You have to have a party, when you’re in a state like this …
It was quite a walk from North Woolwich station, and Millie and I shuddered every few steps as we scurried along the Woolwich Road. Happily, the rain had eased off, although cars and buses still splashed through isolated puddles of icy cold water lying dormant on the road. I repeatedly checked my inside jacket pocket for the copy of our CD that I had brought along to impress Splash. Failing that, Millie looked every inch a popstar-in-waiting. She nervously squeezed my arm as we turned into Cleveley Close and walked past the White Horse pub, just outside the entrance to Maryon Park.
‘We’re here, aren’t we?’ she whispered.
‘Yeah, looks like it,’ I said.
‘Which way’s the party?’
‘Splash mentioned something about it being on the south side,’ I replied. ‘Let’s have a look at the A to Z.’
‘Here,’ she said, running her finger across page 82. ‘That’s where we came in. If we go up this way, we’ll go past the tennis courts and then carry on straight to the south side.’
‘Good,’ I said, tucking the A to Z safely away and leading Millie by the hand into the park. ‘Let’s go.’
We walked along the narrow gravel path, our feet crunching in harmony beneath us. Once past the tennis courts we climbed up Cox`s Mount, we paused to take in the view over South East London, looking down on the Thames Barrier, Charlton Athletic’s football ground and the sight of the once depressing and desolate Millennium Dome, now transformed into a fantastic arena to rival Wembley and the NEC. One day, I kept telling myself, one day.
The cold February north wind blew through the naked tree branches, with the same eerie effect as in Blow Up, ethereal and ghostly. Over the hill we could make out some lights and shadowy silhouettes against the translucent canvass of a large, billowing marquee. I tugged on Millie’s sleeve and we bravely strode forward across the damp grass, eager to investigate. As we walked closer the sound of ambient dance music filled the air and we identified the lights as a collection of flame-lit torches, plunged deep into the turf. I figured there must have been at least a hundred people gathered together, all absorbed in their own conversations, drinking, smoking or gyrating on the spot to the haunting, evocative music.
I looked around at the other people at the party, who seemed blissfully unaware of the cold or the strange location. There were plenty who looked like Withnail – longhaired, flowing or tie-dyed clothes, similar to the stragglers from a Woodstock concert. I half expected to see John Sebastian, with his acoustic guitar slung over his back talking to Jimi Hendrix, or Mama Cass enjoying a joke with Barry Maguire and Roger McGuinn. A gaggle of stick-thin women wandered by, wannabe footballer’s wives, with long straight hair, high cheekbones and pert noses. A gang of young guys resembled the stage crew at an Oasis concert from 1996, with baggy, flared jeans and beany hats, doing that swaggered walk which gave the impression they’d just done a load in their pants. A few of the younger-looking girls looked like Hollyoaks’ auditionees with their pot-bellies, iron-flattened hair and over-zealous application of lip-gloss. Their male partners may just as feasibly have completed a photo-shoot for a Gap commercial, dressed in casual jeans and roll-neck sweaters, their floppy, curtain-fringed hair blowing without reserve in the icy wind.
The music being pumped out from a plethora of loudspeakers had a hypnotic quality to it, and for a brief moment I imagined myself on a tropical beach surrounded by swaying palm trees and local fishermen balanced on tall poles in the crashing surf, patiently waiting for a bite. Any minute now, Simon Le Bon would surely come striding through the breaking waves in a pair of white trousers, a young child perched across his shoulders, singing a song while the rest of Duran Duran sat astride elephants, strumming guitars and blowing into pan pipes.
Millie tugged at my sleeve.
‘You all right Jon?’ she asked.
I rubbed my eyes, which were starting to sting with all the smoke.
‘I’m cold,’ she shivered.
‘Let’s move towards one of the torches,’ I suggested, pulling her arm around my waist and pointing with my free hand.
We were drawn towards the light and the warmth of the fires, and advanced confidently up to one of the naked flames. Although still anxious, we intermingled with the other partygoers, the pressing need to thaw out our frozen hands overriding any feelings of apprehension. As we were gratefully rubbing our palms together I felt a tap on my shoulder and a voice interrupting our own excited chatter.
‘Hellooooooo you two. You made it then?’
I recognised the West Country drawl immediately.
‘Hi Withnail,’ replied Millie, turning round and giving him a wide smile. ‘Didn’t know you were coming. How’s it going?’
She gave him a hug and then stood on tiptoe to peck him on the cheek.
‘Great,’ he said, puffing away nonchalantly on a straggly looking cigarette.
He breathed out a stream of white smoke through his long nose. The smell was sweet and comforting.
‘Where’s this Splash character then?’ I asked.
‘Oh you’ll meet him soon,’ smiled Withnail. ‘There’s no hurry. Have a drink and a smoke and then I’ll introduce you.’
‘Ok,’ said Millie. ‘Where can we get a beer?’
Withnail waved a bony finger at the entrance of the marquee. We ducked our heads under the door flap and approached a large, elongated table, groaning under the weight of several casks of wine and countless bottles of beer. I grabbed two bottles of Becks and slammed the lids against the table and they flew off. I was proud of my one and only party trick. We chinked bottles, said ‘cheers’ and took a large swig. The beer was cold and hurt my teeth, but nevertheless I took another gulp and screwed up my eyes as the arctic liquid slid down my throat.
When, will I, will I be famous?
Drinks in hand, we wandered out side the marquee and mingled amongst the gathering of ‘beautiful’ people, high on dope, alcohol and the arrogance of youth. The air was citrus sweet with perfumed laughter and alcohol-induced conviviality. It was like no other party either of us had attended. Talk was of this television project and that promotions package and the other record release date. Names such as Melvyn, Angus and Henry were dropped as casually as a Cockney losing their ‘H’s. I was sure I could recognise a few, semi-well-known faces and voices amongst the crowd – an early-evening newscaster, a breakfast telly host, a London radio DJ. Or maybe not.
‘Hey!’ nudged Millie. ‘Spot the famous person.’
‘Who?’ I whispered.
‘That girl from Hollyoaks.’
‘What girl from Hollyoaks?’
‘The blonde one.’
‘Well that doesn’t narrow it down much,’ I hissed. ‘They’re all blonde, aren’t they?’
‘You know,’ said Millie, digging me in the ribs. ‘Kim Munch.’
‘Kim Munch? That her real name or her character’s name?’
‘Her real name!’
I shook my head.
‘No, it just looks like her. Still, ten points for you though.’
Millie looked pleased. Even though it wasn’t the real Kim Munch she’d earned herself ten valuable points in our little game. ‘Spot The Famous Person’ had started back in Buckton Heath, when a group of us had seen a tall, gangly youth coming out of Halfords, looking like Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. ‘Spot the famous person!’ our mate Darren had cried, pointing excitedly. ‘Nuno Bettencourt. Hello Nuno!’
From then on, anyone with more than a passing resemblance to a celebrity was subject to the rules of the game. In the confines of Buckton Heath, point scoring opportunities were somewhat limited, apart from the glut of Cure fans who thought they looked like Robert Smith. Pretty soon we’d devised an intricate system of allocating points, based on accuracy of look, gender and whether the recipient was dead, alive, real or a cartoon or fictional character. Hence the guy who worked in Woolworth’s on the record counter who might have passed for Ryan Giggs only scored five points, as he was virtually bald. On the other hand, Millie ‘spotted’ a woman looking like comedian Paul Merton, and was consequently awarded fifteen points. If anyone actually ‘spotted’ a real famous person, they lost ten points. In Buckton Heath everyone’s account was in credit.
I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo …
As we warmed ourselves against one of the torches, I sensed someone’s beery breath, right up against the side of my face. I turned to see a red-haired man, with wild, staring eyes and a loud Hawaiian shirt, open to the naval.
‘You in the music business?’ he slurred, his voice grating and rasping like sandpaper.
‘Er, yeah. Sort of,’ I replied, somewhat startled by the unwarranted intrusion.
‘Take my advice son,’ he began. ‘Get out now. It’s not worth it. The music industry will eat you up whole, and then spit you out.’
When he said the word ‘spit’ I literally got an eyeful of phlegm as he gnashed his teeth and pursed his lips violently.
‘Listen son,’ he continued. ‘Are you in a band?’
‘Forget it,’ the stranger spat. ‘Bands are shite. No one wants bands anymore. All they want is a pretty face.’
He looked at me carefully, studying my face and shaking his head. I stayed quiet. Then he pointed at Millie.
‘Now that!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s more like it!’
Who was this bitter and twisted old fart who was pissed off because not only did he not like current music, but it didn’t like him? The stranger started fumbling about in his trouser pocket and pulled out two mobile phones. He thrust one in my face.
‘This,’ he began, ‘holds all the numbers for every restaurant and private club in west London.’
‘Oh!’ I gasped, struggling for air.
‘All I have to do,’ he continued, ‘is call any one I like and say, “I want a table and I want one ready in half an hour”, and no matter how full they are I will get a table.’
‘Great!’ I said, desperately trying to sound impressed. In truth, I was tiring of this annoying little man, lost in another decade when he was relevant.
‘And this phone,’ he said, swapping handsets, ‘will get me any cab to go anywhere and any time.’
I wanted to dare to suggest that he called one, but in his own mind, he was now holding court. This man was King, and I a mere subject: forelock tugging and worshipping at his feet. I wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up, but his eyes glazed with Cocaine fury and his tongue was like a juggernaut careering out of control.
‘Oi Darlin’’, he called to Millie, who was desperately avoiding his gaze by fiddling with the tassels on her belt. ‘Over ‘ere!’
Millie, frightened by his coarse, gravelly voice and belligerent manner, cautiously sidled up to me.
‘Hello’, she whispered, warily offering her hand.
The man took her small palm in his bear-like grip and squeezed it hard. Millie flinched and tried hard to conceal any pain. He leant over across me, to whisper in her ear. Whether deliberately or not, he spoke just loudly enough for me to catch what he said.
‘Listen Babe,’ he began. ‘Lose the boyfriend, lose the band and I’ll take you to America and make you a star.’
‘But don’t tell anyone,’ he continued, lowering his voice slightly. ‘The record labels over here … well, they don’t like me, so don’t say anything. OK?’
Millie nodded, more out of fear than agreement.
‘Here’s my number,’ the man growled, reaching into the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt and slipping Millie a grotty piece of card. ‘Call me.’
He slurped Millie on the side of the face in a parting gesture and staggered off into the crowd of partygoers.
‘Urgh!’ exclaimed Millie, wiping away saliva from her cheek with her jacket sleeve. ‘What a fucking creep!’
‘Who’s a creep?’ a thick, woolly voice said from behind us.
I recognised the accent and turned around.
‘Splash?’ I said.
‘Too fuckin’ right,’ came the reply. ‘Was that arsehole bothering you two?’
He’s no big deal, he’s just a wideboy …
We finally got our chance to look at Splash. He wasn’t like I imagined. On the phone, his gruff, cockney tones conjured up an image of a south London gangster, all black-suited and smart, with a fist full of large, gold sovereign rings and maybe fingers tattoos. Either that, or a wideboy: flashy and cool with bundles of pound notes emerging from every crevice. Instead, he was quite casually dressed; jeans and a zip-up top, with a pair of designer Calvin Klein glasses perched on the ridge of his nose. I guessed he was in his early thirties, but it was hard to tell. All around Soho and the West End, media types in their fifties still dressed like twenty-somethings. He had close-cropped hair, brushed forwards in a French cut and long, sleek sideburns. His jeans were drainpipe straight, leading down to a pair of grey and green Converse Allstars. It was an image far removed from the usual music industry stereotype, as portrayed by the likes of Jimmy Nail – cowboy boots, leather jacket, bootlace tie and a Stetson. For someone so immaculately dressed, it was bizarre to hear such coarse diction.
‘I said, was that wanker bothering you?’
‘Oh you know,’ said Millie, gradually recovering her composure. ‘Just the usual crap and bullshit you get in the music business. Who was he anyway?’
‘Oh no-one you kids would have heard of,’ assured Splash.
‘No, do tell us,’ I insisted. ‘Is he a friend of yours?’
‘Just take my word,’ said Splash. ‘You don’t want to get involved with that bloke.’
Millie looked at the card the stranger had given her. Her face dropped and she hurriedly screwed up the card and threw it on the ground.
‘Fair enough,’ she said brusquely, giving me a look that said ‘change the subject, don’t say anymore.’
I felt we’d better introduce ourselves.
‘I’m Jon,’ I said, ‘and this is Millie.’
‘I guessed, didn’t I?’ said Splash. ‘Withnail told me all about you. Gorgeous chick who pouts for England and a tall, skinny, songwriter geezer who wears flares.’
‘S’pose that’s us,’ I said, not sure whether Splash was entirely accurate. ‘Except the flares. These jeans are bootcut!’
I waved my right foot in the air.
‘See, no flapping.’
Splash screwed up his face.
‘Bootcut my arse,’ he said with derision. ‘As far as I’m concerned, that’s flares. We didn’t go through Punk Rock for nothing, son. People died so subsequent generations wouldn’t have to wear flares. Sid Vicious was a martyr to the cause!’
I had no answer to that. Splash could see I was thinking hard about what he’d just said and decided to change tack.
‘What’s the deal with Joe Matthews then?’ he asked.
‘You know him?’ Millie said.
‘Oh, his handle comes up from time to time,’ said Splash, rubbing his chin. ‘He’s got a bit of a reputation.’
‘What for?’ she asked.
‘Fucking things up, that’s what,’ replied Splash. ‘And then accusing every bastard but himself of making a dog’s dick of it all.’
‘Sounds like Joe,’ I mumbled.
‘Yeah, he takes on projects he can’t handle and then blames the band, the manager, the record label, the price of bread, the Beatles splitting up, the number of fish in the air …’
We laughed again. Splash seemed to warm to our company and continued his rant.
‘Then, when it all goes Pete Tong, he hides behind his friendship with Jake Beckford. The record labels don’t want to piss off Jake, just in case there is one more fuckin’ golden egg up the goose’s arse just waiting to pop out.’
I felt our CD in my pocket and wondered if it was the right time to broach Splash on the subject of helping us. I began tugging at the disc, at the same time beginning a speech about ‘here’s our cd, and can you help?’ but Splash grabbed my hand.
‘Look boy,’ he said, taking off his glasses and pretending to examine them. ‘I don’t need to hear no demos. I take it they’re all crap, right?’
We both nodded. Splash bit into the arm of his glasses.
‘I can do something for you both,’ he chewed. ‘I’ve got my own place in town, and I’ll sort you out a few days and we’ll make some noise, talk some bollocks and see how we get on. OK?’
‘We can’t pay you, though,’ said Millie.
‘No problem,’ replied Splash. ‘If it all works out, we’ll all be fuckin’ rich. Happy as pigs in shit.’
Once again Withnail seemed to have pointed us back in the right direction. Splash seemed a genuine enough character, and in any case, it would be extremely foolish of us in our delicate predicament to turn down the offer of free studio time. Millie and I smiled at each other and I offered my hand to Splash again, this time in thanks. Splash shrugged, modestly and offered to fetch more beer. However, just as we were accepting a low, throbbing sound reverberated around the party. Splash stood frozen to his spot, looking nervously around. Other guests had stopped mid-conversation and there was a chilling stillness, save for the hazy sound of the party’s ambient rhythms. Then unexpectedly, wailing sirens and blue flashing lights interrupted the music and like tribes of Red Indians, a line of white and black cars appeared on the ridge above the park. The main group of party guests started to bleat and howl like frightened sheep caught in a thunderstorm and all of a sudden there was movement everywhere. The noise level rapidly increased as people began shouting indiscriminately and running in all directions.
‘FUCK!’ hollered Splash.
‘What’s up?’ I asked.
‘Fuckin’ old bill!’ he screamed.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Millie. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be here?’
‘Course not!’ he replied. ‘Public park, innit? All this fire, all this dope and other shit.’
He looked at his watch.
‘Hmmmmm. Nine forty-five. Not bad I s’pose. Thought they’d be here well before now.’
Despite the panic, he seemed strangely pleased.
‘Er, word of advice to you two,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I said, expecting some sort of brilliant guidance regarding our music careers.
‘Run like fuck!’
Confusion and flashing lights …
I grabbed Millie by the arm and yanked her off in the direction of the other fleeing partygoers. We raced back up over the top of Cox’s Mount, hearts racing and blood pumping furiously. We both panted like overweight lap dogs on a walk in the heat of the day, totally unfit from our London lifestyle of inhaling bus fumes and travelling around on the tube. As we reached the top of the Mount, I turned, red faced and breathless, to see the remnants of Splash’s party. People were hastily dismantling the sound system and snuffing out the torches. Policemen were busy confiscating as much of the alcohol as they could and loading it into the back of a white van, which had belatedly trundled over the hill. It seemed fairly orderly, as if the people involved seemed quite used to this procedure, and no one looked as if they were being arrested. That is apart from a red-haired man in a loud Hawaiian shirt furiously struggling with two police officers who had grappled him to the ground. His feet were kicking wildly as his face was being pushed into the wet, muddy ground. The unmistakable outline of Splash could be seen gesturing feverishly with his hands to a group of officers, his shoulders shrugging and his head shaking from side to side. One of the officers in a peaked cap stabbed a pointy finger in Splash’s chest and then wagged it about in front of his face, like an old-fashioned schoolteacher ticking off a naughty pupil.
‘I hope Splash isn’t going to be in trouble,’ said Millie.
‘He’ll be fine,’ drawled a low voice next to us.
It was Withnail. Although we’d all been running, he appeared calm and unflustered, and not at all breathless. He coolly lit a rollup and sucked hard.
‘This sort of thing always happens at any gathering Splash organises,’ he explained. ‘It’s a game he plays with the police.’
‘How’s that?’ I asked, as we began walking slowly back to the main road.
‘He used to run a really successful club night, at Cryogenics just over the River. All he did was hire up-and-coming DJs to play the latest underground tunes. There was never any bother, ‘cos he spent a load of cash on security. Only not the usual meatheads. These people were associates and dug the music scene as much as the punters. Sods Law, though, after eighteen trouble-free months it took one moron to start a fight outside the club and the powers that be were down on Splash like a ton of bricks.’
‘Why?’ Millie asked. ‘When he hadn’t done anything wrong.’
‘Competition from another club whose owner was part of the old funny handshake brigade. All they needed was an excuse. They had all the people in authority they needed in the right places. The police, the magistrates, the local council. They closed Splash down and put some kind of order on him preventing him running any other club within a 30 mile radius.’
‘Shit!’ exclaimed Millie. ‘What bastards!’
‘Exactly,’ said Withnail. ‘So Splash decides to have a little fun. He sets up all these one-nighters at places our brave boys in blue won’t suspect. Sometimes he gets away with it and it goes off all night. Other times he gets caught in the first hour.’
‘Brilliant!’ I said.
‘Yeah. Once he had a party going off just behind Scotland Yard, right under their noses. Boy, did that piss them off. Trouble is, the police have wised up to his ways, and he’s had to move further and further away from central London. Hence, Maryon Park tonight. Next time, we may even be further away. I know he’s thinking of trying something at the new Wembley Stadium site.’
‘What happens when they catch him?’
‘Oh, he gets fined for public order offences, but never anything more. His brief has an uncanny knack of getting Splash the most lenient of punishments. Strange that. Never quite worked it out.’
We reached the edge of the park and looked for the nearest bus stop. Withnail saw us examining our tickets and told us to put them away. As if by magic, a black cab appeared and Withnail waved it down with a flourish of his long sleeve. I couldn’t believe it. A black cab for hire. At this time of night. South of the river! Withnail reminded me of Fonzie in Happy Days. I wondered if he could get a jukebox to play just by banging it?
‘There’s a bit of luck,’ Withnail smiled, as if genuinely surprised. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the fare.’
Millie gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
‘Thanks,’ she whispered in his ear.
You laugh at her in all the cars …
We hopped in the back of cab, and started the long journey back to Kentish Town. As we drove through the Blackwall Tunnel I suddenly realised that Splash hadn’t got our number or anything. I also wasn’t sure whether he’d be locked up indefinitely. I asked Withnail what we should do. He told us not to worry and to be patient. Splash would call us in good time. I nodded wearily. I hated not knowing, and once again we would be left in suspension. Still, it had been an experience and more fun than staying in, in front of the telly, shouting abuse at Justin Lee Collins or having to endure Elton John bleating his way through his latest drivel to a thoroughly bored-looking Jonathon Ross Show audience. As we sped along the East India Dock Road towards Limehouse and the City, I looked at Withnail as his eyelids grew heavy and his head began drooping forwards. Millie lay across my lap most of the way, and seemed to be fast asleep. I stroked her soft, long hair and wound the ends around her ear. The cab’s engine throbbed on and on, as we negotiated the ongoing road works at Liverpool Street station and navigated the one-way system around Shoreditch.
I turned my gaze to the back of the cab driver’s head, bobbing and weaving underneath a brown, corduroy flat cap, as the car weaved around the Old Street roundabout, rapidly changing lanes and heading up towards Angel. We’d be home soon, in the relative sanctity of our flat.
As I stared blankly out of the misty cab window, trying to make out street names to see exactly where we were, I wondered what a ‘normal’ life might be like. One where when you wake up you know exactly what you’re doing that day, that week and even that year. One where things don’t get cancelled at the last minute and promises don’t get broken. I often craved stability, but then that was the last thing I could expect from the music business. Things either happened all at the same time or not at all. We were either totally exalted or thoroughly depressed. Tonight had been a buzz: tomorrow and the rest of the week would probably be mind-numbingly dull. I looked at the taxi driver again and wondered if he was happy, driving around London all day and night, all on his own? Fortunately, we soon arrived in Kentish Town and my thoughts turned to waking Millie up.
We stumbled out of the cab, said our goodbyes and thanked the driver. I slammed the door shut and waved Withnail off, on his way back to Camden. Millie rubbed her eyes and yawned, as I fumbled for my key. We squelched upstairs to the flat, our jeans, trainers and boots still sodden from the wet, park grass. Flopping on the bed in a heap still fully clothed, Millie closed her eyes and snuggled up to her pillow. Her chest rose and fell and she breathed deeply through her nose. It a minute or so she would be fast asleep, dreaming of appearing at Wembley and taking black cabs everywhere. I wished I could curl up next to her and drop off immediately, but my mind wouldn’t shut off. Withnail’s words echoed around my brain, like a squash ball pinging off the court walls in every conceivable angle; ‘…be patient … be patient … be patient…’