Carefree twenty somethings spilled out of the pubs and bars along Burton Road, the temporary sunshine providing an illusion of continental living. Julie paid little attention to others as she walked to the restaurant; her mind was somewhere else, drawn by the fading lantern of her past.
West Didsbury’s Pasta Fabulous had played host to Alex and Julie’s first proper date. It was where he had proposed, foolishly hiding the ring in the middle of her Tiramasu: Julie nearly lost a filling and teasingly called him a dick but happily accepted his offer. The future Mr and Mrs Whitney had hired the upstairs function room for their engagement party: tonight, at Julie’s request, ‘Pas-Fab’ would provide the setting for an attempted reconciliation. She needed to know if there was a chance of trying again, or if she needed to prepare for another burial.
Pas-Fab was moderately busy for a Wednesday evening. A pretty waitress, with shoulder length red hair, showed Julie to a table. Julie immediately felt like drinking, and ordered a bottle of house red. The wine arrived quickly, along with a basket of fresh bread, and a jug of water. The waitress – ‘Jennifer’ said the name badge – poured a soupcon into Julie’s glass, which she knocked back without bothering to taste. The girl poured again. Julie noticed the girl’s earrings – small silver triangles, inlaid with a dark precious stone – and asked what they were. “Jet”, replied the girl. “Birthday present. Ex-boyfriend.” The girl put hesitant emphasis on the word ‘ex.’
“At least you got some nice jewellery out of it”, said Julie with a smile. “They suit you.”
“There’s always a silver lining, right?” said the girl, with jokey sarcasm.
Julie’s compliment was a preamble to a favour. Throughout their courtship, Julie and Alex had regularly exchanged C90 cassettes, featuring songs each thought the other might enjoy. Technology had progressed from tapes to mix CD’s, and Julie had spent the previous evening ripping and burning a selection of carefully chosen tracks. She politely asked the waitress if she would give it a play. “For a big tip, I mean.”
“It should be okay”, said Jennifer.
“We know Christos, the owner”, said Julie, “we’re regulars.” The Whitney’s were on the Pasta Fabulous mailing list and each year received a seasonal greetings card with a pre-printed signature (‘Wishing you a magical Christmas – we welcome your custom next year!’)
“As long as it’s not death metal”, said Jennifer, before disappearing to check. In Julie’s heart, this was the ‘Reconciliation Mix’. It had been 6 weeks since she had last seen her estranged husband. Alex had been back in England for 10 days but had made no attempt to contact her.
Jennifer gave a thumbs-up gesture from the other side of the restaurant, and Julie waved back. Track 1, Vampire Weekend, ‘Holiday’; Track 2, A Certain Ratio, ‘The Big E.’ Julie sipped nervously at her wine. She realised she was drinking too quickly and spat some back into the glass.
Alex Whitney made his entrance on track 3: The Field Mice, ‘Let’s Kiss and Make-Up.’ “Hello Julie.” His manner was more like a work colleague. He pecked her on the cheek –a slobbery, grandmother kiss, she thought.
“Sorry I’m slightly late.”
As he sat, the table moved forwards an inch, pushed back by his stomach. She didn’t remember him looking so big the last time they met. There was no hiding from the fact the shirt he was wearing was too small: The buttons strained at the holes, and the gaps in the fabric revealing a line of pink, disapproving mouths. At intermittent points during their separation, Julie had pondered whether Alex might be seeing another woman; yes, she now realised, and that woman was Sara Lee.
“How are you?”
Alex sighed. “I’m not … feeling great.”
“Because … ” He fanned his fingers out and upwards; he didn’t have the energy to explain.
“You could have cancelled”, said Julie, secretly hoping he would say that she was the reason he was here.
Alex picked up a bread roll and bit it in two. “Well … I was hungry.” A smattering of crumbs fell down the front of his shirt. He chewed vigorously, before eating the other half.
She poured out two glasses of water. Julie wondered if the mix CD had been such a good idea. Alex looked too ill to even spell ‘Reconciliation’, never mind discuss the possibility of initiating such a thing.
“I got you a present”, he said, plonking a gift bag on the table.
The card on the side read – ‘To Julie from Alex x.’ One kiss. Reaching inside, she took out a professionally wrapped cube. She instantly knew what it was, ‘Hedonism’, the same perfume he always bought her (in the advert, a husky Frenchman proclaimed – ‘There is the only this moment.’) Julie knew she was in no position to complain, and she wanted to be grateful, but couldn’t he have put in a bit more effort? Were kisses rationed in 2017 – was there a war on somewhere? Julie suspected Alex had bought the perfume when he touched down at Manchester Airport.
“Thankyou Alex, it’s very … thoughtful.”
Pleasantries over, Alex focused on the menu. Leaning forwards, he pored over the options the way a lost driver might examine a vintage AA road map. His double chin hung down like the top of an over-washed polo neck.
Track 7, ‘Head Over Heels’ by Tears for Fears. Julie recalled the video for this song, set in a library, and featuring Curt Smith kissing a monkey, and Roland Orzabal mooning over a pretty librarian; in the dénouement, Orzabal and the librarian had grown happily old together.
‘Funny how time flies …’
Jennifer the waitress appeared. “I can’t decide between the crab spaghetti and the Sicilian chicken”, said Alex.
Instantly, the weapon was in Julie’s hand. “Why not have both?” she said.
It was a failed joke, and on a scale of personal wounding, her words were the equivalent of a paper cut. The waitress took their orders. Julie opted for Tagliatelli with squid and bottarga, whilst Alex opted for crab Tortellini with lemongrass and ginger sauce.
“That was uncalled for”, said Alex, after the girl had left. “I know I’m fat but you don’t need to set off a distress flare.”
“You’re not … fat”, she said. “I wasn’t setting off a flare.”
Alex rolled his eyes in irritation. “Stick the knife in, tell me I look like the world’s first pregnant man. I don’t care.” Julie told him that there had already been a pregnant man, who had given birth back in 2010. “How do you know this?” he asked incredulously.
“It was in Put Your Feet Up magazine”, she explained.
‘La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la’, sang Roland Orzabal as ‘Head Over Heels’ reached its conclusion.
“So … what do you know then?” asked Alex, eventually. “Are you still in contact with Marcello Mastroianni?” She asked to whom he was referring. “You know. That Italian bloke. Your old flame.”
“His name is Paolo, but you already know that. Like you already know I’ve broken off contact. I always keep my word. Which is something else you know about me.”
Alex’s lips curled slightly at the edges, something he did when he knew he was in the wrong and didn’t care to admit it.
“Here, have some wine”, she said.
Alex put his hand over his glass. “No thanks.”
“I don’t want any.”
“Are you sulking?”
“I just don’t want any, alright?” Alex looked at the bottle, and changed his mind. “Okay, a little bit” he said, pouring a small amount.
Julie was eager to keep the mood sunny. “Let’s press the rewind button, talk about something … easy. Tell me about your flight.”
“There was this awful film on the plane”, grumbled Alex. “Pappa Hercules, it was called, martial arts nonsense … a Chinese pensioner with super human strength. Or maybe he was Japanese … anyway, it put me out for a few hours. It’s important to be grateful for small mercies.”
The waitress brought the food: Alex’s eyes widened as a plate of steaming hot Tortellini was set down before him. Jennifer asked if they wanted black pepper or Parmesan but Alex had already started eating: Julie politely said ‘no thanks.
“Enjoy your meal”, said the girl, before heading back to the kitchen. Julie watched with suppressed disappointment as Alex shovelled down an overloaded spoon of pasta; he was like a starving man with a golden ‘All You Can Eat’ ticket.
Two tables away sat an annoyingly glamorous couple in the first flush of love. The man was English, with dark gelled hair, and wearing a cheap linen suit; ‘Bryan Ferry dressed by Primark’, thought Julie. The girl looked Spanish, with blonde hair, a slightly-too-big nose, and a figure-flattering dress: ‘a bit part actress in an Alex de la Iglesia film’, mused Julie, quietly pleased with herself for conjuring up such a precise observation. The man was attempting to feed dessert to his younger partner; the girl refused to play but he persisted and she opened her mouth, swallowing what looked like Panna Cotta. They laughed. As a spectacle for the league of the unattached or separated – of which Julie was a current unwitting member – it was sickening.
Julie poured herself more wine. The next track was ‘Something Good’ by Paul Haig, a song she’d always assumed was about rekindling an old love affair.
“Have you phoned Carla?” she asked him. Alex shook his head. “Because she keeps phoning me …” Alex carried on chewing. “… she’s still my mother-in-law, I’m happy for her to phone but it’s you she wants to talk to you. She says you never answer your mobile. It’s been a month since you called her …” Alex swallowed his last mouthful of Tortellini. “… she needs your help.”
“I don’t know what to say to her.”
“Course you know what to say. She needs to know you care.”
“She knows that already.”
“Does she though?” Julie toyed with her food; suddenly she had lost her appetite. “Sometimes people need to hear the words, Alex.” He quietly bristled; she had pressed another nerve ending. “Pick up the phone. It’s part of the person spec.”
“You know what I mean. Being her son.”
“Okay, yes. Alright. Yes.”
“Yes, I will call her. Okay? No need to … go on at me.”
Track 12, Roxy Music, ‘More Than This’: Track 13, Furniture, ‘Love Your Shoes’; Track 14, Hior Chronik, ‘Bird on a Tree.’
Alex eyed his estranged wife’s plate; Julie had abandoned her meal three quarters of the way through.
“Are you going to eat that?”
“Maybe”, she said. “Are you still hungry?”
“I’m always hungry”, he said.
Again, she glanced at the loved-up duo two tables away, who were still feeding each other. Sometimes Julie would play a pointless game of ‘Guess the Profession’, trying to figure out what strangers did for a living. Primark Bryan Ferry looked like he might manage a property portfolio in the United Arab Emirates, or something similarly soulless. The man’s smile suggested a charmed life; a member of a secret society, forever insulated from the troubles of modern life by money, power and influential connection. She wanted to walk over and put him straight: Life wasn’t a Dolce & Gabbana photo-shoot, sometimes it was cruel and relentless, people got tired and ill, they were here one day, and gone the next. ‘One day you’ll find out, Bryan. Bigly.’ She wanted him to know death had consequences, and she would pour Panna Cotta down his throat through an industrial funnel to make him understand. Sometimes Julie’s imagination took her in strange directions.
Joseph Whitney and his cancer had a lot to answer for. For a start, he had scuppered their plans to foster a child. In her early 30’s, Julie had suffered from fibroids, and twice undergone surgery, which had damaged her womb. She could never have children. She and Alex had talked about fostering; Julie was in her mid-40’s, and getting to the point of now or never. They approached Bridge to the Heart, an international agency that found homes for refugee children. The application process was long winded – it could take up to a year – but the Whitney’s were patient people. A stage 1 interview was offered them. Then Joseph died. The plan stalled; life and love were put on hold. Like the Ashford & Simpson song, Julie always believed her marriage was solid as a rock. Hairline cracks began to form amongst the foundation. Alex’s moods were oppressive and suffocating; sleeping together each night felt like a miniature death.
Julie found transitory pleasure in scapegoating. On the dad days, she would seek someone new – a politician or minor celebrity – and revert to her teenage habit of making over magazine photographs. Recently, in the staff canteen, she had cathartically attacked a copy of the Daily Mail, using Tipp-Ex and a red biro to apply reptile eyes, forked tongue, and snake hair to the features of TV presenter Cat Deeley. Julie felt a certain pride in her creation; it was a rendering as exhilarating and disturbing as anything by Hieronymus Bosch.
The Reconciliation Mix ground on: Track 16, ‘Duel’ by Propaganda.
She watched as Alex devoured her leftovers. The wine in her mouth turned to warm vinegar. There was something very wrong with his behaviour. She tried to recall when she first noticed this change in his eating habits but her head was foggy from thinking too much; examining the past 12 months was like using a calendar with redacted dates.
One occasion stood out however, the day she found 50 Whispa wrappers in an envelope in Alex’s sock drawer. He claimed Cadbury’s were running a promotion, and he was saving up for a Swing Ball game; “I used to play it with my dad.” Wasn’t that game banned in Britain? Or was that YoYo Balls? The only way her husband could play Swing Ball in his current condition was by sitting in a deckchair.
With appalling timing, the Naples born, Heaton Moor dwelling Christos chose this moment to visit their table. Every time they saw him, Julie pondered the same question: why would someone choose to leave Southern Italy and buy a house in Stockport? Stooping forwards, Christos gave her a kiss on the cheek: Within half a second, she had fastened a comedian’s death mask to her features. Alex got up and offered his hand. “Everything is … fine”, he said, when Christos asked how they were.
The Pas-Fab owner was happy because he had become a grandfather for the second time. “A beautiful baby boy.” Christos was so giddy, he didn’t notice Alex’s glassy eyed stare but Julie did – her husband looked like a computer rendered version of himself in a Play Station 4 game. He was in ‘auto-nod’ mode, his head gently bobbing like one of those novelty dogs people stick on the dashboard of their car.
Christos continued talking but his words were little more than white noise to Julie. For a moment, she thought she was going to stop breathing. Christos wanted to invite them to the christening next month. “I would love you to come! You would be welcome. I still have your address yes?” Alex said they would do their best to attend. “A gift from God!” smiled Christos, patting them both on the shoulder. Julie watched him disappear into the kitchen, the timber swing doors flapping after him.
“That was … awkward”, she said. Alex did the weird hand gesture again. She told him he had a unique talent. “To lie like that … to pretend things are fine when they’re not.”
“Give me a break.”
“Where are we, you and me?” She sighed heavily. “Not now, not today but some day you’re going to have to decide how you feel … ”
She reached across to touch him: Halfway over the table, she lost her nerve, leaving her hand flapping in mid-air like a dying bird. “I need to have some … idea about where the land lies. That’s not too much to ask, is it? I mean, do you still care about me? Do you feel any … anything?” She deliberately avoided using the word love.
“I’m sorry”, said Alex, “I don’t know what I feel anymore …”
A swathe of discomfort cut the space between them like an industrial lathe. Her husband was slipping further away, and she was at a loss how to pull him back: Julie Whitney could say ‘I love you’ in four different languages but that no longer counted for much. Drastic measures were required to shake him out of his depression.
She asked him if he was having a dessert. “If you have a Tiramisu … maybe you should have this back.”
Julie took off her wedding ring and pushed it across the table. Calling his bluff felt like the last roll of the dice. Alex stared at his empty plate. He shifted in his seat, trying to find the courage to speak. “There’s something I need to tell you.” He spoke without making eye contact. “When I was in Canada … I paid a woman to cuddle me.”
Julie emitted a sound that was less a laugh, more a yelp from a bored dog thrown a surprise squeaky toy. “Yes? Right. Okay. Nice.”
“She stayed in my room for the night”, he continued. “We were both fully clothed. I didn’t pay her. It was Addison. It was his … gift to me, I suppose, for all the hard work I did out there.”
Julie furrowed her brow. “I see.”
“It probably sounds a bit weird”, he said.
“Only a bit?”
Alex continued to stare at the table. Julie was confused and intrigued by his revelation. “Who was this woman? I mean, is that like … a career option in Canada? A professional cuddler? I’ve never heard of it. Do people make a living from that?”
“Are you angry?” he said.
“I’m not angry Alex … what I am is bewildered.”
Alex had made up his mind – he was going to tell Julie everything. There was no circumventing the truth, he had stepped into murky territory, and spent the night with an escort. They hadn’t had intimate relations, though Katarina had sucked his finger. I’m a fat, ugly idiot, he thought – a ‘hoser’ as Canadians say. Alex was amazed that Julie had even wanted to see him again. His behaviour over the past year had been cold and spiteful. He was dragging her down and holding her back. The decent thing would be to set her free.
“I’m not good enough for you Julie.”
“I can’t keep up”, she said. “Slow down. I’m still processing the cuddle expert, if that’s what she was.”
“What I mean is … I’m a hypocrite. I’m sorry for hurting you. For shutting you out.” He swallowed. “The simple truth is …I don’t deserve you. I’m not sure I ever have.”
“That’s not true, Alex.”
Track 17, Sammy Valentine, ‘An Angel Sings in my Heart.’ A forgotten fifties crooner; the press called him the ‘Santa Fe Sinatra’ and the ‘Dime Store Dino.’
This was the first time that evening that Alex had noticed the music.
“I … know this song”, he said, absently. Julie wanted to tell him, ‘yes, this was a song your father loved, the one he would sing to you’, but she decided to stay quiet; there was something shifting inside him – she could see it in his eyes – a brief spark of life.
‘I was lost in a cold, cold place, dreaming of a love with a sweet kind face.
Who would hold me close and never let me go –
To share a love that would grow and grow …’
Alex’s mother had been too overwhelmed to get on with the practical administration of dealing with a death, and the task has fallen to Alex. There had been a funeral to arrange, flowers to order, friends and relatives to invite, and a eulogy to write. There were government organisations to inform – the administrative equivalent of the labours of Hercules.
Nevertheless, Alex embraced the distraction because he had always preferred logic to feelings. He hadn’t cried during the funeral and convinced himself that he was one of those rare people who grieved ‘in his own way.’ His inability to feel magnified his self-loathing. Briefly, he thought about training for a marathon: there always seemed to be someone on the local news, running a race for a cancer victim – maybe that was the best way of demonstrating love. Alex bought new running shoes and downloaded an app before realising he didn’t have it in him; it would involve commitment, motivation and, even worse, a healthy diet. It was easier to stay put and feed the lingering numbness, which had grown from an unwelcome guest into a parasitic ally. His food addiction gave him the illusion of comfort.
‘Now the freezing winter has gone, it’s always summer, we fly as one.’
It was going to happen one day. Now all the exits were blocked, and there was no escape route; it had taken music to creep past his defences and prick the spell of waking sleep.
Alex started to remember. He was a little boy, getting out of the bath, his dad had gone to get a towel, Alex slipped and fell, banging his head on the edge of the radiator. Luckily, there was no blood, but the skin had broken. Alex cried until his father came rushing in, and wrapped his arms around his boy. ‘It’s alright’, he said to the 7-year old, ‘I’ve got you.’ Joseph Whitney dried his son with the towel, took him to bed, and sang to him. Like a milky bedtime drink, the lyrics had a soothing effect, but it was Joseph’s voice which counted for more. The memory was as clear and fresh as summer rain on a newly cut lawn. In that moment, Alex Whitney felt safe and loved.
Soon, there would be other treasure to unearth. Alex Whitney would come to understand that the hardest part of the grieving process was letting go of the good times.
‘I mean it when I say let’s never part;
‘When I’m with you, an angel sings in my heart.’
Tears started to roll down his cheeks. “I’m scared”, he said.
“I’m here”, she said.
“I’m really scared … “
“Scared of … missing him too much. I’m scared of accepting … he’s never coming back.”
“You’re not alone Alex.”
“But I feel like I am.” Desperation keened at the edges of his voice. “I’ve never felt more alone in my whole life.”
“I’m not giving up on you”, she said. “In spite of everything … I love you, Alex.”
He clung onto her hand like a teenager gripping the safety bar of a rollercoaster, before the first dip. She was still his wife and he was still her husband. The voice of Sammy Valentine faded and his tears continued; they were a mix of sorrow and relief.
Steve Timms studied theatre at the University of Huddersfield. He has written for publications including City Life, The Big Issue, and The Skinny. He is the author of several plays including American Beer (BBC Radio 4), Filthy Lies, Clean Breasts (Edinburgh Fringe), Detox Mansion(24-7 Festival), Temp/Casual (Contact Theatre), and The Distance Between Stars (King’s Arms, Salford). His fiction has been published on-line by Litro, and Storgy. He is a recipient of the Peggy Ramsay award. In 2015, he won a New Fiction Bursary at the Northern Writer’s Awards. He can sometimes be seen performing spoken word pieces at various open-mic nights around Manchester
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