It was with a considerable degree of anticipation that I approached the flickering porch-light of the withered and rain-lashed building standing alone deep within the rolling hills of Rayleigh. Sagging under the weight of water, my clothing hung heavy as I fought my way through the last dozen or so squelchy footsteps leading to the doorway. Here, standing beneath the flickering bulb, I prized apart my frozen fingers and let the dead weight of the carrier bag fall to the floor. As it landed with a dull, meaty thud I glanced down at my feet. As expected, all manner of mud and God only knows what clung to my ankles in sodden and miserable clumps. The suit would need to be dry cleaned. South Essex was experiencing its worst storm since '87 and Rayleigh had certainly not been spared the full treatment. Only a fool would be out and about in conditions as damn rotten as these at this time of night. Only a fool. Or me. Was I a fool? I just didn't know anymore. Standing there, propped against that creaking wooden handrail, the only thing I'd been certain of was that I'd needed to make it to that lonesome old building even if it meant it was the last thing I ever did. For I had received a most peculiar and unexpected invitation earlier that day, deposited through my letterbox by hand. By some unknown hand. Some unknown human hand.
The small amber envelope was by far the most attractive envelope I had ever seen; decorated with the most fragile, achingly beautiful ink work. Alone in the hallway, for the briefest of moments I felt as though I would burst into tears. It really was an exceptional envelope. After breaking the wax seal, I carefully removed and unfolded the contents. In keeping with the pristine appearance of the envelope itself, this was a folded sheet of the finest A4 paper. By God, I had never seen a piece of paper like this, let alone had the privilege of holding a specimen in my own hands. This was luxurious stationery. I must confess that it seemed a shame to me that a piece of paper like this should ever be folded, but I made a decision not to dwell too much on this. My breathing slowed as I set about the delicate task of unfolding the paper, taking extra care so as not to inflict any further damage upon the sheet. Safely unfolded, my breathing halted altogether as my eyes focussed on the message scribed onto the surface. Comic Sans. I read the message again, and again once more, this time letting out a great gasp as my brain finally took it in. Not only had I been invited to a rehearsal by the popular indie pop band, the Peppermint Apes, but it was to be one of their legendary scheduled songwriting sessions no less!
I know I know, I could scarcely believe it either. But there it was, right there in my hands; I was the lucky fan drawn at random and chosen to observe their next magical, near-mythical songwriting session. All misty eyed, I would look on as the boys traded riffs, chops and the like all in the name of creation. In pursuit of sweet indie pop gold. I would bear witness to the birth of a song... a real living, breathing work of art... perhaps, even a Stanton Special.
The session would be taking place that very evening and, come rain or shine, the show would go on. The Peppermint Apes took their songwriting sessions incredibly seriously. The invitation informed me of the terms by which I must adhere to, in order that I be garnered a safe entry to the Apezone by their long-standing manager, Colin. I was to come alone, dressed in evening attire - top and tails, carrying a cane. It was also made very clear that Stanton - Ryan Stanton, the Peppermint Apes' charismatic frontman and chief songwriter - would expect two things from me upon my arrival; the first of which would be a frozen chicken, fully thawed, and the second, that I, as an observer, should refrain from making eye contact throughout the evening. Eye contact with the other members was actively encouraged, but any eye contact made with Ryan could potentially "distort the concept". In all honesty I found this to be a little disconcerting but, hey, if it meant that he could bang out another belter like Be My Friend or the extraordinary Dancefloor Hero then who was I to judge? Anyway, I was to arrive at their secluded rehearsal facility (the Apezone) at precisely 21:00. After this time the onlooker (me) would be refused entry. However, and perhaps tellingly, Ryan would still expect the chicken.
With numb hands I just about managed to locate the bulge of my phone residing in my trouser pocket. Grasping it was a fairly difficult task but eventually I gained some purchase and was able to slide it free from the deep, damp, velvety confines of the pocket. Prodding at the front like some kind of simpleton I disturbed at least one button, causing the screen to light up and the time to become visible. I squinted and made out 20:57. I'd done it. Against all odds and in this weather I'd only gone and bloody well done it. Tonight I was going to witness the Peppermint Apes rehearsing, creating, in their own space. I was incredibly pleased with myself. So pleased with myself in fact that the time quickly became 20:58. Seeing this, I wasted no further time in climbing the two remaining steps and ringing the buzzer.
Above the muffled din of sporadic noise that I took to be the Apes setting up, I heard the harsh sound of the electric buzzer ringing out inside. After several seconds I decided to ring again - after all, what with all that racket they mightn't have heard the doorbell. Now, I would be lying if I said that I didn't begin to worry a little at this point. I am, after all, a compulsive worrier. It's what I do... but, just as I readied myself for a third attempt, and just as I began to entertain the possibility that I had come all this way for nothing, a shadow appeared behind the frosted glass and began to grow larger and darker as a figure approached. With a creak, the door cracked open a few inches - just enough for this figure to reveal their face to me. It was a man. Late forties, early fifties perhaps, but definitely, unmistakably, a man.
'Yes?' The man seemed to regard me with deep suspicion, squinting at me through a confused facial expression that seemed to suggest that he hadn't been expecting any visitors. I was caught rather off-guard by this and found myself becoming a little flustered. Was this Colin?
'Oh, hi, erm... I'm here to watch the - here, I've got the envelo -'
'Did you bring the chicken?' He cut me down.
'The chicken? Yes, yes of course, it's just here,' I said, pointing to the carrier bag on the step.
'Excellent. Ryan will be pleased,' said the man who I presumed was Colin as he shot me a charming smile. A winning smile if ever I saw one. He then asked if I wouldn't mind terribly going back down to the bottom step. Granted, it seemed a peculiar request but I felt that Colin & I had hit it off quite well by this point and so I was quite happy to go along with this little request. Carefully I moved back down to the bottom step. Once I was there, Colin opened the door just enough so that he could slip out and then, with several nimble-footed steps he darted out onto the old creaking porch, swooped down and snatched the carrier bag in one swift movement, before retreating once more into the building and closing the door. Colin had taken the chicken. I rang the buzzer again in disbelief. No answer. This was absurd. What the deuce was going on here?
After what felt like a solid fifteen minutes of standing there ringing that doorbell and being battered from all sides by the bitter cold wind, I resigned myself to the sober realisation that I wouldn't be seeing the Apes rehearse tonight after all. This felt like more than just a defeat to me. It felt like the most inglorious insult of them all. And this after I'd made so much effort too; that's what hurt the most. I'd traipsed through fields desperately trying to cling on to this bloody hat - not to mention this fucking cane - and, ultimately, it was all for nothing. I felt used.
I stumbled back down the steps and out onto the boggy ground. It wasn't a particularly pleasant journey ahead of me, but there was no sense in waiting around and prolonging it any further. The sooner I got started, the sooner it would all be over. But, in any case, the evening wasn't a complete write-off yet; I'd still be home long before the witching hour, where I could bathe, brew up a fresh pot of tea and settle down with my well-worn copy of Against the Wall, thinking about what might have been. Yes, dear reader, that's right - I was in no mind to give up on the Apes over some trivial mishap. Plus, I'm sure that there was a plausible explanation for the night's disappointment. There just had to be.
With one deep breath I summoned up enough will to move. If anything, the weather was getting worse as I made my first tentative footsteps away from the doorway. The foul excuse for the ground seemed intent on swallowing my feet whole with each step that I took, only to reluctantly let go with a grotesque slurping squelch. Here, cocking my head to one side against the howling wind, I became aware of an insistent sound; a low guttural droning coming from nearby. Rounding the corner of the building I saw an open window. Whatever was making the noise, it was making it in there. I mean, I could see without getting close that there was no way in Hell I could get through the gap, but it was open enough for the sound from inside to reach me. I crept as carefully as I could towards the window, spotting two medium-sized upturned wooden crates strewn on the nearby grass illuminated by the light spilling from the window. I smiled to myself as I realised that maybe my luck hadn't ran out after all. Maybe that bath could wait. If my calculations were correct - and I had no reason to believe they weren't - then that was the Apes in there. Oh, but this noise! It really was the most unusual frequency. Fluctuating. Some kind of humming. A low humming, and not just one voice either, but many voices. Many voices humming in unison. It was a queer sensation indeed and, frankly, it left me feeling a trifle uneasy - even more so when I reached the window and discovered that it was slightly too high for me to see through. I could just about make out the tops of several heads but nothing else. Using the two wooden crates as a makeshift ladder, I was able to haul myself up and finally see through the window. What I saw then made very little sense to me. In many ways I wish that I hadn't seen it either. I wish that my life could just return to how it was... I wish it could return to how... how it was before I glimpsed the Peppermint Apes' scheduled songwriting session.
I saw flesh. Naked flesh. The room itself was brightly illuminated, bathed in an intense yellowish glow. Aged tungsten I guessed. Furniture-wise, it was bare, save for the equipment that the band had set up around the edges. Some nice kit there too. I could make out a couple of Orange stacks - not cheap, let me tell you! But then, of course, this was the Peppermint Apes, and the equipment was befitting for a band of their stature - as well as a solid array of guitars. In particular I could see Ryan's Telecaster leaning against a doorway. If I hadn't been so engrossed in what the Apes themselves were doing I could have looked at the Telecaster standing there all night. It probably goes without saying, but he wrote All She Needs on that very guitar.
Almost the entire floorspace had been cleared, leaving the dirty floorboards exposed to the sickly yellow glow from the bare bulb hanging overhead. The four lesser members were standing motionless, stripped to the waists and with their heads bowed, in a square formation, each one facing into the centre of the room. Ryan was curiously absent. There must've been around five or six feet of distance between each Ape and, though it was obscured by one of the figures - the keyboard player I think, I could just about make out that there was a presence of sorts in the centre of the square. The Apes were just standing there; half-naked, inanimate objects, deep in concentration and humming. It was a chilling sight to behold. You know, I'd never been exposed to this kind of thing before, but I was fairly certain that all four of them were in a trance of some kind. I wanted to look away but found that I couldn't break my gaze. Whatever it was that held them together in rapture seemed to be catching. I was helpless; no matter how hard I tried to turn away, my eyes were violently drawn to the scene unfolding before me. All of a sudden I heard the sound of wood splintering and felt my footing begin to give way. The crates shifted ever so slightly beneath me, distracting me enough to break my gaze. I seized upon this and jumped back down to the ground. Immediately I began to wonder what on Earth they doing in there, and, more importantly, what was at the centre of the room?
I could quite easily have left it at that and made my way home at this point. Certainly the helplessness I'd felt whilst staring through the window had given me more than enough cause for concern. If anything, I'd felt hyper-aware of my surroundings at the time, just unable to act upon impulse. It felt almost as if I'd fallen under the influence of a heavy anaesthetic. Or maybe it was some form of hallucinogenic - I must confess, Colin did look the type. Regardless, my interest had been well and truly piqued and it was my damnedest intention to return to my vantage point. Whatever was happening within the Apezone, I didn't want to miss it. And so, with a mixture of mounting excitement and impending dread, I re-arranged the crates in a slightly different fashion that would allow my weight to be supported more evenly, and then returned to my previous position upon high.
The four lesser Apes were now rotating clockwise around the object in the centre of the room in a slow shuffle. Heads still bowed and humming, with their arms down by their sides and eyes closed, each one made tiny, barely perceptible, rhythmic steps to their left. Still partially obscured - this time by the hirsute band member - my heart pounded as the object in the centre of the room was gradually revealed.
To my utter surprise, it was Ryan - Ryan Stanton, the charismatic lead singer and chief songwriter of the Peppermint Apes - fully naked and sitting on what appeared to be, and in fact was, a small blue plastic child's potty. This was comfortably the strangest and most unexpected thing that I had ever seen. He looked so peaceful perched there with his eyes closed and a look of pure content on his face. In lesser hands it would have just seemed a bizarre thing for a grown man to be doing, but in Ryan's hands it was more than that. Much more. It was beautiful.
Transfixed and rooted to the spot, I found myself once again unable to look away. Ryan appeared to be in a state of trance, much like his fellow Apes. As his bandmates continued to circle him, like satellites orbiting some unknown planet, I noticed the slightest twitch in the delicate tissue beneath his eyes. Something was happening. The twitching then began to increase in frequency, conspiring with the light from above his head and causing eerie shadow formations to dance across his face. Before long the twitching became a full-blown frenzy. A full-blown dog-gone twitching frenzy. At the same time, and somehow sensing this despite having their eyes closed, his fellow Apes began to hum louder, and louder still. Then the humming abruptly came to an end and silence filled the room. My brain had barely adjusted to this when suddenly the humming broke out again with an intensity only hinted at previously. It had jumped an octave and become far more dissonant. I swear to God that I felt the air itself change. Some kind of energy abounded. It felt like anything could happen now; that something fundamental had changed and thousands, if not millions, or even an infinite number of possibilities had opened before us.
Things were moving so fast now. Without warning, Ryan's face jerked violently upwards and faced the bulb. His features had been twisted until they resembled a somewhat grotesque parody of a human face. Even from where I was standing I could make out the throbbing veins protruding from the skin of his neck and temples. Though he remained firmly perched on the potty, his legs had thrust forward and out into the air. Likewise his arms had risen from their previous position of resting upon his thighs. His outstretched fingers vibrated with tension. The band circled ever faster as Ryan's body succumbed to spasm. The bulb began to flicker, momentarily plunging the scene into darkness and then flooding it with light again - almost like a strobe light, with each blast of yellow light revealing the bare hunched form of his body twisted in yet another uncomfortable spasm of pain. Ryan was reaching climax. I watched on with horror as his face froze into a final grimace of pain. With this, and as one, the band fell silent and ceased their rotation.
Ryan slumped lifelessly forward. Clearly still breathing, his body had now completely relaxed, causing the backs of his hands to rest against the floor. I stifled a small chuckle as it struck me that he now resembled a real primate sitting there in that state. The climax had clearly taken a lot out of the lad and he remained this way for several minutes. The slow heaving of his chest was the only movement in the room as the four lesser Apes continued to hold court in silence, heads bowed.
Minutes passed until the silence was shattered by the sound of a single bugle blast. I looked to the doorway where, unexpectedly, Colin had reappeared with the raw chicken carcass on a silver tray. He proceeded to cross the room, weaving around the lesser Apes on the way, until he reached the sleeping Stanton. With another display of deft footwork, he delicately placed the tray between Ryan's feet and within seconds the aroma of the poultry had woken the lad from his slumber. He slowly got to his feet; rubbing at his eyes, shaking his head and stretching as he did so. One more precise bugle blast from Colin was enough to rouse the four lesser Apes. Satisfied, he then left the room, once more taking the chicken and leaving each Ape yawning and rubbing at their eyes as though they'd just woken from the deepest of sleeps. As they did so, Ryan steadied himself, glanced down at the potty and then smiled. Excitedly, he then beckoned his fellow Apes to join him in surveying the contents of the blue plastic receptacle. What followed was a great deal of back-slapping, whooping and laughter amongst the Apes. The keyboard player gave a high five to the guitar player and then the pair of them hugged. The bass player just stood there, eyes wide, shaking his head. Whatever it was, he just couldn't believe it. Hearing all the commotion, Colin darted back through the doorway and joined the five Apes.
Once the excitement had died down, Ryan gestured for the lesser Apes to back away. Only Colin remained by his side as he gravely knelt down to grasp the small brown steaming pellet-like object that had been deposited inside the bowl of the potty. The other four Apes looked on in wonder as he then rose to his feet holding the brown object aloft. "Behold, the concept!" he cried, nodding his head and looking in to the eyes of each Ape in turn. At the sight of this, the Apes burst into applause once more. The bassist broke into a smile and began to shake his head again.
Ryan cautiously placed the brown pellet inside the palms of Colin's cupped hands. Once in his possession, Colin brought the object slowly to his face, savouring the moment as he inspected the mottled surface at close quarters. Looking more than satisfied with the appearance and odour of the brown object, Colin then appeared to crumble the pellet between his fingers, revealing at its core a small piece of material. It was hard to be 100% sure at the time, but it looked to me to be a small scrap of paper. But no! Far from being merely some small scrap of paper, this was yet another dazzling example of the finest A4 - only this time it had been folded, beautifully folded. Colin delicately prized open the soiled document, proudly smiled to himself for another job well done, before turning the sheet over and thrusting it high in the air for all the of Apes to see.
And there it was. Comic Sans. The words Smile For Me.