Just as I’m hulking the largest of the Tannoys through the door, I see her. Alone on a bar stool, her back to me, scarved like Isadora, a dead-ringer for the, how-shall-we-say, mature Marianne Faithful. And drinking. Boy, can she put it away. White-wine spritzers. By the time I’ve set up the gear she’s on her third, at least. But no one’s paying her much attention. Maybe she’s a regular. A person can work up a mean, mean thirst after a hard day impersonating a 60s icon, to rephrase The Replacements. The bar, though brightly lit, busy, is one of those joints that seems to concentrate the forces of the night – that drags its disguised desperadoes through its revolving doors one after another. I’ve been playing it for weeks. Strange, then, that I’ve never encountered her. A woman can earn a reputation for herself if she’s not careful.
‘Testing, testing . . . One . . . Two . . . Buckle-my-shoe.’
It’s only when I line-check the mic does Marianne turn to face me. She assesses me candidly. A blazon in reverse, from my groin to my head, until her eyes alight on mine, like crows on carrion. They sparkle under the mirrorball, and not unattractively. She’s an attractive proposition, or piece, as my partner Romero would slaver. But he’s not with me tonight. It’s a solo gig. Flamenco guitar on a high stool, with a set of Django thrown in later. Only by closing time will they be shouting for Jose Feliciano and brawling with the fire-extinguishers.
‘Hey . . . Shouldn’t you be on by now?’
Mario the bar manager, sweating, massively uptight in the kind of toreador pants that will give him a hernia one day, is at my shoulder.
‘Okay, boss. Was just checking out the opposition.’ And I nod towards Marianne. ‘Know who she is?’
Mario twists his porky head towards Marianne, who smiles back: a sincere, welcoming, gregarious smile, like the opening of a shell. Even from this distance, I can tell her teeth aren’t in great condition.
Mario turns to me with a kind of sneer or leer, and barks:
‘Just don’t let her get up and sing later. That’s what I pay you for.’
Then he’s gone and I’m into the opening Mazurka of my set. Heads other than Marianne’s turn along the ranged, glowing, brass-reflecting ocean liner of the bar. This always happens. First piece, a thunder of appreciation. Second, a polite, expedient smatter of hands. Third, they are back to their conversations, their risky chat-ups, their private lives. All, in this case, except Marianne. For the thirty-minute duration of my set, she fixes her bird-of-prey eyes on my roving fingers, my intent face, a tranced smile fixed to her own.
‘Can I draw your picture?’
This is her opening gambit. But I don’t hear it until she repeats it.
‘I said, can I draw your picture, sweetheart?’
I hadn’t intended to slide in next to her at the polished pole of the bar’s counter, but the place has filled up considerably. The only gap is next to Marianne, and I’m dying of thirst. Maybe people are giving her a wide berth. I’m not after alcohol, of course. Just a pint of Diet Coke with ice and a straw. Musician’s tipple. It’s always fun and slightly scary to observe the progressive effects of booze on a roomful of adults while sober. Like some kind of devilish anthropological experiment.
‘And why would you want to do that?’ I ask, turning at last to meet her importuning eyes.
Marianne doesn’t answer, but holds out her hand. A mature lady’s hand, with seasoned skin; be-ringed with silver and turquoise bands. I’m in her force-field now, breathing a gallon of stirring perfume, her wide face cracked open. Lined, just on the point of disintegration, but still sexy, rich with the promise of sensual adventure. And all her Huckleberry past.
‘Because you’ve got a compelling face.’
‘Really?’ I answer, slightly unbalanced, but liking the word compelling.
‘Donna,’ she croaks at me, unconvincingly.
‘Adam,’ I shout back over the din, and finally shake that experienced hand. It’s my real name, and see no reason, yet, why I shouldn’t use it.
It’s then I notice a little pocketbook flattened open next to her fifth (?) white wine and soda. I lean over and take a look, uninvited. On the facing page is a smudged pencil sketch of Mario, only recognisable by his sheen of slicked hair, his doughnut face. On the other is an unfinished outline of the last guy that sat next to her. They’re not incompetent, but I can see at once she doesn’t have much talent. Terrible, I think, to get to that age and still have no talent, though to be brazen about soliciting engagements. I want to ask her why her last mark split, but she grasps my forearm and says:
‘Adam, would you be so kind as to order me a white wine and soda? Only, Mario stops serving me after a particular number.’
Marianne, I think, you’re falling.
‘And which number’s that . . . ?’
Her face opens with that etched lived-in smile, so welcome and wonderful to behold. I become aware she’s wearing a white chiffon scarf that seems to cover her whole body under its folds – her contours confused. I realise I’m wondering what she might look like naked. Not fearfully, either. She would be the same endeavour of human flesh as all of us, I suppose. Finally, she says: ‘It’s rude to ask a lady about numbers. Maybe I’ll have the same as you – what are you drinking?’
And so an elegant purse appears next to the pocketbook. It’s too late to deter her. I return her smile, as she orders two Diet Cokes. Then I take a free bar-stool while Marianne scribbles away in her pocketbook, shielded from me of course, until its final moment of revelation. Sitting, I look around nervously for the knowing eyes of the Assumption Merchants: another fly falls for the trap! But none come my way. We seem to be invisible. While she etches and frames me with her scrutinising squint, she makes the usual dead enquiries over the racket – do I play music full time? where do I live? Et cetera. And I probe her past. She’s an artist, she insists. She lives locally. Very locally. She’s travelled extensively. Tangier. Morocco. Goa. The hippy trail. An old school seductress, she cascades a kind of glowing glamour. But what’s her game? She could do better than this – a cheesy High Street wine bar on a Saturday night in November, the leaves tumbling from the plane trees outside.
‘It’s . . . wonderful,’ I grin, when she finally turns the smudged page to face me. I can hardly recognise a likeness among the frenetic whirls of soft-pencil, but I decide to compliment her anyway. ‘You’ve got me down to a tee.’
‘Thank you,’ she purrs. ‘I knew you were my muse, Adam.’
‘I think I better be getting back to the stage.’
At this moment I wish very strongly that my singer Romero was here to rescue me. A disentanglement might be difficult. But Marianne is surprisingly laissez-faire. I decide to score her a white wine before she suffers the indignity of asking again. Or asking someone else.
For the last set, Marianne is attentive as a mother on School Sports Day – whooping after every tune, imploring others to do the same. She has a galvanising effect on the bar. All it takes is one. As I pick through the tricky Scherzos and Boleros, Marianne’s eyes never leaving me for a second, I ponder what it means to find yourself in freefall after a certain age. All people are falling – usually at their own chosen speed. Some plummet like Icarus, others enjoy a lifetime’s slow descent. But most go down in the end. To begin with we’re wary of the incipient, grave intimations of going over the top – the long slide. First a slight tottering – a freeing of life-long imperatives told to the self, of dreams and goals. Then we cave in. A rapid drop follows – a hurtling, as friends, work, ultimately dignity, are all shed. It must feel good to let go. Holding on is so tiring.
‘It’s time that we began . . .’
I knew this was coming, but not in such a strange, ambiguous phrase. She’s standing over me as I pack my Spanish guitar into its crimson-lined coffin, the tendrils of her scarf tickling my neck. She smells pungently of scent, booze – even, slightly thrillingly, sweat.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I said, it’s time that we began, sweetie. Life is so short and full of nasty surprises.’
I turn to meet her eyes. Her face, her sunrise smile, could be the representative picture of ‘charm’. It’s hard to evade its intimate, intrinsic warmth, its glow, no matter how manipulative. But equally not hard to remember my girlfriend, Emma, waiting dutifully at home, rinsing her cocoa mug in our scoured sink.
‘Erm – I’m not quite sure what you mean, Donna. But they say to begin is half the work – ’
‘Marcus Aurelius!’ Marianne grins, swaying slightly on her feet. I see now she’s wearing trainers – white tennis or gym shoes. Somehow, she pulls this look off – it should be an affront to her elegant upper-half.
‘Stay for another drink with me, sweetie . . .’
‘I haven’t had a first,’ I smile, cornered, coiling leads. ‘So how can I have another?’
The boisterous din of closing time is all around now; elbows nudging Marianne as they make for the door. Her eyes are imploring me to take her home, to take care of her, to make love to her; to erase whatever divorce or mental home brought her here to humiliate herself sketching strangers and then propositioning them. I feel the sudden pull of the philanderer – its eternal attraction. The buzz of betrayal. While Emma’s missing it, Marianne’s kissing it. But it’s over in a second.
‘It’s out of the question,’ I tell her at once, cheerily. ‘I think you’ve had a few too many, Donna! Home time.’
‘Adam,’ and she takes my arm, gently, though with a firmly experienced grip. ‘My bike’s outside, I could put you on the back. I only live in Wimbledon. We could have our drinky there.’
‘What – you came on a motorcycle?’
‘No, dear,’ and she finally releases me, shaking her head, convulsed with laughter. ‘A pushbike!’
At this point I catch Mario’s great slab-like face behind the bar, glaring at me; a porcine finger pulling across his throat.
‘It’s – what can I say, a splendid offer, but I think you should take a cab. And I have to get this gear home.’ I gesture to the explosion of leads and hardware still to be flight-cased. ‘I’m glad you enjoyed the set.’
‘Ah, you’re married!’ Marianne sighs. ‘Oh, well . . .’
Then she’s gone, back to her stool to collect her bag and pocketbook, which I now see she has left on the bar.
Twenty minutes later, as I heft the last PA speaker through the revolving door, my car demisting on the street, I silently ponder the bravery of Marianne’s proposal. What must it have cost her to ask me home, a stranger twenty years, at least, her junior? I come up with a one-word answer: velocity. The closer we are to the end, the more, not less, reckless we become. It makes sense, really. With everything being taken from us at different rates of knots – the market plummeting for some, for others a subtle, imperceptible descent – we’re all going, going, gone, whichever way you slice it. Old Marcus was right. Don’t wait too long to begin. Snatching a last glance at Marianne, erect at the almost-empty bar, I wonder if she will ever hit bottom. Marianne, I say to myself, as a middle-aged desperado in a stained British Home Stores suit sits unsteadily down next to her, I hope you never hit bottom.
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review and the TLS. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Litro, Structo, Long Story Short and Staple magazine.
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