'Band Meeting' by Jacqueline Owens
LISP 4th Quarter 2020 Official Selection, Flash Fiction, 'Band Meeting' by Jacqueline Owens
JJ tried to turn off that part of his brain replaying the latest conversation with his sister Tracey about their dad’s care home. All the money he could scrape up, from every rental, every investment… still not nearly enough. He willed himself to focus, be sharp.
You had to make an entrance, make people look up and notice, and for that you had to be fashionably late. Not starlet-crazy, coming in after three hours, off your face. Ten minutes was enough; just as long as it was clear that you were the one everyone was waiting for.
Tony probably turned up half an hour early, like he was applying for an internship. Smiling at everyone, doffing his cap. Probably offered to make the coffee and do the photocopying.
The car pulled up outside and JJ walked in the front doors of Maelstrom Music. He’d got it about right, he thought. Every head turned, even Tony, sitting in the reception area with one of those foul-smelling herbal teas Melissa forced on him. You’d think he could kick back a bit when he was out of her clutches – go wild, have a coffee.
‘Morning everyone, glad you’re all here. I’d forgotten that 10am still existed.’
‘It does, JJ, but only for civilians,’ smiled one of them, some cadet, an amoeba like all the rest. ‘Shall we get to the starting blocks? We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.’
Oh yes, a win-win solution for mutually beneficial outcomes to deliver to our key demographics in a crowded and segmented marketplace, and take advantage of the long tail, blah blah blah. As if Nightworld’s demographics ever changed. Girls who lusted after Tony, girls who lusted after Byron and girls who lusted after me.
JJ took the strategic chair, watching Tony going where he was sent. It made JJ want to shake him: anything to get him to stop acting like the new kid in class. But it would be a waste of time, of course. Tony wouldn’t get the importance of presenting yourself, he never had.
The meeting droned on. There seemed to be no limit to the extra words the amoebas could fit into every sentence: they probably charged by the word. If not the syllable.
‘…I am really very happy indeed to report that we have had an excellent quarter just passed, with the licensing of three songs from the Forbidden Colours album to the campaign for Advance running shoes–’
‘What about the Inscape offer?’ asked JJ.
‘Yes, of course, it’s exceptionally exciting, a greenfields opportunity for Nightworld to gain bandwidth in a new sector.’
In other words, thank you for doing the work for us and coming up with the ideas we pay you to come up with.
Tony sat up, actually interested. ‘Inscape, like our album?’
The cadet smiled at him. ‘Yes, a very exciting offer that has come over the desk from the software firm, Inscape, to license the songs and art from the Inscape album as the brand identity for their main packages. Apparently, the company’s founder is a huge fan of the album.’
‘That’s great,’ smiled Tony, ever the polite little schoolboy. ‘That was Byron’s favourite album. He was devastated when it got all those awful reviews.’
The amoebas looked dutifully sad and JJ did his best rueful sigh. The album had tanked, but finally they were going to make some money from it. End of story.
‘Needless to say, we’re doing due diligence, but there’s no reason to believe the figures won’t stack up. They’re hugely successful, their software is everywhere.’
‘A software firm?’ Tony looked even more lost than usual.
JJ counted the gold and platinum discs on the wall, calculated how many were from Nightworld, the band he had started and had kept going all these years, while the youngest and most irritating amoeba gave Tony a lesson in the development of personal computing software since approximately 1642, the wonderfulness of Inscape, their market share, funky ads, marvellous new ways of enticing people to turn on a computer and buy software. Finally it was over.
‘As usual, the royalties owed to Colin Bewlay–’
‘Byron,’ snapped JJ.
‘Ok, Byron Beaulieu, even though his legal name remained Colin Bewlay.’
That meant nothing, you prat. He was Byron. Byron, the legend, not Colin the loser.
‘Those royalties have been remitted to his widow Sandy.’
Tony sat up, paying attention for the second time in a meeting, a new record. ‘Do you ever hear from them?’
‘No,’ said another amoeba. ‘Everything’s transmitted through her bank.’
‘I wonder if they’re ok?’
Thank God Tony doesn’t know Sandy’s back. He’d be over there like a shot, introducing her to Melissa, who’d fill her with herbal tea and man-hating crap.
The head amoeba looked around, meeting everyone’s eye one after another. Probably some trick he learned in amoeba management school. ‘Any other business?’
For fuck’s sake! Half an hour on residuals from Slovenian reality tv, and nothing about the future.
‘What about the next tour?’ sighed JJ.
Tony stopped smiling. JJ had done the impossible: pissed off Mr Nice Guy.
‘What tour? We never talked about a tour.’
Tony stomped through some cemetery grounds, too wired up, almost, to think of the panics.
Another tour, which JJ had just assumed Tony would agree to. Because JJ wanted what he always did: more royalties, more t-shirts, more merchandise, more tacked-together albums.
Tony crunched down the gravel path, trying to ignore the low steel-grey sky. He couldn’t do another tour: he’d go mad, he’d be back to where he was, drinking himself to sleep then waking up at 3am in a cold sweat, the panics crushing down. The crowds, being bustled through airports and lobbies, locked in tin coffins and drinking till he passed out, then waking up with the panics again.
His mind was flooded with memories of the last tour, that disastrous drunken mess, a year after Byron had gone.
Some radio interview, Tony drunk at 11 in the morning, the new lead singer next to him. JJ had picked him because he looked slightly like Byron, not noticing the lad had a worse drinking problem than Tony. Tony couldn’t remember his name, just his scared expression as Tony had started to speak and fallen off his chair.
Walking into empty stadiums feeling like a cracked egg. Nights of the panics until he could reach oblivion.
That tour had sent Tony back to rehab. But it had made money, apparently.
He remembered the freezing halls of the rehab place, trying to ring Melissa, his mother. The news of his dad’s stroke, being called to the director’s office, like a kid being sent to the headmaster.
Tony stared at the sky, so low, and felt the ground around him rising up, smothering him. He had to get out of here, out, out. He tried to breathe, take it slow, step by step, out of the crush, away from the nothing between him and the falling lid of the sky.
On the street, buildings sagged and leaned, on the verge of toppling onto him, the sky caving in; and all of the breathing techniques in the world, all the reasoning, couldn’t stop it from happening.
Months of stadiums, airport lounges that stretched out forever. Acres of space and nothingness, crushing down. He wouldn’t be able to stay clean: he’d be back on anything over 50% he could keep down.
JJ doesn’t get it, he never has, thought Tony. He thinks I’m putting it on. Byron had always been different: he knew it was real.
He had a flash of Byron, in the early days, still trying out the Byron persona. They were on the tour bus, an old bomb, sticky floors smelling of chip fat and bleach. Tony had started feeling sick, feeling the panics taking hold, then Byron had begun joking him through it, acting up, making Tony laugh, lalala-ing tunes, getting him to add melodies and lyrics, making it ok for the next minute, the next five minutes, the next ten miles.
Byron had understood it, the fear of being looked at, lurking behind Tony as if unworthy of being seen. The ugly duckling who never blossomed, even with the fame.
Tony sank onto a bench at a bus-stop, breathing, breathing, slow and considered, trying to remember people didn’t die from this: it just felt like it. It would pass, he would call a taxi, get back home to Melissa and safety. It would pass, it was already passing: when he could start thinking about it logically, it meant the panics were receding. Melissa had convinced him of that.
Tony breathed slower and slower, until he was able to talk into his phone. He breathed, waiting, on hold, not looking at the ground, not looking at the sky.