Friday 18 November 2011

Jazz Cafe

Kathleen Jones
Mango Smoothie

The pianist is off the beat.  It annoys me that he can't keep tempo, but I can't get anyone else to play for the money — a straight thirty each and a few free drinks.
    And no-one listens anyway.  The smart set come to meet each other and observe the weird and exotic who drift in off the Soho street.  It's really a high class pick-up joint, full of postmodern girls in deliberately tatty designer clothes, chatting up men with wind-blown hairstyles in over-large jackets.  You can smell the Porsche's and BMW's illegally parked on the pavement outside.
    One of the girls has draped herself over the corner of Henry's piano, dogging him up with her eyes.  No joy there.  Henry's one of what Simon always sarcastically refers to as the V.H.M.s — the Very Happily Marrieds.  Musicians with wives and mortgages and small offspring who divide their spare time between IKEA and the garden centre.

    Nine o'clock on a summer evening in the Café Lafayette.  Just coming to the end of the first set.  I turn to take a sip of mineral water to soothe my smoke-roughened throat and catch sight of myself in the mirrored surface of the wall opposite.  A slim girl on a high stool with a long bony face and long reddish-brownish hair I only just recognise as me;  above her, the golden holograms of the brass ceiling fans rotating at full speed;  behind her, the circles and squares of an art-deco window frame.  A yellow raincoat is walking past with a black and white umbrella.
    After a while the yellow coat edges into my view of the bar.  It's Maggi, shaking the damp from her bobbed black hair.  The sight of her paralyses my throat just for a moment.  But I control the spasm in order to finish the song and sign off at the microphone. `We're going to take a break now, but we'll be back with you later.  Ladies and gentlemen, Henry Field at the piano.'  A scatter of applause barely audible above the conversation.  `And I'm Kate Hennessy.'  More applause this time, but still only polite, perfunctory.  People have more interesting things to do with their hands — glasses, cigarettes, other people's bodies.
    Which brings me back to Maggi, who's taken off her raincoat and crumpled it over a stool.  She's wearing a black body suit, an eight inch long white crotch-cover (definitely not a skirt) and black and white striped tights.  Ridiculously thin.  And she has a thin mouth that opens to show pointed little teeth like a predatory fish.   
    ‘Not working tonight?'  I ask.
Maggi shakes her head.  ‘I've been in the studio all day mixing the CD.'
    My throat goes into spasm again, but I manage to control my face by catching the barman's eye and ordering another mineral water.  It simply isn't fair that Maggi should be making a CD already.  She's only been on the scene a year.  Of course it helps being an American — there's an implicit belief that the only real jazz musicians are Americans, particularly singers.  All the songs seem to have been written in American idiom.
    I feel suddenly very old.  Twenty seven, rising twenty eight and still without a recording contract.  Plenty of work though, plenty of people to tell me I can sing — a gutsy, bluesy voice that doesn't seem to belong to my slim frame.  Quite a contrast to Maggi's high-pitched intonation and complete disregard for melody.  But that kind of stringy, rhythmic scat-singing seems to be fashionable now.
    I hate you. I think the words deliberately as a kind of relief, looking at Maggi drinking a half of lager out of a triangular flower vase.  My own mineral water is being offered in a similar glass with circular ice and a segment of lime pressed onto the rim.  The place is unbearably pretentious.

    Henry is talking to a girl further up the bar, possibly his wife.  She's pregnant, leaning back slightly on her heels for balance, resting her arms across the top of the bulge.
    I have to force myself to look away.  I can't bear to see it.  My body aches for a child.  It's so strong, it's like a fierce dog eating my insides out.  Something inexplicable, biological.  We can't afford to have a child just yet.  I don't even want a child yet — not until I've got somewhere with my singing, and not until Simon is earning enough for both of us.  But every morning when I get the press-out strip of pills out of the drawer I have a battle with myself.  My body says ‘No.  Put them back in the drawer.'  And my head says ‘Don't be stupid.  Take the damn thing as quick as you can.'  And my hands shake so much I can hardly push the little blue circles out of their sockets.
    ‘Simon coming down later?'  Maggi asks.
    I nod.  He's doing a show on Charing Cross Road.  Orchestra pit work.  Well beneath his abilities really, but it's all that's around at the moment.  A dreary musical, created around the life of some long-dead music-hall star, which will run for the tourist season and be pulled off before Christmas.  Simon should be getting something better.
    ‘I want to ask him something,'  Maggi goes on.  She smiles, revealing all  the little pointed teeth.  ‘I thought we might all go down to Ronnie's after.  A friend of mine from the States is playing and he said he'd get us in.'
    ‘I'm not sure I've got the energy.  It's been a tough week..'  Anything to avoid an evening with Maggi.
    ‘OK.'  She shrugs in an easy-going, friendly kind of way.
    I find it incredible that Maggi seems unaware of my hostility.  I can feel it leaking from me like battery acid.  ‘What did you want Simon for anyway?'
    ‘I wondered whether he'd like to do a gig for me next Thursday afternoon.  It's a tea dance at the Grosvenor.  Guy shut his hand in a car door and can't play for a week or two.'
Bad luck for Guy.  Extra money for Simon. That's how it goes.

    He walks in towards the end of the second set, dumping the holdall with his saxophone and music-stand behind the piano.  He looks very thin and serious in the black and white evening outfit he got second hand in Oxfam.  He raises a hand and wriggles his long, elegant fingers at me.  Simon's hands are incredible.  Very pale and bony, with exceptionally long, spatulate fingers.  Women's hands.  Sometimes I think that Simon would make a very pretty woman with his heart-shaped face and curly blonde hair and the very thick black eyelashes that screen his jade blue eyes. 
    We've been married for three years, and lived together two before that, ever since we met at the Guildhall School of Music.  Simon was a pupil of Kathy Stobart, while I was studying with Cleo Laine.  Five years.  Five years of bedsits and awful furnished flats.  But now we have our own — a ground floor, two bedroom Victorian apartment in Hackney.  Not the best area, but the first rung on the property ladder and large enough — I have to stop myself.  I'd been going to think ‘enough space for a child’, but that's dangerous stuff.

The clapping after the last number is rather more enthusiastic — there are even half-hearted calls for an encore.  Normally I'd oblige, but tonight I'm not in the mood.  I catch Henry's eye and shake my head.
    At the bar Simon says, ‘No point in going to Ronnies on a Saturday night — it'll be packed out.  I thought we'd go down to the 100 Club instead.'  He and Maggi seem to have it all arranged.
    ‘And you think you could manage Prague in September?'  Maggi says.
    ‘Don't see why not.  It sounds a really interesting tour.  And I can always put in a Dep. for the show.'
    ‘I don't want to go to the 100 Club,'  I hear myself say.  I'd meant it to sound reasonable, but it sounds petulant — a child refusing a treat out of temper. 
    Both Maggi and Simon turn to look at me.
    ‘She's tired, you know,'  Maggi says, speaking across me.
    ‘Are you?'  Simon looks peeved. ‘I was just feeling like breaking out a little.  That show's so deadly I need to unwind afterwards.  And we don't have to be up tomorrow.'  He's coaxing me.  ‘You'll enjoy it when you get there.  Bill Oakley and John Crichman are playing.'
    Simon says do this;  Simon says do that.  It's a familiar game.  They’re all looking at me.   I can either go home in a taxi and confirm to everyone that easy going, well-balanced Kate is having a pre-menstrual tantrum, or grit my teeth and endure a tense evening at my least favourite venue.  Simon knows what I'll do.  So does Maggi.  Making waves is not my style.  I can see clearly that this is my weakest point — my hatred of causing a fuss makes me easy to manipulate, and Maggi, with her predatory instincts, picked up on it right from the start.


    Simon brought Maggi home with him a year ago.  She looked small and cold and defeated inside her yellow plastic coat.  Her mascara was trickling down her pale face like an exaggerated Pierrot mask.
    ‘This is Maggi,'  Simon said, bending down to put another bar on the electric fire.  ‘There was a mix-up over her flat, so I said she could stay with us for a bit.' 
    Just like that.
    I made myself smile and say ‘Fine.  No problem.'  Which is what people always say when there is.  And I went to make up the bed in the spare room.  It isn't a very good bed, acquired from some friends who were throwing it out onto a skip.  There's no carpet on the floor either, and only a big old chest of drawers my mother wanted to get rid of when she got divorced.  The curtains, left by the previous owners, are thin cotton hung on stretchy wires that almost cover the big Victorian window, but not quite.
    It would have to do.  Maggi said it was fine, wonderful, much better than a bin-liner on a street corner.  She'd be perfectly comfortable.
    Having her to stay  made practising difficult.  Simon, of course, could always take his saxophone and practise in the living room or the bedroom, but the piano with its solid metal frame couldn't be moved.  Which meant that I had to practise when Maggi wasn't in.  It was very inconvenient.  And there were minor irritations like her habit of singing to herself all the time and talking on the phone in the middle of the night to her mother in America, and the rather aggressive perfumes she wore with loud names like Poison and Opium, so that even when she wasn't there you could smell her all over the house. Even the chairs and the sofa in the living room smelt of stale civet.
    But what bothered me most was the thinness of the wall between the two bedrooms.  When we made love I was always aware of  Maggi listening on the other side of the plasterboard.  We make love less often now that Maggi’s there.
    As time went on there were other aggravations too.  Maggi had no sense of private property.  She would help herself to my face creams and precious Neil's Yard bath oils, borrow CDs and films without asking, and make coffee in my special mug —  the one Simon bought me in a street market in Delhi on our honeymoon.  If I psyched myself up to tackle her, she'd open her big, Pierrot eyes very wide and innocent and say ‘Oh.  Is it?  Sorry.  I didn't think you'd mind.’  Which made me feel completely mean.
    But the final trespass for me was the time I rang Simon from Oxford St and heard Maggi's voice on our answering machine. ‘Sorry I'm not around, but if you want to leave a message for Maggi, or Simon or Kate . . .'
    The beeps beeped in sequence — little electronic alarm bells, but I was too angry to speak.
    ‘You have to be patient,'  Simon said. ‘She's a foreigner, she doesn't know how things work around here.  Give her time.'
    It was true really.  And she tried so hard to please.  She bought bottles of wine on impulse and turned ordinary meals into celebrations, and sometimes when we got up late after a gig there would be hot corn muffins on the table and real blueberry jam.
    ‘She's such a generous person,' Simon said.  ‘It's just that she expects everyone else to be like herself.'
    I said nothing, but my gut feeling said ‘Bugger that.  She's using us.’  Why were men so easily taken in?

    One day, after she'd been there about three months, she suggested that wouldn't it be better if Simon and I had the room with the piano in, to solve the practising problem? Which was true.  But I still didn't want to do it.  Why should I have to leave my bedroom on account of Maggi?  And why should I be made to feel the one who's being unreasonable if I don't?
    ‘It's the logical thing to do', Simon said.  ‘Maggi's right.'
    So the furniture was shifted, and it's the same furniture, even though it looks different in another setting.  But there's no carpet and the curtains from the other room wouldn't fit and so we have to make do with the thin damask that allows the street light to leech through it and stops me sleeping properly.  Every time I’ve saved up enough money for  curtains and carpeting something else had come up —  the car exhaust or the central heating boiler.
    And Maggi's been there ever since.  Whenever I get Simon round to talking about her leaving he says that having a lodger helps to pay the mortgage, and anyway, he's got used to her around.  And then Maggi says things like — ‘It's so wonderful of you to put up with me.  Sharing a flat with you guys is such fun.'  So what can I do?


    The routine's the same after every weekend gig.  Either a curry house or an Italian.  Usually there's some consensus, but tonight, because it's Maggi, there's an argument.  Maggi wants to go to the Italian so that she can show off her vocabulary to the waiters and order obscure wines no one has ever heard of, which, infuriatingly, are always wonderful.  And she always asks them for something which isn't on the menu, which is always  made available and smells delicious and enviable when it comes.
    I decide, insist, am absolutely adamant, that I'm going to have a curry. If I have to go to the 100 Club then I'm having my own way over the meal.  A childhood spent in India watching the cook blending the brightly coloured powders, red and orange and yellow;  chili and cumin and turmeric; the shiny green of peppers and the textures of cinnamon bark and clove, have left me addicted to the sensuality of its food.

    And it makes me feel secure.  My Ayah used to smell of cardamom which she chewed to sweeten her breath, and always, always in the house there was the smell of fenugreek, sharp and aromatic, blowing across the veranda in the breeze from the muslin'd windows.
    Not that this restaurant is anything like India.  It's decorated like a brothel.  An almost life-size naked lady in white plaster, surrounded by Grecian columns and Christmas lights, drips water onto plastic flowers at the entrance.  The walls are hung with pink brocade and have gilded lamp brackets with extravagantly fringed shades.  The ceiling has stalactites of plaster and gilt and crystal and, above the bar, swags of pink brocade billow and recede like an outrageous bed canopy.
    But it smells of fresh coriander and all those other scents that recreate my comfort zone.
The first thing Simon does as soon as we sit down is ask to have the music turned off.  Jazz musicians always do this.  Muzak tortures the ear.  But somehow I've never been able to bring myself to do it.  Other people there are enjoying the music — finding it an essential part of the atmosphere.  There's a little, hostile exchange with the manager which I try not to listen to, hiding behind the menu,.  Then, it seems, there's to be a compromise.  The jangle of voice and sitar becomes a faint, background wail.
    Henry's wife is telling a joke she'd heard on a music quiz programme.  ‘What's the difference between a musician and an insurance policy?'
    ‘I don't know.'  Simon says warily.  ‘What is the difference?'
She smiles and waits a second or two, as though she knows he isn't going to like it and is determined to enjoy his discomfort. ‘Insurance policies mature and make money.'
    Henry and I laugh outright.  Simon smiles a rather tight smile and says ‘That's cruel.'  And it is.
    But it's also true.  Someone told me before I married Simon ‘It's impossible to have a relationship with a musician — all they know is the music. Nothing else matters.'  I sometimes wonder if that's where I've gone wrong.  Perhaps I haven't been single-minded enough.  Perhaps that's why Maggi's spent all day making a CD while I've just sung to a deaf audience in a shitty cafe for fifty pounds.
    Maggi says, ‘I intend to make loads of money.'
And I expect she will.  Maggi knows how to get things.

    The toilets are pink porcelain shells with gold fittings.  Washing her hands in the imitation marble bowl, Henry's wife says ‘I don't know how you put up with it.'
    ‘What else can I do?'
    ‘I'd give them both their marching orders if it was me.'
She bumps the door behind her as she goes out, leaving me standing with my hands under the drier and an uncomfortable thought.  What did she mean by ‘both'?

© Kathleen Jones

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