a short story first published in Rarebit (Parthian Books)
SHAY LOVES THE DARKNESS AT THE STUDIO, says he hears better in the dark. His mum asks how he can stand to be locked away in the pitch black all summer. But it doesn’t matter to Shay because he’s doing what he loves. True, the money is rubbish. He’s on the bottom rung, about on a level with a roadie, but when the last session of the day is done he has the chance to record his own songs. And he takes every chance he gets. Often, by the time he gets home, the dinner his mum cooked for him is shrivelled and the sun is long gone from the sky.
But the day he finds out about the festival, the sun is blinding. Flying ants are swerving little waltzes in the air, on his shirt, on his arm, like he isn’t even there. Shay swats them away and pulls out his mobile phone. It’s his lunch break and he has been too busy all morning to answer it: humping gear, plugging instruments into amps, tracking the sound guy’s every move so as to learn how to mix. Four new messages. He squints against the light to read the sender names. One from a club he’s stopped going to, one each from Ellie and Matt. Oh, and one from the festival. Himself, Ellie and Matt applied to work there because the tickets were sold out. It was Ellie’s idea, she said if you did a few hours’ work you’d get into the festival free. They’re still waiting to hear back.
An ant lands on the phone screen. Shay flicks it off and dodges into the corner shop. He fetches a cheese sandwich from the fridge and sets it on the counter. Then he reads the message: Good news, you’re in. You will work two shifts . . . blah blah, he skips that bit, and at all other times you will be free to enjoy the festival. Perfect.
He sticks his card in the machine, ready to pay.
‘There’s a one-pound fee on transactions under a fiver,’ the bloke behind the counter tells him.
Shay adds a drink and a few packs of chewing gum, pushing his bill up to £5.29. While the card is being processed he forwards the festival message to Ellie and Matt, adding, Did yours come thru? Then he opens their messages and sees they’re asking him the same thing. Score! On the way back to work he’s not bothered by the ants or the plastic taste of his cheese sandwich: all he’s thinking is what a cool time they’ll have at the festival.
LIVI IS FINDING IT HARD to focus on the music. Last night she couldn’t sleep. She went downstairs and munched half a dozen chocolate biscuits, and this morning her jeans wouldn’t zip up. A bad start to the day, one that feeds her fears of being too old for this line of work. At thirty-seven, she feels older. Her teenage daughter thinks she’s low on rock-star attitude, and has said so. Which doesn’t help. But her daughter doesn’t get the whole play- ing live thing. Never has, in spite of her gift for music. It’s not up to you when you stop playing — not if you’re in a band that the fans still want to hear. And thank Christ for small mercies, Livi thinks, at least I’m only on bass. Far worse to be up front under the spotlight, like Moro.
It’s years since the Fa So La’s toured or made a new album. Herself and Moro turned down a few gigs recently but when the festival offered them a headline slot, their manager insisted. ‘Look girls, it’s not Glasto, but it’s very influential,’ he said. ‘Yous are lucky to be asked. Just get a haircut, go on a diet maybe, and yous’ll have a great time.’
Livi looks at her stomach, half hidden by the bass. She gains weight when she’s stressed and has gone up a clothes size this past month. In contrast the session musicians who took over the vacant slots on drums and guitar are tall and thin in a retro, junkie sort of way. Next to them she’s like a cartoon Jack Sprat’s wife. The heat in the studio’s getting to her, but the two Jack Sprats haven’t a hair out of place between them.
Sweat makes her fingers slip on a key change. She stops and waits for the next in-point, but Moro cuts the song.
‘Li-vee! What’s with you? The run-through’s for the benefit of the new guys, not the old hands.’
‘Want to carry on?’
‘Sure. Shall we go again from the chorus?’
‘No, take it from the top.’
Moro counts them in again and Livi does her best not to feel belittled. Familiar chords start up: the opening bars of a song that made them a million back in the days when a million counted for something, and Livi finds that if she closes her eyes and stops worrying, her fingers know exactly where they need to be.
ELLIE, MATT AND SHAY leave for the festival early on the Thursday. The train is like any train, but when they board the boat to the island and are surrounded by other festival-goers, there’s a real sense of anticipation.
The sea is calm, the water flat. Too flat almost, but then this is only a strait — the real sea is on the far side of the island. The wild side. As he watches the mainland recede, Shay has the feeling they are leaving reality behind. The festival is another world, a world of games and music and dressing up. A place where anything can happen.
THE BAND HAS BEEN GIVEN PASSES for the festival. Livi is curious to hear some of the other bands, but Moro decides they’re to keep away until the last minute. ‘We need to be on form,’ she says. ‘Hanging around in a crowd could put us off our stride.’
On the Friday they do one last rehearsal. The whole set is pretty tight by now, those early disasters with timing all ironed out. Afterwards Livi and Moro go to a spa and get facials, a massage, new haircuts.
‘Got to look the part,’ Moro says.
Livi wonders how come she never noticed when they were starting out that so much of the music business is not about music at all. To her relief Moro picks up the tab: royalties have been low this last couple of years, and Moro does earn more then her, after all, because she co-wrote their hits.
ALONG WITH THE COWBOY PRINT TWO-PERSON TEEPEE which all three of them are sleeping in, Ellie brought tons of dried fruit, rice cakes, even fresh fruit. Matt’s contribution is a back-pack filled with vodka cocktails, siphoned into juice bottles to get past security. All Shay packed was his guitar and a skimpy sleeping bag that he last used at scouts. It’s late in the morning and Matt, Shay, and their camping neighbours are dozing in the sun on a small patch of grass between the tents, while Ellie tidies out the teepee.
Watching her plump up the pillow on her sleeping bag, Shay smiles. Chalk and cheese, her and Matt.
Ellie shrugs as she comes outside. ‘Had to bring it. Can never get to sleep without a pillow.’
‘Sleep?’ Matt says. ‘That’s the last thing on the agenda this weekend.’
The blokes from the next tent laugh. One of them taps the girl next to him who is stretched on a sleeping bag, sunning herself.
‘Hear that, gorgeous? Think you’re getting any beauty sleep this weekend? You’re out of luck.’
The girl briefly lifts a pink headphone. ‘I didn’t catch that.’ When the only response is laughter, she pops her phones back on and finger-dances in an infectious, good humoured way.
Matt grins and rolls on to his back. ‘Brilliant. I’m telling you, this is gonna be the most brilliant weekend of your life.
LIVI’s BEEN FASTING ALL WEEK, and has on a flattering pair of stretch jeans. There’s a weird vibe backstage. A kind of invisible wall has grown up between the two session musicians, and herself and Moro. Added to this there’s a whole separate war going on between Moro and the other headline act: a jostle for power over start times, set-ups, who has the most gear on stage, that sort of thing. Moro has been telling anyone who’ll listen that the other band are total divas.
Livi tries not to get involved. ‘Just going out for a few, get some air.’
‘Don’t be long,’ Moro says. ‘Five minutes, OK?’
SHAY GENERALLY TAKES MATT’S PREDICTIONS with a barrow load of salt so he’s surprised now to be thinking, Maybe Matt’s right and this really is going to be the best weekend ever. They haven’t had to work too hard: they did a session on the gates on Friday, taking tickets and fixing bracelets on the newbies. Last night he was up till three at a small outlying venue, the Chapel, jamming and par- tying and talking shop with other young musicians. It’s late in the afternoon, the hiatus before the evening bands come on, and he’s sitting on the grass outside the double-decker bus cafe, sun- burned and grubby, strumming his guitar.
Every afternoon so far he has eaten at the bus cafe before going to catch the bands, but today he is broke so is making do with one of Matt’s bottles of orange juice. Not the smartest way in the world to start the evening, he learns, as vodka scalds his throat.
He glances at the girl with the pink headphones, who is inside the bus pouring coffees. Late last night she turned up at the Chapel. Easily the high point of his entire festival. Only a handful of people were left on the dance-floor, dwindling to just the two of them for the last song. When the music ended they walked back to camp together and kissed, before zipping themselves into their separate tents. A big part of why he’s so tired right now is because afterwards he couldn’t stop thinking about her.
Today the girl’s pink headphones dangle round her neck as she takes coffee orders. She shows no sign of having seen Shay arrive, but on her break she brings over two coffees and a flapjack and sits beside him.
‘Hey. You look like you could use some sustenance.’
He bites into the flapjack. ‘Cheers. Get you back later. You going up to the Chapel tonight?’
‘Might do.’ She shrugs. ‘Got to eat some proper dinner at some point, or I’ll be ill.’
Shay is surprised. She looks such a festival insider, and he’s starting to believe Matt’s theory that the only way to get through a festival is the marathon approach: put selected physical maintenance — sleeping, eating, and washing, for example — on hold until it’s over.
‘Don’t they feed you here?’
‘Sure, but my friend Julie who cooks at the Undersea Tavern has asked a few friends around tonight for a midnight feast. Sounds great — South Sea Soup, Seafaring Spaghetti, Shipwreck Pavlova with Salted Caramel.’
Shay looks away. Suddenly the attraction of the Chapel has palled. Not so much because of the food: he just wants to be wherever she is going to be.
ADRIFT IN THE CROWD, Livi forgets her promise to return to the backstage area. Streams and eddies of people carry her over hills sloped like sine waves, dotted with marquees and small stages that each throw out a different sound. When she comes to the woods she follows a looping pathway between tall shadowy trees. In a clearing by the lake, thirty or so people are dancing around an outsized jukebox. But the music doesn’t sound pre-recorded, and sure enough when Livi looks closer she sees half a dozen musicians crammed inside the jukebox, playing and singing live. They have an incredible range: disco, punk, ska, reggae, old, new, happy, sad. Somehow hearing the jukebox musicians crank out rowdy, danceable versions of songs written decades ago gives her a fresh take on the Fa So La’s. The sound of any individual band is just one drop in this tidal ebb and flow, this push and pull, this ocean￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ of musics that makes one song popular this year, another the next.
So what if the Fa So La’s scored a slot this year only because a younger, more fashionable band named their early hits as an influence? The fact they’ve been around awhile is nothing to be ashamed of. Music doesn’t stand still, it is all about change. Right now their sound has floated up to the surface. Soon it will be drowned out again by other new sounds flowing into the mix. They may as well bask in the moment. Celebrate.
A text arrives from Moro summoning her backstage.
At the end of their set an exhausted Livi and Moro do the backstage meet-and-greets, then make their way to the Undersea Tavern. The crowd loved them, and that’s enough for Livi. Even Moro seems happy. As they move through the hordes they notice that the festival punters are wearing fancy dress tonight: jellyfish and sharks, umbrellas dangling octopus legs, swordfish, stingrays, sea urchins. On the grass outside the tavern a few young musicians are playing. The guitarist stops when he sees them, comes over.
‘Hi, I caught your set. You were amazing.’
Moro says there’s someone inside that she must catch up with. Livi smiles at the young guitarist, about to make her excuses.
‘Your whole sound really influenced me a lot when I was young,’ he adds.
Livi tries not to laugh at the when-I-was-young bit, because he looks as if he’s somewhere between the ages of sixteen and nineteen.
‘It’s still quite influential. To me, anyway,’ she jokes.
He asks her about the lead guitar chords to one of their early hits, ‘Saturday Night’. Livi isn’t sure, but offers to play him the bass section to help work it out. Someone hands her a bass guitar and they start jamming.
WHEN THE GIRL WITH THE PINK HEADPHONES ARRIVES, Shay doesn’t notice at first because she’s under one of those umbrellas with lights dangling from it. A jellyfish costume. He and the Fa So La’s bassist are sitting cross-legged on the floor playing softly. They’ve nearly got the whole song, there’s just one rogue chord they haven’t managed to nail. When he sees the girl looking down at them, Shay thinks she’s upset. He starts guiltily and stumbles to his feet. Looking at her clear skin, at the curve of her cheek, he’s never been so alive, so completely in the now.
‘Hey, I want you to meet Livi from the Fa So La’s,’ he says. ‘This is…’ And he feels stupid then, because he has never thought to ask the girl her name. Whenever she is near, she is simply more there than anyone else, almost as if she doesn’t need a name.
‘…Carlita, my daughter!’ Livi says, laughing. ‘We’re both here for the supper tonight. Will you be coming to that as well?’
‘Uh, I don’t think, I mean…’
‘It sounds fab, all the food is sea-flavoured to match the dress-up theme.’
Shay feels awkward: he looks at the girl. Carlita. The name seems wrong for her, somehow. Too frilly.
‘It’s OK, we’re all invited.’ She whacks him lightly like they’ve known each other for years, not days. ‘You too. I asked my friend Julie.’
In that second Shay knows he will be with this girl ten and twenty years from now. He sees the slight curve of her nose in profile, and knows that over time this curve will become stronger, more like Livi’s. And her body too will become more curvy in shape than it is now. To him this doesn’t matter in the least, not so long as he can be with her to see it happen.
MATT HAS NEVER BEEN to a festival with a girlfriend before. It’s different. Better in some ways. But one odd side-effect is, things are a bit less haphazard than he feels they ought to be. He’s used to being last man to crash, and this is no longer the case. Tonight for the second night running he’s in his sleeping bag before Shay has even got back to base.
‘Wonder what Shay is up to?’
‘I thought he was doing his other shift.’
‘No, he’s on gates tomorrow for the exodus, poor sod. Still, you’d think he’d have sent us a text.’
‘Perhaps his battery’s flat. He’s bound to be back soon,’ Ellie
says sleepily. Then, ‘Say if he’s not back by the time we’ve to pack, what’ll we do with his stuff?’
He flicks the torch on the other side of the teepee. Not much there. Shay’s been taking his guitar around with him in a back- pack. The only thing left is that raggedy khaki sleeping bag he’s had since they were in scouts.
ALL EVENING SHAY HAS BEEN THINKING that what he wants most in the world is to be on his own with this girl. Carlita? Carla, maybe. But he can’t think of a place to go where that is possible. They’re both sharing tents with friends, and the festival is not geared up for privacy. In the end she is the one who does something about it. They’re walking reluctantly back to the tents when she takes his hand and drags him in a different direction. He’s not sure where they’re headed until the curve of the double-decker bus looms, and he hears a jangle of keys.
‘I’m on earlies tomorrow, so they gave me the key. I reckon the best plan tonight is to stay here.’
There’s a pause. She is on the platform, one foot on the stairs. Shay hesitates on the grass outside. She turns.
‘You going or staying?’
He leaps aboard and curls his arm around her waist. ‘Given the option — I’m staying, of course.’
IT’S MAD BUSY AT THE PIER the day they leave. Ferries, catamarans, hovercraft — anything that floats has been pressed into service to run an island-to-mainland shuttle from six in the morning till whenever it takes. No one’s sure exactly how many thousands of people need to get off the island, but it’s a big number. Ellie and Matt pack up at dawn and manage to get themselves on a train home by lunchtime. Shay and the girl still haven’t left the campsite by then. She is on brunch duty, and he is working a shift on the gates. By the time they finally board a boat to the mainland, it’s gone seven.
The boat is small and old fashioned, the elderly crew more used to taking retired couples on harbour tours than shunting music fans across the Solent. Out of habit the skipper steers one-handed and calls out the sights into his microphone. Few of the passengers bother to go on deck and look. Most gather indoors where the comfy seats are, sleeping, or trying to. A guy Shay knows from the sessions at the Chapel mutters, ‘What’s with the history lesson? We don’t need this right now.’
Carla smiles weakly.
Shay is so tired he won’t be able to sleep tonight. Maybe he’s forgotten how to do sleep. They go outside. The stairs to the top deck wobble underfoot and Shay realises it’s not the waves but his own exhaustion making them move. The coastline is dotted with forts from forgotten Anglo-Saxon battles that make sense only to the boat’s captain. The sight of land is unwelcome: it means the return of the routine, sensible, everyday world.
‘I’m going back inside, I’m barely able to stand.’ Carla gestures to his guitar.
‘Want me to look after that?’
‘It’s fine,’ Shay says.
It’s almost like the guitar is part of him, he can barely feel it anymore, but so she knows he trusts her with it and to keep her with him a moment longer he says, ‘Actually, yeah, go on, then,’ and shrugs off the backpack.
In this area of the top deck there are no seats, no one near enough to hear them, and he kisses her on the forehead and says shyly, ‘I think I love you.’ She hugs him hard, conscious this may not be possible when they reach the train station on the other side, and mumbles into his chest: ‘I know.’
And she’s gone.
Shay feels thrown. Does her answer mean she isn’t into him? No. It means, do things at your own pace, try not to rush. But it’s hard not to feel rushed. They haven’t talked much about what will happen back on the mainland, but it won’t be easy to stay in touch. Aside from living in different cities, they both live with their parents. And his mum is way less cool than Livi: no way would she let a girl he’s just met stay over. But Carla has told him, ‘If you think it’s any different at mine, you’ve not met my dad.’
Shay is too shattered right now to see a way round this, but there has to be a way. This thing between them, it’s important. Put something real like this on hold, let it fizzle out into nothing, and imagine how bad you’d feel. Very. It’s like the start of a song that hasn’t got going yet. It needs time. They need time.
On the starboard side they must be close to land, for the cap- tain is pointing out the place where they used to load convicts on to prison ships bound for Australia. This side, Shay sees only dusky light on the water. He slips his mobile phone out of his pocket. The last shot he took is a close-up of Carla. He wants a matching shot of himself, now before the glitter and the dirt have rubbed off, as a souvenir of the weekend they first met. There’s just enough battery. He clambers on a railing, holds up the phone so the evening sky and the sea will show behind him.
As he’s checking to see if the picture came out, the phone slips. He twists his leg, manages to bounce it off his knee so it lands on deck. Phew, one and a half thousand photos saved. And all his numbers.
That’s when it happens: his other foot slips from the rails and he tilts back. In a second he’s in a mid-air reverse somersault, like an Olympic show diver but less controlled. He doesn’t call out, there’s no time for fear, he’s just focused on getting out of this. He thinks it’ll be OK right up to the second when the sea beneath him vanishes, replaced by an intense orange mist as his head meets the side of the boat. Dark shapes crowd out the orange, like when he was a small child pushing thumbs on his eyelids to block out the sun. Then the shapes are gone, and after this Shay is not thinking any more.
He does not sense the slick, cold water that opens up, takes hold and softly closes around him. He does not hear the boat chug on without him. He does not even feel the water fill up his air passages, making him more and more heavy until his body gently sinks below the surface.
CARLA IS ASLEEP when the boat comes to land. She stirs, looks around her at the empty seats, confused, and packs up her things. A crew member watches from nearby, arm raised to indicate the exit route. Where is he? She struggles to lift both her backpack and his guitar. When she reaches the gangplank and finds he’s not there she tells the officer, ‘My friend, he’s up top. He wouldn’t leave without me. See — I’ve got his guitar.’
But the officer blocks her way. ‘There’s no one up there, love. We always do a headcount, and you’re last off.’
Carla is stunned. She can’t believe Shay would walk away like this. He really didn’t seem the type.
She traipses up the ramp to the train station. No sign of him. And she hasn’t got his phone number, so she can’t even send him a text. She hurries back, convinced it’s a mistake. He’s probably curled up asleep somewhere. She’ll make them let her on, buy a ticket if she has to. But by the time she reaches the dock, crowds of people are pouring off a huge ferry and the small boat they crossed on is making its way back to the island.
LIVI WORRIES ABOUT HER DAUGHTER. This autumn she started her final year of school, but in the weeks since the festival she has been fragile and withdrawn. She stays in her room, rarely going out except for school. When Livi asks what’s wrong she swears it’s nothing, it’s just that none of her friends is going out much this year because of the exams.
‘Listen, Carlita, I’m worried about you. Don’t you trust me enough to tell me what the problem is?’
No reply. Is it something Livi did, or something she failed to do? They were at the festival when all this started. Perhaps she should have told Carlita not to work that last day. Given her a lift home with the band. And than there’s that boy she was with the last night. But he had seemed such a nice boy.
‘Tell me, is this about your guitar player?’
‘What guitar player?’
‘The one who asked me the chords to ‘Saturday Night’. You
remember, at the Undersea Tavern.’
‘I met a lot of people at the festival, I don’t remember them all
She does remember, Livi’s sure of it. ‘Isn’t that his guitar in your room?’
‘That? I bought it off someone at the festival who was short of
the train fare home.’
There is a tightness to her daughter’s voice that tells Livi it’s best to keep out. She has learned the hard way that sometimes this is what she must do.
Carlita hasn’t played guitar in a long time. Five or six years. Not since Livi put her up for a school music scholarship. As a child she was a natural, but the day of her audition she asked Livi to stay away. They’ve never discussed what happened that day. All Livi knows is, she got no scholarship, and later dropped all music lessons.
Now Livi changes the subject to what’s for dinner. She knows better than to bring up the topic again, but one day when her daughter is out at school she takes the guitar out of its canvas pack. It sounds just like the one the boy was playing. Looks the same, too.
Still Livi keeps her silence. Even when, as she returns home from an evening out, she hears guitar music coming from upstairs. This happens several times over the next weeks, the music always stopping as soon as she’s through the door, and Livi learns to pause before putting her key in the lock. The songs her daughter plays are not ones she has heard before. They are new. Some are happy, some sad, but that is OK. The important thing is, she is playing again.