With speed and precision that would impress any seasoned roadie, Rory and Budgie rushed back and forward between the garage and the stage in the backyard, moving in total six amplifiers, three guitars, two distortion pedals, two microphones, two microphone stands, one keyboard, one keyboard stand, a five-piece drum kit, four cymbals, one drum stool, six stage lights, an old smoke machine and a plastic bag full of cables. LaShawn and Nils set up these items on stage. Thus, preparations were made for the live music.
It was my job to look after the free alcohol. I brought two wooden barrels around from the side of the house and set them by the back door, then made three return trips to the basement to collect ice from the big freezer. Six bucketloads of ice had the barrels half-full. I went back down to the basement to get seven cartons of imported beer from Budgie’s impressive stash. Seven cartons—Budgie had insisted upon that number—he said it represented the seven braids of mighty Samson’s hair. I made the first two beer runs carrying two cartons at a time. As I hurried back inside to make another collection, I stopped at the doorstep and looked down at the open front gates of Budgie’s property. There, just turning into the driveway, was a line of vans: Jimmy O’Shea and his men had arrived. I rushed inside. At the top of the basement stairs I paused at the darkness below. I flicked the light switch up and down a few times, but to no avail; the light had gone out. With a firm grip on the handrail, I descended. Thankfully I had moved the beer cartons I needed to the base of the stairs, so they were easy to locate. Feeling nervous with the approach of a murderous gangster and his posse, I stacked the last three beer cartons on top of each other. I squatted and tried to work my fingers beneath the bottom carton. Something clanged on the floor in the darkness behind me.
“Hello?” I said. “Is someone there?”
Whatever had clanged wobbled and came to a stop. After waiting a moment, I shifted the cartons at a slight angle, one way and then the other, and managed to get a decent grip. I stood and lifted the beer. There was a scratching; I turned and peered into the darkness. On the floor on the other side of the room, a soft, tiny glint blinked through the shadows.
“You’ll drop that beer,” whispered a voice.
I backed up against the wall, my eyes riveted to the tiny glint on the floor. The scratching sounded again, and the glint shifted to the right. I adjusted my grip on the beer cartons and turned to go up the stairs.
“You’ll drop those drinks and smash them,” hissed the voice. “Just like you dropped the drinks in front of Becky Roach in grade ten, you f**king idiot.”
After a pause and a steadying breath, I hurried upstairs.
“You insignificant sh**stack!” screamed the voice after me. “You’re f**king useless!”
Pushing through the small crowd that had gathered around the barrels like seagulls around a pile of dropped chips, I set the beer cartons down then wrung my hands. I didn’t put those last beers in the barrels; the seagulls could see to it themselves. With the ominous crunch of gravel beneath tyres coming from the front of the house, I ran over to the stage, where the guys were finalising the setup.
“They’re here,” I announced.
The guys paused and looked at me.
“O’Shea?” said Budgie.
I nodded. There was a moment of uncertain silence before Nils clicked a guitar cable into an amplifier and flicked the switch; the pop and buzz of the amp coming to life set the others back to work.
“Here, Miles,” said LaShawn, “Give us a hand with these lights.”
Within two minutes every last cable was connected. Through the crowd of partygoers near the house, a swarm of large, gruff-looking men in black jackets filtered into the yard. Budgie hit a big red switch and the lights came on. The stage was set.
Rory, LaShawn, Budgie, Nils and I huddled backstage. The party’s guests, unknowingly teetering on the brink of doom, gathered at the front of the stage; beers were in hands and smiles were on faces. Rory poked his head around the stage and made a quick scan.
“At least forty,” he said, referring to Jimmy O’Shea’s goons in black. “They’re stationed along the back of the house, both sides. They’ll be armed, but whatever they’re packing is small enough to fit beneath their jackets. Who knows?” he said, with a shake of his head. “Maybe some people will be able to escape. We have to try, anyway.”
We all agreed.
“All right then,” said Rory. “For this to work, it has to look real. The music has to be painfully awful, but it has to look like we’re trying our best. We have to appear confident, like we don’t know how bad we suck. And for the love of God, don’t laugh.”
Here he looked at LaShawn. LaShawn nodded.
“All right then,” said Rory.
He took a deep breath. We all looked solemnly at one another.
“Good luck guys,” said Budgie.
LaShawn and Nils headed for the other side of the stage.
“Wait,” I said. “What songs are we playing?”
LaShawn and Nils stopped.
“Oh yeah,” said LaShawn. “We should figure that out.”
“Uh, okay,” said Rory, “How about… ‘Unskinny Bop’?”
“Yeah, I think I remember that one,” said Budgie, “but I haven’t played it in a while, so I’ll be a bit rusty.”
“Excellent,” said Rory.
“‘Taking Care of Business’,” said LaShawn.
“I don’t know that one,” I said.
“It’s kinda boring,” said Budgie.
“All the better,” said Rory. “We probably need one more, something big to open with.”
“Just three songs?” I said.
“If we can’t repel this audience within three songs,” said Rory, “then we will have failed.”
LaShawn snapped his fingers. “What about that song of Budgie’s, the one about the milkshake?”
The guys looked confused, then Rory’s face lit up.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “‘Love Smoothie.’”
Budgie rolled his eyes. “I wrote that as a joke, remember? You challenged me to write a pervy rock song only singing about smoothie ingredients. It was terrible.”
“Terrible is what we need,” said Rory.
Budgie looked around at us. He shrugged and sighed. “Okay. Uh, well, I think it was in D. The chords were—”
“Stop,” said Rory. “Don’t tell me any more. Key of D. That’s all I need to know.”
LaShawn laughed. “This is gonna be so bad.”
I smiled. We looked around at each other once more—still solemn, but maybe a little grateful too.
“All right,” said Nils. He nodded at me. “You get up there and introduce us.”
“Introduce the band.”
“You’re on keyboard,” said Budgie, as though that explained it.
“It is better if the keyboard plays the intro,” said LaShawn.
“Seriously?” I said.
“It is better,” said Budgie.
“And we’ll be right behind you,” added LaShawn.
“Brilliant,” said Nils, giving me a slap on the shoulder. “We’ll see you up there.”
He and LaShawn moved backstage to the other side. LaShawn turned to give me a fist-pump sort of gesture that could have represented a show of strength, or a declaration of triumph, or defiance to authority, or a thrusting erection. Whichever way, I knew what he meant. He was telling me I could do it.
I listened to the crowd; they were restless. Budgie picked up his guitar, moved a few metres away from us, crouched and put his ear close to his instrument and began to tune it. Rory slung his bass guitar over his shoulder and ran his fingers up the neck with a mumbling lick. He looked at me.
I nodded. “I just don’t want to die yet.”
“I know,” he said. “This wasn’t the plan. But there are a bunch of people out in front of that stage who don’t want to die yet either, and we have a chance to save them. That’s not so bad.”
He was right.
“It’s all rather Dickens-ish,” he said, plucking the fat strings with his fingertips.
“Huh,” I said. “I suppose it is. ‘It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever—’”
“What?” said Rory. “No, not that. I’m talking about Great Expectations. Remember? Pip spent all those years trying to be a big shot, and it turned out the good life was really the simple life, and it was right in front of him all along. That’s kind of like us, don’t you reckon? We spent all that time planning an elaborate, heroic assault against Biscuits O’Shea, when maybe all we have to do to be heroes is get up on that stage and have fun playing some shi**y music together.”
I thought about that. I looked at Rory in admiration. He was staring up at the sky.
“It’s going to be a pretty night,” he said, and walked off to join LaShawn and Nils.
“All right,” said Budgie, walking back over to me. “‘Love Smoothie’. You remember it, right?”
I sniffed. The air smelled weird. “Not really.”
He put his guitar strap over his shoulder, then lifted his dinosaur tail of a braid from under the strap and let it flop at his back. He strummed a G chord; even unplugged, his guitar had a sweet, warm tone. He sang a scale up and down, coughed and spluttered and spat on the ground. The crowd was getting impatient and noisy.
“It’s an easy one,” said Budgie. “It’s in D. Just D, A and G through the verse. You’ll pick it up. We’re not going for perfection.”
I nodded. “I guess so.”
I pressed my hands together and bent my fingers back and forward. With eyes squeezed shut, I inhaled a long breath.
“You don’t have to go on,” said Budgie. “But if you don’t, you’ll wish you did.”
I exhaled slowly, clenched my butt cheeks together, and then stepped up onto the stage.
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