Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Professional Musician - a short story by Tom Kilcourse

‘See nowt, hear nowt, say nowt’. So went the counsel of wisdom on the eastern fringes of Manchester. Unseen, unheard, unsaid, and unexamined it nevertheless hung like an inn sign over every sinful heart in Newton Heath, where I was raised. It was a code, an amoral dictum that I understood and accepted long before I appreciated how ubiquitous and timeless it is. In truth, we saw many things as we weaved our way through evenings’ shadows, and we heard too, indistinctly and partially, muttered confidences where youths gathered: but we said nothing, at least to strangers. Of those who would rail against acceptance of such a maxim, who reproach us for protecting the guilty to the cost of the innocent, I ask where they believe it not to apply. During a life of varied experiences I have yet to discover such a place. Certainly the Church sees it as the eleventh commandment, and my son, a sergeant of police, could tell, if he chose, of deeds not prescribed in any manual. It is a condition of humanity, neither good nor evil, simply there: one might as well denounce the oceans’ tides.

Those who grow up where momentary inattention to the rule can be costly develop a second sense, an involuntary safety mechanism that manages the reflexes: brows do not lift in surprise, eyes do not betray fear or recognition. This process was well ingrained by the time I was introduced to Belinda’s father. Ah, Belinda!  Where are you out there? Somewhere comfortable, no doubt, some better class of neighbourhood, chic and secure, which you grace with your elegance. Or has the elegance abandoned you now, leaving you a little bent, with rheumatic movement? Would it lift your spirits to know that in the head of this long forgotten admirer you are still twenty-two, your heels clicking with youthful rhythm, your smile shining with undiminished luminosity? Forty years have passed, yet I need only to close my eyes to have you step into my cerebrum, occupying it as of right, clearing out the trappings of two marriages and three kids, haunting it instead with your own image: the smell, the sight, the sounds of your younger self. Would it have been different had your father not feared me?

I had been gone from Newton Heath for about three years when we met, and was living in Davyhulme, an altogether different Manchester on the other side of the city, with fields and gardened houses. The only terraced cottages were quaint structures, picturesque mementos of a less hurried age: quite unlike the brick rows of Newton Heath, built to house the fodder of labour hungry mills. We moved there, into a council house, as a result of my mother forming a relationship with someone at the town-hall. Little was said about the nature of the contract. Mother never talked about it, nor did I ask, but it led to the two of us occupying a three bed-roomed house, with a bath and several other comforts not experienced previously. I soon tired of evening visits to my old habitat across the city, a one hour journey by bus, and began exploring what was on offer closer to my new home. That is when I met Belinda, in a local dance-hall.

Had I been more athletic, I would that night have somersaulted my way home and entered the house via the upstairs bedroom window, reaching it with a single spring. But I was not athletic. Instead, I floated the two-mile walk, turning unseen corners, crossing anonymous roads. She had agreed to see me again – SHE had agreed, laughing at my cockiness, she had AGREED. What was her name? Linda? Brenda? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that a soft-spoken angel, a gentle, graceful goddess had moved into my raucous world and not been repelled by its gaucheness, its clumsy, boastful shell. She was unlike any girl I had known, in voice, movement, in every way, and I was wildly, stupidly in love.

Belinda lived in Sale, a rather up-market district a few miles from where I lived. We would meet in Stretford, about half-way between our homes, where our bus routes converged, but the inconvenience of this arrangement soon became apparent. So, I bought a car, an old Austin A40 that had seen better days, but it served its purpose. I was able to drive across to Sale to collect her, take her into Manchester, and deliver her safely home afterwards. For a whole year I courted her thus, ever surprised that she retained interest in me. At the end of the evening we would park outside her home, a large, detached pile set in an azalea covered half-acre, and sit in the old banger, necking, or just talking about our world. I should say ‘worlds’, because those conversations emphasised the plurality of our backgrounds. In the earlier days of our relationship I was quite voluble, but as time passed and Belinda’s world began to take shape in my awareness I talked less and listened more, lapsing eventually into virtual silence. Once home I would go to bed to lie fully awake in the darkness, immersed in loneliness, my self-assuredness on the wane.

How can one build a bridge across an ever widening gulf? Whatever the topic, my unsuspecting goddess placed herself further beyond reach at each meeting. My efforts to narrow the gap seem trivial now, but involved significant sacrifice at the time. Whereas the pub had been my habitual source of entertainment it was superseded by Belinda’s preferences; theatre, live concerts and dancing. My adoration of Manchester United yielded to tennis, a game that I had considered unmanly. Such matters were, at least, open to correction, but others were historical fact. When education was mentioned Belinda’s shining at Grammar school contrasted with my habitual truancy from a secondary modern, and in conversation about holidays she spoke of times spent in places known to me only through the pages of brochures. ‘Abroad’ to me was the Isle of Man, while she had relaxed on two continents. So, I listened, nodded knowingly, and lied.

One subject though played a greater part than any other in heightening my awareness of the gap between us: our parentage. Belinda’s mother was a secretary in a solicitor’s office: mine was a cleaner in a factory canteen. Her father was a businessman in the entertainment industry, and a musician, while my vaguely remembered dad was a bus driver who had done a runner some years before. We pretend today in England that such things do not matter, and Belinda claimed so at the time, but I believed otherwise, and now know otherwise. So it was with feelings of intense panic that I heard her invitation to dinner, to meet mummy and daddy. Thankfully, my involuntary safety mechanism kicked in, allowing me to accept with apparent equanimity. Only later, in the privacy of my bedroom, did I let panic have free rein.

When the dreaded day arrived, after a week of rehearsed greetings and abandoned excuses for cancelling the appointment, I washed the car thoroughly in a futile effort to make mutton look like lamb, and drove across to Sale. There, parking well short of the house I crunched my way up the drive and pressed the illuminated bell-push. Somewhere in the depths of the pile cathedral chimes announced my arrival. ‘You must be Harry’.  I couldn’t deny it, though I felt much like doing so. Belinda’s mother was a forty-something version of her daughter, slim, fair, and elegant. The perfume that revealed itself as I stepped past her was subtle, quite unrelated to the nostril invading stuff my mother splashed down her bra before heading out. The hand that took my offered bouquet was as gentle as the smile that invited me indoors. She was Belinda twenty years hence.

The hall that I entered almost on tiptoe, as if my great feet would damage the tiled floor, was the size of my bedroom, with three heavily panelled doors off, and a broad, wooden staircase curling upwards. My fragrant hostess opened one of the doors and led me into a sitting-room filled with wood and leather. No cheap, fitted carpeting here, but a sea of glowing parquet on which floated richly coloured rugs. ‘Take a seat Harry. I’m off to the kitchen, but Belinda will be down any moment. Can I get you a drink?’ My stay-sober resolution – ‘for God’s sake don’t get drunk tonight’ – dictated the polite refusal, and I seated myself gingerly on the edge of a leather covered settee that would have looked ridiculously ostentatious in my own home, but fitted in here. I remained thus, leaning forward, elbows on knees, gawping at the picture festooned walls, until Belinda put in an appearance. I jumped to my feet, and for want of something better to say, blurted out the question that had just come to mind ‘Hello love, where’s the ‘telly?’ She giggled, and opened what I had presumed to be a drinks cabinet.

‘Ah, here’s daddy’. The door from the hall had swung open to administer the greatest surprise I ever experienced, before or since. As ‘Daddy’ approached I stared incredulously at the monkey-like features; black button eyes, vestigial nose, and thin lips that stretched in imitation of a smile. The simian impression was heightened by his stoop, and awkward, swinging gait across the room due to what was commonly called a ‘club foot’, his left, which wore a surgical boot with a six-inch thick sole. For once, my Newton Heath street-training almost failed me, but not quite. The laughter that bubbled within showed as no more than a smile to be interpreted as a courtesy. ‘Hello Harry, I’m pleased to meet the young man who has set my daughter’s tongue wagging so much.’ ‘Pleased to meet you Mr; Payne.’ The thin lips stretched further. ‘Please call me Stanley, I feel that we know each other already.’ How true! How true mate! Or rather, I knew him, but not as Stanley, or Mr Payne. To me, he was known as Gordon, and I knew well his music, and his business. My face betrayed not a flicker of the relief I felt. All the nervousness of the last few days vanished and I suddenly felt my old, cocky self.

Much of the evening was devoted to the predictable interrogation, most charmingly conducted by Stella, my beloved’s mother, while Stanley’s high-pitched, hoarse voice was heard rarely. The pall of self-doubt having been lifted by recognition of ‘Gordon’, I can only think of him by that name, although I managed to avoid using it on the occasion, I actually enjoyed the cross-examination and found myself falling ever so slowly in love with Stella. Her husband appeared to be slightly bored by the proceedings, until, that is, it emerged that I had lived until recent years in Newton Heath. At the mention of my old stomping ground his distracted eyes flared into new light and focussed on my face. ‘Where about did you live there Harry?’ The ‘smile’ was more forced than ever. ‘Just off Culcheth Lane, near All Saints’ church’. ‘Ah, so you’ll know Church Street well then’. Any denial would have been such an obvious lie as to give the game away on the spot. I nodded, and gave my attention to a piece of beef. He was silent for the rest of the meal, and I knew that he knew that I knew.

That was the last time I saw Belinda. A couple of letters went unanswered, and the only benefit from a telephone call was the opportunity to hear Stella’s mellow voice. After a few weeks I switched into my ‘not caring’ mode: I’m very good at not caring. A brief affair with Cathy, who worked at the local dry-cleaners, led to her first pregnancy, our marriage, and eventual parting of the ways. That was followed by life with Janet, two more offspring, divorce, and memories for company. Of those memories, the most intense reach back to Belinda, and her father. It is they who rob me of sleep, causing me to ponder unanswerable questions. Did Belinda know, or was her father fearful that she would learn? Was the break at his instigation, or had she simply tired of my unpolished manner? If the former, he need not have worried: my code would have protected him from revelation. Though Belinda avoided me, I did see her father once more, but from some distance.

Curiosity drove me back to Church Street, Newton Heath about a year after that dinner. On a bright, spring afternoon I parked outside the Magnet cinema, wound down the window, and sat back to enjoy the music. The same old tunes drifted across from the steps of the Co-op Emporium: exactly as I remembered from my childhood and teens. Cheerful tunes to lift the spirits of the passers by, the housewives of Newton Heath scurrying from butcher to fishmonger to baker or chemist. Some had children with them, some of whom did what I had done when a small boy accompanying his mother to the shops. A sudden wave of sadness made me wish to leave this scene of my youth. I started the car and pulled out from the kerb, just as another child dropped a coin into the open bag of ‘Gordon, Gordon the accordion man’, whose monkey head nodded thanks while his fingers continued to flick over the keys. Someone once said that he was the richest man in Newton Heath, but I knew that he lived in Sale.

Mancunian Tom Kilcourse is an ex-miner, ex-bus driver, ex-Ruskin College & Hull University student, ex-management guru, and at 77 nearly expired. He writes for fun because he can’t make it pay. He has self-published two short-story collections, a brief autobiography, and three novels with a fourth in preparation. He retired to France in 1998 and returned with his wife last year to live in Cheshire.

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