fourteen

“Okay,” she said, when she’d read what he’d written. “First of all, you call an ex-wife or one of your children or somebody now.”

“That’s all you have to say? About my whole career?”

“Now. Nonnegotiable. I’m presuming here that one of the things you’re owning up to is running away from Grace before she arrived at the hospital.”

“Oh. Yeah. Ha. I forgot I hadn’t owned up to that already.”

“You don’t have to speak to Grace, although you probably should. But somebody has to let her know. And you must tell them all you’re safe anyway.”

He chose Natalie. She’d be angry and cold and withering, but it wasn’t as if it mattered so much. He wasn’t counting on her to make him soup in his old age. He called her cell, she answered it, and he walked through the hailstorm of arrows to deliver the basic information she needed. He even gave her Annie’s phone number, as if he were a regular father.

“Thank you,” said Annie. “Second thing: Juliet is brilliant. Don’t lump the music in with the rest of it.”

“Have you been taking any of this in?”

“Yes. You’re a very bad man. You’ve been a useless father to four of your five children, and a useless husband to every single one of your wives, and a rubbish partner to every single one of your girlfriends. And Juliet is still brilliant.”

“How can you think that? Now that you know what a bunch of crap it all is.”

“When did you last listen to it?”

“God. Not since it was released.”

“I played it a couple of days ago. How many times have you heard it?”

“You know I, like, made it, don’t you?”

“How many times?”

“All the way through? Since it was finished?”

Had he ever? He was trying to remember. There had been a moment in just about every relationship when he’d walked in on somebody listening to his music furtively; he could remember all the startled guilty faces. It had even happened with a couple of his kids, although not Grace, thankfully. But then, he hadn’t seen enough of Grace to catch her doing anything furtively. He shook his head.

“Never?”

“I don’t think so. Why would I have done that? But I played those songs on stage every night for a while, remember. I’d know if there was anything in them. And there isn’t. They’re all lies.”

“You’re telling me that art is made up? My God.”

“I’m telling you that my… art is inauthentic. Sorry. Let me rephrase that. I’m telling you my rock album is a fake bunch of crap.”

“And you think that matters to me?”

“I wouldn’t like it if I found out John Lee Hooker was a white accountant.”

“Is he not?”

“He’s dead.”

“You see, this is all news to me. Anyway, what you’re saying is I’m an idiot.”

“Huh? Where did that come from?”

“Well, I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, and it still doesn’t feel to me as though I’ve emptied it. So I must be daft. It’s all just facts, isn’t it, as far as you’re concerned? It’s a rotten album, fact. And if I can’t grasp the facts, then that makes me stupid.”

“No, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

“So, go on. Square your feelings about Juliet with mine.”

He studied her. As far as he could tell, she was really irritated, which had to mean that she really did have something invested in the music. And whatever it was, he was dumping all over it.

He shrugged.

“I can’t. Unless I say, you know, everyone’s opinion is valid.”

“Which you don’t believe?”

“Not in this case, no. See… It’s like I’m a chef, and you’re eating in my restaurant, and you’re telling me how great my food is. But I know I pissed all over it before I served it up. So, you know, your opinion is valid, but…”

Annie wrinkled her nose and laughed. “But it demonstrates a certain lack of taste.”

“Exactly.”

“So Tucker Crowe thinks his fans can’t taste pee when it’s served to them.”

That was exactly what Tucker Crowe thought during that tour. He hated himself, sure, but he also despised everyone who lapped it all up. That was one of the reasons it had been so easy to quit.

“You know that bad people can make great art, don’t you?” said Annie.

“Yes, of course. Some of the people whose art I admire the most are assholes.”

“Dickens wasn’t nice to his wife.”

“Dickens didn’t write a memoir called I’m Nice to My Wife.”

“You didn’t make an album called Julie Beatty Is a Deep and Interesting Human Being and I Didn’t Impregnate Anyone Else While I Was with Her. It doesn’t matter how it came about. You think it was all accidental. But like it or not, believe it or not, the music that Julie inspired was wonderful.”

He threw up his hands in mock despair and laughed.

“What?” said Annie.

“I can’t believe I told you all those things, and we’ve ended up talking about how great I am.”

“But we’re not. You’ve confused the two things again. You’re not great. You’re a, a shallow, feckless, self-indulgent… wanker.”

“Thanks.”

“Well, you were, anyway. We’re talking about how great your album is.”

He smiled.

“Okay. Compliment accepted, if not believed. And abuse accepted, too. I can honestly say that nobody has ever called me a wanker before. I quite enjoyed it.”

“You can only honestly say that you’ve never heard anybody call you a wanker before. I’ll bet it’s happened. Don’t you ever read the Internet? Actually, I know you do. That’s how we met.”

She paused. He could see that she wanted to say something and she was stopping herself.

“Go on,” he said.

“I have a confession to make, too. And it’s almost as bad as yours.”

“Good.”

“You know the guy who wrote the first review on that website? The one where you found mine?”

“Duncan somebody. Talking about wankers.”

Annie stared at him, then clapped her hands to her mouth. He’d have worried that he’d said something out of turn, except that her eyes were bright with a kind of astonished mischief.

“What?”

“Tucker Crowe knows who Duncan is and he called him a wanker. I cannot tell you how weird that is.”

“You know that guy?”

“He’s… This was his house, up until a few weeks ago.”

Tucker stared at her.

“So he’s the one? The man you wasted all those years with?”

“He’s the one. That’s why I’ve heard your music so much. That’s why I got to hear Juliet, Naked. That’s why I posted a review on his website.”

“And… Oh, shit. He lives in this town still?”

“A few minutes’ walk away.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Does that worry you?”

“It’s like… Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I have to walk into his. That’s incredible.”

“Except not. As I said. Because without him, we wouldn’t know each other. I’d like you to meet him.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because (a) he’s a fucking fruitcake, and (b) I might kill him, and (c) if I didn’t kill him, he’d drop dead from the excitement anyway.”

“Well, ‘c’ is a definite possibility.”

“Why do you want me to meet him?”

“Because no matter what you think, he’s not stupid. Not about art, anyway. And you’re the only artist alive who’s made any sense to him, just about.”

“The only artist alive? Jesus Christ. I could write you a list of a hundred people better than me off the top of my head.”

“It’s not about better, Tucker. You speak to him. For him. He connects. You plug right into a very complicated-looking socket in his back. I don’t know why, but you do.”

“So I don’t need to meet him, then. We’ve already talked.”

“Oh, it’s up to you. It’s weird. He was unfaithful, and that relationship cost me a lot. But you staying here and me not telling him… That seems like a betrayal beyond all comprehension.”

“So tell him after I’ve gone.”

They finished their tea, and Annie found a spare duvet and pillows for the sofa. Jackson was fast asleep in the spare room; Tucker had already lost an argument about who was going to sleep in her bed.

“Thank you, Annie,” he said. “Really.” And he kissed her on the cheek.

“It’s nice, having people to stay,” she said. “Hasn’t happened since Duncan left.”

“Oh. Yeah. Thanks for that, too.” He kissed her on the other cheek and went upstairs.

Saturday morning was, despite Annie’s warnings, clear and bright and cold, but in Tucker’s considered opinion the town didn’t look a whole lot better: without the cheap nighttime neon it just looked tired, like a middle-aged hooker wearing no makeup. They walked down to the sea after breakfast; they took a detour so that Annie could show her visitors where the museum was, and they stopped at a store where the candy was kept in jars, and you had to ask for a quarter-pound of what you wanted. Jackson bought some lurid-looking pink candy shrimp.

And then, while they were down on the beach trying to teach Jackson how to skip stones on the waves, Annie said, “Uh-oh.”

A pudgy middle-aged man was jogging toward them, red-faced and sweaty, despite the temperature. He stopped when he spotted Annie.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi, Duncan. I didn’t have you down as a jogger.”

“No, me neither. It’s a, a new thing. New regime.”

Tucker knew enough about the relationships between ex-partners to realize that this exchange was bursting with meaning, but there was nothing on Annie’s face he could read. The four of them stood there for a moment. Annie was clearly trying to work out the best way of breaking the news, but Duncan made a big deal of sticking his hand out, as if he were being magnanimous in some way.

“Hello,” said Duncan. “Duncan Thomson.”

“Hello,” said Tucker. “Tucker Crowe.” He had never been more conscious of the weight of his own name.

Duncan dropped Tucker’s hand as if it were red-hot and looked at Annie with real contempt.

“That’s just pathetic,” he said to Annie. And he jogged away.

The three of them watched as he plodded off along the beach.

“Why did that man call you pathetic?” said Jackson.

“It’s complicated,” said Annie.

“I want to know. He was mad at us.”

“Well,” said Tucker. “I think that man thought I wasn’t who I said I was. He thought Annie had told me to say that my name was, was my name because she thought it would be funny.”

There was a beat, while Jackson examined every side of this misunderstanding for any possible trace of humor.

“That’s way not funny,” said Jackson.

“No,” said Tucker.

“So why did you think it would be?” Jackson addressed this question to Annie, as the originator of the incomprehensible joke.

“I didn’t, sweetheart,” said Annie.

“Dad just said you did.”

“No, he said… You see, I know who your dad is. But that man doesn’t. That man knows who Tucker Crowe is, but he doesn’t think that’s who your dad is.”

“Who does he think Dad is? Fucker?”

Annie presumably knew better than to laugh at the sound of an obscenity emerging from the mouth of a six-year-old, but she laughed anyway. Tucker understood the impulse. It was the combination of the curse with the boy’s earnestness, his attempt to understand what had just happened.

“Yes!” said Tucker. “That’s exactly who he thinks I am.”

“There’s actually a further complication,” said Annie. “I know the confessional window has closed, but…” She took a deep breath. “He also thinks you’re somebody I’m… seeing.”

“Why would he think that?”

“He asked about the photo on the fridge, and I didn’t want to tell him the truth, and…”

At least Tucker now understood the implied generosity of the handshake.

“So there we are,” said Tucker. “That man thinks I’m Annie’s boyfriend. And he thinks Fucker is Tucker.”

“I was right,” said Jackson. “It’s so, so not funny.”

“No.”

“Cool,” said Jackson. “Because I don’t like it when jokes are funny for everybody else.”

“Anyway,” said Tucker. “All in all, I’m a long way from being me at the moment.”

“Exactly.”

“Do I have to go to all the trouble of proving it?”

“The trouble is, he knows more about Tucker Crowe than you do.”

“Yeah, but I have the documentation.”

About fifteen minutes later, Duncan called her on her cell phone. She was outside the museum with Tucker and Jackson, fishing around in her bag for her work keys: the charms of Gooleness had been exhausted already, so, much earlier than anticipated, she was about to show her guests pieces of long-dead shark.

“I can’t believe you did that,” said Duncan.

“I haven’t actually done anything,” said Annie.

“If you want to make a sad spectacle of yourself around town with someone old enough to be your dad, then that’s up to you. But the Tucker business… What’s the point? Why would you do that?”

“I’m actually with him now,” said Annie. “So this is slightly embarrassing.”

Tucker waved at the mouthpiece.

“You should have thought about that before you made him take part in your juvenile games.”

“It’s not a game,” said Annie. “That was Tucker Crowe. Still is. You can ask him any question about himself, if you want.”

“Why are you doing this?” said Duncan.

“I’m not doing anything.”

“I sent you a picture of Tucker Crowe a few weeks ago. You know what he looks like. He doesn’t look like a retired accountant.”

“That wasn’t him. That was his neighbor John. Also known as Fake Tucker, or Fucker, because of a misunderstanding that people like you have spread all over the Internet.”

“Oh, for God’s sake. So how did you meet ‘Tucker Crowe,’ actually?”

“He e-mailed me about that review of Juliet, Naked I wrote.”

“E-mailed you.”

“Yes.”

“You post up one piece and you get an e-mail from Tucker Crowe.”

“Listen, Duncan, Tucker and Jackson are standing here and it’s cold and…”

“Jackson.”

“Tucker’s son.”

“Oh, he’s got a son now, has he? And where did he appear from?”

“You know how babies are made, Duncan. Anyway. You saw a picture of Jackson on my fridge.”

“I saw a picture of your retired accountant and his grandson on your fridge. This is a circuitous argument.”

“It’s not an argument. Listen, I’ll call you later. You can come round for tea if you want. Bye.”

And she hung up on him.

Ros had worked hard over the couple of days Annie had spent in London. The day before she left, the two of them had gone over to Terry Jackson’s house to rummage through his collection of Gooleness memorabilia and had ended up taking most of it, in the absence of anything else to show; Terry’s wife, denied the use of a spare bedroom for the whole of her married life because of all the old bus tickets and newspapers, was insisting that it was a gift, not a loan. Terry had been unable to provide any kind of budget for the exhibition, so they were using anything they had on hand—old photo frames, unused dusty cases—to display his stuff. A lot of it was still in garbage bags, a conservation decision that would get them thrown out of the Museums Association if anyone ever found out.

“Gross,” said Jackson, when Annie showed him the eye.

Annie admired his determination to say the right things, but the eye didn’t really stare at you, in the way that Annie and Ros had hoped it might, mostly because it didn’t really look like an eye any longer, unfortunately. They had decided to keep it in the exhibition because of what it said about the people of Gooleness, rather than what it said about sharks, although they would not be explaining their decision to the people of Gooleness.

Tucker liked Terry’s Stones poster, though, and he loved the photograph of the four pals on their day out at the seaside.

“Why does it make me feel sad?” he said. “Even though they’re happy? I mean, sure, they’re all old or dead now. But it’s more than that, I think.”

“I have exactly the same reaction. It’s because their leisure time was so precious, I think. We have so much, by comparison, and we get to do so much more with it. When I first saw it, I’d just had this three-week holiday trekking around the U.S., and…” She stopped.

“What?”

“Oh,” she said. “You don’t know about that, either.”

“What?”

“My American holiday.”

“No,” said Tucker. “But then, we only met recently. There are probably a few holidays I need to catch up on.”

“But this one should have come up in the full disclosure section of our conversation.”

“Why?”

“We went to Bozeman, Montana. And the site of some studio that isn’t there anymore in Memphis. And Berkeley. And the toilet in the Pits Club in Minneapolis…”

“Shit, Annie.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why did you go with him?”

“It seemed like as good a way of seeing America as any. I enjoyed it.”

“You went to San Francisco to stand outside Julie Beatty’s house?”

“Ah. No. Not guilty. I let him get on with it. I went to San Francisco to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and to do some shopping.”

“So this guy Duncan… he’s like a real stalker.”

“I suppose he is.”

For a moment, Annie felt a little pang of envy. It wasn’t that she’d ever wanted Duncan to stalk her, exactly. She didn’t want to see him hiding behind her hedge, or ducking behind a supermarket aisle when she was doing her shopping. But she wouldn’t have minded if he’d had the same appetite for her that he’d shown for Tucker. She had only just realized that the man talking to her now was much more of a rival than another woman could ever be.

Duncan poured himself an orange juice and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Gina.”

“Yes, my sweet.”

She was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the Guardian magazine.

“What do you think are the chances of Tucker Crowe being in Gooleness?”

She looked at him.

The Tucker Crowe?”

“Yes.”

This Gooleness?”

“Yes.”

“I’d say the chances were very slim indeed. Why? Do you think you just saw him?”

“Annie says I did.”

“Annie says you did.”

“Yes.”

“Well, without knowing why she said it, I’d have to say that she’s winding you up.”

“That’s what I think.”

“Why did she tell you that? It seems quite a peculiar thing to say. And quite cruel, given your… interests.”

“I was jogging along the beach, and she was there with a, a respectable-looking middle-aged man and a young boy. And I stopped, and introduced myself to the man, and he said he was Tucker Crowe.”

“That must have been a bit of a shock to you.”

“I just couldn’t understand why she made him say it. I mean, it’s not very clever. Or funny. And then I just called her from the bedroom before my shower and she’s sticking to her story.”

“Did he look like Tucker Crowe?”

“No. Not at all.”

They found their eyes straying over to the mantel-piece, and the photograph he’d brought with him when he’d moved in: Tucker onstage, maybe at the Bottom Line, sometime in the late seventies. Duncan could feel the beginnings of another little panic, rather like the panic he’d felt the other night when he was talking to Gina about Juliet. The man he saw on the beach this morning wasn’t the man who’d sung “Farmer John” in a club a few weeks ago, that was for sure. And the man he saw on the beach this afternoon definitely wasn’t the man in the famous Neil Ritchie shot, the wild man lunging for the camera. What was troubling Duncan now was that, for the first time, he’d begun to wonder whether the young man on the mantel-piece could possibly be the crazy person with the matted hair who’d tried to attack Ritchie. They looked nothing like each other, really. Their eyes were different, their noses were different, their coloring was different. He’d never for a second doubted the wisdom of the Crowologists until now; he’d accepted the Neil Ritchie story as a piece of history, fact. Except—and these panics were coming thick and fast now—Neil Ritchie was an idiot. Duncan had never met him, but his ignorance, his rudeness and his self-importance were common knowledge, and Duncan had had an e-mail from him a few years back that had been offensive and a little deranged. Neil Ritchie was a man who’d traveled God knows how many miles in order to invade the privacy of a long-retired singer-songwriter who didn’t want to be disturbed. This, let’s face it, was not normal behavior. And yet this was the man Duncan was prepared to trust more than Annie and the pleasant-looking chap on the beach? If one took the two Farmer John pictures out of the equation and put glasses on the singer in the Bottom Line picture, changed his hair color to silver, trimmed it…

“Oh, God,” said Duncan.

“What?”

“I can’t think of any good reason why that man would introduce himself as Tucker Crowe unless he actually was.”

“Really?”

“Annie’s not really a cruel person. And the person on the beach looked a little bit like the person in that picture. Except older.”

“And did she explain how she knew him?”

“She said he wrote to her. Out of the blue. After she posted that review of Naked on our website.”

“If that’s true,” said Gina, thoughtfully, “then you must want to hang yourself.”

* * *

Unfortunately, Duncan was not physically capable of jogging through the streets of Gooleness for the second time in less than an hour, so he had to settle for a brisk walk, with occasional pauses. He needed the time to think, anyway; there was a lot to think about.

Duncan had not been a regretful man, not until recently. However, over the last few weeks, he had found himself wishing that he had done a lot of things differently. He had been impulsive, and overeager, and lacking in judgment. He’d got a lot of things wrong, and he hated himself for it. And the thing he’d got most wrong, he’d come to realize, was Juliet, Naked. What had he been thinking of? Why had he responded like that? After about five more plays, the songs in their acoustic form had started to pall; after ten, he’d decided he didn’t want to hear the album again. Not only was it a weak, malnourished, puny thing, but it had started to diminish the magnificence of Juliet: who wanted to see the rusty old innards of a work of art, really? It was of interest to scholars, and he was a scholar. But how had he come to the conclusion that it was better than the original? He knew part of the answer to that question: he’d had access to Naked before any of his peers, and to post a review saying that it was dull and pointless would have thrown away his advantage. But then that’s what art is, sometimes, he always felt: something that confers advantages. His had come at a cost, though. He’d had currency, but the exchange rate turned out to be dismally low. Why hadn’t he just taken the wretched review down? He turned back—to run home to his computer—and then spun around again. He’d do it later.

All that, and now this. If it was true that Tucker Crowe was in Gooleness—staying in his old house—then he had many other reasons to mourn the temporary desertion of his critical faculties. If he hadn’t been so irritated by Annie’s indifference, they might not have split up, and they might have met Tucker together. If he’d posted the same kind of review that Annie had written, Tucker might have e-mailed him. It was all too much, really. He’d lived his whole life cautiously, and on the one occasion when he’d screwed his caution up into a ball and thrown it to the wind it had ended like this. (And there was Gina, too, of course, which was another narrative strand in the same story. Gina was, metaphorically, Naked, and her literal nakedness, or the offer of it, had only served to underline the aptness of the metaphor. He’d jumped too quickly there, too.)

Most of his adult life he’d wanted to meet Tucker Crowe, or at least to be in the same room, and here he was, possibly on the verge of realizing that ambition, and he was scared. If Tucker had read Annie’s piece, then the chances were he’d have read Duncan’s, too. Presumably he’d hated it, and hated its author. Tucker Crowe knows who I am, thought Duncan, and he hates me! Is that possible? Surely he’d recognize and appreciate the passion for the work, at least. Wouldn’t he? Or would he hate that, too? It would be better for everyone if, after all, Annie were playing some kind of cruel and juvenile trick. He turned toward Gina’s place for a second time, thought better of it again.

And in the middle of all these doubts and anxieties, all this self-loathing, Duncan found himself trying to think of test questions that would either prove Tucker was who he said he was or expose him as a fraud. It was difficult, though. Duncan had to concede that Tucker Crowe was an even greater authority on the subject of Tucker Crowe than Duncan Thomson. If he were to ask him, say, who played that pedal steel on “And You Are?” and Tucker insisted that it wasn’t Sneaky Pete Kleinow, that the album sleeve was wrong, then who was he to argue? Tucker would know, surely. He could win those arguments every time. No, he needed something different, something that only the two of them could possibly know about. And he thought he had it.

When Annie saw Duncan skulking on the other side of her front hedge, obviously trying to summon up the courage necessary to knock on what was, until comparatively recently, his own front door, and trying to peek through the window without anybody noticing, she almost hooted at the irony. Less than two hours before, she’d been quietly lamenting his lack of passion for her, her inability to provoke in him the desire to hide behind her hedge trying to catch a glimpse of her; and now here he was, doing exactly that. And then very quickly she realized that there was no irony here at all. Duncan was hiding behind her hedge because Tucker Crowe was in her kitchen. She was still not enough, in exactly the same way she hadn’t been enough before.

She opened the front door.

“Duncan! Don’t be an idiot. Come in.”

“I’m sorry. I was just…” And then, unable to come up with any plausible explanation for his behavior, he shrugged and walked down the path into the house. Jackson was at the kitchen table, drawing, and Tucker was frying bacon for their brunch.

“Hello again,” said Duncan.

“Hello there,” said Tucker.

“There is a possibility that I might perhaps owe you an apology,” said Duncan.

“Okay,” said Tucker. “And when will you know for sure?”

“Well, it’s all very difficult, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“I’m beginning to think that there’s no real reason for you to tell me you’re Tucker Crowe if you’re not.”

“That’s a good start.”

“But as I’m sure Annie has explained… I’m a, a long-term admirer of your work, and for some years now I’ve been under the impression that you don’t look like that.”

“That’s Fucker,” said Jackson, without looking up from his drawing. “Fucker is our friend Farmer John. A man took a photo of him and told everyone it was Daddy.”

“Right,” said Duncan. “Well. I can see how… It’s plausible, I grant you.”

“Thanks,” said Tucker, genially. “If it helps, I have a passport.”

Duncan looked stunned

“Oh,” said Duncan. “I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” said Tucker. “You were probably thinking more along the lines of some exhaustive trivia questions. But there’s your world, which is full of, you know, rumor and conspiracy theories and scary photos of people who aren’t me. And there’s my world, which is all passports and PTA meetings and insurance claims. It’s pretty banal in my world. There’s plenty of paperwork.”

Tucker went to a jacket hanging over the arm of a chair, and pulled his passport out from the inside pocket.

“There.” He handed it to Duncan.

Duncan flicked through it.

“Yes. Well. That all seems to be in order.”

Annie and Tucker burst out laughing. Duncan looked startled, and then forced a smile.

“Sorry. That probably sounded a little officious.”

“You want to see Jackson’s? I can see you might think that I’ve forged this one. But would I go to all the trouble of forging a passport for a kid just so he has the same last name as me?”

“Can I use your loo, Annie?” said Duncan. And he left the room, without receiving permission.

“I think he’s a little overcome,” said Annie. “He needs to recover his composure. Try and be nice to him. Just remember: this is the most amazing moment of his life.”

When Duncan came back in, Tucker gave him a big bear hug.

“It’s okay,” Tucker said. “Everything’s okay.”

Annie laughed, but Duncan held on a little too long, and she could see that he had his eyes closed.

“Duncan!” she said. And then, to make it sound as though she wasn’t telling him off, “Do you want to eat with us?”

They chatted, as best they could, while toast was buttered and eggs were scrambled. Annie could have kissed Tucker: he could see how nervous Duncan was, and he was asking him questions—about the town, his work, the kids at the college—that he seemed reasonably sure Duncan could answer without crying. There was a tremble in Duncan’s voice whenever he spoke, and he was adopting a slightly over-formal register for the occasion, and sometimes he’d giggle for no apparent reason, but most of the time it was possible to imagine that the four of them were participating in a casual weekend social occasion, the sort of thing they’d all done before and might do again.

Annie could have kissed Tucker for lots of other reasons, too. It struck her that everybody in her kitchen loved him with some degree of intensity. (Everybody else, anyway—she knew him well enough to understand that he wasn’t too keen on himself.) Jackson’s love was the most neurotic and needy, but well within the realms of the normal, as far as she could remember from her child psychology classes; Duncan’s was weird and obsessive; and hers… She could characterize it as a crush, or the beginnings of something deeper, or the pathetic fantasy of an increasingly lonely woman, or the recognition that she needed to sleep with someone before the decade was out, and sometimes she thought of it as all of these things at once, and she always wished that she hadn’t told him off so often over the previous twenty-four hours. And yes, he’d needed it, sort of, but only if he were to stay in the world he’d stepped into. There’d been a subtext to the scoldings: if you’re going to live with me in Gooleness, then you have to do right by your family. That’s how we do things around here. But seeing as he wasn’t going to live with her in Gooleness, what business was it of hers? It was like telling Spider-Man not to climb up buildings while he was here, because of health and safety. She was missing the point of him.

The social occasion soon fell, inevitably, into something else, mostly because every single thing that either Jackson or Tucker said either confirmed or disproved theses that Duncan had been constructing for years.

“Well,” said Duncan, as they sat down. “This looks nice.”

“My sister doesn’t eat bacon,” said Jackson, and Annie could see Duncan wrestling with himself: What was he allowed to ask?

“Have you got other brothers and sisters, Jackson?” he asked eventually, presumably on the grounds that to ask nothing at all would be rude.

“Yeah. Four. But they don’t live with me. They have different moms.”

Duncan choked on a piece of toast.

“Oh. Well. That’s…”

“And none of the moms is named Julie,” said Tucker.

“Ha!” said Duncan. “We’d rather given up on that theory anyway.”

Jackson looked at the men, uncomprehending.

“Don’t worry about it, Jack,” said Tucker.

“Okay.”

“I took Tucker and Jackson into the museum this morning,” said Annie. There was very little neutral ground for them to clamber on, in this conversation, seeing as every little detail about Tucker’s personal life would offer a life-threatening level of excitement. “Showed them the shark’s eye. Do you remember me telling you about that?”

“Yes,” said Duncan. “Indeed. Your exhibition must be opening soon.”

“Wednesday.”

“I must try and get along to see it.”

“We’re having a little drinks reception for it on Tuesday night. Nothing much. Just a few councillors, and the Friends.”

“You should get Tucker to sing,” said Duncan. It was going to be impossible, Annie could see that now. Duncan might only ever get one shot at this and he wasn’t going to waste it.

“Yes,” said Annie. “I’m sure that, if Tucker wanted to break his twenty-year silence, then the Gooleness Seaside Museum would be the most appropriate venue.”

Tucker laughed. Duncan looked down at his plate.

“I’d enjoy it, anyway. I… I don’t know what Annie’s told you, but I really am a very big admirer of your work. I’m… Well, I don’t think it would be overstating the case were I to describe myself as a world expert.”

“I’ve read your stuff,” said Tucker.

“Oh,” said Duncan. “Gosh. I… Well, you can tell me where I’ve gone wrong.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” said Tucker.

“Would you maybe like to do an interview? To set the record straight? You’ve possibly seen the website, so you know you’d get a fair hearing.”

“Duncan,” said Annie. “Don’t start.”

“Sorry,” said Duncan.

“There isn’t a record,” said Tucker. “There’s me and my life, and fifteen people like you who have for reasons best known to yourselves spent too much time guessing what that life is.”

“I suppose that’s what it must look like. From your perspective.”

“I’m not sure there’s another one.”

“We could limit the questions to the songs.”

“Don’t push it, Duncan,” said Annie. “I don’t think Tucker’s keen on the idea.”

“Was I right, by the way?” said Tucker. “Did you have some questions that you thought would prove that I am who I said I was?”

“I… Well, yes. I did have one.”

“Hit me. I want to see if I know my own life.”

“It’s possibly… I’m wondering whether it’s possibly too invasive.”

“Is it something I’d have to send Jackson out of the room for?”

“Oh, no. It’s just… Well, it’s silly really. I was going to ask you who else you’ve drawn, apart from Julie Beatty.”

Annie could feel the drop in temperature. Duncan had said something he shouldn’t have said, although she didn’t understand why he shouldn’t have said it.

“What makes you so sure I drew her?”

“I can’t divulge my sources.”

“Your sources are no good.”

“I respectfully beg to differ.”

Tucker put down his knife and fork.

“What is it with you guys? Why do you think you know stuff, when you know nothing at all about anything?”

“Sometimes we know more than you think.”

“Doesn’t sound like it to me.”

Duncan was suddenly unable to make eye contact with anyone at the table, which in Annie’s experience was the first sign that he was losing his temper. His anger was so carefully and closely managed that it only came out through the wrong holes.

“It’s a lovely drawing, the one of Julie. You’re good. I’ll bet she doesn’t smoke anymore, though.”

That last detail was triumphantly delivered, but the triumph was diminished by Tucker standing up, reaching across the table and lifting Duncan up by the neck of his Graceland T-shirt. Duncan looked terrified.

“You went into her house?”

Annie remembered the day Duncan had gone out to Berkeley. He’d come back to the hotel in a peculiar mood, flustered and a little evasive; that night he’d even told her that he felt his Tucker Crowe obsession was waning.

“Only to use the toilet.”

“She invited you in to use her toilet?”

“Tucker, please put him down,” said Annie. “You’re frightening Jackson.”

“He’s not,” said Jackson. “It’s cool. I don’t like that guy anyway. Punch him, Dad.”

The request was enough to loosen Tucker’s grip on Duncan.

“That’s not nice, Jackson,” said his father.

“No, it isn’t,” said Duncan.

Tucker shot him a warning look, and Duncan held both hands up in immediate apology.

“So come on, Duncan. Explain to me how you ended up using Julie’s toilet.”

“I shouldn’t have done it,” said Duncan. “When I got to her house, I was bursting. And there was this kid there who knew where she kept her front-door key. And she was out, so we let ourselves in, and I went for a pee, and he showed me the picture. We were in there for five minutes maximum.”

“Oh, that makes it okay,” said Tucker. “Seven would have constituted a violation of her privacy.”

“I know it was stupid,” said Duncan. “I felt terrible about it. Still do. I tried to forget it ever happened.”

“And now you’re boasting about it.”

“I just wanted to prove that I’m… a serious person. A serious scholar, anyway.”

“It doesn’t look as though those two identities are compatible, does it? A serious person doesn’t break into somebody’s house.”

Duncan took a deep breath. For a moment, Annie was frightened that he was going to confess to something else.

“All I can say in my defense is that… well, you asked us to listen. And some of us listened a little too hard. I mean, if someone had had a chance to break into Shakespeare’s house, he should have taken it, shouldn’t he? Because then we’d know more. It would have been perfectly legitimate to… to rummage around in Shakespeare’s sock drawer. In the interests of history and literature.”

“So according to your logic Julie Beatty is Shakespeare.”

“Anne Hathaway.”

“Jesus Christ.” Tucker shook his head bitterly. “You people. And for the record: I’m not even Leonard Cohen, let alone Shakespeare.”

* * *

You asked us to listen… That much at least was true. It had to be. He’d always said the right things, back in the days when he still spoke to local radio DJs and rock writers: he’d told anyone who wanted to know that there wasn’t anything he could do about being a musician, he just was one, and he’d be one whether people wanted to listen to him or not. But he’d also told Lisa, Grace’s mother, that he wanted to be rich and famous, that he wouldn’t be happy until his talent got recognized in all the ways that talent could be recognized. The money never really happened—even Juliet only provided a decent living wage for a year or two—but other stuff did. He got the respect and the reviews and the fans and the model who used to hang out with Jackson Browne and Jack Nicholson. And he got Duncan and his buddies. If you wanted to get into people’s living rooms, could you then object if they wanted to get into yours?

“This will probably sound silly,” said Duncan, “and not what you want to hear. But I’m not the only person who thinks you’re a genius. And while you might think we’re… we’re inadequate as people, we’re not necessarily the worst judges in the world. We read, and watch movies, and think, and… I probably blew it as far as you’re concerned with my silly Naked review, which was written at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons. But the original album… Do even you know how dense that was? I still haven’t peeled it all away, I don’t think, even after all this time. I don’t pretend to understand what those songs meant to you, but it’s the forms of expression you chose, the allusions, the musical references. That’s what makes it art. To my mind. And… sorry, sorry, one last thing. I don’t think people with talent necessarily value it, because it all comes so easy to them, and we never value things that come easy to us. But I value what you did on that album more highly than, I think, anything else I’ve heard. So thank you. And now I think I should leave. But I couldn’t meet you without telling you all that.”

And as he stood up, Annie’s phone rang. She answered it and held the receiver out to Tucker. Tucker didn’t notice it for a moment. He was still staring at Duncan, as if the words he’d just said were suspended somewhere near his mouth in a speech bubble and could be reread. Tucker wanted to reread them.

“Tucker.”

“Yeah.”

“Grace,” she said.

“Yay,” said Jackson. “Gracie.”

For most of the last twenty years, Tucker had Grace down as the key to a lot of things. She was why he’d stopped working; every time he’d taken the lid off himself and taken a peek inside, he’d had to close it quick. She was the spare room that never got tidied, the e-mail that never got answered, the loan that never got repaid, the symptom that never got described to a doctor. Except worse than any of that, obviously, what with her being a daughter, rather than an e-mail or a rash.

“Grace? Hold on a minute.”

As he took the handset from the kitchen to the living room, he suddenly saw that this strange little seaside town was perfect for the sort of reconciliation that could bring that whole sorry story to an end. He didn’t think he could ask Annie to accommodate yet another member of his family, but Grace could stay in a B&B or somewhere for a couple of days. The bleak pier they’d seen that morning… He could see them sitting on the boards, dangling their feet under the railings, talking and listening and talking.

“Tucker?”

“Dad” was an appellation you had to earn, he guessed, mostly by being one. Maybe that’s how their conversation on the pier would end: she’d call him “Dad,” and he’d weep a little.

“Yeah. Sorry. I was just taking the phone somewhere more private.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in this weird little seaside town on the east coast of

England called Gooleness. It’s great. You’d dig it. Grungy, but kind of cool.”

“Ha. Okay. You know I came from France to see you in the hospital?”

She had her mother’s voice. Or rather—and this was worse, really—she had her mother’s temperament: he could hear the same determination to think the best of him and of everybody else, the same puzzled smile. Neither Grace nor Lisa had ever made it easy for him: they’d both been heartbreakingly tolerant and sympathetic and forgiving. How was one supposed to deal with people like that? He preferred the chilly sarcasm that was his usual lot. He could ignore that.

“Yeah, Grace, I heard you were coming.”

“So, you know. Why did you run away?”

“I wasn’t running from you.”

He couldn’t afford too many lies, if he was really aiming at truth and reconciliation, but one or two little ones, judiciously positioned right at the beginning of the road in order to ease access, might be necessary. “I didn’t want to see you with all those other people.”

“Ummm… Is it unreasonable to point out that most of those other people are your children?”

“Most, sure. But not all. There were a couple of ex-wives in there. They were making me feel uncomfortable. And since I wasn’t feeling so great…”

“Well, I guess only you know how much you could cope with.”

“What I was thinking was, you could come up here,” said Tucker. “That way, you and I could…”

Some terrible words and phrases were coming into his mind: “quality time,” “heal,” “bond,” “closure.” He didn’t want to use any of them.

“What could we do, Tucker?”

“We could eat stuff.”

“Eat stuff?”

“Yeah. And I guess talk.”

“Hmmm.”

“What do you think? Should I get you the train schedule?”

“I think… I think I don’t want to do that.”

“Oh.”

He couldn’t quite believe it. Where was the accommodation in that?

“I didn’t really want to come to London to see you. I couldn’t… I couldn’t quite see the point.”

“That was Lizzie’s idea.”

“I mean, the point of any sort of visit, anywhere. I don’t wish to be difficult, Tucker. I think you’re an interesting and talented guy, and I used to love reading stuff about you. Mom kept a whole heap of things. But we don’t have much going on, do we?”

“Not… recently.”

Grace laughed, not unpleasantly.

“Not in the last twenty-two years, anyway.”

She was twenty-two already?

“And I’m pretty sure that my very existence is sort of awkward. I mean, I’ve listened to that album. You can’t hear me in there. Or Lisa.”

“It was a long time ago now.”

“I agree. A long time ago, you chose art over… Well, over me.”

“No, Gracie, I…”

“And I understand. Really. I didn’t use to. But, you know. I like artists. I get it. So what would you do with me now? I can see that there’s room for some painful conversation in a godforsaken town miles from anywhere. But there’s no room for anything after that, is there? Not unless you want to own up to being a phony. And I wouldn’t want you to do that. I’m not sure you’ve got enough going on to let go of Juliet.”

She hadn’t got that degree of perspicacity from Lisa. He could be proud of that.

He went back into the kitchen and handed Annie the handset.

“How did it go?”

He shook his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I blew that one a long time ago. I’ve been watching too much daytime TV.”

Duncan was making a big deal of putting his coat on, desperate to glean anything he could from what might be his last couple of minutes with Tucker.

“You don’t have to leave,” Tucker said, wearily. Duncan looked at him disbelievingly, a sixteen-year-old who’d just been told that the prettiest girl in class wasn’t going to finish with him just yet.

“Really?”

“Really. I… What you said before—it meant a lot. Thank you. Sincerely.”

And now the prettiest girl in class was taking off her panties and… Actually, this whole analogy was too weird. Weird and disturbingly self-serving, if anyone cared to examine it properly.

“If you would like to talk to me about my work, I’d be happy to do so. I can see you’re serious about it.”

What was the big deal? Why had he spent half his life trying to hide from people like Duncan? How many of them were there? A handful, scattered all over the globe. Fuck the Internet for collecting them all in one place and making them look threatening. And fuck the Internet for putting him right at the center of his own little paranoid universe.

“I really am sorry about taking a pee in Julie Beatty’s toilet,” said Duncan.

“I’m not sure I care as much as I pretended. Off the record? Among certain people, Julie Beatty has enjoyed a long and unsullied reputation as a fiery muse. In retrospect, she was kind of a pretty airhead. If someone pees in her toilet every now and again, it’s a fair price to pay.”

The two biggest parts of a man’s life were his family and his work, and Tucker had spent a long time feeling wretched about both of them. There was nothing much he could do about big chunks of his family now. Things would never be right with Grace, and he could see that his relationship with Lizzie would always wobble between something they could both tolerate and something that would hurt his ears. He wasn’t so interested in the older boys. That left Jackson, which gave him a 20 percent success rate as a father. There was no examination worth taking where you could pass with a mark like that.

It had never occurred to him that his work was redeemable, or that he was redeemable through his work. But as he listened that afternoon to an articulate, nerdy man tell him over and over again why he was a genius, he could feel himself hoping that it might actually be true.

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