21 December 1983
"I told you to ask Ron if he'd had the battery changed."
"Don't start with me, mate," Colin's voice issued darkly from under the bonnet of the van. "I'm hanging by a thread as it is."
Alex could readily believe that. For the last half-hour, Colin had toiled over their stalled transport, cursing the van, the weather, and their circumstances with an inventiveness Alex could not hope to emulate, much less surpass. He blew on his fingers, wishing he'd remembered his gloves. The weather outside was indeed frightful, and there was no evidence of a fire, delightful or otherwise. No snow as yet, but the possibility of it had been mentioned in the papers and on television.
Hardly the way one wished to spend the winter solstice--stranded on the road after a provincial gig, in a broken-down van filled with instruments and little else.
Colin emerged from the depths of the engine, his face as dark and stormy-looking as the night sky. "Bloody buggering hell! Well, that's that, mate. Unless some good Samaritan comes along with jumper cables, offers us a lift, or points us to the nearest phone box, we're fucked."
"Maybe the others will come back for us," Alex suggested, handing his friend a rag to wipe his oily hands. The three other members of their band, PoP, had left their gig a few minutes earlier than they had, all of them bound for Dan's house in London. "They'll figure out what's happened when we don't show up."
"Yeah, but how long will we have to wait?"
Alex started to say something reassuring, but sneezed violently instead; the winter wind was cutting through his coat like a knife. "Damn."
"Christ, mate, don't tell me you're getting a cold."
Alex sniffed, fumbling in his pockets for a tissue or at least a crumpled paper napkin. "All right--I won't tell you."
"Fucking perfect," Colin muttered. "We'll probably both end up with pneumonia, standing out here, freezing our arses off."
Alex muffled another sneeze in the crook of his elbow. "Then why don't we get back in the van for now? It's got to be warmer than this."
"There is that," Colin conceded. "Right--I'll just leave the bonnet up in case anyone does come along to help us out."
They climbed inside with alacrity, shutting the doors behind them. Colin immediately leaned over the front seat and began rummaging in the back. "Got to be here somewhere," he muttered distractedly. "Come on, damn you--yes!" He straightened up with a triumphant grin, tugging what looked like an old tartan blanket with him.
Alex regarded it with a dubious eye. "God, that's hideous!"
"Hideous but warm," Colin retorted, throwing one end over Alex's lap. "It's a car rug, mate--and pure wool. Those Scots blokes were good for something, weren't they? And that's not all--" he leaned back over the seat, rummaged a bit more and came up with a bottle. "Bushmills--got this tonight from one of our fans. Should keep out the chill, if nothing else."
He unstopped the bottle, took a healthy swig, then shuddered in appreciation. "Oh, man . . ." He eyed the bottle with new respect, took two more swallows.
"Oi, freezing bandmate here! Pass it over," Alex ordered and took a swig himself while Colin spread the car rug over both of them and huddled closer to conserve their body heat. The Irish whiskey burned a fiery trail down his throat, and he paused to cough and wipe his watering eyes.
"Christ, is this the real thing?" he managed, when he had his breath back.
"Is this just fantasy?" Colin burst into unexpected song. "Caught in a landslide, No escape from reality . . ."
Alex gaped at him, then, realizing he'd never heard anything quite so funny, began to laugh helplessly as Colin continued to warble. "Open your eyes, Look up to the skies, and seeee . . ."
"I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy," Alex chimed in with a shaky harmony.
Colin gave him an encouraging grin and they sang on together, "Because I'm easy come, easy go, Little high, little low. Any way the wind blows Doesn't really matter to me. To meeeeee!"
They kept going until Colin noticed the white flakes swirling madly outside the van windows and more cursing ensued. But the flurry didn't last as long as they'd feared, and they saw no reason not to finish their song, though they could not agree as to whether they'd left off at "I see a little silhouetto of a man" or "Galileo--Figaro." In which case, Colin argued, the only thing to do was start over from the beginning. With the whiskey now a warm haze between his belly and his brain, Alex had no fault to find with this proposal . . .
"Never did trust that van." Dan Miller, PoP's drummer, scanned the road before them. "It looked like it was a breath away from the nearest scrap heap."
"If it were a horse, someone would've shot it already," Andrew Wymore, the group's guitarist, agreed. "See anything yet?"
"No, but they were taking the same route we were--there!" Dan leaned on the horn when he spied a familiar heap pulled over on the side of the road. "God, that has to be them!" He pulled over to park hastily, opened the door, and climbed out, followed seconds later by Andrew and Nick Blakely, PoP's bass player.
Starting towards the van, they all paused in astonishment as the sound--or rather, cacophony--that reached their ears.
"Nothing really matters, Anyone can see," two male voices chorused with more enthusiasm than skill. "Nothing really matters, Nothing really matters to meeee. Any way the wind blows . . ."
Andrew recovered first. "Well, we've found them. And I reckon Freddie Mercury has nothing to worry about."
"Andrew," Nick murmured to his bandmate, "are they--are they drunk?"
"Oh, yeah." It was Dan who answered, face and voice grimly amused. "One over the eight, the pair of them. Right--this should be fun." He raised his voice. "Colin, Alex! We've come to save your sorry arses. Least you could do is get out and give us a hand."
It took another twenty minutes for Dan's jumper cables to rouse a spark in the van's defunct battery, but once the engine got started, it rumbled along satisfactorily enough.
"Should at least be able to get us to London," Dan remarked. He glanced meaningfully at Alex and Colin, slightly unsteady and still redolent of Bushmills. "And I'm driving."
Andrew took the wheel of Dan's car, and within the hour, they had all pulled up outside of Dan's small place in Kensington. A confusing but not unpleasant interval followed, during which Dan's wife Maggie ushered them into the kitchen and plied them all with hot soup and hot tea. At some point during the washing-up, Maggie's sister Joan and her two kids stopped by, to exchange Christmas gifts and greetings. Joan took the presence of PoP in stride; she was used to her sister's home being knee-deep in musicians.
While the sisters chatted, Alex found himself unexpectedly in charge of amusing the children, which he did by playing various kiddie songs on the small upright piano in the living room: "Oranges and Lemons," "London Bridge," and "Pop! Goes the Weasel."
A few hours later, mostly sober but still full of soup and not yet ready for sleep, he was still playing the latter--but softly, so as not to awaken anyone upstairs. Dan and Maggie had already turned in, to be followed soon after by Andrew and Nick, who'd won the toss for the lone guest room. Alex and Colin would be bedding down on the sofa and chairs, respectively.
"Why do you reckon the weasel popped anyway?" Colin inquired, leaning against the doorway.
Alex pulled a face. "I really don't care to think about that too closely."
"Balloons pop, bubbles pop--not sodding animals." Colin strolled into the living room and dropped onto one of the upholstered chairs, one leg dangling over the arm.
"Bullfrogs might, if they swell up enough."
Colin snorted. "Now there's something I don't care to think about too closely!"
"So what else goes pop?" Alex mused, playing a minor chord. "Gum, corks, corn . . ."
"Pop goes the corn sounds like someone with serious foot problems."
"Oh, well, if you're going to bring body parts into this. Eyes pop. Ears pop, especially at twenty thousand feet in a plane."
"Joints pop, especially after you've spent almost two hours freezing on the side of the road on December the sodding twenty-first."
"We got rescued," Alex reminded him. "And we're now warm and fed, so we can't really complain."
"Yes, we can," Colin grumbled. "We can complain about the crap gig we got tonight. Nearly three years of this, mate, and we're still trying to break through."
"We're getting closer all the time. We opened for some really big acts this year."
"Not good enough. I want us to be the big act other bands fall all over themselves to open for." Colin folded his arms and scuffed his dangling foot along the floor. "This time, next year, I want all the big venues fighting to book us for the holidays. Wembley Stadium, the Albert Hall--hell, I'd settle for something in the States. Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall."
"Very modest aspirations," Alex said dryly, though he couldn't help but sympathize. How could he not, when he hoped for the very same things?
Colin stared broodingly into the gas log fire. "Reckon I'd do just about anything to put us on the map. We deserve it, mate." He looked up at Alex. "What we need is a hit song. A real hit, something that's whang in the gold, not just getting close." He got up abruptly, went to the desk in the window alcove, and returned with a notepad and pen. "I'll replace it in the morning," he defended himself when Alex cocked an eyebrow at him. "Besides, Dan's used to our scribbling by now." He settled back in the chair, propping the notepad on the arm and resting his feet on the coffee table.
Idly, Alex played a few more chords of "Pop! Goes the Weasel." Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Half a pound of treacle, That's the way the money goes--
"Pop goes my bubble," Colin muttered abstractedly, writing away. "No. Pop goes--my dream?" He shook his head. "Too bloody close to the truth. Pop goes--pop goes . . ."
"My hope?" Alex suggested.
"My heart," Colin corrected, sitting bolt upright all of the sudden. "Pop goes my heart!" Smiling broadly, he wrote it down on the pad with a flourish.
"Hearts don't go 'pop,'" Alex objected. "Though I've heard that heartstrings can go 'zing!'--at least according to Judy Garland."
"Why shouldn't they go 'pop,' if we want them to?" Colin demanded, pointing his pen at Alex. "Like to see you come up with anything better!"
Alex held up his hands in self-defense. "Sorry, mate. I'm the music half of this team. Pop goes my heart . . ." He mulled over Colin's title, shrugged. "Heard worse, I suppose. Maybe it'll sound better after a good night's sleep."
"Sleep?" Colin stared at him. "How can we sleep now? We're just getting started!"
"Colin, it's way past midnight, and we've had a full day of it," Alex protested. "We should both try and get some rest."
"One hour, Alex, mate. That's all I'm asking!"
"Half an hour, tops--I promise! I'll write fast."
Alex sighed. "I should know better than to believe you," he remarked, and knew as soon as the words left his mouth that he'd already succumbed.
Colin gave him the brilliant smile that made fans swoon and kept his bandmates from strangling him on a regular basis. "I knew you couldn't resist!" he declared, bending over his pad again.
"And I'm regretting it already," Alex informed him. Except that he wasn't, not really.
He glanced out the nearest window at the pitch-black sky. The longest night of the year--and it was about to get even longer. But a friend like Colin--someone with whom you could share a car rug, a bottle of whiskey, and a mangled rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody" on a cold winter's night--could talk you into anything.
Stifling a sigh, he rested his hands on his lap and waited to hear what Colin's muse would come up with next.