"You gonna take some pics, then", he says.
I roll my eyes. For a moment I almost believed that he wanted something important. Instead it’s a social media fetish. Sid wants his Facebook profile pic taken every day. It's the way he is.
"Yeah, why not", I say. "You can take some of me as well". My profile hasn’t been updated for a week or so, there’s no time like the present to make a start.
"Go on then", he says.
We finish our coffees and get up to leave. Sid stands and talks loudly, making sure that everyone can hear him, to the annoyance of a snooty looking woman, who's all keeping up with the Joneses and mind your p's and q's, who looks up at him and asks him if he can take his conversation elsewhere. I know as soon as she's asked the question that it was a mistake and, from the look on her face, I think she does as well. Sid stands there, staring at her, with the steely look he has when he gets angry.
"Listen", he says. "I shall finish what I'm saying and then I shall go. If that's all right. With you. Darlin'".
She looks at him and he looks at me. He nods towards the door.
"Come on", he says.
I follow him and he leaves the cafe and starts to laugh to himself as he walks out onto the street. A gleaming, bright red Vespa wizzes by, its owner decked out in his Summer finery.
"Wouldn't mind that", I say.
He ignores me and keeps on walking. I smile at him and put my hands in my pockets and we head across town towards its more bohemian quarter, where there are pockets of sartorial splendour and some outlets selling a variety of Stax and Tamla long players, all of which we are destined to grace with our presence on afternoons such as this. But, for the moment, Sid has just one thing on his mind.
He walks up to a lamp post and leans against it. I don’t know if he realises, but one of the music shops is behind him, emblazoned with the legend “Ace Records”.
“Come on then”, he says. “Get your phone out. Take a couple of pics”.
I laugh at the boy.
“Why not”, I say.
He stands and poses and puts his hands into his tight jeans pockets. If I wasn’t mistaken, he’s sucking his cheeks in, but I don’t say that. I just keep my thoughts to myself. I take a few pictures on my mobile phone - making sure that the sign of the record shop is right there - and go across to let him see.
"Have a look", I say.
He concentrates as I flick through the pictures, trying to see in the sharp sunlight. He waits a few moments as he looks at one.
"Yeah", he says. "That will do'".
Then he turns and walks across the street, instinctively in the direction that I was planning to head in myself. There are sounds emanating from Ace Records. Soulful sounds. With a kick.
He pushes open the door and we wander in. It’s light in here, and airy, a cooling breeze blowing through the shop. We have been known to visit this little emporium on our travels. The boy behind the counter nods at us.
We wander across to the records and start to flick through, independently of each other. The music coming from the speakers is loud and uplifting. The bass is funky, the horns are strong, the voice is smooth enough to warm the coldest Winter afternoon, let alone one as hot as this one. I smile as I check out the old Motown records, Marvin and Stevie and the rest, and then hone in on a classic from the Impressions. I’m always partial to a little Curtis and am tempted by this little beauty. Then I check the price and gulp. Perhaps I’ll buy it another day.
Sid has finished his check of the records and is standing behind me, ready to leave. I’m a little disappointed because I wouldn’t have minded have a look at the northern selection, or maybe something more up to date, like Daptone records. But those pleasures elude me. When Sid wants to go, you go.
We head out of the door and onto the street.
"So what now?", I ask.
"I'm going to love you and leave you", he says. "I need to get home and get ready. See you later".
"Yeah", I say. "See you in the Dog And Duck".
"Is the lovely Samantha going to be there?".
"Don't know. I think I‘m seeing her in the club".
“Is that band on tonight. The one you did that photoshoot for?”.
He turns and walks off down the street, never looking back. Let me explain. In my spare time, of which there is a lot at the moment in view of the current economic situation and resultant lack of employment prospects, I have a little side project. I was left a little money a couple of years back, courtesy of a late uncle, and, rather than fritter it away, I decided to use it for an investment. That investment was a choice digital camera, one which I use to indulge my favourite hobby with a little photography work and make a few pounds on the side. I don’t carry my camera around with me. It’s too valuable to risk losing as a result of casual theft. So I only take it out when I need it, hence the use of my mobile phone for the pictures with Sid.
I specialise in music. There are a fair number of bands around at the moment and I offer my services to them, for a fee. I was quite partial to the last lot who I photographed, at the weekend, round town. They were called The Shots and have a strong sound, full of distorted guitar and with energy. And they’ve got the look to go with it - polo shirts and straight legged jeans and harrington jackets and boating blazers. They looked a collection of proper dandies on the day of the shoot. They’re playing tonight.
All of which leads to some additional income. See, last night I met up with the bass player and he handed me a cheque as payment for my services, in return for a disc packed with pictures of the boys in the Square, the park, a café. I have to say they turned out well and the quality of the selection I took was such as to render the transaction a bargain. No matter. I set my price when I make the arrangement and there’s no need to complain later.
I paid the cheque into the bank when I came to meet Sid.
I hang round town for a while, but not for too long. I’ve been here a while and I’m ready to get home. So I make my way through the city, across the Square, and away from the heart of the activity. I head out of town, away from the masses and past the University. A tram trundles by, taking more into the city. I did think about taking a bus of a tram but decided against it. It's fresher on foot, in my opinion, taking in the highways and byways of this town as a veritable flaneur. Why would I want to be cooped up with the townfolk in a tram? It's better to enjoy what the day has to offer, out here on the street.
As I’m going, I walk past an employment agency, which brings me down after the afternoon‘s fun and games. I mean, there are no jobs are there, so there's no point in looking. Not now. Not really. Not ever, if things stay as they are, round here. It’s been going round a lot in my mind recently that no one has ever given us a chance. Not us lot.
All this sort of stuff hits me at the times when I go to that other place, the ordinary world. The people there are weird, it's the way they look at you. They all think I'm a wet behind the ears nobody with a head full of dreams. I'll tell you something for nothing, they're right about one thing. My head is full of more dreams than they could ever imagine, in technicolor, with things going on that would make them go a darker shade of crimson. See, they haven't got me at all, which is just the way I like it. But wet behind the ears? Who are they trying to kid. And nobody? They can keep it.
You see, I'm a work of art. We all are, me and Sid, and those like us. But you need eyes to see it. X-ray eyes, x-ray vision. You need to understand poetry to get it, the photos we take, the clothes we wear, the philosophy we quote.
This is all the stuff that’s going through my mind as I walk.
In a few minutes, I'm at my manor. I walk up through the door and into the hallway and the slightly musty smell that greets me. I head up the stairs to my first floor bedsit. The walls need a coat of paint, they need it badly. But it's not my responsibility. It's down to our illustrious landlord, who we never see, and who our only contact with is through an agency. I smile as I get to the top of the stairs and enter my pad.
It's just how I left it when I went to meet Sid this morning. How could it be otherwise? The duvet is tossed on the bed and there’s a cd sitting in the stereo. The shirt I wore last night is hanging on a home made line over the sink. It’s drip dried and ready to be taken down and ironed. I think I’ll get round to that tomorrow.
I go over to the stereo and put on the cd. It’s Rebirth, the new album from reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. I don’t believe in heroes, but it I did, Jimmy would be one of them. He was one of the pioneers who brought reggae to these shoes back in the seventies with some superb tunes such as The Harder The Come and for that he deserves a medal. He’s got a new record out right now and, if I’m truthful, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But I thought I’d give it a go. And my belief is rewarded when those drums come through the speakers and the tune starts. The man may be in his sixties but, on this record, he sounds about nineteen. It’s proof that age counts for nothing. You’re just as likely to come out worth a classic later on in life as you are at the start.
I have to explain that my favored medium for music is, of course, vinyl. There’s something more real about putting on that piece of black plastic and placing the stylus at the start of the record. As with the record shop today, I spend many an hour chasing 45s and LPs and trying to find a bargain. My vintage Dansette that sits in the corner of my bedsit is testimony to that. I would have bought Jimmy’s new album on vinyl if I could have found it. Sadly, I couldn’t.
I fall down onto the bed and look around. It’s not a large bedsit, estate agents would call “bijou”. But it will do me, for now. There’s no such thing as cheap housing these days, in the world where location counts and everyone wants to be a home owner, but, if there was, this would be it. See, it doesn’t sit in the most fashionable part of the town, which bothers me not one jot. As far as I’m concerned, your space is precisely that - your space to do with what you wish. If you wish to live a life of bohemia in the four corners that you call home, wherever that happens to be, then it becomes bohemia. Because bohemia isn’t a place, it’s state of mind.
Jimmy’s singing about World Is Upside Down and I’m sitting back and relaxing, when there’s a knock. I get up and open the door, to be greeted by Frankie, my neighbour. He’s come down for a chat. He stands statuesquely at the door and asks, in that fey manner that he has, whether I’m going to let him in, or make him stand on the landing all evening “like a spare part”. I smile at him and say that he can, of course, join me. He proceeds to stride into my bedsit and sit straight down on the bed, lighting a cigarette and tossing one to me.
Frankie is a part time model. He’s not yet, to my knowledge, graced the catwalks of Milan or Paris but that doesn’t stop him believing that one day he will. For now, he poses for a few art house pictures in local style magazines and makes up his income by serving in places such as The Dog And Duck.
“So who are we listening to”, he asks, blowing smoke deliberately into the air and tossing his mop of hair back. “Darling”.
I tell him about Jimmy and his new album and he stares at me coldly and says “delightful” three times.
“Anyway“, he continues. “I don’t know what your plans are for the early part of the evening”.
“None”, I say. “I’ll be meeting Sid later. But, for now, all I need to do is have some food and that’s all”.
“Then why don’t you join me?”.
“Yes, why not. For dinner. For a little soul food, if you wish”.
Frankie proceeds to explain that he’s cooked up a nice selection of red beans and rice, or chilli, or whatever the culinary delight that he’s created. See, in addition to his other talents, Frankie is something of a bedsit gourmet, a King of the wok or frying pan. Rustling up any manner of wonders for his dinner party guest list.
So I tell him that I’m more than happy to accompany him back to his pad for some grub. He laughs and suggests that I bring the Jimmy cd with me, because he’s become “quite attached” to the vibe that’s emanating from my stereo. I also take a couple of bottles of the finest supermarket beer, ice cold of course, from the fridge, which will serve as my offering to the meal. It seems only polite.
We head upstairs and into Frankie‘s domain. He’s got one of the larger bedsit rooms in the house, for which I have no doubt he pays a little more than me. It’s furnished neatly, “minimalist” is what the style magazines would call it. In my eyes, it indicates a tidy attitude of mind. Frankie knows what he wants and isn’t concerned with any baggage that isn’t needed. It’s an attitude that we could all learn from.
The first thing that hits me is the aroma. The culinary delight that we are about to enjoy is going to be hot and spicy and strong. He’s clearly been working on it for some time because all the indications are that it’s ready for serving.
“Sit down”, he says, pointing me at a chair next to a small table by the wall.
“Hold on a minute”, I say. “Didn’t you want to hear this?”. I hold up the Jimmy Cliff cd.
“Yeah, of course”, he says. “Put it on. And open the beers”.
I put the cd in the stereo and, for the second time tonight, hear those drums and the dulcet tones of Jimmy cascade around a bedsitting room. Frankie nods his head in time to the music. I pick up the bottle opener that he has put on the side and take the tops off the beers. I hand him one and he takes a swig.
“Just what you need after a long day”, he says, laughing. “When you have done precisely - nothing”.
I empathise with the boy’s sentiment and sit down and have a drink myself. The days first taste of cold lager is always the best.
“Here you are”, he says, putting a plate in front of me.
“Nice one”, I say.
I take a mouthful. It is indeed spicy and very hot. He hasn’t held back on the Tabasco sauce. I take another swig to quieten it down.
“Yeah”, I say. “Very nice”.
The description red beans and rice is probably an accurate one. Frankie is a veggie. I admire him in that, it takes guts to stick to your principles. And it’s even better if you’re not holier than thou about it - which he isn’t - and have the ability to serve something up that is worth tasting, especially when it’s all done on a tight budget.
“This meal”, he says. “Cost me next to nothing. It’s what you have to do when there are no jobs about. I got it all from the market, the veg, the rice, the lot. The sauces as well. Put them together and this is the result.”
“I like it”.
“So what are you up to tonight?”, he asks.
“Off out. Meeting Sid”.
“Dog And Duck”.
“Might see you there. I’m doing a stint behind the bar. You need a little cash, don’t you. To keep body and soul together”.
“You do, indeed”, I reply.
And we sit and exchange views on life and love and enjoy our meal.
Sid’s waiting for me when I arrive, sitting by the window of the Dog And Duck, watching the world go by. He’s wearing his wine harrington tonight and the suggestion of taking a photo of him in it cannot be too far away. I say nothing on the subject. I won’t until it’s broached.
“You took your time”, he says.
“Now, now”, I say. “Just because you were early”.
“Well, you can make up for it and get me a beer”.
“Go on then”.
I walk over to the bar. Frankie’s not here yet. He’s doing the late shift. It’s probably better that way. As I’m waiting, the door opens and a gang of locals walk in. The word on the street is that there has been a spate of attacks on students, hipsters and gays recently - more or less anyone who seems a little bit different from the norm - and this lot look as if they could be in the mood for some fun and games of that nature. My legs start to feel like jelly as they give me a look but then they turn their attention elsewhere. I think about leaving but decide that it would be too obvious so stand my ground and order a couple of beers and take them back to Sid.
“Have a look at this”, he says, laughing.
I have a quick glance behind me. They’re huddled in a corner debating something. There’s no attention focused on either of us.
He passes me his mobile phone, which is showing his Facebook profile. He has a new picture, one I took this afternoon
I look at the picture. I think I did well. The composition is good. Sid's standing, with the Ace Records sign behind, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched, looking sharp. He has already got five "likes" from various females he knows.
I hand the phone back and take sip of my Bud. The gang of youths have finished their conversation and are roaming round the bar.
" Do you know them?".
"Nah ", he says. "Seen them around".
"And me. They look trouble".
"Dunno. They seem all right".
I drink my beer quickly. Sid follows suit, just to keep up. The voices from the bar are louder, feeling like they're directed our way. I stare straight ahead. Sid's talking, asking me about the band on tonight. I tell him about The Shots, that they're sharp and great lyrically. The voices from the gang start to fade as they move away.
A record comes on. It's not our scene, there’s no soul, just a slice of populist drivel. I look at Sid and he raises his eyebrows. My Bud’s nearly finished and I drink the final remnants. I put it down on the table.
“Shall we go?”, he says.
“Why not”, I say. I glance round briefly as I get up to see what the gang is doing. I breathe a little less nervously when it’s obvious they’re not taking any notice of us. They’ve started another conversation, standing in a tight knit group round the bar. I lead the way quickly out of the back door of the pub. When we’re on the street, I start walking as fast as I can.
“What’s the rush”, says Sid.
“Aah, nothing”, I say.
“Can’t wait to see Samantha?”
“Something like that”.
We walk along the concrete path that leads past the shopping centre and cross the bridge over the canal, into town. On our way, we pass the disused warehouses and boarded up shops. In ten minutes, we’re in our favoured territory, not far from where I took the photo today.
“Going for another before the club?”, asks Sid.
“Don’t think so”, I say. “Don’t know what time the band are on”.
We head down the back streets to a narrow alleyway where there’s a door open and a few people waiting outside. The doorman is standing, in a sharp suit, staring ahead. The boom of bass is emanating from the door. It sounds like the band have started.
We join the queue and stand, hands in our pockets, looking nonchalantly into the distance. The doorman nods the others in and we follow them. We head up the stairs to where there’s a girl, sitting at a table, taking money. We pay our entrance fee and we’re through the door.
I spot her immediately. Sam’s leaning against the bar when I walk in. She’s looking good, I have to say. Her long blonde hair is hanging loose over her shoulders and her blue eyes are alive. She doesn’t spot me for a moment and Sid and me hang around a little way from the stage. The Shots are hitting out a full on blast of adrenalin-soaked rhythm and soul. The singer with the black bob is holding onto the microphone, yelling discordant lyrics over a distorted guitar that is very loud.
I turn away and glance at Sam. She sees me and smiles. I smile back. There are times I wish things had worked out between us.
Then again, that doesn't stop me.
I leave Sid to watch the band and go over to her. She tosses her hair back as I approach.
“You’re late”, she says. “The band came on ages ago”.
“Oh well”, I say. “That’s life”.
“Suppose so”. She stands and watches the band.
"Where's Ben", I ask.
“Ben? Who’s Ben?”, she says, sarcastically.
“Oh come on Sam, don’t be like that”.
“Well, you were late”, she says.
“Yeah. All right”.
“Ben’s not here”, she says.
“I can see that”.
“And he won’t be here all night”.
“He just won’t be”.
“Where is he?”,
"Somewhere else". I look at her.
“And where”, I ask. “Is somewhere else”.
“Somewhere that’s not here”.
“Why do you ask?”.
“I was just interested, that’s all”.
The Shots have started a new tune, which is even more manic than the last one. I look round the bar and see Sid near the sage talking to a group of girls who he knows. He won’t need me interrupting him.
“Why were you interested in where Ben is?”, she asks.
“I don‘t know“, I say. “I just was. I take it you‘re still seeing him?”.
“Yes“, she says. “I am still seeing him“.
“Right“, I say.
No one says anything for a moment
“Want a drink?”, I ask.
“Don’t mind if I do”.
I don’t need to ask what she wants. I look at the barman who comes over.
“What will it be?”.
“Bottle of Bud and a vodka and coke”.
I look at him and smile. Why do people have to say “no problem” all the time. Let’s put it this way. I’m the punter, I’ve got the cash, and I’m asking to be served. Or, if you want to look at it like this, you’ve got the goods and I’m asking to pay you for them, for a lot more money than you paid originally. Why would there be any problem?
But I keep it to myself.
I pay for the drinks and Sam takes hers and has a sip. The Shots are coming to the end of their set and there’s a riot of anarchic feedback and chaos towards the front of the stage. We stand and watch as the band complete the show and leave the instruments, thrown randomly on the stage. Some of the kids in the audience call for more but the sound of Bowie coming through the speakers with Heroes indicates that the clubbing part of the night has resumed.
“Want to sit down?”, I ask.
“Yeah, why not” says Sam.
We walk across to a table some way from the dancefloor and sit down. I have a sip of my beer and put the bottle on the table.
“So”, I say. “What have you got to tell me?”.
“Oh”, she says. “I’ve got lots to tell you”.
“Yes. I don’t know what to begin with”. She sighs.
“Oh, how do I start?”.
“I’ve no idea”.
I sit back and put my foot on the chair and drink my beer. I look at her and she looks down. Her hair falls over her face. She throws it back again, quickly.
“There’s no way to make it easy”, she says.
“I’m going away”.
She looks me in the eye, sharply.
“There”, she says. “I’ve told you”.
“You’re going away?”, I ask, as if to confirm it.
“Yes, I’m going away”.
“Where are you going?”.
“I’m going with Ben”.
Once again, no one says anything,
“The thing is”, she says. “Ben’s been offered a job in America. And he’s asked me to go with him. And I’ve said yes”.
She looks at me again.
“Look, don’t be like that”.
“I’m not being like anything”.
“You rejected me. Remember”.
“Yes, I know”.
“So don’t make out it’s all me. What did you expect me to do, wait around for you?”
“Of course not. That would have been unreasonable”.
And I wouldn’t want to be unreasonable, would I? Of course not. Unreasonable. That is the last thing I would have wanted to be.
“When are you going?”.
“Soon. That’s where Ben is tonight, he’s sorting it out”.
I’m sitting on a bench, overlooking the shopping centre. The canal is running past, below. I can hear voices in the distance, faint voices. They’re getting close but that doesn’t matter right now. I’m staring into space, smoking a cigarette, sometimes watching what’s going on down there. I’m inhaling the smoke deep, blowing it out. Watching it float in the still of the balmy night air. The sounds of music penetrate the mood momentarily, catching my attention from the town or a car that passes on the road a few feet away from here.
You know how it is. Sometimes you have to do it, sit here, watching the canal flow past. It’s like life, really. Moving slowly, then quickly, then in a way you didn’t expect.
The voices are getting close now. There are two lads and a girl. They’ve been out, drinking, partying, doing their thing. They give me a look as they pass. I avert my attention from them. They carry on talking, loudly. The news is there’s been trouble round here. Someone’s been hurt, “this gay bloke”, one of the boys says.
I toss the cigarette butt over the railing in front of me and watch it fall to the ground, sparks flying off it, next to the shopping centre. I take the packet out of my pocket and light another one. I bought the cigarettes from a corner shop on the way home from the club. There was a man serving, a middle aged man, who wanted to engage me in conversation. I wasn’t in the mood. I just took the packet and left.
That's when I came down here, by the canal. I’ve been sitting here for an hour, just watching the water flowing past, without reference to anyone or anything, just letting the world get on with its concerns. I’ve been looking for a leaf, keeping my eye on it, watching its progress down the river. In and out, always with the flow. That’s not like me. I don’t go with the flow. I never have. Not now or ever.
There are some long boats moored at the side of the bank, further down the canal. I want to go over and get it one, take it off somewhere, to a place I don’t know. That would be a life. Just travelling round. Ending up where the water takes you.
I wonder what happened to Sid, tonight. I lost touch with him in the club. I’ll have to call him, see what he’s up to, if he wants to meet. He will. He’ll want me to take his picture.
It’s started to rain now, gently at first, although it’s getting heavier. I’m just sitting here, letting it soak into me. My cigarette is still alight and I guard it with my hand, like you do in the wind. The rain is wetting my hair and is starting to trickle down my neck. I watch the rain drops fall on the canal, like they’re dancing in time to the music in my head.
I’ll have to go in a minute. It’s time for bed. I suppose that’s the best thing. Forget the evening, move on. Go to new places, where you’re not known, where you haven’t tried anything.
I get up and throw the butt to the ground and stamp it with my foot, let the rain soak it. I walk down the path.
One thing’s certain. I’m buying that Impressions record in the morning.
© Rob Massey 2013