In the grand tradition of Christmas themed short stories, last year Blabber’n’Smoke published The Rough Sleeper, written by Ken Irvine (which you can read here). One year on (and what a year!), Ken returns to his story which we are publishing in three parts.
A Christmas Playlist. Part One. By Ken Irvine.
Christmas 2019 and Alex has sub-let his flat and asked a homeless musician, Andre, to record an album with him in a studio. Encouraged by the early material the pair go on to enlist classical double bass player Venetia Casal to join them and they form the band Alexandre Appolonia. As lockdown takes hold Alex’ flat is repossessed, and they take on summer jobs in upmarket grocers, Fortrose Bros, to make ends meet whilst living as property guardians.
Months later, it’s the week before Christmas and Alex finds himself drawn to his old employer’s high street store.
1. December 17th 2020
“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”
There was slight panic in the voice.
They were missing Andre.
I had been lost in a moment, with Joni Mitchell, The River, playing softly over the PA. Everything had been peaceful, and then that interruption. I knew what code nine was – it usually signified a problem with someone’s order. Most likely the customer would be standing resolute at the counter demanding the premium free-range turkey that they ordered in September. Code nine would be used because the staff couldn’t find the order and they and were calling in the store’s diplomatic service, the SWAT team to smooth-talk the irate customer, remove them from the front of the queue and allow the staff to serve others.
I smiled when I thought back a few months to the summer and it had been all Andre, he had defused so many situations.
Joni sang “I’m gonna make a lot of money and quit this crazy scene”
We believed we were going to be stars and money would follow. He did become a star in a way – he was the face of the supermarket for a moment.
Staff and customers alike, everyone knew him, in a short time he had made a huge impression. “Andre Harrison to Aisle 6”, “Andre to fishmonger counter”, “Andre to check outs”.
It was weird – “Andre the homeless man” – perhaps, “Andre the frontman in the band” – more likely, but “Andre to checkouts?”.
I had been standing at the magazine counter, staring blankly at the festive issues. I picked up the glossy store magazine Christmas edition, flicked past the recipes: celebrity chefs telling us how to carve a turkey; a soap star reminiscing about past Christmases; a politician declaring that a goose was a far more sustainable bird than a turkey, There was a double pager on the making of that Christmas ad, and then I got to the page that I’d been looking for.
“Jane Egan talks to Nigel Charleson, Fortrose Bros Media Manager about curating the stores’ Christmas playlist that this year includes everything from Joni Mitchell to Sufjan Stevens, Mary J Blige, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Gauthier, Benjamin Britten, Jonas Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone …” they went on to say how you wouldn’t hear The Darkness, Slade or Jona Lewie at Fortrose Bros, and that some songs weren’t Christmas but evoked a feel for family and warmth and get togethers.
– like that was going to happen!
Christmas Eve last year – when we had first opened doors and stepped into the dusty mothballed studio. How the neighbour had eyed us up suspiciously when we called to pick up the key. I had heard them furtively make a call, presumably to the owner in Barbados, to confirm that these wild-eyed vagrants really were the young professionals that the caretaking had been entrusted to.
That night , once we had established ourselves in the studio, heated the place up and cracked a few beers he had opened up a little to me – one of the first things he had told me was a tale about why he had left Canada.
It all started with an incident when he was driving on the highway somewhere north of Edmonton heading to his work. It was around Christmas the landscape was flat and it was a long drive– at one point, he had glanced across the wind-blown snow fields and caught a glimpse in the distance of what looked like someone dressed as Santa Claus, carrying a sack on his back “Dude comes up to this building, like a log cabin type thing, opened the door and last thing I saw was he went inside- he definitely went inside”
“OK – I had said “So was it one of these sad Christmas attractions that farmers build to try and generate some income over the Christmas-”
He had interrupted me “ Yes my thoughts precisely, man, it never troubled me again, until I was heading up on the same highway at the end of summer the next year- I was tired and I had pulled over into a gap at the entrance to a field. I sat on the gate and had a cigarette- looking across the field I saw that same building. I guess curiosity got the better of me and I jumped the gate and strolled across the field -to the cabin. It was much bigger close-up, but yes, definitely the same cabin. Back across the field I could see the highway. Open, flat farmland I would have had a good view of it for a few minutes driving north. I tried to prise a little crack in the door to see what was inside. Then there’s this dude behind me saying “Can I help you sir”. Like a farm worker or somethin’ out of nowhere. I guess he assumed I was up to no good. “Sorry man, was just stretching my legs – I’m heading up to …. -was there a Christmas thing here a few months back”. He locked eyes on me “Nothin’ in here worth poking around – filled it up with bales of hay a year ago and forgot about them – he opened the door and there was just this solid wall of hay. A solid wall – no way in for Santa”
I was waiting for more….
“Dude, I had just turned nineteen, I had no college, but I had landed my first job, most people would think I had fallen on my feet but I had started even then worrying about my sanity – I had to get out of there”
To what though? To come to here and end up living in a subway I had thought, who really was this guy? and should I be worried about getting him involved in my project? But he seemed to have guessed what I was thinking and he had smiled at me reassuringly, his brown eyes darting as he held me in an embrace. “You’re the best kind of person man, you’ve just saved my life, you really have and I’m gonna play my heart out for you I’m going to give you everything I have”
And on that note we had ended a non-descript 2019 and headed into a 2020 that would see some of the worst times, but also some of the best. Andre had delivered his promise to me and more.
The playlist was set to random and out of the blue our track came on. I blushed slightly as I stood at the magazine rack shiftily glancing around to check for reaction. A woman with two young children in tow started nodding her head to it, and elderly man’s finger tapped the side of his basket handle and Adesuwa, on the check-out, straightened her back and seemed to be energised on hearing it.
I heard them before I saw them. A couple in conversation strode around the corner, both dressed in expensive looking camel coats, I noticed her first, then I saw him point to the ceiling and say “Hey. this is the guy I used to work with”
I recognised him – Darren –, tall and broad shouldered. a project manager who had sat a few desks away from me, but moved in higher circles – I nodded across to him, and he looked straight through me – then I realised , why would he recognise me? – shaved head and facemask and it had been a year. I was about to pull my mask down , when he came over and stood beside me – picking up the same publication and quickly found the page, as though he had checked it out before – he rapped the page aggressively with his middle finger and spoke to the woman, “– there he is, strange guy , we had to get rid of him, just didn’t fit in, you can see why”
“We had to get rid of him” it felt like a dagger in my side. This guy was my age, we had come through the same graduate development programme, in fact I had helped him with a load of his assignments.
“Still it’s a nice song” she said.
“anyone can write a nice song babe, I’ll write you one if you want – he threw the magazine towards the bottom shelf where it slipped down onto the tiled floor. As they strode away I bent down and picked it up. I muttered “anyone can be a project manager, jerk!”
“Oh, if I could give you a hug I would right now, it is you isn’t it?”
I stood up. Adesuwa was standing behind me arms outstretched – I pulled my mask down for a millisecond “yes it’s me-it’s good to see you”
“I LOVE your song Alex”, and then she turned and hurried to her position at the checkout, apologising to those she had kept waiting.
I smiled and went back to reading the article about the Christmas playlist. There were a hundred songs. No one would get bored, the music was eclectic, but, it said “this year we have a particular emphasis on country, blues and roots music including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Witherspoon, Merle Haggard, Brandi Carlile ”, and so on. I got to the last paragraph, “ ..and on this theme, finally we would like to introduce a band of young musicians who we found working here right under our noses in one of our flagship branches, the trio, Alexandre Appolonia and their song Christmas in July.”
And there it was – the little black and white picture of us. Andre at the front at the drumkit– his locks caught mid-air with Venetia and me pulling our best moody faces behind him.
The face of the company.
Except by the time the article had been sent the printers in August, Andre was already gone.
“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”
They were missing Andre.
So was I.
Part two follows next week…