Part Three: Charcoal

Click to Reveal Content Warnings
Discussions of death
References to and discussion of cancer (Multiple Myeloma)
References to previous abusive romantic relationship
References to drug use
References to medical procedures
Hospital setting
Descriptions of blood
Depression and lack of self care
References to alcohol and drug use
Description of throwing up
Scenes of a sexual nature

Fig. 10. Tyler

Tyler’s taxi was waiting for him around the corner from the house, exhaust spewing smoke and steam in the October chill. His stomach lurched he wretched over his neighbour’s pristine flowerbeds, but nothing came up. A woman clutching the hands of two children in school uniforms scowled at him. She probably thought he was some kind of junkie. He pulled his leather jacket closed, the catheter hidden under his chest aching like it had just burst out of him.

‘Where was it to, mate?’ the driver asked as Tyler slammed the passenger door shut.

Tyler gripped the door handle. He wanted to go back inside, to climb into bed and stay there until the afternoon when he could smoke with Joel. They needed to rehearse their set for next week’s show, too. Christ, the show.

‘I’ve put the meter on; you’d better hurry up.’

Tyler took a tiny breath. ‘The hospital.’

The driver’s expression softened minutely as he pulled away from the curb. ‘Visiting someone?’

Tyler put his hands in his pockets and stared out of the window. ‘Yeah.’

He’d been awake since four in the morning. He felt threadbare. He ran his hands through his hair. Was it going to fall out? Would it fall out as soon as they started to drip the poison into him? Would he go back home bald, wafer thin, like cancer patients in films looked? Joel and Laura would notice that as soon as he walked through the door. They’d know the minute they saw him.

Before he’d made it halfway there, Laura called him. He thought about ignoring her, but she’d call again, and keep calling until he answered.

‘Where are you? It’s not even nine,’ said Laura. She was speaking quickly, her voice an octave higher than usual.

‘What do you want?’

‘Remember I was telling you I’d got in touch with a record label guy?’

Tyler leaned forward in his seat, grip on the phone tightening. ‘You said he couldn’t come to see us until March.’

‘I sent him your blog.’

Tyler’s stomach dropped into his ankles and he groaned. ‘God, why? Half of that stuff sounds like it was recorded at a train station, the noise distortion is so bad.’

‘He didn’t care, he said we were brilliant!’ Laura fizzed. ‘Party Shock’s support has dropped for their northern dates in December. And he wants to know if we’ll do it.’

Tyler clutched the back of knees. ‘As in Party Shock who were in NME? That Party Shock?’

‘You know of any others?’

Tyler squeezed his eyes shut, grinning. ‘When do we start rehearsing? What are the numbers? Do they want an EP with us or is it just the tour?’

‘He was talking about an EP, maybe even an album.’

Tyler felt humungous, as though any moment he might burst out of the taxi and fill up the entire street. ‘When do we pick up rehearsals?’

Laura was quiet for a moment. ‘I told him we’d have to discuss it before I could agree to anything.’

‘What’s to discuss? There’s not a show on Christmas Day or something stupid?’

‘No, it’s the eighteenth until the twenty-third.’

‘So, what’s the problem?’

‘Joel said-’

‘You spoke to him before me?’

‘He’s… worried about you. Or something,’ said Laura, thinly.

‘Oh, fuck that,’ Tyler hissed. He dropped back against his seat. The taxi was turning off into maze of little roads that led to the hospital. The grey building loomed above him. He wanted to burn it to the ground.

‘It was last time we opened for someone else that things got bad with you.’

Tyler had to bite his lip to keep from swearing at her again. That was a year ago. He could barely remember the person he’d been anymore. He could barely hold on to who he’d been six weeks ago. ‘Don’t be ridiculous; we’re doing it.’

Laura laughed weirdly and the phone crackled. ‘Yeah. Okay.’

‘Call them back, ask them when they want us and get details on that album.’

The taxi slowed to a halt. ‘Was it A and E you wanted, mate?’ asked the driver.

‘A and E?’ said Laura.

Tyler groaned. ‘Just call them back.’ He hung up and shoved his phone into his pocket. He looked out of the window with ferocity, at the rain-streaked macs and umbrellas.

‘Hey, buddy,’ the driver said. ‘I’m sure they’ll be fine, whoever it is that you’re seeing.’

‘Fuck off,’ said Tyler. His hands were shaking as he lurched for the door handle. ‘I’m sorry.’ He fumbled with his wallet and handed the cabbie a twenty-pound note. ‘Keep the change.’

In a few months he’d be sharing a tour bus with Party Shock and he wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally yelling at taxi drivers. People would open doors for him. They’d ask him to sign his name on photographs rather than long forms asking him to forsake someone else’s responsibility. It wasn’t the hospital’s fault, if something went wrong. So, who’s was it? Tyler’s own? Well, he was the one that ended up sick in the first place.

He’d been to the hospital enough times in recent weeks that he knew where he was going, even though the place was a maze and he swore half the doctors shared the same three names between them. On his way to the room where they’d told him his bones were dissolving, he’d passed the wards, the long rows of beds full of people in pyjamas. Old men with shiny heads white as plaster. Matchstick legs disappearing into fluffy slippers. Shuffling walks clutching onto tall poles. The dying.

Tyler stopped at the reception desk and a woman with red hair smiled up from behind it. ‘Are you lost, sweetheart?’

Tyler laughed, which was probably better than swearing, though he figured not by much. He picked at his leather bracelets, pulling them apart to touch the scars underneath. ‘I’m Tyler Brundle,’ he said, like he was trying to get backstage at a club, like she was going to ask to see his ID or proof that he was playing.

‘Myeloma?’ She pursed her lips. ‘Haven’t you brought anyone with you?’

Tyler glanced over his shoulder at the strangers busying the hallway behind him. ‘No.’

‘Do you want to call someone, before I show you in?’

‘No. I need to get this over with.’

She pursed her lips again. She got to her feet and pulled the cardigan she had over her scrubs around her shoulders. ‘It’s always chilly in the corridors, but believe me, the wards are nice and toasty. And there’s lots of blankets in the outpatient room up here. You’ll be nice and warm.’

Did he look like he needed swaddling in blankets like some frail old lady? The plastic floor was pale purple and flecked with grey and blue sparkles. There were black marks from skidding rubber wheels every few feet. Everything smelled like disinfectant. Everyone was dressed in scrubs or pyjamas. Tyler couldn’t tell if he wanted to laugh or not.

In the end, the poison that was apparently going to save him was just in an ordinary looking bag, almost the same as the one they told him was just filled with water, until they covered it with a tiny black cloth. Tyler looked out of the window at the distant end of the empty ward. The sky was grey and the glass was streaked with rain. Nurses touched him with gloved hands, told him to try and get some sleep.

‘Why, do I look that bad?’

The nurse looked at him oddly. He said something about the myeloma and Tyler refocused his attention onto the window. Bad levels, something else bad, poor something. He closed eyes and tried not to hear it. He had to do this. Three weeks, the doctor told him, and they’d see how he was progressing. He could handle three weeks. He could handle anything if it meant he could get on stage with Party Shock. Maybe they’d have taken the tubes out. He could probably convince Laura to let him do ‘Nepenthe’ if he told her what had been going on. He tried to picture her face, when he told he’d had cancer.

Tyler looked around at the pale blue walls, at the other beds, at the pole beside his own. It was like he’d reached the top of the stairs before he’d realised, his best foot lurching downwards through nothing but the dark. He almost had a record deal, definitely had a line of shows with a band that had been featured in NME, but he was sat there, a small machine whirring as it dripped chemotherapy drugs into his chest at a steady pace. Cold spread from right over his heart until it was filling every inch of him.

Tyler scrolled through his phone, tiredness tugging at him. He had three texts from Wren he wasn’t sure how to answer. Could he go out for a drink? He half laughed. It was insanity that Wren would still be trying it on, after dragging Tyler up the stairs in his own house. Maybe Wren just thought it was par for the course. No sex, the wrong kind of drugs, and whiny rock and roll. He wrote about it for the blog. He left out the hours he’d been waiting in the oncology ward, of course. It wasn’t very punk rock. Let the people think what they wanted.

A text came in from Laura, just two words long. It’s on.

He should ask them if he could bring his guitar; he needed to cram in as much rehearsal time as he could, if they only had a couple of months. He’d be at the hospital every day for the next three weeks before the next break in his treatment, and evenings wouldn’t be enough. He could get Laura to call, listen to them through his headphones. It was doable. He would make it work. Tomorrow he’d ask them. He’d sleep better tonight, now it wasn’t the first time, and he could actually use this time to achieve something instead of falling half-asleep.

A cold hand on his chest shocked him into wakefulness.

‘It’s alright,’ a nurse said. It was a different nurse than before and it was dark outside. Tyler sat up and his brain felt like it sloshed around in his skull. Nausea hit him like a wave. He was itching all over, too hot even though the blankets had shimmied off of him. He clutched at them anyway, knocking into the nurse’ arm.

‘Sorry, I was just checking on the dressing around your central line,’ said the nurse. ‘It’s looking good.’

‘It looks like a tube sticking out of my chest.’ The bed crinkled under Tyler’s hand. Someone had the foresight to put some paper towels down whilst he was asleep. There was a small patch of dried puke on one of them. The side of Tyler’s face was stiff and sticky. He would probably have blushed if he wasn’t already scalding all over. He ran his hands through his hair; it didn’t come away with his trembling fingers.

‘It’s dark,’ he said, numbly.

‘You slept a while; you’ve only got a couple of hours left.’

‘And then I’m done?’

‘Until tomorrow.’

‘God, tomorrow could I -’ the rest of the sentence was cut off abruptly as Tyler threw up.

The nurse seemed to have sensed this was going to happen and managed to keep him from getting more of it on his clothes. He handed Tyler a wad of tissues.

‘Sorry.’

The nurse shrugged his shoulder. ‘It happens. This your first day?’

‘Why, you come here often?’

The nurse laughed. In a far-off part of his head, a part that wasn’t preoccupied with not throwing up again, Tyler was pleased about that. It was very far off. He wished he could seep back into unconsciousness for the last hours of the day. How was it he felt more tired than before he’d fallen asleep? Throwing up was exhausting. Sweating was exhausting. Lifting his head just an inch from the pillow was such an effort he wondered if he’d be able to make it home at all, but once he’d been unplugged and called a taxi he managed to heave himself into it, and out again when they were outside of his door. He felt like his bones had been cast in lead. Maybe that was a good sign, maybe a bad one. He doesn’t know how to know.

Tyler shoved the sticky front door open with his shoulder and the effort knocked all the air out of his lungs. He stumbled forward, the door swinging shut behind him, and he slumped onto the bottom of the stairs until he could breathe smoothly enough to crawl his way up to bed. He lay fully clothed on the mattress, his jeans stinking of puke and his shirt sticky and cold with old sweat, but he was alone. Quietly, blessedly alone. Sleep was already tugging at him, and it felt like he’d barely closed his eyes, but it was morning again.

Back to the hospital, back to that bed. Back to gloved hands and throwing up. Groaning and sleeping, crawling up the stairs to his bed. Texts that made no sense, which Wren still replied to. Each one lit Tyler like a spark. He could still do it. He was still charming. Leftover pizza tasted like dirt in his acrid mouth. Rehearsals moved to Tyler’s bedroom, with odd looks from Laura as she dragged in her drum kit. Tyler’s fingers ached. He slept. Wren text him good morning and goodnight. The next day the same, and the next. He burned, he trembled. He rested his cheek against the cold tiles of the bathroom floor.

‘We have to do ‘Nepenthe’,’ he told Laura.

‘No. It’s not done yet, and it’s miserable as fuck.’

Chemo and rehearsals, sleeping sixteen hours a day like a restless cat. He ran his hands through his hair and a chunk came away with his fingers. It curled on his palm, a sleeping mouse. His toothpaste turned red and everything tasted like salt and copper. He took the kitchen scissors and cropped his hair short, staring at his reflection in the patio doors. His clothes hung off him. He could barely stand.

Black dark on the kitchen floor. He was heavy. Joel pulled him, shouting, asking what he’d taken, what had he done. Saying over and over that Tyler had promised he’d stop; he wouldn’t do this to them again. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell Joel that he was wrong. this time it wasn’t his fault.

He woke up in the hospital. His throat was on fire.

‘Fuck,’ he hissed through his teeth.

‘Here.’ Joel handed him a glass of water. The heavy plastic clip on Tyler’s finger clunked against it as he took it. Joel watched as he managed to take the smallest, barest sip. He felt hollow, washed out.

Tyler ran his tongue across his cracked lips. ‘What happened?’

‘You stopped breathing.’

Tyler closed his eyes. ‘Why?’

‘I don’t know, dude, maybe it was the fucking cancer you didn’t tell us you had.’ Joel was standing over the bed now, his arms crossed so his huge football jersey hung crooked over his collarbones. ‘What the hell, dude?’ His voice cracked. ‘Does he know, the kid you’ve been seeing?’

Tyler narrowed his eyes. ‘You mean Wren? No. Why the hell would I have told him, of all people?’

Joel shook his head. He dropped his arms to his sides and turned away.

‘Laura,’ said Tyler. ‘Does she know?’

‘Yeah, she knows; she was right there when it happened.’

‘She’s not cancelled us?’

Joel spun around; his mouth hung wide. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Has she or not?’

‘Not yet.’

Tyler sighed. ‘Good.’

Fig. 11.

MOUSICALLY
YORK’S NUMBER ONE MUSIC SOURCE

An Interview Infinite Eyes’ Tyler Brundle: ‘Maybe I’m a Fool, but I’m Alright’

The lead singer of the fresh-faced band cultivated in York’s back-gardens talks blogging, meeting one of NME’s ‘Bands to Watch Out For’, and carving his own path

By Gabby Shields

Infinite Eyes are one of those bands who have been rolling around the York music circuit forever. Starting out as part of the queer punk scene, their sound quickly evolved into something more akin to indie or grunge. Frontman Tyler Brundle has talked big about going mainstream right from the beginning, much to the chagrin of the artists that share his stages. It seems like his ambition is finally coming to fruition now, with five dates opening for NME’s ‘Band to Watch Out For’, Party Shock, this December.

I had been told expect a mess when the band agreed to be interviewed in the home they share together. Brundle opens the door with an apologetic smile and a nod to the board over the window. ‘Joel has a lot of parties,’ Brundle says. Parties where people break windows? ‘Sometimes, yeah.’

This doesn’t wholly come as a surprise. Infinite Eyes’ party lifestyle is well-documented on Brundle’s blog, which receives a little over a hundred views a month. The blog is littered with blurry photographs of Brundle and his bandmates surrounded by their fans and other York music long-timers, like Candy Wasps and Little Someones. Brundle tosses an empty vodka bottle aside as he sits on the couch. ‘You tell them to clean up after themselves, it goes in one ear and out the other,’ he says.

The singer and guitarist has a weather-beaten look about him. Always waifish, he’s now a rake, eyes sunk deep in his pallid face. While he’s always been a notably emotional front man, at his gig in Stone Roses last week, he started crying so hard he couldn’t sing his own lyrics. On his blog, Tyler has been talking more and more about the need for personal integrity, just last night posting a long-winded essay on how much he strives to carve his own path to success. These changes in Brundle have not gone unnoticed by the band’s long-standing fans who worry they might be headed for a split. Bassist Joel Dawkins and drummer Laura Plath are conspicuously absent from the house. Are Infinite Eyes about to be the next in a long line of bands that break up before they’ve made it?

Brundle laughs at my question and shakes his head. ‘You know, people have been asking us how we stay together from basically the moment we started making music. Everybody is obsessed with us breaking up. It’s like, you put a lens on any relationship, you’re going to start noticing the cracks. We don’t always get on, ‘course we don’t; we’re people. You see us up there and the easiest thing to assume when there’s something going on is that there’s some kind of angst, you know? Some kind of big drama. There isn’t, though.’

Are they media shy, then?

‘Sort of. Joel hates all this shit, and Laura’s a right menace. If she was here, you’d have to sleep on the couch before she let you leave.’ He smiles as he speaks; there’s clearly a lot of love between them. ‘If I didn’t have them none of it would work. I’d just be sat in my bedroom playing songs to my computer. Laura’s the one who got us the deal. I know I’m the one that gets the attention, but Infinite Eyes is really her thing more than it is mine.’

There’s a sense of grim stubbornness about Brundle. He lights a badly rolled joint as he sits on the sofa. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ He talks about how everyone keeps telling him he should quit and how it makes him feel like a naughty kid. ‘I’m not going to go into details. There’s no point getting hung up on it. Maybe I’m a fool, but I’m alright.’

This sentiment unites all of Infinite Eyes’ music. Brundle began experimenting with music as a child growing up in Nether Poppleton, just outside of York, and briefly went to university to study it as an academic subject. ‘I dropped out after a year, but I couldn’t stop hanging around. I got it into my head that there were all these kids going into that course and they were going to get the creativity sucked out of them unless I did something about it. That’s how I met Joel and Laura.’

He tells me the band survive on government handouts and that the house was bought for them as a gift from Joel Dawkins’ estranged father. ‘He’s a right bastard, we’d have turned him down if we weren’t so desperate.’

The band’s meagre lifestyle is a subject Brundle keeps returning to. ‘It’s why hardly anybody is doing interesting stuff anymore. Anyone who’s had to live a bit has to spend all their time working a crappy job just to keep the lights on. If I was working nine to five there’s no way I’d be able to get up and do what I do. It’s a nightmare.’ He goes off on a long tangent about Taylor Swift. ‘And don’t even get me started on the fucking X-Factor, Christ.’

I ask him what he thinks about the sob stories that seem to propel people through music reality shows and he leans back against the sofa with his hands over his face. ‘It’s all about this weird idea everybody has, I think, like you have to be suffering if you want to make art, and it’s a load of bollocks.’ I ask if he thinks it’s influenced the kind of music he makes, given that so many of his songs address his personal struggles with depression. ‘Well, you’ve got to write what you know, but it’s not like I’m showboating with it.’

What about his gut-wrenchingly open blogs, I ask? ‘I do that out of a kind of catharsis, I think. It’s so weird to me that people actually read it, but I get comments sometimes from random people who can’t have ever come to any of our tiny shows, and these people are telling me they’re so glad I’m doing what I’m doing. It started out like I was basically writing diary entries, I wasn’t even thinking about the fact other people would really pay any attention to it, and when they did, it was like there was no way I could stop because it was clearly doing something important for these people.’

Is that what his music is about?

‘I guess. I think of music and everything as this really powerful force, like you can reach these people you’ve never met, and you get this chance to say to them ‘I understand what you’re going through’. Even if you don’t really get it, it doesn’t matter, because they feel like you do. If we ever get big, I don’t know what I’ll do about the blog.’

Brundle is clearly flagging when he gets a call on his phone. He asks me quietly not to write about anything he talks about with to the person on the other end of the line, but the conversation softens something about him, and he starts to tell me about what it was like meeting Party Shockfor the first time. ‘I’ve been listening to those guys for years. I feel incredibly privileged to be opening for them in a couple of weeks.’

I ask about whether he thinks this tour will be the band’s chance to break into the big-time, but Brundle is uncharacteristically reluctant to talk about the future. ‘We’ve just got to take each day as it comes. Maybe in a few months we’ll have split up or something and we’ll never talk to each other again. That’s the thing with music. It’s in the moment, isn’t it? You can sort of forget that now because of YouTube and how everyone can listen to basically anything they want if they just type in the right search terms. But you can only be who you are on any given day, and music is always an expression of who you are in the moment.’

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brundle’s face on the cover of NME in the next few years. Whether it’s as the frontman of this band in particular or as the face of some other musical endeavour, only time will tell. Tickets for their stint on the Party Shock tour are available through Ticketline. If you get a chance to see Infinite Eyes then, or at one of their smaller shows, do it, because the sound they have now is incredible. ‘Besides, nothing beats cramming into a dingy little bar to listen to a band you’ve never heard of,’ says Brundle.

Fig. 12. Lila

SNAPSHOT

Lila stared at the propped-open door to Cyrus’ garage. Thin tendrils of smoke wound free of the doorway and into the darkening sky, catching bright white in the security lights on Cyrus’ parents’ house. Lila unzipped her coat a little and shook her hair out from behind her ears. She’d been listening to Ash play scales on his guitar, pausing now and then when a string was slightly off. She didn’t like to come until they were ready for her. It wasn’t like she had anything to set up for herself. She would only get in the way.

The door creaked as she pushed it open. Ash was perched on the edge of the collapsed couch pressed against the garage wall, guitar still in his lap as he smoked what was either a joint or a cigarette. The smell in the garage was too thick to tell. The grey haze made it hard to see the tins of paint along the back wall and the power tools on the shelves. The blankets on the walls and layers of old rugs sucked the sound out of the air. Lila almost pinched herself to check she was still awake.

‘Nice of you to finally grace us with your presence,’ Cyrus said from behind the drum kit. He ran a cloth over his cymbals, and they made a shimmery sound like a dropped bag of beads.

Ash raised an eyebrow. ‘You look like shit,’ he said to Lila.

Lila shrugged out of her coat. The microphone stand was right in the middle of the garage, in the centre of one of the old rugs. It’s faded pattern looked like a target big enough to see from a plane. Lila skirted around the edge of it to put her things on the couch.

Ash was talking about what they were going to run through. He’s taped a piece of paper torn from his notebook onto the wall, a list written in his scratchy handwriting. Lila half recognised most of the song titles. She’d read Marnie DeLillo’s analyses of most of them. There was the one about the kitchen, which Marnie thought was about dying with unfinished business; ‘Shooting Stars’, which Marnie said was about wanting to be famous; ‘Thirsty Boy’ and ‘Dog Fish’, both about being out on the pull. At the bottom, followed by a question mark, Ash had written ‘Nepenthe’.

Katy, the bass player, whistled as she tapped the bottom of the page. ‘You really think we could pull ‘Nepenthe’ off?’

Ash shrugged. ‘We’ll give it a go. Lila’s kind of whiny; I think it would work.’

‘Which is ‘Nepenthe’?’ said Lila.

‘You know, the one at the end of the Party Shock show?’ said Ash.

Lila frowned. ‘No?’

He gasped dramatically. ‘Oh, it’s a thing of beauty. I thought you’d have got to it sooner; Marnie’s written an entire essay about that one.’

‘Clearly I’ve not gone deep enough.’

‘It’s fine,’ said Ash. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and handed it to Lila. It was vibrating with the sound of fairly large crowd as she took it. The view of the stage was obscured by raised arms and the tops of people’s heads. A thin light fell on Tyler Brundle, tiny in the middle of it.

‘Is he bleeding?’

‘Yup,’ said Katy. ‘Just carries on. I wish there was footage of the whole show. Nutter, he was.’

‘I used to love all that stuff,’ said Cyrus.

Ash hushed them both. ‘Let her watch.’

Tyler turned away from the microphone for a moment. The phone dropped into darkness and was lifted up again just as Tyler wrapped his hands around the neck of his guitar and strummed. The chords rang loud and jarring, the sound in the video crackling in protest. ‘This song is called ‘Nepenthe’.’

He was wrapped around his guitar so tight it was an extension of his body. It was hard to really make out what Tyler was singing over Cyrus playing with his drum kit and the low buzz of the amps in the corner as Katy messed with the dials. Half the words Tyler sang were completely lost, but it was still like watching someone wring the song out of him by force. One moment he was shouting, the next his eyes fluttered half-closed, caught somewhere between letting go and fighting back. He built and built and collapsed into nothing. The lights went down. The video trailed on a little while, capturing the shouting and whistling of the crowd before it cut off abruptly.

Lila jumped as Cyrus clattered into his cymbals. He winced in apology. ‘Sorry.’

‘It’s something, isn’t it?’ said Ash. ‘That’s the recording of it online.’

‘But I thought they did ten shows with Party Shock?’

‘They did, but the last one is the only time ‘Nepenthe’ was on the set list. Apparently, they played it at Colloquium a couple of times when Tyler was writing it, so people have heard different versions, but that’s the only clip of the whole thing, start to finish. There’s no way of knowing if that would have been the final version, or what they’d have done with it if they ever recorded it properly. That’s the last show they ever played.’

Lila watched the last few moments of the song again, watching the way Tyler leaned so close to the mic she was sure his lips were touching it. She wondered if the blood running from his nose would have caught in the mesh. She wondered what it felt like to stand in front of that many people, to sing like that and have people scream afterwards. To be at once so powerful and so vulnerable.

‘What’s he saying, in the refrain at the end?’

‘’I can’t sleep, Nepenthe, bring me’,’ said Ash.

Lila repeated him, half along with the tune she’d barely been able to pick out from the video. ‘What does that even mean?’

Ash shrugged. He picked up his bright red guitar from where it leaned against the wall. He played a handful of chords, half-singing the lyrics over them. For a second, Lila’s stomach twisted up and she had to duck her head, hiding her eyes with her fringe.

‘What do you think? Shall we give it a go?’ said Ash. When Lila peered up at him again, he was holding out his phone, the lyrics on the screen. ‘It doesn’t really matter if you know the melody, just whine in vague time with us and it’ll be bomb.’ He smiled his best crooked smile at her. He looked like he could be on posters, when he smiled like that. It made her warm to her toes and she had to look away as quickly as possible

Ash was easier to be around when Lila reminded herself regularly that he wasn’t always so glittering, that sometimes he was just as scared as she was. That the smile, the way his fingers brushed the back of her hand as he handed her the phone, it was all a part of what he was, of who he could become. The lines were blurry, but she could still pick apart the rock star from the rest of him, no matter how smoothly Ash seemed put his other self on. Lila wondered if it was like putting on someone else’s coat, one that smelled like their perfume and didn’t hang from your shoulders the way it did from theirs. Maybe it didn’t feel like anything at all. She pushed her hair back behind her ear.

They tumbled their way through ‘Nepenthe’, and as soon as Ash’s phone was liberated from being Lila’s autocue, he insisted that they recorded the last of the rehearsal so they could find what they were doing wrong. Lila’s cheeks went hot, her fingers tingled. By the last song of the evening, she was holding the little microphone in both her hands and laughing between the words. Katy and Ash bobbed in and out of each other, dangerously tangling the leads to their instruments, and Cyrus’ drumming became more like a load of rocks falling into an animal skin than anything resembling a rhythm.

Ash finished on his knees, holding his guitar up over his face. Katy kneed him deliberately between the shoulder-blades and his guitar screeched like a half-stuck seagull. He scrambled to grab Katy but ended up sprawled on his back, out of breath for some reason, even though he’d only been moving his arms.

His eyes met Lila’s. They seemed brighter against the violent red of his cheeks. He was almost the same colour as his guitar. He smiled small, and Lila smiled back. She put her hands into her pockets. Elliot always snapped when she did that. Told her it made her look like she didn’t care. She balled her hands into fists, catching up little bunnies of pocket fluff.

‘You alright?’ said Ash.

Lila nodded.

‘Honestly, I think you’re the thing we’ve been missing,’ said Katy. ‘It’s mad, the amount of people we’ve tried out.’

Lila hung her head. ‘I don’t know about that.

‘I’m serious. We were talking about it before you got here. We really want you to stick with us, you know, if you’re up for it,’ said Katy.

Lila peered at her. She didn’t look as though she was going to laugh at any moment, to snap her fingers and call it all a joke. She was smiling, earnest, looking at Lila and waiting for an answer Lila didn’t know that she could give her. Deep in her chest, something was purring and growling at once, a little creature that wanted to be pet but might just as soon snap at someone’s fingers. It wasn’t far from hunger, that feeling. Lila shifted her weight from foot to foot, trying not to hear Elliot telling her how ridiculous she was being.

Cyrus scoffed. ‘Come on, you’re totally in. Look at her, Katy; she’s gagging for it.’

A tiny, panicked laugh tumbled free of Lila. ‘For real?’

Ash got to his feet, dusting the debris off the garage floor from his t-shirt and jeans. As they tidied up, Ash propped the door open a little wider, and without him and Katy jumping around, the heat sapped quickly out of the air. Lila watched a little while as they gathered leads, as guitars were zipped away into bags and drums re-covered with paint-splattered sheets. ‘You going to stand there like a lemon, newbie, or you going to give us a hand?’ said Katy.

Lila grinned. ‘What do you want me to do?’

Fig. 13. Wren

There was a thunderous knock on Wren’s front door. He pulled his duvet more tightly around his shoulders and turned up the volume on the TV. The door rumbled again.

‘Wren, I did not drive all the way from London to have you pretend you’re not home,’ Tabby yelled. Wren turned the volume up again. ‘I’m serious! I’ll sleep on the doorstep if I have to!’

Wren closed his eyes and forced himself up off the couch, scattering empty crisp packets and beer cans onto the floor. He held onto the duvet and shuffled to the front door. He unfastened the latched and went immediately back to the couch.

‘Jesus Christ,’ Tabby muttered as she stepped inside.

‘What do you want?’ Wren asked monotonously, staring at the people running across the TV screen.

‘It’s been three weeks since you last answered a text. Have you even left the house?’

‘I’m sick,’ said Wren. He burrowed deeper into the duvet.

‘Come on, Wren. Talk to me,’ Tabby said gently. She sat on the arm of the couch and put her hand on Wren’s shoulder.

‘Sorry,’ he croaked.

Tabby shook her head. ‘Do you want to know what I think?’

A shudder ran through Wren’s body, like he’d reached the top of the staircase before he’d expected, and his foot was tumbling through nothing. ‘No,’ he said.

‘I think I’m going to order a pizza and you’re going to shower because you stink.’

‘Hey!’

Tabby shrugged. ‘You do. Do you want olives?’ She took her phone out of her pocket.

‘You can’t just show up and start telling me what to do.’

Tabby looked around. ‘I don’t see anyone else here looking after your sorry arse.’

‘I don’t need looking after.’

‘Oh, yeah, you’re doing fantastically on your own.’ Tabby kicked an empty can. ‘What do you call this interior décor? Alcoholic chic?’

‘You’re a dick.’

‘Takes one to know one. I don’t know how you thought living alone would be a good idea. Every time I went away at uni, I’d come back to find you knee-deep in your own filth. Have you even been brushing your teeth?’

‘I’m an adult,’ said Wren, though he couldn’t remember if he had brushed his teeth or not. ‘Just go back to London. You’ve got more important things to do.’

Tabby sighed. ‘Tell me what’s going on.’

‘I just needed some down time.’

‘With fifty cans of lager?’

Wren closed his eyes and emerged from his cocoon just enough to sit up and out of Tabby’s reach. ‘Tyler was on the news.’

Tabby studied Wren’s expression.

‘You saw it, too?’ asked Wren.

Tabby perched on the edge of the couch. ‘I did, and now Spotify keeps throwing Infinite Eyes tracks at me. I didn’t even know they were on there.’

Wren ran his hands over his bristly face. He had been fine. He had been functioning. He’d had his rules for thinking about Tyler, and he could go on about his life. It was fine. Wren’s breath hitched, and he caught up the corner of the duvet to hide his face again.

‘I’d always wondered what would have happened if he’d got famous,’ said Tabby. Wren peered out at her. She smiled. ‘Obviously I only really knew him when he was already sick, but I would think, you know, if he got better and his career carried on in that direction it had been going, you’d have hated having to share.’

Infinite Eyes had always had a few dedicated fans, the ones who came to the parties, who went to every show. After Tyler was gone, whenever Wren said his name got not even a hint of recognition from the bartender or the student at the library, it was a relief. It barely made it into the press. Just a tiny article in Mousically, saying he’d ‘lost a fight with cancer’. Wren scoffed when he saw it. Tyler never lost anything. He didn’t have chance to have it.

Now these people were crawling out of the woodwork like they’d spent all these years mourning him. Like any of them had a clue. Less than a thousand people had heard Infinite Eyesplay ‘Nepenthe’. There was one shitty recording of it on YouTube, with the noise of the crowd filtering out the true beauty of it. For years the video had hardly any views, but now it was soaring, hundreds of thousands of people crowding around their computers to try and eek something out of what they could never understand.

‘Someone at work sent me a link to Tyler’s blog,’ said Tabby. ‘They knew I’d lived in York, wanted to know if I’d heard of him and his band.’ She smiled. ‘I’d forgotten how melodramatic he was.’

Wren huffed a little laugh. ‘A proper rock star.’

‘Yeah,’ said Tabby. ‘I don’t know, but I think he’d have loved it. All these people trying to work out what he meant. Even if they are getting it wrong.’

Wren was quiet for a moment. More than once Wren had brought someone home and they had stopped mid-fuck to ask, ‘who’s Tyler?’. He’d push them away, make out like he was too embarrassed to have called them the wrong name to carry on. When Wren offered no explanations, most of them left. There had been a few that waited it out on the edge of Wren’s mattress, quietly telling him it was alright. That was worse, because he wasn’t embarrassed. If they asked who Tyler was, Wren couldn’t close his eyes and imagine they were him.

‘Have you talked to Joel and Laura, yet?’ asked Tabby.

‘Why would I have?’

‘Because their band is blowing up.’

Wren scoffed. ‘Tyler’s band.’

‘Theirs, too,’ said Tabby, firmly. ‘They’ve been in interviews. Laura mentioned you.’

Wren turned to face Tabby so quickly it hurt his neck. ‘What did she say?’

‘That Tyler signed his share of the rights to you, so their hands were tied on releasing any of the material off the album they were recording before he died.’

‘They aren’t seriously considering that,’ Wren spluttered. ‘They can’t.’

‘What harm is there in it?’

‘He died before it was finished!’ said Wren, on the verge of shouting.

‘I mean, I don’t think Tyler recorded it to go un-listened, did he?’

Wren stood up from the couch and paced across the living room, barely flinching as he trod on beer cans with his bare feet. ‘I can’t believe you.’

‘Don’t you think this is what he’d have wanted?’

‘Not like this,’ said Wren. He covered his face with his hands. All he could see behind his eyelids was Tyler. Tyler as he’d looked the first time Wren had seen him, bathed in murky stage lights, arms spread wide, guitar hanging from his shoulders. Wren remembered looking up and thinking he was glorious. There was something untouchable about him. He and Tabby had managed to sneak their way into the afterparty, but Tyler hadn’t been anywhere to be seen. Like he’d been some kind of illusion, like the world couldn’t hold his form for too long or reality would start to crumble.

Of course, they’d been invited back to another party by Joel, and that time Tyler had stumbled in late into the evening. Wren had thought he was drunk, but it was probably the beginnings of the myeloma, though Tyler had never told him as much. He’d collapsed and Wren had been too eager to offer to help him up the stairs. Tyler had fallen asleep almost as soon as he’d touched the mattress. Wren lay down next to him, his guts in knots, feeling like he’d stolen this moment from some other person’s life, and also like a lion guarding its recent prey.

Turned out it wasn’t reality that would crumble, but Tyler himself, right under Wren’s hands. Bits of him had fallen away until there was nothing left but dust. Everyday what happened felt more like a dream, and that Tyler had always been a dream for Wren didn’t help. And suddenly a thousand people were saying they loved him. Strangers. People he’d never even met, never even touched. Wren had held him. Wren had loved him. He had to hold on as tight as he could to what was left, or it would pour through the gaps in his fingers and he would be left with nothing at all.

Fig. 14. Tyler

SNAPSHOT

Tyler had stolen one of Joel’s beanies and pulled it down right over his ears to hide the patches of smooth skin blooming throughout his raggedly cropped hair. He’d arrived early at the café, sat in the window and drummed his fingers on the table as he waited for Wren to arrive. He had practised his smile, rehearsed how he would sit, drenched himself in too much aftershave to hide the smell of the hospital that he was sure still clung to his skin.

By the time Wren had actually showed up, Tyler’s knee was bobbing up and down and he’d been tracing the beanie’s knitted edge back and forth, staring absently in the opposite direction, so he hadn’t even noticed Wren come in until he pulled out the chair opposite Tyler’s. They shared a long, strange look. Tyler’s head was too filled with wordless panic to guess at any meaning in Wren’s expression. He sort of smiled, and he’d definitely noticed the hat because Tyler watched his eyes as they flickered up towards it.

Any minute Wren was going to break the spell. He was going to get sad like Joel or angry like Laura. He was going to want to know.

The waitress set their coffees on the table with a smile.

‘That’s why I normally get a medium,’ said Wren.

Tyler peered into the gigantic vat of coffee that the shop described as ‘large’. Wren half-smiled. His gaze flitted across Tyler’s face, around his ears. ‘Um,’ said Wren. He cleared his throat. ‘New hair?’

Tyler swallowed, his throat dry and raw like they’d just taken him off a ventilator. Something manic rose in him, and he reached up to the hat. He could just rip it off, and it would be over and done with. Why not there, in the window? Everyone would see eventually, anyway. Why not just do it there?

‘I’ll miss the curls,’ said Wren.

Tyler looked out of the window, tugging his sleeves down over his hands. He should have caught an earlier bus, bought a better beanie than Joel’s ratty grey one. But who was he kidding? He couldn’t have made it down the street.

‘Tyler? You alright?’

‘I’m fine.’ Tyler reached across the table, brushing his fingers across Wren’s knuckles, white over the handle of his coffee mug. A flush of pink rose on Wren’s cheeks beneath his fine smattering of freckles.

‘What?’ said Wren.

Tyler shook his head. He stared at Wren, with his tawny hair and his freckles and his lips and his gorgeous eyes. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. Wren gulped. Tyler watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down.

‘Can I kiss you?’ said Wren.

The tension in Tyler’s chest burst at once and he laughed. Of everything Wren could have said, Tyler would not have guessed it would be that. The ground felt more solid beneath them, no longer threatening to fall away. Wren was still dazzled.

Tyler smiled his best smile. ‘Do you really need to ask?’

Wren blushed again. He brushed the edge of Tyler’s fingers with his lips and peered up shyly. Everything else was a murk of distant noises and as Tyler stared, flames lit deep within him, warmth coursing through right to his fingertips. He pulled Wren’s hand to his mouth and grazed the edges of Wren’s fingers with his teeth.

‘Let’s go,’ Wren whispered.

‘Yeah.’

They’d barely touched their drinks.

They didn’t touch in the car and neither of them said a word. Tyler drank in the line of Wren’s jaw, the way the sun caught in his hair, the small smile on his face whenever he took his eyes off the road to steal a glimpse at Tyler. As they parked outside the building where Wren lived, Tyler’s stomach tied into a knot. This was a mistake. They were going to go inside, and Wren would kiss him, and take off his clothes. He’d notice. He’d know.

‘It’s a mess,’ said Wren, hesitating before opening the door.

‘You’ve seen my place,’ said Tyler.

Wren dipped his head. ‘Yeah, but you’ve got an excuse.’

‘What?’ Tyler tried to keep the horror from his voice. What had Wren guessed?

‘You’re all rock stars,’ said Wren, shrugging.

‘Oh. Yeah.’

Wren’s kitchen was tiny, only just enough space to comfortably accommodate the two of them without touching one another. Half a pan of cooked rice sat uncovered on the grimy hob, stacks of dishes three or four high stood next to a sink full of murky water. Through the square window above it, Tyler could see the setting sun. Pink light caught in glasses cloudy with fingerprints.

‘Tabby’s not back until the weekend,’ Wren said. Tyler could feel the two feet between them on every inch of his skin. Wren’s eyes, that smoky, ghostly blue, skipped from Tyler’s face and down the length of his body. Tyler’s heart was in his throat. He wanted to feel dizzy with need, but he gripped the edge of the counter, dread rising in his throat the longer Wren looked at him. The flames in Tyler’s skin roared.

Finally, Wren looked through the open door at the end of the kitchen. The rest of the flat beyond it was swallowed by darkness. ‘You’re thinner than before,’ he said.

‘I am?’ Tyler swallowed thickly. He looked at his feet, fidgeted with the sleeves of his coat. He should have bought more bracelets; he didn’t have enough to do with his hands. His heart was beating so loud it was deafening. He was half-certain that Wren would be able to hear it too.

Wren took a step towards him. He reached out as though to cup Tyler’s face in his hands but stopped. His arms fell back to his side, clothes rustling. Tyler could feel every burst of Wren’s warm breath on his cheek.

‘That fucking hat,’ said Wren.

Tyler closed his eyes. ‘I know.’

‘It’s fine.’ Wren placed his hand on Tyler’s cheek. The touch sent shudders through him. When Tyler opened his eyes Wren was staring, inches away and immoveable. ‘Look at me.’

Tyler was breathing ragged, open mouthed. He was shaking. He could feel his muscles aching with the effort. A whimper bubbled to his lips and a look very close to actual pain flitted across Wren’s features. He pulled his parka more tightly around himself.

‘Are you cold?’

Tyler shook his head. Wren pulled the zipper on the parka down. Tyler let the sleeves slide over his arms and hands without protest. The zipper clicked against the tiles and Wren reached for the edge of Tyler’s jumper.

‘Don’t,’ Tyler said weakly.

‘Don’t you want to?’

Tyler looked away, cheeks burning. ‘I do, I just.’ Any explanation was too much. Words were suddenly beyond him. Instead he closed his eyes and gave into that reckless, fearless part of him that had wanted to tear the hat off in the coffee shop and yanked the hoodie and the shirt off in on fluid movement. He threw them at the door, kept his eyes shut tight, and heard Wren’s sharp intake of breath. Without saying anything, Tyler covered the place where his central line catheter tubes disappeared into his chest.

‘What is that?’ Wren whispered.

‘It’s like an IV,’ said Tyler. He pressed his hand over it harder until it started to ache.

‘Does it hurt?’ asked Wren.

Tyler laughed. ‘Sometimes.’

‘I suppose that’s why you won’t let me touch you.’

‘You still want to touch me?’ Tyler said, finally opening his eyes.

Wren was standing much closer than he had been before. Bracing himself, Tyler grabbed Wren’s wrist, yanked his hand forward so it was splayed right across his sternum, over his thundering heart. Wren leaned in, his breath ghosting over Tyler’s lips, but before they could meet, Wren’s fingers traced the edge of Tyler’s scalp and he realised with a jolt the hat was gone, bundled with the hoodie and the t-shirt.

‘Tyler,’ Wren said quietly. ‘What’s wrong with you?’

Tyler pulled away from him, turning to face the square window. The sun was almost all the way set now, the sky royal blue between the black clouds. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘Of course it matters.’

‘Why?’ Tyler’s breath was ragged. He bent over and yanked his jeans back on and fumbled with his hoodie. The t-shirt was still stuck inside, wouldn’t come free no matter what he did. ‘Fuck!’ He threw it all back on the floor. ‘Why is it so important that everyone knows?’

‘I want to help,’ said Wren, his voice barely more than a squeak.

Tyler laughed bitterly. ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘Because you won’t tell me!’ said Wren. ‘I’m trying to be there for you.’

‘I don’t want that,’ Tyler spat.

Wren shook his head. Tears streaked glittering lines down his cheeks. ‘Are you breaking up with me?’

Tyler froze, mouth hanging slightly open, his next retort dead on his tongue. Tyler ran his hand over his scalp. He stared at Wren for a moment; he looked incredibly young, all of a sudden. Tyler wondered if he had even turned twenty. ‘Is that what you think this is? That we’re dating?’

‘Aren’t we?’ said Wren.

‘Do you even know who I am?’ Tyler hadn’t meant to say anything at all, and the viciousness of his words made both him and Wren wince.

‘’Course I know,’ Wren squeaked. His shoulders slumped.

‘Good,’ said Tyler. He picked up his jumper off the ground and managed to peel his t-shirt free, this time rage coursing through him instead of blind panic. He pulled the t-shirt over his head, hiding the tubes again. He glared at Wren, daring him to protest. Anger fizzed bright into Tyler’s fingertips. He felt more alive than he had in weeks.

He rounded on Wren and kissed him, pressing him against the counter, knocking over a mug filled with dirty crockery. Wren made a small squeak of surprise, momentarily stunned motionless under Tyler’s mouth before he caught up and kissed back greedily. Tyler was fast and wordless, and Wren melted under his hands. A thousand things flitted across Tyler’s mind, none of them sticking except one; undo him. As if he heard it himself, Wren followed like a lamb, crying out and whispering Tyler’s name like a promise he was desperate to break.

Tyler didn’t remember how to speak again until they were lying on a puddle of their tossed aside clothes. Wren’s head rested on Tyler’s chest, just beneath where the tubes blossomed under his t-shirt. Tyler traced the edges of Wren’s lips. ‘What are you smiling about?’

‘Nothing,’ said Wren. He sighed.

Tyler chuckled and grabbed his phone from the pocket of his parka. Laura was demanding his presence. He wasn’t sure if it would be band or illness related. Perhaps some hideous combination of the two. He locked the phone and sent it skittering across the floor tiles.

‘Do you have to go?’ said Wren, dolefully.

‘They can’t start without me, I’m the front man. I’m practically the whole band.’

Wren rolled up onto his elbows. ‘You’re still doing all that then?’

‘Why the fuck wouldn’t I be?’

Wren’s gaze dipped for a moment. Tyler stared at him, daring him to say it, to tell him he was too sick, like Joel kept trying to do. Instead, Wren nuzzled Tyler’s still-raised hand like a kitten. ‘I saw on your blog you’re going to open for Party Shock.’

Tyler barked a laugh. ‘You read my blog?’

‘Not all the time,’ Wren mumbled, hiding his blush behind Tyler’s hand.

‘I’ve been conned into sleeping with a groupie. How tragic.’

Wren laughed and kissed Tyler’s shoulder softly. His lips were warm, and Tyler shivered. He ran his fingers through Wren’s soft, blonde hair. He was so sweet, Tyler felt guilty for touching him, but not enough that it weighed out the fierce greed that made him want to bask in it, to drink that sweetness through his skin until it filled him up. Wren sighed, flopping back down into their nest of clothes again, and there was something odd about his expression.

‘You good?’ said Tyler.

‘Stupid question,’ said Wren, with a quiet huff of laughter. He pushed his hair out of his eyes. ‘Are you?’

‘I don’t know.’ Tyler could feel the thrum of his heart all the way to his toes. Wren didn’t say anything, he just settled against Tyler’s shoulder, his breathing quiet and even. In that moment, Tyler felt like someone else. It didn’t feel good, exactly. It was just a relief.