So I couldn’t go to the audition, but there would be more. I couldn’t go riding or cycling as planned, but I did a lot of enforced walking which, although enforced, had its benefits. Original Blues Guy couldn’t teach me how to play the guitar but maybe he would when my wrist was better. I can think of worse scenarios than my situation and people were kind to me. Not that people were normally unkind to me, but because I did seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis somewhat, I felt a kind of warmth wafting my way from people in general.
I’d cut back on nights out because the children were home from uni, although I wasn’t seeing so much of one of them. I was still going to The Folky Pub on Sunday nights and one Sunday night after the day-long event with colleagues, I was there, having remembered, rather hazily, a conversation between a colleague and the barmaid about Toby. The Toby situation had become bigger than my actual desire to meet him. I did like him when I first met him and I did regret my mishandling of the situation. Initially, I’d hoped to bump into him again, but the passage of time was dulling the desire and when I reflected on it, his attention warmed me and his enthusiasm over my back dimples made me laugh. I wasn’t convinced by the way, of their attraction. But the point is, the whole scenario had become a talking point and a reason to have a laugh only. I had some recollection of a tense interchange via text message with Original Blues Guy about him . . . I scrolled back through text messages to and from Original Blues Guy, while I waited to see a familiar face in The Folky Pub. I smiled at some of our conversations; this was a man with little humility. He was lovely company and very flattering, but did seem to have an overwhelming urge to always be right, which, I figured, would be frustrating for a person with whom he was in a relationship, but I wasn’t, so all was well. It was a good reason to not be in a relationship with him, too, as I struggle to tolerate a lack of humility. He was talented and an absolute gentleman, keeping me in Guinness and black whilst I was being ferried around on buses; always having just one half of Guinness himself at any Open Mic evening. Despite his talent, he had a small repertoire of songs (all his own) which became boring after the umpteenth rendition. He had Asperger’s, which he readily volunteered as an excuse for anything that one might criticise. As someone who works with many children who are somewhere on the spectrum, I found myself biting my tongue as I wanted to discourage him from using his condition as a shield. Embrace it, fight it, laugh about it, but don’t use it as an excuse. In order to dispel any misunderstanding at this juncture, of course I was accustomed to making allowances for learning difficulties but there should be a balance between making allowances and having expectations. If I just manage to impart to my young charges the notion that we are all masters of our own destiny, then I’ve left something other than a carbon footprint behind in this world.
Regular attendees started to trickle in, Original Blues Guy being amongst them. I’d bagged the seat he favoured, which I favoured too, because it was close to the Open Mic and tucked away. He came over, wearing his trademark trilby and braces. He looked as if he had just stepped out of The Cotton Club, always. And always he came straight over to me, embraced me, kissed me politely, offered me a drink and then sat with me, only getting up to greet fellow musicians and eventually play, of course. He had grown up in New Orleans and had a soft, easy accent, which made flirting sit rather comfortably with him, although he usually only had flirting eyes for me. The exceptions were when we fell out and all his attention would divert to another lady, not always the same one and he would dedicate his songs to her.
As I have said, I had become familiar with this network of musicians, some more so than others; some I would happily sit with until they played, chatting easily but others I just knew by sight, sometimes knowing their backstory, courtesy of Original Blues Guy. There was the big-built, long-haired chap who looked like a Hell’s Angel who had traded his leathers for a tracksuit. He sang cheery songs quite badly but no one judges at Open Mic nights. He used to be homeless, apparently and although he was a taciturn fellow, people seemed to have great affection for him. There was the fresh-faced folk guitarist who, despite his youth, had the easy-going nature of someone more advanced in years. There were many that you saw once or twice then never again. Then there was the young, black, beautiful, reggae-playing Rastafarian . . .
The Rastafarian slipped in quietly, as he always did, as if he had a secret agenda as well as playing original reggae songs particularly well. He played in the folky pub most Sundays, seeming a little detached from the reality the rest of us were experiencing. When he played his guitar (actually, it wasn’t his – unlike most people, he used the ‘house’ guitar) and sang his songs, I think we, the audience, faded away from his reality and it became just him and the guitar. His songs were his own; being a reggae fan, I would have noticed covers and they were exceptional. He sang with a warm, African accent; Rwandan, in fact, but I only knew because Original Blues Guy had told me. I wondered if some of his more obtuse songs referred to the genocide, the reports of which had left a massive impact with me (most people, in fact) in the ’90s.
He paused for a moment, upon entering, scanning the room for a suitable seat. It wasn’t particularly busy, but people had spread themselves throughout the pub, taking up all the tables. His eyes drifted over to the seat that Original Blues Guy and I were sharing; we had no more spare room than anyone else but I imagine that he wanted to sit with friends rather than strangers.
Original Blues Guy rose immediately to greet the Rastafarian and offered him to sit in-between us, which surprised me, given his romantic inclination towards me. Original Blues Guy was the next to play anyway and as he walked past me to set up, he threw a whisper my way about ‘finally getting to meet Toby’. I had managed to make the whole Rastafarian/Toby situation clear to him, that is, that the former knew the latter and it was as simple as that.
So, I met the Rastafarian and he seemed happy to be chatting to me. So much so, that I had to bring Toby into the situation early on, to avoid any misconceptions.
‘Ah . . . it is TOBY you want to meet?’
There were already misconceptions.
‘Yes! Do you know him?’
He took my hand and together we walked through the pub and through the people in the pub, all the while my heart threatening to actually leave my chest, it was thumping so violently. We stopped in a dark nook where there were a few men sitting together.
‘Toby,’ said the Rastafarian, looking at me and gesturing towards a man who clearly wasn’t Toby. That is, I have no doubt that he was called Toby, as people were looking at him and saying the name ‘Toby’, but as far as the whole Toby Hunt was concerned, he wasn’t Toby.
We established this reality and went back to the seat that I had shared with Original Blues guy but now shared with the Rastafarian, as the former was well into his second song. I felt awkward about being introduced to a random man called Toby and then making my excuses to walk away. I felt a little guilty, too, as I realised that the Rastafarian and I had chatted so far throughout Original Blues Guy’s set. The Rastafarian was softly spoken, but Original Blues Guy would be upset. He named and shamed people who chatted whilst he was playing, with which I disagreed, justifying my disagreement by pointing out that no-one would talk in the pub at all if everyone obeyed his would-be rules for every musician. For me, pub music should be the backdrop to my conversation, choosing to stop and listen from time-to-time if I felt so inclined.
Original Blues guy finished and his body language told me that he was cross. I started to gather my things and he questioned my actions.
‘Stay,’ he ordered.
‘But you’re walking me to The Prince Albert?’ I protested. I’d been to watch my friend’s band at a gig there the previous night and he’d had left his coat there. As he’d gone back home to Bristol, I said I’d collect it and keep it for him until he next visited. Original Blues Guy had said he’d walk there with me to collect the coat and maybe partake of a drink.
‘He can walk you there,’ he motioned with his trilbyed head towards the Rastafarian.
‘What? No – you said you would,’ I argued, realising that his anger wasn’t so much about my chatting but more about my chatting to the Rastafarian.
‘Well, I’m going home anyway.’
And he left.
And the Rastafarian and I chatted . . . and chatted . . . and I was struck by the irony of the situation. Original Blues Guy, in his anger that I was giving another man some attention, when he wanted me for himself, had left me with the other man. Our chatting was innocent (from my stance, anyhow), up until Original Blues Guy left, but his act of leaving me, in anger, had pushed me into the arms of another man.