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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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.

Chapter Forty Two: Armistice Day

Fliss, resplendent in pink fishnets, black stilettos, black ra ra skirt and pink Blondie t-shirt, tottered and skittered her way across the living room in hot pursuit of her much prized ‘Leader Of The Pack’ 7”.  In the excitement of picking out records, the Shangri-La’s classic had been dropped, causing it to roll across our still uncarpeted floor at a rate of knots.  As the disc wobbled, and then dropped to the floor, Fliss pounced, scooped it up, and placed it carefully back into its battered sleeve.  Having recovered herself, she then clambered awkwardly to her feet and shuffled and tottered her way back across the room to the hi-fi, and her record collection.

  Nat, inspired by Ladyfest Manchester, the four-day celebration of all things lady-made and pro-feminist, had launched a monthly ‘Girl Night’ of music and dancing at Juvenile Hell.  She had borrowed some of the more locally based Ladyfest DJ’s and performers for the nights October launch, but was now searching for more regular DJ’s, which was where Fliss came in.

  Her fidgety exuberance was of stark contrast to my own tiredness.  I slouched on the sofa, feeling headachy and irritable as I watched her.  My eyes felt sore, and the lids felt heavy and had taken to flickering every now and then, in a way that was beyond my control.  I had to stretch my eyes wide in order to feel awake, and it was all too much effort really.  I closed my eyes and half dozed for several minutes.

  The Chiffons ‘Sweet Talking Guy’ was playing as I opened my eyes later, and Fliss was prancing and sashaying her way across the floor as she packed her records into cases ready for the night ahead.  The troublesome stilettos lay abandoned by the hi-fi, one of the heels was off, and Fliss was wearing her old size 3 pink and white trainers as she danced.  Her gold hair flew out at all angles, gently flicking back and forth across her face as the tiers of her ra ra moved from side to side in sympathy.  I smiled as I got wearily to my feet.  Fliss held out a hand to me, and we proceeded to twirl each other enthusiastically, if not entirely skilfully, across the floor.

  Towards the end of the record, Fergus arrived and our self-consciousness returned.  I retired to the sofa, and Fliss quickly finished packing her records and departed.

  He kissed me hello, and told me I looked tired.  I leant back into his arms, and closed my eyes.  He massaged my forehead with careful fingers as he said, “That’s the most relaxed I’ve seen you in weeks.”

  “Hhmmm… what?” I asked, drowsily.

  “Dancing with Fliss”

  “It was just fun.”

  “Fun,” he echoed, blankly.

  “Yes, fun,” alarm bells were ringing as I opened my eyes and sat up.  In turning to face him, I saw the doubt on his face “Oh my God!” I exclaimed in amazement, “You actually thought there was more to it than that?”

  “It’s possible!” he snapped defensively.

  “Don’t start this…” I felt too tired to fight.

  “Well, what am I supposed to think?”

  “About me dancing with Fliss? Nothing!”

  “About us!”

  I didn’t have an answer for him.

  “Well?” he demanded.

  “Fliss is my friend…” I began, pensively.

  “And I’m not?” He grabbed my wrist as I made to get up, “And I’m not?”

  I jerked free, “No,” I muttered savagely, “Not when you’re like this.”  I hurried through Fliss’ maze of rejected vinyl, CD’s, stray clothes, notepads and pens towards the doorway.  I was about halfway when, with a slight click, all the lights went out.  I was unsure of my footing, so I froze.

  “Maggie?” I heard him call in the blackness.

  “I’m fine,” I heard his footsteps coming towards me, “Careful,” I cautioned, “don’t trip over any records.”

  His hand was on my hip.  I heard a rustle as he reached into his pocket, then there was a series of clicks, and his cigarette lighter produced a tiny, intensely bright, yellow flame between us.  His face was now illuminated in the darkness, and his expression was grimly resigned as he took hold of my hand.  “Come on,” he said quietly, “Let’s go and find some candles.”  There was at least one in my room, I knew for sure, plus my lighter, so that seemed to be as good a place as any to start.

  When the candles were lit, we arranged them throughout the room, and settled down on my bed.  The candlelight threw shadows against the walls in the flickering light.  He held me in his arms and blew gently on my neck.  I closed my eyes once more.  “Are you tired?” he murmured.

  “Yes,” I replied drowsily, “I still can’t sleep.”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know.  I don’t get the nightmares anymore, but…” I sensed him start to kiss my neck, “Fergus…”

  He paused, “Shhh…” now he was touching my breasts.

  I said nothing, and he continued to work his way down my body.  It could have been so easy to let him do it, to just lie back and think of something else, too tired to resist, but… when he touched me… there, I remembered… It was no specific incident that I remembered, no clear memory, just a feeling, and a series of emotions: Fear, turning into panic, and anger.

  He must have sensed it, for he stopped, and let me go.  “I’m sorry,” I whispered in the dark silence.  I reached out to him, but he wouldn’t let me touch him.  He moved away from me, and sat in angry, uptight silence at the opposite end of the bed, “You know I can’t.”

  “Sometimes,” I could hear the strain in his voice, “I think you just don’t want to, or that you don’t care.”  His eyes shone angrily in the candlelight as he said, “How can you be so cold?”

  It hurt, but I couldn’t blame him for saying it.  “I don’t choose to be,” I murmured, my voice unsteady and unsure, “it’s how I am.  You always knew that, it never used to bother you like it does now.”

  I sensed his exasperation as he said, “I thought you would change, as you got to know me, got to trust me…”

  “I have…” but I knew that I hadn’t changed enough for him.  “I love you, more than I’ve ever loved anyone.  Why isn’t that enough for you?”

  He moved along the bed towards me.  As he held me, he said, “Usually it is.”  He kissed me, softly and lingeringly, and we lay down together.

  The power had come back on by the time Fliss arrived home.  We had seen the street lights come back on, but had stayed still on my bed, the candles flickering and guttering around us.  I rested my head on his chest, and tried not to cry when he stroked my hair.

  Fliss ran into the room, exclaiming, “You’ll never guess what just happened…” she stopped dead, sensing somehow that she might be intruding.  We persuaded her to stay, but she still seemed uncomfortable as she perched, gingerly, on the edge of the bed, her eyes wide and wondering, as she blurted, “Nat’s left Dylan!”

    Apparently, Fliss was packing up her records when Dylan came storming up the stairs from the office downstairs, the expression on his face murderous.  The club was more or less empty, but for Fliss and the Juvenile Hell staff, all of who were in the process of clearing up.  Nat came running up the stairs as all and sundry were observing Dylan, and she looked, according to Fliss, “a total state,” her hair was messy, and her shirt was half on, half off.  She and Dylan started screaming at each other, “I didn’t take much of it in,” confessed Fliss, “but it was mostly rude, and he kept saying, ‘How could you? How could you?’  Then Amber appeared, she’d come up not long after Nat I think, but I hadn’t noticed, and she looked all mussed up and harassed as well, and a bit worried, so, I kind of got the gist of the situation around then.”

  “Nat and Amber?” asked Fergus, his tone bordering on disbelief.

  “Yes,” said Fliss, the distaste creeping into her voice, “isn’t it bizarre?”

  “So what happened next?” I urged.

  “Well,” said Fliss awkwardly, “Amber just sort of stood there, like a lump, a little away from them, looking a bit sheepish and unsure as to what to do or say, they were still screaming at each other at this point you see, then Dylan gave Nat an ultimatum.  He told her that, if she left with him then, and if she promised to give Amber up, he’d forget what he’d just seen.”

  But Dylan’s ultimatums and cajoling had come to nothing: Nat refused point blank.

  “She moved over to where Amber was standing, and she said ‘No’.  He pleaded with her, but she wouldn’t budge, so in the end he left.  He looked utterly destroyed, and I felt very sorry for him.”

  So did I, I realised.  But I couldn’t dwell on it, not then.

  “What about Nat?” we both asked.

  “Well, she looked a bit shaken,” admitted Fliss, “but she seemed quite calm really, she turned to Amber, and said, ‘Come on’, and then they went back downstairs, got their things, and left.  Amber looked as sick as a dog, and I still didn’t get paid.”

  Later, when Fliss had gone to bed and we were lying, quiet and still, in each other’s arms, he asked, “Do you think Nat loved Dylan?”

  I thought about it, “Yes,” I said at last.

  “Not anymore,” he sighed.

  “So it would seem.”

  There was a long pause, and one of the guttering candles went out altogether before he spoke again, “Do you think he knew, about her girlfriends?”

  “I don’t know,” I confessed.

  “I bet she never told him,” he said, a little smugly, “and I bet he never asked.”

  His tone was beginning to irritate me, “Does it matter?” I snapped.

  I sensed his sigh on the back of my neck, “Little defensive, aren’t we?”

  “Nat’s my friend,” I snapped, “I don’t like it when you talk about her like that.”

  “She shouldn’t have married a man she doesn’t love”

  “But its O.K to sleep with one is it?” I demanded.

  “Why does that bother you so much?” he sat up and glared at me as I turned to face him, “Just because she gave me the one thing you never could!”

  I felt as though he had stabbed me.

  “That’s it, isn’t it?” he cried triumphantly.

  I slapped him.  There were tears in my eyes as I said, “Why do you keep hurting me like this? Why are you always saying things, and pressuring me, and…” I burst into tears.

  After what felt like a long time, he took hold of me and tried to calm me down. It was like he was trying to soothe a fractious child, and, as such, I refused to be soothed.  “You worry me when you’re like this,” he murmured, “I never know what’s going to happen with you lately, you scare me sometimes…”

  “Don’t patronise me!” fury combined with my tears, and I felt very, very tired.

  “I’m not…” he seemed hurt, “Tell me what’s wrong,” he brushed my hair out my eyes with his fingers, “talk to me, please…”

  I pulled away from him, “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just tired…”

  “No,” his expression was one of concern, “no, this is more than just being tired, this is something else…”

  “No it’s not! I’m fine! Nothing is wrong! I’m fine!”

  “You’re not fine,” he murmured, “you’re very far from fine…” He stood up, and then turned to face me once more, “I don’t know what you need anymore,” he admitted at last, and I could tell that he was worried, “But I don’t think it’s me.  If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

  As the front door slammed shut behind him, I seemed to step outside myself.  I saw myself walk through to the kitchen and open the cutlery drawer.  I picked up the stiletto knife and held it out in front of me, it glinted in the moonlight, and I knew as I stood there that the barrier was gone.  I stretched out my left arm and tensed it against the cold steel blade as I drew the knife across my arm once, twice, three, four times.  And it felt better.

  I put the knife down, washed it, dried it, and put it back in the drawer.  I was no longer watching myself, no longer crying, and I felt calmer, freer than I had for weeks.  I glanced at my arm.  The cuts weren’t deep, and they would soon heal, but I would have to be careful now.  No short sleeves, not until the scars had faded.  I changed into a long sleeved nightshirt, and went to bed.

  But I slept no better that week than I had in the weeks before, or since.  My mind was overactive, it wouldn’t switch off, and my thoughts, my worries, my fears, wouldn’t leave me alone.

  I drink coffee these days; it keeps me awake whilst simultaneously shredding my nerves and accelerating my heartbeat.  I won’t write about Fergus, although I know that he’s left me for good.  I won’t lie to myself about that.  He’s probably off sowing his wild and much stored oats as I write.  I won’t think about that.  I try not to imagine him with other girls, but sometimes at night… I see them in my mind, and I cut myself to stop the pain.

  A few days ago, Fliss and I went to Juvenile Hell.  Against the backdrop of red and gold glitter, of bright young things, of alcohol and cigarette smoke, I observed Amber and Nat together.  Nat looked twice as beautiful, twice as sexy as usual.  She was wearing black stretch satin, very low cut, and was positively glowing with happiness.  She was the more affectionate of the two, I noticed, the first to take her hand, to throw an intimate glance her way.  She stroked her fingers when she took a drink from her hand, she danced for her… and Amber knew it.

  Fine boned Amber, in her tight jeans and tight t-shirt, watched her through washed out grey eyes that shone with lust.  She flicked her long bleach blonde hair behind her equally pale shoulders constantly, and the next time Nat took her hand, she let go with a coldness that mirrored her exterior.

  The Juvenile Hell staff seemed shell-shocked, although some of them must surely have seen what was going on before that night: I know that, deep down, I’d had an inkling. Part of me wondered how much Dylan had suspected before he went storming in, and part of me wondered how he was feeling now that it was all over.  I’d liked him, the few times I’d met him, and I don’t like seeing people get hurt.

  Later on, Amber’s coldness seemed to melt away, and she started to return the affection that had been thrown her way all night.  Fliss and I, two single women in a club that seemed to be full of couples, watched with a combination of envy and melancholy as Amber and Nat enjoyed a particularly passionate and prolonged snog. “Time we went home,” sighed Fliss “before I throw myself at a perfectly innocent stranger and make a terrible, terrible mistake.”

  I smiled sadly, “You’re right, let’s go home.”

  We lonely girls must stick together.

Chapter Forty: Body Pictures

I felt happy and light as I skipped down the steps, and I broke into a run as I hit the warm tarmac.  The exercises I’d been doing at home had really started to pay off; I lasted longer than Katy at kickboxing, and was sure that I would keep up at aerobics the next day.  It would be my first lesson, but I was feeling confident about it.  I felt almost euphorically happy.  The sounds and scenes of Victoria flew by in a blissful, sunny blur as my trainer-clad feet pounded the roads and pavements, and I beamed.  I felt so alive, so up…

  It was about half six by the time I reached Juvenile Hell.  Nat was outside on the warm pavement, opening up.  As she turned around to face me, I took in her red eyes and pale face.  She was chewing her lip as she tried to prevent fresh tears from falling.  I pretended not to notice.  “Hello,” she said quietly, her expression was mixed as she commented, “Interesting look… sort of grungy ‘Flashdance’, I don’t think I’ve ever seen denim leggings with a lacy slip and legwarmers before.”  She raised her eyebrows as I giggled, a few heads turned across the street, and her expression became faintly nervous as she said, “Come in, help me set up.”

  The evening sun picked out the gold glitter on the walls inside as I slid ten one pound coins into the jukebox and ran through the selections, picking out all the old Madonna records and cheesy eighties records.  Nat bustled about, getting ready for the show at ten as I danced.  Amber was the only other person around, and she ignored me as well.  When I had run out of records, Nat took hold of my arm and steered me over to the bar.  The light from outside was fading a little as she sat me down in front of a big, cold glass of lemonade.  “Drink,” she commanded in steel edged tones.

  I obeyed.

  As I drank, I saw Amber pass a glass of Bailey’s to Nat, and as she reached out to take it, I saw her fingers close around Amber’s.  A second later, she let go, but I hadn’t missed the look in her eyes when she did so.  Amber met it with her own bland, open expression, which seemed to say nothing but, if you knew what to look for, said everything.  I found myself recalling the week before, when Nat and I had gone to the Filmworks to see ‘Party Monster’.  It had meant breaking my promise to Fergus and, in retaliation; he had gone for a boozy night out with his mates the next night, knowing that I was ready to stay in.

  “You wouldn’t want him to stay every night,” said Nat, bitterly, as we drank our drinks.  Her face bore a sour expression as she added, “It’s one thing dating them, it’s quite another thing living with them and waking up to them wandering around in their underpants every morning.”

  I rolled my eyes impatiently, “I do know that”

  She shrugged, “Well then.”

  We lapsed into an unhappy silence.

  We met up nearly a week after that night, on a wall by John Rylands University Library on Oxford Road.  The last rays of sunlight were disappearing in a pinkish haze as I joined her, and we gazed up at the red brick of the Humanities department where, if the light was right, you could still read the faded message ‘FIGHT AIDS, ACT UP!’ Nat was eating salad from 8th Day, she offered me some as I sat down, but I shook my head.  “Did you get the stuff?” she asked.

  I nodded, and then reached into my bag, drawing out two spray cans and several marker pens.  The bag was light cotton, black with fluorescent coloured squiggles; it had been my school bag when I was six.  She grinned as she got to her feet, smoothing down the too small, too tight t-shirt, a transfer design, advertising The Period Pains ‘Spice Girls (Who Do You Think You Are?)’.  Her jeans were baggy, and had been tie dyed green over the original light blue, they were being held up by a black leather studded belt.  She was wearing a safety pin bracelet, the kind Flora sells in her shop, and had written ‘Boy’ on her right hand set of knuckles and ‘Girl’ on the left in eyeliner.  I was wearing an equally tight Bis t-shirt, with a khaki a-line cotton mini skirt and leather studded wristbands. Nat had, at my insistence, scrawled the phrase ‘Prick Tease’ across the flat of my stomach.

  As we walked along Oxford Road towards Piccadilly, a few cars honked their horns, and assorted men leered out of car windows and made lewd or incomprehensible suggestions to us.  “Maybe we should have gone for boiler suits,” reflected Nat as we selected our first target, a bus stop advert outside the BBC.  This particular advert was a deodorant advert, featuring a man with sweat stains and a dog… you know the one.  After a few moments thought, Nat scrawled THE LYNX EFFECT: No amount of deodorant will get you a shag.  I couldn’t think of anything so I just wrote I feel sorry for the dog.  The toilets in McDonalds on the corner had already been covered in an earnest, and extremely thorough, critique of their food and business practices, so we moved along to Portland Street, where a well known sports drink and advert for the ‘Mail On Sunday’ (Hate and fear, seven days a week) received our clumsy attentions.  Ladyfest Manchester took place last weekend in Hulme, and one of the highlights of the weekend, for a lot of people, was a short, subtitled, Belgium film, ‘What Shall We Do Tonight?’ which showcased the graffiti and billboard sabotage activities of a group of young Belgium women.  It had cheered us up no end.

  “As much as I admire the sentiments, music, and activities of the riot grrrls,” Nat said as we walked down Oldham Street, “I’m always aware that I was a few years too late for it…” I nodded sympathetically.  There was a long, thoughtful silence, before she asked, “Are we feminists, do you think?”

  I shrugged, “I dunno, maybe… don’t you have to have read an approved booklist or something?”

  We sat down on the kerb opposite The Twilight and thought about this.  “I wonder if the riot grrrls were considered ‘proper’ feminists,” wondered Nat.

  I shook my head, “Probably not.”

  There was restlessness in us that night, and it kept us moving, kept us roaming the city streets.  At 3am we were sat on the steps outside Manchester Library, talking… neither of us ready or willing to go home.  “We ought to have more nights like this,” I smiled, “it’s been fun… we always used to have fun, when we went out…”

  “When we were young” sighed Nat. She flexed her fingers as though testing invisible restraints, and gazed at her wedding ring before forming her hands into loose fists.

  “When did it change, Nat?” I asked, quietly, my voice shook a little as I spoke, and shadows settled on the street in the pale moonlight.

  “I don’t know,” she murmured as she played, moodily, with the ring, “after school maybe… men… girls…” She smiled as she ceased her fidgeting.

  “Everything got spoiled when you went away, when I met Terry… it wasn’t the same after that.”

 She sighed, placed her palms down on the cold grey stone behind her, and shook back her hair, “We grew up; that’s all… we can still be close, we still are close…”

  “It’s not the same,” I muttered, and if she saw the tears in my eyes, she didn’t say anything.

  The next night was the night we went to the tattoo parlour.  It wasn’t the parlour we had originally used when we were eighteen, when we got our first tattoos (Nat’s eagle and my dragon) done.  That had been the White Dragon in Stockport, a parlour on Hillgate that had a clear sheet of glass between the walls of designs and the room where the tattooist worked.  It sold rainbow coloured cigarette papers, pipes, tobacco tins, bongs… everything you would need to smoke hash, but without the hash.  This time we went to a Manchester parlour, high up on Oldham Street, way above street level.  The rooms were spacious and minimalist, split level and sombre with black walls and thick white carpets.  A young Morticia handed us books of designs to look through as the early evening sun shone through the large windows.

  Nat was, partly at least, getting a tat done to annoy Dylan, who, despite “having more tattoos than David Beckham,” doesn’t “approve” of tattoos on women.  His least favourite tattooed body part on a woman is, apparently, the outer ankle, or ankles generally; he thinks it’s “slutty.”  “I’m going to get some kind of floral type bracelet thing done, I think,” mused Nat thoughtfully as she slowly explored books of designs, “Maybe more leafy than floral though, I don’t want anything twee…” she looked up, “How about you?”

  But I already knew what I wanted.

  When I showed it to her, her eyebrows shot right up, and she coughed nervously, “Are you sure?”

  I nodded, “Positive.”

  “But… don’t you think you should maybe think about it first? I mean, you are going to be stuck with it for life…”

  Surprisingly, the tattooist, who was a young, pale woman with long fair hair, a faceful of piercings, and a galaxy of multi coloured stars across her shoulders, agreed with her.  “I think it’s beautiful,” she said, in a voice that was both educated and velvety smooth, “but it’s very big, it’ll take me a long time to do, and the lower back can be quite a painful area to have done…”

  “I have got a tattoo,” I snapped, “I know it takes time, I know it hurts…”

  “When I have someone who wants something this big doing, I always ask them to walk away from it today, and come back,” she continued, calmly, “If you really want it doing, think about it some more, and come back, then I’ll do it.”

  She turned her attention back to Nat then, who had decided what she was having, and I sat down to watch in sulky silence, stubbornly resolved to have my own choice of work done, no matter what it took.

  A circle of ivy, red roses, and holly was circling Nat’s right ankle when we left, and I gazed at it resentfully.  It didn’t seem right that Nat should be allowed her choice, yet I was being deprived of mine, I’ll show them, I thought resentfully, grimly determined.  But it was more than that, I know now, I have a depth of insight about our motives now that I didn’t have that night.  Our original tats were done after Nat arrived back from London, and after I’d left Terry, and we were both in a bad place, emotionally, at that time, and… No, not the past… not the past… I can’t go there yet, not yet.  Whenever I close my eyes, he’s there, whenever I got to sleep, I remember… I don’t want to go there, but I can’t stay here either… this place I’m in right now is frightening too, and I can’t face it yet, I need to go somewhere else first, I need to work up to it.  There’s too much space in this narrative, too many gaps… I need to fill some of them in as best I can.  Where to start? With another night, and another adventure.

I was angry that night as we walked along Oldham Street, away from the bright lights and glitter of Juvenile Hell.  I was wearing my black P.V.C jacket over a super short black lycra mini skirt, and a light, black cotton backless top was being held in place by two thin strips of cotton that fastened, loosely, at the base of my spine.  The flesh between the P.V.C and the cotton was inflamed and a little sore as I strode along the street towards Piccadilly, muttering to myself in agitation and anger.

  Nat, clad in plain dark blue jeans and a shimmery, slinky top, made of smoky blue satiny velour and filmy gold chiffon, struggled to keep pace with me as I strode through the buzz, hum and lurid colours of Piccadilly, towards Portland Street and Oxford Road.  As I made to cross the road by the bus station, she took hold of my arm, and gently pulled me back onto the pavement.  Furious, I turned on her, “I’m going there!” I shouted, angrily, over the traffic, “And you’re coming as well!” my voice became an angry mutter, “…going to the ballet school, and I’ll dance for them, and they’ll be so impressed that they’ll give me my place back, and I’ll learn, I’ll learn from them, and…”

  Her expression was one of deep puzzlement as she asked, “What are you on about?”

  I started to mutter again, something about Katy, and the argument we’d had, about how she doubts me, and how she doubts my commitment to the band.  Then I moved onto Fergus, and how he doesn’t trust me, or thinks I don’t trust him, I found myself saying things I have never said, and should never say, aloud.  “Maybe I am frigid,” I muttered as we walked, her arm linked with mine, “maybe I’m really, really fucked up… I never enjoyed sex, even when I could face it, but I just can’t face it anymore, I get so scared, whenever he touches me now, whenever I know, whenever I can sense him wanting sex, wanting more than I’m willing to give…” It was only when Nat made me sit down on the wall that I realised where we were, “This isn’t the Northern Ballet School!” I exclaimed in surprise.

  “No,” she agreed, “It’s not. Now,” her voice was calm, “start at the beginning, and tell me everything.”

  So I told her about my row with Katy, and about the situation with Fergus.  We talked, quite frankly, about sex, and I began to feel a little calmer, a little bit reassured.  “Is it different,” I ventured, timidly, “with girls?” I paused, feeling a little shy and awkward.  “I mean,” I could feel myself blushing, “do they hurt you as much, are they as violent…”

  In the darkness, she smiled a bitter, wry little smile to herself, as she said, “Hhmm, yes… ‘Fraid so, girls can be just as nasty as boys, in every way that boys can.  He can hit you and break you, and so can she…”

  I shook my head vigorously, as though trying to clear the incessant chatter of words and images from my mind, my eyes were suddenly full of tears as I asked, “Then what’s the point?”

  Nat shrugged, her expression was one of sadness as she said “I suppose we all go on hoping… We hope we’ve got it right this time.”

  There was a long, thick, awkward silence, stifling with pain, melancholy, and regret, “I have got it right this time.”  I felt very definite and determined as I said it, and I still feel like that now; I have got it right this time, I know I have.

  Nat sighed, wearily, in the darkness; she yawned a little and rubbed her tired eyes, as she said, carelessly, “So let him fuck you then, you’ll have to at some point in any case.”

  I got up from the wall and took a few steps forward, my mind, so full of words and images became vague and foggy as I moved towards the light.  Somewhere in the distance, very far away, I heard Nat’s voice, saying, uncertainly, “What… what are you doing?” The tarmac of the near empty car park was lit up like a Christmas tree, with all its security lights, and the glow reminded me of a warm and waiting stage as I stepped out into the light.  The music was swelling, loudly, in my head as I took up position and… and then… and then… and then… I really don’t know what happened.

When I came to, I was naked in the darkness, and I was in bed.  I could tell from the darkness that it was night time still, but which night? And what time? Fear wrapped itself around my heart as I began to wonder how long I had been away for.  Somewhere in the distance, I could hear Nat arguing with Fergus, she was shouting, almost screaming, at him, the emotion pouring into her voice as she yelled, “DON’T YOU DARE BLAME ME! I HAVE KNOWN HER, AND LOVED HER, FOR A LOT LONGER THAN YOU HAVE, AND I’M TELLING YOU, THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG…” She seemed to run out of volume, for the next time she spoke, her voice was calmer, almost pleading, as she said, “I’ve seen her like this before, and…” I closed my eyes, and drifted out.

Daylight was shining into my eyes as I blinked anxiously, and as I rolled over, I realised that I was still lying in bed.  Next to me, Fergus stirred and sighed a little as he opened his eyes, and the fact that I was naked suddenly seemed problematic.  Anxiety was racing through me like a drug as I quavered “Whwhat happened?”

  As he turned to face me, I saw that he was frowning, “You don’t remember?”

  Panic squeezed my throat as I said, “No, tell me.”

  “You fainted,” he told me, patient and quiet as he held me, “that’s all”  But he wouldn’t meet my eyes, and I sensed that something more than that had happened; something worse.  My heart began to beat faster, and I found it difficult to breathe.  “Shhh…” he whispered soothingly, “it’s alright, it’s alright… calm down now, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter…” he ran his hands, slowly and warily, down the garish, inflamed skin on my back.  As I began to calm down, he continued in that same quiet, soothing whisper, “You were dancing in the car park, and… I saw you, but I didn’t know what was going on at first.  I was so high up, and you looked so small, and you were moving so fast, you were like a moth in the light, flitting about, it was only when your hair caught the light that I knew it was you.”  I heard the pain in his voice as he continued, “I saw the tattoo when we got you home, Nat tried to tell me that she tried to talk you out of getting it done, but I wouldn’t listen to her, and Fliss told me that most of the rent money’s missing…” He cleared his throat awkwardly, before continuing in a very different tone, “I never knew that you could dance like that,” his hands gently stroked my hair “it was the most eerie, beautiful, eerily beautiful thing I ever saw.”  His tone lost its wonder and grew concerned as he said, “Maybe you hit your head, maybe that’s why you don’t remember, does your head hurt?”

  “No,” I whispered.

  He ran his fingers across my scalp, carefully and sensitively, “There’s no lump there.”  He said at last.

  “Then I can’t have hit it then.”

  He ran his hand along my shoulder, and then down my arm, “Do you understand what happened, if you can’t remember?” He murmured.

  I shook my head, and I sensed my heartbeat increase once again as I tried not to think about it.

  “Because when you came round, even when I got you home, you seemed to be looking at me without seeing.  It was like you weren’t there anymore, like you’d gone somewhere else.”

  “Lights were on but no one was home?”  My voice shook as I spoke.

  “Yes,” he frowned, “It’s happened before?”

  I nodded, and then closed my eyes and buried my face in his chest.  The rent money… I had forgotten about that.  It had been a big piece to do, and tattoos cost a lot of money… he told me later that Nat had given Fliss some money, and that he and Fliss had, somehow, found the rest.  They all know that I haven’t got any money.  I think it was at that moment that I realised the true nature of my behaviour of late, and the fear and sadness hit me like an avalanche of water. I tried to stand tall against the torrent, against the flood, but it overwhelmed me almost at once.  “All I want to be is a normal girl, with a normal life,” I said when I re-surfaced, “that’s all I want to be to you.”  He kissed my lightly on the forehead as I closed my eyes again, and I fell into a darkness that was something like sleep.

Chapter Twenty Four: Young Girls, Run Free!

Having left Fliss singing in the shower that morning, it was something of a shock to arrive home from work that evening to such noisy chaos. I was feeling tired and irritable as I opened the front door, and a severely shaken ginger and white cat ran past me, almost knocking me over in the process. It was as I was still stumbling that I became aware of the shrieking; it was coming from Fliss’ room, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I made my way up the stairs and wearily opened her bedroom door. A half naked girl squealed, pulling Fliss’ duvet across her body, and then halfway across her face; a freckled snub nose, and a pair of mischievous grey-green eyes were all that could be made out of her face, but her long brown hair was disconcertingly familiar. On the other side of the room, Meelan, clad only in one of her long, baggy t-shirts, was laughing hysterically, whilst Fliss, in her dressing gown, flicked through her clothes, an expression of absorbed determination on her face as the Supremes blared out of her hi-fi, maintaining that you ‘Can’t Hurry Love’; I decided to leave them to it.

  About half an hour later, the three of them tumbled out of Fliss’ room, along the hall, down the stairs, and out of the door. I watched from the window as they sped down the street. Meelan was on her skateboard, clad in baggy dungarees and tight t-shirt, her usually loose hair in pigtails. The young singer, Kylie, from Angel and the Razorblades, was on her bike, peddling furiously in a very short skirt of Fliss’, a customised Girl Trouble t-shirt of Flora’s that Fliss must have borrowed, and her own Doc Martens, her hair was in long bunches, which flew out behind her as she soared past. Fliss, pink in the face from running and laughing, ran to keep up, her hair flying loose behind her. She was wearing a smoky blue velour halter-top and a pair of baby blue denim hot pants that I’d never seen before. The trainers killed it, of course, as did the Bagpuss bag and pink rhinestone tiara, but they certainly made for a colourful, not to mention eccentric, spectacle as they raced down the road. I felt rather old and nostalgic as I watched them. I would have given anything to be sixteen again then.

  I overslept slightly the next morning, by about half an hour, which wasn’t a disaster, but it did mean that I had to catch a later bus to work.  Fliss walked into the kitchen at quarter to eight, still in her hot pants and halter top, and I could tell from the way that she jumped that she wasn’t expecting to see me there “Oh,” she said, startled, “I thought you’d have left for work by now.”

  “Just about to leave” I reassured her kindly as I put my mug by the sink and picked up my bag.  I could smell cigarettes, sweat, and alcohol on her as I walked past her, and there was something else too, something sweet and strong, a sticky, vanilla, floral, cloying smell of perfume, but not her own (she normally wears Wild Rose.) Her clothes and hair seemed slightly rumpled, and she looked exhausted as she sank into one of the kitchen chairs. As she wearily tucked a strand of hair behind one ear, I saw a dark smudge of lipstick on her neck, and left for work wondering who it had belonged to.

  I went to Juvenile Hell one night after work, and watched from the bar as Nat prowled the floor, organising the evening’s entertainment.  She seemed to be everywhere at once, talking to the bands, watching them sound check, conferring with the sound and lighting crews, arranging guest lists and riders.  Amber served me as I waited.  She isn’t as pretty as Fliss, I don’t think, but she is older, and is likely to be more experienced than Fliss, which I expect is what Violet wanted.  Still, I thought, if Fliss was happy, and she certainly seems to be, does it matter what Violet wants? That hadn’t been her lipstick on Fliss’ neck that was for sure.

  “Kylie isn’t gay!” laughed Nat when I mentioned the Angel and the Razorblades singer, “There’s a boy from Chorlton Year Eleven I’ve seen her with.” She slouched against the arms of an office chair by her desk.  Her office was fairly small, and the furniture was shabby, but it wasn’t an unpleasant space by any means.  She had stuck up some Girls From Mars posters, and a Titanium Rose poster, words only, cheaply xeroxed in black and white.  “As to Meelan, I have no idea – I simply don’t know her well enough to know, although I doubt she is, I can usually tell, and I’ve had no radar like feelings about her, so far.”

  “Probably innocent fun then,” I said.

  “Probably,” agreed Nat, “and best if you keep out of it anyway – Fliss’ self esteem doesn’t need any more battering.”

  I went out with Fergus a couple of nights later. He took me to an Italian restaurant near Stockport where, because it was a Tuesday, we were almost alone. I always feel very self conscious when it comes to eating out; I think it’s because of my work history as a Catering Assistant and Waitress. I see the whole experience of eating out from too much of a staff point of view I think. But it was blissful to sit in the dimly lit room, holding his hand, and just… gazing at him… loving him.

  He drove back to our flat, and we went upstairs to the kitchen. Out of deference to my reluctance to drink, we were boiling the kettle for a post-meal cup of tea when he slipped his arms around my waist and blew, very lightly, on my neck. It sent a thrill through me, and when he kissed me I felt a surge of happiness so strong and fierce it made me dizzy. My enjoyment was short lived, however, because a few moments later there was a noise from outside the open window. Startled, we paused to look outside, and it was then that we saw the figure shinning down the drainpipe. “Hey!” yelled Fergus, indignantly. The figure looked up, and I could see now that it was a girl. She had a peaked cap pulled down over her eyes, blocking my view of her face, and as she lost her grip on the pipe and fell, I saw her long dark hair stream out behind her. She landed, noisily, next to our dustbins, and ran off, limping slightly.

  I ran down the stairs, as fast as I could in bare feet, and ran out of the door. I could hear Fergus behind me as I ran down the street. I had her in my sights, but she had a head start, ran like a cat, and was evidently an experienced garden hopper judging by the ease and carelessness with which she treated such obstacles as hedges, fences, gates and, even, at one hair raising moment, traffic. I lost sight of her far too soon, and stopped, panting for breath, on the pavement as I nursed a stitch. Fergus caught up with me at last. “Who,” he panted, “the hell…”

  I shook my head, too out of breath to speak.

  We slowly made our way back to the flat.

  Having limped back upstairs, I knocked on Fliss’ door before entering. Her light was off, and she was in bed. I switched on the light, and she turned over, moaning a little as she pulled her duvet nearer to her face in the warm late September air. “Did you hear anything just now?” I asked as I plonked myself down on her bed. “I heard two people running down the stairs like a herd of stampeding wildebeest,” she muttered through the duvet, evidently awake. “And you’re sat on my leg.”

  I adjusted my position on the bed, and Fliss sat up. She rubbed her eyes, but didn’t seem to be particularly tired as she pulled the duvet up to her bare shoulders. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright, and she was wearing slightly smudged lipstick of a tea rose colour, and an expression best described as mixed. I glanced over to her wide open window, and she blushed still further as she looked away, sliding further underneath the duvet as she did so. I got up from the bed without saying another word, and limped back to the living room, and Fergus.

  He laughed when I told him of Fliss’ reaction to my questions and, after a moment or two, I did too. As I leant back into his arms and closed my eyes, I wondered what Fliss’ girl had to be afraid of.