I had set off along the Golden Mile without really knowing which way I was heading. Walking without plan or purpose, my mind still spinning from what had happened at Smugglers Rest, my body acutely aware of the effects of the alcohol that followed. When Chester had phoned me at nine in the morning to confirm our music-reading lesson, I’d initially made excuses. An hour later, however, after a binge of toast, tea and headache pills, I phoned him back and we agreed to meet at The Ship at eleven.
I’m glad we did too. The guy was just amazing to teach. He picked up everything almost immediately. Already he knew his clefs, lines and spaces, time signatures and note values. And I was amazed when I clapped out a beat and he sung me a basic melody I’d scribbled on paper, every note right and in perfect time. Then, taking it one step further, he picked up his guitar and plucked out the same tune on the strings.
‘You’ve heard this one before,’ I joked. ‘It’s not possible to do that after only a couple of lessons.’
But he just smiled and, of course, I knew that it was all down to his talent.
At the end of the lesson he turned to me and reached out a hand.
‘Thank you for the help, Mikey. I will never, ever forget this.’
I was touched. Why couldn’t Emily be so easy? I knew what Dave would say:
‘Women aren’t complicated, they are actually quite simple. Their goal in life, however, is to confuse men. And they are very good at that.’
I walked on. The heat was relentless, the humidity stifling and looking around I watched a few upcoming cases of heat-stroke stroll past me. It was Wednesday and the schools would only break up on Friday, but it was obvious that many holiday-makers had decided to arrive early. Multi-coloured umbrellas dotted the sand, the little black attendant hiring out body-boards was doing a steady trade and the muscular lifesavers were keeping a close, amused and sometimes lustful eye on the pale bodies in and out of the water.
It was Cliff, of course. It had to be. Eddie had told me as much in his angry, short-tempered way. And I had seen the way Cliff had looked at Emily at the house on Cyprus Avenue. It had scared me then, but that was nothing like the shock I felt at seeing him at the back of Smuggler’s Rest – an image I was still struggling to get my head around. I thought I knew what was going on between Emily and her stepfather. But I was finding it nearly impossible to believe.
Just off the sand, I saw that the paddling pools were already full to overflowing with kids and toddlers, many of whom were crawling on the concrete fountains or slithering down the water slides. On Marine Parade, I ambled past the Rickshaw boys in their tribal Zulu costumes with huge horned and beaded head-dresses. They seemed to be upping their game, dancing, whistling and yelling out inflated prizes at passing tourists whilst leaping high into the air to send their carts careering alarmingly backwards. They were even charging for photographs, and most of them seemed to be getting away with it too – a sure sign that the holiday season had begun.
The sun started getting to me after twenty minutes and I found myself turning towards the sea and finding a shaded bench near North Pier. I watched the surfers glide the waves for a few minutes, before turning back south to wander past the Cuban Hat, The Nest, and the huge salt-water Rachel Finlayson Pool which most Durbanites simply called The Beach Baths. I passed a fairly long queue outside the Aquarium before finding myself on the promenade running past the Lido. I was about to carry on towards South Beach when it occurred to me that I may end up retracing the route that Emily and I had taken on our special night. And that felt wrong. Already I was close enough to hear music and voices coming from The Little Top and when I found myself staring forlornly at a couple eating ice creams in The Cherry Tree, I decided to change my route.
Climbing a few steps I found myself on the first floor restaurant of The Lido. The place felt like it had gone downhill since I’d last been inside and I wasn’t surprised to see few customers at the tables. I was able to get a spot alongside a salt-stained window giving me a fuzzy and distorted view of South Beach below. An Indian waiter appeared and I gave him my order before my eyes were drawn, as they always were, to the stage.
Childhood memories flooded back. The same Hammond Organ and battered-looking piano were still there, placed at ninety degree angles to each other. Near the two instruments was a large wooden box. The lid was shut and it was impossible to see if it was still filled with Harry Shakespeare’s vast array of hats. Was Harry still bashing out the standards every night? I made a mental note to ask the waiter when he returned.
Before long, I found myself quietly humming the melody of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ and remembering those Show Night Sunday’s six years earlier. I looked over at the empty table near the stage where my parents had once proudly watched me run through my party pieces. For some reason, ‘Downtown’, ‘Hava Nagila’ and the theme from ‘Zorba the Greek’ stuck in my mind. Harry would always back me up on the Hammond, now and again smiling encouragingly in my direction before whipping on yet another gloriously camp hat. Scotty, the weather-beaten beach photographer who also doubled as compere and comedian for the evening, would always introduce me as:
‘That precocious keyboard kid,’ before managing to extract a few laughs at my expense. Later he would do his own spot of joke-telling along the lines of, ‘My mother-in-law is so ugly that when she goes to the fridge, the fish-fingers go for her throat!’
I wondered if I would ever see Scotty patrolling the beach again, camera hanging around his neck; khaki pith helmet offering only limited protection from the sun. Was he still around? Another question for the waiter.
Sunday night’s at The Lido also included the likes of Derek Grady, a deep-baritone who loved the big show stoppers and had a soft spot for sentimental Irish tunes. Then there was a guy called Sandy, who did a camp version of ‘Cabaret’ that Liza (with a z) would probably have found quite startling.
But it was fun, kind of innocent and the oldies in the audience seemed to love it. The place was usually full, the kitchen did well on the food and I got to drink three double-thick lime milkshakes in one night and stuff myself on burgers and chips. (Payment for my part of the show) What more could a fourteen-year-old ask for?
Now, as I studied the organ and piano, those days seemed somehow forgotten and antique. The instruments on the stage were dusty and felt unused, the semi-circular platform looked like it hadn’t been swept in years and the back curtain was torn, dusty and covered in beach sand. And looking around it was obvious that the whole restaurant was in a similar state and soon I was starting to feel a little concerned about the food I had on order.
My reservations, as it happens, turned out to be justified:
‘That’s not what I asked for,’ I informed the waiter as he plonked a tiny plate in front of me.
‘Cheese burger?’ he said, his tone bored and impatient.
‘That’s not a cheese burger, is it?’
And now the guy took his finger and actually poked it in the food.
‘There is the cheese,’ he announced triumphantly.
‘It’s a small cheese triangle surrounded by two pieces of toast,’ I countered. ‘A burger means a bun! There is no lettuce, no onions and no tomatoes. That’s a cheese toastie with a tiny piece of meat. Is it even meat? Also, where are the chips?’
‘They are still coming.’
‘And the milkshake?’
‘That is coming with the chips.’
My cheeks were starting to burn and I could feel a few of the other customers watching us with interest. I noticed that none of them were eating, sticking only to tea, coffee and biscuits – and I thought I now knew why.
‘Don’t bother bringing the milkshake and the chips and you can take this rubbish away.’
‘You will still be charged. Should I bring your bill?’
‘I’ll tell you what you can do with your bill, you fucking coolie. You can take your bill and shove it right up your Asian arse!’
Shit! I’d gone too far – I knew it straight away. And just in case I was in any doubt, the look on the guy’s face told me all I needed to know. After I few seconds, he picked up the plate, stuck it on his tray and walked back towards the kitchen.
A few things were bothering me. Why was this guy so confident in spite of being so obviously in the wrong? It felt weird, as if he was baiting me on purpose. Was this a set-up – was some guy with a camera and microphone going to pop out any second? I looked around the vast restaurant and almost immediately saw my answer. He was sitting at a table just behind me, a pencil in his hand, a bunch of bill-slips scattered across his table and the grin on his face threatening to break into uncontrolled laughter. It was Moose.
‘You... you bastard,’ I walked up to him and we shared a three-part African switcheroo handshake. ‘You’ve set me up haven’t you?’
‘Don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said, but his face said otherwise. ‘Catch a park, Mikey. Let’s catch up. What you doing here anyway? I didn’t think that this was your kind of vibe.’
‘I suppose you wouldn’t believe that I used to play here as a lighty then?’ I asked, and now it was his turn to look surprised.
‘Huh, learn something every day. So how’s the band coming on – Chester fitting in okay?’
Time for a bit of diplomacy:
‘All right... you know. The guy’s a good learner. But he’s not quite as... um... lively as you were.’
‘You mean he’s not an out-of-control drunk! But one thing we both know: as a guitarist, he’s the business... right?’
I shrugged and smiled.
‘Come on, Mikey, I’ve got ears you know. I heard him for myself.’
‘No he’s a top man and a nice guy. He deserves a break.’
‘He’s lucky too. You haven’t had any problems yet with Dieter... or... you know...’ he dropped his voice, ‘...homeland security?’
‘No. So far so good. Dieter’s not fooled, however. But he’s turned a blind eye... well, at least for the time being.’
‘Good guy, Dieter – plays fair.’ He nodded his head. ‘Hey, I was talking to a girl who works at The Horse and she was telling me that you took some bird in there who tried to follow my act. Stark naked she said, completely kaalgat!’
Straight away he’d hit a nerve – but I decided to go for the funny line anyway:
‘Yeah, but she’s not as good at starting fights as you. We had to throw ourselves out.’
‘Wow, a full-on strip. Even Dave waits until he gets them home.’
And now my smile was strained. His eyes held mine for an instant:
‘Like that hey?’ he muttered. ‘So go on Mikey, time for the million dollar question. I don’t know why you’ve waited so long. Ask me what I’m doing here.’
I shrugged and held my hands up:
‘Go on then.’
‘I’m the manager here.’ He dropped his voice again. ‘Can you believe it; they made me the fucking manager! Well... it helps that my Dad’s friends with the owner.’
And now, for the first time, I took a really good look at our old guitarist. There was something very different about him – and I mean different other than just being sober. His hair was shorter and combed back behind his ears, the beard and moustache were trimmed to a neat and manageable length, and even his clothes looked smarter: black trousers and shoes, a white shirt and a thin red tie.
‘Jeez, Moose,’ I said. ‘Have you found religion or something?’
‘Nah, nothing like that, Mikey. I just got to thinking, that’s all. Thing is, my playing wasn’t getting any better in the last year or so with the band. If anything, it was getting worse. When I was at school, I went from being a no-one – and a pretty talent-less no-one – to being a really good guitarist that... you know... people started to respect. And that was all down to graft. Truth be known, I wasn’t a natural. You don’t know how hard I worked. I used to come home from school, get my homework out of the way as quickly as possible and then simply practice and practice. I spent all my pocket money on records and used to play along with them in my bedroom. Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and anything I could get my hands on. I’d go right into the night, driving my folks nuts – and the next-door neighbour. Sometimes my dad would take the guitar off me, kill the lights and yell at me to go to sleep. But I loved it, you see, I really loved it.’
I nodded my head.
‘I think I might know where this is going,’ I said. ‘But it’s just what bands like us have to do. We can’t be playing all the cool and clever stuff all night. If the punters haven’t heard it on the radio, it’s no good. And if they can’t dance to it, it’s no good.’
‘That was part of the problem, Mikey, but not the whole problem. More than that, I think it was down to me. I just don’t think I’m cut out for this scene. And I don’t just mean the booze, drugs and women.’
I looked at him curiously.
‘What else then?’
‘Hard to explain.’ He looked out of the murky window. ‘It’s just that I felt I was losing it, Mikey. I felt if I carried on that I’d go... well, completely mad. I felt I couldn’t handle it, as simple as that. I needed to get out of that environment – get away from the whole scene.’
I felt like crying out to him that I wasn’t handling it too well either. But my reasons weren’t to do with my own character. Or were they?
‘So are you packing it in completely then? Are you coming back for you axe and amp?’
‘Nah... Chester can keep them. But yes, I still play every day, usually at night when I finish up here. I like to sit in my bedroom and play on the old acoustic. And you know, it might sound funny but I’m happier doing that. Aah, check it out... here comes a proper scran for you, my friend.’
I turned to see the waiter approaching. He laid down a huge oval-shaped plate in front of me overflowing with burger and chips as well as a tall glass filled to the brim with my green double-thick shake.
‘Thanks a lot,’ I said to him. ‘Look I’m sorry—’
But I was wasting my breath. He had already hitched his tray and was walking away.
‘So don’t just stare at it,’ said Moose. ‘Tuck in, it’s good stuff.’
‘I don’t know what's wrong with me, Moose,’ I answered, pushing the plate to one side. ‘I thought I was hungry, but now I’ve lost my appetite.’
‘That’s keyboard players for you,’ he chuckled. ‘All weird bastards!’
But I hadn’t changed my mind at all. Sure, the burger looked superb; a huge bap, melted cheese, a double meat patty, onions, tomatoes and lettuce all covered with a great-looking pink sauce. The chips were spot on too, and there were loads of them. But I’d looked once again into this waiter’s eyes and I’d seen something I didn’t like. Not one little bit. And I was giving it two to one odds that as nice as the burger looked, floating somewhere in the pink sauce was probably had a few lumps of his spit and mucus.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly how the tensions began. Small and subtle things happened; each one short-lived and meaning little in itself, but combining to grow into something bigger and deeper.
Chester had been over the moon when I told him that he could keep Moose’s Strat and amp for good. He must have shaken my hand at least three times, and it was almost as if he was thanking me personally for Moose’s generosity. Even Harvey picked up on his mood, laying down his sticks between songs to announce:
‘Our guitarist is either on drugs, on a promise or drunk.’
But, of course, it was none of the above. Chester was simply in a better place, and now that he had a really good guitar and amplifier to call his own, he must have felt that he was having the best day of his life. That night he really fired into the duel-guitar solo of ‘Hotel California’ adding so many extra notes to the original that I was battling to keep up with the second guitar part which I played on synthesiser. And it didn’t really work, in my opinion, making the whole thing sound a bit messy. His image over the last week seemed to be changing too – gone was the introverted and static posture; the guitar neck was starting to bob up and down, his head was now bouncing away to the beat and I didn’t think it would be too long before we saw the first Moose-like leap off the stage.
‘As long as he doesn’t turn into a booze-fiend, we’re onto a winner,’ announced Brian in our first break. And yes, I agreed with him – to a point.
But it was during this second set that I felt that Chester was starting to push things too far.
Like every other band in Durban, we’d started doing our own version of ‘Cocaine’ – made famous by JJ Cale and, of course, Eric Clapton. It was no surprise that as soon as the South African radio stations banned the song from the airways, it immediately turned into a massive underground hit around the clubs. You were hard pressed to find in band in Durban in the late seventies, who didn’t do it. We particularly liked kicking a set off with it because as soon as the guitar launched into that famous riff, you were guaranteed a full dance floor.
The song is, in essence, quite short, played over a simple guitar pattern with lyrics which are more anti-drug that most people realise. And although Clapton’s version did have a guitar solo which extended the whole thing to just under four minutes, what it didn’t need was a solo that took it into the ten minute territory.
Chester, however, was off and running and there was no stopping him. Yes, he was doing some amazing things and I could see that Harvey and Brian were loving it – although not perhaps as much as Dave, who’d taken the opportunity to head for the nearest table of available women. But after a while, I was getting a little bored with repeating the same riff ad nauseam and even some of the dancers seemed to be tiring and heading for their seats.
A couple of other things were starting to grate that night as well. For a start, Mad Maria had finally worked out she could leave the underage chaperone on the veranda and come in on her own. I’m not sure what the chaperone made of that and I wasn’t about to go onto the veranda to find out. But Maria seemed to be enjoying herself in the same inimitable fashion – her morose and unrelenting eyes never leaving my section of the stage.
It was also becoming increasingly obvious that Nurse Cindy wasn’t going to make a return. Now that didn’t exactly break my heart, but still, I didn’t like to think that she didn’t want to come in just because of me. And there was no doubting she saw it as my fault – Nurses Lydia and Katy had made that perfectly clear, looking the other way whenever I came near, like a bad smell at a church service. So, along with Mad Maria’s bitter and disturbing stares, the nurses’ silent disapproval and Chester’s long and overindulgent solo, I was starting to get the feeling that perhaps this wasn’t my night.
And then I looked up and for a few minutes, everything changed.
She looked so different that at first I didn’t recognise her. There was no white dress, makeup or high heels. Instead she wore jeans, trainers with her dark hair tied behind her neck: definitely the casual and everyday look, although, of course, in my eyes it was very difficult to make Emily look plain.
She was standing quite near the stage and at first didn’t see me watching her. Instead, she was focusing on Chester, her head nodding in time with his elongated solo. There was no sign of her friend, Angela, and it looked as though she had come on her own. I found myself wondering if she was between shows at Smuggler’s Rest – that would, at least, explain her casual outfit. And then, finally, she turned and was looking at me. The stage lights were flashing in my eyes making it difficult to read the expression on her face. But I could see enough to see her unhappiness. Holding up one hand in a hesitant wave she mouthed a few words towards the stage. I wasn’t sure if I understood everything, but I think it was:
‘Can’t stay... I have to go. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.’
Then she stood for another minute watching Chester’s solo which seemed to be finally reaching its climax, before disappearing through the revolving door.
* * * * * * * * * *
[A Durban Rickshaw boy.]
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