Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by Peter Basson


Outside Ronnie Scott's the girls stared because you were golden: caramel coloured coat, sun-bleached hair, smooth tan, like a celebrity beneath the streetlight's amber glow. And beside you, wearing scruffy jeans, brothel creepers and a donkey jacket, I stood invisible. Wardour street was swish-slick with rain that beaded to pearls on the shoulder of your expensive coat. After the warmth of the club your breath steamed in the cool London air.

"So, what do you want to do now?" you asked, and I turned my lip out like a clueless child.

How many hours since you'd swept through the door of The Willow Beauty—a grand name for a shabby place—fixed your smile on me, and said "Long time, no see. What you up to these days?"

"Not much," I replied, hands crushed into my pockets.

Your reply was more of that dazzling smile. "What you drinking?" you asked.

"Bitter," I snapped.

You paid for our beer with a crisp fiver, ordering a bottle of Belgium for yourself. "Cheers!" you said as you tipped the green bottle and took a fizzy swig. You walked over to an empty table knowing I'd follow. It was before seven—a little early for unexpected complications like your arrival.

The first time was years before at a youth club. I knew immediately that you were different, the leader of a rag-tag gang of henchmen, different class. David Grace: 'He's a bit of all right.' I heard a girl say as you passed her by. Somehow, we made friends that night. Come summer, it seemed like I was at your house every day—a detached palace by a stream compared to my parent's row-house wreck. We hung that one summer but, of course, you moved on. I'd heard how you'd gone into the fruit and veg bizz with your old man, how you were rolling in money. My one short summer of Grace. And your old man, an East-End ducker and diver with a flash suit, lit cigar and a gold plated Ronson; he gave you everything.

"So, where you working these days?" you asked.

I'd had work that week for the first time in months. Hard labour in the cold: five days humping breeze-block up and down ladders for an Irishman called Wimpy, who had a reputation for breaking backs and short-changing his workers. 'Watch him', my old man had said. 'He's bad news.' True to dad's word Wimpy didn't pay me what my back was worth, but the money was a sweet relief after so long without.

"On the buildings," I replied. "You know, with Wimpy."

You lit a cigarette, drew the smoke in over a sensuous tongue. "Yeah, I know him. You up for something a little different tonight, then?"

"Definitely," I replied. "What do you reckon?"

"First thing is get out of this dump." You tilted your head at the smoke-stained ceiling. "What a dump."

"I like the plan," I said. "Deal me in."

"Got any money?"

I nodded. "As it happens." I pulled a handful of grubby notes from my front pocket, about fifteen of the forty Wimpy had paid me.

You looked at the ragged paper. "Won't get far on that now, will we? How about a drive up The Smoke? You fancy that?"

"Sounds all right to me," I said, my cheeks burning as I stuffed the dirty money back into my pocket.

You took a last, languorous sip of your beer, winked and said, "Good, then. It's settled. Let's go."

There was a rumour. Steve Pix told me you'd made a proposition. But the girls, they couldn't resist the flash and flatter of your blue eyes. That time at the youth club, everywhere you went, they lusted; you had your own way. Besides, Pix was a stirrer, and there was Beverly: short brown hair, no make-up and flat tits. Not exactly my cup of tea, but you seemed delighted.

We walked from the pub to your car—a flash Princess on alloy wheels. I watched the flapping vent of your cashmere, the heel of your leather. You were a freshly minted coin, while I, trailing your wake, was the crumpled notes in my pocket. You called out to two girls who smiled and waved from the pub doorway. You said, "I got some acid if you want to get rotten." The night was cold and starless; your vaporous breath drew dragon plumes beneath your nose.

"Wicked," I said.

You opened a matchbox containing two Mickey Mouse blotters. "It's supposed to be pretty thin," you said. "but better than nothing."

As you drove up to London we talked about the old days: fights we'd seen, girls we'd knobbed (fantasies, most of mine). We maneuvered around your glittery ascent, and my relative decline. The Princess purred on the motorway, accelerating past older cars, the leather interior warm and luxurious. You had music: Clash, Jam, Cure, jangling guitars, woofy bass thumping behind my back. At Walthamstow, I felt the first druggy signs of hallucination, the nebulous city, a turn in my stomach, and when I looked you smiled, as if to say Yeah, I feel it too.

"Ronnie Scott's okay?" you asked.

"Ronnie Scott's!" I imagined my fistful of crumpled notes, being told I was short at the door.

"You been there, then?"

"No," I said. "but my old man." I shrugged my shoulders. "He loves it." My dad would have died for a table at Ronnie Scott's. He loved his M J Q, his Davis, his sleeved 78's stacked in rows in an old suitcase beneath his bed.

The West End was melting under light rain, an acid bender of neon and rainbow rain-slash. But somehow you stayed calm in the calamity, slipping the Princess into a garage off Wardour street, nodding confidently at the thug security, closing your door with a practiced thud. You belonged there, where I was too far from prefab concrete and roundabouts, stunned by the glitz and glare, by keen streets full of people who all knew where they were headed. Time no longer marched forward, but bent at the knees, stopped and started, reversed itself. Downright staggering at times. The lights of the city burned with an uncommon mood, inferno like, orange in their gloom, like flames from a cavern. My hands were mittens, the patterns that ran across them paisley, and when lifted the hand that remained, followed the movement in segmented traces. Whores, spivs and sharks leered at me from dark alleyways. I lost my grip. "I'm out of...my fuckin'... box..." I said, my voice disembodied, lost, like mist on a moor.

"Sweet," you replied. "Here we go."

We swept through two black doors, climbed a steep staircase lined with people. At the booth you said, "Two!" and a goliath bouncer nodded his head, waved us through, and mumbled something that sounded like, "sir."

Inside, the smoke-filled room was filled with aging hipsters, businessmen with escorts, 70's money out on the town. We were led to a table at the front. Two stiff drinks appeared without money changing hands. "You'll like this," you said. "This band, I saw them before. Keep your peeps on the drummer. He's mental."

On command everything softened. The acid wasn't so strong after all, just a blotter. Panic over, I settled into a dreamy groove, soft music behind the curtained stage, the crowd noise cozy and familiar. I could get used to this, I thought, definitely. A bearded codger and a blond slag sat behind us. He wore a white bandana and silver earrings, like some bleached pirate with his peroxide mate. I made a joke and we laughed in our seats, giggling like the teenagers we were not so long ago.

The lights dimmed and the band came on, a threesome: pianist, acoustic bass, drummer with a stripped down set: tom, snare, hi-hat. They played everything right, the bass like something warm I'd swallowed, the pianists fingers tickling my spine, the drummer, his face a paroxysm of ecstasy as he swiped the hi-hat with his brushes. And then this insight: my old man, in a milk bar on the Edgware Road, slots a sixpence into a juke-box and fills the room with A Love Supreme. My own Cool Daddy!

Set over, the lights came back up and you leaned across the table. "You wanna stay, or go somewhere else?"

"No, this is the business," I replied. "Right here."

You lit your gleaming smile. "Yeah, this will do for now."

The band returned and we sat in our private space, the night calmed to a languid resolve, the acid no more than a dilute after-buzz. We tapped our hands and feet, we drank more spirits, we exchanged the occasional this is great smile. Then it was over and we walked down the stairs to the soft rain, and the amber light, where the young girls stood and waited, and where I wished you would ask me to stay.

BIO:  "I'm 46 years old, and have been writing for about 6-7 years, though only in the last couple of years have I started to take it more seriously. I live in Long Beach, been married for 16 years and have a 13-year-old daughter. I grew up in the UK, just outside of London, but have been in the US for the last 18 years (outside of a year spent teaching English in Mexico). I also spent a short time living in Spain.
I've had stories, travelogues, and some essays published in three ex-pat magazines in Mexico, but that was because I knew the editors. Other than that I've been too lazy to send out stories, so don't really have a bio here in the states.
Favorite authors include - Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Barbra Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Ian McKewan (kind of boring and conventional now I see it written down, oh well!!). Hmm? - also Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, Jeanette Winterson.....okay, that's better."