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from White Ivory, chapters 21 & 22

< chapters 19 & 20   chapters 23 & 24 >

A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Twenty-One.
Old Friends

CHARLIE HAD BEEN working hard on his thesis when the call came.

 ‘Come on Charlie. Two slots on a CD, it’s all set up. You can do Whiskey Straight and Sitting On Top Of The World. Friday at Tabernacle Studios over in Battersea. Oh and make sure you bring that guitar of yours. The sound engineer got quite excited at the idea of you recording with that.’

He couldn’t resist. So hours he should have spent on his thesis were spent instead rehearsing, not that he really needed to since he had played these songs so many times. And when Friday came he was over there in the morning at Tabernacle.

It had all been organised by Bernard Poole. It was a private production, but he’d probably get it into a few shops around the place. Everyone knew Bernard. He had a lot more guitars than talent to play them. At last count his collection amounted to twenty-one, including a number of highly expensive vintage models which any true musician would have given a lot to own. Bernard didn’t have to give anything to own them except money; for that was the one thing he had plenty of. Far wider than his musical ability, and certainly wider than any generosity of spirit in his soul, his wallet measured the compass of his world. He was, in the formulation of one of the blues singers whose work he traduced, as rich as the inside of a pig. Given his resources, he could never understand why he was not more popular around the place, though Mississippi John Hurt could have told him with a smile: Red rooster crows, Cock a doodle-doo, And the wise man goes, Farewell to you. A few people cosied up to him, for financial or chemical gain, some in the hope of borrowing one of his beautiful guitars, but they were wasting their time, for Bernard didn’t lend anyone his instruments, even though the majority barely came out of their cases to see the light of day once a month. He could recite the value of each inventoried machine in his house — their financial value, that is, for in truth he had precious little sense of what they were for, or of the love that had been put into their manufacture, soft hands planing the wood to make the trees sing in the wind again.

He was another well-heeled man singing the blues on an expensive instrument,…

He was another well-heeled man singing the blues on an expensive instrument, and convincing no one of anything much in the process. He went round the clubs. The cold brass of his bottleneck scythed the strings. He would drone on tunelessly about waiting for a Greyhound bus. Bernard didn’t actually wait for anything. Sometimes the musicians would do riffs, as musicians will do, and everyone always knew who was intended.

‘I don’t think I’m getting quite the resonance I’d hoped for on the B-Flat.’

‘Go buy yourself another instrument, love. Now you are sure you’re all right with that F-Sharp?’

‘The second Gibson upstairs does a nice F-Sharp.’

‘As long as you’re sure. You don’t want to be leaving yourself short, not with winter coming on. Remember what happened when you lost that plectrum last year. I wouldn’t want to be going through all that again.’

Musicians change themselves; they re-shape themselves around the music. Bernard never changed,…

Musicians change themselves; they re-shape themselves around the music. Bernard never changed, no sequence of notes he ever played changed; the guitars did the changing for him. Charlie had a feeling this was probably emblematic of something in the modern world, but he didn’t want to have to think about what it was exactly. Not just at the moment anyway. He smiled because he knew there was one thing Bernard didn’t have: he didn’t have his talent. And he didn’t have a 1930s Martin either. None of his own instruments could match this one.

‘Thought we’d put you on at the end, Charlie, if that’s all right. You can be the climax. We can’t follow you. Let’s make sure we’ve got the levels right for that Martin of yours.’ The face smiling in a thin sort of way, a grey flicker of beard about the cheeks. Charlie took the guitar from its case and was about to go through into the studio with it when Bernard reached out and put his hand on the neck.

‘Come on Charlie. Give a man a go. I have set this thing up for you.’

So Charlie relinquished his guitar. Stephanie was now in Stan Ferro’s hands and the Martin was in Bernard Poole’s. At that moment he wasn’t exactly sure which made him feel worse.

He watched through the glass as they recorded one song after another. He couldn’t very well go in there and ask for his guitar back. Bernard bottlenecked with a kind of brutal whimsy. It seemed to Charlie to be more a mechanical than a musical process. It was like watching another man make love to your wife. And by the time Bernard came back out and handed him back his Martin with something like a smirk of victory on his face, he’d understood. Half of them were packing up when he started his two songs. The sound engineer looked bored. Didn’t suggest they did anything twice. All the others had been done at least three times. These songs of his wouldn’t be on the album. His guitar would, though.


  Chapter Twenty-Two.

A MAN SITS ALONE in the corner of a curry restaurant. There is a candle in a bottle; its yellow flame waves each time a body passes through the door. And next to the old dirty bottle encrusted with white tears, so much gum wept from lachrymose wax, there is another, newer one, from which the man is steadily drinking red wine. He remembers how cigarette smoke mingled with her lipstick. On the sand dunes at Blackpool. A quarter century before.

When he bites into a papadom, he tastes sand, its beige grain is once more northern sand, abrasive on the lips of twenty-five lost years.

Improbable flesh emerging into sunlight, sun in its onion-glaze behind a chill northern sky. There in the dunes, a shimmer of silk pavilions. What they call a mirage. Beyond the brassiere, an unimaginable softness. She lit another cigarette as he fumbled and shuffled about in the sand, grit on his fingers, grit inside his shirt, unbuttoned now. The fingers of her nonsmoking hand finding their way without effort, like a blind person reaching out for something in the night. Her grasp unhindered, sure. She stared up at the sky, smoke leaving her mouth in ragged little clouds. He takes another drink of the wine as though swallowing an acid memory and chews slowly on the onion bhaji. Comes here every Saturday night now, gets in early before the pubs start emptying. Always folds his paper into four so he can lay it on the table and eat at the same time as viewing the world’s affairs. Another earthquake in Turkey. Interest rates to rise before Christmas. Flesh white as the linen on the table before him. Milk chilled, feathers shivering. Churning and shivering. Blackpool. When he bites into a papadom, he tastes sand, its beige grain is once more northern sand, abrasive on the lips of twenty-five lost years. The red wine is her lipstick. His tongue presses hard for an instant, as hers did, liquid exploding inside one mouth, inside another.

Will is staring across at this man. He understands only too well the expression on his face. He sits alone at a table too. He had managed to see Sian finally. She had told him that she had come to realise that the relationship could not go on any more. She needed someone younger, someone without such a mighty dead marriage behind him, someone who hadn’t started out as her teacher, someone…someone in fact whom she already had. She started crying then.

‘I’m sorry, Will, I do love you, but…’

Nothing so corrosive as hope, is there, except perhaps for its absence.

‘It’s all right,’ he’d said. ‘It’s all right, Sian.’ It wasn’t though. That day the heart’s stenographer stopped typing; he had missed the flittering of her keys ever since. Nothing so corrosive as hope, is there, except perhaps for its absence.

Once he had eaten he took the documents he had received out of his bag again. What had become apparent was that after the one month of normal payments, the following month’s would triple. He had released £70,000 in equity to a company in Bristol. The money was presumably now on its way to Rachel or had even arrived. But his income would no longer cover the bills to keep him in his flat.

‘You can always call upon the old man’s mercy,’ Frank had advised.

‘No, I can’t. I can’t do that.’

‘Why in God’s name didn’t you come and show me these documents before signing them? These corporate loan-sharks are known the length and breadth of the country. Who the hell talked you into it?’

‘A young man named Paul Quinto, though he could have easily ended up with another name, one like yours and mine, Frank.’

The following week Paul Quinto’s screams were not heard, except by the sheep, for he was in a field out of earshot, beneath the aqueduct. The billiard balls in the woollen sock were made of ivory. These antique balls were smashing into Paul Quinto’s head with a lethal vigour, thwack thwack bloody thwack as bone smashed and blood spattered, right through to the brain, until his cries turned into a sickening and diminishing whimper. There was nothing at the end but the few final twitches as he lay in the foetal position. Then he was put on his back with a hard kick and the slender elephant horns went through him, first one eye then the other. And the one antique billiard ball not tied into the sock was stuck in his mouth and left there.

—This is the eleventh 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
chapters 17 & 18
chapters 19 & 20

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.

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