Paul McCartney died in a car crash in 1966 and ever since then, a man who was Paul’s double has been impersonating him in order to keep the Beatles’ career alive. The moon landings actually took place in the Nevada Desert. All the world’s leaders since 1880 are actually lizards, created by the earth’s powerful ley lines. Elvis Presley never died, and is right now running a caravan site in Llandudno.
I thought of all the ridiculous conspiracy theories on the internet that I’d smiled at over the years, and realised that as a rookie journalist on a provincial newspaper getting wind-up phone calls was going to be par for the course.
“Okay, so your mate who runs the homeless persons centre has told you that one of their down-and-outs claims that he used to be the famous singer, Paul Nightingale, and they’ve stolen his identity,” my editor Daniel told me. “Go along there and talk to him. We can squeeze it in as a joke on an inside page if we’ve got a space. Kind of like the school caretaker who was a dead ringer for Barack Obama.”
“But being an Obama doppelganger was just a bit of fun, and the guy was in on the joke,” I appealed to him. “This character isn’t making fun of looking like someone famous, he actually believes his life has been stolen. He’s obviously deranged, and I’m not comfortable making a fool of him.”
“You want to be a reporter, don’t you, Karen?” he jeered. Talking deliberately slowly, as if I was an idiot, he went on: “He’s a clown. Your job is to use him to make people laugh.”
“I won’t do it!
“Toughen up or ship out!”
The homeless centre was a familiar haunt for me, as I spent most of my leisure hours there, helping the poor folk who needed their Spartan accommodation. Helen, my friend who’d given me the tip, led me to the man’s table in the canteen, and I regarded him warily.
Oddly enough, there was something hauntingly familiar about the tramp sitting opposite. Maybe an expression, a twist to the mouth, a shift of his eyes, that actually did remind me of the handsome middle-aged singer. It was hard to tell because the feature that drew your eye most was a hideous scar on his cheek that spread across most of his face.
I reflected that Paul Nightingale had started off his dazzling popstar career ten years ago as a pin-up for teenage girls and, just like his similarly successful rival Robbie Williams, he had now made that difficult transition into eye-candy for middle-aged mums. He had had more number-one hits than almost anyone else, and he was still massively popular.
“They stole my money, they stole my identity, and they stole my career,” the down-at-heel character mumbled miserably. “Worst of all, they stole my reputation. Got some half-arsed songwriter to churn out crap I’d have been ashamed of.”
“Look,” I told him, trying out my tough lady who takes no nonsense persona. “What you’re saying is ridiculous. My editor is laughing at you. He wants me to write you up as a deluded madman. I’m not prepared to make you look ridiculous
“You listen to me!” he snapped, surprisingly angry, as he sat up straight and glared at me. “Six years ago I had a bad car accident, and no amount of plastic surgery was going to alter this.” He pointed to his horrific scar. “Before that I was unreliable and alcoholic, and my agent, Fred Daley, wanted to get rid of me, but my records were selling and he didn’t want to kill the golden goose. There was this guy, Dennis Madigan, who happened to be the spitting image of me, who was an unsuccessful singer, and he was making a bit of a living doing Paul Nightingale tribute acts. While I was in hospital, Fred was facing some big losses because I wasn’t going to be able to fulfil the appearances he’d booked for me in the next weeks. Dennis and Fred just went ahead and that was it. After I was discharged from hospital my career had gone. I told people what had happened, but no one would believe me.” His eyes welled up, and my heart broke to see his tears.
“Come on,” I told him, still unable to believe he was anything other than a madman. “How could he have stolen your name?”
“Paul Nightingale was my stage name, wasn’t it? We reckoned that my legal name of Melville Snodgrass was about as sexy as Reggie Dwight – Elton John’s actual name.”
“But what about your money?” I went on. “Your property?”
“Everything was in Fred’s name. Can’t you understand how they stitched me up? I was a fool. I spent all my time either writing songs, performing at gigs, recording in the studio, or partying. I wasn’t interested in legalities and accountants, I trusted everyone around me. Fred told me to leave all that side of things to him, he said that not having anything in my own name was supposed to be good for saving tax or something. If I wanted a big house, he got it for me. Same with cars. Same with everything. I never bought anything with my own money. I trusted him with everything.”
“But,” I went on, still not believing him, “what about your family? Your friends?”
“I’d got divorced by then, and had no other family. Friends? When my drinking got bad I lost them all. Just like I lost all the rights to the songs I’d written, the songs that were part of my life.”
“How did you earn a living?”
He stared at the ground. “After I got out of hospital I was so desperate I went back on the drink. I get by doing a bit of busking now, singing the songs I used to sing. I used to perform to audiences of thousands, now I’m lucky if they toss me pennies. . . ”
* * *
Two years later, my career was still in the slow lane. True, I had got a junior post at one of the national newspapers, but I knew that I didn’t have the killer instinct you need to handle the big, sexy stories. I longed to write a bestselling book, something factual like a murder that I could glean from the news and get a fresh angle on. But it had never happened. Whenever anything earth shattering or exciting occurred, someone else always got the scoop.
That’s when I got another phone call from my friend Helen. She told me that the nutcase tramp I’d met two years ago had died, and she was phoning on the off chance that maybe I could come to his funeral, as it was going to be a grim affair, at 9am in the morning, the ‘paupers slot’ and she hoped I might come to keep her company and enlarge the number of mourners.
When I turned up, the dark clouds and the spitting November drizzle matched my mood, and the morbid shiny blond wood of the seats in the chapel and the subdued organ music dragged my spirits below the floor, and I longed for this service to be over so that I could catch up with Helen’s news.
In the front row was a strangely familiar figure sitting next to Helen. I walked in and sat on his other side.
Yes! It was none other than the pop star Paul Nightingale.
He was a little older than he’d seemed last time I’d seen him on TV, more lines in his face, but the carefully coiffed hair was the same, the same handsome face.
After the service, when we were in the open air, the next surprise was seeing the neatly dug grave, awaiting the coffin.
“He wanted to be buried, not cremated,” said Paul Nightingale to me, after the quick burial service was over. “The least I could do was organise and pay for that. And I’m sorting out a decent headstone for later. The full works, with a guitar carved into it, a real rock star’s memorial, like Phil Lynott’s grave in Ireland.” He looked at me. “Helen told me that you had a long talk with him, that you knew all about what happened.”
“Are you saying that all he claimed, about you taking over his life, was actually true?” I asked in amazement.
“I should tell you to mind your own business and ask around for an experienced writer,” he muttered quietly, turning away and staring into the open grave. “But I’m not going to. Helen told me you’re a trustworthy reporter and I can rely on you not to let me down. You can have an exclusive on the story in my words, as long as you cut me in on the deal. I’ve had a good career, and it’s about time I put the record straight.”
“Put the record straight?”
“What do you reckon, Karen? Pretty good gig for you, yeah? Lots of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A book contract? A film even? I’m doing you a big favour. This could make your career.”
“And what does he get out of it?” I asked, staring at the coffin that seemed so far down in the grave it was almost out of sight.
He shrugged. “Let’s face it, poor old Melville was a loser, wasn’t he? Good songwriter yeah. Good singer too, one of the best. But he was one of those guys who was always going to get screwed. At least this way he’ll be remembered as a prolific song writer, a talented musician. I won’t lose out on the gig myself as it goes. Fred died a year ago, so I can put all the blame for what we did onto him, make out I was young and inexperienced, was talked into doing it against my will. Frankly, my career’s on the slide, and any publicity is good publicity, and there could actually be a renewed interest in my own music under my own name, kind of like when Paul O’Grady gave up being Lily Savage and performed as himself. I reckon it’s a win-win for all of us. So what do you say, Karen?”
“Stuff your offer, you bastard!” I told him, suddenly pushing him hard, so that he fell backwards, headfirst, into the open grave.
The clouds suddenly parted.
It was the best scoop I’d ever stumbled across.
And I had turned it down.
And if that made me a shit reporter, so be it. Maybe I was in the wrong career.
As the graveyard lit up with glorious sunshine, I knew that I had made the right decision. . .