I first met Robert at the Round Gardens. I was working as a washer-up and he as piano-player in the resident band. Robert being a man of few words, I had to compensate by telling him about my life - the many women who had passed through my hands, the enormous amounts of money I had squandered on the race-horses, the various jobs in dubious joints scattered along the English east coast, the brushes with the law, the burglaries, even the murders. And, eventually, he came round regularly to the poky kitchen, squatted on the disused oven and countered my tales with his own - and pretty mind-blowing they were too. He often moved his fingers in tune with his tales as if he were accompanying himself with silent music.
The boss at the Round Gardens was a guy in his fifties whom most of us, for whatever reason, called Teaser. He lived in a large establishment called Olive Villa near the seafront pier, into which he had introduced four erstwhile strangers: a fancy woman, this fancy woman’s daughter, the daughter’s husband together with a small boy.
At Christmas, we staff went to Olive Villa for a seasonal tipple. Robert didn’t drink, but he went for a chance to play solos on Teaser’s Grand. I went mainly because I did drink - probably too much for my own good, but what’s life without a little of what you fancy? I had my splashes on the rocks, anyway. Oh, I forgot to tell you, at the time there was a war going on and this seaside resort by the Naze took the brunt of the night flights from enemy quarters. On this particular Christmas (the third of the war, I think), Teaser had held a party at Olive Villa for all his hobnobbers. It was a strange one, to my eyes at any event, for everybody had to come in the clothes of the opposite sex. Robert said he was shocked, which I found surprising in view of what he had told me about his previous experiences.
Indeed, from whatever perspective, it was strange. The men had stockings threaded by hairy legs and wore utility print-dresses, false boobs and bottoms, eye-makeup fit for a circus act and falsetto voices to boot. The women in three-piece tweed suits, with deep turn-ups, fob watches, kipper ties and voices so gruff they must have nurtured sore throats for days before. Teaser loved it all. He was dressed as neither. He looked a bit like an angel or, maybe, a cricketer in white flannels.
Robert played the Grand. And the motley guests did old-time dancing, with the women leading the men across the large lounge floor. I sauntered from the kitchen, where the makeshift bar was erected, occasionally to take a good look because, even then, I realised that affairs such as this were the stuff of future memories. And what else was there in store for me but mere memories?
But, now, a word about Alice. She was teaser’s fancy woman in question: a rough diamond, grown from muck-heaps of war-time East London, true, but a lady for all that. She did not always put on airs and graces. Sharp, shrewd and forceful; one moment common, the next noble, but mostly a bit of both.
She treated me well, but Robert did not like her, called her the governor’s bit of stuff in her hearing, and she tried to get him sacked, but Teaser did not want to lose the best piano player on the East coast. She argued in her typical oblique fashion that Robert had tangled fingers, making the music unhearable.
All of which brings me to the night of that party. Like Teaser, Alice did not stoop to cross-dressing, yet sported a white organdy outfit, with a brushfire of flowers across the bodice. She took long drags at a slender cigarette-holder and held court as guests from time to time approached to flatter her.
Robert, I could see, when on my excursions from the steamy kitchen bar, was scowling as he played the Blue Danube for the umpteenth time. The waltzing couples swirled across the polished floor, as the air raid sirens whined distantly...yet they continued dancing like the dodgem cars on the pier. Suddenly, the total scene froze into what I can only call a waxwork tableau. Even now, I wonder whether it was me freaking out, or them. But, whatever the case, the piano music had stopped, allowing the deep droning to fill the newly vacated silence. Teaser and Alice had no doubt skedaddled off to the air-raid shelter at Olive Villa, to taunt each other with drunken jokes. And the men and women on the dance floor looked as if they had clothes - strung on washing-lines - hanging between them.
I hadn’t been drinking all that much, I can assure you, nor had Robert - him being a teetotaller after all - but he was moving freely about the dance floor, amid all the waxworks, waggling his fingers like drying underclothes. He was playing a plaintive tune that would have brought tears to my unblinking eyes and shivers to my spine, if I had not myself been carved from solid timelessness.
The war lasted longer than anyone had predicted. Robert disappeared from my life, as did the Round Gardens itself. I resigned my position, mainly because the smell of the sea did not agree with me.
I hitched to East London, to seek my fortune, only to have all my hopes dashed by the post-war slump. I did encounter someone who may well have been Robert, at Gibbet Court near St. Paul’s Cathdral - where they executed miscreants.
He was in the process of being strung up by a particularly vicious-looking hangman in drag. Robert’s head jerked in the noose...his tongue lolled out...his “gentle” stiffened...his eyes met mine, not in accusation, but in the manner of tenderness, as if he knew that I would be worse off alive in England’s future than in the utter purity of death’s blackness. He held out his fingers as if they were a parting gift. With that, his eyes filled with shadows, as if someone was turning down the dimmer-switch of his soul.
Among those who had crowded into Gibbet Court to share in the blood-lust, I saw a ragged busker playing a tuneless concertina in the hope of a brass farthing in his battered top hat. He held a sign saying he was Barnaby Rudge. Beside him, crouched on bruised haunches, was a scrawny female sucking on an empty bottle. The busker’s face looked remarkably like Teaser’s but he showed no sign of recognition when I said hello. I dropped my last coin into his scrimper, dye-casting yet one more memory.
At Olive Villa, fancy woman Alice’s grandson had lived, the toddler boy-child - and I fear that it was his memories that were to fill my future, rather than my own. But how would I ever tell? There was an ancient lady with the air of a rich widow, flounced up in clothes too young for her. The spectacles that rested precariously upon her foxed face were definitely a throwback to the nifty fifties, dark purple with removable butterfly flares on the upper frame. She spoke as if she were mistress of all she surveyed. The second participant in the memory was a younger man, in plus fours and tweed sports jacket: there were leather patches on the elbows and bright yellow socks which I could see were held up with calf suspenders. His face was familiar, naggingly so. The third individual lolling about in the easy parlour chairs was difficult to decipher as either male or female. The light was a bit tricky. It could only grow worse, for the afternoon was becoming late. Still, I just made out the outline of the person’s dressing-gown and head. It did not do much speaking but, when it did, the undertones were as if they were spoken in the next room. I was the fourth participant, yet unsure whether they knew I was there. I was hiding behind the Grand Piano.
“Everything was so simple then, Teaser, don’t you agree?” asked Alice. “People knew where they stood. I had admiring glances wherever I went. The people who now look so foreign were never seen. I doubt if they existed at all then. The woman who did for me at Olive Villa, she told me about her family. And I was only too pleased to give her a Christmas box each year to help out. And men? They were so gallant. The ones I met, anyway, and they did not automatically expect bodily contortions as repayment for their care and attention.”
Her voice was on edge, despite its intermittent laughter. She was evidently not so self-composed as I had originally assumed: the tones were brittle spiders arching like yawnercats. Or fingers clawing the silence. The carriage clock on the mantlepiece suddenly went dead: not that I had noticed its clacking beforehand, though it must have been there, I suppose.
“I can’t remember as far back as you,” said the one addressed as Teaser.
“Come on, come on, Teaser, you’re not so spring chicken as you’re cabbage looking!” said another participant.
“But I do recall those times as a child,” said Teaser. “I had a clockwork train going round a circular track which had only one station. The stupidity of it was lost on me then...”
“My grandson had one, too,” said Alice. “That reminds me, I bought him a space gun that worked off batteries, with coloured flashing lights. The newspapers said Prince Charles had been given one, so I decided what was good enough for him was good enough for my grandson.”
“Hello, Nanna, I’m back again,” I suddenly said.
There were startled glances as all three turned towards me in the piano. I suppose the sudden white glow of my speech patterns was enough to frighten even ghosts.
“I really did enjoy that gun present,” I continued. “I know I left you only too soon afterwards along with a dreadful disease that stitched my eyelids to the cheeks...”
Alice screeched incoherently. She watched the black and white keys depress themselves in the unholy rhythm of my speech chords.
Teaser stood up and, approaching me with a poker grabbed from the companion set, asked: “Who’s there? Come out into the open, whoever you are.” He watched the pedals for tell-tale signs of a piano-roll.
“Careful, Teaser, you’ll tear your scar,” said another, although my memory is not certain about the exact words.
“It’s only me, your little grandson, Nanna,” I tinkled. “I once played on your garden swing at Olive Villa in those endless hot days of lost childhood and raced marbles with Mum and Dad’s crib board. You loved me, didn’t you, Nanna? Your whole life centered around your only grandson. You came back from the Round Gardens to see my dear round face bounding along, eager to discover if you’d brought me another present. Remember that huge box of chocolate Smarties that Mummy threw on the fire because I’d spilt them on the floor? She didn’t want me to get a dreadful disease from the carpet. You were furious. You said that my mother never did anything but clean the house, what possible harm could have been done to me if I’d eaten the Smarties?”
“Careful, Alice,” said Teaser, “this entity is not what it seems!”
“He’s been dead these thirty-five years,” Alice sobbed, “and he has come back to me. Don’t take that away from me.” Her asthmatic clogging took sway for a few minutes, as she tried to get her tongue round the syllables of my name.
“I would trust that thing in the corner less than I would trust myself,” persisted Teaser.
She lifted her body and approached me, whilst doing a little mock jig to my undercurrents, as was her wont, to prove her bones had not seized up with age. I then knew it must be her.
The people in the room finally faded leaving me nearly alone: I just sat there staring sadly into the silent sound-box of death, flashing my torch on and off.
But another participant was still in the room: I had not noticed its shadow in the sorrow. It swivelled on its plinth, showing its naked bones stumping out yellowly like huge rotten teeth. This I knew must indeed be the real Teaser, returned from my memories, the man who had taken my grandmother to his bed, who owned Olive Villa and the garden with the swing and the nickname Teaser. He had always opened doors for ladies, despite sometimes dressing as one. Yes, no tease this time. He followed the others into fading, but not before his open maw of a body swallowed me into its gulfness. The past spun round my head like a confused train, slowly winding down as it got nowhere. Until it reached a secret ring-fenced garden of counterpoint memories...
My Mum and Dad never believed in banks. In fact, back in the old days, they would not have had enough money to make anything like that nearly viable. I often recall (and I am in a good position to recall, being an only child) their red tin. It was a flat box, about six by nine, and one high, with a hinged lid. Inside, their were eight sections partitioned by strips of tin in a grid...and it was in there that they saved their copper pennies and silver sixpences, shillings, two bob bits and half crowns, each section for a specific purpose, such as the gas bill, the rent, electricity and so forth. As far as I recall, there was no section called Bunce or Pin-Money… more’s the pity.
They didn’t have a name for this tin. But, I’ve thought of one since: How about a scrimper? But theysimply called it the Tin...plainly, innocently. More often than not, when a particular bill came up for payment, there might not be quite enough in its apportioned section of the Scrimper. I recall them getting into a huddle...trying to keep the worry away from me...and debated the pros and cons of moving a penny or two from a different section. Such a discussion was more important to them than a board meeting of the biggest global corporation.
What happened to the Scrimper? I often mean to ask them, when I make my increasingly rare visits. I wonder if they have left an odd copper in it for luck. Nowadays, they keep their money in a bank I’m sure, but how would I know? I’m not interested in money as such, only in things like the Scrimper which are full of memories. Like mascots, one should cherish memories, however painful. However pianoful.
Now, I don’t even question the mysteries of life; I rather bask in them. I simply compartmentalise between reality and fantasy...though I do often debate with myself the apportionment between them. But reality and fantasy can never overlap and, unlike the legendary Scrimper, never feed off each other nor tease one into believing it is the other.
It makes me unaccountably sad to think of my Mum and Dad. So I’ll let someone else do it instead. Someone else called ‘I’. Indeed, when I was lad, I had lots of imaginary playmates, like Teaser, Alice and Robert - except the last one was in fact myself. In those days I didn’t find much to do other than stare at the new-fangled TV contraption that my Mum and Dad bought for the black and white Coronation of the new Queen. From that time, being the only child of lonely parents, I noticed their eye-lids growing heavier and heavier, larger and larger like flaps of chicken breast. Yet I did not always stare at the TV. I also raced glass marbles, concocted knock-out competitions with a dice for sixty-four unknown names, listened to Radio 208, played Del Shannon 45 singles on my Dansette auto-change, formulated programme schedules for an imaginary radio station and climbed the bullace tree in the back garden to escape real-seeming enemies. My grandmother, who wanted to be called Nanna, made me a Davy Crockett hat from remnants of her fur... and often just she and I sat in the front parlour, where the electric plugs were of a smaller gauge - and we whiled away the time merely enjoying the security that such an ambiance provided for us, she clicking her number eight needles which sprouted endless knitting and me twiddling the tuning-knob on the great glowing console of the wireless, searching for a station playing “Apache” by The Shadows. The piano in the corner remained lidded over, because neither of us could play it.
Then Robert went to the Docks. He did not know why. He was older of course and now had the wherewithal for travel. He’d been through various experiences since the time of the heavy eyelids, the marbles with their colours as nicknames, the bullace tree (now chopped down) and the intimacy with his Nanna in the piano parlour. TV was now more taken for granted, less a novelty, a way of life that few avoided. His aging Mum and Dad slept for twenty-four hours in their armchairs in front of the expanding screen, ever since the TV programming had swallowed its own tail. There were so many radio stations scattered about the country, too, fading in and out as one sped along the motorways... playing all the same records with gaps for inane chatter which, whatever the dialect, ended up in the same result...the ears trying to grow flaps, but failing abysmally because God did not give ears lids like eyes. There were no longer any silences in the world.
So, he came to the Docks, for a self-awareness exercise, a re-spray and, oh yes, to find his piano-playing fingers. He followed an endless dock wall that itself traced the same course as the rail-lines embedded in the road. He often trailed his fingers along the abrasive surfaces, wincing at the ever-present pain. From time to time, he saw a mighty ship whose funnels seemed too big for it. He waved his fingers in the empty air. There were warehouses on top of each other as if built by a long-term inhabitant of a play school; security fences interspersed with red and white striped frontier poles; land wasting away beneath rusted heaps of girders and other unrecognisable hard muck; big tipper lorries shunting back and forth without really finding the depot they sought. He pointed, jabbed and made V-signs. Again the noise was in crescendo. Industrial gothic. Avant garde trills of so-called civilisation.
Let your fingers do the walking. Yellow pages wind-trailing the gutters. Robert followed, seemingly getting nowhere; he had to return to his car soon, but only if he could find it amid that grid of wide, unapportioned, tall-walled roads. He spotted a crane rearing into a darkening sky, like an antique TV transmitter, or like an ancient Gibbet, dangling a huge copper man-hole cover with the Queen’s head embedded.
Why the marbles came back to him at that point, it is hard to say. But I suddenly recalled that I only had one of them left from my childhood days, one left from those racing games, releasing them down a slope, after holding them in line with my Mum and Dad’s crib board, to see which one rolled the furthest. And that one was usually Split Dark Blue. I kept it in the car as a mascot. However, down the road came other old marble friends...Big Blur Green, Spot Yellow, Thick Red, Scratch Light Blue, Funny Green, Big Light Blue, Bubble Red and, oh yes, Split Dark Blue, the champion, himself ...all of them almost ten times life-sized, rolling along the grooves in the disused rail-lines, in disciplined parade. I saluted them...these were true friends...and I thought I saw a glimpse of a giant-sized version of Alice, Nanna, Grandmother, further down the dock road, bowling them towards me, one by one, a smile on her face (much younger then when she originally died). Alice in Toyland.
I waved my fingers. I felt secure, for the first time, in this huge parlour of the world. And as I heard the droning, we froze like waxworks, this time forever. Carved from solid timelessness. No teasing, this time. No scrimping the memories. You see, if memories are mascots. And the keys black and white only because there was no other reality than that locked into ancient TV screens.
Robert was found in a particularly downtrodden part of the Docks. When the doctor first examined his body, he was mystified by the ingrowing lids that completely covered his eyes as if someone had knitted them up. And why he was wearing an out-dated Davy Crockett hat from the fifties, not even his wife or children could guess. But the doctor failed to notice Robert’s missing fingers. You see, autopsies were far more careless when life itself had become so valueless.
Some people in life only reach the heats, others the quarter finals but, if you reach the final itself, you still cannot be sure of being the cream of the crop. Even the apparent winner may have further rounds to face, more thoughts to traverse, in an entirely different level of that knock-out competition which is Existence.
As the cross-dressed shadows rear, thankfully the dimmer-switch of memory clicks off with the very last piano-roll.
(published ‘Palace Corbie’ 1996)