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"(his) characters are real, clear as day, living, breathing, angry human beings.
I feel like I'm standing next to them, eavesdropping. Wonderful stuff."

- Laura Hird

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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 bland emotion.

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 been attacked.

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.


*


“You’re late.”

“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 sucked.

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 been?”

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 know that.”

“Hey,” Greg said. “Sounds like a great title for a song. Thirteen Days.”

“Sounds like a cliché to me.”

“Have it your way,” he muttered. Claire was sure that under his thoughts, if not under his breath, he had made some derisory comment.

“Look. Let’s 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.

“What next?”

“Danger Man?”

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.
“We were just wondering if you’d thought any more about changing the name of the band.”

“We’ve had 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 saw it in his eyes before he looked away. He didn’t, but he was going along with Greg.

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?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s hardly 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?”

“Not tonight.” Claire continued packing away. “Next rehearsal is Thursday, right? We can do something then. I need to be alone this evening.”

“You’ve got 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.”


*


Her flat was too small. Too dismal. It might have suited the angst rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but even in the summer it was freezing and she never felt at home there. In winter it was bitter. True it was self-contained, there was no sharing of the communal kitchen that Flannel had to put up with in his digs. But in some way it also emphasised her loneliness.

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.

Mid-thirties? Probably. 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 wasn’t late, but he was already waiting for her on the corner of Meredith and Silent Avenue when she arrived. Crossing the road she entered the shopping mall. The weather had clouded over during her journey, and she valued the warmth of the mall over the possible rain-swept streets. He followed about twenty steps or so behind her. She was convinced that his shoes were squeaking although the concentration it took to hear the noise might have been sufficient to create the illusion in her mind.

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.

Weird.

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 process.

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.


*


“Late again?”

“Fuck you!”

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 with?”

“Penny Black.”

“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 own band.

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 stopped playing.

“Very fucking funny.”

Greg and Flannel looked at her oddly.

“What?”

“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. Nodded.

“Hey.” Flannel stood up. “I want to know what’s going on. What’s this all about?”

“Plastic got spooked.” Greg was still grinning.

“Stage fright.”

“It’s more 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?”

“We’re playing 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 in it.

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.

“Listen,” she 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.
Then it hit a dull spot.

“Radcliffe’s 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 you are.”

Claire: “This is my band. Has been right from the start.”

Flannel: “Our band. Yours and mine. At the very least.”

Claire: “My songs though.”

Greg: “Nice.”

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 began.

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?

“Look, I’m 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 of herself.
She hadn’t been well of late. Needed to get a better flat. Better heating. It was showing in her body, this lack of care. Her spiritual condition was making itself manifest in her physical appearance. She couldn’t appear on stage like that.

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 had waved.

Just before he disappeared from view Claire lifted her own hand up. Waved back.

 

© Andrew Hook 2009

 

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