Giles stepped out from the massive, and (to his mind) grotesque Victorian edifice that was Lime Street Station into a brash sunshine that obliterated details. He blinked a couple of times then set off for NEMS, Brian Epstein’s record shop. He asked a young lad for directions and was told it was just round the corner, but he decided to stop at a café before spending the thirty pounds he’d brought with him. They’d agreed he should spend this amount on beat music. Sally offered to put up some of her pocket money, but her father wouldn’t allow it. Giles was aware that his hundred pounds – saved with much pain since he was sixteen – was seeping away. Nevertheless, if Kevin was to bring over the next box of records (to go some way towards meeting the rapidly filling order book, growing especially fast since the Cambridge Folk Festival) Giles needed to buy them. Barter was only way they could circumvent the stringent laws and practices that made importing anything from abroad really difficult. He was thinking about all of this as he sipped his cup of Nescafe.
He looked around him; it was all Formica in pale yellow and pink. Everything seemed kidney-shaped; the chairs, tables, the menu boards. The floor was covered in black and white Marley tiles and two large fans hung immobile from the ceiling. The cheerfulness of the décor was not matched by the staff, a gang of pinched-lipped ladies of indeterminate years who clearly disliked the customers, who were all young, loud and happy.
Giles’s reflections were interrupted by a stifling awareness of a dark shadow looming over him.
‘Blum. Viktor Blum . I notice you in zee Black Horse. In Birmingham. No. Before you ask, I not follow you. Zis is complete coincidence, swear to God. But I know then I have to say somesink. Young man viz ambition. Am I right?’
Giles was not easily disconcerted, but at this moment felt decidedly ill at ease, as he tried to make sense of what was happening. To attempt to even things up between himself and this bizarre figure, he stood up and took a step backwards and away from him. He said nothing but studied the man as carefully as he could.
‘Aren’t you hot in that coat?’
‘Is Astrakhan, where I spend many years. Is my home. May I sit down? You too. Talk is now urgent. Before you make big mistake with your life.’
Giles waited until this stranger with his dark and brooding presence had lowered himself deliberately onto the flimsy, plastic covered seat, until he too sat down.
‘Giles, my friend, will you trust me?’
‘Absolutely not. Who are you and how on earth do you know my name?’
‘Ze second question is easily to answer. I hear your name in Black Horse. But I am sehr gut at remembrink. Ze second question vill take bit longer time. Suffice to say I lose parents in Auschwitz. Then I travel. Siberie, China, Canada, South Africa, all over. I make fortune. Lose fortune. Make second fortune. Und so fort. But you my young friend, you have whole life in front. But now I ask question; why you here? In this city built on slavery and rotting teeth.’
‘How do you mean ‘rotting teeth’?’
‘Sugar, my young friend, sugar. But now, new sugar to make fortune. But if stupid, you lose fortune.’
‘I talk about beat music, beat groups; they are new sugar, young man, and of course, new slavery. But slavery of good kind. Slavery of fashion. Exploitation of youth. Und so fort. Und so fort. But you, Giles, need to be slave master, not at wrong end of lash. Is understanding me, no?’
‘Well, what do you recommend?’ Giles by this time was recovering his equilibrium to an extent, but not at all sure he saw himself as a wielder of whips, and growing ever more suspicious of this enigmatic man. Despite this, he felt unable to rise from his chair, turn on his heel and walk out the door. Something told him this would not be nearly enough to shake this weird character out of his life completely and for ever.
‘Come viz me. I want you to meet some friends of mine.’
And Giles meekly followed Viktor Blum’s black back out the door and into the blazing light. ‘For Christ’s sake, what the hell are you doing, you stupid idiot,’ Giles muttered to himself, as he realised that he was walking away from NEMS. In fact, the streets were becoming narrower, the buildings increasingly derelict and the shadows longer. Suddenly Blum turned to his left into a dark alley, strode forward a few steps and stopped. Out from a dark doorway stepped three figures, and he realised that two more had closed in behind him. Where had they come from?
‘Hello, Giles, you’d be able to wind the Liver clock, wouldn’t he, ar kid?’
‘Hello.’ Giles kept his breathing steady and stance relaxed.
‘You’re a posh twat, aren’t you?’ The youth who was speaking was gangling and tall (but still shorter than Giles) and was wearing dark glasses as they all were. In fact everything about them was black; clothes, hair, shoes and shades. Except their faces which looked bleached white, even in the deep shadow of the alley.
‘Ay, it would be a bit of bother, like, to put him in the fockin’ hozzy, wouldn’t it, ar kid?’
‘Come, come, boys, be nice to ziz junge mann. He can be zehr useful to you und so fort.’ Giles glanced at Blum and, out of the corner of his eye, glimpsed him smiling grimly.
Then Giles heard in the distance, but getting steadily closer, a siren.
‘Fockin’ jam butty! Let’s come ‘ead, Mud Man.’
‘Vat he is saying is, we had better leave because our friends from polizi are are omnipresent und so fort. The ‘Mud Man’ is Albert O’Brien, zis one here, who comes from Garston.’
Giles had some initial difficulty with the nasal whine that was his over-riding impression of the scouse accent, but he was quickly getting the hang of it.
‘Come on! Let’s go before ‘de fockin’ bizzies start poking ‘de noses into our business.’
‘Reet, ar kid, let’s go.’
‘But first we need to blindfold our poshy, don’t we?’
‘Is zat really necessary? Are we beink a shade, how you say, melodramatic?’
‘No, Viktor. It’s gear, like. It’s boss. Secrecy is of the essence.’ Giles had ascertained by now that the speaker, who was shorter and stockier than the others, was the leader.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Now, then. Manners. I’m sorry Giles. I’ve been trying to teach zese junge menschen some common courtesies, but as of zis moment, no great success, as you can see.’
But much against his better judgement, as indeed was this entire escopade, Giles allowed himself to be blindfolded and led away, deeper and deeper into the interior of the city. Sometimes, if he foot caught a loose cobble, or a tin can, or something squashy – perhaps a rotting cabbage – and he stumbled, Viktor would catch his elbow. If they stopped suddenly, usually because of suspected presence of the police, he was expected to stop before bumping into the back of the person ahead of him. If their pace quickened, he had to speed up to avoid the person behind him crushing his heels. If they made a sudden right or left turn he was expected to anticipate the move to avoid being violently jostled. Then abruptly it was over.
‘Here we are, Poshy. There are some steep steps down here. You don’t wanna go and break your neck, do you?’
‘Take his fockin’ blindfold off, for fock’s sake, you divvy.’
So the blindfold was removed and he looked around him. A district of Victorian warehouses with cobbled streets. There appeared to be very few signs of industrial activity. The only sound was a sheet of corrugated iron flapping in the hot breeze against the side of derelict shed at the entrance to yet one more alley. ‘Terrible’, Giles muttered to himself.
‘Gear! Let’s go down, posh boy.’ And they descended the rickety stairs. The leader of the gang took a padlock off a steel door, turned a heavy key in an obscure keyhole and they entered a space of utter and complete darkness. There followed a space of time in which people crashed around in the pitch black cursing as they stumbled around but eventually blinding light burst forth from (probably) stacks of stage spots. He was aware that someone had locked and bolted the heavy door behind him. There was a stage with a drum kit set up and banks of amps, speakers and all the paraphernalia associated with beat bands.
‘How on earth can you afford the electric bill?’ Giles was flabbergasted.
‘Never you mind, posh boy.’
‘We’re tapped into the…’
‘Shut the fock up, you divvy.’
As his eyes got accustomed to the blinding light everywhere he looked he could see chains hanging from the roof. Lifting gear. Pulleys. Hawsers. Steel rope. But mostly chains; chains in untidy heaps, chains looped from the roof, and chains hanging from gantries. Then he noticed a sofa up against a wall. Three diminutive figures were sitting side by side. Three girls were dressed in a uniform of black with knee-length black boots, short black mini shirts and dark eye-shadow. Two of the girls had long black hair, but the one in the middle had the longest blond hair he had ever seen. It didn’t look as though it had ever been cut, and flowed around her face and down her back in a waterfall of white gold. Giles turned away and spoke to the leader of the band.
‘So what are you called?’
‘Chains of Love. Ok, we ain’t The Fabs, but we’re the next Big Thing. Axe ‘im (nodding in the direction of Blum). ‘Ee knows.’
‘Assuredly, my young friends. That is why I have brought Giles to hear you. It vill change his life.’
‘So what’s he gonna do for us, like?’
‘He vill be big promoter in years to come.’
‘As if! Fockin’ posh twat!’
Giles stayed silent, but stood, his posture relaxed but alert. But the group had now lost interest in him and had moved on to stage. Then suddenly the lights all went off, and a quiet drum role started, and slowly got louder and louder until the drum beat stopped and a catchy guitar ostinato began to be joined by a base line in harmony with it. Then the click of a tambourine joined them. Then one spot light picked out a figure centre stage. It was the blond-haired girl, she began to sing;
‘I'm gonna tell you a story I'm gonna tell you about my town I'm gonna tell you a big bad story, baby Aww, it's all about my town Yeah, down by the river….’
Giles said, ‘I know this song. It’s ‘Muddy Waters’ by the Standells.’
‘Ar-right. Wan’ a bifter, mate?’ One of the black-clad lads was next to him. Obviously a sound engineer, roadie, or hanger-on.
‘He is asking you if you vish a cigarette?’
‘That’s right, a ciggy.’
‘No, thanks. Don’t smoke.’
‘Clean-livin’ focker, right?’
The band went straight from ‘Muddy Waters’ into the Kinks’ ‘All the Day and all of the Night’, which had similar ostinato behind the driving tune. The slight blond girl really had something, and, belying her appearance, whatever she had it wasn’t the girlish femininity so fashionable at this time. She was ferocious, a feral cat. But her voice cut through the band like chain saw through…Giles tried to think how to describe the sound of the band. He moved closer and tried to make out in the mixture of blinding glare and deep shadows what it was that looped across the front of each speaker. Yes, he could see now; flattened tin cans threaded on wires. Each speaker was tilted back slightly with a wedge so the cans rattled and buzzed and rasped as the music vibrated them. Clever. Then the lights went out, and the strangest and most unpleasant sounds he had ever heard began; a cacophony of feedback and fingernails on blackboards. This time a man’s voice joined the girls in a shuddering juddering song that had elements of blues but was more like a parody of gospel. Giles did not like it at all.
All at once the young man next to him grabbed his arm.
‘The door. Someone’s in the jigger.’
‘He means the alleyvay.’
Giles could now hear someone banging on the steel door, a banging that became louder and angrier by the second. But already the band had stopped playing, already the groupies were nowhere to be seen and within seconds the hall was empty of people, apart from Viktor and Giles who had to make their way through the darkness towards a rectangle of yellow light half-way up a wall in an obscure corner. They hurried towards it, scrambled up the rickety ladder and onto a steel walkway. Viktor shut the door behind them.
‘Ah, zese boys, zeze boys, zer ist allers somesink! But talent! Originality!’
Strangely, the deal was done in the same café where Giles had first met Blum. Giles bought twenty copies of their single, called ‘Pain’. It was the number of which he had heard a sample just before the raid had cut the session short. He hadn’t liked it then and to say he had misgivings when he handed over his twenty pounds was a monumental understatement. He walked out of the café with a battered leather holdall stuffed with the singles and publicity material with a very heavy heart.
He picked up where he had left off before meeting Blum and continued on to NEMS where he spent the remaining ten pounds on an exciting assortment of songs from Liverpool bands, some of which he had heard before and some of which an enthusiastic sales assistant had assured him were destined to be big sellers. Then he caught the train back to Birmingham, inwardly shaking his head all the way.
The following Wednesday he hitched to Kettering where he met Kevin.
‘Here they are; thirty quid’s worth.’
Kevin looked carefully through the bag but was clearly taken aback by the wad of identical discs.
‘So you reckon these guys are the bees’ knees?’
‘I hope so.’ And Giles gave Kevin an upbeat account of his curious encounter with ‘Chains of Love’. For some reason he omitted any mention of Blum. Neither did he tell him about the ‘raid’. In fact the more he had thought about the business, the more he felt that it had all been elaborately stage-managed. He had quickly arrived at the conclusion he had been manipulated. Of course, trust was the very basis of his relationship with Kevin and he knew that the ripples from this affair could ruin it, but he felt powerless to do anything except make the best of the terrible deal; and that meant selling it to Kevin.
‘They are extraordinary. Their sound is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. No, come to think of it, I’ve heard a Delta guy who produced that…that… dirty noise. But their girl singer; she’s definitely gonna make it big. Maybe not with that group.’ Giles stopped before his misgivings really showed.
Kevin gave him a quick glance. ‘So, I’m off to Tennessee, Old Bean. I’ll let you know how this lot goes down. Stay cool! See you, Giles.’
‘See you soon.’ And Giles made his way empty handed back to the A14 and a fairly painless series of lifts to Northfield.
A week later on a Friday night – after he had received a rather sharp long-distance phone call from Kevin telling him that ‘Chain of Love’ sucked and that ‘he never wanted to hear about the mother-f***ers ever again’ – Giles was in the Black Horse. He had got rid of the last hard-to-dislodge punters, given all his glasses a last polish with a tea-towel he reserved for the task, when he noticed in a dark corner an even darker figure.
‘Hello, my young friend. How go your business deals. Well I hope.’
‘Das ist schade. I’m sorry.’
‘You have probably brought my record thing to a grinding halt, Viktor.’ Why Giles felt he should use Blum’s first name he couldn’t say for sure.
‘Ach, nein. No, for sure. This how you say ‘mere blips’.
‘But, my American has always felt my taste to be impeccable.’
‘Und so it is, my young friend, so it is! This ‘Chains of Love’ was not your taste, was it?’
‘But I bought their records.’
‘Yes, but you were not a free agent. You were bamboozled, how you say.’
‘So you knew.’
‘Why did you do it, Viktor?’
‘So you learn, my junge freund.’
‘What should I learn from this mess?’
‘What you have already learnt, my young friend. Aufweidersehen. Until we meet again. Tschuss. Tschuss.’ And the large black back disappeared out the door.
A week later, Kevin rang and asked Giles to hitch back up to Liverpool. He wanted him to buy a hundred copies of a record by a hitherto unknown group – not Liverpudlian, this time. Kevin told him he’d arranged to have the record played on a local radio station and the response had been overwhelming. He’d let be known that he’d get as many copies as he could in the shortest period of time. Giles made a quick calculation; this deal would clean him out, but it had to be done.