That Saturday night – the 25th of November, 1978 – was the high point. It was one of those nights when the adrenaline takes over; when love, hope and promise mix together and the world evolves into a small and uncomplicated place. Looking back, perhaps it was also a night full of early warning signals, blind expectation and intangible dreams. But hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing. And I wouldn’t have seen the red flags anyway – even if you’d waved them right in my face. The simple fact was that I didn’t want to see them. After all, I was living the dream; I was looking for fairy tales when I should have been watching for shadows. But, in a selfish kind of way, I’m glad things happened just as they did. Nights like that Saturday were what I used to live for. I suppose that as the ‘quiet and intense’ one in the band, it was in my nature to be a dreamer. Perhaps the problem was that I slept a little too long and woke up a little too late.
‘When you were little, what was your favourite fairy tale,’ I asked Emily during our first break.
She looked at me for a long time, a trace of a frown appearing on her face.
‘My mum used to read me fairy tales at bedtime. But I’ve forgotten them all now.’
I wasn’t sure if I liked her answer or not, but decided to pursue the idea:
‘Mine was Cinderella. I wanted my very own princess in a white dress and glass slippers.’ She smiled and I could feel the heat from her body as her legs pressed against me. ‘But my princess never leaves the ball, never loses a shoe, stays at the palace and never returns to the wicked sisters.’
‘Well I could do without the wicked sisters,’ she said, her legs no longer touching mine. ‘But I suppose I’m lucky there, I’ve only got a brother to worry about.’
When we were on-stage she danced as close to my keyboards as the packed dance floor would allow; her eyes often closed but always looking in my direction when they flickered open. When we talked during our breaks, she made me feel as though I was the only person in the room and when we finally touched, her hands were warm and soft, her fingers never still, as though exploring every contour, heart line, head line and lifeline of my open palm.
Things were also happening with the band that night. We didn’t know it at the time, but we too were reaching the crest of our wave. Chester was the big difference, of course. He was getting something special out of us and we were still at the point where none of us resented him for it. His individual playing, already note perfect was beginning to take on a new role: he was moving us in exciting and different directions. We were now playing songs we’d played for months in new and intriguing ways – speeding this one up, slowing that one down, adding expression to this section or improving the harmony in that chorus. And the crowd were starting to notice. People were starting to talk. A guy walked up to the keyboards in the second break to announce:
‘Best Dreadlock Holiday ever, man. Best band in Durbs now, my china... No doubt about that!’
We even looked better on stage. Chester, of course, had a very different image to Moose’s wild man. His style was relaxed and calmly executed; there were no flashy hand movements, frantic solos or manic dashes up and down the guitar fret board. But the sound he was creating more than made up for it and was instrumental in creating more movement from the rest of us. Dave patrolled his tiny section of the stage like a dog on heat, his Freddie Mercury microphone swings becoming more exaggerated and at times quite dangerous for the dancers nearby. Brian’s bass and Harvey’s drum kit seemed to have welded together as a single well-organised unit, quite a feat considering that off stage, their personalities were poles apart.
And me? Well at the time I was inspired. I conceded that the guy was terrific and I certainly didn’t feel threatened by his massive talent. We were a team, working together, and the better he played, the better we all played.
Heading towards the staff bar for another round of drinks I noticed Nurses Lydia and Katy at their usual table.
‘Hi,’ I said, giving a friendly wave. There was no response so thinking they hadn't heard, I tried again.
‘Hi girls. Packed again tonight hey? Cindy not playing out then?’
Katy looked up with a face as miserable as John Vorster with kidney stones:
‘She stayed in, Mikey. Obviously, she didn’t fancy watching you tonight.’
I thought of a few comebacks but decided it wasn’t worth it. I couldn’t really blame the girl for being upset. But in all fairness, neither of us had ever declared our ‘relationship’ – for want of a better word – to be anything more than... well... casual.
There was one other high point for me that night. Mad Maria and the chaperone hadn't appeared. Had my plan worked and had Johan, the bouncer, blocked them on entrance? Or had the pair of them finally seen the light and decided to stay away? Perhaps they were feeling some embarrassment over the previous night’s punch-ups? At the time, my head was too full of Emily to think much about it, other than to a have an unsettling feeling that I hadn’t seen the last of them.
* * * * * * * * * *
My unsettling feeling turned out to be right on the money. The pair of them were, in fact, just a few feet away, seated at a veranda table overlooking The Ship Inn’s revolving doors. And the moment Emily, Angela, Dave and me exited, Mad Maria was ready to pounce:
‘I know it was you, Mikey. I know what you fuckin’ did!’
In front of Mad Maria was a half full bottle of red wine and an empty glass. And I kid you not; the chaperone had a milkshake glass in front of him with a childish looking multi-coloured straw poking out of the top. He looked as sober as she was drunk although they both had the usual unhinged gaze about them. I gave Dave a quick hand signal to make a dash off the veranda and he immediately grabbed the girls’ hands and started leading them away. Turning to follow them, I was rewarded with Maria’s screams, startled drinkers looking up nervously as I hurried past them.
‘I was right about you the first time, you bastard. But you’re not just arrogant and full of your own bloody importance. You’re nasty as well, Mikey. There’s something cunning and evil about you. But I think you’re going to find out that you’ve met your match. Just watch this space – watch this fuckin’ space.’
I reached the pavement, relieved that a wine bottle hadn’t crashed into the back of my head and happy to see that Maria and the chaperone weren’t following. Within a few minutes we had covered the few blocks to The Crazy Horse. And as expected, waiting outside the entrance was the next problem: that big ugly bastard of a bouncer.
I’d been dreading this moment all night and had been expecting much humiliation and embarrassment at the hands of this nasty piece of work, all done right in front of the very girl I wanted to impress. I had tried a few times to explain the situation to her, but every time I broached the subject, she had fobbed me off with an impatient:
‘Don’t worry about it Mikey, I’ll get us in.’
So we walked right up to the door and it was immediately apparent from the narrowed eyes and the downward curl of his fat lips that this ugly bastard has recognised me and was already lining me up in his sights. But before he could open his mouth, Emily grabbed my hand, looked him squarely in his pig eyes and said:
‘Hello Pete, haven’t seen you around lately. How ya keeping?’
And to my surprise, his big ugly mug lights right up, he flashes a few remaining teeth and replies:
‘Ja okay, Emily, you know how it goes. How’s your brother?’
‘Yeah, he’s all right. Doing his own thing, like he always has.’
‘Still working next door then?’
‘Yeah he’s still there, easy job – not much trouble in Mother’s’
And we were in. It was like the whole thing with Moose never happened. Pierre was standing at the reception desk and gave me a slightly wary look, but nevertheless said nothing as we breezed past. The place was packed but there were four people just vacating their bar stools the moment we entered and we eased straight into those warm seats to be greeted by a barmaid who was all smiles – ready and willing to take our order. It was as if the Gods were all grinning down on us; as if Emily parted the waves to all obstacles.
As always, my ears tuned automatically into the music. The band was playing a song I’d never heard before although Dave informed me it’s from the new Dr Hook album: ‘Pleasure and Pain’.
‘They should release it as a single,’ he told me, ‘could be a massive hit!’
I listened to the words and noticed that Emily had gone into one of her trance-like states while she tapped her fingers in time on the bar counter. Looking around I was little surprised to see that quite a few of the men in the club were watching us, their eyes always turning away when I held their gaze for longer than a second or two. At first, I stupidly thought that they may be recognising me from the naked Moose debacle or perhaps as a member of the band down the road. But I soon realised that it wasn’t me they were looking at.
‘Everybody wants her
Everybody loves her
Everybody wants to take your baby home...’
I stopped listening to the song, stopped looking at the audience and put my arms around Emily and drew her closer to me.
Two rounds of drinks later and it was cabaret time. The lights dimmed, the band played their familiar jingle and the compere announced:
Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s that time once again. Let’s hear it, for the one and only... the record-breaking... the hypnotist extraordinaire...’
‘Oh I love this guy,’ said Emily, closing her hand over mine.
‘Yeah, he’s a good hypnotist,’ I agreed. ‘But I think his real talent is in his planning.’
‘You’re getting all technical on me, what do you mean by that?’
‘Well he knows what he’s doing when it comes to hypnotising. But it’s what he does with the suckers once they’re asleep that counts.’
‘Mikey! That sounds so cynical!’
‘Yes, but that’s my point – it’s that planning that counts. He’s worked out what makes people laugh. It’s working out what things to make people see, what things to make them say and what things to make them do. I don’t think he’s any better than a lot of other hypnotists I’ve seen around.’
Emily frowned and tapped my hand a few times:
‘But you guys plan as well, you have to learn your songs. For you it’s also all in the planning.’
‘Yes exactly,’ I smiled. ‘Everything we do is rehearsed and everything is organised. What’s the expression: ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration?’
‘I think Chester has more than one percent inspiration.’
She surprised me with that. It was said quite casually, but for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, it annoyed me.
‘Chester is very, very talented,’ I agreed, turning my head back to the stage.
The Great Maxwell had made his appearance and was now looking for volunteers. I felt a movement next to me and turned to see Emily and Angela slipping off their seats.
‘Hey, where are you going?’ I asked, already fearing the answer.
We’re going up, Mikey. It looked like lots of fun last night. You joining us?'
I looked quickly at Dave and saw with some relief that he was shaking his head vehemently.
‘We’ll keep the seats warm at the bar,’ I said.
I watched them heading for the dancefloor with a feeling of mounting horror. Please not another night of Moose-style madness. But then I got a grip of myself and started to reason it through. Emily was no drunken lunatic who was suddenly going to strip naked and charge crazily around the club. Was she?
So The Great Maxwell did his thing and within a few minutes all twelve of the volunteers seemed to be in his power. They were barking like dogs, doing the Spider Man wall climb and riding their chairs as if they were jockeys on horseback. Emily and Angela turned out to be the stars of the show, especially in the looks department and Emily turning into Olivia-Newton John for her dancing and singing version of ‘You’re the One That I Want’ looked downright sexy, even if she wasn’t a natural singer.
The show moved to its climax: Maxwell’s naked bit.
‘When I click my fingers, you will all open your eyes to find that everyone in this room is completely naked. No-one has a stitch of clothes on.’
He clicked the fingers and as always, got hilarious results. They were all covering their faces, pointing their fingers and laughing uncontrollably at the audience members. They all were – except Emily. It was really weird. She simply sat in her chair and gave no reaction at all, the expression on her face set; unmoved and uninvolved. I don’t think The Great Maxwell picked up on it, otherwise he probably wouldn’t have chosen her for his big party piece:
‘I’m now going to ask this young lady to close her eyes and return to sleep.’ Emily duly obeyed. ‘Now then, when I click my fingers, you will open your eyes and everyone in the room will once again be fully clothed. And you will be the only one who is naked.’
As he held his fingers in from of him, I already had a terrible feeling that something was wrong. Call it a sixth sense if you will, or perhaps a throwback to Moose’s exploits, but I knew then that this whole thing wasn’t a good idea.
Maxwell clicked his fingers and Emily immediately opened her eyes. She stared down at her dress and then looked distrustfully at the audience. Then she turned to Maxwell and shook her head slightly before she asked:
‘Yes,’ said Maxwell, a bit of a frown appearing on his face.
‘No I’m not.’
And before he could stop her, she slipped out of the white dress, calmly kicked off her shoes and removed her panties. There she sat; her beautiful body exposed for all to see, her legs parted and yet other than a slight look of defiance, not a touch of emotion on her face.
Nobody laughed. In fact, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. It was the most horribly surreal moment any audience could possibly imagine. Even The Great Maxwell seemed stunned for a second before suddenly pulling a tablecloth from a nearby table, throwing it over her and frantically yelling in her ear:
‘Go to sleep. Go to sleep. And when you wake up you will put your clothes back on and walk back to your chair.’
He then clicked his fingers, held up the cloth and the relief was pasted all over his face as she immediately followed his commands, slipping the panties, shoes and dress back on before walking a little hesitantly across the dance floor.
As she approached me, I kept my eyes rooted on the bar counter and to my shame I must say that at that moment I really hoped that most people in that room didn’t realise I was with her. I could feel Maxwell checking me out with a suspicious look of recognition gradually entering his eyes. Pierre was standing at the end of the bar, a look on his face that could kill a man at twenty paces. For a good few minutes I was simply too embarrassed to look up; afraid at what I may see.
Meanwhile, Emily simply sat down on her seat and carried on drinking as if nothing had happened. And when Pierre finally came wandering over to ask in a very un-French like accent:
‘Are you taking the piss, Mikey? What’s your story? Are you trying to fuck everything up for me...?’
... It was Emily who told him to bugger off and leave me alone.
* * * * * * * * * *
‘I love this building, Mikey. I love the way it curves right onto the sand. It’s like a beached ship, completely surrounded by the sea.’
We didn’t stay much longer at The Crazy Horse, finishing our drinks and exiting before someone had the idea to ask us to leave. I didn’t tell Emily what had happened, however. There seemed no point in upsetting her and I certainly didn’t want tears, soul searches or hassles just at a time when I was hoping to fill her head with slightly more seductive thoughts. We left Dave and Angela nursing a few drinks and before I could suggest a coffee at my flat, Emily grabbed my hand and steered me for a walk along the beach. I liked that; something about it seemed romantic – the stars, a wonderful full moon, the sound of the waves and of course, a beautiful woman.
‘That’s The Lido, or rather, The Mermaid Lido,’ I told her. ‘Haven’t you ever seen that before? It’s kind of an institution here.’
‘And these steps up here? Where do they go then?'
‘Well it’s like a really big restaurant. The food’s not too bad, as things go. They used to have a gay guy playing the organ and piano on the stage: Harry Shakespeare they called him.’
‘Harry Shakespeare! You’re kidding me, Mikey.’
‘No, that was his name. He had a big box next to his organ full of hats – loads of them. He’d wear a different one every few numbers. I played trumpet with him a few times and once even filled in for him on organ when he was booked somewhere else.’
Emily pulled her arm around me and hugged me tightly.
‘Wow, you’re famous – king of the beach front.’
‘Well I was only about fourteen or fifteen or something. More like kid of the beach front.’
We walked hand in hand passed a few of the shops lining the front of the Lido building. A small barbers shop with the traditional red and white striped pole, a sweet shop and the entrance to the movie house on the top floor. Emily stopped at one of the last shops.
‘Ah, look at this Mikey, it’s so sweet: The Cherry Tree. Look they do ice creams and milkshakes and even have bar stools at the counter. I wish it was open.’
Her eyes were everywhere and I realised that she was as excited as a child.
‘Look at this, Mikey.’ She’d found a lone peep-through photo board propped up against a wall. Wow, look at the body on him! Go on – stick your head through there. Oh I wish I had my camera.’
I stood behind the board and pulled a silly face. But now she was looking at the sign at the bottom of the board.
‘Who’s Scotty? Look his name’s on the board and he even has his own little hut. See: Scotty’s Photos.'
‘Ah... well I don’t know if he’s still around or if the business just runs in his name. When I was a kid, he was a little guy in a pith helmet who wandered around taking pictures of people on the beach – especially the funny ones behind the boards. He spent so much time in the sun that it kind of... well it kind of shrunk him, shrivelled him up. And he also used to get up on stage at the Lido and do some comedy. I still remember some of his jokes – they were all “take my mother-in-law, someone please take my mother-in-law” style gags.’
We carried on walking south along the promenade, the hotels and holiday apartments rearing up to our right, the sand and moonlit sea to our left. Suddenly, Emily pointed towards the beach:
‘What’s that, Mikey? Oh look... It’s so cute. Like a giant beach ball with a stage in the middle.’
I couldn’t help smiling at her childlike enthusiasm. But something was also bothering me.
‘Emily, you’re a Durban girl aren’t you? I mean, well... how can you have lived here all your life and not know these places?’
She frowned and for a moment seemed a little confused, pausing for a second before answering.
‘Well, we lived on The Bluff. So we went more to those beaches.’
I nearly told her that I had a good friend who lived on the Bluff, and he, like everyone else, knew these famous Durban landmarks. But, of course, I was doing my utmost to avoid putting any stresses and strains on what was turning out to be a perfect moment. And if the truth be known, it was kind of fun being a guide to this apparent stranger to Durban’s attractions.
‘Well, that’s The Little Top. It’s famous girl! They have shows and everything there during the day, mainly in the school holidays. I don’t know who does it these days, but the whole thing used to be run by a guy called Cyril Sugden or Uncle Cyril. He was the like the compere. Great fun he was too. A bossy style – ‘shut your mouth, there’re flies about’ was one of his big lines, usually to ten year old kids. They had a band on, used to have competitions like lucky legs, fattest person and ice-cream eating. They even had a talent competition every season which I won once – best instrumentalist.’
‘See... you really are the king of the beach front, Mikey.’
‘Well I’m trying. But the surfers are the kings here, Emily.’ I lowered my voice and did a Marlon Brando Godfather. ‘But we control the hotels.’
‘The surfers run the days and the musos run the nights, hey Mikey?’
‘Yeah, I like that. Has a nice ring to it.’
We had climbed up onto the stage of The Little Top and sat on the edge, our legs swinging over the side.
‘Go on, parade up and down, Emily, and I’ll be the judge – ‘Lucky Legs’ time. Oh and if we do it like I remember, I have to put a paper bag over your head so that your looks don’t influence the judges.’
‘Perv!’ She poked me in the ribs.
I held her close and for a few minutes we sat there looking out at the waves. Behind us the huge Cola neon sign from the Fairhaven Hotel reflected its changing and flickering light on the Little Top’s stage, and seemed to bounce across the sand towards the sea.
‘So where did you grow up then?’ she asked, her head now on my shoulder.
‘Umbilo. We were opposite the park and just around the corner from the Drive In.’
‘I’ve never been to a Drive In,’ she said, her eyes staring at the waves.
I was quiet for a moment; stunned at what she had just said.
‘Never been? How’s that possible. Didn’t your family ever go to the Bluff Drive In at least?’
‘We didn’t get out much, Mikey. It’s a long story.’
Those two words – ‘long story’ – told me one thing: back off. But now all sorts of strange ideas were starting to enter my head. Had she ever been to the cinema, the theatre, the circus, any of Durban’s famous Ice Shows? In a country that only got television in 1976, it seemed almost impossible that someone could exist without these forms of entertainment right through their child and teenage years. Well, each to their own. She turned to face me:
‘Why did you choose music? Tell me all about your home and how you grew up.’
And so I spent a good ten minutes telling her about my piano lessons, trumpet lessons and all the different bands and orchestras I had played with. I told her about my mum and dad, our dog, my schools and the couple of years I had been away from home since joining the bands. She kept quiet, nodded and smiled in all the right places and only asked one question throughout my whole speech:
‘When you were still a boy, how did you get about?’ she asked.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well when you went to lessons, or to play in all those musicals, or with those military bands, or whatever. How did you get there?’
‘Usually my dad,’ I said shrugging. ‘Mum didn’t drive so he took me everywhere. He loved the whole thing, even got himself a few parts in some of the shows. We used to chuck in a few "bodies" to boost the chorus.’
She nodded and stared out to sea.
Once again she went silent so I spent a few minutes counting the ships anchored out at sea, waiting to enter Durban harbour. Eventually, I turned back to her.
‘What do you do then, Emily,’ I asked. ‘Are you at uni then or working already?’
She hesitated, and I wondered if I’d asked the wrong question.
‘Well, I teach dancing.’
I wanted to ask ‘where at’ and ‘who do you teach’ but there was something about the tone of her voice that made me think that that may be a mistake. So I made a bit of a joke of it.
‘Well, my beautiful ballerina. Here’s your stage. Let’s welcome to the Little Top, the world’s most sort-after dancer, the wonderful Emily.’
Of course, I was expecting a slap or another jab in the ribs. Instead she smiled, reached forward to gently kiss my lips before removing her shoes. Then she took up a position in the centre of the stage, raised her arms, pointed her toes and stuck up a graceful ballet pose before gliding slowly into movement. I slipped off of the stage and walked a few paces back and sat down in the sand.
The next ten or so minutes were the highlight, the best part of what had so far been the best night of my life. They were the culmination of the innocent times – that wonderful time before your first real kiss and the excitement of the new and the unexplored. While Durban slept and the beaches belonged to us; while the waves added their soft restless symphony of sound and while the Fairhaven Cola sign illuminated the stage with its flickering red, white and green twilight, my ballerina danced – she danced for me.
* * * * * * * * * *
We didn’t need lights when we reached the flat. I opened the curtains and let The Lonsdale’s neon sign light the room and Emily seemed happy enough to let me do that. There were a few chairs in the flat but she chose to sit down on the edge of the bed and stare out of the window.
‘Wow,’ she said, the childlike wonder returning to her voice. ‘We’re on top of the world here.’
‘No,’ I laughed, ‘I’m afraid we’re only halfway up.’
I went to the bathroom, pulled the door behind me and for a moment stared at my reflection in the mirror. The swelling around my eye was hardly noticeable and all-in-all I wasn’t looking too bad for what had been quite a heavy night on the booze. I did my best at a quick tidy up: cleaning my teeth, splashing water on my face and running a brush through my hair. Then I moved to the door and closed my eyes, still for a second, savouring the moment. She was here; waiting for me, a gift from heaven, a present waiting to be unwrapped: my beautiful ballerina.
I opened the door.
Disappointment. There was no present waiting to be unwrapped – it was already unwrapped. Emily lay on the top of the bedcover. She was naked; her legs slightly parted with the white dress and panties lying in a neat pile next to her. She stared at me and nodded slightly, and even in the neon light I could see something in her eyes that disturbed me. Fear.
I lay down next to her and stroked her hair.
‘Are you okay, Emily?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘You know it’s my job to take the dress off, don’t you?’
She leaned forward and stared at me in the half-light:
‘I just wanted to make it easy for you, Mikey. I wanted to make you happy, that’s all.’
And once again she had become a childlike figure. Someone I wanted to protect, yet love, to be inside her, to own her but not to hurt her. To comfort her even though I didn’t yet know what I was comforting her from.
She made it easy for me: holding me gently in her hands and guiding me inside her. And all the time, I couldn’t take my eyes off her, watching the tears as they gathered beneath her eyelids and glided slowly down her face.
Later, as I slept, I dreamed I was falling; the ground quickly rising to meet me, familiar faces staring out of apartment windows as I plummeted downwards. Then there was darkness and I could hear somebody screaming, the words broken and fragmented, the sounds tortured and resigned. Finally, something connected in my mind and I realised that the voice was coming from beside me. I awoke and stared into the flickering darkness. The screams came again:
‘No... Please... no... Please, Daddy!’
I threw my arms around her and pulled her close to me. Her skin was wet – beads of sweat running down her back. Her eyes flicked open and for a few seconds she stared at me with confusion and dread. Then gradually she relaxed and after a few minutes, her eyes sagged and eventually shut. I slipped out of bed and grabbed a towel from the bathroom, gently pressing it to her back, arms and legs. I counted the red, white and rolling lines of the Lonsdale’s sign for a few minutes and eventually drifted back to a dreamless sleep.
When I awoke, she was gone.
* * * * * * * * * *
[The famous Scotty in front of one of his booths - obviously in the Pith Helmet - assistant and friends.]
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