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Saturday, 1 September 2018

Chapter Four


It had been early spring, 1973 and Andy McRae was trying to earn enough money to stay another year at university. His father died the year before and his mother was finding life hard. True he had the grant, but Edinburgh was expensive, especially so for students from the Western Isles who couldn't pop home easily at the weekends. He had been busking at the entrance to Waverley Station and doing fairly well, but tonight there was a young girl sitting in his spot strumming a cheap acoustic guitar which was slightly out of tune.

His first reaction was anger. This was a good spot and it was his. He was about to ask her to move on when she began to sing. Her voice was soft and slightly husky and unbelievably beautiful. She didn't see him. Her head was lowered. Her straggly reddish hair hung around her face, a woollen hat pulled down covering her ears and eyebrows. She wore jeans, wide round the bottoms and a parka over a loose shirt, a string of coloured beads around her neck. He stood there until the song finished, totally captivated. Later he would tell her he fell in love with her the moment she lifted her head and he became aware of a pair of grey-green eyes which held a wealth of sadness.

He wanted to say, 'Excuse me, you're in my pitch,' instead, the words, 'Your guitar needs tuning,' fell from his mouth.

'I know that. But I don't have a tuning fork with me,' she replied.

He sat beside her, opened his guitar-case and withdrew the fork, holding out his hand for her instrument. Wordlessly she handed it to him. Once he finished, she nodded a thank you and listened as he began to strum out a tune of his own.

Together they played, with him singing the harmony to her songs. After a while a crowd gathered and after each song there was applause. A couple of hours later, Andy set his guitar down. 'I'm going for something to eat,' he said, gathering up the tin with the money, meaning to share it.

She snatched at it. 'That's mine,' she shouted. 'I didn't ask you to join me.'

He immediately let go and held up his hands. 'Okay, okay, actually this is my spot.'

Her face reddened. 'You don't own a piece of pavement,' she snapped. 'And I was here first.'

'Fine, you keep it.'

Her lip wobbled. She trapped it between her teeth and lowered her eyes but not before he saw the tears shimmering there.

He melted. 'You're good. How do you fancy joining my group?' The words tumbled out without thought.

Her head rose, she sniffed and wiped her cheeks. Her smile was like the sun breaking through a cloud. 'You've got a group?'

'A duo actually. We're playing in a bar tonight. You could come with us.' It occurred to him Desmond would object, he should have run it by him first, but something vulnerable about the girl pulled at his heartstrings and he knew right then he wanted to keep her near. Furthermore, Andrew McRae was used to getting his own way. Desmond always gave in in the end. 'Where do you live?' he asked.

She shrugged. 'I just got here yesterday. I've no had time to sort something out.'

'Where did you sleep last night?'

'In the station.'

He bent down and picked up her rucksack. 'Come back with me. You'll sleep in my flat for now.'

Snatching at her rucksack, she faced him with narrowed eyes. 'I'll be fine,' she said. 'I don't need no boy to do me favours!'

'No strings attached.' He released the bag. 'You'd be helping me out by singing with us, really. We're musicians, my buddy and me, but we need a strong vocalist.'

She still looked wary. 'I'll no be able to pay rent.'

He laughed. 'With a voice like you've got, you will be, I promise.'

Desmond did object. Loudly. 'For God's sake, man. There's no enough room here for the two of us. And the group's just us, you and me.'

'I didn't want to come anyway.' Beth wiped her nose on the back of her fingerless glove, slung her rucksack over her shoulder and headed for the door. Andy got there before her, slamming his hand against it, holding it shut.

'You're staying, no argument.' He turned to face his friend. 'She can stay in my room, share my food.' His voice rose. 'But for fuck’s sake listen to her sing, man, just listen to her sing.'

Desmond turned away. 'I don't care how good she is. She'll be trouble. How old is she? She looks like jailbait. She's probably a runaway. I don't need any grief. My old man would stop my allowance, ' he clapped his hands together, 'Just like that.'

'Please, mate,' said Andy, ‘She's every damn bit as good as Marianne Faithfull, if not better.'

Desmond lifted and lowered his hands in a gesture of defeat. 'I'll listen. But then she goes.'

Beth swung her guitar from her back and strummed a tune they had not heard before. She began to sing.

You've come a long way from the mountains
Where the cold wind blows
And the sun don't shine
But somewhere in the future you'll find her
In a cold dark place,
Will she still chase
The dream she left behind her

By the time she finished, tears were streaming down her face. Andy would never have admitted it, but he swallowed a lump in his own throat.

Desmond opened his eyes wide. 'Wow,' he said. 'Where did you hear that song?

'I wrote it,' said Beth dabbing at the dampness on her cheeks. 'Did...did you like it?'

'Like it, I love it. Wow, girl, you are good.'

'Then she can stay?' asked Andy.

'Hold on there, I didn't say that. We're hardly making enough to keep ourselves, less if we've got to split it three ways.'

'I don't need paying,' said Beth. 'A place to stay and I'll busk for food. And... and I'll cook for you.' 
She didn't say then her speciality was toast. Toast with baked beans, toast with sardines, toast with sloppy scrambled eggs. She turned and glared at Andy. 'And I won't be sharing your bed!' she added.

Andy held out his hands, palms facing her. 'Bloody hell, I said my room, not my bed. No strings, remember?'

Desmond still looked undecided.

‘I’ll do the washing too.’

'Come on, man. Give it a try, what can we lose?' said Andy.

Desmond sighed. ‘The cooking bit sounds good.’

How were they to know then the limits of her cooking skills?

He turned to Beth. 'Welcome to the Andy and Des Duo. At least for tonight, it'll be Des, Andy and friend. We'll see how it goes.'

'Bloody terrible name,' said Andy. 'How about Andy, Beth and Desmond?'

'How about Beth and friends?' Beth immediately chipped in.

'I told you a girl would be trouble,' said Desmond, but he was smiling. 'Look, I'm agreeing to nothing. If we're booed tonight, she's out.'

That night they totally won over the audience at the World's End bar. A week later the bookings were flooding in. A month later, the boys gave up their studies to go into music full time. It was the days of rock n' roll, yet Beth refused to sing anything other than folk songs. 'My voice is wrong for rock and roll,' she said, and although they never hit the big time, they became well-known in their own field.

Andy poured himself a whisky, walked to the office window and looked down into the busy street below. Beth. He could still see her now as she had been then. She was never classically beautiful, but she had a spark which dulled any other woman in her company. Yet for all her bravado, he grew to see, beneath the fa├žade, the vulnerable, frightened little girl who sang with tears pouring down her cheeks.

Over the years, her confidence in her own musical ability grew, but he would never forget that first night in the World's End bar.

'I can't go on,' she said.

'What?' Andy couldn't believe his ears.

She wiped her brow. 'All those people, I can't face them.' Her freckles stood out against her pale skin. Her lip trembled. 'I'm sorry. I can't.'

'What the hell now?' Desmond rolled his eyes and shrugged.

'You sang all afternoon, in the street for fuck’s sake! I persuaded Desmond...'

'That was different. Now there's... there's an... audience, and no one will listen. I need a drink.'

It was true, the audience had chatted all the way through the last act.

'Just leave her, man. Put her back where you found her,' said Desmond.

'I'll get you something. What do you want?' Andy felt his anger grow, bubbling under the surface. She couldn't humiliate him now.

'Vodka. And coke. A double.'

She took the drink with a trembling hand and swallowed it in three gulps.

'We're on,' he said. 'Now get out there or I’ll boot your arse.'

She looked at him with fear in her eyes and for a moment he thought she was going to refuse. She wobbled slightly as he shepherded her before him onto the stage. Another awkward moment as he started to strum. Beth stared at the floor, the microphone held unsteadily in her hand. Her voice started weakly, and as he glowered at her he saw a transformation take place. She lifted her head, her voice grew strong. Suddenly it was as if no one else existed. She sang for herself, wrapped in her own island, eyes and cheeks glistening. The crowd fell silent, and when the song ended, the applause could have lifted the roof.

As time went on, they grew restless. They found the confines of local gigs no longer satisfied them. They dreamed of cutting a record which would shoot them to fame. And then Lewis Hammond came into their lives. The man who was to rip their world apart.

Andy stomped to his desk and refilled his glass. He could well remember that time, the first time she left him. And he would not suffer a repeat performance now.

He had let her go then. He even forgave her, took her back afterwards. He gave a wry laugh. Lewis Hammond. He promised to make her into a star, but demolished her in the process. She promised to take Andy with her on the ladder to success, promised him he could be her manager, like Cilla Black and Bobby. How mistaken he’d been to trust her.

Lewis Hammond. Even now, the name made Andy's body tighten. And the pain of her betrayal still stung.

He had steadfastly followed her career. Her records reached the top ten, she sang on Top of the Pops. She was on her way up. Then came the botched operation that stole her voice. Lewis Hammond was reported as saying she was a liability and he’d washed his hands of her, and as quickly as she rose to fame, she faded like yesterday's news. Andy swallowed his pride and forgave her, at least with words. How was he to know her voice had gone for good?

When she returned to him, she was a shadow of the feisty girl she had been. Alcohol and drugs had dulled the pain of her loss and diminished her bank account. He brought her home and nursed her back to health. He asked her to marry him once, but she'd turned him down, swearing she'd never marry anyone. Nevertheless, he held her when she cried about things best forgotten, and finally convinced her that she needed looking after, looking after by him. Even then he believed her voice would return, that this was just a temporary setback, and this time he would manage her career. But he’d been wrong. She refused to even try to sing again in public. Accepting defeat, his ambitions changed direction. The royalties from her songs still arrived and she owed him.

That had been years ago. Since then they bought the club and became lovers, but he hated it that when he held her he sensed her distance, as if he possessed her body but never her heart. He often caught her with a faraway look on her face, a tear in her eye and he suspected she stayed with him only because he supplied the stability she craved.

They enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Beth still had contacts. She booked many big-name bands which drew in the crowds. Andy McRae's club made him a name in the city.
His hand closed into a slow fist as his mind whirled, consumed with a new fear of losing her, hating that she had never really been his.

Glenda, an employee, a bit of an all-rounder, who helped him in the bar, Beth with the administration, and who ran the kitchen, moved past him, brushing him with her thigh as she did so, startling him from his daydreaming. She turned, met his eye and smiled.

'Penny for them,' she said, her voice low, seductive.

Andy rose from the office chair. He walked to the window and looked out onto the grey street. 'Have we got a group lined up for tonight?'

'I've tried a few, but they're all booked up. Look, I meant to ask you, my sister's boy is good on the guitar. It would be great if you would give him and his friends a chance.'

Andy sighed. 'We need a known name to pull in the crowds.'

'Darren's really good. It's the best I could do at such short notice.' She trailed a suggestive finger across his shoulder. Andy swallowed, felt his Adam's apple bob. He groaned and grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t do this. Business and pleasure, remember?’

She pulled her hand away from his, walked slowly to the door swinging her hips, and turned the key. 
‘The door’s locked,' she whispered. ‘Beth doesn’t deserve you. I could make you happy.’

He groaned. ‘No, Glenda.’

Bristling, she drew back. ‘What’s wrong with me? It’s not as if you’ve not cheated on Beth before.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you, but I don’t shit on my own doorstep.’ His voice was gruff. He closed his eyes against the temptation. She was lovely, sexy, seductive, but he knew the dangers of playing with fire.


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