When she suggested it, he was horrified. The memories came flooding back, all those hideously embarrassing evenings at home when he was a lad, having to stand up and do his ‘turn’. It was fine when he sang in the choir. He could just sing a hymn or two. But then his voice broke, and he had to come up with something better. He was too clumsy for magic tricks, and too self-conscious for telling jokes. He had no memory for reciting poetry either, which his brother Alan was far better at in any case. Every get-together became excruciating.
Later on, he had a girlfriend who gave him an old guitar. She taught him to strum a few tunes when required. In those days, before the Seventies Prog Rock scene got into gear, there were only two ways a Geordie lad could go – Northern Soul or the Folk Revival. Lewis chose folk, and learnt to growl a few Simon and Garfunkel tunes over a cheap guitar played with rubber fingers.
But that was all a long time ago.
Now Laura was planning to host a barbeque at which the guests were invited to do their ‘turns’. It was alright for her, being able to the play the oboe or clarinet or whatever it was. Franco was going to sing, and of course Hathaway would play the guitar. Jean Innocent was apparently rehearsing her own rendering of a Joyce Grenfell monologue.
‘So what’s your plan then, sir?’ Hathaway’s smile was erring too close to being a smirk for Lewis’s liking.
‘Oh, give over,’ he snapped, and went back to his sulk.
They were sitting over their usual Friday pints when he had the masterstroke. James was trundling on about Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, watching the evening light glittering on the surface of the river. It was the perfect warm summer’s evening. A cloud of mosquitos were dancing over the water, and the lawn outside the Trout was dappled with warm light, light that caught threads of gold in Hathaway’s fringe, and little flecks of summer in the blue of his irises. On evenings like this, he was impossibly beautiful.
And that was when Lewis finally made the decision.
The next day he went to the guitar shop, bought his first instrument since he was fifteen, along with Bert Weedon’s Guitar primer, a course of intensive lessons with a bloke called Rick who, according to the man behind the counter, was the best guitar teacher in the county, and the sheet music for a song he hadn’t even thought of in decades.
Rick was sceptical.
‘It’s not an easy one to play, this,’ he said, examining the dots Lewis bought with him to his first lesson, and shaking his head. ‘How long is it since you last played?’
Lewis practised every night. He practised till his fingers bled. He practised until even the deaf old lady next door started complaining. That one song, over and over again. He was determined.
Hathaway accused him of having a secret girlfriend when he turned down the third offer of a pint in a week. He made as if it was all a joke, but Lewis could tell he was hurt. To comfort the lad and salve his own conscience, he tried to concoct some story about having a DIY project on that he was trying to get finished, but he knew Hathaway didn’t believe him.
‘Aren’t you taking this a bit seriously,’ Laura frowned. ‘It’s only a bit of fun, after all.’
Lewis just kept practising.
On the afternoon before the barbeque, he took his guitar over to Laura’s and asked her to stow it away somewhere that Hathaway wouldn’t see it.
‘I want it to be a surprise,’ he explained. She gave him a look that was far more knowing than was reasonable.
By the time he got to the party that evening, his hands were shaking, and he felt sick. Hathaway flipped the top off a beer bottle for him because he was too clumsy and nervy to do it himself.
‘You alright, sir?’
Couldn’t tell him everything was riding on this evening, could he? Couldn’t say what he was really planning.
They sat through Innocent doing her best ‘George – don’t do that’, which was actually quite funny. Laura played her oboe/clarinet or whatever it was (Lewis could never remember which was which anyway) and Franco accompanied her on the upright piano. Peterson told some rather risqué jokes. Hooper did lame card tricks. Hathaway played something ethereal, some medieval lute piece that he had transposed for the guitar. His exquisite fingering made Lewis even more nervous.
After all, what if it didn’t work? What if he fumbled it, forgot the words, played a wrong note or lost his place?
Or worse, what if Hathaway didn’t get the message.
Or got it, and didn’t want to know.
By the time Julie was belting out ‘My Way’ in company with Sinatra, Lewis was ready to cash it all in and go home. But then it was his turn.
Laura disappeared and came back with the guitar. James’s eyes bulged when he saw it.
‘But you said you didn’t play, sir,’ he protested.
‘Aye, well, a man’s gotta have some secrets, hasn’t he?’ He fumbled about, making sure it was tuned. ‘Talk amongst yerselves a minute while I get me fingers into gear.’
Everyone laughed politely and turned away, expecting him to be rubbish. He couldn’t blame them. He didn’t give the impression of being the musical type, after all. He was aware of Hathaway’s eyes on him, observing. If he’d been less nervous, he might have hazarded that the lad was hurt, but he was too worried about getting his fingering just how Rick had taught him. When he figured he was as ready as he was ever going to be, he sat up and cleared his throat.
He started up the gentle waltz time and launched into the first verse, knowing his voice was not as good as it once had been, but hoping that the feeling he put into it would carry the meaning:
Here is my song for the asking
Ask me and I will play
So sweetly, I'll make you smile
This is my tune for the taking
Take it, don't turn away
I've been waiting all my life
Thinking it over, I've been sad
Thinking it over, I'd be more than glad
To change my ways for the asking
He looked up and his eyes met Hathaway’s.
Ask me and I will play
All the love that I hold inside
He closed his eyes to hum the last refrain and let his fingers dance over the strings to the final curling note.
And then the room erupted. Everyone was applauding and laughing and whooping and cheering and standing up, and Laura was clapping with tears in her eyes, and he looked over at Hathaway, and the lad looked wistful in a way he had never seen before. After that, all he could do was hope.
It was after four in the morning, in the first grey dawn, when Hathaway stopped dead still in the middle of the road, which was in fact Norham Gardens, one of the poshest streets in North Oxford. They had decided to bail out on the party when Julie had suggested a round of ‘Never did I ever’, and opted for a walk back to Lewis’s flat (where Hathaway had arranged to kip on the sofa) through the misty morning streets. They walked along together, hunched against the chill, hands buried in their pockets, brushing shoulders occasionally in companionable silence.
Lewis was fairly drunk and it took him several paces to notice that the lad was no longer by his side. He stopped and turned round, and Hathaway was standing there, wide-eyed, looking as if he had swallowed a questionmark the size of Big Ben.
‘What’s up wi’ you?’ Lewis asked him, and then felt shocked at how loud his voice sounded in the empty, quiet street.
‘I’m drunk,’ Hathaway announced.
‘Keep your voice down!’ Lewis hissed. ‘So am I. Otherwise I wouldn’t be up at this bloody hour of a Sunday morning, would I? Now come on, before we freeze our bollocks off.’
‘I don’t know. Drunk enough, I s’pose. How drunk is drunk enough?’
‘Drunk enough to still remember, when you wake up?’
Lewis shrugged, not following. ‘Guess so.’
That seemed to be enough for Hathaway, who was probably just a bit drunker.
‘Will you?’ he said, and looked shocked at his own presumption.
‘Will I what?’
‘You know. Will you play?’
The song. Of course.
Suddenly the world stopped on its axis, the focus of the entire universe zeroed in on Norham Gardens. Lewis’ heart was thudding under his ribs, and he had to take a deep breath to steady himself.
‘Are you asking?’
Hathaway gave him a coy smile. ‘Yeah, I’m asking.’
Lewis walked into the road, walked up to Hathaway.
‘Then yeah,’ he whispered, smiling up into the lad’s eyes. ‘I’m playing.’ And he leaned up on his toes and pressed his lips softly to his sergeant’s.