Lisa is in the passenger seat and we are somehow, inevitably, on our way to Leyford. She stabs the stop button on the tape deck, grinds her cigarette into my pristine ashtray and lets rip as the London streets become motorway. “What is it about music by dead guys? Why do we obsess about people who left a good-looking corpse? Ending up as a poster on some bloody student’s wall. Is it because they’re never going to get fat and bald, never sell out? You don’t see kids putting pictures on their wall of Hendrix with a mouthful of puke, or Kurt with half his face shot off.”
“Well, isn’t rock’n’roll all about sex and death though? Some kind of primal ritual kind of thing?”
She’s not impressed. She writes this stuff for a living. “And why is it that the poor sods who make the things that make us feel less alone are expected to be miserable, broke and suffering? It’s some fucked-up Christian thing isn’t it? We’re all ghouls and we all want to neck a shot of the blood of Christ.”
“That’s pretty good. Maybe you should think about being a music journalist?”
That’s how I remember her, on the day both our lives ended in different ways, and it’s as good a place as any to begin. All this was last century, a different age, back when things could still get lost and leave no trace. Even that music, in the car’s tape player. Music like a negative image of something else, something that lives beyond things, where the guitar chords fade out beyond hearing and even the mathematics that describes the sounds spirals into uncertainty. It’s not just that their music was haunted. All music is haunted.
My name is Simon Ash. I’m writing this on a brand new laptop, while my other, illegal, recent purchase is lying on the bed looking at me. If I listen closely, I can hear the sea murmuring on the shingle beach a few hundred yards down a track from this cottage where I’ve been living for the last year or so, the latest in a long string of rented addresses.
As for you, you’re reading this because you’ve heard that music, or even just heard about it, and it’s switched something on inside you that means you have to know more. Though if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to look too closely at why you might be drawn to do things, what really might be yanking your strings beneath all that fairytale stuff about free will and rational choices.
And you’re hoping that this nutjob whose blogged ramblings have just turned up in your search results can satisfy that hunger. After all, rock ‘n’ roll saved your soul, a DJ saved your life and no-one’s ever understood you like those voices on your headphones in the wee small hours. So you’ll understand how I first got into all this. I bet you’re young though. Christ, listen to me, the Ancient bloody Mariner. But what I mean is, you’ll have grown up being able to find every scrape and groan in the history of recorded sound with a couple of clicks. But imagine what it was like not having that, every record on the radio a question mark, a mystery. That not knowing, that hunger, seeps into those few precious bars, there’s a void behind it. We’re human beings, we hunger to know stuff, and we create the stuff we don’t know in our heads. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Lisa again, glaring at the road signs counting down the miles: “You know when you hear a song that changes the whole shape of the world? It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before but suddenly it’s where you want to live, or maybe it’s where you’ve always lived but you just didn’t realise until now. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re doing this.”
This record (and it was a record, in the end, a chunk of black vinyl, archaic when I got hold of it); it’s hard to say what made it so strange but so familiar. Nothing out of the ordinary instrument-wise. Two guitars. Bass. Drums. Sparse, restrained, but as though every piece counts, resonating together to become something more, something vast. The first time I heard it, I saw a small town, miles of silent farmland all around, the sky getting dark, a summer storm brewing out of sight. You can feel the tension behind those notes, something waiting to break out. Breathless, hot, electricity in the air. You think of all the hidden places in that town, all the dark corners.
It’s not a slick recording, it’s murky, not much more than a demo. It sounds like they’re playing scales they’ve just invented, a slight left turn from how everyone else in a band has always played, but up an overgrown little track no-one else had noticed. It draws you in, makes you inhabit it, makes you complicit.
I didn’t even know what they were called for years. It all started with a mix tape a girlfriend made me. And ok, not just a girlfriend, the first girl who finally broke my heart. In fact, as we’re being honest, the girl who first taught me I had a heart and then broke it for good measure.
I remember near the end of side B of that tape there was a clunk, the hiss got worse and I was about to switch off when another track started up. Drums slow, unhurried, then a clean single guitar line, another guitar entwining with it, and low in the mix a voice, intoning lyrics whose force you could feel even though the words themselves couldn’t be distinguished, tantalising fragments on the edge of meaning. It was hissy as hell but I wound it back and listened to it over and over. Anna didn’t have a clue what it was, turned out she’d taped over a mix tape some other feller had made for her and it was a ghost from that.
We lasted about a year and it turned me inside out when she left. I kept that tape. Pretty much wore it out, and it was that one song half drowned in static that I kept coming back to, it made things hurt, but hurt good, you know? One night I was driving what seemed like the whole length of the country in a rainstorm. Hours of motorway night and red brake lights, jolts of black coffee in service stations with only the cleaners moving around. Somewhere in the Midlands I randomly sweep the dial along the waveband and there it is. Different song, but I know straight away who it is. I nearly crash into the back of a truck. And the DJ actually mutters the name of the band and that he doesn’t know anything much about them. Then I lose the station.
It was that song on Anna’s tape that first got me to obsess about music, the first time it really connected to me, right under the skin. You see, I’m not the kind of guy you probably think I am. I never wrote terrible lyrics in the back of my exercise books or thrashed away in some miserable goth band. Music to me up till then was just another shiny product you had to buy to show that you weren’t weird. I was a bit of a lad really. No, again let’s keep it honest. I was one of those guys you remember from school, backing up the hard kid who’s about to ruin your day, sniggering and holding his coat. And no, I don’t expect you to like me for it.
But maybe it was that music that kind of opened me up to things a bit more, maybe it was growing up a bit, maybe it was having had my heart broken for the first time, or maybe it was just that I had money to indulge an obsession. I’d been a sales rep, hence the epic motorway drives, but then I’d blagged my way into the City soon after that, just in time to catch a bit of the good times. By the time I heard that second track, I was hooked, soon I was devouring the inky music papers every week, hanging around in record shops and scummy gig venues full of the kind of people who part of me still scorned. I hid my new obsession from the blokes I worked with in case they ripped the piss out of me. But I never saw that band’s name anywhere. Things Behind The Sun.
By then I was spending a fortune, filling in the gaps in my education. And under it all, I was always looking for something like that artefact half-buried in hiss. I never quite found it. But when I didn’t remember why I was grubbing through record shops on my hungover weekends, it had quietly changed the shape of my life, rewiring me. I think that if I once had any kind of soul, it was patched together out of the things I discovered in the grooves of the CDs and the vinyl I bought in those few years. And when there was no-one else in the flat, and the latest obsession had lost its lustre, sometimes I’d risk playing that knackered old tape one more time. And every time it haunted me like the first.
I won’t forget when I found the record at last. It was the day of my mum’s funeral. I’d driven up from London first thing, couldn’t get more than a day off. She’d been living on her own in the house she’d grown up in, that she’d inherited from her mother, on the outskirts of some nowhere Midlands town, and that was where the guy who came to read the meter had spotted her in a heap on the hall floor, felled by an aneurysm. It was the most depressing house in the world, damp, cold and tired. It was like she’d given up when she still had a few decades of this half-life left in her. In the end I was glad work kept me away from visiting more than a couple of times a year. My dad had died when I was a little kid. We’d moved around a fair bit after that. Usually skint. I had to get tough quick and be able to walk into a new school and front it out, spot who had the clout and make myself their mate. Anyway, I went my own way as soon as I could.
My auntie Jackie, who I haven’t spoken to in years, had sorted everything out regarding Mum’s funeral. Probably guilt. She’d seen even less of her in the last few decades than I had and she only lived a few miles from the ancestral seat. I’m as numb as the sky over the crematorium as the official drones through his off-the-peg ritual, manages to get the name right and presses the button. The coffin vanishes behind the curtains. I have a sudden flash of memory of Mum the time I found her crying silently while a daytime TV show rumbled on all harsh and orange. Neither of us could find anything to say to fill that silence. I left home not long after that.
Afterwards, back at the dreadful house that is apparently mine now, Uncle Mike, Jackie’s latest, is trying to engage me in conversation about whether he should invest his savings in this whole dot com thing people keep talking about or whether the imminent Millennium Bug will do for it. I tell him not to bother. It soon transpires where this hypothetical money is coming from, he wants to know about mum’s will, about the house, and whether, seeing as I’m doing so well, I’ll see the rest of the family right. Something about his wheedling snaps something in me, an eruption under miles of ice. One minute I’m feeling nothing, the next I’ve got him up against a wall and I’m yelling into his face. Next thing I know I’m halfway down the hill, a long, dead artery of a main road heading into town, walking fast, that cold numbness back.
There’s an outlet of terrible sandwiches in the shopping parade. I chow down on grease and reconstituted ball-bags and watch the teenagers waiting for a bus going anywhere but here. I know this kind of town too well. Over the far side a shop sign offers sanctuary. The Vinyl Countdown.
Inside, Gandalf’s fatter younger brother nods briefly at me from behind the counter before going back to reading his Zappa biog. As I rummage through the LPs, my eye catches a misplaced album in a cardboard box of bargain bin singles. Something about the black and white sleeve sets the back of my neck crawling. My hand moves towards it magnetically. I’m just a spectator as it pulls the record out. I’m clutching it like someone’s going to snatch it away, but at the same time handling it like a fragile-boned baby bird.
The cover is a badly-realised reversed black and white image which seems to show a road running by a high wall. Four figures in the middle distance are walking away from the camera, their backs turned. It’s an indistinct mass of shadows, on the verge of the abstract. Something about that picture disturbs me on a deep level, there’s a familiarity about it, like somewhere glimpsed in a dream. I feel a long distance from myself as I ask the bloke if he knows anything about it. He doesn’t want to admit ignorance on any point of music, but concedes he’s never actually listened to it. And the label mentioned on the sleeve, Back Leys Records, hasn’t been heard of since. It was probably just the band themselves, scraped up the cash for a one-off.
I hand over the cash fast, in case he changes his mind and snatches the record away, when he recalls that it was part of a bunch of stuff from the archives of an aspiring local radio DJ who’d topped himself. Took a stroll down the middle of the West Coast Main Line in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, with predictably messy results. His widow got rid of all his stuff and Gandalf here picked up a box at an auction in order to lay his hands on some psychedelic rarities. Maybe it was the same DJ I had heard on the radio. Is this the same record? The version on Anna’s tape had been copied over and over again.
I avoid my relatives, though I’ll have to return soon to figure out what to do about the house before Jackie and Mike claim squatters’ rights. I roll home, stealing glances at the square bag in the passenger seat.
Back at the flat, straight on the stereo. It’s a hot, airless day but I keep the windows shut and the curtains drawn. A hum from the speakers. What could be some voices just off mic, incomprehensible. Then the tick of a hi-hat and those hypnotic guitar lines start to unfold and I’m lost.
It’s music made of thick black blood and overcast summer sky, as slow as the dull hours of directionless days that drag forever. But all the time they sound like they know something no one else has found, like they’ve drawn something down from that sky full of cold power and up from all the hidden corners of that town, until it’s speaking through them. As though a different kind of landscape was pushing towards the surface all around, needing only a little effort to unearth it, a place where the world is only a skin thick.
I call in sick the next day and spend much of it on the sofa staring out at the river, the outlines of the tower blocks, the old cranes now locked in position forever carving up the sky. And in a moment of decisiveness, I call up the music weeklies and place a classified ad asking if anyone knows anything more about Things Behind The Sun.
I can’t think about my mother at all. But instead I keep thinking about Anna, the girl who slipped under all my defences and turned me inside out effortlessly before she left.
And out of nowhere, a connection bubbles up like black water. The contact number on the LP sleeve for Back Leys Records. I’d dialled it of course, but it was an old code and came straight up as unobtainable. The dialling code. It was the old code for Leyford. The town where Mum and I lived for a few years when I was fifteen going on sixteen. From somewhere I feel an exhalation of damp and cold like a door opening onto a space I didn’t know existed until a moment ago. Or rather, that I’ve always known existed but have learned to avoid thinking about.
Leyford. Christ. They were from Leyford. I know who they are.
I didn’t listen to the record for a week after that. The sleeve lay on top of the hi-fi, watching me. And in distracted moments, staring at the black walls of the Tube rushing past, thoughts of Leyford. I was working long hours, deliberately getting smashed as much as possible. But it’s always there, the shadows cast by a hot summer in the city.
When I think of Leyford I see it from the road at the top of the shallow valley where the town lies, among bare ploughed-up fields, furrows that converge and draw the eye. You can see the shape of the whole thing from there, the church spire, the trees on the edge of the park, the pattern of streets in the new estates. It’s the most ordinary small town you could imagine. And yet. Even the landscape is uneasy.
Maybe there’s something about the stab of a lone tree against the sky, the rusted hulk of a pylon, that speaks to an ancient part of the brain still scanning the veldt for the rush of a predator and the bone-shattering impact of jaws. And those fears built into the land become magnets for any fragments of stories that might help explain them; stories blown in from other places, half-remembered horrors from the TV news, dirty scraps that catch in the trees, assembling themselves into ragged scarecrows. And these patchwork monsters start to have real effects on people’s lives, changing their behaviour.
Fear, whatever its root, can make you do anything. And that’s what a ghost is—an effect looking for a way to become a cause. Leyford always seemed a cruel place, full of angry, disappointed men, that dry tinder that so easily sparks into violent acts. It was a place where violent things happened but were rarely spoken about, vanishing into whispered myths. But more than just that. A place with paths that no one would walk.
Something in the flat alerts me in the night, a breath of displaced air. I get out of bed and check the tiny kitchen. All the windows are shut despite the oppressive heat. In the sleepless street light I feel a gaze on me. I spin round and for a moment am sure I catch it in the corner of my eye, a patch of deeper shadow, as much an absence as a presence. I crash into the kitchen counter as I step back, and knock a load of state-of-the-art pans I’ve never used on to the floor. I feel the presence recede slowly, holding me in its gaze all the way. Outside I can see the edge of the old docks, their fatal black water. Everything’s quiet but the perspectives are all wrong, the old cranes seem toylike, miles away.
The phone wakes me up mid-morning. Disorientated, I stagger across the flat to answer it.
A woman’s voice, unfamiliar. I try and place it in my database of recent conquests and very few friends of either gender. But it’s none of those. Lisa Earnshaw. She’s a music journalist of sorts. I remember her byline from one of the weeklies. She’s seen my ad. For a moment I consider hanging up, but she’s already in full flight.
“You’re the first other person I’ve found. I mean I’ve played it to people in the office, who I usually respect and they just haven’t got it. Fuck knows why. Have you found out anything about them?” she asks.
It takes me a while to gather myself to answer. “I just found the album. And I think I know where they’re from. It’s a town I used to live in . . . It’s hard to explain . . . ”
“You’re in London, right? Can we meet up?”
Outside the city lumbers past, a machine that rarely drops below full operating speed. The car park is mostly deserted. A bloke, probably a delivery driver, is smoking behind the wheel of a shabby estate car. After I put the phone down, something nags at me as I stare at the heavy overcast trapping the summer heat; a memory of a street.
I meet Lisa in a coffee place in a mainline station concourse, suitably public in case I turn out to be a serial murderer. I’ve read a few of her pieces, mostly gig reviews, but I don’t remember a byline picture. It’s pretty clear who she is though, mad auntie frock, biker boots, nose ring and pink hair sending out a complex bunch of signals that all add up to “I am a music journalist”. She’s slightly older than her ensemble suggests, probably thirty-ish like me. We’d have hated each other on principle once. But I liked her straight away, as soon as she opened her mouth, she had a no-nonsense Northern thing going on.
A few pleasantries as we sit down, then an awkward silence. She deals with it by switching journo-mode on.
“So . . . Things Behind The Sun. How did you first hear them?”
I explain about the tape and the chance find. I even find myself talking about Leyford. She’s good. That’s the secret coppers, priests and journalists all know. We all want to confess.
“I didn’t know them, they were older. They were these four strange guys who we knew played in a band, but we never heard them or saw them. They’d finished school then just . . . stayed, doing whatever it was they were doing.”
“So, did you ever speak to them? Did you know their names?”
“Look, Lisa, we were gobby, bored, nasty teenagers who hated them on principle. And it was a shitty small town, full of people like us looking for stuff to hate, always looking for a ruck. They were the nearest thing to freaks we had. You can imagine them, long hair, black clothes, shades in the daytime, looking like they were screwed on drugs or hadn’t seen the sun for a year or two.”
“They sound like my type of guys. So you were the little shits who gave them grief?”
“Well, we might have once yelled something at them from five hundred yards away and then run away. But it wasn’t just us. I remember hearing blokes, people’s dads and stuff, muttering about how they were going to get a good kicking. It was that kind of town.”
“Charming. So here’s the big question. Do you know what happened to them?”
I stop. Something hangs just out of reach, on the other side of that open door in to the dark. “No. I only lived there a year or two. We moved around a lot in those days. Christ, if I’d known I was going to get obsessed with their racket I might have taken a bit more notice.”
“Next time you see your teenage self, give him a good smack from me.” Lisa stares into space for a while, I can see thoughts pounding away furiously behind her eyes. She offers me a cigarette, I decline, she sparks one, gulps a lungful. “Have you got it in that bag by any chance? The record? Can I see it?”
She handles it cautiously, reading the few scant bits of text. “This is so weird. Is it just because no one knows anything about them that we’re so fascinated? You placed an ad. And I’m meeting a strange bloke who places small ads about obscure records. This isn’t normal behaviour for me, and you don’t look like the trainspotter type.”
“Well, thanks, I think. So what about the guy who taped it for you?”
“Naz? Guy I dated a bit. Works in the music biz, was always trying to impress me with stuff I hadn’t heard. Don’t know where he found it though. Rotten little sod went off with someone else. What about you?”
“Ex-girlfriend, but it was a copy of a copy taped by her ex. Hey, maybe he was your bloke Naz?”
“How long ago?”
That floors me, trying to fit Anna and I into the kind of time that has somehow been elapsing for other people, clocks on kitchen walls ticking moronically, fresh front pages shrieking at commuters. It was an eternity ago, it was no time ago. “Three years maybe?”
Lisa sits back thoughtfully, smoking as though uncontaminated oxygen would be a hostile environment. “Doesn’t add up, but maybe we should catch up with Naz and see what he knows.” She scrawls her number. “Call me if you remember anything. I’m going to drop in on him this weekend. Nice and early in case that dirty little bugger is shagging.”
Back at my flats, there’s a note in the stairway. Some busybody moaning about a geezer hanging round the car park. I remember the man in the car and wonder if it’s the same guy. They could nick everything I own apart from a few essential LPs and CDs and I wouldn’t care. It would be a relief really. Not for the first time I wonder if I’m really cut out for this whole cut-throat capitalist thing. I really don’t give a shit about what stuff I own any more. It doesn’t protect you from anything in the end, does it?
I see the man again across the car park while I’m making coffee on Saturday morning. Standing by his car, he’s staring right back at me. I pull the blind down.
At the same time, on the other side of town, Lisa is knocking on the door of a flat. There’s no answer. She realises the door is unlocked. The gloom inside is thick, the smells unidentifiable. After the hallway, the living room is given over to a collection of pizza boxes in varying states of decay. The mute TV is still on, tuned to a blank channel. The flat winds in on itself after that, spiralling down towards nothing.
At the heart of it, the figure on the bed is more vegetable than human, shrunken and desiccated, patches of a white blight growing on grey, leached skin. Naz has been dead for a long time.
After I realised the connection, very few concrete memories of Leyford returned, which disturbed me more. I’d been in my mid-teens, those should be strong memories, the bedrock you build your adult self on. But instead all I had was vague, fearful impressions.
But there was one very different, vivid memory. One that’s always been there. It’s an early summer evening. I’m delivering the last of a stack of catalogues for Mum—there’s a tenner in it for me. The final terrace before home is banked up high above the curving road. I climb the steep steps to the first door. And as I turn and look around, I stop.
The evening light has deepened to the last possible blue before black, while the orange glow of the streetlamps is just taking hold. They hold each other in a kind of perfect balance, suspended in that moment before the first star comes out. And this street, with its Ford Sierras and vicious dogs, becomes the most unearthly, beautiful thing I have ever seen.
At the outer limits, I see the darkness filtering seamlessly into a light whose colours are beyond words. For the rest of my life, this moment will haunt me. I get the feeling I’m seeing into the heart of things, seeing something few other people have. I could have been there for hours.
That balance, that tension, was something a painter could dedicate his life to and never get right. But they could spend a lifetime painting and failing, painting and failing and it would all be worth it. That was the moment that I think of whenever I try to grasp why people drive themselves to self-destruction chasing a vision just out of reach, or how four teenagers from a nowhere town created music that pierces to the heart. But everything brings its shadow with it. We balance on the edge of that darkness and it’s always waiting, to rush in, to overwhelm. But without it there would be no possibility of beauty. That moment was a gift, I think, a chance offered to me to be a different kind of person, if I dared. I betrayed it.
Heroin. Lisa was shocked to find out he was into it, but not all that shocked. It had been taking hold on the edges of the circles she moved in. The party was long over but the corpses were still going through the motions. Naz had quickly got into deep waters, sliding into another London, one we’re trained to avoid seeing.
She was full of a horribly controlled grief and fury when she rang me and said she was in need of a drinking and gigging buddy after his funeral, hence why we’re in some satanic dive in North London waiting for a band to come on. She’s been a while at the bar. I spot her engaged in deep conversation with the bassist from the support band. Their body language is louder than the DJ’s drum n’bass. Good on her.
That drink is never going to arrive, not with all that going on, so I decide it’s a good time go to the gents. As you would imagine, it is in a bowel of the building, awash with piss, while a quirk of structure allows all the most unpleasant frequencies to roar through unmuffled as the band take the stage.
Halfway back down the corridor along one side of the stage, the lights of the bar appear ahead, the muffled bass of the sound system a primeval throb, and something changes.
The sound distorts into rending metal, slowed down till the frequencies flatline. I hear stone, flesh and bone splinter, feel a hideous impact, a drop with no ending. The corridor moves around me, the bar an infinite distance away, the walls plunge downwards for ever.
I see a black building under a livid sky. A shriek, whether human or mechanical I don’t know, rusted and ancient, pierces me. Somewhere on the far side of the universe, the band are still playing. My clothes are soaked with rain and sweat, it fills my eyes, my mouth. I can’t breathe. It is making its way down to my lungs, foul and stagnant. My body goes cold, I can’t breathe.
From an unimaginable distance I see the Fire Exit sign to my left. I manage to reconnect with my body for a moment and desperately urge it to move, and I go crashing through the door, almost falling on my face.
In the cold alleyway, I gasp for breath, the world slowly coming back together, the band muted, the smell of damp bins dragging me back to reality. And then, at the mouth of the alley I see them.
Four silhouettes against the lights of the shopfronts behind.
The fire exit flies open again in a blast of noise and heat. Lisa and the bass player stumble out, devouring each other with lips and tongues.
“Si? What you doing out here?”
I mutter something about a migraine. “We’re out of here as well. I’ll call you soon ok? Lots of things to talk about.” They’re off taxiwards, hooting and grappling. The alley is quiet and empty, the band play on behind the fire door. My clothes are dry.
Work and I take on a troubled relationship after that night. You know you’ve got problems when you can have a full-on bad trip without actually having to ingest any narcotics. I’m somehow on both a final warning and a leave of absence, after a GP took a look at my pale, sleep-deprived self and signed me off, handing out the happy pills. I haven’t told the doctor about my hallucinations, I hope a bit of downtime will make them go away before my P45 arrives. I mostly watch the stillness of the docks, the planes ratcheting in low over the city, the cars looping past. My thoughts spiral down. Mostly Anna, sometimes mum, occasionally something deeper and fouler.
A week or so after the gig, I’d just left the doctor’s and wandered into town. I found myself down on the South Bank among the tourists, rather than just sitting in the flat as the shopping channel burbles to itself and the day vanishes around me. I pause by the riverbank and get that strange feeling again as I look across the brown churn of the Thames swallowing the sunlight, the memory of the street, my glimpse of something behind the surface, beyond shadow and beyond light. I strain hard to grasp it, to make the world open up like it once did. That was when I realised I was being followed.
I’d had a feeling of something wrong for a while, but it’s when I stop to look back downriver that I become aware of someone stopping too, someone realising they’d got too close. I turn and they are hastily retreating. Maybe it’s the high paranoia level I’ve been operating at, but that movement stands out from the meandering of the tourists. I get a glimpse of a hefty man with dark hair retreating into the crowd, aware that I’ve seen him but not wanting to make it more obvious by running. I’m pretty sure it’s the geezer who’s been hanging around the flats. I’ve had it with this arsehole, it’s bad enough being haunted, without a flesh and blood stalker getting involved. I set off in pursuit, choking off the voice of reason that suggests I might just be a pill-popping paranoiac about to accost a random sightseer.
The bloke proves me right by breaking into a lumbering run. I lose sight of him, as a crowd has gathered around a gaggle of busking music students. Running now, I skirt around and emerge on the other side, my view suddenly clear along the river bank. I realise two things. The man is nowhere to be seen as the crowd has closed ranks behind him.
And the woman standing by the river railings, the sunlight catching her short blonde hair in a way I that could never mistake for anyone else is Anna.
I can’t remember the first thing we said to each other. Though I’ll never forget the last. We walked for hours. Or it could have been minutes. Or years. Like I said, time doesn’t work in regular ways for me when it comes to Anna.
I got the impression she was on her own again these days but not unhappy about it. We didn’t say a lot to start with, nothing that went below the surface into anywhere painful, but enough to keep us in each other’s presence for a while, the fragile coincidence that we’d always been revived for a few moments in that unremarkable afternoon.
It felt as though we’d stepped out of the normal flow of things. The river drifts by, marking regular time passing, the slack tide of people eddies past. That thrill, that light we sparked in each other is there somewhere, but the fact that it’s still there, impossibly distant, a parallel universe cheek to cheek with the one we’re doomed to live in, is far worse than it being entirely absent. And finally the inevitable happens. I ask her why?
I can see her face now as she takes a deep, pained breath. She looks away for a second, but then she says it with regret but with absolute certainty.
She said she’d loved me, but had realised there was nothing to me. Getting to know me was like standing on a rotten floor that collapses under your weight, only to land you on another equally rotten floor, crashing down endlessly without ever touching solid ground. And it scared her. That was how she came to see me over those last few months together, a shell hiding a pit going down forever into the dark. After she said that she walked away. What was there left to say? I never saw her again.
Lisa, the morning we left: “Real artists Si, not the chancers or the dabblers like ninety-nine-point-fucking-nine per cent of them—what they do is make the world a little bit bigger. But to do that, your arse has to be hanging right out over the edge. And a lot of people fall off.”
All dead. Things Behind The Sun, the four small-town kids who made something that sounded like nothing else on Earth, are all dead. That’s what Lisa told me when she turned up banging on my door. Car crash. Years ago. And as Lisa tells the story I realise I knew it. I always knew it. One night they were thrashing it back from the place they used to hang out at, a farm where they rented an outbuilding as a practice room. Perhaps they were shitfaced, maybe a tyre blew, but for whatever reason, they lost it on a bridge and went in the river.
And I know what she’s going to insist we do. Two days ago I’d have died by fire rather than go back to Leyford. But since I saw Anna again, I know it’s inevitable. I feel set free of having to be the person I’ve made myself be here in London. He’s gone, collapsed into that pit that was always at his feet.
Lisa is furious. Naz’s death is still a fresh wound, and I suspect the liaison with the bass player hasn’t led to sweet harmony. But the shock of finding out about the band’s demise hasn’t derailed her for long. She’s just shifted to a new angle. Maybe a better one. Dead young men, frozen in a moment of creative perfection before fame came calling to dilute their art. No spotty faces and bad haircuts to get in the way, no deadly dull mumblings about how we do what we do and if anyone likes it it’s a bonus. Just pure enigma, a hungry vacuum. Irresistible.
She’s been on to the local paper in Leyford, sweet talked a librarian. She’s got cuttings on the crash, the inquest. A name, Don Adams, described as their manager. And the piece de resistance. A page of small ads from this week’s paper including one for a record shop, Adams Music, still there on Leyford high street. Plus a photocopy from an OS map. Back Leys Farm, the place they were coming from the night they died. The place where they made their music.
The sun is hidden by overcast as we drive north. The air is thick with heat and static. Thunderheads build high over London.
I come off the motorway early and let instinct take over, guiding me through towns and villages. We’re only just clear of the ragged edges of the city. But somewhere a boundary has been crossed. If you turn off the clogged main routes you’ll find an agricultural landscape has quietly taken charge.
I tense as we approach the edge of town, expecting to see the car, heading straight for me on the wrong side of the road, a corpse in black shades at the wheel, three others riding in the passenger seats.
I turn on to the main road and somehow, I’m just here. A bog standard sign, LEYFORD, houses, cars, people. Lisa watches me, doesn’t say anything. The old petrol station is a new block of flats, the footprint of the forecourt still discernible. There are new extensions and conservatories bolted onto some houses, a fossil record of boom and bust.
On the main shopping street, where we park up, the small supermarket that killed the town centre stone dead in the eighties is still there, as are the same pubs, a few with updated signs and exteriors. Some teenagers are haunting the bench that we used to.
I spot Adams Music. A fairly-new signage, but empty, a business dying on its arse when no-one is ever going to pay seventeen quid for a CD ever again. Unless Adams has some serious mail order trade going on bankrolling the place? A large guy in his mid-forties, hair still long in defiance of his encroaching forehead, comes to the door and lights a fag, looking hopefully up and down the street. I know exactly who he is. The man who’s been stalking me. Don Adams.
For a moment he looks hopeful that we’re customers, then he realises and turns dead white. He recoils into the shop, trying to slam the door, but I stick my foot in it. Lisa fixes him with her most disarming smile as he backs up towards the counter. She catches my expression and stops.
“This is the bloke who was following me.” I try to keep my tone calm. I’m wondering if there’s a weapon under that counter.
“You can’t be here,” splutters Adams. “You need to get out, fast.”
I recognise his accent. I can hear it in my own. And his smell of fear. It’s been in my nostrils all my adult life.
“Why are you following me?”
“Not you, you fucking moron. The record. You’ve got the last copy. I hope to God it’s the last copy. I burnt the masters. You need to give it to me and get out.”
“You’re tracking down the records and trashing them?” Lisa is baffled. “But we love it. You did something amazing back then.” She pauses. “They killed themselves didn’t they? Is it because of that?”
He has tears in his eyes, he nods. “They were saying stuff that scared me to death. They hadn’t slept for days. The day we finished recording. They walked out the room, got in the car and went straight at the bridge and into the river, full throttle. Never braked.”
He tails off, eyes darting around for an escape route.
I try to intervene. “Look mate, I grew up here. If those guys could do something like that here they were pretty special. Saying ‘screw you’ to a town full of shitheads like me.”
Adams starts laughing hysterically.
“No, you stupid bastard. That was the mistake we made. Don’t you get it? We thought we were so much better than this place. But we didn’t understand. People here are like that for a reason. To protect themselves. And we, we went looking for it . . . ” he chokes on his own terrified sobs.
Do you know what the secret is behind every piece of music that lives on longer than the moment of its performance? People who don’t belong anywhere, creating a space where they can belong, a space that people who they’ve never even met will one day stumble across and feel more at home than they ever have anywhere else.
But every band who kick against where they come from can’t escape the things that made them. Music’s more honest than the people who make it. It holds both things in tension. The light brings the shadow. The escape is a map of the prison. And Leyford and what lies within and beneath Leyford lives in every note Things Behind The Sun ever played. And they knew that and carried on in spite of it, their music a final defiance in the face of everything they’d come to realise about this town, the town on the edge of the world.
There are paths here no one would ever walk. And I realise now it was like that inside people’s heads. Don’t think too much, don’t feel too much. Don’t look over the edge. That’s why this place made me who I was. A place where you learn a thousand ways to not see, to learn to forget.
And then my memories of Leyford all return, a damburst of black water. That night on the street, I’d opened myself up, lowered my defences, wanting to feel something, and maybe in that moment I had some kind of choice. But instead something had entered me, blighting me. I remember heading up to Back Leys that summer evening.
“We have to go,” I say to Lisa.
Then Adams loses it, grabbing the baseball bat that was indeed under the counter. He’s slow and out of shape but filled with a fury that takes me by surprise. He would kill me if he could. I duck the blow and punch him hard in the face before he can do anything else. He drops to the floor, his nose a gusher of blood, his eyes full of tears, a drained husk.
I see his heavy ring of keys lying on the counter and pocket it.
I push Lisa out of the shop. “What the fuck? Is everyone in this dump batshit crazy?” she protests. I can’t speak, memory is still washing over me in cold waves.
As we pull up outside Back Leys Farm, the thunderclouds tower against the sky, obscuring the sun, closing in. It was the same on that day. Something switched in me and I came here. I don’t know what I planned to do. Slash their tyres, set fire to the shed they recorded in with them inside. I was an antibody, serving my function and then cast aside.
I remember sitting at the roadside, hearing the hum and crash of the band playing inside one of the buildings. That was the first time I heard their music, the very last time they played it. After I’d cut their brake lines. That’s the memory that’s always been there hidden under everything, the breadcrumb trail that has led me home. I stare at the power cables and phone wires hanging heavy as they cross the fields, feeding Leyford’s needs, carrying its secret thoughts.
Maybe they were already lost, maybe I made no difference, or maybe their music was still a raised middle finger right to the end. The music stopped, the car roared into life and shot past me. I heard the brutal impact on the bridge parapet, a hideous pause, then the car and the stonework collapsing into the black water below. The noises spiralled down to silence.
Between each growl of the approaching thunderstorm, the day falls into deep quiet. Lisa looks at me wordlessly. Whatever my face is saying about the contents of my head, it’s enough to make her go pale. We stare at each other for a long moment. Finally I speak. “There. That’s where they made it.”
The outbuilding is an old storeroom, creosoted boards black against the livid sky. The stormfront is moments away. The first drop of rain falls on my nose, the dry ground sighs with thirst. The air groans with electricity, calculating paths for the first ground stroke. I follow Lisa to the door. The padlock is ancient, rusted. No one has been in here for a decade or more. I fumble through Adams’s keys. One of them slips smoothly into the lock, turns with unexpected oily ease. The lock falls into the dust. The shed is made from breezeblocks, a single filthy window filters a slit of storm light into the room.
A floor covered with rotting lino, desiccated remains of cans and ashtrays. A drum kit in the shadows, cobwebs draped from cymbals. Three dead amplifier stacks, their cables mummified snakes. A single mic stand like a gibbet in the middle of the circle. The lightning throws the room into relief, the detonation follows instantly and rain hammers on the corrugated iron roof, a day’s rain falling in moments, just as it did that night, the river shredded by bullets of water as the car floated there half submerged.
I grasp the fragments of myself together and realise the only thing I can do. The one thing that’s been inevitable since I sat at that roadside all those years ago, as that music hummed away, laying down the fundamentals of a chord that would complete itself over the years. I step forward into the circle of amplifiers, into the heart of the room.
There aren’t any words for this. When I step forward the bottom drops out of the world. It’s a space going down forever, but expanding out into dimensions that make nonsense of language. Except the worst thing is that it’s not just real, it’s far more real than we are.
I’m surrounded by a bubbling darkness, and everything around me is alive. And I am a pale stalk, growing out of the heart of the fungal mass that fills this realm, a screaming bud, and I can sense that Lisa, Anna, the dead boys from the band, you, me, everyone we’ve ever met, we’re all down here, our roots growing out of it.
In the end, all our dreams, nightmares and ambitions all mean absolutely nothing. All we are, all we ever have been, is shadows cast by this barely-conscious living death, not malevolent, not indifferent, not anything that even merits valuing, but which only exists, grows and consumes, a final mockery of that cheap fantasy of transcending the world around you. I’m screaming into the darkness and the bud opposite me is screaming too and the one beyond it. This is the secret at the heart of town, a knowledge infecting the air, the water, the music. That everyone in Leyford has had to learn not to see, until the band who dared balance on the edge and look it in the face to forge their beautiful obsession. I can feel oblivion crawling up slowly towards me like black sap, the illusion of myself fading.
I think Lisa pulled me out of the circle. I don’t know what she saw. We’d run about a mile before I became aware of a giggling, gibbering thing and realised it was me. We were crashing through the black woods, the rain drumming all around, then out into a field, freshly harvested, stumbling in the mud, earth, air and water all blurred together in the dark, and once again I feel the void sucking at my feet. Our universe began in fire, it’ll end down there in nothing. I stop to throw up. I’m aware of Lisa, her arm round my shoulders, talking me down to earth.
Then something slams into us both, sending us sprawling in the mud. Everything comes back into focus. Adams. He’s smeared in mud and blood, his eyes staring far beyond. I’m too slow to realise what’s going on. He grabs Lisa in a bear hug and she screams and folds up, collapsing as he comes for me. I see the knife, slick with blood, beginning a long sweep that will end in my guts. I sidestep and sweep his leg out from under him. I jump on his back, forcing his face into the mud, grabbing at his knife hand. I shove his face into the filth, putting all my weight on the back of his neck. Rain sheets down. His movements are frantic but weakening. I crush down on him as hard as possible, choking him in the mire. The black trees thrust their limbs out like fingers across unbridgeable gulfs. Finally he stops moving. After a while, I stand up. I turn to Lisa but it’s too late. He’d slashed an artery. Her clothes are soaked red, eyes open and blank. I howl with pain and fury. I throw the knife as far away as I can and run, fields and trees and then streets whose gutters vomit floodwater, my footsteps sounding a warning note along the black housefronts of Leyford, the dead pubs, the shut shops. The roads are empty. I’m long past the town boundaries before I realise those red eyes in the dark are the tail lights of a lorry. I’m somehow still in a world where human life goes on.
There’s not much left to tell really. I emptied my bank account, sold the car, got on a coach and headed West until I ran out of dry land. Eventually I realised no one was looking for me. Except my now ex-boss and bank manager of course. The knock on the door never came, even though there’s everything to connect me to Lisa’s death and Adams’s. But Leyford has swallowed it up. Just another story. I sold the flat and signed Mum’s house over to Jackie. I moved around every few months, taking work where I can find it—like I said, I’ve always been good at fitting in, though these days I have a look that puts people off asking too many questions. But I’m just amazed people don’t look in my eyes and start screaming.
It’s been years now. The millennium came, the economy imploded, the whole world got addicted to the screens in their pockets. If there’s anything positive I want you to take from all this it’s the fact that I carried on. Sometimes I was even happy. I take some hope from Lisa’s dead eyes. The horror there was not horror at what lies beyond. Maybe what I saw wasn’t the final truth but just the final truth for me. You can believe that if you need to. But everyone reaches their limit and I’m afraid there are no happy endings here. I’d like you to say hello to my new little friend, Mr 12 Gauge. I told you I was a music lover, but choking on my own vomit doesn’t sound much fun, and drifting off in a haze of tranquillisers just isn’t me. So I’m going for the full Kurt, only I’ll skip the skag entrée.
You see, one night a few days ago, I wandered down the lane from the cottage to the sea. I often come here at night, a shingle beach which attracts a few dog walkers during the day but no one else at night. I love it on my own down there. The night was still, the moon reflected on the calm, shallow sea, tiny waves breaking gently. The lights of a ship caught my eye, I watched it making its way along the deep water channel a few miles out, imagining the crew enjoying the warm evening, taking a break to watch the coast lights slip by. My eye drifts from the ship to the lapping patterns of moonlight on the barely-moving water. And then I feel myself being drawn in to the spaces of that shifting web of light and dark, I can feel myself falling away into it. Looking down I can see the shadows licking around my legs and I know what they are pulling me down to. A switch in the beach’s topography reveals its true shape, a vortex funnelling downwards, sucking all thought to oblivion. I run like hell. I drive like a madman to somewhere where there are lights and people and noise to stop up the cracks in the world for a little while.
And I find myself watching a band. It’s the first time I’ve seen a live band in months. It’s loud three-chord pub rock’n’roll and the brash racket and the cheering beery bodies packed in around me are the safest place I’ve been in a long time. For a moment I even find myself remembering why I still love music and believe it can keep anything at bay. Maybe it can for you, but not for me this time. Between songs, the guitarist strikes a chord seemingly at random and lets it feed back, the amplifier vibrating and droning. The band and the audience barely notice, but the chord starts to collapse in on itself, its notes growing into a vast dissonance. The darkness behind the amplifier grille seems to swell out towards me, mocking, leering. I don’t run this time, I leave quietly. The next day I bought the gun from a guy in a pub, and began to get my thoughts in order.
But there was another final straw. The name Things Behind The Sun on the cover of a music magazine. When I went online for the first time in years, there it all was. Just like Lisa said, that music and that story are irresistible. There are fragments out there being shared, copies of copies that Adams in his desperation failed to find. Deep in the forums are mentions of a journalist who vanished, leaving a half-written piece on her computer. There are various versions of it out there, I don’t know if they’re real or fake. It doesn’t really matter. It’s finally out there. It’s spreading, spawning dark children everywhere. Drawn together, needing to find the story behind the music. All roads lead to Leyford, to that deserted building and the growing and darkening pit at its heart. Why am I doing this? I don’t think I have any choice in the matter. So I’ve uploaded the record myself, transferred from the vinyl. I never threw it away. I couldn’t. And I bet when you get to the end of this you’re going to have to listen to it. I’ll upload this, then I’ll pull the trigger and become part of the story. It’s all inevitable. If you’ve found part of yourself, perhaps the best part of yourself in music, one day you’ll have to answer the call and make your way to Leyford and see the world revealed. The blackness inside the speaker stacks. The space after the tape runs out. The things behind the sun.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 62, March 2018.