It's been a little while, I know. I'd love to say it's because I've been doing lots of writing and all that sort of thing but it would be... a bit of a falsehood. Between work and Glastonbury and a dozen other things... progress has been slow in some respects.
On the other hand, this little nugget came to me on the way to Glastonbury and as it doesn't quite fit into the main plot of Walking in the Shadowlands, have at it.
The year is 1976. Shadowlands are riding high while they're out on their latest US summer tour...
Pontiac, Michigan. 1976.
It was a day six years in the making: untold thousands of miles, three transmissions, enough brake pads to stop the earth spinning on its axis and more minor repairs and replacements than anyone could remember.
Copious amounts of beer, whiskey blood, sweat, vomit and other fluids had been spilt over the years.
Cigarette burns peppered the top of the table and the seats. Knife gouges and punch marks told tales of furies, rages and breakdowns.
Like any sibling Shirley was both beloved and frustrating, her familiarity and history with them enough to overlook her shortcomings and weaknesses.
Gear-shifts could be ear-splitting. The engine had been replaced in 1973 and was prone to a high-pitched whine above 50mph. The back windows rattled at lower speeds. The toilet flush had been unreliable for months.
Shadowlands had been successful enough for long enough that a new bus full of luxuries and mod-cons could’ve been arranged long ago, but they were a superstitious and sentimental bunch. As long as she ran, Shirley was the girl who’d got them out of Grand Coulee, whose radio had played them their first Billboard Chart successes and had played silent, non-judgemental host to any number of bad behaviours.
The overworked bus had slowed to a stop only three miles from the assembly plant she’d been born in, never to restart.
The combined skills and experience of four different mechanics provided only one outcome: Shirley was dead.
Not only was Shirley dead, she was spectacularly dead. The first mechanic discovered the transmission was worn out; the second found a problem with the camshaft; the third found problems in the electrics and noted that it was a miracle the bus stopped at all with almost-invisible brake pads. The fourth then found that hot oil had been leaking onto the back axle at such heat that the metal was almost completely buckled and one or two potholes away from snapping entirely.
A temporary vehicle was procured by ever-efficient Bobby to get them the last leg of the journey to Detroit. Once every scrap of Shadowlands’ world was transferred from Shirley’s cabin and luggage bins, the group paused for a moment to gaze upon the shattered corpse of their old friend.
‘We wouldn’t be us without Shirley,’ Sam said dolefully. He was in a low mood anyway having assumed he’d be in Detroit by now, whooping it up - or at the very least, having scored something. He strode onto the new bus without further hesitation, his sentiment sated.
Liam was distracted by a new tune and shuffled onto the new bus with it rolling in his head.
Ken the Driver and JD stood together for some time even as the tow-truck from the plant took Shirley away to be “decommissioned”.
‘They’ll strip my girl for parts,’ Ken sniffled. ‘My ship.’
‘Barbarians,’ JD agreed.
Bobby was entirely unsentimental and irritated at the time they’d lost. ‘Get on the flaming’ bus. We’ve got work to do.’
Smug Snake were economising so the band were booked into Detroit’s second best hotel. JD barged into Rosalie’s room without bothering to knock and folded himself into her arms.
His muscles shook from the effort of not crying and and there was fresh whiskey on his hot breath.
‘Tell me,’ she whispered.
‘She was our home! She was our home. I thought you'd understand.’
‘I do, love but-’
‘He bought her. For me. He did it.’
Rosalie wanted to kick herself for not getting it sooner. She understood now. Senior had bought that bus for Junior. She stroked JD’s hair and absently noted that it was tangled and in need of a trim.
‘Every time I think it doesn’t matter anymore… something gets taken away that pulls him further away from me.’ JD tore himself away from her and curled up on her bed. The heavy Cuban heel of his boot clunked against the bed frame. ‘One day, it’ll be like he was never here.’
‘That’s not true! As long as you and I draw breath, he’ll have been here. And as long as your music - your great gift, nurtured by him - moves anyone at all, he’ll have been here and mattered.’
‘You don’t get it,’ he snapped. ‘He-’
‘I don’t get it?’
The number of times Twain had irritated Rosalie was countless. The number of times she’d felt like slapping him, untold. This was the first time she felt rage towards him.
‘No, you don’t!’
‘Twain…’ She struggled to remain polite. ‘Leave this room right now before one of us does something regrettable.’
‘Why? I just-’ He yelped as she yanked him off her bed with all the strength she could find. ‘Fine. Some friend you are.’
‘JD, I love you dearly and I am the best friend you will ever have… but before trying to play the Guilt Olympics with me, I’d really appreciate if you’d be friend enough to me to recall that my parents both died when I was seventeen years old.’
Rosalie paced the floor and he stared at her open-mouthed.
‘And then Cecelia died. I saw the three people closest to me in the world die before my very eyes within months. So yeah, I do know what the hell you’re talking about. I do know how it feels. I crossed the earth to escape my pain, asshole, and I’ve spent all the time since helping you deal with yours. So yeah… cry over a fucking bus if you want to. I get it. I actually do… and I know that you should cut out the middle and cry for your bloody father!’
She burst into the tears he was refusing to shed. Her knees buckled and she fell to the floor. It took him a moment to respond, but JD enveloped her in a hug every bit as warm and affectionate as the one he’d demanded from her.
They wept together, for Danny and Eloise Cochran, for Cecelia, for Senior and for Shirley.
A visitor was waiting for Twain as they left for their gig. An older man in a handmade suit and silk tie, impeccably groomed and exactly the sort of person who usually crossed the street to avoid long-haired miscreants like Shadowlands.
‘Good to see you, boy!’ Proving himself Texan as he spoke, Mr Lightowler slapped JD on the back and shook his hand vigorously. ‘You look… in fine fettle.’
Twain shook his long mane a little self-consciously. ‘Thank you, sir. What… I, uh-’
‘We heard about your bus, son. I’m sorry about that. I arranged it all, you know.’
‘Yessir I did. Your pops called me up and said “Now Stan, I need a bus good enough for my son and his friends and I need it tomorrow.”’
JD nodded, having apparently remembered that his father’s friend was very high up at General Motors and could get them pretty much any vehicle in the country.
‘So I came right down here to see my ol’ pal’s boy again. Now, your manager here told me what you need and I think we at GM can go better. I’ve got a designer on call who’s going to kit you out with the best tour bus money can buy. It’ll be the stuff of legend, I’ll bet.’
JD’s eyes widened at the possibilities. Shirley II would be a worthy successor: built for the rock gods that Shadowlands so definitely were.
‘Tell me more.’