Sob Story

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2013
The winner of Pop Hero, Britain’s first reality TV singing show, now collects tram tickets. When she bumps into former head judge Bastard Bryan, she is silent.

The night time outer-city tram passengers are the usual mix for a Friday. In every carriage there are a few smart men looking worse for wear after a long day, more and more uncomfortable in their suits. At the front there are a few silent young lads, in the middle there are one or two huddled middle-aged women, and the footie fans are boarding now at the back. All big men, those. They didn’t win, which is great because it means they might just keep their gobs shut and save all that pent-up energy for the next match day.

Max Stein is collecting tickets. She has been doing for a few years now. She enjoys it. And then she sees: Bryan Hollister is there. Bastard Bryan. Right at the end of the last carriage, on the last tram of the night, reading the free paper. He hasn’t changed a bit. He must dye it.

Max feels the roof of her mouth complain about how hard her tongue is pressing it, and when she pulls away the ache is still there. The people in the last carriage can go without getting their tickets checked. He’s never going as far as Bury. And if he is, then she can keep busy in the other carriages.

She’s still watching him.

Besses station, coming up in a minute or so. It’s too dark outside to see how far the tram has gone since Prestwich, but Max doesn’t need to look nowadays. She can feel the way the floor moves under her feet. When the tram is fast it’s taught, pulling one way hard, but when it starts to slow there’s that jolt just before they start swaying, that most people never notice and the regulars don’t notice that they notice. But Max always sees their heads point forwards and their eyes blink fast, as though the jolt has loosened the joints holding-in their necks and faces. Or else their books close, phones get lowered. And after that, as they approach, the people who are getting off always go with the sway.

No-one is swaying now, but it feels like they’re nearly ready. Normally by now she would have finished checking the–

The jolt. There we go.

Bastard still isn’t moving. Maybe he’s just one of those people who thinks they’re too cool for the jolt and waits for the tram to stop before they get moving. Or maybe he’s going all the way to Bury after all.

Max looks at him, remembers the old times and forgets about the sway for a moment.

She’ll be fucked if any of those footie lads get away without paying their fare. She hits a button, steps through the doors and calls, “Tickets please.”

A young bloke in the corner who Max hadn’t noticed raises his ticket immediately, and she inspects it, nods. The guys in the baby blue Man City shirts take a bit longer to find theirs, but Max spends the time staring at the front page of that free paper. When she reaches it she has to ask again. A little firmer. “Tickets please.”

Bastard drops the Metro below his eye-level and raises his eyebrows a tiny bit. He sees Max’s hair first, then her face, then her name badge. He just says, “Maxine?

A breath. “They made me use the full name, yeah.” For a moment she just looks at him. Bryan’s face is unreadable. There is a familiar long squeak of brakes as the carriage comes to a close. The doors open and nobody boards.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Pop Hero herself,” Bastard jokes, remembering the moment when she had won: when Channel 5 had topped the ratings for the first and last time, and Saturday night television first fell in love with its life partner, the phone-vote talent show. Max had been slimmer, tighter and softer, pretty in an odd way with a punky, shocking-blue haircut and a powerful voice. That night, she was incredible. Didn’t cry, didn’t scream, just belted out her debut single for the first time. Bastard seems to be laughing at her now. The grey bristles around his mouth are lighting up. The tram is in motion again.

“Ticket?”

Bastard is looking at the bulky, scuffed steel printer hanging by a florescent strap from Max’s shoulder. His gentle Edinburgh lilt mutters, “Oh, eh. I don’t have one. You’ve got me!” and he raises his hands, still chuckling.

For a second Max doesn’t react and she notices her fingers tapping too lightly on buttons, pretending to do something. “The standard fare is a hundred pounds for passengers without a valid ticket,” she says. The words are not her own, but the tone of voice is. She’s not worried about sounding silly. She has had this conversation many times and she always comes out on top. “It will be automatically reduced to fifty pounds if you pay within fourteen days.”

Bastard’s hands are down. “You know,” he says, “I never really wondered what happened to you. This is about right though. Trolley dolley.” It’s actually Passenger Service Representative.

“I wondered about you,” Max replies. “Didn’t see you judging on Pop Stars, or Pop Idol or X-Factor, any of that. I saw Nasty Nick, Scary Simon, Gary Barlow, whatever they call him. I don’t watch it.”

“But no Bullyboy Bryan, eh, not after the first series. You still think of me like that, do you? Bullyboy?” He looks as if he’s trying to intimidate, but then again he always did.

Max holds his gaze and privately notices that he blinks more than she does. “Something like that, yeah,” she says. He never knew what the contestants had called him off-camera. “What have you been doing since then?”

Bryan’s answer is dismissive. “Ten years of publishing. But let me guess about you! I reckon youuuu,” and he holds the last syllable, gleefully cocking his head, surveying Max’s face, “made a second album with a smaller studio, refused to promote it because you thought the music would sell itself, then when it went under you refused to leave London ‘til your money was slowly pissed away with nothing to show for it,” he pauses, “came back a nobody again, took this gig, stopped singing altogether. Nice little terrace, civil partner who lets you be the butch one so long as you buy her flowers sometimes? Something like that?”

Max had been a kid when Pop Hero was broadcast. Barely out of school. “I won,” she replies, in a voice that seems to warn of impending disaster. “And I won because I was the best, despite everything you tried to do to discredit me.”

“I just voted against you, love. ‘S all I did.”

The same voice. “The fuck it is.” He seems to be chuckling to himself again but the sway beneath her shoes distracts her. The tram will be pulling into Whitefield now. She hasn’t checked anybody since the last stop, but that’s fine. She’s dealing with an abusive passenger. An abusive passenger without a ticket. Something is stopping her just charging him the maximum fine right now. It would be a bit weird, she thinks. He’s a celebrity. Used to be.

Bastard has been waiting for her to finish thinking. The way his thin lips are ratcheted up on one side asks, ready yet? “It isn’t actually my fault that nobody bought your record, Maxine,” he says quietly. “Me and Pete Waterman didn’t have that much power. I could work miracles, but I couldn’t actually force people to pay top price for nine tracks of–”

Max interrupts, far too loud. “It’s your fault it was so fucking short! You and your Christmas number-fucking-one!”

“Nine tracks,” he continues patiently while the doors open to Whitefield’s cold air and black sky, closing just as quickly, “of a throaty-voiced angry teenage girl scratching out folksy songs with no hook that she’d written in her mum’s garage and refused to change.”

Max’s fingers are pretending to type again, but this time she doesn’t notice it. “And I suppose it wasn’t your fault the company dropped me in February?” Bastard just snickers at that one.

The ongoing drama between Pop Hero‘s head judge and its most unusual contestant had brought in a lot of viewers and helped a great deal to popularise the show through tabloid gossip sand word of mouth. Max Stein, the plucky young girl with the sharp eyes and the stuck-up short hair, had refused to be put down or patronised by Bullyboy Bryan. Where the other young contestants had cried, buckled and walked away from the show one by one, Max had always, always argued back. The audience loved her. They loved her quirky style, the effortless strength of her singing, and her insistence on playing piano, acoustic guitar and banjo on the show. And that classic moment in the semi-finals when the Bullyboy had pointed his finger and told her how this sort of stuff would never sell on the high street so why was she here, and she had just shrugged and left the stage to a monsoon of applause.

They’d loved that.

A thought occurs to Max. She hasn’t ever been this close to him. Back in the day they hadn’t spoken face to face unless they were being filmed and one was on stage and the other was behind his desk.

There’s a sound behind her ear now. Jeering. Max’s head spins before she can think and sees exactly what she expected: more big men from the football, just boarded and having a go. Slurred grunts that are halfway between a threat and a laugh. The victim is either a Preston North End fan who shouldn’t be travelling alone, or just some idiot wearing red. But she blinks and realises the meaty faces are pointed right at her. It’s Bastard they’re jeering at.

They recognise him? Or else they just don’t like Scots? Max thinks about it for longer than she should, wondering if Bastard is scared, wondering if it was okay to like that, until she gets hold of herself. She has only wasted a second, but she knows how pink her cheeks are.

As always it doesn’t take much to scatter the lads. Max knows very well that if you scream “Oy!”, get the voice right, lurch forward all confident and stare them right down with your eyes steady, you can put the frighteners on any old bunch of dickheads, no matter how short and plump and female you are. On the way back they’ll tell themselves that they would have shouted her back or slapped her down but they’re too honourable to hit a woman or whatever, and then they’ll hope to run into an Asian bloke on the way home. In any case, they’re moving back. The new arrivals are migrating to the next carriage and the others are murmuring amongst themselves.

Max’s eyes don’t meet Bastard’s again when she looks over to him. He’s looking out of the window at the rows of orange dots that make up Greater Manchester by night. “Will Young the Pop Idol does musicals or something,” he offers half-heartedly. “You could do that. You won before him.”

“I was the first,” Max replies immediately, then, “I don’t do musicals.”

“Oh yeah. I remember you getting very stroppy when we did Abba Week on the show. Everyone loved Abba. I thought you’d get voted out for sure.” Max says nothing. She remembers it being a tough one. But she had gotten through to Queen Week, and Swing Week, and made the best of those too.

But there’s no time to argue about any of that now. Max is expecting to feel the tram slowing for Radcliffe station any time now, and then Bury is the end of the line. Still watching him, she decides to just open her mouth and see if she’ll feel any less pissed off when it’s closed. “I was a bit up myself in those days, yeah?” she hears herself say, and she’s not sure she agrees with it. “But I could have had a career.” And there’s the jolt. And the sway. “And it would have been decent.” Sway forward. Slower. “If you had just given me a fucking chance,” sway back, “and let me play some decent stuff,” and forward again, “I could have been a singer for a bit.”

Bastard still isn’t looking and still isn’t swaying. “Oh don’t give me that, sweetheart,” he says. “The one good thing about you was that you never wasted the judges’ time with any crap about poor-me or please-give-me-my-shot. That’s why I voted against the kid in the bloody wheelchair.”

“Fuck off.”

The swaying just goes on. The driver has hit the brake too early. Max hates that. Now everyone will be restless.

Bastard is still though. After a moment he says, “What about my hundred pound joyriding fee, eh? Going to get that over and done with, Frumpty-fucking-Dumpty, or are you just going to tell me off all night?”

She has to think about it, but in the end she tells him no. It feels cheap. Beneath her. And he would win if she did. “You probably can’t afford it anyway,” she says absently.

“No.” Bastard’s voice is strange but familiar. Cold. Max can barely remember when she’s heard him talk like that before, but she has. “No I probably can’t. Very good, aye. Might be a reason I’m skipping the Metrolink fare on my way back from a meeting in fucking Salford, mightn’t there?”

He turns and gives her a look, with the corners of his mouth all slack and hanging down, giving him the slightest of double chins. His suit is a bit crumpled.

“Might be a reason I haven’t been on telly since you fucked up the pop star product we spent a year trying to build,” he says, and then turns back to the window. “All so you could play your bloody banjo. I hope you really enjoyed your moment and all your blessed artistic integrity, you know?” he trails off, swaying a tiny bit now. Max is too. She has nothing to say, but she certainly doesn’t feel any better.

Bastard’s voice doesn’t regain its lustre. There’s no joy in there now when he insults her. “If you don’t charge me the hundred,” he’s saying, “then you’re wasting a nice little opportunity, lovey. Sell this one to The Sun. Tell ‘em how you of all people got me bang to rights and then scared off some Manc thugs and all. Has-Been Hero punches Bullyboy’s ticket, something like that? Little boost for you. It’ll get you a shot at I’m a Celebrity if you want it. I’d vote for you to eat a kangaroo’s balls, for sure.”

The sway is almost done. Max has to lean in to stay steady and Bryan has his hand on the window.

“What, are you trying to bribe me?” she asks, not sure exactly how it would work if he was.

Bryan laughs and pulls his coat around him. “No,” he says. “It’s a tip. Yours if you want to sell it to the tab of your choice and have a go. I won’t comment.”

Max looks at his eyes, gets nothing.

“So, am I getting fined or what?”

And the tram stops. Screeches, hisses. He hops off and into the black. Max Stein’s fingers are tapping too hard on the buttons of her ticket printer and when she accidentally makes it bleep she nearly jumps.

Nobody boards from Radcliffe’s freezing little concrete platform, but when the doors close Max remembers there are a few people up top who haven’t been checked and she only has one stop left to do it. You get a lot of troublemakers at this time of night.

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One comment on “Sob Story

  1. sjholloway says:

    Glad to see you on wordpress, Chris – am I allowed to ‘like’ this? Yes, why not. I do!

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