Can You Believe It? – an excerpt from RETURN TRIP

Jon Burnley was just leaving the studio when he felt a vibration from his phone. He slipped it out of his pocket and tapped the screen, and then nearly dropped it as he saw that it was a British phone number, and the Caller ID read Howard Steeves.
“Hello,” he answered brightly, trying not to geek out, in case it was a prank call.
“Hullo, is this Robert Jon Burnley?”
“My name is Howard Steeves. I’m the guitarist for the band ‘See’. I’m sure you know us.”
“We’re in the middle of a tour and our current singer, David Bender, has developed laryngitis. We’ve heard your recordings with Distant Echo, and we think you’d be the perfect replacement. Would you be interested?”
“Goodness, Yes!”
“Very good,” Howard answered warmly. “Can you meet us in London by Friday? We have rehearsal space there, and we’d really like to get started working with you. We can send you airfare and set you up in a hotel, if it will help.”
“Yes, that would be fantastic!”
“Excellent. We look forward to seeing you on Friday.”
“Yes,” Jon repeated to the silent smart phone. Can it be true? Does it really happen like this?
He turned around and went back into the studio, looking for Jeff and Steve. He didn’t know what he was going to tell them, but he certainly wasn’t going to miss out on the chance of a lifetime to tour with See.
Jon had been singing along to Andrew Johnson’s lyrics since he was a boy. He had the same high tenor voice Andrew had, and loved writing and performing Progressive Rock numbers in the See vein. He’d even been in a fairly successful See tribute band before he’d joined Distant Echo. He loved being in the band, and he definitely didn’t want to quit, but he’d do it if he had to, if that’s what it took.
He was going to be the lead singer of See. He didn’t doubt for an instant that he could do it. He’d waited his whole life for the chance. Nothing could stop him now.

On the plane over, Jon had worried that the air pressure in the cabin was too high, as he’d started to experience vertigo and a sore throat. The attendant assured him all was well. He asked if anyone else had developed a sore throat. Again, she kindly promised him all was well. Then Jon became frightened that he might actually be coming down with something. This was impossible! He couldn’t be sick on the day of his audition!
He pleaded with anyone who would listen to find him honey, lemon or ginger for a strong cup of tea. Eventually, a group of charming elderly ladies on a return trip from America produced the ingredients he needed, and he took over the flight attendants’ station to make the tea himself, before returning to his seat to drink every drop before it got cold. At some point after that, he dropped off to sleep, probably to everyone’s relief.
When he awoke, the plane was finally landing, and he was only too happy to comply with all landing precautions if it meant he got off the plane sooner, as he was almost certain there were germs going around in the air that had nearly made him sick.
Upon landing at Heathrow, he was one of the first to disembark, and indeed, he was almost certain he heard a few people cheering as he exited the plane. He just smiled to himself, fearing most of them would be suffering from some flu bug or other while he was happily ensconced in the rehearsal studio.
Picking up his bags, he started looking for his ride. He wondered if one of the guys would be along to personally welcome him, or if he’d have to wait to meet the whole band at the rehearsal.
He wandered toward the front street exit, still not having spotted his ride, and was beginning to wonder if he’d been forgotten. That didn’t seem likely. Maybe they had gotten the pickup time wrong, or maybe the plane had gotten held up longer than expected, or maybe it had arrived early.
Jon was starting to spin his wheels a bit. He looked up and down the airport lobby, wondering if he was going to have to check into a hotel on his own for the night until they contacted him, and then spotted the airport lounge, which reminded him that he hadn’t had anything to drink but the tea. He hoped they had properly filtered water.

Entering the lounge, he saw that it was mostly empty, which he found a bit odd. He’d been in a number of airports all over the world, including this one, and he’d never seen one this dead.
The bartender was a short, overweight gent with an almost-convincing full beard and glasses, wearing a blue cardigan unbuttoned over a pale blue polo tee. Really, nothing like he would have expected from a bartender. Jon suspected he was the manager.
“Can I get a glass of filtered water?” he asked hopefully.
“Fresh from the spring,” the man replied, reaching for a stemmed beer glass. He was just about to put ice in the glass when Jon held his hand up:
“No thank you. I only drink purified water. That ice has been sitting for who knows how long…”
“Well, I know how long, because I just put it there two minutes ago. If you’d come in sooner instead of standing outside, you’d have seen me doing it. The ice comes from the same source as the water, which is triple filtered, because though it pains me to admit it, my customers can tell the difference.”
“Oh,” said Jon, a little taken aback. “I guess it’s alright, then.”
“Excellent,” the bartender replied, and opened a glass bottle with a label he didn’t recognize.”
“You are certain that is filtered water, right?”
“You’re a singer, aren’t you?” the man asked him bluntly.
“Is it that obvious?”
“No, my second guess was going to be thespian. I only know of one other profession that is as fussy about water as singers and actors, and that’s lawyers, but happily, they don’t know when they’re being given tap water. They just think they do. But in any case, I don’t serve tap water here. The airport plumbing is atrocious. Are you American?”
“Right again. I probably should have said Canadian, right?” Jon grinned. He didn’t know why he was grinning, but the guy was making him feel better just by talking to him.
“Nope. That trick doesn’t work on me. I am Canadian, and I know too many lousy Canadians to pick on Americans blindly any more. Where you from?”
“Well, I lived in Seattle for years, but I grew up in Laguna Beach. Moved back there not too long ago. Funny how that works, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the bartender replied. “I think we all go back to our roots when we start raising a family, like salmon spawning where they were born. I mean, there are exceptions, of course, but they usually have been so damaged by toxic home lives that leaving and never returning for any reason seems acceptable, for a while. I knew a woman who hated her family so much, she left Brooklyn to move to Canada to marry a hack writer. She missed home the whole time she was away, because to her, NYC was home, but she didn’t miss the family she had left behind.”
“And where is she now?”
“Last time she called me, she was living in Brooklyn, selling art and making a fortune.”
“And the writer?” Jon asked, knowingly.
“Tends bar in an airport lounge in Ol’ Blighty, last I heard,” he winked.
Jon grinned and held out his hand in greeting, “Hello. My name is Jon.”
“I’m Rich,” the bartender replied, shaking his hand heartily, “though you wouldn’t know it to see me here,” he added with a grin.
“Nice to meet you, Rich. Did you ever remarry?”
“Nah. Work has opened up a whole new avenue of social interaction for me, but my schedule doesn’t allow for much canoodling, these days. Most action I get these days is the occasional insincere flirtation from some of my waitresses, who all have good men to go home to.”
“All? You mean you don’t hire women who have abusive men?”
“I hire them on the spot. Then I set them down pretty much where you’re sitting, and spell out to them that they have to get rid of the bum and take good care of themselves if they want to keep working here. I’ve only had one or two turn me down. The boys and I take care of the moving arrangements.”
I have a couple of guys in security who help me out when I introduce them to my waitresses and tell them the stories the girls tell me. Bad husbands and boyfriends have a tendency of finding themselves homeless when girls come to work for me.”
“Kind of a jolly old Robin Hood figure, eh?”
“Well, more like Mike Callahan,” Rich joked.
“Spider Robinson!” Jon laughed.
“Yup, loved those books. I don’t have a fireplace, but I found a bar, and now I run it the way I see fit.”
“So,” Jon said, “what advice do you have for me, Rich?”
“Hmmn? No advice.”
“I’m sort of disappointed, Rich. Mike wouldn’t hesitate to speak his mind.”
“Sure he would. Mike was an expert at saying nothing until it was absolutely required. Other than a bit of a water fetish, you don’t appear to have too many problems. Singer comes to London, probably auditioning for some big band, and I can only think of one or two big names hiring right now, so odds are, you’re in town for that, which means you’re good, because big London bands don’t waste time. Studio space is at a premium here. You don’t look like you’re a metal fan, so I know you’re not auditioning for Ultraviolet, so it must be See.”
“Wow, that’s incredible,” Jon laughed. “You worked that out just by looking at me?”
“Well, partly that. Also, I think I see Nate Cristensen over there looking for you.”
“What?!” Jon spat, craning his neck so fast he feared whiplash. Sure enough, there was the tall peroxide blonde bassist, clearly looking for someone.
“I should get going,” Jon answered. “Maybe we’ll talk again.”
“Sure thing. I’m here most hours,” Rich replied. “Oh! And I thought of some advice for you, if you’ll have it.”
Jon grinned and nodded.
“Remember to breathe. You only get to do the incredible things in life by being who you really are. That’s not to say it’s always going to go your way, but you can afford to do a little less worrying, now. You’re on the right path. Just don’t stress out over little things. You got here. Enjoy the ride home. Seeya soon.”
“Thanks, Mike,” Jon winked, and Rich nodded appreciatively.
It amused Jon greatly that Rich had sounded so certain of what he was saying, even though he hadn’t really done more than deliver a platitude or two about relaxing. Jon knew about relaxing and breathing from years of yoga. But Rich’s advice had come at the right time, because Jon realized he had been stressing about the audition. Rich knew the band had already pretty much auditioned him before sending for him. The gig was his. He just had to take better care of himself than David had, and enjoy himself more. He was here.
But breathing was more important than most people realized. Jon took a deep breath and walked over to meet Nate, who looked him over sternly before finally cracking a mile wide grin.
“Welcome to the band,” Nate said without further ado. “The guys are already waiting to meet you at the studio. No work tonight. We just want to play a few things for you and get your input, before we call it a night. The real work starts tomorrow. You think you’re ready?”
Jon released a slow breath and replied, “Since the day I was born.”
“Good. Let’s go.”

A few weeks later, before the tour started, Jon returned to Heathrow to visit the lounge and tell Rich about the news. He was disappointed to find the lounge was closed. A security guard approached him as he was peering through the window.
“Can I help you with something, sir?”
“No,” Jon answered, and then thought again. “Actually, yes. Can you tell me if the owner is in today?”
“You mean Rich Bearly? No, he’s in the hospital right now. Seems some git came at him with a knife for hiring his old lady out from under him, and Rich got injured wrestling him to the ground before he could hurt the girl.”
“Is he alright?” Jon asked, alarmed.
“Oh yeah. I got there myself and hauled him off the guy before he could do any permanent damage, but he did his ticker some mischief, so he’s in getting some rest. He should be out in a day or two.”
“Good. So the lounge should be open again soon, right?”
“No. ‘Fraid not. He’s decided to sell the lounge and move back to Canada. Said his work here is done, whatever that means. They’re inside now, hearing pitches from prospective owners. Seems he won’t let go of the place until they find someone who will do right by the girls.”
“That sounds like Rich, alright,” Jon replied.
“Oh, you knew him? Surprised you didn’t hear about the hospital thing,” the security guard commented.
“No, we’d just met a few weeks ago. But it’s funny. It was like talking to someone I’d known my whole life. We just clicked, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, Rich was like that with lots of people. Never thought I’d see him sell this place. Boys and I have a bet going that the next owner will be some rock star looking for a tax write-off.”
“Hmmn, yeah,” Jon answered absently. He didn’t think it was quite time for him to invest in a bar in a foreign country just yet.
But he did make a point of visiting the lounge pretty regularly, just to keep an eye on the place. For Mike.

© 2015 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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