We were within a day or two of finishing the record and my week-long break needed to be planned. My plan was no plan. I would stay here at the hotel, go to the Velvet Room occasionally before meeting the lads in London to commence the tour.
One afternoon, I got a call labelled “Charleston, SC” on the caller ID. I answered immediately. It was not Caitlin.
“Nicholas, it’s Billy Farmer. How are you?”
Billy Farmer was made famous as the singer in the wildly popular hard rock band, 2VS. Later, on his own, he remained a successful act onstage and also had begun producing new artists at his studio near Charleston, where he’d moved after marrying his third wife. We were colleagues—friends—and it was good to hear from him.
“Billy! I’m fine, how are you?”
“I’m good, but somewhat in a bind.”
“A bind?” I asked.
“I have a group of young musicians in the studio who are very talented. Extremely talented. But their music is all over the place. They need a direction to focus on. A particular point of view, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes. I think I do. How can I help?”
“Several of their songs . . .” he paused momentarily. “Honestly, in my head, I hear your guitar work. It would be brilliant. Your signature sound would set them apart from the pack, which they deserve, and of course, your name associated with them would lend credibility.”
“Don’t they have their own guitar player?”
“They do, but he doesn’t have the chops—he’s not hearing the possibilities of the music. And he knowsit. I mentioned your name and his face lit up. Any chance you could come meet with them? It would be a tremendous help.”
“As a matter of fact, I’ve got some time coming up in a few days.”
“You’re recording with Taylor, right?” Billy asked.
“Right, but we’ll be finished in a couple of days. I could be there by the weekend at the latest.”
“Fantastic! Let me know when to expect you and I’ll send Raymond to gather you from the airport.”
I grinned into the telephone. “Raymond,” I said. “How is he?”
Billy laughed. “You’ll see,” he said. “He’s in love.”
We made further arrangements and rang off.
Raymond. In love.
I was on my way to Charleston. Hope began to fill me.
I called Caitlin three times before I was to leave. She didn’t answer. I left messages telling her I’d be in town and would love to see her, but she didn’t return the calls.
* * *
“Raymond,” I greeted, recognizing the huge African American and former military, former policeman who worked as driver and security for Billy Farmer. Besides those duties, he was a talented bass player. “It’s good to see you.”
We met in the current male fashion of half-hug/half-handshake.
“It’s been too long, Nicholas,” he said.
He opened the car door for me and loaded my bag and guitar into the boot while I folded myself into the backseat.
Raymond was one of those people who, after not having seen them for a long time, was able to pick up the friendship like you’d seen them last week.
Once we were on the road, I couldn’t help but tease him, “Billy tells me you’re in love.”
“I got married.”
“You got married? I’m truly shocked.”
“The love of my life, man. You’ll like her.”
I saw him grinning.
“Tell me about her,” I said.
“What do you want to know?”
Raymond was also a man of few words. I knew I’d have to pull the information out of him a bit at a time.
I laughed. “What’s her name? How did you meet? How did you know she was the one?”
“Her name is Maddie. We met at the compound. She works for Billy and Hannah and we started hanging out when we had down time together. She started flirting with me when we’d see each other on the grounds. I flirted back. When the band was on the road, I missed her. And when we were home, I couldn’t wait to be done with work so I could see her. After a while . . .” he glanced back at me, “. . . she let me know she was the one I should be with.”
“She did, did she?”
“Yeah. I already knew it was true. I just needed to hear it. We got married at the compound about six months ago. It’s been great.”
“You look happier than I’ve perhaps ever seen you.”
“I am happy,” he said with a grin.
“So tell me about the compound. I’ve heard quite a lot about the studio there.”
“The studio’s under renovation. Billy’s turning part of it into a performance hall.” Raymond grinnedback at me through the mirror. “It’s gonna be spectacular. Right now, we’re headed downtown. Not too far from your hotel. The space used to be a bar. It’s handy for everyone. Billy’s made some improvements so it’s suitable for recording and performing.”
We were quiet for a bit, while I contemplated Caitlin. “I met someone a few weeks ago,” I offered. “She lives here in Charleston. I dunno if I’m in love or not, but even if I am in love with her, I don’t think she feels the same way.”
“Women can be funky, man.”
“Yeah,” I answered.
* * *
We arrived at the downtown studio around eleven o’clock. Raymond pulled into a load-out space and retrieved my guitar from the boot.
The aged, two-story building looked to be holding up well, though red bricks had worn through the whitewash in patches. We entered through a side door into an open space smelling of stale beer with an undertone of vomit. Most notable to the eye was a bar structure backed by a broken mirror, a fairly large stage fit tightly into one corner, and the creaky wooden floor had to’ve been a century old. A raggedy billiards table was shoved into another corner like a naughty schoolboy. Constructed of unfinished wood along one wall were four rooms, each with a door inset with a square window, like a classroom. The sight of Billy Farmer rising to greet us brought a smile to my face.
“Nicholas!” Billy said. “I’m so glad you could come. You’ve no idea how much help you’re going to be. Come in, come in.”
He led me to his office. “Would you like a cuppa? Or the sweet tea of South Carolina? It’s awful stuff, but I’m occasionally expected to drink the vile concoction. Or would you like something else altogether?”
“I wouldn’t mind some water, if you have it.”
Billy rang a number on his mobile. “Penn, could you bring me a cuppa tea and Mr. Trent a bottle of water?”
Listening for a moment, he laughed into the phone. “Yes, he’s here and yes, you’ll meet him if you bring us something to drink.”
I cocked my head with a curious grin.
“Penn,” Billy said. “He’s one of the young men in the band who needs help. He’s the guitar player who isn’t quite cutting it. But he’s a good lad and it’s fun having the youngster around. He helps us out here for studio time when he’s not working his regular job. I have to thank you again for coming down to give them a hand. Like I said on the phone, they need some focus. Dougie and I have tried to get through to them but they’re not getting it.”
“Yeah, you know Dougie?”
“Who could forget him? He’s a total bounder, but brilliant behind the soundboard. We’ve done some running in the same circles, let’s say.”
We both laughed.
“Well, these boys,” Billy continued, “they’ve got incredible chemistry together and their vocal harmonies are nothing short of brilliant. Like I said, Penn—he’s trying—but even he knows he doesn’t have it. Technically, he’s not doing anything wrong. He’s using the correct scales in the correct keys, he just doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t feel it. Know what I mean?”
I nodded. “I think I do.”
“He should be able to use the knowledge he has, coupled with your instruction and practice, to cultivate the advanced skills he needs.”
Following a brief knock, the door opened. “Here are your beverages, sir.”
“Penn,” Billy said. “Come in.”
The young man handed me the water and nearly shook the teacup off the saucer handing it to Billy. His face was flush with excitement as he stood next to Billy’s chair, fairly hanging onto the back of it.
“Penn, I’d like you to meet Nicholas Trent, an old friend of mine. Nicholas, this is Penn Singleton.”
I stood to greet him and extended my hand. He seemed reluctant to take it, as if it might give him an electrical shock, but once I smiled, he shook it.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Penn finally said to me, still hanging on to Billy’s chair. “I feel so . . . inadequate.”
“For what it’s worth, I’ve known people who fancied themselves musicians when they should’ve stayed in the audience. What I know is, if Billy Farmer stands behind your talent, you’ve got some talent somewhere. Stop doubting yourself and practice. Learn what you can and put it into play. You’ll get there. Trust Billy. Trust Dougie.”
Penn let loose the back of Billy’s chair. “You know Dougie?”
“Speaking of Dougie,” Billy said, “let’s tell him you’re here.”
Billy led me through a corridor to a set of stairs so old the middles of each step were worn and sunken. A sign in the shape of an arrow read, “Studios” and pointed to the second floor.
We let ourselves inside the studio where Dougie saw my reflection in the glass and smiled his roguish smile.
“Nicholas Trent,” he said. “I heard you were here. Give me a second and I’ll take a break.”
Billy and I stood aside as Dougie finished the part of the song he was mixing. He pulled the headphones down around his neck and gave me a hug.
“You cut your hair,” he said.
“Yeah, getting too old for all that.”
Billy laughed. “Better watch what you say, youngster.”
Billy was a full ten years my senior and still wore his hair long and mostly loose.
Lunchtime arrived. We were served a brilliant meal by a stunningly beautiful black woman and a white man, grey/blond of hair and moustache. Sitting at the bar, the broken mirror shattered our images like a kaleidoscope.
The way the woman and Raymond made eyes at each other rather gave away this was Maddie, Raymond’s bride. He introduced her.
The man was called Bryan.
“Nicholas,” Maddie said, her smile shining with mischief. “Raymond tells me you’re in love.”
I raised my head to Raymond’s arched eyebrow in my direction. I managed to swallow my tea before I laughed out loud.
“Yes. Well, I may be in love, but I’m not so sure about Caitlin.”
“Raymond said she lives in Charleston. Are you going to see her while you’re here?”
“I dunno where she lives.”
“You don’t have her address?” Bryan asked.
“Have you Googled her?” Bryan asked. “What does she do?”
“She’s a florist in a supermarket. And I haven’t Googled her because . . . .” I shrugged and sighed. “I just dunno how she feels about me. I’ve gotten very mixed messages from her.”
“Wait a minute,” Penn said. “What’s her name?”
“I know her!” he said. “She’s the floral director at Peninsula Traders downtown. I work with her nearly every day. She’s got skills.”
“Really?” I grinned at the thought of seeing her at work.
“I think I know her too,” Bryan said turning to Penn. “Doesn’t she do a lot of work in the local catering community?”
“Yeah,” Penn said. “Mr. Trent, how did you meet Cait?”
I laughed at the title. “Please. It’s just Nicholas. We met in New York. Stayed in the same hotel. We saw each other in the hotel restaurant, each of us dining alone. I’m fairly used to it by now, but I could tell she was miserable just watching her pick a table.”
“So you picked up your meal and joined her,” Bryan said to the laughter of the others.
“I’m sure I would’ve right surprised her. No, I’m afraid I wasn’t quite so cheeky. Besides, she’d ordered a bottle of wine—”
“A girl after my own heart,” Bryan’s remark elicited more laughter. “I wasn’t sure she wouldn’t be joined by someone else, was I? But she wasn’t. We rather peeked at each other occasionally . . . .” I took a bite of potato.
“So how did you finally meet?” Bryan asked.
“It was Caitlin who approached me. She’d had half a bottle of wine, you see.”
Everyone laughed again.
“She’d recognised me, told me she was a fan and just wanted me to know how much she enjoyed my music. She was so concerned with bothering me, I practically had to force an autograph on her. I asked her to join me. We finished her wine and went for a walk.”
“Then went to bed,” Bryan said.
"Bryan!" Maddie scolded.
I laughed again. To Bryan, I said, “I can already tell you’re trouble.”
Bryan rolled his eyes, but didn’t deny.
“No. I know my reputation precedes me, but no. She doesn’t need the pressure just now. I’m not even sure she’ll let me see her again.”
* * *
It was late afternoon before Raymond drove me back to the hotel, where I checked in. There were still a few hours of daylight left and a good run would be perfect.
My clothes changed, I stopped by the concierge’s desk to ask the whereabouts of Peninsula Traders. She brought it up on an electronic tablet and showed me how to get there.
I ran past shops—large, small, quaint, and gauche. Caitlin was right, history was everywhere in the old buildings, cobblestone streets and carriage tours. A section of elegant old homes bordered a commercial area and, ahead in the next block, I saw the sign for Peninsula Traders. A busy street ran between me and the supermarket. As I waited to cross, Caitlin appeared dressed in khaki trousers and a white button-down shirt. She looked tired, but gorgeous. She got in her car and I ducked into a doorway. Christ, I feel like a stalker.
I continued my run back toward the hotel, passing a large library, a large construction site and a huge building claiming to house the county department of education. They must have good schools here. On another block, I came across several buildings associated with a college. There was a theatre with an old fashioned marquee and an interesting vintage bookstore with a blue bicycle parked outside. Lots of restaurants, bars, and more shops of all kinds lined my way back to the hotel.
* * *
The next day, I wasn’t expected at the studio till afternoon. I’d stayed up late writing music and had a bit of a lie-in with a leisurely breakfast in my suite. I left the hotel for Peninsula Traders dressed in jeans, a tee shirt, and my trainers. It was a short few blocks to the market.
As I entered the grocery, the scent of freshly baked bread greeted me, along with a young man who said, “Welcome to Traders.”
“Thank you,” I answered.
“Would you like a shopping cart and a sale ad?”
He was so bright and fresh, he brought a smile to my face. “No, thank you,” I said, “but could you direct me to the floral department?”
He pointed me in the right direction and I sauntered toward it looking at the displays along the way. Like the young man at the door, the supermarket itself was bright and fresh. Every display was perfectly arranged. The labels of the tinned goods all faced forward, boxed goods stacked just so. Flawless produce in rainbows of colour led into the floral section, where I spotted Caitlin working alongside a young woman behind a counter. A young man watered green plants on the sales floor.
I pretended to inspect apples as I planned my approach. Would she be glad to see me or would she still think it a bad idea? I had no way of knowing, but when the sound of her laughter reached me, I knew I had to take the chance.
When I entered the floral area, the young man, whose name tag pronounced him “Joe,” came up to me.
“Good morning,” he said, as brightly as his co-worker up front. “May I help you find something today?”
“Thank you,” I said in a soft voice, “but I believe I’ve found it. I wonder if you might quietly point Caitlin Flynn in my direction.”
Joe’s eyebrows shot up and his smile widened across his face. “Cait?” he asked, almost in a whisper.
“Yes, thank you.” I nodded. “Quietly.”
“Sure. You must be why she’s wearing makeup again,” he said with a grin.
I wondered if it was true as he walked toward the counter where Caitlin and the other woman trimmed roses, placing them into large, black vases. When Joe got there, Cait looked up and saw me. She covered her mouth with her hand in a gesture of surprise. I couldn’t tell if she was happy to see me or not.
I drew in a shaky breath and stood my ground, though I was so nervous, I may have bitten my bottom lip.
I couldn’t hear what Joe said to her, but the woman beside her took Cait’s flower pruners and gave her a little push toward the sales floor. I read her lips as she told Cait to “Go!”
Cait’s breath was shallow by the time she reached me. I wanted desperately to take her trembling hands in mine, but I didn’t.
“Nicholas,” she said, with a tentative smile matching my own.
I relaxed a smidgeon when she put her hands on my arms. I kissed her on both cheeks.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’m helping Billy Farmer with a project while we’re on our break.”
“Billy Farmer?” she asked.
“Yes. He lives near here.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
She looked uncomfortable and I was afraid of what she would say next.
“Look, maybe I shouldn’t have come,” I said, “but Billy called for my help and I couldn’t stay a few blocks from here and not see you.” I shook my head at my shoes and took a deep breath.
“How did you even find me here?” she asked, more curious than annoyed, I was pleased to note.
I looked around. “Is there somewhere we can go to talk?” I asked, tension building in my chest.
“I can’t right now,” she said, glancing back toward the counter where her co-workers, who had clearly been watching us, quickly busied themselves. Her response to them showed me the smile I had longed for. My heart picked up its pace.
“I get off at seven,” she said, taking my hands. “Dinner?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know how long I’ll be at Billy’s studio. I’m not going there till one-thirty.” I brightened. “How about lunch?”
* * *
We met at Dixon’s Diner, a short walk for each of us. The sky was a clear blue. I blamed the oppressive humidity for the sweat on my forehead. Approaching the door, I saw her coming from the opposite direction. Her smile gleamed radiant, her hair—now brown and blonde with not a hint of grey—glinted in the bright Charleston sun.
“You’re tenacious,” she said, as we were seated.
“Is tenacity a bad thing?”
She dealt with her cutlery and napkin while forming her answer, but when she raised her head, her face answered me before her words did. “No, not necessarily. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too. Why didn’t you return my calls?”
“Good afternoon. Welcome to Dixon’s. Can I start you off with some drinks?”
The interruption couldn’t have come at a worse time. We ordered our food along with our drinks and the waitress left us.
“How did you know to look for me at Trader’s?” Caitlin asked.
“I met someone you know. He told me.”
“Why?” I asked. “Would you give him a hard time on my account?”
“Depends on who it is,” she said with a grin.
“Penn? The Penn who works at the store?”
“In that case, I’ll definitely have to give him a hard time.”
My face rather fell, but she laughed and placed her hand on my arm.
“I’m only kidding! How did you meet Penn?”
“He also works for Billy Farmer. I met him in the studio,” I explained.
Our beverages arrived.
“Why didn’t you call me back?” I insisted.
Her smile faded, but she looked me in the eyes.
“Nicholas, I could fall for you in a skinny minute. From the time I had my very first crush, I’ve always fallen for musicians. I’ve been really, truly, painfully in love four times in my life. Three of those times my heart was broken by musicians. The last time was Jesse—not a musician—we were happy for so long when a senseless accident broke my heart again.” She dabbed her eyes with her napkin. “I . . . I don’t think my heart can take another . . . breaking.”
My eyes softened, I sighed and studied her face. I reached for her hand just as our food was served. Once the waitress left, I reached again and Caitlin allowed me to take her hand in mine.
“I don’t know what to say,” I started. “I’m not familiar enough with the emotion of love to know what it feels like. I’m certain I’ve broken my share of hearts through the years, even though I’ve always tried to be honest with the women I’ve . . . um . . . dated. And I’ve seen the train wrecks left behind by other musicians, so I rather understand what you’re saying, albeit second or third hand. What I want you to know is the time we spent together in Manhattan was special to me. You are special to me. When we were together, well, I’m not sure how to describe it.” I laughed and glanced quickly away. “You know, I’m usually a pretty cool chap.”
She gave me her wrinkled-nose smile and I was able to return a smile of my own.
“When we were together, a sense of calm came over me. A sense of . . . belonging, perhaps? It felt right being with you.” I paused for a moment and looked at the food in front of me before I continued. “Other than onstage, I haven’t had a place to call home in a very long time. Decades. With you, I felt at home.” I shook my head. “I must sound completely daft.”
Her eyes didn’t waiver. “No, I felt it too, but I didn’t want to give in to it because of, you know, my past experiences.”
“I understand. I do. When you left—the way you left—I felt empty. I tried to hide it, I tried to tell myself you were merely another woman. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter if I never saw you again—there are hundreds of women out there who didn’t matter.”
“More like thousands,” she said mischeviously.
I rolled my eyes in acknowledgement. “Let’s call it a lot. But I was miserable, Caitlin. Our few phone conversations left me more confused than not. One would leave me happy and looking forward to some sort of future together while the next would shoot down my confidence. Thank God my music didn’t suffer—I can tell you my blues got better. Then Billy called and . . . here I am.”
She poked at her salad with her fork and studied the movement as she did so.
“It would take a tremendous leap of faith for me Nicholas,” she said finally.
“For me, as well. Don’t you see?”
“I’m not sure I have it in me. The risk is so great.”
“Is everything okay?” The waitress had reappeared and looked at our uneaten food.
“I’m sure everything is fine,” I replied. “We’re catching up.”
Caitlin looked at her phone for the time. “Yikes. I’ve gotta get back to work. Could you bring me a box to go?” she asked the waitress.
“You bet. For you, too?”
I didn’t really care but the waitress looked hopeful. “Sure,” I said with a shrug.
Unwilling to say goodbye, I asked Caitlin, “Will you let me walk you back to work?”
Her smile answered before she said, “Okay.”
* * *
We stopped short of going inside when we reached the grocery.