A man and a woman are in a coffee shop. As it happens, they’ve met before, but today they’re not here to see each other. In fact, he is quietly reading at a table by himself when she, looking for a seat, asks if she may join him. “Please do,” he says, looking up and gesturing. This is enough to spark a sense of recognition in her.
“Hello. Sorry, I’m not sure I remember…?”
“It’s Julia, Julia Kennedy. But I think I may have made a mistake. You look familiar, but perhaps… do you mind telling me your name?”
“Oh! So that’s where I know you from. You were in The Aardvarks.”
“I was indeed, though it’s been a while. You must have bought one of our records or come to a gig?”
“Bought one of your records! I bought everything you released. I was a huge fan. I saw you as often as I could. I was heart-broken when you guys split up.”
There’s a pause in which they both wonder how he can answer this, and in which they size each other up a little. She’s very smartly dressed in a black skirt, white blouse, black suit-jacket and two-inch heels, with makeup and hair just so. He’s a lot less smartly dressed in red jeans and t-shirt with a leather jacket. He’s a big, fair, handsome man in his mid-thirties, running slightly to fat, with stubble that hasn’t quite achieved the status of a beard.
“So, do you still listen to much music?”
“Not as much as I’d like. I’ve still got all of your records, of course. But I’m pretty busy with my job so I don’t follow current music much these days. What are you doing now?”
“Oh, bit of this, bit of that…journalism mainly. Well, it’s a nice blast from the past to meet a fan. I don’t encounter too many of those these days. To be honest we never had that many of them anyway.”
“I don’t know. You certainly had a loyal following. And there were some bigger venues as well as the clubs and pubs.”
“So there were. I used to like playing festivals – that’s not really the same thing anyway.”
“I always liked the small gigs. Selfish perhaps, but I liked the intimacy. I saw you play in a couple of clubs – Macmillan’s, for instance.”
This is the point at which he realises something that she recollected rather earlier, viz. that, about ten years before, on a brown leather sofa in a small storeroom-cum-changing room at the back of Macmillan’s, while his bandmates courteously loitered in the bar, the two of them had engaged in sexual congress.
“Yeah, Macmillan’s. Good times at Macmillan’s. I don’t think we played another gig there after…that time.”
“A few years ago I could probably have told you exactly where you played on the rest of that tour, and the festivals after that, and the farewell concerts that autumn, but I don’t remember now. I guess I’ve moved on,” and she smiles.
“We’ve all moved on,” he replies. “Only way to move, isn’t it?”
And that would probably have been it – a chance encounter, a mildly uncomfortable conversation – had not Tom had an appointment with his solicitor that Tuesday.
“I’m very sorry I can’t be there,” says Mr Adams on the phone. “I’ve to go to a funeral down the country. But I’ve passed all the documents to my junior and she will talk you through them. You’ll be safe in her hands.”
It turns out the junior is Julia.
“So, this is the contract for sale. You sign here… here… and here. It’s a bit of a bargain, isn’t it?”
Tom is buying a one-bedroom apartment on the edge of a gentrifying area. The price is what they call competitive, owing to some spectacular 1970s carpets and the lack of a shower. He doesn’t have any spare savings to do it up, but he’s not going to tell Julia that.
“It’s affordable,” he says, “and a good size for one person.”
She explains the next stage of the buying process and watches while he writes a frightening cheque for the deposit and a somewhat less frightening one for her.
“Bye bye money,” says Tom.
Julia tidies everything efficiently into the correct trays and files. Then she has a look at the clock and mentally calculates how much she still has to do that afternoon.
“This is a day to celebrate,” she says. “How about I buy you lunch?”
“I’m not that poor,” he says. “I can afford lunch.”
“You’re not doing too badly if you can afford a flat in this market,” says Julia. “We could go Dutch?”
He has considerable misgivings but says yes. After all, she’s still very attractive.
“So, what have you been doing in the years since I…in the last few years?” Tom has decided that this might be easier if they talk about her.
“It’s kind of obvious,” says Julia. “I’ve been turning into a solicitor. I did the law society entrance examination. I got the Overend Scholarship, you know – that means I came top in the exam. Clever me. I had a training contract. I did more exams, didn’t do quite so well in those but they went fine. I got my first job as a qualified solicitor in the firm where I trained, and then after a couple of years I moved to Adams and Flynn. I bought some hair straighteners. And here I am.”
“Fair play to you,” says Tom. “And are you staying somewhere nice?”
“I bought an apartment in” – she names a fashionable urban area – “with my boyfriend a couple of years ago.” Tom rapidly assimilates the boyfriend. “But he’s left me, so now I’m investigating whether it makes sense to buy him out.” Tom unassimilates the boyfriend. “How about you? I’m surprised you didn’t stay in music.”
“I sort of did. One of my jobs is giving guitar lessons. But of the four of us only Brendan is still in a band. They’ve really taken off recently, in fact – The Equalizers, you’ve heard of them?” Julia assumes what she hopes is an intelligent expression rather than a blank one. “Sean of course left us to form Minor Strivings, but they didn’t last that long and he’s now in insurance.”
“Minor Strivings was a good name for a band. I have to admit, I loved everything about The Aardvarks except the name.”
“Yes, we could have been huge with a better name. Or maybe not.”
“So what did you do when the band split up?”
“Do you want the short version or the long version? OK, here’s the short version of the long version. I was pretty depressed as I’d poured a lot of energy into that band, so I decided I wanted to get right away from the whole thing and I went to the US on a working visa. While I was there I travelled around, did some busking, worked in bars, the whole package; it was fun I suppose, one way of killing a year. I certainly gained an encyclopedic knowledge of Greyhound coach routes. Then I came back, looked up a mate who worked for Pop Immersion and blagged my way into a job reviewing bands. Drunk on power and my lust for revenge, I ruined the careers of many a fine act.” He pauses. “Not really. I got married but she left me – we’ve got that in common. I had no money. I wrote a bleak, sensitive novel. I still had no money. So I started teaching guitar – lots of boys with brilliant air-guitar technique, trying to make actual sounds – and took on more journalism. These days in fact I’m mostly a film critic.”
“Oh, it must have been you who wrote that review of Project Doom that said the designer should get an Oscar and the scriptwriter should get analysed. I noticed ‘Ferris’ in the byline but didn’t make the connection. I enjoyed that film, you know. Watching films is my main hobby these days.”
“I enjoyed it too, but the subtext was seriously twisted. What did you think of it?”
“I always think about these things from the point of view of the girl. She’s so silent in that movie, isn’t she? I imagine her watching your man having nightmares about his mother and festooning himself with guns, and thinking ‘Would you ever get over yourself, yeh great eejit.’ And then she could make him a cup of tea.”
Tom laughs. “I have to review a film this weekend. It’s not an action movie this time, it’s an arthouse one, The Silver Wind. Would you like to come too? The Lifebuoy Cinema, Saturday at 7pm. What do you think?”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
As he leaves the restaurant, he wonders why he’s arranged a date with someone who makes him feel like a failure. He’d be surprised to learn she’s wondering much the same thing.
Outside the cinema on Saturday he feels better when he sees her. In jeans and a short-sleeved top, with her hair unstraightened and slightly tousled from the breeze, she looks much more like the girl he remembers from ten years ago. For her part, wearing flat shoes she notices acutely how much taller and larger than her he is. During the film they share popcorn, but he doesn’t put his arm around her.
“What did you think?” she asks as they emerge.
“I thought it was shite,” he answers frankly.
“Really? But I thought it was rather lovely and moving. The piano score is gorgeous. And that part where the girl drops the letters in the stream and lets them float away, I found that really powerful.”
“Nah, hokey cliché’d crap. Seen it a million times. Face it, the film was shite.”
“Is that what you’re going to say in your eloquent review? The film was shite?”
“No, I’ll get out my thesaurus and say it was ordure.”
There’s a grin on his face, she’s smiling too, and they’re noticeably more relaxed together now they’ve had an argument.
“Fancy a drink? The bars round here are a bit dull but I know a good one about ten minutes that way.”
He leads her across the main road from the cinema, up a couple of small streets, and into an area that’s full of small, late-opening eateries, kebab joints, shops selling witchy clothes. The bar is long and narrow with tables tucked into nooks, and he ushers her to one of these and buys her a glass of wine.
“So, were you a follower of other bands or just of us?”
“There weren’t any others I was as into, but I used to go to gigs all the time. It was a really big part of my life and it just…stopped. Legal training is a lot of pressure, and my old friends had gone to different places and my new friends didn’t share that with me.”
“But you still have the flame of rock’n’roll hidden in your heart?”
“Perhaps. Mostly sausage roll. I try to eat healthily but sometimes I get dark desires.” She looks at him solemnly.
“Oh, do you now. And does Mr Adams know about your dark desires and your wild youth shagging bands?”
“I didn’t shag bands. Just you.”
“What, only me?”
“You were the only guy from a band, I mean.”
“Ah yes, you targeted me for your corrupting wiles.” He’s teasing but she’s a little annoyed.
“That’s pretty rich, when you were the ones cutting your swathe through the tender young music fans of Britain and Ireland.”
“Hardly. We were scarcely Led Zeppelin, you know. We just took the odd opportunity from time to time. Actually I’m not sure Nick ever did – maybe once. He’s a very quiet fella, is Nick.” Nick was the drummer.
“What happened to Nick?”
“He’s in the pink these days, actually. He has his own business dealing in rare musical instruments, and he’s written the definitive book on modular synthesizers.”
“Anyway. My point has to do with pots and kettles, and you’re the pot and you were a lot dirtier than me.”
“I admit I’ve been a bastard in my time. I did once hook up with a girl – a sweet girl, she deserved better – almost entirely because I couldn’t face another night on a floor with Sean, and I knew that the pay-off for a little bit of effort would be getting to sleep in a bed. My back was killing me on that tour, and Sean snores.” His grin is now extremely cheeky. “I lucked out – double bed.”
“Beats a sofa,” she says.
“Certainly does. It wasn’t a very good sofa, was it? Sorry about that.”
“I’ve definitely known better sofas. More prolonged sofas.”
“Jesus, yes. Sofas can be awkward when you’re six foot four.”
“I don’t regret it, though. Even though it wasn’t an especially good one. I like to be able to look back and remember a period in my life when I lived so intensely. Music did that for me – I mean, it wasn’t just the fan part. I like to know I was capable of being so swept away by something, when I’m doing some boring conveyancing at 6.30 in the evening.”
“Does your job really bore you that much?”
She thinks. “No. I suppose it doesn’t. I’m good at it and I like doing it well. I like Mr Adams, I enjoy seeing these little slices of people’s lives and helping sort out their problems. But it doesn’t compare to what you do. To all the things you’ve achieved, all the things you make.” He’s silent, somewhat disconcerted. “I read your book, you know. I found it in a bookshop after we met the last time. I really liked it.”
“It’s extremely nice of you to say that. You probably doubled my sales figures, too.”
“Oh, stop being so self-deprecating. You should be proud of what you do.”
“No, I am. I am proud of it. I suppose I’d like to set the world alight and be famous and everything, and it would be nice to have a tad more cash, but really, I was pleased with that book. I was pleased with our records too, back in the day. I knew we’d managed to make them sound how we wanted. I guess I’m just a bit self-conscious when you’re so smart and successful.”
“OK, I’m preening a little now. Perhaps what each of us needs is a fan. For mutual appreciation.”
“Alright then. Would you sign my arm?”
“This mutual appreciation thing is going quite well, isn’t it?”
“Have you finished your drink? Would you like to…um, the place where I’m staying at the moment, it’s just round the corner.” She takes his hand.
They cross another road, through a door, up some stairs. She notices the colourful clutter of his flat, the strewn desk, the vinyl collection and the guitar on a stand in the corner. The mattress is, happily, of an excellent quality. An hour later, lying satisfied in each other’s arms, they agree it was much better than the last time.