Monday, November 9

Hopefully Jazz

Emmett was an optimist, because, as the marriage came to die, he believed, over and over, that it would get better. It was all he thought every day: that the marriage would get better. The marriage did not get better and it came to an end. She moved on because she was not the sort of optimist that he was; she was a different kind of optimist, and he could not recognise that in her. People his age did not get divorced, he was quite sure of that, but she showed him that they did. She presented the divorce papers herself, she in her slightly different haircut, hovering over the boiling kettle, and he signed them because he was an optimist and thought that things would get better. Heartbreak was everywhere on him, but he thought that he could shake it because he was an optimist. He thought that he might get her back because he was an optimist and she would find that attractive about him. She did not. Emmett was an optimist about the water at the bottom of the well; she was an optimist about the sunlight at the top.
‘Come along,’ his friend had said, inviting Emmett to an evening at the Catholic club. Emmett’s daughter (a lone bridge, linking one side of the city to the other) had even told him to go along. I would like to stay at home and just simmer alone, but I am an optimist. ‘Come along,’ his friend had said, and Emmett could not think of an excuse quick enough; being an optimist prevented him from thinking up good excuses. I will come along. He ate a good meal and showered. His friend and his friend’s wife met him – she dressed as though she were most excited for the evening, and all of the jewellery on her sparkled. As they walked down the street she glistened in the fluorescence of shop windows, she glistened in that fractured white that combs the night air above the pavement.
His friend introduced him to the others they met along the way, picked up from beneath the glow of a monumental streetlight. A group built up. Gradually their chatter built up in parallel, a half-dozen separate streams, while Emmett, who cowered at the kerb, thought that the evening would get better. Very carefully they watched where they walked and they discussed each subject until they became exhausted and forgot what they were talking about. It was too late for love, that much was certain, so what else? The Catholic club often threw events, even while he was optimistically married, which he had not attended before.
Everyone arrived. The venue, a hall built in the church car park, was caustically lit. The chairs were arranged in straight lines pointing imperfectly at the makeshift stage. I will sit here. A glass of red wine. Married couple after married couple. The only single person a Polish barmaid, her ring finger bare, her legs bare, her angular muscles quite suited for dancing over the bobbing bow of a boat. Upon the stage, which was a cordoned area free of chair and scuffle, were patient instruments. Emmett saw that the instruments did not peep nor did they budge, but remained motionless, slightly smudged brass bursting from upon them. The lights in the bar were not meant for ambience; they had been installed by someone on their lunch break. Emmett ordered a glass of wine – complimentary after the entrance fee – and wondered whether the stage lights would like to use the toilet.
He was in the third row, part of a group that was talking extensively about one lady’s trip into town and the rain that had fallen that day. ‘I’ve never seen rain like it,’ she said; everyone nodded; Emmett looked at the patient instruments; everyone nodded and sipped simultaneously their red wine drinks.
The instruments looked very holy to him. Above all, the Catholic crowd was humming, mouths all loose, talking in tongues, piecing together bits of unfinished conversations from long ago. He did not listen to his friend who was talking, gaily talking as though talking is an exercise in joy, but stared only at the instruments, their brass shapes like the dissected digestive organs of some immaculate robot. Ah, he would like to meet that robot, shake its hand. He stared at the entrails and thought he was an optimist. Of course he wondered what his ex-wife was doing and, though he knew nothing, he knew it was something spectacular and purposeful. As a child he had learned to play the cornet; Mr. Williams’ office; photocopied sheets parting at worn folds and falling apart; improvising in the key of B-flat; the patter of classmates beyond the window. The cornet glowed to him like a manger and remembered upon the stage all of this: his bones lit up a heat and he shuddered.
‘Weren’t it bad, Emmett?’
Marie’s voice, a bush he not but once wished to prickle, and—‘Yeah, puddles everywhere!’ He smiled at them all, the dozen eyes—‘I watched a stream of it pass down the road.’ They all nodded to reassure his contribution, brief and most interesting as they all imagined a stream of rainwater.
Mrs. Liebens was the stout woman at the rear, observing proceedings and satisfied as people from the bar took their seats. Emmett’s pale blue eyes stared from underneath overlapping lids. The red wine was the cheap stuff. As well as the wine, there were biscuits and sausage rolls, ham sandwiches, there were canap├ęs and the stodge of party food. He heard the chatter of those around him. In amongst the chatter were the opposites of the speaker: the wife to the husband, the husband to the wife; two people vibrating in perfect time to each other. Where was his wife? He saw her having a good time. He saw her well and happy, fondled in the arms of a new lover, haloed in a fizzy uplifting of perfect happiness. He did not like to think about it – being an optimist – but his ex-wife was happier now than she had ever been with him. She went to bed with someone else, and they have the whole universe behind them. He focused on the neck of the saxophone as it waited for someone to come along and kiss it.
A scattering of applause.
The musicians: a pianist, a trumpeter, a drummer, the saxophonist, a double-bassist; they took to the stage. They bowed their heads. A round of applause – coordinated and welcoming – greeted the singer. She appeared in a black evening dress that revealed her shoulders and clung to her flesh; her eyebrows came floating out from the mist. She was a very beautiful young woman. Emmett looked up.
In nineteen-eighty-one, two lovers did not take precautions and were subsequently bound, nine months later, by a pale skinned infant. The girl grew into sadness as though it were a raincoat. Lonely nights were a soundtrack she had inherited off her father before he moved to Vienna, the scratch in his voice as he mentioned her mother’s name. So the little girl took to singing. Her mother encouraged her singing. She wrote to her father about her singing, but then she stopped writing altogether. A small jazz group advertising in the local paper for a singer; ‘Go for it’; she ringed the advertisement – because that is what you do – and auditioned. The trumpeter said—‘Your voice is better than mint choc-chip ice cream.’ The pale-skinned girl was taken on; the band unanimous in their decision.
‘Thank you,’ she said. Emmett straightened in his chair. ‘I’m not a Christian but I hope you like these songs anyway.’ Some people laughed, others groaned; one woman walked out.
The band started its first number.
At once the audience, so settled and covered in the silt of their dull conversations, were enthralled. No one made a peep. The opening song was upbeat. Down the row many knees began tapping along and the hairy silhouettes in front of him started to nod in time.
Emmett watched the girl. He could not spare his attention anywhere else. Her voice was not made in her throat. It gathered together deep inside of her; it swum from her toes, her knees, from her hips and from her sex; it rushed into her bloodstream from her breast and her shoulders; it rocketed up from her fingers; it burst out from her eyes; it melded in her lungs and came out like no other sound that Emmett had ever heard before.
Then they performed a version of It Seems So Long Ago, Nancy and all of Emmett was facing the stage, the figure of her in black, singing Cohen’s sad ballad. She sung with all of her might, all of her in her little body, all her emotions and everything she had learned since she was a child. He was captivated; the whole crowd was, but he more than the rest. From her small frame came such a magnificent sound! He began to cry, his pale blue eyes mustering up moisture and dribbling it out to cool his hot, embarrassed cheeks.
Their version of Bye Bye Blackbird was the most tormented he had ever heard. After each song he threw his hands together and wiped his jaw where the tears had started to tickle.
‘I apologise for the mood of the songs tonight,’ she said. Her voice was so fragile, so small, after the ghosts she had let escape from between her lips. It was apparent to Emmett that every song was taking something out of her, something that she hoped would be replaced yet feared it would not be.
Every song was a gift to Emmett. Time flew up and away from him so that he did not know how long he had been sitting there. They played; she sung; he wept. Between songs he clapped and choked on his tears with an upset laughter and he wiped them away. If they see me crying, he thought, it will be all they talk about tomorrow.
The girl bent down and took a sip of water from a bottle. Perspiration was collecting on her brow, from the stage lights perhaps, and she wiped it away. Her and Emmett wiping themselves, wiping each other, drinking mineral water, consoling one another. ‘This is our final number, ladies and gentlemen.’ The audience made some collective noise of disapproval—‘Yes, I am sorry but I cannot be out late tonight as it’s a full moon and we all know what that means.’ People looked at each other because they did not know what it meant. ‘This last one is … well, it’s been sung by many people … most of whom are dead, and tonight it’s being sung by me and I’m not dead.’ Someone at the back who had drunk too much wine laughed loudly and then started coughing. ‘When I’ve decided on my favourite version of it, I’ll let you know. Hopefully this will be your favourite version.’
They played When Your Lover Has Gone. The people who had been tapping their feet throughout, fading in and out of time, kept on, just as Emmett kept on weeping; however now he wept harder and he wept so much that he was becoming thirsty. He knew not where the tears were coming from. His face burned and was cast in the stage light. Her voice grew like tower blocks in the morning—‘When you’re alone, who cares for starlit skies?’ Emmett was drunk off of her.
After it was over – the final applause and everyone on their feet – the audience filed out. The group he was with, they lingered. He could already hear them talking quietly about his crying, while his friend made excuses and shrugged his shoulders; so he left them and – his courage summed up – approached the band as they packed up under the resumed glare of the house lights, piercing the atmosphere once more. Where has she gone? Emmett asked the drummer—‘Is the singer around?’
‘Helena!’ he shouted so loudly that it made the broken old man jump.
So that was her name: Helena. Helena. He put it about his mind for a moment – Helena – before she reappeared and, with some effort, smiled to greet the gentleman before her.
Nervously, he stammered—‘I apologise, I didn’t mean to disturb you.’
‘Don’t be silly. You’re not disturbing me. … Are you okay?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine.’ Emmett waved his hand, realising that his eyes might be bloodshot and he was most likely a sorry sight—‘I just wanted to say that I have never heard a singer like you before…’
‘Thank you.’ She cut him off, awkward at his praise.
‘I mean it. Please don’t think I am just saying this as if it were something I do often, or even lightly.’
‘I thought no such thing.’
It was strange to be so close to her, to be inches from her face, talking, holding a conversation. He felt uplifted. His gaze did not move from hers and she held strongly to his. He thought that, face-to-face, she was a monument of woman and talent. He was shaking all over.
He did not know where his courage was coming from, but, in a peculiar way, it thrilled him. ‘If I may say so – and please don’t take this the wrong way – but you sing like you’re dying, or something.’ For the first time he looked away from her, at the double-bass being locked in its case.
She smiled weakly, beautiful—‘No… but similar. I am in love with someone who doesn’t love me.’ They paused, both of them, and cast a glance upon the other band members packing away. ‘Listen to me being all melodramatic!’
Grinning modestly—‘No! … No,’ he said.
All of a sudden, a fit of nervousness, discomfort and illness flooded Emmett. He felt sick. Great heaves of pain coming from his chest as though his gut was trying to climb out of his throat. He quickly wished her the best of luck and hurried away as she called after him, a call, a cry of concern and of pity. He rushed past the rest of the group and out into the night air, which banged against his chest, the cold cooling him down and all of his panic subsiding slowly back into his core. He leaned against the metal railing, breathing heavily, stooped.
The rest of the group walked out of the hall and into the puddle of light that swelled around the entrance.

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