“The accordion and steel drum.” Rich said. “Not two instruments you naturally associate with each other. I’m not sure how this is going to work.” I didn’t either, but given that this was Helen, we agreed that it just would.
Friday night in Mello Mello, Slater Street; a little bit of New Orleans transported to the heart of Liverpool. Helen had brought me here once before in the daytime. Now though, herbal tea and cake have been replaced with bottles of Sol and Staropramen. The joint is a long, narrow bar with seemingly only one entrance. To reach the stage area we have to walk halfway up the street, enter, then walk all the way back, despite there being a door at the bottom corner, blocked off by the stage. I hate having to do the same thing twice.
Yesterday was Rich’s birthday and he and Caroline are down from Sunderland for the weekend. Ruth is out with mates, but is coming to join us later. Jez, Helen’s new squeeze, is also due to pop along later. They’ve been together three weeks today and in deference to the absent John (Sensei to windup merchants everywhere), I make Rich and Caroline promise me that at some point they will both say to Jez, “I understand that congratulations are in order.” “Please,” I implore them, “if you won’t do it for me, do it for John.” I haven’t seen John in a year, but he is still a bad influence on me. There’s a plastic banner in the window of a house across from mine that declares, ‘It’s a girl!’. I’m having to steal myself from knocking on and saying, “So go on then. What did she have?”
We are here for a new art exhibit that the cafe is displaying. It’s opening night and ‘The Helen Maher Ensemble’ have been asked to perform a forty minute set. Helen’s guitarist, John, had given us lift down from her pad up by Lark Lane. Walking in, each carrying a piece of musical equipment, I am immediately struck by the phrase, Scouse Orleans. At a worn looking upright sits a guy who I instantly decide came to Liverpool to study (probably music) and has been here ever since. He is apparently Jez’s flatmate, but it’s the guy accompanying him that catches my attention and triggers ‘Scouse Orleans’ in my mind. If you saw him on the street you wouldn’t differentiate him from half the men you witness in these parts: bull neck, bald head, shell suit and black trainers. Yet you would be dead wrong, because what separates him from the herd is the trumpet he blows, the colour of battered silver. In the last year I have slowly started to approximate a jazz aficionado and I recognise much of what he plays as stuff I have heard Miles Davis perform. I couldn’t tell you what any of the songs are called, but I do remember a classic skit from The Fast Show:
Louis Balfour: What are you going to play for us today, Jackson?
Jackson Jeffrey Jackson: Trumpet.
Louis Balfour: No, er, what tune?
Jackson Jeffrey Jackson: Tune? This' jazz!
Jackson Jeffrey Jackson: Trumpet.
Louis Balfour: No, er, what tune?
Jackson Jeffrey Jackson: Tune? This' jazz!
And as Richard Feynman’s father said to him as a boy, “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.” So I guess the name of a tune is largely unimportant (which is probably why my team always does so terribly during the music round of the Cornerhouse Quiz every Monday night). All I know is that the me of even a decade ago would be appalled at the thought of actively listening to jazz. Jazz used to make me physically ill. The me of the here and now however is very much in love.
Most of the art on display, I have to say, leaves me cold. Most of it looks like upturned car bonnets stuck to the walls and asides from a sign reading, ‘God Slave the Queen’ (which strikes me a glib), most of the rest is instantly forgettable. The one piece that I like is a series of butterflies cut out of what look like wallpaper designs of various sizes, stuck to the wall. They look like they belong here anyway.
Besides, there are far more interesting things to observe here. Like the faux entrance behind the stage. It’s built in to a hollow cylinder and the glass front has ‘open’ written on it in reverse. A palette sits atop of it, its slats painted in red and black stripes, which might be part of the exhibit (actually, is the entrance itself an exhibit? I wonder). The stage is a foot off the ground and cluttered, with a stepladder propped up at the back (next to the fire alarm). The walls are mainly a pale yellow (fooling me into thinking that the place is called Mellow Yellow), and the lighting from the mini-chandeliers is, well, mellow.
Oh, and then there are the toilets, which are like something out of a David Lynch movie. You go down several flights of stairs to the basement and into a room of peeling walls, smelling of stale piss. One of the cubicles is taped off, with a sign saying, “This toilet is completely out of order.” I wonder what it did. But it’s the mirror that gives rise to the feeling a being in a Lynch movie. It’s bronze and ornate and looks completely out of place in these otherwise grotty surroundings. I half expect to see the ghost of Dennis Hopper looming out from behind the taped off cubicle to tell me that I’m completely out of order. I more or less flee back upstairs and send Rich down to have a look.
The place was rammed as we arrived and even though we manage to get a table right next to the stage, there aren’t enough chairs and half of us end up perched on the end of the stage. Then Ruth arrives, sat next to me on the edge of a speaker, and while we have plenty to chat about, as always, I figure that I get to see a lot more of her than Rich or Caroline do and I give up my seat so that they can catch up. Sometimes, just sometimes, I can be quite generous and thoughtful.
And then, finally, time for the gig. There seemed to be some problem with the P.A. that required a lot of fiddling, because the band seemed to start much later than anticipated. It’s also supposed to be a three piece, with Helen and John joined by Paul on double bass. But in a classic example of a phenomenon known as, “The Helen Maher Effect*, she has also drafted in steel drum player, Clifton, at the last moment, prompting Rich to ask, “I’m not sure how this is going to work.” But of course it did and in a single evening a new musical form was born. ‘Gylypso Jazz’ me and Rich name it, after a couple of abortive attempts to find the suitable phrase. I love the way that Helen conducts the soloists with barely a tilt of her head and the way that Paul grins and laughs throughout, thoroughly enjoying himself. I thought that jazz bassists were supposed to be solemn, brooding figures, but I guess I’ve been influenced by Miles’s description of Charles Mingus (‘Mingus Ah Um’, what an album!).
The gig finishes and the throng thins out and by the time Jez makes an appearance, there are more than enough chairs for everybody. Well he’s a musician and I love music and my current obsession is P J Harvey’s new album, ‘Let England Shake’, which even though it’s only March I have already declared album of the year. It’s just that good. No, not good, an absolute masterpiece. Jez has heard it once, but agrees and from there we quickly hit it off (Helen later telling me that talking about P J was inspired). And before long it’s 2am and Jez heads home (Ruth already having left) and me, Helen, Rick and Caroline bundle into the back of a black cab bound for Aigburth.
John Mayall’s ‘Empty Rooms’ plays as we sit around, chatting, head’s nodding, and before long there is a splintering into three and a traipsing to Slumberland. ‘The Now Show’ plays on Helen’s Mac in the back bedroom/study as I drift to sleep.
I first came to this place six months ago, shortly after Helen moved in. The second I laid eyes on it, a converted coach house nestling behind a block of Georgian houses, I thought to myself: Yup, she’s not moving from here anytime soon. It is very Helen. In ‘A Woman of Conviction’, I constructed for her fictional self, Helen Marr, a Dutch barge, complete with antique furniture and oriental furnishings. Curse you reality, you have outdone me.
You enter from the side of the flats backing on to the coach house, through a wicker gate and into a garden area too small to be of any use to anyone but the pixies. Herbs grow out of pots. Enough shrubs and creeping plants fill the periphery of the short path to make it seem as if you’re entering Alice’s wonderland, half expecting to find yourself much taller by the time you reach the two perpendicular doors at the opposite end. Both black, one leads out to the back alley, the other contains the stairs up to the flat proper.
The stairs bring you to another door, which opens into the living room. As a writer, you become obsessed by small details and minutiae. There is a Yale lock to this door that you can turn by ninety degrees and it locks in place without having to press down the usual button switch. Rich and Caroline state at me like I’m mad when I try to explain the genius of this, not helped by my having been drinking and smoking, nor by the fact that the bloody thing experiences what kids today call an epic fail when I try to demonstrate.
Details, details, details. Each of the alley-facing windows are made up of five glass slats, slid into place in upward steps. The windows run the length of the corridor which travels from living room to kitchen, passing doors to the main bedroom, bathroom and study on its way. The walnut piano that Helen, her dad and me went to pick up from Crosby one Sunday afternoon (Helen playing it in the back of the transit all the way home) sits in one corner of the living room, next to a sideboard of modern speakers and old fashioned phonograph. Fights threaten to break out over the hogging of the paired down rocking chair. It’s too damm relaxing and too much fun. The sofa bed that forms out of the L shaped sofa provides one of the most undisturbed sleeps I have ever had. Once you clear the sofa of the infestation of cushions that breed wherever women nest, you discover that it is the colour of olive green.
Caroline has noticed that the flat has no TV. For me, this is such a familiar feature of a visit to Helen’s, that I barely notice it anymore. Aside a couple of shared houses, I can’t remember Helen owning a TV. It’s one of the many excellent reasons for paying a visit. I’m not a hippy, I don’t believe in ‘energy’, except as a physical concept (kinetic, potential, chemical etc), but coming here is a break from the norm and a retreat from the stresses of modern life.
To paraphrase Michael Palin, if it’s midday on a Saturday in Liverpool, then it must be time for the Albert Dock. It’s a running joke within the family. Whenever we used to visit the Scouse branch of the family as kids, we always ended up at the Albert Dock. Even as adults, we come here of our own free volition, despite no one seeming to have noticed that aside from the myriad cafes and restaurants and the souvenir shops selling tat (and not even Liverpool specific tat either), there really is little to do here. Oh no wait, there’s the Maritime Museum, which as children of ex-naval parents is another recurring joke. Dad was obsessed with ship modelling and as kids we spent half our lives being dragged around modelling exhibitions. So of course it is outside the Maritime Museum that we are to meet mum.
Likesay, there not much to do, certainly not enough to fill an entire afternoon, and by the time we’ve been around the Maritime and Slavery Museums and looked in some tat shops and taken tea on three separate occasions in three separate places, it’s a matter of killing time. Helen is at Clown College for the day (“That advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.”), but meeting us for dinner at Kimo’s with Ray, Ruth and Paul. So we take a spin in the big wheel. Ferris Wheels always have the power to strike acrophobia (not vertigo) into the mind of even the most rational. I can stand on the edge of a cliff face and feel nothing. Stick me in a glass box, spinning at an inconsistent speed in a variable wind and I feel deeply uncomfortable. All four of us feel it. I think it’s the lack of control. At the edge of a cliff you are reliant on your own sense of balance, feet firmly planted in the ground. Not here though.
Still, you get three spins and the views of the three graces and the Mersey are fantastic. I can’t help but look out over the river and think of the A.L.P. sailing out at the end of 'A Woman of Conviction'. Bring the ship back Andy. I want a turn now.
Eventually boredom overwhelms us and we drift up through Liverpool One (a soulless complex imposed upon a city with such character and energy) and over to Mount Pleasant, arriving at Kimo’s much too early. The restaurant only accepts cash, so we have to retrace our steps to find a cash machine. We find one back in the town, next to the NHS walk in centre which I imagine will be doing a roaring trade in a few hours from now.
I like Kimo’s. It’s cheap and cheerful, but has a certain charm, with ample space and a cool interior that’s a relief after spending most of the day in the sun. The food and the furnishings are Middle Eastern in nature and you can picture the smoking of hookahs going on in here before the smoking ban was indiscriminately imposed on all public establishments. My culinary tastes have expanded over the last few years, but this afternoon all I want a burger and chips and something soft in the way of liquid refreshment. We end up sitting at a long table, four either side, a business meeting of the family Maher, bubbles of conversation that expand and merge and pop and form new bubbles, before the obligatory posing for photographs. The bill is settled, the meeting adjourned and we head out into the evening air.
There’s eight of us and only mum has come in by car. Me, Rich and Caroline have Saveaways, so we decide to catch the bus, while everyone else travels back in the car. Of course, we wait an age for a bus and when one does eventually arrive, it’s a Stagecoach and they do their own version of the Saveaway (Stagecoach: Taking you home, while we take the piss). I can’t be bothered waiting any longer so I just pay us on before any one has time to object. Everyone else has to walk back to Albert Dock first, but we’ve got the keys and still need to pick up booze. There’s only so much time to waste.
Later. The parents have taken tea and taken their leave. Only the kids remain. Wine has been imbibed and pipes consumed (an entirely different sort of tea). Jez is here, as is Sarah, Helen’s mate from the flats and the allotment. Me and Rich take turns as DJ, moving from Rodrigo y Gabriella, to the Crow Soundtrack and, eventually, to P J Harvey. It’s a mellow end after a full couple of days.
Sunday lunch is taken at the Moon and Pea, after a brief look around the shops on Lark Lane. I revert to my usual gleeful state outside the second hand bookshop and come away from it with works by Virginia Woolf, Flann O’Brien, Zola and Pullman. The Pea is as busy as ever (and there’s five of us to accommodate), but we get a table eventually, and after a gentle stroll in the aid of digestion, it’s time for Ruth to walk back to her place on the opposite side of Princes Park and for Rich and Caroline to start the drive home. I wave them off with Helen and after a brief chat about the enduring ghosts of relationships past, it’s time that I too was making a move. I am cat/chicken sitting at Mike’s for the week and it’s going to take two buses and two trains to get back. I have a long journey ahead of me...
It takes three hours and when I return, I discover that the front door has been deadlocked with a key I don’t have. Rick has been up to check on the chooks and assumes I hold copies of all the keys. I try ringing him, but City have been playing and he’s in the pub and quite drunk. Me and a neighbour have to smash a pane of glass in the backdoor to get in. It’s a frustrating end to an enjoyable weekend, but just one of those things.
*A much better band name IMO, it has something of ‘Jazz Club’ about it