The Bull Singer
I secured the house, gave Dad his tablets and carried him back upstairs. As he settled down to sleep, I leaned down to plant a kiss on his forehead. "Thanks Dad."
He gazed up at me, and said in a tired voice, "So, that little lad was your...um-."
"Yes, Dad, he was my boyfriend. My first and my last I think. No one could ever take his place. But he wasn't so little. He would have been eighteen this coming February."
He nodded and closed his eyes. "All legal then."
Surprised he knew about the change in the law, I walked towards the door and as I reached it, he said, "Good drummer. Not as good as Krupa though."
I smiled as I closed the door behind me; thankful he had accepted what some parents would have torn their hair out about. I didn't think I would get the same sympathy from Aunt Mabel. I made my way up the narrow staircase to the tiny attic I used to play in as a child when Aunt Mabel reluctantly looked after me. She terrified me in those days. Today, when she had tried to order me about, I just gave her a big smile. She had snorted and turned away, but I saw her lips twist into a ghost of a smile. Would she let me have the keys to the cottage in the morning? Of course she would, the old battle-axe was putty in my hands.
When I opened the attic door I saw how much she loved me. The place had been cleared, my toys and books placed in a cardboard box, and an airbed blown up and placed in the centre of the floor, and covered over with great grandma's heirloom quilt. A table lamp and my travel alarm clock had been placed on a another box nearby, and the contents of my bag stacked neatly in one corner with my clothes folded on top. Very cosy but I could have slept on the bare boards that night, I was so tired and drained; too tired to sleep in fact. Or so I thought. I fell asleep thinking of Billy, my wonderful lover, my friend, my life; on the verge of stardom like a rosebud opening into full flower, only to have its petals ripped away by a savage autumn wind.
We had almost two wonderful years together, Billy and I, my lover forging ahead in his bid to bring the drums back into fashion as a solo instrument; as his idols Krupa and Phil Collins, had done before him. I had followed along like a happy puppy as his carer, companion and partner. The band had refused to split from us, and they had become Billy's backing band, providing encouragement and support, transport, and help when at last Billy was offered a recording contract; only a small one with a new and rising two-man record company. The band came into their own by acting as sales managers and distributors of the discs we produced. Then the big surprise of the century hit us with a bang. A firm of solicitors contacted us with news that Billy's paternal great-grandfather had left the D'Marco family a legacy and not a small one either. So far as Billy knew, his father was the only surviving member except for a possible second cousin who could not be found despite all effort by the solicitors. A hundred thousand pounds sterling was not to be sneezed at.
With the insurance money paid on Bill D'Marco's death, Billy was comfortably off compared to a lot of struggling stars who had to rely on the meagre royalties paid to them. Billy left it to his solicitors to invest a good chunk of it and put the rest in his bank. It wasn't until his life was at an end that Billy told me he had made a will and that he had named me as his sole beneficiary. I didn't want it but he was adamant. "I want you to have it all, Mags. Please don't argue with me. I can't think of anyone else who deserves it as much as you do." We were lying in bed in the big house on the night he died, and I was cradling him in my arms, a frail shell of the boy whose body I had known so well. A remnant of the brain tumour, he had supposedly recovered from, had attacked another part of his brain. With all the mad running from gig to gig and long spells in the recording studios, his health was the last thing he had thought of, and the cancer had been detected too late; so I had brought him home. Now I was going to lose the most beautiful human being to ever come into my life. Most of my time was spent, feeding him, washing him, keeping him comfortable and warm, and loving him as best I could. But I did not want his money.
"What will I do with it?"
"Whatever you like; give it to the band; give it to 'Guide Dogs for the Blind'. Just don't leave it for the mice to chew to bits. Do something in my memory, Mags. Use it to help other struggling young artists. Make it mean something, and find that cousin of mine."
"What do you know about him?"
"Nothing; I didn't even know grandpa had a brother, only that we were from Italy." I noticed his speech was becoming slurred, but put it down to the painkilling medication he was on. "The last anyone heard of Great-grandfather Guilliamo, and his wife Juliana, was when they sent my grandfather to England in the care of a nurse. It was nineteen forty and they were allied sympathizers living in Germany. Grandfather was only a tiny baby then. They were arrested and no one heard of them again. Grandfather Ronaldo grew up in an orphanage in London, learned to be a good chef and dreamed of owning a string of restaurants. He fell in love with my grandmother instead. He went back to Germany to see if he could trace Guilliamo's whereabouts but came up against a blank wall. By the time my dad was ten, Ronaldo and my grandmother had moved back to Italy. That's all I know."
"Well, you can rest easy that your cousin will get his or her share. "All I care about right now is what I can do for you?"
That brought a smile to his face. "Don't tease. Just kiss me." I lowered my head to brush his lips with mine. He said quietly, for me. If I were to die tonight, the only memory I would want is the feel your body against mine, your arms holding me close, and your lips on mine."
The doctor had warned me he could go at any time, days, hours, minutes... "Don't talk that way. I don't want to lose you."
"Then love me, Mags."
I held him in my arms as I would a baby and with my eyes filling with tears, I cradled him in my arms with his head resting on my shoulder. We stayed like that for hours until he suddenly whispered, "I love you, Mags." I felt him relax against me, and he sighed but didn't breathe in again. I gazed down at his face. His eyes were closed and he looked so peaceful, and I knew I had lost him forever.
Now, in my attic room, I turned over and wept into the pillow, but I knew that, because of Dad's understanding, I was on the way to being healed. Time to think about building my life again and finding the missing cousin...
It was a shock to the system when Aunt Mabel nodded, and said, "Certainly you can have the keys. They're yours, anyway."
She stared at me as if I was stupid. "Your grandfather willed cottage to you. If you had bothered to take an interest in family affairs, instead of busking around the world with your dreams of stardom, you would have found out about it a lot sooner."
"But why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Your father didn't want us to. He wanted you to come home under your own steam and not due to some ulterior motive. Your dad made Cissy and me promise not to breathe a word; naturally I thought he was just being a stubborn old man. Then Jim Owen jumped in with his big mouth when he shouldn't have, otherwise you would not have known now." She moved to the old fashioned Welsh dresser and opened a drawer. After rummaging in it, she brought out a set of keys and tossed them to me. "What are you going to do with the place?"
"I'll see if it can be renovated then move in. I might as well."
Aunt Mabel turned to lift the porridge pan off the range. "Better get some of this into you then; you're going to be busy." Nobody made Porridge like Aunt Mable
I got to the cottage, armed with a list of telephone numbers for Dad's tradesmen friends who would probably help. Once inside the cottage, I rooted around for tools and cleaning tackle; and made a few phone calls. Then I set my trap. I placed the two packs of wholemeal salad and home-made Salmon spread sandwiches Aunt Cissy had made, beside the CD player, with a flask of coffee and a bottle of fruit juice along with some nectarines. I was into healthy food and hoped the kid was too. I placed my own favourite CD in the CD player, and sat down on the floor behind the open lounge door. By my watch, and from what I remembered of my walks home from school in all weathers, it was about time for him to be home and heading towards the cottage. I didn't have Major with me so I didn't have to worry about my presence being announced. I waited half an hour longer than the estimated time before I heard the scuffle of someone in the back of the house. I heard soft footsteps approach the lounge and held my breath.
The kid moved into the room like an SAS soldier, looking for signs of intrusion. Then he spotted the food and the fruit juice. Again he checked the room and, finding no one there he went to the food, dropped his school bag on the floor and attacked the sandwiches. As he crammed food into his mouth like it was his last meal on earth, I put my foot against the edge of the door and gave it a shove. It shut with a loud thump. The kid spun round, his mouth full, saw me and dropped the sandwich. Spitting the food out of his mouth, he looked round desperately for some way out. Good move; make sure your airway is clear before you fight; saves you choking to death. This boy knew a bit about fighting; I was impressed! He ran to the windows and tried to open one, then turned round and crouched, ready to defend himself. I stayed where I was on the floor, and waited for him to calm down and realize I wasn't going to jump him. That's how most kids think these days and I didn't blame them. "There's enough food for both of us. Just bring me the coffee and one of the paper cups; the juice is yours, unless you'd like some coffee too. You look old enough to be drinking it. There's one of my CDs in the player. I thought you might like to listen to it. It's music from some of the best song and dance films ever made."
"No thanks, I've no intention of fucking you either."
The kid looked towards the food then back at me. "You're trespassing. Who are you? How did you get in here?"
I held up my keys and rattled them. "I'm not trespassing. I own the place; my name is Magnus Alton."
I took out my wallet out of my coat pocket and tossed it across the floor. It came to rest by his feet and he picked it up. My driver's licence was in it, along with other items of identity. I watched him look through it, and at the bank notes, all counted in case he had light fingers. He tossed it back at me and picked up the remnants of his sandwich before slumping down by the player. He ate the sandwich, dirt and all. He must have been really hungry. "Don't I get to eat?"
The kid grabbed the second packet of sandwiches and threw them at me with such force that they hit the wall above my head and, being only loosely wrapped, they burst open, showering me with bread and bits of salad. I resisted the urge to go over and put him over my knee. "Okay, that means I share yours. Don't forget the coffee; and don't you dare throw that flask. I'm a lot bigger than you and you have to get past me to get out of the cottage, so why don't you just calm down and get back to your rehearsals. That's what you came for, isn't it?"
"Fuck you," he said again, but got to his feet and brought me the flask and the last of his own sandwiches. He leaned down to place them a foot or too away from me, keeping himself out of grabbing distance, and at last I got a good look at him; and felt the blood drain from my face. With a different hairstyle and a cleaner face, he could have been Billy. My head spun, and I came out of my shocked daze to find him kneeling in front of me with his hands on my trembling shoulders. "Are you okay, mister? You looked sort of funny, like you were going to pass out." Once he was sure I was not going to do that, he opened the flask and poured some coffee into the paper cup. He held it out to me and watched me drink it. There was a bruise high up on his left cheek. He moved away from me, and studied me with Billy's dark luminous eyes. "Do you feel better now? You'd better eat that sandwich before your blood sugar gets too low. That's probably why you look the way you do."
"I'm okay, now; thanks." I finished the coffee and refilled the cup. "Want some?"
The kid shook his head and went back to the CD player, switched it on and picked up the bottle of fruit juice. As the sound of '42nd street' hit my ears, I finished my sandwich and the coffee, collected the remnants of the first one together, and stuffed it back into the broken wrapper as best I could. I screwed the top back on the flask and put that and the wrapper back into the plastic bag I had carried everything into the cottage in. Straightening up, I got ready to leave. "You're welcome to use the place for your practice any time; at least until I move in here. Then you'll have to ask pretty please." There were two front door keys on the ring. I took one off and tossed it to him. "Just don't go removing any more window panes, okay? And no vandalising the place or having gangs of mates in here. This is going to be my home and I hope you will treat it with respect. If you don't, I know where you live."
"Thanks, mister. How long a have I got?"
"Until the builders start work; after that they'll will be in and out and doing various jobs; how long for I can't say, but when they do I expect you to be a gentleman and let them get on with their work."
"What are you having done?"
"The whole shoot; things like getting that old fireplace in the other lounge opened up, double glazing to stop kids like you breaking in, central heating, the kitchen and bathroom need gutting and re-plastering and new units put in, then there's the decorating to be done throughout."
"Maybe I could help."
"You should be in school."
"I've been suspended."
The kid shrugged. "Fighting."
"Is that how you got your bruise?"
"How did you get it?"
"None of your business."
"So how come you're making like you are going to school? Does your mother know yet?"
I guessed what he was up to. This was as good a place as any to hide away from his mother and the school inspectors. It hadn't been all that hard to play truant when I was a lad, leaving home at school-time with my bag, and hopping on a bus in town to anywhere, then returning home at the appropriate time with my mother none the wiser. I hadn't done it too often; a leathering from my dad put a stop to all that, plus a carrot dangled in my face. 'If you go to school, and your Aunt Millie and I will see you get to Music College. You go to school or you work on the farm.'
Just then there was a knock at the front door. The kid flinched and looked round for somewhere to hide. I went out of the room and closed the door. My visitor was an architect, the first of Dad's friends to answer my phone calls. The only room he didn't get to see was the mirror lounge. When I went back in I couldn't see the kid. I looked behind the door and he was crouched there, trying to make himself as small as possible. He had his school bag on over his shoulder and he looked ready to run. I didn't want to cause him any more stress so I said, "I'm off now. Clear up the mess you've made with that sandwich and lock up when you leave. I'll be back in a couple of days. Be warned though, I'll have Major with me. Do you know him?"
"Of course I do. He's the only one around here who cares a toss about me. That old lady at Lower Farm is the original Wicked Witch of the West."
"Careful; kid, that's my aunt you're talking about. What's your name?"
"Joseph Street but most people call me Joey."
"Right, Joey, I'll see you around."
The next morning, I took some more food and fruit juice down to the cottage but did not stay; I had things to do at my own house in Bingford, so I dropped the keys into the architect's office so he could take the builders and electricians round the place, and warned him Joey might be hanging around and that it was okay for him to be there. Then I picked up my Dad, partly to give my aunts a rest from his grouching, and partly because I wanted him to see my own house, and drove home to Bingford. It only took half an hour using the motorways and we soon pulled into the approach lane. To my surprise, the bus and Daley's car were parked by the front door.
Daley came out to greet me and we soon had Dad in his wheelchair and carried up the steps by Rob and Indian. The band gave him a warm welcome and despite his initial aloofness, my dad soon became engrossed in their discussion about various big bands. When the weather turned nasty that evening, he calmly announced he would stay the night. Rob carried him upstairs and we put him to bed in what used to be mine and Billy's room, and he smiled up at me. "Nice bed. I could stay here a good few days I think, but your aunts would have the screaming ab-dabs. Nice house, what I've seen of it; reminds me of Home Farm. Well, I don't know what you're doing standing there for like a fish out of water; get lost, I need my beauty sleep. Breakfast in bed at eight-thirty sharp, mind."
"Yes, Dad." I left the room grinning and wondering just how much his lying in bed at home was an excuse not to be fussed over my Aunt Mabel. He had certainly perked up, the minute I suggested he come with me. It also made me realize that his pretence, at being a crusty old goat in my younger days, had in fact a cry from the heart of a lonely man. I just hadn't seen it. Well, now I knew the score, I would make a home at the cottage for the both of us. I just didn't want him to die from loneliness. The only thing he complained about was the car as we drove home the next day. "It's a heap, and in my day we'd call it an old banger. You've got enough money, why don't you buy a new one."
"Pure, sentimentality," I replied. "You have to admit, it's like riding in an armchair. I've had a few adventures in it and I just hate the thought of parting with it."
"Skinflint! Can't bear to part with your money."
"Not so, Dad; I have another car down in London but I've never really got used to driving it. I just use it on the odd occasion when I'm down there but you can't very well take it to some of these pop festivals, all mud and rain and stuff. As long as I can keep this going, this will be my favourite 'old banger' as you call it."
The builders moved into the cottage two weeks later, and it looked like they would be in there right up to Christmas. Meanwhile I had work to do with the band, including filming for another session of the 'Later With Jools Holland' show. That, and preparing my house for the band's annual rest period, and keeping Dad happy and my aunts out of his hair, kept me busy. I went down to the cottage three weeks after I received the keys and found myself hoping Joey would be there. There was no sign of him. The builders had hacked off all the plaster and opened up the magnificent inglenook fireplace and I gazed at it, imagining how it looked in my great-grandfather's day, with horse brasses hung on the walls and logs burning in the grate, before the curse of changing fashions hit the place and converted it into a seventies time warp of colour washed walls in yellow, terracotta and brown, and chip board furniture. I was never going to have colour washed walls. I wanted the builders to bring out the beauty of the stonework. I felt the same about the floors, especially the tiny front vestibule that still boasted the original black and white Georgian tiles. While not telling him why I wanted his opinion, I had already sounded Dad out on what he would like to see done to it. "Chintz furnishings, dark bentwood furniture; and Billy's bed."
"Why the bed?"
"So I can visit sometime, you numbskull!"
"I just might bring it over for myself."
"In that case I'll have to keep my heavy Doc Martins handy."
"To boot you out of it, of course." Now I knew Dad was feeling better, back to his crusty self
When Joey didn't make an appearance, I decide to find out if there was anything wrong. For want of an excuse, I took some of my Jazz CDs with me. There was a big Mercedes parked in the driveway. I knocked on the door and Joey's mother opened it. What a difference! She looked as if she had stepped out of a beauty magazine. Her golden hair was piled up on top in immaculate swirls, and her cream two-peace fitted her like a glove and showed off some wonderful curves. She smiled a welcome and stepped back to let me in, and waved me towards the lounge on the right. The ponderous bulk of a man in an expensive Italian suit took up most of the space on the only settee in the room, the smoke of his cigar heavy above him. We appraised each other and I didn't like what I saw in his piggy eyes. Joey was nowhere to be seen and I asked after him.
"He's not well," Mrs Street said. "He had a bad day a school yesterday so I've kept him off."
Either Joey hadn't her told about being suspended or she was lying. Surely she must have known. These days, schools notified parents by official letter.
"Could I see him for a moment? I've brought something for him."
Again, she smiled at me but her eyes turned cold as ice. "Oh, really; in that case I had better call him." She didn't wait for my reply and went back out into the hall. "Joey? Mr. Alton is here to see you. Be a dear and come downstairs."
I heard Joey's progress down the stairs, slow and hesitant, then he appeared at the lounge door and I saw he was limping.
"Hi, Joey; I brought these for you." I held out the CDs. "I thought they would help you with your dancing practice. One of them is a new CD my band and I made six months ago." At once I sensed I had said the wrong thing. Joey looked past me with fearful eyes. I looked over my shoulder at his mother and saw her glaring at Joey and almost grinding her teeth, and then she saw me looking at her and her face lit up with a smile.
"How nice of Mr. Alton; say thank-you, Joey and take them up to your room. We'll have a chat about them later."
I looked back at Joey and he gave me such a cold stare before shaking his head ever so slightly. He accepted the CDs, thanked me in a hushed voice, and limped up the stairs again. "How did he hurt himself?"
"Oh, the usual, you know what boys are like; he's so clumsy, falling over his own feet all the time. Now, Mr. Alton, I'm such a bad hostess, I never offered you coffee." Her smile was still fixed in place.
"No thank you, Mrs Street." I indicated the hall. "I need to get back to my father, and I have things to do. Tell Joey I'll see him tomorrow. If you'll excuse me, I'll let myself out." No way was that kid clumsy; I'd seen that for myself when I watched him dance. Outside the house, I breathed the fresh air while alarm bells rang loud and clear. All was not well at Home Farm.
"I want you to make me your agent, Dad."
"What the hell for?"
We sat at the kitchen table, drinking our way through a huge pot of tea. Aunt Cissy had gone shopping and Mabel was out on the farm somewhere, so I could talk openly with Dad. "Something's going on up at Home Farm and I want an excuse to get in there and take a look around."
"What are you on about?"
"Joey Street. Someone in that house is abusing him and I want to find out who and why."
"None of your business; he's just a trouble maker. Probably fighting at school again."
"I don't think so. He hasn't been to school for a while."
"How the hell do you know"
"He's been using the cottage to practice in."
"You're taking rubbish, lad; practice what."
"Dancing; he's taken a liking to Aunt Millie's mirror."
"So what about this abuse; have you seen any evidence?"
"Yes, Dad; bruises on his face, and when I went to the house he was limping. I think it may be a case of self defence. So what do you know about him?"
"He's the grandson of a friend of mine. Let him deal with it. I'll phone him." The look on Dad's face made me think there was something he didn't want to tell me.
"It's not just the kid, Dad. That woman has been having some strange visitors lately; people in smart suits, driving big cars. You can't get up there yourself as landlord so let me do it. The place must be up for inspection any way. I don't suppose Cissy or Mabs have had the time."
"I still don't like it but, okay you are now my land and property agent, but don't come back to me complaining of a broken nose. I know what that lady can do."
"What can she do, Dad? You're holding back on me. Who is she?"
Dad waved my question away. "I don't want to talk about her anymore."
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