By Adam Macqueen
Good evening Laysangennelmun. Laysngennlemun. Laydsngennemum.
That’s it. That last one. You’ve got to get the delivery right – it’s kind of lazy, but not so much of a drawl that you can’t make out every syllable. A lot of people go over the top and just mumble it, missing out the middle of every word, but he didn’t, he just sort of slid them together. You always knew what he was saying. Well, at least up to the last couple of years.
I do this bit in my show called “Elvocution lessons”; get someone up from the crowd and teach them how to do the “thangyouverymuch” and the “Uhhuhuh”, and from there we go into the intro to Good Luck Charm together with all the choruses like a call-and-response thing. It’s great if it’s a birthday party or a hen night or something and you can get the person whose party it is up. If not, I just usually go for the fittest girl there. They’re normally up for it.
It’s extras like that that make mine the best Elvis show you’ll get outside London. That’s not me saying that – it was Venue magazine a few years back. “The South-West’s Premier Elvis Impersonator”, they called me. Their man came down to see me at the Mardkye when I was still doing the regular nights there, before it went gastro. I had it printed up on my fliers. “The South West’s Premier Elvis Impersonator, Venue, 1996,” in that nice fancy script they use for wedding invitations. Actually I might take the date off the next lot I get printed up. I’m sure they still think the same, but it starts looking funny after a while.
And don’t think it’s like, “best in a category of one”, either. There’s a couple of other Elvises down Exeter, and one in Taunton, but he’s semi-retired now. There’s a lookey-likey in Nailsea who does Elvis, but he doesn’t really count because he does Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust and Inspector Clouseau, as well. I can’t see how Inspector Clouseau counts. He doesn’t look anything like Peter Sellers, he just puts on the outfit and does the accent. Actually I looked at his website recently and he’s started doing Dame Edna, so times must be hard. I guess there’s not much call for Gary Glitter these days.
There’s a Chinese Elvis who does a restaurant in Keynsham, too. I don’t get that. I’ve seen him, he’s good, but you know, I’m not being racist, but Elvis just wasn’t a Chinky, was he?
Besides, I bet none of them have got anything like the repertoire I’ve got. I can give you anything from the Sun recordings – well, just Good Rockin’ Tonight really, but that’s still more than most tribute acts – right through to the Vegas stuff. I’m saying that, but most people only want the same three or four songs – used to be Hound Dog or Heartbreak Hotel or Viva Las Vegas, but lately it’s almost always Suspicious Minds; I don’t know why. It’s got so I leave them out of the main set because I know they’re going to turn up when I ask for requests at the end. People appreciate them more then. They tip more generously because they feel obliged. A few years back everyone wanted A Little Less Conversation because it got used in that advert, and then they’d get upset because it’s not the version they know. They’ve stopped asking for that now. I did have a couple over in Clevedon last summer, it was a Ruby wedding, and they’d been to see Girl Happy on their first date so they pacifically asked for Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, which made a nice change. I had to get the backing tape in specially.
Since Mum had the last stroke I’ve been trying to get in to see her every day, even if it’s just for five minutes. Sometimes I won’t manage it if I’ve got an overnight or two gigs in a day, but to be honest I don’t think she notices. Most of the time I’m not even sure she knows it’s me anyway.
I usually try to get there around her dinnertime, which I know the nurses appreciate. Maureen who’s in charge of her wing told me they have a hell of a job getting through all the residents before the evening shift comes on at seven. She said sometimes they’re still clearing away the lunch things at one end of the building when the trolley’s coming round again from the other end. On the day the doctor talked to me I already knew something was up because it was rhubarb crumble, which mum likes, but she wasn’t enjoying it at all. She kept slumping over to one side and I kept having to stop and lift her up again in the chair, which is difficult because you don’t know where to hold her and really you’re supposed to get one of the nurses because they’re trained but you could be pressing the button for ages. By the time I gave up there was custard on her chin and on her dress and on the chair and a lot of it still in the bowl but precious little inside her. I cleaned her up as best I could and gave her a kiss goodbye and I was sort of hanging around to have a word with Maureen before I went but she saw me first, and asked me to go and wait in Doctor Henderson’s office because he wanted a word but he was sorting out the meds and he’d only be five minutes.
I hadn’t been in Doctor Henderson’s office before. It was on the ground floor near the kitchens and it wasn’t a room really, just a partitioned-off bit of a bigger room with walls that were panels up to half-way up and the top bit made out of frosted glass to let light through. It was funny because there’s a pretty strong smell to the Home – bleach and medicated toilet paper and air freshener and dusty radiators and flowers that need their water changing all sort of mixed up together – which you get used to after a while but it smelt completely different in here. A weird sort of sharp, medical smell that caught in your nose. It reminded me of something, and I couldn’t think what it was, although I had plenty of time to think about it because I was waiting for a lot more than five minutes, worrying all the time about what it was Doctor Henderson wanted to talk to me about. I was hoping it was just whether I was free to do a turn at the Home’s Christmas Party that year as usual, but I knew in my heart of hearts it was the nurses that organised that.
I must have zoned out a bit because I suddenly realised I had been staring at this shape on the glass for ages without realising what it was, and it was actually a face, a man’s face. He was standing in the dark in the room next door looking in at me, and he must have been there for ages without moving, and it was right at that very moment that I realised what it was the smell reminded me of: it was the biology lab at school with the pickled animals on the shelf that we used to dare each other to go in and look at because Danny Waters swore he once saw one of the foetuses moving and swimming around in its jar trying to get out.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the door opened and Doctor Henderson came in, apologising for keeping me waiting but there had been some problem with one of the residents having a funny turn and they’d had to sedate her. I stood up and went to shake his hand but he waved me aside, saying “I’ve just got to–” and then at least one of the mysteries was solved because he pressed a little dispenser that was hanging on the wall and the smell got stronger as he rubbed the stuff into his hands. “Alcohol hand gel,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Bit potent, isn’t it? But it does the job against MRSA.”
“I think you might have one of your patients on the loose,” I said. Some of the old folk wander. They get confused. I pointed through the glass, but the face was gone now.
“In there?” he asked, peering through. “I hope not. That’s the drug cupboard. It should be locked. Give me a second.” He went out into the corridor and I heard the sound of a door rattling before he came back in and did the hand thing again. “No one in there, thank goodness. I’d catch hell if any of the residents managed to get in there!”
“I must have been imagining things,” I said, and he gave me one of those reassuring doctor smiles before pulling a chair up and telling me all about mum.
Well, the gist of it was that she’d taken a turn for the worst. “Nothing specific – just a general deterioration in her condition,” he said. “It’s to be expected,” he said. “That last stroke hit her pretty hard, and I suspect there may have been others we don’t know about.” He said “The tests show a definite acceleration in the cognitive decline” and “I don’t know whether the nurses told you but she’s on pads full time now, and she’s showing less and less awareness of when she’s dirty.” And he put his hand on my arm and said “I’m very sorry.”
“So what are you saying?” I said, and my voice sounded as if it was coming from a long way away.
“It’s not drastic” he said, and gave me the reassuring smile again. “She could hang on for a good few months yet. It’s very hard to predict these things. All I’m saying is, if there are any relatives you want to see her, now’s the time to give them a call.”
“I don’t think there is anyone really,” I said.
“Oh?” He looked puzzled. “She was talking about someone yesterday while I was doing the reflex tests. You haven’t got a brother?”
“No.” I stood up. I wanted to get out of there, away from that cloying smell. “There’s just me.”
Well, she didn’t hang around long after that. She went just over a week later. I got a call at home on the Wednesday morning from a nurse I hadn’t met before saying I should come over straight away as they didn’t think she’d last another night. I got there in twenty minutes. They’d put the Christmas decorations up the night before, and someone had stuck a big red bauble and some plastic holly on to the rail of the bed above her head. You could see the room reflected in it all crazy, with the bed shaped like a triangle and the floor rising up to meet the ceiling and these shadowy figures rolling across it as the nurses came and went.
She looked so small. It wasn’t a big bed, just a standard hospital one, but even lying back on the pillows her body only came to half way down it. I could see the outline of her legs underneath the blanket and they were so thin they would have had Bob Geldof passing a hat round. I’d never really noticed how small she’d got. The nurse said Doctor Henderson would be round to see me in a few minutes and then she went and I sat down on one of those orange plastic chairs like we used to have at school and listened to a radio somewhere else in the building playing White Christmas.
She was asleep, with her mouth open, and with every breath you could see the top of her chest rising up and down, just a shallow little movement beneath the only button they’d bothered to do up on her cardigan. As a singer I know all about breathing – controlled breaths from the diaphragm, deep breaths from the abdomen and great big bellowing breaths from way on down in the bottom of your belly – and this was the worst sort. It meant she was barely taking in enough air to trouble her lungs at all.
I sat there with my eyes prickling and my hand just lying next to hers on top of the blanket, not touching her because I didn’t want to wake her up in case it confused her or she was in pain. When Doctor Henderson arrived I was pleased to see Maureen was with him, and she gave me a smile but she looked as worried as he did as he picked up mum’s arm and felt for a pulse.
“Not much longer, I’m afraid,” he said to me, but I hardly noticed because just then behind him mum’s eyes opened and a great beaming smile like I hadn’t seen in years spread all over her face. She opened and closed her mouth a few times like she was trying to get enough spit up to speak and Maureen went forward with the water bottle but she took no notice, just carried on smiling the happiest smile I’ll remember for ever and she said “my boy! My beautiful boy’s come for me!”
And then she sank back down into the pillows and just seemed to keep on going, leaving nothing behind but an old empty body that wasn’t her any more.
So it was nice that after months of not being with it she knew what was going on at the end, and she knew I was there, which was a comfort. It was funny though that she wasn’t actually looking at me when she said it, she was sort of gazing over my shoulder at the gap in the curtains that were screening us off from the rest of the ward. When I turned round they were swinging backwards and forwards in a cold draught that was coming from somewhere, so perhaps it was just that her eye got caught by the movement.
I went and sat in the Winter Gardens after it happened, on a bench out the back of the Sovereign Centre. It was a freezing day and except for a couple of shoppers at the far end taking the weight off their feet the place was almost deserted, which suited me fine. I sat there and thought about everything I’d been through with mum, right back to when I was a little kid on my first day at school and she waited right up until we were about to go out the front door before she presented me with a pair of mittens she’d knitted for me specially in secret, and how upset she was when the bigger boys took one of them off me in the playground and threw it up onto the roof and I had to lie and say I’d just lost it. I could have done with those mittens now.
We were always close, me and mum. We had to be, because there was just us. My dad walked out not long after I was born, and she never even seemed to think about getting together with anyone else. “This way I know I’m not going to get hurt again,” she told me the only time I ever asked her about it, after me and Shirley announced our engagement and I was full of the joys of spring and convinced getting married was the answer to everything. So she was right about that. As usual.
She had another kid, before me, but he died. I think that had a lot to do with it, too, not that she ever talked about it. The kids at school used to call me a mummy’s boy and there were times I thought she did fuss over me a bit too much – she wouldn’t ever let me have the school dinners, I had to come home every lunchtime for a full dinner she’d cooked for me, even when she was working – and I never thought it was funny that she bought me all my clothes till I was fifteen and I went away on the school camp to Symonds Yat and the other lads started taking the piss out of me for wearing thermals. She still used to get me things right up until she went into the home – I’d pop round and she’d say she’d seen something in Marks that was just right for me and she thought she’d better get it because it was on special offer. I always gave her the money back, but I ended up wearing them more often than not. It saved the hassle. Although in the last couple of years she did start picking up some funny stuff, weird colours and once even a red shirt that was obviously from the women’s section, and I always had to make sure I got the receipt. Which was easy, because by then I was having to check her handbag pretty regularly anyway because she was putting all sorts in there.
They’d given me a plastic bag full of her stuff at the Home. There wasn’t much in there: the photos from the side of her bed, her reading glasses, some hankies, her rings and the chain she used to always wear. I looked around to check there weren’t any hoodies nearby that would have the jewellery off of me, but the only person I could see was an old geezer tottering his way down the path on two sticks, looking like he might topple into the roses at any second, and I figured if he turned out to be Raffles the gentleman thief even I would probably be able to outrun him. I split the bag open – noticed too late it was one of those zipper lock ones – and tipped everything out into my lap. There wasn’t much to show for a whole life. You could barely see through the glasses – they’d been sitting on her bedside cabinet gathering dust since she got too poorly for books – and her engagement ring was missing one of the little blue stones from the setting, but I wasn’t sure it hadn’t always been like that. I lifted up the locket on its gold chain and held it to my nose and there was still a faint trace of her on the metal and for a while I just sat there with my eyes closed and the rest of the world carrying on around me.
When I opened them again, feeling a bit self-conscious, the old geezer had got a lot closer. Fair play to him: it looked like every step was costing him a hell of an effort but he was obviously determined to make it from one end of the Winter Gardens to the other as his exercise for the day. He was older than mum, or at least I’d guess so. Grey hair slicked with macassar oil or pomade or some old-fashioned stuff you have to go to the special section in Boots for (believe me I know; I’ve experimented with everything trying to get the quiff right). It’s funny how you notice old people. It’s like when Lisa was born, suddenly there seemed to be women with babies everywhere. Mind you, it could have something to do with Weston. Pensioner capital of the world, it is. You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who wants to tell you about what they did in the war. And driving’s a bloody nightmare.
I was turning the locket over and over in my hand while I watched him, and my thumb kept rubbing up against a little nick on the side that I hadn’t known was there. Luckily I always keep the nail on my right thumb long for when I play the guitar for Hound Dog – I can’t really play but it’s just C7, F7, C7, G7, F7, C7, G7 all the way through – so I was able to get it in there and ping it open. I was expecting more family pictures or something inside but all there was two locks of hair, one on either side. One was blond and looked like it might have come off of me as a baby (I used to be bright blond when I was little, not that you’d know it to look at me now), but the other was jet black and it didn’t look all that clean – it had left a sort of film smeared on the glass covering. For a second I wondered if it might have been off my dad, but then I realised she must have cut it off my dead brother or sister and she’d been carrying round something snipped off a dead baby for the whole of her life, which was enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. Still, the locket might be worth something so I put it and the rings into the change pocket of my wallet, the one with the zip on, for safe keeping. I could take it into the jewellers on the High Street some time.
The old guy had nearly made it to the bench where I was sitting and I sort of shifted up to show him he was welcome, but then just as he finally got there this funny look came over his face and he changed direction, almost tripping himself up on his sticks as he turned. I was halfway up out of my seat to help him but he managed to right himself, and he muttered “sorry, gents,” as he turned and set off back down the path at twice the speed he was doing before.
Which was a shame, because at that point I could have really done with some company.
“What’ll you do?” asked Barry as he brought me my second pint. He always throws in a couple of free drinks and there’s generally a few customers put one in behind the bar for me, so with that and the roast dinner they do me it works out pretty well even though it only pays forty quid. And it’s regular, and a nice crowd.
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“Well, will you stay in Weston? You moved down here to be near your mum, didn’t you?”
I hadn’t really thought about it. He was right, I’d only moved down here when mum couldn’t look after herself any more, and now she was gone I suppose there was nothing to keep me here. Weston’s handy for the motorways – both of them, the M4 and the M5 – so you can get pretty much anywhere for gigs pretty easily, and if I moved I’d be bound to lose a few customers what with all the fliers I’ve handed out with my home number on them. And I’m settled here, too.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” I told him. “Why?”
He gave a grin as he picked up the empty and gave the table a wipe. “Just want to know if I’m going to have to find someone new for Sundays, don’t I?”
“Not for the moment, anyway,” I told him. “I’m snowed under with bookings. I might have a think about it after Christmas.”
“Good for you,” he said, and slapped me on the shoulder. “Does your mate want one of these, too?”
“Eh?” I said, taking the froth of the top of the pint.
“The fella you were talking to.” He looked round the pub, which was filling up for the meat raffle before my second set. “Where’s he got to? In the gents, is he?”
“You’re seeing things, mate,” I told him. Barry’s a good bloke, but he does tend to hit the optics a bit too early in the day.
I was snowed under, what with the funeral to organise as well. I’d rung round the family – cousin Helen was going to come over from Evesham with her kids, which was nice – and even written to Shirley to tell her. It’s not like she’d be bothered, but the girls deserve to know about their grandmother, and they’re old enough to make their own decisions now. They used to see mum for a while after Shirley and me split up, arranging things directly because of the court order, but obviously that had stopped over the past few years. I’m not even sure they’re at the same address now. I’ve been sending them Christmas and birthday presents, and nothing’s ever come back. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.
The Home took care of a lot of the details – they have a deal with one of the local funeral homes, what with them being such a regular supplier I suppose – and all I really had to do was pick out a coffin and a headstone and sort out the order of service ready for the printers. I wasn’t going to bother with a do afterwards because I didn’t think that many people would turn up, but Barry had said anyone that wanted to could come in to the Royal Oak and Suzanne would do some sandwiches and sausage rolls if we thought we needed them.
The hardest bit was trying to decide what song I was going to do at the service. Don’t Cry Daddy and In The Ghetto hit the right tone, but don’t really make much sense under the circumstances. Crying in the Chapel’s a bit literal. The Wonder Of You’s OTT. Eventually I settled on Always On My Mind. It’s an obvious one I suppose, but mum always liked it. And besides, it says what I wanted to say.
I had a lunchtime gig booked the day before the funeral: some firm had booked the upstairs room at a pub in Redland for their office do and they wanted a mixture of Christmas songs and classics. I hadn’t played the venue before so I went in early to check it out and make sure there weren’t going to be any problems with the equipment, and I caught the end of rush hour, which is a pretty rare experience for me with the hours I work. It always amazes me how people manage to do it every day – spending hours sitting in boring traffic jams waiting to get to their boring offices and push a few boring pieces of paper around for eight boring hours before turning round and doing the whole thing again backwards. I knew pretty early on that wasn’t the life for me. Like I always say, if you’ve got to wear a suit to work, it might as well be one with rhinestones on it.
Anyway, they’ve brought in this new system on the Long Ashton bypass where the outside lane is closed except to cars that have got one or more passengers, and it must have been starting that week or even that morning because the police were out making sure no one broke the rules. I think to be honest it was making it worse them being there, because it meant everyone slowed down when they saw the patrol cars and then they were signalling people to change lanes and there were honking horns and all sorts of argy-bargy going on. And the coppers weren’t exactly helping themselves because they didn’t seem to know how the new system worked and they were sending cars all over the place. This one policeman, a young black lad, signalled me to pull out into the outside lane and even when I pointed at the empty passenger seat next to me he just nodded his head and just kept waving me through. I think he must have seen the outfit hanging up in the back – I always get changed at the venue just in case I can’t park nearby, which you’d understand if you’d ever tried walking through a city centre dressed as Elvis – and thought it was someone sitting behind me. I’ve made myself jump looking in the rear view mirror enough times. But I think he realised his mistake when I got closer because he was looking into the back of the car and he had a look of proper horror on his face, like he knew he was going to catch hell, but by that time I was past him and sailing into Bristol in the outside lane past all the jammed-up cars with their single drivers, keeping an eye out for any cameras but figuring it wasn’t me that was in trouble, was it?
The gig went well – they all sang along with O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night, though they didn’t know many of the others, which is always the problem because both Elvis’s Christmas albums are mostly full of American stuff, so I tend to mix a lot of the classics in between them. I had a little wobble during White Christmas because of mum but I don’t think anyone noticed. They passed round an envelope during the pudding, by which time they were all half cut and so I got a nearly fifty quid tip on top of my fee. Someone had even put in a twenty pound note. I love Christmas.
I had a hell of a job getting my black suit on for the service. I knew I’d put a bit of weight on, but I hadn’t realised how much. I had a look at myself sideways on in the mirror and decided it was time to face facts: I’m getting more and more Vegas Era when I’m supposed to be ’68 Comeback Special. It’s either start jogging or get myself a cape, and for a sake of my health, jogging it is. You kind of lose the effect of the Elvis moves if your belly is still wobbling away ten seconds after your hips have started doing something else.
I gave up on the button in the end and used a safety pin rather than relying on the flies to hold it all together, which was alright as long as I wore the tie long to cover it up. There was a little crowd waiting outside the church when I got there – Maureen from the home had managed to move her shifts around to come and a couple of the other nurses from the home came along on their lunch break, which was really nice of them. Doctor Henderson sent his apologies. Helen turned up with her eldest and they’d brought along her dad as well. He’s a couple of years older than mum and they used to be quite close. He’s in a home now as well, but he seemed to be on quite good form except that his hearing’s going.
There was another chap there as well – he must have slipped in after us because I only saw him when I went up to do the song, sitting at the back. He was sort of half behind one of the pillars from where I was so I didn’t see his face, just his shoulders and his hand, which was gripping the pew in front of him. He had filthy fingernails – all cracked, and clogged with black dirt underneath, which made me think he was probably the gravedigger, just come inside to get himself out of the cold.
It all went well, I think. The vicar didn’t really know mum but he said some nice stuff about her illness and how our bodies are just an earthly tent and we’ve got a proper house in heaven and how she was at peace now, and we sang one of her favourite hymns, Let There Be Light, and then I got up and did my song and after that the undertakers carried out the coffin and I scattered a handful of earth on top of it and that was it. I looked around for the gravedigger but he was nowhere to be seen. I expect they’re meant to keep themselves out of the way.
“She was very proud of you,” Uncle Patrick said to me when we got to the Royal Oak and his grandson was getting the drinks in. I’d just helped him into a seat and he kept his hand on my arm and patted it. “She always used to say so.”
“Thank you very much,” I said, disentangling myself and looking round to see if Maureen had got there yet. I’d never seen her out of uniform before.
“She always said she’d never get over losing your twin, but she was determined she was going to love you enough for two.”
“You what?” I said, but he didn’t hear me, just kept raising his eyebrows and nodding when I asked him what he was talking about. Luckily Helen came back from the ladies before too long and I could tell her what he had just said. “That’s right,” she said. “Did you not know?”
“I knew I had a brother,” I told her. “But we weren’t twins, were we?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Or at least, that’s what I’ve always been told. The only set of twins we’ve ever had in the family, only unfortunately your brother didn’t survive. He was stillborn, a few minutes before you, and they were worried you were going to come out the same. Dad always said your mum never got over it.”
“No,” I said. “She never did. But she never told me we were twins.”
Well, you see what this means, don’t you? That makes me exactly like Elvis. He had a twin too, Jesse Garon Presley, that was stillborn. His parents had to bury him in a shoebox because they couldn’t afford the cemetery fees. How amazing is that? I mean, it’s not like it’s really something I could work into the act, but it’s brilliant, isn’t it?
It’s like when my first one was born I was all up for calling her Lisa Marie, only Shirley wouldn’t let me. She said only posh people have two names, so we settled on just Lisa and when the little one turned up a year later I was pushing for her to be Marie only Shirley didn’t like that either, so she had to be Mary. But I still sang His Latest Flame to her when I went in to see her at the hospital, and I used to sing it to her every night when she was going off to sleep – would you believe that yesterday, this girl was in my arms and swore to me, she’d be mine eternally, and Marie’s the name, of his latest flame – until Shirley hit the roof one night and started screaming at me that no it wasn’t, she was called Mary and I was just going to confuse Lisa and it was typical of me agreeing one thing and then trying to have my own way after all. But this is something she can’t take away from me. Bloody brilliant. I was so excited I didn’t even mind when Maureen told me she had a husband.
Well the day after the funeral felt like the right time to make a new start, so I popped into JJB Sports and bought a pair of trainers and a tracksuit. I didn’t exactly feel at home there and the kid who served me had a nasty smirk on his face so I nearly didn’t bother trying them on but then I thought it would be even worse if I had to come back, and went through to the changing rooms. There were only two cubicles and they were tiny, and it wasn’t till I’d got my trousers off that I realised there was someone in the one next door which for some reason made me even more self-conscious, though I don’t know why because judging by the sound of his breathing he was in even worse shape than me. When I got the tracksuit on I realised I could probably have done with an XXL but I wasn’t going to hang around and I just got my clothes back on and got out of there as quick as I could. The weird thing was, when I looked back I could see the bloke’s legs under the bottom of the curtain and he didn’t even seem to be getting changed, just standing there, and he certainly wasn’t wearing anything sporty, just a pair of suit trousers and leather shoes that were caked in mud.
I got changed back at the flat and headed down to the seafront, not quite jogging but definitely going faster than usual. I felt like a bit of a prat and I kept noticing my reflection in shop windows as I went past them and wondering when exactly I had turned into such a fat bastard, and I managed to convince myself that everyone else was looking at me thinking the same thing. A couple of times the feeling got so strong I even turned round to look behind me but of course there was no one there.
I figured I’d do the actual running on the beach because I’d read something about running on sand being better for your feet than concrete and I knew it would be pretty much deserted at that time of year. I don’t know if you know Weston but when the tide is out, which it is pretty much all the time, it goes about half way to Wales and you’ve got this great big expanse of beach to do what you like on. You have to be careful further out towards Brean because there’s a hidden channel where the river comes out and it’s surrounded by mud and quicksand. Every summer, regular as clockwork, some prat trying to show off his off-roading skills ignores the signs there, loses his 4x4 and has to be pulled out by the coastguard, but I wasn’t planning on going anything like that far. I just wanted to get a decent distance from the sea front so that if I got out of breath and had to stop at least I wouldn’t have kids taking the piss out of me.
My plan was to take it easy on the first day and just go from the pier to the Tropicana and back. I started off doing some stretches and running on the spot a bit and then tried to get up a steady pace but I was out of breath by the time I’d got level with the first snack bar. I kept going, thinking maybe I’d only go as the Sea Life Centre on the first day and work up from there, but before long I had a stitch cutting into my side so badly that I had to stop and lean up against one of the posts where they tether the donkeys in the summer. Christ, I was unfit. The whole of the back of my throat felt like it was burning. The really embarrassing bit was that I couldn’t stop farting either – my arse was put-put-putting away like a lawnmower behind me. Thank god there wasn’t anyone around to hear it. I let myself have a minute and then carried on, wheezing all the way and barely keeping pace with an old dear going up the promenade on her zimmer and cursing myself for letting myself get so out of shape. I fixed my eyes on the pineapple which sticks out of the top of the Tropicana and concentrated on willing it to get closer, hoping I might tune out, hit the wall or whatever they call it, and have some sort of Zen experience that would get me there without dying.
I couldn’t do it. As I got close to the Sea Life Centre, which is built out on a sort of mini-pier over the beach, it felt like my lungs were going to burst and I stumbled in underneath it, grabbed one of the cast iron cross bars and doubled over, heaving up mouthfuls of thick spit onto the sand. My eyes had gone all weird – I think it was a combination of the low winter sun shining off the sea and dazzling me and the lack of oxygen getting to my brain – and it was only once I’d finished hawking my guts up and could stand up straight again that I realised I wasn’t alone. There was someone a few metres away, under the walkway, leaning on one of the girders. It was dark in there and the shadows meant I couldn’t see his face, but I could see a pair of legs in black trousers and they were facing towards me, which meant he must have been stood there watching me for a while. And that seemed weird enough, but when I looked down at the sand around him and then from side to side along the beach I realised that even though he had mud and dried sand caked all over his shoes there was only one set of footprints leading in to the darkness and they belonged to me.
“Hello?” I called out, my whole body prickling with sweat.
He didn’t say anything, but I could hear the sound of his breathing even over my own. Then he took a step forwards across the sand and I saw both his hands come up into the light and begin to reach out towards me, the fingernails all clogged with thick black dirt, and I found that I actually could still run after all and I sprinted all the way back up the beach without looking back once.
“Elvis! Elvis! Mr Elvis!”
I’ve got used to people calling out after me, and it took me a second to remember that I wasn’t in costume. I turned round and recognised this young bird who’d booked me for a company awards do the week before huffing up the street behind me loaded with Marks and Spencer bags.
“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your real name,” she smiled as she got closer. She was lovely looking; I remembered thinking so at the time. I was going to get her up to do the duet with me but there was another woman at her table with a cracking pair so I went for her instead, but later on I saw her throwing up behind a pot plant so I should have gone with my first instincts. I remembered her name: she was called Tracey, and I made sure I used it as much as possible so as to have the upper hand. “Can I carry some of that for you, Tracey?” I asked.
“It’s funny bumping in to you like this; I’ve been meaning to call you all week,” she said, passing over one of the bags to me and showing the yellow wrinkles the handles had cut into her hands. “Just doing some Christmas shopping, I expect you are too.”
I was out looking for stuff to send to the girls, but I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t want her thinking I came with any other baggage than the stuff she’d just handed me.
“What it is, is, we’ve got the photos back of the awards night,” she said, falling in beside me as we walked down through the precinct. “I don’t know whether I told you but I have to write it up for the company magazine – it goes to all the branches around the country – and there’s a bloke in the photos who none of us are sure who it is. I want to get everyone’s names right, and I wondered if you might be able to help?”
“Of course,” I told her. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to – there was no reason I’d be any the wiser than she was – but I wasn’t going to turn down the chance of spending some time in her company.
“Do you want me to email them over to you?” she asked. “Or if you’ve got time now you could just pop in to the office. It’s only over in Orchard Street.”
“Of course. Maybe we could go for a drink afterwards or something?” I suggested, but she got all flustered and held up the bags and said she’d used up her lunch hour shopping and really ought to be getting back. I went to her office anyway, and it was quite cool because when we walked in she said “look, everyone, it’s Elvis!” and they gave me a cheer and I did the hip wiggle and everyone laughed.
It took her a couple of minutes to get the picture up on her computer because it had put itself to sleep while she was out. It was a group photo of all the award winners and it wasn’t very flattering of me – I looked pretty chinny and where I had my arm round the managing director’s shoulders you could see a big sweat patch on my jumpsuit. “That’s him,” she said, pointing to a bloke standing in the second row just behind me. God, he was an ugly bugger. He had these sort of thick eyebrows that met in the middle and black hair that looked as if it could do with a wash, and he wasn’t looking at the camera, he was staring at me with this great scowl on his face like he was ready to swing a punch at me. I hadn’t noticed him on the day at all.
“He doesn’t look like he enjoyed the performance much, does he?” I said.
“No!” she laughed. “D’you know who he is? No one here’s got a clue.”
“Not the faintest I’m afraid,” I said, clicking the corner of the photo so it disappeared off the screen and straightening up. I didn’t like looking at it; it felt creepy. I didn’t like to think that someone could look at me with that much hate in his eyes and me not know about it. “Perhaps he’s one of the hotel staff. Have you asked them?”
“No,” she said, biting her lip and looking disappointed. “I suppose we might be able to photoshop him out.”
I didn’t hang around: I obviously wasn’t going to get anywhere with her and besides, it was bloody freezing in that office; I think their air conditioning must have been on the blink.
Like I say, I was booked up solid over the holidays, with two or even three gigs some days. I’d been offered a wedding reception in Swansea on the 20th
which I’d usually turn down because there and back is a bit further than I like to go in one night but when I checked my diary it turned out I was in a curry house in Newport the next night – it’s a regular; I do them every couple of months – and I was pretty flush, so if I booked into a B&B I could do both.
Well, the thing I always forget about overnights is the hours in between. The B&B kicked me out just after nine, and I wasn’t due in Newport till seven that evening. I’d already had my breakfast so it wasn’t even as if I could spend the morning in a café. I went and got a paper and had a coffee anyway, and I was good and resisted the Danish pastries on the counter, but even when I’d read the Sun cover to cover and flicked through a copy of the Star someone had left on the next door table it was only ten fifteen. I don’t know how people manage on long tours. I mean it’s not as if I do a lot at home but at least you’ve got the telly and all your stuff around you, and when you’re working nights you soon learn to keep yourself busy. I had a bit of a wander round Swansea but there wasn’t a lot to see apart from Christmas shoppers and the usual teenagers hanging around, and besides it was brass monkeys and I was just starting to think I was going to have to just sit in the car for the rest of the day – I couldn’t even go to the pub with two long drives ahead of me – when I turned the corner and there was a cinema in front of me like the answer to my dreams. They were only just opening up for the day, and I walked straight in and asked for a ticket to whatever was on. I reckoned with the trailers and the adverts it would kill getting on for three hours, which would take me through to a late lunch, after which I might even come back and see what was on the other screen. If nothing else I could catch up on my kip. Working nights I don’t usually surface much before noon, which is probably why I was feeling so out of sorts this morning.
Well I reckon the woman at the window had only just woken up herself, because she was all over the place. She pushed the computer screen round so I could choose a seat – apparently you can’t just sit anywhere you want to these days – and she said in a sort of bored voice “d’you want two together?” For a second I thought she was taking the piss because of my weight – that shows you how much I was thinking about it – but then I thought she couldn’t be, and I said “pardon?” and she did a sort of double take and said “oh, sorry, I thought you were together.” Anyway, I was a bit flustered by this point so I just handed over a tenner and got my change and went on in, but when I looked back there wasn’t even anybody queuing behind me.
I went and sat in the seat she had given me but when the film started I moved to the front because there was only one other person in the whole cinema. He came and moved forward as well, and sat a couple of rows behind me, which was a bit annoying because he was quite noisy – he wasn’t talking or anything, but he was kind of a heavy breather and I was just really conscious of him being there all the way through it. The film wasn’t all that, and my mood wasn’t exactly improved when I came out and found a message waiting for me on my mobile from the B&B wanting to charge me extra because they thought I’d had someone else in my room the night before. I should be so lucky, I told them when I called them back, but they insisted both the beds had been slept in and they were going to bill my credit card. Bloody cheek! I gave them a piece of my mind: told them their poxy room was hardly worth the price in the first place – it was filthy. The tooth mug had these black fingerprints all over it. I didn’t notice them till the morning, and by that point I’d had it by the side of my bed and been drinking out of it all night. It made me feel quite sick.
Well things took a turn for the better a couple of days before Christmas because I managed to get this bird’s phone number at the Cadbury Country Club’s Christmas With The Stars. I spotted her crying during Are You Lonesome Tonight which is always a good sign and I got talking to her afterwards and found out she’d just been dumped by her boyfriend and she was only there because her sister refused to waste the ticket. Her name was Nicola. I didn’t do anything that night but I called her the next evening and suggested we meet up after Christmas and she said “why not before?” so it was obvious I was well in.
We met in the bar of one of the hotels on the seafront on Christmas Eve and she’d already demolished most of a white wine spritzer by the time I got there even though it was only four in the afternoon. “I was worried you wouldn’t fancy me when you saw me out of costume,” I told her after she had a couple more drinks inside her.
“No, I clocked you before you’d got changed,” she giggled. “I saw you getting out of your car when we were still at the champagne reception. “Mind you, I thought you were gay then!” She was batting her eyelashes at me and she’d moved her stool forward so our knees were nearly touching.
“You what!” I asked her, acting all outraged.
“Well, I saw that bloke you arrived with and I thought he must be your boyfriend,” she said, and she uncrossed her legs so as I got a flash of her knickers. Well, obviously then I had a point to prove, so I said “I’ll show you I’m not” and moved in for a snog and she let me have one with tongues and everything but when I tried to slide a hand up under her skirt she batted it away and said “not yet, take me somewhere first.”
“Where d’you want to go?” I asked her, figuring it was still early. I’d already found out she didn’t have any plans before she was due at her family’s for lunch tomorrow.
She looked out of the window and gave a great big smile. “Let’s go to the pier!” she said. “If you can’t act like a big kid at Christmas, when can you?”
Well I was more up for a few more drinks but trying to keep my stomach sucked in while I was sitting on a bar stool was starting to kill my back so I let her drag me along the seafront and up the pier. They had all extra Christmas lighting up as well as the usual stuff and Frosty The Snowman and Winter Wonderland playing and it was quite a laugh actually. We did the shooting thing with the pirates and I managed to squirt her with water and make her scream, and we played some weird racing game where you sat on actual motorbikes that we were both rubbish at, and went on the ghost train where I did manage to cop a feel without her objecting. But the thing she was really into was the penny falls – she was darting between them, spotting the ones that were just on the brink, and she kept winning more and more 2ps and just feeding them back into the machine and sending me for change whenever she ran out. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in my life.
Eventually she’d used up all her spare change and all mine but she was convinced I had stashed some of our winnings somewhere and she was frisking me and dipping her hands into my pockets which I didn’t exactly object to. I did actually have a twenty pound note folded up in my wallet but there was no way I was changing that – we would have been there all night – so I pulled it out before she got there and opened the change pocket to show her there was nothing in there, only of course there was. I’d completely forgotten about mum’s locket and rings. “What’s that?” she asked me, and I suddenly had this horrible fear of spoiling the mood, but then I had a brilliant idea.
“Something from the past,” I said. “Come with me.” And I took her hand and led her out of the back door of the arcade and out to the end of the pier, leaving all the clatter and din behind and replacing it with nothing but the sound of the waves lapping at the girders far below.
“What are we doing out here?” she asked me, looking around at the dodgems and the racing boats all covered up for the winter.
“Come on,” I said, pulling at her hand. We went right to the end of the pier and looked down into the black water. The tide was in for once, thank goodness.
“Oh, come on, it’s freezing,” she said, but I shushed her and took the locket out, dangling it on the end of its chain where it winked in the reflection of the flashing lights on the roof of the pier. “Here’s to new beginnings,” I told her, and let the chain run through my fingers until it slipped away into the darkness. A bit Titanic I know, and it was probably only going to come back in on the next tide, but birds love that romantic stuff. There was a plop from below, and she gave me a grin.
“To new beginnings,” she said, and gave me a chardonnay-flavoured kiss that went on for quite a while and left me in no doubt I was getting an early Christmas present. I kept my eyes open because I thought there’d been someone hanging around when we came out there, but he seemed to have disappeared.
So all in all today was one of the better Christmas mornings to wake up to, with bright sunshine coming in through the blinds and a sleeping woman in my bed next to me. Even better, she didn’t hang around because she wanted to get back to hers for a shower before heading over to her parents. We did have a glass of bucks fizz together before she went, which she said did wonders for her hangover.
After she headed off I mooched round the flat for a bit flicking through the channels and then decided to head out for a run, which shows you how good I was feeling. Barry and Suzanne have invited me over to the pub for lunch, so everything’s being done for me, and I’ll probably end up spending most of the evening there too. Nicola asked me to give her a call on Boxing Day and she was making noises about New Year’s Eve too but I’m going to play it by ear. I don’t want her to get the wrong idea.
I put my tracksuit on and I swear it’s already looser on me. The only people around on the seafront were a few dog walkers and families trying out new bicycles and skateboards, but I decided to head out on the beach anyway. I’m still avoiding the area around the Sea Life Centre after my fright the other day, but that wasn’t a problem because the tide was miles out and I picked out a course way down on the beach towards Brean that meant I would pass it by a good hundred yards or more. It’s only my fourth or fifth time out running but I couldn’t believe the difference – I could cover twice the ground now without getting out of breath, and I’ve found that if I zone out a bit and detach my mind from the actual physical running it makes it much easier. So what I tend to do is concentrate on a song or something – not actually sing it, because I don’t have the breath for that, but run through the lyrics in my head as if I’m listening to it on a personal stereo. Actually I’m thinking of getting an Ipod, but I’ll wait till the January sales.
The sun was bouncing off the wet sand like a mirror as I ran down towards the sea, and it reminded me of the hymn we’d sung at mum’s funeral.
Spirit of truth and love
Da da da holy Dove
Speed forth thy flight
Move o’er the water’s face
Bearing the lamp of grace
And in earth’s darkest place
Let there be light
In the cold light of day I’m feeling a bit guilty about throwing away her locket and I keep my eyes on the ground as I run, just in case it’s washed up on the tide. Still, I figure it can’t have been worth that much and I’ve still got the rings. I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it if I hadn’t been pissed but it did feel good to do something symbolic – like closing a chapter of my life. I was pretty sure I hadn’t just done it to help get my end away.
Holy and blessed three,
Da da da Might
Boundless as ocean’s tide
Rolling in fullest pride
Da da da far and wide
Let there be light
Give up on that one, I think. I let the rhythm of my feet pumping across the wet sand set the tune. Bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a
Babe, you’re getting’ closer
The lights are goin’ dim
The sound of your breathing
Has made the mood I’m in
I can see myself reflected in the wet sand beneath my feet, my mirror image, his feet rising up to meet mine with every step in perfect symmetry. What’s that film where he keeps seeing Elvis in the mirror? That’s how I feel sometimes. Like I keep catching something in the corner of my eye, but when I turn around he’s gone. It’s just a trick of the light.
All of my resistance
Is lying on the floor
Taking me to places
I’ve never been before
I’ve left the seafront far behind me now and I just keep going, striking out across the sands towards the shimmering horizon. They said this was what it was like before the Tsunami that other Christmas: the sea went out for miles and everyone was wandering about on these great big beaches staring out into the distance trying to see the waves and not knowing death was thundering towards them and there was nothing they could do about it.
Way down where the music plays
Way down like a tidal wave
Way down where the fires blaze
Way down, down, way, way on down
I’m feeling light headed now. I’ve got the buzz. This must be what they call hitting the wall.
Ooh, my head is spinnin’
You got me in your spell
A hundred magic fingers
On a whirling carousel
I look down at the twin beneath my feet and I give him a wave. And bugger me if he doesn’t wave back.
And I can feel it
I’ve come out too far. The sun’s in my eyes and Brean Down is on my left when it should be straight ahead and I can’t even see the pier or the Sea Life Centre any more and I don’t think I can run any further because I seem to be sinking and it’s getting harder and harder to move my feet. I fall forward onto the sand, and my reflection rises up to meet me but where my hands meet his they just slide straight into the sand like it was water.
Way down where the music plays
Way down like a tidal wave
Way down where the fires blaze
Way down, down, way, way on down
And then his hands fasten round my wrists and they’re cold and strong and this time they are never going to let me go.
Hold me again
Tight as you can
I need you so
Baby, let’s go
Way on down.