THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXTRACT FROM OUR RECENTLY PUBLISHED NOVEL THE LAST SUMMER OF HAIR.
As the afternoon progresses and the heat sits thicker on the dry land, the Salter clan work their way through copious helpings of barbecued meat, slabs of lager and numerous bottles of cheap, sweet bubbles. Tissue paper hats and broken crackers are strewn, and shoes are kicked off under tables. Buttons are undone. Ashtrays overflow. Children shriek and fight and fall over. Women clutter in high pitched gaggles to dispense shrill damnation, and men form loud scrums to tell yarns and lies and set the world to rights.
Meanwhile, the dogs are loving it. Scraps and pats aplenty.
Eventually, when the sting goes out of the sun and everyone is sufficiently loose, Jim grabs a microphone and starts the traditional group singing of carols, before reeling off his annual speech and giving both Rob and Scott – his anointed heirs – the chance to ‘say a few words.’
Whatever the rivalries of the day have been, this is Jim’s way of bringing everyone back together. Of reminding them where the source of their wealth and power lies. Most years it works. Today is no exception.
The stage, therefore, is literally and figuratively set for Jake.
For the first time he can recall, his father is praising him publicly, thanking him for setting up the PA and the lights, suggesting everyone take advantage of the fact and have ‘a bit of whirl’ to work off the grog.
‘Also,’ he slurs, ‘I reckon he’s going to play us one of his tunes.’
To the perceptible groan, he responds, ‘Apparently this time it actually has a proper tune. Least that’s what the little bugger tells me.’
Amidst laughter, drunken applause and furrowed apprehension, Jake hooks in his keyboard and laptop. As he fiddles with leads, he pretends to be embarrassed – but really, he is savouring their distaste.
‘Okay,’ he tells them when he is ready. ‘I know I’ve hit you with some pretty weird shit the last couple of Christmases but this year I’m going to try something more…’
The word catches; suspended in his throat.
A note of silence chimes in the cooling breath of evening. There is a flutter of panic in Jake’s chest. Like the sound of wings beating around his head. Disoriented for a beat, he wonders if he has the guts.
‘Romantic,’ he says finally, in such a way that no one can be left in any doubt.
Now there is no shying away. Vapours have coalesced into rain.
Jake closes his eyes, exhales. He can hear his heart pounding, like a muffled drum. He senses a murmur from the crowd; something less than a whisper. Like a portent.
Sitting back in her plastic chair, Shelley Salter’s heart bursts. For the arrival of love and the onset of storms.
She sees in an instant that coded looks are being passed between her husband and her eldest sons. Suspicions now confirmed. The trigger for action pulled. It will not be long now.
Shelley takes another drink to steel herself.
Up in the spotlight, Jake buys time, adjusting levels, clicking buttons. When he looks up, his father’s eyes are staring hard.
The vespertine air shivers, disturbed by the movement of feathers. Everything is ready.
Jake’s index finger hovers. He counts a four in his head and…
It is a curious scene. A marquee of overfed, intoxicated farmers and their children, reddened by Yuletide excess, gazing at the stranger amongst them. A black haired slip of a boy. Head down, swaying like a sapling in the lightest of airs, lips slightly parted, moving in a trance. As though unaware of their presence.
And all the while … a repetitive, circular melody. Like fog on the bay. Hovering. Sensuous.
As if urged by gleeful and fatalistic sirens, Jake performs with untethered intensity. Without the usual barricades. Bloodied and passionate. This is not expressed in volume, nor even in tempo, but rather in the spaces between the notes. For in restraint, abandon. In silence, desire caterwauling.
He brings it to a climax not by addition but by allowing it to dissipate. Until at last all that can be heard is the pre-recorded sound of a summer night, a humid froth of somewhere, sometime. Now lingering like memory.
There is an intake of breath, a droplet of hush.
Unlike previous years, they mean it. Or at least some of them do. Mainly the women. Enough for Jake to sense the difference. Not so much to take heart or feel validated, but to know for sure that he himself has changed.
When he looks over at his parents though, he becomes immediately certain of something else. His mother is holding back tears, his father grimacing, trying his best to smother it with a loud, matey grin. Nearby, his brothers join in the applause but avert their gaze. It is a small town, after all. There is no way he could expect to keep it quiet.
Jake tries to get eye contact. Confirmation. In his synapses, regret and triumph fizz in electric contest, swooshing around one another, vying for the helm. A voice bawls in his head. Just fucking say it!
His father is striding up to the microphone now. Clearing his throat. He is about to thank his youngest for the wonderful performance. As he is about to speak, he looks across to his teenage son and shakes his head.
‘At least it sounded like actual music this year, eh folks?’ he jokes, trying to smother any telltale signs.
While laughter and applause bubble up, he wanders over to Jake, as though in acknowledgement. He places a ruddy hand on his shoulder. He digs his fingers in, presses down, as if wanting to drive his troublesome child into the ground. Make him disappear.
Resisting, Jake stands, grabs his father’s hand and holds it aloft. Together, they strike the pose of triumph – but Jim can only bear it for a beat, before snatching his hand away, as if repulsed. It is a reflex many in the marquee note. Jake senses this and, provocatively, blows them a kiss.
Jim Salter’s fists clench.
Too late. Jake and others have seen it; and Jim knows he is cornered. Yet, beneath the booze-fired fury Jake detects a subsonic hurt. Caesar is wounded. Another dagger red. Et tu?
Before long, someone, probably Shelley, will need to mop up the blood.
The son holds his father’s gaze for as long as either can bear. In this, both the distance between them and the ground they share is nakedly revealed. Everything that needs saying is said. No more need for the testosterone spectacle of war.
PS: Grab your copy of The Last Summer of Hair by Paul Ransom right here.