Chapter 2. Palace
It was after six when Harry finished bounding up the stalled escalator at Mornington Crescent Station. Fortunately, he'd gotten Lee's note straight away, and had skipped supper, so he held out reasonable hopes that he'd not missed terribly much of whatever Mr. Langley wanted to speak to them about. Traffic on Camden High Street stalled him for another minute, before Harry sprinted across the street, still trying to make up time, still trying to reassure himself that his own presence wasn't all that important. After all, Lee handled all the business, right? They were all practised and ready? He could cope with minor program changes?
A pretty girl at the side entrance seemed to be waiting for him. She waved him in. "Backstage room 11, Mr. Jordan. They'll be expecting you." Smiling, she looked for a moment as though she wanted to say something else, but (like many females in Harry's presence) couldn't quite muster the moxy.
Approaching the designated room, Harry heard familiar voices. With instinctive politeness, he entered the antechamber quietly, not wishing to disrupt a somewhat contentious discussion that he could already hear underway.
"This is shit! We're a bloody band, not some backup gerries for a vocalist."
Harry recognised Lee's tone of voice which, in such circumstances, tended to tread a fine line between his normally irrepressible enthusiasm and a cautious, more responsible elder statesmanly diction.
"This may be a huge break for us, so let's use our heads. Harry's a modest bloke and he'd not fancy stealing the show, a'right? But I reckon he'll go the extra mile for us if he thought it was good for the Stags, yeah? So, is it good for the Stags? Well, if there's really to be some big name promoter watching us tonight..."
"There is. Believe it, mates." Langley's conviction was unmistakable. "I saw the limo drop him off for a reconnoitre earlier today and, listen. The man's a legend among the older agents; he's hardly about to catch a gig in person for kicks. He's here on a mission to watch for things he can't get from the demo tape or some 'zine' article. My understanding is that he'll not judge you on the canned act alone. He digs spontaneous, genuine stuff, which is why I think he'd love to hear improv vocals. Improvs give him a measure of how you can roll with the crowd."
"That's the Stags, Nevi — we're rollers!" The gleam in Lee's eye was obvious as Harry edged forward, crossing unnoticed to the threshold in time to see the elder Jordan cuff Dean on the arm. "Peace, mate. I really feel we should do it. This could seal the deal, yeah? So, when Harry gets here, let's ask if he reckons he can grind out one of-"
"Ugh. I still say it's a shit slope to skid. I-"
"Whoa!" Harry stepped full into the room, waving an imaginary white flag. "If Lee and Mr. Langley want me to improv a number, then okay — I'm fine with trying my new 'Grey Veil' right after number eight. But why stop there? Wouldn't it rock if Deaner closed off the set with his 'Stairway' solo? It's so bloody not-Zeppelin, this crowd would love it."
Then, ever so slowly, Shay grinned. "Oi, Deaner! Do it, man!"
"Erm?" Dean looked shocked by the unexpected turn. Then he managed a semi-pleased shrug.
"A'right!" Lee beamed at Harry, then turned to Langley. "So, what d'you say, Nev?"
"Stairway solo...?" Langley made a show of squinting analytically at the tall (suddenly rather self-conscious) guitar lead. "Yeh, that'll pass." He grinned.
On his way out the door, Langley brushed Harry's arm and leaned in with casual discretion. "Hey Harry, mate. Any chance you could swing back here tomorrow afternoon for a little chat?"
"Crumb." Harry gave him a regretful look. "Sorry, sir. I'm working til five."
"Eh, no prob." Langley nodded and fished in his pocket for a calling card. "But say. If you find time, maybe give me a buzz at home tomorrow morning?"
"Mione, what's the oddest thing you've seen? Lately?"
Mione met her mate's somewhat uneven gaze with a pleasantly bleary one of her own.
Mione's excuse was that she rarely drank alcohol. Ginny, meanwhile, was already closing on the dregs of her third pint, and The Sheephaven Bay was known for 'not' watering down the wares. Mione was vaguely aware that they would both suffer tomorrow for this evening's indiscretions but... well, it had been months since Mione could recall seeing Ginny relax her white-knuckled grip on the world so, hey, perhaps the occasional ladies' night was just what they both needed.
"Let me think..." Turning to the question at hand, Mione's eyes went unfocused for a moment, then sharpened again. Her lips quirked a bit, and she huddled close. "Okay, imagine this. A few weeks past, I was making for the Leicester Square tube, and out of some alley comes this giant, uhhh... this huge bear of a bloke. Must have been over seven feet tall; maybe thirty stone and, I swear Ginny, his beard was bigger than a badger! Oh, oh, then, get this..." Her lips spread wide in a grin. "He had this huge greatcoat and a little frilly pink brolly... in bright sparkling sunshine!"
Ginny stared for a few seconds, processing the image. "Bright sparkling sunshine?" Her brow knotted. "In London?? I said 'odd', not bleeding preposterous!"
The pair burst into laughter — loud and stupid enough to attract glances from a few nearby blokes of the sort that two slight, pretty, college girls ought not attract glances from, but Ginny didn't seem to notice, and Mione didn't care much.
After the sniggers died away, Ginny's face turned sober, and her eyes drifted off toward the dark street outside. "D'you believe in e.s.p. or, ummm, telekinesis?"
Mione watched her friend, waiting for a mischievous twitch or something, but Ginny's gaze remained distant, contemplative, expressionless.
Mione let her gaze wander blindly about the pub, settling randomly on a foursome playing darts, as she debated how best to answer. As innocuous as the question may have seemed, it was actually a bit awkward.
It was awkward because there were two answers.
One answer brought back vague impressions of... unpleasantness... from a childhood that Mione never much thought back to. The other answer — the stereotypical 'Mione Granger' answer — seemed far easier to express, so she ran with it.
"There are centuries of anecdotes attesting to both, Ginny. But now we've had decades of careful, controlled, observational studies that have never supported any claims. So, it's not impossible, but nothing has ever been proven to within arguable statistical significance."
"I s'pose." Ginny's face turned back toward Mione. She nodded blandly to herself and drained her last mouthful of foam. "Down it, lass." She tapped Mione's mug. "We'd best soon queue up, yeah?"
Mione found herself doing as instructed. The last two gulps seemed to quarrel a bit with her esophagus, but she prevailed and rose (a bit more wobbly than she expected) to her feet. She felt the younger girl's arm weave itself into hers — companionly but also somewhat steadying — and they made their way together into the street.
"Do all these people have tickets?" Mione frowned at the long line leading to the front entrance of the Camden Palace, suddenly quite aware of the flecks of dreary rain beginning to spatter against the brightness of the neon billboard.
"Dunno." Ginny shrugged. "Forty minutes 'til show, so we'll just have to..." She trailed off as she watched a tall chap in tie and overcoat approach. He had a simple, modestly pleasant face and was carrying a small torch with which he was unobtrusively scanning the crowd.
The light darted over Mione's and Ginny's faces once, twice, then the man honed in on Ginny. He gave a polite querying smile. "Miss Ginny Smith?"
Ginny frowned. "Er, yeah?"
"Party of two?" He glanced at Mione.
"Er, yeah." Ginny's frown did not abate.
"Pardon the intrusion, Miss Smith, but if you and your friend would kindly follow, we can take you in through the side and get you seated."
"Errm...?" Ginny blinked. "Lee Jordan? He sent...?"
"Aye." The man smiled and gestured again for them to follow. "Mr. Jordan asked me to watch for... eh, well he didn't give me much to go on, but he mentioned red hair, and uh..."
"And with all the redheads around, you got lucky, eh?" Ginny smirked. "This is brill! How very thoughtful of him. Could you be so kind as to give him our appreciations?"
"I'll be sure to tell him." He unlocked a small side door and let them in. "Straight up these stairs and the usher will lead you to-"
"Wait." It was Mione's turn to frown. "Upstairs? But our tickets say 'pit'."
"Eh? Oh right!" The man dug into his coat and handed over two fresh stubs. "Take these ones, miss. Balcony booth; compliments of North London Talent. Now, if you'll forgive me, I have some other matters to attend to."
Harry closed his eyes, and set himself adrift.
He was in a special place...
tinkle of soft chimes in his ears...
a simple melody.
Music Box Dancer...
Amidst the soft calm of light blue walls and plaster ceiling, he imagined holding himself upright...
grasping a wooden rail, gazing up toward the suspended shapes of little crepe birds...
Raising his hand, he focused deep within his chest...
and from somewhere inside he felt a heat.
A tingling rose up, poured out through his hands...
and he willed the birds to move, to flutter gently in time to-
"Eh, mates — all set?"
Harry's eyelids parted at the sound of Langley's voice.
"Hey Nevi." Lee tossed aside his practice sticks. "Any sign of, uh...?"
"Aye." Langley flashed a thumbs-up. "Placed them on mezzanine. Booth 2 on the left."
"Cheers!" Lee grinned and bounded to his feet.
Shay and Dean barely registered the spoken words (as the exchange obviously didn't involve them) but they sensed it was now time to get up off the sofa; to make their way toward the darkened doorway.
Putting aside thoughts of nursery tunes and decorative mobiles, Harry got to his feet. He paused momentarily at a mirror for a final visual check. He frowned vaguely at a reflection that still looked a bit strange and unfamiliar. The young man in the mirror — Harry's stage persona — seemed kind of fake; a pretend rock-icon with a knotted silk banding in among his messy hair; a cliche black tank top; passable musculature honed from all those weight-room visits that Lee demanded...
Harry shrugged. It was for show; a costume; it had nothing to do with the music... but it looked okay... so he stepped away from the glass and moved trance-like out into the darkness, into the zone.
Within the 'zone', every thought or sense has a purpose. One hears almost nothing; one sees only what one needs to see, and all that Harry saw was a little strip of reflective tape on the backs of Dean's shoes. He followed that strip, here and there, through the dark. Then, when Dean cut sharp to the right, Harry drifted left.
By practiced instinct, Harry found his position. His hand brushed the keyboard. Counting three octaves down, his fingers took their places, ready for a simple little one-handed Ray Manzarek-esque treble riff.
Soft hum of the curtains; muted ripples of a thousand whispers...
His fingers tensed. Pressed. Electric notes pulsed out...
C - C - D - C......
C - C - E-D-E-C
He inhaled, waiting for Dean to echo from a high C on his Strato...
Then Harry shivered; his upper lip tensed, suddenly terribly aware that those guitar sounds would utterly ravage him, because Deaner could make notes so razor sharp... and Harry was certain that, just hearing the progression, every muscle in his damned throat would stiffen; probably shatter the first note out of his mouth, but... well, that was practically expected now.
Screw it — one botched note and you'll be fine. Doesn't matter; doesn't matter. Just go with it...
In truth, it actually did sort of matter, though not in a negative way.
In a year's worth of shows, Lee had learned that Harry did sometimes butcher the night's first line. But, Lee had also recognised that if that first note did come out all cracked and jagged, it often meant that the Mysti Stags were headed for a fine show! Lee didn't know if it meant that Harry was extra-amped, or if just played well with the audience (the Lee Jordan philosophy being, 'fuggit bro, the ladies dig a sensitive bloke, eh?'), but who cared. It was a tic, but it was a Mysti Stags tic, and one of these years, maybe someone at Billboard Magazine would write a joke about it.
So Harry just let himself get swept up in the pulsing, gathering chord. He hung on every note as Dean's fingers tore his heart to shreds for another two... three... four seconds, then he inhaled and (medium soft)...
Hundreds of ecstatic screams ripped through the darkness, completely masking Harry's cracked note. Utterly stoked, something primal inside Harry really really wanted to shout, or howl, or even outright weep, right along with everyone, but he doubled down, focused as Shay's deep rumbling bass pulsed up, louder, louder, knocking the crowd back.
Harry pulled his last full breath, counted down as Lee boomed out three beats of brutal thunder behind him, then...
You were run run run run run run runnnninnng...
And I caught your hand!"
And, with that, a supernova of blue and red lights burst onto Camden Palace stage.
"... And we spun and spun on grassy ground...
And I knew way before we were crashing down...
That I was falling... falling... falling for you!"
"Holy heck, Ginny! I... I actually know this song!" Mione was grinning ear to ear as she tried to shout over the music. "It's... it's Three Feather Sunset; it played at Crim Society's Autumnfest!"
Ginny didn't reply. Every ounce of her perception was elsewhere; totally focused on the stage...
"... The rockets burst for us...
Fanning the sky; shadows and light...
Just you and I...
For our three feather sunset..."
Ginny stared at his barely tamed hair, the shape of his jaw, his eyes. When her own eyes stung from staring, she closed them and just listened. Listened to the voice.
It's him, isn't it?
A part of her wanted it (knew it) to be the same kind, melodic voice that she sometimes dreamed of; that she imagined she'd heard today in the library.
It was, wasn't it?
None of that mattered. Not really. The voice of her dreams belonged to her dreams; the voice from the library belonged in a day that had come and gone like seven thousand other days in her life... but the voice down there in the center of all those lights was singing for her tonight, and she was bloody well going to listen...
And as she listened; as she swayed to undulating beat, she raised a hand from the railing, and held it out. Eyes still closed, she hovered her hand in space. Even though it was a mere eight inches in front of her, somehow she felt that she could reach all, all, the way down to center stage left.
And she imagined she could touch his face.
The thing about stage lights is that they're like a pane of one-way glass. They let everyone out there watch you in vivid detail... while you see damn near nothing.
Harry was vaguely aware that the pit was a crawling, beastly throng of disassociated anonymous limbs in frantic motion. He could hear the occasional throbbing cheer pour down from the balconies. A part of him was curious to know a bit more of what it all truly looked like, but the music in him was happier being blind. Vague pulsing energy was fine; all else was a distraction.
Yet there seemed to be something cutting through the vagueness tonight. There was a texture; a focus to the air. It felt like a force. Electric or... magnetic.
Harry had been on stage many times, but he could not recall having felt anything like this before. It was as though his singing was a dialogue. Something out there was beckoning him, drawing his breath, shaping the music, making him pour out his soul. The power lent and borrowed; hungered and sustained.
Harry might have convinced himself that it was his imagination — a figment of the wild lighting and a huge crowd, but some details were remarkably specific. After a while, Harry had pegged several places in the audience that seemed to project forces and, by far, the strongest signal emanated from fairly close on his left; somewhere up above; on the balcony.
From time to time he had to stop himself from unconsciously slanting that way. He kept adjusting his feet, aiming to face the whole crowd; knowing, as a performer, that he should try to make each of the roughly twelve hundred guests feel like he was singing for them, and them alone.
But he wasn't.
By the end of every song, Harry found he'd invariably pulled left again as if, tonight, he was in here singing for just one person.
Though he had no idea who.
Or did he?
In a night when so many things felt slightly odd, the strangest feeling came over him fairly late in the show, when he was in the midst of his special 'improvised' solo.
Going it alone for such a big crowd seemed like a novel, exciting opportunity. Harry had tried to visualise having Lee, Shay and Dean fall stone silent, leaving him all to himself to climb the heart-rending slopes of 'Grey Veil'. To some it might have seemed paralytically daunting, but Harry regarded it as the chance for liberation.
Unleashed from the pressures of keeping time and monitoring cues, the process of singing should all come down to the barest matter of words and pitch. If he did it right, the lyrics ought to pour out as naturally as one breath follows the next, and his only need would be to feel, and to evoke.
For that, a voice coach had once taught Harry that he must strive to be human. His voice must feel and express genuine human hopes and fears, strengths and flaws. He needed to re-create every whim and angst that had led him to write the song in the first place. That was all basic knowledge and he was prepared for it.
Yes, despite all that preparation, Harry was in for a surprise.
In the last breath before his first note of the solo, Harry put his mind back into the existential drudgery of a dinghy kitchen, staring through a fogged window, feeling dead-depressed... but that image simply evaporated. Instead, his thoughts raced, laser-sharp, to a moment he had never yet even experienced when he'd sat down (just this morning) to compose the piece. His mind was suddenly back fully immersed in... his confused dash from the library. Flooding back to him was the swirl of bewildering emotions; a terror or excitement of having risked his greatest, strangest secret to a complete stranger.
Somehow everything that this one seminal moment represented (an orphan's loneliness; the loss of a family he didn't remember; the tension of secrets others would never understand; the wild thrill of nearly betraying himself) poured into the odd verses that he'd composed. And through it all, he angled himself blatantly to the left, and raised his face upwards, wondering what he truly meant as he sang...
"... Know the true you..."
Then, one verse later, as his vocal cords stretched way way up to the song's crescendo at the very edge of his performance range...
"You know I'd stretch up to...
Unravel ev'ry thread...
To r--eac-ch to you..."
... his voice half-cracked, not from the high note, but from the fact that he was on verge of tears.
Cold rain and bitter tears.
Very nearly overwhelmed by some unknown, deep, suppressed sorrow, Harry almost lost it. He swayed once, twice... but the cheers from the audience, and the forest of arms reaching from the darkness up toward the stage-lights, toward him, steered him back. Coaxed him through the final verse...
"Teach me to...
(through the veil...)
Reach to you...
(grey is the veil...)
But you're on the wrong-right side
of the right-wrong side
of the January veil of rain."
With no idea how he'd gotten there, Harry finished on his knees. Some inspired stage engineer had quenched every light in the house but for one single blue lamp pulsing down into his drenched, anguished face.
Part of him reckoned it likely made for pretty wild optics.
The other part of him dwelt for a moment on the more pressing matter of how the hell he was supposed to get up again; to find any strength to sing two more numbers.
Fortunately, as Harry wedged a foot beneath himself and began to rise, what he found in himself was... manageable. What he felt was not so different from his own grey veil of depression that draped over him at times.
Depression, and exhaustion, were things he could deal with. After a life of knock-downs and scourging disappointments, he knew how to batten away the fearsome forces within, and carry on.
So he did.
Fortunately, if his voice had lost a bit of edge; if his motions seemed a bit lethargic, the audience barely noticed. Still a bit dazed from the surreal performance, it took them a moment to grasp that the Stags were back in full force, cranking right back into an upbeat song. Realising this, the crowd roared back to life, clapped and cheered, and carried Harry, finally, to the last number.
And at that point he sighed in audible relief. The only thing now standing between him and getting off this stage was four minutes of the morose growls that Harry knew (and actually somewhat hated) as their closing song, "Walking from Harrington Square."
'Harrington' was the sort of bitter, edgy crap that appealed to the bad girls and jaded blokes who put the 'punk' in punk pop. Dean and Shay had written it some years back, and had sold Lee on it giving the Stags a broader musical base. So, it had now become a fixture in their sets and, from the moment Dean launched into a trashy Ramones power chord, it was clear that this particular crowd was going to gobble it up.
Within seconds, the audience was making enough of a racket that Harry knew it barely mattered if he sang well or mangled the rest, so he scrunched his face, hauled in a big breath, and belted out the applause lines...
"And I'm WALKING from Harrington Square.
Yah, guess what? So sorry...
I ain't SORRY!"
Ginny opened her eyes, and a frown spread about them.
Staring down into the wild cheers, she puzzled through the sudden shift in atmosphere — the hostile, foreign scowl on a face she had begun to imagine that she knew. Shaking her head, she shut from her mind a voice she knew she did not know. Someone on that stage had sung for her tonight, and that someone was done. Finished. All that remained down there now were... performers.
"So-so sorry. I ain't sorry.
I 'n't gettin' no kiss...
Ginny turned away. She had no interest in seeing the lead vocalist descend to the edge of the stage, clenched fist, crouching over a nightmarish mass of hundreds of swarming hands all seemingly desperate to catch droplets of his sweat.
Ginny barely heard as the lead-guitar-bloke surged forward to crank out a crowd-pleasing closing instrumental.
She was exhausted, emotionally drained, on the verge of some strange overload, and she had already grabbed Mione's arm and was hurrying for the exits, barely even registering the tetchy sound of her own voice as it was saying, "Enough jollies for one night, yeah? Let's hook ourselves a cabbie."