Julian was waiting. He liked to be early. He worried about being late. Then he would be worried because he was early and nobody else had come yet. Then he would think he had got the date wrong. Then he would hunt about for his ticket. This was because he had forgotten that I had always got the tickets. As I pushed open the pub door, I saw his ashen face peering over an empty pint glass. Tufts of thinning grey hair shot out from his crown and behind his pink ears. This image of Julian was a far cry from Jools, the flame-haired hard-drinking roadie with our school rock band, Dangerous Chihuahuas, who had memorably embarked on a three day acid and booze binge at his parents’ Georgian townhouse in Brighton. A forty year career, joined umbilically to Apple Macs, had dowsed Julian’s fire and drained the fertile swamp of his libido. The Dangerous Chihuahuas had barked their last and long been put down.
“You’re late,” said Julian.
I looked at my watch. I was two minutes early. “Sorry, Julian.”
“You staying in the abyss?” said Julian.
I sighed. “No, the Ibis.” Oh no, not this joke.
Julian winked. “No. Trust me, John. It’s the Abyss.”
“It’s not that bad,” I grinned painfully. Same joke every time. Didn’t have the heart to say that I was really staying at the El Paradiso Bed and Breakfast in Judas Street. But I had to say the Ibis. Just so Julian could make the same joke. Again. “Fancy a beer?”
“Just had one.” He rose from his seat. He was wearing shorts.
“Shorts? It’s freezing out there.”
“I always wear shorts,” he insisted. “I’m going out to do that thing I’ve given up doing.” He winked again. His hand reached into his top pocket and slipped out a packet of cigars. “See. Given up the fags.” He smiled, before heading for the door. Julian’s wife, Fiona, normally joined us on these gigs. She had saved Julian’s life when he had a stroke. But she had gone with her friends from the Ladies Aquafit Club to watch Mama Mia. I caught my podgy image in the bar mirror. That was no oil painting, either. Ah well.
Earlier, outside the El Paradiso I had met Ali, the Big Issue seller, standing by a low wall, his pallid face peeping from the hood of his khaki parka. I gave a thumbs-up. “On my way back,” I said.
“They always say that!” He stared.
“No, I will. Promise.” He shrugged and sat down.
As I had plodded towards The Grumpy Mole to meet Julian, Portsmouth Guildhall hove into view. The portentous, neo-classical columns were at odds with the populous and streaming student district of the city, its paved walkways weaving between blocks of grey undergraduate flats and maisonettes. A bearded student was sat curled in a round window, reading a book. He turned and waved at me as I passed by. I waved back. The city winds shook the alien trees that lined the sidewalks and precincts; Himalayan birches, crimson hawthorns, and bronze Amelanchiers, with leaves like glittering coins, clicking in the autumn breeze.
This gig was another pilgrimage for the grey-pigtailed and corpulent, the fast-aging and anxious sexagenarian masses, huddled in donkey jackets, who had guzzled beer for decades and had now exchanged acid for statins, lustrous manes for ferocious untidy eyebrows and ear-hair, Ford Capris for bus passes, roll-ups and reefers for vapers, and Jesus sandals for sensible brogues and walking boots. So why were we coming, converging like a silent army, convening yet again? The reason? Even for someone like me, who couldn’t play a note, music had been our constant companion. Our dearest friend. It still was.
And we were coming to hear the rebellious, discordant, psychedelic music of our teens, the music that made our mums and dads shake their heads and slam the door, and despair for their post-war dreams. The emergence of Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets band was as a reincarnation, the touch of a familiar sun upon our furrowed brow, the kiss of a long lost lover, the sudden unfolding of leathery and weather-beaten wings. We wanted to fly again.
In the Grumpy Mole, Julian returned with two more pints of Methuselah’s Old Wrinkly. “Is there a support act?”
“Emma Tricca. Finger-picker.” I took a good draw from my beer. It was hoppy and dry. I wiped my lips. “She’s playing her new album. St. Peter.”
“Oh,” said Julian. He sipped his beer. There was a burst of horsey laughter from the next table. Julian raised one eyebrow. “Listen to those buggers!”
A man wearing a steampunk top hat embellished with a feather, goggles and an array of Pink Floyd badges, was holding court. As if addressing the Bloomsbury Set over canapés and Chablis – rather than Nobby’s Nuts and Best Bitter – he relentlessly name-dropped rock stars that he seemed to know as personal friends. Two other companions were sitting with their backs to us – two bald pates, with pigtails beneath that shook and trembled as they chortled.
A slender woman sitting at the end of the table, in a long Afghan coat, rocked back in her chair, planting her Doc Martin boots on the table. Her hair flowed in tresses that erupted from her crown into timeless rivulets of platinum, granite, and silver, streaming across her shoulders. Seemingly detached from Top Hat’s peroration, she beamed as someone who had seen it all and yet judged no one. The retroussé nose, laughing eyes, and elegant mouth seemed to evoke the period of the music we had come to applaud and venerate. But Top Hat had embarked on another yarn, and the pigtails swung once more.
“Gawd sake!” said Julian, shaking his head. “What a row! Let’s go.”
* * *
Julian and I huddled in the queue along the wall of the Guildhall.
“Have you got the tickets?” Julian gave me an anxious stare.
“I just gave you yours.”
“Oh, shit!” Julian rummaged in his black donkey jacket. He grasped the crumpled ticket triumphantly and grinned. “See. I’m not losing it.”
I smiled and averted my head from yet another cloud of vapour from the man in front. The pungent scent of weed drifted among the shuffling column of conker–shoed and booted musical followers. Some had mined the depths of their wardrobes and attics to dress for the occasion. The woman in front of me and her partner sported psychedelic catsuits, which they amply filled, beneath their Afghan waistcoats, purple hippy wigs and NHS spectacles. Two more were alarmingly dressed in black military tunics with red ‘crossed-hammer’ armbands and police caps. One tall thin man peered out from a Kusary black hoodie. The logo across his chest read ‘I HATE PINK FLOYD’ – but Pink Floyd had been crossed out, and THE SEX PISTOLS stitched just above. For the rest, it was a varied uniform of fleeces, Padders shoes, stretch-fit ‘comfort’ jeans, denim waistcoats and faded Floyd t-shirts.
We trudged up the marble staircase and emerged into the auditorium; we claimed our seats in the circle. I had dragged a reluctant Julian from the bar – “Warm-up acts are always crap, anyway!” he protested. But I insisted on getting our moneys–worth and, clutching our beers, we gazed down on an array of percussion and guitars as if abandoned by their players. The auditorium lights went down, and I experienced that sense of transformation you feel when a show is about to begin. As in a drama, the players know the script. The audience doesn’t. It is like placing your hand on the classroom door handle. You know what you are going to say. The children don’t. I used to get excited at school, sitting in a lesson, waiting for the teacher to arrive and the door to open. To walk through that door is to be changed by the eyes of those watching. I had that same feeling of excitement now. And a man with a guitar and a woman with black boots and a storm of black hair had walked on to the stage.
I will not attempt a narration of the concert. To experience performance is to walk into a stranger’s dream, their inner space, and to do so willingly and submissively as the musicians search your mind for the touchstones of connection and empathy. I cannot report truthfully and accurately on all of that. Time needs to pass. But around me, the babble had ceased, smartphones put away and Julian was sitting on the edge of his seat, his elbows on his knees and fingers tapping thoughtfully on his lips. As was I.
Each song was as a fresh wave breaking, and I slipped and swirled within its silver layers. Lyrics matter to me, and I strained to listen; and my head went for a walk around the city walls, the West End rich stores and south suburbs, and paced behind the Sunday walkers, tracing their steps of doubt as another day turned its back. I ‘came here to feel’, and the pristine and shimmering guitar-playing glittered as light on an unravelling breaker. Fireghost brought unease and dread of the lighthouse keeper, a silent daemon in a tower watching, and the deep fear we share about who is watching the watchers. And it was over. As ever, I felt that sense of having been altered. And could not explain how.
Watching A Saucerful of Secrets, superlatively played, was to revisit the irreverent ripping up of the fabric of my gawky, insecure fifteen year-old landscape, where everything was held together by flimsy safety pins, and the foundations of life constantly echoed to the sounds of thunder. As a pallid, wide-eyed schoolboy, I had felt like a sapling in a howling gale, and the sheer punk audacity of the music snatched me – like a poltergeist – back to the shaking and ground-shift of those days. But the closing bars of A Saucerful of Secrets led us to a graceful Dartmoor upland, with the sun rising over the distant glittering sea.
Julian and I did not speak as we walked down the stairs and out into the bracing sea-air of the port city. We shook hands under the statue of Queen Victoria. “That Emma Whatsit was blooming good.”
I nodded. “She certainly was.”
“Gotta go, mate,” said Julian, his face pale in the lamplight.
“Alright, Julian.” His eyes looked small and blank and I wondered if he was in pain. “Go carefully. Give my love to Fiona.” He stumped away into the darkness. I feared for Julian and wondered if I would see him again.
I turned up my coat collar. Another beer in The Grumpy Mole? The place was rammed with concert goers, some standing outside vaping. But that sense of having been transformed in some nameless way made me want to be alone. I pulled out my phone and ordered the Emma Tricca album, St Peter. I wanted to see the lyrics.
I ascended the steps by the Central Library and gazed down the length of The Mary Rose Way. The neon sign of the El Paradiso flickered at the corner of Judas Street. Some stragglers remained in the pavement side eateries and bars; students on bicycles criss-crossed the square, weaving a matrix between solitary souls and pedestrian clusters. They seemed to be connecting everything. I lifted my eyes to the night sky’s roof of stars that had bloomed into shimmering symmetry, and a wind gust shifted the trees, gathering bundles of the Amelanchiers’ bronze leaves and hurling them upward, like the wings of a million insects, taking random flight and swirling in the lamplight and the white gaze of the rising moon. As the leaves settled and the wind quietened, I could see Ali sitting at the far end of the boulevard under the Victorian streetlamp. Still on the low wall.
I passed the round window in the student house. The young man now had a girl with him. They raised their beer cans by way of a toast. I liked that. I did not know them and would probably never speak to them, but our life journeys had passed close and touched, like a feather, like the wings of a moth touching down randomly, the world interconnecting through unrelated parallel events. Wings, touching down.
“You came back,” said Ali.
“Of course.” I sat down next to him on the wall.
“So many don’t.”
“But I did. And you were here. So you kept your promise too. Thanks.” I smiled and reached into my jacket pocket. “Anyway. I need to chat. Here’s my £2.50.”
Ali looked at me. His face was younger than I thought. He had a fine face with dark eyebrows. There was a scar on his cheek. We had chatted a few times before. I had seen him at the Folk Club.
He took the coins, dug into his bag and pulled out a copy of The Big Issue. There was a picture of the actor Jodie Whittaker – who was taking over the role of Doctor Who. Heroes Keep Coming in New Forms shouted the red strapline, with an image of the Tardis whirling off into deep space. “That’s very appropriate,” I said. Ali nodded approvingly. I sighed and stared back down the street. The cyclists had disappeared, and the groups of people were thinning, drifting into the ghostly lanes and shadowy doorways. But the stars seemed to be moving, rising and enlarging, their hues and tints changing.
“El Paradiso!” exclaimed Ali.
“Right now, Ali, it is. Believe me, it is.” Often, I need someone else to perceive truths, to light the lamps along the pathway. Like the students in the round window.
There was a ping on my phone. I touched the screen. The lyrics of Julian’s Wings had appeared. I murmured them slowly.
Glimpses of glasses—reflections from another time
Colours a-flashing when Julian’s wings are touching down
Ali was smiling at me, as if at a child. “You OK, John?”
“I’m fine Ali.” I breathed deeply. I was thinking of Julian. “Had my tree shaken a bit, that’s all.”
“Mine shakes all the time,” Ali said. “It’s better that way. You need some wings.”
I nodded. “Yes, Ali. I do.”
* * *
Julian’s Wings is from the album St. Peter by Emma Tricca (Dell’Orso Records)
This short story is from the collection Om to be published in 2020 (Collingwood)
After his career as a teacher and school leader, John Simes founded Collingwood Learning – a consultancy for school improvement and international education. In 2013 he established Collingwood Publishing Limited. John lives with his family in South Devon, England, where he grapples with his addictions to cricket, literature, the stunning local landscape, and his continuing enthusiasm for education.
A Game of Chess is his second novel and is the sequel to The Dream Factory – published by Matador. He also edited and published the collection of poetry by Laurence McPartlin ‘Wake the Stars’ (Collingwood 2019).
You can find out more about John at http://www.johnsimes.co.uk or follow him on Twitter: @johnthepoet2010
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