I stare at the skin on the back of my hand. When I make it into a fist, the pressed layers of dermis and epidermis stretch tight and smooth. Venules, branching like a roadmap lie just beneath. I know that, at the size of a dust mite, the slick, pink oily surface will appear as valleys and peaks in some prehistoric landscape. Dermal flora lie in those depressions, performing their routine biochemical functions, obliviously outcompeting an invading Mycoplasma or Legionella bug.
This self-examination is important to me, if only to provide an imaginary veil of distraction to take my mind off the Beast. It lurks between the news bulletins delivered through the wall-mounted TV, beneath my temporary constructs and behind the waiting room small-talk. It is patient, biding its time until the small hours of the morning, when I’ll awake; the only sounds in the room—the ticking of a clock, and the slow, bovine murmurings of the Beast sitting next to me, spilling the contents of its sick mind into my own.
I received the news over half an hour ago. The diagnosis, of course, was delivered by a doctor. My doctor. Doctor Chan. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that she told me, or that I was spaced out on iloperidone, but the impact of finally knowing was not as traumatic as I thought it would be. Only, it wasn’t exactly a revelation. In my lucid moments I knew who it was if not what it was.
I know that the medical profession don’t like to label – at least, not too early. But when she said schizophrenia, it was like she’d named the demon – outed it, so to speak. It helped, because up to now it was a shadow with a Beast’s silhouette; stalking me in my peripheral vision, looking over the top of a newspaper from a table in the corner of Starbucks, sitting several seats back on the bus – its eyes boring into the back of my head like coal-fire. I had my safety behaviours to try and keep it at bay, but they often seemed like glass shields put up to resist the thrust of its horns. It had given me a real ass-whipping a month ago (or is that six weeks? I lose track of time.) Since then, it’s retreated, not out of fear—I’m sure; simply a tactical move in its diabolical strategy.
The Doc, I kinda like her. A bit patronising, sometimes too detached, but at least she knows how to smile. I’m beginning to think she’s maybe telling the truth when she talks about patient confidentiality, when she assures me she doesn’t go blabbing about that kooky guy with the old Ess-Zee she sees once a week. But I’m not ready to give her everything, not yet.
I’m only seven sessions into my treatment. Seven – the number of spiritual perfection. It’s apt that a break-through of sorts was achieved today. But there’s plenty of other dark secrets in me that aren’t ready to say their name. They lie buried under metres of sludge at the bottom of a Stygian well, and the Lounge is sunk the deepest.
There’s no way I’m going to tell the Doc about the Lounge; it’s equally too atrocious and too precious. Besides, Syd would never forgive me.
A bulletin cuts through my consciousness from the TV. Something about another mass-shooting in a Scandinavian country. I zone out from it after a minute, the imagined horror pushed under a bath full of numbness. After all, it’s in a different country, where the people aren’t really the same people as me. Where victims earn their tragedy through poor life-choices or just living in the wrong culture. I’ve got my own demon to deal with. My mind doesn’t have room for vicarious grief.
I look at the back of my hand again and massage my knuckles. Somewhere down there, another pathogenic culture expires as its basic resources are denied by my superior micro-flora. I can even see the individual cells disassemble in the valley of a cutaneous fold. Chalk up another little victory for the good guys.
Why are they taking so long with my prescription? I look up and, with a cannonball of dread burying itself in my stomach, catch a glimpse of my Beast at the window. It ducks out of sight, thinking I haven’t seen it; or maybe it’s an act. Maybe it does want to be seen—just not full on. Simply long enough to mess with my mind.
I need to go the Lounge, it’s the only place my Beast dares not follow. But I also need my prescription. Damn the pharmacist’s sluggish pace.
My mind drifts back to the time when I first discovered that shadowed, smoky basement. Maybe its memory will be enough to piss the Beast off— at least for a while.
I can’t remember the date, but I know it was a Wednesday – Woden’s day if you follow Norse mythology. Nothing good happens on this day, I told myself. Thor’s father decreed it thus. Anyway, the way things transpired, that superstition was pretty much kicked into touch. Chalk up another one for the good guys.
The day hadn’t started with such a jaunty assessment, though. I’d found myself wandering about a small, abandoned industrial estate in Wapping. My peregrination had an air of transgression as the area was sealed off with chain link fencing, and boardings stating the buildings’ off-limits nature; as if they were terminally ill or had something to hide. I imagined it wouldn’t be long before it was marked for urban renewal by some construction company, just waiting for n upturn in the economy.
I traced round the perimeter at first, gazing through the mesh at the hollowed-out shells. Metallic-grey light filtered through first floor windows. I knew I was looking at inner skylights through the glass-less portals, but to me they looked like eyes, observing me suspiciously; in silence, asking me how I dared to observe them. This served only to intrigue me more, so when I found a breach in the fence, I climbed through. A jutting snag scored my calf as I carelessly stumbled over the rusty, folded wire-work. It ripped a diagonal tear in my jeans and my flesh— a sacrificial offering to the phantoms of this place that humankind had forsaken. I ignored the stinging in my leg, although the damage to the Levis was more painful to bear.
I stepped through tussocks of grass and dense mats of stinging nettles, trying my best to avoid their acidic spines. An aroma, released from the trampled nettles, insinuated itself in my sinuses. It evoked a sense of the weed’s conquest over man’s decaying effigies to the gods of industry.
They weren’t the only victors in these desolate spoil heaps. Algae, moss and rust formed coatings on stone and metal. Man had receded, leaving primitive kingdoms to resume their relentless crawl over the urban landscape. One infestation replacing another.
I wasn’t deterred. It was as if these once noble buildings were playing hard to get. Offering me painful rebuffs, while hinting at the hidden mysteries within. I felt invigorated from the realization that less determined inquisitors had probably fallen at the first discouragement.
I pressed on.
The double door I came to had long since lost its garnish of paint, just the faint fleck of purple remained. The cheap plywood had split, curling up in black-smutted resignation.
When I ran my finger over its surface, it became covered in the black powder. I brushed it off with a shudder, knowing that fungal spores might set off an asthma attack. In my jacket pocket, I felt the reassuring hardness of my inhaler as my hand closed over it. All was still well with the world.
I stepped back and took a closer look at the frontage. Old neon fittings hung askew from corroded brackets above the doorway, wires hanging like entrails spilling from their innards. One fitting had clearly been a sign, the letters having long since said farewell to their mounting. I squinted at the weathered, pale, ghost images of words. After applying a bit of diphthong association I solved the puzzle.
“The Crimson Lounge,” I said out loud. As I did so, a muffled stanza of music drifted to me from beyond the door. It was repeated; a psychedelic organ weaved with reverb-laden guitar. From the dim recesses of my mind, I recalled the psychedelic melody and hummed it.
I turned the Bakelite handle of the right-hand door and pushed. It stuck fast initially— no doubt the composite wood had expanded with repeated downpours over the years, wedging it in its frame. But with a determined shove it gave up its resistance.
Most of the ceiling had caved in, letting in a fuzzy light from the overcast sky—enough to see the derelict interior. Heaps of brick and plasterboard littered the floor, that was still covered in places with a sludge-green, disintegrated carpet. It squelched as I trod on it.
What was I doing here? I’d already hurt myself gaining access to the place, it would be typical if I was to fall through a treacherous hole and break my bones on the hard floor down below.
The music came to me again, this time louder.
… see ee ee ee Emily play ….
It was rising up from a staircase leading to the basement— I could just make it out from the gloom on the far side. It was crummy stoved-in speaker quality, but nonetheless had a quaint charm. Who would be listening to music in such a place?
Intense curiosity supplanted fear of life and limb. I scrambled over a collapsed wall, ducked under a twisted, iron railing and stepped carefully towards the stairwell. I expected to be withdrawing my smartphone for a light, but once at the top of the stairs, I could see a ruby-red glow filtering up from a downstairs corridor.
I tested the top step. It held my weight, but creaked in protest. Without warning, the bannister gave way when I leaned on it—almost tipping me headlong into the gloom. With a grunt, I managed to arrest my descent by pressing back into the crumbling wall.
I righted myself and took a few deep breaths, inhaling the heady aroma of Joss sticks mixed with high quality weed. The scent instantly reminded me of my student digs way over in Camden. That and the insistent beat of what I now recognised as Pink Floyd’s tune, immersed me in a pleasant nostalgia. I paused there on the stairs, savouring the memories. Memories of careless afternoons in the sixties, spent smoking pot on the common, hair lank on bare shoulders, daisy chains in the hair. A bohemian delight.
I don’t remember consciously making a decision to proceed, but all at once I was in the downstairs corridor. The floor here was dry and free from dust and grime. A tungsten bulb shed light on spray-painted wall art on either side. As I traipsed along I saw swirling spirals of blue and green, flower-queens and faeries sat on top of bright red, spotted toadstools. My eyes passed from one scene to the next; Here, the Grateful Dead played at an open air festival to thousands of seated beatniks, over there a multi-coloured Chinese dragon corkscrewed out of a yellow and orange volcano.
The music got louder, as did the sound of a cheering crowd. A different tune this time, discordant and bleak, accompanied by the wail of controlled feedback. Again, it was familiar. Whoever was covering Jimi’s classic Voodoo Chile, surely knew their chops. I pushed against a green door at the end of the passage and entered a world of yesteryear.
A bank of four filter-lights spread their glow on the three-piece crammed on to the stage. Over the heads of what must have been approaching one hundred punters, I saw the perfect Hendrix lookalike. He even had the stage moves and facial distortions down to perfection.
There was a doorman, tall and built like a rhino on steroids. I froze, expecting demands for a ticket or a sharp dismissal, but he just nodded as if he knew me. I’ve always avoided horses, gifted or otherwise, and I certainly wasn’t going to gape in this one’s mouth. I elbowed into the throng.
I thought to myself that this had to be a secret gig, probably illegal judging by the size of the room and the number of people squashed into the confined space. As I looked at the rapt faces of the cavorting audience I saw abandonment and euphoria painted over them. Hallucinating? It was a possibility, but I could feel their jostling forms against me, some even standing on my toes.
It had been a November chill outside, but here the temperature was soaring. I tried to remove my leather jacket but the crowd pressed in on me, making the act impossible. Repeatedly, I had the sense of time constricting. A brief blink saw me standing at the foot of the stage. Jimi’s lookalike was dripping with sweat as he scraped his Stratocaster along the Marshall cabs, face mimicking ecstasy as he made love with his guitar.
I was as caught up in the moment as an acolyte approaching the altar of his God when, abruptly, it was finished. Jimi retired from the stage, leaving his squealing guitar on the boards. The crowd dispersed, some leaving the room, others congregating at the bar.
I looked around, bewildered. On the stage, a Mitch Mitchelson doppelganger laid down his sticks and jumped off onto the floor. He passed me by, giving me a ‘howdy’ and I watched as the frizzy silhouette of his mullet made its way to the bar.
What are the odds? I said to myself.
I tapped the shoulder of a bearded hippy. “Hey, dude, who’re the band? They’re awesome.”
“The guy’s just come over from the States. Goes by the name of Jimi something … Hey Bryan, what’s that guitarist’s name again?”
Another beardy wiped beer from his mouth and sidled over. “The Jimi Hendrix Experience is what they call themselves. Shit, they’re something else.”
My mind tried to shake off the dislocation, I even slapped myself on the side of the head, Laurel and Hardy style. The two hippies were still there.
“Dude, are you OK? Maybe you ought to find a seat.
“Yeah, maybe I should.” I swayed drunkenly over to a table in the corner. There was one seat free, the others taken by a mixed group dressed in flowery shirts, velvet jackets and cowboy boots. I asked the nearest body if the seat was taken. He extended his hand with a flourish to indicate I could sit down. The gesture was made all the more flamboyant as the man’s shirt sleeves ended in frills, Cavalier-like. A shoulder-length shock of black hair only added to this impression.
The room was was spinning. Probably dehydrated, I thought.
I shrugged off my jacket and leaned over with my head between my knees. After a while, the guy in the frilled shirt put his hand on my back.
“Looks like you could do with a drink, mate.” He had an almost upper class accent, not plummy, but well spoken. He passed me a beer from a communal cluster at the centre of the table. I looked at the label. The name Double Diamond was printed in bold red letters.
“Blimey, I haven’t seen this brew since—”
“What did you think of Jimi?” His interruption was sharp but inoffensive.
“I wouldn’t have been able to tell him from the real thing. He’s got all the right moves and everything.”
He smiled, while his eyes looked into me.
“You’re from the outside, aren’t you?”
“Outside? I don’t know what you …” Now that he was facing me, and the light from the bar caught him in its glow, I recognised who it was. “Wait a minute, you’re … you’re …”
He extended his hand. “Syd Barrett. Pleased to meet you.”
“Mr Abernethy?” The pharmacist calls my name from the dispensary. I look toward the window and find the Beast is gone for now so I rise from my seat, knees popping in post-fifty protest.
“One tablet, four times a day,” says the pharmacist, her face more sour than a bulldog sucking a lemon. “Careful you keep count of what you’ve taken and when— they’re strong medicine.”
“Yeah, I know,” is the only response I have the energy to muster. I pocket the tablets and leave hurriedly.
Outside, the sky threatens rain, or possibly hail. It has that look and feel about it. Not muted and grey, like snow-laden strato-cumulus, but dark mounds piled up on each other like rotting mattresses.
Strato-cumulus reminds me of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. I wonder if Leo Fender had his inspiration in the clouds too. I pull up the collar of my donkey-jacket against the wind’s bite and stride off toward the centre of town. I match my footfall to the rhythm of Set the controls to the heart of the sun, which ups my speed to a breathless pace. But it’s a necessary thing— the rhythm dictates.
Thoughts begin to sail as I switch to autopilot. The mind’s wind blows them, as always, back to the Lounge.
“Syd Barrett. The Syd Barret?” I said.
“Aw! Hero worship,” he replied. “I’m touched.” Pinpricks of light appeared in his eyes, dancing mischievously in the gloom.
“What is this place?” I asked.
He took another draught from his bottle. “It’s a place where the dispossessed gather. Or, perhaps it gathers us.”
“The Crimson Lounge,” I said. “I’ve never knew it existed.” I looked round and saw Jimi pull up a chair and seat himself wrong way round next to Jim Morrison. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but it drew laughter from Janis Joplin and her hippy friends.
“I know,” Syd replied. “The acoustics aren’t as good as club UFO but it’s all about the vibe.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “The vibe is king. But this is kinda crazy for me— I mean in a good sort of way. Maybe I asked the wrong question.”
“You didn’t mean to ask ask where this place is, did you?”
“No, more like … when.”
He lifted a smouldering joint from an ash tray. “It’s 1969— permanently. It was, and is, the best of years. A time before everything went wrong.”
“You know, before the downer that Altamont became, before Janis and Jimi left us.”
I interrupted. “Not to mention Jim Morrison and … your good self.”
“Yeah, I hung on longer than most, but in a sense I passed over in the early seventies— after my first solo album. Nothing was quite the same after that.”
I rolled my tongue in my cheek. “So, everyone here is technically … dead.”
“Not everyone. Let me introduce you to Pete.”
He reached behind and tapped a shoulder. The guy that turned to face us had a rugged but handsome swami of a face, black beard matching the colour of his curly mane.
“No,” I said “not Peter Green?”
Syd cut in. “Hey, Pete. Meet— sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
I held out my hand to the author of Green Manalishi and Oh Well. “It’s Bob Faraday.”
He shook my hand vigorously, a warm smile on his face. “You’ve heard my stuff?”
“Yeah. Your licks were some of the first I learned as a youngster. Your guitar’s tone — there’s nothing to beat it.”
“Well, thanks for the compliment.”
He was just like the rock bios painted him, a genuinely humble man. A man who inhabited his dreams more than his body. We talked, the three of us, for hours. It didn’t matter that part of my brain told me I was hallucinating, the part that really mattered was nourished as I listened to the musical magi speak of the transcendent. At one point I asked Pete if he was aware that he existed outside of the lounge. As soon as I said it, I wished I could take the words back. They seemed too vulgar for this enlightened conversation. I apologised, but Pete, ever the gentleman, answered me.
“I know my future self is out there,” he said, “but he doesn’t know about this place. I’m not sure what would happen if he were to walk in.”
“So, what are you?” I addressed the question to both of them.
Syd gave a throaty laugh. “Me— I’m just dust and guitars. What about you Pete?”
“I heard that people call me the Green God, but that’s bullshit. I’m just a bluesman.”
I’m not sure what I had expected them to say— a metaphysical break-down of their spiritual nature was perhaps a bit too much to ask. “How long have I been here?” I said.
“It’s hard to say,” Syd replied. “Time doesn’t seem to exist in the Lounge. I’m treading the backward path, you see. Mostly, I just waste my time.”
Hearing his oft quoted words caused my rational self to prod me— You see? You’re just dredging up half-hidden memories and gluing them to the dreams rattling around in that theatre you call a brain.
I quietened the voice. It might be the voice of reason, but it wasn’t what I needed right now.
“Thank you,” I said.”
“What for?” Syd was wearing that enigmatic look, captured on the sleeve of Piper at the gates of dawn.
“Just for being here. This club, it’s the only place where I’ve been truly free from pain. I feel like I want to stay forever.”
“That’s cool, dude,” he said. “But you’ve got unfinished business outside.”
“You mean I have to go back?”
“It’s drawing you back already, can’t you see?”
I looked at my hand, it was becoming see-through, like a mirage.
“But I don’t want this to end.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be here when you want to return. We’ll have a drink poured ready for you.”
I awoke staring at the sky, the clouds parting to reveal windows of blue. I smelled nettles, heard a ringtone, felt it buzzing in my pocket. I sat up and saw I’d been curled up in the long grass just outside the chain link fence.
I pulled out the phone and saw from the caller id it was Manny.
“Manny, hey. Whatsup?”
“Bob? Glad I caught you. Look, I need a favour. Lisa’s called in sick and I need someone to cover her shift on reception. Can you do it?”
I looked at my watch. It had just turned three in the afternoon. I could really have done with a quiet night in, but I also needed the money. “Yeah, sure,” I replied. “Lisa got another of her migraines again?”
“Yeah. She gets them regular as clockwork, every time her boyfriend has a night off to be exact.”
“Well, her loss is my gain.” I closed the call and set off home. I could grab a couple of hours kip, down some fast food and get myself over to the hotel for the seven o’ clock start.
The streets were still wet from the day’s rain, yet my clothes were dry. If I’d been lying outside the industrial estate for hours I surely would have been soaked to the skin. I jumped over puddles and stepped lightly homeward. For a few precious minutes I wasn’t carrying the equivalent of a concrete block around with me. If the Lounge was a delusion, then I was glad of the madness.
I call into the paper shop on the way home. Faizal, the shopkeeper, offers me some small talk that I only half listen to. He deserves more than the grunts I acknowledge him with, but I’m focused on the headline shouting at me from the front page of the Evening News and Star: Planning approved for new shopping complex at Queenstown. I only have to scan the first few paragraphs to understand this is serious. I have to get to the Lounge and warn Syd. I take the paper together with a pack of Marlboros and step out on to the street. It’s going to be a half hour walk to Queenstown industrial estate, but for once, fortune’s on my side and the 685 bus is pulling into the stop. When I say fortune you thought I meant good providence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I show my pass to the driver and notice that all seats are empty. All save one. Seated on the back row is the Beast.
My joints lock and my head goes swimmy as I desperately search for options. The bus has picked up speed and I consider asking the driver to stop, but I need to get to the Lounge.
The Beast isn’t moving, just looking with its sunken, soulless eyes. Despite myself, I can’t turn away and don’t know which aspect of its patchwork anatomy is most hideous. Grey, leather-skinned limbs rise from its cloven hooves; the thighs are all sinew and knotted muscle; at their junction with the pelvis a swollen, scabrous cock drapes over the seat, exuding some foul effluvium. It’s sitting centrally but seems to take up the whole row. It is at once both arachnoid and reptilian. The torso is ripped open as if it carries the unhealed wounds of a hundred battles. I see leaking intestinal tubes hanging from some of them, fibrous tissue from others.
As I watch, it lifts one claw and inserts an inch-long, filthy talon into its navel and pulls upward, tugging at the flaking skin. It would be a mortal wound for another, lesser being, but my Beast is sustained by its self-mutilation. As the slit in its belly reaches its breastbone, the internal organs give up their occupancy and squelch obscenely into a coiled mass on the littered floor. I suppress a scream as I look at its leering face, and understand in an instant that the Beast has its genesis in me. My disease has given it life and only my death will see the world rid of it.
I gather the strength to spin round, motivated by warped logic— if I don’t see it then it won’t harm me. I’m holding both vertical bars behind the driver, trying to quell the churning in my stomach. I can see his puzzled expression in the rear view mirror— I must look a sight.
Then I feel warm breath on my neck …
The morning after my first encounter with Syd; the day that I was destined to meet the Beast for the first time, I woke with a sense of felicity. It was not so much joy or ecstasy— that would be over-stating the case, but sufficiency wouldn’t have been wide of the mark. “If this is as good as it gets,” a bar-time philosopher once told me, “then that’s good enough.” I’d striven to find this state most of my adult life.
Events later in the day would cast a dark shadow, but for the moment, not even the induced torpor from my meds could quell expectations. I kept telling myself I was being set up for a fall, but I grasped at the straw anyway.
I gobbled down some sugar-laden cereal, left the bowl on the worktop and stepped out of the door, almost forgetting to lock it. The rented flat I just left held no warmth of human company— but I knew a place that did.
The bus journey across town was accompanied by a fluttering of butterflies in my belly. I’d not known such trepidation since my school days. Debilitating moroseness, yes, but this was a specific needlepoint of anxiety; a prerogative of the highest order.
At St. Mary’s stop I jumped off and jogged towards the lane leading to the estate.
That was when I saw it. In the shadow of the church’s entrance it crouched. A mottled-grey monstrosity. I willed it to be a gargoyle, a statue; anything but the panting, slobbering abomination that bunched itself under the lintel. I ground to a halt, like I was wading through treacle, eyes transfixed on a vision beyond gruesomeness.
The thing’s mouth had a corona of sores. When the corners turned up in an unfeeling leer, three of them burst and released a payload of pus.
It extended a claw to me, two talons extended in a summoning gesture. The devilish grin increased as it nodded an acknowledgement to my unspoken question. Yes, I was its possession. It was my future and my sentence. Its stare told me there was no escape; yet I ran, uttering a scream of the damned.
Pedestrians parted before me, clearly unaware of what followed behind. I collided with a woman in a blue cagoule; her shopping emptied on to the pavement but I didn’t stop, just kept on running. I didn’t dare look behind until I found the breach in the fence again.
Lungs burned as I held myself up against the rusted lattice. I could see the Beast lumbering along the pot-holed road towards me. It appeared lame, dragging one foot behind it, but its pace was relentless.
I pulled the mesh-work aside, tumbled through the gap, then ran with flailing arms across the wasteland. I stole a glance behind and saw the Beast ripping the fence apart like it was tissue paper. A hot poker of dread thrust itself into my innards as I imagined what those claws would do to my flesh.
As if it was lying in wait for me, a treacherous bramble lassoed itself round my foot and brought me to the ground. I could feel the Beast’s hooves pounding the earth behind me and I almost curled up in a ball; a foetus of resignation to the inevitable.
It was then that it came to me— the sound of Richard Wright’s organ floating from out of the derelict building behind. The lyric came in immediately: Arnold Layne … had a very strange hobby.
The Beast heard it too. It stopped in its tracks and held its claws to its ears, the head shaking in a bizarre, tortured fashion. It could almost have been a dance, but this image was dispelled as it finally threw its head back, seemingly in agony and gradually fragmented into a billion floating motes. A rising breeze swept them, spore-like into the air to become part of London’s polluted pall.
I knew it hadn’t really gone. I could sense it in the smog-haze above the city, brooding, waiting.
Somehow, I found the strength to stagger to my feet and blundered into the building, following the mesmeric sound of Pink Floyd’s music. Down the steps and along the passageway I ran, bursting through the door at the end.
I fell into the burly arms of the same bouncer I had met previously.
“Whoa,” he shouted above the glorious cacophony of the Floyd. “No need to bust a gut, they’ve just started.” He stood me back up straight, then slapped me on the back. Laughter creased his face; a jovial, benevolent expression of camaraderie that I couldn’t help but return. Relief washed through me as I weaved through the heaving crowd to get a better look at Syd.
He was centre stage, wearing a green velvet tunic. His ever-so-forlorn countenance was bordered by a mop of straggly dark hair. He’d slung a Fender Telecaster nonchalantly over his shoulder while one hand gripped the microphone.
“Tonite, let’s all make love in London,” he said, “as if it were the year two thousand and twenty one.” He swung the guitar round and struck the strings like they needed the punishment. So began the classic intro to Astro domine. There followed twenty minutes of pulsing psychedelia in which the crowd trippily danced, some with arms above their heads, swaying side to side; others, mainly the men, with their heads down, loosing snowstorms of dandruff in an asynchronous, shaking frenzy. I was rapt.
The Floyd finished two shorter numbers then took a break, during which Syd found me at his table. I’d already got him a beer. The barman couldn’t accept my ‘foreign coins’ but in the end gave me the drinks on the house seeing as, in his words, I looked like a ‘cool dude.’
“Cheers, mate,” Syd said and clinked his glass against mine.
I downed a mouthful of lager. “Great set,” I said.
“Did you like it?” He responded in an animated enthusiastic way. Not like the grainy footage I’d seen of him on YouTube where he looked spaced out and vacant— a precursor to his fall from fortune. No, he looked positively vibrant.
“I always thought it was Roger Waters who did the ‘Make love in London’ bit,” I said, eager to pick up any morsel of backstory to benefit my imperfect mental encyclopaedia of music.
“Yeah, he used to do it, but it was a bit morose— he can’t seem to shake off his shackles of misery.”
“You know, his dark streak will make him a millionaire in a decade or so.”
“Really? I think I phase out once the late seventies happen.”
I was taken aback that he viewed this so casually. “Doesn’t that bother you— that you exist in different time frames?”
He leaned back and looked off into the distance for a moment. “As long as I’m in the Lounge, nothing else matters,” he said at last. “It has a sustaining energy and I want to absorb it for as long as it exists.”
I put my empty pint glass down and looked at him, hesitant to raise the subject that weighed me down so heavily. Then, he spoke as if reading my mind. “Why not ask me the real questions, Bob. I see them flitting behind your eyes.”
I inhaled sharply. “OK, here goes. I know you’re no stranger to the … what shall I call them— afflictions of the soul, but is there ever any release?”
“Tell me more, brother,” he said, kindly. So I told him my history, without leaving any bits out, even sharing thoughts I’d not revealed to my therapist: My state of nihilism, the life long battle with demons that wrestled for control of my mind, and finally— The Beast.
He asked a couple of questions but most of the time just nodded. There was an absence of judgement in his demeanor. It invited trust, which was something I hadn’t had for a long time.
When I ran out of words he sat up straight. “Let me tell you something, Bob. This may not be the answer you want to hear, but it’s the only sprinkling of rainbow dust I can give you.” He looked me directly in the eye. “You can’t defeat this Beast, but you can engage with it, pacify it, remove much of its malignancy.”
“You mean it’ll always be there? Waiting and watching? I don’t think I could bear to even see it again. Why has it chosen this day to reveal itself?”
He looked down and picked up a beer mat, tapping it rhythmically on the bench. “Because you invited it.”
“What do you mean? Why, for Christ’s sake would I want to do that?”
“Because, deep down inside— underneath the undertow where the bodies lie— you think you deserve it.”
“What, like I’m that guy in the Bible? The one over whom God and the Devil had a bet?”
“Job, I think his name was, yeah. But you don’t have to be steeped in religion to have baggage like that.”
I felt hope dwindle from wild fire to a flickering candle flame. “What’s the point in engaging with it if it’s going to destroy me anyway?”
“It doesn’t have to be that way. Talk to it, sing at it, dance with it if you have to. If you embrace the abominable, look it straight in the eye, it will back down.”
This really was crazy talk, but I didn’t see madness in Syd’s eyes, just compassion. “It couldn’t follow me in here,” I said. “When it heard your song it freaked out.”
He gave me a smile that shone. “That’s the Lounge for you. Serendipity and Nirvana all bundled into one far-out night club. What you need to do is take the essence of the Lounge to your Beast.”
“I don’t think I can do that right now.”
“Maybe not today. Maybe not next week, but you’ll learn. Come back again tomorrow. Stay as long as you want to. Soak in the atmosphere, but understand this— you’ll never feel totally ready to confront it. Eventually you’ll take it on because you have no other option left.”
I left before Syd’s second set finished. No fading away this time.
Back in the harsh daylight, I looked around for evidence of my nemesis. There was nothing, but every shadow on the way home was a chance for it to ambush me. When I finally closed the front door behind me I was jittery as hell. Even a mouthful of Valium did little to give me rest.
Over the weeks I spent most waking hours in the Lounge. Manny had to let me go, I slid from being unreliable to totally absent. I didn’t care.
I’d ring my twenty-something year old daughter but the calls grew shorter in length. She said I was sounding weird and couldn’t handle me rambling on the other end of the line.
“Get some help,” she’d say. “For my sake as well as yours.”
Well I was getting help alright, but not the sort she meant.
Then there was the Beast to contend with. Syd suggested I give it a name to reduce its threat. So I called it Murray. I’d like to say it made a difference, but if I’m honest the effect was minimal. It seemed a little more wary, that’s all. It would stare through windows, take the urinal two stalls down from me in the public toilets or sit at the next table in a coffee shop—all the time keeping its distance.
It became unbearable. That’s why I spent more time in the Lounge. The place was anathema to it. But I knew that all I was doing was hiding.
I had conversations with all my heroes, even Jerry Garcia of the grateful Dead. I wish I could remember everything that threw itself up in our banter. They spoke to me in poetry and lyrics, songs of insane wisdom that resonated like immortal cello-strokes in the psyche. It was medicine to the soul and I imagined I was getting stronger— until today happened, the day of reckoning.
“Your sanctuary is destroyed,” Murray says in my ear with a voice that is magma.
“Fuck off. Just fuck off!” I roar.
It’s enough to bring the bus to an abrupt halt.
The driver turns round. “Look mate, I can’t drive this crate with you hollering at your unicorns or whatever’s in your head. I’m letting you off here, you can come down from your trip some place else.”
He stares at me and I know he sees dilated pupils and twitching face muscles.
“That’s right, Murray says. “Let’s continue our exchange outside.”
His voice galvanizes me and I launch myself through the open door and break into a sprint. I’m still half a mile from the Lounge and I don’t know if I’ll make it. Behind me, Murray canters relentlessly with his hobbling gait, dragging entrails behind. I can’t tell if he’s gaining or not but he doesn’t let up.
Rain begins to spot the pavement and I hear a roll of thunder in the distance. There aren’t too many people on the street but they start to pull their collars up or open umbrellas. Twenty paces later and it’s a downpour. I feel like I’m running on ice as I hear Murray’s laboured exhalations behind.
Then it’s there, or at least the remnants of it are. A wrecking ball descends in an arc, pivoting from a crane’s jib, sending a wall toppling over into a crumbling undignified pile. I see the exposed remains of the Lounge’s interior. The hole to the basement is almost completely obscured by mounds of breeze blocks and cement dust. It is this scene that teaches me what complete and utter despair is.
My legs turn traitor and I come to a halt. There’s nothing left in me and I turn to greet the horror. We stand an arms-length or so apart, and Murray’s eyes turn red as my stomach turns to stone. He takes a step towards me, black claws uncurling and I have a sense of things moving too quickly to process. It’s this that saves me in the end.
It starts as a hum in my voice box— the descending cadence of Astro domine. I can’t be sure if I see him hesitate but I mumble some words— “Lime and limpid green, a second scene …” This time Murray stops, his head tilted on one side.
“That’s right, you shit-stain. I’m talking to you,” I say, but he lifts his arms again as if wrestling with an unseen force.
I start up again, a different song rising in my throat. “Lucifer simba go to sea.
Be a hip cat, be a ship’s cat …” I hear Syd’s inflections in my delivery and Murray puts his palms to his ears in confusion. I daren’t let up and take a step towards him. I can’t believe it’s true when he shrinks back and falls to one knee.
“I know a mouse and he hasn’t got a house and I don’t know why I call him Gerald …”
Murray keels over and speaks in a pitiful voice “Stop! I cannot bear it.”
I think I hear Syd’s voice in my head, That’s right, my man. Give it to him straight.
I just let the words tumble from my mouth without thinking. “You wanted an exchange. Well hear we are. Let’s see what you’ve got to say.”
“I have nothing, you have nothing. We are nothing!” He says it, but the words have no authority.
“You may be a nothing, but I’m not part of your club. I’m dancing to a different tune now.”
He stares up at me with eyes whose fire has gone out. “This is not … the end,” he says.
“No, I don’t believe it is. But everything’s on my terms now.
The rain has stopped and a shaft of sunlight breaks through the purple canopy above as if the dawn is breaking. I look up and see Syd’s face, ethereal in the sky. He’s grinning; the pinpricks of light performing a jig to his piper’s call. The image finally fades into the distance, obscured by the clouds.