Chapter 17 – This Flight Tonight
The day had finally come. Sarah was all packed. She was ready to go. The ephemera that had been cluttering up The Head since it started to evolve was being picked off by regulars, by staff and by light fingered Herberts who think they have a right to a poster, a statuette, or in one case the giant coin that stood in the corner of the pub. The coin was a huge plaster replica of an American silver dollar. It was taller than the person who tried to wheel it out last night unnoticed. Double Steve had got in the punters face and asked them what the hell they thought they were doing? There were some crossed words, a few “Leave it Mate, It’s not worth it’s” and in the end we just let it go. Just to see the guy struggle across the car park with it in the wind and rain. It looked like it collapsed on him somewhere towards the Odeon. Daisy said she saw a third of it laying in the gutter on their walk in this morning.
I’d been up since early. Yesterday there had been a delivery of scaffolding to erect the stage out the front of the pub. The boys from Mountain Of Light and Dan The Van were here finishing the build by 7am. Cables, lights, drum riser, the works. The cellar was full of lager kegs and bottled beer from a booze cruise done earlier in the week. We had 3 stages playing overlapping sets from 11am until midnight tonight. All the furniture was already gone. The Pigeon Club had it’s frontage torn off yesterday afternoon so it looked like a dolls house on stilts with the front open. The festoon lighting hanging down from the front of it looked it was raining magic. London Colin would open proceedings from there. All the singer songwriters could play to the courtyard from their elevated position like a little acoustic diorama. Inside we had the regular stage. 300 people could pack the place out and monopolise the bar. To serve the masses outside we had a novel idea. The Hendrix window was put through. The top end of the pub got boxed off. We would sell to the hoards through the gaping holes in the front of the pub like booze dispensing machine gunners in a pillbox facing the coast. This was going to be the biggest thing we’d ever attempted. At the end of the night our era would be over. Rock and Roll’s Last Stand.
Sarah’s Mum was fussing as all her daughters personal belongings were packed into a Volvo to go back to the family seat. She was a lovely lady Sarah’s Mum. She knew all of us by name. She obviously listened to her daughter whenever she told her stories about her Bar Back Babies. Sarah kept her Mum up to date on all our adventures. She kept calling me Lovely Man and holding my hand when she spoke to me. At around 10:30 am there was a quiet moment. All the preparations that could be made had been. Sarah sent her mum off in the Volvo. Suddenly there was a hush.
Here we all were. Me, Dan The Man, Trace Elements, Double Steve, Dan The Van, Daisy Chain-Reaction, Uncle Vernon, The Rain, Lucy Diamond and Little Steve. The crew of the The Head. All together for the last time. Possibly all on duty together for the first time. We never had the full team on the same shift before. Sarah surveyed her troops. “This is it guys. The end of the century. We’ve got 33 bands playing. We’ve got over a thousand people expected to come, sing, dance, drink and pay their respects to The Queen. We’re going to cement our legend tonight. But most importantly. Most importantly of all. You lot are going to have a good time. You should remember this is a party. This is your party. You’re the best guys. Working with you has been the most fun I could have wished for. Let’s do it one more time. With feeling!” There was a cheer, many hugs and a few tears in the moment that followed. Uncle Vernon set up the jukebox to play Blur’s End Of The Century and I got a lump in my throat. He’d remembered it from the morning of the announcement. How we all found solace in the song. Our anthem of melancholia.
“We all say, don’t want to be alone, We wear the same clothes ’cause we feel the same, We kiss with dry lips when we say goodnight, End of a century, oh, it’s nothing special”
The doors were flung open and in they began to flood. Zippy, Stick-Man Theater, Solveigh and the Heathers, Suzy Remain, Victoria Sponge, Bob Allob, Miss Boo & Miss Quick, Dickie Bough, Evlis Is Kig, Tim Tilla & Cass, Doctor Rock, Dan DaDan Dan, Happy Larry, Rollerskate Kate, Oklahoma Homer, Big Bird, Ewan Whos Army, Cowslick Rick… They kept on coming.
London Colin struck the first power chord of the day on Janie Jones. “She’s in love with the rock and roll world”. The first band on the stage indoors kicked off as the final “I live by The River” faded outside. Skacore locals SPG gave their manic take on Rancid and Operation Ivy “Sound system gonna bring me back up yeah, one thing that I can depend on” As their set had a room full of young punks skanking hard I couldn’t hear the start of Tortilla Killa’s first number outside. By the time 2pm rolled around we were five bands in. The inside of the pub was at capacity. Prosthetic Elvis were thrashing through their version of Elephant Stone. “These four walls saw the rise and fall and your midnight getaway, Seems like there’s a hole in my dreams” When Trace appeared at my side in the bar. “Steve. You’re needed in the kitchen.” I swapped a ten pound note for a fist full of bottled beer “I’m a bit busy Trace”. My friend took my hand as soon as it was empty. She turned me to face her. “Steve. She’s here. Penny. Is in the kitchen.” I froze. I’d been able to bury it all for the last month. Bar the odd kicking, messy drunken night and crashing out in a shed instead of returning to our empty bed. I had pretended it was all rock and roll. It was only rock and roll. Truth be told. The conversation we never had. The break up. The reasons why. It was waiting in the kitchen. I must have gone pale because Trace looked at me like I was about to faint. “She’s waiting for you Steve. Go see her. For your own good, go and have that conversation.”
A punter pulled on my shirt to get my attention. It was someone I didn’t recognise at all. “What do you want?” I asked like the worst bartender on Earth. “A fucking beer if it’s not too much trouble.” I held a bottle of lager out “Three quid” he balked. “It says two fifty up there.” I looked square at him “Yeah but I’m charging you an Arsehole Tax. Three quid” Surprisingly the guy paid it. Trace was stood next to me arms folded like a stern teacher waiting for a class to simmer down “OK. I’m on my way” I made my way along the back bar towards the kitchen with each foot fall feeling like a drum beat on Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. “Can he walk at all or if he moves will he fall?” As I got to the kitchen doorway Daisy came rushing out. She gave me a full on Macca double thumbs up then ran away.
In the stark strip lights and empty mess of the gutted kitchen of a run down pub she still managed to look like a total rock star. My Penny Black seemed taller, the boots may have helped. Huge complex black knee high boots with straps and buckles and metal plates that looked like the sort of thing only the rich and famous would wear. They must have added six inches to her height. She was recognisable as my Penny and yet it seemed she was drawn in greater detail to the rest of the world. She was glossy high resolution photo real in a sketchy panel of pen and ink. A Renaissance master work walking the pages of a comic book world. Penny’s bright red hair cut shorter than I had ever seen it framed her face with an angular tilt. The black streak on the left hand side was interrupted by a large silver earring. Her make up was different to the look that made her so recognisable back when she and I were together. She looked amazing but was clearly living a different life. I stared at her for a second suddenly aware that I looked like a bag of dirt. Everything I was wearing she had bought me when we were together. It kind of looked like it hadn’t been laundered since then also. Penny smiled but it was an unsure smile. I have always loved her smile. “You look amazing.” I told her. Utterly truthfully. “Are you OK?” was her response. “I am now.” I don’t know why I said it but it was an honest response. Looking at this amazing girl who I loved so much and seeing her healthy, happy, successful. It made me feel good. Even if she was no longer mine. “Steve, I’m sorry.” I stopped her from saying any more. “No. Please Coinage. You don’t need to. You don’t need to apologise. That’s for me to do. I’m sorry.” She held her arms open and I hugged her tightly. I felt an urge to lift her off the ground like I always had when we were together but I resisted. That felt like it may have been inappropriate. I held on to her though. I felt all of her in my arms. The way her head pushed into the space between the crook of my arm and my neck, her arms resting on top of mine. Her tiny frame enveloped in my hugeness. It was a battle not to steal her away from the world right there. I could make off into the future holding everything I’d lost. In the closeness of an embrace she didn’t feel different at all. This was her. 100%. My Penny. Coinage. The Money Goth. Wednesday. Penny Black. Steve & Penny. The hug lasted all of 15 seconds. It was both a serotonin rush and a free fall plummet into the past. When we let go we both knew things would be different again. “I’ve missed you you know” Penny said after we were apart again. “I’m really sorry. I did not handle you being away well at all.” She shook her head. “Steve. We both know what happened. We don’t need to go over it. I just want to say I’m sorry I hurt you.” I couldn’t have that. “Penny. You did nothing wrong. Nothing at all. You followed your dreams. You executed the plan. The plan you were working on the day we met. It worked. You’re a genuine rock and roll icon Penny Black. I’m proud of you” She was the one shaking her head now. “Stop. I don’t want to be a rock star here. I worked here too. I slung booze and burritos over that bar along side the rest of you. I’m proud of The Head. I’m heartbroken it’s dying today too.”
This made perfect sense. Penny and the rest of the band started here. She worked here before I did. She found me face down in my own blood here before we found each other. She was at The Queens Head before THIS all began. And now she was back for it’s last night. She was our headliner. A real life Rock Star revisiting her first step. “Thing is Penny. We need you to be a Rock Star tonight. We need you to show The Scene that it’s bigger than this plot of land. Bigger than Trace Elements, Sarah Bellum and Steve The Wise. Bigger than a beer crate stage and a load of plastic tat sprayed with glitter.” She twisted on the words I said like she was trying to wriggle out of them “I know. Sarah said the same thing on the phone when she asked me to come. Back here though, in the kitchen, behind the bar. I’m one of you guys” I didn’t notice it at first but a tear had crept out of my eye and was making it’s way down my cheek. Penny’s long red tipped finger stopped it half way down. “What are you going to do Steve?” I couldn’t exactly play it cool now could I? “Honestly. I don’t know. Tomorrow morning is the first day of a new century. New Years Millennium Eve gets to me a little over a month early. I have no clue what I will do when I get up tomorrow morning. Maybe empty the fridge, I haven’t been home in ten days.”
“You’re still in our house?” Penny’s tone was lowered as she asked. I shrugged “I couldn’t leave. For a long while I kept thinking you might just come back one more time.” She screwed her eyes shut and a tear escaped her this time. I stopped it with my thumb. We were keeping an even score. “Sorry that was a shitty thing for me to say. I totally understand why you went. You had to. I lied. I kept things from you. I put you at risk. I got into some dark shit for a while. It was the right thing to do. I don’t blame you.” She bit her lip and looked to the ceiling. “It’s all in the past now. The last couple of years have been a whirl wind. I’ve seen and done more in the time since we made the album than in the rest of my life put together.” I knew this meant the girl I was talking to here and now was different to the Penny I let down on Cemetery Road. Unknowable to me at this point in time. Anything from here would be lesser than it used to be. She didn’t deserve that and you know what? Neither did I. “Penny. It’s so good to see you. I wanted to see your face. To say I’m sorry. To say I understand. Coinage I want you to share the last night along with all of us. With all your friends. Let’s not make today all about you and me. My heart is full seeing you do so well.” She took my hand which was still on her face and held it close to her. We kissed a long tender kiss. I knew it was the last one. Even still my entire body reacted like it was aflame. I felt like I was being recharged. If the humans have an equivalent of the Vulcan mind meld it’s the last kiss between broken up lovers. We were still in each others immediate space when Sarah walked into the kitchen with arms full of empty beer boxes. “Oh shit. Sorry kids.” The spell was broken. Penny stepped back and I let go her pinkie finger. “Sarah!” Penny threw herself into the boss lady’s open arms. “You fantastic Bitch how are you?” Sarah grabbed her with both arms “Do you guys need a minute?” I shook myself back to Earth. “Sarah. It’s all good. You two catch up. I’ll see you in a bit yeah?” Penny nodded from in Sarah’s arms. “Baby Penny you look incredible. We have all missed you so much Thunder Child” Sarah told her oldest employee as I headed back out into the bar.
I hit the room to a scene of disarray. Trace, Daisy and Dan The Man were overwhelmed by punters. The band had finished and the jukebox was playing The Wildhearts, I Wanna Go Where The People Go at a monsterous volume. “Out of the misery to wash my soul, out of the ground with a new eight count I never came to Rock ‘n’ Roll, check in the mirror, and I don’t mind, same old cracks in the face and glass just a little more defined” I dove right in. “Yes Mate? Four beers? That’s a tenner. You there. G&T? It’s in cans is that OK? Fiver for two. Bargain. Dog bless. Next. Two lagers and a cider? Here you go. Keep the change? Very generous. Thanks very much. We got whiskey, rum, gin or vodka. Vodka? Clear or with flakes of gold floating in it? Gold it is. Double up? You’re the boss. Here you go. I wanna go where the people go Yeah! I wanna go where the people GO!”
The day roared past. Penny came out to serve when things got even busier. That pushed things to an insane level. She had an entourage with her who were shooting photos and video. There were people clamoring for autographs and pictures as much as they were drinks. On the scaffold stage out the front Sheena’s Remainz were bashing out a rapid fire set of Ramones covers and Surf guitar to a crowd of at least 400 people. Inside Paint The Taint were nailing down a groove that Canned Heat would be proud of to a packed bar. From The Pigeon Club above the courtyard The Be Good Sandra’s were doing some bluegrass with vocal harmonies over banjos that completed our festival vibe to a tee. We’d built an outside bar in the yard from pallets that was selling Pina Colada or Mojito shots for a pound a pour. Now it was dark and the temperature was dropping we swapped to spiced rum and hot toddies. That corner alone had run out of stock 3 times. Dan the Van brought the last delivery from the cash and carry just before six thirty.
Trace and Penny were like two children reunited in play. They were dancing to the band inside the bar when Sarah came down with sunglasses on and a suitcase. She didn’t say a word but hugged me. Then Dan The Man joined us both. “Thank you Sarah. Thank you for the best job I’ve ever had.” said Dan with a lump in his throat. “Dan. You lovely lovely boy. Listen to me. If you don’t go and kiss Lorraine King before I leave I swear to God almighty I will never forgive myself.” I broke off from the group hug. Penny, Daisy and Trace were just the other side of the bar now. How did they know? Was there some sort of barmaid dog whistle I was unaware of when a barman was instructed to go and kiss a girl? Dan blushed, but not as much as I thought he would. “What?” was all he had to say. Penny pipped in “Dan. She’s been sweet on you since the dawn of time.” Trace and Daisy nodded. Dan looked to me. I had to admit. I had been next to no help. I put my hands up in a ‘I don’t know’ gesture. All five of the women in the conversation groaned. “Steve! It’s no wonder he’s so hopeless with you as a wing man!” Trace was taking no prisoners. The garage rock of Paint The Taint ripped into Louie Louie. Dan was pushed out from behind the bar by Sarah, then pulled out into the room with Trace on one arm and Daisy on the other. It felt like a high school moment. It also felt like a last chance to be kids. “Hur fine gal, she wait for me, me catch the ship ‘cross dat sea, Me sailt tha ship all lone, Me never thin’ I’ll make it home” Dan the Man stood before The Rain. She looked at him with the biggest smile. He fumbled about a bit. I watched with My Girls as he danced on the spot with unease. “Louie Louie, oh no no no, me gotta go, oh no, Louie Louie, oh baby, me gotta gotta go” He looked like he was going to go down on one knee for a moment. He didn’t know what to do with his arms. The Rain took his hand. Then he put a hand up to her face. I thought of Penny and I in the kitchen earlier today ‘Good move Dan’ I thought to myself. They kissed a short soft kiss. Trace, Daisy and Penny were jumping on the spot. I turned to Sarah “Still taking care of business for your Bar Back Babies?” The Rain went back for a more intense snog. Dan The Man melted into her arms. He was solid gone. You could see from his body language alone he’d never be the same again. “To the end Stevie. To the end.” I motioned to the suitcase behind the bar. “This is it then?” She nodded. “I’ve done all my other goodbyes.” I nodded. “Sarah. Thank you. Thank you for this place, thank you for giving me the best friends I ever had. Thank you for letting me be me. Thank you for being you. I’ll never forget you.” Sarah let one big tear roll down from under her sunglasses. “You’ll be fine. You’ll all be fine. Have a good night. Have a great life. It’s been a blast Steve The Wise.” I swallowed hard. “Sarah Bellum. Queen of The Head. The Electric Fairy. We love you. I loved every minute. This town will never be the same” She picked up her case. “Uncle Vernon will pick up the Jukebox in the morning. Everything else is yours to do with as you please between now and nine am. Steve…” I saw her struggle. “Have a good flight Boss.” With that Sarah headed past the bar dragging her case. She said something to Trace and Penny then she slipped out the door. I gave the next customer two bottles of lager and declined the money. I watched the door close. I watched Penny and Trace hug. I watched Dan and The Rain snog, but only for a moment. It was like watching two puppies try to eat a chew.
Paint The Taint said their thank you’s and their good nights. They brought Louie Louie to a crescendo. I turned to see Daisy and Little Steve working their arses off serving still. So was Vernon, Double Steve, Dan DaDan Dan. We still had an evening to party. Still had a gig to put on. Still had Sister Pain to play. I hit random on the controls for the Jukebox. The moment between the feedback fade and the needle hitting the groove felt more pregnant than usual. The drum fill of The Cure’s Just like Heaven splashed into a cymbal crash and a steady bass line. I watched in slow motion a perfect world or rockers, rollers, Britpop casuals and Kurt’s kids mixing with old road dogs, groovy teachers, get away drivers, pretty girls, cool neighbours and off duty chefs. I watched all the people I loved sing and dance and play together for a moment. Then Vernon touched me on the shoulder. “Steve. A second of your time?” I leaned in “The cash is mounting up mate. There’s literally thousands up there. I want you to keep your wits about you tonight Young Blood.” I turned my back on the bar to shield our conversation “It’s all going in the safe though right?” he nodded. “We can’t fit much more in there to be honest. I’ve started bundling it up into my record bags too. It’s under the window seat in the living room. That much money doesn’t go unnoticed.” I thanked him. I smiled to myself. I went back to work. So Uncle Vernon was looking out for me in Sarah’s absence. Was he worrying too much? Would things start to change as soon as The Electric Fairy was gone?