“Man, I need a drink,” said Raymond, massaging the back of his neck as he entered the dressing room. His ripped Pixies t-shirt was still soaked in sweat and there was a dirty white towel draped over his shoulder. “Any beers left?”
The small, windowless dressing room was covered in graffiti and smelled of stale beer and staler BO. Mags, their striking twenty-one year old drummer in a black tank-top and jean hot pants, was lying across a beaten up red arm chair in the corner, reading her phone with one hand, an open beer in the other.
She looked over at Raymond, moved her choppy black hair out of her eyes and smiled. Without taking her eyes off him, she drained the can she was drinking, crushed it and threw it across the room at him.
“All out,” she said.
“Asshole,” said Raymond, ducking to the right as the can clattered off the wall behind him.
“Maybe if you spent less time chasing pussy,” she put a finger up to her cheek. “Oh Raymond, we love you! We love youuuu!”
“It’s not my fault the world adores me. Any monkey can bang the drums but it takes real genius to do what I do.”
Mags flipped her middle finger at him and went back to checking her messages while Raymond grabbed a fresh t-shirt out of the open backpack by the door. He peeled off his shirt, then wiped himself off with the towel before putting on the clean t-shirt.
“Tell Kay I’ll be at Strings when you’re all done,” he said as he turned to leave.
“Hey, wait a sec. Bad news,” said Mags. “We didn’t get Kings of Debasement. Shit.”
Raymond paused. His body sagged as he ran his fingers slowly through his hair. Then he turned, leaned his forehead against the doorframe and closed his eyes. “Seriously?” He said quietly. “Fuck, Mags, I needed that gig.”
“Hey, we’ve still got the Friday spot at the Palace. We’ll get something for that.”
“Not enough.” He let out a long, slow breath. “Those T-shirts ready yet?”
“Fuck!” He said through clenched teeth, banging his palm against the edge of the frame. “And Wet Lounge?”
“They’re still concerned. I’m trying get them to give our list a discount for an advanced booking. But these guys are old school, man. Thick as shit. Used to dealing with agents,” she snorted. “Never heard of Twitter. Believe that?”
Ray turned and threw his arms out to her, exasperated. “So why don’t we just call Mad Tony, then?”
Mags looked hurt. “Because he’s a fucking shark, Ray! Fifty percent of the door plus 20 on merch? The fuck kind of deal is that? He’s for desperate noobs and we’re better than that. Don’t worry, I got this.”
They stared at each other for a moment, then Raymond sighed. “I know, I know. Sorry, Mags. Don’t think I don’t appreciate all the shit you do for us. Really. It’s just a little slow is all.”
She shrugged. “I said it would be. But at least it’s ours. You need cash?”
Raymond shook his head. He knew she was as broke as he was. “Nah, appreciate it though. You’re right. It’ll be fine.”
“You could always ask Dan to pay us. Bet he’d be happy to help.”
“Come on, Mags. You know we can’t do that, he’s like family.” He forced a smile. “Besides, the amount of freebies you get there every month is worth at least double what he’d actually pay us.”
She grinned at him.
“Go pack up your shit, ya fucking drunk” said Raymond, shaking his head. “I’ll see you over there.”
Strings, a modern wine bar with blue lighting, glass surfaces and a stainless steel trim, was always quiet on a Tuesday night. There was one other couple at a corner table when Raymond walked in. They were leaning in close over tall glasses of red wine. They looked happy.
He headed over to the bar which was tended by Dan, a big, grouchy man in a tight t-shirt and jeans. Raymond nodded at him, and Dan poured out a glass of Italian Nero d’Avola—Raymond’s favourite—laying down a paper coaster before placing the drink in front of him.
“Thanks,” said Raymond
“You bet. What’s up?”
“Just finished at Starkey’s.”
“Decent. Kay’s handing out tracks and taking names and probably a few numbers. Be over in a bit.”
“You guys still good for Friday?”
Dan nodded, then headed back to a stool in the corner of the bar and continued reading his book.
Raymond drank his wine and watched his dad’s old friend, considering whether or not he should ask for money. Dan had first offered them a place to play over two years ago, when no one else would. They’d been doing the monthly gigs for him ever since, gradually building an audience until they reached a point around nine months ago when they would sell the place out every time.
Dan had always offered them the run of the bar and it had become their base. They drunk a lot here in a month and he never complained, even when they brought in friends to share the bounty. On the other hand, they could easily pack out a place twice this size. Choosing to play here for drinks—especially on a Friday night—meant turning down real cash somewhere else.
“May I join you?”
Raymond jumped at the soft, low voice and snapped his head around. There was a tall woman standing next to him, wearing a tailored two-buttoned dark grey suit with thin lapels. She wore squarish sunglasses and on her head was a thin-brimmed, black pork pie hat. She was beautiful—tanned and elegant, her blood-red lipstick in contrast to the dark hair that fell around her face.
“The name’s Ms. Ferris,” she said, holding out her hand. “But you may call me Lucy.”
“Ray,” said Raymond. They shook hands. “Please.”
He gestured next to him and Lucy took the stool. Raymond leaned forward again, resting on his elbows, watching the stranger over his left shoulder as she sat and lifted the narrow briefcase she was carrying onto her lap.
“I watched your performance earlier. It was very impressive, ” she began. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this but there is something very different about you. Further, I imagine you have been approached by a great number of people making promises and wanting to be a part of your future. You would do well to be wary of them.”
Raymond faced back towards the bar, looking at the stranger in the mirror behind the stacks of bottles and shrugged. “Maybe. I wouldn’t know. I just write the songs. If you’re like a manager, or a label, or whatever, you’ll want to be speaking to the others. They’ll be down in a bit.”
“I offer neither management nor am I a part of any label. I am what you might call…an investor.”
Raymond snorted. “Right. And you want to invest in us? Music doesn’t pay well, you know.” He drained his glass and waved it at Dan. “Get you anything, Ms. Investor?”
“Cranberry juice, please.”
“Ice?” Asked Dan.
“Certainly not,” she replied.
After Dan finished serving the drinks and was back reading in his corner, Lucy opened up her briefcase and pulled out a thin wad of £10 notes, placing it on the bar. Raymond looked at it, surprised, then around at Lucy.
“Here is a thousand pounds, which you can keep without consequence. Call it a ‘thank you’ for hearing me out. I will never mention this money nor this meeting again so you are free to do as you wish: split it with your friends or keep it for yourself. Your choice.”
Raymond looked again at the money, making the slightest motion to reach out to it but stopped himself and clasped his hands together in front of him. He turned his head, and looked at Lucy’ dark eyes, barely visible through the glasses.
“The others are on their way,” he said cooly. “Maybe we should wait for them.”
Lucy smiled thinly and nodded. “As you wish.”
They sat in silence as Raymond sipped his drink. His eyes kept glancing over at the cash sitting on the bar.
“I will say, however,” said Lucy after a while. “That my understanding is that Ms. Ingle doesn’t want any help at all. She was very…adamant on that point.”
Again Raymond looked surprised. “Mags? You’ve spoken to her already?” He tried to remember hearing anything in their band meetings about a rich investor but couldn’t recall any mention of it, then instantly wondered if she’d been offered money as well.
“Yes, I had the pleasure a month or so ago. It was very brief. She made it quiet clear that you wished to do things without any outside assistance or investment.”
“Yeah. Sounds like Mags. She’s the brains behind all this, has this big master plan.”
“And how is that working out for you?”
“Good, I guess. I mean, it’s slow. But compared to where we were a year ago? Can’t complain.”
“And yet you wish things were moving a little faster?”
Raymond shrugged. “Sure. I mean, who doesn’t, right? But that’s not the way these things work.”
“What if I told you they could work like that?”
Raymond turned to face Lucy, leaning his head on his right hand, looking at her carefully. “Then I’d have to respectfully suggest that you’re a liar. Listen, what’s this all about?”
Lucy smiled. “I have had the good fortune to travel and I’ve seen this before—in Mississippi, Washington State, Los Angeles—young men and women with this incredible gift who have felt a great frustration. They know they are great but feel like they are being held back somehow—“ Raymond started to protest—“now, please don’t indulge in false modesty, Mr. Masters, it is most unbecoming. You are not arrogant if you have the ability to back it up and you quite clearly do. If you’ll indulge me, I find it to be one of the most irritating things about humanity—people are more than happy to think deeply about their faults but rarely apply the same mental rigour to their accomplishments. This idea that everything must be shared, this celebration of human frailty is most distasteful. I miss the swagger of it all. I miss the mythology and the mystery. And, I suspect you do to.”
Raymond nodded. Mags was all for sharing photos of them in their shitty van driving down the M6, or posting unfinished sketches of songs and asking for feedback, or responding directly to comments on Facebook. It was a big part of her plan and it had built a solid fan base for them. But it had also brought these strangers too close to him in a way he found uncomfortable, and it had tied what they were doing to a particular time and place.
“But you could bring this back, Mr. Masters. I see great things for you but, just like the others I’ve assisted, you are being held back.”
Raymond sat up and slowly folded his arms, staring at this strange woman. “Go on.”
“The world is distracted. They listen but they no longer hear. You are now simply a tool to be used in the definition of their own public identity, a signifier to others like them. It is a shallow form of consumption but you have the ability to go deeper. You see, Mr. Masters, I have a great ear. One might describe it as perfect pitch but in doing so one would trivialise it. I find that many musicians use instruments that are ever so slightly out of tune or sing very slightly out of key, in a way that even the most delicate electronic analysers fail to pick up on. But this tiny irregularity is the difference between people listening to you, and hearing you.”
Lucy took off her sunglasses. Perhaps it was the dimness of the bar, but to Raymond her large eyes were like two black holes.
“With your permission,” Lucy continued. “I would like to show you exactly how to tune your guitar and to adjust your voice so that it sounds heavenly. These tiny adjustments will make a great difference. All the difference in the world. Music is a powerful and immediate way into a person’s soul. It’s a bridge between human being’s individual islands of consciousness. I’m offering to make that bridge stronger, more reliable, available at will. It will allow you to touch people in a way that they yearn for. No more bad gigs, Mr. Masters. The adoration of all.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Raymond thought of Kay, out there now working the crowd, trying to get people to sign up to their email list or to like their Facebook page; begging for attention. He found it repulsive but had accepted Mags’ arguments that not only would it help them, it was what was required now. Then he thought of the break they’d had supporting SlipSister—5,000 people, a decent venue, a sound tech than knew his stuff, a high-end PA. He remembered how the fans had rushed up to them after the show. He remembered the looks of adoration in their eyes. If it was like that every time…
“So what do you get out of it?” Asked Raymond, finally.
Lucy smiled. “As you are already aware, I am a rich woman Mr. Masters. But despite having complete and ready access to every material comfort that lady could wish for, I find there is something missing. It’s an intangible thing that I have thus far only found in the arts but whatever it is, it brings me great joy. You see, art is the ultimate frivolity, meeting none of a person’s practical needs, and yet people are willing to sacrifice their entire lives to it. They endure poverty and hunger and disgrace in order to give themselves and their fellow beings this indescribable thing. Meaning, perhaps. Or hope. It is lighting a fire in the darkness despite knowing with complete certainty that this darkness will always and with minimal effort snuff it out. May I ask how old you are now?”
“Within the next five years, I’m going to call you and ask that you come to me wherever I am in the world and perform for me once. I will, naturally, pay you for your time and any expenses. In exchange, I will show you this method that has helped many others achieve the great things that they wished for themselves at a speed that was more satisfactory to them. Do we have a deal?”
“What about my band? Will you do the same for them?”
“Unfortunately, this deal is just for you, Mr. Masters, and it expires the moment they walk through that door. Not everyone can be taught what I am able to teach which is why I am only talking to you. Believe me when I tell you that my only wish is to see great work and if I can help in some small way then it would make me very happy.”
“So you show me this tuning trick and this’ll make our performances better. Then we play one gig for you sometime in the next five years?”
Lucy flinched at the word ‘trick’, but quickly composed herself. “Correct.”
“All expenses paid?”
“Everything. You just turn up and play.”
Raymond smiled. “Fuck it.”
“Splendid. Friday night, after the show, meet me at the corner of Oxford Street and Jackson’s Row and we’ll go to the Hanging Tree pub where I’ll show you what you need to do.”
“Alright. Sounds good.” They shook hands and Raymond noticed that Lucy’s hand felt cooler than before. Presumably, he thought, from holding her icy glass.
“A word of caution, Mr. Masters. Musicians can be a jealous breed so I would be hesitant about sharing what transpired here lest they feel betrayed somewhat. They will, of course, share in the benefits of this deal so perhaps it would be prudent to keep the circumstances of it between us. Good evening.”
Lucy doffed her hat, turned and left. Raymond watched her leave through the large glass doors, then turned around and stared at himself in the mirror behind the bar. Maybe he should keep it quiet. After all, Mags had. Maybe he had made the same deal with her. Maybe it was all some kind of test.
“Hey, fuck face!” Said Mags’ voice behind him. He turned to her and nodded hello.
“Holy shit!” She said. “What’s that?”
She had noticed the thousand pounds still sitting on the bar and was looking at Raymond with wide eyes. “Did you finally ask him?” She asked.
“What? Ask who?”
“Dan, you moron. It came from him, right?”
Raymond hesitated, then quickly picked it up and gave it to her. “Yeah. Right. Totally. A grand!”
“Fuck. Nice, man. We needed this.”
“I know, right? Listen, just don’t make a big deal about it. He was, uh, a little pissed that I asked, so best just not mention it again to him, alright? Let’s divvy it up later, OK?”
“Sure, whatever,” she shrugged, stuffing it in her backpack. She looked over at Dan reading at the far end of the bar. “Hey! Who do I have to fuck to get a drink here?”
Raymond smiled at this, looking at himself in the mirror as Mags ordered her drink. Then he noticed something in the background of the reflection, through the glass doors behind him. It was Lucy. The tall woman raised her hat in salutation, then turned and walked away into the night.