Open Mike | Cassandra Voices

Open Mike

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Everyone was amazed when it happened and I mean everyone, including Jeffrey. For weeks now Ramona had been hanging around in “Murphy’s,” a pub in Nice where, every Wednesday night, they held an open mike. A real beauty, with auburn hair and glittering eyes, she brought her violin with her, and when she played, there was a hush… because she played so well. And of course, all eyes were focused on her athletic, yet graceful movements.

“Who is she?” asked Denis, a regular customer. The long-haired barman just shrugged his shoulders. Fortunately, for the small band of regulars, mysteries of this kind don’t last long at Murphy’s.

An Italian, in her last year at the conservatoire in Nice, the first time she’d showed up in Murphy’s, it was with a young man who also happened to be from the conservatoire.

Jeffrey was the one who’d started Open Mike. On any given Wednesday, he was the king of what was at best, a shabby pub. The performance space was so small, that in an effort to avoid each other, musicians had to constantly move. In addition, the way to the bathroom was right through that area. So, there was a constant stream of people trying to break through the band.

But this was exactly what the musicians here were used to. In fact, what better way to perfect, not only their musical skills but the ability to play in challenging conditions.

All musicians and singers were welcomed here. But most of the regular players belonged to the busking bands. Their specialty was strolling from table to table, singing and larking about the restaurants.

They had little tricks to delight the audience. Like swapping guitars between two players in mid-song without losing a note. Playing in restaurants and hotels was mostly a publicity tour.

Although the tips were important, what they wanted was a private gig. That’s where the big money was.

All the bands got private gigs. Some more than others. Jeffrey knew all the musicians in Nice. Truth be told, he’d trained most of them. Some came from England, Europe, and America seeking the Riviera’s cocktail of sunshine, music and money. Jeffrey was a highly entertaining person with a good sense of humour, but he could also be as twisted and complex as a spider’s web. Lately he was complaining that Pierre was playing the guitar too loud. Not an unreasonable point, but it could have been made in a reasonable manner. Nonetheless, when Pierre was at loose ends, Jeffrey approached him to sit in on a few gigs.

Jeffrey said, “If you want to play with me, you’ll have to be my bitch! This was vintage Jeffrey. Pierre didn’t like it. He was a macho guy from the suburbs of Paris. It’s fair to say that if you needed Jeffery, you’d need a shrink as well. To patch up your battered ego. But if you survived it, the end result was good. It knocked all the nonsense out of you. So, when Jeffrey saw Ramona, like a peacock, he was quick to fan out his feathers. What he loved more than anything was fresh blood.

Ramona stood by, watching them perform, while like a neon sign, Jeffrey’s smile flashed. Squeezed into that little space, he played harmonies with Greg and Johnny, kicking his slender long legs in the air.

Bob was playing the drums as a precariously placed pint of beer trembled, on the window sill behind him. The pub was busy. People were half talking and half listening. Ramona stood right next to the band. Though classically trained, she was totally absorbed in this popular music. Seeing she was on her own this time, Jeffrey invited her, with her violin, to join in on their new song. Improvising, she weaved herself into the session so seamlessly, that everyone was enchanted.

Then the musicians changed. Ryan came in with the double base and George swapped guitar with Johnny. Jeffrey swapped with Connor, Daniella walked over to the microphone and the new group started to play the crowd pleaser “I’m Your Venus.” Ryan, a large looming figure, who looked not unlike a hairless gorilla was playing the double bass and singing the chorus with total abandon: “I’m your Venus! I’m your Venus!”

“No, you are not!” retorted a male voice from the bar.

Jeffrey leaned towards Ramona to say something. Then they went out on the street to sit at a table, where Jeffrey ordered two shots of brandy.

“You were amazing,” he said to Ramona. “And the way you managed to improvise just now was great! Rolling his cigarette as he spoke, occasionally he raised his head to look at her.

His constant smile distracted her from those desperate eyes. He was tall and skinny and although already in his 60’s, Jeffrey was still good looking. Ramona’s smile was a bit more demure.

Later, he raved to everyone who would listen, “She’s got so much talent, and she is only 21!”

It was already spring, and soon summer would come rolling in like a big wave. Everyone would be gigging somewhere, vocal cords stretched to the limit, as the audiences in private gigs demanded more songs. But still, the musicians showed up at Open Mike. Sometimes to engage extra musicians for a specific gig, or replace a musician that left the band.

It was a rehearsal of sort, as they all knew most of the same songs. Jeffrey knew thousands.

“I’ve got a gig in July,” said Jeffrey. “But I’ve got no band.  They left me.” Smiles and rolling of the eyes ensued, as if this was the best thing in the world.

“Said I was too much of a drama queen,” he volunteered. Elated, Jeffrey was teaching Ramona how to sing and to play the drums.

“She came over last Tuesday,” he said, “And we practiced for hours. What a voice she has!”

As he said that, Jeffrey looked at Daniella. He was an expert at double edged sentences, serving a carrot for one person, while he stuck it to another.

One of the few female singers around, Daniella was a solid performer, but Jeffrey was determined to put her down. After all, she wasn’t his protege.

For years he’d talked up what a dream it would be to team up with her, but when he finally got the chance, he did everything to derail it.

But now Ramona was the star. He was showing her the ropes. Telling her which songs worked if you were after a big tip. Jeffrey had extensive experience.

He regaled his friends with descriptions of how sexy she was. How she acted in his apartment when she came over to practice. “If I wasn’t so much older than her, I would have thought that she was trying to seduce me. The other day, she said that it was too hot in the room and she started taking off her blazer! She had this tiny little top on underneath. It was just too much for me.”

As the weeks went by, Ramona became part of the scene. She was gigging with Jeffrey. The violin was only used occasionally, because Ramona quickly became a jack of all trades, playing the Cajon, the banana shaker and singing. Jeffrey taught her the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” which she sang in her charming Italian accent.

“I really like him,” She confided to Daniella one day. “What do you think”?

Daniella answered with a look of disapproval.

“Yes, I know he is much older than I …”

“MUCH older,” said Daniella, “But that’s not it.”

“What is it then?”

“He’s complicated and hasn’t been kind to his previous women.” This meant nothing to Ramona. She was in love! Daniella reflected to herself, “He is only kind when he wants something.”

But Ramona, at age 21, still believed that she could change things.

Astounded by his good luck, Jeffrey was beaming. He looked ten years younger. “I’m so in love!” He declared to all. At Open Mike, he didn’t drink his habitual shots of brandy.

“Ramona has me on a healthy regime. She worries about my drinking.” He explained with pride.

To be fair, everyone was enchanted. After all, if a fellow who’s nearly over the hill can net such a beauty, there is hope for us all.

Some even imagined there was future potential for the pitter patter of little feet.

Ramona received a scholarship to do her Masters at the Paris conservatoire in September. She considered declining, because she was having so much fun. The summer was full of excitement.

Beautiful Daniella was singing, “Sway with me,” Johnny was on the drums, and spending a lot of time adjusting some buttons on his amplifier, Pierre played electric guitar.

“Too loud,” said Jeffrey, before he walked out.

Because Pierre’s band in Paris played instrumental rock, he wasn’t accustomed to accompanying a singer.  All he cared about were the pyrotechnics on his guitar. If it meant drowning the singer’s voice, then so what? Jeffrey had found little success reminding him that the singer was the focus.

“You have to make the singer sound good”. Pierre nodded his head, but when it came to playing, he defaulted back to his own style.

Nonetheless, Ramona joined them and played the Cajon. In her new dress, she looked sexy with the instrument strapped to her hip. Later, sitting with the other musicians, she and Jeffrey ordered shots of brandy.

The health regime hadn’t lasted long. They were invited to a private party in a villa near Monaco. Jeffrey was over the moon, because a young, and good looking, millionaire there asked him, “Where do you find a girl like that?”

“How can I reply?” He said, grinning from ear to ear.

“In a Christmas cracker,” someone offered.

“So, is Ramona going to stay in Nice?”

“No,” said Jeffrey, “I think it’s important that she does her Masters”. Then he paused and looked around. “It’s ok. I’ll go and visit. She’ll come and visit. We’ll work it out.”

In October, when summer began to fade, Open Mike, with its surprises and mysteries continued. The musicians’ expectations dropped dramatically, but for hardly any money, they grabbed any small gig that came their way, just to carry on and keep their musical muscles tuned. Bands managed by business minded people did well financially, wintering in Barbados, the Bahamas, St Bart, even Australia. They performed for the richest people on the planet, including but not limited to Putin.

Ramona came back from Paris a couple of times to join the musicians at Open Mike, playing the Cajon, or the banana shake and the occasional song.

“Where’s Jeffrey?’ Someone asked.

‘Oh, he isn’t well,’ said Ramona, rolling her eyes.

“She knows how to handle him,” someone said.

Jeffrey went to Paris from time to time. He spent all his savings going back and forth.

“What’s it like?” asked his friends.

“It’s great. While Ramona goes to the conservatoire, I busk under a bridge on the Seine. And at the end of each day, I bring home food for my woman.”

He insisted on saying how great it was to be able to play what he wanted. Not beholden to anyone. Winter was coming and soon it would be Christmas.

Jeffrey decided to make a surprise visit to Ramona, but he was a little subdued when he came back from Paris.

“I think it’s over.”

“Why? What happened?”

“She wasn’t happy to see me. Just asked what I was doing there. She spent the whole weekend in bed eating Nutella with a spoon straight from the jar. She was so indifferent. But when I decided to leave and said goodbye, she started crying. There was nothing I could do.”

Jeffrey’s appearances at Open Mike became rare. He complained that Pierre had taken over and that the music was overpowering. Daniella suggested that they could gig together, inviting him to lunch at her parents’ house. There he met her friend Elena, who also sang and played guitar. Daniella was considering forming a band with her.

Jeffrey made a beeline for Elena, and spent the whole lunch romancing her. Daniella was none too pleased. But Elena assured her that she had no interest in Jeffrey. He was far too old.

“Can you believe it!” Said Daniella to her friend Johnny. “Right in front of me, Jeffrey asked Elena to gig with him. He was complimenting her, and telling her she’s the best singer in Nice.

She has never in her entire life performed a gig. Ok, she is an ok singer and an ok guitar player. But just ok! But you know what the worse thing was?

How she squirmed and giggled with such pleasure while Jeffrey was basically insulting me.”

“Well, said Johnny, you know that’s Jeffrey’s specialty, the old divide and conquer. He’s getting Elena on to his side and pitting you two against each other. Don’t be upset. It’s pure manipulation. He does it to all of us. Perhaps he wanted to show Ramona that he could replace her.” Daniella’s dark eyes flashed her fiery indignation.

“But where is the loyalty?”

“To be fair, Elena does know a lot of the songs and that makes him comfortable. Because at the end of the day, he is scared. He is scared of not being up to scratch.

And with her he is still a star, because she can prop him with her guitar playing.”

When they were back from the gig, Elena called.

“So how was it?” Asked Daniella.

“It was fine. They could’ve done without me. I just used the banana shaker. But I still got paid”.

And later Johnny was heard to say, “Imagine, splitting your money with one more player you really don’t need?”

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Born in in Tel Aviv, Israel, Yona is of Yemenite origin, and grew up on a small farm near Ashdod. She studied sculpture at the Bat Yam Institute of Modern Art, also writing poetry, and short stories for children, in Hebrew. Her work was published by literary magazines in Israel. Moving to Ireland, she devoted her energy to painting, and began writing in English, for Social and Personal, before her work appeared in Cassandra Voices. Yona’s painting accompanies Seamus Heaney’s poem in a book of poetry entitled, Remembered Kisses.

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