Archive | January, 2013

The Wizard Of Was. A Short Story By Steve Swindells

20 Jan

The Wizard Of Was

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‘It was much more fun back in the eighties,’  said Josephine, swivelling-round on her bar stool and fixing Tom‘s eyes.  He tried to conceal his initial shock as she’d instantly engaged him with what appeared to be the spirit of potential intimacy. Or was it just his imagination?

‘I wouldn’t know,’ he responded, returning her intense gaze with an inquisitive smile:  ‘I was at school in Trinidad in those days,  my dad was working for an oil exploration company  So what are you referring to?’   ‘That’s a coincidence,’ said Josephine, or Juice as she was more commonly known, lighting a cigarette,  ‘half my family are from Trinidad, as-in my dad, but my mum is from Wales.

‘So why was it more fun?’ He asked.  ‘Well, clubs in the eighties were much more real, atmospheric and inspirational,’  she replied, ‘plus there was a lot of creative and entrepreneurial interaction between groups of artistic and visionary underground movers and shakers and they were genuinely supportive of each other in their networking.’  ‘Wow,’ said Tom, ‘it sounds like it was a heady experience, so how were you involved?’  ‘I promoted some of the best ones.’  She replied.  They clinked their lager bottles together.

They were at Marx,  a private members club catering to the trendy, bohemian, artistic demi-monde (as long as they could afford the annual fee) in London’s Bloomsbury.  Juice didn’t have to fork-out for a membership, however, as she was a successful recording artist who had cornered the market in the cool, soul-jazz market, following her success as a model.

She wished.

The more prosaic truth was that her gay, ex-husband Justin was the manager of Marx and they were still the best of friends, so she could hang-out there when she wanted to. And get free drinks if Justin was in a good mood.  ‘Now what about that Riad you were planning to buy in Marakesh?  Can I come and stay with you? I could drink Raki draped over a chaise lounge as the sun set over the courtyard, as the fountain tinkled and a string quartet played Debussy on the balcony.’  Juice had suggested to Justin.   ‘It rather depends on how my relationship with Saad develops’, replied Justin primly, ‘then he can be my business partner in the enterprise. I could let it out for a grand a week in the high season and Al Fresco* magazine could help me publicise it by doing a fashion shoot there.’

Juice was not so sure that Justin’s vision would come to fruition. Saad was hardly business-partner material.

Juice was not really single, nor was she not attached. For the past four years she’d had a part-time-boyfriend called Richard who was ten years her junior.  She lived alone in a tiny, top-floor, two bedroomed apartment behind The Virgin Megastore on London’s Oxford Street,  a convenient five-minute walk from Marx.  Richard, aged twenty-five and a swarthy white man, was a bit of an oddball.  He was intelligent and intuitive, yet abrasive and full of anger and possibly suffering from some sort of mental illness, and he’d also been sexually abused as a child by an uncle. A can of worms, on paper, but Juice and Richard had a magical sex-life.  He was of the opinion that she should ‘get a proper job’ instead of holding-out for stardom at the age of thirty-five.  He was wrong of course, as she was a very fine singer and an accomplished songwriter who had simply slipped through the net, having been misrepresented and ripped-off by various incompetent managers and agents over the years.  Richard came from a lower-middle-class family in Bristol who were keen on floral prints, swirly-patterned carpets, meat-and-two-veg, the Daily Shit newspaper (‘talk about Little England’, he snorted) and tacky variety shows although, in ninety-seven, more sophisticated tastes had helped to consign such TV dross to the dustbin of ‘Gold’ channels on cable TV.

He’d been an intelligent boy and a bit of a scientific genius, which had landed him a scholarship to an Oxford University. He didn’t look like a boffin, more like Blair Hole, the hunky, hollywood actor who’d made it big after his role as a hustler in the famously female-bonding film ‘Dorothy And Audrey’.  Juice and Richard were an unlikely couple who saw each other maybe once every two weeks for fabulous love-making sessions.  They made love like two dolphins swimming in a sensual sea, so how could it be just a physical thing?  Was Richard scared of her?

The night before, Juice had been writing a poem by candlelight, thinking about her detached relationship with Richard.  It was called Science And Art And The Head And The Heart.  She was sitting at the table-cum-arbor – which she’d built from wood that she’d found in the street – on the roof terrace which she’d created from scratch above her flat.  The smell of the night-jasmine around her and the sounds and lights of the city helped her creativity.  Her roof garden was overlooked by the offices of the magazine 24/7, where she worked as a personal assistant to the publisher.  Recently, the editor’s personal assistant (bitter, forties, over-the-hill) had reluctantly asked Juice – not that she was jealous, oh no  – if they could do a photo-session using her roof garden, featuring an up-and-coming chef and a supermodel who had opened a restaurant with him.  It had poured with rain, but Juice had found some tarpaulins in a skip in the street below which she’d quickly rigged above ‘the set’ on her roof, thereby saving the session. But they’d only paid her £100. Tight bastards!  They were taking the piss!

As she wrote, she was wondering when Richard would next get down to London from the lab in Edinburgh, where he was developing genetically-modified seed technology.  It was a hot, sultry night in early September;  an almost tropical, indian summer.  The Halle Bop comet looked like a neon-lit squid in the sky above her as she wrote and worked her way through a bottle of  very good St Emillion (she’d been given a whole case by some wine shippers who’d advertised in 24/7 following a rave review in the Cork section of the magazine).  Just one of the perks of working for the boss, she thought, sipping from her glass, smoking a spliff and observing the comet.  What did it all mean?  Was it the end of the world, or a new beginning?  What strange, magnetic energy was being released into the stratosphere that night and how might it affect her life and her relationships?  Then she chuckled, realising that the combination of wine, spliff and comet had made her spout hippy cliches to herself in… the windmills of her mind.

‘So what brings you to the dirty Marx?’  Asked Juice. Tom laughed and wondered if he sounded nervous.  ‘Oh, a friend who’s a member, who was wanting to talk business. I’ve recently got my degree in fashion.’  Tom bought her another beer as they sat at the bar, which was vaguely Art Deco, black and chrome.  He’d been invited to the club by Art Unicorn, who had once played drums with the successful,  seventies pop group Aviator,  but now ran a corporate-sponsorship company.  He’d left Tom’s name on the guest-list.  ‘Unfortunately, Mr Unicorn cannot be with us.  He’s suddenly been taken to hospital with a heart attack, I’m afraid.’  Justin had reported when Tom had shown-up at the club earlier that evening,  ‘but it’s only minor, I’m pleased to report. Why don’t you go and have a drink or two on the house anyway?’

Tom Sharkey was a twenty-four year designer who was already making waves in the industry and was now doing his masters degree at Central St Martins, London’s most famous school of fashion, whose alumni included just about all the big names in British couture and design.  He came from a huge, artistic, Catholic family from County Kildare in Ireland.  He checked Juice out as she went to use the toilet; she sensed he was watching.  Nice butt.  Nice taste in clothes – simple, chic-yet-understated, a mix of vintage and current. – cool, he thought.  Plus, she looked great for her age.  She’d told him earlier how she was proud of the fact that saying that she was thirty-five genuinely shocked people.  Hey – it was good for the self-esteem.  She looked at least ten years younger and was a beautiful, mixed-race woman with intelligence, style and class.  Plus, she swore like a trouper, would easily beat a barrister in a battle of intellectual wit and could definitely drink the boys under the table.  There was element of the amazonian about her.  She scared the fuck out of a lot of men, but fascinated many.  Plus, she was hot and she knew it.  She could entice beautiful men without even trying, she just snapped her invisible fingers.  Tom was up for it.

Plus, thought the angel on her shoulder, as she returned to the bar having ‘powdered her nose’,  if he had genuine talent, she could be his muse; wouldn’t that be perfect?

‘See, in the clubs in the eighties, ‘ said Juice, sitting back on the barstool,  by now a little high as well as tipsy, ‘people were much more friendly and creative, plus the music was great – a whole lot of soul with a whole lot of goals – and there was a temporary breakdown of barriers in Thatcher’s Britain.  A sort-of artistic rebellion against her utter lack of understanding of modern culture and the dreadful plague known as AIDS.  Unfortunately, it didn’t last.  We were soon back to conveyor-belt commerciality and pop-culture-without-irony.’  She stared into her vodka-chaser, rattled the ice in the glass, then gulped it down in one.  Tom followed her example, fearing that he might otherwise look wimpish.

‘So,’ he asked with a twinkle in his eye, lighting her Marlborough Light: ‘come here often?   The American accent was pretty good, but was it Bogart or Gable?  She came back at him quick as a flash:  ‘Yeah loads – they have rooms upstairs!’   Was it Monroe, or Mansfield?  Kind of a mixture.  They buckled-up laughing on their bar stools and  subtly touched each other’s legs.  ‘I live just down the road,’ said Juice smokily.  ‘Wanna come… there often?’  Tom was liking the way the night was going. ‘I would like to… come with you most definitely!’  He replied, then kissed her deeply. It felt really good, for all parties concerned.

‘See, look Halle Bop!’  Said Juice, pointing up at the sky and holding Tom’s arm with her other hand.  ‘It looks kind of magical,’ he said dreamily, ‘imagine it printed on silk!’  Suddenly, he had the inspiration for his final collection before hopefully, no, getting his masters degree.  She pulled a joint out of her pocket and lit it.  ‘I feel really easy with you,’ she said, squeezing his arm and looking him in the eye whilst taking a toke: ‘So what do you fashion-design then? ‘  ‘Womenswear,’ replied Tom as they walked past the University Of London buildings, dominated by a mini-Empire State-type building.  ‘Nice building.’  Said Tom, as she passed him the joint.  ‘Got any samples going? She asked in her smokiest voice, ‘oh, I’ve suddenly remembered something!’  Said Juice, putting her hand to her mouth, ‘my parents are back at my place.’  ‘I trust they’re not in your bed?’  Asked Tom.  ‘Well, yes, they are actually,’ replied Juice, laughing, ‘but don’t worry, I have a sort-of mini-chill second bedroom with a double, futon sofa-bed where we can relax.  I guess we’ll just have to be a bit…’ then she whispered, ‘quiet.’

‘That’s deliciously naughty.’  Said Tom, grabbing her waist and a dancing a vague tango with her as they passed the YMCA, twirling and dipping beneath the starry sky and its astral visitor to the earth’s atmosphere and looking each other in the eyes.

‘Shhh!’  Whispered Juice in an ironic, cod-little-girl voice, as they climbed the stairs to the top floor of her building, ‘mustn’t wake mummy and daddy!’  Tom grinned, enjoying the naughtiness.  She pulled a careful, we mustn’t wake them face as she put the key in the door.  They crept in on tiptoe in an exaggerated fashion, stifling giggles.  She motioned towards her mini-boudoir, which was decorated with her own abstract murals.  ‘Go in there!’  She whispered, ‘I’ll get us a drink.  Voddy okay?’   He nodded, pulling an exaggerated isn’t this dangerous face and sat on the faux-zebra-skin-covered sofa and admired her art work. She returned with vodka, tonic and glasses on a glass-topped, fifties tray.  ‘Isn’t this fun!’  She whispered, ‘fancy a toot? She asked’  ‘Now, that’s really naughty.’  he whispered back,  batting his eyelashes rapidly in an ironic fashion and fondling her left breast.  ‘Could you do nice things to both of them while I chop us out a line?’  She whispered breathily, then lent down towards the sixties coffee table, taking a credit card out of her Prada purse.

Milan. 2004.

Tom  – aka justinfashion@raydar.com – typed-in a reply to a message he’d just posted on a dating site:  ‘I cant believe what a brilliant database Raydar is!’   It was 4am. He’d spotted the user name Milly Whizz whilst idly searching for a potential fuck – or just some contact with alien/human life –  after finding himself alone in his hotel room and online, following his triumphant show and after-party at Milan Fashion Week.  Her name had made him laugh and her profile had intrigued him so he’d sent her a message saying:  ‘I like the name and profile, I sense a human being. Any chance of a pic or two?’  There was no picture and precious few details in ‘Milly’s’ online profile, apart from a reference to card-reading and some brief quotes from Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Mark Twain and Maya Angelou.  Tom was flushed with the success of his show (the front row had boasted Naomi, Kate, Christy, Maddona and the owner of Alfresco* magazine, Brian Roue, amongst many others).  He was pleasantly drunk and somewhat coked-up – those Italians eh? – but he needed some virtual company that at least had the feel of spiritual depth, as the aftermath of the elation of recognition was something of a lonely comedown.  ‘Justin’ and ‘Milly’ were caught-up in something of a message frenzy and soon mutually decided to switch to RIM (Raydar Instant Messenger) so they could talk more intimately in real time.

Justin:  ‘So where are you and what do you do in life apart from quoting from great writers?’

Milly:  ‘I’m in Milan, I’ve been performing and modelling at one of the fashion shows. I’m a singer-songwriter.’

Justin:  ‘You’re joking.  I’m in Milan too.  That’s an incredible coincidence.  Where are you from?’

Milly:  I don’t believe it! Where are you staying? I live in London.’

Justin:  ‘Me too, in up-and-coming Lower Clapton.  I’m at the the La Scala.’

He was thinking that it was best not to divulge his identity just yet,  as you never knew what maniacs were online.  ‘Milly’ could be a male, mafia hit-man for all he knew.

Justin:  ‘I was involved in the production of a fashion show.’

Milly:  ‘Great – me too – I performed at Sebastian MacDonald’s.  It was awesome.  You won’t believe this, I’m at the La Scala too.’

Justin:  ‘Wow!  What is going on here? LOL.  Shame, I missed the show, I could have seen you in the flesh, but I was too busy getting ready for Tom’s show.’

Milly:  ‘Tom, what Tom Sharkey?  Omygod, I love his stuff.  I met him once… briefly. What was your role?’

Justin:  ‘Oh, just a general dogsbody, LOL.  When or where did you meet him?’

Milly:  ‘In ’97 at Marx.  We really hit it off, had great sex, then I never saw him again.

 

(c) 2009.  Steve Swindells. All rights reserved.

Children Of The Night. A Short Story By Steve Swindells

20 Jan

Children Of The Night. A Short Story By Steve Swindells.

via Children Of The Night. A Short Story By Steve Swindells.

Children Of The Night. A Short Story By Steve Swindells

19 Jan

Children Of The Night. A Short Story By Steve Swindells.

via Children Of The Night. A Short Story By Steve Swindells.

Children Of The Night. A Short Story By Steve Swindells

19 Jan

My suggested music to accompany this short story is a selection of tracks from my all-star jamming band The Plastic Sturgeons (currently #1 on Reverb Nation London as I write).

Children Of The Night.

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New Years Day, London, 1987. The hour before the dawn.

New Years Day, London, 1987. The hour before the dawn.

Beverly Beveridge was being taken from behind by a black hunk in the bathroom of her bijou, funky, South-London flat.  Known universally as Red because of her luxuriant mane of naturally flame-coloured hair, she had selected her sexual partner from the usual retinue of admirers at her eponymous club which she hosted every Saturday at Nancy’s,  a slightly down-at-heel gay club  in London’s Soho.  At ‘Red’, sexuality was irrelevant,  anything went.   At least in theory. Her New Year’s Eve party had been a great commercial and artistic success, but making money was the exception rather that the rule.  Sheldrake, the latest black, soul, singing sensation, had performed his new single, and had gone down a storm.

Red’s flirtation with him backstage had apparently been less than successful, but why did she feel that he was interested?  Nancy’s was a jaded,  seventies-style club with black walls, revolting, purple, swirly carpets and a capacity of around six-hundred people.  But it had a good layout – there was a balcony all the way around, where you could sit on stools and see the stage and the dance floor, a pumping sound system, decent-enough lights, plenty of dark booths, a quiet bar upstairs for networking and flirting and an overall, faded charm that somehow worked. Most weeks, however,  Red was barely breaking even, which was probably due to her over-generosity with the guest list. ‘A busy club is a hip club.’ She’d say defensively, but the club was hip, and got lots of coverage in the style press and on TV and radio.  The London listings magazine What’s Uphad recently put her on its front cover dressed as Marilyn Monroe, under the headline ‘Red Or Dead’.  Was that anything to do with the fact that the editor was trying to get into her knickers?  He didn’t stand a hope in hell, but Red saw it as ongoing PR,  leading to something bigger, where she could be creatively fulfilled – and seriously successful.

Surely, someone with her looks, talent, big personality and natural charisma couldn’t fail to succeed? Red  – nearly six feet tall, a striking, full-lipped beauty with alabaster skin and a voluptuous figure – was looking forward to having her orgasm, dismissing the stud, then potentially annoying her neighbours by indulging in a little post-coital horn-blowing on the roof of the run-down, Victorian mansion block that she lived in… on her tenor saxophone.  It was her own, private way of greeting the new year and something of a cry from the heart.  She saw herself in a movie written by a latter-day Tennessee Williams:  the misunderstood heroine making beautiful, melancholy music, alone, but in control, dressed in a full-length, white, faux-fox fur coat.  As she played, a limpid, winter sun rose behind the grim, grey tower blocks of South East London and her mind went back to the party at her club and Sheldrake performing onstage.

‘Shut the fuck up!’ Shouted a distant voice from the window of one of the flats below.

Meredith McCormack was dead.  Aaron Kaminski was vaguely aware of a strange presence — then dismissed it as paranoia — as he bashed-out a drum track on some newly-acquired recording equipment in his luxurious, minimalistic, high-tech-style loft in Chelsea in New York.  Meredith, now a ‘higher being’ called Mila – an angel, if you like – was feeding thirty year-old Aaron lyrical ideas from ‘the other side’.  His role as a ‘ghost-writer’ was totally influencing what was otherwise a fairly mediocre poetic talent as he sat unseen next to Aaron; his celestial – well, ghostly – body glowing with a faint aura of white light.  Aaron’s strength lay in making great, ground-breaking music.  He couldn’t work out where his new-found lyrical inspiration was coming from, but he liked it.

Levi Flowers – the handsome and intense, twenty six-year old, mixed-race DJ who played soulful tunes at his good friend Red’s club – was composing a fax to his other close friend Aaron: ‘The best things always happen in the middle of the night’.  He wrote. He was missing his buddy. They’d met at Red’s a couple of years previously and had clicked immediately. It was a rocket-fuelled, instant friendship.  Then after a couple of months, Aaron had inexplicably returned to New York.  What was that all about? Levi couldn’t get his head around it.

Aaron was bisexual.  Levi was ostensibly straight.  Red felt attracted to Aaron (somewhat influenced by his inherited wealth),  Aaron was obsessed with Levi and Levi wondered if he was in love with Red. The usual stuff.

Meredith had been the second love of Red’s life.  Scottish, with a Spanish mother,  he was a handsome, deep-thinking man with wavy-brown hair, huge brown eyes and olive skin. He was an aspiring writer, who reluctantly made a living teaching English.  He was also a bit eccentric, vague (traits, it would seem, that stayed with him in the after life) and somewhat unworldly.

Red had sort-of corrupted him  back then by turning him on to non-dangerous recreational drugs and a night life-orientated lifestyle.  ‘It was down to him at the end of the day. I wasn’t a dominatrix!’  She’d say later. He’d died of a suspected overdose at her club night.  People whispered that they had earlier seen Tyrone Khan, Red’s psychopathic, former lover, sneaking out of the toilet where they had found Meredith’s body.

Meredith, or Mila as he was now known, was frustrated in his attempts to communicate with his old friends.  He now knew – being on ‘the other side’ – that they had all known each other in past lives, as they had often mused, but he could only make his mark through the medium of Aaron’s songs and by surreptitiously putting ideas into Red and Levi’s heads;  particularly when they read each other’s tarot cards.

Soon, Red and Levi found themselves regularly visiting a hugely overweight, Jewish, lesbian medium known as Morgana who wanted Red, not only in bed, but for her psychic energy. Unfortunately,  Mila hadn’t done enough research.  He was new to the (angelic) job.  Morgana was bad news, but it was too late.  Even a trainee angel could screw-up.

He consulted his ‘Mindset’ again, on Angel Training Mode.  ‘Just picture the forehead from the inside  as a computer monitor’ his Angel-mentor had instructed and… now it was beginning to make sense.  He studied the data intently – on his forehead monitor.

It was early February.  Tyrone Khan broke into Red’s flat and was waiting for her when she came home from the club,  wielding a knife. He was off his head on quaaludes, alcohol and cocaine. He’d never recovered from her rejection after a year-long relationship when they were both twenty-two – and the only way he could possess her was by force.  He was psychotic, it was too dangerous to resist him.  He raped her at knife-point.   She’d had to admit to herself later that part of her had almost enjoyed it (they’d had a tremendous sex life when they were together),  but NO-ONE forced Beverly Beveridge to do anything.  Once he’d climaxed – which didn’t take long – she managed to knee him in the balls and spray mace (which she kept in a bedside cabinet) in his face.  He’d screamed, pulled-up his pants and staggered-off into the night.

She pulled herself together and phoned Levi, distraught. He advised her not to call the police because Tyrone could blow the cover on her drug-dealing past and her tax-evading present. But she would have her revenge.

Levi,  despite his beautiful face, intelligent mind and athletic body, was having a hard time.  He was built like a sprinter and people found him charismatically threatening, both physically and mentally (he looked a lot like the Welsh, gold medal-winning hurdler Colin Jackson, minus the vaguely Chinese eyes – his were dreamy and deep), but he was sensitive inside. ‘You’re just a soft-centered chocolate.’  Red would tell him, giving him a hug.

He never seemed to be able to get on top of situations: fate pulled him down every time.  What about Red,  the charismatic dynamo:  shouldn’t they be lovers?  Sometimes their friendship was so close that it hurt.  Then there was Aaron, who obviously wanted him badly and was working his nerves.  He was confused.  He loved them both, but seemed to fall between two stools.  He just couldn’t visualise making love with a man  – although Aaron was a strong character and a classic, blond-haired, blue-eyed adonis  – and Red was so wild and deep the she might just eat him up and spit him out, just like she’d done with so many men, apart from Meredith. Trust him to die!

They were all dissatisfied with their emotional lives.  There had to be a solution. Mila was trying to work it all out too.  He had to study hard to master the complexities of his ‘Mindset’ (It was much worse than MS-DOS)  There were a lot of epigrams, riddles and puns thrown into the program.  It was mildly irritating sometimes, but as he became familiar with its curious subtleties, it gradually led to suitably angelic chuckles.  ‘Hey!’ Said Mila to Dalai, his Angel-mentor, ‘so there is life after death, with intellectual punning as part of the heavenly package?’  Dalai chuckled and replied ‘Yes, my wannabe angel, if only the world realised that laughter was the key to immortality!’

Aaron had been inspired by Levi’s fax,  but felt sadly romantic inside. He sat at a table in the window of a cafe on the Lower East-Side of New York –   it looked like a film-set based on that famous painting by Edward Hopper and could have been the setting for a moody commercial for a coffee brand.  The neon lights were reflected in the puddles outside as the rain poured down.  He wrote his thoughts into a notepad; a free-form poem and soulful rap – he imagined – as he pondered his surroundings, drank black coffee and thought of Levi and the evocative, cinematic,  dark side of America.  He (or should we say Mila?) called it ‘The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe’.

‘The whispered words of freedom in the wind…’  rapped Levi softly and deeply,  as the video cut to him wandering through the rainy streets of the meat-packing district.  ‘ … the choirs of voices calling-out your name,  the same old dilemma, searching for romance and riding solo…Sooo low.  You know you’ve got to go away but you stay – always the ballad,  the ballad of the sad cafe.’ A bag lady dressed in rags sat in a doorway opposite the cafe, playing with an illuminated yoyo.

Mila smiled angelically at an adjacent,  empty table.  He was feeding something special to Aaron and it made him feel fulfilled.  He put a dream-vision into Aaron’s head.  So there was Levi performing another poem-rap with Irie and Drumgold,  the famous Jamaican rythmn section,  alongside Red on sax and Aaron on keyboards with Sheldrake singing lead vocals; right there in the cafe he was sitting in.

Levi was reading Aaron’s reply to his fax in the DJ booth at the club before it opened.  Aaron had enclosed the words to ‘The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe’.  Levi instinctively knew what he was writing about.  Aaron signed-off with the surprise message that he would be in London the following week.  Levi was pleased, but strangely trepidatious.  When he showed Red the fax she immediately recognised that the song was a paean to Aaron’s unrequited love and told Levi so.  He told her not to be so daft…  knowing it to be true.

Morgana the medium, meanwhile, was not exactly laying her cards on the table.  She was weaving a spell, trying to draw Red into her evil sphere by influencing events and lulling her into a false sense of security with overly-optimistic tarot readings.  Levi had his suspicions about her and asked Red:  how had Morgana’s reclusive girlfriend Lottie died? Was it suicide, as Morgana had insisted, or something more sinister?  Hadn’t Red noticed how Morgana had treated Lottie? What about the heavy, glass ashtray incident?

Mila was worried too.  His cosmic game-plan had backfired a bit.  He had to put it down to, well, inexperience. Aaron was planning to stay in London for a couple of weeks.  Levi and Red met him for brunch at an Italian cafe in Bloomsbury.  They discussed the emotional potential which everyone, including themselves, seemed to squander. They bemoaned the cold, cynical approach to life that most other people had, and wondered why three such attractive, creative and intrinsically good people should be without partners and a degree of success. *Group shrugging of shoulders*. At least they had each other.

Red, the club night, was suddenly doing very well, but that was part of Morgana’s dastardly plot. She had aimed to take Red up, then bring her down, so that she’d be under her evil spell.  She really was a gifted healer and psychic, but an innate bitterness had twisted her and made her abuse her powers.  The renewed success of the club made certain people constantly snipe at Red, especially Danny Dinkins, the overly camp manager of Nancy’s, who was a misogynistic queen of the old school.  Red suddenly found that many other attractive and successful women also seemed to be overtly jealous of her media-profile.  That really pissed her-off:  they were worse than the fucking queens!

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Red was twenty eight; she wanted to form a band before it was too late, but no-one took her seriously, apart from Aaron and Levi.  The nearest she’d got to it was by playing her sax along to records in the club while dancing on the dance floor.  The crowd loved it; but in the sometimes-superficial night life world she was seen as a glamour-puss, a larger-than-life caricature of herself – a good-time girl who hid behind her glamourous dress sense and big personality.  Nobody could get close to her because they were generally, or genuinely, in awe of her. She was, in some respects, a troubled being. Her attempts at telling home-truths and enlightening people usually fell on stony ground.  Disillusioned by the image that people had formed of her, she was a charismatic paradox: both cynical and wise, then innocent and trusting. Plus, sometimes she drank too much, and maybe got too high, then became slightly overbearing, her frustrations and fears gushing-out in a stream of unconscious angst.

Levi and Aaron were her real friends; only they could understand her inner strength and her aspirations.  Couldn’t people see that the fact that she drove a red, sixties Cadillac convertible with fake, zebra skin-covered seats was simply an ironic, post-modern joke and a quasi, self-promotional laugh?  Regardless, she  certainly relished playing the role of the white-trash, sex goddess.

Aaron had plenty of money. His grandmother had left him a small fortune, but he was enigmatic about about his wealth and certainly didn’t splash it around (much to Red’s dismay).  In the early summer of ‘87, he decided to move back to London, rented-out his New York loft  apartment and bought a classic, Victorian, five-bedroomed house with a patio leading onto one of those beautiful, magical, secret communal gardens, in Notting Hill. Levi had a rudimentary understanding of keyboards and percussion, so he and Aaron spent many happy hours fiddling about with Aaron’s equipment (he wished!) and getting stoned with Thai sticks or Moroccan hash, whilst jamming musically and learning to feed-off each other’s  intuitive creativity.

Levi started to develop real poetic, lyrical and percussion skills under Aaron’s sensitive and enthusiastic (it’s always easier when you’re in love with someone) tutelage, and recently they had started to write a funky rap tune.  Aaron was too sensitive to push his mild obsession with Levi, and Levi certainly wasn’t about to surrender to a physical attraction that was anathema to his male conditioning, despite the obvious bond between them.  One night,  Red showed-up with her sax.  ‘What do you think of these words Miss Beveridge?’ Asked Levi.  ‘Hit it maestro!’  Aaron pressed the space bar on his Atari computer and Levi talked over the track in his smokey voice.

‘To the people who are cold and the people who are hard, I know myself, I show my cards, but it’s so hard to unwind sometimes, seems like not only love is blind.’ ‘Tell me about it. Yeah’  Said Red, punching the air,  putting the mouthpiece on her sax.

Levi continued:  ‘You try to work it out, so what’s it all about?  Are you crying wolf or crying out to someone who shows honesty when times are hard but the spirit’s free? Can you answer me – maybe, show me some empathy?’

‘Wow, that’s fantastic guys, gimme some paper, I’ve got an idea for a chorus, can we call it Be Yourself?’ suggested Red enthusiastically,  ‘imagine doing this at The Albert Hall with Sheldrake and a gospel choir!

They continued to work on the song whilst seriously discussing forming a band; a fusion of funk, jazz, hip-hop and the Chicago deep house music which was still massively popular in the hipper, London clubs, despite the recent acid house explosion.  After much frivolity about choosing a name (Under The Bed,  Scarlet Fever, The Blind Venetians),  they finally decided to call themselves ‘Marrs’ and agreed that it would be a good name for a bar too. ‘The Marrs Bar; great for sponsorship.’  Joked Red, believing it might actually be feasible.  All they needed was a handsome, seriously good, soulful singer. Red knew exactly who’d fit the bill:  Sheldrake.

Red had wanted him on New Year’s Eve – and now she wanted him even more, as there was suddenly a valid reason. Dick Starling was the avuncular owner of Nancy’s.   He was a wily old fox in his late fifties, an ex-merchant seaman and a secret alcoholic.  He loved to regale Red and her friends with unlikely tales of conquests in far-off lands in the sixties and seventies, after luring them to his lair with the promise of after-hours drinks.  He was actually quite lonely, which was why he encouraged visitors to his sparsely-furnished office deep in the bowels of the club.   The engine room, he called it.  His nickname for himself  was Captain Pugwash.  Other members of staff were called names such as Seaman Stains and Master Bates, or whatever amused him. When Red had introduced Dick to Morgana, he’d instinctively disliked the woman and had warned her to steer clear.  ‘That dyke is definitely not kosher, Reddy Brek,’  he pronounced, then wagged his finger and winked,  adding loudly:   ‘AVAST  behind! Steer clear!’ in a nautical fashion, then waddled-off to count his money.

Tyrone Khan lurked behind a pillar as Red walked by, his dark eyes glinting with menace.  She spotted him, but pretended not to notice.  She went to find Kennedy, a handsome, well-built, tall, gay, black bodybuilder who ran security for the club.  ‘Who the hell let Tyrone in?’ She asked him.  ‘He said he was on the permanent guest list – gorgeous boy – I thought you two used to be…’   ‘Hah! Wrong!’ Snorted Red, then took him to one side to suggest something that would be of  benefit  to them both.  Kennedy would lure Tyrone to his flat with the promise of free quaaludes and cocaine, then have his wicked way with him.  Kennedy smiled – he liked tight, virgin arseholes.  And Tyrone was definitely an arsehole.

Red headed for ‘the engine room’ to see if she’d made any money that night.  The outer door was suddenly flung open and Billy Bates – the cute, young barman known by Dick as Master Bates – came rushing out, his face flushed, trying to do up his shirt.  ‘He’s dead!’ He yelled. ‘Dick’s dead!’ Red told him to get the police, then gingerly opened the inner door.  Dick Starling was lying on his back on the floor, minus his trousers. And rigor mortis had set in… in the most obvious place.  He must have died of a heart attack screwing Billy Bates,  she correctly surmised.  Hmmm, God smiled in the dick department, she thought.  Just as well Billy was sitting on him, not lying under him.  But what the hell would happen now, she wondered, with a sense of dread,  whilst trying to ignore the inevitable black humour of the situation, like… it must have been a dead good fuck.

Mila sat on a barstool and consulted his ‘Mindset’,  whilst pulling a less-than-angelic ‘Oh shit’ face. Then the data delivered made his mouth drop with relief.  There was a solution.

Nancy’s had to close until everything was sorted out.  Suddenly,  Levi and Red were an income-free zone.  Everything had possibly gone pear-shaped, or horribly Pete Tong. Aaron had gone to New England because his mother was ill, but was then uncharacteristically generous, for once, and gave them a thousand pounds each, so they could develop Marrs, their mutual, musical project. Phew.  So they decided to to do some research.

Their first outing (we need inspiration for stuff, Red had said) took them to Rush, an underground club which was happening illegally every friday in a Gym in South London.  What was this clubland buzz about some new, Ibiza-inspired scene?  Rumour had it that a new wonder-drug called ecstasy was readily available there. They were intrigued. Red and Levi arrived to find a massive queue but were soon swept in by security – who recognised them – and were ushered into a long corridor lined with twinkling fairy lights. She’d made sure that their names were on the guest list.  They swished-in to find the walls and ceilings of the club covered with billowing, white parachutes, which were softly-lit from behind by sixties-style, swirly projections.  Multi-coloured laser beams cut through clouds of dry ice and smoke.  The atmosphere on the dance floor was electric;  hundreds of people dancing wildly and punching the air in baggy, smiley-face T-shirts, to a new kind of hardcore, dance music which was soon to become known as acid house.

Tommy Acorn, the promoter, spotted them and steered them through the crowd into a large, private room, where a couple of hundred people chatted, smiled and hugged each other a lot. ‘Are you sorted?’  He asked – they looked puzzled – then handed them some small, yellow pills, grinned manically and left them to it.  They shrugged their shoulders at each other with a ‘what the hell’ look and downed a pill each.  An hour later found them at opposite ends of the room, engaged in deep, meaningful, touchy-feely conversations.  Levi was vibing with Master Bates, the handsome barman from Nancy’s, and Red with Sheldrake, whom she’d fortuitously met on the dance floor.  His eyes had found hers like laser-guided, vibe-fueled missiles. They graduated towards each other, locked-in, entranced. He’d asked her for a light,  in a jokey, ironic, pick-up-line sort of way.  Then suddenly they were dancing, hypnotised, with the fire in their eyes, laughing with the relief of romantic recognition and flying high. Sorted indeed.

Later, the four of them went back to Aaron’s house in Notting Hill – which Levi was ‘house-sitting’ – and took more Es, smoked spliffs, drank vodka and kissed their erstwhile partners endlessly.  Then it all went blank until the next afternoon, when Red woke to find herself in bed with Sheldrake whilst Levi found Billy Bates curled-up beside him.

‘It was alright y’know…’  Said Levi slightly nervously, referring to his first, ever homosexual experience as he made coffee for everyone in the kitchen. You bet it was alright!’ Croaked Red in a reasonably good Southern American accent, rolling her eyes lustfully, ‘ And I’m going to get some seconds – why don’t you too!’.   She went back upstairs, but Sheldrake had disappeared.  And she hadn’t given him her number, dammit!

Tommy Acorn opened the suitcase and patted the wads of cash inside.  It was sitting on the parquet floor of the hall in his smart, spacious flat in Maida Vale.  ‘A hundred K.’ he muttered, grinning, as the doorbell rang.  ‘Yeehah?’ He trilled into the entry phone, wanting to sound lighthearted.  ‘It’s Chester and the lads!’ Yelled a sightly crazed, midlands accent downstairs.  Tommy rubbed his hands.

‘Mad Chester’ was the singer with ‘The Far-out Flowers ’, a group from Birmingham who were getting noticed on the underground scene with their housy-acid-loopy-indie-laddish ‘Brumtastic’ tunes.  But the heroin and e-addled group had had a few problems financially…and Tommy was about to provide their get-out clause.  The hundred grand was in return for a vast amount of ecstasy that Chester had promised to bring.  The ammonia they sprayed in Tommy’s eyes as they made-off with the cash was in return for his naivety. Sorted, mate.

It was late summer. Tyrone Khan had been successfully dealt with by Kennedy and had apparently fled to Trinidad.  Red and Levi had made a conscious decision to ‘cut’ from Morgana – with unseen, spiritual help from the rookie, spirit-guide Mila – and things were starting to look up. Levi called Red to say that Aaron was back in town and was treating them to dinner at Mo Dylan,  a restaurant popular with thesps and show-biz types, which they all loved, as it was so easy to relax and talk there, despite the fact that the food was only slightly better than adequate.  He’d added that there was a surprise for her.  Red was intrigued.  She instinctively dressed to impress and, on being ushered to one of the best tables, was amazed to see Sheldrake sitting with her friends, who were grinning conspiratorially.

‘So what the fuck happened to you?’ She asked the singer in a mock-theatrical, hands-on-hip fashion.  Sheldrake motioned her to sit down, smiling slightly sheepishly.  Aaron and Levi continued their animated conversation and left them to… interact.   Sheldrake shyly held her hand under the table, looked her in the eye, and explained that he’d had a girlfriend – the relationship had run its course –  but that he’d always been attracted to her from the moment that they’d met, when he’d performed at her club.  Her arm tingled, her face glowed. ’R… really?’ She whispered, her eyes shining.  She could hear celestial background music beginning to play. ‘Yeah,’  said Sheldrake in his honeyed tones, squeezing her hand  ‘and when we met again and got  nicely high it was too much for me – and I felt guilty about… anyway, she’s my ex now and  it’s all about what’s… in your eyes.

He started to sing softly into her ear and they soft-focused into a world of their own. Red felt a warm glow run up her back.  Her back!  Why had there been a rash there since…?  For some unknown reason she decided to tell Sheldrake about Morgana  (Mila nodded enthusiatically,  a ghostly presence at an adjacent table).  Sheldrake’s eyebrows shot up.  ‘You know that evil witch?’ He asked, surprised, and suddenly angry.  ‘She really fucked-up my career and, you know, when I cut-off from her, I developed this nasty rash on my back, just like… you?’ He looked at her intently, then their jaws dropped as they slowly clocked what they had in common.  ‘Wow…’ Said Red slowly, ‘… that’s scary.’ Aaron’s hand found Levi’s leg beneath the table.  ‘Yeeesss!’ went  Mila,  punching the air at the next table.

It was Marrs’ first gig at Dicks, formerly known as Nancy’s.  Billy Bates had been massively and pleasantly shocked that Dick Starling had left him the club in his will, so he’d re-named it in his memory. The band had a group hug.  They were about to go on stage at the Red new year’s eve party when Kennedy the bouncer swung into the room.  ‘There’s some bitch called Morgana at the door, says she’s on the guest list.’  He announced.   ‘Tell her to naff orf’,’ pronounced Red, in an imitation of The Princess Royal, ‘she can pay double to come in as she’s so FAT!’  Everyone laughed, happy to have the tension of their debut diminished.

Tommy Acorn marched into the room wearing outsized shades and a yellow suit  featuring a smiley-face print, with a gorgeous girl on each arm (Rush was now the Acid House night, with many imitators,  but he enjoyed the funky, laid-back atmosphere of Red’s night, even though they didn’t play ‘hard music’).  He hugged Red and she raised an eyebrow:  ‘Glad to see the eye operations were successful – worth the money eh?’  He looked slightly taken aback. How did she know ? Marrs ran on to the stage and the crowd roared, more so when they recognised the legendary Irie and Drumgold  on the bass and drums. The first song was the one inspired by their first time at Rush, along with reflections on where they were at and where they were going,  which Red, Sheldrake, Levi and Aaron had written soon after their visit to Mo Dylan.  It was called ‘Children Of The Night’.

‘Unspoken thoughts hang in the air and broken dreams are everywhere, then someone asks you for a light.’ Sang Sheldrake huskily, swaying to the funky beats, ‘You know you’ve got to find that spark, one magic moment in the dark makes everything alright.’  Red danced across to his side, blowing mean licks on her horn.  ‘Then suddenly the music’s fine, the bodies dance around your mind with eyes like tigers, burning bright.’    Mila banged an invisible, tambourine and got a little carried away onstage (hey, when you’re an angel, you’ve got carte blanche!) next to Levi, who was hitting the hell out of his congas.  ‘And all the sorrow in your soul says let me out and lose control with the children of the night’.

The dance floor was a sea of smiling faces and dancing bodies. Mila received a ‘priority’  message on his ‘mindset’.  It looked like it could well be karmic pay-back time for his rookie, cosmic game-plan.  Was this his angelic graduation?  Shit!’  Muttered Mila to himself. ‘Tyrone Khan’s had a sex change.  Why didn’t I check?’   He left the stage (not that anyone would have noticed, as he was a ghost).  A beautiful, black-asian woman was hovering by a pillar, wearing silver, dagger earrings and a little black dress.  Her dark eyes glinted menacingly.  A voluminous, forty-ish, female figure emerged out of the shadows, dressed in what looked like pink,  ruched curtains, sporting a blond, big-hair wig.  Tyra, as she was now known, shuffled flirtatiously.   ‘Hi honeybuns,’ said Morgana, grabbing Tyra’s waist, ‘you’re an Aries aren’t you – do you wanna play with momma?’.

© Steve Swindells. 2000.  All rights reserved. Photos by Steve Swindells (c). All rights reserved.

FYI The songs ‘Children Of The Night’ and ‘By Yourself’ Do exist, but probably only on cassette. So ‘Bear with’ me on that. SS

The Topic Of Cancer. A Short Story By Steve Swindells.

17 Jan

The Topic Of Cancer.

The suggested soundtrack to accompany this short story is ‘The House Of Healing’ from my Bam Boo album, which you can also download online.

Image It’s best to keep your eyes shut, thought Roger, as he lay on his back in his underpants and clenched his fists tightly.  The lights were hot, bright and in-his-face. He was trying not to imagine the horrible things that were about to be done to him, so thought of pleasant diversions instead, like the sound of the waves lapping outside the window of the cottage in Cornwall that he and his family owned. There were seagulls wheeling and squawking above, as the fog horn of a distant ferry sounded across the bay. The white curtains billowed in the sea breeze on a beautiful, late summer morning.  He could smell the sea through the open window as he lay in bed cuddling Charlie, who smelled pretty good too.

‘Just a little prick,’ intoned a soft, female voice, interrupting his reverie. He didn’t bother to stifle a snort in response to such an obviously unintentional innuendo, but maybe she had realised as she allowed herself a mild chuckle, then gently coughed,  as she was perhaps being a tad unprofessional.  ‘Just one more.’  She said softly.  He drew a sharp breath as the second one went-in sharply. ‘Ouch!’  He said through gritted teeth, then allowed a teasing smile to play around his lips as he briefly opened his eyes and wondered if she was surreptitiously checking-out his athletic, six-foot-plus physique, surfer-boy, sandy-coloured-sun-streaked, floppy hair and hippie-chic, goatee beard. The jury was out, but made their decision within minutes.  Guilty (of being hot).

‘There, that’s the worst over, no more injections, so you can relax now.’ Said Dr Aziz in her pleasingly soothing tones, as the local anaesthetic started to take effect in the areas of the two, small lumps on his chest. He tried not to picture the scalpel cutting into his skin, or the blood spurting out and thought instead about what might happen the next evening, which was New Year’s Eve.  He was going to spend it quietly at the cottage in Cornwall with Charlie, his long-term lover. They were planning to drink champagne at midnight, take a small amount of Class-A drugs and make love all night to the sound of the waves beneath the window, then just chill for a few days.

Everything was under control at the club. His management team had been hand-picked, he trusted them to make the biggest night of the year go smoothly.  He composed a little rhyme in his head: ‘Let’s open new doors in double-O four,’ as Dr Aziz carried-out the biopsies on his mysterious lumps.  Then he came-up with an alternative: ‘In two thousand and four, you won’t be a whore anymore!’  There was no way he was going to open his eyes any more, as he was squeamish about needles and even more so about surgical instruments. ‘Yeuch!’ He shuddered inwardly.

‘This won’t take long, Mr Sidebottom,’ said Dr Aziz, as she stitched-up the wounds.  Mr Sidebottom?  How formal, thought Roger… and what a ridiculous surname to get saddled-with at birth! Professionally and artistically, however, it was a different matter. He was more commonly known as Roger Senseless: seventies punk legend and lead singer of Senseless, his eponymous band, successful, ground-breaking club promoter in the eighties, tabloid gossip columnist in the nineties, and now the proud owner of Senseless, a hugely successful bar, restaurant and club – the latter was members-only – in what had once been the most neglected, north-western corner of West London’s outrageously expensive and trendy-yet-gritty Notting Hill.

The Senseless brand had certainly matured nicely. Aged forty eight, he lived alone above ‘the shop’ (which he’d converted from a former factory in a Victorian warehouse) in a fantastic, loft-style apartment overlooking the rooftop pool and the canal below. He loved to watch the boats go by.  He owned a converted, seventy-foot barge called The Jolly Roger moored alongside the restaurant’s mediterranean-style terrace.  After all those years of dreaming about design fantasies when he was struggling and poor, he’d created a monster… of cool. ‘The interiors of boats are always so dull and traditional, like floating caravans,’ he’d said in an interview in the cutting-edge, style magazine  The Head, ‘I wanted to break the mould and create something really stylish, yet a bit-tongue-in-chic.’

He’d designed the sleek, modernist, minimalist- yet consciously ‘retro’ – interior himself.  It was a symphony of wenge wood and stainless steel with more than a hint of James Bond – very  Alfresco* Magazine.  It also acted as the ultimate – i.e. cocaine-user-friendly-super-VIP space at the Senseless complex (not so much a complex, more a lifestyle; although running it was quite a complex operation).  One of Roger’s favourite things was to go chugging-off down the canal in the Jolly Roger with a bunch of friends and family, or with Charlie, just to literally float and to enjoy fabulous, late brunches and midnight indulgences. He loved cooking, it was therapeutic and fulfilling, although he  never referred to any of the trendy cookery books written by some of his club members, as he liked to invent his own dishes.

The barge had two double cabins (which served as guest bedrooms) and a large saloon fitted out with ivory-coloured, suede banquettes. It wasn’t a traditional narrow-boat (‘nasty floating corridors with bunks’, as Roger called them), but a ‘floatel’, a former floating hotel, which was twice as wide as a narrow-boat.  So it was more like a luxury apartment which was mobile, with a sun deck on top. Lush. Senseless  – which he’d conceived and designed – covered about eight-thousand square feet over three floors.  It was situated on a narrow street of warehouses, most of which had now been converted into live-work apartments, restaurants, bars, galleries, shops and, of course, estate agencies, on the back of the success of his venue.

Naturally, he’d made sure that he’d set-up a property company in order to benefit from the ongoing development financially.  The area had become known as NoKen (north of Notting Hill, south of Kensal Rise), which Roger had dreamt-up and ‘leaked’ to local estate agents, so they could claim it as their own. It had become a very fashionable and trendily-bohemian area in which to live. The ground floor of Senseless was a bar and restaurant, where the decor was simple, yet stylish.  The walls were sand-blasted brick and featured some cool and quirky artwork (some by Roger), mostly by local artists. There were large refectory-style wooden tables and long benches; seventies, three-piece suites in brown and cream leather; low tables made from railway sleepers and a huge bar made from giant bricks created from recycled, crushed, plastic mineral-water bottles.

The centrepiece of the double-height room was a massive, fifteen-foot-diameter chandelier, created from the same bottles. Roger, always canny about creating zeitgeist terms, had come-up with ‘Recyclo-chic’ to describe his new, eco-friendly, stylistic innovation.   The Head  magazine had adopted his buzzword and had based a whole issue around it in the summer of 2003.  Eighteen-foot-high glass doors led on to the softly-lit, jasmine-scented terrace overlooking the canal, which had under-floor heating and lighting and a twenty-foot high waterfall cascading down a back-lit copper wall (complete with verdigris) at one end.  It was furnished with stylish, aluminium tables and chairs designed by the famous architect Keith Jacket (a former lover of Roger’s in the seventies), and was dotted with pieces of sixties abstract sculpture.The planting was mediterranean in flavour – evocative of Ibiza.

On the first floor there was a dance area with raised balconies and floor-to-ceiling, burgundy, velvet-covered booths – the look was seventies-disco-strip-club. A larger-than-life wardrobe door (The Lion, The Witch and…) led into the performance space-cum-theatre-and-cinema, which seated up to one hundred people on tiered, cushioned seating covered in fake-cowhide upholstery. It was also used for private viewings, showcases by new bands, product launches, cable TV shows and, of course, the annual Senseless Panto, featuring various members (many of whom were famous actors), sending themselves-up rotten – all for charidee, of course. The next one was premiering soon:  It was Snow Black And The Seven Vertically-challenged, Trendy, White Liberals, featuring Roger as The Wicked Witch of The Westway and the British soul-diva Emily Bright as Snow Black, with fashion designers, pop musicians and actors from various soaps playing the dwarves.  The famous actors had insisted on taking the other, major leading roles, of course. And the ‘dwarves’ had to act on their knees.

The second floor housed the private members’ club STH (Stairway To Heaven), which was themed after the classic Powell And Pressburger film A Matter Of Life and Death (it had been entitled Stairway To Heaven in the USA and was probably/possibly the inspiration for the classic track by Led Zeppelin). Unsurprisingly, the decor was all-white and featured a ten foot-diameter, circular viewing gallery (just like in the film)  so that the private members, who were known as ‘Angels’, could survey the mere mortals below them on the dancefloor.

Two thirds of the third floor was taken-up by a huge, modernist conservatory with a retractable, glass roof, then outside there was a turquoise-tiled swimming pool and jacuzzi, surrounded by deliberately ironic, Jackie Collins-esque sun loungers and tropical plants.  There was a retro-futuristic, forties-style bar (think Fred And Ginger), and changing rooms.  Above this, on the fourth and fifth floor, was Roger’s duplex apartment, which was relatively modest (although uber-chic), mostly open-plan and filled with modern design (largely Italian) and coolly-kitsch classics, and the odd, older antique, along with state-of-the-art, hi-tech features.

All Roger’s creative dreams had become reality through sheer hard work, networking and self-belief.  It had always been a struggle, but he’d finally pulled it off – the Senseless complex had opened in 1999 – and they had certainly partied like it was 1999 at the opening bash.  Now a potential threat hovered over him like, well, Dr Aziz, although he doubted if she  was a threat. In fact, she could possibly be his saviour in helping him find out what his own medical sword of Damocles might be.

‘I wonder if the Appleton sisters gave birth here… you know, All Saints.’ Roger wondered aloud. He felt the thread being used in the stitches (yeuch!) on his chest. Dr Aziz giggled, patted his leg gently and replied:  ‘I think they both went private, but it would have been rather appropriate, I guess.  There you go, all done.’  There was a soft, swishing noise as the operating table was lowered pneumatically, ‘that’s so you can get off easily.’  Said Dr Aziz.  ‘How would I not get-off easily?’  He joked as he opened his eyes and sat-up, noticing that she looked slightly embarrassed as she busied herself with labelling the plastic bottles containing his bloody tissues.

It was Dr Mikado, his Anglo-Japanese, general practitioner, who’d fast-tracked him into being seen by the Dermatology Department at All Saints hospital that day. This was something of a surprise, as she had always appeared to have a bit of a problem with him. Roger had had a mystery illness for over ten years.  The symptoms were vaguely similar to M.E (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and believed by many medical professionals to actually be ‘all in the mind’), but M.E didn’t give you constant diarrhoea, nor an incessant, inner back pain (‘It’s NOT muscular.’  He’d tried explaining to her, when she’d insisted on sending him for an X-ray of his spine).  Plus, he’d developed an irritating, itchy-sore rash on his back and head at the same time as the other symptoms all those years ago, which none of the doctors had seemed to relate directly to ‘the gut problem’, whatever that might be.

He’d been shunted from specialist (pillar) to specialist (post) over the years, with none of them reaching any conclusions at all, apart from the gastroenterology consultant at All Saints who’d suggested that the Spirochaetes that had been detected in his large intestine after a colonoscopy had been a deeply meaningless ‘red herring’. It had been fun watching his polyps being removed on a monitor, thanks to a valium drip in his wrist, although it later transpired that the polyps were pre-cancerous, which was a relief. Just as well he’d had the colonoscopy then. Recently, he’d decided to take matters into his own hands and had researched his illness online, based on the symptoms.  ‘Thank God for Boogie, the best search engine on the net.’ He said to Quentin, his best friend, who happened to be the ultimate tech-head.

He reached the conclusion that he was suffering from Male Candida Of The Gut, for which there was apparently no specific treatment. When he’d informed Dr Mikado of his discovery, she’d snorted derisively and stated: ‘Men don’t get Candida!’  Yeah, right, you stupid cow, he’d thought, as her own allergy – to studying, or knowledge – manifested itself.  She’d always been sceptical about his illness – especially when he’d needed monthly medical certificates from her in order for his insurance company to pay-off a bank loan when he’d temporarily been receiving sickness benefits eight years before.  Her responses had suggested, perhaps, that she thought that he was a hypochondriac, a malingerer, or even a fraud, which really pissed him-off.  He couldn’t help wondering if she was actually a homophobe, or just a bitter, thirty-something woman who found him attractive (he was a handsome fellow) and knew – not unreasonably, as he’d been totally honest about his sexuality – that she didn’t stand a chance. Well, he thought, he wouldn’t have fancied her anyway, even if he had been straight. Who let the dogs out? Woof, woof!

Dr Aziz was a different matter, however, as she was a rather beautiful and evidently cool woman of maybe… twenty six? Was she Anglo-Pakistani, or, perhaps, Iranian?  He sensed that she was subtlety flirting with him. He didn’t mind that at all, as it was rather flattering.  Plus, her bedside manner was easy-going, she made him feel at ease. She also seemed concerned about his mysterious condition, after he’d explained the symptoms to her. But she didn’t actually confirm his suspicions about what he thought it was. So she wasn’t that hot.

Two weeks previously, Dr Mikado had tried to dismiss him from her consulting room, having impatiently printed-out his usual prescription of useless medications. She was motioning for him to leave with a dismissive wave when he surprised her by stating firmly: ‘You know those little lumps I’ve had on my chest for years?’  She nodded reluctantly, whilst poring over her computer (horribly-outdated, thought Roger, it had green text on it! Was it an Amstrad?)  ‘Well, one of them has started bleeding for no apparent reason in the last week, could you have a quick look before I go (terribly  sorry to ask)?’ It was his sort-of boyfriend Charlie who’d suggested that he’d demanded some kind of response from his GP.  ‘Put your foot down!’ He’d insisted, ‘how the hell are you going to find out what’s wrong if you don’t make a fuss?’  He didn’t generally expect Roger to act on his advice, but Roger actually respected his opinion.  Charlie didn’t realise – whilst trying so hard to be ‘normal’ – that he was more than just intuitive, he was a natural psychic.  But like many people ‘who knew’, he was scared of the unknown, put-off by the potential dark forces.  Plus, he was  an accountant.

Dr Mikado sighed, then motioned for Roger to lift-up his top.  ‘See…?’ He asked, as she reluctantly examined the scabby little red lump in question.  Then, much to his surprise, she stated: ‘I think you’ll need to have that looked at by the dermatology department at All Saints.  It could possibly be a cause for concern.’  Eureka!  He’d had other possibly suspicious lumps removed at another hospital a couple of years before, after he’d been seen by the far-more sympathetic Dr Ogboke when Dr Mikado had been on maternity leave (whose child was it anyway – a sperm donor’s?).  One lump had been on his side and the other on his lower lip. The lip had been the worst: after it had been removed the stitches felt like barbed-wire in his mouth for ten days, or more, it was torture, but they’d found nothing malignant in the tissue that had been removed. Relief.

The GPs at the group practice still left it to the seemingly random specialists to deal with his mystery illness.  It was true that they were horribly overworked, but they showed no interest in his condition and waved their hands dismissively when he’d almost apologetically ask about it: ‘Oh, it’s all in the hands of the specialists.’  He got the feeling that he was going nowhere ‘in the system’.  He was stuck up a creek without a paddle.  Just because Dr Mikado fancied him/hated him?  That seemed extraordinarily unfair. He could have gone private, but it was against his principles. He paid tax to supposedly support the NHS, after all. Roger got off the operating table and Dr Aziz motioned for him to sit opposite her at her desk. ‘Keep the plasters on, or replace them,’ she said in her seductive voice, ‘until the stitches are removed.  Make an appointment with your GP to have that done in ten days. Then we need to see you as soon as the results of your biopsies are in.  Trouble is, everyone’s gone home today so you’ll have to call-in for your appointment, it should be in about fifteen days, but I suspect it might be longer, because of the time of year.  Sorry about that.’   ‘No worries.’ Said Roger.

She wrote-out her telephone and bleeper numbers, which surprised him after years of being dismissed as a hypochondriac, or whatever, by his GPs.  Shit!  Did this mean he was, well, you know… in danger? Or was she just a nice doc’?  ‘So what are you doing for new year’s eve?’  She asked, handing him her written details.  ‘Escaping to Cornwall!’ He said brightly, ‘we’re off tomorrow afternoon. I co-own a cottage on the beach, and I’m going with my other-half. How about you?’  He put back-on his T-shirt, which he’d designed, then his hooded sweat-shirt and the tan, D&G leather jacket that Charlie had given him. ‘That sounds fantastic,’ she replied, ‘well, a girlfriend – a colleague actually – of mine knows the owner of this trendy restaurant and club called Senseless in North Ken’ and she’s managed to get us tickets to the New Year’s Eve bash, even though they were sold out!’

Hah! If only she knew, he thought, but decided to reveal nothing, as it was more fun. ‘Wow, lucky you, hope you have a great night.’  But who was this colleague? He didn’t know any female doctors as far as he was aware. He left the hideous, institutional-looking outpatient’s building (drab, sixties, prefab architecture – it could have been in East Berlin prior to the fall of the wall) and lit a Camel Light in the dark as the December rain drizzled down between the older, Victorian sections of the hospital – that must be a chapel up there, he observed, noting some murky, full-length, stained-glass windows – then checked his mobile for text messages.  Nothing from Charlie.  Well, he was at work, but Roger knew that his vaguely-committed lover suspected that he might be a bit of a hypochondriac too, and lazy, he’d once said. Big mistake. Red-rag to a bull.  Laid-back he could have accepted, but not lazy.  There were a few text messages from concerned friends and family.

A handsome, young black man in a white coat was having a cigarette close by and looked at him meaningfully, a doctor he supposed  He decided that he had enough on his plate, ignored him and went for a very late lunch in a patisserie on the other side of the aptly-named Plague street. Roger had always worked his arse-off, mostly at night, but he didn’t make a big deal about it.  He wasn’t in any way religious, so the protestant  (or indeed catholic, jewish, hindu, buddhist, pagan or muslim) work ethic wasn’t something which he cared, or felt guilty, about. He’d always been a ‘night person’ and was constantly exasperated by ‘day people’ who expected him to speak to them at nine in the morning, when he’d often been working until three hours before. Thoughtless twats!  Smug, strangely-moralistic bastards who were trying to make him feel guilty.  Guilty about what?  Years of struggle, innovation, passion, creativity and, at last, some fantastic results, as-in success?  There was nothing to be guilty about. Plus he was avowedly honest. How else could you live your life? He’d spent nearly five years trying to help Charlie get through his psychological problems (whilst having endless, beautiful, spiritual and magical love-making nights), but Charlie didn’t see the big picture, nor did he understand the creative process – or pretended not to.  Was it because he worked in an office and felt poorly qualified to comment on this ‘glamourous, creative world’ which he wrongly assumed was utterly false.

Charlie moonlighted for Roger, doing his accounts for him a couple of evenings a month.  ‘Listen Charlie,’ said Roger as he cooked dinner while Charlie typed data into spreadsheets on his laptop, ‘don’t you understand that I’m helping genuinely talented, creative people to network with the people with the money and the contacts to help them achieve their goals?’  Charlie said that he refused to believe that there could actually be genuine altruism in such a phoney world. ‘How the fuck do you think the artistic salons in Paris in the Impressionist period achieved such fantastic results for instance?’  Asked Roger (actually, thinking about it, The Impressionists were derided in their time. Whatever).  Charlie didn’t know what Impressionism was.  Roger brought out some coffee-table books to back it up – Matisse, Degas, Seurat- ‘Oh, all those blurry blobs!’ Anyone could have done that.’  Said Charlie dismissively as he took off his clothes – God! His body looked good, thought Roger – as Charlie walked-out of his spacious, post-modernist-retro, open-plan, kitchen-diner for no apparent reason and disappeared upstairs. ‘Niiice butt!’ Shouted Roger, wondering why Charlie felt it necessary to suddenly wander-off and mutter abstract nonsense to himself. Was he seeking attention, or needing therapy?  Hmm, maybe it was sexual therapy – like a good shag – that he was after. You never knew.  His big attraction was his mystique, he supposed, but Roger loved him more than he’d ever loved anyone else.

Charlie was built like a rugby player, albeit a relatively short one, and was blessed with silky, mahogany-coloured skin, perfect white teeth, a fantastic smile, soft, pink lips, an arse like a brown, velvet football and, yes, in Charlie’s case, it was  indeed ‘true what they said’.  What did ‘they’ know? He’d come across (come across ha ha!) plenty of black people with small dicks, as it happened. Charlie was a thirty year-old black Brazilian – well, his father was – and his mother was Trinidadian, but he was second-generation British.  He’d been brought-up on a fairly rough council estate in Tottenham, in North London, but had done very well at school and subsequently, university, despite the fact that an older, male cousin had abused him sexually as an eight year-old. Roger had tried to get him to talk about it, but Charlie was not buying-in to the fact that it had blighted his life.  He was essentially brushing it under the carpet.

‘Psychotherapy is what you need to rediscover the real joy and romance in your life, then you might realise that I’m quite a joyful, romantic person for you too, not a fucking threat!’ Roger had suggested. Charlie’s degree in accounting had enabled him to him forge a career that had led to his dull, but quite well-paid job at the All Nations Bank. He also did Roger’s accounts, of course.  Roger’s best friend Quentin liked to wind him up by suggesting that Charlie looked like the star of the bank’s TV Ads, which was unfair, as Charlie was a handsome, masculine and intelligent man who simply didn’t ‘get’ arty-farty stuff.  Why should he?  He was an accountant. That didn’t mean he was dull, or lacking in intuitive depth. ‘I wish he’d go back on the ADs’, thought Roger, as he checked his emails; ‘he’s a much nicer person on Prozac’.

It was eight days since Dr Aziz had performed the biopsies.  Roger had returned from a refreshing and romantic time in Cornwall with Charlie. It had been wonderful to take long, bracing walks then relax in front of a real fire with storms raging outside  – and make love all week.  But he was feeling unwell. The phone was ringing.  He let it go to voice-mail, then looked-up and saw 9:AM (Quentin had given him a clock for Christmas which projected the time onto his bedroom ceiling).   He heard his mobile phone ring too, but it was too early in his morning and he wasn’t speaking to anyone, so he went back to sleep. When he reluctantly hauled himself out of bed at noon, he noticed there was a voice-message on the mobile. He made some tea then checked it. ‘Hello Mr Sidebottom, this is Dr Amelia Aziz from All Saints,’ the message went, ‘and we’d like you to come in as soon as…’  Then it cut-out.

What the fuck was that all about?  Was there something wrong with his lumps… and with his mobile?  Were they calling him in earlier than the appointment that he’d eventually managed to make for the twenty-first, after myriad calls that had inevitably led him back to the switchboard and some dreadful ‘Early Music’ while they’d kept him on hold? It later discovered that it was only Dr Aziz’s coded reference (‘XTC, override all bookings’) that she’d written down for him that had achieved the desired result  He’d also noticed some weird, error messages on his mobile over the last few days that had made no logical sense.  So he took the phone to his local telecommunications shop.

‘It’s fucked mate.’ Said Mohammed, the boss’s eighteen year old son, having run some tests on it (‘He’s barely legal,’ Quentin had noted a few days previously, after buying a top-of-the-range PDA, ‘but cute’).  ‘It’s about four years old, that’s like a lifetime these days, but could you transfer all my numbers from my Sim card if I bought a new one?’ Asked Roger. ‘No problemo.’  Answered Mohammed, with a dazzling smile.  Roger bought a new polyphonic phone. But he he couldn’t check his messages until he’d charged it up for twelve hours.  Then he remembered that he had Dr Aziz’s bleeper number.  After many attempts, he eventually got through to her, on his landline. ‘Hello Mr Sidebottom,’ she said in her velvety voice, ‘how good of you to get back to me, happy new year…erm, we just wanted you to come in ahead of the appointment you made.’  ‘Uh oh,’  responded Roger, ‘does that mean I’ve got something to be concerned about?’  ‘Well, I’m really sorry, I can’t discuss that right now as I’m with a patient,’ she replied, ‘but could you come in to see me tomorrow at around four-thirty, as we’d like to run some more tests?’

Hmm. So there was something going on. ‘Sure,’ he replied, ‘see you then’. Happy new year indeed! Now he was apprehensive, but also determined to be philosophical.  So what if fate had decided that he was to be a cancer victim when he’d finally succeeded in all his aspirations?  That would be a cruel twist, but if it was the case, what could he do?  Most cancers were treatable these days, weren’t they, if they’d been discovered early enough? But hang-on, he’d had those lumps… well, the first one was about five years ago, the other was about three, and the new one on his neck was about one year old, right?  What about the one on his tongue which had been there since the end of the eighties?  That was hardly ‘catching it early’, was it?

He called Charlie and explained what was going on. He was genuinely concerned and sympathetic, for a change.  Then he spoke to Quentin, who was a bit of a medical buff, in fact, he was a qualified nurse, so he offered to come along to Roger’s meeting with Dr Aziz and asked if he could stay the night in Roger’s flat above Senseless, as he lived in in an Art-Deco ‘semi’ in the trendy-cool city of Brighton, on the south coast.  ‘You know you don’t have to ask.’ Said Roger. Quentin was thirty-five and was also known as Biggy – the black one in the duo Biggy and Skunkhead – who’d had a huge R&B hit in the UK a few years back with ‘Coffee-coloured Baby’. ‘Let’s leave early so we can grab some Bugger  King before the appointment!’ Said Quentin cheerily the next afternoon, pulling-on the baggy, pale-blue D-Squared trousers he’d bought in New York.  Roger pulled a face. ‘Yeah, health-food, just what I need… hey, everyone likes a bit of trash sometimes, don’t they?  Quentin, you’re crisp!’

A little later, they were eating their burgers and reflecting on the sad, over-lit ambience of the half-empty (or was it half-full?) ‘restaurant’, which seemed to be the exclusive domain of a bevy of lost, black souls.  ‘How come no-one ever coined the term black-trash, or even Asian-trash?’  Whispered Quentin, ‘everyone knows what white — and trailer-trash — is, especially if they’ve watched the Larry Ginger show – did you know it’s an opera now? Or is it a PC issue?’ ‘Of course I know, it’s a hit,’ said Roger, ‘it’s Larry Ginger, The Opera – I thought it was a musical – and I’ll never forget when Larry presented you both with your Boom Award at the Albert Hall. Do you remember how pissed-off Underground Mixx looked when they lost-out to you in the Best Dance Record category?  As for black-trash, I guess it’s a PC thing. There’s always gonna be some kind of under-class, but everything claws its way out of the pit in time. There’s an evolved, educated black middle-class in this country, in America and all over the world, but the stereotypical portrayal of American blacks, sorry Affericans – I just invented that! – in movies as pimps, crack-heads and gangsters is not so different from the stereotypical portrayal of gays as tragic, effeminate queens. And both ghettos, sorry, communities, sometimes actively support and encourage that old-school bullshit sometimes.  It’s time to evolve!’

They had to wait for forty minutes in the depressing waiting room at the clinic. Soon, they were the only people left. Dr Aziz eventually appeared, apologised, touching Roger’s arm, smiled at Quentin and beckoned them into her consulting room. Roger was wearing fresh, clean clothes.  He never went a day without a bath or shower and never wore clothes next to his skin for more than once a day anyway. The brand-new, self-designed T-shirt he was wearing had a sort-of arty, contact-sheet of digital pictures that he’d taken printed on the front, mostly of Thailand and Cornwall.  The trousers were his favourite, comfortable, chunky-cord, beige combats with classic, white Calvin Kleins  briefs underneath.  He never wore any other underpants.  Quentin had recently bought him back a dozen pairs from New York, where they were much cheaper.  Roger introduced Quentin to Dr Aziz. ‘He’s a qualified nurse.’ Said  Roger brightly, knowing this wouldn’t do him any harm. They sat in front of her as she opened Roger’s bulging file on her desk.

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‘Okay…’ she cleared her throat and shuffled the papers in front of her, ‘the results of your biopsies are in.  I’m sorry I couldn’t speak to you about this on the phone, but it transpires that you have an extremely rare condition in both the lumps on your chest, which is known as Granular Cell Tumour.’

‘So what’s the chance of them being malignant?’  Asked Quentin, thinking: what the hell is that? Never heard of it. ‘The likelihood of it being malignant is remote,’ replied Dr Aziz, then turned to Roger, ‘but Mr Sidebottom, would you mind if our head of department,’ she lowered her voice to a stage whisper, ‘Dr Garfunkel… had a look at them?’ ‘Sure, no probs.’ Replied Roger.  He knew something was up, so he had to deal with it. But why the ‘boss scenario’?  And how did it relate to his mystery illness, if at all?

‘By the way,’ he asked Dr Aziz, ‘how was your new year’s eve at Senseless?’ ‘Oh it was wicked, what a fabulous place, I had a brilliant night,’ she replied, smiling, ‘but I never found out who sent a bottle of Krug to our table!’ ‘That’s very intriguing.’  Said Roger, winking surreptitiously at Quentin, who was ‘in’ on the story. ‘Here’s Dr Garfunkel.’  Said Dr Aziz. There could have been a drum roll. ‘Ah ha, Mr Sidebottom, pleased to meet you!’ Boomed the head of the department, shaking Roger’s hand enthusiastically.  He was straight out of central-casting; late-sixties, with half-moon glasses and wild, grey, mad-professor hair. ‘I’ll come back in a minute, if you could just disrobe’. ‘Do you mind?’ Asked Dr Aziz, motioning towards the examination bed.  She pulled the curtain across (‘Nurse! The screens!) and he took off his clothes. ‘This is all a bit of a carry-on!’ He joked to Dr Aziz, who chuckled, then whispered: ‘Can I mention…’ She motioned to where Quentin was sitting, giggling occasionally, reading something that what evidently amusing on his laptop. ‘You know… the test?’ ‘Oh!’  Said Roger deliberately loudly, ‘he knows all about the fact that I’m HIV negative, no probs – don’t you Quent?’ ‘Yep!’  Said Quentin brightly. ‘What’s the story you’re reading?’ Asked Roger, sitting on the examination table in just his ‘Calvins’. ‘Oh, it’s really good, it’s from a multimedia book called ‘My Unplanned Obsolescence’ and it’s by someone called Thom Topham; I found it online.

Dr Garfunkel returned and examined Roger’s lumps, whilst asking him various questions. ‘Mr Sidebottom is HIV negative.’ Volunteered Dr Aziz. ‘Excellent!’ Said Dr Garfunkel, as Quentin giggled beyond the screens. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Roger, ‘he’s just reading a funny story’. Dr Garfunkel left, Roger got dressed and returned to Dr Aziz’s desk.  ‘Sorry about that,’ she said soothingly, ‘but do you know, Dr Garfunkel has never, ever seen a case of these tumours in his forty years of practicing!’ ‘Well, er, glad to be of service.’  Said Roger, pulling a ‘gee thanks!’ face. Dr Aziz continued: ‘I wonder if you could do me – and the department – a big favour?’  Roger shrugged and looked at her enquiringly.  ‘Would you object to being examined by the department of dermatology at Saint Thomas’s in Lambeth next week?’ She asked. ‘No, not at all, if it helps sort things out regarding my mystery illness, then that’s all good.’ He answered. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘I’d also like you not to tell any of them what the condition is, if that’s okay.’ Roger tapped his nose in a conspiratorial fashion, then said ‘ Sure, but I’d like to ask you something: if these tumours are so rare, where have they previously been found?’ She looked slightly uncomfortable and said ‘Well, uh…’ He shot her an encouraging, I-can-handle-it look. ‘It’s generally only found in African-american women’.   Quentin and Roger had to suppress their laughter.

‘Get yer weave-on… right-on girl !’ Squealed Quentin double-ironically when they were outside again, lighting-up cigarettes and still laughing. ‘Oh yeah!’ said Roger in a deliberately bad, West-Indian accent, ‘I want those big, twisty, multi-coloured plaits in big beehives on my head, sister dread!’ ‘You know, I get the feeling,’ said Quentin, in something approximating an Indian accent, ‘that the lovely Dr Aziz is… just a little bit ambitious!’ Roger raised his eyebrows: ‘Yeah, she’s hoping for the front cover of SKIN, The British Journal Of Dermatology. Next thing you know they’ll be wanting to take pictures of my lumps at the hospital using a dodgy back-drop of some hospital gown held-up with masking tape!’ How very prescient he was.  His lumps were to become celebrity lumps, as they were indeed featured on the cover of SKIN, before they were removed.

The following week, Roger showed-up at the allotted time at St Stephen’s. He’d been asked to report to the nurses’ station in the dermatology department on the first floor of the South Building, wherever that was. This was London’s leading, teaching hospital and it was a sprawling complex of Victorian buildings with various architecturally dubious additions from the twentieth century bolted-on. He got lost several times in endless corridors, and was surprised to suddenly come across an old man playing Debussy on a grand piano – rather well – in a vast, lofty, Victorian lobby featuring marble pillars and ornate ironwork. as he searched for the dermatology department. He eventually found the right stairs and announced his presence at the nurses’ station. He was asked to follow one of them, who had obviously been expecting him: ‘Just wait there for a little while, if you don’t mind,’ she said as she ushered him in to a clinical, bare, pale-green room, ‘you’re about to be inundated, welcome to the Gulag!’ Dark humour seemed endemic in hospitals, he thought, as he sat down and started to work out the Codeword in The Daily Mirror – it was looking like number ten was the ‘E’ – then the door swung open and a gaggle of doctors of all ages, sexes and colours crowded into the room and started firing questions at him.

They asked him to remove most of his clothes, then ushered him on to the examination bed and turned on a bright light above his head.  They wanted to know every detail. ‘This one is about five years old…’ said Roger, pointing his finger at a lump, ‘and this one about three. I’m HIV negative and also have a mystery ailment which I suspect is Male Candida Of The Gut. I’d like to find out if there’s a link between the two conditions.  He felt like saying ‘anyone fancy a shag?’ But decided against it. The first group of doctors left, to be replaced by another ten or so. Roger started to feel like he sounded like a stuck-record (‘this lump five years, this one three’), but that didn’t stop him cracking jokes – ‘If it IS a yeast infection, hopefully I’m a funghi  to be with!’ – and making cheap innuendoes.  There was, however, no Hattie Jacques look-alike, which was a shame, he found it quite fun to be the official centre of attention. Eventually, the third posse of docs were leaving, apart from one, a pretty, young-ish blond woman, dressed in what looked like a Chanel suit.  She introduced herself as Dr Rachel Rashing (talk about ‘born to the job’, thought Roger), Dr Aziz’s colleague.  Roger winked at her and whispered ‘I haven’t given the game away!’ She whispered back ‘Thank you, you’ve been a complete star, this lot won’t forget you in a hurry! Dr Aziz sends her apologies, she was called to The Palace to do some private work.’ ‘I always suspected that Princess Anne had a nasty case of eczema – probably due to the horses,’ quipped Roger, putting his clothes back on, then asked her, ‘please could you try and pull all the info together regarding my mystery illness, which I think might be Male Candida Of The Gut, and see if there’s any link with these superstar, ultra-rare tumours?’  She nodded emphatically.  Roger continued: ‘I don’t want to be used for any self-aggrandising, ambitous purposes, I need to get to the bottom, so to speak, of this bloody long-term, health nightmare.  Can you imagine having the runs five times a day for ten years? Now… how the hell do I get out of this maze?’ They walked out of the ‘Gulag cell’. She pointed him in the right direction, then suddenly said: ‘You’re Roger Senseless, aren’t you? I recognise you from that interview you did with The Head magazine.’ ‘Certainly not,’ he replied in a cod-punky, mockney  voice, ‘I’m just a looky-likey.’ ‘Pants on fire!’ She responded swiftly, grinned, then added: ‘listen, can you do me another favour, I know you’ve been totally brilliant, but I sort-of lied to my immediate boss Amelia, I mean Dr Aziz, when I pretended that I knew you, in order to get the new year’s eve tickets at your wonderful club.’ They walked through the grand Victorian lobby as the same old man played Chopin Etudes on the grand piano. He eyed them quizzically.  ‘The truth is, I only know your accountant Charlie – he’s a Cancer, just like me, as it happens –  and he swung it for me, bless him.  I used to go out with him many moons ago.’

Moons, Cancer?  Who was writing this script?  She must be older than she looks, he thought.  Charlie was thirty-eight. He’d never mentioned a blonde woman, even though, like Roger, he’d had some relationships with women in his younger days and had told him about them… of course. They only ‘did’ honesty, didn’t they?  All of a sudden, maybe not. At least… degrees of honesty? Roger suddenly stopped,  gently grabbed her arm and turned and looked into her eyes as they reached the exit of the hospital by the newly-installed Cafe Nero concession: ‘Listen Dr Rashing, he’s been my boyfriend – mostly – for well over four years. Didn’t he ever tell you?’  She looked somewhat shocked and responded: ‘He never, ever told me that…’ Roger continued:  ‘Guess who he was with in Cornwall over new year?  Where did he tell you he was? At his parent’s place in Tottenham?’ He suddenly walked-off rapidly, keying-in Charlie’s name on his mobile then shouted: ‘the bottle of Krug on new year’s eve was from me, by the way’. He didn’t look back.

Charlie was still at work, so he had to leave a message: ‘I just met a secret ex of yours,’ He said, trying not to sound too angry, ‘blond, female, Chanel suit… you know the one, Rachel, Dr Rashing, she’s on the dermatological team at St Thomas’s. What a coincidence! And a Cancer, just like you too. How ironically appropriate.  So do you still shag her occasionally and were you planning to start a family in your fervent desire to be Captain Normal? You’d better get your fine arse over to my place tonight and explain yourself’. Roger almost banged into the automatic doors in his rush to leave the hospital. They never open quickly enough when you’re angry, he thought, then took a deep breath and told himself:  calm down, you fucking idiot.  Poor Dr Rashing, she was obviously oblivious to his relationship with Charlie, plus she was on-side, health-wise. There was no reason to believe that Charlie and her had been intimate again recently, was there?

He decided that he should take a walk along The South Bank, breathe some virtual sea-air by the brown, broody River Thames, clear his head and, well… chill.  He gazed at the Millennium Wheel thinking: how can you tell if it’s turning, why don’t they light it up more and where are the lasers? He considered checking out the Satchi Gallery, but figured that it might not necessarily be the best cultural experience for him in his current state of mind. Had Damien Hirst, Britain’s most famous, modern artist, ever featured biopsies in his medically-inspired works?   He was admiring the almost communist-style, monumental architecture that was County Hall (it housed art galleries, an aquarium, the inevitable tacky souvenir shop, restaurants, a hotel and some rather bland apartments) when a crusty-looking young man with white dreadlocks shoved a leaflet in his face and said: ‘Hi! My name’s Damien, just mention my name on reception at The Satchi Gallery and you’ll get a free set of arty postcards!’  He was obviously Australian. ‘Cool, er, cheers mate.’  Said Roger, lapsing into an Aussie accent and taking the flier.

He had been meaning to check the new gallery out. He was here, life was weird… so why not? He’d had this posh girlfriend (girl… friend) in the eighties called Darcey.  Her mother was a bit of a left-field, advertising legend (she’d come-up with the famous sixties slogan ‘made to make your mouth water’) at a major advertising agency, and Darcey had suggested that Roger would be a good ‘trend consultant’ for them, as he was a highly successful club promoter, had organised parties for superstars like Mariah Carey – the biggest female star in the world –  and even Michael Jackson, when he they were doing shows in London, and generally had his finger on the pulse (whatever that was).  So he’d been wheeled into their palatial, arty offices and been drip-fed copious amounts of champagne.  Then they’d attempted to pick his brains on all sorts of levels.  ‘Hellooo? Think I’m stooopid?  You’re all taking the fucking piss!’  No response, apart from insipid, non-comprehending, watery smiles. So he smashed his flute (how poetic) on the floor, told them they were all cynical, manipulative bastards unless they paid him one hundred K a year, then tipped-over the table and walked out.  Ah: such poignant memories of  pretentious prats being hoisted by their own petards!

It had started to rain and was dark, windy and miserable, yet mournfully beautiful. He walked up the dramatically expansive granite steps to the gallery’s entrance, then turned back to look at the view across the river.  There was a mass of twinkling lights reflecting in the Thames; a deep, wide, dark drain of swirling currents:  brutally inviting if you were feeling suicidal, no doubt.  Cold and strangely alluring even if you weren’t.  He shuddered inwardly, recalling the awful death of many of his young friends in the infamous Marchioness river boat disaster in the eighties, then turned and approached the entrance.

There wasn’t another soul in sight apart from the smiling black woman who held the door open for him as he entered.  ‘Thanks.’ He said and smiled (it was all a bit bleak, so how did she feel?)back  as he entered what looked like a mausoleum.  A brilliant choice of venue then.  Marble walls were adorned with hundreds of names in a grand lobby.  Bloody hell, he joked to himself, very Brit-Art, who did this, Damien Hirst, or was it the Chapman brothers? Of course, he knew very well that it was actually the lobby of the original building, which had once been the seat of local government in London. He loved private jokes.  As he walked down the corridor he started to forget his problems and began to enjoy himself. This was an other-worldly experience.

‘Okay, love you babes, talk later!”  Said the South African-sounding, surfer-dude cloakroom attendant on his mobile phone before he took various items of clothing, a bag and a trilby hat from the mousey, arty-professor-type man in front of Roger in the  short queue.  ‘Make sure that that hat doesn’t get crushed.’ Said the man in a whiney voice to the attendant, suggesting a creepy, neurotic and self-obsessed psyche.  He was obviously American; not that that automatically made him a creep.  Roger was tempted to wind him-up: ‘Hello, my name’s Justin Thyme, I’m a journalist writing for Alfresco*!’  Then the pervy-looking American academic would respond ‘Oh Al… yeah how is he?’

An artistic statement that was otherwise a normal, dark red, antique-leather Chesterfield sofa, apart from the giant orb bulging from its seat in the same material, was exhibited in the cloakroom area.  Funny.  But not art. Yeah, it made you think, but… you couldn’t sit on it.  Roger set off around the gallery and found much to amuse and delight him.  There was a lot of crap on view – literally, in the case of several paintings by the Turner Prize-winner Ben Ofili, who was famous for using camel dung on his canvasses, although Roger loved his work – but the gallery was generally stimulating, thought-provoking, entertaining and enervating and helped him escape from himself and those who didn’t understand him, at least for a little while. Hardly surprising really.  There were some lovely fireplaces too, but they were also from the original building.

He was assessing the supposed artistic merit of Tracy Emin’s ‘Bed’ (what a messy, dirty girl!) in the spectacular, main gallery when his mobile rang.  It was Charlie.  ‘Hi,’ said Charlie, ‘how are you?’ ‘I’m fine Charlie,’ said Roger, ‘so how are you?’ ‘So how are you then?’ Asked Charlie. ‘No, how are YOU!?’  Replied Roger, then fired:  ‘listen, did you fuck Rachel Rashing recently… or not?’ He could have been an ‘installation’ himself for all the other gallery visitors knew, as, apart from a bevy of Japanese tourists, the American academic, some Scandinavian tourists and a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls, visitors were a bit thin on the ground on this cold, winter evening.  Plus, there was something naughty about having a live conversation with someone he was pissed-off with taking place in a ‘radical’ art gallery.  Suddenly, he felt relaxed.  Then Charlie sighed and said: ‘Well, if you must know, we did have a reunion quickie once, about five years ago, when we were a bit high.  Just once.  But look, I love you, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me.  Where the fuck are you by the way?’ ‘Well, I’m in the Satchi Gallery in County Hall.  I’ve recently been prodded and probed by over thirty specialists in St Stephens  – including your secret ex, Rachel, she seems very nice, I must say – and now I’m going to go home to suspend myself in formaldehyde, as Damien Hirst is coming to dinner.’ ‘That’s, er nice, ‘ Said Charlie, not quite sure what Roger was talking about – some arty bollocks, wasn’t it?  ‘So what IS the story on the cancer thing?’ He asked. ‘Well Charlie, great, mysterious and masculine love of my life,’ said Roger, as some Japanese tourists asked if they could take some pictures – he motioned an affirmative with a wave of his hand – ‘You’re Cancer, I’m Cancer, your ex-girlfriend Dr Rashing is a Cancer, but I’m the only one currently in danger of succumbing to it, although I think recent reports of my death have been somewhat exaggerated.  Hang on Charlie…’  He stuck the mobile phone in his mouth for the benefit of the Japanese tourists and did a little arty dance.  They made appreciative guttural noises as their camera bulbs flashed. ‘Charlie, you there?’ ‘Yeah, what’s going on?’ ‘Well, you’ve got to have a sense… of tumour, haven’t you?’

Steve Swindells (c) 4.2.04. All rights reserved.

The Remote Control. A Short Story By Steve Swindells.

16 Jan
The Remote Control - new cover pic Aug 2016

The Remote Control

 

 

Nillesden Green.  2004.

Jack’s space was being invaded by an annoying ringing noise. He reluctantly picked up the phone as he tapped away on the keyboard of his new iMac… swathed in cigarette smoke. ‘Very Tennessee Williams’, you might have thought if you’d been a Mac-user on Instant Messenger watching him via his iSight camera, which he’d forgotten to turn-off.

It was his land line ringing.  “Hello!” Said Jack brusquely. Then, quickly realising that he probably sounded aggressive because the caller had interrupted his online word game, he jokingly added in a deliberately bad Spanish accent: ‘Magathine…  Ello! Magathine.’

He continued trying to score points as he reluctantly listened to Minnie, wondering if she could hear his mouse clicking (or perhaps squeaking) as she spoke.  ‘Got any scandalous pics of minor royals in their LOVELY homes, my beloved, heh heh?’ Asked Minnie, ‘So how are you chooky-egg?’ She added in a suspiciously syrupy, false manner.

Jack cradled the digital, cordless phone against his ear, irritated at having his game interrupted by someone whom he didn’t really care for, who was also sounding suspiciously cheery.  In other words, she was probably about to burst into tears, as usual.  He continued to run his mouse around the online page, hoping to come-up with longer words. He saw a double ‘D’ on his screen, then an ‘E’ and an ‘R’. Damm!  There was an ‘ING’ as well.  Was there something leading nicely into ‘ING’?  Could he use the ‘DDER’ and the ‘ING’ within the time limit? Would the bitch fuck off? ‘Oddering’? Nope. He was about to score over two thousand points fergodsake! ‘Uddering’? Nope. Shit.

‘Um….’, (click, click, click), he said, ‘I’m cool thanks Minnie…’ (click, click). ‘Oh sorry, got a call-waiting, hang on a momento…’  he added,  lying through his teeth, then quickly pressed the ‘recall’ button on his phone and just managed to ‘drop’ the word ’shudder’ on-screen as the seconds counted down.

YAH!’ He shouted out loud and punched the air: ‘A luffly, bick, fat, final zcore of two thoussand, eight huntred ant ninety nine!’

There weren’t many Germans in leafy-yet-multi-cultural Nillesden Green (and Jack had never got past the first page of Sadie Jones’ locally-based novel Black Lips. Pretentious, ‘I’m-determined-to-be-a-novelist’ crap, he’d thought, although the TV adaptation was quite good), but there was a German record producer who had a studio in Nillesden Lane whom he worked with occasionally, who also had a good sense of humour, contrary to popular myths about Germans. ‘Vwee arrh licking ziss inklish ironic!’ He would say, chuckling as only Germans do, ‘ but don’tz menschen ze vwar!‘.

There was a thirty-second wait before the next game. Ten seconds-in,  Jack’s mobile phone bleeped. It was a text message, or ‘txt msg’, if you like.  Jack quickly opened it to see that he had received a picture message.  He was puzzled. His mobile (or cell phone, if one was American) was just a bog-standard, pay-as-you-go Nokia 3410:  it didn’t ‘do’ picture messaging.  As the seconds counted down to the next word game, he wondered who the ‘pic msg’ was from, then the game started and he swished and clicked his mouse like a maniac, having seen a potential eight-letter word or three.

Jack Black was a thirty-eight year old, mixed-race, black man who would – or should – have been a star, but wasn’t. Sadly, it was unlikely that he would ever be, as he was seen as too old in the eyes of an industry that was now controlled by desperate, record company-cum-TV-production-executives, promoting the sad, yet curiously entertaining cruelty that was the Reality TV Talent Show. Jack said ‘it was great TV, although you obviously don’t approve of it morally as they are so cynically manipulative.’

Had the record companies listened to certain internet pundits in the late nineties, they might have noticed a certain prescience regarding their industry’s potential demise, due to the onset of digital piracy on a grand scale – along with millions of teenagers ‘burning’ CDs for their mates, of course. The music industry hadn’t done its homework and they were panicking even more as 2K4 began. But that didn’t help Jack Black, the Lenny Kravitz of Nillesden Green. Maybe he’d have to diversify and write the script, the book, the album, the computer game… and the T-shirt.  Not forgetting the Turner Prize-winning installation (or The Tina Turner Prize, as he preferred to call it).

Jack was very talented, in lots of creative areas, and had conversation-stopping charisma, smouldering good looks, great cheek bones and pectorals and an amazing rock n’ soul singing voice. He could paint, play guitar like Carlos Santana, write, design and had plenty of intuitive intellect – despite having not gone to university – along with that special kind of X-factor that somehow made people potentially jealous and resentful, or somewhat in awe of him.  Some people tended to see him as a threat – rather than helping to nurture his many gifts – and often tried to ‘put him down’ in order, perhaps, to make their wannabe lives seem more interesting and rewarding.  Others found his presence overbearing, or even an emotional challenge.  Many people, of both sexes, fell hopelessly in love with him as he was beautiful, masculine, toned, tall, naturally funny and a generally groovy, black (one is tempted to make you scroll/read down at this point)

…gay man.

Yes, you read it right: a black man who just happened to be gay. Not some faggot stereotype or stupid queen.

So-called ‘gay culture’ left Jack cold. He was not a fan of Aussie pop stars-who’d-been-in-soaps, nor did he rate The Village People as acceptable, sartorial role models. Neither did he feel it necessary to hang-out with queens who talked only in ‘bumper-stickers’, quoting from a one-page script that had been written by perky, white, uptight, upper-class, closet-cases in the fifties.  He also had a problem with gay, black ‘self-help’ groups, where the fresh, young participants were treated like sexual bush meat and instructed, sorry, encouraged, not to stray from their racial roots in their choice of sexual partners,  but to ‘interact’, preferably with the ‘team leaders’ and ‘motivators’, who were somewhat competetive over who could bed their young charges first.

Jack’s mother was Spanish; a former Flamenco dancer and singer; an ageless, wild and passionate bohemian. His father, a naturally charming, laid-back Antiguan, shared a seventies, modernist, glass and steel house in the New Forest with her, and dealt in retro-modern, mid-century antiques. He was, unlike many of the older (and indeed younger), black generation, quite easy-going about Jack’s sexuality. Many of his customers were trendy, urban, loft-dwelling gays who snapped-up his Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Verner Panton and Bauhaus pieces. Jack referred to the parental business as The Antiguan Road Show, pretend-mockingly, also knowing that he was blessed with really cool parents.

Jack Black was more commonly known as Black Jack  – ‘Life is always one big, fucking gamble!’ He’d say – and was the lead singer of The Remote Control, the band he’d formed with some of the best musicians in the UK.

On drums there was the radically Islamic Moses Noses, a former pin-up from the  hugely successful eighties outfit The Dub Vultures.  Moses had had a somewhat scandalous – for that time – relationship with the band’s outrageously camp singer  Gracie ‘Cheddar’ Gorge, who had been dubbed  a ‘gender-bender’ by the tabloid rags, despite the fact that she was all-woman (allegedly).  He was now married with seven kids and lived in tremendous style in two massive, twenties, modernist penthouses knocked-into-one in Whygate, stuffed with Mathew Hilton and seventies and eighties designer furniture, Picasso prints, a huge collection of priceless, retro-Korans and a fat, Filipino maid.

As it transpires, Jack just made all that up. It was all a dream (cue cheesy, American voice-over): ‘He emerged from the shower naked after thirty episodes of The Soap. He didn’t die nasty, and he re-emerged cleansed.  That really celebrated the genre. That was a whole lot of soap.’

Maybe Jack would have to add ‘novelist’ or ‘script writer’ to his CV.  He could, perhaps, be promoted as the male Sadie Jones (remember, the writer who put Nillesden Green on the literary map… ish?) but Jack was not the kind of acceptably coffee-coloured man who’d play the designer-joss-sticks-and-scented-candles-ethnic-garb card. He preferred to dress just as he pleased, to feel comfortable in his own skin. He was his own man. One day he would straddle cultures like a colossus. Yeah, right. Or create The Hanging Baskets Of Babylon in his own back yard. And the drummer was actually a Pakistani dyke from Stratford called Asheila Eastern.

The bass player was a big, loveable, Jamaican called Harold Handy, who had played with ‘everyone who was everyone’, from ageing pop divas to hip, underground, indie dance acts and balding rockers, in the eighties, nineties and noughties.  He’d even played on a duet between Willy Robbiams and Mylene Kinogue.  He was just about the best bass player in the country.

Jack had met the keyboard player Gary Henry when they’d both played at a reunion concert at The Hoxton Academy with Eaglebreath, a legendary space-rock band which they’d both been members of until they’d got disillusioned and left, having discovered that the self-proclaimed ‘boss’, Dick Rock, the guitarist and singer, had been ripping them off by putting out albums of them jamming, then hoovering-up all the royalties. That would explain the secret, Olympic-sized swimming pool concealed in a barn on his Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like, horror-hippy farm in Wales that Gary had told him about in a conspiratorial moment over a bottle of wine and a desultory dinner in what passed for a gastro-pub in North Wales.

Jack had shuddered at the memory of one of Dick’s mangey dogs biting him when he was rehearsing on the farm for the gig.  He’d been staying in what he’d dubbed ‘the Heartbreak Hotel’, which was a huge, sprawling, architecturally-challenged B&B pub in the middle of nowhere, catering to travelling salesmen, middle-aged, dirty stop-outs and ageing jazz musicians who jammed for free drinks in ‘The Cabaret Barn’. Dinner consisted of various roasted joints (of meat, silly) and soggy vegetables  which were kept warm under  some very large lamps with large copper shades (which, ironically, would have looked cool in any self-respecting modern kitchen). ‘Chicken, Beef or Pork, only £4.95 inc veg!’ Read the chalked-up sign.  ‘The Carvery’, they called it.

The decor was Jack’s worst nightmare of Barbie colours (pink and turquoise) tied-in to a Tudor-bethan ‘ambience’, with a gas, log-effect fire, fake antiques, horse-brasses (why would anyone consider such things aesthetically pleasing?) and all the atmosphere of a cheap, horror B-movie, with the added benefit of locals who looked like extras from The Stepford Wives-meets-Psycho.  All this entertainment cost a bargain £16 a night, including a ‘Full English’.  As opposed to a ‘Full Welsh’.

‘Fuck it!’ Muttered Jack under his breath, as the phone’s insistent ringing interrupted his word game once more. He had just been about to score one thousand points with the word ‘Shocking’, then his time was up.  It was his mobile phone this time.

‘Yes!’  He said, not bothering to conceal his irritation, ‘Who’s that?’   ‘Oh, hi…’ said a slightly nervous, vaguely Northern voice, ‘did you get the picture message?’

‘Well, yeah, I saw the message, but not the picture,’ said Jack wearily, ‘I can’t open pic messages on this mobile and who the fuck are you?’

‘Shit… sorry!’ Stuttered the caller. ‘You must be a wrong number’.

‘Yes… and?’  Said Jack, strumming his fingers, wanting to return to beat lionheart, dyslexysmidnight, notcloset, mad ranter, trusty and trace-e (the game’s graphics were in trendy lower-case) and all the rest of his fellow, star players on his favourite, multi-player, online word game. He sometimes worried that he was addicted to it, yet he hadn’t even managed to score three thousand points yet and the top-five players were scoring four thousand-plus. How pathetic was that?  Obviously, it was a mouse issue. He was giving it a quick clean with an anti-static, wet wipe, with his mobile phone balanced precariously under his chin.  He reluctantly let another game opportunity go, then the caller suddenly asked: ‘Are you gay?’

‘Whaaaat?!’  Pregnant pause… ‘Well… yes I am as it happens.’  Replied Jack, somewhat taken aback, in his naturally masculine, deep voice.  ‘What of it? You sound kind-of black? Are YOU gay? Where the fuck are you?’

‘Well, yeah, I am black, but most of my friends are white. I’m nineteen and… I think I’m gay. My name is Ricky and I’m in Leicester right now, but I’m studying in Nottingham.’

‘Leicester said about that the better!’ Quipped Jack, wondering how the hell this had come about – and why.  Was it just a weird coincidence?  ‘So who were you hoping to send this message to and what was the picture of?’ He asked, talking into his shoulder, watching the screen, as the next game was about to start.

‘Oh, just a friend, it was a silly picture of me flashing my bum taken in a tacky, seventies wine bar with leatherette banquettes, glitter balls and stuff in Nottingham. The place is trendy ‘cos it’s so kitsch, it’s called The Orifice… you know, student irony. Obviously, it was a wrong number, sorry.’ Said Ricky. ‘Oh… and, do you mind if I ask…?’  He hesitated.

‘Yep? ‘ said Jack, eyeing his computer screen, then added: ‘Twenty seconds to go until the next game.’

‘What game?’  Asked Ricky.

‘Oh, I’m sure you wont know it,’ said Jack, ‘it’s a an online, multi-player word game whereby you have to identify, or drop, as many big words as possible, eight letters max, from a grid of letters and… oh shit, hang on, I’ll call you right back!’  Jack pressed the red button on his mobile and quickly ‘dropped’  the words ‘remote’, then ‘control’. Just a strange coincidence, surely? Then he tried ‘closetry’ but it obviously wasn’t in the dictionary – a bit ‘noughties’; too much of a modern term to be included, he concluded. Did someone compile the letters on the game, were they just random, or had the spirits entered the equation? They’d always liked a laugh when he read the cards for his friends. The spirits, that is, or was…

Then his land line rang.  He minimised the word-game window in frustration.  ‘Hello!’  He stated, ‘this is Jack’s answering service, please leave me a MASSAGE, Shiatsu and ALL the extras, after the tone…’ then made a rather obviously non-digital, beeping noise.

‘Jack!  Chooky-egg!  I know you’re there my beloved!  Pick-up the phone!’ Shrieked Minnie, sounding rather tinny, tiny and desperate from the cordless phone, discarded on the desk.  To Jack it suddenly morphed into a helpless, overturned cockroach with its legs flailing.

‘Oh Okay,’ he said, sighing, reluctantly picking up the phone again after realising that he didn’t need the sound, or hassle, of a stuck-pig squealing through a cheap trannie.  ‘Is that Minnie Driver?  Wow!  Is your middle- name Cab?  By the way, fuck off! You’re a fat, evil bitch.  I know your surname isn’t really Driver, it’s hah hah isn’t it?  Anyway, I’m seriously fed-up with your twisted obsession with my best – gay, white, as it happens – friend and the way that you’ve used your pre-pubescent,  teenage daughter to try and emotionally blackmail him.  I mean – he’s gay for fuck’s sake!  Why do some women persist in believing that they can ‘convert’ gay men when all the gay men were doing was just trying to be good friends with them?  The sound of Minnie’s crocodile tears and gulping breaths reached epic proportions, in full Dolby Surround Sound.

‘Oh sorry,’ Jack continued, ‘someone’s breaking down my door and throwing bricks through my windows, I’ve gotta go. I think it’s your not-so-beloved’s smack-head boy-fiend trying to get in touch with his inner demons.  Oh!  And why did God invent Gay Disco’s ? I’ll tell you.  So fat, black girls could have a good time!  Must run muppet! Laters!’

He put the phone in its cradle with a sigh, went to his Smeg, stainless-steel fridge, made a large vodka and tonic, took a deep gulp, had a couple of hits on a joint, then called back Ricky, the mysterious closet-case from Nottingham.

‘Hi Ricky, it’s Jack, sorry about that, I had Rochelle-from-Pop Idol-meets-that-fat-black-bird-from-Big Brother on the phone, sobbing uncontrollably and threatening to commit suicide live online – she’s got Broadband too.  So, you were saying?’

‘Well, er…’ muttered Ricky, ‘ I was wondering what it was like…’

‘Wondering what what was like?’ Asked Jack impatiently, scrolling through some new, digital pictures he’d taken of recent conquests whilst having sex with them.  ‘Wondering what it was like to commit suicide live online, or what it was like to be fabulous and talented?’

‘Well, er, no…’  stuttered Ricky. ‘I was wondering what it was like to be fucked by a man’.

Oh, here we go, thought Jack,  Another coincidental, transcendental, teenaged-phone-wanker.

‘Well, I don’t get screwed, haven’t been for years… no-one ever really tried anyway,’  replied Jack, ‘but in order for it to work, you’ve got to want it badly – and the guy doing it has to make you want it badly – plus you need plenty of lube.  Oh, and you’ve got to have had a good crap and washed your arse, preferably with a shower. It’s  all very Will And Grace, although they’d say ASS. Poppers are good too – providing they’re real’

‘OK – so what’s lube?’ Asked Ricky innocently.

‘Lube, well, it’s lubrication!’ Replied Jack –  not really wanting to give a coincidental, transcendental, counselling session to a nouveau-gay at that time of the night – then added, ‘but make sure the person isn’t trying to drag (drag, hah hah!) you into being a queen, so avoid that tired, old pressure to be part of something that belongs in the fucking 1950s, man.  See if you can rent a DVD of The Boys In The Band to see how truly horrendous it really was.’

Jack wondered if his least-favourite movie might have been too left-field to get released on DVD. But Video Killed The Radio Star (the only viable competitor to Clockbusters) had an extensive arty section, didn’t it?  Was there one in Nottingham? Probably not.

They talked some more about the perils of being gay in provincial time-warps and their respective aspirations.  Ricky was apparently at Trent University studying textiles and avidly reading books. Rite-of-passage stuff.  He thought he might like to be a novelist or a journalist, or both, as well as a textile designer and maybe something in TV.  He said he aspired to be a renaissance man who was into sports as well.  Jack laughed a multi-media laugh, tried to picture him, then thought: who the hell employs visionaries; do you have to write a ‘how-to’ book? Anyway, in an ideal world, who’d want to be employed?  At least visionaries were often artists, struggling maybe, but they were also ostensibly free to be themselves, having chosen their own, sometimes lonely, paths.

Jack and Ricky talked some more about sexuality, but Jack wasn’t lusting after the picture-message-he’d-never-seen, as he generally liked older – but in-shape – blatino men. He had a long-standing fuck-buddy called Antonio, a fifty-year old, oil millionaire from Caraccas, who’d once said sagely: ‘Hey, people are strange, but strangers are people sometimes…’

‘You know that word game you mentioned?’ Said Ricky suddenly, ‘do you have to get as many big words as possible and is it on a website that promotes new writing?’

Jack’s eyebrows raised.  ‘Yeah, that’s the one, it called west of the net dot com. How bizarre that you know it, I imagine that it’s a bit obscure compared with, say, big black dicks dot com.’ Rickie chuckled. ‘Have you ever noticed,’ added Jack, warming to his theme, ‘how white people always expect black people to have huge dicks?  Like it’s  a cliched fantasy for them.  What about black men who have a fantasy about getting screwed?’ By white men, even?

Ricky laughed, perhaps a little too readily, then rapidly changed the subject. ‘You know you said you were the singer in a band?’ He asked, ‘Yep, we’re called The Remote Control,’ replied Jack in a casual fashion, rolling another spliff, ‘and the album will be called Don’t Lose It.  Unfortunately, the dot com and, even worse, the dot tv – that would have been brilliant eh? – have been registered as domain names by other people.  I’m well-pissed-off.  I mean what use is a dot org unless you’re a charity?  I managed to get the dot co dot uk though’.

‘Cool,’ said Ricky, ‘so does the album title have Under The Sofa in brackets as well?‘  ‘Only metaphorically’.  Replied Jack, laughing, thinking: ‘Boy, this boy is not stupid’.

‘I know you might not believe this – I just psyched-in – but I reckon your user name on the word game is ‘Remote’.  Said Ricky.

‘Shit!’  Said Jack, ‘I don’t fucking believe it, you’ve sussed my subliminal advertising ploy!  I always wondered who the people playing actually were, what they were doing, why they were playing and where they were and everything, but that means you’re on… PlopDrop, as I’ve dubbed it! What the hell is your user name?  Shall I guess?’

‘Yeah, guess!’ Said Ricky, chuckling,  ‘along with my star-sign.  Mind you… if you turn-on ITV2 right now… have you got cable or free-view?’

‘Yep, I’ve got free-view,’ Said Jack. ‘I suspect you’re a Scorpio’.

‘Just turn-on your TV – using the remote control of course, hah hah – to check out a new programme.  Nope, I’m a Taurus. You might recognise someone if you’ve got a mirror handy.  Are you in?’  Ricky was suddenly speaking in a Scottish accent. Jack turned on the TV, slightly confused, yet instinctively smelling a very large, decomposing rat.  Cue images of golden geese in Jack’s head as the penny dropped.  ‘Okay, I confess,’ continued Ricky, ‘that’s me being filmed as I speak to you on the program live’.  He waved to Jack from the TV,  ‘so there’s you being secretly filmed in your own home!  Jack jumped as he saw himself on TV… from his own sofa. ‘Surreal’. He thought.  The camera cut back to Ricky: ‘It’s a new Reality TV show called Not Really, about people pretending to be the opposite of what they are sexually, or whatever hah hah hah! I’m really sorry for taking the piss Jack’. The TV audience stamped and whistled.

‘You bastard!  Shouted Jack in a mock-angry way, in a vaguely Northern accent, whilst thinking to himself: ‘Hang-on a minute; there’s gold in them, thar hills!’  He decided it might be of some benefit to play along.  ‘So, that means you must be Notcloset on Plopword, not-as-in-Notts, as it were.  Well, you’re def not a closet in Notts, more the remote controller from bonnie Scotland. Congratulations on your clever ruse you… shit-face!  I see that the researchers did a very thorough job’.

‘Thank you for your generosity of spirit,’ said the so-called Ricky,  ‘I’m actually a massively rugged, black heterosexual called Denzel who plays Rugby for the Hebridian Tigers!’  The  studio audience applauded wildly as shots of his sporting triumphs were projected onto giant screens.

‘Oh well, the Hebrides are a bit remote. So no chance of a shag then?’  Said Jack. ‘Although I much prefer Ronnie Tilkinson.  Actually, that was an ironic joke, just for live TV. That should get the macho, couch-potatoes putting cushions over their laps. Do I get brownie points for spontaneity, having had the fucking piss taken out of me?’

‘Hey, people are strange,’ said Ricky/Denzel, ‘and strangers are people sometimes…’ ‘By the way,’ he continued. ‘Yeah, BTW what?’  Asked Jack, trying to work out where the secret camera was hidden. ‘Well…’ said Denzel/Ricky, as a drum roll accompanied by a cheesy, cinema organ-type fanfare was cranked-out by the ageing, drag-queen band in the TV studio, ‘The Remote Control have just won… a million-dollar recording contract with Reality Records!’ The cameras cut to the rest of Jack’s band already onstage, waving and smiling as smoke bombs exploded and strobes flashed, then they switched back to the hosts of the show, Beetle and Flex.  Jack’s door bell rang.  ‘Jack, you’d better get your coat quickly, you’ve scored!’  Said Beetle chirpily.  ‘Yes, the limo’s waiting outside your house!’ Added Flex.  They cut to Willie Robbiams, dressed as a chauffeur, ringing Jack’s doorbell.  It had rung thirty seconds earlier than on the TV.  Ah, the live TV security lapse, thank God, thought Jack, that he’d quickly hidden his newly-declassified, druggy bits and pieces.

‘I suspect I wont be sueing then!’  Said Jack on TV, grinning more widely than the most smiley Emoji available on Instant Messenger, ‘I’ll see you very soon, I think I might call the next album… Interactive Red Button!’  He waved in the direction of the free-view box on top of his TV (he’d finally worked-out where the secret camera was concealed), then grabbed his guitar and his mobile. Willie Robbiams was waiting outside, holding open the door of the limo for him in a theatrical fashion. The camera panned-in to him squeezing Jack’s bum, or butt, as the Americans would say.

Steve Swindells. (c) 21.1.04.

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Aside

The Remote Control. A Short Sory by Steve Swindells

15 Jan
The Remote Control - new cover pic Aug 2016

The Remote Control

 

 

Nillesden Green.  2004.

Jack’s space was being invaded by an annoying ringing noise. He reluctantly picked up the phone as he tapped away on the keyboard of his new iMac… swathed in cigarette smoke. ‘Very Tennessee Williams’, you might have thought if you’d been a Mac-user on Instant Messenger watching him via his iSight camera, which he’d forgotten to turn-off.

It was his land line ringing.  “Hello!” Said Jack brusquely. Then, quickly realising that he probably sounded aggressive because the caller had interrupted his online word game, he jokingly added in a deliberately bad Spanish accent: ‘Magathine…  Ello! Magathine.’

He continued trying to score points as he reluctantly listened to Minnie, wondering if she could hear his mouse clicking (or perhaps squeaking) as she spoke.  ‘Got any scandalous pics of minor royals in their LOVELY homes, my beloved, heh heh?’ Asked Minnie, ‘So how are you chooky-egg?’ She added in a suspiciously syrupy, false manner.

Jack cradled the digital, cordless phone against his ear, irritated at having his game interrupted by someone whom he didn’t really care for, who was also sounding suspiciously cheery.  In other words, she was probably about to burst into tears, as usual.  He continued to run his mouse around the online page, hoping to come-up with longer words. He saw a double ‘D’ on his screen, then an ‘E’ and an ‘R’. Damm!  There was an ‘ING’ as well.  Was there something leading nicely into ‘ING’?  Could he use the ‘DDER’ and the ‘ING’ within the time limit? Would the bitch fuck off? ‘Oddering’? Nope. He was about to score over two thousand points fergodsake! ‘Uddering’? Nope. Shit.

‘Um….’, (click, click, click), he said, ‘I’m cool thanks Minnie…’ (click, click). ‘Oh sorry, got a call-waiting, hang on a momento…’  he added,  lying through his teeth, then quickly pressed the ‘recall’ button on his phone and just managed to ‘drop’ the word ’shudder’ on-screen as the seconds counted down.

YAH!’ He shouted out loud and punched the air: ‘A luffly, bick, fat, final zcore of two thoussand, eight huntred ant ninety nine!’

There weren’t many Germans in leafy-yet-multi-cultural Nillesden Green (and Jack had never got past the first page of Sadie Jones’ locally-based novel Black Lips. Pretentious, ‘I’m-determined-to-be-a-novelist’ crap, he’d thought, although the TV adaptation was quite good), but there was a German record producer who had a studio in Nillesden Lane whom he worked with occasionally, who also had a good sense of humour, contrary to popular myths about Germans. ‘Vwee arrh licking ziss inklish ironic!’ He would say, chuckling as only Germans do, ‘ but don’tz menschen ze vwar!‘.

There was a thirty-second wait before the next game. Ten seconds-in,  Jack’s mobile phone bleeped. It was a text message, or ‘txt msg’, if you like.  Jack quickly opened it to see that he had received a picture message.  He was puzzled. His mobile (or cell phone, if one was American) was just a bog-standard, pay-as-you-go Nokia 3410:  it didn’t ‘do’ picture messaging.  As the seconds counted down to the next word game, he wondered who the ‘pic msg’ was from, then the game started and he swished and clicked his mouse like a maniac, having seen a potential eight-letter word or three.

Jack Black was a thirty-eight year old, mixed-race, black man who would – or should – have been a star, but wasn’t. Sadly, it was unlikely that he would ever be, as he was seen as too old in the eyes of an industry that was now controlled by desperate, record company-cum-TV-production-executives, promoting the sad, yet curiously entertaining cruelty that was the Reality TV Talent Show. Jack said ‘it was great TV, although you obviously don’t approve of it morally as they are so cynically manipulative.’

Had the record companies listened to certain internet pundits in the late nineties, they might have noticed a certain prescience regarding their industry’s potential demise, due to the onset of digital piracy on a grand scale – along with millions of teenagers ‘burning’ CDs for their mates, of course. The music industry hadn’t done its homework and they were panicking even more as 2K4 began. But that didn’t help Jack Black, the Lenny Kravitz of Nillesden Green. Maybe he’d have to diversify and write the script, the book, the album, the computer game… and the T-shirt.  Not forgetting the Turner Prize-winning installation (or The Tina Turner Prize, as he preferred to call it).

Jack was very talented, in lots of creative areas, and had conversation-stopping charisma, smouldering good looks, great cheek bones and pectorals and an amazing rock n’ soul singing voice. He could paint, play guitar like Carlos Santana, write, design and had plenty of intuitive intellect – despite having not gone to university – along with that special kind of X-factor that somehow made people potentially jealous and resentful, or somewhat in awe of him.  Some people tended to see him as a threat – rather than helping to nurture his many gifts – and often tried to ‘put him down’ in order, perhaps, to make their wannabe lives seem more interesting and rewarding.  Others found his presence overbearing, or even an emotional challenge.  Many people, of both sexes, fell hopelessly in love with him as he was beautiful, masculine, toned, tall, naturally funny and a generally groovy, black (one is tempted to make you scroll/read down at this point)

…gay man.

Yes, you read it right: a black man who just happened to be gay. Not some faggot stereotype or stupid queen.

So-called ‘gay culture’ left Jack cold. He was not a fan of Aussie pop stars-who’d-been-in-soaps, nor did he rate The Village People as acceptable, sartorial role models. Neither did he feel it necessary to hang-out with queens who talked only in ‘bumper-stickers’, quoting from a one-page script that had been written by perky, white, uptight, upper-class, closet-cases in the fifties.  He also had a problem with gay, black ‘self-help’ groups, where the fresh, young participants were treated like sexual bush meat and instructed, sorry, encouraged, not to stray from their racial roots in their choice of sexual partners,  but to ‘interact’, preferably with the ‘team leaders’ and ‘motivators’, who were somewhat competetive over who could bed their young charges first.

Jack’s mother was Spanish; a former Flamenco dancer and singer; an ageless, wild and passionate bohemian. His father, a naturally charming, laid-back Antiguan, shared a seventies, modernist, glass and steel house in the New Forest with her, and dealt in retro-modern, mid-century antiques. He was, unlike many of the older (and indeed younger), black generation, quite easy-going about Jack’s sexuality. Many of his customers were trendy, urban, loft-dwelling gays who snapped-up his Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Verner Panton and Bauhaus pieces. Jack referred to the parental business as The Antiguan Road Show, pretend-mockingly, also knowing that he was blessed with really cool parents.

Jack Black was more commonly known as Black Jack  – ‘Life is always one big, fucking gamble!’ He’d say – and was the lead singer of The Remote Control, the band he’d formed with some of the best musicians in the UK.

On drums there was the radically Islamic Moses Noses, a former pin-up from the  hugely successful eighties outfit The Dub Vultures.  Moses had had a somewhat scandalous – for that time – relationship with the band’s outrageously camp singer  Gracie ‘Cheddar’ Gorge, who had been dubbed  a ‘gender-bender’ by the tabloid rags, despite the fact that she was all-woman (allegedly).  He was now married with seven kids and lived in tremendous style in two massive, twenties, modernist penthouses knocked-into-one in Whygate, stuffed with Mathew Hilton and seventies and eighties designer furniture, Picasso prints, a huge collection of priceless, retro-Korans and a fat, Filipino maid.

As it transpires, Jack just made all that up. It was all a dream (cue cheesy, American voice-over): ‘He emerged from the shower naked after thirty episodes of The Soap. He didn’t die nasty, and he re-emerged cleansed.  That really celebrated the genre. That was a whole lot of soap.’

Maybe Jack would have to add ‘novelist’ or ‘script writer’ to his CV.  He could, perhaps, be promoted as the male Sadie Jones (remember, the writer who put Nillesden Green on the literary map… ish?) but Jack was not the kind of acceptably coffee-coloured man who’d play the designer-joss-sticks-and-scented-candles-ethnic-garb card. He preferred to dress just as he pleased, to feel comfortable in his own skin. He was his own man. One day he would straddle cultures like a colossus. Yeah, right. Or create The Hanging Baskets Of Babylon in his own back yard. And the drummer was actually a Pakistani dyke from Stratford called Asheila Eastern.

The bass player was a big, loveable, Jamaican called Harold Handy, who had played with ‘everyone who was everyone’, from ageing pop divas to hip, underground, indie dance acts and balding rockers, in the eighties, nineties and noughties.  He’d even played on a duet between Willy Robbiams and Mylene Kinogue.  He was just about the best bass player in the country.

Jack had met the keyboard player Gary Henry when they’d both played at a reunion concert at The Hoxton Academy with Eaglebreath, a legendary space-rock band which they’d both been members of until they’d got disillusioned and left, having discovered that the self-proclaimed ‘boss’, Dick Rock, the guitarist and singer, had been ripping them off by putting out albums of them jamming, then hoovering-up all the royalties. That would explain the secret, Olympic-sized swimming pool concealed in a barn on his Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like, horror-hippy farm in Wales that Gary had told him about in a conspiratorial moment over a bottle of wine and a desultory dinner in what passed for a gastro-pub in North Wales.

Jack had shuddered at the memory of one of Dick’s mangey dogs biting him when he was rehearsing on the farm for the gig.  He’d been staying in what he’d dubbed ‘the Heartbreak Hotel’, which was a huge, sprawling, architecturally-challenged B&B pub in the middle of nowhere, catering to travelling salesmen, middle-aged, dirty stop-outs and ageing jazz musicians who jammed for free drinks in ‘The Cabaret Barn’. Dinner consisted of various roasted joints (of meat, silly) and soggy vegetables  which were kept warm under  some very large lamps with large copper shades (which, ironically, would have looked cool in any self-respecting modern kitchen). ‘Chicken, Beef or Pork, only £4.95 inc veg!’ Read the chalked-up sign.  ‘The Carvery’, they called it.

The decor was Jack’s worst nightmare of Barbie colours (pink and turquoise) tied-in to a Tudor-bethan ‘ambience’, with a gas, log-effect fire, fake antiques, horse-brasses (why would anyone consider such things aesthetically pleasing?) and all the atmosphere of a cheap, horror B-movie, with the added benefit of locals who looked like extras from The Stepford Wives-meets-Psycho.  All this entertainment cost a bargain £16 a night, including a ‘Full English’.  As opposed to a ‘Full Welsh’.

‘Fuck it!’ Muttered Jack under his breath, as the phone’s insistent ringing interrupted his word game once more. He had just been about to score one thousand points with the word ‘Shocking’, then his time was up.  It was his mobile phone this time.

‘Yes!’  He said, not bothering to conceal his irritation, ‘Who’s that?’   ‘Oh, hi…’ said a slightly nervous, vaguely Northern voice, ‘did you get the picture message?’

‘Well, yeah, I saw the message, but not the picture,’ said Jack wearily, ‘I can’t open pic messages on this mobile and who the fuck are you?’

‘Shit… sorry!’ Stuttered the caller. ‘You must be a wrong number’.

‘Yes… and?’  Said Jack, strumming his fingers, wanting to return to beat lionheart, dyslexysmidnight, notcloset, mad ranter, trusty and trace-e (the game’s graphics were in trendy lower-case) and all the rest of his fellow, star players on his favourite, multi-player, online word game. He sometimes worried that he was addicted to it, yet he hadn’t even managed to score three thousand points yet and the top-five players were scoring four thousand-plus. How pathetic was that?  Obviously, it was a mouse issue. He was giving it a quick clean with an anti-static, wet wipe, with his mobile phone balanced precariously under his chin.  He reluctantly let another game opportunity go, then the caller suddenly asked: ‘Are you gay?’

‘Whaaaat?!’  Pregnant pause… ‘Well… yes I am as it happens.’  Replied Jack, somewhat taken aback, in his naturally masculine, deep voice.  ‘What of it? You sound kind-of black? Are YOU gay? Where the fuck are you?’

‘Well, yeah, I am black, but most of my friends are white. I’m nineteen and… I think I’m gay. My name is Ricky and I’m in Leicester right now, but I’m studying in Nottingham.’

‘Leicester said about that the better!’ Quipped Jack, wondering how the hell this had come about – and why.  Was it just a weird coincidence?  ‘So who were you hoping to send this message to and what was the picture of?’ He asked, talking into his shoulder, watching the screen, as the next game was about to start.

‘Oh, just a friend, it was a silly picture of me flashing my bum taken in a tacky, seventies wine bar with leatherette banquettes, glitter balls and stuff in Nottingham. The place is trendy ‘cos it’s so kitsch, it’s called The Orifice… you know, student irony. Obviously, it was a wrong number, sorry.’ Said Ricky. ‘Oh… and, do you mind if I ask…?’  He hesitated.

‘Yep? ‘ said Jack, eyeing his computer screen, then added: ‘Twenty seconds to go until the next game.’

‘What game?’  Asked Ricky.

‘Oh, I’m sure you wont know it,’ said Jack, ‘it’s a an online, multi-player word game whereby you have to identify, or drop, as many big words as possible, eight letters max, from a grid of letters and… oh shit, hang on, I’ll call you right back!’  Jack pressed the red button on his mobile and quickly ‘dropped’  the words ‘remote’, then ‘control’. Just a strange coincidence, surely? Then he tried ‘closetry’ but it obviously wasn’t in the dictionary – a bit ‘noughties’; too much of a modern term to be included, he concluded. Did someone compile the letters on the game, were they just random, or had the spirits entered the equation? They’d always liked a laugh when he read the cards for his friends. The spirits, that is, or was…

Then his land line rang.  He minimised the word-game window in frustration.  ‘Hello!’  He stated, ‘this is Jack’s answering service, please leave me a MASSAGE, Shiatsu and ALL the extras, after the tone…’ then made a rather obviously non-digital, beeping noise.

‘Jack!  Chooky-egg!  I know you’re there my beloved!  Pick-up the phone!’ Shrieked Minnie, sounding rather tinny, tiny and desperate from the cordless phone, discarded on the desk.  To Jack it suddenly morphed into a helpless, overturned cockroach with its legs flailing.

‘Oh Okay,’ he said, sighing, reluctantly picking up the phone again after realising that he didn’t need the sound, or hassle, of a stuck-pig squealing through a cheap trannie.  ‘Is that Minnie Driver?  Wow!  Is your middle- name Cab?  By the way, fuck off! You’re a fat, evil bitch.  I know your surname isn’t really Driver, it’s hah hah isn’t it?  Anyway, I’m seriously fed-up with your twisted obsession with my best – gay, white, as it happens – friend and the way that you’ve used your pre-pubescent,  teenage daughter to try and emotionally blackmail him.  I mean – he’s gay for fuck’s sake!  Why do some women persist in believing that they can ‘convert’ gay men when all the gay men were doing was just trying to be good friends with them?  The sound of Minnie’s crocodile tears and gulping breaths reached epic proportions, in full Dolby Surround Sound.

‘Oh sorry,’ Jack continued, ‘someone’s breaking down my door and throwing bricks through my windows, I’ve gotta go. I think it’s your not-so-beloved’s smack-head boy-fiend trying to get in touch with his inner demons.  Oh!  And why did God invent Gay Disco’s ? I’ll tell you.  So fat, black girls could have a good time!  Must run muppet! Laters!’

He put the phone in its cradle with a sigh, went to his Smeg, stainless-steel fridge, made a large vodka and tonic, took a deep gulp, had a couple of hits on a joint, then called back Ricky, the mysterious closet-case from Nottingham.

‘Hi Ricky, it’s Jack, sorry about that, I had Rochelle-from-Pop Idol-meets-that-fat-black-bird-from-Big Brother on the phone, sobbing uncontrollably and threatening to commit suicide live online – she’s got Broadband too.  So, you were saying?’

‘Well, er…’ muttered Ricky, ‘ I was wondering what it was like…’

‘Wondering what what was like?’ Asked Jack impatiently, scrolling through some new, digital pictures he’d taken of recent conquests whilst having sex with them.  ‘Wondering what it was like to commit suicide live online, or what it was like to be fabulous and talented?’

‘Well, er, no…’  stuttered Ricky. ‘I was wondering what it was like to be fucked by a man’.

Oh, here we go, thought Jack,  Another coincidental, transcendental, teenaged-phone-wanker.

‘Well, I don’t get screwed, haven’t been for years… no-one ever really tried anyway,’  replied Jack, ‘but in order for it to work, you’ve got to want it badly – and the guy doing it has to make you want it badly – plus you need plenty of lube.  Oh, and you’ve got to have had a good crap and washed your arse, preferably with a shower. It’s  all very Will And Grace, although they’d say ASS. Poppers are good too – providing they’re real’

‘OK – so what’s lube?’ Asked Ricky innocently.

‘Lube, well, it’s lubrication!’ Replied Jack –  not really wanting to give a coincidental, transcendental, counselling session to a nouveau-gay at that time of the night – then added, ‘but make sure the person isn’t trying to drag (drag, hah hah!) you into being a queen, so avoid that tired, old pressure to be part of something that belongs in the fucking 1950s, man.  See if you can rent a DVD of The Boys In The Band to see how truly horrendous it really was.’

Jack wondered if his least-favourite movie might have been too left-field to get released on DVD. But Video Killed The Radio Star (the only viable competitor to Clockbusters) had an extensive arty section, didn’t it?  Was there one in Nottingham? Probably not.

They talked some more about the perils of being gay in provincial time-warps and their respective aspirations.  Ricky was apparently at Trent University studying textiles and avidly reading books. Rite-of-passage stuff.  He thought he might like to be a novelist or a journalist, or both, as well as a textile designer and maybe something in TV.  He said he aspired to be a renaissance man who was into sports as well.  Jack laughed a multi-media laugh, tried to picture him, then thought: who the hell employs visionaries; do you have to write a ‘how-to’ book? Anyway, in an ideal world, who’d want to be employed?  At least visionaries were often artists, struggling maybe, but they were also ostensibly free to be themselves, having chosen their own, sometimes lonely, paths.

Jack and Ricky talked some more about sexuality, but Jack wasn’t lusting after the picture-message-he’d-never-seen, as he generally liked older – but in-shape – blatino men. He had a long-standing fuck-buddy called Antonio, a fifty-year old, oil millionaire from Caraccas, who’d once said sagely: ‘Hey, people are strange, but strangers are people sometimes…’

‘You know that word game you mentioned?’ Said Ricky suddenly, ‘do you have to get as many big words as possible and is it on a website that promotes new writing?’

Jack’s eyebrows raised.  ‘Yeah, that’s the one, it called west of the net dot com. How bizarre that you know it, I imagine that it’s a bit obscure compared with, say, big black dicks dot com.’ Rickie chuckled. ‘Have you ever noticed,’ added Jack, warming to his theme, ‘how white people always expect black people to have huge dicks?  Like it’s  a cliched fantasy for them.  What about black men who have a fantasy about getting screwed?’ By white men, even?

Ricky laughed, perhaps a little too readily, then rapidly changed the subject. ‘You know you said you were the singer in a band?’ He asked, ‘Yep, we’re called The Remote Control,’ replied Jack in a casual fashion, rolling another spliff, ‘and the album will be called Don’t Lose It.  Unfortunately, the dot com and, even worse, the dot tv – that would have been brilliant eh? – have been registered as domain names by other people.  I’m well-pissed-off.  I mean what use is a dot org unless you’re a charity?  I managed to get the dot co dot uk though’.

‘Cool,’ said Ricky, ‘so does the album title have Under The Sofa in brackets as well?‘  ‘Only metaphorically’.  Replied Jack, laughing, thinking: ‘Boy, this boy is not stupid’.

‘I know you might not believe this – I just psyched-in – but I reckon your user name on the word game is ‘Remote’.  Said Ricky.

‘Shit!’  Said Jack, ‘I don’t fucking believe it, you’ve sussed my subliminal advertising ploy!  I always wondered who the people playing actually were, what they were doing, why they were playing and where they were and everything, but that means you’re on… PlopDrop, as I’ve dubbed it! What the hell is your user name?  Shall I guess?’

‘Yeah, guess!’ Said Ricky, chuckling,  ‘along with my star-sign.  Mind you… if you turn-on ITV2 right now… have you got cable or free-view?’

‘Yep, I’ve got free-view,’ Said Jack. ‘I suspect you’re a Scorpio’.

‘Just turn-on your TV – using the remote control of course, hah hah – to check out a new programme.  Nope, I’m a Taurus. You might recognise someone if you’ve got a mirror handy.  Are you in?’  Ricky was suddenly speaking in a Scottish accent. Jack turned on the TV, slightly confused, yet instinctively smelling a very large, decomposing rat.  Cue images of golden geese in Jack’s head as the penny dropped.  ‘Okay, I confess,’ continued Ricky, ‘that’s me being filmed as I speak to you on the program live’.  He waved to Jack from the TV,  ‘so there’s you being secretly filmed in your own home!  Jack jumped as he saw himself on TV… from his own sofa. ‘Surreal’. He thought.  The camera cut back to Ricky: ‘It’s a new Reality TV show called Not Really, about people pretending to be the opposite of what they are sexually, or whatever hah hah hah! I’m really sorry for taking the piss Jack’. The TV audience stamped and whistled.

‘You bastard!  Shouted Jack in a mock-angry way, in a vaguely Northern accent, whilst thinking to himself: ‘Hang-on a minute; there’s gold in them, thar hills!’  He decided it might be of some benefit to play along.  ‘So, that means you must be Notcloset on Plopword, not-as-in-Notts, as it were.  Well, you’re def not a closet in Notts, more the remote controller from bonnie Scotland. Congratulations on your clever ruse you… shit-face!  I see that the researchers did a very thorough job’.

‘Thank you for your generosity of spirit,’ said the so-called Ricky,  ‘I’m actually a massively rugged, black heterosexual called Denzel who plays Rugby for the Hebridian Tigers!’  The  studio audience applauded wildly as shots of his sporting triumphs were projected onto giant screens.

‘Oh well, the Hebrides are a bit remote. So no chance of a shag then?’  Said Jack. ‘Although I much prefer Ronnie Tilkinson.  Actually, that was an ironic joke, just for live TV. That should get the macho, couch-potatoes putting cushions over their laps. Do I get brownie points for spontaneity, having had the fucking piss taken out of me?’

‘Hey, people are strange,’ said Ricky/Denzel, ‘and strangers are people sometimes…’ ‘By the way,’ he continued. ‘Yeah, BTW what?’  Asked Jack, trying to work out where the secret camera was hidden. ‘Well…’ said Denzel/Ricky, as a drum roll accompanied by a cheesy, cinema organ-type fanfare was cranked-out by the ageing, drag-queen band in the TV studio, ‘The Remote Control have just won… a million-dollar recording contract with Reality Records!’ The cameras cut to the rest of Jack’s band already onstage, waving and smiling as smoke bombs exploded and strobes flashed, then they switched back to the hosts of the show, Beetle and Flex.  Jack’s door bell rang.  ‘Jack, you’d better get your coat quickly, you’ve scored!’  Said Beetle chirpily.  ‘Yes, the limo’s waiting outside your house!’ Added Flex.  They cut to Willie Robbiams, dressed as a chauffeur, ringing Jack’s doorbell.  It had rung thirty seconds earlier than on the TV.  Ah, the live TV security lapse, thank God, thought Jack, that he’d quickly hidden his newly-declassified, druggy bits and pieces.

‘I suspect I wont be sueing then!’  Said Jack on TV, grinning more widely than the most smiley Emoji available on Instant Messenger, ‘I’ll see you very soon, I think I might call the next album… Interactive Red Button!’  He waved in the direction of the free-view box on top of his TV (he’d finally worked-out where the secret camera was concealed), then grabbed his guitar and his mobile. Willie Robbiams was waiting outside, holding open the door of the limo for him in a theatrical fashion. The camera panned-in to him squeezing Jack’s bum, or butt, as the Americans would say.

Steve Swindells. (c) 21.1.04.

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