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Read an extract from The Fake-Up by Justin Myers


In the three years Dylan had been occupying the third row, third seat along from the right, at Flo’s gigs, he’d never been late. He’d dropped a glass, he’d sneezed uncontrollably during a ballad, and he’d fended off a handbag attack from a drunk woman who thought he’d stolen her purse, but he’d never been late. Until today. All because of the word ‘salubrious’. He’d been rolling it round his tongue all day, going over his lines for Monday’s audition. This was a big one: a soap. No, hang on, City Royal was a continuing drama, that was it. He knew the scene off by heart, save for one stumbling block: ‘salubrious’. Saburious. Salubricant. Salubitous. All nonsense words, falling out of his mouth whenever he tried to say it right. Cause of death: salubrious.
As he hopped on the bus to the station, rocked back and forth on the train, darted along the pavement, leapt dramatically over puddles and failed to keep his umbrella right side out – he chanted it over and over. Finally, he chucked himself through the door of the bar and quickly scanned the room for his assigned seat. Maybe Flo hadn’t remembered to tell them – this was a new venue, an unpaid tryout for a regular gig. Dylan knew Flo really wanted this, which by default meant he wanted it badly, too.

He scooted along the still- unoccupied row and looked around. It was far more – oh, well, what do you know, a use for it at last – salubrious than her usual venue, where he spent one Thursday night a month watching her and Elijah perform. Giant vases of exotic- looking flowers, shiny pillars, plush velvet curtains draped everywhere – and an archway festooned with glimmering lights that led to the hotel next door. The place was dripping with money and the opulence and polite hostility that came with it. The back of Dylan’s neck prickled with nervous sweat as his gaze swept over the bar’s patrons: at least two real fur coats, some illadvised surgical butchery, and a general air of disdain. He self- consciously tapped his wallet through the denim of his jeans – he’d have to make one drink last. They probably didn’t even serve pints.
Flo had been nervous about performing here. This crowd could smell fear, thrived on it. Why on earth had she agreed to it? Then Dylan remembered, thanks to a light commotion and the sound of seats shifting. Estelle, Flo’s best friend since their days of pigtails and sleepovers, had arrived. Tall and imperious, blond hair gleaming from its third blow- dry of the day, she strode regally to the front, a smaller entourage than usual trailing behind. Estelle didn’t usually come to these gigs – her diary was packed tighter than a championship game of Tetris – but her talent for pulling strings had won Elijah and Flo this slot tonight. This was a very Estelle kind of venue. If this went well, it would mean regular and decent money, rather than the haphazard schedules and grubby banknotes of Flo’s usual gigs. Estelle was here not just for encouragement, perhaps, but as a reminder she was useful.

Dylan sank into his seat to avoid being seen, but it was no good; Estelle could sniff someone born in the wrong postcode a million miles away. She turned and smiled – like Maleficent browsing a takeaway menu – and beckoned him over. Not wanting to shout and draw attention, he shook his head and pointed at the seat. Estelle’s eyes narrowed, pretending not to get it.
‘What?’ she brayed through the general hubbub like she was wired to the amp. ‘Join us!’
She was only asking so she wouldn’t look like she was leaving him out, and possibly because ordering people around was her favourite form of cardio. ‘I can’t,’ Dylan said, awkwardly checking nobody else was looking. ‘I always sit here, you know?’
‘We’ve never been here before!’ Estelle trilled back. ‘What are you talking about? Come along.’
The ‘same- seat promise’ had been Dylan’s idea, way back after that first time he’d come to see Flo play at her favourite venue, the cheerful little pub in Putney, to five rows of punters. Initially he’d pledged to always be front row, but soon tired of sitting alongside the kind of people who insist on sitting in the front row, so instead arranged to go third row, third seat from the right so, if she needed to, she could always find him. Dylan did his ridiculous mime again and Estelle rolled her eyes and lowered into her seat like it was a throne.
The main lights went down. The stage began to glow as the small curtain lifted to reveal Flo, looking calm and composed – though Dylan knew her stomach would be in full jacuzzi mode. She stood poker- straight, looking beyond them all, like her eyes were searching for a star in a distant sky. Her hair was pulled back from her face, a few free wisps either side – ‘strategic,’ she’d always say, ‘so I don’t look too severe, like Miss Trunchbull.’ Beside her, on a stool designed for only one pert buttcheek at a time, Elijah, guitar in hand. Dylan’s heart clawed its way to his throat, not just from pride but nerves – sometimes Elijah insisted on playing his own material, and it was an acquired taste, like drinking crude oil. Dylan breathed deeply and Flo did the same, as if he were breathing for her. And she was away. Flo sang as she always did, like – well, okay, cliché but seriously – an absolute angel, the entire room in the palm of her hand, bathing in the fluorescent rays of her star power. Seriously, when Flo sang, socks were knocked off, worlds rocked, minds blown. Dylan had watched it happen over and over. She could make anything sound good – even Elijah’s klutzy, primary- school- level poetry masquerading as intensity. Flo closed her eyes at first, head tilted back, but as she gained confidence, once a chorus or two was out of the way, she’d look right into the audience, daring them to stare, her eyes round and powerful as she relieved them of every last crumb of emotion. Eventually, as she always did, she glanced over, smiling to find him there,
relieved, yes, but also, she always claimed, somehow able to take her voice to the next level. It was celestial.
Whatever they did, there was always a deep connection between them – even when far apart, Dylan could sense if something wasn’t right. He never felt more in sync with Flo than he did when she was performing. It was like when he was a kid and flew for the first time – he was convinced only his concentration stopped the plane from nosediving. He’d spur her on, help her hit high notes with telepathy – okay, she could
hit them without his help, but she’d told him it was the same when she watched him on stage. It was definitely true that his performance stank way less if she was in the audience.
Dylan watched Flo belt out Elijah’s rudimentary lyrics, felt her anguish that singing, like acting for him, would only be a hobby or side hustle, not how they made a living, even though it was her reason for living. These were the moments he understood her best. Everything was about that stage. She was in another realm. He was the same when she watched him, too – taken away, possessed by the person he was meant to be.
Once they’d taken their bows, Elijah and Flo went to chat with the entertainment manager while Dylan made his way over to Estelle and . . . who was it this time? He recognised a couple. Vérité, definitely, maybe Bea too, Toby, yes, and . . . was that Binky? No, Buffy? He wouldn’t use names, just to be sure. Flo’s circle of friends was largely intact since their days at one of London’s poshest and most academically brilliant schools, and like the cast of a theatre company, different people became main players in rotation, depending on popularity, usually decided by Estelle.
‘Dylan, how are you?’ said Estelle, not waiting for a response. ‘Flo said you have a new acting job. Can’t wait to hear about it!’
‘Well, not quite . . .’
‘You know, Barnaby and I were talking to this splendid guy who’s an understudy in the West End. We were wondering, maybe you could try that? Looks like terrific fun.’
Shame there were no walls nearby to hit his head off.
‘Actually being an understudy doesn’t just happen, it’s a very coveted—’
‘I’m sure you’ll get something worthwhile soon.’ Estelle impatiently thwacked her gloves into her palm. ‘She was amazing, wasn’t she? Even Elijah’s song about strippers didn’t drag her down.’
They’d been good, that was true, but Flo would’ve been much more amazing by herself, with her own material.
‘Here she is!’ Estelle called across the room to Flo, now in her specs and scanning the crowd for familiar hairstyles. Elijah hung behind, chewing gum. ‘Floria! Floria!’ Estelle’s voice had a knack of getting everyone to turn round. Flo approached, face reddening, and patiently accepted air kisses before settling into a full smooch with Dylan. Estelle tittered sharply. ‘Honestly, it’s like a wildlife documentary.’
They disentangled, whereupon Dylan reached into his jacket, pulling out a bunch of tired- looking flowers.
Flo laughed. ‘Oh gorgeous! Some actually look half- dead. Well done!’
Estelle gasped. ‘I’ve never understood this horrendous flower ritual.’
Dylan winked at Flo. The first time he’d seen her play, he’d wanted to make a big gesture and almost emptied his account on a huge bouquet. She’d been grateful but confessed, ‘I’m more a supermarket flowers kind of girl, don’t worry.’ Now, after every gig, he met her with a Tesco bouquet. The more pathetic the blooms, the more hilarious she found it.
Flo smiled brightly at her friends. ‘Thank you for coming.’
Estelle smiled and smoothed down the sleeves of Flo’s dress like she was her mother. ‘Barnaby sends apologies; he’s overseeing the dismantling of a giant snow globe.’
Dylan looked around at everybody’s faces. Nobody flinched. Estelle’s trust- fund boyfriend was king of disastrous start- ups, and always doing something strange in the name of brand awareness. ‘How did it go?’ he said. ‘What did the bossman say?’
Elijah shrugged. ‘There was, like, some feedback on costume. I wasn’t really listening. Flo?’
Flo’s eye twitched almost imperceptibly. ‘Oh, fine,’ she said, through a tight smile. ‘Few things to iron out. He’ll be in touch. Shall we?’
They stepped outside, all gasping at the cold January air, more out of habit than anything.
‘Drink?’ said Estelle. ‘Quick debrief?’ She saw Dylan checking his phone. Seven missed calls. Two furious messages, one all in capitals. ‘Unless you have somewhere to be?’ Dylan shook his head without breaking eye contact. ‘I have a prior engagement, work- related.’ He could almost hear Estelle’s eyebrow rising, like a creaking hinge. ‘You go, Flo, I’ll see you at home.’
He steeled himself for a quick round of gushing goodbyes, and Estelle’s stiff, arctic hug – but Flo was already walking away, toward the Tube.
‘I can’t,’ Flo called behind her. ‘Sorry. Anyway, it’s Fortnightlies this week.’ The ‘Fortnightlies’ were their regular wine- fuelled catchup which, if he wasn’t working at the bar, Dylan dutifully attended. Well, endured.
‘But . . . I thought it might be nice.’ Estelle looked hurt.
‘Oh it would,’ said Flo, blowing a kiss but not breaking her stride. ‘I’ve got stocktaking at the shop tomorrow and Mummy might drop in so . . .’
‘Okay, gorgeous girl.’ Estelle’s car keys jangled in her hand; she didn’t hang around for excuses. ‘Sorry I can’t give you a lift – you know I don’t go east.’
Dylan locked eyes with Flo. There was more to this. He looked at his phone. Voicemail logjam. He sighed, running to catch up with Flo, snaking his arm round her waist, pulling him into her. Her coat smelled of her special perfume, the one she wore for best or, on occasion, sex; his body tingled in recognition. Then, as the light pouring from the station hit her eyes, he saw she was crying.
‘What is it?’
Flo turned to face him, burying her head in his neck. She didn’t make a sound but he felt the choking sobs. Finally, the heaving breaths became spaced further apart and she withdrew, her eyes swollen. ‘They want me to dress . . . differently. More leg, he said, more . . . I can’t even say it, I feel sick. Tits and teeth!’
Dylan felt his stomach tightening. ‘I’ll kill him. I’ll rip his balls off.’
Flo flapped her hands anxiously. ‘God, no, don’t. It wasn’t just that . . . he didn’t like the material.’
‘Why didn’t you do more of your own stuff?’
Flo looked at the floor. Another swell of tears was coming.
‘I didn’t get a chance. Elijah knows the guy from . . . I can’t remember . . .’
Dylan could hazard a guess they each had the same old school tie stuffed into a bedroom drawer. The only use Dylan’s school tie had ever been was keeping his battered suitcase from bursting open. ‘Please let me choke this man.’
Flo smiled but shook her head. ‘I want to go home.’
Dylan held her close. ‘Okay, let’s go.’
‘No, you have your party, it’s important. Anyway, Lois will be waiting. We both know how she hates that.’
For the hundredth time, Dylan wished he’d never let slip that he’d briefly dated Lois at drama school; he could see the memory flash across Flo’s face every time she said her name. But, Flo was right: Lois would be waiting and, yes, she really hated it. Right on cue, Dylan’s phone vibrated again. He could practically feel Lois’s anger – he was surprised he couldn’t hear her, actually, bawling into her long- suffering iPhone with its shattered screen: ‘Pick up, for chrissakes.’ Everything would be fine. Important people were always late; important actors and directors even more so. Lois was prone to arriving so early to events, they’d often been mistaken for waiting staff – sometimes, Dylan was tempted to take the silver tray and earn a few extra quid.
But now he knew the truth about tonight, he didn’t want to leave Flo’s side. Plus, he needed to get into the flat before her and take down the crude homemade congratulatory bunting, not to mention unhook the booby- trapped door set to rain glitter as she entered. Tonight was not a night for glitter.
On the Tube, Flo rested her head on Dylan’s shoulder, both ignoring the armrest prodding into their sides. He hated to see her like this. There was only one thing for it: happy place therapy. It worked every time. Kind of.
‘Remember those narrow streets? All that walking?’ He was trying to lure her memory back to their first holiday together, well, their only holiday together so far, as money was tight even before they moved into the flat. Santorini.
‘You never let go of my hand all day.’
‘Little day trips,’ Dylan murmured, keeping his voice low, knowing she liked that. ‘The beaches. Gazing at the horizon. I’ve never felt so free.’
Flo nuzzled in even further. ‘So hot. So exciting. I don’t think I’d ever enjoyed a couples holiday before then.’
Dylan kissed her forehead. His only foreign trips up to that point had been low- grade getaways in hostels; he was terrified of spending money on something you couldn’t eat or wear until he met Flo. She’d been to Santorini before, with her family, and she’d inherited her dad’s passion for wine. Dylan had been an enthusiastic student, he loved listening to her endless supply of facts and trivia, learning about his surroundings,
the food they ate.
‘You were so refreshing,’ said Flo, as she always did.
‘Treated me like an equal, no, let me take the lead. I thought maybe you were just some boy on his best behaviour.’ She looked up now. Eyes locked. He was powerless. ‘I thought eventually you’d have to drop the act, until I realised you were an actual nice guy, not a pretend one.’
Dylan blushed at the compliment. He still remembered that final night, word for word. What if they could stay there for ever, he’d said, what would they do? Dylan imagined running a tiny, cute hotel, teaching the local kids a bit of drama, while Flo could sing in a little café they would somehow manage to buy. ‘I never realised Mamma Mia was such a big influence on me.’
Sitting on the balcony, a bottle of wine between them, the air had been thick with possibility. For a second, Dylan had wondered how Flo would answer if he proposed, shocked to find himself even thinking it. He’d taken her hand; she’d looked slightly terrified. ‘I want it to be like this all the time. You make me a better person. You make me feel brighter. In a clever way, I mean. I’m always learning.’
She’d laughed and told him he was clever. ‘When you’re in the bathroom, I have to google some of the words you use.’
‘But not about stuff. I’m not cultured. I don’t travel. I’m, like, totally in awe of you, you know.’
‘I know!’ She’d laughed again. ‘We’ve got the “same- seat promise” to prove it.’
‘I can’t promise every day will be like this.’
‘I don’t want every day to be like this. My hair can’t take the sea water.’
‘I’ll put you first. And I’ll cook!’
‘What are you asking me, monsieur?’
‘Can we save up? Move in together?’
Now, as their train chugged into their stop, she took his hand and whispered, ‘I’m so glad I said yes.’
Dylan tried to get ahead of Flo on the endless, twisty staircase that led to their tiny flat in the loft. Dylan and Flo often wondered how the landlord had managed to get all their furniture up it. They’d decided it had probably just grown out of mould. He pleaded with Flo to wait outside but she ignored him and flung the door open, bouncing straight into the lounge, in prime position for the bucket of glittery confetti – an eye- watering £5 from the grotty, antiquated post office on the corner – to tumble onto her head. She screamed, then laughed and picked up the bucket – originally used for a fried chicken takeaway two nights earlier – emptying the last of the shiny stars, hearts and crescent moons over herself.
‘I washed it first,’ said Dylan. Flo’s eyes took in the hastily pinned- up, homemade bunting, trying to work out what the shapes were supposed to be. ‘My attempt at Grammys,’ he said, embarrassed by his lacklustre art skills.
Flo smiled. ‘And these?’ She pointed at another string of newspaper bunting, little statuettes breaking up the word C O N A G R A T U L A T I O N S – only now did Dylan notice the extra ‘A’.
‘Oscars. I couldn’t remember what Brit awards looked like and my phone was out of data.’
‘Love it.’
‘I wish there was reason to celebrate.’
‘There is.’ She walked the four short paces it took to cross their living room and planted an exaggerated smacker on his lips. ‘Let’s celebrate that I’ll never gig at that shitty hotel.’
She was clearly still replaying the conversation with the creepy manager in her head, but Dylan felt her decompress as she sat on the sofa and sipped her beer, pretending to be engrossed in the TV. This wasn’t the first disappointing gig she’d had to recover from: he knew to leave her alone for a good half hour. He stood in the kitchenette along one wall of their poky living area, with its sloping ceiling that sometimes felt like it was pinning them to the carpet. They’d done what they could with lighting, and throws – Flo borrowing her mother’s interior- design ethic of ‘cover it in fabric and hope nobody notices how uncomfortable everything is’. Not that Flo would ever let her mum see the place. Any FaceTime conversations took place by the window, sky being the one backdrop her mother couldn’t criticise. Despite their best efforts, it was still a hovel, and not even in a romantic way.
There was a sign on the letterbox saying NO JUNK MAIL, but in truth a few leaflets and a selection of takeaway menus might have livened up the place. But it was all they could afford – well, all Dylan could afford, once they’d agreed on splitting all bills, with no help from anyone else. Dylan wanted one place where he could shut the door and leave Flo’s parents’ chequebook on the other side.
Dylan’s phone throbbed one last time. He’d deal with Lois tomorrow. He looked at the clock, pulled the last two beers out of the fridge, handed one to Flo, and slumped onto the sofa, reaching down for Flo’s guitar. Time was up.
‘Let’s do a top five.’
Flo shook her head. ‘Not really in the mood.’
Top Five was a game they’d play during any lull in conversation, waiting for their starter in a restaurant, or when sick of watching TV. Anything could be a top five: top five drinks you could never touch again because they reminded you of a hangover; top five actors you’d want to tell you your label was sticking out of your jacket; top five ice- cream flavours; top five excuses for being late. It also came in handy if one of them needed lifting out of a bad mood. It had never failed Dylan yet. ‘Go on. I’ll make it easy. Top five things to do if you’re bored. Free things, I mean. No scooting off to Mexico on a private jet.’
Flo hesitated, considering resistance. ‘Okay.’ Result. ‘In at five, read a book.’ This was true. Flo was never far from a stack of novels. One pile doubled as a bedside table, and was home to coffee mugs and yesterday’s chewing gum. ‘And four, that’d be . . . I was going to say TV but I hate TV.’
Dylan pretended to thwack her with a cushion. ‘What if I’m on it?’
He was glad when Flo shrugged away the obvious answer, that he never was, and said, ‘If you’re on it, I would love TV. Obviously. I’d superglue my eyes open. Okay, so long as Monsieur Dylan Fox is amid the dramatis personae, number four is watch TV.’
‘Right. Three?’
‘Cook. Anything. It’s therapeutic. Even making a sandwich.’
‘Does that mean . . . ?’
‘No, I’m not making you a sandwich. As for two, that would be sex.’
Dylan gasped exaggeratedly, like he was fourth row from the back at the panto. ‘Only number two? Sex with me – actual moi – is in second place?’
‘Yeah, if I’m bored, I’m not always horny. What if you’re not here? Number one always has to be available. That’s what makes it number one.’
‘Horny? Lovely.’ He knew where this was going. ‘And in top spot?’
‘Um . . . well, number one is to play a song. Sing, I mean.’
Dylan applauded and grabbed her guitar from beside the sofa. ‘Ding ding ding! You win the special prize. Play something. For me. What you working on?’
Flo pulled a face – an automatic reaction of modesty, not because she didn’t want to play. ‘Go to the party. Isn’t some big director going to be there?’
Dylan imagined the bollocking he’d get from Lois for standing her up, and his agent, Priya, for not flinging himself in front of influential people enough. Regardless, Flo’s sad face needed fixing. ‘Lois texted, said it was a bust,’ he lied. ‘She’s the most famous person there.’
Flo’s face brightened. ‘I’ve got the bones of something but . . . it’s not good.’
She always said this; she was always wrong. ‘If you’d rather not, I understand.’ He pretended to reach for his phone, knowing she’d rather play him something crap than watch him disappear down a social- media wormhole.
She played a verse and the beginnings of a chorus; Dylan was rapt. It was a song about letting time slip through your fingers, trying to grasp what you really want.
Dylan thought carefully before he responded; he didn’t want to explain her own song to her or steer her off course.
‘I sense disappointment. Wistfulness.’ He knew what it was about, but didn’t want to say. ‘Like a . . . like a heart crying out to be noticed. Am I right?’
Flo nodded.
‘I wish you’d ditch Elijah. Sing this stuff for yourself.’ He’d told her many times she was too loyal for her own good.
‘I know. I’ve known him a long time, and . . . he’s not too bad, really.’
Elijah was bearable and nothing more. At least he’d finally given up asking Dylan if he could score any weed in time for his next twee middle- class music festival.
‘This isn’t autobiographical, or anything,’ said Flo, idly tapping her guitar. ‘Just channelling my . . . frustration into something people will relate to.’
‘It’s brilliant,’ Dylan replied, truthfully. ‘Pop it on your YouTube? Little acoustic number?’
Flo snorted. ‘My seventy- four followers don’t want rough cuts. Well, except the one who keeps commenting “Feet pics? Please?” under everything I post.’
‘This very keen follower does.’ Dylan picked up his phone and stood to adjust the lamp with the knackered- but-charming velvet shade that they’d rescued from a jumble sale. It threw off the most flattering light; Flo was bathed in a warm and welcoming glow. ‘We don’t have to publish if you don’t like it.’ He saw her make her mind up, sitting up straight, smoothing down her eyebrows, sweeping fallen strands of her hair behind her ears. ‘If all else fails, I’ll film your feet for half an hour. Ask for donations.’
‘It may come to that,’ she laughed, waiting for his nod before starting to play.
There was always a certain energy between the two of them when Flo played her music at home. Super- charged. It wasn’t unusual for one or both of them to get a little hot under the collar and, sure enough, each made their move and they had sex on the sofa. ‘I know it sounds corny,’ said Dylan, unable to stop the words tumbling from his mouth, reddening with every syllable, ‘but . . . that was incredible. Every time feels
like the first time.’
Flo laughed so hard she started coughing. He laughed too, but felt silly. He knew he shouldn’t have said it.
‘It does sound corny.’ Flo reached for a cushion and lightly thwacked him with it, sensing his embarrassment. ‘Never stop telling me what you’re thinking, even if it’s factually incorrect.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘It’s definitely not like the first time, thank God.’ Flo sighed at the memory. ‘Remember . . . after . . . I was still trying to get my head straight and wondering what to do next, like should we snuggle, should I go home, fix my makeup or . . . whatever.’
‘You came back from the bathroom and you’d put on this . . . I don’t know, like a Cyberman helmet, and you walked into the bedroom and said you were grateful for our “earthly intermingling” but you had to return to your home planet.’
‘Oh. Shit, sorry. That was Max’s, of course, not mine.’ Dylan cringed, remembering Flo’s horrified face as she gathered the covers right up to her neck, the joke not landing as he’d hoped. He always did that, got nervous around big feelings, so made a joke. ‘Maybe it’s like the second time, then?’
‘Yes, just like it.’ She laughed. ‘One question, though . . . when you were . . . I’m not sure you realised, but just then, when you were about to come . . .’
Flo chewed her lip. ‘It was pretty weird but . . . why on earth did you shout out “salubrious”?’