Chapter Six – Only Happy When it Rains
Fat Joe’s was a terrific old bar in the market square in the center of town. It did decent quality food and had a stage of it’s own in what was once it’s coach house. This long low room was somewhere I’d seen a few gigs in the past. I knew Penny would know it because once a month it hosted a goth night called Woodwork Squeaks: Out Come The Freaks. The main room was all vintage tin signs for mustard and exposed wooden beams opposite a long shiny brass bar top adorned with a dozen super shiny beer taps. It was the only bar I’d ever known to have Newcastle Amber Ale on tap all year long. This point of difference alone spoke volumes about the place. A respectable establishment and yet left of the middle enough to welcome all types. As such, I was a bit of a regular. I knew some of the bar staff pretty well. I was sat on a high seat at the bar talking to one of them when Penny arrived.
With the Market Square surrounded by three aspects of glass shop frontages behind her, the reflected midday light behind that silhouette was stunning. As she pushed through the doors Penny looked like a mega star making a grand entrance at the start of a show. Once again she had on an all black ensemble that matched kick arse and feminine with Rock N’ Roll Queen in equal measure. Her boots were chunky black affairs all covered in silver buckles. Her leather jacket was the only part of the same outfit she’d worn the night before. Cool as all hell. She stood in the doorway for just a moment while she surveyed the bar. Looking for me? Was I this lucky? The barman tapped me with his hand in that way blokes do when a beautiful woman enters a scene and they want to share their excitement. This jolted me into action. I put my hand up to gesture to her. It felt like a bold move even though we had arranged to meet in this place at this time less than 24 hours ago. She gave an adorable wave back and headed in my direction. I drank every step of that walk across the bar in. She did it in that same ‘gliding above the ground’ way she’d done the night before. Effortless grace. It could forever play in my memory as one of THE moments of my life. Even if this little lunch date crashed and burned in the next ten minutes. That was worth getting up for this morning alone.
“Hiya” She hopped up on the high seat next to me just like she did in The Majesty last night. Like gravity bent to her will. She looked at me with a slight pang of concern. “You seem surprised to see me. This was your idea.” She was right. “I’m not surprised. I’m really pleased but I’m not surprised.” I lied slightly. This was only to save face. I was surprised by every single thing this girl did when it was in relation to me. “What are you drinking?” I inquired. She looked up and down the bar and then looked at the pint of Ale I’d half drunk already while waiting for her. “What are YOU drinking?” she threw right back at me. “That? That’s Newcastle Amber. That’s what that is.” She raised her eyebrows. “In a pint glass? I thought you were supposed to drink it in a half glass and top it up as you go. You know, if you were being ‘proper’?” I’m not often accused of being proper. “Ahh. You’re mistaking it for the bottled Brown Ale. The Amber comes on tap. Well, it does here. It’d be a pain in the bum asking the barman to keep topping this up. Besides half glasses get lost in my massive hands.” This farcical comic routine needed to move forwards “Oh. A connoisseur I see. Well then. A pint of that please. As long as I’m not committing any faux par holding the thing with two hands.” Penny ran her tiny pale perfect hands along my arm as she said it, I watched those long shiny pointed black nails glimmer along my shirtsleeve. They stopped just short of touching my flesh and I felt my heart skip a beat. “We can work around that. Barkeep give her a pint of Amber in a mug please.” Barkeep smiled “In a mug? Like an old man? I like that.” He retorted and went off to pour the pint shaking his head. “So you’re pleased to see me then?” Penny suddenly struck me as more vulnerable than her outward appearance would have anyone believe in passing. “Who wouldn’t be?” I asked in a sweeping compliment that assumed she understood her beauty was a universal accepted fact. She smiled and looked away. “I wasn’t sure you were pleased to see me last night” she said out into the mostly empty bar. I faltered for a moment. She looked back with regret in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I know you must have felt a little ambushed”. I proffered a confessional moment, “It’s been a tough few weeks. I wasn’t expecting to have to talk about it, at work, with someone who was actually there. It caught me off guard.” Her hand reached out again. She made contact with my own hand this time not just my sleeve. Her cool fingers sent tiny shocks up my own arm. I felt like I reeled inside. Pull yourself together Steve, I thought. You can’t flinch when she touches you. Not if you want her to keep doing it. She lingered a moment rubbing my knuckles with her fingertips lightly. I closed my eyes. I. Am. Hopelessly. Besotted. Already.
I’m Only Happy When It Rains by Garbage followed whatever had been the previous track out of the bars speakers (all be it at a civilised volume). Loud enough for us to both recognise that glossy drum pattern intro. “I love this song.” she said as the opening line washed around us. “Me too” I used the change in direction to get things back on a mutual neutral territory. “You wanna go take a seat at a table?” The pint mug looked like an over-sized prop in her hands. The sort of thing you’d see on Land Of The Giants or some other 60’s TV rerun where people got shrunk into scenes with giant salt and pepper shakers. We crossed over to the window seats where we could look out on a Tuesday afternoon in the center of town. The market square, a bustling mix of students, office workers on their lunch breaks and delivery folk darting from business to business. We settled in the corner table. It has the best view of the street while hiding you away from view outside. Penny set her big drink in front of herself and looked over to me like she was now ready to begin something. “Tell me about The Majesty. Why do you work there?” It seemed an odd question to me. Why do I work where I work? I laughed and decided to answer the first point first. “The majesty is a weird one. Upstairs it’s sort of still like a hotel. There’s numbers on all the doors but it’s just the landlord and lady’s living space. Apparently there’s an old subterranean level too. A floor of tiny Staff quarters for the maids and bellhops. They’re bricked off now though. I’ve never seen them. So it’s called The Majesty Hotel but people haven’t stayed their as guests for donkey’s years. It’s a pub for regulars most nights. Gets the Friday night crowd with happy hours and cocktails on their way to the clubs. It does well when there’s something on at The Playhouse.”
“Is it full of people who say ‘The usual please’ and have tabs in a book by the till?” she asked playfully. Smiling at the thought. “You have nailed it. It’s exactly like that. A guy almost had an aneurysm last night after you left because his usual beer was off.” She giggled at the idea so I decided to embellish my pedestrian review of the place. “Monday to Thursday it’s like a waiting room for the weekend. People pop in. Same folks, same times. Every week. They have the same pre-rehearsed conversations about work, money, the weather. If ever someone doesn’t show up, I can stand in and do their lines for them. But of course, they always do show up. Come the weekend it get’s a bit Townie. The music takes a dive. The drinks look like a kid made then in a soda stream in the 80’s”, “We had one of those” she responded excitedly. “Right. Me too. Remember the Vampires Blood and Werewolf Serum types that were red, blue, green?” She looked over her own eyes at me. “Look who you’re talking to. Of course I remember. That, The Groovie Goolies, The Munsters. They’re my formative experiences. They’re my DNA.”
“The Groovie Goolies!” I was delighted by this detail. “I loved that show.” She giggled again. I felt the gravity of a black hole pulling me into her eyes. “Did you want to be Bella La Ghostly when you grew up?” I could tell this was a good guess “I am! I wish. I’m trying to be a cross between her, Lily Munster and Wednesday Addams.” I brushed my hair back from my face “The triple threat. I can see some Shirley Manson and some Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice in your look too” She looked skeptical for a moment. “If you’re trying to flatter me Mr Long Brown Hair you’re going the right way about it.” I felt I could do better than that. “So, you’re aware that you’re prettier than any of them right?” There was a moment. I said it without thinking. I meant it, but saying it out loud leaped the conversation forward at a land speed record neither of us had braced for. She blushed slightly and looked a little more guarded. I felt like I should blabber over that statement to dull it’s impact. I was basically putting all pretense aside and calling this what it was. My intentions were no longer in question. I didn’t say a thing to dilute what I’d just said. I just nodded while I looked into her eyes. She narrowed them as she looked back at me. Three heavy hitting compliments in the first couple of minutes. This was no accident. She was on a date if she wanted to be or not. “Thank you…” she said suspiciously. “…Captain Caveman”
I snorted. OK. Touche. I get it. I kinda like it too. Captain Caveman was pretty much my go to childhood hero too. Him and Chewbacca were my own mental images of myself. That and Rachel Bolan from Skid Row dressed in torn jeans and a baggy white T-Shirt. “You want to eat?” I swerved from the hot lane to the more familiar date route. “The fish finger sandwiches here are bloody awesome” she leaped into the safer lane with me. I could tell we needed a little longer in the neutral zone before I could fall to my knees and profess my deep terrifying love for her out loud. So it was fish finger sandwiches and another round instead. After ordering at the bar I came back with a big spoon with a number 13 on it. I returned to a more relaxed Penny. She’d slipped her leather jacket off, now I could see her long slender arms bore two delicate tattoos at the top of her shoulders. The lace sleeves of her dress covered them slightly but I could see the ink work was exquisite. “You ever wonder if there are more wooden spoons on pub tables working as order numbers than there are in kitchens stirring stuff?” I pondered tapping the table with it. “Constantly. It’s on my mind all night every night. The great mystery.” she said taking the spoon from me and wielding it like a wand. “What do you want the most in the world Penny?” I don’t know what possessed me to ask this out loud. I knew the answer wouldn’t be ‘to fall into bed with you Steve and not get up until we are one complete person inseparable for the rest of time’. I asked it anyway. “I’m in a band. We’ve got our first gig next week and I don’t want to fuck it up.” Oh my giddy aunt. Just when I though I couldn’t find her more exciting. “What’s your band called?” She spoke with pride. “Sister Pain. It’s me, my two best friends from school and a boy drummer we found in The NME called Myles. We’re goth pop industrial grunge. Ha ha ha are we fuck? We’re all goth. Like a stick of black rock.”
“That sounds amazing. I bet you’re the singer.”
“Can I just say? This is a very exciting conversation to be having. I love live music. I love goth pop industrial grunge bands with cool tiny cartoon girls on vocals and now that I know you can spell, I’m expecting you to open with D.I.S.C.O, maybe play Gloria at some point and finish with D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” Penny laughed that beguiling chuckle again but louder. I could tell this was going to be a delight from here on out. She put her hand on mine again and looked over the table to me. Her mouth formed a word she never said. I paused my world so she could take another run at it. “You Bastard. We do a version of Gloria.” she dead pan stared me down as she said it. For a moment I thought she might cut my throat or kiss me. I smirked, I may even have made a small snorting noise. I checked her eyes. There was no sign of anything other than mischief and wit in them. “You do?” She nodded and exhaled like a poker player who had just been called. “Geee, Elle, Oh, Eye eye eye eye eye, G.L.O.R.I, Aye! Glooooria!” Her voice was pure Rock and Roll Valhalla. She was Stevie Nicks and Mazzy Star and Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith and Joan Jett all in one. Oh shit. I was so lost, this was the greatest lunchtime of all lunchtimes happening on planet Earth today. “Wow.” I was so impressed I couldn’t help myself. “That’s an incredible voice. You sound amazing. And you love Patti Smith. And you can definitely spell. No doubt on that one.” I couldn’t help but keep the compliments coming “Thank you” she said looking coy and girlish again for just a flash of time. Her cool star quality composure returned “So that’s a ticket sale I can count on for the show then?” Then she stood down. Turned the Goddess off and returned to being a pretty girl in a bar having fish finger sandwiches with a dopey besotted boy. “There is no way I would miss it. When is it? Where is it? How do I make sure I can get in and be up the front?”, “It’s at ‘The Pub’. It’s a little over two weeks away. We’ve got a shitload of practice to do before then and I really don’t know how it will go. None of us have ever played before an audience before. Except Myles. He’s been in other bands.”
“Drummers Man. The world needs more drummers. ‘Course he’s been in other bands. I bet he’s older than the rest of you right?” She nodded as she gulped down a mouthful of beer. I felt another ‘bit’ coming on. “He’s 45 isn’t he? Is he one of your Dad’s? Myles the drummer. I think I know him. Wasn’t he on Top Of The Pops playing for Neil Diamond in the 70’s?”, “Ha ha ha. He is older than the rest of us yes.”. “Old man Myles. Toured with ELO. Now he’s backing Sister Pain. I can dig it. So who are your Guitar and Bass players? You said old school mates?”
“Sindy and Kim. Sindy I’ve known since I was six. She’s our guitar player. She’s good. Long low power chords and she’s obsessed with metal flair. Jake E Lee, Billy Duffy that sort of thing. Kim’s a badass. She was in our class at school. We made friends when we all went to see The Witches together, she also wore black. Sin and I decided she COULD sit with us. Kim plays bass like she’s wrestling the song to the ground. She’s like a Terminator with a rhythm setting.” That made me laugh. “So Myles is Kim’s Dad?”
“No!” We were both giggling like fools now. And as the conversation moved around to talk of cover versions while doing silly voices the food arrived. The next two hours passed in a haze of sheer happiness. I hung on her every word. I was fascinated to hear about her family, friends, dreams, fears. She asked about me, my life behind bars pulling pints, my box fresh unused college degree and my various home towns (I’ve moved around a lot for a guy my age). All the while I kept trying to think of ways to seal the deal and get to see her again. The gig was on the horizon but there was no way I wanted to wait two weeks or pay along side scores of other horny metal-heads to ‘pop by and say hi’. I wanted Penny all to myself. I wanted her to talk only to me. I wanted to fill her field of vision the way she was dominating mine. “I have to go to band practice soon” Penny checked my wrist watch for me, looking away when she spoke. Was this an indication she regretted having to leave? Again I spoke without thinking. “But I don’t want you to go.” Fuck! Sake! Steve! my internal voice screamed at me. Why was my guard so down? You can’t just go emoting all over the place in front of a girl you just met. She paused slightly taken aback by the overt sincerity (and perhaps the glimpse of a petulant man baby). I could see her weighing this up in her head. “Well, then we should make plans to carry on this fascinating piss take at a later date. I have band practice and then I’m working tonight in ‘the pub'”. There it was. My Achilles Heel. The scene of my bloody and brutal defeat. The place I got the literal piss kicked out of me is where the girl I’m now obsessed with works. Ain’t no way around it. “We never did talk about ‘That night’ did we?” Penny’s tone was sympathetic as she said it. I felt less flustered than I had last night. I was keen not to let myself down after two hours of good work building a kindly rapport with a stunning woman. The beating was now a blessing and a curse. But it was weeks ago. This was the best I’d felt ever since it happened. I mean, what are the odds of it happening again? What are the odds? Pretty high? Is she a Siren and The Queens Head is the rocks? Am I a fisherman in a tiny little dinghy?
“Where do the band practice?” I asked covering the internal panic I felt with misdirection. “Back room of the pub. There’s an old pigeon loft across the courtyard. It’s soundproofed and a pretty decent rehearsal space.” Of course it was. It couldn’t be anywhere else. All roads lead to her. The Queens Head. “Shall I walk you there?” You’re grasping at straws now Steve-O the internal dialogue chipped in. That voice in my head almost entirely manifesting itself like a cartoon demon on my shoulder. The next noise out of Penny’s mouth was an overly pantomime style “Aww”. She was going to turn me down I could feel it “That’s sweet. Keeping me safe on these mean afternoon streets. Sure, come along. You can meet the band.” ‘OK Stephen Wise’ said the little Animated Devil who’d appeared on my shoulder. ‘You’re going right back ‘There’ right now. Happy? You stupid love struck hippy fool?’ So We pulled on our coats and headed out into the busy market square heading towards The Queens Head. My guts were now churning. On one hand I’m walking through town with a stunning woman who’s company thrills me. We’re laughing and joking as we pass shops and buildings and mutual acquaintances. All of which could make me feel ten feet tall. On the other hand, last time I went to this particular destination I nearly died.