In the glowing lozenge of blue were inscribed the words, “Singing with the Stars”. The invisible consciousness of the camera, soulless, nameless, all-knowing, benevolent, pulled back, as if with purpose both mystical and specific. Two human figures emerged from a background of coloured squares, like the environment of a neon planet. The arm of one of these figures was around the shoulder of the other, and between them was apparent an uncommon camaraderie, as if they were intoxicated without ingesting anything more than the colours of the lights around them, hyperactive with the fizz of pink, yellow, harlequin, cyan.
“Well, there you have it America.” It was a voice accustomed to addressing America, from one who knew what it meant to live by the microphone. “Tonight we saw Ethan Williams sing his heart out with Shakira!”
Here he elbowed Ethan teasingly. Ethan, wordless, grinned. It was true. He had sung his heart out, and now, it was almost as if his heart had been dribbled down the front of his clothes like food down a baby’s bib, but he was happy, as happy as a baby. He could hear laughter, like a thousand rising helium balloons.
“…and win his own recording contract,” concluded the host of the show. “Give him a hand.”
The collective hand was forthcoming, and in its shattering thunder, Ethan was lifted up. He had come directly, at that time of youth when hairstyles are at their most vulnerable and most precious, like the full bloom of cherry blossoms before they scatter, into the land of dreams, by what, it seemed to him, was the only route possible – the direct route, without the detour of disappointment in which so many lost their entire lives. For the detour of disappointment was a permanent detour. Ethan was a little giddy as if realising for the first time that things might have been different. He might not have made it. But he had. He had sung his heart out. With Shakira.
The giddy dream was formalised as Brian, the host of the microphone and beige jacket, shook Ethan’s hand.
“I’ll see you after the show.” And here the words that Ethan had heard Brian speak before to others, took on special significance, spoken, as they were, almost in an undertone, an aside not to the audience, but to the insider that Ethan had become.
In anticipation of “after the show”, Ethan made his exit. Before him was the real show, of his own life, behind him was the world that wished it could come with him.
Still with business to clear up, still on camera, Brian continued:
“Which means we have to say goodbye to these two adorable kids who really have a fine career ahead of them…”
The camera, for an instant, allowed all witnessing consciousness to access that limbo in which there stood the two runners-up, a black youth dressed in green, who seemed smarting with the reality in which he had been brought up short, and a thin white girl, eyes downcast, struggling for dignity in failure.
“…as long as it doesn’t involve singing.”
The sentence had been handed down, and it was for life. There was nothing to be done; they had come to the final authority on singing and on future, and there was no higher authority to whom they might appeal. All that was left to them was to be imprisoned in themselves, till the end of their days, without song.
“And I mean it, guys. Not even ‘Happy Birthday’.” Here Brian made a dismissive gesture towards them, as if to brush them away.
The girl was beginning to cry, but there could be no mercy now. The boy, beside her, seemed to know this, but his steadfastness would no more save him than her tears would save her. Both knew that they must turn and go, as Ethan before them had gone; unlike Ethan, however, they would go not into some greater show that was their own life, but only into their own lives, a show to no one, not even themselves. They would go, and be gone forever, and yet, for themselves, they would forever, in the dolour that comes when dread’s promise is fulfilled, remain.
This was their exit.
But Brian swung immediately back to the camera with a pointing forefinger, as used to such decisions as some arbiter of souls, necessarily consigning the dead to heaven or to hell. Was there somewhere, in the very speed of his swing, a suggestion that he knew of the weight of the hammer he let fall in judgement, knew, and thought it hypocritical to excuse himself, and kept close always to the dignity of mere role, the dignity of consistent vulgarity, making appeals to no one?
“Next week on Singing with the Stars, three new hopefuls…”
Yes, next week, always new hopefuls. Next week.
“…get their shot at a record deal… and a chance to sing with this teen pop SENSATION!”
In the weird hinterland of coloured squares from which Brian and Ethan had emerged, a silhouette was thrown upon the semi-opacity of a screen. One arm of the silhouette was upraised heroically, and the other held a microphone to the shadow that was a head.
“Who is she?”
The silhouette itself seemed to ask the question, as if it were the question mark at the heart of all humanity, ready to be answered in a moment.
Brian raised his eyebrow with a narrator’s sense of drama, seeming to know that the narrator is the true hero – a hero in his very knowing. He made a gesture of speed, dynamism and introduction towards the screen, which was a door, and the door began to rise as a voice also rose, a voice like that of a hundred valkyries about to storm the hearts of humankind with a joy so thunderous it bordered upon terror. Revealed, the question mark became its own answer. Its clear, blue eyes were open, and its voice at last spoke:
“Me! Hannah Montana!”
No emphasis, no art was needed now to elevate the one who had appeared, the one who had called herself, ‘Hannah Montana’. Her presence was lightning itself, slicing through the hearts of all who witnessed. The lightning strode forward, as lightning strides, and took her place next to Brian.
“See y’all next week! And your reality will be like a hopped-up hog at a party.”
Something in this avatar of electricity seemed to leap always into the exhilaration of inspiration, so that she chose words at once simple and elusive, puzzling and understood. Her words served to remind those who heard that they possessed faculties of understanding that were beyond their understanding, and illuminated the far skies of their souls, so that, even if they tried not to, they could not help but understand.
And then the lightning was dancing, with Brian dancing at her side, dancing as if he had been struck by lightning, and was frazzled. Before long he was nudging Hannah Montana rhythmically from the centre of the stage with his posterior, the teasing spirit of this rhythm the same he had used in elbowing Ethan moments before.
No one knew. No one seemed to realise, but suddenly two capital letters, H and M, the former pale yellow and the latter pale lavender blue, zoomed out of some corner of nowhere and blotted all from consciousness. Then they were gone.
Consciousness now occupied an aerial view of a school, where a number of pupils were making their way across the bland, sandy-grey of the playground to the school building. Whether now this was the consciousness of camera or not, perhaps even the consciousness itself could not know. In moments, however, that consciousness became so inconspicuous as to be invisible. There was a school cafeteria, and in this place, thick with individual consciousnesses, the consciousness of panorama was as if drowned out in din.
Two girls entered through the double, open doors, carrying trays holding the food they had chosen – yoghurt, fruit, muesli bars, and other such specimens, which serve to make the experience of eating an embarrassment, as if one were eating hand-me-downs. The girls were Lilly Truscott and Miley Stewart, best of friends, and two of the very few people on Earth who knew the truth of Hannah Montana’s secret identity. How was it possible that an unassuming schoolgirl like Miley (special, it seemed, only in the calm and wise adult eyes of her father, her uncles, and her aunt), and her vulnerable, sidekicky friend with the pink baseball hat, could know such a secret? The answer is easily told, though not so easily believed. Miley Stewart and Hannah Montana were one. The lightning that danced with a mane of gold at night, was by day a gentle breeze that merely shook the heads of the violets in the secret, shady dell of girlhood.
Turning towards the object of her untold adoration so that she seemed to back into the area as she spoke, Lilly expressed herself with a voice full of shuddering excitement.
“I can’t believe you’re going to be the celebrity singer on Singing with the Stars. That makes Hannah Montana just about the coolest person ever.”
As they placed their trays upon a table and slid themselves into the green plastic seats, the other occupants of that table, their movements synchronised as if through long rehearsal, slid out of their seats and swiftly departed. Seeming to catch this infection of synchronised movement from those who had so lately been here, almost sharing the table for a second, both Miley and Lilly raised one arm and then the other, sniffing beneath them diagnostically, then putting palms to their mouths, breathing upon them and again sniffing the deflected breath. Seeming to discover in armpits and in mouths no cause for the sudden exodus, the two friends turned to each other, pointed, and in unison said, “Must be you!”
Then their hands moved towards the food upon their trays.
At this moment the floppy-haired Oliver Oscar Oken (“Triple O” to his friends) came sidling up to the table, a document of some kind in his grasp, and, checking furtively to left and right, addressed the girls in an undertone.
“Guys, bad news. Amber and Ashley’s annual ‘Cool List’ is out again.”
Lilly gave an exasperated huff and snatched the sheets from Oliver’s hands.
“Well, that explains it,” said Miley, lifting her palms up in a shrug of helplessness. Hierarchies, it seems, were always to be enforced, and those who were at their apex would not let life grow into a sweet tangle of flowering weeds. Order would not be forgotten, and blooming heads that had grown too high would be snipped.
“How far down have they put us this year?” asked Lilly, her voice sinking to a querulous whine. She turned the first page.
“Keep going,” Oliver instructed, laconically. “Keep going. Keep—just skip to the last page.”
The expressions on the faces of the girls were masks of disappointment and dismay as they finally located their names.
“Oh, we’re tying for dead last with Dandruff Danny.” Miley’s voice had already taken on the suffering tone of resignation that comes from knowledge of inescapable slavery and hard labour.
By the vending machine, close at hand, a diminutive figure in a blue, short-sleeved shirt, turned, revealing a freckled face with rodent-bright eyes. His hair was dark and shiny with youth, and yet there appeared to be a streak of premature grey along the right side of his scalp. As he turned, his right hand worked incessantly at the back of his skull, as if he were long unconscious in his habit of antagonising a chronic itch. He tottered forward, dazedly and searchingly, a look of unearthly optimism upon his face, amidst the bodies of those to whom he was as the dead walking… and speaking:
“Is someone actually talking to me?”
None but Lilly and Miley seemed to hear. Miley turned her head, and Lilly, as if to caution against laying eyes upon a ghost, gently and repeatedly tapped her on the upper arm. Softly she spoke:
“Look away! Look away!”
“Okay, see you later,” said the owlish Oliver.
“Where are you going?” Miley held out supplicating arms, caught his wrist, brought him back from his escape.
Oliver bent forward as if in conspiracy.
“Look, I finally cracked the top one hundred and… and…” He seemed to take fright at their proximity and stood up straight again, looking around himself. He raised his voice the better to be heard by passers-by. “And there’s no way I’m talking to people from the last page. Stop begging!”
He gestured to Lilly and Miley derisively with his thumb, for his new, oblivious audience. Lilly and Miley recoiled, expressions of disgust upon their faces. Oliver turned to them one last time, his voice lowered again, “I’ll see you after dark.” And with that he was gone.
The disgust on her face curdling into something wry, penetrating, and yet quizzical, Miley spoke again.
“That boy flip-flops more than a catfish in a moon-bouncer.”
Just then, through the open double doors, there entered two girls at the head of a small, mixed-gender gang of pupils. On the left, in a pink top, was Ashley, and on the right, in a blue top, was Amber. The latter, seeing Miley and Lilly at their table, spoke:
“Hey look, everyone, it’s a couple of last-page losers… in their native habitat.”
Her voice was syrup-thick with sarcastic sympathy.
“Ah, so sad,” Ashley took up the same tone, clasping her hands to her chest, “still eating, as if they had a reason to live.”
“Oooh,” came Amber’s mock-sympathy once more.
Ashley being ethnically Asian, and Amber being black, from the perspective of a parallel universe, they might have been regarded, at this school, as members of minorities. But such was not the case in the present universe. The almost preternatural popularity of this pair, and the fear which they commanded throughout the school as a result, had been achieved neither because of minority status nor in the teeth of it. In short, their ethnicity was invisible. Had anyone at the school been asked to guess the ethnicity of either Ashley or Amber, they would have scratched their heads, unable to understand the question. There was, in this sense, something peculiarly noble in their bullying; it signified the irrelevance of race. However, this noble quality was itself puzzling to any who stopped for a moment to examine it, since it relied precisely on what it eliminated. It relied on that parallel universe in which ethnicity was, sadly, relevant.
Lilly and Miley swapped the long-suffering glances of the oppressed. Unable to endure the role of victim any longer, Miley reached over to the Cool List, which still lay upon the table, next to Lilly’s tray.
“Okay, that’s it,” she said, picking up the coloured sheets. “Listen, this list is as bogus as the people who wrote it.”
Miley stood now, with the momentum of her defiance.
“Come on, everyone! Let’s show Amber and Ashley that they can’t tell us who’s cool and who’s not! Let’s rip up these lists, right now!”
And now the same momentum had carried her upwards so that she was standing on her chair. Here on her dizzy perch, she began to tear the sheets of paper into shreds. So intent was she, the pent-up emotions of months and even years of frustration showing upon her face in curious, tic-like expressions, that she did not notice an uncanny thing; the entire room emptied swiftly, with only a ghostly, shuffling stir, as if it had been inhabited by phantoms. This was how confrontation was dealt with here.
“Errr… Miley!” It was Lilly. She tugged at Miley’s skirt.
Still looking down at the scrunched mass of paper, Miley said, “I’m the only one doing it, aren’t I?”
Slowly, she turned to look at the room. Only one other person remained. Sitting at a table in the corner, was the rodent-eyed Dandruff Danny. He raised an arm, and his voice echoed across the room with the same hollow optimism as before.
“I’m with ya, sister!”
He took up the pages of the Cool List from the table at which he sat, and, his face a mask of deformed but heroic effort, growling with the strain of it, he set his fists to the task of tearing them in twain. It was hard to believe that there was not something in this performance intended for comic effect, and yet, if so, then all of Dandruff Danny’s life must have been intended similarly, since there was something in his manner entirely consistent with his behaviour at all other times. Still, the incredible fact remained that, try as he might, he was unable to tear that slender list of perhaps a dozen sheets.
In a shrug of amazement, Miley turned to Lilly.
“How is he not below us?”
She threw the shreds of her own list on the table. Lilly’s face took on an expression of miserable resignation, as it sank to rest upon her hand.
It was at this moment of despair and ennui that an extraordinary thing happened. Miley had known this thing before. It had come upon her like a dream that swallowed her waking life, but at any time of the day, she might remember it. A certain strain of music might remind her, or the sight of a familiar street corner, coming to which she seems to hear laughter, as if there were unknown souls watching her life and joining in with the wondrous adventure of it. At such times she would remember the great revolving door, as she thought of it. This revolving door, in its spinning, was a kind of whirlwind. It lifted her up to heights that made her heart quiver. And with each flash of the glass in its revolving panes, there were images from her life, either from the past, or the future, she could hardly tell. She fully believed that it was this revolving door that allowed her that astounding double identity which defined her life. She was Miley Stewart, and she was also Hannah Montana. And there was a sense, too, of another, greater identity, encompassing both, perhaps an identity that was the axis on which the door revolved.
As the shreds of paper fell on the surface of the table beneath Lilly’s sickened eyes, Miley felt that spinning come again. She felt thin, and faint, and nauseas, but at the same time, was stirred by the intimation of something wonderful. She could hear a familiar song, and familiar, thrilling images seemed blowing her way on some god-wind. Yes, it was the revolving door. She remembered clearly now. This was the centre of it all. It had happened before, and it would happen again. She wondered if, this time, when she was shunted out of the spinning and back into some single moment of her life, she would keep a firm grasp on the memory of the door. She must try to remember. Must try. But it didn’t matter. Didn’t matter. Now, all she had to do was surrender to the great, golden, sugary fountain of the upsurging song. She could see lights. She could hear drums. The drums were a joyous concussion, and the lights dazzled to blindness, but now she could read a name that they spelt: “Hannah Montana”.
She was there, in front of those lights, upon some phantasmagorical stage. Full of an unearthly confidence, striding forward in pale denim jeans, pumping the air downwards with arms encased in the black sleeves of a tight jacket, she smiled a bursting smile to remember the song that made the doors revolve:
You get the limo out front.
Hottest styles! Every shoe! Every colour!
Yeah, when you’re famous it can be kinda fun.
It’s really you, but no one ever discovers.
Who would have thought that a girl like me would double as a superstar?
You get the best of both worlds.
Chillin’ out, take it slow.
Then you rock out the show.
You get the best of both worlds.
Mix it all together and you know that it’s the best of both worlds.
While these words whirled around her, she felt herself kaleidoscoped with the flurry of images in a Montana montage. There was Lilly, her smiling face emerging from a cake in which it had just been buried. There was Oliver, dancing wildly, and her brother Jackson. An unknown hand slapped her upon the forehead, and she made a stunned face. She was coughing, pleadingly, with unconvincing spots of illness upon her cheeks. She was high-fiving with friends. Her father took sliding dance steps across the golden sands of a beach in comfortable jogging clothes. Someone was giving her a piggyback. Someone else threw flowers at her through the window of the limousine in which she rode. And she was twirling, twirling, the skirt of Miley transforming itself into the jeans of Hannah Montana. And she was singing to thousands of upraised hands.
Names came to her, too. Strange names, with the flavour of dream about them: Emily Osment. Mitchel Musso. Jason Earles. Billy Ray Cyrus.
Finally, full up with the bubbling secret of it all, she put her finger to her lips as if jokingly to hush that glory that never could be hushed, though it escaped the notice of all those it enfolded in its tender, golden embrace. Weak with the joy of it, she let some bubbles of laughter escape her, and stumbled away drunkenly. Stumbled away…
Consciousness lingered awhile outside the school entrance, timelessly.
What had happened? Miley found herself outside the cafeteria talking persuadingly to Lilly.
“So maybe some people care about the list, but there are plenty of other decent people strong enough to think for themselves. And those are the people I want for my friends anyways… Like Sarah!” And she gestured towards a rather slight girl putting something in her locker nearby.
Miley and Lilly instinctively rushed over to her.
“Hey Sarah!” said Miley, standing tall with the brightness of her salutations.
Bespectacled Sarah turned. She was a rosy-cheeked girl with long, wavy hair, and an overall manner of bookish sensitivity.
“Oh, er, hi guys.”
For some reason she seemed uncomfortable, and it was not simply the habitual self-consciousness that, torturing Sarah, so grew to torture her more, though her friends silently loved her for this tender self-torture. No, there was a different kind of unease here – an unease that had about it a tinge of shame that made the usual sadness an almost tearful thing.
“Listen, Miley, I’m really sorry, but I can’t be your lab partner.”
Her hands were gesturing with an excess of awkwardness.
“Today after school,” she continued, “I have to read to the blind, er, serve punch at the blood drive, and… hose down cages at the animal shelter.”
She suddenly made as if to escape, but Miley slid across the slippery floor in time and blocked her way, Lilly cutting off the rear escape in the same manner.
“Wait a minute,” said Miley, her arms folded in obvious suspicion, “you read to the blind yesterday.”
“I… er… took an extra shift.”
And once again she tried to slip away, and once again Miley and Lilly blocked her.
With the same, cross-armed scepticism, Miley spoke again:
“Extra shift, my Aunt Petunia! You’re just bailing on me because I’m last on Amber and Ashley’s list, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not,” said Sarah, pleadingly. Suddenly she seemed to catch sight of something that alarmed her. “Oh no, here comes Amber! Sorry,” her tone now that of pity, “I’m charitable, not stupid!” And now her tone brightened into shrill superficiality: “Okay, bye!” And she fled.
Lilly looked after her in amazement, and turned to Miley.
“Great! Even Saint Sarah’s freezing us out.”
TO BE CONTINUED...