They had been in the band for over twenty years now. Their best years, creatively and financially when a new record would sell over a million copies, were behind them. But they were still going strong and enjoyed the privileges of those who had ‘made it’; being described by journalists as ‘pioneers’ and ‘legends’. These privileges included not only a comfortable life, but also the interest of women. There were always girls who wanted to talk to them after a gig; female journalists who tried to flirt with them, not mentioning sisters and cousins of friends who wanted to be introduced to them. They both met their wives thanks to their careers: Michael met Anna in a club, where they were playing one of their first concerts and married her within a year; Andy married around the same time, the sister of their light technician. But there was a difference in their love lives. Michael stayed faithful to his wife and they lived with their two children in a beautiful house. It was so beautiful because Anna was essentially a home-maker, although when asked what his wife was doing, Michael replied that she was an artist. It was true in the sense that she studied art in college and in her spare time devoted herself to various creative projects, such as designing Christmas cards, sowing patchwork quilts, making jewellery, and helping their children in their art subjects at school. But she never tried to make money out of her talents, and Michael never begrudged Anna for not making a financial contribution. He believed that thanks to staying at home his wife was more intelligent than most women he ever met, because she didn’t need to squander it on trivial pursuits. She had a special talent for detecting absurdity and conveying it in a gentle, understated way. The perfect foil to the hubris of a musician. She also had a perfect ear for capturing Michael’s contribution to the music he was making with Andy.
Nothing gave Michael more pleasure than arriving home after a tour and finding everybody awaiting him like the conquering hero. After every return he spent several days without leaving the house; moving from the bedroom to the kitchen, then to the study, the patio and back the same route, as if his world had shrunk to three hundred square metres of pure perfection. Anna jokingly told him to hurry up with his midlife crisis before he lost strength to leave the house for even a day. In fact, the prospect of spending the rest of his days at home was very pleasant and Michael often wondered what, in his case, would be the acceptable parameters of retirement: age, income, etc. but it still looked like they were not easy to reach.
Unlike Michael, Andy divorced his first wife with whom he had two children, had several affairs, married again, fathered two more children, divorced their mother and then practically gave up on long-term relationships. He tried to bed young women, whom he could impress with what Michael saw as the faded charms of an aging playboy. However, Michael refrained from criticising Andy because he respected other people’s behaviour as long as it did not impinge on his life and they were never really friends, only collaborators who went their own ways as soon as it was possible. Still, Michael not infrequently was embarrassed overhearing him talking to young women, using the same clichéd language, and looking at them with barely concealed lust. Andy, on his part, respected Michael’s preference for domesticity and he never dragged him to the nightclubs and spared him the details of his affairs. But he could not fail to observe that being a family man with its bourgeoisie indulgences had resulted in Michael gaining weight and losing hair much faster than him. In was also thanks to Andy that they were touring so much, making new contacts and earning handsomely. Michael preferred working in the studio, and even there he behaved like a factory worker, looking at his watch so as not to miss supper cooked by his missus. Michael’s music also, to Andy’s mind – and ear, increasingly sounded as if coming from a conveyor belt, with the same small number of sounds popping up in the predictable intervals.
One day, before they left the studio, they had a visitor. It was Andy’s new girlfriend. Normally he met these girls elsewhere and later in the evening, but she had less time than his previous lovers and Andy had to see her when it suited her, rather than him. It turned out that her name was Laura – the ‘ultimate noir heroine’, as she presented herself. She probably described herself this way every time she met somebody new, but for Michael it was a sign of intelligence uncommon in one of Andy’s flames. She was undoubtedly attractive, but not in a way typical of Andy’s previous girlfriends, who were always at pains to be fashionable and obsessively tried to improve their looks, but rather in an understated and timeless way which brought to mind an old French star, such as Anna Karina or Françoise Hardy. Her dark hair was simply cut and she seemed to wear no make-up. She wore a dark dress with a small white collar, like a schoolgirl from the old days. Michael also noticed that Laura broke the rule according to which, the older Andy got, the younger his partners became. Laura was younger than Andy, but not half his age, being probably in her mid-thirties. It also turned out that she was a single mother with a full-time job. This Michael learnt in a café, as Laura suggested that the three of them go there. Andy was about to say that Michael was in a hurry to go home, but to his surprise, Michael agreed to join them and was more animated than usual. Laura appreciated it and behaved as if she was more interested in Michael than Andy, asking him questions about his interests and his life and hardly paying attention to Andy, who was reduced to ordering drinks. But he didn’t mind, he really appreciated Laura for being friendly to his grumpy partner.
‘What do you think about Laura?’ asked Andy the next day when they met in the studio.
This was unusual for Andy, as he had stopped seeking Michael’s opinion about women a long time before.
‘She is very attractive,’ replied Michael. ‘And charming,’ he added after a while, as he got the sense that his first answer did not satisfy Andy.
‘And smart,’ continued Andy. ‘I think she is the best woman I ever met.’
‘You said that many times before,’ said Michael.
‘Yes, but then I did not know what I was saying.’
Michael did not reply, but was thinking that such a woman would be wasted on Andy. However, it wasn’t his business. Yet when he saw her the following week, walking down the street not far from his house, he realised that it in fact he wanted to save Laura for something, or someone, better. She seemed to be happy to meet him, but was in a hurry. She had to collect her son from school and take him to the dentist. Michael offered to give them a lift in his car, but she replied that it would be faster to walk.
‘Maybe another time,’ she added.
Later that day he was trying to remember the film where he had heard these words and realised it was in one by Woody Allen. They were uttered by Mia Farrow to a man who was sexually interested in her. Allen’s character, who was in love with Farrow’s, took it as a sign that she would choose him too rather than a more successful bastard, but she ultimately chose the other man. The lesson is that ‘maybe another time,’ means what it says – there might be another time. In this case there might be another opportunity to tell Laura to be on guard, when dealing with Andy.
The next time he arrived at the studio Andy told Michael that Laura would go with them on their next tour and it would be a good idea if Anna joined them too. For Andy and Laura it would be a honeymoon of sorts and, for Michael and Anna, a chance to reignite the romance in their long relationship. It had been a long time since Anna was involved in their music and now would be a perfect opportunity as they were going to Thailand, taking advantage of the end of the political crisis and martial law, and the supposed hunger of the local population for western entertainment. Michael found the idea of travelling with Anna preposterous. She was not one for touring; she had neither the right wardrobe nor the right attitude and would find Andy’s antics annoying. Moreover, who would take care of their children? Andy must have read Michael’s thoughts as he said:
‘You think Anna is happy to be locked in the house, while you enjoy your freedom? I’m sure she is not, and she and Laura will get on well with each other.’
Even if Andy was right, Michael did not want Laura to meet his wife. For Laura he wanted to be something more than a boring family man, not least because his bourgeois life was just a veneer. Behind it was imagination, which took him, or rather them (as he was taking Andy with him), to another reality; it was thanks to Michael that their music had a surreal feel, as critics described it. In his thoughts Michael often compared himself to René Magritte, bourgeois on the outside, revolutionary inside.
In the end Michael did not even mention to Anna the possibility of her going to Thailand and she felt sorry for him because she knew how stressful it was for husband spending long hours on planes, in soulless hotels and serving his music to people from whom he felt disconnected. But of course it was not possible for him to limit himself to playing in cathedrals or monasteries. They had to carry on with gigs in the clubs and music festivals, and even more in such venues when record sales dipped. But Michael did not feel resentful on this occasion, looking forward to leaving behind the early, rainy spring which enveloped his town, and enter the heat wave. He even did not mind to have a bit of stress, as he would like to lose weight and stress was better for that than the strictest of diets.
Eventually they were flying to Bangkok. Michael was sitting next to Harry, their light technician, who slept most of the journey, and his other neighbour was their drummer, Willie, a man of great talent for music, but not for conversation, which could be said about all drummers he met. Drummers understood only beats; what was between them had for them little value. Andy and Laura sat in the row behind. As it was meant to be their unofficial honeymoon, Andy had the aura of a besotted man about him which, in someone younger, may have been endearing but not so at Andy’s age. As always, Michael found Andy’s attitude to women embarrassing and he expected Laura to be uncomfortable about the situation, but obviously she had to play along. At best, she might try to cool down her boyfriend. Michael thought this was indeed happening in the back row. He wished to see it, but for that he had to go to the toilet. But when he did go, he only saw Laura sleeping in Andy’s arms. It was not the most comfortable position for his friend, but he was enduring it and almost triumphantly smiling to Michael, as if he wanted to tell him – ‘see how much I am able to sacrifice for love. You never expected that from me.’
Andy did not sleep much during their journey and when they reached the hotel, his chivalry capitulated under the weight of tiredness and he went straight to bed. Laura, by contrast, after the long sleep, felt rejuvenated. Michael was also full of energy so they left Andy in his bed and went to see the city, which was predictably hot, crowded, and mildly oppressive, as Asian cities usually are. The food was also hot, bringing to Michael the memory of their first trip there which was almost twenty years previously. At the time it felt like they were at the top of their form and indeed they were. Although their greatest successes came two years later, they had a wonderful sense of doing everything effortlessly, enjoying themselves and having so much in common. By now, each of these feelings had gone. Producing new tunes took ages and they never sounded completely new, but imbued with nostalgia; gigs were a matter of putting on a mask rather than behaving naturally and they were staying with each other out of pragmatic concerns rather than for the pleasure. But now it did not matter. Ticket sales for their concerts had gone well, the next day they were meant to meet some journalists, the city was welcoming and he had great company. It was Laura’s first trip to Asia and her longest trip without her son. She appeared younger than her real age, almost like a teenager. They even went to a night club, danced and got drunk. Michael was thinking that after a night like that a man is expected to take a woman back to his place and make love to her but, of course, it would ruin everything. Thus, instead, he escorted Laura to Andy’s room, who by this point was awake and grumpy. He did not want them to enjoy themselves when he was recovering. In Michael’s view Andy should have been grateful to Michael for keeping his lady company, resisting the temptation of bad-mouthing him and seducing Laura: for being a gentleman, although on this occasion it would have given him much pleasure not to be one.
Their first gig went well. There were enough people to fill the large venue and everything sounded right. Their light man did a great job and they managed to add something new to their routine, which is the ultimate sign of a good performance. Michael was feeling so good about himself that he even gave a kiss to a young Thai beauty. Although he normally was shattered after the first night in a foreign place, this time he felt energised and eager to explore the city, eat the spicy food, drink and chat.
But Andy was not in the mood to go out; he wanted Michael to leave him and Laura in peace, in the hotel, where, as he put it, ‘they can enjoy a bit of privacy after the hard work’. Michael thought that Laura yearned for something opposite – fun. She even communicated it to Michael through her shy smile when Andy, with deep shadows under his eyes, was explaining their apparent need for solitude. However, she did not dare to contradict her fiancé. Andy therefore had to go out with Willie, who, flushed with adrenalin from the gig, was being a bit more articulate than usual. He confirmed Michael’s impression that their first gig went well:
‘It would be nice to do more in Asia. The problem is we are now behind. The whole West is behind and we will never catch up. We can only sell our old selves. At least we have something to sell, but what about the new guys?’
This was also what Michael was thinking, but he did not like when other people pointed this out to him, especially fellow musicians. They had a meal and then went to a bar and had some cocktails. Soon they were approached by two prostitutes. The one who came to Michael was younger and prettier, but he dismissed her and returned to the hotel, while Willie went with the other one. Michael felt tired, but still could not sleep, most likely on the account of alcohol, as drinking made him sleepless. He was thinking about Laura, coerced to endure the fluctuating moods of an aged gigolo who’d decided to settle down. He felt sorry for her, but also himself, stranded in an anonymous hotel, surrounded by people with whom he had little in common.
Two days later they left Bangkok and visited places where there were smaller venues and fewer people. The heat and humidity started to affect Michael. He slept poorly and his earlier enthusiasm at being away wore off; playing started to be hard work again, almost torture. There must be a reason why so many musicians die in their twenties, he thought. Andy no longer locked Laura in the hotel, but he wanted to explore the environs without anybody else. When Willie mentioned that they should socialise more as a group, he replied, ‘No offence, Willie, but honeymoons should be without chaperons.’
Most of his free time Michael was forced to spend with Willie, who liked finishing the night with alcohol and prostitutes. Harry usually stayed in the hotel, feeling weak and sick. Michael’s only chance to talk to Laura was when they were travelling to a new place, but then the time was not good, as the noise and the company did not allow them to communicate properly. Sometimes he felt like Laura would like to have some privacy with him, but on other occasions he suspected that she teased him or even that she conspired with Andy to make him suffer by making him feel excluded from their life. ‘Maybe another time’ – the words from Allen’s film, which before gave him hope, now felt like an insult to his intelligence.
The last night of the tour, Michael went for a walk in a town, where he saw many soldiers or policemen from a special unit. They seemed to be everywhere and their presence was intimidating, especially as they were hostile towards tourists. He went to a bar, to avoid their inquisitive eyes. He knew there would be prostitutes, and indeed there were. This time, however, he followed one of them. He was thinking about all the possible problems which might result from such an encounter, beginning with the inability to rise to the occasion and finishing with being killed by a sinister pimp. Luckily nothing like that happened. The room to which the woman took him was fairly civilised and she was very skilful, making him feel virile, and she didn’t even have a pimp, but worked in a kind of cooperative, run by prostitutes themselves. They had a small discussion about their organisation, proving to Michael that the DIY methods he and Andy pioneered in the music business over twenty years before were eventually adopted in all sectors, including sex work in Southeast Asia. The experience confirmed what Willie kept saying, namely that as far as sexual pleasure was concerned, nothing equals Thailand. Michael returned to the hotel in an excellent mood. Only in the morning, when he was packing his belongings, he started to feel miserable. It wasn’t just the fact that he had sex with a prostitute, but that he lost his high moral ground. Now he was even worse than Andy and Willie, because they were ordinary macho scoundrels, while he was a bourgeois hypocrite. His mood was compounded by his realisation that he forgot to buy presents for his family. He would have to buy something tasteless and generic at the airport, as there was no chance to get anything else beforehand. Michael was returning earlier than Andy and Laura, who included also Vietnam in their itinerary. His return travel was protracted on account of a strike at the airport and there was a problem with the connecting plane. Tired and distressed, he lost his mobile somewhere on the way. When Michael eventually arrived home, he was more tired than ever. There was a familiar smell of home cooking with much meat and little spices, and the kitchen table was decorated with flowers from the market, but his senses were dulled from long travelling and all he went through in the previous two weeks.
‘Our family man is back in his manor’, said Anna with her usual slightly mocking tone. Michael wished she’d spared him this tone just once. And then she added, ‘BTW, Andy phoned this morning informing that he broke up with his girlfriend and will return home earlier than planned. He wants you to meet him in the studio on Thursday afternoon.’