Thursday, 18 July 2013

Fifteen Minutes

Melvin never forgot the first time he saw Roger. He and Zed had played the usual set of covers at the near-empty Reform Club in Plumstead. After the bingo, the social secretary had chummily breezed up to them at the bar and said that their services were no longer required as the club had invested in a karaoke machine.
Back home Melvin took a beer from the fridge and flicked the telly on. He stared glumly as the advertisements began. A grinning man in glasses bounced around in a field, while dozens of dancers with flowers in their hair, frugged earnestly behind him.
But what made Melvin sit bolt upright on the sofa was the tune the man was singing. The words had been changed to some doggerel recommending an endowment mortgage, and the music had been re-recorded, but there was no mistaking the song. They'd even copied the sitar sound. It was 'Marisella Chandelier'. It was Melvin's music! Well, partly his. Technically. Morally his, certainly. If not officially, in the full legal sense.
He sat dazed for a while, then stood abruptly and kicked the waste paper basket the full length of the living room. To be fair to Melvin, he had a point, up to a point. I should make clear, he isn't the sort of sad, confused character who accosts people on buses and claims to have written all the Beatles' lyrics. He really did write at least the hook to that song, back in the day, when he and Zed were half of the Four Sounds, South London's answer to the Rolling Stones as the local paper dubbed them.
Alright, so it was only a B-side, but it was the B-side of the Four Sounds' only single, the only fruit of two years in a Transit van, living on Mars bars and brown sauce rolls. But even back then Melvin felt fated to be done out of what he wanted, what he was due. Come the afternoon of the recording session, by some sleight of hand he didn't understand then and couldn't recall precisely now, it was decided that his lead guitar line should be played on the sitar.
He remembered the session player well. Asif, a tiny, beaming Bangladeshi man from Stepney, had given up his job on the Underground to cope with the demand for his musical services. At the end of the recording, Melvin remarked on his beatific smile and asked if it reflected some deep inner peace.
Asif chuckled. 'Not really mate, no. Just thinking that I just earned in an afternoon what it'd take me a week to make down the bloody Tube.'
Melvin asked if he'd taken long to master his instrument.
'It was a present from my uncle when I was twelve.'
Melvin nodded, reverential.
The small man continued. 'Couldn't get a tune out of it for toffee, so I gave up. But then all you chaps started getting interested, so I thought I'd have another bash.'
In the studio, Melvin hadn't kicked up about the use of the sitar, for the same reason he hadn't kept his eye on the ball when songwriting credits were being discussed with the publishing company. It was guilt. Guilt over Christine.
She was from a different world. A student at Camberwell College of Art, she began showing up regularly at gigs. Often she would photograph the band, sometimes film them with a small Super 8 camera. Soon she was seeing Tom, the singer and keyboardist. But before long her soft spot for Melvin developed into something closer, and a period of overlap ensued before she eventually settled for Tom. It was always too easy for Tom. Something about those rock star cheekbones, even if he did only have them because his back teeth had gone, casualties of too much speed and sugary transport café tea.
That night Melvin didn't sleep. He lay awake trying to visualise the label of his copy of 'Marisella Chandelier', trying to picture the credit beneath the title, and cursing the night he'd come home drunk and sat on the precious seven inch. By morning he'd still not recalled the information he needed. He thought of phoning Zed at his work but knew he wouldn't be able to check his copy until lunchtime, and Melvin couldn't bear to wait.
There was nothing for it, there was nobody left. On the phone Christine sounded wary. It had been a long time. When she was still in the area they'd bump into each other occasionally. But since she'd moved to Woolwich, nothing, and that had been years now.
He parked his moped on Woolwich High Street and walked up Christine's road, clutching the scrap of paper on which he'd written the address she'd given him. The door of the small terraced house opened directly into a cluttered living room. She showed him in without warmth. He had his opening lines worked out. About how he wanted to make sure she got what she was due in royalties, as Tom's next of kin. About how he could probably have a word with the music publishers and move things along.
But as she rolled a cigarette Christine kicked the legs from under his plan. 'If you're expecting me to be minted up because of the bank ad you're out of luck. I haven't had two bob off them.'
Melvin stirred his tea, wondering if he was blushing. 'How come?'
'Tom made a will, the sod. Kind of, anyway. Scribbled on the back of a Kensitas packet that he wanted anything of his to go to Holly, sent it to his solicitors.'
Melvin nodded. It sounded like Tom. Often when he had an idea he'd scribble it on a cigarette packet. Usually it was more space than he needed.
Christine lit her roll-up. 'I didn't think anything of it at the time. He never had a pot to piss in.'
On reflection Melvin was surprised Tom had bothered with a will at all. He'd always seemed to regard his relationship with Christine as a one-night stand that dragged on a bit, and Holly as an accidental by-product. If it hadn't been for the pregnancy and Christine's burly neo-Victorian father he'd never have married her.
Melvin shifted on the sofa, edged himself towards the meat of the matter. 'Partly I came down to see whether you've still got any of Tom's old paperwork. The contract from the music publishers, that kind of thing.' The last bit failed to sound casual.
Christine smirked. 'Looking for loopholes?'
'Kind of.'
She went first up the loft ladder. He watched as her floral dress rode up over one smooth calf. She still had her shape.
In the attic he held the chunky red torch while Christine searched through a tin trunk. The attic was small. Closeness was unavoidable. It was strange to him. He noticed the smell she gave off, the same smell she had when they were lovers. Like some old fashioned boiled sweet, the name of which he'd long forgotten.
She examined a yellowed, typewritten document, tilting it to catch the torch's beam. She shook her head. 'Thought so. Nothing down for you, sweetie. Just himself who gets a mention.'
'Worth a try, I suppose. Thanks for checking.'
She gave him a smile that sucked all the air out of him.
He helped her replace a brightly coloured box on top of the tin trunk. On the surface of the box's clutter was a plastic doll, miniskirted and smudged with dust. He picked it up. 'Maybe Holly'll have a bit of a share-out with you. The money from the advert.'
Christine said nothing.
Melvin went on. 'She must be getting big now.'
Christine laughed. 'As big as she's going to get. She's thirty-four.'
'Christ, yeah, I suppose she would be. See much of her?'
'No. She's in Peckham somewhere, last I heard. We haven't spoken for a few years now. Kids, eh? Who'd have them?'
It was Mel's turn not to speak.
Christine said, 'Sorry. Wasn't thinking.'
For a short sweet while after Holly was born, Melvin believed she might be his. Until he hooked up with Diane and, after three years, the clinic told them he was firing blanks. But even though he knew, he'd often see Holly with Christine and wish he'd been right. It would've felt good to know he'd put something like her into the world.
He stood staring at the light flooding into the loft from the landing. He wondered why everybody seemed to go out of his life.
Returning to his moped he caught sight of his reflection in the window of Argos. With his trousers tucked in his socks and his ageing man's stoop he had to admit he didn't look very rock and roll. He put on his specs, ready to mount his bike. A figure he half-recognised came into view behind him, like a photograph developing. It was the smiling fool from the bank advertisement. For some reason he was standing stock still in the window of the bank's branch across the road.
Melvin turned and walked closer. As the figure came into focus he saw that it was actually a life size cardboard cut-out. He inspected it, read the name; Roger Venables, customer services, Bromley branch. He'd assumed the man in the advert was some lovey actor, lowering himself for the sake of his own mortgage. But this Roger was for real. Melvin checked his watch. Bromley wasn't that far off his route home.
Within half an hour he was outside the Bromley branch of the bank. He stood at the plate glass window, shielded his eyes with his hand so that he could see inside. Three counter positions were staffed. At two of them the clerks sat with expressions of incredulity and amusement. At the third position a scrum of people jostled and surged against the counter. The position was manned by Roger Venables. There was a stiff grin on his face. Melvin saw him mop his brow. He didn't think people actually did that. He walked away, shaking his head.
The week's passed and Melvin tried to block Roger from his mind. He succeeded until the day of the next gig with Zed. Zed had been oddly cagey about the venue and revealed little other than that it was an afternoon performance and paid decent money for once. On the way in the mini van Melvin was too busy ranting about Roger to press for information.
He spanked the dashboard. 'And the real bastard of it is, I won't get a brass razoo in royalties. I'd like to rip his heart out and put it through a blender.'
Zed smiled blandly. 'Still, it's not this Roger bloke's doing is it? Take care of your own happiness, otherwise other people's happiness is always going to piss you off.'
Melvin looked across at his only friend. 'Thanks for the tip. Where did you get that from, the back of a matchbox?'
He took his mood into the gig. Afterwards as they loaded the van, Zed looked at him as sternly as he could. 'You shouldn't say that sort of stuff Mel. They're entitled to a good time as much as anyone.'
Melvin returned Zed's look. 'What the fuck do you expect, booking us to play an old people's day centre.'
'Well some of that stuff was just cruel.'
Melvin sniggered to himself. He supposed Zed meant when he had asked the audience if they remembered the Sixties, and when they didn't respond asked them if they remembered their names. Or when he suggested they light some jossticks to tone down the smell of mince and onions that permeated the T.V lounge. Or when he warned them that stage diving was forbidden.
He gave Zed his best hurt expression. 'Most of them weren't listening anyway.'
He was probably right. Only a handful of the centre's users briefly craned their necks to see what the noise was when the duo began playing. Soon they returned their attention to their crosswords and jigsaws.
Zed had forgiven Melvin by the time he'd dropped him home. He couldn't stay annoyed with anyone. Even when most of the band was at each other's throats, he remained on good terms with them all. He was the only one of them invited to Tom's funeral five years before. He was the only one to still receive the occasional postcard from Nigel the drummer since he'd upped sticks to Marbella to open a bar with a bloke called Maurice.
Home again, Melvin slumped onto the sofa with a coffee and some toast. He turned on the television in time to catch the 'and finally' segment of the regional news. There, having his knee squeezed by a pastel-sweatered presenter, was the ubiquitous Roger. But it was a different Roger than the bashful working stiff Melvin had seen in Bromley.
Smiling, working the camera, he explained that the bank had given him three months off to make the most of his once in a lifetime taste of celebrity.
The interviewer nodded, all eyes and teeth. 'And I understand you've now got an agent. And you're due to make a personal appearance tomorrow near your home turf.'
Roger nodded, reeled off the details of the store he was opening in Catford. 'But the big news is, I'm in discussions about a contract to record an album. Exciting times.'
The pastel-sweater man feigned surprise. 'Excellent news! Well, we wish you all the best Rodge.'
Melvin cringed. It was Rodge now. He watched through his fingers as the presenter wrapped up the interview, blithely looking into the wrong camera. Now it was Roger's turn to touch some knee. He leaned across, patted pastel man, nodded towards the correct camera. The presenter twinkled, corrected himself, said, 'Thanks Rodge.'
Melvin zapped the TV off. He looked at the slices of toast in front of him. The marge, now cold, had congealed. Suddenly he wasn't hungry.
On autopilot he caught the 47 bus. He got off at the stop nearest the new DIY warehouse. Entranced, he walked across the car park. Halfway across the tarmac he paused to stare up at the hangar-like store. His lip curled as he scanned the building; a prefab palace where people who didn't know what they were talking about bullshitted people who knew even less, a mecca for make do and mend people, for those content to make small improvements to what they had. He smiled to himself. He always felt he should have written the lyrics for the band.
He approached the crowd clustered near the store's sliding doors. There were bored, pasty teenagers, morose but watchful. There were single mums. There were men who looked as if they'd been born middle aged. Melvin looked at them; people who didn't get out much who'd turned out in droves for one of their own.
He wormed his way into the crowd, far enough to get a view of the low scaffolding and plywood platform erected for the great man. Soon there was a flurry of movement and a murmuring near the front of the crowd. A hired PA scrunched and hummed into life. Music began; 'Marisella Chandelier'! Melvin bowed his head, squeezed his eyes shut. His legs felt shaky. He opened his eyes to see that some of the teenage girls, suddenly animated, had begun dancing to the music, mimicking the women in the ad. The teenage boys catcalled without conviction, then settled to watching the girls' moves with pained longing.
Soon the celebrity came bouncing onto the stage, hands clenched above his head like a boxing champ. Arriving at the microphone he cocked an eyebrow and cupped a hand behind his ear, with the aplomb of somebody gearing up for a season in panto. He tilted his head in the direction of one of the PA stacks and with a cheeky half-smile, said, 'Hey, they're playing my tune!'
Melvin squeezed his eyes tight shut to hold in the scream; My tune! It's my tune, you bastard.
The man of the people whipped through his humble and ordinary schtick, slick as a pro. There was barely time for Melvin to elbow his way to the front of the throng. He didn't know what he intended when he got there but he expected it wouldn't be pretty.
Just as Roger was preparing to cut the ribbon, Melvin reached the front. Jostled from behind he strained against the crash barrier as it dug into his ribs. He glared at Roger, the man who was coming to embody everything he scorned and everything he'd failed to be. Every muscle in him tightened with rage. Then Roger caught sight of him, looked down and smiled. He was close enough for Melvin to smell his breath. His breath smelt of Clorets; he had his public to think of now.
Something in that moment of eye contact broke the bones of Melvin's anger. For a second he felt as if he were outside of himself, watching himself in a film. And he knew which film. He saw himself like Travis Bickle, skulking at the rally for the candidate. He turned his back on Roger and began pushing his way out of the crowd.
Head down, he scuttled across the carpark, until he felt a hand, soft on his arm. A woman's voice quietly said, 'Sorry but could you just wait there a second?'
Melvin looked at her. She was about twenty-five, leather jacket and a ponytail, one eyebrow pierced. She held a clipboard. With it, she gestured to indicate a small television crew a few yards ahead. 'You were just about to walk into shot,' she whispered.
The polo-necked director shouted 'Cut!' and the woman explained that they were filming a piece on 'the Roger phenomenon' for a cable TV show they produced. Melvin curbed the urge to blurt out about the band and his grievance. Instead he persuaded her to give him her card, on the pretext of wanting to check when the piece would be broadcast.

He had to hardnose his way through several strata of posh underling before he reached her, but he enjoyed the process. It reminded him of the early days when he used to phone round to blag gigs for the band. Finally he'd reached the production assistant from the store opening and pitched just enough of the story of the band and the Roger connection.
And now here he was on Denmark Street, waiting for a receptionist to buzz open the door of the production company. Once inside, he was shown into a small side room with a long lime green sofa. Ten minutes later the production assistant breezed in. She said, 'Hi!', introduced herself as Veronica, but told him to call her Ronnie. She said, 'Sorry I'm a bit late. Been wrapping up a "Neighbours From Hell" show that's turned into the "Neighbours From Hell" show from hell.'
She fixed coffee from a percolator as Melvin began telling the story of the Four Sounds. He watched her as she listened, watched the cogs whirring behind her eyes. He was waiting for the change in her facial expression that said, 'File under wanker,' but it never quite came.
When he finished, she thought for a moment and said, 'Realistically, we wouldn't want to do anything too focussed on the band.' She read his face, said, 'Hope you're not too disappointed,' and touched his knee.
Melvin thought, what is it with these people and the knee touching?
'One idea I did have,' she said, 'is that we're having Roger guesting on our gardening show, "Celebs and Their Sheds'. Maybe you could pop up on that, "Surprise, Surprise," stylee. Obviously we'd have to clear it with Roger's people first.'
She looked at his face again. 'I'll take that as a no, then.' She sighed. 'I'm sure your band was great, but it's not very now. These days people want celebrities who can do a bit of everything, like Roger.'
Melvin sat up. He put down his coffee. 'So what's he do exactly?'
Ronnie frowned. 'I suppose he just is, really. He be's ordinary.' She considered correcting her grammar, gave up and went on. 'He likes his gardening, likes his DIY. You could go to B and Q any Sunday, throw a rock and hit ten people just like him.'
Melvin leaned forward. 'I'd lend you the rock.'
She touched his knee again. He tensed. 'Melvin, people like people.'
'Do they?'
'Yes. And people like people like themselves. The camp traffic warden, the woman who can't drive for toffee. My sister's a careers officer. She gets lads wanting to do carpentry apprenticeships because they think it'll get them on a makeover show. Roger's bank's got resting actor's queuing up to temp on their call centre in the hope of getting picked for an ad.'
Melvin shook his head. 'World's gone mad. Every bugger wants to be the Singing Postman.'
Business-like now, Ronnie brushed her thighs of imaginary fluff and said, 'The fact is, with only two of the band available and no archive footage of you performing, we've got nothing to work with. No disrespect, but two guys in their late fifties reminiscing, well, sorry, but that ain't television.'
Melvin looked her in the eye. 'What, compared to a bank clerk giving a guided tour of his garden shed?'
Ronnie stood and opened the door into the reception area. 'Actually we're lucky to get him. We were going to do a fly on the wall mini-series at his bank, but he may not be going back there. Depends how he gets on with doing the album.'
Melvin walked out of the room and down the stairs to the street.

As winter drew in, Melvin's mood slid further. He replayed the Denmark Street conversation, trying to salvage some hope. And in between times he thought of Christine, her calves, her smell.
Then one evening an idea hit him. He found Ronnie's card and rang Christine. He told her about the meeting with Ronnie and her mention of archive footage of the Four Sounds. Casually Christine noted the phone number and said that she supposed she could have a bit of a root about in the attic.
Melvin smiled. 'Could be a nice bit of wedge in time for Christmas. Might do us some good.'
Gently Christine said, 'Melvin, we haven't been "us" for a long time. Stretching it a bit to say we ever were.'
Melvin blinked twice and nodded pointlessly into the receiver.

Weeks rolled by. Roger sat in front of the TV, writing his Christmas cards. Every year the number sent and received decreased. The same bargain variety pack had lasted him for six years. He'd recently joked to Zed that the cards were so old they featured Santa sporting flares.
Glancing absently at the television, he froze, his tongue poised on the seal of an envelope. He'd thought there could be no more painful surprises from Roger. He'd already accepted Roger's press announcement that he felt the world was ready for the return of the concept album. He'd already accommodated the release of Roger's LP; 'Everyman'. But now as the envelope's sickly glue dissolved on his tongue, he knew his pain wasn't over.
On the TV was a new advert for the bank. The old Super 8 footage that Christine had shot, had been given a digital seeing to. Every face and head in the audience and on stage had been replaced by Roger's joyfully gurning features. Melvin covered his eyes. It was like some dreadful hallucination.
He turned off the television. As if battling his way out of a bad trip he tried to focus on what he knew to be real. He could remember the night the footage was shot; it was in the midst of his fling with Christine. Around the time Holly was conceived. He could remember giving Christine a lift home after the gig, could remember what she was wearing. Again he remembered the smell of her, of the mother of his dream daughter, his imaginary daughter.
He reached for the phonebook and began searching. There was only one entry in Peckham with the right initial and surname. He dialled. While the phone rang he dug the last remaining Christmas card from the box.
A woman answered.
'Can I speak to Holly please?' Melvin held his breath. 'It's Uncle Mel.'
A pause, then, 'Christ! Hello Mel.' Then a longer pause and her voice rising in pitch. 'Did Mum put you up to this?'
'No, no. Not that, no. Just Christmas and that. Got thinking. Ought to send you a card, let you know I'm thinking.'
Her voice softened. 'Oh, right. Cheers.'
Melvin inhaled. 'Thought I might drop it round actually.'
She said, 'Okay, yeah.'
The moment she opened the door of the flat, she knew him. She showed him into the front room, seated him by the gas fire. 'You look frozen.'
Over herbal tea they quickly dispensed with the subject of Roger and the money. Holly had received enough for a good Christmas, and to redecorate the flat, maybe take a holiday next year.
Melvin hooked the bag out of his camomile tea. 'That wasn't why I got in touch you know.'
She smiled at him. 'I never thought it was.'
He plopped her card on the coffee table. 'Could've posted that. Just wanted an excuse to see you I suppose.'
She picked up the envelope and held it. 'You don't need an excuse.'
Melvin's neck felt hot in the following silence.
Eventually she said, 'I've got some satsumas if you want to get into the old orange peel routine. I never used to tire of that.'
On his visits to Christine in the summer months he'd take Holly into the garden and entertain her by running after her with orange peel teeth, imitating Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather.'
Melvin shook his head. 'Fuck that. I'm getting to the age where something like that really could go sideways.' It felt strange swearing in front of her.
She looked at him. 'You're not decrepit yet.' She offered him a biscuit and said, 'You were such a laugh those days. I used to think the sun shone out of you.'
'Ta very much.' He took a biscuit and concentrated on it hard.
Holly went on. 'Dad was always too busy fancying himself as a pop star to pay me much attention. I used to daydream I was adopted. I wished Lulu was me mum and you were me real dad.'
They sat together for a while, saying nothing. Melvin felt like somebody who'd until now, had his fingers in his ears for several years. Now he could hear everything; the wind outside whipping around the walkways of the estate, and in the room, the clock ticking and the gas fire gently hissing.

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