Cor Anglais

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Cor Anglais by Chris Green

I’m guessing many of you haven’t had someone following you in the fog playing The Diabelli Variations on the cor anglais. Beethoven piano pieces aren’t something you expect to hear on a double reed woodwind instrument in a concert hall, let alone while you are taking a morning walk along the coastal path. You will be able then to understand my puzzlement. Here I am on my way to Red Rock and so is the mystery cor anglais player in pursuit. Sea mists have been building in strength throughout the year in these parts and this is the worst one we’ve had. It’s a solid sheet of dense grey. Visibility is down a matter of feet. It is foolhardy to be walking along the narrow path at all. But the dogs next door were barking furiously. I could no longer concentrate on the chess video I was watching. The so-called game of the (last) century, Bobby Fischer versus Donald Byrne. We had reached Fischer’s famous Queen sacrifice on move seventeen. There were only four moves to go but I had to get out of the house.

When I stop to allow my pursuer to catch up so that I can catch a glimpse, he stops too. But he continues playing. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of music but my understanding is that the range of the English horn is a little under four octaves while the pianoforte spans seven octaves. As Beethoven was one to make full use of the keyboard, you would have to say this interpretation of the Diabelli Variations falls short.

My phone rings. ‘Bonjour Monsieur Gibson,’ the caller says.

He continues speaking in French but slowly, as if it is not his main language. Not that this helps. My knowledge of French is almost non-existent. I blame this on my old language teacher, Mr Coot. I don’t think his heart was in it. He spent whole lessons talking about cricket or telling us about the time he met Harold Macmillan. I wasn’t able to learn much French. But argent means money, doesn’t it? And I can make out the words, fils and tuer. Son. Kill. I don’t much like where the conversation is heading. I was wondering why Paul hadn’t phoned me but I had put it down to his being too busy with his Environmental Science assignment and not because he was being held hostage. It appears he’s been kidnapped. There’s not a lot else that kidnappé can mean, is there? I can’t understand much of the rest though. What’s the point in him issuing a threat in a language I don’t understand?

I try to get the caller to speak English but he clearly wants to call the shots. When he hangs up, I still have no idea who he is, how or why he might be holding Paul or exactly what his demands are. Why does he imagine that I have any money, anyway? Since I lost my job at the software company, I have been living on handouts. Could the phonecall even be a hoax? Someone pretending to be French? To confuse the issue, shift the emphasis? Might it even be something Paul has for some reason cooked up with his friends? Probably not. It does not seem like the kind of thing Paul would do. In any case, it would be irresponsible for me to let the matter go. For the time being, I have to assume my son is being held to ransom and it is not a hoax. I need to phone the police. Unfortunately, the Emergency 999 service has been suspended and I don’t have enough credit to phone the 118 Directory Enquiries services to get a number.

It is getting murkier by the minute. I need to take stock and get to a phone I can use. I remember my old chess buddy, Krzysztof lives close by, in a static home in the holiday park. He rents it cheaply during the winter months and I haven’t seen him for a while. Krzysztof is a resourceful man. He is one of those fortunate people that know how to get out of difficult situations. I’m certain he will be able to help. He will know what I should do.

I give him a call and explain my predicament.

Strange things are happening to us all, my friend,’ he says. ‘These days, day is night and black is white.’

I agree with him. Things are indeed upside down. Until recently, Paul’s future seemed guaranteed. The world was crying out for environmental scientists. But how quickly things change. Unlike climate, which is officially not now changing, even though everyone can see it is. I am not a great one for reading the papers but the outlook hasn’t looked good since the big squabble started. Then there was that other business. The one we voted on. It’s a shame the young did not get out to vote because it is going to be worse for them. Wherever you look now there is doom and gloom. Censored internet. Less choice. Poor prospects. Smaller horizons. You probably remember those days not so long ago when you could book a holiday in the sun. You could fly anywhere. Chess players from my club can no longer play any of the guys from overseas. Sundays have been replaced by Mondays, they are fracking in the park, packs of dogs are roaming the streets and a bottle of red wine costs an arm and a leg.

When I arrive at Krzysztof’s, I find to my horror that he has no face. I look at him but no-one is looking back at me. Between the collar of his shirt and his hat, there is a void. No eyes. No ears. No mouth. He did not warn me about this. Would it have been better if he had given me the heads-up? I don’t know. It would still have been a shock. Some of you may not have experienced it but until you get used to talking to a hat bobbing up and down and stranger still, the hat talking back, it can be disorientating. I try not to draw attention to it but Krzysztof detects I am uncomfortable and tries to put me at ease.

It’s not as unusual as you might imagine, Bill’ he says. ‘Many people from my country living here have no faces now. It’s one way we are able to stay put since that vote.’

On the other hand, they’ve made it easier to stay put,’ I say. ‘There’s not even a rail link to the continent anymore.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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MISSING YOU

missingyou

MISSING YOU by Chris Green

Helen often comes this way. A short ride on the light railway and she can walk the whole length of Harmonica Way, along Mandolin Avenue and into Dulcimer Street. It’s not the most direct route to the office but this way, she feels there’s a chance she might see Youssou. If she has time she walks up and down Timpani Terrace past their old house, number thirty three. They used to laugh about the unlikely road names. A progressive council in the 1970s came up with them. Why not name the streets after musical instruments, some bright spark of a councillor must have said? The influence, perhaps, of Tubular Bells, a big hit at the time. With the embryos of political correctness in the air, the old road names like Colston Road and Parr Street were considered to be unacceptable as they honoured Transatlantic slave traders so had to be replaced. Youssou had had to explain the mechanics of the slave trade to Helen. It made her sad to think that such terrible things happened not so very long ago.

Helen likes to take a walk around the instruments estate in the evening too, after her visit to the gym or her Reflexology class. She might sit a while on the seat by the statue of Brian Eno and let her reverie run wild. Random memories of her life with Youssou come flooding back. Sitting on a Dakar beach with him watching the sun come up out of the sea on their one and only visit to the land of Youssou’s forefathers. Stolen kisses in an intimate bistro in Montmartre on their first New Year’s Eve listening to the church clocks striking twelve. The time the car broke down and they were stranded on Bodmin Moor and had to sleep on the back seat. Things that were bad at the time now come back as happy memories. She looks back in fondness to the time they burned their landlord’s furniture to keep warm after the power had been cut off. This, of course, was while they were still renting. Before her Premium Bond win enabled them to put a deposit on their three up up, two down. The family that they planned to have never came to fruition. Might children have made all the difference. She will probably never know.

In his best selling book, Getting a Grip, legendary life coach, J. D. Rhodes explains that change is the only certainty and when something catastrophic happens, you must adjust to the new set of circumstances within fifty five minutes. It’s been close to nine months now and Helen hasn’t adjusted to her new set of circumstances. She still misses Youssou. What was that line in the song they used to play? Like the deserts miss the rain? Her old English teacher, Ms Spinster would probably say this was a poor simile but it’s exactly how she misses Youssou. Often, on the street, she catches the lingering aroma of a French cigarette or a whiff of Aramis and imagines that Youssou must be close. She only has to see a red Alfa for her heart to skip a beat. They went the length and breadth of the country in the Red Devil as Youssou’s battered 147 was affectionately known.

Unable to keep up the mortgage payments on number thirty three after Youssou left, Helen had to sell the house. She could perhaps have taken in a lodger to make ends meet but what’s done is done. She does not feel settled in her new flat in Grimwade Close. Not only is it in the wrong part of town but it is small and dingy. She usually waits until she is really tired before returning home, sometimes stopping off at The Richard Burton for a nightcap. But, all it takes is a mournful Nick Cave number to come on the jukebox or a Tom Waits tune to set her off blubbing. Or worse still, Seven Seconds Away by Youssou’s more famous namesake. When fellow drinkers come over to comfort her, she feels embarrassed and has to leave.

Helen tends to put off going to bed. She has become ambivalent about sleep. While in her dreams, her life continues as if Youssou is still with her, on waking she finds he is no longer there. This is the time she misses him most. She misses his morning embrace. She feels she’d like to phone him just to hear his voice but when she does, she gets the number unobtainable message. It’s not the despair, she is able to deal with the despair, it’s the sense of hope she cannot bear. There’s no benefit in having something if you know it is going to be taken away.

Each morning that she takes the train, Helen finds herself once more in denial. But is it denial? As she makes her way towards number thirty three, she tells herself, it will be today. Youssou will be coming down the steps. He will be walking towards her, arms outstretched to greet her. It will be as it always was. Timpani Terrace is so familiar. They lived at number thirty three for six years, three months and nineteen days according to her spreadsheet. They were inseparable. With Youssou, even the bad days were good.

Like any couple, they had their difficulties but these pale into insignificance compared to the joy she felt when they were together and things were going well. There are so many happy memories. So many times Helen has said to herself, this is the best day ever. Why did Youssou have to go off like that? On that fateful evening, they had a senseless argument about who cooked the best Crème Brulee on Celebrity Masterchef. Was it the actor who played Lucas in EastEnders or the dark-haired dancer from Steps that no-one remembers? Youssou drove off into the night. He said he was going to buy a bottle of blanc de blanc from the off-licence and perhaps a little yamba from a friend of his. He did not return. It was not until the following morning that Helen got the call asking her to come and identify the body.

Helen feels the dead are not so very far away. She has read that their essence is all around us. It’s just a question of tuning in to their wavelength. Youssou, therefore, is just a whisker away, in all probability trying to reach her too. So she will continue to take the short ride on the light railway, walk the length of Harmonica Way, along Mandolin Avenue and into Dulcimer Street. She will continue to walk up and down Timpani Terrace and keep a close eye on number thirty three. One day, she is certain, they will meet again. Until then, Helen will be missing You.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Earworm

earworm

Earworm by Chris Green

I wake up for the third morning in a row with the chorus of Dominique going round in my head. I don’t understand where this can have come from. I have not heard The Singing Nun’s tiresome tune for fifty years. You have probably never heard The Singing Nun in which case you will have no idea what I’m talking about. Perhaps you do not even get earworms. Perhaps, like my neighbour, Mrs Oosterhuis, you can listen to Smooth Extra in your garden all day without wanting to put a hammer through the radio. I can’t. I have to be particular what I listen to. When I get an earworm, unfortunately, it sticks around.

Hearing any catchy melody is liable to set one off. Smooth Extra, of course, plays nothing but middle-of-the-road classics, designed to bury themselves deep into the listener’s subconscious. I cannot go outside if Mrs Oosterhuis has the radio on. But, I am so sensitive to the phenomenon, it only takes a name heard in passing to set off an earworm. Suzanne (takes you down to her place near the river) Caroline (sweet Caroline, duh, duh, duh). Or even a word. Silver (you’re everywhere and nowhere, baby), War (huh, what is it good for?). And every time I see a dog, Who Let The Dogs Out forces itself upon me. Each time an earworm develops, the blessed thing is likely to plague me until it is replaced by another. In this case, Dominique (a nique a nique), a weird one indeed. I have consciously tried to supplant it but it won’t go away.

Science has looked into the earworm phenomenon and lists of tunes with the greatest earworm potential have been produced. Among those which regularly appear in the top ten are Bohemian Rhapsody, Can’t Get You out of My Head and 500 Miles. This is as maybe. You could argue about it until the cows come home but Dominique is the most invasive earworm I’ve ever had. It’s driving me crazy.

Things have been getting pretty strange ever since it started. Last night I watched a forty minute film where three silhouetted figures dressed as the grim reaper threw ping-pong balls into a contrabass clarinet played by a rotating musician. It was on an Australian internet TV channel. For some reason, this was the only channel I could get on my Smart TV. I had been hoping to distract myself by watching the final episode of the Philip C. Dark thriller, Muddy Water. Perhaps I had not logged in correctly. With so many passwords to remember, sometimes I feel my head is going to explode. Internet banking alone is a little like Russian roulette.

Like Mr Jones in that song by the sixties troubadour, I feel something is happening but I don’t know what it is. Is it just the tune in my head or is something more sinister taking place? Why, for instance, has it been getting dark early the last few nights? Admittedly the nights are drawing in but it is only July. It might be nothing but what are those shiny, elliptical objects on the edge of the horizon? And where have all the birds gone? Since I’ve had this earworm, all manner of changes are taking place.

My friend, Casey Rizla says the weirdness will pass.

Nothing is ever predictable,’ he says. ‘You should learn to expect the unexpected.’

That’s all very well,’ I say. ‘But what about The Singing Nun?’

I’ll tell you what,’ he says. I will play you a tune that’s so catchy, it will see it off just like that and Mrs Oosterhuis’s radio station won’t even have it on their playlist. Karma Chameleon doesn’t come close. This is earworm gold. Not even Rivers of Babylon can touch this baby.’

Waltzing Matilda is certainly a catchy tune but I find it has no staying power and it is not long before Dominque is back. Disappointed, Casey tries another that he is certain will do the trick. This time it’s Ride of the Valkyries. Twenty minutes later, Dominique is back.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of it, I do some research. The Singing Nun, Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile) was Belgian. She was of the Dominican order which I guess goes some way to explaining the lyrics. St Dominic or Dominique was a Spanish priest. He lived very simply and travelled the land talking about the Lord. The song was a hit worldwide and went to number 1 in the US charts. Sister Smile moved in with her lesbian lover, Annie and they committed suicide together with barbiturates and alcohol in 1985. I saw her soul float through the clouds says the inscription on their gravestone.

So how does knowing this help? In a word, it doesn’t and things are getting weirder. Why was there a samba band outside the World’s End restaurant listening to the Shipping Forecast? They had made a pile of their drums and were hugging one another like there was no tomorrow. And why were those people walking their cabbages and cauliflowers in the park? On leads. Perhaps there are no longer any gods. Do I mean dogs? I’m getting confused. It’s that tune that keeps going round and round in my head. How many days is it now? I’ve lost all sense of time. I can no longer seem to tell left from right. Or right from wrong. Everything is wrong. It’s becoming difficult to believe anything. Casey Rizla says that fake news has taken over mainstream media and you need to look elsewhere for reliable information. He suggests it might be written on the subway wall. No, wait a minute! I think that was the other fellow, Simon and Garth’s uncle. Oh, what on Earth’s his name?

Something else is puzzling me. Why does the banker never wear a mac in the pouring rain? Hang on! This is a different tune. This is the one I heard the blind trumpeter playing outside The Mojo Filter this morning. It’s really infectious. It’s ….. it’s Penny Lane. Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes. It’s been in my head ….. well, all day. Dominique has gone. I was beginning to think I was going to have it surgically removed.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Legend Bemusement

legendbemusement

Legend Bemusement by Chris Green

Charlotte walks in on me packing a travelling bag. She suspects, quite rightly, that I am off on a mission. I have not told her. I was leaving this until later.

‘Going somewhere?’ she asks. It is not a polite enquiry, more like the opening salvo of a pitched battle.

‘I was going to tell you,’ I say. ‘Only you were busy with the …… hoovering.’

‘What is it this time?’ she says. ‘Another piece of junk for your collection?’

‘Well. You must have noticed that George died,’ I say.

‘Who?’

‘George Michael. Didn’t you hear me playing his tunes last week?’

‘Oh! Him. He’s dead, is he? Why is that important?’

‘His telescope is for sale.’

‘For God’s sake, Miles. What’s wrong with you? We haven’t got room for any more clutter.’

‘They are quite compact these days. It wouldn’t take up much room.’

‘What would you do with the bloody thing, anyway? Look at Lucy Love getting ready for work in the mornings?’

‘We could view it as an investment.’

‘Look, Miles. I think I’ve been pretty tolerant about your ridiculous obsession up till now. It wasn’t so bad at first. When you just had a few bits of celebrity memorabilia. Bob Marley’s surfboard, Jimi Hendrix’s kite. A few little novelty mementos. I could handle that. But now you’re adding to your collection weekly. It’s getting ridiculous. You can hardly move downstairs. Tell me! Why do we need Syd Barrett’s bike or Prince’s trampoline in the conservatory?’

We’ve been over this one. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to come up with a solution but space is always going to be a problem for the collector. When Charlotte and I first moved a year or so back, it seemed we had enough room for a few more collectables, what with both Elton and John having left home. But, you soon fill the extra space. You always need more room.

‘I suppose I could move the bike and the trampoline,’ I say. ‘If you think they are getting in the way.’

‘And do we have to have Leonard Cohen’s pool table in the study? It’s not as if you’re ever going to use it.’

‘Well, if I move Syd’s bike and Prince’s trampoline, it could go in the conservatory.’

‘And, quite frankly, John Lennon’s ouija board on the dining room table gives me the creeps.’

‘OK. OK, I get the message,’ I say. ‘I’ll put that out into the conservatory as well. Anyway, I’ve made arrangements to see the telescope tomorrow.’

‘It would have been nice to have been told,’ Charlotte says. ‘How long are you going to be away?’

‘Well, Charlotte. I have to go to Cornwall. I shouldn’t be more than a day or two.’

‘And you really think it’s worth travelling three hundred odd miles to buy a boy’s toy just because it belonged to a second-rate, drug-addicted pop star with no road sense.’

Momentarily, I wonder whether Charlotte may have a point. After all, George Michael doesn’t enjoy the cult status of Prince. Nor does he have the mystique of David Bowie, whose jetski I was lucky enough to pick up at auction last month. George is an understated legend, perhaps most well known for regularly crashing his car. But there again, George had the courage to go outside when most of the other gay celebrities were staying in the closet, which surely earns him a certain cachet.

You might consider my contact, Izzy Eeing an entrepreneur. I’m not sure how Izzy comes across these rare collectables. I don’t like to think of him as a thief, more as a shrewd negotiator. His tax returns might not bear scrutiny but he is a straightforward geezer and a well-connected one. I have never had any reason to doubt the provenance or authenticity of any of the memorabilia he has sold me. He is far more trustworthy than the London wheeler-dealers. With Izzy, what you see is what you get. If Izzy phones me up and says that he has Kurt Cobain’s strimmer for sale then that is what it will be. Should I want Buddy Holly’s yoga mat, he will get me Buddy Holly’s yoga mat. If I asked him to come up with Roy Orbison’s Wayfarers or Marc Bolan’s wizards hat, I could guarantee results. Izzy is a resourceful man.

…………………….

With Charlotte’s words I may not be here when you get back ringing in my ears, I set off bright and early. I am becoming used to these little contretemps. The same old arguments. All these people are dead, Miles, why can’t you move on? You seem to be going further and further back. Why do you have to live in the past? Why don’t you get a life? So and so is doing this, so and so is doing that. We never do anything together. Charlotte refuses to acknowledge that our cultural heritage is something to be cherished. …… She will simmer for a bit but she will come round.

After a couple of hours of sluggish traffic on the M25, I join the M4. To break up the journey, I stop off at Reading Services for a Sidecar doughnut and Americano. I check my phone and find I have an alert that Frank Zappa’s food mixer is for sale. I have to admit I’m tempted. Who wouldn’t be? I wonder why it has come up now, though. Frank has been dead a while and surely his star must be fading. But, perhaps a food mixer might go some way to placating Charlotte. There again, she would probably just carry on her diatribe about me living in the past.

Charlotte keeps telling me I live in a fantasy world. I respond by saying that in one way or another, don’t we all live in a fantasy world? What about those who read books about a boy wizard performing magic tricks or those who watch movies where dragons and orcs fight for mythical kingdoms? What about the millions watching mind-numbing soap operas every night? What about the ones who believe the stories in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express? Everyone it seems is living in some kind of dreamworld. As T. S. Eliot says in his epic musing, Burnt Norton, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

On balance, best then to give Frank’s food mixer a miss and concentrate on the task at hand. The sooner I can get down to Cornwall, the happier I will be. I don’t like travelling as much as I once did, but it is necessary for collectors to get about. Tailbacks from accidents further impede my progress and I am forced to make an unplanned stop at Leigh Delamere Services. Despite my earlier hard-line stance, I don’t like to let things at home fester so I give Charlotte a call to see how the land lies. And perhaps apologise for being a little offhand with her, offer to make it up to her. The call goes straight to voicemail. I leave a conciliatory message.

My expensive Domino’s pizza has the consistency of scrunched elastic bands and I regret ordering the double espresso instantly. It tastes like charred wood. I can’t help but recall the days when motorway service stations consisted of no-nonsense greasy spoons and you could have a decent fry-up at any time of day. You could even enjoy a good strong cup of tea with a cigarette afterwards. There’s this assumption that progress is a good thing, but is it? I’m not one of those people that believes in a mythic golden age but so many things were better back in the day. There was more simplicity and honesty. These days you pay more for less so that less people can have more. There again, I could not help but notice that petrol seems remarkably cheap here and they have gone back to using those slower pumps. Safety, I suppose.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a woman at a table to the side of me looking in my direction, late twenties perhaps, dark hair, nice smile. It’s as if she recognises me. I do not recognise her but I smile back. She looks away and begins flicking through the pages of a local newspaper. I can only see part of the front page headline but it reads ‘dies of cancer’. I strain my head, curious to see who has died of cancer. It is Trogg’s lead singer, Reg Presley. Reg, of course, comes from around these parts. Andover, I believe. But, I remember that Reg died a few years ago. Why is she reading such an old paper? I am about to go over to try to find out when my phone rings. I imagine it is Charlotte returning my call but it is someone from the subcontinent wanting to talk to me about web domains. By the time I have explained that I am not interested, the woman reading the newspaper has disappeared. I search the service area high and low but there is no sign of her.

Confused, I get back on the road. I am behind schedule. Thankfully, the traffic as we come up to the M5 junction seems lighter. Sometimes this is what happens as motorists catch on that there have been accidents on a motorway. Traffic services on the radio and internet will have been putting out warnings and suggesting alternate routes for an hour or two and gradually the information filters through to drivers, keen to avoid the hold-ups. It’s not surprising that there are so many accidents on these motorways though. The carriageways are badly in need of an upgrade. I don’t recall the road surface being this bad though and they seem to have taken out some of the helpful signs and overhead displays. If you did not know your way, you might be going anywhere.

Curiously, there is hardly any traffic on the Avon bridge, which is normally a stretch of road that puts the fear of God into me. Four lanes in each direction with cars and trucks weaving in and out. As I head further south down the M5, through the elevated section there is even less traffic. I’ve never known it so quiet. It is interesting to see so many Vauxhall Cavaliers on the road though. Perhaps there is an owners’ club meeting in Weston Super Mare or somewhere. There’s a couple of Lada Rivas too. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. The Woolworths truck is puzzling. Woolworths ceased trading in, when was it? 2007, 2008? …….. There appear to be no roadsigns at all now, not even at the exit I am approaching. The satnav doesn’t seem to be working. A blank screen. But, I know where I am going, M5 to Exeter and then A30 across Devon to Cornwall. Anyway, I do have a map in case there’s a problem with the route.

I switch on the radio to keep me company and maybe get some traffic reports on too to see what is happening ahead. I am only able to pick up one station, a local one called The Breeze. Unusually for a local radio station, they are playing songs by The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go followed by London Calling. Not the usual middle of the road fare at all. I discover these are a tribute to Clash frontman, Joe Strummer, who lived in the Somerset Levels. Joe died yesterday, the disc jockey says. A sad loss to the local community. What is going on? Joe Strummer died back in 2002. I’m certain of this. I bought his yoghurt maker.

A few more bumpy miles and I pull nervously into Bridgewater Services at Junction 24. The operation has been drastically scaled down. The services seem to be undergoing a complete makeover. Even the Travelodge has gone. All that is left are a handful of prefabricated buildings and a gravel car park. The gravel car park is empty, except for a few contractor’s vans. Someone is erecting a Moto sign. Coming soon, it says. Something is very wrong. It wasn’t like this when I came this way with Charlotte last year.

‘Can I help you, guv?’ says a bruiser in orange fatigues and a hard-hat.

I tell him I am looking for the services. Somewhere to get a cup of tea and compose myself.

‘You’re about two years early, mate,’ he laughs. ‘Not scheduled for completion until 1999. That’s if you’re lucky. We’ve fallen a bit behind. The site was flooded here a couple of weeks ago. Big centrifugal pumps we had to hire to get rid of the water.’

1999. What is the fellow talking about?

‘No s’sssservices until …… 1999, I stammer. ‘What do you mean?’

‘If you want to get a cuppa or a bite to eat, bud,’ he says. ‘You’ll have to go on to Taunton Deane. That’s another twenty odd miles. ‘

‘But there were services here. I know there were,’ I say. ‘What have you done?’

‘You taking the piss, mate? Look! I should get back in your car before I set the dogs on you.’

I know there was a huge complex here at the A38 roundabout. You could access it from both carriageways. How can this have just vanished? This nightmare collapse of time is scaring the pants off me. I feel like I’ve inadvertently stepped into in a Philip C. Dark story. I desperately need something to hang on to, something I can believe, a shot of reality. My head is spinning. My mouth is dry. My stomach is churning. I reach into my pocket for my phone to call Charlotte. Or perhaps even Dr Self. He intimated that something unexpected might happen. He suggested I would not like it if it did. He did not go into detail. My phone is not in my pocket. I always keep in in my pocket but it is not there. I go back to the car and search frantically. I appear to no longer have a phone.

It is not until I‘m behind the wheel again that I realise that I am in a different car. It is still a Ford. I’ve always gone for Fords. But, this one is an older model. Like one that I owned years ago. Twenty years ago, perhaps. It is the one I owned twenty years ago. It’s the same car. Blue Ford Escort. No power steering. Oil light that stays on. The same broken radio cassette player. Even the same cassettes in the driver’s side door pocket. And, the same …….. dog on the back seat. My big black bulldog, Elvis. Elvis has been dead for…. Well, he’s been dead a long time.…….. He’s not dead now. He is barking like he does when he is greeting someone. He leaps over the passenger seat into the front of the car somehow knocking the rear view mirror and realigning it as he does so. I catch a glimpse of myself. I now have a full head of hair and I have lost the beard. It is said that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. I try to believe that things are still how they were when I set off but when I look in the mirror again, I find I still have a full head of hair and no beard. How can this have happened? How can any of this be happening? And, where has this thick fog suddenly come from? I can hardly see the road ahead.

When I emerge from the fog, sometime later (flexible, anonymous, irrational time) Elvis is no longer with me. Things appear to have once more moved on. Or back. Time it seems is in a bit of a tangle right now. I find I am in a Ford Cortina. A Mark 2 model. On a narrow windy country lane. Up ahead is a horse-drawn tractor. Princetown 7 miles, says a gnarled road sign. Princetown, I believe is in the middle of Dartmoor. Driving the car is a man that I recognise to be my dead father. He tells me he is taking me to a concert. In Tavistock.

‘It’s all right, he says. ‘I told your mother we would be late.’

‘A concert. You mean like people on a stage,’ I say. I cannot now recall having been to a concert before.

‘That’s right, son.’

‘Who are we going to see?’

‘Jimi Hendrix,’ he says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘No. Not The Who, lad,’ he says. ‘Jimi Hendrix. He’s just arrived in this country. He has a record called Hey Joe. He plays the guitar with his teeth. He’s going to be famous. You’ll probably be buying posters of him for your room and who knows what else before long.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist

thesadnessoftheposttruthpianist

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist by Chris Green

You don’t hear Mozart a lot on the radio these days. While his music isn’t officially banned like that of Beethoven and Bach, playing it is strongly discouraged. You can no longer buy decadent European music in the shops. No Fauré, No Debussy, no Chopin and certainly no Sebelius. Jingoism has spread to most areas of culture but it is perhaps most noticeable in music. Fed daily by post-truth sound bites, prejudice is now rife. England’s isolationist stance has strengthened its grip. Classic FM now feeds its listeners on a diet of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and even the latter is a bit suspect because of his Welsh sounding name. Wales and Scotland are of course long gone, this by mutual agreement in the aftermath of Brexit, so no Karl Jenkins or …… William Wallace. No, I guess you’ve not come across William Wallace all that frequently either. Perhaps the bagpipes were a natural obstacle for Scottish classical music that was never successfully overcome.

For those of us that really love music, it is thrilling to hear Wolfgang Amadeus’s Piano Concerto no. 23 again. It is heart-warming that in this stifling climate of fanatical bellicism, one or two broadcasters like Miles London still risk playing European music. Miles, despite his British-sounding name, has always been a champion of free speech. It could be argued that he gets away with his stance by virtue of his name. John Schafernaker was imprisoned for playing Shostakovich, this before the Russians actually appeared on the blacklist. Others, like Martin Paris and Michelle DuBois, were not only taken off the air but deported. Boys born today are required to be called Hugh or Rupert, Trevor or Nigel while girls must be named Audrey or Doris, Millicent or Lesley. In exceptional circumstances, Mary and Jane are allowed but notice has been issued to Registry Offices up and down the country to no longer allow names like Jennifer or Anne that have their origins across the Channel.

I used to enjoy going to Ristorante Rossellini for a Caprese salad with pesto sauce followed by tagliatelle Genovese and tiramisu. My partner, Patrizia and I would share a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. Puccini or Donizetti would be playing gently in the background. Luigi would come over during the meal and ask if everything was a tuo piacimento. Sadly, Italian restaurants have all been closed down and Patrizia has been repatriated. Cheese on toast with a bottle of brown ale on my own at the Dog and Duck with whippets running around and Ed Sheeran blaring out is just not the same.

Puzzled by how the wave of nationalism grew so rapidly, I decided to investigate its origins. What had happened to the idea of the global village? Jingoism seemed to be going against the general tide of cultural exploration. After all, until recently we had been all too willing to go on Mediterranean holidays. We couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sex. We were quick to develop a taste for wine, olive oil and garlic. We readily took to café society and al fresco dining and brought it home. Pizza parlours proliferated and late night kebab houses opened in every town. We didn’t even baulk at eating snails or some of the unsavoury things Germans put in their sausages. We eagerly participated in European sporting events and brought over so many European footballers that it was difficult to find a British one in any of our top flight teams.

The turn of the tide appears to have been the outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s which prompted the EU to refuse to buy our beef. This struck at the heart of the British psyche. Cows, it appears were the linchpin of our culture. British beef, British beef, British beef, we chanted. We railed and railed but to no avail. Our continental comrades refused to listen. Brussels quickly became branded as the root of all evil. We wanted a life without the interference of Johnny Foreigner. Everything bad that happened could now be blamed on the foul capital of that slimy little lowland backwater that nobody wanted to visit.

But, to fully explain the demonisation of all things European, perhaps we might turn our eyes once more to music. Every year the United Kingdom, as it was then, would carefully craft the perfect song to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Each year it was announced in the press that this time we stood a realistic chance of taking the trophy but each year we would get fewer and fewer points. This was a travesty as we felt, with some justification I understand, that we produced the best pop music in the world. This was the area in which we excelled.

I wish I could go back to those days before the ignominious tabloid headline about bovine TB. To the days when you could hop across the Channel on Eurostar. To when you could peruse the Picasso paintings in the Tate or buy an Alfa Romeo legally. To those days when Bruch’s Violin Concerto was number 1 on the Classic FM Countdown. To the time when I was a dazzling young pianist, fresh from an Amadeus Scholarship and enjoying the first fruits of success. I had hopes and dreams. I did not need self-help books or a prescription for anti-depressants. Things were better then.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Hat Band

hatband

Hat Band by Chris Green

A jazz musician making his way down an Exeter street on a Wednesday morning with a charity shop bag full of bargain books can hardly be blamed for failing to notice that he is being tailed by a tall, thin man in a dark overcoat. Musicians are more accustomed to being looked at than looking, a matter which helps to explain why the thin man in the dark overcoat has been able to keep an eye on Max Tempo’s movements unnoticed for a day or two. Max is simply not aware that there is anything untoward in his world and why would he be? His quintet has a full diary of bookings, the promise of a recording contract and he has the beginnings of a new tune in his head. This is what preoccupies him as he approaches RAMM in Queen Street, where he feels he might drop in and have a cup of tea and sketch out the chords of the new tune on the pad he carries around with him. Maybe afterwards he can have a look at the paintings in the new exhibition by the modern artist whose name temporarily escapes him. Belinda mentioned him that morning over breakfast. Portraits assembled from cut up phone books or something like that, she said.

Max Tempo is not even curious when he catches the tall, thin stranger casting furtive glances from the corner of the café in RAMM, where he is enjoying his lemon polenta cake. The man probably recognises him from one of his gigs. This happens all the time. People are just too shy to come over and say they enjoyed the set. Or, is he merely admiring his brightly coloured African blazer and striped Jazz cap. It does register with him however when he encounters the same stranger waiting outside the gents toilet, but he does not give this a second thought. After all, there are gay men everywhere these days.

‘I wonder who that fellow in the black Jaguar is,’ Belinda says, looking out of the bay window of their townhouse. ‘He’s been sitting there all afternoon.’

‘Probably broken down or something,’ Max says. Max is working on the arrangement for his new tune on his iMac. The piano part is coming along well but the guitar part is proving trickier than he first thought it was going to be. This is the trouble when you try to put in too many minor chords.

‘Now I come to think of it, he was there yesterday afternoon too,’ Belinda says. ‘When I came back from the leisure centre. I noticed it because it’s quite an old car, isn’t it? Fellow in a dark coat and hat with his head in Jazz Weekly. Peering over the top of it, he was. I remember the banner headline Big Fifties Jazz Revival. I thought he must have been a friend of yours. There were some instruments in the back of the car too. Saxophones, I think.’

‘Perhaps he’s with Green Flag,’ says Max, who has not been listening. ‘They are pretty slow in coming out.’

‘He keeps looking over this way, Max.’

‘You want me to go and ask him what he’s doing, is that it? Perhaps I should invite him in for a tea and cake. Maybe, he can stay for dinner.’

‘No need to be like that, Max.’

‘I’m trying to finish this tune, Bee.’

Max feels It is always a good idea to open the set with a good old jazz standard. So, at Cool for Cats, the Max Tempo Quintet open with Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. As he looks around, Max feels pleased that there is a healthy turnout for a weekday, a couple of hundred perhaps, a good mix of all ages, couples and singles, a few gays and a few hipsters thrown in. So, Max feels they might try out the new number, now that Buck has put in the new guitar part and Bram has the tenor saxophone solo worked out. Max has given it the working title, Borsalino.

The band’s set, featuring highlights of their own material along with reworked standards, goes well. There is a good response from the audience to the new number. Although it is sometimes difficult to see everything that is going on from behind the piano, during the last few numbers, Max can’t help noticing that there are two men with no rhythm dressed in dark vintage overcoats sitting at a table towards the back. Alongside the revellers, they seem oddly out of place and out of time. As Max leaves Cool for Cats after the set, humming a new tune that is coming to him, he finds the same two men are waiting for him by his car. Is that a Fedora the one pointing the gun is wearing?

‘Nice and easy now!’ the other one, the stockier of the two says, stepping out of the shadow.

Definitely a Trilby, the stocky one is wearing, thinks Max. Wait! He’s also got a gun. What’s happening to people in this sleepy corner of the country? It’s always been so peaceful and laid back down this way. The Max Tempo Quintet have been able to get away with more slow numbers here than anywhere else in the country. You wouldn’t be able to follow Misty with The Nearness of You in Bristol or Swindon.

‘You are coming for a little ride with us,’ Fedora says, without the menace you might expect from a seasoned gunman. He ushers his Max towards a Jaguar with blacked out windows. Against his weak protests, he is bundled into the back. Without ceremony, Fedora and Trilby get in and the car speeds off.

………………………………

Ella Valée plays jazz singer, Liv Golden in the long-running television series, High Tide. In case you’ve not seen it, High Tide takes place over an indeterminable time frame and is set on an imaginary island where nothing is what it seems. When Ella is snatched from the set at Shepperton during filming by two thugs with bad manners in dark suits and nineteen fifties hats, she takes it to be an unscripted development in the plot. Surprises like this often take place in High Tide. Director, Leif Velasquez does nothing in a conventional way. Uncertainty, he says, keeps actors on their toes. The series plays around with alternate realities, multiverses, sadomasochism and jazz. A typical episode of High Tide will feature flashbacks and flash-forward sequences, secret agents, doppelgängers and speaking dolphins. Liv Golden usually gets to sing a number or two, in a carefully selected hat. This is one of the regular features of the show, probably the only regular feature the show.

Ella Valée first begins to suspect that something might be wrong on the silent drive away from the studio in the big black Jaguar. Neither the stocky gangster in the Trilby who forces her in at gunpoint or the long, lean one in the Fedora has anything to say. It would be unusual, she thinks, to place such a protracted silence in a prime time TV drama. Not that the unusual phases Ella these days. She has learned that anything can happen shooting High Tide. But, why are they going so fast and where are the cameras? She looks around her. She can see none of the usual paraphernalia for filming inside the car and the vehicles that usually accompany them with kit for the shoot are nowhere to be seen. This is not something that is scheduled to happen. These goons are for real. They are abducting her.

For miles upon miles, the forbidding silence in the car persists. Why don’t the two goons speak, Ella wonders? They could at least threaten her or swap stories with one another about buying hats or gunrunning. She notices they are keeping to windy B roads. Back lanes these might be but she recognises the some of the place names. Stockbridge, Middle Wallop, Winterslow. They seem to be heading south west. It would help to have some idea what was happening. It’s not likely to be good but it would be helpful to know.

………………………………

Whichever genre of popular music, drums and bass represent the driving force of a band. There have been some great rhythm sections over the years. Depending on your proclivities. Max Roach and Charlie Mingus, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, or Sly and Robbie might be ones that spring to mind. Sticks Mullins and Bernie McCoy may not enjoy the same stature as the aforementioned, in fact, you have probably not heard of them but for years they have been the backbone of the jazz combo, the Zoot Norris Seven.

Sticks and Bernie are puzzled as to why two burly hoods should seize them in the middle of the day from the Pannier Market in Tavistock where they were innocently trying on hats and bring them to this big old house in the middle of Dartmoor. Questioning their captors on route about what was happening met with the cryptic, you’ll find out soon enough, sunshine. They haven’t. The hoods appear to have just dropped them off here and left them. Not a clue as to why they might be here. However with the doors triple-locked and the windows barred and boarded, they are unable to escape. Apart than this, it seems they have free run of the place.

Someone is tinkling the ivories in an upstairs room. They follow the direction of the notes and find a showy pianist playing a catchy jazz number on a Yamaha.

‘You need a bit of a beat behind that, bud,’ says Sticks. Secretly he quite likes it. Zoot doesn’t come up with melodious arpeggios like this.

‘And perhaps a nice hat instead of that bandana?’ says Bernie. ‘Something with a brim. And a hat band. How about a Panama?’

‘I’m Sticks and he’s Bernie, by the way,’ says Sticks. ‘Other than hat advice, we might be able to help you out with some drums and bass.’

‘That’s what we do, bro,’ says Sticks. ‘I’m drums and he’s bass.’

‘Cool!’ says Max, surprised but pleased by the intrusion. ‘There’s a string bass in the closet and a set of drums.’

‘Seriously?’ says Bernie.

‘And a cupboard full of saxophones along with a trumpet or two,’ says Max.

‘Really?’ says Bernie. ‘All we need now is a chanteuse,’

‘I can be your chanteuse,’ says the beguiling woman in the wide-brimmed pink hat who seemingly appears out of nowhere. ‘I’m Ella Valée.’

‘I bet you are, babe’ says Sticks.

‘Very droll, Casanova. Ella Valée is my name. You may have seen me in High Tide. I play Liv Golden, the jazz singer.’

They begin to share stories about being picked up off the streets by hoodlums. Max Tempo and Ella Valée it transpires have been at the house for two days. They too were just dumped there. ‘Wait for developments,’ they were told and then left to their own devices. Both were a little frightened at first when they found the doors and windows barred. But, they discovered running water, food, electricity, musical instruments and even some recording equipment, not exactly state of the art but even so, serviceable. Certainly, a better state of affairs than you might expect after being abducted. They even found changes of clothes and toothbrushes. So, instead of thinking of escape, they settled in. There are no phones of course. The captors took away their mobiles. Max hopes that Belinda isn’t worrying too much but he imagines she will be and Ella, if she is honest, is glad of a break from her fiancé, Brad. Brad has become a bit serious of late, she feels, and she’s not sure she’s ready for that level of commitment.

‘Why do you think these geezers have brought us all here then?’ asks Bernie. ‘And who the fuck are they?’

‘Exploitation,’ says Ella. ‘They must think they are going to get something out of us. Some kind of performance or product.’

‘The music business is a more cut-throat game than it was back in the day, for sure’ says Max.

‘Agents in the music business all behave like gangsters these days,’ says Sticks. ‘Managers and promoters too. Crooks, the lot of them.’

‘But, the geezers who brought us here are a throwback to the fifties,’ says Bernie. ‘They are wide-boys, spivs, whatever you want to call them.’

‘Perhaps they have brought us all here to form some kind of retro band,’ says Sticks. ‘Apparently, vintage jazz is making a comeback. I read about it in Jazz Weekly. And they’re keeping us prisoner here to cut some tracks and make some money for them. That’s what I reckon.’

‘Bit of a longshot though,’ says Ella. ‘We’ve not even played together.’

‘But they would have seen you sing every week in High Tide,’ says Bernie. ‘So not completely a longshot. And clearly, they’ve seen Max play. And the dude’s damn good.’

‘I already have a band,’ says Max. ‘The Max Tempo Quintet. And we’re doing pretty well. We might even have a record deal. Clint Snider of CPS Recordings should be in touch any day now. Come to think of it, he was supposed to get back to me last week. I probably missed Clint’s call through being here.’

‘We’re in a jazz band too,’ says Bernie. We’re the Zoot Norris Seven.’

‘Sorry, I don’t think I’ve heard of you,’ says Max.

‘I guess Zoot’s not that ambitious,’ says Bernie. ‘But we get gigs locally. The Nobody Inn and The Jolly Yachtsman last month. And we’ve had one or two good reviews.’

‘Hey! Look at the name on the bass drum,’ says Sticks. ‘Hat Band! It’s all beginning to make sense now.’

‘What?’ says Max.

‘Don’t you see, fellas?’ says Sticks. ‘Bernie is right. Those rogues are setting us up as Hat Band. What kind of name is that?’

………………………………

Do you really think those bozos will make us a million?’ says Frankie.

Of course, Frankie,’ says Duke. ‘No doubt about it.’

It’s just that I’m not sure that many people watch High Tide so they may not know who Ella Valée is.’

You worry too much, Frankie.’

Also, I think that the pianist might be a fairy like that Elton whatshisname.’

It hasn’t done Elton whatshisname any harm, has it?’ says Duke. ‘Anyway, this is jazz we’re talking about. Jazz isn’t about image.’

I know that, Duke. Jazz is all about the music.’

And, fifties Jazz is going to be the next new thing, remember.’

I guess you are right, Duke. We are due a bit of good luck, aren’t we?’

Luck’s got nothing to do with it, Frankie. Certainly you have to be able to take advantage of a situation. But, it’s all to do with calculation and confidence. But, with a name like Hat Band, they can’t fail. …….. I wonder who the original Hat Band were.’

We’ll probably never know, will we? But it was dead lucky you came across that job lot of their instruments, Duke. By the way, how did you know that big old house on Dartmoor was empty and the owner was away in Japan?’

I keep my ears open, Frankie.’

The best bit was you coming up with the toy guns, though, They all really went for it. Scared the living shits out of them.’

Shall we finish our drinks and go back and see what they’ve got for us? They are bound to have got a number or two by now. We’ll tell them they need to have enough tunes for the album before we let them go. Got your gun, Frankie?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Concerto

concerto2

Concerto by Chris Green

1: Allegretto con moto

There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of Spain. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s piano sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. At this stage, fame beckoned.

Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concert No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.

For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.

She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.

Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copy writers. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.

To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.

2: Largo misterioso

Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.

It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’

Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.

‘For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’

‘But I thought it was alright now,’ says Nia. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’

‘It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many it is a hand to mouth existence.’

‘I did see a few beggars.’

‘Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’

‘I see.’

‘But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised, it has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’

‘That’s nice,’ says Nia. ‘Where is that from?’

‘Satchmo,’ says Red.

‘That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ says Nia.

‘Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’

Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.

Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.

‘It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ says Red. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’

‘Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’

‘It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’

Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.

‘Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’

‘You mean …… the big chords?’ says Nia, taken aback by the image.

‘Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’

Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at a lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.

‘That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’

‘That’s cool then,’ says Red. ‘You’re hired.’

‘But it can’t last,’ says Nia, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’

She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.

‘Nothing’s incurable,’ says Red, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older that you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’

‘Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’

‘That’s the common myth isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’

‘How does this ….. gris-gris work?’

‘I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’

3: Allegro con sentimento

Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.

Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.

Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.

Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.

‘What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’

Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.

She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there. ‘I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’

Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.

‘Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’

‘You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’

Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.

Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.

‘In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ says Loup.

‘I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ says Nia. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’

‘Its impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’

‘And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’

‘Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’

‘And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’

‘France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’

‘So the French were the worst,’ says Nia.

‘No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’

‘Not a lot of comfort, really.’

‘Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ says Loup. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’

‘I know,’ says Nia. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’

‘Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.

‘Fire away,’ says Nia.

‘I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ says Loup. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’

‘With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ says Nia.

‘I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’

‘I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.

‘I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’

‘Does he have big hands?’

‘Yes, he does as it happens,’ says Loup. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’

‘Blacksmith,’ Nia finishes his sentence.

‘How did you know?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved