Chapter Sixty Nine: Interlude

A couple of days after I’d been to see mum, Thomas, and Elisabeth Ann, Fergus and I went to see Angel and the Razorblades play at Retro Bar. When the gig finished we walked over to Scubar on Oxford Road for Girl Night.  Nat’s been banned from holding it at Juvenile Hell because of the infamous Valentines Day party, which seems very unfair… “It’s not what I would call a satisfactory solution,” she said, as we fought our way through the crowds to the bar, “I love Scubar, and they seem to like having me here, but it’s too small really, I need somewhere bigger.”

  “Did you try the village?” asked Fergus as we joined The Girls From Mars at their table by the bar.

  Violet snorted in disgust, “Yes, she’s tried the village, she’s tried around Piccadilly too, she’s tried everywhere; it basically comes down to politics…”

  “Vee,” murmured Nat, “keep the politics out of it; it’s incredibly tedious and boring…”

  “I don’t care,” snapped Violet, furiously, she turned back to Fergus, “The situation is basically this: The straight venues think Girl Night attracts too gay a crowd, the gay venues think it attracts too straight a crowd, and they’d all rather do something different, something that brings in more money, basically.”

  “But you always packed out Juvenile Hell…” I protested.

  Nat turned to me, “The thing is, we queer girls here,” she gestured to herself and Violet, “and our absent friends,” a reference to Fliss, “are effectively caught between a straight music scene which, particularly in Manchester, still thrives on male bravado, and a conservative, again, male dominated, gay scene, and neither scene has ever given much of a welcome to young keyed up punk girls, who don’t have a lot of money to spend, who don’t wear designer clothes, and who insist on dancing to un-commercial, un-familiar records.”

  “And Scubar does?” asked Fergus, sceptically.  The last time we had been there, we’d witnessed the tail end of a freshers week skool disco night, and had seen an overgrown schoolgirl dragging an overgrown schoolboy off behind the club by the tie, hell-bent on having her wicked way with him.

  “Scubar,” explained Nat, tersely, “is a student club and, as such, whilst not necessarily being pro queer, is used to a younger crowd, and is ostensibly equal rights.”

  She confessed that she was considering leaving Juvenile Hell in order to start her own club, “But no one has that kind of money, least of all me.  At least Ladyfest Brighton’s coming up, that’s something, and there’s always Kaffequeeria, but I’d like more.” She sighed, “I’m going to try and track down those girls who do Shake-O-Rama; I hear they’re having venue trouble too, maybe we can work together.”

  As much as I love Girl Night, Nat’s right; Scubar is too small for it.  It seemed as though you’d just start to lose yourself to a particularly great record, only to get trod on or elbowed by someone else, and you’d be distracted and have to start again.  In the shadows against the red brick walls, and amidst the pillars, I saw most of the old Girl Night regulars, including Meelan and her mates from Clinch, also Dew and Angel and the Razorblades.  Kit has started doing some Djing for Nat, along with Sabine, and some of Meelan’s mates.  “But I wish Fliss would come home,” sighed Nat, “I miss her so much…”

  “We all do.”

  “I know,” she raised a glass, “we shall never see her like again,” she drank.

  Thursday nights seem to be getting more and more like Friday nights, I thought, as we walked along Portland Street at half two.  The pavements had been furred with vomit by 8pm, and there was a dangerous atmosphere in the air as we walked; the pubs and clubs had emptied, but no one seemed to have gone home yet.  Fergus had his arm around me, and in front of us, Nat and Violet were talking quietly.  By the turning for Chorlton Street, some guy with a bottle leered from a bench and roared, “LESBIANS!”

  I heard Nat sigh as we continued walking; she took Violet’s hand as she murmured, “Do I have it tattooed on my forehead or something?”

  Violet proceeded to check, “No,” she said, neutrally, “nor are you wearing a necklace that says ‘Queer As Fuck’ I notice.”

  Somewhere behind us, the guy was still shouting, and people were gazing in our direction, curiously, and in a not entirely friendly way, as Nat said, “Do you think I should?” in anxious tones, “I could shave my head as well.”

  “No,” said Violet, decisively.

  Fergus didn’t find it remotely funny, however, he turned and started to make his way back the way we’d come, until I tugged on his arm, “Don’t,” I murmured, “he’s drunk, it won’t do any good.”

  Violet and Nat, who’d also stopped, nodded in unison, “She’s right, it won’t do any good.”

  Just then, I heard a voice somewhere behind us, “Did you just call us lesbians?” I turned in surprise.  A group of about six twenty something women had gathered around the bloke on the bench.  He stuttered some kind of a response, but it was too late, even as we moved away, they were closing in for the kill.

  Violet sniggered; Nat was content to merely smirk.

 “Aren’t you angry?” demanded Fergus as we waited for taxi’s.

  Violet and Nat shrugged, and Nat said, sardonically, “Que sera sera…”

  “Lairy drunken men are lairy drunken men,” said Violet, philosophically, “and besides, you get the odd good reaction sometimes, and plenty of no reaction at all…” 

  Fergus shook his head sadly.

  “Cheer up, Fergus,” said Nat, with almost forced cheerfulness, “we respect you as a man who will never ask if he can come home with us and watch.”

  He smiled a little, “Ha ha.”

  We got the first taxi, and they waved us off cheerfully, still holding hands, still smiling.

  When we arrived home, there was an ansaphone message from Fliss, “Bonjour mes amis,” it began, “nous retournons en Angleterre…”

Chapter Sixty Four: 185 Miles Away

The searing, humid heat as we travelled through London and along the motorway to home was almost unbearable.  I found myself leaning, listlessly, against the glass of the coach window again as I checked off all the districts of London we passed through once more, in reverse this time, SW something to NW11.  Fliss has her publishing deal now, secured at the eleventh hour with Salva, Alan Mitchelman’s new company.  The paperwork isn’t done yet, but it’s going to happen.

  She and I headed over to Juvenile Hell as soon as we got home.  It was the Angel and the Razorblades single launch tonight, and both Emily and Fergus were there.  He held me tightly as I walked into his arms, he didn’t say ‘How did it go?’ or ‘Are you O.K?’ He knew it had gone badly, and he knew I wasn’t O.K.  But he couldn’t know how I felt about the bombs, about the surreal experience of being caught up, in a very tiny way, in something that is bigger than you or I, something terrible and permanent, something I remain preoccupied with, despite myself.  Not in a nightmares and sleeplessness sense, but in the way I flinch whenever I hear a siren.  The way I watch, warily, whenever a police van goes by.  I feel nervous, yet not afraid.  I feel… something else.

  The evening was marred by Emily and Fliss and an argument that they had towards the end of the night.  I sensed sullenness on both sides throughout the night, but, nonetheless, was surprised to see Fliss erupt so emotionally and publicly.  I gathered that Emily was unwilling to take sides where arguments over Titanium Rose are concerned.

  In bed last night, I lay in Fergus’ arms and tried to take my mind off the band and our situation.  I had told Fergus about the meeting, but it hadn’t helped: Katy was on my mind still.  “I’m afraid she’s turning into a monster,” I confessed.

  He sighed, “Katy’s hard, she always has been… she’s decided that the bigger a bitch she becomes, the better she’ll do… it’s tough for her, very few women produce, even these days, she has to be hard to survive.”

  “Then why is she taking it out on us? Why is she making us her enemies?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Downstairs, the doorbell rang, and with a weary reluctance, I moved out of his arms, “I’ll go.”

  I yawned as I fumbled on a dressing gown, and then walked, slowly, along the corridor, across the landing, and down the stairs.  I could see the blurred outline of the figure before I opened the door: Emily.

  As I watched her spring up the stairs ahead of me, and make her way through to Fliss’ room, I couldn’t help but smile, tired though I was.  I was becoming accustomed to Emily’s visits.  I have watched her relationship with Fliss subtly change over the past few months, yet I am still unsure as to the true nature of their feelings for each other.  They seem closer, and Emily has spent the night, but I don’t know how far things have gone, and I would never ask.  I have never seen them kiss though.

  And as for me, how do I feel? I feel nothing, nothing but a kind of emptiness, sadness now that we have returned from London.  I don’t know where it comes from, or how to stop it, and I don’t know what I want anymore.  I feel afraid, for myself, for my friends, for the future… I feel afraid about things that I can’t understand, but it’s more than that, because I know… I know what is coming.

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 Thirty: Wicked Whispers

Band practice was awful: I was the first to arrive and, as such, welcomed the calm grey space of the Twilight Studios practice room, knowing that it would give me both time and peace to get my story straight before Flora and Katy arrived.  I’d not long finished setting up my drums when I heard footsteps outside in the corridor; quick, heavy, determined steps as though the person was running, “Maggie!” called Katy, slowing down as she entered the room, “I found that song we talked about last week!” she passed me a tape, and a folded sheet of paper, “I transcribed the lyrics for Fliss” the eager expression on her face began to fade as she glanced around the room; she frowned “Where’s Fliss?”

  Flora, who had brought up the rear, walked into the room and calmly laid her bass down on the floor.  As she unzipped the bag, she murmured “Don’t tell me Fliss had to pull an extra shift at work”

  I nodded, seemingly in disappointment, but really in relief; I hadn’t been looking forward to lying to Flora, who I trust, and to Katy, who I’m beginning to trust.

  Katy rolled her eyes impatiently, “Great” she snapped, “when will she be here?”

  “She won’t,” I admitted, truthfully.

  “Well” Flora got to her feet and carefully picked up her bass, “We’ll just have to do what we can.  I had wanted to work on the new songs, but…” she shrugged.

  “Sorry” I said.

  She looked up from her bass “Don’t be sorry, it’s not your fault.”

  But I felt as though it was.

  On Saturday night, Fergus and I went out to Juvenile Hell. It was early when we arrived, and the red, sparkling décor was adorned with only a few early birds.  In a dark, private corner, Nat was sat with Dylan, gazing wistfully into his eyes; she looked up as we made our way past the door staff “Hello” she gestured to the seat next to her “Sit with us” and when I voiced our desire to get drinks, she said, “Dylan and Fergus can get them, you sit with me.”

  The wistful expression hadn’t left her face by the time I reached her, and she seemed quiet; not subdued, but… thoughtful.

  Dylan and Fergus returned with the drinks.  Two pints, lemonade, and bottled water which, I was surprised to discover, was Dylan’s.  It was later, when Nat was busy working and Fergus had returned to the bar, that he answered my unspoken question “I’m allergic to alcohol.”

  “I didn’t say anything!” I protested.

  He smiled, displaying a lot of white enamel.  I took in his muscular tanned arms and long, thin face; his eyes were the same dark blue as Nat’s.  “I could tell that you were surprised though.”

  “Have you been at ‘City Life’ long?” I enquired, eagerly, wanting to change the subject.

  He smiled, not at all fooled “A year.  I worked for ‘The Face’ and ‘NME’ before that; still do sometimes.”

  I nodded.

  We talked of other things then, and I found that the reservations I’d had about him dropped away one by one as we talked. He seemed to genuinely love her, and I was glad of that.  After a lull in the conversation, he asked rather cautiously “You don’t drink either, do you?”

  Fergus was just returning with another drink, as he sat down, he grinned at Dylan, and said “The only time I’ve ever seen her drink was the first time we came here, and she got plastered and spent the rest of the night throwing up.”

  I could feel myself colouring, not with embarrassment so much, more with anger as I glared at him.  I sensed Dylan glance speculatively at us both, but he didn’t say anything, and I could tell that he didn’t think it was funny either; most people would have done I suppose.

  The awkward silence was broken as Fergus turned around to talk to some newly arrived friends, and I seized my chance.  “You’re right, I don’t drink.” I murmured as I leant forward.  He leant towards me expectantly, and his face was sympathetic, which gave me the courage to continue.  “Alcohol clashes with my medication, it stops it working properly, and if I drink more than a pint or so, I’m sick.”

  He nodded, and we each leant back in our chairs.  As I looked up, I noticed that Fergus was watching me; he had an odd, questioning expression on his face, and I think he may have overheard.  There was no time to talk about it though, not there, not then, and neither of us has raised the subject since.  It was shortly after that that Nat and I hit the dance floor in any case and, despite everything, I’m glad I talked to Dylan; he seemed to be one of those rare people who listen without judging, for which I am grateful.

  It would have been about eight am on Sunday morning when Fergus and I were rudely awakened by the phone ringing.  It must have been ringing for a long time, because I heard it in my sleep long before I woke up.  It rang and rang and rang in an almost aggressive manner as I staggered out of bed, and by the time I eventually answered it, it was almost screaming.  Things were no better when I picked up the hand set however, for the scream of the phone was replaced by the scream of Jenny as she shrieked and ranted incoherently about tabloid newspapers and betrayals of confidence.  “YOU KNEW!” She yelled.

  I winced, and held the handset away from my ear.  I could still hear her though.

  “YOU MUST HAVE KNOWN! YOU KNEW AND YOU LIED TO ME! NOW IT’S ALL OVER THE SEXPRESS AND NEWS OF THE SCREWS!!”

  It was with a sinking heart and sudden feeling of dread that I covered the mouthpiece and turned around to face Fergus, who was standing behind me with a deeply curious expression on his face.  “Nip out and buy a selection of the tabloids.” I hissed “the trashiest ones; might be important.” He nodded, and then shot off to my bedroom in pursuit of his clothes and wallet.

  Jenny was still bawling me out when he returned from the newsagents, and by then I knew what to expect, for Jenny had confirmed my worst fears.  Fergus was surveying the papers with a mingled expression of distaste, revulsion, and fascination when I joined him on the sofa.  He passed me the ‘News Of The World’ as he murmured, “Well, no denying it’s real now…”

  The front cover of the paper, in common with several other tabloids that day, was given over to an enlarged, grainy picture of a young dark haired slim girl in frayed bleach washed jeans and a cut off t-shirt; she was kissing a younger seeming fair-haired girl, also in jeans and t-shirt.  It was a very intimate shot, seemingly taken from a distance, but using a zoom and it made me feel both saddened and moved as I realised how good they looked together.  But I also realised as I gazed at that grainy image that they could never be happy together; not now.

  “GIRL TROUBLE!” screamed the headline, whilst the subheading shrieked “Raunchy Adrienne’s Steamy Weekend” I scanned the text frantically, desperately checking for any mention of Fliss’ name, but it seemed that she had been lucky, for there were none, just the usual mentions of a ‘mystery blonde’.  I asked Fergus to check the other reports, and he reported back the same: plenty of ‘mystery blonde’ references, but nothing to suggest that Fliss’ identity was known.  The picture was taken from Adrienne’s vantage point, revealing her face, but Fliss had been shot from the back.

  “She’s safe” I sighed in relief as I handed the ‘News Of The World’ to Fergus.

  “For now” he replied, softly.

  The phone rang once more and, fearing that the press had found out about Fliss after all, I answered warily: But I needn’t have worried, for it was only the girl herself. She must have been unaware of the tabloid coverage (quite how remains a mystery), for she began her call by saying “I’m on my way home, how was band practice?” she sounded so happy that I almost didn’t tell her, but I knew that I had to.

  “Fliss…” I began, carefully.

  She didn’t say anything once I had finished telling her about Jenny and the tabloids, but I could hear her breathing as it came heavier, and faster “Oh” she said, at last.  “I’ll be home soon, we’ll talk then” and, with that enigmatic response, she rang off.

  She was in tears when she arrived home.  “She told me I’d betrayed her!” she sobbed as she threw herself down into the armchair,  “She thinks I phoned them all; they were all waiting for her when she got home, camped out on her doorstep…” the sobbing engulfed her once more, and I couldn’t just sit there and watch.  I went to her, and I took hold of one trembling hand as I crouched down beside her.  “How did they find out?” she wept, “Who told them? And how did they get pictures of us so soon? We were only there last night!”

  Fergus was telling Fliss about picture messaging in a low, calm voice as I squeezed her hand and made soothing noises, when the phone rang.

  Fergus got up to answer it as Fliss began to sob increasingly violently.  When I looked up from her a minute later, I noticed that he was stood in the doorway, an expression of deepest sympathy on his face as he surveyed us both “Fliss” he said at last.  She jerked her head up, and we both took in her blotchy, tear stained face and quivering lip as he added, “It’s for you.  It’s your mum.”

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.

Chapter Twenty Five: All She Really Wants

Any further drainpipe climbing exploits on the part of Fliss’ mystery girl have been curtailed this past week by our trip to Scotland. Perhaps it was for this reason that she was so self-absorbed during our journey north, although even once we’d arrived she displayed no outward signs of interest in the process ahead of us. Instead she remained moody and detached, uninterested in music, her appearance, and probably even the band, which made a strong contrast with the shared excitement and nervousness felt by me, Flora, and Katy. All Fliss seems to be interested in these days is her mobile, which she is glued to. When she isn’t on the phone, she is checking it, fiddling with it, texting on it, or feverishly checking it for missed calls or text messages. She refuses to switch it off when asked to, by Jenny, and she doesn’t seem to care if the rest of us feel ignored as a result. She spent most of the journey up here conversing in French, and there has been at least one night whilst we’ve been here where I have left her talking on her mobile, only to wake up the next morning and discover her still talking, having evidently not gone to bed.  I don’t know what to think.

  She was clearly both elated and exhausted on the morning that we signed to Sandra Dee. She appeared peaky and bog eyed, but extremely happy when she finally emerged for breakfast, and it was evident that, once again, she hadn’t slept. The previous day’s jeans and t-shirt, designed for slouching about in, not meetings, were crumpled and limp, and her hair had not been brushed. Despite the fact that we would be late, Jenny sent Fliss back upstairs to change her clothes. When Fliss hadn’t emerged after twenty minutes, Jenny sent Flora and me upstairs to hurry her up. When we arrived, we discovered her fast asleep on her bed, still in her jeans and t-shirt. Flora shook her, gently, and Fliss drowsily swatted her away, muttering something incomprehensible, possibly in either French or Dutch.

  I walked over to the sink, filled a glass with cold water, and squatted down in front of her sleepy head. “Fliss,” I whispered down her ear, “if you don’t show any sign of waking up in the next five seconds, I will pour this very cold water down your back.” I counted, very slowly, and on the count of five, she sat up and grabbed the water from my hand. “Drink it then,” I said, sweetly, as Jenny burst into the room.

  We were an hour late. The journey by taxi to the Sandra Dee offices was marked by acute nervousness on the part of me, Flora and Katy, and extreme agitation on Jenny’s part. Fliss, meanwhile, sulked. Upon arrival, Jenny apologised once more for our tardiness, and we formerly signed the contacts we had received weeks ago, having resolved any concerns with both sets of lawyers before arriving in Scotland. There then followed a number of meetings with various Sandra Dee people, during which we shook hands and smiled a lot. Jenny talked to the various teams, departments, and individuals that made up Sandra Dee and between them a schedule was drawn up. I enjoyed watching her work, she was calm and professional but friendly, and she was very good at remembering names and job titles, something I often have trouble with.

  We went to the pub afterwards and talked, and it was nice not to have to think about contracts and schedules for a few hours. Jenny regaled us with tales of her youth in Liverpool, of riot grrrls and gigs, fanzines and parties, and the various exploits of the enigmatic Liberty Belle. We listened earnestly like wide eyed children.

  After the pub, Jenny went back to her room to work on some pieces for ‘NME’, and we all drifted off into separate camps. Fliss wandered off somewhere with her mobile, whilst Flora, Katy and I talked in their room. “What the hell is going on with Fliss?” muttered Katy as she threw herself down into an armchair. Flora and I more quietly claimed the bed. “Search me,” shrugged Flora, “but if she has that phone switched on tomorrow, when we have our gig and photo shoot, I shall ram it down her pretty little throat.” I winced. “I mean it,” she turned to me, “I’m sick of it.”

  Katy nodded, fiercely, in agreement. “Aren’t you?” she asked.

  I admitted that I was, “but she’s in love,” I explained, “don’t be too hard on her.”

  “When she was with Violet she wasn’t like this,” Flora pointed out, “she never let her interfere with the band anymore than Violet let her interfere with The Girls From Mars. Why should whoever it is this time be any different?”

  “Who is it anyway?” demanded Katy.

  “I don’t know,” I confessed “she won’t tell me anything – she never does – even with Violet, she never told me anything.”

  Jenny confiscated Fliss’ mobile as we set out for Glasgow the following morning. “You can have it back after the gig tonight.” She said briskly as she put the phone on silent and switched it off. Fliss began to argue, and Jenny gave her a look. It wasn’t a threatening look, as such, but it was the kind of look that spelled out, most clearly, that any further discussion would be futile. Fliss shut up, and began to pout sulkily instead. Jenny ignored her.

  The photo shoot posed no problems for Fliss, used as she is to earning the odd bit of extra cash by modelling wedding dresses for ‘Brides’. She enjoyed the attention, and was obliging and cooperative throughout, something which no doubt helped to smooth over her earlier disastrous behaviour at the record label. Both Katy and Flora were nervous and gauche in front of the lens, but with much coaxing, they eventually came out of their shells. I have always been notoriously camera shy, so I suffered and tried to console myself with the fact that the only shots of me that were likely to be used were the group shots. 

  The showcase gig in Glasgow went much better, despite our continued nervousness. It was made all the more nerve wracking by the knowledge that not just Alan the A&R man would be in the audience, but also the famed Alice Benson, our label boss. Jenny gave the still slightly sulky Fliss a pep talk before we went on stage, during which she expressed in no uncertain terms, just how important the gig was, and how disastrous things would be if Fliss was not on full form.  Flora took charge of Fliss’ wardrobe, and made her wear a new outfit she had made especially: a loose, floaty, smoky blue mini dress of sequinned and embroidered chiffon, which Fliss wore with blue ballerina pumps, blue ribbons and sparkly butterfly hairslides in her freshly curled hair. Lip gloss and subtle use of foundation, powder, blusher, eyeshadow and concealer, completed the look, turning the increasingly bad tempered Fliss into an English rose for the evening. Katy opted for an androgynous post punk neatness, Flora for a less glitzy femininity of denim skirt and silk shirt, whereas I tried to look neat.

  The venue where we played our showcase was no bigger than The Gates, but there was the nervous excitement that comes with playing on foreign turf, as well as our knowledge of the VIP’s in the audience. It was a strange gig, slightly surreal and dreamlike in quality, and it seemed at once to be taking far too long, and to be over far too soon. Afterwards, Flora and I relaxed backstage as Jenny took Katy and Fliss to meet Alice Benson. Katy had promised to kick Fliss if she showed any signs of sulkiness, but as it was, we didn’t have to worry: Jenny reported back that both of them behaved impeccably.

  We travelled home the next day feeling weary but satisfied. Fliss, newly reunited with her phone, withdrew back into her own little world again, as the rest of us dissected our various performances. It was evening when we reached Piccadilly, and the burnt orange sun was just setting as Jenny parked the car in the back alley next to the Gates. We walked the three or four streets it took us to reach Juvenile Hell.

  Inside those dark red and glittery gold walls were herds of impeccably dressed Bright Young Things, talking, drinking, and smoking over the deafening sounds of Felix Da Housecat.  At the epicentre of it all was Nat, squeezed into a black bustier and PVC mini skirt, turning on the charm for a tallish, slight of build man in baggy designer jeans and a Diesel t-shirt.  He was sporting what is known colloquially as a ‘Beckham’: scruffily punkish blonde hair with dark roots.  A very expensive looking camera hung around his neck, and, like his non-camera carrying colleague, he appeared to be in his late twenties.

  Fergus came over as I was observing this little scene.  He kissed me hello, and led me over to the table that he and his friends had taken possession of.  “Who’s that with Nat?” I asked as I leant back into his arms.

  “’City Life’” he explained, “Journalist and photographer, come to do a piece on the club.”

  We said no more about it, and he quickly turned his attention to asking me about Scotland.  I filled him in as best as I could. 

  “Well” he said as I leant sleepily against him, “I’d have a poster of you on my wall any day.”

  I yawned, “Wouldn’t you feel weird about it?”

  “Weird?”

  “It being of me”

  “No” he kissed my neck “I might phone them up actually, ask to see the sample shots, pick the best one of you, have it made up into a poster…”

  I wanted to protest, but I was too sleepy; I only hoped that he was joking as I closed my eyes.

  “Oh dear” he sighed as he tilted me into an upright position “I think I’d better take Cinderella home.  Do you have work tomorrow?”

  “Yes, worse luck”

  “Then I’ll definitely take you home”

  “My stuff” I murmured “In… the… in… Jenny’s…”

  “I’ll sort it”

  He practically had to carry me out of there; I was that tired.  Work was awful today, and I was so tired that it seemed even worse than usual.  I wish that I could get a decent night’s sleep.

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