By Nasir Ali Hussain
Nobody walks the streets at night like me. Sometimes, when it’s late and the streets are cold and empty, I go for a walk.
There’s something about those tense, otherworldly silences where the only sounds you hear are those of your own feet and yet still, there’s the feeling that you’re not alone. That’s when my thoughts can lose shape and discipline.
I get thinking with such fearsome longing, it feels like she’ll be coming round the next corner any second. I mean, if you believe strongly enough in something, proof for that belief takes a backseat, don’t you think?
Marie was in the same class with me at Wellcrest Park Middle school. She was quiet, seemed to be one of those types who are happiest when they are by themselves. I remember her winning some sort of inter school art prize for inventing her own alphabet. We were eleven years old when we first began to see, speak and spend time together. There was this alleyway with clumps of grass and bulgy black bin bags separating my street from hers. You could peer into the back of people’s gardens and see cooking in smoky kitchens.
I never liked what I saw going on in her house from that narrow alleyway.
Sometimes I would watch her in class sitting at the window, drawing interpretations of whatever she saw outside. It looked like the sort of squiggly writing you get in those Middle Eastern countries that used to have a civilization that bears no link to its present culture.
Not that Marie was any teacher’s favourite. Whenever I’d look in her direction there she’d be, sitting at her desk, pencil in hand, just staring out of the window with her fingers playing with her long, auburn hair. Her green eyes would have this faraway locked in them on an almost permanent basis; whenever she spoke it was like she was talking about one thing, but thinking about another thing. Our teacher would have a go at her for ‘being away with the fairies,’ as she put it.
We got talking one afternoon during our school summer holidays. It was one of those days when you get bored just through having too much time on your hands. I was walking around in the alleyway looking for distraction and I found it in the form of Marie leant up against a wall, she was mumbling under her breath and writing in a pad to herself. I asked her what she was doing and she just carried on like I wasn’t even there. I stood staring at her for a few seconds before tapping her on the shoulder. Her eyes widened as if I’d pinched her.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, I don’t like being touched.”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“What do you care?” She said, still writing and not looking up.
“Who said anything about caring? Looks like someone got out of bed on the wrong side this morning doesn’t it. I’m just bored and wanted someone to talk to, see ya later.”
For some reason that extracted an amused expression from her. “Come back,” she said to my retreating figure. “Oh-kay” she then said like an adult explaining something to a little child. “I’m writing a story.”
I frowned and scratched my head. “What for? What kind of story?”
“For myself, it’s a story about Ghosts, vampires, witches, stuff like that,” she said, her eyes widening with amusement.
“That’s good, I like to read things that take me to other places.” I told her.
So without my asking, or her agreeing, Marie would write her stories and bring them over to my house in a brown envelope, always the same brown envelope, as if we were passing secret information back and forth. I would have a week to read them and tell her what I thought. Some were short and some were long. The longer ones never frightened me, despite the grotesqueness described. This was because she had a flair for beautiful settings and most of the monsters had a quality that made you feel sorry for them by the time you approached the final sentences. The shorter tales were a different matter though. I could never truly understand them, but they had me sleeping with the light on.
One day I went into her house. It was a weekday and I was surprised that both her parents were at home in the daytime. My dad was always away at work in the daytime. He left in the morning with a cheery smile only to return home angry and tired in the evening. Her home had a night-time feeling about it. It was like day was night in that place and night was day, if you know what I mean.
Her mum was in the kitchen talking to someone over the phone trying to explain why she had been late that morning. She looked tired and used up. There were dark marks under her eyes.
Her dad sat, staring vacant eyed at the television. He wore tracksuit pants and a dirty, string vest and drank from a strange smelling bottle. A bad adult smell came from him and the bottle. I knew it wasn’t coke he was drinking.
He looked at me with red, rheumy eyes that made him look like a knackered bloodhound. “Alright there boy?” I just mutely nodded my head. I wasn’t used to such sights at that age.
“Good, good, that’s good,” he said slowly blinking and went back to his daytime television. She quietly murmured, taking my hand in hers. “Daddy’s got a problem,” she whispered as she led me upstairs. It felt good when she took my hand, this real good, warm sensation flooded through me when she took my hand, like a sweet electrical rush up through my arm to my shoulder.
I really didn’t want her to let go. But knew that sooner rather than later she would.
“Mum’s always hiding the purse from him,” she said, closing her bedroom door behind us.
I liked her room. It was like we had left the house and gone someplace else. A place that was really nice and quiet and good for sitting around and thinking.
“I come up here, close my eyes and make him vanish,” she said looking at me, but not looking at me if you know what I mean.
There were a lot of books on her shelves. Some of them were the sort of books we were given to read at school, the sort of books with a lot of facts and diagrams in them, but a lot of them were books that didn’t have much to do with facts. And there was a small record player and a beat up acoustic guitar propped up against one of the walls.
So that summer we just started spending a lot of time together. I had always thought that she was shy and quiet from the way she was at school. But as I got to know her I realized that my first impression, like many a first impression, was deceptive. Sometimes she would play records for me. ‘Dancing girl’ or ‘Mama Mia’ by ABBA, ‘Jeepster’ by T-Rex or something from Stevie Wonder like ‘Isn’t she lovely’ and close her eyes and spin around with this big, exultant smile all over her face.
She never spoke about her parents and never showed what she was thinking or feeling to anyone, and that included me.
However, one day in school, one of the bigger boys who was always pointing at her and calling her family gypos and Oxfam started laughing. He was giggling and pointing and saying that her dad was an alcoholic. I didn’t know what an alcoholic was.
“Don’t laugh at me! What do you know about it?” she shouted and then she repeated herself, “Shut Up!…. Stop it I said!”
The big boy didn’t. As a matter of fact he started laughing even more, like she had said something absurd. She screwed her eyes real tight, balled her fists up and punched him, punched him right in the eye. He may have been the biggest kid in class, but she had him looking as small as a pygmy that day. I believe he never said another word about Marie’s family again.
The only other time I saw her fear or anger on her face was when she had to go to the doctors to get a tetanus injection. She made me go along with her and her mum.
“Nothing to be scared of dear. What’s there to worry about, it’s just an injection? It isn’t really going to hurt, you know. Only a second and then it’s all over.”
“What do you mean it isn’t really going to hurt? It’s a needle going into my arm- of course it’s going to hurt! Can’t we go to the dentist’s instead? I’d much rather prefer that.”
“No, you need to have this. Be good and I’ll get you something nice for your tea, Findus French Bread Pizza and Jam Roly Poly and custard hey.”
Her eyes grew big with fear and panic when the needle went in. Her face went tense and tight like that of a person bracing themselves because they’re just about to get slapped hard across the face.
Whenever I finished seeing her I was always left surprised at the way she talked. Her perspective was not that of a child. She thought about things like an adult.
Sometimes I used to complain to her about my parents. I’d complain about how they wouldn’t always let me do what I wanted to do. I would contrast this to how her parents seemed to let her do anything she wanted to. She could stay out late and come and go as she pleased from what I could see.
She would shake her head and tell me that I didn’t understand.
“Oh yeah? And what don’t I understand?!”
“They worry about you, that’s why they don’t let you do what you want to do.”
I was a real Nervous Norman back then. I worried about the way I looked, I worried about whether people liked me and I worried about not getting the things I wanted. And she would always listen without interruption and say something after I was done that would make me feel like a fool for saying the things I had said; her words literally melting my self indulgent insecurities away into puddles of nothing.
But she never really spoke about what, if anything, worried or troubled her. Nothing, it seemed, could make her lose her balance.When the sun was out we would walk up to Harrow on the hill and lie down on the large, green golf course.Up there we could look around ourselves and see nothing but a rolling blanket of green. We’d lie next to each other and squint up at the clouds gently grazing in the dreamy blue sky.
“I feel like a right madam up here,” She once murmured. “Which means that you must be feeling like a right little lord. So… if you could be anyone, who would you want to be?”
“James Bond” I said without a second’s hesitation.
“Oh yeah, which one?’
“Roger Moore, he’s funny and lazy, and you?”
“Hmm I don’t know. Maybe Wonder Woman, or one of Charlie’s angels.”
“Oh, one of the brunette one’s I don’t mind as long as she’s got a gun and can do Karate kicks.”
“You know the French are the best at pastry cooking and grandiose Gateau’s”, she would say, “But I think we British make the best cakes and sweet puddings and I will happily argue against anyone who says otherwise. What other dessert could even be in the same room as apple pie and Custard eh? Did you know that the French call Custard Crème Anglais?”
It was funny, no matter how many cakes and chocolates she went through; she always remained as thin as one of those moody faced models on those flash catwalks. I saw another side of her up there, one that didn’t want to show itself anywhere else. I got a fair idea as to the kind of things she must have been thinking about as she sat in class staring out of the windows.
Those were good days.
One time the teacher was asking everyone what he or she wanted to be. When it was my turn I said, ‘musician’ without a moment’s hesitation.
“And what if you can’t be a musician?”
“Then I’m going to marry a musician,” I said looking over at Marie.
She covered her mouth and laughed and then she did something for the first and as far as can recall the last time- she blushed.
Anyway time went on. And we left Primary school. I went to a normal Secondary school- a thuggish place, boys only. But Marie was awarded a scholarship for talented young musicians and got a place at The Purcell School of music.
When you’re young you seem to have a new best friend every week.
Friendships come and go so easily that you begin to wonder whether you really have any friends. Even the best one’s somehow manage to fade out like a good song. But ours didn’t. Don’t ask me why, it just didn’t, not even when Marie and her mother moved away to live in some kind of home for troubled families.
It seemed that drinking away whatever money they had was not the only thing her father had on his mind. I would occasionally see her mother and she would have lumps on her face, her eyes too would occasionally be bruised and now and again her lips would be discolored and puffy. She seemed to have just accepted it all as a part of the routine of her life.
One day the police had to be called to their house. All the neighbors were standing in their front gardens and enjoying the show. Marie’s mum had hit him back that day and was screaming at him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much hate and anger on anyone’s face as I saw on her’s on that afternoon. The change was incredible, it was like watching a sleeping giant suddenly roused from a bad dream.
“Don’t you dare try to touch her again!” Her voice was trembling with fury. “ I don’t care what you do to me, but if you ever try to do that to her again, I’ll bloody kill you! You’re sick. How could you try to do something like that to your own daughter?”
Her father wasn’t saying anything back, he just looked small and weak and stared down at his feet looking more pathetic than I had ever seen him. And Marie stood very still, her shoulders were slumped and her eyes were filled. I don’t know whether she was crying from sadness, anger or frustration- maybe all three.They left him and that house that same day.
I can still see them now. It was one of those late summer evenings when it looks like it’s never going to get dark and Marie and her Mum were walking out of the front gate with a suitcase and some white carrier bags filled with clothes and things. Marie never said what had happened that day when her and her mum moved away and I never asked.We still met, though not as much as before as she was really busy at the music school.
“They never let you forget it if they give you a scholarship and make you work harder than everyone else.”
But saying that if I ever really needed to see her she would always be there on time with coffee and cakes and insights that only she seemed to be able to provide. There were the days where we’d pretend we were tragically, hopelessly in love with each other like Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde. Some people would look at us and smile. Others would shake their heads. Some did both. We’d take the big train into Marylebone station and look for mischief in Central London. I sort of got the intuition, even then, to hold on tightly to those memories, to keep them in my head like a film reel. It was like something in me knew that when it came time to pick the best memories of my life these moments were going to be sat at the top of my list.
When it was time to go University Marie was sandwiched between choosing between her two talents. I was going to Leicester; she had decided that Liverpool and London were only two cities for her.
“What do you think I should do? I could make a real name for myself playing guitar or Violin or Piano. There’ll be instant money for me there…but I really want to be a novelist too. I’m still always writing and putting together a real eclectic body of work.”
It wasn’t often that she put me on the spot and asked for advice. I cleared my throat. “Well look, you can really go somewhere with the music. And writing, I think, is a very personal thing. You can write all the time, just like you already do with those journals you keep close by you all the time. The life of a musician will probably give you loads of interesting experiences to write about. Access all areas and moreover there’s another reason.”
“What’s that then?” she said.
“English girl’s look real pretty when they play guitar.”
She looked at me and smiled. It wasn’t very often that she smiled, so whenever she did I remembered it.
“Yeah. I think you’re right” she said in this intimate, throaty voice she always assumed for matters important to her.
“ Music it is then,” she said. Then she did something she had never done before. She leaned over towards me and kissed me just like they used to do in those black and white films.You know that feeling you get in your stomach, when you’re in a car and suddenly go downhill? Well, that’s the best way I can describe what I felt. It was a lot like that day I had been in her house and she had held my hand, only better, way better.
I don’t know why I chose to study law at University; perhaps I reckoned it would force people to regard me as a young man of brains, charm and consequence.
Marie and I kept in touch with each other as best as we could, but our lives were now moving along to two very different rhythms. We were still on the same page, but no longer in the same paragraph of that page. I went up north. Marie stayed in London. One day she just happened to stroll into one of those music shops round the corner from Tottenham court Road station, I think Denmark Street, to buy some sheet music.
She saw these overpriced guitars lined up and shining and couldn’t resist having a quick go on one of the guitars.
Someone heard her play and asked her if she could play any rock licks.
She had flickered her hair back from her eyes and said. “Well, tell you the truth, I can play anything. Here let me show you.” A lead singer and his keyboard player worked part time in that music store and they saw her play. She was offered the lead guitarist’s job in their rock and roll band that same afternoon.She had called me and said that she had taken the job as a laugh and a way to make some money and broaden her musical repertoire.
“I’m musically slumming it, because my heart’s not really in it. Basically. It’s a- take the money and run- job.”
“Will you have to make all those crazy, spazzo, gurning faces that lead guitarists do when they’re playing a solo?”
That made her laugh, “I hope not. That’s more of a 70’s- I’m really feeling the blues- thing anyway.”
I told her I missed her and she told me that she was an easy person to miss, then she sort of giggled and said, “You know I miss you too. We should take a trip up Harrow on the hill”.
I told her that it was a date.
Her band was called, ‘The Tomorrow People’ and after she joined they developed quite a reputation for themselves. She not only played lead guitar, but often took on co-lead vocal duties too, so that the band had two distinct voices.Before long someone came from one of those big record companies with a contract in hand. So she left University.
“Well you know I can always go back later you know, when all this is over. I’m only doing this for a laugh. I really want to be a serious classical musician. This is just about getting some money in the bank and getting exposure.”
Well I saw even less of her when she started playing music full-time. But I was pleased to see her doing so well for herself. I was happy to open up magazines and see pictures of her playing with her band on stage. I was happy to see her on Television playing her guitar like a demon and singing in a voice that could best be described as an angel off to battle.
I never told anyone, even when they wore T-shirts with her band’s name, or Marie’s image on them that she was someone I knew pretty well.
She started receiving rewards, such as ‘The most desirable woman in rock’.
But one thing I wasn’t happy about were the rumors I was starting to hear about her; rumors that she was drinking fashionable amounts, snorting evil powders that would get you a jail sentence if you sold them on the street and injecting substances into her arm that no doctor would prescribe. At first I just shook my head and chuckled.
“Nah, no chance, you got it wrong. That isn’t like Marie at all.” I couldn’t talk. I was knocked out on Marijuana myself for most of the time and was always getting false medical notes so that I could hand in my assignments late. But taking pot, crumbling magic mushrooms in my coffee or having several shots of vodka was as crazy as it was ever going to get for me.
I went to see her, just before she went on a long tour of first Europe and then off to Japan and America. It was late November, just before the chaos of the Christmas season and we were meeting after a long time. Her mother still lived in Harrow, but now she had her own place, a chic apartment in Marylebone. She said she would pick me up at the intercity station over there- the one we had made strange pilgrimages to as kids.
I stood around watching middle-aged men in suits solemnly biting into shoe-sized Cornish pasties. Marie was at the large doorless entrance, just like she said she would be.
Her dress sense had changed with the demands of her profession, it was more dangerous, sensuous and with an air of broken promises.
She was as thin as I had last seen her, perhaps even more.
On her head was a small white, silk cap (the type that was popular in those 1970’s fashion catalogues and then fell out of favour in the 1980’s), a tight pair of silky black trousers, thin white chemise and a blue scarf hung roguishly from her neck. Her hair was longer and straighter than when I remembered it. On one of her fingers rested a blue diamond ring.
I saw her before she saw me and for a few seconds I just stood from a distance watching her looking out for me. She saw me, waved and started half-walking, half running in my direction. This was a bit of a pity because I wanted to carry on standing right where I was. To hold the moment just a little while longer. She came to where I was, stopped to look at me for a moment then gave me a big hug, the sort of hug that squashes the breath right out of you. Then she looked at me and said, “What took you so long? I’ve been standing here like a lemon waiting for you.”
“Yeah exactly like Juliet. You being late and all forces me to pass time by going to a cash machine and admire the figures that appear when I look at the balance.”
“So you’re not short of a few quid then?”
“Most certainly am not. So do ya want a nice sausage roll then?”
I shook my head. “The time for sausage rolls has long passed”.
She tapped me on the shoulder. “I see you got long hair now.”
“I’m following your lead.”
“How about a Ham and tomato sandwich to celebrate then?”
People overhearing us were left thinking we were either mad or out of work actors grandstanding for strangers. But this time it felt odd. Some of the younger people were recognizing her. She signed a few autographs before we got out.I only had an overnight bag with me and her place was within walking distance. I could see people recognize her in the street as we walked. It made me feel proud and shy at the same time. She smiled and nodded at a few people, the younger one’s. But I could see that she didn’t want to be recognized. Her flat was too big for one person and too small for a family and I told her so. There was no carpet, just slick wooden paneling on the floor.
There was a lot of white there, the color stood out. The walls were white, the sofas were white, and so were the table, the shelves and the large Stanway piano.
“So I’ll cook,” I said, rolling up my sleeves like I really meant it.
“No,” she said, “ you burn water, we’ll eat out.”
I think she wanted to take me to a posh restaurant between Baker Street and Marylebone. It looks like a house, but it’s not, it’s a posh restaurant. The sort of place we couldn’t imagine ever going to as kids.She’d made a reservation.
“How’s your life?” I asked as she closed her front door.
“Could be worse, could also be better. I’m just going to stay with the band for another year or so. They’re not letting me leave. We’ve got tours all over the place. But it’s a strange lifestyle. I feel like a musical gypsy. You’re given loads of money, recognition and pretty things to buy but no time to enjoy them, no time to think. It’s a bit like being a slave and a millionaire at the same time, you know what I’m saying?”
“Then why don’t you leave?”
“ I will. I handed in my notice, but the manager and the band begged me to stay on for another year, what could I do?”
“You could have left,” I said. “Before it’s too late.”
Before leaving she had looked a bit pale. I couldn’t understand why. Then she went into the bathroom, and was gone for a long time. I couldn’t hear any noises coming from there and knocked.
“You’re alright? What are you doing in there?”
There was a wait of a few seconds before I heard her voice. It sounded breathless and small. “ Yeah” She said.
When she opened the door and came out she didn’t look so pale anymore.
“We’re alright! We’re alright! We’re alright!” She said mimicking Neil Kinnock from that year’s election.
“Those words lost us our first red haired prime minister,” I scoffed.
“Maragaret Thatcher is a redhead,” she said looking significantly at me.
“Mrs Thatcher’s a blonde.”
“Nope, she dyes it blonde,” Marie said, running a hand through her dark tresses.
The restaurant was fun. We ordered food that looked like it would look more at home in an art gallery.
We weren’t dressed properly, laughed when someone looked over at our table and didn’t help matters by talking like farmers.
“ Look at this,” there was laughter in her voice as she read from the menu.
“Pan Fried Chicken, pan fried! What else are you going to fry it in? Are you going to fry it in your hand?
“I don’t know what to order,” I said, frowning at the unfamiliarity of the menu.
“Try the snails… they’re the best in London,” she giggled.
“ Where’s that?”
“ It’s the one called escargot.”
“ I will, if you will.”
She did. She also ordered some potato pan frites (at my insistence) , and a side dish of Mussels and Spinach as well.
“I thought that you hated Spinach?”
“I do, ordering and leaving it is my way of having petty revenge”.
When the escargot was brought over all we could do was stare down at it with our forks gripped loosely in our hands.
“ Go on then you first. You know what they taste like.”
She shook her head. “ Uh uh, I’m a complete virgin when it comes to French food.”
“ Well you first then bon appetit.”
She dipped a spoon into the garlic sauce and tasted it. “ Not bad.”
“Really?” I said.
We laughed. We elected to leave the escargot as it was. She ate the mussels. I had the chips.
The next day we went to a party, the kind where everyone behaves like they aren’t famous, because they know everyone else is. Her band and manager were also there. She was the only female member of the group and I could see that the lead singer was in his own way besotted with her. Who could blame him, half of the country was by that time. The way he was around her made me uncomfortable, protective and insecure at the same time.
Her attitude to him was frighteningly ambiguous until she gave me a long, sticky tongue kiss and then she looked at him. That made me feel good.
He pretended not to notice, but I knew he had, he was drinking faster.
The band’s manager was a middle-aged, anxious to please fat man in a sweaty suit. He had the kind of hairstyle where you comb over some of your hair to hide the area where the hair has gone AWOL.
He was a nervously eager fellow, hopping from one laugh to the next. He kept forgetting and mispronouncing my name, but made sure my glass was filled.I think he was in the music business because he liked to be around young people as much as he liked to make money.
There were more drugs in that place than any pharmacy that I’ve ever been to and we were invited to take all kinds of things. People were taking all kinds of things there. I thought that saying no would make me look as small and insignificant as I was almost feeling. I ended up taking some LSD.
It took almost an hour before I felt it working on me. I wandered into one of the toilets and splashed myself with cold water. I felt like I was losing control of my body. My face was melting in the mirror. I heard laughter echoing all around me. It was Marie. She looked seven feet tall, pale and painted.
I stared at her in the mirror. “I can’t go on. I can’t!”
She carried on laughing at my hopelessness. I collapsed against the tall mirror and laughed and cried at the same time. “We’ve got to get out of here. We must depart. They’re trying to kill us. I can see Rastafarian gunmen trying to climb out of the walls, we must leave now.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“To the beach. Things always make more sense when you’re staring at water.”
Next thing I knew and she had borrowed someone’s open topped pink Cadillac. She was at the wheel with a maniacal gleam in her eye.
We zoomed full tilt along the empty motorway so fast it was like we were soaring in the air. Our hair flickered and flew about our wind bitten faces. I screamed and shouted and hollered. It was too fantastic for words.We stopped off at a 24-hour fast food place. She lay on the hood of the car gobbling cheeseburger and French fries. She licked the tomato ketchup from her fingers, and leered at me. “ You’re a wreck my boy, wreck.”
“Ooh, you are awful,” I said, swaying side to side like a wethercock in the wind. “But I like it.”
We ended up on Brighton beach watching the sun come up. I felt tired and asked her, “When is it all going to end?”
We fell asleep cradling each other on the sand with pebbles and seashells encircled around us..
The sun woke me up around 9 am. Marie was perched on a rock, smoking and watching the waves come and go. Families with small children were arriving and looked at us as if we were homeless vagrants.
Later that day she returned the car to her manager. He complained about the state it was in and asked us where we’d been. She told him he didn’t know what he was talking about. I insisted on going to the station alone. Neither of us had ever said ‘goodbye’ to the other.
Pretty soon word kept filtering back about Marie’s ‘substance dependency.’
They say that as your character changes so does your music.Well, Marie’s music certainly changed. She couldn’t hit those high notes as she had before and her music, especially the acoustic stuff, assumed a dark, tortured quality all of its own. Then she started to get more and more erratic, both on and off stage. She stopped showing up for rehearsals and in a show of strength and autonomy the band got rid of her. They called it ‘letting her go’.
That didn’t last long though. They rehired her when it was clear their fortunes were taking a downward dip. Marie’s appearance changed too. She grew gaunter than ever and more often than not was a spectral figure on stage.
I had only seen her a few times during that whole period and we never talked about anything that was bothering her.The bands grew erratic and then were forced to cancel a lot of performances, they got in a standby guitarist, but nothing seemed to work. Then they made an announcement at a press conference and went their separate ways.
“So what? I never liked them much anyway.” She announced in a music magazine interview. “ Now I can do what I always wanted to do-make music. Who wants to hang around with men who misuse their more gullible female fans in ways you don’t want to know one minute and then sing tender songs of unrequited feeling the next? Not me, that’s for sure… Tomorrow’s People are yesterday’s news, Sunny Jim.”
I had been away for much of this time. I took a year to travel before my graduation year and spent long months on the continent teaching English and working in bars for money and company and paying too much rent for rooms without a tap.I came back after reading an article about her in the NME.
I went to Marie’s flat with the manager. It was unrecognizable. Much of the furniture was gone.
There were rough looking people sitting around rolling up joints and passing other worse things around.And there were whacked out bodies everywhere. There must have been at least 50 people lying around on the floor, every one of them in different time zones. Marie was lying in a corner with her head slumped, completely gone. A still lit cigarette was in her hand. The ash had burned all the way to the skin. She didn’t feel anything. She was almost recognizable.She looked so thin, wasted and lifeless. Her eyes were as dull and lifeless as those on a dead body.
I had to get her out of that place.
“All her guitars have been stolen,” said the manager. I thought that was a strange thing for him to say at the time.
I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder. She was kicking and screaming and calling us all kinds of names.
“We’ll get her into the car and take her to my place in the country,” said the manager.
We stopped off on the way to get a couple of bottles of crème de menthe.
“It’ll make the journey easier.”
So we got to the house in the country. I have to admit I was so shocked at what I had seen and was seeing that I wasn’t much help. For a week and a half we spoke to her in every which way possible. We begged, pleaded, grew angry, agreed and disagreed with her.
One day she was gone. A simple note had been left behind.
‘Gone back to pick up my life.’
I followed her back the following day. She had cleaned up the flat and gotten rid of all those dubious looking groupies who’d been infesting it like human carrion. She still looked physically vulnerable and colorless. But some life had returned to her eyes. That night we stood by the window and talked about life- my life, her life, our lives.
“I like reading in the winter,” she said.
“Things are more easily understood in the cold and the dark, you see life without the gloss. I think I might just stop music altogether and concentrate on writing. I don’t care if I never see another person. All those people are abusers, stealing all my precious time… all those people, all those places. They scrape something from you.”
“What about me?” I asked in a quiet voice.
She smiled. It was the first time I had seen her smile since I’d got back. “ Well you’re not OTHER people are you? You get famous, you get rich and in demand and find yourself locked into a place where no one’s ever going to notice whether you’re right or wrong. No one’s going to see you if you’re there or if you’re not.” She smiled a tired, good natured smile. “My heart’s become a crooked hotel where strangers wonder in and out uninvited.”
I looked at her arm and the abuse visible on it despite her clever attempts to disguise the needle’s damage. “How did you ever get into the white lady?” I asked her.
She looked at me, like she didn’t understand what I had said.
“Heroin.” There it was, I had said the forbidden word; dropped the H-bomb on her.
She stared out the window again. “I don’t know one day I just shot up and the next thing I knew I was a junkie…Perhaps I’ve been heading towards addiction all my life. Do you want to know what it’s like, the sensation?”
The look on my face must have told her I did.
“I got famous, traveled all over the world and still saw nothing. Airplanes, limousine, Hotel, do the show and do the sequence all over again. There’s something fundamentally desperate about someone who does that.
Drugs? Whatever pain you’re feeling might give you a reason, but of course you don’t do it for pain. You do it because you want to drop out. You want to feel something different to whatever you’re feeling… and heroin” she said, closing her eyes.
“It’s like that delicious moment when you’re falling asleep. Image that feeling, but exaggerate it by a thousand times and it lasts for hours. It’s just this wonderful freefall…It’s like you’re taking an endless fall through the pink clouds of paradise. They’re the best thing when you’ve got them and the worst thing when you haven’t got them. I can’t think about anything else when I don’t have them.”
“Stop that” I snapped. “ You’re making me nervous.”
“Well, if God made anything better he kept it for himself, that’s all I can say.”
“You know what my biggest regret in life is?” she said, suddenly looking hard into my chestnut brown eyes.
“Not learning how to play the violin. I can play almost any other instrument, but I never learnt to play the violin, why? I’d always wanted to… It’s such a dignified instrument,” she added almost as a melancholy afterthought.
“You can still learn now.” I said firmly.
“No, I can’t.”
“What do you mean what’s stopping you?”
“Oh I think you know what’s stopping me.”
“Maybe you should have stuck to writing.”
“Maybe, but I’m not the only person who took the wrong train to kingdom come.”
“When does it end?”
“I don’t think it does.”
I choked back a sudden unexpected sob, turned round and quietly left the room.The next morning I woke up and found her sitting at her white Stanway piano playing the prettiest music you could imagine. It just floated through the air like oxygen from a better place and almost made me fall.
I also heard some of the other things she had quietly recorded and you could see that her music had changed. As I said, those in the know say that as a musician’s personality changes so does the music. Well, it appeared to be true in this case. That said, paradoxically the uglier her life had become the more beautiful her music got. I can’t hope to explain it, so I won’t try.
We took a week’s jaunt off in Jamaica where we went around driving fast and talking like black American Christian ministers from Alabama. Slowly the colour began returning, both to her cheeks and to her personality, she was making me laugh it again and it pleased me watching her drinking strawberry smoothies by the beach. There was that old familiar sparkle in her eyes when she spoke.
When we got back to London she had made a decision.
“I’m going to start playing again.”
A cold shiver ran through me like an icy claw running itself along the length of my back.
“No, don’t do that. Write or learn to play the violin instead.”
“I’ll manage. It will only be as a farewell to the people who made me rich and famous.”
“You sure you’ll be ok?”
“Oh, I’ll be okay this time…just so long as I keep my head above the water.”She was careful about the whole thing.
She helped out other musicians in the studio and did small shows with other musicians on her label. She had begun work on a solo project when she received a visit from someone from her management company.
“The band wants to get back together again. And they want you to come back. They want to advertise it as a farewell tour because they feel they didn’t do right by the public with the way you all split last time.”
Marie hadn’t worked in almost a year and she knew that the money would help her out.
“So it’s a farewell tour right? I’m not going to be contracted to do anything more, am I right?”
“Yeah you’re right.”
So The Tomorrow People got back together again. They decided to do a last album in the studio and then promote it with an international series of concerts that would climax with a blowout show in London at Hyde Park.
Everyone was excited, me, the band, the public, everyone-except her.
Pushers and groupies who had followed the band started showing up at the studio shoving themselves into her life again.
I went back to my life and she went back to hers. I had exams to pass and she had shows to do.From what I heard there was a lot of difficulty involved in making that next album. The band had become five separate pieces that no longer fitted together so easily anymore. It took them longer than expected.
And then there were the arguments, the constant arguments. I blame the arguments and the expectations for what happened next.
So they got the album done and started to do shows. First stop was France, Marie, more than the band, had a huge following out there on the basis of her chic charm and uniqueness in the pop business.
The weekly music magazines gave mixed reports of those shows.They said that the band would be brilliant one day and very sloppy the next. Marie was being blamed for a lot of this. She would walk on stage looking affected and sleepy and end up bumping into stage monitors and not playing properly.
But still the tour rumbled on through Europe and then onto Japan- where even bad shows were treated like magical affairs.
There were shows when People had to tie up her laces before they went on.
The band left Japan and went onto Australia.The Australians were less accepting of the unacceptable. Shows got cancelled when she couldn’t go on.
A replacement was found for the shows as she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play or sing properly. Marie would however come to those shows and stand at the side of the stage drinking directly from a bottle. There was a fight after one of the shows when she was told that her emergency replacement made her look like an amateur. She broke her hand in the fight, quit the band again and flew back to London. The band carried on with the tour, going through two replacements before finishing the tour in New York.
Marie flew out there just to have one last look before it all ended.
The band invited her on stage for an encore and she played just as well as she had done before the needle had taken over. They did four encores that night before leaving the arena in separate cars never to be seen in the same room again.
She got a new band together again, the female bass player of which was used as a kind of chaperone to make sure that the wrong kinds of people were kept at a distance. It was no use. As soon as she was out the front door Marie would be sold something through the back door. She had begun injecting herself in discrete parts of her body so that nobody could see the marks on her. The girl who had been deathly afraid of needles was now injecting smack between her toes.
The new singer went looking for Marie one day and found her sitting at a table in the backseat area of the show trying to re-break her fingers on the table in order to get some more pills. She quit the band when she saw that.
I came back. But it was all going so wrong so fast that I didn’t know what to do.
The band couldn’t record properly and she was looking worse than ever. They would have called it a day had it not been for the massive advance paid out by the record company on account of her name and selling power.
One day she had been doing some guest guitar for someone in the studio and collapsed as soon as the session was over. She was hurried off to Northwick park hospital. The Hospital was just next to the asylum for the mentally ill.
That’s where her mother was staying. She’d been there on and off for years.
She lay in the hospital and was clinically dead for 30 minutes. Everything in her body had shut down and refused to work. A machine kept her from going entirely over the edge. The machine pulled her back from the dead. The first thing she said to me, with a smile, was.”How many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?”
I told her. “As much times as you like.”
That December we celebrated her birthday with cakes, one for the date of her birth and one for the day she had been brought back from the dead.
It was christmas and she went to stay at the home of the record company manager and his family. I went along too. The day before she had had some kind of fit or something. Her body had demanded what we couldn’t give her.
There had been an ugly fight between her and the manager. His wife stood silently staring out the window, too furious to speak another word. It seemed like the end of everything. But the next day there was Marie playing with his little kids in the garden and all they wanted to do was forgive her. She was so charming.
For the remaining five days we stayed there she was back to her old self again. She looked like she had done before, she spoke and behaved like she had done before. There were no signs that this young woman had ever so much as dropped an aspirin. It was her last christmas present to us.
A week later after a warm up show for a solo comeback she collapsed again.
We took her to the Hospital in Marylebone this time. She may have taken something and she may not have. I don’t know. She lay in bed for two days, fluttering between this world and someplace else.
On the second day she opened her eyes and we chatted, just me and her in the white room. I could see that every sentence required some effort from her.
We talked about the past. She made me laugh as she recalled things that I thought both of us had forgotten. There was a long pause where I sat with my hand in hers and we said nothing.
“Hey do you remember how we used to walk around as kids pretending to be madly, insanely, crushingly in love with each other?” She said, pressing down hard on my fingers.
She rose up off her cushion.
“Hey take it easy.” I could see she was using all her strength to do it. She grabbed my hand, a single, silvery tear trickling down her face and leaned into my ear.“Well I wasn’t pretending.” Her hand went kind of limp on mine and I felt her body weaken and wilt.
I felt something leave the room and put her back onto the cushion and stared at her face. She looked somehow smaller, but in a strange way less vulnerable. The strands of hair around the top of her face were wet and despite the fact that her body looked broken and abused, there was a small, tricky smile on her face- like she had seen something wonderful right before closing her eyes. I bent down again to bury my face in her hair, the smell of her hair stays in my nostrils still.
Marie was buried in the Cemetery up on Harrow-on-the-Hill.
The gravestone has the words ‘ Shooting star’ engraved on it.
Like I said, sometimes when it’s cold and I’m alone I walk the streets and look for her…
Copyright Nasir Ali Hussain 2021
2 thoughts on “The Dignity Of Violins”
Poetic. Sadly the writer summed it up at the end. Shooting star. Shooting heroin. Despite being valiant and selfless when up against the “shooting” (snorting, drinking, swallowing) the talent, all of the love, all of the history…you walk alone. This tale also answers the “ why”! Another great piece!
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