Sing Them Out, Al
The chauffeur was temporarily quiet as he wove an Austin automobile through the smoky streets of London, towards the theatre.
Al didn’t mind. He needed time to collect his thoughts.
Last night and today had been most odd, to say the least.
He'd returned home from the show the night before, in high spirits. He’d sung perfectly all night.
Al had performed with several different orchestras and bands on his tours, but he particularly loved this bunch playing with him here in London. Thoroughly good chaps each, and he looked forward to working with them for the foreseeable. They played not out of necessity but passion. He always felt he sang better with this fine group, they inspired him and he them.
Al smiled to himself and stretched out in the back of the Austin.
After last night’s show, he decided he’d return to his London home and not stay on with the band at the hotel.
He wanted to reflect on the night but also keep his throat free from harm. If he stayed out, it would only turn to drinking and shouting over each other, not to mention impromptu bouts of drunken singing. Now that he was back in the big time, Al did not wish to take chances. He suspected smoking wasn’t overly helpful to his throat although his friends told him that was just silly.
He’d gone to bed at twelve p.m.
Sleep had come easy and he slept deeply, despite the discovery this morning.
For when he looked out of his window, he saw smoke, ailing fires and so much rubble.
An air raid was responsible, and while the explosion here had not been deadly on this occasion, it had left its mark. Al made his way downstairs and staggered sleepily outside into the confusion, shocked that he’d slept through this entire attack.
People hurried back and forth not noticing the local celebrity in their midst.
Al felt useless in such situations. He’d led a somewhat privileged life in comparison to most, ferried across the Atlantic to perform and touring under high demand. The worst he'd experienced were trip delays. The war was a problem for everyone else, not Al.
But now it was on his doorstep. A grim reminder none were free of this war’s consequences and it was not just a matter of distant news or rumour.
Al kept himself discreet that morning and stayed out of the way. He wondered if an impromptu song from a star might keep up the spirits of the poor souls around him, but he thought better of it. Instead, he stayed in his kitchen and didn’t raise any protests when the odd policeman entered the house and had a look around.
They spent a fair bit of time in and out of his bedroom and were doing the same in several of the surrounding homes he noted. Security perhaps, even vantage points in readiness for an invasion or attack. He was somewhat perplexed when two police officers struggled their way downstairs carrying the heavy door that opened to his bedroom.
Al had wandered into the street and was about to approach the constable to ask what they were doing with his home and if he should give it over to the Ministry, he’d be happy to, all part of the war effort.
But just then the chauffeur arrived, cutting his path to the constable.
“Good day, Al sir. Are you ready to head off?”
Al looked at his watch, it wasn’t working, “It feels a little early my boy?”
The chauffeur leaned forward and glanced around at the debris and chaos, “Well only slightly sir, but I thought perhaps we should get you away from here. Not safe, all this damage and rubble. Its quite remarkable the house wasn’t damaged sir.”
Al looked back over his shoulder, at his home. It stood undamaged. Not a brick out of place. “Yes. Doesn’t seem fair really does it?”
The chauffeur got out, smiled gently and opened the passenger door, “I don’t think war deals in fairness sir.”
Al nodded grimly and got in the car, “Well, I guess if the show must go on, then we should provide people with some good cheer at least. No news of them postponing tonight’s performance then and…oh God yes, the band!? Are they all?”
The chauffeur nodded quickly, “Oh yes sir they are fine, all of them. They’d stayed out last night a little longer, from what I gather, and were not anywhere near the bomb strikes. There were just two strikes last night sir, the one you had the misfortune to encounter and the other some five miles south. A few deaths sadly, but the band were fine.”
A wave of reality with this damned war struck Al with renewed vigour, “Odd thing is dear boy, I barely heard a thing last night. I thought I did at one point but perhaps that had been a dream. You can imagine my shock when I awoke this morning to carnage. And there I’d been, fast asleep throughout. Awful. Such damage, and I slept through it all. Shameful.”
The chauffeur shook his head, “It happens sir, believe it or not. Never underestimate just how deep one can sleep. It’s no bad thing sir, maybe just as well it happens that way in some cases. Dare say it saves a lot of suffering and sorrow in those moments.”
Al reflected on the chauffeur’s comments. He had a point.
AL looked at the chauffeur closely, unsure if he was the same man that had picked him up the night before. Such an easy manner, a confidence and calmness even, that was reassuring.
“Did you pick me up yesterday for the show my boy? Seems a little hazy now I think of it,” surmised Al.
“No not yesterday sir. That would have been someone else.”
Al pondered this a moment, “But you have picked me up previously for shows, here in London I’m certain of it.”
The chauffeur nodded and smiled.
“Exactly! I thought as much,” finished Al.
The silence took hold as they trundled along.
Al gazed out the window.
It was especially grey today and even the hustle and bustle, a constant whirring backstage to London life, lacked its usual vigour.
Al started to sing a little to warm his voice but also to provide a softer accompaniment to the journey. The chauffeur grinned softly and nodded his head, “Still got it sir. Sound a million dollars. No matter what befalls us, we always have music and fine folk like you to sing us out,” added the chauffeur.
They reached the club and the chauffeur was readying to let Al out, but Al was already exiting and seemingly keen to get going. “Don’t mind the door my boy, I’m raring to go.”
Except he didn’t feel ready at all. He was desperately trying to whip up some energy wondering if it might have been the bomb. Delayed shock perhaps.
His thoughts were broken as he saw the chauffeur and the club manager speaking with each other. The chauffeur pointed over his shoulder and the manager’s eyes rested on Al for a split second before returning his attention to the driver.
The chauffeur came back, “I’m leaving now sir, I have so many more journeys to make this night and such little time. But I’ll leave you in the safe hands of Franky here,” he added.
Franky the club manager shook Al’s hand energetically, then hugged him warmly “Such an honour to have you with us sir.”
Al laughed and smiled, as he always did in such encounters. It came easy to him now.
He loved how happy his mere appearance could make people, although voice aside, Al wondered what they could all possibly find so interesting about him.
Franky led him into the club. Much like the chauffeur, Al had a growing sense of knowing this man, yet had no memory of his presence last night. He tried to remember who he met prior to the show but saw only blurred faces of the band and something else. Something just under the surface. Al’s head hurt as he tried to force memory.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, “The audience are nearly ready for you,” beamed Franky, who looked splendid in his fitted suit and polished shoes. Al thought he might enquire about who Franky's tailor was.
Al took out his pocket watch, it was still broken. “I rather thought we had hours to go yet, I only just got here and, well I mean the band isn’t even here Franky.”
Franky smiled back, “Oh they are out on stage waiting for you sir, look see.”
Another pain shot through Al’s temple as he looked past Franky’s hand which was making a small opening in the red curtain from backstage.
There was a band, chattering and tuning up before playing gentle melodies to the audience, but they didn’t quite look like Al’s guys and gals. Or did they? He looked closer and felt dizziness come over him.
Franky placed his hands gently on the singer's shoulders, “Sir, you’ll feel right as rain when you step out on that stage. Awful night last night sir. The chauffeur told me all about it. Most distressing, but trust me, this is where you belong. On that stage. You sing like you always do and you’ll cure not only what ails them out there, but yourself too. Trust me,” added Franky as he stepped out past the curtain and onto the stage, addressing the audience immediately as the band kicked in with brass accompaniment.
“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen! We have a really, big final show for you tonight. Introducing, the great...”
Al felt his head throb as the announcer cut off.
He could hear nothing but his own heart thudding in his chest as he closed his eyes. A migraine perhaps. Of the worst kind. A cold sweat attacked, as he realised, they hadn’t even discussed the play order for tonight. Were they replicating last night’s show? They usually discussed changing things up, trying a new number even.
Al opened his eyes and found himself on stage, front and centre. The band were playing ‘Laying in The Hay,’ as Al looked out at the audience, startled. How did he get here? He seemed to have no concept of time.
The lights dimmed to near darkness.
The audience were holding up what looked like pale lamplights, emitting soft glow towards the stage.
Al could hear himself singing, beautifully.
His voice somersaulted with ethereal ease to his band’s divine sounds.
He felt his heart soar and head clear as his vocals skipped along to a new number, ‘It’s Psychological.’ Al stepped in tune and felt himself smiling ear to ear. Never had he felt so good. He looked to his band. He knew them all now as they jittered and jived. Al weaved along and lost himself to the swooning music as they entered another number, ‘Just Let Me Look at You,’ a serenade for summer, as Al thought of it.
The audience swayed and smiled through the dimly lit hall, fingers grasping for their sweetheart’s hands. Love abounded in that moment. And something else, a yearning.
Al was about to turn to the band to suggest his favourite, ‘Love is The Sweetest Thing,’ but it sounded like they were already playing him out and now Franky was coming onto the stage, arms wide, flashing a smile as big as a crescent moon, “Oh boy oh boy! Al!”
So much noise, followed by laughter then rapturous applause.
The band and Al were all facing the front together.
The lamplights shone back at them, a pale sickly yellow cutting through the gloom.
Al jumped as he felt Franky’s hand on his back, “Great show, oh boy. What a send-off that was.”
Send-off? Al turned to question Franky, but he was gone. So were the band.
He stood alone and watched as the audience meandered through the gloom towards a brightly lit ‘Exit’ sign. The sign hung above huge double doors. As they opened, Al felt the urge to sprint off the stage towards them. He didn’t understand why but the compulsion was instant. Something was wrong and he knew the answer lay there. He had to...the audience turned to him as the lights to the hall gradually turned up.
Al saw then that the lamplights were eyes. So many eyes staring back at him.
As the hall lighting grew the eyes darkened to oil. He could see now the audience in full. They were dirtied, bloodied, sore and pale. Some clean and too young, others old and defiant.
He made to leap off the stage, beat them to the exit, whoever they were. He had to get out.
A hand clutched his shoulder, it was the chauffeur.
“How are you fairing Al, sir?”
Al stared back stupefied.
“Splendid show sir, you gave that lot a right good send off. Happy as lambs they were. That’s the wonder of artists like you. It’s just like I said sir, no matter what befalls us, we always have music and fine folk like you to sing us out. And there they go, on their merry way. You see?”
Al looked to where the chauffeur was pointing and saw the audience disappearing through the exit. There was no waiting street outside. He saw nothing at all, just an endless...a flicker. He focused his eyes and thought he saw something else, but then…
Al found himself in the back of the car again, the chauffeur in the front seat, elbow propped up as he looked back at Al, “I hope you enjoyed tonight sir?”
Al looked at his watch, still stuck on three a.m. His head hurt again.
“That was when the bomb landed sir. Three a.m.”
Al nodded excitedly and with relief, “My oh my isn’t that something!? Now I understand. Well, a broken watch is about all I suffered though I’ve been feeling most peculiar today old boy. Think perhaps I should see the doctor, could even be that shellshock they speak of.”
The chauffeur nodded, “I rather thought you might be feeling peculiar, sir. You do say so, every time.”
Al looked sharply to the chauffeur, “Well what on earth does that mean?”
“You always need a prompt, sir. I hope that on one occasion, I don’t have to, but, well, there it is.”
Al shook his head, he felt fury in response to the day’s relentless impossible confusion, “What in the blazes are you talking about man!? I’ve had as much as I can take. One moment I’m waking up to the aftermath of a bomb attack, the next playing to…to whoever that audience was. I mean what the hell were they? The glowing eyes! Am I in shock, and for God’s sake man where is my band? None of this makes sense.”
The chauffeur stretched over to Al and patted his shoulder gently, “I’m sorry to have to tell you sir and I regret that it falls to me to do so once again.”
“What man what!!!??”
“You died you see sir. The bomb did for you. The sheer force of the explosion blew that heavy bedroom door of yours right off its hinges. Struck you in the head, killed you instantly sir. Tragic really . Always has been. But every cloud, sir.”
Al felt his entire body shudder and the world shake out of focus, “Excuse me?”
“Well it’s like I said, whatever befalls us, we’ll always have music and fine folk like you to sing us out. And that’s what you do sir. Sing them out. You were selected.”
Al could see lamplights staring at him through the rain streaked window of the car, he gasped realising it was his reflection.
“Why yes sir. You were chosen to sing them over to the other side I guess. Just like the band. It’s why you didn’t recognise them, at first. But once you all get swinging on stage, my its miraculous sounding. I only ever get to hear the very end, but boy does it soothe the soul for those precious few moments. You’ve all done it so many times,” said the chauffeur solemnly.
Al was trying to grasp the last strands of sanity, “I...don’t?”
The chauffeur continued, “You wake up every morning thinking yourself quite alive and well. You sit in that house watching the bobby’s carting the big old heavy door out, not realising it’s that what killed you. Then I come along sir, take you to the show, you perform with the band, then we have this conversation, sir. Or a variation of,” added the chauffeur cheerfully.
Al felt his mind trying to turn in on itself, fold up, “Who. Why do you, who are you?”
“I’m just the chauffeur, sir. I think I’ve always been. Ferrying you fine folk about the place, to see off the dead and clear the way. Some go to a song, and you sir, you sing them out. It’s what you’ve always done too, I think. It really is hard to tell after we depart.”
Al felt something crack from deep inside. He started to scream.
The chauffeur continued to talk, “I hope one day we’ll join the audience, sir. So that we can leave too and see what’s beyond the exit. You saw something in there didn’t you? Sure, you did. I did too once. But until we can join the others, sir, we must all play our part. Just as in life.”
The car wound its way through the streets and disappeared into thickest fog. A smog punctuated only by Al’s agonised unearthly cries, howls that were enough to penetrate the plain of the living.
Al awoke refreshed.
He’d slept well despite the discovery this morning.
For when he looked out of his window, he saw smoke, ailing fires and so much rubble.
Al made his way downstairs and staggered sleepily outside into the confusion, shocked that he’d slept through this entire attack.
People hurried back and forth.
Not noticing the local celebrity in their midst.