Tuesday, May 13, 2014

IN DREAMS




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?’

‘Hard.’

‘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.’

‘What?’

‘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.’

‘Cigarette?’

‘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.’



                                                          O



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.’

                              
                                                       O

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?’ 

‘Frank...’

‘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.  

                                                             O

‘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?’

‘Studying.’ 

‘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.



                                                             O


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.








No comments:

Post a Comment