“Tear me apart and boil my bones / I’ll not rest till she’s lost her throne / My aim is true / My message is clear / It’s curtains for you / Elizabeth my dear”
—Ian Brown, “Elizabeth My Dear”
After having too much to drink and desperately trying to plug a hole in conversation, I tell people about the summer I spent dating Ian Brown. Practically no one believes me, and I’ve got nothing that looks like proof, nothing I could hock on the Internet, not even a photograph. But I tell them anyway, usually about the time Ian drove us to London for the Queen’s Official Birthday, which is not the Queen’s actual birthday, but the one celebrated by the monarchy in the summer when nicer weather is more likely. Ian thought this was horseshit, another excuse for the royals to siphon money from commoners and needlessly parade in the streets. That year, it rained. The masses were soaked through, hundreds of umbrellas arranged like a hive over the crowd, making it impossible even to glimpse Elizabeth as she rode by in her carriage. Ian’s brown eyes were amused as he looked at me. I recognized the expression later in all the Stone Roses promotional photos and videos; it was the one that said he was larger than the rest of us, had been born a giant, deserved to be adored.
In some moments it felt true.
Ian treated me bad because he knew without a doubt he’d be famous, same as half the boys in northern England. Some gassy-gut guy in a bar had told him he should be a rock star, validating his obsessions, a sentence he took to heart as if it were a proclamation by the archangel Gabriel. Ian allotted more time for the A major scale and for practicing with his boys than he did for me, but honestly I was content most of the time to stare at his coiffed Beatles haircut and thick, straight-as-stripes eyebrows, which made him look ethereally pensive and good-willed. My girlfriends’ boyfriends weren’t a fraction as cute on their best days, and back then cuteness meant more than most everything else.
When Ian was blazing mad he didn’t say “beans” or “hailstorm” or “shit,” the way I did. He said “Eliiiiizabeth!” or “Lizbeth!” or “Bloody bloody Beth!” which bothered me to no end. In those days I loved to watch the royals on television and buy the rag mags at the market. I thought Prince Charles was an absolute peach—those adorable ears!—and Diana the most gorgeous American woman in existence. I kept an exhaustive list of possible baby names for their future heir. They felt unreachable and reachable at the very same time, and the fact that Ian couldn’t appreciate this paradox was the strongest indicator our romance would be brief. Mostly I tried not to bring it up.
Even when it seemed like we didn’t like each other that much, he kept hanging around, and all the other boys I knew—diseased or sad or married—were worse. You take what you have. We all do that. When he answered the phone he never had much to say, just plain talk, like “okay all right okay.” He never asked how I was, even if I’d come down with something or sounded upset. After school and late into the evening, he’d ram cigarettes between my lips and tell me to smoke them sexy like a muse so he could write lyrics as the rings drifted up. It made me feel naughty and wanted.
Shortly after we returned from London, I brought Ian home to meet Mum so she’d quit pestering me. I was certain she wouldn’t like him. Mum had been without a man since my infancy and was not the kind of woman to be dragooned by charm or much anything else. Stew simmered on the stove. I still associate the aroma of slow cooked beef with being young and at home. Mum had set the small round table against the wall under the cuckoo clock with her best china and a trio of new candles. The fourth chair was trapped against the wall since we rarely had guests.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” Ian said with an over-the-top smile. He was wearing a leather jacket. “Do you have any beer?” I felt myself blush at his forwardness.
She did, and although I’d rarely seen her drink the stuff, she filled up one for her and one for him and asked him to please have a seat. She didn’t bother to offer me a drink because she knew I’d say no. We all sat, and she made the mistake of asking Ian what he wanted to do after school, triggering a thirty-minute monologue about the brilliance of the Sex Pistols, his personal rock star aspirations, and the seismic shifting of the music scene in Manchester. He drank as he talked, per usual, and to my surprise and horror Mum matched him pint for pint, as if she’d been waiting for years for a man to come drink at her table. As soon as I heard an opening I steered the conversation toward our London weekend, and Mum asked about the Trooping the Colour parade.
“Bloody splendid,” Ian said, answering before I could get a word in. “Tons of colors. Some colors never seen before. You’re not a loyalist too, are you?” he asked sarcastically, which was not how I’d been taught to ask personal questions.
Mum leaned back in her chair and took a long drink, resting the mug between her breasts. When she spoke, she looked only at Ian. “You know how they say when the ravens leave the Tower, England shall fall?”
Ian had pointed out the ravens at the Wakefield Tower the day of the parade. According to legend, Ian told me, the resident ravens, humongous in size and blacker than crows, were the guardians of the kingdom, and if six ravens ever left, protection would disappear, too. Ian said the royal Raven Master kept seven instead of six so there was always a spare.
“Those old buzzards should be dying any day,” Ian said with a laugh and reached for his drink. His sleeve nearly caught the flame of the centerpiece candles, and I gasped, but no one paid attention.
Mum set down her glass and leaned forward. “Let me tell you a little secret,” she said. “If the ravens ever leave the Tower, I’ll be there with my shotgun making sure they don’t come back.”
“Mum!” I said, hands flying to my mouth.
But she just raised her eyebrows at me as Ian lifted his beer, their glasses clinking together in a cheers.
Afterward the room fell quiet, and we set our focus on our bread and cheese. Every so often Ian flicked crumbs at me from across the table while Mum watched. I thought about how there must be a million mysterious things I didn’t know about the person I knew best and I thought about how Ian would live his whole life without decent manners or concern for others and still get everything he wanted. I’ve been proven right on both accounts over and over again. The stew bubbled over, and Mum jumped up to turn down the heat, her apron unfurling like a parachute. “God save the queen!” she said.
If I had proof of anything, for some reason I’d still want it to be this: Ian laughing, his hand on my thigh the way he knew I didn’t like, and me laughing along, taking a gulp from Ian’s glass, the beer traveling up and out of my nasal cavity, splattering all over the table, the cuckoo’s beak, the ridges on the back of the fourth chair. Mum saying, “And that’s how the blood will spill,” completely straight-faced with a ladle in one hand and a potholder in the other, sending us into another fit of absurdity, howling this time like a lost pack of alley hounds in the fat part of the night.