“Hey, Little Songbird” by Becca Elizabeth

Hey, Little Songbird

Theo was…actually, good question. Theo wasn’t sure. West. He’d crossed the river, definitely, then gone West on the Central Line (that airless box, full of grey-faced and weary people, sixty feet under).  Theo was getting uncomfortably used to these crowded, anonymous spaces. He used to drive, of course – not drive, be driven: a car for him and his ‘shag of the week’, a van for his roadie, a couple of guitars and his ego. But that was B.C. – before Cal, before the tabloids and the rumours and the sheer middle class horror of it all.

Cal hadn’t been a child – yeah, he was just twenty, and yeah, Theo was meant to be ‘mentoring’ him on the pivotal third season of the behemoth talent search show as a favour to Jason. It had sounded like a legitimate music job at first, a way to get some serious recognition away from the teenage market who were already starting to forget him, but it soon proved to be a nonsense term for an even more ridiculous job, consisting mainly of some carefully choreographed shots of them by a piano, Theo taking Cal to his first red-carpet premier, providing sound-bites for the live Sunday night elimination shows, but nothing happened. A cocktail of hero-worship and too much booze, sure, but that’s all. Theo wasn’t even into guys. Yeah, there was some flirting, that was just par for the course; five years ago, his stomach still nearly flat and his receding hairline less prominent, it just came naturally.  A couple of ill-advised late nights with Jason’s best Talisker, just a couple of kisses and touches that Cal, at least, could call youthful indiscretions.

Since the seemingly unending days of shrieking red headlines, ‘no comments’ and painfully awkward T.V. interviews, Theo’d been keeping busy. Five years of developing a keen interest in gardening, writing his autobiography, keeping in shape.  Convenient lies, anything rather than betray how fucking cavernous his days had become. When the offer of the tour had come through, he’d jumped at it.

He’d been expecting something a little classier than student unions and half filled provincial theatres. But tonight’s gig, Katabais, had sounded all kinds of classy; Italian, maybe Greek, whatever. A step up from the usual décor, from the usual mostly apathetic crowd, his own room backstage. At first glance, the club’d clearly seen better days. The up-lighters giving the façade a scorched orange glow, the spidery logo, the two…ugly as fuck, whatever they were…glaring down at him suggested that the place had probably had it’s heyday before the millennium.

Worming his hands deeper in his pockets against the cold, Theo tries really hard not to notice the irony. He’s heard some intriguing stuff about the bloke who ran it, though – still a player in the industry, has the magic touch. His agent had really sold this one – it was worth the travel, could “really be the start of Theo’s journey back into mainstream recognition.” Glancing up at the club (crenelations? really?), Theo thinks that his agent was full of shit.

Still, Theo is here for a reason: he’d love to say it was for the thrill of performing, of making a deep and personal connection through his music, but even he knows that it wouldn’t be true. The longer he’s on the road, the more obvious it’s become that his motives were rooted firmly in avarice – maybe it’d been fun once, but right now it was just a job. He shivers. He’s surprised he can’t see his breath mist out in front of him. This may be just a job, but on nights like tonight when all Theo wants is to be sprawled on his sofa with some own-brand whisky and a first person shooter, it felt like a fucking Herculean effort.

Theo takes ten deep breaths, just like he’s been taught – a slow inhale through the nose, the claggy, cloying traffic fumes, burning oil from the braziers outside the doors, the hint of hairspray and cheap perfume; a slow exhale through the mouth. Four four time. He checks out his reflection in the blacked out glass of the door – jeans, dark t-shirt, one of his better jackets specifically chosen to sweep down from his shoulders and skim his developing stomach – and makes sure his smile is in place. He lets just a hint of a swagger into his gait as he approached the door, is genuinely gratified when the bouncer – bald, six foot, no-neck with the surprising name-badge of Sharon – doesn’t even ask for his name, just nods him in and gives him directions to the dressing room. He tips her a fiver for the trouble.

The dressing room’s nothing breath-taking, but much nicer than getting changed in the gents. The wallpaper is peeling slightly and there are some scuff marks on the puckered lino, lit from the rhythmically flickering halogens above him. He’s even been left some lager and a couple of sandwiches only a few hours past their prime. His eyes are drawn to the main feature of the room, daubed across the back wall. The myrtle green paintwork is covered with scrawls of marker-pen and slashes of black paint that formed words, phrases, sentences. Nothing new – people were determined to leave reminders of themselves anywhere they could. Still, it’s pretty striking, probably because of the lack of the usual optimistically proportioned genitalia; Theo’s pretty sure some of it even rhymes. Just above this eye-line to the left, he spots “for words, like Nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within,” and for a moment he struggles to remember the next line. It seemed unnaturally inspired and Theo can’t help but wonder, cynically, if it’d happened organically, or whether it was some corporate artistic statement, if some tweed wearing hipster had made a mint from the idea.

His thoughts quickly turn to the more prosaic and he settles in to prod the sandwiches cautiously and revel in the snap of the can’s tab. It is oddly quiet, the faint hum of machinery, muted enough that he can pinpoint the moment when the sound check starts, an insistent thrum of bass through the breezeblock walls that settles in Theo’s sternum, an unsettling beat that is off-kilter to his heart. As he sits, drinks, and listens to the noise level rise as the club fills up, his attention is drawn back to the writing on the wall, and without really thinking about it he finds himself trying to figure more of the interweaving palimpsest out. A couple of things stand out “And thus I clothe my naked villainy, with odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ and seem a saint when most I play the devil”; “check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

The more Theo reads, the more there seems to be, layer upon layer of words, criss-crossed, scratched out. The words seem to blur and move as he looks at them, and it seems less and less likely that he’d spot a funny one, one he recognises. “Drink, drugs, debt and depression.” “Leave.” “Don’t look back.” A splash of red ink, where he’d only noticed sweeping black lines.

Maybe drinking all four cans hadn’t been Theo’s best idea.  He’s hardly touched the sandwiches. Just as he’s working up the nerve to attempt the greying tuna mayo, there is a knock on the door.

“Ten minutes, mate.”

Theo jumps. He’d nearly forgotten what he was doing next. He hasn’t even checked out the stage or run through his vocal warm-ups. Shit. He follows the guy down three flights of unexpected stairs before they make their way through the corridors which were noticeably cold and damp. The drop in temperature disappears as they entered the club proper, the press of the constantly moving bodies stealing Theo’s air. So many people. He shouldn’t worry, should think of the ticket sales, of his cut. He follows the guy down a claustrophobic passage and climbs the stairs into the wing of the stage. Theo uses his vantage point to check out the crowd, to look up at the vaulted ceiling, oddly ecclesiastical, wondering if the acoustics would be any different if they were underground, if his sound would be muffled, trapped.

Looking down at the writhing mass of bodies in front of the stage, Theo’s not sure they’d even care, so caught up in the undulating beat, in each other, skin and sweat and unending movement in time to the persistent drums of his support act. He waits as they draw to a close and watches a skinny bloke in a suit and a skinnier tie take to the stage to announce Theo. He hears his name announced and the whooping reply, and suddenly (far too late and only just in time) Theo feels his shoulders drop, his spine straighten, his lungs finally at their full capacity.

The crowd seems a little alternative; Theo notices tattoos, stretchers, a couple of undercuts, some possible new young fans. It’d make him feel old, but the crowd also has its standard amount of older, leather-jacketed men, groups of women who’d swapped their business blouses for sparkly tops. Theo’s pretty sure that some are in even in fancy dress. He keeps catching glimpses of dyed hair, some fairy wings, even a couple of horns and grotesque face-masks, though Halloween is a way off yet.  Not his typical audience, but the ‘alternative’ crowd always seem to have money, and he knows his agent is out there somewhere with a merchandise stall.

As his name is called, Theo grins, rocks forwards on the balls of his feet a few times and rolls his shoulders, appreciating the movement in them. He heads up towards the mic, the band settles in, and Theo hears the familiar opening lines – he wasn’t going to start with his biggest hit, but this should be universally recognizable by the second chorus. He feels himself relax into it further, lets the music carry him. Unsure whether it’s the atmosphere, the energy, flying, falling. Neon lights shift from harsh, lurid colours over the crowd to softer, glowing shades over the vaulted ceilings, over the room’s many alcoves and crevices, making it look like the walls pulsed, fluid, infinite and claustrophobic.  Sound like a wave hits him from the crowd as they start to sing along. Not well, pitched occasionally in an odd key that clashes with the guitars, nails down a chalkboard, and Theo’s sure he can hear the odd, rhythmic shrieking of an alarm.

It’s then that he sees her. Theo’s not sure how he missed her. She’s standing on her own, propped up against the sound-desk. Theo’s not sure what she’s wearing, some sort of fancy skater dress.  Theo can’t work out the colour under the lights – at times it looks dark, copper red, sometimes a blue that makes it hard to pick out the rest of the features in the dim light, but when the U.V. hits she looks like she’s glowing, like she’s lit from the inside, every curve and striking piece of bone structure deftly highlighted. She’s tall, skinnier than Theo’d normally go for, dark hair mostly obscuring her face, hips swaying to the beat. Theo wants her desperately. She looks up, even though there’s no earthly way she could known he was looking, and Theo realises he’s staring, feels panic in his stomach as he’s suddenly not sure of the next line. It’s enough to jolt him out of the song’s natural progression, out of autopilot.  He runs frantically through the words, tonight, tight, drive all night, remembers “I drive all night to keep her warm” just in time. He gets away with it, moves onto one from his difficult second album, tries to avoid looking out at the crowd for a while, getting too comfortable. He can feel his mediocre dance moves starting to feel a little jagged around the edges, but he welcomes the adrenaline, feels it push him into a heightened state of awareness, thinking one line ahead.

It might be a little too much, though, because the next time he looks back at the crowd it all seems a little more hostile. The mouths seem more violent, snarling. There’s tension around the edges, a bit of shoving, more costumes and masks. He guesses that the alcohol is kicking in, that the hard-core crowd have arrived. He thinks that he can hear boos, someone at the back catcalling in a high, shrieking voice. He hates to admit it, but he’s had so much worse. Thankfully, he’s only got two songs to go now, one that he’d self penned in a night of whisky and self pity, and his finale – the only song that he’s famous for.

He closes his set, takes a couple of seconds to drink in the applause, the screaming, and heads off the stage. He’s just trying to figure out if he should make for the bar or head back to the dressing room when the skater girl appears in the corridor, clearly heading his way. It’s been a while since he had fans trying to pick him up after a show, but before he can work out what to say, she speaks.

“My boss wants to see you a minute. Follow me.”

Before he can reply, she turns off down a different corridor and down more stairs. Place was probably made before lifts, Theo thinks, as keeping up with her after all that singing becomes a noticeable strain on his lungs. He wonders where this is going. Before he can work it out she’s stopped abruptly by a door Theo hadn’t noticed. The room is a jarring contrast from the dingy corridor he’d just left: a weird, octagonal room far too big for a few bookcases and a couple of chairs, the most ornate of which was behind a low mahogany desk with a TV screen on it. A man who Theo had to assume was the manager is sitting behind the desk: a square faced, broad shouldered man, hair so dark it had to’ve come out of a packet, rings on most of his fingers, a too tight gold chain up against the folds of his neck. He is exactly what Theo is expecting, typical East-end bloke done good then turned a little too fat. There’s an undercurrent of aggression in his dark eyes, a guy used to relying on his wits and his fists to succeed. The girl is now standing behind him, hand on his shoulder.

The guy looks up, acknowledging Theo with a smirk, beckons him closer. Theo moves, waits awkwardly. He doesn’t even know the guy’s name. He wants to ask, to get a chair, to just leave and go home, but he could be on to something here. He distracts himself from saying anything stupid by staring at the textured purple and black patterned wallpaper, trying to make recognisable shapes in the pattern.

The guy coughs, speaks, “You can call me Aiden.”

Theo blinks, nods.

“I know a lot about you.”

Theo tries not to roll his eyes – Aiden had clearly invested a lot of time and effort in being the authority in the room. When he drags his eyes away from the wallpaper, though, there is something unexpected in the way Aiden is looking at him. Not just the smug arrogance and wideboy malice Theo’d expected, there’s something knowing in his eyes.

“I could help.”

Theo pulls at the collar of his t-shirt, feels sweat trickle. He’s not sure why he feels so off-kilter, this should be exactly what he wants to hear, but something feels wrong. Maybe it’s the complete absence of sound, the way that when Theo looks back at the wallpaper the shapes seem to be moving faces, but he tries to rationalise that it’s just the adrenaline from the performance pumping round his system. Maybe something in his drink. He looks back at the girl, hoping for some distraction. In his peripheral vision, he sees Aiden’s eyes narrow.

“You like Mercedes?”

Theo can’t help himself, just nods.

Aiden chuckles. “I knew you would. You can have her too, if you like.”

“What?” It’s not elegant, but it’s all he can manage. Theo looks at the girl for a reaction, but she just smiles at him, eyes wide and inviting.

“Like I said, I know all about you. Call me a fan. Know where you’ve been, what you want.” An image of Theo’s home, his bed flits into his mind. It’s late, his feet hurt, and tonight’s been just a little too odd. Aiden shakes his head, and it takes Theo a second to work out that Aiden can’t possibly be responding to his thoughts. And yet the picture changes; still his bed, now with Mercedes in it. On it, with not much on her. Theo swallows hard, tries to focus. He’d heard about this kind of thing, sure, girls being used as favours, but its never happened to him before. He struggles for a second with whether to feel disgusted, intrigued, or flattered. It’s not helped by the fact that a lot of blood is currently in his groin, rather than his brain. He shakes his head to clear it – he’d not noticed the incense when he walked in, but he can’t shift the cloying jasmine smell that’s making it hard to think – and waits for Aiden to speak again.

“Yeah, now you’re getting it.” Aiden smiles, and Theo wonders if he was just imagining the malice. “But that’s not all you want, is it?” The image in Theo’s head changes, expands – he’s back on a bigger, better stage, the kind he used to be used to. He can see the crowd, the signs they’re holding up, his name, can picture offering a girl the chance to come back-stage. It’s terribly vivid, but it’s not a memory – this crowd is cooler, Theo’s singing with impact, with authority, the lights are a little brighter.

Theo must’ve made a sound, because Aiden nods. “I could make that happen for you, Theo. Seriously, mate. I may have a bad rep, but I heard your set.”

“What’s the catch?” Theo’s not stupid – his agent said Aiden was good, but there’s got to be a cost involved for this kind of career wizardry.

But Aiden shakes his head, like Theo’s disappointed him, and Theo feels guilt roll through his stomach.

“Oh, Theo, there’s no catch. You trust me, right?”

There’s a part of Theo that’s surprised when he nods his head, but saying no seems abhorrent.

“For once, success really is within your grasp. You’ve got talent, Theo.” Aiden’s voice is low, and Theo’s world narrows further to that sound, those eyes.

Theo sways – it’s so warm – hits his legs against Aiden’s desk. He wonders for a second how he got so close, but the thought won’t stay.

“Just one thing you gotta do for me, okay?” Theo nods again.

“Take my card, hell, take the girl. All you’ve got to do is walk out of here, back where you came from. When you get there, Sharon will give you a number to call. We’ll fix you up with a decent agent this time, find you some heart-warming project to get involved in, you’ll have your first newspaper interview by the end of the month, single and a tour by the spring. Sound good?”

Theo nods, again. It should sound ridiculous, but it doesn’t.

“All you got to do is walk out and not look back until you and Mercedes are outside, okay? You need to show me you can work with me – indulge a very old man this one fancy. ‘Course, disappoint me and I’ll have to pretend we didn’t have this conversation. I’ll be watching on the CCTV. Go on, son, fuck off.”

It seems an easy enough set of instructions considering the offer. Theo reaches to take the proffered card and turns to follow Aiden’s instructions, hears Mercedes’ heels clack behind him. It’s a reassuring sound, but Theo still wants to check. He’s about to turn his head when Aiden coughs. “No. Go on, like I told you.” Theo rolls his eyes, feeling a little more like himself, but obeys.

The cold air of the corridor hits his lungs like running into a wall, sweat cooling on his skin. He carries on walking, just one foot in front of the other, hearing Mercedes echo his beat, (one, one two, two). He picks up signs for the exit pretty quickly, starts on one of the many staircases. The further up he goes the easier it is to breathe, the less his head feels full of smoke.

As the haze clears, (one, one, two, two) the doubts fill up the space: this is too easy, too quick. It’s a joke. It’s a struggle not to look back, especially as the stairs turn, cheating would be so easy, but he has a feeling that Aiden would know.  Theo wonders what he’s got to lose by this. Even if Aiden was lying (Theo feels like that’s not the right thought, but he can’t work out what’s wrong with it), he can’t see the harm of humouring him. And maybe Mercedes will choose to come back with him anyway.

But as he climbs the stairs, his anxiety seems to climb too. Theo reaches what he’s pretty sure is the last corridor, is starting to recognize things from when he came in. There must be a breeze somewhere – he’s full of fresh air and fresh thoughts. He glances upwards, catches a ceiling camera following his progress, just like Aiden’d said. So close now (one…one, two…two).

Suddenly, it hits him. Cameras. Just like that girl who said she was a massive fan of the show, of Cal and Theo, who danced with them in the club, who asked so nicely for a picture, “Just to show my mates I met you, I won’t tell anyone.” The picture that Theo only saw the next morning when his agent greeted him with it at his door. No-one gets what they want this easy (He’s still walking, can see the exit. One, one, two, two).

It’s a set-up. He’d thought the papers had forgotten he existed, but clearly he was wrong. It’s a trick. The realization should be shocking, should make him angry, but it’s…it’s like a release, like coming up for air. There’s no magic solution. He can’t just assume people are on his side, can’t believe that he’s going to get everything he wants (One, one, two, two).

It’s a powerful realization: he can either keep doing the shitty gigs, working to be the next big thing again, to earn it, or he can quit. In the end his choice doesn’t matter – it’s the fact that he’s got one.  It stops him in his tracks, inches away from the door – he can hear the rumble of late night traffic, the laugh of a security guard. So close. Even if it’s not a trick, even if Aiden can somehow deliver, Theo wonders what kind of baggage really comes with Aiden’s offer: no-one gets that much power without burying a few bodies. He thinks of Mercedes (if that even is her real name) behind him – passive, accepting – drugged? Theo shudders. He’s never been that man. This isn’t the ending he wants.

He stops his hand as it reaches to the door handle. Words are racing through his mind – “I’ve had enough. I’ve got to do this on my own. I’m better than this.” He turns to tell Mercedes he’s done, ready to save himself.

The corridor is empty.

 

 

 


Be sure to vote for your favorite story here!

Becca is 20-something teacher and writer who spends too much time thinking about pop-culture and the NHL. She likes listening to musicals (and music she should’ve grown out of in her teens), obsessing over British T.V., and making up for her issues with writing plot by over researching her stories in ridiculous detail.

As far as she knows, she’s never met an avatar of a Greek mythological figure, but there’s still time!

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5 Comments

  1. Okay, wow, I loved this story. Theo was a very well-written character, and it is damn hard to get good character development in such a short story, but you nailed it. I’m curious about Aiden, I think the name of the club is a hint though… very well done. If I had to criticize, I’d say that I am still not 100% sure what the scandal with Cal was, but I’ll have to re-read it to make sure I didn’t just miss it. Also, the fact that I understood *something* happened is a bit more important than exactly what happened. Well done!

  2. dante’s inferno, set in the london underground rock scene. brilliant.

    i love a story that makes me feel something without *telling* me how to feel, and you accomplished that here. this story was dark and hopeful and sad and redemptive all at once. i also love that it can be read as magical realism or as metaphorical impression, and both stories are distinct and engaging.

    excellent job. thanks for letting me read it.

  3. A lot of times when an author crams in tons of asides and comma separated inserts and half-sentences, it can come across as amateurish, like the author can’t get out of their own way to tell their story.

    Here, though, that style of writing absolutely worked. I never felt like the author was intruding while I was reading, instead it felt exactly how it’s supposed to, like the main character’s thoughts are popping up and that I’m getting more personal with them instead of being told what to think.

    Which is to say that this is very strong writing. You get to know Theo and his past, his fears and his insecurities, his ennui and his taste in sandwiches, and it all flows wonderfully.

    I love how we are given an “aging rocker” character, but that it never feels like a stereotype. I think this is partially due to, again, excellent writing, but also because Theo himself has reached an age where he is questioning that very stereotype. It’s quite possible that, if we had met Theo ten years ago, he would be trying as hard as possible to BE that stereotype thinking that it would make him happy.

    Instead we’re given a wonderfully reflective look at his past through the wisps of wisdom that are starting to form.

    My only complaints are that, during the climax of his walk out of the club, I wonder if his thoughts aren’t TOO on the nose? I don’t know, epiphanies are rarely so logically spelled out…then again it’s possible that if it were blurrier I’d have missed it so I’m not sure about that.

    My other complaint was the switch to present tense midway through. This is more of a personal complaint as we see present tense used a lot in the arena and I’m just rarely a fan of it. It adds a touch of immediateness when it first hits but then it just opens an author up to tense mix-ups as they continue on. I find present tense to be gimmicky and this writing is absolutely strong enough to captivate me without it.

    Other than that this was an excellent read through and through.

  4. Orpheus, as played by….well, John Lydon maybe. Or Adam Ant. Or Ozzy Osbourne.

    There are three reasons this gets my vote –

    The characterisation is so strong I can practically buy the protagonist a drink.

    The narrative forms a definite journey, and it’s nice that there’s some uncertainty at the end. Was there a girl? Or is Aiden laughing at our hero all the way out?

    Stylistically, I thought this was very strong. The description, the deliberate tense switch dumping us from memory to the now, the slightly unreal quality to the exit – is that a heartbeat, footsteps, echoes? – all gripping.

    So, a strong character telling a powerful story with a gripping narrative. I don’t ask much from an arena story, so when I get it told this well, I vote for it.

  5. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    I am learning at this very moment that I cannot type and applaud at the same time. Wow, this story was fantastic. I love how the author took such a timeless and classic premise, and cast it through lens of a pop culture has-been and seedy second-rate night clubs. The storytelling was so convincing I could almost smell the old sweat and stale gin-soaked back stage walls. The settings and main character were so well fleshed out, it was an absolute joy to feel as though I was soaking in the experience of an aging rock star standing on the razor’s edge between damnation and salvation.

    The music set at the club was especially amazing, with perfectly measured revelations about the audience and the location – in counter sync with the highs and lows of Theo’s performance – so perfectly written. And much like Theo, I was completely transfixed by the writing on the wall, or more to the point, the descriptions of the writing on the wall.

    I admit, I would have dug a little less ambiguity in the exchange between Theo and Aiden, or at least a bit more of a lean into Theo’s underlying sense of dread about what might possibly be on the line, but I have to admit, I harbored a growing elation as Theo climbed the final staircase and formulated his own decisively redemptive destiny. I actually felt a bit of a catharsis when he reached for the door handle.

    This was an amazing read. Thank you for a brilliantly wonderful story.

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