“You know that Taylor Swift song ?”
“I may be familiar with Swifty’s work. Which one ?”
“Shake It Off.”
“It’s a fine, fine thing. Didn’t think it’d be your cup of tea though.”
“I’m a broad church. But why’s there that whole bit about baking ?” asked Pete.
“Baking ? What are you talking about ?” replied Jen.
“You know… players gonna play, play, play, and then haters gonna hate, hate, hate…”
“Yeah, then it’s I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake.”
“But after that,” interrupted Pete, “it goes bakers gonna bake, bake, bake. Like she’s doing a shout out to sous chefs or something.”
“Sous chefs don’t do the baking you idiot. They’re like second in command chefs. Literally, they’re under chefs. Well, literally linguistically, I don’t know if they’re literally under them physically. Depends on how cosy the kitchen is I guess.”
“Really ? What’s that sous pastry then ?”
“Choux pastry you tit. What were you doing in French ?”
“J’étais pas attention,” replied Pete in a more than passable accent, enunciating each syllable of att-en-ti-on with relish.
“Non, j’ai seulement pris parce que je pensais que le professeur était très sexy.”
“You’re a man of hidden talents. And did you really just take French because you liked the teacher ?”
“Oui. It’s why I ended up doing Drama and Economics as well. My qualifications are really weird but I have a lot of happy memories in my formative years of vaguely stern older women trying to teach me things.”
“That’s quite enough insight into your adolescence thanks and it doesn’t get you off the hook with the baking thing. She doesn’t sing bakers gonna bake, bake, bake. It’s heartbreakers gonna break, break, break. The whole point of the song is that people are going to try and play her, hate on her, break her heart, or be a faker but she’s not going to let it get to her. She’s just going to shake it off.”
Pete answered quietly, reciting part of the verse. “Shake it off. I’m dancing on my own, making moves up as I go. That’s what they don’t know…”
Jen sighed. “You too, huh ?”
“Oh god yes, me too. After a while I just couldn’t listen to all that miserable stuff anymore. I couldn’t work out whether my own sadness would fade if I didn’t keep stoking it with songs in minor keys so I went through a phase of just playing pop music. I must have listened to Shake It Off ten times a day for a couple of weeks.”
“You heard the Ryan Adams version ? Covered the whole album for some reason.”
“Yeah, I have but you know what ? It doesn’t make any difference. I hear more sadness in her version than his. I know he broke it all down and plays some sparse, stripped back, slowed down take on it but it’s all borrowed…”
“…that’s kind of how cover versions work…”
“…no, I know but you can borrow the song but make the emotion your own. Listen to Buckley’s Hallelujah. Or, while we’re on Adams, listen to his version of Wonderwall, it’s like he found depths in it that Noel Gallagher didn’t even know he’d started digging. But the pathos in Shake It Off is all there in Swift’s original. All sunny on the outside but all dancing on my own on the inside. It’s the girl who didn’t fit in at school, the person who always felt a bit out of place, someone who retreats to their self when they don’t know how to deal with the world.”
“You seem to have given this some thought… Are you sure it’s not just a song about shaking off your troubles and jigging about a bit ?”
“Ten times a day. Two weeks. I know that song like the proverbial back of my hand. It’s not about jigging about a bit. Not for me at least.”
“So…,” Jen paused. “I’m guessing it didn’t actually help you shake it off ?”
“I’m not sure what would help that. The sad songs aren’t doing it and the bouncy ones aren’t either. It doesn’t seem to matter what it is but I just see her or hear her in everything. Always in the most unexpected places. Did I tell you about Valentine’s Day ?”
“Nope, I don’t think so.”
“It had become a bit of an in-joke between us. You know Georgie, she didn’t really go for the whole hearts and flowers thing but underneath it all she was romantic. Not that she’d much admit it but it was there. She liked it if I surprised her with something. It didn’t have to be anything traditional but just something that showed a bit of thought, I think that was what she liked.”
“Is that what prompted the teddy bear thing you two used to do ?”
“Yeah,” Pete laughed. “Sort of. It started as a joke one Valentine’s Day when I bought her the cheesiest bear I could find. It was holding a pink heart that had ‘I love you’ written on it and it had a matching pink bow on its ear. I mean it was just this awful thing that we just had a big laugh about. She went out the next year and got me this massive stuffed rabbit, all doe eyed…”
“Rabbit eyed, surely ?” said Jen.
“It’s an expression. You’re in a very literal mood today. Doe eyed. They’re stuffed toys, they’re not anatomically correct representations of woodland creatures. Anyway, it was all doe eyed, floppy ears and it was holding…”
“Wait, don’t tell me… Was it holding a love carrot ?”
“Hey, leave my love carrot out of it,” laughed Pete.
“With pleasure. Although… If it’s that orange and knobbly then you really should see a doctor, you know ?” Jen was trying and failing to suppress a fit of giggles. “Would you say your love carrot is from the Nantes variety or more of a stubby Chantenay ?”
“What are the ones you get in the shops ?”
“There’s loads of different ones. From the small but tasty aforementioned Chantenay, more of a snacking carrot that one, right through to the Purple Dragon. Ten inches of purple carroty pleasure.”
“You just made that up,” Pete protested.
“No, seriously. When I was at Uni I used to do some part-time work at a greengrocers and so now, along with my degree in History, I have a pretty decent knowledge of root vegetables.”
“Must come in handy.”
“Well, until now, not so much but I can confirm with some authority that the Purple Dragon is an actual thing. It wasn’t that popular, I think the colour put people off, so I used to get given bags of them to take back for the house. We pretty much lived on carrots, Marlboro lights and Thunderbird that year.”
“Was always Asda sherry in our house. Foul stuff but it had the best alcohol content to pound note ratio. I don’t remember many carrots, or vegetables at all to be honest. There was a lot of tuna pasta and a lot of toast. Especially in the third year after me and Georgie got together. We used to sit up after a night out, just talking and drinking coffee, eating toast…” Pete trailed off and there was silence on the line for a few seconds.
“You were telling me about the Valentine’s thing…” Jen nudged.
“The rabbit. Right. She got me the big stupid floppy eared thing and the next year I got her something sillier and it just carried on. She always said that she didn’t like those staged, formal occasions when you were supposed to declare that you were in love but I don’t know. We thought we were being all ironic and above it all but I know we both used to really look forward to that time of year.”
“It was just a different way of taking part,” said Jen.
“I guess. Now though, after the accident, I wish we hadn’t. Every February is just going to be an emotional assault course. I can avoid the card shops easily enough but there’s Valentines stuff everywhere. Supermarkets, petrol stations…”
“Nothing quite says I love you like a bottle of de-icer.”
“That must be the most passive-aggressive Valentines gift you can get your lover.”
“I don’t know. A Chantenay carrot might run it pretty close.”
“I have a run of decent days, maybe even a week, but it’s just too hard when the world is screaming reminders in your face. If we hadn’t made Valentines a thing then it’d be okay but…” Pete trailed off.
“But it was your thing and you should treasure that. Find some comfort in the things that you did and shared rather than mourning the ones you won’t have.”
“You sound like my counseller.”
“That probably means we’re right, yeah ?” said Jen gently.
“You probably are. You both are. But it’s easy in the text book version of stages of grief and not so easy when you’re dealing with it…”
“I know. I’m sorry Pete. I didn’t mean…”
Pete interrupted softly. “Don’t apologise Jen. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I know you’re looking out for me and you’re right. I do hang on to the happy memories of her but they’re all jumbled up with the feeling that I’ve lost the best part of myself. The past just reminds me that I’ve lost my present and lost my future.”
“It’ll be a different future.”
“I know but I’’m not sure I’m ready to accept that yet.”
The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.
“I’m sorry Pete but I’ve gotta go now, early start again tomorrow. Are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.
“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.” Pete put down the phone and picked up the large, stuffed rabbit that was lying in front of him, held it up in front of his face. “Do you miss her too ?”
This is the third time I’ve felt the need to just let Pete and Jen talk to each other. Format is always the same and the title continues to borrow (steal) from Sufjan Stevens. I just like hearing them try to work things out.