The Gift

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Chapter One

“Get a move on, Romeo. The poor girl knows what you look like. She’ll have to put up with it.”

“Sorry, Mum,” I call back through the bathroom door. “I’m nearly done.”

“About time too. And if you expect to be there for eight you’d better step on it. It’s just gone twenty to.”

“What! Why didn’t you say?”

“Eighteen today and you’ve still not learned how to use a clock. There’s no hope for you.”

I hear her walk downstairs and picture her chuckling to herself, shaking her head over her only son’s failings. Truth to tell, shaving’s hardly a priority but – call it vanity, call it pride – I don’t want Sarah to see me covered in the downy fluff that’s all I’ve got for whiskers, so I swallow my exasperation and turn back to the mirror. I’ve almost finished when my hand shakes and I feel the sharp sting of a cut and see the first drop of blood fall into the wash basin. Panicking, I grab the face cloth to staunch the flow and knock the toothbrush mug into the basin. Now my new trousers are soaked. Disaster. And when I look again in the mirror I see blood on the snazzy new shirt I bought to wear tonight. Double disaster. Why me?

The bleeding’s stopped by the time I get to my bedroom and find clothes fit to be seen in. They’re not what I wanted, but I suppose it makes no difference. Sarah won’t be interested in my dress sense or lack of it, and whatever I wear will be overshadowed by Jimi’s outrageous outfits. I run my hand through short-cropped brown hair and stare in the mirror, wondering what on earth she could be interested in. If it’s a skinny, eighteen-year-old shortarse who sometimes feels no older than eight then I’m in with a chance. But what the hell – she said she’d be there so I must be doing something right. I grin at my reflection which grins back cheekily. Even the niggling worries about what’s wrong with my hand won’t get me down tonight.

I pull on my trainers and hurry downstairs, working on the daydream where Sarah tells me she’s always fancied me, her parents are going away for the weekend and the house will be empty. Why don’t I come over for a pizza? We could watch a DVD, play some music or the Xbox and maybe… No, I tell myself. Get real. You’re meeting her for a drink with friends, that’s all. Play it cool or you’ll scare her away.

Mum’s in the kitchen, staring through the window in a daydream of her own, drinking coffee before going out to work her evening shift. I’ve never met anyone who drinks so much of the stuff. She turns around when she hears me and looks me up and down.

“I thought you were wearing your new gear?”

“It got wet.” The eight-year-old inside me shuffles and begins to blush.

“Wet? You didn’t change before you went in the bathroom, did you?” My silence answers her. “Danny Tyler, I sometimes think you’ve not got the sense you were born with.” She bows her head with exaggerated weariness, then a wicked smile lights up her face. “Anyway, you look very nice.”

“Nice! Mum!”

Her smile broadens. “You’re Mummy’s little cherub, aren’t you, darling?”

She reaches out to ruffle my hair but I duck beneath her arm and escape outside to stand beside the battered Fiat 500 that’s our household’s only transport. She follows a moment later, still laughing at me.

“Can I drive?” I ask, ever hopeful.

“Keep your hands off her.” She unlocks the door and gets in, reaches across to open the passenger door and I squeeze in beside her, dreaming of winning the lottery and presenting her with something less shameful. “Lucrezia’s not for boy racers. Save up and get your own wheels.” She manoeuvres deftly out of the line of vehicles parked nose-to-tail along the street and we drive into town.

Henshaw is one of the towns and cities that sprawl across industrial Yorkshire in a rash of red brick and grimy sandstone. Its most prosperous days – if you were a millowner, at any rate – are gone, but it’s a decent place to live. Although most of the mills are ready for demolition or conversion to call centres, a few factories are still competing with the Far East and there’s work on the industrial estates, especially in the glass-and-steel palaces built for the computer firms. That’s way out of my league, though. The town’s got any number of pubs and clubs, an Arndale Centre, a pedestrian precinct, dozens of takeaways and a museum and art gallery I’ve never been inside. There’s a concert hall, a multi-screen cinema and a bowling alley on the edge of town close to Shaw Park where as a kid I shouted for Henshaw Rovers and waved a blue-and-white scarf every other Sunday.

Mum stops at the Bull Ring to let me out.

“Be good,” she says, and gives me a wink.

“Aren’t I always?”

“You’re not a bad lad,” she admits, then rummages around in her purse. “Take this.” I find a twenty pound note pushed into my hand. “Happy birthday, and mind you come home sober.”

I give her a hug and a kiss and am rewarded by the pleasure in her eyes. “Thanks, Mum,” I tell her, and I mean it. “Have fun at work.”

“Less of the lip or you’ll give it me back.”

She drives away, leaving me to walk to The Wheatsheaf through the precinct’s Friday night crowd, my stomach suddenly hollow. It’s not a pub I’ve been in before, underage drinkers not being welcomed, but I enter, only two minutes late, with a confidence guaranteed by the brand new over-eighteen’s identity card in my pocket. She’s not there. Telling myself not to be stupid – how could I have thought she’d be there before me? – I thread my way through the mob of drinkers towards Jimi and Cass, who’ve claimed one of the corner tables.

“Ay up, lad, ’ow’s tha doin’,” he greets me.

“Fair t’ middlin’,” I tell him. “An’ ’ow’s thisen?”

“Oh, fair t’ middlin’, tha knows. Tha’ll ’ave a pint?”

“Aye, that’d be reet grand. A pint o’ lager’d g’ dahn a treat.”

“Nay, lad, sithee,” rasps Jimi, full of indignation. “Tha’ll ’ave a decent pint or nowt.”

Cass rolls her eyes. “Settle down, boys,” she says in her best Home Counties accent.

Jimi bows. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Right away, ma’am,” I add.

She taps the side of her head and gives me a pitying look. “You’ll become as daft as him if you’re not careful.”

“Oh, no. There could only be one Jimi.”

“One’s enough.” She waves her empty glass at him.

“Message received.” He turns to me. “And now you can get in decent pubs you can stop drinking that piss-awful lager. The Tetley’s in here is unbelievable. It’s about time you learned what real beer’s all about.”

He strides across to the bar, the crowd parting before him as though he were Moses. Jimi has that effect on people. Not only is he six foot three inches tall and built to match, he’s also the most flamboyant dresser you’ll see this side of the Sixties. Tonight he’s wearing black leather trousers over motorcycle boots, a purple silk shirt and what looks like the dress jacket of a Cossack colonel. On top of that, shoulder-length blond hair is crowned by a broad-brimmed black felt hat that even Lady Gaga would have thought twice about wearing. Anyone else in that get-up would look a complete prat. On Jimi it looks absolutely right, which is what you’d expect for a star waiting to be discovered. Sometimes I forget that he’s only six months older than me and we sat side-by-side through school from four years old to sixteen. His confidence adds at least five years to his age.

When we first met, Joe Hebblethwaite was playing in a sandpit with his teddy. I joined him and by the end of the day we were friends for life, doing everything together until the day eleven-year-old Joe discovered his grandad’s old Jimi Hendrix LPs. That was it. He badgered his dad until he had his first guitar and from then on thought about nothing but music, writing songs and how he’d make it in the record industry. I should have been left behind because the height of my musical ability was playing triangle in the school orchestra, but Jimi stuck by me when the bullies tormented me for being slow and stupid and even some of the teachers agreed with them.

Jimi returns with two pints of bitter and a gin and tonic for Cass. “Get that down you,” he orders me. “And for God’s sake lay off the lager.” I take a few cautious sips while Jimi watches with approval. “Good man. Now all that’s left is to get you off vodka and on to bourbon.”

“Stop nagging the poor boy,” Cass tells him. “He’s old enough to make up his own mind.”

Jimi raises his glass to me. “That’s right. Happy birthday.”

“Happy birthday,” echoes Cass, who leans across the table to give me a kiss on the cheek, and for a while I forget all about Sarah.

Cass – no-one ever calls her Caroline – is twenty-five and has the tone of voice you associate with Range Rovers, labradors and horses. It still sometimes startles me to hear it coming from someone dressed in a mini-skirt or tight jeans and with thick auburn hair in the sort of wild disorder only an expensive stylist can achieve. Tonight she’s wearing hip-hugging snakeskin print trousers and a tight sequinned top. I struggle not to stare at the diamond stud in her navel and the flat, tanned flesh around it. When she and Jimi started going out I was sure she’d tire of him after a few weeks and run after some chinless tosser with a sports car. I was wrong. Nearly twelve months on they’re rarely out of each other’s company and living like an old married couple in one of those big Victorian houses on Leeds Road. I know for a fact that Jimi’s dad has a bit of a crush on her. His mum took longer to convince – after all, this woman was preparing for university when Jimi and I’d just started junior school – but after a few weeks she was won over too. How couldn’t she be? Anyone can see that they’re two halves of the same whole. So now it’s Jimi and Cass instead of Jimi and Danny, and who can blame him.

“Where’s this girl of yours?” Jimi puts down his half-empty glass, sits back and folds his arms. “You’re a dark horse.”

I take a few more sips to give me time to think. “She should be here soon.”

“Then you’ve time to tell us about her. A name would be a good start, and how long have you been seeing her?”

“She’s called Sarah, she’s seventeen and she works on the checkout at QuickMart.”

Jimi guffaws. “So it’s been lust among the lettuces and eyes meeting across a crowded bacon counter, eh?” He takes another swig of his beer. “Well you be careful where you put your sausage.”

Cass quietens him with an evil look. “Have you been going out long?”

“This’ll be the first time.”

“That’s nice.”

“Yeah,” adds Jimi, his glass raised once again in salute. “Good on you. She’s a lucky girl.”

Cass smiles at him in approval. “Yes,” she tells me. “She is. I’m pleased for you.”

“How do you fancy bringing her over to The Place? There’s a band on we’re off to see.”

The Place is one of Henshaw’s glitzy nightclubs and not somewhere I’d expect to attract a man who condemns most chart music as “pretty-boy bands and X Factor crap”. He grins at my confusion.

“They’re trying some retro nights because the rubbish they’ve had on’s not been pulling in the punters. There’s an outfit playing that Cass wants to tap for contacts.”

Cass looks after Jimi’s band, Threeplay, which has built up a good following on the local circuit. “Their manager’s heard about us and wants to meet. With luck we could get into the London venues through him.”

Jimi leans back languidly and waves his glass. “It was only a matter of time. The cream always rises to the top.” He drains his pint. “Who’s for another?”

“My round,” I tell him.

“Not on your birthday. Besides, you’ve hardly touched that one. Perhaps it’s time to introduce you to Mr Jack Daniel.” He waves away my protests and heads for the bar. Cass watches him go and I wonder if Sarah will ever look at me that way.

It was the same at school. All the girls swooned when he walked past. All the boys wanted to be him except the ones who hated him because it was so obvious that he was smarter than them but couldn’t be bothered about anything except music – the only thing he ever worked at. He never talked much about his passion, so the night he opened up to me sticks in my memory. We were fifteen and walking home, to certain punishment, after staying out way too late to see a band at Henshaw Halls. Jimi was still high on music and gabbling excitedly about the light show and the costumes his rock gods had been wearing. I just listened, caught up in his enthusiasm, until even he’d run out of things to say and we walked on in silence. When he spoke again his tone was full of wonder.

“I’m bloody lucky,” he said. “Most people have no idea who they are, what they want or where they’re going. But I do. And somehow I’ve got the ability to do it.” He stopped walking and turned to look me fully in the face, half amused, half concerned. “God knows where it’s from. No-one else in the family’s remotely musical, but I can do it. All the time – that’s all the time, Danny – my head’s full of songs waiting to get out, struggling to escape through my fingers to become sound and reality. Sometimes it scares me but mostly it’s just the best feeling. It’s something I was born with, a gift I suppose.” He looked away for a moment, as though ashamed of expressing emotion in any way except through his guitar, then looked back at me, smiling again. “I hope you find what your gift is. If I’ve got one that came from nothing then everyone else must too, so I hope you find yours. I can’t imagine not having mine.”

The idea that I might have a gift was something I dismissed instantly, even though by then I’d discovered I wasn’t quite as stupid as everyone had thought. I was fourteen when my dyslexia was diagnosed. After that, with help from specialists and my mother’s endless patience, my reading improved enough for me to convince the world that I wasn’t a total dead loss, although there are still days when the words dance in front of my eyes, incomprehensible, and I feel that the only way I can clear my head is by banging it against a wall. I don’t, but sometimes it’s a close call. I left school at sixteen with no qualifications, no prospects and no idea what I could do. That was the only time I envied Jimi. I was on the dole for over a year until Dave gave me a job with his firm. OK, I’m only the office boy, but after work he’s teaching me about engines. I’ve even got a bit of a knack with them, although it’s nothing as grand as a gift. I’m good with my hands and I find mechanical things logical. Once you learn what bit does what they make sense. A few weeks ago I was able to sort out a fuel blockage in Mum’s Fiat. The look on her face when the car started without trouble was brilliant.

“Penny for them.” I look up to see Cass smiling. “Anyone would think you didn’t like my company.” That leaves me even more flustered, of course. If I’m honest, Cass sometimes – OK, often – leaves me nervous because she’s so obviously a fully fledged grown-up and I still feel like a kid. It’s not because she’s so loaded she doesn’t have to work, although that’s no help. I’ve just got nothing in common with her except Jimi and music, so my usual state on the rare occasions when I’m alone with her is tongue-tied and red-faced. Just like now, in fact. Her friendliness and the way she treats me as an equal only makes it worse.

 I’m saved from replying by Jimi, who puts our drinks in front of us, settles into his seat and takes the top off his pint, his face a picture of contentment.

“Have you told him?” he asks Cass.

She shakes her head. “I thought you’d want to.”

He leans over and kisses her on the lips. “Tha’s a grand lass, tha knows.” She looks at me and rolls her eyes.

“Told me what?” Surely they’re not getting married? Guilty, I swallow the feeling of dismay that rises unexpectedly from the pit of my stomach.

Jimi waves his glass again, trying hard to look indifferent but failing miserably. “Doing Fine’s number one in the independent chart.”

“Jesus, Jimi!” I’m as excited as he’s pretending not to be. “Number one! They’ll have to take notice now. Why didn’t you tell me before?”

He tries to look humble, still failing. “It’s no big deal.”

“Maybe.” Cass puts her hand on to the table where it’s immediately covered by Jimi’s. “But the rest isn’t. Tell him the rest.”

For a moment he looks apprehensive. “Sony are interested in picking up the album. There’s nothing definite yet, and it could easily come to nothing, but there’s a possibility.”

I can’t believe Jimi’s taking this so calmly when what he’s dreamed of for years is almost within reach. The band released Shadow Man, their CD, three months ago on iTunes and on their own label. It got decent reviews in the national music press, was hot for a few weeks on YouTube and Twitter, and since then Threeplay’s been gigging wherever they can to promote the CD and the single and to get themselves talked about. That’s not difficult because anyone who does see them doesn’t forget. Jimi’s a real showman on stage and the way the band looks is as important to him as the music, although the music always comes first and the rest a long way behind, making him so single-minded it’s even caused arguments between him and Cass.

The worst was when Cass had offered to pay for the band to spend as long as they needed in a good studio to do the CD. She was furious when Jimi refused without even asking the other band members, although I guess that a few of his own insecurities were part of it. “None of that over-produced American AOR rubbish,” he told her. Money and a flash studio couldn’t replace ability and talent – he wanted to do it on his own terms. Things got worse when Jaf and Animal backed him up. The two didn’t talk for three days and I’ve never been more worried. They sorted themselves out in the end, thank God, and two weeks later the band were inside a pokey sixteen-track studio run by Ben, a mate of Jaf’s. Starmaker Records was part of a unit on Henshaw Industrial Estate, and as far as I knew hadn’t made a single star, but Ben seemed to know his business. The band, who’d done nothing but rehearse for the past week, recorded twelve of Jimi’s songs in one day, all in one or two takes, keeping the raw, live, energetic sound he’d wanted. Cass admitted she’d been wrong. She never challenged him on the music again and stuck to the management side where Jimi was too impatient to be any good.

“You knew all this and kept it quiet!” Americans or Europeans would hug each other. We’re British, so I punch him on the shoulder and call him a dickhead. He punches me back and calls me a tosspot. Cass watches us indulgently. “You’ll still talk to me when you’re headlining at the Hollywood Bowl?”

“Of course,” he says. “I’ll need someone to carry the bags and whistle up the limo.” I punch him again and we both laugh, although inside I can already feel the sadness of losing him. One day soon he’ll be gone into a whole new world and I’ll be left behind.

Cass must be able to see some of this in my eyes. “How are you doing?” she asks. “You can’t have much free time left, all the work you have at the moment.”

That’s one of the things I like about Cass. She and Jimi almost have it all but she remembers that other people have dreams too, even if they’re a lot smaller in comparison.

“It’s hard sometimes but I wouldn’t give it up. I feel like… like I’m finding something I almost lost.”

Jimi nods sagely. “Hang in there, Danny. You could be the one who outshines all of us, one day.”

“Don’t talk rubbish,” I tell him, although inside I’m glowing with pride. It’s not easy. During the day I work for Dave and Sundays I’m at QuickMart. On top of that, for the last few months I’ve been studying two nights a week at college for two GCSEs. That’s me, Danny Tyler, doing real exams!

After my dyslexia was discovered it took me a long time to take an interest in books and learning. I’d been stupid for too long. Being treated as an equal by a university type like Cass helped, but it was Mum, who loves books, who made the difference. Every week she gave me something new from her huge collection, searching for an author or a subject to spark my imagination. I began to comprehend when I discovered Stan Barstow: a man who wrote in my language about people I knew. That led to Waterhouse, to Braine, to Sillitoe and – what a find! – to Lawrence. After that I needed no prompting to raid my Mum’s library. She was delighted that I could at last share her love, and when I wasn’t reading we’d spend hours arguing the merits of a particular book or writer. The day I began my first Dickens I understood how Jimi must have felt when he stumbled across those LPs. Now I love reading, especially historical stories. I can’t get enough of them. I like words now they don’t scare me any more, even if the letters still sometimes dance and I have to leave a book until they stop. I’m perpetually (that’s a good one) on the lookout for new words. Mum says I’ve always got my nose stuck in a book, but I’ve got lost time to make up. And I can write, too. That’s another discovery. So two nights a week I go to classes at Conley Comprehensive, where I failed so dismally as a boy, to learn GCSE English and history. I don’t know what I’ll do with them if I pass. No – that’s when I pass. I suppose I still need proof that I’m not the fool most people thought I was.

“Jimi’s right,” says Cass, ever encouraging. “You’re a late developer, that’s all. Who knows where you’ll be in a year’s time.”

Still in Henshaw, that’s for sure, but I play along. “I’ll be living in the south of France on the profits from my exposé of Threeplay, that hot new rock band.”

Jimi laughs. “Exposé? You need something to expose first.”

“Ah, but I’ve got all the inside information – the fights, the feuds, the photographs.”

“Photographs?” Cass looks interested.

“Did he never tell you about his first band, Gang of Four?” Jimi groans theatrically, slumps in his seat and and pulls his hat down over his eyes. “Four egos, three songs and stage outfits that made glam rockers look like undertakers’ assistants.”

Cass grins, eyes wide with mischief. “And you’ve got pictures?”

“In glorious Technicolour.”

Jimi groans again. “It wasn’t our fault. We were twelve.”

“I bet you looked ever so cute,” says Cass. “Like four kids let loose with the dressing-up box.”

“Yes,” I tell her. “But he was going through his T-Rex phase. What with the make-up and the frills it looked like they’d been in the girls’ box.”

Cass explodes with laughter. Jimi points at me, his face grave. “Tyler, the first thing I’ll do when I’m rich and famous is hire a hit-man.”

“Too late. The blackmail will have started by then and I’ll make sure the pictures go to The Sun if anything happens to me.”

“Perhaps we should put them online to keep you safe,” says Cass.

“Great idea! And you could use them on the tour posters.” I smirk at Jimi. “All the mums will want to come and see the band with the sweet little boy in it.”

“Make that two hit-men,” says Jimi. “With instructions to terminate with extreme prejudice.” He waves his empty glass at me. “But while you’re still alive you can get that drink you offered.”

I struggle through the crowd to the bar and finally catch the barmaid’s eye after everyone around me has been served and she’s finished teasing a bald-headed old guy on a bar stool who must be one of the regulars. She’s in her thirties, I reckon, good-looking but knows it, with long straight hair bleached blonde and full breasts straining to escape from a flimsy white cotton blouse through which the lacy edges of her bra are visible. For a moment I think she’s going to challenge my age, and I grope for the ID card, but she takes my order without comment and without the smile others have received. When she bobs down to get a bottle of tonic from beneath the bar my eyes are pulled to her cleavage, leaving me mesmerised until I hear her speak.

“That’s seven pounds thirty-five.”

I look up into expressionless eyes and fumble for money, my face burning. I gather the drinks and turn to go when she calls out “Hey!”. Trembling, I look around. “Don’t you want your change?”

Mr Baldy winks knowingly and watches with amusement as I put down the drinks, scoop the change off the bar, pick up the drinks again and slink away, praying Jimi and Cass have seen nothing. Thankfully they’re deep in discussion about the mini-tour the band begins in a few days’ time, so I’m able to recover while I listen.

The tour – seven nights at university and college venues in the North – has been planned for months. Now, with the single and CD selling well, Cass has been working hard to get promoters, press and record company people to see the band live. Jimi’s still trying to play it cool; Cass isn’t trying at all. Plans bubble out of her, each taking the band another step further forward, each a logical progression, until it seems almost inevitable that the gig at Henshaw College will lead to Wembley Arena and platinum album sales. I soak up her confidence, glad to share their dreams, forgetting my own until Jimi takes a look at his watch and says: “It’s nine o’clock. Where’s this woman of yours, Danny? We’ll have to be off soon and I wanted to see her so I could warn her what she’s getting herself into.”

I stare into my drink, wondering what to say. Cass breaks the silence.

“Do you want to use my mobile? She must have been held up by something. What time did you arrange to meet?”

The eight-year-old invades my body again. “Um, er… there wasn’t any definite time.”

“But she knows it’s this pub?”

“Yes. She said… she said she’d look in if she was passing.”

“If?” Jimi looks puzzled. “What kind of a date is this?”

I try to look him in the eye but can’t. “It’s not really a date,” I confess. “I told her it was my birthday and I’d be in The Wheatsheaf. She said she’d be out tonight and… and would look in if they got to this side of town.”

“They?”

“Her and some girlfriends. I thought she’d come. It looks like she isn’t.”

There’s silence for a while. When I’ve found the courage to look up it’s into Jimi’s face. He grins.

“You don’t change, do you?”

I shake my head and find a scratchy little voice. “Too much wishful thinking.”

“I know. I was the one they said was a dreamer but you were always the champ.” He grins again, and despite feeling a complete and utter pillock I’m able to grin back. “That’s better,” he says. “Can’t have you miserable on your birthday.”

“You like this girl,” says Cass. It’s a statement, not a question.

“Yes.”

“So why not ask her out properly? You’re a good-looking guy and any girl would be delighted to go out with you.”

Good-looking? I wish. “What if she turns me down?”

“What if she doesn’t? You’ll never know if you don’t try.”

I mumble some half-promise about asking her out at the next opportunity and to my relief the conversation turns back to the tour. By the time they’ve finished their drinks Cass and Jimi are ready to go to the nightclub.

“You coming?” asks Jimi, adjusting his hat to make sure it’s at the correct angle.

“No, I’ll get home. You do your wheeling and dealing and tell me about it tomorrow.”

He nods, satisfied. “Reet, lad. Geroff ’ome, an’ no laikin’ abaht on t’ way.”

Cass kisses me goodbye and squeezes my hand. “Don’t forget what I said. She’d be a fool to ignore you.”

We say goodnight outside the pub. I watch for a moment as Cass and Jimi walk away, hand-in-hand, then instead of waiting for the bus I begin the two-mile trek home, hoping the cool air will clear the gloom that’s settling inside my head. It doesn’t work. If this is being eighteen you can keep it.

End of Chapter One

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