UKArchive ID: 36574

Equal Billing
by sirat
Originally published on May 30, 2016 in Fiction        

Inspired by Falling Out of Love from Mary Gauthier’s 2007 album ‘Mercy Now’.

At last the applause died down. She wondered if she would be milking it if she did a third encore. Everybody said that you should leave them wanting more and she knew they were right. One more bow. One more gesture toward the pianist. One more enthusiastic applause from herself for that smiling young man. Yes, that was enough. Never try to milk it.
     She walked slowly but confidently back to the wings, saw him stand and bow, soak up his own applause and start to follow. It was over now. It had been good.
     He winked when he got to her. The applause was still too loud for them to talk over it. He kissed her on the cheek. Still beaming, he took her hand and led her down to the back-stage corridor.
     ‘Best show of the tour, Monica,’ he told her, still needing to raise his voice to make himself heard.
     She waited a moment before she replied so that she wouldn’t need to shout. ‘Thanks Ray. You did a great job. I really appreciate it. You were terrific too. We’re good together, aren’t we? What do you say we go and get a drink?’
     He didn’t need to reply. It was their ritual after every show. It would take no more than fifteen minutes to change out of the sparkly dress that she knew was too young for her, wipe the stage makeup from her face, replace it with her basic civilian one, grab her purse and her coat and follow him to the stage door.
     One of the stage hands shouted to her as she passed by: ‘Great show Miss Sterling!’ She thanked him.
     He was right, damn it! That had been a great show. They had laughed. A few of them had cried. There hadn’t been a sound in the theatre while she was singing. She could feel their adulation like a two-bar electric fire right in front of her face. Enjoy it, she told herself. Wallow in this. This isn’t something that goes on for ever. These are the moments you have to remember when you’re old and nobody cares any longer. She studied her face in the merciless dressing room mirror. The lines and imperfections seemed to stand out like a NASA photograph of the surface of the moon. The clock was ticking.
     She hurried off to find Ray, glanced at her phone – three missed calls, but she could check those later. Nothing from Steve, but he’d come to his senses before long. They’d had their ups and downs right from the start and he always crawled back in the end. Mustn’t keep that sweet young man waiting.

It was cold outside and puddles from the recent rain threw the glare of the street lights into their faces. The nearest bar was down-market with an irritating recording of third-rate jazz playing in the background and a predominantly older male clientele, but Monica was on too much of a high to care. At least it was unlikely she would be recognised here, they would have peace.
     There was a corner table for two vacant, as far from the piped music as it was possible to get. Ray offered to buy the drinks but she put a hand on his shoulder and insisted.     
     ‘They pay me more than you, Ray. No reason why they should but they do. So I get the drinks. Okay?’ He shrugged and sat down.
     For a few minutes they sipped their beers and didn’t say anything. After the intensity of the two-hour concert they both needed to unwind. It occurred to Monica that Steve never seemed to understand this. Only a fellow performer can really understand what a person needs after a show, how it feels. It was good that she and Ray knew each other well enough that they didn’t have to talk.
     ‘You’re too good to go around with me,’ Monica said at last. ‘You’re ready to go solo.’
     ‘You’re kidding me.’
     ‘I’m telling you the truth. You got at least as much applause for your two songs tonight as I got for any of mine. I hope you won’t though. Not just yet. But I think we should insist on equal billing at least.’
     ‘You’re just being kind.’
     ‘If you’ll pardon the cliché, I didn’t get where I am right now by being kind. You don’t need to cling on to an old woman on the way down. You’re young. You’ve got buckets of talent. Steve agrees. They love you and they love your songs. Grab your chances while you can. One more tour with me maybe, but equal billing. Then, it’s your turn. Don’t let me or anybody else hold you back. You don’t get a second chance in this industry.’
     He put his beer down and looked her straight in the eye for a few seconds without speaking. Even though she knew him so well it was a bit disconcerting.
     ‘I know you’re trying to be honest with me so I’m going to be honest with you. I was seventeen when I bought your first album. I’d just been dumped by my first girlfriend and I felt like a piece of shit. I went in for high drama back then and the first solution I thought of was topping myself. That was the kind of teenager I was. And I just might have been stupid enough to do it too. But when I listened to your songs I realised that other people felt the same way as me. Other people got dumped and it wasn’t the end of their lives. Your songs spoke to me and what they said was, it’s all right. It’s all right to feel miserable and life doesn’t end because a love affair does. Life knocks you down and when it does you have to get up again. Clichés maybe but you can only make a cliché out of something that’s true. And your songs said things about life that were true. They still do. All of them. More than that, they make it impossible to doubt those truths. They’re kind of important.’
     He took another sip of his drink.
     ‘And now, I’ve got to work with the person who wrote those songs. And quite frankly, that matters more to me than anything that’s got to do with this industry or my so-called career. So please, don’t talk about taking that away from me. Ever. Please. Okay?’
     Monica found herself choking up. Clichés, of course. All clichés. So why did it make her feel like this?
     She grabbed her purse and stood up. ‘I’ve got to go to the bathroom,’ she said under her breath.

She washed and dried her hands. She couldn’t hear the bad jazz in here, it was silent and peaceful. She paused and reached automatically for her phone. A recent text. Steve! She pressed ‘read’.
     As she scanned the words a darkness spread over her countenance. She read the message a second time and froze for a moment before setting the device down gently by the side of the sink. Then she stooped and was violently ill.

Walking back to their table she glanced down at her coat to reassure herself that the small splash of vomit had been thoroughly removed. Ray looked concerned. ‘You were a long time. Is everything all right?’
     She didn’t need to answer. He stood up and took her hand. ‘Come on. Let’s get out of here.’
     She managed to control herself until they were outside, then collapsed into his embrace.
     ‘Remind me,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘What did I say in those songs?’

© sirat (sirat on OLD UKA)

UKArchive ID: 36574
Archived comments for Equal Billing

Mikeverdi on 30-05-2016
Equal Billing
And there you are, showing us how it should be done. These are the things that have been missing from the site. This is how we learn. Thanks David.


Author’s Reply:
Thanks Mike. Very kind of you.


sirat on 07-06-2016
Equal Billing
Many thanks to whoever nominated this piece for the Anthology.

Author’s Reply:

Pronto on 07-06-2016
Equal Billing
Well worthy of a nomination. A beautifully constructed piece that held the attention riveted without gimmicks, whistles or bells. 🙂

Author’s Reply:
Thanks Pronto. Much appreciated.