Chapter Nineteen: The Dolls House

I went to see my mum yesterday and told her about the latest developments with the band, with Fliss and Violet, Flora and Katy and me; skipping some of the details of our night out in Leeds of course.  Despite getting a manager, I’m beginning to feel a bit fed up with being in Titanium Rose to tell the truth.  Oh, not fed up with the music, but fed up with the business side of things; recruiting Jenny Malone wasn’t so bad, but you have to kiss a lot of frogs in this business before you meet the prince(ss) who gives you your record deal, and that side of things has only just begun.  There have been a couple of labels that have expressed interest in us, but, well, we haven’t been interested in what they’ve had to offer us.  She was quiet for quite a while after I had related all this, and there was a strange look on her face as she got to her feet, and instructed me to “wait here.”

  She was gone for a while, and I amused myself by looking at the pictures of myself as a toddler that were sat on the mantelpiece.  God, I was an ugly child… I look like a ferret with malnutrition in most of the pictures from that time, sort of anaemic and skinny, a sickly looking kid.  I suppose I should consider myself lucky though because, had I been the rosebud or princess type, I would probably have even more of an inferiority complex than I do already; at least I know no one could be interested in me for my body alone.

  Eventually she returned, carrying a very old looking shoebox, which was covered in a thick layer of dust.  “It’s been up in the loft for years,” she explained as she blew at the lid before removing it.

  “What is it?” I asked.

  She handed me a tape; it was labelled ‘The Dolls House, demo, September 5th, 1980.’ Puzzled, I opened the case and peered at the cheaply photocopied sleeve inside.  There was a picture of three young punks, two boys and a girl.  I read the names: Rachel, (guitar and vocals) Tony, (bass and vocals) and Steve (drums).  I didn’t have a clue who Steve was, but Rachel and Tony were my mum and dad.  I was absolutely astonished. I turned to look at her, and she met my eyes, but I couldn’t read her face; her feelings were too carefully masked.  “You never mentioned this,” I said, at last, “either of you, you both tell me these romanticised tales of the punk years, but you never, ever, either of you…” I trailed off, my thoughts in turmoil.  “You told me stories, stuff that would impress me, but you never told me anything that mattered.”

  She steered me back towards the sofa, and sat down next to me.  “It was part of the time I was with your dad,” she said at last.  Her voice was quiet, her face tense, “It was all tangled up with that.”

  I waited, but I knew that this was all that I was going to get.  “Did you release any records?” I asked, cautiously.

  She shook her head, and said tensely, “We gigged around Manchester for a bit, played the Electric Circus a few times… We were told we were good, but nobody seemed that interested.  There was talk by the boys of Factory being interested, but it didn’t come to anything.”  Her expression became thoughtful again; “We played Eric’s in Liverpool once, supporting The Buzzcocks.”

  I peered again at the sleeve.  The woman in the picture had short spiky hair and was wearing combat trousers and Doc Martens with a ripped lacy shirt.  The two men had vaselined dark hair, jeans, and leather jackets and were sneering, Sid Vicious style, at the camera.  The text on the sleeve was typed as though on a battered old typewriter, and the songs were listed after the bands names: ‘Lovesick’, ‘Everything They Ever Told You’, ‘I Will Not’, and ‘The Only Girl On Stage.’

  “Did you write the lyrics?” It was somehow important to me to know.

  “Hhhmmm, some…” she peered over my shoulder, and glanced at the tracklistings, “I wrote ‘Lovesick’ and ‘The Only Girl On Stage’, Tony and I wrote ‘I Will Not’ together, and he and Steve wrote ‘Everything They Ever Told You’.”

  I closed the cassette case carefully, and put it down on the table.  There were photos in the box, of the same three young punks, along with another cassette, which I was informed was a live bootleg.  “Why now?” I asked at last, “Why show me all this now?”

  “I don’t know why,” she confessed, “it just seemed the right thing to do.  You were so happy when you started playing with the band; I don’t want you to lose all that.”

  “Like you did?”

  She sighed, “I didn’t lose it, I gave it up: It was a conscious decision.  I wasn’t committed to music as much as I was to acting, and the boys weren’t committed at all I don’t think.”

  I put the tapes, and the photos, back in the box, and put the lid on it.  “So,” I said, “why show me all this if it didn’t matter to you?”

  “It did matter…” she explained, “Just… not so much musically, not for me.  I didn’t like a lot of the bands we played with, or saw, around that time; too often it was a load of blokes farting about with guitars and not saying very much, but you, you like all the punk stuff, God only knows why, you should have your own music…” I opened my mouth to protest, but she had moved on by then, “But you’re good at it, and you enjoy it; you shouldn’t be giving up on it.”

  “I gave up being a dancer,” pointed out, “and I was good at that, and I enjoyed it.”

  “That was different,” she said gently, “You didn’t have a choice.  Now, you do have a choice.”

  I sighed, and leant back against the battered leather of the sofa, “Thing is,” I began, “I look at where we’re at as a band, then I look at what The Girls From Mars have got, and…”

  “Success doesn’t automatically mean happiness,” she said, “and it may be a cliché to say it, but are they happy? Is Violet happy?”

  We lapsed into silence again.  I took the lid off the shoebox, and unpacked the tapes and the photos once more.  I studied those photographs for such a long time, but they didn’t really reveal anything.  You wouldn’t have known that they were a couple, not from the photos.  Eventually, I asked, “Can I borrow the tapes?”

  “If you like,” she said, warily, “but… please don’t play them here… I don’t think I could bear it.”

  So, I packed up the shoebox again and brought it back here with me.  All evening, I listened to those two tapes.  The demo wasn’t much more polished, sound quality wise, than the live bootleg was, but I liked the spirit of it, and it had the lyrics printed on the sleeve.

  I studied those lyrics as I listened to the tapes, and I pored over the pictures almost as much.  But every time I came back to that picture on the tape sleeve, and to the woman in the middle of the picture.  I would have known she was my mum, even without the labelling, partly because I’ve seen pictures of her from that time before, but also because there is an echo, in the large eyes and the stubborn line of her mouth, in her face now.  She must have been, what? Twenty, twenty-one then? Twenty-one I think; older than I am now, but not by much.  She told me that The Dolls House split up two years later, when she was twenty-three and expecting me.  Was I the reason the band split up? No, she said, definitely not; they were splitting up anyway, both her and Tony, and the band.

  Why did Tony never tell me about their band? He’s not normally shy when it comes to talking about his past.  I didn’t want to think about why he hadn’t; I would never know why in any case, even if I did ask him: He’d just make a joke out of it, which is what he always does if he doesn’t want to talk about something.

  I think I know why she didn’t want to be around when I listened to the tapes: It would bring it all back, the unpleasant memories as well as the pleasant ones.  It would be like when I saw Terry just before Christmas; an experience I could have done without, and a reminder of a time I’d rather forget.  She wrote Tony out of our lives for six years…and then he suddenly showed up, I still don’t know why.  I was thirteen before I saw him again, and he was married then… and since then, the kids… my half sister, half brothers…

  I think they loved each other once, but I’m not stupid enough to say, “What if…” I know that they would be a disaster now as a couple; they’re just totally different people.  I think she knew that then, even if he didn’t.  She knew what she wanted, and needed, and she knew it wasn’t him.

  Thinking about my own life, my own musical career, I find myself feeling rather less sure.  I know what I want, and yet… I just don’t do enough to ensure that I get it.  I want Titanium Rose, I want us to succeed, and I don’t want to spend my entire musical career, such as it is, playing to fifty people at The Gates.  But at the same time, I don’t want to sell out; I don’t want to become just another prancing pop tart, another Spice Girls, or Girl Trouble, another Britney or Christina.

  I’m listening to ‘The Only Girl On Stage’ at the moment, which is probably my favourite of The Dolls House songs.  It’s surprisingly long for a punk song, very intense, with a relentless, climbing drum sound and fierce guitars.  There’s something very lonely about her voice, and the isolation in the lyrics speaks volumes I think.

            I am

The girl at your feet

I am

The only one

I am

The girl

I am

The only one

The only girl on stage

And when we play

It’s not my fingers

On the strings

Not my fingers

Playing chords

That they watch

It’s not the way I sing

It’s not any of these things

That they watch 

I wonder how much things have changed. I don’t think that life is perfect for girls in bands now, and I don’t imagine that it was always bad for my mum, but I’d like to think our experiences are different, and that it’s easier now.  The late seventies and early eighties weren’t the dark ages, but from such a distance away, they can seem like that sometimes.  It’s a gap that is too big for me to bridge: a whole generation, and from her point of view, from that generation’s point of view… I could never understand.  Maybe I shouldn’t try to; maybe it would be cultural theft, or cultural necrophilia or something if I bought too far into it all… because it isn’t my past to buy into.

  From a more personal point of view, I think that she’s been better at handling men than I have, and I’ve been thinking about it, thinking about him…  It wasn’t something I realised until tonight, but I know now.  Not just what choices I have, but what I want to do.

  (Later)

Katy phoned just as I was finishing writing this.  She and Fliss are leaving London today and should be back tonight.  I asked Katy if Fliss had told her anymore about the break up, but she just said it was probably better if Fliss told me herself

  (Later)

I was expecting Fliss and Katy to be back by now, but I’ve just had a call from Katy to tell me that they’re stuck at Stoke train station due to signal failure.

  “Do you know anyone with a car who could come and pick us up?” she asked, “I wanted to hitch only Fliss doesn’t want to.”

“No,” I said, “don’t hitch”

“Can Nat pick us up do you think?”

  “No, she’s in Blackpool for a gig tonight, she’ll have left already.” It was then that fate seemed to take me by the hand, and I found myself saying, “I know who I can ask.”

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