the decay of lying

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A Weekend in the Country

 

 

 

The car crunched slowly across the gravel drive. The unmistakable sound of aristocratic motoring and success. So much more pleasing than any attempts at replicating the effect by taping rice krispies to the tyres. For a moment Rob was tempted simply to abandon the car at a rakish angle at the foot of the marbled steps and make his way up through the lofty, Gothic arched doors, staking his claim to the old baronial pile before the fateful words came back to him:

 

“Orchestra? OK, down the drive; when you get to the house follow the road round to the right; through the courtyard; watch out for the dairy on your left; through the gate, into the field; it's all clearly marked by large stones painted white...” Though not so clearly and not so white that you won't drive over them later scraping the sill of your car on the way out. “Then into the fallow field; the next gate will be shut, you'll have to get out and open that one yourself; through the east field; careful of the cattle; oh and you must shut the gate behind you, can't have cattle wandering through the audience; still it's very unlikely that the bulls will attack members of the orchestra... again; then it's through the lower paddock and around the fountain lake and you're at the stage – well, orchestra car park, but it's OK, it's only a short walk from there. Oh and make sure you go round the north side of the lake; they're digging drainage ditches on the south side – it could get a bit muddy...” Rob offered a few silent words of prayer for the future of his car's suspension and headed off road.

 

Some minutes and only two wrong turns later, Rob turned off the engine and silence reigned. Silence that is apart from the preliminary testing of the sound system. A testing which clearly had some way to go judging by the tortured distortion-heavy strains of “Land of Hope and Glory” courtesy of the sound engineer's favourite classical “budget” CD. “Nice touch,” thought Rob, “hope” and “glory” - two things singularly lacking from the lives of all those poor unfortunates who find themselves trudging across muddy fields towards any number of large bacofoil domes up and down the country. Pippa looked balefully at him. There was no getting away from it: they were gonna have to leave the air-conditioned seclusion of their motorised cocoon.

 

Turning their backs on the car, their last connection with civilised society, Rob and Pippa took their first faltering steps towards the stage and only then, as their gaze locked on one another, was the silence broken. It was Pippa that spoke first in uncertain tones. “Which side is north?”

 

“Why you asking me? How should I know?”

 

“Well you're a man... Aren't you supposed to know things like that?”

 

“Thank you for those words from our feminism correspondent there... You've just set the cause of the sisterhood back three hundred years.”

 

“Fuck off.”

 

“Wait... what's that?” And a glimmer of hope replaced the heavy sarcasm.

 

Pippa followed the direction indicated by Rob's outstretched arm, “It looks like a violinist...”

 

“Yes. A rank and file violinist,” Rob's voice was rising triumphantly, “and more importantly...”  

 

Suddenly spotting  the reason for his delight, the joy and relief was evident in Pippa's voice “A sinking rank and file violinist!”

 

Some twenty or so yards ahead a tragic scene was unfolding as a young, and Rob could not help noticing extremely attractive, woman was coming to terms with her misfortune. She must have been very attractive for her beauty to shine through the chaos. Already up to her knees in what Rob hoped was only mud she struggled gamely on.

 

“Poor girl.” Pippa murmured.

 

“Oh well,” Rob chirped, “they're expendable. I think we'll go this way...”

 

The flowery print of her floaty summer dress was gaining an added earthier realism with each laboured movement. Throwing her violin to a colleague she fought for survival. Desperately she pulled her way through the cloying sodden earth, finally reaching the safety of firmer ground and gasping for air with relief and exhaustion before looking back with tears in her eyes at the evidence of her passage: More poignant than any blue plaque, a solitary strappy sandal remained steadfastly in the grip of the treacherous mud.

 

“Still, poor girl... she looks rather shell shocked. Have some sympathy, Rob.”

 

“Oh I am sympathetic... but every muddy field gig has its casualties. You've just got to be thankful when it's not you. She's probably learnt a valuable life lesson! After all there's nothing quite like wading through a field full of cow shit to dash those idealistic notions of ambition and aspiration.”

 

“That's true enough. Nobody ever warned me about that when I was at college. “Work hard, practise hard, always know where north is.” ”

 

“Exactly – practical experience is priceless...”

 

The backstage area was just as luxurious as Rob and Pippa had come to expect – not remotely. White plastic was the order of the day: A couple of white plastic tents were designated as dressing rooms. A handful of white plastic garden tables and chairs passed for dining facilities. One of the dressing rooms doubled as the Refreshments tent, occasioning the presence of some white plastic cups and white plastic spoons and an ageing tea urn – fortunately not white plastic. A much needed splash of colour was added by the portaloos... blue plastic, standing in an unusually generous group of four.

 

Rob looked at his watch. “Half an hour yet. You get us a seat, I'll get the teas.” Rob returned a couple of minutes later. “There you go,” he said, as he handed Pippa her white plastic cup. “I'm afraid  the urn wasn't all that hot. Still the milk that's been sat out on the table for the last couple of hours was pretty warm so that should make up for it.”

 

Pippa gifted him a smile that was almost as weak as her tea. “Thanks.”

 

“You see... I bring you to all the best places for lunch. The great British countryside.”

 

“And how thoughtful of you to invite the rest of the Royal London Gala Philharmonic Orchestra as well. You shouldn't have.”

 

“Really, think nothing of it.”

 

“Oh don't worry,” Pippa assured him,  “I'm trying to.”

 

The minutes passed... all thirty of them... and then a few more. Rob was in danger of becoming irritable. “What's going on? Why aren't we starting?”

 

“Dude, you almost sound like you want to go to work! Are you feeling alright?” Pippa asked. “This is quite a departure, sometimes you only have to look at a bass and you start yawning.”

 

“Well that's true enough.” Rob conceded, “I just don't like all this hanging around wasting time. I mean wasting time during sessions is fine – that's like real money, overtime. Wasting time at some daft showbiz event is a bit of a given. But here... let's just get on with it and get out of here.”

 

“Oh you're so sensitive and artistic... It's all about the music with you isn't it?!” Pippa smirked. “If you looked around you, you'd see there aren't quite enough people here yet. The percussion section's stuck in traffic – first weekend of the summer holidays isn't it?”

 

“Well in that case I'm having a pint.” Rob stood up from the table.

 

“Where?” Pippa asked.

 

“The beer tent.”

 

“Where's that?”

 

“It's that white plastic thing over there. I can see the white plastic glasses quite clearly...”

 

“Where?”

 

“There... Can't you see the glasses? They're thrown into sharp relief by the white plastic tarpaulin...”

 

“It won't be open yet, they're only just setting up.”

 

“They might take pity on me,” Rob said naively. “Want anything?”

 

“They won't. No – I'll stick with my white plastic tea, thanks.”

 

Rob however, was in no mood to let reason and likelihood stand in his way and set off with determined tilt across the field... Some ten minutes or so later, after much futile begging and beseeching, Rob bowed to the inevitable and turned to trudge back to the stage. The one thing he could do without was a smug “I told you so” from Pippa. This was a time for sympathy and understanding. This was a time for consolation and a reassuring hug. This was a time for... von Suppe's “Light Cavalry Overture.” Shit. Rob broke into a slouch. He wasn't gonna give that lot the satisfaction of seeing him running to a rehearsal. Just compose your features into a look of serene certainty and lack of guilt – that's the secret. Struggling through the now massed ranks of tam-tams, cymbals, snare drums and other assorted toys, (“Christ where did that lot come from?”) Rob glared reproachfully at the now smugly smiling percussionists. Proud of his soundless negotiation of all that metalwork Rob's silent progress was brought to an end by the unmistakeable sound of brass mutes being dropped from eager “helping” hands only too keen to announce his arrival. Finally taking his seat, Rob quickly filtered through the glances that came his way: Most seemed simply to say, “Good afternoon, I'm glad it's not me.” Pippa was smiling broadly in an “Oh, welcome back! I told you so.” fashion. Whilst the conductor treated him to a “Nice of you to join us. I can't bear such unprofessionalism” hard stare. Rob looked back, sweeping the orchestra with what he hoped came across as an “It's not my fault. All these white plastic tents look the same to me” insouciant gaze.

 

Any embarrassment Rob had felt was soon forgotten. As the afternoon wore on he was instead consumed with thoughts concerning the stunning array of musical talent he wasn't sharing the stage with: There's that girl that came third in Britain's Got New Opportunity Talent Knocking Faces. Though to be fair Rob could tell she was a good singer just by looking at her... and maybe she was planning to sleep her way to the top so the least Rob could do would be to be on hand to offer a ready smile if she was gonna start at the bottom. Then there was that interchangeable generic classical boy band – he was less impressed by them – four perma-tanned prats with all the vocal talent of, well, four perma-tanned prats. But when all was said and done they were just also-rans. OK, so they had their own dressing rooms but that amounted to nothing more than a white plastic tent they could call their own. Still to come was that transatlantic – Rob couldn't help thinking subatlantic would have been better – singing sensation, Massimo Deretano. It was the perfect rags to riches tale: The son of Italian-American Irish-Jewish Liberal parentage, there were very few sections of society that had not found a reason to rail against him. Blind from birth, Massimo had nevertheless worked hard and had forged an honest career as a welder. After travelling widely – not intentionally, you understand, he simply couldn't find his way home – Massimo settled in the north of England where his insistence on singing as he welded left people riveted by his talent. After years of working the northern club circuit Massimo got his big break when a classical recording label discovered a gap in the market that could only be filled by the combined forces of a large marketing budget and the stupidity of the record buying public. The rest, as they say, is history, and merchandising, and licensing agreements... Already some years past his prime – and even that wasn't great – all this meant that all the trappings of success were his. Consequently, Massimo was the only person on the bill that night whose presence justified a white plastic structure with rigid sides – the Headliner's portakabin.

 

As the ocularly-challenged Deretano took to the stage the wave of indifference from the orchestra was so palpable it was a wonder he did not trip over it. Rob relaxed back into his seat, prepared himself for a good giggle and basked in Deretano's spectacularly faded glory. He observed with interest the tragic correlation between past it musicians (and he used the word necessarily loosely) and past it sportsmen. Where the sportsmen find themselves gently pensioned off, removed from the iniquities of the weather to live out their days in the comfortable seclusion of the TV studio, past it musicians find themselves abandoned to the treacherous British summer and pissed-up punters. But the punters were still hours off yet. For the time being, the shambling Deretano's audience consisted of a handful of dayglo-clad stewards on litter-picking duty in an otherwise empty field. Rob was bemused: how could this guy, this near spectral figure, ageing skin pulled surgically tight across bony skull, possibly command the adoration of millions? There had to be a mathematical formula that summed up the change that would be wrought in a few hours time. The only group Deretano looked like he could be of interest to at the moment was “Care in the Community”. But with the addition of nightfall, ten thousand people and a star cloth, super stardom is achieved (if in any doubt just add dry ice.) Some peculiar alchemical reaction takes place where base metals – or in this instance, plastic faces – are turned into pure showbiz gold.

 

What seemed like exactly three hours later, the rehearsal ended... or stopped... or petered out due to lack of interest. Rob dropped his bass with alacrity and headed for the wide open spaces of the countryside. Some fields are well appointed, some are... spacious. This day's field definitely counted among the latter. Pippa soon joined him. “Well...?” she asked.

 

“Well.”

 

“This calls for a drink.”

 

“At least.”

 

“Pub?”

 

“PUB.”

 

The saloon bar of the Noose and Gibbet was rammed. In a rare moment of togetherness and understanding it seemed the whole of the  Royal London Gala Philharmonic Orchestra was present. With a chance to relax and more importantly drink there was only one topic of conversation:

 

“Oh god...”

 

“Oh, it's awful.”

 

“He's rubbish.”

 

“Have you seen all that merchandise?”

 

“T-shirts, CDs, lunch boxes!”

 

“That's nothing: I'm sure I saw a guy out the front selling bootleg stuff – you know, Labrador puppies from a cardboard box...!”

 

“I quite liked him.” There was a stunned silence. This was an approach no one had thought of before. Such incredible irony... or was it? “He's rather good isn't he? And very charming.” All eyes turned to see who had spoken. There was barely a trace of mud to be seen, just a radiant complexion and flaxen hair, but Rob recognised her immediately – the sinking rank and file violinist – and she was extremely attractive but clearly very stupid. Something had to be done.

 

“Do something,” muttered Pippa. The silence was going rapidly beyond awkward.

 

“Who wants a drink?” said Rob.

 

 

When they left the pub, Rob and Pippa were rather looking forward to sitting in their silver dome. “Well... at least the wind's dropped,” she observed.

 

“That's true enough, this rain isn't going anywhere.” It was hammering it down. “Clearly that's why they make these things out of bacofoil – we can huddle together for warmth.”

 

“You wish.”

 

“Ah well, worth a try,” thought Rob. Not that his evening was without pleasure, far from it, as he smiled benignly down on the increasingly bedraggled devoted public. The majority of the evening passed mostly unnoticed, both by Rob and the inebriated punters. All that remained was a final soul-destroying hack through 1812 and the wonder of fireworks. And then... it all went dark... and quiet. This looked promising. A few worried looking techies later and that promise bore fruit: “What's up?”  Rob asked.

 

“Fucked if I know,” came the response from the disgruntled techie as he thrust his hands defiantly into the pockets of his black shorts. “Power's gone down. Water must've got in. Tripped the lot.”

 

“Can you fix it?”

 

“Can we, fuck.”

 

“Brilliant!” And with that Rob was up. Word spread fast. Any analogy involving rats and sinking ships would have been more than appropriate. Under cover of darkness the Royal London Gala Philharmonic Orchestra fled the scene. Suddenly the fireworks went up, every few seconds capturing freeze frame images of beleaguered musos making their bid for freedom – the stampede for the flapping “door” at the back of the tent. A rush for an open flaps the like of which had not been seen since Rob's last Happy Hour visit to Madame JoJo's...

 

They stumbled blindly through the mud, smoke and rain. Wretched; exhausted.

 

The doors slammed shut. “Well...?” Pippa looked enquiringly at Rob.

 

“Well.”

 

“Home?”

 

“HOME.”

 

“Still,” Pippa continued, “bizarrely there was some quite good music in amongst all that lot.”

 

“Really?” Rob was sceptical. “Name it.”

 

“Yeah – really. I mean, there must have been! Law of averages and all that, it can't all have been rubbish. Must try playing some of it indoors one day...”

 

“I wouldn't be too eager if I were you. God, what a day. Thank Christ the power went. That saved us a good twenty minutes.”

 

“Yeah,” Pippa opined, “must've cut the programme down to a cosy three and a quarter hours...”

 

“Remind me. How many RLGPO gigs have we done?”

 

“So far? Err... one.”

 

Rob looked horrified. “Shit. Are you sure?”

 

“Pretty sure,” replied Pippa. “Hang on a minute; let me count them. One... yep – that's it.”

 

“Shit. And how many have we got to go?” Rob was looking increasingly worried.

 

“Wait, I've got a schedule here somewhere. Right, here we go: Royal London Gala Philharmonic Orchestra Summer Concert Series. OK, we've done one... so that leaves...”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Six.”

 

“Shit. Who's next?”

 

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Pippa asked.

 

Rob was mistrustful. “There's good news?”

 

“Well, it's inside.” Pippa reassured him.

 

“And the bad news?”

 

“It's Alberto Notalento.”

 

Rob looked unimpressed. “Never heard of him.”

 

“I've got a flyer here – get this: “The singing brickie. Plucked from obscurity from just behind the back of the chorus at La Scala by the Fly By Nite music agency, Alberto's life was changed for ever. Relocating to the north of England his fame spread.””

 

“So what's his U.S.P then?”

 

“It says here: “People travelled from far and wide to see his wonky walls – quite a feat of bricklaying as Alberto was born without arms. However he overcame adversity – positioning the bricks with his mouth, singing all the while, and that is how his extraordinary vocal talents came to light.””

 

“Is that it?” Rob was still unimpressed.

 

“Isn't that enough? Oh, and he's dead.”

 

“Sorry?”

 

“Yeah, it says “Just five years after his last tour was cut short by his untimely death, Alberto is launching his comeback: The Drop Dead and Clean Up Tour. Don't miss this once in a lifetime opportunity – your lifetime, not his – to see the great man lying in state at the O2 Arena, tastefully accompanied by all your operatic favourites without the inconvenience of his voice.””

 

This was too much even for the willing suspension of disbelief that Rob had taken the precaution of regarding most of his life with. They drove on, into the night, or more accurately the early morning, in silence. Each lost in their own remarkably similar thoughts... “How did this happen to me...?”