Curtains and Loud Curtsies

The curtains were drab, dyed a dark, oppressive brown that hurt Miranda’s eyes as she took in the room. The bedstead was plain and the lamps dull, but it was the curtains that made the whole of the room so depressing. Miranda imagined how cheerful the room could be made to look if only the curtains were yellow, but the brown ones were so undeniably present that she gave up trying to make herself feel better, and sat on the bed with a heavy sigh.

There was a soft scuttling sort of sound inside the wall that made her cringe. Mice and rats and spiders and filth, she thought acidly. She was about to cry out, but the maid entered her room without knocking at that very moment.

The girl was as neglected as the small inn. Her apron was singed in places and her little white cap was askew and rather grayer than it should be. Her face was still fresh and young but there was no rosy tint to her cheeks nor a bright glint to her eyes. She looked defeated and tired, as if she were up since dawn and wouldn’t be abed until the small hours of the night. Miranda looked at her with distaste, feeling that maids ought not to look like this.

“Please knock in future,” she said coldly to the girl.

“Pardon me, mum, didn’t mean no disrespect, mum,” the girl curtsied nervously, knees cracking and elbows sticking out awkwardly. She didn’t sound very sincere, but rather tired. “What can I do for ya, mum?”

“My baggage is in the carriage downstairs, as you no doubt saw already. I’d like someone to bring it up. I won’t have it left in the stables for anyone to rob. When is a meal served in this… establishment?” Miranda asked haughtily.

The maid lowered her eyes before answering. She didn’t want the grand lady on the bed to see that her eyes were prickling with tears of shame. “Ya just missed dinner, mum, but tea’s at four and supper’s at six. O’clock,” she added hastily.

“Good, so there is someone civilized here,” Miranda nodded approvingly. She felt that tea should always be at four o’clock and supper should always be served promptly at six. However, she’d lately stayed at rather nicer and more modern – she winced mentally at the word – hotels where they served tea at five and supper at seven. She supposed this inn may have once been a fine place but that it had gone to the dogs when the larger and smoother road had been built a few miles away.

As the maid curtsied loudly again and left the room, Miranda stared at the ugly curtains and reflected on her bad luck. It was no use – she would have to ask her husband to spend the money they’d been saving, and build a road between their estate and the main road to London. She was tired of taking this small, pathetic byway. Every time she visited her sister in London she feared that the carriage wheels would get stuck in the seemingly ever-present mud, and this time it finally happened. Her driver was downstairs, probably getting drunk already. He’d promised that the wheel would be fixed by tomorrow and that she’d be able to get home. It was lucky, he kept telling her, that they broke down near the old inn and that she would have a warm place to sleep that night. Miranda had solidly ignored him, as she often did.

She checked to see if the door to her room had a lock. Thankfully it did, and so she felt able to take off her outer clothed and wash her face and hands in the basin in the privy that lay behind a not-so-discreet door. She touched the handle gingerly and went in. The water in the basin looked and smelled stagnant. She sighed heavily and put her face in her hands. So, she thought to herself, nothing is to go right for me today.

A-Trane

A-Trane, the famous and successful jazz club, has free jam sessions every Saturday night. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Sunday morning, though. The jam session starts officially at midnight-thirty, but the show before it doesn’t usually end until one o’clock or later.

The night in question was just another Saturday night or Sunday morning, and the bar was jam-packed. Every kind of human creature above the age of eighteen was there. There were university students dressed sensibly, and those that dressed more provocatively. There were couples in their late twenties, yuppies who drank red wine and tilted their heads toward each other intimately. There were groups of middle aged men and women, friends out for a night of good music, good beer, and good company. And then, of course, there were musicians, who closed their eyes to listen properly or tapped their feet as well as they could to the fast paced or gentle jazz beats.

If smoking were still allowed, the place would be full of the blue tendrils of softly curling cigarette smoke, the smell of illegal substances, and the pungent scent of cigars. In lieu of all that, there was chatter, a strong smell of wine, spirits and beer, and an atmosphere that was as thick as the smoke would have been.

The main shows were over for the night. Many left, but just as many piled in, until the blonde lady at the front told them that the room was full and they’d have to wait. The ones who stayed after the main shows were the real enthusiasts – either for the music or for the alcohol – and they kept their seats jealously as the others crowded behind and between the small wooden tables. When a chair was vacated, someone inevitably pounced to take it, even if it meant that they’d be looking at the saxophonists extremely large feet from quite up close.

So this night at the A-Trane was the same as any other, perhaps. But it felt unique, incredibly cultural and grown-up for the two shy teenagers sitting close together. An older couple had offered them the seats right in front of them as well as the table. The teenagers thanked them profusely, and sat down eagerly. They sipped their beer when the nice waitress brought it over, and waited with anticipation for the jam-session to begin. Both were under the age of twenty and had never gone to a proper, indoor jazz club, although they’d both been to the jazz-bar in their hometown that featured live music once in while. Neither of them were experts on the genre, but both enjoyed it very much.

The seats they’d been given were a table’s length away from each other, so their knees touched lightly, but they couldn’t hold hands or cuddle. They sent happy looks at each other and smiled, thanking their lucky stars that they weren’t too close to the stage, and could actually see the drummer’s face when he got up to introduce himself.

“We’re Naked Jazz,” he said, his voice low and sexy as he leaned into the microphone. He was short, bald and rail-thin, but his voice was charismatic, and his hands were energetic and powerful, clutching the drumsticks that he was going to use in mere moments. “We’re going to start off the jam-session with four or five original tunes, and then we’ll open up the stage to the many talented musicians here tonight.”

And so they started. Their music was fast and furious at the start, messy in the way that jazz can sound before you pick out the melody and the fluidity of the tune. The bassist was dancing with his big instrument, moving back and forth as if it were a woman he was caressing. He smiled widely every time they all hit a particularly fun part, and looked like he was having the time of his life. He was bald as well, but muscly and stocky, giving an aura of danger about him when he wasn’t grinning.

The pianist looked like a real grown-up despite his dreadlocks. They were tied neatly behind his head, which had a nice gray beret on it. His glasses looked very much like a science geek’s specs, and he head a wedding ring on one of his dark hands. He played like the devil, jumping a bit off his seat sometimes and nodding his head to the music.

The trumpet player looked like he was right out of college, uncomfortable in his skin and onstage until he played. He did this extremely well, his precision perfect, his technical skills flawless, but amazingly every note still had soul.

The drummer who introduced his band-members with respect before was playing just as hard and well as the rest. His lips puckered and receded as he made the beat sounds softly to himself. His right hand held the drumstick in that way that looks so awkward but is the staple of a jazz drummer. He moved fast, bouncing on his stool and closing his eyes often. He never missed a beat, and drummed without stop, loudly when needed and so quietly sometimes that the cymbals sounded far off and haunting.

Finally, the saxophonist joined them for a couple of tunes. He was extremely tall, big footed, and his saxophone looked too small in his big hands. He played like a madman, eyes shut tight when he soloed, but meeting the trumpet player’s gaze when they started to play together, one giving a question while the other gave the answer.

Over an hour after Naked Jazz started, the teenagers, starry-eyed and happy, left the bar before the real jam session began and other musicians came onstage as they chose and joined in. It was two-thirty in the morning, and they were nearing exhaustion as they walked home together.

For the A-Trane, it was just another successful Saturday night. For the teenagers, it had been magical.

The H Cafe

The H Cafe is a small place, sitting right on a busy, noisy street. It’s a main thoroughfare between one part of the city and the other, and the sound of cars, trucks, ambulances and motorcycles is constant. There is also a cake store on the corner next to the H, that doubles as a plain bakery and cafe. It could be said, by some people, that the H Cafe is not in a prime location.

But it’s never empty. The waiting-staff don’t wear uniforms. Not even t-shirts with the H’s cat logo. The only way you’d know who your waiter or waitress was, would be because they came to you. And they do. They’re kind, sweet, funny and patient. They don’t get mad if you order a coffee and nothing else. They don’t bug you when it takes you a long time to order. Best of all, they don’t seem like they’re suffering, and that’s a good thing to see. They look, rather, like they happen to be asking people what they’d like to eat. When they aren’t needed, they stand around the register and talk to each other, laughing charmingly, but always with an eye out. If a hand pops up or a head turns their way, they’ll be there in a flash, still grinning.

How, you might ask, does it manage to have clients at all hours on such a busy and noisy street? The H has cleverly made up for its location by simply refusing to admit to it. The outdoor seating area is raised on a wooden platform, and is bordered on three side by greenery. The lamps that sit on the platform, entwined in the bushes, look like they were taken straight out of London in the 1920s. They’re picturesque, yet simple. The tables are wooden and often wobbly, but the chairs are comfy enough and you’re never in the sun or rain. During the summer, plain white fabric umbrellas rear their heads and give a pleasant tent-like quality to the place, while in winter the area is surrounded by glass and feels like a cozy, warm fish-tank.

The menu is small but with wide variety, the coffee is superb and the atmosphere lovely. It’s the only place in which I’m ever recognized and acknowledged as a regular customer. The H Cafe is a diamond in the rough.

Friday Afternoon

So peaceful, so quiet. The buses don’t work and most people are napping, leaving the streets free of smog and full of children’s laughter and noise. Many kids are on their way to the Scouts meeting. They’ll be noisy once they really get started, but they’re still quiet, in their own building, not yet scattering across the park and playing.

The light has grown dim early, as it always seems to do on Friday afternoons, and there’s a cool, almost chilling, breeze coming in through the slats of the window. There is something so odd about the quiet. Just when it starts to feel eerie, though, a car whooshes past and reminds me that humanity is still there, life is still moving around me.

A sense of calm prevails over every other atmosphere. There can be nothing urgent on this afternoon. Time doesn’t really mean much right now. It feels like the sphere of this point in time and space is just an endless, calm, quiet thing, stretching on until forever. The ticking hands of the clocks betray the lie to that feeling though, and I sigh.

Tearing my eyes away from the spot they’ve been fixed on aimlessly for the past five minutes, I need to give myself a little shake to free myself from the cobwebs. I need to get back to reality now.