Chapter 1: 12 days before I die
The air in the senior common room is humid and thick with anticipation. I turn to look at Ada and my guitar knocks into my mic stand again, releasing a pop and a thud through the PA speakers. Even with her cut-down drum kit and using the smaller guitar amplifiers, the makeshift stage is only just big enough for the three of us, with Mia perched right at the front.
It was Mia’s idea to play in front of year 11, and her natural persuasiveness has drawn a small crowd of almost twenty people, making this our biggest ever public performance. I steal a glance at the gathered faces.
Katherine and Matt, the school’s alpha couple, are at the front, publicly draped over one another as if they are the main attraction. Katherine’s very presence tightens the knot in my stomach. Smirks and the occasional quip create an atmosphere of amused cynicism, like we’ve opened ourselves up for criticism and they’re not planning to hold back.
I lower my head, focusing on my guitar strings. I shouldn’t be here. Who am I to think I can do this? Mia has already made it clear that she has no more patience for my mistakes. If I can’t keep it together and get through these songs, then she’ll flip out on me for sure. She’s invested everything into this band.
I shuffle back from the front of the stage. My hands are wet with sweat. I hold so tight to my plectrum for fear of dropping it that it slips from my clamped fingers and onto the floor. My vision blurs with the shot of adrenaline and for a moment I can’t see it. A bead of perspiration drips from my forehead as I lean down to retrieve the little red plastic triangle, knocking my guitar on Ada’s cymbal and drawing a scowl from Mia.
I straighten, take a deep breath and try to settle. The anxiety I’m feeling is not a rising panic, not the beginnings of an attack – it is merely the expected and normal adrenaline response to the situation, on stage in front of all these people. It will pass, and I will do this right. People will see.
Mia glances at me and the tangles in my head tighten. ‘Come on – get on with it, start the song!’ I urge under my breath. I look at Ada and she seems to read my thoughts, nodding her agreement and immediately counting us in with four clicks of her drum sticks. I take in a deep breath on the third click and, at last, I let loose.
I hammer on the strings of my guitar, channelling the built-up adrenaline through my hands. Mia says something into the mic – an introduction – that I don’t catch, and then she joins in, her bass guitar punctuating the rhythm. Her smooth voice slices through the room, as cool as ice. I spit backing vocals through gritted teeth. The clean, electric sound of my guitar explodes from the speaker system and bounces around the walls of the common room. In less than a minute, my head is clear and I’m flying. I soar above the school, looking down at the Lego block buildings and tiny people.
Ada pounds on the drums, mouthing the rhythm and flinging her sweat-dampened blonde hair around as she crashes out the beat. Mia is calm, static in comparison. The natural, rich tone of her vocals speaks for itself. When we play and click together like this, the music is everything.
As the last chord rings out, I pluck up the courage to look up. Danny is at the back of the room, nodding his head in appreciation. His gives me a half-smile and I look away, back to my guitar strings, my comfort zone.
We’re halfway through the third song and I’m just starting to relax when things start to go wrong.
The first two songs went down well. People actually clapped after the second one. The third is our least rehearsed. But, still, it should be a walk in the park.
The problem is, it’s that third song that requires the least of me. No backing vocals, and little more than a three-chord acoustic sequence on the guitar. There’s space for my mind to wander. At the mid-section, Ada’s drums back off and I switch to finger-picking as Mia’s vocals take centre stage.
There’s a slight wobble in my legs and the adrenaline spikes again. I’m going to lose my balance, make a fool of myself on this stage in front of these people. The feeling grows, and the music is not enough to pull me back down to earth. My fingers tingle and begin to numb. I fumble the picking of the strings. Mia is looking at me, I can feel it. I avoid her glance.
Breathe. In for three… out for five.
I drop my plectrum but continue as best I can. Everyone is looking at me. They all know I’m losing it. My hands shake and the strings become impossible to distinguish from one another. The fumbled notes ring loud through the speakers. Mia stops and I look at her. A mix of embarrassment and anger is etched onto her face. I look to Ada for rescue. She frowns.
‘Sorry,’ I say, in little more than a whisper. The room closes in and it’s like I slowly sink into a vat of treacle. It fills my ears. The background noise fades. Katherine laughs and says something to Matt that I can’t decipher.
Why did I think I could do this?
My head spins and my stomach churns. I know this feeling, and I can’t stop it now. There is only one way this ever ends.
I search the room for Danny. His head bobs above the crowd but I can’t see his face.
The head spin accelerates and I pull at my guitar strap to release myself. I manage to drag it over my head and drop the guitar to the floor as I stumble.
Keeping my balance with the help of the mic stand. Past Ada lies the exit. It seems so far away but I stagger towards it with a singular focus. Ada says something as I brush past her and fall through the door and into the back room. The door closes behind me and the noise abates as I slide helplessly onto a chair and lean over, my head between my knees, sweat dripping from my forehead and my pulse thumping in my ears. I am useless. Why can’t I get a hold on these panic attacks? In front of everyone. I feel sick.
The door flings open and Mia piles into the back room. Her mouth is open but no sound emerges, just a fish gulping for air. Ada slips into the room, closing the door behind her. ‘What happened?’ she asks, looking at me.
I shrug. ‘I’m sorry,’ I croak, my throat sore. My mouth has been sucked of all moisture.
‘Sorry?’ Mia parrots back at me, her voice rising. ‘This was supposed to be our way to get people into us. The influential ones. Katherine was there!’
I shake my head, the panic now subsiding and leaving me with the shivers.
Ada crouches next to me, sympathy in her eyes. ‘Panic attack?’
I nod. ‘Sorry,’ I say again.
Ada is about to speak, but Mia interrupts. ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it, Charley. Not now. Not at this stage. We have a few weeks until the deadline for demo tapes, and then it’s straight into the auditions, and we are nowhere. What if this happens when it really matters?’ She sits down on a table and nods for Ada to join her. They look like twins with their long, straightened hair and customised school uniforms: skirts hitched up above the knee. I shiver again. My top is damp from the full-on sweat I got with the panic attack. The atmosphere is heavy. I still feel sick.
‘The first song was weak,’ Mia says, pulling her hair around her neck and over one shoulder like a scarf, stroking it gently.
‘It wasn’t that bad…’ Ada says.
‘It was shit. We should write another one or finish off the one Charley started.’ She nods towards me but keeps her eyes trained on Ada.
There’s a knock on the door and it opens a crack. Danny’s face appears and I straighten, aching for him to come in.
‘Piss off!’ Mia shouts.
Danny hesitates, glancing at me for confirmation. I give him a gentle nod that tells him I’ll catch up with him later and he slides back from view, the door closing behind him.
‘What is it with him?’ Mia says, scowling at me.
‘He’s…’ I start, but my throat is too dry and the words break up. Mia huffs and waves away my noises. She looks past me, as if by allowing her eyes to rest on me she’d be admitting some level of compassion. My thought tangles tighten.
‘This has got to be right if we want to get through to the audition,’ Mia says.
Why has she become so cold towards me? What have I done wrong? If Mia casts me out again, the other girls will follow, and I’ll be on my own like before. I look at the door to the common room, imagining all the students muttering about how fucked up I am. Katherine would be laughing with Matt. I’ll never be able to get myself on stage without flipping out.
Ada looks at me. ‘Can you finish off writing the new song?’ Her tone is soft.
I start to reply but Mia dismisses me again with a wave of her hand. She jumps off the table and makes for the door, saying something about having to see Mrs Franks. ‘Get it finished,’ she says, ‘and get it together, Charley, or we’ll find someone else.’ She links arms with Ada and drags her out the door with her.
I am alone.
I stay a while.
My anxiety lingers at a level four out of ten from its earlier peak at about eight. At level four it’s manageable.
Chapter 2: 11 days before I die
Dad pokes his head around my door on his way to bed. He whispers goodnight. After a moment he comes in and flops down on the bed next to me like he often does.
‘Long day? Out saving the world again?’ I ask, sleepily hoping for one of his make-believe stories, something to take me away and into a fantasy for a few minutes.
‘Tough one today,’ he says. ‘I flew to Greenland.’ I smile into the darkness and lean into him as he shuffles around at my side, getting comfortable on his back. ‘We got a tip-off on a real bad’n we’ve been after for a while, so it was a rush job to get me over there. I used the PM’s private jet.’
‘Fancy,’ I say, smiling again, my eyes closing and head resting on his shoulder. I only catch snippets of the rest of the story; disconnected feats of incredible bravery – a crash-landing on an ice lake, an avalanche, arm-to-arm combat with a polar bear.
* * *
I wake from dreams of polar bears patrolling the foot of Butser Hill beneath my window, their dirty white fur ghosting through the mist, stalking, hunting, bloody-mouthed and insatiable.
The grey of the morning seeps into my room. I roll over and pull back the curtains. Outside is the familiar east slope of Butser Hill, where I know every foot-hole, every hidden drop. If you looked from above, you’d see the summit as a point on a line almost exactly halfway between my house and my school, on the outskirts of our unremarkable market town of Linford.
I need to burn some calories. I message Danny, telling him I’m heading out for a run. Usual route. I’ll take the steep path up the east slope. He’ll take the longer, steadier climb to the top. I get no reply. I know he’ll be scrabbling around to get ready and out of the house. He’s faster than me but I’m nearer the hill, so if I don’t waste too much time I can beat him. It’s always a competition with Danny.
I crouch on the landing to tie the laces of my running shoes. The noise of Lucas’s online gaming seeps from his room, all machine guns and shouting. I smile at the image of him at his console, synced up with his friends, headset on, consuming sugar and storming the battlefields.
I pause in the kitchen to roll a cigarette from Mum’s tobacco, my ears open and tuned to any approaching footsteps. I stuff the roll-up and Mum’s lighter into my sock just as she comes into the room, pushing her hair back with her glasses and perching them on top of her head. She smiles, scanning my face. She’s worried about me. Always worried. Every day, questions, probing, monitoring.
She puts the kettle on. ‘Breakfast?’
‘Later,’ I say.
Her words make me prickle. I tell her I’m fine and head for the door, the fleeting sense of guilt for fobbing her off pushed away by competing thought tangles. She needs me to be OK. She’s still talking as I step outside. I look up towards the hill and draw a deep lungful of fresh air. Mist rises like steam off the fields. It looks kind of magical. I start to run.
I keep a steady pace, pushing through the pain when I hit the steeper section of the hill: the timing of my strides, the uniformity, driving forward like a metronome. The summit comes into view and the going is good, energy levels high. Danny will struggle to keep pace with me today. At the top I catch my breath and take in the view of the old oak that stands alone in the field in the middle distance, like a Zen Master, choreographing the twisting shadows across the field.
I scrabble down the west slope, legs faster than the rest of me. Ahead, the mist hangs around the entrance to the woods. No sign of Danny. I feel alone. A darkness drifts over me and a little fear nags at my defences, trying to open me up. Mia is scratching around inside my head now, wrapping herself around my thoughts. I try to force her out by grasping at old memories, from when things were good, when our music connected us and nothing could touch us. A lifetime ago.
I have thought tangles. That’s what I call them. Things can pop into my head and wrap themselves around my real thoughts and mess them all up. They suggest things and start me off on a spiral that can be impossible to derail. It either ends in a full on spin-out, or it fizzles for some reason I can’t figure. I’m used to it, though. It’s part of me. I have no real memory of a time before the thought tangles, so it’s not as if I know any different. It’s my thing, my cross to bear, or whatever. Me and my head are on different teams. Problem is, my head rarely takes it easy on me – and I’m tired.
The moment I enter the woods the air again feels fresh, oxygenated, cold around my ears and neck. The trees stand composed.
I get to my usual halfway spot, deep into the woods. Still no Danny. I rest up against a tree. As I light my saggy roll-up he appears next to me, breathing heavily, his olive-tan skin shimmering with perspiration, shaggy hair sticking to his forehead. I grin up at him. ‘You’re getting slow, Danny.’
‘You gave me no fizzin’ notice,’ he blurts between gasps for air, his Sheffield accent thicker than usual.
‘Ten minutes. That’s the deal.’
‘Not when I get the message in the middle of a dump,’ he says.
I laugh and exhale simultaneously, choking on the smoke. I double up coughing and hand Danny the rest of the roll-up. He looks pleased with himself and takes a long drag while I regain some composure. I catch him giving me a sideways glance and I can tell he’s debating whether to bring up the mess I made of the gig in the common room. I stay quiet.
‘I thought it went well…’ he says, looking away and stifling a laugh. Anger at his mocking flares inside me for a split second before fizzling to join in his amusement. We laugh.
‘Yeah, top performance,’ I say, shivering at the thought of the close-call with a panic attack. ‘It might not have looked it, but that was a success for me. I managed to keep a hold on it for long enough to at least make it out back without passing out.’
He hands me the cigarette. I look at it for a moment, then push away the thought of contamination. If I can’t share a cigarette with Danny, then what’s the point?
‘How are you feeling now?’ he says.
‘Still up there at a level four. I can’t seem to shake it off.’
He puts a hand on my arm and my muscles tense for a moment, then I relax. He pulls away. ‘Up to the point you freaked,’ he says, ‘it was good. Seriously. I’ve not heard you that tight before.’
‘Ada was on top form,’ I say, smiling at the thought of her pounding the drums: all arms, hair and sweat. ‘And Mia was…well, you heard her. That girl can sing.’
Danny looks sideways at me. ‘You’ve got the voice too.’
‘I couldn’t do what Mia does, couldn’t deal with that level of scrutiny. I can’t even keep it together at the back of the stage.’
Danny nods, kicking out at the leaves at his feet. ‘I’d like to hear you sing, you know, not just backing vocals. Something you’ve written.’
I choose not to respond. I’ve only known Danny for a few weeks, since he only recently joined from a different school up north. We don’t see much of each other at school. We only ever talk when we’re on a run together, but there’s something about him that puts me at ease more than anyone else. He gets my connection with the music. He can see it. I can tell. ‘Mia was in a right mood afterwards,’ I say.
‘I saw her,’ Danny says.
‘She did that thing where she pulls her hair over her shoulder like a scarf and strokes it, like that James Bond villain with the cat.’ I force a smile for Danny. I’m drifting from Mia’s favour. It’s obvious. She usually tolerates me, probably for the band, but it was different this time. She wouldn’t even look at me.
‘The evil mastermind. Sounds about right,’ Danny says. ‘I hear that she’s entered the Arena band competition.’ He exhales a plume of smoke.
I shift my position against the tree to ease the numbness in my shoulder. ‘Already? She told you that?’
‘Ada put something on Insta last night. Did you not see it?’
I shake my head. ‘They’ve entered without me?’
He shrugs. ‘Don’t see how they can do it without you.’
Mia is freezing me out, and Ada’s going along with it. I wouldn’t put it past Mia to find someone else for the guitar, even if it meant they weren’t as good as a band. ‘Maybe it’s for the best,’ I say.
Danny snorts. ‘Defeatist.’
The Arena competition is the band competition: the pinnacle of the unsigned showcases outside of London, and the only redeeming feature of our dead-end town. It’s run every year by the London Academy, my target college for the singer-songwriter course. The finalists get to play on stage at the summer’s Arena gig, supporting some A-list band with a capacity audience. ‘I’m kidding myself anyway. I can’t even play the year eleven common room. I’m never getting on a stage in front of thousands.’
‘That competition comes with added incentives, though,’ Danny says, giving me a sideways glance.
‘She’d love to win that, with a place at the Academy up for grabs,’ I say, looking up into the trees. A pair of starlings shout to each other across the clearing from their perches above our heads. I hand the cigarette back to Danny.
‘Not just one place…’ Danny pauses as he takes a drag. ‘A place for each band member, irrespective of your exam results.’
‘How do you know so much about it?’
‘Used to follow it when I was up in Sheffield. Renowned institution, the Academy.’ Danny smiles. He knows I have my heart set on a place there, and the Arena gig has always been a possible route in, if a long shot. Getting through to the auditions is tough enough, and it’s a lottery from there. Even if I did get through with Mia and Ada, I’m not convinced I’d ever make it on stage without ending up in a shivering mess of a panic attack. Maybe they’ve done me a favour – made the decision for me.
I fold my arms against the cool air on my sweat-dampened body. ‘I’ll just have to take my chances with the traditional application route.’
‘Speak to Mia.’
I shake my head. ‘I think she’d rather I were dead in a ditch right now.’
‘They need you. You’re the soul of that band,’ he says with a serious tone.
I think of the Martin D18 guitar I got for my sixteenth birthday. My most precious possession, with tones that blend so well with my voice. ‘She just needs someone she can manipulate to help make her shine,’ I say. ‘In any case, that competition is the sheer definition of long shot. Do you know how many bands enter that thing?’
‘From all over,’ Danny says. ‘Hundreds of demo entries. Maybe thousands?’
We are quiet for a minute. The breeze from the south brings the cabbage-like scent of the rapeseed fields that I always connect with the beginning of the summer. I think of the striking, homogenous yellow you see from the perimeter at the south end of the woods. Danny and I rarely get that far, preferring to stop and talk here before heading back.
‘Right, tosser.’ He leans into an exaggerated lunge, limbering up. ‘Back via the summit again, or around the bottom?’
‘You think I’m running anywhere with you looking like that?’ I smile as Danny pulls a ridiculous geek-face and hikes up his running shorts, jogging on the spot.
‘Your shoelace is undone,’ I say, crouching to help him. ‘Let’s go the flat route back, see if you can keep up with me.’
Danny laughs. ‘Yeah, you’re funny, Charley.’
I finish tying his laces together and spring up and away, heading for the path out of the woods. I look back over my shoulder. He jerks after me and stumbles forward, face-first into the carpet of leaves. I stop and watch as he scuffles, sits up and swings his legs in front of him. He gives me one of his full-on grins, a rare smile on both sides of his face. I turn and run.
By the time I hit the foot of Butser Hill I’m sprinting. I slam into my back door and double over, gulping for air. Danny reaches me a few seconds later. Another hundred metres and he’d have caught me for sure.
‘Good work, Danny,’ I say when I catch my breath.
‘You got me this time,’ he says, between gasps for air.
I give him a smile. ‘Later, then?’
‘Later,’ he says as he walks away, backwards.
He turns and heads towards the foot of Butser Hill, where he’ll take the path round to the Maudsley Estate. His mum and little sister will be waiting for him.
‘Hey!’ I shout after him. ‘Thanks.’
‘What for?’ he shouts back.
‘I don’t know…’ What am I thanking him for? For just being there? Someone to talk to who doesn’t judge? I don’t know.
‘Any time, Charley,’ he says, with a half-smile.
The kitchen is quiet when I push through the back door. There are pancakes on the side, and the sweet smell of maple syrup in the air. I don’t feel like I’ve burned any calories. I return Mum’s lighter to the table and scrape the pancakes into the bin, pushing them down, out of sight.