Three Day Week

Entry by: Mac

8th July 2016

“Yes … so it’s Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays throughout the summer season – 12 weeks in all. Two till five thirty … two fifteen minute breaks. There’ll be the occasional speciality act and that will give you a break too. Report to Bernard Dingley – he’ll take it from there. And welcome to the Pinnermouth Palm Court Orchestra!” Trevor beamed and I smiled nervously. “Call me Trevor!” – as I discovered everyone called him, because of his constant exhortation to make him seem like a pal, on your side, one of the gang and not the cold hearted tyrant he was – shook my hand and nodded at the door.
My first job. My very first job! Three days a week for a summer season. I found the Tourist Information Office on the Esplanade and inside there the tiny office that was the orchestra’s headquarters. Room for Bernard, his “Mary Ellen” [as Trevor had labelled Bernard’s administrator and not-too-secret lover – Trevor had no qualms about airing his varying degrees of homophobia wherever he felt the need or the inclination] and whoever was being dealt with by Trevor and Mark. It had taken me a little while to catch on to the meaning and implications of the label “Mary Ellen”; for a start, I’d never heard it before. Was it a throwback to the 1970’s or earlier? Was it associated with seaside entertainment? Did it matter?
Bernard was a very different kettle of fish compared to Trevor. For a start, he was pleasant. And, although the orchestra leader, he was not especially domineering – well, occasionally in rehearsals, but otherwise, no … and we didn’t have too many rehearsals anyway. Not enough time. No rehearsal room.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays were given over to a different set of performers – a mixed bag of three musicians, two singers, a comedian and a juggler. No performances on Mondays. My days were for the orchestra, guest singers and the occasional comedian. We played an older repertoire – we attracted the pensioners. Sundays were always especially busy, crowded. I was the youngest by a good fifteen years; the orchestra totalled five, plus Bernard who rather unnecessarily conducted us when he wasn’t playing violin. There are only so many ways to get “The Green, Green Grass of Home” wrong. We exhausted all of them in the first week. We had six programmes so that we could make variations between the days and the weeks. And half way through the season there was a complete rethink: we added, six new numbers. Mark took care of administration, paydays and trawling through the internet for ideas for the programme. He was disappointed when he found out I couldn’t - or wouldn’t - sing. It would have broken the tedium and given me a few extra quid but I couldn’t have coped with the limelight, such as it was on a blustery afternoon on Pinnermouth Esplanade, beneath the curving concrete roof of the band stand. Actually, it resembled a shell that had been prized open, inside which was the Palm Court Orchestra. No pearls.
It was Friday of my third week when I noticed an old man sitting on one of the deckchairs – most were empty despite the sunshine and comparative warmth – looking at me. Audience members look at the orchestra and focus on each of us for a minute or two at a time. This one was looking at me, hardly ever moving his eyes to look elsewhere. From then on, I couldn’t help but notice: every Friday and Sunday without fail and most Wednesdays. Whenever I summoned sufficient courage to stare back, rather than glancing from the corner of my eye, he would give me a half smile until I looked away, which inevitably never took long. I feigned needing to look at the score, but by this time I didn’t. I just felt uncomfortable.
After two weeks of this, I hit on a plan – the elderly stranger staring at me had become a somewhat unnerving obsession. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I did mornings in a breakfast café just off the Esplanade, washing up. I don’t know why I allowed the rest of my week to reflect the performance schedules. I did find I enjoyed Mondays off: beginning of the week, quieter everywhere. Anyway, my plan …. I went down to the bandstand on Tuesday afternoon and hung around. No old man. Yet, the following day there he was. Same seat – if ever he couldn’t get it, he sat close to it. I tried Thursday – nothing.
At each break, I would go for a wee at the loo round the back and sometimes get a cup of tea or a bottle of water from the mobile stall on the perimeter of the courtyard in front of the bandstand. I did it quickly and quietly; I didn’t want attention from any of the crowd, didn’t want then to recognise me. OK, it wasn’t exactly fame but I just felt self-conscious about having to speak to someone. Sometimes, children would recognize us away from the stage and get excited about wanting to chat. Charlie, who was forty but worked at looking younger, was always on the lookout for girls, though our performances weren’t aimed at that age group.
“Keaton or Chaplin?”
“Keaton or Chaplin? Or are you going to pretend too young to know much about either?” – my tea break, Friday afternoon, week eight. He spoke to me and I had no idea how to respond. He’s an old man. I was expecting a comment about the music, or the playing or the weather. Anything. But not old time comedy stars. I looked at him, smiled and replied, “Chaplin”.
“You still haven’t changed,” he laughed. I don’t know you, I thought. You don’t know me. I smiled and shrugged, tried to look reassuring, though I don’t know why. Reassure him about what? The weather! Talk about the weather. Or go away. But no, he stood and smiled, then took my arm. Should I offer him some tea? Or take mine and walk away. A younger man approached, smiling.
“Hello, I’m Dave. I see you’ve meant Dennis … are you?”
“I’m fine,” I replied, with a sense of growing unease. I knew neither of them and yet here they were – well, certainly the older man – giving every indication that I was not a stranger,
“He loves your band –“
“Yes …. Orchestra. Whatever. Anyway, he loves it, don’t you, Dennis?”
“Do you take requests? Could you play The Shadow Of Your Smile? You know why I’m asking … we always loved it. You used to dance …” murmured Dennis.
With a growing sense of silent panic, I whispered, “I don’t understand. I’m sorry. You have the wrong person. I’ve never met – “
“Shh … please. Don’t say it. He loves coming down here … he really does. Three times a week … your days, apparently. He talks about you. I usually come to collect him at the end. I’m early today.”
“Where are you from?” I asked, tentatively, trying to return Dennis’s smile but managing only a half-hearted grimace.
“ Pinnermouth West Care Home. Dennis live there. I work there. You really are very like Peter.”
“Who’s Peter?” I asked.
“Peter! Dear boy. Please, please, please …. Next time, please play it for me, be a darling.”
My concerns were now visible as a patina of panic that I tried in vain to disguise. I have been given some jigsaw pieces but there was no picture. Please god, someone help me. Then Dave, taking Dennis’s arm and pointing to his seat – I’d never seen Dave collecting him, as I recall – leaned towards me and whispered one word.