Friday, April 4, 2014

Look at Me! I'm Dancing!
© Mario Vickram Sen 28 March 2014
reading time 14-18 minutes

I suppose you might call Windsor Court a "C" shaped building— or a "U" shaped building, depending upon your particular point of view. Either way, the front steps rise up the center indent, flanked by the two wings of the building on either side. There are perhaps seven or eight steps leading up to the front door (I suppose after all these years I should know exactly how many) resulting in the "ground" floor being about half a storey above street level. It's a lovely red brick Victorian era apartment block— one of several dotted along Moscow Road, a bustling thoroughfare just off Queensway in the West London area known as Bayswater. Number 3 is a corner duplex apartment occupying the ground and basement levels of the left wing and was, for about forty years, the London residence of the Sen family— that's right my clan. Alas, it is no longer, and shall be sorely missed by all and sundry.

The front steps of Windsor Court
Centrally located, it was the sight of many great family reunions (and also a few great family fights) and it provided succor and sustenance to friends and relations of an international disposition— travelers to and from America... to and from India, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo and ports of call too numerous to mention.
My mother had also found it financially convenient, on occasion, to let out a room or two to foreign exchange students who were recommended by an agency engaged in the business of locating just such temporary residences in London for their clients. And so, people were always coming and going, and staying a while, and leaving, and coming back, and leaving again. Sitting in the living room watching the television, or ignoring it; smoking whilst chatting with each other in broken English, conversations ranging from the mystical and exoteric... to the mundane. Sitting in the basement kitchen drinking endless cups of coffee, or endless scotch and sodas, and smoking some more and complaining about the weather, which was usually raining or grey.

Garoomy view up through the kitchen window
"Garoomy!" A student from Tokyo was heard to say one morning as he looked, shivering, out of the kitchen window.

And of all these people— need I even mention it— the vast majority of them remained thereafter a lifelong friend to our family, not merely because of my mother's inherent hospitality, but also because in the end she would become a surrogate mother to each of them, with all the positive... and negative connotations that that may imply.

Amongst the never ending parade of guests at number 3, were included members of such diverse professions and lifestyles as: artists, musicians, doctors, psychiatrists, politicians, chefs, gangsters and even the odd movie star... or two. There were cousins, and aunties, and uncles, and grandparents; friends and strangers; rich and poor; princesses and refugees; famous and infamous. All were treated the same. Same respect. Same contempt.

Of course there were parties. Sure, some of them had ended catastrophically— once the average blood alcohol level of those gathered had risen to the point of loosening the normal social inhibitions towards negative self expression normally required in polite society— but mostly they were wonderful successes of happy familial bonding, whose incalculable value to the vast majority of us who were fortunate enough to have attended one of these shin digs was, over the long haul, more than worth the risk that a small percentage of the time something would go horribly awry.

It is indeed my more positive memories which lead me, finally, to get to the point and recount the event about which I was motivated to scrawl this disquisition: my brother Peter's birthday party— his fiftieth, I believe, in 1994— although the accuracy surrounding the facts of this story is less important than the eternal truths within the feelings of the characters involved, and the great love I feel for them all, and the great love they all felt, and feel still— I would hazard it safe to say— even beyond the grave towards my mother.

In front of the building- Richard, Andrew Mario, Peter, Avery, Star and her great grandson (2003)

 I had just arrived in London that very morning, with my son Avery, and we had planned a nice little trick upon my brother to see if we could induce a heart attack in him. Although, as merry a jape as we thought it might be, we were later to become a tad concerned that we could have ventured a little too closely to that precipice for our, and his, complete comfort.

When he was forty, the family had thrown him a surprise party, also at Windsor Court—and it had been a lovely one. Our grandmother (affectionately known as Honeypie to all) had been there, and our father, and our sister Penny. In the intervening ten years all three had "shuffled off this mortal coil" so to speak, in one fashion or another and, regrettably, would not be with us this day; although Penny's unlikely twin, Barbara, would be representing for the pair. Of course my mother, as ever the star of the show (she had even re-christened herself "Star" when, as a baby, one of my nephews had bastardized her name, Sita) would, of course, be presiding over the festivities.

Gathering in the front hall (1978)
And then there were the usual suspects who would be there: cousins Deepak and Laurence, Rupert, Robert, Ali. There would be Avery, and his two cousins, Richard and Andrew. Perhaps Babette, who lived in the building (and whose clan of offspring had been my dearest friends growing up) might show... or Pat from upstairs. I do not remember now if they did or not. But Errol, who had been my brother's best friend since they first met working at Whiteley's in the '60s, most definitely would. Errol, who used to be the lead guitarist in my brother's band, and whose guitar playing I had idolized as a child, and who had inspired me to go out and get myself one of those electric guitars, with the pickups and the twang bar, and twang myself towards Bethlehem... or Eden... or whatever it was they were calling Heaven in those halcyon days of youth. One way or another we were all looking forward to a helluva jam session that evening.

So... no surprise party then, as Peter already knew that it was going to happen. But what he didn't know was that I was going to be there. I had told him that I couldn't make it to London this time, but would perhaps call him on the phone from New York to wish him well. Now, I'm not quite such an egotist as to assume that my presence would be so earth shattering a bombshell as to make the whole party take on a greater meaning. But perhaps if I were to appear in some sudden or more dramatic way... we may have the makings of a good surprise nonetheless.

The trick was this: Avery and I had to be out of the apartment before Peter was due to arrive late that afternoon. At the allotted hour, around 7pm, we would be at the phone booth about fifty yards down the road from Windsor Court, and put in a call to number 3 to wish him a happy birthday. This we did.

My mother answered, and having recognized my voice, yelled out to him according to plan, "Come quickly, it's your brother calling from America!"

He came out to the front hallway where the phone was located on a little side table, and picked it up. We talked for a while. I wished him "many happy returns" and, as usual, we got into comparing the weather in our separate parts of the planet. He told me it was a beautiful warm day in London (which it usually is in mid August). I told him we were having freakishly cold weather in New York and I wished I was in London (Avery giggled next to me in the phone booth). So cold in fact— I added— that I may have to cancel my plans to go out later that evening. What a shame— he commiserated, totally unsympathetically, by regaling me with how lovely it was over there, and what a wonderful time he was planning to have tonight.

At this point I told him that someone was knocking at my door, and I asked him to hold on for a minute while I go see who it is. I left the phone dangling and Avery and I bolted hot-foot to Windsor Court in about five seconds flat where my cousin Laurence, who was in on the plan, was waiting at the door to allow us to enter smoothly.

Peter was sitting at the phone table looking in the opposite direction as we slipped in quietly. I stood behind him without saying a word. He probably realized that someone was standing there, but it could have been any one of several people who were already in the house. He whistled a little, tapped his fingers on the table in the rhythm of a horse galloping... and then whistled a little more. After a while he appeared to be getting rather irritated that I was keeping him waiting so long.

I just stood there.

At some point he started to complain, "Where the hell has that bugger gone? How long could it take to answer the bloody door?"

As he spoke these words he glanced over his shoulder for endorsement of his sentiment from whomsoever might be standing there. He caught my eye.

"I don't know," I said supportively. He turned back around.

Peter, Joan, Rico (2006)
Suddenly, his shoulders hunched up, and his body uncontrollably started to turn back in my direction, and he did the weirdest googly-eyed double take I'd ever seen by anyone who wasn't Oliver Hardy. His whole face turned completely red, and Avery and I started to laugh like crazy. My brother's jaw started to wobble, and his breathing didn't seem right at all. He looked at me... he looked at the phone. He looked at me again... then again at the phone. His eyes weren't actually rolling around in their sockets, but had I told you they were, it may well have described accurately what his brain was doing at the time. This is the moment where we considered calling an ambulance for him. Everyone in the place had now gathered out in the hallway to witness this occurrence, and they were all having a jolly good laugh. Avery was taking close up photos of Peter's face... only to discover later on that we had forgotten to load the film into the camera. It took several minutes for that unfortunately unrecorded look of horror to die down and start turning eventually into a smile. Words finally emerged from his head as he shook it side to side.

"You bloody got me! You bloody got me!" he repeated several times. And then, in his desperate quest to return reality to its normal location, he continued, "I couldn't understand, how... how could you be standing there? It just didn't make any sense!"

Once we were sure that he had recovered quite well without any medical intervention, everybody laughed some more, and we all knew that the party had officially begun.

Front room - Star, Barabara, Joan (2003)

After a little drinking and eating and chatting in the living room, those of us who wanted to play some music went into the bedroom next door, which was the upstairs corner room of the apartment, with windows looking out onto two sides, and it had been set up with whatever meager rock'n'roll equipment as was available. There was a mike and a couple of guitar amps that had seen better days, but no P.A. system, so the mike had to go into one of the amps with a guitar in the same channel. Anybody who has tried this will know that trying to get a volume level on either the guitar or the mike is rather problematic, if not downright impossible, as whatever you do to the one seems to affect the other. To add to this, there was no mike stand. So the mike was duct taped to the back of a chair and placed in front of my brother's chair so he could sing through it. The only trouble with this was that he had to lean downwards, whilst playing his guitar, in order to be heard through the mike. So some genius amongst us (possibly me... but not necessarily) suggested that we put the chair on top of one of the hard guitar cases that were lying around serving no other useful purpose. This elevated the mike up to a perfect height for my brother to sing through, from his seated position.

Problem solved! Sought of... but not exactly.

Only three of the chairs legs would fit upon the case. You pick, whichever three you preferred, but no matter which way you turned either guitar case or chair, one of the legs was always hanging out, a little bit lonely looking, in mid air. Well, we had always heard that the triangle is the most stable structure there is, so we decided to ignore the slight wobble in the "mike stand" every time somebody walked across the floor, and get on with playing some music.

What's that expression? "Only a bad workman blames his tools." Some might say that it's the bad workman who usually owns the crappy tools. Either way, we had some crappy tools— specially if you include really loud scratchy volume and tone controls on at least one of the guitars, strings that had been put on backwards, so that every time I thought I was tuning
Rupert, Robert, Errol, Mario - at Errol's house (2013)
up... I was actually tuning down; amps that went on and off at will; let's not forget the now infamous "mike stand"; and top that off with a defunct battery on the electronic tuner.
Fear not, young Rupert came to the rescue with his perfect pitch. Just ask him, "What's a G, Rupert?" or "What's an E, Rupert" and he will sing it as close as makes no difference— in rock'n'roll, anyway. Let's face it, we were good enough to deal with it. We must have had several hundred years of music experience right there in the room... or close to that. And we had all overcome these kind of minor hindrances many times in our past and sordid musical careers.

Oh we delivered some classics that night. Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Beatles, Beachboys, Elvis, Everly Brothers and Santana were all covered... not to mention Gershwin (Summertime) and a couple of things where nobody knew exactly what it was that we were playing. With Rupert on the bass, Robert on the Bongos, Errol and myself on the electric guitars, and Peter leading the band on vocals and playing some beat up old Eko acoustic that my father had bequeathed him (he won't play anything else, no matter what you give him— just like Willy Nelson).

Peter's 65th Birthday (2009)
As the night wore on, and our racket spilled out onto the street, we started getting standing ovations from the Aussies who were pouring in and out of the Moscow Arms across the road. I don't know why Aussies are drawn to that pub, the King's Head is about three doors down and they won't set foot in it. Anyway, they're a fun bunch after they've had a couple or fifteen pints of Fosters, or whatever the Moscow serves, and they took over the street outside number 3 and started singing and dancing along to "Blue Suede shoes."

At this point, my mother, who had been sitting in the living room knocking back scotch and sodas all evening, and having "sophisticated" conversations with Ali and Babette, must have heard all the noise, and took a look out of the window to see the Aussies partying outside. Once she realized that they were paying so much attention to what was going on in the room right next to her, she probably figured that she was missing out on the action in her own house. In order to correct this situation, she came storming into our room demanding that we play some music that she could dance to. So we did.

Now Robert is a wonderful guy, super intelligent, loyal friend and a generally nice person to everyone. "He speaks very well" was the expression one might have used in the old days to describe his erudite British accent, but slightly and almost imperceptibly tinged with the distant echoes of his Guyanese patois, it renders upon him a unique and recognizable manner. A close friend to my brother and a part of our family since forever, and, although he doesn't drink a lot as a rule... when he does drink— at a party for example— he always drinks until he becomes unconscious. Literally!

There was a time, for instance, when at the end of a party I found Robert fast asleep in a dining chair at the threshold of my bedroom. I carefully dragged the chair, with him still undisturbed upon it, just outside and clear of the door so I could shut it before I went to sleep. When I got up he was still sleeping there quite peacefully. Upon hearing the sounds of people moving around him he suddenly snapped awake, bright eyed and bushy tailed and said to me, "Hey Dhoomki (which is what they all call me) what's for breakfast?

So, as this evening had been progressing, Robert was slowly but surely navigating his way toward that inevitable conclusion. As per usual starting with a little drowsiness, at which point his grip on the bongo drums might relax just enough to allow them to slip towards the floor, and the general rhythm of the jam session might suffer as a result. Normally this didn't bother anyone— it was after all... rock'n'roll. But tonight there was the special circumstance of the "mike stand" to consider. The three chair legs were (obviously) positioned upon the widest part of the guitar case, close to where my brother sat, which meant that the neck was sprouting off at a tangent which ended up fairly close to Robert's feet. So with the bongos resting between his knees, every time they fell from his grip they would bump the head of the guitar case, and cause the chair to wobble around. This in turn would set off some kind of strange gyrations in Peter's head movements as he tried to follow the mike's teetering motions with his mouth. Needless to say this was starting to irritate my brother, as it had already happened a couple of times so far. His response was to curse violently at Robert who would wake up immediately and pick up the bongos and continue playing.

At one point I noticed that the three teenage cousins, Avery, Richard and Andrew— perhaps feeling that they were too young to appreciate our classic songs, or perhaps that we were a corny old load of buffoons trying to relive our youth— had remained out in the hallway, looking in at the scene with some amusement. And every time this little sequence of events played through, which began with Robert dropping the bongos and ended with my brother yelling at him, they laughed hysterically, pointing at us as if we were some kind of entertainment for them… and not the kind we had intended to be.    

Errol, Mario, front room (2009)
Nonetheless, with all the people inside and outside the room, laughing, drinking, singing and shouting... it was turning out to be quite a rave up. I suppose the straw that broke the camel's back was when Robert dropped the bongos and it finally knocked the "mike stand" completely over onto the floor. My brother started yelling at Robert, but as he didn't have the mike in front of him, we just thought he was vamping over the end part of "Black Magic Woman." So Rupert and Errol and I just kept on playing— until, that is, I felt a sharp ungodly pain in the side of my rib- cage as if I'd just been elbowed by someone with, well...very sharp elbows (not to put too fine a point on it).

I turned round to see just what the hell was going on, and there was my mother — arms alternately akimbo and spreadeagled, legs trotting a merry jig, and a grin of ecstatic insanity upon her visage. Her eyes locked onto mine, and through the tumult and the deafening din surrounding us, she screamed proudly, "Look at me! I'm dancing!"

I looked beyond her out into the hallway where the three teenage boys, with tear filled eyes, were simply melting into a pile of hysterical laughter. A moment which I must assume they will eternally hold in their hearts... until hell freezes over... or perhaps until the cows come home... as a memento of the glory days of the Sen family at number 3 Windsor Court.

Avery on the front steps (circa 1987)
 Penny, Barabara, Laurence, Honeypie, Peter, Mario -  in front of the building (circa 1967)

Star, Laurence -  front Hall (2003)

Peter, Star, Mario - front room (2003)

Peter, Errol, Mario - front room (2009)

Star, Babette in background (1980s)

Penny, Barbara, Star, Avery on the front steps next to the window of the front room (circa 1987)