Big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry
It was a truly feeble list of two.
It really was, you know, I’m not lying. I’ve seen some poor picks before. Lots of them, but this one was downright depressing. I kept looking and thinking, thinking and looking: I drove all the way from Barnstaple for this?
‘My Way’. Frank Sinatra. Well that’ll be the old bloke in the crumpled suit with the wine stain down the left breast, trying to look as though he’s not pushing 80 by wearing a pork pie hat.
‘It’s Raining Men’. The hen party by the pool table? Could be. They’ve got that desperate look about them – not quite hitting the heights yet. Couple more cocktails and they’ll forming a circle and massacring a can-can.
And, oh God. What’s this? Yes, you. You with the national health walking stick in one hand, lager in the other, making your way to my booth? That determined expression?
“Oy,” He said, upon reaching his destination. “This is karaoke, right?” Well you had to give him ten out of ten for deduction, anyway. “Give us the book, I’ll soon get this place jiving.”
I guessed he was down from London; holiday, maybe. I passed him the book which listed the thousands of tunes. Sometimes, in this job, you try and guess which it will be. Match the tune to the punter. More often than not you get it right. There are only so many tunes the British public are comfortable with, anyway. You know how it is. They have to be slow or mid-tempo at best. Easy words. No key changes. Nothing challenging. Anything to disguise a lack of ability but everything to raise a half-hearted cheer.
“Sweet Caroline,” I shuddered, to myself, not sure if it had come out loud.
Outside the pub, it was a dull afternoon and it was raining. Climate change meant that the summer season in Bideford was often unpleasant. Poor sods. I knew it was raining because I’d had to hump the stuff in by myself.
No mean feat for a man of my age, neither. The speakers, stands, mixing desk, all of it: and I’d hurried because I hadn’t wanted the kit to get wet. My back was killing me.
Something people never realise, when you’re a one man show, is just how much work it takes. I’d had a partner once, but he’d died of cancer. God he was a moaner, though: ‘The public turn up pissed, pay you for a couple of hours, never think of helping us erect the stuff, do they?’ Try not to think about him now, of course. Makes me cry. I’d had pills and everything; had to stay off the booze for months. But look, if you see me, or one of my kind, have a heart and hump a speaker.
Blokie was taking his time, though, thumbing through the damp pages, leaning on his crutch. As he did this, the doors to the pub opened and in walked a grey beard. Well I say walked. He had that gait of someone clearly pissed but determined to make it to the bar in a straight line as if to prove he’d had nothing to drink. He needn’t have worried, though, they were desperate for business in here. Bideford was like a ghost town today, no public, no tourists, not even any police around, ready to truncheon the inebriated. Nope, they be glad of that four quid across the bar.
Now suddenly I felt guilty. I was scarcely drumming up trade, was I? It is part of the karaoke code to sing if nobody else is. To fill dead air. So, as Blokie continued to scan his way through the book, I hit a couple of keys on the laptop, took up a microphone and sang one of my favourites. “This thing, called love, I just can’t handle it…” Well, you know.
So I’m singing. I haven’t got much of a range, but I can carry a tune. Well you have to in this game. When I was younger, I might have cut a few shapes, a la Mercury, but that’s a young man’s hobby. My hips and back are not getting any suppler and, since himself had died I’d been thinking of quitting, to be honest. But, what else could I do? How would I make a living?
You start to look for a new partner.
Anyway, Blokie’s finally decided, as I’m singing ‘Ready, Freddie’, and he thrust the bit of paper in my hand in a rude fashion, briefly forgetting his walking stick. I looked down at it. ‘Hold Me Close’, the old David Essex tune. Actually, I was surprised. Not often someone sings that. It’s got quite a high register in bits of it and it swings nicely along, too.
As I’m cueing it up, I noticed that Greybeard has plonked himself on a stool, clutching a lager shakily, and has swivelled round to watch. A tad unsteady. I noticed a pantomime of flap-doodle as he patted through his jacket pockets and then, relief, as he found an envelope. This he opened and pulled out the contents which he scrutinised carefully. He was using the autozoom function of the drunk; moving it slowly towards and then away from his eyes, until it was just so.
He squinted at the paper, then, I think, he began to cry.
I was snapped back to now by a quite appalling cockney drawl. “Hold me close, don’t let me go, oh no,” Blokie was screaming, fretting his arms like a flapping gull about to steal your chips, “cos I, I think I love you, and I think that you know, do you know?” Jesus Christ, the whole of Bideford knew by now: “Wiv your love lights shining,” he turned towards me and I was covered in spit, “every clahd’s got a sil-ver lin-ing,” no, no it hasn’t, really, it hasn’t, mate, “so hold me close, don’t let me go.”
To my horror, the hen party was looking interested. Encouraged, he flung his stick across the floor and managed a knee slide towards them, windmilling his arms. I looked at the door. The police were bound to be here anytime now, but, no, nothing.
“What a twat,” a voice hissed in my ear, making me jump. Greybeard had joined me from his stool, behind the booth, fixated by the horror show.
But, I’m a professional, so I’m not about to criticise a performance to a stranger. In karaoke, you need all the twats you can get. “Think you can do better?”
“Nice kit,” he ignored, “I’ve got a similar mixing desk at home. Not as good as this, though, to be fair.” He slurred the word kit so it sounded like shit.
“Bet you had to hump the whole lot in yourself. That’s the trouble with the public. Turn up pissed. Never think of helping. They don’t see the extra hours you put in, do they? Christ, it drives me spare. All you get is fifty quid at the end of it. That pays your petrol. Dunno why we do it, do you? Load of bollocks.”
“Two hundred quid. I’m getting two hundred,” I lied.
“No you’re not. I bet you’re not,” he returned, accurately. “What time is it? Two thirty. How long are you on for? Midnight?” He looked back at Blokie, now, thankfully, coming to the end, “Christ, he’s pissed for this early, isn’t he?”
There was a little applause, mainly from the chief hen, although Pork Pie hat hadn’t been impressed. Neither party came forward for their turn – probably waiting until they were too drunk to remember. Instead, confidence pulsing through his veins, Blokie sauntered back. “I’ll do another one, pass me the book.”
Before he could take it, Greybeard picked it up and flicked through, scanning the titles quickly. “This one,” he suggested, pointing.
I looked and groaned. Pink Floyd. That’d empty the pub, no problem, wouldn’t it? The rain continued to cascade down outside. The town looked cold, empty and grim. I shrugged and cued it up, anyway, much to the disappointment of Blokie. He took the book; retrieved his stick. Sat. Sulked and watched.
What a dirge: “There is no pain, you are receding, a distant ship on the horizon…the child is grown, the dream is gone…” Greybeard mumbled, incomprehensibly, into the microphone, swaying unsteadily. Hen party moved back to their corner. Pork Pie supped up and left. Blokie sat impatiently, waiting for the horrid six minutes to pass and the distant ship on the horizon to get bombed into oblivion.
I think Greybeard was crying again. At least he was having fun. Of sorts.
The lack of applause was tangible. He passed the microphone back and tacked back to the bar. As he did so, I could see Blokie returning for a second bite of the cherry; a fistful of slips clenched grubbily. I took them, but cued another up for myself, to compensate for the funereal atmosphere left in Greybeard’s wake. 10CC. Say what you like about them, but ‘I’m Not in Love’ is a lustrous song. Great bass line, too. Terrific tune. And within my range without embarrassing myself. I waved Blokie away and off we go.
Greybeard was back, though. Just as I was getting in my stride, there he was like a nasty stain just lying there. But, undaunted he takes a second microphone. Sat down. Waiting. During the instrumental break, he grinned and mutters, “I’ll do the ‘big boys don’t cry’ bit.”
And he did: “Big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry…” whispering almost perfectly. Well it sent a shiver down the spine, the hen party were back; I almost forgot the cue. More people poured into the pub, out of the rain and the applause was modest but acceptable.
“We should do another one, a proper duet,” I suggested.
“One with a good bass line. I like a good bass line.”
Well, there was this old Dusty Springfield tune I was very fond of. But you never get a chance to do it, do you? It’s not in the public’s consciousness or range. Way out of the average punter’s comfort zone. Well, after all, you never know what sins we actually do commit to deserve this, but, there again, I was grinning a bit. Greybeard did OK, I thought, he knew the rap bit fairly well – the bit where Tennant murmurs: ‘I bought you drinks, I bought you flowers, I read you books, we talked for hours…’ so it was easy to sing the stuff about since you went away, I’ve been hanging around.
The song slipped out as easy as you like.
Now, though, I heard a grunt at my elbow and the sharp jab of a national health walking stick in my spine. “Call this music? It’s gay, that’s what. When’s my turn? I’ve been waiting bloody ages.”
Well, he hadn’t, but the song was over, and I looked at his paper with a sigh. So did Greybeard, irritated at Blokie’s demeanor and poor manners. He snatched the paper out of my hand. Flourished it in front of his eyes. Then shredded it. “Piss off.”
“He ripped up my request,” squawked Blokie. Forgetting he was an invalid convalescing, he raised his stick and poked me in the forehead. Sharply. Painfully, too, because it cut the bridge of my nose. I yanked it from my now bleeding nose and twisted it from his grip, thrusting it squarely into his chest. He was shoved back. “Bastards!” Blokie raised his fist and it was an impressive one, too. “Give me my stick.”
“Here!” I said, throwing it back at him, so it bounced of his skull. This enraged him further and he swung at me. I first felt a fist, then a kick. I now could smell his breath. A casket of CD discs was tipped from the booth and scattered across the floor. A table upturned and I heard the sound of breaking glass.
Greybeard was quicker, though. He seized a jacket lapel and I seized the other, avoiding Blokie’s flailing knuckles and we both, simultaneously, socked him in the face as hard as we could. Blokie blinked. A look of puzzlement crossed his face. Then he sank to his knees, momentarily stunned.
But it wasn’t over. Oh, by no means was it over. Somehow, during the short skirmish, debris had scattered itself all over the place and two of the hens were clucking in the corner. Over at the bar, Julie was talking frantically into her telephone. The door to the pub smollocked open and the only policeman to be found in Bideford was skittering across the floor and rounding us up.
Protests were in vain. I scowled at Greybeard as the doors to the police van were shut in our faces, the three of us now driven away in disgrace.
So it was a little time later, perhaps an hour, that we were gazing at the metal studded door of a cell, me on a horizontal concrete plinth, my companion on the shut seat of the toilet. Next door we could hear Blokie. He was smacking the door with his stick and complaining. “You can’t do this to me. I’m disabled. Signed off, long term sick. This is discrimination.” Every so often a pause. Then he was setting-to again. Clang, smack, thump, complaint.
All I could think about was my unguarded kit in the pub and the bad luck of being towed away by the one policeman who had happened to be available.
My grey bearded companion - Justin, as I’d now found out - was looking at the envelope from earlier. He would remove the tatty content, look at it, then replace it. Perhaps he was sobering up, now. I didn’t feel any bitterness towards him, to be fair.
“So, what is it?” I asked.
“Been made redundant. Twenty two years of teaching. No longer needed. Surplus to the mission. Too expensive.”
“It was my last day yesterday. Thought I’d get away from it all. Weekend in Bideford.”
I thought there must be better places to go. Barnstaple for starters. But each to their own. “What’s that? Your redundancy letter?”
“No. It’s a fifty quid record voucher. My leaving present from the Headteacher.”
“Yeah. Well, my partner and I used to DJ for them over the years – parties, leaving bashes, weddings – watched them all grow up. I suppose they thought, after two decades, it was an appropriate gift.”
“Record voucher? Is that it? Twenty two years and a record voucher? Tight bastards.”
“Well, that and twenty thousand pounds.”
Justin looked up from his toilet and grinned. “Silly, really. Me getting pissed and upset. It was a good innings. It’s just the leaving them all behind, I suppose. The kids. They deserved better. But what can you do? It’s the way this country’s going. They can’t afford teachers anymore. Easier to pay us to piss off; reduces the bill overall. Everyone’s a winner.”
“I suppose so. A bit of a kick in the teeth, though.”
I really liked Justin. I mean, I suddenly really loved him. You could tell he cared. I cared too and I thought back to my dead friend. It was crazy, but I had to say it. Passing ships. Distant ship smoke on the horizon - all that. Seize the moment. “Hook up with me, why not?” I blurted it out, and my voice squeaked. “I mean it. I’d like it.”
Justin grinned and got off the toilet. He came over. Clapped me on the shoulder. Affectionate. “I can’t. I mean, I just can’t.”
“Course you can. You can do anything you want. In life.”
“No.” He sighs. “It’s too late. I’ve got a job. The Middle East. A place called Kwatar. I fly out at the end of the month. Teaching. That’s the strange thing, really,” he continues, frowning, “Almost as soon as they sagged me off, Kwatar rang up and gave me a job. The very next day. How does that happen, eh? They told me. They want British teachers. They say we have a lot to offer. It’s a good deal, too. Accommodation, insurance, tax free salary – the works. So, you see, there’s the thing.”
I felt stupid, but there was no need to. In any case, before I could answer, there was a horrible scream from the next cell.
“No! I shit myself, I shit myself!” Judging from the smell, he had, too. “I blame you for this,” he wailed, presumably at his door, “Police state, that’s what we are. I’ll sue, you bastards.”
I shuddered, thinking of the truncheoning he was likely to get. But now our door opened and two of Her Majesty’s plod are gazing in at us. To be fair, one of them was fingering his truncheon with an unpleasant leer, but the other looked more biddable. “Hello,” I said, “that is a big one, isn’t it?”
Truncheon molester ignored me but the other spoke up. “You are free to go, on one condition,” he says, evenly.
“What’s that, then?” growled Justin, “we’re not cleaning up that twat next door, if that’s what you think. He’s nothing to do with us.”
“No, no, it’s not that.” Cough, cough. “No, nothing like that. Thing is, it’s the Chief Superintendent’s leaving do. Most of the force are upstairs, enjoying the punch…” I’ll bet they are, too. “…but, the thing is, the DJ cancelled on us. Last minute. We was hoping…hoping…you could see your way to doing your karaoke upstairs. Save a bit of embarrassment, you see? In return for no charges.”
“No charges?” snapped Justin.
Truncheon spoke up, raising his instrument just slightly. “Drunk. Disorderly. Causing an affray. Public nuisance. And we would hate it if you, er, attacked one of us in an inebriated state, wouldn’t we?”
“Heaven knows what might happen,” continued the other.
“Well, OK,” I grumbled. Well you know when it’s a fit up. “I’ll collect the stuff.”
“No need, we thought it would be quicker if we assumed you’d say yes. It’s already upstairs. Get a move on, the Chief Super is in a mood to sing ‘My Way’.”
And so that is how, some two hours later or so, I was hunched over the laptop upstairs in Bideford bridewell, somewhat melancholy, I admit, watching thirty or so policemen – and women – up and dancing, stumbling around an office and waving truncheons in a most suspect fashion.
Now, as I look across the room, I see Justin and it looks like he’s about to do a disappearing act. Not even a goodbye? Well I thought I knew why, so I hurried across and stopped him. A waste. Such a waste. I don’t want him to go.
“I thought I’d slip away. While the going’s good.”
“Yep. I’ll think of you half way across the world,” I said, and I meant it. “I’ll worry. Let me know you’re okay?”
“Course I will. Look,” he grinned, “this time next year, I’ll come to Bideford and find you.”
“I might not be in Bideford.” Because you know how way leads on to way, and ages from now I’ll be telling this to someone with a sigh.
Justin reaches in his pockets and passes me the dog eared record voucher. “You have this. Something to remember our adventure by.”
“I can’t take this.” I wanted to hug him. I wanted to stop him going.
“Course you can. No good to me where I’m going, is it? Buy a good one.”
“Yep. Something by The Police.” We laughed at the pathetic joke and he shook my hand. Opened the door.
“Write to me. Stay in touch.”
“Sure. I’ll send a message in a bottle.”