REPORT A PROBLEM
It was like a burst of gunfire in an enclosed space. Memories ricocheted through his mind, crashing and colliding in numbers too large to take in. For a moment he felt as if he’d gone deaf and blind from the detonation of the past in his head.
‘Nicky? It is you, isn’t it?’
He didn’t say anything, even after the mental smoke had cleared. He simply stared.
‘It is you,’ the woman said, as if she had just proven a point that was under contention. ‘I can see you recognise me. It’s not that much of a shock, is it?’
‘Hello, Lizi,’ Nick said at last. His own voice sounded far away to him.
‘You see, you do remember me. I knew you would. It’s been a while, but it hasn’t been that long.’
‘Ten years,’ Nick replied vaguely.
She was immediately recognisable, but that did not mean that she hadn’t changed. His memory of her was suffused with his very first, childish impressions, of a woman who smelled of sweet cigarette smoke and expensive perfume, whose brightly coloured dresses seemed to shimmer and sparkle like magic. He had thought she was impossibly beautiful, like a queen in a fairytale.
But although her heavy makeup was still faultless, and the sequins in her dress still caught the light, and she still wore the scent of cigarettes and perfume, she had aged, and Nick’s eyes were older and less forgiving.
‘Ten years,’ she echoed. ‘Now that makes me feel old. When did you grow up? It seems like only yesterday you were playing with your little toys on the rug in your parents’ living room while we rehearsed.’
‘That was a long time ago.’
‘Obviously. Oh, but it’s good to see you again, Nicky!’
‘It’s good to see you too, Lizi.’
Lizi noticed that Nick wasn’t alone, and turned her attention to Atu. ‘So, are you just going to leave me standing here or are you going to introduce me to your friend?’ She tapped him familiarly on the shoulder.
‘Oh, um, sorry. Lizi, this is Atu,’ Nick said.
‘And where did you find such a good-looking friend?’ Lizi observed. She extended her hand to Atu and added, ‘Lizi Rosetree.’
‘He found me in a basement, under a pile of boxes,’ Atu replied, taking her hand and squeezing it gently.
She laughed. ‘I’ve got to spend more time in my basement.’
‘Surely not,’ Atu replied, with a suave lift of his eyebrow.
‘Oh honey, it’s true that when I was your age I was beating them off with a stick. But nowadays… let’s just say that I still have the stick, but now I have to use it to club them and drag them inside.’
Atu smiled one of his broad smiles, which, regardless of what it actually meant, Lizi took as an invitation to sit down.
‘So what have you been doing all these years, Nicky?’
‘Oh, you know,’ Nick replied. ‘I work at the university. I’m in robotics research.’
‘Robotics? Well isn’t that something. You always were a smart little kid. Are you still living with your grandmother.’
‘No. She passed away a few years ago.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry. That must have been hard on you, after… well, after everything else that you’d been through.’
‘It was quite a while ago now,’ Nick said. Then he added, quickly, ‘Are you still performing?’
‘Oh, a little bit here, a little bit there. The scene isn’t what it once was. Your parents had a lot of influence on jazz in this city. Things were never really the same without them.’
‘You knew Nick’s parents?’ Atu asked.
‘Well of course I did. I was up there on stage with Benny, front and centre.' She reached out and laid her fingers on Nick’s forearm. ‘You know your father once told me that I made his songs sound like dirty honey. Oh my goodness! Wasn’t that so like him?’
Nick nodded. Atu looked puzzled. “Dirty honey?”
‘It was the way he said it. You remember how he used to say things, don’t you Nicky? The words were strange but you always knew what he meant.’
Nick stared at his beer. ‘I guess so.’
‘I used to sing with the Benny Ostin Septet,’ she said to Atu. ‘Right up there on that stage. You would not believe how many people they used to get in here back then. Oh, they were great times. Late nights, Benny’s fabulous music, and the most fascinating people you could ever want to meet, all crammed in here together. Oh, it was glorious. You know, I almost feel teary thinking about it.’
‘I think I might have heard you sing on one of the records at Nick’s house,’ Atu said. “Were you the vocalist on ‘Blame Anyone But Me?’’
She flushed with very obvious pleasure. ‘Oh, yes, if it’s the recording from Blue Sky Records, which it probably is. That was one of Benny’s biggest hits. I just used to love singing that song.’ And in a low voice, she crooned, ‘Blame the sun, blame the moon, blame each and every star, just blame anyone…’ She paused, eyes closed, savouring the lull. ‘Just blame anyone… but me.’
‘It was definitely the Blue Sky recording then,’ Atu said with a wide grin, and he applauded lightly, just enough for Nick and Lizi to hear. ‘Your voice hasn’t changed at all.’
‘Well aren’t you just the most charming boy ever,’ she said, and playfully slapped his shoulder.
‘I do my best.’
‘You know Jimmy Tate is here too, don’t you? Have you seen him, Nicky? He’s up there at the bar.’ She raised her hand and called out. ‘Jimmy! Honey! Look who’s here!’
A few people at neighbouring tables started at the sudden noise, and Nick tried to slide into the shadows at the back of the booth. There was a figure hunched over the bar at the far end, but he didn’t seem to hear her over the general hubbub.
‘Jimmy Tate?’ Atu repeated, more to distract her than anything else. ‘He was your drummer, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes, of course, he played on all the hit recordings. Damn, I don’t think he can hear me. Put a glass of whisky in front of that man and everything else just gets tuned out. You should go up and say hello, Nicky. Just wait till he sees our little Nickypig is here again.’
Atu was taking a sip from his beer, and he made an impressive show of exhaling it. ‘Nickypig?’
Lizi giggled. ‘Of course. That’s what we used to call him.’
Atu chuckled himself. ‘Nickypig. That’s so cute.’
‘Well, he was the most adorable boy you ever saw.’
‘Hey Nick,’ Atu said, nudging him under the table with his foot. ‘Did they call you that because you were a chubby little kid or what?’
Nick’s face tensed, and Lizi looked at Atu curiously. ‘No, we just named him that because we all liked Nickypig.’
‘Well yeah, it’s sweet name for a little kid. I just thought there might be a reason. I mean, why not Nickybunny? Why Nickypig?’
Lizi’s look went from curious to puzzled. ‘Come on, honey. Everyone knows Nickypig.’
‘Sure, you know, Nickypig! With his friends Robbiedog and Sarahbear?’
Nick cleared his throat. ‘Atu’s not from around here. Atu, Nickypig is a children’s storybook character.’
‘Oh,’ Atu said.
‘How can you not know Nickypig?’ Lizi asked. ‘He’s been the most popular children’s character for the last thirty years. There wouldn’t be a house in Red Hill that doesn’t have at least one Nickypig book lying around somewhere. Just where did you say you were from, Atu?’
‘Somewhere that’s missing out, apparently,’ Atu said.
‘Yes, but where?’ Lizi insisted.
‘Originally? From San Diego. But I’ve travelled a lot.’
‘San Diego? I’ve never heard of it.’
‘It’s a very long way away,’ Atu replied, and he smiled disarmingly. ‘I’m interested in the same field of research as Nick. I’m here to help him on a number of projects down at the university.’
‘You don’t look like a scientist, honey.’
‘We scientists are a motley crew,’ Atu said, with a mock-conspiratorial tone. ‘Some of us even see the sun occasionally.’
‘Well fancy that,’ Lizi said, with a girlish titter, even though she didn’t sound totally convinced. ‘In any case, if you’re a friend of Nicky, you’re a friend of mine.’
She turned her attention back to Nick. ‘Nicky honey, seeing you just brings back so many wonderful memories. I know… you just wait right here and I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t you run away now!’ She got up, wagged an admonishing finger at him, and hurried off behind the booths where they couldn’t see her.
‘I’m sorry about that,’ Atu said, when he was sure she was out of earshot.
‘You weren’t to know about Nickypig,’ Nick replied, his voice weary. ‘You’ve been out of circulation for more than a century. Almost everything must have changed since then.’
'Even so, I should have been more careful. I know you’re worried about us drawing attention to ourselves.’
‘Well, it’s better that all this happened tonight. At least now I know not to bring Helene back here tomorrow night. Not if Lizi is going to be around.’
‘Did I pick up some tension between you two?’
‘Tension? I haven’t seen her in ten years, Atu. Why would there be any tension?’
‘You didn’t seem very happy to see her.’
‘It just brings up some painful memories. The last time I saw her was at my parents' funeral.'
‘Is that it?’
Nick hesitated. As he’d grown up he’d realised that the fairytale queen he’d first met was an illusion, skilfully created with cosmetics and hairspray; a diversion from, not a reflection of, what lay beneath. What it was all a diversion from was unclear.
‘I guess she was always just a little too over the top for me.’
Atu looked downcast. ‘Man, this was supposed to be a fun night out. I’m sorry…’
There was a sudden burst of white light. Both Nick and Atu froze. As shapes and colours gradually reasserted themselves, Nick could see Lizi standing by the table.
Next to her was a small, thin man with unruly hair. He was holding a large black camera with an even larger silver flash mounted on it.
‘Oops, sorry, honey, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just had to get a picture of you to show the others. You remember Joey Meechum, the bass player? His wife Sandra would kill me if I didn’t get a picture of you. And Dan Baret, you remember, the tall man with the trombone, he used to have a real soft spot for you. Just wait till they see you all grown up!’
She addressed the man with the camera. ‘So Harvy, could I get three prints of that one? Ooh, and take another one just of me and Nicky.’
There was nothing Nick could do but smile weakly and allow her to sit next to him and hold him tight, as the camera blinded him with another blaze of light
‘Harvy is such a dear,’ she said. ‘He takes pictures of people here at the club and sells them to them, you know, as souvenirs. He always gives me a discount.’
Nick glanced at Atu, and motioned it was time to leave.
‘Well, please say hello to all of the old band members from me,’ Nick told her, and he made to stand. ‘We really need to be going.’
‘Oh, but you can’t go!’ Lizi protested. ‘You haven’t said hello to Jimmy yet.’ She raised her hand and scanned the area around the bar, apparently ready to shout out again.
‘It’s okay,’ Nick said quickly. ‘I’ll go up to the bar and find him.’
‘Well, I’ll just stay here and keep your charming foreign friend company. So you don’t feel that you have to hurry back.’
‘Maybe Atu should come…’ Nick said.
‘I’ll be okay here,’ Atu said, and he turned his head slightly so that only Nick could see him wink. After his fumble with Nickypig, Nick realised, he could probably be trusted to stay on his guard. He could also smooth away any suspicions Lizi may have developed with his apparently endless reserves of charisma.
‘Okay then. I’ll just be a couple of minutes.’
‘Take your time,’ Lizi said sweetly.
There was only one person actually seated at the bar. He was a dark figure, slouched over his drink, completely at odds with all the other patrons in the club.
When Nick stopped beside him, he didn’t look up.
‘Are you Jimmy?’ Nick asked.
‘Who wants to know?’ the old man growled, and he peered at Nick with unmistakable hostility.
‘I don’t know if you remember me,’ Nick said, regretting that he’d approached the man. ‘My name’s Nick Ostin.’
The angry glare continued, but after a few seconds it ebbed as recollection kicked in. ‘Oh yeah. Benny and Lauran’s boy.’
Jimmy ran an eye over Nick, in exactly the same appraising way that his parent’s friends always had. Nick felt déjà vu so strong it was almost palpable.
‘Well, look at you,’ Jimmy said at length. ‘You’re the spitting image of your momma, aren’t you?’
‘You surely are.’
‘Thank you,’ Nick said, for want of anything better.
‘Lucky for you she was a good-looking woman,’ Jimmy added. It sounded like it might be a joke, but his expression remained taciturn.
‘I’ve just been talking with Lizi Rosetree,’ Nick said. ‘She pointed you out.’
The old man chuckled dryly. ‘Yeah, I know. I heard her yelling about something earlier, but it doesn’t do to encourage her by listening.’
‘She said she was still performing. What about you?’
‘Performing my ass. The closest she gets to singing for an audience these days is doing that karaoke shit. And I haven’t sat behind a kit in years. We’re not musicians any more, son. We’re just a couple of dried-up old has-beens.’ He drained his glass and slapped it back down onto the bar, obviously in the expectation that it was going to be refilled.
‘Oh,’ Nick said nervously. ‘Well, it was nice to see you again…’
‘Hell, son, don’t be that way. Sit down. I didn’t mean to snap. Don’t mind an old man being bitter about the world.’
He dragged out the neighbouring barstool, and Nick felt obliged to perch on it.
‘How long’s it been, now?’ Jimmy asked. ‘Ten years? Aw, that’s too long. We should’ve come to visit you or something. We should have taken care of you. That’s what Benny and Lauran would have done in our places.’
‘My grandmother looked after me,’ Nick said.
‘Even so, that’s no way to treat a friend. They let us go to the funeral beforehand, but we should have come by after as well. It would’ve been the right thing to do, even if they didn’t like it.’
Nick frowned. ‘What do you mean, they let you go to the funeral? Who’s they?’
‘What? You didn’t know?’
‘Didn’t know what?’
Jimmy leaned close to him, wafting the sweet smell of whisky. ‘After your momma and your daddy died, the day after the funeral, we were all taken in by the authorities.’
‘You know,’ he lowered his voice to a husky whisper. ‘To the Governor’s palace. To those cells he has deep underground. That place where that Mr Smith lives.’
The noise of the bar seemed to drain away. Nick could only hear Jimmy Tate’s low voice.
‘They got all of us. Me, Lizi, Dan, Justen, Joey, Mason Cook, Bernerd Havel from Blue Sky Records, Jacky and Erik from Fifth Street Studios, Waller Brown, Benny’s accountant, Spike Molina… you and your grandmother would’ve been the only folk at that funeral who didn’t get taken.’
‘I… I never knew that. What happened?’
Jimmy gave a nonchalant shrug, but his hand trembled on the bar. ‘They didn’t do nothing to me. Some kid in a uniform asked me some questions, I gave him some answers that didn’t mean much, and after a day or two they let me go.’
‘By the end of the week the rest of the band was out too. Bernerd got out eventually, but they’d done something to his knees and he needed a cane to get around. And we never saw Mason again.’
‘What did they do to them?’
‘Hell, son, I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. We didn’t ask each other about these things. We didn’t even see each other. That’s why we didn’t go to see you and check up on you. I guess we were all scared.’
Nick was alarmed to see the old man’s eyes were glistening.
‘You did the right thing,’ he assured him. ‘I was fine. It was probably best that you didn’t try to see me.’
Jimmy seemed not to hear him. He was staring at the rack of bottles on the other side of the bar. ‘You always hope that you’re going to be one of the strong ones,’ he said. ‘You hope that you’re going to be able to stand up to them. Then they take you in and they don’t even do nothing to you, and you fall apart like a house of cards.’
‘Jimmy, I’m sorry. I wish I’d known.’
‘Then when they let you go, you can’t see your friends, you can’t work. Somehow life goes on and you end up in a place you used to love, hating yourself for it, with people you used to love, hating them for it, but you’re stuck there because it’s all you have left.’
Nick instinctively put his hand on the old man’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off. ‘Don’t worry about me, son. There’s nothing wrong with me that the occasional drink can’t fix. You just keep your nose clean and do your parents proud. That’s all they would’ve wanted.’
The barman had refilled his glass, and he scooped it up and tossed it down his throat. ‘I won’t keep you. I’m sure you didn’t come here alone. You probably just dropped by with a few of your friends, and you wouldn’t have planned to be dragged away from them by an old drunk.’
‘No, Jimmy, I’m really pleased I could see you again,’ Nick said. ‘Why don’t you come over and meet my friend Atu?’
Nick looked over at the booth, and his heart thudded. Lizi was still lolling on one of the seats, but the amilog had vanished.
The Tip Jar