The story opens with Michael mourning the death of his bandmates in a crash he wonders whether he could have prevented, although he himself was also badly injured. He's already pondering potential new career paths, although the compensation he received after the accident is more than enough to live on, when he considers it 'blood money' and is reluctant to spend much of it on luxuries (except his Rolex: Michael is very fond of his new Rolex).
Hitching home from the churchyard, since his pushbike has acquired two punctures, Michael meets a mysterious old man, who tells him that he can have fame for himself or his old friends back but not both. Of course all mystical deals come at a price...
'Seven for the Devil' has a larger cast of main characters than most of my short stories: as well as Michael, his bandmates, and the mysterious Mr Monty Summers, we also meet Jimmy, a goth guitarist turned Church of England vicar. I had a lot of fun writing Jimmy: he's not exactly Michael's conscience, but he does try to bring a voice of reason to some of Michael's more mysterious experiences. Not that Jimmy's theories are necessarily right of course.
The story also features several different locations: two different (and mostly abandoned) churchyards; the homes of Michael, Jimmy, and Michael's two main bandmates; Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge; and a number of different pubs-cum-music-venues. Almost all the action takes place in East Anglia, and I based the settings on places I used to know well.
The two abandoned churchyards are based on real places in Norfolk and Suffolk: one of which really is ruined because services have been moved to the sister church in the nearby village. The other, though, is still in use as far as I know, despite being situated in the middle of a field some considerable walk from the nearest houses. On more than one occasion I had to rescue sheep tangled in its boundary hedge and fencing as I was walking past, back when I lived up in Suffolk. I used to find that church oddly creepy, which possibly explains why I have no photos of it, while I spend quite a few hours exploring the abandoned church, which was further from where I was living, a photographed various aspects of it.
This is what the main window looked like a few years ago
and you can see my full set of pictures from that excursion here.
I haven't posted an excerpt for a few days, so here's one from the very beginning of the story:
Gloomily, Michael kicked his way along the overgrown path as it wound around the back of the ruined Church of St. Peter. He reached the edge of the shade and stopped, gathering his thoughts. The sun shouldn’t be glinting off the five new granite headstones like that. He should have insisted on limestone. Or sandstone, to keep things local. Something that would weather and crumble, that would disintegrate almost as quickly in this climate as his band’s history would fade in the memories of the fans and the media now that he was the only one left.
He’d brought flowers, of course. A dark red rose for each of the guys, and a bunch of white carnations for Patricia; she’d hated roses. Such a cliché, she’d drawled in that bored off-stage voice that was nothing like her dulcet performance tones. Eight months and he could still remember every detail about each of them. The way they spoke, their favoured clothes for performing and for relaxing, the precise notes of the scents they wore.
At least he’d managed to get special dispensation for them to be buried here, the scene of their best-known video, rather than in the graveyard of the closest intact church, where services were held every Sunday for the twin villages of Totteringham St. Peter and Totteringham St. Paul. The graves there were tended by a gardener, and watched over by a sharp-eyed church warden for any offerings or grave goods that might offend the parishioners on grounds of taste or common decency. Here, Michael could place what he wanted in front of each headstone, knowing that his markers would still be there the next time he visited.
A plastic bat for Chris; a new plectrum for Terry; drumsticks for Nigel, who would throw his own into the crowd at the end of a gig; a copy of Playboy for Roger, still in its plastic wrapper; a black and purple half-corset for Patricia. Michael straightened each gift on its resting place. He uprooted the ever-encroaching weeds, and then placed the fresh flowers in the holders. He stuffed the old flowers into a paper bag, to be dropped off on the compost heap on his way out. They might have been a degenerate rock’n’roll band, but they’d always cared about nature in their own idiosyncratic way.
Michael straightened up, flexing the fingers on his right hand, wiggling each one in turn. Good as new, even after the long cycle ride from Diss. It was the first time he’d visited under his own power, and he’d worried the early morning damp might seep into his joints, setting back his progress.
After the weekend, he’d start playing again. Tonight being Friday, he’d sink a few pints of whatever guest beers the Eagle had on, with a Jack Daniels chaser for each of his dead bandmates. Tomorrow, he’d check out whoever was playing down at the Castle. Maybe he’d ask about picking up a midweek slot in a month or so. A few low-key gigs without publicity; if they worked out, if his hand could alternately wield a bow and slap the strings for a solid two hours without cramping up...
If, having overcome that hurdle, he found that the audience accepted him as a performer in his own right, he’d contact the band’s old booking agent. Get some tracks recorded, and book a guest slot on someone’s tour. Or maybe he’d do a Steve Vai. Join a half-decent band and build up a following for his solos, then tour on his own before finding another band that needed him to draw bigger audiences than they could pull in on their own.
Of course, nothing would ever match what he’d had before, but Michael was never going back to the alternative. No nine-to-five for him, and definitely no wishing his life away claiming benefits, while dreaming of what might have been. He was Mikey Phantom, named because his own particular combination of skin colour and facial features made him look like the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, even without his stage paint.
Ignoring the dew, which the sun had yet to drive from the long grass, Michael dropped to his knees in front of Patricia’s grave.
She had been the youngest of the group, two years younger than Michael, and he’d always looked out for her. More so than her big brother, Roger, and definitely more than the other guys, who saw her alternately as the ultimate, yet unattainable, sex symbol, and the band’s main draw for a certain class of punter.
She’d been a draw for another group of punters, too: those that appreciated her perfect pitch, but weren’t put off by Chris’s slightly off-key growling. A total waste that she wanted to go back to uni after her year off, though a far greater waste that she’d died so young as a result of Roger’s reckless stupidity.
You always fancied her.
Michael spun round, almost overbalancing, then wincing as his right hand hit the ground at precisely the correct angle to both break his fall and jar his still-healing bones. Roger wasn’t there, of course, but the words continued to echo around his skull.
Could he have prevented the accident? Should he have got up from his seat at the back of the Winnebago and wrested the joint from Roger’s fingers? Should he have protested long before that?
Over to you. Do you like stories with musician heroes (I suspect there are a few readers here who do)? How do you feel about stories grounded in very definite locations? What makes a setting come alive for you?
Link to complete story list
Link to the Kickstarter page for the book's launch