Herne Hill

A winter’s tale

I can see the young man from down the street, stood in his black woolly hat outside, and I’m smiling as I approach the bar, saying ‘Darius, right?’, and the younger guy replies, with a big smile, ‘Everyone calls me Chisel. You’re James?’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Good to meet you.’

‘Yeah man. You come far?’

‘Hackney.’

‘That’s far!’

‘Well, it wasn’t too bad. Let’s get out of the cold.’

We move inside the bar. It’s long, thin, spotlessly clean – called Nigel’s, it’s an American-style bar. Probably even bigger than that, because at the end of the bar is the largest drinks selection I’ve ever seen. Really; rows on shiny rows of bottles, on crystal shelves before a background of silver glass. And the selection! You’ve got a whole row of Japanese whiskies, every vodka imaginable, golden rums in tall bottles. And in front of all this the bartender, presumably Nigel, resplendent in all black with a tea towel over his shoulder. One of those men who is just the right height.

‘What do you want?’

‘A glass of tap water,’ I say.

The bartender, actually called Derek, pours me one. I look to him and smile; ‘Amazing place you’ve got here. I’ll have one of your vodkas later, but I don’t drink before gigs.’

‘We should have a few people down here later, it’s my first night running this,’ says Chisel. At the moment there is no one in the bar apart from a blonde man in a cagoule reading and looking vaguely ill.

‘Yeah – I looked on the website – Furious Mike used to run this gig right?’

‘He did. Then he gave it to me. But I don’t speak to him no more. I can’t be dealing with him, man. All that ego. How long you been gigging, anyway?’

‘Oh, a long time.’

‘Yeah? How long?’

‘Well – in London not so long.’ I can’t be bothered to tell the story; how I lived abroad for some years, how I worked professionally there, how I feel constantly chided and humiliated in having to start again. ‘I’m doing at lot at the moment though.’

‘Yeah – where’d you gig?’

‘Oh, TPT, Sorcerer, Uncle Buncle.’

‘Do you do the Cave?’

‘I do but – it’s a bringer, right. Bringers are difficult.’

A bringer show is when you have to bring a guest in order to perform, ensuring that there’s audience. It could be worse – other gigs demanded you actually paid to perform.

‘I never won the little cup there though. Do you do the Gong show? I do it man. I’ve beaten it before – I’ve got to the final. But in the final you have to do five full minutes and man, it’s hard. I want to get back there and beat the gong. But you have to do the other rounds again.’

‘It’s like a computer game,’ I say and, ‘Excuse me. I have to go to the toilet.’

‘It’s back there,’ says Derek, the bartender.

More drinks

                                     Edwin Land/Creative Commons

I move to the toilet, again spotlessly clean, and take a seat. It’s a cramped room, with the walls decorated with pictures of black icons; Obama, Martin Luther King, John Coltrane. And here I am, a pasty-white bloke from Nottingham taking a shit beneath these distinguished eyes. I take a look at my hand, which is forced right up to me, and note the cigarette burn near the knuckle. It’s hard for me to fathom now that I would deliberately damage myself like that, especially as an increasing part of my mental energy is in trying to work out I preserve my body so it fights on for a few decades more. I wipe, flush, and clean my hands.

When I return to the main bar the book reader has gone but two new men have arrived. One of them is a muscular black man in a puffer jacket and the other a long-haired, yellow-tinged man wearing what looks like fishing gear. They’re drinking, Puffer Jacket in silence and Fisherman with a big smile and enthusiastically talking to the barmaid. The staff has changed, too: Derek has been replaced by a barmaid, Sharma, tall, gamine and dressed in black.

But I’m not quite ready to join the drinking yet. I’m still holding a little bit of my brain open to the possibility that there will actually be a show tonight. I’m not too bothered; as ever after a long trip to a gig, I feel like I’ve already achieved something by getting there. Chisel sees me sitting there and says, perhaps too anxiously, ‘Don’t worry if no-one shows up man. I’ll buy you a drink.’

I’ve moved to a corner and am sitting in the chairs where the book reader had been. I reach into my comedian’s bag – shoes, an audio recorder, clean socks – and take out my notebook. And then I spend thirty minutes sitting there thinking about my life, while all the while Chisel sits at the bar on a stool, seeming to curl up, sink more into himself, seeming to manifest his self-reproach in a tangible physical form.

At five to eight I’ve waited long enough. ‘Chisel. I think I’ll have that drink now.’

It’s a quiet night and Sharma keeps walking over to the Iphone dock to skip songs she doesn’t like and as she returns, Chisel suddenly throws his arms open and flamboyantly declare, ‘Sharma – get this lad a pint!’ Sharma laughs at this, at the goofiness I guess, and moves to take a can of Guinness from the fridge. I am a little disappointed it’s not draught, but then she puts the drink in its glass on a little device which makes a whirling noise and leaves it with an authentic head. It’s pretty neat.

The long-haired American is still there, talking about his having been abroad, hitting on Sharma it’s fair to say. When she turns her back to change the song again – she doesn’t like this one – we fall into a moment together. He asks me what I do with my life, and I say, no, not comedy, no, although I’d like to. And I repeat the question to him to which he replies that he’s retired.

Retired? I can’t believe it, I say, and ask him how old he is.

‘Guess.’

I look at him; his skin looks fresh, his hair still full of colour, and not curled towards a bald spot like my good self.

‘Er – you must be at the most 50.’

’50? 50?! 50?’

‘Sorry. I only guessed 50 because it was the earliest possible age I could imagine somebody retiring at. I don’t think you look anywhere near that old. How old are you?’

‘I’m 42.’

‘What did you work in?’

‘I’m in IT. People retire really young in IT. I mean, what’s the point in paying an older guy to do it when you can get a younger guy to at half the cost. You know the game Minecraft, yeah, well the guy who made that came retired at twenty. Having already made several million dollars.’ His phone is making a quiet bleeping; he raises it to eyeshot. ‘Sorry – my wife.’

‘So you’re married?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Have kids?’

‘No.’

‘And your wife’s cool with that, she doesn’t want to have kids either?’

‘Yeah it’s fine.’

I raise a hand. ‘So you’ve retired, made money, got a beautiful wife who loves you and doesn’t want any kids. Pretty much got it worked out, haven’t you?’

‘I guess,’ says the man, looking ahead of himself. ‘Another beer!’ he shouts to Sharma who turns back smiling. ‘Do you want a beer?’ he says to me.

‘I’ll have a shot,’ I say.

‘What kind of a shot?’

‘I’ll have a vodka,’ I say.

The vodka comes and I slam it down but that’s not enough for the American – he’s told me his name by now, but I’ve forgotten it and am too embarrassed to ask again. He wants me to try the bar’s own special vodka, which has apparently, according to his hype, finished a couple of other customers off; Sharma is already slicing an orange and there’s a genuine slight uptick in interest from Chisel and Puffer Jacket.

There are now four slices of orange in front of me and a rusty-looking shot. I’ve never been very good at working out why people are doing things for me, but there we are: I neck the shot. There is some burn, mainly on the lips, but I’ve had worse. I ride out the swellings of heat and think that it’d be good to have a cool drink, at which point I look to the oranges and all becomes clear. I pop them one by one into my mouth, sucking the coolness home.

They all seem satisfied with how I dealt with the shot – I did my best to summon a suitably stoic air, which is quite easy for a deadpan comedian. The American slaps my back gently and says, ‘It’s good right? You want another?’ Apparently there’s another version, one grade hotter. I assent with a smiling nod, and the little ritual is repeated: Sharma, the oranges, and the agonizing gulp.

‘It’s good stuff,’ I say with deliberation.

‘Right? It’s cleansing right? It’s like a drug.’

‘Should I –‘

‘No, it’s fine, I’ll get this,’ says the Yank. ‘You’re family now, right?’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘I guess.’

Head on a can

delta_avi_delta/Creative Commons

The conversation continues, and the long-haired man is talking about Florida, and carnival there. One time apparently a Dutch friend had visited and gone missing and they’d found him a few days later lying in the street . Carnival in Florida was pretty crazy, apparently, though I couldn’t really imagine that. There was something in the way that the man was making a big fuss about having hung out with a group of lesbians once that seemed too forced to have any genuine craziness behind it. ‘They hunt in packs,’ says the retiree, ‘and they know how to get the best girls.’

‘It’s true, they try to turn you,’ says Sharma. ‘I have a friend who’s one and she was talking to me once, and she just put her hand on my bum, just went out and did it. I was like, Oh my days!’

Anyway, there was a way to talk about people of different sexual orientations, and this wasn’t it; it was all too on the nose.

There were other things that people like at carnival and beyond was some kind of mixture of heroin and cocaine, know as Rosewater or something, or was it Strawberry Dream, which the men keep in lockets around their necks and which apparently offers a smooth and palatable high. The long-haired man had an enthusiasm for drugs and particularly hallucinogens, which I shared to a certain extent, though I’d never graduated from mushrooms to acid despite an abiding interest in doing so. Perhaps I was stung by the memory of a young man I’d met at a New Year’s party once, sitting bug-eyed in a long-crowded room, who responded, on my asking him whether he was having a good time, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t like the idea of not knowing whether I was having a good time or not.

To tell the truth, drugs didn’t interest me much, and I had got to a stage in my life where I was learning that that was okay, and also, that not much interested me, really, and that like a child I could be happy just sitting there with a glass of water, staring into space. I had so much to remember.

I did like Guinness though and I was happy when Chisel elected to buy me another one as there were only a few coins in my purse. By now his body language was bordering on wretched; he was engaged in visible self-reproach. This failed comedy night, which had been entrusted to him by an established act, with whom he had also fallen out – it was all stacked up against him. But more than that, he was telling me, and as he did I suddenly felt the cold outside – more than that, he had been without a room and sleeping on friends’ couches, here and there, for a few days at a time, for over a year now. Work seemed an issue too. He’d beaten the gong, and that kept him going, but he was in trouble.

I felt sympathy for Chisel, who slumped before me, talking in a low voice and occasionally checking his phone. I went to have a bit of a chat with Puffer Jacket, whose name was actually Andrew, and as for his work, he’d been an army psychiatrist before that had been decimated by the cuts. There it came again, an intimation of the pitiless government of this country; I’d got to a stage where I realized politics were doing me more harm than good, but they were always there, these intimations. London was so hard – it was like a city made of crystal, a city freezing along its tunnels and roads, like this massive ice palace full of frozen feather beds.

Suddenly it was time to go; there was no warning, time had just run out, I was already late. Hackney was far away, and when I said I had to get back there was general agreement that I had to leave now, because the last train from Herne Hill was very soon, just after half-ten. It was already half-ten. Well, I had definitely had a good time; I looked around the lovely, personable bar, the lights a little blistered by alcohol now. Chisel was gone, but Puffer Jacket, the American and Sharma were still there, and maybe they had a few drinks to go yet. I said goodbye to them all and walked back onto the street.

I walked down the hill feeling both upbeat and a complete failure in life. It was very cold. As I came to the bottom I saw Chisel, together with another young guy; both of them were wearing wooly hats and laughing together with their heads bowed down. I disturbed them – ‘See you later!’ I called, and Chisel looked up and gave me a nice smile. As I passed them both I heard him say to his friend, ascending behind, ‘Nice guy.’

A few days later Chisel sent a message to all the acts that due to creative differences he would no longer be running the Monday night comedy at Nigel’s.

A few days later still he posted up a picture online of his hand holding an unremarkable looking brass key, laid flat upon his palm. With this he wanted to thank everyone for supporting him and keeping faith in him as he moved onto the next stage of his project. It got ninety Likes; it seemed things were finally looking up for Chisel.

Herne Hill

                                  David Howard/Creative Commons

 

 

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