Chapter 13 – Cemetery Polka
Penny and I moved in together with her parents blessing. They helped us get together a deposit for the house. They helped us to buy furniture. The two up two down Sarah helped us find on Cemetery Road was the kind of love nest meets fixer upper in which you could smooth over blown plaster with optimism and a Dracula poster. I’d hired some floor sanding equipment for a weekend once we’d worked out we couldn’t afford to carpet the place. The three Dan’s and I had smoothed the floorboards then painted them with a deep varnish before we moved a stick of furniture in. The whole place was full of stylish solutions to rebuilding a wreck of a house on pub wages. Because the wiring in the lighting circuits was so ancient a smell like grilled kippers would rise from the walls on the landing whenever the lights were used. To solve this issue we took a leaf from the Gothic Housekeeping Guide. Penny devised a way to light most rooms with lamps and candles. In the back room there was a huge cast iron fireplace that ‘stoked properly’ could heat the whole house. Thanks again to Penny there were shawls and ornate fabric drapes in every room. Many of them backed with fairy lights. On every flat surface lurked small scented fire hazards. I seemed to spend a lot of time putting out wicks and moving flames away from flammables. This story doesn’t take that direction though. The whole time we were together there was never a single candle related mishap.
In the year and a half we’d been a couple Penny’s band had done great things incredibly quickly. Their self financed debut single had got all the way to the radio locally. Even more excitingly it had been played once on John Peel’s national show. Trace had pushed it in Scruff’s record shop and all 666 copies had been sold at gigs or through Scruff’s shop. They’d written a ton of great material since that single. Now with Motorcycle Mary Managing them, they were in talks about doing a demo for China Records. China had put out stuff by The Dogs D’Amour and The Levellers among others. As a label they carried some serious respect in the scrungey grungey underworld of UK indie rock. It’s true the label weren’t particularly goth though. Sister Pain were creeping into view in the live review columns of the music press. They’d featured on more than a few lists of ‘ones to watch’ while channeling MTV goth in the vein of Garbage meets Marilyn Manson with an English bent.
I was fully immersed in the comings and goings at The Head. I went there every day. If I had a shift (or on the rare occasion I didn’t) it was habit to get up, get dressed, walk into The Head then plan the day from there. Most days Penny and I went together but if our work patterns or her band commitments didn’t match up I would wander down and see the gang before looking to do anything else. As a result our fridge only ever seemed to contain condiments or half forgotten take away food. Our coffee was always as black as our Sabbath.
For the first year and a half it felt as if the list of DIY would never die. This home from The Head was a private space where we could play house like two kids who’d built a fort from horror movie VHS cases and band t-shirts. It needed money spending on it if it were to ever graduate from gigantic teenage bedroom to a real home for a serious couple. I was discussing this one day with Dan The Van in the bar when he hit upon an idea. “Mr Knickerbocker has more work than I can handle at the moment. Do you want me to see if he has any openings for you?” I still didn’t really understand the line of work Mr Knickerbocker was in or what he and Uncle Vernon had Dan The Van running all over the place in the back of that Sherpa. “I dunno. I’m pretty full on at The Head. Perhaps I should talk to Sarah first.” Dan didn’t push the point further and when the tune on the jukebox changed to Oasis he and several others in the room groaned loud pained noises. As an act of mercy I reached for the skip button under the bar. None of us hated Oasis but the ubiquity with which their second album of material had saturated our ears had everyone praying for the next Jukebox Jury so we could get the sodding thing out of the box. This is not a criticism of Noel Gallagher’s obvious talents. (What’s The Story) Morning Glory was omnipresent in every pub, barber shop, dentist waiting room, TV highlights reel and open car window from John O’ Groats to Lands End. It was a decent rock and roll record for sure. It was also a relentless flogging of a peaky looking horse. In the Britpop wars between Blur and Oasis back in the summer The Head had come out as a kind of neutral Switzerland location. Pulp and Suede fans weren’t acting like they’d invented rock and roll in the last 5 years. Elastica and Salad had played the pub in recent history. Supergrass, Echobelly and Sleeper too. You came to The Head so you didn’t have to choose sides.
The rather more left field Nine Inch Nails ticker tapped out of the speakers all stuttering drums and electronic blips. Right before that fuzzy synth hypnotized anyone paying attention into listening to Head Like A Hole for the millionth time. Dan nodded along for a moment before a thought visibly dawned on him. “Steve. I meant to tell you. Remember the bloke you had a fight with?” I looked at him suspiciously. This is a conversation we’d last abandoned 18 months ago. “No. Not really.” Dan looked vexed. “I mean of course I remember being in a fight. I don’t really remember the bloke that well. Don’t know his real name. Don’t want to.” Dan looked crest fallen. I wasn’t playing along. Penny had healed all my wounds. I didn’t need Arthur Loafer back in my life. Dan slipped down from his stall and headed off for the gents. I had work to do on the chalk boards. We had a band called Bis playing come the weekend. Word on the street was their new EP The Secret Vampire Soundtrack had started making waves on the indie scene. It was going to be a big night.
While I was chalking up the logos for Biffin’s Bridge, Mountain Of Light and Bis, a beautiful young woman entered the bar with three friends. Dan The Man came dashing round to the stage where I was working. “Steve, you need to see this.” I looked at him and saw he was panicked. I knew at once my associate was out numbered by attractive members of the opposite sex. It was a realistic daily hazard in this line of work. “What’s up Dan?” He eyeballed me with all the seriousness he could muster. “These girls Mate. They’re gorgeous.” I nodded sagely. “Seen ’em. Thanks man. You got this. I’m busy here.” Dan blushed. “Steve!” I put the lid back on my chalk pen. “Really?” He nodded and lifted the cellar hatch. Dan The Man ran away from four pretty girls without a moments hesitation. Gone underground until the danger passes. I wiped the green chalk from my fingers and headed behind the bar. “Good afternoon Ladies. I’m Steve. Steve The Wise. How can I help you?” Solveigh smiled a perfect smile. I don’t mind admitting how I fluttered a little myself as she stared through her deep blue eyes into my own. “Steve the Wise? How do you get a name like that?” I shrugged my shoulders holding out my empty hands. “Some of us strive for wisdom, others have wisdom thrust upon us. I can tell for instance that you’ve something refreshing like four gin and tonics in mind. However, in my wisdom I surmise, if I offered you four dirty mojitos for the price of three, with golden rum and a twist of fresh mint you’ll consider it an enticing option.” Solveigh laughed and turned to her friends. They exchanged glances, then nods. Huddle over she turned back to face me. “Well, Steve The Wise. I’m very glad we came to seek your counsel on this matter.” I reached for the rum and the cocktail shaker. “You’re in safe hands with me.” I poured four full shots into the shaker over a large scoop of ice. “So I see” Solveigh purred. At this very moment Dan The Van returned from using the gents. Loudly he announced to the room “I just laid a lucky slipper in there the size of a cucumber. Not a smear on the paper. Incredible” I looked at him agog. Solveigh did too. Dan then noticed the four immaculate beauties at the bar. He tugged on his fringe. “Ladies” Dan necked the last of his pint and headed out the doors. I continued mixing the drinks convinced this was the one and only transaction Solveigh or any of her friends would ever voluntarily take part in inside The Head.
Nine Inch Nails gave way to the stacked up rhythms of The Velvet Underground’s I’m Waiting For The Man. As I finished the pour with a flourish Dan The Man rose from the cellar like a bad special effect. As I handed Solveigh her change I caught Dan by the arm. “And this is for you. Either myself or Dan The Man here are available to advise on cocktails and happy hour deals from five to seven tonight.” Solveigh looked into Dan the way she had me. I feared for a moment he may spontaneously combust. “Wonderful. Thanks Steve The Wise. Thanks Dan The Man. I’m Solveigh by the way.” She began handing the mojitos to her friends without ever really breaking eye contact. I could see smoke pouring from Dan’s ears. Once they were all settled at a table Dan bent forward with his hands on his thighs like he was out of breath. “I don’t know how you do it Mate.” As ever, I was at a loss regarding what Dan found so difficult. “Do what?” He looked at me “They’re so pretty. Doesn’t it make you flustered?” I smirked as I considered the difference between Dan The Man and Steve The Wise for a moment.
“Dan. I sleep with the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on every night of my life. I make her breakfast in bed and she washes my underwear. What are some pretty girls thirsty for a dirty mojito going to do to me?” Dan looked up at me from his recovery position. “See, I admire you Steve but there’s part of me that hates you for what you just said. I mean I’m happy for you. For both of you. Even still. Y’know?” I patted him on the back. “Yeah. I know.” When I look up from our little huddle I see a tall black man in a sharp grey pinstripe suit with a double cuff shirt standing at the bar. He’s a giant of a man with a smile like a predator. “Please allow me to introduce myself.” I nod. “My name is Mr Knickerbocker” I’d heard the name. I knew he was Dan’s boss. I knew he went way back with Uncle Vernon and Sarah. I was not prepared to see such a sharp dressed pristine designer suited giant stood in our homemade shabby dive in the middle of an afternoon shift. “What can I get you?” I asked on autopilot. His smile broadened. I suddenly missed Solveigh’s sweet feminine smirk from a minute ago. I felt like an entree. “I should ask you the same question. What are you into Young Blood?” I didn’t follow his meaning. I blurted out something about punk rock and heavy metal and keeping it vinyl where possible.
Knickerbocker’s smile dimmed. He seemed inconvenienced to need to rephrase his question. “I meant, bits and pieces?” again I missed the 20 foot high neon question. I though we were discussing hobbies. I prattled on about painting the logos in chalk paint and DIY until I noticed that he was looking somewhat annoyed at me. “Are you a clever cunt? Is that it? You’re pulling my leg to see if it’s got bells on.” I now realised two things. One Mr Knickerbocker is a drug dealer. Two I’m a naive idiot.
Dan The Man could see I’d fucked up. He may have been a coward when it came to women but he knew exactly how to help me out in this situation. “Hello Mr Knickerbocker Sir. Do you remember me? Danny Bough? I’m Dickie’s little brother. Steve’s been here quite a while now. It’s amazing you two have never met before really.” Mr Knickerbocker turned his gaze from me onto Dan. “Dan The Man. Hello younger. How is your brother? How’s that amplifier I sold him?” Dan had me half off the hook already. “Dickie’s great. He’s doing bathrooms full time now. When we’re not gigging. The amp is a beast. Absolute beast. We’ve lugged it round every bar in the county and beyond. So. As I was saying. Steve here lives with Penny Black. He’s been pulling pints for Sarah for quite a while.” Knickerbocker looked at me surprised. “You’re the one who got the girl?” I nodded. “I sure did. THE girl in my world.” He smiled to the ceiling “That woman is going to be a big star. You know that right?” I nodded. “So you work for Sarah. You know Dan The Man, which means you know Dan The Van and you live out on Cemetery Road with Penny Black. You’re smarter than you look.” I laughed. He didn’t. “Oh snap. You’re the one who got into it with Arthur.” I stopped smiling. Nothing for 18 months and then twice in an hour. “I might have something for you.” I shot the puck straight back across the bar. “I don’t want it.”
Mr Knickerbocker didn’t like that. I decided right there that I didn’t like Mr Knickerbocker. “You don’t know what it is yet.” Knickerbocker sneered. Dan continued to try and fight my corner in this conversation where all the real statements were going unspoken. “Steve’s off the radar. A really good lad. No record, no vices, no local issues.” I took Dan’s lifeline “Just pulling pints and playing house. That’s all I’m up to. That’s all I’m about.” Knickerbocker took on board this blank sheet resume. He looked past me to Dan. “Is she upstairs?” Dan gestured towards the kitchen “Please walk right this way”. Mr Knickerbocker looked back at him sharply “I know the way.” Dan froze to the spot as the giant of a man headed off down the bar towards the service hatch. I felt the air pressure in the room return to normal a few moments later. He must have been heading up the stairs.
Dan looked at me wide eyed. “The fuck was that Steve?” I was at a loss “Thanks Man. You dug me out of a hole. I didn’t know who he was.” Dan blinked twice “How? How did you not know who he was? Dan The Van all but told you he was coming in earlier. He tipped you off. How many other gigantic gangsters come by this place Steve?” I thought about it “2Pac not been in lately?” Dan smirked. I pointed at a customer to serve. He took the initiative. I went back to thinking about the fact that the random act of violence that had realigned my life back in 1994 was resurfacing in some as yet not fully manifested way. Just then Penny’s bands song was selected on the jukebox. The chiming guitar intro reminding me that I had everything I ever dreamed of at home and a job I loved.
The rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly. We listened to records. I chatted fun little conversations with Lady Sol and a couple of her friends. It was a good time. In the early part of the evening Dan The Van reappeared looking a little hurried. He motioned to Dan The Man to speak at the end of the bar. I couldn’t help but be in earshot. “Is he still here?” DTM nodded. “Well you’re going to have to go upstairs and get him” DTV insisted. “You know the rules. I am not fucking doing that.” For a moment, there was a ‘Dan off’. DTV cracked first. “Right then. I’ll go up and get him then. If you won’t do it. Trust me, disturbing him right now is the least of the things I’ve got to worry about.” Dan The Van headed upstairs. I looked to Dan The Man. “What the fucks going on?” Dan made one of his faces as he leaned in to whisper to me “You know Dan runs kit around for Uncle Vernon, for his PA hire business, for the touring bands?” I nodded. “Well he runs loads from the docks for Mr Knickerbocker too. They keep manifests of whats in the vehicle, what’s in a loading bay, what’s in a container, a lock up, a space at all times. Well, right now the things that are on Dan’s Van are not the things they’re meant to be.” I nodded and looked confused at the same time. “He’s turned up at the wrong place with the wrong stuff.” I understood enough to know it sounded like Dan The Van was in a spot of trouble. Be it with the law or the gangsters it seemed Dan The Van was backed into a corner or running out of time to put things right with his boss.
Mr Knickerbocker appeared behind the bar like a fucking specter from a puff of smoke. He stood there looming over Dan and I. An unusual experience for me at six feet five inches tall. “Gentlemen. I must insist on the employ of your services.” I looked to Dan who was nodding as he accepted his fate. I wasn’t quite so easily resigning myself to being his pawn. Dan spoke for both of us “Just tell us what you need.” he said. I shook my head. “I’ve got nothing for you.” Mr Knickerbocker smiled. “You’ve got a basement. On Cemetery Road. I know you have.” Dan was making that ‘shut the fuck up Steve’ face again. “I have got a basement yes.” Mr Knickerbocker put his hand on my shoulder. “How do you know that?” Mr Knickerbocker just smiled. “Head over to your place now in Dan’s Van and unload the flight cases in the back into your basement. Then head straight back here and don’t say anything to anyone about it. Not even your lovely talented Girl” I was about to protest. The look on Dan The Man’s face evolved from ‘Shut the fuck up Steve’ to ‘We are gathered here to day to remember our Barman friend’. I don’t know why I did it (apart from not wanting to upset a giant gangster who had his hands on my neck) but I nodded silently. I followed Dan The Van out of the bar without looking back.
As we jumped into the Sherpa, Dan let out a huge sigh “Thank you so fucking much. You are about to completely save my arse.” I folded my arms and looked hard at Dan as he sped away from The Head towards Cemetery Road. In the back were six large touring band flight cases of black paneling with silver metal trims. “How does he know where I live?” I asked aloud, although not a little rhetorically. Surprisingly for me Dan The Van knew the answer. “You live in his old house Steve. He’s ultimately your landlord.”