Ron didn't recognise her at first. She was shorter, a little wider, greyer, older. She sat in the restaurant with some dude with a ponytail tied back and flecked with silver. He maybe wouldn't have paid any attention to them in other circumstances. They appeared to be just an ordinary arty couple approaching middle age.
"Hey," she called to the disinterested waiter, "can we have two more coffees over here?"
Her American accent grabbed Ron's attention immediately. She looked up smiling hopefully at the waiter, who acknowledged her with a brief tilt of the head. Ron saw her eyes for the first time and they were unmistakeable.
He felt like going over, but he was embarrassed. He was far too old for all that 'dedicated fan' bullshit. He reckoned she'd be sick to death of her meals being interrupted by some arsehole wanting autographs or telling her how much they liked her music.
As Ron willed himself not to stare, her companion rose, smiled, and wandered to the door. Carrie remained, sliding a creamy éclair between her lips like a...
'No, ' Ron smiled. Such delicious fantasies were hardly appropriate. He wondered how many would turn up at the concert tonight. It was a small venue and he kind of doubted a lot of people would still be interested in an artist that had such a checkered career. But, he guessed, he may be surprised who'd come out of the woodwork. Not everyone obsessed on Classic radio or chased the mainstream like a trendy cellphone. This was a University town with eclectic tastes and you just never know.
The café was filling up and they were the only two hogging tables by themselves. Carrie suddenly stood, clutching a purse and a cigarette packet. Ron hadn't thought she'd be a smoker. He'd imagine she'd have more respect for her voice. Then, he thought, there was that so-called rock and roll lifestyle so why should he be surprised? In fact, why should he be surprised she was as susceptable to ordinary vices like the rest of the population?
On the spur of the moment he, too, got up and went outside with his cancer sticks. Ron's kids had been on to him for years about giving up but he always had some reason not to. 'It's not the right time.'
In any case, he found her out in the small garden bar impatiently pacing up and down while drawing down the smoke in deep puffs.
"Hi," he acknowedged briefly as she glanced enquiringly in his direction. She flashed a smile in the self-conscious way of a fellow addict.
Carrie was dressed casually in jeans and sweatshirt. Her long hair was dyed auburn and tied back with a silver clasp. Her face was fuller than her photos and defined a little by her mid forties age. Album art had always depicted her soft focussed and indistinct and she'd done few publicity shots.
She was one of those who eschewed the whole star bullshit and consequently had gained credibility on the alternative scene, and being completely ignored otherwise. She just wasn't a Madonna and never pretended to be.
"Got a light?" he mumbled as casually as he could and she tossed him a brass Zippo. He nodded thanks, lit a rollie, then tossed it back. "Ron," he told her.
"Rosalie," she replied.
'What?' his mind struggled with the confusion of mistaken identity. He remembered the embarrassment once of having to meet some guy at the airport who was arriving to give some lectures. His wife had just given birth and Ron was deputised. All he had was a photo to go by and he'd spent 10 minutes talking to some stranger who was nearly a spitting image. He felt an utter fool afterwards.
"Visiting?" he asked, regaining his composure.
"Working," she explained.
'Ah!' he thought, "oh yeah? What'yer play?"
"Guitar and sing."
"Really? Where's the gig? Maybe I'll check it out?"
"Sure. Club called Shed 19. Down by the docks."
"I know it," he told her. Sure he knew it, he had a ticket already.
"You Carrie Power?"
"Yeah. I use that name on stage. Kinda dumb but I'm stuck with it. No-one'll turn up to a concert by Rosalie Feriera and I need to make a living."
"I understand. Tickets selling well tonight?"
"Selling out. You'd better get in fast if you want a seat."
"Actually, I have a ticket already," he confessed, "that's what I came down for... the gig. I didn't think that many people would remember you?"
"Surprising who comes out of the woodwork. Mostly old Toolbox fans wanting the old stuff."
"Do you give it to them?" he smiled.
"Some," she shrugged, "but I've moved on from those days. Y'can't keep pretending it's 1990 and still be true to what you are today. That stuff had its time and place. I hope you won't be disappointed?"
"No. I've got your solo CDs... all your later stuff." Ron was conscious he was beginning to act like a fan and immediately regretted it.
"I like all your stuff... different reasons, of course. I'm an old folk fan and that last CD had a very folky feel."
"I'm glad you said that," she replied, "my roots are in folk music. I... we all had stuff to get off our chests back then. That's why I invented Carrie Power, this militant feminist bitch out to show the men she was as tough as them. It was fashionable then, too, and helluva lotta fun."
"I understand," Ron replied, "then came the Spice Girls."
"Oh yeah," she laughed, "killed everything. 'Girl Power' suddenly meant dressing up on stage in sexy outfits to please the guys. We've come a long way," she added ruefully. "See, the record companies realised there was money in the 'idea, ' but had to take the politics out of it first. That was far too threatening for them. After all, they'd been using women's bodies to sell records for years. This was just another opportunity. Ironic, they should turn the whole thing around."
"Inevitable," he suggested; he thought, profoundly.
"What was with the little school dresses and the backpacks?"
"Oh," she laughed, "the 'Riot Grrl' thing? Middle Class trust fund kids from a certain North Western arts college playing dress ups and trying to create their own little scene. We never took it seriously. All I ever wanted to do was start a band and play music that I wanted to play. The problem with the Riot bands was few of them were any good. Guitar wasn't an instrument their mummies gave them when they were twelve. They took singing lessons and learned keyboard. Every guy had played guitar since he was little, so the girls had a big gulf to bridge before they could play as well all those talented guys. Those women who stuck at it and really learned to play made it, most didn't."
"Funny how you all now say you were never a Riot Grrl band?"
"We were Riot Grrl when we got a write up in the New York Times. We were Riot Grrl when we wanted people along to our gigs. But you ain't seen me in a Kinderwhore dress like Courtney Love or ordering guys to the back of the hall like Kathleen Hanna. We only ever wanted to play punk and hard rock. I never went in for the bullshit."
"So now you play acoustic ballads?"
"Yeah, and no-one ever asks me to flash my tits."
"You might make more money?" Ron chuckled.
"Doubt it," she laughed, "who'd pay good money for 45 year old boobs?"
"45 year old guys, maybe?"
"C'mon," she replied, "you guys want them all fresh like a co-ed's."
"Now that's not true."
"Anyway, is there anything to see in this town?"
"Sure. I was born here. There's lots of views, the sea, green belt, parks..."
"What would you recommend first?"
"Mount Victoria," Ron told her, "then, maybe, a walk along the sea front?"
"Sounds fine. What bus do I catch?"
"Y'kiddin'? I get a taxi to the gig if I'm lucky."
"Maybe I could show you around?" he suggested.
"No, thanks. You must have things to do." She looked wary and Ron wondered whether he'd stepped over the boundary.
"What about that guy you were with?"
"Paul plays guitar and a little keyboard for me," she explained, "he's local... gone to see his mom, he told me. Most like he's gone to see some friends to get stoned."
"You don't mind?"
"Nah. He's never stood me up for a gig in ten years. He's good even when he's trashed."
"So, I'm doin' nothing? I, uh, lost my wife a few year ago, and..."
"Sorry to hear that," she seemed genuinely sympathetic, "any kids?"
"Just the one. She's doing film at UCLA."
"Like Jim Morrison?"
"Yeah, and Coppola. Name's Aimee after Aimee Mann. Not my idea."
"Her Father. He produced our records back in the Toolbox days. Hooked up with some wannabe actress half his age now."
"Good for him," Ron said ruefully.
"Aw, he's alright. We're still good friends. Couldn't cut it as a couple, too much ego in there I think."
"Uh ha. I guess all that creative temperament..."
"Something like that," she laughed, "more like a couple of control freaks."
"And now I'm fine on my own. I have a house just outside of Portland that I don't get to see much. I mostly spend the year touring small venues, clubs. Toolbox royalties pays the mortgage, but if I want to eat, I have to work. It's okay, I like my life now. I can do without the hits, major label bullshit, pressure..."
Her cigarette was long dead and discarded in the bin by the door. She plucked another Marlboro Lite from the packet, however, and lit it. She offered him one and he took it.
"Why don't we go for a walk?" he asked, "there's a park down the road... or least there was twenty years ago."
"Probably a Bank now," she shrugged, "anyway... why not? I need some cash anyhow."
They walked out into the street and down towards the park. 'What was he doing?' he asked himself? 'Was he playing the fan or just being a local showing a stranger around?' The town was just a town and a hell of a lot smaller than US cities. But a local tends to overlook that which attracts a visitor. The city was cramped between harbour and hills, a kind of San Francisco in minature. It had charm, sure, and a nightlife. But it was nothing at all like the conglomeration of Los Angeles.
The park still existed, surrounded by glass towers. The Council had installed garish, incomprehensible sculptures in wire and tin and the lawns were immaculately edged and mown like green carpets. Ornamental paving had replaced the cement paths and the MacDonalds trash was evidently quickly removed from around the shrubs. There was no longer any graffiti or empty beer bottles: just a sterile place for stockbrokers to have their lunch in the sun.
"Not exactly as I remember," Ron said, appologetically, "no dogs feeding on discarded fast food and drunks on the benches."
"You like rubbish?" she raised her eyebrows.
"I guess I wanted everything to be how I remember, with the old buildings, the smell of gas, stalled trolley buses and the freezing rain."
"You like all those things?" she asked, sitting down, "I couldn't wait to get out West. I'm from Dayton, Ohio. Couldn't wait to get away from the Winters."
"So you went to California?"
"Actually, Seattle. There was that scene starting in the late eighties with Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam, Sub Pop Records..."
"Right, and Nirvana?"
"Oh yes, there was Nirvana all right," she chuckled, "Nirvana? Could we ever forget Nirvana?"
"Surely that brought the money in?"
"Well, yes and no. Soundgarden were the first to sign to Sony, but then everything really got crazy when 'Teen Spirit' got on MTV. Bands gone signed even if they couldn't play. Smack and fat check books... changed everything."
It was nearly two and Rosalie/Carrie looked at her watch impatiently. "They're putting dinner on for me at five," she said, "if we're going to see anything we'd better get going."
"Right, let's hook a bus and head up the mount?"
The bus ride was around twenty minutes. Mount Victoria was quite close to the city centre and offered panoramic views of the harbour and surrounds. Ron failed to explain it was also a favourite for courting couples, although that early in the afternoon there was unlikely to be too much trade.
At least the view wasn't that much different. There were a few more tall buildings and development along the waterfront. Wharf cranes had been replaced by overpriced apartments and fake lagoons, but the harbour and rolling hills still remained with all its landmarks.
Ron pointed out the places where he used to live, grotty student apartments and far away in the hill suburbs where he was brought up. Surprisingly, Carrie was interested in these recollections although Ron couldn't fathom why.
"Personal stories," she explained, "grist to the mill for a songwriter."
"Oh," he shrugged, "so I'm likely to end up in a song?"
"'The ballad of Ron of the Hills, '" she teased, "this guy leaves his heart in a town and moves out to the country to tread in chickenshit."
"Is it that obvious? And it was sheepshit."
"Cowshit, whatever, and, yes, it's obvious. So why did you leave?"
He turned around out to sea to watch a container ship pass out through the heads. "I got married," he explained, "then the kids came. It was too expensive to live here on the one income. My wife always wanted to have a little cottage in the country with a couple of acres..."
"But that wasn't what you wanted?"
"At that time," Ron sighed, "we were so much in debt the strain was killing me. The idea of having a piece of land for the kids to run around in was attractive. But I had no idea of how isolated life is out there. I was used to cars, people, cafes, bars, and the sea. I couldn't get used to living without the smell of salt and the rumble of surf."
"Oh, yes, I miss these hills plastered with houses. They hug you, protect... Wide open pasture, you feel so alone and exposed. It took me a long time to get used to miles upon miles of farms as far as the eye could see."
"'And the wind blows the chill of loneliness... ' You said your wife passed away?"
"Two years, last week."
"And your children?"
"Youngest is ten, a thirteen year old and my oldest is fifteen, all boys."
"They live with you?" Ron nodded, "you work?"
"Gardener and groundsman. I keep the town gardens."
"Ah! So you're good with plants?"
"My Dad was a greenkeeper at the local Lawn Bowls Club. I thought the green fingers had missed a generation. I don't really have a talent nor a desire, but I took whatever work I could get. The council put me through trade school."
"So what do you really want to do?"
"Books?" He nodded, "and do you?"
"I scribble whenever I have the time. Like during the Winter months after mulching and pruning when there's little to do."
"Ah! You have some manuscripts with you? I wouldn't mind taking a look."
"Just my notebook. I jot down ideas."
"So," she said, turning to face him, "this must be a big deal for you. Coming back to your hometown for, what, to see a concert?"
"Yeah, I guess. I packed the kids off to sleep over at their friends' places. I've planned this for weeks... saved the money up."
"I should be flattered, then?"
"I suppose. My friends urged me to go. They said I needed a break. There's always some reason not to do it."
"And you're glad you made the effort?"
"Hell, yes! Who'd think I'd get to meet Carrie Power in the flesh?"
"Steady, pal!" she laughed, "I still have my clothes on."
"Oh, shit, I didn't mean..."
"I know you didn't. I'm teasing. You're that much a fan?" she asked, "why?"
"Difficult question," he pondered, embarrassed. "I guess I built up this picture of the hard bitch with the gentle core. Y'know, I listened to all that early stuff where you pour out all this hatred against the men who fucked you over. I kind of pictured... this is stupid..."
"Well, I thought in my fantasies how someone like you needed the right guy..."
"You?" she laughed, "it turned you on?"
"No! Well, I suppose... in a way. But I like happy endings. I listened to your later stuff and I heard someone who was happier. Had maybe found love? Like the ending of a soap opera?"
"Ha!" she laughed, "except soap operas don't end. Now you understand that I was never all that full of resentment. Sure, I had some disappointments, but it was fashionable in the early nineties to dump on every guy. I like men... always have. My friends all knew why I was being superbitch and understood. Those guys who felt threatened probably needed to examine their attitude to women. I think a lot of guys thought, 'Oh well, he's a jerk but I'm so much better.' That's okay, you know, you don't have to take everything on board. At the end of the day, it's only the entertainment business."
"Sure, but songs have the power to touch people's hearts."
"Yes, and that's what I try to do. But I don't have any more take on the world than anyone else. I've just learned to sing about it. You write, so you must know. If you think you have more wisdom than your audience then you have a severe ego problem."
"If I had that much more wisdom I'd be a damned sight better off."
"See? Humble, yet recognising you have a gift and using it. I'm lucky I can make a living from it. I hope you make it, too, Ron. I get the feeling that's where your heart is, in your words. Just keep writing."
"I have to."
"I know," she replied, "have you sent anything to a publisher?"
"Just some motorcycle revues about thirty years ago. They were published in an Aussie bike mag... edited to hell, I hardly recognised my own writing."
"Yeah, they do that. Nothing since?" Ron shook his head. "Then it's time you got your butt off the seat and posted something."
"Nothing's ready. Not sufficient quality for a publisher. No-one want's to read my stuff... adventure stories, daft romances..."
"You've just condemned most modern literature," she laughed, "so how the fuck do you know if you've never given it to anybody to read? I'll give you my Email. You send me a 'daft romance' and lets see what happens. You show me how a sensitive guy treats his woman."
"Now you're taking the piss."
"I'm not, well, just a little," she laughed, "but, seriously, write me a story... promise?"
"Sure... sure, why not?"
"Who knows, it might become a song."
"You'd do that?"
"If you're as good as I think you are?"
"You haven't read anything of mine. How do you know how good I am?"
"Because I can hear the way you describe things, thoughts and feelings. The rest is technique and that's just advice and practice. Translating your vision to the page."
"It's getting on," Ron said, looking at his watch, "you've got a dinner date?"
"A buffet at the hotel. Why don't you come along, or do you have other plans?"
"No, I was going to grab some takeaways."
"Don't do that. Grab a free meal, but I'll have to ditch you about 6 for a sound check and warm up. Come backstage after, if you like. When are you going back?"
"Tomorrow. I want to look a few people up before I leave."
"Okay. Come back after and tell me how you liked the gig?"
He agreed, and they set off back towards the bus stop.
The buffet was standard hotel fare for guests and visitors. Rosalie and her small entourage sat at a large table in the corner of the dining room. Ron noticed she didn't drink any of the available wine, being content with some health-giving herb concoction. He had few qualms about grabbing an available beer.
Her guitarist Paul had swaggered in, his eyes glassy and speech slow. He sat next to Rosalie on her right and tore into a plate of savouries with such gusto Rosalie raised her eyebrows.
There was a technician called 'Feral, ' with orange hair and a stud through his nose. He was responsible for both sound and lighting. Glen, the promoter and owner of the club, was the other guest. He was a clean cut man of about 40 wearing an open jacket and a 'Toolbox' T-shirt.
Glen did most of the talking and was clearly in awe of his 'talent.' He asked her about the other ex-members of the legendary Toolbox, but Rosalie had mostly failed to keep in touch.
"Sammie's drumming for an LA outfit called 'Droog'," she explained, "they're okay," she shrugged, "one of 400 or so LA bands playing punk, but they're getting some work. I think Jane's out of the business living somewhere in Oklahoma. Rache is living in Rhode Island with some Record Company executive. She was always good at giving the guys head."
Paul burst out laughing, spitting out pieces of pie crust. Glen smiled self-consciously and Feral just ignored everyone.
"And you?" queried Glen.
"Me? I have three cats the neighbours feed because I'm hardly home. They like me in New York, for some reason, and I do a couple of clubs there regularly. Hey, but the best gig I ever did as a solo artist was at Miami Beach. Can you fucking believe it? Florida? Jeb fucking Bush land?"
"Playing to the over seventies set," Paul added, grinning.
"They weren't that old!" Rosalie said, batting him on the shoulder.
"Ancient... they came with their grandkids..."
"And you gave them Rogers and Hammerstein..."
"Aw, crap! I played my own stuff. In any case, how'd you know what I was playing?"
"You gotta be trashed in Florida, man, it's the only way to survive down there," Paul said.
"Yeah, and fucking New York, Minneapolis. The Salt Lake City 'Grotto... ' remember that gig?"
"Oh, fuck!" laughed Paul, "she did a duet with Donny Osmond," Paul informed everyone, "that guy really can rock."
"And you were so plastered you kept dropping cues."
"Can you blame me? Donny fucking Osmond? Least he didn't sing 'Puppy Love.'"
"It would've all come back to you," Rosalie laughed, "you'd remember the chords."
"I've never played that shit," Paul protested, "she's bullshitting!"
By now everyone was laughing hysterically at Paul's discomfort. Shortly, however, Rosalie stood and grabbed Paul by the sleeve.
"We gotta go warm up," she told him, "Ron, see you after, huh?"
Ron was startled. She'd hardly said a word to him for an hour. Glen, the promoter, looked at him enquiringly, before shrugging his shoulders. Feral just continued to ignore everyone, eventually getting up and following the other two out.
"So," coughed Glen, nervously, "how do you know Carrie Power?"
It struck Ron that the guy was jealous. "Hooked up a while back," he told him vaguely, knowing full well what inference the promoter would take from that.
"Cool!" he replied, dishonestly. "You, ah, travelling with them?" he asked, blatantly fishing.
"No. Got my own place in the Rangitikei."
"The Rangitikei? You some kinda farmer?"
"Oh, that's interesting," the promoter replied in a manner that indicated he was plainly not. "Got any gear?"
Ron smiled to himself. From assuming he was some kind of groupie, Glen had made up his mind he was a drug dealer. I guess in the entertainment business everyone played some role and the idea of 'just a friend' was incomprehensible to this man. "Nope," he replied, "don't do drugs."
"Sure, sure," the guy replied, "that's okay. See you after the show?"
Glen up and left leaving Ron to finish the meal on his own.
Shed 19 was a average size venue, partitioned out of one of the original, 19th century wharf buildings. The walls had been stripped back to the red brick and the high louvres replaced with leadlights. The high ceiling was made more intimate by the soft lighting, hung by chains from the huge, Kauri roof beams.
The 200 or so seats were packed out and the manager was arguing with some ticketless latecomers as Ron slid past a harrassed looking security guy. It looked like it was the hottest show in town tonight.
Ron found his seat was two rows back from the front. He'd booked early and bagged one of the best places in the house.
Carrie Power was 20 minutes late. A local folksinger warmed up the crowd but was put off by the commotion at the door. Eventually, everything settled down and the crowd buzzed with anticipation as they waited for the main act.
It was an eclectic audience. Scenesters vied with suits and university Social Policy lecturers in bibbed jeans. A few old punks turned up with freshly dyed and gelled hair, torn singlets and studded leather jackets costing 500 bucks. There were so many nose studs that Ron mused it would double the weight on the old, tongue and groove, Matai floorboards.
Ron couldn't believe how many had turned out to an old Riot Grrl, he'd imagined, hardly anyone remembered. But here they were, the Alternative crowd and those wanting to be seen.
Carrie eventually strode out with Paul following discretely. The crowd gave a tumultuous applause as she smiled and Paul played a C sharp impatiently on his Korg.
"Johnny Rotten couldn't be here tonight," she told the crowd. There were a few 'aws' and one guy got up to leave to the laughter of his friends. "Someone stole his pension check and he was short of the airfare."
Everyone burst out laughing until Carrie strummed the first chord of her opening song.
She opened with a number from her most recent CD and, surprisingly to Ron, the song was greeted with hoots and hollers.