Three Mixmag Stories Featuring Steve Andrews, the Bard of Ely
A meal for two in a fancy French restaurant
Steve had won the first prize in a newspaper competition. It was a meal for two to the value of £70 in an ultra fancy French restaurant. I asked him how he’d won?
“It was easy,” he told me. “I just had to answer a question. It went like this: The most popular dessert in Britain is apple pie and cream. To win the prize simply answer the following question: What is the most popular dessert in Britain?”
“Rhubarb and custard, obviously,” I said.
Well he wanted to take a girl out with him. So he went to see a girl he fancied. Unfortunately she’d moved. He asked someone else, but she was busy. He thought of a few he liked (and some that he didn’t) but there was always something against it. Usually what was against it was the fact that they all had boyfriends. In the end he gave up. He asked me instead. So rather than a romantic evening gazing across the candlelit table at the woman of his dreams, he was stuck with a grizzled old journalist making mental notes in order to write about the occasion.
He wasn’t sure what to wear. He’d never been to a fancy French restaurant before. “Do you think I should change my trousers?” he asked. I told him that I’d heard of dress-codes at clubs, but I’d never heard of dress-codes in restaurants, even fancy ones. He changed his trousers anyway, just in case.
We arrived at the restaurant and the manager took our coats. Mine was a ragged overcoat with rips under the arms and bird-shit stains in the shoulder. Steve’s was a Gannex raincoat, as worn by Harold Wilson, but covered in a nest of ancient wrinkles. The manager held them both between thumb and forefinger at arm’s length as he took them to the cloakroom. It was like he was carrying paper bags full of maggots.
There was already a party of people in the restaurant, making sparkling conversation over their wine. Some of them were French. The manager, too, was French, as was the waiter. The atmosphere was quietly sophisticated, like some continental soiree. Steve and I felt like two muddy footprints on a newly polished floor.
The waiter came over. “Would you like anything to drink?” he asked in his suave French accent. I looked at Steve and Steve looked at me. “Would you like anything to drink Steve?” I asked. Steve looked at me some more. I looked at the waiter. Steve looked at the waiter. The waiter looked at me. I looked at Steve again. He was staring blankly ahead, with a look of naked fear stitched across his forehead. He didn’t know if he wanted a drink or not, or even what he was doing here. He’d forgotten. He thought he was still waiting for the bus. It was obvious I’d have to take control or we’d end up staring at each other like this all night. I asked for the wine list.
Well I didn’t know what to get and neither did Steve. By now he’d forgotten how to read too. He was staring at the wine list as if it was written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. “Do you want red or white Steve?” I asked.
“Oh white, white,” he said, suddenly waking out of his trance. At last a question he could make sense of, with only two possible answers. “Which one?” I asked, and his eyes glazed over again.
Before we go any further, I think I’d better tell you about Steve. He’s a single parent living on a council estate. He never has any money. The last time he went out for a meal was sometime in 1972, when he had a curry. His idea of a meal out these days is a bag of chips and a bottle of cider on a park bench. His idea of wine is the stuff he brews himself.
I called the waiter over and asked him to recommend one for us. He brought one over with a fancy label and displayed it across his forearm with great ceremony. “Yeah, OK, that’ll do,” I said, having no idea what it was. I didn’t really care. I wanted to get him off my back. It felt like some sort of examination: GCSE in Manners and Sophistication. I was already failing miserably.
After that we ordered: something-or-other, followed by something-or-other.
This is where I try my hand at being a restaurant critic. So if anyone from The Observer or The Evening Standard is reading this, I’m your man. A-hem:
For the first course Steve had some yellow stuff with some black bits inside, all nestled in a pool of bubbly-looking slop, while I had some yellow gloop with bits like an insect’s body scattered around. Steve said, “this is nice,” while I wished I’d had the squid.
After that Steve had some spaghetti-like substance in a maroon sauce, with shrivelled looking brown bits on top, while I had a couple of chunks of meat in a red sauce with three – yes, three! - roast potatoes arranged around the outside.
At least I could recognise the potatoes.
Actually mine was honey-roast duck in a bed of red-wine marinated beetroot in a red-wine and duck sauce. I lifted one of my pieces of duck to see what was underneath, and then dropped it again. It slapped onto the sauce sending out a spray of fluorescent red staining agent across the lovely white table cloth. Red wine and beetroot, remember. They’ll be boiling that table cloth to infinity, and they’ll still not get rid of the stains. When the Last Days are upon us, and the Earth has been melted in the white heat of the Apocalypse, God will say, “And who put these stains on this table cloth?” I’ll say, “it was Steve.”
Between the main course and the dessert we had these little piles of fruit flavoured ice balls. They were very tart and refreshing. “These are nice,” said Steve. I said, “I think they’re supposed to clean your mouth out between courses.”
For pudding I had some kind of a pie with ginger custard, while Steve had what looked like egg custard, but with crunchy bits in. We followed this with coffee. Steve said, “this is good practice for me. When I’m a megastar I’ll be eating in fancy French restaurants all the time.”
One thing we noticed: the sophisticated group on the middle table, who’d been here before us, were only on their second course. You could see they were savouring the fine food and sparkling conversation. One of them was talking about 20 people being gathered together. Steve thought they were talking about the Criminal Justice Bill. So deep was his paranoia at this point that he began to imagine being arrested for being gathered together in a restaurant.
As we left, the sophisticated group were just starting their third course. They cooed appreciatively as it was brought in. One of them was telling a joke in French while another of them translated. It had nothing to do with farting. The manager brought us our coats and helped Steve on with his. I wrestled mine on quickly so he wouldn’t have to do this for me. We stepped out into the night air and headed for the pub.
“70 quid,” said Steve. “It wasn’t worth it.”
“You didn’t have to pay 70 quid Steve,” I reminded him.
“Oh yes, that’s right,” he said, and guffawed. “I liked the little ice-things though. They were nice.”
Fred Frantic's Frantic Asylum Garden Party Festival Number Two
Fred Frantic was a good friend of ours who died of a heroin overdose. This story is a reminder of him in his better days, before nihilism took his soul.
I was in Chippenham in Wiltshire for Fred Frantic's Frantic Asylum Garden Party Festival Number Two. I can't say what Fred Frantic's Frantic Asylum Garden Party Festival Number One was like, cos I wasn't there. But I was at number 2, so I can tell you all about that.
I was over there with my mate Steven Andrews. The old Anarcho-Punk band Cr@ss once wrote a pamphlet called The Last Of The Hippies, about Wally Hope, the man who started the Stonehenge Free Festival. Cr@ss were wrong. Wally Hope was not the last of the hippies at all; Steve is. He has beads in his hair and he smells of patchouli oil. He wears bangles and beads and all the other paraphernalia. He's like the High Priest of some forgotten cult whose peculiar liturgy is only known in fairy-tales: a living fossil, the last thread in a cultural skein.
Fred Frantic is a bit of a fossil too. He's a punk. He has a Mohican and, when we first arrived, he had it twisted into aggressive spikes using soap. Only all that soap was making him itch, so he washed it out. After that he had a floppy Mohican dripping indolently over his forehead, like a dozy Guinea Pig snoring on his scalp. So there's three weird people at this garden party already. A deranged hippie, a Guinea Pig-headed punk, and me: a castaway on the desert island of the Twentieth Century, still trying to work out which of the eight discs to take with me.
We were drinking cider from the beginning, which was No Bad Thing. My feet hurt, so I had to take my shoes off. But my feet smelt, so I had to go and wash them. Such is the indignity of feet, that they hurt and then they smell. And you think it's a glamorous thing being a writer? The only glamorous writer is one without feet.
A friend of Fred's invited us round for a meal. This was very nice of him. Only him and Steve got involved in a conversation about AIDS, which I considered to be highly speculative at this moment, since we were only there to eat chips. Had he been inviting us to an evening of debauched sex I might have considered it more appropriate. Maybe he was expecting us to eat our chips with condoms on.
After that he wanted us to say grace over our meal. This was one indignity too far for me. He said, "if you don't say it I'll throw the food in the bin." I said, "well throw it in the bin then, I'm not saying grace." Admittedly it was a pagan grace he was encouraging, an invocation to the god and goddess. But it still reminded me of school meals back in the '50s, and I happen to be an Atheist. In the end we compromised. I arched my hands over the food in an attitude of prayer, while Steve said grace, and then the others all said "Awen, Awen, Awen," together. Awen is the Druid version of Amen, only it's chanted like the Om: "A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-n-n-n-n-n-n-n." One Awen serves for fifty or a hundred Amens. By the time they'd finished the food had gone cold.
I've used up 542 words already, and I haven't even started to tell you about the garden party yet. Steve was there on special invitation, being a temporarily eclipsed International Superstar. He would be world-renowned, only no one has heard of him. He'd forgotten to bring his guitar, so he had to borrow one. Unfortunately, this guitar had the E-string missing, which led to a string of jokes about strings and E. "What happened - I'd better explain this - what this is about is that I learned to play the G chord in two different ways. And the first way was using only this one particular string which is missing, and the second way was using the string which is missing, and the other string, which I've got. This is really complicated now, cos having learned to play with the string that I've got, the string that is missing isn't there... So I'm lost to that degree. And this is the sort of crap guitar player I am."
Someone shouted out: "Play it in E."
"Do I want an E?" said Steve. "I'd love an E. Give me an E. This is what I need, an E. Can we have some more E's. This is actually an E party. And E is an illegal drug. Good heaven's, I'm encouraging E abuse now. I can't play these G's properly without the E that is missing. Without the E I get lost. I get lost anyway." And on like that. That's the way Steve talks. "I'm hallucinating. I thought there was the E-string which is missing here, and it's gone. I'll play it astrally. I play astral E-strings." And then he broke into a rendition of his most famous song: "Extracting the latex from a rubber ducky, gets you in a mess, yes, very mucky; I'll give you all a try if you're very lucky, extracting the latex from a rubber ducky. That's basically the whole line of the song," he added as an aside: "it's the work of a disturbed mind."
Next came Fred Frantic's set. He began with a number called Sex at 85 and a 1/2. It went like this:
"My Nan said that at eighty five and a half
She was still having you-know-what each month.
And do you know what I said to her?
What? You still having you-know-what each month?
Yes, she said, I am."
And that's it. The entire length of the song. Fred's version of punk is of the self-parodying variety, sung to Country-and-Western tunes, with a West Country twang, with titles like Nostrodamus In My Nostril, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome: "Irritable bowel syndrome has got you by the balls, when you do a number two it's like Niagara Falls." He intersperses these with snatches of wired West Country Ganja poetry:
"Cider-Belly did in an I-and-I fashion,
Past Herby via me-and-me Fred Frantic grockle belly like,
To 'erby 'erb-'ead grumble-scratchers was I-and-I testes."
Don't ask me what it meant. It sounded good.
My favourite song was one called When You Fall From The Sky, with it's chorus of "dib-dib dob-dob, dib-dib dob-dob, it don't matter if you were in the Cubs." I felt I was dealing with something profound here. I've been feeling it ever since. Now, whenever I come to a decision of dizzying complexity, such as "which pub should I go to tonight?" where I feel that I am genuinely about to fall from the sky, I think, "yes Fred, you're right: it don't matter if you were in the Cubs." And then I sing "dib-dib dob-dob, dib-dib dob-dob" consolingly to myself.
Stompin': a drug-crazed mix of muddled minds
“Stompin'” they called it. Stompin' like a herd of elephants through some delicate primal jungle. Stompin' like an army crushing the harvest. It was a state of mind. Stompin' on barbiturates and booze, a giggling dopey tangle of arms and legs and torsos all heading in different directions.
This was sometime in the mid-‘70s. There were four of them: Droid, Beryl, Cathy, and Jackie, heading for the luxury apartment (so called) of some bloke called Brian, looking for a place to crash for the night. Well no one knew Brian. By now no one knew if they’d even met Brian, or how they’d got here. But here they were, in a lift going up, falling against the walls and the door, and then falling out onto the landing as the door opened with a swish and a swoosh like the sound of a train rushing by. And now they were in the corridor, all the doors lined up in rank, with the rubbish bags waiting neatly outside for the morning collection. These were neat people. This was a neat little world they were entering.
Well Droid, Beryl, Cathy and Jackie also had their black plastic rubbish bags with them, but there was no rubbish in them, only sleeping bags and whatever: the things they needed to spend a night at someone’s flat. And they trooped - or rather, stumbled - down the corridor to the first door and began banging on it wildly, eager for the party.
A guy answered the door. It wasn’t Brian. It wasn’t anyone they knew or even wanted to know. He was looking at them. He was looking at them like they were some kind of insects that had just crawled into his neat little corridor, something, perhaps, that had just pupated in the sickly atmosphere of the rubbish bags he’d left for the dustmen to take away in the morning.
“Yes?” he said, briskly.
Well Jackie was the polite one. “Er, sorry,” she said. “Sorry like. We thought this was Brian’s place. You know Brian? We’ve been for a bit of a drink like. Brian said… So we… You know him? He said…” and her voice trailed off into the sullen air.
“If he’s that fucking hippie, you’ll find him two floors up. Now if you don’t mind, just piss off, and I don’t want to see any of you again.” And he slammed the door in their faces.
“Charming,” said one of the girls, and they picked up their bags and made their way back to the lift. There was already someone in there, who stepped back as they stumbled in and pressed the button for two floors up. The door closed, and now they were stuck in this confined space with a stranger who - just like the man at the door - started giving them this look. And it wasn’t just a look of the eyes. It was a look that took in his whole face, like they were rubbish. He was standing back against the wall of the lift, literally wrinkling his nose as if they stank or something. And, in fact, now they came to think about it, there was a smell in there, something strange and sickly and decidedly obscene, and they began looking at each other to find out which one was the source of the stench. It took a few seconds for them to work it out. The murky green smell was drifting about and filling the small space like some sickly perfume, as the lift juddered upwards from one floor to the next and they began to realise, as slow consciousness dawned, that one of them had picked up the wrong bag downstairs, and that instead of sleeping bags, one of these rubbish bags actually contained what it was specifically designed to contain, namely rubbish. There it was, on the floor of the lift, dripping unsanitary slime and stinking like a dustman’s two day old Y-fronts. No wonder the stranger was giving them weird looks. Who on Earth would want to carry rubbish bags round with them? What did they intend doing with them later?
So it was up in the lift to the stranger’s floor, then back down to the first floor, to drop off their unwelcome load and pick up the sleeping bag they’d left behind, and then back up the other two floors to where they hoped they might find a bed for the night. Up and down in a lift with rubbish bags for company, disturbing tenants and creating foul smells. What a night. Until they finally emerged on another floor (which looked exactly the same as all the other floors, even down to the rubbish bags lined up outside) and knocked on a door which they hoped was Brian’s, and it was. “Thank god for that,” thought Droid, “we’ve finally made it to the right floor and the right flat carrying the right bags and calling on the right person.” And Brian let them in.
Well it was a typical ‘70s party. Various people in various states of intoxication on various kinds of drugs, from speed, dope and acid, to downers and drink. No Ecstasy then of course. As Droid put it to me, “a drug-crazed mix of muddled minds.”
Now it all gets a little hazy here, which isn’t too surprising. Droid can’t remember what happened next, but he does remember getting the munchies and not being able to find anything else to eat apart from a tin of corned beef on the floor. He scoffed the lot. Soon after he fell into a deep sleep on the floor beneath some bunk beds that were already full of bodies.
Later he was rudely awoken when someone fell on top of him, grunted, and then continued snoring. It was Malcolm, who’d fallen from one of the bunks. “Fuck this,” thought Droid, “if he’s so far gone that he’s still crashed out even though he’s fallen from a bunk bed, then I’m going to climb up there and take his place.” And he did. He got into bed with Malcolm’s girlfriend, who, still sleeping, still drowned out in no man’s land by the sleepers, only stirred enough to say, “there you are Malcolm,” before drifting back into her coma. Droid did nothing to correct her, but only cuddled up close as he too drifted back to sleep.
In the morning he was painfully awoken as something hard hit him on the back of the neck. It was the empty corned beef can. Droid lifted his head, rubbing his neck, to see who it was. It was Malcolm, trying to raise himself angrily.
“Droid, you cunt,” he said, “you’ve ripped off my corned beef, you’ve ripped off my bed, and you’ve ripped off my girlfriend too. I’m gonna get you.” At which point he fell back to sleep.
So that was that. One more stoned night back in the ‘70s. Droid even went out with Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend for a while, though it didn’t last. These days Malcolm is a taxi driver. The last time Droid saw him it was when he called a cab. “Oh it’s you,” Malcolm said, as Droid ducked through the door. “I didn’t mind you stealing my girlfriend. It was the corned beef I’ll never forgive you for.”
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© 2017 Christopher James Stone