Nostalgie, a short story by Wendy Erskine

First published in The Irish Times, the story has been revised for her book, Dance Move

The night before, Drew has a smoke on the promenade deck of the Liverpool-Belfast boat. The sky, barred pink and yellow, is almost psychedelic and he thinks about getting his phone out to photograph it for Jan, before deciding not to bother. He hadn’t asked her to come, even though she’d pointed out that she hadn’t ever seen much of Ireland. This particular trip, he said, didn’t warrant the effort. When she asked what type of concert it was, he replied, although it wasn’t entirely true, that all he knew was when and where he needed to turn up.

Drew drops his final cigarette into the night sea and heads back to the cabin, a family type, with two sets of bunks. He looks at its wood laminate as he drinks the bottle of whiskey he bought, thinking of all the holidays the four of them have taken over the years: the beds in hotels, villas and cottages that had been theirs for a week or so. A surprise that their almost-adult kids came on that last one to Cyprus. The promise of winter sun. One night, in the hotel bar, a waiter passed plastic sheets round the tables, lists of songs for karaoke. When he brought the next tray of drinks, Drew handed the lists back to him.

The cabin is a luxury. He could easily have slept for a few hours on one of the lounge chairs. But he wants to enjoy the journey, as he trips back. He knows it’s pathetic in a way, but he doesn’t care. That night, at the karaoke, the singers were drunk and pitiful, apart from one woman, not terribly young, who sang so beautifully the room went preternaturally quiet. When she finished, Drew realised he’d been holding his breath. His eyes were wet. He saw the woman afterwards, loading deckchairs and other beach paraphernalia into the boot of her car.

Drew keeps drinking, the dark pressing on the single porthole. His thoughts slide, as they habitually do when he’s alone with them, to Delphine, even though it’s decades since he’s seen her. The time spent recollecting being with her adds up to more than the actual duration. ‘With her’ is a misnomer. He leapt on flights, chased her all over the place. Insane really, but he’d liked the intensity. Jan saw a picture of her in the paper years later. She’s not as pretty as I thought she’d be, she said. But Delphine was never pretty. She was magnificent. Thinking about her all these years later is still exciting.


Drew doesn’t know what the technical-set up will be at the hotel, but then he’s only singing four or five songs. The tracks with his vocals scrubbed were easy to get sorted. He found his album in a box in the roof-space, wedged between the old cot and the Christmas decorations. He swapped the cover with the name Drew Lord Haig for the anonymity of a black liner sleeve. But he needn’t have feared mockery: the young guy at the studio had barely looked at him.

Ludicrous to wonder, there in the cabin, where it all went wrong because, by multiple indexes, what he has now is success. In the early nineties, he’d retrained in IT and started earning good money. Only rarely does he come across anyone who remembers his previous incarnation. He’d gone on to set up his own company. Meticulous and reliable, their retention of trade is almost one hundred per cent. He’s got a nice house that has tripled in value over the last fifteen years, great kids and a wife he loves. Drew watches with contempt those contemporaries of his who persevere with projects that are no more than end-of-the- pier shows.

But where did it all go wrong? He settles back on the bunk. With zero interest in writing some lumpen song about standing in a benefits queue, Drew sang instead about sex and death, disillusionment and ennui. His tenor voice, despite having no training, was operatic; he embraced excess in both sentiment and arrangement. ‘Tale of the Shady Lane’ was in the Top 30 in 1984. Its B-side, a nihilistic affair called ‘Nostalgie de la Boue’, borrowed that phrase for an attraction to what is depraved or degrading. It sounded good. Drew appeared on television. Although never dreamboat handsome, he was an attractive enough figure in a black turtleneck. His hooded eyes looked world weary and in the few interviews he did, he intimated a complicated past which he had not had.

His manager was Nicky Larner, a woman with a machine- gun voice. Ever since, he has been wary of people who speak quickly as a means of convincing the universe they are dynamic individuals. But back then he was flattered by Nicky and her promises of what was just around the corner. She encouraged him to go on a pointless, sprawling US tour as a support act. When he returned, there were new faces on the scene, brighter, hotter, shinier. Drew had the creeping realisation he was out of fashion, already. His album, recorded quickly and carelessly, got no exposure and didn’t do well. He continued with dwindling conviction for another few long years before deciding to retreat from that world entirely.

And so, when a few months ago, he got an email that began ‘Dear Drew Lord Haig’ he was surprised. Lord, his mother’s maiden name, he had originally inserted to suggest something of the de?classe? degenerate aristocrat. For so long now, he has been, simply, Drew Haig. The email came from someone in Northern Ireland of all places, a man called Jimmy Henderson; it asked if he was available for singing at parties. Drew ignored it. Another email arrived the week after, this time with a particular date. Drew gave a polite but insistent no, thanking Jimmy Henderson for his interest. Within a few days came another. The ex- brigadier, Jimmy wrote, was particularly keen that Drew should perform at the centenary of the battalion. Their only stipulation: that he should perform one song, which was the battalion anthem, as it were. It was spelt Nastalji Della Boo.

The totally risible money that Jimmy offered was irrelevant. Drew was amazed that, in the depths of nowhere, there were people who knew, what, an album track, a B-side from over thirty years ago! Almost beyond belief. Drew didn’t have much interest in Ireland but he gave the battalion’s Wikipedia page a quick scan. Now disbanded, they had in the past been responsible for a number of deaths.

Still, they hadn’t been active for a couple of decades at least. There was a photograph of the organisation’s one- time leader, shaking hands in the nineties with a member of the government. By chance, Drew watched a current affairs programme where someone, a very attractive woman actually, wondered if those far removed from a situation, in their position of peaceful privilege, should sit in judgement on individuals who took particular actions in a specific place during a certain period in history. And so he wrote back to say yes, he would come.

Drew sleeps well in the little cabin. In the morning, when he rolls off the ferry, he parks the car at the dock area in Belfast and walks around for a while, taking in the sights of the new quarter, its hotels and building sites, its urban housing. Across the spangled lough he can see the film studio that once was the shipyard paint hall. He has a coffee down at a waterside cafe? and watches a couple, young and in love, seemingly, from the time that they walk towards him to when they become figments in the distance. Eventually, he goes back to the car and starts his journey to the hotel. Heading down the motorway, he practises singing along to the songs, surprised at how easily the words come back to him. His voice, he feels, sounds good. It has a slightly sad timbre that he could only have tried to emulate in his twenties.

When Drew gets to the hotel, he phones Jan but she’s dashing out to meet a friend and so can’t speak for long. The place isn’t particularly picturesque-just an old building, with cumulative additions over the years, in various bricks and styles. It’s surrounded by farmland. Drew goes to his room and hangs the clothes he is intending to wear over a chair: a shirt the kids had bought him for his birthday one year, and a pair of black trousers he sometimes wears to meet work clients.

He feels like going down to the bar. The main entrance to it is at the back of the hotel. It has a hard, spartan aesthetic of the type that people would spend a lot of money trying to replicate. Drew orders a pint and sits at a table in front of a television, which shows horse-racing. There are few people around, other than a middle-aged couple having some food. Drew thinks that he should maybe eat too, and so orders a sandwich. The old barman polishes glasses and changes a keg. Drew watches him do these things.

It seems a pleasant and plain old bar and he enjoys the time he spends there that afternoon, the watery sunlight coming through high windows, the only sound the racing commentary. It seems remote, that research on a computer screen. As Drew watches the barman polish glasses and change a keg, or exchange friendly words with the couple as they get up to leave, it is as distant as newspaper reports of internecine strife in Syria or the Congo.

When the evening finally comes, Drew takes his time getting ready. He shaves carefully, guides his hair into a little quiff, polishes his shoes, slowly buttons his shirt. The arrangement is that he will meet Jimmy Henderson in the hotel foyer. So Drew stands in front of a rack of brochures about the local area until someone shouts his name. Jimmy Henderson, warm and friendly, takes him through to the function room where the centenary celebration will take place. Drew gives him the drive with the sound files and Jimmy Henderson stares at it. The music, Drew says. Jimmy nods and tells him that he will get one of the young lads to sort it out.

It’s a fine name you got, Jimmy declares. Drew Earl Haig.

Lord Haig, says Drew.

We lay numerous poppy wreathes every year, Jimmy replies. Numerous.

The function room suggests a downbeat high-school prom. Suspended in one of the corners is a lone helium balloon. Tables are arranged around a little platform made up of wooden boxes covered with black canvas. The one microphone has tinsel wrapped around it. Behind the bar in this room is the same man Drew had watched earlier. They nod over to each other like old friends.

Before long, people begin to drift in and take their seats. They are mainly men. Many of them are ancient and shrunken, their jackets meant for wider shoulders. One is in a wheelchair, a tartan rug across his lap, and another, connected to a plastic tube, trails behind him a frame with some kind of oxygen canister. But there are younger people, some in pristine sportswear, their arms taut with muscle, and a few women too. Jimmy Henderson sees Drew looking at the redhead in tight leather.

That’s Angie Pin-Up, Jimmy says. Angie, come here a minute, would you?

When she’s standing next to Drew, he sees that she is the same age as him, if not older.

It’s great you were able to come over, Angie Pin-Up says. We’re all looking forward to hearing the song. You know, actually sung, by you.

Drew thanks her and says how much he is going to enjoy singing tonight. Jimmy Henderson gives Angie Pin-Up the drive with the music and asks her to get it sorted with one of the guys. Drew asks if there is going to be a sound check.

Ah no, says Jimmy Henderson. We don’t need to stand on ceremony.

People continue to appear, greeting each other with bear-hugs or handshakes, depending on age. Several, when they arrive, go over to the frail individual with the oxygen. They clasp his hand. One man, solid as steak, even kisses him on the head. The drink is cheap and strong and, like the night before, Drew has moved onto whiskey. His performance, he knows, will not benefit from him being sober. Drew had assumed there would be other acts, but he is, it seems, the sole attraction.

At a certain point, when the room is full, Jimmy Henderson comes over to the table where Drew sits, to say that the brigadier has given the word that he should begin. Jimmy indicates a man, sitting with Angie Pin-Up. Drew, on the box stage, introduces himself to a little polite applause. What then follows, however, is a malfunction that causes the sound to cut out. People start talking again. Drew stands there, awkward, microphone in hand. But, when the music is restored, he begins once more.

He starts with his nearest thing to a hit, ‘Shady Lane’, and as the backing track plays, he thinks, as he has done so many times before, what a mistake it was to have that organ at the beginning. It’s too insistent. But still the people carry on talking, so even from the stage Drew can hear the clink of glasses at the bar, the laughter at the tables. Men continue arriving, weaving their way through the tables, greeting this and that person. Drew does another two songs from his album. They seem so mannered and ridiculously baroque. He swallows the vocals, embarrassed and impatient to be done, looking with envy at that balloon, aloof, where the wall meets the ceiling.

But then everything changes. With the first few bars of ‘Nostalgie’, his final song, absolute silence descends. And, as he continues, people begin to sing along. They know every word. When it comes to the chorus, a great, magnificent crescendo rings out as they hold their drinks high to sing, ‘Nostalgie, Nostalgie, Nostalgie de la boue’. On the final refrain the sound swells louder again. ‘Nostalgie de la boue!’ As Drew finishes, they leap to their feet, those that can, to applaud. Some of the younger ones start chanting what he takes to be the initials of their organisation.

Once the applause is finally over, Drew leaves the function room and goes outside. His fingers tremble as he lights his cigarette. That one song! It was remarkable! He could hardly remember, even in his early days, a response like that. Life glorious and at full tilt: it’s not so very dead and gone.

Someone is beside him. It’s the old barman and he has brought Drew another drink. He sets it down on the one outdoor table.

On the house, he says.

Thanks very much, Drew replies.

You did well in there.

Really was incredible, how it ended up going down!

They’ve always loved that song.

Well, says Drew, they must be the only people in the world.

Been their song since the eighties. Their anthem. Their theme tune.

That long? Incredible.


Amazed they’d ever heard of it.

Jim tell you the story?


Bar you were in this afternoon, used to be a jukebox there. Beautiful old thing, American, all lit up. They walked in, the four of them, after they’d done The Hill Haven. And somebody, Christ knows who, put that tune on. Hit the wrong button. Didn’t matter, it became their song from that night.

Terrible, he said. The Hill Haven. But, a month earlier it had been the McGowans killed on their farm.

He lifted two empty beer bottles and took them inside.

Drew takes his phone from his pocket, looks up Hill Haven. He reads about the men with assault rifles. The two eighty-year-olds dead. And the mother of three. And the boy of thirteen earning pocket money, collecting glasses. There is a picture of blood-streaked linoleum, shards from a shot mirror. The footsteps he can hear are Jimmy Henderson’s.

We wondered where you’d got to, Jimmy says. They’re begging you to come in and sing our song one more time, Drew.

Oh no, he says, putting his phone back in his pocket.

But you must.

No. I sang it for you and that’s it.

But you have to. You have to.

The response is even more impassioned the second time. ‘Nostalgie de la boue!’ rings out into the night. The frail old man with the oxygen particularly wants to thank Drew- he stretches out his hands to embrace him-but Drew’s arms remain folded. He gives Jimmy a quick nod when the brown envelope of cash is handed to him. Back at the hotel, Drew sees he has missed calls from Jan, but he doesn’t ring her back.

As soon as it is light, he drops the hotel key in the empty reception and sets off for the city. He has no cabin on the return journey and so he moves between the cafe and the lounge area. He even watches a film that is showing, a comedy that involves a dog show. Halfway across the Irish Sea, there is still a phone signal that allows Jan to call again. Yes, he says, he’ll be home after seven. Burgers or carbonara? Whatever, he says. Alright, maybe the carbonara.

He doesn’t want another coffee in the cafe. He doesn’t want to see another film. Drew takes a look around the shop with its bottles of perfume and shelves of whiskies, goes out on the promenade deck for a smoke. When the rain gets too heavy, he goes back inside. On his way to the lounge he sees the gaming area, a congress of machines, their lights lurid and flashing in the dim. Drew stands in front of one with a backlit and saturated image of a scantily clad woman leaning against a limousine. He takes out the brown envelope from his pocket and feeds one of the notes into the machine which triggers a crescendo of gurgling sound. He spins the reel. Loses. The eighty- year-olds having a quiet drink. Spins the reel. Loses. The mother of three, those kids of hers. Spins the reel. Loses. The child collecting glasses, saving for something from the catalogue. The rest of those notes, he feeds them in, hoping to lose over and over again.

Nostalgie is taken from the collection Dance Move by Wendy Erskine, published today by The Stinging Fly Press