Nula Gibson looked good, she had a great voice. Standing on the stage of the Regency club, singing Total Eclipse of the Heart, the old Bonnie Raitt number, you would think she was really something. Small, dainty and somehow childlike.
But Nula was, how can I put it? Not quite right. No, that isn’t what I meant to say. Point is, Nula is not all she seems, something you can say about a lot of people, but in Nula’s case she certainly wasn’t all that she seemed. There was something different about her. However we all have our little quirks, and who am I to judge?
It was Friday night, and I was in the dance hall-cum-concert-arena that Tim Jessop and Graham Donnelly have created within this large old building that was a public house in Victorian days, and, before that, a hotel, that was built in 1759.
Recently the Regency had been converted by Tim and Graham into a concert venue, as well as an art-gallery-cum cafe. It’s bang in the middle of Canterbury’s King’s Mile, a long stretch of trendy shops and restaurants where there are tables on the pavement, which has a friendly, arty ‘left bank of Paris’ kind of atmosphere.
I concentrated on the present, on my friends around me, the music, on Nula belting out the raunchy ballad, giving it all she’d got, enjoying herself, wallowing in the pleasure she was giving to her audience. Nula wasn’t all she seemed but neither was the audience. I looked around: the usual crowd: Tim and Graham, a few of their camp friends, some couples, various other mates, and other people I only knew by sight, plus a whole lot of strangers standing, or sitting on the few seats around the perimeter of the room, or dancing on the floor.
It was the quartet of strangers in the room that was worrying me. I didn’t like the way that one of them kept looking at Nula in that hungry way. They were close to the stage, a thirtyish man in a black leather jacket who kept his hands in his pockets, and a younger, rangier type, a dark skinned character with tattoos on his bare forearms and pugnacious look in his truculent glaring eyes. There were a couple of others near them, shaven-haired blockheads, who had ‘bouncer’ written all over them, men who were obviously paid as hired muscle. A quartet of troublemakers who didn’t fit in with anyone around them, and it worried me.
“Trouble,” Tim mouthed at me, as he passed by, casting a beseeching looking in my direction as Nula was launching into Tumbling Dice, the old Rolling Stones number. Tim cocked his head towards the office, indicating that I should follow him.
In Tim’s office the reality of the fledgling three-week-young business, was only too obvious. Peeling wallpaper, a dirty sink in the corner, and bare scrubbed floorboards. Everything about the Regency Club seemed grand and flashy, but it was all for show, and to make a splash for the crowd. Behind the scenes the shakiness in the business was all too evident, from the cracks in the ceiling to Tim’s furrowed brow, to the single light bulb hanging from the dingy yellow ceiling, with the spider’s web still intact, dangling like lace from above, shivering dramatically in the breeze from the cracked window.
“So what’s it all about?” I asked him.
“Did you see those guys who were looking at Nula?” Tim asked, sinking into the battered office chair behind the battered desk.
“I saw two in particular, and a couple of nasty looking goons.”
“The tattooed kid doesn’t matter,” Tim muttered, rubbing a hand along his bald dome of a head. He was 40, a short, thick-set powerful man with serious brown eyes and a face that was designed for misery. I think that even as a baby he must have looked worried. “Or the two goons. It’s the older guy I’m worried about, the one in the black leather jacket. His name’s Taylor. He’s a local face.”
“You mean a villain?” I was getting used to Tim’s delight in street-cred terminology, which never seemed to match his posh cut-glass accent.
“Call it what you like. Villain, goon, crook. Anyone who has a business around here knows Taylor. I thought he hadn’t noticed us. I thought we could ignore him, but it looks as if someone’s tipped him off that there’s a new business that he hasn’t got his claws into.”
He nodded gloomily. “He arrived earlier this evening, demanded to talk to me. You know, the usual thing. Did we want to pay to have protection against hooligans, or types who might want to smash the place up? If so, we have to pay them a weekly retainer.”
“When in fact no one is likely to want to smash the place up anyway,” I added. “Only if you don’t pay they do the demolition themselves.”
“Precisely. And we’re vulnerable in so many ways!” Tim paced across the floor, lit up a cigarette, and took a long pull, not caring that it wasn’t to smoke inside licensed premises. “A fire under the stage in the concert hall. A gang of kids who just happen to cause trouble and smash up the bar. They could even plant a pile of drugs somewhere and call the police, so we lose our licence. They’ve got us by the balls, Jack, well and truly got us. There’s no two ways about it.”
“Didn’t you take this kind of thing into account when you started up the Regency Club?”
“Well I never really thought about it. The prospect of getting it all going, the renovations, all the excitement of actually getting things moving… That’s what kept us motivated. I’ve put every penny I’ve got into the place, so has Graham.”
“Hmm.” I sat on the edge of the desk, frowning at the floor. “So what are you going to do?”
There was a long silence while he walked up and down, puffing at the cigarette. “There’s only one thing I can do Jack. I’m going to defy them.”
“Come on, Tim. Graham couldn’t knock his way out of a paper bag. And you –“
“Okay okay, don’t rub it in. I had a heart attack last year, I’ve still got abnormally high blood pressure, and any sudden exertion could be see me in my box.” As if to accentuate his delicate state of health he collapsed in a fit of coughing, then slumped down into the chair and frowned miserably. “But there’s still you.”
“Me? On my own? Against a gang of thugs?”
“We’d be there too, we could back you up. Graham and I could look the part, so long as you front them up, actually look as if you mean business. So long as there isn’t any actual confrontation, then that’s all that matters. They realise they can’t mess about with us.”
“What about Nula?” I asked. “They were looking at her just now. I was worried they might try to chat her up.”
“Oh Lord. As if we haven’t got enough problems.”
Outside we could hear the clapping, and it was obvious that Nula’s act was over.
“Just so’s you know, Jack, Taylor is coming in here in about ten minutes. He wants an answer.”
“You’ll have to say you’ll pay. Just the first instalment, then we can try and working something out.”
“No Jack. It doesn’t work that way. Once you start paying protection you can never stop. It’s the slippery slope to the end, and we just haven’t got the spare cash for it. Besides, after the first payment he’ll put up the price, bit by bit. The only way is to start as we mean to go on.” He stood up, an appeal in his eyes. “An American bloke once said to me when you’re about to have a confrontation, you just have to go for it. Don’t even think about the consequences. Just wade in there and do what you have to do. It’s a psychological thing, a matter of respect. You front someone up, even if you’re terrified, and your adversary respects you. 99.9 percent of the time it pays off – your enemy backs down. That’s what I’m going to do now. Tell Taylor to take a running jump.”
“And get your face kicked in. Or get the Regency destroyed tonight or tomorrow, or next week.”
“It’s a chance I’ve got to take.”
“For goodness sake, Tim, that’s ridiculous!”
“Is it? Do you really think so?” Tim was desperate, I could see it in his eyes. Desperate, and scared, and he wasn’t acting rationally. Which meant we were all in danger.
Outside I could hear the concert winding down, chairs scraping along the floor, people talking and laughing, the buzz of excitement.
“Ridiculous or not, Jack, I’m going to do it. Are you with me?” he asked.
I shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I’ll back you up. But if he doesn’t attack us tonight, he could smash up the club anytime.”
“Let’s tackle one thing at a time, Jack. We tell him to sod off, we don’t want his protection.”
“It’s your club. You do the talking, I’ll stand beside you. I’ll go and find Graham, then try phoning a few mates, but I doubt if any reinforcements can get here in time to help us.”
“Knew I could rely on you Jack.”
But I knew it was ludicrous. I’d simply have to go along with it, and try and make sure that my friends didn’t get hurt.
Outside the people were drifting away along the hallway from the concert hall, out through the main double doors, exiting the concert hall, laughing and talking. As I walked along the hall towards the stage, I wondered where Nula had gone. She wasn’t anywhere in sight. That’s when I heard the screaming.
I ran up onto the stage, then out through a doorway, to a tiny dressing room, where Nula was kicking and struggling, doing her best to escape from Taylor’s embrace. As I got closer, I realised it wasn’t Nula who was screaming, but it was the man.
He broke away from her and I heard the thwack sound as her shoe crashed into his face. She took off her shoe, and rammed the high heel into his face. He fell forwards, just as his three companions arrived, picking him up off the floor.
That all happened two months ago. For some reason, Taylor left that night and never came back to the Regency Club, despite Tim’s fear that he’d return demanding money with menaces. But I had the feeling that it had something to do with his damaged pride: the fact that his comrades had witnessed him being beaten senslesss by a young, apparently defenceless, woman.
Or perhaps it had something to do with what Nula was famous for.
Did I tell you that ten years ago a man had tried to rape her when he followed her down a dark alley one night? She happened to have a very sharp kitchen knife in her pocket, and he suffered the very same fate that an American man, Wayne Bobbitt, had suffered a few years previously.
At her trial she’d been cleared, because the jury believed that the severity of her reaction was caused by her schizophrenia, that triggered her total lack of self control. And she’d certainly ensured that the man was never in a position to rape anyone ever again.
Yes. There certainly was something very strange about Nula.
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