Rebecca Johnson felt uneasy as soon as she entered the pub, one of Exeter’s finest, and walked across to the bar, her guitar case strapped to her back. She was in the city for two days of business meetings with a single overnight stop, and she’d been looking forward to this evening as one of the highlights of her visit. But the place just didn’t have the atmosphere she expected for a supposed folk night. Where were the instrument cases, music stands and microphones? Where were the usual clusters of slightly hippy-looking people talking animatedly about chords, the Mumfords, the merits of a fiddle, Bob Dylan and whether lyrics were more important than melody or vice-versa? She stood hesitantly and looked down the length of the bar. A body-free area in front of the handpumps showed an oatmeal stout was available, her favourite tipple. She caught the eye of the solitary bar worker and ordered a pint, took a sip and looked around again. Had she missed something on her first glance? Not really. The punters looked as far removed from folk musicians as before; maybe even more so. She turned back to the barman, returning from the till with her change.
‘Where’s the folk club?’
He scratched his head. ‘That was last night, love. They shifted it forward a night at the start of the year.’
‘But it’s still advertised as the first Thursday of the month on their website.’
‘That’s internet stuff for you. Never gets updated, does it? No, it’s mostly the parole group in tonight. They’ve just finished their support meeting in the council room along the street, so most of them pop in for a quick drink before heading off.’
Rebecca froze. ‘Parole? Do you mean these are released criminals, just out of prison?’
‘I’d keep your voice down, love. You wouldn’t want to cause friction, would you?’
Rebecca slowly looked around her, taking in each face and matching it against her memory. Thank God. He wasn’t there, as far as she could see. The face that haunted her dreams and turned them into nightmares. But he’d never get out, would he? Hadn’t the judge said his crimes were so wicked that he’d have to serve at least fifteen years? There were still at least eight to go. She picked up her beer and retreated to a quiet corner table, feeling nauseous. She took another sip of ale and stared miserably down at the table top. How could this happen?
She heard a voice speaking and realised that a middle-aged man was standing in front of her, talking.
‘What?’ she said.
‘I said, are you alright? You’ve gone pale.’
‘I didn’t know this was going to be happening tonight. I thought it was a folk club.’
‘We only started a couple of months ago. I’m the senior remand manager, so I suppose it’s my fault we’re here. Is there an issue?’
Rebecca looked him in the eye. ‘I was assaulted as a teenager. He’s still in prison as far as I know, but when the barman told me who you all were, I panicked. I could never face meeting him again, not ever.’
He nodded slowly. ‘I think I can understand how you feel. And is music a bit of a release for you?’
She gave him a thin smile. ‘I suppose so. That and a good beer.’ She took another mouthful.
‘Why don’t you play now, since you’ve got your guitar with you? Just strum a few songs. We’d all appreciate it, I think. The atmosphere is always a bit muted, so you might be able to lighten it up a bit.’
Rebecca unstrapped her case, took out her beloved guitar, checked its tuning and began to pick out a few well-known Beatles melodies. She was surprised when each received a round of applause. Someone brought her over another pint of oatmeal stout. She slowly relaxed and began to enjoy herself. Time for her to sing? She began with The Streets of London, then moved on to The Last Thing On My Mind. By now she had everyone in the room transfixed, all eyes and ears on her. Was it time to play the one song she had never performed in front of an audience? If not now, when? And so, at ten o’clock on a damp, cold night in an Exeter bar, Rebecca Johnson decided to finally skewer some of the demons that had been haunting her for more than decade, helped by an attentive audience and several glasses of oatmeal stout, bought for her by appreciative ex-lags.
‘Everyone associates this song with Harry Nilsson because he sang it so beautifully, but I always connect it to the composer, Fred Neil. It creates such a mix of emotions in me. You see, I’d just left a bar where this had been playing on the jukebox. And . . . well, I can’t . . . won’t go into the details.’
She sang Everybody’s Talkin’ and didn’t realise that tears were streaming down her face as she finished. She just bowed her head, packed her guitar away and left. She’d found her catharsis.