Jazz Stories – Episode 2.
Sometimes I get an overwhelming urge to hear a particular tune and until I get my musical fix no one gets much sense out of me. Today I woke up needing to hear Lush Life written by the great Billy Strayhorn. I’ve got five versions of the tune. They are by John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald with Oscar Peterson plus a lovely version by the composer himself. The wonderful thing about Lush Life is its wry sadness. The tune is about being lonely. I’m not sure why I feel the need to hear this particular tune today but I play all five versions. After my fix I feel strangely satisfied. Now I can face the day.
Today, Mary and I simply have to choose curtain material for our bedroom. We’ve been at this task for two weeks now. It’s an agony and I’m no use whatsoever when it comes to choosing material. I’ll fix curtain rails and hang up curtains but don’t ask me to pick one piece of material over another. Currently we are down to seven samples. It’s like a fabrics ID parade. In the end one piece of material will be chosen and then I can say, “It’s curtains for you my lad.” Mary is getting a bit desperate and I think she might even enlist Lily’s help with the choosing. Lily is six years old. She is Rosie’s child and our granddaughter. Her school is closed for the morning because of a plumbing crisis and we are babysitting.
After my Lush Life fix Lily arrives, quickly dropped off by Rosie. Mary and Lily set to work choosing the material. Lily is surprisingly good at the task and to my amazement they quickly agree on the best sample. Suddenly the deed is done. The material has been chosen. Sighs of relief all round.
Lily and I get on well. Today we have some homework to do – spelling. Lily is good at spelling. She particularly likes spelling elephant. We spell it four times - elephant elephant elephant elefant. The last time she spells it wrong just to see if I’m paying attention.
I like playing with Lily. She has three main interests - spelling, feminism and Usain Bolt. The feminism is fairly radical and is based on the general principle that girls are better than boys. Currently she has been toying with the notion of gender reassignment. Basically, she feels most boys could be improved by being more like girls. And, she seems to be extending this idea to grown males. For example, we watch athletics on iplayer and rerun Usain Bolt’s races over and over and over again. We sit on the sofa but as soon as the sprinters are out of their blocks Lily stands up. She punches the air when Usain breasts the line then sits down again. Lily really likes Usain Bolt but his existence poses her a problem. He’s not a girl and girls are better than boys.
She asks, “Grandad, would Usain Bolt like to be a girl?”
“I don’t know. He’s a bit old to be a girl. I wonder if he’d run as fast if he were a girl?” I enquire tactfully.
“Yes, he would,” says Lily.
I decide not to make a point about he would be a she.
I’ve been trying to add jazz to the list of Lily’s interests and I think we’re making progress. This week we’ve been studying Charlie Parker’s famous alto break on his classic 1946 recording of Night in Tunisia with Miles on trumpet. When Charlie makes his four bar solo break after the tune, Lily stands up from the sofa like she does when watching Usain Bolt. I think it’s because that four bar break is just like a glorious ten second dash for the line. It’s one of the most thrilling moments in jazz. Sometimes I stand up with Lily. I think Lily is getting interested in spending a night in Tunisia. She asks me if we could arrange a Night in Tunisia sleepover and invite her friend Hannah. I suggest we invite Usain Bolt as well. Lily’s keen.
Lily and I finish the school work and it’s time for her to test out her feminist ideas on me. I think it’s fair to say that Lily has been politicised by her mother, grandmother and Ms Kaminska, her class teacher. I believe they take the view that where feminism is concerned, you can’t start them too early.
“Now, Grandad, are you a feminist?” Lily asks.
After a suitable pause I say, “Yes, I think I am.”
“No! You can’t be because you are not a girl.”
I ponder this for a few moments and ask, “Why can’t boys be feminists?”
She informs me. “It’s because boys don’t understand girls.”
I think good, we’re having a debate now and I respond with, “Ah, but girls don’t understand boys either.”
Lily thinks about my cunning line of argument. She takes her time then announces,
“Yes that’s true. But it’s more important for boys to understand girls ... and they don’t!” Lily says this with great conviction.
I can’t help but think there’s some truth to her point but I can’t quite put my finger on why it should be so. Then the debate is drawn to a close by Grandma Mary calling us for morning drinks and cake!
When I take Lily to school after lunch, I see that her teacher, Ms Kaminska, has a tattoo on her left ankle. I’ve not noticed this before. Unfortunately, I can’t see it clearly because it’s tantalisingly at the wrong focal distance for me. I want to bend down to check it out but don’t think this would go down too well. Anyway, it wouldn’t be polite. So, the tattoo remains fuzzy looking. I think it might be some sort of furry animal, perhaps a rabbit or a squirrel. On the way home I think about Ms Kaminska and her tattoo. I wonder why she chose the tattoo, whatever it is. Ms Kaminska is a fit young woman - I believe that’s the term used these days.
That night I have a dream.
Ms Kaminska has summoned me to school and instructs me to be a good boy and saw off her foot because the tattoo, which is a rat, is trying to crawl up her leg. She lifts her leg and fixes it firmly in a woodwork vice similar to the one in our shed and gives me the command. I look at her lovely leg in the vice and think this must be symbolic but the meaning escapes me.
“Saw off my foot Mr Sammler and I’ll test your spelling at the same time,” she says.
In the dream I think: I’m not Mr Sammler. He’s a character in a book I’m reading. He’s Jewish, which I’m not and only has one eye. And then I want to check my eyesight by putting a hand over each eye. At the same time I’m not at all keen to saw off Ms Kaminska’s foot but I can see the rat tattoo wriggling.
“Come on Mr Sammler. Hold my leg, start sawing and spell these words.”
I put my hand round her lovely ankle and feel the rat wriggling. The saw is poised. The spelling test begins.
“E..L..E..F..A..N..T.”I know I’m spelling it wrong but I can’t stop myself.
“Wrong! Don’t be naughty and hurry up with the sawing. Now spell feminism,” says Ms Kaminska.
“F..E..M..I..N..I..S..M,” but I can’t bring myself to start the amputation.
“Good, now spell belong.”
At this point I wake with a start. I’m in a sweat. Eventually, I get out of bed and go to the bathroom. There I’m relieved to discover I still have both eyes and I’ve not been circumcised. All is present and correct. I go back to bed and as I’m sliding off to sleep I think: I’m so glad I’m not Mr Sammler and I didn’t saw off Ms Kaminska’s foot. But the spelling test is puzzling me.
I hear Mary murmuring in her sleep, “curtains ....curtains....curtains.”
Then her voice changes to that critical cut you with a knife voice I know so well.
“Pull yourself together,” she says loudly.
I’m awake now and tense. I listen. She’s still asleep and in my head I say, “I’m trying, Mary. I’m trying very, very hard.”
Mary has not had an easy time living with me over the past few years.
When I wake in the morning I’m tense and anxious again. From experience, I know my best option is to try and keep active. I fit the new curtain rail and tidy the garden shed. I notice the woodwork vice is empty. I’m waiting for the evening. It’s a jazz night. Music always helps and I wonder whether I’ll see Charlie. I hope so. Mary drives me to the Yard. Her parting shot is, “Now, one drink only, OK?”
I say nothing.
The Yard is empty and I go to the bar. Susie is the barmaid and I know her well. She was a client of mine for about six years. I think of her as one of my successes.
“Now Sir, what can I get for you,” she says.
“Susie, I do wish you wouldn’t call me Sir.” I say.
She gives me a mischievous grin.
“It’s an indication of my respect for you. And I can’t resist teasing you ... Sir,” says Susie.
“I’ll have a pint please, Susie. And, thank you.”
I sit at my favourite table, peer into my beer and think about the work I did with Susie. She’d been in an awful state at one time and with good reason. They fuck you up, your mum and dad ... especially the dad. But Suzie is strong and I believe she’s found a way through. How the wheel of life spins for now it’s me who needs to find strength. I recall some lines from Lush Life.
When one relaxes on the axis
Of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails
Well, I don’t feel as though I can do much relaxing on this particular axis of life. And I’m limited to one cocktail a day! But at least there is always the jazz.
Since my first strange encounter with Charlie Parker here in the Yard I’ve seen him several times – but always here. He seems to arrive out of the blue. One second I’m looking into my beer, the next he’s sitting down in front of me. I’ve been thinking a good deal about Charlie. According to him, he’s a visiting angel. He speaks about the afterlife in a reasonable, matter-of-fact way and is pretty convincing. In fact, Charlie’s afterlife strikes me as being a far more meaningful and reasonable place than the world I inhabit. But, his account of himself and his world is crazy, of course! I think the Charlie Parker I meet in the Yard is probably some poor soul with a serious delusion. Through my work I’ve learnt a good deal about human beings and their capacity to live through their delusions. And their capacity to live through other people’s delusions, which I think is more worrying. Some delusions can be nasty but to my way of thinking Charlie’s ideas are fairly harmless. What’s so wrong with believing you are the angel of a great saxophone player? And given I no longer work, I’m happy to leave his delusion well alone.
Then another thought crosses my mind. Perhaps, just perhaps, Charlie is my invention ... my delusion? After all, I’ve not been well. This thought stirs my anxiety. A flurry of weird, unrelated questions flood in: How long will Trevor and I be friends? The rest of our lives ... more likely just one of our lives? I’d hate to lose him. And then bizarrely ... How long is this room? I catch myself. Why on earth am I thinking like this? What the heck is happening to me? Suddenly I feel in turmoil.
Then Charlie is here sitting down in front of me, smiling. I feel relieved.
“Hallo Charlie. I’m so pleased to see you.” I say.
I reach out to shake his hand. He feels real: warm, human, comforting.
“It’s good to see you too my much esteemed friend,” say Charlie in his phoney English accent.
He looks me in the eye and says, “You look tense today.”
“I am Charlie, very tense.”
We are silent. Then be begins singing to me. His voice is deep, rich and beauteous. He is singing Lush Life and now I’m crying, but it’s such a relief. I don’t understand what’s happening but I feel the tension flows out of me as I hear him sing the last line:
Of those whose lives are lonely too.
Everything has stopped. A huge stillness has settled upon us. And then I begin thinking again. I’m bemused and delighted by my own delusion singing to me, soothing me. I wonder what strange madness I am afflicted with? But Charlie sure has a lovely voice - maybe a voice as good as Billy Eckstine’s. I wipe my eyes.
“Thank you Charlie. That was lovely.” I say.
“It was my pleasure, my friend. Actually, I was talking with Billy Strayhorn the other day. He’s such a beautiful guy. We all love his music. You should hear the stuff he’s composing now - tunes to die for. One of the special things about a gay man like Strays is that he’s closer to the female way of experiencing things than most men ever get. And that is good, man,” says Charlie.
I’m reminded of Lily telling me that it is more important for boys to understand girls than girls to understand boys. I tell Charlie this.
“Ha! Young Lily is close to the truth. When men understand and know how to treat women, the world will be a better place,” says Charlie.
I also tell him that Lily really likes Usain Bolt but wonders if Usain would like to be a girl. He laughs.
Then Charlie asks, “Hey man, I don’t know Usain’s work. What does he play?”
I explain that he’s not a musician but the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen. Clearly Charlie didn’t know. How could he not know about Usain Bolt? And then I can’t resist telling him how much Lily loves his four bar break on Night in Tunisia. He chuckles.
Charlie then says, “Trevor will be here soon but before he comes I must tell you something.”
“OK Charlie. Tell me anything.”
“There is a big reason why you feel so lonely and I’ve come here to help you.”
The big fish moves inside me and I feel the eddy of water as it slips by. I’m swaying, I think I’m going to faint. Charlie reaches out and holds my arm.
“Hold steady, my friend. You’re not alone; it’s just that you don’t belong yet.” Then he’s gone.
Trevor and Susie are leaning over me and I feel queasy.
“Are you alright, old chum? I think I’d better get you back home pronto. It’s Dr Sharma for you tomorrow,” says Trevor. I feel Susie put an arm on my back.
I want very much to go to the jazz but I don’t have the energy to resist. So I let Trevor take me home and I go straight to bed.
I sleep better than I have done for months and wake the next day feeling good. However, Mary and Trevor have been at work and I have an appointment with Dr Sharma at 5 pm. I potter happily for most of the day and duly go to the surgery for my appointment. I’ve had personal and professional dealings with many GPs over the years and Dr Sharma is one of the best. Prior to her joining the practice some five years ago there was dear old Dr Hyde. He was always losing my notes. I thought of him playing an ongoing game of Hyde and seek in his consulting room. Dr Sharma is super efficient and kind. She gives me time; the most valuable commodity a GP has. We talk about my fluctuating bouts of anxiety on the bad days, and how well things are progressing on the good days. I don’t tell her about Charlie and we don’t change the medication. I’m pleased about this and thank her.
On my way home I think about Charlie. I’ve told no one about him, not even Trevor. I’m beginning to think of him as my delusion and therefore I’d best keep him to myself. I recall him singing to me in the Yard and how soothed I felt. But then how unsettled I felt when he told me there was a big reason for me being lonely. I’d never thought of myself as being lonely but when he said it, I knew it was true. I am lonely, despite all the people I love and all the loving people around me. And what could he mean that I don’t belong yet. And then I remember Ms Kaminska wanted me to spell belong in the dream I had. All of this strange stuff is some weird concoction of my own mind it would seem.
I’m pondering this as I approach the house. And then I see a racing bike leaning against the tree in our front garden. It’s a beautiful cobalt blue and has a seriously bent front wheel. I let myself in and hear something going on in the kitchen. When I walk in, I see Ms Kaminska sitting down and Mary is helping lift her leg onto a chair. Lily is standing wide eyed in the corner of the room looking scared. Ms Kaminska is wearing a lycra cycling suit. It’s cobalt blue. She’s hurt her leg.
Mary says, “We need to run Ms Kaminska down to the hospital for an x-ray. She was knocked off her bike by a white van just outside. Can you get the car out?”
I move over to look at her leg. It’s the left one and her ankle’s broken – I’m sure of it.
“I think we better ring the ambulance, Mary. There will be less discomfort being moved by stretcher and perhaps they’ll get Ms Kaminska straight in to see the doctor,” I say.
Mary goes to ring.
Ms Kaminska looks in pain.
“Ohhh zadek zadek zadek!” she says.
I think she’s swearing in Polish and I hear Lily quietly repeating this new word to herself.
“I’ve got a gig this weekend. I won’t be able to play the high-hat with a foot like this. Ohhh gowno!” She exclaims. Another Polish swear word goes into Lily’s faultless memory bank.
So, Ms Kaminska’s a drummer. Very interesting.
“I know a drummer who could dep. for you,” I say. “He’s good. Will play anything you like.”
“Ohhh ... thanks.”
And then I see the tattoo. It’s perfectly clear. I’m leaning over inspecting her rapidly swelling ankle and it’s at just the right focal distance. It’s not a furry animal. It’s a beautiful piece of calligraphy. I’m so amazed I mouth what’s written. Ms Kaminska notices and says.
“It’s my favourite tune. I love that tune so much I had to get the tattoo. It’s about being lonely you know.” She grimaces.
“Lush Life” I say.