A Blues for Shindig

Read the first chapter of the book here…

Chapter 1

BLUES AFTER HOURS

Soho, the sexual apparatus of London, throbs away at all times. The London genitalia. We fester moistly in her midst, a rather smelly dump. It is 1956 and we are one of the dozens of clubs that exist to defeat the insane licensing laws.

‘The Rendezvous Club’ is a squalid little gaff off a slippery courtyard, decaying happily into itself. It will be vigorously revamped soon but for now; having put all its effort into avoiding the bombing it is relaxing. Inside, when the dim red lights are in operation and the punters fill it with temporary warmth and the juke is going full blast, then it seems cosy. And Soho has far worse dives, clip joints where you will find yourself buying fizzy water for ungrateful girls who will lift your wallet as soon as look at you.

So, a little light robbery in the shape of high prices for low liquor really shouldn’t be a cause for complaint. In fact it fulfils its function, which is to supply booze in the bleak desert of the afternoon when the pubs shut their doors, very well. The glasses are clean and the prices are within reason, just. You might be asked to sign in as it is supposed to be a private club, and a dog eared book full of Mickey Mouse names lives under the counter near to the door. Every now and then the law come round by previous arrangement, and examine this book, for a laugh. They also come round on a more regular basis to receive their bung, but I know nothing about this. I keep my head down when it comes to the law, I know how they can wantonly upset a girl’s life and throw it into disarray.

When daylight filters and creeps its way through from the courtyard and hits the ancient seats and the bar, the dust that lives in every crease and crevice forms a grey, greasy skin and the walls look like potato blight in action. The cellar which is now used for storing booze and for rehearsal by a bunch of jazz musos, is particularly creepy. It throws up the slightly peppery stench of dry rot combined with yellow soap and meths along with older, nastier smells that overlay the scent of dope and resin. I reckon it was once a plague pit myself, and the air has a way of moving around you when you’re down there.

Tiger, the governor, knows I am spooked by the place and will milk it with graphic tales of suicides, dead babies, bodies found bricked up in the walls. He is perfectly suited to this role. Built like a wishbone, angular, with a face as sharp as a cut-throat razor, stupendous stained ochre teeth and a spiv moustache, he has the look of an elderly horse with a sense of humour. Tiger had had his eye on me for months before I worked there, but it was a badly focused, slightly bleary eye. He’d oil up to me whenever I went to his emporium to flog him dodgy liquor from the American bases. I think he was attempting to captivate me with his charm. His dedication to love was spasmodic and his chat up original:

‘You’re a good-looking bird, fantastic gams, bit lippy, but I like that. Do yourself a favour, darling, I’ll see you right. Do the books for us. Come over to Le Mans with us if you want, no need for the old woman to know. Think about it doll.’

‘No offence, Tiger, I’ll give that one a miss.’

‘Fair enough, gel!’ So I feel his passion lacked urgency, and once he realised that captivation wasn’t a goer he gave me a job in his club as barmaid.

‘Wave yer legs about, dolly, keep the beer coming. You’ll be laughing.’ He says.

In his favour, Tiger gives off a nice aroma of Lifebuoy and his hands are scrupulously clean, which is a mercy.

At three or thereabouts the club jerks into vibrant sudden life as the pubs close. Our clientele transfer its attentions from one drinking hole to another with minor changes in personnel. Most of our regulars are small time crooks; men in their middle years, of a villainous mien, who don’t take a lot of notice of me. They talk in hushed voices and stop if I come into range, so ear wigging is difficult. One or two made a half hearted attempt at a chat up when I first worked here but I knew in my bones they only did it because they felt it was expected of them, and it lacked serious commitment.

Occasionally, a bird will come in with them and perch on a stool and chirp and preen, but nobody takes much notice of her. These are men’s men. They are mostly called one-syllable names; Vic, Stan or Reg, and are not my idea of what gangsters should look like. No Sydney Greenstreets here, or Bogarts; this lot are scruffy, with dandruff, lank hair, paunches, bad breath. I don’t think I’m altogether their idea of a perfect barmaid either. I try asking intelligent questions about the penal system and capital punishment, appealing to their area of expertise, but they don’t respond well. The Sporting Life features heavily with Tiger and his friends, a quasi religion for them along with motor racing and boxing. They are fervently patriotic when drunk and Land of Hope and Glory rings out. I hum The Internationale very softly at these times and collect glasses.

I never expected the job to last; I don’t see myself as one of the workers of the world. I expect I would have got the order of the boot if it hadn’t been for me flattening the geezer. It happened like this:

One very usual day, I am bored but no more than usual. I look at the sheen on the carpet, which features a sort of pattern on the patina. I smile to myself the same time a solitary stranger plants his arse on the stool the other side of the bar. Close enough to breathe on me.

‘That’s what I like to see, a happy girl.’ He beams drunkenly at me, elbows on the bar.

‘Give us a light ale darling.’

I give him his drink and he buries his snout in it. His face has relaxed into that state where the bones appear to have melted under the onslaught of drink and eyes and mouth are only loosely aligned to his face. Some of the regular team are sitting over by the door muttering away, and a crew of strangers comes in. This happens sometimes, a conference or motor show, hundreds of males of the species on the loose. Drawn to trawl Soho by the irresistible instinct of the hick.

Like spawning salmon they thrust to penetrate Soho, brave together, coming up the river, they egg each other on. Then, tragically; mid stream, the pubs shut. Wild with frustration, looking for more booze, the poor bastards find us. They creep into the dingy dump with the scent of beer in their nostrils and theoretical lust in their loins and I’m the female in the front line, ripe for the odd jest, bit of baiting a pleasure.

‘All right my girl?’

‘Afternoon gentlemen! And what can I do for you?’ I grin lewdly – encourage them to get all their ribaldry out at once. They snigger and shift their feet about. I can feel a snarl building up on my face; it travels up from my stomach like bile. I check it, convert it into a grin.

‘No draught beer, I’m afraid chaps.’ I crack the word ‘chaps’ to make us all smile, and they order nice as nine pence, carry their beer into the corner by the bog and whisper about me. One time I wish my nasty leery friend Frantic would show; she’d assist them on their quest to corruption, no danger. Not a sign of her, naturally.

Meanwhile, the loner by the bar guzzles his beer and waggles the empty glass at me.

‘Another beer, sir?’ The “sir” weighing in at half a stone of sarcastic intent.

‘Yes, my darling.’

He leans over, reaching towards me, I take his hand firmly, return it to the top of the bar.

‘Aw come on.’ But his hands stay in place. ‘Have one yourself, darling.’

‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ I take his money, ring it up, turn back to him with his change and as I put it on the bar he reaches out, grabs my entire left tit, and tweaks it.

I don’t think at all, I just see his pale face with the whiskers starting up on his chops, the little grin pasted on his mouth and the knowing look in the eye. My fist comes up and he’s off his stool and headed backwards for the deck.

It’s one of those occasions when time goes into free fall and I watch as he arcs quite gracefully. I slow motion my eyes to the guys in the bar and see all their faces dead still and silent, then time comes back to its usual bustle and they return to life. He is flat out on the slippery carpet his foot still hooked in the metal stool rung. I feel my face, white and cold. Their eyes are all focused on me. A great cheer goes up and Tiger and his mates are lifting my arm in the air like a champ, calling me Rockie, buying me drinks. The offender is dispatched out the door in a heap into the courtyard. Sharks will discover him soon.

My reputation is made that day, with the middle aged boys of Soho. I am an asset to old Tiger.

The salmon crowd have melted into the Soho afternoon.

First I was dubbed Rockie, but as there was an excessive number of Rockies about Soho at that time, Tiger changed it to Shindig. I liked it immediately; I was due a name change. This event will bring a small fame and also give me a lot of leeway as far as the job is concerned.

That was my first week working at the Rendezvous, a defining event, and I’ve been here ever since.

Late afternoon Tiger often sends me off for a break. There is no pattern to these excursions.

‘Get yerself a roll darling, no hurry’, he says, bunging me a quid. ‘Hang about a sec dolly.’ And he shoves a bulky envelope into my hand. ‘Stick that in yer bin gel. Rathbone Street.’ He winks.

This mostly happens just when the club is filling with more than the usual quantity of nefarious gits, and is looking moderately interesting. I never know until I’m at the door if my duties as gopher are to be called upon. These are a mystery to me and I have every intention of keeping it that way. I schlep round with envelopes to a few regular addresses in the west end with my curiosity turned off like a faucet. First time he sent me I asked Tiger what it was about; ‘Hope you aren’t involving me in nefarious activities my son?’ And his old eye went dead like some spent mackerel on a fishmongers slab;

‘You don’t want to know darling.’ Said with quiet emphasis. I never ask again. His face extinguishes all curiosity. There seems to be no pattern to my trips. Today, as usual, I am pleased to go, I love Soho. He slaps my bum as I pass, for the audience. I can feel all their heads coming together for a brief resume of my charms as I leave. They will be back to the important stuff of who’s running in the four thirty or working out an accumulator within seconds.

I walk through Soho and the smells slide up to my face into my nose and through my brain. I am numb with salami, pastrami, herrings, garlic, French bread, the piquant green scent of olives. Well past the deli doorway and a sneaky tendril of parmesan catches up, trickles into my nostril. The patisserie and my eyes slither over the brittle pastries, by Isows and my own private vision of chopped liver, salt beef, latkes, rye bread. Berwick Street market, fruit exults in its own sharp colour, peaches pastel softly. I nick one and the juice runs down my chops.

Up, over Oxford Street, another world. Straights rushing for bargains at the scruffy end of the street, all speedy bustle, all tat. My mate, Ace, with his empty camera, taking photos of happy families, lovers, kids. All the better for not being immortalised. Men with cases of foul furry toys, or nylons with no feet, three card tricksters. All doing their own sweet thing. All ready to run at the first sign of a copper.

I hand the envelope to some old bird but she sends me in to speak to a very fly young geezer in a nasty cheap sharp suit who oozes over me from behind a desk:

‘So you Tiger’s new bird are you?’

‘No, I’m not. I work for him.’

‘Must be losing his touch. All right darling thanks very much.’ His eyes slide down over me and I can feel them linger on the back of my ankles like a couple of bluebottles; I reach the door. I see by the brass plate outside that it is a firm of accountants. I take my time, stop at the record place and flirt with the governor, who knows more about jazz than anybody I know. I play myself some sounds in the cubicle, which leaves me feeling so cool I practically bebop my way along the pavement and back to the club. Soon as I come in, Tiger joins his mates at the table and I do my stuff collecting glasses, washing up and serving the punters as they amble up to the bar. I am reading ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and I usually manage to fit that in around my bar duties by clearing the decks, wiping the top of the bar and yelling ‘Any more for any more?’ I can get away with this sometimes, but today the nefarious gits appear to have reproduced themselves and keep on coming.

The day I whacked the geezer is the first time Sid speaks to me.

‘Hear you administered a bit of the old GBH today my dear, that right is it?’

I put down my book and see him looming gently the other side of the bar. He is vast and gives the impression of softness from his immaculate hands to his subtle cologne.

‘ I Certainly did but I don’t expect to add it to my official duties.’

‘No, my dear that would be a bad idea.’ He moves off like he’s on casters and stands near the table, observing. Tiger offers him his chair, but Sid shakes his head, a no. I get back to the kitchen in Paris and feel again the injustice of the class system, second hand thank god. The juke plays Pat Boone and Vic Damone. I am tempted to put on some Elvis but I resist, then just after eight Tiger closes the door from inside;

‘Get an early night gel. Leave those glasses.’ he says and has brought out the brand new packs of cards. That’s me dismissed. I get out before he changes his mind.

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