1. Cynthia

The radio pumps out the same old song. It makes me want to kill myself. Then again, everything makes me want to kill myself. Little Jo sees the look on my face.

“I like it,” she says.

Ella crosses her eyes in a way that lets me know she at least understands why I want to cover my ears and scream until it goes away.

Big Joe keeps it simple. As always.

“Turn the radio off. It’s 2020, we do have other ways of listening to music.”

I stick my tongue out.

“It’ll be over soon,” I sigh.

Like I’m on my deathbed. Which maybe I am.

The others carry on with the conversations they were having before that disease of a tune infected the room. But I can’t help myself. I listen to every word of it.

We’ve got dolls in our rooms.

The lyrics make my skin crawl.

Kris holds a record up. I smile in spite of myself and he knows that of course I’ve given in. I’m that easy.

Only with him.

Despite what everyone else might say.

Kris flicks the ancient radio off and carefully places the needle onto the old black vinyl. I close my eyes as the sound of music we all love fills up the room. I feel the weight in me fragmenting, then Kris’ fingers prodding at me. I’m stretched out on the battered sofa, he’s on the floor, and when I open my eyes he’s looking up at me and lip-synching the words to Five Years.

Music that means something.

These are the best nights. Me, love-of-my-life Kris and our best friends. We’ve grown up together. Well, maybe not ‘grown up’. We still act like we’re sixteen instead of on our way to twenty, hiding out in the same basement we’ve made our own since Little Jo’s mum threw up her hands, said, ‘well, at least I know where you are,’ and let us turn it into our den. That was years ago. Posters of all the musicians we love paper the walls.

Lady Gaga.

David Bowie.

Elton John.

Big Joe comes over.

“Do you want a drink?”

He’s always looking out for me – for us – making sure everything’s alright. He does it without thinking.

“No thanks, Dad.”

He raises his eyebrows like he always does when I mess with him. Which is pretty much all the time. Kris is still miming. I lean down and kiss him on the head, ruffle his hair like he’s a dog. He smiles and calls after Big Joe.

“Hey, what about me?”

Big Joe’s already on his way back from the fridge. He’s carrying a whole heap of beers and he throws one at Kris.

“Would I ever forget you?”

I shut my eyes again and soak in the feeling of sharing this space with these people. When I leave this room, I know my life will 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.

2. Ayley

I watch myself in the mirror and go again. Perfection isn’t an option. It’s a must. I see the girls like me. Who look hotter than me. Who talk the talk better than I do.

I don’t care about them.

I don’t.

This is about me. I want to be the best I can be. I need to 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. Beautiful maybe. Airbrushed definitely. I try to catch my breath. The clock reads 20:07. I’ve been dancing for over an hour. Still, I’m nothing like the girl on the video. Bright Star. She’s been edited until she moves impossibly. She’s fluid but she’s fake.

I turn away from the computer and sit down at my keyboard. All that practice has cleared my head. I play the chord sequence that’s 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.

I look back over at the laptop. The same Bright Star song. This time it’s the lyric video.

I’m not quite real.

Sounds about right.

3. Bright Star

Stripped of makeup, hood up, hands in pockets, I melt into the crowd. My crowd. I know Khan will be looking for me. Lara too. No doubt, they’re kicking themselves for not installing some kind of tracking device under my skin. It’s best they don’t know where I am. They’d have a meltdown.

Khan already thinks I’m mental. Maybe – for one reason or another – that’s what they all think. But only Khan knows how unpredictable I’m becoming. It’s his animal instinct. That’s how he got his name after all. Shere Khan. Like the tiger. Not that I’m scared of him anymore. 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 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. For most of the people crammed around me, I’m below eye level. I shake myself loose and head towards one side of the room. I’m 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. I’ve had a pair of ballet shoes on since the moment I tumbled out of Mum’s womb. 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. I’m tired but I’m buzzing.

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 P.A. developing a twitch.

What I want, though, isn’t always what I get.

Right now, the hair stylists and personal 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.

If, it turns out, they actually look up to me at all.

I take a deep breath and head towards the stage.

4. Cynthia

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 do you know?” she asks.

“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’d only just met?”

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 an asshole, to pretend that the watch doesn’t even exist.”

“That’s pretty shitty,” I agree.

“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’s not the point,” Ella replies.

“I think it is,” Little Jo says. “At least a little bit.”

Ella considers it, then holds her fingers like a millimetre apart.

“Okay, just a titchy bit,” she smiles.

I scrunch my face up in a way that indicates my pretend disapproval.

“You can’t criticise what you don’t understand,” she tells me. “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. The bang of the side door crashing open means Little Jo has fixed it 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 glimmer in the moonlight and I breathe the outside air into my lungs.

Freedom.

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 it’s too catchy. And so I’m extra grateful when Kris brings out the Taylor guitar I bought him last year. Its cutaway shape fits Kris’ body like a missing part. He plays the chords to a song we’ve written together and 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.

5. Ayley

I work harder and longer than I ever did when I was at school. Every second feels like it needs grabbing. I use each moment until there’s nothing left of it to use. Time is precious. I understand that now. It’s not that I don’t understand how lucky I am to live such a privileged life – I really do. And it might seem easy for me to say there are more important things than money. But I’ve been poor. Poorer than anyone I’ve ever met.

They called me ‘fucking pikey.’

They called me ‘piece of shit.’

But I was free in a way that I’m not now. Maybe in a way only children can be. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m sick of this feeling of being trapped. So I’m teaching myself the things I was never good enough at. Or that I never worked hard enough at. I can sit here in my fucking ivory tower – or whatever people want to call it – and do nothing. And go nowhere. But that’s not me. Not anymore.

I write and I rewrite then I rewrite again. The music’s been playing for hours. Another Bright Star song comes on. It’s not that hot. I can do better. I’m sure I can.

My bedroom door swings open. Mum never learnt how to knock. She never needed to. All the space in our caravan had been shared, only a curtain separating my bed from hers. And when I was smaller, not even that. I didn’t care. Not back then.

So, what happened?

I’ll tell you what.

I forgot how to be free. I got a room and a door and I felt like I’d been let out of my cage. But now I understand that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the world offered me a perch and I climbed right on it and learnt to sing a pretty song.

It felt good to be normal.

It felt liberating.

Now I know better – because this isn’t normal. And now we live in a world where Mum’s meant to knock on doors. And after years of living on the wind, it’s super-weird to watch her thinking twice before she blows where she wants. And then never really going anywhere she wants at all.

We’re not free.

I know it.

Which means we should hop right back on our cloud and float off towards the horizon, right?

Only thing is I’m pretty sure that’s not the kind of freedom I want anymore. And Mum can go to hell. She’s a wacko anyway.

I rewrite again. I take a word out, put a word in. I delete a whole line, then undo my editing. I’m getting somewhere. Like a mole with a fucking teaspoon.

“Everything okay?” Mum asks.

“Sure,” I say without looking up from my computer.

Bright Star’s latest single is still blaring from my speakers.

“This is a good song,” Mum says, like she even knows what a good song is.

“It’s not,” I tell her.

Mum shrugs the way she does when she doesn’t understand.

“What do you want for dinner?”

“Just order something in.”

“Are you sure?”

Am I sure? I’m sure I can’t deal with my mother pretending that this conversation isn’t going to end with one of us calling for pizza.

“Are you alright?” she asks when I stay quiet.

I hear the hopelessness, the helplessness, in her voice and I wish I could swat it away, but I can’t and I inhale it like smoke. Something’s burning down and I want to throw water over it. But I can’t fucking see it.

“I’ll order pizza,” Mum shrugs at last.

She turns and leaves the room.

“Thanks,” I say eventually, but it’s too late.

We don’t live in the caravan anymore and Mum’s already out of earshot.

6. Bright Star

I can’t quite see the gateway, but I know it’s there, hidden behind the man mountains guarding it. When they see me approaching, they make themselves even bigger, as if to emphasise how easily they could squash me between their thumb and forefinger. My personal security people don’t terrify the fuck out of me, but these guys are employed by the venue. This is their territory and I’m an intruder. Except I’m not. Not the kind they’re looking out for anyway. When I get close, I take off my glasses. They don’t react.

“I’m Bright Star,” I say.

I remember when I felt so stupid saying that name out loud. Now, though, it’s normal. Well, not ‘normal’. You know what I mean.

Still, the guards stay silent. I know their type. They won’t say anything until they have to. How much they want me to fuck off is obvious by the way they don’t really look at me. I wonder what would happen if I poked one of them. I’m tempted to do it. I’ve seen dudes like this take over-enthusiastic fans down quicker than I can click my fingers. I wonder what it feels like to be attacked in that way. Somehow the thought scares me less than the invisible attack I feel is being constantly perpetrated against me.

That all ends now.

“Seriously,” I say again. “I’m Bright Star.”

Now, the guard does look down at me. Does he even know I’m missing? Unlikely. Khan will be doing his best to fix the problem quickly and quietly. A problem. That’s what I am.

“You need to keep this area clear,” the guard says.

The words themselves aren’t threatening, but I swear this guy is itching to break my nose. I try to think but my plan is dissolving right in front of me. Then I see Lara. She walks like Tigger so I spot her as soon as she emerges from the VIP bar. She’s obviously looking for something. Someone. Me.

“Lara,” I yell.

She doesn’t hear me.

“You need to step away,” the security guard says and he moves in my direction.

Just an inch, but I flinch.

“Lara,” I shout again.

The huge man in front of me puts an arm on my shoulder. He blocks my view with his bulk. Then Lara appears from behind him. She flaps her management pass around and makes it clear to security – in no uncertain terms – that she will sue the absolute shit out of them, their grandmothers and even their future children if this dude doesn’t take his paws off me right this second.

I feel bad. He was just doing his job. Protecting me.

From me.

How insane is that?

Not as insane maybe as me trying to go it alone and then having to be saved by my personal assistant. There’s no denying she’s good at her job. She doesn’t even ask where I’ve been. Instead she takes my hand and, as I follow her through that security gate, I wonder what stories the guards will tell about me later.

“You’ll be on stage on time,” Lara smiles. “It won’t take long for wardrobe to get you fixed  up.”

She looks at me with her small eyes.

“Well, not too long.”

I glance down at myself. I’m wearing the orange Gwen pants Khan says make me look like I’m about to do some roadworks and a black Liechtenstein hoodie. On my feet are my Retro Jordan 1s. The most unsexy shoes in the world according to Khan.

“I’m not getting changed,” I say.

In weighing up my appearance, Lara’s made the mistake of letting go of my hand. I have a free run at the stage. The enormous racks of lights fixed to the arena ceiling are still bright. The crowd won’t be ready for me, but I’m ready for them.

I have to do what I set out to do. I need to stand up in front of everyone without being buffed and manicured first. I want people to see who I am.

Whoever the fuck that is.

7. Cynthia

“You know that people used music to court each other before language even existed,” Ella says.

Big Jo laughs in his unique and explosive way.

“Who the hell uses the word ‘court’ anymore?”

Ella looks affronted.

“I do!”

“No, you don’t,” Little Jo says, her concentration fixed on a joint she’s rolling.

Ella cackles. It’s the weirdest, most awesome sound.

“My point is that Cynth and Kris have clearly tuned into this ancient way of romancing each other. Maybe it’s what I need to do.”

Big Jo weighs this up.

“So, you’re saying that if – for example, the other night – you’d started beating a rhythm on a drum, that guy you met might have ended up falling in love with you rather than stealing your watch.”

“Hey, he didn’t exactly steal it.”

“I think he kind of did,” I say.

“It’s not as if he kept the watch because he wanted the watch.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Of course not! He kept the watch because not keeping it would mean seeing me again.”

“Holy shit, that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” Big Jo says.

He’s not laughing anymore. Instead, he’s shaking his head.

“Maybe it is,” Ella agrees. “But I’m just saying he didn’t steal the watch. It’s more that he ended up with it. I will accept that I’m a victim of a one-night stand but I will not have anyone saying that I’ve been robbed.”

“Even though you have been,” Little Jo says quietly, her head still bowed over her rizla and other paraphernalia.

“I have not,” Ella squeals.

“I’m sorry, gorgeous, but you have.”

Ella laughs and hurls a paper cup in Little Jo’s direction. It falls hopelessly to the floor before it gets anywhere near its target. Little Jo sparks her joint and the lighter flame grows huge before vanishing again. Ella tries to circle the conversation back to where it started.

“Apparently, it was totally the thing that if you were a good musician, it meant you were a good partner.”

Little Jo looks interested as she passes the joint to Ella.

“And there was me thinking that Kris only loved Cynthia for her earth-shattering beauty.”

“And vice versa, right?” Kris cuts in.

Little Jo smiles sympathetically.

“Whatever you need to believe, honey.”

Ella cackles again.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” she says. “It’s the music, right? How else could Kris have snared a pretty bunny like Cynth? He wooed her with his guitar skills. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

I pretend to think seriously about it.

“Shit, I think you might be right,” I say as I take the joint from Ella.

Kris stares at me in a way that’s meant to show me he knows I’m joking. But I know he’s not sure. He thinks that I don’t realise how important he is to me. That I’m losing it.

Or maybe that’s the weed getting into my head. Fuck. I shouldn’t smoke.

Kris is still holding his guitar.

“Play something,” I say.

Without hesitation, he picks out a tune I recognise. Of course I do. It may sound more soulful the way he breaks the chords into notes, but it’s ‘Beautiful Girls’. He’s doing it on purpose because he knows how much it winds me up and he wants to get back at me for the way I don’t love him like I used to. But I do. I do. It’s myself I can’t stand. But Kris can’t understand that. Which tells me all I need to know about much he loves me. He can’t imagine why anyone would feel the way I feel about myself. And so he thinks it’s him I get frustrated with. Him that makes me angry. It’s the only way he can make sense of the way I am. He thinks I’m fed up with him.

“Why would you choose that song?”

I try to ask the question light-heartedly, like I don’t already know exactly why. Only now I’m stoned as well as suicidal so my voice comes out like it’s been put through a vocoder.

Kris stops playing. He knows where I’m at and that there’s only one song that will save me now. He hacks at the strings of his guitar and I’m not the only one who sits up a little straighter. Big Joe, Little Jo, Ella, me – we’re all ready. This is Rebel Rebel and we know the words backwards. We sing and everything falls into place again. Exactly like Kris knew it would.

8. Ayley

When they told me I was leaving school, I didn’t ask them to check their facts, that’s for sure. I wanted out. The education system is archaic. It’s not that my teachers didn’t tell me a few things that might be useful in one way or another, it’s more that they didn’t know the half of it. They were dinosaurs. Dodos. They had no idea how to prepare kids for the real world because they didn’t know shit about it. I mean, school’s a place where neat handwriting still counts for more than whether you know how to manage your online profile. That’s bullshit. I’m evidence of it.

Has anyone ever asked to look at my handwriting?

What do you think?

Has anyone ever looked at my online profile?

What do you think?

Not that I’m paying attention to that stuff. Not anymore.

My phone rings and I look at it.

Your Boyfriend.

That’s the name that comes up on the screen. Seriously. How long have I been in this relationship? Pretty much all my life. The boy’s as much a part of me as my own hands. And yet suddenly he feels the need to define himself in my address book. He laughed when he made the change to my contact details. Like it didn’t mean anything.

I ignore the call.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk to him.

It’s not.

I reach for the guitar my boyfriend taught me to play and carry it to the window seat. I press my calloused fingers against its strings and concentrate on the night sky. Then Mum appears below me, carrying an empty pizza box. She pads across the gravel pathway, towards the recycling bins then disappears momentarily out of sight before returning empty-handed. She pauses and for a moment I think she feels me watching her. But, instead of looking up, she walks away from the house and into the darkness.

I wait for her to reappear but she doesn’t. I put the guitar down. I haven’t played a chord. I reach for my iPad and check my social media. Just like I said I wouldn’t.

BITCH.

Leaving school didn’t change anything. It’s the same out here as it was in there. I scroll down.

I can’t even repeat what else they’re saying about me.

I want to puke.

I drop my iPad to the floor and stand again in front of the floor to ceiling mirrors that cover one of my bedroom walls. I could turn my music up loud  – Mum would hardly be able to hear it even if she was in – but it’s late and old habits mean I put my airpods in. The rest of my huge, silent house fades away as I concentrate on the music’s driving beat. I move with a relentlessness that my old dance teacher used to call military. I’m on the pulse, and in keeping that perfect rhythm I find myself falling into a separate reality. I think of it like another dimension, one that exists just out of sight of people who don’t have anything to lose themselves in. The harder I dance, the faster I spin towards it. The more precisely I move, the clearer my head becomes. I am leaving the world’s margins behind. I am somewhere else. Somewhere pure.

No one can get me here.

9. Bright Star

I only need to make it a distance of a few yards but it’s no man’s land out here. I must look crazy racing towards the stage. I don’t look behind me. I know Lara will have set the dogs on me. Not the real dogs, obviously. Not in front of all these people. There’s nothing anyone can do now. I’m in clear view of the front rows. People are starting to recognise me. I can tell by the way the atmosphere has shifted. I don’t look around, though.

Bang.

Fuck.

My knee.

I stumble but I don’t quite fall.

The stage is so high but I weave my way towards it and there’s no doubt every member of the security team now knows who I am. I run at one of them.

“Give me a leg-up,” I shout when I’m inches away from the confused guard.

Adrenaline is racing through me and I fling myself at him. He has to make a snap decision. I hope he makes the right one.

He does.

He cradles his hands in time to catch my outstretched trainer. At the pace I’m going, the lift is almost enough to propel me onto stage, but I need one more shove. I think one of my shoes is in the guard’s face, but I push down anyway. I reach out and grab the lip of the stage.

I’m up.

There’s the tiniest of dead silences and the lights are still on full blaze. It feels like I’m in some crazy netherworld. I’m not meant to be here, but here I am. The crowd howls and some unseen engineer hurriedly turns the overhead lights down. Khan will be having a fit. But all he can do is go along with whatever I’ve got planned. I move to the microphone, like everything is normal, like I haven’t just clambered onto stage like a lunatic. Then the backing track whirs into life and the beat drops. I grip the microphone. I don’t need to glance behind me to know that the dancers are in position and moving in that staccato way we’ve practised again and again. I should be half a step ahead of them, in synch but in charge, but I don’t move at all. Motionless, I look out at the faceless masses staring in my direction. I take a deep breath and start talking.

“Hey, everybody.”

The people cheer the same way they always do. Except this time I’m going to do something worth cheering.

I hope.

I turn away from the microphone and walk as confidently as I can to the side of the stage. Maybe the audience think this is part of the routine. Khan knows it’s not. He’s waiting for me in the wings. I can see the glint in his eye as I try to maintain a steady stride. My heart’s pumping an unfamiliar rhythm but I’m determined not to look scared. I am, though, and so I swerve at the last minute. I ignore Khan and talk to a stage technician instead.

“I need a guitar,” I tell him.

Of course the tech looks to see if Khan will give him permission to get me what I ask for. Khan won’t want to, but he’s got no option. For this hour and a half, I’m in control. I need to make this work – before Khan has the chance to get me alone.

I don’t know how long passes. It can’t be more than thirty seconds but it feels like an eternity. Eventually, someone hands me a guitar.

“You need to get the dancers off stage,” I say to no one in particular. Adrenaline is racing through my body. “And turn the fucking track off.”

Then I head back to my spot. The crew are catching up. I’ve got to admit, they’re slick. As I cross the stage, the lights flicker off and the dancers flutter past me in a way that looks almost pre-prepared.

Then it’s just me.

In the one remaining spotlight.

10. Cynthia

I’m guessing it’s the middle of the night. Little Jo has her eyes open but she’s so stoned, she might as well be asleep. I shiver despite the rug I vaguely remember Ella tucking around me – maybe minutes ago, maybe hours.

“Come inside,” she’d said.

But I’d refused.

Little Jo has a blanket covering her too. It may be the middle of summer, but still it’s way too cool to be outside. I get up and lay my own rug over Little Jo’s. She doesn’t murmur or move. Inside, the sofa’s been pulled out into a bed. Kris is half underneath the duvet, half on top of it.  I claim as much for myself as I can.

I hear snoring.

I’d recognise the noise anywhere.

I get on my knees and peer over the back of the sofa. Ella is passed out on a makeshift bed of cushions. I smile and squeeze up to Kris.

In the morning – or is it afternoon? – Big Jo appears with cups of tea.

“Where’s my girl?” he asks.

As if he doesn’t know already. At the end of nights like the ones we’ve been having recently, Little Jo rarely makes it upstairs.

I’ve been in this basement for weeks. I sit up and take the tea Big Jo has left for me. No milk, no sugar. Scalding hot. Exactly how I like it. Then I reach for the newspaper. It’s full of the same rubbish: politicians shading each other, environmental catastrophising and, yep, Bright Star.

Kris is waking up.

“I don’t know why you look at that,” he says, glimpsing at me out of sleepy, half-closed eyes.

I don’t respond. He knows the rules. No smartphones. No internet. No social media. No YouTube. None of that. But any kind of old media is fine. That’s the rule. My rule. If it doesn’t make much sense to anyone else, that’s not my problem. It’s the way it is. And so we’ve been living in a world of radio and newspapers. Everything feels more solid that way. And I need solid. Everyone gets that. At least, I think they do.

I read the Bright Star piece.

Nearly four months on from the moment the pop star appeared on an arena stage with an acoustic guitar and no makeup, everyone’s still asking the same question: why would a nineteen-year-old girl try to commit career suicide like that? In the last four years, she’s released four albums – all of which have been streamed hundreds of millions of times – and sold out a seemingly non-stop string of shows across the globe. With the most successful super-producers and songwriters behind her, she’s become one of the most recognisable faces on the planet.

I snort and put the paper down. Kris is right, there’s nothing worth reading in here. I feel his hand stroking my knee reassuringly. He knows how hopeful I feel at the very start of every day but he’s aware too how quickly the fog rises up around me. It’s the extremeness of the shift that’s so disorientating. Each time I wake up, I’m literally bursting with positivity but within minutes I feel pathetic and hopeless. It always takes me a while to flatten out, to get over the quick drop.

Not that I ever do quite get over it.

That’s half the problem.

11. Ayley

It’s winter and outside it’s only just getting light but I’m already sweating. My cerulean crop top is damp and the strands of light brown hair that have come loose from my hairband stick to my face. Bright Star’s music surges through my headphones. Like it or not, I grew up on these songs and, sure, at nineteen, I should know better. But there’s an energy to them that keeps my dancing tight. I love this time of day. The pixelated December sunshine makes my dopamine levels rise and the sense that I’m going somewhere is at its sharpest.

Which is ironic really.

For so much of my life, I’ve had people trying to force me into corners. School teachers. Dad. All the other fuckers I don’t even want to think about. All that prompting, all that target setting, it made me feel like I was going to explode. None of it seemed like it was really about my needs or wishes; all anyone wanted to do was shove me in some pre-determined direction that made way more sense to them than it did to me. The choices I was given didn’t feel like choices at all, but I was forced to pick something and so I did. And then they said I’d made my own bed. But that was bullshit. They knew it. I knew it.

So, yeah, now that I’ve decided no one’s going to push me around anymore, I’m pushing myself. I’m doing exactly what they said they were telling me to do. It’s funny how no one’s applauding.

Not even my boyfriend.

He says he is, but he’s not.

A new song starts. I block any misogynistic lyrics out. Just like the rest of the world always has done. There’s no excuse. Except that beat. The intensity of it washes over me and I go through another drill. Then another. Then another.

I stop when I see my bedroom door open. I’m looking at Mum in the mirror rather than directly at her. She can’t hear the music and I’m glad. It was only last night that I made her feel stupid for saying it was good. I can’t explain to her why I believe so many things at once.

I turn the music off.

“It’s the football match today,” she says.

“I know,” I tell her.

There’s no way I’m going to the game. She knows that. My boyfriend knows that. I shrug. Mum shrugs too. Why did she even have to mention it? Like everything’s normal.

When was the last time everything was normal?

The last time I went to a football game?

Exactly.

If we hadn’t gone, we’d still be living in the caravan.

We’d never have won the lottery.

No one would have given me that winning ticket.

That winning fucking ticket.

That’s what everyone calls it.

Why wouldn’t they?

That’s what it was.

Right?

12. Bright Star

I’ve rehearsed for this moment in my bedroom. Away from everyone else. I’ve even got a speech ready. But suddenly I can’t talk. It’s been a long time since I felt half-frozen like this. Maybe that’s because it’s been equally long since I’ve had to use my own voice. I know myself well enough to realise that if I do start speaking now I’m going to come across like I’m drunk or something. That would be the worst thing. People need to be sure that I’m making a deliberate move. I’m desperate for them to understand how much I mean this. I’ve already made things weird by climbing on stage like some kind of lunatic, and now it’s time to make sense of this moment. It’s time for my music to do the talking.

One of the stage crew is scrabbling around my feet, making sure my guitar is plugged in and whatever else. I ignore him.

“Here’s a new one,” I say at last and the crowd wail.

I look down at my guitar in exactly the way I promised myself I wouldn’t do. I need to maintain eye contact with the audience, I can’t close myself off from them. If I do that, I know it will be Khan’s first complaint. I have to show him that I can offer this new version of myself without compromising my role as a performer.

Just let me get through this first verse, then I’ll look up.

I stroke the guitar. The sound of it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I hope it’s having that effect on everyone. The yelling is dying down but still I don’t look up. I need to concentrate. I think my fans will understand that.

“I’ve been on the floor,” I sing, “but I can’t lie down anymore.”

I’m shaking. There are thousands of eyes on me which for a second feels as creepy as it sounds, but I’m being stupid. I need to remember that there are people sitting in the back rows of the arena who will barely be able to see me – I need to make myself and my song as big as possible for them.

“If I’m your example, I’m sorry.”

I breathe in.

“If I’m your example, I worry.”

I breathe out.

“I grew up in a hurry.”

“I breathe in.

“But I didn’t grow at all.”

I breathe out.

“And that’s not cool.”

I feel everyone with me. The silence speaks for itself. I am coming out of my cocoon and I may not be a butterfly, but I’m something. Everyone can see me. I can feel my heart twitching.

The chorus is coming.

Time to look up.

I can’t look up.

I know this song so well, I could play it in the dark, but I keep my eyes fixed on the fretboard.

“They told you I was sugar free, because my songs came without those stickers saying parental advisory.”

I’m louder now. The songs becomes bigger. Whether I want to be a pop star or not, I’ve learnt a thing or two about writing music that people will respond to.

“They told you that I was real, when the fact that I was make-believe was most of my appeal.”

Now the hook. Wait till all the people who say I can’t sing hear this. I’m already up so high, but I know my voice can hit another level. I close my eyes and let go of everything.

“It’s me,” I sing.

There’s no Auto-Tune.

“Nice to meet you.”

There’s no harmony.

“I’m not binary.”

There’s no one singing along.

“And I’m not see-through.”

I sink further into the music. I don’t care about Khan or Lara. I’m free. I soar through the rest of the song and then it’s over. I open my eyes.

Immediately, it’s obvious something’s wrong. It’s the lack of noise. Or maybe it’s the awkwardness of it.

One song into a set, the crowd are always at their most gleeful.

But not tonight.

I wait a second.

Maybe they’re not sure that the song is over.

Everything’s still weird.

Then another second.

Still weird.

13. Cynthia

By the time it gets dark, it’s just me and Ella. I gawp at her from where I’m sprawled out on the falling-apart sofa. She’s sprawled out on the falling-apart armchair.

“Haven’t you got anything better to do than hang around here?” I ask.

“No.”

“You’re such a loser.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“It’s different. I don’t have any choice. I have to stay here.”

“Honey, if it makes you feel better, you go ahead and keep telling yourself that.”

I open my mouth to reply but I know there’s no point. Ella doesn’t believe in a world of total blackness. And so – if such a world doesn’t exist – there’s no way I can live in one. Her optimism drives me demented. But even in the most unimaginable of times, it keeps me real.

“You’re not going to stay here forever,” she says.

“I might.”

We’ve been through this before. Even when we were children, there were the weeks I wouldn’t get out of bed. Ella would crawl under my covers with me. Her mum had to come and literally drag her to school so that she didn’t end up as hopeless as me. But as soon as the last lesson was over, she’d be back again, telling me what had happened during the day, pretending like I was normal in a way that almost made me feel like I was.

She does the same thing now.

“Big Joe’s been talking to the owner of Moon. They’ve been thinking about using that space out the back for live music.”

I make a noise that’s meant to both acknowledge and discourage this conversation.

“You should sing,” Ella says.

I grunt. It’s not an attractive noise but it’s appropriate.

“You and Kris. You should try it. Your songs deserve to be heard.”

I grunt again and unmute the television. There are only five channels and I flick through them.

“Fine,” Ella snorts. “We’ll stay down here until we’re old women. See if I care.”

I try not to smile but I can’t help it. Then the door at the top of the stairs opens. It’s Little Jo. I know it before I see her. It’s the way she moves so delicately, like the universe might fall apart if she’s not extra careful with it. She’s always fixing or mending or constructing, constantly focused on trying to keep her environment in some kind of perfect balance.

A few minutes later, Kris arrives. He’s the opposite to Little Jo. He’s a barger. He rams his way through the basement door like there’s no way it will do what he wants unless he forces it. I hope it wasn’t me who made him like that.

The last to arrive is Big Joe. He’s distinguishable by his totally unremarkable approach to moving around. He’s so sensible. He opens a door exactly the way it should be opened. He doesn’t think about it. He just does it. Because of course it doesn’t need any thinking about. How did he end up stuck with us crazies?

“I’ve got to run,” Ella says when everybody’s settled.

All day she’s been on guard duty. Guarding me. I should have realised.

She tears up the stairs and out of the basement. The door crashes open and then shut again. Ella is a burster. A leaper.

Obviously.

14. Ayley

I’ve got so little time. I’m nineteen. Only yesterday, I was fifteen. That’s what it feels like. I open the window and the cold winter air pours into my bedroom.

I pick up the guitar and position my microphone and camera. I’ve only been out of bed five minutes but that’s the point. I catch sight of myself in the mirror. That’s one problem with having the place kitted out like a dance studio, it’s pretty much impossible to pretend that I look any different to how I do.

But that’s a good thing.

I’m coming to terms with myself.

I’m accepting myself for who I am.

I am.

I am.

This is the person I want to show the world. The person I have to show the world. I warm up my fingers by playing ‘Sugar Lips’. Its simple chords make it a good one to practise, a good one for a dimbo like me, who never learnt how to boil an egg let alone play an instrument.

Until now.

I know that people will say that I’m trying to be something I’m not. That I should be happy enough with my one lottery win.

I know they’ll say the gipsy girl is getting above her station.

They’ll say the bitch is too big for her boots.

They’ll say the fucking slut’s not grateful enough for striking it lucky once.

But I’m not looking to get lucky again. I want to achieve something on my own terms. I want to plan for it and work for it. I want it to be real in a way that I don’t feel anything I have now is real.

I press record and forget about my reflection.

My greasy hair.

My bad skin.

As I move my fingertips from fret to fret, I dive beneath the surface of all those things.

“I’m filled up with words left unsaid,” I sing. “Not to mention the feeling of dread.”

I’m aware of my voice cracking a little. It’s not the perfect performance but that’s what makes it perfect.

I let myself fall further into the music. The chord pattern is simple, but that’s okay, none of this is meant to be over-complicated. My own limitations fit with my intentions. We are what we are. That’s the message.

How to describe this feeling of putting my own song down in such a permanent form? I can feel my brain working on so many levels. I am so lost in the music, so absolutely deep in it, and yet I am like a clock, all my pieces moving in conjunction with each other. I am at once an unknowable black hole and a minutely detailed map.

When the song finishes, I realise my eyes are closed. I open them. My room comes back into focus. I stare into the camera for a moment, then I shut it off. Its red light stops blinking.

What will I do with the recording? Was this just a test run?

I don’t know what to do for the best. Why didn’t I stream the recording live?

Maybe it’s because I’m scared.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got a bigger plan.

Uploading this recording now would fuck it up.

That’s not an excuse.

It’s true.

It’s true.

15. Bright Star

It’s as if last night never happened.

A hundred stage lights start flashing as the sound of an air raid siren heralds the beginning of my set. By the time I’ve been lowered from the rafters onto a podium, I’m half blind and half deaf. In one swift, invisible movement I detach my harness and start to sing. Standing fifteen feet off the ground, I’m dressed in way less than I’d usually choose to wear in bed, let alone in front of all these people. Thousands of mobile phones are pointed my way.

I can’t even imagine how many pictures now exist of me in this outfit. I’ve worn the same one at the start of every show this tour.

Except one.

But I’ve been put back on the lead since then.

Once again I’m wearing what Khan calls my booty shorts, with the waistband of my pink underwear ‘just visible enough’. The heels of Khan’s favourite ‘fuck me’ boots raise me 3 inches from the surface of the podium and no one can say my crop top isn’t cropped.

No one can say that.

By the time I hit the chorus of ‘Sugar Lips’, the podium is about the half height it was when I landed on it. When it gets down to floor level, I’ll need to dance. My body is somehow both taut and relaxed. It needs to be both things.

I try to focus on my vocals. Not that it makes much difference. What I sing into the microphone is probably too low in the mix for anyone to even hear – the recorded version of the song is pumping out simultaneously. The words make me cringe. Even more when I think about myself belting them out with such enthusiasm as a fifteen-year-old.

“I look so innocent and sweet,” I sing. “Through my dress you can see my knees.”

My stomach churns.

I hit stage level and as I step forward so do a fleet of dancers. I know how impressive this moment is. Until now, the dancers, dressed in black, and standing absolutely still, have been pretty much impossible to see, but now they appear as if by magic. Anyone who was still in their seat jumps up and starts shrieking.

The noise is never not bewildering and it takes every ounce of my energy to keep focused. Adrenaline surges through me and by the time the set finishes, I am slick with sweat. I leave the stage, followed closely – as I have been ever since going way off script yesterday – by not one but two security guards. I’m used to being shadowed but now that I’ve ‘broken everyone’s trust’ there’s not a minute of the day when someone doesn’t know exactly where I am.

I stride past Khan without speaking. Lara too. Thankfully, I know this venue well so I don’t need anyone to show me where my dressing room is. I step inside it and slam the door. This is my space. Khan won’t come in without knocking.

I will not allow it.

I will not.

All the plans I made to shed my Pop Princess image might be in tatters, and I know everyone is laughing at me for trying to take a new direction, but I also know I was trying to do something important. I haven’t lost my mind the way the papers are saying I have. I admit the videos don’t make me look good. The way they’ve caught me with one foot in the security guard’s mouth and that wild look in my eyes. I get how that makes me look mad.

But I’m not.

I’m not.

I’ll show them.

I don’t know how, but I’ll show them.

Not dressed like this, though.

I mean, look at me.

I need a shower.

I need to remind myself who I am underneath all the makeup.

Underneath all the bullshit. 

16. Cynthia

It’s pretty much  a month since I last left the basement and the secret garden.

“Is this how you thought we’d end up?” I ask Kris.

“I like it,” he says. “At least I can see you when I want to.”

We can all come in and out of this place as we like. Just because I’m the one living down here doesn’t make the place more mine than anybody else’s.

“But is it how you thought we’d end up?”

Kris thinks about it. The tip of his tongue is sticking out between his lips the way it does when he’s really concentrating.

“I don’t think anyone ends up the way they think they will.”

“So, what you mean is no.”

I can hear my voice. I know how I sound. Kris looks at me.

“I’m not sure what you want me to say.”

There’s a tension between us that wasn’t there a minute ago.

“I want you to say what you think.”

“But I feel like it’s a trick question.”

“How can it be a trick question? Either you thought we’d end up like this or you didn’t.”

“I think I already said that I didn’t.”

“Not in so many words.”

“It didn’t seem like you needed me to spell it out.”

Kris is cross. He gets up. I know it’s me that’s made an argument out of nothing. It doesn’t even matter whether he thought that this would be our life or not.

“At least I get to be with you,” he says from what we call the kitchen area.

There’s a kettle, a toaster and a microwave.

“What’s that meant to mean?”

I don’t need to ask the question. I know Kris well enough to know he means exactly what he says. He likes being with me. That’s what he said and that’s what he means.

He changes the subject.

“You’re going to go mad if you don’t get out of here soon,” he says.

“I’ve already gone mad.”

“No, you haven’t.”

“That’s what people think.”

Kris shrugs. He knows I’m right. He doesn’t try to argue. Instead, he brings me a cup of tea before stepping over to the record player. He searches through the growing collection of vinyl. His back’s to me and so I can’t see what he’s putting on. I hear the needle go down, though, the scratchy silence, then the familiar lyric.

Kris sings along in that warm, crackly voice of his. Across The Universe. Our song. It was our song before we even started going out together. Kris made it ours. He’d been reading all about it, the way he reads about everything he listens to. I can remember the day it became our song so clearly. Him putting down his Beatles Bible and pointing at me.

“Cynthia,” he’d laughed.

There was no further explanation, just that almost noiseless laugh of his that everyone loves so much.

Of course, I’d laughed too.

And so had everyone else.

Not that we’d known then what was so funny.

But that’s Kris’ power. He has a way of making the world feel off-balance in a way that can seem hysterical. Through his eyes, nothing’s quite what it seems. Out of his mouth, even the simplest, most familiar words sound different, as if they’ve been invested with a meaning that was never there before.

“Cynthia,” he’d said again with a shake of his  head, as if he could hardly get his mind around whatever weird, brilliant idea was swishing through his brain.

17. Ayley

This time I answer the phone.

“Is that my boyfriend?”

“It is.”

Maybe he hasn’t noticed that I’m being a bitch or maybe he just doesn’t want to get into it. He starts to tell me about the game. He doesn’t ask why I wasn’t there. He knows why. He understands everything better than Mum. But still not well enough.

I want to care about the football, but there’s a song in my head and I need to catch it before it’s gone. Instead of his voice, I’m listening to its melody. I sit down at my piano and with one hand I play a first note, then a second. It’s only the sudden silence at the other end of the line that draws my attention back to the phone call.

“So, what do you reckon?”

I haven’t been listening. I don’t want to admit it. I don’t have to. It’s obvious.

Our conversation doesn’t last much longer.

I’m still at the piano when Mum comes in.

“Are you going to stay locked in here forever?” she wants to know.

It’s not like her to ask questions.

“I’m not locked in,” I snap.

There’s no need for me to be so aggro but I don’t want to be interrupted. That’s why I’m in here. Why do I need to explain that? It’s obvious.

“But this huge house…”

“What’s your point?”

I’m being mean. I know what her point is.

“I got it for you, Mum.”

Mum nods in a way that suggests confusion rather than agreement. I refocus on my piano and when I next look up she’s gone.

I pull out my laptop. I flick to the NO U IN FTRE website. It’s December and the event isn’t until the first day of next September, but they say it’s going to be the biggest coming together of my generation. It’s aimed at unifying, in as real a way as possible, all the people who really care about the planet and everyone who lives on it. The project has been mostly celebrated. There are those who feel the thinking behind it is too clunky, too clumsy, that no one involved really understands the political complexities blah blah blah. Mostly, though, that kind of criticism comes from the people who don’t want anything to change, the rich and powerful people who want to become even more rich and powerful.

The thought of so many young people – because it will be mostly young people – bringing all of their ideas and energy into one space is exciting. There will be music and speeches and collaboration. It feels like the chance to begin a new world. It’s as if everyone’s given up trying to shift the mindset of those in power and that NO U IN FTRE is something all of our own. We don’t want to battle against the assholes anymore. We’re just going to do our own thing, set up our own initiatives, lay the foundations for a future that will arrive eventually. We don’t have to break laws to do that. We just need to come together.

I want to be part of that experience and I don’t just want to be on the fringes. I’ve got nine months or so to work out a way of saying what I really want to say.

No, that’s not quite right.

I already know what I want to say.

I just need to find a way of getting people to listen.

How am I going to do that?

How am I going to convince anyone that – on such a big, important day full of so many big, important voices – I should be given a stage.

I don’t know.

But I do know that I want in.

18. Bright Star

I’m in Khan’s office. I’ve picked the one swivel chair to sit in and I spin slowly back and forth as I listen to what’s being said. Well, I say ‘listen’ but I’m barely tuned in. There’s no point. These meetings with Khan, Max and Adam, the newish booking agent, are so predictable. The three of them ask me questions, ask me to make choices, but everything’s already been decided. If I happen to agree with what the mighty triumvirate want, then it’s made to look as if my opinion counts. But when I disagree they then use those moments of ‘agreement’ as currency.

“Is it okay if we make the call on this one thing?” Khan will ask, like he didn’t really make the call on the last thing and the thing before that and the thing before that.

It’s just another question to which the answer doesn’t matter.

The atmosphere of self-congratulation and passive-aggressiveness is thick in the office. If I had any dignity left, I’d walk out. Instead, I swivel harder on my chair.

“Do you mind?” Adam says.

Is he serious? I glare at him and he smiles like it will cover up the tone of his voice. But I heard it. I heard him telling me off. I heard him trying to control me.

“If she wants to play on the chair, Ad,” Khan chimes in. “She can play on the fucking chair.”

It’s my manager’s turn to grin in my direction. Like he’s come to my rescue. But that implies I needed rescuing, which I definitely didn’t. I can deal with Adam. I’ve met his type before. Many times.

I know Khan’s real game. On another occasion he might have been the one telling me to sit still. But right now he’s prioritising squashing our agent. No one tells me what to do but Khan. And, anyway, no one here really thinks Khan’s just done me a favour. We all heard him say that I was ‘playing’. That I’m a child. Khan’s put me in my place. I need to open a window. That stink of passive aggressiveness is really fucking overpowering.

“Anyway,” Adam says, trying to draw attention away from the fact that he’s just been handled. “What do we think of this for 1st September?”

I look up at the screen that’s covering the best part of one whole wall of this enormous office. Adam’s displaying the poster for NO U IN FTRE.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

What would I play?

Sugar Lips?

There’s a feminist anthem if I ever heard one.

Not.

Fuck me.

These guys get more stupid by the day.

“It’s going to be huge,” Adam says. “Half a million dipshits. Maybe more. Plus the whole world watching on TV.”

Khan’s lips are pursed. Is he actually thinking or just posing?

“Half a million…” he says quietly. Then louder: “How much are they offering?”

“We’d be doing it gratis,” Adam says and I swear I hear his voice quiver. “For charity.”

I try not to laugh but I can’t help it. Does he not know who he’s talking to? It doesn’t take long for Khan to explode.

“Are you fucking with me?”

Adam doesn’t know whether he’s meant to reply.

“Seriously, are you? Are you?”

“I think he is,” I say.

I can’t help myself.

Adam shoots me a look that’s half lustful, half hateful. It’s a look I know well.

“He definitely is,” Max agrees seriously.

I laugh again and this time I can’t stop. Adam’s suggesting that I – a girl constantly criticised for looking like a slut and acting like one too – play some kind of festival on behalf of women’s lib. Not only that, he’s suggesting I do it for free.

I hope he’s got a chair as comfy as mine, because there’s no way Khan’s coming round to that idea till hell freezes over.

Or till pigs start flying.

Or till having principles starts to pay more than being a total dick.

19. Cynthia

The sweltering July heat is making me crazy. Or maybe I’ve been crazy for ages. Why else would I lock myself down here?

“I’m taking you to the doctor,” Little Jo says.

She’s fixing a hole in my sock with an actual needle and thread.

“I’m not going to the doctor,” I tell her.

“Well, I’ll bring the doctor here.”

“No way.”

“She doesn’t need a doctor,” Ella says.

I look at my best friend gratefully.

“She just needs some ‘rest’.”

I hear the inverted commas but I don’t comment on them. Little Jo ignores them too.

“She’s hardly been exerting herself for the last month.”

“She’s been having a hard time.”

“Staying down here for the rest of her life isn’t going to help.”

“Are you saying you’re going to kick her out?”

Little Jo looks affronted.

“Of course not.”

“None of this is her fault.”

“Who’s saying it is?”

“Hey, I’m right here,” I yelp.

I seriously think they might have forgotten.

“Don’t I get any say in the matter?”

“Of course you do, honey,” Ella says – not meaning it at all. “And, anyway, we’ve got NO U IN FTRE in less than two months. There’s no way any of us are missing that. We’re going to put all this shit behind us. And you, Cynthia, are going to start again.”

I know I’ve said the same thing myself, but I’m not sure I believe it anymore. Or if I ever really believed it in the first place.

“I can’t do it,” I say. “I’m a virtual agoraphobic . You can’t make me. You don’t know what will happen.”

“Maybe not but I do know you’re not an agoraphobic,” Little Jo says. “And I do know everything’s going to work out for the best.”

I sigh. Maybe she’s right. Maybe she’s not.

“Fine,” I agree.

It’s not as if the event is tomorrow. Everything might be better by then. I’m pretty sure it won’t be. But there’s no need to have that argument right now. I haven’t got the energy for it.

Little Jo stands up and passes me my sock. It looks brand new.

“Amazing,” I say.

And I mean it. It’s not as if I have any particular affection for this particular sock. I’d have happily thrown it in the bin. But it does look brand new and I do feel like I’ve been taught a lesson in wasting not and wanting not. My mum would be pleased. She’s a fixer. A forager. Not the type of mum any young teenage girl would choose. And her constant reminders to be careful and to make everything last always drove me mad. Right now, though, I feel a sudden, overwhelming nostalgia for that time.

Shit.

I must be sicker than I thought.

Oh well. There’s no point is worrying. What’s done is done. What will be will be. Maybe if I lie in this heat long enough, I’ll melt like an ice lolly. By tomorrow, I’ll be a puddle on the floor.

How lovely.

20. Ayley

Sometimes I get so high from just thinking about how much of a difference I can make. I’ve worked so hard for this and there are mornings when I feel invincible. Like I can do anything.

Then Dad turns up.

I haven’t seen him for days but the way he bangs on my door anyone would think he’d been out there for the last half hour, that I’ve been ignoring his knocking for at least that long.

No one ignores my dad, though. He doesn’t wait two minutes for anything. Which is lucky for me, I guess. Mum said she had condoms in the bathroom but that was too far, would take too long. Nine months later, there I was. Nineteen years later, here I am.

Dad shoves my bedroom door open. I’m not looking, but the air moves as he stomps across the threshold.

“You need to stop this shit,” he says.

He’s seething.

“Your mum’s worried about you.”

As if he cares about how Mum’s feeling.

He didn’t give a fuck when she wanted to get the condoms and he hasn’t given a fuck since.

“He’s always been around,” Mum shrugs whenever I complain about his fast and loose approach to parenting.

That’s a pretty generous assessment of the situation, I reckon.

I look at him. I want to get angry. About the way he’s come into my space without invitation. About the way he acts like he owns me. Like he can pick me up and put me down whenever he chooses. A part of me is desperate to shout back at him but what’s the point when me just sitting here is pissing him off so much?

“What do you think you’ve got to gain, doing nothing all day?”

He pauses, before thinking of something funny to say.

“Apart from weight.”

I still don’t look at him. Instead, I start to play a riff on the piano. I go round and round the same chords in a way that I know will drive him mad.

“I’m serious, Ayley,” he says. “You need to get off your arse and get back into the world.”

I play the riff again.

“You’ve got commitments,” he spits.

Now that’s a point I’d like to argue and it takes all my concentration to keep my eyes fixed on the piano, my fingers running along its keys. It’s worth the effort. He’s seething. I don’t need to look at him to know that. Short of dragging me out of here by my hair, there’s nothing he can do. And even he wouldn’t stoop to physically assaulting his own daughter.

I don’t think.

I know what will happen next. Dad will try talking to me in his quiet voice. He’s never worked out that a threat still sounds like a threat, even if you whisper it.

“You need to talk to me,” he hisses.

I always find it funny how many things I need to do. It doesn’t feel to me like they’re things I need to do at all. But that’s what drives him crazy.

I want to laugh. To make him feel like the dick he is. But really I’m scared. Every time he talks he steps closer to me and now he’s hovering over me like The Grim Reaper. And I know I said he wouldn’t assault his own daughter, but somehow it feels like he might do something worse.

Start N-N-N-N-Nineteen from chapter 1.