The man on the door had given us a look, a look that said ‘are you crazy?’. He was over six-foot, wider than the door he blocked with dark black skin taught over fearsome muscles.
Vero sweet-talked him round. ‘He’s with me, ain’t no bad thing going to happen, you’ll see.’ She batted her eyelids, stroked his muscular arm, seduced him the same way she had me. It was impossible not to fall for her.
Eventually he shrugged. ‘It’s your life.’ He opened the door and let us pass. I thought I heard him mutter ‘cracker’ as the door closed, but I wasn’t going to pick a fight with him.
Vero took my arm and we walked down a dim, tight corridor. The air was damp and the smell musty. At the far end there was an opening that glowed like some portal to another world.
The sound of Vero’s heels clicking on the stone floor echoed around us until they were drowned out by the growing noise as we approached. It was the sound of joy, of happiness. There was laughter, chatter, exclamations, shouts. Above it all was the reason we had come: the music.
Working together in the store was the only way someone like me could have ever got to know someone like Veronica. I worked the checkout serving the customers who came in to buy records – black and white, Mr. Legrande didn’t discriminate. Vero swept the floor and emptied the trash. Mr. Legrande trusted her. I started thinking there might be something more to it than that, especially when he started trusting her to take the daily takings to the bank down the street.
One evening Mr. Legrande had to go early and left me the keys to lock up. When the store closed I put the new Duke record on the store player. Those trills and runs on the piano keys were great music to tidy up to. I don’t know how long she had been watching me when I noticed her leaning on the broom, smiling at me. She loved the Duke too. We ended up spending that whole night together, sat on the floor, listening to Dizzy, Monk, Coltrane, Miles and The Count. She didn’t flinch when I kissed her as the sun was rising.
The drum and double bass held the sway in time, the piano tapped a jazz rhythm. As we neared a trumpet took flight on a joyous solo until a saxophone picked it up, challenged it and began arguing with it. It was intoxicating. Through the gap I could see shadows gliding, jiving, gyrating to the sounds, driven by nature to move to the beat.
And then we reached the door. Those closest stopped first, then the wave spread across the room. Finally it reached the band on the stage. The brass stopped suddenly, the double bass fell silent. The piano was the last to halt, the player had his eyes closed, lost in the sound. His final note hung in the claustrophobic air.
Fifty black faces looked straight at me. I never felt so white. I never felt so out of place.
‘We should go,’ I whispered to Vero, our arms still interlocked.
‘I think you should, boy,’ said the man nearest to me. Murmurs of agreement rippled round the room.
Vero eyed the room. ‘What, y’all scared of one white boy come to listen to some jazz? Jimmy bring us two whiskys and, Levone, play me my song.’
The piano player stared for a moment, scanned the room, trying to judge the atmosphere. Then he tipped his head to her. ‘Sure thing, Lady Veronica.’
The bartender brought out two glasses and placed them on a table for us. As I walked through the crowd I felt the eyes boring into me. The piano started an upbeat jive. Gradually the other instruments joined in. Slowly the dancers resumed their courtships. The laughter and chatter once again filled the smoke infused club. The eyes moved away from me.
Soon people came over to join us. Vero introduced me. Levone, the band leader came and drank with us while a substitute pianist took his place.
‘You play?’ Levone asked me.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Good enough to get up there?’
‘You bet he is,’ Vero answered for me. ‘Be careful now Levone, he’ll have your job if you let people hear him play.’
Levone smiled and headed back to the stage, with the promise that I would be on the keys before the night was out. Vero took my hand and we moved onto the dance floor. Those around us smiled and laughed. I’m sure scowls and frowns were aimed in our direction, but I didn’t notice them. The world I had entered was intoxicating my soul.
‘You are one helluva woman,’ I said to Vero.
She smiled. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’