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The Next Best Thing
The Next Best Thing

The Next Best Thing

LukeFannanLuke Fannan

The first time I saw Patty Desray was through a 13” screen. It was coming to the end of the day and I was in one of those moods. I’d watched about one hundred video applications and decided to make the next few viewings my last. If I hadn’t found the ‘perfect’ person for the job by then, I’d have to pick from the mound of beer-fattened middle-aged duds I’d been watching for the past five hours. To add to this I knew the next few weeks were going to be just as tiring and drab. At this point in my career I was frustrated. My writing had taken a back seat and I spent a lot of time organising stories and editing. The local magazine I was working for was uninspiring, and often published articles inside the box. The subject matter was interesting naturally, but no one seemed to want to do anything interesting with it. I’d been given the task of piecing together a tribute to an ageing rock star who had played his last gig: Micky Stratsborg. Straight away I resigned to thinking that this article wasn’t ‘the one’. I wasn’t even writing it. No, if I could just keep pushing stories out eventually I’d get my shot at something interesting.

I had this idea: two mega fans were to be selected to collaborate on the piece. I already had one fan: Studs Leatherman. Each time I say that name my body shakes and my face scrunches like I’ve just inhaled a heap of sour yoghurt. He was a tribute act who had copied Stratsborg all of his life, even changed his name to something more ‘rock worthy’. The second mega fan would have to be chosen today so that the project could be started and finished as quickly as possible. Maybe once it was done I might be given something classier to piece together. Maybe upstairs would stop being ageist pigs and trust me, ‘the kid’ with an important piece, rather than a suck-up article to an average guitar player and cheap lyricist.

I opened the last email of the day, feeling refreshed to see a woman’s name in my inbox. I hoped that the email I was about to open wouldn’t be work related at all, and instead an invitation of sorts. Glancing up I saw that the subject box read ‘application’. The video started and Patty just sat silently for a moment, driving along an anonymous road. She was wearing sunglasses, and was younger than I thought she would have been. Straight away I knew this might actually be something. All of the other videos were perfectly centred and pale. Lumpy men sat on sofas would stare down the lens and attempt to wax philosophical about what the artist meant to them. Always overemphasising. If I had to direct this article I was going to do it my way: a subtle and understated homage. Patty spoke quietly at first, but soon realised the nature of her video and perked up. “The three words I would use to describe Micky Stratsborg are ‘hope’, ‘energy’ and ‘resilience’. Hope because, well…” she paused here “…look I’m sure these words have probably been used before. He’s electric on stage, his songs are about losers, like me. But he has helped me through some hard times, and I would just love to return the favour by paying homage in your magazine. Hope I hear back from you soon.” That stuck in my mind. ‘Helped me through some hard times’. I called her that night and made arrangements for the following day. Studs and Patty were to meet up to shoot a small video for the website in my office. That night I went to bed feeling slightly more optimistic than I had when the day began.

***

Studs would go first. A single seat positioned in front a giant poster of Stratsborg’s first tour was the scene. The question was asked off camera: What is your first memory of seeing him? Studs took a deep breath and flashed a very clearly practised grin at the camera. Then, he picked up his guitar and started strumming a slow ballad from Sratsborg’s first album. Patty was sat next to me and I could see her face redden with embarrassment, almost feel the heat radiating from her cheeks. I had seen Studs perform before, and in fact it was on the night of one of his renditions that I gave him the job writing this piece. Me and some friends were crawling from karaoke bar to open mic night, when we stumbled across an unusually large crowd packed inside of a rustic venue. The announcer was just stepping up to the stage when we entered. “OK folks, it’s time to bring on our next exciting performer. We are very thrilled to have this guy here tonight, and I can tell that you are too. Now, some people are blessed to have seen the rock star that is Micky Stratsborg live. Lots of us have never had the privilege. Ladies and Gents, tonight you get a close encounter with the next best thing. Please welcome Studs Leatherman!” Apparently Studs was actually pretty popular across the country, known unofficially as ‘the next best thing’. I had just been assigned the tribute piece that day so decided to stay and talk to Studs after the show. I met him at the bar following his last macho performance, and after introducing myself, soon realised that off-stage, I was dealing with a completely different person than I was on-stage. I watched his chest un-puff, his grin lower, and his confidence seep away. He drank wheat beer with a lemonade top. “Well” he said “I’m not much of a writer, but I’d be delighted. After all if anyone knows Micky, it’s gonna be me.” I involuntarily snorted after he said this. ‘Micky’ I thought, ‘first name basis, huh?’ Whilst not impressed by his performance, and not confident in his ability to put together a journalistic article, I decided to take him on board. Beer clouded judgement had paved the way for a heap of editing work in the near future. Plus, there was no doubt business would be booming for Studs now that ‘Micky’ had hung up his mic. His name might bring a bit of excitement to the office.

I let Studs finish his rendition in the office before he went on to describe how he had snuck in to a small venue when he was younger and caught ‘Micky’s’ last two songs, the latter being the song he had just played for me and Patty. That night I edited out his musical rendition, but kept in his story, a surprisingly endearing anecdote, filled with sincere descriptions of boyhood wonder, and admissions of his desire to be just like Stratsborg. It was harsh leaving out his performance, but the need to make the piece presentable created apathetic feelings towards my ‘writers’.

“Wow, that was really, err, powerful” Patty said, seemingly impressed, if not feeling slightly awkward. “Is it my turn?” She innocently perched on the chair and again I asked the question off tape. “Well, I feel really bad. I’ve never actually seen him live.” Dead silence. By this point any optimism or hope I had for the final product had diminished. Beside me I had a deluded wannabee who had devoted his life to being a meek reflection, and in front, someone who had never actually seen the artist in question. Any eagerness or excitement I held for Patty’s ability to make this article good evaporated.

“If I may?” Studs broke the silence. “Why don’t you tell one of my stories and just pretend it’s yours?”

“Hmm, I don’t know if I could do that.”

“Well, you’re going to have to do that” I snapped, unintentionally. Patty sent a sorry look my way.

Studs shook his head, frustrated, then continued “One of my favourite experiences was seeing him on his last tour. He had just about finished the first song and was already drenched in sweat. Then the rain started trickling and he said ‘that’s what we like to see. That’s what we like to feel’ before playing for another two hours. By the end he was exhausted and so was the crowd. It was like a shared energy. Nobody minded the rain because we were all up there with him, willing him on.”

“Well, ok then. I’ll try and improvise a bit.” Patty’s anecdote was choppy and stunted, but eventually there was enough footage to make something out of. I spent the night moulding and chiselling the tape in an attempt to showcase two lifelong fans, sharing genuine memories that weren’t cringe worthy or false.

***

Patty and Studs spent the next few days piecing together paragraphs and sending them over to the office where I would heavily edit mistakes or un-worthy segments. Soon enough I had grew frustrated with the way the two were writing, so called them back into the office. I told them that as much as they loved Stratsborg, his songs and presence were not life or death, as they were making out. “What I’m looking for is a true account of his achievements and his importance” I told them. Patty had brought her laptop with her, so I told her to find her video application. I said “the reason I chose you was because your video was so real and honest, not overly done with superlatives. You weren’t pandering to anyone, see?” She opened the video and the three of us watched. The application clip had started with a moment’s silence on an ambiguous road, I remembered it well. The video we watched now was different, starting with a sad image of tears and tissues. She had accidentally pulled up her unedited video application. For a brief couple of seconds we watched this woman cry in her car.

“Oh. Shit. Sorry, I cut that out of the application for obvious reasons.” Patty blushed. Studs placed his arm around her shoulder, acknowledging and recognising the strange emotion on screen. I didn’t dare comment, but was inwardly regretting the selection of writers in front of me. Obsession was something I had aimed to avoid. We were in too deep at this point.

Something miraculous happened a couple of days before the article was finished. Micky Stratsborg died. Only a month after his farewell gig he had over-dosed. When news reached me that morning in my kitchen, I laughed, even danced a little, before feeling somewhat guilty. As far as I knew we were the only local print writing about Stratsborg. Others would no doubt already be starting on brief articles glossing over the man’s life and music. What I had in reach was much more. A fan’s tribute, double spread, emotional and real. The shitty little article I had been burdened with was now immensely important to the magazine, this confirmed by the phone call I received that morning from upstairs asking how soon the piece would be ready. My first action was to call Patty and Studs and insist they start coming to work in the office. That way, we could be finished in two days.

Studs and Patty had arrived at the office before I had. I found them consoling each other around my desk. It quickly became apparent that no solid piece of writing was to come from either of them that day. I tried placing a sense of urgency in them: “Guys this thing needs finishing in two days, if not then it’s my neck, and if it’s my neck then it’s your pay.” No good. I tried the softer approach: “You know they say that the best way to get over losing someone is to immortalise them in writing.” Still, just sobs and cuddles. I was overcome with desire to continue working. I could smell the leather seat waiting for me upstairs, feel my boss’ fat hairy hands patting my back. For a moment, however, I felt truly sorry for Patty and Studs. I didn’t share their intense levels of adoration for anything, so couldn’t pretend to know how deeply affected they were. Eventually I told them to call it a day and come back tomorrow.

Expecting more tears and unwilling, I arrived the following day a bag of nerves. My stomach had swashed and bubbled all night. I had been awake since 4. Worst case scenario was that I would have to finish off the writing myself. However, re-reading the draft over breakfast I had learned to appreciate the combined work of Patty and Studs. Under my guidance they had penned some truly heart-warming and well put together paragraphs. Maybe their sombre states would generate genuine writing and a striking conclusion.

To my surprise, what I found at the office was a sprightly scene, almost as if Stratsborg had risen from the dead and announced a comeback tour. Studs had brought his guitar with him once again, and was playing an upbeat tune to Patty who swooned and giggled. “You guys OK?” I tenderly asked. Studs swivelled over my desk and straight away I recognised his alter ego, that stage presence from the bar. His chest had puffed back out. A slight grin was painted across his face. His confidence was clear to see. Yesterday’s sore eyes and baggy cheeks now flexed and charmed.

“More than ok, friend. Me and young Patty here are gonna fix up this article and have it to you by the end of the day. Isn’t that right, Patty?” He said whilst still making eye contact with me.

“You bet.” Patty’s eyes fixed on the back of Studs’ head. She also had swapped her sorrow for an act of reverence.

I kept a keen eye on the duo for the rest of the day and went about arranging the photography and art work for the double page spread. Every so often I could see Patty’s eyes swell and her face droop. Just as this happened Studs would pick up his guitar and with a stroke, rearrange her misery. She constantly jumped between exuberant and depressed. Strange, but productive.

The last bit of writing came to me at the end of the day. It had been signed off by the pair, declaring that “every fan across the county, the globe even, will feel like they have lost a friend.” A fitting last line. The rest of the work from that day, however, upset me deeply. It was flowery, dramatic, overly sensational, a complete shift in tone to the subtle and grounded piece I had coaxed out of them for the last couple of weeks. The prose I had come to appreciate was abandoned and the last few paragraphs felt rushed, childlike in its awe of the rock star. Speedily editing what I could, I sent the piece upstairs just before the deadline that afternoon. Polite exchanges of money and handshakes with Studs and Patty followed. I was still confused at Studs’ current persona, but glad to see the pair leave the office, having felt irritated at their day of odd flirting and poor penmanship.

Unbeknown to me, another local publication had pieced together a tribute to Stratsborg within the space of days, and published it at the same time. The author worked for our rival magazine, writing the whole article himself. He was a fan of Stratsborg and during one gig had been invited up on stage to dance with the band. My boss told me the article I had resided over was ‘the third best tribute to Micky Stratsborg in town’. I remained working downstairs for the foreseeable future.

***

I hadn’t heard from Patty or Studs for a year, until posters started popping up over town: STUDS LEATHERMAN LIVE AT THE THEATRE ROYAL. Contrary to its name, the Theatre Royal lacked anything regal or grand, but was by far a bigger venue than the bar I had seen Studs play a year prior. Reluctantly intrigued, I decided to attend the concert. Crowds numbering a few thousand had gathered, both from within and out of town. There was even merchandise stands and back stage passes. When Studs arrived on stage the noise was resounding. Stratsborg T-shirts littered the crowd. Flabby arms punched the air. Flat beer over-spilled plastic cups and coated the floor. Despite the roars around me and the shuffling horde of big-haired cougars, I could still make out that familiar persona. This was the same character who had left my office for the last time that day, guitar in hand. Before he approached the mic he turned and blew a kiss in the direction of the curtain. There, hid in the shadow was Patty Desray, smiling adoringly. Though I was far away I knew it was her, and I even recognised the face she was holding. The same face she had accidentally shown us in her unedited video application. Tears, which I now recognised as tears of appreciation and overwhelming elation. The stage lights quickly flashed over her, reflecting golden light from her ring finger.

Studs no longer needed an announcer, and welcomed the crowd himself. “Evening beautiful people.” Someone’s screechy ‘wooooo’ rattled in my ear. “Some of us are blessed to have seen the rock star that is Micky Stratsborg play live. Tonight folks, you are joining those privileged ranks.” Not once before, during, or after the show did I hear anyone utter the name Studs Leatherman. Not once did I hear him referred to as ‘the next best thing.’ All I heard, were chants of ‘Stratsborg’.

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About The Author
LukeFannan
Luke Fannan
About This Story
Audience
12+
Posted
26 Mar, 2019
Words
2,936
Read Time
14 mins
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