Anwar leaves his house looking the coolest I’ve ever seen him, and that’s saying something. He’s in the year above the rest of us. When he got serious about studying after Easter, we had to stop gigging. We’ve been rehearsing with a drum machine app since then, which isn’t nearly as good. He’s almost got a full drum kit, built up piece by piece second-hand.
He did his last exam this morning, though, so Midge’s Auntie Sharon is throwing us a party. We’ll perform in her living room. We wanted to be a garage band, but it’s all on-street parking round here, so band practice is in her back bedroom.
We invited most of the people we know to this party, and then Midge asked a pub full of strangers on top. I can’t wait. This last couple of months the craving to perform has itched more and more. Sometimes I’m in the middle of working out complex equations when my fingers shape a chord, or I’ll remember the sound of an audience waiting, or the way someone’s face looks when they’re really listening. I lose all track of what I’m doing and have to retrace the whole process.
Tonight there’s a blue streak in Anwar’s hair, which always looks great anyway because it’s dark and straight and down to his shoulders. His jeans are clean, black and tight. He’s wearing a new shark’s-tooth earring and his lip ring’s blue to match his hair.
I’d like to grow my hair like the rest of the band, and pierce something (probably just an ear to be honest), but I can’t be arsed with the fuss my parents would make. They only communicate with me by instructing, nagging, or expressing disappointment. I gave up answering back at about the same age my friends started with theirs. I’m keeping my head down until I can escape and then have nothing more to do with them. It’s been so long since I bothered with them, they don’t even know I won’t be becoming the accountant they intend. Let that come as a surprise.
We meet Joey outside the offie. More than any of us, it’s always been him who really looks the part, which was why we asked him to be lead singer in the first place, though his voice isn’t up to the more melodic sections. First rehearsal, he told us to call him Monster, but we kept forgetting so it never stuck.
He’s in his silver-studded black leather jacket and his jeans are so ripped there’s more ginger leg hair on show than denim. His hair’s bleached and spiked up round a bandana. He’s got three eyebrow piercings, the start of a beard and black eyeliner.
We stride down the street looking like a poster, all just the right amount of nervous. Back together. I’ve got my guitar case on my back. It feels right.
There are only a few weeks of term left. We’ve booked a load of gigs for over this summer holiday. I’ve told my parents I won’t be able to go to the Canaries with them because I’ve got too much studying to do. I don’t intend to pick up a single book. We can spend the whole break rehearsing and playing.
Maybe longer than that. Anwar’s grades might not be good enough for his conditional uni offer. I know it’s not exactly kind of me to hope he’ll fail, but we’d be able to keep playing for another year if he resat.
Anwar offers Joey a cig, and I can see him hesitate, but he does the right thing. He says, ‘Not ‘til after. Don’t want to mess up my voice.’
It gives me a warm feeling when I know we’re all putting the band first. Tonight is going to be brilliant.
Reaching Auntie Sharon’s street gives me tingles round my chest. I get even more fluttery when I see the small crowd that’s already starting to gather outside her house. There are two girls sitting on her neighbour’s low front wall. That’s going to annoy them. They will hate this party; they bang on the wall when we’re only practising. I don’t care.
Anwar and Joey slow down too early. I keep heading for the house.
‘Y’alright?’ Joey asks the girls on the wall.
‘Be better when we get inside.’
Anwar offers them cigarettes. One girl takes one. She says she likes his lip ring.
‘Doesn’t it get in the way when you’re kissing?’ asks the other.
‘Only one way to find out,’ he replies.
I never know what to do when my mates start flirting. I don’t get all that. I’m not into girls that way. Or boys. I head into the house rather than hang around not knowing what to say.
I miss my friends when they’re like this. You can’t have a chat with someone who’s got his mouth squashed onto somebody else’s. I don’t usually stay long at pubs or parties.
I never want anyone to get the wrong idea and accuse me of leading them on, so I don’t even risk conversations which might be interesting. This party’s different. It’s not going to get awkward because we’ll be playing music, which is a lot more fun than socialising.
Midge’s Auntie Sharon is in her kitchen, cutting pizzas into slices with a big pair of kitchen scissors. There are paper plates full of food all over the table, and boxes of beer and cider on the floor. I ask her if she wants a hand, but she waves me off, saying I’ve got more important things to do, that Oliver is already up in the back bedroom sorting out amps. Nobody else calls Midge ‘Oliver’, not even his mother or teachers.
Sharon’s never been bothered by our noise, by the egg boxes we stapled to her Laura Ashley wallpaper to try to soundproof, or by our leather jackets drying out on her radiators. She’ll bring us up jugs of squash with cupcakes or bowls of crisps or slices of angel cake, then stand in the doorway with the tray, smiling, waiting for a pause between cover versions of Bring Me The Horizon, Asking Alexandria and Enter Shikari, or the few songs we’ve tried to write ourselves.
Over the gas fire in her living room is this big canvas photo of Midge as a dribbling toddler. Other walls in her house feature framed photos of him through the ages, and framed pictures he drew or painted at primary school. In October, she took photos of us snarling in her backyard, printed them out square like CD covers and Blu-Tacked them to both sides of the kitchen door. Midge is a bit embarrassed by it all, but I always thought that sort of unconditional worship would be nice.
Midge and I don’t talk much while we untangle wires, but I can see his hands are shaking as much as mine. By the time we’ve got the guitar, bass and mic wired in downstairs, Anwar and Joey have set up the drum kit.
Then Joey says ‘It’s time!’ but it can’t be. We had twenty minutes. I look at my phone and he’s right. I check over the connections, Anwar adjusts his stool, Midge and Joey leap over to the front door.
My mouth dries at the chattering and clattering of our guests entering. There are loads of people, which is going to be brilliant just as soon as we start. I know some of them really well, but they’re no longer Maria from Business Studies, or Reece from swimming; they are now our audience – potentially, our fans. I’m as nervous of them as of strangers.
Joey’s rolling his shoulders with his eyes closed, head tipped back, both hands round the mic stand. It could look cool if he wasn’t trying so hard to make it do so.
The smell of melting mozzarella from the kitchen turns my stomach. I just want to get on with it now. Clutching my Tokai TST SB, I look down at its frets so I won’t have to look at faces, dance my fingers over the strings in patterns I know like I know breathing.
I don’t know how many more people will fit in this room. I don’t know when we should start playing. They are all talking. I look to my bandmates. Anwar’s rotating his wrists, eyeing his snare like he’s forgotten what it’s for.
Midge plays a quiet note on his bass. Then another. He plays a sequence of them. The crowd mostly hushes. He plays the riff again, then a third time, and they are all quiet. So that’s when I come in with my part. After two bars the drums join us. Another three, then Joey sings.
There’s not enough space for the guests to dance or mosh, but they are moving against each other. They cheer.
My solo is coming up. I want to be able to see everyone who’s watching us. I want them all to see me playing my Tokai TST SB. I’ve missed this so much. Joey’s belting out the chorus for the second time. Midge looks over at me, because he knows it’s my big bit coming.
Fuck it. Sharon won’t mind.
One boot on a floral seat cushion, which sinks under me and tips my ankle, but I’m up on the arm of the sofa before it can topple me. Here it comes! I’m playing – looking down at my hand then looking out over the room. My T-shirt sleeves are rolled, so I catch flashes of my biceps as my arm moves the plectrum up and down the strings. I can’t wait to be old enough to get a tattoo there.
This is everything.
We play for half an hour altogether. Anwar is a bit rusty and Midge is a bit drunk, but it’s still brilliant. The music mostly meshes. Our friends yell out ‘encore’ when we finish. I look over to Joey and Midge on my left, wondering which number to repeat, but they are shaking their heads.
My euphoria drains. I don’t understand. I wish we could play all night.
Just when I think that our attitudes are harmonising, there’s always a bump. Like, we’ll rehearse for a couple of hours, reach that point where we can read each other’s minds and the rest of the world loses reality, then one of them will say they’re tired and want to go to the pub. On the walk round the corner we might keep talking about the music for a bit, but once we get into the noise and hop smells that’s it. They’ll be scanning the room beyond my shoulder while we queue at the bar with our fake IDs.
They choose where we sit by following their instincts, listening to some frequency I can’t pick up, locating our optimum destination. Which is always a table full of girls. With my palm chilling against the condensation round my pint, I have to follow their backs through other people’s backs like a small child in long grass, even though I’m the tallest of the lot of us.
I’ll sit quiet with my pint while Anwar listens, focussed, to what one girl says, Midge shows off to the whole table and Joey chats up like he’s interviewing for the position of girlfriend.
He misses Nadia. He was heartbroken when they split up, wrote some of his best lyrics then. They met at our first gig, which was last December – a Battle of the Bands at the Arts Centre. I wouldn’t say we were good then, but we were no worse than the competition.
While we played, Midge’s Auntie Sharon, his parents and Anwar’s sisters stood at the back of the hall, all looking as proud as you like. Joey’s dad was in the mosh pit. Nadia was one of the girls who came over to sit with us afterwards. As usual, I felt awkward so I left early.
My band are already leaving the back bedroom when I get up there with my Tokai TST SB, leads and Blackstar Fly 3 Mini Amp. Midge’s bass has been chucked on the bed. The drums are all over the floor. Slowly and carefully, I put my baby in her case, slide it under the bed. I write love songs to my Tokai TST SB. They sound like they’re to a girl, so it’s fine.
I never wasted time asking my parents to buy me an electric guitar, or to let me get a job to save up for one. I just sold my PlayStation without telling them, and asked for money for my sixteenth birthday and the Christmas before. After my last GCSE paper in June, I walked to Sound Style in town instead of going home, and bought myself the love of my life. That summer I learned to play it, and got the band together when term started.
I leave the back bedroom and close the door behind me. For a moment I stand with its veneer at my back, adjusting, wondering where to go through all the noise and people. I hold my breath as I head back down into it, squeezing past several couples sitting on the stairs.
The music is loud; the lights are low. I strain on my tiptoes to search the crowded living room but can’t see Joey or Anwar at all. Midge is standing in the corner where the telly usually goes, just to the right of that huge picture of his toddler face, already wrapped round a boy I’ve never seen before. Their faces are all smashed into one big face. Spit glistens on his chin, just like in the photo.
I could eat pizza. That’s what I could do with myself. I push through to the kitchen, bodies pressing at every part of me. It’s like swimming through flesh. I squeeze on past all those photos of us on the door.
There’s a girl in a short skirt sitting on the table with her bare thigh beside the plates of pizza slices. I look away from the food. She might think it’s her body I’m interested in. I don’t know what to do now. I swivel my eyes all over, trying to find a spot without a person in it where I can rest my gaze.
There’s the sink! I shuffle towards it, find that it’s full of ice packed round cans of lager. Ideal. I fish one out. I stand still, facing the window. I smile at a few people from school who are peering into the other side of it.
People nudge past me, so I get out of the way of the sink as I’m opening the can. Where can I go to drink it?
Out of the open back door. That’ll do. There might be some cool quiet in the yard.
It is rammed with smokers, but at least it’s not as noisy as indoors. I take a long drink. I don’t particularly want to get drunk. Not tonight. I do want to be able to relax into my surroundings, though.
‘Good gig,’ says a guy wearing a cut-off denim waistcoat over bare, hairless skin.
‘Cheers,’ I reply. Don’t know what to say next. I try, ‘We’ve played a few pubs.’
The girl standing beside him offers me a cigarette.
‘Nah, but thanks.’
I wonder who invited them.
‘You were cool on the solos,’ she says.
‘I think guitarists are really sexy.’
That must be the moment the chilled beer hits my stomach, because suddenly I feel icy at my core. I say ‘Cheers’ again. I ask what bands they’re into, to keep them talking until I’ve finished my lager.
Eventually, I crush the can a bit round its middle to demonstrate its emptiness, say ‘Just gonna throw this away.’
I continue on past the recycling bin after I chuck it in, back through the party. Anwar is dancing with Caity from Further Maths. He waves at me, so I wave back. Midge is sat on the stairs, now, with Joey’s ex, Nadia, on his lap. She looks embarrassed when she sees me, but he doesn’t; he pulls her even closer. I look away from them to the lampshade on the landing, keep walking up the stairs.
Closing the door to the back bedroom is like sealing myself into a pod of safety. The floor vibrates under my knees. Sounds like it’s Enter Shikari, but so distorted I can’t even recognise which album. Next door will definitely complain soon.
I put Midge’s bass away carefully, then get the drum stool upright in front of the wardrobe, where it usually goes, start reconstructing the kit round it. I am attaching the high hat when the door opens behind me.
I turn quick, scared for a second, but it’s fine.
It’s only Auntie Sharon, saying, ‘Oh, bless you, I was just coming in here to check on things.’
‘Putting it back together,’ I say.
‘Yes, I see. I can do that if you trust me with it; you might as well go down and enjoy the party.’
‘I trust you,’ I say. ‘I’m just a bit…’ I shrug. I don’t know the words for what I am. I feel a bit bad for not appreciating this party she’s gone to all this trouble to give us.
‘Is it not your scene?’ she asks.
Feels rude saying so, but it’s not, so I nod slightly.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I see. I didn’t like parties much at your age, either. Did when I was little. And I like them now I’m older, when it’s mostly families.’
‘Right,’ I say. I concentrate on tightening the stand.
She sits on the bed, which is clear now. ‘You played beautifully earlier.’
‘I wish it could have gone on for longer.’
The wall behind her is pocked with staples. One last grey-green egg tray frames the left side of her face. They never did work for soundproofing.
‘Was it the others, then? Did they want to stop playing?’
I shrug. ‘I suppose they wanted to get on with the party.’
I don’t understand that. I don’t get it at all.
‘I suppose so.’
‘I’m just into the music.’
‘So are they, love. Oliver is always up here on his own, you know, between band practices, headphones in, playing the same thing over and over. You mustn’t think he’s not serious.’
Midge didn’t look serious on the stairs; he looked like someone who didn’t care whether the band split up or not.
‘Maybe there are other things he’s keener on, though,’ I mutter.
‘You mean girls?’
‘Not just— yeah, girls.’
‘Girls and boys, kissing and sex and all that stuff some people enjoy so much,’ she says. ‘He’s at that age. Well, you all are. I suppose.’
We look right at each other. I don’t know what I look like, but my face must tell her something, because she looks comprehending.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I’m like you. Never went in for it. Can’t see the point.’
My brain’s still processing what she’s saying while I hear myself gasp out with the relief of hearing someone make sense at last. My guts warm back up.
‘They’re so boring.’ I couldn’t stop myself saying it now even if I wanted to, even if there was someone there who’d be offended. Luckily there isn’t. ‘Nothing else matters to them! I don’t know what to do with myself when they’re— I mean, there are people down there I wouldn’t mind hanging out with if they weren’t all— and if someone ends up lunging for me, or asking me out, and I back away, then I’m somehow the one who’s done something wrong.’
‘Oh, I know, love. And there’s more to life, isn’t there?’
‘There should be.’ I sit on the drum stool.
‘There will be. This is a difficult age.’
‘You mean it’ll stop?’
I look into her face over the reflection of the wall light on the ride cymbal. I’m sort of hopeful, but I’m holding the hope back so I won’t be disappointed.
Which is just as well. She takes a few breaths, then says, ‘No, I can’t lie to you. It gets less frantic, but people always assume that if you’re single then you’re looking. Well-meaning friends still try to match me up with the single men they know. Telly programmes and movies and pop songs and books continue to be mostly love stories. Even adverts. Folk will often think you’re aloof and odd. They’ll pity you.’
I look away from her, deflating, losing strength, twisting a new, pale, smooth drumstick round and round between my fingers. The floorboards vibrate under my boots.
Sharon keeps talking. ‘But there is more to life. I used to worry that I was missing out. I thought I ought to get myself a boyfriend, even though I’ve never fancied anyone. But I didn’t like it when I tried it. You’re not being deprived of anything.’
‘Oh, yes. Think about it, if I had a husband I don’t suppose he’d let me have a heavy metal band rehearsing in our back bedroom.’
I laugh. I put the stick back in the centre of the snare beside its mate, ready for Anwar when he is ready for them. ‘Maybe not.’
‘And I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. I’ve loved every minute of it.’
We smile at each other. I’m just about to say ‘Me too’, though I know she doesn’t need to be told, but just then, ringing clear through the distortion, there’s a note which doesn’t fit the music.
‘Doorbell,’ I say instead.
She pushes herself up off the mattress with both hands. ‘I suppose I’d better deal with the neighbours.’
It’s not the neighbours; it’s the police. The music goes off. The party goes on.
I slide my Tokai TST SB out from under the bed and head home with it on my back. Just me and my baby, walking through empty streets together, from streetlamp to streetlamp, boots drumming the pavement and leather jacket squeaking against the guitar case. A new song starts piecing itself together in my head.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.