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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The 2003 invasion of Iraq, from a peculiarly British and, often, Mancunian viewpoint: Unusual and powerful commentary I read/heard at the time.

It seems odd to be writing about press coverage and discussion of the invasion of Iraq, and its immediate aftermath, in 2011. But during the course of writing ‘Screaming In Public’ (mainly 2001-2006, with extra edits up to 2009) it became increasingly obvious that the story would have to reflect not only a particular musical and cultural scene, in Manchester and beyond, but also local, national, and often international events. I started writing what would become the final version of the story (earlier versions, going as far back as 1995, need not be discussed here) in August 2001, about 3 weeks before 9/11, and would say that whilst I had no desire to write a novel about 9/11 and its consequences, to an extent I didn’t really have much of a choice. I chose not to dwell on 9/11 much in itself for the simple reason that, like the majority of the world, 9/11 was something both I and my characters experienced only remotely on T.V.

When it came to writing about the period immediately before and after the invasion of Iraq, this remoteness wasn’t an option, and as such the discussions, machinations, spin, lies, politics and protests all had to be acknowledged, given that they all had much more obvious day to day impact on the everyday Stopfordian and Mancunian than 9/11 did. Whether you were pro or anti war, whether you felt it was inevitable or preventable, you simply couldn’t escape from it. And you were expected to take sides.

As a student at MMU at the time, at the height of much student anger and discussion about the war, I happened across a piece of polemical writing, which had been casually littered across the English department, presumably in the hope that people would pick it up and read it. It wasn’t signed, merely dated 10/2002, and headed ‘An Invitation’.

In 1990 a 15-year-old girl appeared on TV receiving wide media coverage to say that she had witnessed an atrocity carried out in Iraq in a children [sic] hospital in Kuwait. When it turned out to be a fake story it was ignored by the media. It was invented to change public perceptions and go to war. This was 1990’s concrete evidence. Today’s evidence must be more attractive to sell the war to the public! But, how much does it help feeding people with lies, hate and fears unnecessarily. After all, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean equipped with the latest technology and mighty power? With thse destructive technologies they bombed everything including sheep. Sheep are totally innocent animals.

Another reason for attacking Iraq is to hide war crimes, that were committed in 91 and 98, by installing a puppet government to help bury appalling evidences. Dragging other nations to their knees in such a humiliating way is immoral. This letter is to avoid further wars and collective punishments. It’s in remembrance of the many who had no hand in political life. But, suffered for so long and then finished in silence in this world that is characterized by communications and fast information exchange. This is an invitation for peace. Thank you.

Feelings were running high, with a number of Stop The War coalition groups active in Manchester throughout 2002 and 2003, something reflected by City Life columnist Danny Moran’s regular forays into the world of the angry activist. In early February 2003 he wrote of an attempt to ‘flan’ New York mayor Rudi Giuliani at a book signing at Waterstones (City Life, 5-20th Feb 2003) along with a number of examples of civil disobediance, and clashes between police and anti-war protesters at rallies on Oxford Road. In March of that year he talked to an activist planning to fly out to Iraq as a human shield, and attended anti-war coalition meetings in town, concerned with planning actions for the day of the invasion, and the bombing campaign known as ‘Operation Shock And Awe’. He wrote of his great hope, on the 8th March 2003, that the protests would work, that the city would be shut down, chaos and press coverage ensue, and that ultimately the government would have to back down. But it rained instead, and protesters dwindled away.

On the day British and American troops invaded Iraq, school kids and students across Manchester walked out of schools, colleges, and universities, and joined the anti-war marches. This is often forgotten, and it also doesn’t seem to have occurred to many people in recent months that some of those schoolchildren, say for example Big Issue columnist Robert David’s then 11 year old son, who marched that day, would now be in the 18-21 kind of age group, and that a number of those young anti-war veterans may well have been engaged in more recent bouts of student activism, specifically the Gaza occupations at a number of universities in 2009, and most recently the protests against the rise in tuition fees and the abolition of the EMA. City Life also reported on the large number of students and schoolkids who walked out on March 19th 2003, the subheading to the piece being “GMP exasperated as Riot Squads face school uniforms on Albert Square Peace Demo.” As the article reported:

While police estimated 600-700 protesters on the march, hundreds more held vigils and sit-ins on school premises. Manchester’s Stop The War Coalitions only involvement was a flyer posted on their website, with recruits gathered through a flyer, email and text campaign. Planning meetings, meanwhile, maintained a stringent under-18 entry policy. (City Life, 2-9th April, 2003)

A similar example of youthful precociousness was reported in the same issue of the late listings mag, when Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox appeared in Bolton as part of the stations On The Road music roadshow event. A Q&A went badly off message when, as columnist Citizen put it, the normally “intellectually demanding posers as ‘who’s your favourite popstar?’ and ‘Do you prefer wearing thongs or knickers?’ were followed by ‘Do you think Blair was wrong to go to war without full UN resolutions?'” Cox’s response was indicative of the BBC: She was highly embarrassed and refused to answer on the grounds of maintaining impartiality.

Once ‘Operation Shock And Awe’ had begun, and the protesters had returned home embittered, angry, and in some cases with letters home from irate school teachers, media coverage went into even further overload. Private Eye, in typically cynical mode, wrote of the operation as being defined by the concept of ‘Event TV’, with media pressure for “a quick win” on the basis that war was perceived to make great T.V. (Private Eye, 4-17th April 2003) It added:

Admittedly cynics argue that the media wanted a war because ratings for news shows rise during conflicts. There was a lift in the figures at the beginning but ratings were falling sharply by the second half of the week. This suggests that theories about ‘stripping’ are correct. The audience has a shorter attention-span: one-day cricket, five-day war.

Of course, it was never going to be a 5 day war, but the coverage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad on 9th April 2003, widely reported at the time as ‘The End’ of the war, despite appearances to the contrary, bear out this theory that there were two wars really: the media war and the real one.

Private Eye was especially good in its reporting of the reporting, capturing both the hysteria and the hyperbole that overtook many news channels and newspapers, plus the sheer tedium and unhelpfulness of much of the information for the average viewer and reader. By April, much left wing media coverage was fixed on the ‘reconstruction’ of a supposed post-war Iraq, with much cynicism as to profit making opportunities for U.S firms. By July, the target had become Guantanomo Bay and Camp Delta, formerly Camp X-Ray, which would itself inspire a group of artists in Hulme to stage a living, breathing replica of it later that year.

Chapter 34 of Screaming In Public reflects a moment in the fictional narrative where real life events quite simply swamped the story, and as such had to be inserted, and made part of the story as best they could. This does happen once more, at another, later, point in the story, and I’m aware that a similar explanation of real life events will be necessary then as well.

Chapter Thirty Four: FCUK The War

March the nineteenth was a cold day, and when Fergus picked me up for work it was so chilly that there was almost a frost and I could see my breath in front of my face.  You wouldn’t have known it by dinnertime though.  I met Flora for lunch on Oxford Road, I forget why now, possibly simply for conversation; we lunched at the 8th Day, next to the Manchester Metropolitan University Union.  Across the road All Saints Park was littered with students lounging in jeans and t-shirts, enjoying the sunshine, and we were struck by the increasingly large number of people who were on the move down Oxford Road.  I thought that they were heading into Piccadilly, but Flora thought Saint Anne’s Square.

  We followed the procession to the corner of Oxford Road and Whitworth Street, where we were privileged to witness one of the more surreal sights of the day, for when we arrived we were able to observe an oldish man, a much younger man, and a dog, all of whom were stood in the middle of three lanes of traffic, engrossed in a conversation, the topic of which I know not what.  They were largely oblivious to the traffic as it swerved around them, screeching noisily with all the horns screaming, and I wondered, aloud, if it was some kind of act of civil disobedience directed as an anti war protest, but no one was able to answer me.

  We parted company further down the road, and I turned into Saint Peter’s Square.  Central Library was gloriously bright in the sunshine, but the square was quiet as I walked towards Piccadilly, passing the Peace Garden and the metrolink platforms in the process.  Someone, or several someone’s, had tied strips of white cotton sheeting to the trees and railings there, and they waved forlornly in the breeze, like little flags as I made my way back to work, my mind buzzing.

  Robin Cook had resigned earlier that week, and Saddam Hussein had (unsurprisingly) turned down George Bush’s ultimatum that he abandon both the presidency and Iraq or else see his country bombed, which I expect is what Bush wanted all along.  In the House of Commons, a vote sullenly gave a small majority in favour of war, and twenty-four hours later the bombs began to fall on Iraq.  Across Manchester on the day that the bombing began, workers and school kids, students and sixth formers, walked out at midday and assembled in Saint Anne’s Square.  Fergus and I went for the first time and I saw my mother there, with a man I didn’t know, I saw Flora and Katy, along with Fliss’ school friends, Angel and the Razorblades, from Chorlton, and Meelan from Bolton: We looked at each other, and at the police, the press, the curious onlookers, we looked at each other, and we thought, “This can’t happen.” Only it did, and suddenly we felt even more powerless than before.

  On the sixteenth of April, a week after the war was deemed to have ended, Flora, Katy, Fergus, Jenny, Liberty Belle and I attended the launch party for the Girls From Mars’ album.  It took place at the Twilight Café on an extremely bright, extremely hot, close and humid evening that felt as though it belonged more to August than to April.  The local news had been full of families picnicking in Heaton Park, and men in shorts and no shirts.

  Because of the heat, and the occasion perhaps too, a generous amount of flesh was on display that night; hot pants and mini skirts were the order of the day, with skimpy little tops that looked as though they could come undone at any second. The men suffered in jeans or cargo pants, and poly cotton shirts or t-shirts; the alcohol flowed freely as the café filled up, and the noise increased as the night became wilder.

  Back at the flat, Fergus and I stripped down to our underwear and threw ourselves down on my bed.  He kissed me with increasing passion as I held him and ran my fingers through his hair, he started to caress my breasts, and after a few minutes I felt his hands travel down my body to my waist.  I kissed him though my heart was beating so fast that I felt as though I was suffocating, and I knew as he started to slide my knickers towards my hips that I was scared. I tried to pull away from him, slowly at first, then harder, faster; he let me go, and then moved away from me, giving me as much space as the narrow bed allowed.  As I lay there, my heart hammering in my chest, my body shaking, he said “It doesn’t hurt you know” his voice was quiet and calm in the thick tense air.

  “I know what it feels like,” my voice trembled.

  “Then why won’t you let me?” I could sense the hurt in his voice.

  “Because I’m not ready to,” I whispered.

  I heard the impatience creep into his voice as he said, “You’re not ready to, but you’ve been ready before?”

  I nodded.

  In the silence, all I could hear was my breathing, coming too fast still, raggedly, unevenly.

  “You don’t trust me,” he demanded, “do you?”

  “I do trust you,” I sighed as I propped myself up on my elbow, “but it just doesn’t feel right for me.”  In the process of trying to make him understand, I placed my hand on his arm, but he shook me off “I’m not ready,” I pleaded, “I’m…”

  “What?” He snapped, “Scared?”

  “Yes”

  He gazed into my eyes, and I could see the pain and hear it in his voice as he said, “Then you don’t trust me.”

  “I told you” I said, impatiently, “It’s not that.  I do trust you…”

  The light switch made an angry snapping noise as he flicked it off, and we lay next to each other in silence. I was furious, and I could sense his anger, even though I couldn’t completely understand it.

  In the cool rationality of the morning, it was all forgotten.  We drove into work, went out to dinner, and drove home once more.

  Fliss was going through her mail when I walked into the living room.  She was sitting on the sofa, surrounded by luggage, having just returned from visiting her parents in the Cotswolds.  The furore over Adrienne has all but disappeared, what with the war in Iraq, but Fliss has been obliged to haul her private life over the coals once more, this time for the benefit of her mum and dad.  She seemed tense as she looked up at me.  “Nat called, to remind us of her upcoming nuptials, and to say she’s got our dresses.”

  I pulled a face: I am a most unwilling bridesmaid.

  Fliss observed my expression, and a faint smile tugged at the downcast corners of her mouth.  “Why are you dreading it so much?” She asked.  “It’s meant to be the bride who gets nervous, not the bridesmaid; I think it’ll be fun.”

  “But are weddings meant to be fun?” I asked, cynically.

  Fliss shrugged and smiled wistfully, “Well,” she said “it kind of kills the happy couple thing otherwise, I would have thought.”

  I nodded reluctantly, and made my way through to the kitchen, thinking about couples, happy and otherwise.