Brendan stands at the ironing board. He is wearing a lime-green satin dressing gown, which has fallen open, revealing his pale, white legs and his pale, white, bony chest.
Brendan’s pants are not the pants of a rock god. Y-fronted and elastic-trimmed, they hang shapelessly from his narrow hips, bagging around his slender loins and his fleshless, skinny thighs. His nipples stand out, rosy pink, against his pale white translucent skin. He is very thin. He doesn’t look healthy. His nails are bitten to the quick.
Brendan replaces the iron in its cradle and squats down, legs splayed, at the dining table. He produces a bag of ready-rubbed, a squashed packet of Rizlas, a crinkling, knotted plastic bag containing a stick of hash. He fabricates his joint with meticulous care: his pink tongue peeps out from the corner of his mouth as he crumbles hash along the length of the teased-out, torn-up tobacco strands. Then, he rolls the cigarette, his fingers moving with the finesse and dexterity of a concert pianist. He licks the adhesive edge, crimps the ends, pops the joint between his skinny lips, and settles down, elbows on the table, to spark up.
He draws the drug deep into his lungs, then rolls the smoke around in his mouth, savouring its taste, puffing out his cheeks, before shaping the acrid smoke into a blue zero and setting it wobbling across the lounge-diner. He throws back his head and shudders: his eyes look dead inside his head. For a moment, he is a spectral thing, his gaunt elongated El Greco body unnaturally white beneath the harsh electric light. Then, he replaces the smouldering joint in a saucer and returns to his work.
He is ironing what seems to be some kind of voluminous, bat-winged kimono: the iron noses smoothly, sleekly, across the copper-gold cloth, setting a low V-shaped ripple shimmering over the surface of the silk. Ruby-red butterfly eyes have been appliquéd on to the silk. A network of black veins has been embroidered between and around them. Brendan meticulously works around the embroidery with his iron, wary of it catching on any edges. He checks the temperature of the iron with the palm of his hand.
In truth, the kimono does not need pressing, yet Brendan focuses all his attention on his work, so that the steady sweep of the iron across the shining cloth takes on a meditative quality, like some ancient Zen ritual. All across one side of the cramped lounge-dining room are racks of brightly coloured garments of every conceivable fabric, hue, style and shape: silks of white and red and black and midnight blue; dark wool suits in two pieces and three pieces, PVC of scarlet and shocking pink; quilted silk jumpsuits elaborately printed in gold, green, magenta and azure; a shimmering silver and turquoise Pierrot outfit, wrought by fairies from the translucent leaves of discarded dreams and tissue paper. Exotic footwear, ranging from shiny, vinyl, bondage boots to Cuban-heeled, snakeskin winklepickers, is neatly arranged in two parallel lines all along one wall.
Brendan seems a man who appreciates order, who likes things neat and tidy, but in one corner of the room is a tottering tower of brown cardboard boxes. These contain Brendan’s wigs. On top of the heap, the carrot-topped, proto-punk, glam-rock, electrocuted mullet of Ziggy Stardust peeps out.Sprawled at the foot of the stack of boxes, looking like a road-kill Muppet, is the wispy, straggling, Suzi-Quatro’s-bad-hair-day mop of Labyrinth.
A mobile phone pings and then pings again, a couple of moments later. Does Brendan wince at the snag the sound makes in the silence? Was there an instant—almost imperceptible in its brevity—when his eye widened and the muscles in his lip tightened?
A fish breaking the still surface of the mud-dark carp pond; the flicker of an eye glimpsed behind a painted mask: the emotion—if emotion it was—is effaced in the same moment it appeared. Brendan holds the kimono up, scrutinising it narrowly, before draping it neatly on a coat-hanger.
He picks up a pair of old-gold lamé harem pants and begins scratching at a smear of blue grease-paint with his fingernail. He tosses them to one side and returns to his joint, rummaging through his pockets for a lighter. The mobile vibrates hollowly, dancing on the hard wood table top, then starts to ring.
Brendan sighs, closing his eyes and pulling deeply on his joint: then he picks up the phone abruptly. ‘What the fuck is it now?’ he mumbles. There’s a long moment’s silence his end, before he continues, ‘I thought you didn’t want to play?’
Brendan grimaces wearily, rolling his head like it hurts. ‘He’s dead, isn’t he? What do you want me to do about it? If you don’t want to play—that’s all right—that’s your prerogative—but the booking fee’s coming out of your wages: I don’t give a shit.’
Brendan listens for a moment, rolling his eyes and huffing with irritation. Then he cuts the caller off and tosses the mobile phone to one side. He slumps down on a dilapidated sofa, his lime-green dressing gown shining with neon radiance against the musky brown fabric. He lights the burnt-out butt-end and takes one last hit, then starts rummaging in his dressing gown pocket. At length, he hunts down his Rizlas and tobacco tin and begins meditatively rolling another joint, meticulously straightening out where the cigarette paper has crinkled.
For the first couple of days, he could do nothing but play over and over Blackstar, poring over the lyrics, gazing at the contorted figure in the album booklet with its button eyes and bandaged face, shock of bleach-blond hair sprouting like a pineapple’s stiff leaves through the cream crepe. Then, the numbness shattered into glassy, hard-edged shards of panic and his thought took up the jagged drum-and-bass rhythms,driven onwards, ever onwards, by the dum-da-a-dum-dum-da of the beat, hurtling headlong into nightmare, breath-heaving, heart-pumping, cold-sweating— racing bullet-fast along city streets and urban freeways beneath flickering street-lamps, as saxophones screamed and sirens wailed—kick-drum and rim-shot impelling him, dum-da-a-dum-dum-da, past blurred galaxies and through constellations of long-tailed stars into the unblinking centre of a beady, button-eyed black hole.
After a sleepless night, swimming against the tide, caught in the swell and pull of the cold, black water—the fever passed and his mind settled into the lugubrious drone and wail of Lazarus and then sunk further into the desolate minimalism of Warszawa and the shimmering, synth-washed gobbledygook of Subterraneans. And then the music stopped. And there was only silence.
Ian texted to say the band had got together and decided they wanted to knock Saturday on the head as a mark of respect. The researcher for a local radio station rang him up, asking whether he’d be willing to be interviewed on air about his reaction to the news. He went to the supermarket to get one or two bits and pieces, and a bottle of Vanish Oxi. He called Jane to say he wasn’t going to be free after all and, no, he didn’t want her to call around and, yes, he’d be fine on his own, it was no big deal, everyone’s got to go some time, and the best way to show respect was to keep playing the fucker’s music—after all, that’s what they’re meant to be—a fucking tribute act—but he’d just have to refund the booking fee to Alec, that’s all, and it was a nightmare working with a bunch of part-timers, and he couldn’t shift the stain on the collar of the canary-yellow, Let’s Dance shirt, but he’d bought some spray-on fabric cleaner and he hoped that might do the trick.
Then, he was left alone in the flat, rebuked by the curled brown leaves of dead and dying houseplants, half-empty cereal packets and unwashed supper plates, the tattered posters of Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke Sellotaped to scuffed magnolia walls. A moonstruck Pierrot, teetering like a child ballerina on silver-slippered tippy-toes, gazed down on him as he lay stretched out on his bed and smoked himself into vacancy or drank himself into sleep the colour of cheap Chilean Merlot.