Chapter Sixty Three: Jenny Takes Charge

Things appear to be, ostensibly, more or less back to normal in London today, as far as I can tell.  I felt nervous and hollow as I walked with Fliss, Jenny and Flora to Goodge Street today, only to find that we still couldn’t travel from there, and would have to walk it to Tottenham Court Road to get the Central line.  This was no hardship, as we walked much further yesterday, and at least most of the tube is back on.  You may wonder how I can seem so calm about using the tube after yesterday, but I don’t feel afraid at all.  It’s not so much that I don’t live here, and that we’ll be going home next week, it’s more a combination of defiance and nihilism that I find hard to explain or articulate.

  Jenny’s friend, Tara, met us outside Bethnal Green tube, and she and Jenny talked in subdued, low voices as we walked through the streets to her flat.  The recording session was sparse and intimate, mainly just Fliss and her guitar, with occasional percussion from Flora, Jenny, Tara and me.  The ‘home studio’ was really just an eight track, but it was what was needed for Fliss’ sparse, simple songs, and the relaxed atmosphere of the flat was less intimidating than a conventional studio is to her, so she was able to relax into the songs and, as a result, the finished session was very strong and pure.

  I could tell that Tara had been utterly disarmed by Fliss and her songs, “You are planning to go shopping for a publishing deal with this CD, aren’t you?” she said to Jenny as we paused for dinner.  Jenny didn’t say anything, but she had a wicked smile on her face.

  “But I already have a publishing deal,” said Fliss, puzzled.

  “For anything you write as Titanium Rose,” explained Jenny, “not for anything else.”  Her eyes held a look of steely determination as she explained, “What I’d like to do, before we go home on Monday, is to have got you a publishing deal of your own, for the songs you’re writing now, or at least have tried to get you a deal.”

  “Oh, you won’t have any trouble I don’t think,” said Tara confidently, “not with those songs, not with those looks either.”

  Fliss shyly looked away, self conscious and embarrassed.

  We left feeling very optimistic, and with a complete demo.  “We could do with some photos to go with it,” mused Jenny, “I’ll have to take some tonight, or over the weekend.”  It was dusty and humid on the tube as we travelled back to the West End, and at Tottenham Court Road a friendly American girl gave Fliss some chocolate as we waited for a train back to Goodge Street.  Through the gaps on the opposite platform, I heard a woman apologising to one of the London Underground staff about all the people who’d been horrible to him the day before.

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Chapter Sixty Two: Heart Of The City

We left Carr Saunders at nine o’clock this morning, Fliss and Jenny up ahead, Flora and me trailing behind, a little sleepy in the summer breeze as we headed down Tottenham Court Road to Goodge Street tube station.  Fliss had her guitar case slung over her back, and her blonde hair trailed over it in soft waves, moving in the breeze.  She was wearing her blue and white checked dress, and looked very young and fresh.

  They were just shutting the station when we arrived.  Not many people were around, it seemed, and there were temporary signs propped up in the station itself: ‘No Service From This Station.’  Jenny sighed in slight irritation as we paused by the gates, unsure as to what to do.  “Well,” she said, slowly, “we’re only travelling to Tottenham Court Road on the Northern Line, let’s walk it, we can pick up a train there instead.”

  Tottenham Court Road was busy with the morning’s commuters, sharply dressed, but harassed.  As we walked past a mural painted on the wall of a café opposite Heals, I heard a woman grumble that a power failure the morning after the Olympic decision was “typical.”  Somehow, we ended up at Warren Street instead of Tottenham Court Road, having read the map wrong and walked in the wrong direction, it was there that we discovered that the whole network was out, due to a power surge, and that we’d have to get a bus if we wanted to get to Bethnal Green.  We hesitated outside the station as the crowds surged past us, pushing us back to the edge of the pavement.  We were travelling to Bethnal Green in order to lay down some recordings of Fliss’ songs, as Jenny knows someone there who has a home studio that we could borrow, so our journey was important, but not as crucial as that of those who were struggling to get to work.  I shiver to think of it now, but in the busy disruption this morning, my thoughts were simple and uncomplicated, so it was with this common sense that I said, “We don’t really know where we’re going, let’s walk down to Tottenham Court Road and see if the Central line’s likely to be back on soon, if we get a bus, we’ll get lost.”

  The others exchanged glances, then nodded in agreement, and we set off back the way we’d just come.  The wide pavements of Tottenham Court Road were still heaving with people as we walked, but everyone seemed to be walking briskly, with a sort of pent up aggression, the strain showed a little on their faces as they contemplated hours docked from pay, and as shoes unsuited to distance walking began to pinch and rub.  There was no new news when we reached Tottenham Court Road, and not knowing how long the network was likely to be down, we headed for Oxford Circus, in search of a souvenir shop that Fliss wanted to find that sold ‘Mind The Gap’ mugs and London tube map shirts.  She was intent on finding a pair of London tube map boxer shorts for Kylie to wear on stage.  It seems strange now to recall how quickly our minds switched from travel to shopping, how calm we were, how everything felt like a big, exciting, bright and vivid summer adventure, but it would be a lie to say I sensed a wrongness in the air at that point, because I didn’t.

  We stopped for a travel update at Oxford Circus and, as we waited, patiently and placidly, in the queue of commuters a dazed looking man in a suit, carrying a briefcase was overheard to say that he’d been on a train earlier where there’d been some kind of explosion, different lines and destinations were bandied around as people tried to find out how to reach previously simple destinations.  A man in a London Underground uniform listened to a voice on a receiver, interrupting another’s bus stop directions as the news came through that all the buses across London had just been withdrawn.  A surge of apprehension, dread, and sheer nervous adrenalin began to work its way through my body as I began to suspect that something bigger than a simple electrical fault had happened.

  As we walked back along Oxford Circus towards Tottenham Court Road, police cars and ambulances roared past us, sirens at full, jarring, blare, and when I looked up, I could see helicopters in the sky.  The commuters and tourists on Tottenham Court Road seemed dazed and weary then, still moving with purpose past the shops, along the crowded pavement.  Further along the road, I saw an unusually motionless crowd, so big that it was blocking the wide pavement and spilling out into the road.  As we drew closer, I heard Jem’s ‘They’ blaring out of some open shop doorway, and as we reached the crowd, we became a part of their uneasy stillness and silence.  They were gathered around a shop window, in which there was a television showing Sky News.  Unusually, the volume had been turned up, meaning that we could hear as well as see the headlines: ‘EXPLOSIONS IN CENTRAL LONDON’ against the footage of ambulances and stretchers outside underground stations.  And as we stood in the silent crowd, with sirens screaming past us, people walking round us, confirmation came through of an explosion on a bus.

  STOP

  Don’t try to think.

  Don’t process, don’t analyse.

  Just stand still and wait.

  Wait.

  Wait.

I could feel the sense of nervousness, of tiredness, climbing as I watched the images and personal testimonies as they rolled across the screen.  At last, my mind cleared a little, and I was able to view the footage rather more subjectively, not just as someone in central London, failing to match the terror on screen with the surreal calm around me, but as a Manchester girl, as someone with loved ones who wouldn’t have the advantage of what, I suppose, was the reaction at street level.  My first thought was of Fergus, hearing something in passing at work, and not knowing if I was safe.  My second, rapid, thought was of my mother turning on the television and seeing the same footage that I was seeing; Ambulances and stretchers, the mangled remains of a London bus, strangely calm survivors, with blood on their clothes and faces, relating things that they should never be asked to relate, debris and dazed faces…  I knew that Fliss was next to me, even though I hadn’t looked to check, and I found myself speaking in an odd, tight voice that didn’t feel as though it belonged to me, “I need to borrow your mobile.”

  She handed it to me in silence and, barely taking her eyes off the screen, gave me wordless instructions as to how to use it.  Fergus’ mobile was switched to ansaphone, so I left a brief message, telling him we were all fine and not to worry, I’d phone him later.  Thomas answered when I phoned home, and I exhaled in relief as I heard his voice, “Maggie? To what do I owe the pleasure?” his voice was jocular and slightly amused.

  My hands had been shaking ever since I had taken Fliss’ mobile from her, I realised, but there was no time to worry about that now “Is my mum around?” I asked; a slight tremor in my voice as I tried to stay calm.

  “She’s still in bed, but she’s awake, if you want me to fetch her…” he trailed off as though ready to put the receiver down and go into the bedroom to fetch her.

  “No,” I said, quickly, “I need to tell you, then you can tell her… There’s been some explosions in London, but I’m O.K, we’re all O.K.  It looks worse on T.V, I think, so, try to stop her from watching the news today, if you can.”

  “I’ll do my best,” he promised, and I sensed that the tone had changed now: he knew it was serious.  There was an awkward pause, “Are you sure you’re O.K?”

  A siren wailed in my ear, bringing me back to the immediate situation as I replied, “Yes, I’m fine… I have to go.” The amount of police cars, police vans, ambulances and helicopters had increased as I wrapped up the call and handed the phone back to Fliss.  A man pushing a woman in a wheelchair was trying to fight his way through the crowd, and as we stepped aside, reluctantly, to let them through, I knew that we had heard and seen everything on the screen that could be useful to us at that point: It was time to go back to the hall.  Helicopters, police vans, and ambulances accompanied us as we headed back down Tottenham Court Road, parting from us as we turned off down Goodge Street and they continued in the direction of Warren Street.  I didn’t realise until much, much later just where they were heading, or how many people they would take away.

  We hadn’t long arrived back at Carr Saunders when a fax arrived at Reception, advising everyone to stay exactly where they were for the moment.  With little else to do, we joined the crowd of guests in the T.V lounge and watched the latest news.  Unlike the crowd on Tottenham Court Road, the lounge was noisy with conversation, making what little news there was hard to understand.  It sounded like six tube bombs and a bus bomb, but no one seemed that sure, and after a while, we retreated to our rooms.  Across the corridor, I could hear Fliss playing chords on her guitar as Flora slept and I read Dodie Smith’s ‘The Town In Bloom.’  Hours passed in still, uneasy, silence.

In the afternoon, I heard what sounded like air gun shots, and it was only later tonight, when watching the T.V once more, that I realised that what I’d been hearing was controlled explosions being carried out.

    In the early evening, Flora woke up and stretched.  She got to her feet, and began, restlessly, to pace the room, “I can’t stand this,” she snapped, “I need to know what’s happening!”

  Without moving from the bed, or putting down my book, I reminded her of the advice we’d been given to stay put. 

  “I don’t care,” she snapped, “I need to go out!”

  I put my book down with a sigh, “To get drunk?” I asked.  She glared at me.  “Well, today’s a perfect day to drown your sorrows I suppose,” I murmured, almost to myself.

  She glared at me for a few minutes in barely contained fury, then her bottom lip began to tremble, her eyes began to blink, and she collapsed onto her bed in floods of tears.  I felt like joining in, but I was too tired to cry, and I felt as though enough tears had been cried already.  There were four bombs and, so far, thirty-seven people are dead, hundreds more are injured.

Chapter Sixty One: How Bands Fall Apart (in London)

We arrived in London yesterday, and as we meandered through the warm city streets on the coach, I marked off each district we passed through on our way to Victoria Coach Station.  It was sunny outside, and slightly humid on the coach; the city monuments seemed very large and white, very shiny, and slightly intimidating to me.  I watched from the window of the National Express as we passed a forty something punk with an orange mohican sitting on the pavement in Golders Green Bus Station; his face was tanned and lined, and he was wearing dishevelled denim.  I remember wondering if he’d ever posed for a ‘Greetings From London’ postcard in his youth; it seemed likely.

  I found myself feeling strangely queasy as I surveyed the wealth of the West End from the coach window, particularly as we crawled past Selfridges and I saw immaculately dressed women staggering along the pavement, trailing huge, bulging, boutique bags bearing the name of the store.  Everything had the appearance of being so affluent as to be obscene, but I suspect that this response has, at least in part, been generated by Live 8 and G8, which both took place over the weekend: Fliss and I have been watching programmes about poverty all week.

  Carr Saunders Hall, where we’re staying, is on the same street as Saatchi & Saatchi but, despite being in the West End, is reassuringly modest.  Jenny told me a few weeks back that she was booking us into student accommodation for this trip, mainly, she said, because she didn’t want Flora to have access to a hotel bar. I happened to notice as we checked in that there’s a bar directly opposite, so Jenny’s plans to keep Flora off the booze seem doomed to failure.

  There was an element of expectation in the air as we set out for the RMC International offices this morning, “Isn’t the Olympic bid decision announced today?” mused Jenny as we walked along Tottenham Court Road to Goodge Street tube station in the early morning sunshine.

  I shrugged, “Who cares?”

  Fliss and I recalled watching the opening ceremony to the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games on the little T.V above the bar upstairs at Retro Bar whilst waiting for X-Offender to start downstairs.  We could see the planes performing their display on T.V, and would probably have been able to see and hear them live, had we got up from the snug, sofa like seating and stepped outside, but we couldn’t be bothered.

  This story, and related stories, lasted us until we had to change at the Embankment, then we shut up as we negotiated the crowds of commuters on our way to the Circle line.

  Katy had already arrived by the time we were shown into the startlingly white meeting room up on the fourth floor of the RMC offices.  She was talking to Angel Smith as we entered, and her crisp, black, cropped sleeved shirt and black jeans clashed with our altogether more ragged and random ensembles.  Jenny and Fliss had made an effort, but Flora and I had opted for comfort over style.  I saw a sneer flicker across Angel’s face as she looked at us, ‘Yokels’ it seemed to say, or ‘Paupers’.  It had felt safe to jeer at her back in Manchester, because we had been on our own turf, but now we were on her turf, and the tables were turned.  Also present at the meeting was some Australian guy from RMC, called Nathan, who may have been an accountant for all I know, as it was obvious from the start that music wasn’t his strong suit, and Andrew Ryans, from our publishing company, Say, who was interested in negotiating a new contract.

  “But the old contract’s fine,” said Jenny, puzzled, “we went over it six months ago…”

  Katy cleared her throat, and I saw her exchange a look with him.

  Aha, so that’s it… I thought, and as Andrew began to outline what could only be Katy’s proposals, I knew.

  On the way out, Flora had a screaming row with Jenny, “HOW COULD YOU LET THAT BITCH HAVE 75% OF OUR PUBLISHING?”

  “BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW!”

  “SOME FUCKING MANAGER!” jeered Flora as she stormed off.

  I saw Jenny sigh.  There were bags under her eyes, and her expression was one of surprise, as though she had just been slapped.

  It hadn’t just been that our share of the royalties had dropped, though that was bad enough; it was the knowledge that Katy had our label and our publisher firmly under her thumb that really stung.  As Fliss said to Jenny on the tube as we travelled back to the West End, “It’s bad enough that she’s had the press under her thumb for the past eighteen months.”

  Jenny laughed, bitterly, “No one has the press under their thumb, believe me…”

  An air of gloom had settled over us, one that contrasted sharply with a London that had just won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics.  Well, at least someone was happy.

  Earlier tonight, I helped Jenny to arrange pre packed salads onto plastic plates in the communal kitchen as Fliss played her guitar alone in a room some way down the corridor.  When we had finished, I made Jenny creep along the corridor towards her and Fliss’ room.  Our floor is mainly home to a group of American economics students, who Jenny immediately sized up and dubbed the “Young Americans.”  We passed a number of them as we tiptoed along the corridor, and they watched our stealthy movements with broadly hostile eyes.  Fliss was playing clear, simple chords slowly and starkly and, as we drew closer, we could hear her pure, girlish voice soar as she sang:

My sins lie like tears on your skin

I want to touch you

But you’re too far away

I have heard Fliss play this song a lot lately, and it’s become one of my favourites.  Jenny stood still as she listened, an intent expression on her face.  Halfway through, Fliss stopped, there was a brief pause, then she began to play again, a different tune this time, with an almost eerie, repetitive series of chords that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, she played it several times before she began to sing and, when she did, it was self conscious and stilted, as though she was trying it out, seeing if it worked.  I drew Jenny back to the kitchen, saying quietly once we were out of earshot, “Can we really let a song like that go?”

  Jenny shook her head sadly, “No,” she sighed, “and if we can’t get Katy to leave, or to start using Fliss’ songs again, I’m afraid I may have to talk Fliss into pursuing a solo career, I can’t afford to let her languish in this Cinderella situation any longer.”

    It was about an hour ago when I was woken up by Flora banging on the door; she was swearing thoroughly, if not entirely distinctly, “Bloody bollocking swipe cards,” she mumbled as she staggered into the room behind me.  I could smell the alcohol as she collapsed onto her bed, the white key card that had proved so tricky to operate slid from her unresisting fingers to the floor as she closed her eyes.  With a shake of the head, I walked back over to the door and locked it once more.  “Is this what you wanted, Flora?” I spat, bitterly, as I walked back over to my own bed, “is this what all the years of band practice and gigs were leading up to? Was it worth all the hard graft?”  A snore emerged from her prone form and in a fit of temper I hit her with my pillow before getting back into bed and trying to get to sleep.

Chapter Sixty: Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?

Nat and I could hear Fliss, Kylie, and Meelan performing three part harmonies to The Waitresses ‘Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?’ as we got ready to go out. The three of them were in Fliss’ room, preparing for an evenings entertainment at The Gates (Mad Girls In The Attic were playing) and The Thompson Arms (Shake-O-Rama!) whilst Nat and I were in my room, preparing for our own night out. They emerged as I rooted under the sofa in the living room for my boots, and I was struck by their air of exuberance. Dressed in jeans, her hair pinned up for the evening, and wearing a blue silk shirt, Fliss looked pretty and happy. Meelan was in her usual skate jeans and t-shirt, and Kylie was wearing blue denim three quarter length trousers with Fliss’ old blue velour halter top. As Fliss returned to her room for her handbag, I watched in concern as Kylie produced a pack of cigarettes from her handbag, lit one, and inhaled. I hadn’t known that she smoked.

  The three of them had left by the time Nat and I were ready. We were going to see The Renaissance Girls, Iona Black’s band, and I was excited as we waited in the living room for my mum to pick us up. The first Renaissance Girls album had come out in 2001, and had been a self-titled masterpiece of jagged, dark, alternative rock. It had been reasonably well received, critically speaking, and had sold quite well, so good things had been expected of the band. We had waited with a great deal of excited expectation for the second album, and waited, and waited, and waited… But things had happened in the intervening four years, both personally and musically for the band, not to mention for Nat and me, and in the thick of all that history, The Renaissance Girls had been forgotten; until now. The second album had finally arrived, and we were more than ready for it.

  “Remember when we went to see that band when we were sixteen?” said Nat, “and they did a cover of a Firefly song?”

  I nodded, “They were called The Midnight Girls” Nat often liked to test me on memories of our collective youth.

  “Do you remember which song it was?”

  “Of course,” I said, “it was ‘Silver Bells’, one of Iona’s songs.”

  Nat nodded, “I miss all that, all those late night gigs and sleepovers.”

  “And school in the morning.”

  “No,” she said, resolutely, “I don’t miss that.”

  I smiled as I leant back against the sofa and closed my eyes.

  Mum arrived a few minutes later, looking considerably more vital and healthy than she had at our last meeting. I’d spoken to her on the phone a few days ago, and she had calmly assured me that both her fainting spells and morning sickness had now ceased. There had been an awkward moment when she mentioned, very reluctantly, that Thomas had asked her to marry him again, and that she had said no. But I had sensed that it hadn’t been the whole story; she had sounded far less sure than she had a month ago. When she arrived she was wearing her old faded black jeans and her Doc Martens, and her jacket was unbuttoned, revealing a slight bump against the fabric of her t-shirt. It wasn’t a big bump, it was just, well, noticeable. Nat walked over to her and hugged her hello, and I hesitantly followed suit a minute or two later.

  There was a sizeable queue outside the Students Union, and the touts were out in force, merrily, and mercilessly, working Oxford Road. When we did get inside, we had to sign in as temporary SU members, always a hectic and crowded affair, before heading for the bar and getting our drinks.

  It was on our way upstairs to the bar, and the gig, that we crossed paths with Lalita Cain, who was accompanied by a pretty young girl of about Fliss’ age. “This is Aurora, my god-daughter,” she explained, after we had exchanged awkward greetings. I noticed that she wouldn’t look at Nat, and that Nat was quietly edging away from our group as she pretended to be equally fascinated by the posters for upcoming gigs and her Academy listings guide. “We were just heading backstage.” We let them go, and it was only as we arrived at the bar that mum turned to Nat, and said, “That was Aurora Gough, wasn’t it?”

  Nat nodded, “Lalita did mention her a few times, when we were still on speaking terms that is. She and Aurora are very close.”

  None of us spoke any more about it, for we knew the story. Iona Black had married Taylor Gough, her producer, in 1987, two years after she had had his daughter, Aurora. Following their divorce in 1993, he had gained custody of Aurora and, following his death in 1996, she had been raised by his parents. Iona rarely spoke to the press, so her feelings on the situation weren’t really known, and she wasn’t the kind of woman people wrote books about, so we were unlikely to ever know. “Unless she writes her autobiography one day” said mum as she carefully massaged the bump.

  Nat shook her head, “I don’t think she’s the type to do that.”

  Mum nodded, “You’re probably right; how refreshing in this day and age.”

  “Aurora’s a nice name,” said Nat, cheerily, “Have you and Thomas decided on names yet?”

  Mum shook her head, “No, at the moment we’re just using ‘the bump’.”

  “You could go for something really distinctive like Thessaly or Tiara…”

  “Peaches or Pixie,” I added, sarcastically.

  “Suri or Jaydynn.”

  Mum shuddered.

  “Holly, because she was conceived at Christmas,” added Nat, “and if it’s a boy, he can be Nicholas.”

  “I think not.” said Mum, decisively.

  Seeing The Renaissance Girls live was very different to seeing The Beauty Queens live, I soon discovered. Because it was so long since they had last played together, and because they didn’t really have anything to prove, The Beauty Queens gig had been quite friendly and relaxed. The Renaissance Girls, by comparison, were a lot more theatrical, dark, and intense. There was a lot of epilepsy inducing lasers and lightning flashes just before the start of the set and, when it all cleared and the basic stage lighting had been restored, the spotlight lit up a small, black clad figure, looking to her left, away from the crowd, her long black hair across her face, a guitar slung across her hips: Iona Black. Her voice was a little shaky at first, but it got stronger as the songs progressed, and soon she was soaring above the jagged metallic tinged dark rock, her voice clear and strong, slightly metallic in quality, matching and enhancing the music as she sang of fear, despair, pain and isolation. Her face was white in the stark lighting, her dark eyes brooding and slightly distracted. She moved awkwardly and self consciously in her loose black long sleeved shirt and black jeans, but her performance felt sincere, albeit quieter, less flamboyant than one would expect.

  “Now there’s a woman who has gone through a lot of shit to get where she is today,” declared Nat as mum drove us back to my flat.

  I nodded in agreement. It was, after all, at least part of the attraction in my case. I liked Iona musically, but her unwillingness to sell her story, and herself, to the press was another quality I admired. Sure, the woman had problems, but she kept her personal and professional life separate, as much as she could, and I had to admire that.

  “Do you think she always wears long sleeves on stage?” asked Nat once we were back at the flat.

  “I don’t know,” I confessed as we waited in the kitchen for the kettle to boil, “I was wondering about that.”

  “It would disguise any scarring.”

  “Yes, whereas wrist bands just draw attention to it.”

  We drank our tea in comfortable silence on the sofa in the living room. As Nat wiped her mouth and checked her mug for lipstick stains, she asked, “Does Rachel being pregnant bother you?”

  I nodded, and I could feel myself blushing in discomfort as I admitted “But I don’t know why, just that it does.”

“You’re embarrassed” she said, quietly.

  I could feel myself blushing as I shook my head, “No, I’m not, really I’m not – I just don’t like talking about it.” I felt flustered, but Nat just nodded, and somehow I found the courage to continue, “I got over her and Thomas being together last year,” I admitted, “this is something else, and I just don’t feel ready to talk about it yet… I don’t know what I feel yet, or why, I just feel uncomfortable.”

  Nat smiled, “I really hated growing up as an only child,” she admitted, “I wish one of my parents had given me a brother or sister.”

  I shook my head, “But we are grown up now – it’s too late now for it to matter that way.”

  “Maybe that’s the problem.”

  There was a long silence before I felt able to say, “I don’t know how I fit into her life anymore. It was simpler when it was just me and her…” I felt like such a whiney child, but at least it was the truth, “since other people have factored in, its complicated things, and I think I’m sad that things will become more complicated again.”

  Fliss, Kylie and Meelan weren’t due back for several hours yet, so Nat slept in my room rather than risk being disturbed on the sofa. We undressed with our backs to each other before climbing into bed. As Nat rested her head on the pillow next to mine, I asked, “How’s Violet?”

  Nat smiled, wickedly, “She’s very well, thanks.”

  “Am I allowed to ask if any new developments have occurred, post Valentines Day?”

  “You can ask, I just won’t tell. I’m taking notes from Iona Black: Don’t kiss and tell.”

  “You’ve loved her for a long time now,” I reflected, calmly and blithely, “since you were eighteen or so.”

  “Almost as long as I’ve loved you,” she murmured, sleepily.

  I blushed again.

  “Does it hurt you if I say that?” she asked, anxiously.

  “No,” my face was on fire, and I felt very, very self conscious and uncomfortable. This was Nat after all; I couldn’t lie to her if I tried “I think I’ve always known. I just never knew how to handle it.”

  She kissed my neck, and said, “You don’t have to handle it, I just wanted to let you know. We won’t talk about it again.” She turned over so that her back was to me, and I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

  It took a long time, but after I had run through the day’s events in my head for a few hours, I at last began to feel sleepy. I was just about to nod off when I heard the front door open and close, and three pairs of feet as they clattered up the stairs. Sometime around dawn, I slept at last.

Chapter Fifty Nine: How Bands Fall Apart (in Manchester)

We’ve put off confronting Katy a number of times now; twice because she stalled us with promises to meet up, only to fail to show at the pre-arranged meeting point, and three times because neither Flora nor Katy turned up.  Fliss still refuses to have anything to do with it and, all things considered, we aren’t expecting her to change her mind anytime soon.  “I’m not taking any chances this time,” announced Jenny as we walked along Oxford Road in the late morning sunshine, “If Flora thinks she can get out of it by staying at home, she’s another thing coming.”  The heat was rising as we walked, making the air warm and slightly humid despite the glaring whiteness of the sky.

  Flora and Debbie’s flat was stark and shabby, with an early seventies nostalgic feel, which I can only presume was accidental.  Debbie steered us across the orangey brown carpet to the worn lino of the kitchen, where she made us drinks, and we talked as we waited for Sleeping Beauty to emerge.  “I don’t want to be rude,” began Debbie, hesitantly, after we had been exchanging small talk for over an hour, “But Flora got drunk again last night, and I’ve noticed she only does that when she’s under pressure about the band.”

  “She’s been drunk other times too,” said Jenny, “she got drunk when we last went out, and that was purely social.”

  Debbie shuffled uncomfortably, I could tell that she wanted to disagree, but that she thought it was best not to for the moment.  “I’m only mentioning it because her hangovers cut into work time, and we’ve had a lot of commissions and deadlines lately.  I can deal with the shop side, and the business side of things, but I’m not as good as she is at the creative side of things, so I can’t take much of it off her hands.”  Jenny began to drum her fingers, impatiently, on the top of the table; I could tell that she wanted to get Flora, and get going, before Katy did a flit.  “Jenny,” said Debbie imploringly, “Listen to me… You could get another bassist, I’m sure you could, I don’t want you to sack her, but…”

  She trailed off as Jenny got to her feet, flicking her bright hair out of her eyes as she said, “I can’t wait any longer; I’m going to get her.”

  As we walked up the grimy brown and orange stair carpet, I heard Debbie’s footsteps behind me.

  In Flora’s bedroom, the paint on the walls was peeling, and boxes surrounded the bed.  Knickers and bras had been left all over the floor, and there were empty bottles teetering on the boxes.  A hi-fi, somewhere, was blaring out Marianne Faithful’s ‘The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’ as Flora lay, spread-eagled, across the unmade bed, her hair unwashed and un-brushed, still wearing her clothes, and groaning loudly as Jenny shook her.  It was strangely reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’.  Debbie slipped past me as I stood gawping, and between the two of them, they managed to drag her into an upright position, although her eyes were screwed tight shut against the glare of the daylight.  “Why have you done this?” snapped Jenny, shaking her for emphasis.

  Flora winced as she moaned, “I thought you might leave me alone and not make me go!” the last word emerged as a disgruntled whine.  Her face was distinctly greenish, and her eyes, when she eventually opened them, were bloodshot and slightly unfocused.  “Where are my sunglasses?” she whimpered as she closed her eyes once more.  She would no doubt have flopped back down onto the bed, and gone back to sleep, but Debbie and Jenny held her fast.  Debbie found the sunglasses and propped them up against Flora’s pale, sensitive nose, then she and Jenny hauled her to my feet and dragged her over to a chair.

  “Leave me alone with her for a few minutes,” said Debbie quietly, and we did.

  Outside the bedroom door, Jenny lit a cigarette and inhaled gratefully, “I’ll be glad when this is over,” she muttered.

  The humidity had increased whilst we were inside, and the white sky was glaringly bright as we walked through Hulme, then back down Oxford Road.  Despite the humidity, Flora was shivering.  She made a strange picture in her coat and sunglasses, and her face was a terrible colour. “Fliss thinks we should give Katy the elbow,” I told them both as we walked.

  “I’m all for it,” muttered Flora.

  But Jenny shook her head, “It would mean a long court case over who gets to use the name if you do, and I can’t see Katy giving up without a fight.”

  The Northern Quarter always looks best in summer, the sun makes the streets seem less grey, and the colours seem brighter, the shops fresher, shoppers more cheerful.  The recently built glass and steel apartment block became more and more imposing as we drew nearer, and Flora shivered.

  “I told you I don’t want to talk,” snapped Katy when she, at last, opened the door to us.

  “I know,” said Jenny as she shoved past her and into the flat.

  I found myself comparing the open plan glass and steel of Katy’s apartment to the shabbily carpeted, peeling paint and cramped rooms of Flora’s flat.  Like Flora, Katy shares her flat, but it was easy to see that Katy had a palace, Flora a hovel.

  We didn’t see much of the palace, however, for Katy blocked our path once more.  She stood directly in front of us with her arms folded, defensively, across her chest as she scowled.  Jenny was wavering, I could tell, “All we want to do is talk about the band,” she insisted.

  “You’ve no jurisdiction over me anymore, Jenny,” growled Katy, handing her a letter.  “You’re not my manager anymore.”

  I watched as Jenny read the letter, and I saw her turn pale with rage.  There was a long, long, silence before she said, in tones of purest ice, “I still represent the interests of Maggie, Flora, and Fliss.”

  “I won’t discuss anything without my manager being present,” maintained Katy in that same icy voice.

  “Fine,” said Jenny, “let’s arrange a date.”

  Katy started to close the door on us, “I’ll get my manager to phone the label and arrange a meeting at the London offices.”  The London offices meant RCM International.

  “Fine,” snapped Jenny, her foot in the door, “if I haven’t heard anything by the end of the week, I’ll be talking to your manager to find out why.”

  “Fine,” Katy slammed the door, and Jenny removed her foot just in time.

  We put Flora in a taxi at Piccadilly, and it was as we watched the car disappear along the road that Jenny asked, dryly, “Would it hurt you a lot if Titanium Rose split up?” 

  I shook my head, “No.”

  She shook her head in seeming sadness, “I was afraid you’d say that.”  She turned to face me, and took me by the arm, “Come with me, please,” we walked back towards Oldham Street.

  The Twilight seemed tired in the glare of the afternoon sun.  At night, the dust and grime, the darkness and red velour can be charming, but in daylight it just seems old, and tired, and sad.  The young gothic barmaid served us with a histrionic sigh, and rolled her eyes in boredom as she got our drinks, all the while slouching across the floor, her black lacquered nails raking her red, teased hair as though she’d rather be somewhere else.

  Once we were ensconced at one of the dark wooden tables, sticky with years of spilt beer, Jenny produced a magazine from her bag.  It was bright, thick and glossy, and it looked very new, very different to the usual rock mag fare.  There was a picture of The Girls From Mars on the cover.  Jenny flicked through the pages until she was near the centre before passing the magazine across to me.  There was a feature on new, up and coming, girl bands, including Lolita Complex, Clinch, The Flirts, Rachel Halo And The Princesses, and three bands I hadn’t heard of: The Heimlich Manoeuvre, Kitsune, and the wonderfully named Mad Girls In The Attic.  Lolita Complex are from Chorlton, and are friends of Yan from the Razorblades, Clinch are from Bolton, and Meelan is a friend, The Flirts are based in London, though are from Bolton originally, Rachel Halo And The Princesses are from Leicester, The Heimlich Manoeuvre are from Glasgow, Kitsune are a London band, and Mad Girls In The Attic are from Leeds.

  “Should be Howarth really,” said Jenny, as she read over my shoulder, “and they should wear petticoats on stage…”

  “They sound great,” I grinned.

  Jenny pointed to each band in turn, “Have you noticed the common theme yet?”

  “Um, they’re all girls?” I ventured.

  “They all list Titanium Rose as one of their influences, Mad Girls In The Attic and Rachel Halo And The Princesses especially, and look, Meelan mentions you specifically in the piece on Clinch.”

  “That’s because we’re friends,” I said dismissively.

  “Two of them, the two I’ve already mentioned, cite you as the reason they got together,” Downstairs, we could hear the distant sounds of a band rehearsing, I recognised some of the songs, and realised that it was Angel and the Razorblades practising.  “Another band that owe a lot to Titanium Rose,” said Jenny when I pointed it out.  “What does all of this tell you?” she gazed at me meaningfully.

  I shrugged carelessly, “That the future’s in good hands,” I replied, flippantly.

  It was only as I returned home, and I heard Fliss playing her guitar, and singing her new songs, that I began to really think about what she had been saying, and I began to ask myself, would I miss Titanium Rose if we split up? Then, I thought about the other question she’d raised, I had told her that I believed the future to be in good hands, but I find myself wondering now if Fliss and I are a part of that future or not.

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.”

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.

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