London Tales 1962/3 another cold winter 2018?

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She bought the Beatles record. ‘Please, Please me.’ She liked it and thought that George Harrison was rather lovely. She played the Jazz records that Fred had given her, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk and remembered that she had wanted to be a Beat. Blue Rondo a la Turk and Un-square Dance, strange time, not four on the floor, she liked it, danced to it, didn’t know why she liked it.  Thelonious the Piano keys sounded like they were being pounded with passion, anger and who knows what else, exciting and dangerous.

She had not pleased Fred or the traveling salesman. She had not pleased the Lowestoft Family, or the Pointers or the Dowes, she had not pleased anybody really, and she certainly had not pleased herself.

One afternoon when the autumn weather could not make up its mind she walked into the cafe by the Station. It was her half day, October 14th, nineteen sixty-two. She had heard a fragment of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ that morning on the radio, and it had unsettled her.  What was it? She was eighteen years old, and the war baby had heard war talk. On that day, the world seemed to be frozen on its axis, poised, like the air before a storm, as Russian Nuclear Missiles, ninety miles off the Florida coast, generated a global crisis so utterly alarming people could talk of nothing else.

Voices filled the streets, the pubs, offices and factories and this coffee bar where she sat on that long afternoon. She felt in her coat pocket for the bar of Cadburys milk chocolate she always liked to have at hand. Stuffing two squares into her mouth she remembered the time she had run away, remembered the policeman who had picked her up, sat her on the high wooden counter in Lewisham Police Station and given her a square of chocolate for the first time, oh bliss, and that was that. In times of trouble, when all was not well in her heart, she ate chocolate. Fred was gone, his dad had died, and he had gone to London, gone to fight the system, he said, gone to find a girl who would give him some loving.

A cacophony and then a murmur and back again. It climbed the walls, dropped from the ceiling, sneaked across the floor and crawled up into her head. Words. Strange words. Words she had not heard before. Nuclear War, Missile Crisis, Atomic Age, pollution and radioactive danger, World War Three, Committee of one hundred. Ban The Bomb. She sat at her table as if she were witnessing a grotesque and terrifying drama caught in slow motion. The world was about to be blown to smithereens. The feeling crept under her skin and into her veins like some unwanted nauseous disease. She ate some more chocolate and ordered another cup of coffee. In the background, a radio tuned to The BBC The Home Service; Oxbridge voices, serious and solemn.

The Gaggia gurgled and hissed spitting steam, making cups of frothy coffee as cutlery rattled, as the door continuously opened and closed and chairs scraped across the wooden floor, as people arrived and joined friends at already crowded tables. The Jazz and Folk music that usually flowed from a Dansette Record Player that sat on a shelf behind the counter was silent. No Miles Davis, or Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan or Joan Byas. Posters for jazz and poetry events were pinned the walls, leaflets for political meetings, musical instruments sat upon shelves and hung from the ceiling, guitars, mandolins, violins, a tuba, a banjo, and an old French horn. All hung silently as if waiting for a musician to stroll in and pick one at random and begin to play.

Books were stacked in dusty corners, bottles with candles, the wax droppings around the green glass as thick as clotted cream.  On that afternoon she picked at the wax until she had a little wax-mountain pile on the table. She swept it all into her bag.

It was pouring a hard rain outside, and a dank smell mingled with the coffees and teas, cheese on toasts, eggs, and chips. Rain soaked wet wool dried in the steamy heat. Hats, duffel coats, and scarves lay draped over chair backs as little puddles of water gathered beneath umbrellas in a stand by the door. Blue cigarette smoke curled about the cafe more densely than was usual.

Marooned in her corner, fenced in by chairs and tables, she watched and waited. For what she didn’t know. A sign, anything that could tell her that this was a bad dream. She wanted a hand to reach out, to bring her into the company. The tables were full of people who knew each other, heads close, an arm around a shoulder here, a handheld there, and so she remained at a corner table with a cup of tea and the remains of a currant bun on the one chair that remained, the three that had made up a neat four had been taken away to other tables.

Misery Ivy.

I’m dying here, hey I’m DYING HERE.

Nasty Nora.

The bomb will drop. Duck under the table. Do you think they hear you? Do you think they care?’

Two hours passed and people began to drift away, judging by the conversations as goodbyes and hugs took place, to their families, to friends or lovers, and she remained in her corner as condensation dripped down the windows in erratic streams obscuring the shadowy figures outside. She felt as if the whole world was crying; drip dripping and drowning itself into oblivion and she felt unable to summon the will to walk her legs out into the street.

Someone had drawn a face with a finger in the wetness of the glass and it was sliding downwards, a smile slipping on a melting face. Then, the sun appeared from behind a cloud and raindrops glistened on the other side of the face. Puddles outside on the road shone with petrol rainbow brilliance. She ordered another tea. The man behind the counter said, in a gentle sort of way as he draped a tea towel over the coffee maker, and began stacking chairs upon tables.

‘We’re closing soon.’

The sky darkened once more like someone had switched off the all the lights in the world. And in a month or so London and the south-east would be in the grip of an extremely bitter winter. Except for today, it felt like the last day in the world. Inside her stomach was another battle, and as she gathered her bag, her coat and her hat, she ran without looking back. He didn’t take her money. In that running, an unbearable sense fear took her, as she knew with absolute certainty, that if the world was about to come to an end, she had nowhere to run to, or what is more important, no one she could run to.

                     1965/1966 The Marquee Soho with my second Band, The Race


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