CHARLIE PARKER, NOT PARKER KNOLL
I am lodging at Mrs Smart’s lime green fronted guesthouse situated on one of Worthing’s least promising streets. A seaside view is afforded, albeit over a garage; where my room is perfunctorily furnished, it is also mercifully dust free. My lone fellow guest is a Mister Jacque Kerouac; nominally of North American nationality but combining, as he is wont to tell us, Breton-Indian antecedence. A queer fellow in all respects, much given to carrying a bottle containing what I am relentlessly told is ‘God given amber-whoosh-blood.’ An unlikely combination of confused imagining and speculative adjective, I think you’ll agree. In said bottle resides plain brown bourbon, a colonial corruption of whisky.
Mrs Smart is a landlady of the floral pinny and Friday morning hair-set-school. Her world, her empire, is her guesthouse: we, the lodgers and her husband, are her decorous subjects. What goes on in this surprising establishment is described as follows. I shall endeavour a degree of accuracy in my description borne from the scrupulous horizontal formed notes I have recorded when retiring upon my slim, single divan.
It is breakfast. I am seated alone over an impenetrable hard-boiled egg. Mrs Smart and Mister Jack sit together at the next table. Husband, Norman, is secreted under a Daily Mirror on an armchair by the fire.
Mrs Smart is addressing Mister Jack: ‘I don’t think you should be thinking of setting out in the cold and rain; certainly not with just your thumb in the air.’
‘English people don’t like to give lifts. Not to strangers. It’s just our way, old son,’ Norman adds helpfully from under his paper. Mister Jack continues with his eating. He is noisy in this respect but presumably all ears.
Mrs Smart continues. ‘There’s a nice fire here. Why don’t you take off your boots and warm your socks and toes near the coals? Norman will give you his chair and I could put on that music you like.’
‘The black stuff,’ Norman explains.
‘Russ Conway’s not black, Norman,’ and then addressing herself to Mister Jack, ‘but you liked him the other day. You said so.’
Mister Jack swigs the residue of tea from his mug: ‘Your Sussex downses are your ancestral grid lines heaped in Arthurian land sap and blood.’ Bear, please, with my decision not to correct or edit the legion of historical and geographical anomalies that reside in any one of Mr Jack’s speeches. He is an American. Let him therefore continue without comment: ‘I crave its sword tremor within; the soft green earth is my pooka friend, my sweet, hard trembling bed at night.’
‘Your bed’s not comfortable?’ Norman asks.
‘No, no, Mister Kerouac’s a writer, Norman. He talks in adjectives.’
‘Ah, belle Memere, nipple mother of the sea-slumped-chimney-breast-town, femmed Boneparte of biscuit time and sound-sleep-lodging, I live on words, words is my lung air . . . I don’t write, I breathe . . . music pumps through my dark bruising soul!’
A perplexed Mrs Smart tries to change the subject: ‘would you prefer if it if I put on Winifred Atwell; she’s less white than Mister Conway.’
‘Light up your budgie-filled sky; I’m back in Harlem chasing starling-splattered- death-rainbows, following pale-faced-men in coat-night-spook-vaults, hammering down their Benzedrine lungs and closing up their pill-popping-eyes . . .’
At the mention of Benzedrine, Norman manages a small cough: ‘Gees Linctus is the best thing, Mister Jack. Never lets you down.’
And so Mrs Atwell’s lugubrious, chunky fingers rain down on the ivories from breakfast and beyond appointed suppertime. Mister Jack, in a large red lumberjack shirt and bare feet, swigs from his bottle and swings Mrs Smart around her softly furnished lounge. Norman abstains from dancing duty and absconds to his pruning, whilst I take sanctuary within my divine divan.
Music and laughter go on throughout the night. I try unsuccessfully to find comfort in sleep. Just when dreams are imminent, I am woken by mechanical word tapping; Mister Jack is at the Olivetti again. He types on pink toilet paper in long unfurling rolls, words boot-marching their inky imprint onto cerise blotting. He claims to have completed a novel in this manner in less than two hours. Such was the crazed look in his eyes when he told me this, I felt disinclined to challenge him.
Apparently our Mister Jack is a writer of reputation; a literary success both here and in his own country. He is a phenomenon no less but has recently fallen into less productive times. He is travelling Europe in search of his muse within a life-changing quest to locate his ancestral roots. Quite how Worthing fits in with his grand literary-life-plan God alone can answer; and God, as one would suspect, is saying nothing. Last night Monsieur Jack told me the book he’s writing is nominally entitled ‘Un isolé voyageur; c’est moi.’
But now amidst the long vigil of night there comes a lone female voice beckoning along the landing: ‘another cup of your special tea, you naughty boy: keeping us all awake with your words.’
Mister Jack is at rest. Mrs Smart is pinny-loosened and pink-fluff-slippered shambling and breathing hard at his door: ‘I know you’re in there. I’ll huff and puff until you let me in.’
Snores prevail from within and Mrs Smart’s wolfish entreaties fall softly quiet; her admirable quest for late beverage provision put to sleep. It is 3 a.m.
When, later, I go to perform the painful duty of my nightly toilet, it becomes necessary to pass by Mister Jack’s room. A long piece of paper flaps from under his door, unravelled from his typed Kleenex roll, and uncurls itself beside my right slipper. I tear off a segment and attempt to decipher the smudged print: ‘I have been in Queen England’s isle, dizzy under the northern star immaculate (or is it inclement?), blessed by sonnets from a tiny earthbound Jesuh, who sits in my lonely room at the end of my bed, and points out of the window and goes aah . . .’
I read quickly on, escaping in haste the overblown, the descriptive-heavy and inarticulate musings on this midget Christ, to find passages depicting my good self, my landlady and land gentleman.
‘Norman Smart is a silent Buddha-like manifestation of dry-eyed-Anglo-Saxon wit and holy work-stained, palm-lined sensibility, who toils in the big outside, crunching over beach stones to show an open hand up to the sunlit sky. Ma belle Madame Smart is Memere, re-incarnated as an English innkeeper with soft beetle eyes and calm, maternal hips. She cooks up mean muscular meals and sweet apple pie and has a fiendish, foetal knowledge of piano jazz; dance-inspired and honoured with her overflowing grace.’
And so, alas, it goes on. I tear off another piece of paper and begin reading a description of myself – as you would expect it is not so obviously literate, let alone recognisable: ‘The vain, cadaver actor is a watching peephole Judas who inclines on his evil bed and aches with dreams of plays and fluffed, half forgotten lines – he is the living embody of the red coated English General who cut through the flesh lines of my ancestral tribe.’ As I am about to read on, the rest of the roll of paper disappears back within our hysterical historian’s door. I drop the remaining segments from my hand and step, with added haste, to the toilet door.
When I return, said loosened papers are nowhere to be seen, save one, left meaningfully at the centre of Mrs Smart’s much-favoured lemon and lime hallway runner. On familiar pink lavatorial stationery three words stand out embossed in red upper case: ‘FUCK SPY MASTER!’
I shall not bother to describe in any great detail the subsequent conversations I was privy to – such as Mrs Smart’s confusion over Charlie Parker and Parker Knoll and Norman’s witless adjoining quip that ‘comfort is a straight back chair listening to a lovely piano’; which Mister Jack took as some form of holy mantra, a musical metaphor for life itself. No, after the newly enlightened one’s vindictive written indication of his feeling towards me, I took my opportunity to leave Mrs Smart’s establishment.
As I left, exiting stage front, following a path beset by leering goblin and gnome on either side of me, I saw that the lounge light was still on. Mister Jack was seated on Mrs Smart’s ample lap; Norman nowhere to be seen. Jack was singing, bellowing to be more precise, the Hoagie Carmichael song ‘Old Buttermilk Sky.’ And do you know, as I chanced to look up at the sky, it was indeed the colour of buttermilk. It was 7.30 in the morning and the rain was being momentarily held back in the dull moony dew awaiting an opportunity to fall upon Worthing’s soon to be active streets. I took a left at the end of the high street, stood by the side of the road, and waited for some kind driver to stop and offer this lonely traveller his passenger seat. I’m not sure where I’ll be heading; I feel it expedient if I were to let the road decide.