Chapter Fifty Eight: Emotional Conflict

“What’s wrong?” asked mum as I sat down on the sofa. She seemed unusually pale and tired, and there were lines on her face that I don’t remember noticing before.

  I felt guilty as I said, “Does there have to be something wrong?” she’d been poorly this week, and off work for a few days. Thomas had advised me to be gentle with her as he left, and I didn’t want to worry her.

  “No,” she sighed as she cautiously lowered herself down into the armchair, “but I think there is, I can tell when something’s bothering you… Is it to do with the band?”

  “How did you know?” I was surprised.

  She sighed as she wearily raked a hand through her unusually limp seeming hair, “Because it usually is to do with the band.”

  I cast my mind back to February, and the awful day when Fliss and Katy had argued over songs, specifically Fliss’ songs. On our previous albums, Katy and Fliss have always shared the main songwriting duties, often collaborating on songs, but this apparently stopped sometime last year, whilst I was ill. “Now they’re writing alone,” I told mum, “it’s as though they’re in competition with each other, and I think Katy’s starting to feel threatened by Fliss’ output.”

  She nodded, but her eyes had a distant, glazed look, and she was absolutely ashen faced. She closed her eyes for a few moments and sagged back in her chair in what, I realised a few minutes later, was a dead faint.

  I have to confess to panicking for a few moments. I was used to her always being reliable and, more than that, always there, perfectly robust in body and mind. I didn’t know how long Thomas would be out of the house for, and I didn’t know what to do, or what was wrong.

  She was only out cold for a few minutes, but those minutes felt like hours. My heart was hammering in my chest, and the adrenalin was surging through me, making me shiver and shake. When she at last opened her eyes, I almost cried with relief.

  She seemed a little confused to find me hovering over her, and her eyes still looked strange and distant as I asked, “Are you alright?”

  She nodded vaguely, and then closed her eyes and went to sleep.

  Thomas was back about five minutes later, I heard the back door open and his cheery whistle as he opened and shut cupboards, presumably putting shopping away.

  My legs were weak and shaky as I ran through to the kitchen. He looked up from what he was doing, and his expression of amiable cheer drained as he saw my face. “What’s wrong?”

  “It’s not me,” I blurted, “but she… her eyes were really weird, then I think she fainted… she came out of it, but then she fell asleep.” There was a shake in my voice too, I realised as I talked.

  He got up from the cupboard, and I could read the worry in the expression on his face as he said, “Where is she?”

  “Living room, armchair.”

  His expression turned to one of relief. “Good; last time it happened we were in the middle of the Co-Op.” He seemed amused as he said, “It’s nothing to worry about, really, she saw the doctor about it this week, it’s perfectly normal.”

  “Normal?!”

  He paused, and then said, carefully, “Oh… she didn’t get the chance to tell you before she passed out?”

  “Tell me what!”

  “I’m going to have a baby.” She said, sometime later, as she sagged, sleepily against the back of the armchair. “That is,” she gazed up at him affectionately as he held her hand, “We’re going to have a baby.”

  There was a long, painful, silence. Thomas watched me, anxiously. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say something, anything, to break the awful anxious silence, but I couldn’t. Of all the possible explanations for her fainting spells that there might have been, this was one I hadn’t even considered. I wanted to be calm and congratulatory, but I couldn’t be – not then. I was in shock.

  At some point, Thomas quietly left the room. So unobtrusive was his exit that I didn’t immediately notice that he had gone. At last, she said, “I’m sorry; I was hoping to break it to you gently.”

  I shook my head to clear it, and laughed, oddly, as I looked up into her face. She seemed worried and concerned as I said, “What do you want me to say?”

  “’Congratulations’ would be nice, but only if you really mean it.”

    “Congratulations.” I echoed. I did mean it, but…

She shifted awkwardly in her chair, “If it’s any consolation, we were at least equally shocked when we found out.”

  “Is this what you wanted?” I asked, still stunned.

  She turned away from me, but I could see that her expression was one of sadness as she said, rather evasively, “I think I’m still in shock in some respects.” There was a long pause, then she said in a tired, quiet voice, “It’s not what I wanted, but…” she sighed, “I’m not… un-pleased, and… I know he is pleased, I saw it in his face when I told him.” She turned to face me, and I saw the anxiety in her eyes as she asked, “What about you?” insecurity was creeping into her voice, “What do you think?”

  “I don’t know yet,” I said, carefully, “it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” I forced a smile as I said “I know one thing that would cheer you up though.”

  “And what’s that?” she asked quietly.

  “Fliss would love to baby-sit.”

  I expected her to laugh, or at least smile at this, but she only looked more worried, “You do mind,” she said, sadly, “don’t you?”

  I shook my head, “No,” Or, at least, not in the way you think, not for the reasons you think I added silently to myself.  But I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice as I added, “another half brother or half sister it is then.”

  She gazed, searchingly, at me, her eyes shone with concern as she said, “Is that what really bothers you, that I won’t have time for you anymore?”

  I wanted to deny it, but the spoilt only child in me screamed ‘YES!’ because I knew she was right, possibly more right than I would ever want to admit.  “Tony never did,” I muttered bitterly, “not after he got married, not after they had children.”

  “Tony never had time for either of us, before or after that,” she reminded me, gently but firmly, “you know that.”

 “Is he going to marry you?” I asked, a little uncertainly.

  She snorted, “Don’t be stupid!”

  We both laughed, and it released some of the tension in the room.  As she wiped her eyes, she said, “Can you honestly see me walking down the aisle of some church in miles of white tulle, surrounded by bridesmaids and pageboys, forty six years old, oh, and about eight months pregnant by the time we’d have arranged and paid for it all?”

  “No,” I persisted, “but it wouldn’t have to be like that, would it?”

  Her expression became one of horror, as she said, “My God, are you actually suggesting that I do marry him?”

  “No,” I said, vaguely, unsure as to just what it was that I was suggesting, “Not really, I just thought he might have asked that’s all…”

  She shook her head, firmly, “Marriage isn’t an issue we discuss, it cropped up once, fairly early on, but we both seem to share a certain amount of pain and horror at the very thought of it, so it hasn’t cropped up since.”

  “Even now?” I asked, incredulously.

  “Well,” she admitted, her shoulders tensing as she practically recoiled in discomfort, “He did start to say something a few weeks ago, after I found out about the baby, about ‘doing the decent thing’, but I squashed it flat, and he hasn’t mentioned it since.”

  Fliss was playing one of her new songs on her newly acquired second hand acoustic guitar when I arrived home. The pared down chords made stark contrast with her voice, allowing it to soar, and making it sound purer than ever as she sang:

I’ve been

Lost so long

Lost so far

Lost so great a distance

That I

Never thought that I’d return

I paused in the doorway to her room, afraid to move lest I put her off, as she played and sang the rest of the song.  When she looked up, she smiled vaguely, a faraway look in her eyes as she said, “Hello… you’ve been gone a while.  I wasn’t sure where you were…”

  “I went to see my mum,” I told her, “and I’ve some news you’ll like.”

  “What?” her eyes brightened in expectation.

  “I’m going to be a big sister, well,” I corrected, “half-sister.”

  Fliss’ face lit up, as I had known it would, “that’s great!” she beamed, “have they thought of a name yet? Or do they not know if it’s going to be a boy or a girl?”

  “I don’t think they’ve got to that point yet,”

  “Then let’s make a list for them…” she reached for a pen and paper, and we began to throw names about.

  “I really liked that song you were playing just now,” I said.

  She blushed, but her voice was uncharacteristically bitter as she said, “Seems a pity, no one will hear it.”

  I squeezed her arm comfortingly, “Don’t give up; we’re all going to confront Katy at her flat next week, remember?”  Jenny hadn’t wanted it to come to that, but we haven’t seen Katy since February, and she doesn’t respond to Jenny’s letters, so we have no choice.  When any of us phone her, she just hangs up on us.

  “I’m not going,” sighed Fliss, “it won’t do any good, and anyway; there’s a Kaffequeeria meeting that day, and I’d rather go to that.”

  “Do you want to leave the band?” I asked, concerned.

  “No,” she said, carefully, “but I’ve been wondering if the three of us could get rid of Katy, then,” she added, with some of her old time naïveté, “things could go back to how they were before.”

  I shook my head gloomily, “I don’t think things can ever go back to how they were before.”

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Chapter Fifty Seven: Cherchez La Femme

It’s been over a month now since Adrienne met with Fliss.  The Library Theatre’s run of ‘The Seagull’ finished a fortnight ago, taking with it any chance of Fliss seeing Adrienne again.  I wish that I could say that I’d done the right thing, but… I’m still not sure.  The day Adrienne left her for the last time, Fliss cried most of the day, and I listened to her sobs as one serves penance as I performed odd jobs around the flat.  She cried like a child who had been abandoned, I heard it in her voice, in the thin wails and hiccupping sobs, but I knew because of her face.  When she finally left her room around seven p.m, she looked so lost that I hurt on her behalf, and when I, stupidly, asked if she was alright, she stared through me with puffy, swollen eyes that seemed to see nothing as she said, dully, “No, not really… I don’t think I can ever be alright again.”  Then she traipsed back to her room, still in her nightshirt and slippers.  I had expected her to scream at me, but this, if anything, was worse.  I had committed an unthinkable, unforgivable act: I had kicked Bambi.

  Things were no better yesterday at band practice, for, although the tears have stopped, Fliss was still very subdued when we arrived at Twilight.  We practice very early these days, before work, and before Flora has to open up at Afflecks.  Fliss and I always arrive first, carefully lugging the drums across the carpark from Fergus’ car, and then into the lift and upstairs to the fifth floor where our practice room is.  He goes and gets his breakfast at the café down the road, and I meet him there for coffee after we’ve finished, then I help him load the drums into the car again before shooting off to work.  It’s a ritual I’m getting to love.

  It was just getting light as we climbed out of the car at six a.m and, in the dim light of the new day, Fliss stood on the damp tarmac, her grubby jeans ragged and wet at the cuffs, her arms folded across her pale blue shapeless t-shirt.  Her hair was hanging loose, tangled, and unwashed, but she didn’t seem to care.

  We practiced some new songs yesterday, nearly all ones that Katy has written because, lately, Flora hasn’t the time and Fliss doesn’t seem to have the inclination to write.  They’re O.K songs, I suppose, but I have mixed feelings about them; they seem to lack the anger and spikiness of her usual stuff, still, it was inevitable I suppose.  We rattled through band practice quite quickly, with little discussion between songs, each of us preoccupied by different things. I kept an eye on Fliss as we worked, but there was little evidence that her heart was broken, not unless you knew.

  As we packed up, talk turned to our gig that night and Katy, who had been eyeing Fliss with thinly veiled contempt, said with a curl of her lip, “I hope you’re not wearing that tonight.”

  “Why not?” asked Fliss, in seemingly genuine puzzlement.

  “Because Jenny and Angel Smith will be there,” said Katy, far more gently than if she had been speaking to Flora or me.

  “Jenny doesn’t care what I wear.”

  “Angel will,” Angel is our new A&R, replacing Alan Mitchelman now that RMC International has bought out Sandra Dee.  “Wear a mini dress, or a mini skirt.”

  “No!” shouted Fliss.

  We all froze.  Fliss never lost her temper.

  Katy said nothing at first; she just stood there in the stark practice room amidst the leads and guitars, her eyebrows raised in surprise.  “Please Fliss,” she reasoned, “it’ll look better, for all of us…”

  “Let her wear what she wants, Katy,” I murmured, “If they want to drop us, they will.”

  Katy didn’t deign to answer me, so I joined Flora in the doorway, and we waited.  Waited and watched.

  “I won’t wear a dress!” snapped Fliss, “Or a skirt! Not now I know how many boys have been looking up my skirt for the past three years!” her eyes flashed with defiance, and I could tell that she meant it.  It was Liberty who had told her about boys looking up her skirt, and Fliss had listened with a faintly outraged expression on her face.  She’d since told Angel and the Razorblades, but it hadn’t stopped Kit or Kylie from wearing mini dresses or skirts on stage, they’d just taken to wearing jeans underneath.

  In the café later, after Fliss had stormed off to work and Katy had stormed off to the studio, Flora had let Fergus and me in on a bit of gossip, which explained Katy’s obsession with clothes a little bit.  “It was something Jenny said to us at the Christmas party,” she said as she stirred her milkshake, thoughtfully, with her straw, “Just after Sandra Dee got bought out, Jenny heard something Angel Smith allegedly said about us, something about dykes and anorexics who cut themselves.”  I felt myself stiffen in anger, Fergus placed his hand over mine, “Sorry, Maggie,” she said, apologetically, “but that’s what Jenny heard, she thinks we’re loose canons, she thinks we’re unsellable, unrelateable.”

  “I don’t see how Fliss wearing a dress is going to make any difference,” I said, sceptically.

  Flora sighed, her eyes were weary as she said, “She thinks that if Fliss dresses up, and does her hair, and makes herself up, that she’ll look so pretty that Angel will take one look at her and forget she’s a lesbian.”  Flora scowled, “I often think that Katy would like to forget she is too, I know she hates Adrienne, she thinks she ruined her.”

  I didn’t see Fliss until our soundcheck, and when she arrived, she was wearing a blue and white knee length checked dress with a button down front and short sleeves.  Plain though the dress was, it emphasised her eyes beautifully, as well as matching the clean pair of jeans that she had, defiantly, worn underneath.  She had on a little make-up, a little lip-gloss and eyeliner, and looked crisp and fresh faced as she took to the stage.  Emily was doing the sound last night, and I saw Fliss gaze questioningly at her a couple of times as I walked over to the stage.  We often experiment with cover versions at rehearsal and soundcheck, and recently we’ve been experimenting with a number of songs, including Kenickie’s ‘Girls Best Friend,’ which is one of Flora’s favourites.  Fliss’ voice is higher than Marie Du Santiago’s, but I noticed Emily look up from the sound desk with a faintly startled expression on her face all the same.  Two lines into the second verse, her voice seemed to falter, and she broke off.  She stood there for a few moments, stock still in front of the microphone, then, I saw her carefully lift off her guitar, and lay it down on the stage. There was a slight tremor in her voice as she whispered, “I’m sorry,” then, stumbling a little, she jumped down from the stage, and ran.

  From my drums, I saw Emily stand up from behind the sound desk and run, swiftly, and practically unobserved, after Fliss.  Flora and Katy were exchanging puzzled expressions and shrugs as I followed Emily’s lead.  The trail led us down the sticky wooden stairs at Juvenile Hell, and into the flaking plaster and stone bowels of the building.  I kept my distance, for I was wary of Fliss just then, wary, and curious as to what Emily was doing.

  Sobbing could be heard from one of the offices, and I watched as Emily stealthily crept in after Fliss, closing the door behind her.  Outside, I put my ear to the flaking paintwork, and listened.  I heard Emily ask her what was wrong, and upon receiving no reply, heard her follow up question “Is it to do with Adrienne?”

  Gradually, the sobbing seemed to slow and peter out, and I heard Fliss’ voice at last, shaking as she said, “Did Maggie tell you?”

  “No,” Emily’s voice sounded further away now, and I guessed that she had moved closer to Fliss, “But I knew she was in the area, I guessed the rest.”

  The emotion poured out of her like a river, as she tearfully replied, “She said she was setting me free… I think she knew, think she knew, that, Maggie told her I’m in love with…” she broke off, and added in slow, deliberate tones, “Someone else.”

  “Who?” Emily’s voice was almost a whisper.

  “You”

  There was a long, long silence, during which I pressed myself even closer to the door.  At last, I heard Fliss again; her voice was quieter now, and calmer as she pleaded, “Please say something.”

  I could sense the shock in Emily’s voice as she stuttered her response, “I… I mean, I never thought… that, I mean, I can’t, couldn’t…Oh, God…”

  I heard sobbing.  I guessed that it was Fliss who was crying, and my guess was confirmed as Emily began to speak once more.  “Please don’t cry, please Fliss, I only meant…”

  “Are you straight?” blurted Fliss tearfully.

  “What?” she seemed genuinely surprised by the question.

  “Are you straight?” persisted Fliss, almost hysterically, “Are you heterosexual, do you have a boyfriend?”

  There was a long silence.  I guessed that Emily must have shaken her head, for it was Fliss who spoke next, and she said, rather bleakly, “Well, that’s something I suppose.”

  The door started to open, and I darted around the corner and pressed myself up against the wall.  Nat, who happened to be passing on her way to or from her own office, shot me a speculative look, and I pressed my finger to my lips.  She passed me.  In the doorway, Emily was standing with her back to Fliss, looking straight ahead, with a dazed, slightly grim expression on her face.  “I love you, Fliss,” I heard her say, so quietly that it was almost a whisper, “but I’m not good enough for you.”  And she walked away, slowly and steadily, up the stairs, back to the sound desk.

  The meeting with Angel Smith was uncomfortable yet mercilessly brief.  Jenny brought her down to our dressing room before the show started, and she talked mostly to Jenny and Katy.  I caught her staring at me a few times, but it was the bad kind of staring, as though I was something fascinatingly awful in the zoo, and her gaze had a tendency to drift towards my arms, despite the fact that I had worn long sleeves especially; you can’t win.  Fliss did her best coy little girl act, I suspect, to get Katy off her back, but whilst Angel seemed to be entranced by her, I could tell that Jenny wasn’t fooled.  I, for one, was missing Alan already. 

  Once Angel had left, it was time for the press.  I got up to leave, but Jenny laid a hand on my shoulder, “a quick word,” she murmured, “outside,” and as the press corps trooped inside, we slipped out.  “Two seconds,” called Jenny over her shoulder to them.

  “What is it?” I whispered as we loitered by the stairs.

  Jenny looked up at me apologetically, “I’m going to have to ask you to do something that you aren’t going to like.”

  “What?” I asked apprehensively.

  “I need you to be interviewed tonight; I need you to balance out Katy.”

  “But Jenny,” I protested, “you know…”

  “Yes,” she interrupted me, “Of course I know, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

  My eyes narrowed, “Did Angel Smith put you up to this?”

  Jenny winced; I had scored a direct hit, “Yes, she did.”  Her voice took on a pleading tone as she said, “She wants a show of unity, and we do need to impress her, if only to get her off our backs.  Besides,” she grimaced, “from a personal point of view, I’d like to try and balance out Katy’s natural bombastic chatter with your more amiable reticence.”

  With extreme reluctance, I gave in.

  I emerged from the dressing room an hour or so later, relatively unscathed, and found my way back up to Juvenile Hell.  It was starting to get busy, and the crowd were in good spirits.  Before too long, Fergus joined me, and he was a much welcome presence who I was determined to cling to all night.  I’m not normally that possessive, but the day had been horrible thus far, and if anyone could get me through the night ahead, it would be him.  From our table, I observed Fliss mournfully drinking at the bar.  The fairy lights shone on her face as she watched Emily with hurt, longing eyes.  Next to her, Sabine and Amber were indulging in some heavy duty flirting.  Nat was right: Valentines Day really is a couple’s thing.  I could sense the sexual tension in the air, just as clearly as I could smell the fag smoke, perfume and sweat of the various glamorous couples present.  Dew were there, and Aiden and Sophie joined us for a drink before departing to set up shop with the newly pressed Angel and the Razorblades single at the table nearest the stage.

  As the Razorblades took to the stage, Fergus and I made our way through the modest crowd to the moshpit.  Kylie was on fine form tonight, all sparkle and wit and energy, and her voice has never sounded so good.  They have some new songs, which are tight and show how far they’ve come over the past year, one of them is called ‘Beijing Doll,’ after some Chinese punk girls memoir, and another is about the under eighteens anti-war protest in Manchester two years ago.  Rosa and Kit channelled their energy into their playing, making for a great set, even when Yan broke a string and had to borrow Fliss’ guitar for the rest of the set.

  As the Razorblades played, I became aware of Nat, who was watching the band from the end of the bar.  She was dressed up to the nines in a particularly devastating black velour dress, but she seemed distracted.  Soon, she had vanished once more and I was able only to catch the odd glimpse of her between songs as she ran from pillar to post arranging things, a fierce scowl on her face.  I sensed her impatience, as well as her mild frustration.

  After the Razorblades set, it was time for Fliss to make her way through the heart shaped balloons and sprays of glitter to the decks by the sound desk to start her DJ set, and the crowd dispersed to the dancefloor, bar, and tables.  Things were definitely livening up, and it looked as though it was going to be a great night.  Then…

  A tall, curvy, dark haired woman could be seen at the far end of the room, handing over her ticket as Fliss began to play Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take Me Out.’  I nudged Fergus, and we watched as this most glamorous of creatures cut her way through the crowd like a knife through butter.  “It’s Violet!” I exclaimed as she drew closer.

  “And she’s wearing that dress,” added Flora, in significant tones.

  That dress was scarlet in colour, and was made from a luxuriously silky fabric.  It was low necked and slashed to the waist, and shoelace thin black lacings criss-crossed up Violet’s torso, revealing pale flesh and the outline of her breasts.  The dress had long, loose, flowing sleeves and, whilst the dress itself wasn’t tight, it was clearly tailored to be a close fit, the hem fell to just below her knees, and was slit up the back, rather less drastically than at the front.  Black nylons and black kitten heels complimented the dress, along with a slash of scarlet lipstick, and black, impenetrable sunglasses.  Her long black hair hung in loose waves down her back, and was fixed in place by a red flower grip on the right side.  She looked like a goddess, like a twenty first century, darker, Veronica Lake.

  Nat slipped through the gaping crowd to her, and they embraced theatrically.  Nat’s black finger nailed hand took hold of Violet’s scarlet one, and lead her away into the crowd.

  Fergus swallowed nervously, “I thought the Girls From Mars were in London this week, re-negotiating their contract.”

  Flora, who had been knocking back the drinks at a worryingly prodigious rate, leant over and said, knowingly, “Violet made sure that they finalised it yesterday.”

  A few minutes later, Fliss began to play Garbage’s ‘#1 Crush’, and I saw Nat and Violet take to the dancefloor together, to considerable roared approval from the crowd.  The intense sexuality of the song perfectly suited their closeness on the dancefloor, and as Nat frenched her, and Violet pulled Nat closer still, I heard Flora mutter in horror, “She’s ruining her make-up, and it must have taken ages to put on.”

  Nat’s hands were everywhere now, and as they half danced, half groped, less attentive couples looked on, open-mouthed.  I could see Amber watching, despite herself, as Sabine tried to distract her.  I had talked to Moyra briefly in the toilets earlier, and she had told me that Violet was “just doing a friend a favour” by coming tonight.  I relayed this to Fergus as we watched the barely disguised foreplay unfolding before us.  His eyes were full of stunned admiration as he said, “Must be one hell of a favour then.”

  The arrival of the rest of The Girls From Mars defused some of the electricity in the air.  They joined Fergus, Flora and I at our table and began to chat happily about London, and some of the bands they had seen whilst down there, “on business.”  Moyra, their usually cool, ice blonde singer was enthusing wildly about a Japanese punk band called Klack, whilst Jane talked of Unskinny Bop and American bands passing through the capital at a rate of one a night.  I found myself next to Andrea, who had been quiet so far, and I realised that I had never really had the opportunity to thank her for stepping into my shoes last year.  “That’s alright,” she said when I brought the matter up, “I quite enjoyed it, it was an interesting challenge for me, because we play in such different styles.”  Over drinks, we discussed different styles, and then got onto kits, and finally, onto drummers we admire, it was nice, I found, to talk to her, and I quite regretted having to break off our conversation in order to get up onstage for our set.

  Afterwards, Fergus and I were joined by a rapidly drowning Flora, and a thoroughly drowned Liberty, both of whom were accompanied by a sober and sombre Jenny.  “I feel that I ought to maintain an element of control,” said Jenny as she glared, pointedly, at Flora, “when I’m working, things being the way they are.”  Liberty plonked herself down with The Girls From Mars at the next table and, sensing an indefinable tension between Flora and Jenny, I made my excuses and lead Fergus away.

  “What was all that about?” he asked as we walked back towards the stage, and then through the door that led to the stairs.

  “I’ll explain later,” I promised as we headed backstage; but backstage proved to be an unreliable sanctity as well.  When we arrived, it was to find Fliss and Emily seated at opposite ends of the battered old sofa, talking intensely in low, emotionally taut voices.  They didn’t notice us enter the room, and I’m equally sure that they didn’t see us leave either, just thirty or so seconds later.

Chapter Fifty Six: Denouement

The dark mancunian streets were filled with the stale remains of Christmas as I walked along the damply shining pavements. The huge tree, hung with lights, which had dominated Piccadilly for the past month or so, gleamed in the misty mancunian drizzle, and the illuminations on Oldham Street also remained.  I walked along Moseley Street to Saint Peters Square, my head bowed against the rain, my hands shoved deep into my pockets against the cold, which clung to me as persistently as the damp.

  The Central Library building loomed in the distance, and I crossed the road by the Metrolink with relief, running the last few feet up the greyish white stone steps.  Stained glass dominated the interior, lending the white building, with its high ceiling, an extra majesty and gravitas.  I swallowed, nervously, as I made my way downstairs to the basement, and to the rather less intimidating intimate glow of the red and white formica café by the Library Theatre.  I had messed up my timings I realised, and had arrived forty-five minutes before curtain up.  The café was largely deserted, save for an earnest seeming man in a black wool coat, whose white wool scarf hung long and unravelling outside his coat, despite having been wrapped twice around his neck.  He was surrounded by books and scribbled notes, and was writing furiously; a cup of coffee lay in front of him, neglected and forgotten, as I made my way over to the counter.  I felt uneasy as I sat down a few minutes later at one of the little tables with a pot of tea and a slice of stollen, I knew that I was doing what I was doing for a good reason, but I still couldn’t decide if it was right or not.  I was still agonising over it when the call to take my seat came, and I made my way across and into the theatre still undecided.  As I sat down on one of the red plush seats, and listened to the hum of the audience and music from the stage, I thought, Please let it be right, and when the lights went down, the music and the murmurs ceased, I allowed myself to be distracted by the play.

  Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ isn’t a usual choice for me, give me a Tom Stoppard or period comedy any day, but in the softly lit, intimate warmth of the theatre, I watched, absolutely rapt, as the actors unfolded their story.  The two young leads, playing Constantine and Nina, held my attention the most.  I watched as these two naïve young characters progressed from idealistic lovers to irretrievably damaged, older, world-weary strangers.  In her final scene, I watched the young, dark, lively actress as she conveyed, with heart wrenching accuracy, the suffering Nina.  As she moved, and as she spoke, I sensed the subtle insinuations of Chekhov’s words, and I saw what lay beneath them.  This girl had such little self-awareness, but there was so much tragedy in her life, so much of which had been brought about through her own mistakes.  A failed actress who ran away with a writer, to be his muse and have (and lose) his child, who was destroyed by him, looks melodramatic on paper yet, on stage, she was fascinatingly real, I believed in her, and I believed in her attempt to get out of the trap that she was so irretrievably caught in.  I sensed her selfishness, her inability to see Constantine’s misery.  I sensed her frailty of mind, her stubbornness, her misery… When the curtain came down, and the cast lined up and took their bows, I applauded with genuine appreciation.  Nina was in the middle of the line up, applauding, along with the rest of the cast, as the shows director emerged from the wings, and took a bow.  My eyes rested on her as I took in her features, now that she was playing herself again.  The long, dark brown hair, which had been neatly contained throughout most of the play, hung wet and wild across her face, as it had in her final scene. Her dark brown eyes were shining, but, I sensed a wrongness there; the unhappiness, which had been expressed so eloquently in her final scene, had not entirely left her, I realised; it was a part of her, and Adrienne, like Nina, could no longer be the ingénue she once was.  If she had tried to be, then it would be an act, for that which is changed cannot be unchanged.

  The restaurant was a luxurious four star Italian eatery near Deansgate; the kind of plush carpeted, expensively lit, lavishly decorated place that I could never get a job at, let alone be served in.  It was very busy that night, and the black and white uniforms of the waiters and waitresses flitted around us and past us in the pale pink soft light.  I watched with a wary, critical eye as she ordered from the menu with an ease born of experience. Her hair had been tidied since her curtain call, and she had changed from her ragged dress into loose black trousers, and a white linen shirt, which made her look both sophisticated and self possessed.  As we waited for our food to arrive, I asked her politely about her life in France, and she talked prettily but vaguely about her Paris apartment, and the lifestyle of the French actress.  In turn, she enquired about Titanium Rose, and I gave her a general overview of our career over the past two years.  It was natural, I suppose, that we be wary of each other, and that we be hesitant in terms of what was said, but it was more than that. I suspect that each of us had picked up on the shadows around the other, and that we were both too sensitive and well behaved to pry.

  Neither of us chose to drink, which might have oiled the wheels a little and, perhaps, have ensured that things were less awkward.  The ice was never really broken, and we ate amidst carefully phrased conversations, which melted away as quickly as they had begun, the ensuing silences swallowed up by those dining and working around us.  I mentioned, as the remains of our main course was being taken away, that the second single from our album has just been released, and that Katy is in London, doing promotion for the single and album whilst producing some tracks for The Flirts and Molotov Cocktail, “A regular superwoman,” I concluded with a trace of disgust.

  Adrienne raised an eyebrow quizzically, “I’d ask you about it,” she said as she raised a glass of water to her lips, “but I suspect that isn’t why you wanted to meet up.”

  I heaved a sigh; now that we had got to the business at hand I had more doubts than ever.  Still, I had come this far; it would be silly to back out now, so… as she drank her water, I began to tell her about Emily, and more specifically, about Fliss’ feelings for her.  “The thing is,” I said reticently, “she needs closure before she can move on.”

  I watched, warily, as she nodded, but I sensed puzzlement on her part, her brow was creased as she said, “I thought I’d made the situation clear to Fliss two years ago, when I left.”

  “I don’t think it seemed that way to Fliss,” I explained cautiously, “In fact, I know it didn’t, it’s always seemed as though she expected you to come back.”

  “I see,” I heard the tension in her voice as she picked up the dessert menu.

  I waited, but nothing further was going to be said, I could tell.  She had shielded her face with the menu, so it was impossible to tell what she was thinking.

  Throughout the final course, she concentrated on her food, and kept her thoughts, and her feelings, to herself.  As the table was cleared, once more, she asked, pensively, “What’s Emily like?”

  “Shy,” I said, succinctly, “and younger than Fliss, very awkward and quiet.”

  She nodded unhappily to herself as she reached for her credit card; she wouldn’t look at me even after she had found it, and I became increasingly apprehensive.  Eventually, she murmured, “It’s the easiest thing in the world for Fliss to just flutter her eyelashes and wait for someone to make the first move, but it doesn’t sound as though that would happen in this case…” She looked up at last, and her face was an unreadable mask as she said, “It’ll be good for her, she’ll have to do all the work for a change, be a bit more butch.”  She frowned, “Is this girl gay though?”

  I grimaced, “I don’t know,” I admitted, “and I’m pretty sure that no one else I know does either, including Fliss.”

  Adrienne grew thoughtful, “Well,” she began, “I can talk to her, if you think it’s necessary, but I don’t think it’ll help.  I’d much rather write her a letter…”

  I agonised for a few moments as to which would be the least painful for Fliss, and Adrienne must have sensed my uncertainty, for she said, with an unhappy sigh, “No, I’d better see her, if I don’t,” she sounded tired, “she would come to me, it’s best I go to her before she decides to come to me.”

  Fliss was in the kitchen when I arrived home, she was wearing one of her oldest, most worn, nighties, which was pale pink and had teddy bears patterned all over it.  Her long fair hair hung loose, to just past her shoulders, and she was making herself a drink before heading off to bed.  As Adrienne emerged from the shadows behind me, she froze.  In the awful, taut silence, I saw the stricken look in her eyes, and the pain in her face; it was so silent that I could almost hear her heart beating faster as she stood, absolutely stock still, her eyes glistening as the tears dripped slowly down her face.  I hurt for her, but it was the pain of sympathy, and, probably, the pain caused by guilt.  What on earth had possessed me to do this to her? Adrienne walked slowly past me as though she were in a trance, her eyes were distant, and her face was unreadable as she took Fliss in her slim arms, and held her.

  The phone was ringing, it had been ringing for a while I realised as Fliss began to sob into Adrienne’s shirt, but it was only now that I had heard it.  I walked along the hallway, to the stand by the stairs, in a trance, and picked up the receiver with heavy, clumsy hands.  The voice on the other end of the line jolted me back to reality, “Happy fucking New Year,” growled Nat, in a dull monotone, “I sure as hell hope its going better for you so far than it is for me.”

  “Not really,” I sighed, “not tonight anyway…”

  “Dylan’s filed for divorce,” she continued in that same, dull monotone, oblivious to my remarks.

  “Well,” I conceded, wryly “you can hardly blame him…”

  “I know, but…”

  “I’m surprised he waited this long…”

  “He’s met someone else,” she droned.

  “Oh…”

  “Yeah… and as if being given the kiss off by my now very ex-husband wasn’t bad enough, Amber’s been romancing Sabine from The Gates, and she’s been lapping it up.”

  “So I gathered.”

  Once again, she didn’t appear to hear me, “So, as well as all that, there’s this big Valentines Day shin dig at Juvenile Hell to organise, with yourselves of course, and everyone there is going to be in a couple except me.”

  “Surely not everyone,” I reasoned.

  “Yes, everyone!” she snapped, and I could sense her despair as well as her exasperation as she continued, “Amber’s going to have Sabine there, you’ll be with Fergus, and Fliss is drooling over Emily, so I can’t borrow her…”

  “Nat,” I reasoned, “you’d eat the poor girl alive…”

  “Fliss!” she snapped, “Not Emily!”

  “Sorry.”  There was an awkward pause, then my heart leapt as I remembered something, “What about Shahina?”

  “Don’t talk to me about that snake,” she said, in withering tones, “She’s in London, sharing Shanti with Violet, or Violet with Shanti… I lost track of that particular ménage á trois…”

  “Borrow Katy,” I said, quickly, before Nat could start in on reminding me about the time Shahina slept with her girlfriend, Jasmine, four years ago.

  “Please…” I could feel her shudder down the phone, “I’d rather go alone, which I will be doing…”

  “Ask Violet.”

  “In London, with Shanti Nair and Shahina, I already told you!”

  “There must be someone…” her despair was infecting me by that point.

  “No, there’s not…” a note of sadness had crept into her voice, “There just aren’t enough confirmed queer girls, or semi queer girls, on our little scene to go around, and trying to pull in the village is fraught with too many difficulties; I don’t like lairy middle aged women leering at me…”

  “You’re lairy sometimes.”

  “That’s different,” she said with crushing finality.  A note of defeat entered her voice as she said, “Oh, never mind… I’m going to go and watch ‘Rosemary and Thyme’…”

  “And write slash/fiction online after?” I enquired, sweetly.

  “You know me too well…” she grumbled, before abruptly hanging up.

  As I got my breakfast the next morning, it occurred to me that Shahina and Violet, whatever their relationship was, couldn’t both take Shanti to Juvenile Hell on Valentines Day, and that, anyway, Shanti might be in London recording still, or be busy with other things.  Surely Shahina would be free if Violet wasn’t? Yes, Cinders, I thought, wryly, to myself, you shall go to the ball… A very curious picture began to form in my head as I reflected on this, and I smiled despite myself.

  Just then, Adrienne made her way into the kitchen.  She walked slowly, as though she had a lot on her mind; her hair was loose and seemingly un-brushed, and the previous nights clothes were badly creased and wrinkled.  “Don’t look at me like that,” she said, sharply, as I stared across at her from the table.  I saw her wince as she looked away from me, “Yes,” she admitted, wearily, “I slept with her, but nothing happened.”  Her voice turned bitter as she poured herself a coffee, “I did what you asked me to do.”  She sat down opposite me, and nursed the mug of black coffee, her dark eyes were angry, and the tension showed in her face.

  “Has there been anyone since Fliss?” I asked in the stony silence.

  She wouldn’t answer; she wouldn’t even look at me.

  “Well?” I prompted.

  But she still wouldn’t answer.

  “There must have been a queue of girls in Holland and France,” I observed lightly, “all dying to…”

  She brought the half empty mug down onto the table with a crash, “There’s been no one,” she snapped as she glared at me, her eyes ablaze with rage. 

  I wasn’t intimidated by her anger, in fact, I felt as though I’d achieved something; I had made her realise the truth, however painful it was, “You still love her, don’t you?” I said, softly.  I took no pleasure in discovering this, it had been the last thing that I had expected to find out, but I had to know, “Why didn’t you come back? She’s waited for you, she’s waited for you for two years, and if you still love her…” I was beginning to feel angry myself then.

  “It won’t work!” her rage was stronger now, “Do you know how many times I’ve been followed since I came back to the U.K?” she clenched her fists, “Twenty times! Twenty times in a fortnight! I’ve had reporters sneak into rehearsals, and that really makes me mad, because then my work’s being affected, and my jobs potentially on the line.  I’ve three different tabloids staying at my hotel, the paparazzi following me everywhere, and I get chat shows calling my agent, wanting me to go on their shows and talk about my ‘comeback’.”  She spat the last word with visible contempt.  There was a pause, and when she next spoke, I sensed her falter as she admitted, “You were right to bring me back here last night, I can’t drag Fliss into my world, not again; it would ruin her life.”

  I was alarmed at this summary of my actions, “That wasn’t why…” I began.

  “But it’s the truth,” she stated hollowly.

  She looked so sad, and it was probably that as much as the desire to defend my own motives, that made me say, “Fliss would run away to France in an instant if she thought you still loved her.”

  She nodded without, I suspect, really hearing what I was saying.  Her voice cracked a little as she said, “You can’t base a relationship on occasional nights in hotel rooms.”

  Fliss entered the room just as Adrienne spoke this last line, she was still in her nightie, and she looked absolutely wretched as she watched her get up to leave.  In the doorway, Adrienne put her arms around her and held her until Fliss began to cry. It was a long, lingering clinch and, as she emerged from the kiss, I heard her say, kindly and quietly, “I’m setting you free.”

  She walked away without looking back.  I heard her feet on the stairs, heard the door slam shut, and then… she was gone.

  Fliss was crying silently in the doorway.  Her eyes were scrunched up, her lips were trembling, and her shoulders were racked with silent sobs.  She staggered, blindly, along the corridor.  I felt terrible as I got up to follow her, but before I reached the corridor, I heard the door to her bedroom slam, and her bed creak.  Through the walls, I could hear her crying, and it was an angry, despairing, ugly sound.  I could hear her fear as well as her despair, and I wished that I hadn’t done what I’d done.

Chapter Fifty Five: Pas de deux

 

The invitations for the Christmas Party have arrived.  Which party? The one Fergus and I were meant to be organising together, the one we planned and speculated about together, the one thing, in fact, that we agreed on all last year that we would do.

  Fliss picked up the mail from the doormat last week, as she does every morning, and I heard her feet on the stairs, light and fast, as though she was excited about something.  “It’s from Fergus,” she announced as she dumped a pile of bills, and a letter, in front of me.  She plonked herself down opposite me at the table, and began to tear open her own letter.  I gingerly opened the envelope, I had forgotten all about the party, then…

  Fliss was reading her invitation aloud, “Miss Felicity Jayne Keale, plus guest, is cordially invited…” she broke off, “What does cordially mean?”

  “Warmly,” my mind was on my own letter, underneath the invitation, he had written something extra, a personal message to me.

“I did it for you,” it read, “I wish you could have been here to help, that’s my fault as well as yours.  I hope you’ll be at the party, it wouldn’t’ be the same without you.  I still love you, I was an idiot to ever think otherwise.”

  I laid the invitation down on the table.  My heart was beating too fast, and I could feel my face growing warm.  Fortunately, Fliss was oblivious.

  “Look!” she cried, “It’s a film theme, who are we going to go as? We could do ‘I Capture The Castle’, and I could go as Cassandra and you could go as Rose, we could get Flora to make us matching white suits…” she trailed off as her eyes lit up with a spark of remembrance, “Or…” she began.

  I shook my head irritably, “No, Fliss…” my mind was still dwelling, very much, on other things, “I don’t know if I want to go or not.”  I confessed.

  “Oh, but you must!” she exclaimed, jumping up from the table and spilling her tea all over her toast in the process, “It was your thing, you and Fergus, you can’t let him down, you have to go!”

  I have brooded for a week now, but today I made my decision: I am going to the party.  I have less than a week in which to sort my costume out, for the party is on Friday, and today is Monday, but I will go.

  (Later)

Went into Manchester in-between shifts yesterday and hared off to Afflecks Palace in pursuit of Flora.  As I climbed the brightly coloured stairs up to the second floor, I heard the distant notes of a strangled guitar. It grew louder as I climbed, but was drowned out in turn by hip hop, sixties pop, and, finally, Radio 2 as I made my way through the vividly coloured, multi varied, always fascinating shops and corridors of the second floor.  At last, I reached Flora’s domain.

  Over the past year and a half, Flora’s shop has come into its own.  When she first installed herself at Afflecks, she had only the stark partitions and a bit of battered carpet to provide an ambience for the racks of clothes, now, the walls are flocked with wallpaper and the floor properly carpeted, and there are clothes and accessories wherever you turn.  “I was going for a thirties drawing room comedy kind of feel,” she told ‘City Life’ a few weeks ago.

  I think a lot of people must be going to Flora for their party costumes, as she was spread-eagled on the floor amidst some heavily sequinned fabric, with pins in her mouth, when I arrived, and Debbie, Flora’s star shop assistant, was perched at the till, looking wearily on.  Somewhere in the background, Ella Fitzgerald was insisting that she was ‘Always True To You Darling In My Fashion.’  It was about half nine, so there weren’t any customers yet.

  “I can’t make a Givenchy knock off for Friday,” she stated firmly as we tucked into coffee and cakes in the café upstairs, “I’ll be pushed to get all my other commissions done, what with all the party outfits I’m doing…”

  I nodded gloomily as I surveyed the décor, there is a kind of bright, sparkling, fresh ambience to that café, it seems to be part nineteen fifties tea room, part college canteen, and it has an atmosphere that so many eateries lack, “Isn’t this like you imagine The Primula or one of those espresso bars in ‘Here Be Dragons’?” I wondered aloud. Flora had been the one to introduce me to that book, so she would know what I meant.

  Flora looked up from her coffee with bleary eyes, “Hey, if you want to give up working at The Platinum Hotel and come to work here for the atmosphere, that’s fine with me.  Talking of fifties,” she frowned, “if you go to Top Shop, they’ve got an Audrey Hepburn dress in the sale there, just like the one she wore in ‘Roman Holiday’.” 

  “No,” I shook my head adamantly, “it has to be ‘Breakfast At Tiffanys.’”

  Flora shrugged, “Sorry.”

  I was starting to feel desperate.  If Flora couldn’t provide me with what I needed, then there was very little chance of getting it via other means and, if I couldn’t get that outfit, then I wouldn’t be able to go.  “All I need is a black dress!” I protested urgently, “a long, black, sleeveless dress.”

  Flora sighed wearily, “Come back tomorrow then, after work.  I won’t have time to make you anything, but I’ll ask around today and, if I get the chance, I could maybe adapt something similar.”

  I exhaled, “Thanks.”

  “Just don’t get your hopes up, that’s all.”

  But she had come up with the goods when I stopped by this evening, “It’s not identical!” she yelled over the sea of heads, “But it’ll do! You need to get a pearl choker though! Or make one! Four rows, try upstairs, by the café!”

  Yelling my thanks, I made for the stairs once more.  The girls at the bead shop were just packing up when I arrived, and they didn’t sell pearl chokers.  Still, the younger of the two, who I knew through Fliss, gave me some wire, a fastener, and some plastic pearls.  I handed over my cash, and with the prettily patterned paper bag in my hand, ran back down the two flights of stairs to the second floor, and to Flora’s increasingly frantic thirties drawing room.

  She threw me over the dress, and I took a good look at it as she packed up.  It was strappy rather than sleeveless, and the thin spaghetti straps crossed over at the back.  It would reveal far more skin than I had originally planned, but it would have to do.

  “Do you need gloves?” enquired Flora after I’d paid her. 

  I shook my head.

  “Cigarette holder?”

  “No, I’m doing without… I have the sunglasses though, and my hair’s long enough to pin up, even if it is the wrong colour.”

  “You could always dye it,” suggested Debbie.

  I shook my head.

  “But he wouldn’t recognise her then!” said Flora, scandalised.  I could feel myself blushing as they exchanged a knowing look.

  Flora’s joie de vivre seemed to evaporate as we carried boxes of stock down to her car.  The vegetable market by the corner of Church Street and Oldham Street were packing up too, and I scrounged some supplies for Fliss and I as Flora talked, “I’m relieved to be so busy here, to tell the truth” she confessed, “it keeps me out of Katy’s way, keeps me occupied, stops me thinking about things.”

  “Is she as unbearable at home as she is at gigs and practices?” I asked incredulously as I packed my supplies away into my bag.

  We walked back to where she had left her car, and she said, “I’m thinking of moving out, to tell the truth, I’ve been looking into places in Hulme or Whalley Range… Hulme would be good; I’d be nearer to work then.”

  Now that her stock was safely packed away, we said our goodbyes.  “See you Friday!” she called after me as I made my way around a dim corner and back onto the Santa illuminated bustle of Oldham Street.

  “See you Friday!” I called back.  But still, I wonder, can I go through with it?

  (Later)

Is it only five days since I wrote those words? It feels like a lifetime.  It is Sunday now, the Sunday after the party, and there is so much to write… I must go slowly though.  Slow and detailed, because I don’t want to miss out a single bit, not one…

  Even on Friday evening, I was reluctant to go to the party.  Despite the touring I’ve done with Titanium Rose these last three or four months, I’m still wary of crowds.  I can sense people staring at me, hear them saying things, laughing… and it makes me nervous, and I have to leave, I can’t stay.

  I tried to explain this to Fliss as she got ready for the party that night, but she didn’t understand, “How can you be frightened of crowds?” she demanded impatiently, her hands on her hips, making her white strapless silk effect ballgown rise up a few inches to reveal black Doc Martens, “You were alright on tour, and you were fine when we went to Juvenile Hell last month…”

  “It’s different!” I protested.

  Fliss was almost ready, she had to do her hair and make-up, and fix her tiara, but that was it.  “Why are you doing this?” she threw up her white satin-gloved hands in exasperation.

  “Because I’m scared!”

  There was silence.

  “It’s O.K to be scared,” she said at last, her eyes puzzled, “everyone’s scared.”

  “I can’t do this!”

  “Yes you can!” the doorbell rang, we glared at each other, “Well,” she relented, “at least answer that if you won’t get changed.”

  I didn’t move, “It’ll be Emily, for you.”

  “I’m well aware of that,” she sighed in a world weary voice, seeming at once older and younger than her nineteen years, “I shall be getting ready.”

  Emily frowned as I ushered her up the stairs, I saw her look me up and down, but she didn’t say anything.  “I’m not going,” I said at last.

  “Oh.”

  We had reached the top of the stairs, and I ushered her into the living room, “Fliss is still getting ready.”

  Emily nodded, and sat down on the sofa.  She was wearing a pale green cotton dress, with a greyish green cardigan and a pale blue cloche hat, her mousy hair was just visible below it.  I scrutinised her as closely as she had scrutinised me, and I saw her face glow pinkly beneath her hat as she stared at the floor.  “Romola Garai as Cassandra Mortmain in ‘I Capture The Castle’.” I pronounced with certainty, “Fliss loves that film, I prefer the book though.”

  Emily nodded shyly, and the atmosphere in the room became thicker and more claustrophobic with our mutual awkwardness.  Just when things were about to become unbearable, Fliss made her entrance, “Ta da!” she sang out, twirling so that the skirt of her dress caught the air and filled out, displaying her boots once more.

  I raised an eyebrow, and enquired coldly, “And you are?”

  “Princess Amelia Mignonette Grimaldi Thermopolis Renaldo of Genovia” protested Fliss forlornly, “I told you…” She threw herself down on the sofa next to Emily, and her eyes lit up as she looked her up and down, “Cassandra!”

  As I waited in the kitchen for the kettle to boil, I stared out at the night sky and brooded.  I was still in two minds as to whether to go or not.  After a few minutes, I heard footsteps on the lino behind me, and turned around.  It was Emily.  She had removed her hat, and was awkwardly clutching it with both hands as she tried not to look at me.  The kettle had boiled, and I was pouring the water into the cups when she finally spoke.  “You should come with us tonight,” she said in her thin, quiet voice, “he’d want you to be there.”

  I shook my head, “I can’t.”

  “Being scared isn’t an excuse, Maggie,” her voice took on a determined edge, “I didn’t want to come, yet here I am.”

  “Why didn’t you want to come?”

  “I don’t like crowds,”

  I nodded.

  “But… I have to deal with it, if I’m ever going to be a sound engineer.”

  “I don’t mind gigs,” I protested, “the audience are at the front of the stage, I’m at the back… they can’t see me half the time, and I can’t really see them, it’s…”

  “Walking through crowds, being part of a crowd?”

  “Yes!”

  “If you want,” she began nervously, “I’ll stick with you tonight, get you through it…”

  “It’s not that…” I sighed.

  “Then what is it Maggie?”

  “It’s… being there, for this, for this particular party.”

  “Oh.”  There was an awkward silence, before she said, “You’re scared of Fergus.”

  “Of messing up,” I corrected her softly.

  “If you don’t go,” she maintained, “you have messed up.”

  “And if I go, and it all goes wrong?”

  “Worry about it when it happens.”

  I nodded, “I know you’re right, deep down.  I’ve been telling myself that all week.”

  She glanced at her watch, “We’ve still got time, why don’t you go and get changed? I’ll take the drinks through.”

  I nodded, and then made my way back along the corridor towards my room.  My hands were shaking as I slipped the dress over my head; the fabric slithered over my shoulders and breasts, and hung, loosely, yet not too loosely, on me.  I didn’t pause to check myself in the mirror; I thought I’d better fix my hair and make-up before my hands were shaking too badly to manage.  I picked up my brush, only to see it fall from my hand moments later.  “Shit,” I muttered as I got down on my hands and knees to pick it up.  Other hands were already there: Fliss and Emily.  They smiled up at me with impish charm, and one pair of brown eyes and one pair of blue glinted in amusement.

  Fliss marched me over to my bed, “Sit,” she commanded.

  I obediently did so.

  She fixed my hair as Emily slid long, black elbow length gloves over my trembling arms.  When that was done, Fliss carefully applied fresh foundation and powder before carefully painting my lips a neutral pink, not too pale, not too dark.  As she finished, Emily fastened the pearl choker, and I slid my feet into the pair of black kitten heels that were waiting.  Emily took my left hand, Fliss my right and I stumbled as they pulled me to my feet.

   “Come on,” Fliss led me out of the room and along the corridor, back into the living room.  “Coat!” Emily held out my long, black wool coat for me to put on, “Handbag!” Emily produced it, and handed it to me, “Keys!” Emily jangled them.  “Right, let’s go!” and, somehow, I found myself being hustled from the room and down the stairs.  I was at the bus stop before I realised what had happened.

  But in the cloakroom above the party, my nervousness returned.  I can’t do this. I thought as women and girls brushed past me, fighting for room at the mirror.  I had hidden myself by the coats, and was trying, without success, to disappear into the wall.  The air was thick with powder, hairspray, and the scent of a thousand different perfumes; the noise deafening from what felt like as many conversations.  Flora appeared, wearing a white beret with a smartly tailored skirt and coat, and I nodded gravely as she waved at me, Faye Dunaway, Bonnie Parker, Bonnie And Clyde, I noted.  She was eclipsed somewhat by the entrance of Nat, clad in a slinky, twenties style evening dress, her face daubed with pale foundation, scarlet lipstick, and blue eyeshadow, her hair newly cut and hanging to her shoulders in loose waves, “Tallulah Bankhead!” roared someone from the doorway.  Nat and I turned as one, and saw… “Sally Bowles!” exclaimed Nat as Violet slunk into the room, “My God, darling, aren’t you cold in those suspenders?” as she bore Violet off to a private corner, I observed a sultry looking girl, with dark sleepy eyes, her long black hair hung across her face.  Tight bootcut jeans, a maroon coloured leather jacket worn over a tight, garishly patterned shirt, and a peaked cap completed the vision.  So this is Shanti Nair, I thought as she slunk after Violet, a fierce scowl on her face.

  Fliss interrupted my thoughts; “Ready?” she and Emily were waiting.  I nodded, and we got up to leave.

  The cloakrooms were on entry level, that is, ground level, but the party was downstairs in the basement.  My heart sank as I saw the party below, and the staircase spiralling down, right into the centre of the room, that we would have to descend in order to get there.  “I’ll go first,” said Fliss, kindly, as she began to descend.  Emily soon followed her, and I watched her reach the floor and wait, expectantly, with Fliss as I began to descend.

  I tried to keep my eye on them as I moved, mechanically, down the stairs.  They gazed up at me like two hopeful, trusting angels, guiding me.  I could hear the clatter of shoes on the stairs behind me, “Knew someone would come as Audrey Hepburn,” said a woman’s voice with knowing complacency.  “She’s all wrong for it,” interjected someone else, “she’s too tall, her hair’s the wrong colour, and you can see her shoulder blades from here; that’s not gamine, that’s emaciated, and what the hell is that thing on her back…” “A tiger, I think,” said the first voice.  I tried to pay attention to what my feet were doing, and to keep my eyes on Fliss and Emily, but the dress was long, and in moving to the next step, I tripped and stumbled into the rail.  My eyes left Fliss and Emily, and in trying to find them again in the crowd, I saw him instead.  He was watching me, and I began to blush in embarrassment.  What little self control was left bolted as I looked away, and I heard the woman behind me snort like a horse as I ran past her, and back up the stairs, seeing nothing but the possibility of my escape.

  I slammed through the cloakroom door, and threw myself back down on the bench beneath the coats.  I pulled my knees up to my chest, and lowered my head onto them as I tried to make myself as small and invisible as possible.  I didn’t notice Fliss’ presence until she spoke, “You have to come back down,” she murmured, quietly but firmly, “you have to try again.”

  “No!” it was muffled, but she heard me.

  “Yes.”

  “No,” I sobbed, “I’m going home, I should never have come, they’re all laughing at me, I heard them, they’re all…”

  “Please, Maggie.”

  “No!”

  There was an awkward pause, and then she said, “I can’t leave you here in this state.”

  “I’ll call a taxi, I’ll go home.”

  “I still don’t like leaving…”

  “You should go.”

  “I still think…”

  “Go, Fliss, please,” I pleaded, “enjoy yourself, you can tell me all about it when you get home.”

  She didn’t reply, but I heard footsteps, and the door closed as someone left the room.  Slowly, but surely, I uncurled myself and took in my surroundings.  The cloakroom wasn’t as crowded as it had been earlier, but there were enough people around to make an audience.  Some of the faces were sympathetic, but many more were staring at me like I was an animal at the zoo, an expression I’ve become all too familiar with over the past year.  Perhaps the most considerate were those who were busying themselves with hair and make-up, who had either missed my outburst, or were simply pretending that they had.  I wasn’t ready to go home yet, I realised, but I couldn’t stay in that cloakroom either.  I decided to go for a walk.

  As I walked back towards the city centre, past The Gates, where bands were already loading equipment back into vans and cars, I began to relax a little.  The air was chilly, but the lighting was so good along Piccadilly that it barely felt dark at all.  The fountains had been switched off for the day, but I sat down beside them anyway, and stared through them, into the distance, not really seeing anything.  I began to wish that I had a cigarette, or a coffee… something to occupy my hands.  As the hours passed, I grew more relaxed, my shoulders un-knotted themselves, and I was able to breathe normally again as my heartbeat slowed down to its normal speed.  I began to think about Fergus as I watched the clear silvery moon shining in the deep blue, chilly sky.  I knew that I had blown it now, that this had been my last chance to prove to him that I was normal and capable of… what exactly? I wasn’t quite sure.  Being normal, I suppose, I thought gloomily.  My hands were still itching for something to do, so I walked over to Spar and bought a pack of ten, some matches, and a coffee.  I smoked the cigarettes, one after another, almost without noticing, as I continued to think.  When they were gone, I drank the cold, bitter, black coffee.

  I should go back, I decided, this is my last chance with him; I can’t give up now.  The decision made, I got to my feet, and began to walk back the way I’d come.  My pace was slower this time, steadier, and more careful.  I could sense blisters forming on my heels as I walked.  Those shoes weren’t designed for distance walking, but I had to keep moving.  I had to go back.

  The cloakroom was empty when I returned, and I slipped into one of the toilet cubicles unnoticed.  I was about to emerge when the cloakroom was invaded… there really is no other word for it… by hordes of women and girls, several the worse for wear, and all looking for their coats.  My heart sank as I sat down on the floor; the party was over, what was I thinking? I was too late.  But I knew that there was no point in leaving yet, not after my oh-so-very-public exit earlier, it would involve all sorts of explanations, explanations that I couldn’t give.  Eventually, the last woman tottered out of the door, and the lights were switched off, leaving me alone in the darkness.

  It was dark in the corridor outside, but I could see the lights glowing in the basement, illuminating the darkness upstairs.  I leant over the balcony; from there I could see the dancefloor, which looked very different now that the lights were on, and I saw him… he had removed his jacket and the sleeves of his crisp white shirt were now rolled up to his elbows.  He was sweeping up the debris left behind after the evening’s entertainment, and quietly whistling.  As I descended the staircase for the second time that evening, I recognised the tune that he was whistling; it was Rodgers and Hart’s ‘My Funny Valentine’.  My heels clicked against the metal steps as I, cautiously, made my way down.  He looked up, and our eyes met.  In the surprise at seeing me there, he let go of the handle, and the brush fell to the floor with a clatter.

  I walked across the floor to him, and stopped just in front of him.  I couldn’t make the final step though, couldn’t reach out to him, or touch him.  After what felt like an agonisingly long silence, I reached down to the floor and picked up the forgotten brush.  I handed it to him, and he took it from me, then, before he could say, or do, anything, I walked over to the tables that ringed the dancefloor, picked up a bin bag, and began to clear the rubbish from the tables.

  When the tidying was complete, he took me by the hand and said, kindly, “Come on, I’ll give you a lift home.”

  We were waiting at the traffic lights; about halfway through our journey, when I asked, “Will you take me to yours?”

  I saw him blink in surprise, “What?”

  The nervousness increased as I whispered, “Will you take me to your house?”

  Our eyes locked for a few moments before he said, “Yes, alright.”

  We drove the rest of the way to Heaton Chapel in silence.

  I perched, nervously, on the edge of the sofa, and waited.  Before too long, he re-emerged from the kitchen, carrying two mugs of tea.  I took the mug he passed me in my gloved hands, and set it down on the table in front of me as he joined me on the sofa.  He took hold of my left hand and, very slowly and carefully, began to remove the glove, and then… he stopped, and I knew that he had seen the cuts and scars along my arm and around my wrist.  He didn’t speak, but his face said everything; he looked as though he was about to cry, but he didn’t let go of my arm.  The glove was off now, but he still didn’t let go; with one hand he held my hand in a loose clasp whilst with the other he traced every scar, every cut on my arm and wrist with his fingers.  Once this was done, he removed my other glove, without saying a word.

  When I had drunk my drink, I sagged against him a little and rested my head on his shoulder.  He put his arm around my shoulders, and asked in a quiet voice that was thick with tension, “Why did you want to come home with me?”

  “I wanted to be with you,” I murmured.

  We kissed, slowly and hesitantly at first, then for longer, and longer as our nervousness slowly disappeared.

  When we paused next, I asked, “Why did you cry?”

  “When?” his voice was low and sleepy, like my own.

  “Before, when you took my gloves off, you were nearly crying.”

  To my surprise, the same strained and upset expression returned to his face, and he moved away from me slightly before he said, very quietly, very tensely, “Because it reminded me of you at your worst.  I always try to think of you at your best.”  There was a pause before he continued, “For a few moments, I was remembering that night, remembering you screaming at me, you pulling your clothes off, and… I think the worst thing was not being able to touch you, not being able to reach you, to pull you out of it.  It was like there was a barrier there, preventing me…” He took hold of my left hand, and caressed it absently as he continued to speak, “I never stopped loving you, not then; not even afterwards when I was seeing other women, never stopped loving you.”

  I rested my head against his shoulder again, and he put his arms around me once more.  In the silence, he asked, “Do you love me?”

  “Yes”

  “And you’ll stay?” there was a hopefulness in his voice.

  “Yes.”

   Our kisses grew longer and more passionate as evening became morning, and I lay in his arms at 4am, my dress on the floor, forgotten.  His shirt hung loose and unfastened, half on, half off.  “Do you have…?” I began.

  “Yes, in my room.”

  I rested my head against his chest, and breathed “that’s alright then.”

  When the time came to leave the sofa, my nervousness returned.  I could sense an awkwardness on his part too as we walked through to his room.  He squeezed my hand with a clammy palm, and I sensed tension, an awkwardness that was reflected in me; But it’ll be O.K, I told myself, It has to be O.K

  As we lay on his bed together, he touched my hair, now loose and hanging down my back, spilling across my shoulders and my face.  I stroked his face, cautiously and softly, and he kissed me, so softly, so hesitantly.  When the time came, he was very careful with me, very gentle, like he was afraid of damaging me, or breaking me.

  Afterwards, I lay in his arms, listening to his heartbeat, feeling his chest rise and fall with every breath, until I fell asleep.

  When I woke up, it was daylight, and the sun was shining on my face.  I felt very tired as I sleepily rolled over, off Fergus, and towards his bedside cabinet, where his clock radio sat.  Twelve twenty seven said the display.  My pills, I thought, sleepily, as I groped along the top of the cabinet for a packet and a bottle that I would never locate.  Panic overwhelmed my sleepiness as I hauled myself up and out of bed.  My clothes, where were my clothes… feeling distracted, I began to shake Fergus in an increasingly frantic manner “Huh?” he mumbled eventually, his eyes still shut, “What? Whaizzit?”

  “I have to go home, I have to take my pills, and I can’t find my clothes, and I should have taken my pills about four hours ago, and…”

  He took hold of my arm, and held me until I was still.  “Wait,” with a good deal of wincing and groaning, he hauled himself up into a sitting position, “Start again.”

  He heard me out as I explained about my medication, and the importance of taking it every day, and at the right time.  “But I don’t see why you should rush off home,” he said as he reached for his mobile, “I’ll text Fliss, get her to bring them over.”

  “But…” I protested.

  “No buts,” he said firmly, “after last night, I’m not letting you leave, or not just yet anyway.  Relax, lie back down again, you’re making me nervous…”

  And so I lay down once more, and he texted Fliss with one hand, whilst stroking my hair in a supremely soothing manner with the other.  “Don’t worry,” he murmured, “it’s all going to be fine.”

  Fliss was already waiting in the living room by the time I had got out of bed and scrambled into Fergus’ old bathrobe.  It was too big for me, and I had to wrap it around me, and then wrap the belt around twice before it was secure enough not to flap open; it was short too, hanging several inches above my knees.  I think that Fliss had sized up the situation long before I walked into the room; she turned from Fergus, naked from the waist up, to me in the ill fitting bathrobe, and smiled shrewdly as she handed me a carrier bag.  “I put the pills on top,” she explained as I took it from her.  As I was seeing her out, she paused in the doorway, and asked, “When will you be home?”

  “Sunday night.” I promised.

  She kissed me on the cheek, and said in a maternal tone, “Be careful.”

  “Yes mother,” I sighed.  She and I smiled like conspirators.

  At the gate, she turned to wave, and I waved back.

  As I sat down once again on the sofa, with my pills and a glass of water, Fergus asked, “What kind of pills are they?”

  “That small white oval one is an antidepressant,” I pointed it out to him, “and the big yellow, capsule shaped pill is a multivitamin.”  He watched in engrossed silence as I swallowed both pills.

  “That’s it?” he asked.

  I nodded, “That’s it.”

  One day soon, we were going to have to have a talk about this, I realised; about medication, about depression and self harm, one day, but not that day.

  As he kissed me, my eyes strayed to Fliss’ carrier bag.  She had put two changes of clothes in it, which was a bit of a waste really, given that I didn’t need any clothes until Sunday night.

  So, now it’s Sunday night, and I am back in my own room, on my own bed, writing down my story.

  Fergus dropped me off in the car at about eight.  We sat outside for a while, with the motor turned off, holding hands in silence.  He kissed me, and I kissed him back, for a long, long time.  As I got out of the car, he told me that he would call me tomorrow evening after work.  I nodded.  As I walked around the car, he wound down the window on his side, and we kissed goodbye once more.  I waved to him from the kerb opposite as he drove away, then unlocked the front door and stepped over the threshold.  The door slammed as I let the handle slip through my fingers, I leant back against it with a sigh, my eyes closed… remembering.

  When I opened my eyes, I saw Fliss.  She was standing at the top of the stairs, watching me, with amusement in her eyes and a smile upon her face, “Welcome home, Juliet,” she said.

Chapter Fifty Four: The Brightness Of The Night

Fliss was checking her make-up in the mirror on the landing when I finally crawled out of bed yesterday morning.  She was wearing a dove blue fifties style ballgown with silver kitten heels and silver fishnet tights, and she was singing ‘Busy Line,’ alternated with ‘Together We Are Beautiful.’  As I blearily sat down at the kitchen table with my mug of coffee, she appeared in the doorway, her hair held up with one hand, and a pair of green and silver winged sunglasses balanced on her nose, “What do you think?”

  I frowned, “It’s a little over the top, makes you look older.”

  Unlike Fliss, I was clad in my nightshirt, what with not really needing to be up yet, and a jumper and woolly socks, because the October weather is really starting to bite.

  Fliss let go of her hair, and it cascaded, slowly and luxuriously to her shoulders.  She placed her hand on her hip, and protested, “It’s the video shoot; it’s meant to be over the top!”

  I shrugged indifferently, “Well, have fun anyway…”

  “Sure you don’t want to come?” she asked as she removed the glasses with careful fingers.  She peered at me anxiously as she polished the lenses.

  “No, I’d only be in the way.”

  She had an interview scheduled with ‘City Life’ after the shoot, so I didn’t see her until early evening, and our soundcheck at The Twilight.

  The wind was howling through the early evening darkness as I sidestepped the puddles and over spilling drains of Piccadilly and Oldham Street.  Whilst the darkness of the evening was less black and unforgiving than we frequently endured in the Heatons, the air was cold with the wind, and the commuters travelling home had yet to be replaced by the creatures of the night.  I was soaked to the skin by the time I reached the Twilight and, if it was cold outside, then that was as nothing when set against the chilly atmosphere that awaited me inside.  Katy was evidently in a mood about something, and I watched with a strong sense of ill foreboding as she unloaded amps, leads, and guitars from her car outside the Twilight’s grimy exterior.  “You can do the drums,” she snapped, “you haven’t done any work yet today,” and with a heavy heart, I began to unload my kit onto the rain-drenched pavements: It was evidently going to be a long night.

  Part way through our soundcheck, she climbed down from the flimsy milk crate supported stage and stood in front of it; a solemn figure in black, watching in the relative lightness of The Twilight, with a fierce scowl on her face.  “You’re playing too fast again,” she snapped suddenly, “don’t those pills slow you down at all?”

  I felt the familiar fire of anger spark and climb through me, but I bit my lip and reined in my temper.  Bawling out Katy never worked in the past, and I have no reason to imagine it will work now.

  Meanwhile, she was homing in on Flora, who was, apparently, “standing wrong,” and looking distracted, “like you want to be somewhere else.”

  “I do want to be somewhere else,” muttered Flora, truculently, under her breath.

  But it was Fliss who received the full impact of Katy’s wrath, mainly – I suspect – because Katy hadn’t liked how she’d acted at the video shoot earlier, “You need to spend longer working on your vocals, Fliss, and guitar; I feel like I carry you enough already, and it isn’t fair anymore, you need to put the work in, concentrate on singing well, not just on how you look.”

  Once the soundcheck was over, Katy stormed out, obviously intending to go for tea by herself.  It was still raining, and the wind was still howling, so Fliss, Flora and I joined the other two bands on the bill, The Beeds, and Fly, around a dark wooden table, stained and sticky with beer and spirits, and watched each band soundcheck as a voluptuous brown haired, brown eyed girl in black walked from table to table, her flip flop clad feet and damp, flagging combats flapping and thwacking as she lit pale tea lights and thick red candles in dark green bottles.

  Once they had finished, the three of us left the vivid glow of the Twilight and made our way along the darkly shining wet pavements of Oldham Street towards the damp monuments of Piccadilly.  Turning right, we passed the bouncers starting their shifts outside the bars and clubs, passed the arcades and bus shelters, and turned towards the deserted white buildings of Aytoun Campus.  We cut across the eerie blackness of Minshall Street carpark, heading for the delicatessens and chip shops that fringed Sackville Street and Canal Street, the rainbow coloured flags waved forlornly in the damp wind as we passed them, heads bowed, hands stuffed into pockets as we battled with the cold.  We ate our tea on a wall by Minshall Street carpark, and watched in silence as the last remnants of the sun disappeared overhead.

  Jenny had arrived by the time we arrived back, and was having her ear bent by Katy.  I watched warily from the faded oak and red velour of the bar as she shook her long damp magenta hair away from her face.  Her battered black leather jacket leant her folded arms a defensive air, and her face bore the well-recognised expression of weary laxed interest.  Although the gig itself was fine, and our set well-attended and received, Katy’s mood did not lift.  She ignored Fliss and I entirely, and pulled Flora into a corner almost immediately afterwards, where she proceeded to rant at length.  Whilst this was going on, I quietly slipped out to the taxi rank in Piccadilly and grabbed a cab to come over to The Twilight to pick up my drums, it wasn’t cheap, but God it was worth it.  I was home by eleven, and was just settling down on the sofa with the cat, a hot chocolate, and my battered copy of Stella Gibbons’ ‘Here Be Dragons’, when I heard the door slam downstairs.  Two pairs of feet came clattering up the stairs, and I could hear raised voices: Flora and Fliss.  As they reached the top of the stairs, I heard Flora say: “…And I don’t know how much longer I can put up with this shit!”  As she charged through the doorway, I noticed that she was scowling furiously, “Where did you get to?” she snapped.

  Fliss and I both felt in need of a diversion to take our minds off… everything, so we went out tonight, having arranged to meet Fliss’ friends from Chorlton, Angel and the Razorblades, in town.  We got off the bus in Piccadilly around eight, and made our way along the shadowy lit streets of Piccadilly, turning right once again by Spar, and heading through the traffic and bustling, busy crowds towards Minshall Street.  The band hailed us from atop the same wall as Flora, Fliss and I had so gloomily eaten our tea only twenty hours before.  In the darkness, I spotted Kylie, the singer who had so memorably puked all over our doorstep at Fliss’ seventeenth birthday party, the night she first met Adrienne, I couldn’t help but recall.  She was swinging her short pale legs impatiently, and I could hear the noise made by her black patent leather Doc Martens as she bashed them against the rough red brick wall; thwack, thwack… Her muddy brown hair was up in bunches, and she was shivering as she folded her arms across her chest, pulling the worn black wool cardigan close against the thin scarlet satin of her slip dress.  Next to her was Rosa, a grave, serious girl with dark soulful eyes.  She was wearing thick, scuffed boots like the workmen wear on the roads, and army surplus combat trousers.  Her black t-shirt bore the distinctive red silhouette of four girls; the Red Vinyl Fur logo, and was partially hidden by her green and brown camouflage jacket.  Her thick dark hair hung down her back in untidy waves, and a smouldering cigarette hung from one fingerless glove clad hand as a brown woolly hat restrained her wild hair.  Next to her on the wall was Kit, whose long perfectly straight jet black hair hung loose, frequently falling across her face and into her eyes.  She had a pale, round face, and wide dark eyes.  Her PVC jacket, flame red in colour, was undone, revealing a short Girls From Mars t-shirt and black jeans.  Yan, her cousin, sat next to her; his own jet hair was streaked with golden blonde in places, and hung long and loose to his shoulders.  Like his cousin, he was pale and dark eyed, but with an angular frame disguised by his baggy jeans and Hello Cuca t-shirt.

  Kylie jumped down off the wall as we approached, and started to hop from leg to leg, her arms still wrapped around her chest as her teeth chattered with the cold, “Drinks at Retro Bar first, yeah?” she shivered as the other three retrieved their bikes.

  I nodded.

  As we walked along the badly lit narrow back streets that fringed the village, I noticed Fliss drop back and join Rosa and Kylie as I led the way.  Soon we were heading along Sackville Street, away from the rainbow flags and bright lights and designer clothes, towards the darker, more remote, cheaper delights of Whitworth Street and beyond. We were heading towards the unfashionable end of Sackville Street, the forgotten end, which led us under the rattling grey railway bridge to Spar, and the shabby end of town; a kind of student bohemia in the middle of nowhere, where Retro Bar inexplicably stood.  Kylie and Rosa were giggling like naughty schoolgirls on an illicit visit to the city, and Fliss was wearing her fifties ballgown again, this time with pale blue satin elbow length gloves and her best diamante tiara.  She looked like a debutante on her way to the palace to be presented, one who had been led astray into the rough side of town by the girls from the local estate.

  The band parked their bikes by some railings near the club and, once inside, Fliss gleefully commandeered one of the big corner tables opposite the pool table with Rosa and Kylie, leaving me to get the drinks as Yan and Kit quietly followed them over.  The bar was pretty full tonight and, as usual, the crowd was fairly mixed.  A T.V was suspended, unobtrusively, from the ceiling, largely to the indifference of those present as they chatted and shot pool in the smoky warmth of the bar.  I sank down into the soft worn velour and wood of the seats, and watched as Kylie and Fliss drank strawberry beers, noisily and messily, whilst Rosa brooded over a snakebite and black, and Yan and Kit chatted in cantonese over cheeky vimtos.

  Meelan arrived later, having finished work late at the latté emporium she works at near Saint Anne’s Square, and we headed back through the designer clubs and apartments of Sackville Street towards Portland Street. Here we crossed paths with lagered up weekenders before cutting across Piccadilly to the gentrified Northern Quarter heartland of Oldham Street, humming with the buzz created by those ever multiplying boutiques and apartments, (“Oldham Street,” Flora had deadpanned one day, “Is Carnaby Street for the noughties.”) to Juvenile Hell.

  The giddy hedonism of Girl Night sat uneasily with the chic Northern Quarterness of Juvenile Hell somehow, yet such was the exuberance of the young, largely female, crowd that it simply didn’t matter.  Through the garish pink, orange and green u.v lighting and the crowd of steaming bodies, I was able to observe Nat, clad in black PVC and lycra, undulating to the sound of a fairly faceless post rock ensemble up on stage.  At the sound desk was Emily, clad in her usual baggy jeans and t-shirt, coolly and warily sharing a bench with a couple of young lovers, who were feverishly groping, eating, and all but copulating.  Next to me, Meelan produced a crumpled homemade Valerie t-shirt (bearing the legend, “All My Heroes Hate Me”) from her bag, and pulled it on over her uniform.  Fliss eased her way through the crowd with a confidence borne of practice, and threw herself down on the bench next to Emily, causing her to budge up, and by consequence, causing the young lovers to fall off each other with a supreme lack of grace.  With a shared expression of pure poison, they moved across to the next table, whereupon they continued where they had left off.  I noticed that Emily seemed shy in Fliss’ company, yet quietly pleased to have her there beside her.

  Kylie and Rosa joined Meelan and me under the fairy lights at the bar, whilst Yan and Kit headed down the front to watch the band.  All three girls asked questions about our video, and were disappointed when I told them that I hadn’t been present at the filming.  “Fliss’ll tell you all about it though,” I reassured them.  As the band played, pleasantly enough, in the background, we discussed the Razorblades.  It transpires that Aiden from Dew and his girlfriend, Sophie, have a record label called Sambuca Records, and they want to do a single with the band.  “I mean, it’ll only be one single, if they can get the money together,” said Kylie, a little defensively, “But it’s a start, and it’s how Titanium Rose got started, isn’t it?”

  I nodded.

 I talked to Nat later as she took a breather by the bar.  Amber slung empty bottles into a dump bin at the end of the bar, and frostily served thirsty punters and teenage girls who glowed with the heat of the crowd and shone with excited exuberance.  Nat glanced fondly at one such pair, two very young plump girls who had covered themselves in glitter and eyeshadow and were wearing cheap little nylon dresses in garish prints, their hands were gripped in solidarity and, possibly, love, as they trotted back to the dancefloor with their cokes.  “I love my job,” she sighed contentedly.  Her contentment turned to excitement as she told me of her latest scheme, “I want to do a Juvenile Hell singles club, or Girl Night singles club, it’ll be like the Club Beetroot series Flotsam and Jetsam did with Nice’N’Sleazy in Glasgow,” she enthused, “or like Live At The Roxy in the seventies.  No one records these bands, and when they do occasionally get signed it’s too late and the spirits gone, all polish and no substance.  If I record them now, I get them playing live whilst they’re still experimenting, and that seems so much more worthwhile.  I’m going to talk to Emily about it later, I’d ask Katy only I don’t think I can afford her, plus she’s a bitch to work with, I did consider asking Fergus…” she trailed off, and I sensed the discomfort.  Her eyes were wary, and her voice was thick with caution, as she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring him up.”

  I shrugged, “Its O.K”

  “Have you seen much of him lately?” she asked cautiously, her eyes worried.

  I shook my head, afraid to commit myself, and especially wary of mentioning his visit to my hotel room whilst we were on tour.  I still get that little lift in my heart whenever I hear his name; it’s what makes it so hard to give him up, well, that and other things…

  The glitter girls were jumping up and down in a frenzy to Le Tigre’s ‘T.K.O’, the Hot Chick Remix, still holding hands, as our conversation turned to the increasingly unstable international situation.  Most days I’m not sure what to think about Iraq, so I try not to think about it at all, it doesn’t stop my feeling things though, mainly a lingering, secret, guilty pain whenever I see the current death figures on the news.  I feel guilty because I didn’t protest strongly enough about Iraq and at the back of my mind the whole time was the knowledge that thousands, millions of people would die.  On top of this feeling is the depressing knowledge, limited perhaps, of the ongoing tit for tat carnage in Israel, and the Beslan massacre in Russia, of which I feel I have seen and heard too much: what links them all is suicide bombers I suppose.

  “There’s no use in worrying about it,” sighed Nat, “what will happen will happen; it isn’t as though we have any control over it.”

  I nodded glumly.

  A number of fanzine writers were hanging around at the other end of the bar, young and feigning boredom, their long hair flapping against their faces.  Some of the girls had adopted the early Courtney Love kinderwhore look of ripped babydolls and slashed red lipstick, and a few of their friends had experimented with fifties and seventies clothes, many more were lounging nonchalantly against the bar in jeans and t-shirts.  I heard them stop talking as I walked past them on my way to the toilets, and I could sense their eyes on me.  As I turned the corner, I heard one of the girls proclaim, “She doesn’t look that bad…”

  When I returned, they had moved away from the bar, and their place had been taken by a group of staff from The Gates, including Sabine, who was neatly glamorous in a black shirt and skirt.  She was leaning over the bar, one pale elbow propping up her head, and her sensitive, intelligent, lovely face was dangerously close to the pale, angular face of Amber.  I watched Amber, and then I noticed Nat at the far end of the bar, she was talking to Kit, but I sensed that she wasn’t really listening to her.  She was gazing past the younger girl, and her eyes were on Amber… on Sabine and Amber.

  Towards the end of the night, as the crowd began to thin and the mood became increasingly tired and emotional, Amber left the bar and slow danced with Sabine.  Across the room, I watched as Fliss looked up from her conversation with Emily and caught sight of them.  Her eyes flicked anxiously from one to the other, and I could tell that she was thinking about Nat.

  But Nat was now intent on the process of clearing up.  I found her in her office in the bowels of the building, sorting out the money for Emily, the bands having already been paid.  From the doorway, I took in the office itself as she sat at her desk, completely absorbed in her work.  There were a number of posters on the walls now, not just our shabby black and white one and the old Girls From Mars one.  I spotted posters for Angel and the Razorblades, alongside Clinch and Dew.  There was a corner of the room reserved for press coverage, with a feature on Girl Night positioned clearly at the centre, and there were photos too, including one of Violet on stage at Juvenile Hell, her expression one of fierce concentration.  The paperwork on her desk was neatly arranged, and a basket full of demos and web links was placed next to a midi hi-fi, waiting to be listened to or followed up.  I knew that she hadn’t noticed that I was there, so I turned to leave, and was nearly knocked over by Dylan.  He nodded curtly to me as I passed him, and as Nat looked up from her paperwork, I saw her expression change, her shoulders tense, and her mouth set in a grim line as she nodded to him.  I closed the door.

  “What was that all about do you think?” breathed Fliss from somewhere behind me.

  I jumped in surprise, and spun round to face her, a glare on my face as I hissed, “I wish you wouldn’t creep up on people like that!”

  “Sorry,” she whispered, “I was looking for Meelan; I wanted to let her know we were going.”

  “I haven’t seen her; we’ll find her on the way out.”

  We made our way up the creaking grey wooden stairs to the near empty venue, where we hooked up with Meelan (who was to spend the night on our sofa) and headed out into the night once more.