Chapter 27: Battle Symphony
By the time we leave Gran’s, the sun is simmering. We open the car windows and wave back the little old lady standing alone on her doorstep. Mum beeps the horn three times before pulling away from the kerb. The way she always does. The way Dad always did.
“Keep the Lord in your heart,” Gran yells after us.
Mum hits the horn once more then we all fall silent. Dad has sneaked into the car. He’s like that. You can be doing something all lovely and friendly and then there he is. Which should make us happy, right? It should be like his spirit is right alongside us blah blah blah… But it’s not like that at all because the more Dad’s there the more obvious it becomes that he’s not there at all. And maybe that sounds weird, but that’s the way it is.
Next stop is Fratton Park, home to Dad’s favourite football team. When we arrive, we park on one of the nearby residential streets and walk towards the stadium. It looks more like a massive cowshed than I remember but as we get closer to it I can feel Dad clutching my hand the way he used to. For a moment, I even hear the roaring of the crowd, Dad’s voice louder than everybody else’s. The memory of Dad’s solidity, of him lifting me up in celebration, of his face millimetres from my own, is suddenly almost too much to bear. I have to concentrate on my breathing. And when I do actually feel a hand on mine, of course it’s Mum’s, not Dad’s. She squeezes tight and I squeeze back.
We don’t hang around for long. There’s nothing for us here. And we need to be at Andy’s soon. He was Dad’s best friend. He still lives in Portsmouth and he’s looking out of his front window when we arrive. He shows us his new bathroom and feeds us biscuits then we go to Aunt Cathy’s where I say what I need to, drink and eat what’s put in front of me, and wait for the day to end. By the time we start the long journey home, it’s dark. Dad is everywhere and he’s nowhere. It’s exhausting.
I’m so glad when we get back and I can flop onto my bed. I look to see if anyone has uploaded footage of tonight’s Brixton gig yet. A part of me thinks that looking at any recordings now will be like opening Christmas presents early, that I’ll somehow ruin the experience of actually being at the show myself tomorrow. I can’t resist, though. It’s eleven o’clock so the gig will have finished. My head feels heavy on my shoulders, but I ignore the tiredness and click on the first clip I find. It shows the band coming on stage. Ben Chester is dressed in a white v-neck t-shirt and skinny black jeans, a pair of black skate shoes on his feet. The only flourish is the hat he wears on his head, a black fedora that looks like it belongs with a different outfit and yet somehow fits perfectly with what Ben’s wearing. At first, he doesn’t look up at the crowd; he arrives at the microphone with his eyes still fixed on the floor. Then the music starts, his head snaps up and Faint December roar into life. The first song is I Grew Up, one of their biggest hits, and it makes me want to leap out of my seat. The camera flashes quickly in the direction of the crowd that’s clearly bouncing alongside the person recording the footage. Brixton Academy is a mass of flailing bodies. Faint December couldn’t have started any more energetically. For most bands, a track like I Grew Up would be their encore song, the peak of their set – for Faint December, it’s a baseline. The recording suddenly cuts out as the person recording gets tired of holding up their phone. I can’t blame them. Who could be in that venue and not concentrating completely on living in that moment?
The second clip is from later in the show. Ben’s hat is gone, so is his t-shirt and I can see those familiar tattoos as he whirls in circles – the flames that run from his wrists to halfway up his forearms, the name of his band in large, old-English lettering on his lower back. He’s delivering the final chorus of Phoenix.
“I am fighting hard, doing my best to stand it,” he sings, and I can see his veins as he puts everything he has into each lyric, “being afraid can’t kill you, can it?”
He bends over his microphone and screams into it. I shiver. The song made a huge impact on me the first time I heard it, but in this moment there’s something about it that penetrates me even more deeply. It’s like some kind of battle symphony. I hope the band will play it tomorrow night and wonder if its effect will be magnified even more. Not that there’s any guarantee it will make the setlist; Faint December have enough songs to perform for half a day without stopping and they never play the same set twice. Maybe, if they did, I’d have deeper reservations about looking through tonight’s footage. As it is, I know tomorrow’s show will be completely different. I want to watch the clips from tonight all over again – more will surely be uploaded soon too – but I force myself to turn my phone off. It’s time to sleep.