“Tell Me Straight” by Dan Keeble

Connie sat up in bed and read the email for the third time.

‘That stupid girl,’ she said.

A nurse paused, saw she was addressing nobody, and continued through the ward. Connie slapped the phone down onto the lilac blanket and pushed her head back into the pillows with an exasperated sigh. Only Mavis could make that sort of screw-up, she thought.  

Mavis had a jazz voice of gold, but had the sense of a jack-ass.  The scatterbrain of the group with too much nervous apologetic energy, and little understanding of technology, had copied Connie into her group email.

Connie wasn’t naive. She knew where her condition was leading, but was angry the doctors had told her sister. She darn well didn’t want it out in the open. Like a final demand for payment, if the envelope remained unopened, the bill didn’t exist. Now she had to face it being public knowledge. But just six months. What do you do in six months when most of it is likely to be in hospital? And what about the group code?

Scrivener Jazz had played together for thirty-two years. The four were unimaginably open and honest with each other. That is how they survived as a group of once-girls. They shared a smile when they played Tell Me Straight, their only chart success. It reminded them they were forever sisters, although only Connie and Mavis were by blood.

Early in their popularity, and hysterically drunk in a hotel bar after a successful late gig, they noisily proclaimed,  No secrets. However painful. No fights over men. All in the open.  No matter how serious. Tell the truth. Whoever it may hurt. No taking offence.  Each declaration was suggested with a raised glass and repeated around the table with laughter. Slurring their words, they tried to repeat them like a court clerk, but descended into childish giggling.  They carried on into the early hours. Ruby honey, your ass looks big in everything. Connie, whoever said you had a fine taste in men, never drank wine. Babs, if you keep taking more handfuls of husbands outta that cookie jar of life, your fist is gonna get stuck in there. Mavis baby, of course there’s a man for you. You just forgot where you left him. They tried to out-cat each other until their sides ached with laughter, and they could no longer keep awake. The practice continued throughout their music career.

Connie wasn’t looking forward to a visit from the girls. They are bound to have seen Mavis’ folly, but how will they deal with it? She clenched her teeth and fists.

Before they went on stage, someone was sure to rustle up a quip. Babs, I hope you don’t handle your man like you handled that sax earlier, because the way you played, he’d go limp on you.  Or, Babs, do something with that dress. It’s jazz, not ragtime. Their unusual bonding relieved the pre-performance tension, and made their music wild. But Connie dreaded how they would manage this situation.

‘Tried telling me flowers weren’t allowed in the ward,’ Ruby said. ‘Used the, do you know who we are routine. That shut her up.’

Nervous laughter met a two-second pause that hung in the air like an hour until Babs jumped in with a lengthy update on her latest husband’s arthritis. Mavis plumped up Connie’s pillows, fussed around the bed covering, and insisted her sister drink some water as the room felt dry.  

They took turns repeating old anecdotes and current news from the industry, ensuring no gaps appeared in the continuous flow of banal chatter, until Connie butted in to stop them.

‘What is happening about the upcoming Lighthouse gig?’

‘Well honey, Ruby said, ‘We’ve been thinking about that, and we might give it a miss. Fee is pretty poor anyway.’

‘No way!’ Connie snapped. ‘That has to go ahead. We owe them. They gave us our first break.’

‘I dunno babe_’ Babs started.

Connie glared at her. 

‘I’m not the only trumpet player in town. I’d rather be de….rather have my teeth pulled than let them down.’

Ruby turned her head to glance at a picture on the wall. Babs fixed a smile while Mavis fiddled with her phone.

More than ever, Connie needed their sharp banter. But when it was time to leave, they each leaned across her bed and hugged her, something they rarely did.

As they made their way to the door in silence and shame for leaving much unsaid, Connie called out.

‘Tell me straight!’

The girls stopped. A moment passed. Only Babs had the composure to turn round.

‘Okay, we’ll do the Lighthouse gig. But you’re gonna have to get your lazy fat ass outta that bed. And there won’t be any of your usual leaving early before the final curtain for a quick sip from that bottle you hide in your purse. Well, not until you have held that last note on your crazy horn for as long as you have breath in your soul.’

Connie let her head drop back into the pillows and laughed loudly, while Babs rejoined the tearful group in the corridor.

Dan Keeble hails from the furthest point East in the UK, and has enjoyed many successes with online and print publications of poetry, short stories, humour, and more serious articles.