love, short fiction

A Whole Step Down From The Side

Paul took over on bass with my band, The Spooky Electric, after Lenny, our original bass player developed ALS and retired before the worst of it kicked in and killed him.

 

El recommended him said they had played together a few years ago, jazz and hip hop but El shared old files and we saw the guy could play. It came down to the simple matter of we liked El, and if El vouched for someone, it was worth a go. He had been the most recent member of the band, stepping in when Lewis got religion and went out to the desert.

 

Paul shook hands with everyone, set up with his own bass, tuned down a whole step, and with his own rig. Jenny peeked over and raised an eyebrow.

 

‘You’ve got Lenny’s set up?’ she said.

 

He scratched his beard and gave a short nod.

 

Jenny switched on the Moog. She smiled with curiosity, her glasses perched on the end of her nose as she ran her fingers over the keys.

 

El counted us in and we jammed through Sense Of Place before it became clear to everyone Paul was a natural fit for the band. Jenny never took her eyes off him. He had a telepathic connection with El which was tighter than anything Lenny could manage, even before the ALS kicked in.

 

I had questioned carrying on but there were people depending on us. We had good years, and Paul was coming out on tour to support a greatest hits compilation which took us out of our contract with Empire Records and covered Lenny’s medical bills until he died.

 

‘What do you think?’ Jenny said.

 

I took my guitar off and passed it to my tech. I looked past her and saw Paul stood with El, comparing notes and pantomiming variations they could work on.

 

I was thinking about calling time on the whole thing. My songs sounded like cover versions or parodies of earlier work, and I was faking the joy I took for granted.

 

Yet it was still my band, at heart, and Paul fitted in too well to make me comfortable with him. He was in, but I would watch him.

 

‘He’ll do for now.’ I said.

 

Jenny and I had split up five years ago. It was all amicable, but I still hoped nostalgia would bring her back and it was a test of my capacity for romance I kept my priapic reputation up as a matter of habit and reputation over any real need. The curious glances between her and Paul stung me but I couldn’t justify it to the rest of the band if we had gone with anyone else.

 

Hindsight has such awful clarity to it.

 

2.

 

He stood to El’s right, and he looked at Jenny as he played. She doesn’t miss a note but there was a focus to her playing which ramps everyone up. It’s a balancing act, between meeting commercial considerations and wanting to develop as artists. Jenny played more blues and jazz, and she would hide herself away to write songs for herself. I had one roady keep an eye on Paul but he was smart, hung out with El and the technical crew but I was sure he was sneaking time with her.

 

The paranoia fed on me, made hollow reeds of my bones as I pushed myself onstage, each night, throwing myself into the adoration of strangers rather than tell the people I loved how frightened I was, how I wanted to stop being the performer but I wasn’t sure I could live without it.

 

Paul worked with me when I played solos, pedalling notes to make my runs down the fretboard sound more dynamic and less technical. He turned down solos, preferring to make the more established members shine onstage. He picked out a fretless bass guitar when Jenny played new material, performing with a nuance and ease which makes me grind my teeth with envy.  I wanted him to be a cunt. I learned he was married, but divorced now and one morning, we’re sat having breakfast together when I talked about my marriage. Jenny has slept in, but El and Paul were there.

 

‘Were you married, Paul?’

 

He looked up from his heaped plate of breakfast meat and nodded before he returned to his food. El narrowed his eyes before Paul poured himself a coffee and looked at me.

 

‘What split you guys up?’ I said.

 

Paul lowered his glasses down the bridge of his nose.

 

‘A lack of self awareness. How About You?’ he said.

 

My temples throbbed with indignation but El had given me a hardened stare whilst Paul carried on eating. I looked at the greasy meat on the plate, appetite gone and I got up from the table without thinking.

 

El grabbed me after a show. He was uncomfortable as he asked me if I had a problem with Paul. I waved him off, but I derived a shallow enjoyment from knowing I still held power over things. The tragedy is I’d lost the ability to wield it with any skill.

 

When Leon called to tell me Paul’s left the tour, I poured myself a scotch and lit a cigarette, and it all tasted the same as Leon asked if I want to sue for breach of contract. I looked at my reflection and say why the fuck not?

 

Why the fuck not?

 

Jenny stormed into my dressing room, whilst I was getting a massage. She was in tears, and she told me how fucking twisted I’d become. Her beautiful face was twisted with anger and grief as she pointed at me, and I laughed at her, despite the increasing pressure in my head.

 

El told me in person he was leaving. Paul and El shared the same manager, and they were floating a constructive dismissal charge. We had a whole leg of the tour cancelled, and I told Leon to find musicians who could play the songs. The accounts showed we were bleeding money everywhere, but I stopped caring about it.

 

Jenny left the tour and spoke to me through lawyers. I went out to the beach house and switched my phone off as I poured myself a drink and went out to watch the waves.

 

Leon had a whole band waiting for me and I didn’t want to finish the tour. He quit and told me he’d see me in court. I poured out another scotch and sat in the living room, watched the shadows grow thick and full like mould in a cheap apartment.

 

Something twisted in the back of my head, filling me with heat and thunder as I threw up down myself and felt the glass fall from my hand.  A blockage in my basilar artery which wasn’t enough to kill me.

 

I was found alive but there was enough damage to see me classified as pseudocomatose. I can move my eyes, but a stroke wiped away all the connections to everything else.

 

I’m trapped in here. My silence was my sentence, and I watched Jenny debut her band, with Paul and El as her rhythm section on a live feed.

 

They were married a year later. My children were involved and I had Leon scroll through the photographs, apologising for having accepted. He had changed his mind about leaving when he did the accounts on my back catalogue value when I died. The stroke wiped away my control of my body and I watched everyone I knew move on without me.

 

Jenny came to see me and ranted at my immobile face until she collapsed into hoarse sobs and was led away by Leon.

 

Paul came over. He knew I disliked him and why, but he bore me no ill will over it. I glared at him until he lapsed into a mournful silence and stood up.

 

He looked at me, the hate and frustration alive in me was so powerful I wanted it to reach inside his chest and burst his heart but instead he smiled at me without malice and walked out of the room.

 

The next video auto played. It was the eighties, we came back with the double album, four hit singles and Lenny starting to drink more to keep his hands steady. I look at Jenny’s eyes and will my heart to grow cold. The attention makes it burn all the more, but I bear it without complaint.

 

I have no other choice

 

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