Here’s a tip: if you want to find a missing trumpet, don’t ask Holloway Harry. He had me by the neck before I’d even finished the question.
‘I was only asking,’ I said, between gulps of breath, pressed up as I was against the front of the Coach and Horses on Greek Street.
I looked up and down the pavement for support, but Londoners after the war had better things to worry about.
‘I ain’t no thief,’ Harry growled. ‘I’m a respectable gent.’
‘Of course you are, Harry,’ I said. ‘Can you let me down now?’
He didn’t. We’d been at St. Joseph’s School together all those years ago, and old habits died hard.
Two old women walked up. ‘Leave him alone, you big brute,’ said one.
Harry turned to look at her and his face flushed red. He let me slide back down to the pavement.
‘Sorry, missus,’ he said. Harry wasn’t a bad sort, really. He just did bad things sometimes. But he still respected his elders.
‘Good boy,’ said the woman as she followed her friend into the pub for a half of stout.
‘Look,’ I said, straightening my collar, ‘I wasn’t saying you stole it; I just wondered if you’d heard anything. On the old grapevine like.’
He hadn’t, so I told him to keep an ear out for any stolen instruments, though what anyone would want with a battered old trumpet I don’t know. The thing had vanished almost a week ago, straight after the set at the Mandrake; I felt it like a missing limb.
Harry said he’d listen out, gave me a hard St. Joseph’s slap on the back, and marched off down the street.
No joy there, then. In the previous five days I’d traipsed around half of London trying to find my beloved Betsy. That’s her name. The trumpet. Yes I know, but everyone needs a someone, don’t they? And Betsy was mine. Well, sort of. She’d been thrust into my hand by George Gilmour in 1944, shortly before the Normandy landings.
‘Look after her, will you mate?’ he’d said. ‘You know how much she means to me. I’ve just… got a feeling my luck’s about to run out.’
I told him to stop being a soft sod, but two days later he was dead, him and Brian Compton gunned down on Sword Beach while I made it to Hermanville, where I searched frantically among the troops for any sign of him until the truth dawned. That was 13 years ago. Unlucky for some.
‘Penny for your thoughts?’ It was Frida, in a big fur coat and red heels. She was starting early today.
‘Oh Frida, I’m in a bit of a bind.’
‘I heard – how could someone steal a man’s livelihood like that? It’s just not right. Do you need any money, love?’
She pulled a red purse from her pocket.
‘No ta, Frida, thanks all the same. I couldn’t take money off a lady now, could I?’
‘A lady, if you please,’ she said, touching her bleached hair and smiling. ‘Haven’t been called that in a while.’
‘You’ll always be a lady to me, Frida. Ta ta, love.’ I gave her a peck on the cheek and went on my way.
Frida was a good soul, one of many in this scramble of streets I called home. Soho, 1957: it was like a village in the middle of London, but hardly a picturesque one. Picaresque was a better word.
Poets, drinkers, prostitutes, painters, layabouts, artistes of every kind… if you placed yourself west of convention, you ended up here. Musicians, too, of course. Lots of them.
Speaking of which, I looked at my watch: just before ten in the morning. Any self-respecting musician wouldn’t have been up and about this early, but it wasn’t any old morning: it was Monday, so I raced up to Archer Street.
This was where we musicians waited at the same time every week, with our instrument and a smile, looking for any sniff of a job. There we’d stand, fluttering our lashes at the club promoters like we were beauty contestants. Which, let me tell you, was the last thing we were. Weathered specimens all, our faces etched with late nights, lungs full of smoke from the clubs, crummy digs, mounting debts, and other unmentionables of a medical nature.
There were surely easier ways to make a living.
I’d usually have Betsy with me, of course, and she would bring me more bookings than I could actually honour. The thing was, whenever I played her I got a special tone, a sound that was sort of happy and sad at the same time, and it seemed to speak to people. It was as if, I don’t know, George was in it somehow, flowing through the keys, mourning the end of his life while urging me to live mine.
Maybe I was just being daft.
Anyway, word had got around; people didn’t want to book me without my ‘sound’. I was rapidly running out of the Queen’s shilling, plus I was feeling guilty about losing Betsy and letting George down.
I turned the corner into Archer Street. It was bustling as usual, alive with the crackle of music yet to be played. Jazz mostly.
The dance hall bands were still going, the kind that were popular during the war, keeping a steady beat for people to shuffle to, a calming pulse in a time of hectic hearts. They still played for those who needed soothing.
But the war had seen the arrival of American servicemen, and the black soldiers had brought new sounds: the intense, jittery tones of bebop, and the bawdy, good-time swagger of New Orleans jazz.
You could spot the beboppers straight off, with their sharp suits, shades and slicked-up hair. Their attire matched the jagged, urban sound of the music: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane…
And then there was ‘trad jazz’, and I placed myself firmly in that camp. We were inspired by old-style New Orleans tunes – Sweet Georgia Brown, Jeepers Creepers… people loved that happy sound, it helped them escape their troubles.
We wore tweed jackets when we played, fishermen’s jumpers, heavy duffel coats… anti-style, if you like.
So there we all were on Archer Street, looking for a gig, maybe a block booking, a tour up North even.
I made a beeline for Bob Baker. He ran a string of venues around Soho, and wore an expensive suit and watch to prove it.
‘I ‘ear you lost your blower,’ said Bob. ‘Not much use then, are you?’ He began to turn away, time being money and all that.
‘I can borrow someone else’s,’ I said to his departing back.
We both knew that wasn’t true. It was Betsy they really wanted to hear, not me.
A few of the others gave me sympathetic smiles, then looked away. I was an invisible man without Betsy. But invisible men still had to pay the rent.
There was only one thing for it: I turned on my heels and headed for Leo’s caff on Wardour Street. Surely he could lend me a bob or two till the weekend?
When I got there though, I pushed through the glass door and found a sea of blue jeans, T-shirts, quiffs, a fog of hair lacquer… in other words, ‘teenagers’, as we had to call the youngsters now. Leo had only turned his greasy spoon caff into one of those dreaded new coffee bars, hadn’t he?
These had spread over the city like a rash, with their super-confident young people, cappuccinos, Coca-Cola and Elvis on the jukebox. Presley: I wish that clown had never started shaking his hips.
‘What’s all this?’ I said, approaching the counter and pointing my thumb back at the new clientele.
‘Got to go where the money is,’ said Leo.
‘I know, but really Leo…’
He shrugged. Anyway, I told him about my predicament and he was happy to lend me a few quid till the end of the week, God bless him, especially with his place being so busy.
A song came on the jukebox, lots of guitar being bashed about and a shaky voice shouting on top. Rock’n’roll was getting into the charts. Flash-in-the-pan stuff, no question. I gave it two years.
‘How do you put up with that racket?’ I said to Leo, putting my hands to my ears.
‘That ain’t no racket,’ said Leo’s son, who was working behind the counter. ‘This is the new sound now.’ He nodded to the youngsters twisting their hips between the tables.
‘I’m in a skiffle group meself,’ he said proudly.
Skiffle: that was the other new invasion. All you needed was a guitar, a tea-chest for a bass, and a washboard for the rhythm. The craze was growing among the dreaded ‘teenagers’. Years of practice I’d put in, and here came the snotty-nosed brigade with nothing but a mouthful of chewing gum and an attitude. They didn’t care about the war.
I shook my head solemnly, said goodbye to Leo and made my way out of the madhouse. ‘End of the week, Leo,’ I shouted, waving the notes in my hand.
‘And which week would that be?’
I gave a casual laugh and pushed the door open to the street. I needed to think. If I turned up at the Mandrake that night surely someone would let me play, even if just on a couple of numbers? There’d be no money involved, but at least it’d remind people I was still here.
Yes, that was it. I’d creep back to my flat – avoiding Mrs Rhodes the landlady and her missing rent – and put on my best jumper. And I’d pick up my special hat.
A few hours later, I was back at the Mandrake. The club was heaving and I made for the musicians’ table, nodding and being nodded to by various faces along the way.
I asked about doing a few numbers but no one seemed keen. ‘Got a full bill tonight,’ said Derek, the club’s deputy manager. ‘You know how it is.’
Yes, I knew how it was.
And then I heard some kind of scuffle from the stairs, and who should tumble down them but Holloway Harry, pursued by two doormen complaining that he hadn’t paid the entrance fee. He turned and gave them a look, which sent them retreating back up to the street.
Harry walked straight up to me, reached into the inside pocket of his long coat and pulled something out.
He pressed her into my right hand.
‘Some bleeder tried to flog it down Chapel Market,’ he grunted. ‘He’s in hospital now. Won’t be thievin’ no more.’
There was a big bruise under Harry’s left eye, a real shiner.
Before I could open my mouth, he turned and walked out of the club, the crowd parting before him like the Red Sea.
Well I never. Holloway Harry: my knight in shining armour. The St. Joseph’s survivors’ club was alive and well.
‘Go on then,’ said Derek, pointing to the raised platform in the corner. ‘Get back to work.’
The band were happy for me to sit in. I took the hat out of my back pocket and hovered it above my head.
‘Like the colour,’ said Derek.
‘It’s been that kind of day.’ I pressed it onto my bonce, gripped Betsy and followed the others through the hot crowd. The room was jumping. Something was definitely in the air, and it wasn’t just the smoke. I thought of George, the war, jazz, the skiffle kids, the future, all at once, like a frantic drum roll in my head. I didn’t know what it meant, but I was ready to play it all through my fingers.
‘All right, you ‘orrible people!’ I shouted into the microphone. ‘Let’s do it!’
And we did.