Boredom was having a night of it.
He stood alone in front of the bar. Dead in the centre. Legs spread like a flightless sparrow, sweated tight into his one good pair of skinny jeans. Bone-thin arms ready to burst into flames if they ever met sunlight. Gripping the surface. Palms staking a claim in the tacky dregs of pale ale and one quid shots of sambuca.
Above the row of gin bottles, he saw his reflection in the mirrored wall. Eyeball to eyeball with his essence. A slither of face, gaunt skin and dark shadows around cheekbones and nose. A leather Stetson a permanent fixture on what remained of lank brown hair. Without it, he looked like a young Terry Nutkins. He didn’t consider himself bald, though. No, he was bold. Fearless. The last of the mavericks. Or at least he would be if he could just get a drink to take the edge off. Nicotine stained fingers, impatient now, rolling a plastic lighter between slender digits. These hands were not for otters.
The bar maid placed the pint of Fosters and tequila in front of him. He downed the shot and unfolded a damp tenner from the back pocket of his jeans.
‘Maybe get a little something for yourself?’
She grimaced, snatched up the money, and walked to the far side of the bar to talk to the DJ. His eyes followed, a desperate radar tracking firmly below the waist.
‘Jesus fucking Christ you know it’s tough.’ Boredom’s eyes scrunched shut as he sang, a paper cut of a mouth stretched wide enough to let out a tune. He was drowned out by Mirror Flowers, the band across the bar who were halfway through their last song. His best Lennon, a lost in-joke between himself and an imaginary audience. ‘You know how shite it can be.’
A cold wave shot up his spine, an inner voice screaming to end this humiliation. To leave. But there was nowhere to go and a higher purpose at play. The band finished up their set with a squall of feedback— controlled temporary destruction for weekend musicians without roadies or the budget to truly smash up their instruments—guitars left against amps, pedals set into a stomach-warping loop of distortion and delay as they waited patiently for the house light to come up.
He scanned the room, pinching the skin between a thumb and index finger. Reminding himself he was the greatest live promoter in Berkshire. A connoisseur of the arts, an aural fine diner and imbiber of the greatest bands the world had never heard of. He just needed someone to focus on. Someone to make a hero for the night.
Mirror Flowers were out of the question. A no go area. The last time he saw them he was pelted with oranges outside their practice room in the industrial estate. They were the ones who gave him his moniker: Boredom. The name stuck after countless weekends crashing on the floor of their flat in Whitley. His jaw aching and mind a frayed chord after hours of bad speed and his spontaneously devised tour plans.
On the dance floor more familiar faces. The bass player from Nobody’s Ghost with the over-zealous boyfriend who lifted him by the neck when he followed her to the taxi, promising a gig in London. All scenesters he had a dull memory of talking the ear off. Before he would only approach people in the pub if they were carrying instruments. But in a small town it was easy to exhaust your options. Little by little his criteria broadened. Friends of bands. Promoters. Hangers on. Until he settled on anyone who didn’t recoil as he approached. And right there in the middle of them all, someone new.
He dabbed a finger in his coat pocket and rubbed the coke on his gums. Felt it trickle down his throat. The pistons turning. Bingo, he thought, we’re on.
The DJ was playing Fat White Family’s Whitest Boy On The Beach as he made his way across. A knee-knocking, jerk dance powering him on as he fired a harpoon. Reeling into his target. He was Captain Ahab. He was his whale.
Boredom stood in front of the man, then stepped closer. Engulfing them both in a heavy stage curtain of adrenaline and body odour. Everything focused on unloading in the man’s ear. His voice a low whisper, persistent and conspiratorial.
‘We can get you on with a headline slot. No point dangling your toes in the gutter. Not for this capacity crowd.We’ll pack it out, give you a cut. Build your following. And we’ll sort out the rider. Forget about soggy sandwiches. You’ll have your own pizza.’ He tried to do that thing where you make your fingers snap together. It didn’t work. ‘Stone baked. Proper artisan shizzle.’
His lips were moving faster than his brain and his brain was in overdrive. Working on an internal beat which couldn’t be dropped. There was no room to doubt what he was doing. Or why.
The man rubbed the back of his head with a huge palm. Patted his modish hair. Up close he was older, stockier. He brought to mind one of the Gallaghers, toughened up on a decade of building sites. No problem, Boredom thought, we can market him to the 6 Music set.
‘Do I know you?’ The words a little jab to his confidence. The man’s voice a rusted shopping trolley bobbing in the Thames. Old Reading, proper Whitley.
‘Hang on,’ Boredom took the phone out of his pocket. ‘Alight Lars. How’s that tee-total drama queen of a singer of yours?’
A cupped hand over the receiver as he mouthed, ‘Metallica’ in explanation.
He put the phone back to his ear, wondering where to go next. The dial tone tuned to the erratic beat of his heart and tinnitus so piercing it would torture dogs. ‘I’ve got to go buddy, I’m with my new artist. Ciao ciao.’
The man kept his eyes on him, unblinking. The Fat Whites morphed into the opening bars of Arctic Monkeys.
‘This lot,’ he pointed above as if Alex Turner was sellotaped to the ceiling. ‘They’ll be back begging for gigs. Licking my feet.’ He kicked out his imitation alligator skin boot by way of an explanation mark. Felt something tear in the crotch area.
‘You know the Arctic Monkeys?’
A bite on the line at last.
‘It’s my business to know everyone. I’m the supermensch.’ The term mentally shoplifted from a Netflix documentary about a man who managed bands and Hollywood stars. He had no idea what it meant. He only got five minutes in before his dad jabbed his shoulder with a broom handle. Took back his armchair and made him sweep out the garage.
‘You a promoter?’
‘I’m the promoter.’ Technically, this was untrue. He was yet to put on a single show. The monopoly on kit share and indie nights impenetrable. John John and Sean Maul, the two local scene kingpins tolerated his presence as one might tolerate a wasp. They either pretended he wasn’t there or lashed out and told him to fuck off. John John was the better of the two. He was running this night, and so far, left Boredom to buzz around the room. He just needed to avoid his eye, stay out of the way of his pity.
‘Hmm.’ The man’s face was unreadable. A semi-permanent scowl. Distraction was needed.
They made their way off the dance floor, Boredom automatically holding his hat. A learned response from the local bands knocking it off at every opportunity. He pushed open the door to the garden. The swampy fug of tobacco and three different fruit vapes hitting like a wet brick. He took out his pack of Marlboro Red and put an unlit cigarette between his lips.
‘Give us one then.’
The man yanked the packet from his hand, held it up to the light from the heater and took the three remaining cigarettes. He put one behind his ear and lit two at once, sucking in the dual flame. Blowing milky smoke from his nostrils. Boredom’s stomach lurched. This wasn’t the plan. Unsure of his next move he licked a finger and dipped it into the baggy. Quickly wiping his gums, hoping the man hadn’t seen.
‘You what, Captain?’
‘In your pocket.’
He wanted to tip the entire baggy in his mouth and get a turbo boost out of there. Abort the mission. He had lost his flow. Ignore the questions and get with the pitter, he thought. The patter. Rat-a-tat-tatter.
‘What do they call you on the circuit? As long as you’re not a Barry. No Barry has made it in this business. I’m joking, my man. Mr Manalo did alright, didn’t he? Made a tidy packet. Not to mention the Gibb brother.’ He struck a Saturday night fever pose. Felt a new surge. ‘Whatever it is, we can work with it.’
The man grinned, cocked his neck to one side. It creaked rather than cracked.
‘Alright, you’re on.’
This wasn’t expected. Boredom’s face burned. Heart skipping.
‘Yeah, but give me your drugs.’
Relax, his mind shouted.
‘You want a little dab?’
The man was in his pocket. He balled the baggy in his enormous fist.
‘Come on, this will do for a starter. You can get me some more on the way.’
The man squeezed Boredom’s cheeks, made his lips pucker into a kiss. A turbot in a cowboy hat.
He winked and Boredom felt a quiver, where it shouldn’t ever quiver.
‘I’m going down, going down, down the town.’ Down pronounced Din. The man with his shirt off, all throbbing neck veins and Celtic tattoos as he stood over Boredom in his studio flat.
The pre-dawn light already casting ugly silver shadows over what remained of the worst night of his life. Boredom knew the moment they got in the taxi he had made a terrible mistake. He could smell the danger. It filled the cab as it now filled the man’s empty attic.
‘Suck me snake, you fucking fake.’
The man stepped back, playing air guitar to whatever demonic riff he was channelling for this tirade of misogyny. Boredom didn’t mind controversial. Controversial with John Lydon, punk rock, a stiff little finger to the man. But this was more like Britain’s Got Talent in Broadmoor. Seven hours trapped, listless and frozen to the spot in the company to Reading’s answer to Peter Sutcliffe.
‘Wooo! Yes, boy, yes!’ The man’s nose and top lip smeared with the cocaine he’d forced Boredom to order. Twice now. All of the £342.72 of his universal credit blown on drugs. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was just robbed and left to go about his business. But no, the man wanted company. Wanted to share his descent into psychotic oblivion. Wanted Boredom to bear witness. And worse still, he wanted a gig.
‘So, what do you reckon to that? Do we have a number one on our hands?’
The man cracked his knees, squatted down on his thighs inches away from his face, giving a guttural snort.
‘Maybe but let’s not rush into things,’ Boredom’s heart rate levelling enough for him to speak now. ‘I think we need studio time.’
His thoughts screaming from him to leave, frayed synapses searching for a coherent plan.
‘You mugging me off, boy?’
‘It will help polish it up.’
‘Like a turd?’
Boredom managed to swallow. It tasted of copper.
‘I know a guy. He’s worked with Annie Lennox.’
‘Who? Annie Dogshit. You cheeky…’ The man tailed off, a fist in his mouth. His eyes wet, a cow awaiting the bolt. He formed his mouth into a cylinder and blew rapidly out of it, repeatedly slapping a fist against his chest as he did. Pacing now.
Boredom gripped the edge of the armchair, gritting his teeth. He needed something to pacify this maniac. All his mind could offer was a childhood memory of watching Crocodile Dundee and later trying to get the cat to lie down as he formed his young hand into bull horns. Hot blood and a thousand tiny scratches, the cat’s back legs kicking against his wrist as it went into a death roll.
‘Mirror Flowers did the same.’
The man smiled, his shoulders dropping a fraction. He darted to the mirror, sucking up the last of the coke and cracked the mirror in half over his head. The impact seemed to stun him for a second, dabbing at the blood and picking a splinter from his brow.
‘Nah, we don’t need the studio.’
He took a step towards Boredom, who in turn leapt up and vaulted behind the armchair. The man charged forward and gripped either side, doing his best to squeeze it together like an accordion.
‘The studio has a bar. I’ll shout the tab, anything you want.’
‘Don’t mess me about.’
Boredom’s eyes were fixed on the man. A silence between them. In slow motion he saw and avoided the left fist coming his way but took his eye off the right. The man snatched Boredom’s hat and put it on. The hairs went up on his arms as he watched the man twist his enormous head into the opening.
The man picked up the chair and tossed it behind him. Boredom fell to the floor, his legs waving a white flag, jellied in terror. He scurried backwards, crab like to the corner. His outstretched arms cold with sweat as fingers formed a bull, sobbing now as he waited to die.
‘Eh?’ The man’s outstretched fists frozen, inches from Boredom’s face.
‘You’ll need instruments. A guitar for starters.’ He slid to the left, cautiously raising to his feet. ‘A little amp. Nothing fancy. A Fender Champion should do it. Leads and a decent mic.’
If he could just keep talking, just focus on the names he might not have a heart attack.
‘Where am I going to get them?’
Boredom formed his hands into two pistols, shakily turning them towards his face. Grinning as best he could without screaming for help.
The man lowered his fists, scratched under his arm pits.
Boredom turned his back to the man and popped open the skylight. Gulping in bitter cold air and exhaling relief into the morning traffic. A red kite circled above. The tips of its wings illuminated with beads of sunlight. Unseen eyes looking down on him, witnessing how he was trapped in this self-inflicted warren of nonsense. If ever he needed a spirit animal, it was now. He watched it twist and glide away behind the row of terraces.
They sat in silence in the man’s transit van as the economy bulb of the sun shone its watery rays across the inner distribution road. Or IDR as everyone called it, a grey canyon of 1960s brutalism. It always made Boredom feel as if the whole town was imprisoned, everything in stasis, feet immobilised in a mass of concrete. His seat was too far forward but he didn’t have the courage to ask if he could move it. The danger levels had dropped but the man was a TV on standby. Driving seemed to take all his attention. Mechanical actions and engines whale music to his bestial rage.
Boredom bunched his legs close to his chest, an alligator boot’s wedged on the big metallic toolbox. His stomach knotting and ringing out sharp drops of acid as he sucked in the smell of petrol and engine grease. He contemplated bolting. They were moving slow enough to open the door as they snaked through the late Saturday morning traffic. But it was pointless even trying. All he had to do was get them to his parents’ home in Caversham, pick up the amp and guitar and get to the Cedarwood. He knew there would be no bands on until the evening. They could set it up on the stage and that would be his side of the bargain done. A shiver of cold sweat shot down his spine as he knew they were minutes away.
‘Left is it?’
‘Uh huh. Over the bridge and that way.’ Boredom’s arm waving to the side. ‘Left, I mean. Left from us as we are, facing forward. Sorry, I don’t drive.’
The man’s blood shot eyes were fixed on the road. His mouth curled oddly, laughing at something in another dimension.
‘You better not fuck me around.’
The TV back on. Volume rising. The snuff movie resuming.
‘No, no, no. Honestly. Here you go, turn in here.’
The pulled up to the driveway. Boredom got out, the ground spinning beneath him.
The man nodded. It was working. The drugs gave him a renewed kick of euphoria. He could do this. Just walk in the door, don’t look suspicious, get the amp, get back out. He repeated this over and over as his feet crunched across the gravel. The key in the lock, looking through the coloured glass for any sign of movement.
The door opened to the sterile emptiness of the hallway. Instinctively, he slipped off his boots, held them in his hands as he gently padded across the flagstones to the bottom of the stairs. He couldn’t see his dad but knew he wouldn’t be far. His stomach lurched again as he looked both ways and ran up the stairs. His room was at the far end.
He picked up the amp and guitar, not stopping to dwell on the thirty-five years spent following the same footsteps, sleeping on the same single bed, forever wondering if he could leave. It would have been easy if his mum did what was expected of MS sufferers and died. But she hung on, keeping them all in limbo, a listless witness to the cruelty he endured from his dad. All for her, all for the unbearable guilt of being born her only child.
His feet stopped outside her room and stepped in. He just wanted to check. Just wanted to make sure. She was by the bay window, but his dad hadn’t accounted for the sun. He put down the amp with the guitar over his back, moving the chair a fraction to the east.
‘There you go mum. That’s better, eh?’ He lowered his voice. Spoke in double time. ‘I’m in the shit mum, totally screwed but it’s all going to be okay, yeah? Yes, yes it is. Don’t you worry about me.’
He thought about going around and kissing her head but didn’t want to see her face. Who knew what she could understand, what was left but he couldn’t take the disappointment. Even if it would only be registered by the slow blink of her eye. A hot wave of tears made him wipe a palm across his cheek. He let out a single sob.
Shit. His dad shouted up from the bottom of the stairs.
‘Yeah, coming dad.’
He hurried out of the room and shut the door behind him. Sucking in air and slapping his jowls to bring focus.
‘Andrew, I’m talking to you.’
He took the stairs two at a time as his dad shuffled away into the kitchen. He had no choice but to follow him.
‘Where’ve you been all night? Your mother needed you.’
Boredom nodded obediently. His mind racing through everything he did the night before. Everything he did every day. The meals he cooked for them both. The washing, the medicine he administered, the unpleasantness he dealt with. The routines he followed. Always tender, always done with unconditional love and compassion no matter how automatic they became. More than half a life as his mother’s carer.
‘What are you doing with all that?’
His dad pointed with his chin to the guitar and amp.
‘I have a show. For one of my artists.’
‘I need you to dig the garden.’
‘I won’t be long.’
‘I know you won’t.’
Boredom stayed rooted to the spot, trying not to look at his dad. Concreting on his feet. On the kitchen island he saw a bowl of apples. His mouth moist with saliva. Why now, of all times, he thought.
‘Can I have an apple, please?’
His dad tutted, moved past him, and went around to the bowl. Boredom looked up now. Watched as his dad, with his gaunt frame, a bald head etched with seventy years of embittered scowling, picked up each apple in turn. Stayed silent as he inspected them, rolled them this way and that before putting them back. Finally, he settled on one at the bottom.
Boredom took the rotten apple, the green skin decaying with brown rot. An indent on the bottom leaking juice on his hand. He pushed it deep inside his coat pocket.
The letterbox rattled.
‘I have to go.’
Boredom headed through the hall and out into the sunlight without looking back. The man stood scowling as he squeezed past him on the driveway and carried the amp to the van.
‘Come on. We’ve got a sound check.’
‘We’re doing this boy.’
The man’s hand clutched his knee. There was nothing overtly sexual in the action. At least he hoped there wasn’t. It was more a prop to stop this hulk of violence and burned out reason from keeling over.
They mounted the curb outside the Cedarwood, rolling to a stand still rather than actively breaking. It was a double yellow, but the man was oblivious. He got out of the car, leaving the engine running. Boredom slid across the seat and followed, not bothering to lock up behind him.
There were no bouncers at this time of day. Nobody to stop them. No hope of rescue. Boredom swung the amp to push open the door, wedging it ajar as the man staggered in behind him. This is it, he thought, I’m entering the colosseum.
The floor still tacked from last night’s beer, an imprint of Friday night sweat and drunken lust draping itself over the unwashed tables. A few wincing hungover faces nursing pints by the front window. A couple of girls with indie fringes and Topshop bags perched on the high chairs, flicking through a free gig review magazine and using a flyer to roach their roll ups.
They moved past the bar. Boredom paranoid with a million eyes on him. But the coast was clear, smooth and free.
He reached the little stage and climbed up, his face burning and heart ready to jump out of his throat as he moved the velvet curtain back and plugged in the amp. A warm hum from the valves crackling into live. He took the guitar out and plugged in the lead, still a tangle which he didn’t have time to sort.
‘Here you go.’ The man took the guitar.
Boredom caught John John’s eye, sat opposite the stage, next to the sound booth. He froze to the spot, watched him take a sip of Guinness. White foam coating the upper lip of his beard. Their eyes locked as he silently screamed. John John looked away. He jumped back down.
The garden was freedom. But reaching it felt like crossing a continent. Behind him he heard a squall of feedback which made the windows rattle. Things were in motion. Turning around wasn’t an option. Of course, he did.
The man shirtless, unable to sing. Instead, emitting a howl. One fist beating his chest. A crooked finger on his other outstretched hand beckoning the barmaid as the guitar slipped from the strap, slapping against the floor. The reverb tank of the amp sent into a sonic thunder storm. John John up on the stage and pulling the plug almost instantaneously, cutting the bar into shocked silence.
Boredom stepped outside and closed the door behind him. The sound of it clicking shut weakening his knees. He stood there, with his eyes closed, cocooned in burst capillaries. Direct sunlight turning his inner world red.
‘Oi Boredom, come here man.’
Mirror Flowers were sat smoking around a heater, already sneering and shaking their heads. He straightened his hat, dug his fingers into the apple in his pocket, searching for one last drop of juice. He kept going until it came apart in his hand.
And still he dug.
Photos: Huge thanks to Neil Thomson – taken from his Empty Stages project