Drain Boy Blues
By Malkia Charlee NoCry © 2015
“[…]How can a pampered, milk-faced, middle-class kid who has never had a hole in his shoe sing the blues that belong to some beat-up old black who lived his life in poverty and misery?” Albert Goldman, Why Do Whites Sing Black?, New York Times, December 14, 1969
Si O’Hollaren lifted his hand to his nose and placed his tongue inside his cheek with the hopes of blocking the pungent stench and flavour emanating from his waste drain. The foul was spilling over onto the fake cobblestone brickwork, a brown gelatine liquid mixing with the debris of weeds and rubbish.
“I noticed it when I took out the recycling.”
“Aye. There’s quite a bit of foul built up here”, the Scotsman added in a tired breath looking at the pool in front of him.
“Aye” Si replied in commiseration. He’d never said ‘aye’, being from East London, yet it seemed appropriate now given the circumstances.
“I’ll unblock it – run my pipe and clear it out. It’ll be all over your garden.” To this the Scotsman looks around, noting that Si’s garden consisted of broken and dilapidated concrete, dead plants sitting within dirty terracotta pots, and an old wooden table and chairs decorated with an overflowing ashtray. It was scarcely the kind of garden where slimy crud would be a concern, but nevertheless he continued, “I’ll sanitise everything after I’m finished, and run a camera so we’ll know how it started in your pipes. It’ll take an hour.”
“Sure”, Si said as he showed the plumber through the alley, unlocking the back gate so he could bring his tools through, “If you need me I’ll be at the front.”
It was late evening, 11:42PM as Si left the plumber to work. He was slowly pacing, inhaling the nicotine, tar, ammonia and arsenic of his addiction of preference. He welcomed the bouquet, it serving as respite from the very acrid odour of aged liquefied faecal matter. That powerfully human foetor bubbling up onto his back garden was unexpected bathos in an otherwise lovely evening, and he tried to avoid the anger that seemed to be spuming from within.
He finished his third cigarette, each one smoked in an assiduous procession, and he found his throat burning. As he turned to cough and change his pace he noticed movement in the dark dun night. Lydia, an arts student from across the street was walking toward him. She had on black nylon leggings with translucent stripes wrapping her legs in sinuous cords. She wore an oversized peach shirt-dress that hung loose and overwhelming despite her tall, sturdily feminine frame. Her face was unmemorable, this enhanced by a lack of makeup, but as she was Indian and English, her eyes shone brilliantly amber and her skin remained perpetually bronzed.
“Can I nick a fag off ya?” she calls to him.
“You can have ‘em.”
“No, just thought you needed them.” Si takes out a cigarette, hovers it in front of Lydia’s mouth. She takes it in her lips. Using a blue lighter to light it he looks slightly downward and then hands her both.
“Cheers” she smiles. Then her thin lips pursed. “What’s that smell?”
“My waste drain – it’s blocked.”
“Charming. Is it being sorted?”
“Right now.” Si pretends to remember something and turns, “the plumber” he looks toward his front door. Lydia’s eyes frown. He turns fully, unlocking his door, and steps into the entryway, “take care,” he adds as politely as possible as he placed his hand on the doorknob.
“Oh. Thanks then…good luck,” she raises the pack of Mayfair’s and lighter like a drink to the semi-closed door, before walking back across the street to her shared house and single bed.
Lydia was intrigued with Si. He stood alone, outside many nights, pacing. It wasn’t uncommon for Lydia to see him, smoking…thinking in the early hours of morning. And you could hear him play guitar from inside if you walked by his front window during the day. But he never performed, to her knowledge, with anyone or anywhere. Not even at the Bombed Out Church or busking down on Bold Street. And if you asked, or suggested, anything about his music, he would say very little then retreat into his home.
Back inside, Si rolled a spliff, not for his nerves, but for the smell, and once lit the room was filled with an herby fresh aroma that made him sleepy. By now it was 12:15AM and he had work in the morning. Sometime before 1AM the plumber woke him from his slumber to sign the paperwork that confirmed the drain was unblocked. Si inaudibly acknowledged this with a “Thank you.”
At 4AM, a loud thundering of sirens startled and awakened Si. He stood, progressed slowly toward his record player and shuffled through LP’s. He knew who he was looking for, and when he slipped the Ornetta Daye record into his hand, his fingers felt cool in anticipation of dropping the stylus.
Still standing, he stared at the cover, as was his ritual. His eyes followed her round nose, lips and apples of her cheeks. He fingered the image of her thick black hair curled deeply at her shoulder. He admired her skin, deeply dark, as if painted in kohl, emboldening the muted green, orange and brown of the cover. Regarding her round teeth and gap between the front two, he continued from her hair to follow the contour of her chin as the lines descended down her long neck, to a shell necklace, and finished at the parting of her breasts. She would be 63-years-old today, he suspected, but in that picture she was 24 or 25; the record cut in 1974.
Her elegant rhapsody grew from his record player. He leaned back deeply into the settee. A lyrical cantata rose behind Ornetta’s plush voice, the refrain consummating the orchestral of bass, piano, drums and horns. He closed his eyes. His grey t-shirt had risen slightly, exposing his pale toned stomach, his belly button a canyon between ropes of muscle. Tall, his legs dangled akimbo in front of him, filling his jeans and the apparent bulge beneath his unbuckled belt. He had one arm outstretched, hugging the brown leather, while the other arm rested on his thigh, both suspended from broad shoulders. He was a well proportioned young man, masculine, some would say with a classic face, green eyes set within oval orbs framed in bushy auburn lashes leading down to a pointed symmetrical nose. He was frowning. The tan pucker of his lips had a subtle curl while his solid jaw was casting shadows of straight edges against the wall as he mused tensely. His hair mussed and dark, decorated with highlights of red as if he would be ginger, and everywhere his skin would normally see sun was kissed by honey.
He was thinking of Ornetta until 6AM. After the last record stopped, Ornetta’s actual last record made in 1987, he still didn’t rise. That album was the denouement to his night, heralding morning and he wanted to savour it. Holding the jacket, he saw Ornetta gracing the cover of this short compilation more beautifully than any of the other eight for which she starred, and whilst admiring it he longed for what he couldn’t quite perceive.
Si remarkably arrived to the Echo Arena that morning, after a bike-ride that seemed oddly dissonant, something of déjà vu than true memory.
“You look like shite.”
“Cheers.” Si replied, “Had a hard night.”
“Well, it’ll be good that Soul Diva’s concert in four days. Can’t wait to see Ruby Turner,” Dougie, the broad black Toxteth boy said as consolation.
“Hard though”, Si replied while placing a light back within its case.
Dougie’s dark eyes twinkled at Si, “Na-uh…be good.”
The Liverpool leg of the Soul Diva’s tour was on Friday and Saturday. Si and Dougie would be the Light Technician’s along with three others more senior. They both loved soul music, and had discussed their luck at every opportunity for weeks. But now Si was quiet. What he knew, that Dougie didn’t, was that this would be Ornetta’s first performance in the UK in more than 28 years. And what hurt Si, something Dougie couldn’t imagine, is that her photograph wasn’t even on the posters.
“She’s opening” Dougie said that afternoon, “Ornetta Daye.” He called from the bottom of a ladder where Si stood placing a light. Si looked down at Dougie, expressionless.
“You like her music right? Terry said we may get a chance to meet some of ‘em.”
Si looked back at his light, screwing it into place.
Opening night was cursed. There were failures on the acoustics and cameras. Patti LaBelle was late and Ornetta was tired, her voice breaking on all the high notes. After work his chest was tight and burning, he was unsettled, rigid. Instead of sleep, Si stared at the ceiling until first light.
On Saturday, Si was nearly choking as he looked down at Ornetta. He didn’t breathe each time she took a breath. Her blue sequinned gown was different from the red one the night before, sheer at her legs, silver lining her bosom. She was still slim, Si thought, observing her fuller belly, bust and behind. He bit his bottom lip, and then made rocketing pyrotechny of her performance, creating scintillate tension in luminous beams. She had on a large blonde wig that danced with her on stage, her lips deeply crimson, her eyes engulfed in blue smoke. Her voice like smoke, deep, building, blinding. Her melodic improvisation, crooning stories nested within lyrical euphony.
“Get some water” Dougie said to Si when Ornetta had finished, “you’re sweating.”
Si had been backstage with the talent before, obviously, but this time it was surreal. He fumbled his way through the coulomb of activity, knocking into people and nearly missing her. She was wiping perspiration from her neck with an orange towel. He hadn’t even noticed he’d stopped moving until she tripped into him.
Si grabbed her.
“You lost?” Ornetta said, observing his face.
“No…I, um, work here.”
“Well I hope so.” Her skin moist and glistening and voice a bit breathless.
“I do the lights”, he said.
“Oh, so it’s you who blinded me?”
“We don’t intend to,” Si smiled at her. “I’m a big fan and this is my first time seeing you perform. I-It was brilliant.”
“Ha! He says he’s a big fan”, Ornetta yells out to her manager as she comes toward them.
“He’s about 5-years-old”, the manager Faye yells back, “What you know about Ornetta?”
“I have all 8 albums.”
“Eight?” Faye asked.
“I Do Love You, Sugary/Spicy, Paradise for Those Who Wait, Lovely/Silky… Um, The Last Thing I Have to Do…”
Faye was a durable coffee-coloured woman with curly hair, in her 50s or 60s, “The Last Thing I Have to Do… I thought I was the only one with that. That barely sold.” They both regarded him.
“It was hard to find” Si offered by way of explanation. There was a pause.
“Come on into my dressing room”, Ornetta says to Si after a moment. “Faye; we going?”
“No, I gotta talk to Jim Stanley about Manchester. Just rest.” Faye touches Si’s shoulder, “You enjoy yourself.”
Inside the dressing room Ornetta leans back into a velvet chaise longue, legs up with her dress ascending. It was a startlingly bright room decorated in scarves, shoes, sequined clothing, hair pieces and silk wraps. “Sit down in that chair.” Si obediently obliged. “My knees are bad, so Faye makes sure this is in here,” she explains while pressing her hands into the upholstery of the chair, “getting older.”
“You have every album,” a statement as Ornetta shakes her head, “You want me to sign one?”
“I didn’t bring any.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I didn’t think I’d get a chance to meet you.”
“Well I’m here. Do you sing, or play something?”
“I do. I play guitar.”
“Soul? Blues? RnB? Rock and Roll?”
“Blues”, Ornetta repeated quietly. “My daddy sang Blues, and so did his. They call me Soul but it’s always been the Blues. But you would know that”, Ornetta slides off her heeled slippers, lifting her dress higher as she begins to rub her knees. “Can tell I’m out of practice.”
“I…” Si looks at her legs and bends forward in his chair. Ornetta furrows her brows.
Ornetta gives Si a side look, then abruptly “You wanna play me something?” she gestures to an ash blonde guitar in the corner. “That was my daddy’s. He passed away…this year,” her eyes moistened, “I bring it because it’s like taking him. He would have been happy to see me performing again.”
Si’s heart skipped, “I’m so sorry…” he didn’t know how to address her.
“I’m so very sorry Ornetta.” He picked up the acoustic Taylor, heavy and solid. It was well played, the notes engraved into the strings as he plucked. Si was precise, and he played only a few chords as warm-up. He took no time in entering a soulful 16-bar blues progression. “Well baby… please come home to me”, singing in a heavy bass baritone. Ornetta mouth made a slight circle. Si continued, “if you come home now to me baby, you can ease my misery.” Ornetta, recognising Si’s interpretation of Bye Bye Blues, closed her eyes and with a crinkling of her face added, “I love her but if she don’t love me, I have no business here.”
Ornetta was laughing and hitting Si on his shoulder before he realised the song ended “Now boy, where do you know something like that?”
Si looked down and shook his head, blushing.
“Daddy would’ve liked you.” She grabbed a water bottle from the floor and took a sip. “Wish I was still drinking, could offer you something. But Faye doesn’t allow anything in the rooms – just in case.” Pausing, earnestly she says, “You’re good; Lord knows I didn’t expect that.”
Si stands up, sets the guitar back in its stand where he got it.
“Are you still in pain?” he asks her.
“Oh nawl, don’t worry about that. I’m old. You stay in pain when you’re my age.”
Si walks toward Ornetta, bending down in front of her. Ornetta watches his movements closely, inhaling his graceful stride, the strength of his body as he squatted, the beauty of his manly face. She sat upright in her chair when Si skilfully took her ankle in his hands, massaging gently, his solid palms and fingers working their way toward her calf.
“Y-you don’t have to do that…”
Si continued, now heading for her knees, the in-between her thighs.
“I’m 64-years-old”, she gasped as his grip was like succour, the pain draining away “You’re –” Propriety getting the better of her, she grew taut.
“30-years-old,” he said, looking up from the inside of her thighs, “And I’m good at a lot of things.”
Malkia Charlee NoCry is an Editor at Femficatio Culture