Prodigy pianist Simon Duckworth has a dark past. After being violently raped when he was thirteen, he flees to London, ashamed and determined never to tell a soul. He gets a job at a Denmark Street music shop, but it stifles him. At the first opportunity, Simon answers an ad for a musician, an act that changes his life forever. Stephen Abednego has seen the same ad. He arrives in London with little more than his ambitions and a sheaf of poems, but together, they’re enough to get him hired. Under their new manager’s watchful eye, Stephen falls for Simon—but Stephen deeply closeted, and Simon may be too emotionally scarred for a mature relationship. With their manager’s help, their music rises, dragging them into the hectic world of superstardom, but success doesn’t come without a price. Each step out of the ennui and coal smoke of 1960s industrial London must be paid for in regret. With social convention standing between them and the whole world watching, Stephen and Simon discover that finding each other is not as easy as it seems.
WHEN the landlord called a fifteen-minute break, Simon escaped into the lavs to take a piss. His dad’s friend Gus was in there, standing in front of a urinal like someone straddling a pig. Simon hated taking a piss in front of anyone, but he’d been nipping beer behind Roger’s back all night. He tried for nonchalance, nodding at Gus as he unzipped his fly, pretending he was home. If he squinted he could just imagine the frosted window in his mother’s bathroom, right above the toilet, and the fuzzy cover on the tissue box and the crocheted dog covering the extra bog roll.
“Eah, watch out for the splash, now.” Gus’s grin showed a row of stained and yellowing teeth. There were black hairs in his nostrils and he’d been careless with his shaving, judging by the various tiny cuts decorating his chin and cheeks. He smelled like armpits and dirty underpants and the locker room at the rec center.
Simon was nonplussed, uncomfortable. “Splash?”
“When you get your dick out—it’ll be a big one.” Gus’s laughter sounded like someone scraping out a metal pot. “Watch the splash, by the way!”
Simon struggled to ignore him, wishing Gus would finish up and go away. But Gus, sensitive to an acquired target, wasn’t going anywhere; in that way he was like the bullies at school, the older boys who held Simon down and rubbed his face in the dirt of the schoolyard every dinnertime. Gus tripped the flush handle of the urinal and stood against the wall, arms folded. “I bet you’ve got all kinds of girlfriends, don’t you? Young lad your age.”
“I haven’t actually.” Simon did this at least half a dozen times every bloody day, and yet he couldn’t manage to piss now for love nor money. Whatever possessed him to come here? He’d be better off at home, alone, or in Majorca with his mother and Maureen. He decided then to forget about it, to cross his bloody legs and hold it, if that was what it took. Fuck Gus anyway.
“Where are you going?” Gus grabbed his arm, spinning him around. “Not leaving, are you?”
“Fuck off out of it!” Simon tried to wrench his arm away, but Gus was strong. To his mature adult strength, Simon was nothing. “I’ll tell me dad!”
“Tell your dad, will you?” Gus slammed him into the bathroom wall, and Simon was crying, begging to be left alone; Simon was pleading for his life. He thought—even then—that Gus only intended to kill him. Gus gathered a handful of Simon’s navy jumper and swung him around, throwing him to the floor. “Tell your dad? I’ll tell your fucking dad something, I will.”
He never felt such horrible pain. He had never been violated in this manner. His cheek was pressed into the filthy bathroom floor and he could taste the sticky afterlife of spilled lager, the spent acidity of old cigarettes. His spectacles, unequal to the force exerted by the man on top, shattered, crushed against his nose, the shards of broken glass cutting into him. His neck was bent so that he could see the tip of his own shoe, the dark sock incongruous against his pale flesh. His trousers had gone, somewhere. His underpants had gotten caught around his knees, binding him in place. Outside, in the pub, he could hear the landlord shouting at the punters over the microphone, telling them to shut the fuck up, that the band was coming back. Gus, then, on top of him and around him and somehow in him, and the weight of Gus driving all the air from his lungs. Gus was doing it in utter silence, but Simon could hear his own breath rasping in his throat. Gus pushed into him and there was a flood of sticky moisture, then the dank air painted horror against his naked back. He lay very still for a long time. He couldn’t allow himself to move. He didn’t hear Gus leave, and yet he must certainly be alone here in this filthy loo.
Gus had done something to his insides. His belly hurt like he’d been punched. He could hear the music starting and he knew Roger would be looking for him, but he couldn’t face his father. He pulled himself upright and peered into the mirror: his spectacles, destroyed, were dangling from one earpiece, and there were bits of glass embedded in the skin of his face. His mouth was bleeding and he had a black eye, rapidly swelling shut. He looked like someone who’d done a turn inside a meat grinder. He looked like he’d been run down by a lorry. He stood looking awhile, wondering at the stranger in the mirror, and it seemed to him that the face regarded him with suspicion and disgust. He found his trousers balled up near the urinal, opposite, and shoved his legs into them. He fled the pub by the side door, running down the gravel drive that led out to the street, holding his trousers up with one hand, peering into the darkness with weak, night-blinded eyes.
Back at Roger’s house, he calmly packed his suitcase and called a taxi to take him to the station. All the way down to London, he counted objects outside the window: telegraph poles, nuclear reactors, pigs in a field, and finally, a flock of wild swans lifting from the surface of a mill pond. When the train pulled into Euston Station, he was wide awake and trembling with the residue of countless cups of railway coffee. He went straight into the bathroom of his mother’s house and ran the bath as hot as he could stand it. He could never tell, he knew this, and so he went about the place locking all the doors and windows, shutting himself inside. He was hardly aware of his own weeping; it seemed like he’d been crying all the way from Glasgow. He got into the bath and scrubbed himself, trying to rub Gus away. The hot water crept into the savaged places of his body, hurting him, making him clench his teeth against the pain. What Gus had done made a furtive itch inside him; he was filled with Gus and everyone would know. Everyone would know the thing that Gus had done.
There was a full tin of aspirin tablets in his mother’s medicine chest and a bottle of sleeping pills that his mother got from the doctor after she and Roger first separated. Simon held very still to read the label on the sleeping pills. He read it over carefully, sounding out the phrases of it in his mind. It reminded him of lurid old stories, like Marilyn Monroe taking too many pills and drinking too much booze, or Dickie Pride, dead at twenty-seven of an overdose, at the height of his career. So much for dragging himself up out of the anonymity of bloody Luton.
He rolled the little pills in his palm, counting them. He could take one and then another and another until… but Simon wasn’t brave like that. He knew he’d never have the guts to do it and he was afraid of making a halfhearted attempt, of failing to do the job completely and ending up a vegetable. He put the bottle back into the medicine cabinet and deliberately shut the door.
For several days he stayed exactly where he was, locked inside the house, watching telly all day and all night, dressed in his pajamas. He watched documentaries and rubbishy programs about unwed mothers and young fellows on the dole. The telephone rang and rang, taunting him, but he wouldn’t answer it, he wouldn’t give in to it. He knew it was his father calling and he didn’t want to talk to him, so he ate instead, that sad old story, like those True Confessions magazines his mum liked, girls dying of thwarted love, girls taking pills and drinking vodka to wash away the pain. He ate everything in the fridge and then he went into the pantry and ate the esoteric things Nina had set aside for baking: raisins and bitter chocolate and dates formed into bricks, confectioners’ sugar and self-rising flour. His own nausea was a revelation, even as he was facedown in the toilet, but that just reminded him too much of the men’s at that awful pub in Glasgow. He went into his mother’s bill envelope in the cupboard and took the money that he found there, and he ordered all sorts of different things—Chinese takeaway and fish and chips, Indian curries and hot pot.
Roger wasn’t entirely to blame—his father didn’t make it happen, but Roger let it happen. There was really very little difference in the end. Simon understood this; he was thirteen years old. He was thirteen years old and he understood that a friend of his father had raped him in the filthy bathroom of a questionable Glasgow nightclub—raped him for no good reason other than the fact that he felt like it and Simon was there and maybe he knew that Simon was no match for him, couldn’t possibly defend himself. Simon understood this and he blamed his father.
“Why aren’t you at your father’s place?” Nina, arriving home from Majorca slim and tanned and sporting a new pearl bracelet, seemed surprised to see him there. “You’re supposed to stay with your dad.” She moved through the house, ripping open the curtains, clearing away the curry boxes and the chip-smelling papers, tossing away Simon’s considerable (by now) collection of fizzy drink bottles. “Have you done nothing but sit here and watch telly?”
Simon shrugged at her. “I might have done.”
“What happened to your face? What have you done with your specs, eh?”
“I got into a fight with some blokes at school.” As soon as it was out of his mouth, he knew he’d fucked it up good and proper. He backed himself up, rewinding his own thoughts. “No, there were some young blokes up at Dad’s, and they were making fun of me—”
“For Christ’s sake, Simon!” Nina sounded utterly disgusted. “Go put some clothes on. And get the hoover out. This place looks like a proper rubbish tip!”
While Simon was in the bedroom changing, he heard Nina on the phone, probably calling Glasgow. Simon strained his ears to hear, but could only catch the ends of certain phrases.
He says some boys were making fun of him. He says he ran away. He says you took him to a pub one night and one of your mates took advantage of him in the bathroom. Oh, yes—he says he’s the man in the moon.
Simon stole the other bottle from the medicine cabinet, just in case. Late at night, when he couldn’t sleep, he sat up in the moonlight, counting the little pills.
1: Elemental Blues
THERE were always people waiting, afterward—after the concert was over, after Simon (lately “Abelard”) had toweled himself off, after Stephen Abednego and Jacky Stride and whichever record company bigwigs were waiting in the limo for the past twenty minutes had taken themselves away and were busily insufflating copious amounts of cocaine and quaffing ice-cold bottles of champagne—there was always someone there. It was to be expected: Simon Duckworth was famous, and not just a little bit famous but hugely famous, especially in America after his appearance at the Picador Club. “Stepney Simon” was a household name and his manager, Jacky Stride, was scrambling to sift through the bulk of invitations that came pouring in from clubs all over America. Every single one of them wanted to book Abelard, wanted Abelard to come and play, wanted to replicate the resounding box office success that had been Simon’s American debut.
The week before, when they played a flurry of smaller clubs in Boston, one particular girl was always waiting at the stage door. “She says her name is Angela.” One of the roadies shouted this at Stephen, but Stephen merely shrugged. It had nothing to do with him, nothing at all. All of that was Simon’s business; Stephen merely wrote the lyrics and quaffed a lot of cheap American beer and went along on tours because he had nothing better to do. He wasn’t interested in any of the groupies who habitually clustered round Simon, and Simon himself couldn’t be bothered, but that had more to do with his arrangement with Jacky. In every way that mattered, Simon and Jacky lived together, were a couple, and shared everything, including Simon’s inventory of illicit drugs, which had lately grown to include speed and downers as well as the usual cocaine. Every night the girl was there in Boston, and every night she chased Simon’s limo round the corner—chased Simon ’til he disappeared into the night. “Let me go home with you!” she screamed. “Let me be with you! You can save me!” Simon was very often party to the dubious overtures that fanatics accord the newly famous: underpants and bowler hats, choccy and fur boas; all of it was tossed onstage as he hurled himself around, bawling Stephen’s words into the microphone. The fans here were all daft, these Americans, but they adored him.
Stephen was drinking American beer underneath the awning that had been erected over the vast outdoor stage. The temperature was hovering close to one hundred degrees and Simon was already sweating underneath his velvet frock coat. The lace on his shirt collar was sticking to one side of his face, and his wire-rimmed specs were slightly askew, lending him a comical aspect. The makeup girls hadn’t managed to make his hair lie down, and some disparate strands of it were rising from the back of his head like long-forgotten ghosts. His costumes, in keeping with his stage name, were very romantic, almost Byronic; the clothes were Jacky Stride’s idea. Watching from the side of the stage, the dark, narrow-shouldered Scot had the facial expression of a rapacious meadow vole and his gaze never left Simon. It was almost as if he were willing Simon to behave accordingly.
“I can’t wear these fucking boots. This fucking shirt is fucking killing me. Where the fuck is my water?” Simon’s tirade, now so practiced that it might as well be scripted, had become an expected diversion every night of the tour; Stephen, watching wearily from underneath his awning, lifted one corner of his mouth in something that might have been mirth. All of it was affectation, a posture: Simon the rock star acting the way he thought rock stars ought to act. Simon the rock star driven half out of his mind by speed and coke and disco biscuits, was complaining bitterly about the velvet coat, cut to hide his slight potbelly, and the over-the-knee boots with their complicated set of buckles and laces. Jacky had seen the boots in the window of a shop in SoHo and ordered fifteen pairs in every color of the rainbow. The boots had built-in lifts to add an inch or two to Simon’s modest height.
“All of it, my friends, is artifice.” Jacky was fond of saying this to anyone; he said it now, catching Stephen’s eye and nodding at him, pretending that they liked each other even as Stephen turned away to pop the tab on another can of Schlitz. The piano tuners—there were two of them—scurried about with oscilloscopes and tuning forks, winking at one another in the midst of Simon’s tirade. Stephen sensed something dangerous throbbing in the air between Simon and Jacky. Perhaps the bloom had even now gone off the proverbial rose. “Don’t be such a goddamned child.” Jacky moved close to Simon, so that he was right in Simon’s face. The lifts in Simon’s boots forced Jacky to look up at him. “You’re acting like a five-year-old.” Jacky palmed a small, smooth vial into Simon’s pocket, said, “Go in the back and get yourself sorted,” and Stephen knew where this would end. He hoped someone would remember to brush the blow off Simon’s velvet jacket before he came back out to face his adoring fans.
The outdoor auditorium was packed so full of bodies that Stephen could see nothing in front of him but a writhing, heaving tide of humanity, shouting out for Abelard with their arms in the air, like the faithful come to their messiah. Stephen left his awning to negotiate the complicated tangle of wires and cables running behind the stage; the bass player was crouched behind the battery of amps, sucking on the largest party joint Stephen had ever seen, and Stephen had by now seen plenty. In the confused jumble of people and instruments, it was hard to find Simon, but Stephen’s unerring instinct led him back into the darkest places where Simon always liked to hide. The lenses of Simon’s spectacles flashed at him as Simon lifted his head.
Stephen crouched down beside him. “He’s a cunt.”
“I know.” Simon’s voice was small, with a chemical edge, and Stephen wondered how much coke had already vanished up Simon’s nostrils. “He wants firing. I should fire him, shouldn’t I? Do you think I should? What should I say to him?” But mere firing wasn’t good enough for Jacky Stride, and they both knew it. Stephen reached down to help Simon to his feet; he tottered for a moment, the lifts putting him off-balance. The first chords were already pounding through the atmosphere, and somewhere out in front the bass player had abandoned his party joint. “Remember that girl in Boston?” Simon had to shout this into Stephen’s ear as he turned the corner to take the stage. “Remember what she said?”
“They all say something.” Stephen reached over and pulled Simon into a bone-crushing hug. He held on to Simon for a long time, bodies so tightly clasped that he could feel the hammering of Simon’s heart through skin and flesh and clothing. “Give the people what they paid for. Give ’em hell.”
Simon stepped away, hesitating for just a moment, on the verge of becoming Abelard. What do you want to call him that for? Stephen had been contemptuous of the pseudonym from the beginning. You know they cut his balls off, right? You do know that Abelard ended with his balls cut off.
Simon swiped at Stephen, clutching his hand, squeezing the fingers together, grabbing at the poet like a lifeline, and then he was gone, a phantom in a costume, a body drawn inexorably to the stage. Stephen waited, listening like he always did as Simon’s voice swelled to a bombastic wall of sound, filling the auditorium.
SIMON DUCKWORTH’S father had once upon a time been the sax player in a swing band, long before swing was hip. Their band was called The Dosh Monkeys, and they had enjoyed something of a following in Stepney and the other Tower Boroughs, and there had been some talk of them cutting a record, but nothing ever came of it. Roger had fancied himself a ladies’ man back in the day, so when he’d first clapped eyes on Nina Harris—petite, dark-haired, an excellent dancer—he told his bandmates, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry, see.” Nine months later, with the grudging acceptance of Nina’s mother, Betty, they were married; a month after that, Nina had become pregnant and secretly hoped for a girl. She’d always wanted a girl so she could call her Chantal Marie and do her hair up in bubbly curls like Shirley Temple. The pregnancy had been a bit of an inconvenience, because Roger thought he’d continue his musical career for just a wee bit longer. The band was scheduled to do a run of dates up through Manchester and Liverpool, maybe even branch out into the Continent. “Can’t you get rid of it?” Roger had asked her. “You can have another kiddy, later on.” Nina went home to her mother and had refused to see or speak to Roger for a week or more. At last Roger turned up with a frilly bassinet that he’d bought at an oddments shop in Islington. Nina’s brother Roy had laughed when Roger brought the thing inside the house. “What if the baby’s a boy?” he’d asked. “You can’t put him in that—you’ll make a poof out of him!”
Roger found a job working at the gas company, and he and Nina bought the maisonette in Essian Street and brought Simon there to live once he was born. Roger was playing a gig at a bingo hall in Brixton, dutifully delivering the big band and swing numbers his peers remembered from the war, when Nina went into labor. Someone dispatched a taxi to fetch him, and he’d left the band in the middle of “Sweet Lorraine,” arriving at the hospital in time to see his infant son’s squashed red face peering up at him from Nina’s arms. “Bit small, isn’t he?”
Nina had suffered an extraordinarily long postpartum depression, and her sister Sheila came to stay with them to help care for little Simon and pick up around the house. For the first three months of Simon’s life, Nina did nothing except listen to the wireless, smoke cigarettes, and cry. She’d cried at The Archers and The Goon Show and she’d cried at Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, and the adverts for washing powder. For the remainder of her marriage to Roger, she’d been subject to sudden fits of wailing, of covert sobbing in the kitchen. She despised swing music with a passion and screamed at Roger to stop reminiscing about the war.
Long after Simon should have been in bed, he’d sit on the pantry stairs (the configuration of the narrow downstairs passage amplified any sounds coming from the front room) and listen to his parents fighting. Usually they’d fight about Roger’s job, or the state of the house, or the things that Nina cooked for tea; sometimes they’d fight about Simon. Roger didn’t think that Simon needed the expensive piano lessons that Nina insisted on; Nina thought that Simon had the makings of a musical genius. “It’s not fair, making him give up his music. You’ll break his heart.”
“What about me?” Roger had shouted. “What about my music? Oh no, I’d to get a job up at the bloody gas company!”
The day before Simon’s thirteenth birthday, he’d come home from school to find Roger gone and Nina sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette. When Simon had asked where his dad had gone, Nina told him they were getting a divorce, and his father would be moving up to Glasgow that weekend.
“It’ll just be the two of us from now on,” Nina said. “Just you and me. Think you can manage to look out for your old mum?” She’d seemed inordinately cheerful, as though she’d been relieved of a great anguish.
“I don’t want to stay with you—I’m going with me dad.” Simon packed a few things in his valise, followed his father to the train station, and clung to him. “I’ll be a good boy this time,” he said. “You’ll see, you won’t have to leave and Mum won’t get angry any more. If I’m good, will you stay with us?” There was no time for explanations: the whistle blew and Roger had to get on the train.
“You can come and visit Daddy at the weekends, and on school holidays. You can even come for Christmas if you like.” Roger gave him twenty pounds, told him to spend it on some record albums. “Get some of that music that you like.”
“I want you to stay.” Simon had planted himself on the platform and refused to move.
“Simon, I have to go.” Roger had untangled Simon’s fingers from his sleeve. “Honestly—now there’s the whistle. I’ve got to get on the train.” He’d pulled Simon into his arms and hugged him. “Come and see me soon, there’s a good lad.”
He sat in a forward-facing compartment, and had steeled himself not to look behind. He couldn’t bear the sight of it. He couldn’t bear the sight of Simon’s tear-stained face, or the forlorn slump of his shoulders as he stood on the platform. He held the image of Simon in his mind as the train pulled out: a fat thirteen-year-old boy with thick specs, standing with twenty quid clutched in his pudgy fist. He’ll never amount to anything, Roger thought. He can’t possibly amount to anything. He wondered what would become of Simon, left to Nina’s devices. He ought to have some say in how his son was being brought up. He ought to have some influence, after all.
“I didn’t mean it.” Nina had called him as soon as she’d got home from her holiday, which wasn’t like her. Usually she’d write him, if there was something she needed to say, and save the pence a long-distance call would have cost her. Roger had held the phone pressed against his face and listened to Nina hissing down the line at him. “I told him not to wander where I couldn’t see him.” He’d said this in his own defense. “I told him not to.”
He wanted to ask her what had happened, but he didn’t have the guts.
I will preface this review by saying this was not an easy book to read. Simon Duckworth’s life was riddled with more tragedy than one man should have to endure from sexual abuse and rape to poor body image and bulimic tendencies to closeting his sexuality for the sake of public image; all resulting in multiple suicide attempts just to escape the everyday pain of his life. His meteoric rise to rock star fame was sudden as was his crash landing when a stalker pushes him beyond the limits of his fragile psyche. Alone and broken there is only one thing that can save him: Stephen.
This book wasn’t what I expected and I like when an author surprises me with a unique reading experience. This is a book not just to be read, but to be experienced. While the time jumps could be a bit jostling and confusing at times, I thought it was a brilliant tactic in that it slammed you right into the character’s frame of mind… you experienced all the chaos, uncertainty, isolation, and confusion that ruled the everyday life of Simon Duckworth. When you add drug abuse and homophobic violence into the mix, the churning mess his mind becomes can be a very scary place to be. It was very unsettling and disorienting.
And while the story may not have had your typical HEA, in the end, Simon was finally able to face his demons and find a measure of peace. The story was an exhausting and emotionally draining experience, but well worth the journey.
The Quality of Mercy by J.S. Cook eBook
The Lovely Beast by J.S. Cook eBook
The Winter Dark by J.S. Cook eBook
Famous Last Words by J.S. Cook eBook
Requires site membership
Signs by Anna Martin eBook