are real, clear as day, living, breathing, angry human beings.
- Laura Hird
Claire picked up her mark
on the corner of Meredith and Silent Avenue. Without looking twice she
crossed the road and entered the shopping mall. Glitzy window displays
reflected her skinny frame, and she was almost lost within a sculpture
of melted plastic tubing. It made her smile, but she was careful to keep
focussed on the job. She wasn’t paid to show anything other than
She rode the escalator
twice. Nipping into HMV she could sense his eyes boring into the small
of her back as she thumbed through some retro punk. She wondered what
he looked like close-up, not having had time to examine him properly before
the pick up. Not that it mattered. It was pin money, that was all. A little
something to put towards the deposit on a new flat.
Leaving the shopping mall
she felt her heart quicken. The route was down to her, she could take
it anyway she wanted within the designated period, but she found it difficult
to stay in the mall for much longer than twenty minutes. The faceless
interior and equally unanimated people depressed her. She knew the risks,
but unless they had been hushed up the agency’s records were exemplary
when it came to choosing their clients. To her knowledge, no one had ever
Taking a left down Bagel
Street she paused to stroke a calico cat warming itself on a brick wall
in the sunshine. The cat’s spine rose beneath her fingers, immersed
within incredibly soft fur. She could feel the ridges under her touch,
affirmation of a living being. If she listened hard enough she could almost
hear his breathing against the background of the soundtrack purr.
Traversing the High Street,
dodging cars, she waited on the other side of the road for him to catch
up. Feeling hungry she slipped into a Baker’s Oven and bought a
cream puff. Pausing at the door she heard his voice asking for a hot sausage
roll, and she had to immerse her mouth in the cream to stifle a small
laugh. Sitting on a round bench that surrounded a tree she ate the puff
with her fingers, icing sugar dusting her prints. In the corner of her
eye she saw him leaning against the side of the baker’s. He’d
done this before, she was sure of that. His eye contact was as tentative
as hers. Their glances rarely met.
She checked her watch and
found there were ten minutes to go. Getting up she threw her paper bag
towards a cylindrical green bin, where it bounced against the lip before
falling in. Walking down London Street she turned at the corner and slipped
into another department store. She felt comfortable there. It was independent
and contained less of the rubbish that she associated with the mall. His
time ran out when she ascended the escalator, and upon reaching the toy
section at the top she noticed that he’d stopped following.
Crossing over to the elevator
she hit the button for ground floor and left the building. Another fifty
quid in her pocket. By the end of the week she should have enough for
the deposit on that flat.
Claire checked her watch.
There was just time to make it across the city for her rehearsal. Weaving
in and out of vehicles she crossed the carpark and made a dash for a yellow
bus filling up with passengers. Slipping some coins into the driver’s
hand she pulled her ticket from the dispenser and sat down by the window.
It always took a few minutes
to shake off the feeling of being followed, and she wondered how long
it would take to develop a sense of paranoia. Not that she intended to
keep in the job for ever. The band just needed a break, that was all.
For the right person to see them at the right time, get a record deal,
hit single, album, tour. That kind of thing.
She leant back in her seat, slipped the tiny headphones from her MP3 player into her ear. Drums beat around her mind as the world whipped past the window.
“Fuck I am not.”
Claire pulled her bass
out from the cupboard. Black paint peeled from its surface revealing orange
underneath. She’d have to give it another coat sometime soon. Greg
was fixing up one of the microphones, strumming his lead guitar with his
other hand. Flannel kept tapping the cymbals, his foot permanently on
the pedal of the bass drum. She didn’t recognise the song, maybe
he was trying something new.
Greg had shrugged at her
denial, then ignored her. Twat. She’d be happier if he was out of
the band, but he was the first guitarist she’d met that wanted to
play his instrument differently from everyone else. And that was exactly
what she wanted from this band. A group that was prepared to be different,
without associating difference as being the same as everyone else who
strived to be different. He liked her songs too, saw something in them.
And once she’d fought off his advances she couldn’t deny that
he put his heart and soul into playing them. Still, as a personality he
She pushed the jack into
her bass and plugged herself into the amplifier. A tremor went up her
arm but she ignored it. She began to pick out the strings, let the rhythm
of the instrument take over. It hung low on her body, below her hip; she
hated those bass players who tucked it up high, played with their arms
in an L-shape. It did the instrument a disservice, somehow.
Flannel stopped playing
and gave her a nod. “Any news?”
“Nothing yet. Still
watching the post.”
“How long has it
Claire wondered if he was
just making conversation. He must have known it was a couple of weeks
since they’d sent off the demo. All of them held out hope, although
the death of John Peel had certainly interfered with their plans.
“Thirteen days, you
said. “Sounds like a great title for a song. Thirteen Days.”
“Sounds like a cliché
“Have it your way,”
he muttered. Claire was sure that under his thoughts, if not under his
breath, he had made some derisory comment.
get playing shall we? We’ve only got this space for an hour.”
The band shuffled into
mode. When Greg hit the opening chords of Shall We Go There the atmosphere
in the room changed, became electrically charged. After the count of three,
Flannel hit in with the drums, creating a cacophony of sound that Claire
gradually began to weave her bass inside. Her vocals were half-shouted,
half-sung over the top of the noise. She could hardly hear herself, but
she knew it was good. She could tell from the playing of the others.
They played the same song
another four times, then switched to Penny Black. Claire screamed philately
will get you nowhere over and over towards the end of the song. She watched
Greg thrash his guitar as she did so, then abruptly change stance as his
playing segued into the melodic outro that marked the end of the song.
Flannel slowed his drumming down to a heartbeat. When the final chords
faded they all knew they’d played it better than the demo.
They ripped into it but
Claire missed her cue at the start of the second verse, and Greg stopped
playing whilst Flannel beat the same note repeatedly until the stares
died down and they went into it again. Something was missing from the
song, Claire knew that. Penny Black was their standout, but Danger Man
was single material and they just couldn’t get it right. She thought
they’d had it right on the demo, but after the blistering performance
of the earlier song she could no longer be sure. They finished the session
with a couple more songs. Then left it at that.
Packing their stuff away
Claire noticed her arms were exceptionally pale under the stage lights.
Thin bluish veins ran vertically away from her palms. The corporeality
of her body suddenly repulsed her, and she forced herself to look away.
The others hadn’t noticed, and she realised that Greg and Flannel
were deep in discussion. When they saw her watching them they pulled away
from each other, like schoolboys caught dissecting an insect.
“What is it?”
Flannel looked from her
to Greg and back again.
that discussion.” She could detect a faint hint of desperation in
her voice. “We agreed.”
Greg stepped forward. “You
agreed.” He paused. Held his breath then let it out again. “Look,
the songs are great, but Ultraviolent just doesn’t do it for us.
We need something a little more universal.”
Claire looked at Flannel.
“You agree with that?”
She shook her head. “I
don’t want to discuss it right now. We’ve sent the demo off,
we’ve got to wait to hear back. If you want to discuss changing
names then why don’t you change yours, Greg?”
punk is it? Greg fucking Blackstock.”
“Well Claire Plastic
is a bit pseudo-retro, isn’t it? Maybe I should become Danny Day-Glo
or something. Jesus.”
Flannel stepped between
them. “Come on, break it up. Are we going down the pub or what?”
Claire continued packing away. “Next rehearsal is Thursday, right?
We can do something then. I need to be alone this evening.”
a date then,” Greg muttered under his breath.
Claire pretended not to hear, but as she left the rehearsal space his voice echoed behind her: “You need me.”
She sighed and plugged
in her computer. She wasn’t sure whether bickering fuelled the band
or destroyed it. Whether their internal anger assisted in combusting them
on stage, metaphorically speaking. Whatever. She knew she didn’t
have sufficient talent to make it solo. Yet.
Her thin woollen cardigan
failed to lower the goosebumps on her arms. Spring had yet to melt into
summer, and the evenings remained too cool for her. As she typed her password
into FollowMe.co.uk she could feel eddies of cold weaving in and out of
her fingers. They felt brittle, devoid of substance. Abused.
Her account had already
been credited with that day’s earnings, and she double checked that
it had gone into PayPal before transferring the total balance to her bank.
A new message indicated that she had another client booked in for tomorrow,
early afternoon. His face was the only information she had about him.
Short, wiry hair, with the whisperings of a moustache. The image was black
and white but she could tell his eyes were blue. There was a coldness
about him too.
He was certainly older than her. She always got reassurance from that.
It was the young that occasionally unnerved her, although she’d
yet to refuse an assignment.
She logged out and checked
her other emails. Then logged onto the band’s website and updated
her blog. On the outside, the pretence that something was happening made
her believe that the band was heading somewhere. But she dreaded those
demos coming back in the mail.
She went into the kitchen
and chucked a pre-cooked meal into the microwave. If she used the oven
then at least she could warm her hands against it, but she was too hungry
to wait longer than was necessary. When the machine beeped in readiness
she removed the contents and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of
the television. Channel hopping left little to the imagination.
By ten o’clock she
was in bed. Her thin body curled tight for warmth. Surely it couldn’t
be as cold as this? Sigur Rós were on her CD player. Maybe they
contributed to the cold.
She fell asleep convinced that she was being watched.
She rode the escalator and entered HMV.
Something was playing over
the sound system that she neither recognised nor liked. Walking to the
end of the alphabet she flicked through some U2 CDs. She wasn’t
a fan, but she imagined Ultraviolent alphabetical in the racks next to
them. What was wrong with Greg? There was nothing exclusive in that name
as far as she was concerned. It attracted just the kind of audience that
she was looking for.
For a moment she forgot
her mark, and then glanced up to find him watching her from the other
side of the rack. He’d be in the M’s, by her estimation. Not
that he was looking for any music. His gaze remained fixed to hers until
she found herself looking away.
There was something about
him that she found distasteful. Normally they liked to keep some distance,
fulfil a fantasy. But his look indicated something extra at work. A desire
for contact, but that certainly wasn’t in her contract. When she
looked up again, he was gone.
She glanced around the
store, a little frantically. If she’d lost him then that could mean
a complaint and she wouldn’t get paid. She needed that flat. A little
warmth. Then she saw him again, standing by the exit. As she watched he
raised his right arm to scratch just below his eye. The movement seemed
robotic. Not quite right. There was something mechanical about the whole
She made her way over to
the exit, intent on not looking his way. After a few shops were put between
them she glanced into the great glass window that ran alongside Boots
and saw to her relief that he was following her. Money in the bank.
Claire remained in the
mall for the duration of the hour. The session ended as she drank dark
bitter coffee out of a Styrofoam mug at a white plastic table. She could
detect him behind her with the cappuccino she had heard him order. When
she popped to the toilet she didn’t expect to see him on her return.
True to his payment, he had gone.
She ordered another coffee
and forced it down, watching the shoppers go in and out of the stores.
She wondered if there were any other followers working in the crowd, and
if so whether she’d know how to spot them. It was a strange business
but she couldn’t argue against it. She even harboured that if Ultraviolent
became successful she might count them amongst her fans.
There was nothing else
to do that afternoon, and she was about to leave the coffee shop when
she saw Flannel enter the mall in the direction of the escalator. Claire
guessed he was heading to HMV. She smiled to herself and decided to follow
him. To see how long she could do so before he noticed her. Getting up
from the table she reached the bottom of the escalator just as he reached
the top. She watched him turn right and then she began to ascend. Once
her foot was on the metallic strips she found herself bound to her task.
Carried along without control.
At the top she spotted
him a couple of hundred yards ahead. The mall wasn’t particularly
busy. Office workers had returned to their jobs, and the mid-afternoon
crowd was thinning out as mothers left to pick up children from school.
If Flannel were to turn around then he’d spot her easily, but that
also meant it would be difficult to lose him. To her surprise he walked
passed the music store and ducked down a stairwell on the left. She wasn’t
even sure it held a public right of way, then she realised it must lead
to the carpark.
As she went through the
doorway the building seemed to change, as though she were within some
internal mechanism, slipping inside the flesh of the beast. Concrete steps
led downwards, flanked by breezeblock walls. Footsteps echoed below her
and then stopped. Claire rested against a metal banister and looked down
the centre of the stairwell. Voices bounced up at her, the speech indistinct,
distorted by the journey. She recognised Flannel’s tones, and it
seemed he was doing most of the talking. Then the sounds cut out and she
heard footsteps ascending. Backtracking, she made her way to the doorway,
then crossed the concourse and slipped into HMV. She decided to pick Flannel
up when he reached the top, collar him for a coffee or something.
It took a while for the
door to open, but when it did it wasn’t Flannel who left the stairwell
but her mark from that afternoon. As she watched he raised his arm to
scratch a point below his left eye, and there was that same mechanical
movement. Something turned inside her. She felt sick. Was that who Flannel
was talking to, or was it a coincidence? Neither he nor Greg knew what
she did for a living. Yet her image was on the website for those who paid
for the privilege of seeing it.
She waited fifteen minutes, desultorily flicking through CDs in the rack. She didn’t leave via the carpark. Didn’t want the confrontation. Instead she headed for the main exit, and bought something from Tesco’s for her evening meal. The bus ride home was filled with noisy youths. Suddenly she didn’t want them to have any part of her music.
It was almost a mantra.
Claire hefted her backpack onto the top of one of the amplifiers and gave
Greg and Flannel a quick glance over. Nothing seemed to be different,
but her allegiance to Flannel was slipping. She needed that to be constant,
to be the anchor between her and Greg just as the drums kept the two guitars
in rhythm. But doubts congregated in her mind, clamoured for explanations.
She decided to hold her
news back until later.
As she withdrew her bass
from the locked cupboard her fingers received a blast of icy cold. The
air-conditioning unit was temperamental at the best of times, but she
had never felt it so strongly before. Looking across to Greg and Flannel
she saw that they both wore t-shirts. Was it only her, or was the summer
a long while coming?
“What are we starting
“But we always start
with Shall We Go There.”
Claire snapped. “This
isn’t a gig. It’s a rehearsal. I want to start with something
we’re familiar with. Get us warmed up.”
Flannel nodded, then turned
his head away. She hadn’t seen a touch of defiance in him before,
but was that her imagination. When they played the song he seemed focussed
enough. So was Greg. They didn’t need to play it a second time.
She got them to play Danger
Man next, but there was still an element missing. Maybe they needed some
keyboards to round the sound out, although she wouldn’t admit it.
Greg had wanted to bring in a keyboardist awhile back, a guy from a band
he had previously worked with, but Claire was having none of it. She didn’t
want the power shift that would come with it. To be sidelined within her
As they ran through Armadillo,
she found her thoughts drifting to those songs that Greg had written,
that she knew at some point – come second album maybe – would
start to work their way into their set. They weren’t bad, she gave
him that. But they weren’t hers either. Too upbeat. Too summery.
Despite her love of the heat, her songs were winter at heart. Colder sometimes
than even she intended them to be.
As they ran through the
middle eight in Armadillo Claire suddenly spotted movement in the darkness
in front of them. An angular, jerky motion. Around head height. She immediately
“Very fucking funny.”
Greg and Flannel looked
at her oddly.
“Your friend, Flannel.
Standing there in the darkness. Bring him along to freak me out, did you?”
“I don’t know
what you’re talking about.”
“The one you met
in the mall. In the carpark. Don’t think I didn’t see you.
Come on, get him out, get him up on stage.”
Then the lights went on
and Claire saw that Greg had flicked the main switch. The auditorium before
them was empty. He must have left the building during her accusations.
But the cards were in their
hands now, she saw that.
“Scared of the dark are we?” Greg was grinning.
“Are we going to
continue playing or what?”
Claire sucked in her breath.
stood up. “I want to know what’s going on. What’s this
“Plastic got spooked.” Greg was still grinning.
than that. What were you accusing me of?”
Claire shook her head.
“Nothing. That’s all. Let’s just get on with it, okay?”
Greg strummed a few chords
out of his guitar. “Play one of mine for a change?”
Armadillo. We haven’t finished it.”
They played the song three
more times before switching styles and finally ending with Contraryness.
They hadn’t played any of Greg’s songs at all, Claire had
made sure of that. Today was her moment, and neither Flannel nor Greg
were going to spoil it. If the crunch came to the crunch she could use
session musicians anyway.
She’d been planning
to tell them about it during the rehearsal, but the figure in the shadows
had upset her scheme. As they packed their stuff away she suggested going
to the pub, and Greg and Flannel readily agreed. She thought she caught
a look between them as they did so, but there might have been nothing
As they left the building
she wondered whether she’d seen anything at all.
The Crown was half-full
and they had no trouble getting to the bar and then getting a table. Their
personalities were represented by the alcohol they drank. Flannel was
on cider, Greg on lager, and Claire had a pint of Adnams. As they took
the liquid into their mouths and talked over the evening Claire realised
that despite their differences they were in fact a tight unit. On occasions
they could even be friends.
said, reaching into her backpack, “I’ve got something to show
you.” She rummaged around and pulled out a letter from the BBC.
“They want us to do a session on the Mark Radcliffe show. A spot
on unknown bands. Two songs. They’ve suggested Penny Black and one
other. What do you think? I reckon we should do Danger Man.” She
smiled at their reactions. Everything was coming together.
Radio Two isn’t he?”
That was Greg.
“What of it? It’s
not 1970 you know.”
“I think we should
drop Danger Man. Or get some keyboards in. It’ll sound flat as fuck
in a proper studio.”
“How about Double
Negative Creep? Your Radiohead/Nirvana homage?”
That was Greg’s song.
Claire couldn’t believe Flannel had suggested it. “That’s
virtually karaoke. Give me a break.”
“It’s a good
song, Claire.” Flannel was calm. Looked her in the eyes. “This
could be our chance.”
“Danger Man could
be a single.”
Greg: “With keyboards.”
Claire: “This isn’t
about you, you know.”
Greg: “Why shouldn’t
it be? I’m just a part of this as
Claire: “This is
my band. Has been right from the start.”
Flannel: “Our band.
Yours and mine. At the very least.”
Claire: “My songs
The beer swam around in
Claire’s stomach, as if it suddenly had a mind of its own. She could
feel the acidic taste of bile rise in the back of her throat. Without
saying anything she got up and made her way across to the toilet. Even
before the doors closed she could hear Greg and Flannel talking about
her. The comradeship of their manhood. Bolstering each other’s egos.
Her fingers gripped the
ceramic surface of the sink, but once she was in position the need to
vomit left her. She spat twice, but nothing else came. Looking up into
the mirror above the basin she was aghast at how pale she looked, almost
transparent although she put that down to the fluorescent lighting. She
needed to get a good meal inside her. Take a few days to think things
over. If she wasn’t careful, everything would implode before it
When she went back into
the bar Greg and Flannel had their heads together. For a second they could
have been kissing, but it was just whispered conversation. As they saw
her and pulled away she thought a shadow remained between them. The residue
of herself or the trace of someone else?
going to get the last bus home. We can talk about this later, okay? We’ve
got a few weeks before we have to make any decisions, but let’s
not do this for us. Let’s do it for the band.”
She left as they nodded
in approval, but she knew the conversation would continue in her absence.
How long would it be before they were playing with keyboards? Before they
started playing more of Greg’s songs than hers? No doubt they’d
get a better bass player too, leave her as a figurehead on vocals. Well,
she wouldn’t play pretty just for them.
The streets were wet. It
must have rained whilst they were inside the pub. Her trainers kicked
shallow puddles as she walked, the street lighting streaking through the
darkness as though slowly strained through gauze. She pushed her fingers
deep into her trouser pockets, cursed herself for not wearing a jacket.
She knew she couldn’t stand the cold, so why did she insist on wearing
that stupid jumper? She had half a mind to take it off and throw it over
a wall into someone’s garden. Force herself to take better care
Up ahead she saw a handful
of people waiting for the bus, and as it approached she quickened her
step. On boarding she thought she glimpsed a figure sitting on the back
seat, one hand over his eyes, but by the time she’d taken her ticket
he was gone. She looked outside the window, at the pavement strobing as
the lights from the bus reflected themselves in hidden puddles.
As they turned the corner
she saw the man again. The one who had paid to follow her. He was standing
watching her, without any hesitation. When he raised his arm to scratch
his face she realised that it wasn’t what he was doing at all. He
Just before he disappeared
from view Claire lifted her own hand up. Waved back.
© Andrew Hook 2009