Adam Daniels stared past the consultant who had just informed him he had a brain tumor. On the window was a tub of soil in which sat purple flowers. Adam had little appreciation of flowers and even less knowledge of them. Right then, however, he would have been happy to look at them forever if it meant he didn’t have to hear any more about how his life and work were about to be turned upside down.
He had been in a rush when he entered the consultant’s office, annoyed to be missing a meeting. Adam twitched on the end of his chair, expecting to be told that the headaches he had been experiencing were nothing to be worried about. Instead, the man behind the desk went off script.
“The images have shown a growth over the hippocampus. It’s not substantial, but there is the chance that it could grow quickly. Then again it may stay benign, but the important thing at this stage….” That was when Adam took an interest in the flowers. He couldn’t help thinking how he would have remained oblivious to them if not for the thing in his brain.
A date for a biopsy was fixed, three weeks hence. Adam was given a prescription for steroids and a list of practical tips to help with the symptoms of the tumor. He scribbled the information down in his diary, nodding as if he were in a meeting, yet his eye was drawn back to the pretty purple flowers glowing in the late summer sunshine.
He drove straight back to the office, letting the chatter of a talk radio station wash over him. By the time he got there, it was as if the meeting with the consultant had never happened, or at least had been filed away for future consideration. This, it seemed, was Adam Daniels’s talent: the art of compartmentalization.
He knew he had no choice but to tell his boss. As he stood in her office, the site of a severe reprimand a few days ago after a serious error in his work, he now watched a hard-faced middle-aged woman dissolve into a pool of tears. Adam found it an even more unnerving experience than the admonishments he had taken from her.
“You must think I’ve been a right bitch,” she said. He assured her that wasn’t the case, and, as usual, took his share of the blame for not telling her sooner.
Adam’s workload became lighter, and word soon got around the office about his condition. He tried his best to downplay the severity of the tumour, yet he was greeted every morning with sympathetic looks from the girls and sheepish recognition from the men.
In the evenings, he came home to the TV and a meal for one. He’d always told himself he didn’t mind living alone, that his work left little time for serious relationships. Not that he wasn’t human like everyone else. He’d had the odd fling and one-night stand, but the fact was he hadn’t been in a relationship since his college days.
Before his reprimand, his boss had often held Adam up as a shining example in meetings. This drew some resentment from his colleagues, but he’d always failed to understand this: after all, he was only doing his job and trying to make a good living for himself. He had never been one to hold the achievements of others against them.
He sat down on the couch with his meal steaming on his lap tray and his feet on a beanbag as he stared through the TV. Since his visit to the consultant’s office, he had found himself visited by memories he hadn’t entertained in years. He thought about Aaden and the band. Once, in what seemed like another lifetime, they’d had the world in their young hands, before standing still and waving at it as it slipped by. Adam had tried his best to ignore these thoughts, these ghosts, by busying himself with another Netflix box set or using his limited practical skills in helping with the construction of the communal garden in his apartment block.
A party had recently been thrown by the residents when the garden was finished. Among the professionals who could afford the exclusive apartment development, was a pensions consultant named Flynn. It turned out he played guitar. Despite himself, Adam fell into a conversation with Flynn who invited him to an open mic night he played at every week. Adam made his excuses, and when asked whether he played himself, he simply said, “I’ve no talent.” And the thing was, he believed himself.
One of Adam’s relatively menial tasks at work was mentoring a newbie, a young guy by the name of Robert. They were driving back from an appointment with a potential client one afternoon when, stuck for something to say, Adam began asking the younger man him what he had done previously.
“I studied sound engineering,” Robert said.
“Sound engineering?” Adam raised his eyebrows as his fingers drummed a rhythm on the steering wheel.
“Yeah,” Robert said, looking ahead at the road and sighing. “Complete waste of time.”
“Well, I’ve always been into music, and I used to tinker around with recordings. I thought it would be an ideal job for me. Unfortunately, I was naïve enough to think I could get a diploma and then walk into a studio job, but it’s all about who you know, or who you’re willing to shag, for that matter,” he looked at Adam with a bitter smile. “Anyway, the only work going was live sound.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, if you don’t mind going deaf for a living. Nearly all the sound engineers I shadowed told me they were going deaf. That’s not exactly great for job security,” Robert smiled again, almost apologetically, before fussing with his hair in the wing mirror. “So, I retrained and got real about things. It’s alright having dreams, but they aren’t going to pay the bills, are they?”
“No,” Adam heard himself say. They pulled up at the office, and he thought no more about it until he got home.
He stood in front of the microwave watching his meal bubble and steam and found himself thinking again about Robert. He imagined how he must have felt once reality came to bite. The microwave pinged, and he was brought back to his large, chrome kitchen.
He busied himself by putting the plate on his tray and made his way over to the couch. As he was walking along, he caught sight of himself in the mirror. There he stood in grey slacks, black polished shoes, and a white shirt, tie tucked in ready for his meal. He looked 28, going on 48. It was then he wondered where the years had gone, and what had happened to the 18-year-old version of him who had been ready to take on the world on his own terms.
Adam’s meal lay half-eaten on the coffee table. On TV, a government minister batted away questions like an automated tennis player. More and more, Adam found himself zoning out; whether he was in a meeting, or making small talk in the coffee area about the weekend’s football. His thoughts began returning to Monolith, the band he had formed with his best friend, Aaden, in their first year of college. It seemed surreal now to think how the band had once been on the brink of signing a major record contract. That was before Aaden, the real talent, and driving force behind them all, had jumped ship after getting his girlfriend pregnant. It was probably just as well, Adam had come to tell himself; sooner or later they would have had to grow up.
It was this insight which came to Adam after running into someone he had known from the Monolith days. “Sooner or later everyone has to grow up and take some responsibility,” he said when the conversation inevitably turned to the band. But as he walked back to the office, he couldn’t help thinking of the look on his old friend’s face as he delivered that sentence. It was as if someone had told a child that Father Christmas didn’t exist.
The next day, Adam went out to get some lunch. He had been prescribed medication to offset the symptoms of the tumor, (although, in truth, the dizziness had stopped after he came clean to his boss) and his appetite had returned.
After buying a sandwich, he decided, as it was a pleasant day, to eat it in a nearby church yard. The approach to the church contained a row of shops on either side. Before he knew it, he was standing before a shop window and looking at a guitar. There was nothing remarkable about it: it was a beginner’s Squire Stratocaster, much like the one he had learned to play on. But he found himself feeling something he hadn’t in years. He traced the contours of the guitar’s body and, in an almost fetishist fashion, allowed his eyes to take in the way the paint shone in the sun. Then he noticed the other guitars in the window: a Rickenbacker, a Charvel, for the metalheads, and a handsome Martin acoustic. His eyes crept over them almost like a peeping Tom looking into a women’s changing room. Something stirred inside him, and he remembered the shop as the place where he had taken his first guitar lessons. He also knew there was a whole floor of guitars upstairs where he could browse to his heart’s content.
Adam came back to himself. Suddenly the sun felt too hot on his neck. He looked around, afraid someone from the office might see him.
He found it even more difficult to concentrate once he returned to the office. He tried his best, but time and again, he found his thoughts returning to the shop window. It triggered in him a nostalgic feeling like finding an old toy or book he had read when he was a kid. It was a feeling, which had the power to transport him for a few seconds to a time when things seemed simpler, and possibilities were endless.
By four, he felt he couldn’t take much more and, when he popped his head round his boss’s door and asked if he could finish early, she agreed, if a little hastily.
Adam went straight home and immediately busied himself with cleaning his flat. He did the clothes washing he usually left until the weekend, and when that was done, started on the cupboards. He pulled out the tins and scrubbed the insides, not that they needed much work as this was something he did monthly, but he needed to busy himself.
Old feelings continued to return, and along with them memories of when he had been a different person. Next was the fridge, but by the time he was halfway through, he took a step back. Sweat dripped from his nose as he wondered what the hell he was doing. He put the food back in the fridge, grabbed a bottle of beer, and went off to the living room.
As he sat and drank, the feelings and memories poured into his consciousness. He let them. He had no strength left to deny them or himself. He thought again about Monolith. The band had been Aaden’s baby. He was the talent and driving force behind it all. Adam had provided competent backing on guitar and had been happy just to be part of something which he knew was special.
For a while, he become convinced music was to be his life, and counted himself lucky to be in Aaden’s slipstream. Once the band split, reality had bitten, and within three years he had sold his guitars and vinyl, exchanging them for a 2.1 in accountancy.
He finished the beer and wondered whether to get another, but that wasn’t what he craved. He felt restless, more to the point his hands felt restless. He looked up at the bookcase and his gaze swam up to the top shelf where his old Rubix cube sat. This would give his hands something to do.
He went out into the communal garden area and found Flynn sitting there in the sunshine. Adam thought about slipping back inside before he was noticed, but then he saw the guitar on the cover of the magazine he was reading and decided to take a seat near him.
Flynn looked up. His short, blonde hair appeared almost bleached in the sunlight. He smiled from behind his shades and seemed genuinely happy to see him.
“Hi, Adam.” He seemed flattered that Flynn remembered his name. The other residents seemed so wrapped up in their own lives and dramas that it took several meetings until they had stopped calling him either “Alan”, or, God forbid, “Aaden.”
“Well, that’s a blast from the past,” said Flynn, eyeing the Rubix cube as Adam sat down in one of the wooden chairs. “You any good?” he put the magazine on his lap and revealed a picture of Jimmy Page holding a twin-neck guitar aloft from a glittering stage.
Adam drew his eyes from Jimmy.
“So, so. I could only ever finish five sides.”
Flynn smiled, “Yeah, me too.”
“I haven’t picked this thing up in years,” Adam turned the cube in his hands. “It’s really just kept as a kind of sentimental ornament, but my hands feel fidgety for some reason.”
“When my hands feel restless, I just pick up a guitar. Seems to do the trick.”
Adam tried to stop himself, but said it anyway.
‘So, what do you play?’
‘Mainly a Gibson acoustic or a Fender Telecaster.’
‘Nice,’ said Adam, virtually salivating at the mention of those famous guitar brands. He wondered, for the first time in years, how it would feel to hold a guitar, never mind play one; and anyway, would he even remember how?
“So, are you into guitars?”
“I used to be.”
“You can play, then?”
Adam smiled. “I never said I couldn’t play. I just said I had no talent.”
“Oh,” Flynn said. “How do you know? Were you in a band?”
“Yeah,” Adam said, sheepishly, looking down at the cube. “For a short while, but it came to nothing.”
Adam looked up, surprised, but also glad. “Jam? I haven’t jammed in years.”
“Come on,” Flynn said, picking up the magazine. “Show me what you can do.” Adam stood, and something winked in his peripheral vision. He looked to his left and saw purple flowers swaying from a raised flower bed. They were just like the ones he had seen in the consultant’s office. He took in the flowers and a calm fell over him almost at once. This was only broken by Flynn’s voice as he called back to him. “You coming, Adam?”
“Yeah, coming,” Adam said, hurrying along.
Flynn lived on one of the upper floors, which would explain why Adam had never heard him play, since he lived on the ground. He led him through his apartment which was pretty much as Adam had expected, with modern and expensive decor and fittings. Then they came to a room near the back of the apartment. Flynn opened a door. In the middle of the floor was an oval, red rug and, behind it, a couple of amplifiers, and expensive, vintage ones at that. To the left were the guitars. Adam couldn’t help feeling it was a typical rich boy’s playpen where Flynn could invite his friends to play at being rock stars. He looked round for a fridge especially designed for stocking beer, but there wasn’t one.
Flynn pulled up a couple of chairs and switched on the amplifiers. A familiar hum filled the air, and suddenly Adam was back at the rehearsal rooms Monolith had shared with a dozen other hopeful bands. “So, what do you do fancy-acoustic, or electric?”
For a second, Adam wasn’t sure what to say, and then he looked at his finger-tips, back to a pre-guitar softness. “Electric.”
They sat facing each other at an angle, albeit a little awkwardly, and tuned up. As soon as Adam got the instrument in his hands, he felt a shiver pass through him as if he were being reunited with a dear, old friend. “Go easy on me, will you?” he said, with a smile. “Let’s keep it simple,” and so they did, to start.
They jammed on a couple of Bob Dylan songs while Flynn sang in a thin, reedy voice. Adam felt transported by the instrument the second his fingers touched the strings, causing the amp to bring forth a metallic ringing. All the chords came back to him, the licks, the scales, even stuff he couldn’t remember playing, but wished he had. He took a couple of solos, and it wasn’t just Flynn who wore a surprised smile. His playing sounded fresh and desperate. He seemed to hit the ground running. It was scary and uncanny, almost as if someone else was playing through him. It all seemed so effortless. “I can’t believe it,” Adam said, after the second song.
“It’s like I’ve been playing for the last 20 years.”
Flynn grinned at him before saying.
“Go on, play it then.”
Adam looked at him quizzically.
“You know the one. You must have played it in a guitar shop for a dare at some point.”
Adam smiled at him and lent over the guitar with intense concentration, wondering if he would even remember. To his astonishment, his fingers seemed to work on their own and Stairway to Heaven came out from the amp sounding far suppler and more spellbinding than he had ever played it in the past.
Flynn backed him on the acoustic, and when it came to the solo, Adam played with a technique and passion which almost brought him to tears. The suppleness and fluidity of his playing astounded not just him but Flynn as well, who looked at him as he played along with what seemed like genuine awe. Adam held onto the last note as long as the instrument would allow until the room fell back into the ambient hum of the amps.
Flynn broke the relative silence.
“So, you’ve got no talent then. You’re a fucking dark horse, mate.”
Adam should have looked sheepishly at him, but he was as stunned and surprised as Flynn. Adrenaline and possibility were surging through him. “I’ve never played like that in my life. I just didn’t know I could.”
“Really?” Flynn looked at him with disbelief, but he could tell this was no show of false modesty.
“I mean, did you hear that? It was like I was channeling somebody else, Hendrix or Page…I dunno.”
“How long’s it been since you last played?”
“I can’t remember,” he said scratching his head, “must be ten years easily.” Adam looked up at Flynn. “I thought my best years were behind me.”
“Sounds like they’ve only just begun. What do you do again?”
“I’m an accountant.”
Flynn’s shoulders shook with uncontrolled laughter.
“Fuck! Well, you won’t be for much longer if you can keep playing like that.”
Adam thought of the job and smiled dismissively.
“I’m no rock star. I mean…we were pretty serious back in the day, but…nah,” he batted the thought away, as if swatting a fly. “That was all teenage dreaming. This,” he said, lifting the guitar off his lap slightly and looking at it, ‘isn’t going to pay the bills. Not at my age, anyway.”
“How old are you?’
“You’re still young enough to give it another try.”
Adam could feel his hackles rising.
“Nah, I left that life behind a long time ago. I’ll be 30 in a couple of years. It’s a young man’s game.”
“What about Seasick Steve?”
Flynn told Adam about the romantic, hobo musician who had come to prominence in his 60s.
“Yeah, well it doesn’t sound like he had much to lose. Not like me, I’ve got a job and a flat for starters.”
“You know what they say? ‘The things you own, end up owning you.'”
Adam looked around the room again and guessed the equipment he was surrounded by to be worth thousands.
“Anyway, thanks for the jam.”
Flynn stood as well, looking surprised.
“You can stay longer if you want.”
“No, it’s alright, I’ve had a long day, and I need to get my head down.”
“Look, I’m sorry about what I said.”
“No, no. Forget it. I’m flattered; it’s just….” he looked around the room at the equipment. “I’ve got things to do, so….” he put the guitar on its stand and put out his hand, yet Flynn extended the acoustic to him.
“Here, why don’t you borrow it for a while?”
“No, it’s fine, I probably wouldn’t play it much anyway,” he said, putting his hands up in meek protest.
“Go on, it’s not as if I’m short of something to play,” Flynn said, looking around the room.
“Well, if it’s alright?”
“Sure. Maybe years from now I can say you once played it.”
“Alright then, for what it’s worth,” Adam said, taking the guitar with an embarrassed smile.
Adam returned to his flat and put the guitar in a corner while he made himself something to eat. He sat at the roomy dining table and ate while he looked over some files he had brought back from work. To further distract himself from the revelation of his latent talent blooming forth, he put the radio on. The sound of the real world with its real problems filled the room.
A couple of hours passed, and his half-eaten meal became encrusted on the plate as he read on, making notes, but his eyelids were starting to flicker. Adam walked over to the couch telling himself he would rest his eyes before ploughing on.
He woke disorientated by the darkness. Adam sat up on the couch, his bladder full. When he came back from the toilet, his foot bumped into something which sounded hollow and harmonic. He remembered the guitar Flynn had lent to him. Putting on a lamp, he picked up the instrument, first to make sure he hadn’t damaged it and then placed it on his lap to strum a few chords. The warm sound which came from it lit something in him again, and he fell into playing folk and blues songs he hadn’t explored in years, if at all.
After a while of strumming and finger picking, he began to softly hum melodies. Then a small voice began to emerge from him. He wasn’t trying to sing as such, just accompany himself through the song. But the voice rose and grew into something he didn’t recognise, yet he could hear himself in it and feel the vibrations it was causing in his body. With each song, his voice grew louder, richer and his range, which had previously been contained in one frustrating octave, seemed to span at least three. Every time he thought he couldn’t hold a note or manipulate it anymore, he did. When he dared himself to reach, what seemed a dizzyingly high note, he found it was his for the taking.
By the end of the night, Adam felt confident he could span five octaves without any trouble. Still, he needed to know he wasn’t dreaming and so he recorded himself on his phone. He listened back and was stunned by what he heard: here was a voice, pitch perfect with a beautiful, soulful timbre. It was the same the next morning when he played the performance back, to make sure he hadn’t dreamed it all up.
Despite the little sleep he’d had, Adam took Flynn’s guitar and drove into town. He walked up to the high street, sat down on a bench and, as the first wave of Saturday shoppers appeared, he began playing.
By midday, he had drawn an ever-changing crowd of at least a hundred. His singing and playing improved with each song. It was as if he had locked himself away for years and rehearsed constantly until he had honed his talent and craft. The songs were punctuated with applause, and the only other accompaniment to his guitar playing and singing was the occasional ring of coins falling at his feet. Adam hadn’t even thought to put a hat or box down, as making money had been the last thing on his mind. How different that had been from his desperate mindset when he had been trying to “make it big” with Monolith.
Now and again he would stop for breath between songs and look up to remember he had an audience around him. Part of him couldn’t help feeling he was taking credit for something which wasn’t his. He only stopped playing when a police officer strode up to him and asked if he had a licence to perform. Adam smiled at her, resisting the urge to laugh in the cop’s face.
Adam went back home and crashed on the sofa.
It was still light when he woke. He showered, made himself a sandwich and picked up the guitar. That was when the songs came to him: his songs. At first, he couldn’t believe what was coming out of him, but then he thought back to his disastrous attempts as a younger man in writing his own material.
He went on YouTube to see whether what he was writing was just another imitation of someone else’s material, but he could see no similarities. Still, he wasn’t convinced, and he went up to Flynn’s place hoping to find him in. Flynn stepped back, amazed at the personal transformation from the guy he had only just gotten to know the previous day.
“I’ve been up for hours, playing,” Adam said, wide-eyed, clutching the Gibson. He told him about his impromptu busking session after the revelation of playing on his own. “Then I came back home and started to write songs, for Christ’s sake.” He looked at Flynn as if expecting an explanation. As if what he had done had never been achieved before, and perhaps it hadn’t. Adam asked if he could play him a couple of songs, “you know just to check I’m not ripping anybody off.”
As the final chord rang out, Flynn sat in front of him wordlessly. Adam took his silence as confirmation that he had rewritten another classic, and something inside him sank.
“I thought it was someone else’s, That’s what I used to do. I would write a song convinced….”
“That’s amazing,” Flynn said, finding his voice. “I’ve never heard anything like it. And you wrote that today?”
“Yeah, but….” Adam wasn’t sure he had heard his new friend correctly. “You don’t think it’s a rip off of something?”
Flynn assured him it wasn’t.
“Tell me you’ve got more.”
“Well, there’s this,” Adam began picking out a simple yet magical blues melody. He stopped after a few bars.
Flynn pulled out his phone.
“Play that again, this needs recording.”
Adam picked up the melody, but already it was evolving into something different. It was as if the piece were writing itself.
Adam sat in the waiting area to find out the results of the biopsy he had reluctantly agreed to three weeks after his diagnosis. So much had happened in that time. He continued to jam with Flynn and started going to various open mic nights and something of a buzz had started around him. Then he had been approached with promises of a gig. This he had played and others quickly followed. They had been organized by Flynn, who had somehow booked him to play at the local Student’s Union later that night. Now the thought of surgery terrified him in more ways than one.
When the consultant had opened his office door to call Adam in, he noticed both men and women turn their heads toward the young man as he crossed the waiting area. He was still dressed in his work suit, but his previously smart and parted hair had grown out and was teased up into a semi-quiff. He also sported side-burns which accentuated his cheek bones. However, the biggest difference the consultant saw in him was the change in his eyes. In their depths shone back a love of life, like one who knows what it truly means to be alive. The consultant expected to see a man in pain, a mere shell of himself. Of course, he had seen other transformations over the years from patients who realized, albeit a little late in the day, that life was for living. But the young man in front of him looked in rude health. He might have gone so far as to say he was glowing. This young man possessed a magnetic aura which could not be denied.
The consultant told Adam that, while the tumor was benign, it was pressing on his brain and therefore the best option would be surgery.
“How have you been feeling?”
“I can honestly say I’ve never felt better.”
‘Well, that’s a very positive attitude, and it should really help you in what you are about to go through.”
“But I feel great.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Daniels, but you may find that changes, and very quickly.”
“Doctor,” Adam leaned forward in a friendly manner, his elbows on his knees as if he were sharing some great secret. “This thing in my head is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I feel reborn. It’s released something in me I never knew I had. I’m afraid if you remove it I’ll lose what I have right now. What’s making my life worth living.”
“But surely you understand that if surgery is not performed soon, you could very well die?”
“But you don’t know how I feel!”
“Mr. Daniels, that tumor is pressing on the hippocampus, a part of your brain which is connected to your pleasure center. While you may feel great now, soon, the vomiting and dizziness will come back, and you could even run the risk of having a stroke. I’m afraid the way you feel now won’t last.”
The consultant took a couple of seconds to reply as his patient’s words sank in.
“In principle, yes. Look, I know the point you’re making, but your mood may be manipulated by the tumor. There are cases of patients having their thinking colored by what is happening in their brains.”
“Isn’t that what happens anyway?” Adam continued in a softer voice. “I don’t want the surgery.”
“But what if the surgery is successful, and you’re still the same person?”
“And what if I’m not?”
The consultant sighed and sat back.
‘You’re taking a huge risk.’
‘This is the first risk I’ve ever taken in my life and it feels great.’
‘You’re gambling with your life, Adam,’ the doctor said, using his Christian name to try and bring him to his senses. The problem was Adam already had been brought to them.
On his way out, Adam looked one last time over the consultant’s shoulder.
“I like your flowers by the way.”
The consultant looked at them and smiled. “Japanese Anemone,” he said turning back to Adam. “A late bloomer.”
“They’re beautiful,” said Adam.
That night, at a packed Student’s Union hall, Adam peered out into the crowd as sweat dripped from his brow. As he tuned his guitar, he picked out a familiar face towards the back of the throng. It had once been beautiful, soulful and assured. Now, a decade on, it looked jaded, tired and saddest of all owned. Aaden looked back from across the room as the crowd hooted and called for songs he had never heard of until very recently. A sadness crept up on Adam and whispered something in his ear; a melancholic melody which only he and Aaden could hear. Adam smiled at his friend and spoke into the mic.
“I wrote this song after a conversation I had this afternoon. It’s called Anemone.”
Website: strickletone.com. Follow David on twitter at @strickleton1, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/strick.author.3