“What the hell are you listening to, Tozer?”
Pilkington tosses his heavy fluorescent security jacket on the floor with the decorum of a man raised in a barn. He has frost in his eyebrows from the storm raging outside the hospital.
“If you send me out to do your patrol, you better let me choose the music,” he continues. He shakes the snow from his hair.
“You’re worse than that monster dog,” Tozer says, tugging his sleeve over his wrist to wipe the flecks of water off the screen. It’s with great effort—the sleeves on his security shirt barely reach his wrists when they’re stretched to the point of tearing. He’s ripped three already- two in the sleeves and one across the back when he wrestled the knife-happy janitor, Mr. Hickey, off Pastor Irving before he was able to stab him to death. Tommy Armitage had fainted when that happened; whether it was from a queasiness towards blood or a sudden rush of blood to his dick on seeing Tozer hulk-tear through a cotton/poly blend button-up was still up for debate among the Marines. He ends up smearing the melted snowflakes across the screen with the back of his hand and he curses.
He’s too busy rummaging around under his desk for a bottle of Windex and a roll of old, yellowing paper towels to choose the next YouTube playlist and the next video plays automatically.
“Thank God!” Pilkington exclaims dramatically, waking the few people in the waiting room who aren’t sick enough to deserve a hospital bed in the A&E. “I’m so sick of Three Lions. It’s a shit song, Sol.”
“How dare you,” Tozer said lowly, in his most dangerous voice, “call the Lightning Seeds ‘shit.’ Ian Broudie is a national treasure.”
“Doesn’t matter, mate. It’s been two years since the World Cup. It’s time to get over it.”
Just as Tozer was considering whether or not he could get away with punching Pilkington in the face and blaming it on an unruly patient, the most beautiful sound Sol Tozer has ever heard comes through the tinny computer speakers. A gentle voice rises over the beautiful music: “Hello, this is the Amazing Hodge. Thank you for listening to my hand-organ cover of ‘Juice’ by the esteemed Lizzo. If you’d like, please subscribe to my channel, The Amazing Hodge, for more hand organ experiences.”
The music swells as the soft voice fades out, and then The Amazing Hodge begins to sing.
“Yikes,” Pilkington says. Tozer punches him in the shoulder.
“Shut up and listen.”
Pilkington rubs the blooming hematoma on his arm. “Dude, do you find it humorous to break my humerus?”
Tozer’s glare shuts him up.
“He’s beautiful,” he says.
“You can’t see his face,” Pilkington says.
“That’s why I said it’s beautiful. The music.”
“No, I did.”
“Dude, it’s only been a minute and you have a big gay crush on the piano man!”
“It’s a hand organ, you nutsack.”
Pilkington shakes his head and pulls a box of stale Timbits out of his desk drawer. He eats the last chocolate glazed ‘bit in the pack, but Tozer is too absorbed in the screen in front of him to notice.
The Amazing Hodge’s hand-organ covers of Lizzo songs quickly become a fixture in the security office of the Sir John Franklin Memorial Hospital to mixed reactions.
“Cool,” Manson says, before turning back to his comic books.
“You have such a cool taste in music, Sol,” Armitage says. “You’re so cool, Sol.”
“Put on Three Lions again,” Bryant says.
Most importantly, Heather gives a stiff nod of approval at ‘Juice’ but when The Amazing Hodge releases his cover of ‘Tempo,’ Sol comes back from patrol to find Heather twerking in the office.
“It’s damn good music,” Heather admits, and then immediately throws his back out and is admitted to the hospital.
The Amazing Hodge becomes a fixture in Sol’s apartment, too. He never thought hand-organ covers of Fatboy Slim songs would be perfect music to vacuum to, but he blasts a gentle, rollicking version of “Rockafella Skank” through his headphones as he stuffs the vacuum cleaner under his bed. He’s so absorbed in the music he doesn’t notice the explosive clunking sounds coming from the hose, and continues vacuuming his way through the apartment.
He listens to The Amazing Hodge at the gym (a honky-tonk Paradise City), when he’s cooking (a funeral organ version of Vindaloo), and finds that a ragtime jazz-style Bizarre Love Triangle sets a perfect tempo for him to tidy up his flat before his company arrives.
“I didn’t know you had a… hamster?” Thomas Jopson says when he arrives, a nervous Edward Jopson née Little in tow. He immediately rushes over to Sol’s Guinea Pig Emporium ™ that he had built out of two cages and a selection of rainbow slinky-wrapped pipes.
“Guinea pig,” he says gruffly. “Obviously.”
Jopson peers into the side of the Guinea Pig Emporium ™.
“I don’t think it’s in there.”
“Where else would Karl be?”
Jopson looks up. “Karl as in Karl Lagerfeld?”
“Marx,” Sol and Edward say at the same time. Edward looks down at his mismatched socks. He must be stressed, Sol thinks. He can never match his socks when he’s stressed.
Just then, a scuttling sound emanates from the vacuum cleaner where it’s plugged into its port next to the coat rack.
“Karl!” Sol yells, and drops to his knees. As he runs to extract his precious guinea pig companion from the dusty depths of the vacuum cleaner, he catches Jopson whispering to Edward,
“Do you still want to do this?”
“I mean, we agreed on it, and we’re here.”
“You’re allowed to change your mind, darling. I’ll only enjoy it if my husband expresses enthusiastic consent, and I’m certain Solomon feels the same.” Sol can hear the moment when Jopson grabs Edward’s arse, though Edward keeps quiet. He had grabbed his ex’s arse enough times in his life to know the change in the air when it happened.
“I do!” Sol shouts, elbow deep in dust bunnies. He yelps when he feels a small bite on his finger, and pulls an irate Marx the guinea pig out of the vacuum cleaner. “Sorry, love,” he says, patting her head and cradling her gently like a tiny, furry baby.
Once Marx is tucked back inside her Guinea Pig Emporium™, Sol leans against the wall, arms crossed, waiting for Jopson and Edward to stop embracing.
“I love you, my darling Dr. Jopson,” Jopson says.
“I adore you, Mr. Jopson,” Edward says.
Sol rolls his eyes. “Look mate-- err, mates. If you need more time to sort it out, we’ll reschedule, yeah? I haven’t got all night to faff about with you two ‘reaffirming your marriage’ or whatever it is you’re doing now. Tom said it was your idea, Eddie, so it’s your call.”
“Don’t call me that,” Edward grumbles.
“He used to call you Eddie?” Jopson says, aghast. “And that’s why I can’t?”
“Bad memories,” Edward mumbles. He continues, but mumbles so quietly Sol can barely hear him. “Don’t like being on top.”
“That’s why you’ll be in the middle, love,” Jopson explains in the patient, Jopson-y way he has.
Edward sighs and looks sadder than usual, and Sol remembers why they broke up fifteen years ago.
“Next week?” he asks Jopson, who has pulled Edward back into an embrace.
“Next week,” Jopson nods. “He wants to, but-“
“But he needs to go home, have a panic attack, eat half a cake, and watch all of Queer as Folk first?”
Jopson looks surprised for a moment, but nods. “He stress-eats quinoa salad now.”
“I’m right here,” Edward mumbles into Jopson’s shoulder.
“Let’s go make you a salad, dear.”
Sol shows the couple out and closes the door behind them. It was all fine and dandy, really. Truth be told, he never expected the suggested threesome would actually happen. Being that close, though…
Sol sighs and drops a few extra kibbles into Marx’s Emporium™. In a fit of wistfulness, he puts on his YouTube Sex Playlist and sits down to jerk off before calling up Heather and asking him round the pub.
Sol and Heather sit side-by-side at the bar. There’s a game on, but for once in his life, Sol finds he doesn’t care. He just did a terrible thing, and the guilt consumes him.
“Thought you were getting laid tonight,” Heather says lightly.
Sol sloshes some of his lager over the side of the glass and swears. More lager on the bar means less in his mouth, unless he bends down and slurps it off, and he’s not anywhere near pissed enough to try that. Yet.
“Eddie freaked out,” he shrugs.
“I thought he suggested it.”
“He did.” Sol shrugs again. “He has anxiety, man. Sometimes he just freezes up.”
“Ah,” Heather nods in understanding. “Anxiety’s a motherfucker.”
They turn back to the game. If Sol wasn’t so preoccupied with his guilt, he would have flown into a rage. The bartender had changed the channel from football to curling, and the pub was filled with the sounds of Canadians yelling “harder!” and sweeping the ice.
“Bro, what’s your damage?” Heather asks. Sol panics and considers running for the door. If Heather is pulling out quotes from Heathers, he must be in a bad way.
In the end, he decides to tell the truth.
“I jerked off to The Amazing Hodge’s hand organ cover of Piano Man.”
Well, he tells some of the truth. One third of the truth. He leaves out the second and third times (Dexy’s Midnight Runners’s Come on Eileen and Foreigner’s Jukebox Hero, respectively).
“Bro,” Heather says with great sympathy.
“Have you seen the way his lovely, long fingers caress the keys of his hand organ so gently? Or heard his soft, posh accent introduce a song with such kindness and warmth?”
“Bro,” Heather says again. “Just leave a comment on a video and see if he’ll talk to you.”
Sol drops his head to the sticky bar counter and slurps up some of his fallen lager. Times are getting hard.
“You say that like it’s simple,” he gargles through the counter-lager.
Heather drops a napkin on his head.
Sol cracks his knuckles and opens up a Word document. He’ll craft the perfect comment and then copy and paste it into the YouTube comment box. It’s a flawless plan.
Hey, I just wanted to say that your voice is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard and I want to lick your fingers.
Sol hammers the backspace key and checks over his shoulder, just in case. He digs through a desk drawer to find something to cover his webcam with and comes up with a fuzzy scratch-and-sniff banana sticker that had been undoubtedly dropped by a visiting niece or nephew. He sticks the bananas over the tiny eye and returns to his Word document, but this time no FBI agents will be able to watch him suffer.
Love your music!
Sol grunts. It’s good, but it’s not enough to set him apart from the crowd. He’ll have to do the unthinkable and ask for help.
Heather is out—he’ll just laugh. Pilkington would be useless, Armitage might be able to write a nice comment but he’ll probably cry over Sol having a thing for a faceless YouTube star, Bryant… Bryant would get distracted and they’d end up back at the pub doing shots of tequila on karaoke night. No, his only option is to go to the slimiest person he knows.
Charles Des Voeux insists on meeting in a shitty bar all the way across town, simply because it has a skeeball machine in the back.
“We could have done this over the phone,” Sol says when he arrives at ten in the morning. Des Voeux is drinking a glass of red wine and slides a piece of paper across the table.
“Is this it?”
“Yeah,” Des Voeux says.
“You made me come all this way to give me a scrap of paper?”
“You didn’t bring me as your plus one to the Jopson wedding.”
“You showed up anyways,” Sol says. He keeps his grip tight on the paper, lest he lose his mind and punch Des Voeux in the face.
“Someone had to tell Jopson he was missing a citation in his annual report.”
Sol nods slowly. He had been busy watching the fluffy-haired psych nurse seduce Lady Jane Franklin away from the hungry French Canadian and had, therefore, missed the fistfight that occurred next to the dessert buffet. He did see Des Voeux escorted out with a black eye and a bloody nose while Jopson and his new husband made out on the dance floor. Edward Little always did have a weakness for men who could throw a mean right hook.
“So you told him at his wedding reception. Of course. Makes perfect sense.”
Des Voeux sneers. “I heard he-“
“Right, see you around, mate.”
Sol turns and jogs out the door. He waits to get on the bus before he opens the paper.
Do you like dragons? Because I’d like to be DRAGON my balls across your face.
Sol rips the paper into tiny, confetti-sized scraps and lets a single, manly tear fall into his lap.
He calls Heather for moral support when he presses enter and his comment appears under The Amazing Hodge Presents… Juice.
“What did you write?” he asks.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m a big fan of your music. Any live shows coming up? I’d love to see you play in person’.”
“Huh,” Heather says. “That’s not bad, actually. Good job, mate.”
Sol breathes a sigh of relief. “Thanks, bro.”
The Amazing Hodge replies six hours and twenty seven minutes later.
I’m playing a charming little festival in my hometown this weekend called The Sir John Franklin Memorial Hospital Trust Fund’s Autumn Music Festival, Carnivale, and Jam Competition. It’s sure to be a delightful weekend, much like the one I shared in the countryside with my lesbian aunts when I was a child. Gourds, as far as the eye could see… I picked one, of course, and carved in it such a frightening visage that my lesbian aunts referred to me affectionately as their little warlock for many years… xoxoHodge
Sol screencaps it and sets it as his desktop background.
Sol forces Heather to come with him to the Sir John Franklin Memorial Hospital Trust Fund’s Autumn Music Festival, Carnivale, and Jam Competition. It’s for moral support, he tells himself. It’s not because he’s scared or anything. He faced down the Demon Dog at work and tackled a slutty janitor in the same day. He may just be invincible.
“My wife is getting jealous of all the time we spend together, bro,” Heather says. “She thinks we’re having an affair.”
“No, you buttplug. She says ‘good luck with your YouTube man’ and if you embarrass yourself terribly and need to fake your own death she can make some sort of radioactive sludge in the lab that you can pretend to have mixed into your morning smoothie.”
“What a lady,” Sol says.
Heather nods proudly. “Also she wants me to pick up a couple jars of the winning jam.”
The jam festival is clearly the main draw for the festival. There are three rows of carts, each with a stack of handmade preserves. As Sol and Heather wander through the festival grounds (marked with a banner that didn’t even try to fit the whole name of the festival—it just says JAM!), Sol wonders if he’s gone crazy. There is a gangly man with a broken arm selling jars full of an electric green concoction he touts as “Jart.” It’s jalapeño jelly, apparently.
“That’s not even jam,” Heather mutters under his breath.
Sol isn’t a gourmand by any means, but he still wonders about the state of some of these jams. Avoiding the lime green Jart, he and Heather wander through the jam competition and are forced to watch Hickey the Ex-Janitor lick a red, gelatinous substance off Billy the Mortuary Assistant’s cheek. It looks alarmingly like blood. Before Sol can wonder if Billy is going to punch him in the side of the head, Hickey drops to a knee and proposes.
“I hate this city,” Sol mutters, and turns around so he doesn’t have to see Billy accept.
He pretends instead to be wildly interested in a cart decorated with butterfly hair clips and a rack of red and white key chains.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the teenage girl sitting in a lawn chair says. She stands, and even without the years of security training, Sol can see that she has a knife strapped to her thigh.
“Oh, this old thing,” she laughs. “It’s for opening tough jam jars. Don’t worry.”
“Perhaps you’re interested in my family’s jam? It’s a classic. Hartnell Apple Jam can’t be beat. Especially not by a traitorous brother who is trying to sell jars of spicy Flubber under the name ‘Jart.’”
“Ah,” Sol says. It makes sense. “You must be—“
“Betsy Hartnell,” she says, sticking out a hand. He shakes it.
“I’ve also partnered with the HR department of the Sir John Franklin Memorial Hospital to manufacture these key chains as part of the Thomas Jopson Young Entrepreneur Program.”
She shakes the key chains. They rattle in a satisfying manner.
“Cool, I’ll take a key chain.”
“You won’t be disappointed,” she says. “What colour skull would you like?”
At this point, Sol isn’t surprised by anything the sixteen-year-old says.
“Red,” he says. She plucks a key chain off the rack.
“Five Euros,” she says.
Again, Sol just blinks and digs in his wallet for the Euro coins he’s had in his wallet for three years. On closer look, the red and white rectangle, emblazoned with a holographic Sir John Franklin Memorial Hospital has two small charms on it: a small red skull, and a chilli pepper.
“What’s with the chilli? And the skull, for that matter?”
“We’re sponsored in part by Chili’s. And the skull is the hospital’s mascot. His name is Matthew. He’s my nephew.” She looks over to the Jart cart and, sure enough, a small plastic skeleton with a bib is sitting in a high chair next to John Hartnell’s lawn chair.
“Rock on,” he says, and clips his key chain onto his keys.
Heather has gotten lost in the crush of people flocking to Betsy’s jam cart, and Sol finds himself alone. Hickey the Janitor and Billy the Mortuary Assistant have disappeared and Sol decides he should position himself somewhere where he can’t get attacked from behind. Just in case.
He walks towards the stage and he waits.
It isn’t long before Lady Jane walks out on stage wearing an elegant pantsuit in an appropriate pumpkin orange. A wolf whistle comes from the crowd.
“Shut up, Henry,” Lady Jane announces. She pauses to wait for the long, dejected, French Canadian sigh to end.
“Welcome to the Sir John Franklin Memorial Hospital Trust Fund’s Autumn Music Festival, Carnivale, and Jam Competition. It is with pleasure to announce this year’s musical guest, YouTube sensation, The Amazing Hodge!” She nods her thanks at the audience and retreats to the curtain.
The world spins. Even the cries of “Fresh Jart! Getcha fresh Jart here, folks!” fade away as The Amazing Hodge steps on the stage. He’s beautiful. He’s ethereal. He’s… startlingly familiar, Sol notices.
But by the time The Amazing Hodge is finished playing his first song, Sol can’t see George Hodgson as the eccentric, fluffy-haired psychiatric nurse who once brought Sol coffee on a night shift and told him that he looks like the kind of guy who would have a mushroom farm.
He is every inch The Amazing Hodge, and Solomon Tozer is smitten.
Heather finds him somewhere near the end of George’s set, but he doesn’t notice until the last song.
“This is a new one I’ve been working on,” George says from the stage, “so I hope someone likes it. In fact, I rather hope someone special is watching today. This is for them.”
Sol feels his heart sink. Of course George has someone. How could he not? In his misery, he misses the first line of The Amazing Hodge’s song.
“Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before.”
“They just know, they’re so sure.”
“Bro,” Heather says.
“Bro,” Sol says back. “There’s no way.”
“That England’s gonna throw it all away, gonna blow it away, but I know they can play ‘cause I remember…”
Eyes wide, Sol digs in his pocket for his lighter and holds it up, swaying side to side. The way George sings is mournful, but painstakingly optimistic. He captures the epic highs and lows of World Cup football in each chord and in every word. With a hand over his heart, Sol closes his eyes and listens.
“Three Lions on a shirt, Jules Rimet gleaming, thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming.”
“Go talk to him.”
“Solomon. Go talk to him.”
“What if he has a hot footballer as a partner? I can’t compete!”
“Not everyone has a football fetish, Sol. Go talk to him.”
“Look,” Heather says. He clasps two meaty hands on Sol’s shoulders. “You are a powerful, sexy man. You can do this.”
“He looks like a powder puff, Sol. I mean that literally. A literal face powder applicator mixed with… remember that bird that ate all the fermented cranberries in my yard? The white one with the sad eyes?”
“The one that fell out of the tree and your wife nursed back to health?”
“That’s the one. That’s him. That’s your Hodge. Now go be the wind beneath his wings or something.”
“I got this,” he mutters to himself. “This is fine.”
He approaches the entrance to the vegetable-growing competition grounds where George is standing, talking to Dr. and Mr. Jopson.
“I find myself with far too much mulch this autumn, Thomas. If you would like some for your tomatoes, I would be more than happy to send some home with Edward next time we see each other at work.”
Sol slows. He doesn’t want to interrupt, so he detours and does a lap around the white picket fence that encloses the giant vegetables. An uncomfortably large eggplant with a small plaque that reads “Six Pounder” seems to be the main attraction. Sol shakes his head. He’s seen bigger. The pumpkin patch is another big draw— the Goodsirs and their Demon Dog are wrestling a massive vegetable into a wagon.
“It’s technically a gourd,” Harry Goodsir says, struggling to lift his end.
“We can still carve it,” Silna Goodsir responds. The Demon Dog runs underneath it and lifts it with its tremendous demonic muscles. Sol hurries past and pretends he doesn’t notice the Demon Dog’s eyes following him.
By the time he rounds the last corner, George is waving farewell to the Jopsons as they join hands and walk towards the jam carts.
Sol lifts a hand and jogs up to George.
“Hey, George,” he says, and mentally kicks himself. He could do so much better.
“Ah, Solomon!” George exclaims. Sol can feel his insides twist. The Amazing Hodge remembers his name!
“Hey, uh, that was so good. The way you play is just… I can’t look away.”
George takes a small bow. “Thank you,” he says.
“And Three Lions at the end! It’s my favourite song, and I know the Cup was years ago now but wow, the emotion and the hope and the utter devastation… you just got it, y’know?”
“I am thrilled, Solomon. You know, sometimes when I play I feel like a veritable Jeanne des Anges. Pure spectacle.”
“Nah, mate,” Sol can’t help but say. He doesn’t know who Jeanne des Anges is, but he continues anyways. “You’ve got real talent. Really amazing.”
George smiles, a pink tinge to his cheeks. Sol takes it as a good sign.
“Would you… like to go look at the gourds with me?” he asks.
“Oh Solomon,” George says, “I would adore nothing more.”