Just like Jazz
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I have always been of the opinion that blind dates are not for the faint-hearted for they have a high-risk element, which personally I can live without. When my friend Geoff, bald, forty-eight, a twice-divorced accountant, told me he was seeing a woman again I got concerned. It was clear from his inane smile, spruced up appearance and reformed air it was an acutely serious case. Serious too, because I could see that our occasional nights of male bonding at the bar were clearly under threat. What to do is always the problem.
You don’t like to say to a friend of many years: you’re being a total idiot or something more graphic. Well-intentioned advice of that kind is rarely well received and is fruitless anyway, for the guy will assume there is jealousy in the comment and the infatuation will be even greater. Better to take a more subtle tack and let the thing play out in the hope it will end disastrously with the chance of uttering a few noble and consoling words.
However, things took a downward swing when Geoff phoned one winter evening to tell me the great news that his girl, Sonya, had a friend.
‘Single?’ I naively questioned.
‘Divorced.’ Of course I thought.
‘Three. But they are really nice kids.’ I knew they would be exceptionally nice kids. They always are.
‘We were thinking…..’ Oh no, I silently wailed!
‘Sonya and I wondered if you’d like to make up a foursome?’
‘With the kids?’ I vainly parried while fiddling dementedly with the phone cable.
‘No. With Ellen?’
‘Ellen?’ My brain was working feverishly to invent an excuse, a pretext for a polite, but firm refusal. At other times they would have tumbled out in splendid profusion.
I was up against a wall down a blind alley with a receding blue sky. Taking silence for acceptance Geoff went on in his accountant’s drone:
‘There’s this really nice place in Belfast where they play jazz. It opened only last month. Everyone’s talking about it. It’s so cool.’
The term ‘cool’ sounded uncomfortable in my friend's vocabulary. One of the girlfriend's I guessed.
Granted, I love jazz especially in the right location. During the summer I often go to Mount Stewart for the open-air jazz concerts. It’s great sprawled in the sunshine outside the big house, listening to the music, having some wine and watching the people and the afternoon slip across the lawn. For me jazz is really exciting and I like the way you never know when a tune is going to end. Just when you think it is, it shoots off in another unexpected direction, surprising and thrilling you. I like that quality. That’s what you call being creative.
‘You like jazz don’t you?’
The blind alley had narrowed, deepened and darkened. There really wasn’t any way out, around or over. I hate that.
‘I knew you’d agree.’
I hadn’t, but in effect, I had. An expanding cloud of self-reproach was rising before me. A readiness to pander to others and fall in with their plans has been one of my cardinal shortcomings. My father always said: be frank with people and then there can be no misunderstanding. It wasn’t exactly a brilliantly insightful remark, but coming from my dad, it passed for wisdom. Moreover, it was wisdom I had ignored.
‘You’ll have a great time,’ said Geoff a little redundantly. I tried not to have any preconceptions for I knew they would upset my sleep.
A week later walking to my friend’s flash new penthouse apartment down by the river, the trees were bare, the streetlights spilling delicately on the water, I tried to be cheerful and put on a brave face. When I got to the apartment the women had not arrived and Geoff was in a high state of excitement, his shirt open a couple of buttons and reeking from adoring slaps of aftershave.
A pleasant hour elapsed in which I tried to understand Geoff’s latest costly acquisition, a shapeless modern sculpture by a local sculptor very much in vogue and frequently talked about in artistic circles while my host aided my appreciation with some excellent beers. Being an accountant Geoff’s interest and investment in art stemmed more from re-sale profit than aesthetic pleasure. After I had admired, criticised and stroked the sculpture he said he did not think it meant anything at all, which put my mind at rest on the topic.
I was now in a mood to hit the jazz club minus the females when the ladies arrived in a shrill burst of helloes and laughter and a descent of pungent perfume. Both were mid-forties, dyed brunettes, thick about the waists and heavy about the jowls. Maybe in a poor light, but let’s not be cruel. People in glasshouses and all that. They were in public relations one of them explained as if that were sufficient introduction. I will say one thing for the girls, they certainly knew how to drink.
Geoff was in raptures as he swaggered about handing out the Shiraz. He was pleased too that I had taken on the mantle of the joking, worldly friend, regaling the late arrivals with my holiday reminiscences. Nonetheless, I did notice a shadow of boredom creeping into their pallid features when I touched on my skiing prowess. It is a sure-fire way to cool passion in the female breast, second only to hinting at chronic alcoholism. Best said with a puzzled and aggrieved tone: ‘But I only drink two bottles of vodka a day! What’s wrong with that?’ With these two I wasn’t at all certain this gambit would work.
Geoff’s girl was also divorced and had mothered an unspecified number of offspring. Currently she was mothering Geoff, which was a particularly gloomy and pathetic sight.
With relief we clambered into a taxi and hit the seething streets of the city. I love the urban noise and buzz, the milling crowds, the excited and vulgar voices, the feeling that anything could happen. The jazz club was new, shiny and chic, just like its patrons. It even had ambience, as smart people in the glossy magazines are fond of saying.
The girls took to the place like ducks to water. They were throwing back the drinks like there’s no tomorrow, no doubt because Geoff and I were buying. Sonya was bopping around like a sixteen-year-old and behaving in a curiously silly way. What is it with some women that when they hit forty-six or thereabouts their minds go into reverse making them think they’re good-lookers back at college flirting and giving the boys the eye?
The band was made up of great young musicians, playing with an exuberance and verve that gets the crowd on their feet. It was just a pity they left gaps between the tunes to allow Sonya to fill them with her drivel. This in short was a tedious and embarrassing eulogy to Geoff. She was determined to get her man at any cost. As far as I could see further efforts by her were completely superfluous: he was in the bag. ‘He’s a real man,’ she said. I wondered if that little innuendo was aimed in my direction because I hadn’t felt inclined to shove my hand up her friend’s skirt. However, not wishing to spoil Geoff’s obviously wonderful evening I let the moment pass with iced composure.
As time wore on and the room throbbed and I finally agreed to dance with Ellen, I noticed with alarm Sonya getting louder and more brazen until she started dancing about in front of the band in the way some middle-aged women think is wildly sexy, but is really just sad. The younger trendier clientele were looking round with knowing glances as if to say: shouldn’t the old girl be at home, tucked up in bed and not making an exhibition of herself? Before long she had slipped her arm round the pony-tailed sax player’s neck, who with nonchalant restraint, ignored her and didn’t hit a duff note throughout. That's professional musicianship for you! Even Geoff was eyeing up the situation with growing unease. Suddenly Sonya lurched away from the sax player, revolved once as if performing a limp pirouette and hit the polished parquet full-length and facedown as the music took one of its glorious sideways leaps into the unknown.
As one we got to our feet and rushed over to her. She was stunned and moaning, a little worm of blood emerging from her nose. Geoff instantly took control of the situation flicking out his new mobile phone and calling up assistance in the form of a taxi. When we got the wounded lady outside into the cold night air and set her on a low wall she became hysterical. She wasn’t going in any bleeding taxi or words to that effect. Personally, I was for leaving her there and then. God knows what the taxi driver thought as we carried horizontally one of his passengers, struggling and screaming, to the car. As it happened, this one was a model of blank diplomacy. It’s hardly surprising for these guys have seen it all; nothing fazes them. That I admire.
Back at the apartment Sonya was still being hysterical as Geoff and Ellen wrestled with her up and down the spiral staircase in the direction of one of the bedrooms, smashing something that sounded expensive. I guessed it was the latest sculpture that got the early demise. Which was a shame for I had grown to like it since it didn’t mean anything. Maybe that is true art after all. A few thuds followed, someone screamed, a door slammed and things went quiet.
Sitting there on the sofa, fuddled and bemused, I looked around trying to size things up and thinking I should have stayed at home and ordered a takeaway. A comment Ellen had made was troubling me. I was a little surprised that within an hour of our meeting she had asked how many women I had slept with. Call me a prude, but isn’t that a tad indelicate? What’s more, Geoff told me I could sleep on the sofa, which was right beside Ellen’s bedroom. I was starting to get the sour whiff of conspiracy. The outside door was very close. I wanted to make a break for it, but being a wayward sap or maybe because I was a tiny bit curious I decided to watch the wallpaper a little longer.
When Ellen came back, she sidled shoeless across the room in an odd dance-like motion and dropped onto the sofa, flicking her hair back and sighing. Our thighs touched. She apologised for her friend’s behaviour and I said it was all right. She then went on to complain repeatedly of feeling tired and yawned more than once. I could not understand why she did not just go to bed without making a fuss. However, what bothered me most was her tone: it had become soft and whispery. So when she went to the bathroom, I left.
After that night I put some space between Geoff and myself. I do not like being abusive to people and I felt like being abusive to him. Still, six months later when we met on a bright summer day in a city street, the traffic roaring past us, I could have laughed it off. However, when I asked about Sonya, expecting and steeling myself for a rush of adoring epithets he said:
‘Who? Oh, haven’t seen her in months.’
‘You remember the evening… ?’
‘The one when….’
I couldn’t help noticing a leaden quality creeping into the exchange, which is not how I like to chat. I like a generous, unedited flow. Geoff seemed to have lost some of that likeably breezy and open nature which won friends easily and made you overlook his little vanities. It made me wonder if I had known him at all.
Tactfully I dropped the subject sensing things had changed and his life had moved on and taken a new and unforeseen direction, one he was not prepared to talk about. I respected his reticence. I came away thinking: life's like that, it's just like jazz!