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The Rocktastic Corduroy Peach

Chapter One

“Eight. Million. Albums.”

Marcus Mason said the words slowly to himself, peering into his bathroom mirror as he shaved. Eight million albums. He’d settle for that.

Danny-boy had told him about it earlier that evening. They bumped into each other outside HMV on Cornmarket Street, Oxford’s shopping heartland.

“It means that one person in every eight-point-one-two-five people in the country has a copy,” Danny-boy said, avoiding a disheveled and hairy man touting The Big Issue. “On the whole, not bad for an Oxford band’s first release on EMI.”

A singer/songwriter, Danny-boy knew his music. He memorized the record labels, their catalogues, how many albums sold. If you wanted to know the second line-up of Oasis or the history of the fifth Beatle, Danny-boy was your man. The problem was getting him to shut up once he’d started.

“There’s going to be something about them on the news tonight,” Danny-boy continued excitedly. Then he checked himself. “It’s a terrible album though. They’ve completely sold out.”

“Nah, mate, it’s a cracking album.” Marcus suspected his South London drawl annoyed Danny-boy. He laid it on as thick as possible.

Danny-boy folded his arms sanctimoniously. “It’s a deliberate and cynical attempt to cash in on their earlier successes and their dedicated fan base. They would never have done an album like this if they’d stayed on Dodgy Decks.”

Dodgy Decks. Marcus knew them, the local independent record label. Most of their albums sold through subscription. Danny-boy was a subscriber.

“It’s got great tunes, Danny-boy.”

“I would be very grateful if you could refrain from calling me Danny-boy. I have asked you before.”

“Yeah, sorry, I forgot.”

“When we get there, we’re not going to sell out. We’re going to stay true to our musical principles.”

Marcus remained silent. The musical principles of their band, Corduroy Peach, basically equated to whatever Danny-boy wrote. Marcus would happily break any musical principle if it meant album sales of eight million. Still, he was happy to follow the Danny-boy Flannigan dynamo for the time being. After all, Danny-boy was the man who got the band together three months earlier, the one who wrote the material and organized the rehearsal sessions. He even managed to get them their first concert. Admittedly, the gig had been the opening act for Sorton-cum-Snodwell village fete but, nonetheless, Marcus had to hand it to him, he got things done. A man like Danny-boy could make a band succeed, even if he could be a bit of a bell-end to deal with. Marcus would certainly stick with him until they got their debut record out. And after that? Marcus was secretly working on material for his first solo album.

“John Peel won’t play their album on his show,” Danny-boy continued. “So I rest my case.”

The Radio One DJ John Peel remained the bastion of good musical taste after more than thirty years, and Marcus couldn’t argue with Danny-boy on this one. Danny-boy’s adherence to the creed of John Peel bordered on the obsessive. Every musician worth their salt listened to the John Peel show, of course they did, but Danny-boy took notes.

And the current creed was this. Raydar, local heroes of the Oxford music scene, sold out on their latest album, Bender. They dumped Dodgy Decks, signed to EMI and released a powerful, bruised, majestically desperate album of frighteningly good songs that sold eight million copies. This, to Danny-boy, was unforgivable.

Marcus finished shaving. He’d give anything to be in a band selling millions of albums. Anything. Drying his face with the towel, he scowled at his reflection. There could be no doubting it—his eyebrows were mutating. Their growth rate seemed to accelerate with each passing day. He sighed and, pulling a small pair of nail scissors from the drawer-cum-shelf fixed to the wall beneath the mirror, began to shear his eyebrows of their excesses.

Did everybody secretly trim their eyebrows? Perhaps this was something only old people did, those geriatrics approaching their thirtieth birthday? A mere four weeks remained of Marcus’ twenty-something years. He didn’t really mind. Well, he told himself he didn’t really mind. Sometimes he told himself he didn’t really mind several dozen times in a day.

It wouldn’t be so bad but for these bloody eyebrows. They were like a big sign saying “I am nearly thirty” stuck to the front of his head, thick, black and bushy, like the crop of unruly curls topping his long, angular face. Tufts of hair made a bid for freedom by sprouting further up his forehead, some growing out at weird angles. And growing so quickly—he’d only trimmed them a week before.

He hacked his eyebrows back to a length appropriate for his species, put the scissors down on the shelf and inspected himself. A large man, slightly overweight perhaps, his friendly, welcoming face had an easy smile. Although he’d laugh and say “nah” if you told him, he made a few girls’ heads turn. Opening his mouth wide, he peered inside, poking his tongue around his teeth. One gave him pain. He really should get to a dentist. Perhaps he could ask Dermot? Then again, perhaps not.

He heaved a deep, long sigh. That would have to do, for now. Something caught his eye, growing off the top of his ear, a long, wiry black hair. “Jesus. I’m turning into a bloody werewolf.”

Rose’s digs could have set an international standard for the word mess. Tucked in the attic of a house shared with four other Oxford undergraduates, the room really didn’t meet her needs. For one thing, the extortionate rent made a huge hole in her savings. For another, she simply did not have enough space. Then again, there was the old adage that rubbish would expand to fill the space it was given. Rose Finer was a geologist and geologists collect rocks. Planet Earth had no shortage of rocks and, consequently, neither had Rose.

The space available for actual work on her desk was just big enough to accommodate the letter she was reading, the letter from County Carlow in Ireland, the letter from home. Around it towered her papers, books, rocks and fossils. A twelve-volume Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology formed the foundations on one side while a collection of volcanic rocks from the Isle of Arran supported a stratum of photocopied scientific journals on the other. Every available flat surface sported a crystal or stone and her collection of ammonites, coiled shellfish from eons past, defied cataloguing.

Her larger specimens crowded the floor, fighting for space with casually discarded clothes. A stripy pink sock nestled on the horn of a giant ice-age bison’s skull, while a mammoth’s tooth sported a pair of no-nonsense Marks and Spencer’s knickers. In one corner of the room, a large cello stood, a stack of fiendishly complicated music heaped next to it. On the bedside table by the unmade bed lay three books on ice-age river deposits, a collection of used tissues, a cold cup of coffee and a digital clock an hour fast.

Snuggled in amongst the chaos of her academic collection, at the edge of the clear space on her desk, stood a small, gold-framed photograph of a bearded, smiling man.

Rose read the letter intently, biting her lower lip and savagely twisting a strand of frizzy, red hair escaping from the austere bun imposed upon her head. Tears welled in her eyes, her head shaking with growing rage. She grabbed the letter, screwed it into the tightest of balls and hurled it at the half-open window. Hitting the glass, it bounced back at her. She swept it up and threw it again. It ricocheted off the glass and landed on a plateful of cold, jam-covered toast balanced on The Geology of Oxfordshire. There it stuck. Seeing the photograph of the man with the beard, Rose grabbed it and scowled down as he smiled up at her.

“You bastard.”

She threw the photograph into the bin, or rather, onto the heap of scrunched-up paper overflowing from the top of the bin. It bounced off and fell onto the floor.

Rose put her head in her hands and sobbed.

Paul Wretchley should have known better than to comb his hair across the bald crown of his head. When he reached the tender age of thirty-five, his fringe began to retreat in the face of his advancing years. Now, at forty-four, it was utterly defeated, the battle lost, his scalp surrendered to the elements. A band of hair remained in a line about an inch thick above his ears and he grew it long on the right-hand side to comb across. But somebody should have said something, really they should. For a start, it flapped around whenever the wind blew. It certainly did not look rock ‘n’ roll. If you are supposed to be the bass player in a rock band like Corduroy Peach, as Paul was, well, you ought to at least make an effort.

His wife, Joanna, gave up trying to tell him anything long ago. He heard her, downstairs, yelling at their kids, Joseph and Craig. They were supposed to be doing their homework or tidying their rooms or something, God knows what. Paul certainly didn’t. He had escaped up into his study, a rather grand term for the boxroom where he played violent computer games.

The PC hummed quietly, the game on pause, while he listened to the commotion downstairs. The shouting abated. Good, he would not be interrupted by a call to intervene on Joanna’s behalf. Still, the alien invaders would have to wait for a moment. Picking up his mobile phone from the desk, he dialed a number.

After a few rings somebody answered.

“Dermot? Feeling alright, you old bugger? It’s me, Paul.”

Born and bred in Oxfordshire, Paul’s voice held the gentle twang of the county. The deep, strong voice answering was unmistakably Australian.

“Paul. How are you, me old mate?”

“Alright, mustn’t grumble.”

“You spoke to Danny-boy yet?”

“Oh, he rang earlier on, going on about Raydar and all their albums.”

“Yeah, he was on to me about that, too. Fair play to ’em I say. When we’ve sold eight million albums then he can make comments.”

“Anyway, Dermot, listen. You remember my work’s party a few weeks back?”

“Um, remind me, mate.”

“At my work, Scotia Popash Fragrant Oils. Our Spring Products Launch bash, I got you in remember?”

“Yeah, I do recall.”

“Do you remember Geraldine?”

“Geraldine?”

“You know, Geraldine from accounts.”

“I was only there for the party, mate, I don’t know about anybody from accounts.”

“She’s got straight brown hair. A bit fat. You copped off with her.”

“Did I? Yeah, come to think about it I did, didn’t I? Yeah, I remember her. I was pissed though, mate.”

“You weren’t that pissed.”

“I was. I’d have had to have been—she was a complete moose, mate. Jesus, I must have been completely wankered.”

“Well, she wants to talk to you.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know. She says it’s important and she’s been on at me for your phone number, like.”

“Ah Jesus, mate, don’t let her have it for God’s sake.”

Paul bit his lip. A second or two of pregnant silence passed.

Suspicion edged into Dermot’s voice. “Paul?”

Silence.

“Ah Jesus, Paul, you’ve told her, haven’t you?”

“Well…”

“Ah, Paul, you bell-end. Some mate you are.”

“I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know, could I? She just wants to talk to you, that’s all.”

“Well, cheers, mate. Now I’ve got to find some way of telling her she’s a fat old slapper without hurting her feelings.”

“Alright, me duck, alright. Keep you hair on. But…well, just…”

“What?”

“Well, be nice to her, alright? I get on alright with her.”

Dermot snorted. “Course I’ll be nice, mate. I always am.”

Danny Flannigan reared up before the mirror doors of his bedroom’s fitted wardrobe. He looked long and hard at his reflection, right hand raised, plectrum clenched between his fingers, purple satin shirt open to the waist, a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar hung low over his hips. Then, lips pouting, he brought his hand around like a windmill to crash down onto the strings, bending over double with the effort, face contorted with the sheer ecstasy of uncompromising rock guitar.

As the instrument currently lacked any connection into an amplifier, the result was rather anticlimactic. The twanging strings were drowned out by a news reader’s voice coming from Danny’s television in the corner. All just as well, since the guitar was out of tune. Danny was only practicing the pose.

Standing straight, he resumed the starting position, plectrum raised high in the air once more. A moment of doubt found its way to him, pointing out his grey eyes, his shoulder-length, mouse-brown-coloured hair. He was angular, thin and tall, though not as tall as Marcus or Dermot. Certainly taller than squat, little, baldy Paul. Danny would have to talk to him about that hairstyle of his at some point. That was, if Danny couldn’t find somebody else to play bass for them. Why were bass players so thin on the ground?

Danny sniggered. Or in our case, so thin on top?

All he wanted for the band was a solid bass player, not too flashy, just good and reliable. Instead they had Paul, who stuck his tongue out in concentration as he played and found real challenges with the basic concepts of time signature, rhythm and key.

At least Dermot looked the part, tall, well-built, with wavy blond hair. A bit of a pretty boy perhaps? Still, he could drum and manage backing vocals at the same time, even if he got Danny’s words wrong from time to time.

And then there was Marcus, who despite his flashy custom-made guitars, always managed at least one mistake at every rehearsal. You could rely on him for that. Danny felt the tightness growing in his stomach. Marcus only made mistakes in the songs he didn’t like, Danny noticed. He remained undecided whether Marcus did this deliberately or not. Either way, the bum notes were not good for the band. Marcus would have to pull his socks up.

Danny held his breath and counted to ten. I am calm. He breathed out heavily. Taking the Fender off, he laid it carefully on the bed. The red brown body of the instrument gleamed, polished and spotless like everything in the flat. A guitar case lay on the floor and Danny opened it, picked up the Fender and placed it inside, making sure the guitar’s strap lay flat on the bottom. He lifted the guitar out of the case a fraction and peeped under, just to make doubly certain the strap was flat.

He closed the case and, after a moment or two, opened it and peeped in under the guitar. The strap really was lying flat on the bottom. Good. He closed the case and stood.

Chewing his lower lip, he looked at the mirrored door on the wardrobe. Not at his reflection in it but at the door itself. A tingling of excitement came over his body. He could do it now, if he wanted to. No, not now. Later.

The voice of the newscaster caught his attention. He strode to the television where it sat on a shelf in the corner of the room and picked up the remote lying by it. Taking a step or two back, he pointed the remote at the television, turning the volume up.

On the screen, he saw four tall men with sunglasses getting out of a stretch limo. Cameras flashed and huge bruisers of men in suits held back adoring fans. The newscaster spoke over the top. “And finally tonight, the British rock band Raydar is making music history with their latest album Bender. The album has sold more than ten million copies so far…”

“Absolute nonsense.” Danny threw the remote on his bed. “It’s only eight million.”

“…and continues to sell at an astonishing half a million copies every week. The publicity-shy singer Radium Mars refuses to be interviewed or attend award ceremonies.”

“Publicity-shy, my arse.” Marcus lay on his bed, watching the news piece on the small TV on the shelf opposite. The screen showed a picture of Radium Mars trying to obscure the view of his face by holding a hand up, an action, Marcus noted, designed to increase interest rather than diminish it.

Marcus picked up his teddy, Moranis, from the bed. Small, furry and purple, he had been a present to Marcus by an old girlfriend, years back. His ex-wife, Clarissa, had hated Moranis, insisting Marcus get rid of him. Marcus kept him, arguing that he refused to pander to her jealousy. Of course, that had been a whopping fib. He retained Moranis just to wind Clarissa up. Now she was gone and Marcus couldn’t even remember the name of the old girlfriend but Moranis remained. Marcus found him to be great conversation.

“They’re so full of shite,” he told Moranis. Moranis looked back, patiently.

“Did you hear that? Publicity shy.”

Marcus pointed the remote at the TV, which had now progressed onto the weather report, and with a click, the gales over the Northeast of Scotland disappeared into a tiny dot at the screen’s centre. Marcus lay silent for a moment, Moranis balanced on his chest.

“I’m thirty in four weeks. I don’t really mind.”

I thought I made it clear I don’t want to speak to you anymore.

He clenched his fists at that intrusive memory again. It popped into his head whenever he felt down, vulnerable. She said it to him, coldly, so fucking coldly, when he last tried to speak to her. Clarissa, oh God, Clarissa.

They’d met in his hometown of Gravesend in north Kent after he dropped out of a Business Studies degree and started working in telesales. She worked in the same office and after one too many drinks at the company’s Christmas do, they ended up screwing on the managing director’s desk. An odd circumstance now that Marcus thought about it. Kind of kinky on Clarissa’s part, since the MD was her dad. And he loved her, God yes. She was stunning, half Spanish, with long, straight, jet-black hair and warm, golden Mediterranean skin. The touch of it came to him now as he stroked the top of Moranis’ head, Clarissa’s soft, smooth face. She burned with such fire in her, such passion, and Christ, a temper to match but Marcus adored all that. He loved her.

I thought I made it clear I don’t want to speak to you anymore.

They got married, got a house, settled down and then it all went wrong. Suddenly, everything he did seemed to irritate her. The more he tried to accommodate her wishes and appease her, the more she seemed to despise him. I thought I made it clear I don’t want to speak to you anymore.

The memory of those words burned painfully clear, even now, two years on. He seethed with anger, railed against her cruelty. This desperate longing to see her again, to win her back, was unbearable. She left a hole in him, an aching void nothing could fill. Why had she made their marriage such a nightmare? I thought I made it clear I don’t want to speak to you anymore.

Their relationship allowed no room for musical aspirations. She even tried to make Marcus get rid of his “workshop”, the small table and collection of tools he used to maintain his guitars.

“Bitch.” Marcus thumped Moranis who obligingly toppled over backwards.

Sighing, he stood Moranis back up. She got the house. And Marcus’ job for that matter, he couldn’t stay on there with her dad as a boss. She even dumped his collection of seventies punk singles in the water butt.

“Bitch.”

Marcus stared at the ceiling, his fingers tightening around Moranis’ throat.

“Bitch, bitch, bitch.”

The only thing he had over her was the necklace. He still kept it, tucked away in a box at the back of his wardrobe. Antique silver, passed down from Clarissa’s great-grandmother to her mother and then to Clarissa. At the time of the breakup, Marcus quietly pocketed it, just to spite her. He meant to let her have it back eventually but she became so vicious as the divorce proceedings progressed. Sod her, she got everything else. He let her have everything, if only to try to get the divorce over with. It had been horrible.

I thought I made it clear I don’t want to speak to you anymore.

A painful cramp seared through Marcus’ thumb, forcing the release of his stranglehold on Moranis.

“Ow. Sorry.”

Placing his teddy down carefully, Marcus rolled over to the bedside cabinet, yanked open a drawer and rummaged around inside. Throwing packets of nicotine patches aside in handfuls, he burrowed down until he found them, his weekly packet of fags. He shouldn’t do this, but bollocks to it, who cared? Flipping the packet lid open, he pulled out a cigarette and fished around the drawer for the lighter.

“Where the bloody…”

Then he had it. Lighting the cigarette, he took a deep draw and lay slowly back on the bed.

He had been doing so well. This was his first one in nearly five hours.

“Shit.”

He picked up Moranis and balanced him on his chest.

“What am I going to do?”

Chapter Two