Thursday, 8 March 2012

Encore

This story was written in 2009, as part of my creative writing course at uni. It's not autobiographical.

For the first few songs, Pippa watched herself watching Claudia, and it wasn’t until Claudia decided to play a B-side that Pippa didn’t know that she relaxed her shoulders and began to listen. After the sixth song, Eric got up to go to the loo, and Pippa tapped her fingers nervously until he got back, hoping that Claudia would not play her favourite song while he was away. Whenever Claudia sang the most important words, Pippa would grip Eric’s hand and stare intently at the stage, casting furtive glances at him. Eric clapped and smiled at the end of every song.

Every now and again, Pippa pressed her hand against the small leather bag on her lap, feeling the shape of the mushroom. She had wrapped it in tissue paper to protect it, but it didn’t stop her compulsively checking to make sure the cap had not become dislodged from the stalk. She knew that some fans held Claudia’s hands after the show, fixing their brimming eyes on hers. Some showed her tattoos of song lyrics, or had their photo taken with her. Pippa could not decide on her favourite lyric, and she thought Claudia must tire of having her photo taken. Claudia was an artist; she understood the process, appreciated craftsmanship. Years from now, she’d sit cat-like in the battered leather chair in her studio, cup of green tea in her hand, giving an interview. ‘Oh that?’ she’d say, glancing at the mushroom on the shelf behind her. ‘A fan made that for me. Good, isn’t it?’


As soon as she had booked the tickets for Eric and herself, Pippa had set to work designing her gift. She settled early on a mushroom, because it would symbolise the earthy yet transformative power of Claudia’s music. Besides, she was practised at making mushrooms, having created hundreds for a college assignment the year before. At the time, her chosen medium had sparked in her a morbid fascination with the contradiction inherent in fashioning representations of life from dead earth. A year ago, Pippa saw clay mushrooms as squat little oxymorons, lifeless rocks dressed up to look like nature’s greatest fertilisers. She’d smiled kindly at her friends who complimented her on her skill as a sculptor, and did not attempt to explain the conceptual fulcrum upon which her assignment sat. 

At first, the mediocre grade Pippa received at the end of her course left her feeling misunderstood and frustrated, but she soon reasoned that years of trying to quantify art must rob examiners of their capacity for feeling. Unlike them, Claudia reached into the depths of her soul every night as soon as she opened her mouth. Pippa had initially worried that Claudia’s sensitivity and perceptiveness would leave her confused by the mushroom’s implicit message about dead earth, so she had included a short note explaining how although mushrooms were organic, some had the potential to alter human perception and create a path to a higher level of understanding. She had also mixed nearly forty different glazes and fired them onto as many ceramic mushrooms before she found one iridescent enough to suggest something other-worldly, rather than dead.

Most of the prototypes had been sold, more than covering her costs, but not before she had sent one home to her mother in bubble wrap and packing tape. Predictably, her mother had placed it on the mantle piece next to a squashed-looking ashtray Pippa had made with salt dough in playschool. Pippa was exasperated by her mother’s veneration of everything she made regardless of quality or artistic merit. As she nervously pressed the hard round mushroom in her lap, Pippa remembered trying to explain to her mother what she was trying to achieve with the first batch of dead-earth mushrooms, and how her mother had just shaken her head in awe and told Pippa how clever she was. 

In the bar before the show, she had shown Eric the mushroom. ‘I like the shiny bit at the top,’ he said. ‘Looks cool.’

Pippa could tell Eric didn’t really understand Claudia. He sipped his beer during the moments when Claudia was at her most profound, and his failure to recognise the introductions of the songs betrayed the fact that he had neglected to listen to the albums Pippa had lent him. Claudia expressed so eloquently everything Pippa felt, everything that would finally help Eric to understand her, and all he could do was flick through the programme and say things like: ‘she’s a really good live musician,’ and ‘how old did you say she was?’

After Claudia had been playing for an hour, Pippa began to think about the stage door, and she wondered how many of the other people in the auditorium would want to meet Claudia there. With her eyes, she measured the distance between herself and the nearest door, and ran her hands around her seat to make sure she had her bag and coat to hand. On stage, Claudia launched into a cover of a song that Pippa hadn’t heard before, but made everyone else in the audience whoop with delight. Pippa frowned. To her annoyance, Eric suddenly raised his eyebrows in recognition, shouting, ‘This was the first single I ever bought!’

Pippa did not enjoy cover versions. She disliked hearing Claudia’s beautiful voice wrapped around other people’s clumsy words. As the song finished, the audience stood and cheered. Claudia bowed and walked off stage. Panicking, Pippa fumbled for her coat, dropping the leather bag. She grabbed for it, desperately pushing her fingers against it to make sure the mushroom was still intact. Finding that it was, she tripped towards the exit, leaving everyone else applauding an empty stage.

The concert took place in an old theatre, and it was not immediately apparent which way she should go. At any moment the floodgates would open and she would have to fight her way through hoards of people if she was to be the first to meet Claudia. As she tried to remember which posters were on the wall of the corridor on the way in, she heard Eric run up behind her, panting.

‘Are you alright?’ 

‘Which way is out?’

‘That way, but the house lights…’

Pippa ran in the direction of Eric’s finger, stopping only as she emerged onto the street, where T-shirts lay in uneven rows on the pavement in front of a fat man in a baseball cap. 

‘Which way is the stage door?’

‘Wanna T-shirt?’ 

‘No. Where is the stage door?’

The man rubbed a dirty hand on his knee before gesturing towards an alley to the right of the theatre. Eric grabbed her arm.

‘Can’t you hear that?’

‘What?’

‘She’s still playing, there’s an encore.’

‘I don’t care. Are you coming?’

Eric gently took her hand. ‘Pip, I thought you were sick or something. Let’s go back, see the last songs.’

Pippa shook her head. Eric closed his eyes and held up his hands.

As soon as they rounded the building, Pippa’s stomach jolted. Between her and the door were several hundred people, jostling for space. She stood with her knees bent and her legs apart, unsure of what to do.

‘I don’t think you need a ticket to be here,’ said Eric quietly.

Over the chatter, Pippa could hear the muffled final chords of her favourite song, as if played underwater. People’s bodies were stiffening around her. As they waited, the crowd began to pack themselves ever more densely together, and Pippa lost sight of Eric. These people seemed somehow different from the ones in the auditorium. The girls inside wore vintage dresses and feather earrings. These people wore Claudia’s face on their chest, carried old pictures of Claudia, and twisted chewed pens in their dirty fingers. Pippa drew her coat around herself and clasped her bag.

After what seemed like hours, a large man in a black T-shirt emerged from the door. Pippa could only see the top of his head, but a wave of screams from a few feet ahead of her sent her reeling forwards, suddenly pushed from behind by several hands and knees. Her palms scraped on tarmac, and she scrambled upright, wiping them on her jeans.

Then she saw Claudia herself, smiling as she scribbled on crumpled pictures of her own face. She appeared to recognise a face somewhere to Pippa’s left, and over the screams Pippa could hear her strangely thin voice asking about someone’s brother, and laughing. Claudia moved slowly through the crowd, nodding and thanking and posing for digital cameras. 

‘You take care,’ said Claudia to a man with dreadlocks. Then she looked directly at Pippa, her face open. Pippa felt a kind of pain as if she had stared directly at the sun, and shut her eyes quickly. When she opened them Claudia had moved far to her right, and there were already twenty people between them. Pippa tried to cry out, but she couldn’t hear her own voice. As she craned her neck to see Claudia, she saw a car waiting by the side of the pavement. 

Pippa struggled to make her way forwards, watching Claudia’s head bob in and out of view, moving ever closer to the car. Her fingers fought with the zip on her bag, tearing the tissue paper as she wrenched the mushroom from it. 

‘Wait!’

Nobody heard, and Pippa saw Claudia’s hand wave to the crowd. As Claudia’s head began to duck, Pippa threw the mushroom into the night.

As she pushed her way back towards Eric, she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. Looking upwards, she saw the square jaw of Claudia’s security guard. She jerked away, but he held her wrist. The thin voice rose again, audible over a sudden hush.

‘I’m fine Oscar!’

Pippa stared at the vast man above her.

‘It’s just an ornament or something, I’m ok.’

‘Take her to hospital, just in case,’ shouted Oscar, his head turned away from Pippa. She heard a car door slam and an engine rev and gasps from around her. ‘Fuckin’ crazy fans,’ Oscar said, releasing his grip on Pippa’s arm.

Before anyone else could move, Pippa ran back to where she had last seen Eric. For a moment she thought he had left, but then she saw him sitting on the pavement, with a blue carrier bag, his face illuminated by the glow of his phone.

‘I was just about to call you. Did you give her your thing?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you hungry?’

Pippa looked at the carrier bag. ‘What’s in there?’

‘T-Shirts.’

She nodded.


6 comments:

  1. That was a good read. In particular, I liked your portrayal of Pippa and Eric, which made for a very believable illustration of their (I assume) relationship. Wheras Pippa clearly wants to connect with her (I assume) boyfriend, the latter's behaviour suggests that he is attending the concert mostly out of duty.

    I'm not sure how readily I can empathise with the connection that Pippa feels she holds with Claudia; not due to any deficiency in your writing, but because I don't often feel that way myself. This might be due to the fact that many of my favourite musicians are terrible lyricists.

    Was your entire university course in creative writing, or was it just part of it?

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  2. Theank irbrad.

    I think (w***er alert) when someone writes a story, they don't know anything more about the things that aren't written down than someone else reading it. So your guess is as good as mine.

    For my part, I don't think Eric's doing it out of duty because Pippa will be annoyed with him if he doesn't, just that he knows it's important to her. She wants to connect with, well, not just him, but everyone, and she's going about it the wrong way. She'd be a lot happier if she took it less seriously and just enjoyed the concert, like he is even though it's not really his thing.

    I took the course in my last year just becuase I was interested, it was only worth a small bit of my overall grade. I specialised (w***er level... rising...) in post-WWII American literature PARTICULARLY trauma, narrative, and the Vietnam War. This is why I am so cheerful all the time.

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    Replies
    1. Hi.

      By duty, I meant that Eric probably would not have gone if it wasn't Pippa's idea, even though he does make an effort to enjoy the show once there. Maybe duty wasn't the right word (hehehe “duty”).

      That said, yeah, it does look like Pippa is taking things a bit too seriously. She even strikes me as a tad conceited, what with her doubting her friends' and examiners' ability to appreciate her work. As the narration is from her viewpoint, it looks possible to me that Eric and his efforts to understand her are similarly misrepresented.

      I don't think I've ever actually read a history-based war novel before (although I have read parts of the Iliad cos im proper clever, innit). It sounds like you'd need a lot of emotional fortitude. I did write an imitation war poem once back in primary school, though, but I can't remember which war we were supposed to be writing about, and I don't think I knew back then.

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  3. Hi irbrad,

    "Duty" is only funny if you say it with an American accent, so it took me a while to get what you were doing there. Now I totally appreciate it.

    Haha. Doodie.

    Pippa is totally conceited, and far too wrapped up in herself to be happy. Lighten up Pippa! I wonder if she makes an effort to find out what Eric likes.

    The Iliad is great. I love Greek myths, because everyone, incluing the Gods, have such petty motivations, and every epic thing that happens is as a result of people doing silly stuff because they fancy someone.

    I don't know about needing emotional fortitude to read a war novel, or indeed any novel. I think if a story's told well, it's compelling, and you go where it takes you. In real life (not that I really know what that is), stuff happens that you're not really qualified for, whether you're ready or not, and you cope with it. A good book is a bit like that. I think that's what makes books special, you can only really read them if you're ready for them. It's not like a film, where you can be subjected to all this ghastly stuff without being ready for it, you have to read and understand the prose in order to even be shocked by it. And then if you've got that far, then you must be ready.

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  4. Hello.

    I s'pose it could go either way. As we only have a snapshot of their relationship, many of the answers are open to interpretation. I suspect Pippa likely does know what Eric is into, but might not think very much of it.

    Greek myths are great, yeah. They tend to be gruesome, but are usually good stories and do show an interesting take on human morality. Oedipus cocks things up, sure, but he's only following the fate that an oracle has predicted for him. Phaedra only falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, because Aphrodite was feeling a bit miffed. Maybe it's an early exploration of determinism [/pretentious].

    While you might be able to understand a piece of prose, you might not be too comfortable with what it describes. I think I'd need emotional fortitude to stomach the scenes I'd be visualising. I realise that if a story does affect me a lot then it has probably done its job; I just don't know if I would be able to handle it as a focus of study without slipping into a deep melancholy. I can't think of any recent books that did this, though I recently finished Fallout: NV and was (figuratively) winded by several of the ethically weighty decisions I had to make. Ah, melancholy. I love that word.

    PS
    I'm British too. I find “duty” funny because it's a slang term for a bodily function.

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