It’s mega slam night at Red Roof Slam! and Honor Blaze isn’t going to obsess over the act of sabotage she may, or may not, have done in recent weeks. She’s going to focus on the slam.
Red Roof’s the place for it, a great venue, even if the dogged manager did put Heath second in the line-up rather than agree to first or the close. Huge auditorium, red oak stage, long bar shaped like a horseshoe. Best-in-town vegan martinis, and should she buy a round of martinis? Maybe later, hubbub at the bar. Crimson curtains, sweet sound system, bouncers at the red door to keep out anyone anti-slam.
But who’s anti-slam? Slam’s all the rage, as revered as music festivals and World Cup Rugby finals and Shakespeare performed at the Globe. Reality shows are constructed around it: Slam Your Poet; S-s-s-slam! People want to feel. People want to laugh. Give them laughter and deep feelings with one act – that’s gold. That’s her man, Heath. And the stage lights are dimming. And sakes, Heath’s on at number two! She shoots to her feet, grabs her tote bag, and slips away before her sister or friends can ask where she’s going. The whole room’s surging forward. People are coming at her from all angles. And the chairs – they’re trip hazards – multiplying! She’s left it too late to reach Heath. Why did she do that? Well, because honestly, she sabotaged Heath’s application for a residency, and she’s spotted someone in the audience who may or may not be the assessor.
Artists, tradies, students, date-nighters, glams. Businessfolk still in their shirts, jackets off, jackets on, ties askew. All pushing, stop pushing! A man in a bulging waistcoat makes a grand show of letting her pass. Her tote bumps the elbow of a woman carrying vegan martinis, which slop fitfully and she – the woman – is in sky-high pin-point heels but she – the woman – moves in time with the glasses as if they extend from her hennaed hands, what a pro! (What a potty mouth.) And there’s the assessor, is that the assessor? Positive that’s the assessor. Music’s off. She’s nearly through the crowd, go, go, go. Chair legs pull and scrape. Chatter’s fading. ’Scuse me, sorry. Bear with her, she’s not always like this. The emcee will soon take the stage.
She’s reached the bar. A sign above the bottles of gin and vermouth says Apply Here and she thinks of Heath’s application and she’s not going to think about Heath’s application. A man propped against the bar is rocking crutches, hmm. She slips behind the crimson curtain and into the corridor that leads to the backstage stairs that will take her down to the alley. She’s been to Red Roof before – many times. Good venue, maybe she mentioned that. Shoddy access, maybe she didn’t. Grim, grim bathrooms; what do they think, vegans don’t need the loo? Her phone lights in her hand.
She’s so bloody late.
She’s behind the curtain. She can run now.
She won’t think about the application.
Sabotage, sabotage. Saboteur.
She runs; she barrels along the corridor and descends the back stairs, her tote bumping her hip. The exit door is open. Heath stands in the narrow lane, by the dumpster. Fine rain falls. Her boots crunch the gravel. The rain is cold. Cold face, cold hands. She unzips her tote and drops in her phone and rummages. The night is dark, the alley lit by a lone bulb that’s blurry with cobwebs and tacked onto the building’s side like an afterthought. Her fingers locate the bucket. It’s not really a bucket; it’s a poor excuse for a bucket, but it’s a miracle of modern engineering – a pop-out plastic thing with a lid, a space-saving lifesaver, a lifesaving space-saver. She pops the bucket into place and offers it to Heath, who ignores it.
Vomit shimmers on the ground.
Got waylaid, she says.
He’s rubbing his stomach in uneasy circles. She watches for the pause of his hand. Listens, hears the tell-tale hitch of his breath, holds up the bucket. She turns away from the sound and the smell and the sight of it, tries not to think about rib cage spasms and the burn at the back of the throat. He retches, once, twice. Warmth through the bucket. Warmth hits her right thumb.
His face is pale in the bulb light. He hasn’t noticed.
She won’t tell him; it’ll wash.
He stands upright and swipes the back of his hand over his mouth and leans backwards until his backbones crickle. She finds the water bottle in her tote and gives it to him, watches the strong lines in his neck as he drinks in thick gulps. His hair is wet from the rain; his jacket is wet too. She can’t find the toothbrush. She puts her tote on the driest, most-cleanest patch of gravel (like that’s a thing) and digs in – left hand only – and – there’s the toothbrush.
He strokes the top of her shoulders and says, thanks.
The solemnity has gone from his eyes. They’re sharpening.
She says, you’re wet.
He shrugs out of his jacket, hands it to her, shivers once.
She says, go raise that hell.
As he jogs off, a siren starts up in the distance and the lightbulb murders a moth. She inches onto the rim of the dumpster and tips out the contents of the bucket and jumps back down. She goes upstairs to the grim, grim bathrooms and wrinkles her nostrils shut. She hangs her tote and Heath’s jacket on a hook behind the door – thank Christ for a hook – and washes her hands, paying particular attention to her right thumb where matters have crusted. The accessible toilets are locked; she braves a skinny stall and sucks herself in so as not to scrape against the walls. She balls up toilet paper, dries the bucket and pops it in and lids it and stashes it back in her tote, stuffs Heath’s jacket under her arm, and picks the toilet paper off her fingers as she goes back down the curtain-lined corridor, what a drama.
Applause is rising. Five minutes between acts. She’ll be back in time for Heath. She must look a shambles. She stops in the corridor and finds a hair-tie in her tote and whips her hair into a braid. She can hear catcalls, wolf-whistles. Minimal stomping. She re-enters the auditorium. The raised lights are blinding and – oh, no, again – people are coming at her, racing for the bar. She wants to holler the martinis are great but don’t drink too many, at all costs avoid the bathrooms! She picks her way through the crowd, around tables, around outstretched legs round bellies round chairs, and look, it’s the man in the bulging waistcoat, still glaring. Shite she’s wet. She shrugs out of her jacket. She edges around a woman in a bodycon slip who’s waving her arms and declaring, wait ’til you see this next act! – and she’s nearly there, nearly there, and she reaches her table and collapses into her seat to three bemused faces.
Miss much? she asks.
Some poet named Damon.
Damon K Oxenborough? He go all Shakespeare on you?
Zombie slam. End of world stuff. Possible allegory for viruses.
Sounds cheery, she says.
He was incredible! Rosa’s eyes are shining.
Across the table, Luna props her head in her hands and fixes her with a stare. Good pep talk, Honor?
She ignores the question. She folds her jacket on top of her tote and slides both under the table. That’s all they think it is – a pep talk. Last-minute comfort. Getting railed, perhaps, at the most, propped up in an awkward broom cupboard, one leg butting a metal pail, one leg wedged against the door jamb, head knocked by a falling mop handle. Didn’t happen. Okay, maybe happened once. Everyone speculates. Does she help Heath with his make-up? Last minute vocal chord runs? She folds Heath’s jacket on top of hers. His phone falls out. She stuffs it into her tote. They don’t know why she goes to Heath right before he performs. She’ll never tell them.
When she pops her head back up, Rosa is pushing a glass of Prosecco towards her. Meri leans forward and touches her hand. Everything okay?
Bathrooms, she says. All loos filthy bar one. Queues, etcetera. Wasn’t up to squatting.
Your hair’s wet.
Ah, so. Well-spotted. Actually, did end up outside. Squatting in an alley. Queues, etcetera, insane.
She lifts the glass of Prosecco, drains it, and picks up the bottle for more.
She flips Luna the bird. Adrenaline is waning.
She can relax.
Application, application, application.
But look, he’s on stage! The lights dim.
He’s on stage – look!
Understand what Heath does to an audience. Six-foot-two of sleek muscle encased in black tee, leather pants, studded belt. He strolls into the middle of the stage, taking his time. Takes the mic. Wait for him, wait. Black combat boots polished to a high shine. Understated class. Epitome of cool. Black hair. Cut to his shoulders, long enough that it’s getting a wave on. He’s tied his hair back tonight. Good move, given vomit. Given rain. Now, Heath looks at his audience. They’re waiting. His eyes – palest blue. It’s not the colour. It’s not what the stage lights do to them, how they reflect, make him unique, untouchable, otherworldly somehow. It’s how he sees people, connects with slamfans, with slamabees, with men in bulging waistcoats and women on pinch-point heels carrying martinis or wearing bodycon slips – all of them, each of them, in every crowded slam auditorium – reveals himself to them. Steals her breath away.
The lights narrow to Heath.
A stillness creeps over the crowd.
Heath says on stage, need to clear me some space. You happy to help me do that? Yeah, you are, aren’t you. He indicates with his hands what he needs. Metal legs scrape. Laughter. Glasses clink. Go, go, go. A line unfolds between tables, a makeshift catwalk of floorboards that stretches from the stage to the bar. Excited chatter. Shut up now. He’s got nine-point-five minutes.
Heath grins at the crowd. That was easy, huh? Wanna get down among you. Gonna slow it down, first. Go a touch lighter, tonight, so much shit going down in the world. He laughs. Says, then maybe raise some hell.
Two tables back from the stage, a man stretches his legs into Heath’s catwalk like a challenge. Heath points at the man, thumbs to the bar. Better room over there, mate.
The people at the man’s table chuckle. The man grimace-laughs, shuffles round.
Join ’em or weep, sucker.
Heath Krantz, spellcaster.
Gonna talk about this place tonight, Heath says. Red Roof! Got a sweet spot for it in my heart. He taps his chest. Somewhere, fingers click. The crowd cries, shhhhh!
How has Heath dried his hair? Hers is a frizz, tufts sticking out of the braid. He’s even fixed his makeup; he’s all put together. Eight-point-five minutes. She itches in her chair. Thirty seconds ’til disqualification.
Red Roof, begins Heath, love your stuff, but you put me in second, after a zombie, what gives. Cool, so you celebrate the undead. He turns slowly, takes in every member of the audience, snaps his fingers in the air. You guys ain’t gonna put me in second, eh.
He says, this is a poem about the living.
The rules of mega slam run like this: each performance lasts ten to twelve minutes, two minutes’ lead-time to engage the audience, no props allowed. Mediocre slammers can’t hack it. Not for the sooky-hearted. Tonight, the audience is judging. The audience adores this. Guaranteed participation. No clicks, no snaps, no sounds of appreciation allowed until five minutes in, when a light will turn on over the stage. Laughter’s okay. Laughter can’t be helped. Boos are okay too, according to the official rulebook, which she’s studied at length; booing is rude though in her opinion, a bit on the nose, but look, she’s not bothered because there won’t be any boos with Heath on the stage.
Heath begins, I climbed the roof, the roof was red, red beneath my feet, I craved the gin, I craved the Vegantini salt and
—The crowds that surged towards the doors were solid, sound, all standing. They used the stairs, but not the lift, to come upon the landing—
He’ll move between rhyme and blank verse tonight. Rhyme to keep the audience alert, blank verse for the storytelling. She’d wager he’s the only poet rhyming. Surprise! He’s gentle and playful and rhyming tonight, and he’s gonna smack everyone upside the head near the end.
—They offer food, the food is good. The bathrooms? Bitter grim. All slash and dash and jobby bash. That’s if you can get in—
Funny at this point, light-hearted, even the bartenders are laughing.
About the bathrooms, Heath says – and he stops rhyming for a moment. He says, slam here a lot, feel qualified to comment on the bathrooms.
He’s riffing on his secret, she knows that, Heath knows that, the audience doesn’t know that; he’s playing with them. They’re lapping him up. He’s bold tonight, but he’s born to be bold on a stage. Feeding from them. But this poem could be risky. Not with the audience, not the way Heath will deliver it. Like asking the audience to move chairs to create his catwalk – that could have gone pear-shaped, gone extremely wrong. Was never gonna go wrong, not with Heath. Look, he could tear a chicken’s head off with his teeth on stage and still impress the vegans. But, with this poem, he could get banned from Red Roof. Blacklisted. Might take time to get an invite back, maybe fifty-fifty chance. Heath won’t be worried about that. Heath thinks he’s a shoo-in for the residency he applied for, gonna leave this city Honor, he’d said, gonna get this residency, catch the eye of the agent who promotes it, and take my slam to the next big place. London. Chicago. New York’s calling.
New York. Who would she be there? Lost in the crowd. Would he ask her to come, would he leave her behind?
She’d go with him. She’d follow him to the ends of the earth if he asked her, up to a space station, right down to the earth’s molten core.
Only, she sabotaged his application.
Application, application, application.
Argh! She won’t think on it. Fifty-fifty chance he’ll be back at Red Roof within the month. He’s the hottest thing on the slam circuit right now. Tonight’s performance is gonna add to that, got to. Look, the room’s full of reporters, bound to be, reporters and at least one slippery assessor, and Heath’s now making a joke at the expense of a politician. Something about fake veganism. Audience laughing. She knows that a member of parliament bought seats for two tables near the front, got that titbit asking the bartenders; the politician’s the guy with the handlebar moustache who tried to block reform on disability-assist dogs in the central city. Politicians are great slam fodder when Heath’s in a riffing mood, going off-piste. Which is most of the time. Almost all of the time. Look, he’s off-piste now. She feeds him stuff about who’s who and what’s what and that great brain soaks it up and fires it out with random, perfect timing. Especially if reporters or influencers are in the room. Which is almost all of the time. Actually, always. And the politicians love it. Slams hit the bulletins or the platforms and if targeted politician is lucky there’ll be a photo of them guffawing elegantly because targeted politician is a great sport, is also elegant, is always elegant when guffawing. Or wiping a tear if the slam is especially moving. And targeted politician was there, anyway, weren’t they? They’d been seen. But oh, the application. She won’t think on it! She’s present in the room, be there, be. Heath’s now rhyming something flirty with something dirty and adding mention of an impromptu olive and she doesn’t know how he pulls it off, but he’s moved on from the politician swifty-fast and he makes that olive sound like a sex toy.
Click, click, click.
Jeez, that was Rosa, too early. Can’t take her anywhere.
Now Heath’s back on script, back to the bathrooms. At least no crap on the seat, he says. So, no harm, no actual foul.
He gets them repeating it – no harm, no actual foul, no harm, no actual foul – until the whole room is chanting it, and it might be stretching the rules, might be, a bit like the catwalk, but there’s nothing specifically against it, she researched it, and who’d stop the room in the moment? It’d set off the world’s largest booing. And the politician is maybe chanting the loudest, no harm, no actual foul, ’cos he’s the best sport in the room. And she’d wager anyone who hasn’t visited the bathrooms yet will resolve to do so when Heath’s act is done. The manager might get them cleaned in the morning.
She doubts it.
That’s not Heath’s point, anyway.
He’ll get to it.
The audience is chanting, no harm, no actual foul, no harm, no actual foul – and Heath holds up his hand.
Until there is, he says.
He steps off the stage. His boots land with a hollow thump.
He’s so close he could touch her cheek. So close she could trip him, hook her leg around his ankle. Where is the assessor. She wants to do it. She doesn’t want to do it, there’s no bloody way she could do it. Look at him.
He stalks his makeshift catwalk, his boots singing on the floorboards. Halfway along, he pauses. Tugs the mic line. She checks the time. Six minutes, ten seconds.
Do you mind moving your chair leg a little for me? Heath flashes his smile at a woman in plum sequins on the edge of the catwalk and it’s not the assessor, is it? The mic line releases. No, thank goodness. It’s not the assessor.
Six minutes, five seconds.
She looks to the stage for the light that signals audience participation.
I broke a leg once, Heath says.
Hey, Red Roof, who else you putting in second?
Click, click, click.
The room sounds like crickets.