Winston plays the blues. Eyes squeezed shut, head thrown back, chin raised to the sky, the notes dance around in Winston’s head before he breathes them out into the cavernous room, where the crowd sits mesmerised. He is a magician, weaving his spell of ‘Bags’ Groove’; his trumpet is his wand.


His last note disappears slowing into the green–blue haze of smoke. For a moment Winston stands eyes still closed, trumpet to mouth, savouring that moment when his mind goes blank; those precious seconds of absolute peace.


The cheers, whistles and thundering applause pull him back into the real world. He opens his eyes, blinking several times as he adjusts to the murky darkness of the New York club. He runs one hand over his face, grimacing at the slick, thick sweat that now coats his palm.


He drops his right hand to his side, his trumpet facing down towards the stage as he acknowledges his fellow band members, the ‘Legends’, as Dulcie calls them – Milt ‘Bags’ Jackson, Kenny ‘Klook’ Clarke, Percy Heath and, the man himself, Monk. Only Miles is missing, but then if he were playing, Winston wouldn’t be.


He gives the still cheering crowd a final cheeky grin, turns to salute the Legends, before jumping down, trumpet now clutched against his chest as he weaves his way through the tables pregnant with people.


He’s heading towards the bar, but his journey is slow: hands stop him; faces laugh up at him; girls stare at him in that peculiar considered way of theirs, the message clear. Winston barely registers them. He has played with the best of the best and held his own and his only thought now is Dulcie.


She’s not in their usual spot at the far end of the bar, where they’ve stood waiting for the time when Miles might not be fit enough to play and Winston might get his moment in the sun. Night after night he’s stood with Dulcie, drawing out a single whisky between them, while he’s felt his dreams fade, but tonight was his night.


Winston scans the length of the bar. Al’s there, working, dishcloth carelessly thrown over one shoulder as he silently prepares drink after drink after drink for his customers, but there’s no Dulcie helping him.


Where is she?


He needs her, wants her; wants more than anything to share this moment with her, to see the measure of his success in her eyes. But he can’t find her. The panic wells up. His throat tightens. She’s not here.


It hits him suddenly, takes him unawares, his nose assailed with that curious blend of spice with just a dash of rosemary and a hint of something else beside that he’s never been able to place, no matter how hard he tries. It’s uniquely Dulcie: he’d be able to find her anywhere, anywhere at all, if he could just catch her scent.


He closes his eyes as her arms slide around his waist. He smiles as the lovely weight of her head momentarily presses down into the hollow between his shoulder blades before she moves across to rest her cheek against his right shoulder. Strands of red-dark hair fall across his arm; they are almost black against the polished brass of his trumpet.


Then there she is in front of him, standing on tip–toe, so close that he can see the tiny yellow strands that mark her cinnamon-bark eyes. The half-smile on her plump painted lips just parted enough to reveal her slightly nicked tooth. The dimple in her chin winks at him: she jokes that it’s where God pushed her away for being so bad. But she’s not. She’s not. She’s Dulcie, his Dulcie, and he, Winston, now is King.


Win–ston,’ she murmurs, the song of the Caribbean warming his name. It always gets to him, the way she says his name.


Reaching up she lays one hand against his cheek, the other rests lightly on his shoulder; even so he can feel the cool imprint of her fingers through his shirt.


‘Win­–ston,’ she repeats, leaning into him as they begin to slowly sway to the music – Monk playing ‘Sweet and Lovely’. Her lips graze his ear as she whispers…


‘Win–ston, Win–ston… WINSTON!’


He jerks upright, startling himself as he plunges into wakefulness. The hard glass wall of the bus shelter, where he’s been leaning, has burned ice cold onto the skin of his naked neck.


What the hell? What the hell?


He rubs his neck with one leather-clad hand, the roughness of the glove’s seams abrasive against his already sensitive skin. He tries to wake himself up, gasping as he registers the hand still resting on his shoulder. Winston’s heart stutters: he can smell spice and that dash of rosemary. It stutters.


Shaking his head, his vision begins to clear and there is Raj standing in front of him – Raj, his expression anxious, as he peers down at Winston through thick plastic-framed glass.


‘Are you all right?’ Raj asks; he squeezes Winston’s shoulder gently.


‘Yes,’ Winston rasps, staggering to his feet.


Damn, it’s cold, he thinks, digging his hands deep into the pockets of his quilted coat. He should have pulled the hood up; his neck and face are freezing, especially his nose, but his upper body is burning up. His feet are another matter. He jigs up and down, trying to get the circulation moving. Not for the first time, he wishes that he still smoked.


‘This isn’t a good place to nap, Winston,’ Raj scolds. He watches as his friend dances around to a tune that he can’t hear. ‘Was it a long night…?’ Winston doesn’t answer.


‘Are you all right?’ he says again.


Winston nods curtly. Raj shrugs. He gestures behind him at the double decker parked by the kerb, a smattering of passengers already on board. A few stare out at Winston and Raj from the bottom deck, their expressions curiously uncurious. This is London after all. He doesn’t see the young woman looking down at them from the top deck. He doesn’t register her at all.


‘I let them on,’ Raj explains. ‘It was too cold for them to stand out here while I woke you. You’re sure you’re OK,’ he says, giving Winston one last searching look. His head is tipped to one side, his light brown cheeks rosy with cold and he’s wrapped up in a duffle coat that’s slightly too small for his rotund frame. He reminds Winston of a Robin.


Winston nods then pats the younger man several times on the back. It’s reassuring enough to send Raj on his way. He stomps off to the café on the corner of the slope to the canal. Winston can smell the hot, bitter coffee and greasy bacon rolls from where he’s standing. It makes his mouth water, reminding him that he’s missed breakfast. Still, no time now.


It’s barely light even though it is well past 7 on a wintry December morning. The traffic is already building up by Sainsbury’s on Ladbroke Grove; the beam from the car headlights an endless stream of dull yellow eyes lighting up the tarmac still wet from the night.


He looks at the bus again. He’d been so caught up in his dreams that he hadn’t even heard it draw up. The memory of Dulcie is still so strong that her scent lingers in his nostrils, even now.


He sighs, thinking, Winston, man, you’re really getting old.


He checks around him, visibly relieved when he spies the bag still lying at his feet where he’d thrown it. Raj is right. It’s not the brightest thing to fall asleep here, even at this time in the morning, but the memories are keeping him awake long into the night. Now, it seems, they’ve entered his dreams.


He opens the doors to the 295 before alighting. Within minutes he is settled, safely tucked up in his glass cage, the rest of the world locked out. He starts the engine, changes the destination board to read ‘Clapham Junction’ and flicks the indicator on, only to flick it off again as he spots the woman weaving in and out of the traffic.


He briefly considers ignoring her, but he knows he can’t. Anyway, she’s too hard to miss in that turmeric-coloured coat, a beacon in the drabness of the morning. Her eyes focus on him and she waves.


She’s one of his Familiars; she gets this bus pretty much every day around this time. He picks her up here sometimes, but mostly she gets on at Bramley Road or at the stop outside Charing Cross Hospital. She’s a doctor there, he thinks.


As she rushes around the front of the bus, he releases the doors. She hops on, lifting her skirts to avoid the muddy puddle between the pavement and the bus. Her coat is not quite long enough to cover the flaying skirts of her dark blue sari; just visible beneath it she’s wearing a pair of UGGs. The boots make him want to smile. He looks down at the steering wheel instead.


She’s bundled up against the cold, a loosely knitted scarf the same colour as her sari, wrapped around the lower part of her face. She pulls this clear to say crisply, ‘Thank you for waiting.’


Pulling her Oyster free of her pocket she lays it flat against the tablet. It

beeps: there’s not enough money on it. Winston stares at her for a moment in silence, his expression impenetrable, then he shrugs, waving her on.


It is Christmas after all.




At the Junction, he makes his final rounds, checking the bus to make sure that no one’s left anything behind that they shouldn’t. It’s funny the things that people forget. He once found a double bass on the top deck.

He’d laid it down carefully on the back seat; then slowly freed it from its case. He spent long minutes running his fingers across the smoothness of the wood, strumming idly at its strings. Eventually he’d zipped it up again, handing it in before he could think better of it, but the sound of Percy Heath that night still played on in his head. It took him days to rid himself of that memory.


Today, there’s nothing of interest, only the usual rubbish on the floor and seats. Just as he’s about to leave the bus to take his break though, he smells it again, that scent.


You’re going mad, old man, he thinks.


After Dulcie’d left, he couldn’t rid himself of her scent. Only the whisky would blot it out. He’s been sober now for 10 years, 5 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, 1 hour and – he glances at his watch – 37 minutes. But now it’s here again.


I don’t think I can take it, he thinks, her scent still lingering in his nostrils, the taste of whisky in his mouth. I don’t have anything else to give.


He makes his way slowly to the tiny café just by Clapham Junction Station, goes through the motions of asking the teenager behind the counter for his usual strong black coffee. He looks around him at the couples, mothers with babies, fellows on laptops, on phones, their cups all brimming with fancy coffees – lattes, americanos, macchiatos – he doesn’t hold with them. Coffee is coffee and should be drunk strong and black. It’s the way he’s always drunk it and his only real indulgence now, the one thing he’s refused to give up.


There’s one small empty table in the corner. He takes his cup from the girl and makes his way over to it swiftly, sitting down before anyone else can. There’s a day old Metro on the seat beside him. He picks it up and starts to leaf through it.


He smells her before he sees her, can almost taste the rosemary on his tongue. She sits down opposite him without a word and for a moment he can only stare at her, the well of disappointment simply too much. Of course, it’s not Dulcie.


‘You don’t mind if I sit here?’ she asks, although the question is redundant: she’s already seated. He shrugs. He can’t speak.


‘Do you mind?’ she continues, gesturing towards the sugar. She’s American. East Coast, he thinks. Her voice is sweet and low; her tone modulated. He wonders if she sings.


Without waiting for a response, she picks up the sugar shaker, upending it into her cup. He eyes her disapprovingly, watching the sugar stream into the creamy foam. She’s poured so much in that the coffee might as well be an afterthought. When she’s finished, she leans forward to place the shaker back on the table near him. Again, he’s almost overcome by that scent.


He’s feeling very light headed. He wonders almost absently if he’s about to have a stroke. People say your senses go into overdrive before you have a stroke.


‘I wondered what it would be like?’ she says, as if they’re having a conversation. Winston says nothing. He doesn’t know what’s expected of him.


She fiddles with the handle of her cup then leans back in her chair, hooking one arm behind the seat back so that she’s turned away from him; she’s almost in profile. He knows she’s watching him, even though her eyes are hidden behind the dark glasses that cover most of her face. It’s an affectation, wearing sunglasses in this dreary light, but it somehow suits her; it draws attention to her full red lips.


She takes the glasses off, slowly as if she’s stripping herself bare. Her eyes are almost black, her skin fair, her hair dark with red lights. She’d almost pass for white, but for her nose, which is broad and flat and unmistakably African.


Suddenly she smiles at him and his heart stutters for the third time that day. A heart attack, he thinks, panicked now, a heart attack, not a stroke. But he can’t look away, can’t look away from the dimple winking at him, where God must have pushed her away.


She is nothing like her mother – but for that dimple and her scent, that beautiful scent that he can never, ever forget.


‘Hello,’ she says to Winston, her eyes now as moist as his own.


‘Hello,’ she says again. ‘Daddy, don’t you know me?’




**‘Bags’ Groove, Take 2’ (Milt ‘Bags’ Jackson; 1954). Performed by Miles Davis (trumpet); Milt ‘Bags’ Jackson (vibraharp); Thelonius Monk (piano); Percy Heath (bass); Kenny ‘Klook’ Clarke (drums). From a session originally recorded on December 24, 1954 (the ‘Christmas Session’). In this story, Winston plays with Jackson, Heath, Clarke and Monk almost 15 years later, in 1969.


Copyright notice:

‘Bags’ Groove – Take 2′ is the first chapter in Midnight in a Perfect World ©A. Vasudevan/The Literary Shed, 2013. It can only be reproduced in any form with our permission.