Disclaimer: I don't own anything or anybody from Life on Mars, nor do I own any of the song arrangements/lyrics mentioned. Anything quoted follows fair use guidelines. And despite the title, the following has nothing whatever to do with Bruce Springsteen, though he was on the music scene by the early '70s and had put out Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey.
But I digress. This story just pounced on me as I was working on everything else, notably a revision of chapter 3 of my latest Ashes to Ashes fic, "The Heart of a Lion." Then it sat on the shelf for a while until I could deal with the rough spots. The final inspirational push came courtesy of theHuntgoeson (author of many A2A stories, including "The Beginning of an Era" and "Burning Inside").
Dedicated to John, for a life well lived, and to Jan, who believes in living in the moment.
Alcohol was a depressant; Sam knew that. Given his state of mind, the day he'd had, a night in the pub was probably the mother of all bad ideas.
Yet here he was in the Railway Arms, more or less attached to the bar, a pint of bitter in front of him and Gene Hunt, deep into another full frontal assault on the liver, standing by his side.
They were a pair, weren't they - the guv leaving his missus on her tod, as usual, and Sam keeping his distance from Annie, though she was just over in the corner, parked at a table with Phyllis, both of them talking almost without a pause, for all the world like Mum and Auntie Heather. Wholly at ease, relaxed.
Of course Phyllis hadn't been the one to have words with Annie that morning, and then an entire day's worth of terse exchanges and tense silences. And now, amid the hum of conversation in the pub - particularly the rise and fall of the women's voices, and occasional laughter - Sam's loneliness deepened, even if he did have the guv for company.
The record that was playing wasn't helping much, either; it was Harry Nilsson's cover of "Without You." A bit of Gilbert O'Sullivan might have been even more depressing, of course, or perhaps some Billy Paul, but as '70s music went, it was pretty lethal.
No, I can't forget this evening or your face as you were leaving...
Sheer mockery, too. Maya could live without him, had proven as much, had left him behind with just a few words to salve her guilty conscience.
You always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows..
Guilty? Guilty of what? For all she knew, he was never coming back. In fact he'd left her - not intentionally, of course, but he was no longer present, not to Maya. She had reached him, and he'd had to listen to every word, yet couldn't respond in kind. A prisoner of his own body, that's what he was.
And quite possibly of Stockholm Syndrome. Maya and the old life were slipping away, and this new one - if it even was a life - was laying claim to him. Parts of his former reality came through at times, like a radio signal, and then faded away just as quickly. But it was his present existence that dominated - with the cigarette smoke, the tinny recordings, that god-awful bedsit.
Sam ran his hand along the bar, gripped the edge of it. It felt real enough to him. Maybe he was staying. Maybe he was never going back. Maybe this was -
From the corner came a guttural laugh - Phyllis's, of course, but Sam could see Annie was giggling too, even if he couldn't hear her.
"Oi! Keep it down!" barked the guv. "Trying to do some serious drinking here." Phyllis pulled a face, while Gene turned his attention back to his whisky glass and caught Sam in the midst of telegraphing an apologetic smile to Annie.
"Mind your pint. Someone'll nick it while you're pouring oil on troubled waters there, Sammy Boy." Gene glanced at Annie, then back at Sam. "Blimey, you really 'aven't 'ad your leg over yet, 'ave you?"
"Guv, she's a colleague. Have a little respect."
"Respect?" The guv snorted. "That include taking nice long looks at your colleague's tits?"
"Oh, give it a rest," muttered Sam. One yank and Gene had dragged him all the way back to the Neanderthal 1970s, only Sam wasn't certain he had energy enough for them. Not tonight.
"Mind you, with all that respect," said the guv, stubbing out his cigarette, "Cartwright might just get tired of waiting for you to rise to the occasion, and find 'erself a bloke who can."
"It's not like that. And she's not like that."
"You know what the Good Book says," said Nelson, who had overheard the entire exchange.
"'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,'" said Gene, without missing a beat.
"That's not the verse I was thinking of, man."
Sam decided to humor Nelson. "What verse were you thinking of, then?"
"'Who can find a virtuous woman?'" intoned the barman, meeting Sam's eye. "'For her price is far above rubies.'"
"They come a bit cheaper in Manchester," said Gene.
"He said a virtuous woman, Guv."
"Got a smile out of you, though, didn't it?" said the DCI. "About time. You've been miserable as sin all day.
"Go on, then," he went on, jerking his head towards Annie and Phyllis's table. "Join 'em. Little girly talk will get you sorted."
"Leave it, Guv."
"Right." Gene set his glass back on the bar. "Watch this space, Nelson. There's a good lad." He turned back to Sam. "If you're still 'ere when I get back, it's your shout." He set off in the direction of the gents'.
"He's right, you know," said Nelson, as soon as Gene was out of earshot.
"I said the guv's right." Nelson had dropped the Jamaican accent. "You should go over there."
"Nah. Don't want to be a gooseberry. Best to give her a bit of space."
"Space," snorted Nelson. "What should she do with space?" He lowered his voice. "I like that girl. She's good for you, man. Don't you go pushing her away."
Sam sighed. "I don't know."
"What don't you know?" Nelson pressed him.
"What I'm even doing here."
"Look around this room," said Nelson. "You think anyone here has the slightest idea what he's doing?"
"No, I meant - "
"I know what you meant. You're asking a serious question, and they're all just getting drunk.
"But you've got to love the questions, mon brave. Like Rilke said."
"Rilke?" Nelson never failed to astonish, quoting first the Bible, then - who exactly was Rilke? A philosopher? Sam couldn't recall anyone by that name.
"So what would 'Rilke' have to say about all this?"
"You just carry on," said Nelson, wiping a glass. "No other way to find the answers." He looked at Sam intently. "And don't be impatient with yourself.
"Go on," he said, nodding his head in Annie's direction. "Talk to her."
"Well, I'd best be getting me skates on," announced Phyllis, getting up from the table.
"Got something on for tonight, then?" said Chris.
"Oh, aye," said Ray, winking. "Spot of geriatric romance in the back row."
"Better that than this bird's-eye view of Wankers Anonymous of Greater Manchester."
The beginnings of raucous laughter died a swift and ignominious death as first Ray, then Chris, then everyone else took a sudden interest in lighting cigarettes and taking mouthfuls of bitter, and only Nelson and Sam were left grinning.
"Right. I'll be off, Annie, love," said Phyllis, putting on her coat. "Mind yourself, round this lot."
Sam waited till the door had closed before he picked up his drink - ahead of the guv's return, but just barely - and walked over to where Annie was sitting.
"Like some company?"
Rather diffidently Sam took a seat at the table, and he and Annie sat there till the silence grew painful, and he decided to get one subject, and conversation, out of the way.
"Look, Annie, what I said earlier - "
"Sam, I didn't join the force so you could wrap me up in cotton wool." There was just enough strain in her voice to suggest that maybe she'd minded his words more than she wanted to let on, and just enough steeliness to caution him not to overdo it.
"I never thought that. It was just - well, I was out of order. I'm sorry."
"All right, then." The expression in her eyes softened, and she almost smiled. "So, am I your escape route?"
"From the guv," said Annie, nodding in Gene's direction.
Sam grinned. "Seems he's had enough male bonding for one evening. Either that or he thinks I'm mad to hold up the bar with him while you're sitting here."
"Flattery doesn't suit you, Sam."
"I'm sorry - no, I'm not sorry. I just wanted to talk to you."
"Nothing really. Just to schmooze."
"Just to what?"
"Look, Annie, it's been a strange few days, and I may not be the best company right now, but I desperately need to talk to someone sane."
Wrong words. Definitely the wrong words. Another look of frustration crossed Annie's face, settled there. "Now you're just taking the mick."
Right. Let's try this again. "I'm not. I mean it."
"You can stay, then."
"Good." For want of anything else to say, he added, "So...can I get you the same again?"
Sam got up to fetch Annie another drink, and felt better just to be doing something, anything. As he was walking back to the table he noticed a new record was playing; someone had thought to put on "My Back Pages" by the Byrds.
"That certainly put a smile on your face."
"You came back smiling. Did Nelson tell you it's on the house or something?"
"No, no. It's the song. I love this song."
On his iPod Sam had Dylan's 30th anniversary concert version of "My Back Pages," with Roger McGuinn again, of course, but also Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Neil Young. They'd done every verse that time, with each man taking a solo, and Clapton's guitar cutting through it all like a knife. Just brilliant.
Of course Dylan himself had been completely unintelligible.
"I've always liked it too," said Annie, smiling a bit wistfully. "Though I could never make out most of the words, just the chorus - 'I was so much older then' and all that."
So much older then. Harrison had died, Sam remembered suddenly. End of 2002, it was – no, 2001. It had been 2001. Or was it 2003? Any road, another annus horribilis for the books.
Right. Back to 1973. Annie was sipping her drink and the bridge to "My Back Pages" was bouncing along. Really, for a song about loss of innocence, it certainly was a guileless enough reading. Just when had it been that people became so self-consciously ironic and jaded? Sometime between the '70s and the '90s, perhaps.
Look at Graham Bathurst and Charley Witham. She was so sweet...We were courting. Artless. Innocent. Almost beautiful, really. But someone had come along to shatter it all. Couldn't leave them alone.
Then again, perhaps even if everyone had left them alone, it still might have gone wrong. Kids, teenagers - they didn't change, and it didn't matter if it was 1972 or 2006. Things had started out simply enough for Charley and Graham, but they wouldn't have stayed that way, not a chance. A little boredom, a few raging hormones would have seen to that.
No romantic past, then. No innocent times, only ignorance, then disillusionment.
Innocence. Ignorance. The paradise of a child - and it was a shoddy paradise. But was he thinking of Graham and Charley, or his own family?
Sam wished he didn't know. Or he was glad the scales had fallen from his eyes. Which was it, then? And which had been worse, holding on to hope, or having it die? Never finding out, or finding out once and for all? Waiting for his dad to come home, or discovering why he hadn't come, and what he was? Oh, God, what he was.
Sam. Sam, if you can hear me -
He's not responding.
"Hm?" He started, and looked across the table at Annie.
"You were miles away," she said, her tone blending exasperation and indulgence.
"Sorry." Truth to tell, he had been. Hide those bad feelings away, Sam.
"Don't know why I bother sometimes," went on Annie.
"Sorry," said Sam again. "It's just I've been distracted the past few days."
She regarded him across the table, then smiled. "Well, make sure it's not your whole life."
"What's not my whole life?"
"Not fair. I take my job very seriously -"
"I didn't mean the job, Sam," said Annie, still smiling, though the edge was back in her voice. "I meant you, always wanting to be somewhere else."
That was fair, and Sam couldn't think of any defense.
"So you're saying live in the moment. Be mindful. Like the Buddhist monks."
"You don't have to go that far," said Annie, visibly relaxing. "Just join us here on Planet Earth."
"Whatever we were put here for." Maybe that was a line of conversation worth pursuing. "Why do you think we were, at that?"'
"Why were we what?"
"Put here. In this life."
Annie evidently hadn't expected him to spring that on her, but she rose to the challenge. "To get the job done."
"I thought you didn't want to talk about work."
"All right, then," she said, with her usual smile. "To do some good. Make a difference."
"Be close to someone," she said, a little less firmly. "Lo- -"
She stopped herself then, but he had a pretty clear notion of what she'd been about to say, not that she was going to give him a chance to tease her about it. "So what about you?" she said, picking up her glass again.
"What about me?"
"Why do you think we're here? What's your answer to the big question?"
Sam smiled, a bit sadly. "I don't have one. None at all."
"I won't laugh."
It had all been so easy, Sam decided, once he and Annie had faced up to the tension between them. After that first bloody awkward conversation, things had been put right, though he still didn't quite trust himself not to screw them up again. So he'd got Annie talking about her university days - easy enough, and all he had to do was listen, was to be there for her.
"Well, we were meant to be Martha and the Vandellas. So I did me hair up to here," Annie giggled, holding her hand about a foot above her head. "Got into a very short dress and a pair of white boots."
"I'd like to see that."
"Yeah, well, you never will," said Annie right back. "I've got rid of the all photographs.
"So we went onstage, and someone started the record, 'Heatwave' -
His temperature has been elevated for a while now, sir. We can't seem to bring it down.
It's the infection, and his compromised immune system. Still unresponsive in every other regard?
I'm afraid so, sir, though his mother was in earlier and thought she saw a change. Poor woman. I didn't want to get her hopes up.
Still, no harm in carrying on.
Sam. Sam. Can you hear me, Sam?
"Sam. Sam. Sam."
Once again he started, just as though he'd been jolted awake from a deep sleep. "Hot," he muttered, taking off his jacket. "Too hot -"
"Is it the fever again?" Annie put a hand against his forehead - an automatic gesture, given her training, but even so Sam was startled back into consciousness, and more.
"No fever." Annie moved her hand to the side of his face, left it there a moment. "But you're a little warm."
"It's this place," said Sam, rubbing his temples. "Got to get out of this place."
"That's a song too," said Annie, smiling again. "Only it's 'we.'"
"'We Gotta Get Out of This Place.' Eric Burdon and the Animals. Don't you remember it?"
"No," said Sam honestly.
"No?" said Annie, incredulous. "Where have you been, Sam?"
"Here and there. You're a regular little Top of the Pops girl, aren't you?" said Sam affectionately. "But I do have to get out of this place, Annie," he added.
At that her expression in her eyes changed again. "Back to Hyde?"
"No, out of here. The pub." An inspiration hit. "I thought we could stop for something – Chinese, maybe, or Indian," he went on. "Anything you fancy." He could feel his face burning again, this time with embarrassment.
It seemed to take Annie forever to consider his offer, too. "You buying, then?" she said, with a slow smile.
"Absolutely. My shout."
"All right. Just give me a minute."
Annie got up from the table and Sam, left alone for a moment, noticed the record had changed again - Stealers Wheel this time,"Stuck in the Middle with You."
Well, I don't know why I came here tonight.
I've got the feeling that something ain't right...
Sam drank the last of his pint and got to his feet. The guv was still at the bar, had hardly moved a muscle since he got back from the gents'. God, what a life.
"You've done it now, Tyler," said Gene as Sam came over to him. "Drove Cartwright away. I reckon it's that little black raincloud always right above your head," he added, emphasizing the last words with a stabbing motion.
"No, no, she's coming back. In fact we were just leaving."
"Not wasting any time, then. Good work."
Sam grinned at the guv's one-track mind, this time with amused indulgence rather than irritation. "Nah, we're only going for a Chinese. Or maybe a curry."
Gene looked back over his shoulder at Sam. "And that's a fair warning to beware your dodgy digestive systems on the morrow, is it?"
"What? No, no." Sam looked at Gene, still hunched over the bar and his whisky glass. Same as always, yet tonight it seemed all wrong. "In fact, if you wanted to join us - "
"Join you!" For a minute Gene's expression was truly unreadable. "Erm, no. Missus'll have something waiting on the table when I get 'ome."
"Just thought I'd ask."
In that moment Annie, who'd fetched her jacket, came to join them at the bar. She looked to Sam. "All right?"
Gene wasn't done with them yet. "If he starts in moaning again, petal, and making a bloody nuisance of himself, you know where your knee goes."
Annie cast a look at Sam, and for a moment he thought she was back to putting up her guard, but she just smiled, then said to the guv, "I think I have everything under control, sir."
"Good girl. Now go off and enjoy yourselves," said Gene. "Go on, get out of this place. See you in the morning."
"Good night, sir."
They stepped outside the pub, properly alone for the first time all evening. Just Annie and Sam.
She was so sweet...sweet as a summer apple...
Only they weren't kids anymore, were they? They'd seen too much, been hurt too much.
Still, Sam thought to himself, did every decent, beautiful thing in life have to end? He was beyond innocence but not hope. He was willing to cling to hope. He had to.
And Annie was right, he decided. There was nothing for it but to try to make a difference. To believe in what you were doing. To trust the people around you.
Best to get on with it, like Nelson had told him. And the guv.
How many choices were there, anyway? Only one: to keep getting out of bed every morning, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep going out and doing the job.
He didn't hate all of it, not at all. The only thing for it was to keep experimenting, keep improvising, keep remaking the song until at last he got it right.
A/N: Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" was copyrighted in 1964 by Warner Bros., Inc., with the copyright subsequently renewed in 1992 by Special Rider Music.
"Without You" was written by Peter Ham and Tom Evans. No copyright infringement is intended.
"Stuck in the Middle with You" was written by Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty. No copyright infringement is intended.
As for what Nelson is talking about to Sam, surely everyone reading this has at some point stumbled on the following quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
If not, now you have.