Paul Stronge


He lived an uneventful life until his fortieth year. That is, he went to University, travelled, worked in various professions, married, divorced, had a few affairs, rose, fell, rose again as you all do, but by and large bobbed along as a cork on the surface of the dark water, learning nothing. It was in a jazz club that he met her, one dark September evening.

She was on stage, the singer in a band. She was seventeen and had endured much already. Her spirit had grown tall with suffering and pride and the long shadow they cast emerged in the hackneyed torch songs she sang for him that night, as he sat at a little table, sipping whisky, and wondering what he had become.

They do not need names but for reasons of convenience, let us call them Judas and Nancy.

When the band took a break she came to his table on the pretext of asking for a light. That old pretext. It wasn't much of a conversation-starter but he managed to stammer that he was very moved by her singing. Almost immediately she placed her hand over his. She had long, slender hands and she had painted her fingernails red, but a red so dark it looked almost black in the dim light. Her wrists were deeply scarred. He did not notice what colour her eyes were.

Nancy had remarked him right away from her place under the spotlight on the stage — his dark eyes, the slight stoop of his head, his hooded, furtive look. She always focussed on one man in the audience who attracted her when she sang of love and loss, and tonight it happened to be Judas. At that time she was living with the bass player in the band. He had a drug problem and was bound to stay out all night after a gig.

They went back to the bassist's flat, which was as well for Judas, because in those days he lived in an old barge on the canal. There was a storm in the night and the barge was torn from its moorings. It floated into a lock gate, broke in two, and sank with all of Judas' belongings to the bottom of the canal. He discovered all this the following morning, after smiling sheepishly, he had kissed Nancy on the lips, and, her telephone number scrawled on a piece of paper in his pocket, had made his way thoughtfully to the canal side, humming a tune his mother had taught him, Stranger By the Shore.

Within an hour or two he was back at the bassist's flat. The bassist had returned and was lying semi-comatose on the couch. Nancy and he hadn't made love for two months. Judas hadn't made love to Nancy the previous night either — they'd sat at the bassist's kitchen table watching the lightning through the window, smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky and talking about the singer-poet Leonard Cohen. Nancy knew almost all his records, but the bassist didn't have any of them in his collection, so they had merely talked about his music all night, and had tried to recall as many lyrics as they could. Nancy was better at this game than Judas, although Judas had known Cohen once, had met him on the West Coast during his travels after University, and though of course they had now lost touch, had at one time almost regarded him as a friend.

They didn't know what else they might have in common, except Leonard Cohen and whisky and cigarettes, but when the bassist woke up Judas told them both about his barge and its loss, and Nancy fingered a gold bangle she wore around her left wrist and looked sad, and the bassist, who was called Tom, got up suddenly and shook Judas by the hand and said that he could have both Nancy and the flat, for it was all too much for him and he was off to kill himself. Then he put on an old workman's cap and a moth-eaten overcoat, which made him look larger than he was, and went out.

"He's always saying that" Nancy told Judas, after Tom left, "he's not serious."

But this time, apparently, he was. A couple of days later, the police called around and told them that his body had been found in the same canal where Judas had kept his boat. There were needle marks on his arms and his groin area and a credit card in his overcoat pocket, by means of which the police had been able to track down his address. It might have been an accident; the towpath got very slippery this time of year. Nancy had to go to the morgue to formally identify his body.

Judas asked her if she wanted him to accompany her. They still hadn't slept together at this point, but had discovered that they both also liked the stories of the American crime writer James M Cain, the films of the Italian director Antonioni, the semi-abstract paintings of the Danish artist Asger Jorn, and Earl Grey tea. The bassist possessed none of the work of these creative individuals, despite his extensive collection of videos, books, and prints, but there was plenty of Earl Grey in the kitchen.

"No, you carry on drinking tea," Nancy told him. "It's probably not a very pretty sight." When she returned in a police car that afternoon, she looked pale, but she allowed him to pour her a mug of Earl Grey and, after a little persuasion, she ate the omelette Judas made from the eggs that had been one of Tom's final purchases. If we exclude heroin, that is, and there is no evidence that he paid for it the night before his death, whilst in the case of the eggs there must have been — somewhere — a till receipt, or something similar.

It was later that evening that they discovered another area of compatibility. Judas liked to penetrate women from behind and Nancy liked to be penetrated in this way by him. He almost said, "I love you" as he thrust himself into her, but he swallowed the words in time. Nancy smoked a cigarette and told him she was pregnant with the bassist's child. Judas knew at that moment he was happy, because whilst he had always wanted to be a daddy he had always been aghast at the prospect of passing his own genes on to another generation. "It's perfect," he said, and he kissed her deeply and held her dark head to his chest and gently traced the lines of her wrist scars with his finger. Then he pulled on one of the bassist's tee shirts (Tom had had a predilection for black, which had suited him) and went out to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

So the years passed, as they always do. Nancy's band had broken up on Tom's death, and she rarely sang in public these days, but she had gotten a job in the music business, a couple of years after her daughter Chantelle (named after the name her father had given to his bass guitar) was born, and, professionally at least, had gone from strength to strength, becoming eventually a leading producer for a well known recording label. Judas had been unemployed for more than a decade. He wrote poetry that nobody would publish and drank regularly and heavily, in terms of both tea and whisky. They still lived in the bassist's flat, although it had been redecorated twice, the kitchen modernised, and, if truth were told, little of the original furniture remained. But Chantelle's namesake still stood in the corner of her parent's bedroom where he had left it. Occasionally Nancy strummed it lightly with her long fingers, and thought about Tom, and thought about getting her restringed. She was more beautiful than ever, and dressed very stylishly, often in black leather, like an expensive rock chick half her age, which went down well at the studio. There had been two more suicide attempts over the years, both overdoses of benzodiazepines. The second, which had happened five years ago, when Chantelle was ten, had been followed by a lengthy admission to a private mental health clinic. "But I don't think I am going to do it again," she told Judas.

At fifty-five, Judas had a full head of white hair, rotten yellowed teeth, and walked with a pronounced stoop. They had never married and neither one had remained entirely faithful. Judas had had three relationships, each lasting a few weeks. The last, with a former prostitute he'd picked up in a pub, had been five years ago and had been a precipitating factor in Nancy's breakdown. Earlier, Nancy herself had carried on a two-year relationship with one of her clients, a promising blind blues guitarist. They had been very discreet, and it had taken Judas all of the two years to find out about it. One July afternoon, on his way to collect Chantelle from school, he had seen them fucking in a quiet corner of the park. Nancy had had his back to him and, naturally, the blind man hadn't seen him either.

The following morning Judas had rang the blind man (he'd found his number, with a red asterix against it, in Nancy's filofax, it was the only number listed that she had starred in this way). "If you don't break it off I'll break your balls" he had shouted, and, his voice slurred with the whisky he'd been drinking all night, he must have sounded convincing, for a week later, Nancy had come back from work red-eyed and hoarse, and that night she had allowed Judas to penetrate her from behind for the first time for a month.

But that was all ancient history now, and both would have described their relationship as "decent enough" — had they been asked. Nancy worried a little about Judas's drinking and Judas worried about the tight leather skirts she wore and the succession of pretty boy singers she took out for expense account meals. They had all of Leonard Cohen's CDs in a sleek presentation case in the living room, and the complete work of James M Cain in the bookcase in the bedroom. Antonioni's videos stood in a display cabinet above the TV and for his fiftieth birthday, albeit via the internet from her room in the private clinic, Nancy had bought Judas an original Asger Jorn painting which hung in the place of honour above their bed. In the morning, Judas looked up at it and only saw a smear of bright colours, but at night, after a few drinks, he thought he could see two men arguing. Two years ago, spurred on by Nancy, Judas had written to Cohen, reminding him of the old times and suggesting they might meet up for a drink the next time the singer was in London. He had received a three-line reply in the post a few weeks later, signed sincerely L Cohen, the poet regretting that his memory was not what it used to be and offering a polite but non-committal expression of gratitude for the drinks invitation.

One evening Chantelle came back from her singing lesson with a blond boy in tow. Nancy was out, entertaining a client, and Judas was sprawled on the sofa in the living room, drinking Bushmills, and watching a promotional video in which this same client, a tanned young man with a quiff from Manchester, was performing a spirited cover version of You Really Got Me by The Kinks. "He's gorgeous Dad!" exclaimed Chantelle, and both her adoptive father and the blond boy winced. Chantelle had blossomed into a beautiful young woman over the last few months, with clear skin, sparkling dark eyes, and a mane of glossy black hair. She was wearing much too much make up, a low-cut black dress and black stilettos. "My daughter the whore", Judas thought, and stifled a boozy urge to visualise himself penetrating her from behind. Not that he would ever have acted on the impulse. One just didn't, and in any event, young girls didn't turn him on. Nancy was far more alluring now to him than she had been ten years ago.

No, what happened was that he turned on the blond boy. "Are you a faggot, John?" he growled when the lad refused the offer of a drink and a cigarette. The boy's name was Gavin and he was no faggot. Judas knew this; he could see a bulge beneath his jeans as he lowered himself onto an armchair opposite Chantelle. Judas felt an unaccountable urge to hurt both the young people. He knew he was neither old-fashioned, nor homophobic, nor narrow-minded but he suddenly felt all these things. His mind swam and his thinking felt cloudy: he was drinking more than ever these days. "And you," he told Chantelle, "you look like a tart." Chantelle flushed and looked as if she was going to burst into tears.

"I've coarsened," he said to Nancy as they lay in the dark later that night, one hand in hers, the other on her breast. "I've lost my way. I can't write any more." Nancy was silent but with her free hand she stroked his hair. "Did you love her father?" he asked abruptly. Nancy sighed, reached for the cigarettes on the bedside table, lit two, and passed him one. Staring at the ceiling she inhaled deeply. "I ought to give them up," she said at last. "I'm pregnant again".

Judas walked along the canal towpath. It was the first time he had been here in years. He came to the place where his old barge had been moored, and stared down at the water. He tried to imagine what it must be like to float there, in an old overcoat, and to know that you would never need to shoot up again. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be dead. "I'm no poet," he said to himself "I just can't do it". Then he recalled that the barge had been the ironic parting gift of his ex-mother-in-law, three or four years before he'd met Nancy. She had been a tough, witty old bird, he mused, or perhaps more like a cockroach than a bird. You know, with a scaly exoskeleton, to protect her from those things that usually hurt people. I always liked her.

Really, I ought to see a doctor. Thirty years on half a bottle a day. Can't go on forever. I've always known it, but now it's really getting me. Christ. He lights a cigarette with shaking hands and stares into the viscous brown water. So stiff, so impenetrable, that Sonia. Can't imagine ever even getting near her arse. I liked her, though, the mother. He thinks — or tries to. The cigarette burns down to the filter, burns his fingers, he lets it fall into the water. No wind today, at any rate. Try, man, try. Jesus Christ, I was married to her six years, and I can't even remember her fucking name!

It had been the day the divorce had finally come through. She'd long since fled to her parents, and he had to go round there to sort things out. She'd hardly talk to him, just fled into her bedroom in that stupid fluffy pink dressing gown, with a glance at him like he was the devil incarnate. But Sonia had sat him down at the kitchen table and had mixed him a gin and tonic, smiling mirthlessly, legal documents spread out on the table in front of her. "We've been thinking about you," she'd said in that curious, clipped voice of hers, a strange amalgam — Dashiell Hammett out of Cheltenham Ladies College. "You'll never amount to much, you're too dreamy. Jack and I used to like canal holidays, when we were younger, you see. Gave him time to forget about business worries, and me, I liked to lie in my bikini on the cabin roof watching the yokels getting a hard-on. Going nowhere very, very slowly, very English you know. Of course we haven't used it for years. No need to once we bought the villa."

"So we thought it might suit you. Your kind of pace". She had paused to refill his glass and was looking at him without blinking with those hard cool eyes of hers. Gin and tonic, Christ what a miserable drink. "Needs a coat of paint, but I'll doubt that'll bother you. No, don't thank me, not at all . . . what's it worth to us after all. Pretty damn near ready for the scrapyard in fact."

"Still, it'll do for you. Treat it like a goodbye present. Just don't ever come back will you. You've hurt her, you see. Always was delicate that one." Sonia crunched the remains of an ice cube between her small white teeth, even now the recollection of the sound made Judas shiver. "Who knows — perhaps one day you'll just drift right away, far away, to Timbuktu, or somewhere. I know she'd be grateful. Then again, don't think you've got the gumption, really."

Judas couldn't see his reflection in the water. What did this word mean anyway, father? He spat into the water, a piece of greenish froth just sat on the surface. Nothing moved. He began humming, mechanically. Stranger on the Shore. Mr Acker Bilk and his clarinet. His mother had taught him that song. Actually.