Jazz night at Arbuckle’s

Soft, suspended chords drifted from the piano as Melanie looked out at the crowd. Even if she shielded her eyes with her palm she couldn’t see how many were out there, which was probably just as well. The muscular smell of steak floated from an unseen plate, causing her stomach to rumble and making her momentarily forget what she was about to say.

“It’s, er,” she began. Her long nails scratched at her neck and caught on a loose thread at the shoulder of her dress. She pulled her hand sharply away and felt something give. She hoped it wouldn’t show. “Thank you all so much for being here tonight, it means the world to us. This is our last song tonight.”

At the cue, Ira’s playing began to gain form, the background music coalescing into something more insistent, something with a purpose. Melanie closed her eyes and began to sway gently from side to side, willing herself into one with the sound. It had been harder lately to find the point at which the outside world fell away and left her cocooned in a blissful fog.

Somewhere a glass smashed, and a cheer briefly rose then was stifled.

The intro was finishing and Melanie could feel Ira’s eyes on her. She nodded, and found the first note. But as she sang her thoughts leapt to the ‘dressing room’, a narrow corridor that led to the fire escape. Ira would expect a repeat of the previous night, when she’d been unwisely drunk on gin cocktails (bought by the manager, who might have hoped he’d be the beneficiary of his largesse). In spite of herself, she was tempted. Ira wasn’t bad-looking, he had a wicked sense of humour, and, most importantly, he understood music. He would understand the late nights, the travelling and the exhaustion, the motel rooms and plastic-packaged service station dinners. He wouldn’t sit up waiting for her and hurl accusations of infidelity that eventually would come true, because if that was what someone was going to think anyway, why wouldn’t you?

She could do a lot worse than a man like Ira.

Back, back to the song. This was her audience and she owed them a performance: that was the cardinal rule, the one constant of the last fifteen years. Yes, you could phone in a set and people might not complain, but that wasn’t enough. You had to give them more than just the songs themselves. You had to give them you. If they didn’t want it, that was their problem.

The crowd were getting into it now, clapping along, which Melanie liked although she knew lots of singers didn’t. Always end on something upbeat, that was the key. You could serve up the most mournful set imaginable, but closing with ‘Hallelujah, I Love Him So’ or ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’ as good as guaranteed a happy audience and a repeat booking.

It was only on the last chorus that Melanie felt she’d really done it justice, although it was good to know she still could. Ira’s playing slowed to signal the end, then he finished with a flourishing run. There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by the scrape of cutlery on cheap porcelain, before the applause started. It was a little too loud and a little too long, compensatory perhaps, but Melanie drank it in regardless. Someone was hollering and whooping like a madman, and Melanie wondered whether he knew her then decided he was just drunk.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.”

The stage lights switched off and the diner music started up, some heartless funk. Undeterred, Melanie continued: “And please give a big hand for my pianist tonight, Ira Stone!”

She stretched out one hand towards Ira, the microphone still in the other. He took it, and together they bowed to their audience, the applause falling over them as light and fresh as rain.