It was a hot evening in July, and I was sitting on the porch in a chair made from an old car seat. I had a six-string acoustic on my lap and was running my fingers up and down the fret board, gazing into the distance. There was a can of beer open on the deck. We didn’t count alcohol as a drug and American lager almost wasn’t beer. Lowri was inside the farmhouse, and through the closed insect door I could hear her singing. Janis and Grace, the dogs, were rooting around in the yard.
Times like this, I often used to just sit there and stare out towards the woods. And I liked the idea that Lowri would soon be cooking, and that Becky and Suzanne, the stray hitchhikers, would be there too when it got dark.
There was the sound of a car coming up from the village. You could pick it out by the tower of dust as it snaked along the road, vanishing outside the clapboard post office with its tattered flag on a pole, coming into view again on the low-hedged straight beside the apple barns. It was an old Chevy pickup, painted green with a flower stenciled on the door, so I knew who it was before he even pulled over in front of the house: Rick Kohler with his kilo bag of white powder and the body panels of his truck stuffed with grass.
“Hi there, my man.” Rick was a scrawny guy with glasses. His hair always needed washing and the trousers hung off his nonexistent backside. He looked like the chemistry swot from school. He certainly knew a lot about drugs.
I offered him beer, but he waved me away. “I got something special for you, man,” he said.
“Christ, what next?”
Rick looked towards the Chevy. “Come on out, honey!”
The passenger door on the far side opened, and I saw a female head. Round the front of the pickup came a skinny girl about twenty-two years old. She had a floral cotton skirt, sandals and a white peasant blouse. Her dark straight hair was half tied back, secured by shades she’d pushed back on top of her head. She had suspicious brown eyes and she carried a guitar by the neck. Her high cheekbones made me think of a Cheyenne. She paused, unsure, and at that moment the sinking sun came through her hair from behind, through the short sleeves of her blouse, lighting her up. This was my first sight of Anya King.
She climbed the steps to the porch and awkwardly shook hands. Normally at a moment like this, Rick would be talking, rattling on like a typewriter. This time, though, he was as close to quiet as he could be.
Lowri came outside and Rick introduced her to Anya, who stayed kind of reserved.
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Rick. “I asked a few other people to come up later on as well.”
“From the city?” I said.
“Sure thing,” said Lowri. I knew she did mind, a little, but would think it wrong to say so.
“Guess they’ll be here about nine,” said Rick.
I suggested we go to Maria’s place to swim first, and Rick said that was cool. With the money from two platinum albums, Maria had bought the biggest house in the neighborhood. A refugee from LA, she spent summers upstate with her husband, John Vintello, who was a lawyer with MPR Records in New York, kind of a straight arrow, not a shyster.
The pool was in the yard with apple trees round it. Maria put a Dave Brubeck record on the outdoor system. Rick came out through the French doors, naked, walked through the hissing sprinklers on the lawn and jumped in the water. Maria came out from the summerhouse at the far end of the pool, also naked, the skin of her breasts shining with suntan oil. I never much liked this communal naked thing, but it was okay once you were in. I looked back to the house, where Anya was sitting on a lounger, sipping a drink. She’d put on a straw hat and looked like she wanted to stay in the shade.
Rick leaned against the side of the pool, threw his arms back over the edge, and talked to Maria. His hair hung over his shoulders and drops of water fell from his mustache. He was getting up to full speed now, yattering away, and I wondered if he’d had a quick snort indoors.
John, Maria’s husband, came back from the city, driving his station wagon up from the railway halt. He was starting a month’s vacation and was in a happy state of mind. MPR had three acts in the Billboard Top 20 and they had six people from A & R out on the road scouting for new talent. John was planning to sail a boat with Maria and a couple of friends from Key West down to the Caribbean. He’d asked a few weeks earlier if Lowri and I would like to come aboard, and we had both pictured storms blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico and Maria’s pill habit in a cramped space. “But you’re a Brit,” said Lowri, “you’re meant to have the sea in your blood.” “And you’re a Yankee girl, you’re meant to be a pioneer.” “Horses, Jack. Covered wagons. We left the sea at Plymouth Rock and never got our feet wet again.” After the two of us had spent an entire evening calculating what might be the longest period between landfalls we knew it wasn’t our scene.
There was no swimming for John. He brought out some beers and a jug of margaritas. The sun was going down and I called Lowri from the phone in the hall. She said two of Rick’s friends had already showed up from New York—Denny Roberts, whose band Blue Ridge Cowboys had had a Top 10 album in the spring (a kind of country rock thing with interesting harmonies), and his folksinger girlfriend, Tommi Fontaine.
We took two cars back to the farm, and I finally got Anya to talk a little. Her voice was rich and low. She told me she’d been playing in a coffee bar in the Village when Rick came up and spoke to her after her set. “I was, like, a little distrustful of this guy coming on to me. I’ve been handling my own material for three years. Making my own bookings.”
“You were still in a coffee bar?”
“Sure. But a New York coffee bar. To a girl from Devils Lake, North Dakota, a Village coffee bar’s as good as Radio City.”
“How long have you been in New York?”
“Two years. I had a job in a kind of songwriting factory for a bit.”
“The Brill Building?”
“Yeah, like that, only worse. In Brooklyn. We were in a row of small cubicles. It was like a musical reform school. A state pen for tunesmiths. I sold two songs. Two B-sides.”
“And you left?”
“Yeah, I’d started hearing songs on albums that weren’t made for commercial radio. Songs with real words. I saw you could write a song about . . . you know, anything.”
“Not just love songs.”
“Sure. And you could write for your own voice, to your own strengths.”
“Are we going to hear you play?”
She smiled—the first time I’d seen her smile. It was a little lopsided. “It’s a long way to bring a guitar and leave it in the trunk.”
“I look forward to it. Rick Kohler has great taste.”
She looked at the floor of the car, then back up at me. “I liked your last record, by the way,” she said. Her eyes were flaring with light, but guarded.
“Thank you. We’ve pretty much broken up. The band, I mean. I didn’t like the production. I thought it was too West Coast.”
Anya focused on rolling a small cigarette with tobacco from a tin in her Mexican shoulder bag, as though she felt she’d given enough of herself for now. She felt no awkwardness in just shutting down. There were no fade-outs, no good-byes.
The farmhouse we lived in had once been little more than a barn and was still only half converted. In the music room at one end of the ground floor, there were a piano, three guitars, various harmonicas, maracas and tambourines, and a double-height window that gave onto the woods. At the other end of the ground floor, Lowri had made a living space with sofas and a kitchen and a brick fireplace, which we seldom used for fear of setting light to the whole building. There were red curtains at the window, cottage furniture and always jars of wildflowers. The two bedrooms were upstairs, in what had once been a hayloft.
Two more friends of Rick’s showed up, plus Becky and Suzanne, and after we’d all eaten we went outside and sat on the grass. Rick and I took guitars and played a bit just to set the atmosphere, which was fairly mellow in any case, with red wine and some fat joints going round. It was still hot. We’d brought out a couple of hurricane lamps and some candles and you could see the moths zooming about crazily.
I remember so well how Rick laid down his guitar and stood up, smirking from ear to ear, like a kid who knows some stupendous news.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, bowing, his red cigarette-end arcing back in the flourish of his hand, “may I present to you something the like of which you have never heard before in your life, the unique . . . Anya King.”
Anya, cross-legged and unsmiling, took up her own guitar and began to finger a few notes, stopping to tune the strings. She had a delicate picking touch with the right hand, and the sound of the instrument was ethereal. It wasn’t the metal six-string tone we were all used to. I wondered whether it was the guitar itself or the tuning.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll sing four songs. This first one’s called ‘Genevieve.’ ”
For a long half minute, the fingers picked with fussy precision, seeming to use the top three strings only. At last the thumb flushed an arpeggio, bringing the lower notes in for the first time, then it was back to the home chords, minor, frosty. And then came the voice. It was high and clear, much higher than her speaking voice. She went through the middle of each note like someone bursting soap bubbles with a pin. There was this terrible purity. The song was about a girl lost in the city, trying to make her way, and it was set in the dead of winter. And out there on the hot summer grass, all you could feel was the ice in your fingertips. You could feel the bone-freezing cold of the back alleys, hear the trash-can lids roll and the rattle of old fire escapes where the homeless sleep. In her song she built this fragile world, but hard, cold, made real by the force of her imaginative belief in it. She ended with a minor chord struck slowly down through all the strings, and lightly smacked down with her palm to stop the ring.
I had heard nothing like it in my life. Most of our group, sitting on the grass, were looking at their laps, fumbling, as though they didn’t want to be the first to offer an opinion.
Anya coughed and plucked the A string, twisting the tuning peg, perhaps for something to do. “Okay,” she said. “The second song is called ‘You Next Time.’ ”
Where “Genevieve” had been sideways-on, like a short story about someone else, this song was so direct, so confessional it made you flinch. It was in the first person and it sounded as though it had been channeled that morning direct from her own experience. She’d loved a man she couldn’t have, had given way to a cruel separation, but vowed to meet him in another life. “No mistake the second time around, / I will die and rise, the shadow on your wall, / My name will be the only one you call, / Oh, my darling, you next time.” The emotional openness, the lack of self-protection, was a little frightening.
In the break between songs, Anya smiled her thanks for the friendly clapping, but didn’t really seem interested in our response. I didn’t like the third song so much. It was called “Reservation Town” and had a social edge. There was folk and protest music, a tinge of bluegrass, and it was less purely original. It had ancestry. What I did hear in this song, though, was the range of her voice. It wasn’t just the three-octave span, it was the variety of tone when she went into the lower register. Here, the cold purity was touched by something warmer and more womanly. It was a beautiful sound. I’d always felt the best soul and pop singers, women more than men, had a few notes they needed to hit as often as possible. Anya had two or three of those notes where her mid-range met her lower that you just wanted to hear again and again. The word she sang could have been “toothpaste,” it wouldn’t have mattered; the sound was so exquisite it sent shivers through your skull.
The silence after the song was easier to live with this time. Anya looked round the circle, a smile twitching the corner of her lips, as though she was thinking, What is it with these people? She retuned again. She was a fussy, fussy musician. “This song is really meant to be played on the piano, but I’ll play it on the guitar. It’s called ‘Julie in the Court of Dreams.’ ”
There was another slow, finger-picking introduction. The song began as observational, a little like “Genevieve,” with an open compassion for the girl it was about. You felt how protective Anya was of this imagined Julie, and maybe of all women. Then the music opened out. The voice lowered and Anya brought herself into the song, with that sudden rushing confessional we’d had on “You Next Time.” She somehow managed to fuse her true self with this invented girl and make it universal. It was a huge thing to do, but it seemed modest—and that was what was so moving. By the time she played the third verse, the melody had already become familiar. It sounded like a song that had always been there, yet like nothing you’d ever heard before.
When she finished, she laid the guitar down on the grass beside her and said, “Okay, I’m going to get a drink now. Someone else can play.”
But no one moved.
Anya liked staying with us. She seemed happy just to mess around in our farmhouse by day, go up to swim at Maria’s in the afternoon, then join me playing music in the evening.
I wasn’t a great pianist, but I could fill out what she was doing with some chords on the warmer songs. There was no point in trying to play guitar for Anya because her own sound was so distinctive. Right from the start she disliked any other voice on her songs, especially a man’s, even though I could reach the notes in falsetto and could think up harmonies. When she saw my face, she started to laugh. “All right, Freddy, you can play some chords.” I don’t know why she called me Freddy. My name is Jack. She often did this, I discovered later, finding names she thought suited people better than their own.
Although for four years I’d recorded my own songs and several joint compositions with my band, and Anya King had recorded nothing, she only tolerated me as a session man–cum–makeshift producer. But I didn’t mind; I knew I was at the start of something extraordinary.
Rick was always trying to shift Anya back to the city. He’d found her a gig in a bar in SoHo, still pretty unexplored country then. It didn’t start till September, but he kept telling her she should get back to the city and rehearse, get a feel for the venue.
“Just another few days, Rick,” she’d say. “I’m really getting my head together here.”
“You stay, honey,” Lowri said.
The summer slid by. Suzanne and Becky moved out of the second bedroom so Anya could have it. The girls took sleeping rolls out onto the porch or the grass, though they tended to get visited and licked by Grace and Janis.
Rick disappeared to an inn somewhere off the interstate, maybe to score coke, but after a few days came back and slept on the living room couch. The general store in the village sold pretty much all you needed; we got vegetables from the local farms, and once a week one of us would go to the supermarket in town to get cases of beer.
The weather stayed hot by day and cool enough to sleep well at night. Every evening after dinner, Rick would say, “We got to fix this chick a record deal, man.”
And I would say, “Pass that joint over here, you mean bastard. There’s always tomorrow.”
And Anya would say solemnly, “Tomorrow is another day.”
Lowri would sit watching it all with her amused expression.
“Days like this don’t come round that often,” I said one night.
“What about yesterday?” said Anya.
“Yeah,” said Rick. “And the day before.”
“And tomorrow,” said Lowri.
This seemed the funniest thing that any of us had ever heard. For about twenty minutes we were in agony as the first one able to breathe would say, “What about the Wednesday before . . . l-a-a-s-t!”
A telephone call did come, though, from MPR Records. Some kid in A & R that John Vintello had put on to us wanted to come right on up, or send a train ticket for Anya to go down to the city.
“Screw that,” I said. “You should play some more gigs. Let’s get you in some places up here. Just till the end of August. There’s plenty of small venues in town and a lot of tourists to play to.”
So next day Anya and Rick and I got in the Chevy and headed into town. We stood in daylight bars that smelled of last night’s beer where the soles of your boots ripped up from the sticky floor when you tried to move. Rick did his spiel, Anya looked demure and icy, I kept an eye out for trouble. A guy with a white Afro and six rows of beads sat Anya on a tall bar stool to play while he slumped down at a low table so he could see up her skirt. An old woman in a pool hall said Anya could play for tips. A bar on the waterfront liked her enough to offer her a week, but not till September.
We went with the white Afro at five bucks an hour, beer and tips. He told Anya to sing some folk songs, which she had to do anyway because she didn’t have enough material of her own to fill the time.
“I like that,” he said, when she’d played him one. “Is that Appalachian or what?”
“Sure. See you Saturday.”
Back in the car, Rick said, “Was that schmuck trying to get a look at your panties?”
“I think so.”
“What a pervert.”
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t wearing any.”
She was the only one who could shut Rick up.
Those few weeks, I was so happy I hardly dared inhale. I think it was the same for all of us. Households could break up as quickly as they formed and no one liked to talk about what made this one work where the last one crashed. I’d first met Lowri when I was in LA after my English band had broken up and she was living in Laurel Canyon in a house with six other people, three of them with giant egos. Lowri was the glue that held it together and no one seemed to notice how beautiful she was, with her brown eyes and straw hair and dusty freckles. She was always pushing herself into the background. I noticed her, though. She and I went to the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go and saw all those people who’d go on to be famous. That was way back, out west. But this summer, with Anya and Rick. What made our farmhouse run so well? It could have been the joker in the pack: maybe Rick gave people just enough to find annoying, so he was the lightning conductor. Maybe it was the bit-part characters, Becky and Suzanne, who went to work at the big neighboring farm by day, saving up their wages to travel in the fall, and earned their keep by helping out and being cool (and in both cases, I suspected, visiting Rick on his couch in the night. The runty little guy had a way of getting girls to do things to him). Maybe it helped having Maria and John up the road for a change of scene. Also, there were no money hassles, thanks to the royalties still coming in from my last album.
We accommodated Anya. Soft-spoken, young, unrecorded, mild-mannered . . . Was there anything that wasn’t easy about it? The size of her talent, I suppose. The silent power of her self-belief. It left this kind of force field round her. She was in no hurry to get back to the city; it was like she knew her time would come and there was no need to rush. Perhaps she could foresee the limousines and the press officers and the chain hotels and all the other things that would threaten her ability to find the pure thoughts inside her.
The gig we’d set up in town turned out pretty well. The audience was folkies for the most part, but with plenty of vacationers passing through and a solid core of drinkers who took a lot of winning over. When she needed to retune or change guitars and they just wanted something to sing along to, there was kind of a big frost. She never played a note until she was one hundred percent ready.
When did I begin to fall in love with Anya King? Before I met her. Before I knew her. The day her head bobbed up from the other side of Rick’s car . . . I felt I’d known her all my life and here she was at last. But she was someone I was also dead afraid of, because she was too much in me, too much a part of me, and, in some way I couldn’t understand, stronger than me. She was more me than I was.
And I had to deal with the fact that I still loved Lowri. But the way I loved Lowri was full of respect. She was the opposite of me: she was fair, practical, considerate, wise. I was none of those things. We got on so well because we complemented each other. When I met her it was like: I’ll take this one, she’s the deal, she’s got what it takes, she’s got all I need.
With Anya there was no weighing up and no decision. There were things about her I thought wrong, things I didn’t understand, and ways in which she was a lesser woman than Lowri. But none of them mattered at all. She was my destiny, and all I could do was ride it.
“Come on, Freddy,” she’d say each day in the evening light, banging on the bonnet of the Chevy. “Time to go. I’m gonna try that new song tonight.”
She’d learned to drive an automobile when she was twelve—anything to get out of Devils Lake—but liked me to take charge of the expedition, like a roadie. In my bad moments I thought maybe she gave me roles in her life out of charity, but mostly I knew she needed someone to be between her and the world. She needed me to mediate for her. And I was thrilled, though I didn’t let on.
“This time last year I was a guy with a Top Twenty record. Now I’m an unpaid driver.”
“We make a left here, Freddy.”
The new song she was trying out was called “Ready to Fly,” and it made me excited and uncomfortable at the same time. It wasn’t a fully personal-history thing like “You Next Time,” but it seemed to refer to her own life at that moment. The chorus had a seesawing quality that had the people in the bar tapping their feet and humming along. The words went:
There’s a time you’re unsteady
This feeling is heady
You know you could easily cry
But you’ve spun there already
This frightening eddy
Now you know that you’re ready to fly.
There were a few things that kept the song from being as simple as that chorus looked. The tune kept going from major to minor and back again, so you weren’t sure how happy she was. The final word, “fly,” was on that breaking verge between her middle and lower register, and she slid over two or three semitones. There was a “he” or a “him” in the song and if you were a woman listening then it could have referred to your man, but it could also have been someone in particular for Anya.
And was it just me, or was there a rhyme word that was obviously missing? And wasn’t that word “Freddy”?
I’d sit at the back with some of the rowdier guys and try to set an example by applauding like crazy at the end of a song. Sometimes they’d look up to see what I was on about, and sometimes they wouldn’t bother. I’d first played at the age of fifteen with my brothers in pubs in south London, so I knew the score.
The middle of the set was given to folk songs and to covers of other people’s material. It amused Anya to pass off one of her own as a song from the Appalachians. She liked to watch some of the older men nod in approval, as though they’d had enough of this young woman’s life and appreciated a real song now.
When Anya played, I was in the back-alley cold of “Genevieve,” in the wilderness of “Julie in the Court of Dreams,” in the vertigo of “Ready to Fly.” And I was in her fingers on the strings, in her breathing, in her phrasing. I was pouring all my energy into her. I was part of something being born.
Copyright © 2012 by Sebastian Faulks
Excerpted from A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.