Tag Archives: loss

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ZZ Top, Carrie Fisher, incessant drizzle, and the reminders of absence

“I’ve got a confession. I spent too much time in my formative years masturbating to ZZ Top videos.”

“Was it the beards?”

“No, it was those spinning guitars they had. I couldn’t get enough of them.” They both laughed.

“You’re a strange, strange man, Pete, you know that?” said Jen.

“And yet here you are. Again. So what’s that make you?”

“Loyal. Kind. Maybe a bit strange too.” Jen paused for a moment. “For the record though I don’t tend to walk around garages in dusty pit-stop American towns wearing tiny cut off denim shorts so I would have been no use to your adolescent self.”

“Oh I don’t know. Teenage boys can spin a wank out of almost anything.”

“Gee Pete, you really know how to flatter a girl…”

“I meant…”

“I’d leave this one if I was you. Quit while you’re way, way behind.”

“Okay. You don’t want to hear about my Carrie Fisher phase then?”

“Not if it’s more tales from the wank-bank, no,” said Jen. “If it’s a radical feminist awakening phase that you went through when you learned to appreciate strong, independent women for who they were rather than whether they were wearing a gold bikini then maybe. We’re in a post-Weinstein world Pete.”

“She was quite something.”

“Yeah, she was. Did you read any of her books? I can lend you Postcards From The Edge if you haven’t got it.”

“I’ve read it,” said Pete. It was his turn to pause. “Georgie had a copy. She loved it and she loved Fisher. I still haven’t seen the new films, you know. I know she was really looking forwards to them, especially when she heard she’d signed on, and I just don’t want to see them without her.”

“They’re pretty good but I’m no judge,” replied Jen. “Georgie was the expert on that sort of stuff. I saw Phantom Menace with her, I think it was before you two got together when she lived with me. I liked it. Couldn’t understand why she was in such a foul mood for a couple of weeks.”

Pete laughed. “When we moved in together she made me get rid of my DVDs for episodes 1 to 3. Said she didn’t want them in the house. These aren’t the films you’re looking for. Those were her exact words. I was in love with her before that but I think that was the moment I really knew.”

“It was the moment she knew too. I’ve never told you this but she rang me that week because she couldn’t believe you’d thrown them out. Apparently you didn’t even try and argue about it. Just opened the back door and chucked them in the bin. She was seriously impressed…”

“Really?” said Pete. “That’s funny. All she told me was how seriously unimpressed she was that I even had them in the first place. I still think there’s a decent film trying to break its way out of parts 2 and 3 but she was pretty militant about it. I did once catch her watching Revenge Of The Sith though when it was on TV. She said she was checking that it was as bad as she remembered it.”

“And was it?”

“So she said. You reckon she’d have like Last Jedi?”

“Yeah, I do. I think she’d want you to go see it, too.”

They were both silent. Jen was about to speak again but she was stopped by Pete’s voice, cracking but growing progressively stronger. “The funny thing is that I know you’re right but it’s just one in a long list of things I’ve stopped myself doing since she died and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to any of them. I haven’t listened to Ryan Adams. We saw him at the Lyric before anyone knew who he was. He was always our singer. There’s a Turkish place we used to eat in a couple of times a month that I haven’t been back to. Won’t walk over Hammersmith Bridge. It’s where I would have proposed. Gave up reading Game Of Thrones and I won’t watch the TV show. She was always telling me to read it but I wanted to wait until he finished writing all of them. There’s an upcoming exhibition at the Tate, retrospective of Japanese contemporary art, that I won’t go to because… No, I don’t get how it can be retrospective and contemporary either but that’s not why I’m not going… She won’t be there with me.”

“When do you think you’ll be ready to let…”

“Let her go? I won’t ever be ready to do that Jen.” No anger; a weary resignation.

“I wasn’t going to say that. Not let her go. Let those things go is what I was going to say. They’re not her.”

“No but that’s where I feel the traces of her most sharply,” said Pete after another extended pause. The conversation’s rhythm was broken now. Staccato sentences punctuated with silence. “Or that’s where I feel the absence of her most sharply. I still catch myself turning to tell her something, to point something out, and then remember she’s not there. I tell her anyway. In those places, with those things, it’d just be too much. How can I find joy in the things we used to find joy in together?”

“Can I tell you something stupid?” asked Jen.

“More stupid than my ZZ Top confession?”

“More stupid than that. You were young and impressionable. I’ve got no excuse. For a while, after she died, I didn’t know what would happen to us. To our friendship I mean. Me and you. I knew Georgie a long time, before you guys got together, but all my strongest associations were with both of you, as a couple. I worried that seeing you, speaking to you, would just be a constant reminder to me that someone was missing. That it’d be too painful. I worried we wouldn’t be able to be friends.”

“And yet here you are. Here we are. Again. I appreciate it, Jen, I really do. You’re like – these talks, they’re like a little bit of sun through the clouds.”

“I thought I would be more like incessant drizzle?” said Jen.

“Incessant Drizzle? Weren’t they on Rough Trade?”

“You’re thinking of Mild To Moderate Snow Showers. Or maybe Outside Chance of Hail. I always get them mixed up.”

Pete laughed, sucked in a deep breath. “Thank you for…, well for this. For talking shit and listening and making bad jokes and… well for all of it.”

“No thanks necessary,” said Jen. “Don’t think I’m letting you forget that you described me as a little bit of sun through the clouds though.”

“Just ‘cos it’s cheesy doesn’t mean it’s not true. Normal service will be resumed when we next speak.”

“I look forward to it. Seriously though, are you alright?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“You know the drill by now Jen. No. I’m not alright. Not today. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

Advertisements

Supercut

I’ve stared at a blank page for a while now, trying to compose this. I feel a little like the first time you tell someone you love them. The words are there but you can’t quite find your way into them. Deep breath. It’s only a blog post. It’s only a quick reflection on your favourite records of 2017. Okay. Here goes.

Lorde’s “Melodrama” was, for me, the standout record of the year. And, to be honest, other than a late and spirited run from Phoebe Bridger’s brilliant “Stranger In The Alps”, nothing else really got close. Nothing new at least. I had that thing again this year, which looks like it’s here to stay, where I either discovered or rediscovered something old. Poked around in the attic (technically Spotify but, you know, attic sounds more romantic) and dusted down something previously lost: this year it was a lot of “Rumours” era Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young’s “After The Goldrush” and, most of all, a lot of The Beatles. I mean a lot. I don’t think I really, genuinely, got The Beatles until this year whereas I will now quite happily argue the toss about why they are absolutely the greatest band to ever walk the planet.

I’m drifting. Another deep breath. Lorde. In some respects the fact that I love a record aching with the crushing sadness of being young, falling in love, falling out of love, figuring out your place in the world, dancing like it’s the only thing worth doing, hurting with the intensity that you hurt that first time you get hurt, hell, feeling everything with the intensity you feel that first time, isn’t a surprise. It’s maybe a surprise that a record that so perfectly encapsulates being young hit me like a sledge hammer when I have more grey hairs than brown, am probably closer to the end than the beginning. Bit it did. Does.

“Melodrama” is as damn near perfect as makes no difference. It’s smart and funny. It’s happy-sad. It lifts you up, it puts you down, and then it dusts you off and you feel like everything will be okay. It’s beautifully written: Lorde’s words were the sharpest, most perceptive, warmest, that I heard this year. There are lines that made me smile, lines that made me gasp, lines that made me cry. It’s a writer’s record. She strikes me as one of those musicians that could happily strike out and write prose or poetry – like Willy Vlautin or Nick Cave or Joni or Bob. I know that’s exalted company and she’s only 21 but I think she’s pretty special. And did I mention that I adore her record? God I adore her record.

There’s a host of details I love about “Melodrama” – things like the chk chk pause between the verse and first chorus in “Perfect Places” – but it’s the cohesion of the whole piece that has brought me back to it over and over. The narrative of the first rush of love – falling in and then falling out – framed loosely through a party isn’t necessarily new but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone articulate the experience of being young so clearly. The simultaneous joy and terror of it. The rawness of it before you learn to get a little more numb.

“Supercut” is the standout for me albeit it seems picky to zero in on one song on an album that works, fundamentally, as an album. It hangs together as a whole (which may, sadly, partially explain its relative lack of commercial success compared to its predecessor “Pure Heroine”). “Supercut” is glorious. To be honest if all it had going for it was the line we were wild and fluorescent come home to my heart then I’d be there. That is beautiful and perfect. The rest of the song, a reflection on lost love and the edited highlights of it that are all that remain in memory, ain’t too shabby either.

This wasn’t, I don’t think, what I’d envisaged for this post. But there’s something in that opening analogy about expressing love. If I needed a reminder that music is the thing, for me, that rips right through the rational part of me, the cynical part of me, and cuts to the core – the inner kid that heard the heartbreak in “Winner Takes It All” and fell in love with sad songs – then Lorde’s record does that. I can rationalise and explain all sorts of reasons why I love it but, ultimately, it just connects with me and does what music’s supposed to do: makes you feel alive.

Elsewhere, as alluded above, I also got cut open by the Phoebe Bridger’s record (especially “Motion Sickness” and the absolutely gorgeous “Scott Street”) and a range of records from the past. I spent a lot of time in the company of Stevie Nicks (who inspired her own spin off range of short stories – here) and Fleetwood Mac and I was bowled over by The Beatles, maybe twenty years after I should have been. But I guess that’s the flip side benefit of losing cultural touchpoints defined by everyone hearing things together (does that even really happen now?) – everyone now has access to everything so the past is laid out like a new country to be discovered.

2016 was the tidal wave. I lost my mum and it was like nothing I’d ever known. 2017 has been the undertow. I’ve been back on my feet but get pulled over and sucked back. I think I’m learning that grief works like that. I think it probably always will. I’ve always leant on music as my emotional crutch and the Lorde record was the one I leant on most this year.

 

 

The needle and the damage done

I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say. Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.

Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.

I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.

The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.

You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.

 

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ennui, Lorde, solutions architecture, and puns about hats

“Did you get it?”

“Not only did I not get it but they didn’t even talk to me about it.”

“But you threw your hat in the ring, right?”

“Yeah, of course but it looks like there wasn’t really a ring to throw my hat into. Or I didn’t have a very good hat. Or the ring was already full with a much better hat. Is that too much now on the hat stuff?”

“No way. I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. You’ve got a top hat-”

“Really? A ‘top hat’?” interrupted Pete. “That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Unintentional punnery, I promise,” protested Jen. “I would con-fez if it’d been a deliberate hat joke.”

“Good lord. Remind me why I call you again when I’ve got bad news? There’s a…,” Pete paused for emphasis, “…flat cap on my career prospects and by way of commiserations you’re doing bad gags about millinery.”

“Sorry, let’s draw a veil over the whole thing…” said Jen.

“That’s not a hat, is it?”

“It’s kind of head gear. Close enough to count as another feather in my-”

“No more. Enough.” Pete cut off the last pun but she could hear him barely suppressing his laughter.

“Okay. Seriously though, I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. I know I don’t really know much about that thing you do… what is that thing you do again? Actually, don’t bother, I didn’t really understand it last time. I don’t know much about it but I thought you were getting on really well.”

“So did I. And it’s Solutions Architecture in IT,” said Pete.

“Yeah, let’s not try and have that conversation again.”

“Agreed as long as you don’t try and explain PR to me again.”

“Like I said. It’s dead easy.” Jen let out an exaggerated sigh. “I try to get journalists to write nice things about the company, or, technically get them to reproduce the nice things I’ve already written about the company for them,”

“Except…”

“Except when I think they might be about to write nasty things about the company and then I try to stop them. That’s basically it.”

“Doesn’t it ever strike you as, I don’t know, utterly futile?” asked Pete.

“Maybe. No more so than translating a bunch of user requirements into what’s basically just a rough idea for a piece of software design that you then give to some actual developers to go and build.”

“Touche. And I thought you didn’t understand it?”

“PR darling,” mocked Jen. “Knowledge for us is a mile wide and an inch deep. Don’t ask me what any of those things actually mean.”

“Depressing, isn’t it? I can’t decide if I’m genuinely sad about not getting the job or about the fact that I thought I might have even wanted it in the first place. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, was it? Me and Georgie used to talk about it. How we’d carve out our niches doing the things we loved and it wouldn’t matter too much if we never really got paid that well. I was going to write software, not ‘solutionise’ it or ‘architect’ it or any of those other pieces of jargon we invent to legitimise all this nonsense. She was going to get her club night off the ground, try and get into promoting stuff.”

“What happened?” nudged Jen quietly.

“I don’t know. It seemed temporary and that made it seem okay. Do the big corporate IT job while she got herself set up – I used to run out flyers for her from work on the company printers – and there’d always be time to get back to the other stuff later. Always later. You get used to the money I guess and then… since the accident, since she’s been gone, I’ve just stuck at it. On some level I think I understand it as hanging on to something constant as everything else changed. Even if it was hanging on to something that was a bit crap it was still… still better than everything else.”

“What does your grief counsellor say?”

“That I’m intentionally hanging on to something constant because everything else changed. You don’t think I came up with that phrase on my own, do you? I think what I said to her was that work was utter shit but I preferred sinking knee deep into it every day for the chance to briefly pretend everything else was normal rather than quit and face up to getting on with my life on my own.”

“I prefer your version. Hers sounds a bit like solution architecture. Do you worry we’re getting too old now to change?”

“I don’t know if it’s age or a mindset or what it is. You heard the Lorde record?” asked Pete.

“Of course,” said Jen.

“What do you mean ‘of course’? We’re not 19 anymore, it’d be not that surprising if it had passed us by. I really like it. Like, really like it. More than someone in their 30s should maybe. That last track…”

“Perfect Places?”

“Yeah, Perfect Places. It’s like my experience of being 19 wrapped up in three minutes. All that ennui and that weird mix of thinking you’re having the time of your life but already wondering whether you’re looking in the wrong places for the wrong things. I just listen to it and wonder how it would have sounded to me when I was 19. How she’s nailed that down in the moment rather than ten years later, looking back, I just don’t know.”

“This is a little off topic but do you want to know something funny?” said Jen.

“Go on…”

“I always used to think ennui was pronounced ‘enn-you-eye’. Had no idea that last syllable was like ‘we’.”

“Really? After you gave me such a hard time about Choux pastry? It’s a French word, isn’t it? So it’s pronounced more like ‘oui’. There’s just not a decent English equivalent for that particular brand of boredom and dissatisfaction.”

“Weltschmerz,” declared Jen.

“Bless you,” Pete retorted. “Or gesundheit I guess would be more appropriate.”

“Very funny. Weltschmerz. It’s like the German equivalent of ennui, isn’t it? Or near enough. Wonder why the Europeans got all the good words for a yearning, world weary sadness?”

“Make the most of them. We probably won’t be allowed to use them post Brexit.”

“Why are you thinking about being 19 again? Apart from the Lorde record I mean.” Jen’s voice dropped as realisation struck. “Didn’t you meet Georgie when you were about that age?”

“Yeah, yeah I did. She was the right thing I found, I guess…” Pete trailed off and 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.”

The line went dead and Pete whispered to himself: “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”

 

Careering: Sunday (One Year Later)

They had promised Maria that they’d watch the sun rise over Bryce Canyon and remember her. She had died in the Spring, the emails and Skype calls that they’d all maintained after she returned home from London becoming steadily less frequent as her illness took hold. They’d all wanted to fly out but she had insisted that they shouldn’t. I am well cared for, come and remember me when I’m gone, she’d told them. Come and pick me out a diamond from the sky. Don’t let Alex tell you that stars and diamonds aren’t the same things either. I’ve been reading a lot and all the carbon in our solar system might just be the scattered dust from a dying star. Some of it must be diamonds and some of it must be us. I kinda like the idea that I’m built from a supernova. Don’t spoil it for me. Alex, back now at Oxford, had called in a favour from one of the professor’s in the Chemistry department and persuaded him to send Maria a letter, on very official looking University headed paper, confirming that, essentially, yes, she was made from stardust.

They had travelled to Kansas for the funeral. Sarah flew in from Montreal, Rob and Alex from Heathrow. Sarah’s design work from her sketches around London had picked up positive critical notices when the game had shipped and she’d taken a larger role in the Canadian office. She’d held firm on a flexible arrangement that left her enough time to paint and she’d just exhibited for the first time in a small gallery in Downtown. The others teased her when they met up – lead concept artist, putting on shows at Station 16, get you – but she could see how pleased they were for her. Despite them all leaving the house they were closer now than when they’d lived together. Rob had stayed in London but had needed to move a bit further out, his new job at the housing association didn’t pay well but he knew why he was doing it. Alex was back in Oxford, picking up the thread of his unfinished thesis, looking again for order in the chaos.

The three of them sat in silence as the first light of dawn stole over the jagged formations of the canyon, orange rocks warming into life, shadows extending. The last of the visible stars overhead slowly faded from view but they knew they were still there. Sarah had brought a flask and shared out paper cups of hot coffee to ward off the last of the night’s chill. It was a long time before anyone spoke.

“Thirty seven degrees north. One hundred and twelve degrees west,” said Alex.

“What’s that ?” said Rob.

“It’s where we are, isn’t it ?” asked Sarah. “Co-ordinates.” Alex nodded.

“You’ll never find where you want to go unless you know where you are now,” he said softly.

“You getting all deep on us again,” said Rob. “Who said that ?”

“Someone who’ll be missed and someone who always knew where she was.” He raised his coffee in salute and the others held their cups up in a quiet toast as the sun began its steady ascent marking the new day.

Reunion

Your lips wear the same smile but your eyes look like they long tired of trying it on. There are creases at their corners. The lines around your eyes, the lines traced across your forehead, outnumber the ones at the turn of your mouth, on your cheeks. You look like you have cried more than you have laughed. There’s a hint of grey in your roots that the highlights don’t quite disguise. The fringe you used to look out from under has gone. Those rare glances, that flash, that spark. Back when you gave yourself up in glimpses. Back when you had something to give up. Now you meet my gaze openly, laid bare and empty. All given up.

It’s been what ? Eight years. Nine ? Ten ? We joke about the passing of time as a way to pass the time. What else should we say ? Hey, we were wrong. There won’t be someone else, someone better.

You wanted someone to travel the world with, someone you could curl up with under blankets reading the Sunday papers, someone who’d tag along round another visit to the Tate, someone who liked jazz and dancing and singing along to big power ballads after too much vodka. What should we say ? I hated airports, not the travel particularly, but airports specifically. That was a problem. I liked to kick back the covers, glance at the sports section, and then go search out more coffee. Tate, schmate. I don’t know if it’s art but I know what I like. And, yes, I can belt out “Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” with the best of them. But jazz ? You know I drew the line at jazz.

I wanted someone who liked clubs where sweat dripped from the ceiling, someone who’d share a sneaky joint before catching a matinee re-run of Bladerunner at The Gate, someone who’d idle away the summer in the pub, someone who liked punk and bars with more beer pumps than seats and shouting the words to “God Save The Queen” in a late night taxi up The Mall. There’s nothing to say. You hated the smell of my kind of clubs in your hair in the morning. Like washing your hair in cigarette infused beer you said. It always smelled like being young to me. You wouldn’t smoke in public and preferred the original cut of Bladerunner with the voiceover. No-one prefers the version with the voiceover. And you said summer was too short to waste in the pub and that bars were for sitting and talking and that it was disrespectful to sing the Sex Pistols that close to the Palace. I think you were joking about the Pistols. And you were right about summer.

It’s been what ? Eight years. Nine. Ten. It’s been too long and not long enough. We joke about all the ways in which we just didn’t fit, just didn’t work, as a way of distracting ourselves from all the ways in which we did. What else should we say ? Hey, we were wrong. Turns out there wasn’t someone else, someone better.

My lips don’t smile quite as much as they used to and my eyes don’t even pretend to. There’s not so much creases at their corners as cracks, chiselled in place over years of screwing themselves closed. Shutting out the light and embracing the dark. I haven’t cried but I haven’t really laughed either. Just some numb state in between. There’s grey scattered across my hair that the tightly cropped cut doesn’t quite disguise. I used to stare at you, brazen in my attention. I couldn’t help it. My desire was an open secret back when I had something to offer. Something for you to take. Now I can’t meet your gaze, don’t want to see any trace flicker behind your eyes fade and fail. All burned out.

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring Chantenay carrots, bad French, Taylor Swift, and a stuffed rabbit

“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 ?”

“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.

The other two are here: Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring balloons, AA Milne, Sufjan Stevens and phone sex

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring onion rings, Nick Cave, tinnitus, and Brexit