Two days after his shock, James Gold sat on a bench in the centre of Dudhope Park, watching people strolling by with small dogs on wheels. Well, not really on wheels, but he was writing a song in his head and that was in it. There was no tune yet. He looked out at the big green slopes of grass, and over the jigsaw puzzle jumbles of buildings, to the pale blue sky. Normally, the view would have cheered him up, but today he felt – there was hidden sniggering everywhere. He was still baffled at what happened that morning in the street when he suddenly became a clown, but he had thought about it a lot. He knew he’d sung most of his song without really listening to it, but there was a small part he remembered hearing. It was when he sang a few of the words he’d written five years before: “Hey, magic music – guide me on; to the warm, bright shelter of my song.” He had started singing the lines in tune, he was fairly sure of that; but then he drifted out of tune. He must have sung the rest of the song very badly, like a karaoke singer from hell.
But why? The worst bit was when he went home that day and tried to sing, while looking at his worried face in the bathroom mirror. He found that he could no longer sing in tune at all. It did not feel like a physical kind of thing. His voice wasn’t weak or croaky, and there was no pain in his throat. It was like his singing voice had just decided to run away, and he was left with his talking voice, but if he tried to sing it came out wrong. Himself, but not himself.
I could sing before, couldn’t I? I mean – I won a singer- songwriter competition. Didn’t I? He breathed in and out deeply. He smelled the grass and the fresh space all around him, and he heard a bird, maybe a thrush, singing a complicated song – until the sound was swallowed up by the low rumbling of a bus on the invisible road beyond a line of trees and bushes.
James remembered years ago when he was in a huge white hospital ward. It was after his sister died and he became the only one left. His mum and dad were long gone. A doctor in the ward taught him how to calm his breathing when he had a panic attack. He tried it now, focusing on – breathing in, breathing out. Repeated and repeated, slowly, until his breathing and the sweet air in the park melted together. The sky was very blue and friendlier now. And there was that bird again – what a beautiful sound! Like a river of light and a childhood taste of vanilla ice cream.
I don’t understand, James thought. When I was in the hospital it was different from this thing. It was right after a horrible, sad time when I lost my sister. This time it didn’t start with me losing anyone. I won a competition! I should have been happy after that. I was happy! But – maybe I didn’t win! Maybe, my mind made that up because I needed it to! It did seem unbelievable. What’s happening to me?
The day after the shock, James phoned Grudge and they arranged to meet in the The Muffin Break in town. Grudge, as always, took the piss out of him for wolfing down two raisin muffins, and for choosing to meet in a cafe instead of a pub. James shrugged – he didn’t feel like explaining that he preferred the music in the café, where there wasn’t any.
“I need you to tell me something” James said.
“Okay”, said Grudge warily. Half of his muffin lay uneaten on his plate. He wasn’t a great fan of muffins, and certainly not an addict like James. Grudge thought it unfair that James stayed so skinny but ate all the time, and Grudge was officially obese but tried hard every day not to eat too much.
“I can sing. Right?” said James.
“Yeah, of course you can.” Grudge’s thick eyebrows were trying to escape upwards on his large pink forehead. “You’re really good.”
“Yes! You won a big competition, mate. Don’t you remember? What’s wrong?”
James sighed, and looked down at his plate – at the few crumbs left from the two muffins. He thought for a second of getting a third muffin. No, then Grudge would really think I’m bonkers. “It’s just…” James coughed, and paused as he tried to force the words out. “I tried to sing yesterday, and I was rubbish. Really bad. People were laughing.”
“Wow!” Grudge had never seen his friend look so scared. Or scared at all. “When you went busking?”
“Yeah”, said James. “I’d been okay. Then, I started one of my old songs, and by the time I finished it, school kids walking by were pissing themselves, and pointing at me. It was horrible.” He looked at Grudge, and thought his friend was getting bigger and pinker. He was nearly bursting out of the old leather biker’s jacket he always wore, although he never owned a bike. James wondered if he should ask Grudge for the half muffin left on his plate. Just to help him.
“What about afterwards?” Grudge said. “Were you able to sing again later? I mean, was it just a blip?”
“No. It wasn’t just a blip. I can’t sing at all now.”
“Oh, that is so weird” said Grudge. He took a gulp of coffee and felt a bit sick because he expected it to be Guinness and it wasn’t. The, he remembered he wasn’t in his normal comfort-zone. “And – you’ve got the recording studio next week.” Grudge prided himself on stating the obvious.
“So, I really won a competition?” James said, smiling weakly.
“Yeah! You did. Before you were, like, crap.”
The two friends grinned. The bad feeling at their table faded away for a few moments, but it quickly came back.
Standing up from the park bench and walking towards home, James half watched the little dogs on wheels. He remembered the last thing that Grudge had said to him in the café. “It’s probably just nerves mate. Recording your first album is an awesome thing to do. Maybe it just got to you and made you panic. Like an anxiety thing. Have you spoken to your doctor?”
Doctor McPhee was a nice guy, but he looked blanker than a blank sheet of paper when James told him what the problem was. A few minutes of scrolling on his computer transformed the doctor’s blank expression into one of mild uncertainty. He coughed and turned from the screen to speak to James. Now, there was total certainty in the doctors’ voice, but his eyes did not look so sure. James left with a prescription for sleeping tablets and some advice. “Try to get plenty of rest, Mr Gold. It’s probably just temporary anxiety.” It was the same diagnosis as Grudge gave him, plus the sleeping tablets. It was a Grudge-plus.
Back in his house from the park, James tried to sing in the hall. It sounded terrible, like a very sad cat. An hour later, he tried to sing in front of the bathroom mirror. Again, the sound he made was not quite human. He tried singing in every room in the house – he heard a cat again, weird droning, and some kind of monster. Then, he tried singing in the garden, sitting on the bench beside the dilapidated shed. He scared a large crow into the sky. It’s cawing sounded as harsh as his singing.
That night, James slept well, because of the sleeping tablets. He woke up feeling strong and drank half a carton of fresh orange juice. He stood in the middle of the kitchen with his eyes shut. He ‘sang’ – if the word meant howl.
Only two days were left before he had to get on a train, go to Edinburgh, and begin recording in a top studio. Postponing because he was ‘sick’ seemed like the only option, but it was a horrible option. It was nothing like the way he imagined starting his musical career. And he might get into trouble for wasting time and money. And there was his deepest fear. What if his singing voice never came back?