Three, maybe four hundred people are packed into this sweaty pub. I’ve been gigging all my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Finally, an audience that gets me.
I’m sat on the stool singing, ‘Isobel’, strumming my battered Gibson, arched over the guitar, mouth reaching for the microphone.
I owe it all to them. Tom, Shaheeza and Garcia. None of this would have happened without them. We’ve had our ups and downs, but tonight makes it all worthwhile. Everything about them is positive. The joy they take in music, their willingness to learn, their embrace of a new friendship.
I still haven’t decided on the finale. There’s a new song I could try out, but I’m not sure.
Or the gun, strapped tightly to my leg. I could use the gun.
The weird thing is, the first time we met, I’d gone down to complain. It was 1 AM and I had work the next day with a gig to follow. The music was too loud, even for me, but I hated being the guy who knocked.
I could smell weed.
“Hey,” he said. The slick hair and the thick beard.
I decided to be magnanimous. “I’m Geoff, I live upstairs.” I offered my hand and he shook it.
“Tom. Too loud, right?” he said.
“Yeah. You know, I gotta work. Sorry.”
“We’re horrible. Didn’t even invite you down. You want to come in? Have a beer?”
Maybe I was just curious, but I had a change of heart. “Sure, why not?
The flat was in chaos with bags and boxes everywhere. Tom led the way to the living room.
“Guys, our new neighbour, Geoff.”
They smiled, and I raised my hand. There was another young guy, with dull ginger hair smoking a spliff in the corner, and two women: a slight, girlish blonde who played nervously with her fingers and a striking beauty with jet-black silken hair, lounging on the sofa.
On the coffee table in front of them was large brass ashtray, with an effigy of Elvis rising from the mountain of ash and butts.
Tom swept his hand towards them like a magician. “Geoff. Meet Garcia, Dilys and Shaheeza.”
Shaheeza stood apart, I have to say that. I’m forty six, and I’ve never seen anything like her.
She was the first to speak. “Come in, sit down. Garcia, get the man a beer.”
The redhead tossed a can over to me.
“How long you been here, Geoff?” Garcia asked.
“Oh, say, eight years. Since my wife left me.”
Dilys shifted a little in her seat, Garcia was nodding. “I hear that man. I’ve been through splits. Tough times.”
The others laughed, Shaheeza with particular gusto. “What are you talking about? You’ve only ever had two girlfriends and one of those was in nursery school.”
“And I’ve never forgotten her.”
I liked them straight off. They had the peculiarities of a group of young friends: curious in-jokes and a tendency for incoherence, but I found the bonhomie infectious. They were two couples. Shaheeza with Garcia and Tom with Dilys. The boys enjoyed playing the fool and the girls indulged them with wry smiles, a playful impersonation of older partners.
We talked about relationships and break-ups, then moved on to music. By two in the morning I’d forgotten all about work the next day, and was holding forth on the superior song-writing of the mid-sixties folk revival.
I’d already seen the guitar in the corner. Now I pretended to spot it. “Hey. Who’s the musician?”
“It’s mine,” said Garcia. “I’m useless. You play?”
“You could say that. I gig locally, on a solo basis. You mind?” I said, moving to pick it up.
“Be my guest.”
I tuned it and looked up. Shaheeza had raised herself in the armchair, her eyes wide. Tom gave me an encouraging nod. I felt nervous, self-conscious.
I considered what to play, and heard, as I sometimes do, mother’s voice speaking to me. “Play a happy tune, Geoffy. The happy ones are the best.”
I spread my fingers into the G chord, cleared my throat and gently strummed into a slow, gentle version of ‘The Letter’, one of my compositions. My voice sounded clear and melodic.
Garcia beamed with a smile and gave a little clap. When I got to the chorus for the second time, Tom, Shaheeza and Garcia all joined in.
I loved it. Me, an old duffer, joined in song with four young, beautiful people. Music can transcend the generations. I didn’t pause between songs. I went straight from ‘The Letter’ to my signature track ‘Silent Echo’ and then ‘Together’. Garcia, Tom and Shaheeza seemed to love them all, even taking out their phones and recording me.
The only bum note was Dilys. I noticed her towards the end of the fourth track. She was tense, twitching and trying to get Tom’s attention.
Later, when I discovered her ‘issues’, this would make more sense. At the time, I just dismissed it and enjoyed the moment. I played a few more songs, and called it a night.
The goodbyes were warm and genuine. I’d made some unlikely friends.
There was some truth in what I’d said about my wife. I had moved into the block eight years ago, after the split. But she hadn’t left me, quite the contrary.
I don’t dwell on that time with any regrets. It wasn’t easy to up and leave, knowing I wouldn’t see my girls again. Tess was three and Janis five when I loaded up the car and told Alison I was going for good.
She’d stopped coming to my gigs and the open mic spots in local bars, complaining about the expense of a baby-sitter. Then she suggested I stop doing them entirely and moaned about me practicing in the house, in case it “disturbed the children”. I did my best to make her understand, but nothing worked. It was only when mother died, wasting away in that home, that I finally broke.
I dumped my sales job and came to London seeking a new life. At thirty-eight, knowing nobody here, it was a lonely time. I had some cash I’d taken from the joint account and got a job in a bar. I joined a squat I’d read about in the Evening Standard and lived like a hobo for six months. Eventually, I had enough money to put down a deposit on the flat and things really began to take shape.
These days, I work in one of those storage facilities, ‘UStore’, lugging boxes around and handing out key cards. It pays the mortgage and gives me a routine outside of my real passion. I gig all over south London, and write as much as I can.
It was two nights later when I got the knock on the door. I opened up to find Shaheeza standing there, smiling. So stunning, so alive.
“We want you to come down.” She said. “We’ve got people round and we wondered if you’d play, just like the other night.”
I counted nineteen people in their flat, drinking, smoking and listening to seventies soul. As soon as they saw me, the music was turned off and they gathered in a small crowd on the couch.
Tom told me to sit and gave me the big introduction.
“Friends. Just the other night we had the pleasure of being introduced to the song-writing and musicianship of Geoff Hinkley, and I’m delighted that you can now share in this repeat performance.” As he finished speaking I noticed Dilys walking from the room, shaking her head.
This time I started with ‘The Florist’. Within seconds, they were holding up their phones to get pictures and video, spurring me on.
After a while, some of the kids started putting in requests for songs. I mixed them in with my originals and it worked a dream. To be at the heart of something so spiritual, to be the catalyst, was frightening and exhilarating at the same time.
Afterwards, they came to me, hugging, slapping me on the back. One guy, a strapping six-footer called Owen, told me he was “deeply moved” by the performance. Tom and Shaheeza were beaming and insisted I come round again at the weekend so they could make me dinner and have me play some more.
The dinner didn’t happen. They’d said to come over “on the weekend”, so I called round a few times on Saturday and Sunday, but nobody answered the door.
Days passed and I heard nothing. Even when I knew someone was in, they wouldn’t answer the door. Twice I thought I heard someone moving on the other side, peering at me through the peep-hole. At night, I sat for hours, listening for their voices, their music, their laughter.
It started to affect me. I played a gig at one of the local homes, a hospice in Catford I’ve visited many times. Normally, If I tell them the manager has invited me, they let me play.
This gig was a disaster. Most of the residents weren’t even listening. The filthy old guy at the front was slumped in his chair, chin on his chest, dribbling out of the side of his mouth. The others looked on with blank, vacant expressions. Only the two carers bothered to clap after each song.
When I finished the fifth song, I was greeted with total silence. I stood up, pushed my microphone stand onto my speaker, creating a shriek of feedback, and threw my guitar to the floor. One of the carers looked up, shook her head and went back to her work.
On the twelfth day after the party I still hadn’t heard a thing, not even a friendly knock at the door and a “thanks for the set”.
I was on the verge of going down there and sitting on their landing, when she knocked on the door. It was Shaheeza, looking stoned, possibly drunk too, but still a treat for the eyes.
“Can I come in?”
“Of course” I opened the door and she entered.
I was suddenly aware of the state of the place. Washing-up piled in the little adjoining kitchen and take away cartons lying everywhere. She didn’t seem to notice and slumped down on the sofa. I shifted some debris from the chair opposite and sat.
I wanted to sound casual. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I was bored.” She cast her eyes upwards.
“I was beginning to think I’d done something to offend you guys. You’d invited me round to dinner?”
She just looked at me, confused. We sat in silence for a full minute.
“Would you like me to play for you?” I asked.
She giggled. “No. Let’s just talk.”
“OK.” I said, “What would you like to talk about?”
“Anything. Me, I suppose. I came up for a second opinion.”
“Do you think I’m beautiful, Geoff?”
Now she had my attention. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“We had an argument. Garcia and I. He said I’ve been ‘letting myself go.’” Her voice broke on the last word.
“If I were Garcia, I’d be counting my blessings and keeping my mouth shut.” I said.
She shifted onto her side to face me and smiled. “You really think so? I don’t want to become my mother. Fat and dull.”
“I think you’re about as far away from fat and dull as it’s possible to be.”
“That’s sweet, Geoff. That’s what I needed to hear.” She paused. “Oh, and they asked me to ask you something. Tom and Garcia.”
“They want to know if you’re free next Saturday night. To play for our friends, at a bar. They want to book a room and invite lots of people.”
All casual, I said, “I should be able to make it.”
The next day, I arrived back from work to find a hand-written note on my door mat.
In a scrawled hand, it read, “If you’re free, could you come down for a chat? Dilys.”
When she opened the door, she looked meek, concerned.
“Hi Geoff, thanks for coming down.”
She sat opposite me in the living room, her shoulders hunched.
I broke the silence “Where are the others?”
“All out at the cinema. I wanted to speak to you, alone.”
“About your singing, your songs.”
“I see. You want to learn? You’d like some lessons?”
“No. It’s . . .” She trailed off, then seemed to gather herself. “Look. There’s no easy way to say this. Your music, your singing. . . They’re being unkind. They think it’s funny, to put you in front of people.”
I sat back and folded my arms. “Funny?”
“Yes. They’re laughing, Geoff. Tom put some video on YouTube. From the first night you came over and it went viral. Twitter, Facebook. They went crazy.”
“What does that mean? Lots of people liked it?” I said.
“They liked watching it. Not in a good way.”
“Why would people think my songs are funny?”
She threw her hands up “You’ve seen ‘Chocolate Rain’ right? Like that, but with further to fall. Funny because it’s so terrible. Because you can’t write a song, because you can’t play. Because you have no idea how bad you are. When you sing, you have this crazy earnest look on your face like you’re Bob Dylan.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Chocolate Rain? Bob Dylan?
I thought back to that first night. Dilys, twitching and shifting all over the place whilst the others enjoyed the music. There was something wrong with her, something disturbed
“I’m trying to help you.”
She pulled out her phone and fiddled with it for a few seconds then held it up to my face. “If I’m making it up, what’s this?”
On the screen was a still picture of me with a big ‘Play’ arrow hovering over my face. I recognized the scene and recalled Tom holding up his phone to film me on that first night. She tapped the arrow and the shrunken version of me started to play ‘The Letter’. It sounded good, authentic.
I looked up at Dilys and shrugged. She stopped the video and started to scroll down the comments underneath. According to the banner at the top, there were three thousand seven hundred and twenty two of them.
She paused on a few, holding the phone up to my face.
“This is tragic, but brilliant.” “Lolzzzzzz” “Possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Thank you internet.”
It went on. Streams of nonsense. Words with no meaning.
“Jesus. This has to be some kind of set-up, right?” “Christmas novelty single . . . sorted.”
Dilys spoke. “It’s had one point two million hits Geoff. They’ve sold three hundred tickets for the gig. I told them it’s cruel, but they don’t listen. They think they can make money out of you.”
Her words became a single, monotonous noise in my head, like the sound of a radio being detuned. She got to her feet, pressing the phone into my face. More video, more comments, this time from the party.
I had to get her away. I stepped forwards and pushed her, firmly.
Dilys toppled backwards, her fall exaggerated by the large coffee table behind her. Her head cracked onto the brass Elvis ashtray. When she recovered herself, she got up, gingerly touching her wound. Blood seeped between her fingers. Her eyes grew wild.
I stood, rooted to the spot, as she stepped backwards and reached towards the counter of the adjoining kitchen. She pulled out a huge kitchen knife.
“You fucking sicko.” She said. “Look what you did.”
I rushed in and grabbed her wrist. Dilys screamed in pain as I twisted. Our bodies were locked together, the knife still in her hand. I shoved my full weight against her and she went rigid. When I pulled back, the knife was in her chest.
She slid to the floor, her back against the counter
I’m floating through space, near blinded by a beautiful constellation of stars. Hundreds of bright, white dots dance in the darkness, held aloft by a crowd which sways to my rhythm, recording every note, every word. I feel nothing but the euphoria of the moment. It is perfect. Almost perfect.
The room is huge. Three or four hundred people. Outside are posters. “TONIGHT: Internet sensation Geoff Hinkley. £5 entry”.
As my song comes to an end they erupt into applause. Some people stand, their faces beaming with appreciation. I can see Tom and Garcia standing at the back, leaning into each other, wide smiles stretched across their faces.
Beneath the clapping hands I can hear another sound, something less welcome. An intrusive tittering, which doesn’t fit. I focus on what’s real: these people have paid to see me.
The gun is there, itching against my calf, hidden beneath my jeans. You’d think a deadly weapon would be difficult to get a hold of, wouldn’t you? But it’s amazing what can be procured in the seamier corners of a Lewisham public house.
When Dilys died, after I’d calmed myself down, I found a sheet in her bedroom closet and wrapped her in it. I did a good job of cleaning up and dragged her up the stairs to my apartment.
I returned to her flat and finished tidying. Using the note she’d left me as a template, I wrote out another one. “Family emergency. Have to go home for a few days. No need to worry. See you soon. Dils.” It took three goes, but I finally got it right.
A woman at the front of the stage shouts up to me “Geoff, do you want some water.” It’s Shaheeza, attentive towards me now.
I have one song left and it’s a new one. Propped up on my sofa, Dilys is the only one to have heard it so far.
I launch into the opening words, the constellation returns.
“As the tune begins, Mother glances, So proud of me, she always dances.”
I can hear them laughing but I push on. “I’ll always sing, I’ll always croon, Mother wants my happy tunes.”
Behind the wall of lights the laughing is too loud now. I drop the guitar, bend down and unstrap the gun from my leg.
Amongst the levity, a buzz of conversation begins.
I stand with the gun in my hand and, for the tiniest instant, the room falls silent. It is beautiful, but over so quickly.
Someone screams “He’s got a gun.” There’s more laughter but it has a nervous edge this time. I fire into the air. Plaster falls all around me.
They push and shove and scream. They want to get away, but they still can’t take their eyes off me.
I raise the gun one final time, placing the barrel against my head. I close my eyes and wait for the beat.
Charlie Hughes writes dark suspense, crime and horror short stories from his home in South London. His work has been published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Black Cat Mystery magazine and numerous other anthologies. His horror short story “The Box” won the 2016 Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition.