Tag Archives: love

Free fallin’

I didn’t know that you called me American Girl until much later. It was a surprise that you called me anything at all; those first few weeks after I crash landed in England you seemed unable to speak to me. You were always there. Hanging around like a lost satellite that had lodged itself in my orbit. A lost satellite that had stopped sending signals home. Or was that me? I guess if I’d realised you were nervous then we could have started talking earlier. I could have put you at ease but that wasn’t really my thing back then. I felt constantly on edge so didn’t see why anyone else should feel comfortable. Young, dumb, and missing my mom.

I was the worst kind of know-it-all smart, my cast iron belief in my own rightness matched only by a massive, gnawing insecurity that was at the root of everything I did. I used to argue the hardest with the people I respected the most. Endless, stupid debates with the English teacher over ‘the institutionally patriarchal book list at the heart of the syllabus’ or chewing out Dawson, the History dude (I think I may have been the only one to call him that) over his small minded obsession with some argument a bunch of cavalier guys had with another bunch of roundhead guys. I know that stuff was important in the mother country but really? Couldn’t we have talked about the A bomb or Kesey and the Pranksters or slavery or the MC5 or something? I’d have settled for Roosevelt and the New Deal or Lincoln. Your idea of history just seemed, well, too prehistoric to me. Like I say, I was a pain in the ass.

It was ’89 and I was doing what I always did every time dad dropped us down in a new town, unfamiliar setting and a new set of faces; I was playing offence before anyone (I hoped) had figured out that they were supposed to be playing defence. All predictable self protection. Or, I should say, predictable with the benefit of hindsight and a sharp dose of therapy: I didn’t like the taste of that medicine though and never lasted the course. I guess now, looking back, that I can see the funny side of people singing “she’s a good girl, crazy about Elvis” and that stuff about Jesus and horses to me. It was a big song that year and there was a cleverness in the cruelty: to them I was some small town American with a funny voice and a big mouth so why not bait me with a song about small town America sung by a guy with a kinda funny voice. Did Tom Petty have a big mouth? I don’t know. He always just seemed like one of the good guys to me. Even that stuff with the Wilbury’s. Supergroups were never my thing but he was pretty cool. Fleetwood Mac are the exception, of course. Not strictly a supergroup but they might as well be.

You were different. I mean, for a start, you had a nickname for me that was at the bad ass, cool end of the Tom Petty song book spectrum. I don’t think you even knew it was a song which was kinda cute in itself, it was just a name you gave me because you were too shy to use my real one. But you were different because you saw past the bluster and bullshit. Once we finally got talking I felt like you got why all my external expressions of myself – the badges, the bands, the scarfs, the clothes – were important and how they were simultaneously me but also deliberate barriers to stop people getting too close to me. Jesus, it was exhausting being a teenager. You were curious about all that, curious about me, in a way that wasn’t just about an adolescent boy trying to infiltrate his way into an adolescent girl’s panties. Or at least that’s what I tell myself now. I’m sure it’s true. You were purer than that. Never tried anything, never touched without asking, never even tried to kiss me. But I knew you wanted to. Did you love me? Did I love you?

I used to drag you up onto the school balcony to listen to the traffic. We had to cut class to do it. What did you call it? Skipping lessons? I know you guys invented the language but really? We were consciously making a decision to remove ourselves from the preordained path laid down for us. C’mon. It was an act of rebellion. An act of alleged self harm. It was a cut, not a fucking merry step between walking and running that signifies a certain jauntiness. We cut. We didn’t skip. You think Patti Smith did much skipping? Or Courtney? Or Stevie? Stevie Nicks never skipped a step in her life and neither did I. You just used to scrunch your face up, blush, and look away when I let loose with one of these rants back then. I think I did it to see whether I could push you away, some weird way to test your resolve or your faith in me. You never failed me.

I got dragged away again before anything could happen at its own pace. Another country, another continent, another move. If I’d have been more open or you’d have been less closed then maybe we’d have broken through those long, intense conversations into something more concrete. More, I dunno, more physical. Maybe I should have just turned around, one of those times I felt your eyes on me, always on me, and kissed you. Maybe I should have been a little softer. Maybe you should have been a little harder. Maybe we could have left this world for a while. Maybe we were falling. And maybe we should have let ourselves.

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Tangled up in blue

I didn’t get Dylan until I was 33. I don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier. There was a time in my mid 20s, a time half lost in a fug of smoke, incensed and insensible, when I remember really trying to get him. I was listening to a lot of Neil Young and it seemed like a logical progression. Maybe I had it back to front. Everything was a little back to front then, dealing with the fall out from the end of love number four. It even sounded a bit like a Dylan song. Talkin’ love number four blues. Ballad in desponden-cee minor. Maybe not. Look, he’s a genius that shaped the entire cultural landscape of the twentieth century. I’m not. I’m just someone chalking up too many failed love affairs, measuring them all against a teenage friendship with a girl from America who disappeared, and finding them all wanting.

I think an appreciation for Bob is hard won. I don’t think it’s something that just slots into place instantly. There’s that snare shot at the start of Like A Rolling Stone, like a starting gun for a century, but otherwise it doesn’t offer itself up easily. You have to work at it. Stick with it, live with it for a while, let it percolate into your soul. Perhaps that’s the great lesson here: that anything worthwhile is going to take a little work. Anything including you but I guess it’s a bit late for that.

You choose your poison. I got tired of feeling blunt so I knocked the smoke on the head sometime in 2012. My standard joke is that I quit after discovering it wasn’t going to be part of the Olympics in London: that I’d trained all those years for nothing. I think I had a line about being disqualified for taking performance enhancing drugs as well. One of those standard, semi rehearsed bits of conversation you carry round with you. Scarily enough, if by some oversight on the part of the IOC, pot smoking had been approved as a discipline (or an indiscipline I guess) than I’d have backed myself for a medal. Probably not gold. It’s the sort of event where you could imagine none of the participants quite rousing themselves to strive for the gold but I reckon I’d have split the bronze with some other lost stoner. Maybe from Estonia. There you go, another Dylan-esque turn of phrase for you.

It was easier after I left the flat in Harrow, escaped further up the Met Line into Metroland. Out here it’s all Majestic Wine and micro brew shops. A much more respectable narcotic selection to desensitise yourself and get lost in. I buried the memory of you, phosphorescent number four, in expensive reds and dry whites. It was cheaper to buy more than six bottles so there was better value in oblivion. There were occasional moments of reflection as I was stewed in the booze: why didn’t it work, was it you, was it me, wasn’t life simpler sitting up on a balcony kicking round stories about Stevie Nicks with the smartest, sassiest girl you ever met? I keep coming back to that last one. I see friends now pair off and proclaim that they’ve found their soul mate. I always shied away from the phrase. It seemed a bit, well, shit. Maybe I’ve softened lately. Maybe I think I let mine slide away. Not just my soul mate. My accomplice in chief, my co-conspirator, my confidant, my touchstone. Time distorts memory and perhaps I just see the past as a rose tinted hue, all Stevie Nicks silk scarves and bare feet and incense burners, and perhaps it wouldn’t have been that simple.

That’s why I didn’t get Dylan until I was older. He’s complex. Life looks pretty simple when you’re young and you figure getting knocked down isn’t such a big deal: you’re spry enough to pick yourself up and go again. It hurts a bit more these days. Takes a little longer to find my feet each time I lose them. There’s more dust to dust down. It’s all a bit more complicated and that’s the thing that Bob speaks to. After we finished I sank into ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and didn’t surface for weeks. Just absorbed it until it was part of me. Didn’t try to learn it (I could never get Dylan’s picking down). Just drowned in it.

Got tangled up in it as I untangled myself from you.

Don’t let it bring you down

It was the month I spent learning ‘After The Goldrush’. Holed up in a house in Harrow, curtains tight all day until I’d open them up late to glimpse the dusk. I used to watch the street lights come on before slipping out to the corner shop to pick up enough to barricade myself back in for the following day. I think I was getting by on cheap Shiraz, a pack of Marlborough Lights, and tinned sardines on toast. Sometimes I’d upgrade to a better bottle of wine and skip the sardines. There was a guy that hung out near the shop who kept trying to sell me weed, or something to ‘turbo charge your cigarettes, mate’ as he put it. After about a week he budged on his opening price and so, occasionally, I swapped out the sardines for his low grade skunk. That was pretty much my life that Autumn, sleeping through the day and numbing my way through the nights with booze and pot and Neil Young.

‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ was the one I kept coming back to. It was invariably the song that was still on when I’d drift off to sleep in the early hours, sometimes still oscillating away on repeat when I woke the next day. I’d reach across from my bed, pull my acoustic off the floor and cautiously sound out the progressions, right hand barely scratching the strings, just a faint echo of the original song coming out of the speaker. If there was anything left from last night’s joint I’d spark that up and ease into the evening semi-conscious. That whole time is lost in a haze of smoke and heartbreak. Only love can break your heart? Damn straight, Neil. Damn straight.

Early in the month the phone used to ring late at night. I was pretty sure it was you but I never picked up. I know you thought we could be something else, all that ‘I still want us to be friends’ stuff that you’d said steadily over and over again the night you told me. But who wants to snatch glimpses of a set of polaroids when you used to be in the film? We were widescreen and surround sound. We were the stars. I won’t watch someone else take my leading role while I skulk on the sidelines. We started as friends. That was your other line. We started as friends, so we can go back to being friends, as if I could go back to being the person I was when we started. You changed that person. Wrapped yourself up in him, around him, like you were ivy working your way into brick and wood, finding the spaces to catch and latch on. I guess that’s not fair. It’s not like I was unwilling; you were an invited invader. I just didn’t realise how much of me was so bound up in you, how much would crumble and pull apart when you retreated.

Lately the phone’s not been ringing and I’ve swapped crumbling and pulling apart for crumbling and burning. A succession of nights numbed and lost in sweet, sticky smoke. It makes the music sound better even if it doesn’t really change anything. Sometimes I’ll put on Tom Petty or, if I really want to drown in nostalgia, Stevie Nicks, and try to put you in your place: you don’t have the exclusive rights on breaking my heart or the soundtrack to it. But the American Girl feels like a lifetime ago and we were just kids then. Edge of seventeen? I hear you, Stevie, I hear you. That was all too long ago. Not like you. Right up close. You were present enough that I didn’t wash my sheets for weeks because I was convinced they still held your scent. One of those androgynous perfumes, I used to spritz some on my wrist on the mornings you’d stayed over so I could keep you with me for the rest of the day. But you’re past enough that now there was mainly just an oppressive and pungent cloud of weed hanging perpetually in my room. Even through that I thought I still caught the traces of you but I was pretty stoned when I was awake so my senses were not reliable. Not to be trusted.

You will come around. That’s the very last thing I let you say to me. I didn’t believe you then and every time Neil sings it now, every time I pick restlessly at my guitar strings and murmur the chorus, I still don’t believe it.

 

American Girl

She was just an American girl. I knew her when we were at school. I used to hang around at the end of classes, try to leave at the same time as her in the hope of us meeting. In my head maybe we’d arrive at the door together and I’d make an exaggerated show of letting her through first. I’d practised a gesture in case the right circumstances arose that I thought conveyed the right mix of casual nonchalance and chivalry. A half shrug, left palm raised, head inclined, sardonic smile. After you. I had spent a long time on getting the eyebrow raise right. A couple of millimetres out and it just looked a bit leery. Maybe I’d over thought it but I wanted her first impression to be a dizzying sense of sensitivity and strength and, yeah, who am I kidding, sexiness. Later she told me that she mostly had just taken in an overgrown fringe, a brief waft of sandalwood (I was burning a lot of joss sticks at the time), and had assumed that I was having dental work; it was her only way to account for the strange rictus grin I’d managed.

She covered her books in band logos – Hole, Babes In Toyland, Sleater Kinney, a possibly ironic Motley Crue – and I didn’t really think she cared about who held doors for who. She gave the impression that she was used to getting where she wanted to go and so maybe she just figured that doors opened for her anyway. She’d usually be last to leave the class, arguing with the teacher about next term’s reading list (too European, too white, too male) whilst packing away her books in a black, canvas shoulder bag dotted with button badges. The Clash. Janis Joplin. Nina Simone. Angela Davis. I didn’t know it was Angela Davis until she told me about her, at some length, later. Stevie Nicks. There were a lot of Stevie Nicks badges. I knew who she was. My dad was always a bit of a Fleetwood Mac fan so I’d always figured they weren’t that cool. I wasn’t that smart back then but I was smart enough to realise that I should never bring this up with her. By the end she’d taught me a lot of things but chief amongst them was this: there is nobody cooler than Stevie Nicks.

We used to skip RE and sit up on the balcony at the back of the school, up where no-one was supposed to go. Cutting. That’s what she called it. We’re cutting class. Religious Education. Who needs that? It’s not like deification of satin scarfed songstresses was on the syllabus. She could have taught that class. Delivered it as her doctoral thesis. There was more than one time where we’d sit sharing a pair of ear phones listening to Gold Dust Woman in our version of fervent prayer; she always had the right earphone and I took what was left which was, well, left… I could never get her to say ‘bunking off’ or ‘skipping’ without it sounding like she was poking fun at me. Come to think of it I couldn’t get her to say much without it sounding like that but looking back I don’t think there was any malice in it. She didn’t have many friends. I think it must have been hard relocating like that, upheaving geography and culture and adolescence. People found her standoffish I guess, where I saw mystery and romance and the brightest, saddest hazel eyes I’ve ever seen, they saw brashness and heard that direct twang that seemed ever in search of an argument. To me she was always just sure, you know? I thought she knew who she was at a time when I had no idea. Maybe the reality was that she was a bit lonely. I know I was.

She used to like the sound of the traffic. You could hear it from the school, up on the balcony, because we weren’t that far from a couple of main roads. That what you call a Freeway? She was teasing when she said stuff like that but perhaps we did all seem a little small to her. She liked the traffic. Said it reminded her of the sound of the sea, reminded her of home. She probably said ‘the ocean’ rather than ‘the sea’ but I don’t properly remember. It’s funny how the little details separate us but the sense of it was the same: she missed the great, rolling expanse of water that swelled and sang at the shore she used to live by. We couldn’t really compete with that. Landlocked and little. We had a couple of good pubs but I was never convinced I’d get served so I never took her.

Was I in love with her? That’s a hard one. At the time I was kind of obsessed with her and I suppose that’s one definition. It was pure and hard and right and I guess that’s another definition. But love? There was never anything that happened. Well, nothing except one of those intense, deep connections you only really get when you’re seventeen years old and you’re so lost in yourself that when someone else finds you it’s like two dust motes dancing in space that fall into the same orbit. Two atoms colliding. The chances are so infinitesimally tiny that you look on it as some kind of miracle. We were cutting RE so I guess neither of us believed in a higher power but if you’d asked me at the time then I’d have said that it felt like fate. I say we never believed in a higher power: I mean other than Stevie, of course. I guess I was never her Lindsey Buckingham but she was always my Stevie Nicks.

She was just an American girl. Wonder what she’s doing now? I miss her.

Connection

“Do you want a hand with that ?” he asked nodding towards the case she’d wheeled up the aisle behind herself. She shook her head.

“It’s alright thanks, I can manage” she muttered as she picked it up and rose on tiptoes to place it on the overhead rack opposite his table. He watched her struggle, his eyes drawn to the small of her back, her jumper lifting as she stretched to reveal a small butterfly tattoo nestled against the curvature of her spine. He averted his eyes as she turned back towards him. “Anyone sitting in these ?” she asked pointing at the seats opposite him. He shook his head and she slid in next to the aisle, diagonally across from him, self consciously pulling at the bottom of her jumper, smoothing it down firmly with her hands as if aware that he’d been watching her. She folded her arms across her chest and stared out of the window. He considered complimenting her on the tattoo but then thought better of it and turned his attention back to his phone.

She gazed out of the window, briefly closing her eyes and enjoying the quiet of the carriage; it was a relief to be away from that snivelling, sniffing woman. Moving seats hadn’t changed the view though, static for the last fifteen minutes since the train had stopped. Hadn’t changed the view save she couldn’t look at it without also seeing her new travelling companion, either directly or in glimpses reflected back in the glass. Slouched, wedged against the corner of his seat and the window, he was tapping something out on his phone, both thumbs flying over the screen. Without staring more openly she could only catch snapshots of him, an impression. Short, sandy, untidy hair. Loosened tie. Turning a pen over and over between his fingers, hovered over an unopened note book. Face set in a frown, puzzled rather than sad.

He glanced up from his phone and looked directly at her. He smiled. She broke eye contact. Green eyes, mouth set in a firm line, long dark hair tied up in a ponytail. As she turned to look out of the window he noticed the line of her jaw, traced it down to her neck, exposed above the open ‘V’ of her jumper. The tannoy broke the silence. “We regret to inform you that we will be unable to move for up to an hour. Engineers are working as fast as possible to clear the other train from the line. Meanwhile, we ask for your patience. The buffet car is open.”

She sighed and looked at her watch before pulling a phone from her pocket. She prodded at it and sighed again.

“Sorry to bother you but I don’t suppose you’ve got a phone charger with you ?”

“Afraid not” he answered. “Looks like we’ve got different phones anyway. If you need to call someone about the delay you can borrow mine if you want.”

“Really ? Thanks, that’d be great. I just need to tell my parents that I’m running late.”

“Travelling home ?”

“Something like that.”

He passed her his phone and she made a brief call, turning her head and cupping her mouth behind her hand. No, you don’t need to pick me up. Really, I’m okay. Please don’t worry about doing anything for dinner, I’ll sort myself out. I’ll get a cab. She slid the phone back across the table, her long fingers ending in quick bitten nails, and sat back in her chair, rubbing her eyes.

“Long day ?” he asked. She nodded but didn’t reply. She’d moved seats looking for somewhere quiet, somewhere to think. In truth she’d spent most of the day thinking, running the same questions through her mind as she’d sat on various trains picking their way back from Paris, across London, and now up to her old family home in Peterborough. The same questions and no answers; just a sense of failure and disappointment. This journey home had never been part of the plan. She looked up at him again.

“I’m sorry. You must think I’m being really rude,” she offered. “It has been a long day. I’m travelling back from Paris.”

“No need to apologise, that sounds pretty tiring,” he said. There was a pause before he added. “I’m Jack by the way. Nice to meet you.”

“Thanks again for the phone, Jack. Nice to meet you too. I’m Kate.” She closed her eyes and leant her head back in the seat. “I am definitely tired.”

Jack continued to chat, just small talk about the delay and how busy it’d been in London earlier, and Kate, despite herself, began to respond. Just nods and demurrals of agreement at first but slowly she was drawn into conversation. He was easy company and she found that she’d missed the sound of her own language, missed conversation where there wasn’t that briefest of gaps between her thoughts and the translation. The fluency fraction. Or “fraction de la fluiditie” as she’d once tried to explain to a group of new, French friends, following a few too many glasses of wine, after the move to Paris. They’d laughed and one of them had poured her another glass. She’d spent the next six months with him.

“What would ‘sassy’ mean to you ?” said Jack, interrupting her thoughts.

“Sassy ?” said Kate. “Depends on the context I guess.”

“Okay” said Jack. “On a dating profile. I keep getting recommended women who are sassy, independent, and smart.” He held up the phone she’d borrowed earlier, open on a web page headed ‘Soul Mates’.

“You sure you can cope with that ?” asked Kate with a smile.

“Exactly ! No, I’m not” laughed Jack. “But sassy could mean all sorts of things. If it means someone who likes some lively banter then I might be alright but if it’s short hand for someone that’s high maintenance, with a biting tongue and a cruel wit then it’s a whole different matter.”

“I’m fairly sure no one who actually wanted a date would describe themselves as a high maintenance cruel wit with a biting tongue on their profile…”

“No, sure, but is that within the bounds of what it could mean ? That’s the question” mused Jack. “Is it a word you think you would use ?”

Kate let her gaze drift to the fields outside but could still see him in the glass, looking at her intently. Turning her head towards the window her own translucent reflection crept into view, mirroring how she felt: indistinct, dislocated, a little blurred round the edges. Sassy might have been a word she’d have used once, confident and sure in who she was, but now not so much. She wasn’t even sure she liked the word anymore. It was like feisty. Why was it only women who were ever sassy or feisty ? As if being lively and bold and confident were so beyond the boundaries of what was expected for a woman that there had to be special words ascribed to it. Spirited. That was another one. Feisty and spirited. Like a fucking horse or something. She turned back to Jack. “No, it’s not a word I think I’d use” she said. “I think it’s something people put because they think other people want to hear it.”

“Like everyone says they’ve got a great sense of humour ?” said Jack.

“Exactly like that” said Kate. “Or like everyone says they like taking long, romantic walks or visiting art galleries or keeping in shape or socializing with a wide circle of friends. It’s all shorthand isn’t it ? Here’s my profile: I am nice, cultured, physically fit and not a social pariah.”

“It’s the profile pictures that get me. Everyone’s a picture of health, permanently smiling, and radiating an air of calm contentment. Where are all the desperate selfies, tear smudged mascara or a dishevelled five day beard because you haven’t left the house for a week after your last relationship ended in the usual bitterness and recrimination ?”

“Oh you should definitely change your picture to one of those” said Kate. “Mascara would be a strong look for you.” Jack laughed and rubbed at the corner of his eye; Kate tilted her head and pulled at the back of her hair. “I particularly like the ones where it’s clearly a photo chopped in half. You know what I mean ?”

Jack nodded. “Where some old flame was in the frame before they were extinguished with a pair of scissors…”

“Can you extinguish something with scissors ?”

“Words were never really my thing” he acknowledged. “Maybe like this…” He flipped open the notepad that sat on the table between them and deftly sketched a fire extinguisher, a pair of scissors cutting through its short hose.

“A bit literal ?” frowned Kate.

“Everyone’s a critic ! How about this then ?” He drew a pair of candles, the first with flame flickering, suggested through a couple of spare, precise lines that almost made the static drawing dance. Beneath it he placed a closed pair of scissors with its handles elongated to look like a heart. The second candle’s wick was snipped, the flame now just a wisp of smoke, and the pair of scissors beneath it were open, heart-like handles pulled apart. Kate smiled, smoothing her hair again with her hand.

“That works. You’re good.”

“Thanks. Like I say, words were never really my thing. Probably why I never seem to get anywhere with this online dating thing.”

“You having trouble writing your profile ?”

“Something like that. Having trouble getting anyone to reply to my profile might be more accurate.”

“Read it to me” said Kate sitting forwards in her chair, resting her elbows on the table, chin in her hands. “Perhaps I can help.”

“It’s not very interesting. It just says: 28 year old man, slim, athletic build WLTM woman 25-35. Enjoys film, books, restaurants, and meeting up with friends.”

“WLTM ?”

“Would love to meet. I thought I should read it as written.”

“You forgot to mention that you’ve got a good sense of humour…”

“Let me finish ! Enjoys film, books, restaurants, and meeting up with friends. Has GSOH and is looking for someone fun and friendly.”

“GSOH, of course. Well, you sound nice enough” said Kate. “Doesn’t tell me much about you though. Not really about you.”

“You think it’s just stuff that I think other people want to hear ?”

“I don’t know. Is it ?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I guess I’m banking on my photo to look suitably appealing on its own.”

“Is it one with an extinguished old flame ?” asked Kate picking up Jack’s drawings. He looked away and rubbed his hand through his hair, scratched at the back of his head. Kate put the paper back on the table and there was an awkward silence.

“What would yours say then ?” asked Jack eventually.

“My what ?” asked Kate.

“Your dating profile” said Jack. “I’m not saying you need one but if you had one and could strip out all of the clichés and the shorthand and the things we write to show people what we think they want to see then what would yours say ?”

“Ah I don’t know if I want to do that” sighed Kate. She felt like all that was left was cliche. Mid twenties – who was she kidding, nearly late twenties – and moving back in with her parents because the great Parisienne dream had turned into a nightmare. What was left to say ? I had everything I thought I wanted ? It all turned to merde ?

“Come on. A pure blast of truth. You’ll probably never see me again so just use it as an opportunity to say what you always wanted to say.” Kate looked slightly bemused now as Jack cajoled her. “Tell you what. I’ll do mine too. What’s the worst that could happen ? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…”

“Really ?” said Kate in mock exasperation. “Are we going to play doctors’ and nurses’ as well ?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves” said Jack. “I might not like your profile.”

“Just shut up and give me some of that paper” relented Kate. Perhaps it would help to write it down. A different way of thinking it through. “If we’re going to do this then let’s do it properly. Some quiet so I can write something down and then we can share and get it over with.”

 They sat in silence for a while writing or staring out of the window, pens poised between teeth, lost in thought. Occasionally one of them would catch the other’s eye and they’d smile, look away and return to the task at hand. Kate’s page filled up quickly, thoughts spilling out from her, whereas Jack doodled and dawdled, scratching out halting sentences before he had finished them. As he put a line through another false start he tossed his pen back onto the table and announced that he was going to get a coffee. Kate shook her head when he asked if she wanted anything.

Jack picked his way up the carriage towards the buffet car, tapping the tops of seats as he passed them until he inadvertently brushed against someone’s head. Muttering an apology he quickened his step and concentrated on the task at hand. She was distracting. In a good way. Why had he suggested this ridiculous let’s reveal our true selves game ? There was a reason his profile description was so ordinary: he was ordinary. Now she was going to find that out: scratch below the surface and discover that there’s only surface. Should have just kept it light and seen what happened.

Jack bought his coffee, returned to his seat and started emptying sugar into his cup. “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to” he said to Kate, noting that she had now filled most of her paper.

“No, I’m ready. No backing out now.” Kate grinned at him and snatched up what she’d written, eager to get going. What the hell. Maybe it would be liberating. Maybe it’d just be a bit of fun to pass the time while they were delayed but, either way, like he’d said, they wouldn’t see each other again so what did it matter ? “Let’s start with this. I have a tattoo. It’s a butterfly in the small of my back. It’ll sound corny but it was supposed to be a reminder to myself that beauty can be transient and fleeting – a reminder to appreciate things whilst they’re here. Not many people get to see it but occasionally, if it’s accidentally on show I catch them looking at it and wonder if they’re just checking out my arse.” She looked pointedly at Jack who had the grace to look sheepish.

“You have a great tattoo” he offered. “And I thought everyone said ass these days anyway ?” Kate raised her eyebrows in mild rebuke before gesturing back at her paper.

“Shall I continue ?”

“Please do” said Jack. “I won’t say another word.”

“Particularly about my very British arsesaid Kate. “An ass is a donkey you great…”

“Donkey ?” offered Jack.

“Yes, you great donkey” agreed Kate. “Baudet”

“Baudet ?”

“Oh, sorry. It’s donkey in French. I do that sometimes. Must still be half there I guess. So, you really want to carry on with this ?” Kate looked down again at what she’d written out, Jack nodded his assent and so she continued. “I’m pretty smart. I know, I know, I guess no one ‘fesses up to being stupid on one of these profiles but I’m really not. Straight A student. Double first at Cambridge in Modern and Medieval Languages. Pretty smart and yet on my way back home to my parents. I quit my job at the Louvre. The Louvre ! Imagine that, imagine spending three years studying French and a year studying Art History and then getting a job at the Louvre. Well I had that but I quit and now I’ve got no idea what I’m doing, I’ve got nothing to go back home for, and I don’t know what I want to do.” Kate paused, looking again at what she’d been writing for the past twenty minutes. “I didn’t write all that you know.”

“What did you write ?” asked Jack.

“I just wrote ‘pretty smart but pretty stupid’” said Kate.

“I don’t think it’s stupid to be unsure” said Jack. “I think you’re allowed some time to figure it out.”

Kate shrugged and looked back at her paper. “Perhaps. It just seemed easier before I guess.”

Jack tilted his head, listening. “Before ?”

“You know. School. College…”

“Ah I see” said Jack. “Before real life you mean.”

Kate laughed. “Exactly. It was easier. It felt like a series of clearly marked destinations.” She paused, flipped her paper over and drew a circle on the blank page. “Here, your next stop is GCSEs, and here” she sketched a straight line to another circle “A levels and on and on.” She continued the line, idly tracing more circles along its trajectory, until stopping in the middle of the page. “Then what ?”

“Look at all the blank paper” said Jack. “Exciting.”

“It’s terrifying” said Kate. “There’s no lines. No pre determined destinations.”

“I think it’s okay to get a little lost for a while. Explore.” said Jack. “You’re super smart – in two languages – so what if you don’t know what to do with your life ?”

“Oui. Nous ne savons pas ce que nous voulons et pourtant nous sommes responsables de ce que nous sommes – qui est le fait.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it. I think I need to know more though if I’m going to choose your profile by the way. Particularly if I can’t always understand what you’re saying.”

“Who said you’d get the chance to choose ?”

“Humour me.”

“I thought I was.” Kate flipped her paper back over and started to read again. “So this is me: I think too much and like to make plans, sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to be a little more spontaneous.”

“Swapping pretend dating profiles with a complete stranger on a train seems pretty spontaneous” suggested Jack.

“It’s pretty something” said Kate. “Maybe unhinged would be a better word for it.”

“There’s a fine line between spontaneous and crazy I guess.”

“So it seems. What does yours say anyway ?”

“You’re not finished” protested Jack.

“I’m being spontaneous. Tell me a bit about you and then I’ll finish mine.”

“Okay,” shrugged Jack with a grin. “But be gentle with me, I’m not used to baring my soul like this.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

Jack picked up his paper with a dramatic flourish and made an exaggerated point of clearing his throat. It was all show before he felt ready to tell. He was nervous for the first time since they’d started talking. He began reading what he’d written, some stuff about films he liked, music he listened to, books he’d read, before putting his paper down again.

 You know what ? Like I said earlier words aren’t really my thing. Not written down at least. I could sit here and tell you about these things that I love but they’re all just another mask, aren’t they ? Borrowed identity. Just a different kind of way of telling people what they might want to hear.”

“So tell me about you without that stuff” said Kate. “I really want to know.”

“There’s really not that much to tell. Maybe that’s why I just churned out a list of cool sounding stuff so that you can make a judgement about me based on the things I like, not the things I do or the person I am.” Jack frowned and pressed his palms against his temples, rubbed at his head as if it would smooth out the creases on his brow. “I don’t know why this is so hard. It’s just kind of mundane I guess. I like to draw. No, scratch that, I love to draw. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, since I was a kid. I used to fill up pages and pages of sketches and pictures.” He gestured at the pad in front of him. “Now I carry a note book round but never put anything in it. The odd doodle but nothing that means anything to me anymore.”

“So tell me about that. Why’d you stop ?”

“My dad used to say something to me,” said Jack. “The only thing you should be worrying about drawing is your pension… and those scribbles won’t give you one of those. That was the sum total of his advice to me. All the time growing up, made me feel it was worthless, wanted me to get a ‘proper job’. I don’t really blame him, you know ? He was just trying to look out for me in the way he thought was best but it just killed that spark in me that made me want to draw. Didn’t seem like there was a reason to do it anymore. You know what the worst of it is ?” Kate shook her head. “The worst of it is that I let it happen, let that part of me go and just stopped. Went to study and became a tax accountant instead. Don’t judge me.”

“Too late for that,” replied Kate gently. “Not about the accountancy thing though. I was a tour guide in an art gallery so I’m not about to starting throwing career choice stones from my ever so glass house.”

“Glass pyramid” smiled Jack. “It’s a big glass pyramid at the Louvre” he added noting Kate’s slightly quizzical look.

“Glass and metal actually. Designed by I M Pei and consisting of 603 rhombus shaped segments and 70 triangular ones… I can tell you anything you want to know about that pyramid. Its history, what it’s for, that ‘Da Vinci Code’ bullshit about it having 666 panes. All this stuff I learned by rote when I was there, churned out to tick-list tourists on a daily basis, but I couldn’t tell you how it made me feel anymore. None of it. The pyramid. The paintings. The sculpture.”

“But you were doing what you loved,” protested Jack. “Not like me.”

“I thought I was” said Kate. “Somewhere along the way I forgot how to see things I think. Forgot why I wanted to be there in the first place. A couple of weeks ago I found myself staring at ‘Diana of Versailles’…”

“Your co-workers had some pretty fancy names…”

“It’s a statue you arse. I love that piece. It’s a depiction of Artemis…” Jack looked blank. “Artemis ? No ? Really ? Looks like I’ve got some serious work to do educating you. She was the Greek goddess of the hunt. The Romans called her Diana and she was originally installed at the palace of Versailles.”

“Hence the name.”

“You’re catching on. In the statue she looks so strong and sure, focused exactly on what she’s doing. All poise and purpose. Pulling an arrow from the quiver on her back. It’s what I’d describe to the tourists as a perfect marriage of form and function. Don’t laugh but I used to stare at pictures of her when I was studying and I found it… I don’t know, I guess I found it inspiring. I wanted more than anything to see her for real and eventually I got to do that every day. But then, the other week, I was staring at her again and it was just a slab. Just cold stone.”

“Maybe she just became too familiar ? Like wallpaper ?”

“I don’t think it’s that. Honestly ? You wanted honest, right ? Some things went sour for me in Paris. No great drama I guess in the scheme of things. A relationship that went wrong and a life that was built on that – his friends, his city, his flat. It all felt like it was falling apart. Somewhere along the way I forgot why I was there. I forgot about myself. Diana didn’t change, I just stopped seeing myself in her anymore.”

“I kind of get that” said Jack. “I stopped seeing myself as someone who drew, forgot about chasing that thing I loved and built my life on all that advice my dad gave me. Made something of myself. But you lose something as well when you follow a track someone else lays down for you.”

 The tannoy interrupted them. “We apologise for the delay. The broken-down train has just been moved out of Huntingdon station. Due to the length of time we have been stationary, we will be making an unscheduled stop at Huntingdon. Any passengers wishing to alight there should prepare to do so.”

Jack sat up straight in his seat and leaned forwards.

“Let’s get off the train, go for a drink.”

“Woah there crazy man. What are you talking about ?”

“Come on Kate. Live a little. Do something that wasn’t in the plan.” Jack was laughing now and sank back into his seat. “I’m done with staying on track for a while. I’m going to go and see what Huntingdon has to offer. I know it’s not exactly Paris but it’ll be fun.”

“You’re kidding, right ?”

“No, I’m serious. You and me. I’d love to keep talking to you. It’ll be like.. like…” He tilted his head and looked up at the ceiling, searching for some filed away information. “What was that film where two people got off a train and spent the night walking round some city ?”

“Before Sunrise ?” answered Kate. “Ethan Hawke. Julie Delpy. You know the city was Paris though. I’m not sure it would have been made if they’d decided to grab a drink in Huntingdon.” She shook her head, smiling. “I’m no one’s idea of Julie Delpy either.”

“I bet you are. Back when you used to think you were Diana of whatsit…”

“Versailles”

“Diana of Versailles. Form and function. Poise and purpose. I bet you are. Anyway I’m no Ethan Hawke” conceded Jack. “But you know what ? That’s not the point. It doesn’t matter where it is or who we’re not. It matters who we are. Who we might be. And you don’t get to find that out by spending your life sitting on a train with a fixed destination. Sometimes you need to get off and change the journey.”

“You’re pretty pleased with that metaphor, aren’t you ?”

“Not bad for someone who’s not good with words” said Jack.

Kate shook her head again, still smiling at him despite herself. She pushed up from the table and made an excuse, told him that she needed to use the ladies. In truth she needed a moment to draw breath. Jack’s offer had caught her by surprise; she was flattered and excited. There was an honesty about him that she was drawn to but which scared her. It had only been a couple of months since things with Francois had imploded, a terse exchange on the Metro at Invalides after she’d found the messages on his phone and it was all done. Broken at Invalides. The irony hadn’t escaped her. Their first date after that night they’d met he’d taken her to Sacre Coeur in the evening and they’d stood on the steps looking down over the city. It had been just how she’d imagined it, just how she’d assumed it would go when she moved to Paris, and it had all been a lie.

She slipped into the cubicle at the end of the carriage and closed the door. The seat was down and she sat on it resting her head in her hands, elbows on knees and began to cry. From laughter in the city of lights to sobbing in a train toilet in the space of six wasted months. Kate tore off a piece of tissue and dabbed her eyes, watched as her tears soaked into the paper. At least she hadn’t bothered with mascara today so she wouldn’t end up looking like one of those imagined profile pictures that Jack had been talking about earlier. What was it he’d said ? Smudged and disheveled ? That felt about right. Her thoughts strayed back to him and she smiled sadly. Why did she have to meet him now ? Before she’d had time to work out what she wanted. Now that she’d walked away from what she’d spent years thinking she wanted; everything she’d worked for and planned. She needed to think. Needed a new plan.

……

Jack stood up and shuffled out to the aisle as the train slowed on its approach to Huntingdon. He pushed his phone into the pocket of his jeans and leant back over the table to pick up his sketch book. Kate watched him.

“It was really good to meet you” said Jack extending his hand slightly awkwardly. “Are you sure you don’t want that walk round Huntingdon ? Or a drink ?” Kate took his hand, met his firm grip with her own and shook her head gently.

“I’m sorry Jack. I just don’t think I can right now. Plan was to get back home and you know I do like a plan…” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged apologetically. “It was lovely to meet you too though. Really, it was.”

“By the way, that thing you said earlier, in French ? I liked hearing you speak like that. What did it mean ?”

“Oh that. It meant ‘we do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are – that is the fact’” answered Kate. “It’s Sartre. Told you I think too much.”

“Deep,” grinned Jack. “Listen, for what it’s worth, I think that what you are is working out just fine. Don’t worry so much about what you want. Try some stuff, see what happens. Like I said, good to meet you Kate.” He smiled at her, turned and made his way up the carriage to the doors. The train slowed, edging up the platform, and Kate pulled her eyes away from his retreating back and down at the table. He’d left his profile behind, a single piece of paper covered in his small, spidery handwriting. Kate picked it up with a rueful smile, turning it over in her hands. On the back was a drawing. In deft, firm pen strokes Jack had sketched her face, she was smiling and a shower of butterflies surrounded her head. Underneath it he’d written ‘don’t leave reminders to yourself where you can’t see them, life is fleeting, don’t forget’.

The tannoy crackled again. “This is Huntingdon. Will passengers leaving the train here please make sure they have all their belongings with them.”

……

Jack had taken a couple of strides away from the train when he heard a bang behind him and the hiss of the automatic door opening again. He looked back over his shoulder and saw that someone must have wedged their bag into the gap as the door had been closing.

“You didn’t get the butterflies right” said Kate as she stepped down onto the platform.

“Well I didn’t get to look at it for very long” replied Jack, hurrying to help with her bag.

“Don’t get any ideas mister. Let’s just start with that drink.”

……

 

Reunion (reprise)

You look surprised to see me and maybe even a little embarrassed. Perhaps she hadn’t told you that I might be coming. Most of all you look older. I know that’s a stupid thing to say after nine years but it’s what strikes me the most; you’ve hastened your hair’s natural retreat by cropping it back and it’s fading to grey. You’re carrying more weight now. Not a tummy exactly but everything’s a little looser, I have to work at making out the line of your jaw. I suppose that if we’d seen each other more often – or at all – then the change wouldn’t be so marked. I can see how the increments would have accumulated over time, I just get to see all of them unfolded at once. It’s enough to send me to the toilets so that I can find a mirror, try to see what the impact of nine years has had on my own face. I can’t judge. I’m too used to seeing it every day and it’s been a long time since I was the person that you knew who peeked up and out from under a fringe. I think I used to hide behind it in the hope of being found. I don’t hide anymore and I’m not looking to be found.

When we talk it’s less awkward than I’d expected. There’s a moment as we meet when the slightest inclination of your head suggests that, maybe on auto-pilot, you’re thinking of greeting me with one of those cheek brushes that seems to have become the standard in our 30s. The older we get the less contact we seem to want. In our 20s it was all hugs and embraces. And, for me and you, the tango of course but it’s a long time since I did any dancing. I shift backwards slightly and offer my hand. Less contact. We touch and I remember the softness of your skin.

When you meet back up with someone after a long absence there’s only really two places the conversation can go. What are you up to now or do you remember when…? We start with the now and keep it light; you’re working up in Harrow, a tech start up that I didn’t catch the name of, and I’m dividing my time between travelling and freelancing, sometimes combining the two. Writing about jazz clubs ? You offer it with a tentative smile, a cautious prod at the thin ice covering the deep waters that are our former lives together. You were always good at that. Finding ways to get me to open up, unlocking the private chambers of my heart, leavening and lightening my seriousness without belittling it. You wouldn’t have let ‘private chambers’ pass without a gag either. I catch myself missing that. Missing the fun we had, even when it was innuendo and bad puns. Writing about jazz clubs. You know me too well. I haven’t really changed. And he nods, sadly, and says: no, no you haven’t. 

We’re saved from our small talk by the arrival of the cake. Mike’s carrying it in, thirty five candles flickering and illuminating Sally’s name spelled out in icing. I knew that there’d been a similarly large celebration at her 30th but I’d been out of the country, it was the summer I spent in New Orleans. She’d never been one to pass up a party and this gathering had been billed as the warm up event for her 40th. It wasn’t clear if her and Mike were planning to do this every year but I already knew this’d be the last time I saw them. I didn’t know how I’d feel when I saw her again. Watching her about to blow out the candles, the flames dancing under her easy smile, I could see why it had happened. She’d been a pretty girl and now she was an attractive woman, lively and confident and larger-than-life. The size of her personality was still in inverse proportion to her dress size. I don’t know whether she’d ever told Mike but something about the way they are together, the way he still tracks her movements around the room, rests his hand lightly around her waist when they’re close, makes me think that she never did. Maybe she never thought it was a big deal. Better to hide the truth to stop people from getting hurt; it was just a drunken mistake.

I can clearly remember when you told me. That morning in the kitchen in the flat. Things hadn’t been great for a while but the connection between us held fast. A little frayed but it held. I don’t think either of us really knew how we were going to resurrect what we’d had at the beginning but if you’d asked us then I think we’d have said we wanted to. We were incandescent falling in love but didn’t know what to do when the boil settled to a simmer. Maybe we’d have found the right ways and the right moments to turn the heat back up if we’d had more time. I slept with Sally. Four words that took three seconds to say between two people and to break one heart. I slept with… You were half way through saying it again, tears forming in your eyes, but I didn’t hear it. I was shaking my head, trying to dislodge the words. You stepped towards me extending your arms, saying you were sorry over and over and over again, but for each step you took forwards I took one away until my back bumped against the front door. It was our last tango. I held onto my tears until I’d slipped out the door and fled to the street.

I wound up on Shepherd’s Bush Green sobbing on a bench until some homeless guy offered me a swig from his last Special Brew. Looking back there was something blackly funny about it I suppose. Perhaps I should have invited him to sit down, maybe we could have gotten drunk and duetted on some power ballads, howling incoherently at the early risers and late finishers making their way across the park. He looked a bit like Meatloaf and I had enough mascara smudged around my eyes that I could’ve passed as that witchy woman he sometimes sings with. Anything for love but we won’t do that. Instead I smile at him, decline the proffered can, and ask if he’s okay. We chat for a bit and I give him some change for a coffee or something. I’ve seen enough bad movies that I was half expecting him to turn out to be a philosophy lecturer down on his luck offering up wisdom for the lost, or an angel testing people to see if they’re worth saving, or a lonely multi millionaire in disguise, waiting for the right person to bestow his fortune on. The best he offers is “people aren’t reliable, you can’t trust them” before he shuffles off across the Green towards the Off License.

Sally leans forwards and chases the flickering flames across the cake with the most extravagant exhale she can muster. She gets them all bar two. Thirty three candles marked now by a smudge of black smoke slowly rising into the air and two that stubbornly still burn. I look up and you’re staring at me. I hold your gaze as Sally swoops on the final pair, snuffing them out with another quick puff of air. Each reduces to a glow, like an echo of the fire they once were, and are then extinguished.

Disunion (her)

I was aware it was happening but I didn’t know what to do about it. I hesitate to use an analogy from jazz – because I know you don’t like jazz – but there’s sometimes a moment in an extended piece, in an improvisation, when the players realise that they’ve lost the spark of what they were doing. They’re still producing notes, occasionally riffing back on refrains that previously worked, but something has changed and the music has gone stale. I’m finding myself reaching for sequences that have always served me well before. I can be your art loving, free spirited traveller if that’s what you want me to be. I can be your serious talker; setting the world to rights, musing on the impermanence of things, and arguing the toss over the voice over in Bladerunner. I still can’t believe you thought I was serious about that. Give me some credit: nobody thinks it needs the voice over. Maybe if things were different we could have a real discussion about that unicorn dream sequence though. Is that the trouble now ? I used to be all of those things but I used to be funny as well. And I used to be just me. Not a version of me that was for you but just me. In fact, I was never more me than those first few months that I was with you.

So I knew something had shifted. If we’d have been having dates at the beginning like we were having dates now then we’d have never made it this far. There was something there still between us but it wasn’t enough. We were waiting for someone to telegraph a concluding descending scale so that we could clumsily end our improvisation. A cue for the song to finish. There would be no polite applause. Who am I kidding ? Impromptu musical jams might end like that but relationships don’t. It would be more likely that one of us would hurl our instrument to the floor and exit stage right leaving a squall of feedback in our wake, the other left alone on stage blinking in the spotlight. Part of me wishes that one of us would. It’d be better than this drawn out decline.

You’re out again. I think you were meeting up with Mike and Sally and I guess you’ll end up treading your familiar route from The Adelaide into the West End. Recently you’ve been trying to persuade me to come to some 90s night at the Borderline so maybe you’re there. I didn’t really fall for Britpop the first time round so I’m not sure that nostalgia is going to lend it anything emotionally for me this time round. You were babbling about how you’d had a drunken moment of clarity the week before during “Live Forever”. We see things they’ll never see. That’s us, you declared. Me and Mike and Sally. I wasn’t sure which “me” you’d meant. I didn’t see those things that they, apparently, will never see so I wasn’t convinced it was me you meant in your boozey epiphany. But I did remember when we – just me and you – did see things that no-one else saw. When we were so in tune that we could sit in a group, noise and chatter flying about us, and we’d exchange a glance, the slightest look, and each other instantly knew what the other thought.

You’re out and I’m home and I’m mainlining power ballads like some Bridget Jones cliche. I’m a lousy drinker when I’m on my own but I’ve made an effort with a makeshift cosmopolitan. There’s no triple sec so, technically, it’s vodka and cranberry juice but that just seems slightly pitiful. Sitting home alone drinking vodka cranberry is for losers but sitting home alone making cosmoplitans  is a different thing entirely. I’ve even got one of those little umbrellas. I can toast our demise with a degree of class. And various love lorn anthems. I’m giving a full throated if slightly off pitch rendition of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” when upstairs bang on their floor in irritation and I have my own moment of clarity: I’m through half a bottle of vodka, enough cranberry juice to permanently cure all cystitis in West London, and murdering Bonnie Tyler. I crawl to bed.

You’re not there, not even in traces, the usual faint residual scent of you absent on your pillow. I washed the sheets and now I wished that I hadn’t. I miss you.