Consolation Prize

It’s a slightly worrying feeling suddenly to realise at the age of twenty-nine that you have become content with never being the best.

At least, it was slightly worrying for me when I first noticed it. I didn’t notice the moment when it began – when I started to accept that I’d never be famous in my own right – that I’d always be the one behind the scenes, trying to give other people the fame I used to want for myself. I suppose that sort of thing happens to most people at some point, but being around people like Sakuma-san and Shindou-kun for most of your time makes you forget that. They’re people who have never given up on those dreams, who’ve given everything they had for them – and won.

Most of us would probably be willing to give everything if we were sure we’d get what we craved in return. But most of us don’t.

I was in a band once. It’s more than ten years ago now, and I’d be hard pushed to even tell you the names of the other members. Still, we got together a few songs, even put out a single – a bit more than your average amateur teenage band. It was because back then, we were all certain that we were going to make it, just as Bad Luck are certain now, just as every new band is certain. You wouldn’t think it to see me now, content in my anonymous suits and my neurotic perfectionism, but back then I wanted nothing else but to sing and to perform. Seguchi-san has said that’s what makes me a good producer – I understand the bands because I used to be in one of them myself.

We were ambitious. We were confident. We were young, and painfully naïve. We didn’t understand at first that the public doesn’t want enthusiastic amateurs led by competent baritones. Our songs weren’t bad – ordinary, reliable pieces which would have gone down well on any of the albums brought out by big name groups. But the public wants charismatic, pretty tenors who can bewitch the audience with their eyes. They want glitter and sparkle and the star-like glimmer of ‘personality’. I was never pretty, or charismatic, or inspiring. I was just another amateur.

So the single failed, the group split up, and I managed to get a job with a record label on the production staff – thinking that maybe I could find a secret back door into the music industry and still achieve my dream. Maybe that was the beginning of the compromises that brought me here – even though I told myself that I was only doing that job until I got another chance, something in me already knew that there would never be another chance. There had never been a chance in the first place.

I had worked for the record company for a few months, getting promoted from general dogsbody to assistant junior-producer, or some similarly meaningless title. What it really meant was shadowing one of the more senior members of the company from one cramped concert venue to another, from one studio to the next. It just felt like a way of marking time.

But even the most lack-lustre talent scout has to stumble across genuine talent occasionally – if ‘stumble’ is quite the right word. ‘Destiny’ is more a word that the band members would have approved of.

“Katsuhiko-san – from the development department, you know? – has offered this group a preliminary contract and set up a gig for them,” offered Tsukiyono-san, the senior producer, as he waved a pass at the indifferent security guard. “Wanted us to have a look, see what we thought. Personally I’m not expecting too much, he’s got about as much of a musical ear as a screech-owl, but even an idiot like him has to be lucky sometimes…”

His words got swallowed up in the roaring of voices once we got into the auditorium. For such a new, unknown group, they seemed to have an impressive core fanbase. Which might have meant nothing more than that they all blackmailed their entire address book into attending, but at least it was a good start.

“Sir,” I managed to yell over the noise of the crowd, “what were this group called again?”

“Nittle Grasper,” he answered in my ear as the lights began to go down and the band filed onto the stage. “Whatever that’s supposed to mean…”

If there’s one thing everyone remembers about Nittle Grasper – anyone who saw them in concert, anyway – it’s Sakuma Ryuichi. Everyone talks about their genius vocalist, about he’s responsible for all their success, about his talent and his brilliance.

When I first saw them, I hardly noticed him. I remember thinking how strange it was afterwards, when everyone else was talking about this amazing singer, that I was the only one who had been bowled over backwards by the keyboard player.

Nittle Grasper has always used the same set-up for their live concerts: the two keyboards facing away from each other at the back, with Ryuichi at the front. Back at the concert, I can remember the way Ryuichi played the crowd for all they were worth, living in their adoration and milking it from them as easily as drawing water from a tap. They hung on every note, every word from his lips. And Noriko-chan smiled sweetly, and winked and flirted with the audience, so that every person there, male and female, went away in love with one or the other of them.

The second keyboard player didn’t flirt, even though he was stunning to look at – pure gold hair, a slim, lithe figure, and delicate, almost feminine features, with impossibly huge eyes that sparkled like a sea in summertime. He didn’t play to the audience either, didn’t even appear to realise that they were there. He seemed to be alone in his own mind, alone with the music he was creating. There was a half-smile touching those perfect lips, which balanced the half-frown which creased the skin between arching golden brows. The shouts of the crowd didn’t seem to touch him, neither their praise nor their occasional jeers. It was as if he could see, could feel the music around him, wrapping it around his slim form like a cloak of glittering silver threads, all weaving together into the glorious whole.

I could hardly look at anything else for the entire concert. When Tsukiyono-san shouted something like ‘not bad, ne?’ right in my ear, I couldn’t do anything but nod dumbly.

Their half-hour slot seemed over before it had even begun – they were only a very new band, after all, and their reputation wasn’t big enough yet to warrant a larger time allowance. As the lights on the stage dimmed and the band walked off to thunderous cheers, I blinked, feeling like I was surfacing from deep waters.

“Well,” said the producer. “Do you want to come and meet the latest acquisition?”

Again, I couldn’t do much more than nod and stutter my thanks.

I think perhaps if I’d been able to leave at that point – if I had never known more of Seguchi Tohma than his beautiful face and his coolly seductive stage presence – then I would have been able to escape him. Perhaps those amazing eyes would have haunted me for a while, but it wouldn’t developed into this strange, terrifying thing it is now. But I didn’t know that then, of course.

The dressing rooms at Ruido aren’t exactly the nicest place in the world – they make up in fame what they lack in, for example, cleanliness. The corridors tend to be badly lit, and as we made our way past gaggles of hyped fans and the looming bulks of security guards it was dark enough to be definitely unpleasant. The only strong light was a warm glow from the dressing room door which was open a few inches at the far end of the corridor, and through which a discordant babble of voices could be heard.

“…I want to do that again! C’mon, Noriko-chan, let’s go and do another song! Please please please please please? Just one more?”

“Ryu-chan, we’ve already done three encores, I don’t think they’ll let us do any more,” said a slightly wearily but also indulgent female voice.

“Ohhh, come on, please? Tohma?” I frowned. That pleading, childish voice didn’t sound like any of the band who had been onstage.

“Ryuichi, I don’t have any more new songs at the moment.” That was said in a soft, musical alto that had a hint of laughter running through it, and I couldn’t help but catch my breath sharply. “There’ll be other concerts.”

“Oh, when? I want to do another one soon!”

The producer shot me a resigned look, and knocked politely on the door.

It was flung open by a ball of superfluous energy with unruly brown hair, huge sapphire eyes, and an enormous grin.

“Hello!” carolled the figure happily, waving at us with a hand that seemed to be full of stuffed rabbit. “You want us to do another song na no da?”

If he hadn’t still been wearing his stage clothes, I don’t think I would have recognised Sakuma Ryuichi as he was then, all wide-eyed enthusiasm and childish excitement. The strange jolting difference between his personas still jars with me now, and I still don’t quite know which is the real him.

The lavender-haired girl behind him grabbed hold of his arm to pull him back out of the doorway as she rolled her eyes witheringly. Despite the physical differences and the fact that she is several years younger than him, Noriko-chan has always seemed more like an exasperated older sister than just a fellow band member.

“Of course they don’t want us to do another song, Ryu-chan,” she snapped, though not too irritably. “Or not yet, anyway. Now hurry up and get changed so we can get out of here.”

The fading sound of a petulant voice raised in a wail of ‘you’re so mean!’ accompanied Sakuma-san’s forced removal into an out-of-the-way corner with a bundle of clothes, and Noriko turned back to us brightly.

“The show went well enough for the company’s new property, didn’t it?” she said with the certainty of a businessman with a popular product to sell.

“It went brilliantly,” said Tsukiyono-san with a complimentary smile. “For such a new group.”

Noriko’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “It went brilliantly for any group. I think that maybe improves our bargaining position about the percentages of profit from the album going to us and to you.”

“I hardly think this is the place to discuss it,” he replied with brittle brightness. “I only came down to congratulate you on the show, and to introduce a promising new producer to a promising new band – Sakano Daisuke, this is Ukai Noriko, keyboards.”

Noriko only seemed to notice me then, slightly hidden away behind the older man as I bowed my head in greeting, and her eyes skipped over me with little apparent interest.

“Well, I think it’s as good a time as any to discuss the matter,” she said smoothly, taking hold of the company executive’s arm and steering him off to the side. His look of mild and concealed panic told me as much as I needed to know about Noriko-chan’s negotiating skills as the band’s manager.

I hovered uncertainly in the doorway, feeling awkward and out of place as ever, while Sakuma-san, changed into fresh clothes, sat and hummed to himself in the corner, scribbling in a notepad as Noriko-chan grilled her superior on relative profit margins.

“Sakano Daisuke…”

The quiet words came from the corner of the room almost hidden away behind the door, where a rather sad looking potted palm wilted by a couple of stained easy chairs. The third member of the band had been sitting there silently while the last exchange went on, hands folded impassively in his lap and head tilted a little to the side with a curious bird-like grace.

“I – I’m pleased to meet you,” I stuttered after a moment, edging round the superfluous chairs and dressing tables to perch uncomfortably on the chair next to his.

“Seguchi Tohma,” he said softly. “Likewise. Sakano Daisuke…” His voice trailed off for a moment, before the slightest of smiles lit his face, and he sat up a little more alertly. “Weren’t you the lead singer for a new band a year or so ago? You brought out one single, called…what was it… City Stained in Monochrome. Am I right?”

I couldn’t say anything for a long moment, only sit and stare at this beautiful man who had plucked the obscure details of my history out of the air as though they truly meant something.

“Y-y-yes,” I managed after a while. “That’s was me.”

“I thought so,” said the keyboard player with another of those gentle half-smiles. “I remember you from some publicity shots there were around at the time.”

“I – I’m honoured that you remember me.”

“Don’t be honoured,” he said matter-of-factly. “I keep track of most new releases if I can, it helps me with my own work. And it was a good single. It deserved more public recognition than it got.”

I couldn’t have done more than sit and gape at him then if you had paid me. It wasn’t much to say – Seguchi-san still keeps track of almost all the new releases, and still speaks his mind freely about music if about nothing else – but it was a lot to me. To know that somehow, in some way, I had made an impression. It was never something I had really felt before.

Then Tsukiyono-san was telling me in a firm and slightly fearful voice that we were leaving, and I was standing up and moving towards the door in a bit of a daze as he extricated himself from the clutches of the band’s tenacious manager.

“Come again soon!” she called sweetly as we reached the door.

“And arrange another concert na no da!”

“It was nice to meet you, Sakano-san,” came the lyrical call from the seats just out of my eyeline behind the door. I hesitated for a moment, then darted back into the room and caught hold of Seguchi-san’s hand to shake.

“I hope everything goes well for Nittle Grasper,” I said earnestly.

The blue-green eyes, though a little startled, seemed to soften. “It will,” he said with certainty. “But thank you for your good wishes.”

So that was the second great compromise, I suppose. The first time I was absolutely certain that there was someone I wanted to succeed more than I had ever wanted it for myself. I would cheerfully have sold my soul if I thought it would advance Seguchi Tohma’s rise through the music industry.

Not, of course, that he ever needed such a gesture. Because unlike me, Seguchi-san had that chance to grasp his dream, and he took it. No, more than that – he made the chance for himself. That is the difference between him and me, you see – he was willing to take that risk, and because of that it was no risk at all.

It’s been quite a few years since that night at Ruido, and I didn’t notice as the compromises in my life became more and more frequent. I’ve heard that’s what everyone finds as they grow older, that issues are suddenly more in shades of grey than the black and white of teenage certainties, but it seems to me with the people there are around me that it’s not true. No matter how much older Seguchi-san or Ryuichi-san get, they never seem to need to compromise their ideals or give up their dreams. It’s not even by conscious choice. It’s just the way things are for them.

But I suppose everything has to balance somewhere. So while they go on weaving their perfect dreams, I am left with compromise after compromise. Accepting that I can never be anything more than the producer, enjoying vicarious fame through my bands. Always second best, the runner up in a race where there are only enough prizes for one.

And of course, music is only the start of it.

No one has ever made an impression on me like Seguchi Tohma. From the first moment that I saw him, he seemed to take up residence in some quiet part of my soul and made it his. Because he was beautiful on stage, with his silver cloak of music. Because he was intelligent backstage and brilliant when composing. Because he remembered my name, and thought the single was good. Because of a hundred stupid, ridiculous, trivial reasons, so I can’t escape it any more than I could rip out my heart.

But I’ve learned to be content with the compromise again. It doesn’t take a genius to know that his attentions don’t extend in my direction. Even if he weren’t married, I wouldn’t stand a chance, since his obsession with Yuki Eiri is obvious to anyone with eyes and enough interest to look. I’m not hideously ugly, or laughably stupid, or personally repellent. But I’m not hauntingly beautifully or startlingly brilliant or intriguingly tortured either. I don’t stand the comparison. I’m just…Sakano. Nothing more.

So that’s another compromise I’ve learned to take. I won’t ever be the one Seguchi-san loves, the one he turns to, but I might be the one who knows him best, the one he can depend on, the one he finds helpful and worthwhile and offers the occasional smile or word of praise. And that has to be enough.

So these days, I’m just Sakano-san. No given name. They don’t know where I live, and they don’t think about it. I don’t have adoring fans camping at my door, I don’t have to fight them off when I walk down the street. I’m just another anonymous man in a suit, standing in the wings at the concert while the lights are on them, living the life I dreamed of through someone else. I watch them all – Shindou-kun, Ryuichi-san, Seguchi-san – and I’m shadowed by their reflected brilliance.

I watch Seguchi-san as offers his heart to another man, while I make do with his respect and occasional friendship.

But, worryingly, I just realised at the age of twenty-nine that I’m content with that. I have to be.