Billy Whitlow, one time "Don of Doo Wop", has survived his days of drink, drugs and groupies, settling now into a more peaceful life centred on his blossoming seventeen year old daughter, Bex.
Revising for her 'A' Levels, Bex visits Billy one Easter but the longed-for simplicity of father-daughter happiness is shattered one night in a local night club.
Billy's world becomes one of questions; Why is his daughter in a drug induced coma? Who put her in that state? How in the name of Hell is he going to make them pay?
Songs of Bliss is a real page turner, a real suspense thriller. Here are a couple of the comments made be early readers:
Well, I've finished the book and very much enjoyed it. I think you have written a really good first novel - you have a great turn of phrase: "The jogging-bottom girls are done up to the nines" - which often made me smile and occasionally, laugh out loud. Always a good sign - Lorna Howarth, Editor of Resurgence & founder of The Write Stuff
I like stories where the hero is flawed and Billy certainly fills that bill. His flaws are what make him human and sympathetic, though, so it works well here. Love the dialogue. Makes this a good read - Burgio, commenting on Authonomy
"These days you have to stay in shape. My mother-in-law started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She's ninety-seven now and I have no idea where she is..."
Polite but restrained laughter.
The comic sweats under the spotlights, his shiny gray suit starting to show signs of dampness around the armpits. He mops his brow with a handkerchief. One liners are his stock in trade, mostly borrowed from other, preferably dead, comedians.
Four seconds. Silence.
Ted Line, resident compere at Snuggle's Cabaret Bar, ploughs on.
"I remember the first time I had sex... I kept the receipt".
Ted can't remember the last time he had sex. He's in freefall without a parachute, exposed and wounded, but Ted is a trouper and sticks to his script. Forged in the furnace of light entertainment, blending a vaguely remembered youthful enthusiasm and a brief middle aged flirtation with the bright lights of television, Ted is like Excalibur; wet and drowning.
In a former life he was the straight half of Bread and Line, a comedy duo in the mould of Morecambe and Wise or the Smothers Brothers, whose main claim to fame was that their combined earning power was reflected directly in their amusing stage soubriquet. The duo were asked to do a pilot for the BBC in the seventies but they were not asked back to do a series. Lenny Bread gave his last performance seven years ago, falling off a stage in Lowestoft mid way through a blonde joke. It was the funniest thing he'd ever done.
Lenny left Ted without an act. Prior to turning up on the doorstep at Snuggle's Cabaret Bar, Ted's solo career had peaked with a brief round of sombre interviews and one slot on a Channel 4 list program. Lenny, the funny man, lives on ambrosia with the great mother-in-law in the sky, while the straight man lives in a bed-sit in Barnstaple, on the North Devon coast, and keeps the punters from killing themselves in between acts of incredible bravado or, as is often more likely, awesome stupidity. Snuggle's Cabaret Bar is a tiny universe full of star struck kids and failed contenders.
Ted readjusts. The great British public's appetite for sexual innuendo and smut is being irrevocably embarrassed into a state of silent nausea. There's something about a sixty year old, down at heel chain smoker that kills the comic effect. Ted decides that it's time for something more highbrow.
"What if there were no hypothetical questions?"
From the wings, hissed, "What if there were no shit comics?"
Ted's left hand is behind his back, casually formal in a minor royal sort of way. He mops his brow with a bright red handkerchief and as he does so his free hand, the one behind his back, twists and he raises his index finger towards the shadows stage right.
Billy Whitlow, known to his devoted audience as Billy Nero, the 'Don of Doo Wap', sniggers as he prepares to wow the girls with his star spangled, Bennettesque delivery of classic era crooning. Like Ted, he is a regular at Snuggle's.
The wings are cramped and hot, although wings as a term is ambitious, there being only the one. The acts have to squeeze past each other during change overs. Props, instruments and the assorted paraphernalia of the lounge-bar spectacular come on and off stage the same way. Standing next to Billy is the lovely Leona, seventeen, and in her second year of theatre studies at North Devon College. Leona is the stage manager, which means she spends most of her evenings hissing into an old, ice-cream cone microphone, desperately trying to get the acts cued up for their moment of glory. The vibrating membrane in the speaker in the communal dressing room at the back of the club is badly frayed and the acts rarely understand a word Leona says. The running order, on the odd occasions that it gets typed up, rarely runs with anything approaching method or organisation.
Leona prods Billy with her pencil, giving him one of her well practiced 'God' looks. Billy puts a finger up to his lips and nods.
The stage is set simply, Snuggle's having no pretensions towards the theatrical. The stage has no proscenium arch nor does it boast complicated rigging, fancy lighting systems or tabs. The stage is open and semi-circular, running along the back wall of the cabaret room. The backdrop consists of four ancient and torn blacklegs held together with gaffer tape, over which hang an indeterminate number of metallic silver drapes. The silver fabric is split, like a fly curtain, and now hangs twisted and bent after years of shimmering behind acts of appalling mediocrity, reflecting the worn out spotlights in a thousand different directions.
Ted coughs in between jokes, partly because of his eighty a day habit, but mostly to fill the gaps where the laughter should be.
"Ever wonder about those people who spend two pounds on those little bottles of Evian water? Try spelling Evian backward."
This one gets a few tired chuckles.
At the far end of the room, sitting on a stool by the bar, Maggie Heard, the eponymous Snuggle, switches on a red shaded table lamp and drags a manicured, dusty pink fingernail across her throat. Ted knows the sign. Time's up.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's time to serve the main course. You've been lovely, you really have, and I'll see you all at the end of the show."
There's a groan from the bar.
"One last little observation before I go. Have you ever noticed the one nice thing about egotists is they don't talk about other people?"
A group of ladies of a certain age and outlook edge their chairs a little nearer to the stage. Ted instinctively takes a step back, turns towards the wings and raises his handkerchief hand in welcome.
"Put your hands together for your favourite egotist and mine, Billy Nero!"
Billy enters stage left, waving to his audience. Ted starts to walk in front of him, a deliberate foul, but checks himself at the last moment and slides around behind Billy and off stage.
Cigarettes blossom in the gloom.
Young girls in black skirts and white blouses deliver over-blown shorts and sickly cocktails to tables. Billy takes a bow and plants himself firmly centre stage.
"Ted Line, ladies and gentlemen, one of the golden oldies, talking of which, Maestro..."
Billy points at a three-piece band seated on the main floor by the far end of the stage. "Spanish Eyes".
Accompanied by the Snuggle's Show Band on Hammond organ, drums and lukewarm jazz guitar, Billy opens his set.
- - - - -
Billy segues straight out of Spanish Eyes into a medley of Nat King Cole standards, keeping the mood soft and his girls in direct eye contact. Girls. He likes to think of them in soft pink hues, although he knows the first blush of youth has faded from their cheeks. He has no illusions about his sex appeal. Way back in the late seventies, when The Don had his one and only minor hit with a saccharine version ofLet It Be Me, he played games with mothers and daughters. The mothers are, for the most part, dead or institutionalised. A few of the daughters, matrons themselves now, keep the flames alive, and although they don't burn quite so brightly these days, Billy can still sometimes coax those old flames into a simulacrum of life so that they flicker gently on the dark waters of the Torridge Estuary.
Unlike Ted, Billy gets a good, solid, middle-aged round of applause. It helps to have the girls in the audience. Their enthusiasm and affection lifts the spirit of the rest of the punters, allowing him a certain degree of latitude when it comes to hitting the higher notes. Billy has a good head of hair, still looks fairly trim for someone in his mid fifties, so long as he buys his suits from the more expensive end of the peg, and he doesn't sweat too much under the lights.
"Thank you, very much. The real King there. As ever it's a privilege to be back at Snuggle's, and I hope you're enjoying the show. I'm going to take you on a trip down memory lane on a journey to the stars." Billy winces inside slightly as he mixes his metaphors. "We'll be meeting up with Frank and Tony, Tom Jones, Vic, Matt Munro, Andy Williams and, of course, my own little offering to the wonderful world of song."
Billy smiles for Colgate and walks over to the band. The sound of the hurdy-gurdies cueing themselves in can just be heard over the clatter of pudding bowls and cheese plates being cleared from tables. Coffee cups and desert plates full of house branded bitter-mints take their place. The drummer starts to slide his brushes over taut skin. A false start. Heads turn. The band paddle frantically towards the melody pursued by Billy's shark infested smile. The opening bars of From Russia with Love emerge from the chaos and Billy Whitlow dives back under the thickly silted, melodic waters that keep The Don of Doo Wap afloat.