Leonard Lessing does not dream of Maxie Lemon, Maxim Lermontov, the hostage-taker. His dreams belong to Francine yet again, not her in person exactly, not as far as he can recall, but her in mood. His has been an apprehensive night, and when he wakes too early, disturbed by the muted, active telescreen, its erratic light hoisting and flattening into the tightly blinded room, and by the closed community of garden birds crying off a jay without success, he knows that if he does not rise at once, get on, attend to Francine’s current and persistent misery, do what he needs to do, then he will steep like unattended tea, growing darker by the moment. Leonard has been a morning man for many years. It is not difficult, once he is standing, to feel genuinely… well, not elated. Optimistically agitated, perhaps. Every dawn renews his hope and courage, briefly, he has found. This is the day, is what he always thinks. He will not disappoint himself today. He will not fail again today.
For once he does his morning exercises, not just the stretches to improve what elasticity remains in his right shoulder, but also the routine of bends and situps that he observed fairly regularly before his illness or injury or accident or whatever it was that caused his rotator cuff to lock and hurt in the first place. He has been lazy recently. Pain is his excuse, and boredom. He cannot work if simple acts like putting on a shirt or tying his laces cause such lasting discomfort. How can he lift a music stand or put his back into a saxophone? On his doctor’s advice, he has awarded himself a sabbatical, an unsolicited but welcome break from studios and concerts, and even – imprudently – from practising. He is less thrilled by music and performance than he used to be; he has fallen out of love with gigging, not only the bragging company of musicians, their often selfdestructive lives, but mostly the endless tours, the exhausting and precarious nights away from Francine. He has become a man who seeks the tranquillity and shelter of home. His current wellbeing is dependent on having the house, with its modern, regulated lack of clutter and its oldstyle reclusion, to himself for much of the week, especially during the day when the natural light is at its most flattering and consoling, and every room and landing is nuanced with blocks of tapered radiance and shadow that can seem as physical as furniture. He’d rather be at home than anywhere. ‘You’ve turned into a dormouse. Or do I mean a tortoise?’ Francine says. Either way, it is not flattering. But Leonard does not doubt he deserves this prescribed hiatus, this chance to hibernate. His patrons and audiences can wait six months or so. Likewise the bank. Likewise the garden. Likewise the household maintenance and repairs. Likewise his social life. His knotty frozen joint postpones everything. He hoped to celebrate his fiftieth birthday feeling youthful, fit and heroic. Instead, with only two days of his forties left, he has become gimpy and irascible. Today his right arm will not reach in front of him much further than the elbow of his left. With effort, he can touch his waist. He cannot reach his back with it at all. But still he perseveres with his routine. It gives him time to plan his journey. A short trip away from home will do him good, he thinks. To drive is better than to phone.
He washes at the downstairs sink and, naked in their long, wedge-shaped kitchen (or the Trapezium, as the architect has called it), turns on the panel television and lays a tray for Francine’s breakfast. An autumn-term weekday, with an early start for her, so it’s coffee, muesli, yogurt, fruit. He makes a Thermos for himself – green tea, lime juice and honey. He’s trying to stay young and fit through diet. Nevertheless, he has put on weight; he has a drummer’s paunch. His muscles are becoming spongy.
The Rise-Time television show on the little kitchen screen has no new angle on the house where Maxie, Leonard’s one-time adversary and friend, is angry, armed and holding hostages. The same reporter as last evening, this time wrapped in a green shawl, her hair tied back, says that she has nothing fresh to say. The night was quiet and uneventful. The police are happy to be patient. The hostages have been identified by relatives and neighbours: an unnamed family of five. Three generations, evidently. Leonard listens for their street vicinity and writes it down: Alderbeech. Two trees where probably no woods or orchards have survived. He knows at once what kind of upright suburb it will be. He can get there in an hour or so if he uses Routeway points and takes the motorway. Then what? He can’t be sure what he might do, or should. Being there, he thinks, will help him to decide.
Francine is not sleeping. Her reading light is on. Leonard hesitates outside, holding her tray unsteadily in his good hand. He can’t settle on what lie to tell. He’ll keep it simple, he decides: tell her that he’s going walking. She won’t be pleased to hear that. She’ll be working after all, plagued by toddlers and curriculums, while she imagines he is having fun on what promises – incorrectly, as it turns out – to be a dry and pretty day. October at its best.
‘I wish you wouldn’t do that,’ she says, when finally he backs open the door and steps round the bed to place the breakfast tray across her lap.
‘Walk about with nothing on. Before breakfast.’
‘You used to like it once. More than once even.’
‘Well, that was then.’ She’s smiling, though.
He has his back to her, pulling across the heavy Spanish prints until the sunlight slants and corrugates across the bed. ‘I might go up into the forests today. See some trees. Some autumn colour. I need the exercise. I’m getting portly.’ He pinches the flesh at his waist and stretches it out a few centimetres. She cannot see his face, though he can see her in the window glass, sitting up in bed and staring squarely at the skelfwood cupboards opposite.
‘Yes, go,’ she says. ‘Enjoy yourself’ – not meaning it but wanting to.
He drives the gigmobile, his aged, liquidfuel camper van, taking his time. He has all day. He is not even sure if he will complete the journey. He does not take the motorway after all. Making it circuitous and slow, on minor routes, not only saves him Routeway points but allows him greater opportunity to change his mind and flee back home. At first, he does his best to concentrate on Maxie Lemon, listening to rolling news on the radio, playing out the conversation he might have with the police officers, and even rehearsing an interview on television with the woman in the shawl: ‘Yes, we were friends.’ But Francine’s odd remark troubles him. ‘Well, that was then.’ What does she mean by then? Before what? Before he became the tortoise with the paunch? He shakes his head. He’s worrying too much as usual. But certainly he felt foolish and disappointed when she said, ‘Well, that was then.’ He hoped to be attractive to her, naked, onearmed, with the tray. Once, many years ago when they first met, she called him ‘Waiter’ as he walked round the room with nothing on, and the breakfast he brought her went cold while they made love.
So music, then. To cheer himself, he will listen to himself. Most of his own recordings as well as cover versions of his compositions are stored on the van’s system. He does not like to play them at home. He is by nature both modest and secretive. But when he is alone and driving, who is there to care? He scrolls through the menu and selects Live at The Factory. This session, which was broadcast on the radio to hardly anyone as part of the ‘Approaching Midnight’ series of new work, was judged too obdurate and odd at the time (a raging winter evening, almost ten years ago) to be issued by his recording company. This is Leonard’s own download. It is not perfect. But he is fond of it. He truly stretched himself that night – and was rewarded for the stretching in lifechanging ways. ‘In an unexpected adjustment to this evening’s jazz recital,’ the announcer explains, as the van heads south through suburbs and doughnut estates into the managed countryside and its network of preservation highways, ‘composer and saxophonist Lennie Less will play unaccompanied. Owing to the severe weather, his quartet has not been able to reach Brighton.’ There is laughter and applause, and someone shouts out ‘Less is More’, as someone nearly always does when Leonard’s in the lineup. Then the concert host, reduced to cliché by the pressure of live radio and the panic of a green onair light, overloads the microphone with ‘Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome to The Factory tonight… on tenor’ – and then steps a pace too far away, reproved by his own feedback, to offer, not audibly enough: ‘Mister. Lennie. Less.’ (‘It rhymes with penniless, as befits a jazzman,’ his agent said when they agreed on this stage name instead of plain, unexciting Leonard Lessing.)
Leonard still remembers – and relives – the panic he felt that evening. His colleagues, turned back by blizzards, abandoned vehicles and debris on the motorway just ten kilometres out of London, warn him only twenty minutes before the gig that he will be alone. All those fresh pieces they rehearsed and that are promised in the programme will have to wait for the next night’s venue, Birmingham’s New Drum, weather permitting. The lead sheets and pages of chord patterns in his music case are useless now. Leonard will have no sidemen, then, to share the blame; no rhythm section to provide depth and camouflage, or any stout string bass to anchor the bottom line for him; no call and response from familiar colleagues, feeding him their hooks and cues; no points of rest; no nodding in another soloist at the end of a progression and stepping out, sidestage, to rest his mouth and hands for sixteen measures or so, or to empty his spit valve, adjust his reed or sip a little water. Here he will be the solitary player, the nightlong soloist, the only face on stage. There can be no hiding place. What to play? When he first hears the news about the snow bound quartet, he thinks that, unless someone at The Factory can magic up a Real Book full of comforting standards within the next few minutes, he has no choice but to offer a programme of lollipops and show tunes – undemanding numbers he can reproduce entirely from memory.
But by the time the sound engineer appears at the door of the eerily empty Green Room to fingerfive that the concert is about to start, Leonard has accepted the inevitable: for this radio concert he must not take the easy option. Everybody is expecting more. Lennie Less does not play show tunes or unembellished standards, no matter what. Lennie Less plays only taxing jazz. He’ll start cautiously, he decides finally, with his tenor version of a Coltrane classic solo, ‘My Favorite Things’. He’s played it, duplicated its patterns and glissandos, many times before – as an encore, something obvious that even the shallowest of aficionados can recognize. He knows it is a bit of a hot lick, begging for predictable but unwarranted applause – the enthusiasts will be clapping themselves, their own tuned ears – but applause is always a welcome boost at the start of any show. It is an agitating prospect, though, and frightening. Live audience, live radio, no band – and some evidence, from what he’s spotted through the stage curtains, that the concert hall is papered with free tickets. Every seat is taken, and that is suspicious for a contemporary music event. There are more frocks and ties than usual, and many more women. He’ll be playing not only for the usual pack of devotees, in other words, but for jazz virgins and jazz innocents as well. They could be restless, wary, bored and certainly irritated. And the venue itself is offputting: unraked plastic seating, poor sight lines, overhead industrial plumbing and deadening acoustics – curtains, for heaven’s sake! The Factory is devoid of what jazzmen call the climate. Even now Leonard sweats at the memory: the trembling apprehension of that long wait before the Brighton broadcast begins, how shakily he adjusts his mouthpiece and the tuning slide, how he runs the keys and rods of his tenor so anxiously that his knuckles begin to clack, how he fusses over his jacket sleeves and his belt, unable to get comfortable or stay cool, how he practises his embouchure and lollysucks the reed until his lips are tense and dry.
But that applause, that darkened stage, the flustered concert host, the sense that at least some in that full, damp audience have battled through a storm to listen to his saxophone, the ‘live on radio’, make him feel – almost at the moment that his lips close on the reed, almost too late – too playful for Coltrane’s dark and modal meditation. But not too playful for some nursery rhymes. His entry still thrills him, the walk from backstage, playing, out of sight for the first few bars, a distant sobbing animal, the legato opening – the cheek of it – of ‘Three Blind Mice’. In the key of C. Four slow bars: Three notes / three notes / four notes / four notes. Simplicity itself. See how they run. And then he finds the spotlight, his semicircle of sound boxes, microphones and water bottles, his comfort zone where he can bend his knees, fold his shoulders, lean into the saxophone and blow. See how they bleed, he says to Brighton with his horn on that appalling night of early snow and wind. Listen to the cutting of the carving knife.
However, as Leonard remembers all too well when those first slow but risky bars fill up the van once more, there is no grand design as yet. There’s certainly no cunning. He is simply taking what he has and stretching it, making phrases from those few root notes, subdued at first, using vibrato sparingly and attacking most notes on pitch, like a beginner. He is not ready to decorate or bend them or embark on any doodling with fillers and motifs. He knows he needs to make it sparse and stable, until he’s settled in. He’s just pub crawling (heading for the next bar), not rushing the notes but waiting to catch them as they pass. Keep it tidy till the sixteenth. That’s the rule. But then, too soon, he makes his first mistake, and has to dare. It is a misjudged voicing that, even as he listens to it now, ten winters on, causes him to shake his head and suck his cheeks, as if to take the notes back from the air.
Yet this is where the concert finds itself. The best of jazz is provisional. It often emerges in panic from an error. He hears himself attempt to rescue the mistake by restating it until the error is validated by repetition and seems to be deliberate and purposeful. He listens to the audience, both the virgins and the devotees, applaud his juicing of the blunder. They’ve all been fooled. They think he has planned every note of it. Do they imagine that he planned the snow, that high gusts from his saxophone have blocked the motorways with trees?
Leonard’s band has not been fooled, of course. They are never far from his thoughts, even as he busks his way towards the final bars of this first tune, if tune it is, even as he syncopates the singing rhyme, cheekily matching every grace note with a note denied. He can sense them laughing as he plays. Trapped inside their car, hard up against their instrument cases and overnight bags, listening to him on the radio, they will not have mistaken his misjudged voicing as anything but wide of the mark, a blaring gaffe. And they will not have missed his nervousness and inhibition, the loss of pitch caused by a tight throat and tense mouth. He knows they will be chuckling as they hear him ‘digging his way out of jail’, as Bradley the percussionist calls it. So he plays for them as well and, even though they cannot comment on a single note, he hears their contributions in some auxiliary chamber of his ear. No improvising jazzman will deny that there is telepathy. Indeed, the group’s most recent release is titled ESP. So Leonard measures every note he plays against each chord – each sweetness or each dissidence – that they might have offered had they been on stage with him. He sends his absent rhythm section clues, invites them to add accents to his saxophone, to harmonize with him, to influence the colour of his play. He imagines how a single furry and hypnotic note that he holds for the full length of a bar might be accessorized if there were comrades on the stage. Thus he perseveres, extravagantly, a soloist in imagined company, murmuring, then sharpening his edge, more shaman now than showman – until that eerie modest rodent tune, as familiar as heartbeats, becomes both pulsing anthem and lament.
Leonard listens and taps his fingers on the steering wheel in half-time, happy with himself, happy now to have been so happy then. He sees Lennie Less – as Francine has so many times recounted seeing him that evening – from the third row of the gallery: the spotlight at the centre of the stage, his casual and expensive suit, blue-black, the brass-gold glinting saxophone extemporizing its one-night-only bars. ‘Did you ever see / Such a sight in your life / As three blind mice?’ The van replays it back to him through her.
Francine says she was attracted to him ‘not quite straight away – but soon’. Disarmed by music she has not expected to enjoy – she’s come reluctantly, at the last moment, and only to oblige her sister, who’s been given several tickets – and by the flattering stage lights that make Leonard seem complex and shadowy, she has begun to think of him, despite the grotesqueries of his bulging throat and cheeks, as someone she might like to kiss. And she’s had fun, she says. At times his playing has become knotty, shrill and edgy, just as she’s feared. On occasions he is more blacksmith than tunesmith. It is witty, though. And it has helped, of course, that she has rushed a few drinks in the pub beforehand and that she, and every other virgin there, has quickly recognized the common language of each tune, the programme of nursery rhymes that on an impulse he has decided to play once his ‘Three Blind Mice’ has struck such chords. ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ follows, to more laughter and applause, initially, at least. The less sophisticated and less sober concert-goers, Francine included, have actually sung along with ‘yes sir, yes sir, three bags full’, until Leonard’s tenor deprives the singers of their tune and embarks on eight measures of bare but oddly poignant bleats, loosely pitched at first, then joyously unruly.
These are the moments – the blacksmithing, the bleats – that most please and terrify Leonard, the moments of abandonment when he can sense the audience shifting and disbanding. He fancies he can see the flash of watches being checked. Certainly he can see how many in the audience are on the edges of their seats and how many more are slumped, looking at their fingernails or fidgeting. He knows he is offending many pairs of ears. They’ve come for those cool and moodily bluesy countermelodies that have made the quartet celebrated, not for these restless, heated, cranked-up overloads. But still he has to carry on, he has to nag at them, because he won’t be satisfied until he has lost and possibly offended himself. So that night, this night, at Brighton’s Factory, this night of radio and storms, this night of musical soliloquies, is one he cherishes because he has not backed away. The watches and the slumpers spur him on. As soon as he’s dispatched the mice and sheep, he’s taking further liberties, he’s giving Francine and two hundred others in the audience, plus any late-night listeners who’ve not switched off their radios, ‘Ding, Dong, Bell’, sending pussy down the well into musical deep space with a tumbling crescendo, followed by some risky trickery, not blowing on his saxophone at all but drumming with his fingers on the body and the keys close to the microphone so that it seems a lost and distant cat is scratching frantically at bricks.
However testing this might be, however intractable, no one there can say that Lennie Less does not love or does not suit his instrument, his perfect southpaw tenor, a costly Selmer paid for by Mister Sinister, his unexpectedly successful first collection. From the sardonic extra curve of the crook where the body meets the mouthpiece and the lips, to the great flared bell that, depending on the slope and stoop of his back, can just as readily swing between his legs as fit snugly against his abdomen or thigh, this saxophone has become a visceral appendix to the man. Flesh and brass seem unified. It is as if his fingertips and the flat tops of the keys are made from one material, as if breath and metal share substance and weight. So he is mesmerizing. Even for those who are impatient with his gimmickry or antagonized by his excesses or dislocated by his syncopation, there is plenty to wonder at and watch. This man who has come on stage in a dark suit with a shiny patch on the right trouser leg, at pocket level, where the bore and bell of his Selmer have worn the cloth, this man so evidently beset by nervousness that he at first can hardly lift his head to face the audience, this musician who has opened so carefully and timidly with ‘Three Blind Mice’, has started to transmogrify – there is no better word – before their eyes. It’s theatre. You could be deaf and it would still be theatre.
Leonard feels it too. He’s on the tight rope, balancing. It’s technique and abandonment. He is elated, yes, but he is also terrified. Usually when he is stepping in to improvise he can expect to play what he hears: all his daily practices, those hours spent running through arpeggios or exploring patterns, accents, sequences and articulations in his song repertoire, provide him with a soundscape of tried and tested options; he merely has to choose and follow. He has exhaustively prepared in order to seem daringly unprepared. But here, tonight, he is not playing what he hears; he is hearing what he plays, hearing it for the first time, and only at the moment he – his lips – imparts it to his reed. Each note is imminent with failure. But there is no retreat. Nor does he want to find a safer place, ‘a comfort groove’, as they are called. This is the moment he’s been waiting for, the moment when the wind picks up the kite and lets it soar. Some of the greatest improvisers claim, at rare times such as this, that when the music tumbles out unaided as it were, it seems as if the notes are physical, fat shapes that dance, or colours pulsing, currents, swirls. For Leonard, because he always taps a foot, playing is more commonly like walking, corporeal and muscular walking tightropes, walking gangplanks, walking over coals, also walking on thin air, on ice, in darkness, on rock, on glass, but always walking blindfold. Tonight, though, he is walking through a landscape forested in notes towards a clearing sky. The wind is at his back. The path ahead is widening. Statement, repetition, contrast and return. Another sixteen bars and he’ll be there.
Recognize when you have done enough, he tells himself. Head home. He’s hardly moving now, no showboating. He doesn’t even tap his feet, or rock his body. Apart from fingertips just lifting and the bulging of his throat, he is a statue voicing nursery rhymes, the final measure, ding dong bell.
The music’s ended for the moment – but this rare night in Brighton has an unrecorded track, an afternote, a human lollipop. Leonard has finished signing a handful of booklets and programmes with a shaking hand, his autograph a mess. Euphoric and consumed, wanting more but not expecting anything except a hotel room, he heads out of the auditorium on to the snow and towards his taxi. A small group of intimate strangers in the mostly deserted lobby smile at him and shake his hand. They call out, ‘That was beautiful.’ And, ‘That was fun.’ And, ‘That was truly weird.’ All men. All hardcore fans. Then, yes, then Francine speaks to him. She has delayed him at the taxi door. Her hand is on his arm. ‘Truly valiant,’ she says, blowing smoke, still a little tipsy and not quite knowing why she’s chosen the word, a word that even now has resonance for both of them. Leonard sees a woman just a little younger but a good deal shorter than himself, large-featured in a girlish way, her hair unkempt, her red coat still damp from the storm and smelling slightly wintery. ‘Valiant?’ he repeats. ‘Does that mean rash?’ Rash as in reckless? Foolhardy? He hopes it does. ‘No, I mean valiant,’ she says. ‘You know… valiant, taking risks. Yes, it was pure valiance.’ Embarrassed by her loss of eloquence, her tipsy failure to summon the simple word valour when she needs it, she laughs. Such a pealing, mezzo laugh. The evening’s most melodic note, he thinks. And that becomes the start of it, his great romance.
Now, with the worst of the country roads and the best of that day’s weather behind him and with fresh suburbs gathering, their snouts pressed up against the fields, Leonard listens to himself again, listens to the music of everybody’s childhood, spontaneously reshaped, listens to the retrieved mistakes that masquerade as wit and bravery, the risk-taking, the nerve, the valiance, almost unaware of traffic, the dimming sky or the windscreen wipers and, certainly, without much thought of Maxim Lermontov. He presses the track button and returns to the beginning of the broadcast. ‘In an unexpected adjustment . . .’And then again. And then again. Announcements and applause, with Francine in the audience – but that was then – admiring him.