Monday, 11 November 2013

guest story - Beggar My Neighbour by [Whiffytidings]

London, 1820

Every night the huge cast iron doors to the Savings Bank clanged shut at seven o’clock and the same stout gentleman with the bushy yet meticulously clipped moustache would carefully lock them, always mindful of potential attackers. For this reason it was not uncommon for him to be accompanied by an armed guard, but tonight his companion seemed altogether unseasoned.

‘Keep an eye out for anyone untoward will you Carberry, there’s a good man.’ he grunted, searching for the lock with a heavy key.

Young Carberry, having served his first day as a clerk, searched the street almost theatrically until his eyes rested upon a wretched beggar beckoning to him from the side alley.

‘Mr Pitt,’ he whispered. ‘There is one man, although I fancy him more disconsolate than dangerous.’

Pitt, still wrestling with the lock, as he did every night, glanced over and scowled.

‘That lamentable fellow again? Curse him. I have lost count of the number of times I have found him sprawled across that alley drooling utter incomprehension. The man’s a clear lunatic, yet every time I alert Bow Street or those at the asylum to his presence he evades them. Nothing wrong with his brain in that respect, but clearly a cuckoo nonetheless!’

The door secure, Pitt and Carberry climbed into the waiting carriage. Carberry stole a final glance at the beggar who was now waving a filthy scrap of paper in their direction while making a series of desperate, unintelligible sounds. As the coachman geed the horses onward, the beggar slumped crestfallen against the alley wall and began to weep.

He wept silently until nightfall when a sudden tap on his shoulder aroused him from his sorrow. Looking up he met eyes with one of two women. They appeared well yet clumsily dressed with their stockings showing and earthy stains upon their dresses. He wondered if they had had fallen victim to an accident of their own.

‘Allo there ducky, you are awake then. You lookin’ to dip your ‘Ampton wick tonight?

You lookin’ to get your greens? Look at ‘er, she’s ‘ad a green gown already this evening!’ she laughed. ‘Ha! Course not, you don’t look as if you ‘ave enough money to get by, let alone pay for a good ‘our of our company.’

The beggar winced; angered that he had spared his concern on common street molls. He turned his head and looked angrily down the alleyway, wishing them away.
‘Cat got your tongue ‘as it?’ she snapped. ‘Cor, tell you what Cynthia, I don’t know ’bout ‘is tongue, but look at ‘is hands. Some rat’s definitely been at them fingers.’

The smaller and younger of the two prostitutes leaned forward and let out a theatrical shriek.

‘Neither ‘e ‘as Betty, there’s just stumps where some of those fingers ought to be.’ she cried. ‘Ooh, ‘e makes me feel sick ‘e does!’

The beggar turned his head towards the baying pair, casting them an icy glare. His eyes burned and, quickly, he opened his mouth to revealing a thin, grisly, serpentine flap, the remainder of what had once been his tongue. The two women screamed and turned and fled like rats from a snake, hastily exiting the alley. Alone once more, the beggar bowed his head and closed his eyes.

He recalled vividly the events of six months ago: his emergence from the common law court, the words ‘we find the case in favour of Mr Peacock’ ringing deliciously in his ears; the second he paused to triumphantly sniff the air; the three thick-set opportunist yobs who grabbed him and the wicked, pernicious gleam of the amputation knife they briefly paraded before his terror-struck face. Roughly, they bundled him into an alleyway, not dissimilar to the one by the bank, stripping him of his finer possessions as they beat him hard with foot-long wooden cudgels. Finally, his leather drawstring wallet was emptied of the few shillings it contained.

‘Is this it?’ grimaced the shortest of the three men. He was scrawny with sooty grey hair and torn breeches and had clearly adopted the role of leader some time ago. ‘We bag ourselves a rich geezer from that courthouse and this is all ‘e as on ‘im? You two morons, told you ‘e didn’t look posh enough.’ He looked down at his victim, ‘you’re not rich at all aintcha? What are you doing ‘anging around a place like this? Mumford, the blade please.’

Mumford, the tallest and ugliest of the three men handed the amputation knife to his leader and formed his four teeth and black gums into an aberrant grin. The short man grabbed the blade and a handful of Peacock’s hair and Mumford held down his arms and legs while the third man prised his mouth open.

‘I’m sorry we ‘as to do this over such a small amount, but this is what we do. Keeps us safe. We’re ‘onourable gents see? We don’t go about killing no-one, but still we can’t have you waggling your tongue about us. So, out it comes.’

Peacock howled and began rolling his tongue back as far into his mouth as he could. He snapped at the fingers of the man holding his mouth open, receiving a punch to the face in retaliation for every successful bite. After a particularly heavy temple blow, the small man seized his chance. He reached into Peacock’s mouth, pulled his tongue and sliced it off.

The beggar flicked his eyes open. Try as he might, he could not block this memory. The feeling of cold, unforgiving steel followed by excruciating pain. His futile attempts to scream. The small man laughing, taunting him with catcalls of ‘hold your tongue’ while the other two men stuffed his own handkerchiefs into his mouth in an attempt to stem the crimson cascade from his mouth. Then came the charitable unconsciousness which presently overtook him: he remembered nothing of the further dismemberment of his fingers or being dragged to the gates of the nearby infirmary where his attackers abandoned him.

He began to unfold the scrap of grimy paper, ritualistically crossing his hands to gain purchase with the few fingers that remained. Again he read its now quite faded contents:

A promise to pay on demand to the order of Richard Peacock the sum of ten thousand pounds.

The judge’s blessing. His birthright. A hard-fought inheritance wrested from the grip of an insidious uncle. An uncle he dared not now go to. For his help he did not need, not if he could simply convert this cheque to hard, spendable currency. But how? Those with the power to do so considered him nothing but a vagrant or a cuckoo or an unwanted nuisance perpetually on their doorstep? He thought of his Brighton home he had yet to get back to and the forty five mile walk that would most probably kill him. No, it remained easier to scavenge on the bountiful streets of London and find rest at night in her compassionate alleyways – at least until he could find a way to finally gain access to a bank.

Again he imagined what he would do first once the cheque was cashed. No trader would turn him away if he offered them a large sum of money. Money talks, even when you cannot. A good wash, a good night’s sleep, brand new clothes and a feed. Then he’d charter a fast carriage to his seaside home.

‘There ‘e is!’ a voice sounded. The beggar looked up in alarm. The prostitutes had returned with a stocky, red-haired man wearing a brown bowler. ‘The vicious blighter’s an animal. Oh, if ever I have to see that little flickering snake’s tongue again. Go on ‘Arry, give him what for!’

The red-haired man delivered a series of full, vindictive blows to the beggar’s head and body. His thoughts quickly turned from his rehabilitation to nothingness as, again, he drifted into unconsciousness.

The next morning Carberry stood outside the huge cast-iron doors to the Savings Bank. He thought himself a trifle early, but what did ten minutes matter in comparison to the good impression it created? Bothered by a high-pitched wheezing emanating from the alleyway beside him, he investigated its source. There he discovered the beggar from the evening before. His face was a battlefield of purple bruises, his eyes encrusted in blood. He did not move at all, save for a faint movement in his chest as he attempted to keep breathing. In his gnarled hands he firmly clasped the same filthy, blood-spattered piece of paper. The beggar recognised Carberry as a bank employee and, with difficulty, raised an arm to motion him over. Moving gingerly towards him, he flinched as the beggar held out the piece of paper but took it and read it. As Carberry’s eyes widened, the beggar’s closed and, as the clerk’s mouth opened in amazement, so the beggar’s formed a final, peaceful smile.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Story 25 - Something about Tennis

I’m playing tennis with my friend Dave Richards. It’s not a real game, neither of us has any interest in anything other than patting the ball to the other side of the net. It’s a hot summer’s evening and we’ve both finished work for the week. All the courts are full; mostly with teenagers enjoying their summer holiday; though to the left of us a sporty looking elderly couple are pelting tennis balls towards each other at breakneck speeds.

We’ve talked about his bird; we’ve talked about my bird. We’ve talked about our ex birds, and the bird down The Lion with the nice legs that started working there a month previously – who Dave reckons has taken a shine to me and I’ve definite got a chance of getting it on with.

We’ve talked about his job and we’ve talked about mine. We’ve talked about our football teams. We’ve been down here for over an hour and I’m still not sick of talking. It’s been a long week of sitting in front of my work computer, sitting in front of my TV at home, fretting about the deadline my boss had set me and ignoring my soon to be ex-girlfriend’s constant text messaging. I need to talk more because I’m enjoying myself and don’t want it to stop. It’s my first chance all week to be myself, to open up, to really get a grip on reality, on the present moment. Although as I miss-hit my shot and watch Dave running over to the next court to retrieve the fleeing ball I wonder for a moment how much more we have to say.

I ponder over what else there is in life other than birds, our jobs and football; briefly contemplate the point of it all is before settling on an inevitable question.

“You up for a drink after this?” I shout as he comes back to the opposite side of the court, serving a new shot which lands perfectly at my feet.

“Can’t, sorry,” he answers simply.

I punt the ball back over the net in reply, angling my racket lazily to give a little added force to my return.

“No time for a swift half?”

“Said I’d meet Holly at seven.”

“That’s not for an hour yet.”

“But I’ve gotta get home and shower, get changed, freshen up …” He leaves the rest hanging in the air as he concentrates on his current hit.

“Yeah, yeah I suppose,” I say, running over to my right, arm and racket outstretched, just about managing to return Dave’s misdirected shot.

The ball goes soaring into the sky and I turn away, blinded momentarily by the sun.

When I return my gaze I see Dave preparing to seize the falling ball at the right moment, positioning his body in the perfect stance, readying himself for a flawless volley which will most likely slam into the net: Although unpredictably he meets the ball faultlessly and it shoots past, bouncing off the concrete and then high over the wired fence.

I spark up a cigarette while Dave runs round to rescue the ball. I question what I’m going to do with my evening; think about my girlfriend and try to decide if I really ever loved her or not; then start to philosophise about what love really is.

The old sporty couple have stopped playing and both are looking at me. I notice them standing there with the sun behind them; two strangely motionless silhouettes against a backdrop of the empty cricket pitch behind.

Finally the woman comes over to tell me to put out my cigarette. She has long grey sweaty hair, is wearing a pink top and a short white tennis skirt. Her legs are deeply tanned. Beads of sweat have formed along the wrinkles of her forehead; which come into focus as she gets closer.

“I don’t think you should be smoking here,” she starts. Her face screwed up with disgust at my decision to partake in a few breaths of nicotine.

I turn away, facing the wall of wire mesh, take one last drag and push my cigarette through one of the holes of the fence, assuming this will be enough to make her leave me alone. Although unfortunately I can still sense her presence behind me; something which I choose to ignore for the time being.

Dave is now in front of me poking about in the bushes, searching for the missing ball.

“I think we’ve lost it,” he says, talking in the direction of the ground at his feet; not noticing the old woman who may or may not have realised that I’m done with our brief interaction.

“Time to go anyway,” I respond.

“That it is,” Dave says in a rather unenthusiastic tone; still looking for the soon to be forgotten tennis ball. “Time for getting back to things. Holly’s not one for hanging around waiting.”

“What d’ ya mean?” I ask, puzzled by his lack of enthusiasm.

“She gets a bit pissed when I’m late is what I mean,” he says, looking directly at me. He says, “You know what birds are like,” and then raising his eyebrows continues, “So, who’re your new friends?”

I turn around and the old lady is still standing there, now with her partner who’s silently mopping his brow with a white and blue tennis towel.

“This young man has no respect,” the woman says to the guy who is most likely her husband.

He looks down at the cigarette butt lying on the other side of the fence.

“You’re gonna kill yourself with those things,” he says in a confident, knowledgeable and slightly arrogant voice.

“Maybe I am,” I reply, and then my mind quietly wanders as I’m imagining what it would be like to do such a thing, if I’d prefer it to be quick and simple, like a gun to the head, jumping from a height, or drinking a load of poison … if I’d opt for something relaxing and painless like some sort of sleeping tablet concoction, or carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage; something that’d really give me time to think, to become at one with the acceptance of saying goodbye and avoir to my life of almost twenty-five years.

Later in The Lion I’m talking about the exact same thing with the nice looking barmaid who’s giving me all sorts of signs to insinuate that I’m in with a chance of spending the night with her if I’m up for it. Like, the way she’s making eye contact, hanging on my every word. But more importantly the way she’s staring at me when she thinks I’m not looking.

“And then the old lady and her husband both said together in these really weird voices that I wasn’t the sort of person who deserved to live for a very long time anyway,” I say, adding, “What d’ya reckon they meant by that?”

“Maybe they were like these old people with special powers,” she says. “They were predicting your death; or even they could’ve been cursing you!” In a mockingly ghostly voice she adds, “You are going to die tonight. There is nothing left for you in this world. But first you will meet a beautiful and dangerous femme fatal …” before giggling in a soft, slightly hysterical laugh.

I begin to imagine myself at the beach wading into the sea later that night, disappearing into the water, washing away all my responsibilities … I gaze at her briefly before looking back down at my beer, thinking about how this girl very much seems to be both beautiful and dangerous tonight: When I walked in she was standing there with her hand on the pump, all rosy cheeks and chest pushed out as though she’d been waiting for me to come in all day, but as I suddenly receive a text from my soon to be past girlfriend I wonder where this conversation is really going: what the point is of continuing all night, some of tomorrow and possibly a couple of times after that before I ultimately become bored again, back to my TV screen at home; and my computer monitor at work.

I smile and take out my phone, read the message telling my where I’m supposed to end up later: what time, who’s going, how she misses me and c u soon.

And then, with an insincerity which may well be lost on her I randomly ask the barmaid if she’s up for going to a party later – surprisingly she replies to the negative, saying she doesn’t fancy going to a party tonight and before she’s even finished getting across how she’s happy to hang out at her place for a bit if I want, I’ve more than lost interest in wasting my time with the meaningless, flirtatious banter we’ve been engaged in for the past half an hour. You could even go as far as to say that I feel sick at myself for the fake smiles, and the artificial, recycled conversation.

I mean, it’s not as if I haven’t been enjoying myself, and it’s nice to be talking to a fit girl in this sort of way but if I’m gonna live each day like there’s no tomorrow then a party’s gotta be more interesting I figure.

I make my excuses and she looks disappointed, a little insulted even; and there’s a definite period of awkwardness as I finish my beer and she’s finding other customers to serve. Although what’s a few minutes of awkwardness compared to a hell of a lot of hours of wasted time, right?

On the way out of the pub I’m thinking about my game of tennis with Dave and just tennis in general. About two people patting the ball to each other again and again, with the rules to add interest and the aggression when it’s not going right; but moreover the general futility of hitting a ball to each other repeatedly to score points which don’t count for shit.

I’m also remembering the weird moment of when Dave seemed surprisingly unenthusiastic about meeting Holly later. A moment which had lasted barely a few seconds, a strange flicker of the eye, a giveaway expression of how he most probably was experiencing similar feelings of what I was going through with my girl: The willingness to carry on outweighed by the need to get out.

When we’d talked about our relationships it had been very much on the surface things of how she’d said this and done that to piss us off and: Oh God how women have their own ways of irritating you … Why a shirt has to be hung up, why a discussion has to happen right when the football’s about to begin, or when you’re about to fall asleep; why they take so long to get ready, even to go bed; all that stuff.

As I say, my mind’s wandering all the way to the Flying Pig as I’m cutting through the park, over the rugby field and along the bicycle path in the dark. A distant thud of music can be heard once I get to the car park and lights of ever changing colours are flickering from the windows of the main building as I turn along the path to the front entrance.

I receive another text from my girlfriend just as I’m approaching the bouncers (At the party come if you want or we could meet up later? miss u baby x), which I’m not sure how to interpret. I mean, I’ve been ignoring her all week, haven’t showed much interest in seeing her tonight and the last time I called her was on Wednesday when we spoke for ten minutes on the phone. I hardly deserve a text as nice as this. Either she’s playing it cool and ready to give me a rollicking when I’m least expecting it; or she’s enjoying her space and not in any hurry to meet up with me either.

I replace the phone to my jacket pocket, only to take it out almost immediately when the bouncers are asking me to show what I’ve got on my person. Just a routine check apparently: They want to know why I’ve got a pack of cigarettes but no lighter – which is when I realise I must’ve left it in the Lion – to which I reply that that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever been asked and what the hell kinda trouble am I gonna cause by having a packet of seven B&H and nothing to light them with?

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Review - The Drive by Tyler Keevil

A Fear and Loathing style road trip down Highway 99 in a rented Dodge Neon. Our single protagonist turns on the ignition and off we go on our adventures. Unlike Hunter S Thompson's much more famous book, this is realistically written and a lot better for it. The Drive is simple, good old fashioned story telling with a great plot; and there’s no going off on tangents. The drugs are still there, as is the booze … and the women, the biker gangs, the danger, the diners, the desert, the heat, the desperation, the overcoming of it all and a satisfying ending … and so are you, with the character all the way. Once finished you’ll wish you could go back to the beginning and experience it all over again; which of course you can.

To give you the official blurb:

A single call from his Czech girlfriend catapults Trevor into a serious crisis. Desperate to get his mojo back, he blazes down Highway 99 in a rented Dodge Neon.

But soon his journey to California is fraught with peril, and all he has for protection are a semi-automatic pistol, his trusty plastic visor and a flea-ridden cat. As the drugs and the heartbreak kick in, the question is no longer whether Trevor will get over his girlfriend's infidelity, but whether he’ll get out alive.

A fast-paced and hilarious contemporary odyssey, The Drive has all the adventure and surrealism of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – but overlaid with heartfelt yearning and hope.

This book is published by Myriad Editions, a small independent publisher from Brighton. It is Tyler Keevil's second novel.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Story 24 - New Start for an Underachieving Romantic

 As soon as she hangs up the phone starts ringing. A loud Nokia ring tone, repeating through the café, bouncing off the walls from table to table. A few of our resident caffeine lovers raise their heads, most are too engrossed in their book, magazine or conversation to notice. She’s sitting in Starbucks on a cold April afternoon in Brighton. Through the windows outside she can see Churchill Square bustling with shoppers; all wrapped up in coats, anoraks, jumpers, scarves, gloves, anything to prevent the little warmth they possess from being eaten up by the icy air. She switches the phone to silent mode and replaces it to her handbag.

The drink in front of her is a peppermint flavoured hot chocolate. The cream that was once frothy and perfectly formed has now melted into a swirling blend of white and brown. She stares at the pattern, absorbed by the kaleidoscope of changing shapes, emptying her mind of thoughts. She knows it tastes wonderful and could easily devour the thing with one gulp instead of taking a small sip every few minutes. She is waiting however. Waiting until four o’clock, which is why she is sitting here in this perfect place to be for anyone with time to kill.

This morning she had no time. There was his breakfast, his sandwiches, a fresh new shirt to iron, a kiss on the cheek with a, “Drive carefully dear.” Upstairs to open the suitcase, gathering together her essential belongings and once packed she showered and had a modest brunch; habitually listening to her radio 4 morning play before locking the house and caching the number 21 bus. Once in town she made the necessary trip to the bank, immediately reserved her tickets, and accordingly received a printout of her journey’s timetable. She returned two library books, window-shopped for exactly one hour – buying nothing – ahead of finally deciding this café would be the best place to spend her afternoon.

As always she wants to be alone. Her day’s interactions with other human beings have been nothing more than those of necessity. All apart from the phone call that is.
Why he called her at this time she has no idea. Does he suspect? Why should he?

“Darling, I’m just ringing to see how you are.”

Why does he care? When has he ever genuinely cared?

“I could come home early today. It would be nice just for a change. Do you think?”

“Don’t John. We’ve talked about this. You know I need the days to myself… I’m fine. You know that. I’ll see you this evening… No John, I don’t want you to. I’ll see you this evening… Don’t John. Please. I’ll see you later.”

Did she sound desperate? She hopes to God she didn’t. Because he mustn’t know she’s here, she can’t be found out.

She quickly takes another sip of the chocolate, tries to savour the luscious taste; attempts to lose herself once again in the meditation of rejecting her thoughts. This unexpected spout of anxiety should not ruin her afternoon. She should be at peace. She is free. Why has he spoiled this?

She succumbs to yet another sip, bigger this time, and looks around the café for a distraction. There is a surprisingly large amount of people in the room. At least, every table is occupied. Glancing around, she tries to decide what they are all doing, why they are here. The more palpable characters include a young mother with her restless toddler; a group of three Asian students quietly absorbed in their notes; an elderly couple sharing a comfortable silence; a middle aged businessman on his lap-top; and a young attractive couple deeply involved in their own private conversation. A few of the tables are taken up by single individuals; all of them reading something of some description: attempting to appear preoccupied she imagines (should she do the same?). She wonders why they are here. Are they waiting for someone or simply wasting away the hours? Where are they going afterwards? What plans do they have?

Her attention returns to the attractive couple. A man with dark hair, designer stubble and bright green eyes talking to a blond woman whose pretty smile intermittently turns into a quietly sweet laugh. She is wearing dark red lipstick which matches her scarf. Her hair in a pony tail revealing a youthfully innocent face, her blouse is pink and she is drinking what seems to be some sort of fruit tea concoction. She reminds her of herself a few years earlier: Her brightness, her confidence… Although now she is undecided: possibly not her true self. More like the self she wanted to be. A marvellously romantic future ahead of her, endless possibilities of fun, travel and adventure.

The remaining sludge at the bottom of her cup stares back at her. She will not finish it. Soon she will be in Mark’s & Spencer’s shopping for his dinner. And afterwards she is going to be home again, tearing up the note she left on the kitchen table this morning; the same note she leaves him every week. Unpacking her things, giving the house a quick once-over, receiving her husband at just gone six o’clock to greet him with a routine kiss, ask about his day, and then together they will go through the motions they act out every evening.

Although, what of his persistence in calling her today? Could he have returned home already? How will she explain herself if he has? Maybe it’s time she finally does go through with the trip to her mother’s house. Make a fresh start, a new chance to become a different person; the person she craves to be.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Review - The Fall of Charlie Dixon by David Couldrey

This may be my last entry for a while; possibly ever. Before my leave of absence I’ve got to mention this little book I found called The Fall of Charlie Dixon. It’s a self-published novel but don’t let that put you off. The writer is young but extremely talented. Try the “look inside” on Amazon to give you a taste.

We follow Charlie Dixon (this name only appearing on the cover) right from when he enters the world, through childhood, boarding school and finally the teenage years where he becomes led astray by various “hoody” mates. It’s set in the noughties, with the backdrop of 9/11, the war in Iraq and the London underground bombings tragically mirroring the growing frustration and violence of the youth culture Charlie finds himself entwined with.

I won’t give too much away about the ending, but let’s just say that it’s a fantastically written coming of age tale with a lot of bad decisions and plenty of black humour.

It’s available from the usual places that you’ll find such self-published novels. i.e. the internet.

Okay, signing off, and good luck to David Couldrey in his further writing career. A name to watch out for.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Review - Evie and Guy by Dan Holloway

This is a book with no words, just numbers. Really, I’m not kidding you. It’s avant-garde you see. A piece of art. Only numbers. And it’s over a hundred pages long.

How is this possible?

How can a story be told with just numbers?

Well, I won’t give too much away, but Dan Holloway has achieved the impossible. Because after reading Evie and Guy, I really did have a story in my head.

Parts I skim read; other parts I studied for longer. I’ll admit: the fact that I read it like this was cheating, and lazy. But if it put a story in my head through my undertaking of such an act, then think what it could have done if I’d read it properly, in detail, one chapter at a time.

When I do eventually go back for a re-read, then that’s what I’ll do. A chapter a day, studying every number carefully. Because there is a story in all of them.

To read this book for long periods of time, however, would give you a headache – you are only looking at numbers and interpreting the meanings behind them – despite it being a simple code, and easy enough to understand.

My other criticism is that like many pieces of art, I’d enjoy it more it was fully explained to me afterwards. I found that after reading and pondering over the story somewhat, I began to think of different ways to decipher what I’d read, and the ending especially is, in my opinion, open to interpretation. But the fact that it got me thinking so much is a remarkable achievement.

In summary, there is a lot of story and a lot of depth to this piece. And it’s a very clever idea. But it’s a novella that makes you do the work as you’re filling in the blank spaces, which isn’t exactly relaxing, enjoyable reading.

Not a book for curling up next to a roaring fire, that will sweep you away on a thrilling journey … but worth a look.

As with all of my reviews (and as you can most likely guess) this is an independent release, published by 79 Rat Press. It’s available in kindle and paperback.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Review - How Do You Spell Love? by Zanna Mackenzie

I pick up the odd chick-lit book now and then. It’s nice to have a break from all that heavy and often depressing literary stuff – with a book in this genre you know what you’re getting. Girl meets boy, girl doesn’t like boy because boy is bad, actually he’s not bad after all, girl is falling for boy, girl pursues boy and girl gets boy. Books by Jenny Colgan and Sophie Kinsella are particular favourites. The strength of these authors is their light humour, and unlike some other chick-lit books, they don’t try to be knowledgeable about love and heavy on the morals.

How Do You Spell Love? by Zanna Mackenzie, however, has but a light sprinkling of humour, so, you may ask, why did this book appeal to me? Well, firstly I’d draw attention to the fact that the novel has a real cosiness about it. The set-up is simple, the people likeable and we find ourselves returning to the same scenes many times – Summer’s flat, Kat’s house, the charity shop, the allotments and the building site. The magic stuff adds an extra flavour too – it’s really quite interesting, learning about the mystical properties of crystals, lunar calendar traditions, etc, and it’s written with a lot of knowledge and detail. But the main reason that it’s a cut above most chick-lit books (at least for me) is that rather than only being about romance, there’s also a very real sense of the friendship between the two main characters as they help each other through their problems. The conversations they have are in fact so realistic, it’s like you’re in the next room listening in.

I have to admit now that I am slightly biased because I was involved in editing this work. But I wouldn’t have gotten involved in such a big project if I hadn’t been behind it all the way and it’s now a joy to see it in print.

As with the other books I sometimes review, this is released on an independent publisher, so the distribution won’t be great. But I really hope it does well because, as far as chick-lit goes, it’s one of the good ones.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Story 23 - So Now I'm Forgotten (In My Own Imagination)

I was in a bar last year with my friend Sam Michaels when he described to me this story he was writing about being dead, dying and turning into a ghost. His idea was that you, or a least his characters, stayed where they were at their place of death; eventually having a choice of going away with the grim reaper if they wanted; but his point was that many of them opted for sticking around, watching the world go by while no one living could see them.

“So in that case it’d be worse to die alone,” I remember saying.

Then we were talking about World War One, all those people hanging out in a field in France, although his opinion was that it’d be better to die with our loved ones in the same place. I think actually part of his book involved people in a old farm house dying of old age in their beds over the generations; almost the whole family tree living together except this boy who’d been knocked down by a car on his way home from school. He’d been just around the corner from the house with all his dead relatives, totally missing out on all the fun with nothing but a load of rabbits for company until eventually this other kid who’s like a pretty girl gets knocked down by a car as well and they live, or die happily ever after.

Honestly I don’t remember too many details of the main story though ’cause this was only a side plot. And not long after this Sam was himself involved in a car accident, ending up with him being in a coma, not having a chance to finish the thing. (So far he still hasn’t woken up; but he’s not dead or anything and I’m sure he’ll be around to talk about it all one day.)

So anyway, last night as I was in the moment of almost falling asleep I started thinking about Sam all of a sudden, the story he’d been working on and just for fun began imagining my own adaptation. A possible scenario for my life, or death if it was true about the whole staying in one place thing.

In my version I was knocked down by a bus just outside the language school where I work. I immediately became a ghost observing all the fuss being made over getting rid of my body, the ambulance, loads of people staring, not staring; not wanting to see or be reminded how we’re all so damn fragile and of their own mortality.

Finally once it was over I was left standing in the middle of a busy surroundings outside the school, watching students on their cigarette breaks and then on their way home with it soon becoming dark. The number of people around dwindling into the odd drunk here and there; followed by the rubbish collectors in the morning, the whole day starting again.

Strangely there didn’t seem to be any other ghosts around as far as I could see, and also weirdly… well the next thing that happened was I started to get this really strong, almost absurd feeling of how the flowers that would’ve been put down the next day were really making me feel awkward. How they were a bit of an insult actually. I guess ’cause they were drawing attention to the fact that I’d been enough of a dick-head to allow myself to be knocked over by a bus I suppose. And people were looking, making comments on how a teacher had been killed in that spot.

Pretty soon though I had to start thinking of how I was gonna get used to being in such a situation, deciding that having a routine was a good way to stay sane. And being killed outside my old school didn’t seem so bad ’cause even though it was weird and a bit depressing how life goes on, like doesn’t revolve around me, it was kinda good too ’cause there was plenty to see; stuff going on; or a least I was picturing it to be this way.

I mean I could only catch snippets of conversations, small talk and the odd heated discussion. And as the dream took over there were couples who’d pass me by every day and generally familiar people on their way to and from work that I was getting to know.

Until one day what ended up happening was I saw my wife with this other bloke, far away, barely visible although I knew it was her. And ’cause I couldn’t tell what the other guy looked like, funnily enough I became more interested in seeing who he was than being bothered with the fact that my wife had moved on from me.

Following this I began to get a really strong urge to move from where I was, the frustration of being stuck in the same place becoming so intense that finally I woke up feeling the worst I’ve felt in a hell of a long time. I was even a little bit sick in the bathroom afterwards.

I felt so awful that just to recover I created an ending to the story of this angel coming down and giving me the choice of staying on Earth or being taken away; to heaven or wherever.

After smoking a cigarette and washing my face though I’ve gotta admit that I couldn’t decide for sure. I mean once you went with the angel that was it; there was no coming back or anything. And I remember being unexpectedly confused as to what to do ’cause staying on Earth a little longer did have some advantages; but there again I didn’t wanna have that feeling of being stuck again.

So that’s about it. No idea what the significance of all this was, save for the fact that I’ve thought a lot over the months about what it must be like for old Sam to be in a coma. Whether he’s finished the book inside his head yet, if he entertains himself by making up imaginary scenarios like I was doing last night.

I also wonder of course whether he’s really able to hear people when they talk to him. I mean his wife Maggie is convinced of it. But then again she would be ’cause she spends enough time down there telling him all and everything that’s going on with herself, the kids, her job; whatever she can think of to fill the silence.

She often reminds me not to worry ’cause she’s never mentioned us as being anything more than good friends still – funnily enough I feel at ease when she says this; which I suppose means that in my mind he actually does have the ability to understand her conversations after all.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

guest story - Too Damn Late by Jonathan Last

Sure is hot in here.  This closet ain’t so big an my ass is sore as hell sittin on this box after spendin all night on the damn floor.  But I guess I ain’t gon care much bout that soon.
I ain’t no good at speakin none, but I can’t write for shit neither, so here I go.  Mosta y’all ain’t gon really get what all this I’m gon say here, but I’m gon say it anyways – so y’all can make some kinda sense outta all this, I guess.
        Ain’t got too long, neither.  I done enough ah those gigs to know that no soul wants to hang around for long: not the kin, not the hacks, not ol Father Callaghan, an not the poor fellah in the chair, that’s for damn sure.  An when it’s done, it ain’t gon be long til they – Earl an Brandt, I guess; hi, you guys  – til they find me an this tape, neither.  That’s good.  Cause time in here, y’know, it’s all just too damn long waitin.  Waitin an waitin an then you ain’t got no more time.  Then it’s over.
        It ain’t so different in yonder free world.  I was waitin my whole life for something to happen, somethin that felt right; an when it did, in here ah all places, there ain’t no more time left.  Figures, huh?
        It shoulda happened – an everyone thought it had happened – when I married Charlene.  I was workin down in Tampa at the time, at Glades Correctional, an I tell you wha, that there weddin was a big ol shindig, a real warts an all.  It had to be, what wit Charlene’s pa bein the goddam Propane King hisself.  My pappy-in-law paid for the whole damn thang, you betcha he did, yup.  Paid for Charlene’s big ol white dress that went all the way down out behind her like an icy creek as she walked up the church, that big ol buildin right in the middl ah Oldsmar, an this bein Charlene everyone in town was there, standin yonder wit them gold swans an bright flowers an the huge fountain wit the two dolphins right in the damn middle. 
        I remember standin there in my monkey suit watchin her walkin towards me an thinkin, “This ain’t right.”
        She had everythin she wanted, the whole package, includin me.  Cept, it weren’t the real me, cause she din know – heck, she still don know, ten years down the line – who I was.  I mean, who I am.  Cept, maybe she does know, but it’s too late.  Heck, it’s always been too late: I knew it growin up in Houston an I knew it in that church an I sure as hell know it now.
        I know cause ah him.  Derek Antwon Stone, inmate #274381.
        It ain’t gon be long now.  Workin here ten years, you get to notice certain stuff.  Little stuff like how, don matter where y’are in this here facility, you know when they’re about to pull the switch.  You see it: them lights, they sorta shake an dim; flicker, like.  It’s kinda like a warnin, two bits ah flickerin that tells you the ol girl is fair warmin up.  An then it’s only a coupla seconds before the lights go an fade all the way, an jus as soon come back again, like nothin’s happened.  But that’s when thangs really have happened.  An it don matter where y’are are in this here facility, you get the 411: they kill people here.  They jus gon done it.
        An they’re bout to do it now.
        After me an Charlene was wed I took this here job at Huntsville Penn.  Charlene was bent on movin back to Texas – never mind how I left Houston when I was eighteen, how my pappy an ma uncle Lou fair ran me outta town after they caught me round the backa Riley’s bar that time wit Bill, the Wayness’s son; not that Charlene knew that was why, y’understand.  Here in Walker County, we could move into a big ol house, bought by Mr. Propane, my new best friend.  Goddam swimmin pool wit big ol dolphin statues each end – sweet mercy that woman loved her dolphins.  An acourse we could be right near the King, an not jus Charlene’s folks but the rest ah her kin, her goddam sisters an her toothless granpappy an all.  An soon she was fixin to have a baby.
        I started to work longer an longer.  Overtime, double shifts.
You can always get O.T. on death row.  Folks ain’t hardly linin up round the block for it – this is the real stuff, the real McCoy.  “Y’all in the slaughterhouse now,” – you told me that, Earl.  Can’t say I had much love for it neither, but it was a damn sight better than that other prison in my life.  Yup, I soon got to fair likin ol cell block G; came to be like my second home.  Or, I guess, my real home.
        Look, I ain’t gon say Derek ain’t guilty ah what he done.  He is.  That family done got themselves in the way ah his rock, an he got them outta the way.  It ain’t right, I know that, but right an wrong ain’t much use when you’ve got jus one thang in your life you want.  If that’s all you gotta hope for, all you gotta live for, then ain’t nothin gon get in the way. 
I never much understood all that stuff, junkies an all.  Until what happened wit Derek an me.
        One hour a day.  It ain’t much.  But that’s what we had, an it sure adds up.  Me on one side ah that fence, him on the other.  For a long-ass time, we din talk.  He just walked round that cage, gettin his exercise; an me, I watched, like I’m sposed to. He walked, an I just fair followed him wit my eyes. Then one day, he looked square at me. “What the fuck you lookin at, cracker?” That’s what he said.  “What are you lookin at, nigger?” I said back.  Then he smiled.  I smiled back – it was funny; I don know why.
        After that, we started to talk when he walked.  He told me about how he knew they were gon put him in the chair, that his appeal weren’t worth shit, an so he gotta tellin me all the thangs he hadn’t told no soul before.  Bout how he got started wit the drugs not long outta short pants, bout how he had no love growin up, no ma an pa, how he felt alone wit no soul to turn to.  I know Brandt or Allen or one ah the other hacks would just be all, “Quit your noise, nigger,” but I just stood there an, yup, I fair started listenin.  I was like some sorta damn counsellor for him.  It felt pretty good; someone really talkin to me.  After a while, I was kinda fixin to talk back.  I knew it weren’t right, but then it din feel right him tellin me every little thang an me tellin him squat, neither.  So, I began talkin back about my own life, an how alone I’d always felt, too, even though I was outside in yonder respectable society an all.  We both ah us was trapped, an neither had a friend in the world.  Then, over them little hours an Christ knows how many weeks an months, it came to be that both ah us did have a friend, a soul we could talk to.  I liked that; I know Derek liked it, too.  It got to be that there was only one hour a day that I liked, one hour a day I looked forward to, when I felt like me.  One hour I lived for.
        Last night, I din clock out.  I told Earl – I told you, Earl – that I was sick an was gon go get some asprin from the med centre on my way out, after I’d put #274381 back in his cell.  All the hacks do it – if you’re near the med block come quittin time you jus go out through that door, an no one says squat cause from there you’d have to go all the way round to reach the sally port, an no one don never do that.
        We jus talked.  I mean, we din jus talk.  We both fair opened up an it was the first time, for sure for me, another soul had got in.  I told him, this skinny nigger kid wit cornrow hair, I told him that, that I… loved him.  An for the first time I knew what that meant.  Jus when it was too late.  Figures, right?  “Don leave me,” he said, holdin tight my arms all wrapped round his skinny chest on that hard, rough floor.  “I won’t, I promise,” I said back.
        My momma din raise no liar.
        The lights.  Goddam, that’s the first flicker.  There she blows, the ol warhorse warmin up, ready for battle.  You an Brandt keepin watch, Earl; the kin standin behind the glass (but not today, not for my Derek); Father Callaghan holdin his dusty ol Bible.  An me in here, sittin on this stiff-ass box, watchin the lights, holdin this here recordin device.
        You don get no jammin wit these Glocks they issued us instead ah the ol forty-fives.  Fifty thousand rounds, so they say.  I only need one.
        Second flicker, jus there.  I’m holdin the muzzle under my chin.  No hammer needin pullin back, no safety catch.  Just squeeze.
        I know where that chamber is.  Few blocks beyond this wall right in front ah me – across the yard, through the canteen, into cell block G, through the two sets ah doors, down that long walk, through another two sets ah doors. I can see it as sure as if I’m yonder right now.
        We gon be together again, Derek.  I ain’t leavin you.
        There.  Them lights gon out.
        An so do mine. 

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Story 22 - Bedtime Story

“So who’s this story gonna be about?” I say as she slowly moves a hand over one of her sleepy, puffy eyes – why do all kids have such stubby little hands? It’s a miracle they can pick anything up. I wonder: had she been drinking her hot milk with one hand or two? I cast my mind to us all sat in their modern kitchen: Neil and Bonnie suitably dressed up for their evening of pleasure: Stinking of expensive aftershave and perfume.

“Mummy always tucks me in before I sleep,” she mumbles.

“Mummy’s not here right now,” I reply, willing the tiny, sleepy, puffy little eyes to shut up shop for the night. “Your mummy’s with Daddy, filling her tummy with lots of yummy curry.”

“How do you know Mummy’s eating curry?” she says, slurring her words sleepily.

“’cause I know everything… I’m a witch, like in Harry Potter.”

She stirs in a moment of interest. “What’s she drinking?”

“Pink champagne; with lots of bubbles.” Beautiful champagne; delicious champagne. Rich Mummy and Daddy with their lovely champagne.

“I’m not allowed champagne,” she says, facing away again, hair spread over the pillow, clutching her strange one-eyed dolphin. One eye open, one eye sneaking a glance in my direction.

“How about dolphin here; is he allowed champagne?”

“He’s just a toy, he can’t drink.”

Such a cute little dolphin. She yawns a cute little yawn. I picture the flat screen TV downstairs, the big soft springy sofa.

When Neil and Bonnie had gone through a few basic rules my gaze had been fixed upon the huge screen showing “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” I remember the presenter asking an old man: Which of the following phrases was Mother Theresa most famous for? And the old man was phoning a friend who couldn’t be certain.

I’d taken in as much as help yourself to hot drinks and she usually likes reading in bed but it’s lights out before eight-thirty. Bonnie talked more about what to do in the case of something or other but my attention was flailing as I noticed the plate of cookies Neil was preparing.

Just a little snack for later! How old did he think I was?

At the door Neil said they’d be back before midnight and I’d only have to check on her once because she’s no trouble at all and usually goes to sleep right away.

As soon as they left I phoned Dave.

“Come round at nine?”

“OK babe.”

“You don’t really wanna story do you?” I say hopefully.

“No I want a story, really…”

I tell her a story about a dolphin: A dolphin that swims around all day saving kids from drowning. She’s asleep before I’m finished. I’m a professional.

Dave knows the new address. He’s been reminded not to ring the bell this time. I hear him scratching at the door as I descend the stairs.

“Babe?” he whispers.

I hiss back at him: “I’m coming Dave, I’m coming.”

Sunday, 27 January 2013

guest story - The White Falcon by Dennis J. D’Amato

Andy Cosmo is an old geezer now. You can usually find him at the music store downtown where I work.

The place is different from the way he remembers it. The hangers on the pegboard walls that once held saxophones and violins and clarinets for display now carry Les Pauls and Fender Jazz Bass guitars. He always complains about the floor and all of the drum kits and newfangled amplifiers that get in his way when he tries to walk around the place. It is a running joke that he can’t wait to get to the back to the bathroom to take a piss. Seems like he is always taking one or telling somebody he needs to. If you really want to hear him go off, all you have to do is mention somebody like Eric Clapton to him. He can’t stand anybody who started playing guitar after he was born. He tells me that rock and roll really screwed up music and put “real” musicians out of work.

“How the fuck can you listen to that crap?” he asks. “You know how many guys can’t get a fucking job because of that crap? That Clapton guy can kiss my ass!”

I pretend not to hear him. Besides, when I don’t answer him, it just pisses him off more. The rest of the guys in the store always get a kick out of that. Instead I usually choose to engage Andy in some meaningless banter.

“Hey Andy, how’s it hangin’?”

He responds with the predictable expletive.

Like I said, the guys at the store just get a kick out of the old bastard when he’s mad, and I know how to get to him madder than anyone else. He stops by the music store from time to time. I guess it gives him the chance to re-live his career, which, if you ask him, is quite impressive. You see Andy is what is known as a “cat.” A jazzman. You’ve seen guys like him in those old movies about big band leaders. You know, the guy sitting down holding an old Gibson or Gretsch wide body jazz guitar, strumming away and holding the rhythm section in check. Of course, you never realize how important that guitar guy is. He’s usually just window dressing for the band leader or the sort of fictional Frank Sinatra character in Pal Joey. Those days are long gone though. Now he’s a cantankerous old son of a bitch who seems to be mad at everything and everybody. Today he has a particular problem with Tommy Dorsey.

“Dorsey? Yeah, I played with him. He was a real prick”

This is news to me. Everybody I know who knew Tommy Dorsey can’t stop telling me what a great guy he was to work for.

“Why do you say that?”

“He wouldn’t let my wife go on the road with me and the band, so I had to make a decision.”


“I chose my wife of course.”

“But you got to stay with the love of your life, right?”

“Nah, the bitch left me a month later. Fucking Tommy Dorsey was a prick!”

He’s not exactly the most attractive person you ever saw either. He’s bald with those red things that old guys get on their heads sometimes and he tries to hide them with a comb over of about ten long hairs. He’s got stubbly grey beard hairs that struggle to the surface but don’t seem to make it. He walks like somebody hit him with a baseball bat across his knees. All bent over rickety. He moves as if he’s using one of those walkers, but he doesn’t have one. He probably should get one I guess.

His fingers are all bent out of shape from arthritis and he can hardly use them anymore. The only thing I ever see him use his hands for is to light up one of those el squillos stinky little cigars you see mafia guys smoke in the movies. That, or to flip somebody a feeble finger when he’s mad enough. Which is pretty much all the time.

I sometimes see him getting off of the Chapel Street bus around the corner from the store. Takes him about ten minutes to climb down the three steps to the sidewalk. He’s usually screaming at the bus driver about not taking his transfer or some such. If he’s not getting off the bus and screaming at the bus driver, he’s hobbling down State Street screaming at anyone who is passing by about whatever he thinks is the issue of the day. Usually at the top of his lungs. He always wears this green plaid woolen CPO jacket over a black t-shirt and a pair of stained dungarees. The holes in the jeans seem to move around from day to day, so I think he might have a few of them. But I’m not really sure. Anyway, no matter how he gets here, I can usually tell he’s around by the sound of his screaming voice. Or from the smell of those stinky cigars when he opens the door and enters the store.

In spite of all that, I have to say that I kind of like the old bastard. I kind of think he likes me too. Or at least he likes me as much as somebody as miserable as he is could possibly like anyone. He always seems to find his way over to me when he comes in. Maybe it’s because he knows I won’t put up with his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he knows I can give back anything he can dish out. Whatever the reason, I’m usually the guy he bothers when he’s here. The other guys at the music think he’s full of shit. I can see why. After all, we are talking about a guy who once told us that he knew Les Paul before he invented the famous guitar.

“That Les Paul son-of-a-bitch! I taught him every fucking thing he ever knew. I shuldda married Mary Ford before she got hooked up with that bastard.”

We all looked at him with predictable disbelief.

“You taught Les Paul how to play guitar?”

“Yeah, I showed him. That prick couldn’t hold a candle to Django. Django. He’s the best you ever wanna see. All these Les Paul bastards are just little pricks!”

He loves to call people pricks for some reason. And if they are really pricks, he loves to call them little pricks. I can’t disagree much with him about Django though. Django Reinhardt is the best I ever heard. He invented a style of guitar playing called “Gypsy” music. He lost fingers on his left hand in a fire or something, but he played stuff that people with twenty fingers haven’t been able to play the way he did. Andy always says that “Tiger Rag,” a song Django did with legendary violinist Stephan Grapelli, is the best music ever played. I can’t really disagree with him on that either.

Anyway, the only time Andy smiles is when he’s talking about Django. If you listen to Andy, Django is the only guitar player he didn’t teach how to play. 

Andy’s dissertation on Tommy Dorsey ends abruptly when he notices the Gretsch White Falcon on one of the guitar racks. His distraction is somewhat understandable. After all, a White Falcon is a thing of beauty. It’s a pure white lacquered semi-solid classic jazz guitar with all gold appointments. I think it was one of the first stereo guitars too. They say the new ones are not as good as the first ones made in the early fifties. I’ve never played one of the old ones so I can’t really say. The new ones are just fine for me though. I promised myself a couple of years ago that I would save up enough to buy one of those things. Maybe someday I will. Most guitar players kind of smile when they see a White Falcon. Of course, Andy is not like most people. His response is something different.

He pulls out one of his stinky cigars and starts to light up. Chucky the drum guy protestd before Andy could get a match to the stinker.

“Oh, come on Andy. Give us a fucking break with that, huh? It’s bad enough we have to smell you in here.”

Andy blows the match out and leaves the box of cigars on the glass display cabinet and returns his gaze to the White Falcon.

“I had one of those fucking things. They gave me the first one they made because I was the best guitar player around.”

This is just too much. The first one they made? Andy explains that back in 1954, Gretsch wanted him to promote the guitar. He said that because he taught Les Paul everything he knows and that he taught every guitar player in the world beside Django how to play that he was the only man who could get their new guitar off the ground. Total bullshit of course. Even by Andy’s standards. Doesn’t matter though.  It’s still quite a story.  

“Andy, you still got that thing or what?”

“Piece of shit! I gave it to some bum about thirty years ago. I think he used it for firewood.”

He waives his hand as if to brush the memory of the thing away. Obviously, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Andy notices that the others are not interested in his tall tales and figures it’s time to end the bullshit session until next time.

“Fucking bus is coming. You little pricks don’t know jack shit about jack shit. “

Andy stumbles his way to the glass door onto Chapel street, to the corner to wait for the bus. As he walks out the door, Chuck the drum guy yells to Andy as the door closes behind him.

“I forgot to tell you, Clapton called and he wants to take lessons.” Everyone laughs.
As the bus pulls up, I notice that there is something on the glass display case.  

“Hey, Chuck, what’s that?”

“It’s the old man’s pack of el squillos. I guess the maestro forgot them.”

I try to get out to the bus so I can give the old guy his stinkers, but it’s too late. The bus pulls away before I could get the driver’s attention.

I know where he lives though. I could drop by later and bring the things to him. I’m pretty sure nobody wants them polluting the air in the store for the next couple of days. And I sure as hell don’t’ want to hear him if he comes in looking for them if somebody throws them out. 

Like most weekdays, business is a little slow at the music store. Rock star wannabees can’t get their parents to spend money until the weekend, so on nights like this we get to spend most of the time jamming. We like to call it quality control. Somebody has to make sure our customers are getting the best product possible. Some of the regulars come in and join us. It’s really a pretty cool place to work when you are a musician. In honor of Andy, I choose to check out the White Falcon hanging on the wall. I don’t know how nice the older ones are, but I can’t imagine them being any better than the one I’m playing. Plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb and cranked up to eleven, it sure works for me. It’s particularly fine for fat blues rhythm stuff. Not exactly the kind of thing you would use to shred, but perfect for the blues. Unfortunately when we are busy jamming, closing time comes around like a flash. We have strict orders to make sure the place is shut down on time. We don’t’ want to cut into the owner’s ongoing poker game downstairs. So we make sure we follow this one rule to the letter. Register counted, money in the safe, lights out, alarm set and me and the rest of the guys are ready to boogie. We’re halfway out the door when Chuckie points to the counter.

“Hey, don’t forget Cosmo’s stogies.”

 “Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me.” 

I am able to grab them just before the alarm is set, and we all get out before it goes off. We say our usual good-byes and make plans to maybe hook up later to slug some brews and see who is playing around town. Bands love to let us sit in. They figure they can snag a bigger discount if they do. We let them think that. It’s just one of the perks of working at the place. I’m kind of looking forward to playing later. Sometimes no matter how much you play, it just isn’t enough. I had just enough time to stop at Burger King for a Whopper and a Coke and to take a quick shower before meeting the guys downtown. Oh, and I had to drop off Andy’s stinkers on the way. That would only take a minute. I’m sure Andy isn’t the kind of guy who is going to invite me in for a glass of wine or anything. 

Andy lives in this apartment building on Elm Street. You know the kind. The entry is finished in old art deco tile that probably hasn’t been washed in about fifty years. It reminds me of Grand Central Station’s bathrooms. It sort of smells likes that too. Andy’s apartment is on the first floor and has windows looking out over the busy street. I wonder how he gets any sleep in there. It’s hotter than hell out, and his windows are wide open. The rusted old air conditioner is not on. Probably because it doesn’t work or Andy can’t afford to run it. I have to admit that I’m curious about what he does in there all day by himself, so I sneak up to one of his windows and hear a familiar tune playing on his radio or record player or something.

Of course, it’s Django’s “Tiger Rag” playing. It’s kind of strange though. I don’t hear Stephan Grapelli playing along. I never heard of a version with just Django. Now I’m really curious. I move closer to the window and poke my head in.

I’m amazed at what I see.

Andy Cosmo is sitting with his back to me in one of those old tapestry covered over- stuffed chairs you see in funeral homes and old black and white Scrooge movies. And he’s holding it in his hands. Its white lacquer has yellowed with age, and the gold appointments are worn and faded. But that’s it for sure. There can be no mistake. He’s playing the White Falcon. The reason there was no Stephan Grapelli on the record is because it wasn’t a record at all. It was Andy Cosmo playing “Tiger Rag” on the White Falcon.

No, he’s not playing it. He’s making love to it. His disfigured fingers are flying over the ebony neck with great ease, as if it were that day in 1954 when he first got it.

He’s playing the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.

Every note true to Django’s original rendition.

But with the kind of heart and soul that can only be captured by the greatest of masters.

Suddenly, I reach into my pocket and I remember why I came here. The el squillos. Of course. I came to give them to him.

The melodies and chords continue, though, and I find that I do not want them to stop. No. The stogies can wait. I think I’ll give them to him tomorrow. I’m too busy listening to Andy playing “Tiger Rag.”

Maybe he’ll do “Sweet Georgia Brown” or “Honeysuckle Rose” or some other Django classic. The Whopper and the guys downtown can wait a few minutes. Right now, I just want to listen to Andy Cosmo play that White Falcon. And you know, I think maybe he actually did teach Les Paul everything he knows. Maybe Tommy Dorsey really was a prick. I’m not so sure anymore. I’ll wait until I see him next time to ask. For now, I’ll just listen. And I realize that I can’t wait to hear his next story.