the floor, and I would have sat on the bed. Sometimes, I'd squeeze up by the record player and I'd play them something that sounded like the song that I'd just written; "Be My Baby", for example, which I'd played them over and over again when I had finished "Too Much In Love".
Tonight, though, it was La Cage Aux Pizza. Ian still played there, and Julian had been there several times. He loved it, and I hated it, for exactly the same reasons: for its archness; for its nudge nudge humour and its swishy gallicisms. I hadn't seen him since the gig. I'd been at Debbie's. We'd packed up silently, then driven home. We'd finished on a high: we had done "Louise May" again and more than half the crowd had danced. Desmond had been enthusiastic. He had pumped my hand then made a point of saying "see you again" to Julian. But I didn't know what to say. I sat in the back of the van, hunched over, staring at the floor. No-one said anything. I unloaded my guitar but then I let them unload the rest.
Since then, I'd been avoiding them. Colin left a message on Debbie's phone, and I felt like I'd been summonsed. I had to get drunk to face it. When I got there, they were already seated. I saw that Julian had ordered wine, and that he was sitting at the head of the table. There were muted greetings as I sat and poured myself a glass. Struggling to sit upright, I said,
I looked from one to the other.
"Let me guess."
I pointed at Julian.
"You want to be a band."
Clive had shrugged down at his glass while Ian inclined his head in what could have been a yes or a no. Julian had picked a tobacco fleck out from between his teeth and now he was studying it, carefully.
"That's funny", I said. "I thought we were."
"No", said Colin. "We're not."
I could see he was going to be the spokesman. His deadpan had become a kind of gravitas. He'd turned his lengthy upper lip down slightly at the corners. Rubbing his nose, he said,
"And if this thing is going to work."
He let the sentence tail away.
"I don't understand", I said. "What do you mean 'work'?"
But Clive was already saying,
"The songs are great. It's just."
"They're like a history lesson", Colin said.
He was rubbing at his forehead now.
"You have to get every detail right. It's like a, what was it you said?"
He'd turned to Julian.
"An end-of-term review."
He was still looking down at his fingers. The ball of his right foot was balanced on his knee and the toe of his shoe was pointing outwards, balletically.
"That's right. And they're so slow.”
"Funny. Julian's words again."
"My words, Simon."
Colin's voice had hardened.
"They're my words."
"And 'Air', I said. Don't forget 'air'. Whose words are those?"
"It doesn't matter. It's what we want. You saw what happened the other night."
"That's right. You pulled the carpet out from under me."
"We needed to."
"You didn't even tell me. You let me start on my own. You let me stand in front of everybody, and."
"We needed to."
"You should have told me."
"And how do you think that would have gone?"
"I'm not that bad."
"You are. I'm sorry. You are."
Another beat. I saw that I was hitting the table, once, then twice, swiftly; a messy sort of drum roll. Stopping myself, I said,
"They're my songs."
"Our songs, Simon. We're not your backing band. Don't get me wrong, the songs are fine."
"Thanks very much."
"But we don't want to be dictated to. That's not too much to ask, is it? We want to work things up ourselves."
"The way you obviously had the other night."
"Behind my back."
"We told you we were rehearsing."
"And you didn't care", said Julian. "You were off somewhere with what's her face."
He wouldn't look at me.
"Debbie", I said. “You know what she's called. And that was one night! We agreed. There were things you should be doing, you said."
Still looking away, he blew a gout of smoke up at the ceiling. Colin said,
He pushed himself forward a little.
"Christ, Simon, we're meant to be musicians."
Slowly, I nodded.
"So let us be musicians. Please."
I shrugged again.
I was looking down at my hands. The sound system was playing, bizarrely, a disco version of "La Marsellaise". Two of the waiters were attempting the can-can. Colin said,
"We're sorry we stitched you up the other night."
I scratched my head. Eventually, I said,
He stretched his hand out, and I took it. Just for that moment, I felt tremendously magnanimous. I looked at Julian. I waited for him to smile, or something. I had hoped that this would break the ice. Finally. Still looking away, he said,
"There's the Desmond thing."
"What Desmond thing?"
"What Desmond thing?"
Clive cleared his throat. He said,
"He wants to manage us."
"Who does? He does? Desmond? Chris Tarrant Desmond?"
"He's very enthusiastic", Ian said.
"Of course, that doesn't have to work against us."
"Hold on. Desmond wants to manage us? When did this happen?"
"Why wasn't I told?"
"We tried", said Ian. "He tried, actually."
"Well, he didn't try very hard. It's out of the question, surely."
"He's got connections", Julian said.
"He's President of his Student Union", said Ian. "He's going to get us gigs, he said. I told you: he's very enthusiastic."
"Well, yes, he would be, wouldn’t he? But he's, um, "very" enthusiastic when he's serving you a pint of lager. He's a cretin.”
Julian was looking up at the ceiling.
"He's got us a gig."
I stared at him, then at the rest of them.
"And this means. What?"
No-one said anything.
"Tell me you're not considering this."
A pause. Then Ian leaned forward. Before he spoke he winced.
"The thing is", he said.
I felt my stomach flutter slightly. No-one would look at me. Dully, I said,
"You want him to be our manager."
Ian shrugged. Clive said,
Colin nudged him, under the table; I saw it. I stared at Colin, then at Clive.
"You've already what?"
Clive was still looking at Colin.
"You've told him, haven't you? You've told him he can do it."
"It makes sense, Simon", Julian said.
"He's got the experience", Colin said. "He's booked us two university gigs already and he thinks he can get us some studio time."
"It frees you up", Ian said.
"For what? Jesus, you bastards. He's like a fucking second hand car salesman. Why didn't you talk to me? He's a total stranger."
"Yes", said Colin, "but, the thing is, so are you."
I didn't know what to say. One of the waiters shimmied past us. He was holding a glass of ice-cream – a flowering of cocktail sticks and cherries and wafers – as though it was the Olympic torch. The bar staff were hilariously doing high kicks. I downed my wine and went to stand up.
"I won't do it", I said.
"Sit down Simon."
I shoved the table, so that his wine glass tottered towards him. He caught it, easily.
"Fuck all of you."
"We didn't want you to be upset", Clive said.
"Upset? Why would I be upset? This is my band. None of you write; none of you sing."
I looked pointedly at Julian.
"So get away from mine. Go get your own. I don't need you, not any of you."
I can remember Colin reaching for my arm, and I remember pushing him away, hard. He fell back into his chair and knocked Clive's water into his lap. The rest is a blur: I bumped, snarling, into somebody then stamped up the iron stairs. I wasn't entirely aware of where I was. There were cars, and crowds, and sudden smears of light. I'd lost the plot, I told Debbie afterwards; it took me an hour to get my bearings and get on the tube.
"Poor baby", she said.
She was stroking my hair. I could see myself in the mirror. I looked sulky, like a child; my moping mouth had fattened my cheeks outwards. I was surprised by my right hand, which was rapidly rubbing the bottom of my nose, backwards and forwards. She took it and put it in her own.
"Just close your eyes."
I wasn't listening to the words so much as allowing myself to be soothed by the sensation. That week, she had taken to cooking for me. We sat at the table in the living room while Frank, her flatmate, ghost-walked softly in and out. Everything was a novelty: the cutlery; the little off-white serving dish; even the plates. Later, washing up, there was something intimate – something almost erotic – about putting the plates in her hands for her to dry. In the lounge, we wound ourselves around each other up at one end of the sofa and watched TV. I stroked her hair and marvelled at myself. Here we were, the two of us, like a couple. I relaxed into the intimacy – into the pseudo-intimacy; the intimacy that I allowed her to think we had – so that I could forget about the band.
"You shouldn't play with the nasty boys", she said.
"I know. I shouldn't."
I mumbled it; I was still drunk. I snuggled up to her and closed my eyes.
The next day was a Saturday. Debbie took me to the park, and started to outline her plans for me.
"First thing", she said, "you make sure that you copyright those songs."
She was holding onto my arm. Her proximity was still powerfully erotic. Her jaw, when she was determined and thoughtful like this, was even squarer than it usually was.
"Second", she said.
She tapped my arm.
"You're having a laugh."
"You want to sing them to an audience, don't you?"
She was lighting a cigarette. Watching her, I was struck again by the difference between her and Julian. Smoke seemed to smother her and ash went everywhere. She narrowed her eyes, and it looked like she was looking at something, or someone, off in the middle distance.
"You need to be in charge this time", she said. "Properly in charge. Not servicing some little ego-maniac."
Looking away, she fiddled with her earring. It was a stud, and the skin of her ear, like puffed-up pastry, had nearly subsumed it. I caught a glimpse of her tattoo. It looked like a bruise; like the result of a fight she'd had.
"Of course", she said, then stopped.
She stretched her neck, uncomfortably, first one side then the other. At last, blurting it out, she said,
"You could always be like the rest of us. You know: an insurance clerk. With a girlfriend."
Her eyes were scanning my face now. I said,
"With a hobby, maybe. Playing down the pub. You and a group of mates."
"And that'd be with washboards, would it?”
"You know what I mean."
"Playing down the pub."
"Oh, I don't know."
"For Christ's sake, Debbie."
She was scratching violently at the back of her neck.
"It takes over your life."
"It is my life."
"You know what I mean."
"You can't think about anything else."
"I don't want to be an insurance clerk. You knew that."
"Yes", she said. "I did."
At last, she shook herself slightly. She sighed and slowly smiled. Leaning across, she slapped the back of my head.
"You're a pain in the arse."
I took a couple of days off. I lay on the sofa, not getting dressed until just before Debbie came home. I played chess with Frank. He was squat, and wide, and had one long eyebrow. He always beat me.
"Just my luck", I said, about an hour into our first game. "A prodigy."
It was almost the first thing that I'd said. He grinned. Pointing a stubby finger at me, he said,
"The trouble with you is, you can't see what's under your nose."
What was he trying to tell me? I'd had a go at an advert, but I couldn't get past the fact that I had to write "I" rather than "we". I was writing a new song – a dance track, no less; a cocky, loping strut – but I was stuck on the comforting rhythm of the first two chords. I rocked backwards and forwards while I was playing them, like I was rocking myself to sleep. I had another one, but I wasn't sure where it was going, I just hit the same chord, over and over. I played my Les Paul, but I didn't have an amplifier; it sounded tinny and incongruous and barely there. I was strumming it, not thinking about anything, when the telephone rang.
It was Julian's voice. He had immediately taken charge; the slight – slightly parodic – emphasis and then the downwards-falling tone were an affectionate reprimand. I was being silly, the tone implied, but he wasn't going to hold it against me. I sat listening, stupidly. I couldn't think of anything to say. He said,
And that was it.
But now he was laughing indulgently.
"OK. OK. I'm sorry."
"And that's it, is it? You're sorry, so I roll over and."
"Look: calm down."
"Simon. We need to talk."
I could hear an exaggerated exhalation, and knew, now, where his relaxed tone was coming from. It irritated me even further.
"I'm not going to be court-martialled again, not by my own band."
"No, sweet. We need to talk. Just you and me."
"Because you can't write songs. Because I partly pay your rent. Because you're stuck, and Desmond says."
Firmly, he said,
"Because we're friends."
It winded me. He'd never said it before. Lost for words, I looked down at my guitar. I could see myself – a small, poorly defined version of myself – staring dumbly back. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be persuaded. The reluctance was partly willed, then played up for his benefit. Eventually I agreed to meet that night. I lied to Debbie. I told her he'd be out; that I was only going to get some stuff. We sat in my room, underneath the poster of Fred Astaire. I had knocked, I didn't know why, and he had let me in and led me upstairs with a careful show of courtesy. He'd poured me a glass of wine and I had busied myself among my records, putting some in a bag – unsure of what to say. Now I was facing him. He was, of course, immaculate; he was lying sideways on, like Cleopatra, in a dressing gown. Only the slight, regular spasm of his little finger, as though a current was passing through it, betrayed his nervousness, or his intoxication. I tried to stare him out. Slowly, he spread his hands.
"I'm sorry", he said.
I couldn't hold his eye for long.
"You want to be."
"I behaved badly. I don't know why."
I sighed, loudly. He shrugged.
"Look, I'm a child."
He took a long pull at his joint. When he spoke, his voice had changed key, slightly, with the strain of holding in his breath.
"You're different now", he said. "Much more."
He waved his hand.
"You have sex. It feels weird."
After a moment, I laughed too. I didn't usually smoke. Dope made me feel like I'd been inflated. I felt like every noise was much too sharp; a precursor of something. I'd lain once, for an hour, and felt my head slowly expand and contract. After that, I'd left it alone. But we'd done a bottle of wine together.
"You're an arse."
"I am. I know. I shock myself."
"You didn't talk to me for weeks."
"I was in a snit", he said.
He had lain back, and was looking up at the ceiling. He took another toke then languidly waved the joint at me. I took it. The gesture had been lordly. It seemed to prove what we'd been saying.
"I get in a huff", he said, "and I can't seem to get out of it."
Shaking my head, I inhaled, deeply, then held my breath.
"I'll be honest with you, Simon, I blamed."
He inclined his head, and pretended to study the ceiling. Then he looked at me impishly. I said,
"What's her face?"
My voice had gone up a semi-tone. He snorted, and I spluttered. We were both laughing. I had tears in my eyes and had begun to cough. He waved his arm over at me and I slotted the joint back between his fingers.
"It's Debbie", I said. "You know her name."
"Not Yoko. Debbie."
"I know. I know."
"I'm a bad boy."
He pulled himself back up and turned to face me.
He handed me the joint again and tossed his hair back into place. I hadn't thought – perhaps it was just that I hadn't remembered – that his presence alone could be so persuasive. I was flattered by his seeming openness, despite the fact he wasn't trying nearly hard enough. I felt as though I was back inside the magic circle.
"You don't need me any more", he said.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"You don't. And I blamed."
"Debbie", he conceded.
He was smoothing his ankle with one hand.
"'It's women", he said. "They're... You know.”
He had that look again; that sudden loss of opacity that made you want to talk to him. He said,
"They're... I don't know. I find it hard to talk to them."
He was leaning forwards, almost earnestly. Before I properly knew I had, I said,
"Are you bisexual?"
Christ, I was stoned. He raised an eyebrow.
His mouth moved in and out slightly. He was amused.
"And would that bother you?"
He was looking directly at me. I was starting to feel what I usually feel on dope; like I'd been hollowed out. My breathing had become shallower. You get that thing: your heart is fluttering, like a trapped bird, in your chest. Your fingers fail to work first time.
"Why would it?"
"You're safe, if that's what you're worried about."
“Look at him. He's disappointed."
"Don't be daft."
I took a slug, and then another slug, of wine.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"God, Simon. Tell you? I'm sorry, but, I mean, look at you. Two joints and you're all over the place. You've had two women in your entire life."
"'Friends', you said."
"So why tell me now?"
"But even so."
"He says that it'll be good for us. He says it's almost trendy now; that it'll be an angle. Admitting it, I mean."
He'd lain back down. I put the joint out, squeezing it around its cardboard base. The smoke frittered, then died. Still looking down at it, I said,
"I don't understand all this. This Desmond thing."
"He's a bright man."
"He's a buffoon."
"He's got contacts."
"Look, love. You write the songs. The songs are great. But we need to speed things up."
"Not just that. We need somebody who can really do it for us."
"And I can't?"
"You can barely talk in company. You can only just do it with Colin and Clive. Be honest."
"You should have said", I mumbled.
There was a pause. At last, he said,
He sounded like he was this time. He knew, though, that I was coming round, and he knew he needed to sound genuine. I didn't want to make it easy for him.
"I won't forgive you just because we're friends", I said, "not after this. Next time you piss me off I'll walk. I'll take my songs. You'll have to start from scratch."
I forced myself to look squarely at him.
He leaned across and took my glass. Grinning, he said,
"Now put a fucking record on."
Later, going to the fridge, I bumped from wall to banister. We'd had another bottle, and then another. Julian kept rolling joints. At some point I was on the phone to Debbie. I was staying the night, I told her; everything was fine. I had had to rest my forehead on the door of the airing cupboard and I felt like I was shouting words into a tunnel. Somewhere far away somebody was angry with me. When I came back, Julian was singing, but I couldn't tell what it was. His eyes looked like they could barely sustain their own weight. His dressing gown had come undone and his stomach was dusted with ash, like a fine dusting of flour.
"Who were you talking to?", he said.
I didn't know why I'd said it, even while I was sitting on the bed and saying,
"She was asking how the love nest was coming along."
"Aw, come on. That's your mum."
I was almost touching his leg.
"Well, if the cap fits."
He lined an index finger up with the tip of his nose, inaccurately. He sniggered again.
"She's an insistent woman, my mum. She won't."
He was looking for a cigarette, but it was like he was fully clothed. He kept checking his imaginary pockets, over and over – faster and faster – in a speeded up version of Desmond's sign of the cross. It had become a version of my drum roll.
"She won't take no for answer."
The dope and drink had made me feel like I was sitting in a patch of light, surrounded by an increasing penumbra of darkness. I had to sit on the floor. I could barely hear Julian now, and what I did hear I was having trouble understanding. He had started to sing. Again, it was meaningless – it barely had a tune – but it was rhythmic, and insistent; a child's game, or a child's mantra, something that a little boy would sing to ward off something. I had started to drum along. We were both rocking backwards and forwards, now, and laughing. Julian was rocking from side to side. I called for more, or thought I called for more – I waved my arms – but then I was asleep.
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.