Bohemia Village Voice  Bohemia Village Voice

For bohemians everywhere

Stephen Herbert

I Sing Elvis

The old man stroked his beard as he lowered himself gently onto the pavement beside his guitar, letting go his jacket which fell in a heap near the crumpled ‘I Sing Elvis’ sign.
As he strummed and murmured, a skateboard boy skidded to a stop and the busker sang louder. The kid fished in his pocket, found 20p and a Werther’s Original and threw them down.
“Well thankyuh kindly young man.” The youth flipped up his hood and shot away, yelling over his shoulder – “Rubbish American accent”. As the evening dimmed the old man crooned to the snaking queue at the White Rock Theatre, and remembered.
He’d had to get away. The desperate routine of two shows a day, his marriage breakup, pressure to take more happy pills – trapped in the empty life of someone who could buy anything except freedom. But money could buy a fake passport and an airplane ticket. He’d grabbed a bag of cash and shaved his head, grown a beard and become Ernest Preston and they hadn’t found him because no-one was looking.
Years later he’d watched on tv the puffy-faced lookalike who’d taken his place in Vegas, stumbling over the lyrics and making a mockery of his title, The King, before succumbing to the drugs and deep fried killerburgers that were meant for Elvis. He’d felt guilty about that.
At Heathrow, a poster: Happy Holidays in Hastings – all sun and smiles. Just a week or two, maybe a month – a holiday, that’s all he needed. And he’d stacked deckchairs and washed dishes and a year had passed, two, then he’d stood one day in Dixon’s and watched a dozen Priscillas talking about his sad passing. That night at Hastings police station: ‘Sir, I’m Elvis Presley. You need to contact my people’. A smiley policewoman had brought him a cup of tea and a young doctor had asked, ‘Can you tell me the name of the Prime Minister?’ and . . . ‘Do you have a place to stay?’ and he’d nodded and they’d let him go. But his people didn’t come.
Exchanging the last of his dollars he’d bought a guitar in a Bexhill charity shop and picked up on the old tunes. He’d tried telling people – at first, anyway.
“You believe I’m the real Elvis, Mister Chin?” after entertaining the restaurant’s guests one evening.
“Sure Ernie, you real Elvis. You best Elvis in whole world!” They’d dressed him up and fed him well and sometimes even paid him. Then the pressure again, couldn’t sing for a while, back to washing dishes. Two years in a basement bedsit became twenty, thirty-five. He’d just needed a holiday. Sometimes he thought maybe he’d made it all up in his head. But if he had, where were the memories of Ernest Preston?
A fifty-something woman dressed for the theatre dropped her partner’s arm, came over to him. The old man smiled at her and sang as only he could sing. Was it the freshening night breeze that made her shiver, or the pain in his eyes and the broken cry in his voice that told of his eternal loss?
She dipped into a tiny gold lamé handbag and dropped a five-pound note onto that battered ’68 jacket which like his hair had once glowed shiny black as he’d sung to the adoring millions. Her partner called, she turned and ran. The old man strummed, alone now, and gazed out at the black twisted wreck of the pier and thought of Lisa Marie and the happy, early days, and of the dark tangled mess that followed.

 

Ghost Train

We cross the muddy common at a run, four hearts racing. I’m not frightened by the Ghost Train.
The ride’s OK, but I’m gripped by the quirky alfresco panels; vivid, lustrous post-war popular art. A balding old gent in a bath chair is scared away from Ghostville Station’s waiting room by a human skeleton. A top-hatted drunk in white tie and tails sleeps it off on a bench, bookending a cross-legged flamehaired floozie in a scarlet dress applying ruby lipstick while treating the world to a provocative flash of suspenders and stocking-tops. Even before paying our thruppence, we’d relished a fun-filled comicstrip to savour forevermore.
Our attention shifts from artwork to action as the rattling carriages crash through the exit and jerk to a halt, giggling passengers tumbling out and off into the night. We pay up and squeeze into the last car. With a clunk we’re away, banging through the tin-faced entry doors and into the blackness. A screaming siren synched with a flashing green bulb lights up a jerking zombie in one corner, the carriage careering sharply just in time to avoid a smash.
“Oo-err, I’m ever so frightened,” whines Nipper the baby of the gang, with affected bored sarcasm. Darkness for a bit, then more sirens and a glowing coffin, the slimy lid lurching open to reveal a crude suggestion of a crusty mummified body. Another sharp turn, showering gold sparks from beneath, and – the carriage judders to a dead stop.
I don’t remember that happening before.
“What’s goin’ on?” asks Nipper, the sarcastic edge now absent from his voice.
“Gawd knows.” We’re suddenly alone in total darkness and, without the rattle of the travelling cars, silence.
In a loud, defensive tone Smiffy declares, “Anyway, I’m not scared.”
White faced, Chalky snivels, “I’m not scared, too.”
After a moment Smiffy asks, “’Ere Nip, where’s that torch?”
Nipper has stuck it into his mouth bulb-end first. The lower part of his skull glows red as he makes silly haunting noises. There’s a chorus of “Pack it in, you daft nit.”
Seconds later the face disappears. “I’m off to ‘ave a butchers,” yells young Nipper’s voice from the darkness. All we can see is a thin patch of amber light wiggling around the walls, and soon even that disappears in the inky gloom.
Will this become an ‘old dark house’ scenario, as we set off one by one to discover the ghastly fate of the individual explorers, until nobody’s left? Just then the dark bulk of the proprietor appears beside the derailed car, and without a word heaves and shoves until it clicks back on the track. Seconds later there’s an electric whine, a flicker of blue light from a ghoulish gravestone, a push from the shadowy gaffer and with a jump we’re off again.
Outside, word has spread that the train’s gone into the ride, but the last carriage hasn’t come out. With a final clang we burst through the exit doors and see the gathered crowd, like pale strained relatives at a pithead disaster.
Wide-eyed they peer at us, eagerly searching our phizogs for any telltale trace that we’ve been unhinged by our spookful ordeal. When it’s evident that we’re not about to be carted off screaming to the loony bin, the fickle fairgoers quickly lose interest and drift away, as sugary candyfloss smells and the swirling beat of Bobby Vee’s Take Good Care Of My Baby fill the evening air with sweet promise.
Policemen came and everything but we never did see Nipper again, poor little bugger. A ‘cold case’ now, so I’m told.

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