Fame had never felt as seductive or as life-affirming as it had been when Luella was still dreaming of it, her eyes tight shut and her heart murmuring with the possibilities it held. Now that she had it, all she wanted was to set it aside like a childhood relic that had lost its sentimental value. What had been the appeal in the first place? She took a drag on her cigarette as she struggled to remember.
It had something to do with proving other people wrong. Being seen. Feeling accepted. Wanted even. It had something to do with earning extortionate amounts of money for work that she had a small talent for, but the reality was underwhelming. A cliché of a cliché of itself. Fame, like life, could be so fucking unoriginal.
Last night she took a few drugs, went to a few clubs. She ended up taking her clothes off at an after-party and streaking around the dance floor in her stilettos, it was her classic trick, but one that only worked when her senses were bloated out of shape with ecstasy. She would have cringed at the memory except that her radar for right and wrong was defective, a compass whose needle span wildly, looking for a safe place to point to. Was it here? Or there? Or over there? Where? Where exactly? It had been a long time since the question had an answer.
She leant her head back and blew wispy smoke rings into the air, something she’d perfected as a teen. She wasn’t the kind of celebrity she had wanted to be. She would have preferred to have been revered like an icon of a golden age like Marilyn or Audrey – women who could be forgiven anything, their feminine vulnerability acquiring them a dedicated following of anyone who had ever hankered after glamour or romance. Luella’s following was as transient and artificial as her inflated lips; guys like Dill-Lan and Feenix and H2O. She couldn’t remember the last time she met someone with a reasonable sounding – or spelt name. The world she inhabited was starting to feel desperate. But perhaps that was all celebrity was.
She had wanted to be famous as though it were a job in itself. It seemed to her that if people wanted it enough, they could emerge as famous, and rise from classless obscurity as effortlessly as other people could disappear.
She rolled herself out of bed and stepped over the clothes lying around the apartment. There had been a man in her bed the night before but it looked like he was long gone. He had a name but the shape of it was out of reach, it floated away from her parted, thirsty lips like a sigh. The flat was empty and the sound of her come down was crashing about her ears.
Her phone rang. It was H2O. He was a ‘big deal DJ’ as he referred to himself, and only befriended people on their way up. She’d seen him badmouth former ‘friends for life’ that he’d previously praised on social media, criticising them behind their backs for poor choices in management, song lyrics or Brit Awards’ outfits. He was superficial but it was a quality he could take pride in, like not caring what other people thought about him. Of course, he needed to know everything, collecting people’s blind spots with an unparalleled fervour so that he could try and cover his own.
It was a good sign if he was getting in touch, it meant that she still had a few steps to climb. He liked to feel he was a part of ‘their’ success. He was always making suggestions for collaborations or ‘new directions’ for her music or image, but mostly he wanted to know everything, as though gossip was power.
‘Lu Ell Ahhh! How are you feeling this morning? Last night was insane! You were absolutely off your tits – literally!’
‘Oh God. Don’t even tell me. I just got up.’
‘Is Zephyr still there?’
‘Zephyr?’ She remembered his dry lips grazing her neck and the way he pulled her thong down with his teeth. It had gotten stuck so she’d had to help him peel it down. It was clumsy out-of-it sex. Hardly comparable to the seductive master-classes of his music videos. ‘He’s gone.’
‘So what is it with you two? Is it serious?’
‘What? No. We’ve literally only hooked up a couple of times. This is all strictly off the record by the way.’
‘I’m so jealous. Those abs you could chop wood on. I know I would!’
H2O needed his fix, so she told him about how many times they’d done it, the surprisingly thick girth of his manhood and the way he’d lifted her up against the wall as he’d thrust his way into her. In reality, it had been a sloppy quickie with misconceptions of grandeur. Their component parts missing the other’s aim with painful results. It was over as soon as they realised they were both too numb to come. Her embellished version seemed to sate H2O’s appetite and they promised to meet for a boozy brunch in a couple of days’ time. She knew H2O saw the whole thing as a business opportunity. Zephyr could be a good choice of boyfriend – even if it didn’t last long – to build her profile up a little more. Get her trending or nominated, for something, somewhere.
‘You’ve got to be seen to be seen. You didn’t think the music industry was just about penning some nice lyrics and a cute tune, did you?’ H2O had said to her once. Himself, he didn’t do lyrics he just needed two or three hyphenated words to throw mindlessly into a mix, ‘into-the-night’ played on a loop in clubs until people’s inhibitions fell away.
‘I think I want to quit,’ she said to her mother as their sausage and mash arrived at their table. It was gourmet sausage and mash, but gourmet with an edge so that it wasn’t as pretentious as it sounded. The place was called Smashed and served ketchup in those plastic red squeezy bottles popular in American diners. This was Ladbroke Grove, London.
‘Two Maris Piper purees with smoked applewood pork sausages?’ The waiter was wearing an androgynous tunic complete with apron.
Luella nodded and made eye contact, making the waiter inwardly flinch as he recognised her; she could tell he was rapidly weighing up his chances of asking for a selfie while debating whether he was the kind of person who needed such things. Luella had grown accustomed to provoking an awkward response in people. Eyes that never fully met hers, mouths that stumbled over their words, tongues that tripped, the hinged double takes at the periphery of her vision.
‘But why?’ her mother asked.
He settled the plates down, smiling at her as if to say, yes he knew who she was. ‘If there’s anything you need, just ask. Enjoy your meal. Can I get you more drinks?’
In the early days it had been bizarre having strangers so preoccupied with her happiness. She was used to it now, and that perturbed everyone, including herself.
Luella nodded and put a defensive hand on her cheek, leaning in toward her mother; the window of selfie opportunity closed, while her mother watched, still disbelieving at how her sticky-fingered toddler had grown into the self-assured celebrity sat in front of her, making the waiter blush.
‘You’ve worked so hard for this, darling. You probably just need to get away from it all for a while. Can’t you have a break and do a re-launch in a year or so?’
Luella thought about it, looking down at the food that she knew she wouldn’t eat much of. A break meant something was broken. If she went on a break wouldn’t that destroy everything? She had everything she wanted, her mother was saying. So what else did she want?
‘What would I do?’ She looked out of the window, it had started to pour with rain, and shoppers and tourists were running for shelter in shop fronts, their umbrellas panicking, blowing inside out with the wind. They were enjoying the downpour, strangers laughing together at their common enemy, their feet splashing in puddles, sending droplets scattering across the gleaming pavements. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to do that. Smile at a stranger without thinking. Be a person. Love the rain.
By now she was at the wrong end of her twenties and it had been a lot of work getting to this point. Being noticed, getting signed, getting sold. Her music was the kind of forgettable club-pop that was as disposable as a high street dress bought on a whim for a night out. They served the same crowd and she had to churn out the tunes regularly to keep from fading to the back of people’s minds like an impulse purchase hanging in the wardrobe. Luckily some songs had achieved a cult summer tune status that meant she received regular invitations for perfume deals and collaborations with online clothing brands and makeup. She had, as her younger cousins would brag to their friends ‘officially made it’.
‘You can do whatever you want to do,’ her mother said.
Her mother never did much of what she wanted though, except collect Luella’s press clippings and record her performances. ‘I have an agent who does all that, mum, you can save yourself a job.’ But her mum would insist, ‘I like doing it. I’m your number one fan, aren’t I?’ She laughed, but Luella could never tell what she was really thinking. Her eyes were always red rimmed, like she’d only recently stopped crying.
It annoyed her that her mother wore grey clothes two sizes too big to make herself look like she took up even less space. She’d taken her mother to lots of red carpet events but no one ever remembered meeting her. Even when she was there she was hardly there at all.
She wanted not to be like that. That invisible.
‘You could come home if you wanted.’
‘Ha. Mum I’m nearly 30. I have three Brit Awards and a mortgage. I’m not moving home.’
‘It might do you some good,’ she said as she speared her sausage, the skin splitting on impact with her fork and squirting a fleck of grease onto Luella’s pristine sleeve.
It had been a few months since the meal at Smashed and even longer since her last brunch with H2O and she was sure his gossipy WhatsApp messages and texts were starting to fade. There was no hint of Zephyr returning to caress her bed sheets. Her throat felt constantly burnt, her tongue ash and her lungs tar. She’d upped her cigarette habit, as well as her trips to a high-end Pilates studio in Chelsea. It was counter intuitive but she’d come to believe that people who went the whole way with the holistic health scene were the true bullshitters.
She had started to find herself wearing hats and sunglasses, drinking iced tea outside restaurants across Soho and Fitzrovia, trying to write poetry or song lyrics in pencil. She sometimes wore fingerless gloves or wigs, two things her father had once said he never understood the point of.
She’d started staring off into the distance a lot, and writing to her past self, tacking herself onto what Twitter was convinced was an emerging therapeutic trend. She started letters saying ‘Hey, I thought you would want to know…’ or ‘Do you remember when…’ but was unable to finish them. Mostly she wanted to write letters to her father. But that would be a thankless task. She’d taken to drinking tall glasses of Baileys with ice at breakfast, lunch and dinner, the taste of Christmases past permanently creeping into her mouth.
Her phone buzzed. H2O was inviting her to a gig. She was turning everything down these days. The break wasn’t official but her agent and management team could feel her fragmenting. She said no more than yes. And they’d started to talk about it affecting her income. She felt shattered, tired, jaded, insecure – all that stuff that celebrities usually do their third album about. Not being able to be themselves anymore, losing a grip on reality and not knowing who really loves them for who they really are. Her third album was still about holiday sex and pumping baselines for the inebriated Saturday night masses. She was at least proud of that.
She would go to the party. It would show she wasn’t completely breaking apart.
She had to get hair, make-up, dress hire, styling, driver pick-ups and drop offs sorted. And she had to plan the right things to say. Even if the party would be full of people she was supposed to be friends with, she had to have something to contribute that would continue to make that true.
‘Stick to the collab rumour with Me-Tox. He’s exploding right now!’ Her friend Suzie in PR was the only one she trusted these days to put her interests first. They’d known each other from the same high school, which was as important a link as family in London. She often thought of the whole city as dislocated and desperate, reaching out in the dark for something that they’d decided to leave behind.
That word desperate again. Every time she thought of it she wanted to suck the juice out of it and spit it in the sink.
‘It is more than a rumour though, my people are talking to his people. It could happen. It could be huge.’
‘It could be. Definitely. How are you though?’ Suzie asked.
Suzie knew her from when she was just Ella. Before Lu came along. Before she slurred her words.
‘Fine. Come with me?’ Luella asked. ‘We can get fucked.’
Obliteration is salvation, she thought as she hung up, searching for a line of coke to get in the mood to go out. She would put that in a song. Suzie was busy. How was it that she had millions of followers and no one to hold her hand? Or call her their ‘little girl’?
‘Let’s fix this,’ she said to her reflection that was plumper and plainer than she remembered, since the last time she really, truly looked.
The wallpaper was unchanged. It was still peeling away in places, the top left-hand corner revealing the old paisley pattern her father had covered up with yellow stars and swirls when she was twelve. Just two months before he went. The birds’ nest that rattled the gutter was still being used by sparrows and she could hear the scratch of clawed feet and the bleat of their chicks crying to get fed. The worst was the bathroom which hadn’t been redecorated, despite her sending her mum the money to get it redone. She’d sorted the mortgage out for her already, but if she was so desperate to stay in the same place, she could at least make some improvements. Add to its value. See it as an investment. Maybe she should help chose a new suite?
The bathroom had a discoloured beige carpet, which made no practical sense at all. It was stained and uncared for, detaching at the skirting. Dust lined the corners of the bath and the faux flowers from her childhood recollections were still in place on the windowsill, stuck in a time warp. Their satin spun petals unaware of the technological revolution that had happened in the nineties and noughties. The internet. Facebook. Uber Eats. There was Snapchat now. Now she was Luella. What did they know of that? There was something naive about them. She threw up in the toilet bowl and flushed. The bathroom made her think of Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, weary floral prints and romantic implications that felt more innocent – when your chances of meeting someone were so much more down to coincidence. Tinder made a factory line of attraction. It took away the sparks.
She could see why her mother hadn’t touched it at all. At home, the past held steady in the dust embedded in curtains and carpets. The walls of the place held him in. No wonder going home was hard. It was like going back to the scene of the crime. Or somewhere vagrant yet significant. Like Mozart’s house in Vienna which she’d visited once after doing a concert outside the city. The rooms were empty, silent. It hadn’t felt like Mozart’s house at all. She’d wanted to write a song about it, but the commercial appeal wasn’t there.
She’d found herself at her childhood home after blacking out at the party. Apparently, she’d gotten way too high or too low and had demanded her driver Sanjay take her all the way to Petersfield. Her mother had found her on the doorstep, mascara smudged and stinking of sweat, her slitted jumpsuit threatening to expose her breasts.
She was going to stay a while. It was self-evident. She needed to bed down between the scruffy floor and impenetrable ceiling of her childhood bedroom and inhabit that space again where her inner questions were always focused on what she might become. It was a familiar place to be in. Wondering between hope and fear.
From there she could try to pull the strands together of her life to date and make something tangible of it, like the weaving of the friendship bracelets she used to sell to classmates at school. It would be good to be friends with herself again. Fame had helped her to find out that she could be careless. Approaching on cruel.
‘Fancy dinner, El?’ her mother’s voice soared upstairs, breaking the spell of her thoughts.
She realised her cheeks were wet. Her eyes had been leaking simply for pressing her cheek to her childhood pillow on her single bed. Weren’t people supposed to reclaim and redecorate their space when their children left home? It was like a museum at Belfield Drive. Nothing had changed. Not even the contents of her wardrobe. It might have been her hangover, but suddenly she felt floored with gratitude. She was thankful, so thankful, for this small perpetual room to the past.
‘You know you’ve never taken up the counselling they offered. Maybe you should try it.’ Luella liked telling her mother what to do. It was subtle at first, this revision of power, but since her father disappeared in 1997, people had started questioning her mother to the point that Luella now doubted everything that her mother said.. Now she felt able to instruct her mum on how to live her life, despite having had only half the experience. And nothing of love. No knowledge of marriage in all its varying keys and colliding crescendos. Her mother always agreed, but never acted. She simply absorbed her words, so that they settled like fallen leaves inside her, piling up then rotting down until they became layers of compost where worms and wood lice would burrow.
‘I never told you I saw a counsellor, did I?’
‘You did? Really? When?’ Her mother’s eyes start to refocus slowly, departing from the suspended past that she inhabits, the precious last days of 1997, where Friends is on the television every Friday night and Sade serenades on the radio, where she and Vince both dance in the kitchen and argue about his expensive adrenaline-fueled past times; motorbikes, caving and now mountaineering. She lives and relives that day he said goodbye to her and Luella before going on his solo trip to the Dolomites. The rushed kiss and the snap of the car doors. She allowed him his own time. She permitted it. She was a good wife. He wouldn’t be young forever. He said things like that. But since that day she has been irretrievably old. She has lived so many of his lives, picturing him as an incognito tour guide in Italy; a leather skinned traveller, washed up on the shores of Indonesia; taking a new wife in the Philippines, having new children; or joining a religious cult, shaving his head and denouncing his former life to live in an isolated monastery in the mountains. She has been there countless times, watching him fall and injure himself, his knees split by the rocks, his ragdoll body bouncing off the sheer calcareous cliffs. His slow demise in the sunlight, drained by blood loss and starvation. His body picked at by wolves and curious bear cubs. His bones dispersed amid the spruce and conifer trees and discarded like forgotten vows between the crumbling rocks. She has been there as he wilfully took his own life, jumping to the end, flying blissfully free before his beautiful oblivion, one step ahead of the game. Wherever he is, she’ll meet him there.
She gradually re-embodies the present, re-entering the same cosmos as Luella, until she lands with a quiet jolt at the kitchen table, poached eggs cooling in front of her.
‘Was it useful?’ she asks.
Luella swallows a mouthful.
‘A bit. I talked a lot about feeling abandoned. The woman said I should try and focus on the present. Stop second-guessing what happened to him. Start accepting the things I do know. That kind of stuff. Bullshit mostly. I think she writes for Marie Claire. She did some work on Elton apparently. He has some identity issues.’
Luella takes a gulp of wine. Did talking help? Does it? Does talking ever change anything? Or was it just a way to release harrowing thoughts and desperate emotion from the strangled knot of her brain? Counselling was like taking a knife to the skin and letting the wound bleed out. She doesn’t feel healed for having talked to someone. The pain is still throbbing urgently but she is bled dry. There’s nothing left to ooze and she finds she now has to fill the aching void with the banal promotion of pop music. Selfies and suicidal thoughts.
She feels like her insides have been repeatedly scooped out like an eggshell, and that a spoon is still probing inside for more, scraping the edges of her membrane until it’s criss-crossed with scars.
‘I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t help you. You’re ok though, aren’t you mum? I don’t like to think of you being alone.’
Her mother holds Luella’s hand trying to impart a sense of conviction, the type she sees on Emmerdale, when a character wants the other to understand, that it’s ok. The end of the conversation.
‘I’m fine darling. Wherever he is, wherever he went, he’s proud of us. I just know it.’
Luella takes her hand away as it starts to tremble against her will.
‘You should get round to decorating the bathroom sometime,’ she says finishing her wine, ‘it’s kind of disgusting.’
From the swimming pool she can see the top half of the building. It is tall and glossy and bounces sunlight painfully back in the directions from which it came. It gleams proudly and Luella looks up at it thinking all the while that if she could get to the top then she could see everything. The whole of the concrete metropolis and the arid desert beyond. The city is just stones and shards of glass, pebbles and rocks on top of a sandcastle. The back-lit fountains dance in the pool of water below, everything is man-made and newly constructed. This is modernity. This is the present. And the future.
Dubai was her choice. The rest was imposed. A three-month sabbatical. To recuperate and crucially, to stop drinking. It has been five whole days and her body feels nervy with anticipation. When will it get what it wants? Why is it being ignored? What is it going to do now?
There are no answers here. The same questions radiate down on her body with the heat of the sun. Her skin pinks and reddens in its glare. She wants to peel herself out of it and leave it behind, drop her agent, her label and her songs, and fly like Icarus up to the raging globe of the sun. The sun that has given life to everything and has watched spitefully as her world has turned against it, plunged into a demi sphere of shade.
She thinks of her mother sitting on the sagging left hand side of the sofa, obediently leaving her father’s preferred position empty. She has thought many times that he disappeared on purpose. Left them for something more important.
Perhaps he is here in this hotel? In Dubai. Perhaps, most likely, he is not.
There is a family on the other side of the swimming pool. The mother and father look tired and hot, but their daughter, twelve years old, with limbs that are brown and elongated like the fragile branches of a sapling, tugs at their elbows and shyly turns her head away from Luella’s absentminded gaze.
Luella takes a sip of water, her mouth still anticipating something stronger, something more powerful, more numbing, more liberating. The icy coolness washes down her throat and somewhere inside she can feel the water infiltrate her stomach. A ripple in the acid, becoming a neutral part of her chemistry.
The girl walks over with a scrap of paper. She is achingly nervous. Luella notices her lips twitching involuntarily.
‘Can I? Can I have a selfie? And an autograph? P-please?’
It seems retro, this want for an autograph. Selfies are the only currency for the youth of the day. It reminds her of 1997, in the queue for the premier of the Spice Girls movie in rainy Leicester Square, waving a postcard wildly into the forest of spindly arms emerging from the barrier, her father simultaneously egging her on and rolling his eyes behind her.
‘Go for it, Els, you can do it,’ he’d said.
The Spice Girls had been rushed down the carpet, pulling poses as they went. They’d walked past her in all their glitter and glory and her postcard had remained hauntingly blank.
‘Of course.’ Luella smiles, the camera phone snaps and the paper is signed.
‘I can’t believe you’re here! I can’t believe I’ve seen you!’ the girl exclaims. She has tears in her eyes and wants to hug her. Her parents hover an awkward distance away and exchange looks – they’ll remember this moment forever.
Luella obliges. She holds her arms around the girl and squeezes back, hard, holding her hopeful flyaway body close to hers.
‘Thank you,’ they both say, each echoing the other as the embrace comes to its inevitable end.
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