It loomed above me, a gothic fantasy.
The conical roofs perched on the turrets like witches’ hats. Light faintly seeped through the fake arrow slits. Disneyworld gone wrong. There were even a couple of ravens croaking against the evening sky. The Scottish chill seeped into my bones. So this was Inverclarich. The receding taxi crunched its way over the gravel and I put my bags down and wondered what I was letting myself in for.
The door was opened by a cadaverous man in a bowler hat. “You the applicant?” His voice echoed as if from the inside of an empty tank. He looked at me with gaunt appraisal and speechlessly took me through a hall festooned, not with stags’ heads and shields, but an enormous movie screen. Centre stage was a motorbike parked on a rug.
I followed him down a stark granite corridor into a room of tangled lushness. The walls were a jungle of William Morris leaves, candelabras dangled from a ceiling squirming with Rubens nudes, aspidistras sprouted between the velvet furniture. The smell of sandalwood. And there he was, my mystery interviewer, coiled on the ottoman in a Turkish dressing gown.
The skin on the back of my neck prickled. It was Billy Nightjar.
The man on the phone had said, “My client’s looking for a PA and thinks you could be the man.” “Who is he?” I’d said. “Let’s just say he’s a singer.”
Singer? That wasn’t the half of it. I was blinking at the genius who’d rocked the world with “Orange Dust” and who’d made a million teenagers shiver with “Sweet Medusa”. The shapeshifting god who’d sprayed the world day-glo.
Billy. Flipping. Nightjar. His voice had sucked my heart out through the tinny wires of my Walkman in my teenage bedroom: a banshee gargling honey, moving from bottomless pain to effortless seduction. It told me who I was and who I could be. It still did, even at my age.
Especially when he had metamorphosised into Loki Unborn, in his black tunic and corona of purple hair. Loki, my icon through boyhood, success and failure, love and loss, from the eighties to now in the noughties.
Skinny as a gecko, he was peeling an orange with a samurai sword. He nodded to a sofa with a mottled bolster along the top. I sat and jumped up again as the bolster pulsated and slid onto the floor.
“Don’t worry about Harvey.” His voice crackled like parchment. “He’s only a python.” Harvey looked at me blearily and slid away.
Billy handed me a segment of the fruit and fell into silence.
At last he spoke. “You’re good at talking, aren’t you? You’re an actor, yeah?.”
He’d checked my website. “Terry Truelove. Best known as Sargeant Darrell in ‘Den of Thieves’. Especially his gruelling murder in series three.”
Actor. Well, maybe. Since then I’d had a line as an ambulance driver in “Cardiac Arrest”. And then my call centre years. Worse than scarcely being scarcely able to afford shoelaces, I was becoming invisible, as much to myself as to the reluctant recipients of my double-glazing spiel. My parts had defined me. My voice had become Darrell’s voice. People no longer recognised me in the street. I was losing who I was, who I was meant to be. I’d come up for this interview because I had nothing to lose.
Billy’s right eye jerked me back to reality, his famous left one drooping lazily.
“It’s my trade,” I said.
This seemed to satisfy him. “I want someone to talk for me.” I waited. “I’ve had twenty years of speaking to idiots. The press. The fans. The label. Even my sodding band, man. I communicate through my music. Words?” Another pause. “Nah.”
He stared out through the mullioned window.
“Are you up for it, man?”
“I – for what?”
“Being my voice.”
What the hell did he mean? “Yes. Of course.”
“Good. And you look like me. That’s why I picked you.”
I’d often blamed the decline in my acting career on this: “Can’t cast Truelove. Looks too much like Nightjar.” I didn’t blame Billy, though. I loved him too much.
“OK,” he said. “I’m hungry.” He pulled a tasselled cord and looked at me expectantly.
“You want me to order your dinner?”
I should have remembered his routine. I’d read every one of his fan mags since 1986.
The gaunt man had silently appeared, his eyes raised: he had been expecting this.
“Take the order, Bramwell,” said Billy.
“Billy would like the usual,” I said. “Six-minute porridge and a glass of Pomerol. Followed by a bag of crisps.” He waited. “Sweet Thai,” I added.
When we were alone again Billy reached out his hand.
“You’ve got the job,” he rasped. “If you want it.”
After seven years of late rises, ready meals and invisibility it was hardly a choice.
His hours were erratic. On his skylark days I took calls from his fan club, his label, the manager of his house in Mustique, his porcelain supplier. He’d brief me at first, but soon I was talking without prompts.
There were no social calls. His circuit had included racehorse owners, brewing families, the daughters of oil sheiks. “I’m through with all that shit.”
On his owl days he would rise at sunset, have breakfast made by Bramwell, then take the motorbike for a spin across the moor. A long bath was followed by hours of movies – the Star Trek franchise, Nouvelle Vague, Korean porn. Sometimes he would squat by the pool lobbing snooker balls into the deep end. Then half an hour of copulation with Bramwell and the slow wind down to bed.
Weeks of intensity would follow. He would shut himself in the basement studio, living off jaffa cakes and amphetamines, emerging with veined eyes for a couple of hours sleep before descending again. Muffled bass notes and throbbing guitars would seep up from below. I listened in ecstasy.
As I did his bidding I watched and listened to him, his cracked sentences rising and descending to a ghostly chuckle. His mouth flicking up on the other side to his drooping eye. As I spoke for Billy I was becoming more visible. My cheekbones, jaw and brow were firming up, my outline – flabby from the years of pizzas and cheap beer – becoming sharper.
One night he took me downstairs. Dwarfed by the banks of knobs, he depressed a switch. A skirling synthesiser dilated, was scattered by a snare drum, then loomed again like figures in a lowland mist.
“My new album. What do you think?” he asked.
“This one came in a dream. I call it ‘Asteroid Shoeshine’.”
“I love the pentatonic scale.”
With startling fervour he gripped my hand. He brought up a music score on his tablet. “Sing, man.”
“I can’t. Not like you, Billy.”
The song was about an invisible boy who walks through walls to find you. Yes – that one. You know it. It was the first time I’d heard it, of course.
He put in some bass and strings. Then he nodded to me.
I gave it my best.
“Yeahhhh,” he said.
I felt, once again, that I’d passed an audition. On the way upstairs, I saw that my agent had left a text. He’d arranged a screen test for me – my first in seven months. Whatever the role was, it couldn’t trump playing Billy Nightjar. I ignored it.
The face on the screen glared from under its scoop of orange hair. Mordecai Pyne stood before a wall of gold discs. I’d seen the wunderkind producer on TV, eloquent and full of opinions but never angry like this.
“Billy. Where the hell are you?”
Billy and I sat at the side, out of the range of the webcam. Mordecai faced an empty room.
“Billy, we need to talk.”
Billy shook his head. “I can’t handle this, man,” he whispered to me. “I can listen to him but not talk to him.” I’d been flattered he’d invited me to share his skype talk with the only person who could be called his creative equal. But not surprised: lately I’d accompanied him everywhere.
“Billy, show yourself.”
Billy shut his eyes and dropped his head. I made a decision. I moved my chair in front of the webcam and faced Mordecai.
“Billy! Tell me what’s going on.”
“I suppose you want to discuss that email.”
“Too sodding right.” He squinted at me. “Hey – you’re not Billy. Where the hell’s Billy?”
“Billy speaks through me.”
“This is a joke. Where is he?”
“I have Billy’s complete confidence.” A hand approvingly tapped my wrist.
Mordecai pressed his lips together. “So what’s this about Loki?”
“As it said. Loki’s dead. We’re killing him.”
“What about the seven gold albums, fifty million sales? And the tour? We’re being screwed with all this streamed music: the label needs Loki.”
“From Loki’s ashes a new bird will fly.” It was one of Billy’s phrases. “The Blue Ghost. Billy’s spent five months creating him.”
He frowned into his webcam. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
An electric jolt passed through me. Terry Truelove had not died. He was not yet invisible. I had another life, but Terry was…
“Billy’s working on a new album. Ten songs. It’s a killer.”
Terry was an era ago.
“Each track’s a different aspect of the Ghost. It goes beyond music into the colours of space.”
From the corner of my eye I saw Billy close his eyes and hold up his palms. The vibrations somehow reached and calmed Mordecai.
“OK, let’s hear it. Post it to me and I’ll get back.”
The picture flicked out. Billy sat gazing through the ceiling, up to some place I could not see.
The drawings were all the same figure, a small thin man, but in a cavalcade of costumes: lapis druid’s robes, a Darth Vader cape, an azure ruff and doublet (holding a skull), a sapphire suit of armour. The draftsmanship was extraordinary. The man was exquisitely talented.
“Which one do you think?” he asked me.
“I still think you should go for my concept.”
“This?” He picked up an image of a teal suit in distressed silk.
“It’s minimal. The Ghost’s kit needs a contrast with Loki’s.”
He put the other sheets aside.
“My thoughts, too.” he said.
Billy’s voice faded to the thinnest of wheezes. I had to sit within a foot of him to hear him. The discussions were important: the birth of the Ghost. Could he be rowed onto the stage by a ragged Charon? Or carried through the auditorium by dancers? Or emerge from a giant egg? I suggested that he rise through the floor, with lightning. He exclaimed, that was just what he was thinking. That’s how it was becoming: my thoughts splicing with his, his voice and mine alternating notes on the same scale. I was coming to know him, and the Ghost, better than I knew myself. I learnt to love wine with my porridge. I was becoming complete.
I explained the concept over endless calls to set designers and costume makers.
“Billy doesn’t want anything too Spinal Tap. Keep it simple.”
As winter iced the lowland hills a change came over Billy. He would spend hours hunched over his laptop, sucking his lip, tapping, printing out pages which he silently handed to Bramwell. He handed me his signature. “Practise writing it. I’m tired of signing things, man.” Those were the last words he spoke to me for two months. He locked himself in the bedroom and the library for days, barely eating, leaving behind a miasma of stale ganja smoke everywhere he went. Snow piled against the gates of Inverclarich.
With no instructions or purpose I drifted through the granite rooms, gazing out through the arrow slits at the crows circling over the larches. I was trapped inside a turreted cage with a man who would neither speak nor nod to me. For a week I stayed in my room with the curtains closed, watching TV, dimly noting the new faces and the fresh voices.
On the eighth day I had a text from my agent. She was having to let me go. Reluctantly of course. To my surprise I cared. I’d had a life out there once. I opened the curtains. The snow had melted. The road out to the rest of the world was clearing.
The spring sunlight stung the back of my eyes. I could still reclaim something of Terry, whoever he was, whatever he was doing.
It had gone eleven when I found Billy in the library reading “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”, his brow furrowed, mouthing the words to himself.
“Billy,” I said. “I’ve done my work here. It’s time for me to…”
Pressing his finger on the line he was reading, he looked up.
“I haven’t finished with you.”
“That’s wonderful, Billy, but…”
He shut the book, stood, and beckoned me to follow him. In the foyer he straddled the bike and patted the pillion seat. Hesitantly I got on. He twisted the throttle and we coasted out through the open door, roared down the drive through the budding larches to the coast.
As the road bridge loomed in the dark, we joined the cycle lane, accelerated to the centre of the Firth, climbed off and leant over the railing. The wind picked its way under my shirt. Billy said nothing. The weak lights on the banks were steady. At last he spoke.
“The music has to live. You’ll do that for me?” He caught me with his good eye. I could never resist it. “Good.” And then, “Don’t call the cops.”
What? Another of his runic utterances. I looked out at the giant Meccano set of the Forth Bridge. A train south hummed across. “The eleven forty and I’ve missed it again,” I thought. I turned to Billy: he might appreciate the joke. He was gone.
He wasn’t on the bike. He was nowhere along the lane. I looked down. The oily water swirled. I shouted, “Billy.” And again. And again.
Don’t call the cops. His rasp hovered in the air and then was blown out to the sea.
Bramwell was waiting for me at the door. Before I could say a word he handed me an envelope. Inside it was a large sheet in Billy’s handwriting.
“The unofficial last will and testament of Gordon Smithers.”
Inverclarich was mine. So were all the royalties and income from the songs and albums. The bike was mine. Bramwell was to take care of my needs to perpetuity. On the condition that I take the persona of The Blue Ghost, play the concerts and sing the songs. Terry Truelove AKA sergeant Darrell must in all respects become Gordon Smithers AKA Billy Nightjar AKA Loki Unborn AKA the Blue Ghost. And tell no one what had happened to Billy.
The envelope also contained a USB stick. On it were thirty-seven new songs for The Ghost. They were all heavenly.
I had the passwords and PINs for all his bank accounts. They were worth millions. I could swim in that warm bath or go back to the freezing shower of Camden.
Mordecai was the only one to be told. He hadn’t liked it but I posted him my recording and he was reconciled.
So I put on the teal suit and sang my way round the world as The Ghost from Paris to Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur to Vladivostok. Fans loved me. Critics were divided. The Press were thrilled: Billy had begun talking again.
Terry kept quiet. He would emerge in lonely moments in aeroplanes and dressing rooms, wondering what had happened to his flat and the few friends he’d had, but go quiet as soon as The Ghost had to step into the lights. Once in a Gothenburg hotel foyer he dialled one of the friends but ended the call before it was answered.
Halfway through the second world tour, at JFK Airport, Billy stopped talking. He had spent two years telling oil sheikhs that he loved Arsenal, his manager that he didn’t think the great American Song Book was right for him and his fan club that he still loved crisps. When the Long Island Chronicle stopped him at the gates to ask for his favourite Beatles song, he looked at the man and said nothing. After that, silence. For the rest of the tour he communicated with the band through nods, grunts and glares.
The songs ran out. Billy could sing but no longer write them. He wasn’t the same Billy. He was no longer Terry, either. He’d even forgotten the way Terry had spoken.
He stopped touring, locked himself in Inverclarich, cut himself off from Mordecai and the label, speaking to no one except Bramwell. He rode the bike over the moor in increasingly small circles. Edinburgh zoo were happy to take in Harvey.
And so I face the new applicant in the library. He’s got the right high cheekbones and low body mass: Bramwell and I had scoured the Spotlight casting photos for him. His CV says he can sing a bit. Best of all, he’s had no acting work for four and a half years.
I can see him in the new persona I’ve been dreaming up for him: Archangel Joe. Who else could follow the Ghost?
He’s nodding eagerly. He gets the Pomerol and porridge test right. He’ll be fine. Before long I’ll be able to shuffle off this cloak I’ve been wearing.
To become? That’s been bothering me. Jose in Peru? Serghei in Bucharest? Mr Nobody in NYC? Anyone but Terry: that would be wearing a dead man’s shoes.
Or I could get on the bike and head for the Forth Bridge.
Sooner or later I’ll have to make up my mind. I tell myself, I’m my own man now.