Gin & Time

I’m sitting in The Swan, the pub attached to Shakespeare’s Globe, waiting for a friend to arrive. I can tell I’ve been broken by our nation’s capital when the Frenchman behind the bar tells me my gin and tonic is eight pounds and I think to myself “Huh. That’s not too bad.”

There are actors in here, having their drinks and letting their voices fall from BOOM to mini-boom. Some city boys have straggled with loose ties over the river and are devoting themselves to making it difficult for lone women to get to the toilets without having to squeeze and bend themselves between their leering grins. I shoot them evils over my notebook. They don’t notice. Couples finger their oversized wine glasses over mild conversations about prospective furniture and which of their friends are planning cripplingly expensive weddings; table-top designs and plans; life’s blueprints being unscrolled in the amber glow of a riverside pub. People wrap up their days in boozy duvets before stumbling home to bed.

I wait for my friend to arrive, whom I have just seen being enthusiastically disembowelled in a Christopher Marlowe play round the corner. Bankside’s historic Rose theatre, home to the first outings of many of Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s plays, is being peeled back to its original glory by a slow trickle of funding and tentative archeology. It smells gloriously gritty and dank in there, like it’s just been found and the ooze of the ground is our olfactory narrator of all the sleeping centuries, unfurling in our nostrils and keen for the role.

My friend’s never acted in a play before. He’s an author and historian, but had decided in the spirit of ‘saying yes’ to take the director up on the offer of a scholar who gets his bits hacked out in a lesser known bloodbath called The Massacre at Paris. I love the audaciousness of it. A writer deciding he fancied doing a play. I wanted to wave flags at his bravery when he came on stage but instead just silently willed him from my seat at the back. He’s still at the theatre, helping to clear up the confetti blood, and I wait with my gin in one of my favourite places in the world.

I’ve spent very happy moments around the South Bank. I wonder why I am drawn here more than any other part of London. It may be the lure of the National Theatre and its bookshop, the presence of the Globe with its weighty history, the old pubs and ships and remnants of merchants and pirates and kings and death, the river itself, wearing its landmarks casually dotted around like it’s almost bored with how wonderful its history is. It’s all of it. Yes, that’s why I love it. The ‘all of it’ness of it. And I have my own small memories stowed around the place too. Seeing shows, lying on the grass outside the Tate, browsing the bookstalls, sunny afternoons with friends, rainy afternoons with friends, tipsy late night walks, eating, walking, talking.

I used to work just around the corner years ago when I’d just left university. Just up past Borough Market when it was still a bit rubbish, a truer London, before it got scrubbed up and Jamie Olivered to the max. I felt so grown up tottering over London Bridge in my new smart heels, which were always kicked off under my desk the moment I arrived. My first real job, another life ago. Marketing, which came before teaching, which came before bookshops and acting and writing and this column. It was a job that involved a lot of drinking, as a lot of London jobs do, and my colleagues and I would find ourselves quite often down here on the South Bank in the sun. Now we’re all doing different things, our old offices rented out to some other business, and we all keep in touch from time to time.

I can’t not find a little moment to think of that old life when I find myself drinking around here now. And I always raise a quiet glass to Barry, an old colleague who was like a big brother to me who died way way too young, whose voice I can still hear, whose brown eyes I can still see creasing as he pitches his laughter high like a ball. Perhaps that is why I am drawn here too. The river holds all our old echoes. We stitch our own time to it, to keep it alive. It keeps it all safe while everything else changes.

I wait for a new friend, and think of the old ones, and drink gin that is more expensive than it used to be but is still worth it, because it’s here.

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Accordion Man

I stared down at him from the first floor window while I ate my crisps. Salt and vinegar I think, though that’s not important. Accordion Man was playing some romantic old standard that made me feel instantly plucked up from my setting. Romantic. Wistful. Exotic. Not Essex.

He’s been there for years. For as long as I can remember. Playing his accordion in the high street. He usually takes up his pitch outside Marks and Spencers, and his music floats in and dances on top of the music we’re playing. Close your eyes and you can be in Paris or in Florence or in some tiny little village in a country that doesn’t even have a name in your head. You can be any person, of any age, in love with anyone, anyone’s family. You are taken to something that’s not your own life; feel nostalgia for things you have never had.

On days when I can hear him I tune in to him over our easy listening loop. He’s as much a part of the bookshop as the books sometimes, though I’ve never seen him come in. Until yesterday I don’t think I could tell you one thing about his face. If I had walked past him while he didn’t have an instrument hanging round his neck I would never have recognised him as Accordion Man.

I watched him as he beamed through every song, turning towards each passer-by, and cocking his head in hullo. Out of dozens and dozens of people, only one man stooped to flick a coin in the accordion case.

Then, as suddenly as if I’d thrown a pebble at him, he turned and looked up at me. Our eyes met, he smiled, and waved. I smiled and waved back, and filled with a profuse shyness at having been caught staring at him, I turned slowly back round, waited a few seconds, then sank to the floor like there was something important there that I had to pick up. I sat there for a bit smiling. Accordion Man had waved at me. He carried on with his song.

I realised that in all the years of hearing him I had never made the effort to go out and put money in his case. I felt suddenly sick. All those hours of listening to him and we were like strangers, I’d never acknowledged how much I liked his music by giving him enough for a beer or a paper. It didn’t seem right. I probably owed him a small yacht by now.

I hurriedly wrote a note, grabbed all the coins out of my purse, and walked hurriedly through the bookshop, down the stairs, and out into the street. I don’t know why I was hurrying. I knew he’d be there all day, but I was afraid he’d break his routine and leave.

I weaved my way through the stream of people, placed the messy contents of my palm in his case, did a weird sort of mini head bow, and went to leave. He stopped playing. I’m not going to lie – it was awkward. I filled it by asking him his name, and discovered he couldn’t speak much English, he was from Romania, and would ask his daughter to read the note to him. To my horror, he asked me if I’d like him to move. “NO! GOD, NO!” I made a big show of saying I loved his music. Enthusiastic flappy hands, patting my heart. We gave up on words and just smiled at each other. Then I left and he carried on playing.

I felt Romanian for the rest of the afternoon, though I’ve no idea what that feels like, but it doesn’t matter. I was transported because of him.

His name is Vassily.

I just hope I haven’t bloody scared him off.

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Watching Casablanca

Sometimes, when a big man tells you to do something, you just do it.

Sometimes it’s something you don’t want to do, like showing the contents of your bag to a bouncer in a rubbish music joint when you’ve tried to beat the capitalist system and stick it to the man by taking your own gin.

Sometimes it’s something you don’t mind doing – like watching a classic film you’ve always meant to watch.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the entreaty to watch Casablanca to come from my no-nonsense bloke mate Simon. I would’ve thought we’d be more likely to become embroiled in a grapple to get me to watch the Alien films. To which I would get all hoity-toity and say “Er, no, Simon. I don’t like alien films. This world is quite confusing enough as it is, without dipping a toe into the questionable existence of wider life in distant galaxies, THANKS.”, to which he would roll his eyes at me and slope off to roll a fag.

There is something in being told something is cool that makes you think it’s going to be totally uncool. It’s just the way we work. I thought Casablanca was going to be an assembly of over-quoted lines with a lot of longing glances, lit smoke, and the sort of tongue-less smooching they did that makes them look like they’re removing a stain.

I was not prepared for the cool. After an opening so clippy I felt like I was being pulled along with my knickers around my ankles, I began to wonder if this black and white flick might be much more than I was expecting. Then by the time Humphrey Bogart had delivered some grumpy corkers and Ingrid Bergman had been Ingrid Bergman for a bit, I was hooked. All the fat was cut off; it was relentlessly brilliant, and their relationship wasn’t at all what I thought it was. Here was the lady holding all the cards, and the grizzly man, still panging from the last time he saw her, being reduced to a boozy mess at the bar. And there was famous Sam, playing As Time Goes By. I could feel the inner blub unfurling inside me. I began making strange noises and worrying my fist into my sternum. What on earth was going to happen? Surely they would get together?

It reminded me of the other old classic I had been reluctant to get caught up in. Brief Encounter. It look me about three goes to get past the scene in the train station cafe where Cynthia Johnson makes a fuss about her eye. I couldn’t watch. She was too pathetic. Her voice left me cold and her eyeballs annoyed me, even when they weren’t ruddy watering all the time. But one day, wrapped up on the sofa with some sort of disabling flu, I kept going out of some sense of obligation to classic cinema. I watched to the end. And I was rendered a complete and utter state. “WHY AREN’T THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE EACH OTHER GETTING TOGETHER, WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM? WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD? LOVE SUCKS! I KNOW IT’S BRILLIANT, BUT IT ALSO SUCKS.” I intimated this with my disgraceful mucal snuffling before prodding my face back into my skull in some sort of approximate Picassoesque order, my nose hoiked up over my ear and trailing snot.

I might have permitted myself a similar outpouring of woe and moisture watching Casablanca if I had not been sat next to Simon. He’d been adding his own commentary about the context of the war and other boy things; I didn’t want to ruin it by squeaking.

Come the end, as Bergman returns to America with the man she does not love, and the man she does love walks off into the moonlight with another man to go and fight, I thought I was going to explode. HOW COULD THEY BE LETTING THIS HAPPEN? WHAT WILL THEY DO WITH ALL THE LOVE?

But then my burly chum gave the perfect answer. It was “bigger than love”. Everyone would do better things for the world if they were apart. And despite love being awesome, that was sort of reassuring. The world is bigger than the love of two people, and sometimes that makes for the best love stories of all.

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