Previous Chapter: “I Hear You Listen To Your Rock and Roll”
With this chapter the remainder of the main cast are introduced; the remainder of the writing is about how they face what they have got into, and who they meet on the way.
The silent, tired consideration of Miki’s dissection of that performance was interrupted by the sound of singing from downstairs. It was, rather badly mangled and interspersed by nonsense syllables where the singer didn’t know the words well enough to continue, Goodbye Fire. This was closely followed by the sound of footsteps on the stairs and the door to the studio flying open with a draft that sent papers flying and rattled the cymbals.
“Hello everybody! Are you all well?” The voice was measured, light and innocent. It belonged to a girl wearing an airy dress of light yellow linen, white stockings, very sensible, childish shoes, and a straw boater with long blue ribbons trailing from its brim. The effect of this outfit was disarming, because it was being worn by a girl in her mid teens, but the earnest smile she had was hard to argue with in its purity. “Is Zeno back? I made breakfast for him.” The thought tailed off strangely, the girl seeming distracted. “How is the music? Is it going well? I was singing your song.”
If Xan’s speech to Show had seemed leaden and awkward, the words of someone who was trying to sound like they knew more, and commanded more respect, than they did, the girl in the yellow dress was the complete opposite; it was hard to tell if her naivete was natural or simply a calculated affectation, but it nevertheless defined anyone’s first impressions of her.
“Mio! I thought you were down the allotment?” Show flashed her a wide smile. “How’s it going? Plenty growing on?” Miki dropped his drumsticks in disbelief.
Mio laughed. Like her voice, the sound was light, innocent and welcoming – and the laughter far more sincere at such a terrible pun than anyone might have expected. “I like that. Growing on. You make me laugh, Show. You always make me laugh.”
Downstairs, Xan had barely had the chance to say hello to Mio before she had been drawn upwards towards the others. She was hard to understand, but he knew well that she needed to be made to feel welcomed. She’d been a long time alone, like he had, and at the thought of such a sweet girl left without the childhood she deserved, he felt more than ever like he needed to put it right. It was enough to make him laugh, really, were it not his life. An empty man, living in a building that echoed with life that he needed to remain on the fringes of. He was a father figure, or rather he had to be one whether he wanted to – or could be.
He was helping Mio, washing the carrots and tomatoes she had picked on the studio’s allotment. Like everything she did, she had done it to the best of her abilities, filling two old picnic baskets with fruit and vegetables that sang with colour. He’d had an idea to surprise her by cooking dinner that night; while she loved to cook and went off in exciting experiments which more often than not were most agreeable, she also liked the simple, plain meals he made and the chance to just relax of an evening. Again, the act of cooking for the young girl and the others who he lived with was a reassuringly paternal one. The vegetables washed, he began slicing carrots and stacking the neat orange discs on a plate to one side of where he worked. It was getting on in the afternoon, and if the sauce was going to be ready then he’d need to start it cooking. The tomatoes went in the blender, a handful at a time, and the vivid red pulp poured into the waiting pan. With the others all upstairs, he for once had freedom over the music he could put on, and he for a change selected an album by May Itano, a melancholy, saccharine idol singer who had been popular twenty years ago. Normally he preferred livelier stuff – the sort of pounding, driving beats that Show’s band tried to emulate – but he’d been feeling out of sorts today and the more relaxed music suited.
Do you remember that first moment… The strings were high and tremulous, a thin, echoing sound that never overshadowed the singer but instead gave the impression she was alone in the room with Xan and the accompanist. While the rock music and the electronic sounds that were popular sounded busy and intense, Itano’s singing was intimate. There was no other way to describe it, the attention to detail that had been in the mixing of the sound, and the delicate use of echo and filtering brought the voice close in such that you could almost smell the perfume and imagine her presence there. Exactly the sort of music Xan needed at this time.
He was singing along as he worked, the words sounding odd in a hoarse, subdued male voice. Oh I remember our love, yes, how perfect every moment… It was a strange sensation, singing a love song alone.
“That was lovely. You sing very well – always have. I remember you singing a lot.” Mio was there. She had left the studio, and curled up on one of the sofas clutching a mass of fur that turned out to be alive, not some vast stuffed toy. “Melba likes you singing too.” Melba was her pet, a corpulent herbivore native to the local area that spent almost all its time either sleeping or eating. Most of the time it remained in its cage out on the balcony, sunning itself on a piece of driftwood Mio had fished from a nearby stream, but sometimes she disrupted its sedentry routine by picking it up bodily and using it as a kind of pillow. The creature was so dim it barely registered this, responding only with gentle affectionate creaking noises. She raised a flabby arm thick with silky, trailing hair and waved a blunted paw at Xan as he cooked. “Can he have the peelings?”
“I’ve saved them specially.”
“You don’t listen to this music often. I like it, you should play it more. She’s got a very pretty voice.”
“It’s May Itano. She only really had one hit, it was that song just then. I Remember It All.”
“I wonder why?” Mio picked up the magazine reader that Xan had put on the table and searched for pictures of Itano. She had been, at the height of her fame, renowned for the innocent and above all ordinary look she had – the photograph for the cover of the Memories of Love and Life album had just been her sat at an open-air table in a street cafe, wearing a lacy white top and a long skirt. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve always thought that just once is enough.”
“One what?” Xan hadn’t been listening properly.
“One chance at success. It’s more than most people get. It’s more-” Mio suddenly stopped. “It’s more than most people get. Oh, you’re heavy today Melba…” She lifted the sloth-like creature from her lap and set it down on the floor where it embraced the leg of the sofa and fell asleep. “How is dinner going, Xan?”
“It’s good. I’m making pasta. With the vegetables you picked.” At that, Mio perked up.
“Are they good, Xan?”
“Brilliant. The soil is so good here, and you’re a good gardener.” She had stepped lightly over to the worktop and grabbed a handful of carrot tops, which she stuffed into Melba’s face. The thing had a curious, almost telepathic instinct for when food was nearby and stirred itself to consume the lot in one cavernous, yawning motion. “Where’s Red? I haven’t seen him for a while.”
“I haven’t seen him either. Shall I go and look?” She abandonded Melba, who was now making glacial progress across the floor to try and find more food.
“No, I was just thinking aloud. If you like you can look after the pan for a bit. I’ll see if he’s upstairs.” The landing of the studio’s upper floor opened out into a wide hall, with the band’s practice area taking up one side and a few bedrooms the other. Xan and Mio had the very top level to themselves, two separate rooms and a small bathroom and shower, with Show, Red and Zeno taking the three living spaces on the main floor. He knocked on Red’s door.
“Xan? Or is it Mio? I heard her come in.”
“Just me. You’ve been quiet today.”
“Come in.” Red’s room was sparsely decorated, a few posters on a noticeboard the most notable adornment. A laptop sat open on one corner of a desk, with a spread of small, finely-cast pieces surrounding it. Red had a soldering iron, and tubes of glue and pots of paint in a regimented arrangement around neat trays of metal rods and plates of different sizes. “What do you think of this?” He lifted up a small clamp and stand arrangement, holding a delicate curved piece of metal painted with a curious green colour that seemed to glow. “It’s a new glaze effect, I’m quite pleased with it. I started-”
“It’s brilliant.” Xan picked up the stand carefully and looked at how the green had a warmth to it that gradually faded to almost black at the edges. “What’s it going to be a part of?”
“Currently nothing. The piece is a spare I had, a miscast from my last project.” Red indicated a model tank on his shelf, the decorative equipment pieces on it not simply recreated lifelessly but individually modified to look as if they had only just been used. “Used to be part of one of the shell casings but I wasn’t pleased so I did another batch and I’m using these to test paint effects.”
“It’s how I stayed out of your hair. It’s quite relaxing actually.” He closed a text document on the laptop’s screen and pushed it shut. “It’s not usual for you to come up and see me – anything up?”
“Dinner’s cooking. Mio’s stirring it, so we don’t have to worry.”
“Sounds good. Anything else?” Red half-closed his eyes and leaned back in the office chair he had been sat in, its failing back leaning with him until the whole affair looked as if it were about to collapse.
“Just wondering if you’re all right. Isn’t like you to vanish completely without a word like you did.”
“What’s got into you, Xan? This really isn’t like you to… well to be so concerned for me. I don’t mean offence but you must have your hands full with Mio and Show. I can get by on my own.”
“I suppose you’re right. It’s just been one of those days.” Xan couldn’t say truthfully why he was making sure everyone was all right. They didn’t need to know. “Never hurts, though, does it?”
“Not at all. Just a bit out of the blue. Shall we eat?” Red arranged his paint brushes and paints neatly, and gave the back of the failing chair a rap with his fist as he pushed it back under the desk. “I’ll need a new one soon. Shame. I found that in a closing down auction for some office somewhere and it’s served me well since I moved here.”
In the hall, the sounds of the band practicing had faded and been replaced by, to Xan’s surprise, Mio singing I Remember It All. She didn’t know many of the words but when she hit a line she knew, he found it increasingly hard to tell her voice from Itano’s.
As everyone sat down to eat, Mio brought round a tray of freshly-toasted bread from the oven, studded with fresh herbs and dripping melted butter. Show had passed out wide, aysmmetrical white plates while Miki was pouring the drinks – the choice of a light, acidic floral cordial, sparkling or still water and a rich drink made of cherries and other dark fruit.
“Got your appetite back?” Sara smiled at Show as he piled his plate with salad. “You looked a bit off-colour earlier.”
“Need to get my energy back.” She laughed. At the other end of the table, Xan was eating slowly and methodically, finally beginning to relax as everyone was together. The tension from earlier had passed, and they were once again just a group of friends. He wanted to believe that.
“Are we going to win Grey Cliff, Zeno?” It was time to bring that subject up again.
“Not win. I don’t think we can. I mean I’m doing my best but- well, she’ll be racing and I’ve not beaten her yet. When she’s there, second’s the best anyone’s going to get. But I’ve run some test laps on the sim and I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve so it’s going to be a good race. The weather’s going to be good and these came in today.” The last part came out in a rush. When Zeno talked about racing, his voice took on an earnest enthusiasm that made him sound immature. He had fished from his pocket an envelope full of tickets for the race. “We’ve got seats on the bridge turn! They’re limited to team members and their guests but there’s so few I didn’t think we’d get them, but we did. So you’ll see me at the best part of the race!”
“See you lose?” Sara sounded dubious. “I think you said those in the wrong order.” Xan burst out laughing at the dryness of her tone.
“She’s got a point, Zeno.”
“I’m just being realistic here. Even the other racers admit she’s the best on the field at the moment. I’m not worried about the course, I’m worried about her.”
“Calm down, kid. I was joking. It’s going to be fun.”