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The Groupie Situation

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            ‘She made cupcakes,’ James said, miserably.  ‘Cupcakes with my face on them.’

            The thread tugged at Lewis’ skin.  He looked down and watched the doctor’s skilled hands work, dancing with needle and thread.  She performed a neat twiddle with the forceps to tie off the next stitch.  It was not painful – the local anaesthetic saw to that.  Besides, he’d had more stitches at one time or another than he could even remember.  This felt a bit different, though.  For one thing, he was sitting up in the bed half naked, his hospital smock having fallen off the one shoulder while it was open for access to the other.  His sergeant and the doctor were both being treated to a no-holds-barred view of his lightly sagging pectorals and grey chest hair.  Plus he had his arm propped up on a trolley so that the doctor could work underneath unimpeded, and to be honest, he had never had stitches in a place that was actually ticklish before.

            James was sitting on a plastic chair up against the wall, leaning forward, elbows on knees.  He was still in his gig clothes.  His t-shirt was spattered with blood.  Lewis’s blood.  He looked drained and wretched.  His knee bounced nervously.

            ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Lewis told him for about the hundredth time.

            ‘I don’t know.  I just-‘  He huffed and got up, started pacing about, his lanky arms and legs all restless energy.

            ‘Sit down, lad.  Makes me tired just looking at you.’

            He was tired, if he was honest, but then it must be about four in the morning, so that was hardly surprising.  Plus he had lost a bit of blood.  Not that much.  Certainly not as much as James seemed to think he had.  Lewis had seen what stab wounds looked like before, the messy aftermath, the sudden deluge of blood.  His own had been a glancing blow on the right side of his ribs.  The girl hadn’t known what she was doing, and he was more than thankful for that.  He felt sorry for her really.

            James’ phone started to ring, and he pulled it out of his back pocket and peered at the screen.

            ‘Laura,’ he said, and ducked out into the corridor.  Lewis could hear the drone of his deep voice as he talked, the significant silences marking where he was listening to whatever Laura’s wise words were.

            The doctor glanced up at him.  ‘How are you doing?’  Her words were a little muffled by her mask.

            ‘Alright,’ he told her honestly.  ‘Looks like you’re making a good job of it.  You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’  He grinned.

            ‘Embroidery’s a hobby of mine.  I can do blanket stitch if you fancy it,’ she twinkled back.

            ‘So long as its easy to get out again, I don’t care,’ he laughed, and then regretted it when the skin on his ribs tugged at her handiwork.

            ‘No laughing,’ she admonished.

            ‘Then stop tickling me.’

            ‘Mr Lewis, you are a dreadful patient.’

            ‘I know.’

            She wiped away at the remaining section of the open wound, and set to work again.  Lewis sighed and thought about the girl with the knife.

            Her name was Emily.  She was a friend of one of the lads in the band, the drummer, Adam.  Although, as it turned out, not so much a friend as an acquaintance, Adam had confessed.  She started coming along to rehearsals at Adam’s invitation, and once she had set eyes on James, it seemed nothing would stop her.

            ‘I talked to her a bit the first night,’ James had told Lewis.  ‘She came to the pub with us afterwards.  She didn’t know much about music, but she liked what we play.  When she started turning up to every practice, Adam said he reckoned I was in there.  Said she was gagging for it, as he put it.’

            Lewis was not about to forget the expression on James’ face when he repeated his friend’s words.  Distaste wasn’t the word for it.

            ‘Not your type, then,’ Lewis lightly probed.

            ‘That’s what I told her,’ James agreed, cleverly avoiding giving away any further information.  ‘She wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Stuck to me like a limpet.’

            The first Lewis knew about it was when he came into work one day and found James with a tray of cupcakes, carefully picking off the fondant disks that had been added to the tops.  Each had an image of James’ pale, horsey features printed on it by some clever, edible transfer technique.  The poor lad had no intention of eating all the cakes himself, but he was not about to offer them around the nick with his face emblazoned all over them, and look like an even bigger egomaniac than people already believed him to be.

            ‘Someone’s a bit keen on you,’ Lewis had quipped at the time.

            James gave him a wretched look in reply. 

‘I’ve got a groupie,’ he said, glum.

            ‘I thought that was a good thing,’ Lewis said.  ‘Isn’t that what all rock stars want?’

            ‘I’m not a rock star,’ James pointed out.  ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit, I don’t know, creepy?’

            Lewis examined the Warhol-like repeating images on the cakes.  ‘Well, I’ll grant you it isn’t a flattering likeness.’

            A week later, James had gone out at lunchtime to buy a new phone.  With a new number.

            ‘What’s this?’ Lewis had asked him as he programmed the new contact details into Lewis’s phone for him.

            ‘My groupie likes to send texts.  And ring me.  At weird hours.  I’m not getting any sleep.’

            Come to think of it, Lewis had noticed James was looking a bit pale and hollow-eyed lately.

            ‘Why on earth did you give her your number?’

            ‘I didn’t,’ James snapped back, rolling his eyes in exasperation as he passed Lewis back his phone.  ‘She must have got it off Adam’s phone when he wasn’t looking.  He always leaves it in his jacket on a chair.  It’s easily enough done.’

            ‘She’s turning from groupie to stalker, if you ask me,’ Lewis said.

            ‘It’s getting ridiculous.  It’s not like I respond, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.  I’ve told her I’m not interested over and over again, but it doesn’t seem to make any impression at all.’

            ‘If it gets any worse, we’ll have to take action,’ Lewis told him gently.  ‘Even we get recourse to the law.’

He had not been prepared for how much worse it was going to get.


 

            James came back in just as the doctor was tying off the last stitch.  He looked drained.

            ‘Alright?’  Lewis asked.

            He sat down with a sigh.  ‘Laura was called out to a traffic fatality, and she bumped into the duty surgeon at the station, which is how she heard about what happened.  Apparently Emily-‘

            ‘James-‘

            ‘She’s got a tattoo.  Of me.  On her thigh.  My face.  Oh, God.’  Even the tips of his ears were glowing pink.  He shook his head.  ‘She said the surgeon told her that Emily was completely deranged.  An acute attack of paranoid delusions.  Probably schizophrenia, they think.  She’s convinced that she and I are a divinely ordained couple, and you are the devil, using your rank and influence to prevent me from consummating my passion for her.  That’s why she stabbed you.  Because she thinks you are keeping us apart.’

            ‘It’s not your fault,’ Lewis told him gently.  ‘You did everything you could.’

            ‘Did I?  I’m not so sure.  Maybe if I’d talked to her a bit more, I’d have seen that she needed help.  I might have picked up on her symptoms or something-‘

            ‘People with that kind of mental illness can often seem completely rational,’ the doctor interjected, pressing a large square adhesive dressing to the side of Lewis’s rib cage, covering her work neatly.  ‘Paranoid attacks can come on very rapidly.  It is doubtful you could have anticipated her escalation.  You might even have encouraged it.’

            James nodded meekly, but Lewis knew his rampant guilt would not so easily be assuaged.

            The doctor got up, taking off her mask and gloves and dumping them in the bin.

            ‘Right,’ she said.  ‘I’ll leave you to get a bit of rest, and see about the medication you’ll need to take home with you.  And you,’- she addressed James – ‘need to get home and get some sleep.  I have a feeling you’re going to have a very grumpy patient to nurse when he’s discharged, and you’ll need your wits about you.’

            It was only at that moment that Lewis realised she had assumed they were a couple.


 

            The invitation to the gig had come at the end of a weary week.  James had been twitchy, as if his mind was elsewhere, while they dealt with a series of violent muggings of students.  The whole thing was tawdry.  It made Lewis miserable to listen to the three youths who, when caught, happily confessed to the attacks, citing the students’ arrogance as the catalysts, rather than recognising their own resentment, and failure to make anything of their own lives. 

            He had been signing off the paperwork on Friday afternoon, when he idly asked his sergeant if he had anything planned for the weekend.

            ‘Actually, I’m playing at the King’s Arms on Saturday, if you’d like to come.  The band, I mean. We’re playing.  Not just me.  Obviously.’  The words come out in a rush, as if the lad was nervous.

            ‘I don’t want to intrude,’ Lewis said, though he didn’t have any other plans, and had rather wanted to hear James’ music for a while.

            ‘Oh, you wouldn’t be,’ James rushed again.  Maybe even gushed, it was hard to tell.  So odd to hear James sound that way, like an awkward youngster asking a pretty girl out on a date.  Then Lewis saw realisation dawn, the hope in his eyes die.  ‘Of course, if you don’t want to-‘

            ‘I’d love to,’ Lewis told him firmly, discovering how much he hated the sight of that glimmer of hope gutter out.  ‘I’ve wanted to hear you play for a while.  Just didn’t want to be a dampener, that’s all.  Don’t want to cramp your rock star style.’

            James laughed, a little hollowly, at his reference to what they had generally come to refer to as ‘the groupie situation’.


 

           The atmosphere at the King’s Arms was moist and thick when Lewis walked in.  The place was packed, punters thronging from the bar to the little stage that had been set up in a back room.  It was gloomy, but there were lights set around the musicians’ feet.  James was at the front, playing electric guitar.  It wasn’t at all what Lewis had expected.  World music and medieval music fusion, James had once described it.  But this was nothing like that.  It was what could only be described as R&B or even Rock.  Three guitars and a drummer, the traditional set-up from Lewis’ youth.  It brought back all the pub bands he had gone to see in Newcastle, the air thick with cigarette smoke, sweat and spilt beer in tiny back rooms not unlike this one.

            He bought himself a pint and settled against a wall streaked with condensation to watch.

            The coloured lights were unflattering.  Lit from below, James’ face looked cadaverous, his cheekbones pointed, his eyes shadowed, his golden hair bleached.  His slight body looked even more emaciated in the skinny jeans and sleeveless t-shirt he was wearing.  But he looked every bit the rock star, and the crowd were lapping it up, clapping along, some dancing and wriggling in the tiny gaps in the throng.

            James frowned as he launched into a guitar solo, the strings singing under his sensuous fingers.  Concentrating.  He’s good, Lewis realised.  Really good.

            He didn’t recognise the songs, and it took a while for it to sink in that these were songs James must have written.  They were beautiful, ethereal.  It sounded like the singing of an angel’s soul.  The music wove tendrils around the room, delicate fronds linking hearts and minds together.  The base and rhythm were heavy, but James brought a lightness to it, something that spoke deep inside Lewis’ chest.  It was a new side to his sergeant, a man who had so many facets already.

            At some point, James looked up and peered through the throng.  Lewis had no idea how he did it, but his gaze focussed on Lewis in recognition.  And he grinned.

            From that point on, the gig seemed to accelerate.  Something changed in the lad’s playing, as if it achieved a new level of sensitivity and passion.  Lewis realised James was playing for him.

            The crowd was eating out of his hand when he stopped between songs and held up his hand.  The noise quietened as people edged forward, eager to hear what he had to say.

            ‘Just want to play a couple of special songs now,’ he said.  He turned to Adam and nodded.  The drummer counted them all in, and then there was a delicious rocking rhythm. James played a satisfyingly familiar riff, and stepped up to the mike to sing:

‘You get a shiver in the dark,
It's raining in the park but meantime-
South of the river you stop and you hold everything
A band is blowing Dixie, double four time
You feel alright when you hear the music ring’

            The crowd erupted.  Lewis’ gut flipped.  It was Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans of Swing,’ a track James knew was one of his favourites.  James’ voice was sufficiently deadpan and smoky to carry off the Knopfler lyric, even though it wasn’t quite as low.  Everyone was swaying and bouncing, and James was making his strings wail easily as well as the maestro himself.

‘And Harry doesn't mind, if he doesn't, make the scene
He's got a daytime job, he's doing alright
He can play the honky tonk like anything
Savin' it up, for Friday night
With the Sultans
We're the Sultans of Swing’

            Lewis had never heard it so close up.  Never dreamed James was capable of anything like this.  He was bringing the house down.  The audience loved it, and when the song ended, Lewis was scared there might be a riot.  James looked over at him and must have seen how hard he was laughing and clapping.  The lad beamed fit to burst.  He turned away from the roaring punters and started fiddling about amongst some kit, and when he turned back, Lewis realised that he had changed his guitar.  This one was an electric acoustic one, more like the one he knew James had at home, his most beloved possession.

            James leant into the microphone again.  ‘This last one is for someone very special in the crowd.  The clue is in the initials, man.’

            He said it with just a hint of an accent.  Not American.  No, he was taking the piss out of Lewis’s Geordie lilt.

            The delicate skirl of notes he struck up was a jab of shock in Lewis’ guts.  He knew it so well.  He and Val had danced to it years ago.  It hadn’t been their song, but it was close.  James didn’t know that though.   How could he?

‘A lovestruck Romeo sings the streets a serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
Finds a streetlight steps out of the shade
Says something like you and me babe how about it?’

            He was gazing through the lines of people at the front, his eyes fixed on Lewis.  Singing to him.  Speaking to him.  Asking the beautiful question of the inarticulate man:

‘I can't do the talk like they talk on TV
And I can't do a love song like the way it's meant to be
I can't do everything but I'd do anything for you
I can't do anything except be in love with you’

The lovely riff wrapped around him, and he finally understood what this was all about.  James loved him. 

‘And all I do is miss you and the way we used to be
All I do is keep the beat and bad company
All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme
Julie I'd do the stars with you any time’

R and J, Lewis realised.  Of course.  The clue is in the initials.

            ‘You and me babe, how about it?’

            And there and then, with James’ guitar wailing in his ears, every cell in Lewis’ body cried out in unison.

            Yes.

 


 

            James was stepping over the lights and into the crowd by the time Lewis managed to steady his mind enough to know where he was.  His heart was pounding as the lad made his way through the throng of admiring punters, everyone eager to shake his hand, hug him, and congratulate him.  And then their eyes locked, and he was standing right in front of Lewis, and Lewis’ head was spinning.

            ‘Well, what did you think?’  That deep line between the lad’s eyebrows.  The corner of his mouth tucked in, as if he was biting the inside of his cheek, nervous of what reaction to expect.

            ‘Bloody brilliant, man,’ Lewis managed to croak, and he hugged James briskly, afraid of his own reaction, scared to show how much he was shaking, how moved he was.

            James pulled back, looked down at him, his eyes a question.

            And that was when the screaming started.

            It all happened in a flash.  One minute they were hugging, the next a girl was coming at him, her brown hair flying out behind her head, her face twisted into a mask of fury.  He felt a blow against his body that pushed him over, winded him, just as he was turning to face her.  She must have caught him side on.  James and some other lads had grabbed her, as she struggled.  James’ long, bony hands wrapped around her wrist, trying to get a weapon away from her.  Lewis saw the flash of the blade, harsh and bright in the chiaroscuro lighting from the stage area, and realised what must have happened.  The girl was being dragged away, howling with rage.  Hathaway sank to his knees, his eyes starting out of his head as Lewis reached for the tear in his shirt just under his arm.  His hand came away wet and red.


             Grey morning light was coming through the insipid blue curtains.  There was a nagging ache in his side and a heavy weight on his thigh.  He cracked open his sticky eyes, and the light seared through his skull, making him groan.  He looked down, and there was a golden head resting on his leg, turned to one side, eyes closed, breathing softly, steadily.

            James.

            The poor lad had fallen asleep, exhausted, by his bedside, his head sinking onto the blue blanket as he watched over Lewis’s slumber.  Lewis wanted to reach out, run his fingers through those spun-gold strands.  Thick fingers he had, though, too thick for such fine hair, clinging to the curve of James’ cranium.  Looked at his hands then.  Big, heavy, miner’s hands he had inherited from his father, aged-spotted, brown from the sun, worn and wrinkled.  James’s hand lay on the covers, long, sensuous fingers, delicate hands for such a tall man.  We’re opposites, you and me, lad, Lewis thought, so far apart, never made to be together.  And yet, look at us.  Here we are.  Romeo and his bloody Juliet.  Your God must be having a fine laugh at this one, pet.

 


            Later, the rattle of teacups.

            James sat up with a start and a gasp, shocked that he could have fallen asleep when he had meant to keep watch.

            ‘S’all right lad,’ Lewis smiled.  ‘You were that worn out, you needed it.’

            ‘Did you sleep?’

            ‘A bit.’  He lay back on the pillow, feeling washed out.

            At which point a lovely young nurse with wide, dark eyes came into the room, and jumped at the sight at two occupants instead of just one.

            ‘Oh!’

            ‘Sorry, fell asleep,’ James told her, looking embarrassed.

            She gave him a glowing smile. 

‘Never mind.  Just a few checks.’  She fiddled with the monitor by Lewis’ bed, checked his blood pressure and temperature, and scribbled her results on the record that hung on the foot of the bed.  Then she turned to James.

            ‘Can I get you a cup tea?’

            ‘Oh, erm, thank you.’  James blushed a bit.

            ‘What about you, Mr Lewis?’  Was it Lewis’ imagination, or was her smile fractionally less effusive for him?

            When she had gone, he turned to James.  ‘Another fan, it seems?’

            James rolled his eyes.  ‘Don’t.’

            ‘Not your type, either?’

            ‘She’s very pretty,’ he admitted.  ‘Just stop fishing, ok?’

            ‘Funny thing, types.  I never could work out what yours was.  Not after all that rubbish about Yorkie bars and whatnot.  Never got to the bottom of all that.’

            James looked as if he might try to break into Lewis’ train of thought, interrupt him, but Lewis wasn’t having that.  He had a point to make, and he was damn well going to make it.

            ‘See, me, I was always simple. Petite, curvy brunettes were my type.  But the thing is, your type can change.  Never knew that, until recently.  Mine’s a bit different these days.’

            ‘Really?’  James’ voice sounded small, but it had a curious edge.

            ‘Yeah.  Find meself hankering after tall, lanky, blonde sergeants lately.  Funny that.’

            He glanced at his bagman out of the corner of his eye.  James had flushed an interesting shade of pink.  He decided to open the discussion up.

            ‘What about you?’

            ‘Personally, I’ve always been inordinately attracted to middle aged, widowed, Geordie Detective Inspectors,’ James said, in an off-hand tone meant to suggest it was a throw-away remark.

            ‘That’s a pretty small pool of talent, if I may say so,’ Lewis couldn’t resist pointing out.

            James pursed his lips, obviously trying to supress a shameless grin.  ‘It’s quite lucky that I‘ve found one, then, isn’t it, sir?’

            The attempt at stifling the grin failed.  For both of them.

            ‘Well, what d’you think?’  Lewis asked him.

            ‘Currently, I’m wondering if there is sufficient room in that bed for two of us, sir,’ James said, obviously trying to sound as innocent as possible.

            ‘I reckon dual occupancy might be frowned upon in here,’ Lewis felt bound to point out.  ‘But there’ll be plenty of room on the orthopaedic mattress when you get me home.’

            ‘I’m exceedingly glad to hear it, sir.’

            James’ smile was in danger of spilling off his face and filling the whole room.  Nevertheless, he sat still, just looking at Lewis as if he was too shocked at his own luck to do anything else.  Lewis could see he was going to have to hurry things along a bit.

            ‘Well, what are you waiting for, you daft lad?  Get over here and give us a kiss!’

           

END