We wore our band T-shirts so the bride’s father would recognise us. Huddled on a bench, we watched wedding guests trickle from the medieval chapel. Some of the younger blokes made straight for The Tabernacle, an ivy-covered guesthouse pub that overlooked the beach, while the rest clumped together for photos, pointing sternly at the clouds. My nerves pinched when a greying, back-combed man approached and shook our hands.
“Alun,” he introduced himself, “today’s proudest dad. You must be our 1950s rockers!”
“1950s?” replied Sioned. Her freckles shone in the drizzle. “Did you say 50s?”
“Course I did. Reception’s 50s-themed, isn’t it? We’ve been learning the hand jive.”
“But your email said 80s.”
“It is 50s…” Alun’s voice slowed, like drivers passing a car crash. “Oh daro. You really thought it was the 80s? Disco balls and all that?”
Spots of damp were forming on his bottle-green jacket. Sioned gave an exaggerated shiver.
“We’ll sort something out,” I told Alun. “Don’t worry.”
We weren’t a covers band, but for this first paid gig we’d learned 1980s hits and brought neon hairbands for the guests. Our usual performances took place in the woods, with ukuleles and space drums and an audience of surfers reclining in the bracken. Our songs had lyrics about hares, nightjars and wild, mystical beasts. The closing chorus was timed to the sunset.
We sat round a table in The Tabernacle’s front bar, with the clack-clock of a pool game in one corner and three-chord swingers jangling through from the wedding party next door. This was the place the regulars drank, divided from the sea-view function room by a toilet corridor. It had black leather furnishings and was lit by table lamps with crystal shades. Our drummer Ceri was gulping down the pork scratchings, the smell had begun to pervade.
“I ain’t singing Suspicious Minds.” Sioned plucked droplets of ocean rain from her crimson-dyed frizz. “Or any bloody Elvis songs.”
“That’s the only 50s stuff I know,” I said.
“You sing then. I’ll just play bass.”
“Can’t sing. I’d get laughed off stage, like.”
Sioned exchanged a look with Ceri, who wiped crumbs from his moustache.
“It’s true,” he said.
I prodded an ice cube into my lime soda with a straw. Without any vocals, we’d fail to convince even the most pissed-up of guests. Sioned’s fragile soprano might be an unconventional fit, but what other option did we have?
“There’s Misirlou,” suggested Ceri. “It’s 50s, it’s an instrumental. Perfect.”
“Great idea!” I said. “We can just play Misirlou over and over again.”
“Don’t be a prick,” said Sioned.
“I actually can’t see the problem.” I turned to her. “If you’re going off to college in September, like, it doesn’t matter if you embarrass yourself tonight, does it?”
We’d promised each other that the band would carry on. It didn’t matter that our singer would be away at agricultural school for nine months in twelve. Plenty of artists record whole albums together without making physical contact at all. Secretly, though, I was less hopeful. She would make new friends, learn new hobbies, leave all this behind.
“You’ve become a right little sell-out,” Sioned replied. “You know that?”
She stomped off to the bar and Ceri narrowed his eyes at me. Before he could say a thing, though, Alun cannoned through the door, his expression harassed, his Brylcreem “do” all on the wonk.
“I need a volunteer for the hand jive,” he declared, as he neared our table. “We are a man short. A woman long, if you want. So here I am, on this man-hunt. I figured one of you boys would do,” he added, a bit insultingly, I thought.
“Sorry, mate.” Ceri held his hands in the air. “I don’t have any jive.”
Alun turned his frown on me and sighed.
“The wife tells me I should just keep my silly old beak out,” he informed the spirits of the air. “But I can’t help wanting to lend a hand, can I now?”
Over on a barstool, her wine swishing around a bulbous glass, Sioned blew me a raspberry. It occurred to me that, had Alun been less eager to be of assistance—had he, for example, left music planning to the professionals—I wouldn’t have spent two days writing a ska punk version of I Wanna Dance with Somebody for no good reason. Actually, I may well have done, but my point stands.
My hand jive partner, a bridesmaid, had teeth as perfect as her timing, and I felt squalid opposite her, miming awkwardly with my tucked-in T-shirt and hair that I’d hurriedly squashed to position. Groups of kids bordered the dancefloor, fastened in their little outfits by bows or braces, gawping and cawing at the grown-ups: parents, aunts, uncles, rows of assorted authority figures getting their jive on like it was—I dunno—1958.
“You done really well, mate,” my partner said when we finished. She had a surprising growl to her voice, probably could have sung Elvis no problem.
“You too. Much better than me, I mean. Although this is my first time, so.”
“Really? You’re a natural, then.”
“I am a musician, like.” I couldn’t help myself. “I’m gonna be in the band later.”
“Yeah, I could tell.” She snorted, then gave me a peck on the cheek. “By your T-shirt.”
I stood facing the urinal, scuffing my feet on the sandy floor. Stewing over why the fuck I’d offered to sort out Alun’s mess in the first place. Wondering what other aspects of his daughter’s big day the man would fluff. Like, maybe he’d almost given her away to the wrong brother. Maybe his speech would fail to make anybody cry.
A noise broke my thoughts, an ascending warble that reverbed off the tiled walls, from the direction of the front bar. I zipped my fly, splashed my hands and walked through. The room had filled, with punters crowding round in various states of damp, and Ceri and Sioned nowhere to be seen. A very big man, mid‑40s‑looking with a bouncing quiff and two knuckles of rings, stood on a chair in the middle, swaying and singing along to the jukebox, projecting his lion voice in all directions. I squeezed through into his aura of jubilation and aftershave. When he finished belting out the last line, I managed to get going a small round of applause.
“Fair play, mate!” I shouted. “That’s one heck of a set of pipes.”
I gave him a hand down and introduced myself as from the wedding band. His name was Tel, he informed me, and he’d lived on this street his whole life. He’d been married three times; he numbered them with his fingers.
“You wouldn’t happen to know any Elvis tunes, like?” I asked him.
“We’re meant to be performing Elvis tonight, but our vocalist came down with something, and er—basically, you’ve a cracking voice, like. You could just sing the choruses, even. It’s a hundred quid if you—”
“Elvis?” He beamed. “Sure, I know all the Elvis. I’ve a bloody Elvis suit in my wardrobe.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Honest to God. Hundred and fifty, you said?”
“Well—sure, whatever. No, but go get the costume, please. That would be perfect, like. Then meet us upstairs in room 124—one-two-four—and we’ll run through—”
“Got it for stag weekend number two, isn’t it? Coach down to Bristol, all the boys in fancy dress.” Tel drowned the middle of his story in laughter, then concluded sombrely with, “Two in the morning, five foot seven pickled gherkin, climbing a lamppost.”
In our guesthouse-suite-cum-dressing-room, my bandmates were on the floral-patterned bed, hunched over Sioned’s iPad. Our guitars were still closed in their cases on the floor and there were bits of drumkit around the place. Ceri looked up as I entered, Sioned did not.
“Are you learning the Elvis lyrics?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that.”
“Oh. Okay.” Sioned closed her iPad and threw it on a pillow. “Are you going to sing, then?”
“Christ, no,” said Ceri, dropping his drumsticks on the floor. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
“Calm down, I’m not. Let’s just go through the chord progressions and then—well, you’ll see.”
“There is only one chord progression,” grunted Sioned. “It’s all bloody twelve-bar.”
She’d soon stop her chopsing, I told myself, once she saw Tel in his double‑denim getup.
“Mate,” I said. “Can’t you at least pretend to feel some love for the 1950s here?”
As we practised, I tried to spice things up by chucking in some extra diminished chords, but Sioned stuck stubbornly to the original bass lines, then accused me of playing out of key, so after a while I stopped bothering. Between songs, she and Ceri grilled me on what I was planning to do about our lack of vocalist.
“Patience,” I teased them, glancing significantly at the door. I might even have tapped my nose at one point. “You’re going to love it.”
After half an hour of Tel still not showing up, though, I began to have my doubts. Perhaps he’d just forgotten the room number—although I had repeated it five times. I ventured back down to the bar, where I found him with some local lads, chinking glasses and guffawing.
“What are you doing?” I marched up to Tel. “Where’s your Elvis suit? We’re on stage in fifteen minutes.”
“Why are you telling him?” asked one of Tel’s mates. “He’s off his face!”
Tel cheered and did a shot. I tried to put myself between him and the tray of drinks.
“Please,” I said. “It’s too late to rehearse, but we’re going to sound check now. Are you coming? Do you want that hundred quid or not?”
Tel nodded and slid off his stool, but his feet were only the first part of his giant body to hit the floor. He dragged himself across the room and disappeared into the toilet, then re-emerged. I hoped that maybe he’d just gone in to throw some water at his face.
“Full!” he yelped, and rushed out the fire escape.
From the doorway, I watched him heave into the waves. A scent of salt and farm fertiliser blew in the air.
The guys were already onstage when I entered the sea-view function room, guitar slung over my shoulder. Guests were wandering through from the dinner, some were even dancing to Ceri’s drum warmup. I plugged my guitar in, whacked the open strings with a thumb.
“Jesus.” Sioned held her ears. “Are you finally going to let us in on this plan, or what?”
“Course. I’ve your setlists here.”
I held towards her three beermats covered in scrappily handwritten song titles. When she reached out, I pulled them to my chest.
“Let’s sound check first.”
“Oh my days… With what?”
As we played, the small company that had formed in front of the stage swelled to a crowd. A few of them began to la-la-la wordlessly along, and they applauded when we stopped.
“Talk about shooting your load,” muttered Ceri.
In the far corner, I saw Alun push the dining hall doors shut behind him. He swivelled his pudding-frame round, eyeing me over the heads of his guests, then stuck his thumb in the air. It was decision o’clock. Did we want to get paid anything for this performance or be hired for a wedding round here ever again? If so, there was only one path open, which involved Sioned going “uh-huh-huh” in a Tennessee accent for the coming two hours.
I propped a beermat in the hardware of the drum kit, slid another into a jamb of Sioned’s microphone stand. As I turned to face the audience, I tried to catch Sioned’s eye. But she was looking down, tuning her bass, her apple-red hair wrapped round her face.
“This is our first song,” I declared. “We wrote it in the forest and it’s about the sunset.”