Monday, April 30, 2007

What's the frequency Desmond?

Maude has insisted that the house be reordered, in readiness for the imminent arrival of our first child. Gone is the office – it is now the nursery. Gone is my chest of drawers, it is now the baby clothes store. Gone, even, is the piano.

My piano practice now takes place in the garage. This isn’t quite as bleak as it sounds, as I am surrounded by many of my displaced possessions and it feels quite homely in there. As I was playing the blues in there yesterday, I could hear a voice coming from the driveway. I pushed the button on the electronic garage door control fob which hangs from one of my belt loops. I enjoyed the transient sensation of control. As the door began to rise, a pair of dusty knee-pads came into view and I knew that it was Desmond from next door (he’s a carpet-fitter).

‘Been pushed out then I see...’

We chatted about his own gradual removal to the garage, as his family expanded. He made a few suggestions about the modifications I could make to create a ‘home from home’..... in a building four feet from my own home.

‘I’ve got a loo in mine…. and a little wash-basin. Me and Celia have walkie-talkies as well, just in case something crops up.’

I could see the radio antenna sticking out of the pocket on his combat trousers. I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to follow the same path as Desmond.

‘That sounded really good, though.’

I played on and Desmond began to ‘drum’ with his hands on the top of the dog kennel (the dog wasn't in there - she has the run of the house).

‘I used to be in a punk band, you know.’ Desmond had a far away look in his eye, as his mind drifted on a wave of nostalgia. ’We were rubbish.’

Desmond laughed and carried on drumming. He kept solid time and the dog kennel produced quite a good sound. I played on and turned the blues into something with a bit more boogie-woogie. Desmond noticed that my toolbox was within reach – its stock of screws and nails visible under the clear perspex cover. He alternated between it and the kennel – the jangling screws creating a passable approximation to the sound of a high-hat.

‘We sometimes get together in Big Alan’s shed down on the allotments, you know. You should come down. He’s got everything in there – amps, drum kit, guitars. He’s talking about rigging up a four-track with solar power.’

I must admit I was enjoying this jamming session with Desmond and felt quite attracted to the idea of a haven in the allotments with a group of kindred spirits. Who would know? We could even record something and send someone.

As the crescendo of my boogie-woogie rose, a shrill disembodied voice entered the garage and a red flashing light was visible in Desmond’s trousers.

‘Desmond! Do you copy? I can’t reach the All-Bran!’

Monday, April 23, 2007

Golden Slumbers

It was Larry’s birthday on Saturday and some of his friends decided to come together for an appropriate celebration.

The slumber party began at teatime. Maude and I arrived at Larry’s lodgings with a tasteful something as a gift. A queue had already gathered on the staircase. Guests had thrown themselves into the ‘theme’ and were all in their sleepwear – lots of funny fluffy slippers, Disney T-shirts and pyjamas.We’d thought it wiser to opt out – I wore my navy Paul Smith 2-piece and Maude turned heads in a simple black dress she’d picked up in New York.

It took half an hour or so to get close to Larry’s bedside to wish him many happy returns. He was propped up on a large bolster, like a Gateshead Proust, so that he could play the guitar to his assembled friends. Dink was circulating with nibbles. Just ahead of us in the queue was one of Larry’s German friends – Helmut. Helmut is an academic and has just finished 5 years of very hard work researching the decline in the British work ethic. Larry’s existence had formed the basis of Helmut’s PhD thesis. On the German’s many ‘field trips’ to Gateshead, the two men had become firm (if unlikely) friends.

Helmut has always been too busy to master a musical instrument. Larry, in contrast, had become a virtuoso guitarist in the comfort of his own bed and Helmut is inclined to make musical requests in circumstances such as these. I was, as ever, impressed with Helmut’s sartorial effort – his silk Paisley pyjamas were topped off with his usual Fedora (at its usual cheeky angle). However, my heart sank as I heard his clipped German tones:

‘Happy Birthday Larry and I have a special request – I want you to do ‘Abbey Road’ Please!!!’

Larry falters in all physical endeavour and prefers to stay in bed, but in music he has remarkable recall and stamina. I knew that at this point Larry would perform his party piece: a complete rendition of the ‘Abbey Road’ album by The Beatles (which has no gaps between tracks). Larry smiled and protested briefly.

‘I’m sure that no-one else really wants to hear that Helmut man!’

Dink was just leaving the room to replenish her tray of lightly buttered Ryvita and seconded Helmut’s request.

‘Oh Darling, go on – you know you want to.’

As the performance wore on, I could sense that Maude was losing the will to live. Helmut had begun to dance. Larry’s landlord was heard ransacking an upstairs cupboard during ‘Here comes the sun’. Larry’s landlord is also called Larry - usually known as ‘Lively Larry’. As Helmut harmonised with more enthusiasm than tunefulness on ‘Sun King’, Lively Larry reappeared with a pair of bongos.

When the epic medley reached 'Golden Slumbers' many of the employed people in the room seemed to be singing with some gusto. Maude tugged at the back of my jacket and we were soon on the landing. It was then that I heard a racket in the hall below. I peeped over to see Archie bounding up the stairs with his miniature snare drum strapped to his front. Leap giggled in his wake. Arch bounded into Larry's room and beamed at his bedbound host. As we passed the doorway to descend the stairs, a jiggling Archie had his sticks poised to join in. Larry struck the dramatic closing chord of 'Her Majesty', the final track of the album. As we trod softly down the stairs, the room above fell quiet, but for some whispering and a stifled giggle from one of the guests. I paused and saw Archie's diddy figure framed by the spindles of the stair rail. Dink gave him a consolatory hug. Archie was jiggling again, but I suspect that this time he was tearful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Look of Love

Sandy, Maude and me were all at college together and share many fond memories of academic life. Arch was something of an arriviste in the circle. Sandy and I shared rooms while we studied. Arch had misrepresented his qualifications in gnome-painting as ‘fine art’ to gain entrance to the lodgings and to become our neighbour. Our rooms were south-facing and benefited from a lovely set of French windows - in front of which we placed the desk. Sandy would arrange his books at one end of the desk and I would set mine at the other. We clubbed together for a typewriter and it sat in the centre. The arrangement worked well – as Sandy was nocturnal and would write his essays through a haze of cigarette smoke in the small hours. I would air the room in the morning and then use the desk myself. In moments of quiet study I would notice movement in the shrubs at the far end of the shared garden. At the time I took this to be a small animal.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to us, Archie was moving his way though the house. He had begun in a garret space (formerly a very cramped nursery). The landlord had been surprised at Archie’s willingness to live in such confinement - he usually showed the room as a small joke to amuse prospective tenants. He used it as a broom cupboard and would open the door on the ‘penthouse suite’ as more of an icebreaker than a genuine option.

‘I’ll take it! I’ll take it! It’s perfect!’

Archie had seen this as his chance to get into the house and break into what he took to be an intellectual atmosphere. He then strategically changed rooms as they became available, to achieve proximity to us.

Sandy and I had always been cordial to Arch, before we got to know him properly. The house had an old church pew in its entrance hall. The pew was very useful - it had a hinged lid under which was storage designed for prayer books. We used it for the post. Each morning the postman would cast the post into the pew and each scholar would appear, lift the lid and rifle through the envelopes in the hope of a cheque from home.

Some mornings Arch would be asleep in the pew.

After an evening out, Arch was often overwhelmed by the prospect of climbing the stairs back to his room – especially during the time when he lived in the ‘penthouse.’ He would chose, instead, to climb into the relative spaciousness of the pew and wait for the shower of post to rouse him in the morning. The postman and residents were all a little startled at first, but it was a liberal environment and allowances were made for the little chap. Some occupants took to throwing some loose change in at Archie’s feet after retrieving their letters.

If not asleep in the pew, Arch could often be found perched on it, swinging his legs and reading ‘difficult’ books. Sandy and I were leaving the house in a hurry one morning to catch a lecture and I saw that Archie was sat in his difficult book reading attitude. He was also wearing spectacles. I noticed that he rubbed one of his eyes by poking a finger through the frame – there were no lenses.

Sandy was oblivious to Archie’s presence and busied himself lighting his second cigarette of the day from the rapidly diminishing stub of his first cigarette of the day. As he did so, a shaft of winter sunlight poured in through the stained glass of the front door. The light penetrated the cloud of smoke and cast a halo around Sandy’s dishevelled, cherubic curls. Looking back, I suspect that this was the coup de foudre moment for Archie. The small one straightened his ‘glasses’ as though to get a better view and peered over the top of his book. He seemed to be drinking in every atom of this glowing vision of his idol – in its beatific morning glow. As Sandy grabbed his satchel of books and made for the door, Archie’s eyes followed his movement with a trancelike stare. Before I followed and closed the door behind me, I took the opportunity to pick the Samuel Becket novel from Archie’s grip and turn it the right way up.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

¡Adiós!, ¡Hola!

For a full 2 years Archie and Leap had been talking about going to visit Sandy and Lola. Sandy went out to Barcelona to join his Catalan amour a couple of Easters ago.

Sandy began his Spanish career collecting the money after Lola’s troupe of street artists performed on the Ramblas. He then went through an assortment of casual jobs. For a while he was the oldest ball-boy at the Nou Camp, but Barcelona FC let him go when he was beaten to a ball by a disabled fan in a wheelchair (the years of Gauloise smoking had taken their toll on Sandy’s fitness).

Sandy’s relationship with Lola fused her Catalan feistiness and his dry Northern English wit. She enjoyed teaching him all the Spanish and Catalan he needed and they became regulars at many of the town’s livelier bars – Sandy reciprocated by educating her in the detail of British guitar bands from the last 25 years.

Sandy then saw a niche in the market for bookselling and began to hawk dog-eared English paperbacks from a handcart – targeting the university in the winter and the beach in summer. His doting mother, Doris, scoured the charity shops of northern England and sent the books in regular batches. On occasion the poor woman would be unable to source enough secondhand books and would buy new instead. She would then enlist her husband, Arnie, to read them – or at least handle them enough to make them look used.

For her part, Lola was not content to be a street performer for all her life and knew that she needed to move on. Stilt-walking had lost its appeal and instead she took an interview with a global communications company in her stride. Lola also began to realise that her education in the development of British pop music was probably complete.

So it was that Lola decided to spend a large chunk of her savings in a single morning at El Corte Ingles department store. Her hair extensions were removed and a business-like bob was introduced. A pinstripe suit replaced combats and t-shirts. The shoe department indulged her for 30 minutes as she trained herself to finish off the new look and walk smoothly, at ground level, on heels.

Sandy had endured a fruitless morning on the beach approaching baking tourists who he hoped might need a paperback. Responses ranged from ‘No, thank you’ to ‘Raus!’ and he was rapidly losing heart. Sandy had never really adapted his wardrobe to the Mediterranean heat. Lola had applied her talents as a seamstress to one of Arnie’s old suits on a visit to England. Sandy wore the outfit all the time – as a symbol of his love for both Lola and his father. On a warm summer’s day in Barcelona, a polyester suit did not create a feeling of wellbeing in a hungry immigrant trying to run what he described as his own ‘small business’.

Lola had a taxi waiting on the seafront. Her final purchases had been from the bookshop at El Corte Ingles: a title they both knew well and a pen for the inscription.

Sandy’s tarpaulin had been stolen a week earlier. He had used it protect his stock from sun damage and rain, but a homeless drinker had used it to create some shelter in a nearby park and Sandy did not have the heart to reclaim it. He removed his jacket and placed it as a makeshift cover on a collection of spines boasting many holiday reading favourites: The Naked Lunch, On The Road, Hangover Square and American Psycho. Sandy found a lamppost against which to lean in a Belmondo attitude. He tapped a cigarette out of his pack, lifted it to his lips and lit it in his timeworn fashion. As he exhaled the first acrid cloud of his smoking session, a businesswoman dashed from a waiting taxi and pushed a book-shaped package into his hand. As the smoke cleared he watched the taxi disappear into the chaos of the midday traffic. He opened the El Corte Ingles bag to expose the first new book he had seen in some time - a crisp new English edition of Kerouac’s On the Road. The inscription was pithy:

‘Adios, Lola. x’

Sandy realised that while he had been preoccupied in assuming his favourite film pose he had let real life jump in a taxi and leave him. He took a long, consolatory drag on his Gauloise. His smoke seemed to be merging into the smoke of others nearby. A sea breeze arrived to clear the conglomeration of fumes and stood before him were the small, smiling, haversacked figures of Archie and Leap.

Sandy was still in state of devastation and found it hard to feign enthusiasm for the sudden arrival of his old friends.

‘It’s me, Sand!’ Archie jumped a little to emphasise his presence.

‘I think he’s a little upset’, whispered Leap.

As Archie began to quietly sob, Sandy was roused from his miserable reverie. New fumes were reaching him and he realised that his jacket had spontaneously combusted in the sun. The entire stock of his ‘small business’ was now aflame – the handcart a funeral pyre for the books he loved and for his Barcelona affair.