The Dubliner pub was quiet. It was only 9pm, but it was Wednesday, a week night. Even so, the marquee sign said “LIVE TONIGHT! Wendell Whelan!” while the racing lights gave the hand-scribbled name an aura of excitement.
A young man slips in, unnoticed, and stows a guitar case quietly behind the bar while the bartender, who seems to know the man, pours him a Guinness. Eyeing the lone girl drinking her troubles away at the bar, he doesn't seem to notice the rest of the near-empty pub. The girl looks at him, noting his blue eyes and dark hair, but quickly re-immerses herself into her drink, which the bartender attentively keeps full.
The Guinness is finally ready and the young man sips it quickly, licking the foam off his upper lip with a delicate tongue. He nods for another one, and the bartender slides it along with a shot of something dark and syrupy.
Everyone along the gleaming wood of the old Irish bar watches their own reflections distort in the shine and the alcohol. Two tables of Germans with their funky eye glasses laugh and raise their glasses at their own jokes. The bartender has barely said a word to anyone in the past ten minutes but then nods at the young man, and leans behind the open door to the kitchen to turn off theTV that was showing a soccer (football) game behind the bar.
The young man reaches inside the door and pulls out his guitar. The girl looks up for a moment, interested, but then turns back to examining her visage in the bottom of the glass.
He walks to the small stage in the corner, and the bartender switches on a light that illuminates the stage, dimming the others. No one seems to notice. He strums a few chords and tunes up the well-worn guitar, stroking it familiarly.
His first song goes ignored. A cover of an old Madonna song. His voice is getting warmed up - the alcohol has helped to lubricate his vocal cords and warm him from the frigid winter night. Another town, another pub. Another song, another girl.
He strums the guitar, not looking into the audience. A few more persons have wandered in, shaking off the white flakes from the Munich winter. They beat their hands and blow hard on them, hoping the bartender will hurry up, but you can’t rush a Guinness pour, so they often opt for a German stein instead while the Guinness head coagulates.
His fingers are long, elegant. They taper towards the guitar strings almost in a caress, as if this guitar has stood by him after all friends and family deserted. They know each other, their moves. He signs a Cat Stevens song. Several of the patrons are tapping their feet or fingers to the song, some even singing along. The piano is not even missed.
“Now that I've lost everything to you
You say you want to start something new
and it's breaking my heart you're leaving, baby I'm grieving
But if you wanna leave take good care
Hope you have a lot of REALLY HOT UNDERWEAR…”
The last words are slipped in, as easily as the piece of foam breaks off the end of the tap spout and slides down the side of the curved glass. The girl at the bar smiles and the singer notices. This girl is not German; the Germans don’t notice the word insertions.
He switches to an Irish melody, playing the guitar as deftly as a fiddle. Now the crowd has grown, and many are hooting and the toe tapping beats the floor as they tempo a group drumbeat for the lone entertainer.
He slows the pace deliberately. No use in getting a bunch of weekday Germans too rowdy, especially since FC Bayern München recently lost against Manchester - and many lumped the entire UK together.
“I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink scotch whisky all night long
And die behind the wheel….
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call alabama the crimson tide
Call me Deacon Blue..”
Not as many recognize these lyrics, but the girl at the bar smiles at him for playing this special song. He decides he needs a refreshment and sidles up to the bar.
“Buy you a drink?” the girl says. Finally - a smile.
“Ah, American. I thought you were German, with your glasses and all,” he lies, nodding towards her thick black artsy frames.
“You’re really good. Do you play here all the time?”
The singer thanks the bartender for his drink and downs it quickly. “I travel around Europe playing, so I get here usually once, maybe twice a year. Depends on where I’m heading.”
The girl asks again if she could buy him a drink. He abruptly says no and picks up his guitar again, signaling the conversation is over. She turns away, embarrassed. He begins to sing again, playing on lyrics and inserting funny lines to see if anyone is paying attention. No one is, although they seem to like the music, except the girl at the bar, who is pretending not to.
“He signs a Cat Stevens song. Several of the patrons are tapping their feet or fingers to the song, some even singing along. The piano is never missed in the song.”
She gets up to leave, stuffing her arms into her ridiculously large winter coat. The singer stops playing in the middle of his song and yells into the crowd, “Anyone here sing? Come on up here!”
A few adventuresome wanna-be rock stars raise their hands, and the girl tried to slip out the door, pushing it against the heavy winter wind. She is stopped by a hand on her arm.
“Come back in, sing for us.” The Irish singer smiles at her, and she shakes her head, confused by him and the sudden blast of cold air and her heady buzz. Shrugging, she comes back inside. Better than catching a taxi or walking to the train station at this hour, she rationalizes. The crowd claps and encourages her to get up on stage.
“What do you know?” she asks him, only brave because of the alcohol she’d been drinking all evening.
“Pretty much anything, name it.”
“Do you know Brown Eyed Girl?”
He strums the chords of the beginning, amused at her choice, “Your eyes are green. Hit it!”
She sings and the crowd cheers her on. Finished, she laughs and amid the cheers and hi-5’s she turns the stage back over to the real singer. She is intoxicated with his ability to transform the pub where the isolated groups are now joined in singing and dancing and laughter. The power to move them. The power to entertain them with just his voice and his guitar.
She stays the rest of the night as the crowd gets more boisterous and the once quiet pub is a bastion of noise and comradery only found in Irish pubs around the world in the otherwise quiet city.
After Wendell, or “Wendie” as the bartender affectionately calls him, as they’ve known each other for years, is finished, the bartender closes up the bar and invites them back to his place for a nightcap. The girl protests that she had to get back to her hotel, that she is vacationing in Munich and had found herself with a free evening and had stopped in the bar by chance - or so she said and no one asks her about her sad eyes - and Wendell offers to walk her to the train station.
"I didn't take your offer for a drink because I get all my drinks for free. One of the perks of being a traveling musician..."
They ride the train together back to her place, and thus begins a passionate affair that lasts three weeks while she follows him on his meandering pub tour. He takes her with him while they tour the heartland of Germany and sleep in hostels, posh hotels, even once on someone’s living room floor under musty sleeping bags.
Wendell tells her all about living in Ireland, his girl there that he’d lost, Cecilia, by not being able to settle down and get a “real” job. The girl rebels at this notion, this "cecilia", for Wendell was a minstrel, a traveling musician. He was born to be on the road, just a small bag and some P.O. boxes along the way, putting down ties nowhere and leaving a trail everywhere. The girl hates Cecilia and all she stands for in her stifling of creativity. She tells him about her boyfriend who was supposed to take this dream trip with her but they’d had a fight and she chose to go alone; he chose to stay home, and that was the end of that.
They tell each other everything in the dark, smoky nights after the last patrons have shuffled off to snore or try for some physical affection after being seduced by Wendell’s music. He has the girl sing at every stop, whether she wants to or not. One night she wants to give him some breathing room so she stays in the far back, talking to a fellow American doing a sojourn there, and he comes back looking mildly peeved and asks if she would come closer to encourage him. He can’t play without her there.
The pair talk of everything - they hold no secrets back. Every love, every broken heart, every grievance, every dream each had ever had. They explore each others’ lives, each others’ bodies.
Once he asks if she would mind taking a hat around and collecting money for him. She looks at him, taken aback. He immediately apologizes profusely and instead asks some younger girls to do it, who agree happily for their entertainer, coming back with wads of Deutsche Marks and Euros that he stuffs into his backpack and then deposits in the bank the following day.
She asks him if he has had many affairs on the road; he affirms there had been some, and proceeds to tell her about the more amusing ones, including a woman who desperately wanted to be spanked and kept yelling “harder! Harder!” and when the girl looks at him skeptically he simply says, “Come on, everyone has to have a story to tell the lads…”
Along the way she becomes sick and traveling becomes an ordeal. The cold medicines makes it difficult to move. She sleeps a lot. One night after an arduous trip to Salzburg she was sleeping and he wakes her with a scream, “Stop your bloody snoring! I can’t take it any more!” She is immediately embarrassed, stammering that it was the cold. “I know, but I can’t bloody sleep!” He storms out. She lay there, wondering what to do, too nervous to fall back asleep.
She checks the clock. His gig would be up soon. She wonders if she should go downstairs to the bar, and walksthe length of the room back and forth. She pokes around at the things in the room, left by migrant workers or other entertainers. Needing some more tissues, she pokes her hands into her Wendell’s bag and sees some postcards. Curious, she picks them up and read:
“Cecilia, darling, I love you more than anything. I miss you. I’m doing really well - earning lots of money. I’ll bring home lots and I hope you’ll see me again. Love, Wendell”
She drags her aching body over the mirror and puts on make-up. Pulling on the tight white jeans she knew Wendell loves her in, she gives herself an appreciative once-over in the mirror before heading down. Her head hurts, her lungs ache. She pulls out a cigarette as a support prop and walks into the room. It is quiet, the gig is done. Wendell is sitting with another Irish couple and she joins them. He doesn’t introduce her. She forces herself to stay the evening and they fall asleep after too many drinks without talking or brushing their teeth.
In the morning, she drops him off in Augsberg for his next gig, and he shuffles away from her, his back growing smaller in the distance. She points the car towards Frankfurt, towards home.
Sitting in the airport, she is still rather sick in so many ways - exhausted, lonely and missing Wendell. The planes looked evil. They are taking her away from what she wants. But she realizes that Wendell doesn't want her, and that stings. She digs out some coins and places a call.
“Wendell? It’s me.”
“Oh. Hi. Where are you?”
“I’m in the airport, about to board. Where are you?”
“I’m in Bitsburg, about to board the train.”
The silence is physically painful.
“Well, listen love, I hope ‘ew don’t mind, but I put something in your bag for later. I hope you understand. Look, I’m really sorry there about all that back there. Listen, I have to run, my train is coming, but I hope that you don’t hate me too much.”
He hangs up the phone. She hangs up the phone. The airline announceds boarding, and she stands in line. How crazy was it that she’d spent three weeks night and day with someone who touched her so deeply and felt she’d known forever? And now here she is.
On the train, Wendell leans his hot forehead against the cool glass. He hopes he isn’t getting sick because he had gigs lined up, and it wasn’t easy to do - to be your own manager, marketer, administration and travel and play all at once. He wondered about Cecilia, at home, if she’d see him again. But more and more he wondered about the American girl, the one he’d just let go, who had shown her frailty in her illness and made him think nasty thoughts of loss. He wondered if he’d just made the biggest mistake of his life, pushing her away. They had talked about making it work - she could get her visa and work. She could even stay put while he traveled, providing a home base. Shewas smart, pretty, funny and even tolerated his secret liking of mushy pop songs from Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. She was everything Cecilia, who could be cruel and cold, was not, and he wondered why he was running from the one chance at love to the dullness of what he knew?
He hopes that his note in her bag will at least alleviate some of his guilt. He’d simply written, “You my
brown green eyed girl..please remember when we used to sing….”
Thank you Wendell, for sharing your Story with us.
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