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Daniel’s Fire stood out like a puppy at a funeral. A dazzling oasis of festive electrics and liquid shenanigans pulsating amongst the shuttered lifeless offices and shops that ran the length of Hobbs Terrace. A place that by day hummed to the tune of umbrella repairs, stocking repairs, soft furnishings, travel goods, tobacco, typewriters and sundry purveyors of coffee, textiles and tea. Upper floor windows, poor of paint and putty, carried time worn gold and white lettering announcing at number 26 the ageing partnership of Messrs Jacobs, Pearson and Tilly ‘Commissioners for Oaths’ and further along the block at number 34 could be found chain smoking Issy Goldberg (Rainwear and Casuals) through whose dusty portals lit only by a naked incandescent 40 Watt bulb, came the heady aroma of naphtha and the angry whir of Singer sewing machines driven on by busy hands guiding countless collars, pockets and belts under tireless needles seen dimly through the hissing steam of the Hoffman press.
Bella, out on the prowl from number 16, sat up on her hind legs and pawed the air as the first few snowflakes danced towards her on the wind, arching her back at the sight of a particularly threatening crystal she went in for the kill, pounced and rolled over only to find her paws damp but empty, a puzzle that was to be surprisingly short lived as with a chorus of contacts and a fanfare of flickering light Daniel’s opened for business and a startled Bella thought it best to beat a hasty retreat.
Daniel watched as small flakes became big flakes, lots of them and just enough breeze to fill doorways, climb drainpipes and embroider the dullest of windows turning Hobbs Terrace into a Victorian Christmas card, beckoning to passers-by and bringing a keen air of anticipation to the occupants of taxis and limos that squished through the slush to deposit their fares, and sloshed away again in an endless chain of elegant arrivals.
Daniel’s was always comfortably full, never overcrowded, but always a sufficient number of warm bodies to create a healthy buzz. The girls loved it, whether out on a date or just showing off a new dress, Daniel’s was the place to do it. So much so that Daniel had amassed a considerable bevy of admirers, drawn by his commanding stature, his Hollywood good looks, soft confident eyes and a ten-a-side moustache. There was another reason too why the girls came flooding in, a reason that defied explanation, yet was real enough in the minds of those who had acquired a taste for truly personal liquid refreshment.
From his position behind a sensuous sweep of cool black marble, Daniel could spot the arrival of hastily applied tutty or carefully administered powder and paint, he saw through a hurried wardrobe and admired the cut and daring of a tigress out on the kill. He felt the pain of a forced smile and the warmth of a bright grin, he knew the stoop of a heavy heart and the feather light step of Eros at work. Yet for all this, Daniel never concentrated on a woman for more than a few seconds, never caught the eye of a girl unless she wanted him to, and never once disclosed a lady’s secret, leaving that in the hand that held the glass, that held the drink, that held the heart.
For some girls it was a fanciful coincidence, for others nothing short of witchcraft, drinks to reflect their every mood, not blue because they were sad, nor red because they were mad, but complex works of sorcery from bottles he spun on angels wings hardly disturbing the air as he plucked anger, deceit, remorse and repentance, love, lust, want and forgiveness from seemingly nowhere to become part of a wicked or saintly fusion of fruits, bitters, spices and herbs. A spiritual chorus that at precisely the right moment he poured from a king’s chalice into frosted crystal flutes before presenting them to their owners with no less a flourish than that of a Merlin himself. ‘Drink this and the woman within will be revealed.’ He was often heard to whisper.
How he did it no one knew, but somehow, each girl found something of herself in every sip, perhaps bitter to begin with causing the tongue to retract, then slowly yielding to subtly honeyed as her mood improved, wanting more, there might then come the tang of sharp cordials to refresh the palate, before the heart warming glow of a mystery essence mingled with an overtone of jasmine to finish.
When Angela walked into the Fire it was on a chill wind that made Daniel wish he’d worn more than black slacks and a red silk shirt. He glanced towards the door and instead of picking up the usual vibes he felt numb, her faultless make-up gave light to her eyes but revealed nothing of the woman within, even her dress expertly cut and fitting precisely where it should do, conjured up no more than guesswork, an airline hostess perhaps, or a travel agent? Yes, certainly something to do with travel he decided.
For the first time in his life he couldn’t figure a woman out, couldn’t feel the usual charge that linked him to the secrets of her personality and from there to her innermost thoughts. This woman was a mystery, a total blank, emanating nothing he could use from his vast array of liquors and cordials to reflect her hidden emotions. The only image, if image it was that he was certain of, was the colour black, deep and all embracing with just a hint of light somewhere off in the middle distance. Believing ‘reception would be resumed as soon as possible’ he conjured up a classy upscale Femme en noir which his mystery visitor graciously accepted strangely catching his eye as she put the glass to her lips.
Throughout the evening Lady A, as Daniel had taken to calling her, was always within sight, gliding between customers yet never actually speaking to anyone. She never once sat down, nor did she powder her nose, or nibble at the bar snacks, she was just there, a floating graceful shape that even by closing time had radiated no more information about herself than when she first came in. A truly heavenly creature with so much to tell if only he could get her to share her secrets. It wasn’t that Daniel hadn’t tried, he’d worked his instincts to a frazzle but had got no further than a dark sensation and when Lady A accepted a Guinness, he almost cried and under his breath, ‘for my pain, she gave me a world of sighs.’
A siren wailing nearby brought the evening to an abrupt end, and as the last customers hurriedly departed Daniel switched off the lights and stood for a moment watching as the bar filled with an eerie glow, snow-light picking out the shiniest objects to give a hint of a spiritual wonderland somewhere between this world and the next. Smiling, he reached for his coat and readied himself to face the rigours of winter, turning once more before leaving perchance the magic might evaporate.
Outside the air was crisp and cold and smelt faintly of onions and freshly ground beef, making him feel hungry and anxious to get home to a hot supper. Putting the key in the lock he suddenly caught sight of Angela’s reflection in the glass, she was standing on the other side of the street looking his way. Glancing round, he found the street deserted, no sign of Lady A nor anyone else for that matter. Pulling his collar up and cursing his imagination, he trudged through the snow towards the car park.
He didn’t see the bus, but he heard the sirens and too late the screech of brakes, the clatter of metal and the thud of rubber as the bus mounted the curb striking him full in the back, carrying him along for some distance before he disappeared under the front wheels. Darkness descended immediately and just as quickly it became light again, an explosive dazzling light from which he had to shade his eyes. A handsome figure rose from a lifeless body part covered by bus, part by rubble and with keys in hand … Bella, out on the prowl from number 16 jumped and beat a hasty retreat, it was snowing heavily now and no safe place for a cat. Cars and taxis busily coming and going, squishing through the fresh snow, sliding to a standstill, rear wheels spinning into the kerb in search of grip as they pulled away. Hobbs Terrace was back in business and in full swing, marking the moment when a 1940s bomb site once again shrugged off the night of December 22nd to become an oasis of festive electrics and liquid shenanigans and from the misty shadows of past conflict stepped an angel.
A gloved hand reached down to put the finishing touches to the sheerest perfumed fully-fashioned nylon and long black lashes revealed flashing eyes as fingertip pressure on a snowy door inscribed with a flamboyant D gave way to a sensuous sweep of cool black marble. Heads turned as Angela entered the bar and graciously accepted a drink from a man of commanding stature, Hollywood good looks and a smile she yearned to know better, handsome to excess, but how was she to work on him and how was she to make him notice her?
© Joseph G Dawson