It started with a dedication. We were on holiday in France. It was my first time there, and we spent most of it stuck in a hotel room, on account of getting sick from some terrible, as well as terribly posh, food. Mum was taking care of me, my sister Janey and dad. She was the only one who didn’t get sick, the only one who’d been there so many times that she knew what not to do. She was watching this show on a French music channel called C’est Pop. The French clearly fail their imagination when it comes to naming pop music shows.
He was there, the only man my mother told my dad she’d leave him for. He seemed high as a kite, but she said he was always like this. A strange mix of polite, cheeky, and a prolonged teenage angst of not wanting to be there, or anywhere else for that matter. You could phone in, and if he liked what you said, he’d give you free records. Mum already had his latest. She’d played it non-stop till we went away on holiday. We didn’t care much for it, but it was amusing to see her so happy about it. Dad said, “That stuff makes you want to kill yourself. But, maybe not if you’re as bonkers about it as her.”
She called them. They even picked up. They said there weren’t too many callers, probably because of how uninterested he seemed in talking to anybody. That should have repelled me, because I don’t like rude people. It made me pay more attention to what he was saying, and I didn’t think he was being mean. Just opinionated. He didn’t try to please anybody. I didn’t tell mum, because she wasn’t the type to care if he, or anybody else, was mean to her. She was old-fashioned. She’d take a bullet with a smile.
But, he was nice to her. She spoke intelligently, and I couldn’t help feeling proud at how pleased he looked on TV while talking to her. He asked what she wanted him to play as the next music video, and she cleverly did not mention any of his, but one of The Pogues, a band he likes. She dedicated it to me.
It is wrong to judge a musician’s work on the basis of his public persona but, it wasn’t him which sold it to me. My name, on his lips, just as mum asked him to, sealed our fate. Mum was no longer the only one lost in admiration.
Even if I hated that name for the next three years, because of that blasted TV show. He’d laughed at it when we first met, but then he said he was sorry I’d had to go through with all that teasing. I wasn’t as goth with him as I was at school, because I knew he wouldn’t like it. He later told me reassuringly, “You don’t look like a Blossom. More of a Rose.”
I escaped my name-based bullying in school by listening to him. I got them all on cassettes, carried my Walkman everywhere. At home, I played mum’s records, and she grew tired of me hogging the turntable with her favourite. He came out with a new one in 1992, and suddenly, he was no longer mine. Not at school, nor at our record shop. Every supermarket had his hit playing at full volume, and I hated him for it. The album wasn’t bad, but now, he belonged to everybody.
I was so angry, I wrote him. I showed it to mum before I sent it, for we had discussed and agreed about what we felt. But, she didn’t let me send it. She said he’d done it many times before, and she’s ached the same heartbreak many times since 1980. She told me if I wanted to write anything to him, let it be something nice, like telling him how much I liked his music. I didn’t want to do something as insipid as that.
So, I took to learning guitar, writing songs, collecting butterflies, and listening to other bands. I was fine, until it started again. He was going to be in town in February, performing. Mum got tickets for us without asking me before. I’d kept him aside, at the back of my mind. And now, he was going to be a few feet from me.
She couldn’t go due a work emergency. It would be my first gig alone, but she said, “Darling, this is the only concert for which I’ve got nothing to worry about! Have fun. Think of this as an early seventeenth birthday present.”
I couldn’t believe how easy it all was. I overdid my look, applying eyeliner way too quickly, smudging it all over. I pinned one of the butterflies in my collection, its rich cerulean the only colour next to my all black ensemble. He noticed it, perhaps because everyone else in front of me was wearing all black as well. He noticed me too, and he looked at me and said, “Nice pin”.
I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love again. I didn’t do that with the boys I knew, let alone men I didn’t. After a perfect three hours in which he was so good, I even liked the encore of his supermarket song about the days of the week. I went home inspired, not to pull out his cassettes from under my bed where they had lived undisturbed for months (and will remain undisturbed till the next morning), but to work on my butterfly collection, with which I started making a birthday book for him. I had made one for mum before, spelling her name with them, and she’d loved it. I used my pin as a centrepiece, and though his birthday was still a couple of months away, I knew this time, we’d finally speak.
I joined the local fan club, who didn’t think of themselves as a “club”, but just some people our age who liked his music. They’d all written to him, and they’d all received signed posters. I attended one meeting, where I realised I cared neither for his posters, nor for self-harm, for they all seemed to associate his music with recreationally cutting themselves. I cared for him, and what he made me feel for him.
I sent my book, and a short birthday message. Weeks went by, with no reply. At this point, I would have been happy with a poster. But, he sent me a letter instead. Well, a note. Which read,
Have you read Lolita?
I went out and bought it that very evening. I read it all night, until I realised what ‘Caterpillar Girl’ was about. He was double my age, but no Humbert Humbert. Whenever his videos would come on, mum would say, “Don’t you just want to jump him? Wouldn’t you, if you could?” Dad would snort, mum would laugh, Janey would be indifferent, and I would feel the need to suppress the heat rising in my cheeks. Maybe mum noticed, but she never said anything.
Caterpillars and Butterflies, that’s what we were. Our love was to grow, and die after a beautiful summer.
I wrote him, he wrote me, I wrote him and so it went. Summer was almost over. This was my final year in school. No one knew about it. No one at home guessed it was him. It helps to have such a common English name. I didn’t show his letters to anyone. He never sent me anything but letters. He didn’t have the neatest hand, but I loved that they were always long, and he always had plenty of things to tell me to do. What to read, watch, listen, think. He never asked if I had someone, I never asked after his wife. He’d confide sometimes, but in the vaguest of words.
And then we met. He was in town, he said on holiday, but I didn’t believe him. You either came here to work, or because you had to, and because he wasn’t performing, I knew it was the second. It was me.
I skipped school and met him at a curry house. I usually can’t stomach the stuff, but I didn’t want him to know. He wasn’t what I expected. He was…fiery. He was as opinionated as he’d been on C’est Pop, but he was also jovial. Not at all the man I knew who wrote those letters, those songs. He wore makeup, and didn’t seem to care about the recognition he received from everyone else there. He looked directly at me, as he had done in February at the show, and didn’t flicker from his gaze. I asked him if I could use some of his lipstick. He chuckled and pulled out MAC’s Russian Red from his shirt pocket. He was talking all the time, and I preferred him doing that to staring intently towards me when he listened to what I said.
At one point, we did pause. I thought we’d run out of things to say, but he said,
“I never do this.”
I didn’t understand.
“I mean, sure there are fans, groupies, but never this.”
I said nothing.
“I’m not Woody Allen or anything, but there’s something about you…”
“You’re not Woody Allen. He’s an old rock. You’re beautiful.” I said.
Maybe, that’s not what you tell boys. Or men. But, that’s what came out of my mouth. It didn’t seem like the first time someone’s said that to him.
“Yes, right. Look, I don’t do this. Not like this anyway. But, it’s not a big deal.”
“You’ve nothing to worry about Bob.” I felt confident enough to call him his name.
We did it later in his room. He’d booked the best our town had to offer, which wasn’t much, but he didn’t mind it the last time he was here. He asked if it was my first time. He did a John Lennon voice as he put on his John Lennon glasses (“I also have an Elvis Costello one, but I’m not going to wear them in public. Don’t want anyone to think I copied their look.”) and said, “Have you got a fella?”
“No.” His impression was delightful.
“No? None down the road? None coming to beat me up when they find us together all entangled like?”
“No, and what accent is that?”
“I don’t know Rose, just go with it.”
And so we did. We played games of make-believe. He had a large pile of books on the table, books he could read for weeks, months even. I asked him how long he planned to stay.
He said he had to be back tomorrow to work on some studio stuff.
“Why do you have so many books then?”
“I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to read. I brought them all.”
“But, why carry all that weight?”
He stopped doing his George Michael impression, and became quiet.
“I am sorry. I was just curious.”
He breathed a sigh, and then said, “Because. Because, you don’t know what you’ll need to stay alive at three in the morning. Will Camus do? Or Neruda? Ee cummings? Or Jimi Hendrix?”
You, for me, at three in the morning. I thought, but I didn’t say out loud. You, soft and only. You, lost and lonely.
There was much I couldn’t say.
We’d been drinking and smoking. We drank more, and I asked him for a joint.
He smirked and said, “Who do you think I am? Mick Jagger?”
I had just assumed. He said he didn’t do it anymore. Booze was more than enough.
I went over his books with a cigarette in my mouth. I found a notebook with his handwriting. It was open at a page that read,
I asked him about it. He said, “That’s how far I’ve gotten. I want to list all the things I like in the opening verse.”
“Is it called Smoking Poetry?”
He frowned. And then he laughed. All this time, all these hours we’d spent by ourselves, no one there to take us away from it, I felt confused. One moment, I wanted to be close. The next, I was embarrassed I even knew him. No one could have felt that way for him, but he seemed so ordinary at times. He’d told me about Stendhal, about what he said about the role of imagination in love.
You never know, how pale porcelain can pale further against the rich red of the dreams that preceded it.
He didn’t show much enthusiasm for me either by the time I left him, but his last look worried me. He was sombre, but there was tenderness in his eyes.
We didn’t meet the next day, or the day after. He phoned me at home, wrote me again, but, I didn’t want to. Mum did not think it was him at the other end of the line, though she looked unsettled after she heard his voice. I said he was Bob, our music teacher at school, asking me to play at the annual concert. She said nothing more.
I had taken up photography at school. Taking pictures of pictures was the trend, and so I took ones of all the pictures I could find. We wrote less and less to each other, until it was Christmas. He sent me Phil Spector’s Christmas album. I again told mum it was Bob the music teacher who wanted me to get some taste in Christmas music. It is still my favourite thing out of our relationship, for Mariah Carey would come out with “All I Want For Christmas Is You” the next year, and that would be the end of all Christmas songs, good or bad.
I sent him a card, made of pictures in sepia tone that I’d taken of him in the snow from a music video. Mum had VHS recordings of all his videos, and I had to keep rewinding it, till I found the exact ones I wanted to make a collage of.
He wrote me again. Like old times, as if all the awkwardness from the past few months was forgotten. He said I should go to art school once I was done with my A-Levels. He said lots of musicians went to art school, though he never said anything about the cassette I had given him of my songs.
We kept writing once or twice weekly into the new year. It was fine, not as good as before, but good enough. Until he wrote in February,
“Would you like to meet again? Before spring? Or, for your birthday?”
You don’t remember that if you don’t care. I didn’t want him to care. I had written to him more out of habit than anything else. He wrote me, and I felt obliged to reply. I listened to him sometimes, usually at John’s house, who couldn’t decide if he liked him more or Morrissey.
I said to John, “You know, he actually doesn’t mind The Smiths. It’s just that Morrissey’s been beastly about him.”
“Where did you hear that?”
I didn’t know what to say. It would seem like bragging to him. Or worse.
I said, “In some stupid show he was doing on TV.”
“Wow, he actually said that? On camera? Okay, he wins over Morrissey then.”
And John won over him to me.
The 21st of March came closer and closer. Mum had a birthday bash planned for me turning into an adult. I was preoccupied with what to write him to let him off gently. He didn’t write more either, perhaps waiting for my reply, perhaps working at the studio as he said in an interview I had read in the papers. Mum still asked anyone in the room everytime he came on TV, “Don’t you just want to jump his bones? Don’t you just?”
He isn’t bad mum. But, he isn’t all that either.
I couldn’t say John was better, for he hadn’t asked me yet. I was hoping he might on my birthday. But, mum spoiled it again by saying after he arrived at the party, “So nice to have you, John! Much prefer her spending time with you than writing Bob the music teacher.”
“Who is Bob?” John said.
“Mum, he doesn’t know. He’s not into music.” I ushered him away before either could say anything to the other. John left early that night.
I finally wrote him, after the party was over. It was clear what I had to say to him, though I didn’t post it until it would reach him in time for his birthday.
I told him the truth.
And he made a song about it.
And mum played it when I came back home from my second year in art school for the summer. They didn’t play it at the supermarkets.
For lyrics, click here.
Disclaimer: Obviously, this is all fiction. One of the characters here is a real person, but nothing I say about him is true, or verified. He’s been source of inspiration before. But, just like he doesn’t have scissors for fingers, he hasn’t done any of the above either.