Janis Freegard

Mercury and Back

The first time I went to Mercury, I was a little disappointed. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but that wasn't it. After Roscoe’s enthusiasm for the place, I thought it would be something spectacular. Packed to the gills and buzzing.

It was at the end of an alley off High Street, down a flight of concrete stairs, dingy as a crypt. The floor was a dark marble; the tables and chairs were lacquered black. There was a tiny dance floor with a glitter ball too big for it. Some of the mirror bits had fallen off.

‘Just wait, babes,’ said Roscoe. ‘It gets better.’

It feels like a million years since Roscoe and I broke up, but we’ve always stayed friends and I’ll always love him. People ask why we don’t get back together, but he’s like a brother now. 

If Roscoe says somewhere’s worth going to, it’s worth going to. I knew I’d have to give Mercury a chance. He disappeared up to the bar and came back with a pinot noir for me and a pilsner for himself. He didn’t ask what I wanted; he just knew. On a different night, he might have brought me a tequila sunrise or a lime and soda. He reads me. Maybe that’s why it didn't work out between us in the end.

‘How’s that palm oil thing?’ he asked. He meant the campaign I’m organising to protect Indonesian rainforests from being destroyed for palm plantations.

‘Keeping me busy,’ I told him. There was no point going into it. I could tell he'd already stopped listening. When I think about it, there are other reasons we’re not still together. My passion’s this planet—our rock, our beginning and end. I don't think humans deserve her, the way we gouge and spoil and break her. Roscoe only cares about music. He's a lead guitarist, part of that one big Aotearoa New Zealand band that keeps morphing into different line-ups and different sounds, so that every musician in the country has at some time played with every other.

I looked around Mercury. By now, my eyes had adjusted to the limited light. The walls were covered in a rich, maroon fabric which gave the place a dilapidated elegance.

‘It used to be a brothel,’ Roscoe told me.

Tendrils of dark curls were escaping his beanie. I reached out to pull it over his eyes. ‘Been here before, then?’

I sipped my wine and took another look round the bar. One wall sported a collection of cuckoo clocks. Ten to eleven, they read. I wondered if they'd all cuckoo at once, not that you’d hear them over the background music, some throaty woman crooning about morphine. My grandma had a cuckoo clock; they were one of my favourite things. The place was starting to grow on me.

Roscoe spotted someone he knew at the other side of the bar and he was off.  It’s always a long walk down the street with Roscoe—he seems to know everyone, stopping every five minutes to catch up with some former bandmate or organise his next gig. When we were together, I was always on the outskirts, smiling and getting bored. Over time, I learnt to leave him to it and just keep walking. I didn’t care if people thought I was rude; at least I stopped feeling ornamental. I didn't recognise this guy Roscoe was talking to, but I knew he’d eventually drift back.

Someone was standing beside me. Tall as Ru Paul, in unfeasible heels and a floor-length fitted lurex gown. It wasn't that sort of place; everyone else was in jeans. She was wearing false eyelashes and had tattoos curling all the way down her arms and over her collar bone. She sat next to me.

‘Cuckoo,’ she said.

‘Excuse me?’ Perhaps she'd taken too many drugs. She pointed at the clocks on the wall with her blood red talons. The little doors were opening and we watched in silence as a dozen tiny birds escaped their wooden homes.

‘Be an angel and get me a bubbly,’ she said when they'd stopped. I had the feeling I was being charged with an important mission by some glamorous old-time movie star. Marlene Dietrich perhaps. It didn’t seem possible to refuse. I went up to the bar.

Roscoe was talking to her when I got back to the table. She accepted her drink with a smile that left me feeling she was doing me a great favour.

‘You know Crystal then,’ said Roscoe.

‘We’ve just met,’ I said.

Crystal extended her long, pale hand towards me. For an instant I wondered if I was supposed to kiss it, but I gave a gentle squeeze instead. Her fingers were icy.

She sipped at her bubbly and drummed her fingernails on the table, glancing periodically at the clocks. Now and then she’d shoot a comment at Roscoe or me, always something slightly obscure. ‘One should always try to embody the grace of the wolf,’ she told me at one point. ‘Don’t you think?’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do.’

When the clocks showed twenty-five past eleven, she stood up abruptly and went to the cuckoo wall, where she began to unhook each metal pinecone from its chain.

‘What is she doing?’ I asked Roscoe.

‘Stopping them from chiming.’ He grinned. ‘You'll see.’

I did see. On the dot of eleven thirty, when all the miniature cuckoos should have been making a single mass escape from their boxes, they were silent. Instead, Crystal took the stage. She sang without introduction, mic or accompaniment. A strange medley of glam rock and torch songs, with the occasional old punk number thrown in. I could see why Roscoe had brought me to hear her—this was all the music I liked best. Edith Piaf followed David Bowie, then the Stranglers, then Eartha Kitt. She sang of the starman waiting in the sky, of having no regrets. She was mesmerising, her voice otherworldly. Luminous and strange, with the full ringing sound of a korimako, a bellbird. She was pitch perfect, with enough power in her lungs to fill the room. She sang with her eyes closed. The music seemed to pain her, possess her, as though it had to be dragged out to save her. When she finished, I looked at Roscoe, speechless.

‘We’re going on tour,’ he said.

 

I met him for lunch a few days later, in a Vietnamese noodle house near the health food shop where I work. ‘So you’re going on tour with Crystal?’ I asked.

‘Crystal? Who’s Crystal?’

‘From Mercury. The chanteuse.’ Singer didn’t seem quite enough to describe her.

‘No, with Phil and Tom. The guys from the band.’

‘Which band?’ I stirred the vermicelli in my soup with chopsticks. Thin white worms.

Roscoe looked at me as though I were a simpleton. ‘The alt country band? The one I took you to see at Mercury? The two guys I introduced you to?’

‘There was no band,’ I said. ‘There was only Crystal. Tall, silvery, glamorous.’  

‘How many of those Black Russians did you drink that night anyway?’ said Roscoe.

Black Russians? I’d had two glasses of pinot noir that night and nothing more. But it wasn’t worth going into right then. ‘Tell me about this tour,’ I said. Roscoe’s always searching for the ultimate band.

‘We’re off to the States, babes. Like I told you.’ He'd told me no such thing. I would’ve remembered. ‘We’ve got gigs lined up from Texas to Alaska.’

‘The States?’ This was something new for him. Not the touring; he was always off on tour. A week around the East Coast; a fortnight in the South Island. Now and then he’d announce he was moving to another town to join some brilliant outfit he'd heard. But he always sloped back. I sometimes got the feeling Roscoe still hadn’t found his place in the world.

‘All going well, we’ve got three months’ work ahead of us already, six if we’re lucky.’

‘When will you be back?’

Roscoe shrugged. ‘Never, if it all goes well.’

The surprise must have shown on my face.

‘But, hey, you can come visit any time. I’ve got a good feeling about this.’

 

The second time I went to Mercury, it was with Jean-Michel, a very cute French-Canadian guy who’d become a regular at the health food shop—we often chatted over the gluten free chocolate biscuits and cartons of oat milk. One Friday night when I was closing up, he seemed to be lingering and finally suggested a drink. I said I knew just the place.

Everything was as I remembered it: the cuckoo clocks on the wall, the plush wallpaper, the glitter ball. Roscoe was there too, huddled over a table in the shadows. I took Jean-Michel over to introduce them, but Roscoe seemed distracted; we barely got a grunt out of him. Jean-Michel and I found stools at the bar.

It wasn't long before Crystal herself tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Different man every time,’ she said.

‘Crystal, meet Jean-Michel.’

Enchanté.’ Then she was gliding off, in a haze of glitter and perfume.

It was the first time Jean-Michel and I had really had a chance to talk. I was amazed at how similar our views were on everything from music to the environment. ‘Sometimes I ask myself whether it’s all worth it,’ I said. ‘Trying to stop the rampage.’

Exactement,’ he said earnestly. ‘We should just let ourselves become extinct and give the Earth a chance to recover.’

‘Perhaps humans are an aberration,’ I said. ‘An evolutionary mistake.’ I was half serious.

Jean-Michel nodded. ‘What other species would pollute its habitat to the point where everything is dying? What other species—how do you say it—shits in its own nest like this? We have no right. In fact, you know what?’

‘What?’ I liked the flash of fire in his eyes as he spoke.

‘If I had the power to do it, I would wipe the people right off the face of the planet. Leave her in peace.’

He sounded like he meant it, like he cared about the Earth as much as I did. It was remarkable how in tune we were.

Then it was Crystal’s time. We watched her perform the ritual with the clocks, then she launched into a Dusty Springfield set, interrupted only by a surprisingly mournful rendition of the Buzzcocks song about how there’s no love in the world any more. I had to pretend there was something in my eye.

When she’d finished and the applause had faded, Jean-Michel and I went for a wander along the waterfront, that other moon looking down on us. We stopped to sit on a wooden bench and Jean-Michel slipped his arm around my shoulder. ‘I had a great time tonight,’ he said. ‘Fantastique. I love the folk music.’

I decided to let that slide.

‘Mercury,’ he said. ‘It’s a place where dreams are made, n’est-ce pas?’ He pointed up at the glittering night sky. ‘Maybe that’s our new planet right out there.’

‘Our new planet?’

‘Like we were saying in the bar about space exploration. Colonising another planet for when this one becomes uninhabitable. It’s the only way for the humans to have a future, n’est-ce pas?’

 ‘What, just leave Earth to die and go and do it all again in a galaxy far, far away?’ This was such a long way from our earlier discussion, it didn’t seem real. I was reminded of the confusing conversation I’d had with Roscoe. I needed to ask something and I wasn't sure I’d like the answer. ‘Tell me, Jean-Michel, what are your views on the place of human beings in the universe?’

He looked surprised. ‘Well, we are the rulers of everything—all the other planets, all the other species. Naturellement. God has created us and put us in charge. We are the kings and the queens.’ He smiled his delightful smile. ‘Anyway, why are we talking about this when I could be telling you about the moonlight in your hair, the hazel of your eyes?’

It was very tempting, but something was terribly wrong. ‘Sorry, Jean-Michel, I'm feeling tired. I think I’ll just get an Uber.’

That was it. I was never going to set foot in that place again.

 

The next time I met Roscoe for lunch, he looked as washed out as bleached seaweed. Dark shadows underscored his eyes. ‘Burning the candle at both ends?’ I asked.

I’ve been rehearsing with Phil and Tom. Getting ready to go on tour.’

‘These guys, Roscoe—’

‘We just gel, you know? Our whole sound.’ He shook his head. ‘We’ve got a kind of, I dunno, alchemy.’

‘Do you ever see them outside Mercury?’

‘No need. That’s where we practise. It’s closed Sunday to Wednesday, so on those days we get it right through the night. The rest of the week, we get mornings.’

‘You’re practising every day? What about your other bands?’

‘I had to give them up.’

I rested my chopsticks across the bowl. ‘Look, Roscoe, something’s not right. You hardly know these guys. The States—that’s a huge deal. Uprooting your life like that. I mean, I understand, you know? You need to find somewhere you belong. We all do. But your place is here.’

He shot me a look I couldn’t quite fathom. ‘You’ll be all right, you know.’

‘What?’

‘I know you don’t want me to leave, but, hey. It’s time to move on, babes.’

We quarrelled then. I couldn’t believe he thought this was about me being clingy. I’d miss him horribly, but I was quite capable of surviving without him.

 

It was a fortnight before I got over myself and went round to his flat. The place was filthy. Flies buzzed around dirty plates and the smell of unwashed laundry permeated the whole house. Roscoe was hunkered down in a sleeping bag on the couch, thinner and paler than I’d ever seen him. Even the time he’d had pneumonia, he hadn’t looked so pallid. His skin was slack and I couldn’t help feeling that the life was being slowly sucked out of him.

‘The guys didn’t show,’ he said. ‘I waited at the airport all day.’ He scrabbled at his coffee table for the plane ticket. It was for three days earlier. He must have been on the couch since then. ‘There was no point going on my own. Phil and Tom’d made all the travel arrangements. They’d organised the gigs. I didn’t even know where we were staying.’

‘Maybe something happened—some kind of emergency.’

‘They’re not returning my texts. When I phone, the call just cuts out. It’s like they’ve disappeared.’

Or like they never existed. I reached out and tucked a limp curl behind his ear. ‘You've only ever seen those guys in Mercury, haven’t you?’

He didn’t seem to hear me. The light had gone from his eyes and he was elsewhere. I wasn’t sure I could reach him. ‘Where are you, Roscoe?’

It was a while before he answered. ‘On the edge,’ he said finally. His laugh was like a book falling in an empty hall.

 

After my last visit, I swore I’d never go there again, but there was nothing else for it. I went straight to the alley off High Street, stormed down the dingy steps, stood under the glitter ball and shouted. At Crystal, sitting at her table in front of the stage; at the bar manager; at anyone else who might have been listening. ‘You've got to let him go.’ My voice seemed to echo. ‘You’re feeding off his dreams; you'll drain him dry.’

Glassy-eyed faces stared back at me. Only Crystal spoke. ‘He's a free agent.’

I was so angry, I picked up her half-drunk glass of bubbly and flung it over her glittering dress.

She looked at me with iceberg eyes. ‘What do you hope to achieve by that?’

‘I'm losing him,’ I said.

‘He's not yours.’

‘I mean, we’re all losing him. Everyone who cares. The world. Roscoe doesn't belong here. I don't even know where this is.’

Her face was like sleet. ‘You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.’ It was pointless. I had to get out of there. As I tried to squeeze past her, she grabbed my shoulder. ‘You're the one who’s got to let go.’

‘Take your hands off me.’

Her nails dug deeper into my arm. Her face changed, softened into a smirk. ‘Unless?’

‘Unless what?’

‘Maybe you’d like things to go back to how they were.’ When she released my arm, there was a row of red crescents etched into it.

 

Crystal was right about one thing: I couldn’t force Roscoe to do anything. All I could do was be there, watching him lose his footing in a crumbling world.

I was there when he found a new band at Mercury. ‘An even better one,’ he kept saying. ‘You should come. This time we’re really going places.’ I was there when he collapsed from exhaustion and I half-carried him into an Uber to get him home. I was there while he shivered through the next few nights, feeding him soup until he was strong enough to walk again. I’ve been feeling a bit tired myself lately. But I’ll keep on being there. Because one day, he’s going to wake up and realise exactly where he needs to be.

 

 





Janis Freegard

Janis Freegard is the author of a novel The Year of Falling (Mākaro Press) and several poetry collections, most recently Reading the Signs (The Cuba Press). She grew up in the UK, South Africa, Australia and Aotearoa. Her short stories and poetry have been widely published in Aotearoa and around the world, and some have been broadcast on radio. http://janisfreegard.com