Flowers In Her Hair

by Padraig Hanratty

- Part One -

The man in me might hide sometimes
To keep from being seen.
But that’s just ‘cos he doesn’t want
To turn into some machine.
"The Man In Me" Bob Dylan

Silvio stood before the bathroom mirror, carefully shaving. He’d felt refreshed after his morning shower; the warm water had dissolved the anger, the fear and the hangover. Now, as the razor scraped away last night’s stubble from his flesh, he began to feel human again. He winced as the razor cut a tiny nick on his chin; a small smear of blood bubbled threateningly, then retreated. 

Silvio washed his face and brushed his teeth; one of the few blessings God had bestowed on him was a durable set of teeth, and he cared for them for over half a century as if they were precious pearls. He sprayed on deodorant and splashed on aftershave; he felt a brief sting when the aftershave washed over the tiny cut on his chin. 

Smoothing the hair oil on to his scalp, he carefully combed the grey, receding hairs. Feeling fully reborn, Silvio wrapped his black dressing gown around him and walked back to his bedroom. 

It was time to listen to a Dylan song. Every morning, he chose one at random from his vast collection; he never believed in fretting over which jewel to choose from the treasure chest. 

This morning, he selected “If Not For You”, a whimsical piece of fluff from the early 1970s. As Silvio listened to Dylan cheerfully celebrate his dependence on his woman, the hangover began to assert its presence again. He could see dark shadows hidden in the catchiness of tune. In this song, love was a dangerous addiction. If the woman left, the sky would fall. Like an Old Testament prophet, she could cause the rain to gather. If she walked out the door, the singer would cease to exist. 

Just like what happened me when Clara left. One year, I had everything. Next year, I had nothing. And a hell of a lot more than the rain fell on my head. 

When Silvio listened to his morning Dylan song, his world stopped. The building could catch fire, but Silvio would not move until the last seconds of the song faded away back into the vast emptiness from where they had come. 

After dressing, Silvio examined his reflection in the mirror. The reflection that stared back was of a man dressed to meet kings. A man dressed to negotiate the future of nations.

A fifty-five year old man stared back at him. His hair was grey, thinning, but neatly combed and oiled. The face was clean and well shaven. A bit etched on, though. The face of a fifty-five year old man living in Dublin. 

Deep in his eyes, however, Silvio saw a thirty year old man living in New York. A haunted, petrified man. A man gaping into the abyss, feeling his life crumble in his grip. 

Deep in the darkness of his pupils, Silvio saw a dead man. A man who, in 1976, completely lost control. A man who lost himself and was left nowhere at all. 

When Silvio came to Ireland in 1976, he left his New York shadows behind. He severed all ties. Maybe they were severed for him.

He wasn’t always sure.

Tell me now
With a glance or a sigh.
Should I hold you close
Or let you go by?

                      "Tell Me" Bob Dylan

Silvio and Charlie sat sipping bottles of beer on the bench outside Ellington apartments. Although Silvio was thirty years older than Charlie, he enjoyed his neighbour’s company.

Both were comfortable in the silence. They knew each other well enough by now, a friendship gradually built over the last two years. They often sat on the bench, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, sometimes talking, sometimes just enjoying the easy silence of each other’s company.

Charlie had been complaining about some trivial nonsense in his office. Silvio tried to warn him that work pressure can easily get out of hand.

For ten years, Silvio had worked for Albert & Stone Advertising in Madison Avenue, New York. Some time in 1976, he had a nervous breakdown. He was fired after he ran through his office brandishing a pistol at one of his colleagues. Soon after that, his wife Clara and son Daniel left him. Some months later, Silvio arrived in Dublin. Shattered, but determined to rebuild his life.

Charlie had been ranting about the ongoing office politics at Silvio listened to the tedious complaints, deciding not to remind Charlie that his problems didn’t amount to a hill of beans. In fact, they barely created a bump.

“I suppose,” Charlie sighed, “I’m just trying to map my career path.”

“You could hardly map your way to the end of the street.” Silvio gulped some more beer. “You don’t have to drag that ball and chain around with you. You can unlock it at 5.00 every evening. On your deathbed, you’ll have plenty of regrets. One of them won’t be ‘Damn, I wished I’d spent more time in the office when I was younger.’ Believe me, the less time you spend in there, the better.”

“I don’t know why I drag myself into that hell hole every day. In fact, some days, I wonder if life’s worth living.”

“Of course it is! You just have to work out how.” Silvio couldn’t help smiling. Charlie wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in Albert & Stone. “Try to keep your whines in perspective, Charlie. Otherwise, you’ll lose the plot. And the plot is like your virginity: when you lose it, it’s very had to find it again.”

“I must have the worst job in the history of the entire universe.” Charlie lit up a cigarette and smoked moodily for some seconds. “There has to be a better life than this.”

“Oh, yes,” Silvio nodded. “No matter what you get in life, you’re always convinced that there’s something much better just a little bit beyond your reach. That’s what keeps us going, I suppose: the thought that life could always get a bit better. Otherwise, why would you bother getting up in the morning?”

“To go to the toilet,” Charlie shrugged, tapping the ash on the bench. “Or maybe get some headache tablets and a bite to eat.”

“Of course, any time you do get want you want, it’s never quite as good as you thought it would be. Life just seems to constantly go out of its way to disappoint you.”

“Nice to know I disappoint you, Silvio.”

“Charlie, you’d disappoint the most optimistic idealist on the planet!”

They sat in silence for some minutes.

A green Fiesta pulled into the backyard, parking near the bench. A middle-aged woman in a dark brown suit got out. She took off her sunglasses and put them in her black handbag. She locked the car door and only then noticed Charlie and Silvio sitting on the bench.

“Oh, I didn’t see you there,” she smiled.

“Hi!” said Charlie.

“Good evening, Lucy,” Silvio said, nodding slightly. “Have you had a good day?”

“It was fine, Silvio. Thanks for asking.” She glanced at her watch. “Well, I’d better get in. My stomach has been growling for food for the last two hours. I might see you later.”

“See you then,” Silvio called after her as she walked away. He stared at the corner of the building for some seconds after she went around it.

“So,” Charlie asked, “are you going to Lucy’s party on Saturday evening?”

“I suppose so.”

“God, don’t have a heart attack from over-enthusiasm!”

“I’d better go.” Silvio gave a sudden shudder. “But that crazy couple from apartment 4 will be there. They get on my nerves.”

“Bill and Kathleen? What’s wrong with them?”

“You know what they’re like. Always shouting and snarling at each other like two mangy alley cats. They’d sicken you.”

“They love each other beneath it all.”

“Good job. No one else would stand either one of them.”

“She’s a strange one,” Charlie remarked, nodding towards Lucy’s Fiesta. “One day, she’s as cold as a bloody icicle in a fridge in November. She looks through you as if you were made of water. The next day, she’s all smiles and sweetness. I’d say she was a goer in her day, though. She has that look about her...”

“There’s plenty of spirit in her.” When she was young, I’m sure she wore flowers in her hair and told her boyfriends not to take life so bloody seriously. She would have laughed at them as they raged at some pointless triviality. And she was right to do so. “I noticed that about her from the first day she moved into these apartments… How old would you say she is, Charlie?”

“God, I don’t know,” Charlie shrugged. “I’m hopeless at guessing ages. Something between forty and eighty, I’d say.”

“That’s a magnificently specific answer! She turned fifty-six last April.”

“Get away! She looks much younger than that.”

“Yes, she does, doesn’t she? I was talking to her on her birthday. We went down to Murphy’s for a quiet drink. I eventually got her to tell me her age. I damn near fell into the turf fire when she told me.”

Something in Silvio’s voice made Charlie look round. Silvio was staring at Lucy’s green Fiesta, a tiny smile curling on his lips.

“What exactly are you saying, Silvio? Do you... er... fancy her or something?”

“What? God, no!” Silvio glared at Charlie. “Don’t be so bloody stupid!”

“Well, it’s just that...”

“Never mind what you think!” Silvio snapped.

I’m just wondering if she remembers me at all.
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night,
In the brightness of my day.

                                      "Girl Of The North Country" Bob Dylan

Silvio sat down on his bed and lit a cigarette. The smoke billowed from his trembling hand.

Lucy expected Silvio to be at her party downstairs later in the evening. His desperate attempts to wriggle out of the invitation were to no avail.

Silvio had to steady his nerves. He pressed Play on his stereo and closed his eyes as the ominous opening chords of “Blind Willie McTell” filled the bedroom.

It was one of Silvio’s favourite songs, a lament for a passing world. A song to sing when the carnival’s over, when they’re taking down the tents. Everywhere was condemned. And when Dylan sang “condemned”, he sang it with all the finality that he once sang “I’m not there, I’m gone.” There would be no debate: the arrow was painted on the doorpost. Judgement had been passed and punishment must follow.

Silvio could remember the parties he had gone to in New York. Someone in Albert & Stone would invite everyone back to their place for an evening of wine, cheese and corporate bonding. But no bonding would take place. They were always evenings of tedious intrigue, plots to derail people’s careers, conspiracies to advance one’s own career. The cloaks and daggers always dangled amid the wine and cheese.

The room faded into a haze. Silvio blew smoke into Dylan’s voice. He no longer saw the stereo. He saw the inside of the Columbia recording studios in New York.

Dylan sat at the piano, coughing away Silvio’s smoke. He gazed into the distance, into the decay. An entire way of life was being wrapped up. Plantations burned as ghostly slavery ships disappeared into the fogs of history. All the beauty and violence of the old South - the love and the theft; the power and the greed; the sweet magnolia and the cracking whips; the twinkling stars and barren trees; the bootlegged whiskey and chain gangs - was fading into the night.

Outside, in Ellington Court, a car drove off.

Silvio didn’t hear it.

He heard only the voice of the man at the piano trying to capture the desolation of the hoot owl’s song. Trying to conjure up the ghost of Blind Willie McTell. Only a dead bluesman would be able to sing of the world’s last days.

There was always plenty of power and greed in Albert & Stone. In New York, things were never as simple as they appeared on the surface. Every good seed that was planted in Silvio’s brain was corrupted by his demons and would blossom wildly at the New York parties. At one party in SoHo, he punched a colleague called Nigel Penn in the face because he thought Penn was trying to steal the Lazer account from him. He was very drunk that night.

Another evening, back in 1973, Silvio slept with a colleague called Julia Cummings because he thought that she could help him get the lucrative Courtyard deal. He had been sober that night.

He couldn’t look into Clara’s eyes for days after that. And then he got over it. And slept with Julia again. And a few more times, inching himself closer to the Courtyard deal each time. He carried on the affair until the Courtyard deal was awarded to Nigel Penn.

Silvio hated himself so much after the announcement was made that he fled down to New Orleans for a week. He drank himself into the mouth of the grave. It took Clara a long time to forgive him for that stunt. And she didn’t even know about Julia Cummings.

Dylan gazed impassively on an entire world that was condemned, from New Orleans, the home of the blues, to Jerusalem, the site of the apocalypse. And every blues singer who had ever condemned the world’s heartless ways was summoned to witness the desolation.

As the song progressed, it seemed as if Dylan were becoming possessed by the ghosts of all those bluesmen. He was just the vessel for invisible multitudes with their choleric chords and righteous riffs. Every time his fingers stabbed the piano keys, another blues singer was summoned.

In celebrating the spirit of those powerful bluesmen, Dylan had actually become one of their number. He could not sing the blues like McTell could, but no one else could sing the blues like Dylan could either. A few years later, Dylan would try to shrug off this almost perfect performance, telling an interviewer that he didn’t think he’d recorded the song right. The howling ghosts of the bluesmen would have disagreed with him.

Silvio smiled as the final chords disappeared. The Columbia studio faded back into the bedroom.

He was looking forward to getting a chance to talk to Lucy. As he got to know her better, as he grew gradually fonder of her company, he felt like he was shovelling a bit more dirt into the graves of his own past. Burying the ghost of Clara, Julia and Nigel.

And burning the ghostly plantations hidden in New York.

Suddenly I turned around
And she was standin’ there,
With silver bracelets on her wrists
And flowers in her hair.

     "Shelter From The Storm" Bob Dylan

Silvio sat in Lucy’s kitchen, slowly pouring himself a glass a wine. In the sitting room, the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” played softly.

Silvio looked up when he heard someone coming into the kitchen.

Lucy was dressed in a dark blue suit and a white blouse. Silvio couldn’t decide whether it was the outfit or Lucy’s short haircut that made her look so slim and lively this evening.

“You look a bit lost,” Lucy smiled, “sitting in here on you own.”

“I’m fine, Lucy,” Silvio laughed. “I’m just helping myself to some wine. Anyway, you know what I’m like. I’d be happy to sit in a corner and not say a word all night. Though that wouldn’t be sociable, would it?”

“God, Silvio, you making me feel like I’m intruding on your space,” said Lucy, in mock anger. “Would you prefer it if I left you alone?”

“Not at all.” Silvio sipped some wine. “When you think about it, though, we all spend an awful lot of time talking bullshit. That was one thing I hated about New York. Everybody had to be talking all the time. They were afraid that if they shut up for just one second, they’d disappear, the silence would devour them.”

“We do all tend to babble a lot.” Lucy poured a glass of wine, smiling gently. “You would get tired at times listening to the rubbish people go on about.”

“Not everyone is like that, though.” Silvio gazed into his wine, searching for the right words. “Remember when we were in the pub last Monday night? We sat in silence a lot of the time and we didn’t feel embarrassed.”

“But what must people have thought of us? Two people apparently brooding over their drinks in silence. They must have thought we were two corpses looking for a funeral.”

Lucy’s  laugh echoed in the kitchen.

Silvio liked the sound. It was like hearing a fond song from childhood. It reminded him that New York hadn’t been all shadows.

He winced as Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” began playing.

“Oh, come on,” Lucy laughed. “I’ll have no musical snobbery at my party. I happen to think that Neil is wonderful. At least he can sing, unlike that awful Dylan thing you’re so taken with.”

“There’s a funny story about Dylan and Diamond.” Silvio could picture Dylan singing “Forever Young” on stage in San Francisco at The Last Waltz, looking mythic and ridiculous. “They were both playing at a farewell concert for The Band. Diamond gave some typically watery performance of some useless song. However, he thought he was hot shit. He came off stage and told Dylan he’d have a hard time topping that performance. Dylan suggested that all he’d have to do was go out on the stage and fall asleep.”

“Why? Was he tired?” A mischievous grin spread across Lucy’s face. “I don’t suppose anyone would have noticed the difference if he was asleep on the stage.”

Silvio found it hard to be offended at Lucy’s joke. He would have murdered Charlie if he made a joke like that.

Also, Silvio was uncomfortably aware that part of Dylan’s 1978 stage act was inspired by Neil Diamond’s shows. Dylan had even attended one of Diamond’s concerts in Las Vegas, carefully studying the performance. It was always disconcerting when your heroes lapsed into bad taste.

Then again, everyone has a secret fondness for some hopeless case or other. Silvio made sure that no one knew about his secret Phil Collins CD collection.

“Anyway, Silvio,” said Lucy, glancing over at the couch were Charlie and Bill were talking. “I’d better mingle, as they say. I’d apologise for leaving you on your own, but I know damn well you prefer it that way.”

Lucy went back into the sitting room, where Paul Simon was urging everyone to listen to the sound of silence.

Silvio hadn’t been entirely honest with Lucy.

He found conversational silences just as awkward as everyone else did. Only this afternoon, he had been queuing in the shop for his newspapers. A talkative young woman in front of him started chatting to him. She was relentlessly complaining about the hot weather, as if it had a personal vendetta against her. Silvio had nodded and smiled sympathetically as she rambled on. Then suddenly, she stopped talking and looked at him expectantly, awaiting his deep insights into the matter.

Silvio could have just smiled. Or sighed hopelessly at the opaque intricacies of the weather situation. But he felt obliged to say something.

The woman continued to stare at him, eyebrows raised. Silvio felt as if the TV cameras from ten international networks were on him. The entire world tuning in live, watching him, waiting for some memorable quote.

“Well,” he eventually stammered, “I suppose... er... there’s... um... not a lot we can... eh... really do about it... The weather, I mean... ah... I guess we’re... well... you know... I suppose... stuck with it...”

The woman had just poured out her heart about her weather-related emotional trauma and all Silvio could do was state the obvious to her. She glared at him as if he were the most unfriendly old man she’d ever met. She turned away from him in disgust.

Silvio considered apologising to her, but he knew he’d only mess it up. He just stood there in mortified silence, feeling the eyes of the world pierce into him.

That was why he was not eager to jump blithely into some facile conversations with his neighbours. He was afraid that he’d say something stupid to someone and convince everyone that he really was as crazy as they seemed to think he was. It was better to wait in silence until he got comfortable.

Meanwhile, in the sitting room, Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You” was playing on the stereo.

Silvio could hear Lucy laughing at something Bill had just said. Lucy had an infectious laugh that tended to explode in your face. It wasn’t like Clara’s laugh at all, Silvio thought. Clara’s laugh was always more of a gentle giggle that creased up her face and made her eyes water. It didn’t blow your ears off, but instead crawled into your ears like a caterpillar and tickled your brain. Especially if you were in bed with her and the room was dark.

Some nights in Ellington House, Silvio would lie awake in bed, remembering Clara’s giggle, and wait to feel that tickle. He knew he never would. It was always just a memory, never an experience relived.

Silvio was considering slipping away from the party when he saw Kathleen approaching. Silently cursing her timing, he poured another glass of wine.

“Hiya, Silvio, are you having a good time?” Kathleen’s askew grin indicated that the edges of sobriety were beginning to blur. “What are you sitting here in the kitchen on your own for?”

Kathleen sat on a chair beside Silvio. She was wearing black jeans and a light green top. Kathleen was thirty-two years old, with short blonde hair and full figure, but some days she looked older. This was one of those days.

“Sometimes, I just like to sit back and observe things,” Silvio smiled. “You can enjoy things as much by just observing.”

“You wouldn’t want to spend too much time watching Bill!” Kathleen grabbed a sandwich and looked around the room. “Bastard would put years on you just looking at him, the mood he’s in tonight. He looks like he’s been chewing a lemon all evening. Some old slapper must have told him to shove it where the sun ain’t gonna shine anymore. He’ll probably have tennis elbow in the morning, because I don’t want him coming near me with that sour face on him.”

“Tennis elbow?”

“Wanker’s cramp. His hand is the only person who doesn’t tell him to fuck off when he’s feeling randy. It’s his best friend in the world. He carries a photo of it in his wallet.”

“I see.” Silvio grimaced involuntarily. He was in no mood for Kathleen’s crudity. “Okay.”

“Jesus, I’m glad I ate before coming here,” Kathleen said, through a mouthful of sandwich. “These miserable little things wouldn’t fill a baby ant.”

“I thought they were quite nice, actually.”

“Well, we all know what your taste is like, Silvio. Anyone who can spend years listening to that crotchety old dreary shite is bound to have impaired senses.”

“Very funny,” said Silvio, sourly.

“His voice always reminds me of a frog with laryngitis.” Kathleen was obviously warming to her theme. “I was going out with a guy a few years ago, before I hooked up with that wreckage on the couch over there. He was one of these intense, silent, politically active pains in the arse. All black clothes, moody cigarettes and infestations of goatees.”

“Sounds like a charming young man.” No wonder he dressed in black, going out with you. “How come you’re no longer with him?”

“He was mad into Dylan also.” Kathleen made this sound like the worst infection imaginable. “He took me to one his concerts in The Point a few years ago. Christ, he really knew how to show a girl a good time!”

“Dare I ask how you enjoyed the concert?”

“What the hell was there to enjoy?” Kathleen shook her head at the memory. “Dylan spent the entire night squawking some rap song in Norwegian. He sounded like Yogi Bear’s asthmatic uncle. Christ, it was like listening to a crocodile trying to recite the Gettysburg Address.”

“And did your… friend enjoy the show?”

“He spent the whole show staring intently at the stage, his ears quivering with excitement. He found it spiritually moving on a social and political level, or some such bullshit. Told me that Dylan was still a profound protest singer.”

“I suppose it depends on your definition of protest. These terms can be…”

“I can tell you, there was plenty of protesting in the audience. Along the lines of ‘Shut up and give us our fucking money back!’ Of course, the goatee was in heaven. This was the best evening of his life. Which gives you an idea how sad that bastard’s life was!”

Phil Collin’s “In The Air Tonight” shimmered across the room.

“There’s another whining bastard,” Kathleen groaned. “Mr ‘I’ve got millions in the bank and still can’t get my hole’. But at least he can sing, sort of.”

“I won’t argue with you on that.” Silvio had no intention of telling Kathleen about his secret CD collection. “Your problem, Kathleen, is that you just don’t understand what Dylan’s trying to do with his voice. You see…”

“For God’s sake, I don’t think Dylan understands what he’s trying to do with his voice. And as for his guitar playing! I’ve never seen anyone lay into the strings with such reckless abandon.”

“Every performer is looking for the lost sacred chord,” Silvio smiled. “The chord that will thrill…”

“Jesus, I’d be happy if he’d just master a few of the basic ones. He plays the guitar with all the skill that a fish rides a bicycle.”

“Thanks for that completely meaningless analysis.” Silvio was finding the conversation hard going, so he poured another glass of wine. “You should become a music journalist.”

“Speaking of which, I saw a photograph of the lovely Mr Dylan in Hidden Beats a few months ago.” Kathleen shuddered. “Has someone recently pulled him inside out? And he appeared to have a centipede crawling across his face.”

“That’s his moustache. It’s part of his Vincent Price look.”

“God, I don’t think even the Prince of the Undead could look as scary as he does.”

“Oh, what a big moustache you have.”

“All the better to frighten you with, my dear,” replied the wolfman.

Something in the moonlight definitely still hounds him.

“It suits him,” Silvio said. “I think he looks like a riverboat gambler.”

“I think he looks like he’s out on day release from the asylum.” 

“I can see there’s just no talking to you,” Silvio sighed. “May as well save my breath.”

“God Almighty, you’re as much fun as Bill tonight, Silvio.” Kathleen assaulted another sandwich. “I’m only joking with you. Can’t you have a little fun?”

Silvio suddenly realised why he didn’t like Kathleen. The party setting obviously caused something to click in his brain. And the almost flirtatious way she told him to have a little fun.

“You remember how to have fun, don’t you?”

The last time a woman had flirted with him and told him to have fun at a party was a long time ago. 1973, in fact. In Queens, New York. At another tedious Albert & Stone dinner party. She too had been just over thirty. And she too had short blonde hair. There the similarities ended, admittedly, but it was enough to connect the chains in Silvio’s brain.

“We all need to have fun now and then.”

Julia Cummings lived in an apartment in Flushing. She told Silvio that she wanted him to get the Courtyard deal. He was the best person for it. All she had to do was say the word and his name would be on the dotted line.

“I mean, it is supposed to be a party, after all,” Kathleen laughed. “Though I’m beginning to wonder.”

All Julia wanted from Silvio was a fantasy she had harboured for some months. Since meeting him, in fact. And Silvio agreed. He wanted the contract that badly. His desire was as burning and uncontrollable as hers.

So he rang Clara and told her that he wouldn’t be home that night. And when the other guests had left, he followed Julia to Flushing. And forgot about Clara. As his tongue explored the inside of Julia’s mouth, he even forgot about Julia. All he could think about was that Courtyard contract. Even when he woke up in her bed next morning. Even when he went home to Clara.

“You’ve gone very quiet, Silvio.” Kathleen grabbed a bottle of beer. “What’s eating you?”

“Nothing. I’m just thinking about the past. You look like a woman I once knew in New York.”

“Oh really?” Kathleen grinned. “Were you in love with her or something?”

“God, no!” Silvio had never, not even for one second, been in love with Julia Cummings. “She was just someone I knew.”

“We all remind someone of someone, I suppose. You kind of remind me of Matlock. Or is it Grandpa Simpson?”

“Jesus, you really are spoiling me with compliments! What are you going to tell me next? That I remind you of some corpse you saw when you were a child?”

“I actually never saw any corpses when I was a child. I was lucky that way.” She glanced darkly at Bill. “Though I’ve made up for it by going out with the living dead for the last few years.”

Silvio glanced at the couch. Bill looked desperately miserable. He’d just let out a sigh that rippled the fabric.

“I’m sure he’s not all bad.” Silvio decided that small talk might take his mind off Julia. “There must be life in the old boy yet.”

“I suppose you’re right. A corpse wouldn’t get on your bloody nerves as much as that bastard does. Do you want to know what his latest trick is? He has taken to learning how to play the fucking harmonica now. Can you believe that? A salesman trying to be a blues musician! And the noise out of him when he tries to play it. Sounds like the last wail and testament of a cat dissolving in acid! He was stuck in a traffic jam one day when he decided that he wanted to learn how to play it. His most sublime ideas always hit him in the car.”

“Einstein claimed he had some of his best ideas in the shower.”

“He probably had some of his best washes there, as well. Anyway, I tried to persuade Bill that this was a ridiculous idea, even by his standards. But his one functioning brain cell was down in the pawn shop that week.”

“Is he any good at it?”

“You must be joking!” Kathleen took a drink from her beer bottle. “I was trying to get to sleep last night and there he was huffing and puffing into the bloody thing. I told him it’s the only blow job he’ll ever experience.”

“Sounds like you have an interesting relationship.”

“That’s one way of putting it. Like the way two savage lions locked in a cage in the zoo have an interesting relationship.”

Silvio took another sip of his wine. Although Kathleen did remind him of Julia, there was something different about her. There was an honesty on the edges of her voice that he’d never noticed before.

“He’ll never know how close he has come in the past to being burned alive in the bed,” Kathleen declared, tapping her beer bottle. “One time, the only thing that saved him was that I couldn’t find any bastard matches. He had probably hidden them. I often think we’re like two condemned buildings leaning on each other. We know that if one of us moves, we’ll both collapse.”

“I’ve always thought he had a certain roguish charm,” Silvio said, waiting for the beer bottle to shatter under the Kathleen’s increasingly violent tapping. “The sort of guy who’d drive a woman completely round the twist with his hopeless incompetence, but would then melt her heart by surprising her with flowers.”

“He’d be more likely to surprise you with nettles, Silvio. You just never know when he’s going to sting you. It’s like curling up beside a wasp every night.”

Surely if these two can survive each other’s company, there’s hope for me and Lucy.

“Admit it, Kathleen,” Silvio laughed. “You wouldn’t have him any other way.”

“I’d actually prefer to have him stuffed and mounted. It’d be easier to keep an eye on him. And he wouldn’t be able to duck out of the way of the darts.”

Silvio looked at Kathleen. Her eyes were eyes that had fought many battles. And had won many battles. And no longer cared about the battles that had been lost because many other battles would be won in the future.

“You know,” he said, as Kathleen continued to glare at the couch, “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I can sometimes hear the two of you.”

“Oh?” Kathleen swung her glare towards Silvio. “Having sex?”

“What?” Silvio’s face exploded into crimson embarrassment. “Jesus, no... I mean... oh shit... sorry... what I was trying...”

“Because you’d need to have you ear pressed fairly tightly to the wall. And all the doors open.”

“No... what I meant was...” Silvio felt like he was in the corner shop again, desperately searching for the right words. And failing miserably. “God, I’m sorry I started...”

“Do you know what his idea of foreplay is? A grunt and a raised eyebrow! Two eyebrows if he’s been on the Viagra.”

Silvio stared at her in inarticulate silence. She seemed to be enjoying his embarrassment.

“Of course, it all goes downhill from there,” Kathleen continued. “I tell you, the woman who invented vibrators must have been married to one of Bill’s ancestors. I’m probably the only woman who is delighted that her partner rolls over and falls asleep as soon as he shoots. I can get a bit of peace then.”

Silvio took a deep breath. He was determined to restore some dignity to himself. The woman in the shop had been bad enough. But this was impossible.

“What I meant to say, Kathleen, was... er... and don’t take this the wrong way...”

“I think I already have,” said Kathleen, a smile briefly flying across her lips. “But do go on.”

“I can sometimes hear you arguing. We all can.”

“Oh, is that all?” Kathleen started laughing.

“Well, I thought you should know. You don’t want to be inadvertently broadcasting your private lives to the entire building.”

“Well, he can be an annoying little bollocks most of the time.” Kathleen noticed that her drink was finished, so she grabbed another bottle. “You know, he’d wear out the fucking patience of Mother Teresa. And she’s dead!”

Lucy walked across the room, somewhat unsteadily with a vodka and tonic in her hand, towards the stereo.

“Well, really” Lucy laughed. “What sort of a hostess am I? I let the tape run to the end and killed the nice music we had playing in the background.”

“No loss,” Bill grunted, loudly.

Everyone laughed. Except Kathleen. She stared silently into her beer bottle, tearing the label.

“Now, Bill,” Lucy smiled, “just because you have no taste doesn’t mean that we have to be deprived of music.”

She put another tape in the stereo.

“Is it Dylan?” Charlie asked. “In honour of our special guest over at the table.”

“No, it’s not. I don’t want to clear out the room.”

The room laughed again. Silvio permitted himself a social smile.

Little Richard’s “Lucille” started pounding in the background. Lucy seemed to be the only one really pleased with the choice of music. She poured more vodka into her glass and sat on the couch beside Bill.

“No flies on Lucy,” Kathleen remarked, nodding to the couch. “She knows it’s best to get pissed before entering into conversation with him.”

“Surely he must have some good points?” Silvio wasn’t entirely sure. “Hidden somewhere?”

“That’s the worst of it.” Kathleen took a hefty slug from the bottle. “Christ, I’m getting half-pissed myself. He always manages to redeem himself somehow. He pisses me off enough to make me want to cut him into little pieces and toast him under the grill, but not enough to make me want to leave him.”

Silvio stared at her. Once again, he brain let him down, refusing to co-operate with the conversation. 

“A completely hopeless state of affairs.” She seemed to be talking to her bottle of beer. And expecting it to answer her. “To fall in love with someone who constantly drives you twenty miles round the twist. And just to ensure that there’s no escape from it, he loves me just as much. I know that. Despite all his bellowing and sulking, he’s as much a lost cause as I am!”

“It doesn’t sound like a lost case to me. It sounds like something worth fighting for.”

“Christ, we fight for it, all right,” Kathleen laughed, humourlessly. “Every bloody day!”

“When I was married, I forgot that I had something worth fighting for. I didn’t realise until it was too late, until it was all lost.”

“It’s all a bit of a farce, really.” Kathleen didn’t seem to have heard what Silvio said. He felt like repeating it, so it got the attention he felt it deserved, but didn’t bother. “He sometimes is the stupidest fucking creature that God ever put on this planet. But I don’t want to be without him. There’s still hope for him. That’s why I can always forgive the stupid wretch. No matter how much shite he comes out with.”

“People really do talk an awful lot of shite,” Silvio nodded. “It’s just that it’s sometimes disguised as sparkling repartee.”

“It’s often not disguised at all,” Kathleen said, looking over at Bill.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones played in the background.

Kathleen seemed to be fighting back tears. Her lips trembled slightly.

For that moment, she didn’t remind Silvio of Julia Cummings in any way.

“I’m sorry I brought all that up, Kathleen.”

“What?” Kathleen shook herself of her thoughts. She looked at Silvio. “Well, I’m sorry too. You really didn’t need to hear all that shit, did you? Christ, I came over here to cheer you up! I’ll never get a job with the Samaritans, will I?”

“I don’t know,” smiled Silvio. “Maybe there is a touch of the Samaritan about you.”

“Well, aspirations to sainthood help when you’re living with the scourge of God.”

Silvio finished his wine and put his glass on the table. He felt it was time to go. The wine was beginning to kick in. Clara and Julia and Kathleen and Lucy all whirled around in his head. If he drank much more, he might end up making a fool of himself. As he had done at the Albert & Stone parties.

“Well, I’ll be off now,” he said to Kathleen. “I’m getting too old for these parties.”

“Goodbye, Silvio.” Kathleen looked up from her bottle. “Thanks for listening to me. Even if I was talking complete and utter shite. I’ll probably head off soon myself. I’m half-pissed, as you’ve probably noticed.”

Silvio walked over to the couch and tapped Lucy gently on the shoulder.

“Silvio!” she beamed, looking up at him. “How are you?”

“I’m actually going to head on now, Lucy. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Are you going?” Her face showed deep disappointment. “Won’t you stay just a little bit longer?”

“I’m getting tired, Lucy. I’d best be off.” Before I make a fool of myself.

“Just a while. The party’ll be over soon anyway.”

She placed her hand on Silvio’s arm and gripped it. Not tightly. But enough to send a sudden shiver of electricity flowing through him.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Lucy,” he smiled.

She gazed up at him. He tried to read her eyes, but gave up. Part of him was afraid of what he might see.

“Well, if you’re sure,” she sighed.

“Yes. And thanks for everything.”

She slowly loosened her grip on his arm. He smiled at her again, his heart pounding. His brain searched for suitable parting words. None came.

He walked towards the door as Frank Sinatra’s “Moonriver” began playing.

I ain’t too good at conversation, girl,
So you might not know exactly how I feel.

                             "Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight" Bob Dylan

Silvio was whistling “Changing Of The Guards” as he walked down to the shop. The sun burned on the city, but a cool breeze made the heat bearable. Shaw Road was bustling with afternoon traffic, human and mechanic. Silvio smiled at people he passed on the street. Some smiled back. 

There was a queue in the shop. He grabbed his two newspapers and went to the end of the queue. He was humming gently to himself now. He looked at the woman in front of him. 

He stopped humming and froze.

It was the woman he had met here before. The woman who had complained about the heat. The woman who had reduced him to tongue-tied incoherence.

She obviously sensed that he was looking at her. She turned around, a puzzled look on her face. A tiny flicker of recognition then flashed in her eyes. She remembered him, but couldn’t seem to connect where she’d seen him before. She brushed her brown hair back from her eyes to study him more closely.

“Hello, again,” Silvio smiled. Unable to think of anything further to say, he shrugged at her.

“Hello,” she muttered, still frowning.

The queue moved closer to the counter.

“Nice... um... breeze today,” said Silvio, looking out to the street. A crisp wrapper rustled by the door. “It takes the sting out of the heat.”

“I suppose so,” she replied, moving forward with the queue. “Better than it was the past few weeks. Christ, there were some days there when you could hardly breathe with...”

She stopped. Her face darkened as she made the connection. Complaining about the heat must have reminded her where when she’d met Silvio before. All tentative friendliness fled from her eyes.

“But,” she said, sternly, “as you said the last time I complained about the weather, there’s nothing we can do because we’re stuck with it. So I won’t waste your time again by trying to be civil!”

She turned to face the counter.

Silvio stared at her back, long brown hair flowing down on a white blouse. His face burned red. He rubbed his chin absently, as if he had been struck by a blow. In front of him, the rigid brown and white back dared him to reopen the conversation.

Silvio took a deep breath, determined to endure the situation. By the time he reached the counter, his face had faded back to its normal colour. He paid for the papers and scurried back out to the street.

But your heart is like an ocean,
Mysterious and dark.

   "One More Cup Of Coffee" Bob Dylan

The door to Silvio’s bedroom was closed. The curtains were drawn across. Inside the cocoon, Silvio sat in his chair, a cigar in his hand, a glass of brandy on the armrest.

For the next hour, Silvio watched his Hard Rain video. Dylan in 1976 roaring his songs in front of a rain-soaked crowd. Musicians jerking involuntarily as they got electric shocks from the wires.

McGuinn looked to be irreparably stoned that day, his gaze firmly fixed on a distant purple horizon that only he and some mystic aliens could see.

Baez attempted to sing some duets with Dylan. She knew she couldn’t control the raw force that raged beside her. She might as well have tried to harmonise with a tornado or a gorilla.

And yet, in all that raucous chaos, Dylan created a work of art that, while not exactly a thing of beauty, was a thing of mesmerising power. Not even the pouring rain could quench its fire.

In 1976, Silvio had his own raucous chaos to deal with. His friends in Madison Avenue began to treat him differently. His wife was slowly fading before his eyes. His son no longer really knew him.

Silvio didn’t remember those years too well. They were the bad times. Alcoholism. Cocaine. Mental disintegration. Nervous breakdown. Divorce.

He remembered being escorted by police from his office on Madison Avenue one cold April morning, screaming and waving a pistol in the air. He remembered the seemingly endless months in the white rooms of the mental institution. He remembered Clara and Daniel boarding the plane to San Francisco, never to return.

“I lost myself in the middle of all that chaos, Bob,” Silvio said to the TV screen as the cigar smoke began to smother the room. “There was lots of raging glory between Clara and me, wasn’t there? Remember that night I made one last stab at holding on to her? The rain pouring down on us on Fifth Avenue. The city all lit up. Above the top of the skyscrapers, total darkness. Do you remember it, Bob? Her trying to get into the cab and me holding on to her arm, begging her not to go. Her sister waiting for her in Long Island, rubbing her bitch hands in anticipation. Me shouting, frightening the people on the sidewalk, knowing that if she gets into that cab, that it’s all over.”

Silvio poured himself another brandy.

Dylan hammered out the opening chords of “Idiot Wind”, glaring into the crowd. Searching for the devil that was hounding him. Daring it to show its face.

“The bruise on her face was beginning to really show that night as she broke away from me and struggled into the cab. That was the last thing I saw. And when I saw it, I think my mind snapped. That bruise... Her face... Just below her left eye... I knew then what a complete bastard I had become somewhere along the way.”

Dylan glared back at him.

“Remember the punch, Bob? There’s no point saying that it was just temporary madness. Bullshit! I wanted to hurt her. I knew what I was doing. For those few seconds, I wanted to hurt her with that punch. Just because she threw the cup of coffee at me. Why? Can you remember, Bob? I can’t. All I remember is standing there in disbelief, wiping the coffee off my face, feeling it soak into my shirt, burning me. And looking at her. Do you remember the smell of the steam rising from my shirt? My flesh scalding beneath it... Jesus Christ, she would pay for that! And everything else that had happened. But for that, in particular. I just stared at her in fury.”

To be concluded next time