Chapter 1

All the Rage
Chapter 1

Kristian Savage scanned the sweaty New Year’s Eve audience – as intently as he feasibly could whilst joggling about, tooting The Muppet Show theme tune on a trumpet. 

Instinct, rather than vanity, told Chantal that he was looking for her.

Any second now, those cheeky blue eyes would shine upon her like spotlights.  Then he would indulge her with one of those secret grins that sent the friends alongside her into a Mexican wave of nudges and sniggers.

Chantal, for her part, was gazing guppy fashion at the stage, tongue prettily poised mid-lick in the rim of her Archers Aqua bottle.  By any other girl’s standards, it was a mildly suggestive pose – but it registered as ‘brassy’ on the Chantal Brown scale of flirtation.  She put that down to the alcohol, and the general festive vibes.  She was daring, willing, Kristian to look – yet knew that as soon as he did, she would turn hastily away, her face as pink as her drink.  Like a coy infant.

Or in this case a coy twenty-year-old secretary.

Not, in other words, the kind of sleek babe capable of snaring a man like Kristian Savage.

The sexy beast, she thought with rancorous lust as, true to form, he grinned, she averted her eyes, and Jess and Lindsey nudged her and one other.

Chantal’s insides were trampolining.  No man ought, by rights, to look tasty in a top hat, stripy leggings and a ringmaster’s jacket, but Kristian had the aplomb and humour to carry it off.  To put it another way, he didn’t give a shit.  None of his band did.  Colonel K’s image was the very embodiment of tongue-in-cheek.

Beneath the wacky camouflage, though, lay five passionate and extremely adroit musicians.  Little wonder they were fast becoming one of the most bookable party bands on the Black Country circuit.

Rather than be a laughing stock himself, in fact, Chantal bet wretchedly that Kris was laughing at her.  That had to be the reason his eyes sought her at every gig.  Yes, it probably fed his pop star ego to observe their effect on the dumpy little blonde who was Colonel K’s most devoted fan.

Kristian plonked aside the trumpet and started frantically tra-la-la-ing as the Muppet music segued into The Banana Splits.  The crowd erupted.  The atmosphere tonight was rapturous.

It was this quintet’s trademark to open their set with a medley of children’s TV themes.  They entered the stage to Dangermouse – having taken their name from a character in that 1980s cartoon – then Rainbow would follow, then Muppets, then Banana Splits.

This idea had been Kristian’s own and, even if he did say so himself, it was a pretty inspired one.  The other lads had taken considerable convincing, though.

‘It’s the perfect intro for us,’ he’d insisted, ‘it’ll set the tone of the show and lift everyone’s spirits.  People love being transported back to their childhood.  We’ll get them on our side straight away.’

He was right.  Just as he’d been right to suggest that surreal costumes might make a fantastic trademark.  No crowd yet had not responded to the nostalgia and lunacy of it all.

******

Chantal herself had not been the same since her first Colonel K gig six months ago, in this very room at Dilloway Social Club.  It was Fate, she decided, that had made her and her two cousins, at a loose end one Saturday night, forsake their usual bowling alley and cinema haunts, and buy spur-of-the-moment tickets for this group they’d never heard of.

The club – its name was locally abbreviated to ‘the Dill’ – was well liked by pensioners, young families sharing jumbo pork-scratching packets, and ladies who wore tiger-print blouses and too much make-up.  But one of the very few nightspots in the girls’  locale which didn’t have to be reached via a pricey taxi ride.  And the entertainment, to be fair, was usually pretty decent.

That June night, Colonel K had had nans and teenagers jigging boisterously between (or, in a few extreme cases, on) the tables.  It was literally impossible to stand still or not grin inanely in their presence.  Chantal wondered if the lads employed hypnosis techniques.  They certainly possessed the power to make feet move, seemingly of their own accord.  

The small industrial town of Willenhall had never seen anything like Kristian the sexy ringmaster; lanky, kilt-clad bassist Max Baggott; laid-back Jim Willetts, on rhythm guitar, combat gear and ponytail; shirtless drummer Jay Freeman who, with his six-pack and pornographically tight leopardskin trousers, was the stuff of orgasms; or pint-sized Elvis Bacon, inexplicably dressed as Austin Powers and thumping the daylights out of his keyboard.

They barely paused for breath amid their set list, which eclectically encompassed Madness, The Darkness and numbers from Jungle Book.

******

Chantal Brown fell in love that night.  Kristian mesmerised her.  Jay, being the more conventionally sexy, was most girls’ favourite – but then, all through life, Chantal’s tastes had rarely accorded with those of ‘most girls.’

‘There’ll be no man for me except him,’ she dramatically announced to Jess and Lindsey.  ‘I know he’s well out of my reach, but I don’t even care if I die a spinster.  I’d rather just gaze at him once a week for the rest of my life than get married to some boring welder or van driver.’

She meant it too.  She knew he was special.

It wasn’t just the poet-ish long hair, tattoos and gazelle physique (though they helped) but, as a keen singer herself, she was turned on hugely by talent and stage presence.  Kristian was born to go on stage – and what a voice he had!  He was nimbly versatile too: singing one minute, hooting a trumpet the next, then leaping into a bizarre kind of morris dance before humming an exuberant tune on the mouth organ.

Chantal’s fantasies (the cleaner ones, anyhow) involved them performing stunning duets to spellbound audiences.  This dream-duet Chantal possessed a sweet power which would complement Kristian’s husky, from-the-heart delivery.  The real Chantal imagined if she sang in front of him he’d scorn at the difference between a starstruck office girl who did the odd karaoke night and a full-time frontman who clocked up an average of four strenuous shows per week.

Chantal knew it was four because she knew Colonel K’s tour itinerary by heart.   It was Blu-Tacked over her bed and served as her social diary, for in truth she enjoyed few nights out that were not Colonel K-related.

Since that heady evening in June, she’d seen them sixteen times.  Whenever they played in Willenhall – which was her home town – or Wolverhampton, the city three miles west, she was there.  Chantal lived for those nights, when she would splurge her puny wages on gig tickets and lip-staining, vinegary wine in musty pubs.  It became her hobby.  She adored the cheesy and cheerful music Colonel K played, and found their eye-catching image fun – but of course her draw was Kristian himself. 

Her crush on him remained just the right side of obsession.  Jessica and Lindsey would remark, with rolled eyes, that she had ‘got it bad’ – little guessing the feebleness of their understatement.

Chantal had never imagined it physically possible to think about another human being continually – but he was there through every traffic jam; every sandwich; every bodily function.  She felt embarrassed and pathetic going about her secretary-ish business, while all the time picturing him doing terribly rock and roll things.

Too much of this visualising, though, hurt her.  It was masochistically easy to wonder who might be sharing Kristian’s bed on the nights when she yearned alone in hers.

Chantal disliked even knowing he had other admirers.  She wanted him to be her crush and hers alone.  The very knowledge that her feelings for Kris were not unique was a threat to her.  Her cousins thought her unworldly, with a frustrating defeatist outlook. – they were also convinced Kris reciprocated her feelings. 

‘He always makes the effort to say hi, and goes out of his way to get eye contact when he’s up there performing.’

‘Yeah!  Why don’t you talk to him?  Nothing too forward, just lead him into an opportunity to ask you out.’

Chantal was witheringly dismissive.  ‘I doubt he wants any such opportunity.  The eye contact is all to raise my hopes, lead me on, get his cheap kicks.’

In this she did her idol an injustice, but she was acting in self-preservation.  It terrified and thrilled her to picture Kris as a potential boyfriend.  It was true to say he had begun to recognise her and, of late, actually taken to acknowledging her existence.  But Chantal had always liked having her nice safe little crushes on pop stars; unattainable boys on posters, whom she would never meet.  She lived for singing and admired singers, but there was that distance there. 

She was not a risk-taker.  Pin-ups would never break her heart.

The trouble was, Kristian Savage wasn’t quite a pin-up.  He did not inhabit the pedestal to which she elevated him.  He might earn his living in music, but he was hardly a household name.  He was a Wolverhampton lad who lived with his mother, drove a rusting Datsun, and quite possibly went to the toilet occasionally.  He straddled the line between fantasy and reality.  When he talked, he ceased to be untouchable.  He became very, very touchable in fact, and this unnerved Chantal.

It was scary liking someone like him.  How on earth would a girlfriend of his be expected to conduct herself?  Fan him?  Feed him grapes?  Bow down and kiss his boat-sized feet?  Perform gymnastic groupie feats in bed, to keep him hot for her?

Oh, she couldn’t do it!  They were worlds apart.  She’d probably faint if she saw him naked.

The very thought made Chantal bury her scorching face into her pillow of a night.  She’d just have to go on pleasuring herself with her fingers.

The news, however, that Kris and his group were due back at the Dill on New Year’s Eve had actually emboldened Chantal.  It seemed like an omen.  The thirty-first of December was traditionally a night when secrets might be confided and indiscriminate kisses exchanged – then blamed on booze, if need be.  A few Archers down her neck might transform her into a brazen goddess.

Brazen enough, maybe, to put Jess’s seemingly illogical little theory to the test?

Oh, she had to risk it, she just had to – even if it meant being spurned so mortifyingly that she could never bring herself to see him again.  What was life, after all, without a little risk?  A girl had to progress beyond crushes at some point.

******

True to form, she scampered to the loos in the interval.

Daubing on fresh lipstick, Chantal cringed at the hairspray-smeared mirror, despising what she saw.

You wet bint, she thought.  So much for being a bloody goddess!  You’ve got to stop being half-hearted about this flirting lark.  In future, maintain his eye contact, make it plain you’re interested, instead of looking away like a timid little gerbil.  She tossed the lipstick into her handbag and twizzled before the mirror.  And for God’s sake pull your tummy in!  He’ll think you’re up the spout.  Though that really would be a miracle in the circumstances!

The physique of which Chantal was so self-critical was in fact stunningly curvy, and inadvertently displayed to advantage tonight.  She’d chosen this calf-length black dress for the colour’s supposed slimming quality, but it clung so close that she now felt hideously on show.

‘Bloody knockers,’ she griped, flattening the offending domes with her hands as though she could somehow squish them down into svelte A-cups.  Chantal knew girls who would die to be a 34DD, but the humungous bra size only made her feel ungainly and slutty.

In truth, she was the most elegant woman in the club (admittedly not a hard feat).  Her look made a nice understated change from the denim minis and micro boob tubes of the many fag-breathed heifers on the pull here tonight.  Such a sweet face too!  It was of a sweetness that could break hearts, framed so flatteringly by the loose blonde hair that she normally pinned into a demure French pleat for work.  Her lucid blue eyes and rosy, somewhat babyish lips lent her a vulnerable look.

Chantal had a great deal going for her; her trouble was she didn’t carry herself with the confidence that many a plainer girl possessed in spades.

‘Come on, girl – to the bar with you!’

She wasn’t pissed enough, she decided.  Like Jess and Lindsey, she was usually well gone after one Archers, but tonight required industrial strength Dutch courage.

Chantal hoisted her body erect and marched out of the toilets.  Tugging open the door, she all but collided with another girl loping in.

‘Ooh, sorry.’ 

The newcomer shot her a defensive look, but said nothing. 

Chantal was ruffled again.  She’d seen this girl before – with Kristian.  Not at every gig, but at one or two, each time nattering cosily with him or with Rose, his vivacious mom.  She looked younger than Chantal, and very pretty in a spiky kind of way, with a sylphlike body, Toblerone cheekbones and the kind of hair associated with fairy princesses: silkily flaxen and long enough to sit her tiny bottom on.

Yes, she was his type all right.  His kind of arm candy.  Gorgeous people always chose mirror image partners.  It was a narcissistic thing.

‘All right, Chantal!’

The matey Black Country greeting cut across her jealous musing.  Chantal blinked and emitted a mangled sound midway between a gulp and a seal bark.

The rangy frame of Kristian Savage was draped against the fire doors a mere foot from her.  Large as life and twice as gorgeous, smiling at her in that infectious way of his.

And speaking to her.

And addressing her by name.

Well say something back then, Chantal, you can’t stand here mute all night!  Oh, and stop blushing like the virgin you are!

‘You know my name,’ she sputtered, hopelessly red.  He was one of those towering, masculine chaps who naturally makes a petite girl like Chantal go all blushy and vulnerable.

‘Course I know it!’  He was amused at the implication that he wouldn’t.  ‘You’re our fan club – think only me mom’s seen us more times than you.’

Oh wonderful – now he thinks I’m a stalker!

‘Well you’re a great band.’

She could smell him this close!  Such an unpretentious, rugged odour: a pleasing brew of deodorant and stage-sweat.  Chantal had no truck with blokes who soused themselves in brash aftershave.  Her boss, Gary, was such a culprit – presumably to mask the scent of bullshit.

Chantal became simultaneously aware that Kristian was disconcertingly topless beneath his flamboyant jacket.  She could feel herself start to shake.  Look at his face.  His face, Chantal!

Except his face was almost as disconcerting.  Those eyes!  They were smiling down at her, as though they’d caught her out.  She blushed even hotter in their beam.  She liked it, though.  He was teasing but not, as she’d feared, in a snide, piss-takey way.

‘Me and the lads really appreciate hearing comments like that, believe me,’ he said earnestly.  ‘It’s always the way when you’m starting out, you never know how people are going to take to you, so it’s mega important to build up a loyal fan base.  It means a lot to us if we see folks coming back for more.’  And he was definitely flirting when, with a delicious twitch of the eyebrows, he added: ‘We need the likes of you.’

‘Thank you,’ she replied inadequately.

Kristian needs me, Kristian needs me!

‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ he asked.

‘It was OK, you know.  Just at home with the family.’  She shrugged carelessly, inwardly squirming at how un-rock ’n‘ roll it sounded.

‘Same here.  Can’t beat it, can you?  Are any of your folks here tonight?’

‘God, no!’  Chantal couldn’t help but snigger at the very idea of her parents staying out late, pulling party poppers or – horror of horrors – getting drunk.  ‘This would be far too lively for them.  It’ll be Jools Holland on the telly, then straight up to bed for Mom and Dad.’

Kris was unbelievably easy to talk to; to laugh with.  Even after these few minutes, Chantal was wondering how she could have been so awed by him.  Far from starry, he had a gift for putting people at their ease by discussing down to earth subjects.

‘Well I hope you’re enjoying yourself tonight, Chantal.  Amazing atmosphere, ain’t it?’

‘Yeah, it’s – ’

‘Oh Kris, that was absolutely wicked!  You’re gunna be a star, I just know it!’

Chantal stepped tactfully aside, her entire body stinging with disappointment.  The Loo Girl, Kristian’s fairy princess, had hurled herself at him in a billow of hair and kisses.

Chantal started to back away, down the corridor.  She ought to allow them their privacy – after all, she had no prior claims on Kris.  But he, seeing her reaction and keen to set the record straight, untied himself from the embrace.
‘I love you for saying so, our Kar,’ he reproved gently as though addressing a cute but disobedient child, ‘but mind your manners.  I’m talking here!’

Our Kar, whoever she was, turned to Chantal and told her in a sulkily sheepish tone that she was sorry.

Kristian gave a little terse nod of forgiveness.  ‘Anyway, I’ll introduce you properly to Chantal, who you’ve just interrupted.  Chantal, this is Kara, me sister.’

Sister!   Ah yes, it was obvious now, thinking about it.  The eyes – they were identical to his!  Or was it the nose?  Or the gangly body?  Hell, who cared what it was!  Chantal could not have felt so bubbly had she drained the bar’s entire alcopop supply dry.

She gave Kara a kilowatt smile and keenly shook her hand.  ‘Hiya Kara.  It’s really great to meet you.’

‘You too.’

Kara was still lukewarm, but Chantal wasn’t miffed anymore.  The elating news that this blonde totty was the very last person in the world who could possibly be Kristian Savage’s girlfriend qualified her for automatic best mate status.

‘She does tend to get a tad excited when she comes to our gigs, don’t you sis?’

‘I don’t blame her,’ Chantal frothed, her powers of speech and flirtation miraculously restored, ‘not when she has such a talented big brother.’

It was suddenly not so difficult to look him in the eye.  Something special was starting here, they both knew it.
And now it was Kara’s turn to play gooseberry.  Kris adored his kid sister, but there came a time when a man had to do what a man had to do…

He strategically ferreted a tenner from his pocket.  ‘Tell you what, our kid, why don’t you and Mom have yourselves a nice drink on me.  Nothing too potent for you, though, Madam!’

‘Aw, Kris, I’m eighteen,’ she pouted, but had the sense to know when she wasn’t wanted and trotted off to the bar.

‘Sorry Chantal,’ Kristian grimaced.  ‘You know, I’m that grateful to you for coming.  I had a feeling you might be here, though.  I said to the lads in the dressing room: “I bet Chantal and her mates’ll be in tonight.”’

‘They’re my cousins actually,’ she blethered irrelevantly, ‘Jess and Lindsey, Dad’s brother’s daughters, they live quite close, I see them all the time.’

At twenty-three and twenty-one, the girls had long adopted chaperone roles towards the slightly younger and much quieter Chantal, and in lieu of friends who shared her tastes were companions at these gigs.

Kris wasn’t interested in them.  ‘As soon as I come out on stage, I was looking out for you.’

Were you?’  She was fishing, for she knew full well he had been.

‘Too right I was!  Then I spotted you early on, singing along.  You always join in, don’t you?  You know all the lyrics.’

‘Oh, I love singing.’

‘Really?’  He looked interested.  Impressed even.

‘I just do a bit of karaoke, that’s all.’  She gave an apologetic flap of the hand.  ‘It’s nothing compared to what you do.’

But Kris thought she was wrong to trivialise her hobby.  ‘Karaoke’s great.  That’s how I started out.  Well, it’s sort of how the band got together really.  Me and Max used to get up and have a sing-song every week down our local – we’ve been mates since school, see – and one night, getting on for two years ago, we met Jim in there.  We all got chatting, he said he was thinking of forming a band with a couple of other lads, and would we be interested?  He was into all the disco stuff, you see – Play That Funky Music, that kinda thing – and that was what we used to like singing at the time, bit of the old party music, get the punters jiggin’ about.  Then he introduced us to Jay and Elvis, and the rest was history.  I’d like to hear you sing some day.’

‘Would you?’

Chantal’s innards did a forward roll.  But this time her fear was tinged with elation.  She found she actually wanted him to hear her.  She sensed, despite her earlier fears, that he was not the type to mock.

‘Sure!’  Again, her amazement and modesty seemed to amuse him.  ‘You’ll have to let me know when you’re next performing.  I’ll get the boys to come along too.’  He checked his watch and did a double take.  ‘Look, I’d better scoot.  I’m due back on in a sec, but it’d be nice to chat a bit more, after the gig like.  I reckon the least I can do is buy a drink for our number one fan.  How about it – d’you fancy meeting at the bar when I come off stage, in about an hour?’

‘I’d love to.’

‘Great!  It’ll be almost midnight then an’ all.  We could, er, see the new year in together?’

‘Yeah, I’d like that.’

‘I’d better go now, but I’ll be looking forward to it.’

‘And me.’

He flashed her a gusset-flipping wink and was gone.

Chantal wilted, blinking, against the wall, thinking, Did that really just happen?

******

‘You lucky bugger!’ Lindsey squealed.  ‘Mind you, didn’t we tell you all along he was interested in you?’

‘And you wouldn’t believe us!’

‘I guess you pair were right then.’  Chantal couldn’t stop her lips curling into a smirk.  This was one occasion when it didn’t gall to be proved wrong.  ‘He knew my name and everything.  It’s a real bombshell that he’d even noticed I was alive.  And better still, that girl he was with – you know, the blonde one I bitched about cuz I thought she was seeing him – Kara – she’s only his sister after all!’

‘Yeah, I thought they looked a bit alike.’

Neither Jess nor Lindsey could believe how Chantal had changed during the mere course of a loo break.  Their shy cousin had barely been out the room ten minutes, and returned fizzing with confidence.  Even the ways she spoke and stood were different.  No more stuttering or stooping; she was articulate and happy and proud to be voluptuous.

Chantal was amazed by the change herself.  A single conversation with Kristian had transformed her into a woman: flirtatious and poised.  The few boys who’d asked her out in the past all met with coy, giggly responses, never a self-assured ‘I’d love to.’  What could have got into her?

Nobody yet, she thought bawdily, but I’m hoping Kris will sooner or later!

He had touched some magic button inside her that no-one else had been able to activate.  Chantal may have been, technically, a grown-up for a couple of years already, but this was her first taste of true ‘adult’ passion.  She wanted to connect with Kris on every level.  He set her latent juices pumping.

She took a glug from the drink Jess had just bought during her round.  It seemed to flow right around her body like an extra bloodstream.  At once she was light-headed and triumphant.

‘I love New Year’s Eve,’ she declared, and toasted her Archers bottle beneath the gold tasselled banner that proclaimed MERRY XMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR along the bar.  ‘Cheers, girls!’

‘Cheers!’

‘To Chantal and Kristian!’  They clunked bottles.

 ‘Ooh, he’s coming back on – look!’

Kris was loping back on stage, to booze-amplified cheers, and this time Chantal didn’t turn away as he grinned and winked.

‘Here’s one from Wilson Pickett,’ he announced, giving her a very naughty look, ‘it’s very appropriate for tonight actually – it’s called In the Midnight Hour!’

******

Chantal couldn’t help feeling relieved Kris had put a shirt on.  Not that a bit of masculine body hair turned her off – quite the opposite, that was the trouble.  When you were trying to concentrate on a conversation, it was just a little…distracting.  He was asking her about music – their shared pet subject – but intelligent replies would have eluded Chantal had that lean, bushy chest remained exposed.

Colonel K’s rapturous fans had reluctantly let them leave the stage at twenty-past eleven, though only after three encores.  Tonight’s show had been their best to date; a riot from start to finish.  Partygoers were always their best audiences – particularly New Year ones.  The boys had played their guts out, and were now on a total high of camaraderie and congratulations.  They were also thirsty for the free beers that in Willenhall comprised their ‘rider.’

Chantal kept an oh so casual eye on the dressing room door.  What if he doesn’t come out?  He might be hiding from me in there!  Or he could leg it out the back window while I’m standing out here like a lemon!  He could have been having me on all the time.

But before even ten minutes were up, Kris was with her at the bar as promised, sexily perspiring but modestly shirted.  He rolled his eyes apologetically when blousy ladies swamped him with kisses, congratulations and even autograph requests as he wove his way to her. 

He’s so popular, Chantal thought, everyone wants a piece of him.  But it’s me he’s coming over to see!  I must be the luckiest girl in the world.

He generously bought drinks for Jess and Lindsey too, but they by tacit consensus made themselves scarce and were last seen being chatted up by Elvis and Jay.

‘So what kind of stuff d’you like to sing, Chantal?’ Kris asked, motioning them into one of the few vacant leatherette seats that ringed the smoky dancefloor.

‘Eighties mainly,’ she shouted over the disco.  Extensive concert experience had made the pair of them proficient in the art of lip-reading.

‘Eighties?  You don’t remember that far back, surely?’  He gave her arm an embarrassed little nudge.  ‘Oops – don’t take that the wrong way, I wasn’t trying to find out your age!  I know it’s not polite to ask a lady such things.’

‘It’s OK.’  It was.  Anything was OK if it gave him an excuse to touch her.  Her bare elbow tingled hotly where his hand had made that momentary contact.  ‘And no, I don’t really remember that decade – well, only the tail end of it.  I was just born several years too late.  I don’t churn out all the usual karaoke standards – you know, your Mariah Carey, your Celine Dion.  I love electronic stuff, and ballads, something with lyrics I can actually identify with.  Something I can sing with a bit of passion.’

Kris was the one in awe now.  This was the longest sentence he’d ever heard Chantal say; she sounded so intelligent and intense.  He’d long admired this girl, by sight alone, and entertained secret hopes that tonight might be the night they would get together, or at least converse.  The fact they had more in common than he could have imagined was a fabulous bonus.

‘Actually,’ he said, studying her in an attentive way that she liked very much, ‘I’ll tell you one I can imagine you doing – Yazoo, Only You.’

She gazed at him as though he had just guessed her date of birth, told her fortune and made contact with her late grandpa.  ‘That is so spooky!  I love that track, it’s one of my favourites.  But the one I like best is actually Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Power of Love.  I guess it’s a man’s song really, but I don’t care.’

‘You shouldn’t have to think of it as “a man’s song.”  Music is universal.  What matters – even with the cheesy stuff we knock out night after night – is that it moves you, that you love it and that your audience comes away from you feeling as though they’ve been entertained.’

‘Well you certainly succeed on all those counts.  Although,’ Chantal paused slightly, pinking up, ‘can I make a suggestion?’

‘Fire away.’ 

She’s bloody adorable!  If she suggests I cut my hair, buy a rocking chair and start a Val Doonican tribute band, I think I’d agree to it.

‘I think you should do a few Adam Ant numbers.’

‘Adam Ant?’

‘He’s my hero.  I could just picture you in a pirate’s hat, belting out Stand and Deliver.’

‘You really were born too late, girl!’

‘I know, I’m a young fogey!’

He looked intent, though, like he was contemplating it.  Chantal was warming to her theme.  Little Chantal, who an hour ago had felt unfit to kiss the tails of Kris’s ringmaster jacket, was now telling him what songs to put in his set list.  It was incredible.

‘I’ve always been mad on pop music.  I could never wait to get down the newsagents on the day Smash Hits came out.  I used to blow all my pocket money on magazines, and on tapes to record the charts!  Every Sunday, religiously, I would tape the Top Forty on my little pink transistor.’

‘Naughty!’  Kris wagged a finger at her in mock reproof at her teenage piracy.  ‘So what got you into all this “fogey” music anyway?’

‘I grew up hearing my mom’s records – she liked Adam and the Ants, and also Blondie, bit of ABBA, that kind of thing – and she tells me I used to try and sing along while I was toddling round the house.’

‘So you’ve sung ever since you was a littl’un then?’

‘Yeah.  All through school, I was in the choirs and the shows.  I was dead quiet in class, but I discovered music as a way of expressing myself.  When people heard me, I think they were surprised I had a voice at all.’

Kris could marry a woman like Chantal, he decided.  She was gorgeous, but had hidden depths too.  She made a lovely change from the boob tube tribe who usually descended upon him, hopeful of a post-gig grope.  They’d stood precious little chance with him before; they stood none at all now he’d met Chantal.  The only depths those girls had were their cleavages – and they were certainly never hidden.

‘What do you do for a living, Chantal?’  He wanted to know everything about her – favourite cereal, last book she read, what she looked like when she was little – but was too much of a gent to freak her out with a questionnaire.  Mundane facts would suffice at this stage.

‘I’m a secretary at an accountancy firm.’

‘Where at?’

‘Walsall.  Sorrell & Genge, they’re called.’  She pulled another of her apologetic faces.  ‘Dead showbizzy name isn’t it?  The work’s about as exciting as it sounds.’

‘Have you been there long?’

‘Too bloody long!  Since I left school at sixteen.’

Chantal spoke unusually bluntly, for she detested her job, talking about it, and being in any way reminded that the place reopened for business again in five days time.  Christmas afforded her a lovely fortnight’s respite from the office, during which she offered up fanciful prayers that it might miraculously burn down and she would never again have to make coffee for Gary ‘The Twat’ Genge or be the butt of his acidic so-called humour.

A complete change of subject was called for. 

Chantal nodded towards Rose, a pocket-sized vision of mustard-coloured hair and jangly jewellery who was presently jiving with Max the bass player.  ‘It’s brilliant that your family are so supportive.  Your mom’s always down at the front, bopping away, isn’t she?  She seems ever so bubbly.’

‘Just a bit!’  He laughed affectionately.  ‘She’s a right little raver once you get a few gins inside her.  Do your parents go to watch you sing?’

‘They do,’ Chantal replied with a hesitant little smile, as though trying to be tactful, ‘but not because they’re particularly interested in what I do.  It’s more because they don’t like me singing in these “rough” pubs and clubs.  They’re a bit on the protective side, you see.’

‘Oh, but I’m sure they’m interested in your music as well.  Have you got brothers or sisters?’

‘Nope, there’s just me – and Arthur the budgie.’

‘Arthur?  That’s cute.’

Chantal scanned his face for evidence of piss-taking, but saw none.  He was astoundingly down to earth, despite his looks, majestic stage presence and way-out dress sense.  Even if he did attain well-deserved celebrity status, Chantal couldn’t imagine him being anything other than totally grounded.

She’d been out with a few lads before – albeit she’d never progressed beyond a bit of snogging – and it was remarkable that this nearly pop star should be the one she’d had the least difficulty conversing with.

On the dancefloor Kara, in a gale of giggles, was now being twirled about by Max.  She was not the best dancer in the world; she looked surprisingly wooden and inexperienced in a boy’s arms, and when she happened to catch Chantal’s eye she felt horribly self-conscious.  Her way of disguising this was to shoot Chantal a snotty glare and turn away.

She’s the insecure one.  All this time, I’ve been so jealous of her, because of what I thought she was – and now she resents me because she feels I’m taking her brother off her.

As though telepathic, Kristian leaned towards her and confided: ‘Don’t let Kar bother you too much.  She just gets a bit funny if she sees me getting – er – friendly with anyone.  I think she’s scared she might lose me.  I’ve kind of been the man of the house since our dad went.’

Went?’  Chantal took a puzzled sip.

‘He bogged off when I was seven, with some floozy.  Mom divorced him and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since.  Kar was only a bab when it happened, see, barely a year old, so she’s never known him.  I’m the only “Dad” figure she’s ever grown up with.’

His matter of fact lack of bitterness was extremely humbling.

‘That’s terrible.’  Chantal bit her lip guiltily.  ‘I feel awful now for carping on about my old man being overprotective.’

‘Don’t worry.  You weren’t to know.’  Kris snorted wryly.  ‘He’s one of those dads who’d probably come out the woodwork and suddenly get in touch if I did become famous.’

‘As I’m sure you will,’ Chantal said, keen to sidestep thorny subjects on such a special night.

‘I don’t know about that.  We’re hardly The Commitments.  Not that that matters.  I’m just loving every minute.’

‘You do loads of gigs, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, all over.  Wherever Kev – he’s our agent – sends us.’

‘Do you do it full-time?’

‘Oh yeah.  I used to work in a warehouse – dull as shit it was – I couldn’t wait to give it up when the band started to take off.’

‘I wish I was talented enough to make my living singing,’ said Chantal wistfully, diverting the subject back to her work without actually meaning to.

‘I bet you could,’ Kris said encouragingly, ‘I don’t see why you shouldn’t leave Sorry & Grunge, or whatever they’re called, if you hate it that much.  Life’s too short to do something that makes you unhappy.’

‘What – walk out of my job, you mean?’  She stared at him wide-eyed, as though she had never heard such a radical idea.

‘Why not?  You’re only young, you’ve got no mortgage to pay, no real ties.  I don’t see why you couldn’t give it a go.’

‘I feel invisible in that office,’ Chantal cried, amazed by her own openness but feeling an ease and kinship with Kris.  ‘No matter how hard I try to join in, I still feel as though I’m watching everyone through a window and am not really there, as it were.  Nothing I say is of interest to any of them.  When I do contribute something to the conversation, they look at me as if to say “Oh, what do you know?” Sometimes I wonder whether I am in fact a ghost, who nobody can see.’

‘They sound a right bunch of arse-wipes,’ Kris sympathised, though it was the sympathy of someone who has spent so long doing what they love for a living as to have only blurry memories of repellent tasks and colleagues.  ‘You’re certainly not invisible to me, Chantal – nor would you be to an audience.’

‘Thank you.’  Chantal, looking coyly down, traced her fingertip along some graffiti scratched into the tabletop which declared KEZ 4 JAMIE.  It was a flirty gesture, but also served to conceal the blushes that were glowing beneath his gaze.

‘You ought to get yourself signed up with an agent.  I’ll put you in touch with ours if you like.  Kev’s a good bloke.  He’d get you some gigs, I’m sure.  Hey, you could even be our support act!’

‘That’s one hell of a gamble, Kris.  What if it doesn’t come off?’

‘And what if it does?  Sometimes you just have to take chances in life.  It paid off for me.  I couldn’t see me doing anything else now.  When I’m eighty and toothless, I’ll most likely still be performing, probably at the Age Concern day centre or summat, waving me Zimmer frame around.’

‘With grannies chucking their bloomers at you, I bet!’

Chantal loved a man who could laugh at himself.  Kristian’s humour was so self-deprecating and warm – not of the superior, acerbic variety so beloved by her workmates and the type of guys her mom no doubt wanted for her.
Kris broodingly drained his pint and slapped the glass down with the air of a man who’d come to a decision.

‘Fancy a dance?’

Dancing would lift them on to new planes of intimacy.  But Chantal very assuredly answered ‘Yeah, all right,’ and she slunk into the pool of disco light with him.

Oh, to alcohol’s magical inhibition-shedding powers!

Kristian had to virtually bend in half to hold and look down at her.  This ought to have been ridiculous, but Chantal enjoyed being towered over; she felt protected.

I’M DANCING WITH KRISTIAN SAVAGE, voices were squealing jubilantly in her brain.  Kristian and I are having our first dance, to In Your Eyes by Kylie, which will be forever distinguished as Our Song.

Chantal always noticed music, even background CDs in restaurants.  It was a subconscious trait she’d had since she was extremely young.  Music was her stimulus in life; associating songs with events came naturally to her.  She could tell you what was playing on the radio the day her nan died; the morning she started her hateful job at Sorrell & Genge; the night of her first date with her first boyfriend Dean.

‘We’re just seconds away from that magic midnight hour,’ the DJ hollered across Kylie.  ‘Now I wanna hear everybody counting down to the new year with me!  Ten – nine – eight – ’

Is it that time already?  Chantal had been too engrossed in Kris to even peek at her watch.  Now she became all trembly and expectant.  Midnight was Kiss Time – an excuse for a mass snog if ever there was one.

Kristian, if the way he was zooming in on her mouth was anything to go by, obviously wanted to get in early – about seven seconds early, to be precise.

‘Seven – six – ’

Whoa – he’s kissing me?

‘Five – four – ’

My fantasy man and I are locked at the lips – is this real, or some alcohol-induced mirage?  If I blink now, will he disappear in a puff of smoke?

‘Three – ’

Ah sod it, girl, get stuck in!  Stop having inane conversations with your brain, and just enjoy it!

‘Two – one – HAPPY NEW YEAR!!’

Streamers unfurled, party poppers resounded like grenades, friends linked into circles for Auld Lang Syne.  At its nucleus were Chantal Brown and Kristian Savage, entwined like bonsai.  They’d flowed obliviously into it, and were now just as oblivious to the thumbs up signs being exchanged by their respective companions and boozy cheers from other onlookers.

They cleaved apart only when their suction powers gave out and oxygen became a necessity.

‘Happy new year,’ mouthed Kris.  His face, with those kiss-swollen lips, was all dreamy and soft.  Chantal sagged against him.  Kissing was such a relaxant – but then so was drink, and a combination of the two turned her muscles to rubber.

She loved this helpless, floaty feeling – yet her untypical lack of restraint scared and almost shamed her.  She’d always been Miss Tin Knickers, so wary of Giving Herself.  It was easy to blame this on her upbringing – but perhaps her exes’ hands had been so easy to slap away simply because they weren’t such attractive lads as this Kristian?  He could unleash her inner slapper. 

But before she set the whore free, Chantal still needed reassurance that she was not about to be seduced by one those ‘philanderers’ her mother warned her about.

‘Are you sure you won’t regret this when you’re sober?’ 

‘I am sober, sweetheart.’  The question might have been flippant or coquettish from another girl, and it amused Kris until he saw the self-doubt in those heartbreaking blue eyes.

His hug flowed, inevitably, into another snogathon.  This ritual went on until two o’clock: snog – and relax – and hug – and chat – and snog – and rest.  They had long ceased being aware that other people occupied the room; ceased being aware, in fact, that they were in a room, in a tinsel-strewn social club in the very early hours of January.  

 ‘What you doing tomorrow?’ Kris asked during another oxygen break.

‘Today, you mean?’

‘I s’pose it is today, yeah.’

‘Sleeping off my hangover, I expect.’

‘Fancy meeting me once you’ve woke up?’  He would much rather she slept it off with him, but knew better than to be so forward.

‘That’d be great.’  Kristian’s asked me out!  Kristian’s asked me ou-ut!!  ‘Where have you got in mind?’

‘We could go for a hair of the dog drink tomorr – I mean, this evening.  Do you live local?’

‘Just round the corner – five-minute walk from here.  How about you?’

‘Penn, the other side of Wolverhampton.  D’you know it?  We could meet halfway?  Or how about I come and pick you up?’

‘Might be a good idea – I’m bound to still be over the limit by then!  I’ve had a right skinful – by my standards in any case.  I know I’m gunna suffer for it.  In more ways than one as well – cuz me mom’s bound to give me a lecture to go with the headache.’

‘Teetotal, is she?’

‘Brandy sauce with her Christmas pudding is about as far she goes.’

‘You should introduce her to my mom – she’d soon get her out of herself!’

‘Can’t see it somehow.  But anyway, you wanna drive out somewhere tonight, do you?’

‘Yeah, maybe Walsall or Sutton Coldfield way?  I dunno.  D’you know any decent boozers round here?’

‘You should be the one to know,’ she teased, ‘you’ve played in enough of ’em!’

‘Nah, them are all grot-holes.  They must be if they have us back so often!’  He laughed in his now familiar easy, modest way.  ‘I’d like to take you somewhere a bit pleasanter, somewhere we could chat and maybe have a bite to eat too.  You probably know more places like that than I do.’

Kris’s expectant look, and implication that he thought Chantal too classy for dives, touched her.  She raked through her limited ‘decent boozers I’ve been to’ catalogue, feeling wildly important that he should leave the decision to her.
It struck Chantal that she ought to be flustered.  A girl who had been known to lose sleep wondering what colour to paint her nails should be nearing a nervous breakdown under the pressure of choosing a First Date With A Demigod venue.

But Kris was changing everything.  He made her feel so liked and interesting.  She knew she could trust him now.
‘I’ll go anywhere except the Hardwick in Streetly, cuz that’s where we have our Christmas do! Every year without fail – and it’s only because Gary the twat lives within convenient staggering distance.’

Kris grimaced sympathetically.  ‘And tough tits to everyone else who has to drive or fork out for taxis, I bet!  I know the type.  So do you know anywhere else?’

‘The Long Horn’s nice,’ she offered, in blasé, socialite tones, ‘out towards Aldridge.’  She’d been to the Long Horn once, about two years ago, on her one and only date with a mechanic by the name of Simon.  The only pubs she patronised now were Colonel K gig venues – not that told Kris that, fearing she’d sound sad.

‘We’ll go there then.  What time shall I pick you up?’

‘About seven-ish?’

‘Seven-ish it is.  Want me to fetch you from your house, or would you rather not trust a strange man with your address yet?’

‘It’s OK, I’ll scribble it on this,’ she picked a beer-sticky gig list from a table and magicked a gnawed biro out of her handbag.

‘Well done that girl!  Bet you were in the Brownies, eh?’

‘I’ll see you then – if I can last that long.’  He secreted the folded gig guide in his pocket.  ‘In the meantime,’ he reeled her pliant body back in, ‘you’d best give me another of those nice kisses to keep me warm!’