An extract from the novel Look At What You Could Have Won:
They hit the Oxford Road and took a tram into town. Julie could hear the music already, she could feel it seeping through the wet sodden streets, see it steaming up off the joins between the Old Town and the New. On board the tram the atmosphere thickened. The seats were all taken so she grabbed one of the dangling handles and stumbled to and fro, her nose poised below the black leather elbow of a tall man whose pelvis gyrated in perfect synchronization to absorb and displace every shock and shunt of the journey. She couldn’t see his face, just short black hair, squared off below the ear. She smelt the leather and looked beyond to the raindrops sparkling in a late reprise of evening sunlight. From nowhere they appeared on the windows, growing fat and bright as the tram pushed up the street, multiplying discreetly like the stars that revealed themselves in ever increasing numbers when she looked up to the night sky back home. She heard them land on the cool panes like a series of coruscating notes at miniscule intervals: overlapping, echoing, repeating but never quite the same. Miniature reflections of the remodelled city curved around every minute globule, a flicker-book representation of the new Oxford Road corridor transforming beyond the speed of any eye blink. Faster and faster, higher and higher, she saw them shake and then burst down the glass, vibrating all the way as the streams converged, gaining momentum.
At St. Peter’s they spilled out through the square and slipped between the curves of Library Walks. Absorbed by the city, Julie tried to keep her bearings, tried to commit every new building, every unfamiliar street to memory, but the closer they got to their destination, the more the pace of the girls quickened. With a concentrated effort she kept abreast with them, feeling the sweat break thinly across the nape of her neck. She drew her hand inside the back of her collar and released her hair, flicking it up onto her shoulders. She had to have that cool autumn air on her skin. Her heart beat faster with every footfall and at every turn she wondered if the venue was in sight. Another retrofitted building surrounded by scaffold and hoardings. Another rubble-strewn chasm cordoned off in the distinctive black and gold of the city’s emblematic bees. The city had been ripped apart. Its buildings and streets had been exploded for the urban explorer to discover the black and gold cord riven like municipal DNA through its office blocks, through its thirteenth century pubs, through its devastated shopping centre and through the ruins of the hopeless concrete plaza. Tracy Tailor-Waite had picked up the thread and weaved it nimbly through her fingers in a manner that suggested experience beyond her years. How old was she? Tracy knew enough of the city and more besides. She was Ariadne and Julie was chasing after her through the labyrinth, losing her footing and struggling to regain her balance, her composure, as she rounded another corner and teetered over another cordoned-off gap in the skyline. Cold and smooth in her hand and coated with the dust of the past, the gold banding glowed with a vigorous luminescence. By contrast, the black stripes were so intensely black that she thought it might be possible to see her fingers disappear altogether into those intervals. She let go and rubbed her hands together, feeling the grit move between her palms before brushing it off, three centuries of industry turning to dust beneath her feet as she jogged up to the others. Three hundred years crunching, cracking and grinding beneath her Air Wear soles.
The music that seemed so familiar, yet so strange and alluring, kept on coming like it always had. All those nights spent listening to the radio felt like an apprenticeship for this. Now here she was, about to find out what all those songs were about. Julie could hear it now, louder and clearer with every corner they turned until all three of them walked in step together, marching through the Manchester night, not a word between them, just the rhythm of the city meeting every breath, every beat, every footstep without fail. With every emphatic step, the city asserted itself that bit more, inscribing itself into the soles of their boots.
Meet me at The Turning
Kiss me at The Blades
Swear your oaths
Kill your ghosts
Quit your lowdown
Old Town ways
Julie stood in the centre of the room. Lara was lost at the bar. She had seen Tracy disappear into the toilets. People came and went in front of her: she didn’t notice any of them. Didn’t know anyone and no-one knew her. Lara and Tracy knew her name and that was it. The woman she’d been trying to be for nearly twenty years, the person she’d been practicing, to all intents and purposes existed only in her head, in the fraught needling spaces between Julie and everyone else back home. She had left her behind, on the platform, on the other side of the Floodplains. Standing still in this room of strangers, feeling the curvature of the walls wrap around her, feeling the subtle, insistent rhythms vibrating up through the wooden floorboards reclaimed from the debris of another, older venue that once rattled and shook on that very spot, a warm after-shock electrified every hair on her body. The same hair, the same skin, the same bone. But a transmutation had occurred. There were no expectations anymore except her own: Julie Vaughan was whoever she wanted to be.
She remained rooted to the spot, staring ahead at the low lip of the stage where the singer stood braced at a crooked arms’ length from the mic stand, clutching the mic itself because it was all that was left to tether him to the world of solid objects. Despite his scrawny frame and pointy white elbows, he gripped the microphone with such intensity that it looked as though it would begin to squeeze though his frightened fingers at any moment.
Before you crawl you want to run
You want the future
Here it comes
Look at what you could have won
Look at what you could have won
His shoulders hunched below the timbrel vaulting of the domed ceiling, the singer drew the microphone in towards him, whispering into it confidentially, incessantly, eyes closed, only every third of fourth word audible above the swell of the melody, the rhythmic loop of what sounded like the sample of a faltering starter motor muscled its way through the mix under the direction of the controller, exposing the jagged back bone of the song until there was nothing else left. Just the heavy, desperate grind repeating over and over before a stern, sampled voice, possibly an extract of dialogue from a film, brought the track to an abrupt end:
“I’ll tell you where you’re going… you’re going nowhere!”
Silence followed by emphatic applause. The bar was empty now. The bar staff and everyone in the venue were facing the stage. A softening blue moonlight filtered down through the oculus, projecting shadows of the band members upon the wall to the rear of the room, below the Gaustavino archways. So this was The Roundel. So small, thought Julie. Before that evening it had just been another venue in the gig guide, another staple of the listings in the NME. Another place she’d never been to, to add to all the rest. Another place that other people knew about, you could hear it in their voices on the radio: British Sea Power are at The Roundel in Manchester tonight. In fact, most of the time they omitted the word Manchester – the assumption being that everyone knew The Roundel.
A series of electronic eyes, red, green and blue stared out across the darkness of the stage, through the forest of limbs, instruments and stands.
“That’s James,” said Tracy, sidling up to Julie, pressing a glass into her hand, “James Rowe, the singer.”
James had returned to the edge of the stage, one hand resting on top of the mic, his head turned to one side, his fringe flicked off his forehead and hanging down in thick strands above his right eye. He stood frozen, more silhouette than living person as the drummer kicked the bass drum to a steady beat and the long haired woman skulking behind the equipment in the bacckground, began moving her hands across the controller, summoning the sound of a sharp wind cutting across the stage between the speakers either side of it. The keyboardist slowly began picking out a bright, sparse piano melody which brought a few warm cries of recognition from the still growing crowd. The singer raised his head and began to sing again.
“See the white capital N against the black circle of the drum skin?” asked Tracy. Julie nodded. “With the line beneath and the 4?”
Julie looked beyond the singer and could just make out the logo on the bass drum at the back of the stage.
“Northern Quarter. That’s what they’re called.”
As soon as the house lights were on, the crowd were gone in seconds: vampires, hungry for the dark city streets outside. The Roundel suddenly expanded around her as Julie mooched round the edge of the stage self-consciously. Tracy had waited to say hello to Steph, chatting to her as she wearily unplugged the controller and started to put her equipment away. The guitarist, drummer and bassist were already huddled round some drinks at the bar with the manager of the venue. “Sorry,” said one of the bar staff flatly, and she stepped aside so he could continue pushing a wide brush across the floor. Beyond him, she saw the back of James Rowe, jacket in hand, slipping out through the exit. The coruscating melodies, muscular bass lines and beguiling micro-beat samples now gave way to the cordial rhythms of clinking glasses, chinking ice and the hushing sweep of bristles on the dusty, reclaimed surface. Julie removed the Nikon from her jacket pocket and popped up the flash, pointing the lens at the bass drum from her position at the edge of the stage. The drum skin filled the viewfinder, framing the black circle and the thin white fraction logo perfectly. The band looked round, the hum of their conversation interrupted momentarily by the unexpected lightning of the flash. Julie felt her cheeks reddening and slipped the Nikon back in her pocket.