I know that Myra goes to bed every night and whispers, "Dear God
please let the aliens come back."
It's morning, and a diffuse winter sunlight bleeds through the
curtains. I roll over in bed and stroke the warm, tanned swelling of
Myra's belly, feeling the quickening under the callused pads of my
fingers. It's just a tiny vibration, not unlike the attack note on
the E-string. Myra opens her eyes sleepily and smiles at me. It's all
beautiful. I want it to be beautiful. But now every expectant mother
and father wants their infant to be born with an alien inside them.
"Anything?" I say.
She gives a tiny shake of her head, no. Just as she has done
for nearly seven years now. Just as I do when she asks me.
But she doesn't really have to ask. She knows that if the answer was
yes then I would have woken her to tell her. Instead, so we don't
have to think about it, I stroke her belly, because I know that by
running the heel of my hand along the rim of her thrilling pink pot I
can make the baby kick. And it does. She does.
"I saw her foot!" I shout. I can still see it. Or maybe it's an
elbow, but anyway it tracks along the curve of Myra's belly, rippling
flesh as it goes, and then withdraws.
"You're convinced it's a girl," she says. "You're wrong."
Myra's awake now. She'll have to get out of bed. She's about a week
away from her time, and I know the baby is pressing on her bladder.
But as she swings her legs out of bed she pauses, strokes her huge
stomach, and says, "There was a moment. In the middle of the night
"Yes?" I hardly dare breathe.
"No, it wasn't anything really. It was just
"I can't say for sure. I had to go to the bathroom, and it was in
that moment when I was waking up, half-asleep, I thought I heard my
baby calling to me. Would that count?"
I lie back, thinking, Would that count? Would it count? I don't
"I mean," says Myra, "I know he can't call to me, so it might
have been a dream. Or I might have simply imagined it because I so
badly wanted to dream?"
I nod, but it sounds to me like no, it doesn't count. You see, there
have been these rumors about pregnant women dreaming. "New wives'
tales," you might call them. We've been yearning for it to happen
since Myra's pregnancy was first confirmed.
I get up and ready myself for work. I can hear our daughter Mandy
stirring in her room. Myra sees me select the Blucher. I love the
unusual workmanship. The belly is spruce and the back, waist, and
neck are polished maple. The hole is slightly elliptical, shaping a
delicious ooze and throb in the resonance.
She raises her eyebrows as I lay the guitar in my battered carrying
case and gently lock the clasps. "We're re-recording Teppi's early
piece." God, it's hard to sound enthusiastic.
"Not that old thing! Didn't you do that a couple of years ago?"
"Six years ago," I point out. "And we're doing this much slower.
Slow. Very slow."
"Surely there's more you could do than that!" And she looks at me,
because she knows it makes me sad. She kisses me, and off I go to
· · · · ·
Floyd picks me up. He has his cello in the boot, so I lay the Blucher
gently in the backseat. "I've got one for you," he says brightly.
My heart sinks, and I stare at the stalled traffic ahead. "Go on."
"He's six years old. Last week he drew hundreds of people in
Manchester. Hundreds. The week before that, Leeds, and you couldn't
get a seat."
I've heard all this routine before. "What does he play?"
"That's it. He's not a musician. He's a storyteller."
"Give us a break, Floyd! Six years old?"
"He's in town tomorrow night. You and Myra, me and Zelda."
Like I say, I've been down this road before with Floyd. Mostly with
kiddie musos, admittedly, but with the occasional storyteller too. It
is a road of stony disappointment every time, but Floyd is a sucker.
He wants to believe. He needs to. Maybe I'm mean, but you wouldn't
get me to part with the price of the tickets any more, and Floyd
knows that. There are too many spivs fleecing decent, hopeful people
like Floyd and Zelda.
Floyd reads my thoughts. "My treat," he says. "Now then, do you know
what we're doing today?"
"Sure." It's getting even harder to sound bright. "Early Teppi."
"Aw, fuck!" says Floyd. "Not Teppi again. That really has spoiled my
day." And he leans hard on his horn just to prove it, scaring a
And even though I try hard to fake it, I have to admit that down in
the recording studio it's a fucking bore, all day long. It's not
Teppi's fault. Teppi is wonderful, complex and varied. But it's not
enough. Even if I had never heard Teppi before, even if I hadn't
recorded him faster, slower, con brio, who cares, we just
can't make ourselves bleed for him. He, like all the others, takes
the awful blame for not being new.
Floyd tries. We all try. Mid-morning I see Floyd's shiny black skin,
like an aubergine, perspiring from the point on his receding hairline
as he works his cello for the complicated fifth. A crackling voice
from the control box cuts in and we're told to take a break. Moments
later I walk into the washroom and I hear Floyd weeping. He's bent
over a basin so he doesn't know I'm there. I leave before he sees me.
While waiting for Floyd to emerge from the washroom I talk with
Vanessa. Always bright, always jolly, Vanessa is a brick. Superb
pianist. Before the aliens left, Vanessa had a dazzling career ahead
of her, with three recordings of her own steely jazz-rock
compositions under her belt. Of course, that was nearly seven years
ago, but she doesn't seem to let it get her down.
Floyd swings out of the bathroom, chipper, all smiles now that he
sees Vanessa, so he pours himself a cup of Darjeeling and treats us
to one of his jokes. Old jokes, of course. He knows Vanessa will
laugh. He knows I will, too. Gosh, it's a very old one. So old I see
the punch line laboring up the hill like a cart horse ready for the
knackers, and unfortunately I laugh a moment too soon.
The following evening we put on best bib and tucker and turn up at
the De Montfort Hall, where this six-year-old is expected to perform.
Myra is somewhat uncomfortable, being so big, but she doesn't want to
disappoint Floyd and Zelda. Anyway, she knows we won't get out so
much after the baby arrives.
"Oh, let me!" Zelda admires Myra's bump, placing the flat of her palm
on the underbelly. Zelda has beautiful long manicured fingers. She
and Floyd have kids of their own, but they're almost grown-up. "It's
a boy," she says. "You're carrying at the front."
That's what they said about Mandy. Nobody really knows.
Then Zelda stoops and puts her cheek against Myra's bump, as if she's
trying to listen through the distended skin and into the womb. "Oh
please let him dream!" she says softly.
We're caught. Trapped. Left dangling by Zelda's overt remark, and we
all look away. A disembodied voice on the PA tells us that the
performance will commence in three minutes.
"Come on," Floyd says.
I think he looks slightly angry.
We take our seats, and I'm amazed that the hall is full to capacity.
I mean, we've all been hoaxed and duped and gypped and bilked so many
times over the last few years you'd think it impossible to fill a
hall this size ever again. But no. As I swing round checking for
faces I might recognize, I see there's not a single vacant seat. The
house lights go down, there's some nervous coughing, the curtains
First a warm-up act, a seven-piece jazz ensemble. Floyd looks at me
as if to say, not bad but not good either, though we're both pretty
stern critics. I recognize the opening piece but I can't put a name
to it: Floyd will know. The fact is my mind is on the kid, and I
don't like it.
Six years old. That's the ticket, isn't it? Six. I just don't like
the idea of this six-year-old having to carry the weight of
expectationand the inevitable disappointmentof the 1500
people in the audience. I think of my own six-year-old Mandy, at home
with her babysitter, and how I would never allow her to be put
But there's big money in it, and even when it goes wrong the
promoters and, presumably, the kid's parents get to pocket the
admissions charges. Because nothing can ever be proved conclusively,
Polite applause dispatches the ensemble and the stage is rearranged
for the kid. Big chair in the middle, overhead microphone, one chair
either side for what I see in the program are the kid's "guardians"
rather than his parents. I point this out to Myra.
"Cynical," she says. I think she means the manipulation of the kid
but she adds, "You're so cynical." She strokes her bulge. I know the
chair isn't comfortable for her.
The kid comes on and he's a funny-looking thing. He's wearing a
starched collar too big for his neck. He's pale under the limelight,
his hair is plastered to his head and his ears stick out like wing
nuts. Poor little runt. But he looks precociously unflustered by the
size of the audience. His "guardians" take their seats either side of
him as the kid is introduced by the emcee. Polite applause dies down
and the kid waits, creating a tension in the hall, and I know, I just
know, he's been coached to do this.
He leans forward slightly and says, "Once upon a time."
And the audience goes wild. Rapturous applause. This is irony, you
see. Laid on with a teaspoon. From a six-year-old. It's a little
message for critical observers like myself, for the skeptics and the
doubters and disbelievers. It's post-post-postmodern. Or something.
From a six-year-old sprog. And the audience laps it up.
It takes a while for this little riot to die down before he launches
into the story proper. And I have to admit it, he's not bad for a
six-year-old. He delivers well, his story is pacy, he's got good
kiddie timing, and he speaks clearly. What more could anyone want?
The one thing we all want. The one thing we would willingly sacrifice
all the above qualities to have.
I identify the story after just a few minutes. Most people in the
audience don't yet, but they will, because the narrative pattern will
occur to them. It happens to be an old Romanian folktale, about a
bear who walks through an anonymous landscape meeting other animals,
challenging all of them to guess what he has under his hat. How do I
know it? Because two years ago we re-recorded almost the complete
collection of Moldovan's workfaster or slower, I can't
recalland there was a libretto borrowing from the tale. Floyd
has clocked it too, because he turns to me with an expression of
apology on his face. I smile back thinly.
I mean, what are we supposed to do? Interrupt the proceedings and
denounce the six-year-old in front of 1500 people? Jump to my feet
and shout, "This isn't original! I spy a Romanian folk tale!"
Nah. In any event, there is already a sense of slumping attention in
the audience. Many have worked it out for themselves. The familiar
narrative pattern, linked with inauthenticities in the manner the kid
has been trained to deliver, will give it away. But an audience in
denial is an astonishing thing, and the kid holds it for twelve
minutes before ending the tale.
The audience applauds loudly, butand it's a significant
butnot so loudly as they greeted his opening line. The
emcee proposes a break, and promises us another performance by the
ensemble before the prodigy will offer us a second tale.
Not for us. We're out of there, as are a reasonable percentage of the
audience judging by the bustling cloakroom activity. "Well," says
Zelda, helping Myra on with her coat. "I hadn't heard it before."
"Me neither," says Myra huffily.
Floyd's levitated eyebrows exhort me to say nothing. We adjourn to
The Long Memory for a drink before home.
· · · · ·
And a drink turns into seven or eight, as it must. There has been a
lot more drunkenness these last few years, a lot more alcoholism.
Drink and drugs: they give a semblance of dreaming, don't they?
Helping us to remember. An approach to dreaming. A dullard's kick
against the thick, thick ice.
"A man walks into a bar," says Floyd.
We're trying to invent a joke again. It's a dead loss, because there
hasn't been a new joke in almost seven years, but we're pissed as
newts in a pickle jar so we try anyway. Floyd says, start with the
old structures, it makes things easier.
"A man walks into a bar
"Says, 'ouch!' " Zelda chips in.
"Old. Very, very old," Myra says. She's not drinking because of the
baby. Her tolerance for our "hilarious" drunkenness is wearing thin.
She's already reached for her coat.
"Really?' Zelda protests. "I thought I'd just made it up. I really
did." She's slurring.
"A man bars into a walk." Floyd says.
"Give us a break!" Myra almost screams. "Come on, Jonathan, take me
I think it's the interpreting I miss most. Though an interpreted
dream is a punctured dream, at least in those days you could be
certain of a steady supply, and the fun was in the mystery, the
guessing, the deconstructing, the reassembling. We can all out-argue
Freud when we own the theater.
We say goodnight to Floyd and Zelda; lush, slobbering kisses all
round. They stay for another drink as I shamble out of the swinging
doors of The Long Memory, supported by my heavily pregnant wife. I
complain bitterly about being made to leave early.
"It was time," Myra says. "You know what will happen after the next
drink. Floyd will get weepy. Then Zelda will get weepy because Floyd
is weepy. Then we'll all have a stupid argument the subject of which
no one will remember. Come on, stand up."
"It's only the booze," I say as we reach the car.
Myra gets into the driver's seat. She can barely fit her bump under
the steering wheel. "The thing is," she says, tickling the ignition
into life, "in knowing when it's time to go."
· · · · ·