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?

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Chapter Fifty Seven: Cherchez La Femme

It’s been over a month now since Adrienne met with Fliss.  The Library Theatre’s run of ‘The Seagull’ finished a fortnight ago, taking with it any chance of Fliss seeing Adrienne again.  I wish that I could say that I’d done the right thing, but… I’m still not sure.  The day Adrienne left her for the last time, Fliss cried most of the day, and I listened to her sobs as one serves penance as I performed odd jobs around the flat.  She cried like a child who had been abandoned, I heard it in her voice, in the thin wails and hiccupping sobs, but I knew because of her face.  When she finally left her room around seven p.m, she looked so lost that I hurt on her behalf, and when I, stupidly, asked if she was alright, she stared through me with puffy, swollen eyes that seemed to see nothing as she said, dully, “No, not really… I don’t think I can ever be alright again.”  Then she traipsed back to her room, still in her nightshirt and slippers.  I had expected her to scream at me, but this, if anything, was worse.  I had committed an unthinkable, unforgivable act: I had kicked Bambi.

  Things were no better yesterday at band practice, for, although the tears have stopped, Fliss was still very subdued when we arrived at Twilight.  We practice very early these days, before work, and before Flora has to open up at Afflecks.  Fliss and I always arrive first, carefully lugging the drums across the carpark from Fergus’ car, and then into the lift and upstairs to the fifth floor where our practice room is.  He goes and gets his breakfast at the café down the road, and I meet him there for coffee after we’ve finished, then I help him load the drums into the car again before shooting off to work.  It’s a ritual I’m getting to love.

  It was just getting light as we climbed out of the car at six a.m and, in the dim light of the new day, Fliss stood on the damp tarmac, her grubby jeans ragged and wet at the cuffs, her arms folded across her pale blue shapeless t-shirt.  Her hair was hanging loose, tangled, and unwashed, but she didn’t seem to care.

  We practiced some new songs yesterday, nearly all ones that Katy has written because, lately, Flora hasn’t the time and Fliss doesn’t seem to have the inclination to write.  They’re O.K songs, I suppose, but I have mixed feelings about them; they seem to lack the anger and spikiness of her usual stuff, still, it was inevitable I suppose.  We rattled through band practice quite quickly, with little discussion between songs, each of us preoccupied by different things. I kept an eye on Fliss as we worked, but there was little evidence that her heart was broken, not unless you knew.

  As we packed up, talk turned to our gig that night and Katy, who had been eyeing Fliss with thinly veiled contempt, said with a curl of her lip, “I hope you’re not wearing that tonight.”

  “Why not?” asked Fliss, in seemingly genuine puzzlement.

  “Because Jenny and Angel Smith will be there,” said Katy, far more gently than if she had been speaking to Flora or me.

  “Jenny doesn’t care what I wear.”

  “Angel will,” Angel is our new A&R, replacing Alan Mitchelman now that RMC International has bought out Sandra Dee.  “Wear a mini dress, or a mini skirt.”

  “No!” shouted Fliss.

  We all froze.  Fliss never lost her temper.

  Katy said nothing at first; she just stood there in the stark practice room amidst the leads and guitars, her eyebrows raised in surprise.  “Please Fliss,” she reasoned, “it’ll look better, for all of us…”

  “Let her wear what she wants, Katy,” I murmured, “If they want to drop us, they will.”

  Katy didn’t deign to answer me, so I joined Flora in the doorway, and we waited.  Waited and watched.

  “I won’t wear a dress!” snapped Fliss, “Or a skirt! Not now I know how many boys have been looking up my skirt for the past three years!” her eyes flashed with defiance, and I could tell that she meant it.  It was Liberty who had told her about boys looking up her skirt, and Fliss had listened with a faintly outraged expression on her face.  She’d since told Angel and the Razorblades, but it hadn’t stopped Kit or Kylie from wearing mini dresses or skirts on stage, they’d just taken to wearing jeans underneath.

  In the café later, after Fliss had stormed off to work and Katy had stormed off to the studio, Flora had let Fergus and me in on a bit of gossip, which explained Katy’s obsession with clothes a little bit.  “It was something Jenny said to us at the Christmas party,” she said as she stirred her milkshake, thoughtfully, with her straw, “Just after Sandra Dee got bought out, Jenny heard something Angel Smith allegedly said about us, something about dykes and anorexics who cut themselves.”  I felt myself stiffen in anger, Fergus placed his hand over mine, “Sorry, Maggie,” she said, apologetically, “but that’s what Jenny heard, she thinks we’re loose canons, she thinks we’re unsellable, unrelateable.”

  “I don’t see how Fliss wearing a dress is going to make any difference,” I said, sceptically.

  Flora sighed, her eyes were weary as she said, “She thinks that if Fliss dresses up, and does her hair, and makes herself up, that she’ll look so pretty that Angel will take one look at her and forget she’s a lesbian.”  Flora scowled, “I often think that Katy would like to forget she is too, I know she hates Adrienne, she thinks she ruined her.”

  I didn’t see Fliss until our soundcheck, and when she arrived, she was wearing a blue and white knee length checked dress with a button down front and short sleeves.  Plain though the dress was, it emphasised her eyes beautifully, as well as matching the clean pair of jeans that she had, defiantly, worn underneath.  She had on a little make-up, a little lip-gloss and eyeliner, and looked crisp and fresh faced as she took to the stage.  Emily was doing the sound last night, and I saw Fliss gaze questioningly at her a couple of times as I walked over to the stage.  We often experiment with cover versions at rehearsal and soundcheck, and recently we’ve been experimenting with a number of songs, including Kenickie’s ‘Girls Best Friend,’ which is one of Flora’s favourites.  Fliss’ voice is higher than Marie Du Santiago’s, but I noticed Emily look up from the sound desk with a faintly startled expression on her face all the same.  Two lines into the second verse, her voice seemed to falter, and she broke off.  She stood there for a few moments, stock still in front of the microphone, then, I saw her carefully lift off her guitar, and lay it down on the stage. There was a slight tremor in her voice as she whispered, “I’m sorry,” then, stumbling a little, she jumped down from the stage, and ran.

  From my drums, I saw Emily stand up from behind the sound desk and run, swiftly, and practically unobserved, after Fliss.  Flora and Katy were exchanging puzzled expressions and shrugs as I followed Emily’s lead.  The trail led us down the sticky wooden stairs at Juvenile Hell, and into the flaking plaster and stone bowels of the building.  I kept my distance, for I was wary of Fliss just then, wary, and curious as to what Emily was doing.

  Sobbing could be heard from one of the offices, and I watched as Emily stealthily crept in after Fliss, closing the door behind her.  Outside, I put my ear to the flaking paintwork, and listened.  I heard Emily ask her what was wrong, and upon receiving no reply, heard her follow up question “Is it to do with Adrienne?”

  Gradually, the sobbing seemed to slow and peter out, and I heard Fliss’ voice at last, shaking as she said, “Did Maggie tell you?”

  “No,” Emily’s voice sounded further away now, and I guessed that she had moved closer to Fliss, “But I knew she was in the area, I guessed the rest.”

  The emotion poured out of her like a river, as she tearfully replied, “She said she was setting me free… I think she knew, think she knew, that, Maggie told her I’m in love with…” she broke off, and added in slow, deliberate tones, “Someone else.”

  “Who?” Emily’s voice was almost a whisper.

  “You”

  There was a long, long silence, during which I pressed myself even closer to the door.  At last, I heard Fliss again; her voice was quieter now, and calmer as she pleaded, “Please say something.”

  I could sense the shock in Emily’s voice as she stuttered her response, “I… I mean, I never thought… that, I mean, I can’t, couldn’t…Oh, God…”

  I heard sobbing.  I guessed that it was Fliss who was crying, and my guess was confirmed as Emily began to speak once more.  “Please don’t cry, please Fliss, I only meant…”

  “Are you straight?” blurted Fliss tearfully.

  “What?” she seemed genuinely surprised by the question.

  “Are you straight?” persisted Fliss, almost hysterically, “Are you heterosexual, do you have a boyfriend?”

  There was a long silence.  I guessed that Emily must have shaken her head, for it was Fliss who spoke next, and she said, rather bleakly, “Well, that’s something I suppose.”

  The door started to open, and I darted around the corner and pressed myself up against the wall.  Nat, who happened to be passing on her way to or from her own office, shot me a speculative look, and I pressed my finger to my lips.  She passed me.  In the doorway, Emily was standing with her back to Fliss, looking straight ahead, with a dazed, slightly grim expression on her face.  “I love you, Fliss,” I heard her say, so quietly that it was almost a whisper, “but I’m not good enough for you.”  And she walked away, slowly and steadily, up the stairs, back to the sound desk.

  The meeting with Angel Smith was uncomfortable yet mercilessly brief.  Jenny brought her down to our dressing room before the show started, and she talked mostly to Jenny and Katy.  I caught her staring at me a few times, but it was the bad kind of staring, as though I was something fascinatingly awful in the zoo, and her gaze had a tendency to drift towards my arms, despite the fact that I had worn long sleeves especially; you can’t win.  Fliss did her best coy little girl act, I suspect, to get Katy off her back, but whilst Angel seemed to be entranced by her, I could tell that Jenny wasn’t fooled.  I, for one, was missing Alan already. 

  Once Angel had left, it was time for the press.  I got up to leave, but Jenny laid a hand on my shoulder, “a quick word,” she murmured, “outside,” and as the press corps trooped inside, we slipped out.  “Two seconds,” called Jenny over her shoulder to them.

  “What is it?” I whispered as we loitered by the stairs.

  Jenny looked up at me apologetically, “I’m going to have to ask you to do something that you aren’t going to like.”

  “What?” I asked apprehensively.

  “I need you to be interviewed tonight; I need you to balance out Katy.”

  “But Jenny,” I protested, “you know…”

  “Yes,” she interrupted me, “Of course I know, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

  My eyes narrowed, “Did Angel Smith put you up to this?”

  Jenny winced; I had scored a direct hit, “Yes, she did.”  Her voice took on a pleading tone as she said, “She wants a show of unity, and we do need to impress her, if only to get her off our backs.  Besides,” she grimaced, “from a personal point of view, I’d like to try and balance out Katy’s natural bombastic chatter with your more amiable reticence.”

  With extreme reluctance, I gave in.

  I emerged from the dressing room an hour or so later, relatively unscathed, and found my way back up to Juvenile Hell.  It was starting to get busy, and the crowd were in good spirits.  Before too long, Fergus joined me, and he was a much welcome presence who I was determined to cling to all night.  I’m not normally that possessive, but the day had been horrible thus far, and if anyone could get me through the night ahead, it would be him.  From our table, I observed Fliss mournfully drinking at the bar.  The fairy lights shone on her face as she watched Emily with hurt, longing eyes.  Next to her, Sabine and Amber were indulging in some heavy duty flirting.  Nat was right: Valentines Day really is a couple’s thing.  I could sense the sexual tension in the air, just as clearly as I could smell the fag smoke, perfume and sweat of the various glamorous couples present.  Dew were there, and Aiden and Sophie joined us for a drink before departing to set up shop with the newly pressed Angel and the Razorblades single at the table nearest the stage.

  As the Razorblades took to the stage, Fergus and I made our way through the modest crowd to the moshpit.  Kylie was on fine form tonight, all sparkle and wit and energy, and her voice has never sounded so good.  They have some new songs, which are tight and show how far they’ve come over the past year, one of them is called ‘Beijing Doll,’ after some Chinese punk girls memoir, and another is about the under eighteens anti-war protest in Manchester two years ago.  Rosa and Kit channelled their energy into their playing, making for a great set, even when Yan broke a string and had to borrow Fliss’ guitar for the rest of the set.

  As the Razorblades played, I became aware of Nat, who was watching the band from the end of the bar.  She was dressed up to the nines in a particularly devastating black velour dress, but she seemed distracted.  Soon, she had vanished once more and I was able only to catch the odd glimpse of her between songs as she ran from pillar to post arranging things, a fierce scowl on her face.  I sensed her impatience, as well as her mild frustration.

  After the Razorblades set, it was time for Fliss to make her way through the heart shaped balloons and sprays of glitter to the decks by the sound desk to start her DJ set, and the crowd dispersed to the dancefloor, bar, and tables.  Things were definitely livening up, and it looked as though it was going to be a great night.  Then…

  A tall, curvy, dark haired woman could be seen at the far end of the room, handing over her ticket as Fliss began to play Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take Me Out.’  I nudged Fergus, and we watched as this most glamorous of creatures cut her way through the crowd like a knife through butter.  “It’s Violet!” I exclaimed as she drew closer.

  “And she’s wearing that dress,” added Flora, in significant tones.

  That dress was scarlet in colour, and was made from a luxuriously silky fabric.  It was low necked and slashed to the waist, and shoelace thin black lacings criss-crossed up Violet’s torso, revealing pale flesh and the outline of her breasts.  The dress had long, loose, flowing sleeves and, whilst the dress itself wasn’t tight, it was clearly tailored to be a close fit, the hem fell to just below her knees, and was slit up the back, rather less drastically than at the front.  Black nylons and black kitten heels complimented the dress, along with a slash of scarlet lipstick, and black, impenetrable sunglasses.  Her long black hair hung in loose waves down her back, and was fixed in place by a red flower grip on the right side.  She looked like a goddess, like a twenty first century, darker, Veronica Lake.

  Nat slipped through the gaping crowd to her, and they embraced theatrically.  Nat’s black finger nailed hand took hold of Violet’s scarlet one, and lead her away into the crowd.

  Fergus swallowed nervously, “I thought the Girls From Mars were in London this week, re-negotiating their contract.”

  Flora, who had been knocking back the drinks at a worryingly prodigious rate, leant over and said, knowingly, “Violet made sure that they finalised it yesterday.”

  A few minutes later, Fliss began to play Garbage’s ‘#1 Crush’, and I saw Nat and Violet take to the dancefloor together, to considerable roared approval from the crowd.  The intense sexuality of the song perfectly suited their closeness on the dancefloor, and as Nat frenched her, and Violet pulled Nat closer still, I heard Flora mutter in horror, “She’s ruining her make-up, and it must have taken ages to put on.”

  Nat’s hands were everywhere now, and as they half danced, half groped, less attentive couples looked on, open-mouthed.  I could see Amber watching, despite herself, as Sabine tried to distract her.  I had talked to Moyra briefly in the toilets earlier, and she had told me that Violet was “just doing a friend a favour” by coming tonight.  I relayed this to Fergus as we watched the barely disguised foreplay unfolding before us.  His eyes were full of stunned admiration as he said, “Must be one hell of a favour then.”

  The arrival of the rest of The Girls From Mars defused some of the electricity in the air.  They joined Fergus, Flora and I at our table and began to chat happily about London, and some of the bands they had seen whilst down there, “on business.”  Moyra, their usually cool, ice blonde singer was enthusing wildly about a Japanese punk band called Klack, whilst Jane talked of Unskinny Bop and American bands passing through the capital at a rate of one a night.  I found myself next to Andrea, who had been quiet so far, and I realised that I had never really had the opportunity to thank her for stepping into my shoes last year.  “That’s alright,” she said when I brought the matter up, “I quite enjoyed it, it was an interesting challenge for me, because we play in such different styles.”  Over drinks, we discussed different styles, and then got onto kits, and finally, onto drummers we admire, it was nice, I found, to talk to her, and I quite regretted having to break off our conversation in order to get up onstage for our set.

  Afterwards, Fergus and I were joined by a rapidly drowning Flora, and a thoroughly drowned Liberty, both of whom were accompanied by a sober and sombre Jenny.  “I feel that I ought to maintain an element of control,” said Jenny as she glared, pointedly, at Flora, “when I’m working, things being the way they are.”  Liberty plonked herself down with The Girls From Mars at the next table and, sensing an indefinable tension between Flora and Jenny, I made my excuses and lead Fergus away.

  “What was all that about?” he asked as we walked back towards the stage, and then through the door that led to the stairs.

  “I’ll explain later,” I promised as we headed backstage; but backstage proved to be an unreliable sanctity as well.  When we arrived, it was to find Fliss and Emily seated at opposite ends of the battered old sofa, talking intensely in low, emotionally taut voices.  They didn’t notice us enter the room, and I’m equally sure that they didn’t see us leave either, just thirty or so seconds later.

Chapter Fourteen: The End Of An Era

I heard about the collapse of One Way Or Another from Nat; she phoned me a couple of days ago and left a message with Fliss.  I did call her back, but there was no reply, so my opportunity to speak to her about it came tonight, at our gig at The Gates.

  It was a cruel irony that saw us back there only weeks after the triumph that was our launch party.  For now, of course, things are very different.  The One Way Or Another banner no longer hung behind us as we played, and there were no DJ’s, just the Strokes album, played repeatedly by the sound crew through the speakers.  All the glitz, good humour, colour, and enthusiasm had gone.  We were no longer bending an over excited audience of friends, fans, and family to our will in a palace of our own construction.  We were playing in a bleak, dank, cold, dingy cellar, on a stage held together by milk crates.  The rain, which had been pelting down without remorse for the past week, persuaded most of our friends to stay at home, so our audience was made up of the other bands on the bill and a handful of bored students.  The palace, built on sand, had crumbled into the sea.

  “I did phone him,” I informed Nat as we leant against the bar and gloomily watched the headliners, Grunt Pig, perform their hybrid of rap, metal, and Liam Gallagher impressions to a lukewarm audience, “but he never called me back.”

  She shifted awkwardly in the light from the bar and trained her eyes to the floor, “I know.”

  “Oh?”

  “Yeah,” she reached into her large, black patent leather handbag and drew out her cigarettes and Betty Boop lighter, “I was there… when he checked the machine I mean… He gave me a lift to work that day,” she wouldn’t meet my eyes, “he mustn’t have checked it that night, maybe he was out or something…” she trailed off as she lit her cigarette, and her eyes strayed past me to the bottles behind the bar.  I sensed a vague discomfort on her part, which I didn’t understand.

  Fergus wasn’t here tonight, which, given the circumstances, was perhaps just as well…

  “What did he do for us anyway?” snapped Katy as she stalked the dressing room like an enraged tigress, “We’re better off without him,” we watched as she kicked the newly painted walls with her docs, “couldn’t even be bothered to show tonight,” she muttered moodily.

  “Maybe he was worried about what we’d think of him,” suggested Fliss, a little apprehensively.  She was curled up in one of the new armchairs, and was watching Katy’s pacing with an increasingly alarmed expression.

  “More like he’s banging some tart back at his flat,” retorted Katy.

  I gripped the arms of the armchair I was sitting in.  Fliss happened to glance in my direction at that moment, and I saw a brief, silent, coded exchange take place a moment later between her and Flora.  Flora nodded, and Fliss got up from her chair, “Let’s do a couple of rounds on the games machines,” she said to Katy.

  “Did you know anything?” asked Flora a few minutes later as she rested her elbows on the slippery surface of the bar.  “Did you have any idea?”

  I nodded guiltily, “But I never thought that things were this bad.”  I added hastily.

  “Why didn’t you tell us?”

  The guilt lay heavily on me as I admitted, “I just thought that things would be alright.”

  It seemed oddly poignant to play ‘The Battle You Cannot Win’ tonight, and to hear Fliss sing those words, the words that I wrote in anger, that are true, but, well, are they true now? He could win now, he could win me over, despite everything that’s happened; I knew it from the moment that Fliss sang ‘Never Sleep,’ to the melody that she had written, but with the words that I had helped to write, I almost wanted him to be there to hear them.

                                    I never asked for you

                                    Never wanted you

                                    Before

                                    But now

                                    I do, oh I do

                                    Want you

Yet I’m glad now that he wasn’t there.

  I had gone to bed more or less as soon as Fliss and I arrived home, but around three or four ish I woke up again.  I was thirsty, so I went to the kitchen for a glass of water.  The lights were on in the living room as I passed along the hallway, because Fliss was still up, and she was watching a video of last weeks Girls From Mars gig at The Gates.  Neither of us went to the gig and so, curious about what I’d missed, I joined her on the sofa.

  The Girls From Mars set had nearly finished, and after the band had left the stage, a DJ played indie, punk and mainstream dance records, whilst the aspiring video director took to panning around the club, catching the energy of the crowd, the heat and humidity of the dancing, and the wide array of flesh on display.  Occasionally, the camera lingered on people of interest, such as Moyra, coolly ensconced with a fresh pint at the side of the stage, or Liberty Belle and Jenny Malone, working, not drowning.  After a few minutes of this, the camera began to close in on a curvaceous, P.V.C and lycra clad beauty with blonde highlights in her light brown hair.  She was dancing with a taller man, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, his jaw length wavy hair flicked across his face, and she smoothed stray strands away as she stroked his face.  The camera homed in even closer, capturing the growing intimacy of the couple as the music changed from Garbage to Girls On Top.  Soon he had his arms around her waist, and she slipped her arms around his neck as she leant in close and began to kiss him, briefly and almost casually at first, then longer, and much more passionately.

  Fliss picked up the remote control and stopped the tape.  Nat and Fergus were still dancing together, in my mind, as she ejected the video and put it back in its case.

  Be good to me, Fliss had sung earlier, be good to me.  Don’t hurt me.  Because I can’t be hurt by you too.

  I can’t cry.  I want to, but I can’t.  Instead I keep on seeing her kissing him, I keep dwelling on the way his arms encircled her, and I know that they look right together. The song they had been dancing to was ‘We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends,’ which makes me smile I have to say; smile though your heart is breaking.  It’s not as though there’s anyone present that I need to pretend to, and yet… I need to pretend in order to go on.  Because without the pretence that everything is fine, my world will crumble, we go on because we hope for something better, and that’s what I want: something better.

  I can’t sleep, I can’t cry, I am numb.  I am stone.