It was pointed out to me today that I haven’t updated my blog in a while. The last few posts have been “novels and comics” updates, so it’s probably time to share another story with you.
This one’s called Missing Elvis. And it goes a little something like this….
Rosemary missed Elvis.
She had always missed him. That was the reason for this trip. The long coach down to London, the waiting at the airport, the shuffling through corridors, the aching hours sitting upright in her chair on the plane. More corridors but warmer now; another plane, smaller. All of this was because Rosemary had always missed Elvis.
It started when she was a girl, twelve years old, and whispers came of this American singer with a voice that Susan Upshott said was like Lyle’s Golden Syrup falling slowly off a spoon. Rosemary saw his picture before she heard him sing. Betty Lee had hidden a magazine under her coat and carried it right out of Woolworths before bursting into a run and finding them in the park. They crammed around it, reaching out, touching his face, his shirt, his jeans; pawed at him like cats curious about a dying bird. From that week on, they all took turns at stealing magazines, trading rumours of this picture or that feature or where he might turn up next.
She knew what he looked like but she wasn’t allowed to hear him sing. For two years, she fought her parents, and for two years the gramophone stayed in the hands of Glenn Miller and Perry Como. On her fourteenth birthday, they let her buy a record but by then there were so many that it was impossible to choose. She kept the money and bought cigarettes instead, practiced how to smoke them so she’d look the part when she and Elvis finally met. By the time she was sixteen and her parents had accepted that rock and roll was here to stay, the radio had stopped playing Elvis, forgotten him, moved on.
Rosemary never forgot. She studied the film listings for the cinema in the city, snuck away to catch the bus one Saturday, waited around for the film to start. Sitting back in her seat, she heard the first chords from his guitar, then the sound of shouting. Get out, get out! There was a fire in the fish and chip shop next door. The screening was stopped. Everyone out. She sat on a bench and cried until the bus came to take her home.
She ran away from home when she was sixteen and a half, hitchhiked her way to Prestwick to see him arrive on British soil. She got the dates wrong and arrived twenty-four hours too late, after everyone had left and Prestwick was once again a small patch of grey in the middle of a world of green.
Older, she settled in Ayr, the closest she could get to where he had once stood. She worked in a record store in town, borrowed records overnight, drowned herself in Elvis. They laughed at her, with their talk of bands from England, sounds from Tottenham and the Mersey, as if a sound could come from a place and not from a person. She didn’t care; she had Elvis and she was happy.
As the airport expanded, she got herself a job there, cleaning first of all, then supervising. She would spend her lunch break staring out at the tarmac, imagining the swoop of his plane as it came in to land, the spot where it came to a halt, the steps being wheeled out, the door opening and Elvis himself stepping out into a cold March night.
She married Allan who didn’t care for music, and divorced him when she realised he didn’t care for her. Bringing up the kids alone was tough; she’d work the days and then, at home, she’d settle down to listen to his songs only for one of them to cry or for both of them to fight. When the kids were older and the TV started showing Elvis’ films or his special Vegas concerts, there would be arguments again and Rosemary would lose. The TV was for other people. Everything was for other people.
She had missed Elvis her whole life, but this time it would be different. She’d been planning for two years, saving almost as long, and she’d booked herself this trip that would be hers and hers alone. As she sat on the plane, she realised she had nothing to do. No book to read. No newspaper. It was strange to have all this time to herself. No meals to prepare. No plasters to put on someone’s knee. No work to go to. Just her and the seat on the plane and the drinks that they brought on their trolleys. She borrowed a newspaper from a man across the aisle but couldn’t figure out a way to fold it without scrunching it or tearing it so handed it back once she’d read the covers.
Memphis was hot, noisy, an attack on the senses. She was wearing too many layers of clothes, straight from the Scottish summer, and she could feel her face blotching up with the heat. The cab was sticky, with a driver who spoke too fast for her to understand in an accent that sounded more Spanish than American. He asked her why she’d come to Memphis and when she said to see Elvis, he laughed and said it was all Star Wars and disco in Memphis these days, no-one was interested in the old stuff any more. Everything was Boogie Fever and robots going beep beep beep and there was no place for Elvis in any of that.
In the motel, she stripped naked and stood under the cold of a shower for as long as she could. She looked down at herself, saw the sags and the bags and wondered what Elvis would have thought of the sixteen year old Rosemary if she’d been there when he stepped off his Prestwick plane. Still, it had taken this long for a reason and whatever the reason was, this was the Rosemary that was here.
She took a taxi out to Graceland the following morning, as the full heat of the day started to build. It was a Tuesday and the rush hour traffic was choking the city, like liquid in its lungs. Outside the gates were security guards in sunglasses. Dogs prowled, ready. A handful of sightseers, a couple of photographers, a man selling t-shirts, formed a quiet gaggle across the street. Rosemary stepped out of her taxi, pushed her sunglasses on and walked away from them all, skirting the walls of the estate.
In a quiet street towards the back of the estate, she found what she was looking for: a dip in the wall, tree branches leaning down, a way in. She hauled herself up, knocking her sunglasses off her nose, cutting her hand. The jump down was higher than she thought and she hit the ground awkwardly, twisting her ankle beneath her. But she was in. And no-one had seen her. She was closer now than ever.
She walked towards the house. It was white in the morning sun. She looked at her pale skin, her white blouse, and wondered if she should have tried harder to blend in. This was starting to feel like a stupid plan. A plan that ended at the Memphis gates. She’d known exactly what she was doing right up until the point she’d climbed over the wall. Maybe she should have stayed outside, buying t-shirts, talking to the other fans, sharing stories of this record or that concert. No, she reminded herself: I have no stories to tell. To stand outside and listen to other people talking about when they first heard this song, or what they thought of that movie, is to remind myself of all the times in my life that I failed to hear or failed to see. It was to remember all the lost opportunities and missed appointments, the sinking depression of her marriage, the gradual disappointments of her children. It was to look back on a life that came to nothing much apart from putting up signs on slippery floors and spending her lunch breaks looking at the most important piece of tarmac she could name. Better to be here by myself and tell my own stories: to have listened to the records as they came, to have seen the movies, to have made it to Prestwick, to have overthrown Priscilla and stolen the heart of the king, to have held his hand in Vegas, to have calmed his comeback nerves, to have helped him with his troubles and to have his arm around my shoulders as we walk these gardens now.
Rosemary smiled to herself, lit a cigarette, stared up at the building in front of her. Dreams. You can be safe in dreams.
At an upstairs window, there was a shadow in the light. She held her hand up above her face, tried to see. It was Elvis. It was him.
She lifted her hand, waved, dropped cigarette ash in her hair. Stupid. Stupid, she muttered to herself. She dropped the cigarette to the floor, stubbed it out, looked up at him again. He was watching her, his arms folded, his head tilted slightly to one side. She raised her hand again and waved. He raised his hand and waved back.
And then he was gone.
She stood in silence, staring at the window, her hand half up, half down. All morning, through the silence; then in the afternoon, as the shouting started and the sirens came. She stood to the sounds of adults weeping and the screams of the little girl. She stood as the vans and the cars massed outside the walls, heard the gates opening and closing and the shutters of cameras, caught the flickers of flashbulbs at the edges of her eyes. Only when the sun had set and she felt darkness embracing the lights of the house did she let herself move. Her skin sunburnt. Blisters on her feet. Her back sore. She had come to see Elvis and now it was time to go.
Rosemary takes the trip every year now. She’s finished at the airport, got a pension. Sold the house and moved to somewhere smaller. She’s saved enough to go another seven times.
Each year she goes to Graceland, stands at that spot on the lawn, looks up at the window and waves.
She still misses Elvis.