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When she steps through the door, it is as if she has turned up the volume in my head. As she shakes the rain from her umbrella every song we ever shared floods the space between us:
Pet Shop Boys and The Communards.
She pushes her way between the tables to my corner and I catch that medley of 90s pop we put together for a joke one New Year. The Spice Girls and Chumbawamba sing her into the plastic chair opposite. Our whole history crescendos on to the sticky table top, shaking the crusted ketchup bottles, rattling the cutlery in its grubby metal canister.
She can’t hear anything.
We are less than one minute into the five she has allotted me and she is already checking her watch. It’s not the watch I gave her.
“I’m here then,” she says, and she still hasn’t looked at me. “What do you want?”
Thank God I thought of my lie before I came here. If it wasn’t ready – lined up on the tip of my tongue – I might tell her the truth and then I might cry and then she’ll never believe me when I tell her how fine I am now, how absolutely fine.
“I wanted to give you this,” I say, and I slide the cassette across the table, pushing a path through yesterday’s crumbs. “Found it in an old box when I was clearing out the loft.”
She knows it for a lie. She knows that in the four years and seven months and sixteen days since she left, this tape hasn’t ever been packed away. And she knows – she can tell by the look of me – that I don’t live anywhere that has a loft, and if I did it would have nothing in it.
Her eyes flick from the oily sheen on my coffee to the cassette, but she doesn’t lean closer. She doesn’t read the 29 years of song titles written in her neat capitals and my sloppy scrawl: Kajagoogoo and Culture Club, my life and hers. She would rather watch flies zapping themselves on the electric blue bars in the window than remember how we danced to 1: Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, on the night we first met, or how we used to sing along to 14: La Bamba, on the bus home after closing.
She slides the cassette back towards me. “I don’t listen to that stuff anymore,” she says. “I don’t even have a tape player anyway.”
Of course she doesn’t. Andrew has probably bought her one of those dock things for her iPhone. Maybe they’ve got an Alexa. He’s probably rigged up a sound system which costs more than six months rent on my room so they can listen to jazz as they cook tagliatelle and sip a little red number that wasn’t even on special offer. She doesn’t need my mix-tape.
I waste another 20 of my seconds trying to think of something to say. I want to tell her how it feels to spend four years (and seven months and sixteen days) losing someone piece by piece, song by song, and still feel as if it’s me who is lost. But I don’t have words like that. They won’t come. Not without the tunes to back them up.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she says, and she gets to her feet, even though she has only given me three of my minutes. “I don’t know why you asked me. We have nothing to say to each other.”
But not like we used to say nothing. Not like the nights when we sat listening to 3: Careless Whisper. The nights when our silences were filled with other people’s longings; when her lips fitted mine like a grace note before the melody.
And still I can’t say it. Even as she turns away, briefcase clutched to her chest – a talisman between her world and mine – I can’t tell her that I needed to see her because she once saw me complete The Times crossword in eight minutes, and she knows how I take my tea. She knows I exist. I will settle for five awkward minutes with her – even if she no longer dances in the shower to Madonna – because she is the first person I ever loved and the last person who ever gave me a last chance.
So, instead, I say, “Sorry.”
And perhaps I’m saying it for asking her here – for begging her to meet me for a coffee in this place so far removed from the bars where she buys her skinny cappuccinos on the way to her board meetings. And perhaps I’m saying it for everything that went before – the empty bottles and the empty apologies and the empty promises to change. Neither of us knows.
She is already at the door, cassette not in her hand. And that’s something, isn’t it? At least I still have our tape. I follow her out into the street and finally, just as she reaches the door of a cab, I do it. I sing. I stand in the street and I belt out East 17 like it’s Christmas 1994 and she’s discovered the diamond ring I left in her stocking and I’m content with one small glass of wine at dinner and Andrew – bloody Andrew – is 20 years into the future.
But maybe it is louder in the street than I realise, because when those forbidden notes collide with the back of her head, they don’t stop her. She doesn’t turn. She doesn’t give me a smile to remember her by. The only thing she leaves behind is fading music pumping from the taxi stereo.
And it isn’t a song I know.