Previous Chapter: Something to Do
One of the constant things I found a challenge when writing Garden of Eden was writing about how it feels to listen to music; be it songs you love and know every note of, or the experience of a new album for the first time, trying to describe music in a way that gets across how you feel when you listen was something that would be central to this story of young people and their band. I hope I succeeded in some way.
The van turned off from the main road some distance before the town, heading off down a far narrower lane that looped sharply towards a parade of shops and a fenced-off industrial area, workshops and warehouses on the edge of a small civilian airfield.
“This the place?” The van had pulled up outside a small supermarket, and Zeno’s head was poking out the back door.
“Sure is.” The driver stepped lightly down from the door frame and met Zeno at the back. “Get the bottles, Show. The empty ones.” The last part was said in a knowingly mocking tone, and Zeno looked blankly at him.
“What’s that about, Red?”
“Show had a bit of a shocker this morning, tried to serve Sara a drink from an empty jug. Was probably-”
“I get it, yeah, I was distracted.” Show cut in quickly.
“As I was saying I think Show had something on his mind other than Sara’s breakfast. They grow up so fast, don’t they?”
Zeno made an effort not to laugh. It was entirely typical of Show to do something like that – his efforts to impress Sara were getting increasingly desperate of late, but she was resolutely uninterested. At the same time, though, it was not at all unlike Red to try and sabotage Show’s attempts at seduction. An even more cynical mind might have said Sara was encouraging him.
The supermarket was dimly lit, racks of goods piled up with little or no logic to them. While each aisle was duly labelled with a sign, half of them still appeared to say “space for two lines of text” with the correct labels written in underneath with a marker pen. Zeno poked at a pile of unsorted packets of biscuits, some of which were brands he didn’t ever recall seeing on sale and quite a few looking distinctly like unofficial copies of more expensive products. Show and Red were working their way through Xan’s shopping list, and had left him alone as they dug around in chest freezers looking for chips and frozen vegetables.
He opened his wallet, and counted the notes there. Enough to get some things, especially at the prices this place seemed to charge. A packet of chocolate cookies, the label misspelled but everything else about them seeming good. A few bags of crisps, flavours he wasn’t familiar with and brands from overseas somewhere. A big bottle of a brand of cherry concentrate drink he had vague memories of liking as a child.
As he rounded a pile of dusty tins of soup, he saw a small magazine rack and media section. Hard-copy magazines – hardly commonplace any more but not dead yet, and these had all been knocked down to a few cents to shift them. Most were fashion-based, but at the back he saw something interesting. Lift, an old racing magazine he had read before it died. An issue he had not seen before – dating back years, it seemed. Flicking through the pages, the sight of the old vehicles raised a smile, but one article in particular stood out. The photograph heading it up was of the same rocky bridge he’d been reading about in Skyway, but the description was completely different. Sticking the magazine in his shopping basket, he queued up with the others.
“Lift? Haven’t seen that for-” Red suddenly fell silent. “That’s Harp isn’t it? I know he used to fly but – that is, isn’t it! It’s Harp.”
“Should cheer the old guy up, let’s show him.” There was only one till, staffed by a greying man in an unbuttoned shirt over a faded t-shirt. When he saw the copy of Lift, he turned to Zeno.
“You know Dominic Harp?”
“Yeah. He’s part of our VF team.” Zeno couldn’t help but sound proud of that. His team were one of the youngest to compete on a major VF circuit. “Maintains our pride and joy. We’re just off to pay him a visit.”
“I knew Harp once. Doubt he’d remember me, but I was a fan. Back when he raced. Didn’t think he’d give up the sport no matter what Skyway said. Figured he’d take some team under his wing. Does he still talk about how he got the fastest time anyone’s ever seen on the Grey Cliff GP? No-one’s ever beaten it yet – I’ve been following VF all my life and not seen anyone even try Harp’s line under the bridge. Grey Cliff’s-”
“Next week. Somehow I’ve got to fly it.” Zeno smiled. “Knowing our mechanic holds the record isn’t going to do my confidence wonders.”
“I still have my copy of that issue of Lift, signed by Harp on the day he took the trophy for the season of that Grey Cliff run. Read the interview with him about it.”
“It’s what caught my eye. Skyway’s coverage of the course was-”
“It’s why I don’t read Skyway, sometimes I wonder if they’ve ever flown the courses they analyse.” The shopkeeper laughed. “Never thought I’d meet Dom Harp’s proteges. Tell him he’s made an old fan’s day when you see him. And if I can get her back there-” he pointed a thumb towards the caravan out the back of the supermarket – “to take the tills for Grey Cliff you’ll bet I’ll be there. Who should I be cheering?”
“I’ll make a note. Take the groceries. Don’t worry about paying. And don’t forget to say hi to Harp for me.”
“Can we leave the van parked here?”
“Sure. Take these, too. Harp always used to like them, he should still.”
It was a short walk from the supermarket to the gate of the airstrip, past the remainder of the shops – a couple selling general flying supplies and smaller spare parts, and a closed cafe. Zeno drew out a keyring from his pocket and waved it at the guard sat reading a newspaper, who indicated that he should go through. The warehouses and hangars were oddly quiet, with even the runway all but deserted. The parking bays were populated by a few vans, painted with the tags of racing teams or the logos of their sponsors. Red kicked petulantly at one, a six-wheeled goods hauler marked with a swirling red scarf logo as they walked past, and they turned and ran on the off chance someone had been looking, looping round the alleyways and wide courts of the small estate before re-emerging round the back of the warehouses, where the storage yards with their abandoned pallets and bins opened out onto a wider, flat road round to the air terminal. A training plane was up doing simple maneuvers, but other than that if any of the regulars were about they were keeping themselves to themselves.
Zeno knocked on the door of one of the hangars, its wall painted with a mural of flowers and vines wrapping around each other and all heading towards a central, rainbow-coloured tree. The door had once been a simple slab of grey-blue metal set in a dull corrugated wall, but someone had painted over it a complex pattern of the same leaves as the larger picture. A sign had been stuck to its centre requesting visitors knock, and Show promptly ignored it and turned the handle. It opened into a small reception area overstuffed with framed photographs along the walls, of aircraft and their crews standing next to varying numbers of trophies. Interspersed with the photographs were magazine covers, and behind the counter were pinned two old centrefolds, lithe and waifish women – one with hair dyed a green-blue that sunlight had faded to grey, and the other a reddish-blonde.
“Who were they?” Show ran a finger over the faded paper, tracing the arch of the green-haired woman’s back.
“Not sure. Be nice to see the pictures in better shape though.” The sun had faded out the parts of the picture Red was interested in. “Ask Harp.”
The door behind the counter opened out into the main hangar, where a single-seater jet rested on a scaffold, most of its hull panels removed to reveal a skeletal frame, the spars pared down as much as was safe to save weight.
“Thought I heard someone outside.”
“Was wondering when you’d head over, Zeno. Think you’d like to take her up?”
“Yeah. Been in the supermarket recently?” The doctor looked oddly blank at that, running a hand through lank grey hair as he fished about in the pocket of his labcoat.
“When I need food I go to the shops. Is this one of your tricks?”
“The guy behind the counter remembered seeing you race. Said you knew a thing or two about Grey Cliff. Gave me this.” Zeno passed the magazine to Harp, whose face creased into a wide smile.
“Someone keeps the faith I see. Did you tell me it was Grey Cliff you were racing? You probably did.”
“As our mechanic shouldn’t you know the schedule?” Show looked over Harp’s shoulder at the magazine page. “You were a handsome man when you were younger.”
“I’d like to think I’m still handsome now you cheeky little brat.” The doctor closed the magazine and set it down on the desk. “This is a development. Grey Cliff. An old fan. Photos of me in the magazines again. I think we need a drink.” He reached into a tool cabinet and with a sharp tap of his hand opened a false back to reveal a drinks cabinet, stocked with cheap cans of beer and packets of nuts that looked to all the world like they had been stolen from a pub. “Let’s celebrate.”
“Later, doc. We need to get the Messiah back together and take her up, then once we’ve done the test run we’ll celebrate.” Zeno opened the magazine again. “The guy in the supermarket said you’d know how to do Grey Cliff.”
“Hold up a minute.” Harp settled himself down in his chair. “Yeah, I know how to fly Grey Cliff. But the Messiah won’t do it the way I did. Wingspan’s too wide and the turning circle isn’t enough. I bet you’ve been thinking about it.” The old engineer’s voice was suddenly hard-edged and serious, his amiable and vacant image gone. “You’re thinking the flag’s deceptively high so you can take it in one move rather than use the splash basin as a turning circle, cut the corner? It’s the way I did it.”
“I was, yes.”
“Messiah won’t do that.” He flipped a laptop open and called up a flight model for the jet, tapping numbers into the various boxes on the simulator. “Look, you’ll either take the wings off or stall. I’m afraid unless you’re going to be bringing me the prize money from a few tournaments you won’t be getting a VF that could take my line.” Closing the lid of the computer as if there was no further debate, he settled back down. “Now I tell you what, you can put the panels back on her, and I’ll watch.”
Zeno didn’t complain. In fact, it was quite an honour for Harp to let him take a part in the Messiah’s maintenance – the old man was fiercely protective of his pet project and would nine times out of ten insist on doing even the slightest work himself. As Harp flicked through the old VF magazine and drank beer, the radio playing the same few chart songs through a haze of static, it was hard to imagine a much better way to spend a morning. The work was theoretically mindless heavy lifting, but when working on a light aircraft every rivet and bolt had to be correctly fixed and the act of concentrating was a kind of relaxation. Harp’s work had been as good as ever, and the aircraft’s light frame fitted back together as easily as if it were fresh off the factory line, each gently curved sheet of almost paper-thin metal slotting neatly into place without even a scratch on the paint where two panels joined.
“Doc? Got a question for you.” Show suddenly found his voice. “Well Red and me, we’ve got-”
“The girls in reception? Heard you admiring them. Hope you haven’t torn those posters, they’re damned hard to find.” The engineer smiled. “Most everyone who saw those photos wanted to know more about the girls. Ain’t often you see a woman with green hair, is it?” The laptop came out once again, and this time Harp opened a web browser, calling up a page for a long-out-of-print VF magazine. “They were the covergirls for Type, if you remember that. Don’t think you would. The green haired one is Erica, the redhead Maria. The full photoshoot’s on Type’s archive site, but everyone really wanted the poster.” The preview photograph for Erica’s set showed her wearing light blue, a colour that almost matched her hair, dressed like the marshals at a VF day in a short dress and ankle boots. “It’s the smile isn’t it. You almost don’t notice there’s nothing to see.”
Red looked slightly incredulous as Harp clicked on one of the thumbnails. It was the poster of Erica that had been tantalisingly weathered away to white paper. Her arms were neatly folded over her bare chest, and her discarded top draped over them, leaving everything to the imagination.
As Red spluttered incoherently, Zeno couldn’t help but laugh. He’d downed tools while Harp had brought up the photographs, and found himself agreeing with the old man – while later photographs in the set showed everything Red had been hoping to see, it was the poster shot, of a girl teasing anyone watching, that stuck in the mind. She reminded him in a way of Mio, but there was no way in hell he was going to say anything of the sort. If Xan heard him comparing Mio to some no-name race-day girl who took her top off for the magazines, he’d be out of the studio and the team would be over. All the same, that didn’t change the fact that Erica’s smile had the same innocence to it as the girl they shared a studio with.
“Think it’s lunch time. How’s the work going, Romeo?” Harp stood up and walked over. “Oh, you got it all done. Kept that quiet didn’t you?”
“Was listening to what you had to say. Is the roof garden open?”
“Think it could be for a few hungry guys like us.” At the top of a spiral fire escape, a plain metal trapdoor opened out onto a flat section of roof which had been set with a number of potted plants. In the centre of the clear area was an electric barbecue, with a chest cooler running via a cable dangled through a nearby skylight. “Make yourselves at home, the media centre’s set up if you want. No-one’s about so play it loud.”
Show rifled through the folders on the music player, dragging songs from their albums into a playlist with practised swipes of a fingertip. Harp’s collection was a comprehensive history of great music, the product of years of well-chosen purchases, and soon enough a 30-year-old chart-topper was playing out over the still summer’s afternoon. Electronic voices smoothly glided over a two-bar reverberating synth pattern, forming a choral sound with just an edge of sawtooth harshness that transformed the sound from saccharine backing vocals to an instrument in its own right, a driving force over which a vocoded singer poured out staccato rhymes. As the song progressed, a string sound built up steadily in wavering block chords – a now-cliched progression of harmonies but as Harp passed around beers and barbecued kebabs, it seemed absolutely right.
Zeno’s plans to stay sober and take the Messiah up had been forgotten. It generally happened that being around Harp meant very little got done in the afternoons. The song had changed to another favourite, clean electric guitars and digital pianos with effortless rhymed lyrics, and as the simple chorus came around they all sang along. They talked about everything other than the race, Red and Show bickering about girls, Harp and Zeno talking about the finer points of each track that came on the hi-fi.
“You should listen to this, Show. Your band could learn from the greats.” The comment was not said with malice. Zeno had never heard Harp sound in any way confrontational, or insulting. “The thing about your music is it’s too much. You don’t have a vision.”
“We do. We’re inspired-”
“I can hear your inspirations but you need something more than that. You’ve got too many inspirations and it’s crowding your talent out.” Harp snatched the remote for the media centre from Show and flicked back a few tracks. “Listen to this again.” A descending sequence on a distorted guitar, with a steadily accelerating drum line underneath as if it were rising to meet the falling melody, straight into a powerful first line as the initial sequence was repeated, and then the guitar diminishing to chords pulsing out, ONE-two-threefour-ONE. “See what I mean? That’s the sound you’re trying for but you just don’t have it. The guitars are always too busy, I know that’s your job but take a back seat. That girl that sings – she’s got a good voice. Don’t drown her out, you can give yourself a solo later if you want to show off.”
“I think I see. Doc, do you mind taking a look over the song we’re working on? I mean- You’re- you know this stuff.”
“Only what sounds good. Can’t write music, never wanted to learn. While you’re up, put some more of those kebabs on the grill. Red looks starved.”
“I’ll take them then.” Zeno stood up and helped Show, frying off large flat mushrooms with lime and a bitter, close-leafed herb while toasting flatbreads on a ridged section of the grill. “Apparently Mio went a bit wild at breakfast and Red made the most of it.”
“That reminds me, we should get this stuff back to Xan at some point. You probably shouldn’t be flying this afternoon and I want to practice a bit upstairs, so-”
“What’s the hurry?” Red took another bottle of beer from the fridge. “Xan can wai-” Show’s mobile began to ring. “Perhaps not.”
“Xan?” Show was still smiling. “We’re at the hangar. Yes, we’ve got the stuff. All of it, yes. Sure, we’ll be about an hour or so. Need to finish lunch. Zeno? I’ll pass you over.”
Zeno took the phone.
“Another early morning stroll?” Xan sounded relaxed. “And I’m the one who has trouble sleeping. What were you doing?”
“Thinking about Grey Cliff. Wanted a chance to run the plan we worked out in my head, and I think best at the pillar.”
“Fair enough. You missed breakfast.”
“Show and Red told me what happened.”
“It’s OK. If you could head back this afternoon it would be useful, but finish eating first. What were you doing at the hangar?”
“Fixing up the Messiah before the race. Was going to fly but that didn’t work out.”
“How is she?”
“Doing well. I’ll take her up tomorrow morning. Speak to you later, Xan.” While they had been talking, Show had salvaged the abandoned mushrooms and bread, and the latest batch were just a little burned. A deep, sweet smell suddenly filled the air over the acrid smoke of the burned food, and Harp was holding a long pipe.
“You guys don’t smoke do you?” He puffed a smoke ring into the sky and slumped back down in a deckchair. “Probably for the best but I hope you don’t mind. Wouldn’t say no if you asked for one yourselves either.”
The pipe was filled with the leaves of a plant native to the local area, which burned hot and slow. It had very little medically significant effect on the body despite fans claiming that it aided everything from memory to digestion, while the smell as it burned was incredibly pleasant. Zeno saw little reason to smoke the leaves, especially given Xan had taken to using their essential oils as air fresheners around the studio.
“Couldn’t help but overhear your phone call. Heading off?” The food was finished, and Harp had set the media centre to play a more relaxed track – a light ballad-like affair played on saccharine, enveloping synths.
“Yeah. Xan needs us.”
“Enjoy. Might head over that supermarket. Pay a fan a visit.”