Swan Song

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
Vernon Myles had one dream. He wanted to reunite his old friends for one last concert. He would go to any lengths to get the old jazz quartet back together.

Submitted: August 26, 2015

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Submitted: August 26, 2015

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The betting shop was busy. A few men in their twenties and thirties queued up at the small windows to place accumulators on the day’s football matches. A young man in a tracksuit bottoms played the gambling machine in the corner of the room. The flashing lights danced on his face. The rest of the clientele were men over fifty betting on the horses. The races played out on television sets all around the room. Vernon Myles wondered why most of the punters were older. Maybe, he thought, younger lads did their betting online these days.

Vernon was not here to place a bet. He was looking for someone. His eyes scanned the room. He spotted his old friend Benny Coleman. He was standing in front of one of the screens. He stared in concentration, a betting slip in his hand. He ran a free hand through his thinning grey air. Vernon went over. He called out to him. Benny glanced round from the screen.

‘Alright Vernon?’ Been a while. What are you backing?’

‘I’m not here to place a bet, Benny.’

‘Well, if you’ve popped for a pint of milk you’re in the wrong shop.’ he laughed.

‘I want to talk to you.’

‘Oh yeah? What can I do for you?’

‘Can we go somewhere and have a brew and a natter?’

‘After this race.’ he nodded at the screen.

Vernon waited while his friend watched the horse race. A few minutes later his friend swore about the ‘nag’ finishing in fifth place. He screwed the slip into a ball.

‘Come on.’ he said. ‘You can buy me a brew.’

They crossed the road to a tiny café called Mario’s. They found a free table. A waitress in a yellow tabard asked what they would like. Two teas. She returned a moment later with two mugs of strong tea. As they stirred their tea Benny spoke.

‘What is it I can do for you? If it’s money then no can do. I have enough for a pint and a bit of a flutter but that’s about it.’

‘I’m not after your money. Nowt like that.’ he said. ‘Do you remember the band?’

‘Of course. We were the coolest jazz band this side of Macclesfield.’

‘Nobody else was anywhere near as good as we were.’

‘The Black Swan Quartet.’

‘How do you fancy doing one last concert?’ asked Vernon.

‘What? I’m seventy two years old. I can’t be bothered with all that. We’re too long in the tooth. And don’t forget poor old Charlie. He’s in the nursing home, isn’t he?’

Vernon nodded. He recalled that their friend and former bandmate Charlie Gilby had been in a nursing home for a couple of years.

‘Those were the days though.’ he sighed.

They ordered two more teas and chatted about everything from the old days and old friends to television and the fact that Benny’s eldest son had a habit of calling on his father and drinking all his whiskey.

When they had exhausted the topics of conversation and finished their tea Vernon and Benny shrugged into their coats. Out on the street they shook hands and said goodbye.

One evening the following week Vernon knocked at Benny’s front door. Benny greeted him. Vernon waved a newspaper excitedly and if he could come in. Benny showed him through to the small living room. He turned the sound down on the television. The Great British Bake Off bakers on the screen continued in silence.

Benny poured them both large measures of whiskey. He took the armchair facing Vernon. He sipped his whiskey. He pointed to the newspaper.

‘You won on the horses?’

Vernon slapped the newspaper down on the coffee table.

‘There you go.’

Benny read the advertisement.

‘Eccles Jazz Festival? Nice one. You fancy going along to see a few of the bands?’

‘I’ve booked us a gig.’

‘Vernon, how can we? It’s just not possible.’

‘You notice the date it’s on?’

‘28th April. So what?’

Vernon rummaged in his jacket. He pulled out a crumpled yellowed slip of paper. Benny read.

28th April 1965. The Black Swan Quartet. The latest Jazz band to come out of Salford will be making their debut at the Talk of the North Club. Don’t miss it.

‘Blimey. I remember that night. I was so nervous.’

‘Fifty years ago to the day. That’s fate is that. How about that comeback, Ben?’

Vernon stared at his friend. His eyes pleaded.

‘But, I don’t see how-’

‘Come on, mate. I need this. I’ve been lost since my Mabel passed away. This would give me something to get my teeth into.’

Benny said nothing.

‘One last gig.’

‘We’re old men.’

‘We’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s do this one last time. The Black Swan Quartet. Back for one night only.’

‘What about Charlie in the home?’

‘We’ll sort something out. So, you’re in then?’

‘Aye, looks like it. My wife will kill me though.’ he laughed.

‘Margaret will be fine as long as we ignore the groupies throwing themselves at us. That’s how you two met, after all.’

‘What do we do next?’

‘We need to speak to Larry.’

Larry Bird had done well for himself over the years. Before taking early retirement he had been the manager of a large shipping company. While Vernon and Benny still lived in the same part of Salford they’d grown up in, Larry had moved out to leafy Worsley two decades ago.

Vernon and Benny stared at the wrought iron gates at the bottom of what was presumably a long driveway.

‘He’s done well for himself, hasn’t he?’

‘I bet he doesn’t even drink Holt’s bitter any more.’

‘Aye, it’ll be canapés instead of dry roasted peanuts for our Larry these days.’

‘Do we climb over the gates then?’

Benny shook his head. He pushed the buzzer on the brick gatepost. They waited a few moments.

‘Hello? Yes?’ came a female voice.

‘Hiya. Is Larry in?’

Lawrence is here. Who is this?’

‘It’s Benny and Vernon. We’re old friends of his.’

‘Is he expecting you?’

Benny raised his eyebrows.

‘No, but we wont take up too much of his time.’

Without another word there was a sharp buzzing sound. The gates slid open automatically. The two men glanced at each other before walking up the drive. By the time they’d walked past the freshly mowed lawns and reached the steps up to the front door their friend was outside waiting for them. He wore a checked shirt with a jumper knotted over his shoulders. He sipped from a crystal whiskey glass.

‘Evening lads.’

‘Hi Lawrence.’

‘I’ll always be Larry to you. Must be ten years since I saw you both.’

‘Aye, must be.’

‘What can I do for you?’

‘Could we have a word? We’ve got a proposition for you.’

‘If its money you’re after I’m afraid my funds are all tied up.’

‘Why does everyone think it’s about money?’ Vernon said.

‘If it’s not, then come on in.’

Larry showed them down the grand hallway past the sweeping staircase. He led them into the lounge. A woman rose from a leather armchair as they entered.

‘Lads, you remember my wife, Greta.’

They exchanged polite hellos then she left them to it. Vernon and Benny perched awkwardly on the expensive leather settee. Larry’s expression asked what they wanted.

‘Remember the band?’

‘Yes, I do. Such fun. We were rather good as I recall.’

‘Well, fifty years to the day, on Saturday 28th April, it’s the Eccles Jazz Festival.’

‘Oh right.’

‘The Black Swan Quartet is going to perform for one night only.’

‘You’re not serious? We’re not young lads any more. I’ve moved on. We all have. We’ve grown up, settled down and got old, grey and fat.’

‘Forget it, Lawrence. I should have known better. We’ll do it without you. Just think that while you’re having your dinner parties, me, Benny and Charlie will be reminding people, ourselves included, that we may be getting on but we’re not done yet.’ Vernon said.

He got to his feet. Benny did the same.

‘I think you should do it.’ came a voice from the doorway.

The three men turned. Greta smiled at her husband.

‘Really?’

‘It will do you good to let your hair down. Go on, play with the band. It will be like when we first met. You tried to impress me with your playing, remember?’

‘That’s the spirit.’ said Vernon.

‘Speaking of spirit. Let’s have a toast. I’ll get some glasses and my decent whiskey.’

They raised a toad with a whiskey called Writer’s Tears. Larry, Vernon and Greta spoke of the old days when they were young and the Sixties and the jazz was swinging.

A few nights later Vernon, Larry and Benny met at a pub in Worsley. The Barton Arms was a nice place. Not too posh considering they were in Worsley, thought Vernon, and they had a decent selection of real ales. They bought pints and found a table near the fireplace. A little of the awkwardness that the lack of regular contact had brought had gone. Things between the old friends seemed to be slowly getting back on track.

‘I’ve dusted off my saxophone.’ said Vernon. ‘I had to climb up in the loft. I was rummaging through junk. Felt like bleeding Indiana Jones up there.’

‘My youngest son has fetched my drum kit back. The grandson’s not happy but his dad will enjoy the peace and quiet.’ said Benny.

‘I’ve just bought myself a new trumpet. It’s a Bach Stradivarius. Lovely piece of kit. You can tell the craftsmanship.’

‘I spoke to Charlie’s nursing home this afternoon. I didn’t mention the concert. I just asked if an old friend could take him out for the evening.’

‘What did they say?’

‘Completely out of the question, apparently.’ Vernon said.

‘Looks like we’re a trio now.’ said Benny.

‘We will always be a quartet.’ Vernon snapped.

‘What do we do about Charlie?’

Vernon shrugged.

Larry slammed his glass down on the table. A few people across the room glanced over. He leaned forward. He glared at Vernon and Benny.

‘You roped me into all this. We’re doing it properly, all four of us, or not at all.’

‘Well said, Larry.’

‘Aye, good man.’

‘Besides, I’ve just spent over two thousand pounds on a new trumpet.’ he laughed.

Every night the following week the three men met at Larry’s house to rehearse. Their playing, like their banter, was awkward and forced at first, but as the hours and days passed they relaxed and became looser, more fluid. They played their old favourite tunes. The music seemed to breathe. From classics like Summertime and Goodbye Dolly Gray through to Miles Davis’ So What? and Ornithology by Charlie Parker.

The three men gelled once again as musicians. They felt the music and sensed what the others would do before they did it. Larry on the trumpet, Vernon on Saxophone and Benny playing the drums. They had more fun than they’d had in years. But they all knew something or rather someone was missing. It was good but if they had their friend Charlie  Gilby it would have been outstanding. As Vernon told them, without that old sod on the double bass, things weren’t the same.

Whenever Benny and Vernon asked about Charlie being able to perform despite being in the home, Larry would smile and assure them that everything was in hand. Benny asked about getting a double bass if Charlie was going to join them.

‘One of my friends runs a music shop. He has a second hand double bass. I’ve got it for a very reasonable price.’

The days went by. The date of the concert neared. Their rehearsals intensified. Vernon was having so much fun. The music, the camaraderie, the chance to recapture something of his youth with his old friends. He hadn’t felt this good, this alive, since his wife had passed away. When he looked at the faces of the other two he knew they felt the same.

The night before the concert they practised harder than ever. During their rehearsals they were completely absorbed in the music. They talked excitedly of preforming to an audience the next evening. Each of them had been calling friends and family all that week inviting them along to the massive comeback gig. Larry’s son had asked if this comeback concert would be as big as the Stone Roses.

‘Who the fuck are they?’ Larry had replied.

They packed away their instruments after their rehearsal.

‘What’s the plan for tomorrow then? Big day, and all that.’

‘Meet me here at ten a.m.’ Larry said.

‘You think we need all day to rehearse? I think we’ve got it nailed. The gig doesn’t start till half seven.’

‘Just get here for ten tomorrow morning, yeah?’

The other men nodded.

Vernon and Benny arrived at Larry’s home just before ten o’clock the next morning. As they reached the gates they swung open. Vernon had butterflies in his stomach. This was it. The big day had arrived. Larry invited them in. He made them tea and poured himself a cup of coffee from his designer decanter. They perched on stools at the breakfast bar in his kitchen.

‘What’s the plan then, mate?’

‘We’re going to get Charlie.’

‘Excellent. You managed to talk the home round then?’

‘Not exactly, no.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘We are going to break him out.’ Larry grinned.

‘Have you lost your mind? We can’t just take Charlie without their permission.’ said Benny.

‘Why not? It’s not a prison.’

‘Larry, this is ridiculous.’

‘I agree with Larry.’ said Vernon.

‘Can’t use my car though. If they get the reg number the police would be here before we got back.’

‘How do we do this?’

*

‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ chunnered Benny.

‘Stop whinging. The bus will be here any time.’

They waited in silence. Larry carried an overcoat and cap for Charlie. Benny shook his head. He checked his watch. Larry beamed excitedly.

‘Where’s your sense of adventure, Ben?’

Benny sighed.

‘Vernon’s up for this, aren’t you?’

‘I just want us to play together one last time, that’s all.’

The bus pulled into the stop. The doors hissed open. The three men boarded and flashed their pensioner bus passes. As they moved down the bus and found seats Larry mumbled that he hadn’t been on public transport in years.

‘He’ll be asking where first class is in a minute.’ laughed Vernon.

Just over half an hour later Larry pointed, this is us, and got to his feet. They shuffled off the bus. Larry shrugged into the second coat. He buttoned it up to hide his own coat. Vernon and Benny stared at him.

‘We don’t want the guards to get onto us, do we?’

‘The guards?’

‘I’m kidding.’ He put the flat cap on. ‘Come on.’

They walked slowly towards the red brick building. Vernon stared at the double doors up ahead. He did not know what would happen once they crossed that threshold. Benny, he knew, was dead against it, but Larry was so gung-ho about the whole escapade. He muttered to himself that he had to get the quartet back together.

Larry pressed the buzzer. A few minutes later a voice creaked from the speaker.

‘Hello?’

‘Morning. We’ve come to see Charles Gilby. We’re old friends of his.’

There was a clicking sound as the door opened slightly. Larry led the way up the flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs the doors opened when they approached. They went through.

The air was stuffy as though the windows hadn’t been opened in a very long time. Vernon got a whiff of boiled vegetables. The poked their heads into each room they passed. The rooms were full of elderly people sitting in high-backed armchairs. Some read paperback books, others knitted or watched television. Staff in their nurse-style blue uniforms rushed along the corridors from this room to that. The staff smiled at the three men as they passed. The men bid them good morning.

Vernon grumbled to the others about the Tories cutting the funding to these places. They found Charlie sitting in one of the large living rooms that those kind of places called Day Rooms. Charlie was watching television. Vernon glanced at the screen. Lieutenant Columbo quizzed a homicide suspect.

Vernon, Larry and Benny greeted their old friend. He stared back in confusion.

‘Do I know you chaps?’

‘He really is ill, isn’t he?’ said Vernon.

‘He hasn’t seen us for ages, that’s all. It’s us. Your old pals. I’m Larry. This is Vernon and Benny.’

Charlie smiled.

‘Yeah, of course. How are you all?’

‘Aye, we’re good, thanks. You remember the band, Charlie?’

‘The quartet. I remember it like it was yesterday. Actually, it’s yesterday that I struggle recalling.’

‘You fancy playing with the band one more time?’

‘Can we do it later? I want to see how Columbo ends.’

‘It ends like every other episode. The Lieutenant captures the killer. Come on.’ said Benny.

‘Have you cleared it with the nurses?’

‘They said no. We say different. We’re here to bust you out. What do you say?’

‘My dad spent twelve months as a prisoner of war in Germany. I think he’d approve of my escape.’ He laughed. ‘We’ll have to look out for the gun towers though.’

A nurse entered the room. She tended to an elderly woman on the other side of the room. Larry, Vernon, Benny and Charlie made the pretence of small talk while the nurse took care of her patient. Once she’d left the room Charlie got to his feet.

‘How do we do this?’

‘We walk you out of here. We do it right under their noses.’

‘Genius. The goons will never suspect that.’

Larry quickly helped Charlie into the spare overcoat. He handed him the cap. Charlie nodded. He pulled the cap down low over his eyes. The reunited quartet walked towards the exit. They did not dawdle but they didn’t run either. Vernon’s heart pounded in his chest. He felt the sweat on the back of his neck. He actually felt like they were breaking Charlie out of prison. As they neared the door a nurse called out to them.

‘Wait. You can’t do that.’

Vernon swore under his breath. They stopped walking. The nurse, a stocky woman with short dark hair, marched down the corridor. Then she smiled.

‘You can’t get out until I punch in the code.’

She tapped numbers into the keypad on the doorframe. Larry and the others thanked her, headed out the door.

Out on the street they walked as quickly as they could. They turned the corner. Nobody spoke. They were almost at the bus stop. Vernon glanced over his shoulder. He swore. Two nurses from the home reached the corner. He knew they were looking for Charlie.

‘They’re onto us.’

‘Quick.’ growled Larry.

He flagged down a bus that was passing. They climbed on the bus. They flashed their passes and pushed down the bus. They found seats. Vernon shook his head.

‘This is the wrong bus. We don’t want to go to Stockport.’

‘It got us away from the goons didn’t it?’

Charlie whistled the tune from the Great Escape. The others laughed.

Around forty minutes later the quartet arrived back at Larry’s home. He showed them through to what he called the music room. There were instruments, sheet music on stands, even recording equipment. He pointed to the large double bass.

‘See the bass, Charlie? Reckon you can work the old magic on that?’

Charlie grinned. He went over. He hugged the instrument as though it too was an old friend he had just been reunited with.

‘Right lads,’ Benny said. ‘Let’s do this.’

The quartet grabbed their instruments and, with a youthful glint in their eyes, they played together for the first time in years. As they played the four men bonded as a quartet, as a unit. Vernon felt like the years were being slowly peeled away. He knew the others felt the same. Charlie had a tear in his eye. They played song after song, each one flowing smoother and easier than the last.

Early that afternoon the buzzer from the front gate sounded. Larry put down his trumpet. He told the others that it would be Greta back from her Tai Chi class. He pressed the button to open the gates. They heard a car pull up outside. There was a knock on the front door. Larry said he’d be back in a minute. He walked down the hallway thinking he would quickly get rid of whoever it was so they could carry on rehearsing. He opened the door. He gasped. A police officer stared back at him.

‘Good afternoon. Lawrence Bird?’

‘That’s me. What’s wrong?’

‘I’m looking for a gentleman. He has gone missing from his nursing home. I believe you know him. His name is Charles Gilby. Have you seen or heard from him recently?’

‘No, I haven’t. He’s allowed to leave the home though, isn’t he?’

‘Of course. It’s just that they are worried about him. We just want to make sure he’s okay. If you see or hear anything-’

‘I’m sure he’s fine.’ said Larry.

‘Can I step inside for a moment?’

‘Well, I really don’t see-’

The expression on the officer’s face was one of suspicion.

‘I mean, of course, please come in.’

‘Thank you.’

Trying to keep calm Larry showed the officer around the house. He led him through the lounge, the dining room, conservatory, and the kitchen. He walked straight past the doors to the rehearsal room. The officer opened the door and went in.

Larry followed, waiting for the uproar as Charlie was discovered. Standing with their instruments were Benny and Vernon. They bid the officer good afternoon.

‘Afternoon, lads. You lot in a band?’

‘Yeah,’ said Benny. ‘The Black Swan-’

‘Trio.’ said Vernon. ‘Because there’s three of us.’

Larry looked on in confusion. The officer turned to him.

‘You should have said I was interrupting band practise. I will see myself out.’

He left the room. A second later they heard him shut the front door behind him. Larry heard a chuckle from behind the door.

‘Come out, you swine.’

Charlie poked his head out.

‘Behind the door. The oldest trick in the book.’

‘They’re looking for you, mate.’

‘It’s about time they noticed me. I’ve no family to worry about me so let the buggers fret for a bit.’

They carried on rehearsing. The music flowed. The four of them relaxed and enjoyed themselves. They were once again a jazz quartet.

Around six o’clock that evening they packed up their instruments. The minibus would be there to pick them up soon.

‘Just one more thing,’ said Larry. ‘Greta!’

His wife entered the room. She handed the four men an item each. They unzipped the plastic and took out the identical blue suits.

‘No way.’ Vernon said.

‘I’m not wearing that.’ said Benny.

‘It makes us looked like a band.’ Larry said. ‘We’ll look like we mean business.’

‘We are wearing the suits.’ said Charlie.

Ninety minutes later, dressed in matching blue suits, Vernon, Larry, Benny and Charlie walked on stage. The crowd in Eccles town hall clapped and cheered. The men stared out at the audience. Among the sea of people they spotted their grown up children, grandchildren and friends. Calls had been made all week telling their relatives that that the Black Swan Quartet was making one last performance.

The band took up their instruments. Charlie spotted staff from the nursing home in the crowd. He swore. He turned to the others.

‘Look. They’ve come to take me back. How did they know where to find me?’

‘I called them earlier.’ said Benny.

‘What?’

‘They are here to take you back, but only after we’ve performed and had a post-gig pint.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Once we had Charlie busted out they could hardly say no. They are here to watch us play.’

‘Let’s show them how it’s done.’ Charlie said.

Benny counted them in on the drums. And the Black Swan Quartet played their hearts out. As they played it was as though the aches, pains and toils of the years disappeared. The four men connected the way only bandmates can. They sensed how each other would play. As Vernon called out in between songs, it’s jazz, man, just jazz.

The performance finished just after nine o’clock. The audience roared in approval as the four men bowed and waved. Charlie winked at the others. Benny nodded, we’ve still got it.

‘Thank you, everyone. We’d like to thank you all for coming. We’d also like to thank the staff from Pleasant Valley nursing home for their understanding. We have been the Black Swan Quartet.’ said Larry.

With the applause still ringing in their ears and still wearing their matching suits, they went for a well-earned pint in the pub next door. Relatives and friends packed into the Duke of York pub to celebrate their triumphant return.

The quartet drank and mingled with friends and family. The nursing home staff also talked of how they were unaware they had a talented musician in their midst.

A while later Benny spotted Vernon. He was sitting in one corner of the pub. He was leaning to one side and had his eyes closed. Benny gave Larry a nudge.

‘Our Vernon can’t handle the pace.’

They went over. Benny patted him on the arm. Vernon did not move. Benny called his name. He shook him by the shoulder. Vernon did not respond.

‘No, Vernon. Not now.’

The funeral took place eight days later. Family and friends gathered in the rain at the graveside. There were tears and sobs as the priest said prayers over the coffin. Larry, Benny and Charlie exchanged teary glances. The nursing home had arranged for Charlie to attend the funeral. They stared at the gravestone of their old friend, Vernon Myles. On top the coffin was Vernon’s saxophone. The others had their instruments in hand.

When the priest had finished speaking he waved a hand at them. Larry nodded. Benny and Charlie wiped the tears from their eyes. Then they played. They played for their dear friend. They played slow and sad.

The wake was in the working men’s club that Vernon used to frequent. Larry, Benny and Charlie got drinks and found a table. Vernon’s son came over. He was in his forties with thinning hair. He shook them all by the hand.

‘I just wanted to thank you guys for everything. It meant a lot to my dad that you got back together.’

‘I know.’ said Larry.

‘Aye, and he busted me out of the home too.’

‘I heard about that.’ he laughed.

He thanked them again for giving his dad his last wish.

Later that afternoon Benny noticed Larry talking to the nurses from the home. Charlie had over an hour before he had to get back. The nurses were there to check he was okay and take him back when it was time. Larry then made a few calls on his mobile phone.

‘He’s up to something.’ said Benny.

‘He usually bloody is.’

Larry plonked three pints down on the table in front of them. Benny raised an eyebrow.

‘What is it now?’ asked Charlie.

‘I’ve got us a regular gig.’

‘But what about the home? Surely they won’t allow-’

‘It’s once a month at the social club half a mile from the home. I’ve spoken to the home. They said its fine. But there is one condition.’

‘Which is?’

‘That we perform at the home for the residents every month too. We’ll be using our new band name though.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The Vernon Myles Trio.’

The trio raised their glasses.


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