Chapter Seventy: Point Of Departure

“I still can’t believe I let Fliss talk me into this,” murmured Adrienne as she stood just outside Manchester Registry Office that chilly December morning.  The wind ruffled the white chiffon mini-dress that she was wearing over white jeans and white patent doc marten boots, and I could see the ‘F’ tattoo through the thin fabric of the dress.  Her dark hair was loose, and the wind was blowing it across her face in thin strands. Next to her, holding her hand, was Fliss, in a white princess line chiffon dress which fell to her knees.  The neckline was low, and I could see her tattoo, the ‘A’ written across her heart in the same permanent script as Adrienne’s ‘F’, carved and seared into the skin forever.  Both were holding bouquets of red roses, and Fliss’ hair was loose.

  The Registry Office was ringed with press, some from the gay and lesbian press, but many more from the tabloids and gossip sheets.  We blinked through the constant, relentless, volley of flashbulbs, and then someone called from the crowd, “HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A MARRIED WOMAN ADRIENNE?”

  “BLOODY MARVELLOUS!” called back Adrienne immediately.  Her smile was a perfect vision of white enamel against scarlet lipstick.  The cameras drew closer then, and she and Fliss posed together for their benefit, taking great care to display those matching silver rings, which shone out, prettily, from the middle fingers of their right hands. 

  “We weren’t really expecting much press interest,” confessed Adrienne.  A low chuckle ran through the crowd, and she smiled, “we thought you’d all be over in Windsor, covering Elton John and David Furnish.”

  “We weren’t invited!” someone called back.

  Everyone laughed.

  Someone asked if they weren’t perhaps a bit young to be getting married, and Adrienne said, with calm dignity, “No, because if I was marrying a man, twenty wouldn’t be too young, so why should it be too young for us?” She took a deep breath before she continued, “We’re not here today to argue the toss about civil partnerships and the validity of gay marriage, we’re here, essentially, because we love each other and we wanted to do this, not to prove anything to the world, or for publicity or anything that cynical, but because we wanted to do this.  There’s been a partnerships register in Manchester since 2002, so if we’d wanted to, we could have got married before this, but we didn’t want to.  We’re here now because now felt like the right time…” I sensed her awkwardness, “that’s all I can say really…” She shot an agonized glance at Fliss, who responded heroically.

   “I’ve never considered myself to be a fully paid up member of the Pink Pound,” she announced, slightly apologetically, “that isn’t a lifestyle, or stereotype, that I feel very comfortable with.  I firmly believe that the gay community shouldn’t be complacent, and that it needs to take a good hard look at the various divisions and elitist cliques within it’s own ranks, but, at the same time, I believe in gay marriage for the same reason that I believe in heterosexual marriage, because, despite it’s faults, and many of my friends have highlighted its faults to me, one way or another.” I saw Nat grin, sheepishly as she looked away, Fliss continued, in her slightly apologetic way, “I’m not good at speeches, but, I suppose what I mean is that, like a lot of girls, fortunately or unfortunately, I grew up with a desire to walk down the aisle, laden with flowers, in a white dress, and, to be honest, I never saw any reason why I shouldn’t do it.”

  A fresh onslaught of flashbulbs went off as she finished her speech, then the press began to depart, their story gained.

    Fliss sagged a little in relief, “Was I O.K?” she asked, her eyes wide with anxiety, “I’m not used to justifying myself to the worlds press, and I don’t know if I did it very well, I’ve had some arguments with some of my mates at the Basement about it, but I never actually won any of them…”

  Adrienne hugged her, “You were perfect.”  They kissed, softly and lingeringly, no longer caring, or noticing if anyone was watching.

  The intensity of their relationship had not been in any doubt, for me, since they had come home; they not only looked right together, they were right together.  The marriage had been Fliss’ idea originally, she had wanted to marry Adrienne quietly in Paris, but gay marriage is illegal in France.  This didn’t put Fliss off, however, it simply made her set her heart on a Manchester wedding, which would be more special, and which would mean having all her friends around her.  Adrienne was more sceptical, and I suspect that she shares some of my opinions about marriage ceremonies being bizarre and anachronistic, but she conceded to Fliss because; “I could tell how much it meant to her.  Fliss has a very romantic streak and, whilst I don’t always understand the way it manifests itself, I love and respect her too much to just ignore her feelings, besides” she smiled, sheepishly, “I really do love her enough to marry her, it’s just the actual marrying part of the deal I have issues with…”

  As the press departed, I spotted a small, mousy figure, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, she was standing at a slight distance, away from the crowd, she wasn’t with the wedding party, but she was watching just the same.  I walked towards her and, as I drew closer, I saw the damp streaks on her face, “Shouldn’t you be in Uni today?” I asked her.

  She nodded, “But I had to be here,” her voice was choked with emotion, but she was done with crying I think, “I’m not bitter or anything, Maggie, because it would never have worked between us, there would always be Adrienne….”

  “She did love you,” I told her, “she wasn’t lying about that, it’s just…”

  “She loves Adrienne more,” she finished for me.  Her brown eyes were full of pain as she said, “I’ve learnt from it all though, next time I’ll be stronger, next time I’ll not hold back, I’ll be a better girlfriend.”

  I just nodded.  I didn’t trust myself to speak.  As she walked away, and headed back to University, and back to her student pals, my heart travelled with her.  She would have to go to her lectures, to her seminars, see her friends, and pretend that everything was fine.  Or else she would concoct a false story about a feckless boyfriend, and everyone would be incredibly well meaning and sympathetic.  Not for one moment would they think of Emily Garcia; that mousy, quiet, shy girl, one of the very few girls in the engineering department, in connection with Fliss Keale; the pretty, blonde, celebrity wife of Adrienne Du Shanne.  I wanted to help her, but I knew I couldn’t, especially since the pain she was in was partly my fault.  She would have to make her own decisions; I couldn’t make them for her.

  If Adrienne and Fliss had remained in France, it may have been less painful for Emily, but there were more complex reasons for their return than simply being eligible for the partnerships register.  There have been unkind suggestions in the press that they fled Adrienne’s “luxury penthouse apartment” (read: modest flat.) in order to escape the riots in Paris, but that’s not true, and the truth is that they were ready to leave.  As well as tentatively exploring the idea of a solo career, Fliss has been approached by a new digital radio station, based in Manchester, who have picked up on the Djing that she’s done, and will continue to do, for Nat at Girl Night, and they’ve offered her her own show.  She doesn’t get complete control over her playlist, but she does have some influence.  Adrienne, meanwhile, has some acting work; the BBC have hired her to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’ for Radio 4’s ‘Book At Bedtime’, and there are some T.V and film companies sniffing around, many of whom she is very suspicious of.  There’s a small film being made in Manchester about the cities “Gunchester” years though, and she’s very interested in that.  The writers sent her agent a script, and if the project goes ahead, she’ll be playing a very scary gang girl with sociopathic tendencies, which she says will be much more challenging than any role involving pole dancing or girl popstars who’ve fallen from grace, which makes up the bulk of what she gets offered.

  From the wedding, we moved on to The Twilight, where Violet is showing her art exhibition, entitled: ‘Friends And Lovers’.  Whether Violet and Nat scheduled the opening of the exhibition deliberately or not, it certainly resolved the problem of a wedding reception for Fliss and Adrienne, given that most of their friends were there.  A massive cheer went up when they arrived, still in their wedding clothes, having led a strange procession of paparazzi, curious onlookers, and friends on a pilgrimage through Manchester city centre en route.

  The mood was more orderly and relaxed than is common at The Twilight, possibly because it was dinnertime and not the evening.  Drinks were being poured and drunk, but in a more restrained manner than was usual.  Looking around me, I spotted some journalists and photographers from the wedding, but there were less of them now, and it was easy to ignore them when I knew they weren’t there for me.  Violet was being interviewed by a tall, fair haired, and slightly earnest woman when we arrived, I recognised the interviewer as someone I’d seen on T.V, which suggested she was fairly important, “Who’s that?” I asked Liberty Belle as we queued at the bar for drinks.

  Liberty obligingly gazed in the direction of Violet and her interviewer, the woman was just packing away her dictaphone, “Marie Flanagan,” Liberty is a woman of few words.

  “Do you know her?”

  Liberty shook her head, “Jenny met her once; she said she was nice.”

  Jenny joined us at the bar, “I hope someone buys this piece off me when it’s done,” she muttered, darkly, “If I’d known there’d be so many London people here, I’d’ve not bothered.” She sloped off again, dejectedly, with Liberty in her wake, and I turned away from the crowd and began to look at the pictures.  Some of them, I knew, were fairly old, and dated from Violet’s art student days in Bolton, but some were more recent.  They were a mixture of photos, sketches and watercolours, but most of all, they were more than simply pretty pictures, they actually revealed something beyond that, something deeper, and more meaningful.

  I stopped in front of a photograph of Fliss; it had been enlarged to poster size, and had been taken, I would guess, when she was sixteen.  She appeared to be asleep, and was facing the camera; her eyes were closed, but there was a rosy glow to her face, and she was smiling slightly.  Her fair hair was trailing across her face, and a ginger and white kitten was standing on her back, looking at her.  The pink straps of Fliss’ nightie showed above the duvet, displaying lightly tanned shoulders, but the focus was on her face.  I turned away from the picture, and watched Fliss, who was talking to Marie Flanagan with Adrienne.  The photograph conveyed a certain girlish innocence that Fliss possessed then but that, I realised as I watched them, she no longer has.  Some of the softness has gone too, but some of it returned when she went back to Adrienne, and Fliss is right: she isn’t a little girl anymore.  That photo was taken four years ago now, when Fliss was with Violet I would suspect, a lot has happened since then.

  I was surprised by the number of pictures there were of Nat, and it was something I raised with Violet later on, when she’d finished talking and schmoozing with the press, “You must have been stalking her for years…” commented Meelan, her dark eyes wide, having counted twenty pictures, of varying sizes, of Nat.

  Violet looked uncharacteristically shy, as she said, “We’ve known each other for a long time…”

  “So,” I said casually, “it’s not that you’ve been trying to figure out how to ask her out ever since you blundered into each other in the village when you were eighteen then?”

  Violet glared at us, “I can see that you two will make a good double act now that Fliss is taken and Nat’s come over to my side…”

  “I’m training her up,” I explained as Meelan smirked, “its part of her musical apprenticeship…”

  “I don’t need training up,” protested Meelan, “I’ve been around, I know…”

  Dotted around the room were pictures of The Girls From Mars, many taken on tour when perhaps certain members of the band were somewhat tired and emotional, as well as separate shots.  There were photos of Andrea and Jasper together, and Jasper alone and apprehensive in a hotel lobby somewhere, and of them both with their baby son, Sam, who was born last month.  Most interesting of all, there were pictures of the fans, and of people Violet must have met on tour.  There were two girls with day-glo hairslides and bracelets, wearing short, garish dresses and fishnet tights, and a gang of male urchins with vaselined spiky hair, dressed in leather and denim, delivering Sid Vicious style sneers to the camera.  There were pictures of The Flirts, of Angel and the Razorblades, of the crowds at Ladyfest Manchester, and… pictures of Titanium Rose.

  There weren’t many pictures of me, fortunately, and I tried not to look too long or hard at those that there were.  It was easier to look at the group shots.  There was a great picture of us from four years ago, huddled together by the tourbus, all eager and expectant, about to head off on tour with The Girls From Mars.  There was a great one of Flora too, spread-eagled on the floor of her shop at Afflecks Palace, pinning patterns to fabric.  There was one of me on the tourbus, talking to Fergus on that first tour we did with The Girls From Mars, it was next to one of me backstage after my “comeback” gig at The Gates, in which I am staring, distractedly, into the mirror, with a very anxious expression on my face, and you can see the scars on my arms because I’ve rolled my sleeves up because of the heat.  There are dark shadows under my eyes, and my face is all bones and huge, frightened eyes.  Fergus came up behind me as I stared at it, “This one’s better,” he murmured, directing me over to a more recent photo.  I don’t remember the occasion at all, but it showed me waiting outside The Gates, smiling slightly self consciously, but looking reasonably normal.  “I’m going to ask Violet if I can buy it,” he told me.  I said that I didn’t think it was that good, but he insisted that he wanted it.  When I asked why, he said it was because it “captures your essence” or something.  Violet was happy enough to sell it to him anyway; she had already had a request from Adrienne for the one of Fliss and her kitten, so once the exhibition is over, it’ll be ours.  I suppose I shall have to get used to seeing pictures of myself.

  A week after the wedding, and the exhibition opening, I had my own photo session.  It had been decreed by Jasper, and agreed by Jenny, that pictures of me needed to be sent out to the press along with the press release announcing that I am joining The Girls From Mars.  To make me feel more comfortable with the idea, and in order to create more natural seeming photos, the shoot took place at home.  Liberty was hired to take the pictures, Flora to style me, and I had no sense of egos doing battle as the two of them worked together, in fact, they appeared to get along very well.  Most of the pictures were taken in our kitchen and living room, and I wore jeans in most of the shots, with very little make-up.  Whilst the shoot was taking place, I noticed Fergus take Jenny off to one side for a chat, and, when they returned, I knew that they had been talking about me.  Jenny gave me a thoughtful, measuring look, before glancing back towards Fergus, and I could guess what he had said to her.  He isn’t going to sit back and watch me get ill again, he said, and if I start to deteriorate, mentally or physically, on tour, he wants me home.  I told him it wasn’t as straightforward as that, and he knows it, but he’s also not prepared to sit back and watch me self-destruct again.

  I had several long chats with Andrea, about drumming mostly, but also about being in bands, and about fame.  She believes she’s been lucky; she is a member of a reasonably well known, well respected band, with a loyal fanbase all around the world, the records sell well, the deal they have is reasonable enough to allow for creativity, but also earns them a reasonable amount of money, and because she is the drummer, she doesn’t get recognised in the street and asked for autographs like Moyra, Violet and Jane do.  “I’ve been able to go about my business largely unhindered,” she told me, “whereas if I was Moyra or Violet, every little detail of my private life would be all over the press.  As it is, no one cares, because I’m the drummer.”

  Andrea and Jasper were absent from the party that waved Violet, Moyra, Jane and me off from Chorlton Street today.  Normally Jasper would be present on the tourbus, but he wants to be with Andrea now the baby’s born, which is understandable.

  As the time of our departure drew ever nearer, the coach station filled up with well-wishers, all wanting to wave us off; Flora was there, also Fliss and Adrienne, Angel and the Razorblades, Meelan, Dew, Shahina, Nat, Fergus, Jenny, and Liberty.  Everyone wished us luck, and Jenny hugged me and told me she would see me soon; she’ll be joining me in London in a few days time, “Behave,” she warned, “or I’ll have Fergus and your mother on my case.”

  I smiled.

  Eventually, everyone trickled away, leaving just Nat and Fergus.  Moyra and Jane very tactfully said that they had something to do, and disappeared, leaving us alone.

  “Well,” said Fergus, awkwardly.

  “You don’t have to say anything,” I said, “I know.”

  And we didn’t say anything; we just clung to each other silently until the coach arrived.  All I could think of as I held him, and as I felt his arms around me, was how much I was going to miss him, but I will come back, I will come back.

  The coach was waiting for us, and Violet and I made our way over to its waiting doors and climbed aboard.  As the coach pulled out of the station, we waved to our two “Rock Widows” and then watched in silence as Nat and Fergus walked slowly away.  I felt sad as I watched them leave, for I know it will be months before I see him again.  I know he trusts me, and I trust him, but I will miss him incredibly badly.  Just now, Violet tapped me on the arm and asked if I was alright, I have been writing ever since we left Manchester, and now we are speeding down the motorway, somewhere near Milton Keynes.  I know where I am going now, and I know that he will be waiting for me when I return.  I am going out into the world, on an adventure, who knows where it will take me? Or what will happen along the way?

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: Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?

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

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

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

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

  “Do you remember which song it was?”

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

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

  “And school in the morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “Peaches or Pixie,” I added, sarcastically.

  “Suri or Jaydynn.”

  Mum shuddered.

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

  “I think not.” said Mum, decisively.

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

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

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

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

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

  “It would disguise any scarring.”

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

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

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

“You’re embarrassed” she said, quietly.

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

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

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

  “Maybe that’s the problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  I blushed again.

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

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

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

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

Chapter Fifty 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 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.

Chapter Twenty Seven: Natural, Sensual Thing

My concern for Fliss tends to waver according to whether she appears to be having a good day or a bad day. Some days she mopes in her room, and is quiet and subdued, but other days she has Meelan and Kylie round, or they go out in Chorlton or Bolton together. They hold noisy, girly, sleepovers every few weeks or so, and on those nights, I know that I can relax and not worry about her. When I am not worrying about Fliss I seem to spend almost every minute of every day thinking about Fergus; have I ever loved anyone as intensely, as urgently, as happily as I love him? I don’t think so, and yet, I know, deep down, that there is risk attached, as there is every time. I love the way he touches me… it took so long for me to reach a point whereby I felt safe enough with him to let him so much as take hold of my hand, and every touch, every caress, means so much to me now. Ours is a slow relationship in some ways, perhaps, because of me, but I am a girl who obsesses over the little details, and his hands on my skin, his lips on mine, his breath on my face, mean more than I can ever say; he isn’t just touching me; he is teaching me to trust, and to love, again.

  Christmas was quiet this year, with everyone going their separate ways once more before re-convening in the New Year. 2003 promises to be a lively year, and for the first time that I can remember, it was Flora and Katy who were distracted at our band meeting last week, not Fliss. We were supposed to be meeting to discuss our next round of recording sessions, but Flora and Katy, naturally, felt that the war in Iraq was more important.  Fliss had made the mistake of saying, quite early into the proceedings, that America would bomb Iraq even if Britain didn’t; protests or no protests.  Katy had gazed at her with an expression of pity, and Fliss and I had lapsed into a guilty silence; a silence that did not lift, even once we had left the house.

  On the Sunday, Fergus and I watched the news with gloomy expressions.  When the report on the Anti-War march in London was shown, we fell silent; despite the downbeat narration, I found myself feeling strangely moved by the sheer number of people who had turned out for it, and yet… why didn’t I march against the war? I don’t trust George Bush, or Tony Blair, I don’t believe that the war in Iraq will be a war against terrorism, or that it has much to do with any alleged weapons of mass destruction… yet, I cannot find it within myself to go out and publicly proclaim my disapproval.  Fliss, I believe, feels something similar: Both of us would rather not see this war take place, yet we feel utterly powerless to stop it.

  Perhaps the reason why I can’t do is, at least partly, because I have had other things to worry about lately. Money has become an issue once again, mainly because I was forced to leave my job last month. I shouldn’t have done, I know, but I just couldn’t cope with it anymore. I had been keeping my increasingly prevalent migraines at bay for about a month when they began to escalate in frequency and severity, and I had to move onto stronger, and more frequent, medication. I was discussing this, and the endemic nature of the bullying and sexual harassment culture at work, one dinnertime, when I suddenly began to experience that familiar pounding headache, and blurred vision that I know so well. Nat found my pills for me, and I was just about to take them when I started to hyperventilate, and the dizziness got worse; what followed, according to Nat and my G.P, was a full scale panic attack. Nat drove me home and stayed with me until I was calm again, and she also phoned work to inform them that I wouldn’t be in the office that afternoon, or, indeed, for the rest of the week. She wanted to phone Fergus, but I didn’t want to worry him, so she stayed with me until the pain and dizziness receded. When I was at last able to see and think clearly, we talked. The first thing she said was, “I’m worried about you, Maggie May, you shouldn’t be putting yourself through this, even if you and Fliss need the money, there’s got to be a better way to earn some.”

  I shook my head; I felt limp and exhausted as I lay on the sofa, covered in sweat, and my eyes and head still hurt. “What else can I do? I don’t have qualifications; all I can do is unskilled work.”

  “Why don’t you go back to Catering or market research?”

  “I will, when we’ve enough money to stay here for another six months.”

  “Can’t you get some money from Sandra Dee?”

  “Why? It’d be like getting a bank loan.”

  She smoothed the limp, sweat darkened strands of hair away from my face, as she advised, “Let Fergus take care of you tonight, and don’t go back to work tomorrow, go and see your doctor instead. I’ll go with you.” She added, seeing my reluctance.

  I did as she said. My G.P signed me off with stress for a month, and I posted my resignation letter the same day. Nat took me to the Flea and Firkin, and I met Tasha, the bar girl who used to work at the same firm as me. We exchanged horror stories as Nat quietly sipped her pint of Guinness, and I left feeling strangely free. But the next day reality kicked in, and I had to face the fact that I was unemployed again. It’s not even like I can sign on for Jobseekers Allowance – you can’t if you leave a job voluntarily.

  What has made life so strangely wonderful, despite it all, has been Fergus, and his constant place in my thoughts. Nat never told him about my panic attack, and I only gave him the vaguest details, but he has been wonderful about it. He stayed with me the night after it had happened, and was very attentive and loving, very gentle and kind.

    “You’re very lucky,” commented Jenny one evening last week as he left the room to make drinks.

  “Hhmm?” I hadn’t really been listening.

“You and Fergus, anyone with half an eye could see he’s devoted to you.”

  I blushed, but I didn’t say anything; I’m never quite sure how to take that kind of remark, and if he is devoted to me, there’s a part of me that wonders if that’s right or not. There’s a part of me that thinks I don’t merit that degree of love, not from him, not from anyone.

  Jenny had chosen to come round to the flat on band business, but she’d done so out of hours, and on a night when Fliss was out with Kylie and Meelan and their friends in Chorlton, supposedly raiding skips, or “skipping” as it’s also known, an activity that has recently supplanted charity shopping in their collective list of enthusiasms. “I came to talk about Fliss really,” she confessed as she sipped her tea. “I’m a little worried about her, she doesn’t seem very focused at the moment, and I was wondering if her flakiness was a recent thing or not, or whether she’s always been a bit dizzy.”

  “Fliss is usually very focused,” I confessed, “and she’s usually very good as regards the band, but she’s been up in the clouds for months now.”

  “Any idea why?” probed Jenny, keenly.

  I hesitated, “Well…”

  “Fliss has a secret girlfriend,” said Fergus, with a weary sigh, “that’s why.”

  “Why a secret girlfriend?” pondered Jenny, mainly for her own benefit.

  “Erm, because whoever it is doesn’t want anyone finding out?” I ventured, before going on to relate our experience of the girl on our drainpipe, and how we had given chase but failed to catch her. 

  “Closeted then,” sighed Jenny, “oh dear…” she seemed to be thinking as she let the information sink in. Then, she got to her feet, saying briskly as she did so, “Right, I must be off.” She turned to me, “You will keep me up to speed on this, won’t you?” It wasn’t really a question.

  I hesitated, and she leapt on it.  “Well?”

  “It’s like spying,” I said at last, “Fliss said it was none of my business, and I’m inclined to think she’s right.”

  “She was two hours late for a photo shoot last week,” said Jenny, with a trace of exasperation, “and she’s regularly an hour or so late for band practice as well, from what Flora’s told me, so I’d say it’s become band business, wouldn’t you?”

  I nodded gloomily, “Well, when you put it like that…”

  We parted on an agreement that I would let her know anything important, but I was very uneasy in my role of spy.

  As I lay in Fergus’ arms later that night, I asked him, “Would you talk to Jenny about me, if I was Fliss?”

  There was a long silence, and then he said, “You mean, if I were you?”

  “Yes, I think so.”

  “I don’t know, I don’t think it’s that straightforward.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, I think you feel naturally protective of Fliss simply because she’s Fliss, and you think she would be particularly easily hurt. If it were Nat…”

  “Nat’s different,” I said firmly, “she can take care of herself.”

  “Yes, that’s what I meant.”

  There was a long silence, and then I said, “If I told you I loved you, would you be surprised?”

  “No,” he absently kissed my nose, “but I’d be very pleased.”

  I snuggled up against him, “I wonder what will happen,” I murmured drowsily.

  “Hopefully Fliss’ mystery girl will come to her senses.” He replied.

  But it wasn’t Fliss that I had meant.

Chapter Twenty Four: Young Girls, Run Free!

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “Probably innocent fun then,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

  We slowly made our way back to the flat.

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

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

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

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