I used to love the smell of fried onions, but now they get right up my nose. Not as much as people like this, though.
“Are you Adam Callen? Thee Adam Callen?”
I put a beam in my smile the best I can, but I know it’s slanted down toward the sad burger I fry for him. The wind whips around my burger van and flips the old Pepsi cup over. Plastic cutlery sprawls across the counter. The man laughs.
“My sister loved you. She loved the whole band, but she loved you in particular. Always said she’d marry you. Wait ‘til I call her. Adam fucking Callen, her pop idol – all washed up, serving burgers and chips. I’ll have extra onions on that if you don’t mind. Don’t skip, thank you.”
He has his phone out of his pocket. Holds it like a hot brick from his excitement. I hope he drops the bloody thing and smashes it to bits. A queue has formed – a snake with this tosser its venomous head.
“Don’t take a picture of me.” I put my palm out to cover my face. I don’t want to see myself splashed across a Then and Now feature in a cheap rag for some former fan to gawp at while she has her nails done.
“Why not, mate? You too good for a picture with us common folk?”
“You’re not taking a picture of us, you’re taking a picture of me. Fuck off, will yer?”
The man blasts a bunch of shots. His mouth screws like he’s eaten shit with sugar on. “All your palm.”
I slide the burger I’d managed to finish towards him. “Here, take the burger. On the house.”
“I can’t take that on the house. Here …” He fishes for cash and pulls out a fistful of loose coins. Loads of pennies and tens. Plants them on the counter and loses me some custom as he counts and recounts. “You’re down on your luck – you need all the dosh you can get.”
“No, I don’t.”
A couple behind laugh. My cheeks twitch. I could cope with the music press mocking me back in the glory days, but not this. Friday nights under burger van strip lights bleach me of the colour that once shone across me during our tours. Girls screaming. Throwing their scent at me in the form of knickers and bras.
“All that money you must have made.” The man chews on his burger. I hope it soaks up the alcohol and makes him realise what a twat … no, here he goes again … “You invested it all in this van? What a waste. The burger is shit, by the way. How the mighty have fallen.”
“At least I made the heights, pal. What have you ever reached, apart from the depths of your own arse to find a speck of pleasure?”
Part of the line guffaws. Someone claps. I manage to break through a grimace this time and enjoy a broad grin. My face usually resists these days.
As the human stain skulks away, I notice how much weight he packs. How his arms might uproot an oak tree if he fancied it. I throw another burger on the hot plate, smile at my next customer, and snatch a grasp on the cricket bat I keep by my side. Hum an old tune of ours, about how my girl is an angel. I understand, now, that it drips with more sentiment than this burger did grease, but back then I sang it with all my heart. To avoid a life like this. The tune turns sour as I rip open the next pack of burgers.
I rest my fists on the counter. The sizzle on the grill cracks a few beats. Loosens my fingers until they splay out. The tune comes back to life. I’ve still got it –
“And when you look at me that way, hey hey,
I can only soar out to the end of the bay,
Because it’s what’s inside that counts,
And you have it, babbbby, you have it to the top of-fff the mount – ain.”
A woman shouts down the line. “I loved that song. Absolutely loved it. You’ve made my night, mate. Thank you.”
Life isn’t so bad. There are more people like her than that tosser. This burger transforms into a culinary masterpiece, at least in my eyes. I’m on a roll. I flip a whole ton of burgers, sizzle a whole garden of onions, and listen to mustard and Tommy ketchup squirt across my creations. I glance up and follow the lights up the walls of the Town Hall, Sheffield’s finest building. Makes me buzz. A local patriot. I forget about London parties, the screams from girls, the hot mothers – and the few who wanted to play away.
I forget for a bit.
“Here he is … here he fucking is.”
The man with the tree trunk arms has brought a branch back. His friend’s hands shift about his pockets and sides for want of a pint.
“I don’t know who he is.” His friend examines me with glassy eyes. I pretend I haven’t seen them and continue to hum an old tune to entertain my punters.
“Adam Callen. Was in that boy band.” Tree trunk gets pissed his pal doesn’t recognize me.
“What boy band?”
“Bloody hell, I can’t remember. They were an X-Factor type of band.”
“Ah, come on, Frankie, I don’t know any of that shit. I like my Sabbath and Zeppelin. I wouldn’t know a boy band from a Debenham’s dummy.”
“For fuck’s sake, Tom, you don’t recognize him?”
“If he doesn’t look like Ozzy or Plant, then I have no idea what you’re on about. Why’ve you brought me here, when I could be necking the next pint? Jesus, Frankie, buy your bloody burger and let’s get inside before my balls clang to the floor.”
“You’re a useless twat, Tom. Absolutely useless.”
“You’re right. Without a bit of sauce in my hand, I’m lost. Can we get back indoors?”
“I want a burger.”
I hold my palm towards him, all traffic cop to this juggernaut as he charges to the queue’s front. The line has thinned to about five couples and singletons and they all throw their voices, and some their arms, at this lack of etiquette.
“Frankie, please, can you take your turn like everyone else.” I’m fairly fit, but I’m not built like the shithouse who glares at me. So I paint a smile for him, to placate whatever beef he has.
“How d’you know my name?”
“I heard you and your friend. You’ve got a big booming voice. So has he.”
He’s either had a few or his eyes normally roll about like this. The top of his nose wrinkles as he sniffs. He punches my burger van and pretends it didn’t hurt. I fight my grin at the flinch he bites down on.
“You’re a fucking loser, mate. Look at you. Flipping burgers.”
Bollocks to this. I lean over the counter and put a hand on his arm. I’d seen Bill Clinton do it on the news and his object of attention always melted. Frankie puts a laser beam on my hand, then lifts his eyes to meet mine.
“Frankie, you said your sister loved me. Maybe I can visit her. Give her a rendition. Her own little concert. Would she like that? I turn up – voila, look what you did for your sibling. She’ll love you for it. You get all the credit.”
His mouth moves as if he chews one of my burgers. “She’s not a teeny-bopper anymore … I mean, I don’t actually know if she listens to you these days. It’s been about ten years since you did anything … You know what, fuck it, yeah, let me take down your number.”
A genuine smile sunshines across his broad face.
“Nah, I’ll take your number.”
A cloud smothers that smile and pisses on it. “I’m not playing that game, mate. You won’t call me. They never do –”
“I’ll call you. For God’s sake, I’m here every Friday and Saturday night selling my cuisine.”
“I suppose … Okay.”
He grabs at the napkins in his renewed excitement. Pulls too many and litters my front as they fall from his grasp. He doesn’t notice. I’ll have to go and clean up. I suppress that sigh and smile, all apologetic, at the line behind. The last fella in line has already wandered away. Frankie slides the napkin my way and plants the pen on top so the wind doesn’t carry it away with a flock of other litter.
“Call me tomorrow, yeah?”
I un-purse that tight smile to trigger his excited nod. Every muscle in my face drops, exhausted as his shape blurs into the crowds with his mate, Tom.
“So …” A brunette with a cheeky smirk slaps my counter. “I just have to threaten you with violence and you’ll come round mine?”
I bark a laugh which ripples from all the released tension.
What could I do? I’d promised. Frankie told me, in our as-brief-as-possible phone call, that his sister, Liz, had her birthday do about five miles from my place. There’d be lots of people there. I could walk there to loosen up, to imagine the walk as a stroll from a changing room to the stage. I ask the taxi driver to get me there and drop me off half a mile down the road. I need to stretch my lungs – pluck my strings to tune up. I roll my shoulders as a boxer would. March down the road and imagine the screaming hordes. Yeah, they were a bunch of teeny boppers back in the day, but we always managed to make their mothers and aunts swing. The attention rocked. The buzz lasted until morning and left you desperate for the next fix. Three of us, anyway. Benny hated it all. Said it demeaned him. He’s the only one left with a career. He still packs them in at the Sheffield Arena when he comes home. He’s not even the best singer, or the best looker out of the lot of us. I heard he still hates it all. Tosser.
Every step sends notes up my spine. I hum away. The old lyrics pop and I feel a dance move simmer to the point where I might just do a Michael Jackson on every crack in the pavement. I pause outside the working men’s club’s double doors. Chipped paint doesn’t conjure the entrance to Wembley Arena. I wipe the back of a hand across my nose at the non-existent itch. Can smell fried onions and burger fat. Not sure if somebody has a fryer going or if it’s a signature smell I now have stitched deep in my nostrils.
I blast a breath. Rev my vocal chords and palm open the door. A spotlight doesn’t hit me. Still, I build on my fantasy and imagine I have a horde of screaming women awaiting me through the next set of doors.
“You the talent?”
I squint at the old man behind the desk in his brown cardigan. He eyes me through half-closed eyelids, unconvinced by my shaggy but well-gelled hair, skinny jeans, and waistcoat.
“Yes. Yes I am.”
The fluorescent bulb bounces 1970s light off his glasses and in-need-of-painting walls. I hesitate to take the next step. What if? What if? What if this works out and I go viral on social media? What if it sets the ball rolling all over again and I end up as support act for Benny. Or he ends up the support act for me?
Frankie pokes his head through the Formica-clad door, and beams. “You made it, Callen. You can still find your way around the streets by yourself, my man. Well done.”
He puts his big arm round my shoulder. Squeezes and pats. Expels some of my air. I nod and work myself up even higher. An old fan and her friends wait for me he says. All with camera phones.
“Liz doesn’t know a thing, mate. I’m going in first to introduce you, get the crowd worked up –”
“Yeah, the crowd.”
I buzz like champagne fizz.
“So, my man, wait here, and come in all pop star when I call your name. Alright?”
The entrance room isn’t big enough for my smile. “I’m ready. Let’s do it.” I let the green fluorescent which bounces off the Happy Birthday sign above the door become the glittering lightshow I used to enjoy.
The microphone screeches a little at Frankie’s first few words until he shifts it away from his mouth. “Ladies, gent –” I’m sure he said gent, not gents, but I reckon Frankie didn’t have much of an education. “You’re going to be well-excited for the main attraction. Here he is – Adam Callen.”
I pound across the chipped black and white tiles and past the old man’s raised eyebrow. Swing the door wide for dramatic effect and lift my hand high at the appreciation. Filthy shrieks dart down my earlobes, a different tone to the ones I used to know. An invisible wall, made from brick and concrete and glue and other sticky and hard stuff, block any more steps. Four women and Frankie – my whole audience. Frankie’s the gent, singular.
“Phwoaarrr.” The woman’s mohair jumper has turned her into Sully from Monsters Inc. The other three women whoop and clap and finally mince their foreheads when I don’t shift. The room spins, or maybe I did from eyeing the room’s every corner for the real crowd.
They attack. Paw at my arms. Shift their hands inside my shirt. An older woman, in her sixties, I reckon, slips a hand down my jeans and actually rubs and squeezes.
“Come on, lad, strip off for the birthday girl.”
Frankie has his camera phone on me and this time he doesn’t have his view blocked from my outstretched hand. The onion smell comes on strong. The years stretch ahead like a potholed road – me glum in my burger van until heart disease sends me to a better place. I act before my upper lip wraps over my nose and my teeth crumble from the grind. I lift the mike with a foot and flick it upwards. Catch it high in the air with a jump and break into song as I land. The horny women step back – they might have clutched pearl necklaces if they’d worn any. I stroke my body with the free hand, rush it through my pop star hair, and perform some old steps. They’re not as well-oiled as back in the day, but they’ve got to pass the working men’s club test. It’s all acapella. I thrust the mic at this Liz woman so she can take part in the chorus, which she does, the game lass she clearly is. I provide them with some class A warble that has the women’s feet on the move. Their hips sway, their feet shuffle, they have hands in their hair, and they laugh like drugged-up hyenas. I zone in on them. Get close so they seem the biggest crowd I ever played to. Get involved in their scent, their touch, their purr. I get boob action as they writhe against me and laugh at themselves. I’m God. I’m a fucking star. I should be doing this on Friday and Saturday nights – not worrying about how well the onions are done and on edge about the loss of a two-quid customer.
I finish the song full of euphoria, until I open my eyes. Frankie’s jaw strokes the carpet. The old man is stood in the doorway, his eyes wide. The women clap and the eldest asks when I’m going to get my kit off.
Liz cuffs my arm in realisation. “Thee Adam bloody Callen. What are you doing here? In the flesh. My god, I used to love you. I fantasised about you. Took me a long time to take your picture off me bedroom wall. This is hilarious.”
“Yeah, hilarious.” I peck her on the cheek. “Happy birthday. Courtesy of your brother over there.”
“Frankie … You big Teddy Bear, you. You booked the whole club just to get this little gig together? Should have told me. We’d have got a bigger crowd. You told me you were getting me a stripper. Which is weird, by the way – brother. But, I get you now. Ha – pop star Adam Callen.” Her boobs bob about her chest as she regains breath, as if that jumper chews on her. “Well, I really enjoyed that. Do you need a backing singer? We can all sing – sort of.”
Reality whackamoles me back into my hole. “Sorry, Liz, I’m all washed up.” I deaden my eyes for Frankie. “I do need an assistant for my burger van, though. Shit pay, but if you’re available.” Why not? She’s sparked me back to life, if only for a few minutes.
Her lips, like those of her friends, screw to the side. “You run a burger van?”
“Yes. Yes I do. You want to fry some onions with me?”
“Fry onions with Adam Callen? Of course I bloody well do.”
We sort terms and a start date. I give Frankie my best wink as I leave with my new fan club for a night on the town.