A Peculiar People
A Peculiar People
Maurice Job Scott Wyke ran a finger through the drying foam on the side of his glass and gazed up at the arc of wrought iron projecting between the double doors and grimy transom of a North London public bar. Heavy drapes had once hung there, enveloping drunks and people whose glasses had fogged up in the cold. They were gone, leaving nothing but a series of tarnished brass-wire rings.
A pale, dark-haired man in his late 20s, wearing nondescript working clothes, apart from his age he did not stand out from the other four people in the room. One of these was pouchy-eyed woman with lank hair of the same meaningless brown as the dress that flapped on her much as it had once done on a rack in Chapel Market. She also wore a shocking pink cardigan draped over her shoulders. As she waited at the bar she shuffled in her steps and fidgeted a red plastic change purse along the counter.
“Rum and port, please, when you’re ready, Bob,” she said in a flat cockneyized brogue.
“Yes, darlin’, one moment,” replied the man behind the bar, a common London publican; large, sporting, plausible and affecting luxuriant white sideboards.
Two elderly men in belted mackintoshes and sweat-stained, shrunken-looking tweed caps sat two tables along the smoke-oiled wall from Maurice. One, who had just re-seated himself after setting down two glasses, had a ruddy face that would once have been broad but was now collapsed and seamed. His companion, an acid-face native wearing National Health Service horn-rims secured at the temples with dried-out cello-tape, saluted perfunctorily, saying: “Well I told ‘im, I said I wouldn’t ‘ave it. No. I mean to say, it’s a diabolical bleedin’ liberty, a man of my age. Why should I ‘ave to put up wiv’ that sort of’ing?”
The other man drew back lips that had long since given up any struggle for humourousness and, baring bright, slightly concave dentures, said: “Quite right, Bert. You can’t let these people walk on you. I meant to say, they’re all liberty-takers basically, if you let ’em.”
“Yes, well, that’s what I thought, so I told ‘im, I said I just wasn’t ‘aving’ it.”
On Maurice’s other side, wedged against a corner of the bar, sat a portly, gaunt-featured black man with a perfect triangle bleached into his right eyelid. He wore a neat grey uniform-like suit with a black and gold G.P.O. badge on the left lapel. He moved a chalky-knuckled forefinger along the columns of The Sporting Life and observed, marginally more to Maurice than to himself: “Goddamn, man. You know this man can’t pick a winner for a week and today he get four out of six at Pontefract and a non-runner. Goddamn, man.” He shook his head slowly. “Good prices too.”
Maurice and continued to watch the Irish woman standing with her drink by the jukebox. Maurice was surprised when, instead of the show band treacle he’d expected, Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coalmine” came on at a loud volume. The woman began a kind of shimmy-like twist; shuffling, uncoordinated and in poor time. The music lowered abruptly as the woman gyrated on the edge of a shaft of early evening sunlight that pullulated with dust. Maurice rose and went to the bar.
“Pint of ordinary, please, guv’. And could I have the light for the dart board?”
Maurice walked to the other end of the bar, set down his fresh pint, and took a blue leather dart wallet from the breast pocket of his jacket. The darts had 26 gram grip-less barrels and aluminium shafts into which Maurice fitted plastic flights the colour of sucked barley sugar. He straightened the rubber mat so that it was flat and flush to the wall below the board, an old, dried-out elm one with distorted wires and rough craters crumbling out of the beds that had at one time or another been the treble twenty. He took a square stance with is right toe on the eight-foot-six mark and threw easily with a wrist snap giving force and an action that made the sequence of three darts one continuous motion. He threw nine darts at the bull’s-eye and then began playing mental games of 301. He took an average of 21 darts to finish each game and was beginning his fifth, while the woman continued her odd dance, the two old men their querulous duologue, and the postman his fitful, head-shaking soliloquy, when a voice from the door said in a burlesque West of Ireland accent: “Holy Mother, the things you’d see the day you come out without you gun.”
Maurice turned and saw an older, taller, thinner, bearded version of himself.
“How’s Austin?” he asked quietly.
I’m all right, boy. How’re you keeping?” said Austin as he set down a guitar case, a fiddle case and a draw-string bag that held a bodhran. Then, leaning over the bar, said: “A bottle of Guinness, please, and a pint of whatever this young man is doing.”
Austin Wyke inspected his brother with grave affection. “Back on the lorries then?”
“Yes,” said Maurice, finishing the last of his pint.
“I thought as much. I know you’ve been on and off the building sites but you were never that stupid that you’d steal a pick. How did you know I was over?”
Austin took a two-ounce Golden Virginia tobacco tin and a disposable plastic lighter from an army surplus canvas shoulder bag and began rolling a cigarette. He smiled suddenly.
“Here, what’s this darts stroke? I’ve seen you throw and arrow or two but never on your own like.”
“I’ve had to take it up semi-seriously. You know what living in England’s like. If you spend any time in public houses, and you’ve no talent for small talk, you have to enter into the native pastimes.”
“Well, come on then, I’ll thrash you till it’s time for me to go upstairs and do me magic.”
Austin reached into the canvas bag and took out a plastic case containing a set of heavy-barrelled darts with five-inch feather flights. He walked to the oche and stood with right forward, just on the eight-foot line, leaned his full stretch toward the board and threw three deliberate darts and forceful darts at the double-sixteen. “Right, up the middle then?”
“That’s mine ,” said Maurice as his dart fell just next to the outer ring of the bull’s-eye, an inch closer than his brother’s. He took his square stance ad threw his first dart into the middle of the double-twenty, his second into the upper left-hand corner of the treble-twenty and a third that grazed the outside of the treble-nineteen wire.
“Here, take it easy, ould son. We’re only friends and relations here, you know.”
“First away chalks,” said Maurice, going briskly to the bar where a pint mug containing a set of old darts with moulted feather flights, a dozen bits of chalk and a dry, chalk-dusty rag. Austin scored a double-eight with his third dart. “Sixteen away.”
“Could you wet that down a bit for me, guv’?” asked Maurice, proffering the rag. With the wetted rag he wiped the worn scoring shutter clean and marked up 182 and 285. As Maurice’s next three darts scored 85 and, as he wrote 97 under the 182, his brother observed: “Sometime you can go right off people, you know. 45.”
“97 to rip. Tops. Two tens. Oh, rubbish. Five left.”
“That’s the trouble with these flash starts. 43, what a robbery. Here, can I play with two darts and a pair of pliers?”
“More rubbish!” said Maurice, his dart falling in the eighteen.
“All the time in the world. Oh, you lily! 97 scored, ton to do. Good game to win.”
“Yes, and I’ve got every intention of winning it.” The first two darts were a one and a double-two.
“Good arrows, boy. Mugs away? No, nothing.” Austin moved to the scoring shutter and rubbed a finger roughly into his right eyebrow.
“Going,” said Maurice, scoring 40 with his third dart.
“I had a rather painful – not to say acrimonious – discussion about you the other week, young ‘un.”
Maurice hesitated slightly before throwing his third dart. “55. And will you stop fidgeting about when a man’s on the oche. Who with?”
“The Fiddler Greene.”
“You’ve seen him , have you?”
“Aye. Is that in? Yes, I was in Manchester Sunday week ago and he came along to the club. He said he’d just got back from holiday in Ireland and was all set to start putting stuff together for the album, when he found a bald note from you saying –“
“…saying you’d decided you didn’t want to be in the group after all. He was pretty choked about it. 60.”
“He’ll recover. Jesus, look at that! 26. How did he get on in Ireland.?”
“Enjoyed it immensely. Pig! More wire trouble. He told me about one weird night he spent in company with that ould fraud Hanevy. 38. There’s a ton gone wrong and all.”
“What do you men, ‘ould fraud’? 45. I thought you loved him.”
“So I do, and he’s one of the best sean-nos singers out, but you know what he’s like. Is that a 57 or a 21?”
“Anyway, this night at a session out the Strawberry Fields, the Fiddler says, he’s working off his ould Father Earth number on this young one – 83 – when she took him up on it.”
“Jays. What did he do?”
“Only slagged her off for a whooer and walked out.”
“The old bollocks. 45.”
“However, that was just in passing. What The Fiddler was mainly on about was you and what in jaysus you thought you were playing at. You know about the offer? £3,000 from Sunsign and another £500 for publishing.”
“Yes, I know about the bloody offer. It’s not enough anymore, Austin. That’s it,” said Maurice as he took his darts from the nineteen, treble-sixteen and double-twenty beds.
“Jesus, this is a tad rich for me. Let’s pack it up for a bit.”
The brothers put away their darts and sat down. Austin poured out the last of his Guinness and looked at the Park Royal label. “What the hell do you mean, it’s not enough? £3,500 front money for a folk act? Are you mad?”
“Not the money. Singing harmony. Singing at all. Performing… Being an act.”
“Oh, come on, Maurice. What’s that supposed to mean?” Austin was making his usual elaborate job of rolling a cigarette. When he finished he pushed the tin and the Rizlas toward his brother. “Roll up?”
“No, I don’t use ’em anymore. I don’t know, Austin… You can’t, you know, tell the truth up there.”
“Rubbish,” said Austin reasonably.
“Well, I can’t anyhow. I stand up there, even in clubs where I know nearly everyone, and I’m thinking I’m not Thomas Rhymer not Johnnie Cock nor General Wolfe nor the Night visitor and I wasn’t there when they were on the job, so what am I on about?”
Austin Wyke scratched his head. He ground his chin into his left shoulder, re-lit his cigarette, and then asked: “What about your own stuff?”
Maurice shook his head. “Worse. Why on earth should anybody care whether I got off last night or lost my job or drank muddy water or, even worse, saw some poor slob in the street who looked symbolic. No good, Austin.”
“So, what? You going to write outside music then?” asked Austin, stretching as though he were trying to make his elbows meet behind his back.
“No, Austin, I’m going to shift bloody furniture. For Jesus sake, Austin, it’s the same problem. You can’t get rid of yourself. Not without some wretched slight-of-hand that leaves a void that’s worse than a dozen I’s in every paragraph.”
“If I didn’t know you for the spawn of solid mercantile Quakers,” said Austin thoughtfully, “who taught you to get good value for money – and give it – I’d suspect you of some kind of bloody guruism. And you’re not generally a faddy sort of man. Well, what are we all to do? Stop because we can’t, you know, what your man said, refine ourselves out of existence?”
Maurice gave a righteous poor debater’s half-sigh, half-laugh. “No, but Austin, you of all people, must know it’s a matter of temperament. I mean, Jesus, you don’t perform because you have anything more important than yourself to talk about; you do it because you like it.”
Maurice took his chin out of his hard-used palm and stared at his brother’s dart case. “I remember when you were thirteen and first moved to speak at Meeting. You haven’t shut up since. It’s you, you know, who should have been called after Job Scott: you’re the itinerant preacher by nature and always have been. I don’t want to be up there, Austin. I just want to be in the world without feeling I have to do a sub-edit job on creation, or, God save the mark, be ‘creative’.”
“Bloody truckies! You all go cab-happy in the end.” Austin paused and was perfectly still. “You still working for Lemon?”
“Aye”, said Maurice in a soft, mirthful breath, adding brightly, “High class removals and hot and cold running storage. You should have seen us today. Internal removal at the College of Arms in Queen Victoria Street. All collar and no beer money. There we are humping tea chests – packed by secretaries that never lifted anything heavier than a vodka and tonic – full of ledgers, phone directories and Prime Ministers’ pedigrees, down four flights of stairs, across a court yard and up another four flights of apples, while the Lemon is haggling terms with Blue Mantle Pursuivant.”
“Sounds luv’ly,” said Austin, laughing unaffectedly.
“It beats Woodstock.”
“Does it beat Miltown Malby?”
Maurice smiled for the first and last time that day.
It was a short-lived smile, aborted by the sight of a small, fair woman whose eagerness emanated from everywhere but her eyes. At first only her head and left shoulder were visible around the bar door, but when she saw the brothers she entered purposefully and walked toward them with an admonitory look borne out by her voice in addressing Austin.
“Oh, there you are. What on earth are you doing in here? The club’s through the saloon.”
Austin nodded, smiled and began to speak. The woman went on: “We’ve been wondering what had become of you. It’s not like you to be late for a gig.”
The sound of this word in this woman’s mouth would have made Maurice wince if his entire aspect since her appearance hadn’t already been a slight, slow-motion flinch.
“I’ve been having quiet jar and a game of arrows with me little brother here.”
“Yes, hello Maurice.”
“We’ll come round now, love. You’re coming up for the club, Maurice?”
“I’ll follow you up in a bit. I’m not in desperate need of a lot of floor singers at present.”
“You’re such a snob, Maurice,” said the woman evenly.
“Get stuffed, Susan. There, you see, that’s another reason for packing up; I don’t have to be polite to club organizers anymore.”
“What the fuck do you mean? I’m never polite to club organizers.”
“I know,” said, Maurice, “but you’re naturally rude and I’m not.”
“All right, Colonel Pickering,” said Austin as he finished his Guinness and gathered up his instruments. “We’ll see you after.”
As the door shuddered to a close behind Austin, Susan and the one of the old men who didn’t have a present grievance, Maurice reached through the torn pocket of his jacket and took out a small grey book. He had read a dozen pages when he came to a quoted passage that he read a second time:
“The leaders of both parties were, in the broad sense, mystics. They both strongly stressed the immediate connection of the human soul with god and they both centred the basis of their religious faith on the fact of direct divine-human relationships and intercourse. But the mysticism of the second period is quite a different type from that of the first period. One is characteristically positive, the other negative to a marked degree. One springs out of a rich and exalted conception of the immeasurable depth and worth of man, the other is built on a pervading sense of the wreck and ruin of fallen man. One is apostolic and catholic, strong in the faith that its discovery is to be proclaimed from the housetop, and that the world is to share its message. The other is timid and exclusive and is content with the cultivation of a remnant and with the making of a peculiar people.”
Maurice read on for a page and then turned back and read the passage for a third and a fourth time. He muttered almost audibly, “Quakers and folkies both, man. Quakers and folkies both.”
At this the old man with the cello-taped glasses looked Maurice even more intently and said in a manner he apparently took to be satirical: “Interestin’ book?”
Maurice nodded and grunted but did not look up.
“Must think it’s a blinkin’ library in ‘ere. Comin’ into a public bar to read a book. People not good enough to talk to, I suppose.”
Maurice jerked his head up and stared straight ahead for a moment, then bent back toward the book, closed it, finished his pint and rose.
“We don’t need your sort in ‘ere, you know. All scruffy and Irish like. Readin’ books in public houses!”
Maurice passed under the iron arc and its naked rings, out the door and around the corner. The saloon bar he entered was a plushier, cleaner room that the one he had left, with low round tables and cushioned stools. There were a score of people in the room, one of them familiar to Maurice. He was character. Maurice thought him one of the dreariest people of his acquaintance, but he was certainly a character. He had an Amerindian look; dark with salient cheekbones, a Roman nose and tallow-white shoulder-length hair surgically parted in the middle. He wore a yellow velvet three-piece suit and nothing else.
“Conas ta tu a Mhuiris? What can I get you?”
“Malcolm. Pint of ordinary, please. Ta.”
“I’ve been wanting to get in touch with you,” said the man in the yellow suit as he ordered a pint and a Pernod.
“Well, now you have. Cheers. What can I do you for?”
“I’m thinking of, you know, doing something on the group.”
“Malcolm, you don’t want to talk to me. You’re a music writer. I’m a lorry driver.”
“It’s true then? You’ve retired.”
“No, I’ve quit. I got the sand in my teeth and I quit.”
Malcolm signalled and Maurice paid for another Pernod without either of them speaking.
“I think you’re wrong, Maurice. I really do. It’s such a waste.”
“Balls. Are you coming up to hear Austin?”
Malcolm shrugged and followed Maurice up a narrow flight of stairs to a landing with three doors facing on to it. One of the doors had notice saying, “Do not enter while singing is going on. Please wait for applause. Thank you.” There were a few graffiti scribbled around this ukase, most of it on the theme ‘what applause’? Adjacent to another of the doors and athwart the next flight of stairs was a table holding a cash-box, a book of cloakroom tickets, an opened ledger-like book and several stacks of printed flyers. Behind the table sat the small fair woman.
“One non-member,” said Maurice.
“That’s all right, Maurice,” said Susan.
“One non-member,” repeated Maurice, putting a pound on the table.
“Oh, all right! Be that way then. 40p. If you please.”
She gave him his change and greeted Malcolm, who gave no indication that he expected to pay an admission charge. Maurice leaned against the door and heard his brother’s muffled singing:
“I’ve ever seen her face before me,
In life or dreams or anywhere,
But that she did stare at me cruelly,
From cheek and tress so brownly fair.”
Maurice recognized the penultimate verse of a song that, despite its traditional air, he knew to be one of his brother’s own.
“She’d a pewter ring upon her finger,
An amber band did hold her hair;
But a tress beside her eye did linger,
Upon her cheek so brownly fair.”
Applause began and Maurice pushed open the door and stepped into the room. It was a long, low-ceilinged one, dim but for a slightly-raised, brightly-lit platform at one end. The walls were covered with record sleeves and posters advertising moribund clubs and long-past concerts. The room was crowded. The bulk of the audience were mixed bohemians in their 30s, 40s and 50s, some younger students and a sprinkling of full-time freaks. There were a dozen or so rows of folding chairs, all occupied, and half again as many people jammed up against the side and back walls. It was uncomfortably warm and very smoky. Maurice took up a position just inside the door and watched his brother, whose back was momentarily to the audience as he put down the fiddle with which he had accompanied the last song and picked up a venerable-looking Martin 00018 guitar. He strapped this on and reached for a glass which was perched on a chair by the stage, in company with one empty and two fresh bottles of Guinness. When he saw Maurice he stepped to the lip of the platform and said, with full performer’s projection; “Good evening, Brother Maurice. You’re late. You missed the raffle.” Austin gave the tuning peg of his bottom E string several vigorous twists. “Yes. We raffled off a turkey.” He took another sip of his stout. “She’s in the Mount Pleasant Hotel with the winner now.”
There was laughter and many of the audience turned to look at Maurice. The majority who knew who he was murmured to the minority who didn’t. Austin held his brother’s eye and inclined his head slightly. Maurice gave a brief, shivering head-shake.
“This next song was collected from a man named Barney Sheehan who lives near the Cross of Annagh in West Clare. Well, when I say collected, what I mean is that I was under the table he was sitting at when he sang it. It’s one of the “Lord Bateman” versions of “Young Beichan” and is comparatively common in Ireland for a Child Ballad. The astute among you – there are some astute among…? Of course there are – the astute among you will be aware that I nicked the air of the last epic from a Scottish version of the same ballad. At any rate, this is more or less Barney Sheehan’s version of it.”
Austin let a moment pass without coughing, fidgeting or experimental tuning or pitching, and then struck into the tale of the Lord and the Moor’s only daughter. The song was not ideal for his style, having more voluptuously decorative flesh and softer narrative bones than his narrow-ranged, astringent vocalism seemed to require. It did have much telling character detail and Maurice could understand why his brother had taken it up. As always, Austin’s singing engaged him deeply. The few mannerism were familiar to him: notable the husky vibrato in the low registers and sudden leap to near-falsetto at appropriate dramatic and musical moments. Maurice thought it a tribute to his brother that in his years of singing professionally four and five nights a week, with a repertoire that always had between 150 and 200 songs in good repair, he had never allowed his best effects to degenerate into a bag of tricks. He knew that Austin recognized his own vocal limitations and that his faculty for expressiveness was unfailing. Maurice’s insights into his brother’s singing had previously been insufficiently penetrating for him to fully understand the temperamental mechanism by which Austin contrived to be such a sensitive vehicle of lyrical narrative and yet so unapparent as Austin Wyke. Maurice knew that despite his own superior vocal equipment he did not have this faculty himself. But at that moment he began to see that the reason for this was that, whatever his protestations, his own was much the more obstreperous ego. As this realization deepened, he found he could no longer listen and as the song ended he slipped out of the increasingly close room.
“Maurice, I’m –“
Maurice smiled at Susan with kindness, indicated his empty glass and pantomimed a need for the loo. He cantered downstairs, put his glass on the counter and went out the door. He stood for several minutes at the corner of the busy High Road and anonymous side street on which the pub stood, spat capaciously into the gutter and re-entered the public bar. In the doorway he collided with the old man, whom physical contact seemed to make less truculent, and went past him to the gents’ toilet.
“Pint of ordinary please, missus,” he said when he had emerged.
Maurice turned and saw the dancing woman intent on a garish fruit machine. Her hair looked even more lank, moistened by rum and port and movement. Maurice went to the jukebox and played “Working in a Coalmine”. Throughout the record he studied the song titles as the woman fed coins into the one-armed bandit, pulled the handle, pressed the hold buttons when the yellow lights flashed and, occasionally, as coins clattered down, fished them out and poured them back into the slot. When the song finished Maurice played it again. The woman, still intent on the spinning columns, began to bob her head. Maurice played the song a third time, sat down and took out a small flageolet. The woman again began her weird, unabandoned shimmy. Maurice had barely put the whistle to his lips when a gingerish man in a tightly unfashionable suit started up violently from the seat where the black postman had brooded over The Sporting Life and shook the woman roughly by the arm.
“You give that over. Are you tryin’ to make a show of me, or what?” said the man fiercely.
“But Decky, I’m on’y dancin’ a bit.”
“You give that over, you baggage. You’re not makin’ a show of me in here. I’m goin’ home to hell out of this and you’ll come too if you don’t want ructions. Tryin’ to make a show of me!”
The man finished his pint, slammed the tumbler down and stalked out. After a momentary hesitation during which she looked blankly at Maurice, the woman followed him out.
“But Decky, I was on’y havin’ a dance… Ah, Decky…?”