Sunday, June 16

Red & Black, a Roulette Table

IT HAD BEEN a tiresome week, though I had only made it worse on myself, and after all of it I wished to drink, be merry, get drunk and then fall asleep somewhere warm. Instead, I had an engagement with my parents and brother on the other side of town. First I freshened myself up in the office toilet. The tube was hot and packed; no air moved, not even an inch; people read papers; some looked like they were going out, others like they wished to pass out. I walked through Soho Sq. It was full of people; they knew nothing of me and I wanted nothing off them. They sat in packs in the slanted sunlight and many of them laughed, or stared into space. It was only six o’clock but already the bars and the caf├ęs of Soho were filling up so that people spilled out on to the pavement, the small tables there, where they sat with crossed legs, sweating glasses of beer & fresh coffee, chatting. The weather had cheered up. All day it had been miserable. At the last minute, the sun came along, drying up the rain and chasing away the wind.
My parents and brother were waiting in line. I said hello and tried to catch my breath. ‘Tell him the good news, then,’ said my mum. My brother – ‘He doesn’t care.’ ‘What?’ I asked. ‘He got an interview.’ ‘Where?’ ‘An estate agents. Admin.’ ‘Nice. When is it?’ ‘Monday.’ ‘Nice one!’ ‘See, he does care.’ We waited in line and then they let us in. It was dark in the jazz club.
The jazz club was all red & black.
The jazz club was the same colour as a roulette wheel, the edges angled upwards, too. Many people (colleagues and the gentlemen who work in the coffee shop) had told me it was better when you could smoke in there. Everything is better with a cigarette. We had good seats; a great view of the stage and right next to the bar. My dad had always said what a great place it was, and now he was showing us; a treat. We ordered the first round, plopped precariously on our table by a Polish waiter – ‘Do you have to love jazz to work here, I wonder?’ ‘Doubt it.’ ‘Shame.’ I ordered a beer, drank it quickly and ordered another. The second was colder than the first. I went for a smoke and watched the people pumping themselves into Soho. They walked along, planning their night out with liquid in their guts. An African woman was on the corner of the street singing old love songs; she couldn’t sing well, but her body swayed sexually all over the place, her hips going in & out, rolling her hands, come-hither eyes, and old love songs that people tried to forget about dancing to with their first loves. I flicked the butt into the road and went back inside.
The warm-up act came on, one by one. A big beautiful woman with an oversized flowing top, colourful & bold, came on. She could sing. She was irritating. I told my brother – ‘She’s the most annoying person on the planet right now.’ ‘Yeah, but she has excellent microphone technique.’ He was right. I liked to watch her sing and when she removed her shoes – and lost a few inches – I was very interested. When she sung, though, it seemed as though she didn’t mean it. ‘I’ve just come out of a long relationship, ten years,’ she told the audience. Not a minute of those ten years sounded like it was in a single note she sung. ‘If I were a jazz singer,’ I thought – ‘I’d try and sing every night like I was dying … but then I’d probably be one of those jazz singers with a heroin addiction.’
She told us that someone was there that night and they’d been there on their first date. Everyone cooed. The place was almost full now. ‘And now he has something to say.’ The microphone was passed to a gentleman in a booth near the stage as a spotlight shone down and, after some correction, aimed at a couple. The man’s little drops of forehead sweat could be seen from where I was sitting. He proclaimed his love for the lady he was with as she buried her face in her hands. He told her how much he loved her, how beautiful she was, how caring, how lovely to be around, how happy she made him. Not a pair of eyes was looking anywhere else. He got down on one knee – ‘Will you marry me?’ I put my finger into my mouth and bit down as hard as I could so that pain ran up my arm. Her head bounced while the microphone picked up the scent of her ‘yes’. ‘She said “yes”!’ he shouted, and he laughed. Everyone cheered and clapped and laughed and everyone was happy that they were there. They kissed. A waiter appeared from the darkness with two flutes of champagne. The place was in raptures. They kissed again. He put the ring on her finger. That was it now.
I did not know I was crying until I blinked. Tears made their escape down my cheeks and I rubbed them away before anyone saw. I was glad for the darkness. Why was I crying? I could not understand. There were many reasons I may have cried, but a justifiable excuse could not be pinpointed. I knew one thing: they were not tears of joy.
The couple took a breath before hurrying outside into the lobby. As they passed by the tables, people stood up to offer their congratulations, shake hands and share kisses. It was a big occasion all round. I had to clear my throat. I watched them pass by; all smiles. She had good legs. I supposed, then, that his life was sorted and that that was that.
Later I went for a cigarette and a bearded stranger from inside asked to borrow a light. I offered it to him. He made a phone call to his partner, then we started to speak and I said – ‘Wow, that proposal was something, wasn’t it?’
‘It sure was!’
‘That guy’s got balls of solid rock.’
‘Did you see the rock?’
‘It was massive … There’s no way anyone’s saying “no” to a rock like that.’
I wished the stranger a good evening and went back inside.
For dessert I ordered honeycomb ice cream, finished the bottle of red wine, and ordered another beer. The club was packed now. I looked at the women. They were very different women to those I was used to, very different people to that which I was. I picked out two; salt and pepper. One I was certain was from the Home Counties. She was tall, slim and blonde but charming in middle-age; her children had only fluffed out her attractiveness; broadened her hips, thickened her thighs, swelled her bosom, and lent her a radiance so that she could shine upon me. Her blonde hair was shorn short, asymmetrical, falling perfectly so that it accented her long neck. Her husband was rotund, bald, and when I watched them it seemed as if they were very much in love.
The other was my favourite and if only because she was graced with the effortless ability to possess the room – any room – upon entering, without knowing it. She arrived with her date, and two other couples. She was on the best side of thirty. As soon as she walked in I was smitten. She was tall, androgynously thin, and had thick black hair. Her neck, like the other lady’s, was long. An arresting smile broke out underneath her substantial cheekbones. She wore a thin, sleeveless white top and tight black trousers. Every time she got up to go to the toilet, I stopped and stared. When she came back, all of the men stood up to greet her. She was an exhibition of everything Nature has ever got right.
The main act came on. A handsome young man sat behind the organ and played away, going crazy, until the other members came out. After each player had done their solo, the crowd clapped, but I found that in bad taste – would one clap at the end of a movement in a symphony? Despite the funk legend in front of me, sat down, aged, American, in love & alive with the music, I spent all my time considering the young organist. He was only twenty-one, we were told. His left hand worked the lower keys, rhythmic, repetitive, while his right went crazy on the upper. There was no keeping up with him. His facial expression, nervous, helpless, was caught somewhere between an orgasm and about to sneeze. He rarely looked at the crowd. ‘He’s really something!’ I said quietly to my brother.
‘It was better when you could smoke in there,’ said my friend – ‘Everyone was smoking. The whole place was filled with smoke and it was … dingy, you know?’ I loved to hear him talk about it; his face lighting up, as it did when he discussed anything musical – ‘Make sure you order a Vespa. Order a Vespa there.’ I did just that. It came. It was delicious, though I wished to light a cigarette so much. During the interval I went for another smoke, loose in my knees, feeling quite drunk.
Soho was getting busier. Perhaps I could sling some of it down my gullet and get fucked off the fumes.
Inside: the brass instruments glittered.
Very soon the gig ended and an impolite voice over the P.A. ushered us away. We walked to Tottenham Court Rd. then got in a cab and asked the driver – with his Friday night shift ahead of him – to take us to Tower Hill carpark. Many of my childhood memories were installed in Tower Hill carpark; many Saturday afternoons there, on our way to Stamford Bridge, roast chestnuts, beggars, the river, the promise of a football match. I used the toilet there for old times’ sake and saw the security guy, doused in faint blue, watching his many little T.V. screens. ‘Remember when those African security fellas beat the shit out that guy?’ my dad asked. ‘Yeah.’ ‘You don’t fuck with the Africans,’ he told me. I looked out of the window and, despite my tiredness, found myself unable to sleep. Various scenes, many recognisable from childhood, and not visited since, flashed before me. I could still taste the Vespas, among the cigarette smoke and the gum I’d chewed to rid myself of the taste of gin & tobacco.

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