They called it a monthly ‘folk session’ but it wasn’t what you’d call trad all the way– Derek, he’s the landlord or was (retired and moved to Al Maria with Babs), who’d put out the little cards on the tables by the fruit machine, ‘Reserved For Musicians’ written in a biro serif font, always said, “Well it’s folk playing music isn’t it, so it’s folk music.” Some people didn’t agree (I mean how can you call ‘Hotel California’ a folk song?” Edith used to moan, before she stopped showing and screeching out ‘Proud Lady Margaret’ or ‘The Knight and The Shepherd’s Daughter’ acapella and slightly off key. Not quite with a finger in her ear, but it was close. It was true, some of them didn’t know a reel from a jig, but you’d get a good crowd there. All sorts of strange folk would crawl out of the woodwork - refugees from the sixties folk boom, young upstart proteges, people in between (like me I guess) and some of them knew their stuff alright. Knew how to play. In my mind, it shines as bright as a lantern. Bright as a penny. Bright as a Harvest Moon. Brighter than the 40 inch screen showing another pointless football match in here, tonight, anyhow. That’s for sure.
It was some of the locals that came up with the moniker ‘Black Friday’ – some of the geezers that propped up the tiny little bar the rest of the month, as if it were their front room, would see the last Friday of the month as a dark cloud looming on their boozy horizon –(They pleaded with Derek to put an end to the ‘horrible din’ – ‘get in a ska band or something’ but always unsuccessfully – Derek had a soft spot for the ‘fiddle dee dee’) so they would make themselves scarce at The King’s Head, over the road once a month, before all the odd folk came trooping in – I mean we were an odd bunch I suppose, but it was a real haven for some. A harbour. A shelter in the storm. You don’t get much of a mix here these days….In fact I’m the only one that stands out, tonight, I guess. The odd man out.
I certainly looked forward to the last Friday of the month, ‘Black Friday’, with anticipation. I mean there were other sessions on the calendar – the first Tuesday of the month at The Viper, the second Sunday at The Anchor, the third Thursday at the Pig And Whistle, but they all seem grey in comparison. Why was it such a stand out? Well, it was partly the pub itself, “About the size of a beermat – folded in half” as Derek would always say and then boast – “The smallest pub in Essex with the biggest heart” and that was part of it. Even with a handful of people in The Wheatsheaf it felt packed. You couldn’t help but converse. The décor – well it wouldn’t be called décor for a start. Bare, simple and unaffected. Brick walls. Stone flags. Wooden stools. It was old without being pretentious. Spit and sawdust. A few rusting agricultural implements hanging from the ceiling and a little fire place and the TV only came out on special occasions. The beer was excellent too – Derek kept his pipes clean – you never got a dodgy pint, and there was just the right selection of tipples – one dark Ruby, a stout, a couple of guest golden ales and a respectable German lager…. It felt like home (or rather it didn’t) But it was the musicians who turned up, that lit up the place. They shone.
Don’t get me wrong – on a cold November evening, sometimes the place was near dead – it’d just be me and ‘Young Adam’, bashing out ‘Fathom The Bowl’ to a near empty room, with Derek playing dominoes (Derek Of The Dominoes – was one of his nicknames) with a few of the white haired ancients (I’m not quite there yet) who’d be wheeled in and left for a few hours by their carers. Pretty tragic. Not them, us.
But other nights, it was a ball. The best. Pete the Banjo, the Welsh wizard with the wild hair and five string; Irish Joe and his golden voice and vintage Martin; Mark The Mandolin; old Dave on the squeeze box; Scottish John with his Bodh ran; Paul with his harmonica….the list went on and on. Paul’s friend, forget his name now, used to bring his Cahon and some small drums he’d picked up in South America – Lyn would sometimes come down with one of her amazing Swedish string harps- a nyckelharpa. All those swinging together in unison to a tune and the hub-bub and the bustle and the singing along. Marvellous. Incredible. Brings a tear to your eye.
And then there was Joy.
I take a s-s-s-s-ip of some sickly American IPA, my recorder on the table and stare around the bar. It does have décor now, albeit modest – the dark wooden benches replaced with cheap tasteless chairs in a sickly creme, the ceiling a new coat of satin and cheap Australian lager on tap, and there’s a poster up, advertising a Michael Buble tribute singer dinner night, next Friday. It’s definitely not what it was. A light has definitely gone out.
I remember when I first met Joy there. I think it was May. There was a rambling rose in bloom on the wall opposite and a bunch were sat outside tuning up, while the sun set, with pints of Nelsons on the go and there she was. Something switched on inside of me. I mean she lit up a place with her smile. What a smile. She was, a stunner – not in the sense of the girls in the paper, although she had an amazing figure – but it was her soul – her warmth – there was no one like Joy – she was a star. And boy she could play.
Sh-sh-sh-she didn’t give a damn about my stutter either, which could get really pronounced (no p-p-pun intended). Some women would grimace if I got my consonants in a twist but Joy didn’t miss a beat. She loved the Irish tunes, Providence Reel, Rose In The Heather, King Of The Faries which we’d do together – and she was a listener, I mean when you played with her, she actually listened, drew back, allowed you room and then complemented. Not a show off. Always picked up tunes and she had a little book she’d write them down in. ‘My little black book,” she’d wink – ‘Not many men in here’ she’d always say, laughing and sipping at her cider. You couldn’t fathom her really – she never seemed to have a bloke on her arm, but she was such a diamond and we were certainly the rough.
Well we got pally. Very pally. I used to talk to her a lot. I told her about Maud, my wife – how the illness obviously was a strain and she’d listen, make not just the right noises, but you know, she’d really listen, ask questions never shy away, put her hand on my arm and over the months, I saw Joy as the light at the end of each month; if Maud was particularly bad, then well I guess I looked forward to it even more. I even began to w-w-w-wish some of the others wouldn’t be there. It’d just be her and me. Well one night, that’s exactly w-w-w-w-what happened.
“Play us a tune mate,” some bloke with spiky gelled hair and a leather jacket grins – noticing my recorder. I sip my pint and look away.
I’d had a particularly bad month with Maud that month – she’d actually been taken back into hospital and I missed the other sessions, but I always made the effort for Black Friday, knowing Joy would be there. Anyway, when I got down, it was dead – I was the only one there, and my heart sank. Usually, I’d get a few texts, but my phone had stopped charging a few days before and so I had winged it. Derek had laid out the placemats and the chairs as usual, the little bowls of snacks, so I felt like a right pillock, sitting down alone. ‘One man and his recorder,’ one of the old boys japed at the bar, chuckling into his stout and I bought a pint to wet my whistle so to speak, but I felt like gulping it down and heading straight off.
But then in blew Joy.
Her long black whirling hair, the mix of glitz and charity shop scruff that was her own unique style and the battered fiddle case with the Romany Caravan style painted flowers running up the sides.
“Hiya Dave,” she beamed, but I could tell something was wrong. Her make up was slightly out and there was something in her voice, an edge. I asked her if she was alright and she played up it was nothing, so we sat just the two of us and struck up a few tunes a little awkwardly – I remember playing Enrico and Soldier’s Joy with her and she began to cry. Well I didn’t know what to do. I put my hand on her shoulder, the one with the rose tattoo on it and she said ‘Time for a roll up’ so we went outside and sat on the wall. She knocked back a few ciders and said she’d had a bit of bad news, that’s all and, well, I didn’t mean to, but I kissed her. It was on the forehead, kind of paternal, but she smiled, drew hard on her roll up and looked me in the face and said, ‘Dave – your not trying to take advantage of a fiddler at her weakest, are you?’ She seemed to say it boldly but her voice sort of trembled at the same time.
Well, somehow, after more drinks, and ridiculous attempt to cycle home in the dark, with Joy on my handlebars,the fiddle tied to the back, we ended up “Waltzing In San Antone” so to speak in the front room. The sound of the door closing in the morning was what awoke me, my sore head pounding and my throat dry, but the smell of her cheap perfume still in my bed.
I thought somehow, I’d found my Joy – but just as I got her, she was gone. I got nervous at the next Black Friday, and was half relieved when she didn’t show, but as the months went on, I felt the loss. Maud died not long after and it would have been a huge relief, but I felt a displaced hope where I should have felt a calm.
Well the months went on – Derek retired and that put a spanner in the works at The Wheatsheaf and Black Friday just faded into the past. The new landlord didn’t want to know. It was about two years later, at the Old Hoop And Basket, when an old fiddler named Bill, said: “You heard about Joy? Bloody shame.” Turns out she’d hung herself last week. “She was a delicate thing,” he said rubbing roisin on his bow, slowly, as if he didn’t want to damage the strings. I would have gone to the funeral.
Well, I thought, as it was the last Friday of the month, I’d go down to The Wheatsheaf and play her something – a Lament For Joy, s-s-s-s-so to speak. I sit in the corner, where we sat that night, and try to hear myself think above the din of the football and the lads at the bar, pondering on the reason for it all. It can’t have been anything to do with me that’s for sure. There was some talk of a daughter in Australia, and an accident, but I remained in the dark. Some things remain that way. I stand up, wet my lips, and play ‘Parting Glass’ slow and mournful on the recorder with all my might. A few of the blokes look up and wonder what the hell I’m doing.
The lights flicker and dim for a moment, and after I bend the note at the end, a bloke in a West Ham top says “You used to come down here for that night they used to have, didn’t you. With all the freaks. What was it called?”
“Black Friday,” I say, feeling a strange anger rising in my throat. “Black Friday,” I rasp at him, louder this time, feeling the tears roll down my cheek. I put the recorder in its case, stand up and put on my coat and then head out into the darkness.