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How I Left the National Grid
A Post-Punk Novel
By Guy Mankowski
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Guy Mankowski
All rights reserved.
'I think you deserve this treat,' Sam said, stepping ahead of Elsa and dramatically opening the door to the restaurant.
'Hmm,' she said, her eyes narrowing.
Sam watched the sunlight race over the windows, reflecting the silvery hue of the river beside them. He was still trying to find his way through this new world of bright, polished surfaces. He felt that for years he had lived amongst damp corners, in the dank atmosphere of bedsits. But taking in the sparkling cutlery, and the elegant dresses around him, he felt like he was finally stepping into the light. A blistering modern light, that blasted away the squalor of his past.
He looked at Elsa, who was taking in the hubbub. He considered her elfin, Gallic look, which still attracted so much male attention. Her floral summer dress displayed flashes of her legs that were a little too slim.
A waiter swept them to their upstairs table with a hearty wave. He seated them at a table close to the window, which overlooked a quayside blooming with sun. The river played upon the windows of the surrounding offices like a distant mirage.
Elsa loved these displays of chivalry from Sam. In the early days he would take her for dinner even when he evidently couldn't afford it. Once or twice an extra drink had been too much, and he'd had to offer to wash up, but he'd been useless even at that. But this time she suspected there was more to it than just generosity. He kept pulling the slightly dirty curtains of his Mowgli-style hair out of his large, blue eyes.
'I wish I wasn't going to dinner with all this dust in my hair,' she said, coiling a blonde lock around her finger.
'We've been working all day,' Sam said, his eyes scanning over the menu. 'Everything's in the house now. Besides, this is my treat. I want to talk to you.'
She ordered a glass of white wine and concentrated on Sam. 'You want to talk to me?' she asked. 'What does that mean?' She paused. 'It's about that phone call, isn't it?'
He took her hand, and she offered in return a small smile. 'I'm so glad that we've taken the plunge and got a place together,' he said.
She laughed. 'Give over, Sam. I had to drag you kicking and screaming into any sort of a domestic life, and you know it. You'd have spent the rest of your life eating Super Noodles and wearing a sock for a belt.'
'I know. You were right,' he pressed. 'I couldn't keep living like that. I know it wasn't good for us.'
'Wasn't good for us? I think it would have been the end of us, Sam.'
The remark seemed to cause a pronounced drop in the temperature.
'Not quite,' Sam responded. 'I know this is my last chance. I'll become a proper man about the house. Changing light bulbs, using a feather duster.'
'You'd end up using it in the bloody toilet, Sam. Anyway, you don't have to worry about all that. We get a cleaner and have a caretaker. Part of the deal.'
'Does he know how to use the taps? Because I can't bloody work them out.'
'But I think that's part of the fun, you know?'
'Not being able to wash? Yeah, definitely.'
She tossed her head back. 'Don't be a twat. So who was this call from? A credit card company?'
He leaned in. 'No.'
'How could anyone else have got our number yet?'
'It was from a guy called Martin Graham. From this book publisher. Mason House.'
'He's heard that Robert Wardner has been confirmed as alive, for the first time in twenty five years.'
'Oh god. That National Grid guy? Didn't he murder some girl?'
'That was never proven.'
'It was you who told me about it. Why else would he suddenly take off, vanish like that?'
'He was unable to finish this incredible record he was making. Now there's talk that he's going to reform the band and complete it. And this publisher was asking what I knew about it all.'
'Well, I'm guessing he wants someone to track down Wardner. Tell the story about how he vanished, in a book.'
She cocked her head. 'If he did kill someone, he's hardly going to want his story told, is he? If he's in the habit of killing people who intrude on his life, you're just going to make yourself a target.'
'I doubt it. I wrote some of the first major articles about him, ones that helped him get famous.'
'You were a teenager then. You can't be chasing after men like that in your forties!'
'But you don't choose when these opportunities come along, Elsa. This is my chance to finally make my mark on the world. Plus, I think it could make us some money.'
She pulled a bread-stick out of the basket, and looked as though she might snap it.
'The call centre work is regular though, Sam. Something we can rely on.' She closed her eyes for a moment. 'The house deposit cleaned us out. I can't see any way we're even going to make the first mortgage payment.' She folded her napkin into a tight, hard wad. 'Perhaps dinner wasn't such a good idea ...'
'Elsa, if I can convince this publisher to give me a commission to write the book, it will more than pay for that first instalment. Shifts at the call-centre certainly won't.'
'You'll be happier there once the regular pay starts to come in.'
'Elsa, it's bloody awful there, like being a hen in a coup. I want to do something creative with my life. How am I doing that now? I play on people's fears about getting burgled, to convince them to get stupid burglar alarms. When I can't even work the ones in my own house!'
'They're state of the art, that's why.'
'And a book about Robert Wardner is necessary? Sam, come on. Not only is he dangerous but you ... you could end up getting sick again. I couldn't bear it.'
'How would I get sick? I'd be getting that fire back in my life!'
'But that fire didn't do you any favours, did it? When you should have been at university like every other eighteen-year-old you were instead obsessing over them at home. By your own admission, that was the first step that ended with you getting ...' She stopped herself.
'You can say it, Elsa. They won't ban us from coming here for olives if you say it.'
'But that wasn't just about them. And besides, I did go back to university, because otherwise we wouldn't be together, would we?'
'You went back eight years after everyone else.'
'That was because my head wasn't right, not because of the band. I had to do something with that time, which is why I used it to research them.'
'Perhaps a bit much? Come on, Sam, that counsellor said you needed to stay clear of anything dark. Especially now. We've worked so hard to get here.'
'All that will pay off now.'
'Well it doesn't seem a pay-off to me, Sam. Not on the day we had promised to leave all that behind. Come on, this is your last chance.'
'But you know it makes sense. Come on, Rodders. This time next year we could be millionaires.'
She smiled, and cupped her hand over his. The small silver ring on her middle finger sparkled for a moment in the white light. 'I love that you have this passion. I know it isn't easy for you right now, but this will pass.'
'Give me the chance to prove that it is possible, Elsa. That we don't have to spend our time on this planet doing things we detest.'
'Come on, it's not that black and white. Look at what's happened with me at the gallery. Any day now Malcolm is going to give me my first exhibition to oversee. Then we can start to have the sort of lifestyle a couple of losers like us could normally never get.'
'I'm not sure you working for Malcolm is picking up where Harold Pinter left off.'
A waiter drifted to her side. Elsa ordered a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sam consenting with a nod. As the waiter turned Elsa bowed her head again.
'It gives us the occasional holiday, Sam. Would it kill us to have one or two soft furnishings? But you'd have to give all that up to go off chasing after a murderer.'
'He wasn't a murderer! I'm not venturing into Colombia to discover the story of Pablo Escobar. Wardner was based in Manchester, and the recent sighting of him was in London. The biggest risk will be that I get short- changed for a baguette in Stepney Green.'
Elsa looked out at the river again. Sam knew she had always felt comforted by the thin belt of sparkling water running through the city, and the opulent houses built around it. She once said that they had seemed like a secret symbol, communicated from the city to her, telling her that this was the place she should build her future.
'I know that it could work,' she said. 'But I think it's far more likely that I'll end up funding this folly by putting in extra shifts. How on earth are we going to make the first payment as it is?'
'I think I could get an initial advance off him. This Martin sounded fascinated by the idea of a book. You know what these London types are like, always wanting to think they're one step ahead of the game. I'll just use that to get us a fat pay cheque.'
'You're not the entrepreneurial type, Sam. It wasn't so long ago you replaced a broken car window with a bin liner.'
'I can be entrepreneurial. I'll show you, Elsa. It will be my name on the front of the book. I'll get a suit. We'll have the book launch at the gallery ...'
She laughed. 'And you and Wardner can dance the night away, looking deep into one another's eyes.'
He laughed. 'No, I'd dance the night away with you. He couldn't dance, anyway. Famously.'
'You're such a nerd.'
'This is the perfect time for this opportunity to have come. I have the space to write too now, I could use the spare room.'
'I was hoping we could keep the spare room free from books.'
'For a baby, Sam. I'm thirty five and we need to start building a nest.'
Sam hesitated. 'You really think I could be a father?'
She smiled. 'You were the one just trying to convince me you're the next Alan Sugar. Surely fatherhood will be a doddle after you've built your empire?'
The waiter appeared, pouring a flame of red wine into her glass. Sam saw how the sun lit the edges of Elsa's hair.
'So how about it? My last shot at fame and glory? Solving a great mystery before becoming the committed family man. What do you say?' She smiled.
'Yes?' He leant closer. 'Elsa?'
She threw up her hands. 'You're going to do it anyway. What different does it make what I say?'
'I am going to make you proud. I'll head down first thing tomorrow to get started. Now are we ordering, or what?'
Elsa looked down at the menu. Sam caught a glimpse of the whiteness of her knuckles, as slowly she began to clench her hand.
'Come on, have whatever you want, Elsa.'
Sam didn't recognise Elsa's expression.
'You're not really worried, are you?' he asked.
She looked up. 'Of course I am. It's not worth the risk. Sooner or later you're going to see that going after him is walking into your own damn grave.'
People say that after Top Of The Pops it's never the same, don't they? Well, they're right. Bonny called it 'our first assault on mass consciousness.' You can push for years, playing for a promoter who doesn't even turn up, in bars where they think you're a bunch of hairdressers just because you've got a keyboard. But once you've grabbed the world by the collar it keeps looking up at you, with morbid interest.
After our performance we had so much energy. Theo was running up and down the BBC corridors. I asked him, 'What are you doing?' He said 'I'm looking for Legs And Co.'
'What will they want with you?'
'I'm dangerous now.'
'What, for using curling tongs in the bath? Sit down.'
Me and Simon went for a swig at the fire exit. Trying to come down in the freezing wind. Still in our onstage gear, security guards in eyeliner. Knocking back a flask of cheap vodka.
'You're not going to believe this,' Simon said, trying to light a damp fag.
'Julio Iglesias is only hanging around drinking bottled water in the corridor.'
'That lounge-lizard who knocked me guitar out of tune before we went on. No word of an apology.'
'That bloke singing in Spanish?' I zipped up my jacket.
His eyes got wider. 'No, Rob. Don't.'
I flexed my fingers.
'What you going to do?'
'I'll think of something. The Volvo's out the back. Maybe we can kidnap him for ransom? Get the Latin market to pay us some attention.'
I was down the hall before he could stop me.
Iglesias was there. Wavy hair, white-capped teeth, and water that had probably been cooled on the thighs of a virgin moments earlier.
'Julio, do you recognize us?'
It's quite a talent to be scared by someone and completely ignore them at the same time.
Simon wasn't far behind me. 'Yeah, Rob. He'll be a massive fan of our single about the Manchester commute,' he said.
At the end of the hall I could hear Bonny shout 'Rob. You've got to be shitting me. Leave him alone.'
'Do you recognise us Julio?' I asked.
He flashed a smile, just for a second. Took in the nail varnish and eyeliner and then with one pristine loafer took a small step back.
'Julio Iglesias, I'm arresting you for crimes against Latin culture. You do not have to say anything ...'
Iglesias dropped his water. It landed on the floor with a muffled thump and started pouring out of the nozzle.
'Are you security guys?' he said. Eyes wide.
Bonny appeared out of nowhere. An ambassador's wife crossed with a stick-woman.
She pointed at her head, twirled a finger. 'They're from Manchester,' she said. 'They can't arrest anyone.'
Our next gig was a sell-out. When we pulled up in the decommissioned coach Bonny had got for us, this chorus-line of girls were waiting. Clutching thermos flasks and green pens.
Theo thought that made us The Beatles. 'We're as big as The Beatles,' he'd say. 'Being this famous is scary.'
'We're nowhere near as big as them,' I said.
'You sure you want to be?' Jack asked. Look what happened to Lennon.'
Theo looked at the girls out of the window and said 'How are we not famous? All revolutions start with the hearts of teenagers.'
'Jesus. Shut up, Theo,' Simon said.
'I could sleep with any one of them,' Theo said. 'It's blowjob city out there.'
I took in the cardigans, pigeon-toed feet and spiral-bound notebooks. 'Where?' I asked.
I looked out at the crowd. It was like someone had gone around every disco, every remote railway station, every motorway café, and scooped up all the lost souls. Then put them all outside Newcastle City Hall. For us.
Every aspect of my life had become chaos since we'd been on TV. For months we'd had plans to have shots of city life blasted onto us while we played onstage, but could never afford it before. Whenever we tried the screen fell on Jack the minute he started drumming. Suddenly we could do whatever we wanted. Every waking hour all I could see was roadies, technicians, promoters. Coming to me for answers. Knowing the blueprint only existed in my head.
Every one of the band had begun honing their role. Theo was spending every second of his life with his bass. He'd snort speed just before we went on stage, said it helped him focus his playing. He didn't play bass like anyone else, but had this totally unique take. He'd caress the strings to make them vibrate. Backstage Jack would drum furiously onto his knees, wanting to build his strength so that his opening salvo shook the audience. Simon would stand with his head back, looking up at the ceiling.
Top Of The Pops was just a puppet show. It was the next gig that made me think we could truly change people. Some left their jobs without taking leave to travel to see us. Zipping each other up, then walking out into a stinging circle of orange light. The throbbing background track grinding in my ear, the crowd giving out this hungry roar.
I'd watched how crowds danced at gigs. The same, mechanical movements they fell into. Allowing themselves a tiny bit of self-expression for a few moments. But I was going to shake them out of their suburban stupor.
Onstage, the three others looked over at me for the signal to start. I'd get a taste in my mouth and nod to Jack, who'd start pounding out this tribal drum tattoo. Theo twisting himself into shapes, trying to work a bass line around it. Simon, bent over his pedals, ready to unleash weird science.
Excerpted from How I Left the National Grid by Guy Mankowski. Copyright © 2014 Guy Mankowski. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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