They arrived late. The woman at the desk smiled to offer reassurance it was no problem. Clearly though, even newcomers should’ve known better.
Immediately Joel noticed that the eighty or so people inside were choosing not to converse. It was a profoundly encompassing sensation that made conversation an instinctive taboo. He wondered then if they were expected to purchase tickets by way of charades.
‘Two please’ he said, making absolutely no attempt to quiet his voice. The woman made a pantomime show of wincing at the sound and leant forward to whisper her response. ‘That’ll be ten pounds.’
It only took a split-second to read the price list so he knew that of course; Joel simply wanted to force the woman to say it out loud. The heady reverence made him twitchy and uncomfortable, his spirit chaffing against the show of deep respect afforded to an empty chair.
Their hands were stamped wordlessly. The desk woman sat back, raising a finger to her lips. Her mouth adopted a playful smile. Her eyes warned the request was not a joke.
Caitlin shot Joel a look as they stepped away, warning him to toe the line. He steered her towards the bar where a couple of fellow stragglers were pointing out their drinks of choice with lots of smiles and enthusiastic nodding.
‘What’ll it be?’ Joel asked Caitlin loudly, enjoying the spasm of discomfort on the bar girl’s face as he attempted to exculpate them all from the stultified atmosphere. Caitlin however conformed to club rules, whispering the words “cider” and “thanks” across the bar so softly it was barely audible. As the bar girl turned to the fridge Caitlin hit Joel lightly on the arm, telling him to stop it.
‘Sure I will. The moment it begins you won’t hear a peep.’
He asked for a bottle of beer and couldn’t help but notice the many crisp bags notionally on offer. His hand was compelled mischievously upwards to request a bag – just to see if any person daring to crunch on them throughout the acts would end their night in a Wicker Man. He didn’t get to find out, Caitlin knocked his hand back below the bar.
Joel knew the sparse interior of the community centre well. On Thursday’s it transformed into The Bread and Circus Club principally by means of the bedsheet. It hung behind the performing chair: the name of the club night written upon it in silver italics framing a brown loaf, fireworks exploding above.
There were no chairs. Instead the audience were allocated cushions on the floor directly before the performance area. Sat cross-legged, with plastic cups filled with craft beer and fizzy wine were a good array of tie-dyes, dungarees, and white people with dreadlocks. Almost every one of Oxford’s Green Party members amassed in one place and for one purpose: to observe an egalitarian exhibition of cultural amateurism; the spectacle of semi-professionals sharing equal billing with reclusive eccentrics. Caitlin had explained all on the walk down.
‘Everyone at the Bread and Circus Club volunteers. They’re unpaid, their content totally unrestricted. Don’t you think that’s an interesting? If we get there early enough there’s absolutely nothing to prevent you from putting your name down and taking to the stage to do whatever. It’s all part of the deal, anyone can perform – everyone listens.’
‘That sounds totally… good-intentioned.’ He’d replied, rolling his eyes. ‘Good intentions pave the road to hell though… you know that don’t you? If we were really so desperate to hear a middle-aged man singing Beyoncé, it will be on YouTube.’
‘See Joel, this is exactly what I mean when I call you close minded and judgemental. You’ve never been before and already you’re moaning.’
‘Philosophy 101. Not all knowledge is empirical. There’s loads of things I’ve never experienced and still know them to be bad ideas. For example: putting fireworks down my trousers, making a seafood trifle, line dancing – those are just off the top of my head.’
‘All we ever do is Netflix these days. It’s boring. I’d rather risk the loss of one evening to try something new. If you can approach with an open mind I’m willing to bet you’ll enjoy it too.’
‘How much? Twenty pounds?’
Caitlin shrugged disinterestedly at the proposal. Joel took that for an agreement, assured it would be the easiest money he’d earn that year. Little did he know that really, something altogether different was at stake.
After a year together Caitlin realised that she liked Joel fine. She was however beginning to tire of his constant need to criticise and bicker. The resentment had been growing throughout their nascent relationship, and yet it came to a gloriously tedious head last week in a café. There Joel had managed to argue with a waiter for a ten solid minutes about the pronunciation of the word ‘butter’. Joel had maintained that both t’s were audible, the waiter disagreed. And so the two men faced each other down, furiously shouting “butter” at each other while a crowd gathered to observe the spectacle.
All the while Caitlin sat red-faced and regretting ever ordering a scone. She decided that no partner should ever make her feel that way about scones again. Joel therefore needed to prove that he could change, that he could react positively to new experiences and new ways of thinking. If so she could work on it. If not, she was done.
Blissfully unaware of this impending threat, Joel was cheerfully taking the club in. He became quickly fascinated by the compere – whose whispered greetings to the other acts were the only conversation in the room. Naturally, Joel had to eavesdrop. One of the acts the compere called “bro”. Only one “bro” amongst the many salutations. Joel wondered why, and hoped it was not just because the bro was the only performer with black skin.
Eventually, the compere took to the stage with a slight swagger.
‘How are we all tonight?’ He started jovially. ‘So, I live in a flat with a couple of mates. Four lads living together – obviously there’s partying, there’s jamming, there’s music, there’s lots of marijuana.’ He said the last with a heavy Mexican accent that even he seemed to regret mid-word. ‘And our upstairs neighbours are this old couple. They’ve been together for like, sixty-odd years – their whole lives. Anyway the old man would come down at nights sometimes and ask us to turn the music down or stop jamming – and we’d be like no way man.’ He chuckled, as if the notion of his not jamming for even a moment would’ve tickled Beckett’s sense of absurdity. ‘I saw him this morning. He told me his wife just died’ he continued, the cheeriness rescinded in one jarring instant. ‘So, Pam – if you’re listening up there – this song is for you.’
The song was an original; that was about the best thing that could be said of it. ‘Memories are remedies, an effigy of time’ he supposed within the chorus, demonstrating if not a full comprehension of the word “effigy” then at least a passable ability to spot a half-rhyme. The song was from a new EP of his, he informed the crowd afterwards. It was called “Through Fields of Wheat” and copies were available for five pounds from his car boot if anyone was interested.
The next act took the chair. She had a pallid complexion and an inscrutably stern expression on her face.
‘I’ve been writing Haiku’s of late’ she informed the crowd. ‘Though truthfully I thought I’d written like, hundreds in the past. However I assumed that the Haiku was 7-5-7 and so I suppose, in truth, I have merely wasted a lot of time.’
One person in the audience barked a single note of laughter. The poet remained stony-faced. After careful consideration Joel decided that her declaration was not intended as a joke.
The poet’s hands flapped and whirled uncontrollably as she read Haiku’s that felt confessional, and on the verge of uncomfortable to listen to. Haikus such as:
My desert is dry
Parched, emaciated and
Yearning for the rain
Joel found himself fascinated by her, she seemed bookish and shy. He simply could not imagine this girl having the confidence to approach a person say, in a bar or coffee shop. Yet art is not life, so here she was, onstage and feeding enthusiastically off an audience – even if the buzz manifested itself in intensely awkward body language.
Perhaps he stared at her a little too long. The poet fixed her attention solely upon him, staring unblinkingly as she recited another.
Please make love to me
Silently, awkwardly, like
Strangers in a lift
Suddenly something about the neck of his beer bottle became wholly compelling to Joel. He kept his attention there for the rest of her set. The poet finished, leaving the stage quickly and without valediction.
The next man bought a guitar onstage with him and cleared his throat. He sang a familiar sad song that Joel struggled to place, though he felt sure it was one of Cohen’s. The man’s voice was a little lightweight but it carried the flat melody fine. A lyric brought the title to mind – the Famous Blue Raincoat. As the man played, Joel realised he knew his face from somewhere. He focussed but it wouldn’t come until a brief instrumental that left the performers face entirely static. Suddenly, Joel realised – this was a man who spends most days spray painted like rusted copper, standing utterly still on Cornmarket Street for hours at a time, pretending to be a statue for the somewhat-amusement of tourists.
He found himself hanging on every word, wondering how often this sad song plays in the mind of the statue man as he stands there. Suddenly an arm flew across Joel’s lap as a couple next to him started making out, the man virtually straddling the poor woman, kissing like a dog trying to clean out a jam jar. No one asked them to stop it. He could almost hear the compere waxing lyrical about “the only thing more important than art is love, man” or words to that effect.
The compere thanked statue man for his song and welcomed to the stage a second poet. This one seemed much more at ease and moved with the confidence of old hands.
‘Good evening everyone’ she began, swinging her arms to re-energise the crowd after five minutes of Cohen. ‘I had every intention of performing something new tonight. I had been hoping to use my husband actually for a project I ‘ve been writing called “rap-battle of the sexes” – but I’m afraid he’s rather smitten by that Killing Eve programme everyone’s been talking about and chose to stay at home instead.’
An epidemic of unobtrusive amusement rippled through the audience. Joel was privately glad to be spared from “rap-battle of the sexes”. The poet instead launched into a few of her greatest hits. She was humourist of sorts. Like Oxford’s very own Pam Ayres, her poetry was light and whimsical, her rhymes a touch on the obvious side, with the formula and meter signposting punchlines long before delivery.
The set went on a bit too long. Perhaps the poet has previous for this sort of thing, or perhaps this was one act the compere didn’t really rate. At the back, he pulled out his phone and typed out messages. The poet concluded by describing her ideal partner: throughout the recital she let it be known that she was neither a moaner nor a whinger, listing the many attributes that were not problematic to her. The partner could be light, equally they could be dark and so on. Every few lines she would repeat the refrain – “but never, ever ginger”. The poem ended on the mildly humorous punchline – she was in fact talking about biscuits and not humans after all. She thanked the audience for their time and handed back the microphone to the compere who waved her off.
‘Thanks for that Jane. Isn’t it a bit discriminatory though? Picking on Ginger people like that?’
‘Biscuits!’ Someone shouted back.
‘What’s that mate?’
‘She was talking about biscuits’ came the infuriated reply.
The compere flushed red and quickly bought up a girl to take his place. She brimmed with youthful enthusiasm and the wholesome energy of someone who spends their weekends making homemade jam. She sang three songs. Each one about Nietzsche. Not directly of course. Instead she took popular songs and played them slowly over an acoustic guitar. It was the sound of the John Lewis Christmas advert, of X Factor auditions, the sound of teenage street buskers at weekends. She suffused her music with gravitas and sincerity that, in all probability, You’re the One That I Want was never supposed to have. Joel could only think of the abyss that stares back
As she finished the girl smiled warmly and blushed cutely at the applause. Suddenly it dawned on Joel that she must be late teens or early twenties. Almost ashamed of his thoughts prior he joined in with perfunctory clapping and reminded himself that whatever her transgressions may be, it most certainly was not this girl’s fault he was now grumpy and thirty.
Next up was an attempt at an intricate composition of classical Spanish guitar. The performer messed up just a few bars in, a pained and worried expression on his face.
‘Just relax into it bro’ the compère shouted from the side-lines, ‘no one else is here, just me and you – jamming after the pub.’
The guitarist breathed deep and started again. He played a little slower this time but hit each note. As he grew into the performance he picked up speed. The amateurism, the lack of self-belief, and the danger that he might make another mistake at any moment fed the audience. It became high theatre – like a tightrope act. As he built up to a frantic climax you could almost taste the sensation of a roomful of people willing him on. When he finished, the room erupted into relieved applause– easily the loudest of the night. The compere’s face flickered with something like annoyance as he joined the guitarist onstage.
‘That was awesome bro. Maybe next week we could try it together, yeah – get some kind of Rodriguez-Gabriella vibe going on down here? What do you think bro? Sound good?’
The guitarist smiled politely at the audience as he bagged up and left the performance area. Is the compere aware he does that “bro” stuff? Joel wondered, surely the guitarist hears it.
The audience were assured they were now in for a real treat. A couple all the way from New Zealand took the stage. The man had come straight from the set of Deadwood: the long moustache, the waistcoat, the Stetson hat and boots. The girl was beautiful, covered in tattoos and wearing a tight black dress, her black hair held back by a bandana. They held hands as they introduced themselves and gave links to their website and the dates they were playing in the area.
They looked incredible together. Almost a little too good. Joel could picture them now, sat at a dinner party, telling strangers just how into tantric sex they are.
He sat at the piano and played a haunting lullaby in minor. Soon she accompanied him with a perfectly ethereal voice. It was beautiful. A song PJ Harvey might have been proud of. Soon the couple next to Joel were showing each other’s tonsils their appreciation for the music.
Nine minutes later the song had entered its seventh phase, the girl’s voice lifting into yet another wordless crescendo. Joel couldn’t help but think that his initial suspicions regarding tantric indulgences might have just been on the money after all.
The final act of the night was obviously a favourite of the regulars. A young man took to the stage to much applause and whooping. He asked if they wanted a classic, or something new. The lethargic audience took just a little too long in deliberation and so Joel decided for them, shouting out for a classic.
The young man winked and invited the audience to join the chorus if they knew it. Although it was anyone’s guess how anyone was expected to sing along with a frantically paced song. A song that fused lyricism with rap and scat, crossed genres and cut society to its very core. The young man pushed forward his momentum – the lyrics decrying capitalism with such passion that they soon broke free of linguistic constraints to become a primal expression of rage against the machine as he bought his song to a close.
His friend recorded the performance fully on a camcorder. He gave a thumbs-up to confirm the footage was good and the young man left the stage with a fist-clench.
As Joel watched the young man leave, he reflected on the human body. If every cell is replaced over a period of seven years, then we are all biologically different from our past iterations. That may be our only saving grace as we live with the ghosts of our younger selves. Joel could picture the eagerness and pride of the young man uploading that footage across the internet tonight, just as clearly as he could picture him deleting it quietly and without ceremony seven years later.
The lights went up. Caitlin pulled her jacket around her and shot Joel a nervous look.
‘What did you make of it?’ She asked as they made for the exit.
Joel kept her in suspense, holding the door for a drunken man who looked like he needed the help.
‘Well?’ She pressed nervously.
Joel walked outside. He then opened his wallet and handed her twenty pounds. Caitlin stared quizzically down at the note before bursting into laughter. In the years they stayed together, Joel never did understand why she sounded so relieved.
Jake Kendall is a Creative Writing graduate of Cardiff University currently based in his hometown of Oxford. His work can be found in the Cabinet of Heed, The Mechanic’s Institute Review, Idle Ink and Coffin Bell Journals, Burning House Press and Here Comes Everyone. He rambles into the void and self-promotes through @jakendallox
Image via Pixabay