We fidgeted on chairs with torn upholstery beneath fluorescent lights. The lights flickered in sympathy with our nerves. Moist clung to the changing room walls as if sweat poured from their pores. The sickly yellow paint reflected on my skin. Maybe the other way round. It’s not what made my stomach turn, though. Mark did that. He sat on his haunches in front of me. His eyes beamed all superior as if he still disapproved of me across that cheap Formica desk in the benefits office.
He shook his shiny just-come-from-a-shampoo-advert fringe away from his eyes and laid a hand over my drumsticks. Stopped me practicing the night’s beats on the empty crate at my feet.
“There’s a scout here tonight.” He should have smiled. Why didn’t he smile?
“Wha …? You’re kidding me.” My mouth curved up for the both of us.
“Nah, I’m not kidding you.” He shook his locks with every word to reinforce how his gorgeousness glued the band together.
Steve and Connor didn’t flinch. Kept their eyes on their mobiles, swished their fingers in studied avoidance of our conversation. They already knew. I tightened my belly to hold its rolls and sways in check. The light above jerked and made me blink.
“We have to stay tight tonight. This could make us. You don’t get too many chances anymore, mate, not with the music industry as it is right now.” He placed a hand on my thigh, gave me a little squeeze. It took effort to restrain a donkey kick into his smug face. “If you miss a beat again, like you did last night, we’ll fire you. Get a new drummer.” He sniffed. “Keep the beat … okay, fella?”
I bang war drums. Keep my eyes on the skins and away from the crowd. Away from that woman cupping her boobs for Mark to leer over. We sound tight. Steve’s hitting the chords just right on bass. Connor’s fingers are all over lead guitar like he wants to take it home and give it some serious loving. I try not to look at Mark, but he draws me in. His locks shimmer in the spotlights. Look how he holds that mic-stand – strokes it like his dick.
He swings it, leans back, points the stand’s bottom at the venue’s ceiling like its 1970-something. I risk a quick crowd-scan. One dipstick surfs the crowd wearing a pair of Doc Martins. I shake my head at the impending black eyes. The walls are drenched. The into-it kids mosh at the front. The cool mob nod their heads further back, above weak beer.
I hold the beat, smash the cymbals sweet, shift my arse in anticipation of the drum solo – the one Mark said I screwed up last night. Fuck him – I never miss a beat. I scan the crowd to see where the scout is stood. Probably at the bar chatting up some woman. He won’t catch any mistakes. But what if he does?
Mark – I can’t call him his artist name: Lou – thrusts his hips at the woman who likes to touch herself a lot. A right pair of wankers.
Mark let go of my sticks. I tapped the crate to my words. “I set this band up. You can’t sack me.”
Steve and Connor swished away on the phones. They’d wear away their fingerprints if they carried on.
Mark stood, kicked away the crate. “And I made the band. Without me, you’d still be looking at someone across a desk with those puppy dog eyes, begging to avoid a job.”
This band is my identity. Mark had sucked away all my power.
“I can do whatever I want.” He messiah-ed his arms, turned, and left the changing room.
I bang hard. A lull. I tap-tap the cymbal, build a crescendo, slam the pedal for a boom, visualise Mark’s head opening like a macheted melon. The third verse is about to kick in, where he screams for Van-essssa and the orgasms she conducts from him.
“Mother … fucker.” I had my hand beneath a sweaty armpit. The machine tool had put a divot where it should have banged a rivet into the umbrella. The floor manager charged across the factory. Wanted to know if his machine still worked.
“Fuck your machine,” I said. “My hand is going to inflate and take off.”
He continued to fiddle with levers and screws to test its efficiency.
I must have turned purple. “Bloody hell. Hello?”
I lost it. Hit him with my good left hand and headed for the dole queue.
Shit, did I miss a beat?
I panic, but I’m sure I kept rhythm. Mark stands before me. Rocks his mane. My sticks blur. My drum solo kicks in. He stares lizard eyes at me, his lids heavy but unblinking. The sticks become heavy – hammers I want to throw at his head. I glare so hard at him that his face begins to melt into that of the dole man, the one who screwed his lips in disapproval at my handout request. Sweat cascades over sweat. Mark’s lips move, but he taps his thigh with the mic.
“You’re going to fuck up … You’re going to fuck up … Miss a beat … Miss a beat … Miss a miss a fucking beat.”
I’ve got nothing else but my band. I’m too old to start anew and get a respectable job like all those dying from boredom in clinic-white offices. If Mark screws this up for me …
I hit a dud. I don’t know if anybody sensed it, but it deadens my heart. Connor’s lead guitar begins to sound like a forty-five on thirty-three. I see dole man tut and pull on his tie like he’s showing how he’d use it to hang me from the rafters. Mark’s reptile-eyes widen with his mouth. I read his lips: “Bye, fella, bye, bye, bye.”
A man in the audience writes on a paper pad. His Elvis Costello specs slip to the end of his nose a few times and he pushes them back into place with his pen hand every other word. He slips the pad into the back of his jeans, turns to the woman he’s with and whispers whatever into her ear. He’s expended few words on us. Maybe I did miss a beat and that put a full stop to his report.
I craned my neck to see what he had on my file. I’ve gone from job to job in my life, never settled on anything. He hunched over the keyboard, a finger pressed on his lips. He made the odd cluck, and it made my skin crawl that this fussy hen had power over whether or not I can subsist in the next few weeks until I find another job. I begin to imagine his purple tie a perfect noose, for both of us.
He should have introduced himself. The polite thing to do after all. I gathered his name only from the Jobcentre tag pinned over his cold heart. He’d written his name, Mark, in straight, almost runic lines.
Good hair though. Would look good in my band.
“Can you wash glasses?” Mark tapped the pen on his desk, his eyes holes of boredom.
“In a bar. A pub. Can you collect and wash glasses?”
“Are you kidding me?”
He rapped his finger on the desk with each word. “You don’t have any marketable skills. Can you wash glasses in a pub?”
I could have grabbed that finger of his and shoved it in his eye – but his hair, all rock star, had me mesmerised. “I can bang the drums.”
“You’re a drummer?”
“In a band in need of a front-man. You’d fit perfectly.”
I left the place with full benefits and a new singer.
I kick the drums over. The crowd surges, as if we’re doing a Nirvana tribute. I smash the right stick across Mark’s left cheek and streak a red line. His head snaps into the left stick as I keep rhythm. He stumbles back, arms out to protect his front-man looks. He’s on his back. I’m on his belly. Lock his arms down with my knees. I drum his temple, dig my knees into his side. The mic reverberates, sends grunge feedback through a thousand pairs of ears. Steve and Connor play on, in the groove, eyes closed. I have the mic in my hand. The crowd becomes still. They follow the mic’s arc as it descends dagger-like towards Mark’s forehead. He bucks like an abused donkey and I miss. He thrusts his hips and topples me from my advantage. The microphone squeals across the stage. Mark grabs the wire and swings the mic like a lasso, before thrusting it at my head. He jerks as I lift my right hand and the wire wraps round my wrist. He snaps the wire and pulls me towards him, right into his waiting fist. My nose cracks and I see red pitter-patter on the stage.
We’ve silenced the crowd. I know Steve and Connor have cottoned-on when their guitars choke and screech like a train piling from its rails. The audience’s eyes are little neon lights, all shining on us. Hands cover mouths. My hot sweat turns icy as my t-shirt shifts over Gremlin goosebumps.
A murmur builds from the left.
“Are they for real?” I hear.
I belly-flop the stage on the run and slide to my drumsticks. I turn and roll before I tumble off the edge into the moshpit, and slash a stick across Mark’s arm as he advances on me with the mic. I slash again, but miss. The first strike must have been lucky because my sight is blurred by tears from my mashed nose. He catches my funny bone and I howl like Mike Patton on Angel Dust. He grabs me in a headlock just as I kick at his legs. We both tumble and he ends up on me. My blood mingles with his in our aggressive embrace.
“You’re going back to the dole queue, my friend.”
I bare my teeth and growl. “Fuck you. You’ll go back behind that desk.”
I crane my neck to the crowd. The scout stares at us. He’s enjoying the spectacle, but he knows we’ve recognized him. The Roman Emperor lifts his hand and drops a thumb.
“Bastard,” I say.
“Twat,” Mark says.
I push Mark from me, thrust to my feet and throw a drumstick into the crowd. My aim is all Robin Hood’ because I knock the scout’s glasses from his face.
The “whoas” Mexican wave to the right, and as I stumble off the stage, I trigger the night’s final crowd surge. Angry men and women storm my space, grab me, and lift me above their heads. I spot the scout scramble around the floor for his glasses as they crowd-surf me to a beating from which my drum career might not recover. I thrash at the crowd with feet and stick, see Mark charge through the crowd like a Viking warrior. He strikes through the hordes with his microphone sword. Steve and Connor strike up Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills. I hear laughter and screams of fury at the blasé guitar riffs.
I smash down and hear a hollow crack, as if somebody’s skull has just opened like a coconut. I’m dropped. Right on my tail-bone. Hurts worse than my nose, but I manage to stand. The crowd parts and I find myself in a gladiator circle. Part of the crowd bays, part eggs us on. Security guards stand with the crowd, nervous that if they interfere they might get eaten alive. Mark swings his mic. I tap my thigh with my only stick. I don’t miss any fucking beat.
Through my burnt eyes I see the dole queue. I fear standing for what seems like hours for someone to interrogate me and click buttons on my profile in their zoned-out state. I see Mark recognize the same. I’m sure he imagines that purple tie cut at his throat as he interviews the likes of me.
“Thank God for that.”
Our heads swivel from each other to the man on his hands and knees just inside the crowd’s first line. He stands, breathes condensation on his glasses, and rubs. His squinty eyes become owl-like when he wears them. I’m sure I’ve ground my teeth to the gum line. His smile beams awkward. His eyebrows form crow wings in high-flap.
“You’re going to get a solid report, I promise. That was … awesome.”
Neither of us believe him. I didn’t even see the Indiana Jones whip from Mark, but that snap cracked the scout’s left lens. He staggers back but doesn’t fall. Maybe the air from all the gasps behind keep him on his feet. The second crack from Mark sets me off. I wind-mill my arms and bring those sticks down down down on his head. Red spills from the cracks and rolls over burgeoning purple skin.
Hands are all over me. They pull, they push, they punch. Somebody holds me in a headlock and pulls me away. I watch in horror how Mark finishes the job with a hard slam on the man’s head. The mic swings from the wire he still holds, in search of a bell to toll.
I bang the drums with my eyes shut. Mark is loud and energetic, but he’s lost his soul. There’s no woman for him to leer at. The crowd doesn’t know how to mosh, or if it did, it wouldn’t. His voice, ah, he’s just shifting through the gears. I keep my eyes shut to keep a bit of magic alive. I don’t want to see shaved heads on packed bodies sat on plastic chairs screwed to the floor.
“Fuck it. I don’t feel it. I’m getting nothing from any of you fuckers.”
I open my eyes. Mark has thrown the mic to the floor. His shoulders have slumped. He walks from the stage under a barrage of spit and the prison governor’s disapproval.
Time for a drum solo. I hit In the Air Tonight to his miserable slouch back to the cell.
Drumsticks is taken from Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2, available FREE on all digital formats except Amazon, where it’s 99p/cents.