Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Sound Of Fire (Part One): Four Songs By Gary Barlow


'Take a look at the Banksia seedpod and you'll wonder how the seeds are supposed to get out. The seeds are safely stored inside. When a fire sweeps through the area, the heat from the fire makes the seedpods open and the seeds fall out, ready to germinate in the ash. Even if the fire kills the plant that makes the seeds, the seeds will provide a new generation of that species in the area.'

from 'Fire - Both good and bad for the Australian Bush', mdavid.com.au

Pray, July 1993

I'm sitting at the formica table in the kitchen, surrounded by planning sheets and assessment files. End of term. In a month's time, I'll have finished my first full year of teaching and I'll be a married man. My life's on track. I'm meeting expectations.

DLT's on the radio, but One FM on a Saturday morning is crap.

I've the best intentions to get work done, but my eyes keep being drawn to the window of the gym opposite. I've bumped into the blonde girl who runs the place a few times on nights out and we've drunkenly flirted with one another. She's looking across. She catches my eye, waves, blows a kiss and laughs. I wave back, but I'm embarassed now and move all my stuff to the back room, spreading paperwork all over the cheap, leather-effect sofa and switching on The Chart Show.

I can't concentrate. I think of the girl from the gym and of The Australian Girl's friend who I ended up snogging on the night of our engagement party. It's not something I'm proud of. Our wedding's in three weeks, but do we love each other?

The Chart Show proclaims the new video from Take That. Our Alli likes Take That, but their throw-away pop, manufactured image and second-rate covers are everything I despise. The new song's called 'Pray'. It's about the break-up of a relationship. A premonition. I can't help but watch.

'All I do each night is pray
 Hoping that I'll be a part of you again some day.'

I ring Our Alli after I've watched it. She tells me the boys' names. Tells me that the blond one - Gary Barlow - writes the songs. We talk for a while, and, after we're done, I lie on the sofa with 'Pray' in my head on a constant chorus loop. And another sound too - an indistinct background noise that always troubles me in the quiet times between wakefulness and sleep. I close my eyes, wait for The Australian Girl to arrive back from work, wait for that moment in the future when our lives will fall apart.

                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

I'm sitting at the formica table in the kitchen. There's a photograph album on the table. It's two weeks since I heard 'Pray' for the first time. It's minutes since I spoke my last words to The Australian Girl from the top of the outside stairwell. It's seconds since she closed the door to the downstairs yard and brought to an end the four years of 'us'.

I pull the photograph album towards me and open it. I want to see her face. I want to torture myself with images of us, smiling, in love. But the pictures are gone. Every photograph of her is gone. All the pictures of us together are gone. What remains is a document of loneliness.

Cracks appear. I'm breaking.

I sit at the formica table for a very long time, not moving, until the day becomes dark. The sound in my head amplifies. The sound of fear. The sound of desperation. A sound I've carried with me, pushed away since I was a little boy. I close my eyes and listen to the small voice that's pleading with me. But, try as I might, I can't make out the words. When I can take it no more, I go into the back room, push the video into the recorder, turn on the tele and watch 'Pray'.

'And the nights were always warm with you,' Gary Barlow sings,
'Holding you right by my side.
 Now the morning always comes too soon,
 Before I even close my eyes.'

I sit in front of the tele, cross-legged, with a bottle of wine. Each time the video finishes, I press REWIND and watch again.

The next time I look out of the window, it's morning.

Back For Good, February 1995

It was supposed to be a romantic few days in Paris, but My Narcoleptic Girlfriend got mixed up and booked a weekend in Amsterdam instead. After getting off the train at the Central Station, we're on a tram - standing room only - surrounded by luggage, on our way to the hotel at the far end of the main tourist drag. As the carriage rattles along and I hang onto the overhead plastic loop, I'm met with a hefty body blow. I look round and see that Nat's fallen asleep. I prop her up on my bags as best as I can and hope that I'll be able to wake her when we eventually reach our stop.

A few hours later, we're sat in a seedy coffee shop. It's a relief to sit down after spending the afternoon trawling the city centre branches of McDonalds, fuelling Nat's compulsion for French Fries. She seemingly eats nothing else. I'd questioned how she kept so slim as she'd downed her eighth cardboard carton-full of the afternoon, and she'd replied, quite matter of factly, 'Oh - it's ok. I just make myself sick afterwards.' Then she'd wiped her lips, leant over and given me a kiss.

A young bloke comes over and gives us the menu. I open it up and examine the different varieties of weed and skunk on offer. It means nothing to me. I've never touched cannabis, never smoked a cigarette, have no intentions to. All I want is a cup of sweet tea. I do my best to make it seem like I know what I'm doing and then tell the waiter, 'I think I'll leave it mate. But a beer would be good for my friend, and I'll have a cup of tea.' He looks at me with a weary gaze that translates as 'here's another one of those Brit tourist wankers', and makes an attempt at an insincere smile. Before he leaves the table, a silver tiered stand on the counter catches my eye. 'I'll have a piece of that special cake over there too,' I tell him, 'No, best make that two.'

I'm not so naive as to not know what 'special cake' is made of, but I was a little unaware of how much of the 'special ingredients' a typical recipe contains. One piece might have been ok, but I'd forgotten, momentarily, that My Narcoleptic Girlfriend only eats French Fries, so I end up eating her piece too.

We have the obligatory gawp round the red light district and go back to our hotel. While Nat sits on the bed and switches on the tele, I lay back and close my eyes, feeling decidedly unwell.

I awake sometime later to the sound of  what seems like running water. Lying still for a moment, I try to ascertain where it's coming from. The bathroom? Had I started to run a bath before I lay down? It seems probable, but I can't remember - my head's all over the place. Visions of an overflowing bath, flood damage, collapsing ceilings make me jump off the bed and run into the bathroom. There's no running water. But the sound continues. That sound. The sound of fear. The sound of desperation. The sound of loneliness.

I'm freaking out.

I sit on the bed and look at Nat. She's flat out with her mouth open, perfectly still. Too still. I look carefully to see if she's breathing and then blind panic sets in.

She's dead.

Have I killed her?

What the fuck should I do?

I only know how to run. I get up, pack my bag and make for the door. As I turn the handle before leaving, I have second thoughts. I go back to the bed and give her a shove.


I do it again.


I've lost it. I push her again and again, shout her name over and over.

She wakes with a start. 'You're so wierd,' she sighs and sits up.

I perch on the end of the bed with my head against my knees, trying to make sense of what's going on.

There's just the sound of the television for a moment until Nat touches me on the shoulder and says, 'Chris - I'm starving. Do you fancy going out for French Fries?'

                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

The Brit Awards are on when I arrive at Our Kid's Nottingham flat a couple of days later. I've no sooner dumped my bag and sat down when his landline rings. He answers it and passes the earpiece over. 'It's your girlfriend,' he says, rolling his eyes.

'Ey-up,' I say.

'Chris,' she replies, 'Have you got my hair dryer in your bag?'

'I'll have a look,' I tell her. I put the phone down, wait a few seconds and pick it back up. 'No, I've had a good look through - it's not there.'

'Oh,' she goes. 'I must have left it at the train station. Could you nip down and have a look for me?'

'Nat,' I say. 'That's Stoke train station you're on about. I'm in Nottingham.'

There's silence on the phone. 'Oh yeah,' she goes. 'Oh, hold on - I've found it. Bye!'

She hangs up.

I give the phone back to Our Kid. 'That girl,' I tell him, 'That girl is fucking mad!'

I fill him in on the ins and outs of the Amsterdam trip and we settle down for the evening's highlight - the first public performance of Take That's new single, 'Back For Good'. Over the last 18 months, I've begun to understand the songwriting genius of Mr Barlow. 'That guy,' I'll tell anyone who'll listen, 'is our greatest living composer. As good as Paul McCartney. No, better!'

I've high expectations, but all of these are surpassed as the performance starts. The first line is immaculate.

'I guess now it's time for me to give up.'

Resignation. Defeat. Melancholy. A perfect start to the perfect pop song.

We both watch, entranced.

I look over at Our Kid once it's done. 'Wow!'

Our Kid nods and smiles.

'Did you hear that line?' I say.

'What line?' he says back.

'"In the twist of separation, you excelled at being free
 Can't you find a little room inside for me?" Jesus, who writes lines like that in a pop song?'

I get up, root through my bag for my journal and write it down so I don't forget.

We've watched the performance back a few times by the time I'm laid on Our Kid's sofa in my sleeping bag. I'm tired. The sound's returned. What is that sound? I hum 'Back For Good' in an effort to subdue it. Will I ever love someone so much that I'd write a song so beautiful to woo them back? I think. Maybe, but it's not happened so far. There's a girl waiting I'm sure. I don't know where she is, but she knows it too. Coincidence will bring us together. And then we'll climb the hill. Make our paradise. Once we're there, I'll be strong enough.

Never Forget, July 2012

There's Chris Moyles on the radio. He's making an announcement, but you can hardly hear his voice over the din of the factory's packing line. I'm keeping busy. I need to. Things have been different in the last few days. In the days since Tam arrived at work that morning and burst into tears. Told me that a friend had gone.

The sound has become louder. It's with me all the time. It scares me, wears me down.

One of the lads shouts out, 'Ey - he's off!' We all stand and listen to the DJ telling the nation that he's leaving the breakfast show in September. He's coming to an end.
'I'll never forget the eight years I've spent on the show. Thankyou to all of you.'

There's a moment of silence, and I know what song he's going to play. Just know it.

A choirboy sings the opening lines. Take That, 'Never Forget'. A sublime song - nearly as good as 'Back For Good'. I think briefly of the drunken arguments with Cainey over each song's merits - he was always a 'Never Forget' man, while I was firmly in the other camp. Time, though, has shifted my opinion. Nowadays, I'm hard pressed to choose between the two. Both are masterpieces.

Of course, I know all the words, but this morning they resonate with a force I've never felt before.

A single couplet that I've barely noticed before slays me.

'Finding a paradise wasn't easy,
 But still
 There's a road going down the other side of this hill.'

I think of the first time I thought of her. On the sofa at Our Kid's. The Brits night. 'Back For Good'. Coincidence was kind. And now I'm at the top. My wife. My superheroes. My Paradise.

While the song plays, everything becomes clear. But still the sound won't go away. The sound won't stop. The sound of fear, desperation, loneliness.

Never forget where you've come here from.

The sound of fire.

I take a breath and close my eyes. I see the flames. A forest is burning. The flames are near. I've run away from them for a lifetime. And now's the time to stop. Running any further only takes me further down the hill. I don't want to go there.

Never forget where you've come here from.

What will happen if I stop? If I stand still and let the flames embrace me? Will I be destroyed or will my soul scatter new seeds whilst my earthly body is burnt away?

I have a vision of what will be. What must happen. And, it does.

The flames are upon me. I stand perfectly still, arms outstretched, and the fire takes me. I burn until there's nothing left.

The soil absorbs my goodness. The badness is scorched away.

A seed grows. Time-elapsed, fast forward, years and years in a part of a second.

I stand again, the same, but different. New growth. Stronger than before.

The sound of fire dies away. I've lived with it for so many years, but now it's gone. I know what I must do. I know how difficult it will be, how it will make me feel. I know how I'll disappoint so many who look up to me. I know how people I love and respect will turn away, unable to look at me. And that hurts, because I've spent a lifetime making people see me - afraid, so afraid of being invisible.

The path is clear, but the destination is uncertain. My journey starts here. It starts with this fire.

The first step. I feel like crying.

And now I need to find someone. Someone I last saw nearly forty years ago. A scared little boy. A little boy I've ignored all my adult life. A little boy who's pleas have been drowned out by the sound of fire.

But the sound's gone now, little boy. I'm looking. I'm listening. Talk to me. Come to me. Please.

Sing, July 2012

The end-of-term talent show's been ace. Lightning's wowed us with his street dance crew, and Whirlwind has whipped up a hurricane with her skipping display.

Now we're waiting for the finale. 'Year 6 - Sing,' the programme says. 'Year 6 sing what?' I'm thinking as the older kids assemble on the stage.

Finally, they're all still. The teacher nods to the helper on the stereo system, and the music starts. It's 'Sing' they're singing - the tune that Barlow wrote with Lloyd-Webber for the Diamond Jubilee. I've heard it on the radio a hundred times, even watched the TV documentary on its making, but the song itself has failed to touch me in the way that other great Barlow compositions tend to.

Until now.

A young lad starts. 'Some words should not be spoken, but be sung.' It's perfect. I'm knocked out.

I look at those kids on the stage. Those kids singing 'words of love.' Those kids looking forwards towards the audience, towards their parents and siblings, towards the rest of their lives. What is that future going to bring? In who's hands does it lie? Which ones only see sunshine? How bright was the sun when I was their age?

I think of our superheroes. How much I love them. How much I look out for them. What would happen if someone took their sunshine away.

The performance is soon over. We stand and wait to shuffle towards the aisles and the exit doors.

It's then that I hear his voice. Such a small voice.

'Why can't anyone see me?'

I turn towards the stage and I see him. A little blond boy. He sits on the edge, dangles his legs. Black pumps, blue shorts and a brown and white knitted jumper.

'Why can't anyone see me?' he pleads.

I look at him and he looks at me. I wipe away a tear, and then he's gone.

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