Twenty Two Seconds
Somebody fired a missile at the Houses of Parliament – bad mistake. Under an onion dome, a man in a suit showed teeth and grinned, his eyes glowing red. Why red, Piotr wondered, when he saw the final thing. Why an onion dome – as if the evil Russians spent all their time in church. The Russians Piotr had known never set foot in a fucking church.
The music blared. It saved the world – of course it did. United by that music, and cued by young men with clipboards, people took to the fields – why, just…why? – and punched the air with exuberance.
That was still what happened in pop videos, even in an age of cynicism and insincere world-weariness. If we were really that world-weary, we’d hate the music, Piotr thought, and love the launching of the missiles.
He was having a hard time liking the music, which was more than a shame. Five years before, he would have done anything to watch its author mime to his words. Ten years before, Piotr would have run out into the night and turned cartwheels in the snow, in and out of the drunken cars on the busy roads of Katowice, in his native Poland. Maybe. More mundanely, what he had certainly done was queued, sleet on his bare head, and bought a ticket to see him, queued again on the night, a steady drip of snow down his neck. At the door he had his belt taken from him by security in case it could be used as a weapon. Holding his trousers up, he had joined a crowd doing much the same – baggy jeans were the thing, especially for spare, skinny guys like Piotr – and had watched the singer across a sea of bobbing heads, ensuring that every minute was burned into his memory forever. Now he was older, and, he supposed, wiser – it often didn’t feel like it – and he resigned himself to watching, and, reluctantly, pitying, his hero in less glamorous circumstances.
David Deram, that author, singer and hero, covered one eye with plastic-jewelled fingers that would eventually exude post-production CGI lasers. He pointed to the camera meaningfully. The playback – surprisingly weedy in the fallow field, Piotr thought, despite the giant speakers – ground to a halt. The extras stopped punching the air, and the smiles dropped from their faces at once, in a Mexican Droop of impatience. They looked as if they’d prefer to punch the director.
“Let’s go again,” the director said quietly. He was keeping his voice casual, but he simply sounded bored. His crew crouched over their equipment, ready in an instant.
“What now?” David Deram kept it quiet, too. He didn’t exactly believe that you could be quiet but firm and still get the same result as a full-on diva tantrum, but he had spent a fortune on anger management classes. Just reminding himself of the sums awed him into quietness.
“It’s the…” The director pointed to his own lower face. He snapped fingers at one of the make-up girls. She advanced on David Deram with her brush raised. “The pout.”
The director didn’t really mean David Deram’s famous pout. The singer had recently had a bit of surgery on his lips, partly to cover up a previous botch. His bottom lip was numb at times, with just a glimmer of feeling. On camera, he knew, there was also the odd glimmer of dribble. He was a hostage to that fucking pout.
So was the director, but in the meantime he enjoyed making a jumped-up has-been like David Deram strut his limited stuff until it looked absurd. “Places,” he shouted across the field, and set in motion a sluggish ballet of extras and technicians.
Aiken D’Arcy was a child of the eighties, his youth spent in the unimportant cities in Europe in which his diplomat dad had been placed. His life had been sidetracked by constant moving, languages imperfectly learned, then abandoned, and new friends destined to be ditched in the same way. Aiken would rather have been doing film – hadn’t done his courses and accreditations and, to be honest, schmoozing and crawling, just to direct the posturing of pop stars. He had said as much many a time in early interviews, when it looked like his career in film was set to match the glittering start his first feature had allowed him. Usually, by the middle of a shoot, he had recovered a tiny spark of enthusiasm. He wasn’t sure why this one made him wake up each day wanting to slit David Deram’s wrists, closely followed by his own.
David Deram had been around too long, Aiken thought. Due to the undeniably catchy intro to his scurrilous tune Rear Admirable soundtracking an advert whose product nobody really wanted, he was making money again, and his management company had bullied him out of retirement to make more. One crappy ad was all you needed to keep you haunting the airwaves for a few more years. David Deram was suddenly a busy man: there were the reissues of his eighties work, first the CDs with a waste-of-time extra track or two, then the vinyl reissues, with their curated artwork – curated, for fuck’s sake. Somebody had called a favor in to get Aiken doing this… crap, for some fucking nonsense song with a story about saving the fucking world. Add CGI, and meaningless gestures that were lapped up out in the mixed-medialand of attention-starved millennials, and it was an essential part of David Deram’s blazing comeback, or so Aiken was told at least once a day in a text or e-mail from David’s people.
Aiken supposed that David Deram didn’t actually have to be in a dry field in Hertfordshire at nine on a July morning, surrounded by snarky crew members, bored caterers, thick make-up girls, dickish extras posing as fruit-pickers, and, over the way a bit, just out of the merciless view of the cameras, a field full of actual fruit-pickers not too busy to come and rubberneck during their breaks. Aiken had a mortgage to pay, and double maintenance payments, plus cello lessons, and extra Spanish, and holidays, for his scattered offspring, now just getting into fucking hobbies, and the piles of expensive junk that had to come with them. He also got through a ton of blow, a daily pocket full of hyper that sparkled with white mica.
Meanwhile, David Deram, a few years the wrong side of fifty, was never going to save the world. He was frazzled from all the drugs he had horsed down, and even more brain-addled from the rehab programmes he’d undergone. The born-again Christian phase hadn’t helped him. Nor the rumoured five days he’d spent as a Sufi Muslim. Nor had the act of trying to find himself on a fucking ashram, and seeing only the same twat staring at him from a flyblown mirror in some stinking town in India where the boy-hookers clamoured outside his door for basheesh or hashish.
To the crew, everybody around them was invisible, unless they were being lit, or in a frame. Only the extras studied David Deram, from their safe distance: he was on the phone, and swearing, wanted to chuck the handset into the grass, they could all tell. They saw him waver over the gesture. Even if he didn’t realize that they were miles from a mobile phone shop, he surely had an assistant to remind him.
Even in the depths of his work, Piotr could barely take his eyes off his one-time hero for long. The other pickers had been excited at the prospect of the shoot, at first. It was being set up as they started work, but there was nothing to look at, really: technical gear, a track, a generator, cables, trucks, and preoccupied, bad-tempered people yelling into walkie-talkies and referring to clipboards. The pickers had ascertained that they had never heard of whoever-it-was – he was long before their time – and had carried on with their quotas.
It would have been pointless for Piotr to tell anybody there that his difficult teens were marked by the man’s music. It would be his secret. He had also read by every word David Deram had spoken for public consumption, in translation, and then, when Piotr’s English got better, in the original, and, sometimes, memorized.
And now, Piotr couldn’t help thinking, David Deram’s proximity to people too young to have even heard of him was… wrong, somehow. His hero in some Hertfordshire field was… just wrong. He’d not seen the final video at that point, of course: no fake onion domes, no fake Houses of Parliament, none of the fakery of salvation through song, just this incoherent playback, and the ageing equipment, the pompous director, the minions with their clipboards, the scruffy extras, and one man, as alone as he might ever be, scowling at the phone in his hand.
They were paying Gerard Blaise a lot to use the field, but he looked like a man who’d spent the money an age before, and indeed he had. He needed to put the farm on the map – no, more: he needed to stop it disappearing from the map.
He’d tried, nine years before, by taking part in a documentary about four Englishmen’s heartfelt search for exotic soulmates to vitalise their incomplete lives, using the still-relatively-novel internet. By the time the programme aired, it was starkly revealed as a poke-piece, along the lines of sad-middle-aged-blokes-duped-into-Russian-bride-scams. Over Gerard’s enthusiastic comment that Russian women were ‘more sincere’ than western ones, they’d shown film of his soul-match rolling her eyes behind his back as he tried out some rudimentary Russian. He’d had them film the most picturesque parts of the farm, but did they show any of them? Did they fuck. They’d sought out its most run-down corners, and had ended the programme with Gerard’s voice intoning that his bride couldn’t fail to be happy in such an idyllic landscape – recorded originally while Gerard faced the sun setting over the rolling hills, but dubbed onto a scene of one of the farm hands chasing a rat with a shovel.
The year before, he’d got a grant to attend some weekend away for failing farmers, and he had been advised to find something – anything – to stick on his produce boxes to make them stand out. Nothing had occurred to him; he thought of the farm only as a place of soil and toil and regrets. A visiting relative had enjoyed that sunset view eschewed by the documentary crew, and said a guy in her book club was ‘something in films’, and that she would mention the farm to him. Gerard had muttered distracted, pigs-might-fly thanks, but sure enough, a month later a location scout had called him and turned up, taken a load of photos and made a video. Gerard was then contacted by the management company of a bloke he remembered from Top of the Pops in the distant eighties: David Deram. The star saw the farm as the perfect place to set one of his tunes, Gerard was assured, and the creative vision he had for his upcoming release.
Gerard saw exactly the same things as his foreman, Piotr: not a vision of creativity, but a bunch of humourless people in his fallow field, every now and then directed by the tinny squeak of the same bit of playback. Gerard had got to like the song, and become sick of it, all in the space of an hour. Another stitch-up, he decided. At least he had been paid, but he had no illusions about the place getting onto any map other than the one it was already on, in a corner of the country forgotten by all but a few farmers and ministry officials who descended and condescended year after year, sniffing over the mean subsidies they offered. Next time they came, he might be ready to fire a missile at the Houses of Parliament himself.
Gerard and Piotr were not the only ones who couldn’t see the vision David Deram had come up with for his paean to music saving the world. Even its author wasn’t quite sure. His way of working was to write everything down in notebooks. He’d never got on well with computers, file management, passwords – how did anybody remember passwords? As he was never together enough to keep the same notebook, and to keep it with him, his assistant, Danielle De Mare, had always done the efficient job of keeping track of the notebooks, and the ideas, by logging them all. Danielle had fitted into his way of working by being willing to be with him when the muse beckoned, even if that was on the other end of a phone in the middle of the night, transcribing David’s babbled ideas for hours. Some people laughed when she mentioned her secretarial school training – there was no place for it in rock and roll, she had been told. She seemed to have done alright with it, though.
Only Danielle knew what was to occur on film: the birds shocked out of hedgerows into flight, and how David’s finger would follow them, and people at work, enlightened, saved, and downing their plastic tools, but only at the right moment. There was only one problem: Danielle was not there. Neither was she at the end of her phone, except in the form of her chirpy exhortation to ‘presage with a message’.
Yes, there had been… words between David and his assistant, Aiken was told by a minion from David’s management people.
“Words.” Aiken nodded, opened his hands, exhorted more. The storyboard wasn’t quite a blank: there were establishing shots to do, and concluding ones, the camera mounted on the track dolly would do some creep-in-and-pull-out zooms – the usual corny pop video trope that musicians seemed to believe they’d thought of that very minute for the very first time in the history of the filmed image. There were the roaming shots over the extras’ faces, not quite blurring them. They could have been doing the aerial shots were it not for a malfunction in the camera drone. Aiken looked around for the operator, and was told he was in one of the tents, tinkering, assuring anybody in earshot that he would be able to fix the fucking thing – of course he would, if he could be given some fucking space, yeah?
“I don’t appreciate being sworn at,” the assistant director grumbled, a man who was too old for this kind of down-with-the-kids crap. “At least, not by some… cunt who operates a toy fucking helicopter.” He’d worked on Chariots of Fire – had he mentioned that? Aiken nodded, and steered the man towards the catering truck.
“Well, funny enough… words are what we need,” Aiken told the record company minion. “What I got at the moment is a field full of extras and a singer on his phone. There’s a story to tell – yes, I get that. But I need it to know it, if I’m going to shoot it.”
“We’ll track her down,” the guy promised. “She’s probably on her way now.”
“Is she usually late?”
“Late?” The man looked puzzled. Aiken had seen it before: people like David Deram had a time-zone all of their own making, and those who wanted scraps from the bandwagon fell into it in a dutiful trance.
“For things? In general?”
“No.” The assistant was pondering how much he should say. “But, like I say.”
“There were… words between them.”
“Well, find some for me, eh?”
Aiken beckoned an assistant to get everybody to break for some grub. He took a look up. It seemed like the weather at least was one thing he wouldn’t need to worry about. It was a bright day, no hint of a cloud except the one his idiot client might make.
In between leaving messages for his errant assistant, David Deram was also fielding calls from his record company people. Caution was being urged upon him; an apology to Danielle could be construed as an admittance of guilt that could be manifested in a payout, or so one of the legal people was pointing out. These days, mere butthurt could mean a massive improvement in a low-paid employee’s bank balance – was David aware of that?
“Too late. I always say sorry to her,” David Deram explained quietly to a lawyer, and then to a PR honcho, and then to the company president. “That’s what civilized people do. All I’m aware of is that I need to get this fucking project done. Or – do you understand? – I can’t move on to the next phase of my… life.”
They said, “David…” in various tones, of sympathy, exhortation and exasperation. As the calls kept chirping in, David reverted to his character; the Houses of Parliament were under attack, yes, but not to worry, because the music was going to save the world. “Really,” he assured the suits. “Really, it will.”
“David?” The voices took on an edgy tone.
David Deram barely heard them. His brain was full of holes, he realised, sat there as he was in the shroud of fog out of which he peeped. Fields, he saw, and tents, the dull gleam of a tea urn visible, and a truck – burgers, salads, he remembered, fucking salads. Nobody ate salads, for fuck’s sake. A man in wellies, he saw, just staring at him across the field, mesmerized, in a waxed jacket that looked like scrunched-up paper, and with glasses that made his face look like the front of a small car. Anxious eyes blinking behind them, a man unsure of a list of things every day; woke up every day, it came to David, worried about the same things he woke up to the day before, spent the whole day worrying about them and then dismissing them, and then, next day, starting over at the same place. A proper vision of Hell.
Danielle worried about the things for him, he remembered, allowed him to wake up each day with no worries in mind, his eyes full of nothing. He was grateful.
“Farmer!” He waved across the field. Waxy jacket man looked puzzled, but waved back, hesitantly. So did his companion. David wasn’t sure why he had shouted the word; he remembered going through a phase that had involved the talk-out-loud naming of things – it would make him feel grounded, some therapist had assured him.
David’s attention was drawn to a structure on one side of the field. He named it as a watchtower. There was another, some distance away, and another, until they faded into a curve in the land. It was a watchtower, more or less like those he’d seen in prison camps all through a cultural soup of TV, graphic novels, old films. They were disturbing, silhouetted against the sky. He looked for a watcher in the nearest one – a man with a rifle, of course, and in uniform – but it was empty.
His phone was vibrating. He wheedled out a mimicked version of his own name. Once again, he was tempted to chuck the thing. He answered, heard his name called by another bloody PR lovey or some bastard lawyer or that… cuntbubble of a company president; it may as well have been a plumber, or an architect – none of it mattered. Danielle was out there, all his ideas clutched to her chest.
Like all the best ideas, the one for the video was simple, but brilliant. David tried to run the images through his head. He tried to clutch on to the feeling the ideas scratched up in him and stirred, and add it to the sectors of his frontal lobe that were the most receptive. That had worked before. He blotted out the thought that only a consultation with Danielle and one of her notebooks had made it work.
He was walking. The phone was in his hand, still and silent.
He was distracted by the farmer’s companion: short fair hair, muscles – physique, yes, a vision of physique – a singlet, muddied jeans and more wellies. Eyes, pale blue and curious, and upon him in a way that was frank – for a second, too frank. No, not a vision: a mirage. The next time David Deram looked, he was gone, and there stood the farmer, alone, biting his lip.
It was the best idea for a video he had ever had, David remembered that much. He cursed Danielle’s name softly, and a little fearfully, in case she was nearby, in a… hedgerow, or under the opaque plastic covering the beds he saw at the edge of the field, hiding some mysterious stuff.
“I’m in a field.” He closed his eyes as he saw Aiken approach him, his hands out, urging something. “And the attack has started. I’m in a field, in…”
The farmer was trying to be helpful, David was sure. He raised a hand that meant firstly to please bear with him, and secondly to shut the fuck up while he engaged with his thoughts, please.
“In a field in…” David looked down. “The costume of a hero.” It was, too, sort of Star Trekky – or was it Star Warsy? David had never been able to tell the difference between the two. A shiny belt and boots, and some sort of badge on his arm and his chest, and… lycra. Cuffs, a collar. It was silly. Heroes only redeemed themselves from their stupid costumes by saving the world.
“Hertfordshire.” That was the farmer, again, who looked at him, trying not to be puzzled. David gave him the briefest of glares, then turned to the director.
“The attack on the Houses of Parliament.”
“Yes, David. We did that part in the studio – remember?”
“I know that. The next part is the field. And…”
“There’s a sequence.” David Deram shut his eyes again, snapped fingers. “Danielle will… bring it.”
“Mm-hm. Will she?”
“It’s precisely twenty two seconds of screen-time – she told me.”
“Right.” The video stars were always measuring them out, Aiken had noticed, as if giving the exact amount of time somehow made it real. He had already told David that twenty two uninterrupted seconds of anything in a three-and-a-half-minute video was like suddenly having to sit through relatives’ holiday snaps. “The best idea you ever had, I’m told.”
“Yes.” David Deram glanced at the director with some suspicion. Who had told him that? And then he remembered that he had been telling everybody. The best idea he had ever had was not a thing to be kept under wraps.
“So… it’ll come back to you, eh?”
“Perhaps even before Danielle gets here with it, eh?”
David Deram sounded robotic to Aiken. He was almost tempted to sweep a hand across David’s gaze, to see if the gesture engaged him.
“Where is he?” David said.
“There.” David set off across the field towards a figure doing his work diligently: the man in the singlet. It would be nice to see somebody fucking working, he was thinking, and not in a tent, tinkering, or eating, or telling tales of film shoots in pre-history and video shoots dead before they were even over, a bit, he suspected like this one would be talked-about, if he didn’t recover his idea. He was about to walk over to singlet man, and say hallo, but his phone beckoned him, and, as there was a chance it was Danielle, over the ether with the most gleaming fruits of his mind’s labour, he resisted once again the urge to bang the thing to bits on the tent pole, and answered it.
Piotr was checking his gang’s progress with their quotas, and their tempers. He told some of them to take a break if they looked all-in – to go and watch the video shoot for five minutes, if they wanted. He went up and down the line, did a bit of grafting if needed, some marking and securing of bundles, some handing around of water – he was Aquarius, on hot days – and a bit of cajoling that was mostly friendly.
He signaled to Gerard that everything was in hand. It always was, but the farm’s profit-margins were so narrow that Piotr often wondered why his boss bothered. No holidays for Gerard, no lie-ins, no fancy cars, just old bangers under a patina of mud and constant maintenance, the employment of as many staff as he dared – all those grumbling Slavs. When they finished for the season and went off to family in some of the more picturesque parts of Europe, Gerard was left to the English winter, and taxes, headaches, transportation problems, regulations, claims of spoiled produce, insurance, counter-claims, the chasing of paltry grants – he spent months of his year filling in forms and making follow-up phone calls – excess, penalties… What was the point? He was putting his ingrate kids through fancy schools and universities, he had told Piotr, his ingrate wife upping the payments every chance she got.
The Russian mail-order replacement brideski was gone too. There was never a good time for Piotr to ask why Gerard had ever thought any Russian woman literate enough to use a computer was going to live on a shoestring farm in the middle of a place she couldn’t pronounce. Even now, decades on from 1989, those matrioshki still believed in the bright lights and the big city, places where they could totter around on their mad high heels. Gerard and his natasha had been well-matched only in the determination of their ill-matched wishes.
There was nothing for the pickers to watch if they took a break: gaggles of extras in a cleaner version of what looked like picker clothes, men and women with clipboards harassing them from time-to-time, and the crew, guarding their bits of kit. At least the smokers were occupied in the walk to and from the road, as smoking was forbidden even in the fallow field. The director was hunched over his phone. A camera crew seemed focused on one of the firewatch towers, squinting through the lens and making notes. The star of the show was nowhere to be seen, though he could be heard occasionally in his VIP tent, making noises into his phone.
The Houses of Parliament hadn’t really been attacked. Music was never going to save the world, either; it would remain in its gloomy stasis. As if this was sensed by the collective mood, the pointlessness of the endeavour was infecting everybody in the fallow field, and sinking them into bad temper and ennui. Across the divide of a hedge, the workers worked on, blissfully free of the mood, and looked forward to the end of their day.
Piotr saw his hero, standing, looking, across the field. He wasn’t quite an unknown to the pickers, now. They’d twigged that the attention of the thing going on in the fallow field was focused on him. It wavered, went to the director, and to the drone pilot, but it always went back to him, the slight-looking man fancy-dressed as a refugee from some sci-fi drama, his hair unfeasibly dark, his gaze rather sad.
Like everybody else there, they hated the song, or had forgotten it. They saw that David Deram was working, though, in his own way. It was ludicrous – sure, but they respected him for it by being content to wave or smile his way, if he was looking.
Piotr couldn’t go and tell David Deram what he had once meant to him. Or could he? This man’s music had been in Piotr’s mind for… eighteen years; Piotr was shocked, as if hearing the number for the first time. He was brought back to his dad, whose last six or seven years had been punctuated by the mine-worker’s cough that killed him, his only pleasure his Charles Aznavour records. Not Piotr’s thing, of course, but oh God how his dad knew them, those miserable songs in French and Armenian. And yet in bustled his mum, tight-lipped, turning the stereo down, a frown on her face, her ears deaf to her husband’s plea to leave it up for just this one last song. “A waste of money,” Piotr remembered his mum admonishing his dad. “All those bloody things, gathering the dust, taking up space. And all sounding the same.” A hard-hearted woman from different times, who didn’t mind handing her hard-earned money to priests for them to mutter mumbo-jumbo for long dead family members, who got rid of the records almost before his dad was even cold. A man and his music were important – his mum hadn’t understood that. Piotr had never met a woman who did, to be honest.
“You sang to me,” Piotr imagined saying. He also imagined David Deram laughing, embarrassed for both of them. He put down his basket, and his scales, and his dragging hook, and walked over towards his idol anyway. You didn’t always have to know what you were going to say, he thought – and it wouldn’t matter an hour later, or a day, back to his gang and his fruit and his scales and his aimless English life, that music settling down and resuming in his head.
The pilot emerged from his tent. Never mind heroes; he was going to save them all, a grin on his face, his box of tricks on a harness around his neck, like a popcorn-seller at a public event. He caught their attention with a shout. They saw the drone emerge majestically from the tent. He guided it over his shoulder, and magicked it into a hovering pause in front of his head. “Selfie!” he yelled, like some exuberant eleven-year-old. He made silly faces at it. He guided it towards some of the extras, and they did the same. He sent it way up, got them all to wave. He brought it down.
Director and crew allowed themselves a low cheer, then converged on the drone man with their clipboards and schedules. By the time they’d got to him he was joking, saying, “Allright. Orderly queue, ladies and gentlemen.” He turned to Aiken, said, “M’sieu le directeur?”
“We’ve got three things to get on camera,” Aiken began.
“Talk to me.” The pilot nodded. “Tell me them.”
Both he and Aiken were looking at his monitor. There was an expanse of green – Hertfordshire, in all its glory – and one of sky blue. They looked up: nothing. When they looked back at the screen, it was black. The pilot pressed buttons, worked the joystick, and swore. Aiken gave him a chance to speak, before saying, “Obvious question, but I’ll leave it with you anyway. Where the fuck has it gone?”
David Deram was close to the fence near one of the towers. He had his back to Piotr, and was in a pose that could be mistaken for no other. A little steam rose in front of him.
“I… know you.” Piotr addressed the back of the pissing paragon, drawing a frozen turn, an expression on David’s face that could not have been described as either pleased or, exactly, neutral.
“You… what?” The hero half-turned. “You… know me?”
“You know me?” David did side-eyes, amused. “How?”
Piotr had been about to say, “I saw you in Katowice,” but knew it would have been ridiculous. David Deram was not going to remember the Municipal Hall Honouring the Heroic Steelworkers of Katowice for Brave and Tireless Endeavour. He would not even remember playing in a nowhere town like Katowice, nor even in Poland itself. Piotr set off on a babble in his head: a marvelous concert, the best night of his life, except maybe for that time he was in a discotheque in Bytom, and he first heard David’s ethereal dream voice out loud, filling the room – his legendary song Peppercorn Rentboy – and how later that night he kissed a man – the taxi driver – and wanked him off in the car in the dark in a siding near Gliwice station.
Where was his beautiful English when he needed it? Gone into some… void, the one his life had become this summer, in fields with Poles, in huts with them, all disdaining hanging out with the Moldovans, the Macedonians, the Serbs, Croats – all because of some imagined slight, some fucking argument about money, or quotas, or influence, as they chased their fucking pennies – and a Hungarian Piotr fancied might have been up for a little bit of charming, followed by a little rough-and-tumble in the corner of a field or a disused outbuilding. He couldn’t articulate any of this, and his eyes filled with tears and shame at his limitations.
Because he had been there himself, Piotr told himself later, David Deram saw it all in Piotr’s eyes. He didn’t need to hear Piotr’s tortured English with its missing links; David Deram knew, and understood. And, because he saw it all, he smiled, and, knowing he didn’t have to, he had a good shake, but neglected to zip up his fly.
There was nothing too rough, and nothing too vocal. It was gentle, for the most part. It was like a climactic scene, Piotr fancied, from an old Greek drama, by one of those venerable old men of literature and pederasty, of a soldier, a ranked man full of lowly honour, bloodied but free by his own hand, and his hero chief for whom he would gladly die. They were exchanging the moment, one a nothing, the other a demi-god, but both equal for that moment of explosion that was indescribable, that, for eighteen years, Piotr had been able only to imagine.
David Deram had one grey tooth, standing out at the back among its brilliant companions. He caught Piotr looking, and laughed, said it was resistant even to the art of expensive dentists. It made him real, though. His skin looked tired where it hadn’t been manipulated and stretched. There was an alarming scar behind one ear. Piotr covered it hastily with a kiss. A jaggy nail. Piotr didn’t want his idols to be exactly like him. The thought gave him pause… but it was only a pause. After a pause, you resumed. Piotr, and his idol, David Deram, did so.
Piotr’s dad wouldn’t have made love to Aznavour, of course, but he’d have done almost anything else for him; he’d have fought lions, or dragons – Turks, especially Turks. He might not have approved, but Piotr liked to think that a part of him would have seen why Piotr wanted to be where he was with David Deram, concealed on the ground by low-lying shrubbery, making the best love of his young life, and a memory to carry with him wherever he went.
“Is it me,” David asked after a while.
“Yes.” Piotr laughed. “It’s you.” He still didn’t quite believe it.
“Or has it gone all quiet?”
They were secreted, not very cleverly, but out of sight of both pickers and film people, in a dip in the divisions between the fields where foundations had been dug for a fence – Gerard had run out of money – and the vegetation had started reclaiming the works. There was no playback of the music, of course. Piotr strained his ears, and thought he heard voices, some of the extras or crew talking quietly. A stray laugh sounded out, clear as a bird’s cry. “You heard that?” Piotr said.
“Was it my phone?”
“No.” Piotr resisted the temptation to do a comic double-take.
“I chucked it,” David recalled.
“The fucking battery ran out.”
It was Danielle who charged the phone. When his battery ran out, she would give him the other one, charged. Without Danielle, things were… unravelling. David Deram looked at Piotr wondered if he ought to confess this.
Piotr looked impressed, but also a little aghast at this celebrity behaviour. If David’s car ran out of petrol, did he leave it by the roadside and get another, he wondered. He tried not to sound judgmental when he said, “Crazy.”
David said, “What are the towers for?”
It was both a frivolous, post-coital question, and a good one.
“To watch for…” Piotr tried to remember the pronunciation in English. “Vikings,” he said, with a triumphant air.
David Deram let out a huge laugh. “You’re funny,” he said. He showed his appreciation with the peck of a kiss.
“Polish?” David checked.
“All the Polish are here, now,” the legend said.
“Yes.” Piotr pretended to laugh. “Poland is… empty, now.” He wondered if he ought to resume his babble, about seeing David sing, back in another life. He decided not to. It would lengthen the distance between them, and send it back to where it had been fifteen minutes before.
“One of them has a light.” David Deram pointed at the nearest tower.
“In the tower – really?” Piotr followed his finger. Yes, an orange light in the shadowed interior. He caught it winking off, and then it sputtered into life again. It moved. Piotr got up on one elbow. The light was definitely moving in the dark doorway. One of those… stupid extras on the shoot, he decided, thought they’d found a clever place to sneak off and smoke – idiot! He got to his feet, pulled up his trousers, adjusted them, and zipped up, shouted, “Hey!” He bent, and reached for his singlet, pulled it over his head. “Hey! Hey – you!” His voice hit an absurdly high note, which prompted a giggle from his companion. “Extinguish the cigarette!”
Beside him, David Deram repeated the words, and – he couldn’t help it, it was plain – burst into giggles. He shouted them, too, in comic exuberance.
Piotr was trying to think of the most direct route to the towers. He peered around the abandoned fence workings, keeping half an eye on the crazy smoker in the darkness.
“Hey – no, it’s okay.” David Deram nudged Piotr. “Look.” He put a pacifying arm around Piotr’s shoulder. They watched the orange light as it grew, a little, and took the shape of a giant insect robot, and rose into the air above them.
There were shouts in the field, by the huddle of tents. A few cheers went up. The drone pilot was calling, “Come to Daddy!”
“Back to work.” David Deram didn’t sound completely regretful.
He loved his work, after all, Piotr supposed. He faced him, reminded him, “You must dress, first, though, I advise.”
“You advise.” David Deram laughed, and bent picked up his saving-the-world costume, began to shrug himself into it. “A very lovely… interlude,” he said.
He had a song called Interludes, Piotr remembered. Piotr had loved the song long before he had understood either the pun on the words ‘into ludes’, meaning some seventies soporific drug, or the nature of those interludes. And now he was in one. On his way out, sure, but… you had to be in one to be on the way out of it.
Some of the songs were true, then. All the songs, he had understood from an interview in Mojo to celebrate David Deram’s twenty five year-tenure in the limelight – all Piotr’s life, in fact – were art, and not life: the sailors, tattooists, thugs, abortionists, drifters, con-artists, junkies, rent boys, prostitutes and balladeered murderers in the songs were all from David Deram’s imagination. What a talent the man had; he had made it all up, a world in which Piotr had lost himself in his head, for years now. There were interludes, though – what a relief.
Piotr had sometimes idly wondered how he might feel after a celebrity fuck: now he knew. It was dignified, and, for those moments on the ground, they had reached a kind of equality. It would remain dignified, Piotr decided, as long as he told nobody about it. He swore to himself that he never would.
Piotr had a few days to look back on his moments in the field, to treasure them as his own memory with one of his heroes. He remained true to his wish to keep the liaison dignified, and, true to his word, he never told a soul. But then, he didn’t have to.
It had been unwise, in retrospect, to sneak off for a quiet moment of any kind when there was a camera drone around, even one with a recent history of malfunction. Piotr had seen it early in the day, of course, making its passes over the extras, and zoning in on the world-saving freedom fighter in his hero’s garb. It had hovered long enough for it to have become something in the background; from novelty to familiarity in the space of an hour, from an embodiment of the technological future, to a sight as familiar as the rise of a bird.
It wasn’t David Deram’s fault, exactly, that the drone camera wasn’t capturing exactly what the director wanted; but that was the essence of showbiz, wasn’t it, doing a thing imperfectly, again and again, until it looked more or less perfect, or could be cut and pasted to do so. It had probably been unwise of David, though, to have given the drone’s pilot quite such a hard time about it.
The footage didn’t make it into the finished video, of course, but those rumoured scenes ensured that it got a high profile before the song bombed. It bombed for a whole number of reasons, and one of them was partly to do with Danielle De Mare’s no-show in the field that day of the shoot.
That twenty two seconds of private moments blazed a new trail on YouTube – it was even suggested, snarkily, that it was a publicity stunt. It was soon inserted into unofficial versions of the video. In addition, it found its way into other videos, and the sight of Piotr and David Deram cavorting in a field to the rhythm of Paul McCartney’s Frog Chorus certainly raised a smile. Piotr downloaded every version, each time his beloved David Deram got his lawyers to peel off an injunction.
Gerard was not pleased about the direction taken by this attempt to put his farm on the map. He was not very pleased with Piotr, either. He told him, from the edge of politeness, that his services would not be required the following season, assuming the farm made it that far.
Piotr loved David Deram, he supposed, in some way. He loved him like he hadn’t loved his parents, nor any guy he’d ever met, nor Jesus. David had given him more than a few wet moments; more like a soundtrack for his life, albeit sometimes distorted.
The tune was in the lower reaches of the charts when the decomposing body of Danielle De Mare was found floating off the coast of Norfolk, not a mile, as the crow might fly, from David Deram’s country home. She had been bashed with an oar, weighed down, and rolled into the water, then eventually propelled unceremoniously to the surface by a build-up of air in her garments and gas in her midriff. Local police needed no leap of the imagination to connect her with her employer, who’d reported her missing after they’d had what he called words.
In several sessions in a London police station, David had told a rambling story whose digressions had finally been cast aside to reveal the stark details of a boat trip – a calm day on the water – and David saying sorry for the thousandth time to his indispensable assistant. He had quoted a therapist who had urged him, and taught him, to sort out his most pressing problems himself. He was a skinny little man, he reminded everybody – he was a boy-man, he had been told all through his life – so how could he have hurt Danielle that much?
It would have been a ridiculous reaction to the news that she was leaving his employment, and to the question: what did he want her to do with all those notebooks? “Do you know how many there are?” she had asked him. “A hundred and eighty two, all full of your ideas, all the things you’re going to do in your future. You need to take them back, David, and do all those things.”
It was only at that moment that David Deram saw that he didn’t care about having the ideas, he told the police, and his lawyer – did they get that? – or acting on them. He just wanted those ideas to be at his fingertips, day or night, on call; he wanted to be able to say to Danielle, as he did every so often – well, once a week, maybe? – “Tell me again about the Robot Love Song Chronicles – tell me again what I wrote about the Tiller Boys Dance and Assassination Troupe, and my musical, Breakfast at Epiphany’s. Tell me the last verse of A Certain Horatio, the one I didn’t dare record because it was just too explosive, too full of cabinet ministers…”
If the ideas remained untried, his thoughts revealed into a recorder, they remained perfect, and nothing could go wrong with them, and nobody could sneer at them. No scumbag extras could stand in a field, rolling their eyes at his inability to follow a script and a bit of choreography, no snooty directors could look at him through their viewfinders and find him wanting, a glimmer on his numb lip. No talentless, spiteful camera operators could spy on him through their airborne lenses, and capture his weakest, most blissful, most human moments.
“‘Every night, David.’” It was his last performance, he sensed, and at last he had conjured up Danielle, and brought her back from the dead for a few minutes, just for those inquisitive policemen: Danielle De Mare, loyal and trustworthy, but drained and hollow-eyed, a skeleton from a Poe story. “‘Every night, you call me. Every night, for hours, having me repeating your hidden fucking… poetry back to you. My phone fries every six weeks, David – it can’t handle it. Do you know how many phones you’ve shelled out for to replace them? And if my phone fries, what do you think is happening to my brain?’” She couldn’t leave me, though,” David said. “She was an extension of me – even her name was an anagram of mine. We weren’t… meant to be separate.”
“A sort of anagram,” somebody pointed out. The tape hissed as they pondered the fate of a woman whose name even belonged to the sea.
“With all due respect,” one officer asked. “This isn’t all just a story, is it?”
It was all a bit far-fetched, too, but forensics had pointed to the hand that wielded the oar, and how in the water off Wells-Next-the-Sea, on a beautiful day, David Deram had seen not the coastal blue, but red. It was all over in seconds, he promised; he was a little man, true, but full of an anger Danielle had not seen in ten years of working for him, and she was all-in, after all, with a decade of draining nights behind her and a sudden bout of flu.
“She literally didn’t see it coming.”
Piotr hadn’t, either. He loved David Deram, still. He watched that clip again and again. Those were his twenty two seconds. Nobody was going to take them away from, and nobody, not least David Deram, was going to get them back, and, after all, where he was going, David would have plenty of time of his own in which to relive all his interludes, and forget those that displeased him because they hadn’t ended very well.
Nick Sweeney’s stories are scattered around the web and in print. Laikonik Express, his novel about friendship, Poland, and getting the train for the hell of it, is out with UK independent publisher Unthank Books. His 20K-word ‘novelette’ The Exploding Elephant was published by Bards and Sages in 2016. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives on the English coast. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be found at http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com