Updated: Nov 25, 2018
Nothing strikes cringiness into a young woman's heart like that invitation to watch their new boyfriend's band. It's excruciating. If you like him, you want it to be good so you can honestly say it was brilliant. It so seldom is. You stand there afterwards feeling that familiar combo of wanting to be truthful but at the same time wanting to be loving and supportive. It's an uneasy mixture. Your sweaty beau jumps off the rickety beer crate stage and saunters towards you across the pub in an elaborate display of contrived nonchalance, for the benefit of the bored bar staff, the incompetent student sound engineer, two bar slugs (regulars), the bass player's entire drunk family and a bloke in the middle of a divorce weeping silently into his beer who wandered in by mistake. Whaddya think? says your lad, trying desperately not to outright beg for your adoration of his creative endeavour, honed over months of the band chain smoking spliffs, eating their collective weight in Bombay Mix, strumming and thumping through some half arsed copies of early Joke/Nirvana/Oasis/Green Day etc., and planning their Brits appearence in detail in Baz the drummer's mam's cellar.
Oh, you say with a bright and completely insincere smile, it was fab. No, really. Ever so good. The lights were great and you - you - looked ace. Them trousers are so cool. I could hear everything! Well done! Ace. He stifles a high five - not cool - and you can visibly see his ego expanding like a blotting paper flower dropped in water.
Love is a wonderful thing and makes liars of us all.
In the days between our last meeting and the dreaded Saturday gig, I had a lot on my mind. I still wasn't that well but I couldn't call in sick for more that 3 days without a doctor's certificate and I never wanted to go into the village surgery again as confidentiality be damned, they all knew what had happened to me. It was a village. It was the early 1980s, but in that village it was still 1952. Freaks and weirdos didn't deserve confidentiality. I'm not making this up for effect, it wasn't long after the mental hospital escapade when the woman in the bakery asked if I was 'better' in that give-me-all-the-gory-details way and I knew she knew. And she knew I knew she knew. And that the bloody doctor's receptionist had told every busybody in the village.
So I wheezed and spat gunk into a jam jar - ever the glamour girl - on my own in front of the gas fire in the icy living room that always smelt of cold damp Yorkshire gritstone l and thought. I was fond of the blessed noodle and grateful. I knew he'd done his best, but that I was a puzzling and dreadful disappointment to him. He'd tried to catch a dove and got a hawk by mistake. His family loathed me, I was never invited to family events or round to their house. His mother, the legendary awful mother-in-law, was so disgusted by me she couldn't look me in the face and the blessing in that was I never saw hide nor hair of her after one official visit to the flat, where she was appalled to see me cooking her lad Spaghetti Pomodoro. With no meat in it. None. Not even a pig lip or a horse nipple. I'm not vegetarian but I don't eat meat much and she had brought the noodle up on an actual unvarying weekly menu of meat and two veg for his whole life. Literally, the same dishes every day of the week, roast on Sunday. She was distraught at this garlic smelling, tomatoey foreign muck. Badly cooked too, not that she knew that. I'd had to learn to cook more or less from scratch after the wedding as my mother didn't tolerate me messing about in her kitchen. The first time I managed an edible meal the noodle went to the offie and got a bottle of cheap champagne. The gratitude on his face was palpable.
I knew the noodle's dad had a soft spot for me, he was an ex-biker himself of the pot helmet, Brough Superior sort. But he'd never dare cross their mum. His sister, a skinny milk and water blonde with periwinkle blue popeyes had been one of my bridesmaids, but she had aspirations to the Conservative Club and was mortified by her brother's roll-up smoking, knife toting outlaw bride. She'd have been more mortified still if she'd known about the goings on at the flat and why I could roll a three skin joint on demand and sometimes did 20 in a row at parties. Or that my other bridesmaid who was a pal from college not so much swung both ways as leapt with a glad cry. My wedding night was interesting.
I knew none of his family would miss me. I've never been out with anyone whose family liked me. It's always varied from bite their lip tolerance to outright hostility. I wouldn't miss the noodle's lot, except his dad who was very sweet like his boy and a superb master carpenter, because I a) didn't really know them and b) I didn't give a shit. The blessed noodle though - I would miss him. But I knew it was over. You get that feeling when you see a whole wall of graffiti against you for being a fucking gobby bitch who should be beaten senseless to shut her up in the pub you frequent, and the only pro-you scrawl is from your husband's girlfriend who owns you really aren't that bad. Thank you, Fat Maxine From Morecambe. It was appreciated.
The noodle had left a month after the wedding to work away contracting for 3 months at a time, with a couple of weeks at home before going off again. In many ways, we hardly knew each other. It had been two years or so but I'd only actually seen him for about two months. Now I'd met X. I was at a crossroads. X didn't strike me as the reliable type who'd look after me and be a provider, but I'd come to believe there was no such thing really. Men did what they liked. Women fitted round that. I hadn't wanted the noodle to go away and leave me on my own in a strange village with no family support for months on end, but he did. I was pretty sure X would do exactly as he wanted, whenever he wanted. That was life. I had to fight for myself now. Or die. I often thought about that. In fact I had my post-suicide funeral planned to the last detail. But I couldn't die just then. I couldn't afford the horse drawn hearse. Details matter.
I went for a walk on the moor in order to be moody in the great outdoors. I'd had a couple of male friends in the Slaves, strictly forbidden of course as I was the noodle's Old Lady. Any breath of scandal would have ruined my reputation, by which you can deduce my name was already mud. Really important club members, not just from our club either, used to drop in for tea and digestives, didn't make passes and just talked. I found it puzzling but hey. I could hardly say no and they often earnestly tried to instruct me about how to be a Proper Girl. I think, in their way, they were trying to rescue me. Men like to try and rescue me sometimes. It's nice, but they didn't have a cat in hell's chance because I was fucked up past repair. None the less, I liked that they made the effort. Chivalry was not dead, it rode a Harley rig.
I'd walked this moor with one of those forbidden friends, with whom I shared an arcane interest in lame HP Lovecraft jokes. He was a handsome, bony guy who's skinnyness belied his immense strength to weight ratio. He one of those bikers who rode so naturally and well he looked like cyborg centaur. He had a short, fiery pal who resembled a rabid terrier on crack and rode a cut down rig brush painted bright blue. They were my unofficial praetorian guard. Them and our president. I knew if I left the Slaves there'd be a bidding war, the men who wanted me putting up their offers of bikes, trips to the US, homes, undying bloody love, because despite being anathema I was also a sort of princess, a prize, due to my middle class upbringing and braininess. I have a brain the size of a planet, as X once said, but no map. Chaos personified. But they'd all regret it. They'd all regret me. Everyone always did. I must say I felt very sorry for myself.
It was no use. I had to get out of the Slaves. That time had passed and while I'd learnt a lot, some things extremely useful, some I wish I hadn't even heard about, never mind seen, I knew had to be a poet and an artist. I had no choice. It seemed on the one hand ridiculously pretentious and on the other, perfectly natural. I looked at the rolling, snow dusted heather under the steel skies and smelt the snow in the brisk wind. A rabbit bolted cover across the scrub. Overhead a hawk wheeled, hunting. I wanted to run screaming across the hard earth and up into the sky and dissolve into nothing and everything.
Instead I bent double coughing my guts up from the chill. I went home disconsolately and sat with my cats, siblings Tigger and Queenie. Tigger was brain damaged from abuse as a kitten and Queenie was a tiny white princess who dragged live rabbits in from the moor and controlled her brother completely. They meeped and mooched so I fed them double and we watched a film on the extremely small telly that was as snowy as the weather.
The week wore on and I lost my job at the mini-mart for not turning in. It was a relief as I no longer had to put up with the manager's Benny Hill remarks and the village women staring as I robotically restocked the shelves. I'd miss the pittance but I'd find something else. It didn't seem to matter. Words were pouring through my brain in a turbulent stream. I wanted to do something different with poetry - I just didn't know what. I knew I didn't want the White Boy's Club of English poetry with its attendant mimsy handmaidens, doing suitable and lovingly crafted bullshit about Tuscany and wearing a fucking purple hat. I wanted dread, blood and savagery, I wanted the reality I'd seen all about me since I'd been 14. I wanted to hold up a mirror to the world and say look at it, look at it and don't you dare turn away. I just wasn't good enough at it yet. I brooded like a female Heathcliffe and drank black tea until it came out of my ears.
So, eventually, inevitably, Saturday dawned and having rung round my girlfriends begging one of them to come with me and finding the idea of going to Textile Hall to see a student band appealed to absolutely nobody, I gave up. I'd go alone. I agreed to meet up with them after. It was ok. I was used to it. Given my rep I was always surprised I had any girlfriends at all, because most women's boyfriends or husbands expressly forbade them to be seen with me in case they caught a bad case of gobbiness. It can be fatal, that.
So I turned up to the gig and realised I was the only Punk there. Everyone else was from the Uni course X was on and it was a sea of beige micro-cord, unisex Andy Pandy jumpsuits, mud coloured home made bead necklaces, Earth shoes and stripey socks. It was like a human OXO cube of smugness: compressed, pungent, inedible. Everyone there was like a cartoon of a liberal arts student, smiling at each other just with their mouths and doing that hey man shoulder patting thing. The women were deliberately so extremely natural it looked completely contrived, unplucked within an inch of their lives. Not a filthy patriarchal oppressive bra in sight. No one subscribed to deodorant. You could have passed out from the smell of Spiritual Sky Nag Champa and BO mixed with cheap cider and black. But every gang has its markers.
I stayed out of sight to one side and eventually X and his motley crew shuffled onto the floor space democratically designated as a stage. Not of course, that it meant there was a divide between those being the audience and those being the performers as such antiquated strictures were meaningless in the search for true equality... bugger it. You know the kind of thing.
At first naturally I was focussed on X as he was the only person I knew there. He hadn't seen me and I could observe how he went on, like David bloody Attenborough in the Amazon jungles eyeing up a particularly interesting gibbon. I knew he played guitar, but that was just part of his student skill set like the juggling and broom balancing. As he tuned up nervously, fiddling unnecessarily with leads and mics, I saw him doing his Nice Chap persona. It was a construct of quite breathtaking elaborateness. He had obviously perfected it over many years - the sweet, homely guy who couldn't hurt a fly, a tad earnest maybe, a tiny bit submissive, eager to please, a little bit of clumsy clowning, a big heaped spoonful of self deprecation. Nothing that could possibly offend anyone or cause a raised eyebrow with the Peace Studies set. It was nearly perfect, if you didn't look at his hands on the guitar. Small, square, thick palms. Short bowed fingers callused at the tips. Strong hands that knew the neck and the frets of the cheap instrument. They spoke of a different young man altogether. One who knew all the things he felt were forbidden: ambition, pride, obsession with perfection. He wore a mask, and his peers never bothered to see beneath it.
Being in character, he wore dirty bell bottom jeans, a t-shirt of some unlaundered greyish no colour and the most hideous mustard coloured acrylic fake Aran cardi I've ever seen. I can't imagine where he got it, even now. It scarred my fashion sense permanently. On the stage, if you can call it that, with him was a very short girl with a huge bust and a club singer's R&B voice.
And a short, thin young guy who looked like he was either of Mediterranean or some other, more exotic descent, who had his thick black curls gelled into a bizarre pageboy coiffure, the lengths glued straight to his skull and a frill of kiss curls round the edges. He was handsome, but there was something odd about him, something missing in his face. X fussed round him like a mother hen, sorting everything out for him as if he couldn't manage it himself. He obviously wasn't a student by his clothes, he looked like a Estate kid to me.
After a bit more faffing the band, called like about 2 billion other bands, The Misfits, started up. The Estate boy shook lentils in empty plastic juice bottles and effortlessly played simple runs on the bass with an expression of blank malignance. The Weeble girl belted her lungs out while X played rhythm guitar and also sang with an expression of extreme cheerfulness. The other students barely stopped their yap and occasionally glanced at the musicians with condescending smirks. The band played on. Songs about buses - I can still remember that one unfortunately. Songs about peace. Songs about whatever student blather was currently the in thing. It was bloody awful. Amateur hour. Sixth form, if your sixth form was in a nice, middle class Christian school.
But X. Aside from the hideous cardi and the eagerness to please, occasionally I could see clearly the creature he carried inside. I was amazed the chattering students couldn't. Every so often it turned a phrase, or strummed a chord that was just exactly right. And then it would submerge back into the lentil shaking and choruses about the 614. Mercifully the gig was soon over and the other students clapped X upon the shoulder, and patronised the bejaysus out of him, and ignored the Estate boy and the little singing girl. The Estate boy noticed. She didn't.
I thought about slipping away and then turning up as if I'd missed it. Saying oh mate, so sorry, I feel dreadful. Did it go alright? But I couldn't. It was as if I was rooted to the spot while I tried to figure out what I'd just seen. Yes, it was dreadful bollocks. But there'd been something about X. If he could be got to drop the mask and stop pretending to be Student Of The Year. I didn't understand why he was doing that. Not until much later. At this point as I struggled with myself he came loping up, that collie dog expression on his face.
Well, he said, what did you think. I thought it was bloody awful, I said, surprising even myself. He looked crestfallen, which wasn't surprising. But, I said, there's something there, something that could be really good. Look, what do you want from this?
His head came up, the mask off, the creature staring out of his black, black eyes.
I want to be a rock star, it said.
Inexplicably, I felt a wave of pure energy go through me, as if I were Achilles hearing the paen. It lifted me up and lit my heart with a bright, white fire. I skinned my lips back from my teeth - it wasn't a smile, it was a kind of triumph. I'd made my husband into a Satans Slave. I'd turn this boy into a fucking legend. How hard could it be?
OK, I said. I'll make you into one then.