It was another bright morning and James felt sick. After brushing his teeth, spitting into the sink, and staring at himself in the mirror, he tried to sing. The sound that came out of his mouth reminded him of a doll his sister once had. When you turned it upside down, it cried weirdly. He hated that doll, but he hated his own voice more.
James went into the kitchen and picked up a box of Apricot Wheaties. The box felt suspiciously light. He peered into it and saw there was only a thin layer of crumbs left at the bottom. Great, he thought. Deserted by something else.
The loud ticking of the kitchen clock reminded him that time was running out. There was only a couple of days left before Edinburgh. He’d stalled on phoning the studio to cancel the recording session. It was too final. There had to be some other way.
James found himself in the hall, putting his jacket on, the denim one he bought in Oxfam after a good day busking. There has to be something I can do, he thought, as he locked the flat.
There were fewer dogs on wheels in the park than last time. A large circle of young people sat on the grass and there was a lot of laughing. He heard two guys debating bands. “No way man” one of them said. “They’re pure rubbish!” One girl with red hair was quietly strumming a guitar and singing. James thought her voice sounded magical. He was pleased he thought that way – he hadn’t felt anything was magical for the last few days.
Later, James often wondered how his attempt to make things better happened. He tried to piece together all the moments but there always seemed to be chunks missing. He supposed he must have decided at some point to phone Jack, a friend from schooldays. He had barely spoken to him for ages. He couldn’t remember what Jack did for a living or if he did anything. Jack’s number was only in his phone because of a chance bumping into each other, in a pub one night. James had promised to catch up with Jack but forgot about it for months. Perhaps, he called him when he was walking through the park. He couldn’t remember where he was when he called him, but he remembered their conversation.
“Yeah. I’m sorry. Who is this?”
“It’s James Gold. Remember, we…”
“Oh, James! Hello there. I recognise your voice now. It’s been a long time.” Jack sounded pleased and bewildered. James knew how he felt.
“Jack, I’m needing a bit of advice about something, and I thought of your dad. Do you still live with him?”
“Until the end of the week I do, yeah. Then, I’m moving out. If you don’t mind me asking, James, why my dad? Have you got an overdue test or something?”
They both laughed. “No” said James. “Even I’ve never been 10 years late. It’s just that your dad was always very good to me at school, when I didn’t have a clue. He was more like a Guidance teacher than my English teacher sometimes. And I wondered if I could just have a wee chat with him about something.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that would be fine” said Jack. “He’s retired now, you know, so he spends most of his time in the garden, but I think he gets a bit bored. He’s out there now. Do you want me to go and get him? Or, if you like, you could drop by, and I’ll let him know you’re coming.”
It only took a second for James to decide that speaking to his old teacher in person would be best.
The room felt too big to be real. Jack had gone off to the back garden to get his dad, leaving James alone, sitting on a creaky, green leather armchair. He looked around in a daze of wondering what to say. In a corner of the room, a very tall Grandfather clock was ticking softly. It sounded much further away than it was. The room itself was a library with many packed shelves of books. James felt a pang of guilt at not reading more over the years since he left school. Then, Mr Saunders appeared with Jack.
“I’ll leave you two to chat”, said Jack, nodding to James, and disappearing up the hall stairs.
“Hello James” said Mr Saunders, sitting down in another creaky green leather armchair. “It’s nice to see you after all this time.”
James smiled, and said: “It’s nice to see you too, Mr Saunders.” He looked at his old teacher and decided he hadn’t changed much. The same round, slightly puzzled face, and round specs, like John Lennon specs. He was a bit balder and greyer than at school. His clothes were different too. Instead of a brown suit and tie, he was dressed like a farmer – with green wellies, baggy trousers, and a brown and cream checked shirt, with the sleeves rolled up neatly. James was surprised at how tanned his old teachers’ forearms were. He somehow expected all his teachers would have very pale or grey skin.
“Jack said you wanted to talk to me about something?”
“Yes” said James. “It’s not really an English teacher kind of subject, but…” His voice trailed off, unsure of itself.
“Well, that’s okay” said Mr Saunders. “I’m not really an English teacher anymore. So, I’ll just be Mr Saunders; or – George, if you prefer.”
“I think it would be easier for me if I called you Mr Saunders. If that’s okay.”
“Of course. Of course. Before we start, would you like a cup of tea or coffee? I’m afraid I don’t have anything stronger.”
“I’m fine, thanks” said James. He was aware of his own breathing in the quiet room, and the comforting ticking of the Grandfather clock. James took a deep breath and began to tell Mr Saunders what had happened. All about the competition, and losing his voice, and not knowing why. And he told Mr Saunders things he hadn’t told anyone else. About his parents dying in a car crash; and his sister and her years on drugs and the day she died; and he told Mr Saunders about his own suicide attempt, after his sister died.
They spoke around and around the things James needed to say. Later, he forgot most of it.
“Well”, said Mr Saunders. “It sounds like you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, well before you lost your singing voice. And this recording session you won – it is coming up soon?”
“Yeah. It is. It’s scheduled for the day after tomorrow.”
“I see. But your singing voice has gone.” The room was quiet, apart from the deep ticking of the big clock in the corner.
For a few moments, James panicked. What if this turned out to be the same as the times with Grudge or the doctor? Sympathy, but nothing like a cure.
“James, I’m not trained in counselling techniques. It may be that you need more help than I can give you. But – I’ve listened to what you’ve told me, and I think what we could do is just chat a little about what’s happening and let’s see how far we get. Okay?”
“Yes”, said James, leaning forward in the creaky chair. “Yes, that sounds good.”
“Okay. Well, first of all- well done. Well done for making a living from your singing. It can’t have been easy after all your troubles. And well done for winning the competition. You know, I’ve long wondered if song-writing is a bit like writing stories. Do you remember that guidance I’d always suggest when I gave you a story to write at school?”
“Write what you know” said James. He felt relieved to have remembered.
“That’s right”, said Mr Saunders. “Very good. Of course, it wasn’t just my advice, it’s something a lot of teachers suggest to their pupils. And it does seem, from what you told me about your song lyrics, that you watch things happening in your life and put them into your songs. Like that line you told me about. What was it? “The girl looking far but never at me.” Was that based on a real girl?”
“Yeah, it was”, said James. He remembered the girl who passed him one day. Her yellow dress, and her eyes which seemed fixed on something a great distance away.
“Good” said Mr Saunders. “So, you were writing from what you know?”
“Yeah, I suppose I was.”
“Okay.” The old teacher sat very still, with only his gaze moving slowly around the room, until it rested for a few moments in the direction of the black marble fireplace. It was cluttered with framed photographs and there were many more on the wall. Then, Mr Saunders looked back at James. “So, song-writing and singing is obviously very important in your life. You’ve had huge trauma – losing people. I’m sorry to hear about that. And now, you’ve won this competition – which is great, but there seems to be something about it which has made you anxious.”
James nodded. “Yeah, it seems so. But all I really know is that my voice has gone. I don’t understand why. It’s like there’s a bit of the story missing.”
“Okay. Are you worried that you might have to perform in front of a bigger audience eventually?”
“Okay, well done. I would be petrified.”
“Okay. Did the thought of going to the recording studio worry you, before your voice went AWOL?”
“No. I was okay about that too. When I could sing, I was looking forward to going to Edinburgh and recording tracks. And then, out of the blue my voice disappeared. I tried to work it out in my head what was happening. This might sound weird but…” James glanced at Mr Saunders who nodded for him to continue. “Well, I won the competition, but I felt I’d lost. No, that’s not exactly right. I felt, and I feel, scared of losing something.”
“What is it you’re afraid of losing James?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well”, said the teacher. “You explained to me that you lost your parents and then your sister. You had the trauma of almost losing your own life. So, you know much more about loss than many people do. And, of course, you’ve lost your singing voice. Whatever else it is you’re afraid of losing, it must be something very important. Is there anything you can think of?”
James looked over at the Grandfather clock. He could no longer hear it ticking– there was too much guitar music playing in his head. It was a mix of his own playing and the tune the girl with red hair in the park was playing. “I feel that I should know what I am afraid of losing. It’s almost like – I know the answer is there but I can’t see it.”
“James, could it be yourself you’re afraid of losing?”
In one faraway tick of the Grandfather clock, everything changed. It was like one time in his past, when James was working on a song and it took weeks to write the final words. He tried and tried but nothing came. And then he was walking along by the river late at night, the waters and the sky were black, and Fife across the river was a dream world of hovering lights, and suddenly the words for the end of the song came to him.
“I think that’s it”, said James. “I’m afraid of not being me anymore.”
On the morning train to Edinburgh, James sat by a window, gazing out at the yellow-green fields of Perthshire. As lines of colours merged and flashed by, he remembered bits of the quiet hour in the high-ceilinged room with Mr Saunders, and after – when he walked home feeling lighter. He knew then that he would always be able to sing and write songs and remember his mum and dad and Cheryl. He wouldn’t lose himself because his songs needed him and they wouldn’t let him disappear. He grinned when he remembered – he hadn’t tested out his singing voice yet. It didn’t matter. He knew he could sing.