Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Billie Holiday on Vacation (2016)

This is a brief strange story that began with the title alone; and the title just entered my head one day, for no other reason than that it's a symmetrical and absurdist phrase. The title was the seed and the rest of the story grew naturally and rapidly from it. Jazz songs sometimes evolve this way too. The story is included in my book The Seashell Contract which was published in 2017 in aid of charity.

Billie Holiday on vacation, it is said, once happened to meet Billy Vacation, who was on holiday. It took place in a place that mended shoes and cut keys. One of her heels must have come off or something. Mr Vacation was leaning on his counter and licking his lips as if they were located in another country. He said:
I adore all your songs.”
Many of them haven’t been recorded or even written yet,” she replied with one shoulder hunched higher than the other. It was the right one. But there is no right or wrong when it comes to shoulders.
He nodded in sympathy. “Future events. That’s nice.”
She knew what he was probably thinking, which was that she had a deformed shoulder, whereas in fact her posture was entirely due to the fact that the heel had snapped off her left shoe. Mr Vacation, for his part, was thinking that she was guessing what he was thinking and was correct in this guess, but for the wrong reason.
Mr Vacation had seen too many people totter into his place with lopsided shoulders and they always had the heel of one shoe missing. But he understood that one day this would not be the case, that someone would approach his counter with a shoulder that was biologically higher, or lower, than the other shoulder, a person with asymmetrical shrugs. Do the laws of chance make this event inevitable?
Well, yes they do. And when he took his first look at Billie Holiday in the flesh, even though he was aware that her shoulders were normal, he decided that today was the day for the prediction to come true. So he said in his most soothing voice:
There’s a hospital just up the street.”
Billie had already stooped to remove her damaged shoe and now she held it up and placed it down on the counter. “They don’t fix shoes there. I already asked.” Her shoulders were no longer lopsided, which meant she was standing on only one leg. He couldn’t be sure, because the counter was in the way, but even when there was no counter in the way he was unsure of so many things in life. How to make soup, for example.
His soups were terrible. They were solid.
He had once been able to use one of his soups as a doorstop to stop a heavy door, but he couldn’t recall what he had stopped it from doing, and that’s another story and another suppertime anyway.
Mr Vacation examined the broken shoe. It was a fairly easy job but he made faces and made noises with the mouth of those faces, just one mouth for all the faces, because it is good to economise in these days of fiscal fretting, when old shoes are mended more often than bought brand new, not that it’s possible to buy old shoes brand new…
But you know what I mean,” he said to himself.
Why does this place mend shoes and cut keys?” she asked. “I’ve always wondered why places that do the one also do the other. That’s like a bread shop that also sells guns. I don’t see the connection.”
Just to be clear,” he replied, “this place doesn’t mend shoes and cut keys. I never have and never will mend a cut key. I cut new keys and that’s what this place does and why I’m in it.”
An undertaker’s that is also a hat shop…” she was musing.
Mr Vacation continued to lick his lips but now it felt as if they were on their way home, tanned from the sun, still sleepy from lazy days on the beach and dancing at night. They tasted of coconut and exchange rates. His tongue was like shoe leather, the saliva that coated it like melted keys but cooler. It turned in the locks of his mouth, causing it to open wide, and then he said, “The machinery is the same.”
I beg your pardon?”
The machinery used to mend shoes and cut keys.”
Now I comprehend.”
They looked at each other. “What brought you to Florida, if you don’t mind me asking?” he asked mindfully.
I am on vacation. And you?”
I’m on holiday. It’s a working holiday. I mend shoes and cut keys in Oregon. I traded places with the guy who mends shoes and cuts keys here. It’s just for one month.”
A little trip to the Florida Keys, you could say?”
He laughed. It had been the only joke a customer had told him since he arrived. He gestured behind him at a wall festooned with keys. He indicated the key furthest on her left. “That one must be Key West,” he said, as he took it down and held it under his nose like a robot’s moustache. Did it smell of marlin and cocktails? In his imagination, yes, but undercut with a tang of shotgun powder.
Is it true there’s a lock for every key?” she asked.
I’m certain that there is.”
In that case, why not attach a large key to the bottom of my shoe rather than a heel?”
Mr Vacation considered the unusual idea. He knew what she was hoping would happen if he did this. There are doors everywhere, doors of perception, doors of fate and opportunity, invisible doors locked fast against our blunderings and gropings. Some of these doors are like trapdoors, on the underside of the ceiling of the sky, and others are like manholes, embedded in the ground.
She might walk directly over the door labelled ‘musical history’ and unlock it with her new heel. It would spring open and she would plummet through into the safest of all safe spaces for reputations. She didn’t yet realise she had already passed through that door.
Yes,” she said when he explained all that, “but maybe I didn’t lock it behind me. So I still need that key.”
If the machinery is the same, why not? He cut the key for her and fixed it to the bottom of her shoe. She tried it on and now her shoulders were straight even when she stood on both legs at the same time. She paid him and walked out of his sight and he never saw her again. She must have trodden on that lock and made that door secure against being opened by a casual talent such as his own. And thus she vanished from the gigantic room of this world into another.
When his month was completed, Mr Vacation returned home and an effort was later made to track him down by historians of the great singer, but his trail, his Oregon Trail, like hot soup left unattended on a doorstop too long, had gone cold.