By Ruby Flanagan
The cobbled street was still after the bustle of the afternoon rush. The evening was pulling in and the sky was pink entwined with delicate swirls of silver and dark blue. The dusky alleyway was quiet, apart from the creaking of the wooden hanging sign for The Wireless, and a subtle purr of jazz.
As the clock chimed the hour, the mahogany doors of The Wireless flung open, bleeding orange light and smooth jazz onto the crooks of the street. A lady stepped out and hooked the wooden doors open as she balanced a cigarette between her red lips. She turned around and inhaled the smoke deeply. As she exhaled the smog into the crisp evening air, her eyes gazed up at the hazy sky. It was a big night tonight, and she hoped for success.
The creases deepened around her eyes as she squinted to look up. One hand held the cigarette by her cheek and the other twisted the hair that fell around her face. It was dark, almost black and it was streaked with strands of silver and white. She was wearing dark high-waisted trousers with a belt that cinched her in at the waist and a black jumper dusted with glitter. She looked as if she was dressed for a sophisticated evening, but this was Elsie. She always dressed for glamour. She closed her eyes and took in the last breath of her cigarette, savouring the few seconds of calm before the night began. Her moment of peace was interrupted by a young couple who strolled past her into the bar. She sighed lightly and threw her cigarette to the ground stubbing it out with her patent boot and followed them in.
“Can I get you anything?” Elsie asked following behind them. The couple stood awkwardly together.
“Erm, yes,” the young man stuttered before turning to the girl mumbling the word red, she nodded avoiding his eyes. His face winced as he turned back, “yes, just a bottle of the house red please.” Elsie nodded turning to reach the bottle of Valettaly red wine from the back shelf. She caught the young man’s eyes and smiled as she placed the glasses and bottle onto the counter.
The couple then headed towards the round table in the far corner of the bar. The light’s hanging from the ceiling never seem to reach that far. The corner was softly lit by candles that were wedged in old wine bottles placed around the table and on the bookshelf behind.
Elsie watched the couple amble to the table with the young man’s steps getting smaller until he reached his chair. It was moved and placed opposite the young woman’s seat. Trying to distract herself, Elsie polished a glass but she couldn’t help but keep glancing over. She sighed quietly to herself feeling sombre, she knew this wasn’t an evening of romance, and it was too beautiful a bottle of wine for that.
The evening began to settle neatly into place. The candles flickered and a smooth trumpet tune played out of the battered jukebox next to the stage. A few lost souls joined for a glass of something, and time to think, to later leave and lose themselves again in the cobbled streets. Elsie would then stroll across the bar to collect the evidence that showed people were once there.
“Excuse me,” a soft voice came from behind as she wiped a table. She turned to see an older gentleman stood in tweed trousers, a beige shirt, and a black leather jacket. He smiled sweetly before asking, “Do I order at the bar?”
The man ordered a double bourbon and hunched deeply onto the bar as he waited. Elsie observed him for a few moments. She sensed he was down, and she decided he needed something good. Her eyes wandered the back shelves, across the many rows of old bottles of bourbon and whiskey. Her eyes finally fixed on a bottle of Crossroads. She poured the spirit into a short, crystal glass and placed it next to the sorrowed soul leaning before her. The gentlemen heavily rose back to life offering a thank you and a weak smile.
“My son will be joining me,” he then stuttered “and I think he likes one of your beers? Erm, the labels dark blue, I think?” The man rooted through his pockets pulling out a picture of two young men to show Elsie. “Do you recognise the beer in front of them?” Elsie studied the image. She recognised the beer, the men in the picture, and the bar they were sat in. The couple were in The Wireless last week.
“I know the beer! Go take a seat and I’ll bring it over when he gets here,” Elsie chimed, the man smiled at her before heading to the table for three next to the fireplace.
An hour or so goes by before the man’s son joined. His father managed to knock back two double Crossroads in his time waiting. The father stood up nervously with his hands clasped by his chest as the young man approached the table.
“Thank you for meeting me Oscar,” he said as Oscar took a seat next to the remaining embers of yesterday’s fire. He managed to give a subtle smile just as Elsie arrived with his bottle of beer. Noticing it, Oscar smiled harder and grabbed his father’s hand.
“This is Joe’s favourite beer, he showed it me when we came here for our first date. I think you’ll like this beer dad. I’ll get you one.”
Oscar was a regular in The Wireless and Elsie liked him. He would come for the Open Mic Jazz Nights The Wireless held every other Tuesday, he wasn’t the best singer but he held a tune and his performance was always memorable. She thought of him as the colour yellow, the type of person that never took themselves too seriously and saw the bright side of Monday mornings.
“What’s the occasion this fine evening?” Elsie asked Oscar. He then peered over at his father.
“I’m building bridges tonight!” he hollered “bridges that were destroyed a while ago and that have finally got the funding to be rebuilt.” Oscar smiled and she gently nodded to wish him luck. As Oscar grabbed the beer, the diamond on his finger glistened in the light, reflecting small rainbow fragments onto the back bar.
The dusky alleyway was quiet, apart from the creaking of the wooden hanging sign for The Wireless, and a subtle purr of jazz.
“Elsie!” the serene aura of the evening was suddenly shattered, as a woman appeared in the doorway with her hands thrown in the air. “Elsie!” she screamed again strutting over to the bar.
“It’s so lovely to see you Christine,” Elsie replied as Christine leaned in and kissed Elsie’s cheeks before perching on a stool. Elsie grabbed her hand and chimed cheekily, “If you’re anything like your grandmother, I think I’ll know what you’ll like.”
“Thank you for letting me sing here” Christine said before taking a sip of the Chandan sparkling wine Elsie had just placed in front of her.
“Don’t thank me” Elsie pleaded, “A Valentine singing at The Wireless again? That is a dream come true for me, and exactly what this place needs right now.” Elsie grabbed her Chandan flute and raised it to a cheers. Christine and Elsie clinked the glasses and giggled as drops of the sparkling wine dropped onto the bar top.
“My Grandmother would not believe this! She’s told me so many stories about her gigs here.” Christine squealed, “She always said that this was the best jazz bar in the city, the best wine too and of course the best land lady!” Christine winked audaciously at Elsie as she sipped her drink and Elsie tittered at her statement.
“Valerie was a magnificent jazz singer, one of the best, and watching her perform was magical.” Elsie then began to detail the effect Christine’s Grandmother had on a room. “Her voice and her music, it was enchanting. Everybody loved Valerie.” Elsie watched Christine’s face beam with pride as she shared her memories.
“Now I get to perform here!” Christine squealed. Elsie placed her hands over Christine’s and studied her face. This young girl was the replica of her grandmother, the same round face, big smile, glorious deep brown eyes, and corkscrew ringlets that bounced when she walked. Even her dimples matched those of Valerie’s.
Elsie had missed the beautiful music of her friend, she had sung at The Wireless for nearly forty years. Since Valerie died, Elsie could not bear the thought of replacing her and the bar had suffered. Thursday night became a quieter shadow to what they once were. Elsie hoped to bring back the soulful Thursday gigs, and that spark was reignited when Christine waltzed into an Open Mic Night one evening. Introducing herself as a Valentine.
“You best go and get ready,” Elsie said to Christine before leading her away. “The band will be here within the hour and they don’t need long to tune up,” she explained as they walked, “the stage is set so it’s just you we need to wait for.” Elsie took her to a tiny dressing room at the end of narrow corridor hidden at the back of the bar.
Elsie opened the green dressing room door to reveal the chamber that Christine’s grandmother had essentially lived in for nearly forty years. It was simple, there was a small metal frame for hanging clothes and a dark wooden dressing table with a gold framed mirror on top and a plush red chair. The walls were a royal purple and covered with old pictures full of people laughing, drinking, smoking, and singing, many were of Elsie and Valerie.
Christine placed her bag down and took a seat running her hands over the velvet cushions.
“Is it okay for you?” Elsie asked before she left.
“Oh yes! It’s perfect.” Christine then stared at the pictures pinned to the wall as she thought about her grandmother. Valerie loved this place and seeing these pictures showed that. Valerie was the reason she dreamed of becoming a professional jazz singer and this was the place she dreamed to sing at, just like her grandmother.
As Elsie returned to the bar her attention was immediately drawn to the corner. The couple from before were still sat an uncomfortable distance apart.
“I don’t know what to say” the young girl finally muttered after a few moments of silence. “That’s just how I feel.” The young man stared at his empty glass, he leaned forward to grab the bottle and poured the remaining dribble into it.
“But how can you change your mind?” the young man’s voice started to crack. “You were so keen for it, Katherine I don’t understand?” He paused waiting for Katherine to say something, but she stayed silent. “I think we should get another bottle,” The young man stood up sharply and headed to the bar.
“Billy please” Katherine groaned, ignoring her he continued to walk away.
“Same again please” Billy said to Elsie. She nodded softly and pulled a second bottle of Valettaly from the shelf.
“Did you like it?” she asked.
“It was beautiful, It’s my favourite wine!” he chimed back. Elsie smiled noticing that Billy looked a little brighter.
“It’s heavenly this wine, an old friend grows it at his vineyard in the Valettaly region and he gives me an incredible price for it” Elsie winked. Billy gave her a distracted smile. “Is your evening going well? she finally pried. The façade in his smile dropped slightly as he glanced over to the corner,
“It could be better.”
“Okay,” Katherine blurted out as soon as Billy reached his seat. “I thought I would be able to do it. I was excited to do it but I can’t lie to you Billy.” Katherine’s voice grew hoarser the more she spoke, “But when I think about it, I don’t want to be tied down when I’m on the biggest adventure of my life.” She raised her hand to Billy’s face to stop him interrupting, “I love you so much but I’m going away for a year, to study the books I love, and I don’t want to continue this.” Katherine stared at Billy hoping for a response. He sat still for a few moments and nodded, taking a sip of his wine. “I’m sorry,” Katherine whispered, she shuffled her chair closer to his and placed her hand on his thigh, “I’m so sorry.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen.” a voice roared over the bar as the lights dimmed. Elsie stood centre stage and the tinker of instruments accompanied her in the spotlight. “I am honoured to introduce…” Elsie’s eyes watered as she turned to see Christine approaching. For a moment, Elsie was certain that it was her friend striding through the bar making her way to the stage. Christine adorned a long golden silk gown that hugged the curve of her waist and fell loosely around her feet. Her curly hair was tied into a low bun and her jet earrings reflected flecks of light, like stars, onto the ceiling. “Miss Christine Valentine.” The bar gave a polite applause as Christine took to the stage. “It’s your turn now,” Elsie whispered. Christine took a slow deep breath before taking her place in the spotlight. She grasped the microphone and then sang.
Christine’s voice thundered out, filling every corner of the room. Her rich vocals flirted with whoever could hear. It had looked like she had cast a spell over the bar as everyone in the audience began to clap and holler along. Christine felt euphoric. It felt like instinct that she was singing there. In that moment Christine knew this was where she belonged.
Elsie watched Christine in awe. Her eyes welled up as she remembered Valerie and how she used to watch her perform like this. She always thought that watching her friend sing was like falling in love. The crowd would pack so tightly into the bar and the queue for drinks was endless when Valerie Valentine performed. Elsie’s heart ached to think about the past but as she watched Christine Valentine stand where her grandmother stood, Elsie felt herself falling in love. Elsie’s daze was then interrupted by Katherine as she walked past with her eyes fixed on the door. Elsie watched her leave and not look back.
Billy stared at the stained glass in his hand. He couldn’t watch Katherine go, he couldn’t have his last memory be of her not looking back. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he glanced over to see who it belonged to. The hand was old and full of lines and with a jewelled ring on each finger.
Elsie stood graciously over Billy, her eyes fixed on Christine. Placing his hand on top of hers, he tried to tell what was happening on the old woman’s face. He decided he didn’t have to know.
“The only thing that has the power to break a heart but heal a broken one is divine jazz and red wine,” Elsie whispered “I have a bottle of glorious cherry wine that I’ve been saving for something special. Would you like to share a glass with me?” Elsie smiled and Billy nodded accepting the offer. Elsie slipped away quietly, returning with a dusty bottle and a set of fresh glasses. She filled them with the deep burgundy wine and raised her glass high. “Cheers,” she mouthed to Billy. They clinked their glasses and drank.
The walls were a royal purple and covered with old pictures full of people laughing, drinking, smoking, and singing, many were of Elsie and Valerie.
“A June wedding then? That would be lovely,” the father said apprehensively taking a sip of his beer. “The flowers will be in full bloom and hopefully the weather will be on your side. You know what Barnham Bay can be like!” Oscar stared at his drink building up the courage to speak.
“I’m glad you responded,” he finally blurted out “you know, to the invitation.” Oscar paused and anxiously took a sip of his beer.
“No,” his father said bluntly “No please don’t say anything like that. It was my fault. All of it. Do not thank me.” The words seemed to just pour out of his mouth, as if the pressure of those words had been building for a long time “I don’t know why I acted the way I did to you, I was stupid and I was wrong.” Oscar saw his father’s stance soften. He had never seen his shoulders drop like this before, he was always such a hard and serious man. His father’s head fell to his knees “I don’t deserve your forgiveness Oscar,” he whimpered “but I am sorry.”
Oscar focused on the hunched lump that sat in front of him, he didn’t know what to think. He suddenly thought of his mother. She was so different to the man she married, she was soft and warm. She would cherish the smallest thing about you and love it unconditionally. Oscar believed his mother was an angel. She had taught him so much but most of all, she taught him to forgive.
Oscar leaned forward and placed his arm around his dad’s shoulders.
“I forgive you.” His dad paused and with a deep breath rose to face Oscar. His face was pink and his eyes were swollen. Oscar wiped away the remaining tears from his dad’s face and pulled him in for a hug.
“Is Joe joining us later?” his dad asked as they pulled away.
“Not tonight,” Oscar replied “but would you like to come round for dinner tomorrow? I would love to show you some of the wedding prep.”
“I would love that and I’ll bring some of these beers around for Joe!” his dad chimed whilst raising his bottle above his head. “It’ll be good for us to finally get to know each other.” Oscar smirked and grabbed his beer, raising it high,
“To a new start dad.”
“A new start.” The two chuckled loudly together as their bottles clinked.
Christine threw back her head and roared the last note of her set into the microphone. This note was glorious and full of soul. Christine held this note for as long as her body would allow, she then diminuendoed into almost silence. After a few moments of stillness, the bar erupted into an explosive applause. Christine looked out at the crowd she had gathered and immediately her eyes caught with Elsie, who gave her a small nod.
The early hours of the morning finally showed its face as Elsie inhaled the start of her last cigarette of the day. The Wireless emptied out the remaining stragglers from the night. The few who had joined that evening piled out happy, tipsy, and full of jazz. They said goodbye to Elsie and thanked her for the evening. She smiled and cheerfully waved them off watching their silhouettes stumble down the cobbled street.
She finished the last bit of wine left in her glass and threw the cigarette to the ground stubbing it out with her boot. She sighed and pulled the heavy doors of The Wireless shut. The warm, orange light that spilled onto the street went dark. The bar had closed, and the street fell quiet. There was almost silence but listening harder, there was still the faint hint of jazz bleeding through the shutters. This dark cobbled alleyway never fell silent, even on the earliest of mornings and the latest of nights. Even when the street was packed with bodies and especially when there was not a soul in sight. It had been this way for years, and everyone knew. There was always jazz on The Wireless.