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Chapter One

I had just got back from the cemetery when she arrived. She was on a motorbike, and I found that I was as resentful of it as I was of her. Never mind that I had agreed to this, that I had given in with a show of graciousness, here it came throbbing and roaring down my street. There was an aesthetic shock, a feeling almost of tenderness, when she got off. The contrast, I mean. She was just over five feet tall. Her skin looked luminously frail. The leathers accentuated this but they also subverted it; made it seem a statement in a language that I no longer understood. Her chin was tiny. There were echoes in it. Echoes of echoes, although I wasn’t conscious of them. Still, she had me at a disadvantage. I had come out to my gate and was resting against it awkwardly. I found that I wanted to run away. Here was the world again. I’d thought I’d managed to escape.

She pulled the bike onto its stand. It yielded reluctantly. I found that its throbs were still somewhere in my chest. She said,

“Mr Manners.”

“Please. Paul.”

I allowed her to shake my hand. The heartiness of the gesture was contradicted by her face. Everything – her eyes and mouth, of course, but also the tilt of her nose and the slight sideways motion of her neck – appeared to be assessing me. At the same time, her eyes were such a bright and candid blue that they gave her a look of innocence. You didn’t know who you were supposed to be talking to. Already, I wanted to flush her out. Or else perform for her. Instead, I led her across the lawn.

There it all was: the place just by the summer house where we had stood for our first photo shoot; the summer house; the swing; the silence beyond the hedge – that particular silence that I still feel as much as hear. It’s like a weight; I’ve never got used to it. I chose not to point any of this out to her. She had gathered herself inwards. All innocence, she watched her feet the way a child watches herself dance. I led her into the living room, where she sat in the exact centre of a chair. Her hands were neatly folded in her lap. As I made the tea, I found that I was as aware of her as if she had decided to follow me round the house. Ridiculous, of course. I’d agreed that she could come. What I was feeling, really, was a variation on the same old sorrow. I was conscious of an approaching reckoning; it was irrelevant whether I had asked for it or not.

As I walked back into the living room, I saw myself as she must see me. Elderly, almost. Finicky: fussing, like an old lady, with the tray. A disappointment. I was expecting her to be standing up and studying the room but she hadn’t moved at all. She was looking at the piano. She smiled.

“So this is where the magic happens.”


I placed the tray between us. I did this like I was displaying how to do it. I steadied the cups. As is my wont these days, I walked over the carpet like it were sewn with unexploded bombs.

“And it was never magic,” I said. “I never…”

I was bending over the tray. I had waved my hand, uselessly, over the cups.

“… got the trick of it. It’s too mysterious.”

“And now?”

Her nails, I noticed, were all bitten. She had taken her jacket off and it lay over her chair. It looked like the sloughed skin of a snake, although that wasn’t how I saw her. She, too, was an unexploded bomb but she was as innocent of this as all bombs are. She was leaning slightly forwards now. Her eyes seemed finally to belong to her.

“And now?”, I said. “Nothing.”

“You gave it up?”

“You don’t give it up.”

I shrugged.

“It gives you up.”

I looked out of the window, at the corner of the summer house. There’s a doubling these days: I see now and then together. Then, though, is mediated through old photos, so that I see me too, where once… Well, how could we possibly have known what we all looked like? The patch of brown grass by the swing was where we’d had our picture taken, and there he is, still, in his cords and collarless shirt and Elvis Costello hat. He’s singing into a flower and pointing awkwardly at his guitar. Ruth’s in a summer dress. I’m wearing, of all things, a suit. I’m laughing at something that Simon’s said. He has the look of someone who knows how to make a joke; who balances easily on his feet. But he is awkward too. This isn’t a contradiction. We had to cut Derek’s feet out of the bottom of the picture. He was wearing socks and sandals. Simon was furious. But that, that fury, always seemed separate from him somehow. He could express it, but he couldn’t ever inhabit it; not entirely. He was being buoyed up, continually, by his ambition, but there was always its opposite; a continual veering off to the side, like a drunk trying to walk in a straight line. Self-immolation. It ran in his family. I said,

“I have one song.”

I grinned. Or tried to. I’m out of practice.

“I’ve been writing it for forty years.”

She didn’t know whether I was joking. I offered her my palms.

“I have the chorus.”

“And that’s all?”

“The words, I mean.”

Again, I shrugged.

“It won’t come.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. All that scribbling. It was a pain in the arse.”

Which wasn’t, strictly, an untruth. I always found it hard. It was Simon who found it easy. For Simon, it was like pulling skeins of gold from out of the guitar. She nodded, although she had no idea, really, what she was assenting to. Already, I was having to prevent myself from explaining things to her. It’s a part of age: the confessional urge. Your confidence in yourself, in your ability to maintain a steady image of yourself, diminishes. For those who have others, they look to them to buoy them up. Me? I have the mirror. I have the comfort of familiar things. Meanwhile, one finger begins its journey inward. I’ve developed a cough. I smile differently. It feels like I have to lift my mouth; as though somebody, some other part of me, is having to do it for me. She (Debbie; her name is Debbie) was like another species. She was sleek and beautiful but distant, too. An annunciation. She was saying,

“I don’t quite understand the timeline. This was where it all started, yes?”

“The very room.”

I had placed a certain amount of top spin on that “very”. I was thinking that, if she was excited, it wasn’t because of me. Even if she thought it was.

“And you’ve been here all this time?”

I realised that “time”, for her, meant something different than it does for me. For Debbie it’s virtually Biblical. Or geological. A whole life, she thinks, spent in this tiny place. She’s right: it is. The pub doesn’t open until four in the afternoon. Clay Hill. Stone Street. They’re over before you know it. But for me everything’s always now. Simon could appear around any corner. The songs, in their original configuration, continue to roll around my head.

“This was my parents’ house. My dad died years ago, and when my mother died…”

Again, I presented my opened palms.

“I thought: why not?”

I realised that I had tried to make it appear entirely self-explanatory. But, of course, it wasn’t; not even to me. Especially not to me. I could see her thinking that it was too early to ask me why. I let the silence gather into a pause, and then a longer pause. It had been stupid, this. A self-indulgence. Dangerous, yes, but delicious too. Part of me wanted to talk for days. But it was a part, I knew, that should have been smothered long before I let her in the house. I looked at her and I thought: completely blank. I might as well be talking to the radio. I realised, simultaneously, that this was what I wanted to think; that I saw her, still, as a potential saboteur. Also, as something else: something, someone rather, who I wouldn’t allow myself to recognise. It was her youth; the way she sat, so very poised, giving you the impression of a determined balancing. She was willing herself to face me, or to face whatever it was I was supposed to represent. My daughter. Beth. She reminded me of Beth. Now she was looking, deliberately, at my framed copy of “Shipbuilding”. It’s the picture sleeve: more gold. The way she tilted her head was a trifle stagy. Was she displaying her neck? It was, I felt, more a preamble than anything. She was easing herself into what she was about to say.

“So that would be… 1982?”

She had succeeded in surprising me. I shook my head.

“I didn’t hear it until 1983.”

“Ah. So then it’s the same year as that.”

She had pointed to the framed picture of The Face. Elvis is wearing a beret. It was what Simon thought that he was replicating, out by the summer house. Elvis has placed one finger on his lips. He looks mock-innocent; all-knowing and radiantly successful.

“Yes. Same year.”

“And that?”

It’s the only other picture in the room. Simon’s sitting, almost lying, on an armchair. He was handsome, but it was a quality that he couldn’t be trusted with. He was too jittery. Too perverse. There were times when he seemed to be juggling his thoughts from hand to hand. But there were other times when he flaunted them at you. His whole body did. I said,


Debbie nodded. She looked as though she too were chewing all the words she couldn’t allow herself to say. At last she said,



I found that I couldn’t look at her.

“It is.”

I always try to use the present tense. I found, suddenly, that I wanted to bear witness; that, in fact, I was already doing so. I was patting the piano stool.

“Here,” I said.

I was thumping it, rather.

“We used to sit here. We’d have a song and we’d…”

I tapped a note. It could have been anything: a knock on the door; a gust of wind – it was insufficient, I mean; it didn’t do anything to bring him back. I jumped up. I sat on the stool and started to play the chords of “If You’ve Got To Leave”. They haven’t improved with age.

“Meat and potatoes,” Simon always used to say. I said,

“This. This was him. And we wanted…”

I was still playing. My hands, when I’m playing the piano, feel like boxing gloves. Or, at least, they do when they play his chords. He always played a child’s idea of chords: one block on top of another block. But I can still remember what I played.

“…something baroque.”

When my fingers sketch the filigree of the solo I can always feel them lighten. I was talking while I played. I was louder than I had to be. I was advocating for me; for my importance in the scheme of things.

“I wrote this. We did it side by side. It used to feel like…”

Louder and louder.

“…nuclear fission.”

I stopped playing and turned swiftly around to face her. She did at least look interested. I banged my fists together.

“Traction. You have to push one note up against another. You have to listen. You can’t just...”

Debbie had raised an eyebrow.

“Use gated drums? And smother it in echo?”

She had spoken quietly but she was smiling. Or pouting. Her mouth was hovering delicately between the two. I threw my head back and laughed. I realised, even as I was doing it, that I hadn’t done this for months. Who do I see? The postman. The girl who does my hair. (I don’t even know her name.) Stray schoolchildren, all so much younger than I used to be.


I looked into her eyes. No, it was true: she knew exactly what she’d said. Her face had appeared to rearrange itself around the joke. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that she finally allowed herself to look as intelligent as she was. Now it was her turn to place her palms in front of her. She said,

“I love the early albums.”

Was she simply attempting to draw me in? She was smiling, broadly, now and looking deliberately into my eyes.

“Your songs.”

Now it looked as though her hands were trying to express something she couldn’t say. They were juggling, but unevenly, so that the empty air appeared to be slippery. It was the songs that she was juggling. They were too much for her.

“But then…”

She was pushing her palms upwards, now, so that they seemed to be asking for some reciprocal gesture. Beth, I thought. It’s definitely Beth. The careful, almost studied, quiet then this: the urge to speak. I sat back in my chair. I said,

“But then they stopped being any good. And then we changed.”

I have to say this for her: she did look genuinely bewildered. She really wanted to know the reason things were spoiled. There were two great albums and then the next one… Well, it was lumbering and coarse. And we all knew it at the time. That was when it went belly up. I wanted to tell her that it was alright. That I have… What do I have? Nothing. But that we’re on perfectly good terms. Nothing and me? Old friends.

Did she really want to know? Surely I wasn’t going to tell her? I looked over her head, out at the sky – the way it blandly over-arches everything. The sky is nothing, too, or nothing’s guarantee. It doesn’t watch; it doesn’t mock. It isn’t strictly even there. Once it felt limitless. But so did we. She was looking at me as though everything was in the future, still; as though, given the proper impetus, I could write a song for her there and then. I tapped her arm. A thank you, I think it was. I tried to look avuncular. I poured more tea. I watched her wait for me to say something. I settled into my chair and crossed my arms. My stomach was in knots, of course. My ears buzzed like our amplifiers used to do. They get in the way, my ears, just like the amplifiers did. What I hear is liable to have been mucked about before it gets to me. It’s bigger and wilder and imprecise. The static is impressive: it has a whole language to itself. It’s worse at times of stress; it’s me who’s like a fucking radio. I tried to smile.

“Ask me,” I said.



May 04

I love this.

Alan Humm
Alan Humm
May 04
Replying to

Ange! How are you?

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