What Jenny Did
Jenny threw herself onto her camp-bed and sighed. She glared at the crumpled letter in her hand. "Miss Hayley, we regret to inform you that your collection of songs "Where the Heart Goes at Night" is not suitable for our studio. We receive many artists' work, and we feel that yours would not make a viable venture at this time. We wish you luck elsewhere."
The usual crap. Jenny screwed the letter into a ball and threw it across the room. Bastards only wanted the hollow, saccharine crap that was a hit last year. And the year before. And the year before that. It was as if they were competing among themselves to find the most perfect, the most calculatedly popular star of them all, the distilled essence of every hit that had gone before, combined into slick, shiny, meaningless fluff. Jenny vowed never to be like them. "Where the Heart Goes at Night" was real, it was her. Who cares if the record companies wanted anodynely "empowering" happy endings to her heartbreak, her grief, her terror of growing old alone? If the radio stations told her, flinching, to "cut down on some of the detail"? When she played down the pub, when the beer flowed and the crowds around the bar were losing their inhibitions, she saw the smiles on their faces, and the tears, and her heart soared as their slightly off-key voices joined in with the chorus. And in the quiet moments afterwards, as she packed up her guitar, the women with tear-blotched faces came and shook her hand. "Thank you," they'd say, "thank you. I… I needed that…".
Jenny sat up, and bit down the tears. She was not a little girl to hide on her bed and cry because she was defeated. She was a rock star. Rock never dies. She picked up her guitar and began to strum. She let out all the anger and frustration, tearing her fingers open on the strings. She didn't know what she was playing and she didn't care. It was dark now in the little attic room. Outside the city lights glowed yellow, the black river wound between the towers. Jenny stared out of the window. Please, she thought, perhaps she sang, to the wail of her guitar, she didn't know. Please, I don't want to die a washed-up, broken-down drunk, fantasising to anyone who'll listen about how she's gonna hit the big time. I don't want that.
And a face stared back. A shadow face on the other side of the glass. You want success? You want to make it big?
Yes. Oh, yes.
There's a price.
She looked around her little attic room. Dog-eared posters of gigs she'd gone to as a girl. The legends of years gone by. AC. Guns.
I know. I don't care.
A guitar string snapped, lashed her across the face. Blood dripped down onto the polished wood of the guitar, slid across the surface and faded away.
"Once more, from the top." Mr Jefferson lowered his clip-board, took another sip of tea, and glared at Jenny. "Miss Hayley, put some effort into this next take. That way we can all go home sooner."
"Yes, Mr Jefferson." What she wanted to scream was "How much effort do you expect me to put into this stupid car advertisement? I don't care about the car, I don't care about your company, this shit you want me to play isn't even rock. It isn't even music". But Mr Jefferson was paying her well for her time. She hauled the guitar onto her lap and forced herself to ignore her head-ache and her throbbing back. The bored young man on the sound board gave her the thumbs up. Jenny dragged her fingers across the strings, gleeful to see them bleed. She bashed out the first bar of the jingle, but her hand was shaking and the accumulated bile of years in advertising was rising in her throat. She bit down hard on her lip and poured into the strings her whole hatred of Mr Jefferson, of the job, of the car. The tears stung her eyes, they hurt more than her bleeding fingers. She didn't care.
"Miss Hayley, your notes?"
She ignored the sheet music. She realised she was banging out the notes from "Lost in Your Eyes," one of the songs from "Where the Heart Goes at Night", all those years ago.
"Miss Hayley!" Mr Jefferson actually put down his cup of tea, a sure sign things were getting serious. "If you could stop… larking around and perform your paid employment…"
"Larking around!" She leapt up. "This is my job, you penny-a-liner-shit! This is my life! I'm a musician. I'm done with you! I'm done with your shitty advertising jingles and your shitty sound studio and calling me Miss Hayley down your nose. Next time you want something doing, hire a performing monkey, because I quit!"
She stormed out the studio, blinded by rage and tears. She couldn't see where she was going and cared less. She wanted out of that room in that building. She blundered across one street, then another. The cold, crisp air steadied her breathing, but didn't calm her rage. On the contrary. She was released from her cage and she was never going back.
She stumbled down to the river bank, took a long drag on her hip flask and felt the whiskey burn the back of her throat. The kids she had once been stared at her crisp white blouse and tight skirt. She prized her feet out of her shoes, strode out onto the little wooden wharf and drained the flask. She hurled it into the river and flung herself after it. She broke her wrist on the ice but if she hadn't been carrying her guitar she might have lived.
"Damned soul number four million and thirty-two to reception, please."
How long had she been sitting on this hard, uncomfortable wooden chair? She looked around her. She was not in the studio. She was not at the bottom of the river. She was in what looked remarkably like a waiting room. A dental surgery waiting room, perhaps.
"Damned soul number four million and thirty-two to reception, please."
Above the big mahogany desk, a little sign was flashing. "Next, please"
Jenny looked at the people on the other chairs, some old, some young, some relaxed, as if they were expecting to be here, some bewildered and trembling. None of them moved towards reception. Jenny realised that damned soul number four million and thirty-two must be her. She stood up and noticed that her clothes were dry. She approached reception and addressed herself to the demon—it could only have been a demon, leathery bat wings and horns growing out of its head—attending to the paperwork.
"Am I dead?"
The demon raised an eyebrow. "You caught on quickly. Some people go through whole centuries of denial."
"Well, a minute ago I was at the bottom of a river, and this doesn't look like any A&E I've ever seen."
"What does it look like?" The demon sounded mildly curious. "What are the first impressions of a mortal on entering the world beyond?"
"It looks like a waiting room."
"So it is. Hell's waiting room."
"Am I… going to Hell?"
"Of course," said the demon cheerfully.
"Why?" Probably because she was an atheist. She had given up on the supernatural after her thirty-fifth advertising jingle, but she had always had a sneaking feeling that Pascal might have a point.
"You're eternally damned." The demon seemed surprised that anyone would ask. "Now, if you'll sign here, madam." It pushed a form across the desk. "Your own blood is conventional but we do provide red dye for the squeamish."
"But I can't be… damned."
The demon rolled its eyes. "Can't? Would you like to make a complaint to customer care?" It reached for a telephone. "You're not another death-bed conversion, are you? We do have a few of those…"
Jenny fought rising panic. "Why am I eternally damned?" she managed to whisper.
The demon scrutinised the form. "Satanic pact."
Panic mixed with indignation. It wasn't enough to be screwed around my advertising account executives in life, she had to be screwed around by demons in death. "Listen, sucker! You didn't keep up your end of that pact!"
The demon raised its eye-brows. "I take umbrage, madam. Satan is a most attentive business partner."
"He said he'd make me a rock star. I sold him my soul."
The demon frowned at the form. "You sold your soul for success. You got it, didn't you?"
If Jenny hadn't already been dead, she could have sworn that the air rushed out of her lungs. "Yes," she mouthed. Ten, glorious years of success. Thousands a month. A nice house in the suburbs. She'd worked for Rolls Royce, Aviva insurance, Gucci. Big names. She'd hated it. She'd hated herself. She realised that with full, sickening despair now.
"Please, sir…" She hated the way she sounded like a little girl.
The demon dropped its official manner and looked for the first time almost kind.
"Yes? I understand it can be a bit of a shock being dead. I wouldn't know, of course. I've never died."
"Is there… nothing I can do…?"
"Do?" The demon shrugged and smiled. "Madam, what can't you do? You have all eternity to do it in. Plenty of time in Hell... to think about things. I think that's where most of the torture comes in."
She still had her guitar, she realised. And that made her stand a little straighter. Because you're never alone with a guitar. Plenty of time to think about things. Maybe she needed that.
The demon looked at the expression on her face and smiled. "See? Not so bad, is it?"
No Mr Jefferson down here. No pay-cheques, no timetables, to agents on the 'phone. Just her guitar, and all eternity to think about things. She was a rock star. Rock never dies.
She smiled. "No. Not so very bad."
She submitted to being melodramatically slashed with the ceremonial dagger, signed the form in her own blood, adjusted her guitar on her shoulders and strode through the gates of Hell.