Hot Ginger and Dynamite
Brighton Hippodrome, December 2nd, 1937.
A couple of whispered voices vibrate through the wall and fall on Nat Gonella as he peers into the mirror in a tiny dressing room.
"She’s a cold-‘earted one."
"Oh, mark my words she is."
"Poor old Nat. she’s making a crockery of ‘im."
"Oooooohhh, watch ‘im break!"
Laughter sifts through the wall as Nat remains motionless, staring at his stretched cheeks and quiet, resigned eyes; his eyelids at half-mast.
"Mr Gonella, five minutes please."
Nat draws his chair away and buttons up his blue and white striped blazer, adorned on the breast with a trumpet and the letters ‘NG’ above. He sits back down, looks at a small photo of her clipped to the side of his mirror, unpins it and slips it into his chest pocket.
* * *
Blythe, Northumberland Civic Centre, December 6th, 1937.
Nat walked into the Civic Hall’s tiny reception-cum-office and tapped the window of the door. The booker looked up and waved excitedly.
"Listen," said Nat, "I’m all out of sorts; not feeling too smart. The car broke down and I’ve got a stinkin’ cough that limits me, see."
The booker nodded empathically, askance.
"I’ll have to go on early, need to get off soon as and get some kip."
Nat usually hated making demands like this, but acute misery forged its way in place of usual charm.
"So be it," announced the booker, kindly and softly.
On stage, Nat walked out and across the boards as his band watched him. He looked back at their faces and his eyes pierced at a couple of them who smiled the widest. He could hear each one of the boards creak, and smell them too; a sure sign that the crowd hadn’t grown in numbers at all. He remembered what Louis had told him: If you can hear yourself, you either ain’t doing it right or they ain’t hearing it right. The houselights were still on at the back, and he could see that the crowd was made up of about twenty or so decrepit men and what was a few young women, girls really. This was his close to his three-hundredth performance of the year, and he was playing to an empty hall of men with ears that didn’t work anymore and a bunch of girls who just came to dance.
Clearing his throat - he really did have a bad cough - he picked up his trumpet and blew a solitary high into it, pointing at his drummer to count the rest of the band in. During performances, Nat would find himself thinking about his school in North London and his cornet when he was twelve. He thought about the day he was told he could no longer play, that his little heart couldn’t take it. He thought about the days upon weeks he spent in a hospital bed, wrought with the most painfully absorbing boredom one could ever know.
The crowd was enjoying it, but Nat was distracted. He’d been distracted for a few months. He felt his heart beat up against the photo in his breast pocket and it felt sharp and heavy. He played The Dipsy Doodle, Oh Mo’nah, Black Coffee, T’Aint What You Do, Sweet Music Man and New Orleans Twist. But his heart wasn’t in any of them, not now. He looked out into the darkness and could sense that a few more people had come through the door. He felt a surge of bitterness surge through his body and out of his trumpet. Can’t even turn up on time, eh? He turned round to his band and, with little concern for the crowd that could well of heard him, said, "We’ll play Tiger Rag then get out of ‘ere." Nat burst into the song and the band followed his lead, once more. To his side, he sensed his double-bassist reach for the piano where the cuddly toy tigers were stored – it was part of the act, Nat’s little joke, enjoyed by audiences across the country, born of his days playing in variety shows: he’d have his band throw the little tigers out into the crowd. The air above heads filled with a blur of black and orange hitting the stage lights. They went wild for it. On this occasion he turned and motioned to the double bassist to leave it, who, in reply, tightened his forehead and turned down his mouth, feigning confusion. Nat blew on his trumpet and then let his lips fall free and to one side.
"Not for these lot."
Nat had started walking off before the song was even finished. By the door he noticed the booker who nodded at him enthusiastically.
"Thanks for coming to play for us, Mr Gonella."
"Our pleasure. What do I do about getting paid?"
"Yes of course. I have it here, one moment."
Some of the band was still playing and so Nat took a moment to look out at the crowd as the house lights had come back on. His eyes sank back a little as if getting a wider view of them; the hall had filled out significantly. Out in front of him he saw a solid hundred-plus men had joined the floor, all of them in blackface.
Nat looked back round at the booker who was carefully counting out his money, Nat hadn’t expected much as he’d chosen to take a percentage of the door rather than a ‘wage’. But the booker clearly had more than a hundred quid in his hands.
"What’s the story with all these lads in blackface?"
"Well this is a mining town, Mr Gonella. They’ve come from work."
Nat looked back at the crowd who were staring up at the stage anxiously.
"Don’t they know when a shows over? Why they all late?" his polite face croaked in impolite cockney.
"They just got off their shift. Sure they raced over here as quickly as they could."
Nat thought for a moment, looking at the money.
"Why’d they pay so much money if they’re all miners? They make a fair nick then?"
The booker stopped counting and looked at Nat to see if he was being genuine.
Nat searched into the bookers face for an answer. Seeing this, the booker provided it:
"Mr Gonella, these men do not earn a fair nick."
He passed Nat a wad of paycards that he had in the same envelope he’d counted the money out of. Nat took the cards and looked at them, trying to make sense of them, as the last of the band left the stage and the full house lights came on. He looked up from the paycards and shrugged, still unable to make sense of it as the crowd behind him lifted coats and turned their backs.
"They’ve been paying threepence out of their paypacket for the last seven months."
Nat felt his neck tighten.
"Ladies, Gentlemen, Jazz followers of the North. Please remain standing for the encore."
The band scuttled swiftly back into their places as Nat palmed them in. With brash, full-cheeked efforts, Nat blew, blew, blew and all of a sudden, Tiger Rag filled the air once more. The crowd filled to the front as the houselights went down and the band rallied behind Nat, lifting him with every horn, string and beat.
He looked over at the piano and nodded at the double bassist next to it who stared back blankly.
"Well get the bloody tigers out, you miserable bugger!" said Nat.
Trumpet at the side of his lips, just as he’d been taught not to, he smiled and thought of tigers leaping through the air.