This short story refers back to a story in the earlier collection, when Steve was dragooned into a quickly set-up band to support a US Blues singer, Hark Nelson. Neil was the singer in Steve’s garage band.
The Three Wired Weird Sisters
Steve waggled the sleeve back and forth a few times watching the faces move under the ridged plastic. Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones. Or then there was the new Beatles EP, Magical Mystery Tour. The film had spoiled Boxing Day. First it probably wasn’t as good as he’d hoped, but he’d found it hard to follow at all, what with his sister and brother-in-law demanding to know what all this nonsense was, and the inevitable worried lecture about drugs from his mum at the end. The Beatles EP won the day. He couldn’t afford both in spite of the pocketful of money earned at the post office. A long term stretched ahead. He went over to pay.
‘You’re not buying that crap are you?’
Steve looked round, ‘Neil! How are you? It’s been ages.’
Neil was grinning as usual, ‘I watched about half of that and turned it off. Utter shite.’
Neil’s hair was neat and short, and he was wearing a tie.
‘Still plumbing?’ Steve indicated the tie.
‘Yes, but I’m not working this week.’
‘So you wear a tie on your day off?’
‘Bugger me, your hair’s long.’
‘It always was.’
‘Not that long. Are you a hippy now?’
Steve smiled, ‘Dunno. Anyway, it must be …’ he considered, ‘Years … since we did that Hark Nelson thing. Still singing?’
‘Yes. We’ve expanded though. Graham and Keith are still in the group, but we’ve got a new bass guitarist and added a sax player and a female vocalist. Ruby. She’s older than me. We’re working most nights nowadays.’
‘You can take the piss, Steve.’
‘Do you fancy a half?’
Steve was glad of some company his own age. He sipped the beer. He’d lost touch with Sandbourne pretty comprehensively, and he reflected, he hadn’t had a conversation with anyone in his peer group since Christmas Eve when he finished at the post office.
‘What are you doing tomorrow night?’ said Neil.
‘Sunday? Not a lot.’
‘Sunday? It’s New Year’s Eve!’
‘Do you remember that New Year dance when we played with the trad band?’
‘Yes, God, that was ages ago. But I really am doing nothing actually. I reckon watch TV with my mum. I don’t think I’ll stay up for New Year. She never does,’
Neil was aghast, ‘On New Year’s Eve? You’re fucking joking!’
‘No. Really. I can’t wait to get back to Grimleigh.’
‘Bugger me,’ Neil paused, ‘I know. We’re playing tomorrow. Come and see us.’
Steve thought of Neil as Tom Jones, grimacing through It’s Not Unusual, ‘Thanks, Neil, but …’
‘It’ll be a laugh. I can’t ask you to join in, even for one number, but …’
‘I don’t play anymore.’
‘What? Not at all?’
‘Well, come along. It won’t cost you. You just walk in with us, carry a drum case or whatever. Have you got a suit?’
‘Well, yes …’ Steve’s mum had insisted he buy the blue three piece before he set off to university. He’d worn it three times in eighteen months.
‘See, it’s lounge suits only. We’ll be wearing the band jackets. They’re red,’ he added.
‘I don’t think I’d fit in …’
‘Not if it was a bank do, or a business do. They wouldn’t let you in anyway. But it’s a charity ball. It’s all the county set. They’ve got a few long-haired Hooray Henries, and the girls are partial to a bit of rough,’ Neil winked.
‘A bit of rough?’
‘Telling them I’m a plumber turns them on.’
‘So I’d be a bit of rough?’
‘If you play your cards right,’ Neil winked again.
‘Stop fucking winking at me. We’ll get thrown out of the pub.’
‘Well, I can’t leave an old mate watching Kenneth McKellar in a tartan skirt on New Year’s.’
‘I’d avoid that.’
‘Come on … we’re going out in a mini bus. Melvin booked it. Tons of room.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Turlington Hall. It’s some big country estate, miles from here.’
Steve worked that out; he really didn’t fancy going anywhere locally where he was likely to run into old acquaintances like Greg or Paul. He found their talk of banking and cars too depressing. But Turlington Hall was a huge stately gothic pile about twenty miles away. ‘Oh, alright. OK then … and thanks, Neil.’
‘Glad you’re coming. And don’t say anything, but we do play the Gay Gordons at these things.’
‘I gathered that after all the winking.’
Steve clambered on to the bus. He was introduced to Ruby, a miserable looking woman wrapped in a large overcoat, and to Reg the sax player, and Don the bass guitarist. They were both in their thirties. Keith and Graham he knew.
‘Ah, yes …’ said Graham, ‘I remember you. Steve,’ he turned to the others, ‘Steve was with us when we backed this awful little black American soul singer …’
‘Blues singer,’ muttered Steve.
‘Hank Nelson. Appalling. Hardly the high point of our musical careers.’
‘Hark Nelson,’ corrected Steve,
Graham ignored him, ‘So for one evening we were the Hank …’
‘Hark,’ said Steve.
‘… alright, Hark. Hark Nelson Band,’ he whinnied with laughter, ‘Steve played guitar.’
‘Bass,’ corrected Steve, ‘Les played guitar.’
‘Oh, yes. I recall. Very burly fellow. Interminable solos.’
‘Yes, that was Les,’ said Steve, ‘I was on bass.’
‘Oh, another bass player?’ said Don suspiciously.
‘No, I’ve given up,’ said Steve.
Don looked plaintively at Graham,. ‘You’re not working in another bass player?’
‘No,’ said Graham in surprise.
Don looked troubled, ‘Because that’s how you worked me in. Took me to watch a couple of shows before you sacked the other bloke.’
‘I’m at university,’ said Steve, ‘In Grimleigh. I don’t play bass at all now.’
‘You can see why I’m worried,’ said Don, ‘I’ve just bought a new Gibson EB3. Cherry red.’
Steve thought Don was probably worried about something most of the time. ‘Nice bass.’
‘Yes. A major investment for me … I don’t lend it.’
‘Best not to.’
‘I mean, if someone wants to jam, or, like, sit in they have to bring their own.’
‘Quite right. I wouldn’t lend it to anyone either. I mean if it were mine.’
‘What sort of bass do you play?’
‘I don’t,’ said Steve as reassuringly as possible, ‘I sold mine.’
He felt a sharp nudge, and a plastic cup was shoved in his hand. It was Reg, the sax player, ‘Coffee with a good shot of brandy. Keep you warm.’
‘Thanks,’ said Steve.
‘Don’s a bit paranoid.’
‘Is he? Yes … maybe he is.’
‘He’s been sacked from three groups. It’s the drinking partly. But mainly the whining.’
‘Ah,’ said Steve wisely.
‘Terrible affliction. Do you want another shot?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘So when were you in this group?’
‘Just one night. A couple of years ago. More. It was a one-off.’
‘They haven’t made you an offer, then?’
‘No,’ said Steve firmly, ‘They haven’t. And I live in Grimleigh.’
‘Right,’ said Reg, ‘Hope you don’t mind me asking. It’s just Don’s an old mate of mine.’
‘Not at all.’
Reg looked round, ‘And I don’t trust these fuckers.’
The mini-bus trundled up the drive, which must have been a mile long. Turlington Hall had been built by a freshly ennobled Victorian arms magnate in the 1860s, with dark red brick and wildly gothic gargoyles and decoration. It was quite the ugliest building Steve had ever seen.
‘This is the third time we’ve played here,’ explained Neil, ‘They rent it out for all sorts of functions. It was the Hunt Ball last time.’
The bus pulled up by a side door.
‘There are about three flights of stairs,’ said Neil significantly. Steve, as he was expected to, picked up a speaker cabinet. The flights of stairs were narrow, painted hospital green and wound up to an oak door.
‘Minstrel’s gallery,’ said Neil, ‘The stage is below, but we use this as our waiting area. Can’t call it a dressing room, as you’ll see.’
It was a wooden gallery, open to the ballroom, decorated with carvings, and with ornate oak poles. A wooden staircase led down to the stage. The ballroom was decorated with the darkest oak, writhing with carvings on every surface. The ceiling was equally ornate, but the mouldings were tinted with pale pink, gold and blue.
‘Phew,’ said Steve, so we carry it up three flights and down one?’
‘Tradesman’s entrance,’ said Neil. They deposited the PA speakers and went down to get more gear. It took four journeys with all of them. Ruby just had a large suitcase, which Don gallantly carried up.
‘I think I’ve got the flu,’ she explained, ‘Me gown’s in the case.’ She disappeared to the ladies to change.
Steve helped Neil set up the PA, it seemed the least he could do.
‘It’s great,’ said Neil, ‘They have a cash bar, but the buffet’s in the ticket price so we can eat as much as we like.’
Steve went to find the gents. A tall distinguished man with silver hair wearing a white Nehru jacket stopped him.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘You must be the group’s manager, Mr Mears.’
‘No, that’s Melvin,’ said Steve, ‘He couldn’t come tonight … but …’ he realized he needed to justify his presence, ‘I’m assisting him.’
‘Jolly good,’ said the man, ‘Damian. I’m the owner of this dreadful pile.’
‘My name’s Steve Bury, ’said Steve, ‘Interesting place.’
‘Fucking ugly though,’ said Damian, ‘I inherited it. Trying desperately to scrape a living out of it. The better paintings have all gone. We’ll have to convert the old place into a residential conference centre, I expect, and fill the halls with ghastly bankers and chippy little social workers. The bankers will no doubt see all this atrocious gothic shit carved on the walls as the height of luxury, while the social workers will want to burn it to the ground with me inside it.’
‘Well, do help yourself to victuals,’ said Damian, ‘I’ll probably see you later. It’s so hard to avoid these loathsome functions,’ he paused, ‘You don’t look as if your group’s music is, well, your sort of thing. If you don’t mind me saying so. They played the Hunt Ball in the autumn. In contrast to that lot, you look quite sane. At least to me.’
‘The singer’s an old friend. I was in a group with him before …’
‘Before he decided that a scarlet tuxedo with sequins was his chosen attire?’
Steve wandered back up to the Minstrel’s gallery. Ruby was attired in a white ball gown with many layers of stiff petticoats and had on an incongruous blonde long wig. Neil’s chest was bursting out of the red tuxedo jacket.
‘Grab a beer,’ said Neil, indicating a crate.
‘Cheers. I just met the owner, Damian. Seems like a nice bloke.’
There was silence, ‘You spoke to Lord Turlington?’
‘Is he? A Lord? He never said.’
The place began to fill. Definitely a far smarter set than he had even expected. Exquisitely dressed people filled the dance floor. The group had started playing, and Steve stayed in the minstrels gallery observing the crowd. No one at all that he knew for a change. Three girls stood out. They were standing by the buffet. The brocaded floor length rainbow coloured clothes made them look like they’d stepped out of a psychedelic album cover. All three had jet black hair. They looked like sisters. Steve watched them. He guessed they ranged from a couple of years older than him, then his age, and a couple of years younger. They just didn’t fit, and were ignoring everyone. They interested him. He thought he’d slide over to the buffet for a closer look.
He got to the bottom of the stairs.
‘Steven? It is Steven, isn’t it?’
He looked round. She looked stunning in a pale turquoise dress, her hair piled high, perfect make-up, glittering jewellery. Annette. Annette whose friend Julia had been seeing his pal Ted, way back in 1964. Annette who’d teased him mercilessly
‘Ah. Annette. Hello.’
‘You remember me? I thought you might. What on Earth are you doing here?’
‘I came with the group.’
‘How’s your greasy little friend? The one that Julia was so passionately in love with at school? Didn’t he assault a policeman?’
‘Ted? No, he certainly didn’t. But he did get charged with it. They put him on probation. We lost touch. And he wasn’t greasy.’
‘Oh, dear. Raw nerve?’
‘To a degree.’
‘You look terribly out of place. That cheap suit doesn’t go with the long hair.’
‘It isn’t cheap. It’s Austin Reed.’
‘Oh, Austin Reed. I don’t believe they’re on Savile Row.’
‘Well, it’s not Burtons or John Collier. Not that I could give a bugger. Anyway, how is Julia?’
‘She’s at East Anglia. English, I think.’
‘I’m doing English.’
That superior smile, ‘I’m at Oxford.’
‘The University or the Technical College?’
Another smile, ‘What do you think?’
‘With your expensive education, Annette, I can guess.’
‘You really are terribly working class.’
‘Only from your point of view. My dad would have been offended I expect.’
She looked irritated, ‘You keep looking past me.’
She looked behind her, ‘Ah. I thought so. You’ve spied out some compatible types.’
‘Well, they’re the only …’ he stressed “only” … ‘people that look interesting here.’
She looked to the sky, ‘You mean The Weird Sisters.’
‘The Weird Sisters … it’s a Macbeth reference.’
‘I’m doing English, Annette.’
‘Yes, but only at Grimleigh.’
‘Alright, why are they called the Weird Sisters? Are they into flying on brooms or something?’
‘They were at my school. The middle one, Paulina, was in my dorm. They’re the Ward Sisters in fact, but everyone called them the Weird Sisters because … well, because they’re weird.’
‘Weird? In what way?’
‘Go and talk to them. Find out. They won’t be fussy,’ she looked him up and down, ‘I’d better go. People will be asking me who on Earth you are.’
‘Tell them I don’t know the answer to that either. Anyway, Annette, the least you could do is introduce me.’
Annette led him over to the buffet.
‘Paulina, darling!’ she cried, ‘How lovely to see you!’ and kissed her on both cheeks. She nodded to the other two with false smiles.
‘I had to introduce you to Steve. Because he asked me to. I think he carries the equipment in for that horrible group or something. He used to know an old boyfriend of Julia’s … I must fly! Catch up with you later,’ and she was gone.
Steve felt particularly out of place, with three pairs of eyes looking at him.
Paulina spoke first, ‘Isn’t she an utter cow?’
‘I’ve always thought so,’ said Steve.
‘I was at school with her. Ugh!’ she shivered, ‘So you know my name, Paulina … this is Hermione,’ she indicated the older one, ‘And this is Perdita.’
The three names seemed familiar, part of a set. Steve wracked his brains.
Hermione watched him, ‘Yes, the names get everyone like that. Daddy’s a mad keen Shakespeare buff.’
‘Right! You’re all named after characters in …’ it wasn’t coming, ‘Measure for Measure?’
‘The Winter’s Tale,’ said Perdita.
‘Of course,’ he said unconvincingly.
‘It’s alright for us,’ said Hermione, ‘You expect girls to have unusual names. But poor Florrie had an awful time being ribbed at school.’
‘Florrie?’ The only Florrie that came to mind was Andy Capp’s long-suffering wife in the cartoon.
‘Our brother. Florizel. The Winter’s Tale too,’ explained Hermione.
‘Daddy’s obsessed with it. He’s been trying to finance a film for years,’ said Perdita, ‘The latest idea is based round the Berlin Wall, with Sicilia as East Germany and Bohemia as … sorry, I just assume everyone knows the play backwards. My god, we do.’
‘I had to read every Shakespeare play,’ said Steve, ‘But some drift by you. Is your dad a film producer?’
‘He wishes he were,’ said Paulina, ‘So do we.’
‘What does he do?’
They looked at each other.
‘You don’t know?’ said Hermione.
Steve shook his head.
‘He’s Damian Ward … he runs this place.’
‘I thought his name was Turlington.’
Perdita explained, ‘Daddy’s name is Damian Ward. He’s the Earl of Turlington.’
Steve had been vaguely aware of the group on the stage, but this was the moment when Neil chose to launch into “Release Me” announcing it as Engelbert Humperdink’s number one hit. Steve winced, ‘Ouch. I hate this song!’
‘I thought you were with the group,’ said Perdita quizzically.
‘Only to get in free. I know the singer. From a long time ago.’
They all regarded the stage, ‘He’s fucking awful,’ opined Hermione.
‘To be fair, so is the song,’ said Steve, ‘Christ, to think that stopped Strawberry Fields from getting to number one.’
‘A travesty,’ agreed Hermione, ‘I can’t listen to this crap.’
‘Nor me,’ said Perdita, ‘Come on.’
Paulina nodded, ‘It’s not fair to leave Steve stuck here. Not with this lot.’
‘Bring him along,’ said Hermione, ‘Are you coming, Steve?’
Steve didn’t hesitate, ‘Sure … where are we going?’
‘To meet the ghosts of Turlington Hall, of course …’ said Hermione, her eyebrows arching high, ‘What did you think?’
Steve followed them down the dark corridor to the staircase. He looked at the carved devils on the banisters and felt a tiny shiver.
‘It’s like a Hammer horror film set,’ he said.
Hermione smiled, ‘Rumour has it that the first Earl was a satanist. Not that I want to believe that. What with him being my great-great-grandfather.’
Steve found himself breaking into a trot to keep up with them as they seemed to sail along the long corridors, skirts sweeping the floor.
They came to a corner, and the staircase that wound upwards was plain white plaster on the walls, and the wooden stair tread had no carpet.
‘Come, young master,’ hissed Perdita, bending forward like an old crone and beckoning with a finger, ‘Come up to the north tower room … where all will be revealed.’
Steve swallowed hard, ‘Sure.’
He followed them up. The stairs ended at a small landing with two doors.
‘We’re in the servant’s quarters,’ explained Hermione, ‘the old servant’s quarters. A couple of them got a fantastic room actually, but that was only because the first Earl wanted a tower with a turret stuck on the outside.’
She pushed open the iron-bound oak door. Steve gasped in surprise. The room was circular, with a conical roof, and hung on every surface with thick tapestries. The floor had carpets and huge brocaded cushions. An incense burner in the centre was wafting sweet sandalwood into the thick atmosphere.
‘This was the servant’s quarters?’
‘Once. It’s now our private hang-out,’ said Paulina. She flopped down, ‘Grab a cushion.’
Hermione pointed up, ‘I need to warn you, just in case something strange happens. There’s the tale of Esme, the poor young chambermaid. Only fifteen years old. The first earl had his wicked way with her, and she fell pregnant. Her only choice was the shame, and the squalor of the workhouse … or that oak beam above us. Yes, Steve, this is where Esme hanged herself. Nine months pregnant. She was still struggling when they found her, writhing in agony in the noose, but it was too late to save her … they slit open her belly and saved the baby, who as fate would have it was to become my great-grandmother. It ruined the party, because that happened on New Year’s Eve, and so every New Year’s Eve we female descendants hold a séance in this very room to ask her forgiveness, and tonight is special … very special, because she died in 1867,’ she paused dramatically, ‘Precisely one hundred years ago tonight. We’re going to summon up her presence. And as you’ve guessed … we need a young male as a human sacrifice.’
Then Perdita cackled, ‘You should see your face, Steve!’
They were all laughing at him.
‘Shit. You had me going just for a moment.’
Paulina ruffled his hair, ‘Is this a Jagger that I see before me?’
‘All the perfumes of Arabia won’t wash that hand clean once it’s been in my hair. Annette told me you were the three weird sisters.’
‘Hubble-bubble toil and trouble …’ said Perdita, ‘And here’s the hubble-bubble,’ she pulled a water pipe from a dark corner, ‘Black or yellow tonight?’
‘Black,’ determined Hermione, ‘If you’re going to get totally blasted, New Year’s Eve is the time.’
It was powerful stuff. Steve felt himself deeply relaxing for the first time in weeks.
‘You were lucky, Steve,’ slurred Paulina, ‘The last guy …’ she started giggling. It was infectious. They were all giggling, ‘You tell him, Hermione.’
‘Big sister’s job. OK, the last guy invited into this inner sanctum, sitting just where you are now, on that very cushion, was a famous musician. Not a star singer, but certainly in a star band.’
‘Not my point. So we invite him up here …’ she took a deep toke and passed the pipe to Steve … ‘And he starts out …’ she went into a London accent, “Hey, babes. I’ve managed to shag two chicks before, but three in a session’s a new one for me.” She narrowed her eyes, ‘So I told him he had totally the wrong end of the stick, and he stood up, undid his belt and started to drop his trousers …’
Paulina joined in, ‘We told him to hang on and have a few tokes first.’
Perdita took over, ‘Which he did. And when he was really, really stoned, Hermione told him the story. He went as white as a sheet. He believed every word. We scared the living daylight out of the prick.’
Steve laughed, ‘So what happened to him?’
Hermione pointed to the wood panelling and lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘He’s behind there. We walled him in alive. The scratching against the wood lasted two weeks, gradually getting weaker. It finally stopped last week. Still the incense gets rid of the smell.’
Steve took another toke, ‘OK. How famous?’
‘Extremely fucking famous,’ said Hermione.
‘Right. So he disappeared three weeks ago. And it’s not in the news?’
‘Oh, bollocks!’ said Hermione, ‘I hadn’t thought of that. Still, I will next time I tell it. But the first part’s true. He made his excuses and left rapidly. Pass it this way then.’
‘Which group was he in?’
‘Would I have heard of him?’
‘Definitely. But he was just another bass player,’ she inhaled deeply, ‘OK, next story …’
By the time they got back to the ballroom, they’d missed Auld Lang’s Syne, and Neil was singing The Last Waltz with everyone shuffling round the dance floor drunkenly, trying to hold one another up.
‘Missed it. Ah, well. Fuck it. Happy New Year,’ mumbled Steve.
He had no memory of helping Neil’s group down with the equipment, though he must have done. All he wanted to do was close his eyes. Neil took the seat next to him, ‘I don’t fucking believe it! You went off with three of them! For two fucking hours!’
‘It’s not what you’re thinking at all.’
‘I saw you go. Three! How do you do it? Mechanically, I mean?’
‘But they were all Ladies!’
‘I didn’t get that close. One might have been a transvestite for all I know. Or two. Or all of them.’
‘I mean they were all fucking titled aristocracy. Lady this and Lady that. What happens? Do you do one and watch the other two at it? Or does one sit on …’
‘Neil, Keep your fantasies to yourself. It wasn’t anything to do with sex. At all.’
‘None were exposed to the air, I can assure you. Really … would you mind if I had a snooze on the way back?’ Steve leaned against the cold window, ignored the condensation, and drifted into happy oblivion.
FROM“ROLLING DOWN THE ROAD: 1966-69” BY DART TRAVIS