The Last Gig

Philip Nanton –

He eats like a bird now. His back aches and so does his belly. He can recite a catalogue of established pains working up from his wobbly knees all the way to the dull ache in his mouth from the blasted dentures that grin at him each night from the bedside glass table. What’s new?

What’s new is the endless argument that they rehearse perhaps a thousand times after Erik’s call from Norway. They go over it so often in the following days they’re both sick of it. Call and response. Him saying over and over: “he’s my friend, it’s an obligation I have to fulfill. Story done.” Margaret saying: “you too old, Shake, too sick for this long distance traveling shit. Norway is too far for you to go just for a few more gigs. Leave it out”. And then she adds, almost in despair because she knows they’re wasted words: “but you going do as you wish, anyway.” It isn’t what she says that catches him off guard. It’s the slight tremor in her voice. Her mouth turned down at the edges. That is unusual. Invariably her voice is strong, deep or sometimes it can be science flat, evidence based, beyond denial. The last time they argued about the gig her voice rose almost an octave, close to a plea. Call and response.

He didn’t answer. He could have said that, apart from her, it was only Erik who was keeping him together, paying the regular medical bills, like for the painful dentures. And it was Erik, more than anyone else recently, who kept the faith with his playing. And, yes, it was a long way to go, but what to do?  He didn’t say anything like that. Instead, long after the arguing, it’s the look of exasperation on Margaret’s face that comes to him again as he sits at the back of the aircraft, staring at the nothing clouds, begging silently that the seven or more hours to Oslo might pass quickly.

He doesn’t sleep much that last night in their Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment. The room’s dark, silent, except for her heavy breathing and the occasional rustle of bedclothes. At night in the city some rooms dance with shadows to the incidental music of car tyre hisses, the buzz of on/off ghostly neon lights, squealing sirens. Their bedroom at the back of the brownstone is silent, fuggy; almost a morgue. After a couple of hours restless sleep he reaches automatically for the phone, not sure who he’s going to call this time. The bedside clock says “Forget it. You’ll need your strength for New York’s early morning November cold.”

Then standing at the airport stop stamping his feet, waiting endlessly for the bus to appear, a few people in dark hooded cloaks hurrying past, leaning into the scything wind, he shudders involuntarily, cradling his horn in its case. He has no idea how he makes it through all the passport and immigration checks. He’s done it many times, facing these obstacles has become automatic. But it’s some relief finally to sit in the plane. He can’t eat anything so all he can do is accept the obligatory duty free drinks and hope that the alcohol will work its numbing magic.

It does at first. Thoughts of St. Vincent and Erik float up. They appear together because on every visit to Norway Erik brings up the topic of  St.Vincent, says they must make a visit together. It’s his fault, not Erik’s. He remembers often sitting at their family dinner table telling Erik all about the clapboard houses in Lower Middle Street where he grew up; who lived where in the street and what jobs they did; about Kingstown’s hard, unforgiving face that you have to learn to accept, if not love; the Botanical Gardens; country picnics beside Three Rivers; the active volcano. Oh, he talked about it all right.  And it’s a compliment from Erik that he wants to see it all for himself, he knows that too. But how to say in reply to all that desire that it’s a closed book? That his one-sided love affair with the island is over. So he says: “sure, let’s go to the Caribbean, but I don’t think we should go to St. Vincent”. And to reinforce the point he tells Erik “when I die throw my body in the sea, here in Norway”. And Erik, sensing a wound, drops the subject, and they have another drink and move on.

Then he remembers for no reason at all how he misses the old London. The London that was his. He remembers the last time that he walked those Soho streets with the camera man shooting from across the street and Linton feeding him lines for reminiscing as they rumbled down Portobello Road. It was London where Coleridge helped him discover the flugelhorn and gave him, Christiane and the kids, a roof over their heads; and he remembers those Sunday afternoons in the packed Coleherne pub with Russ and the boys, blowing hell out of ‘Jean and Dinah’. And there was the London below ground where as ‘star sideman’ he went chasing or challenging Joe and the guys as each one in the quintet answered the rainbow arc of the free form mood that Joe had created as they rolled from one club gig to another. It couldn’t last, of course, and didn’t. For the rest, playing the nightclubs, cutting the easy listening records, even the reggae that he ended up playing, it became routine, a kind of bearable despair.

Slowly, he comes out of the reverie. An hour or so has passed. He becomes increasingly aware of his bog standard, semi uncomfortable, designated airline seat. Nowhere to stretch his long legs. He now realizes that the journey from apartment to airport and airport to plane has taken its toll. He breathes heavily, pulling at the rim of his collar. He notices for the first time with some surprise that it’s way too wide for his neck. His suit, shoes, even the fez that he wears always now, they all seem to press down and into him, almost to swallow him. He tries to relax into the seat but his two old companions, back pain and belly ache, who were distracted for a while, start their noise once again: “don’t forget we’re here” and “we need some undivided attention too”. He winces, puts his head back and hopes desperately that he can fall asleep for the rest of the journey. But more pain courses through him in slow waves, saying, in a deep grumble, over and over: “some chance”. Soon after the flight touches down at Oslo Gardermoen airport the plane’s gangway quickly clears of other passengers.  A stewardess approaches him: “Can I help you sir”? He can barely speak for the pain in his gut. Two stewardesses, one either side, help him to the door of the aircraft, then down the steps and very gently they lower him, like a baby, into a waiting wheel-chair.  He knows for sure that he’ll never make the gig.