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A Night in June

There are times Fay wonders why she does it. Tonight is one of them.
The bar is full. She stands under the spotlight. It catches the side of her
face, accentuates the line of her dark profile, her short, tight hair. All she
can hear is the shuffling of chairs, of feet, the babble of conversation.
She turns the keys of the guitar, struggles to catch the pitch above the
noise. Placing her fingers along the fretboard, her long, thin right hand
plucks a chord on the strings. Her ears strain to check if everything is in
tune. Moving her body forward, she lightly plays a short blues run. It is
probably the best she can hope for in the circumstances. She turns her
face to the crowd.
There is a ripple of applause from her left. It is followed by the sound of
laughter. Why she is regularly booked to play here, she does not know.
She feels she is nothing more than background music for the eagerly
socialising faces, faces for the most part turned away from her. Once, just
once, she would like to be able to play something different, something
that would reach them, something that would quieten them, make them
stop and really listen. On Saturday evening it is the talk, the drink, the
company they come for. She steps to the front of the stage.

The barman passes. He holds a tray full of glasses above his head.
Accidentally, he knocks against the stand that holds the microphone. It
sways and she puts her hand out to steady it. She looks at him and signals
that she is ready to start. Nodding, his long moustache moves up and
down, his small sad eyes remain expressionless.
She taps her foot on the wooden boards. To her right, her boyfriend,
Kurt, is standing. He smiles at her, raising his shoulders.
In front of her, sitting with his legs stretched out, is a guy with cowboy
boots and a fifties hairstyle. In his fist, he holds a glass and there is a
small cigar stuck between his teeth. He sullenly stares at her.
Putting her hand to her forehead, she looks into the ceiling. The top
cannot be seen for smoke. Her upper teeth bite gently on her lip.
The barman returns, negotiating the outstretched feet. With a quick
movement of his head he indicates he is ready to introduce her.
The P.A. whistles, the microphone hisses. The voice asks for quiet, for
some attention and applause. There is a slight lull in the voices; a couple
of bursts of clapping and the faces turn to gaze curiously at her. She picks
a point somewhere in the centre of the audience and fixes her attention
on it. Taking a deep breath, she reaches for the opening notes of her first
song.

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Dirk is surprised to find himself step in. It is not somewhere he would


usually go. His bicycle is left locked to a bridge, locked to an old railing
lining a narrow stretch of inky water.

He was walking down the alley behind the main street, walking really
without direction. After eating, he just felt like being out, just felt like
being in the air, seeing what happened on a Saturday evening.

It is a long time since he has done anything like this. Generally, he sits
in reading the newspaper, sometimes watching the television, sometimes
half watching and half reading. Tonight he feels restless.
Things have not been going well between him and his wife. She has
taken the children to her parents. He is alone for the weekend.
Reluctantly, he agreed to this. She said, maybe they needed a little space,
a little time apart.
Each weekend is tense. She is tired and under pressure. She has
become more involved in her work, has begun to put her career before
their home. So he feels. Criticising her is out of the question. The reply will
be that there is no reason why she should not do so. What does he
expect? Should she pass an opportunity like the one being offered her?
It is not a question of her doing anything like that, not a question of her
giving up her own life, he counters. Still, he, her children, need some
thought too. She has not yet listened.
It is unfair. When she took this job, he made adjustments in his working
life. It was difficult to explain to his boss, it caused conflict with his
colleagues. Later when there was a question of training on a new system,
he was passed over.
He would not mind so much if he felt the same commitment was there
on her part. What she is really after is the promotion. The complication
that will bring is something he does not like to think about.

She stands back from the microphone. The sweat runs down the side of
her face. The applause dies down. Her fingers move up and down the
fretboard as she introduces her next song. There is the clatter of glasses
falling somewhere as someone suddenly gets up to walk to the toilets.

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At first he went right past. The alley was nearly empty, quiet compared
to the bustle of the square and main street. It was an area with a couple
of trendy theatres, cafes only frequented by a particular crowd. He did not
expect to see such a place. It was the music that stopped him. Looking in
the door, something about it reminded him of when he was younger. For a
time with a friend he played in a couple of these types of bars. They were
not that good though he enjoyed it. He gave it up when he began to
study, when he began to think a little more seriously about his future.

The first of her three sets end and she lets out a long sigh. She
leans her guitar back against the stand and turns the microphone away,
toward the floor. Taped music bursts from the P.A. The crowd resume
drinking.

It did not go as bad as she had at first feared. She had to work hard at
it. The attention wavered, came and went. The old favourites were what
she opened with. It was always better to begin with the well-known songs,
the songs everyone had a copy of somewhere. She is never sure whether
it is the familiarity, the reassurance of the known that holds a crowd’s
attention or her performance.
Her fingers sting a little and her voice feels dry. Stepping down off the
low stage, Kurt comes toward her through the crowd. In his hand is a glass
of mineral water and across his face, a sympathetic smile.
“Thanks,” she says. “It’s not easy tonight.”
“No,” he answers. “It’s a real Saturday night crowd. Tell me is it
extremely hot in here, or is it my imagination?”
She looks at him.
“It’s extremely hot. I think it’s a mixture of all these bodies crammed
into so tight a space together with the smoke.”
She pauses.
“Speaking of which, I’d love a cigarette.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“It can’t do me more harm than this atmosphere is already doing.”
“Ok, let’s go out to the door. We can stand on the street.”

They push their way through the bodies. The guy with the fifties
hairstyle is lighting another cigar. As they pass, he looks up at her. His
face sullenly gazes into hers and then he moves his feet a couple of
centimetres to let them pass.
“Hey, nice songs,” he calls after her.
“Thanks,” she says, dodging an outstretched arm. “Thanks a lot.”

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Dirk stretched up on his toes to see what was going on. It was busy.
The crowd was rather haphazard, chaotic, a mix of old and young, a mix
of types, drinking, talking, and listening.
Normally if he wanted an evening out, he went to the cinema, or the
theatre. Usually they went together. They would hire a baby-sitter. First
they would go to a restaurant and eat. In other circumstances he would
have chosen to go somewhere else.
As he strained forward, he wondered if maybe it was because she was
away. It occurred to him he felt his future to be somewhat uncertain.
Perhaps something that reminded him of a part of his past appealed right
now. He did not for one moment imagine he was about to return to that
way of life or anything, but, it seemed to break the line between what he
had once been and what he had become.
Edging into the crowd he thought life was not as simple as you
believed. It was possible things only receded into the background, only
seemed to be forgotten when there was something in your present,
something that took over your thoughts, your feelings, that kept you
chasing the future. It was a notion that unsettled him, made him feel
uneasy. The idea that there were other elements standing in the wings,
elements you thought you had put firmly behind you, but were really just
waiting to come back at you, elements, that one day you might realise
had been other choices, other possibilities, unnerved him. Where would
you be had you known that then? Where would you be had you chosen
differently? It was not that there were choices, but perhaps there was no
one right choice. Perhaps all choices were relative and it was only time
that showed whether your choice had been a good one. Yet you had no
way of controlling time. Did you really have that much control over
choosing? Was making a choice a gamble? Was it like throwing a coin in
the air? You could never see ahead, never predict. It was like standing in
front of a maze, and having to get from one side to the other. You
watched everyone else, noticed the pathways they took. All you had to do
was follow, keep close and you could also make your way through.
You thought a always led to b, and b then to c, that there was one
pathway, one route. But that was an error. To assume your a was the
same as another’s a, to assume that, even if it was so, both a’s would lead
to the same b, and then to onto a similar c, was mistaken. Really,
choosing the pathway that seemed the safest was just an attempt to
ignore risk, to ignore responsibility. It did not remove either. Their
existence continued: the way the moon was there, or the stars, though
you could not always see them.
The younger you were, the more naive you were. You did not reckon on
life having an intelligence of its own. Everything was under control, you
thought. Choices were made that were in your present, choices that
increased your past, yet were made in order to determine your future.

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Perhaps everyone's life was about crossing the maze. Everyone had to
make the journey. Not only were none of your a's the same, but the maze
was unstable, was unfixed. It fluctuated, changed, could alter its shape
and the trick was to figure out if there was a pattern to its mutations, if
there was a principle that determined its modifications, and then to work
with that.
It would have been better had you started with the knowledge there
was an element of the unknown, an element that was unique to your
experience. Then you would be prepared for the unexpected.
Then, perhaps, you would make choices that at least allowed for
alteration. You could make choices that allowed you the room to change
direction.

They step out onto the street. Kurt leans against the wall. The brick is
cool on his back. Fay looks up into the sky. It is dark, the blue almost
turned black. The buildings lean in over the narrow alleyway, the lights
from the main street caught and reflected in the roofs above. He pulls his
jacket open and puts his hand in his pocket. It is a warm night. The
chatter, the laughter from inside, the music from the P.A., drift out to
them.
“Fresh air,” he exclaims, breathing deeply.
She looks at him, takes her glass from her mouth.
“You know, I thought tonight I wasn’t going to make it. When I got
up there to tune up, I thought this is it. I don’t know which I felt more.
Anxious or angry. It was like facing a blank. I wanted to step up to the
microphone and say, aah, hello everyone I am here. Music, do you know
what I mean. It’s what this is about."
He stretches his shoulders.
“What can you do? It takes time to work your way in. That barman,
what’s his name now, René, he’s in it to sell beer, no?”
“I think he needs a good haircut, that’s what I think.”
Kurt laughs.
“Maybe we could offer to get him one for his birthday.”
Fay looks at him, her eyes opening, her face adopting an expression of
mock surprise.
“His birthday? Do we know when his birthday is? Do we need to know
when his birthday is?”
“Sure we know. He told us earlier this evening. He was having one of
his rare, conversational moods. Next week sometime.”
She nods her head.
“I forgot. Still, it’s a bit of a time warp, isn’t it? I mean. . it’s not that it’s
long. . .it's...well I don't know. I guess there’s no harm in him being the

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way he wants to be. But it’s a bit like my hair is still back twenty years
what does that say about me?”
Kurt moves his weight from one foot to the other.
“Nothing, and probably everything.”
Fay looks down into her glass, shakes it, swirling the remains of the
water around.
“I’ve just remembered I left my cigarettes in my jacket inside.”
He smiles at her.
“You can do without them, can’t you? It’s not good for your voice you
know. It’s unhealthy.”
“I know, still.”
It is then she notices the stranger to her right. He is standing holding a
glass awkwardly between his arm and his body. There is an unopened
packet of cigarettes in his hand and he is fiddling with it, trying to get the
plastic wrapping off. She goes over to him.

Dirk pushed further through the entrance until he was nearly at the
edge of the stage. Two girls turned and looked at him. At first they
appeared a little annoyed at his shoving, but then one smiled
The interior had an odd shape. To the right, just after the entrance, was
the stage. Facing it were lines of chairs and tables. The floor ran away to
the back where there was a bar. Groups of people stood there, leaning
against each other, or drinking, some with their arms folded defensively
across their chests.
He watched the singer, watched her movements, watched her struggle
to keep the crowd with her. The barman passed by and he signalled he
wanted a beer. As he waited, he realised he felt like smoking a cigarette.
‘To hell with it,’ he thought, ‘one time won’t hurt’.
Normally he did not smoke. He considered it an unhealthy habit. He
had done so when he was younger, but now felt that it was better not to.
At home, she was strictly against it. She argued it made the children
passive smokers and he had to agree she had a point.
At one time she wanted to put up a sign in the hallway of their
apartment stating, ‘no smoking’. He thought that a little too strong. ‘What
if they had friends over and they smoked? Then it was a little unsocial, a
little rude?’ He suggested it would be better just not to leave any ashtrays
around, then people would figure out it was not a smoking household.
He laughed when he thought of the complications people got
themselves into. Only the previous week he listened with amusement as
one of his work-colleagues told him how his wife had accused him of
seeing someone else because regularly he went to the neighbours on the
pretence of needing to ask for something. Well there he could light up.

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He thought of his own wife and wondered in the same circumstances
what she would find more upsetting: that he smoked or that he was
maybe seeing another woman.

He searched around for some loose change. He turned to see if there


was a cigarette machine anywhere. Behind him was a guy with a scruffy
appearance: a lined face, bright, piercing blue eyes and short uncombed
hair, stared down at him. For a moment he was taken aback. He thought
he read aggression in the eyes. He mumbled a half-hearted, pardon. The
guy looked at him, and then with a grin, stepped aside.
Going to the cigarette machine, he fumbled with the coins. He wavered
over which brand to buy. He decided on the one he recollected having
seeing the least amount of adverts for.
He pulled on the metal handle and felt a little guilty. The coins dropped
and there was a soft thud when the tightly wrapped packet appeared in
the tray. He bent down and picked it up, shoving it quickly into his pocket.
Taking a drink from his beer, he pushed back to where he had been
standing.
She was introducing one of her own songs. Suddenly she seemed
nervous. He noticed she was fiddling with the tuning keys, that her eyes
kept trying to find a space somewhere above the faces.
As she played the opening chords, as she began to run the bass strings
down, as the slow, melodic song unfolded, he found himself listening
carefully. It seemed to him more like a jazz or blues ballad. A woman near
the bar leaned forward and looked intently, listening to every word, her
glass suspended in the air. He followed the rhythm, his foot moving
involuntarily, his eyes observing her every expression.
About halfway through there was a shuffling of feet and a group of
guys near the back started raucously laughing at something one of them
had apparently said.
When she finished, the applause varied. Some seemed impressed,
enthusiastic, others looked to the bar, started to get up to order. Some
just carried on with conversations they had never stopped. He realised
there was going to be a break. Then, he remembered he was alone and
that everyone else suddenly seemed to be with someone.
Feeling a little strange, like the odd person out, he stood for a moment
looking about him, draining the remains of his glass.

“Ja, of course,” he replies, hesitating for a moment over the English. He


opens the pack and pulls one out for her.
“Thanks.”
“Do you maybe...ah...have some fire?” he asks.

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She puts her hand in her pocket, takes out a lighter and clicks it open.
He leans forward and pulls on the cigarette.
“The last song was very nice,” he says.
Her dark, lively, eyes, her bare, high forehead, her expressive mouth,
soften into a smile.
“You liked it?”
“Yes, it was different. I like that it was slow, that it was...” he hesitates,
“ah, how should I say, that it was maybe a little sad.”
“Why thank you.”
She pauses.
“Hey, why don’t you come over and join us. We’re just out here trying
to get some space, trying to cool down a bit.”

He stands at the bar and drinks a couple more beers. She does some
more of her own compositions. He likes them best. When she finishes, she
comes over to him. He buys her a drink and she stands and talks to him
for a while, waiting for the crowd to clear. Perhaps it is the beer, perhaps
the music, but he feels relaxed. Not once does he think about home,
about work, about anything. It is just after four when he leaves.

Dirk bends over his bicycle and struggles to focus on the lock,
struggles to get the key to turn. The water below the bridge is slow, dark
and washes indolently against the stone canal side. The warm air moves
against his skin, over his neck. Pulling a light raincoat over his shoulders,
he gets up onto the seat. He grips the handlebars and begins to cycle,
begins to cross the deserted main street.
The buildings around him are impassive, the shop fronts darkened.
Slowly pushing at the pedals, he moves along the bicycle lane. A police
car drives lazily past, its white and blue keeping to the raised centre of
street where the tram-tracks are.
He gazes up into the sky. It is a clear night. He does not yet feel like
going home. In a way he does not want the night to end, the morning to
come.
To his left, where the old palace stands, is a three-quarter moon.
Sometimes it seems so cold, to be almost made of chalk, to be like a still,
white disc hanging there. In the winter it can make the city seem colder
and closer, its pale rays catching faces as if suggesting some time past,
some memory not quite forgotten. Now it is the middle of June. It is florid
and creamy. In the warm spring night it blends with the city air, with
perfume, the remaining aromas from now closed restaurants, the faint
smell of car fumes, pollen. He turns to his left and passes the Nieuwekerk.
The yellow traffic lights flash on and off. Cutting to his right, he crosses

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onto one of the main canals. Following it, he takes in its rise and fall,
whistling to himself.
The trees are heavy, their leaves full under the arc of the streetlamps.
The vibration of the bicycle as it moves over the surface of the canal side
passes up into his arms through the handlebars. He is about to cross the
bridge near the station, to go to his left when he realises this will bring
him home quicker. For a moment he stops, putting his foot down on the
hard ground, steadying himself and thinking. His head still feels a little
light.
He goes straight on then crosses behind the station. He will cycle along
the old unused harbour area. Coasting under the rail bridge, there is a hiss
as a solitary post-train rattles above his head. The open space with its
water appears in front of him. The wooden piers, the rise of the pass
behind the station and the moon shining on the silky surface hold his
vision. This way he can still get home, this way he can get to where he
lives by another route.

Their footsteps echo in the empty street. Kurt carries her guitar.
Leaning against him, she links her arm tightly through his and yawns.
“Sleepy, eh?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies.
They come to the door of their apartment. It is small and old. Putting
the guitar down, he searches in his pocket for the key. She folds her arms
across her chest, yawns again. There is the sound of the metal turning in
the lock, the rasp of the hinges as the wooden door swings open.
“Come on,” he whispers, “we’re home.”
They climb the stairs. There is the familiar smell – a dry, musty odour in
the air. She hears the creak, hears him knock her guitar off the wall.
“Who would have thought you could build something so narrow,” she
says.
He opens a door. His arm stretches into the darkness. His hand fumbles
for the switch and suddenly there is a glow and the light like an orange
sphere hangs over the centre of the living room. Something brushes
against her ear, buzzes past her.
“Dammed mosquitoes,” she murmurs.
“What,”
“Nothing, it was just a mosquito I think.”
Kurt walks to the window. The curtains are blowing gently against the
back of the sofa. Pulling them over, he turns as she falls into a chair.
“I’m going to get a glass of water. Do you want one?” he asks.
“Yes please. I’m feeling a little dried out.”
Bright fluorescent floods the tiny kitchen. The tap opens, echoes in the
steel sink and the water gushes around and into the cylindrical glass.

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Dirk has left his bicycle lying somewhere behind him. Carefully
stepping over the rough ground he goes down to where the grass falls
away into a broken wall, to where it disappears into the water. Muttering
to himself that his coat will probably get dirty, that tomorrow he will
probably look at it and wonder how it got like that but now he does not
care, he comes to a stop.
The water breaks against the old pier. His eyes fall on the dim wooden
shapes, the rotting supports that once must have been a docking area.
To his right, in the distance, are lights, the lights of buildings, the lights
of the harbours, the lights of ships. It seems to him he can hear a hum,
hear the low, almost soothing murmur of distant activity.
He imagines being inside one of the ships. He thinks of the oily smell,
the narrow passageways, the metal railings, the thin steel steps, the
excitement of a journey about to be made. Where have some of the ships
come from? Where are some of them going? It fills his mind. The sea and
how it is. How it knows no boundaries. How it has fed this city. How it is
what this city is built around: the tides coming in, swelling, rising and then
ebbing, falling away.
For a moment he is there, is standing on a deck, watching the ropes
being cast off, the rusty scrape of a side as it leaves the quay, the surge
of an engine, the water churning up at stern. He imagines the next port of
call: some faraway place. Somewhere he has never been. The journey, the
roll and the sway, the change in appearance, the skin weathering as the
ship navigates the ocean’s curve. He gazes up at the sky, at the moon.
It is higher and paler. To his right, to the east, he can see the sky is a
lighter blue. It is as if the night is beginning to melt away. Dawn is
creeping over the city. Suddenly he feels tired, realises that it must be
nearly five or after. Letting go, dropping to the ground, he lies back on the
coarse grass. It is damp. It is cool against the back of his head.
He pulls out the near empty pack of cigarettes from his pocket, takes
out the matches she gave him and lights one. The smoke rises above him
in grey and blue clouds.
He does not want to think about it, does not want to think that
tomorrow is nearly here, that soon it will be the day after, that then she
will be back, then the tension will increase, and there will still have to be
an answer.
Choices’, he murmurs to himself. ‘And if I were coming back from a
voyage, if I were sailing up past these harbours, into this city, would I see
my own life as if it did not belong to me, but to someone else? Would I see
the choices I have made, and see that there were choices I should have
made, choices I should not have made? Would I see my life any clearer,

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or would I be caught in another life, held by its current, driven by its
needs?’
He puts the cigarette to his mouth and watches the end glow.
Tomorrow he will remember this. Tomorrow he will probably wonder what
made him do it. He will feel tired, his head will ache, and he will be
irritated at himself for being foolish, for acting out of character. Yet as he
lies there, he hears the pull of her songs, sees her in front of the crowd,
her fingers finding the chords, the supple switch from one to the other.
The bass strings counterpoint the melody, the soft tap of her foot keeps
rhythm on the simple, wooden stage and her voice gently caresses the
ears of those who are listening.
Maybe it was really not such a strange thing to do. Perhaps she will be
playing there again sometime, and he will be passing, and then he will
stop and listen to her sing, listen to her songs as she pitches them to that
spot somewhere just above the centre of the audience. He will listen to
her find the blues run, the sweet, jazzy sound like the pull of the sea, the
sound that kept him standing there this one night in June.

Copyright © Peter Millington. April 1996.

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