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Schrödinger's Cat (Or, the Five Times Harry and Louis Both Met and Did Not Meet)

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23 May 2002, Manchester Museum of Science and Industry
“They say Arsenal might take a third double,” Stan comments, studiously ignoring Mrs. Branford’s gushing explanation of the 1712 James Watt steam engine. “Wankers.”

“They shouldn’t have beat Man U in the last game as it is,” Louis hisses back. “And anyway, three doubles hasn’t ever been done. And it won’t be done by Arsenal, Stan, jesus.”

“Mr. Tomlinson,” Mrs. Branford calls suddenly, making Louis jump, “Mr. Lucas. Louis, would you like to tell the class about the original use for steam engines?”

“I believe they were originally used to power things with steam?”

The class laughs and Mrs. Branford rolls her eyes, leading them on to the next model engine. Stan elbows Louis in the side. “Smart arse.”

Louis widens his eyes innocently. “I wasn’t wrong.” Then he cocks his chin towards the door. “Look. Another school group.”

“Sweet.” Stan pops his collar. “Maybe there’s some fit girls for a change. Bloody Alex still won’t talk to me.”

Louis is quiet. Stan’s become… really interested in girls lately, but Louis – doesn’t quite feel that. He’s trying to tell himself that he’s probably just not there yet. He’s only ten; there’s plenty of time to waste on being interested in girls.

“Looks like they’re little,” Louis comments. “So probably not.”

“Bugger,” Stan grumbles. He keeps his collar popped just in case.

Louis keeps one eye on the new group milling about the hall and an ear on Stan as he natters on about Stewart Duff on Stars in their Eyes coming up on Sunday. The group from the other school are definitely not from nearby; their uniforms have a hippy-dippy logo of embracing figures instead of a proper crest. Hermitage Primary, Louis reads, Holmes Chapel. Where in heck is Holmes Chapel?

One of the kids in the other group is monkeying around, pulling faces and doing disco dances behind the teacher’s back whenever he turns around. After they’re turned free to their own devices, the kid pulls out three juggling balls from his pocket and starts a fairly impressive loop as he sings,

Miss Maxie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Maxie went to heaven
The tugboat went to
Hello Operator
Give me number two!
And if you disconnect me
I'll find your house and do a
Pools are fun to swim in
And so’s a water park
Miss Maxie had a boyfriend and they fumbled in the
Darker than the ocean
Darker than the sea
Darker than the underwear my mummy puts on me!

The other class, and Louis’, roar with laughter as the kid beams and keeps juggling, never missing a beat.

His teacher snatches the balls out of the air and pockets them.

“Styles!” The teacher barks. “Go sit by the wall and wait for lunch. This is the third time this week.”

The kid – Styles – keeps smiling as he trudges over to the blank wall between posters explaining the mechanics of steam engines, and he slides down the wall cool-as-you please.

001.
“That lad’s got balls,” Stan comments, impressed.

Louis nods, staring at Styles standing in the corner, completely nonplussed and resting with his head against the wall, eyes closed. After a few minutes of peeking over, he realizes that Styles is taking a nap.

It’s not as if Louis’ never been in trouble for rabblerousing, and he considers himself something of an expert in the art if he’s honest, but he’s rather impressed at this kid’s dedication – learning to juggle just to cause a distraction so his friend could slip off unnoticed to dry out his wet trousers, which Louis is fairly certain no one else noticed, shows quite high moral fiber as far as Louis is concerned. The kid – Styles – looks utterly unconcerned about the certainly-impending letter home to his parents; he’s just sitting curled up like a cat in the corner, sleeping away.

“Yeah,” Louis echoes, entirely too late. “Top lad.”

A few minutes later, while Louis and Stan are trying to barricade each other into one of the model train’s compartments, Styles’ friend comes back into the exhibition hall with his school jumper tied around his waist. He pats Styles’ head on his way back to their group.

“Wotcher, Tommo!” Stan yowls, and Louis realizes he’s nearly elbowed Stan in the face in his diversion.

Mr. Tomlinson,” Mrs. Branford snaps again, less patiently than before, “And Mr. Lucas. Come here and pay attention before I have to tether you together like inmates.”

01.
“That lad’s got balls,” Stan comments, impressed.

Louis nods, staring at Styles standing in the corner, completely nonplussed and resting with his head against the wall, eyes closed. He looks like he’s humming to himself, absently dancing his shoulders up and down.

“He didn’t even sing it right.” Louis smirks. “I’ll show you balls.”

“No, thanks, all the same mate, I’m not like that,” Stan jokes, shoving Louis, but then Louis grins and starts singing –

Miss Maxie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Maxie went to heaven
And the tugboat went to
Hello, Dr. Johnson,
My brother’s very sick
He went on hols in Amsterdam
And now he has no
Dicktaphones record things
And pantos are all mime
For lunch I had a curry
Now it’s comin’ out of my
Behind the ‘fridgerator
There sat a piece of glass
Miss Maxie sat upon it
And broke her little
Assk me no more questions
Tell me no more lies
The boys are in the bathroom
Zipping up their
Flies are in the meadow
The dog is on the hunt
Miss Suzie found a tampon
And she shoved it up her
Cuntry, kin, and valor
Are all important things!
They are not like monogamy:
My parents like to
Swingsets on the playground
Slides are in the park
Miss Suzie had a boyfriend and they
Fumbled in the
D-A-R-K!
D-A-R-K!
D-A-R-K, dark dark dark!

Both classes go crazy.

Louis Tomlinson!” Mrs. Branford hisses, mindful of the other teacher and her class from the hippy-dippy school all watching what’s going on. When Louis glances to the wall, even Styles has opened one eye and is watching keenly. “You stand by the wall and be quiet until lunch. You’re on discipline.”

Louis steps up beside Styles and sits, folding his knees up to his chest. He heaves a theatrical sigh and lets his head, too, bang up against the wall.

“Your version’s dirtier,” Styles whispers. “What’s a country? Not like England, like – why’s it funny in your song?”

“I don’t know,” Louis admits. “I don’t get a lot of it.”

“I’m Harry,” Harry Styles says, and sneaks his hand over for Louis to shake.

“I’m Louis,” Louis says, “And I’m in Year 6. What year are you?”

“Four,” Harry says. “I go to Hermitage in Holmes Chapel, but I think I’m changing schools maybe ‘cause my parents are getting a divorce and we’re moving to Sandbach ‘cause my mum bought a pub.”

“I live in Doncaster, but I used to live in Poole,” Louis reports. “My mum got married a few years ago, so we moved. It’s not that bad once you got friends.”

“I got a sister who’s two years ahead,” Harry muses. “She’s lucky ‘cause they got to go on a trip to the Man U museum today instead of here.”

“Bloody hell, that sounds so much better,” Louis swears. “I love Man U.”

“Arsenal shouldn’t have beat them in the last match,” Harry says darkly. “Second double my butt.”

“I know!” Louis cries, and they’re both immediately admonished by the two teachers. Louis takes care to whisper as he asks, “Do you play footie at all?”

“Yeah, a bit,” Harry says. “We won our tourney last year.”

They chat about football for a while, and then Pop Idol. They talk about how great it would be to go to London to see the Party at the Palace, and Harry sings part of S Club 7’s “Reach” and they talk about how cool it would be to get to be on S Club Search. Harry thinks Frankie is well fit, but Louis deflects with a simple yeah, but she’s no Hannah Spearritt. Louis doesn’t even notice time has passed until Stan comes up and jumps on Louis’ back, knocking him – and Harry Styles – into the wall as they stumble.

“You shithead!” Stan cackles, “Leaving me alone to have to learn about bloody steam engines!”

“Soz,” Louis says, wrestling Stan into a head lock. “Can we eat lunch? I’m starving.”

“Wait!” Harry Styles calls as Louis and Stan start to walk away. “Louis! But – we’re best friends now!”

Stan laughs and scoffs, kids.

But Louis stops, and looks at Harry Styles, with his close-cropped hair and enormous eyes and hippy-dippy logo on his school uniform, and the look on his face because he’s moving away.

“Here,” Louis offers, and he pulls a pen out of his bag. “D’you have MSN?”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “But I can’t use the computer until my homework is finished.”

“Me, neither,” Louis says glumly. “But here’s my addy anyway. Now, even in Sandbach, you’ll have a friend.”

16 December 2006, Manchester Christmas Market
Harry sighs and rolls his shoulders as he stuffs his hands into his pockets and heads deeper into the jolly weekend crowd. The morning drive in had been so foggy it felt like driving through soup, but by now the sky had cleared into a cold, crisp, wintry white; Harry can see his breath in little puffs as he exhales. He tries to blow a smoke ring with just his breath. It doesn’t work.

Passing up the street, families on all sides of him, Harry shuffles over to look at a long pathway of plants and shrubberies for sale, already strung with fairy lights. Some are even topiary already shorn into the shapes of reindeer replete with red noses, and Harry smiles in spite of himself.

His brand-new mobile rings in his pocket, and he switches it off, smile melting from his face.

Harry continues on up the road until he comes to the French confectionery he’s loved since he was a kid. It smells sweet, spilling out onto the cold sidewalk, and there are happy yells and squeals ringing through its open rafters. Harry jostles his way towards the tables of goods and spends maybe more time than necessary to examine all of the jewel-like cellophane cones of pastilles and berlingots de Nantes and violets de Toulouse: violent yellow anise-fennel; pale, creamy vanilla; black licorice and dark magenta elderberry. They’re ridiculously expensive and he’d blown all of his pocket money on The Killers’ Sam’s Town and Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book, Wintersmith, so Harry skirts around the table to the bins of bulk sweets.

He’s just opened the plastic cover to the cream rock when, quite unexpectedly, a tiny little person collides with his legs and clings there, pudgy face pressed into his knee.

“Oh!” Harry gasps, surprised. He looks down and there’s a tiny head of white-blonde hair and comical blue earmuffs. “Hello.”

“Daisy!” yells a frantic voice from nearby. “Daisy!”

Harry reaches down timidly to pat the little head of white-blonde hair at his knee. “Are you Daisy?”

The little head nods, clutching onto Harry’s jeans with chubby toddler fingers.

“Erm,” Harry calls over the crowd, “I think I’ve found Daisy.”

002.
A harassed-looking woman with long, brown hair rounds the pastilles table and spots Harry with Daisy still attached to his leg like a limpet.

Daisy,” she sighs, rushing over and kneeling to pry the little one loose. “Sweetpea, you can’t run off like that!” She stands, bouncing the toddler, and reaches out to touch Harry’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry; was she bothering you?”

“No,” Harry says honestly. “Just standing here.” He takes a look at the arm full of shopping bags supporting Daisy up on her hip. “D’you need some help?”

She smiles. “No, thank you so much, though. I’ve just – we brought my son’s girlfriend and he’s gone off in a tiff, and the shouting frightened Daisy here and she – ” she tickles Daisy’s belly and Daisy bares her teeth, giggling – “Ran off.”

“I can help you carry some things,” Harry offers again, “Just ‘til you get back to your family?”

The woman considers Harry for a long moment and finally nods, smiling. “What’s your name?”

“Harry,” Harry says. “I erm, sort of ran off from my mum, too, so this can be my absolution.”

The woman laughs and hands him two heavy bags full of blown-glass ornaments and German sausages and a big bottle of dark, purplish mulled wine. “Well, I can write you an excuse note if you’d like one when you find her again. My name’s Jay, and you know Miss Daisy already. I do appreciate the extra hand.”

Harry smiles and follows her along the edge of the crowd; they’re immediately barraged by three more little blonde girls, including one just exactly Daisy’s size, who clings tightly onto Daisy right away with smothering arms around her neck in a possessive hug. Harry hands the bags to Jay’s husband, a big, friendly-looking bloke with square glasses, and smiles at her oldest daughter, who blushes.

Jay buys Harry a hot chocolate for his help.

“Thanks,” Harry says effusively, letting the rich aroma of chocolate and cream and praline candy coax a smile onto his face and warm his pink nose. “Erm, did you – are you gonna be okay with all your stuff until your son comes back?”

Jay waves a dismissive hand. “I’m sure he’s not far off. He just needed to blow off some steam.” She looks sideways at Harry. “I have a feeling you understand.”

Harry looks down into his cocoa mug. “My mum’s brought her new boyfriend. And I really like him and all, but – ”

“But it’s harder at Christmas,” Jay finishes. She pats Harry’s shoulder and gives it a little motherly squeeze. “I’ll tell you a little secret. It’s harder for your mum to know how unhappy you are than it is for you to be so unhappy. And I bet she’s really worried right now.”

As if on cue, Harry’s phone rings again in his pocket. He looks up at Jay and she smiles. “Go on. I’m sure Daisy will find you again if we need you.”

Harry grins at her and murmurs another thanks for the hot chocolate, then picks up his phone. “Hi, Mum. No, I’m alright, I’m just up getting a hot chocolate. D’you or Robin or Gemma want one? Well, I can’t carry four on my own; I’ve not got enough hands, Mum, honestly…”

02.
A boy about Harry’s age breaks out of the crowd, his hair gelled into spikes down over his forehead. He’s wearing an enormously oversized red hoodie and his blue eyes are wide with panic – enough that Harry can already tell the color from feet away, although he’d like to pretend that he’s not noticing anything about the boy. He’s been going through some things with that. The pretty-eyed boy is already carrying one little blonde tot tightly in his arms; she’s wearing a pair of purple earmuffs that otherwise match Daisy’s blue. “Daisy!”

Harry bends down to whisper in Daisy’s ear again. “Can I pick you up?”

Daisy nods and lifts her arms, still pouting. Harry oophs as he lifts her up onto his hip, then waves at the boy. “She’s over here.”

Relief breaks on the other boy’s face and he rushes over, knocking over a small display of long, glass-like spun sugar ropes. He swears and picks them back up, settling them on the table with a few coins, and elbows through the crowd to Harry and Daisy.

“You little – rascal,” he chides, reaching out to pluck Daisy out of Harry’s arms, balancing her on the opposite hip as, apparently, her twin. “Don’t run off like that! You’re gonna get me killed.” He looks to Harry. “Thanks, mate.”

“S’alright,” Harry assures him. “I’ve, erm, done a bit of a runner on my family, too, so I get where she’s coming from.” He pauses. “I’m Harry.”

“Louis,” Louis says. “You know Daisy already. This other one’s Phoebe. They’re twins.”

“I can see that,” Harry says, and they both laugh.

“Yeah, fair enough,” Louis says. “Daze, say thanks to Harry for keeping you out of trouble. Well, kind of.”

“Kind of,” Daisy pipes, peering up at Harry. She fishes into her pink coat and pulls out a handful of marshmallows, then hands one to her twin and they both munch. Daisy smiles at Harry with sugar all over her mouth.

“You’re welcome,” Harry says. “Kind of.”

Louis narrows one eye and considers Harry. “Why’d you run off from your family? Are you – alright?”

Harry feels his cheeks color. “Yeah, yeah, it’s not – like, it’s just, erm, basically, my mum has a new boyfriend and he’s a good guy, and all, but it’s just – she’s hovering and it was driving me mad.”

“I can understand that,” Louis says. “My mum got married again a few years ago and that’s how I got these troublemakers -- ” he jiggles Daisy and Phoebe in his arms and they squeak, drooling sugar goo – “Plus two more. Have you any brothers or sisters?”

“I have one sister,” Harry says, shrugging. “She’s older and doesn’t pay me any attention. We’ve just moved back to Holmes Chapel, that’s where we lived as kids, only her friends remember her and she’s always out with them. I was pretty little so… I’ve got to catch back up.”

“That’s rough,” Louis commiserates. “I just switched schools in the summer, but I wanted to do it so it’s better for me than you.” He pauses for a minute, then looks over Harry’s shoulder – Harry glances around and there’s a woman and man standing with eyebrows cocked and their sides flanked by two more little blonde girls carrying shopping over their arms. Louis jerks his chin to Harry and raises his own eyebrow. The woman, Harry presumes her to be Louis- and the twins’ mum, shrugs and nods.

“Say,” Louis says, “D’you want some company? We can go up and get some food or a coffee or something, if you want.”

“I don’t really have any money on me,” Harry admits, scuffing his tennies on the ground. “Thanks, though.”

“I’ll spot,” Louis offers. “Like a police reward for finding Daisy.”

Harry looks up with round eyes. Louis grins at him, and his eyes wrinkle at the sides even though he’s so young, like he’s done more smiling in the years he’s got than are usually allotted. “Okay. Thanks.”

“The catch is,” Louis answers, “You have to carry Daze, since apparently she likes you better’n me anyhow.”

Louis gives Daisy over to Harry and both boys sling one of the twins up onto their shoulders to carry them that way, making it easier to get through the heavy crowds without squashing the little ones. Harry keeps sneaking glances at Louis walking just ahead of him, leading the way through the crush of Albert Square. As they pass stalls and wooden huts, different smells waft out to entice them in towards chocolate, garlic mushrooms, currywurst and potatoes, French cheeses and crisp-skinned whole hog ham; Daisy oohs and Look!s and, on Louis’ shoulders, Phoebe chatters away until Louis takes them all on a detour to the Dutch Cookieman stall to buy a gooey caramel stroopwafel for them to split.

“There better not be caramel in my hair tonight,” Harry comments. “My mum will wonder.”

“You can just tell her it’s all the fault of the strapping young lad from Donny you met this afternoon,” Louis says breezily with a wink. “On your journey to a mouthful of hot meat.”

Harry barks a laugh in shock, then slaps a hand over his mouth, mortified. He looks anywhere but at Louis then, and it’s easy enough to pretend that he’s been distracted by the huge Nativity display in fairy lights at the top of the block. Daisy yanks at Harry’s ear, and he has a passing moment of wishing that his hair were longer and she could just pull at that instead, because it fucking hurt, but having curly hair as a boy is almost as embarrassing as that giggling laugh.

“Sorry,” Louis mutters, and when Harry peeks over at him, the tips of his ears are red, too. “I’m – never mind.”

“No, it’s okay,” Harry assures him. He bites his lips together and braves reaching out to pat Louis’ elbow. “It – yeah, it’s okay.”

Louis swallows and nods. “This – my mum’s trying to… I always liked the Christmas market, so after I told her last night, she – I think she thinks I need cheering up or something about it, but it’s mostly okay now I’ve changed schools.”

Harry sucks in a breath through his teeth and nods. “Yeah, that’s – good.”

Louis nods back, and then laughs like someone’s just told the world’s best and newest joke. “And now, Harry somebody-or-other who just moved back to Holmes Chapel, you know more about me than people I’ve known since I was seven.”

Harry feels a little warmer, and it’s not just because of the popping and crackling fireplace they just passed cutting through a coffee-and-Glühwein stall. “It’s a good thing to know.”

Louis peeks over at him. “Is it?”

Harry feels his face go read again and mentally curses. “Yeah. It’s, erm, basically – it’s a nice thing to know. About someone else at a new school.”

Harry takes the plunge this time to peer over at Louis again, and Louis is smiling with his lips pursed and his eyes cast downward like he’s trying to rein it in – but the crinkles around his eyes give him away, and it makes Harry smile back, broad and with teeth and the dimples in his cheeks, like he’s rarely comfortable smiling around people back home because it makes him look so baby-faced.

They lift Daisy and Phoebe down from their shoulders at the door of the brauhaus and they each wrap their sticky little hands around two of Louis’ fingers, trotting along happily at his sides in their pink coats and mismatched earmuffs. Harry walks just behind them, not sure what to do with his own hands anymore that someone else in the world knows, and doesn’t care, and is the same.

Once they finally manage to shoulder their way up to the counter, Louis manages to get them both steins of beer because he looks sixteen and at a German Christmas market, no one really cares. They both get flimsy plates of weisswurst with mustard and soft pretzels – and a little dish of potatoes and Heinz beans for the twins – and start trying to look for a table with room for four in the bustling peoplescape.

“Hey!” Harry exclaims, “It’s my family. They’ve got room. If you want.”

“If you don’t mind it,” Louis hedges, and he gives Harry a faintly significant look. “Then yeah. Sure.”

Harry smiles. “I don’t mind. And look, my mum’s spotted me anyway, so I can’t well walk away.”

They shepherd the twins in front of them, skipping and singing falalalalas much to the boys’ embarrassment, to the Styleses’ table. After Anne has hugged Harry fiercely and then swatted the back of his head for running off, Harry introduces Louis and the twins and explains how they happened to come across each other. Anne smiles warmly at Louis, and helps him cut up the twins’ potatoes so they could feed themselves.

Louis is charming while they all eat. Shy, but charming. He explains about the four sisters, and that he goes to school in Doncaster. He tells them about his band, The Rogue, and that he played a small part in If I Had You on the BBC.

“Really small,” he clarifies. “I didn’t have any lines that made it to camera, and I was on for about three seconds in total.”

Harry thinks that it sounds glamorous anyway. He doesn’t know anyone who’s been on telly.

“Harry loves singing and acting, too,” Anne tells Louis, making Harry pull a desperate face. “He’s been in a few school productions, but not in years.”

Mum.” Harry sounds hoarse through clenched teeth.

Anne gives him an innocent look.

Louis looks to Harry and smiles. “I just like everything performing. Music, acting. I’m not great at dancing, but I’d like to learn. I wanna do everything, like, sing on stage, act in films. Do you… like films?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, because who doesn’t like films?

Louis looks carefully at his plate. “Have you seen Casino Royale yet?”

Harry has; three times. He likes Daniel Craig kind of a lot, and Eva Green, too, which is all measures of confusing for him. He didn’t think it was supposed to work that way, but apparently even if it isn’t, he does.

“No,” he says. “Is it good?”

“Oh, it’s great!” Louis enthuses, “I always get nervous when there’s a new Bond, but I think Daniel Craig really kills it. Erm – ” he falters and coughs a little, dislodging some mis-swallowed weisswurst from the back of his dry throat. “If you could get to Manchester again next weekend, would you, like – be interested in seeing it? If you like Bond.”

Harry looks to his mum, who is watching them shrewdly with misty eyes over the rim of her Glühwein mug. She nods, and Robin puts his arm around her, smiling at Harry, too.

“Yeah,” Harry says, feeling a nervous-excitement squiggle in his stomach. “I like James Bond. And films. And Manchester.”

Louis’ ears go pink again and he nods, looking intently at his plate. “Good. Me, too.”

7 June 2008, The Cosey Club, Haslington


CL > manchester craigslist > community > musicians

Opening Act Wanted for cool youth rock band….!!
Date: 2008-05-17, 9:58PM BST
Reply to: xn2vp-31860034340@craigslist.org

We (white Eskimo) are looking for a band to play our opening b4 the Cosey Club in Haslington in crewe in Cheshire. we are looking 4 openers no older than 6TH form who can pay ur own way to show . we can give you sandwiches !! .x White Eskimo plays covers mostly like the eagles,blink-182,green day,beatles,etc. looking for act palying similar..pls send link 2 video or audio n we will contact if we like you!!!

“No. Fucking. Way.” Stan shakes his fringe out of his eyes and squares his jaw at Louis. “I don’t even know where Crewe is.”

“We have to play somewhere before HayDay or we’ll never hear the end of it from Jona,” Louis argues. “Look, get a map and we’ll find Crewe. It says it’s near Manchester so that’s something, alright?”

“I just don’t think we’re cut out to be traveling musicians.” Stan flops back on Louis’ mattress and stares at the ceiling. There are scorch marks up there from an ill-advised homemade flamethrower two summers back and a spiderweb network of cracks from how hard Louis’ head struck up there once jumping on the bed. Hidden behind a giant Man U poster tacked up facing Louis’ pillow is a hole that they haven’t yet told Jay about, and aren’t really sure of the origin… there was peppermint schnapps involved. Stan remembers that much. And something about ski poles.

“I don’t care.” Louis jabs at the ‘reply’ button obstinately. “I’m sick of Jona lording it over that they still have a guitarist and a bassist and a drummer, and we just have a guitar and two keyboardists.”

“But that is worth lording over us about,” Stan points out. “We’re not a proper band. We have no rhythm section. And no rhythm.”

I don’t care.” Louis’ double-clicked on the folder of .WAV files that he had made with Geoff back in better days. “We’re getting this gig, Staniel. Looking for bands no older than 6th form? We’re probably a shoe-in.”

“What if they’re a bunch of paedophiles?” Stan props himself up on his elbow. “Didja think of that? It is Craigslist; there’s always those stories about people getting murdered and eaten or whatever from there.”

“That was one guy in Germany,” Louis says dismissively. “And he wanted to get eaten.”

“That doesn’t mean these aren’t paedos in Crewe.”

“Look, the spelling is too bad to be adults. And I feel like only lads our own age would offer to pay in sandwiches.”

“That’s how they get you,” Stan mutters. “Pump you full of sandwiches to get you at ease, and then bam, it’s not really a gig. And ‘Cosey Club’? Sounds sketch to me.”

“Maybe it’s a strip club,” Louis says. “Maybe this is the best gig of our lives.”

“Maybe it’s an OAP knitting gala,” Stan says, and they both start to laugh. “Quilts are cozy.”

“A kitten adoption festival,” Louis suggests. “Dead cozy.”

Stan lobs a pillow at Louis and it hits one of the half-empty cans of Coke that litter Louis’ desk, so old that even when it spills, the soda just slugs out like syrup into a black dollop on the desktop. Louis grabs another of the empty cans and throws that at Stan in retaliation, and by the time they’re finished, there’s a brand-new nick in the wall and a brown stain on the carpet that they hide with a hamper.

After Jay’s fed them pizza for dinner, they do agree on a few songs to send off to this ‘White Eskimo’ looking for an opening act in Crewe, wherever in hell Crewe is. If it’s even a place. Stan thinks it might be fake, like Narnia, and the whole ad’s been a set-up from Jona to humiliate them.

And then they forget about it. Two weeks pass, and in Year 12, that’s an eternity. Stan starts dating Katy and they break up in a melodramatic scene in the hall, culminating with him being beaned in the head by a thrown mandarin orange. Louis gets a job working at the Cineplex and receives his first late warning within five days. They counsel Niz and Alex through the slings and arrows of the most long-term relationship of their classmates about four times, and privately whinge about how they really ought to break up because it’s driving everyone else mad.

Life is humdrum and simple. Two more long cracks wind their way through Louis’ bedroom walls from rogue football kicks.

And then the e-mail reply bings through.

003.


Date: 2008-05-29, 2:27PM BST
Reply to: ip4pp-33877004338@craigslist.org

hey ,

thanx for you’re interest to open for White eskimo . you’re band JAR is 1 of th finalests of 3 that we ‘re picking frm if u have Skype & can play live we cn eevalluate you’re band on saturday or if not please send a vid
congrats & thanx

will
(White Eskimo)

“Are you shitting me?” Stan asks around a mouthful of Freddo Frog. He rests his chin on Louis’ shoulder and stares at the computer screen, their ears brushing. “Well, fuck me with a feather, we have a gig.”

“I’d rather not,” Louis mumbles. “And we don’t have a gig, we have an audition. Over Skype. I bet you were right, we’re gonna download it and there’ll be a bleeding paedo on the other end.”

“We’re willing to play for sandwiches, so they must know we can’t just drive out to Crewe on a moment’s notice,” Stan points out. “And anyway, that spelling was too bad to be anyone but a kid.”

“That spelling was bad,” Louis agrees. He closes the e-mail and turns his chair, whumping Stan in the chest with his shoulder. He dives across the space between his desk chair and his bed, the headboard hitting the wall as he lands in a perfectly Louis-shaped divot of worn blankets. “I bet they’re in like Year Six. I bet the Cosey Club is a water aerobics class for babies.”

“Still a gig,” Stan says. He finishes his Freddo Frog and sits down on the end of Louis’ bed so he can shake Louis’ ankle. “We’d be playing for people who aren’t your mum.”

Louis levels Stan with a look. “Who do you think would drive us to Crewe?”

“Well.” A shrug. “At least there might be someone there besides your mum. White Eskimo will be there.”

Louis is still lying back on the bedspread, ribs poking up under his rumpled G-Star t-shirt and his jeans faded at the knees, grass stains from footie along the side of his calf, bare feet mangled with calluses and ground-in dirt, his hair pushing up with a cowlick despite a full pot of gel; there’s a spot on the side of his nose and one of his fingernails is bruised black underneath from an old jab at the locker door. He looks over at Stan and says, in the voice he doesn’t use very often, “I don’t think I’m really meant to be a musician, is the thing. Don’t fancy making a fool of myself.”

Stan shrugs and fishes a packet of Wotsits from his pocket. “Even if you aren’t, that doesn’t mean you’ll make a fool of yourself. I don’t think you’re awful.”

“You think I’m good?” Louis props himself up on one elbow and holds out his other hand plaintively for some cheese puffs.

“I didn’t say that,” Stan says. “But I don’t think you’re awful. And they’re paying in sandwiches; I don’t think they’re expecting us to be well good. You can carry a tune and you remember the words. ‘S’good enough for me. And if you were awful, I’d’ve split with Jona. I’m not that nice.”

“Yeah, you are,” Louis grumps. He flops back against the bed again, halfway flipped over so he can root around under the bed. “See if I share my spliff with you.”

He emerges with a Take That lunchbox and opens it to select a marbled glass bowl and a lighter that looks like a banana. Stan gives Louis the big apologetic doe eyes, and Louis snorts as he packs in the green with his thumb.

“You’re such a tosser, Christopher, really,” he says, and Stan scowls.

“No need to start the ‘Christopher’ business,” he grumbles. He sludges off the bed and over a pile of old pants to get to the window, jimmying it up with his shoulder because the latch has been sticky for ages now. He props it open with an empty beer bottle so it doesn’t smash his fingers.

Louis’ words are muffled around the pipe in his teeth. “Cheers.”

Louis sparks up, his thumb slipping once to burn himself on the glass by mistake, and Stan snags the baggie and a paper out of the Take That lunchbox so he can make himself a rolly. Once Louis has a good enough burn going to take a drag, he passes Stan the banana-shaped lighter.

Smoke puffs out of Louis’ nose when he laughs at Stan. His throat burns, but Stan is trying to light a spliff with a banana and it’s brilliant. Stan shakes his head as he lights up. Whenever they smoke, Louis coughs like he needs to be put in an Iron Lung and if Stan thought it’d really make any difference, he’d probably say that risking a loss of Louis’ voice just days before their first audition ever wasn’t a great idea.

But. Pretty sure it’s a fake audition, seeing as it’s over Skype and either for a paedo or a twelve-year-old. And this weed tastes like Louis might’ve actually paid more than £10 for it, which is something to savor. Like a fine wine, not that Stan’s ever had a fine wine. He and Louis are more white cider people. All the same, the weed is good, Louis is coughing like a bullfrog with throat nodules and a knife in its back on a dissection tray, and Stan is pretty happy.

Once they finish off the baggie and have thoroughly sprayed Louis’ bedroom down with Glade (and made endless red-eyed jokes about doing a poo at Paul’s, because what is that advert?), Louis unfolds his keyboard out across his lap.

“I guess we should sing,” he says. “What song d’we want to audition with?”

“Could do Duffy,” Stan offers. “Nobody would expect that. Or Coldplay, but everyone would expect that.”

Louis plonks out a few sour notes and laughs. “Girls Aloud?”

“Madonna?” Stan counters, knocking their shoulders together. “Kylie?”

They don’t end up getting any practicing done that day. But there’s pizza for dinner, so it’s still a win. They don’t actually practice the next day, either, because there’s a pickup footie game and Louis takes a spectacular header that he swears leaves his ears ringing for hours after and necessitates quite a lot of nicked Tesco sandwiches and ice-cold Coke before he stops complaining. But they do practice on Thursday, and Stan can tell that Louis has his hopes up even if he says he doesn’t. That’s the thing about Louis; he just wants so much all the time, even when it’s not really feasible. Like, being a rockstar. It’s just not meant for lads from Doncaster. But Jona was such a dick when The Rogue split up and Louis is counting so much on getting this gig and even driving halfway across the country to Crewe just to play portable keyboard for some sandwiches.

On Friday, he can even tell that Louis practiced on his own between the time Stan left the day before and came back after school. They’re doing “Just For Tonight,” and it’s a bit low for his voice, but he’s practiced so much he sounds a bit raspy. Stan thinks it just might help, and tells him so.

“You really think?” Louis asks.

“Yeah, mate,” Stan says. “You’ll smash it.” Louis nods, his lips twisted because he’s trying not to smile. Stan nudges his shoulder into Louis’ a few times before wrapping his arm around Louis’ neck and tugging him down into a fond noogie.

“Spending the night?” Louis asks after punching Stan in the balls.

Stan huffs and nods from where he’s curled up on the floor.

The next day, they wake up an hour later than the alarm and don’t have a chance to shower before logging into Skype.

“Is my hair greasy?”

“It’s always greasy, bloody idiot,” Stan grumbles. “Just put gel in; they won’t know.”

Louis runs a comb through his hair, and he unfolds his portable keyboard over his lap as Stan tunes his guitar. When the call burbles through, on the other end is, pleasantly, not a predator at all, but rather a stocky-looking kid around their age. He has spots over his nose and a rather pudding-bowl haircut, but overall, he looks normal enough.

“Are you JAR?” Posh accent.

“Yeah, that’s us,” Louis says. Out of the corner of his eye, Stan sees Louis swallow hard. “I’m Louis, and this is Stan. He does guitar, and I’m on keys. I sing, also.”

“Just the two of you?” the kid asks. “Alright. I’m Will. I play drums. You don’t have a bassist or anything?”

Louis’ still swallowing over and over, so Stan claps Louis’ shoulder and gives Will what he hopes is a charming grin. “Nope, just a two-man outfit. Got all the sound we need.”

Will does not look impressed. “Sounded like more on your recording. Can you play anything now?”

Louis seems a bit frozen. Stan pats his shoulder a few times and asks, “Y’alright to play?”

It’s a song that isn’t the same without a drum kit. It isn’t. But Louis keeps the tempo up with the keys and Stan thinks he does passably on the riffs, and Louis knows all the words and it’s not too hard to sing, even though it’s so low. They do alright. They do well enough that a pimple-faced kid should be pleased enough with them.

But he stops them before they even get to the break.

“I just, I think we’re looking for a band,” Will says. “Not just two chavs goofing off in Yorkshire for a laugh. Sorry, lads. It’s just – you’re not right for it.”

Their screen goes out.

“He’s fucking paying in sandwiches!” Stan sets his guitar on the floor and swivels in his chair to kick at Louis’ ankle. “What a wanker.”

Louis’ head is still bowed over the keyboard. Even though it was a bullshit audition, even though from the second that kid flickered onto the screen it was clearly something leading nowhere, it looks a bit like Louis’ heart’s been thrown on the floor.

Stan wraps his arm around Louis’ shoulders and tips his forehead against the side of Louis’ greasy, gelled hair. “Come off it, Tommo. It wasn’t a real gig. We’ll get one someday. Or you will; I’m holding you back. But your singing’s not half-bad, really.”

“You think I’m good?” Louis looks up.

“I didn’t say that.”

03.


Date: 2008-05-29, 2:27PM BST
Reply to: ip4pp-33877004338@craigslist.org

Hey!

Really liked your audition song.. OneRepublic, classic.. JAR is 1 of our 3 finalists that we’re picking from.. if u have Skype & can play live on Saturday, that’s great!! If u can come to Crewe or Holmes Chapel or Sandbach in Cheshire to play in person for an audition, that’s better.. but it’s a shithole if I’m honst so I don’t blame if u can’t. If u don’t have Skype then u can send a vid.. different song, please, fr variety. :)

Cheers, Harry from White Eskimo!!

“Well, fuck me,” Stan whistles. “An actual audition.”

“They liked the song.” Louis sounds dazed. “Do you wanna download Skype, or shall we take a day trip out to Cheshire?”

“Over my dead body are you going all the way to Cheshire to meet some creepo off the internet,” Jay says, passing through the living room with Daisy on one hip and Phoebe dangling from the other arm, giggling. They’re both covered in fingerpaint. “You’ll end up M-U-R-D-E-R-E-D in a corn field.”

“I don’t think they know what murder is even if you just say it, Mum,” Louis says dryly. “And if we get the gig, we’ll have to go up there. What’s the harm?”

“The harm is that if you go to Cheshire on Saturday, I’ll kill you even if this creepo doesn’t.”

And that’s the end of it, Stan knows, because Jay will clearly be driving them up to Cheshire on Saturday. He’s been there once before on a field trip to the aquarium, which was rather boring other than watching sharks get fed great bloody loads of chum, which made Alex puke to watch. He hadn’t minded Cheshire, even though it is mostly cornfields and sharks, from what he remembers.

Louis is biting his pinkie nail when Stan looks over at him. “Should I e-mail back then and say we’re coming?”

“Louis William!” Jay yells from the kitchen. “Don’t you dare say you’re going to Cheshire!”

Louis and Stan exchange a Look, capital L, and nod. Louis opens an e-mail and writes back with a cya there mate cheers ! thanks !!! and then they both head into the kitchen.

“Stan!” Phoebe yells, waving eagerly at Stan with a handful of sticky peas and golden syrup. “What is tesshur?”

“Cheshire?” Stan asks, taking a seat beside her and wiping her face with a napkin snagged from the middle of the table. “It’s a county where your brother and I are going to become rockstars.”

“You are not rockstars,” Daisy reports from across the table, where Louis is picking carrot bits out of her hair and grumbling. “You are boys. What is a rockstars?”

“Like Leon Jackson,” Louis supplies. “On telly.”

Phoebe’s eyes go round. “Mum! I want Louie and Stan to go to Tesshur!”

“Us been on telly,” Daisy informs Stan helpfully. “We was babies.”

“I know,” Stan says. He tweaks her nose across the table. “I’ve seen it. Carrots go in your mouth, miss.”

“Louie been on telly,” Phoebe adds. “When you is on telly, they feeds so much biksits. And fruit!”

“That is a fair point,” Louis says. “Craft Services is sweet, even if you don’t get any lines that actually make it onto the program.”

“But we’re not going to be on telly,” Stan reminds him. “We’re just auditioning to be paid in sandwiches.”

“Well, that’s still like Craft Services.” Louis raises both eyebrows pointedly and wipes his hands on his sweatshirt, bits of carrot fully divested from Daisy’s short fluff of white-blonde hair. “I’m not going to scoff at the prospect of good sandwiches.”

“What is scuff?” Daisy demands.

Jay leans over Louis’ shoulder to put a bowl of crisps on the tabletop between Louis and Stan. “It means your brother and his friends are going to eat us out of house and home.” Stan gives Jay a winning smile, taking a handful of crisps, as Louis grimaces away from Jay’s kiss to his cheek. “But I am serious, Loubear, I’m not driving you to Cheshire to meet some person off the internet. Bad things happen to people who meet randoms from the internet. If they seem alright when you do your audition from here, safely, where they can’t see our address, then I will drive you to Cheshire for the show.”

But Louis hits her with the big blue needy eyes, and Jay has to listen to Louis and Stan practicing up in Louis’ room for the rest of the week, so on Friday, while Louis is grumbling and helping scrape mashed potatoes out of Fizzy’s bookbag and Stan is on his fourth chicken thigh, Jay blows her fringe out of her face like an impatient killer whale and says, "Look, alright, fine, I will drive you to Cheshire tomorrow for your audition. But if we show up and I don't think it looks on the level, you are not getting out of the car. Alright?"

"You're the best, Mum," Louis just says, smiling.

He flops a handful of mashed potato into Jay's hand, and they wrinkle their noses together in false, smarmy smiles that Stan knows how to see through -- no one smiles at each other like they do unless they mean it somewhere. That's just Louis, though, and Louis' life. He's hard not to mean your smiles at.

The next morning, entirely too early -- they're being blinded by the sunrise through the windshield on the motorway; Jay keeps muttering Jesus, shit and covering her eyes with the back of the hand holding her tea, nearly scalding herself, until Louis finally sighs and relinquishes his sunglasses to her, since she's at the wheel -- they pack up the back of the car with Louis' collapsible keyboard and Stan's guitar and pedals. Louis has them both wearing matching outfits because he thinks it looks more professional. He curls up in the passenger seat, feet propped up on the dash even though Jay chided if we crash, your shins are going straight through your face like that, but Stan sprawls out across the backseat. He cushions his face on his forearms against the sunlight and tries to get another hour or two of sleep: the seat smells like overripe banana and years of oat cereal, and the ride isn't exactly smooth, but by the time he wakes from a doze, they're at a service station somewhere out in fuck-all nowhere.

"Are you sure we're headed in the right direction?" Louis is asking Jay through the open car window. She's pumping petrol and there are fresh cups of hot tea balanced on the roof, only just purchased, along with a load of buns to share.

"There's only one direction to go, love," Jay says. "You said the town is Holmes Chapel, didn't you? It's in the middle of nowhere."

Stan sits up and yawns heartily; his knuckles brush the car ceiling as he stretches his arms over his head. “How far out are we?”

“Probably about an hour, but we’ll be hitting Manchester soon and the radio was saying there may be a pile-up.” Louis ducks back into the car, and Jay crosses around to slide into the driver’s seat again. She’s already turned the ignition when Louis exclaims, shit! The tea! and jumps out to retrieve it from the roof.

The rest of the trip goes fairly smoothly (they avoid the pile-up). Stan brushes crumbs off his black t-shirt while Louis looks out the windows, Jay pulled off onto a country road that winds up, dusty, through a green field of high wildflowers and some crop with long, leafy stalks. Off in the distance, there's a sound of -- nothing.

"Well," he says cheerfully, "At least if we start getting murdered, people could hear us scream."

“What people?" Louis asks skeptically.

"Touche."

They keep on up the road until a sprawling brown ranch house, surrounded by a sandy brick fence and an open gate, comes into view. There's a kid who looks a year or three younger than Louis waiting at the end of the drive. He has a bass guitar strapped across his chest, short brown hair, and bare feet.

"Must be it," Louis says. "Doesn't look like a murderer."

"Could be a lure," Stan and Jay say at once, but they both laugh while Louis rolls his eyes. The kid grins and waves, jumping out of the way of the gate, as Jay pulls through.

Louis rolls down his window when the kid scampers over.

“Hi," he says. "Are you Louis?" He pronounces it like a French king, or that judge from X Factor.

"Yeah, I'm Lou," Louis says instead of correcting him. "From JAR? Are you Harry, then?"

"Yeah, yeah," says the kid, says Harry. "We're just waiting on our bassist. I'm carrying his kit around so I can beat him over the head with it when he shows, for being an hour late."

"He is a murderer," Stan comments. He leans up over Louis' shoulder so he can snake his hand out the open window. "I'm Stan, I play guitar."

"Wicked. I don't play anything," Harry says. "I just sing."

"I sing, too," Louis says. "Can we get a hand taking the pedals out of the boot?"

"Yeah, yeah," Harry says again, and he hops back so Louis can unfold his legs from the front seat. Stan slides out of the back and pulls the keyboard with him. Louis and Harry are standing behind the boot, shaking hands, and Jay looks pensive as she oversees them, watching eagle-eyed from beside the driver's side door.

"Where am I taking this?" Stan asks. A crinkle of crumbs that he'd missed fall from his shirt's collar.

"Oh, just up the path to the garage," Harry says. He grunts as he hauls the guitar case out of the boot, while beside him, Louis heaves the box of pedals onto his shoulder even though Jay's told them a hundred times not to carry weight that way because they'll put their backs out. "We're all set up in there, and there's plugs and an extension cord if you need it. We had some house duo here earlier and they had a million machines to plug in that made them sound weird."

"Not good then?" Louis asks carefully. Stan can hear him trying not to get his hopes up.

"I didn't think so," Harry mutters. "But Will -- he's my best mate, and he does drums -- he liked 'em 'cause they didn't sound like us."

"Right," Louis says. "Well, that's fair, I guess. What sort of covers do you do?"

"Erm, like classic rock," Harry says. Stan follows them on the path up to the house. Harry is shorter than Louis, but his hands and feet are huge, so he'll probably end up tall. Collin and Dan both looked like that two years ago and now they can hit the top of the doorframe on their way into school without even jumping. "But also we do, like, Blink and Dashboard and Box Car Racer and stuff like that. We're trying to write our own stuff, too, but it's kinda hard. I thought we had one, but then we played it for my mum and she said we'd just copied the Rolling Stones by mistake."

Louis laughs, and Stan snorts, and he thinks, yeah, Harry seems alright. A little eager and a little young, but a good enough kid. Can't quibble with someone being nice and giving you an audition and offering you free sandwiches. He's probably not even going to kill them and wear their faces to his birthday and bury them in the cornfield.

"Yeah, we haven't written our own shit, but it'd be sick to know how," Louis says. "I'd really like to learn that someday." He pauses. "How old are you? D'you study music, or anything?"

"Just fourteen," Harry says. "I don't take piano or anything, either. Mostly I play footie, but I have done school plays and sang in those. Are you in college?"

"Not yet," Louis says. "In the autumn, we'll be. I'm gonna do Theatre Studies at college, but I might try a course in music, too. I can't read tabs or anything for shit, though."

"Me, either," Harry says glumly. Actually, everything he says sounds a little glum, so Stan thinks it might just be his voice. "Will told me I have to learn if I want to stay in the band."

"I just do it by ear," Louis says. "If I hear a song a few times, I can play it alright on piano or keys. Sometimes I use autotune when I sing, though."

"Did you on the recording you sent us?" Harry asks. His brow furrows. "I liked your tape, but if you can't sing today, I think Will'll be mad I picked you."

"I can sing," Louis boasts, but Stan hears the little tremor in his voice. Louis can sing, but he's shy with it. And Stan can't carry a tune in a bucket, so he can't pick up the slack if Louis freezes.

He knocks his elbow against Louis' as gently as he can while carrying a keyboard. "Regular Rhydian Roberts, this one.”

Louis goes red all along the shells of his ears and the nape of his neck, so Stan doesn’t say anything else and lets Harry chatter on about the other auditions they’ve seen so far, the house music and another band from their school and some girl with a big voice and bigger boobs.

“You’re the last,” he says. “If I’m honest, everyone else has been either totally awful or too good, because we’re sort of awful and I don’t fancy looking like twats when it’s our turn.” He glances up at Jay when he says twats like she might yell at him, but instead, Jay just purses her lips a little disapprovingly (and still smiles). “My mum’s in the house, if you’d like. There’s probably tea?”

Jay gives Louis a stern look. “I’ll be right inside if you need anything. I’ll be hear you scream.”

Harry’s brow furrows after Jay’s turned to take the other fork of the little gravel path and disappears into the main house. Stan hitches the pedals higher in his arms and keeps following Harry and Louis down the main route to a rocky patio at the back of the house. There’s a pool alongside, and a sheltered garage where two other boys around Harry’s age wait with a pair of amps and a drum kit.

“Is that them?” asks a short, stockier boy with a pair of drumsticks spinning in his hand. He has shaggy brown hair, spots across his nose, and a fedora slouched on the back of his head. “That’s not a band.”

“Sure it is,” Harry says. “Jade wasn’t a band.”

“No, but she’s bang-tidy,” says the drummer. “And anyway, she’s a proper solo artist. Two people isn’t anything. I told you you could pick one band and I’d think about it.”

“You can have a two-people band,” Louis says. “Look at The Ting-Tings.”

“The Ting-Tings have a bang-tidy girl in them, too.” He scratches his fringe beneath the crown of his fedora. “And no offense, but The Ting-Tings are shit at music and they’re proper famous, so it’s not really likely you’ll be good?”

“Will,” Harry sighs. “You said I could pick one to audition. Just let ‘em play.”

Louis gives Harry a smile over his shoulder and starts setting up his keyboard.

That night, Stan rests the side of his head against the car window as they soar back up the M62 after a completely, unequivocally, disastrous audition. They’d actually played alright – Goldfrapp, everyone likes a bit of Goldfrapp. Harry chimed in on the song’s last chorus and he sounded pretty with Louis, Stan thought. Honestly, if they were in a band together, they probably wouldn’t have to do this little bullshit audition for a show that pays in sandwiches. They could’ve got money to buy their own sandwiches. But Holmes Chapel is a bit far from Doncaster for all that, and anyway, Harry is very clearly the property of White Eskimo. And Will.

Since the bassist never did show up, the vote was two to one in their favor, but somehow, Will’s vote counted more than Harry’s or the other guy. Harry was complimentarily pissed about it after and told Will and Haydn that that he’d promised his mum everyone would leave straight away after the auditions so his dad could have the bungalow back for a poker game.

Once they’re gone – Will leaves his drum kit behind – Harry turns to Louis with mischief in his eye and says, “My step-dad’s out of town this weekend. D’you wanna swim?”

So Louis and Stan had stripped down to their skivvies and they’d swum until the sky broke into a spattering rainshower and Stan’s nose and shoulders were so sunburnt they were already peeling. They’d run into the bungalow then and found Jay sitting with Harry’s mum and a teapot, thick as thieves, and they’d called down Harry’s older sister and driven into town to share Chinese food.

Harry’s sister, Stan thinks, is well fit. He’s keen to whisper about her with Louis in the car on the way home, but Louis seems keener to talk about Harry. He’s already rashly promised to drive back out to see White Eskimo play (“even though Will is a fucking knob, no offense,” “none taken; I know”) and even though the kid’s a bit of a pipsqueak, the ride back so far has been Louis and Jay jabbering at each other about Harry this and Anne says Harry that.

Finally, Louis turns to face Stan and their knees bump across the backseat. “It’s just like, he’s cool, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Stan says. He shrugs and gives Louis a sleepy, suntoasted, lazy smile. “He’s no me, but he’s alright.”

8 February 2009, Manchester O2 Apollo Theatre
Harry is pretty much so excited he might puke, but he’s trying not to show it. Because there’s a difference, isn’t there, between seeing a band in Lancashire or Warrington or Shropshire, and seeing a band in Mancs. And there’s a difference between having your mum drive you and drop you off for a matinee concert and getting to take the train into the city for an overnight, and yeah, Gemma is here, but that doesn’t even spoil it, really, because she’s excited too and her friend Jade is well fit and brought along vodka in her overnight bag and let Harry have some after the train started up.

It’s about the best fifteenth birthday gift that Harry could have received, and it’s on top of the Kindle and Wii and dive watch and shopping vouchers to Topman and Jack Wills. He used them on the jeans and polo and hoodie he’s got for the concert tonight, and all in all, Harry feels pretty posh and pretty grown-up and really, very excited.

The chunky rooftops of Crewe and the muddy winter green-black of the farmland is familiar as the train chugs along the Euston-Manchester Piccadilly line, but the day doesn’t feel… everyday. Something is buzzing under Harry’s skin, beneath his nails, inside his ears, and it’s more than just the Red Bull that he got when they changed trains, to chase Jade’s vodka. It’s going to be a good day.

004.
They get into Manchester and stop for doughnuts on their way to the hotel, each lugging a backpack and Jade laughing a little too loudly for this hour of the morning, tottering in her booted heels from the drink. They’re supposed to get an adjoining room, so Gemma will notice if Harry never comes back after the concert or Harry can notice if the girls are getting murdered. As soon as Harry’s in his own half-room, he spreads his things out on both twin beds and toes out of his socks to put on a fresh pair, because he likes to do that after he’s been out for a while, texts Gemma that he’s going out to explore and he’ll see them at the show, and he’s out.

He’s kept his backpack, because it’s the best way to carry his Kindle and Mum said not to leave it in the hotel “just in case.” He keeps patting his pockets to make sure that his money is there, too, and it always is. Of course it is. Today is a good day.

They’re in the Northern Quarter, because that’s as close to the Apollo as they could get rooms, but it’s pretty nice out for February and Harry doesn’t mind walking. He gets an orange-mango smoothie at Starbucks because he’s always hungry lately (Mum says he must be growing, and Gemma snorted and said, “Yeah, outwards”). He doesn’t actually know where he’s headed. Harry figures that he will know when he sees it.

And so he does, maybe. It’s a fairly unassuming door near a Ladbrokes, but there’s illustrations on the outside wall that he rather likes and he can see what looks like a music shop upstairs. He’s become interested in vinyl records lately, just because no one else at school is.

He pushes open the door, and Harry thinks he might be in heaven.

He heaves his backpack higher on his shoulders and peers at the store listing posted near the stairs. Clothing. Sunglasses. Jewelry, eh, that’s less exciting unless there are belt buckles. Records; he was right. Café. Vintage posters and books and games. Crystals; that’s well hippie. Skateboards. Rock merch. And on the first floor, tattoos.

It’s not like Harry’s old enough to get one.

Is he?

He’s not.

But he’s in Manchester. And they don’t know how old he is. Manchester isn’t Holmes Chapel, where everyone knows what the Broom Boy at Mandeville’s is up to all the time and who he’s been snogging on weekends because Lucie’s mum told Pix’s auntie at church on Sunday or whatever and then Harry gets a slap from both girls come Monday. Manchester is a bloody great city, and he’s fifteen. He can look eighteen if he wants. Maybe. The lack of facial hair might hurt him, but even if they throw him out, he never has to see them again. Easy peasy.

He’s doing it. Harry is going to get a tattoo.

He just has to make sure Gemma doesn’t see it, or else she might murder him in the adjoining hotel room.

He doesn’t go into the tattoo studio right away. He might be getting his nerve up, but he’d lie if asked. He putzes around a shop selling band t-shirts for classic rock and hard rock bands, the kind of thing Will listens to but Harry doesn’t so much. At least not when he’s using his own iPod. But the t-shirts are wicked, anyway, and he buys a Bad Religion shirt and a Blink tee for Will, because he feels guilty that Will couldn’t come along in the first place.

Well. Will’s keen for Harry to feel guilty. That abates some of the natural guilt that Harry suspects he would have felt, had Will not made such a big deal about it being so unfair. It’s not like Harry told his mum not to let Will go on an overnight to Manchester. It’s more that Harry asked his own mum to make it sound a lot more dangerous (and Gemma a lot less responsible) when she was telling Will’s mum the plans.

There’s a poster shop, too, and Harry gleefully buys two new belt buckles and a handful of badges before he realizes he’s famished again and stops for a sandwich, and over roast beef and cheesy with slightly slimy winter lettuce, he thinks, yes. He’s all set. He can pass for eighteen. He’s going to walk down the corridor. And get a tattoo.

It’s shockingly easy to convince them that he’s eighteen, which, Harry realizes after, might be a strike against them, technically, but it’s a point in his favor today. He’d rather not be humiliated. He has to wait an hour, which he spends thumbing through the book of example art and photographs of old customs. He’s come to the realization that while he wants a tattoo, and he wants it today, and he wants it here, he doesn’t actually have a clue what he wants the tattoo to be. So when he’s called into the back and asked, he says,

“One that won’t hurt a lot, preferably?”

His tattooist, who’s covered from neck to ankles, grins. “Don’t want one of these?” He turns down his lip to show Harry the SHHH tattooed on the inside of his lower lip.

Harry winces. “No, I don’t think so.” He frowns. “I’m seeing a Script show tonight. Maybe some of their lyrics?”

“Could do, mate.” The artist changes out his pair of gloves. “Where are we putting it?”

“Erm, I was thinking on my arm?” Harry tugs his hoodie over his head and shakes out his shaggy hair to fix it.

“I need some specifics here.” There’s a wink at Harry’s slightly pale face. “Are we hiding it from your mum?”

“Yes, please,” Harry says gratefully. “And my school. But I definitely want it on my arm, not like. On my bum.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” says his artist. “Take a think on lyrics and we’ll design it, alright?”

“I don’t need a design,” Harry assures him. “Just bog-standard writing is good for me. Could I fit like, two lines on my upper arm, d’you think?”

“Probably. Let’s take a look.”

They sketch out a few different iterations of the line Harry wants, and Harry chatters about the concert and the merch he bought in the rest of the shop and is very, very careful not to mention Holmes Chapel or Gemma or school too much just in case he does get thrown out for being too young. They shave down the inside of his bicep even though there isn’t any hair there to begin with, and the transfer looks good.

Harry settles back against the chair and closes his eyes, trying to breathe and prepare for the bite of the needles he’s just watched be inked in black.

“Hey,” says the tattooist, who Harry’s learned is called Robbie. He tosses something small at Harry’s face and Harry snatches it clumsily out of the air. “Have a humbug. Hold it in your teeth to start.”

Harry grins and unwraps the peppermint. “Thanks.”

Four humbugs and a few embarrassing tears later, Harry has a bandage dressing on his arm, a paper with instructions on aftercare, and his backpack hanging off one shoulder because he can’t stand the rubbing up against the tender skin under his arm.

He gets a little lost on his way to the Apollo, but when he turns up, Gemma gives him a hug and asks, “So what did you get up to today?”

Harry shrugs and looks around the crowd heading into the theatre. He’s probably among the youngest, but there’s a knot of kids who look around his age, or maybe’s Gemma’s, a few meters away holding court around a brown-haired boy in a cardigan with his arm around a pretty blonde.

“Not much,” Harry says. “Shopping mostly. Got some badges and stuff. What about you?”

In the dark of the theatre, after he’s sweating and takes off his hoodie to tie around his waist, arms in the air, he can see the dark lines of script on his arm through their plastic wrappings.

I said there's someone I'm waiting for if it's a day, a month, a year.

04.
They get into Manchester, each lugging a backpack and Jade laughing a little too loudly for this hour of the morning as she totters in her booted heels from the drink.

“We’re free!” she yodels, spinning around. Harry catches her suitcase before it tips over. “Let’s do something wild, yeah? Like, go get tattoos or our tongues pierced or – pick up strange guys and bring ‘em back to the hotel.” She musses Harry’s hair. “Yeah?”

Gemma rolls her eyes while Harry goes bright red. It isn’t as though he minds people knowing that he’s gay – he wouldn’t have told anyone if he did – but he didn’t exactly need Gemma’s drunk friend to be announcing it to all of Manchester at half-ten in the morning.

“We have to check in,” Gemma says. “We’ll miss our rooms, else. Then we can decide. And I think I want a shower; the back of my seat on the train was sticky.”

Harry sits in Starbucks while Gemma showers and Jade tries to sober up with a quad espresso over ice. He drinks an orange-mango smoothie and keeps his ear buds in to listen to “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved,” and he dodges shrill texts from Will that continue his pattern of trying to guilt Harry for choosing to go to the concert for his birthday even though Will couldn’t come along, rather than stay in Cheshire and just see Underworld 3.

Like it was even a choice, Harry thought privately, but he did at least apologize to Will that he couldn’t come. If he’d bought his own ticket, he’d’ve been welcome.

“Hey,” Jade says. She hooks one of her fingers into Harry’s headphone cords and plugs the bud out of his ear. “Who you texting?”

“Just Will,” Harry sighs. “Why?”

“Not anyone special?” she asks. “Don’t have a boyfriend?”

“No,” Harry grumps, and he feels the tips of his ears go red. “You’ve seen my year at school. Slim pickins. And anyway, I’m not looking.”

“Have you ever, though?” Jade presses. “Had a boyfriend?”

“When would I have had time to have a boyfriend?” Harry asks. He pushes his smoothie away, a bad taste in the back of his mouth. “People’ve only known I’d want a boyfriend for like, a week.”

“Well,” Jade says. “Could’ve had a secret boyfriend. That’s well sexy.”

Harry’s entire face is red at this point, and he can tell that the blush is creeping its way down his neck. “Nope. Never had a secret boyfriend, either. Get off it, Jade, I’m not – it’s what it is.”

Jade swallows more espresso, wipes her lips on a napkin that comes away pink from lipstick, and gives Harry a surprisingly tender smile. She covers the back of his hand with hers. “Well, we’re not at home and you have erm, plumper pickings than your year at school. Maybe that’s our adventure this weekend.”

Cheeks still pink, Harry pinches his lips together in a hidden smile and nods. “Alright. I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”

“Good,” says Jade. “You have great eyes. Any guy should be so lucky to have ‘em on him.”

Harry thinks, quietly, that maybe Jade is the best person in the world.

(And anyway, it’s not something that hadn’t crossed Harry’s mind. Seeing a boy across the theatre just before the lights went dark, or knocking arms and feeling a jolt, or standing behind someone unexpectedly wonderful in the queue and telling an actually brilliant joke and managing to be rather charming. It would be, probably, the most amazing birthday anyone’s ever had. It would also be, probably, not very realistic at all. But he doesn’t need to be realistic in his own head, does he, as long as he never says any of it aloud to another human soul. Dusty, sure. Dusty’s heard it all.)

They spend most of the morning in the coffee shop, mostly because it’s cold, but do bum around for a bit in the afternoon as they make their way toward the venue. Harry finds a funny little mall with secondhand shops and music stores and a tattoo parlor he looks at wistfully until Gemma tweaks his ear. He buys a packet of badges to give the lads as a peace offering.

Jade is in his ear, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively, every time they pass a boy about Harry’s age. Nice eyes, she’ll say, but Harry just shrugs. Or nice bum, and Harry will agree. But he isn’t – it’s not just about nice eyes and a nice bum, is it, although those are important assets. It’s about the life in the eyes. Not so much the life in the bum, as that doesn’t make sense.

Harry just has it in his head that he’s looking for someone who he couldn’t possibly find in Holmes Chapel. He wants someone too big to fit the stuffy corridors of the school and who would never just agree blindly with what the sisters say on assembly days. He wants someone who would come outside after dark if he’d set out candles. He wants someone who’d come outside after dark even if he hadn’t. He wants someone who likes the same music. And who doesn’t make him feel stupid for liking it.

Eventually it gets dark, February and cold; Harry, Gemma, and Jade inhale greasy McDonalds before trudging to the venue. There isn’t much of a queue outside. Harry is glad, though, because he’d forgotten to bring gloves and the misty-damp cold air is making his palms clammy (and his hair frizzed). There’s a slop of mustard on his collar from his dinner. He hasn’t said a word to any mythical, mystical Manchester fit boys all day, and even though he’s excited for the show, he thinks he has a case of the oversell blues: he’d built up in his head what this trip could be, what being fifteen would be, what being out would be, what being away from home for the weekend could be, and in the end, it’s just more of real life. Fantastic, mad, unpredictable things don’t happen in real life, and they don’t happen to Harry Styles.

He turns to Gemma after they’ve had their tickets scanned and leans in to shout in her ear. “Going to the loo.”

Gemma nods and pats his back. “Don’t fall in.”

Perfunctory smile dutifully given, Harry heads off through the thickening crowd to find the restroom. Mostly all he’s looking for is a last minute of semi-quiet before the show so he can gather his thoughts, tie a ribbon around them, and tuck them away for later, when he’s buzzing too much to sleep. He wants to have fun. He will have fun; he’s determined.

He’s standing at the trough when the door bangs open and someone blows inside like a one-man hurricane, singing “You Found Me” at the top of his lungs.

Harry startles and looks over his shoulder. “That’s The Fray, not The Script.” No one else he knows even has the album yet. It’s come out less than a week ago.

“I know,” says the singing hurricane. He unzips next to Harry. “Gone cockeyed there, mate, no pun intended.”

Harry goes red and corrects his stream. He’s nearly finished anyway, so he can slink back into the crowd undetected. “Sorry.”

The hurricane shrugs. “No bother from a fellow Fray fan. No one else at school likes them, so I’m impressed with you even if you don’t know how to wee.”

“I know how to wee,” Harry mutters darkly. He coughs into his hand. “No one at my school likes The Fray, either.”

“Plebs, the lot of them,” the other boy declares. He turns around while still zipping up his fly. “Where is this hellhole you go to school?”

“Erm, Cheshire,” Harry says. “What about you?”

“Yorkshire,” he says. “I thought you sounded posh.” Harry falls into following the other boy over to the sinks as he says, “Name’s Louis, by the way. Who’re you?”

“I’m Harry,” Harry says, almost missing the spigot because he’s so drawn by the mischief in Louis’ eyes as he dries his hands under the blow-dryer. “Where’re you sitting?”

“I’m not,” Louis answers. “Standing-room. You have an actual seat?”

Harry hesitates, thinking of Gemma and Jade. “Yeah, but standing’s closer, so I might ditch it.”

“You should,” Louis says.

His eyes radiate light.

10 July 2010, Manchester Old Trafford Stadium, Auditions for The X Factor Series 7
This is the longest queue that Louis has ever been in. It’s arguably the longest queue he’s ever seen; maybe even the longest thing in general that he’s ever seen.

“D’you reckon we could be seen from space?” he asks Stan absently. Daisy twirls around Louis’ fingers, entirely content to keep herself occupied in her own head.

Stan looks up from his mobile. “What?”

“Like the Great Wall of China,” Louis explains. “Could we be seen from space in this queue, d’you think?”

“No,” Stan says. “I doubt it.” He nods over toward another long line snaking through the dividers. “The queue for the loos, maybe, but not the audition queue.”

Louis snorts, but Daisy looks up at Louis with something like a revelation on her face. “I hafta.”

“Go with Mum, then,” Louis sighs. “I have to stay here.”

“Forever?” Daisy looks scandalized.

“Probably,” Louis admits. “We’re not moving very quickly, are we?”

And they’re not. The line looks to be moving up by the front, but it’s taken them nearly five hours just to get to the third wind of the dividers. They’re pressed right up against the people hundreds of numbers away from them, the second divider and fourth divider chatting away amiably with the third and the fifth and the first. Manchester’s drawn people from the whole North of England for a chance at stardom – or the chance for a day off work and school and normalcy, really, for most of them. There are a load of people singing and rounds start every quarter-hour or so, playing up the excitement for the cameras more than Louis feels there really is in the crowd. There are people bellowing along who Louis thinks, really, really, they must know they haven’t a chance.

But he doesn’t quite think he’s one of them. He’s not amazing. He knows that. But he can carry a tune and he’s cute. ‘Presence,’ he has, according to Hannah and Charlotte. ‘Attention-seeking,’ he is, according to the headmaster.

Well, he’s not like to get up on stage in front of Cheryl Cole and moon her. That was a one-time stunt just to piss off said headmaster. He doesn’t want to piss off Cheryl Cole. (Although maybe she isn’t here, since she has malaria. But she’ll be back on the actual show; the papers all promised.)

But he does want to impress her, deep down. He wants to impress Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell and even old Louis Walsh; he wants to impress everyone in the crowd, from the bellowing horribles to the skirty-looking boy standing alone with a floppy quiff and a tattoo behind his ear, who was really pretty good when the sing-along of “Pass Out” petered on the rap verses. Louis knows that, probably, no one in this crowd will ever even hear him sing. But he can’t help wanting to stand out and make it and show them all that he’s –

Louis isn’t really sure what he is, yet. But he wants to be really amazing.

There are other people here who seem like they have all of the confidence in the world, even though they’re just amateur wannabes like him. The boy up in the second divider whose group of supporters is nearly as large as Louis’ expansive one, he looks confident. He’s going to be a star. Louis can tell. Whoever 165998 is, Louis will be watching him on telly come fall. Probably vote for him, too.

It’s not that Louis is creeping on 165998, exactly; it’s just that he keeps him in his periphery all the time. He’s got that stretched-out look, like one moment he’s finished with puberty and he’s a full grown man, and the next, he’s right in the throes of it and his arms and legs haven’t quite communicated well enough about how long they’re going to be, so he looks ropy and soft like overpulled taffy.

His hands are huge.

165998 always keeps his wrists covered – wrapped up in cloth and bracelets and rubber bands and bits of string and those multicolored friendship bracelets that Louis’ sisters make – and Louis wants to see them. He’s fascinated by the way their bones fit to 165998’s long-fingered hands.

For a show that’s about finding people with that special something, that one thing, the je ne sais quoi of the X-factor, 165998 has it.

Louis’ knees buckle slightly as both twins, refreshed from their trip to the loos and to get lemonades, tackle him around the waist. Ahead of them, in the other line, 165998 throws his head back and laughs before clapping with a crow of she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah! like the end of “All You Need Is Love.”

He’ll make it. He could go up and sing that; he could go up and sing the little teapot song and Louis thinks he’d make it.

“Louis!” Phoebe insists, pulling at his pocket, “Can we audition, too?”

“No,” Louis says. “You aren’t old enough.”

“But we’re more better at singing than the grown-ups,” Daisy whines. “Look.”

The twins wrap their arms around each other and do a little high-kick routine as they warble out “California Girls.” Ahead of them, 165998’s mother looks over to them and gives them a smile and a cheerful little round of applause.

And then he’s gone, 165998, the mother, all of his entourage, pulled away by Dermot O’Leary – Dermot O’fucking-Leary – to do his intake interview for the cameras, and Louis’s stomach ties itself in knots as he watches and doesn’t watch, all at once. There have been interviews happening at the front two rows of the queue all morning like clockwork, and Louis knows that his own is coming up soon, then, but he hasn’t paid attention to most of them. A few he couldn’t help, nutters wearing tiger costumes or dressed as Madonna or the like, but mostly Louis figures well. If it’s interesting enough, he’ll see it on telly, and if it isn’t, then nothing spared and nothing gained.

But he wishes he could hear 165998’s. Part of that must just be strategic, mustn’t it – they’re both fit teenage lads, Louis can admit that easily enough; direct competition. He doesn’t want to sound too similar to 1650998. (But privately, he doesn’t want to sound too different, either. He isn’t sure why, really, other than he wants. He wants the differences to fit, like how he doesn’t see any younger kids by 165998’s coterie but all older ones, maybe he’s the youngest how Louis’ the oldest, and things like that. He just wants to know who it is that he’s already rooting for. Nothing weird about it.)

165998’s mum turns around again to say something to what looks like a sister, when 165998 disappears into the open cubicle used for lighting the interviews outside of chats with Dermot, and Louis sees her t-shirt. We think Harry has the X Factor!

Harry. His name’s Harry. It’s a common enough name; Louis knows about four Harrys. And a Harold, although he’s eighty. He’s not sure whether he thinks ‘Harry’ fits 165998; he’d’ve thought his name would be something quirky and cool, like Brady or Mickey or something. Or Tony, like on Skins. Cool like that. Now that Louis knows his name, 165998 – Harry – seems different. Not less interesting, or anything, just. Different. And it’s cute his mum loves him enough to make t-shirts.

Louis smiles and tries to hide it in his wrist. He has his own audition to be worrying about; he doesn’t have the time to be bandying on about someone else’s cute mum, even in his own head.

His own mum wraps her around Louis’ shoulders. “Doing alright, bugaboo? Nervous?”

“Yeah,” Louis says. “I’m nervous. Mum, why didn’t you make me t-shirts?”

She follows his gaze over to the cheerful entourage all ruffling 165998-Harry’s hair, then gives Louis a dry look. It’s only recent that Louis’ got taller than her, and neither of them likes it yet. “You try herding your sisters all day and every day as well as working and see if you feel like silkscreening t-shirts when you’re home and could be sleeping.”

“Right,” Louis says, a little glum. Two years ago, it’d’ve been easier. Two years ago, Dad was around more (and Louis never had the urge to just call him ‘Mark’ instead of ‘Dad.’) In 165998-Harry’s crowd, the fellow who looks like a dad isn’t wearing one of the t-shirts, either, and that cheers Louis a bit even though it’s stupid that it should.

There’s a shrieking shout behind them and Louis whirls around to look as Stan spins Daisy over his head.

Jay pokes Louis’ side. “We do think it, you know. You have the ‘x-factor,’ Louboo. You’re special.”

“You have to think that. You’re my mum.” Louis laughs and kisses her cheek. “I’m not going to make it. ‘S’OK. Ms. Hall reckons we’ll do ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ for next year’s musical. I could play Frank, probably. Wouldn’t be too bad.”

“Hey.” Jay touches his cheek. “We didn’t load up a whole parade of people who believe in you and start driving at half-four this morning just for you to give up on yourself. You have a chance, Louis, same as anyone else here. You’re better than some and you’re worse than others, but I’ll tell you, there is no one else in this queue I’ve seen who sparkles like you.”

It isn’t true, and it’s embarrassing. “Mum.”

“Let me believe in my baby!” Jay exclaims, and she cuffs the back of Louis’ head. “Maybe I feel a bit bad I didn’t make t-shirts, alright?”

165998-Harry’s interview is over. Louis doesn’t see where he’s gone; probably, that means he’s inside, filtered to go through into the halls and prepare for his audition in front of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh and Nicole Scherzinger. Hair and makeup. TV lighting whatnot. It doesn’t make sense that Louis is nervous for him, too, but maybe it’s some sort of projection so he stops being quite so nervous for himself.

Half an hour later, Louis perches on the stool in the interview cubicle and smiles at the camera as he talks about playing Danny Zuko. He talks about his brood of little sisters, here to support him today. He talks about failing his A-levels, which he hadn’t planned on mentioning, and how badly he wants to get out of Doncaster. He mentions that he’d wanted to try out in a group and hopes to get put in one, if he makes it to bootcamp, like Miss Frank or Futureproof. It’s hard to have charm on purpose, he thinks, and to know whether you’re being funny or obnoxious with bad jokes.

But he tries. Harder than he has at most things in his life. He wants this. He wants to be on the X Factor. He wants to sing. He kind of, irrationally, has projected this all onto 165998-Harry and he isn’t even sure why, but he wants to make it and catch up to him at bootcamp and just say… congratulations. Get an autograph, maybe, to say that he’d met him back when.

His interview lasts seven minutes, enough material that they can cut and paste him into whatever personality they need for the episode, and then Louis and his family and Stan and Hannah and Charlotte are all herded into the thick, cold, sterile cinderblock corridor to the makeup and hair room. Louis swoops his fringe and checks the knot on his tie. He doesn’t really want to wear makeup.

And then it’s time.

As he’s walking up the corridor backstage, he thinks he sees a flash of a We think Harry has the X Factor! t-shirt.

005.
His hands are shaking as he sings his first song. Get a verse through it before Simon cuts the music and asks, “Do you have anything else prepared? I don’t feel that really showed us the range of your voice.”

“Uh – erm, yeah, I could do Plain White T’s?” Louis asks, dry-throated. He can see his mum in the corner of his eye: her hands are clasped to her chest, all of her fingers crossed.

That song goes better, even though he’s so afraid that he clutches the mic with both hands like a security blanket. He knows he’d need both hands and some toes to count all of his sour notes. He holds his breath as the answers come:

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to say… yes!”

He’s through.

05.
He doesn’t even get to sing his song all the way through before being summarily dismissed.

There are too many cute, floppy-haired teenage boys this year, he supposes, and there’s no need for another.

“It’s alright, Louboo,” his mum promises in his ear. She strokes his cheek consolingly as they trudge back out to the car park. The twins are loudly plotting murderous revenge against ‘the telly’ for rejecting Louis.

There’s another van of disappointed people loitering in the car park when they arrive at the SUV, and Louis is utterly shocked when he sees 165998-Harry’s pink, tear-streaked face peering out from where he’s wiping his nose on his sleeve.

“You didn’t get it?” Louis asks, outside of himself, flabbergasted. He takes a few tentative steps toward them.

“They said I was too young,” 165998-Harry croaks. “They said I should come back next year, but if I’m no good, then…”

“No, you’re good,” Louis says confidently. “I said, I even saw you in the queue and I said you were good.” He looks up at his mum. “Didn’t I?”

165998 gives him a watery smile. “Thanks. Sorry you didn’t, either.”

“It’s alright,” Louis says. “I’ll come back next year, too.”