I first met Jo on the Metropolitan Line concourse of London’s Kings Cross Station.
I say met, I should say it was the first time I became aware of her.
When they renovated the station a few years ago the powers that be had the wisdom – or folly. You decide – to mark out small areas on the concourse where buskers can perform without hampering busy commuters hurrying to and fro in their race to get to work.
Since then I’ve witnessed a plethora of Ed Sheerhan wanabes, a tone deaf violinist, a piper, replete with bagpipes and kilt, skirling the life out of Scotland the Brave. One morning I even saw a bearded hipster type with an incongruous Beatle fringe and even more incongruous John Lennon/Liam Gallagher glasses, who played and sung an interminable version of Wonderwall.
And then there was Jo.
Of course I didn’t know that was her name at first. All I saw was a young woman, skinny and frail, who wore a ragged and greying paisley-print dress, and a black, baggy, and decidedly holey, cardigan. Her feet were bare and grubby, and her make up was almost Goth, with heavy kohl-lined eyes and deathly pale skin. Her short, ragged blonde hair looked as if a myopic barber with a grudge had hacked into it.
What attracted me as I trotted down the stairs was the sound of her acoustic guitar. She was finger picking, but seemed to avoid all the popular clichés. Her playing was light and dextrous, but she possessed a percussive thumb that kept the tempo moving, without overpowering her picking technique.
That guitar style alone was unique, totally captivating, but then she opened her mouth, started to sing and I was swept away. So much so that I simply stood and watched her entire set, applauding at the end and dropping five pounds into the crumpled beret that lay at her feet.
“Thanks for that, mate,” she said distractedly as she zipped the canvas bag around her instrument.
“You’re very welcome.” I said. “Are you here tomorrow?”
She glanced around, amusement twinkling in her chocolate doe-eyes. “Probably,” she said, scooping up her beret and draping her guitar bag over her shoulder.
Within seconds she had disappeared into the melee of people hurrying for their trains, but she wouldn’t disappear from my thoughts. She and her haunting melodies were playing in my head for the rest of the day, all through the evening and even into my dreams.
The next morning I caught her act again, and the morning after that, all the way through to the end of the week.
“I’ve just thought,” I said to her on the Friday as she was tidying up her pitch. “I don’t recognise any of your songs. I haven’t heard them on the radio and never come across them in the clubs.”
She shook her head. “Nah, you won’t. I write my own. That last one, Try, Don’t Fly Away, I wrote about my last girlfriend who gave me a lot of grief.”
“So you’ve never recorded any of them?” She shook her head and carried on zipping her guitar bag.
“Do you fancy a coffee?” I said.
She looked up sharply, suspicion clouding her eyes.
“It’s not a come on, no agendas. I’m not trying to pull you.”
“If you were you’d be way off base.”
“Yes, I realize that. I just want to chat, that’s all. I used to be in the music business and I still have a lot of contacts. People who would love to hear your songs. Who knows where it could lead.”
She shook her head. “I’ll pass on the coffee,” she said.
“But my contacts?”
“I’ll sleep on it. Be here tomorrow. Saturday’s good for me. Lots of theatregoers, and people coming up to London for an evening out. I don’t start until two. Can you make that?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“I’ll let you have my answer then.”
Telling Jo that I used to be in the music business wasn’t a lie, but I may have made it sound grander than it actually was. When I left school at sixteen I got a job as a tea boy and gofer at Warner Brothers Records. From there I managed to get a position as a record plugger, spending the bulk of my days traipsing from radio stations to record shops and then on to more stations, trying to generate interest in whatever band, group or singer the company was trying to push that particular week. The gig lasted about two years until my woeful lack of success caught up with me and I was out on my ear. But I kept my involvement going by becoming a ligger, crashing as many parties and social events as I could, in the pursuit of free booze and food.
How, twenty years later, I found myself working for a PR company in Clerkenwell I can’t honestly say. I just sort of drifted into it, I suppose. But I kept my address book filled and I still had contacts in the music industry.
By mid-morning on Saturday I had called at least twenty of them and had a positive nibble from John Cain, the A&R man at Bulls Eye Records.
“Two o’ clock Saturday afternoon, sure, I’ll come along. It’s a late kick off at the Emirates so it’ll kill some dead time,” he told me.
“Stay in the background,” I said to him as we took the stairs down to the concourse. “She hasn’t agreed to meet you yet.”
“Are you pulling my plonker?” John said. “I thought this was legit. I don’t…”
“Shhh! Listen. That’s her.”
Jo was playing and singing.
I watched the expression on John’s face change from scepticism to wonder as he realised he was hearing something very special. “I’ll be invisible,” he said. “Just tip me the wink when she wants to talk.” He left me at the bottom of the stairs and lost himself in a crowd emerging from one of the platforms.
I caught Jo’s eye as I approached. She gave a half-smile and nodded at her beret on the ground which seemed to be half full already. I added a few more coins to encourage others and leaned against the wall to listen to her for a few more songs.
“Well?” I said to her during a break, as she sipped water from a much-refilled Perrier bottle. “Would you like to meet one of my contacts?”
She set the bottle down on the ground. “Yeah” she said. “Why not?”
I looked around and found John. He was standing in the entrance to the down line. I beckoned him over and made the introductions.
John was his usual garrulous self and had Jo laughing within seconds, charming her with his easy manner. It was almost a pleasure watching this ace bullshitter in full flight.
It wasn’t long before I realised I was surplus to requirements. “Well,” I said to Jo. “I guess I’ll leave you to it.”
She was still smiling as she nodded. “Thanks, Jeff. Catch you later.” And then John was talking again, spinning tales of record deals and bright futures.
I caught the tube back to my flat in Islington, wondering if I would see Jo and hear her beautiful voice ever again.
For three months there was only silence. She no longer visited her pitch at Kings Cross and I had no idea how else to contact her. So by the end of the quarter year Jo had slipped from my thoughts, becoming nothing more than a wonderful memory, kept alive by her songs that had become earworms of astonishing persistence.
And then, as August segued into September, I got a call early one Monday morning.
“Jeff, it’s John Cain. What are you doing, right at this moment?”
“Right at this moment I’m about to leave for work.”
“Bugger that. You need to get down to Bulls Eye, as fast as your feet can carry you.”
“You’ll see when you get here.”
“It’ll take me an hour at least,” I said.
“Fine. Just get here as soon as you can.” He rang off.
I called work and made an excuse why I wouldn’t be joining them today. It was unlike me to throw a sickie, but the urgency and excitement in John’s voice was enough to make me abandon my scruples. A few minutes later, I was heading down to the Angel underground station, to catch a train to the other side of London and the plush cube of concrete and glass that housed the offices of Bulls Eye Records.
“I’m here to see John Cain,” I said to the pretty girl sitting at the futuristic, Perspex reception desk.
“Is he expecting you?” she said, flashing a smile of professional non-commitment.
I told her he was and gave her my name.
She checked the clipboard on the desk in front of her. “Good news. You’re on the list.” The smile grew warmer as she pointed me in the direction of John’s office, along a corridor that led to the back of the building.
I was halfway along when a door to my left opened and a young woman rushed from the room, almost colliding with me. I raised my arms to stop the collision and held onto her shoulders. Dressed in a dark blue silk designer dress that hugged her slight figure, she certainly looked elegant, from her matching Jimmy Choos to the lustrous fair that was now dishevelled and falling across her face. “Sorry,” she stammered. “I didn’t see you there.”
She pushed her hair away from her face and I gasped. “Jo?”
Confusion flashed in those huge chocolate brown eyes.
I looked over her shoulder to the room beyond and caught a glimpse of photographic lights and a pale blue backdrop and, in the corner, a small console with an illuminated make-up mirror.
At the end of the hallway a door opened and John Cain appeared. “Jeff, my man!” he called.
I was still holding onto Jo’s shoulders. She glanced back at John silhouetted in the doorway, gave a violent shrug and broke free. “Just listen to it,” she hissed. “Then you’ll understand.”
“Wha… Jo! Let’s talk.” But she was running now, back along the corridor to the front of the building.
“What are you waiting for?” John called. “Come on. We have some serious celebrating to do.”
I was still watching Jo’s retreating back. At the entrance to the corridor she stopped and glanced back at me.
The look of unutterable sadness in those carefully made up doe eyes nearly broke my heart. “Sorry,” she mouthed and then she was gone, and I was being tugged into John’s office.
“Take a seat, take a seat.” He nearly pushed me into a leather office chair. As it swivelled round I got the full effect of the office decor.
Huge framed photographs of Jo hung from every wall. Gone was the Raggedy Anne doll who charmed me on the underground concourse. In her place was a smart, sophisticated young woman with long, glossy blonde hair tucked behind one ear in a casual but seductive manner. The clothes were catwalk pieces by
Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham.
John was talking. “…looks beautiful doesn’t she? What a find! What a voice! She’s going to be very rich…and make me rich in the process. I owe you a drink.” He set a bottle down on the desk in front of me. “By way of thanks.”
I picked up the bottle of thirty-year old malt and turned it over in my hands. “She looked upset.”
“Just now. Jo, she looked upset. Distraught.”
John shrugged. “She’s tired, that’s all. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for her these past few weeks. Photo sessions, interviews, recording her first album, She’s on Jools Holland later this week and she was having publicity shots for her first single today. The poor kid’s probably knackered.” He shrugged and opened the desk drawer taking out a CD in a plastic sleeve. “Advance copy,” he said with a grin. “Just for you.” He winked. “It comes out on Friday, and the industry buzz is electric.”
“Can I hear it?” I said.
He winked again, infuriatingly. “Sure thing.”
He went across to a player in the corner and slipped the disc into the slot. “Now just listen to this and tell me if you think you can spot a winner like I can.”
I sat back in the chair and closed my eyes as the familiar finger-picked into wafted out from the speakers.
Seconds later I propelled myself forward in the seat as a heavy dance beat obliterated the delicate opening and Jo’s vocals sounded for the first time, heavily sequenced and laden with Auto-tune.
“Phil Taylor!” John exclaimed as the track rolled on. “What a man. What a fucking brilliant producer.”
“He killed it,” I said, sinking back into my seat.
“Yeah, fucking nailed it!”
I shook my head. “No, that’s not what I mean. He’s killed the song. It was a ballad, a poignant love song about a difficult relationship.”
“Yeah, too sad. A real downer.”
“It was meant to be sad. That was the point.”
“And now it’s not. Now it’s chart friendly and will make us all a small, but richly deserved, fortune.”
I wanted to crack him in the mouth, to smash away that smug grin.
“Lighten up, Jeff. It’s what we wanted. It’s what she wanted.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.” I pushed myself out of the chair.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to find her.”
“Relax. She won’t have gone far. She’s under contract. She has an interview with Comso scheduled for eleven. She won’t be far away.”
I rushed out of the office and back to reception. There was no sign of her.
“Did you see where she went?” I said to the girl on the desk. “Jo? Did you see?”
“In there.” She pointed to a door marked LADIES.
Unconcerned about etiquette, I pushed open the door and stepped inside. “Jo? Jo?” The room was empty and my voice echoed hollowly off the walls. I looked about at the room, the feeling of unease that had been gnawing away at me since our encounter in the corridor now igniting into fiery panic.
And then I saw it, in one of the washbasins – an untidy heap of blonde hair. The extensions, so carefully applied and tended by professionals, now ripped from her scalp and dropped into the sink like a cluster of rats’ tails.
Above the washbasin was a mirror. Scrawled in crimson lipstick was a message.
JEFF, I’M SO SORRY BUT THEY MURDERED MY BABY AND STOLE ITS SOUL. JO X
I felt a light breeze on my cheek and looked up at the window in the wall. Caught on the hasp that secured the catch was a small patch of dark blue silk that had caught and been ripped for her dress as she climbed out to make her bid for freedom. Who could blame her? I mean really, who could blame her?
Princes Street, Edinburgh, fourteen days later.
The young woman unzips her guitar from its canvas bag, throws the strap over her shoulder and starts to pick out a melody. Her clothes are tatty – a faded, grey paisley dress, a holey black cardigan. Her feet are bare and her short blonde hair is a ragged mess, but she smiles as she sings. “Try, don’t fly away…”