Part 3 of our seasonal tale, A Christmas Playlist, written by Ken Irvine.
When I left the Old Swan much later that evening it was snowing.
Big heavy flakes that took hold fast on the dry pavement. I decided to walk home to the studio. There was monumental news tonight and I needed to digest it all, to process it while walking and to tell Venetia in the morning. Tyrone had given me a bottle of tequila from behind the bar as a Christmas present – they had been told to close down again, it had happened so many times, the open/closed cycle, that by now he didn’t care much about what happened to the stock, he had bigger problems.
I turned left and headed up past the rows of restaurants, late night chicken shops and kebab joints all closed by the curfew. At the end of the road I cut straight across the roundabout, or rather the ancient churchyard that sat incongruously in the middle of the normally busy intersection. It was mainly silent now. The snow fell softly, already framing the gravestones in white. I counted only one bus heading for the depot, its engine whining as the back wheels slipped on the powdery snow.
It wasn’t too far to the studio and, the more tequila I slugged, the shorter it seemed to become. But actually I was slowing down. Perhaps if I’d been travelling at a normal pace I might have been able to prevent what was about to happen, but probably not. Every side-street was devoid of movement, the only tracks entering or leaving were those of the occasional fox, no humans or cars. When I got to my road I could hear a vehicle idling and the sound of a car radio playing faint Christmas songs as if the driver’s window was open. A door slammed in a house, and someone got into the vehicle. A few seconds and it was approaching me. A locksmith’s van. The driver and passenger were both peering down at a mobile phone and they passed me without acknowledging my existence, the phone’s glow illuminating their weary faces. I was nearly home, half of the tequila was gone, I listened as Fairytale of NewYork faded into the distance
I was approaching the studio and looking forward to getting into my bed.
I had really landed on my feet where that was concerned. I thought about the mysterious owners. What sort of wealth allows you to make an impromptu stay in Barbados for a year, and not even bother to try and make money from your vacant property? I wasn’t complaining, they had been good to me, and long might it last. I looked up at the building- a quaint mews outhouse in a cobbled lane – the first time I had seen it in snow. There was a garland of white lights hanging across the courtyard. I should switch them on, it will look pretty. I raised my bottle and toasted the owners. I don’t know why I didn’t notice deep imprints in the snow leading straight to the door.
“Secured by occupation” the sign said “This property is secured 24 hours by Live-In Guardians.”
That was us – that’s what the owner told us our status was – we weren’t guests, we weren’t tenants, we were Guardians – we were doing them a favour- in return they let us guard the property for nothing. Except I hadn’t remembered it being so formal an arrangement. I fumbled in my pocket for my key. It would all end sometime, but for the moment all was good. The tequila had taken its toll on my hand to eye coordination – I couldn’t get the key in the lock.
In fact the lock had gone altogether – there was a fob device. The label said “Newly secured by LIG only authorised LIG Ltd entry”
Who were L.I. effing G. Ltd?
It had happened.
“What the F-?” I yelled
I hammered on the door in desperation for 5 minutes solid– did I imagine it ?– did I see a silhouette at the window dart to the side?
There was no point in hanging around here. The studio was now someone else’s home.
The only person I could think of was Venetia- I didn’t even know the time, my phone had gone dead. So I walked out onto the road and started heading west. She had moved into the studio to work with us for lockdown, but as soon as she got the freedom she had gone back to her own flat further west.
The busy main road that even at this hour would normally be throbbing with traffic. But now, the combination of curfew and big freeze had given me the opportunity to stroll straight down the centre of the road without encountering anything.
I walked for what felt like an eternity still heading west until eventually I found myself outside my old office, the landmark that let me know I had to turn left. The flyover towered above me, I had not been out this way for a year, too many bad memories, the whole area conjured up failure for me. I walked over to the car park.
“SkyLark Developments” it said “Westmorland House is being repurposed as living accommodation for students, a hotel and luxury flats. The basement will be remodelled as the studios and headquarters for the Central Ballet School,” There was no indication of what had happened to the company that once inhabited the building, no forwarding address; had they gone for good?
“We had to let him go” the guy had said at the magazine rack yesterday evening. All front – in the end he had been let go himself. His camel coat, expensive aftershave and shiny leather shoes hadn’t helped him. I had got out in time.
I was five minutes from Venetia’s place – I walked down into the subway – not sure why I used it, I could have easily crossed the empty road.
There was someone there. Where Andre had been sleeping this time last year, someone had taken his patch. When I approached I realised it was Andre’s sleeping bag, his pile of books. Surely not? Especially after what I’d heard tonight.
I slowed down, conscious of my short breaths, and walked quietly up towards him.
No, the sleeping bag was twisted and empty as if he had leapt out of it last year and never looked back. I sat down on the cardboard. His radio was still there, I switched it on. It still worked. I didn’t know what time it was, but no doubt too early to turn up at her door.
I smiled, he had it tuned to a country station, If we make it through December Merle Haggard was playing.
I took a last slug of the tequila and drained the bottle. I guess I must have fallen asleep.
I woke up shivering, the news said it was 7.30am. I had to get somewhere warm – otherwise I was going to die out here. I knew where I was going, but before I got up I picked up the book on the top of his pile.
A couple of things had been tucked into the back cover and they slipped out straight away.
My letter from last year.
The trigger for all of this. “Andre!” I wailed – listening to the “dre dre dre” echo down the tunnel.
The other thing was a jolly looking Christmas card.
I opened it up. The writing was mainly in spidery capitals, scrawled and menacing.
“You’ve had your chances my frend – theirs new owners hear so why want you make yourself scarce. The contrackters are coming into this tunnel in boxing day with cleening fluids and its not gunna be pleasant”
Now I knew fully what he had meant, “ 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”. Call it coincidence, call it serendipity, whatever, his time had been up down here. He had put everything into the album, his blood sweat and tears into making that video that had opened more doors for us than we could imagine.
I tore the venomous Christmas card into small pieces and threw it up in the air. The through-draught lifted it up into the stairwell, and I followed the pieces up the stairs until they disappeared, mingling in with the falling snow against the black sky. As I trudged on I wondered about the paid thug and the dodgy development. In the end the developers never moved in, the downturn put paid to that, the deal had fallen through – no one needed student accommodation, hotels or to invest in luxury flats – no one had walked through this tunnel for nearly a year. And a ballet school? …. I thought about that advert.
Why should the ballet dancer retrain? – anybody can be a cyber security consultant but very few can be a dancer. Something Venetia had said to me one day, she wasn’t bragging, she said she could do most things to a reasonable level, she had put her all into everything but hated most of it. She had found solace in making music.
Someone was coming out of the apartment block, so I didn’t use the buzzer. I walked up the stairs and knocked on her door. She opened it quickly in her dressing gown and was about to say something, but did a double take when she saw me – “Oh it’s you –man, you look like shit!.”
Nina Simone “Little Girl Blue” was blasting out – she hit a dial on the wall and it muted.
“He’s in Cambridge “
“Andre? – yea I know”
“How do you know? “
“Never mind, tell you later, – your story first – what’s happened”
I sat at her kitchen counter and shaded my face as the first light of dawn was glinting up the river.
“The thing I went to in the Old Swan last night, it was an open mic. I know them all down there – we do it every year on last Thursday before Christmas. It’s traditional, candlelit, and most folk do a Christmas song – those of us that are left here that is. This year they had cancelled it, but in the end they managed to set it up, very last minute and distanced, in the beer garden “
“Yea, but they had a big fire pit and mulled wine – it was nice – festive – ticketed – I managed to get the last. It was a bit disappointing really – I hadn’t been there since this time last year and expected it to be a bit of a homecoming , but none of the old crowd was there- all new people – not friendly like before, kinda disinterested – younger…. I was talking to this group – telling them about the band – trying to show how big a deal we had been, we are – I told them about us being on the TV– and one of them goes – oh yea I had a ticket for that a few years ago , my Uncle knew one of the cameramen – I was like no , we were actually ON it – she still didn’t seem to get the concept, she was saying , yea I was going to be on it too, but I blew it off, gave my ticket to someone else!”
Venetia looked suitably embarrassed for me – “You shoulda just let it go, anyway get to the point …”
She was right, I had wavered and had two far more important things to tell her.
“When I get in there , this guy goes on stage , and says that he doesn’t like Christmas songs much , but he’s gonna play one that he’s written as a kind of antidote to Christmas, he starts strumming , and I’ve had a few drinks , but I think what he’s playing sounds familiar – guess what?”
“He’s playing White Christmas and claiming that he’s like, Irving Berlin or something? How old is this guy?”
“Young – way younger than us – he’s about 22 – no he’s singing Christmas in July”
“Whaaaaa? We wrote that! Did you say anything?”
“I grab him when he’s having a smoke at the fire pit and say – is that really your song? , and he says yea it’s one of his, and I say No it’s not. I know the guys who wrote it.”
I continued “He’s a real arrogant little git and he says “How do you know that the guys who said they wrote it didn’t take it from me?” And I say “Cos you’re looking at one of them.”Then he turned away sheepishly and came back with a big friendly grin. I say, “ So WHERE is he then? and he replied “I’m sorry man , I now realise who you are …..I only met him half a dozen times, but he had an effect on me – it’s hard to explain. I feel bad for claiming his work there – I just thought you were some drunk guy, I gave a lazy answer, I love that song it’s so beautiful – you should be very proud. He was in Cambridge when I met him, still is, he used to come along to an open mic that I ran he was shy and kinda uneasy – but I got to know him a bit…You know you saved his life don’t you – another winter in the cold would have been bad enough but when all that…. hit in March… he’s not the most healthy anyway … he wouldn’t have had a chance. But yeah he’s good, got somewhere to stay and he works …”
“Don’t tell me, in Fortrose Bros? ” She laughed.
“Not quite, but something similar” I said.
“Did you ask him if he knew why Andre left us?”
“This kid seemed to know a lot about us, he said Andre’s got great affection for us, maybe doing the album was the pinnacle of what he thought he could do – creatively – he reckons that Andre kinda saw the writing on the wall and that times were gonna be hard for musicians.”
“He took all that re-training crap seriously” she said at the end of it all
“Anyway,” I said “You told me that you knew where he was.“
She handed me a letter.
“It’s not opened – how do you know what it says?”
“It’s his writing, a Christmas stamp, a postmark from Cambridge on Tuesday – that’s how I knew. It just came fifteen minutes ago.”
I opened it. A card, written in Sharpie, covering one half; we both read it together.
Dear A and V,
I expect you were wondering what happened to me – sorry, it all got too much. When we got accepted for that TV show I was like, here we go it’s all about to happen – hell I was a bum this time last year and you rescued me Alex, set me on the straight and narrow – but that’s exactly it. When we started getting all that praise it became addictive: I wanted more, and we got more -it started spiralling, over the summer, all that social media stuff, I thought we were going to be the biggest thing, I guess at one point I thought I was going to answer my phone and Bob Dylan was going to be on the other end.
It then continued on the other half written sideways …, I turned it round, I felt her hand grip mine tighter.
You may think I didn’t try hard enough to stay with you but believe me I’ve been trying all my lifetime to hold something down, truth is I really struggle with stage fright- you might think that strange for an ex-busker – I’m working through it – I’ve managed to get up to performing in front of ten or so people and that’s just about ok – but more is still a problem for me. You probably remember this time last year you said we may end up touring around in a band, a great big clunky, sweaty rock’n’roll band – well for obvious reasons that didn’t happen, and from what I’ve just said you will understand that it might not happen; but the body of work that we produced has made me more proud than anything. And never say never. So we sit on the edge of another year, there’s a new president, and a new administration. /PTO
I turned over to the back
You will notice that I wrote to both of you at V’s place, truth is A, I was starting to get nervous about these owners at the studio, and I think you should get out of there soon – you and V are a great act – just work on your personalities a bit – think of me – and remember to smile when you’re on stage and it’s all gonna happen for you next year.
I don’t know why he wrote his name twice. He just did. That was Andre.
Last year’s tale, “The Rough Sleeper” and “A Christmas Playlist” are extracted from “We Need an Able Hand” by K. Irvine and are published here with authorisation, they should not be reproduced without permission from the author