‘Haunted by a Rock Band’ – Short story I read at the Irish Writer’s Centre, 2012

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{Update: This story was shortlisted in the RTÉ Radio Short Story Competition in memory of Francis McManus. The story was read aloud by Pat Kinevane (a well known Irish actor who hails from Cork) and was broadcast on RTÉ Radio on Wednesday the 27th June. You can listen to it here!}

I had a dream a long time ago and it stayed it with me. It was about a band I really loved. And they’d all died tragically (in the dream) and became my friends in ghostly form! It was great. Inevitably, the dream stayed with me.  And I’ve been meaning to put it on paper for many years. I only got around to it in recent months. I sent it for consideration for a Lonely Voices night at the Irish Writer’s Centre. Whoopee doo, they said “Come on in and give it a read.” And I did. The character in the story is a teenager, I loved delving into the remnants of my own teen psyche and language. It’s been a really satisfying story to write, one that’s been rattling in my head for a while. I kind of wish the story was true in many ways. Jack Harte who was the selecting judge said of the story:

“Contemporary in subject matter, in language, and in tone, this story about a young man’s infatuation with a rock band is totally credible, totally convincing. The dysfunctional band is such an authentic representation of the wannabe rock musicians that I Googled to be sure they weren’t an actual band.” Cheers Jack.

Haunted by a Rock Band

I can’t stop listening, can’t stop loving this band. I’m spring-loaded. I want to dance like a freak. Ask every hot girl in my school on a date. Buy everyone a drink. Throw a brick through that fucker Nathan’s window. I feel more alive, everything is more colourful, seductive. I drum my fingers on every surface. I lie in bed, tapping my feet against the wooden frame. I look better, sleep better when I listen to this band. When I’m not listening, their songs are on replay inside my head. The Enigmatic Fleas had to have been created just for me. I am without a doubt their biggest fan ever. Best thing that ever happened to me. Having a family, well most people do. That doesn’t really happen to you. But this band. Well. If you don’t get obsessed with something in this life, you’re better off dead.

My friend Dickweed gets excited about everything, too damn happy. He gets his kicks from the sun peeping through the window. That doesn’t quite cut it for me. I’m like, so what. It’s just the universe doing the same old thing. It’s because he comes from a religious family. You’re supposed to be grateful for every little thing you get. There’s something desperate about feeling obliged to give thanks when the toilet flushes. I’d rather wait it out until something really unbelievable happens to me before I use up all my gratefulness. I’m Donald. I’m eighteen years old and my name is Donald. Nothing I can do about it now. I suppose I could have it changed. My parents are common enough to think that it’s nice to name your kid after their mother or father or grandparents. It’s such a stupid tradition. I am nothing like my father (whose name is Donald) or my grandfather (also Donald). Why did they weigh me down with their baggage by calling me Donald too? Not as if Donald I and Donald II achieved anything of real worth in their lifetimes. And I doubt either of them is going to do anything special anytime soon.

When Dickweed and me were 16, we used to go to a pool hall on a Saturday. We ordered Cokes and nobody checked us for ID. Back then, I wondered what the point of anything was. Asking people to call me ‘Donny’ at school had not caught on. I had no money, no girlfriend. The men in the pool hall would drop their change on the ground and fall asleep at the bar. My parents thought I was at the library, reading Asterix comics. Dickweed and I were too old for Asterix. So we played bad pool and listened to snorting, hawking men talk about football, bar maids. One day, a shiny machine appeared in the pool hall, hooked up on the wall. A jukebox. I threw my head, asked Dickweed to pick something out.

“Choose a letter of the alphabet.”

I scratched my head. “Let’s go with E.”

The sound of thrashing, twanging guitar filled the pool hall. Holy shit. What was this? I felt like the roof would raise off and we could stand on the rafters and shout at the whole town. I felt like living was good, wild. Like I could change my name, my parents, my life. I walked to the juke box. The Enigmatic Fleas album cover was in there. These four guys and a girl. The lead singer sounded like Jim Morrison. He was holding his head high, sucking his cheeks in. The other three guys were lolling against a staircase. The girl had her elbow resting on the lead singers shoulder. Shadows under their eyes. Torn black clothes and big boots. Messy hair and wry smiles. I stared for a while. Then I looked at the grubby pool stick in my hand, left it back on the table. Dickweed was probably praying for me. “Dear God, please save poor Donald, he’s so lost.” The song ended. I walked outside. Dickweed followed me, perplexed. We got back out onto the street, into the light of day. “We’re never going in there ever again. That place is death.” It was time to find like minded folk. And buy the album.

I found it in an old music shop in the cruddy shopping centre that nobody went to anymore, except old people buying discounted curtains. The new shopping centre had pink lights in the elevators and slippy, shiny floors. I hated that it had no character. In the older place, there was a run-down music shop tucked inside the entrance, behind a decaying palm tree. I went in and asked if they had the Enigmatic Fleas album. The old guy scratched his ass and then mooched around the shop. “Hnh, I don’t really know. My daughter stocks the store for me. You’re welcome to have a look.” Weren’t the Enigmatic Fleas his biggest seller? All the kids listening to Enigmatic Fleas? There was one copy of the album. Now it was all mine.

As I listened, I couldn’t recall feeling so good. Ballad of a Bad Ass. Tears of a Prawn. Stained Teeth. Call Someone Who Cares. I leapt off the bed and stood in front of the full length mirror. My brain was tingling and hot. I was transported, exhilarated. My ideas, my thoughts disassembled and I forged new ones at a thousand miles a second. Better ideas, better thoughts. I could do anything! Write books, travel the world, go into space, love the most beautiful woman in the world, make movies, build a house with my bare hands, lead a country, start a revolution. I threw open the curtains, pressed my forehead against the cool window. I replayed the album until 1.30am, Donald II bammed on my bedroom door. I switched off the sound and stared at the album cover again. Signed to Jagged Records. Lyrics by S. Montague and R. Isling. No website. No acknowledgements.

I tried to find fans of the Fleas. There had to be plenty. And I was bound to have a lot in common with them. In the newsagents, I scoured music magazines for references to the Enigmatic Fleas. There were only vague mentions, sporadic gig dates. No album reviews. I asked around at school. Shrugs all round. “Never heard of them.” They had a ‘niche’ audience which amounted to me. Benny Jordan was the school’s biggest music nut, always had earphones dangling from his ears. He walked around clicking his fingers and bumping into things. “The Enigmatic Fleas. Sam Montague lead vocals, Raina Isling vocals and keyboard, Jake and Theo McTigue both on guitar and Ben Gilson on drums. They’re very creative, really experimental. They’ll be big. I hear they’re lazy though. Fights, arguments. Sam and Raina are on again, off again. Almost broke up after album two, Theo went into rehab and Ben did a couple of weeks with another band. One to follow.” Album two? I had to have it. Benny popped his earphones back in and swayed down the corridor, almost colliding with a teacher. I printed off some posters. “The Enigmatic Fleas Fan Club. Meet after school on Thursday in front of the science lab. Let’s see where this takes us!” I pinned them outside the toilets, at the lockers. Thursday evening came. Dickweed was there, for moral support he said. Nobody else showed.

Last year, the Enigmatic Fleas came to a town forty miles away, on September 20th. I took Donald II’s car and picked up Dickweed. I’d printed my own t-shirt. Dickweed rolled his eyes when I handed him one too. He refused to put it on. “I’m heading over early. If we wait someplace near the back entrance, we might see them arriving and get autographs. They’ll probably be mobbed though.” Dickweed shrugged, I laughed. We walked towards the entrance. There were a couple of smokers and a short queue. I nodded at them. My t-shirt got a few glances. I stood next to people and eavesdropped.

“Sam and Raina broke up. Again.”

“Those two. Theo was about to quit last time I saw them live. He’s been hittin’ the bottle pretty bad.”

“The Fleas need to get their shit together if they want to make it.”

A beat up green van pulled into the alley way next to the club. I half walked, half ran to the alley. My heart in my mouth. I stood at the end of the alley, gazing as the band hopped out of their van. Raina slid open the side door and stepped back. The four guys lurched forward and started unloading their gear. Sam glanced my way. I slowly raised my hand, mouthing “Hi”.

“You want to help?” he said gruffly.

I swallowed and walked toward the van. I was nervous as hell. These were my idols, the freaking Fleas! I pulled a box of leads out of the van, then a couple of mic stands and set them against the wall. My hands were shaking. Sam smelled sweaty, exuded arrogance. I wanted to be him. Raina was leaning against the passenger door, smoking a cigarette. Theo and Jake looked more alike in person.

“You’re a fucking idiot Theo. We didn’t know if you were going to show up!”

Theo didn’t respond.

“I like your t shirt! Where’d you get that?” said Raina. I gulped and turned to face her. Her eyes were cobalt blue and were rimmed with black eye pencil. She blew smoke in my direction.

“I made it.”

“Sam, we need some fan shirts to sell at gigs. Pay for the petrol home.” she said airily.

Ben leapt back inside the van and crouched down, started playing drums in the back. Jake and Theo had gone inside the club. It was time for me to go. “D’you want an autograph?” said Sam. Raina kissed my cheek with her crimson smeared lips. Oh God. I said thanks and then practically stumbled back onto the street. Fuck me! The forgotten camera in my pocket didn’t matter. The moment had been just perfectly surreal enough to remember forever.

Dickweed was nonplussed. He was mad I’d left him standing around in the cold by himself. He was a needy guy. About two hundred people showed up for the gig. I wriggled as close to the stage as I could get. The crowd around me were clutching onto plastic cups of beer. But I didn’t need anything. The stage lights came on. The Fleas walked on stage. I hollered and whooped until my throat hurt, I was almost hoarse by the time they started playing. The people around me edged away slightly. Whatever I’d felt listening to the albums was magnified. I was soaring, free. I saw Sam look at me and laugh heartily. I couldn’t help myself. I was like one of those kids in Lourdes or something. They were like Gods to me. I swear I nearly cried. Looking back, it’s kind of embarrassing. But it’s good to know how happy you can be, how high to set the barometer. I could compare everything to that – being in love, having a kid, winning the lottery. I hugged Dickweed at the end of the show. He wasn’t the worst.

When you get that high, you want to experience it again. On repeat, for a lifetime. Maybe they know now what they did for me. They crashed on their journey home. Sam, Raina, Theo and Ben all died in the van. Jake‘s life support machine was switched off after 2 days. After the tragedy, the whole thing took off. Album sales, a documentary, a live recording. People went crazy for them. Isn’t the world a messed up place? Only the good die young. Takes your breath away, doesn’t it. But I’m still here. The music, the feeling. Still here. Enigmatic Fleas ‘til I die. You should give them a listen.

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One comment

  1. Wow!!! I laughed my ass of reading this! Amazing stuff. I want more! The best stories are always the ones that you laugh out loud while reading ( you may look crazy to passers by but who cares!). Cannot wait for the book Ms Macken – you are a legend 🙂
    C. Brogan

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