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Foundations of Rubble

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           Part One.

           The drizzle was steady – not enough to require an umbrella but enough to annoy anyone standing under it for a time. Returning his pack of cigarettes to his back pocket, Murdoc sighed in exasperation, not because of the rain but because it was pointless to try to light up, and right now he needed a smoke. Pulling up the collar on his leather jacket, he proceeded across a street, the bottoms of his Cuban-heeled boots clapping along the asphalt. It was a familiar street to him though he couldn’t remember its name. He remembered it because of the shanty neighborhood off to his right, in even more decay by some unlucky punishment. To his left was an old ceramics firm, where across its massive double doors hung an ‘Out of Business’ sign made from a wooden plank and shaky red-painted lettering, illuminated under the dim light of a rusting lamppost. Tufts of unkempt foliage lined the building, gripped the lamppost, made him wary about where to step lest he become entangled and left to rot with the rest of the dying ornaments that reminded him that he was home – if home was what it could be called.

            A couple passed him on the sidewalk, sharing an umbrella, shifty-eyed and hushed, their cadence nearly inhuman. He grimaced in their direction, dug his hands deeper into his jeans pockets and remembered the only thing desirable about his journey: past the shitty primary school, tucked into the corner near the Whelan Discount (which was also abandoned, having closed with he was 12), there was a beam of hope called The Three-Legged Pig, or The Pig, as he often referred to it. He recalled the owner, a Dutchman by the name of Bram – was it Bram? He rolled his eyes. Who cared? If it was still open, it didn’t matter what poor soul inherited the shithole. All he needed was a glass of whiskey, an empty stool and time … a fuck-ton of it.

            In his pocket, his cell phone pinged. Maintaining his pace and casting a quick look around, Murdoc grabbed the phone, its blue light blasting him in the face.

            This twat.

            Across the screen was a text from ‘Faceache,’ which read ‘U still alive?’

            Murdoc smacked his thumbs at the screen with aggressive fervor. ‘Unfortunately, yes, given current circumstance. Fuck off.’

            Replied Faceache, ‘Wanna make sure U R fine.’

            ‘Bloody walk, mate. Nothing more.’

            ‘In the Potteries.’

            ‘Go have a wank, 2D. You need to recharge the batteries. The ignorance is showing.’

            ‘Fine, Muds, but call if U need help.’

            At this, Murdoc chuckled. ‘The help I need you aren’t qualified to give.’ He added a ‘Piss off, wanker,’ and shoved the phone back into his pocket, switching it to vibrate in the process.

            Passing the darkened primary school, Murdoc quickened his pace, realizing the marketplace across the street was especially quiet, the overhead streetlamps blinking in an ominous way.

            “Fucking place better be there,” he groaned through gritted teeth, swatting the rain as he strained to see the state of the shops through the drizzle.

            Whelan Discount was much of the marketplace, mostly a void of a backdrop. A couple of abandoned cars sat in the car park, stripped of most of their parts. The Pig was just around the corner, to the right of Whelan … right? Biting his lip, he proceeded. C’mon, gimme one, for once.

            Turning the corner, Murdoc slowed his pace, his shoulders relaxing. Running a hand over his dark fringe to smooth down his now water-logged hair, the pep returned to his step as he crossed the street to The Pig, whose barely visible outer walls in the darkness offered that much needed hope in the form of a dim Open sign casting a lethargic glow of neon blue light – if it could be called neon anymore. Despite the lack of energy, Murdoc could smile he was so happy for such a poor sight. The paint was chipped, the underlaying wooden panels exposed and bloated from the weather. One of the hooks holding up The Pig’s sign barely clung to the hook screwed into the corner of the sign, the thing dangling lopsided overhead. Noticing this, Murdoc stealthily darted through the heavy door, not ready to be the one unlucky bastard taken out by the pub’s sign all in the name of some shitty whiskey.

            The welcoming aroma of cigarette smoke and alcohol and staleness overcame his nostrils, and he inhaled the filth, absorbing its ability to calm his tired muscles with silent thankfulness. Even better (and expected) was the fact that he was one of five people in the place. Two men sat at a table tucked in the back, almost as weathered as the walls, speaking quietly as they glowered at the bar, where a woman straddled a barstool, her movement boisterous as the barkeep absently cleaned off a pint glass with a dirty rag. He knew in an instant she was drunk by the wide range of motion in her gestures, the way she spilled beer from the bottle in her other hand, the slurred American accent – the fact that she was drinking Corona in the first place. Still, there was plenty of room for him to spread out, grab some drinks and silently sulk into the wee hours of the morning, before slinking back to the hotel in Manchester with the rest of the band. He was sure in a few hours 2D would text again, maybe grow some balls and even call him to inquire about his state of mind, if he’d been pickpocketed yet, killed someone, impregnated some poor bitch, yada yada yada. 2D’s list of questioning was never ending, and nowadays Murdoc’s ability to provide sufficient answers was becoming a chore. Though he’d never admit it out loud, he kept his phone in his pocket on the strongest level of vibration in hopes that those abundant messages would come. Despite 2D’s ability to be the most irritating being in Murdoc’s existence, it kept Murdoc from completely going over the edge on his benders. It reminded him that, through all this bullshit, he was still looked after in some way. And, in some way, someone needed him, even if that person was 2D.

            Do not EVER say those words aloud, he chided himself, making his way to the bar. Especially in front of 2D. The twat would never let you hear the end of it, probably con you into some kind of awkward hug or something equally insulting.

            Dodging the arm of the drunk American, Murdoc leaned on the bar, the barkeep casting a harsh look at him.

            “Shut it for a sec, Cal.” To Murdoc, “Whaddaya want, mate?”

            “Whiskey,” Murdoc commanded, forcing a wad of cash across the sticky bar top. “Best to just give us a glass and the bottle, mate.”

            His upper lip twitching, the barkeep turned away, grabbing the money in the process.

            “It is best,” chimed the American. Murdoc turned his head to her, envying the honesty of her current state. “I finished his only bottle of Southern Comfort earlier.”

            “Southern Comfort?” Murdoc took the glass and bottle of whiskey from the barkeep, pausing only to let the American know he heard her.

            She crossed her legs on the stool and held up the Corona for Murdoc to see. “That’s why I moved on to my other lord and savior, Señor Corona. I told Roberto –”

            “Albert,” the barkeep corrected with blatant irritation in his tone.

            The American nodded, holding up her hands in silent apology. “Albert, I told him that Southern Comfort needs to be a thing here in Britain … England? Fuck, in this place, ya know?”

            In any other situation, Murdoc would have pulled up a stool, coerced the girl into joining him in a bottle of whiskey, played his best moves and taken her back to the hotel to fuck. And her being an American girl would have been an effortless job. Despite the green tint of his skin and the years he had on her, his “accent” and occupation left him feeling like a revolving door most of the time, and most of the time, he was okay with that. He had no desire to settle down, to have kids, to do anything other than create music in some form, to say something of significance no matter the consequences, to bleed his ideals through the media to whomever was smart enough to listen. Even with the chains of his purpose, it was nice to indulge the flesh every now and again, to feel another’s touch, to hear the words that everyone – even someone like him – yearned to hear: I want you, I need you, can I give you a blowie? He enjoyed the company and the possibility that maybe the feelings each party expressed in those sudden bursts of passion held some ounce of truth, though it was a long shot. When he was younger, those expressions were always a lead on to make the other person feel better about the situation, so as to not come off as a completely selfish asshole. He figured this gesture was unnecessary anyway; no girl ever asked for a diamond ring afterward, just cab fare. Sometimes one would ask for his phone number, hoping to turn a one-night stand into a double-night, maybe even a triple. He tried to be kind but honest. It wasn’t a surprise that Murdoc Niccals was honest, especially when it came to saying no to things he didn’t want to do, and girls who were fans of his band were well aware of what they were getting into if they found themselves in his bed. If they wanted a mint on the pillow and post-coitus cuddling, he sent them in 2D’s direction. Otherwise, it was a “thanks for the good time, I’m off to the loo,” and when they’d left, he’d shower, have a nightcap (or more) and pass out at some point into the next day.

            In this moment, all the bullshit of one-night stands was lost in the rain outside the bar. Murdoc had not come for anything of the sort – he came for the booze and the quiet, and that’s what he meant to do. He wasn’t sure if it was the impending realization that he’d be fifty-one soon, or the recent melancholy that had gripped him for some reason, otherwise causing him the longest drought of impotency of his life. The worst was that mentally, he didn’t seem to crave that soft touch either. His body and his mind were working against him, and he had no idea why. An internal war had started and his existence was caught in the crossfire, concerned that maybe it would never cease. He wanted to fuck someone, but he didn’t want to go through the effort. He wasn’t in the mood to chase anyone, which depressed him greatly. He was a perfect predator, and yet, even when approached about the topic from willing participants, he couldn’t get it – anything – up. He couldn’t think about anything sexy to say. He couldn’t make himself pretend. All he wanted to do was drink and figure out why his existence was drying up.

            Musically, he was becoming the same way. He hadn’t been able to focus on writing. Even when practicing the older hits, he was having a hard time hitting the right chords, causing the band to question his ability. It was hell. He was used to condescending remarks from Russel, the overbearing coddling from 2D and curious side glances from Noodle, but as of late, none of them left him alone about it. Russel was convinced he was on something harder than his daily packs of smokes and booze, having already threatened him about his “junk” poisoning the band. Russel chose to overlook 2D’s flirtation with painkillers, citing that even on something, he was still functional as their lead singer. But when Murdoc was off, he was off, and it was noticeable. 2D seemed to be convinced that Murdoc was dying or thinking about committing suicide, hence the amount of concerned texts. And Noodle … well, Murdoc knew Noodle was concerned, too, even though she didn’t say much about it. She didn’t say much anyway, at least to him, but he’d noticed that she cooked him food randomly, even left it outside his door when he was passed out from a night of drinking. Sometimes he found paper cranes around his room, folded from textured pink paper with hearts and other doodles etched into them. He never thanked her for them or chided her for going into his room without his permission – not because she wasn’t young enough to be scolded by any of them anymore, but because she was the last person he wanted to stumble upon something unpleasant in his room. He knew he should eventually acknowledge the niceties because, whether she knew it, it had become a game he played when alone, trying to spot the newly introduced crane in the room, but thanking anyone for anything was a process for him. It was probably the gender thing, maybe the age thing – some stupid thing. Whatever the case, Murdoc didn’t want her to be tainted any more than she already was by his messy existence. It was a wonder she functioned as well as she did with him in her life … poor girl.

            The more these thoughts paraded around his head, the sadder he became, completely aware that sex was not an option for him, and giving the American girl a curt nod, he took his bottle and his glass, and sat himself in a booth in the opposite corner of the two glaring men, obviously offended by the cheery storm the American threatened the otherwise gloomy atmosphere of The Pig with.

            At the bar, Cal the American shrugged off Murdoc’s quick departure and returned to Roberto – was it Alberto? Who the fuck cares?

            “What was I talking about again?”

            “Dunno. I stopped caring after your second Comfort drink,” Albert returned, wiping the bar top around her.

            “That’s … honest,” said Cal, nodding in approval. “Ya know, in America, bar people just nod and smile, but you, you keep it real.” She waved the Corona over her head. “Cheers to you, Alberto!”

            “Albert.”

            Cal sloshed the rest of the beer down and set the glass onto the bar a little too hard. “Oops. Sorry man.” Adjusting herself on the stool, she remarked, “I really wish you had more Southern Comfort though. But I’ll take another.”

            “I’m fresh out of that piss.”

            Cal blinked, digesting his words. “What the fuck is this shit, Robert?”

            “Albert.”

            “What the fuck is this shit, Albert? I’m so disappointed.”

            “Welcome to Stoke-on-Trent,” chimed Murdoc from behind her. Clinging for life to the bar top, Cal turned to see Murdoc downing a glass of his whiskey, almost half the bottle gone. “Land of infinite disappointment and general disregard for human decency.”

            “I came here to escape that shit,” Cal announced in his direction, taking the bottle of booze Albert handed her. Without looking at it, she took a swig and then spit it out across the bar. “What the fuck is this?”

            “Homemade disappointment,” replied Albert. “It’s the house brew.”

            “It tastes like shitty toilet water,” she grimaced, wiping her tongue on her sleeve. “What’s the alcohol percentage?”

            “10.”

            Impressed, Cal chugged the bottle, crinkling her nose as the bitter liquid ran down the back of her throat. Coughing out the last bit and wiping the dribble off her chin with the back of her hand, she returned the bottle to the bar top. From behind her, Murdoc slowly clapped.

            “Well, well, I’m impressed.”

            Blinking several times and steadying herself on the stool, Cal cautiously turned her head around to see Murdoc highlighted in a warm glow of lamplight from overhead. He wore a black tee under his leather jacket, dark-wash blue jeans and black boots. His dark eyes were rimmed with the effects of sleep deprivation and the oncoming swell of his whiskey, just below a waterfall of bangs from his otherwise messy bowl-cut hairstyle. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust on him, wondering if maybe one of the Beatles had wandered in, considering she was somewhere in the UK or England or … well, it didn’t matter anyway, they were dead, weren’t they? The tint of his skin color was also confusing, as were the sharp black nails (with red pinky nails) on the spider-like hands he had wrapped around his glass, but the more she focused on him, the more she realized he looked completely at home in this place. His feisty smirk confirmed it.

            “You talking to me?”

            He nodded. “You’re the only person in this bar I think could keep up with me.” He patted the chair next to him. “Can I interest you in something more … appropriate for the job?”

            Taking a deep breath, Cal stood from the stool, smoothed out her jean shorts, zipped her black hoodie all the way up and made her way to him with strategic foot placement, plopping into the seat opposite him.

            “How’ve you not frozen?” Murdoc asked, noting the lack of pants, as he filled the glass and slid it to her.

            “Man, I had no idea what to expect weather-wise here.” Cal took the glass and she and Murdoc clanked it and the whiskey bottle together before taking long sips of the drink. Coughing, she covered her face in her sleeve until it passed. “I just bought the ticket and showed up.”

            Taking another chug at the bottle, Murdoc questioned, “You willingly came to Stoke?”

            Cal nodded as he poured her another glass. “I came to Manchester and ended up in Stoke-on-Trent. I told the cabbie I wanted cheap entertainment and he dropped me here.”

            “You must be daft or looking to get mugged. Probably both, I’d say.”

            Cal glared at him. “Try it, asshole.”

            Murdoc chuckled. “My aim tonight is to get as drunk as humanly possible – not harass the unfortunate tourists who find their way in this shithole.”

            “If you hate it so much, why’re you here?”

            This wasn’t a question he wanted to answer. Sniffing, Murdoc hid himself from it by polishing off the bottle. As he swallowed, he held the empty bottle up, waving it about for Albert to sneer at. “Another glass, too.” He turned back to Cal, who observed him under heavy eyelids. “You’re not going to quit on me now …”

            “Cal,” she said, more alert than she let on. “And don’t ask me what it’s short for because I hate my name and it’s stupid.”

            “Your name is stupid or your reasoning?”

            She narrowed her eyes at him. “I won’t dignify that with an answer.”

            Grabbing the glass and the new bottle of whiskey from an annoyed Albert, Murdoc continued, “Y’know, you speak quite well for an intoxicated American.”

            “And you embody all of the pompous bullshit I expect from an Englishman,” she replied as Murdoc topped off her glass. Clanking his, she gave him a wink and took a sip.

            Clicking his tongue behind his teeth, Murdoc sat back and swirled his whiskey, eying her. “Honestly, I had no intention of indulging anyone tonight, but since your deafening antics can’t be shrouded by my drinking, I’ve decided it best that you entertain me with how the hell you ended up here.”

            Cal sat stunned by his remark, unsure whether to be offended by his crassness or relieved that honesty still existed in the world. Regardless, she wasn’t that easy. “Listen, you motherfucker,” she pointed at him with an adamant finger, “I don’t have to you indulge you with anything. I came here with the same intention as you tonight: to get completely shitfaced in peace. And if my way is too loud for your precious green ears, you can get the fuck out. I was here first.”

            “I’d rather you both get out, you’re both quite annoying,” chimed in Albert from the bar but they ignored him.

            Murdoc tipped his glass to her, surprised by her ferocity. “Fair enough, Cal. Can I ask, then, what you’re lamenting?”

            “What I’m lamenting …” She took the glass and pounded it, bringing it down to the table. “Well, fuck, where do I start?” She laughed at this, leaning back in her chair. “Jesus, Greenleaf –”

            “Murdoc.”

            Cal winced. “‘Murdoc.’ Goddamn, that’s a name.”

            Murdoc waited for a moment. Cal sat there, unfazed.

            “Murdoc Niccals.”

            Slowly, a smile overcame her face.

            This is it, here comes the ‘wanna get drunk and fuck, Mr. Gorillaz?’

            “‘Murdoc Niccals,’” she repeated, and then burst out laughing. “Holy shit, and I thought my name was intense. Yours … goddamn, yours is very English.”

            In a way, Murdoc was happy that she didn’t recognize him. At least now the pressure was off and he could be himself without having to live up to some preconceived standard she’d have about him. It would be drinking and conversation – noise from her side, alleviating him from stewing in his thoughts.

            “Well, Cal, now that you’ve offended my forefathers, what are you lamenting?”

            “I, Murdoc, am lamenting the downfall of all that is organic and true in this world,” Cal replied, clutching the front of her jacket. “I’m lamenting the death of beauty, and honesty, and the commodification of creative genius in this colorless world.”

            Every intention Murdoc had about letting her ramble on about how she was dumped by some douchebag in America and how she’d never find love or something stupid like that as he drank himself into oblivion shattered around him. He sat forward in his chair, convinced she was actually a mind reader, scared that she could read the concern on his face. He placed the whiskey to his lips, inhaled it, hoping this would somehow make him drunk enough to not care about her words, her valid lamentation that he did not want her to continue on about, but none of it was possible. Before she could really make a fool out of herself, Murdoc was hooked on her words. He glanced around, sure 2D was going to jump out at him from behind a bar stool, proud that he’d finally cracked Murdoc. Of course, that didn’t happen.

            Cal laughed, sitting the whiskey glass down. “Not even five minutes and I’ve already struck out. Thanks anyway, man.”

            “Wait – what?” Murdoc said with alarm as he watched her attempt to stand.

            “No one understands,” Cal told him. “Their eyes glaze over, like yours. I’m a mess, not a regular mess, but a mess no one wants to wade through. It’s all good, I get it.”

            “Don’t leave.” The words came out suddenly, and Murdoc barely noticed he said them. “I mean, I’m interested in your issue. You see, I’m in a band, and sometimes … I feel like that, too.”

            Cal raised an eyebrow, looked him up and down as though inspecting his credentials and fell back into the chair again. “Let me guess …” She pursed her lips and tapped at them with her finger in exaggeration. “Bassist.”

            Murdoc eyed her. “How’d you know?”

            “The brooding stare, the black hair, the inverted cross. You’ve got coming-off-aloof-but-actually-an-attention-whore written all over you.”

            Again, Murdoc relaxed at the fact that she didn’t say she knew because she read about him on gorillaz.com.

            “You’re certainly astute. Journalist?”

            “Writer.”

            “Is that not the same thing?”

            “Fuck no. No one tells me what to write.”

            “Touché.”

            “That’s what I’m lamenting, Murdoc, my basic right to write as I please.”

            “Not following.”

            “I was gang-banged back home.”

            “And you hope to seek therapy through writing about it?”

            “No – I mean, my story was. By some Hollywood assholes.”

            Murdoc cringed, understanding her immediately.

            “You see, I wrote a novel and it was picked up by a publisher. It started to sell and I was happy considering my message wasn’t as tainted as it could have been by editors. It even got picked up by a studio, hoping to turn it into a movie.”

            Murdoc refilled her glass.

            “They really wanted it once the numbers came in from a younger demographic – you know, the severely impressionable ones who eat up without shame the shit you slap glitter on. Well, they tell me they’re gonna make the novel into a movie and I’m stoked because I’ll actually see my message come to life for an actual audience … like maybe I’ve created something of value. Something raw that the world will ingest and learn from. But when I go to the meeting, those assholes fucked the shit out of my plotline, the ending, the characters. They completely destroyed the meaning of the story, wanted to hire a bunch of pretty, unscathed actors, cut my main female’s lines down to the bone … fuck, Murdoc, they had ideas for merchandise – merchandise! My story about suicide, about cutting, about finding a goddamn way to save oneself from the mental anguish of daily life was gonna be plastered onto fucking backpacks and key chains. My entire life’s work has been stripped of all her dignity, finger-fucked in the ass by The Man. No lube, no love, no goddamn mint on the pillow. They wouldn’t even let me consider the rewrites. They basically told me to sign over the rights and inherit a fuck-ton of money, or walk away.”

            “Well, what did you do?” asked Murdoc, anxiety coursing through his inebriated veins.

            “Are you fucking kidding? I walked away. I took the shitty draft they had, ripped up what I could before security was called, and dumped it in the fountain in the assholes’ conference room. I mean, I still have my book but … I’m scared now. I’m scared of what they could do with my idea, especially if they tweak it and try to market it as their own. They could do that, ya know? They could make a shitty mirror version of it and sell it, and profit off that counterfeit version of my life’s work.” She sighed, leaning on her arm to support her head as the booze became liquid metal in her veins. Don’t start crying, you dumb bitch. Forcing a smile, she shrugged and finished off the last of the whiskey in her glass. “Bukowski was on to something, ya know. He just wrote and drank, and didn’t give a fuck about anything. I hate being human.”

            Murdoc wanted to say something to ease her pain, not necessarily for her sake, but for the cause. He understood exactly how she felt. It was a scary place to be in as an artist. He even wanted to ask her more about the novel, but he figured it was too soon. So, avoiding the pressure to stroke her bleeding heart, he asked, “So why Manchester?”

            Cal shrugged. “After all that, I took my book advance and bought a one-way ticket to Paris, hoping that a change of scenery would help me mentally. Maybe start another book. Maybe channel a little Hemmingway or something. I have a shitty draft and the money’s running out … so I looked for something cheaper and headed out this way. Once I got to Manchester, I started thinking about what to do next. Usually when I’m depressed, the writing comes easily but I think I went a bit overboard hopping the pond. I’m learning shit here and battling all of this anger at the same time, caught between awe and rage … and while I’m not necessarily one to need companionship, it’s been a little lonely.”

            “No family, eh?”

            “They don’t understand. They aren’t used to this mess –” Cal gestured to herself. “They’re concerned with my sister’s residency at some hospital and the nieces and nephews she keeps popping out with her rocket scientist husband or whatever. They’re all Malibu trash.”

            “Where’s that?”

            “California.”

            “Ah, California. I only know Los Angeles. And Hollywood.” A bitter taste overcame his mouth, and he washed it down with another shot of booze.

            “I was born in Malibu but as soon as I could leave, I did. Spent a few years in San Pedro, eventually saved up enough to find a decent studio in Venice. I love Venice.” A smile overcame her face, one which Murdoc noticed immediately. “A lot of weirdos, but hardworking ones. It was nice.” Her smile dropped as she continued, “Then I met a surfer named Ryan – dumb fucking name, right? Typical … anyway, I shacked up with him for a hot minute, to save on money and … well, to have fun with. And it was fun but it was also very obviously going nowhere. Ya know, that fucker never once asked to read any of my work? Anyway, I was with him when I finished the book, and then all this shit happened, and then the fucker tells me that it wasn’t meant to be and that I should get a real job … and he offers me a spot at this surf shop he was working at.” She sat up in her seat, suddenly alert as her metal limbs melted into magma. How her rage didn’t burn through the rickety table upon which they rested was beyond her. “Now don’t get me wrong, Niccals, I’ve done my share of odd jobs. I’ve never held down a job long enough to get medical benefits – well, maybe once. But still, for someone like him, a moronic deadbeat to tell me it wasn’t ‘meant to be’ after Hollywood contacted me, I. Was. Livid. So livid, I threw his favorite board off the balcony. Shit cracked right in two. I’ve never seen a grown man cry so hard over foam.” She chuckled in bitter triumph as Murdoc poured her the last of the bottle. “What a bitch.”

            “And now you’re here.”

            She nodded. “Actually, I just used the last of the money to buy a plane ride back home. My friend in Pedro needs a house sitter while she’s in the D.R. for a month, helping a sick relative. While I’m there, I’m gonna try to figure my shit out. Find my own place, find some kind of work … try again with this novel bullshit.”

            “But not Hollywood?”

            “Nope,” she replied confidently. “I’d sell my soul for another bottle of Southern Comfort before willingly giving my mind to those cunts.”

            “I think that’s brilliant. Realistically stupid but morally genius nonetheless.”

            “I’ll take that wild sentence as a compliment.”

            “You should. Compliments come few and far between from this old mouth.”

            Cal chuckled.

            “Speaking of, shall I get us another?”

            She held up her hand to him. “Listen, Murdoc, I may be drunk and poor, but I’m no charity case. Roberto!” She snapped her fingers above her head. “Another round, on my tab.”

            “You don’t have a tab – and it’s Albert!

            “Right! But you know I’m good for it. How long have I been coming here?”

            “Three days too long!” Grumbling, Albert rummaged through his store to locate another bottle of whiskey.

            Cal turned back to Murdoc, grinning. “He’s been such a great friend.”

            Murdoc couldn’t help the smirk that crossed his face. Her words were becoming slower, heavier, and the muscles in her hand strained harder to keep her chin up. He guessed she was at least in her later twenties, athletic build despite the frequent alcohol consumption, large brown eyes, dark hair she kept in a messy bun atop her head. Her fringe hadn’t been trimmed in a while and fell into her eyes and down the sides of her freckled cheeks. He noticed a large tattoo on the outside of her left thigh, a beach piece which fit her well. He could tell she had another along her clavicle but couldn’t see what it was because of the jumper she wore. The blue nail polish on her fingers was almost nonexistent. She wasn’t the most well-endowed in terms of her bust size, but her legs were long and she had nice hips. The curvature of those hips freefalling into those legs was … pleasant.

            Murdoc ran a hand over his face, shaking those thoughts out of his mind. No, no, no. Not tonight. Not like this. The voice in his head was odd, foreign. Who the fuck was he becoming?

            He returned to her mouth, the part of her face that captivated him most, where all those words fell out in an eloquent rush of booze-induced thought – it was a conundrum he’d never faced. Okay, so she had been burned by a guy, but that wasn’t the point. The point was she was scorned by the abuse towards her art, and if anything could give him wood right now, that was it. It had been a long time since he’d met a kindred spirit in that essence, and as Albert sat the bottle of whiskey down between them, Murdoc felt the urge to ask her a hundred more questions before the booze eventually took its toll on her. After all, she was right: she had been there first, and she was way ahead of him in the race to oblivion.

           This led him to his next predicament: if she did decide to go, or if she passed out, or if she made a pass at him, what was he to do? As a general concern and knowing the danger of traveling alone in the middle of the night in Stoke, it seemed a terrible idea that he should let her walk back to wherever it was she was staying by herself, especially dressed the way she was. She could get kidnapped … or catch a cold. He could take her back to his hotel room, too, to let her sleep it off … or let her fuck him … or jerk off to another one of her spiels on art, while staring down the length of those legs. Or, he could do the right thing and let her do as she wished, and continue on his mission to get fucked up by himself in The Pig until 2D came to his rescue.

            Goddamn it. God, you sonofabitch, this is all you, innit? All I want to do is decay in peace …

            The clanking of Cal hitting the neck of the whiskey bottle against his glass brought him back. She grinned at herself, quickly shrugging it off as some whiskey ran down the outside of the glass, and then pushed it towards him. She raised her glass.

            “To you, Murdoc Niccals, for listening to my bullshit as this old spinster descends into madness.” Cal tossed the entire glass back before Murdoc could even lift his own. Waiting for her to swallow, he finally brought the drink to his lips, considering her words. Spinster.

            She laughed, somehow reading his mind. “Was that, like, English enough?”

            “Spinsters are usually old.”

            “Yeah, well, this spring chicken is … clucked.” Again, she laughed harshly, her eyes becoming slits on her reddened face.

            “Love, with all due respect, you’re a child.”

            His comment sobered her up for a moment, the offense crossing her face. “Fuck you, Niccals, I’m not a kid. I’m thirty-two.”

            Now it was Murdoc’s turn to spit his drink. “Thirty-two?” He chuckled, remembering when he was thirty-two and Gorillaz was still in its infancy. “I pegged you at twenty-five, twenty-eight tops.”

            “Yeah, I’m sure you’d peg a twenty-something.” She grinned at him, more impressed by her own joke.

            “And I’m sure in your spinster state, you’d love a good pegging, regardless of age.”

            “I don’t know, I associate penises with Ryan right now, and I don’t know if I’m ready to … ride that wave again for bit.”

            Murdoc tried to roll his eyes at the pun but instead laughed. It was probably the whiskey finally getting him to that impressionable point where all reason doesn’t exist anymore. As much as he loved intellect and prided himself on his smarts, he loved this state. Ignorance meant not caring, and right now, he didn’t want to care.

            Cal reached for the bottle of whiskey but it slipped from her grasp, Murdoc’s single ability in his drunken state allowing him to catch it before it cracked upon the table. She blinked at him and then at the bottle and then back at him, sighing a gentle, conflicted sigh before leaning away from all of it.

            “I’m getting sloppy,” she told him, and stood on wobbly legs. “I think that’s my cue.”

            Murdoc took a shot of whiskey to ease the sting of those words. He felt foolish for feeling this way, knowing damn well this transaction should have never taken place. Maintaining an even tone, he asked, “Are you going to be okay?”

            She nodded, pulling the hood over her head with clumsy accuracy. “Murdoc Niccals, I appreciate your time and your company and the shitty whiskey. But now,” she feigned a terrible French accent and bowed to him, “I bid you adieu.” Standing tall again, she saluted him. “Adíos, amigo. I’m going to go throw up outside.”

            With that, she turned on her heel and headed towards the door, taking only a moment to face a reddened Albert behind the bar. “Don’t think I forgot about you, bestie. I’ll be back tomorrow with some more cash.”

            “Do me a favor and take the cash and go back to the bloody States where you’re wanted.”

            Cal held up a middle finger to him and pushed herself through the bar door. Murdoc was sure she fell on the way out but if she did, it was just outside the door, out of sight. Immediately, he jumped up, then considered this gesture. Just let it be, Niccals. Ah, that voice! It was hers, saying his name in that slurred American accent. At the very least, he wanted to make sure she made it into a cab. Grabbing the whiskey bottle, Murdoc headed to the door, Albert calling to him from the bar.

            “Don’t do it, mate, she’s mental. Nearly started a fight with some patrons last night over how to pronounce ‘tomato.’”

            “Sounds like fun,” Murdoc spat at him. “Be back in a tic – save my seat, mate.”

            He pushed through the door just as Cal was puking into the shrubbery against the wall of The Pig. He stopped, giving her space, as he listened to the last of the contents of her stomach come up, a sound all too familiar. She was crouched down, holding herself around the chest. Instinctively, he wanted to at least touch her shoulder, assure her that she wasn’t alone, the way 2D did sometimes with him. He’d usually bat him away to save face, but sometimes he’d pretend to be so fucked up that he’d let his bandmate’s hand linger. 2D was an annoying bugger, but he was also very comforting, and sometimes Murdoc needed that.

            “Y’okay?”

            Spitting a final time, Cal nodded. She stood up, brushed her bangs back, and slowly turned to him. Murdoc could read the embarrassment in her eyes, but he knew she wasn’t that easy. Placing her hands on her hips, she chuckled to herself.

            “I tried to make sure it was out of the way. I’ve totally slipped in puke before. It’s not fun.”

            “Right …” Murdoc glanced around. “Listen, I know a thing or two about this place, and while I don’t mean to cramp your style, I’d like to make sure you at least get home okay. Are you within walking distance?”

            “Manchester, remember?”

            “Right, right.” He wasn’t ready to end his night, but he also didn’t want to her end up the victim of some cabbie murder case. Clutching the bottle tightly at the neck, Murdoc carefully approached her. Don’t sound stupid, Niccals. “Cal, please don’t think I’m trying to get in your knickers or anything – not that you’re not fuckable or anything –”

            “What a gentleman,” Cal remarked with an overabundance slurred of sarcasm. She crossed her arms over her chest, her gait slightly off.

            “I’m actually staying at a hotel in Manchester with my band. If you’d like to share a cab, I’d pay. Really, I just want to make sure you make it into something safe. I mean not to demean your obvious L.A. street smarts or whatever, but this is a hard neighborhood.”

            She seemed unconvinced. He sighed.

            “I’m from here.”

            Her expression softened. Then, she gave him a faux look of concern, clasping her hands together and walked to him, Murdoc instantly moving away, knowing exactly where she was going with this.

            “You’re a charity case, too? Aww …”

            “I’m not a bloody charity case, you are.”

            “Help me, handsome prince, save me from the dumps of this godforsaken squalor.” She put the back of her hand to her forehead, then laughed and stumbled forward, Murdoc catching her, holding her a safe distance away from him. She continued to laugh, steadying herself. “Americans are so stupid.”

            “They’re … interesting.”

            She moved out of his grip and wiped a tear from her eye, turning back to the street. “Okay Niccals, you win. Get us a cab to Manchester.”

            Behind her, a small smile crossed his face.


            In the time it took for Cal to vomit two more times and for Murdoc to finish off half the bottle, the cab finally showed, and Murdoc and Cal retreated to the backseat. She laid against the cigarette-tarnished fabric with her eyes closed and her lips parted. Murdoc leaned away from her, his head against the window, staring out at the brightening of the night as they neared Manchester, sipping on the bottle and finishing two cigarettes before he realized he had no idea where Cal was supposed to go. As they neared his hotel, he nudged at her, asked her where she was headed, but she didn’t respond.

            She’s fucking dead.

            The cab driver glanced back at him in the rearview mirror, and Murdoc shrugged at him. “Just drop us at my stop.”

            The driver raised an eyebrow and Murdoc glared at him. Maybe in the past this would have been an opportune time for something magical to happen between him and a girl. He’d been good at rousing them to offer sex, to which they’d accept with sloppy yet adamant effort. But he didn’t want that. He was over the stupidity of it, and blacking out seemed far better a venture. Besides, Cal was tired, emotional and needed sleep. If he’d been in her place, he hoped that that Murdoc would have respected him in that way. Also, sex after vomiting was a danger zone Murdoc had crossed on a few occasions and it never ended well no matter how hard he’d tried to disprove that theory.

            The driver stopped at the hotel and Murdoc paid him. He moved around the outside of the cab to Cal’s side, opened her door and tried a final time to rouse her. “Any chance you can walk, love?”

            Cal’s head lulled to him and her irises revealed themselves between heavy eyelids. “Yes … tacos … extra cilantro.” Her eyes disappeared again.

            Murdoc looked to the bottle, sure he couldn’t carry both it and her, and downed the last of the whiskey, dropping the empty bottle into the gutter. Steadying himself, he pulled Cal out of the back of the cab and, with much effort, carried her into the lobby where, to his relief and annoyance, 2D grabbing snacks from the vending machine.

            “Oy, wanker, a little help!”

            2D turned and gasped. “Oh, not again, Muds!” Dropping his snacks, he rushed over and helped Cal down out of Murdoc’s grasp, the girl leaning against him as she mumbled incoherently into his chest.

            “Are you fucking mental?” 2D questioned, realizing the girl was passed out. “That’s illegal.”

            “I’m not going to touch her, you demented twat,” Murdoc seethed, pulling Cal back to him. “I just need your help carrying her to my room so she can sleep it off. You’re going to give me your bed.”

            “We’ll share.”

            “Fine. But I swear to Satan, 2Dipshit, if you even so much as breathe in my direction, I'll smother you with a pillow.”

            “You know that won’t work, Muds, I’ve perfected my breath-holding time.”

            Murdoc slung one of Cal’s arms around his shoulder, 2D taking her other side. Together, they carried her to the lift, where the silence of the elevator overcame them until 2D could no longer take it.

            “Thought you went to Stoke.”

            “I did.”

            “Then where’d you find her?”

            “In a pub in Stoke.”

            “Why the fuck was she in Stoke?”

            “It’s a long fucking story, wanker, and I’m tired.”

            After a pause, 2D chimed, “She’s quite pretty. Not really your type, though.”

            “Hardly. She’s a rowdy American.”

            “Blimey, in a pub in Stoke. Poor thing.”

            “I think I egged it on a bit. I felt bad, hence the reason she’s here.”

            “That’s awful nice of you.”

            “I’m an awful nice guy.”

            The lift doors opened and the two carried Cal down the corridor to room 306 – Murdoc’s room. Fumbling for his room key, Murdoc shoved it into the slot and the door opened, Murdoc and 2D moving inside. Carefully, they crossed the space to the disheveled bed, stepping over Murdoc’s clothes, shoes, and empty beer cans strewn about the floor. 2D released Cal and Murdoc laid her in the center of the bed on her side, 2D covering her with the sheet up to her neck. They stood there for a moment, Murdoc watching the sheet rise and fall with every breath Cal took, 2D watching Murdoc watch Cal. Sensing the two voids of 2D’s face on him, Murdoc snapped his head in 2D’s direction, causing him to wince.

            “The fuck’s wrong with you?” Murdoc hissed, grabbing some clothes off the floor and tossing them haphazardly into one of his suitcases.

            2D watched him, tapping absently at his side. “You just seem different is all. It’s been that way for a while now, but … I don’t know.”

            “You never know.”

            “Need help?”

            “I’m just … I just don’t want her to get tangled up in this shit when she leaves in the morning.”

            “It is the morning.”

            “Fucking hell, you know what I mean.”

            “Just leave her a note to come to our room tomorrow before the interview. That way you can say bye.”

            Murdoc snapped up, holding a shirt and a pair of boxer briefs. “And why would I do a thing like that?”

            “She’ll be hungry. Perhaps she’ll wanna grab a bite.”

            “You’re always hungry, you take ’er.”

            “She’s your friend.”

            “I’ve known her for three hours, idiot.”

            “Still, maybe she’ll want to thank you. Or maybe she’ll want a shirt. I brought a few extra for the interview, for the hosts. But maybe I’ll have extra.”

            “She doesn’t know who I am.”

            2D’s eyebrows raised high on his forehead. “She doesn’t? You mean to tell me she willingly drank with you … as you?”

            Murdoc glared at him.

            “I didn’t mean it like that, Muds! I just meant … you ’ad a real conversation. It’s hard to come by those nowadays.”

            As much as Murdoc wanted to throw something at 2D’s face, the man had a point. Still, he could never admit that. Grunting, Murdoc took the shirt and underwear, and moved towards the door. He stopped only when he noticed 2D leaving something under Cal’s arm.

            “Leave her alone, she needs sleep.”

            2D stood and smiled down at her. “It’s just my room number. I also left your cell number, just in case she misses us.”

            “You didn’t need to do that. I already know where she’ll be if we needed to see her again.”

            “Where?”

            “The Pig in Stoke.”

            2D nodded. “Perhaps after the interview we can all pop by!”

            “You’re an idiot, 2D,” Murdoc announced as he held the door open for his bandmate, 2D crouching to go under Murdoc’s arm. They both moved to the next door over, 308, and 2D opened his room. The younger man entered the door, going on about how it’d been a while since he, Russel, Noodle and Murdoc had all been out for a drink together and how that would be fun, but Murdoc lingered in the doorway for a moment, wondering if he should have at least left Cal a glass of water. 2D always left him a glass of water on the nightstand after a bender but … if he did so now, he’d never hear the end of it from 2D. Suddenly, the man would be planning Murdoc’s wedding, giving middle names to his nonexistent children, creating spreadsheets on how to save money for each child’s uni tuition.

            Murdoc, hearing 2D in real life and in his head, rolled his eyes and let the room door close behind him with a snap.