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from White Ivory, chapters 17 & 18

< chapters 15 & 16     chapters 19 & 20 >
A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Seventeen.
The Return

Will gave Paul Quinto his drink and sat down on the sofa opposite him. Paul stared at him in silence for minutes, not touching the drink, and Will finally couldn’t take it any more. He thought he was going to cry again. He still hadn’t been able to contact Sian, and wondered now if perhaps something might be wrong. Maybe he should have simply gone there to find out. But that would have broken all their rules. Paul stood up and walked over to the table which had the photographs on it. He picked up the one of Charlie and stared at it with great intentness. Then he placed it on his chest, image outwards, and turned to look at Will.

‘You know why I’m here, I think. Do you think that was a good thing you did back there, Will? What’s the point of all your years of teaching philosophy if when you’re faced with a moral dilemma, you think you can simply run away from it?’

‘It was a confused time.’

‘It always is, though, isn’t it? What’s so special about you?’

‘Nothing,’ Will said. ‘Nothing.’ Paul moved closer, moved so close that the picture of Charlie, his beloved Charlie, was six inches from Will’s face. The brown eyes, the long black hair. Then Paul cupped Will’s chin in the palm of his hand and lifted his face up towards his own. Brown eyes. Long black hair. These eyes curiously still. Somehow unavoidable.

‘I want something back for Rachel. Not for me. For Rachel. She deserves it now after all these years. You have no idea what we had to go through.’

Now Will was crying, holding the picture of Charlie in his hand.

‘I’ve brought all the paperwork with me. I know what I’m doing; that’s my work. It won’t cost you anything in terms of your life, Will. I mean, there’s nothing you’re doing now that you won’t still be doing afterwards. But the arrangement will release some cash from the equity in your property here. And Rachel will have a little dignity, which I think, in the circumstances, she deserves, don’t you?’

Will nodded, his face wet, clutching the image of his beloved son, whom he had thought his only beloved son. Later that evening Paul took all of the papers and forms from his bag. He became kindly. He even sat with his arm around Will.

‘It means a lot to me that I have finally got to meet you. More than you will ever know. The forms you’re signing will release some immediate liquidity. But your payments will remain the same. Look.’ And Paul pointed to the part of the form that specified the payments for the next month. It was identical to the previous payment. But you are bequeathing a portion of the equity to Rachel, so in the event of a sale, she gets part of the proceeds, which I think you’ll have to agree is only fair. Otherwise life goes on as usual. And you have gone some way towards paying a sizeable debt. A moral debt, Will. It’s too late for us to join you in your life. We both know that.’

Will signed all the forms and the following morning Paul left with barely a word.


Chapter Eighteen.
The Tour

 Here was the schedule for the tour.

Builth Wells

Some were for five nights, some three, some only one. A few breaks had been built in.

‘Have you got a car, Charlie?’

‘Not much of a car.’

‘But it goes.’


‘Then let’s go in it. I’ll pay for all the petrol. Otherwise we’re going to be travelling with Francis and the boys. Fancy that?’

‘No.’ He knew very well what he fancied, and so did she. All her bookings had been for double rooms anyway. ‘We’ll have time to talk about the blues.’

And so they had set off, with their guitars and their change of clothes. And the first night in Birmingham Charlie had discovered that it wasn’t only singing that Stephanie did with such passion. Then up on stage with her each night as their playing grew closer together, and their joint set expanded in the middle, with the two solo slots on either side shrinking a little, knowing they’d be back together afterwards, Charlie fell in love. He realised one night as he fought his way through Steffie’s tunnel of hair on the pillow, that he was as reluctant to hand her over to anyone else now as he was his guitar.

‘I love you, Steff.’

‘Don’t go too fast. Just enjoy it while it rolls, Charlie. You don’t know much about me.’

‘I know all I need to know.’

The nights and days started to blur. The motorways were more and more of the same, but occasionally speed yielded up a kestrel hovering above the verge. Happy Eaters and McDonald’s. Blue skies; black skies. Dry tarmac; wet tarmac. And they talked. Charlie couldn’t remember ever talking so much in his life. Once he wanted her so much he pulled over on to a picnic site, which was deserted. Leaf-shadows wattled back and forth across her skin, irregular grey lozenges caressing her whiteness, canoes gliding over the milky surface, as his fingers did too, unbuttoning the last long stretches of her body, finding her soft warmth. There with the trees above them. Ten minutes later they were back in the car.

‘Every note of the blues alerts you to death, loss, heartache’.

‘We’re a pair of gravediggers, Charlie. Every note of the blues alerts you to death, loss, heartache. Whenever a string bends or the old blue note sounds, you hear the train’s whistle, see the closed carriage with the black drapes. A harmonica is surely the sound death makes when it’s moving so quickly over the tracks.’

Sometimes he drove and said nothing, his mind beguiled by the honey in her voice.

‘Why so much rubato in the blues, do you think? Simple. Whatever the rhythm, you’re still bound to stumble and fall. Every time you land in your bed you’re rehearsing for the last time, when you’ll fall into that big dark ditch from which there’s no returning. And you know the candle’s burning. And might there still be something on the far side of the sea. You know when these guys wake up in the morning it’s not the rosy-fingered dawn that’s going to hold them. They’ll be heading down the road, down the highway, on the freight trains, heading for another woman, another bottle, another jail. All stand-ins for death, Charlie. All stand-ins for Blind Joe Death. The blues are one long hymn to death, paid out in individual instalments. Why does the Devil have all the best tunes? Because it’s his kingdom, that’s why. Pluto’s realm, they taught me at school. The domicile of Thanatos.

‘Let’s put it another way. Let’s say no beauty without beauty’s cancellation. Not in our world. Since modern reality presents us with beauty’s cancellation wherever it presents us with beauty itself. Presents us with annihilation whenever it presents us with creation. So going for one and not the other is fatuous, Charlie — like pretending there’s life and no death. Like trying to buy one side of a sheet of paper. If you say you’re choosing only beauty, and not its cancellation, then you’re lying. You’re a liar. Mendacious thinker; mendacious liver. No artist but an artiste. God but I hate pretty songs.

‘And this is why the blues are so important. There is no entirely beautiful blues song — there’s always ugliness too. Ugliness and oppression are the bedrock of whatever beauty it has. Like chants on the chaingangs. Don’t go to sleep, Charlie. We’re nearly there.

‘It’s a curious thing that the blues should be the least self-pitying of all the artistic forms,…’

‘You’re right in what you said about your thesis: you don’t need any philosophy except the blues. Or any religion either. It’s all there: life is short. Desire impossible. Everything you really love kills you, even if it takes its time about it. And everything you really hate kills you too. It’s just that love costs more. It’s just as lethal as hate but more expensive. And you’ve got about three minutes to sum all this up. With musical accompaniment. Some jokes. No self-pity. It’s a curious thing that the blues should be the least self-pitying of all the artistic forms, don’t you think?’ Charlie didn’t know what he thought by that stage.

‘Ever read any Freud, Charlie?’


‘He can be good, though he’s not much of a bluesman, I grant you. But I sometimes think that if the blues is about anything, it’s how, whenever the unconscious ventures out on the street and asks for what it wants, it gets slammed up in prison or killed, along with its proprietor. I sometimes wonder if the white man got rid of his unconscious by turning it into the black man. So that the reason we elect these stars to strut their stuff in front of us is so that at least one person in a million gets to act out his own desires. We see them up there and we say, Fuck it: that’s what it would be like if we could do it ourselves. And because of superegos and censors and stuff, we like them to die pretty often. Pretty young too.

‘Then we glamorise the blues. You can’t glamorise the blues. Look at Eric Clapton, who’s like the unconscious with an insurance policy, like desire married to a policeman, and he makes this whole album of Robert Johnson songs. With his Ferraris in his garage and his chauffeur waiting outside. If this man’s unconscious goes out on to the street, he already owns the fucking street. He knows all the words, all the notes. He’s even had enough grief in his life in his time. But the songs as he plays them have become full of self-importance. When RJ played them they were full of desire. And real desire’s always broke.

‘But grief plus money doesn’t equal the blues. Grief plus money equals money. Money plus anything equals money. Over a certain income, there should be a law against you playing the blues.’

‘What are you earning at the moment, Steff?’

‘Nowhere near that, believe me. I can still play the blues, Charlie.’

‘I know.’

‘And so can you.’

The way Charlie sang, with so much sweetness in his voice, such a catch of sadness all over the words, where did that come from? He didn’t look like he had much reason to be sad. That broken home of his, was it? He sang as though every word was so important, the only way to sing the blues. Singing a song now about the marvellous cruelty of this particular woman. A viciousness in deceit you had no choice but to admire.

Shrewsbury was a great success, Chester too. Liverpool was disappointing. They didn’t seem to have heard how good Stephanie was up there. Coventry was average, the hotel they stayed in dreadful. Stratford they liked; stayed there an extra night to go and see Hamlet on their evening off. Then there was Yorkshire, which Steffie had never seen anything like. She thought she might want to live there. That was fine with Charlie: he’d live there with her.

They were in a small hotel down by the river in York.

‘You said Blind Joe Death.’

‘What darling?’ She was lying on the bed, pulling her long hair back and forth across her neck. Long hair, long neck. You got a lot of woman with Stephanie Sheehan.

‘You said Blind Joe Death when you were talking once. That’s John Fahey.’

‘I knew him. Played with him once. Hardly anyone ever did, but I did.’

For the first time since they had set out, Charlie went and took his thesis out of his bag. She had never asked to see it. He pointed her to the passage.

It linked up to Fahey through Skip James. She started reading. It intrigued her that Charlie knew so much more about both of those characters than she did.

When Skip James sang falsetto it was still the deepest sound in the world. Eerie and unworldly his voice came from nowhere before returning there.

I’d rather be the devil
Than to be that woman’s man

Christened Nehemiah, Skip had been born in Bentonia, Mississippi, back in 1902. Minor tunings and unheimlich licks were taken at will from the winds. Recorded twenty-six sides for Paramount Records in two days. The records started coming out in 1931, released in time to coincide with every other flayed lament of the Depression. Even exhaust pipes were singing the blues in those days. Nobody had any money anyway. And what money was around was being spent on unreality, not reality. Nothing’s ever been more real than Skip’s songs. The scripture of desolation. Dogleg dogma of the down-and-out.

He was raised in a religious family. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1932, it was fourteen years later that he registered a shift of allegiance amongst the Lord’s armies by becoming a Methodist preacher. By that time no one except fanatics and devotees in out-of-the-way record stores had ever even heard of him, unless they’d been listening to sermons about the resurrection. One man had though: John Fahey. With some friends in 1964, he sought him out, told him he was a great blues musician still, after all those years in the dutiful service of the Almighty. At the time John was pursuing his own religious interests as a graduate student in folklore and mythology at the University of California. Skip was a tenant farmer on a Mississippi plantation, only too happy to quit and take up his guitar once more.

John and his friends managed to manoeuvre Skip into the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island, 1964. He blew them away. The young recruits for whom folk music meant opposition to the corporate state, American imperialism and the soldiers of segregation, had never heard anything like it in the whole of their fresh-faced lives. This music sounded older than the country itself. Older than the stars — the same dust came falling.

The man whose discipleship made it possible was also a visionary, an alcoholic who played ragtime and blues to tame the demons, the small blue devils who shared every flophouse room and shakedown billet he ever inhabited. John Fahey was the only artist in the  history of American music whose sales immediately went down after a public performance, since the quart of Coca-Cola and the pint of whisky up on stage represented inverse testimonials. All this, remember, was happening in an age of dope dreams and sugar trips; an age in which your chosen poisons made you thin, and here’s this old-style guy still getting flensed and fat on the foam of Lethe waters. It wasn’t that he objected to drugs; in fact he had been strung-out for years on one variety of shit or another, before returning to more traditional, and of course legal, techniques for the systematic evasion of the conscious state. Oblivion of a kind you can share with the local sheriff. And the sheriff’s life. The lush life. As William Blake, one of his favourites, had put it: ‘Spirits are Lawful, but not Ghosts; especially Royal Gin is Lawful Spirit.’ Well put, Bill.

John thought he might have been an experiment God had started one sabbath day and then forgot. Hard times everywhere you go. When he came into a small inheritance he used it to create a record label called Revenant. He wanted to transcribe the messages of those modern masters of the arcana, visitors from beyond the silent shore, out-of-kilter dreamers like Cecil Taylor and Captain Beefheart. A revenant: one who returns from the dead, often speaking a curious tongue on re-arrival. Such men appeared to be living posthumous lives. Like Baudelaire’s human debris, John Fahey’s City of Refuge was also a City of Refuse. American primitive. Pool-hall basement ontology. Life’s loan-sharks leaving toothmarks in your soul.

John believed there was a divinity inspiriting creation, the way the Kabbalah says the Shekhinah glows through all the fabric of the universe, and he believed in a general resurrection too — a lot more general than any preached in any of Skip’s sundry churches. It had to include rocks, trees, mountains, clams, snails, turtles, rattlesnakes, hippos, spiders. The spirochaete and the tubercle. Its doxology would be shouted out by ten million angels, accompanied by the frenzied enharmonic chords of Bola Sete. He had a way of sitting on a stool on stage with a guitar on his lap, looking like a statue from Easter Island which had only that second snapped out of a trance and remembered it was meant to be performing. How many thousands of miles away was he meant to be?

He created a musical companion called Blind Joe Death, a bluesman mangled by the fates, who sometimes seemed more real to John than John seemed to himself. Musicologists fanned out over the highways in search of Joe Death, having heard the lethal precision of his recordings, unaware that he’d sprung from Fahey’s whisky-impregnated soul: an emblematic figure from Dürer, carrying a guitar-case and a gunney-bag of memories wrapped in the heart’s leather. Fahey’s world was an emblematic one where the child is born to be handed over to the ossuary-keeper; where two skeletons pass the time of day over an empty tomb that serves as a table, and an hourglass sifts down the sands until the next announcement of mortality. That’s what most of his record sleeves looked like. A blues version of the poet Pessoa, spawning personae and mythographic deviants with distant scholarly credentials, like Elijah P. Lovejoy, a nomenclature W. C. Fields would surely have applauded. In his time he had cruised the ashrams of the U.S. in search of eastern wisdom and easy sex, often finding more of the latter than the former, but seldom complaining either way.

Women sometimes came and always went. His third wife was called Melody. Melodic she might have been, but their marriage didn’t achieve much in the way of harmony. So he lost that wife too, together with his house as the terms of the divorce were swiftly spelt out. By the time he was appearing at the Empty Bottle at the age of 57, he was puffy and bearded, shades shielding bloodshot eyes from the rigours of enquiry, a revenant sliding his way over an electric laptop. Capillaries had been exploding in his face for years. He’d grown used to the popping sound they made. You could almost play blues to the rhythm.

Major chords occasionally arose, like hints of redemption amongst the minor progressions and the mosaics of discord, steel shivers from the bottleneck.

One day he found he could drink beer instead of Bourbon; it transmuted inside him to energy, he said. It also morphed into diabetes. Finally he gave up the bottle, ended up living in a men’s shelter in Salem, Oregon, then in a motel where he shared his living space only with the equipment on which he recorded his own music. Nobody else around much any more, but his guitars stayed faithful. Unusual machines, some old Martins, others with names no one had ever heard of. To the end he fingered his notes, many of which he shared with Skip James. The frettings on a guitar neck don’t distinguish between white flesh and black, being impressed only by the choreography of the finger-dance. Major chords occasionally arose, like hints of redemption amongst the minor progressions and the mosaics of discord, steel shivers from the bottleneck.

And then he died. He’d kicked the booze in time to leave us sober. An upright figure in his coffin, like Blind Joe Death, or the singer in St James Infirmary Blues. So at least we heard His judgment loud and clear. Could have been a Skip James song, but by then Skip was dead too.

Both singing together now somewhere, who knows, teaching the saints inverted pentatonic scales. Blues hang like sleeping bats from the clouds. Clouds so dark you don’t even see them. Been down so long it feels like up to me. One of his last revelations was that Skip had been a miserable, cantankerous old man, selfish verging on impossible. The music unworldly in its melancholy; the man all too worldly in his demands.

‘So where’s the bit about me then, Charlie?’ Stephanie had looked up at last from the page. He turned the pages and pointed to the paragraph about Flying Down To The River.

‘It’s going to be a lot longer now,’ he said.

Their next-to-last gig was their worst. At Builth Wells at the Wyeside Arts Centre. Hardly anybody came, though nothing much else seemed to be happening in the place.

‘You might have got a few more people if you’d put a sign up outside saying we were here,’ Steffie pointed out to some affable but utterly indifferent arts official. Then it was the Pavilion at Llangollen. Stephie liked it so much she booked them into the hotel for a second night. All the while Francis had been filming. Filming them playing, eating, talking, walking hand-in-hand. One day Steffie had spotted him talking to a girl in a school uniform at a bus stop. She had let go of Charlie’s hand and walked across the road. She had simply stared into Francis’s face until he had finally turned and walked away.

And then it was all over. They were in Llangollen. She started talking about returning to America. Something started tightening around Charlie’s heart.

‘I want to go and see Stan Ferro now, like I told you. He only lives a few miles from here.’

Charlie would have known the name, even if Stephanie had not kept mentioning him. She had made an album with him called Country Differences. It had been compared to an imaginary rendezvous of Gillian Welch and Martin Simpson. They seemed to be continually tripping one another up with different steps, different rhythms, but instead of falling, they flew. Stan had been a legendary guitarist, but something bad had happened to him, Charlie knew that. As they drove over to the tiny house where he lived up in the hills, he asked her what it was.

‘Stan was on everything at one time. Don’t think he takes anything but his trannies these days. They’ve got him on some mix that’s meant to take the varnish off the hallucinogenic horror of things.’

‘And does it?’

‘Well, it seems to, unless he plays more than two notes at any one time.’

‘And then what?

‘If he hears more than one bird out there singing on the telephone pole, all the wiring in his brain gets crossed.’

‘Then hell opens up, Charlie. Or maybe it’s heaven. Whatever it is, hearing Note Number Three stops Stan ever getting along to Note Number Four. He had the fastest pick I’ve ever heard. Used to get through a thousand notes a minute. If he did that for a minute now his head would explode. If he hears more than one bird out there singing on the telephone pole, all the wiring in his brain gets crossed.’ She fell silent for a while. Stephanie stared out at the hills, sheep moving slowly like miniature clouds, the stained walls of whitewashed farmhouses. Charlie drove.

‘Stan came to believe all the notes were trapped inside him. Which they are of course, I suppose, if you come to think about it. Otherwise how could the sounds resonate when they’re played? It’s just that Stan’s so much more aware of them all in there. He can hear them all the time, their rhymes, their dissonance. Imagine the noise he must have to put up with sometimes.

‘But Stan doesn’t have to imagine it because he hears it anyway. There’s no off-switch for the turntable inside him. Think of a man filled with music, but with no way of controlling the music he’s filled with, and that’s Stan.

‘Some psychoanalyst, some French guy, I can’t remember his name now, said neurotics had all these words trapped inside them, as though they were imprisoned inside a dictionary, and the words were now realities and the realities were now words…God, I can’t remember, Charlie. Anyway it’s like that with Stan and notes. I read somewhere once that Bach could hear six different notes in his head at the same time — hear the precise sound they all make if you play them together. Doesn’t something like that happen at the beginning of that famous toccata, can’t remember the name of that either. You’ve fucked my brain Charlie, as well as my body. But I reckon if you did that to Stan, if you played six notes together at the same time, I think his brain would fuse. Like one of those old mystics who heard the music of the spheres and checked out that same night. You know those lines in the Dylan song about truth making you explode, well it’s like that with Stan. But what he hears must have been what once made him the best acoustic guitarist I’ve ever played with…’

‘Better than me?’

‘Better than you, Charlie, sorry. Would you really want to pay that price?’

And how good a lover was he? Charlie couldn’t help but wonder. Was he the best at that too? Autistic rod-man. They finally found the house, and Stan came to the door. He stood in the doorway and said nothing.

Even then you know that there are old ladies bent in prayer who will keep his image alive in the shrine of memory.

Depression knows no plurality of worlds. It is the tyrant, the monomaniac. Führer with his black dog and his lethal commands. Polished boots whose unanswerable sheen can swallow the sun. There is no world but his. Words that translate spring, summer, winter, autumn, into a moonscape of oppression, barbed wire and machine-gun posts surrounding the compound of the flesh. The cries from within are too weak even to be heard now. The emaciated faces beseeching you to finish them off by dropping beneficent bombs on the railway supply lines. The only way out of it sometimes is to cut off his sources. Break his communications. Take your own life in your hands to stop him taking it instead. Eat his tongue; bake his leather heart and stick it on a pole. Tell the mind’s ghetto that this is a holiday, a jubilee year, and that crimes will now evacuate the streets again. Even then you know that there are old ladies bent in prayer who will keep his image alive in the shrine of memory. Some pray to the black sun. Listen to his speeches and weep with emotion. Speeches that translated everyone not covered by our shadow into strangers. He eats shadows. Lives on a diet of darkness. There are only whispers and shouts here. The police handle any stray music. Outside the manoeuvres of worship, imprisonment.

Stan had the bluest and stillest eyes Charlie had ever seen. Grey hair pulled back now in a pony tail. Tied up with a red ribbon. Charlie stared into those eyes and wondered if they could have always been that blue. Charlie started to remember what he knew about him. The gypsy mother, except that she wasn’t really. Not according to the Romanies anyway. Despite her telling fortunes on the pier at Blackpool for twenty years. They reckoned she was Augustus John in a cotton skirt. They said her grand Come-All-Ye manner owed more to the local Mecca Dance Hall than it did to the tarmac-topped topography of the bona fide Travelling People. Either way, her accordion gleamed ivory and mother-of-pearl. The keys of her accordion shone more brightly than her teeth, which had darkened to beige after her decades of voluntary smoke inhalation. And in the photographs there had been young Stan beside her, with a ukelele. He graduated to a mandolin and finally a guitar. By the time he was fourteen he was playing like a master. Already  doing professional gigs.

Stephanie kissed him very gently on the cheek.

‘This is Charlie, Stan. We’ve been on the road together.’

Stan said nothing but he smiled. Charlie wondered if it was the saddest smile he’d ever seen; perhaps also the most beguiling. They all walked inside. There were photographs all over the walls from Stan’s touring days. Some of them showed him with Stephanie and as Charlie stared at one, he realised how much younger she had been then. Her age had never been mentioned in all their weeks together. No date of birth ever appeared on any documents about her.

Finally Stan started talking. Answering questions no one was asking him. He picked up his guitar. Stephanie looked worried.

‘Are you supposed to do that, Stan?’

‘I can play these…’ Cautiously he picked out the A and the C#. ‘But by the time I then get to this…’ He picked out an E with incipient revulsion, a revulsion it seemed to Charlie mixed with fear. ‘Now it’s already starting…And if I added a seventh…if I played a diminished or augmented chord…I feel as though everything’s being tied in a knot…I don’t understand how I could ever have stood on top of this pile of sound, lording it about. Don’t understand.’

He had put the guitar down and walked across to the window. He stood staring out at the field with its few trees and scattered horses. He was shaking his head.

‘People have no notion what they’re playing around with. If your bottleneck is cold it snatches charge from the strings. Makes them dull, stops them singing. It started to be the same with my fingers some days. The strings seemed to steal all the life out of them. There were so many days when the guitar really hated me, I couldn’t cope with it any more.’

On the way back to the hotel Stephanie started crying in the car. He was jealous of her grief. He realised he didn’t want her grieving for any man but him.

I suppose he hears them so vividly that he can’t bear to hear them played at all any more.

‘Stan once heard the sounds so vividly. I suppose he hears them so vividly that he can’t bear to hear them played at all any more. Just think what it would mean, Charlie. To hear as vividly as that. A single note. But then put two together, three, even four, and you have waterfalls in heaven. Maybe he’s hearing sacred sounds. A serious fuck with St Cecilia. The music of the spheres. While we do nothing but thump and beat on our tin cans and bathtubs. Maybe he’s understood something we haven’t.

‘We met Dom Moraes one time when we were touring in India. Stan had this book of his poems that was very important to him. When we were in Bombay, Stan contacted him. He was like that. Very open, very spontaneous. And the great man even came to our gig, though I’m not sure what he made of it. Just after the Gujarat Riots in 2002. Moraes had been over there to see what happened. The Muslim dead. Seems he found out a lot, too much. Particularly about the eight-year old girl buggered by the policemen as some sort of collective punishment — the collective taking its punishment on one little girl, that is. Moraes broke down when he told us. And Stan carried it all away with him for the rest of the tour. It got so that I had to make sure he didn’t hear any news. Became lachrymose at pretty much any mention of what was going on out there. It all seemed to be bad. Then one day we could only play certain songs. Songs that hold your heart in their hand, he called them. Oh God, Stan.’ She was crying again. He began to realise how important Stan had been to her. Remembered how many times she had mentioned him as they’d travelled round.

When they got to the hotel she asked him if he could go buy a bottle of whiskey.

‘Look Steff, don’t you think…’

‘Just go get it, Charlie, that’s a good boy.’

She had called him a boy many times but this was the first time he hadn’t liked it. He went and bought the whiskey. She started drinking. Drinking and talking. Talking and drinking. He tried to get her to talk about her work, thinking she might slow down, might put down the glass and pick up the guitar.

‘That song you do about the Hell’s Angel.’

‘Hell’s Angel? Well, sort of, I suppose. Not sure it was a bona fide chapter, to be honest, Charlie. But they painted and studded their jackets all the same.’

‘Was it about somebody?’

‘Yes, it was about Jerry.’

‘And the story?’ Slow down, Stephanie; don’t fill that glass again.

‘A true one pretty much, at least as far as I know. I knew Kathy. Jerry needed a new set of tyres for his bike, and Kathy provided them. Kathy’s love provided them. Then, re-tyred, Jerry had no further need for her love. Jerry had a kind of binary attitude to the male/female relationship. Penis 1, Cunt 0. I think that about sums it up. And cunt needs penis, if only as a filler.’

‘Don’t use that word.’ He turned away. He felt very bad now.

‘Which word?’

‘The one beginning with C.’

‘I’ve shocked you, Charlie. I’m sorry.’ For the first time since they’d got back, there was some tenderness in her voice.

‘There’s no love in it, that word. If there ever was any love in it, it’s all gone. Driven out by hatred and contempt.’

‘It’s a zero.’ He touched her arm. She didn’t move.

‘Worse than zero. Sub-zeroic. Contempt.’ He wasn’t connecting with her.

‘Anyway, once Jerry’s tyres had been supplied, he didn’t need Zero any more. Poor little Kathy Zero. He’d got his rubber around the inflated bit, and that was prophylactic enough for Jerry for a while. You can still fill me in, if you like, Charlie. Your hard part to my soft. Want to give it a go.’

‘Not this minute. Shall we go out for a walk?’

‘No. Think of all those blues locked away inside Stan. Like the sea inside the shell. All you have to do is listen.’

‘Black sails.’


‘What your French guy called the psychosis at the far end of desire.’

Then the phone rang and as Stephanie’s face changed expression, Charlie had a feeling he knew who it was. It wasn’t a good feeling. She talked very quietly, very gently. Finally she finished the call and turned to him.

‘It’s Stan. He wants me to go over there.’

‘Fine. I’ll take you over. I don’t think you should be too late, you know. We’ve had a long few weeks.’

‘By myself, he means. It’s only for the night, Charlie. Don’t get jealous, darling. You’ve no idea what he’s been through. I’m his only connection. I’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll be all yours tomorrow. You can’t really begrudge Stan that, can you?’

He could though and he did, particularly when she put her guitar in its case and took it with her.

‘He thinks something might happen, Charlie. He feels he’s had some kind of breakthrough.’

—This is the ninth installment of White Ivory.
See previously
chapters 1 & 2
chapters 3 & 4
chapters 5 & 6
chapters 7 & 8
chapters 9 & 10
chapters 11 & 12
chapters 13 & 14
chapters 15 & 16

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Image credits.

Symbolic image of still life with a guitar in the style of cubism (dimapf); Kupferstich (1795) von Tommaso Piroli (1752 – 1824) nach einer Zeichnung (1793) von John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) H.-P.Haack via Wikimedia Commons; Robert Johnson tombstone via Wikimedia Commons; John Fahey (Pascal P Chassin, CC BY-SA 4.0 ) via Wikimedia Commons; “Festival” poster (English: Designer unknown. Peppercorn-Wormser Film Enterprises, Inc.) via Wikimedia Commons; cover art for the album Blind Joe Death by the artist John Fahey via Wikimedia Commons; drawing, Jacques Lacan (Ironie (fr)CC BY-SA 2.5) via Wikimedia Commons; postcard of Blackpool North Pier via Wikimedia Commons; glass of whisky via Wikimedia Commons; harmonica















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