The stilettos are a mistake. When she was dressing at six thirty that morning, she’d nearly opted for trainers, but trainers would have spoiled the look. Rock chick glamour. That’s what she’d been aiming for, and for glamour, you need heels.
She checks her watch. Nearly eleven. Her feet are killing her. For a moment she considers taking the shoes off, but the surface of the car park is potholed and gritty and she can’t afford to ladder her tights.
All around her there are others, waiting in a vast labyrinth of aluminium railings, restless as a forest in autumn. A ceaseless symphony of voices – some laughing, some shrieking, some singing – fills her ears and gives substance to the paralysing toxin of doubt that keeps seeping into her thoughts. Still, she’s here now.
“Come by yourself, did you?” She turns to face a tall, skinny girl with scarlet hair and a column of Chinese characters tattooed down one shoulder. She nods.
“Me too.” The girl cracks her gum before adding, “my mum would kill me if she knew I was here.”
She smiles and says nothing; she knows the feeling.
By one-fifteen she’s eaten her crisps and shared a choc-chip muffin with the tattooed girl. Every so often, she takes little sips from the inch of water at the bottom of her bottle, wishing she’d bought the bigger one instead.
Tar-like, the queue oozes towards the door. Just ahead of her, two boys are flinging curses at each other, faces thrust forward, hands curling into fists. In the row behind, a little girl has fallen over and scraped her knee. The mother kneels, dabs at the blood, insists another half an hour and they’ll be in, but the child just keeps sobbing and tugging at the woman’s sleeve.
“Is it really worth it?” she wonders. Perhaps it’s time to call a halt and go home. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she reminds herself. What does she have to go home to anyway?
Overhead, clouds clot and spit out stinging needles of rain. She shivers and pulls the little jacket she’s brought close around her shoulders. The last shreds of glamour dissolve and drip from loose strands of her ruined beehive.
At ten to five she makes it inside. An official-looking girl, not much older than she is, takes her name, gives her a number and nods her towards the waiting area. Another hour, they reckon. Even then it’ll only be the producers. At least she can go to the loo. Perhaps refill the water bottle too. She’d kill for a cup of tea.
In the main hall, contestants are settling in for the long haul. Some have hogged entire rows of seats and are pretending to grab some shut-eye. Others are camped on the floor amid a sea of discarded shoes and sweet wrappers. There’s a smell of stale soda and socks and on every face the same look of dogged determination. Each is tending to their own nub of hope.
She slots her last pound into a vending machine by the door, bends to extract a Twix then picks her way through a puzzle of legs to an empty seat by the window. Outside, the sun has shrugged off its mantle of cloud and set fire to the windows of executive flats on the far side of the river. She notices a few disconsolate johnny-come-latelies still loitering between the railings. With a yawn, she watches idly as a gull tracks the current downstream to the estuary.
At half seven, she gives in and calls home. She listens as her mum’s anger yields to sarcasm, then concern. It’s okay though; she feels better now. From somewhere in the guts of the building the subterranean thud of a bass guitar starts up. Around her the roar of voices subsides to a murmur, low and lilting as a lullaby. She almost nods off.
Suddenly, too soon, they’re calling out her number. First off, they ask for the disc. Her mind goes blank. What disc? The backing music of course. Her fingers flutter through her bag, as she fights the firestorm raging through her tattered confidence. Where the fuck is it? Idiot! She’s put it in the pocket to keep it safe.
“No need to apologise,” the producer sighs. “Let’s just get on with it, shall we?” Why had she ever thought she could do this?
Next thing, she’s stumbling onto the stage and peering through a veil of light into the black maw of the auditorium. One judge is absent. Another has swung round to confer with a bearded man with a clipboard and headset. The third is hunched over the desk, jabbing brisk observations onto a notepad. She’s a little shocked, seeing them in the flesh; real human beings not merely a mirage conjured from pixels and a thousand pages of newsprint.
The head judge looks up, gives her the go ahead. The opening bars, as if she’s never heard them before. Dry mouth, damp palms. She starts tremulously, a tad flat on the high C. A pause. She steels herself, draws breath, hits the top note. Faultless. She’s flying now, a skylark streaking towards the stratosphere, adrenalin – irrepressible, joyous – flaring through every muscle, every vein. It’s where she’s always wanted to be. The judges are listening now, sitting back in their seats, eyes wide, giving their full attention.
On the train heading north, her journey is just beginning. A scatter of fellow passengers are propped up in corners or dozing over the evening rag. She’s been up forever, but sleep is out of the question. She remembers the countless nights alone with the Ipod. She remembers the posh kids, and the clever ones, and the told-you-so teachers who looked down and never saw. She smiles to herself. She’s on her way.