Sunday, 28 July 2019

Excerpt from my new novel 'Camden Afterlife'

My next novel, ‘Camden Afterlife’, follows the wild summer of a teenage boy coming to terms with the loss of his sister, Emma, a star of the nineties Riot Grrrl music scene. Part of the novel is told through Emma’s diary, which he finds, and which offers him a way to gradually face up to what really happened to her. 

The following is Emma’s first diary entry, in which she runs away from home to see PJ Harvey perform in London (and which describes a real gig)-

Everything is coming to a head. So, in an attempt to prove his devotion to me Jay bought me a ticket to a PJ Harvey gig in London a few weeks ago. Setting me a collision course with Mum. The gig was on a school night. But of course, diary, I still went. Despite all the repercussions. Which even now, two weeks later, are still being felt. I still went, because going to it is the only thing in my future that feels remotely related to what I want to do with my life.

In my defence I tried to go do the trip legitimately. I told Mum about I wanted to take a day off school for it, but she said I couldn’t go in case they found out I was faking sick leave. So I then decided to write to my music teacher and convince her it would ‘contribute to my education by allowing me to see a professional performer live, given that I am going to be a singer’. I also ill-advisedly added that no one as good as PJ Harvey was ever going to play a gig on this godforsaken island. The old hag wrote this really patronising reply about how she couldn’t grant me leave because it would set an ‘unfair precedent’. These grown-ups are constantly hassling you to work out what you want to do with your life, and toe the line but when you do either they tell you that you still can’t have what you want. So I had to take the painful option (typical me, typical me, typical me). I bunked off school, having told everyone what I wanted to do that night. Thereby ensuring I’d get caught.  

I suppose I couldn’t have caused more trouble if I’d planned to. Because I told Aunt Carol (the only person I know in London) that Mum had said we could stay with her for the night of the gig. I was taking full advantage of the fact that my Mum and Aunt Carol weren’t speaking. Hoping Mum would buy that I was staying at Jay’s that night.  

Big mistake.   

Firstly because Mum doesn’t like me staying at Jay’s anyway. She’s always saying how, ‘Dating a local boy’ is beneath me, which is classist bollocks. But the second reason it was a big mistake is because Mum is convinced Aunt Carol has been buying stuff from my grandma to stop Mum getting it when she dies. Which Mum thinks is unforgivable. 

Although, having said that, Mum thinks lots of things are unforgivable.  

But anyway, the gig. It felt kind of thrilling, going to the mainland with Jay first thing in the morning. His battered Mini joining the grid of cars on the bottom deck of the car ferry. Him shaking as he drove on the motorway for the first time.   

I put the new Smashing Pumpkins record, ‘Adore’ on the tape deck. Looking at him, as he edged through the traffic, I listened to the words, ‘You love him,’ echo over and over again from the stereo. And I looked at Jay and thought- do I? Or do I just like the fact that he is helping me to live my life? But I could see from the look he gave me that he was thinking, ‘She’s listening to this song and thinking about me.’  

It was the first time I’d been to London as an adult. I couldn’t believe how stylish the women were. On the escalator coming out of Shepherd’s Bush tube I passed this woman who just transfixed me. She was wearing a black coat with a big fur collar, and her black hair was in a tight bob. She was so enchanting. As I passed her she caught my eye and smiled, and for a moment I wondered if she was an older version of me, coming back to watch me at this key moment of my life. Her coat looked like it was made of black feathers, but I must’ve imagined that.   

Aunt Carol lives in this plush house in Shepherd’s Bush, all hanging herbs and bay windows. She wanted to talk about Mum but I just wanted to get ready for the gig. In a living room full of rare books and art prints I pulled out my clothes. Looked at the stuff on the shelves and wondered if she’d ever actually read these books. Something makes me doubt Aunt Carol ever curls up with Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ in front of a log fire. 

I seriously object to people using art an accessory to an experience, rather than just letting it be an experience of itself. I come from a family of philistines!  

I finally got to wear the clothes I’ve wanted to. Silver lipstick to go with a clip in my new, white-blonde bob. I had found this great see-through black top, just like D’Arcy Wretsky wore on the last Smashing Pumpkins tour. Skin-tight black plastic trousers- very Goth. With his blonde tips and Adidas t-shirt Jay didn’t really match but he did get me there. He said, ‘I don’t recognise you,’ and I replied, ‘Yeah, that’s the idea.’ The thing is, the only way I can become a new woman is by burning off everything about the little girl.

My heart was thudding when we queued up outside the venue. I couldn’t believe how cool the London crowd were. I saw every type of band t-shirt- for bands I’d never even heard of. In the queue to get in there were indie boys in their Kappa tops, and Guardian readers with their horn-rimmed glasses. Then there was this breed of woman like me.

They’d all clearly cut their own hair. They’d assembled outfits that were a bit Courtney Love and a bit PJ Harvey. This winding tide of feather boa and mink and satin, winding into the venue like a glamorous snake. I was sure I saw Louise from that band Sleeper amongst them. 

Inside the venue, neither Jay nor I knew what to do. I realised that the whole set up around a gig was incredibly thrilling. Neither of us wanted to admit to each other that we hadn’t done this before. I was so glad I made the effort to dress up, or I’d have felt like a right tramp. There were some serious glamour pusses there, and in the toilet a girl told me she loved my top. In the mirror we all competed for space to add sequins by our eyes. Heartfelt friendships were made over the powder compacts. Women kept complimenting me on how thin I was. On the island my thinness is always source of concern, never a good thing.   

Jay and I hung around the merch stand for ages, while the venue filled up with people trying not to spill pints before the show started. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the t-shirts and vinyl’s were, and the fact I couldn’t afford any of them made them even more amazing. It seemed impossible to ever think you could make something that beautiful for people to buy, take home, and hold to their hearts. But I felt determined to throw myself at the wall trying. I seemed to think that if I stood by Polly’s merch for long enough that my career in music would l somehow start. That like her I could create art that meant something to people, that offered them a new way to live, that made them feel less alone.  

But I was silently taking notes. I was learning where to put the merch stand, what time the support act came on, how long they played for, what you played through the speakers before you came onstage, how you came onstage, etc. Knowing all this training would be important when my turn came.   

I insisted we got to the front but it was just impossible. I’d spent too long looking at posters while an arty racket of drums and violins raged on the stage. And now I couldn’t get close to the action. Some of those women have sharp elbows and I had to make do with a pretty decent view of it all a few rows back.  

Jay was stunned into silence by it all, and I found myself scanning the stage for the moment Polly would come on. Is that where she’d stand? Was that her set list taped to the floor? Why had she chosen this song to play before she came on?  

I listened to the background music with such intensity and yet this whole thought sequence remained mine alone. I was asking myself questions all the time, questions Jay just wouldn’t get. The thing was, I didn’t know how deep I was supposed to sit in the experience. It’s an ongoing feeling that I am sure sets me apart and makes me genuinely weird.  I was determined to soak up every moment of it. 

The lights went down and I felt so excited I thought I’d faint. Polly’s band filed on stage and as she followed them a scream went up. This woman I’d thought about so much, whose songs had carried me through so much dead time, was just standing right there. Not even knowing I existed. With her tiny shoulders, her focused expression, and her hacked-at black curls. Her features were so dramatic that I just knew we were from the same tribe. I just knew that at some point, when my features grew in and my image was in place that I would be raised above the crowd in the same way, with them looking to me. Her neck bones were straining out from above a strappy black top. The earpiece, leading to a small pack on the back hem of her red leather dress; it was all so exotic. What choices did she make to end up being that creature, up there? The cheer that went up when, with a small smile, she first touched the mike- I felt like I could die. It was all too much. There was no outlet.

I was learning, fast. I saw that you had to give the audience the room to want you. No- to need you. Jay finished the dregs of his pint as a low acoustic guitar thrum built. The crowd whooped, but Polly didn’t react. In a really low, heavy voice she started to sing ‘I Think I’m A Mother.’ Her baritone made her slender femininity seem really strange. And I thought- who starts a set with a slow song about an accidental pregnancy? Who comes onstage in such understated clothes, barely moving, barely smiling? And then it hit me- when you’re onstage you do what you want to do. What you need to do. You make them come with you. No compromises.  

It was all pretty dark and heavy. After the first song Jay said, ‘Are you actually enjoying this?’ and I said, ‘I’ve never been happier.’ And I meant it.  

Afterwards I was on cloud nine. Jay seemed more bothered about buying a kebab from a London takeaway. He was really into this whole thing about spending a fiver on some meat in pitta bread that you got in a plastic tray. ‘This,’ he said, as we scoffed in a grim takeaway near Aunt Carol’s, ‘is what London’s all about.’ It made me wonder if throughout Polly’s various journeys into her inner torment he was just dreaming of hot meat. But despite that thought I kissed him on his chilli-stained cheek and said, ‘Thank you so much for today. You really are the best boyfriend.’  

He smiled, as he dabbed his napkin on his lips. He looked like he couldn’t believe his luck. ‘I am, aren’t I?’ he said, as I went to fetch him a Coke. Because Jay likes to have a Coke with his snacks.  

I knew that it’d kick off when we returned to Aunt Carol’s. I just knew it.  

When she opened the door I could see right away from her expression, that Mum had called. 

‘Sorry we’re a bit late,’ I said. 

‘Not sorry enough,’ she said, looking me square in the eye. 

We squeezed past her and I decided to try and pretend that I hadn’t picked up on her body language. Even though that never works with people and that night would prove no exception. I reminded myself that if I was to push myself people would inevitably get trampled on. Jay started blowing up the bed in the living room, in really dramatic puffs, glad to have a job, and Aunt Carol trailed in behind us. ‘Your mother just called.’ Her hollow voice suggested she didn’t know where to start. ‘I’d say you’re in a bit of trouble, young lady.’ 

Jay looked up, red-faced. ‘I knew it,’ he said, hoarse. 

Aunt Carol folded her arms and leant against the doorframe. 

‘What did she say?’ I asked, feeling my buzz rapidly fade. 

‘She said, ‘Tell Emma it isn’t worth coming home.’’