Thursday, 30 May 2013

TRIBUTE - A short story by Mark Sohn



SUSSEX

The figure on stage was sweating more heavily now, dabbing at his face with a scarf there was a female shriek as he tossed the gaudy nylon into the front row. The women were mainly in their mid-forties, but he was pleased to see a sprinkling of teens out there. Clearly The King hadn't lost it yet, despite the ravages of the years playing to nowhere towns where the nearest they got to Vegas was Tom Jones. Which one was it tonight anyway?, this gig was outside the usual circuit, somewhere near Llandudno and he was only doing it because Caerphilly Elvis's wife was expecting again. Striking a dramatic pose, the man on stage threw out a couple of karate strikes and an ill-advised kick that had his bad knee screaming. Ignoring the pain he forced a smile and hitched the wide belt back up. He wore a jumpsuit, a brilliant white number with a high Napoleon collar and an eagle motif picked out in coloured stones. The belt was slipping again – it weighed a ton and the sodding thing would never sit right for long.
          As he launched into his finale, a medley of 'The Wonder of You and Always on My Mind' he glanced across; it was Bristol Tom – a bloke he knew vaguely as Dave something or other who ran a dry-cleaners outside Clifton. As the house lights went up, the applause was more polite than frenzied. The compere – the landlord – took the mike and announced that Elvis had left the building. As he came off, 'Elvis' squeezed past Bristol Tom and wished him luck, but 'Yeah, pal, whatever' was all he got back. The pub erupted as the landlord announced the act they'd 'all been waiting to see'. Turning away with a sad smile Elvis pulled off his wig and went to the cellar to change out of his stage gear. Ten minutes later his battered Transit van pulled out of the car park and, cursing the map he tried to find his way back to the motorway. He needed a bloody sat-nav.
           Frank Fielding was forty-four this year, balding on top and averagely built at 5' 7' not the tallest man you could hope to meet, but ask anyone around his home town of Lancing, in Sussex and they'd tell you he was certainly one of the most helpful. Fielding Electrical was a family firm, run first by Frank's grand-dad and handed down to himself when his dad turned his back on re-wiring Sussex for a career in the Navy. Frank last heard from the old man in 1985 when he buggered off with some barmaid from London. Sorry son, but this isn't for me. I'm off to Gran Canaria... those were the last words he'd had from him, and that was on a postcard left in young Frank's room. He'd left his mum heart-broken and, worse, skint. Hearts mended, bad credit ratings were forever. She lived in a flat near Yapton now with a jack russell that hated him and a cat that seemed to be dead; whenever he visited, which was twice a week the mangy thing would be slumped down in a different spot, for all the World looking like it had expired.
           His watch told him eight thirty, he'd overslept. Now he was late for his first job, and would have to skip breakfast. With the radio playing in the Transit he sat in traffic on the 27, something about roadworks chirped the announcer before chirpily playing Road to Nowhere, the old song by Talking Heads. 'Who hires these pumpers anyway?.' Frank let the thought drop as he slipped into the familiar world of daydreams, creeping forward with the rest of the late rush hour traffic towards a workman with a STOP-GO board. STOP – GO – STOP – GO. Fifty yards in five minutes... creeping forward with hs mind in neutral. He was... yes, a racing driver. It was the last race of the season – the feared Nuremburger Ring – the cars are on the grid – Frank looked across at a youngish man in an old Toyota MR2, who was chewing something and had aviator shades covering his eyes – yes, there's Von Baron the Austrian champion in the Wagner Blitz – can the English driver Fielding take the champion on in his Watney's Special? - all eyes are on the young man from Sussex this season... but there go the lights... STOP had turned to GO and he was off.
           'No...no... don't... no, don't worry, he's here now. Bloody people, you wait all day...' hanging up the over-done woman put her Blackberry or whatever it was into her D&G bag and shut the door behind Frank. The house was monstrous, a footballer probably, one of the mansions off the road to Rottingdean. The woman made no attempt at civility, showing Frank around the place and finally to the fuse panel. Typical, thought Frank; £1.5 Million on the house, a Porsche Cayenne outside and a thirty quid distribution box for a house this size, enough floodlighting for Wembley and a pool with underwater l.e.d.s. No wonder Fielding Electrical got the job; it was always the same, most people just went to the Thompsons Local for their nearest sparks, but the rich ones would rather pay a third less to an electrician eight miles away. Two things you could be sure of with Fielding Electrical; the job would be cheap and done well. His grand-dad Colin had taught him the business, starting with eighteen months at college and as an apprentice.
          Finishing his notes Frank gave an off-the-top-of-his-head figure, which the woman agreed to with a noise that managed to say yes, but didn't disguise her impatience with people that were clearly below her. Smiling politely, Frank said he'd show himself out and did. As he sat in the van he leafed through his appointments book. The crunch of tyres on gravel and an Alfa Romeo swung in, a tennis-type jumping out. Somehow this guy didn't look like Mr. Mansion, an impression confirmed by the re-appearance of Mrs. Mansion at the door, now wearing just a towel. People!. Chuckling to himself, Frank turned the key and decided to listen to his stomach. He drove off to a cafe he knew in nearby Kemptown.
           Finding a seat near the window he reached over for a copy of the Mirror someone had left behind. He was just beginning to read the headlines – another Minister had been caught fiddling his expenses – when a cough told him the waitress was ready for his order. 'I'll have a full English please.' 'Sorry, it's after eleven.' 'Oh. O.k. I'll have egg, bacon sausage, mushrooms, fried bread and a black pudding please.' She sighed. Another smart-arse. 'You want the All Day Breakfast then.' It was greasy and probably fattening, but it was hot and it was under a fiver and at least he wouldn't have to wash the plate afterwards. He read while he ate. As well as the political scandals and actresses pretending to care about something or other there was nothing much of interest – until he got to page fourteen. There, under a picture of an enormously fat man stuffed into a cheap Elvis costume complete with ludicrous novelty wig and shades was an article headlined: The Elvis Diet; how I gained twelve stone in twelve months. It was hideous, the reporter was only interested in making a joke of the poor man. It wasn't remotely connected with Elvis, just cheap jibes. Frank sighed, saddened but not surprised. It was always the same; fat Elvis, the singing cheeseburger. He left his breakfast half eaten, no longer hungry.
            That afternoon dragged by. He had three other jobs booked in for that day, if he worked quickly he could get over to Reen before she closed up. With just ten minutes to spare, he made it, pulling up outside the dingy shop in a backstreet of Hove. The sign was written in plain text: AS YOU RIP-SO SHALL I SEW and, underneath that Tailoring, Alterations and Mending. Reen – her name was Irene, so naturally everyone called her Reen – was out the back preparing to shut shop for the day, but the old girl lived above the shop and was always to be found there. 'Hello, Frank, come for the scarves?.' 'Yes, if they're ready. I don't really need them until my next show, but if they're ready...' Fishing a folded piece of A4 from his pocket along with his wallet, Frank laid the paper on the counter and pulled out a twenty pound note. The wallet had a lightning flash and the letters 'TCB' emblazoned on the leather. Reen gave him a plastic sainsburys bag filled with the scarves she had made. Frank gave these to fans, but as they cost him he tried to give them only to the real fans, the true Elvis fans who weren't just there to take the piss or have a drunken giggle. Originally silk, nylon was all he could really afford now, though Reen was cheap and cheerful. She was obviously trying to quit the fags again, as she had one of those sweet cigarettes hanging from her lips.
          She saw the piece of paper. 'Don't tell me, another jumpsuit?.' Frank smiled as she took the paper, unfolding it to reveal a carefully drawn design. 'It's the Mexican Sundial, the last stage outfit Elvis ever wore.' 'Mexican? - oh, right. Looks like one of those end of the world clocks, you know the ones on the news a few years back.' Frank remembered something he'd seen about it; the Aztec clock that had supposedly predicted the end of mankind. 'I've got a photo of it somewhere, but if you go on the internet there's plenty there. That's all gold, it's quite a lot of work by the looks of it.'
          'Frank this will cost a fortune. I'll have to ask for some up front to get the materials in. You could probably get one cheaper off E-bay.' 'Yeah, like the joke-shop ones. I want this to be – you know, proper. I want it to be right.' Sighing, the seamstress had to admit it would be a challenging project. 'You are a daft bugger, Frank. These things must cost you more than you get from the gigs.' 'I know, Reen. I just don't want... no it'll sound stupid.' 'Come on, Frank. Don't be such a wet-one.' 'I just don't want to let him down. Elvis, I mean. I want people to remember him for his music and the showmanship, not a joke.' 'I know Frank. Leave it with me, drop by later in the week and I'll see how much to sting you up front. It shouldn't take too long – a couple of weeks it should be ready. The belt will be the tricky thing – I'll need to get the buckle in special.' Frank took his bag of scarves. 'Thanks Reen. I'll drop by in a day or two.'
          Graceland was a chalet bungalow in Mickey Mouse town – the scornful name locals had given to the sprawling development above the main A27 by Lancing. Originally just a handful of home-builds, the place now had tarmacced roads and proper utilities. Built by his grand-dad and his brother as a family home it was now just home to Frank since his mum and his sister moved out. Ellie had married a sales director and lived near Milton Keynes, she was happy, at least she said she was. Frank spoke to her on the phone and saw her at Christmas and their mum's birthday some years. She said it was difficult with the kids, but Frank thought she just couldn't be bothered with the drive. Dropping the van keys in the ashtray on the phone table he went to the kitchen for a cup of tea and some stale biscuits and went through to the Jungle Room. The Jungle Room was Frank's tribute to the original at Graceland in the States, with plush lime green carpet and a ceiling covered with matching carpet tiles. Those tiles had been a pain, it took him ages to find the right glue. The furniture was from a Balinese furniture shop in Brighton that was supposedly hand-made by island craftsmen, but Frank had gone to school with the guy who made it all and was fairly sure he'd never been East of Dover.
            Flicking the telly on, Frank sat back in his chair and put his feet up on the coffee table. There was a game show on, one of those general knowledge quizzes. Frank liked this one, he played along at home. He had to laugh, he'd have won ten grand if he'd been in the studio. As it was the contestant, some bloke from Birmingham crashed out without winning anything. Not for the first time he wished he'd had the guts to enter. After all, if he could face a packed rugby club social filled with drunken players he should be able to face a few cameras and that guy from Eastenders who was the host. The truth of it was, without his wig, without the costumes and the mike and the guitar he'd found in a car boot sale, without all of that Frank Fielding was scared. Perhaps that was why he'd never had much luck with women, he just got frightened in public places. He didn't know why it was, he could go to a complete stranger's home to do some work, but in a social situation he was just too shy to say anything. Despite this, he had quite a few friends, which was how he'd ended up as an Elvis impersonator in the first place.
          After the news, Frank made another cuppa and went upstairs to the spare room, which was where – if there could be any remaining doubt, it was really clear where his interests were. The room wasn't small, but it was packed floor to ceiling with bookshelves, shelves filled with cds and records and posters, paintings, mirrors and framed photographs. It wasn't all Elvis - there was everything from The Ramones to a Marilyn Monroe poster and a cardboard James Bond he'd been given by a shop he'd worked on. He had a computer on a bench he'd built himself. It was a bit of an antique, but it worked well enough. Frank had bought the computer to organise his business and had been conned out of a small fortune for a website that had never brought him more than a few jobs in the two years he'd had it. Mind you, it was useful for a few things – mainly organising his stage music onto cds and then there was the internet. Sitting on the office chair he'd found in a skip, Frank pressed the button and waited for his computer to lurch into life. His background page was, unsurprisingly enough an animated picture of Elvis Presley dancing with a burst of 'All shook up' playing over the speakers.
          The internet is the electronic daydream, that marvellous nowhere-land that is everywhere. Originally sceptical, Frank had been surprised by how easy it was to use, how addictive it could be. He had tried Facebook and set up his page, but he rarely bothered with it, preferring the endless array of Elvis sites and forums that had sprung up in recent years. He logged into his favourite and checked his message box; there were two messages. One was from a user calling themselves WoodenHeart 40 and the other was a routine site message that he ignored. WoodenHeart's message read; Hi, I'm new to the site, I saw your picture and thought you looked just like Elvis... the message went on to say that WoodenHeart was female, forty-two (She'd been on the site for two years, she explained, but she hadn't realised you couldn't change the name once you'd chosen it) There was no picture, but she said she lived in Kent. Frank clicked off the message. She sounded nice, but he wasn't on the site to find love and romance. He rolled his mouse idly over to the 'Elvis News' section, not expecting to find anything apart from the usual announcements. Sure enough, the 'Aloha from Hawaii' album was being re-issued in a 'new and original' package or format or whatever it was. The second item made Frank sit up and take notice. Elvis UK now taking entries, are YOU an Elvis Tribute Artist?, TCB Enterprises is proud to announce the contest to end them all – the UK heats of the World of Elvis contest with the winner and runner-up granted AUTOMATIC entry to The World of Elvis finals, to be held at the Oasis Hotel and Casino Resort, Las Vegas... Vegas! If only!. Scrolling down to the terms and conditions, Frank scanned the text eagerly. The UK event was being held at Blackpool in the summer, entry was £50, which seemed a bit steep. Still... Vegas!. Pushing his chair back with his feet the Elvi around the room began blurring as he spun around. Vegas... the Oasis... Vegas... 'Bright light city – gonna set my soul – set my soul on fire...' Elvis was on stage, a giant slot machine behind him with a fountain of gold coins erupting in a never – ending stream... 'Viva, Las Vegas, Viva, Viva Las...Vegaaas!.'
           There were three months till the contest in Blackpool. Apart from a few fill – in gigs, Frank Fielding was kept busy with work. It paid the bills. Reen had come up with the goods once again – the Mexican Sundial jumpsuit was a masterpiece, as good as anything The King ever wore. The belt was adorned with metal discs filled with studs, heavy golden chains hung around the bottom. He had been working on his act, too. His voice resembled Elvis, but he wasn't the best Elvis Tribute out there. And there were hundreds, probably even thousands. Some looked like Elvis, some sounded just like him, some took it seriously, more didn't. Frank took it seriously; as well as the money he spent on costumes he rehearsed his singing; in the van and at home. Also, he tried to move like Elvis. The King himself had become famous largely due to his hip swivelling, leg shaking routines and later on, the karate moves he threw out on stage. Frank had shelves full of DVDs and old Video Tapes – Elvis movies, concerts, he had them all. To try to keep the act fresh, he would change the songs around, studying footage of Elvis as he sang and danced on stage and copying every move.
           By the time Blackpool was just a week away, Frank only had one problem. Johnny Diamond. Everyone on the circuit knew Johnny Diamond – he drove a big American Chevy with a stylised 'JD' on the doors and cowhorns on the bonnet. Johnny was good-looking, a bit like Elvis with a black quiff and two black triangles of sideburns. He wore black silk shirts open at the collar with a gold chain and a JD that he told everyone was done in diamonds, but looked to Frank like cubic zirconia. Naturally he wore snakeskin or crocodile boots to go with it all, as well as the flashiest watch Frank had ever seen – a gold-plated monster of a thing that could have passed for a clock. Johnny wore fancy rings on his fingers and a stud in his ear. And Johnny was bound to enter, which meant he'd win. Johnny Diamond was the best, the girls always screamed the loudest when he was on and he always seemed to have a different bird in the front of his Chevy. Frank thought about it and decided he wouldn't enter. Why waste fifty quid on a loser?. Switching the computer off, Frank turned in for the night. His bedroom was a tastefully done tribute to the original Graceland, heavy red drapes and thick velour with a large square bed – King size, naturally. It wasn't long before he was asleep.
           “You know, it wasn't uh, wasn't my idea – yuh know I didn't have no master plan or anything. I just went along, we fooled around some and thats really how it all started, right there in the studio...I guess we started something right there.” The man on the porch sat on the hammock swing, rocking it gently...Frank turned to see his face, but the glare blinded him, preventing him from seeing the features. All he could see were the gold sunglasses and the man's jaw, heavy set and going to fat. The man seemed wistful, but sad with it. “You know, I never quit, even when they said ah wus bad for people. They really said that about me, that I was a bad influence on the youth of America. If I'd believed them ah wud of gone back to drivin' my truck... man!. Sure is hot today. Think ah'll go back inside now. It's late – and you gotta git on over to Littlehampton ta fix them smoke alarms...” The man and the voice faded, but the light didn't. It was becoming brighter. Brighter... Frank woke up, shaking the dream away to find it was a bright early summer's day. As he went into his bathroom, the words of the figure in the dream came back to him. 'You know, I never quit...' Well, neither would he!. Picking up the phone on the bedside table, Frank dialled the number he'd written on a scrap of paper. He gave the number on his business credit card to pay his fifty pounds and then called the number of a friend who worked at a caravan site between Blackpool and Morecambe. There was a caravan available, it was supposed to be for four people, but the guy owed Frank a favour so let him have it cheaply. Setting the phone back in its cradle, Frank wiped his face, both nervous and excited by what he had just done. He was going to Blackpool!.

BLACKPOOL

The North Pier Theatre, Blackpool was much as Frank had remembered it from his childhood. He'd always looked forward to the Fielding family holidays, those far off daze of summer. Every year without fail his grand-dad would hand the keys to the Princess over to his Dad and they were off – it was supposed to be a secret, but he always knew where they were heading by the brochure that would be on Dad's workbench in the garage. The marquee banner was being replaced, the X-Factor tour had moved on to another town and the two workmen were busy putting up the sign for the World of Elvis contest. Frank left them at 'Worl' and took a stroll along the front, crossing to an ice cream stand. The place was packed with the early season trade, families from Manchester, the dads complaining about the prices and all the Southerners. Perhaps it would be Southport next year.
           By the time his legs were getting tired, it was approaching dusk. The workmen had gone now, leaving the sign illuminated and complete. Frank jumped, the sudden blaring of air horns was followed by the loud burble-roar of a massive American car. The horns sounded again, the dixie tune familiar to anyone who ever watched the Dukes of Hazzard on tv. It was Johnny Diamond – who else?. He was in a ridiculous black and gold Cadillac, the metal-flake paint dazzling in the last light of the day. 'Hey there, loser!, come to see a real singer?.' Before Frank could think of anything witty to say, Diamond had driven past in the Caddy. Obviously, the Chevy had gone, but this one was no less garish, the 'JD' picked out in fake diamond studs on the boot.
           The press call had been set for the next day at eight sharp, so Frank decided to get a meal and drive up to the caravan site. Finding a chip shop, he bought dinner and ate it in the van.As he ate, he thought about the contest. It didn't look good – he had rehearsed, worked on his stage moves and he still wasn't as good as some of the others out there. It wasn't just Johnny, there were literally hundreds of quality Elvis Tribute Acts on the circuit, playing everything from weddings and pubs to massive gigs on the stages of the Las Vegas showrooms. He had checked the entry list with the girl at the Theatre office; as well as the usual smattering of nutters and no-hopers he had seen most of the serious names there. All he could do now was try to get an early night and get to the theatre before eight o'clock. The caravan his mate had rented was nice enough, but the site was full of rowdy people, a stag night by the sound of it. Sleep came slowly, but Frank was used to the sleeping bag in the van so the thin mattress and rough sheets were an improvement.
           Pulling up into a space Frank checked the Transit's clock – he didn't have time to use the dressing room at the Theatre, he'd overslept and it was already eight. Climbing into the back, he got ready, throwing on his jumpsuit and boots and opening the side door to bang his head on the roof. The boots!; it wasn't the first time, those inch and a half lifts were to blame. Using the side mirror he quickly slipped on the wig, teasing it with a comb to get the look right. He was one of the last there, the Theatre press officer and reps from the contest shooing the assemblage of Elvis into some sort of order under the big sign. Frank spotted a few familiar faces, nodding as he took his place at the end. Naturally, Johnny Diamond was centre stage as always, looking sharp and dazzling in a gold suit. There were two people from the Herald, a young man and an older woman with a digital camera as well as a cameraman setting up his equipment on an expensive-looking tripod. Frank gave his name to the young man and took his place with the others as a squeal of tyres announced the arrival of a sporty looking BMW, which pulled up to park on double yellow lines outside the Theatre. The driver was in his forties, but looked older, a heavy-set man in a loud suit and flashing an artificially white grin around him. As if on cue a couple of giggling teenage girls came rushing across to be handed glossy publicity photos that the man signed with a practiced flourish. 'What a tosser.' The voice behind Frank sounded local. 'Who is he, then?'. 'Southerners. That's Duncan Carrell - Mister TeeVee himself. Used to sell sofas now they've got him reading the news. Reckons he's god's gift he does, he'd bust a fit if he knew they had to pay those girls a fiver apiece to pretend to be fans. You Southerners don't know what you're missing, eh?.' 
          'Right then, lets roll, time and money, eh?.' 'Mister TeeVee' flashed his veneers around, winked at the woman from the Herald, adjusted his tie and took the mike from the cameraman who nodded to cue him in. 'I'm at the North Pier Theatre in Blackpool with Elvis, Elvis... and Elvis!. A parade of Elvises in fact. We all loved Elvis, but these Elvises – or should I say Elvi have taken their obsession with The King of Pop to new heights.' Walking over to the middle of the dazzling semi-circle of contestants, the insincere presenter went straight up to Johnny Diamond. 'Now, Johnny, as Britain's leading Elvis impersonator, a little birdie tells me you were in hospital. Nothing serious, I hope?.' 'That's right, Duncan, I was at the kiddies Unit at the Victoria Hospital making a personal appearance. It's not just about the money.' Shaking Johnny's hand, the teeth moved on to chat to the man from TCB, the company staging the contest.
           Frank exchanged a few words with the other contenders before heading back to his van. The contest was set for that night and he had a long day to kill. Interested, he chatted to the cameraman and went back to the Transit. The couple from the Herald were waiting for him. 'Frank...Field?' Frank pointed past the young reporter at the name emblazoned across the side of the van. 'Oh, Fielding. Listen, have you got a minute?.' 'I guess. Let me change though, these outfits cost a fortune and you have to look after them.' The woman interrupted. 'No problem – meet us in the Regal, the Hotel opposite. We'll be in the bar.'
           The Regal was just that; Regal. The place was one of those classy old Hotels that you could still find at most seaside towns. This early in the season it was still half empty though, the recession biting even in a Holiday town like Blackpool. The owners had solved this by opening the Hotel's cafe and bar to the public with a range of flat-rate meals and offers. Jackie and Dave – the introductions made – turned out to be the only journalists not into expense account liquid lunches, ordering soft drinks for themselves and a coffee for Frank. He wondered if he should have gone for something a bit more 'showbiz', but he was not much of a drinker and he would be driving anyway. 'So, you want a scoop on the contest, then?.' Jackie cut across Dave, who was about to say something. 'We've already spoken to some of the other contestants and we spent an hour waiting for that ego-maniac Johnny Rhinestone or whatever the name to visit the kids at the Victoria.' Frank felt he should say something; no-one really liked Johnny, but he had gone out of his way to visit the kids... 'Well, I'm not sure where this is...' Dave held up his hand, shaking it to placate Frank. 'Don't worry, Frank, we're not bothered about slagging anyone off. Just as well, really; he turned up half-cut, parked that jukebox of his across the Disabled parking and he was gone before we'd got the names of the kids he was supposedly there for. Cheeky sod asked if there was an interview fee.' Jackie leaned across, her tone confidential. 'We've heard it's a fix. The competition – its rigged.' Frank sat back, suddenly very uncomfortable. All he could think of was to say 'Oh.'
           It was chaos. The dressing room was originally designed for a chorus of showgirls and they'd still needed to use more rooms. Everywhere you looked, there was Elvis. Over by the door to the bathroom a couple of Fifties Elvises were ignoring the strict NO SMOKING sign as they waited for a last nervous wee. The organisers were rushing around getting the running order sorted and the lighting technicians were running through the arrangements that had been specially arranged. The show was going to knock 'em dead. This time Frank had made sure he was early, one of the first to sign his name on the entry forms and hand over his £50 – and then another forty to cover a range of hidden extras such as insurance and dressing facilities. It was nearly a hundred quid, but it was too late to back out now. He'd already spent on diesel, and with the caravan he was in for nearly two hundred. All this for a contest that might have been a con!. He put the thought from his mind and concentrated on the door marked 'STAGE ONLY'.
           The rehearsal had been a hurried affair with some kid who had no clue who Elvis was and cared less. Each Act had three songs, one from each stage of Elvis Presley's career. Costume was a matter of personal choice, but most acts had brought three. Frank reckoned at his age he was pushing it a bit, but had gone with a sports jacket and trousers he had found in a charity shop for the first number, the famous Army uniform from GI Blues and, of course the Mexican Sundial for the finale. In the GI outfit he grabbed the guitar – a car boot find – and hung it around his neck, ready for the Walk-On. His other outfits hung from a rail ready for the changes. The start of the show, the contestants started the Walk-On with the young Elvis first and finishing with the Vegas Years Elvis – he could hear the audience now that the door to the stage had opened, they were cheering and whistling while the compere, a fast-talking Lancashire funny man worked them up. Finally, the stage assistant appeared and gave a thumbs-up, holding one hand to his earpiece and waving the young Elvi forwards. It was time.
           'And now, fate played its hand and Elvis was off to the Army and the Gee...Eye...BA-LOOOS!' Waving his arm in a big wheel that ended in a pointed finger at the edge of the stage, the compere held the pose dramatically. Snapping his legs forward Frank was the third GI Elvis on stage, but he was focused, determined to do it right. He couldn't see a thing, just a range of searing white lights that burnt the huge room away to just the large stage and the first few rows. A bench table had been set up for the judging panel, which was made up of a local DJ, the President of the Elvis Presley Fan Club (GB) Ltd, the MD of TCB Enterprises and, still flashing that fake smile, Duncan Carrell. It was exhilarating, but at the same time scary as hell. He walked round, leaving himself room to work the stage, to try to play to the room, even though it was just the teaser for the show to follow. Shaking his hip he lashed his leg back and simmered at the lights for a pause, before cracking into a smile – and then it was time to move off to the wings. It was hard to tell, but he thought the crowd had roared just a little bit louder for him...
           'I ain't doing it, forget it! I can't go out there!.' The crowd around the cubicle parted as Frank approached. The sounds of Heartbreak Hotel came through the door as it opened behind him; it was Johnny Diamond. 'Out the way, JD needs to take a leak!.' Frank asked one of the others what was wrong. 'It's that kid from Essex – he's bricking it in there. It's his first time doing this and he's been throwing up and all sorts.' Johnny Diamond walked up to the locked door and called out to the terrified young man. 'Hey, you've got to come out of there some time, kid!.' The voice that whimpered back was shaky and it sounded as if he was crying. 'I can't. Leave me alone.' With a shrug, Johnny walked back to the changing room. 'Oh well. I tried. You just can't help some people, eh?'. The stage assistant pushed his way into the scrum and called the next four acts up; Frank had just minutes to get changed, but he waved the crowd away and decided to change tack. 'You know, Elvis had terrible nerves too you know.' 'What, like this?.' Frank persisted. 'No, not so bad, but when he played Vegas – he hadn't been in front of a live audience in years, he wasn't even sure if they'd still like him. We're all frightened mate, its scary until you get going. What act are you doing?. Open the door, at least. I can't talk to the door all night.' There was a pause, then the clack of the bolt. 'Um, I'm Danny – Danny Jordan. I do, I call my show the '56 Special; all the early stuff plus some rockabilly stuff Elvis would have done. If he was me, I mean.' 'Sounds cool – anyway, I've got to get changed, if I heard that guy right you're on after me... be a bit silly not to go on now; they won't give you your money back...'
            The roar of the crowd was intense; the big auditorium was steaming now. 'Elv-ISH Prezley folks!, Elv-ISH – actually a Taxi driver from Luton called Bill, left the stage to loud applause. The compere cracked a quick gag and, checking his card announced 'The Electrical Elvis, Frank Fielding!.' What the? - Frank had just given his name and that he was from Sussex. Somebody must have thought their little joke funny, but Frank was dismayed. It sounded cheap, like all those jokes he hated. There was no time, though; he was on. The lights shrank into a spot that lit him up from the waist up. Strumming softly, he began singing Love Me Tender, the breathy, quivering tones that of a young lover to his girl. He walked the stage, trying to see, but he was blinded by the beam. He let himself go, his thoughts and feelings falling away from the stage into the song. The words, written so long ago were just as powerful and moving as when they first dried on the page. The song ended to silence. Then the whole place erupted. Startled, Frank stood there like a deer in headlights until he felt the compere's hand on his arm. The man hissed into his ear 'Don't milk it, pal' then waved Frank off with that godawful Electrical Elvis bit.
           On a high from his reception, Frank stayed in the wings to see Danny Jordan on stage. Despite his nerves, which were obviously still troubling him, the kid put on a brave face and went out there, doing his version of That's All Right. Johnny Diamond was next, the funny man introducing him as Mr. Rock n' Roll. The opening bars of Don't be Cruel played and Frank went backstage to the dressing room. He had asked to do the song, but the organisers had said the song was already taken, he would have to do something else. It hadn't really bothered him at the time, but now he began to think about what the Herald reporters had told him. They didn't really have any proof as such, nothing they could print – certainly not repeat in any court of law, just rumours and accusations. It had all started with a scandal with an Elvis Tribute Act called Dakota Wayne who had been found to be using cover tracks – CDs recorded by a well known American tribute singer. Everyone used CDs; the standard was to sing live to a backing track, an accompaniment much as used in Karaoke. Few Tribute Acts could afford a live band, most ETA's worked venues that didn't pay enough or often have the room. Using cover tracks was the ultimate disgrace in the Tribute World though; it was deceiving the public and bad for the industry. At the time he was found out, Wayne was playing double bills with Johnny Diamond. Nothing was ever proved, but the finger of suspicion had pointed strongly at Johnny. He had claimed he knew nothing about the deception – and Dakota Wayne never played another gig.
           There was an intermission scheduled between each section of the contest – it was billed as a chance to meet the stars, but Frank felt it was more to allow the TCB people to sell their wares. The lobby of the theatre had been converted into an indoor market, with stalls and tables offering everything from Elvis Presley CDs to T-shirts, Key-Rings and tacky, kitschy baubles of every conceivable type. A huge blow-up of the morning's photo call dominated one stand. Frank went to get a copy; but his eyes were shut in the photo, must have been taken when he blinked. He asked the girl running the stand if the other shots were available. She said she would check and find him at the next interval if there were. He went for a stroll to see what was on offer. As much as he disapproved of some of the cash-ins Frank was as hooked as any other Elvis fan; dressed in his GI Blues uniform he managed to resist the pull of the souvenirs and memorabilia for all of five minutes before he'd got the company card out. He splurged on a set of postcards and a bobble-head Elvis and was debating a costly book about Graceland when a woman's voice broke into his reverie. 'Aren't you supposed to be selling us this stuff?.' 'Oh, couldn't resist. I'm a real mug for all this kind of thing. I'm more of a fan than anything, really.' 'Well, I heard you sing and I thought you were wonderful. Would you...' Frank didn't hear the rest, he was looking into her eyes.
           She wasn't stunning, but she was attractive and it was those eyes, dark green then emerald by turn. Her hair was worn in a pony-tail and looked as if she dyed it to get that shade of jet black. Her face was easy to look at, and it was only gradually that Frank realised her lips were moving '...sign my album, please?.' He blinked and smiled his apology – she looked hurt and he'd been rude. 'Miles away. Sorry.' 'Anywhere sunny?.' 'Pardon?' 'I always say that. You know, people say they're miles away and I say 'Anywhere sunny?.' It's just me, just being silly.' Frank found himself warming to this silly person. 'I like silly.' Frank took her pen and signed below himself in the group shot taken that morning. Out of curiosity, he looked at her and tilted his head. 'Mind if I?.' 'Oh, no; please do.' He leafed through the album, front to back (A habit of his) careful not to damage it. As well as today's shot the book was nearly full of tribute artists, going back years by the look of the shots. It was fascinating, the digital age gave way to film and polaroids. It was a cardboard time machine that went back to what must have been the early eighties. Finally, the front pages of the album were press cuttings, yellowed by time, protected by plastic. They were from 1977. King Elvis Dead Elvis Presley dies at 42 Elvis is Dead. Frank still remembered what he had been doing that far off August day. He had been knocked off his bike by the blind old bugger that lived up the road and had ripped his new jeans. He smiled ruefully, those distant memories recalled so vividly and instantly. 'You know, I still remember...' but he stopped in mid-sentence. She was crying.
           'Look, I've got to go.' 'I know, the show's back on in a minute. You probably think I'm a right nutter; stupid, middle aged woman with a stupid scrap book.' 'Hey!' Frank flushed with emotion, then spoke more quietly, taking her by the arm. 'Hey. I don't think that. Where did that all come from?. I don't think its stupid at all – anyway, its not a scrap book. It's an album, a history of Elvis Tribute Acts. Why would I think that's stupid?. I think it's amazing. You were right though; the show – I'm on soon so I've got to go.' 'Ok. Sorry.' Frank held his hands up; he really did have to get going. 'What are you singing, Frank?.' 'Wooden Heart.' She watched him go, dabbing her tears with a tissue from her handbag. She was smiling now, muttering to herself 'I knew it.'
           Once again, the crowd went wild, although there had been a problem with the lights when, halfway through the house lights all came up. At least the funny man hadn't called him the 'Electrical Elvis' this time – he'd had a word about that backstage, as well as making a point of telling the compere how brave young Danny had been in overcoming his nerves. She was out there too - Frank was pleased to see her there in the third row and just had time to see her smile and wave before the lights went back down. Johnny Diamond was on next, with a blistering rendition of Such a Night – one of Frank's favourite songs. He wished he'd done it, but had to concede that Johnny's version was better than his own. The audience loved it too and made their feelings clear with a thunderous ovation. Clearly the compere agreed, ushering Johnny off with applause of his own and 'What about that, then? - but next up, its the kid from Southend who's shown a lot of heart tonight. Give it up for...Danny-Jordan!.' Danny came out in a beach bum outfit with a garland of flowers and a Hawaiian guitar. Frank watched the kid as he started to sing Blue Hawaii. He knew the kid was going to be ok – he might even win this, although if he'd been a betting man, Frank would have put it between Johnny Diamond, the kid and possibly that guy from Sheffield that the crowd seemed to like. Despite his own reception, Frank felt the crowd were just being kind; he was good, but no-body beat Johnny Diamond when it came to doing Elvis.
           It was all over. Frank sat on the long dressing table looking at the floor. The security guy had been doing his rounds and had seen nothing, the duty manager gave Frank a form to fill in, but pointed out the sign that had been obscured by hanging costumes – ironic, really. The sign read The North Pier Theatre Management cannot be held responsible for any loss, breakage or damage to artiste's property... His costume was gone; the Mexican Sundial Jumpsuit that he had spent so much on, waited so long for had been stolen. There was nothing he could do. There was a burst of applause and Danny came in, all smiles. His face became serious as Frank told him what had happened. 'Well, maybe you can borrow a suit – you've got this, Frank, really. I reckon you could win. There's thirty odd jumpsuits in here, maybe one of the guys will lend you one for the finale...'. Johnny Diamond came in from the bathroom, whistling. 'What's wrong, Frank?.' 'My costume for the finale; stolen. All these people in an out and no-one sees a thing.' 'Can't trust anyone these days. Well, the show must go on and all that crap.' Johnny had a folding dresser on wheels, a smart bit of kit that opened out to reveal draws and it's own light-up mirror. Sliding his costumes along the rail to make his selection, he didn't notice Danny was sitting on his own stool across from him and could see into the dresser. 'Hey, Johnny – you've got quite a selection there.' Smiling with self-assurance and confidence, the veteran replied smoothly. 'Goes with the turf, kiddo. Be the best: wear the best. I pay a fortune for this schmutter; Christ knows why, those old biddies out there don't know the difference.' At the other end of the long changing room, Frank wasn't in the mood. He started to pack his stuff up. Undeterred, Danny persisted. 'Well, how about you lend Frank one of those suits? - you must be about the same size...' 'Whoa-whoa-whoa...WHOAH... No way no how. I don't lend my stuff out; end of.' 'Fair enough.' There was a pause, then. 'A monkey.' 'Come again?.'Five Hundred Quid. As we Cockney's say; a monkey.' Young Danny looked from Johnny Diamond to Frank and back again in disbelief. Five Hundred?; to borrow a costume for ten minutes?.
           The stalls in the Lobby were doing a roaring trade. Frank walked around in a daze, not really paying anything much attention. He was wearing his street clothes; jeans and shirt. The lady from earlier had been there, but he walked the other way before she spotted him. Conversation was the last thing on his mind. He would go out in these clothes rather than pay that flash sod a penny. 'Hey, Mr. Fielding!, Frank!' he turned to see the photographer's assistant from earlier waving an envelope. 'Glad I found you – here's a copy of everything. We've been rushed off our feet, but you were all supposed to get a set for free as part of the entry fee.' Thanking her, Frank took the folder and went backstage. There was a surprise waiting for him; a Jumpsuit wrapped in plastic hanging in his place. He put the folder with his stuff and took the post-it note stuck to the suit. 'You owe me a Monkey. Get out there and Take Care of Business – Danny.' The mad sod!, despite himself, Frank had to smile. The money wasn't a problem, although he would have rather choked than give Johnny Diamond five hundred of his hard earned pounds.
           'Its the finale folks, its been one helluva night so far, but we've reached the seventies – the Vegas years!. And now, live from Blackpool's own North Pier Theatre, our finalists must compete for the coveted title of winner of the UK World of Elvis!. As you know, the winner gets an all expenses paid trip to live the dream at Las Vegas' premier Casino Hotel and Resort, The Oasis.' An upwards wave from the compere had the audience oohing appreciatively. 'There, the winner will compete for the World Title and the big prize... Fifty THOUSAND Dollars Ladies and Gentlemen!. That's not all, you wonderful people you, no the runner-up also gets to go – but we only pay his bus fare to the airport!.' (Laughter) 'Only joking, folks. He has to find his own fare...'
           Johnny Diamond went first; predictably going with Viva Las Vegas, flashing his smile around and showing off to the crowd. He was good and he knew it, throwing scarves out left and right he did an extended version, which caused some muttering backstage as none of the other acts had known remixes were allowed. Still, it was anybody's guess and, despite the rumours the contest was everything Frank had hoped for. Even so, the loss of the precious Sundial suit was a blow. He made a point of thanking Danny backstage – the jumpsuit Johnny had rented to him wasn't anything special, a cheap copy of the Aloha from Hawaii suit – but it created the right image and Frank knew if he sang his heart out he was still in with a fighting chance. Danny was next, with Suspicious Minds. His youthful style didn't really suit the later Elvis stuff – but he sang with conviction and put his heart into it and the crowd were won over by the young star.
The lights went down – Frank rushed out into place as the lights flashed around searching for – and then finding him, standing in a dramatic pose, head down. The music started then the words came - softly at first, then rising into the air around the auditorium to fill it with sound. It was If I Can Dream. Frank knew that Elvis had loved the song – it represented a final break with the cornball, cheese and tacky songs of all those movies that he had learned to hate so much. If I Can Dream was not the hardest Elvis song to sing, but it was one of the hardest to do authentically, to convey the emotion and sentiment behind the song's message of love and unity. It left Frank emotionally drained – but only when he got 'it' – that nebulous hard to define feeling that he had performed to the very highest of his ability. As he finished, he fell to one knee, hand raised in a victory salute, head bowed again – exhausted. The roof shook and they were on their feet as one, cheering, shouting and clapping. It was the name they were shouting, over and over that brought the tears to Frank's eye; it wasn't his name. It was Elvis.
           'Calm down there Missus – you'll strain something.' The compere did his best, but the audience was keen to see the result. The lights were on the judges' table now and they were deep in conference. Eventually, the Local DJ seemed to have persuaded the President of the Elvis Fan Club (GB) to agree on some point, while the Managing Director of TCB seemed content with sipping his water and examining his glasses. Duncan Carrell – Mister TeeVee was flashing that smile around and generally trying to appear useful. Finally, the MD waved the compere over and handed him a folded slip of paper. 'Can we have all the Elvis Tributes out on stage please?. And here we go, Ladies and Gennamen... hang on, it's a shopping list... no, wait... drumroll please.... I'm going to read out the winners in reverse order, starting with the third place – and automatic free entry to next year's contest – which goes to... a kid with a lot of heart, give it up for – Danny Jordan!. Danny Jordan everyone!.' As the crowd applauded, the funny man handed Danny a certificate, then moved across to stand facing the remaining ETAs. 'Second Place... and well deserved too, goes to...'
            Monday morning came and work with it. Finishing his coffee, Frank set his mug down in the kitchen, took a quick look at his Second Place award and smiled. The best part of a grand for second place. Still, he was eligible to enter the Finals in Las Vegas – if he could scrape the money together in time. He had until August, plus his passport needed renewing. He'd need to drum up all the business he could get. That first day back passed in a blur and he was back at Graceland by seven. He switched on the telly and went to make a brew. Mug in hand, he sat down and drank his tea. Remembering the envelope he opened it, then did a double-take; the name inked on the outside was Johnny Diamond. Must have given me the wrong envelope... still, everyone would get the same pictures, so it wouldn't matter. Flicking through the glossies, Frank smiled as he saw the group shot – his eyes firmly shut. The smile faded as he flicked to a 7 by 5 print of Johnny Diamond smiling and shaking hands with the Managing Director of TCB Enterprises. With their spare hands, they were holding a large certificate and what looked like airline tickets, the word Winner clearly visible on the certificate. The words of that reporter – Jackie, that was her name, came back to Frank as he suddenly felt his blood run cold. The contest was a fix all along...
           There was no way to prove it, of course. In the movies, the forensics expert would say tests proved the photo was taken before the contest or something like that. All Frank had was his word on it that the envelope was handed to him before the finale and the vote. He vaguely recalled the DJ who had seemed to be trying to convince the Fan Club woman of something, but little else. Clearly, the MD of TCB must have been in on it, but proving it was something else. That wasn't all; Frank studied the pictures closely – in the background of the handshake photograph was a desk with a chair behind it – just visible, draped over the desk was a garment of some kind. What made it so instantly recognisable was the circular golden Sundial pattern. Now Frank knew who had stolen his suit... and it was easy to work out why; Johnny Diamond was a cheat who resorted to dirty tricks and sabotage to get his way. Well, damn him!. That would be the last time Frank entered a contest... tired, he found himself nodding off...
           “It was gonna happen, sooner or later. I mean, most of my friends at the time got their cards about the same time, hell my number come up I was packed, man. Packed-READY.” Putting the picture back on the kitchen shelf, the figure in the tracksuit walked through to the big open lounge. A record player, an RCA Victor was playing a military cadence, snappy-snazz drums. Throwing a mock salute he broke out into laughter. Didy'a ever – ever have one of those days?. Well, boy ah'll tell you – I had me over seven hunnert of them days. Two years, man that's some way to make a livin'. Overseas was kinda weird – I mean it's different over there, things ain't the same...” Wandering through the room to the curtains he caught sight of himself in a full length mirror. Pausing, he lifted his sunglasses to look himself over, swiftly replacing them as if displeased at his appearance. Snapping into a karate ready stance, he tossed his hair over with a contemptuous flick and – pow-pow-pow his foot and hands exploded into an imaginary opponent. This time he seemed satisfied at the image in the mirror. Turning to look over his shoulder, he raised a hand in farewell...
           He wasn't happy with the photo – who is?, but at least Frank had his new passport. The older ones had looked better. Something had changed in him the last few weeks; he'd worked harder than ever before, had new cards printed and everything. He adopted the lightning flash from Elvis Presley's famous TCB motto as his own, but decided he'd done enough with the radio spot; he'd shelled out for this one on Reen's advice; the music was the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme with a cheesy voice-over; Fielding Electrical – taking care of business – in a flash!. It was so dumb it made people laugh; and Frank had learnt something about advertising that day. Make 'em laugh and they don't mind spending. Rewiring a conservatory to rigging the security lighting for a garden centre, the jobs kept coming, until, finally he was happy he could afford to take the week off and cover his ticket to the States. He found a bucket shop online and on the Wednesday before the finals he was high over the Atlantic. Sandwiched in between a noisy family from Liverpool and an old couple returning from a family visit, Frank settled in, knowing he was going nowhere for several long hours – ironic, considering the distance he was travelling. After lunch, he settled in and did his best to get some sleep.

MEMPHIS

The plane landed with a jolt, then a gentler bump and they were down. Memphis International Airport was a sprawling affair and it took twenty minutes before Frank was reunited with his luggage – a single suitcase and the shoulder bag were all he had brought, travelling light. The air-conditioned airport was poor preparation for the muggy mid August heat that clung to his face and made his clothes damp almost immediately. He found a taxi rank and waved. The ride to the outskirts of town was a bit more comfortable, the taxi's air-conditioning and the soft ride of American cars a pleasant new experience.
           The taxi dropped Frank off under a neon sign that read 'Four-Points Classic Cars' and he went in to the office where a nice lady in plastic butterfly spectacles looked at his papers and UK licence before taking his credit card and his deposit for a 1971 Chevrolet Impala convertible in white. All he needed was a cowboy hat and shades and he could have driven off the set of an old Burt Reynolds comedy. The shift was easier than he thought and the massive V8 pulled the aged tank along with an effortless might that spoke volumes about America's self perception at the beginning of the 1970's. What a country!. Frank pulled over, careful not to hit the kerb as he checked the map the lady had given him. He was somewhere along East Shelby Drive and hopefully just a few miles from the motel the lady had recommended.
           The Pharaoh Mo-Tel and RV Park was what trendy types loved to call 'kitsch' – the whole set-up was a monument to tacky done in an Ancient Egyptian theme. It looked as if Cecil B.De Mille had sold off the sets to Cleopatra. The main reception building was done out like a pyramid with a pair of plaster sphinxes sitting guard at either side of the entrance. Frank paid for two nights in the Rameses suite and was given an old-style hotel room key attached to a heavy metal triangle shaped like a pyramid in profile. His suite was fun; a comfortable plush version of a temple and a bathroom tiled with mozaic in faux lapis, the huge bath canopied to resemble a Nile barge. It was mad, crazy mad and he loved it on sight. If Elvis had seen this place he'd have bought it to hold parties there. The tv had so many channels if he'd watched each one for a minute it would be dawn by the time he had gone round them all – the main difference was the adverts, which crashed into every programme every seven minutes without fail. After sampling the mini-bar – yes, it was shaped like a sarcophagus, Frank ended the first night of his American adventure by falling asleep on the sofa.
           Dawn broke in on Frank and still it was nearly nine before he was awake, the air-conditioning saving him from getting stuck to the leatherette of the sofa. He went for a quick spin in the barge and discovered the joy of a foam rinse shower before venturing out to have a late breakfast at a real American truckstop he had spotted on the way over the day before. It was getting on, so he headed into town. For some reason, the experience of driving on the wrong side of the road was more un-nerving the second day, with Frank's nerves almost failing him on a monster of an intersection. He needed to be in the middle lane to get where he was heading, but this meant carving up an eighteen wheeler and the driver stayed on his bumper until he turned onto an off ramp and suddenly, there it was; Sun Studios. The shock of seeing a place you know from a thousand pictures can be a real jolt to the system – and this was Sun Studios!.
           They had all recorded here – everyone from the no-hit wonders to the Million Dollar Quartet. Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis... and an eighteen year old who wanted to make a record for his Mother. Frank spent a happy half hour going round the tiny building, talking to the lady who explained the history of the place and listening to some of the music that started the whole thing that was Rock N' Roll. In that very room. Next he took in the Peabody Hotel, with its famous ducks before eating an Elvis Bacon Sandwich on Beale Street, where the young Elvis had gawked at the wares in the shop windows. Frank looked at his watch and knew it was time. He climbed into the Chevy and drove South. South to Graceland.
           You can hardly miss it. Driving South on Elvis Presley Boulevard you turn left through the music gate and drive up to the house – but you can't, of course. Frank left the Impala in a massive lot and queued to buy his ticket. There were all sorts of packages available, but he just wanted to see the house that Elvis bought for himself and his family. The marketing people had clearly had a free hand, with an advertising campaign that could have been organised by General Patton. As he had no interest in seeing the private jets that Elvis owned, or the motor museum, he went outside to board the bus that takes visitors in small, regulated numbers across the road to the music gate – the wrought ironwork featuring outlines of Elvis with guitar and musical notes. There was already a crowd building up – T-shirt vendors and candle sellers doing a brisk trade. It was Elvis Week, the vigil was underway. The coach pulled up with a huff of air-brakes and Frank found himself filing off to be greeted by the smiling tour guide who was saying something or other about something or other. He was mesmerised – the stone lions, the four massive columns of the portico, the limestone... it was real. If he'd not known the most famous house in the World after the White House and, possibly Buckingham Palace, he might have guessed it belonged to a judge or a prosperous merchant – a plastic surgeon perhaps. If it was compared to the homes of the modern stars, it would seem wanting – but to the young man born in a one room shotgun shack, it was a palace to rival Versailles.
           Frank already knew what was behind the top right windows, that Elvis had died in the bathroom above the doorway – what Elvis fan hadn't seen the photos on the Internet or in books?. 'Sir. Please – we need to move inside, the party is waiting.' The guide was politely concerned, but had clearly seen people unable to take it all in before. Frank apologised, remembered the cheap camera he'd brought with him and snapped the outside before going inside. The dining room was laid out as if expecting diners, the massive sofa in the living room still waited for Lisa Marie to bounce on and the three tvs were on in the television room in the basement. Even the Pool table in the sheikhs tent that was the games room looked as if the balls had just stopped rolling. Everywhere you looked it was 1977. The bar in the Den – better known now as the Jungle Room - seemed to be waiting for the guys to roll in from a hellraising trip across America, Sonny handing Elvis a Pepsi as they watched the Superbowl on the Videobeam, 'E' cracking jokes as Marty threw peanuts at Lamar.
           Finally, after trooping round the trophy room, built in the old racquetball court, Frank emerged dazzled by all the gold and platinum on the walls and the original jumpsuits to the Meditation garden to pay his respects. The bronze slabs were a sober reminder of the human mortality of even King Elvis, who lay there next to his Parents and his Grandmother. It would have taken a fleet of florists trucks to deliver all the flowers and displays that had been tastefully arranged around the garden. Elvis Club – Finland, RIP Elvis Presley, Gone Never Forgotten, From a Fan, the messages spoke of the grief and respect that fans still felt from across the globe. Before he knew it, Frank was on his knee, a lump in his throat and his heart heavy for a man he had never met. A part of him knew why people sneered; it was 'obsessive', it 'wasn't healthy' – but Frank was a fan first and foremost. He genuinely loved Elvis' music and the way the man had tried to live his life despite all the pressure of fame. Finally, it was time to leave. The coach dropped the party back at the complex across the busy road and Frank weakened – he went to the Elvis Automobile Museum to look at the cars and kill some time. By the time he got back to the Chevy he was loaded down with tat; DVDs, books and postcards. Just a few hours now; he went up the road a mile or two and had lunch at a Burger place. American food was still a surprise; the burgers were the size of frisbees and the waitress refilled his coffee without taking any extra for it. Frank liked America, it was still alien to him, but the people were friendly and the service here was incredible. Growing up in England, he had been bombarded by American culture thanks to tv and cinema, it made the place seem somehow familiar. Tipping the waitress with what he hoped was a generous amount – she smiled and waved, so he assumed he'd got it right, he drove back to the motel to deposit his goodies and change for the night.
           It was nearly ten by the time he drove back up to the car-park, but it was packed – he had to go another half a mile before finding a place to leave the Impala. Walking back up Elvis Presley Boulevard he could see the glow from a quarter of a mile away; they were lighting the candles. Every year it was the same. A group of fans would gather outside the music gate at Graceland and sit, holding a vigil. Some would sing Elvis songs, most would sit quietly and enjoy the moment. Frank hadn't been sure about this, but he was here at last, it was Elvis week and he had chosen his trip for that reason. It seemed stupid to go to this trouble and expense and not at least have a look at the vigil. The vigilant were, surprisingly, mostly young people – none of the fresh faced kids here could have known the King when he was alive. Squatting down to take in the atmosphere, Frank asked a girl why she had come. 'He was the King. I come here every yer – well, It's only my second time here. But my sister's here somewhere and she's been, oh, lots of times. You a reporter?.' Frank shook his head and smiled. He walked around a bit – there seemed to be about a hundred people, with more arriving every few minutes. Already a fast food van had pulled up across the road, but the police moved it on to a safer place on the same side of the road, which was still busy at that hour.
           Frank moved on to the wall, where a girl was scribbling her name with an indelible marker. The wall was a legend in itself amongst the faithful – ever since Elvis had died, they had left messages there and it had become a kind of shrine, a focus for their devotion. Much the same had happened with Jim Morrison's grave in Paris and the Diana memorial. People who never knew the man still grieved and paid their respects to Elvis Presley, but Frank declined the girl's offer of her pen politely. He was about to leave when it started; tentatively, a girl started singing Love me Tender, her voice broken with emotion. Others took up the refrain, helping her and rewarding her courage in starting the sing. This was how a young Elvis would have heard his first songs, not on the radio, but at family gatherings and the late-night 'sings' that were popular in the South of his youth. Inspired and captivated, Frank decided to stay, snapping a few shots with his camera before walking off to the van for a Pepsi. The prices were shocking – the guy was a rip-off merchant and couldn't care less who knew it. Disgusted, Frank walked back to his car and drove back past the vigil to an all-night convenience store he had found earlier. The prices there were still high, at least by American standards, but he paid half what he would have in England. The clerk even lent him a trolley to cart his purchases back to the Chevy.
           'You can't do this, man! - I got the concession here, goddam! You don't come here and take the money outta my wallet asshole!.' In England, Frank would have punched the man, but he was mindful of the fact that this was definitely not England. He settled for laughing at the profiteer, finished unloading the trunk and, leaving the boxes in the care of a nice old couple from Iowa he drove back to his parking spot. He walked back, legs now aching and was pleasantly surprised to see the old couple steadfastly refusing the racketeer's offer of $100 to leave. Ignoring the greedy man's protests, Frank opened the boxes and announced free refreshments on a first come-first served basis. It took less than ten minutes before he was left with empty cardboard boxes and plastic wrapping, but he was happy to have done it for these decent people. By now, the singing had died down as midnight drew near. Why not? - Frank was an ETA, after all – where better to perform than here at Graceland?.
           Going over to the music gate, he looked through a gap to the house. For a moment, he could have sworn a curtain moved in one of the upstairs windows, but he shook the idea away and turned to the crowd. There must have been hundreds of them there, with at least twice as many candles lighting the place. There were now a few reporters there from the local tv stations and a sound recordist for some radio station or other. Without his costume and wig, Frank felt strangely vulnerable – vulnerable and rather silly. Clearing his throat, he smiled awkwardly and held up his hand. 'My name is Frank Fielding, I'm from England. I'd ah, I'd like to sing for you if I may.' Most of the fans seemed not to have noticed this stranger in their midst, a few held up their Pepsi cans in thanks, but it was one girl – the one who had offered him her pen – who nodded in encouragement and sat expectantly. Others nearby took their cue from her and Frank took his from them. Looking beyond them to the distance he began to sing. He sang Old Shep, the tearful song of a boy for his faithful dogas always, the song got a strong reaction, Frank rarely sang it because he could never get through it without ending up in floods himself. Tonight was no different, but he wiped his eyes and, as a few of his new-found audience started to clap he launched straight into Blue Moon of Kentucky. The vocalisations were extremely hard to copy, but Frank had years of practice with this early favourite. Afterwards he gave a self-conscious wave and went to go, but they wouldn't let him; they wanted more. There's only so many Elvis songs that work without accompaniment, so he did an old favourite of his; Love Letters. Frank was at his very best with the low, husky numbers and he really hit it with the old classic.
           It was approaching midnight when a murmur came from the crowd, the gate opened and two burly security men came out. One stood blocking the gate while the other picked his way through the crowd to approach Frank. Leaning in close, his voice a whisper he asked if Frank had a car – puzzled, Frank replied that he did. The security man indicated his colleague still standing by the gate and asked for the keys to the old Chevy. What happened next would stay with Frank for the rest of his life. The guard closed the gate behind Frank, shutting out the crowd, who by now had got wind that something was happening. Riding up to the side of the house in a golf cart, the guard showed an incredulous Frank through a narrow path around to the back to some steps beside a closed door outside which stood another man, though this man wore casual clothes. Smiling, the man spoke in a voice that was friendly, but firm 'Welcome to Graceland. I'll have to ask for some I.D. and ask if you are carrying any cameras or weapons.' Handing over his UK drivers licence and the camera, Frank smiled back, wondering what this was all about. He had a nasty feeling he was about to be sued for singing copyrighted material without some kind of licence or permit, but was shown inside.
           Going through a small room a doorway led to the hallway, the man leading Frank through to the living room on the left. To his surprise, the rope that had prevented entry during the tour was now gone, but that was nothing to the shock he got when he saw the people in the music room. Going forward, the man asked Frank to wait for a moment as a waiter stepped past with a tray of what looked like champagne flutes. There was a small group of them there, expensively dressed men and a few women, one of whom listened as the man whispered in her ear. The woman was dark haired and well built, her hair brunette and flowing with a look that was too natural to be entirely that. Nodding, she turned from the small party and Frank found himself – to his absolute astonishment – gaping into the amused green eyes of Lisa-Marie Presley.
           'Frank – may I call you Frank?.' Nodding dumbly, Frank suddenly became aware he was staring. 'Sorry, erm, yes. Frank – I'm Frank.' He took a flute of champagne from the tray that was offered to him. Lisa-Marie declined with a polite smile. 'I guess you're wondering why I invited you tonight. Well, we were watching the vigil outside – the whole estate has cameras and, well I got curious. I sent one of the boys down to the gate to see you sing and he said you sounded just like my daddy.' 'I 'm not sure what to say; I'm glad. It's what I do anyway – I'm an Elvis Tribute, well an Electrician mainly... in England, where I'm from.' Frank was cringing inside, he was starting to sound like an idiot. 'Yeah, I could tell. I like England, I live there just now.' Frank had read the papers – Elvis' daughter had bought an estate in Southern England, no more than thirty miles from where he lived. 'I'm from Sussex myself as it goes.' 'As it goes? - wow, I love all that. The British sure have a lot of sayings, kinda like the South here, y'know?.' 'Well, what are your plans while you're over here, Frank?.' 'Not much really, I've never been before, I've always wanted to visit Graceland... must seem stupid to you I guess, but it's been one of my dreams since I was a kid.' 'We get a lot of visitors to the house. Sometimes I think we should just tear it down, but the fans want to come and it's out of my hands really. The company have a lot of plans for the whole area that will keep my Daddy's name alive for the next generation.' Frank understood; she had a lot to be proud of.
            What Frank couldn't understand however was why this famous, rich woman would talk so candidly to a complete stranger. Perhaps she was like that; an open person, as her father had been. Lisa-Marie's guests seemed to be perturbed or amused by her interest in Frank, but she gave no sign of caring, although Frank guessed they must have been both rich and powerful people. He caught a muttered comment aimed in his direction and was about to suggest he leave, but was astonished once more. Whirling hotly on the mutterer – a man in a designer suit – she vented her displeasure. 'You don't ever disrespect me or my guests – you don't own me, none of ya!.' The man stammered an apology, but it was to her back. 'Sorry Frank. Let's go for a walk. Too hot in here's anyhow.'
           Walking along the back of the house under the covered walkway, Lisa-Marie seemed troubled by something. Frank was still too over-awed to relax to enjoy it all, although he was impressed at her no-compromise attitude, clearly something inherited. He could smell her perfume on the night air – it smelled classy, expensive. Lot of memories here...' Frank blurted the words out, then froze, worried that he had put his foot in his mouth. Pausing, Lisa-Marie looked back at him, then shook her head. 'Don't worry – most of them were good. My Mother and Daddy had a lot of good times here, I always loved coming here after the split – Daddy's little girl – my Daddy always got me anything I wanted. I used to ride my pony on the field right here.' They were coming up to the stables now, but suddenly, Lisa-Marie seemed to have tired of walking, turning to go back to the house. 'It's been nice meeting you Frank. I've got to get back – we have business needs looking at, I'm only here for a few more days then I'm having a week in Hawaii with my husband. We have a tour planned sometime next year and I've got an album to complete when I find the time.' Frank laughed, wiping his mouth and smiling. Batting his shoulder playfully, Lisa-Marie asked what he was grinning at. 'I always wanted to meet your Dad – now I think I can tell everybody I have. Obviously you were a chip off the old block.' That seemed to have sparked something deep inside of her – her smile this time was matched by a look of, what was it? - gratitude?, perhaps – certainly she appreciated his words.
           Holding his hand out, Frank took hers and thanked her. She asked if there was anything he needed, and he was suddenly aware of the man in casual clothes standing there. The guy was just there, like a ghost and Frank realised he was more than just an employee. Probably a bodyguard of some kind. He was holding Frank's camera and seeing this Lisa-Marie shook her hair out and wrapped her arm round Frank's shoulder. 'One for the memory?' Smiling, Frank blinked away the flash and, just as suddenly it was over – Lisa-Marie had gone, walking fast and Frank was politely escorted to the side path and the old Chevy. The man handed him a card, holding onto it while he explained that he was not to give the number on it out to anybody under any circumstances. One of the uniformed guards was there, leaning on the buggy. 'Don't see many of these on the road.' Frank thanked the bodyguard – or whatever he actually was and starting the Chevy he followed the buggy down to the music gate. There were fewer fans there now, but Frank still had to wait for the two security men to shoo them clear so he could drive back to the motel.

VEGAS

Elvis Week was off and running with a bang; the town that saw his revival now paid tribute – literally – to his legacy. From the start visitors to Sin City were bombarded with Elvis Week – as Frank went to collect his luggage at McCarran International Airport he had to walk past a series of ever-bigger cardboard promotional boards with the message Elvis! Elvis! Elvis! - One Week With The King or the simpler Elvis Week. Everywhere you looked there was Elvis, from a statue being unveiled at the airport to a lookalike handing out Elvis Tours leaflets. Pushing his luggage – almost nobody carried anything here if they could avoid it to the pick-up zone he shaded his eyes from the glare, trying to spot the Oasis shuttle. It was right above him; a stylised plastic palm tree with a sign; Oasis Hotel and Casino Resort, Complimentary Shuttle, every ten minutes. Air-Conditioned!. Frank was already wiping the sweat from his eyes, after just a minute outside the hermetically-sealed terminal with it's temperature controlled, humidity regulated environment he felt like an ant on a hotplate. By the time the brightly coloured Oasis bus pulled up, he would have killed for a gulp of fresh air.
           Inside, his luggage safely stowed below, Frank was instantly bombarded by the main – the sole – reason for this weird city in the desert. A screen in the head-rest was playing a commercial on a loop, showing the amenities at the Oasis. Apparently the Arabian Nights Floorshow was just being rolled out and someone that might have been Wayne Newton was the celebrity compere on opening night. There was a slot beside the screen, which Frank suddenly recognised as a card swipe – the lady across from him demonstrated this as the bus lurched briefly into a turn onto the freeway. A sideways glance showed a roulette wheel spinning on her screen. They hadn't even left sight of the airport, the perimeter fence was sliding away through the smoked glass windows and already people were busy gambling. As if on cue, the lady – a rather tubby old girl with a kindly glint in her eye, looked across at him and shrugged as if to say 'That's why we came.' Beside her, her husband seemed fixed on his own screen. Frank returned her shrug and left them to it. The commercial was nearly over, evidently timed to the second as the host was just hoping he would enjoy his stay when the bus sighed to a gentle halt, the air-brakes gently releasing their pressure and the bus settling down to allow the older passengers some dignity as they stepped out.
           It was an incredible machine – there was no better word; from the airport right through to checkout, the whole operation ran like skates on ice. The hotel was simply gigantic, on first glance shaped like a colossal tent, acres of mirrored glass and polished steel giving the curvature to what was actually just the mother of all right angles. A covered entrance – yes, it was air-conditioned (A subtle effect that got noticably cooler the closer to the massive glass doors you got) took the guests straight to the hotel check-in desks, their luggage arriving as if by some magic trick on a long buggy at a side door. Porters seemed to emerge from the floor, from a hidden staircase, to swarm onto the trunks and cases. There were no high–rollers – they wouldn't have been allowed to wait ten minutes – or they would have been shown straight past check-in. Frank queued for about a minute and was given a welcome pack and a plastic card with his room number – and his name embossed on the surface. For the life of him he couldn't work out how they managed to do it, but the girl at the desk was patiently waiting for the next guest and the porter was there with his luggage. He followed the porter on a brisk dash through to the most jaw-dropping sight yet. The central Atrium was a towering stone cliff surrounded on three sides by a continuous balcony spiralling up into the sky. All down the cliff, small waterfalls – the word small being relative, of course – splashed and tinkled down through a succession of pools filled with exotic looking fish and aquatic plants. At the bottom an Arab Dhow glided past on what Frank suddenly realised was some sort of river. Aboard the boat a young bride and groom sat, clearly just married. They were happy and in love and the Bride was busy returning all the waves from well-wishers. Realising the Porter had stopped to allow him to take in the hotel's splendour, Frank smiled self-consciously and indicated he was ready to move on to the bank of lifts hidden inside the back of the stone.
           Suite 1224 – there were no mere rooms in the hotel – was a modestly sized affair, but designed expertly to convey a feeling of space and luxurious modernity. The theme was muted umber, adobe colours with a splash of colour from the striped canopy over the bed that wasn't quite King sized. If Frank had had to guess the size, he would have said Prince. King cost an extra $25, although that also got you a banquette to lounge on, a bigger bathroom and was nearer to the lifts. It would do. He'd paid for three nights, but he would have some work to do if he was going to compete in the finals. For starters, he had no costume – he'd left it at home when he flew to Memphis. Until he had met Lisa-Marie, all he intended to do was see Graceland and go back to England. He changed into a casual shirt and trousers with his best shoes, not sure what to wear in the hotel. He needn't have bothered; day-wear in the hotel was anything from Hawaiian shirts and cut-offs to tank-tops and sandals. Nobody seemed to care how they looked. On the principle of it, Frank had decided it would be crazy to go to Vegas and not be able to say he'd gambled.
           It was all there on the table. Hours, days of the sharpest eyes and hands in the business had all led up to this moment. Now, it was all down to the man they called 'The Limey.' All eyes were on his next move, the pit boss was on the house phone and it didn't look too good. Finally, he came back and whispered in the ear of the dealer. Patting away a bead of sweat, Reno Jones looked across and saw naked fear around the table. All except in the eyes beneath the bowler hat – the famous lucky hat that had broken the bank at Monte Casino. Cassino? - no, the bank at Monte Carlo... Tipping his hat back, The Limey spread his hand out punka-punka – he had two gold wagons and a cherry... punka-punka... The old lady scooped her winnings into the little plastic cup and started feeding the machine again.      
          Every few minutes it was the same; punka-punka punka-punka and a little fountain of money came out and the winner either stayed with the machine or fed the one next door. It wasn't exactly Oceans Eleven, but then again, Frank had taken one look at the inner circle and backed away. The inner circle was where the craps tables and the roulette tables were, past the radiating rows after rows of slots that pulsated out towards the carefully hidden exits. The lighting was exclusively artificial, despite the blazing sun outside and there were no visible clocks to be seen anywhere. Frank knew these were part of the whole casino thing, but it put him on edge as if he needed to be on his guard and he felt he was out of place here.
          Frank needed James Bond. Bond would know what to do. He'd adjust his cuffs while coolly assessing the competition before rapping out some nonsense only gamblers understood, pick up his winnings, toss a chip to the croupier and have sex with the pretty girl on a bed that was also an aquarium. Frank had no idea, but knew how to work a fruit machine and stuck to what he knew. He won $10, lost 8, won another then lost it almost straight away. He'd gambled in Vegas, hadn't particularly enjoyed it, but he'd gambled in Vegas anyway. Naturally, the woman who pushed past him to the machine immediately won the $25 jackpot, but time was getting on – probably – and he needed to get going. He asked for directions from a staff member, who took pity on him and pointed out the discreet lines woven into the pattern on the carpet. Following these he was at the street exit in a few minutes, and in an air-conditioned cab in less than another.
           Expensive, well made, tailored... none of these words covered the costumes in the first two costume rental shops he'd tried. Joke Elvis. Vegas Wedding Elvis. Rubber Novelty Wig-and-shades Elvis seemed to be the level of these places. Frank started to despair; there was no way he was going on stage in any of these cheap nylon insults – he'd be a laughing stock. The assistants in both the shops were kids and unable to suggest anything better. It was time to rethink. He had under two days and no costume. Reen? - no chance, even if he called her now there'd be no time to make even the most basic Jumpsuit. He couldn't even send someone round to Graceland – his Graceland; the keys were in his suitcase and he couldn't ask one of his friends or neighbours to break in and then airmail a costume over. It was still baking hot and there was a Kaffeen Koffee across the street. Hoping he wasn't jaywalking, or whatever it was, he dashed across and ordered. As he paid, he remembered the card the man at Graceland had given him, pulling it out. There was the number, but should he call it?. It was probably a very bad idea, doubtless they would just hang up on him. Shaking the idea away, he put the card carefully back into his wallet and took his Latte.
           That night Frank ate what must have been half a cow. Like everything in this town of excess, the steaks at the Sirocco were bigger, better and tastier than anywhere else. He washed it down with a surprisingly good house white and decided against dessert after seeing something that looked like an inflatable clown being wheeled past. It was the biggest mound of ice cream Frank had ever seen, yet it was for just two people. Clearly, words like cholesterol and calories weren't allowed past the state line. It really seemed true; what happened in Vegas, stayed in Vegas. Full and content he went back to the room for a change of shirt and a quick brush up. It seemed at some unseen signal the other guests all changed from shorts and tanktops into night dress. He sat on the edge of his bed for a moment to take in the view as the sun dipped below the horizon, a lance of diamond brilliance flaring across the valley with shocking suddenness, the spring mountains to the west coruscating with blinding luminescence. It was like some sort of sign or omen, but if it was the meaning was lost. All Frank could think of was how badly he needed a good pair of shades. Flopping back on the bed, stomach full he rested for a moment, the light from the hills dancing across his closed eyelids.
           The screen flickered and juddered, the beam from the projection booth catching the thin curl of smoke from the man's cigar. Frank shaded his eyes, but couldn't see the man clearly, just the outline of his hair lit with a corona of electricity. “This is the best part, raht here – y'see that?. That ain't no stuntman... boy!, that shoulder still hurts sometimes. No Sir, ah wusn't cut out fer no actor, it wuz the Col'nel wanted me in those movies. Damn!, I coulda been good if I wanted it. You know that old Carny done took me good, didn't he?. No, no I can say it; don' really matter now anyway; Col'nel sez to me, my boy, it's time for you to reclaim your title, to resume yo' live careah. Ah knew it was jez another one of his tricks; jez anutha tent-show con for the suckers. I had a lot to thank those people for, it got me off that whole movie thing – you know, that treadmill they had me on. Vegas gave me a second chance, and I'm thankful for that, really I am. It was just – the thing there was, it was just more of the same. After seventy one I didn't see any way out, it was just one show after another. I think, the Col'nel was really in deep with those fellas and that's really all I have to say on that matter. Viva Las Vegas? - Hell, I couldn't get out of that place fast enough... each time I got back home to Memphis it was harder to go back on the road... got so I couldn't face it... you want a nickel's worth of free advice?. Watch yourself out there, but watch them too – I mean real close...”
           Waking with that groggy slowness that hits you a few days across the World, Frank realised he'd been asleep nearly four hours. It was gone midnight – it was the day of the finals. What he should have done is go to bed, but he decided to take a walk. The cool night air was invigorating, just the right side of cold in fact. He already knew the Casinos were so widely spaced it would be foolhardy to attempt to walk to the others – so he took in the grounds instead. The Oasis was, as the name suggested, a resort with a conference centre tucked away behind the main building, separated from it by an artifical lagoon, continuing the Oasis theme with rows of expensive boutique shops clustered around one shore and a traditional Bedouin encampment – complete with camels – on the other. It was like Lawrence of Arabia – and mad, crazy mad. Only in Vegas would they build an artificial desert slap bang in the middle of a real one.                    
          Wandering on to the conference centre Frank saw the reason he was here. The sign for the World of Elvis finals must have been forty feet high, they were just testing it now – a giant electronic screen was displaying the concert sign in series of coloured flashing dots, much like an old-style marquee display, but animated. Beneath the sign, to his dismay Frank caught sight of Johnny Diamond posing for photos. He was standing next to the Managing Director of TCB Enterprises, but his fake smile froze when he spotted Frank standing there. 'Another winner, eh, Johnny? - or did everyone else miss the photo-call?.' Johnny just stood there with a sneer on his face, but Frank just walked past into the building. A female security officer came across as if to stop him, but he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the MD. 'I'm with him. My name's Frank Fielding and I'm in the contest tomorr-today. I'm already entered, I have I.D. if it helps … ' Clearly nervous, the TCB boss called back that it was okay for Frank to take a look around. She pulled a visitors pass from her pocket and took Frank to a side door to a room full of little electric buggies, pointing out the twist n' go operating system. 'You'll thank me – this place is way bigger than it looks.'
           The buggy whooshed along the carpet into the heart of the complex, down a deceptively shallow curve, the bulk of the building was underground, it was simply enormous – the big entrance hall opening into a massive hall that opened in turn to a vast indoor space that took his breath away. As soon as he entered the bigger hall he was surrounded by Elvis; at least fifty people were hard at work moving stalls and stands into place, setting up screens for DVD companies and displays for record labels. The tidal wave of Elvis started at the inner hall and culminated on the stage in the centre – built like a ring, it was clearly intended as a boxing and wrestling Arena, rows of seats stretching back to the raised terraced section running round the back. It looked as if Rocky was fighting Elvis. It was incredible – the North Pier Theatre had seemed big enough, but this was something else. Frank knew he'd need to raise his game here. Although it was hopeless – it would be rigged, of that he was sure, he wouldn't back down. No way was Johnny Diamond winning this one without a fight. This arena was built for fighting, so he'd get one.
           There are phone calls and there are phone calls. Especially when you are in need of a favour. Some you make and find yourself worse off than before, some of the people you call are false friends and there are many of those. Only a few calls have produced the kind of reaction Frank's got. Made from the phone in his room it was barely ten minutes before the return call – the display on the base unit said the time was nearly two in the morning. The voice on the other end confirmed Frank's name and asked him what was on the back of the card. He hadn't noticed, but there was a number – a sort of a code. The formalities sorted, the man – he sounded like Mr.Casual from Graceland – asked Frank what he needed. Convinced he would be dismissed as some sort of freeloader or nut, Frank explained his predicament – quickly adding that he was prepared to cover any costs involved. The man grunted noncommittally and said to stay by the phone. The next time the phone range Frank was convinced he was dreaming.
           This is how it happened. First a call was made to a well-known costumier, who started his long career as a cutter at a small company making stage outfits for well-known acts in the Country music scene before starting his own business. At a minutes' notice, Frank's dimensions and sizes, right down to shoe size were sent by e-mail and the whole process – normally at least a week long – of making a jumpsuit began. At the same time, a vault near Memphis had an emergency call and a humidity controlled storage unit was unlocked using a special key and a system originally designed for the safe aboard Air Force One. Several belts were taken from a draw and, still in their storage sleeves these were rushed to a private terminal at Memphis International Airport. A few hours later, as dawn was streaming across the continental United States a phone ringing woke a prosthetic hair expert working at a facility at Studio City. The call was urgent enough for the expert to leave her husband still sleeping and hurry to work armed with little more than a hat size and the number of a specialist delivery service on her I-pad. About the same time, a polite knock at the door of Suite 1224 was repeated, a little louder until a sleeping Frank answered with a look of utter confusion. There was a representative from a boutique at the Oasis holding out a manicured hand for a limp-wristed handshake. 'Mr.Fielding? - I am Karl – I am here to help.' The voice was – what, mid European?, South African?. Ruffling his hair with one hand, Frank decided his mouth tasted terrible. Perhaps this strange creature was here to take his breakfast order?. Karl was, it seemed the hotel's secret weapon, brought out to help whenever a high-roller needed a special look for a big game or a rich guest had the sudden urge to marry here. Vegas did that to people.
           Skimming over the details, Karl worked some magic, pulled strings and generally clicked fingers to the effect that it all came together. First, a full English breakfast – it really was the best way to wake up. The food taken care of, Frank declined a visit from the hotel masseuse and showered. By the time he emerged shaved and ready for his day, the boots were already there – Horsheims and San Remo's in white leather with dancers heels – exactly the same boots worn by Elvis himself. Next to arrive would be the Jumpsuit – that would come some time in the afternoon, all being well. Suddenly, everything was complimentary – nothing was too much for the Oasis' new VIP guest. Apart from the upgrade – Karl would not hear of Frank remaining in 'this, this room' a second longer, Frank was suddenly being 'comped' as if the word was going out of style. Tickets to the Arabian Nights show, champagne, free chips at the Casino... it was all waiting in Franks new suite. Suites at the Oasis were numbered from the top down – and from what Frank had seen of Suite 7, 1 must be the size of a terminal at Gatwick. The foyer opened out into a massive circular lounge from which doors led to bathroom, guest bedroom, dressing room and master bedroom (with en-suite). It was insane – a riot of plush fabrics, gold leaf and a curved picture window on each side of the lounge showing the whole of the valley from the Mountains to the airport. There was a phenomenally wide mirror on one wall, which, at the push of a button became a gigantic TV screen. Whenever Frank tried to bring up the subject of money, his new best friend would grimace, turn his head and raise a trembling hand. Everything had been taken care of, was all Karl would say. There would be no question of a bill being presented to such a distinguished friend of the hotel.
           The day went in a whirl – they simply didn't leave you alone once it started it seemed. By five that afternoon Frank had had a helicopter tour of Vegas, met Wayne Newton and inadvertently found himself interviewed by a local tv crew on his opinion of the upcoming Arabian Nights show. By the time he had eaten dinner on the Starlight terrace it was time to get moving. He went back to his new suite to rehearse and try it all on. He sat in the tub, itself facing a gigantic curve of glass and sang to the ceiling. He drank some mineral water and gargled before trying some notes and scales. He felt good – great in fact. But he knew Johnny Diamond was down there somewhere and Johnny would be better. He was glad he'd put a robe on, because when he walked back into the lounge Karl was standing there, hands clasped behind his back. He wasn't alone; behind him stood three people, one with a rail of clothes, a make-up artist clutching her bags and a tired, harassed looking woman holding a box marked 'Hollywood Hair' .
           Even from the dressing room Frank could hear the crowds – the tv monitor on the wall showed the arena, one corner of the L-shaped room was given over to a lounge area. From the comfort of the long sofas the artistes could watch as the acts before them either bombed or triumphed in the big arena. The room was packed – there were twenty-two finalists there all in various stages of undress, panic and confusion. At the far end Johnny Diamond sat, that sneer still on his face whenever he looked across. For his part, frank returned the glares and the hostility with what he hoped was a cool indifference. Inside, it was another story – his guts were churning and he was fighting off despair and panic. Turning down the offer of a private dressing room, (that would have been going too far) he sat in the first of the outfits – a baggy zoot suit identical to one worn by the young Elvis at the start of his rise to fame. In front of him on a form sat the first wig – the hair expert had worked miracles here, producing three hairpieces, two from existing ones as even a call from Elvis Presley's daughter cannot make three new wigs magically happen in one day.
           They knew, of course, he knew it from the whispers and the pointed fingers. The other tributes had heard some snippet or other from the grapevine – about how the Englishman had been seen with Wayne Newton and how he was getting the VIP treatment from the hotel. The call went out on the tannoy; it was five minutes to showtime. Time to get ready for the opener – the Walk-On. They had had the rehearsal the night before, according to the apologetic assistant floor manager. A busy young girl from Reno, her job was to keep a smooth flow of acts into the arena. To add to the experience, there were a number of ways onto the stage, starting with the rundown. Out in a dimly lit tunnel Frank lined up behind a Norwegian ETA ready to go out, a man with a headset on held his hand up – when he dropped it, they were to go out. The crowd was loudly calling for Elvis; We-want-The-King! We-want-The-King!. The hand dropped and suddenly Frank was following the Norwegian through a doorway onto a pathway down through a sea of people to the stage far below.
           The opening number was done differently – at each corner of the stage area one of the ETA's stood statue like waiting for the spotlight to hit them from above – as it did they would do a few lines from their chosen song – it was all strictly timed to the second, any mistakes being covered up with a quick push of the spotlight button from the lighting booth far above them in the darkness somewhere. Then, each of the four young Kings would take turns on the central dais that rose smoothly to form a podium. The announcer was a Vegas stalwart and smoothly adjusted his style to the hep-cat fifties mood of the early years – it was corn-pone straight-down and the crowd was crazy for more. Not since the real Elvis had taken Tennessee by the throat had any performer been this well received as these were. They weren't Elvis, though, but the least talented of them were as good a singer as anything in today's charts and the best were so close you just had to shut your eyes to make the illusion complete.
           Frank stood up there and let his leg start trembling to the opening bars of Memphis, Tennessee, reaching out to take the microphone. He knew Elvis had instinctively grasped the feel of Chuck Berry's music, remaining a life-long fan himself, plus those lyrics - they were just uncanny!. He was taken up by the music and found himself bopping and jiving, spoofing on himself and the lyrics as he unleashed everything into the mike, really going for it. The applause was deafening, but then the announcer was calling the local boy up.
Ricky Starr was a kid from nowhere – Alabama, but he had moved his act to Vegas and had something of a following in the city as both a tribute and a lookalike. His That's All Right was a real blast, easily the match of Franks opener. Reluctantly, Frank made his way back to the dressing room, along the now darkened pathway back up to the artiste's tunnel. He took the wig off carefully, putting it back onto the form and, grabbing a free Pepsi from the machine he went over to the lounge area to see how the other acts were doing. The final was a bigger event than even he had realised – although he hadn't seen much beyond the glaring lights, the town had turned out the big guns. Everyone who was anyone in Vegas was there; George Hamilton, Wayne Newton, Felix Navarro – the owner and builder of the Oasis, plus a host of other celebrity faces that popped up at intervals between the coverage of the act on stage. As Ricky Starr bowed and ran off stage, Frank realised he was sweating badly. Johnny Diamond went out and even on the screen his mean performance of Heartbreak Hotel was impressive. Time to change for the next round; the Elimination Round. After it was over, most of the acts would be headed home.
           As well as the man from TCB the judges consisted of the Mayor of Las Vegas, the stuntman 'Kaptain' Robbie Knievel and the special guest celebrity judge was none other than Sly Stallone, in town to promote his new gangster movie The Big Deal, which was set and partially filmed in town. Each round saw a hectic stage turnaround, with a break for the judges to deliberate as the stagehands sweated and heaved to set the stage for the Movie Years & Comeback Special, a masterpiece of design in which alternate ETAs would sing either in front of the towering ELVIS sign or a projection screen made to look like a giant strip of film, projected onto each frame of which was one of Elvis Presley's movies, each frame slightly delayed to give a mesmerising effect of a stylised cinema experience. The clever part was how the performers stepped up theough a hidden hatchway to emerge from either sign or screen as if stepping from the film. Queuing up in the tunnel beneath the stage Frank was praying he wouldn't step out on the wrong side. In a wig that gave him the distinctive sixties slicked back quiff and a cream jacket with black tie, the look was authentic – the cuban heels surprisingly easy to walk with. When it was his turn, the headset person, a girl this time said to him; 'Left – turn LEFT up there. Walk out to the white cross, but try to stay on or near it because of the projection' Nodding his thanks, Frank climbed the steep metal steps up to the stage. Stepping out as the projectors flashed one of those grainy countdown sequences the voice over the PA boomed 'Now here's Frank Fielding from London, England (He groaned) with a catchy little number from Fun in Acapulco... Bursting out onto the spot, he nearly slipped, but managed to avoid falling over completely.
           It was like staring into five electric suns, but as the tune started, he started into his moves for Bossa Nova Baby – the funky keyboard riff a perfect counterpart to the snazzy-snap of the lyrics. They loved it, but back behind the screen Frank bumped into Johnny Diamond. 'Well, look who's big-timing it... like you've got any more chance than these other mugs.' 'Why don't you save your mouth for singing, Johnny? - you may be better than me, but some of these lads have got real talent.' 'But it's not the same as having the right friends, eh, Frank? - like your new mates at the Hotel and mine at TCB.' Frank was disgusted, but the assistant was waving frantically at him and he clambered down the steps. As he strode angrily down the tunnel, the echoes of Johnny Diamond singing Guitar Man followed him, taunting him as if to say it was all but over.
           It all came down to this; the final round, the last song. Just eight had made it through – Frank couldn't have known it yet, but he was doing badly, in fifth place overall. As it stood Ricky Starr was the hot favourite, with Johnny Diamond hot on his heels. Dressed in the jumpsuit, Frank looked into the mirror. Two security guys came in with a sleeve from which they produced the most incredible belt – a belt made of panels of gold. The gold attendance belt was – as every Elvis fan knows - presented to Elvis in recognition of his record breaking run at the old International hotel. Now, it was buckled around Frank's waist – it was a little tight, but with a belt worth this much he was glad for that. Finally, he put on the wig – one of the security guys helped him stick the sideburns in place and he was ready, just a few brushes to get it looking just right.
The final set-up. A rotating stage with, on one side a set evoking the Aloha from Hawaii concert and the other a Las Vegas theme, with the old-style Neon signs from the Elvis era. 
          Thanks to the elimination round the finalists had been reduced to eight. They all waited in the various tunnels, ready to come onstage from all directions, as modern gladiators to the Arena. Johnny Diamond had lodged a furious protest with the officials over Frank's costume and belt – Frank had offered to leave the belt, but Johnny Diamond insisted Frank be disqualified outright. After a hasty consultation in which the MD of TCB had been outvoted by the other judges, it was decided Frank could wear the belt. It wouldn't affect his singing, so it was deemed legal. Passing Frank in the tunnel, Diamond had deliberately elbowed him in the ribs, causing him to sink to his haunches with the pain. 'Give up, sh*thead. Why bother going out there?.'  Frank was angrier than he'd been since his Dad left. Standing stiffly upright, he walked up to Johnny to look him right in the eyes. 'Maybe I just wanted to sing. In Vegas – out there, just to say I did it; me, no-body from Sussex Frank Fielding – ME. This trip wasn't about winning, that's why I didn't bring my gear, but that was just gutless. So I called in a favour to get this gear, this belt – okay, maybe I should have just walked away when I found out this contest was rigged. But here it is JD, here it is; the man that wore this belt before me was a kid from nowhere, with nothing. He didn't have friends to call for favours, like I did, but he never let it stop him from living his dreams. He was the reason I came here, to keep his music alive. I don't expect you to care, I don't even think you like his music, do you?.' 'Are you kidding? - the guy was a joke, Frank – get over it. The Stones, The Beatles – they all blew him away, but the guy was too busy shovelling cheeseburgers down his neck to notice. Like his music? Uh-huh-huh – yeah, I can't stand his bloody music, it's an insult to music. But hey, the fans love me – and I love their money, the dopey old bags.' Johnny swaggered around the tunnel, waving towards the expectant audience. 'Look at them out there – a load of old blue rinsers who hardly know what time of day it is. Elvis? - you could do anything for that lot and they'd lap it up. In fact...' but Johnny didn't get to finish his rant, as the assistant caught up with them. 'Hey, you guys are behind! - get up to the entrance!.'
           Each of the remaining ETAs had two songs to sing, medley style. The Norwegian Elvis went out first and delivered a quality Suspicious Minds/Moody Blue which saw them on their feet for an ovation that only subsided with the next act, a Scottish act who did his best with Burning Love and In the Ghetto, the tragic story of a mother's loss and the futility of life for the poor. It went down well, but next up was Johnny Diamond, who came out fighting with... Frank's songs. What the? - it couldn't be, they must have made a mistake... but of course, this was no mistake. They had switched the list! – each performer had submitted a list, of course, so the sound and light could be co-ordinated and the announcer had his own copy. Somehow that crook from TCB must have gotten to the play-lists!. Frank listened with a grim despair as Johnny did The Wonder of You/Viva Las Vegas. He brought the house down, but next on was Ricky Starr on the Aloha stage and as he belted out Burning Love Johnny Diamond walked past with a pointed finger and a wink. Despite his performance - and a real show-stopper it was, Ricky had faltered on the start as if unsure of something.
           Frank didn't know what he had been left with – he had to ask the headset girl what he was supposed to be singing. She told him, shaking her head. 'Didn't you even rehearse?.' Then he was up the steps as Ricky's Can't Help Falling In Love came to its climax. Again the house was up on its feet and the announcer had to settle them down for Frank to go on. Every Elvis Tribute Act has a song they can't 'do' - really only Elvis could sing all his own songs – and Frank had one in particular. To hell with it, there was no way he was doing this!... then his hand brushed the belt. It was impossible to explain or even describe. A charge like static electricity rippled through him and he was standing in the wings of a different stage, standing on the bottom step of a short stairway, one hand on the rail. As he blinked in confusion, Charlie Hodge nodded back at him and the band launched into See See Rider. Blinking again, he was back on the metal steps and, with the opening bars of Walk a Mile in my Shoes he marched onto the Vegas stage and grabbed the mike, tearing it off the stand and launching straight off at the audience. He was mad, mad as hell – goddamn!. he flashed and blazed with passion, his blood up for the fight. He loved this song - always had, but there were some tricky lines he always had trouble rendering properly. He knew the lyrics backwards, but Frank would normally never sing any Elvis number unless he had it down to a T.
           Somehow, even when watching the recording made of the contest later he couldn't explain it, but he was different tonight. Moving instinctively, he threw his arms round and worked the stage – ignoring the 'stay on the X' advice completely to reach down to the fans. They in turn went wild, worked up to a frenzy by each successive act. There were security barriers, but the security team were professional enough to avoid fans hurting themselves – at some order over the headsets the barriers were turned to allow some of the fans to flock to the stage. Frank held hands and kissed a few before turning back to the stage and finishing the song. That's when he did it. 'Ladies and gentlemen – ladies and gentlemen I'm going to sing my last song now, it's not the one I'm expected to sing, but things turn out differently than to our expectations, don't you find?. But it's a song very special to me, so I'm going to ask you to bear with me here and show a little patience while the musical director up there throws a fit and sees if he can find the music. I know you can hear me up there, can you find The Impossible Dream for me please?.'
           To a ripple of confused applause and a buzz that went round the audience there was a long pause before the familiar piano notes came through the speakers. Focused, ready Frank bowed his head waiting for his moment. Beginning softly, voice trembling gently the music soon lifted and the volume of the song with it. He had never sung so perfectly, so powerfully and with such feeling. It was as if he had never sung before and in that moment he had what men call an epiphany, a moment of self-realisation that this was what it meant, was to be Elvis Presley. Totally in the moment, A King with an absolute mastery of his subjects. For perhaps the only time in his life he understood how it felt to be Elvis. The words flowed from him with an unstoppable force that transfixed the audience and held them as if in a spell. He bent at the waist, right hand raised in expectation as he hit the hardest of all notes at the end – that ringing, soaring resonant C that just killed 'em. Striking a dramatic freeze pose, Frank held it until the spot went off and as the floods lit him up he bowed, nodded his thanks and blew them a kiss. Striding off the stage he scorned the steeps, jumping down to the floor to make his way as a conqueror through the crowd, the security guards struggling to hold them back. It was a Tour de Force... but was it enough?
           It was his last day in Vegas and he soaked in the tub, enjoying a celebratory cigar – he didn't smoke as such, but George Hamilton had pressed a box of them into his hand after the final. The thing was like a torpedo, but Frank had to admit it was class all the way – no wonder the high rollers smoked these things. Wrapped in his towelling robe, he sat at the table and had coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. The morning papers had been placed on the coffee table along with his breakfast. The Las Vegas Review Journal had the contest as front cover news, plus a sensational write-up in Norm Clarke's column and the Las Vegas Sun – oddly published as a separate sheet inside the Review Journal – even found time to mention the finals as a political metaphor. Finishing breakfast he picked up the TV remote and experimentally jabbed at the buttons. The huge mirror TV was interactive – there was a little pointer with the remote that acted like a magic wand. Awkwardly, Frank managed to get the screen going in multi-screen mode, Action News from KTNV & Fox 5 on KVVU, according to the display. This looked interesting. He lit another cigar and sat back in the plush sofa to try to take it all in.
           '… and Interstate 15 will remain closed for at least half an hour. Next, a round up of the local news, brought to you from right here in Las Vegas...' He sat through a few minutes of local stories; someone had shot at a Police Officer – he shot back, but straighter/There was a fire at a local restaurant/Somebody wasn't running for re-election. Then, there it was; the Convention Centre was on the screen, a lady reporter standing outside. 'He was the King of Vegas, the man who took the town by storm; even though he died nearly forty years ago, Elvis Presley was back on the Nevada stage last night right here at the Oasis Hotel – in fact there were twenty-two of him. Stars such as our own Wayne Newton, George Hamilton and even Sly Stallone – here to promote his new movie Big Deal joined a capacity crowd to see the finals of the World of Elvis contest...' Flicking the pointer across at the studio in the other picture, the sound was now of an anchor team – a man and woman. '...but all eyes were on the Oasis, the new jewel in Felix Navarro's crown where the World of Elvis, a tribute competition was overshadowed by controversy as it emerged there had been allegations of contest-rigging. Organising the contest was Brian Barstow of TCB Enterprises, who was today unavailable for comment, having apparently checked out of his hotel suite and fled, leaving behind unpaid bills and creditors furious...' Frank choked on his cigar as the other picture suddenly showed a furious Johnny Diamond, stabbing the pointer just in time. 'Yeah it was fixed, the whole thing... I can prove it too...that tosser owes me fifty grand!.'
           Ricky Starr had won – there had been some sort of row amongst the judges with Sly Stallone threatening to walk out if the judges ignored the clear wish of the fans. Evidently, Barstow had put in the fix to switch not only Frank's songs, but also Ricky's choices. That there had been no sign of this, save a false start, was a testament to his ability. Despite coming second, Frank was pleased; the local boy deserved his victory. It was just a shame he'd been ripped off for the prize money... 

 
EPILOGUE
SUSSEX

A month had passed, September was nearly gone and the late summer was keeping Frank busy fixing people's garden lighting and pool-pumps and the like. It seemed like a dream now; there was just the photos and a DVD, plus the empty cigar box to prove it had ever happened. The icing on the cake had been meeting Lisa-Marie at Graceland and then wearing her Daddy's belt on stage in Vegas. The photo of them together proudly graced the coffee table in his own Graceland. There had been repercussions from the contest – the fiasco had embarrassed some serious people and, a few days afterwards the shock announcement came that TCB Enterprises was now under new management after a surprise mystery buyout. Ricky Starr had been given his $50,000, plus a lucrative deal to appear at the Oasis showroom. 
          Of the swindler Brian Barstow nothing had been heard until the day he was caught trying to cross over into Mexico. He was currently awaiting trial on fraud charges. Johnny Diamond hadn't escaped unscathed either – after his unwitting confession of being in on the fiddle, he was unceremoniously deported from the United States and faced a massive legal bill in court; he was ruined. Perhaps worse, his days as an ETA were over, nobody would hire him after this all blew up.
           It was late in the day when Frank checked the Elvis Forum. There was a new message for him, from WoodenHeart 40. 'Well done!, I can't believe you didn't win...'. The little chat-box was green – she was on-line. On a whim, he typed in: 'Hey, how are you?' It was a while, but her reply came back that she was fine. She asked him if he had visited Graceland. He replied that he'd never really left.


LEGAL DISCLAIMER/COPYRIGHT NOTICE
Mark Sohn asserts his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. This is a work of fiction, and except for certain characters all the characters, companies etc are fictional. Any resemblance is purely co-incidental, folks!. The Original draft contained song lyrics, but on advice I have omitted these. In addition, I should state I'm an Elvis fan, so no disrespect is intended to him, his music, his memory or his family. I hope this story entertained you.

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