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Mr. Walters asks a question that was once proposed on some awkwardly spinning vinyl…


Lt. Salt


Clay Waters




November 5, 1986

            As advised, Jed looked for the one girl in the flat most definitely not a member of the occult. Not that he had a clue what an occultist, spiritualist or medium was supposed to look like -- he'd never had his fortune told, not even for laughs.

            But "occultist" would indeed have been way down his list for the girl who greeted him in the kitchen -- far below, say, checkout girl.

            "I'm Saffron," she said, fixing upon the London Observer tucked under his arm -- the identifier they'd agreed to on the phone. "Glad you could make it, Jed."

            "Thanks for having me."

            "Saffron" was dressed light for the weather, in a lime halter-top with yellow sunflowers and shiny red leather sneaks of stylishly unstylish origin. Only the tortoise-rim glasses and male-style black bangs hinted at an off-the-beam personality lurking within. "It's not putting you out, coming here on short notice?"

            "Not at all. I could use the break." Actually, with his deadline for the London Observer looming in 36 hours, he couldn't afford to spend time away from the typewriter. But he had nothing to write about. That's why he was here, at this slightly shady party over a curry house in East London.

            "Would you like some glogg punch? It's got figs in it."

            "Sure." The skull-shaped pewter punchbowl looked like something that would hold "glogg." The rest of the goodie table was filled with raw veggies and other unspeakables. In the corner was an oval table draped in red linen. No crystal ball, but perhaps those were only for TV fortunetellers.

            One woman spoke loudly and anachronistically into a new-fangled portable phone the size of a brick. A dozen or so others were chatting in groups, more women then men. Saffron was the youngest, and Jed noted a few longing looks from the men (and a jealous eye-cutter from the phone woman) as she scooped punch. She returned with his mug of glogg. "This is where I ask if you've met Midge Ure."

            "Backstage at Hammersmith, actually, just last month. Says he's trying to get some aid to Ethiopia concert off the ground, but there's no interest. The government wants musicians to do their bit."

            Her eyebrows arched. "Really now. Musicians do their own thing, otherwise they're just sods on the assembly line. Did you know Labour has new rules about what mediums can do? They don't believe in the occult anyway, so why should they care. And if that's not enough, the union sends this shaggy ape by my flat to spread bad vibes." She caught her breath. "So what's your story on this week?"

            "Nothing, yet. That's why I'm here." A séance to raise Paul McCartney on the 20th anniversary of his death was as promising as anything, and beat out his initial lame idea -- a review of the new Bananarama album, an LP he found himself incapable of paying attention to. If he didn't give the Observer something decent by Friday morning he'd lose his tenuous freelance gig. No more of those little checks, delayed as they were, and the rent on the flat was already overdue. Saffron's enigmatic phone call had come as comic relief -- or perhaps a thin string to a drowning man. He'd know soon enough.

            A thin young man in undertaker dress was doing his part for unconventionality by passing around Ecstasy tablets using an unhinged bathroom mirror as a tray. His scabby skin went red when Saffron thanked him.

            "Want one?" Saffron said, holding up the tab. Jed could see the government tax stamp.         

            He declined. "I did it right one time. I danced seven hours and then went home and alphabetized my kitchen." He cleared his throat and gave her a professional look. "You said you had a Paul McCartney scoop. His motorcycle crash was 20 years ago next Sunday. Perfect timing."

            "Which is why it'd be too obvious to make up, wouldn't it?"

            "The Beatles had just started an album when he crashed his bike, you know," he said, reminiscing. "Their most ambitious project -- a concept album taking in psychedelia and philosophy and all the drugs. But they had to scuttle it. The tapes never surfaced."

            November 9, 1966. A rock n' roll death, at once dishearteningly typical and almost relieving in its innocent tragedy: Paul McCartney, bassist and songwriter for the most popular band in the world, tooling down the road on his motorbike to visit his aunt, had lost control and skidded straight into (and, gruesomely, under) a lorry approaching from the other side. It had been like JFK all over again when the news hit Jed's high school -- girls bawling, group pilgrimages to the restroom and the counselor's office. And not all the crying by the girls.

            "Did they break up?" Saffron asked.

            "They should have. The three surviving members finished one more album, in 1968, but it was a dud. It was clear they missed Paul. George and John together didn't work. The Lennon-Harrison songwriting credit was bizarre enough. The two of them were too alike. I mean, 'Wail Me A Willowtree', derigidoo pipes in a rock song? Real end-of-the-pier stuff. It got to #9 on the singles charts, but that was public sympathy. You can tell what Paul meant to them just because none of them amounted to much after he died. Now John's become this big right-winger bitching about the Labour government and calling for Thatcher to stand for office again."

            "It's alright to bitch about the government." She winked.

            "Well, you know what I mean." A right-wing occultist? he thought.

            "So what if Paul had lived? Would there have still been disco or olam or flay?"

            "Hard to say," he said, stroking his goatee in what he hoped resembled contemplation and not cluelessness. "The Beatles gave guitar-based music a shot in the arm. But the music kept getting denser and slower and heavier, weighed down by all the psychedelic trappings and exotic instruments no one had really mastered. Then virtuosity became hip, and all these guitar bands started playing in 9/4 time…." He stopped, seeing that her face had frozen -- she'd heard more than she'd wanted. "So when's the séance?"

            "As soon as I can pull everyone's face out of the hummus."

            He didn't really think the spirit of Paul would descend start cranking out bass guitar, but he was hoping -- praying, really -- that this unlikely girl and her cohorts could conjure some half-convincing bit of mummery. He didn't think he could face Bananarama again.

            "I hope we get something good tonight," Saffron said. "You don't even have to use my name in the paper. Probably for the best you didn't, given the crackdowns. Still, you could drop a hint or two. Sunday's the only day I really get to read, though I usually go for the Telegraph. Last Sunday they had this physicist saying there could be an infinite number of universes running parallel to ours, accounting for every possibility, but that the laws of physics would prohibit making contact."

            "So what's the point?"

            "That's what I thought. Wouldn't you love to have a peek? In case Paul's alive in one?"

            "I guess he'd have to be, wouldn't he?"

            "Now that's a thought. What if Paul was -- "

            "Saffron, shall we do this, then?" Portable-phone woman had her hands on her hips.

            "Yes," Saffron shook her head. "Douse the lights, please, Linda. We'll get started. A stranger is joining our circle tonight, he's with the press, but he's a believer, so the circle will not be broken."

            Jed held his tongue.

            As if at random, five of the party-goers detached themselves from their wine glasses and took seats at the oval table in back. The rest stood back watching respectfully, ceasing to graze. Saffron took Jed's hand and led him toward the table. 

            Silently, Saffron lit nine candles. At her instruction, they took seats and clasped hands. Jed discreetly switched on the tape recorder before offering his hand to the man on his left.

            "Through the nose, out the mouth," she was chanting in a changed, monotone voice. "Though the nose, out the mouth. Keep your mind blank. Be calm. Be comfortable. Our beloved Paul, we bring you gifts from life into death. Commune with us, Paul, and move among us. If you are among us, Paul, please rap once."

            She repeated the words and after a dramatic delay a hollow rap came from the center of the table. Continuing in a deeper, more deliberate voice, she said: "Paul, did you play bass guitar in a rock band? Rap once for yes, twice for no, please."

          The crisp ring of the doorbell almost sent Jed out of his seat -- strangely, the others at the table simply turned to the door in annoyance.

            "Shall we get it?" One of the quiet watchers said. But Saffron was still in her "trance."

             The door opened but no one entered, and the vacuum gradually sucked the room's attention up, except for Saffron, who had to be shaken awake, blinking and perturbed. She shook her head in disgust. "Bloody union backstabbers."

            A squat officer of the law stood blandly at the door, the photo ID he held before him no more sedate than his presence in the flesh. Two other bobbies were arrayed behind him, making a modest blue-and-gold pyramid of official fabric. In his other hand he held a sheaf of fliers. Stepping inside, he began eyeballing party members, consulting the sheaf. He halted in front of her. "Miss Siobhan Wakefield?"

            "Siobhan" returned the officer's brisk nod with a sour, apprehensive one.

            "Miss Wakefield, by order of the Queen you're placed under arrest on suspicion of practicing mesmerism without a license. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something--"

            "Yes, thank you, I know my rights."

            Jeb liked this mooncalf and her sweet-sour act.

            "You can pay the fine for a first offense, or you can scrub your record by joining the organ donation program, provided they're in good order. Young girl like you should be alright, if you've laid off the fags." He glanced around in disapproval at the other partygoers, most of whom had lowered their cigs. Another officer worked the crowd asking for identifications while a third stood sentry at the door.

            "May I have your name, officer?" Saffron said, a knee-jerk flexing of rights that Jed appreciated.

            He tipped his bob. "James Salt, at your service." Then he looked blandly over at Jed, betraying neither fear nor favor. "If you want your fortune told or to converse with your dead aunties, sir, best do it through proper channels."

            Siobhan barked out a bitter laugh. "Channels. Nice one, your highness."

            An officer took Jed's shoulder to escort him out the door. Jed looked back at Saffron. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked her, feeling ineffectual.

            "I'll be fine. I'm not a vagrant or anything. I'll just call my dad. See you on the 30th anniversary. Or when I get out of chokey, whatever comes first."


            What a waste.

            He set the tape recorder down rather roughly beside his typewriter, jabbing Rewind so it would be ready to use (for an Observer story, perhaps -- what a laugh).

            "The Bust of the Medium" would have been a funny story, really. Not really fit for the music pages, though. And politically, it would have cut a little sharply for the lefties at the Observer, with a Labour regulation coming off as humorless and ham-handed. Perhaps it was.

            Halfway through the rewind came a strange squealing sound. He stopped the tape.

            From the time he'd switched it on to when the police invaded was about three minutes, an interval in which nothing of interest had occurred except a "ghostly" tap on the table. Yet here was a definite clump of unfamiliar (or at least unremembered) sound from the séance.

            He pushed PLAY, and shivered.


            Not loud music, not clear music, but undeniably music. But how had it gotten there? He knew mediums were crafty by definition, but Siobhan could not possibly have switched tapes on him --

            The voice had a familiar ring.

            He had to laugh.

            How on earth had she done it?

            The recording itself was definitely a homebrew, faint and scratchy -- made to sound like something from beyond the grave, it sounded more like something recorded inside one. Shouty vocals raged over an unfamiliar song with a careful music-hall beat. Jed had to admit the Paul impression itself was quite good, before fading out in no doubt "ghostly" fashion. Siobhan's boyfriend, or whoever was doing the singing, had a career as an impersonator. Provided he could obtain a busking license.

            Jed thought it would make an amusing anecdote for a column on the anniversary of McCartney's death -- a young occultist's charming attempt to deceive a music writer. Then he could unload the usual poignant fogey rock romanticism: Paul and the whole teen legend thing, wasted youth, the obligatory Rimbaud reference. He was far too cynical to carry off the worshipful, rock-icon stuff of obituary cliche, so the less of it the better.

            So! A "spiritually minded girl in Soho Square" would get to read about herself in the Observer, assuming she was at liberty.

            Feeding the typewriter, he centered the paper and tapped in: "Is Paul Alive?"

            He rewound the brief snippet of tape, listening again to the words of the opening couplet. Well, why not?

            He typed the lyrics in. After all, by the time the Sunday edition hit the stands November 9, Paul's death would actually be "20 years ago today."