Chapter Thirty Seven: Across The Years

 Mum was on the phone when Katy and I burst in, and I paused in the hallway, uncertain as to whether I was intruding; Katy, however, had no such qualms, “You’ve got the Beauty Queens L.P, Rachel, haven’t you?” she called breezily as she ran upstairs, not even waiting for a reply.  Mum raised her eyebrows in the direction Katy had run, and I saw her shake her head slowly in mild irritation as she turned around, and noticed me standing there.  “I’ll have to call you back,” she murmured into the mouthpiece, “I’ve just been invaded…” From upstairs, we could hear the sound of the ladder being put up, and the creak of feet, climbing… “Doesn’t hang about, does she?” remarked mum, in distinctly narked tones. 

  I shook my head; I felt that I should apologise for the behaviour of a friend, so I explained, “She’s not used to asking first.”  She opened her mouth to speak, but I got in first, “Who were you speaking to?”

  “Thomas.”

  My sense of awkwardness returned, as I asked, “How’s it going with him?”

  “Well, I think,” she said, not meeting my eyes.

  An invisible weight seemed to settle on me as I nodded, almost to myself; I hadn’t met him, but I’d heard her mention him a lot lately and, whilst she’s had boyfriends before, this one sounded different; for one thing, he had lasted longer than they usually do.

  There was a long, painfully tense silence before she said, rather quietly, “I would always put you first,” she gazed up at me “you know that, don’t you?”

  But it is no longer right for her to do that, not now.  “You don’t have to do that,” I told her, “not anymore.”

  The conversation ended then because Katy emerged at the top of the stairs, carrying a huge cardboard box full of vinyl.  “Give me a hand!” she yelled down to me, and I ran up the stairs to assist, my mood lightening with each step as I recalled the task at hand.

  As we hauled the last box down to the living room, mum hovered in the doorway, her hands on her hips, an expression of annoyed confusion on her face, as she demanded, rhetorically, “Do you mind telling me what this is all about?”

  “The Beauty Queens have reformed!” called back me and Katy in stereo.

  “They’re going on tour!”  Called Katy

  “…playing Manchester in a fortnight” I added, equally excitedly.

  “Oh,” said Mum, facetiously as she joined us, “is that all…”

  The Beauty Queens haven’t toured since July 1980, they split up five months later when Iona Black, Chantel Jones, Serena Llewellyn and Keeley Myerscough left and formed The Playgirls.  Mum saw them live five times in 1979, supporting various more high profile names, and she’s also the only person I know who happens to own their L.P.

  “Come on, Rachel,” protested Katy as she lifted the L.P out of the second box, “you must be at least a little bit excited; you’re talking one off experience here, it’d be like The Slits reforming…”

  Mum shook her head; she seemed a little dazed as she asked, “Original line-up?”

  “Yes,” confirmed Katy, “all seven of them.”

  She shook her head again, “I’m amazed they’ve agreed to do it; I didn’t think there was any love lost between The Playgirls and the other three when they split… I saw them supporting Rip, Rig and Panic in 1980, just before they split, and you could tell it was all about to go pear shaped…”

  “So, you’re not coming to the gig then?” demanded Katy.

  She shook her head, “As much as I loved them at the time, there are some areas of my past I think its best I not revisit.” Her expression grew thoughtful as she added, “But if they make a new record I might be cautiously interested…”

  Katy handed me the L.P, and I gazed for a few moments at the cheap black and pink sleeve, before flipping it over and gazing at the picture of the band on the back.  As is often the case with reluctant geniuses, Iona Black was hidden away towards the back of the picture, on the right side.  The more obvious charms of Lalita James, Chantel Jones, and Keeley Myserscough were posed in the centre of the picture; pretty punkettes in fishnets and stilettos, with P.V.C mini skirts and ripped t-shirts, naively slutty in their vamping.  Iona was blonde then, but her hair was short, and although she was wearing similarly slutty garb, there was something in her posture, in her expression, that suggested she was different.  She was already a minor legend by then, thanks to a brief, ill advised, marriage to Seth Kent, bassist in The Wars, when she was seventeen; it ended six months later when she woke up next to his corpse, the needle sticking out of his arm still.  Maybe that was what made her appear wary, or maybe the demons were already at work by then…

  Katy snatched the L.P from my hands, and marched over to the Hi-Fi with it. As she placed the L.P down on the deck, I noticed mum slip out through the door, and it wasn’t long before I heard her feet on the stairs, retreating, escaping… maybe she would phone Thomas again.

  Later, the three of us watched the video for our next single, ‘My Heart Is In Your Hands’.  It was shot mainly in a light, luxuriously elegant suite at one of the big Manchester hotels.  Fliss is very much the star of the piece, and is featured sitting on a white windowsill, her feet bare and resting on the sill, her knees pulled up towards her chest.  She is wearing a light sundress, and gazes out of the window wistfully as she lip synchs to the track.  She looks very sad, but very pretty, which I think is the mood that the director was going for.  It was shot in black and white, with lots of grey, lots of dissolves.  Rumour has it that it was shot at the hotel that Girl Trouble stayed in last summer, in the room that Adrienne surreptitiously seduced Fliss in.  Sandra Dee have been keen to encourage the story, but Fliss says it isn’t true.

  “It reminds me of the video to Siouxsie and the Banshees ‘The Last Beat Of My Heart’,” remarked mum.  Her expression was thoughtful and calculating as she added, “Still, she looks very pretty I must say…I only hope that Sandra Dee know what they’re doing.  Is it about Adrienne?”

  “It might be” I conceded, cautiously, as Katy scowled.  I haven’t really discussed the lyrics to ‘My Heart Is In Your Hands’ with Fliss; she’s been too busy working, or else being interviewed, or hanging out with Angel and the Razorblades in Chorlton. 

  “Poor Fliss,” she shook her head.

  Katy had her guitar with her, so we travelled back to Heaton Chapel together and I played her some new drum patterns I’d written.  The neighbours, who live below us, are away on holiday at the moment, and no one seemed inclined to complain about the noise as we played together, trying out ideas, but not jamming: We are not a band who jam.

  It seemed to work well, and the energy flowed through me as we worked, the windows in the room open against the intense summer heat.  Hours passed without us noticing, and it was nearly dark when Fliss joined us, she was humming a melody quietly to herself, but broke off to ask, “Can I join in?” We nodded enthusiastically, and she went off to find her own guitar.  We didn’t stop this informal exchange of ideas until midnight or so, and by then we had two almost complete new songs, plus the beginnings of a third.  Fliss was beaming as she lifted off her guitar; her face was flushed with the heat, and her yellow sundress crumpled and damp.  “That was good,” she said happily, “that was fun,” Something about the way she said it made me smile in turn, for I fear that Fliss hasn’t been having an awful lot of fun lately.

  I went to see ‘Igby Goes Down’ at the Cornerhouse last week, and when I left my mind was racing with thoughts and possibilities in the claustrophobic summer heat.  I was thinking about Iraq, wondering how a war can really be over when the guerrilla warfare seems to be only beginning; I feel guilty about Iraq still, and I have a sensitivity to all that’s going on; I hunger to know everything that is going on in the world, I want to know all the pain and fear, all the truth and violence; I feel as though I’m a sponge, soaking up everything I find out, yet both wanting and needing to know more, about everything: In the intense heat I feel as though my brain is on fast forward, the ideas pouring out of me like sweat… it’s exciting, but it worries me; I’m afraid that I’ll lose the ideas before I can make proper use of them.

  I was anxious about The Beauty Queens gig, but for a different set of reasons.  I spent so long getting ready that night that Katy had arrived to pick me up long before I was ready.  As I stood in front of the mirror, fretting a little as I toyed with my studded wristbands, a kind of fluttery nervous excitement welled up inside me.  From the doorway, I heard Fergus say, “Will you tell her, or shall I? You look fine.”

  “He’s right,” said Katy, truculently, “you look sickeningly fantastic, as always…”

  I pulled at the skin tight plain black t-shirt, which insisted on riding up over my P.V.C mini skirt, “I’m still not sure about this top…”

  “It’s fine…” Katy pulled at my arm, “we’ll be late if we leave it any longer, let’s go”  She averted her eyes as Fergus kissed me, and then pulled at my arm again, “come on…”

  The gig… Oh, the gig, the gig, the gig… How can you describe your fantasy gig? How can you describe your most eagerly anticipated event, the highlight of your life? It was so, so good… it was everything I had hoped for, and yet, it was completely different, both wonderfully familiar and strangely brilliant; a cacophony of noise and jagged guitars, played better, and tighter than on that old L.P… Part of me had half expected to see the audience and the band wearing bondage kecks and P.V.C, like some time transported seventies period piece… I had half expected it, half dreaded it, because it would have been predictable and depressing, yet I needn’t have worried; there were some mohicaned punters in the audience, but less than I expected, and the band were dressed down in black, hair possibly dyed yet only shades of blonde, brown, and black, make-up minimal and muted.  And at the centre of it all, for me anyway, was Iona Black, hiding behind her drum kit and a loose waterfall of jet-black hair.  She seemed largely unaware of her surroundings, or of the audience, and she wore a long brown and black top, with loose flowing sleeves, which hung well below her waist; underneath it she wore black jeans.

  Afterwards, we met up with Nat and, still feverishly excited, made our way towards the backstage area, chatting excitedly.  A tall, stockily built man planted himself in our path, “Passes?” he asked.

  I watched as Katy attempted to spin some blag about us working for ‘NME’, and I could tell by his utterly unmoved expression that he’d heard it all before.  I began to wish that I’d asked Jenny to blag me something I could use.  After a few minutes of stalemate, Nat sighed and produced a piece of paper from her pocket, “I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t have to use this,” she murmured, handing him the paper.  “My name’s Natalie James,” Katy and I frowned; Nat never used her married name, “Lalita’s my sister in law,” he looked up from the piece of paper, nodded, and then handed it back to her. 

  Soon we were flying up the stairs towards the dressing room, chattering and giggling excitedly, without a clue as to what would happen next…  “What the hell was on that piece of paper?” asked Katy, amazed admiration in her voice.

  “Me with no clothes on,” said Nat, cheerfully.

  “Seriously…”

  “Something Dylan got me,” she turned to face us as we reached the top of the stairs, “She really is his sister, you know, well, his half sister anyway… she was at our wedding, you,” she gestured to me, “sat next to her, but I didn’t talk to her until later.”

  Our nerves returned in force once we reached the dressing room.  None of us felt entirely sure as to what we should do, I mean, what do you do? Knock on the door? We couldn’t do it, none of us could, not even Katy, for all her attitude and swagger, not even Nat, for all her family connections.  Katy got down on her knees and peered through the keyhole, “What’s happening?” I half hissed, half whispered.

  “I don’t know,” muttered Katy, “I can’t actually see very much… Oh, hang on, Chantel’s having a fag, and Keeley’s putting nail varnish on a run in her tights…”

  “What’s Iona doing?” I asked.

  “Looking out of the window, she’s got her back to me… Oh, damn, I can’t see…” she trailed off, and then clambered guiltily to her feet as the door swung open, revealing Lalita.

  Lalita James, née Cain, peered down her nose at us, imperiously; there was a touch of amusement in her eyes though, and a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth.  She had been pretty, despite herself, in the picture from 1978, with messy white blonde hair, and angry, piercing blue eyes.  Now the eyes, whilst equally piercing, lacked that disdainful ferocity, and her hair was light brown.  What few lines there were on her face were fairly well disguised, and her hair appeared to be natural, not dyed.  Nat smiled, broadly, “Hello.”

  She and Lalita hugged, and as she emerged from the embrace, Lalita spoke at last, “You didn’t tell me you were coming…” her voice was as it had been at the wedding, largely accentless, but with a faint hint of estuary, eager and interested.  She turned her attention to Katy and me, “Aha, two of the bridesmaids,” she ushered us into the dressing room, “come in, come in…”

  Things moved quite quickly once we were inside, cans of beer were produced and handed around, but when Lalita offered one to me, I shook my head.  “She doesn’t drink,” said Nat, succinctly.  Lalita walked over to the corner where Iona Black stood, still staring out of the window, and gestured to a much smaller stack of smaller cans.  Iona nodded, distractedly, as she handed one to her, and Lalita retraced her steps, “Here you go,” she handed me a can of lemonade.  I reached for it, but my fingers were trembling with nervousness, and I fumbled it, Nat caught it as it fell from my fingers, and passed it back to me.  She has touched this, I thought, reverently, as I pulled back the ring pull.  I slurped the froth from the top of the can, and looked over at her.  She had turned away from the window now, and I was able to see her in profile.  Her dark hair still hung across her face, and as she reached up to brush it out of her eyes, I was able to see that her hands were pale, and that she had long, thin fingers.  My heart began to beat too fast as I was filled with sheer excited joy.  I was so close to her, so close…

  We talked mainly to Lalita, although once she had introduced us, the others began to take a polite interest and became drawn into the conversation.  Only Iona Black stayed in the background, her dark brown eyes seemed wary, her body language defensive.  I found myself staring, openly and blatantly, at her, hoping she would look up, hoping she would meet my eyes with hers, even if only to glare at me, to respond in some way… But she didn’t.  At one point Lalita glanced, quickly, from me to Iona, and I could tell that she had noticed what I was doing, even if she didn’t understand why; it was incredibly rude, I know now, to stare at her like that, but it was like I couldn’t help it.  I don’t know what was with me that night; it was like I was pushing myself, pushing the situation, to see what would happen next.

  The elation didn’t leave me as we left, I still felt very high and emotional, but it was tinged with a kind of vague disappointment, a disappointment that was as tied up with my admiration for Iona Black as my other emotions were.  When I tried to explain how I felt to Katy, she didn’t understand, but when I mentioned it to Nat, her answer was curiously straightforward, “I think she was just shy,” she said, with surprising sensitivity, “she strikes me as someone not entirely comfortable with herself.”

  Katy snorted, “What does she have to be unhappy about?” she made reference to the Renaissance Girls, Iona’s most recent band, “That album was huge! The woman can’t want for money…”

 In the awkward silence that followed, Nat said, rather quietly and pensively, “Has it occurred to you that we put these people on pedestals, and that maybe we shouldn’t?” There was no answer, and in the silence she grew more fierce, “Maybe we shouldn’t make these people our gods, because, one day, inevitably, they come unstuck, and fall off, or reveal themselves to be so breathtakingly ordinary, disappointingly ordinary, that we can’t help but feel utterly disillusioned, disappointed, rejected…”

  Katy giggled, nervously, “God, Nat… lighten up, can’t you?”

  None of us were ready to go home yet, so we headed along Oxford Road until we got to Charles Street, our destination being Retro Bar, and the last few hours of Mass Teens On The Run.  The neon lighting was particularly bright as we made our way out onto the dancefloor, and we threw ourselves into the dancing mêlée as the DJ began to play the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘Date With The Night’.  Katy and Nat were soon tired of the heat, but I kept on going, driven by an inner pool of energy that helped me forget my confusion as I threw myself into the dancing.  After about an hour, I returned to the table Katy and Nat had retired to.  Nat pushed a half pint glass of lemonade towards me, and remarked, wistfully, “You know, it’s a pity you had to give up dancing…”

  My energy and sheer need to dance didn’t abate.  When the club finished at two a.m, I danced my way out, up the stairs, and along the streets to the bus stop.  It felt good, it felt more than good: it felt amazing.

  It was around three a.m when I got back to Fergus’, and the euphoria hadn’t left me by the time I climbed into bed.  He was lying with his back to me, and I was feeling particularly amorous as I kissed his neck, “I’m back,” I whispered, enticingly, and he rolled over, groaning a little as he blinked, sleepily, up at me, “Hello,” he murmured, drowsily.

  I kissed his lips, “Were you asleep?”

 He paused to consider this, before replying, “I think so… I’m awake now though.”

  “I’m not sleepy,” I whispered, huskily, as I touched and stroked him. 

  He yawned, “Work in the morning,” he reminded me.

  “I know,” I replied neutrally.

  His eyes flickered closed again, and it wasn’t long before he was asleep.  With a little disappointed sigh, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

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Chapter Twenty Eight: Every Day, And Night

After weeks, nay months, of various interested parties worrying about her behaviour, Fliss surprised us all last week by announcing her intention to attend last nights Girl Trouble live extravaganza at the M.E.N Arena. She was really excited about it, screaming and running around the flat like she used to, with Marmalade chasing after her, trying to keep up.  “I’m going!” she shrieked as she jumped up and down, waving her ticket at me “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going!”  Marmalade had finally caught up with her, and was yowling at her feet; Fliss scooped her up and gazed into the bemused cats eyes then, she did a little dance, waltzing her around the room as she sang ‘Baby It’s You’ the cat wriggled, and Fliss let her go; she was still singing as she danced out of the room.

  Mum happened to be visiting at the time and, as she opened her mouth to speak I shook my head, saying “Don’t ask.”

  On the night of the gig Fergus arrived at the flat at about half six, fresh from work.  “Where’s Fliss?” he asked from the kitchen doorway as I poured water from the kettle into three mugs; “I thought tonight was her big night out?”

  “It is” I replied as I walked past him.  Fliss hadn’t left yet, but I could hear her getting ready and as I drew closer to her bedroom, I could hear the sounds of drawers slamming, jewellery rattling, and ‘She’s Your Cocaine’ blaring out from Fliss’ stereo.  I knocked on the door.

  “Not now!” called Fliss, not aggressively as such, more impatiently than anything.

  “I brought you a drink!” I called clearly through the door.

  “I’m going out, I haven’t time; I’ll be late!”

  “I’ll leave it outside the door then!” I called to her as I fled.

  Fergus and I were ensconced on the sofa with a bag of popcorn and ‘Velvet Goldmine’ on video by the time Fliss finally emerged; as the opening credits rolled, I looked up at her as she hovered nervously in the doorway: She seemed to be waiting for something, so I asked “Sure you want to go?”

  She nodded emphatically, but I could sense her apprehension as she asked, “Do I look alright?” there was a nervous inflection to her voice as she fussed and fidgeted with her hair, which was hanging loose and straight like a golden waterfall down her back: I never realised how long it was before.  She was wearing her black backless dress with flesh coloured fishnet tights, and black stilettos, and was wearing a little makeup: lip gloss, foundation, and eyeliner.

  “You look very pretty,” said Fergus kindly.

  “Only pretty?” she pouted in disappointment.

  “Sex goddess” he said quickly, over compensating.

  “Brigitte Bardot” I said, at the same time as Fergus said “Michelle Pfeiffer.”

  Fliss smiled “Thank you.” she turned to leave, “enjoy the film.”

  “Enjoy Girl Trouble” said Fergus wryly.

    Minutes, hours passed and after the film had finished, I lay in his arms, somewhere between consciousness and sleep.  I don’t know what time it was when Fergus nudged me awake; I only know that it had been dark for a long time.  “Recycling day tomorrow” he reminded me.

  I groaned “I’ll do it in the morning…”

  “You’ll forget again if you do,” he cautioned.

  “I won’t” he nudged me again “O.K” I drawled, sleepily “I’m getting up now.”

  “Where do you keep your paper sack?”

  This was a good question.

  “Oh” I waved my arms vaguely “it’s around, somewhere…” 

  We had a stack of music mags that we’d accumulated over the past few months, and we’d forgotten to put the sack out last time the council came round so they were still piled up in the kitchen, being used as an extra seat when we had a lot of people round.  It took us about half an hour to round all the paper up, and when we had, there was enough for the sack and for four carrier bags; Fergus took the sack, I took the carrier bags, and we lugged them along the hall and down the stairs.  It was a dark cloudy night, with a harsh chilly wind. I shivered in my jeans and t-shirt as I plonked my bags down on the pavement and turned around to go back to the house.  Fergus was waiting for me by the door, seemingly not in any hurry to go back inside; he seemed to be straining to hear something, something faint yet insistent… Over the noise of the cars on the road, I hadn’t heard it, but now…

  “Can you hear it?” he hissed urgently.

  I listened again.  There it was, faint yet insistent… “I think it’s coming from the garden” I whispered.

  “Come on then.”

  As we tiptoed round the side of the house, the darkness grew blacker and more sinister; I felt a little afraid as we walked because I couldn’t really see, or feel, where I was going, and it was an eerie sound, a high pitched, thin wail, full of despair.  It was lighter when we got to the garden, but it was still hard to see; we had to follow the sound.

  Fliss was lying spread-eagled and face down on the lawn; she was shaking with the cold and with the crying as she wept, noisily and emotionally, into the long, damp grass.  I knelt down beside her and whispered, “Come on in Fliss, whatever’s happened; it can’t be that bad…” But she just sobbed even harder.

  I spent a good fifteen minutes or so kneeling beside her, talking to her, asking her what was wrong, asking her to come inside, but it was all to no avail.  The temperature was dropping, and we were all growing colder and colder, but she wouldn’t move.  “Leave me here” she sobbed, then hiccupped “Just… leave me alone!”  Fergus motioned for me to come away, and, not knowing what else I could do, I got to my feet and stepped back a bit.  Then, before I realised what he was going to do, he had crouched down and picked her up. I saw him wince as he, somehow, slung her over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift.  “Don’t fight me,” he warned as she began to lash out and scream “or I’ll end up dropping you, and none of us want that.”

  As soon as we got upstairs, he deposited her carefully onto the sofa, where she immediately covered her blotchy, tear stained and make-up streaked face with her hands as her knees folded up to her chest.  I smoothed the strands of hair that had stuck to her face, and she began to whimper like a fractious child.  By the time Fergus had returned, bearing hot, sugary, milky tea, she was sitting up and biting her lip to stop from crying as fresh tears hovered in the corners of her eyes, waiting to fall.

  As he sat down in the armchair opposite us, Fliss spoke at last “She doesn’t love me” it emerged as a hoarse, taut whisper.  She blinked her pink swollen eyelids, and the tears fell in silence. 

  At last I asked “Who? Who doesn’t love you?”

  She shook her head tiredly.

  “Come on Fliss” I coaxed quietly “If she’s upset you this much, isn’t it time you told someone her name?”

  There was a long, long silence.  Fliss sipped her tea pensively as we waited.  “Adrienne” she said at last.

  Somehow, it didn’t register with me “Adrienne who?”

  “Adrienne Du Shanne!”

  “But Fliss” I said urgently “Why should she love you? You only met her once and…”

  “No!” she interrupted, shaking her head so vigorously that I feared she would drop her drink.  “You don’t understand!” and that was when she told us the truth at last.

  “Girl Trouble were in Manchester around the time of Fliss’ birthday,” said Fergus later when we were in bed, “they were recording their new album here, remember I told you.  They were in a hotel somewhere in or around the city centre…” There was a note of amazed wonder in his voice as he said, “It all fits together, the more and more you think about it, the more sense it makes.”

  “It’s not that I don’t believe her” I murmured, “It’s just… I can’t believe her, it’s so far fetched”

  He kissed me “Let’s talk about it in the morning, it’s too late now.”

  “When I met her,” Fliss had confessed earlier, her voice hoarse from crying; her face blotchy and sad “All either of us wanted was a little fun.”  She had been with Adrienne almost every night that the band had been in Manchester.  Sometimes there would be nights when the band had to be seen around town, or publicity was needed, but Adrienne had always made time for Fliss; she had taken her around the Village, showed her clubs that Fliss had never been to, but that Adrienne seemed to know very well; she had taken her clothes shopping, and showered her with gifts.  Even if they couldn’t see each other during the day, even if they couldn’t go clubbing together, Fliss was always there, sleeping with her, tiptoeing out of the room at five or six in the morning, sneaking up or down fire escapes and out of windows, being sure not to get caught.  If anyone came into the room when Fliss was there, she would hide in the bathroom, or under the bed; once, Adrienne hid her under the covers when one of her band mates barged in one night unannounced, luckily it was dark…  “She always locked the door after that,” observed Fliss softly.  “She was so… careful, about everything…” She broke off as she stared up at me, her eyes were full of regret as she said “But she took so many risks” her eyes filled with tears again as she sobbed “Far, far more than I did!” We waited until she had regained her composure, and then Fergus asked “What happened tonight Fliss? What went wrong?” she shook her head sadly, but he was determined “What happened?”

  “We… talked” she said, guardedly “When she went back to London; I thought that that was it.  I was sad, and I missed her, but… I never dreamt for one moment that she felt the same way.” She looked up at me “I’m not stupid, Maggie, I know the difference between a fling and a relationship, or” she paused as confusion clouded her face “at least, I thought I did…”

  “What happened?” pressed Fergus, gently.

  She regained her composure a little “I was angry” she stated “We had been phoning and texting each other every day since she went home, and she told me that it was a lie, that she didn’t have a boyfriend, that the press were making it up about her and the guy from Dangerous! She said that his publicity people had made it all up; to cover up that he’s gay, and her record label told her to play along with it.  She told me it was like acting, like playing a part, and I believed her…” She put her head in her hands, and we waited.

  “Tonight was going to be our grand reunion” she said sadly, tears in her eyes “She got me a ticket and an access all areas pass.  She said I could go backstage, and we could disappear somewhere, we could be together, and no one would know.”  She sniffed a little, and her voice wobbled as she continued, “I went backstage, but it was no use, I could see her, but I couldn’t get close to her.  They were surrounded by press, management, photographer’s… people… I kept waiting for them to leave, so that she and I could go somewhere, but when they did, other people come in, I managed to sit near her, near enough for her to see me, but she just looked through me like she didn’t know me.  She was sat on a sofa opposite me, with the other three, and she was in her stage clothes, talking in her stage voice.  I felt as though I didn’t know her, like I’d never known her… she was a stranger to me then.”  I passed her a tissue, and she wiped her eyes, and then blew her nose.  “There were bottles of champagne everywhere.”  She continued “So I helped myself to some of it, as that’s what it seemed to be there for.  People kept topping my glass up, and I kept on drinking it, and” she smiled wryly “I suppose I drank too much, and that I got drunk or embarrassing, so… someone phoned for a taxi for me, and it took me home.”

  We persuaded her to go to bed and try and get some sleep; we had recording work in the morning, and she was worn out.  She nodded dully in agreement, and got to her feet.  The expensive, slinky, backless dress was crumpled and covered in grass stains, and her tights were ruined.  “I don’t care” she snuffled, “I never want to wear this dress again.” 

  “You don’t really mean that, Fliss” I said soothingly.

  “Yes I do,” she muttered, her eyes blank, her tone listless as she shuffled out of the room, and along the corridor to her room.

Chapter Twenty Six: Pressure

Another day… and another night out at Juvenile Hell: It can be too easy to become blasé and resigned to nightlife, especially when you end up going out as often as we do. We go out because it’s what we do, and we do it because it’s the only way we get to see our friends. Sometimes we go out to see the bands play, sometimes we go out to dance, but not as often as I would like… Too often it feels as though we go out simply to be seen. Forgive me, I am feeling sorry for myself… But I hadn’t really wanted to go to Juvenile Hell that night. I was feeling tired and irritable again, and I didn’t know why. I made myself go in the end because Fergus and Fliss both wanted to and I didn’t want to be a grouch. Nat was on fine old form when we arrived; It was a Friday night, and she was merrily tottering around her red and gold domain, assisted by a tall, black and blonde haired man in designer combat trousers.  “MAGGIE!!” she screamed when she spotted me making my way through the throng.  I waved, and she unsteadily charged and staggered her way through the crowd, dragging him behind her, and crashing to a halt directly in front of Fergus and me a few minutes later.  I could smell the alcohol as she loudly proclaimed, for his benefit, “This is my best friend in the whole world.” I smiled awkwardly “And, and also, co-conspirer in my first business enterprise, Minx Records.” She added, equally loudly, referring to the record label we had run together when we were sixteen.  I nodded to the bloke she’d towed over, but he was too busy groping her to notice.  I felt faintly embarrassed, and I could sense Fergus giving me funny looks as we stood there, watching him.  Nat was obviously preoccupied, so I was about to slip away when she turned her attention back to us.  “Oh!” she said in a voice that was still too loud “This is Dylan, you saw him last time you were here, when he was photographing me for ‘City Life’.” I looked him over: the guy with the Beckham haircut…  He was quite good looking up close.  I noted an expensive looking chain and watch in addition to the designer clothes.

  “How many do you think she’s had?” wondered Fergus as we made our way over to the bar.  I shrugged.  When I looked over a few minutes later, they’d found a discreet corner and were necking enthusiastically

  Fliss was already at the bar, talking to a suitably glamorous Violet.  But when I joined them, I discovered that it was Violet who was making all the effort.  Fliss was just listening, and nodding periodically.

  After a while, the first band of the night walked out onto the stage, and Fliss made her excuses and slipped through the crowd to the front of the stage.  Violet watched her go with a mournful expression “I was being friendly,” she protested, sadly, “but it was like she was only being polite to me.”  She turned to me, and I sensed her confusion as she said “I know I’ve been away for a few months, but, what happened to the sweet little girl I left behind?”

  “You broke her heart.” I replied, succinctly.

  She nodded regretfully, and her eyes were sad as she said “But when did she turn into such a sex kitten?”

  Fergus and I exchanged a private look.  He had been very surprised earlier in the evening when, after an hours wait, Fliss had finally emerged from her bedroom wearing a simple but slinky black backless dress and black stilettos, her hair had been curled and she was immaculately made up, with flawless foundation, pale pink lip gloss, and pale blue eye shadow. 

  “I’ve seen one of those dresses,” said Violet, quietly, her eyes still on Fliss as she continued “When I was in London.  It was on display at Selfridges, and it cost about four hundred pounds.” I could sense her lust as she said, “I’d like to know how it ended up on Fliss…”

  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Nat weaving her way over to the bar, her clothes were awry, and her lipstick was smudged all over her face.  “Maybe it was a different dress,” I said neutrally.

  Violet shook her head “I saw the label; it looked like the real thing to me.”  She turned to Nat, who was about to knock back a shot of something pale pink that smelt vaguely of almonds and cherries, “Did you buy that dress for Fliss?”

  Nat craned her neck to get a better look at Fliss, and then snorted “No, catch me with that much spare change…” she eyed Violet warily “Why did you think it was me?”

  Violet shrugged dejectedly.

  “What’s the big deal?” I asked, “It’s only a dress”

  “Top range Harvey Nicks,” said Nat shrewdly “Unless I’m very much mistaken…” She knocked back her drink, grimacing slightly as the liquid hit the back of her throat. We lapsed into silence again, until Nat remarked, rather hoarsely, “You’re just peeved because you think she’s found herself a sugar mommy.”

  “She does have someone else,” I murmured.  I quickly wished that I hadn’t though, because they all turned on me, and the unspoken question hung in the air ‘WHO?’ As I gave a deliberately vague account of the girl I’d seen shinning down our drainpipe a few months back now, Nat choked on her second shot.  “What?” I asked suspiciously.

  She was puce from coughing before she was finally able to answer, “Nothing” she spluttered; “It was the image of her shinning down the drainpipe, that’s all…”

  Violet narrowed her eyes “You know who it is, don’t you?” she said venomously.

  “I might do,” conceded Nat.

  “Then spill…”

  “Dear me, is that the time” Nat glanced at her wrist, looking for a watch she didn’t have.  I detected a faint smirk.  “I really must be getting back to…” she hesitated “what I was doing before.”

  “Check his pockets for a pack of three first,” advised Violet cattily.

  Nat smiled dreamily “First things first” she half murmured, half slurred as she got up.

  “Hetty sell-out” muttered Violet bitterly.

  “I am not a hetty sell-out,” slurred Nat “and anyway,” she hiccupped, loudly, “anyway… I have the urge upon me tonight.”  We watched as she weaved her way back through the crowds to where she had left Dylan.

  Fliss retired to her bedroom with her mobile as soon as we arrived home, leaving us to stay up and talk into the early hours.  “I never knew that you’d run a record label with Nat.” he said, interested “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  I shrugged indifferently “It was a long time ago, we were very young.  We only released two records – then we ran out of money.”

  “How old were you?”

  “We were both sixteen.  Fifteen when we had the idea, sixteen when we started releasing records though” I felt a little embarrassed “It was just a little label, Fergus, everyone does them…”

  He shook his head “You make it sound like dying your hair or something, something easy.”

  “Well” I conceded, “it wasn’t all that hard really, it was just expensive.”

  “I know,” he said.  There was a long silence before he asked, “Would you do it again?” I shook my head “With me?” he asked tentatively, but I shook my head again.

  “I don’t want to do it anymore” I explained “I wouldn’t enjoy it anymore.”

  “What about if you had the money to do something else?” he asked.

  “Like what?”

  “I don’t know, let’s think about it.”

  And we did.  We ruled out doing a festival, mainly because Ladyfest is coming to Manchester next year and, if we seriously did it, then the two events would clash.  But we both liked the idea of a one off Christmas party, and we discussed it long into the night.  We decided that it should be a theme party, with costumes, and that there should be bands as well as DJ’s, and maybe films and stalls.

  We stayed up, long into the night, one Sunday last month at his house, just talking about it all in detail, getting increasingly excited and worked up about it.  After a brief lull in the conversation, he looked at his watch, and winced.  “What?” I asked.  He told me it was two am, and added “Don’t you have to be up at six thirty?”

  I cursed.

  “You can sleep here, if you like I mean.”  He wouldn’t look at me, and I experienced one of the rare awkward silences that still occasionally occur between us.  We hadn’t slept together since the night we got together.  This was my fault, not his, and it was something that I had wanted to resolve quite badly, but had felt too awkward to do so, as unlikely as that sounds.  You must think me frigid, or incredibly inhibited at any rate, to be so awkward about it, but it’s not as simple as that.  I didn’t use to be like that, but I’ve grown wary and… out of practice, shy.  It wasn’t even as though it was about sex either, it was just about being near to him

  But by then, it didn’t matter.  I was so tired, so relaxed, and so trusting that I just said, “Yes, I would.”

  The alarm woke me at six thirty, and I opened my eyes with a moan of pain.  My head ached intensely, unbearably.  It felt as though someone had my head in a vice and was tightening the constraints, squeezing my skull, whilst at the same time malevolent elves hit my brain with mallets and stabbed me in the eyes with needles.  I lay still for a few minutes, hoping that the pain would go away.  Then, I tried to move my eyes and, as I did so, a wave of such excruciating nausea and dizziness hit me that I had to close them immediately.

  The dizziness passed and, somehow, I managed to sit up and move over to the edge of the bed.  But the pain and the dizzy nausea returned, causing me to close my eyes and rest my head in my hands as I tried not to think about how I was going to get into the office, and how I was to cope with eight hours sat in front of a flickering computer screen next to a phone that never stopped ringing.  I told myself that if I emptied my mind, closed my eyes, and kept perfectly still for about five minutes, I would be fine.

  One minute… agony.

  Second minute… I felt increasingly sick.

  Third minute… Why is my body temperature shooting up and down in that alarming way?

  Fourth minute… his hand on my shoulder, asking me if I was alright.

  Fifth minute… my answer “I’m fine.”

  Then I stood up too quickly and fell over because my balance was completely shot.

  He picked me up off the floor and put me back to bed.

  “A migraine” pronounced the doctor at nine o’clock, with rather disturbing cheerfulness “have you had them before?”

  I shook my head, and then closed my eyes as the wave of nausea crashed over me once again.

  Back at the house, I went back to bed and took the sedatives that the doctor had prescribed.  By the time Fergus returned from phoning work for me, my eyelids were already drooping, and I was sinking further and further down the pillow.  As I closed my eyes, I heard him, distantly, telling me that he would look in on me at dinner.  I was asleep before he had even left the house.

  It was dark when I woke up, and as I turned my head slightly, I realised that the pain had gone.  I felt groggy, and I still felt as though elves had been digging holes in my head, but at least they had stopped digging.  Fergus was watching me from a chair next to the bed.  “What time is it?” I asked him slowly and carefully.

  “Eight thirty, just gone.” He replied “I looked in on you at dinner, but you were still fast asleep.  I didn’t want to wake you up, so I left again.”

  “How long have you been sitting there?” I asked as I shakily hauled myself up by the arms.

  “About an hour or so, I kept looking in on you when I got home from work, and when it got to half seven, I got a bit worried.”

  I smiled, wearily “Thank you…”

  “How do you feel?” he still looked worried.

  “Much better, but groggy”

  “That’s probably the medication.”

  “Probably”

  “Would you like something to eat?”

  I nodded, and when he said that he would get me something, I said, “No, I’ll get up.  I need to anyway.”

  In bed that night, he asked me “Is something wrong?”

  “No, why?”

  “You said that the doctor said something about stress this morning, that’s all.”

  I nodded “I just hate my job so much.  I wish I could leave, but we need the money.”

  “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked gently.

  I shook my head “No” I whispered.  I felt tearful just thinking about it.

  “I wish you didn’t need the money,” he said as he turned off the light.

  I slept uneasily and fretfully that night.

  On the Saturday, Fergus slept over at our house, and we spent Sunday morning watching T.V in the living room, talking, and generally messing around.  When Fliss emerged from her bedroom around dinnertime, I was lying on the sofa, my head in his lap as he read me gossip pieces from Fliss’ copy of ‘Sugar’, interspaced with stories that he had made up.  “’It’ girl, Lalage Ferrini, whose father was recently outed as a politician, plans to launch a raunchy new career as a topless gangsta rapper…” I laughed, and he flicked forwards a few pages “Ah, here’s one for all the girls… ‘Has Jailbait’s Nyree had a bum lift?’ forget the conflict in Israel, the war in Afghanistan, or the up and coming war in Iraq, what we really want to know is whether arse is the new tits.”

  Fliss was beginning to warm to his theme as she curled up in the armchair opposite with Marmalade, “Boy band The Romford Crew announce their ongoing search for talent.”

  “Ah, well” Fergus began flicking through the pages again “If its boy bands you’re after” he stopped flicking, and his eyes scanned the print “here’s one: Dangerous!’ Jay Adams spotted out, again, with Girl Trouble’s Adrienne Du Shanne.  The blonde sex god was spotted leaving an exclusive West End party in the company of the sultry siren last week, making it the third sighting of the couple this month.”

  Fliss smiled thinly “I read somewhere else that it was a cynical ploy by their marketing teams.”

  “Well, maybe” conceded Fergus as he passed her the magazine “But they look quite friendly here.”

  Fliss inspected the centrefold dispassionately; “She doesn’t look as though she’s enjoying mashing faces with him, though, does she?”

  Fergus inspected the image, “Now you mention it, no… and he doesn’t look as happy as he should do either…”

  “Oh, so you’d like to trade places?” I teased, “I feel sordid now…”

  He kissed me, “Don’t feel sordid…”

  “But you would, wouldn’t you?” I persisted.

  “What?”

  “Snog her”

  “Well, yeah, I mean…” he looked rather sheepish, “come on…”

  Fliss giggled. We asked her what the joke was, but that just made her laugh even more, so that eventually she ran through to the kitchen, red in the face, with her fist in her mouth.

  When she came back, we were watching an entertainment show on Channel Five.  They were showing the most recent Girl Trouble video, which was all come on and cleavage, suggesting that arse hadn’t become the new tits in their case. The overall feel was of something very slick and dehumanised, something a little too perfect to be real.  Fergus pointed to a beautiful girl with dark, glossy curls as she stalked along the video’s urban street, her slim tanned legs set off by incredibly high heeled boots, “That’s Adrienne,” he said.  Her dark eyes were framed by dark make-up like a bruise, and her mouth was painted a glossy plum colour.  The camera shifted position then, it lingered on her legs as the song finished and the video drew to a close.  She stayed in my mind though… not because I had liked the song particularly, but because she had presence.  The programme cut to an interview with her at an awards ceremony or album launch of some kind, and the unseen interviewer asked her a question about her relationship with Jay Adams.  She laughed, but it seemed a bit strained, and she seemed tired as she smiled a coy little smile and peered up at the camera through her eyelashes.  “He’s a close friend.”  Her accent wasn’t as broad as I remember it being at Fliss’ party, and her voice seemed to be an octave or two higher, which struck me as odd.

  “How close?” persisted the interviewer.

  Fliss moved closer to the screen, both she and Fergus were wearing an expression best described as hypnotic longing.

  The popstar hesitated, and then said “Close… that’s all I’m prepared to say.”

  The interview finished, and the camera drew our attention back to the presenters, who appeared to be about twelve, and who sounded as though they’d ingested far too many ecstasy tablets and e-numbers that morning. “I like her t-shirt,” said Fliss suddenly, as the female half of the duo walked over to where a band was waiting to play out over the shows credits.

  “I didn’t care for his hair,” deadpanned Fergus.

  She smiled.

  As the weeks have passed, Fliss seems to have withdrawn further and further into herself. She and her mobile are currently undergoing a trial separation, interrupted by incoming calls roughly twice a day.  These conversations are marked by silence on Fliss’ part, and characterised by a tense, unhappy expression.  She spends a lot of time alone, listening to ‘They Don’t Know’, (the Tracy Ullman version) and writing songs. Sometimes at night, I hear her crying, but I don’t know what to do, or what to say. I wish I did.