This is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress entitled After the Encore. Copyright rests with the author.
Alice runs down the upstairs hall in her father’s house.
This is it, the one She dragged me from, after the last screaming night.
The memories come back. The fights, the closed doors, the noise from other rooms. Shutters always up, curtains drawn.
Staying in one room, where we were safe, She and me. Hearing my father, trying to see him.
Her father’s music, always in other rooms. Trying to look through the keyhole, being pulled back. Long nights listening, long days hiding, away from windows, never going outside except when they had to.
Outside wasn’t safe, all runrunrunning, runrunasfastasyoucan, a wall of flashing lights screaming at us. Anything to make us look, turn towards the flashflamefire.
Alice waits for her father to come. She looks up a film: her father in front of a blue sign, round and gleaming like a blue sun. Talking about the sign, who it was, Alfred Hitchcock. She’s seen this 100 times, her father smiling at her, talking fastfastfast like she does.
But nights go past and he never comes. Then Alice hears him in her mind: he is not safe in this house. He cannot come here. Alice has to find him.
Alice watches people in shiny colours prance around, talking non-stop.
“. . . great opportunity for the perfect client . . .”
“. . . A really outstanding property, great outlook, perfect sun, exclusive neighbourhood.”
“. . . bachelor pad in the best street in the area . . .”
An alert pops up on her phone — a new video of her father. An old concert, but something wrong: her father stumbles on stage, drops his microphone, then falls back against the keyboards. That JJ guy from the fan sites runs out from behind the keyboards, hustles him off the stage. Alice hits replay to be sure, but it’s him, JJ. Younger than the photos on the fan sites, but still him
Suddenly she realizes. That night, her father must have escaped Her. He went to JJ.
“— haven’t you uploaded those photos yet?”
“Sorry?” Alice looks up at a green checked shirt and shiny blue tie.
“The Spender Close site, a very desirable property. Are the photos up yet?”
“Yes.” Alice tries to smile, but it doesn’t work. The tie and shirt just lean in closer, tie flapping in her face.
“Well I didn’t see them. Just some old ones that look crap.”
She’d uploaded the ones he sent her. But Alice doesn’t say that. He might be joking — she can never tell. She glances at the frozen screen of JJ and her father.
“And you know you’re not paid to play with your phone.”
He’s so loud Alice jumps, dropping her phone. Then a heaving sigh, and:
“Don’t worry dear, I’ll re-send the ones you should have uploaded already. But I want your assurance that you’ll upload them ASAP.”
“Yes.” Alice nods. And smiles. Sometimes that works.
Alice tunes them out and goes back to her phone. She looks again at JJ, the one who rescued her father. He knows where her father is, she is sure of it.
She watches the clip, over and over, until when she looks up, the room is dark, silent. Empty. The ties and suits off home. At last.
It’s time to find JJ.
JJ swivelled in his chair, looking at all the lovelies, staring from the walls. Usually they calmed him down, but this was a new level of problem. Trust his old man to need a rest home with 24 hour on-call services. Even the first quote from Tracey had made JJ’s heart stop. And that didn’t include palliative care.
What do you think, Kiki, Marianne . . . ? How am I supposed to magic up enough money this time?
He swivelled around again, trying to numb himself into tiredness, but it was useless. 3:45am: these sleeping pills were even crapper than the last lot. It shouldn’t be too hard to invent a pill that got you to sleep without turning you into a zombie the next day.
So many signs, none of them from her father. Bela Bartok lived here, Sachaverell Sitwell lived here.
Alice loops round the streets, diving into side streets, to stay invisible. She walks up to JJ’s house from the other side and sees it. The brown sign, the one from her father’s last film, before he disappeared.
Alice stands, invisible in the dark, studying the house.
JJ looked out the window. There was a new girl outside.
Make that a girl — it had been a while since he’d had that sort of attention, since Katerina or Yulia had had to creep in pretending to be the cleaner and he’d needed to keep the lights off in the study because it could be seen from the street. Now it was just habit.
She was too young to have been a fan the first time around, but some of the young ones were the most committed, pining after a golden age they were too young to remember. She might not even be a fan, of course: she might just be lost. But the more JJ peered at her from the darkness, the more convinced he was. She was on a mission, you could see that.
Even if he was kidding himself, it was nice to believe it for a bit: to have one again. Even if those girls had been mostly for Tony or Byron. There were always some leftovers for JJ.
One girl, outside his door, peering in. It was better than nothing.
JJ hit send and another king’s ransom was transferred out of his bank account to the old man’s gold-plated rest home.
He looked out the window. She was there again. The lone girl, with the sharp intense look that all true obsessives had. The ones who had found Byron’s address and followed his wife whenever she set foot outside the front door. The ones who wrote to Tony, dropping off the letters to the record company each week at the exact same time, describing every detail of their future lives together.
Once JJ couldn’t have set food outside this house for the crush of girls. The glory days.
She wasn’t really his type — the make-up and clothes were like a low-rent Goth, or some snobby university girl, too intellectual to care what she looked like. But there was something about her that made him want to see her up close.
Alice watches the man, JJ, staring at her from the house. She can test this man, use her secret name, Genie, the name only her father calls her.
Then he waves, a small fake wave, hand cupped like the Queen, like a robot.
He may be joking, but he looks unreal, mechanical. And suddenly Alice wonders if he is the right one after all.
JJ watched the girl go. Definitely strange, but it was the strange ones who drew you in. Exotic beauties with their dark-eyed madness, silent and mysterious. Not the nice girls with their vanilla fantasies, posters of Tony plastered over every inch of their bedroom walls in their parents’ semi-detached suburban homes.
Streets crawled by outside the window. Even within the congestion zone, the traffic was impossible; a great excuse for never going out again.
JJ checked his phone, but the battery was flat. Perfect. A fitting end to an evening so crappy that even Tony had had a better time than he had. He banged on his phone, trying to magic up a last little spark of energy, but there was nothing left. Great, just bloody marvellous.
You had to keep going. This was the job. Even on the bad nights. Especially on the bad nights. You had to keep planning and putting the name out there, and getting the pictures in the papers, because otherwise . . . well, there was no otherwise.
He saw her as the car rounded the corner into his street. His last fangirl.
JJ got out, ready to do the pop star walk, zooming into the house, eyes down, not looking at anyone.
Stopping was the first mistake. You never stopped, even when they were throwing themselves at you. Don’t stop, don’t make eye contact, don’t break the wall. But today he got out of kilter, seeing the eyes, the familiar something he couldn’t work out.
You never stop. But he stopped. You never make eye contact. But he looked. And you never speak first.
“You’re here a lot, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
You never invite them in, of course. That was the next mistake, the one only absolute beginners made. Smile and wave, say something that means nothing, Hellohaveyoucomefar Nicetoseeyouagain, and walk on. They’re like vampires, fans, they’ll suck you dry then move on to the next idol: the next one they can’t live without.
“Genie, that’s a nice name.”
She wasn’t a talker then. Thank fuck for that.
You never invite them in. Not unless it’s only nine at night, but it feels like three in the morning, when you’re escaping from the worst event in living memory, full of Z-listers who didn’t even know who you are.
“A Genie in a bottle, then. You’ll be wanting a drink.”
The night roars all around Alice as she runs down the middle of the road.
My father will come, he will show himself when he is ready. He’ll take me awayawayaway, just for todaytodaytoday. But not just for a day, forever.
He’d been quiet, the JJ man. A public smile, not showing his teeth or reaching his eyes. Silent, no chatter. It suited Alice.
A strange dark house, full of eyes on her, women looking down from all the walls. Too many eyes. She’d drank a clear drink, while he surfed the internet, not looking at her. Then he mentioned Friday.
Friday I will see my father. My father will be in hiding, but JJ will take me to him.
There was something about that Genie girl. The name would stand out and so would she. Bit of a disaster with the Gothic clothes, but that could be fixed. She looked like she would scrub up all right: the young ones usually did. And she was quiet: she wouldn’t embarrass him.
The Chronicle article finally uploaded. Eleven pictures, none of him. One little sliver of Tony on the edge of a photo, but even that was enough for Tony’s hordes of love-struck cougars to post comment after comment about how gorgeous he still was, blah blah blah.
JJ sipped from the girl’s glass, that she’d barely drunk from. Not a drinker, that was good. It made it easier to get them home.
He used to like the drinkers, he thought, remembering long nights with bottles of bubbly and five or six girls, waiting till the end of the night to pick the one he wanted. It seemed so exhausting now, all that talk. That was the trouble with girls these days, they were so boring, weebling about stupid trivial things all night. They never used to be so much effort.
He needed Genie to look amazing. Out of this world, strange and beautiful. And to be quiet, mysterious: hopefully she wouldn’t develop a voice in front of the cameras, as so many of them did. But he had a feeling she’d be different.
He would get there again. He could see the top item, the photographs. He’d done it before, he could do it again.
“Do you feel OK?”
“Yes,” says Alice. It hadn’t been so bad, just a prick.
“This’ll help you feel calmer. If it works, we’ll do another one next week.”
“I hear you left your job, and you’re at college. What else are you doing with yourself?”
“I can’t tell you. You’ll tell Her.”
“Your mother? I won’t, psychiatrists aren’t allowed to.”
“I’m searching for my father. She tried to kill him, but he escaped and left signs for me to find him.”
“How do you know your father is here?”
“He left signs for me, films on YouTube, the blue signs. Then he was on stage and he fell, and he got taken away.”
Alice runs down the road, not bothering to be invisible tonight. Tonight her father will appear to her for the first time since the brainfire.
Tonighttonighttonight, it will happen. I will see him tonighttonighttonight. In the JJ’s house.
She remembered the film, her father slumping off the stage, JJ half-carrying him off.
The night in JJ’s house, she could hear her father, like those nights when he came to her in the ward. So quiet, the faintest whisper at the edge of her mind. But he was there, she knew it.
The PRs had dropped off the gear around three, then hung around offering to help make her up, but JJ got rid of them. He could do this in his sleep: all those nights in dressing rooms in tv studios and stadiums, watching ducklings get transformed into swans, toads into jewelled toads. Besides, he didn’t want word to get out. It would spoil the mystery if the details were leaked before the night even began.
She arrived, his mystery, the little match girl with extra eyeliner. She stood there, unsmiling, silent as ever. And that was fine with him. He felt distracted this evening, not really in the mood for this.
He forced himself to focus, finding something that would suit her, and again felt that strangeness about her. She could be 18 or 30. The Genie in the bottle, the girl from nowhere. Maybe 17. But no younger: he could always tell the young ones, from all those years backstage. Something about their voices gave them away.
“Do you like my house?”
“It’s very full. All those women.”
“I collect photography. That’s a Lucien Clergue. That’s a Richard Avedon.” Why was he telling her this, JJ wondered? She could be a cat burglar, a common thief. Or worse, a mole for one of the competitors to the Chronicle. Once that would have been a problem. These days he could probably put an ad on the front page for an open home and all he’d get was two lines next to an old photo of him standing behind Tony.
This is rubbish, maudlin crap like the old man every time after something went wrong. Nightworld has websites devoted to them. We sell from our catalogues, license songs to everyone. We’re still here, and we’re about to be on top again.
JJ snapped back to the present, seeing Genie staring at the racks of clothes.
“Do I need to get changed?”
“Well, yes, it is formal. You’ve got a choice though. Which do you like?”
She stared blankly at the clothes, and once again JJ wondered what, if anything, was going on in her head. “They’re shiny.”
He could still call this off. Send her away, return the clothes, go alone and stay for the minimum it took to get a few photos. Then JJ looked at her again, saw those strange familiar eyes, and knew he wouldn’t.
It is different this time. Alice isn’t so sure he will lead her to her father. He might be a trap. He talks too much for one thing.
Alice wonders if this is a test.
My father might be watching me, in secret. He knows how to become invisible, like me. And he will appear when the time is right.
Maybe they will go to this place and her father will be there.
JJ watched the taxi going down the street, peering through the blinds as it disappeared round the corner. It had gone well, much more than well. Worth every penny, every rented frock and trinket.
And there’d been photos galore. He checked the internet for news — there must be something happening in the world, some crisis to keep him occupied until the Chronicle uploaded its photos. He topped up his glass, and took the merest tiny sip, letting the vodka swirl in his mouth like liquid fire.
Yes, it had gone very well. A celebratory tipple was in order.
Alice watches the lights going past, too fast. She bangs on the door and gets the taxi driver to pull over. He tries to stop her, but she runs out to the dark, where she is invisible, where she is free to breathe like she couldn’t in that place, with the strange clone man, JJ, telling her where to look, when to smile.
Tonight had been a test, she could tell. A test by her father to see how persistent she could be. But she had done it, listening to JJ, tuning out the photos of the staring women, all over JJ’s shiny noisy house.
And then at the event, Alice knew her father had been there. She hadn’t seen him, but she’d sensed him. Maybe he was testing her patience.
Next time my father will appear to me.
Alice gets out of the clinic, the injection done, and walks to the bus for her class. There are days when the voices stop and the brainfire gets quieter, a faint hum from a distance. Days like this, Alice can feel the calm, the quiet.
She sits in her class, listening to the tutor talk about photography. No-one’s staring at her.
I can do this, ignore the voices. I can go to the doctor, get the injection. I can go to my course, say hellohowareyoutoday, ignore the brainfire hum.
“. . . I mean it’s insidious, photos in the tabloids, of young girls being pimped to sell something or make some old guy look virile. It’s like a degradation of classical art, the admiration of the female form, the ideal of beauty.” Gareth continued, more excited. But this was ok, thought Alice, he never shouted in people’s faces.
“Wasn’t that objectification as well?” says one of the others. Caroline, the nice one, who always says hi to Alice. “The female ideal of classical art?”
“OK, point taken . . . those painters probably weren’t so noble, and they definitely weren’t feminists. But the women represented someone, a mythological character or a queen. They had a story, some agency. In the tabloids, the girls are just there to promote clothes or products, or make some guy look like a real man. They’ve been objectified, all their power taken from them.”
Alice thinks of JJ, all the photos they take for the Chronicle website, looking like a robot, or like one of the staring women in JJ’s house.
Afterwards, the class looks at Alice’s collage, Gareth smiling.
“This is great, where did you get the images?”
“I had a job at an estate agents.”
“God, I bet that was fun, not. So fake, just like their photos, all the fish eye lenses and all that. These are a great parody.”
“Yes,” says Alice, not sure, but thinking he likes it.
“It’ll be a good thing to put in your portfolio, but you’re going to need a few more things. Do you have ideas for what you might do next?”
“Something about objectification,” says Alice. “The male gaze.”
The texts pingpingping as Alice traces the route past the blue signs her father left towards the dark house.
She thought he could show her to her father. But he never could, she knows that now.
He has eyes are too dark to see. As dark as his house, as dark as all the women looking down on me.
Alice gets to the house, sitting back in the shadows, like a troll, pretending to be asleep while it watched. Waiting for her to walk into its gaping mouth.
Alice hears the voice from inside: she stares at the shutter-eyes luring her into the house of a thousand eyes, women watching her, like in the brainfire.
“What on earth are you doing? I’ve texted you a million times.”
“You don’t know where my father is, do you?” says Alice.
“What? For God’s sake, come in and stop making a scene in the street.”
So Alice comes in, to the eyes are all looking at her.
JJ is already talking about some event, some clothes.
“. . . you need to get changed for this event. It’s very important to the band, Genie.”
“Genie? I’m Alice.” And she looks at him, wondering who he really is, this old man whose smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
Alice looks at the rack of clothes, metallic looking, like the shells of some enormous insect. “They’re too shiny. I’m not wearing anything that presents me as an object for the male gaze.”
“What the hell?”
“And I don’t like the staring.”
“But they’re great beauties: Dovima, Louise Brooks, Jean Shrimpton . . .”
JJ’s phone rings and he runs out, always talking, talktalktalk about nothing.
“We’re on our way, my young friend is nearly ready. You know what girls are like about their clothes.” The door shuts behind him.
Alice grabs a woman off the wall and throws her on the floor, face down. One down. Then another. And another. All of them, landing face down, neutralised, unable to see Alice. She reaches for the higher ones. Straining from the tops of tables, sofas, capturing them, a pile of glass and picture backs growing on the floor.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He is there again, his phone dropping.
“They’re staring at me,” shouts Alice. She grabs another, throws it down, hearing the glass smash, grabs another, before JJ pulls her down.
“Are you fucking mad? That’s a signed Helmut Newton!”
Alice pushes him off and goes for the next one.
The first book lands in the middle of the glass, shattering it. She’s about to throw another when JJ grabs her arms, pulling her back.
“You mad little bitch!”
Alice runs for other side of the table. She grabs a glass from the table. It shatters another pane of glass, but there are too many to shut them all down.
She walks out, feeling glass crunching under her feet. JJ stares at her, but she doesn’t stop until she is outside again, invisible, away from staring eyes.
JJ checked his phone again. No messages. He checked his text had been sent successfully, then rang again. Straight to voicemail.
All the same, these girls. Reliable at first, then they go flaky. Or they want more. More money, more clothes, enough to bleed you dry if you let them. As if I don’t have enough on my plate already.
JJ checked his phone again, put it away. The party would have been full of Z-listers anyway; soap opera stars, reality tv losers. It would only tarnish the brand to be seen in that company.
And he’d get a new girl, someone who talked even less than she did. She needn’t think she was all that special.
Alice stares out the windows into the black, waiting to come back into the city of day.
Then it comes, the light world, sky, people, houses whirling past. Alice looks at them from the train, seeing them, knowing they aren’t looking at her, aren’t reading her mind.
They are gonegonegone, the staring eyes. They aren’t watching me. I can be invisible.
And her father will come back to her in her mind.