The Song and Dance Man

. The Song and Dance man.

[This was published about a year ago in an online publication called ‘The Cracked Eye. They even paid me for it. However they ‘lost their benefactor’ and so are no longer publishing. That’s sad, but not uncommon. It’s a nice story and quite personal to me, and as it’s no longer available I thought I would put it here. x

….and yes, I resisted the temptation to edit. (almost) Michael]

‘So he calls himself Mr Bob Jangles….the song and dance man.’ said Matt.

‘Does he, does he, does he now?’ said Luke.

‘He does.’ replied Matt.

They were sitting in the snug of the Hemlock and Cup, a bar exactly halfway between their places of work. On their way home. It was a venue fought for by each. Inched towards, and agreed that it would suit both. A victory that could be shared. Occasionally they would wonder if it was a greater conquest for the other.

‘I’m taking the long walk.’

‘Ah, the outhouse beckons.’

‘Don’t call it that.’ said Luke, visibly bristling.

‘That’s what it’s called.’

‘I just, can’t stand, y’know, names for that place.’

Matt reminded himself that euphemisms were a pockmarked minefield with him. Only some were permitted.

The toilet was the long walk. That was ok. It was down a long chilly corridor. And you could, should you wish (and if the window was open), go eyeball to eyeball with anyone passing by on the street, whilst peeing.

Matt ate some peanuts joylessly and wondered when Luke had stopped calling it the outhouse. He definitely used to. He scanned the place. Busy enough. Tuesday night: for diehards, try-hards, and the lost and lonely. That’s what they all used to say. Back in the day.

A group of guys, around his age sat in the corner chatting animatedly. Their look was familiar for the area. In Noho, just north of Soho. Whatever. They were sporting satchels and glasses that were remarkable but not odd. Definitely media types, stuck between ideas and management and cleaving closer to the latter he reckoned.

A group of Dark-Suits bustled in laughing, braying at some joke which Matt was certain was at someone’s expense.

Luke returned and stood over him, the way he did sometimes. He would often just stand and look at him or all around, with something like ostentation. It was an unfathomable pose that perhaps suggested a promise unmet.

‘Success?’ said Matt, breaking the stalemate.

‘I am ignoring that comment.’

‘City boys.’

‘Eh?’

‘Over there.’ Matt motioned to the Dark Suits that had gathered around a fruit machine. They watched them for a minute. They were all on their toes, rearing at it and barking orders respectfully to the little one in the middle punching at its lights. To Matt it looked a little obscene.

‘Let’s go to the hole.’

‘The snug?’

‘Er, yeah. Can’t be bothered with that lot.’ said Matt tilting his head towards the fruit machine.

‘Oh they’re alright. Just a bit exuberant.’

It was at that point they roared as one at a win and the machine played a bugle chorus whilst spewing out pound coins. Matt stood up and Luke followed him down to the back dragging his heels as he went.

Matt liked it there. It was detached but attached. Down there they could see across the rest of the bar, albeit at a funny angle.

It was just after seven pm, in their pub. They were moving onto their second pint. Perhaps anything was possible. There was a sense of a delicious, mischievous idling. It could be a lot like being young, the pub. But that feeling was less common now, than before.

He thought about his plan. And more specifically about the objections his friend would raise. It seemed to him sometimes that Luke thought it his role to oppose. To contradict. Years ago he had stood and watched him do it to so many of their colleagues and mutual friends. It was only recently he realised that he was now regularly directing his fire at him.

‘Yeah Mr Bob Jangles, the song and dance man.’

‘Oh. Back on that are we? I’m going to stick my neck out here: you want to go see him.’ said Luke.

‘Yep.’

‘And you want me to go too.’

‘Yep.’

‘One of your, adventures.’ And he twisted himself and their history around the word.

‘Spose so.’

‘I don’t know. I mean, no, let me rephrase that.’ He lifted his pint, half way to his mouth. ‘Na. It’s not me.’

He took a budgie sip and set it back down on his beer mat carefully. Matt said nothing. He’d smoke him out with waiting. Luke lifted the iPad and vaguely pointed at the venue, the clapping people and the disco lights. ‘I mean heelo. I live in Crouch End.’

‘You live near Crouch End.’

A pause then as they considered their next moves.

‘What does he even do? This chappie, Bob Jangles.’

Matt’s eyes widened. Normally it was the other way round. He looked at him long and hard, relishing the moment. ‘Bob Jangles, the Song and Dance man, what does he do?’

‘Oh god.’ Quietly as Luke lifted his pint again, seeking solace before the onslaught.

‘He sings!’

‘And he dances! Right right right!’

They both took a proper drink.

‘Dick.’ Matt said it quietly, almost out of obligation to form.

You’re the dick.’ Luke replied out of the corner of his mouth, with the same nod to propriety.

This is what they had done, for a long time. The years were beginning to gather up. They had history these two. They had different eras and jobs and girlfriends to sift through. Ignominies to reheat, triumphs to replay.

And Matt still found it fun. This barbed banter. Mostly. But it could often escalate. Suddenly become too sharp. Or too prolonged. It could become a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Assume the shape of the burdens of their lives and their frustrations which were farther apart than ever before and filling up with pressure. Only the pub, made it look like the old days. Although there was just the two of them now, more often than not.

‘And you think this is the guy for your 35th  birthday thing then, do ya?’ said Luke.

‘Could be. Could be a laugh.’

They said nothing for a bit. A silence less than completely comfortable.

‘Amateur drinkers.’

‘Eh?’

‘Those two.’ Luke nodded towards a couple of guys who stood chatting at the bar. This was his phrase for anyone who he deemed a time waster.

‘Maybe.’ said Matt noncommittally.

‘Balls. They’ve got Home Counties calling to them, after one pint.’ He held up a stiff finger as he spoke, stared at it intently.

Luke pointed towards the iPad and a close-up of the singer. ‘Come on let’s go and see this guy for shits and giggles.’

Luke lifted the iPad and examined the website. The singer’s head was thrown back, he was lost to the music; a study in affected melodrama. Most ridiculous. He held it close to his friend face and peeped out from behind it.

Why?

‘I like that era, is all.’ said Matt and he took a quick sip of his drink. ‘And kitsch is cool.’

‘Kitsch is cool. I know that. I live in Crouch End.’

Near.’

Exactly. Even cooler.’ He shifted round in his seat to face him. Things were getting serious. ‘Look, I have my doubts about this man’s credentials.’

Matt smiled at that.

‘He’s performing in Croydon on Friday.’ Matt dished out his toothy grin, and sent his eyebrows up slowly, expectantly.

‘Croydon. Jesus H! I am not going to fucking Croydon.’

Matt managed somehow to get the eyebrows even higher.

‘I live in Crouch End.’

They got the 19:07 out of Victoria to Croydon East stopping at Clapham Junction. All the way Luke said he’d never ventured farther than the Junction before and to prove it he drank deeply from a can of Stella whilst breathing into a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard.

‘It’s an adventure.’ said Matt, and he meant it.

‘Ha, so’s going to the toilet in the middle of the night.’

‘Blackadder Series 3.’

Luke paused, lifted his head out of the newspaper. ‘Series 2, dick.’

They headed towards a pub called the Spreadeagle where Mr Bob Jangles (the Song and dance man) was performing. Matt was excited. This guy looked almost the same age as his Father. Maybe this one would be the link. Maybe he would know him.

They sat through the first song [Chicago.] in a kind of blizzard of astonishment. He sounded like he was constantly clearing his throat, and his face was the colour of an elbow, and just as wrinkled.

‘Ok. Can we move further back.’ said Luke.

‘Yeah. Let’s retreat a little.’

‘Yeah, at least as far as Clapham.’

‘No, we’re staying.’

They moved to an alcove, where he could be tolerated. Just.

‘I thought opening with Chicago – my kind of town, Chicago, was bold on any number of levels.’ said Luke leaning back into his comfy seat. For all his talk he could make a home anywhere. He was like a cat.

‘I’d have to agree. And playing with the lyrics at the end, my kinda town Croy-on-don! was, audacious.’

‘How did you find this guy?’

‘Ah, well the internet I suppose.’

‘Ok.’

In the background he laid into ‘Please release me’, with some gusto.

‘But why, I suppose, is the real question.’

‘Beer?’

‘Go on then, I suppose it’s a novelty.’

Matt went to the bar and surveyed the place as he waited. It was a proper pub. A handsome, sturdy Victorian Gin palace, with an ornate back bar and high ceilings. Everyone was taking Bob’s performance as seriously as Bob himself. They’d even (with some ceremony) turned off all the fruit machines when he took to the tiny stage.

As he waited to be served he wondered if he could tell him why they were there. He wanted to tell him. He wanted to be able to.

‘Yes fella, what can I get you.’

He stared at the barman a moment or two before he remembered what to say and how to say it. Whilst behind him on stage and with a deft change of the disco lights, Bob segued into ‘You’ve lost that loving feelin.

They were on their way back to civilisation. Headed for the Junction, Victoria, the tube and home.

‘He didn’t dance I noticed.’ said Luke.

‘Eh?’

‘Bob, the song and dance man.’ And he performed a fey little mime with his hands. ‘No dancing. A distinct lack of rhythmic gyration.’ And then he sipped from his hip flask neatly.

Matt didn’t say anything.

‘Anyway why are you worrying about your birthday, it’s ages off. You are still a roarer, a puker, a rodgererer, you know a gay bachelor.’

‘Well I suppose I do a bit of rogering from time to time, but I am thinking about it.’

‘You think too much.’

‘And you don’t think enough.’

They were both right of course, in that way that old friends are.

‘That place reminded me of home.’

Luke nodded. ‘Yeah, bit.’

They were from opposite ends of Yorkshire. But there was something about the pub and its people. Their smaller horizons. There was the same parochialism. They had each been surprised that the borders of Metropolitan London could run out so swiftly and so definitively.

Luke turned to him, ‘You still say home.’

‘Yeah.’

‘For Yorkshire.’

‘Yeah,’

‘But this is home surely?’

‘I suppose.’

As the train pulled away from the busiest junction in England Matt looked out his window across the glowering approach to London proper. The pools of orange light and the dark recesses, the trains lines turning left and running steady onwards to Victoria. And as he did he thought about the night his Dad left. And whether he had actually heard him whistle as he went up the garden path. He thought he could remember that. But perhaps he only imagined it later. It was just another thing he’d left him wondering about. He was always whistling, that song and dance man.

They rolled into Battersea Park which Matt always forgot about. As usual no one got on, and only a few got off. He watched two girls, who looked too young to be out, alight and scurry down the platform giggling in heels and holding each other, arms locked together, the way he thought girls only did up north. They looked so close.

He tried to remember if he’d ever told him about it. Luke. He’d told so few people. An old girlfriend, someone he’d thought he’d been close to. And yes, maybe Luke at the end of some vodka fuelled party as they faced oblivion together. Yes in that flat in Camden. He’d told him of the abandonment, the confusion, and the burgeoning guilt that over the years seeps in to fill all the gaps. How all he could do sometimes was look back and imagine. Hopelessly.

‘Do you want to punch him or hug him Matt?’

That’s what he’d asked him. Back then. When they’d still used each others’ names. Back when Luke would still show some curiosity about him. Back when they didn’t know each other that well and so could talk, and learn about the other.

How had he answered him? Through the pumping Born slippy that shook the walls.

‘That’s what I want to find out Luke.’

And that hadn’t changed.

On the approach to Victoria, as he stared through the derelict, neglected and crumbling upended table that was Battersea Power station, he wondered why had he no longer talked about it with his oldest friend in London. How his Father had just gone. One night. Off, whistling into the fog. It was possible to do that then. In that era. Harder now. And easier to track people down, of course.

That’s what he had been doing half-heartedly for the last few years, now that he had caught up with the internet and slowed down with the drinking, which had taken so much of his time for years.

Bob Jangles, when he had approached him, had clearly no clue what he was on about. At first Matt thought he was drunk. Really drunk. But then he realised he was just old and a bit odd. And they had turned the music up. It was a struggle to be understood. Regardless of what Matt said he kept asking him if he wanted his autograph until out of sheer frustration he had said yes fine, yes give me your autograph. But finally, he’d got his point across and he’d said, no son, no, he’d not heard of his Dad. But he’d ask around and could he have a drink at all for his trouble? He’d asked him apologetically. And Matt had got him one with that same awkwardness.

And now he just felt stupid and confused. Nothing really changed.

They tolerated the Victoria line in silence but there was something incessant about the journey. And then, outside Finsbury park – that late night tube stop par excellence – as people poured out and parted around them as if they were boulders in a river bed, they stood and looked at one another absently with a silence pooling about them.

‘Is this about your Father?’ said Luke, looking him in the eye for a change.

‘Happen it may be.’

‘He’s gone.’ As he flipped out his phone and checked for signal.

‘I know. I know.’ said Matt quickly.

And he got it. At last. Suddenly it was over.

‘Maybe we’ll do the Hemlock next week.’ said Luke. He wasn’t looking at him anymore. He still examined his phone closely. He started to sidle off and Matt noticed he was nodding as he went. A steady stream of tiny, almost imperceptible, movements.

Matt nodded, just the once.

‘Maybe Luke.’

‘Tonight was…. different.’ His parting shot, over his shoulder.

Matt watched his old friend head off to get the W3, meandering his way round the determined sway of this last late drunken commute.

People continued to part around him like he wasn’t there until he walked up the Stroud Green road which was teeming as usual with taxis and kebab shops and drunken squabbles of people his age and younger, all heading home suspended under the street lights, and the flashing neon of London’s counterfeit night.

At the corner of Ennis road, with its perpetually interfered with sign, he stopped and rooted for the flyer in his pocket. He took it out and looked at Bob Jangle’s autograph and email scrawled in spider black, child-like capitals. And then he just let it slip into the wide waiting mouth of some London bin.

He walked quietly up the steps to his flat.

Inside, at the kitchen window he saw the slipshod, haphazard roofs that cluttered the view across his little slice of North London. It looked peaceful. Homes and lives were hidden out there. And this was his. He’d been there six weeks, but his life lay all about him in unpacked boxes. He sensed them, bristling behind him, with something like yearning.

He blinked, ran the tap, filled a glass of water and drank it. Straight up and down. Then another. He looked up again, but this time he saw his own reflection ghosted in the window. He fought past it to look out across the city again.

‘It’s Series 3. You dick.’

Just into the night. With no particular fervour. With no more ado.

Tomorrow he decided on the stairs, he’d move in properly, at last.

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