The Syndrome Diaries
The first draft of The Syndrome Diaries was written for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November, 2010. Since then, I have been redrafting the manuscript, which is now close to being complete and will be published as an e-book in October 2012.
The novel is narrated by Becky and tells the story of her, India and India’s cousin, Ben, who form a tight-knit friendship at university. When Becky cheats on Ben, word gets back to India and, through her, to him. In the ensuing argument, India breaks off her friendship with Becky, dropping out of university to focus on her band, Syndrome.
The book opens 20 years later. Becky hasn’t seen Ben or India in that time. She’s become a successful music journalist while India, through Syndrome and a subsequent solo career, is now an internationally famous musician. Out of the blue, India offers Becky an exclusive interview. In the passage below, which is a little way into the novel, they meet for the first time since their argument.
Extract from Chapter 5
I popped my digital recorder on the table and pulled my phone from my bag to go through emails, wondering how long I’d be waiting for India. The record company had allocated us a small, soulless meeting room off the main corridor. Its pale mushroom walls were punctuated with tour posters in cold, steel frames. The settees were awkwardly low, with deep, black leather cushions that seemed to suck me down further, so that I’d struggle to get to my feet when India came in. I suspected I’d look like Alice in Wonderland after she’d followed the instructions to ‘drink me’, and I didn’t like the way that would give India a psychological advantage, so I perched on an arm instead. I tried to settle down and make a valiant attempt at composure.
She was only five minutes late. I’d barely opened the first email when there she was, standing in the doorway, head tilted to one side. She was still a skinny five foot four, but even from across the room she seemed to fill the place. She’d scraped her hair back in a ponytail, with wisps escaping around her neck, and her face looked fuller than in the photos on the website, healthier and prettier. All she had to do was stand there and I felt like I used to when we were at Leeds together: I was the dull, lumpen one, standing in her shadow while she shone, centre-stage.
She turned to someone behind her. “I’ll be fine. You don’t need to be here for this one.” So there’d be no press officer butting in and rejecting my questions. That was probably good. Shutting the door a little too firmly behind her, she walked over towards me, and I stood up, extending a hand. She burst out laughing – the same guffaw that used to resonate through that little terraced student house – and it was as if everything was forgotten.
“Shaking hands? For God’s sake, Becky! Give me a hug.”
So I did, awkwardly. She smelt of expensive soap and cigarette smoke. As she stood back and looked at me, I saw, close up, that her skin wasn’t quite so perfect and the corners of her eyes were fanned with creases. She was fiddling with a strand of hair that was refusing to stay tucked behind her ear.
She must have been comparing too. “Well,” she said. “You’ve certainly worn better than I have.”
“I’ve had an easy life.” I couldn’t stop staring at her.
“It’s all relative. Swings and roundabouts.” She walked around the coffee table and sat back in the far settee, somehow managing to occupy only the corner but to fill the whole seat. She looked a lot more relaxed than I felt.
“So.” I sat down on the nearer settee, which made a noise like an almost-deflated whoopee cushion, and tried to look composed. “How have you been?”
She didn’t answer immediately, just frowned slightly and raised one eyebrow. God, that used to frustrate me so much! I’d sit in front of the mirror in my room at Leeds, trying desperately to work out how to isolate half my forehead, never being able to manage anything other than a pervy half-wink. It must be a recessive gene, like tongue-rolling but so much more useful.
“Aren’t you going to switch your widget on?” She gestured towards the digital recorder, sitting on the coffee table with a blank display.
“Is that OK?”
I tapped a couple of buttons. “It’s running.”
“I bet you’re wondering why I wanted to do this interview with you,” she said.
“Well… Are you sure you want the widget on?”
“Yes.” She was sitting completely still, apart form a tiny hand movement, twisting a small, silver ring around and around on her finger.
“So. Why did you?” I shifted on my seat, trying to get comfortable, but found the only way to sit forward was to perch on a hard ridge running along the front of it. I’d end up with pins and needles if I sat like that, so I shuffled back again.
“Well, you have a nice writing style.” She paused a moment and laughed, and I realised she was winding me up.
“That’s not it, is it?”
“Not entirely, but we’ll get onto that later. Right now, I think we should talk about my new album. And you might like to ask me whether I’m clean, and who I’m shagging. I bet that’s on your list.”
“Well, I haven’t listened to the album much yet – I only got hold of a copy yesterday – but it seems to owe much more to Syndrome than your first solo work did.”
“Do you think so?” She leaned forwards slightly, clearly pleased to be talking about the music rather than her personal life.
“Don’t you?” I asked.
She stopped twiddling the silver ring for a moment, and rested a hand on the cushion beside her, stroking it gently. “So you bat the question back to me. Fifteen love. I guess that’s how you get all those great quotes, isn’t it?” But it worked, and she carried on talking.
“Well, it’s six, seven years since Syndrome folded, and once you get a bit of distance, you don’t try so hard to avoid it, I guess. It opens a lot of doors for me. I get enough in royalties off the back catalogue, so I don’t have any pressure to get out and tour all the time.” She began twisting the ring around her finger again. “Sure, it was crap towards the end, when Ethan and I split up and we were still trying to keep the band going, but by that time I think the others were ready to call it a day anyway. It’s not that big a deal.” She stopped. “So who was the last person you interviewed?”
“People,” I said. “WLRM.”
“The boyband? Oh, Jesus! Bet I’m a dark chocolate Magnum in the bath compared with them.”
“I’m hoping that’ll be the case,” I said, trying to wrest back control. “So is it easier to put together an album when you’re not trying to get away from the Syndrome legacy?”
She tried again to push the stray wisp of hair behind her ear. “How much info did you get about the album?” she asked, as if I was guilty of not doing my research, rather than acknowledging that I’d managed to deduce quite a bit from what little I’d had access to.
“Just a few extracts, until yesterday. And what I could find on your website, which wasn’t much.”
“It’s not, is it? I’ve been working with Rosie on some of the songs.”
“Steve Rosenbaum? So it was him I saw in the studio pictures.”
“I’m not sleeping with him, by the way. He’s just a friend.”
“I thought he was gay.”
“Yep. He most certainly is. You haven’t asked me who I am sleeping with yet.”
“Do you want me to?”
She tried to sound blasé. “Not really bothered. But most journalists want to know about my sex life before they get to the music. If they get to the music.”
“Male journalists, maybe, writing for a male audience.”
“The last female journalist who interviewed me only wanted to know about my shoe collection. As if, because I’m female and get styled now and again, I’ve got a clue about footwear. Do I look like I care?” Her feet were actually bare; she’d kicked off some fairly generic-looking black plimsolls before she’d sat down. She nodded towards them. “Mum got me those in Tesco.”
God, this was weird! It was as if the argument were yesterday and we doing life as normal, dismissing falling out with each other as a silly little spat, except it was twenty years later and we’d become middle-aged. But India was still, well, India: sharp, pushing for autonomy, her face flowing through a myriad of expressions as she spoke.
“Well, I know even less about shoes than you do,” I said.
And she laughed again. “You always were the music nerd, weren’t you? Who cares who she’s sleeping with? Let’s nail down the inspiration behind that B minor seventh, it’s so much more important.”
“You’re not sleeping with anyone, are you?”
She frowned. “How do you know?”
“You’re fidgeting. You always used to fidget more when you were single.”
She buried her face in her hands, groaning. “Oh bugger, is it that obvious?”
“It is to me. It’s been a long time, but I’m not sure any of us change as much as we think. So now we’ve got that out the way, let’s talk about your album.”
She took her hands away from her face, and looked at me, smiling. “You’re determined to do a professional job on this, aren’t you?”
“You can talk about shoes if you like. Or sex. Up to you.”
“OK, OK! I’ll behave.” She put her hands up in mock surrender and rearranged her legs on the settee. “Well, I wrote some of this album with Rosie, so that’s probably why it sounds like Syndrome.”
“And you wrote the last album alone?”
“Yes, but the last album was so close to all the mess with the band that I made a conscious effort to move away from it, to do something completely unconnected and new.”
“Which was the hardest to put together?” I was curious, and she seemed to want to talk music, now that the clichés of the female rock artiste interview had been dealt with.
“Oh, the first one. It felt more forced. Sometimes you need to face your issues and make friends with them.” She groaned again. “God, listen to me! You can tell I’ve lived in LA, can’t you?”
“So you’re happier now than when you made the first album?”
She thought for a moment, biting her lip, then smiled. “Apart from needing a good seeing to?”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t going back down that route, so I sat, waiting for her to continue, and eventually she spoke.
“Well, I’m in England permanently now. I’m spending lots of time hanging out at my parents’, seeing family.” And she stopped and looked at me, challenging, penetrating my thoughts. “Aren’t you going to ask how my family are?”
I knew exactly what she was getting at, and I wasn’t going to rise to it. “It wasn’t really part of my interview plan,” I said. “Are they still in Aldeburgh?”
“My parents are. Same house. So it’s relaxing, and homely – well, it would be, wouldn’t it?”
“But it’s a honeypot for artists and musicians – not that I fit into that, really; it’s all arty-farty stuff, Britten and Pears, but I feel creative when I’m there. It’s all contradictions, with this dark, brooding sea and the nuclear power station down the coast. I like that. It’s us against nature, isn’t it?”
I remembered it quite well. I’d been to stay at her house once in the holidays. It was a sprawling, Victorian pile close to the seafront, full of dark, antique furniture, elegantly carved and inlaid. Her family were obviously very comfortably off. I could recall being awkwardly aware of the subtleties of the British class system, and wondering how we both fitted into the middle bracket.
“And there’s this big unspoilt thing going on,” she continued. “You know, streets that have hardly changed in seventy years, but all these little hints of pretentiousness to keep the London crowd happy. It’s full of people wanting to get away from it all but still needing soya lattes.” She stopped.
“Go on,” I said.
“That’s not really what you want to know about my family, is it?”
“He’s happily married, their son’s two, another baby on the way.”
“Sorry?” But I knew exactly who she was talking about. So, that was that. The little flame of delusional hope in my heart was snuffed out.
“Ben,” she said, and the final instalment of my comeuppance was delivered. “That’s what you really wanted to know, wasn’t it?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“Admit it, you were curious.”
There was nothing to lose anymore. “Maybe. I did wonder how he was. What’s he doing? For work, I mean?” I hoped she hadn’t noticed the wobble in my voice.
“He lives up in Manchester; he’s a university lecturer. Academic musicology type stuff, specialises in popular music, writes pretentious twaddle about representations of postmodernism on the X-factor.”
“No, Becky, that really is the title of one of his papers. Do you think I could make something like that up?”
The delusional flame began to flicker again, as I considered the potential for an article about Ben’s theories. “We really ought to be talking about you,” I said, as much to get myself back on track as to steer her topic of conversation.
She scowled. “I’m enjoying catching up with you. You still haven’t told me very much.”
“No, because I’m trying to interview you, remember?” I reached for a question that would restart the momentum in another direction. “Did you write the songs for the album while you were staying in Aldeburgh?”
“That row we had. When you slept with Marcus.”
I shut my eyes.
“D’you know, Becky, if that hadn’t happened, then I don’t think Syndrome would have either.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I’d have come back to university the next term and carried on as before, with the band as a hobby. That argument forced me to rethink, to drop out, and that made me determined things would happen with Syndrome. If I’d finished my degree, I’d have missed the window.”
“But it wasn’t the row that stopped you coming back to finish the course, was it? It was a good opportunity to take a year out. Because of where you were with your music.”
“And because of my crap marks? No, it was the row that triggered it all. I felt awful about it. I couldn’t come back and grovel to move back in; I’d pushed it way too far for that.”
“Why did you feel awful? It was my fault.”
“I’m not sure you did. I was completely out of order.”
“Becky, I’m so sorry about what happened. There have been loads of times when I’ve needed someone to ground me, and there’s not really been anyone who understood me the way you did. But we had to fall out for me to make Syndrome work. It would have been so much better if I’d had both.” And for the first time that I could remember, she looked genuinely vulnerable.
“Is that why you wanted me to do the interview?”
“It’s time we were mates again. Life’s too short.”