A Christmas B-Side
Sunday, 24 December 2017
This is a slightly tweaked version of a story that I originally wrote and published on my blog at Christmas 2012. It features Wendi, one of the secondary characters in Comeback and takes place nearly fourteen years before the "present day" of the novel (which as I've mentioned before is late October 2007).
In this story it's still 1993 and Wendi's indie band Beam have already had their first flush of success...
Saturday 25 December 1993
Wendi opened her eyes to find herself lying on the sofa in front of the muted television. On screen Noel Edmonds was wearing an obscene jumper and talking on the telephone. She felt about for the remote and the cathode ray tube relaxed into inactivity with an electric sigh. The sun was shining through the large glass window and against the odds - it had been pissing down the night before - it was a nice day. She wrapped the blanket around herself and stood up.
The penthouse flat was bare and undecorated. The record company had purchased it only recently and were intending it to be used by the more successful members of the talent whilst in London. Beam certainly were flavour of the month in some quarters but they were hardly the most lucrative act on the roster so Wendi was only here on sufferance.
Peter had actually done most of the talking to the powers that be - ever since the summer tour during which her personal life had fallen apart, Wendi had been staying at his flat. However he'd recently embarked on a relationship with a new girlfriend so what with her, the guitar collection and Wendi on the sofa it was all getting a bit crowded.
Wendi was rootless and adrift. Their manager Johnny had told her that the company would be happy for her to stay here until February when they intended to move DJ Drake in - he'd had that huge hit so they felt he was worth investing in. Never mind the fact that he probably had a parental home and a girlfriend. Wendi was bitter as she shuffled over to the sliding door that led out to the balcony. She walked out into the cold London air.
The roar of the metropolis was muted that morning and the concrete of the balcony was freezing. She pulled the blanket tighter about herself, walked over to the railing and peered down into the alleyway. A row of dumpsters stood there like a train in a siding, a scattering of pigeons wandering about pecking at the overflow in a desultory manner. Normally the smell of Chinese food rising from the alleyway made Wendi hungry but this morning the aroma was like Berwick Street market at the end of a long day, rotting vegetable matter with hints of urine and other bodily fluids.
She was hungry though. She hurried back inside and pulled on her basic costume - thick socks, oversized boots, skinny jeans, sweatshirt and leather jacket. As an afterthought she donned a woolly hat and oversized shades. Not that anyone was going to recognise her.
She only had to hope that there was somewhere open this morning. Somewhere that did a full English breakfast.
Reaching into the pocket of her leather jacket for money, her fingers touched something unfamiliar. She pulled out a plastic baggie inside which a few wraps nestled. That coke Peter had given her the day before she'd moved in. She'd forgotten all about it. She hadn't been in the mood, and besides, she still preferred ecstasy. Coke tended to make her rock star Persona too strong and whilst this was useful when working, when she was alone sometimes she felt like she was being swamped by this other mind, this alternative Wendi who had sprung into being as a direct result of her chosen career. Sometimes she thought she remembered the Persona whispering to her in her childhood, a tall shadow that hovered just beyond the corner of her eye and guided her fingers when she'd been drawing, but she was probably just retrofitting it into her memory.
She hadn't done any drawing for years. She missed it. She had no illusions about being any good, but there was something calming about working on a large complex piece over several hours or days, the way she could lose herself in the act of creation, the way her mind was reshaped by the lines of the image and the way the act itself cemented certain memories in place, the programme on the TV in the background, the songs being broadcast on the radio. She had never liked to put her stereo on during these sessions. TV or radio was a lifeline to the outside world, an umbilical cord connecting her to the non-drawn universe in which the real people lived. If she put her own music collection on it was too isolating.
This was also why creating music was a very different experience.
It was a team effort for a start and by its very nature it required total commitment. There was no-room for multi tasking, she couldn't switch off any part of her brain, it was all consuming. And apart from anything else it was the very opposite of relaxing. It made her electrified, it made her heart race and her brain with it.
She pulled the penthouse flat door shut behind her and began jogging down the stairs, thinking about drawing. There was an art shop in Great Marlborough Street wasn't there? She began to feel a warm glow of anticipation and excitement. She could buy some pens and pencils and a sketchpad. Or a one of those huge pads with paper half the size of her. It was going to be great. She could do one of those intricate drawings that took days, those floating islands with almost infinite detail, tiny people and animals crawling all over it...
It was only when she closed the street door behind her and was enveloped by the unusual silence that she remembered that it was Christmas Day and that the art shop would be closed. Disappointment crashed in on her as the planned excursion into her imagination was curtailed. It wouldn't be open tomorrow either and then Monday and Tuesday were bloody Bank Holidays as well thanks to Christmas falling on a Saturday. It wasn’t the sort of shop that tried to maximise sales by opening as much as it could. Quite the opposite in fact; she wouldn't be surprised if they were planning to stay closed until the New Year. Which mean Tuesday 4 January.
She kicked a bottle as she stepped out into a deserted Shaftesbury Avenue and it spun into the gutter. Knowing her luck she wouldn't be able to find anywhere to get breakfast either. So far she hadn't seen a soul.
Wardour Street smelled foul. Aside from the odours it shared with Berwick Street there was a distinct flavour of vomit, alcohol and revolting chips. Wendi had tried some of them the other night and had ended up throwing away the entire portion. They simply didn't taste right. The oil had probably been in use since the eighties and she strongly suspected that the chips themselves had been fashioned from reconstituted mashed potato. She'd been hungry too, but there would have been no point in going back to complain. They'd all be like that. Instead she'd flung the packet across the road in fury as hot tears had sprung to her eyes. It hadn't just been the chips. It hadn't been anything to do with them.
She pushed the memory away as the tears welled up again. Not now, not here. Not appropriate. She'd feel better after a cooked breakfast.
The Telecom Tower looked down on her in a way that made her uncomfortable. There was something she didn't like about it. She never had. A shape, an indication of evil eyes about the cluster of antennae that crowded around its neck just below the revolving restaurant. She turned off into St Anne's Court and out of its field of view.
The alleyway was as deserted as the rest of London but in her head it buzzed with a peculiar potential. There was something odd here. She looked off down an even narrower passage that led off between two buildings to her right. Was that a person sleeping rough or just a pile of old rags? Shadows and shapes flickered at the periphery of her vision as she squinted. Something familiar from deep in her childhood, something she would have preferred not to remember.
Wendi sped up and hurried past, wanting to escape whatever it was that she’d been about to see. Besides, she had a feeling that the end of her quest was within reach. Yes, there it was. Even though she didn't remember having visited it before, her subconscious had obviously noted the presence of this establishment. The windows were steamed up, glowing with a warm yellow light and the faded Pepsi sign above the word CAFE was illuminated. She pushed open the door.
Six tables were crammed into the space, each of which was occupied by one figure swathed in coats and scarves. A radio was playing, too loud and distorted to be able to work out what the music was. The man behind the counter gave Wendi a complex wave that managed to convey that she should take a seat and he'd be with her in a minute. She looked around and decided to sit opposite the smallest of the huddled figures.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" Wendi pulled the chair out and looked down at the top of a matted mop of bottle-black hair. The figure looked up, large bloodshot eyes hovering over a white mug that was cradled in interlaced fingers each of which terminated in a bitten black-varnished nail. It was difficult to tell whether this was a boy or a girl. The head nodded so Wendi slid into the chair and plucked the menu - which had been laminated with yellowing sellotape - from between the ketchup bottle and the saltcellar.
No, not fried eggs. They gave her the creeps. Not bacon. She never knew what all the fuss was about - in her experience it was like eating salty cardboard. Cooked tomatoes just seemed wrong. The idea of a full English was much more attractive than the reality. What did that leave her with?
"What can I get you miss?" The man from behind the counter was suddenly looming over her. A few inches from her nose a filthy apron exuded the odour of decade’s worth of fried breakfasts. That clinched it.
"Beans on toast please. And a cup of tea." Wendi didn't fancy the idea of anything that had been dipped in the oil soaking that apron. Like that chippie in Wardour Street, they probably recycled everything here.
"Anything else for you before you go?" The man had turned to the diminutive figure opposite. Wendi wondered why he was being so rude.
"No fanks," the timbre of the whisper indicated that this was probably a girl, "I still got this." She held out the mug for the man to inspect, and sure enough it was at least a third full of a watery brown liquid that had probably once had a teabag waved at it.
"Actually can you make that coffee?" Wendi said. The man sighed and made an adjustment to whatever it was he’d written down on his pad, before shuffling back behind his counter and busying himself with Wendi's breakfast. She stared with fatal fascination as he pulled a couple of slices of lowest common denominator white from a cellophane packet and ladled a scoop of own brand baked beans into a tiny saucepan from a catering sized tin that stood open next to the hob.
This was hardly going to set her up for the day or settle her stomach. Still, never mind. She turned her attention to the girl opposite.
"He was a bit out of order, eh?" she whispered. The girl shrugged but then looked up into Wendi's eyes and managed a quarter smile.
"I guess. I ‘aven't been in here that long though. You'd have thought..."
Wendi nodded. The girl must have been sleeping rough. Somewhere like this was the only place she had to go. A lot of the homeless probably ended up in here but there was no need for rudeness. Wendi didn't believe in “compassion fatigue”. People who used expressions like that probably never had any in the first place. But are you any better, she asked herself, after all what are you going to do? She recognised the voice of the Persona in that question and resolved to prove it wrong.
"I'm Wendi." She held out a hand and the girl shook it. It was quite astonishing. Wendi was used to other people's hands always feeling warmer than hers, they told her she had bad circulation. But this girl had fingers that felt as if she had liquid nitrogen flowing through her veins.
"Juliet," the girl whispered, releasing Wendi's hand. Wendi could still feel the cold spots on her skin where Juliet had touched her fingers and had to stop herself from rubbing warmth back into them. That would have been tactless.
The man appeared at Wendi's side again and slammed a plate down in front of her. Watery baked beans swam on top of what looked like a couple of thin sheets of singed polystyrene foam. It was hardly the Full English she had been imagining and would do nothing to quell the relentless march of her hangover....
See? A sarcastic voice within. It was right. Any problems she had were nothing compared to Juliet's. She had no right to feel sorry for herself. To be hung over implied the ability to drink heavily the night before. OK so she'd had a shit year. Some might have called it the worst year of her life. But when everything had fallen apart she'd had options. Her friends were looking after her, her employers were looking after her. She may have wished she was dead as she looked down on fifty thousand people from the main stage of a major music festival in July, but for fuck's sake. She'd been on stage in front of fifty thousand people. OK so it had been first thing in the afternoon and more than likely a fluke of the programming due to the unavailability of the Zine stage later that day, but even so. Some people worked for years to get in that kind of position.
Nevertheless, the lukewarm beans and nominal toast were on the wrong side of foul. She wondered if she should complain but then thought better of it. What would everyone think?
"Are you sure you don't want anything?" she addressed Juliet who staring down into the depths of her mug again. She could at least get the girl something, "I wouldn't recommend the beans on toast, mind."
Juliet looked up and the ghost of a smile flickered across her frail features again.
"Nah. Fanks anyway. Not hungry. Plus I can't stay here much longer."
"Are you sure?" Wendi rubbed at the back of her neck with one hand. A dull nauseous ache was advancing determinedly up muscles and tendons that were as taut as an over wound bass string. She could feel the tendrils of neuralgia exploring the rest of her skull; if she wasn't careful this was going to turn into a fully-fledged migraine that would put her out of action for days. It was always a risk when she drank too much. She looked down at Juliet's hands, and imagined those thin cold fingers massaging her neck. It was an intoxicating thought. Maybe there was something she could do for the girl. If she asked her to come back with her then maybe... You're despicable, you know that? the Persona cut in.
"Yeah. Been sleeping rough but got somewhere to go now as long as I'm quick. Don't want to miss the boat."
"That must have been grim," Wendi was in danger of blushing at her earlier thought, even though there was no way Juliet could have known about it. The Persona was right though.
"It was. All over now though!" Juliet's ghost smile bloomed into full life as she pushed the chair back and stood up, "I'm looking forward to it!"
"Where..." Wendi started as Juliet started to walk towards the door. Juliet stopped and turned towards her.
"'S OK. I'm flattered. Would have been nice," she whispered and reached out a hand to brush Wendi's cheek. The cold was almost like a slap. Wendi felt dizzy, her brain clouded. What was going on? There was something cold and hard pressed into one cheekbone.
She opened her eyes. She was lying on her side in St Anne's Court in front of the cafe, a smear of rotten vegetable matter on the bottom of her boot. Had she followed Juliet outside and slipped over? She struggled to a seated position.
"Are you OK down there, Miss?" A man in uniform stood at one end of the alleyway. Wendi nodded and raised a hand. She grabbed hold of the railing in front of the cafe and pulled herself upright.
The cafe. It was closed, and obviously had been for some time. The windows were thick with grime and there was no furniture inside apart from the counter at the far end. Had she fallen over before going inside and dreamed the whole thing? It had seemed so real. But that was the only explanation.
"Are you sure, Miss?" The man at the end of the alleyway had turned towards her. A policeman? She was suddenly very aware of the wraps of cocaine in her jacket pocket. Walking away would have aroused suspicion so she turned and began making her way towards him instead.
Ouch. Her knee seemed to have taken the brunt of the fall and she was limping. A blow on the head would have accounted for her being knocked out, though. She prodded gingerly at her skull. Nothing she could find. No tender spots.
"I slipped over," she called out. The man was no longer looking at her and now that she was closer she could see that he wasn't a policeman after all. An ambulance driver? Behind him in Wardour Street the windows of the ground floor buildings shimmered with an unearthly blue flashing and she could hear the sound of an idling engine.
As she drew abreast of the entrance of the narrow passageway she’d noticed earlier, two figures emerged, paramedics carrying something between them. A stretcher. There was a small figure slumped on it, still half wrapped in a filthy sleeping bag. It was Juliet and she was quite dead.
"Poor kid," one of the paramedics muttered, "That's no way to spend Christmas."
Wendi stood rooted to the spot as perspective slammed into place around her. It had taken a girl's death to show her how trivial her problems really were.
Even the Persona had nothing to say.
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