Tag Archives: Sufjan Stevens

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

“Don’t ask me about sex, okay ?”

“It’s okay Pete. I’ve had the talk. My mum drew the short straw and told me what goes where and how babies are made and how to stop babies being made and how to fake an orgasm. All that stuff.”

“How to what now ?”

“Alright, alright. Just kidding. She only told me the important stuff. You know the faking it bit and how to stop babies being made,” laughed Jen.

“This explains a lot. Remind me never to meet your mother. Or, indeed, sleep with her.”

“At least it wasn’t my dad, right ? And did you just turn down my mum ? You shouldn’t be so choosy. She’s pretty hot for her age.”

Pete exhaled loudly, deliberately. “Weird now. I knew I shouldn’t have raised sex, it always gets weird. All I was saying was don’t ask me about whether I’ve had any recently.”

“Given the request I think I can fill in the blanks. Don’t worry anyway, I wasn’t calling to check up on that. I’ve learned my lesson. We’ll just end up talking about Eeyore having phone sex with Sufjan Stevens again.”

“That’s not quite how I remember it.”

“I was paraphrasing.” Jen put on her best TV voice over voice: “Previously on conversations between Pete and Jen…”

“That’d never make it past the pilot episode,” Pete countered.

“Hey, it might. Maybe they’d get someone more famous in to replace you for the actual series but I reckon I’d be snapped up to continue playing the role of myself.”

“I’d forgotten just how much your calls cheer me up Jen…”

“Quit it sarcasm boy. I know the only reason you won’t let me Skype you is that you wouldn’t be able to hide the smiling.”

“No, it’s because I don’t want you to see the state of the flat to be honest.”

“Still living out of pizza boxes ?” asked Jen, concerned.

“Something like that. More like I’m living in a pizza box. Apparently some people get a compulsion to clean and tidy as a side order to go with their grief but I didn’t seem to.”

“Like the world’s worst meal deal ?”

“Yeah. An Unhappy Meal,” said Pete. “I’ll take mine extra large.”

“What are the fries in this analogy ?”

“I don’t think that’s the most important part of what I’m saying Jen.”

“Mmm, I know. I just really like fries. I think they’re probably the onion rings or something. Georgie loved those Burger King onion rings, you know ?”

“Yeah, she did,” said Pete. “Do you remember coming back from The Chemical Brothers in Brixton ? She must have had four bags of them before we got to Victoria. I think she had the munchies from all that secondary smoke.”

“She never could handle her secondary smoke.”

“Handled everything else though,” said Pete quietly.

“Yes, she did Pete,” Jen answered, equally quietly. “She was… She was… Fuck. There’s nothing I can say that isn’t fucking trite and pointless. She was Georgie and she was my friend. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I miss her. I miss her so fucking much.”

“I thought it’d get easier, you know ?” said Pete. “Those first months I was just numb to everything, like my brain had decided to self administer a huge dose of anaesthetic. I knew there was something horribly wrong but it was all sort of detached, like I was watching it happen to someone else. But these past few weeks the anaesthetic’s wearing off and outside of the numbness there’s just pain. There’s just nothing but pain.”

“I’m supposed to say it’ll take time, right ?” said Jen gently.

“You’re hurting too Jen. It’ll take time for all of us. I don’t know, the talking helps but the actual words… the actual words just all feel empty.”

“That’s why I call and talk… talk stupid. All that vapid nonsense is just a way to not say what we’re supposed to say. If the words are all empty then why not make them really, properly empty ? I miss her so hard Pete and I know that it’s not fair to call you and say that.”

“It’s okay. None of it’s fair but I don’t have exclusive rights on missing Georgie. She loved you. You were her best friend.”

“Apart from you. We were her best friends. Christ, I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years.”

“Want to hear something stupid ?” said Pete, suddenly.

“Always. Especially now,” replied Jen.

“I got into an argument today with some bloke in Sainsbury’s. I think I’d been spoiling for a fight for the last few weeks, I just didn’t expect it to be over a deli counter in a supermarket. I keep thinking I’m through the angry phase but then I just find myself back in it again. Anyway, we were waiting to get served – it was one of those counters where you take a ticket and wait for your number to come up – when this guy suddenly pushed in front of the woman in front of him. She says something, strong Eastern European accent, and then he turns round and tells her that he doesn’t have to wait in line behind people like her anymore. That she can go get her cheese in her own country.”

“Her own cheese ?”

“Seriously. You couldn’t make it up. He started ranting about taking our country back and how she wasn’t welcome, coming over here buying up all the foreign cheese. I think she was Polish…”

“Renowned cheese makers that they are…”

“Well, quite,” Pete continued. “Anyway, everyone was standing around not knowing what to do and this poor woman started to look really quite scared so I asked him to get back to his place in the queue and calm down a bit.

“You asked him to calm down ?”

“Yeah. Turns out telling frothing bigots to calm down doesn’t really calm them down,” said Pete.

“What were the chances ?”

“Easy in hindsight. He starts yelling at me that I’m a traitor to my country and that I need to learn what democracy means and how his grandparents had liberated Europe from the Nazi’s…”

“So he started doing irony ?”

“Not intentionally, no. I think he offered me outside but by then the security guy had appeared and threatened to throw us both out if we didn’t cool down. My new friend Mosley or Nigel or whatever his name was turns back to the counter and places his order. Only goes and orders pierogi and kabanos.”

“No fucking way.”

“No, he didn’t really. Slab of Cheddar and some Red Leicester.”

There was a pause as Pete laughed at his own joke before Jen asked, “How’d we get in this mess ?”

“Elastic bands,” answered Pete. “Hear me out, I’ve got this theory. I didn’t vote leave but I get why some people did. They’re not all like that idiot. It’s just that we’ve gotten too stretched…”

“Keep going Chomsky.”

“It’s good, you’ll like it. The elastic band is society and then imagine the people at the top of society are one end of the elastic band and the people at the bottom are opposite them. The more distance there is between them the more tension there is in the band, until the band either snaps back together again or…”

“Or it breaks,” Jen finished.

“Or it breaks.” Pete started singing softly: “I got those elastic band post-Brexit blues.”

“Ha, sounds like it should be a Nick Cave song.”

“You heard Skeleton Tree ?”

“Of course I’ve heard it Pete. When you were telling me about that Sufjan Stevens record a couple of months ago I couldn’t get my head round it. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to listen to something that was so nakedly carved out of someone else’s grief. But then I heard the Cave record and I’m like a moth banging its head against a light bulb. There’s no shelter in it, no comfort but it just shows you so much pain that it kind of matches your own. I’m not making any sense…

“No, I get it. You ever have tinnitus ?”

“That ear ringing thing ? No, not really. I mean only after a gig or something, nothing permanent,” said Jen.

“I have it a bit. Like static in my left ear all the time. It’s always there but one of the things they tell you to do to mask it is to match it up with something on the same frequency. So I might listen to some tuned out radio white noise and then I don’t hear it. I think the Nick Cave record’s like that. Only something that intense, that raw, can match up to what we’re feeling and give some release to the pain. Maybe not release. Give some sensation to the pain might be a better way of describing it. It short cuts that anaesthetic.”

“Why’d we want to do that ?”

“Because the anaesthetic’s not real,” sighed Pete. “She’s gone Jen and she’s not coming back.”

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 gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but 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. What about you ?”

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



This is story 40 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is a direct sequel to story 14 (https://42at42.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/riffs-and-variations-on-loss-and-friendship-featuring-balloons-aa-milne-sufjan-stevens-and-phone-sex/) and shares its structure: I just really wanted to hear Pete and Jen talking to each other again. It also directly lifts its title (or the basis for its title) from the similarly named Sufjan Stevens song.


Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring balloons, AA Milne, Sufjan Stevens and phone sex

“When’d you last have sex ?”

“Ah, come on Jen. I don’t know…”

“You absolutely do know. It’s one of those things men know, like when their car last had its MOT or the date England won the World Cup or something.”

“30th July 1966.”

“Sex ?”

“Yeah, obviously. Of course not sex. England winning the World Cup. And for the record men do not carry round a perfect memory of their sexual history.”

“So when was it then ?” Jen pressed.

“You’re really not going to leave this ?”

“No, I’m really not. I’m worried about you Pete. She would have been worried about you.” She paused, wondering if that was too much but there was no protest from the voice on the other end of the phone. “She would have hated to have seen you like this…”

“April” Pete said finally. “It was April.”

Jen exhaled in relief. “Hey, April. That’s better than me you bastard. Why’d you hold out on telling me until now ?”

“April 16th 2011. You’re right, I do know the date. April 16th. Three days before the accident and five days before Georgie died.” There was silence on the line, not even the faint hiss of background static. “Jen ?”

“I’m here Pete. I’m still here…”

“It’s okay Jen. I can talk about this, don’t make yourself feel bad. After… Well, after she died, it got to be that I felt like I was a one man field of land mines in every conversation I had. People tiptoeing through sentences until, sure enough, eventually, they’d brush up against something that set off a big Georgie blast of emotion.”

“I’m sorry Pete. I didn’t so much ‘brush up against’ as trample all over it though, did I ?”

“I think it’s alright, you know ? I’ve been starting to think that maybe the only way to clear away some of those mines is to step straight on them and take the hit.”

“Is that something from counseling ?”

“My therapist ?” Pete gave a short laugh. “God no. Poor guy. I stopped going a few months ago, put both of us out of our misery. The problem with talking therapies is they only really work if you’re prepared to talk and I just don’t know that I’ll ever have the words to explain…”

“…explain what ?” nudged Jen.

Pete sighed. “Explain the absence of her. The loss. It’s not just that she’s not here anymore, it’s that the absence of her is here. It’s tangible. Like a… like…”

“A ghost ?”

“Ha, yeah. Maybe like a ghost. Or, I don’t know. My parents used to tell a story, that they found hilarious of course, of when I was a kid and won a big, red helium balloon at the fair. I loved feeling it tug and pull on the string as we walked home, bobbing and dancing in the air…”

“Is this story going to involve childhood trauma ?”

“Brace yourself Jen, I’m afraid it is but you started this so no backing out now.”

“Fair point. Continue.”

“I loved that balloon. It must be one of my earliest memories of having something that really felt like it was mine, just for me. I clutched that string so tight, so afraid to let it go. I knew that one slip and it would be off, floating free, and not mine anymore. But, of course, balloons and five year olds is a bad combination and inevitably it popped on some sharp object in my room…”

“Your parents left you alone with sharp objects ?”

“They were quite progressive. Anyway, are you going to let me finish baring my soul or not ?”

“Sorry. I will not say another word”

“So, there I was, now with a long piece of string. No balloon. There were some trace fragments of it left attached to the string. A small red piece knotted and entwined in the end as a reminder. But where before it had soared – I used to imagine it would lift me up and fly me away – now it just trailed along the ground. Earthbound, broken. Apparently I kept hold of that string for two weeks, pulling the reminder of that balloon behind me round the house. So I wasn’t very good at letting go of things, even then…”

“How long are you going to hold this string Pete ?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. Sometimes I’m not even sure it’s entirely my choice.”

“How so ?” asked Jen.

“Okay, then, I’ll give you an example. Let’s talk about the sex thing.”

“The no sex thing. It’s been three years Pete.”

“Yeah, the no sex for three years thing if you want to get all pedantic about it. It’s not like there haven’t been opportunities.”

“I don’t doubt it. Decent looking guy like you…”

“Decent looking ? I thought you were meant to be building me back up.”

“Good looking then. Great looking. A veritable Adonis of a man. Plus you’re solvent and have your own hair and teeth. Women get less picky as they get older. Believe me, I know.”

“Alright, I’ll settle for good looking. Enough that there have been opportunities anyway. But when it comes to it the prospect of being with someone, of there being nothing but me and someone else, it’s too much. Someone else competing with the absence of her. How can I sleep with someone new when I think that the first thing I’ll do, when it’s over, is open my eyes, see that it’s not Georgie, and burst into tears ?”

“That might be a lot to deal with.”

“Quite. Ladies of Oxfordshire, form an orderly queue.”

“At least you’re imagining this happening afterwards. You know, it’s good that you can envisage going through with it” mused Jen.

“Oh, that is the best imagined scenario” said Pete. “There are various versions. The locking myself in the bathroom in tears version is another one. There’s inevitably a number of performance anxiety versions. Lots of calling out the wrong name versions, all ending in tears and recrimination.”

“Oh Pete. I’m sorry. Maybe you need to build up to it. Start off with phone sex first or something ?”

“Is that an offer ?”

“Ha ha. Can you imagine ? What are you wearing Pete ? I’m starting to get a little cold here, all naked and lonely. Why don’t you tell me how you’re going to warm me up ?”

“That was too good. You clearly have had some practice.”

“I love to practice when I’m alone” Jen breathed huskily into the phone. “What do you like to do when you’re alone ?”

“Okay. Weird now. Crazy woman stop.”

“Think yourself lucky we’re not Skyping” said Jen.

“If people actually shuddered I’d be shuddering right now. Do people really, actually have phone sex ?”

“Seriously ? You never did ? You and Georgie…”

“We were always together, there was never any time when we’d have been apart for long enough to even think about it I guess. To be honest I don’t remember telephone calls being much a part of any relationship I’ve had since I was about sixteen. Walking down into the village to use the pay phone, feeding 10p after 10p, just to keep going a series of awkward silences I was sharing with Laura Sheridan.”

“I’m guessing you and Laura didn’t… ?”

“It was pretty cold by that payphone Jen. And I’m pretty sure knocking one out in the village phone box would have raised a few local eyebrows. Questions asked at the Parish Council.”

“Now there’s an image I’m not going to be able to shift.”

“Well you started the whole phone sex thing. I was having a quiet night in, minding my own business.”

“That’s what I was worried about, that’s why I called. You’re always having a quiet night in and minding your own business. I worry…”

“You don’t have to worry about me Jen” chided Pete gently. “I’m doing fine. It’s just, like I said, not something I can just choose to get over. It’s going to take some more time I guess.”

“But you’ll let go of the string one day, Eeyore ?”

“Eeyore ! Ha.” Pete smiled. “Where’d that come from ?”

“Well, quite apart from your generally sunny disposition, your balloon story. It’s like what happens to Eeyore. Piglet gets him a balloon but falls on it before he can hand it over so Eeyore ends up with the popped remains on the end of some string.”

“That’s a new one on me. Who does that make you then Jen ?”

Jen sighed, exasperated. “I have taken on the self appointed role of Tigger, obviously. Your personal cheer leader, pep talker and grief counseller.”

“And Tigger’s recommendation is that I take up phone sex ? I don’t remember that in any of the books.”

“AA Milne had some hitherto unpublished stuff. Same homilies but more adult themes” laughed Jen before adding softly “anyway, I know it’s crap advice and I know it can’t much help but I’m all out of better ideas.”

“It does help” said Pete quietly. “You know what I was doing before you rang ? I was sitting in bed listening to music. The new Sufjan Stevens record. I was reading about it all last week, it’s about him dealing with the death of his mother, and is the sort of thing I should run a mile from. It’s brutally sad but beautiful, you know ?”

“Why run a mile ? If it helps…”

“Well that’s the thing. I don’t know if it helps or not, the consolation that someone else can express pain and loss so purely. It’s just me not letting go of the string.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s like those landmines and just one of those things you have to step on. Fall apart before you can put yourself back together.”

“Careful Jen, you’re starting to sound almost wise. I don’t remember Tigger being the wise one.”

“Ah but that was the genius of Milne wasn’t it ? Weren’t they all kind of wise in their own ways ?”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past three years.

“I gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but 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.”


This is the fourteenth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. The title is pinched and adapted from a Sufjan Stevens song whose brilliant new record, Carrie & Lowell, was much on my mind when writing this. Please share it if you liked it (or even if you didn’t…). If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/