Many years ago I saw on old Lady walking through the streets of Chelsea in London. In all faded and slightly down at heel glory, she almost danced along the street, albeit in slow motion with an old handbag in one hand, and an empty soda syphon in the other. Totally oblivious to the world around her, she moved as if in a dream.
Yet it was a dream that I had seen before in Chelsea. A sad alcohol befuddled dream of long lost glory, played out in a world continuously fading over the years
What was her name. I don’t know, just as I don’t know her history, but this story is for her, and for all the other lonely, slightly befuddleed, yet desperately lonely people out there, ifor whom life is just to much to truly endure
My Friend Jeannie
“Good morning Mr Simmons. Two half bottles today please, not just the one,”
Elsie murmured softly.“Only one is for me you understand, the other is for my friend Jeannie; I’m afraid she’s not feeling very well “
Mr Simmons looked at Elsie hesitantly, and then quietly handed her a discreetly wrapped delicately beribboned regular half bottle of whisky, plus, of course, one for Jeannie, her oldest and closest friend. Sometimes she bought one, sometimes two, but she always came as regular as clockwork, as did all of his ladies, and they all had friends like Jeannie. He was a professional though… he had his bills to pay, and it made sense to serve them well… but somehow Elsie was different. She was his oldest customer, she still had class, and she was a cut above the other ladies. So though she had always offered payment, he had given her a little credit book which she occasionally enjoyed. Elsie, he thought, was just his Elsie; and though he knew her better than anyone else in the neighbourhood, she was an enigma. Deep in a permanent daydream, she seemed to live in a world of her own.
She paid for her shopping, stepped outside, and slowly carefully the door behind her. Their daily little play was finished, but he watched her as she slowly danced across, and then down the road. He didn’t know his dance steps— he had never been trained that way— but looking at her clothes and her demeanour he wondered, not for the first time, what her history might be, and what sights she had seen over the years. Her clothes radiated quality, and clearly they had tailor-made for her, but now they hung loose around her shoulders and body. The once fine colours and intricate lace work stitching had clearly faded and, a little like her overall character, they had begun to unravel with time. It was sad, really sad. and though Elsie was still tall and graceful she looked like some slightly confused and half forgotten imperial queen or empress who, for some unexplained reason, had somehow slipped out of place and time. Misty eyed and with a continually red damp tip to her nose, she simply didn’t belong in the modern world, yet she still held her head high, as almost in remembrance of her glory years that now lay so many years behind.
Yet not even her pride or memories could keep time or tide at bay. Her proud mace had become a battered silver handled umbrella, and her orb, now a little pumpkin that she frequently seemed to purchase, lay half forgotten and buried by her side. She wore a crown of course, but now the gold had long since gone, and all that remained was a soft purple velveteen hat that was always looked crushed and slightly dusty, and in a threadbare yet regal purple surrounding ribbon a once proud pheasant feather now lay bent and twisted to one side. She seemed happy enough though in her own little world, but as he watched her dancing along he was worried. He knew all about her friend Jeannie, for he had met friends like her too many times before.
The shop bell once more tinkled decorously.
“Good morning Mr Simmons. Just one today if you please. My friend Gordon is in the country you see”
Mr Simmons smiled gently and, once more, turned to the well stocked spirit shelves behind him. Another lady; another friend; another half truth or subtle evasion, and another half bottle; clearly this was going to be a very busy day.
With her small wickerwork basket in one hand and her favourite silver handled parasol in the other Elsie danced a slow progressive rumba down the streets of her beloved Chelsea. Spring pink cherry blossom, stripped by a late April breeze, jitterbugged all around her, and as it spun its soft delicate fragrance filled the air, she remembered a song that her mother had sung to her so many times over the years. Quietly, very quietly she began to sing. It was her tune, and her mother’s tune, and, apart from her friend Jeannie, there was no need for others to hear or to join their song.
“No one to talk to, all by myself
No one to walk with, but I’m happy on the shelf
Ain’t misbehavin’ ,I’m savin’ my love for you.”
Her neighbours said they didn’t like or trust Jeannie, and that Elsie should get out more and meet new people, but Elsie could never quite work out why. She was happy; and though her neighbours never seemed to see anybody with her, she had someone to talk to, for she had Jeannie. Other friends in life had died or deserted her, but Jeannie was always there for her, and as she walked across the road to where her little flat now lay she remembered the time when she and Jeannie had first become friends. It was Spring time in Paris, She was young, in love, and enfolded within the arms of her lover, she danced from night until dawn and enjoyed midnight cruises on the Seine. Life was good then, life was exciting; and back then she didn’t have a care in the world, but then things slowly began to change; and that is when Jeannie first began to be her inseparable friend.
“Just dance Elsie, just dance”
Her mother had often told her. “Go with the rhythm, go with the beat, and never be afraid”
She had danced, she had never been afraid, but in one way life had been cruel to her; for she had always been a bridesmaid and never a bride. She could have got married, numerous men asked her, but music and the parties had taken her over, and the thought of settling down and marriage was always far from her mind. She had danced and partied in the roaring twenties, she had trained with Arthur Murray teachers on the Atlantic steamships and even become a British champion, but by the time she began to look around her all her friends had stopped dancing and the party had come to an end. Suddenly they had all got married, and then she was left single and alone. That is when she had met Jeannie, her good old faithful Jeannie. They first became acquainted after a married friend’s dinner party; and from that point onwards Jeannie had become Elsie’s one true friend. Nothing had really changed over the years, except Elsie had become more reliant on Jeannie, and drifting further down memory lane and across the steamship laden Atlantic Ocean of her dreams, Elsie carried on dancing through the cherry blossom before lovingly repeating the last line of her song.
“Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m saving my love for you”
“She looked down towards her basket and thought of Jeannie. It was sad though that Jeannie never sang alongside her; she was always a silent partner, and Elsie wanted to hear her song. She wasn’t that concerned though for she had complete trust in Jeannie, and they loved and needed each other, but Jeannie was always so still and silent, and deep down Elsie felt troubled and lonely; and she often wanted to ask Jeannie to at least say something in return.
“Just say my name Jeannie”
Elsie gently whispered. “Just say a few words, or a even a laugh or a giggle would do”
But Jeannie just looked back at her. Today, like every other day, Jeannie stayed silent, and she just stared coldly back in return. A passing cloud blocked out the sunshine, a breeze picked up and meanly swept around her shoulders, and for a moment Elsie felt rather sad and empty. Then she thought of her soda siphon, her whisky, her cut glass tumbler that would comfort her, and her old faithful record player that would soon start to play by her side. Her and Jeannie would be home soon, and armed with a whisky and soda and her music, happy memories would soon take over and drive away the ugly modern world outside. The breeze grew colder, and then it began to rain. Elsie now walked on quickly; spring showers had been fine when she was younger, and when she was courting, but now they meant stiff shoulders, and nagging arthritic lower back pain.
Closing the shop door behind his final customer, Mr Simmons locked the door and looked back over the now silent and half empty shelves. Polished, gleaming, and standing to attention, the serried ranks of half and full bottles blindly stared back in return. Crusty Old Mr Boston, seafaring Captain Morgan, Noble Old Lord Calvert, Johnny, Jack, Gordon and Jim; they stood there still and silent yet they seemed to speak to him as if they were his babies and his alone to command. He felt unhappy though, as he always felt unhappy at closing time, for he knew where his babies would be going.He knew all the empty homes, the crumbling endless lives; and he knew every impossible dream of those that he had served. Tomorrow, he thought, would again be just as busy. Once again he would see all his ladies, once again their faded dreams would be enacted; and once again their discreetly packaged friends would silently, yet resolutely, stand by their side.
Enshrouded in her once perfectly fitting but now voluminous old faded stained silk dressing gown, and drowning in a sea of memories, “Fats” Waller, whisky, and soda, Elsie sat looking into the half starved, flickering flames of her ancient gas fire through her chipped yet delicately cut glass whisky and soda. She slowly finished her drink, the last of the second bottle, and then she closed her eyes. She didn’t have any coins for the meter, and her friend, who was now asleep for the evening, was becoming an increasingly expensive companion. Elsie was now always short of money; she had a stack of red bills, the gas board were threatening to disconnect her, a final demand from the bank and bailiff lay beside her, and her memories, like the flames from the gas fire, were beginning to disappear. Secretly she wished that all these things would be the other way round. She didn’t expect much from life nowadays, but at least it would be good if the bills disappeared for a while.
“I know for certain the one you love,
I’m through with flirtin’, it’s just you I’m thinkin’ of,
I’m saving my love for you.”
The music stopped, but the needle kept scratching, its repetitive demanding pulse breaking the now otherwise silent and stagnant air, and she carelessly allowed the empty glass to tumble down by her side. Then the gas fire desperately spluttered and died out completely and, in the heavy darkness, Elsie finally knew that she was all alone. She still had her little credit book and her dreams though. She would go and see Mr Simmons in the morning; he would help her, as he always helped her, and once again, her friend Jeannie would come out of the bottle; and once more she would be by her side.
It was strange though that Jeannie spent so much time living and sleeping in a bottle. A shaft of bleak cold moonlight cut across the room and lit up the empty bottle on the table beside her. Looking across towards her once proud, once new, but now faded and creaking furniture, and at her stained and moth-eaten curtains, she looked back towards the bottle. She shivered slightly, and quietly wondered, not for the first time, what it must feel like to be living inside.