Friends

The softness of the following day was slightly sullied by the knowledge that the Rastafarian had not read my letter. I was enjoying his friendship yet I felt a sadness in my stomach because I knew that once he’d read my brutal frankness, the dynamics of our relationship would shift once more.
The following day I received a message – a simple ‘call me’ and I wondered if he’d finally read it. Was he angry? Should I mentally equip myself for a bitter verbal onslaught? But would he ask me to call him if he was cross? Wouldn’t he ignore me? Or send a barbed message? There was a simple way to find out . . . Following his instructions and calling him.
I was glad I’d anticipated a sad ending. Some of the sweetest moments in life are those for which we are caught napping.
“I’ve read your letter,” he announced.
“Ok . . . ” I waited for his take on my inner monologue which I had allowed to spill forth onto 5 pages. Handwritten.
“You have good handwriting,” he complimented.
I hadn’t removed the armour yet. This could have been a warm, mellow lure to melt my wall of protection.
“Thank-you,” I managed.
“Yes . . . ” he continued.
“I get all of that. I have been through a lot. I accept it all.”
Mentioning his traumas was a shrewd decision, it would seem. He accepted all his shortcomings, even if he blamed them on his past.
To say I was taken aback does not even convey a tenth of how I felt about his humility; I had been pushed to the frayed ends of patience with the Rastafarian and the letter was a last attempt to alert him to my emptying cup of tolerance. Yet he’d pulled our friendship back. He was emotionally capable of being self-effacing and taking blame.
That night he was playing at a bar I had not visited before. I was happy to go and he was being particularly lovely, but I didn’t enjoy the venue: it was a large, echoey, rectangular room with bright, tacky lighting. There were some small tables around the edge which were taken or reserved and so I sat at one of the large tables which were placed down the centre of the room, like an army marching forward towards the bay window, where the music was happening. They were the sort of tables that looked as if they were designed for giants and the matching bar stools made you feel like a small child sat on a high chair at a grown-up table. I felt as if I was on display, more so than the performers, who did not seem central to the general attention of the customers, possibly due to the poor acoustics. The bar was mirrored and with a plethora of dazzling lights already, it seemed ablaze. Waiting to be served, I wished I had more colour on my cheeks – maybe that was why the females were, on the whole, fully made-up. There was little change from ten pounds for just 2 drinks and with one of them being a half-pint, I decided that that would be my purchase for the evening.
But the Rastafarian was good company. He played, with 2 other musicians (a guitarist and a drummer) and I realised how much I enjoyed the simplicity of just him with his guitar, which was his usual offering. Although I had watched him play at The Tiny, Tiny Pub with the same accompaniment and enjoyed the performance, so perhaps it was just the room failing to provide for its musicians. Then he finished and we listened to some fellow musicians and the night was over. Afterwards, he said how pleased he was that I met him there.

“I like to be with you,” he stated, simply, “and now the women have seen you, they will leave me alone!”

We laughed.

A couple of days later was the gig at The Folky Pub at which I had made a vague arrangement to meet a friend of the Rastafarian’s. But that wasn’t the reason for my attendance – I was going to watch a folk musician whose guitar skills had overwhelmed me, when I was fortunate enough to watch him at the tail-end of an Open Mic one night. I didn’t usually stay till the end, being a Sunday, but on this occasion I hadn’t had work the next day and for that I was grateful. He had started with pure instrumentals and I was transfixed by his fingers working the strings to produce amazingly intricate and entertaining music. To watch someone who has complete mastery over something is awe-inspiring. As a comparison, when you learn to ski, you feel smaller than the mountain initially, as if it has mastery over you, yet in time there is a gradual shift and if you are dedicated (and maybe talented too), ultimately, you will be bigger than the mountain and will bash it and use it to its full potential for your own satisfaction. It is the same with musicians; to witness a pianist displaying their passion on the keyboard by exploiting its ability to make sweet music and making it give out the music they require of it, is wizardry. It was wizardry with this guitarist; he was young, but serious and focused on his performance. There was no flamboyance, no showmanship, no unnecessary flaunting . . . He didn’t need to, because his playing was enough. He had moved onto Beeswing for his second offering (a favourite not just because it mentions Gower) and finished with an Oasis cover.

I had double-booked myself, though. I had arranged to meet friends for a drink but they were understanding when I explained about the double booking. I met them first and as I would be leaving early, I arrived promptly. Actually, a little early, which was a rare thing. Being the first evening of the Bank Holiday weekend, the pub in Burgess Hill was pretty rammed and I waited for a considerable amount of time at the bar. Having worked as a barmaid throughout my student years, I sympathised with the bar staff and remained outwardly understanding, although my growing impatience was aggravated by the continued stare of a man just along the bar from me. Every time I looked around, his attempt at a seductive glance was waiting for me. I nearly ditched the glasses, as they seemed to be the cause of this surge in male attention, but I would not have had the remotest chance of spotting my friends if I had. So I avoided his ‘seduction’ and stared straight ahead, minimising my chances of being served but it seemed the only trade-off available. At some point they arrived and we had an enjoyable libation together, before I had to run away back to Brighton. We made plans for another meet-up, so I’ll have more to say after the next night out, when I will be careful to not double-book myself.

When I arrived at The Folky Pub, the proceedings had begun, but as it was a showcase of 4 musicians, I had hoped he would not be first. I assumed he would be last, being the best of the four (in my opinion) but he was second, so I arrived just as he began. I wondered how he was not last, but when it became clear that he was running the event, I understood. His modesty would not have allowed him to place himself last. He did not disappoint, although it was difficult to hear him at times over the shrieks from the table next to me. There was a group of people on a works’ do and to be fair, one drunk woman was responsible for the entirety of the shrieking. When his set was over, one of the chaps became fixated on the whereabouts of his coat, ferreting around by my feet, wordlessly, but with accompanying mutters of ‘where is it’. Slightly irritated by his lack of courtesy in not asking permission to root around by my feet, I offered to help him. It was meant as a subtle indication of his slight rudeness, but was taken as a genuine offer of help, so I found myself assisting his search for his coat. We got chatting and whereas I had thought he was three sheets to the wind, I think ‘Sally Albright’ (aka his female colleague) had tarnished all their reputations with her continued noise. He invited me to join them for the rest of the evening (they were leaving to find the local club scene) and it was tempting; he was pleasant enough. But the Rastafarian had been in touch and we had agreed to meet . . . Although he was rather late by now. I had duly spent some time with his friend, but had moved away to hear the amazing guitarist better.
I tried removing my glasses for the next artiste, but I couldn’t see a great deal without them, so when the Rastafarian was suddenly next to me with a drink, I jumped back with surprise. He offered me a drink, but he’d taken an hour and a half to turn up, since alerting me to his intention to join me and insisting that he was ‘on his way’, so I’d had as much alcohol as I wanted. By the time the last musician was playing, I could have had another drink but he left me to go to the bar, saying that he couldn’t afford to offer me a drink too. I remembered how I’d bought him a pint of Kronenbourg on more than one occasion during our relationship when I couldn’t afford a drink for both of us and I’d drunk water instead. I allowed myself a tiny wallow in self-pity and consoled myself with the knowledge that at the very least, I could claim the moral high ground. He polished off his pint and as the music was finishing, when he said he was going outside for a smoke, I decided to join him. I wondered why he wanted to stay, if he had no more money for a drink, but I decided I would head off home soon.
As we walked past the bar, a tall, mixed race chap with a strong South London accent, stopped him. He put his arms out to hug the Rastafarian and I assumed he was an acquaintance. The Rastafarian exuded geniality and ease with everyone normally, so his wary withdrawal from ‘Leroy’ seemed out-of-character. He put his arms around me instead, saying ‘let me hug this one first’, then, with a shy smile, allowed Leroy to hug him. The latter was excited to meet the Rastafarian, purely because of his colour. The Rastafarian reacted to Leroy’s effervescent personality with evasion; the more Leroy asked about him, the more he retreated into himself, but still wearing the same, slightly sheepish, smile. There seemed to be a lot of ‘business’ around Leroy . . . There was a crowd of people, all chatting, buying drinks, generally fizzing with excitement. Beer was passed round and I noticed a pint in the Rastafarian’s hand. I challenged his possession of another drink, given that he hadn’t had enough money to offer me a drink, yet had bought 2 drinks since then. It was a teasing challenge: I didn’t mind the absence of a drink, but I felt the need to let him know that I’d noticed. I wondered if someone had bought it for him and so I still wanted him to know I’d noticed, as I marvelled, generally, at his ability to procure drinks whilst penniless. Leroy turned to me, in the end, frustrated by the Rastafarian’s reluctance to speak. He thought that he couldn’t speak English, but I laughed and said that he could speak English, Rwandan, Swahili, French, possibly some other African languages.

“Have you got dreads under that hat?” Leroy pointed at the Rastafarian’s over-sized peaked cap which housed his beautiful hair, “I used to have them too!” Leroy smoothed his shaved head as if he was searching for his lost mane.
The latter remained mute, yet smiling, so, knowing his pride in his dreadlocks, I said that yes, he did, and tried to hook one out to show Leroy. But the Rastafarian wanted to keep the answer to the question, literally, under his hat and he moved away from me, placing one hand protectively on his head. A girl had moved in on the conversation and the jollity continued for a few more minutes, until she pulled Leroy out of the melee and spoke quietly but seriously to him.
“You’ve taken my friend’s drink!” Leroy turned on the Rastafarian, who continued with his apparent inability to talk and frowned back.
He put his arms out either side of him, showing the palm of the free one, as if to protest his innocence and show that he was empty-handed, as if that would prove his lack of guilt. But Leroy was unconvinced and became verbally aggressive. I told the Rastafarian to return the drink, as it all made sense now. A man had been buying drinks at the bar – a friend of Leroy’s – he was buying pints and passing them back. Now I reached back into the recesses of my short-term memory, before the information disappeared forever, as it does when it is not considered useful, I thought I had seen the Rastafarian take one such pint from Leroy’s friend, who probably thought that he was taking it to pass on to its rightful owner. But the Rastafarian had kept it instead, I thought . . .
‘It is my drink,” stated the Rastafarian, choosing to speak at last. Maybe I was wrong. Who would continue such a lie to an increasingly aggressive, rather imposing chap? Yet Leroy was insistent. And so was the girl, although she was speaking to him in hushed tones once more, evidently pursuing peace now and trying to diffuse the situation for which she had unwittingly been a catalyst.
“Let’s go outside,” invited Leroy.
I wasn’t keen, but the Rastafarian was. I followed, concerned, for what I am not sure, but I didn’t feel it was prudent to leave 2 men locking horns unattended.
“You bring shame on the dreadlocks, man!” accused Leroy.
I did not know at this stage whether or not the Rastafarian was guilty as charged. I was baffled. I could imagine him blagging a drink, but would he continue it thus far? The whole scenario had been odd from the start. Was Leroy really that delighted to meet a fellow black man? Why was the Rastafarian so unusually cagey about their interaction? If the Rastafarian was blameless, why did Leroy seek justice with such fervour? How could he be so sure of his guilt? If the Rastafarian was guilty, why didn’t he just return the beer, even if he wasn’t brave enough to confess to a wrongdoing?
Leroy was not a physically aggressive man, otherwise he would have used his fists, not words. The Rastafarian had continued to drink from the offending pint glass throughout the row, but eventually, worn down by accusations or maybe his own guilt, he offered the drink to the girl. It was refused and we parted company, although the Rastafarian chose to become demonstrative at last towards Leroy and scooped him up in a hug. Leroy was reluctant to engage and was a rather passive recipient of this unexpected affection. He left us, clearly dissatisfied with the outcome and the Rastafarian calmly continued to sup ‘his’ beer.
I had said very little throughout the argument. I wanted to support Leroy and say ‘yes, yes, yes! He does bring shame onto the dreadlocks!’ The Rastafarian was obsessed with reggae musicians and their ideals. During arguments, or when he had failed to coerce me into granting a wish, he would say ‘you don’t listen to reggae – you are not a Rastafarian – you do not understand’ which angered me. I had been so generous to him, in the face of his lying and cheating and all-round disrespect (and I did listen to reggae – way before knowing him!) so although I was lacking a full set of dreadlocks, I felt worthier of wearing dreads than he. There had been times when I had wanted to point out his hypocrisy and my belief that Bob Marley or Peter Tosh would not approve of the way he treated people.
Yet I had kept quiet. My support for Leroy, had I manifest it, would have caused me problems. He knew I supported him; he turned to me during the argument to say ‘she knows’ and the Rastafarian had swiftly turned to face me, accusingly, wrath making his eyes seem knowing and threatening.
“I said nothing!” I said, in truth.
“You don’t have to,” reassured Leroy, which allowed me to breathe once more. I could not face a prolonged rant from the Rastafarian.
I left the Rastafarian behind and made my way home. I did not understand why he was staying, unless he had lied about his lack of beer money but I ceased to care. I did care about his welfare though and I instructed him to avoid confrontations as I left.
I fell into bed and my phone made a ‘pinging’ noise as I did so. The Rastafarian, I thought…
‘Hey Lisa. How are you doing? Was thinking over our time together and remembering how nice it was.’
Wimbledon Man . . ?

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