It was nine in the morning and someone was knocking on my door. I mean, come on – nine in the morning! Whatever happened to sex, drugs and rock n’ roll? Now I realised that the previous evening had been our night off and that my usual booze session had been abandoned for a trip to the Drive In. Nevertheless, the person knocking wasn’t to know that. More often than not, a night off meant even more drink, just at a different club.
In fact, I’d had a relatively early night, probably drifting off around 1:30. An hour earlier, I’d dropped Nurse Cindy at her flat near the hospital. I’d said nothing to her about coming around to mine, and she had been too proud to ask. (Her flat was tiny and she shared it with a trainee nurse, so going there was always out of the question) There was a definite atmosphere between us by the end of the night, confirmed by a hasty ‘see ya later’, the briefest peck on the cheek and a quick retreat through her apartment’s reception area. Whether that was to do with my grumpy mood, the stop on Point Road or the fact that I hadn’t actually asked her around, I wasn’t sure.
Still, a seven and a half hour kip didn’t do me any harm and probably could have turned into a ten-hour marathon if it hadn’t of been for the knocking.
I opened the door. It was Chester. He stood in front of me, a genuine smile on his face and two books in his hand.
‘I’m sorry to bother you, Mikey.’ He opened one of the books and turned the page around to face me. I recognised it as being the music manuscript book I had given him on our first lesson. In a short time he had filled the book and was nearly on the last page. ‘I’ve come across these signs above notes a few times and just wondered what they meant.’
I blinked and followed his finger.
‘That one there is an accent sign and the other one is for staccato. The accent means you give the note more emphasis, basically play it louder. The staccato sign means you play the notes short and sharp.’ I tapped on the book by way of explanation.
‘Ah, I see.’ Chester nodded enthusiastically. ‘Then I just wanted to show you this.’ He pulled a second book from under the manuscript. The cover featured the front picture from the Moondance album and the title of the book was Van Morrison: The Greatest Hits. ‘I saw it at Coastlands Music and wondered if you’d like to share it with me. I’ve been learning to use the guitar chord tablature as well as reading the melody lines. So once it’s in here,’ he tapped his head, ‘you can keep the book. I know you love Van the Man.’
‘Maybe I know the songs already and don’t need the music,’ I snapped.
‘Oh, I see. Um… I wasn’t asking for money or anything. It was just a thought.’
‘Okay, well thanks, Chester. Was there anything else?’
He looked down at the books thoughtfully, before slowly raising his head.
‘Well… um… I was just wondering about our music lessons. I know we missed one yesterday, and I thought perhaps, we could…’ His voice trailed off. I didn’t help him out and said nothing, my hands resting on the doorframes and my body blocking the entrance. He held my eyes for a second and then looked down the hallway towards the door of his flat. ‘Anyway I really appreciate everything you’ve taught me so far.’
‘That’s okay, Chester.’
He turned to leave. It was only a few steps to his door which was lying wide open. Reaching the door, he paused for a second as if debating something with himself. The he turned to me and dropped a bombshell:
‘Emily’s coming to the club tonight. I think she has quite a lot to tell you.’
Then he went into his flat, closing the door softly behind him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Up until midnight of that Tuesday evening, I was only interested in one person. Never more than a few feet away, she sat on a buffet at the table nearest my keyboards or danced alone next to the stage.
Oh yes, the crowd around us pulsed and throbbed with life, filling every space of the tiny Ship Inn. And even without looking, I knew that the queue down the veranda stretched nearly to the Laguna’s main doors. Around us, the regulars were all in, hanging on to their seats for dear life, having had the good sense to arrive early to beat the tourists. Some had even come to the 5 – 7 cocktail session and simply stayed put during our hour and a half break, reserving and guarding their seats for the evening show.
On the raised seating area to one side of the stage were Nurses Cindy, Katy and Lydia. I wandered over in our first break and gave Cindy a brief cuddle. She was polite enough but I could see that the damage was done. It was there in her eyes, her gaze directed across the club; the hurt so obvious that words weren’t needed. Lydia and Katy were less subtle, turning their backs as I approached even though it meant talking to a couple of guys who were complete strangers to them. One of the guys, however, seemed quite transfixed by Lydia’s breasts – so perhaps I had inadvertently done the girls a favour. (Even though I doubted that they would thank me for it).
Taking up her usual table on the other side of the dance floor was Mad Maria. And next to her, drinking a bottle of beer – the usual forlorn expression plastered on his miserable face –was the chaperone. Shaking my head in silent resignation, having already noticed that our usual bouncer, Johan, wasn’t on duty, I toyed with the idea of having a word with the new guy. But did I really need the hassle on this particular night? Fuck them, I was where I wanted to be – let them steam and watch.
Of course, Maria couldn’t help herself.
‘I see your stripper friend has returned,’ she observed in our first break.
‘As has your moefie friend,’ I countered.
Bull’s-eye. Her forehead creased in anger, she spun on her heels and returned to her table of misery.
The rest of our first break, however, belonged to Emily. Without Brian noticing, I managed to lower the volume control on the background music, before heading in her direction. Her friend, Angela, had also turned up, but as soon as I approached, she vacated her buffet and headed off into the crowd.
‘I’ve kept this for you,’ Emily said sliding the empty buffet towards me.
‘Has Angela also fallen out with me?’ I asked.
‘Girl’s agreement. I want you to myself, and she’s off on a singer hunt.’
‘You want a drink?’
This was me trying to show a calm and patient exterior. The last thing I wanted in the world right now was to go queueing for drinks while our twenty minute break counted down.
‘No, I’ll get my own. And I’ll send you one onstage. There are things I want to tell you, Mikey.’
I held my breath.
‘I’ve walked out of Smugglers Rest.’
‘Do you hand in notice in a strip club then?’
‘I haven’t a clue. But I’m not going back there. That’s all finished now.’
I stared at her, loads of questions jumping into my head.
‘I’m not going back home either.’
‘But what about your Step—’
I didn’t need to look at her eyes, the hatred was obvious.
‘Eddie says that I can bunk in with him for a while. Angela will also help for a few nights. I’ll be ok. But it’s not what I want.’
I waited, letting the moment drag out. It’s the kind of thing I love to do when I feel I’m going to get the answer I want to hear.
‘What do you want, Emily?’
She moved closer and just like the first night, her bare legs touched against mine.
‘I want to be with you, Mikey.’
* * * * * * * * * *
The beachfront was hot and sticky, the salty ocean air blowing off the sea into our faces. There were the smells: a man behind a candyfloss machine near the sand; the lone trader selling popcorn, sweets and toffee apples; the pungent smell of frying hamburger from the XL Café. Then there were the sounds: a blast of live music from one of the hotels; a siren followed by piped music to signal the start of another dodgem car ride; the light-hearted screams from the Ghost Tunnel next door. And in the background, as ever, the steady pulse and flow of the waves – perhaps the only thing on the Durban beachfront that will never change.
When we reached The Little Top, the cola sign on the side of the Fairhaven Hotel once again provided the light show. We sat at the edge of the stage, swinging our feet above the sand and watching the wavy red, green and white lines reflecting off the wooden floorboards.
‘I watched you and Chester when you were here. There’s a telescope up on the pool deck of The Laguna.’ Although breathless from the run, I kept my voice low and in control.
She turned to face me.
‘You have a good friend there, Mikey. Someone you can trust.’
I felt a flush of anger but held it together, turning instead to look out to sea.
‘I also watched the two of you posing by the non-whites sign on the beach. It seemed a strange thing to do.’
‘Maybe one day, the sign itself will be the strange thing.’
I nodded. ‘Maybe.’
My instinct was that this wasn’t the time to discuss Chester. She wanted tonight to be about me and her. And it was obvious that she had gone out of her way to make things perfect. Fairy-tale perfect in fact – the beautiful dark hair contrasting so dramatically with another close-fitting white dress and the clear high heel shoes now resting in her hand. It was done for me, it was a gift. In fact, she seemed to be giving me everything I wanted. But there were things I didn’t understand. Things I couldn’t leave alone.
‘You and Chester seem to have become quite close. I—’
She placed a finger on my lips.
‘Let’s not talk about that now. We’ll have plenty of time later. How long have you got left.’
I looked at my watch.
‘Shit, it’s quarter to midnight. The guys will be back on stage already.’
She leaned forward, her lips touching my ear.
‘Well let’s make them wait a few minutes then, shall we?’
I suppose that in many stories this would be the moment when the lovers kiss; the final embrace bringing the curtain down on a happy ending. But we both knew that the kissing and loving would come later. And besides, I’ve never been an exhibitionist; making out in public has never been my thing. Not that we would have had a huge audience that particular night even though there were quite a few people lingering on the beach or walking on the promenade.
But Emily did something even better than that. She stood up, walked to the middle of the tiny stage, pointed her toes and let her arms flow out from the sides. Then closing her eyes she began to move. And as she danced, so innocent, so free and so graceful, I knew that, once again, this was my time, my place and my moment. This was what I wanted and this was the memory that I was always destined to keep.
And it may have been in my imagination, or maybe it was the sheer strength of my desire. Or perhaps it was a coincidence that someone in one of the overlooking holiday flats or hotels was just playing the record. But nevertheless, I thought I heard it: the guitar, the vibraphone and that strange bass line that seemed almost to lag behind the beat. Van Morrison singing our tune: Ballerina.
* * * * * * * * * *
The looks we got from the band were probably more about surprise than anything else. I suppose, up until that point, it was the first time I’d ever been late. In later years there would be a few occasions: the time I broke down on the way from Johannesburg to Pretoria; the time I got extremely drunk due to worry about an impending ladies night and the time I couldn’t draw myself away from an exciting finish at the cricket.
The truth be told we were a very professional band that way. We turned up on time every night and were even pretty prompt with rehearsals. A few years down the line when Harvey’s drinking problems intensified, his lateness and general tardiness stood out like a sore thumb, and eventually we had no choice but to ask him to leave. What none of us spotted (although we should have) were the early signs of mental illness. I suppose we just thought he was a bit of a perv who was quite funny when drunk.
After a few glares and sheepish apologies, I was behind my keyboards and we kicked off the last set at a few minutes to midnight. It would now be shortened as we had strict instructions from the management and door staff to end at 12:30. That suited me as I had full intentions of guiding Emily back to my Sealands apartment – do not pass go, do not collect 200 Rand – as soon as I could switch off and cover the keyboards.
I tried not to look her way, but I suppose it was pretty obvious that I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Dave and Brian weren’t missing anything and at one point, I saw them exchanging knowing glances, before Dave grinned my way and slowly shook his head. As usual, Harvey thundered on, blissfully unaware of anything but his drums and the women on the dance floor. And Chester? Well he just got on with his usual brilliant playing, his eyes mainly on his guitar. If he was worried in any way about Emily and me, he certainly wasn’t showing it.
It’s funny, but you can tell immediately when someone doesn’t belong in a place. The dark suit at the back near the revolving doors was all wrong for The Ship Inn and after adjusting my eyes to the glare of the lights I realised that there were two of them – both in suits. They stood watching the stage, silent and thoughtful. We launched into another song and for a good few minutes they remained in the same position, watching and waiting.
It was just on midnight when the doors swung around and Dieter appeared with a thick-set man in a policeman’s uniform. A few punters around them began looking on with interest. For a while, nothing happened as all four men held their positions, looking our way. Then the uniformed officer mouthed something in Dieter’s ear and they all headed for the stage.
Dieter approached Brian, both his hands gesturing downwards.
‘Stop playing, guys,’ he ordered.
If you want the attention of the whole club, of course, that’s just what you do. Once the band stopped mid-song, everyone immediately focused on us. Not a good idea in my opinion. Even the bouncers had once told us not to do that unless a fight broke out that couldn’t be controlled by the club’s security.
Brian killed the stage lights and now it was possible to make out the faces of Dieter and all three men standing on the quickly-clearing dance floor. One of the suits I recognised. You remembered unfortunate features like his: the bad skin, the thinning hair, the long and thin face and the weasel nose. It was a face from the fortress on the bluff that Emily called home. It was the man I had seen talking to Cliff on the day I had visited that strange and depressing place.
He seemed to be the leader, marching forward towards Chester with some sort of document in his hand. Soon all three men and Dieter were surrounding our guitarist. At one stage, Dieter briefly turned to Brian and shook his head, his eyes filled with concern and perhaps even fear. I tried to listen in to what was being said, but it was impossible with the background murmur of a crowd simply not used to silence or guests such as these. And I knew that it was only a question of time before the police uniform would provoke a reaction from one or more of the punters.
‘Fuck off, pigs.’
Yes not very original, but quite expected. The policemen in uniform turned to glare in the general vicinity of the insult. The suits, however, remained focused on Chester and the document that they were now showing him.
‘Fuck off and let the guy play his guitar,’ shouted a voice from the other side of the club.
Weasel-face now looked around, perhaps for the first time realising that he may not have complete control of the situation. He said something to Chester and stood back a pace as our guitarist began unstrapping and removing his instrument. Then he issued a command and the uniformed officer and the other suit laid their hands on Chester’s arms.
‘So you’re going to arrest him just for playing a bit of axe,’ said one drunken voice. ‘Fucking scum pigs.’
This seemed to be the turning point and now quite a few other voices began joining in in protest. I recognised a few dissenters in the crowd as some of our local Durban guys and for a brief moment, felt something akin to a sense of pride. Then reality hit me and I let my head fall guiltily. The cops seemed well-rehearsed for a situation like this and knew that this was the time to hit the trail. They gripped Chester’s arms a bit firmer and began guiding him across the dance floor.
I heard a bitter laugh from the raised seating area behind my keyboards and turned around to see the smirking faces of Mad Maria and the chaperone. Mad Maria had the honour of delivering the first blow.
‘This is a turn-up for the books, Mikey. Bit of trouble coming your way I believe.’
But the chaperone couldn’t help himself and must have been rehearsing his line for the last few minutes.
‘So what’s on tomorrow then, Mikey: A jazz piano trio or perhaps a whole new band?’
I ignored them and turned back to Chester and the policemen who were now over the dance floor and attempting to get through the crowd. The uniformed officer had his back to me and I could see that he had one hand on a set of handcuffs and the other on the gun holstered by his side. I hoped that he was merely protecting the firearm from the jostling hands of the surrounding people. And I also hoped and prayed that there would be no need for the handcuffs.
Then a voice screamed and I caught the flash of white moving out of the side of my eye.
‘I know you. I fucking know you. And I know who sent you.’
And before weasel-face could react, Emily had grabbed him from behind. It was one of those things that seemed to happen in slow motion although I’m sure it was probably all over in a few seconds. She reached over his shoulder and methodically began tearing her nails down his face. After the initial surprise he fought back like a wild animal attempting a few times to throw her off. She was just as determined, however, and digging her arms into his shoulders she clung on, both hands ripping and slashing as she did.
I’ve seen a few fights and violence incidents in my time. And the one thing you usually get is a lot of screaming and shouting from the attacker. This attack stood out for me in that Emily was completely silent. After her initial scream, she was totally focused; all her energy reserved for the task at hand. It didn’t feel impulsive and chaotic either, the kind of thing that happens when someone loses their temper. No, this felt like something that had been building up for years. Surgical and precise, her hands moving up and down as she ripped into his flesh.
It took the uniform and the other suit a few seconds to react, but eventually they did, wrestling her to the ground, her head hitting a table sharply on the way down. But the damage was done. When weasel-face turned to lash out with his foot, I got a clear look at his face. It was filling with blood, the lacerations deep and nasty – the scars probably for life.
I ran towards Emily, relieved to see that she was moving and hoping to shield her from the policeman’s shoe. Dieter was closer, however, and reacted quickly, placing his body between himself and the policeman.
‘Leave her alone. We’ll deal with her.’
Weasel-face didn’t agree and made a few more attempts to get to her. The other suit, however, seemed more concerned about the surrounding crowd, his head darting around with growing anxiety. He knew that they didn’t appreciate seeing a woman kicked – in spite of what she had just done. Tugging at his comrade’s sleeve he pulled him away, towards the revolving doors. Uniform was now alarmed enough to slap the handcuffs on Chester and push him towards the exit. They stopped briefly as Emily screamed:
‘It was him again, wasn’t it? It’s always him. So tell him from me: if that’s what he wants then that’s what I’ll do. Tell him: Daddy’s girl is coming home. You tell him!’
And before I could stop her, she ran to the revolving door, stumbling as a high heel cracked and broke against one of the glass panes. Then she was through the door and out of sight.
The crowd surged towards the exit and I realised that I wasn’t going to get out of there quickly enough. Turning tail, I made for the service area, darted past the bar, through a packed Mother’s Kitchen and passed the surprised faces of Eddie and the other bouncer at Mother’s reception area. I reached The Lagunaveranda just in time to see the policemen forcing Chester and Emily into two unmarked cars parked on the promenade. There was no time to approach the vehicles which took off at speed.
‘What’s going on, Mikey?’
It was Eddie who had followed me out of Mother’s Kitchen. He’d come through the doors too late to see his sister being piled into the backseat of one of the fleeing cars. But instinctively he must have known something was wrong; his face creasing into a frown as he stared at me with hands on his hips. What could I tell him? I could only tell him what had just happened. What I couldn’t tell him – or anyone for that matter – was the truth. That, I would carry alone for many years.
* * * * * * * * * *
I went through the revolving door into The Ship Inn. The house lights were on and most of the people had drifted back to their seats. No background music was playing, the only sound being a low murmur from the people. I took a few steps into the club and felt myself stumble on something on the ground. Reaching down I picked up Emily’s shoe. The plastic strap was broken and there were two drops of blood; one on the heel and one on the sole.
I stood holding it, looking around the club. The relative silence and the brightness felt overwhelming. Dieter was talking to the band; the guys standing in a nervous line at the front of the stage. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the bouncers began ordering everyone to finish their drinks and leave. Looking at my watch, I saw that it was ten past midnight. It would be a shorter night for them, but I’m sure it wouldn’t make much difference. There were plenty of late clubs to go on to if they so desired.
My eyes crossed the room and eventually fell on Cindy. She stared back. The look in her eyes told me everything. And after a while I couldn’t look anymore and so I turned away and walked back out of the door. I suppose I already knew that I would never see her again.
* * * * * * * * * *
[Durban Beachfront at night]
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