Adventure into the Unknown
by Ron Simmonds
‘I am going to suck your brains.’ The voice, from deep outer space, was faint, hollow and spooky, as if unattached to a human body. I shuddered. It was twenty years since I’d heard that voice.
Back then I had received a mysterious phone call. A muffled voice said that I should meet the caller on the westbound platform of the Baker Street Metropolitan Line at 12.30 midday sharp. I hung up.
The phone rang again at once. Just listen, he said, he had to see me fast. It would be worth my while. Millions, probably. I was intrigued, and tried to pump him for details but he rang off after getting me to swear that I would turn up.
He was late. It was never my idea of fun to stand around in an underground station in the middle of a noisy midday rush hour, and I was just about to turn away after a half hour when I spotted a tall man standing way up by the entrance to the tunnel. He was dressed like the cartoon version of the Pink Panther—trenchcoat with upturned collar, George Raft hat with the brim snapped down, big black moustache, dark glasses, yesterday’s newspaper—all the trappings of the joke detective.
He must have been watching me all the time. I went up to him.
‘Are you the…?’
‘No names, please. Let’s walk. Don’t look at me,’ he said. We walked, without looking at one another, while he muttered out of the side of his mouth, scanning the platform nervously as he did so.
‘Did anyone follow you?’
‘I managed to shake off my tail in Victoria Station,’ I said, as a joke, but he wasn’t laughing. ‘Is someone chasing you, then?’
He stiffened suddenly and fell back a step as a bowler–hatted man brushed past, his eyes riveted on the tip of the umbrella the man was carrying.
I was to leave my present job at once and await further instructions. He had a project in hand, top secret, that was going to revolutionise the session industry. He had the necessary financial backing, now he only needed to do the negotiating.
His plan was to gather the cream of the London musicians into a super big band, the best band in the world. The members of this wonder ensemble would all live together in a block of luxury apartments. The band would then be on immediate call to make every single recording session in the business.
He enthused over the project. The big clincher for all the contractors would be the fact that we would be available instantly, like the fire brigade. I had an immediate vision of a large bell ringing, and tousled musicians in siren suits sliding down a greasy pole straight into the studio. He ran down a list of names of whom he considered to be the elite of the business. One of them was dead, and another in prison, but I didn’t have the heart to point it out to him.
A film producer was financing the building of the large apartment block where we would all live with our wives.
I quickly vetoed the plan. It would not be wise to have so many musicians live together with their wives and families in such close quarters. There would be severe repercussions, possibly bloodshed. This gave him pause.
‘Where would this fabulous band be living, then?’
While I was still trying to catch my breath he told me to hand in my notice at once and not to breathe a word to anyone. Then he clapped me on the shoulder and disappeared, for all I know into the underground tunnel. I still hadn’t seen his face. That was the last I’d heard of him, until now.
I jerked myself back to the present. Back to the spooky phone call.
‘Meanwhile, I want you to write me an arrangement.’
‘I shall want this, and then some of that, with none of the other, a four bar intro, a twiddley bit here and another one there. We must meet to discuss this.’
‘No need. You just told me everything I know.’
There was an ominous pause, and I could hear him sucking his lips in disappointment. He read out his line-up and we argued about my fee. I cradled the phone with my brains still intact.
After I’d written his score we arranged to meet in a remote car park at midnight. It was pitch dark when I arrived, no moon. The park was empty and unlit. After ten minutes a car arrived and proceeded to drive around slowly, as if to verify that the park had not been staked out by the CIA. It stopped some way off, a door slammed, and I heard footsteps approaching. They stopped beside my car and someone knocked on the passenger window. I opened the door for him. The interior light had been switched off for security reasons. Neither saw the other, but I caught a glimpse of him from the dashboard light. He was wearing the same gear as last time.
‘Have you got it?’ His voice was muffled and hollow, as if he was speaking into a tin can. This is Fünf speaking. I handed the score over quickly. He passed me a sealed envelope with the money.
‘I’ll need to be at the first rehearsal,’ I said.
‘You’ll see why.’
‘Oh, I doubt it.’ He got out of the car. All the while he’d been in beside me I’d been petrified in case a police car came along. Under the circumstances our meeting would have looked highly suspicious. Then there was his threat to suck my brains. I’d had my hand on the trigger of the fire extinguisher under my seat all the time he was there, and a crucifix lay handy in the glove box.
A few days later he phoned again.
‘I say, old chap, got a bit of a problem with your score. Tenor part doesn’t sound right. He lives near you. Can you pop round and check it?’
The tenor player was a charming man, whom I had never met before. He had been captain of a cruise liner, now retired. We spoke while his charming wife served us tea. An academic, he appeared to be an authority on everything under the sun. As we nibbled petits fours he kindly explained the Quantum Theory to me, and held forth at length on gene manipulation, and its ramifications with respect to the gravitational pull of Mercury in the fifth spherical orbit phase, or something like that. I gave up listening after a while and just nodded, careful not to spill any tea into my lap. His wife sat there smiling. She had heard it all before.
We went in to look at his faulty part. To warm up he blew a few weak notes on the tenor that sounded like the last dying croak of a brontosaurus that had just been hit by a meteorite. I chuckled, thinking he was fooling around. He wasn’t.
We had several goes at the intro on his part. A five–year–old could have played it after an hour’s tuition on the saxophone but he never made it once. I looked around in desperation, but his wife had gone quickly into the garden and was busily transplanting some weeds.
‘Look, if you can’t play something as simple as this, how do you get on in the band?’
‘Great.’ When I left his wife walked with me to the car. ‘He owns the band’s sound equipment,’ she said, by way of explanation.
I went to the next rehearsal with him because he knew the way. While he drove he gave me a lecture on celestial navigation, followed by a detailed description of the function of the gall bladder, something that he, alas, no longer possessed. The bandleader’s house was in the back of beyond. It looked as if the builders had given up halfway through everything they’d started. I stumbled up the crumbling brick steps to the front door, no handrail, break a leg if you looked down. In the tiny hallway hung a trenchcoat together with the Al Capone hat. The fire was on in the living room and the musicians were crammed in there, perspiring and touchy. Several of their wives were there, too.
When I walked in the drummer was busily constructing an enormous bit of steel scaffolding to hold all his gear. He gave me a curt nod. The pianist sat behind one of the ultra–modern state-of-the-art keyboards that can perform without the aid of humans.
The bandleader stood in room centre fiddling with an electronic metronome. He was a tall man with a big black moustache and dark glasses.
‘Look here, old chap: we have to play this at ballroom dancing tempo, and it doesn’t sound right at all.’ He pronounced it temp-eau. His voice, now heard up close in daylight was prissy pseudo-academic, as if he had been practising his vowels in front of a mirror with a toffee apple in his mouth. ‘Just listen to it.’
They started off at a tremendous rate without the drummer, who was lying under his kit checking the transmission with the aid of a small torch.
I raised my hand after a few bars and the band stopped.
‘I’ll stop the band, if you don’t mind,’ he said snootily.
‘OK. Carry on.’
‘Well, now we’ve stopped, what is it?’
‘The tempo should be half of that.’ He stared down at his metronome, doubtfully. ‘One hundred and twenty,’ I said, helpfully. ‘One quarter note, a crochet, round black thing on a stick? It says so on the score.’
‘That’s never a crochet. That’s a minim.’
‘No it isn’t.’
‘Yes it is.’ He showed the score to the tenor player.
‘Does that look like a crochet to you?’ The tenor player could have gladly plotted him a course to Madagascar in thick fog, and most probably rearranged his heart ventricles for him, but he didn’t know a crochet from a sack of cement, and kept his mouth shut.
They started again at half the tempo. I raised my hand again.
‘What is it now?’
‘I can’t hear the piano solo in the intro.’ Everyone looked accusingly at the pianist, who was sitting with his arms folded and staring down at the keyboard. I walked over and saw no music on his rack, so I fished it out of his book and opened the part in front of him.
‘What’s this?’ he screamed.
‘It’s only a couple of notes, but they are important.’ He was staring at the part in horror.
‘Can’t you read?’
‘Er, well, I always wanted to be able…’
I decided to cut the intro. The band started again.
I slumped down in an armchair and tried not to freak out while they lumbered through my masterpiece. A Great Dane walked in and stared at me. A faint rumble came from somewhere down inside the huge body. The bandleader’s daughter hurried over. ‘You’re sitting in his chair,’ she said. I stared him out. I’m not afraid of dogs. After a while he went back out into the garden.
A trumpet solo came up. The perpetrator had a sound like a goat that had just been stabbed in the stomach. While he bleated away his wife danced over and pirouetted before me like a Flamenco dancer, making her dress swirl out.
‘Where’s the great trumpet player, then?’ she sang gaily.
I started up, looking around.
‘Oh, very funny.’
She came from Los Angeles and we had already met. She had called on us recently and had been shouting the odds about back home as if the rest of us were living in the Third World.
‘I don’t know how you cope, I really don’t! I have to have my hair dryer and kitchen aids and deep freeze and hoover and my electric blanket and manicure and everything. I just couldn’t carry on without my washing machine.’
‘Yeah, well,’ said my wife. ‘I usually go down to a stone by the river and whack our clothes with a stick. Unless it’s raining, of course. Then I just leave them outside.’ The woman had waited a whole year for an absolutely exclusive fitted carpet to be delivered from California. When it arrived my wife noticed the label and told her the carpet was manufactured in Rotterdam. Whenever they met after that the other woman cut her dead.
The rehearsal dragged on. The bandleader, who was on bass, took several minutes to start each number because he was busily engaged in setting up his electronic metronome. Once the piece got under way the gadget could be seen on top of his speaker, blinking away at a different speed to the band. As the pianist wasn’t playing and the drummer was not yet ready the rhythm consisted solely of the bass, which was inaudible.
They ditched my number and played Moonlight Serenade to impress me. There were only two saxes, and I noticed that the tenor player was leaning back with his hands clasped behind his head, listening to the alto sobbing away all alone on the upper harmonies. I edged over behind him and noticed that he had the clarinet lead written on his part.
I whispered in his ear. ‘Why don’t you play?’
‘It’s a clarinet part. I’m not booked on clarinet.’
‘But you could play it on tenor, just this once. No one else has the melody.’ But he wouldn’t.
To my surprise the bandleader professed himself satisfied with the number, and they went on. I went out in the garden and had a game of football with the dog.
Things finally ground to a halt. The rehearsal ended just as the drummer was tightening the last bolt of his scaffolding. When we left he began to dismantle it all again.
On the way home the tenor player gave me a crash course on ship’s radar, and invited me out on his yacht that very afternoon. ‘We could play some more duets together,’ he said. I regretfully declined, pleading a previous engagement.
The bandleader phoned when I reached home and asked me for my opinion. ‘The band is terrible,’ I said, with my usual gentle diplomacy.
‘We get good crowds,’ he said, stiffly, proving that you can fool all the people, all the time.
‘That Moonlight Serenade was…, was…’ I searched vainly for an epithet.
‘The last time we played it there was a woman sobbing her eyes out right in front of the band.’
‘I’m not surprised.’
‘All right then: what can I do to improve things?’
‘You want to get rid of the bass player, to start with,’ I cracked. There was an ominous pause.
‘Then get a new book. You’re playing big band arrangements with only two brass and two saxes. Lionel Hampton could get away with that, but not these guys.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. It sounds pretty good to me. The people like it.’
‘Then why ask?’
Now he was going to suck my brains. To do so he came over to my house. My wife took an instant dislike to him. ‘Who is that freaky creep?’ she asked, getting it, as usual, right the very first time.
He wanted to know all about writing arrangements.
‘We’ll start with intervals,’ I said. ‘You know, of course, all about the tritone?’
‘The what?’ From then on things went rapidly downhill. He knew nothing about anything, and couldn’t grasp even the bare essentials. I lost heart after a couple of hours and called it a day. We had a beer out on the terrace.
“What did you do for a living?’ I asked.
‘I was a teacher.’
‘Really? That’s interesting. What did you teach?’ I said, keenly.
Shortly after that the whole band gave him an ultimatum: either the tenor player went or they would. He fired them all, kept the tenor player, and got himself an even worse band.
I happened to pass by his next gig and counted the cars in the car park. There were twenty. Allowing eight for the band, and four for the staff, that left eight for the customers, say sixteen people, one couple for each musician.
I heard later on that the tenor player had earned the fear and dread of all the other musicians in the band that night, no mean task. He had made a serious navigational error while playing a solo in Avalon, getting desperately lost twice during the first sixteen bars of the melody, and thereafter carrying on relentlessly two and a half points off course in zero visibility, blasting his foghorn into the microphone at maximum decibels.
The rest of the band watched helplessly as the number headed for a shipwreck. Listing heavily and circling with a broken rudder he had run aground and abandoned ship, shouting that it was every man for himself.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved