NNNNNineteen tells the parallel stories of pop sensation Bright Star, despondent songwriter Cynthia and piano-playing Ayley. Bright Star is locked in her manager’s office, Cynthia is locked in a friend’s basement and Ayley is locked in her bedroom – all three characters struggle with their mental health, the grown-up men who try to control them and an education system that never gave them a chance. The haters stalking them on social media don’t help much. It’s these shared struggles that that will ultimately lead the three girls to the very same place at the very same time.

Here are the first ten chapters.

Part 1

1. Cynthia

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.”

That’s what she always says. Ella crosses her eyes. She knows why I want to cover my ears and scream.

“You could turn it off,” Big Joe tells me – in that way he has of sounding like someone’s father (not mine, but someone’s). “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 ever moving. Not 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.

Taylor Swift. Obviously. Kim Petras. Obviously. YUNGBLUD. Obviously. Britney. OBVIOUSLY.

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. 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.

I know there are so many girls who look hotter than me.

I don’t care about them.

I don’t.

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? Maybe. 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.

Whatever.

I’m me.

I’m different.

I am.

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.

I’m real.

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 months ago. Years maybe.

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. 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 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.

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 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 an asshole, 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.

Ella gasps.

“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.

“Okay, but only a 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 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, 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 Kris’ 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.

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. And I get how it sounds when someone like me says there are more important things than money, and I do understand how lucky I am to live such a privileged life – I really do. But money isn’t everything. It isn’t. And, yeah, I know they think that’s easy for me to say, but I’ve been poor. Poorer than anyone else 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 could sit here in my 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 was shared. There was only a curtain keeping my bed separate 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.

“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 even 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 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 prodded 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 try 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 fragmenting around 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 Joe laughs in his usual earth-shaking way.

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

Ella looks affronted.

“I do!”

Little Jo’s halfway through rolling a joint.

“No you don’t,” she says.

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

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

Big Joe 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 Joe 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 getting 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 Cyn? 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 how 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 Our Song 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. Which is such bullshit.

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.

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 showed me how 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’s felt 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 laptop 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 leave the laptop on my bed 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 earphones 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.

Ouch.

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 my veins 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 yet, 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’m asking 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. The adrenaline is really racing through my body now. “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 one by one 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 Joe 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 Joe 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 You Tube. 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.

Image by Life Of Pix.