If you simply want to read the ‘fTrE’ story, you’ll find the text below. We’ll add the new chapters in at the same time as each respective class is posted.
The radio’s on. I’ve heard this Bright Star song a million times. It makes me want to kill myself. Little Jo sees the look on my face and shrugs.
“I like it,” she says.
The same way she always does. Ella crosses her eyes. She knows why I want to cover my ears and scream.
“You could turn it off,” Big Joe tells me. “You have the power.”
I stick my tongue out. He knows I have no power.
“It’ll be over soon,” I say.
And maybe everyone else thinks it actually will be. I know different. I know it will never be over. Not really.
Am I even talking about the song anymore?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Kris perches on the edge of the battered old sofa. I’ve been sprawled out here since I arrived and I have no intention of moving. Ever.
“I’ve got something that will make you feel better,” Kris says.
Nothing will make me feel better.
He gets up and turns the radio off. He pulls a record out of his sports bag and crouches by the turntable. I hear the needle dropping onto the vinyl. I close my eyes as the sound of Taylor Swift’s voice fills up the room. I do feel better.
I open my eyes and Kris is looking right at me, doing his best Taylor impression. How can I not laugh? The record keeps spinning. Song to song to song. The worst day becomes the kind of night I’ve been dreaming of. Me, love-of-my-life Kris and my best friends. We’ve grown up together. Well, maybe not ‘grown up’. We still act like we’re sixteen instead of nearly twenty. I mean, look at us, hiding out in the basement the same way we’ve always done. I can still remember the sparkly feeling I got when Little Jo’s mum threw up her hands, said, ‘well, at least I know where you are,’ and let us turn this place into our den. That was years ago. Posters of all the musicians we love paper the walls.
Big Joe brings us all drinks. He’s always looking out for us, making sure we’re alright. He does it without thinking. I smile up at him. Always up at him. He’s seriously tall.
Then I shut my eyes again and soak in the feeling of sharing this space with these people. If I left this room (which I won’t), I know my life would spin back out of control. The way it always does when I’m not right here. The basement may be small but it’s the only place I’m truly happy.
Out there, everything’s a mess.
Out there, nothing’s the way it should be.
Out there, I see myself the way everyone else sees me and it makes me sick.
Down here, there are no mirrors. Not even in the bathroom. Down here, I can pretend I’m somebody else.
I watch myself in the mirror and go again.
I know there are so many girls who look hotter than me.
I don’t care about them.
I just want – need – to be the best I can be. I go again.
My laptop is open on my desk. The sound is off but random chart videos play one after the other. I hardly pay them attention. Then ‘Beautiful Girls’ comes on. I stop dancing and look at Bright Star. Is she actually beautiful? Not as far as I can see. Is she airbrushed? Definitely. I try to catch my breath. I’ve been dancing for over an hour. Oh yeah, and for about a hundred years before that. Still, I’m nothing like Bright Star. She’s been edited until she moves impossibly. She’s fluid but she’s fake. The song lyrics scroll across my screen.
‘I’m not quite real.’
Sounds about right.
I turn away from the computer and sit down at my piano. The dancing has cleared my head the way it always does. The way – at least – it always used to. I play the same chords that have been running through my mind all week and hum over the top. I’ve taken the song in this direction and that. Now I do something different. I start to sing and a new melody surges out of me. It’s not perfect but it’s a breakthrough. I go again. Then again. Then again. I feel like I’m floating.
This is the feeling I’ve been looking for.
I try not to look too far ahead but it’s hard not to.
I want people to hear this music.
I won’t need to start out the same way Bright Star did, dragging myself from record label to label, singing the same song over and over. A song that someone else has written for me.
That’s not what real artists do.
Or maybe it is.
Whether I like it or not.
I don’t want to do what Bright Star does. I don’t want hair extensions and I don’t want to read from a script. I want to look like myself and have my own opinions. I don’t want to do what I’m told.
There must be a place in the world for a girl like me. I don’t need manufacturing or modelling. I’m already who I want to be. Well, maybe that’s stretching it a bit (a lot). I mean, I’m not perfect. I’m selfish and I’m anxious and I’m obsessive – and I know what I said about extensions, but my hair is blah. But at least with me, you get what you see.
Just like most of the people in the world are real.
Maybe that’s why they like Bright Star so much.
They’ve had enough real.
They don’t need someone like me telling them what they already know. That life is sad. That things don’t always go the way you want them to. That being a girl is hard.
I can’t keep thinking like this. Until I actually play my songs to someone, I won’t know anything for sure.
I go again.
3. Bright Star
Stripped of makeup, I don’t look the way I’m meant to. I keep my head down, put my hood up and my hands into my pockets. I melt into the crowd. My crowd. I know Khan will be looking for me by now. Lara too. I’m surprised neither of them ever thought of installing some kind of tracking device under my skin. Maybe they decided that would be taking things too far. Like ‘too far’ wasn’t a town we passed so long ago.
Not that I’ve got time to think about the past. Not tonight. I’ve got to focus on the present. I can feel the electricity in the air. I need to channel it. I have to make this happen. I can’t worry about what Khan will do to me if this goes wrong.
I’m not scared of him.
Well, not as much as I used to be at least.
I’m shoved to the side by a group of over-excited girls. Individually, they’re almost as small as me, but together they’re a pack. They’re on the hunt. For me. Or maybe for the person they think is me. I guess I’ll find out.
The stage looks enormous from here. The dance squad will be stretching, getting hyped, making sure they’re in the zone. Behind my over-sized sunglasses, I half-close my eyes. I let myself sink into the music that’s pumping out of the arena speakers. I drop one shoulder, then the other. Then again. And again. No one bumps me now. I slip through the hordes of boys and girls – mostly girls – waiting for me to take to the stage.
No one knows I’m me. It feels so weird to be out here in the real world. I’m actually vibrating. I think of going to the bar, buying a drink and propping myself at the back of the venue. What would happen? How long would it be before the show got cancelled? How would they explain my absence?
That’s not my plan, though. What I’ve got in mind is bigger than simply not turning up. That would be the lazy way out. And they can say what they want about me – they always have – but I’m definitely not lazy. I clench my fists and feel the callouses on my fingers. I wouldn’t have those if I hadn’t worked so hard to teach myself the guitar. And my creature feet, they’d be normal if it wasn’t for all the non-stop dancing. Being the person everyone wants me to be on stage takes a lot of effort. Being the person I want to be at all other times takes even more.
It’s almost showtime.
I should get back before Khan kills somebody. I don’t want a dead hair stylist on my conscience. Or another assistant developing a twitch.
What I want, though, isn’t always what I get.
Right now, the hair stylists and assistants are going to have to look after themselves. I’m taking care of myself. And the thousands of girls that look up to me.
I take a deep breath and head towards the stage.
Ella is a pile of legs and arms. As pretty much always, she’s talking about boys.
“I called him this morning and asked him if he’d seen my watch.”
“What did he say?”
“He said it wasn’t where I said it was.”
“Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you left it somewhere else.”
Ella laughs in a way that makes it clear she knows exactly where she left her watch. Little Jo’s not so sure.
“How can you be certain?”
“Because I left it there on purpose!”
I pull myself up so that I can see Ella’s face.
“Why would you do that?”
“I needed a reason to call him that didn’t make me look like a stalker.”
“So you left your limited edition designer watch with some guy you only met last night?”
Ella nods in a way that’s almost rueful. Almost, but not quite. Ella doesn’t do rueful.
“I know, I know,” she says. “But, still, what a nerd, to pretend that the watch doesn’t even exist.”
I think about it.
“That is pretty shitty.”
“You shouldn’t go home with boys you’ve only known for an hour,” Little Jo says.
She’s fiddling with the lock on the door that leads into our secret garden.
“That is so not the point.”
“I think it is,” Little Jo says. “At least a little bit.”
Ella holds her fingers like a millimetre apart.
“A titchy, titchy bit.”
I scrunch my face up in a way that indicates my pretend disapproval and Ella laughs again.
“You can’t criticise what you don’t understand. You’ve got Kris. It’s not easy being an old maid like me.”
I grin. Ella is so beautiful. At four, she glowed. At fourteen, she glimmered. Now, at nineteen, she smoulders.
“Even if I didn’t have Kris,” I say, “I couldn’t do the things you do.”
Ella makes a noise that’s meant to suggest she’s taken offence but I know she hasn’t. She knows exactly what I mean. We’re different. Our lives are different.
Not that it matters right now. Little Jo has fixed the side door and we can escape into the garden. It’s a magical place. Over the years, we’ve hung all kinds of glass decorations from the spindly cherry trees and overflowing trellises that top the already tall walls – the ornaments shimmer in the moonlight and I breathe the outside air into my lungs.
I twirl on the spot and look up at the sky. It’s as wide and starry as it’s ever been. Before I can stop them, the words to a Bright Star song flash through my brain.
‘Standing below the disco lights.’
Even out here, in my own private space, that music’s in my head. I don’t want it there but, hey, there’s a lot in my head that I’d get rid of if I could. At least I’ve got Kris to distract me. He brings out the Taylor guitar I bought him last year. Its cutaway shape fits his body like a missing part. He plays the chords to a song we wrote together last night and everything else in my brain fades away. Kris looks at me to see if I’m going to sing. I shake my head. I want to close my eyes and listen. Kris picks up the melody himself and the sound of his voice makes me shiver.My friends all fall silent too. Lost in lyrics that Kris and I have sketched out together, I sense a part of me that’s so small hardly anyone can see it. A part of me that used to make me feel like I might be worth something.
Now enjoy a Taylor Swift class and write your own poem!