John sighed and dropped his pen onto his desk, massaging his aching hand. He looked wistfully at the head of a small green leprechaun that erupted at a jaunty angle from a tube on the window ledge. John rose, unlocked a drawer at the bottom of his desk, and withdrew the small wooden casket his father had made for him. The two of them had spent many hours together gathering the timber from fallen branches in the woods. Quercus robur – English Oak, John had been quite insistent on that.
John took a golden coloured, butterfly pattern key from his jeans pocket and twisted it in the lock. Out came a few small items: two photographs and a small handkerchief; which he placed in front of him. He was still meditating over them when the doorbell rang. Coming to with a start, he gathered his notes together and deposited them into three blue leather files, all labelled with silver runes. This was for secrecy, although there was no particular need for it. The files went back on the shelf where they took pride of place with the tomes of pre-Christian history and mythology which marked out this shelf as belonging to John, and not to any other 15 year old boy in that neighbourhood. He held the handkerchief briefly to his face, then quickly pushed all the precious things back into the casket, locked it, and stowed it safely back in the drawer.
John took his guitar from the wardrobe, as a pair of heavy boots clomped up the stairs and paused at the bedroom door. The boots did not belong to the builder, but to a boy of John’s own age, who hovered uncertainly for a moment, before shuffling forward and peering round the door. He looked lanky, awkward and somehow out of place. He always did. Many people thought he was weird. John didn’t really care so long as he did as he was told. Paul was the other half of John’s band Newgrange. Like John, he was on the margins of popular society; and like John, he didn’t give a shit. They weren’t exactly outcasts, but nor were they incasts, whatever that might mean. Neither was disliked as such, but both were a little too eccentric to integrate fully in any one social circle.
So they created their own, with John as self-appointed leader. At first they would just sit in a bedroom or garage and hold court on the moribund imaginations of other people, and the futility of life. Not that John really believed in the Nihilist philosophy, but it was much more interesting than arguing over football teams or homework. Later, when they got bored of talking, they did what many teenage boys do under those circumstances, and formed a band. And so it started, in the garage, John on his guitar and Paul coerced into learning to play drums, but revealing an aptitude unexpected in one so clumsy looking. At first John simply used extracts from the odes and ballads he had been writing upstairs, he had a couple of years supply; and they fiddled around until something approximating a tune emerged. Later he began to study more seriously and Paul would turn up to rehearse and be presented with almost complete songs. From the outset they made a solemn agreement that they would write what they wanted to write, not what people wanted to hear. There would be no selling out. It was some time before either even thought of seeking an audience, and then it was only by chance.
It was one day in late summer when their regular, now almost daily in fact, jamming was interrupted by a clearly audible giggle from outside the garage. Paul got there first and throwing up the door saw two younger girls, probably twins, who were clearly guilty of eavesdropping.
“Hi,” said the slightly taller of the two. Both fell about laughing and clutching at each other.
Paul frowned and told them to go away, his face the colour of pink lemonade, only less frothy. The girl who had spoken pouted and made to lead the other away, but her sister’s eyes were on John. He could be charming when he wanted to be and he knew it; and a sudden flash of inspiration had come to him. He beckoned the girls inside. Paul was all agog and obviously about to protest, so John punched him hard in the kidneys to shut him up. It worked.
Such were the circumstances of their first ‘gig’. They went through the songs they had been practising while the girls giggled to each other but watched avidly all the same; and ignoring the look of horror on Paul’s face, John gave them permission to bring some friends next time.
When they had gone, Paul complained loudly. He had made quite a few mistakes – he wasn’t used to having to play in front of a load of girls.
“Don’t be so melodramatic” said John, “two isn’t exactly ‘a load’, and it might not be all bad.” He winked heavily. Paul looked blank. “You know, girls… girls wanting to listen to us? Play it smart and they might do other stuff too…”
“But they were, like, twelve!”
John sighed, Paul was not destined to be a man of the world. “Well, yeah, I mean duh! But they have friends… and those friends have older sisters… you know what I mean? Get with it, dude!”
John was proven correct, and before too long his haunting melodies and self-penned lyrics about Celtic princesses who were invariably unlucky in love began to draw a ready audience; teenage girls (and their mothers) who thought him handsomely melancholy and went away twittering merrily about how they might rescue him. Paul decided it wasn’t so bad after all, and John lapped it up. But not too much: in his mind he felt he was finally realising the power of his art; and art had to take the priority in his life for now. Sadly he had never heard of any successful artist who had a happy life. Misery and longing stoke the fires of the artist it seems; whereas too much satisfaction can only make him fat and lazy.
Paul sat on the bed and John strummed a few chords and sang the lyrics of his latest song. It was a rather tear jerking ballad about a homeless minstrel who takes refuge in a coastal monastery, falls in love with a mermaid, and is abandoned when he loses his musical powers. Paul fished something out of his anorak pocket.
“Look what I got, dude.”
“Yeah; wacky ones.”
“No shit! How’d you get hold of them? You don’t even drink.”
Paul shrugged, “Well I guess it’s not what you know it’s who you know.”
“Well you’re not lighting up in here, my dad will kill me.”
“Ah, go on. You’re always on about those opium smoking Victorians. Now’s your chance.”
John laughed, “You mean Taylor-Coleridge? Or Lord Byron? He was pretty cool. Didn’t give a fuck. We’ll go out, find somewhere after. Not in here though.”
They carried on with their playing for a while but John’s curiosity was piqued, and a little while later two skinny teenagers slunk out of the back of number 13 and made for John’s special place, the old cemetery. It was where he went when he needed time out.
They sat down under some trees with their backs to the steep grass bank, and looked at the thing Paul had brought. It was a funny shape, as though whoever had rolled it had already been stoned at the time. Paul held a light to it and took a cautious drag.
“What’s it like?” said John, peering speculatively at his friend.
Paul exhaled slowly and meditatively, a slim line young Buddha, “It’s good.” He coughed suddenly and gave it to John.
John laughed, and took a huge great suck. “Motherfucker!” he had the peculiar sensation that his head was rising away from his body, stretching his neck and making it tingle oddly.
They lay and looked at a tower that rose needlessly but emphatically into thin air at the edge of the escarpment. Higher and higher it rose, as though it would puncture a hole in the sky, spiralling round as they looked at it, drilling a hole into space, all the way to the moon, bringing back cheese, Leerdammer in fact. John pictured himself climbing up the outside, climbing towards a beautiful princess who was born aloft on the topmost pinnacle far faster than he could climb. He dangled over the precipice, going round faster and faster as though he were riding the drum of a demonically possessed laundry machine. He laughed crazily.
“What’s wrong with you dude? You crazy fuck!” Said Paul, and started laughing as well. For a time they just rolled around laughing senselessly, and not knowing why, and not giving a damn. Then they were still, and watched the clouds passing over, coming up out of the sunset, soapsuds on a volcanic mirror that glowed with reds and yellows and greens. And John began to write, in his mind. By the time he came out of his daze he was damp with dew but his next poem was already finished. It was a winner, he was sure; all he had to do was go home and write it down, so he got up to go. But where was Paul? Ah well, he probably just fucked off. John kept walking, carrying with him his own little sea of tranquillity, which emanated from somewhere behind his ears and folded in upon him soothingly. He reached home, went in very quietly and sat at his desk. He wrote furiously until sunrise; then collapsed into bed in a daze. His boots were still on.