by Janet Howson
two cranberry juices
Debbie glanced at her calendar as she tackled a pile of ironing she had been putting off for about two weeks. She squinted at something written in for Friday. Where were her reading glasses? She had put them down somewhere after reading the newspaper this morning. She frowned to herself, perhaps if she wore them on a chain around her neck they wouldn’t go missing as often? She remembered her mother doing that for years until she got bifocals. Perhaps that was the answer. She rested the iron on its base and got nearer to the calendar. She read out loud Annie’s 37th birthday. She let out a frustrated sigh; how could she have forgotten that? It was Wednesday afternoon, only two days to go. What could she do for her closest friend?
On her birthday Annie had arranged a surprise party. She just told her that she was to get to her house in the evening at about nine o-clock and they would walk down to meet Jan and Sue for a drink at the Horn ‘O Plenty in town. So Debbie had arrived in one of her little black numbers ready for a drinking session. When Annie opened the door and let her into the dark hall the lights suddenly flashed on and there was a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday Debbie’ and a big cheer. There were about twenty of her friends all clutching a champagne glass. She was pushed into the front room, a glass of champagne was placed in her hand and all she could remember for the rest of the evening was music, dancing and laughter.
Now, here she was with two days to go. What could she do at such short notice? I’ll ring Tommy. He always has an answer. She had been married to Tommy for twenty years. She had only been eighteen. A teenage bride, but he had swept her off her feet and she had never looked back. He had always been her rock, through every trouble, worry or disaster. He was the strong one when their first child Chrissie was born disabled, when her father had died suddenly, when their second child was born and Chrissie couldn’t understand why her mummy became another baby’s mummy His was the voice of reason, she was the one who panicked, the drama queen.
Thinking of drama queens Debbie remembered she had lines to learn for ‘The Murder Mystery Evening’. She had been given the role of Caroline, the lover of the murder victim and Annie was cast as Samantha, his only daughter. She didn’t have too much to learn so that could wait until after Annie’s birthday. She found her phone and rang Tommy at work. Hopefully, he would pick up.
“Yep? Is that you Debs?”
“Oh, Tommy, I’ve just realised it’s Annie’s birthday on Friday and I don’t know what to do at late notice. Remember she threw that surprise party for me on my thirty eighth? I’ve got to do something special for her. You are good with ideas, Tommy. What do you reckon?”
“Simple, take her to her favourite East End pub, The Oak Tree. They’ve always got a local group on a Friday night and an ‘Open Mike’ hour and that’s right up your street.”
“Oh, I love The Oak Tree, I can sing some of my favourites if I get the chance,
see you later.” Debbie put down the phone and immediately phoned Annie.
So that is how Debbie and Annie found themselves at The Oak Tree on the Friday night of Annie’s birthday in their uniform of little black numbers, hip flasks of vodka (courtesy of Debbie as a birthday present to Annie and one for herself.) “All we need to do then is buy cranberry juice that’ll save us a fortune.” Debbie had told Annie as she unwrapped her gift.
They had got there about nine thirty having stopped on route at a pub where Annie had met her husband, Scott. It had been love at first sight and they had married a year later. She was eighteen and he was twenty. “Nineteen years and two kids later and we are still together.”
The music was deafening when they got to The Oak Tree. The two friends pushed their way to the toilets to apply a bit of ‘lippy’ and sort out their hair which had got very wind- blown on route. Even the toilets were packed, with women of different ages catching up on the week’s news at work and their love lives. “Can’t hear myself think in here, Debbs, you go in first and I’ll meet you by the bar.” Annie, put her make up back in her bag, leant against the wall and waited her turn.
Debbie bought the two cranberry juices and was just picking them up when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Debbie, long time since we’ve seen you in ‘ere? How are you? Still singing?”
Debbie blushed, it was Jack, a young man she had met one night she had been at The Oak Tree with the girls and she had sung a couple of songs, persuaded to do so by Annie and backed up by Sue and Jan, the other two in the group. She had been really nervous but once she was up there with the microphone in her hand she had relaxed. It had brought back to her the evenings her parents had taken her with them to pubs in the East End, stood her on a stool and let her sing her heart out. She had loved it. She had been the apple of her father’s eye and she idolised him. His early death had broken her world apart. Jack had come up to her after she had finished her stint and congratulated her on her voice and choice of songs. “You are really talented. You should make a career as a singer.” He handed her a business card. “If you ever think of going down that road, give me a ring. I will see what I can do for you.”
Debbie had told the others and they all agreed that it was a bit dodgy. “He probably fancies you,” Sue had said. Debbie wasn’t interested, so she threw the card away and thought no more about it. Not until now that is. She caught sight of Annie who was looking for her. “Sorry I’d better take these drinks over to my friend. I am hoping to sing later though,” Debbie shouted as she turned to wind her way to where Annie was.
“Who was the good looker?” Annie asked, standing on her toes to get a better look.
“Don’t you remember the night I sang and he gave me his business card? I chucked it away. He recognised me after all that time.”
“Once seen never forgotten,” laughed Annie, topping up the cranberry juice with the vodka. “Are you going to sing tonight?”
“I phoned up earlier and put my name down. I’m after that bloke you say reminds you of Jonny Cash.”
“Good for you, I’ll be gunning for you. What are they offering the winner? It was a bottle of bubbly last time.”
“I didn’t ask. I don’t do it to get a prize, I do it because I just love singing. I’ve never had any training. Couldn’t afford it as a teenager and like you I was working in the city at fourteen. Then I got married and the rest is history.”
mad cow, course you are good enough. Perhaps lover boy over there will approach
you again with a contract.”
Laughing the two girls put their drinks on a table and danced to the ‘The Killers’ an American Rock Band they loved. The atmosphere of the old pub was electrifying. The space for dancing was full of gyrating bodies and the bar was three deep with punters getting their orders in. The lights had been dimmed and all you could see were silhouettes of the figures. After several tracks the music was turned off and the manager, Roger, set up a microphone near the piano. He remembered the days when the piano would be played every night with the locals gathered round, singing the good old cockney songs. Those days were gone now. Most of the singers downloaded music on to their iPhones and just selected the track they wanted to use. “Still at least I am keeping up the traditions of a Cockney Knees up, iPads or no iPads, he thought.”
“Right, Ladies and Gents. Another Open Mike Night at The Oak Tree, and to kick off we have Queenie on the guitar singing two Dolly Parton songs. I love a bit of Dolly myself so a big ‘and for our Queenie.” Everyone clapped or cat whistled as Queenie took the mike.
There were about three more acts and then it was Debbie’s turn. She could feel herself blushing under the spotlight, then she had to lower the height of the mike as she was too small to reach it even in her heels. “Come on love, we ain’t got all night.” A punter shouted from the back of the room.
At last she was ready. She had chosen ‘Halleluiah’ a Leonard Cohen song for her first number and ‘Someone Like You’ an Adele number for her second. Once she had got through the first few bars she relaxed and belted out the lyrics with full confidence.
When she had finished there were cheers, whistles and cat calls throughout the pub and cries of “give us another Debs,” and “do you do requests?” plus others she couldn’t decipher.
Debbie pushed through the crowd to find Annie who was holding on to her drink and talking to Jack. “Brilliant, Debs, you were wonderful, they loved you, here have a drink you deserve it.” Annie pushed the glass into Debbie’s hands. “Jack, here has been telling me he wants to take you on and be your agent, I’m off to the toilet so I’ll let you two talk.”
For the second time that evening Debbie found herself blushing. She took a large sip of her drink and shouted over the noise of the drinkers waiting for the next act.
“I’m not good enough to sing professionally. All I want is to sing here every time they do an Open Mike evening. It’s a real compliment though, thanks.”
“Rubbish you are the best singer that isn’t already signed up, that I have seen in a long time and I go round a lot of clubs. I’m not letting you get away from me this time, without you at least agreeing to come down to my office and we can talk about doing a demo.”
“I will have to talk to Tommy about it. If it’s in the evening it’s okay but if it’s through the day I will have to arrange a sitter. It’s all complicated.” She took another sip of her drink. She was thrilled to think that someone thought she was good enough to make a demo tape. The excitement bubbled up in her, she had always wanted to be a singer but once she had married and had children she hadn’t given it any more thought. She wasn’t going to tell Jack that one of her children, Chrissie was handicapped which made it almost impossible to have a career, particularly one that was as inconsistent as being a professional singer.
“Look, I don’t want you to feel under any pressure, so why don’t we say you give me a bell if you are on board and if I ain't heard from you in a week then I will take that as a no and I will abandon all attempts to sign you up.” He placed another of his business cards next to her glass on the bar.
At that moment, Annie arrived back. “Have you heard what they are playing and you are still standing here? Come on out on the dance floor. This is my birthday treat after all.” Annie grabbed Debbie’s hand and pulled her into the throng of dancers. Then for the next few tracks they danced with the energy of teenagers losing themselves in memories, music and laughter. “I love this place,” Annie shouted above the noise, “thanks for thinking about me. It would have been a take away curry and the telly otherwise. Scott is a lovely feller but not very imaginative when it comes to birthday treats. I’m still getting over the flippin’ iron and ironing board he bought me as my present. He said ‘but you said you needed them. I said, yes, but not as a birthday present.” Laughing they returned to finish their drinks.
There was no sign of Jack, just his card under Debbie’s drink. “What’s that, Debs?” Annie asked.
“Oh, just another of Jack’s business cards. I’ll be filling an album with them soon.”
“I hope you’re going to take him up on his offer this time or I shall be ringing him myself to come and put you in an arm lock until you agree.”
“I told him I had to talk to Tommy. It isn’t that simple, Annie, what with Tommy’s long hours and getting babysitters for Chrissie, I will think about it though,” she saw Annie’s quizzical expression. “Honestly I will.”
An announcement brought them back to the moment, “The winner of tonight’s Open Mike is…” there was a pause to build up the tension, “Debbie.” His next sentence about collecting the prize at the bar was drowned out by the applause and whistling. Debbie couldn’t believe it. She was sure Queenie would win.
Fantastic, well done mate,” Annie hugged Debbie. “Right pick up your bubbly, we can drink it in the taxi. I just got a text to say he is outside. I didn’t fancy the vomit comet on a Friday night.”
Debbie pushed her way through the crowd to the bar where her champagne was sitting with a big bow round it. “Have you got a couple of plastic cups, Roger? We’re going to demolish this in the cab home.”
“Good fer you, girl. ‘ere I was talking to that talent scout, he was very impressed with you. You ought to give it a go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Enjoy your champagne.” He turned away to speak to a punter and Debbie took her bottle and wound her way back to Annie who had gathered their coats and bags, ready to go.”
“Thanks for arranging this Debbs, I have had a great birthday and you have had a great offer. I’ll get your autograph in the cab before you shoot to fame.”
Laughing the girls left The Oak Tree, got in their cab and headed back home. Once they had drunk the champagne and the atmosphere of the club had worn off and they were approaching Debbie’s road, the girls fell silent.
“Back to the same old, same old…” Annie sighed, staring out of the window at the familiar buildings. “Still it’s your birthday next, fancy a rerun?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Of course you may be on a tour abroad, singing on the cruises by then,”
The taxi stopped to let Debbie out. She watched the cab pull away and walked up the steps to her front door. As she put her key in the lock to let herself into the dark hall, trying not to wake Tommy and the kids, she knew in her heart of hearts she would never take up Jack’s offer.
“Mummy, is that you? I’ve been waiting for you to kiss me good night. I didn’t think you were ever coming home. Can you read me a story?”
How could she, when she was so needed and loved at home. “Ready or not here I come,” she sang as she ran up the stairs to her children.
About the author
Janet Howson was born in Rochdale but moved to the South of England when she was seventeen. She loved writing and reading from an early age and wrote poetry and plays. She joined an amateur drama group when she was eighteen and her love of the theatre began. She trained to be a teacher and her two subjects were English and Drama. She then went on to teach for thirty-five years in Comprehensive schools in Redbridge, Havering and Essex. During this time, she wrote and directed plays for the pupils, ran drama clubs, worked with pupils from special schools, involving them in productions, worked with Chicken Shed after school and continued to be involved in amateur drama both as a performer and a director. Now she is retired, Janet has joined two writing groups and with the help and advice she has received from the other members, has started to write short stories and her first novel, ‘Charitable Thoughts’ has now been published. She intends to continue writing both novels and stories, adapting some of them into theatre scripts and radio plays.
The Best of CafeLit 8 an anthology published by Chapletown Books 2019
Stories included: Marking Time & Induction Day.
Nativity an anthology published by Bridge House 2019
Story included: Solution.
Charitable Thoughts a novella published by Austin Macauley
Can be found on Amazon Books
It happened in Essex tall tales from the Basildon Writers’ Group
Can be found on Amazon books