Jo was only on her second gin, but it made ignoring her husband so much easier.
Not that he was here, of course - he was at home. But today, of all days, Joanna Adams just wanted to forget who she was, and so she agreed to celebrate payday with her work friends and a few drinks.
Her phone buzzed. Nick.
Can’t get a table. Overbooked. Not my fault. How about I cook?
She turned the phone face down and sipped her gin.
Jo and her colleagues in Mayer Marketing’s accounts department had descended on Friends - a past-its-prime bar tucked down a side alley near London Bridge. Above the door was a trademark-infringing logo of the old TV show in flaky paint. And it was karaoke night.
The place was buzzing and Jo was hemmed in by a dozen of her colleagues in a corner booth, while on the makeshift stage a tormented soul was murdering Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.
‘Bloody hell, that’s Pete,’ Jo said, astonished to find the normally timid man from work bestriding the stage in an open shirt, his lips pursed against the microphone like a Koi carp gasping for bread, as he turned Neil Diamond’s celebration of love into a dirge of bitterness and regret.
‘So good, so good, so good,’ he wailed, throwing his arms to the ceiling.
‘Wank it off, mate!’ came a cry from the crowd. This opinion was a popular one, buoyed by a wave of cheers.
‘His wife left him,’ Michela, the hub of all office gossip, told Jo as Pete ended the song to a smattering of sympathetic applause, drowned out by unsympathetic boos. Pete raised a defiant middle finger to the crowd, then brought it down on the karaoke touchscreen’s replay button, starting the song again and generating more jeering than Prime Minister’s Questions.
‘Left him a few weeks ago for a Junior Doctor. Apparently, she did a spreadsheet with all the pros and cons of living with Pete or this doctor, and poor Pete lost out because of his credit rating and pension prospects.’
‘Ooh, that’s cold.’
‘Sweeeeeeeeet Caroliiiiiine!’ Pete howled from the stage.
‘She was called Caroline,’ Michela whispered, like this was some kind of revelation.
‘Course she was.’
Jo’s phone vibrated on the table. Another text from Nick. The tenth in an hour by her reckoning. She scooped up the phone, tucked it away in her bag, and took another sip of gin and tonic to help numb her guilt.
‘Grease medley next? You and me?’ Michela nudged Jo’s elbow.
‘Me? Karaoke?’ Jo shook her head. ‘No. No way.’
‘Oh, c’mon, it’ll be a laugh,’ Michela said.
‘No, it’ll be excruciating,’ Jo said. ‘Long story short, I have a genuine fear of singing.’
‘Is that a thing?’
‘It is for me.’
‘C’mon, just one.’
‘Not gonna happen.’
‘You can’t be any worse than Pete,’ Michela said, as their colleague ripped off his shirt and tossed it into the crowd. He was rubbing his hands across his belly as he wailed the chorus. ‘We’ll sound like Pavarotti after him. C’mon, just one?’
‘Michela, no,’ Jo said. ‘Why would anyone put themselves through that? It’s the worst kind of humiliation.’
‘If you haven’t done it, how would you know? Eh? Eh?’ Michela grinned at her own cleverness.
‘I have done it.’ Jo shivered at the memory. ‘And I have no intention of repeating the experience, thank you very much. Oh, look, they’re all filming him. Poor Pete’s going to be a bloody Facebook meme. Someone should stop him.’
One of the bar staff shuffled closer to Pete with her palms facing forward, like a zookeeper approaching a dangerous animal.
‘Come on, mate,’ she said. ‘Let someone else have a go, eh?’
‘SO GOOD!’ Pete screeched at the woman, who backed away rapidly, falling back into the braying crowd.
‘He’s gonna get thumped in a minute,’ Jo said.
‘Your phone’s ringing.’ Michela nodded to Jo’s bag, where the silent phone glowed with an incoming call.
Jo zipped the bag shut. ‘Isn’t anyone going to help him?’
‘Why?’ Michela asked. ‘He won’t remember any of this anyway. Let him get it out of his system.’
Someone threw a can and it rebounded off Pete’s head. He staggered back, but continued regardless.
‘He’s really going to get hurt,’ Jo said, but Michela was busy emptying the remains of a wine bottle into her glass.
Pete was crying now, his body shaking with sobs as he sang. Jo looked at her colleagues. Those who weren’t wallowing in his humiliation were either looking at their phones or engaging in inebriated conversation.
‘Sod it.’ Jo necked the rest of her gin and got to her feet, using the table to steady herself. ‘Whoa.’
‘You all right?’ Michela looked up from her brimming wine glass.
‘I may be just a teeny bit tipsy.’ Jo’s head felt light, and the room banked at an angle like a ship lurching in rough seas. ‘Look after my bag, will you? I’m going to reel him in.’
‘You’re what?’ Michela asked, but Jo clambered over her colleagues, moving away from their table, doing her best to look as upright and un-drunk as possible. ‘Jo?’
Jo weaved her way through the crowd and positioned herself in the front of the little stage in Pete’s line of sight. She remained firmly on the pub floor.
‘Pete, come on, mate. Enough’s enough.’
Pete was singing into empty space. His eyes were bloodshot, glistening, and his lips were trembling. Jo waved and hopped, but either he was ignoring her, or was so out of it that he didn’t see her.
She would have to get on the stage.
It wasn’t even a stage. Just a black wooden box edged and dotted with white tape. It wasn’t particularly high, so Jo told herself it was just a bit of wood, took a breath and stepped up.
It felt a lot higher up once she was on it, and she was greeted by a few appreciative whoops and whistles.
Jo was on a stage. She was actually on a stage. She felt an unexpected rush of adrenaline course through her body.
People had expectations of anyone who got on a stage. They wanted to be entertained. She was on a stage, yes, but she told herself that in just a few seconds she would be off again.
Pete gripped the mic like an Olympic relay baton as he sang. Jo gently placed her hand around his, trying to move the mic away from his mouth.
‘Pete? Can I…?’
‘No,’ he pouted, shaking his head like a toddler refusing broccoli. ‘No, no, no!’
Jo smiled and leaned towards the mic, miming along with his singing. This reassured Pete that she wasn’t trying to steal the mic from him, and he resumed caterwauling. Mercifully, the song soon came to an end, and Jo was able to take the mic from his grip.
‘You were brilliant,’ Jo said without hesitation. ‘Bloody brilliant. We were all in tears. Seriously. Let’s hear it for Pete, everyone.’
Jo called to the crowd with pleading eyes that said, If we give this poor sod a round of applause he might just leave the stage. Some of them took the cue and began cheering. It was fairly pathetic, but enough to bring a smile to Pete’s face, and he finally teetered off the stage.
That got a bigger cheer.
Jo was about to follow Pete off the stage, when a man in the crowd yelled, ‘Go on, love, you can’t be any worse than him!’ generating a ripple of laughter.
‘No. No way,’ Jo declared through the PA. ‘There is no way on God’s green earth I’m singing.’ This drew boos, then cheers, then rhythmic clapping from the masses. If she left the stage there was a chance Pete might clamber back on again. They wanted her to sing.
The cheering and the applause triggered something in Jo. A shiver of excitement rippled through her as she realised she was standing on a stage with a microphone for the first time in over twenty years.
Her mind flashed back to the last time, and the horror and humiliation. It wasn’t karaoke then. It was the moment she’d been working towards all her life. The buzz of anticipation. Looking out into the crowd, the many eyes of the major labels staring back at her. The sound of the song starting. That first line going over and over in her head. Her mouth opening, and then… nothing. No words. Panic. Tears. Throwing the microphone down and fleeing offstage, never to return.
Another song began to play, bringing Jo back to reality. It was the one Pete had cued-up next. Much slower. A restrained upright bass, a gentle guitar and piano intertwining, a trilling ride cymbal. Jo knew this one. More than that, she loved this one. The Roberta Flack song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.
As the karaoke display finished the countdown from the intro into the first verse, Jo, invigorated by the gin coursing through her veins, thought What the hell, took a breath, and sang.
The song started quietly, and it took her a moment to recall the phrasing. She found the notes easily and just let it happen. People in the pub returned to their drinks and chatter, relieved that Pete’s reign of terror was over. Jo closed her eyes and continued to sing about the sun rising in someone else’s eyes, and the moon and the stars being gifts, the Earth moving in her hand, and so on.
It wasn’t long before something else happened. It began in her belly, flushed through her heart, and pushed against her eyes, forcing little tears to come out. It was a moment of pure, blissful rapture, and Jo remembered why she loved singing. It filled her with joy. A joy she hadn’t realised she’d missed. It was like discovering a lost piece to a puzzle, and now everything could finally click into place. As her voice soared she revelled in the feeling, bringing the song to its tender conclusion.
Jo smiled and opened her eyes.
To find everyone in the bar staring at her in astonishment with open mouths.
Oh god, was it that bad? she thought, and the dread of public humiliation consumed her. Here we go again.
Jo was about to apologise when the entire room got to its feet, applauding, whooping and punching the air. The noise hit her like a blast wave. Across the bar, she could see Michela, Pete, and the others from work bouncing like pogo punks, pausing only to tell everyone around them they knew the woman on stage, they were best friends, and they always knew she was special.
‘Thank you very much,’ Jo said into the mic, taking a little bow.
‘More!’ people began to shout. The synchronised clapping returned, and before long people were stomping on the bar’s wooden floor in unison.
‘Oh, crikey, okay.’ Jo turned to the karaoke machine and began tapping on the touchscreen. ‘Er, maybe something a little more upbeat, eh?’
Most people who dare to venture on a karaoke night with work colleagues will recognise that sinking feeling, when the most tone deaf one in the group grabs the microphone and refuses to let go, singing with misguided enthusiasm, completely unaware of their bum notes. And all this after spending the first half of the night saying they would never join in. A lucky few might know that pleasant feeling when they discover a colleague actually has a good set of pipes and can hold a tune.
Few, however, would understand what it was like that evening when Joanna Adams let rip in the Friends bar near London Bridge. She continued with a couple of Atlantic soul classics, belting out I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You) as if Aretha was in the room, then she went down the singer-songwriter route, serving them a version of Carole King’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman that made grown men weep. No one in the bar who was there to witness this magic would be foolhardy enough to step onto that stage and follow her. The night was entirely hers.
Jo sang and sang, people danced, laughed, and sang along. Some bought her drinks, keeping that fire in her belly well stoked. It should have been terrifying, but she was loving every second, riding high on the cheers of the crowd. As she finished a rousing rendition of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep the call for last orders came. Jo was well aware that all performers should know when to stop, leaving their audience wanting more.
‘Thanks everyone, you’ve been so lovely. That’s it, I’m knackered, good night.’
Now the boos came, but they were good natured. These people couldn’t get enough of her.
‘No, seriously,’ Jo said, gesturing at the bar staff. ‘These people have homes to go to, even if you reprobates don’t.’
No one cared. The cheers for more kept coming, and it reminded Jo of trips to the park when her daughter Ellie was a toddler. Telling her, ‘We’re going home now,’ would only ever result in demands for more time. Saying she could have one more go on the swing, then we’re heading home always worked, so Jo relented to the crowd’s demands.
‘Okay, okay, one more, and that’s it. Understood?’ Jo said, waiting expectantly for a response.
‘Yes, Mum!’ someone called back, getting a laugh.
‘Good enough,’ Jo said, tapping the touchscreen for the final song.
As the guitar arpeggio of the new song began to play there was a discernible intake of breath throughout the room. The kind of sceptical whistle beloved of plumbers confronted with what will surely be an expensive, tricky, if not downright impossible, job.
Stairway To Heaven was a regular undoer of karaoke singers. Those foolhardy enough to attempt this classic always forgot that, despite the soft start, it ends with Robert Plant screaming with fervent passion to Valhalla about shadows taller than souls, ladies who shine white light and other such eldritch nonsense, like it was gospel truth. There are few mortals walking the Earth who can pull that off with any conviction.
Jo handled the opening beautifully, sang about bustles in hedgerows with a straight face, played some sterling air guitar in the solo, and tackled the climactic verses like a pro, her voice finding that fine line between passion and heavy metal screeching. There wasn’t a single person present who didn’t believe her urgent request that they be a rock and not to roll, whatever that meant.
Despite the protests from the bar staff about fire regulations, many of the patrons were holding the decorative table candles aloft as she finished, and the room exploded in thunderous applause.
And then it was over.
Jo was mobbed. People rushed the stage demanding selfies and autographs on beer mats. A hand grabbed her wrist and she squealed, but she was relieved to see it was Michela who split the crowd by bellowing, ‘That’s enough. Make a hole. Move it!’ as she shoved them aside and bustled Jo behind the bar, through the kitchen and out the back door.
They stumbled into a back alley, the brisk night air littered with the incessant ding-a-ling of the loitering rickshaw taxi bikes. Jo found herself shaking with pent-up adrenaline, and wondering what the hell had just happened. On stage, she’d been in complete control, but now the world began to swim again, her mind became fuzzy, and it took her a moment to realise that Michela was talking to her.
‘Whassat?’ Jo replied, with a little more of a slur than she would have liked. ‘I should prolly go home. It’s my birthday and Nick’ll be going mental.’
Michela, whose astonishment levels were already peaking in the red, now looked like she was going to spontaneously combust.
‘It’s your what?’