I’m the One Who First Suggested the Idea
Our hotel was typical of what passed for luxury in Venice. Walls of fashionably cracked plaster and too many mirrors, enclosing a room just big enough to accommodate a sofa, two chairs, a dresser, a double bed, plus gaps to squeeze in between when you needed to go to the bathroom. Only the balcony was what you’d truly call spacious, and, because it had a sea view, we’d spent the whole first day there, sipping cocktails and ignoring comments from a succession of creepy guys down on the fondamente, where the paparazzi had gathered. The afternoon sunshine made a rectangle on the wall and a breeze billowed the curtains. Vases of flowers stood on every available surface, all gifts from fans and admirers, with more downstairs in reception.
All this was before Julia’s galaxy-shattering phone call and the crisis meeting in Verona. I was sitting up in bed with my new laptop, wearing white-wire earbuds, navigating the TJN site and listening to retro. I clicked on pause. “Maybe we should road trip across the USA,” I said. ‘Road trip’ like a verb.
Soraya lay in her underwear on the sofa. She nursed a glass of orange and looked indifferently across and said nothing. She wore her headphones, so maybe she hadn’t even heard me.
“What are you listening to?” I said.
She lifted her left ear cushion and threw me a ‘what?’ look.
“What are you listening to?” I asked again.
She sighed like it was the dullest question ever. “All of the Stars. Ed Sheeran.”
We returned to our separate worlds. Outside, a man shouted ‘Soraya!’ in a wheedling, hopeless voice. Then, ‘Please to come out… per uno momento!’ She yawned, then I did. An ocean liner parped. Half a dozen seagulls quarrelled close by, presumably devouring the bread we’d put out earlier. ‘Soraya!’ another desperate male called. ‘Soraya!’ Like listening to ghosts.
“Just the two of us?” she asked after five minutes. “I mean, your American road trip?”
“Unless you want to bring someone?”
“I’m not judging, but we spend less and less time together nowadays.”
“Untrue. And don’t make out you’re jealous of Tim, because I know you can’t be.” I spooled my earphones and put them on the bedside table. “That was a joke, by the way.”
“Ho, ho. Not funny.”
“We’re supposed to be having a holiday,” I said, trying to affect a conciliatory tone. “Why so grouchy?”
“This?” She leaned so far forward, pointing manically to her scalp, that she almost fell off the sofa.
Aha. Okay. I chuckled.
We both had them. San Marco, two minutes on a rickety wooden chair, fifty euros a pop. We’d been lucky: others had paid twice that and knelt for the privilege. A bald rectangle courtesy of a dead painter no one really knows anything about, except that hers is the glowering face on a million T-shirts.
“It’s itchy,” she went on. “Really itchy. And the heat. I can’t sleep at night.”
“It got us the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.”
“Too high a price. And I’ve no idea what the fuss is about Whatshername who allegedly started it all off.”
It wasn’t the only thing we were in Venice for. We’d extended our stay a few days because we thought it’d be cool to be here when the charts were announced: Tuesday for the Billboard, Friday for the UK Singles. Top of My Tower was probably Coal Tar’s best track to date, yet Tuesday had come and gone, and it had stayed #6 in the US. We were hoping for better tomorrow in Britain. In the intervening period, Venice’s famous melancholy seemed to have got to us. Too many violet sunsets, maybe, too much grandeur, too many vague echoes of all the historical debauchery, real or imagined.
Anyway, the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle’s identical everywhere: if you’re any good, the public incarcerates you indefinitely in a hotel room. Why we’d imagined it’d be any different in Venice defeats me. We were trying to take our minds off everything with a succession of castles in the air. Things like Let’s go on a road trip.
Clearly Soraya was interested, though. When I thought more about it, I seemed to remember her broaching something like the same idea a while ago; could have been last year.
Or maybe the year before.
Pre- or post-Trump? It made a difference. America wasn’t the land of Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses any more. So people said.
Mind you, that wasn’t just the USA. It was the whole world.
I closed the laptop.
A road trip across the USA. Like Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarty, or Thelma and Louise, or any number of high school seniors in teen movies, driving pink convertibles across the endless Arizona Desert. And diners, flashing red neon signs saying ‘Motel’, rap, new jack swing, jazz, timber-framed suburban houses with stars and stripes hanging from the balcony, rodeos, Jacob Lawrence, Elvis, yellow school buses. Another world.
But Soraya was right. It was a pipe dream. Obviously, we’d been to America, lots of times, but only in an If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium kind of way. No time for sightseeing, we’ve got to be in Kansas City tomorrow morning. Those words usually coming out of my mouth, no one else’s. I’m the manager, after all. It’s part of my job to arrange schedules, fix deadlines, see everything’s done properly, be the sergeant-major everyone loathes. Most of the time, we could be anywhere.
Anyway, I’ll be thirty-eight next birthday, nine years older than Soraya. I’m thin, long blonde hair, and people say I’ve a pleasant face; but you can’t hide the signs of encroaching middle-age. Not that I would. Botox isn’t something you do in the rock business, not unless you’re some kind of poseur. Grow old brazenly, that’s the ideal: like a budget-price melting candle. Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Iggy.
That night, we went to Marinello’s party. A go-fast boat picked us up just outside the hotel. We were served the predictable champagne at seventy knots.
When we reached the yacht, the music and mingling had long since started. I wouldn’t say everyone with a capital E was there, but Harlinne Vobrosky was, and since she’d invited us to Venice for the Harper’s gig, we could hardly avoid her. Born and bred in Wisconsin, sixty-ish, tall with a grey bouffant and a worsted skirt-suit (even to something like this, where you’d imagine evening wear would be obligatory), she chain-smoked cheroots and drank rum and lemonade from a plastic mug with camels on the side.
Soraya behaved respectably for a change and, after about an hour, the three of us sat on our own at the prow and talked about life and purpose. Harlinne is one of those people who believes the end of the world is imminent: Google’s making us stupider, the falcon can’t hear the falconer, that sort of thing. I think Soraya was a little scared of her. Nevertheless, after about an hour, they went off somewhere alone. I was on my sixth or tenth champagne, so I made no attempt to follow them. I was tired, if I’m honest. I wanted to lie on a mattress with my cheek on a cool white pillow.
And depressed. At number six for the second week running, Fully Magic Coal Tar Lounge and… Our best song. You stayed still for a week and people stopped believing in you. You hardly ever recouped the loss. Next week, you’d be twelfth.
Please, Britain, please come through for us. We’d been seventh in the UK Singles Chart last Friday. Right now, I’d have settled for fourth this week. Fifth or sixth would be a loss of momentum, given that we’d been twentieth the week before.
Fourth, bloody hell. What happened to the days when we’d release a song and it’d go straight to number one? Me, praying for fourth! Maybe we’d reached the end of the line, success-wise.
No one from further up the boat came and sat with me. One of those times when you realise you don’t have as many friends as you think. Or maybe no one knew I was here. Either way, it was just as well, because frankly, I was having a minor meltdown. I was actually shaking (mind you, it was cold). Seventh. We were in seventh place! And I was hoping for fourth! That was how careers ended in this business: washed up on fourth, desperately praying for a miracle.
Soraya and Harlinne came back. They didn’t look like they’d been doing much. But they must have been up to something. Perhaps Harlinne had fancied her professional chances. You’re losing momentum, Soraya. Just look at the Billboard. You need a solo career and a new manager. If so, she didn’t know what she was up against. Again, I found myself not particularly caring. Partly, I suppose, because I knew Soraya would never leave me.
Most of the women here were flaunting their bald patches, sunburn and all, but Harlinne didn’t even have one. Too special a bouffant, clearly. I wondered what she was doing working for Harper’s, her being such a mixture of conservatism and bizarreness. Then I remembered: she was an agent, so not on their payroll. Just a go between.
Still, Harper’s must respect her.
I can’t remember what happened in the last three hours. I know it sounds clichéd, but after a while, all those occasions feel the same. Enjoyable in a way, but not something you’d make a detour for. Like work, really. Soraya and I held hands, and she kept asking if I was okay, like she felt guilty about having left me alone. I do remember we were back at the hotel, in bed, no later than four.
And we hadn’t mentioned the road trip at any point that evening.
A Paranoid Confession
This sounds like it might be a pointless aside, but I promise you, it is relevant to what comes later. The truth is, Soraya and I are a majorly odd couple. Even we can see it. She’s lead singer in, and I’m the manager of, the world’s biggest rock band (if ‘rock’ is still a word – she says it isn’t): Fully Magic Coal Tar Lounge, four great guys, one stellar woman! You’d expect our musical tastes to be the same; or at least similar.
Not at all. She’s into Overmono, Rihanna, Cardi B, Drake, MIA, Lucy Ward, Ariana Grande, Connie Constance, Jay-Z, Cupcakke, Stone Broken, Koyo, Beyoncé, Laura Marling, The Furrow Collective. Eclectic up to a point, but nothing older than a few years. I love all the above – some more than others, obviously – but my major tastes lie elsewhere. A motley collection of ancients too embarrassing to list here.
The point is, if we did go on a road trip across the US, we’d have to play our music on something. Radio, CD, MP3 player, you’ve got to share it. How to do that when you only ever manage to avoid fighting by retreating into your own phones and orbiting completely different playlists? Unfortunately – here’s the quandary - music is pretty much the most important thing in the world to both of us.
And it’s more powerful than people usually imagine. Yes, maybe it could unite the world, but it could also drive it apart. It’s tribal, especially when people start getting snobby about it, which they always do. My playlist’s better than yours. In fact, to be honest, yours is pants. Pride. Hundreds of years ago, one of the seven deadly sins.
Nowadays, when Soraya asks me what I’m listening to, I’ll likely as not make something up.
Hey, I’ve built a career on being the coolest cat on the block. I don’t want people to know what I’m actually listening to. And I can’t change it. My tastes are my tastes.
Which explains how and why I decided that a road trip across the USA was out of the question. I mean, driving across Britain would be bad enough: South Shields to Skinburness, ninety miles, give or take. How the hell can you listen to that stuff? Turn it off, it’s making my ears bleed! Three thousand miles would be the end of us, on all levels. I’m not sure I could stand that.
I wish I’d kept my stupid trap shut. It’d be the perfect pretext for her to go off with Harlinne.
Also, I Wish I’d Never Written That
Now that I’ve written that down, I can see how crazy it is. And let’s say Soraya and I were to go on a road trip across the USA, I could just make up a playlist. Load a bunch of up-to-the-minute stuff onto my phone, pretend I think it’s all freaking wonderful.
Truth is, I don’t know. Driving across America without Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morissette and David Bowie and Lindisfarne –
There, I’ve said it now.
And unfortunately, there’s much more where that came from.
To complete the sentence, however: it would seem like sacrilege.
And the weird thing is, none of the above are even from the USA.
How Things Suddenly Got Taken Out of My Hands
How do I remember that it was 4am when Soraya and I got to bed, that night in Venice? Good question. God knows, I shouldn’t have: we’d had enough to drink. What I can say is that my phone rang at five, and at that point, I reckon I’d had less than an hour’s sleep.
Not unusual, the early hours phone call. I’ve lots of friends who’ve no idea when to call it a night, and insufficient brains to realise that, since it’s dark and five o’clock in the morning, you might not actually be awake, let alone primed for a conversation. If they are, you are: that’s their logic. Or they’re in some completely different time zone, and they don’t understand the implications of that either.
I looked at the screen expecting Gaz, Paul, Elliot, Brian, Laura, Lulu… Before I’d exhausted the possibilities, I read the actual name. Julia.
The Julia? The My Little Sister Julia?
It was my address book, so yes, J.U.L.I.A. meant Julia.
Not good. She wouldn’t be ringing me unless… I picked up. “Is everything okay?”
“Very definitely not.” No preliminaries, no reassuring ‘how are you?’ nothing in that vein. “Are you sitting down?”
“It’s five am here. I’m in Venice. What’s happened?”
“Charlotte’s going to sue Dad.”
Not the sort of sentence that makes sense when you’ve just awoken after a heavy party, or think you have. Too much like a continuation of dreamland. “Charlotte’s going to sue Dad,” I said to myself.
I heard it. It sounded bad.
“She’s claiming he abused her,” Julia said.
Suddenly, it was as if someone had thrown a bucket of water over me. This was Charlotte she was talking about: our sister, two years younger than me, three older than Julia. And this was Dad –
“Our Dad?” I said.
“Our Charlotte, our Dad.”
“I don’t understand. Why? How? Oh my God.”
Soraya sat up in bed, nearly knocking the phone out of my hand. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
I shushed her.
“That was precisely my view,” Julia went on. “I know you’re supposed to believe the accuser nowadays. And no one’s a bigger supporter of hashtag-me too than I am. And I know the family – apart from the victim, obviously - is always last to admit it, or even realise there’s a problem in the first place. I know all that. But this is complete bullshit. And that somehow makes it twenty times worse.”
Soraya looked at me. I ran my hand reassuringly across her hair. The last thing I wanted was her contribution to the confusion. She lay down, and to all appearances went straight back to sleep. I threw a sheet over myself, took the phone out onto the balcony, sat on one of the metal chairs.
“What precisely is she saying?” I asked.
“God knows what Mum’s going to think,” Julia carried on, not answering my question. “Or in fact, how it’ll affect all of us. Families implode over less than this.”
It’s not like Julia to get angry. Or show any emotion at all. I got a sense of the almighty row there’d already been. And the damage it had done.
“What precisely is she saying?” I asked, for a second time.
“I’m glad you asked that,” she said. “Because, according to her, you’re involved.”
“What do you mean? And if you’re ‘glad’ I asked it, why didn’t you answer when I asked first time round?”
I should have been worrying about how I was supposedly ‘involved’, but then we were both of us putting tangential questions, probably because the central thing was so hideous. She’s claiming he abused her.
“Of course you’re not involved,” Julia said irritably. “Not really. It’s just her gormless fantasy. She’s stupid, that’s the bottom line. Always has been, always will be. You’re a world famous mega-millionaire, I’m a prize-winning novelist, Mabel’s about to graduate in medicine. Even John’s got talent, though why he prefers the life of a travelling salesman baffles all of us. What’s she got? Her candle so-called business and a truckload of whacky beliefs about the healing power of crystals. And right now, the bottom’s dropped right out of the New Age airy-fairy-crap market so, poor thing, she feels an abject failure. That’s the trouble with the truth, of course: it will come out. And she needs someone to blame. Anyone that isn’t her.”
“Please, Julia, just answer my original question: what precisely is she saying? And, while you’re on, how the hell am I supposedly ‘involved’? Why did you say that, if you’re only going to - ”
“Okay, hold on to your seat. When you were about thirteen – she would have been eleven - Mum and John and Mabel and I went to see Auntie Jill in the Lake District, leaving you and Charlotte at home with Dad. Do you remember that?”
I took a sharp breath and let out an involuntary, “Oh, God.”
“Hannah?” she said. “Are you still there?”
“That’s what this is about?” I replied feebly.
In some ways, this sudden realisation was a good thing. Now I had the measure of it. Abuse, maybe, yes, according to one definition. Nothing sexual. Nothing violent. Not even any touching. Seriously coercive, though. And way beyond a father’s rights. Psychological abuse. I can see how it could conceivably have messed Charlotte up; how she might have buried it her whole life, until one day – sometime recently - she went to whatever passed for a professional psychologist in her world. A shaman? And the shaman must have said, What happened to you was wrong, Charlotte. You need to confront it, stop running away. You need closure.
Terms like ‘abuse’ are fluid, up to a point. There’s a strong consensus about its central characteristics, but disagreement concerning the periphery. Corporal punishment for kids was the norm when our parents were young. Nowadays, it’s grounds for taking a child into care. Is continual criticism abuse? What if it’s justified? Who judges? Physical, sexual, psychological, neglect. All this ran through my head at once, like someone reading a textbook aloud to me at speed.
“What actually happened?” Julia said at last. “Charlotte span some yarn about Dad locking you both in the front room for several days, no food, virtually nothing to drink, and then, when he let you out of the front room, stopping you leaving the house. Also, alcohol, lots of it. And then – so she says – he swore you both to secrecy before Mum got back. So she still doesn’t know. I mean, if that’s true… ”
The ellipsis was quite deliberate: designed for me to fill in.
“I’m afraid it is,” I said quietly.
“But it wasn’t abuse,” I added.
“Just on the basis of the events I’ve just summarised, I can think of one or two lawyers who might well disagree. So it actually happened? My God. Maybe I’d better ring Charlotte and apologise.”
“It was a one-off. And there was food: a pizza, I think, and sausage rolls, and a big bottle of lemonade. We weren’t starved. And he was having a breakdown. Mum and he … well, you know. She didn’t go to Auntie Jill’s for no reason.”
Suddenly, I was angry. With both women. Asinine, banal, small-minded… Particularly unforgivable in Julia, since she was supposed to be an artist. I had a strong sense she felt the same way about me: idiotic, delusional. We both wanted to hang up.
“I don’t know what Charlotte’s next move is going to be,” she said coldly. “My guess is she intends to cite you in some upcoming legal action as either a witness or an accessory. The latter’s probably impossible, since you were only thirteen, but you urgently need to touch base with her. And I mean urgently.”
It was the first time Julia had ever talked to me like this. Normally, her being much younger, she was vaguely deferential. But obviously, I’d fazed her.
“On second thoughts,” she went on, “don’t call her. If you do, it’ll probably get confrontational. She’ll know I’ve been on the phone to you. We’ll have been conspiring. I don’t want to be tarred with that brush. Not after what I’ve just heard you say. She told me she’d call you tomorrow. When you pick up, pretend you don’t know why. You need to sort it out between you. It sounds sordid to me.”
“Well, it wasn’t.”
“Good night, Hannah. Pleasant dreams.”
She put the phone down to stress her sarcasm. Probably also to stop me getting in some kind of return dig.
She needn’t have bothered. Fact is, I could see she had a point.
Maybe I had done wrong, all those years ago. I’d certainly buried it in the meantime.
Perhaps because I’d benefitted.
Victim or accessory? Or both? Anyway, there had been food.
Poor, poor Charlotte and her stupid, pathetic candles.
When, an hour later, Soraya came out onto the balcony and put her arms round me, I was still crying.