Rosa returned from the Portaloos to find Ernest bearing two bottles of water, dutifully filled during her time in the queue.
‘Did you know Portaloo is trademarked?’ he asked. ‘Like Hoover or Jacuzzi.’
‘I didn’t know that. How… intriguing.’
Ernest smiled and handed a bottle to Rosa, who took three small sips. Ernest opted for a large gulp.
‘Who’s playing here?’
Ernest turned around, as if the white canvas might reveal something. ‘No idea.’
‘Want to check it out?’
‘Sure, why not?’
They went into a tent large enough for eighty fans, but only twelve had shown: the usual assortment of Hawaiian-shirt-clad men and back-tattooed women, all donning sunglasses in what was essentially an indoor space.
The stage was occupied by four men in their late twenties: Youri, Gylfi, Aaron and Jake. Jake was the only one without an instrument, clutching his microphone like a life-raft, his defence against the demons of life. ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, we are 38 Children Called Stone. Don’t ask how we came up with the name.’ Jake said this with a grin. ‘We’re going to be playing some new tracks today, so even our most loyal fans are in for a surprise.’ Youri placed a headband over his corkscrew locks. ‘Oh, and by the way, if you’re not into elliptical lyrics, you may as well leave now.’ Ernest was the only member of the audience to find this joke genuinely funny. ‘Wow, you’re all still here. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.’ Jake smiled with his mouth closed. He shut his eyes, tightened his grip on the mic. And then he whispered ever so slowly, ‘1…2…3…4.’
Rosa would never forget hearing the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the first time. She was sitting in Ernest’s room on a cold summer’s morning when he decided to blast that sweet cacophony through Balliol College. The chord isn’t far off a G seventh suspended fourth, but that doesn’t quite convey how it jolted Rosa. She felt the chord in her legs, which spasmed into life. She felt it in her head, which wanted to recoil at the sound but could only embrace it. And she felt it in her chest, which was where she felt all powerful music; so too the pangs, both sweet and bitter, of love.
When Aaron struck his first chord, Rosa experienced a similar upheaval. Her focus became so intense that it morphed into light-headedness; her stomach butterflied slightly; her chest pumped with blood. She heard her heart beating in her neck as the chord slowly faded. Once its final trace had disappeared, Aaron returned his electric guitar to its stand, where it remained for the rest of the afternoon. Then Jake began to sing:
It’s easy being me,
Cause I’m the velvet prince of three.
Rosa and Ernest wanted to roll their eyes at this couplet; they wished it would sound as contrived as it must look on paper. But there was just something about it. Perhaps it was the metre or the range of sounds, but most likely it was that phrase, ‘the velvet prince of three’, a phrase that seemed to make no sense but which somehow evoked a smooth yet mysterious Casanova or the anti-hero of a fantasy novel. Jake’s voice was strong and deep, and it possessed a growl that was, by turns, sexy, menacing and humorous. This was the voice Rosa had been waiting for; she had finally found her band.
The rest of the group had talent to match: Youri’s drums were tight and crisp, Gylfi’s keys sent the young couple on an artificial LSD trip, and Aaron’s bass playing was reminiscent of a young Paul McCartney’s. If Rosa were a critic, she might have deemed 38 Children Called Stone the lovechild of Todd Rundgren and Cream; instead she enjoyed their energy and flair.
By the end of their set, 38 Children Called Stone’s crowd had expanded from twelve to thirty-eight, and Rosa had settled on her career. She was going to work for this band; heck, one day she would manage this band. Her favourite song was the inimitable The Square of Tolerance. Named after a square in Sofia that’s home to a Roman Catholic church, a Mosque, a Synagogue and an Eastern Orthodox Church, the song told the story of a picnic shared by these four places of worship. The image of a young Jewish woman offering her challah to the Imam next door was, in Rosa’s eyes, a true hallelujah.
‘Ernest, I want to work for this band.’ Of course, Rosa was only twenty-one at the time and her credentials were slim, but she was prepared to wait. This motley crew was a small beacon of hope in a world turned sour. Psychedelic they may have been, but their approach to life was not to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream; no, their approach could be seen in the dancing kisses of their mostly late-forties audience, for whom the burden of time had ceased to weigh heavy, at least for now.
‘You think so?’
‘Rosa, that’s amazing!’ Ernest wrapped his life’s comfort in a strong embrace. ‘D’you want to go talk to them?’
‘Not now, I’m a bit tipsy. And I need to figure out my line of attack; I’m pretty clueless about the whole music industry.’
Four years later, Rosa’s dream was realised: she became 38 Children Called Stone’s manager on 14th January 2019. And at the end of September that year, a few weeks after meeting Sophie, Rosa left for her first tour with the band.
Truth be told, she was finding it more difficult than expected – mostly because of the haphazard sleeping arrangements. Having always cherished her nine hours of shut-eye, she now had to contend with Gylfi ‘the darkness is my muse’ Sigurdsson bashing away on his keyboard until four in the morning. At least he had the courtesy to let everyone know how his compositions were progressing, as he alternated between groans and chuckles depending on whether his Muse was obliging him or not.
Jake, meanwhile, lamented the need to switch off, often quoting Nas’s N.Y. State of Mind: “I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death,” which Rosa found striking if a little strong. The reality was that Jake did sleep, because he knew that his performances suffered if he managed fewer than five hours. Unfortunately, his determination to reach this magical number had been the catalyst for insomnia. In a way, Rosa found Jake’s tossing and turning more difficult to deal with than Gylfi’s jam sessions or Aaron’s late-night drinking; she didn’t see how he could last two months on the road when he spent most of the night listening to the Joe Rogan Experience.
But the issues really began when Gylfi, neglected by his Muse, started disappearing every night. The usual routine was for the band and crew to enjoy a beer after every show, and although Gylfi continued to attend these gatherings, his mind seemed elsewhere, with his phone receiving far more attention than usual. He would then slip away at around eleven, telling the band that he was going to see a few friends, before returning to the bus at four or five, or sometimes not until morning. At first Rosa was grateful for her improved sleep quality, telling herself that she had nothing to worry about so long as Gylfi played well the following evening. But soon a voice in her head started to nag: Gylfi was putting the band’s future at risk. And so she committed herself to solving the mystery of the Icelandic keys player’s nocturnal movements.
Rosa’s initial thought was drugs, which was the first time that could be said of her. She knew that Aaron and Gylfi both dabbled, but she wondered whether Gylfi might have become more heavily involved. Unfortunately the rest of the group was clueless, so she turned to other resources, hoping to unearth a clue from an interview or a photo album. One section from a chat with Rolling Stone magazine caught her eye:
Jake: Just to clarify, none of us has ever performed high. Each of us has a different stance on recreational drugs, but our band policy is that alcohol and nicotine are the only drugs allowed before or during a show.
Youri: And caffeine.
Jake: Yeah, and caffeine. Gylfi fuckin’ lives for his green tea.
Interviewer: Is that policy to optimise concentration levels? To make sure you’re in the right frame of mind?
Jake: Yeah, partly. That’s very important to us. But I also think we’ve got to set an example to fans. Personally I’ve never taken any illegal drugs, and whilst I won’t give someone a lecture for smoking a joint every once in a while, I don’t want to be compounding our mental health crisis by making it seem cool to take drugs.
Interviewer: Sure, sure, that’s a noble cause. But you must have a few clean stories from your time on the road.
Aaron: Oh, man, definitely Gylfi’s cover of Do You Realize??.
Interviewer: A classic Lips track.
Aaron: Yeah, we all love that song. So we were playing Latitude and we were like two-thirds of the way through our set. I think we’d just played Cholera in the Time of Love, and we’re all, like, taking a sip of beer or changing our instruments, the usual transition shit. And then, out the blue, Gylfi starts playing the opening chords of that song, Do You Realize??. As in, loud enough so as the audience can hear. It was bad enough none of us were ready to play, we were enjoying a pint for Christ’s sake, but we’d also never rehearsed that song. Never even talked about playing it. And then Gylfi, the little bugger, starts singing, ‘Do you realize/ That you have the most beautiful face,’ and I look at Jake who’s staring at Gylfi with this, like, shocked grin, and then Jake follows Gylfi’s gaze to a girl in the third row, and we all realise he’s singing the song for her, or more like to her, and we just sit down with our beers and let him do his thing. It was an awesome performance. Poignant but also super uplifting. You really put everything into it, didn’t you, Gylf?
Gylfi (deadpan): What can I say, love is love.
Youri: Some great keys as well. Very spacy.
Jake: Yeah, it was probably our best song that day. Romance isn’t dead, hey?
Interviewer: That’s amazing. (To Gylfi) Did she realise you were singing to her?
Gylfi: Oh, for sure. I mean, I was staring right at her for three and a half minutes, and I don’t tend to go for blind girls (the band laughs).
Interviewer: And did you meet her afterwards?
Gylfi: No way, man. There’s no way the reality could have lived up to my expectations.
Interviewer: Man, that’s pretty depressing.
Jake: I’d just like to add that the rest of the band doesn’t share Gylfi’s pessimism.
Gylfi: I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist.
In fact, Gylfi Bjorgsson was a self-proclaimed existentialist, and he partied like one too. Many of his friends found this confusing, as they assumed that being an existentialist would make the Icelandic rocker an abyss of despondency; Gylfi could only pout and mutter inwardly at their lack of understanding. Or, if they were unlucky, he might tell them how Sartre once wrote of drinking, ‘I liked having confused, vaguely questioning ideas that then fell apart.’ Or perhaps he’d point them to de Beauvoir: ‘In songs, laughter, dances, eroticism, and drunkenness, one sees both an exaltation of the moment and a complicity with other men.’ In Gylfi’s eyes, meaning had to be provided by people, which meant that parties held a particular appeal: not only did they display a communion of spirit, but they were also an attack on the seriousness of life.
When it came to the nuts and bolts of partying, Gylfi took inspiration from an article called ‘Being and Drunkenness: how to party like an existentialist’, published by the American website aeon. For, although he had read Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ and de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, the young musician’s knowledge of the great existentialists was actually quite limited.
Bearing in mind Gylfi’s pseudo-philosophy, Rosa became increasingly convinced that he was sliding down the slippery slope of drug addiction. It would explain his secrecy, his mood swings, and the magnetic relationship between his hand and his phone: he needed to keep in touch with his dealer and his fellow revellers. But Rosa had no evidence. Besides, what could she do about a member of a psychedelic rock group taking drugs on tour? Naturally she had to make sure the band was putting on a good show, but Gylfi was playing better with each night, which meant Rosa’s hands were tied. She wondered if she could blame him for the slight tension within the camp. When she raised the issue with Jake, Aaron and Youri, however, they said it was standard tour behaviour: ‘We all need our space,’ Aaron explained. ‘It’s the shitty sound quality that’s pissing us off.’ She decided to consult Ernest, who had spent the past three weeks writing at his family home in Sicily. He’d set off on 4th October with a small suitcase and a rucksack, determined to distract himself from the absence of his love.
Arriving at Catania airport, he was met by that strange but familiar change in temperature, as the heat of the Sicilian afternoon drew tears of sweat from his muscular back. In the carpark he found Francesco, the house manager, who never failed to collect guests from the airport. Of course, Ernest was far more than a guest: the Dolce Vita mansion had been in the Krandle family for two generations, and Ernest would inherit it one day.
‘Mr Ernest! How are you?’
‘Francesco, good to see you. I’m fine, thanks, happy to be here. How’s everything?’
‘Very well, my friend. We have been having some beautiful weather. You know that wonderful breeze that blows from the Mediterranean?’
‘I know it well, Francesco.’
‘She has been keeping us company in recent weeks.’
‘Well, I’ve missed her!’ Joy surged through the base of Ernest’s neck. Three weeks would fly by in these surroundings.
His fine mood did not waver that night, with Francesco joining him for dinner. They sat opposite each other, and began with a glass of dry Sicilian white wine. A few minutes later, Dolce Vita’s Antonio and Giorgio produced a prawn risotto that was lemony and buttery, and Ernest felt at peace. The seafood was fresh, the rice perfectly al dente. Never one to hold back, Ernest enjoyed a second helping; Francesco, meanwhile, gave his stomach an affectionate pat. ‘No seconds for Francesco these days.’
‘You’re looking fitter than ever, Francesco!’
‘Let us not tell fibs, Mr Ernest. I have lived fully, and my doctor says I must tighten the reins a little.’
‘Well, let us enjoy tonight, my friend. I’m sure your doctor can forgive you one hearty evening.’
Right on cue, Antonio and Giorgio brought out another bottle. ‘Some red wine for sir?’ they asked Ernest, who felt a mixture of embarrassment and delight at this form of address.
‘Yes, please, thanks.’
‘And for Signori?’
‘Si, si, grazie.’
After the wine had been poured, Francesco turned to Ernest. ‘How is your Italian these days?’
‘Oof, it’s been better. Give me a few days to revise and then we’ll see if I can keep up.’
‘Excellent! And what are you writing at the moment?’
‘My third novel. It’s a family drama.’
‘Wonderful, wonderful, I love family dramas. Can you tell me more, or is it all hush-hush?’
‘No, definitely not hush-hush. Shall I start at the beginning?’
‘If such a thing can be done…’
With a chuckle, ‘Ok, let’s see. It starts at a hospital. A woman called Victoria Trafford is giving birth to her sixth child, a little baby girl called Clare, which she later realises is a suitable name for a woman but not for a baby.’
Smiling at this detail, ‘Yes, I agree with Ms Victoria.’
‘I’m glad. So she and her husband, Tom, are at the hospital, amazed that they’re going through this process for the sixth time. But they are incredibly happy; they know that every child is a blessing, a gift.’
‘From God? They are a religious family?’
‘Well, that’s an important theme in the book. Victoria is a Christian, but in a very English way: she doesn’t go to church all that often, the usual Easter and Christmas fare, but sometimes she prays before bed, depending how tired she is. And she’s usually very tired. Tom is a more complicated beast, at least when it comes to his beliefs. At the time of Clare’s birth, he is an ordained Zen Buddhist-.’
‘Mama mia, Mr Ernest.’
‘Ha, ha, mama mia, indeed, Francesco. But don’t worry, his spiritual journey is a long and complex one; he’ll be a devout Christian before too long.’
‘God shows him the light?’
‘As he always does.’
‘Bene. So what next?’
‘Well, Victoria and Tom return to their home in Chelsea, where three of the remaining five children are waiting patiently for their new sister. The eldest, Lawrence, and the third, Sol, are both away at boarding school.’
‘So they are a family with money. Ms Trafford is not knitting underwear for her children.’
‘Ha, ha, no, they’re well off. You see, Victoria is what some call a ‘superwoman’. She is a champion of free speech, and her most popular lectures receive millions of views online. Her husband, Tom, gave up working years ago to stay at home with the children; he does all the cooking, the shopping, the school runs. He used to be a stockbroker and was actually earning more than Victoria, but he knew she had greater potential. So Mr and Mrs Trafford are the focus of the novel. Their children obviously play a big role, but I want to track how the parents have come to this unusual position of having six children and being hugely successful. Add to that the inversion of the usual gender roles.’
‘I like it, Mr Ernest, I like it a lot. Many of these family dramas can be a little depressing, but this seems to have an uplifting message.’
‘That’s the idea. There are plenty of ups and downs, but the ups will prevail. Too much negativity in the world already.’
The rest of the dinner was a joyous affair, and those first three weeks in Sicily were happy ones for Ernest. It was hard not to be happy in a place like that. Ernest was particularly fond of the family’s orange grove, whose subsequent marmalade put Wilkin & Sons Ltd. to shame. And then there was the pool, installed by his grandfather in the 1970s.
A passion for swimming seemed to be passed down the male Krandle line. Some of Ernest’s most treasured memories were the mornings he had spent with his father in Parliament Hill Lido. Tobias had joined the club not long after Ernest’s birth. He would often wake up and realise that he really didn’t want to walk out in the rain, change into his briefs and think about extending his arm as far as possible whilst beating his scrawny legs, but every day he forced himself into the icy pool and swam his twenty lengths of crawl. And every day he felt better for it, shaking off his early-morning lethargy before the commute to Tate Britain, where he worked as a curator.
Ernest received his first call-up to these morning swims at the age of eight. He had looked forward to this opportunity for the past year, crossing off the days till his birthday on a Lewis Carroll calendar.
As Tobias had promised, the water was cold enough to goosebump Ernest’s arms and make his head slightly ache. But he exulted in his limitless energy, in the sensation of a tumble turn, and, above all, in the chance to spend a whole hour with Dad before school had even started.
Sixteen years later, towards the end of his holiday, Ernest slipped into the pool and wished that he had invited his parents to join him. He and his father would enjoy a ‘friendly’ race whilst his mother, who had never liked swimming, would put down her murder mystery to adjudicate. Pushing away this daydream, Ernest swam forty lengths of the fifteen-metre pool, noticing how his body first strained against and then welcomed the strange motion of its limbs. He swam aggressively, passionately, remembering how his dad had told him to always give his all, advice that sounded cheesy to most adult ears but which he appreciated all the more for that. And if a child experienced the sense in the maxim, then no doubt it pointed to the truth.
Ernest put on his sandals and walked back to the house with a towel wrapped around his neck. He missed Rosa, but it was a sweet longing, a kind of Sehnsucht. He was onto chapter eight of his novel and had managed to keep Sol, his avatar in the story, from drowning out the other voices. As the sun beat down upon him, Ernest thanked his parents silently, and God he thanked aloud.
His peace was shattered by the impertinent ring of his Samsung. Wiping his hands on the towel, he saw Sophie’s name on the screen, and his resentment faded.
‘Hi, Sophie, great to hear from you. What’s up?’
‘Oh, hey, Ernest,’ and he noticed the gentleness in her voice, the lack of her usual confidence. ‘Sorry to call you out of the blue, I know you’re probably kicking back by the pool right now, but I was wondering if I could chat to you about something?’
‘Of course, of course, I’m completely free. Is everything okay?’
‘Well, yes and no.’ Ernest hung up his towel and stepped outside, making his way to the garden. ‘Basically I’ve been struggling with my mental health over the past few weeks, and I didn’t really know who to turn to. But something told me you might be able to help.’
‘Oh, Soph, I’m really sorry to hear that. And, of course, I’ll do my best.’
‘Thanks, Ernest. So I guess I’ll just tell you what’s been on my mind.’
‘Sure, whenever you’re ready.’
It all started on a Saturday morning. Sophie stepped out of the shower, and the details of her bathroom were lost in fog. She opened the window to clear the air, to feel the breeze on her shoulders. With time, the mirror’s condensation passed away; she began applying moisturiser to her cheeks. The cream was cold and soothing against her skin, and she looked forward to a relaxing weekend. But then she noticed something: between two of her teeth, the upper left incisor and its adjacent canine, there gaped a small hole. Closer inspection revealed that one side of the canine had been worn away. In the weeks to come, Sophie would waste many hours trying to determine the cause of this erosion. Excessive coffee consumption? A failure to floss? Her penchant for snacking on tomatoes, whose pH level was far lower than she’d expected? Whatever the case, she soon became enthralled by the brown stain on her bean-shaped canine. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Within a few days she was lamenting the slight wonkiness of her lower teeth, the weakness of her molars, the plaque beneath her gumline. She remembered the time she’d forgotten to bring her retainer on holiday; she saw lemons and pictured the words CITRIC ACID; even an empty coffee cup would bring to mind the stains on her lower incisors. She couldn’t focus; all she saw were tiny imperfections in her mouth. Her biggest mistake was thinking that detailed analysis of these flaws would alleviate her concerns; in reality, this analysis rewired her brain, until she was lost in a labyrinth of images and thoughts. She was trapped in a steam room, dripping with sweat, struggling to breathe.
Out of a mixture of embarrassment and pride, Sophie felt unable to turn to her parents, or anyone else for that matter. Instead she slogged through her work like a swimmer paddling through treacle, and kept up her social engagements with oblivious friends. But it was difficult to enjoy pub trips and dinner parties when all she saw was dentin.
Ernest soon realised that Sophie was enmeshed in a web of addictive thoughts and behaviours. Having experienced periods of OCD himself, he imagined magnifying those compulsions by a few degrees, and felt a deep sadness for his friend. She was a happy young woman, excited by her new life in the city, but something had gone awry; he just hoped that the damage wasn’t too severe.
‘That all probably makes me sound insane,’ Sophie concluded, ‘but I just had to tell someone.’
‘No, no, I actually think it’s really normal what you’re feeling.’ Ernest had heard his dad using this line many times; he hoped it would make her feel less alone. ‘Trust me, loads of people go through a stage like this. One of my sisters did when she was about fifteen. She had this really…’, Ernest stopped himself from saying ‘odd’, ‘… strict routine before bed, where she had to touch certain objects in her room in a certain order, and she couldn’t fall asleep until she’d gone through this twenty-minute process. She felt this horrible itch in her chest, and-’
‘That’s exactly how I feel! And going through the routine just makes the itch stronger, but it’s so hard to resist…’
‘I know it is, I know it is. I’ve never had really bad OCD, but there’ve been times when it’s got pretty intense. For a while I had to keep everything on my desk in perfect order, otherwise I couldn’t focus on my writing, but every time I straightened a book or moved a stray wire I’d just think about it even more, until I learned just to let go, to resist the urge and throw myself into the writing. It took a lot of willpower, but it was so worth it.’
‘So that’s your advice? Refuse to give in, focus on something else?’
‘It worked for me. My sister’s case was a bit different because the urge just gradually left her as she grew up. I guess it was part of being a teenager or something. But I think at the end of the day you’ve got to find a way not to give your teeth the attention they’re crying out for. Actually, give me a moment, I have a great line from C.S. Lewis in one of my notebooks, let me find it. And I’m not trying to be all annoying and intellectual, ha, ha, I genuinely think it will help.’
‘Ha, ha, don’t worry, Ernest, I know you’re trying your best.’
Twenty seconds later (for Ernest knew his notebooks with a remarkable, perhaps even obsessive, intimacy), he found what he was looking for. ‘Here we go: “To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing, is, so far, to cease being afraid.” So you’ve got to cease attending to your teeth. But I think it’s important not to rush it. I know this might sound worrying, but if you’ve been thinking about your teeth almost constantly, you’re not going to conquer this overnight.’
‘Yeah, I realise that,’ and there was such weariness in her voice.
‘But equally it doesn’t have to take ages, so long as you really give your all.’ His father was feeding him these words. ‘That’s the thing, Sophie: it all comes down to how badly you want this. What sacrifices are you willing to make in order to feel better?’ It was at this moment that Rosa rang, desperate for Ernest’s advice on Gylfi.
 Rosa suspected that the trouble ran deeper than green tea.