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Lane Ashfeldt in Southword Journal

Lane Ashfeldt's short fiction has been published in Ireland, England, America and Greece, winning a number of short fiction awards including first place in the Fish Short Histories prize; her novel in progress has also been shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. Born in London to Irish parents and educated in Dublin, Lane has lived and worked in several European countries and is presently living in Wales. A version of Lane's story 'Freshwater Habitat' will be published for the iPad later this year, accompanied by artworks from Irish artist Dermot Seymour.


Photo © Sissú Pálsdóttir



The Plough and the Stars




HONEST, I NEVER MEANT TO DO IT. Alright, so Donohue lives there. Annoying little runt, you might say. Well get this, face to face Donohue’s not like he looks in the papers. He’s babyfaced right enough, but dead lanky. But don’t get me started on him.

            No, I’d never do it on purpose like … I respect Abby, and the lads in her band. Not just ’cause they brung money in the area, but for the music. Twenty-odd year ago I was in a band myself. Nothing can beat that feelingfive hundred or five thousand people getting off on your sounds. More like fifty it was with our band, but Abby and co, they grow fans like magiccrowdsourcing they call it, or is it flashmobbing? Send a few texts and hey presto, dozens of teens show up. In our day we did it all with scissors, paper and glue.


First one died before it even hit the ground


My parents eulogise their Stepney Green days as if the world they grew up in was some kind of rose-tinted Cockney musical, but the reality is, life in the East End was tough back then. It was the 1980s. Mounted police were on the rampage in Wapping, and whole streets were being flattened to make room for Canary Wharf. People were leaving in droves, mostly being relocated to Essex, but my folks didn't like being told where to go so one day they just jumped in the van and left. They ran out of petrol halfway to Scotland, which is how I came to be Doncaster born and bred.

            Eighteen years later me and the band made our way south. 21st century London was nothing like the town my parents had left behind. We had to give the East End a wide berth: too pricy. Instead we took rooms over a Holloway pub called The Plough. Holloway is near parts of London you may have heard of Camden Town or the Angel but it’s nowhere. Like us lot, starting out in music, aiming for the stars. One good thing about nowhere, it’s cheap.


The next one bombed as well


WHAT ANNOYS ME ABOUT ABBY AND THE LADS, and don’t get me wrong, I love 'em to bits, but it annoys me the way they nick that whole eighties look you know, all simple, no logos, no labels when they weren’t even born until the eighties, and the powerhouse behind the band is computers, wi-fis and them little blippy bleeper things.

            Yeah, I been up there. Lived there before Donohue came along and started managing them, didn’t I? Not long after he came along, Abby announced they were off to America on tour. Twenty gigs he’d lined up. They were back six weeks later; maybe America never noticed. Hard to tell with that lot, though. Get rich and Abby would still be in her torn jeans and her little skimpy vestsall part of the look.

            After the tour they kept a low profile. Abby popped into the bar now and again, played the odd song, but mostly they kept to themselves. Didn’t mix no more, know what I’m saying?


Third fell on an empty crate, and the fourth, fifth, sixth


Páid kind of came with the furniture when we took over the lease. He’d been live-in barman forever. We liked it that The Plough was a bit scuzzy; we didn’t change the furniture and we didn’t change him either. But we made it clear other things would change. ‘This isn’t going to be just another failing Irish pub, Páid, we’ll have bands playing six nights a week.’ He said count him in, so what could we do? We went with it. We had a lot on all of a sudden: photoshoots, plugging our first album, the whole media shtick. We’d be away a fair bit, so it was good to know he’d be there to keep an eye.

            Odd name, Páid. Short for Pádraig, he said. An Irish name. He was Irish too, kind of. He was a true professional: never let the taps run dry, paid the bills on time, hired extra bar-keeps when the live gigs took off. Only our most loyal fans applied for the job, which was great because they looked just right. Scruffy, but very very cool.


One slid down a bottle, went ksssh as it fell in stale beer


I DIDN'T FIT THE NEW VIBE, that’s what done for me in the end, I reckon. Not that Abby minded, it weren’t her doing. You know Abby. The blondey one, the singer? She knew I wasn’t just a bar-keep, that I was a musician and had been in a band myself. I was the lead singer and allgave us some common ground. But that Donohue? The looks he’d give me, like I was something the cat sicked up. And the kids that came to see the bands? Right little buggers. Girls especially: always looking at me funny like I was trying it on. No one else in The Plough these days was the far side of thirty. Endangered bloody species, they thought I was.


A wild one leapt out of line, took a potshot at a white van


I like Páid, no really, I do. He’s a character. But upstairs after hours, things could be, well, a bit awkward. The Plough was his home, and now we lived there too. And we’d have friends dropping by, people from the record label. It was all a bit much for him. Hey, it was a bit much for me. Too many after-show parties when some nights all I wanted to do was sleep.

            Upstairs at night, Páid had this wild-eyed way of staring through people. And he’d leave the bathroom door wide open when he went for what he called ‘a slash’. Really upset some of our guests. One girl especially. Next day when we played back the track we’d been recording, her screams were all over it. Another time Páid ruined a good take to tell me my songs steal from the past. Like I don’t know it! London is a mash-up: when they built this city they stole from Italy, Greece, wherever. My songs steal from the past too, and I didn’t need him calling me musically bankrupt over it.

            So we took some cash from the US tour and walled off our part of the building. Páid could still get to his rooms using the staircase behind the bar, but the upper floors had a brand new entrance with its own buzzer. Things felt safer that way.


At first it seemed the last one would not get there at all


ONE THING I USED LIKE ABOUT THE PLOUGH WAS, I’d have the upstairs to myself after closing. I had a couple boarders, but there was never a peep out of them after last orders. Slept like babies, they did. Builders. Had to be up at the crack of dawn. Traffic noise I’d lived with fifteen year, but when The Plough took off as a live music venue, all of a sudden there was a fierce lot of hangers-on. Teenagers, students, dealers, groupies, wannabe rock stars. And come closing, half a them traipsed upstairs. I don’t mind hard work, but lack of sleep? Does my bleeding head in.

            Once the wall went up, alls I’d see of Abby and co was the van pull up at night, maybe some tabloid hack in pursuit. She said I’d find it more private? If they sneezed I could hear them. You’d think being musicians they’d have put in soundproofing, but Donohue handled the building work. On the cheap. It got so’s the slightest rustle had me on edge, like when there’s rats running in the walls of a building.


It lay there smouldering, scared to make the leap


In the end Donohue convinced me to give Páid the boot. Said he was bad for our image. Donohue always had important-sounding theories about the band and half the time I hadn’t the faintest what he meant, but I’d go along with it because he seemed so certain.

            ‘What is the key thing that separates an amateur musician from a true professional?’ he asked.


            ‘No. Control. Absolute control, of your image, music, the works. Be careful who you put around you: it can mean the difference between a career that lasts six months, six years, or twenty-six years.’

            ‘You mean ... Páid?’

            ‘Trust. A clean break is for the best.’

            ‘But we can’t just kick him out. I’m not even sure that’s legal.’

            ‘I know his kind. Give him six months’ cashhe’ll grab it and go.’

            ‘What makes you so sure?’

            ‘What alkie can resist free drink money?’


As the man stood up and left, down it fell


ABBY CALLED ME IN FOR A CHAT. ‘There’s no future in this, Páid,’ she said, looking gorgeous as only she knew how. Her picture in the papers never did her justice. When she walked in that bar, the whole place would fall silent. Ah, she was lovely, Abby. To thank me for my work she’d sorted out six months’ pay and a holiday.

            It’s hard to look free money in the eye and say no. I tried. But when she lined it up in front of me in neat stacks of twenties, I caved.

            Oh, it was grand while it lasted. But you burn through cash fast when you’re not working. Three months on, I’m on the EasyJet back from Spain, skint, headed straight for The Plough.

            When I reach the pub it’s gone closing. Round the back, I ring the upstairs buzzer, ask for Abby and say it's personal. The light on the buzzer cuts out. I try again. Nothing. So I open my duty-free. Smoke a few fags, lighting each one off the last. Finally I give up, it’s too cold.

            Been on the night bus to Muswell Hill and back ever since.

            It’s late now, the sky a solid black. Even the North Star’s gone under. The last stars are the Seven Sisters: a small arrow pointing east  like Seven Sisters Road points east from the Nag’s Head. The night bus swings past the trees at Highgate Woods, races under Suicide Bridge and roars downhill to Holloway. Ugly road. Sometimes a truck goes all the way to Highbury at sixty miles an hour and a cyclist winds up as raspberry jam beneath its wheels.


It lay bruised under the tent of a pink delivery note


Everything is coming together. This will be the best festive season ever, I can feel it. Our first album’s charting, and we’re recording the next in our new studio, where the old bar-keep’s rooms used to be. We’re shooting a 3-D video for the title track. And just for fun we’re playing a secret gig at The Plough. Invites strictly word of mouth.  People keep asking what I’m doing for Christmas, and I say ‘I’m  sleeping’. They laugh but I’m serious. This has been the busiest year of my life. The shortest, too.

            I tell Donohue not to wake me if he’s late to bed. He says he won’t, but then I hear him raving to the cops about some idiot fan who’s trying to break in.

           Later, breaking into my dream, I think I hear him calling up the stairs at me to pull on my boots and get downstairs now. ‘I’ll fetch your guitar and meet you outside.’ For a moment I think we’re late for rehearsal but when I open my eyes it's still night-time and the clock says 4:04. Must be pre-gig nerves.


The pink page saved the spark, nursed it back to life


IT'S NOT OFTEN YOU SEE A SKY CLEAR AS THIS over Holloway Road. Impressive, those dawn colours at the end of a long black canyon facing the city. Then the smell takes hold. It’s not just dawn has the sky all lit up. The Plough is ablaze. All these young lads in skinny jeans come crawling out, some holding laptops and music-boxes, others barefoot. Traffic jam building. 

            I’m off the bus, coughing from the bitter stench of wet charcoal. Bleedin’ cops everywhere, fire engines pumping.

            ‘How’d it start?’ I ask.

            The guy from the curry-house opposite shrugs. ‘Terrible. Keg went off down the cellar. Reckon it could’ve been a cigarette.’

            A copper growls at some guy holding a guitar:

            ‘That it, sir? Everyone out?’

            It’s that tosser Donohue. Suddenly he drops his guitar.

            ‘Abby!’ he shouts.

            He pushes through the door and makes for the stairs, but two coppers haul him back. Outside, he whirls like a Dervish and yells up at her room,


            We all look up.


            Then out of the smoke we see her: on the ledge three storeys up, a wall of flames behind her, ready to jump.


Dense white smoke curled out from under the pink page and spread, like dry ice wending its way through a crowd



©2012 Lane Ashfeldt



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©2009 Southword Editions
Munster Literature Centre

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