So here’s the first in my year of short stories. It’s not as polished as I’d like, but I’ve set myself Saturday as a deadline, and so I had to do it. Here goes. Be gentle with me 🙂
I’m going to call him Doctor X. Not for any legal reasons, or because I’m trying to shield someone’s identity here – his real name is Julius Green, and you can look that up if you like, if you can work out how. No, the reason that I am calling him Doctor X is that it’s the name by which you’d be most likely to know him, if you’d heard of him at all.
I first heard of him after my uncle died of cancer a few years ago. Some time in the early seventies they played together in a progressive rock band called Chimney. My uncle never told me anything about them. In fact, I didn’t know they existed until I found the one vinyl LP among all this things.
That album came out in 1971. The psychedelic cover featured a flower-power psychedelic style drawing of chimneys with rainbow smoke coming out, with the band name written in yellow, in that lettering style that seems to have been everywhere in the seventies, and probably looked cheesy even then, with the words “A Fat Stack” written at the bottom. The double meaning couldn’t have been more obvious.
I’m a vinyl junkie, so I played it. It wasn’t that bad; I quite enjoyed it, if I’m honest. And as I looked at it, I looked at the names, and one stood out: Doctor X, keyboards. I mean, I recognised my uncle’s name, but who was Doctor X? That was a mystery to me.
I tried researching them, of course, but it’s difficult. I don’t think they sold that well. Internet searches turn up almost no hits whatsoever, and none of those related to the band. I even tried posting in a few progressive rock forums. Even the guy who had an original pressing of The Dark’s “Dark Around The Edges” (the rarest, most collectible record in the world at the time) hadn’t heard of them.
A few years later I found a copy of their second album – again, punning on the band name it was called “Another Stack” – in a local charity shop for fifty pence. I wasn’t looking for it at the time; you never are when these finds happen. They charged me fifty pence, although I would probably have paid a lot more if they had asked. The cover of this one, as you’d probably guess, is chimneys again, but this time it’s a photo, rather than a cartoon. The lettering is more conventional; in fact, the album cover wouldn’t look out of place on an album released today.
Unlike the first album, though, you get to see the band: the back is red, with a photo of the band in the centre, and the track listing, copyright and so on underneath. The guy on the left I didn’t recognise, then there’s my uncle, then a black guy holding drumsticks (so that was a fair guess that he was the drummer), and finally, what must be Doctor X. He really did look like some 1950s b-movie mad scientist. Lab coat, thick glasses, frizzy hair that wouldn’t have looked out of place in any mad scientist flick you can care to name. And the rest of the band looked to be lounging against the wall, while he was lunging forwards towards the camera, like he had some crazy invention he wanted to tell you about.
I took the record round to my parents next time I went to see them. Not only did remember the band, albeit vaguely, they were still in touch with Doctor X’s ex-girlfriend. Her name was Alison, and she lived not far away from me. She was in her sixties when I went to see her, but she was happy to talk.
“They were really good live,” she said. “The rhythm section was good – the drummer and your uncle – they were the heart of the band really. Your uncle, he reminded me a bit of Bob Weir, out of the Grateful Dead. Not quite as good looking, but he was a handsome man. We went to see the Dead, once, me and Julius. 1970 it was – that’s when he said he wanted to be a musician.”
I sipped the camomile tea she gave me. It was good.
“Of course, they made those two albums, and then Julius disappeared.”
“Julius – my ex-boyfriend.”
She nodded. “Nobody really knows what happened. He just didn’t turn up for a gig. They went round his place. He wasn’t there.”
“Just vanished.” She said. “I’d split up with him by then, though, so I only heard about it from local gossip. I think he was sharing a house with – now, what was his name? The artist fellow?”
I looked at her. She was thin, stick thin. Maybe she’d always been that way, the way some people are. Hair was less grey than it maybe should be at that age. If she had a fountain of youth, it was a small one, but effective.
“John something,” she continued. “You remember? In the 80s he became homeless when the alcohol got to him, used to go begging around town.”
“I do,” I said. “Alkie John, they used to call him. Used to babble on about God and aliens and UFOs, and how someone was going to try and murder him one day.”
“Well they did, didn’t they?” she said, looking at me intently. “If you can call a hit and run a murder?”
I sipped my tea again. It was good and hot. “I suppose you can.”
And that was about as much that was of any use. She told me a lot of stories about the band, not all of which were flattering, or repeatable here. Suffice to say she had carnal knowledge of all of them, except the drummer. He was married – and faithful.
A month or so later, by pure coincidence, I met the drummer. My wife and I were out for an anniversary dinner, and while we were waiting at the bar for drinks, so was he. It took me a few moments, but I recognised him, and asked whether he was in the band.
“Yeah,” he said, and laughed. “That was me.”
“What did you do after the band broke up?”
“I went back to teaching,” he said. “Taught music at the secondary modern until it became a comprehensive, then when the headmaster moved to the Catholic school, I went there with him.”
“Three schools in the town, and you only taught at the ones I never went to!”
Pete laughed at that. He was a nice guy, and we talked a little bit – as much as you can in the five minutes you get while waiting for your table in a restaurant, anyway. I arranged to meet him a few days later for a pint – as a fan – and we met up in the Three Graces, which is a few doors away from the restaurant.
“It was fun,” he said. “We toured a bit for the first album. Mainly up and down the country, in a shiny new Transit van. I can always remember your uncle would share the driving with Tom.”
“Who’s Tom?” I asked.
“The roadie,” he replied. “Huge guy. Stopped us getting hassled when the audience didn’t like us, which happened more than you’d expect. Then he’d help us load the stuff into the van. Finally, halfway through the tour, the money ran out and he jumped ship to go work for someone else, so the driving became all of us taking turns, except Julius.”
I was surprised. “Doctor X refused?”
He shook his head. “No, he couldn’t drive. Didn’t have a licence.”
“Never passed I think,” he replied, holding out an empty glass and pointing at mine. I nodded, and he signalled two to the barman.
“So why did you guys split up? Was it because Julius disappeared?”
“It would have happened anyway,” he said, shaking his head. “Basically, the band had run out of money, people weren’t coming to the shows, we weren’t being booked and the record label wanted to drop us because the second record was selling even less than the first. ‘As if that was possible’, our manager once said to me.”
I sucked air through my teeth. “That’s brutal. But – you had a manager?”
“For a while,” he laughed. “Richard Stevens. Died sometime in the eighties of a drug overdose I believe. He never really amounted to much. I think we were the highest profile act he ever managed. At least we had a recording contract – for a bit, anyway.”
We chatted for a while, swapping anecdotes. As to why Doctor X had disappeared? He had no idea, either.
I felt like I had grown to know my uncle again vicariously, through the stories and anecdotes of his former bandmates. I’d finally met another member of the band. If you look at the photo on the back of “Another Stack”, the middle two are my uncle, in a red and green striped shirt, which these days you’d say looked like either Freddy Krueger or a seventies kids TV presenter, with Pete next to him.
The figure on the left was Alec Carner, who was the lead guitarist and vocalist. He also wrote most of the songs, too, according to the credits on the album sleeve. My uncle contributed to two of the eight songs, and Pete Hopper, the drummer, had a credit on one of those two and two others. The rest were all Carner alone.
My theory at the time was that he disappeared through depression. That he got fed up, and walked out of his life. Maybe the band had been everything, and with the contract, he’d thought they were on target for fame, and fortune. And then when everything started to stall and then just fade… maybe that was too much. Maybe he was too delicate for that idea, and that was it. Maybe he went.
I had a lot of photo albums from my uncle, a lot of family stuff. Every so often I’d gather myself together and scan a few photos. Put them in Dropbox to send them to mum and dad or Auntie Carol. There were some good finds in there.
And then I came across one.
It was Doctor X, lying down. He looked asleep. I guessed it was a drunken party and someone took a photo for a giggle, but the more I looked at it, the less I liked it. I didn’t scan it, but I put it aside and took it to a friend of mine. She’s a doctor.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for,” she said.
“Something struck me as out of place,” I said. “Something didn’t look right. I’m wondering if you’ll see the same.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Just looks like a party to me.”
I waited, but she clearly wasn’t going to see it.
“Is he dead?” I asked, leaning forward. “The man in the white coat?”
She looked, harder, and then laughed and handed me back the photo.
“He could be,” she said. “But he could also be asleep, drunk, or a shop window dummy for all you can tell from that photograph.”
I felt deflated, like I’d solved a mystery. But it disturbed me, all the same.
“You’re getting obsessed with this,” Susan said. This was two weeks after the anniversary dinner.
“I know,” I replied. “But to think that he might have died and they covered it up… don’t you think it makes sense?”
“Oh come on,” she said. “Really? That is a bit far-fetched.”
“But the photo?”
She shook her head. “It could be just a party, is all. Come on love, you know that.”
I kind of gave up. Kept scanning photos, now and then. A year went by, then two. Eventually I got to the end of the box. No more photos, no more anything.
What else could I do?
I considered trying the Salvation Army, but they only trace people for family members, so I’m told. And if I did ask them, what would I say? “Hello, do you think you can find a murder victim?”
I tried tracing the rest of the band, but that was hard.
And then out of the blue, I got a phone call.
“Hello,” said a man. “This is Alec Carner.”
“I recognised the voice,” I said. “I’m a big fan of Chimney.”
“You’re probably the only one,” he replied, mournfully.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
“I was trying to talk to your uncle,” he said. “We hadn’t spoken in years. I wanted to… well, I wanted to talk to him. And I called Pete, and he said I should call you.”
I explained why he couldn’t talk to me uncle, and we made an appointment to meet up at the weekend, at a small café near St Stephens church, and I would take him to the grave. When I started to talk about the band, he went quiet. I felt I might have blown it. I wasn’t sure he was going to show up.
Saturday I was there early. But he’d got there before me. He was a smaller man than I thought, but not by much. His hair looked natural, slightly blonde. He’d aged well, I thought, the way some people do. Although that’s what too many late nights and stressful deadlines do to you, I thought – they make you look older than you are. We shook hands. He had an iron grip that I kept feeling for hours afterwards.
We started walking towards the churchyard, in silence.
“I didn’t know he’d died, until you told me,” he said.
“It’s OK,” he said. We walked along in silence.
Approaching the churchyard gate, he opened it, and ushered me through.
“How did you end up in this position, curating his stuff? If that’s the right word?” he asked.
“He left everything to me,” I said. “I’ve never really worked out why.”
He ran a hand across his face. “Maybe he didn’t have anybody else.”
I shrugged, and led him over to the gravestone. It was a simple, granite affair. Nothing ostentatious. Just the name, and the dates, just as he’d asked for in his will.
Alec leaned forward, with the sort of care that comes with arthritis, picked up a pebble and set it on top of the gravestone.
“Goodbye old man,” he said. “Nice knowing you.”
He turned and looked at me.
“I saw that in Schindler’s List. I don’t know if it’s a Jewish thing, but it felt appropriate. He sort of saved us, in a way, your uncle.”
We walked over and sat on the bench. I drew out the photograph from my pocket, and passed it to him.
“I remember that,” he snorted. “That was after a gig on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Julius got so drunk he was falling down. So your uncle decided he was going to take a photo. He said it would be for blackmail, in case we ever needed it. Never actually seen it before.”
He handed me back the photo, and I put it back in my pocket.
“What happened?” I asked. “With Doctor X? Do you know why he disappeared?”
Alec laughed silently, cynically. He reached, slowly, inside his jacket, drew out a packet of cigars and lit one.
“If you really want to know,” he said. “I’ll tell you. But you’ve got to promise me one thing.”
“It doesn’t come out while I’m alive, or while Pete’s alive.” He looked at me, pointing at me with his cigar. “Don’t look so shocked.”
“It’s not as bad as you think,” he said. “Maybe. But promise me, though.”
“OK,” I nodded, enthusiastically. “OK, I promise.”
He sat back on the bench, took a long puff on the cigar and closed his eyes.
“We owed money. Not a lot of money… but enough. We’d bought the van with a loan from a dodgy geezer Tom met in a pub. We bought some effects pedals as well. We stole an amplifier from a shop, the three of us – don’t ask me how, but we did. Pete wasn’t involved with that, we never told him. He’d never have stood for that.
“Anyway, we all borrowed money, we three. I knew I wasn’t much of a talent, and I’ve been proved right in that – forty years of singing in pubs for two hundred quid a night tells you all you need to know.”
“You wrote all the songs though?”
He shrugged. “I wrote the words. We kind of put the music together as we went along. Only really two of us could play properly, and that was Pete and your uncle. They kind of held everything together leaving me and Julius to make all the mistakes.”
“My uncle went into hairdressing,” I said. “In the end.”
“Did he now?” He opened his eyes and looked at me. “I didn’t know that. We lost touch around seventy-five, I think. Maybe seventy-six.”
“Owned his own salon by the time he died.”
“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” He blew a smoke ring and grinned, broadly. “Well done him.”
“But go on,” I said.
“So yes,” he continued. “We owed money. A lot of money.”
“So Julius had this idea. Insurance fraud. Get a van like ours cheap, really beat up, switch the plates, crash it, and then collect the money. Meantime, selling the original for a lot more than we pay for the ringer.”
“Sounds like a bad idea to me,” I said.
“You don’t know the half of it,” he said. “So Tom, that’s our roadie, he wants nothing to do with this when he gets wind of it. Besides, another band has offered him a similar gig, but they can actually pay. So off he went. That left essentially me and your uncle to do the job.
“Well getting hold of second hand Transit was fairly easy. There weren’t quite as many about as there are now, but we got one cheap. Same colour. We changed the plates, took the ‘old’ one round to a dealer and offered it. We gave Julius’s number as a contact because his housemate had a phone. So far, so good, right?”
“Meantime, we arrange to ‘crash’ the other van. We find a quiet street corner, and aim for the lamppost. It’s pretty much a blind corner, so our story is we took the corner a bit too fast, hit the lammpost, sorry about that. But we’re all sober as judges, so no drink driving. Hopefully nobody’s going to get done.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Did you hit someone?”
“Nah,” he said. “Nothing as dramatic as that.
“In fact, it almost worked. We hit the lamppost, radiator sprang a leak, oil starts flooding out the engine. Everything goes like clockwork.
“Then when the police get there, the first copper susses it straight away. Says the van’s way too old for the number plate, takes one look and sees that the plate’s been removed and then asks what’s going on.”
I could feel my heart sinking.
“Your uncle fell on his sword for us. Said he was responsible, that he’d flogged the van, didn’t want us to find out so he bought this one cheap, switched the plates…”
He shrugged, one of incomprehension.
“I personally thought we were in a hell of a lot of trouble. Someone pulled some strings, did something. I’m not sure who, or what. Maybe someone had connections. Maybe we just got lucky. But he basically pled guilty, got a 25 quid fine and that was it. I couldn’t believe it, but we’d all split up by then, it was just your uncle, on his own. I was there in the court just in the gallery for moral support, I wasn’t even arrested.”
“Sometimes, you get lucky.”
He blew smoke and turned to look at me. “Sometimes, you do stupid stuff and you somehow get through it,” he said.
“What happened to Doctor X, then? Did he just disappear?”
Alec shook his head. “After what you said on the phone, I went looking for this. Only found it about two in the morning.”
He reached into his pocket, and drew out an old brown envelope. I opened it, carefully, and pulled out one faded sheet. The ink was faded, but the paper was clear.
“Guys,” it read. “I gotta split. I’m so down over the van thing I can’t hardly think. This is best. I gotta go. Talk to my mum if you need to know where I am. J.”
“That was it?” I said.
I folded the paper back, put it back in the envelope, and handed it back.
“He went to live with his mum?” He nodded. “It’s an anticlimax. I was hoping for something dramatic.”
“Your uncle having a criminal record for attempted fraud isn’t enough?”
“No,” I said. “If anything, that’s too much. I know too much, and not enough.”
Alec stood up, shrugged, and ground the remains of his cigar under his foot.
“That’s just what life is though,” he said. “Too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right ones. Don’t you think?”
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