HAVE YOU SEEN YOUR MOTHER, BABY, STANDING IN THE SHADOWS
My Aunt Jane is preaching the Good News in Hyde Park with warnings of the second coming while Uncle Mathew wanders the house dreaming of oblivion. Cousin Harry has a shop in Carnaby Street selling afghan jackets that smell of dead goats on hot June days. And I’m peeling my wits in Soho. Money, enough of it, is all that is missing and something I have to have. Panache. Imagination. Style. Oh, yes. But money – not a smell of it.
Out there on the edge of a thought is the idea of how it might be made. A shadow, a shimmer of hope for fame and loot…I’m like a cat licking stones that a herring was dragged over and quivering with the almost nearness of it.
Waking mornings sludge heavy with sleep in the chocolate-brown room painted as a surprise seventeenth birthday present from Harry I could almost parley with the whole idea of Quant and Beardsley and Beatles and me right there with them, singing, doing my thing. But it slips away from me through failed days falling down and out through a magicing dark of dreams.
On a hot Saturday morning I take what Harry calls my shining mane of glory and have the hairdresser around the corner lop off enough to stuff three cushions and leave me with a black Quant-style helmet. Carnaby Street is next for Harry’s approval.
“You are it”, he shouts, “I.T. it”.
“The black bell-bottoms, legs to her armpits – hey, look at her. Brilliant”.
So, stage one. I have this slick feeling in my bones now. Then Harry says, “Hey, look what I found for you”.
Cousin Harry ‘does’ the bins, walking back evenings all the way from Carnaby to Bayswater in an addicted quest for the treasures they might yield. He brings home transistor radios that no longer work and odd household things made of plastic.
“These”, he says, “Are the antiques of the future. You wait”.
He’s red – his hair, his ears, the backs of his big hands. He does being-my-father since I was ten and my parents gave into the despair stuff, the end-it-all thing.
He rummages his pockets now and digs out the treasure. The chain is gold coloured with three beads – a diamond shaped one in the middle and a green to either side. Sweet. He leans forward and clasps it around my neck.
For some reason Harry is proud of me. In spite of the failed A Levels, except English. In spite of no job. In spite of my need to sleep fourteen hours out of every twentyfour.
“You”, he says, “Will make it. No doubt. We just have to find the breaks. Get you in”.
He washes out his mug and makes me a coffee.
I sashay up Carnaby Street past all the shops and bars that offer slave-labour jobs. No thank you. Down Chancery Lane there’s a bar that uses singers evenings. I’ll try it. Again.
This time the Manager says, “Nice necklace thingy”. Then, “Okay. Mike’s plugged in. Let’s hear you”.
It’s the hair. It’s the sun. It’s that liquid feeling in my bones today. I give it everything. I know I have the job before he tells me to come down Friday. The early drinkers clap but I know they’d clap anything. Give the clap. Horny bastards. Harry’s going to have to be here to mind me on Fridays. If he does the bins he can do this place.
Friday comes. The bar’s heaving. Harry’s here. I’m up on the stage crying into that mike to make their hearts melt. And they do. I’m in the black mini-dress Harry bought me for tonight and the long boots up to my knees. I’m dying in the heat but I know I’m
I T it. I’m waiting for Ringo and Paul to rush in that door and sign me up as the only girl Beatle in Britain. All that sweat and smoke but it’s worth it. And at the end of the night it’s not the miserable bar pay that makes me happy but the money thrown up on the stage. Harry sweeps it up and we leave, a celebrity mot and her minder.
We’re at the door and the manager comes over. He’s a happy one tonight.
“Congrats”, he says, “That was something else. Sign you up Fridays, Saturdays, until end of August”. There’s a bit of parley about money and we shake on it.
“That thing”, he says, “That thing round your neck. You wouldn’t sell it? Wife’s birthday today but I forgot. Give you a few quid for it”.
Well, this morning I’d have given it over. But not now. It’s part of the night’s success. A good luck charm.
It’s the next morning before Harry says to me at breakfast, “I see you’re still wearing it. The chain”.
“Yea”, I say. “I like it. Nice little charmy thing”.
“Tell you what”, Harry says, “Let’s go have it valued”.
I laugh. Harry and his dustman treasures. But, what the hell. I meet him in the shop at noon and we head for Hatton Gardens. Why not go for the tops.
We choose a smallish one, discreet, a bell on the door to gain entry. Inside light streams off diamonds and mirrors and glass. Harry and I are reflected down and away in mirrors within mirrors to some distant point we cannot fathom. In so far as a small dry man can sigh this old guy in the pinstripe suit sighs. He wants me to remove the chain but Harry insists he peer at it while it stays on my neck. I lean across the counter and let him goggle through his little glass. He looks up straight into my eyes and rasps, “Where did you come by this?”.
“Never mind”, Harry says, “Just tell us how much”.
“Wait”, the old guy says and goes out the back. We hear him dial a number and my foxy ears pick up a phrase, just one.
“We’ve found it”, he says into the telephone.
Harry and I look at each other and in the same second we make for the door. We run and run. We just do not look back.
“E Ven Tu Ally we stop.
“What the hell Harry. Where did you get this? A bin?”.
Well, it seems, not exactly a bin. A guy with no money comes into the shop. He wants an afghan jacket. He loves this particular smelly embroidered shaggy-lined afghan and all he has in exchange is an old neckchain. And Harry takes the chain and gives him the jacket and now I’m wearing something I thought was beads that everyone wants because maybe it’s not beads. Maybe this is a diamond and two emeralds. Just maybe.
Now I’m afraid I might ever lose it. It clings to my neck like a baby. My heart closes round it like a fist.
Friday night I take it off my neck for the first time but I have it wound twice round my right leg high up under my tights. I belt those songs out. I’m Twiggy - the black miniskirt, the white Peter Pan blouse – with Mick Jagger’s soul aching through my lips. Harry sits mid-centre in front of the stage, if you could call it that. He is Chaucer’s Miller and I'm safe as houses. He sweeps up the dosh again at the end and the bar manager hands over the pay plus some.
Then he brings it up again. The necklacy thing. Trouble with the wife. The missed birthday. He’d give me a hundred for it. Harry doesn’t even answer him and my voice is gone.
We get home and all the lights are on. Aunt Jane is at the door wringing her hands and wailing. The house is trashed and the ambulance is bee-bawing poor Uncle Mathew away to hospital with a broken head.
This Bayswater house of ours looks like money, big enough to hold mountains of it, but there is none. Not since the time my parents were living the high life in it. Was it a geek from the bar we just left, looking for the necklace? Hardly. Or someone who reckoned this old pile was awash with gorgeous things for smash and grab. Who knows.
“What the hell…”. Harry who never swears lets loose a string.
We get Aunt Jane tidied up. Get her to part with some of the long coloured beads and the seventeen cardigans. Tie her hair up. And into a taxi after the bee-baw.
By the time Uncle Mathew’s head is well bandaged and they’ve knocked him out again to make him sleep she’s calmed down. We’ve all calmed down. One of the medics recognises her from Hyde Park.
“Aren’t you the…”.
“She is”. Harry cuts him off.
“Lady Jane”, the medic says, “We’ll check you out for shock. And let’s keep an eye on you. Just for tonight.”.
They put them both into a private room and Harry and I cut. This time we walk. All the way back I feel the imprint of the jewels on my leg.
“What’s the point”, I say to Harry, “Of holding on to these” – I pat my leg – “If I can’t sparkle them”.
“People put them in banks”, Harry says and we both laugh.
We’re walking up along the river. It’s late and quieter than usual. There’s that smell off the river that you don’t get in meadows. All the oil and muck of a living city. We both know there’s more to this neck thing than money. Harry puts words on it.
“It’s a harbinger”, Harry says. “Of the past. Good times lost”.
He’s right. This past week I’ve had a sense of something being salvaged. A little of what they lost being tendered back in this trinket. But now I’m getting this other feeling, something distasteful.
“Harry, let’s sell it”.
Saturday night, Aunt Jane and Uncle Mathew back home and the door for once locked and chained, I’m back in Chancery giving this dusty smoke-filled den my gut. And after, we steel-face the bar manager for four hundred smackers. He wants this chain and glitz thing. He craves it. Harry stuffs the money into a cotton clothes-peg bag under his shirt. It’s lost in the bulk of him.
A week later. Peter Woods on the BBC News – the long face and droopy eyes on him – tells us about the Met finding part of some robber’s haul. There’s my necklace on the telly. Black and white, snow spattering the screen, but it’s it alright. Harry moans. I scream.
The reward sets up the bar manager in the first of his chain of new and contemporary drinking dens. But at least he knows where to look for the best undiscovered – for now - singer of 1968.
“We could have opened our own bar”, Harry says. “Away from here. Somewhere in the sun”. He sighs.
He’s right. Still, we have the start of something new in these shiny bars, an opportunity, a clawback of hope set against my parents’ bleak legacy.
“Harry”, I say, and I mean it, “This is all I want. Just being part of it all. This is everything.”
Harry goes over to the record player. Drops the needle on my favourite – Yellow Submarine. I’m on my feet, shimmying around the kitchen, singing along, throwing shapes.
Things, I tell my dead parents as I dance, whispering to their sad lost spirits, things are not worth dying for.
Word Count: 1934