Sage Counsel of a Solar Panel Serviceman.

Ian Ross

The novel is available in full in pdf, kindle or electronic reader format. Please contact Tilebury.

Extract - first chapter. Please contact Tilebury for full novel

Chapter One

I pressed play and, to the sounds of Lady Soul, dodged uphill past the commuters heading home and the, still-sober, revellers heading out.

With Aretha high on my headphones, the sixties engulfed me. I pictured tie-dyes and bell bottoms and afros and hula hoops and big shades. I imagined austerity optimism, illusory independence and the thrill of new sounds and freedoms. My head was clearing of negative thoughts and my chest was puffing. I demanded respect. Had 'The Man' presented himself, I would have stuck it to him. He didn't, so I stared defiantly at the bouncer at the Matthew's Flag instead.

Inside the pub, the scratched tables and exposed beams created a well used, practical atmosphere while the recessed lighting and frayed paintwork made it homely. I withdrew my earphones and the wall speakers replaced People Get Ready with The Riverboat Song. I hummed along for a few bars. It wasn't too bad a place, even if the soundtrack was several decades too late for my mood.

In the main room, the tone was set by the professional clothes of office workers stopping for 'just the one'. The buzzing of their chatty cliques was reassuring, like the hum of bees or the sound of distant mowing.

I looked around for my party while chatting to a barmaid with a diamond nose-stud. So far only Jared had arrived. He was hogging a table near where they would set up the mics, with his legs bridging two chairs. Jared was tall and dark with black hair in a ponytail, a gaunt but strangely beautiful face and no spare fat anywhere on his body. He'd removed his leather jacket and his T-shirt sleeves rode up over swelling biceps in a nonchalant exhibitionism of which he was entirely conscious. His unlaced boots hung in mid-air and one foot drummed in time to the music.

When Jared was happy, his smile was full of goofy egotism. When miserable, heavy brows descended over sullen and sulky eyes. Right now, his expression was set in obsessive vacancy as he flicked through a magazine of the type favoured by unmarried builders during sugared-tea breaks. The glass beside him contained an inch of flat lager which he had left, no doubt, for tactical reasons.

I ordered two beers because Jared never refuses a freebie and chips because I'd not had time for lunch. The jewel-nosed barmaid promised to bring the chips when they were ready.

Jared looked up when I dropped my camera on the table. He reached out for the nearest pint and tipped it to me in salute.

'Chiurz.' His voice was a lazy bass.

I sat.

He dived into the story he'd clearly been waiting for someone to tell.

'Right, so what's the best bit of advice you've ever been given? `Cos I got a doozer I was given today.'

I smiled. The question was rhetorical. Jared believed his own pearls of conversation were more valuable than those cast by others.

'This morning, right,' he went on, 'we were on the way to this cottage mansion over by Bath...'

Jared was spending the spring fitting solar panels to posh houses in the rustic commuter-belt. Contrary to health and safety law, he chose to ride on the back of the pickup, jammed in between ladders and vacuum tubes. He said he preferred the fresh air on his face.

'...and I was, like, playing Leonard Cohen into the wind, 'cos it seemed kind of right for a Friday.' He filled the journeys with al fresco sax refrains. He said it was the best time to practice and he enjoyed the stares of startled pedestrians.

'...and well, Barry, yeah? Barry'd been staring at me for ages - daggers, you know.' He used crooked fingers to symbolise the weapons flying from Barry's eyes.

Barry was a wrinkled, beatnik bohemian who disliked anyone who was still young. He'd shaken hands with Bolan, heard the news of Hendrix's death while hitching a ride to Glastonbury and was one of a select few who'd seen Nick Drake live. Barry's musical frame of reference was stuck at about the time Jared was born and didn't feature saxophones. Technically, Barry was the fitter and Jared was the fitter's mate. They weren't, however, matey.

I sipped my beer impassively to calm my overwhelming, if imaginary, excitement and nodded to confirm that I understood the reference to daggers. Jared went on:

'Then we, right, slow down for some lights and Barry, like, says: ...'

Jared dropped his boots off the chair, adopted an exaggerated pout and leant forward until his chin was so close I could smell stale hops. I stared back, unwilling to yield my personal space.

'"I'se some advice for yer, boy. From one as knows."' Jared imitated a cigarette-scarred Somerset burr. I didn't take the opportunity he gave me to applaud his thespian talents, so he continued: 'Then Barry kind of, stops and looks out at the stone houses. Well, I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of asking for his advice, so I just paused to clear my reed, right?'

Jared grinned, proud of the cool he'd shown and returned to his impersonation of Barry.

'"Earn yer money firs', kid. Only after - be a hippie."'

It was the punchline and Jared threw out his arms and sniggered, inviting me to share in his derision. I elected not to judge.

Instead, I asked Jared how long he'd been at the pub.

'Finished the job about four and they dropped me here on the way through.'

'I guess contract labourers are honour bound to drink each week's wages by Sunday.'

'Hey, in my defence, it's pretty strenuous stuff, right? I've been climbing over rooftops all day, you know, and lugging great blocks of glass about and stuff. It's not like sitting in some air-conditioned office deciding what coffee machine to raid. And I started pretty early.'

'I can see you started early.'

Gillian turned up next. She was wearing Suzi Quatro leathers with her red hair freshly blackened and freckles spoiling the look. The non-trivial heels of her leather boots made up for her disappointing height and the kohl almost hid her pretty eyes. She carried a few extra pounds on her arms and chest which left no doubt that she was capable of a powerful slap. Today, her lips were the colour of Morello cherry and her expression left no doubt that a slap was entirely possible.

She strode down the room with guitar slung from one shoulder and clacking footsteps warning the punters to make way. Gillian liked people to know when the band had arrived. She also liked to give Jared fair warning that she was coming.

Jared's magazine was in the saxophone case and he was busy fitting a reed before she reached us.

She ignored the chair Jared kicked out for her, scowled and leant against the table. Then, without comment, she swung her guitar to an active orientation and began fiddling out mindless chords.

Jared blew a few notes into her tune and leant back. 'Like the hair.' He ostentatiously flicked his own fringe from his eyes.

Gillian sniffed and moved onto some blues riffs. Jared ran an alto voice over the top of them. 'Don' do it for you to like it,' she replied eventually. Her accent was Walsall and her voice high, insistent and tiny, like that of a solemn child.

Jared took another breath, '...hides the grey well.' His mouth was busy but his eyes revelled in his own wit.

Gillian switched to Can the Can. Jared couldn't follow that and didn't try.

Piers opened a white door marked private and nodded over his shoulder. 'Darryl's here. He's backing Morrison around.'

Gillian swung the guitar over her head and handed it to me. Jared rose and handed me the saxophone in imitation. They marched out like extras from The Matrix.

'Trousers on first; then shoes,' I called to Jared, but he ignored me. He'd probably forgotten asking for the best advice I'd ever been given.

The barman cleared a giddy couple from the corner and handed me an envelope marked 'Friday - Music.' Barmen always want to give me the cash. It's probably because I wear a suit.

I propped the instruments by the wall, dropped the envelope on the table and picked up the camera. Piers, Gillian and Jared relayed in the speakers and amps and mics. Then Piers and Jared carried in Darryl's drum cases. I took a few action photos for the record. After Gillian fired me a warning glance, I only included her in group shots.

Darryl came last, hurrying a bar stool in each fist as if they were maracas. One had a teak seat and annulus foot. The other was a diagonal bundle of chrome tubes with a white leather seat. Darryl placed them respectfully before the mics and disappeared back through the private door.

Gillian and Piers plugged in and began tuning up. Darryl returned with a high backed oak carver seat and matching diner's chair. Sweat patches were appearing at his armpits and hints of red on the black skin of his face. Having placed the chair he waved at the other band members, pointed, beckoned unspecifically and smiled hopefully. Gillian ignored him, Jared shook his head and Piers mouthed an unmistakeable 'no'. With a shrug, Darryl bundled over to me, optimism radiating from his smile.

'Hey, mate, please, please, please, you wouldn't let me down, eh?' He pressed his hands together in prayer and swayed from foot to foot.

'Just a little, you know, help with moving a few of the pieces - won't take a second, you won't mind - I know you won't. You've always, like, been the best and really decent guy and...' His slur-y baritone kept coming in the short wheezy blasts of a fat man engaged in energetic activity. Eventually, I ran out of reasons to refuse and followed him through the door while he thanked me intensely.

He'd parked Morrison in the pub-yard and left the back doors open. Inside were a teak occasional table and a cherrywood computer desk. They were beautiful items. Darryl was a craftsman and all his furniture was flawless. He never let anyone doubt that he loved making it, was proud of each cut and joint and, most importantly, that he was very skilful.

We each took an end of the desk and he took the table in his spare hand. Despite being four inches shorter than me, he could lift with one hand what was straining both of mine. To his screams for care, we bashed down the corridor into the bar-room.

Piers' guitar strap was over his shoulder and Jared's mic was arranged to pocket height. The speakers were on and crackling.

Darryl arranged the desk and table beside Jared with glowing eyes. In my mind his ratatat commercial mantra played on loop: 'You've got to go for it, mate. There's no profit in embarrassment. Thrust your ideas in their faces. Shove it under their noses and stuff. In fact, rub their noses in it if you can. All's fair in promotion and marketing, you know. No point in having it if you don't flaunt it. And anyway - you're doing it for them. They'll love it if they get the chance. Don't bottle out. Don't hold back. Don't lose your nerve. Fear's no reason to fail, y'know.'

I shook my head to clear it of such fragments and wondered, not for the first time, how much of success is just confidence and presentation. No one looks behind the scenes if the actors are pretty. On stage, Piers confirmed the playlist with Jared. Darryl hung an embroidered flag from the desk and another from the snare-drum stand. The one on the desk read 'Cathedra Concepts Ltd - Design at Home.' It matched some canary coloured flyers he'd stacked on the bar. The one on his drum-stand read 'After Extra Time.' Piers had taken the band name from the Thousand Yard Stare song.

Gillian screwed down the white leather stool and perched on it. She began playing She Sells Sanctuary while gradually turning up her mic.

The pubgoers broke off their conversations to look.

Perhaps they might have just one more drink before going home.

Piers nodded to Darryl and they were off.

They were good that night. The drinkers stayed late and shouted along to Love Will Tear Us Apart and Sheena is a Punk Rocker. I got some photos in which, excepting Gillian, they are all smiling. It was probably the last comfortable time for that band.

I never got the chips.


(Contact Tilebury)