Tony saw it out of the corner of his eye, the official white envelope on the mat. He tried the breathing: slow in, pause, slow out, but it was no good. His chest was as tight as a rubber band.
Either he would want to meet Tony or not. And that was out of Tony’s hands. It should have been easy to pick up the letter, read it.
But Tony could feel, then see, his hands shaking. And in a flash behind his eyes, he remembered the shakes of the worst days. In the wings, about to go out before fifty, seventy, one hundred thousand people, still sloppy drunk but the relaxed feeling gone, desperate to lie down and sleep it off. Pacing around in some airport lounge, knowing you were about to be herded into a tin coffin where you couldn’t open windows, couldn’t breathe: where you would suffocate in minutes, unless you could lull yourself into a relaxed state.
Relaxed meaning shit-faced, of course. Getting numb as fast as you could, the 50 percent stuff, no ice, no water, no taste. Nothing beyond the metal chill on your tongue and the power to knock you out quicker than anything else.
Stop, Tony told himself. Stop the thought. You can do this. You can stop this track. You are not in that place. You are here in your hall; Melissa is in her study. You are clean and sober.
Tony ripped the letter out of the envelope, all thumbs. He tried to read, hands trembling. Then:
Melissa ran out of her little hobbit hole of a study. “What is it?”
“It’s him. Not him, the adoption people.” Tony stared at the paper, gasping for breath.
“He doesn’t mind me contacting him.”
Tony looked at the letters dancing on the page, as strange as musical notes had once looked, before Byron had shown him how to read them. So random, all those letters, all those notes, but so important. “He might even want to meet me!”
The ideas used to flow, in fits and starts, after walking somewhere, anywhere. A tune or a line, then back to his room, or Byron’s room in his grandparents’ dark disordered house, to capture it: a few chords, a sip of something, another few chords, the next line, another sip. Beer at first, then vodka.
But here he was, wasting time on YouTube. Tony clicked the video shut, wondering why he’d ever watched the thing. It wasn’t as if he needed to be reminded. That awful gig: Byron off his face, almost falling off the stage, Tony not much better. He remembered JJ, beside himself, telling Tony that Byron had ruined it this time.
Byron had taught him the tricks to writing things: reward yourself at each stage, take it bit by bit, the next chord, the next hook. For someone who was supposed to be off his head, Byron could be surprisingly disciplined.
Tony took another sip of peppermint tea, the stuff Melissa said would keep him energized. It still smelt like hot toothpaste.
He’d been okay at lyrics, but they’d never flowed like the tunes and hooks that Tony had heard everywhere; while he was walking, in the back of a van going north to some gig. And the words weren’t as important as the music. Now, if he wrote the wrong thing, he would sound like a total shit: the kind of man who would abandon his fifteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, give his child up for adoption. And the boy, a man now, would never want to meet him.
Living in South West London, a lawyer. The private detective had found out quite a lot. But it was all for nothing – Tony couldn’t think of the first line, the first word even.
Melissa poked her head in. “How’s it going?”
“It’s not. I can’t do it.”
“It doesn’t have to be poetry, you know.” Melissa perched on the edge of his chair.
“I want to get it right – if I don’t, he won’t want to meet me.” Tony could smell Melissa’s vanilla hair, and leaned against her warmth. He closed his eyes, not wanting to think about the letter.
“What do you want to say to him?”
“That I’m sorry for giving him up. That I would make it up to him if I could. That I want to meet him. But only if he wants to.”
Tony ran aground, sucking for breath, like the panics: not as bad, but a hint they could come back any time they wanted to. He felt her arms leave him, the sudden cold, heard the click of the keyboard. “You shouldn’t be doing it for me.”
“I’m helping. You’re allowed to get help: it’s not an exam.”
“What do I know about exams, love? I never passed any.” But Tony opened his eyes and looked at what Melissa had created, so much better than anything he could have done. “And I hope he had a good childhood and the people who adopted him loved him.” Tony did the special breathing again, slowing each breath, fighting off the panics.
Melissa typed, ten times as fast as Tony’s efforts, then showed him the draft. She stared into Tony’s eyes and he saw the fierce dark blue of hers, so at odds with her roundish baby face. “We’ve done everything we can. You’ve waited before, you can do this.”
Tony played a few old songs, checked his email, walked in every room willing the music to come. There were tricks to getting a song started. Going for a run, walking in the dark. Now he couldn’t do any of that, the music had deserted him. Forever.
Tony pushed the thought away – catastrophizing, Melissa called it. He had a million things to do without leaving the house. A post for their official website to edit into the approved Tony style, down-to-earth, not too arty or intellectual. The arty voice was JJ’s.
He felt in the top drawer of his desk. The letter was still there, the one he hadn’t had the guts to send yet.
He could walk out the front door, shut it behind him, walk down the path, ten steps, and turn right and walk the one hundred twenty steps to the post box and the one hundred twenty steps back. Everything was possible if you could count it off.
Tony grabbed the letter and his keys, walked down the hall, checked his keys. It would take five minutes, ten tops. He could do it. Bit by bit, step by step, like he’d written all those songs all those years ago.
He stepped outside, and was paralyzed, glued to the door. He breathed until his heart stopped racing, reached for the keys he’d dropped on the ground.
When his breathing had calmed, Tony put the letter in his pocket. Today was not the day he would send this to the unknown child. He racked his brain for a small victory: he’d managed to damp down the panics faster than the last time.
Next time, he’d take the first steps.
They were so discreet these clinics, tucked away in back streets, side entrances, no nameplates. Like the places Byron and Tony had gone to: Georgian mansions, bars and shatterproof glass in every window. Tony remembered Byron, one of his down days, hunched in the corner while staff brought in a trolley of tea, as if it were the Ritz.
Tony shook himself out of it. This was totally different from those places. He flicked through another mag and finished his tea.
The receptionist was at his side in an instant. “Could I get you something more to drink?”
“No thanks, I’ll be fine,” said Tony, embarrassed. This was like the poshest shop in the world: you couldn’t scratch your nose without four people offering you a tissue. “But thanks.”
He smiled at her and caught a flicker of recognition. She might have shared a bedroom with an older sister who plastered the walls with Nightworld posters: she looked a bit too young to have been around at the start. She smiled back, professionally friendly.
“Your wife won’t be too much longer,” she said. “Mr. MacIndoe likes to spend a bit more time with patients the first few times, that’s all.”
Walking across Wandsworth Common, Tony knew this was one of those moments he would always remember: the first afternoon he and Melissa knew. Like seeing the Colosseum when the tour bus turned a corner, shock merging into wonder that this was real. But this was better. Tony stared around the vastness of the Common, empty tennis courts and lawns in every direction, expecting the panics to swallow him up. But today he was stronger than the panics.
Melissa clutched his arm. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, love. Don’t worry.” And Tony had a stab of guilt, remembering all the worry he’d caused Melissa, the drinking, the getting clean, the drinking again. It was going to be different now. He’d have to start taking care of her.
“You know we have to hold off a bit before we tell anyone, don’t you?”
Tony’s phone rang: it was JJ. He was tempted to ignore it, but he couldn’t. Such a good boy, JJ would have said.
“We have to go on tour. I need the money for dad’s care home.”
Tony tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t annoy JJ and Melissa at the same time. “Isn’t there another way to raise funds?” He ground to a halt, then had another go. “We’ve got something else we have to... I wouldn’t say no if it wasn’t important.” And Tony ran dry again, looking around at the emptiness, the flat lid of the sky crushing down on him.
Melissa took the phone. “JJ, it’s Melissa,” she said in her most school-teachery voice. “Tony really can’t tour.”
She snapped into the phone, while Tony sank onto the ground. He felt the letter in his pocket. The child, the other child, he’d have a half-brother or sister soon.
“Why don’t you sell one of your properties?” huffed Melissa. “And what’s wrong with NHS care? For something like dementia it’s better than some snobby private home.”
Whatever JJ said riled her up even further. She barked into the phone, each word crackling like fireworks.
“I know because my father was a rheumatologist, and my sister’s an oncologist for the NHS, so I actually understand how healthcare works!”
It was almost funny – nobody stood up to JJ except Melissa. And nobody made Melissa as angry as JJ.
Tony thought of other kids in his school, with their brothers and sisters. They all seemed like part of some club, which he and Byron, the lonely only children, had never been let into.
Maybe his son had been like that, an only child to parents who couldn’t have any of their own. And Tony didn’t even have the guts to post a letter to him.
Tony started running towards the postbox at the edge of the Common.
“I have to go,” Melissa shouted in the phone. “Tony’s having a panic attack.”
She hung up without another word: the way JJ did to him. The way Tony never did to JJ.
Melissa caught up with Tony. “Are you okay? We’re nearly home, can you make it?”
“I have to post the letter to him, the one you wrote for me.” Tony half ran, too fast for Melissa to keep up. “I couldn’t do it; I was convinced he wouldn’t want to know me. But he’s going to have a half-brother or sister, and we have to tell him.”
They reached the postbox and pushed the letter into the slot, watching, as if something would magically happen.
Melissa put her arm around him. “Good on you, you’ve done it.”
“We’ve done it.”
“Okay. Come on Pops, let’s get home.”
“But what are we going to do about JJ?”
“I don’t know. Force him to make an appointment with specialists? Force him not be such a small-minded snob?”
When reporters talked to Tony, they sometimes asked if playing the guitar was the first thing he was naturally good at. But the guitar had taken years of playing in secret. The song-writing hadn’t come naturally either, though it was easier, thanks to Byron.
The first thing he’d been a natural at was driving. It had been instinctive: he remembered the thrill when it all worked, this big beautiful machine moving so fast and smooth under his control.
He’d kept the skill, even after too many nights trying to stay upright at the wheel after half a bottle of vodka, mornings driving sloppy-drunk, blinded by the dawn in his eyes. Like that night Byron had almost rolled the car, and Tony had had to calm Byron down, both of them laughing and crying at the same time. Tony had still been able to take the wheel and get them home in one piece.
That had been the early days, though, when it was still a genuine accident for Byron. Later there were more, then Byron was gone, after racing his car the wrong way up a one-way street, most of a bottle of vodka inside him.
After that, the wonderful joy had gone, swallowed up by memories of Byron and his smashed-up body. The photos had been on every newsstand for days.
He’d been sure he’d never get it back, till Melissa convinced him to go to those classes. Even now, the naturalness had deserted him. He sometimes got the panics, forgetting which pedal the brake was, blanking in front of the wheel, convinced he was an inch away from crashing. But now he could deal with them. And occasionally he got a glimpse of the feeling when he’d first driven, thirteen years old, easing out of the driveway at five miles an hour, his dad in the seat beside him, his mum watching from the garden, looking proud and anxious at the same time.
Tony stalled the car on the side of the road, a side street lined with mock-Tudor homes, the sort that JJ would roll his eyes at. So suburban. The street that Tony’s son lived in.
Tony parked across the road from the house, willing someone to come out: a thirty-eight-year-old lawyer. Tony’s son.
The door opened. But it was a woman with a little girl in a stroller. Maybe the family. She glanced at the car, and Tony had a surge of the panics. She might think he was a stalker, call the police. And then his son would never agree to see him.
The letter had been posted weeks ago. Melissa had said be patient, but Tony knew. It was worse than waiting to board a plane, worse than waiting for the chart results to come out. All so important once, and all out of Tony’s control. Like now.
Tony stared at the house. Just a glimpse at him, a look.
He crawled down the street, looking back in the rear-view mirror, ready to stop if a man came out. Still nothing. He started driving at a normal pace. At least he could drive now: he should be grateful for that.
One day Tony would be driving past and his son would come out.
Melissa brought Tony his tea in with the mail. Real tea, not tea-bags, lemon not milk, no sugar, porcelain cup. When you gave up the booze, you had to develop other pleasures. The smell of the tea, the shade of the light through the thin china cup bouncing off the gold rim, the wafer-thin slice of lemon.
Tony’s phone rang and he answered it without thinking. A bit risky, but he didn’t get many journalists calling anymore. There was a pause on the other end, giving Tony a stab of fear, waiting for news of another death, another disappearance.
It was a younger-sounding man, well-spoken, hesitant. “Is this Tony Smith?”
And Tony knew it wasn’t some stray journo or fan. He almost dropped his cup, saved in the nick of time by Melissa. “Yes.”
“I … um… You wrote me a letter.”
“I thought it might be you.” And Tony cast about for words. “Do you want to meet?” He shouldn’t have said that: it would scare him off. “I mean, only if you want to.”
“Yes. I do want to meet you.” The assurance in the voice came back: Tony could tell he talked correctly, the sort of voice that made Tony aware of his own grammar, the way he’d felt when he first met Melissa, and still did with some of her family.
After they rang off, Melissa handed him back his cup.
“He wants to meet me.” Tony felt his hands shaking with the shock: it felt like all the first great excitements, the first tours, cocktail parties and plane rides all those years ago, before things had gone stale, and he could only enjoy things with a glass or a bottle in his hand. “What am I going to say to him?”
“I mean it. You’ve got to go and what is meant to happen will happen.”
Tony felt her stomach, sure it was bigger, and even felt a tiny kick, the baby celebrating too. Though that was ridiculous: the baby was still only the size of a walnut, or whatever tiny nub of a life it was at this stage.
Once he couldn’t have appreciated this: he’d have been hanging out for a drink to heighten the feeling, counting down till he could take the top off a fresh bottle of vodka, chilled. Tony leaned back and savored the feeling of not needing that any more, being happy without it.
He hid in a booth in the back of the Bien Venue Hotel, fiddling with the cap of his mineral water. He dropped it on the floor, scrambled to pick it up.
If he didn’t come, Tony would get through it. Somehow.
This bar had been the hippest place on his radar back in the beginning: they would come up from Southampton, almost too nervous to walk in the lobby. Well, Tony was nervous: JJ had already learned how to walk in like he belonged. Tony had crept in, feeling like he was going to be asked who he was at any moment. But that was before JJ had met the owner, Marcus, and realized Marcus would have let in any boy he liked the look of. And before Marcus met Byron. Tony leaned back remembering Byron here, in the basement that doubled as a nightclub. How stupid Tony had been, how naïve.
Tony wondered why he’d suggested this place. Luke was bound to think he was either some yuppie wannabe or a nightclub sleaze.
If Luke came.
It was still too early to be nervous, of course. Tony was half an hour early, knowing he’d never be able to wait, in case he was delayed by a taxi crash, a panic attack, any number of things. Now here he was, two mineral waters down and ten minutes to go. And trying not to think: what if Luke didn’t come? How long would Tony sit here before realizing it wasn’t going to happen?
He’d stay for half an hour. Half an hour, and he’d take a taxi home, and remind himself of everything else he had to be grateful for. Melissa, their child. Lawrence, Meredith: it was too soon to think of names, almost tempting fate. But Tony couldn’t stop himself: the names popped into his head as strong as the tunes and hooks he used to hear.
Tony heard the voice; posh but not over-pronounced, like some of Melissa’s English friends or kiwis who had been here for decades. Another world from the voices Tony had grown up with.
Tony turned to look and saw the posture, the chiseled, lean face, the slight shadows under his eyes. It was Tony’s father to the life.
There were so many things Tony had rehearsed: now, looking at Luke, he could only stare at the image of his father as a young man, younger than Tony could remember, familiar and alien at once. Tony had a flash of the panics, his heart thuddering. This was not going to work; he’d never be able to say what he wanted to say. He’d only been able to write the letter with Melissa’s help.
“You were in Nightworld, weren’t you?”
“Yes, still am. We’re not as active these days though.” And Tony wondered why he’d said that. It made it sound like he had nothing to do.
“My cousin, who’s about ten years older than me, used to love Nightworld. Especially Byron. She was devastated when he died and I teased her about it, a typical narky little kid. I feel bad about that now.” Luke looked across at Tony, embarrassed. “Sorry, it must have been awful.”
“That’s okay.” Tony realized Luke was nervous too, and it made things easier. “It was terrible, but he was in a bad way.” Tony spilled the same lines he’d delivered to journalists and fans, then looked at Luke and faltered. It was the eyes, the same clear eyes that never gave up on Tony, not when they learned about the baby, not when Tony went into rehab for the first time or the second or the third, not when Tony was sued in a trumped-up paternity case. “It was the worst day of my life when he died. He’d been my best friend.” Well, that was true, thought Tony, even after I broke his heart.
“He was manic depressive, wasn’t he?”
“It seems obvious now, but no one talked about that then.” That, and other things. “He’d stay up for days, write lyrics, plan parties, talking a mile a minute, so funny, so clever. Then he’d crash in his room, drinking whatever he could find. If it happened on tour, we’d have to drug him up just to get him onstage. But we thought that was the way he was…” Tony trailed away. Luke would think Tony was too self-absorbed to realize his best friend was manic depressive. Or too thick.
“But it’s often the way, isn’t it? It’s the closest ones who don’t realize, because they only see the person changing little by little. My father was a psychiatrist…” Luke faltered, looking exactly like Tony felt for an instant. “I’m sorry but he’s my…. I wanted to meet you, I’m glad you wrote to me, but they’re my parents.”
“That’s all right. I was the one who…” The one who abandoned you and Maria, thought Tony, like I let Byron down, when I couldn’t be what he wanted me to be. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.”
“For abandoning you. I always wondered what happened to you. You could have gone to anyone. And I let it happen.”
“But you were hardly even sixteen: what else could you have done?”
“But were you okay?”
“I was great. My mum and dad were older, they’d wanted kids and tried for years. When they got me, they knew how lucky they were. When I was younger, I wondered why you hadn’t kept me. But I knew you were sixteen and Maria only fifteen.”
“Have you met her?”
“Yes, she wrote to me too. Did you keep in touch with her?”
“No, we’d broken up. I was on tour, she dumped me. I never knew about the – about you. I tried to see her when I was back, but her father wouldn’t let me in the house… I’m sorry, I can’t be the one complaining, it was so much worse for her.” Tony had a sudden memory, sharp as an icicle. The phone booth, that freezing spring night in Newcastle, Maria telling him it was over. “How is she?”
“She’s great. Married, three daughters. Wonderful husband. Became a teacher and then a principal and now she’s an education lecturer. She’s happy.”
“Great.” She’d never told Tony – he never knew why. Tony’s mum had found out from Maria’s father, the mad old Irish git, shouting at her in the supermarket. “You look so much like my father. How I remember him when I was a kid. From the photos, because he was older than you when I remember him.” Tony felt himself gabbling, but Luke looked interested.
“What were they like, your parents?”
Tony tried to explain. His dad, always the handsomest man around but unaware of it. How he’d had to force them to take any money off him, putting it aside in a special bank account, only to find, after his dad died, that they’d hardly touched it. They’d saved it for Tony in case he needed it.
“I didn’t deserve them, all I put them through, the baby, sorry, you, and the drink. They were older when they had me: they’d thought it was never going to happen. I’d had an older brother, but he’d died a few years before I was born, when he was six months old. Mum was already forty when I came along. I was the great surprise, the miracle baby.”
Tony thought of his mum, saying goodbye to him before one of the early tours. He would have been fifteen: Maria had been there too. His mum had looked so old at the time; it was a shock to think she was younger than he was now. He remembered shrugging her off, not wanting to look weak in front of JJ who, of course, was acting like he’d been on tour hundreds of times already.
Tony looked up to see Luke staring at him.
“Are you okay?”
Great, Tony thought, now he thinks I’m mad too. “I just remembered something from years ago, seeing my mum off when I was about to go on tour when I was about fifteen.”
“You were famous by then?”
“No, we were nobodies, spotty little kids, the first on the bill in student discos. We had a van which smelled like socks and stale takeaways and we piled in it, with all the gear, and rode to the crappiest little clubs, the only ones who would have us. My parents never knew when they would see me again. I used to send them postcards when I remembered,” and Tony remembered JJ rolling his eyes at that. “I never phoned them. It was too expensive.”
“Bloody hell, fifteen!” Luke’s mouth dropped in shock.
“I know.” When I have my second child, they won’t do that, they’ll go to university. Like Melissa, like Luke. “I should have done what you did, get educated. Are you a lawyer or something like that?” Then Tony felt a stab of panic: Luke would think he’d been stalking him. Which Tony had.
But Luke smiled. “Yes, a lawyer, very middle class, the total cliché.”
“That’s great though, a lawyer!”
Luke looked embarrassed, the spitting image of Tony’s dad again. “You’re famous though.”
“You still are. Half the people here are stealing glances at you.” But then Luke must have seen Tony’s face, the closing in, the shadow of the panics crossing over him. “I’m sorry. You’re probably sick of it.”
“It’s okay, you get used to it. Never totally, but you learn to walk through it, not look around too much. They might be looking at you, though. Everyone used to say I was the good-looking one, but I was nothing to my dad. I’d love to show you photos of them, next time…” And Tony ground to a halt. Luke might never want to see him again; he might have just come to see the man who abandoned him. “Only if you want to.”
But Luke was smiling. “Yes, I would. It would be great to see you again.”
Tony strode away from the Bien Venue, feeling he could go anywhere and never have the panics again. It was like his most brilliant gig or recording something perfect or hearing a whole chorus in his head. But it was better than that. It felt like the night he met Melissa.
His son wanted to meet him again. Tony strode on, feeling himself think past his fears of buildings toppling above him: today he could be a normal person, not afraid the sky would crush him, the ground swallow him.
When he was a kid, he’d walked for miles with his dad, to the park, to the shops. That had been the worst thing about the last illness, how he couldn’t walk anymore. He’d been trapped in his room, shut off from the world he’d once seen so much of, one step at a time. It was like he was gone even before he died.
Tony walked past buildings, people’s front gardens. There were a few stares, and he had a sudden flash of the autograph days at their worst: not being able to step out of his door, or even too close to his window, for the screaming. The pushing, being crushed beneath all the hands and eyes. He gasped for breath, feeling his chest, knowing he was hyperventilating. But then he breathed the right way. And it passed, like all those doctors, and Melissa, always told him it would.
The eyes, the stares: Tony had never understood how JJ could like it so much.
As if on cue, Tony’s phone rang. It was JJ. There was a word for that – synchronicity or something.
“I’ve been going over the books, and we do need to tour.”
“I’ve got other priorities.” Tony felt himself breathing wrong. “I can’t right now.” It would be so easy to tell him about the baby: JJ would have to give in then. But not till the three-month mark.
“Nightworld is your priority. And you know I need the money.” JJ did a sigh down the line, the more disappointed than angry one. “Melissa put you up to this, didn’t she?”
“It’s not that simple.” And Tony suddenly wondered if it would make any difference if he did tell JJ: if JJ would even register how important this was.
It took fifteen minutes to get JJ off the phone and only by agreeing to think about the tour, and material for the album they would do after it.
Tony leaned against some railings, calming himself down. He couldn’t do another tour: didn’t JJ remember the last tour, the one after Byron, the one that had pushed Tony back into rehab?
All those airport lounges, the tiny cabin closing in on him, hanging around backstage for hours waiting to play, nothing to do but drink and write songs. Except now he didn’t drink. And he couldn’t write new songs either.
Tony noticed people staring at him, either because they recognized him or because the panics were starting to show on his face. He looked for any cameras flashing or phones clicking. The last thing he needed was a lead item in the Chronicle: Nightworld Star in Drunken State! Tony’s sad fall! JJ would love that. Except maybe he would: at least it was publicity.
A taxi went past and Tony waved for it. Home to Melissa. Fifteen minutes more, he could survive that. All he had to do was focus on his breathing.
Tony changed his shirt again, feeling ridiculous. He could only ever remember fussing like this about clothes when he first started seeing Melissa, trying to impress her, pretend he had everything together. That was before he came clean and found out she’d known all along. She’d worked it out, of course, about the panics and everything else. But she still came out with him again.
It had been idiotic to care about his clothes with Melissa, and it was just as stupid to care so much now. Luke wouldn’t notice what Tony was wearing, unless it was showy or vulgar, the sort of thing his lawyer friends wouldn’t be seen dead in. And that would be the worst thing, for his son to find Tony tacky or try-hard. Tony tried on another shirt.
Melissa turned over in bed. “That one’s fine, you look great.” She hadn’t been well all day. Not a cold, not morning sickness. Just a vague weariness, a heaviness.
“Not too flashy?” It was normal, the nurse had said. Lots of women get fatigue.
“No, you’re fine. You don’t have to pretend to be a lawyer, you know.”
“I know. I just want to look right and not embarrass him. I want him to–” Tony stopped. Melissa hunched over in the bed, gasping with pain. “What’s wrong?”
Melissa curled into a ball, not speaking, shuddering.
Fumbling for the ambulance number, and only getting through after dropping the phone two or three times. The ambulance to the hospital, sirens going, but everything else too quiet, nothing to stop your thoughts racing, staring at Melissa and knowing she was thinking the same thing.
Thomas. Christian. Rangi. Alexandra. Aroha. Anastasia.
A lifetime later, coming back in the taxi, with Melissa half-asleep beside him, Tony remembered. Luke. In the Clarendon. Seven p.m. Oh hell.
At home, with Melissa in a drug-induced sleep upstairs, Tony called every number he had for Luke. No response: Luke had probably blocked his number by now.
Tony breathed and counted and tried to push the thoughts out of his mind.
The night Byron had died. Having to identify the body because there was no one else to do it. Coming out of his drunk during the long walk down the corridor, fluorescent lights frying his eyes. Then Byron, who wasn’t Byron anymore, his face smashed up, arms and legs at wrong angles. He’d been found with an empty bottle of vodka, fused into his hand so tight they’d had to pry his fingers off it. Standing next to Byron’s body, not drunk enough to relax, not drunk enough to ignore the way everyone was looking at him. Not drunk enough, in fact.
After the ride home in the police car, every child’s dream, Tony had gone on a bender he couldn’t remember even now. Couldn’t remember what he drank, or smashing the glasses when he got up to throw up. And when he finally woke up, couldn’t remember for a few blessed minutes that Byron was dead, until it all came back to him with the force of his hangover. After that there was nothing for it but wait until he could keep down a drink again.
He wasn’t that person now. He had lost one child, may have lost another, but the days of drowning everything in drink were gone.
Staring at Byron, that night. Byron’s dead body with the vodka bottle fused into his hand. Another lifetime, another Tony. He wasn’t that man anymore.
A maze of entrance rooms, foyers, anterooms. As bad as being backstage in some huge sports arena before a gig: this bewildering, panic-making mess of corridors and hallways, closing in. As bad as the backstage entrances to get out of kitchens, nightclubs, concert halls, as bad as the maze of corridors to get Melissa to the ward. No, nothing could ever be as bad as that.
It should make him braver, Tony thought, having faced the worst. He should be able to use it, know he’d coped before and be able to walk up to Luke. Trouble was, he wasn’t sure he’d coped.
Tony got to the right reception desk, he thought, and asked for Luke Macalister. The receptionist, who looked about eighteen, looked up, panicked, and Tony caught a glimpse of himself in the glass behind her. Wild-haired, disheveled, sweating: she probably thought he was an escaped criminal. She asked if Luke knew he was coming.
“Not really.” Make that, no, he thought, he doesn’t want to see me.
“May I tell Mr. Macalister who this is from?”
A polite way of asking who on earth he was. But Tony had no answer for that one. His father? No, not his father.
The girl looked down at her computer screen. “Could I get your card and ask Mr. Macalister to call you back when he’s free?”
“I’ve already called him, love.” So that was it, thought Tony. Luke definitely didn’t want to see him. One child dead, one child gone, his lost abandoned child. “Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you. But it is important.”
“But Mr. Macalister’s busy,” she stuttered, the lie obvious on her ridiculously young face. “Maybe you could ring him again? Or email him?”
“It’s all right, Sylvie.” And Luke was there, at one of the imposing doors down the hall. Only the second time Tony had ever seen him and Tony saw his father. The same disappointed look: the shock when his father had found out about the child that was now Luke. “Hi, Tony.”
“I’m sorry, I tried to call you...” Tony gulped for air, dimly aware of Sylvie’s astonished face.
“Let’s go into my office.” Luke beckoned. “Sorry Sylv, bit of a long story.”
Luke’s office was plainer than Tony had expected, though it did have his name and a string of letters on the door. Like his father – the lack of ostentation. Luke was solid, quality.
“Something happened yesterday?”
“Yes, I’m really sorry, it was Melissa, my wife.”
“The journalist?” Luke looked embarrassed. “I googled you, I’m afraid. Doesn’t she know about me?”
“Yes, she does, she wants to meet you, if you, um, if you ever wanted that.” And Tony felt the panics rising in his throat.
“Are you okay?”
“She had a miscarriage,” Tony blurted. He had said it out loud for the first time.
“I am so sorry. Is she all right? Are you?”
“Thanks. She’s healthy.”
“Was she far along?”
“She was twelve weeks exactly: we were getting ready to tell people. Like you.”
“Really?” And Luke smiled, looking younger, boyish. “But I really am so sorry.”
“It was never a sure thing, we always knew that.”
“I know it’s not much comfort, but they aren’t uncommon. Emily had two before we got Alexandra.”
Alexandra: that must have been the little girl in the stroller. “Is that your daughter?”
“Yes, she’s two and a half. You’ve got a granddaughter. She even looks a bit like you, I think. And she might be musical: she sings along to all the TV programs and the radio.” And Luke wound to a halt. “I’m sorry, this is so insensitive talking about her.”
“No, it’s okay,” and Tony did feel slightly better. A grandchild. But not Melissa’s.
“I’m sure you know, but people do have babies after miscarriages. After Emily’s we found so many women who had had them, then went on and had half a rugby team.”
“It’s not that easy for us – Melissa’s forty-five.”
“Is she? I thought she was about thirty-five, looking at the photos on the web.”
“Yes, she’s always looked young. When I met her, I thought she was twenty-three or so, way too young. I’d just got out of rehab and I looked at this gorgeous little kiwi girl and thought no way, not in a million years.” Tony cheered up for a moment, then remembered Melissa now. “I should ring her.”
“Of course.” Luke backed out of the office: his office, now Tony thought of it.
She was awake, groggy but present. She sounded unnaturally calm and bright, but Tony could hear the sadness.
Tony said goodbye and looked up to see Luke hovering outside his office. He waved him in, feeling like a fraud – it wasn’t Tony’s name with all the letters after it.
“Is she all right? I mean, considering everything.”
“She’s okay. She’s talked to her family in New Zealand and the sister who lives in Scotland has come to help out. We’ll get through it.”
They sat there in silence, then Luke blurted, as if he couldn’t stop himself.
“Can you tell me more about you? And your parents?”
“I hurt them so much. When I started drinking, it was so bad, especially for Dad: his father had been an alcoholic, and he hated the stuff. But he was there for me. I was too self-absorbed to realize how painful it must have been for him. He never told me about his father – that was from my mother.” Tony ran out of steam, thinking about his father, the long nights, Tony getting sober, getting drunk, over and over. “He died the year after I married Melissa, so I made him happy in that, at least. He always thought she was the best thing that had ever happened to me.”
“More than Nightworld? And being incredibly famous and successful? I mean there are websites devoted to your guitar playing. And all the ones about the band.”
“Oh.” Tony felt like a fraud as he always did when someone talked about it. “That was mostly Byron.”
“Not the guitar playing. Or the tunes – he mostly did lyrics, didn’t he?”
“It’s funny, it’s not really you. It’s the public you. Like being a lawyer.”
“Touché.” But Luke smiled. “And Melissa’s from New Zealand? It’s supposed to be beautiful.”
“I’ve never been,” said Tony, embarrassed, not even able to keep up his end in small talk.
Luke looked shocked. “Don’t you get on with her family?”
Tony felt his throat tighten, trying to put it in words. “No, they’re great, they come over a lot. I’d love to go, but the flight, thirty hours, trapped in a…” And he ground to nothing, feeling his breathing get short and constrained just picturing it. This was ridiculous, not even being able to fly.
“The flying or the confinement?”
“I feel like I’m in a coffin, all closed in.” And there it was, he’d said it, the darkest secret, worse than the booze, worse than Byron’s death. After all, those got trotted out every time the papers needed to fill in a bit of space. But the panics, they were the really secret thing, that no one but Melissa and JJ knew, and even JJ sometimes seemed to have forgotten.
“I’m sorry,” said Luke again. “I can’t imagine what that feels like. Sorry, I’ve been doing nothing else but saying sorry ineffectually for the last hour.”
“It’s all right. It’s better than it was. I’ve had treatment and Melissa’s helped a lot.” And Tony looked up and saw it was dark.
They sat there in silence, hearing the sounds of people closing up for the day.
But it was a comfortable silence, Tony thought, hearing people saying goodnight, shoes clattering down the hall and for the first time Tony thought they would get through this: it would be all right. Maybe not immediately, but one day.
He sat on the edge of their bed in the dark, and heard her sigh and wake up. In the background, he could hear the TV: Melissa’s sister Catherine in the living room. It sounded like something from another world: the world before the loss.
Melissa sat up and took his hand. “How was it with Luke?”
“It was great, love,” said Tony, then wondered if he should sound so cheerful. “He wants to meet you.” Tony leaned back against the headboard and closer to her, kicking his shoes off, leaning against her in the warm comfort of the dark.
“You know, we’re very lucky.”
Melissa clutched Tony’s hand as if willing him to believe it. “We’ve got our health, we’ve got family, you’ve met Luke. We’ve got enough.”
“And we’ve got us, love.”
“Yes,” Melissa’s voice broke and Tony could hear her sniff. “And we’ll always have us, won’t we?”
“Always.” Tony felt her smallness, her delicacy.
She clutched his hand tighter. “You know, I think I could actually watch TV.”
But neither of them moved for a minute, neither wanting to face the light just yet. One more minute in the dark, the nether world, safe from all the sadness outside.