Thursday, July 31, 2014

A NEW LEAF play reading season

Please come along to our new season of Australian plays, starting on 16 August 2014.

Flick through the plays and book for the coming season in our superb online brochure:

Saturday, June 7, 2014


The world is all a carcass and vanity, 
   The shadow of a shadow, a play 
                                                                      - Montaigne

While the Eternal City has been sacked by numerous invaders, it is perhaps hard to believe that the last sacking of Rome occurred less than 500 years ago, and at the hands of Christian forces, of the Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1523, two years after the death of Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) , another Medici would ascend the papal throne. But first there was the brief interregnum of the Dutchman, Adrian of Utrecht. Adrian had been tutor to Charles V during the emperor’s tender years, and the grown-up Charles now used his sizeable leverage in the Conclave of Cardinals to have his old mentor elected pope. 

Adrian knew little of the ways of Rome, was found to be rather less than a Renaissance Man, and early in his papacy was judged entirely unsuitable by a number of his peers, ‘...a barbarian who had been horrified at the pagan splendours of the Vatican when he at length arrived there. Barely able to speak Latin, Adrian seemed to believe that the prime duty of the supreme pontiff was to give spiritual guidance and set a Christian example to Christians.’1
This would not do, not for the bon-vivants of Rome. Like Leo before him, Adrian too misread the growing crisis in Germany with the followers of Luther, and suffered setbacks in the ongoing struggle with the Turks, the most serious being the loss of the strategic island of Rhodes in 1522. But more than anything else it was Adrian’s style which rankled with the Roman elite, and following his timely death in 1523, many among the ruling clans of Rome looked forward to a resumption of business as usual. After all, another Medici candidate was present before the cardinals in the person of Giulio de’ Medici, cousin of Leo X, son of Giuliano, and nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent. 
Giulio’s accession was not to be in any way as simple as that, however. Allied with the Emperor, he faced the pro-French faction in the conclave, and there were others with old family axes to grind against the Medici. The election dragged on for weeks, and the cardinals were bricked in and put on meagre rations to force a decision. Giulio’s ultimate victory in mid November was seen as a win for the Emperor and Spain over the French, and laid the groundwork for new intrigues which would bedevil Giulio for much of his pontificate.
He took the name Clement VII, and although as a cardinal he had served with some distinction as secretary of state under Leo, virtually from the beginning he was regarded as a well-intentioned but wavering and indecisive pope. The Venetian ambassador at the Vatican at the time, Marco Foscari, sketched him in these terms:
‘The Pope is forty-eight years old and is a sensible man but slow in decision, which explains his irresolution in action. He talks well, he sees everything, but is very timid... He withdraws no benefices and does not give them in simony. He gives away nothing, nor does he bestow the property of others. But he is considered avaricious... people grumble in Rome. He gives largely in alms, but is nevertheless not liked. He is very abstemious, and is a stranger to all luxury. He will not listen to jesters or musicians and never indulges in the chase or any other amusement... His entire pleasure consists in talking to engineers about waterworks.’2
Perhaps it was a hangover from the glory days of Leo, or that simply too much was expected of another Medici. ‘With all his good qualities, Clement was weak, hesitant, and always a little late; and he tried to play the old Italian political game in circumstances which no longer permitted it.’ In the process, Clement ‘made certain of the Protestant schism, and lost England to Rome’.3
This latter observation concerns his refusal to annul the marriage of England’s Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon, a matter over which, struggling with the advice of conflicting advisors, he dithered at length. But there was another catastrophe to befall the Church in the time of Clement: the sack of Rome. It may be hard for some to comprehend it now, but less than five centuries ago, Rome and the Vatican, which had survived the depredations of a thousand years of Huns, Vandals, Goths, Visigoths and Saracens, was once again overrun by hostile forces, its people butchered, raped and tortured and its treasures carted off as booty. The difference was this time the invaders could not be characterised as pagan hordes, but were themselves Christians. How that disaster came to pass is the second instalment of the tragic epic of the Emperor, the King, and the Pope.

In late 1524 the French army of Francois I was on the march once more in Italy, intent again upon taking Milan and moving on south to Naples, both with titles to which he considered he had a legal right. Milan fell readily enough, the forces of Emperor Charles V ejected and the French in control. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Clement threw the support of Rome behind Francois, on the undertaking that the French would leave the Papal States alone on their march south to Naples.
But Clement had backed the wrong horse. Rather than resting and re-supplying his forces, emboldened with a first taste of victory Francois pressed his men on, and laid siege to the imperial stronghold of Pavia, some thirty or so kilometres south of Milan. A few weeks after the French took Milan, early on the morning of 24 February 1525, the mightiest armies of Christendom clashed head-on outside the city walls of Pavia, Christian cutting down Christian. In an unremittingly brutal clash of cannon and arquebus, sword and pike, entire French units were outmanoeuvred, surrounded and hacked down to a man by the combined Spanish-German army of the Habsburg Emperor. In spite of their numerical superiority, the forces of Francois were routed, with a number of French nobles falling at the head of their troops. The king himself, his horse shot from beneath him, kept fighting on foot until he was surrounded and taken prisoner on the field sodden with the blood of his men. Francois was conveyed back to Madrid and kept prisoner at Charles’s pleasure. From there he wrote to his mother Louise, “all is lost to me save honour and life, which is safe”. 
The other loser on that morning in Pavia was a man safely far to the south of the clashing swords, Clement. For the time being, however, Charles resisted any urge to move south upon Rome and his former ally, but opted to reach terms with Clement in a new treaty. After a year of captivity, Francois secured his release bypledging his solemn word to Charles that he would desist from his territorial ambitions.4  
He never had the slightest intention of doing so. Upon his return to Paris, Francois and Clement entered into yet another treaty, the French king blessed with the Pope’s absolution for  breaking the vow he had given to Charles. Thus the so-called Holy League of Cognac was formed, with the Pope, France, Venice, Milan and Florence all lined up against the Habsburg emperor: a formidable alliance against a formidable foe.
But Charles faced other, even potentially bigger problems. That same year, 1526, he had to respond to a threat from the east, the Turkish forces of Sulaiman the Magnificent, and for a time it appeared the squabbling between Christian elements would be a serendipitous sideshow to aid the overthrow of Christendom by the Ottoman Muslims. The Christian world received a reprieve, however, when Sulaiman found the supply lines of his advancing troops were overstretched, and was forced to postpone the next critical phase of his western campaign. In doing so, he freed Charles to deal afresh with the French and their allies in Italy.
Pope Clement had continued to dither over which side to take, leading on Francois against Charles and then vice versa, in a bizarre menage a trois which finally cracked the patience of the Emperor. During the winter of 1526 a powerful German force crossed the Alps under the command of seasoned campaigner George Frundsberg, and efforts by Francois failed to halt their advance into Italy. In February 1527, just two years after the Battle of Pavia, another strong Imperial force was assembled in northern Italy, when Frundsberg’s army linked up with a Spanish force under the command of the French turncoat, the Duke of Bourbon. They marched on Rome.
Francois promised Clement more troops: they never came. Clement attempted to muster what Italian forces he could against the approaching horde, but gathered scant support. In a last desperate act he tried to bribe the approaching Spanish-German army, but with its soldiers now straining at the leash at the prospect of the legendary riches awaiting them in Rome, Clement’s offer was met with contempt. At the last, Clement prayed that the ineffable power of his office, as the representative of God on earth and spiritual head of all Christendom, might still deliver him and Rome from their fate, but his prayers too went unheard.  
On the spring morning of 6 May 1527, the Eternal City came under assault from its attackers. Unfortunately for the Romans sheltering in their homes from the cannon fire, Frundsberg had recently died from a stroke, and to make matters worse, the Duke of Bourbon lay mortally wounded by a Roman sniper. By the time the pitiable defence was thrust aside, a horde of thousands of underpaid Germans and Spaniards was on the loose within the walls of Rome, and there was no-one of any real authority remaining at their head to prevent the orgy of death and pillage that followed. 
The Pope was still on his knees praying as the imperial forces ‘stormed the city and sacked it amid such scenes of violence, murder, rape, looting and destruction that the Sacco di Roma has remained in the European memory even after many still more frightful events. The pope fled to the castle of San Angelo and later to Orvieto... As for the city, the sack was rightly seen at the time as the end of a great age. The Rome of the Renaissance was no more.’5
Drunken soldiers menaced the streets, nuns were raped and priests murdered, palaces and churches pillaged and burned by the hundreds, nobles tortured for ransom and hacked to death if they could not pay. Smoke curled from burnt out buildings and scavenging dogs gnawed at the rotting limbs of the unburied dead. As the days and terrible nights passed, the city was given over to a ghastly carnival of sexual violation and unremitting brutality, anarchy befitting depiction by Bruehgel or Bosch.   
‘A mob of soldiers dressed an ass in bishop’s vestments and demanded that a priest should offer it the Host. The man, in last defence of his office, swallowed the wafer himself and was murdered - slowly. Those nuns who were killed after being raped were fortunate, for their sisters were dragged around like animals, to be auctioned off to man after man before finding the relief of death. Luther was proclaimed pope in a mock ceremony. The venerable relics of Rome, the tombs of the popes, were despoiled.’
It was a hammer blow to the Church of Rome delivered by Spanish and German Christians who considered themselves facing a papal anti-Christ, and who used the unfinished Saint Peter’s basilica as their stables. Although Charles was said to have been horrified at news of the acts perpetrated by his own men, they would nonetheless occupy Rome for the remainder of that terrible year, and after they finally departed it would take Rome decades to begin to recover. The very spirit of Rome had been shattered: ‘After 1527 there was a failure of confidence; and no wonder.’7 

1. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, p255: Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003 
2. Alberi, E., Le Relazioni degli Ambasciatori Veneti al Senato durante il secolo decimosesto, p126, quoted in Chamberlin, R., op cit, p260 
3. Elton, G.R., Reformation Europe, p80: Collins, London, 1967
4. Seward, D., Prince of the Renaissance: The Life of Francois I, p151. Francois bartered the freedom of his own sons as hostages in exchange for his release, and they would remain in captivity for four years, until the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, when their freedom was bought with four and a half tons of gold. Francois threw fistfuls more of it into the streets after signing the treaty and securing the release of his sons, much to the delight of the citizens of Cambrai. Sphere Books, London, 1974
5. ibid, p83
6. Chamberlin, R., op cit, p278
7. Clark. K. Civilisation, p125: Penguin Books, London, 1987

from my book Tales of the Popes: From Eden to El Dorado.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Exposed to the daylight like a mullet,
The front wall sheared clean off,
And there are we, suddenly, sitting
In our living rooms of framed velvet art
Toothsome family pix, lumpy old TVs,
If “we” is used metaphorically, being not us
But a coarser, less worthy, less us us,
Whose tragic cling to creed is in itself
A fuzzy shagpile of the mediaeval mind;
So that they not we are exposed to the light
Like a mullet by the bullet by the bomb,
By the drones in their coolest droves,
This weaponry of the purest idea,
Sent by us who live not in distant kitsch
But in clean merging lines of Ikea.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


US edition, with a much nicer credit for me as ghost writer.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


The cold remains of Sunday roast lay on the plate in front of me, the sprigs of cauliflower entombed in a sarcophagus of congealed white sauce. ‘So what's it about, this test tomorrow?’, my father asked.

‘Ancient Rome.’

‘Big topic. Specifics, please.’ 

The clock showed five past two. I only had five minutes left. My mother went to take the cold mess from in front of me, but my father's hand stayed her.

‘It’s on everyday life in Rome.’

‘And what was it like,’ he asked, ‘everyday life in Rome?’


‘I bet it was. Particularly for Roman boys who wouldn't eat the nice Sunday lunch their mothers had cooked.’

I cleared my throat. ‘It was slaves, dad.’


‘Slaves. If you had any money, it was slaves who did the cooking.’

‘What's the difference?’ my mother said, swiping my plate. ‘Wife, slave, what's the difference?’ 

‘What you mean?’ my father said. 

‘How it sounded.’ 

But then she smiled at him, if a little strangely, and walked off down the hallway. After a final look at me my father followed her. Not wasting a moment, I opened the front door and was off. 

I didn’t have far to go. A British racing green Mini idled at the corner. The driver dropped the clutch and we zoomed away through the comatose suburban streets.

‘I'm Greg.’ He took a drag on his Peter Stuyvesant. He was probably no more than eighteen, but to my eyes was a grown man, complete with wispy chin beard and smoking affectations.

‘Troy,’ I lied.

He smirked at me sceptically. ‘Men swear by Troy’s Menswear, eh?'

'Isn't that Thwaites?' I asked.
'Well, up to you what we call you anyway.’

I had spoken to him only once, on the telephone, in reply to the hand-written advertisement I’d seen in the coffee lounge on Henley Square.

‘What kept you?’ he asked.

‘Sunday lunch.’


‘No thanks.’

He told me he’d driven over from Exeter and that he worked in a garage on Port Road. Despite an abrupt manner he was friendly enough, and his smile was shy. I already knew enough to expect as much in a bass guitarist.

The car radio was on 5KA, Big Jim Slade. A jingle played for Solomons Carpets, and next Big Jim boomed a paean of praise for a new band he said everyone was talking about, the Master’s Apprentices, and played their song. 

‘I love it when the singer does all the rooting grunting,’ Greg said. He took the Mini hard through an S-bend. ‘Played much electric guitar?’

‘A bit,’ I lied again. 

I had bought my acoustic classical only six weeks before, and had never even touched an electric. My entire repertoire comprised The House Of The Rising Sun and Honky Tonk Women.

‘Read music?’

‘Chords, yeah.’ 

‘Anyone who can read can read chords mate. The dots, I mean.’

‘The notes? Not... not yet. Still learning,’ I admitted.

‘Doesn't matter too much I ‘spose,’ he said, ‘only on rhythm after all.’


We pulled up outside a two-storey cream brick house on Anzac Highway and were met at the front door by an overweight man in an open-necked shirt and cardigan, Sunday Mail in hand. He looked at us with bored contempt. ‘Upstairs, still in bed.’

‘Dunno why he boards here with that old queer,’ Greg said as we climbed the stairs. ‘Must be cheap’s all I can say.’

Martin had his own front door at the top of the stairs. Taped to it was a small black and white photograph of Roy Orbison, skin the whitest shade of pale and sunglasses the deepest melancholia of black. 

‘The Big O,’ Greg murmured, with a nod of respect, and knocked on the door.

After a delay of a half minute it opened, and a girl stood yawning in a faded blue sheet. She was about fifteen, pimply and pasty. Her nails were black and her dyed black hair bunched in tangles.

‘We're here to pick up Martin,’ Greg said. ‘Band practice.’ 

The girl walked away without a word. As she did, the sheet flapped open and I saw her from neck to ankle, the first naked female body I'd ever seen. If only it had been a front view, I couldn’t help but wish.

We followed her and found her back in bed with a sleeping man I took to be Martin. The bed was a stained mattress on a shaggy green carpet strewn with greasy-fingered glass tumblers, an empty whisky bottle and a full ashtray. A skimpy dress, black stockings, bra and panties lay entangled with a man's purple shirt and black jeans. The pockmarked walls were bare except for a poster of Roy Orbison in concert. In the corner was a fire engine red Fender Stratocaster, the first I'd ever seen up close. 

Greg nudged Martin’s shoulder, and his eyes blinked open, murky green. He yawned a bad-toothed grin and sat up to roll himself a cigarette. His dirty blond hair hung in strings around a leathery, tobacco-cured face. There was a tattoo on his bicep, a red heart pierced by three swords. I thought him older than Greg, twenty, twenty-one even. He slipped a hand under the sheet the girl had around her, onto her breast, and she didn't protest or seem to mind.

‘So the old chook let you in okay,’ Martin said. His voice was surprisingly pleasant, well modulated and articulated, if raspy.

Greg jerked his head in my direction. ‘This is Troy, the young guy I mentioned. Rhythm.’

Martin's eyes rested on me. ‘Young's the word,’ he said with a tweak of his lips.

‘I'm fifteen,’ I protested, too much.

‘Thirteen if that.’ 

‘Okay. I’m fourteen.’

‘How long you been playing? Month? Six weeks?’

‘Six months.’ 

‘Oooh, sorry,’ Martin giggled, ‘half a whole year he says.’

The girl had been attempting to affect aloofness, but Martin ended that with a little squeeze of her breast that made her squeal. 

‘Martin, that bloody well hurt!’ 

I realised from her accent she was English, a girl from out at Elizabeth perhaps. She ran off into the sad little living room I could see adjoining, pursued by a ‘sorry, love’. This time she kept the sheet securely wrapped round her. 

She had left Martin lying naked on the mattress, but his only acknowledgement of it was another chuckle. Then he sprang to his feet with an unhinted at agility and pulled on the black jeans and crumpled shirt.

‘Well come on you chaps,’ he said, grabbing his guitar and a leather bike jacket from a hook behind the door. ‘The muse awaits.’


Frank’s family lived in a rambling whitewashed stucco Spanish villa on the seafront at Grange. It was on a deep block, and there was a tin shed down the back he was allowed to use for band practice on Sunday afternoons. 

Frank was younger than Martin and Greg, sixteen or so, but was in many respects as self-possessed as Martin. His father was a real estate agent and Frank went to a private school up in town. I guessed he'd go on to university, do law, even architecture. He was good-looking, with an easygoing manner. His limbs were long, his finely-featured face framed by the dark hair he fringe-flicked from his eyes. I couldn't work out was why he was only the drummer: he was easily good-looking enough to be the singer, more so, truth be told, than Martin, and I subtly intimated as much.

‘Funny that,’ Frank said as he led me into the freezing, half-lit shed. ‘But there's only room for one Adolf in every band, and one bloody poet too, so we just have to put up with him. He’s all right actually, as far as it goes.’

The band set-up looked like a pagan ritual scene. The drums occupied centre stage, flanked by amplifiers blinking with little red lights and emitting a low expectant buzz. Out front microphones stood on stands, frayed leads running away. Frank took an electric guitar from a battered case, plugged it in and tuned it.

‘I started out with this,’ he said, then nodded towards the drums, ‘before I got to those.’

‘You prefer drums?’

‘In rock, drums are it. The rest's window dressing.’

He handed the guitar to me. After my acoustic it felt like a chunk of scrap metal. ‘Played an electric much?’ His grin made the question rhetorical. ‘Give it a go. Let 'er rip.’ 

I made an open C chord, and dragged the plectrum across the strings. Sound exploded from the speaker behind me, and ricocheted around the ceiling of the tin shed. I was astonished at the instant power I possessed.

‘Nice, eh? Play bar chords?’

‘Er, not yet.’

‘No worries, you're only on rhythm.’ He looked around. ‘Now where have those two bastards got to?’

We went outside. Big Norfolk pines lined Seaview Road behind the house, making it shadowy between the shed and the back fence. I could hear the wind through the treetops, and the waves lapping the beach on the far side of the house. The sea smell prickled my nostrils. Every inch of the old place looked salt-encrusted, even the windows, and paint was peeling everywhere. Frank appeared to read my thoughts. ‘Gives the old man nightmares keeping up this dump.’ 

Martin and Greg were huddled in a corner against the back fence. ‘Smoke?’ Martin asked me.

‘No thanks. I don't.’

‘Not even a little joint?’ 

I had seen pot smoked on television, in silly melodramas where people ended up shrieking in straightjackets, and TV current affairs segments with reporters poking microphones at giggling uni students at parties, but this was the first time I’d ever been offered it. I hated cigarette smoking, but was tempted to this out of curiosity. There was the complication too that it might be a "peace pipe": that if I wanted to be one of the boys, I’d better smoke with them. But an image flashed into my head, of my mother crying as I phoned her from the police cells to say I'd been arrested on a drugs charge, and I too clearly saw the defeated look on my father's face in a courtroom. 

The joint hung there, smouldering between Martin's nicotine-yellowed forefinger and thumb. ‘Well?’ 

‘No thanks, not before I play.’

He raised an eyebrow and slipped the joint back between his lips. ‘Ah, the dedicated musician.’ He exhaled a billow of smoke and passed the joint on to Greg, who clenched his teeth and dragged hard. Frank didn't take his turn. Perhaps he worried about his parents too. ‘Some artists say it helps them create,’ Martin went on. ‘Hendrix. Baudelaire used all kinds of stuff.’

‘Oh,’ I said. I of course knew all about Hendrix - but who was this Baudelaire?

‘You're probably wondering who Baudelaire plays with,’ Martin laughed.

‘Oh come on Martin,’ Frank put in, ‘stop playing the big know-it-all. Who cares if you happen to know the name of some old French poet, Flowers of Evil, big deal.’

‘Ooh, so we are in a perfectly shitty little mood again today are we Frank?’ Martin taunted. 

The silence that followed was broken by Greg coughing as he handed the joint back to Martin.

‘So what's the name of this band?’ I asked.

‘We don't have one yet,’ Frank said. ‘This is only our third practice.’

‘At last count there were three candidates,’ Martin said, ‘The Handsome Crabs, The Worry Beads, Cat Scratch. What do you think?’

‘Well...’ I replied.

‘I sense doubt. Any ideas of your own?’ Martin paused, waiting for a reply from me. ‘Any ideas at all? Or is that too big an ask?’

‘Oh come on, let's just start,’ Frank said. He moved off towards the shed, but Martin didn't budge. 

‘What did you say, Frank?’

‘I said let's start.’

Martin stared at him. ‘When I'm ready. That's when we'll start, mate. Okay?’

The two gave each other a look, and Greg couldn't help laughing, nervously. Martin ground the stub of the joint beneath his Cuban heel and went inside, followed in order by Frank, Greg and myself.

Martin picked up his guitar and plugged it in before standing quietly with it. He looked good with a guitar, I thought. It was the way he held it. There was something about how all the greats held their guitar, I realised: Elvis, Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Hendrix. It was like a physical extension of them, but it was more than that. It was as if they had been born to hold their guitar just like that, in their own way: Elvis caressed its curves, Lennon thrust it out rebelliously, Townshend did his big mad roundarm strums before smashing it against an amp, Hendrix writhed erotically with it on the floor, wrestling it, the strings between his teeth.  

‘So what do we start with?’ Martin said in my direction. ‘How about Stone Free?’ 

This was the latest Jimi Hendrix Experience song on the hit parade. It was a Power Play on 5AD and you heard it about fifty times a day. It was an explosion of raw guitar energy, of shimmering reds and purples and blues, of pure power, Hendrix, inimitable.

‘Pretty big one, first up.’  

Martin smirked. ‘Too hard, yeah, you’re right. How about The House of the Rising Sun? You must know that, it's Lesson One in all the Teach Yourself Guitar books.’

Despite the paternal sarcasm, I breathed relief.

Martin started up, finger-picking the first bars, a  chill emanating from the Fender. I noticed then the little hand-lettered price-tag that dangled from it, $25.00, from Laurie Tredrae's, the pawnbroker. Perhaps Martin left it on as some sort of inverted pride. I wondered too how the guitar had made it to a pawnbroker in the first place, and about the sorry muso at the end of some long, awful road. What was left of you after you hocked your Fender? 

The drums and bass kicked in. I picked my moment to come in on the rhythm, and a moment or two later Martin looked over and gave me an almost imperceptible nod. I gave an equally minimal response, and we swung into it, pretty ragged, but all things considered, not too bad. 

Then Martin began to sing, and I knew instantly why he was the leader of the band. His voice was a deep blue lament, a wonder. You could have listened to that voice all night, the texture, the tone, yet astonishingly it belonged to such a conceited prick.

We got past the first verse, and the band started cooking. I realised the origin of the term then. All the ingredients get tossed in, perhaps not so appetising in themselves but given the right amount of heat they meld in an alchemical miracle, much richer and sweeter than the sum of the parts.

‘Oh, Jesus wept!’ Martin yelled out suddenly, stopped playing and tossed his guitar aside. Before anyone realised what was happening he was up beside the bass drum dragging a startled Frank up off his stool by the lapels of his denim jacket.

‘Listen you idiot, how long do I have to put up with your utter lack of rhythm! I mean, how do you dance, man? How do you fuck for Chrissakes!’ Still holding Frank, he gestured towards me. ‘See him, this kid the dog dragged in... even he's got more talent than you! A shithouse door banging in the wind's got more!’

Frank broke the hold. ‘Yeah? Well no-one, no-one's more up themselves than you are, dickhead! Talk about ego!’

‘Yeah, well maybe I am! An arsehole you all think, and you’re probably right! But I can do my job. When it comes down to it I can sing and I can play. But you can't... you're useless! The only thing you bring to the group is this shed!’

‘Get fucked,’ Frank said, if quietly.

‘No, you, you get fucked! Go and get utterly fucked! For the first time ever no doubt - do you good, wouldn’t it! So yeah, you go and get yourself fucked Frank.’

In the ensuing silence I had no idea how we could go anywhere from here. The room felt even colder, and I realised the late winter sun was going down. Dark soon, I'd be expected home.

Greg spoke up. ‘Well, I’d do that, yeah, get utterly fucked. Trouble is, got no volunteers have I.’ 

Despite themselves, the other two couldn't help smiling. ‘Jesus you're a case, know that Greg?’ Martin said, before erupting in a peal of laughter. A half second later Frank joined in, and Greg, and I was too, laughing with relief, deliriously, at the madness of being here with these three strangers making music in this frozen tin shed by the sea. The four of us walked towards each other and laughed, arms around each other's shoulders, turning round and round in a little wheel until we felt dizzy. This is what it is to be an artist, I thought, the silly arguments and the insanity, and the little pin-pricks of something magical just when all seems lost. This is why I answered the ad in the coffee lounge, why I made the call and am here today, and why there's no turning back now. I am one of these lunatics.

The laughter subsided, leaving the four of us standing there. ‘Well, so?’ Martin said, tears of mirth still in his eyes. ‘Suggestions, come on.’

‘How about In Dreams,’ Frank said, and I sensed as he did that he had been summoning up the courage to say it.

‘What..?’ Greg said, ‘Jesus no, Frank, not again.’

‘Frank,’ Martin replied, still smiling, ‘you know we can't do that song mate.’

‘Why not?’ 

‘Because like I keep on telling you, no-one can sing it. It's like our young friend here said about Hendrix. I can't sing that song, not In Dreams. It's impossible.’

‘I'm not suggesting you sing it. I want to.’

‘What?’ Martin said. ‘You?? You want to sing In Dreams?’ 

‘Yeah. Me. I do. I've got the sheet music here.’ 

Frank passed around photostat copies. His face was flushed, his hand trembled slightly. Martin gazed down at the face in dark glasses on the cover of the sheet music. 

‘It's easy enough to play,’ Frank prompted.

‘Of course it's easy to play. But it’s not possible to sing. You don't just have a crack at his songs... they're special. Art.’ With a flick Martin opened the sheet and ran his forefinger down until he reached the final verse. ‘See this Frank, this mark, under the last line of the song, “Only in dreams in beautiful dreams”? See the “O” printed there, under the word “Only”?’

‘Yeah. So what?’

‘That is there because there is only one person who can sing that big top note. Only one. Roy Orbison.’

‘Bullshit,’ Frank stated.

‘No, not bullshit, my friend.’

‘It has to be.’

‘Why? Why do you say that? Are you calling me a liar?’ Martin said, renewed threat entering his voice.

‘What, you expect me to believe that nowhere, in the whole world... that there's no-one who can sing that note like Roy Orbison does?’

‘Yeah, that's what I expect you to believe. That’s what I’m telling you Frank. And you better believe it. If you intend to remain a member of this band, that is.’

‘What?’ Frank protested, looking towards me for support. ‘You can't be serious. I mean, you expect that just because you think Roy Orbison is the next best thing to Jesus Christ, everyone else has to agree? Who do you think you are Martin, some new bloody messiah?’

‘No, just the leader of the group. And I'm not going to allow this band to waste its time trying to learn a song we can't do. Not do properly anyway, not that would do it justice, him justice.’

‘Him meaning Roy Jesus Fucking Christ Orbison,’ Frank smirked.

Martin did not hesitate. I saw his fist shoot out and disappear into Frank's stomach, saw Frank's eyes widen, heard his low "oof". He fell back, doubled over, and looked up, shocked. 

‘You're fucking mad!’ he got out between gasps. 

‘You’re ignorant. Shut up.’ 

‘You shut up, arsehole!’ 

Martin took a step towards him. 

‘Get out, just get out,’ Frank yelled, retreating a pace.

‘What?’ Greg said quietly. ‘No...’ 

Frank turned towards Greg, and we could all see the hurt in Frank’s eyes then, not so much from Martin’s blow, but at having to pursue the course he had stumbled onto.

‘Piss off, all of you. Get out.’

‘Oh, so we're taking our cricket bat and going home are we?’ Martin said. ‘What else could you expect from the son of a real estate agent? You can't rock and roll. You could never rock and roll. It's from the dark side of the tracks, the shacks.’ He picked up his guitar and jacket and walked out.

‘Hey, Martin!’ Greg called. 

The gate onto the street creaked open and clanked shut. 

‘Christ,’ Greg sighed, ‘why does it always have to be like this?’

‘What?’ I asked.

‘Everything, like this, always,’ Greg said, and ran off after Martin.

In the quiet after they had gone I realised Frank was crying, softly. I couldn't bear it, and went to put a consoling arm around him, but he shrugged it off.

‘What are you, pooftah?’ 


‘Piss off. Just piss off.’ 

He walked away. I heard his feet crunching the gravel path back to the house, leaving me alone with the drums and guitars of our nameless band that never was.  


‘Where’ve you been!’ my father called. My eyes adjusting to the semi-darkness, I saw him in his armchair, cigarette in one hand and beer in the other, and my mother in the matching armchair, cigarette smouldering in her ashtray. The TV news was on, a helicopter lifting off from a paddy field. Scenes on board followed, of a crewcut young soldier blazing away at a half dozen piglets running through some deserted Asian village.

‘Bloody madness,’ I muttered.

‘What was that?’ my father asked.

‘Nothing,’ I said.

‘Where’ve you been all this time?’


‘Off chasing some bird.’

‘Dad, I was studying.’

‘Bullshit. And don't you bloody swear.’ Then he said, ‘Go and pour yourself a beer why don't you. Footy replay's coming on, Torrens and Sturt.’

I went out to the kitchen wondering if I would get any time later on to look over the Roman stuff. I had to do well this year, and the next, and the one after, to get to university, to get out. And I had to do the right thing by my parents too. If I didn't, who would? 

I thought of Greg at the garage, and the dream of playing in front of fans, getting girls, getting money, getting out, all misting away to the hard residue of a car in for a service and a wrench in his hand. I wondered what he would do now, and hoped he would try again.


Over the years I came to doubt the strange day of the band ever occurred. The details didn’t seem quite right for one thing. Surely by then I had gotten past the Sunday rite of the congealed vegetables? Did I have a guitar then: wasn’t that until a year or so later? 

But the day did happen, in all the crucial detail, down to the Flowers of Evil. Indeed, it is only decades later that I am certain of it, after the passage of sufficient time to cross the shadow line from what we prise from the travails of our days into what we prize from our nights, in dreams.

My story from the anthology Small City Tales of Strangeness and Beauty, eds Gillian Britton and Stephen Lawrence, Wakefield Press 2009.