The Standalones

Chapter Thirty-Two

Ken Preston

29 June 2024

Silhouette of a rock band against a spotlight and the words The Standalones

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Chapter Thirty-Two

As daylight faded and the evening drew in, streetlights sprang on and the market stalls of Covent Garden glowed like magical grottoes. It seemed to Chloe that all manner of London life had gathered here. As Chloe and Matt walked, they passed spikey-haired punks, goths dressed completely in black, and new romantics with extravagant hairstyles and makeup.

This was where Chloe wanted to be, in the heart of the music subcultures, surrounded by others like herself.

And with a cute boy, obviously.

Despite saying he had wanted to talk, Matt hadn’t said much as they wandered through the heart of London. But that was okay, Chloe felt totally at ease and comfortable in the silence between them.

Now, as the evening closed in, Matt finally began talking.

“I suppose you’d like to know how the date with Lexi went?” he said.

“I know this is going to sound surprising considering that not long ago I was pressed up against the cafe window and spying on you both, but actually no. I’m cool with it.”

“Really?”

Chloe smiled; he sounded disappointed. “You said you wanted to talk, you’ve got something to tell me, right?”

“So did you.”

“Okay, me first and then you.” Chloe told Matt about running into Ratzo, and how he knew where the money was hidden and he was on his way to get it. “In fact, he probably has it now.”

“Well that’s good news,” Matt said. “We’re finally free of that money, and Chris and Scarlett can do nothing about it.”

“They’re going to be angry,” Chloe said.

“Doesn’t matter, they’ll get over it.” Matt paused a moment. “Don’t be too harsh on them, okay? They’re good people really, they’re just desperate for success, to hit the big time. Music is everything to them.”

They paused in their walk, joining a small crowd watching a busker, singing and playing guitar. Chloe didn’t recognise the song and wondered if it was one of his own. His voice rang out clear, and he looked to be putting everything he had into his performance.

“Isn’t that the case for all of us?”

“I suppose.”

The crowd applauded as the busker drew his song to a close. As some people walked away, others dropped coins into his guitar case. Chloe joined them, smiling at the busker as she added her own money to the growing pile.

“That was great,” she said, smiling at the young man.

“Thank you!” He pointed at the guitar on her back. “You want to play with me?”

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Chloe said.

“Why not? I bet you’re good, we could have a blast.”

“Hmm, I don’t know…”

“Go on,” Matt murmured in her ear. “Show them what you can do.”

Chloe laughed and gave in. “Alright! Alright!”

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She swung the guitar off her back and soon had it connected to a small amp the busker had set up on the pavement.

Matt pointed at a wooden box on the other side of his open guitar case. “Is that a Cajon?”

“You play too? Hey, the more the merrier!”

Matt sat on top of the Cajon and started beating out a rhythm on it. Chloe joined in, adding her own bass line to the drumbeat. The busker’s smile grew so wide, Chloe laughed with delight.

He joined in on his acoustic guitar, improvising as he went. They quickly settled in with each other, like they had been playing together for years.

Suddenly the busker began singing, improvising lyrics, nonsense verses about the nightlife in London, silly observations about people in the growing audience.

This is amazing! Chloe thought, her fingers flying over the frets of her guitar. This is what I love, playing music.

With the excitement and drama of the last thirty-six hours, it seemed she had forgotten that.

As she played, her eyes kept being drawn to Matt, beating out a rhythm on the Cajon. He was laughing, his face animated with joy. The effect made him look even more handsome, more desirable. He just seemed so full of life, it was impossible not to be pulled to him.

After a few minutes, they naturally wound the song up and the crowd surrounding them, now rather large and blocking the road, burst into riotous applause.

Chloe, Matt, and the busker grinned at each other, beaming away like they had just won a million pounds.

Then members of their audience began throwing coins into the busker’s guitar case.

“Thank you! Thank you so much!”

When the crowd had dispersed, the busker knelt down and looked at his takings. “Man, I don’t believe it. I never earned this much in a whole day, never mind just for one song.” He looked up at Chloe and Matt. “Do you guys want to play with me every day?”

Chloe laughed. “Sorry, we’re already in a band.”

The busker scowled. “Figures. The best players always are.”

“Thanks for letting us play with you,” Matt said.

The busker stood up. “Any time, man.”

“We should go now,” Chloe said.

“Wait, don’t you want to take your share of the money?”

Matt shook his head, still grinning. “Nah, it’s yours, you earned it.”

The Busker stuck out his hand to shake. “I’m Nate. Any time you want to play with me again, well, you know where to find me.”

Matt and Chloe shook hands with Nate and promised they would come back.

As they turned to leave, Nate called out to them. “Wait, look, someone threw a fiver in there.” He was kneeling down beside his guitar case, pulling a five pound note out from the mass of coins. “Take that, at least.”

“Alright, thank you.” Chloe said.

They walked away, and Matt said, “Wasn’t that great?”

“That was amazing,” Chloe replied.

“I just love it so much when people come together and make music. It’s like a kind of magic really, don’t you think?”

Chloe smiled. “Yes, it is. And it cuts across cultures and borders, and people’s differences. I sometimes think that’s why I love playing and singing so much, because there is so much joy and love and happiness in what we do.”

Matt nodded, deep in thought as they walked past a small crowd watching a juggler riding a unicycle.

“But hey, we were talking about the money, and Lexi, remember? I’ve told you my news, now it’s your turn. What were you going to tell me?”

“Well, there’s not a huge amount to tell, to be honest. Lexi told me where she had hidden the money, and then she asked me if we could get back together.”

Chloe took a deep breath. “And you said what?”

Matt looked at Chloe. “I said no, obviously. I told her that I hoped she found happiness with someone, but that someone wasn’t going to be me.”

Chloe’s heart leapt with delight. Hold it together, she thought. Just hold it together.

“Me and Lexi, we’ve known each other for a while now. We were a two-piece once, and we toured all over the UK, and Belgium too.”

“Were you an item then?” Chloe asked.

Matt nodded. “And that became part of the problem, we were always together, living out of a suitcase, always on the road with the pressure of nightly performances. We toured hard, and it took a toll on both of us.”

Matt fell into a thoughtful silence as they walked. They’d reached the Thames and Chloe watched the tug boats working their way upstream. She was in no rush, Matt would continue with his story when he was ready.

“Lexi changed,” Matt said after a long silence. “She turned harder, more cynical. She started hanging out with the local techies and any other bands who were playing at the same time. There was this one band in particular, The Undesirables, who started touring with us. We never asked them to, they just kept turning up at the same nightspots as we did, and playing support for us.”

Matt fell silent again.

Chloe had an idea she knew what was coming next.

“Finally I found out she was having an affair with the lead singer, Dirty Derek.”

Chloe snorted with laughter. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. That must have been horrible for you, but honestly? Dirty Derek?”

“I know, ridiculous, right? He was this skinny kid with long, greasy hair, his face covered in spots and the rest of him in bad tattoos. To this day, I have no idea what she saw in him. Anyway, me and Lexi, we split. I mooched around for six months, not doing much at all. I got a job in a factory, painting faces on to egg cups. And then one day, out of the blue—”

“Wait a minute!” Chloe grabbed Matt’s arm and stopped walking. “Before you go any further with this story, I need to know more about the egg cups and the faces.”

“Oh man, that was the most boring job in the world. This factory was making groups of egg cups, like three or four moulded together and they were like monks standing in a group, and when you put the eggs in the egg cups, they were their bald heads, and it was my job to paint their features on their faces.”

“I never knew that could be a job,” Chloe said, laughing.

“And when I finished, I promised myself I would never do anything that boring again. And that’s when I met Scarlett and Chris. They were already setting up The Standalones, and they asked me to join. I said yes straight away, obviously.” He paused. “What I hadn’t realised was that they had already asked Lexi, too.”

“Oh no, what happened?”

“Well, Lexi had split up with Dirty Derek by that point, thankfully. Me and Lexi decided to put everything behind us and just get on with being in a band, and not let our personal history intrude. And at first, that was okay. We put down some tracks, and we played a few gigs, and things were looking good. Until, eventually, things started looking not so good.”

“What happened?”

“Lexi was just getting weirder and weirder, and fixating on me all the time, and wanting us to get back together. She started arguing with Scarlett and Chris too, trying to take the band in a musical direction none of us wanted. Scarlett told her to get her act together, or she was out.”

“And that’s why The Standalones sacked Lexi as the lead singer and then advertised for a new one?”

“That’s right. Lexi didn’t get her act together, in fact she just grew even more outrageous and confrontational, and so Scarlett threw Lexi out and The Standalones were suddenly without a bass player and lead singer and we had these gigs coming up and the record label meeting.”

“And then I came along, and now Lexi sees me as the enemy.”

Matt chuckled. “Lexi sees everybody as the enemy.”

“So now what?”

“Now? Like I said, Lexi tried to get me back by offering me money—”

“A lot of money!”

“Yeah, a lot of money, and I said no and told her I already have feelings for someone else.”

Chloe almost didn’t want to ask. Flutters of fear and excitement coursed through her body.

“Oh? And who’s that?”

Matt took Chloe’s hands in his. “You, of course!”

Before she knew what was happening next, Chloe was in Matt’s arms and they were hugging. She looked up at him and their lips met in a kiss.

The sights and sounds of Covent Garden disappeared as they kissed and held each other tight.

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