Friday, 6 April 2018

Excerpt from 'Camden Afterlife'

Here's an excerpt from a new novel I've been working on for years, called 'Camden Afterlife'-

The only time I saw Emma play. It’s a hot night in August, and the summer holidays have peaked. They’re coming to an end, and the retreating crowds in Camden prove that. There are less bodies around the tube when we get off and walk down the high street. Hippies in plaid trousers. Stalls selling sunglasses and bad replica t-shirts of bands I’ve not heard of. Truth be told, I’m scared, and Mum is fighting a clear sense of repulsion. She removes her Gucci sunglasses with perfectly polished nails. Her Dior perfume is like the Gaul’s last camp against the Romans, in this backdrop of hemp and skunkweed. I know these smells because of Emma; the idea was always that I wouldn’t become too familiar. Mum is scared that going to this gig will make me all the more enthralled by my sister's lifestyle when my mother is here to attempt to cleave her from it. But Emma has won the battle for my innocence that she waged with our parents because we’re in her manor tonight.

Near the lock, the fresh orange juice stall churns bright globes into pulp. The vinyl’s on the stalls as we pass the lock are trapped worlds of possibility. Around the lock people sit at sticky benches, their legs lolled over the wall. ‘We can’t be far off it now,’ Mum says, and I note stress lines at the corners of her mouth.

‘The venue is called The Purple Turtle,’ I say.

Mum blanches at a man playing a djembe on the pavement. ‘Venue, please,’ she says. ‘More like den of iniquity.’

We realise we should’ve got off at Camden Town. Mum has never walked this far, at least for as long as I can remember. It makes her foundation congeal a bit. The venue is on a busy corner, and outside the queue is a straggle of threadbare boa and dulled leather. Plastic jewels sparkle on wrists, and makeup is yet to crinkle.

‘I’m going to attempt to find myself a passable glass of wine,’ Mum says, as we move inside. Her handbag at the crook of her elbow. ‘I stress the word attempt.’ She heads for the bar, reeking of self-regarding afternoons in John Lewis. She smells like parental rallying at sports day, and post-argument sulks with Dad.  

I see a raised stage. On it a lithe, ratty man wears an open waist coast, to show off his six pack. He reminds me of a lizard. Behind him the keyboard honks and the guitarist makes his instrument sound like a buzz saw. ‘We’re Dagger and this is our next single,’ he says. I realise that they’re not sound checking- this is it. The spectacle has already started.

There’s a knot of people at the front, a few feet back from the stage when Cupid go on. My first sight of Emma is announced by Mum, who says, in a tone of low panic ‘there she is.’ I look up to see Emma on the steps by the stage, bending over to check her black Telecaster, before darting out of a fire exit. Her guitarist, Melissa, and her drummer, Donna, stay on stage and seem to debate something for ages whilst Melissa fiddles with an amp. Their hunched body language is unnervingly fixed. I decide there is a technical problem with tuning or sound that, by the looks of it, is unsurmountable. I sense Mum’s intending triumph and the way she’ll revel in it, all middle class elbows and triumphant phone calls, while Emma stays in the background looking impossibly bruised.   

‘You alright?’ I ask Mum as, blushing, she sips her wine. She blanches.

‘The band would look a bit more professional if they stayed offstage until the set started,’ she says.

‘Emma’s not on stage,’ I say, sipping my coke.

‘I know. She’s the only one whose worked it out. Don’t tell anyone you’re her brother if you're asked. You’re too young to be in here, and I don’t want school finding out.’

This remark annoys me on so many levels. Some girls in vintage fur are standing near the stage and I’d have loved the chance to play the role of the innocent younger brother. Mum spots this thought. ‘Not a word, Jeff,’ she says. ‘You’ll have plenty of time to hang out in places like this when you’re older, if you decide that’s how you want to live.’

I have already decided this is how I want to live, but am wise enough not to say that. When Cupid do come on stage, it’s gradual enough to betray amateurism. My heart beats, hard. Emma’s wearing a small black dress, ripped fishnet tights and black Doc Martens. Her eyes are lined with thick dark kohl and it gives them a shine and lustre, an eminence I’ve not seen before. Certainly not during the mornings she sits in her bay window, all bruised legs and missing strings, chopping at her acoustic guitar. Tonight she’s transformed. A loud buzz emanates from Emma’s guitar as she puts the lead in, to a light smatter of applause. She checks the input, and laughs loudly at something Donna says as she twirls drumsticks. I realise the band are dressed in mink and satin dresses and the bassist is wearing a fake fur leopard print coat over her shoulder.

‘We’re Cupid,’ Emma says.

Mum clears her throat. A few people look at her but Mum looks ahead, determined, in manner that refuses to acknowledge that she did it a little loud.

The drums start. The fuzzy bass that joins it is so loud. Emma saws her guitar and distorted chords make the sound like thick, treacly sludge. When Emma sings the first few words are lost, then when her voice is caught by the mic Mum jumps theatrically. A voice that sounds a little bit too much like her when she's arguing soon becomes a grizzled, Courtney Love style lament. But in soft bits (really just the bass stopping and her stamping off the distortion) there’s a curl to her words that sounds like only her.

They churn through a twenty minute set. I can’t hear a word of it. It’s all vowels- ‘ow,’ ‘yargh’ and ‘ee.’ I wonder what the point of all that lyric writing was. At one point a couple of the girls po-go, until one of them dramatically forces another to stop. Emma winces, snarls. She pouts, leaning over her guitar when she’s not singing, and tries to hide that she can’t quite make some of the chords. I think of her in the boat house and suspect that in her nervousness she has just forgotten a whole chord sequence. During the smattering of applause for that song she glances over at us once, for one intense second. Mum seems to blush, and look ashamed, and then she shakes her hair. Once or twice the music takes flight and her and Melissa face each other, chopping at their guitars in time, red nails flashing. In one song Emma attempts a star-jump. The bassist puts a tiara on Emma’s head during a solo. It lodges at the back of her hair during the final number, which some of the audience sing along to. For almost all of the last song the words are nearly audible. But something clicks into place and her words finally cut straight through to us. She sings ‘Courtney’s new single / Is titled Bulimia / I sing along / Whilst I cut my arms.’

I look over at Mum, who tries to hide a gulp, with little success. With a slight smile on her lips, as if she knows we can hear her, Emma sings; ‘ Princess Diana / Stripped of skin / Dragged right down / Kensington High Street / Such an apt / Climax to her funeral / I’m The Sculptress.’

Mum has gone pale. The song clatters to an end, a cacophony of missed notes and late drum hits. ‘That was our new single, The Sculptress. We’ve been Cupid. Good night, Camden,’ she says.

They leave the stage. Mum finishes her wine. ‘That’s that then,’ she says.

‘I thought they were good,’ I answer, anticipating Mum’s itinerary of complaint and justification. But she just grimaces, and I see her lipstick has touched her teeth. ‘Shame about the crowd,’ she says, looking past me.

One of the girls in the knot at the front leans over the cage and cranes her fingers, reaching for their set list. A tech comes over, prises it off, and hands it to her. As mum clatters to her feet, the girl clutches the set list to her heart. She’s wearing the exact same tiara as Emma wore onstage.

‘Right, let’s go,’ Mum says.


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