A neighbour died; all day, a man in overalls and a mask has been carting old magazines and books into a skip parked at the side of the road. Most of the paper is decorated with constellations of damp mould—goodness knows how wet it must be in the house. Maybe she drowned. That which isn’t mouldy sits in a pile on the pavement and passers-by pick through it. I do too, lost in sifting.
‘Hey,’ says K. I have to squint against the drizzle, looking up. I pause my picking through the bones, looking for the meat, but keep on crouching. ‘Hey,’ I say, ‘what’s up?’
K’s kind-of working and kind-of not, she says, and shopping in my neck of the woods. I’m kind-of furious with her and kind-of not so the ambiguity suits me fine. She suggests coffee and I say okay because there’s no point in being impolite, and as I stand up my knees growl exactly what they think of my decision.
Coffee’s not awkward because it’s been too long to feel awkward now. I pay for the drinks because I have a job on right now, then K. gives me a pound to cover her latte in the precarious glass. We swap gossip about each other’s friends that we don’t see so much anymore, and banter a little about the covers of POP I picked up. We banter because we’re supposed to banter, and the targets of our bantering are innocent third parties that can’t answer back.
‘Still got books all over the floor?’ says K.
Nice try, but ‘um’ is all I say, because even my reading habits are a bit too close to the bone from her, and we move on to talk about the buses, the old man with the huge beard we saw outside, and a bit more about the buses. She doesn’t mention her recent trip to Vienna; I don’t mention the mobile number scribbled on the back of a receipt in my wallet and the smile it was written with. The coffee tastes bitter as coffee is meant to.
There’s a dance we do when we don’t know what else to do.
K. leans across the vastness of the table to slide the top POP back towards her, and I accidentally peek down her top. ‘Um,’ I say. She starts leafing through the pages, made thick with time, and we laugh at the interviews with singers we’ve never heard of discussing bands we’d long forgotten. I’m wary of mocking haircuts or hobbies in case that’s what K. cares about now.
Towards the back of the magazine there’s an unexpected reader feature with a half dozen teenagers giving their views on breaking up. Through the grime and years their faces are luminous, at odds with their words, the magic of youth, and we see them taking the first steps of that dance we all get to learn.
‘That one,’ I say, pointing at the first picture, ‘is a spy. That one,’ – I point at another – ‘never found love again and now breeds Alsatians.’
‘This one says,’ says K., and I can tell she’s not following my lead, ‘that it takes one third of the time she was going out to get over the person she loved.’
‘Um,’ is all I say, again. That’d be a year. Teens know everything.
‘That’d be a year,’ she says, unnecessarily. She doesn’t need to say that we broke up eighteen months ago.
‘We broke up, what, eighteen months ago?’ she says. Is that a question?
I make the move which means uncertainty: ‘I, um, think so, yeah, about that.’
‘I’m not over you at all,’ I say, bravely, and it feels like exhaling for the first time in a year and a half. The latte goes everywhere as K. begins to speak and, reaching over to touch my hand, catches the glass with her sleeve. ‘Shit, damn,’ I say and mop it up with those blasted teenagers who don’t understand what love is yet. The stiff magazines just push the coffee off the formica and it drips onto K’s jacket; legs.
‘Oh man,’ I say, then, ‘would you like to come, I mean, do you need to, no, you wouldn’t, sorry, of course,’ but she’s all no-no-it’s-fine and of-course-I-would and that-would-help, but-of-course-if-you-don’t-mind. I say that of course I don’t mind and there we are, of-coursing round the corner to my flat, somehow slipped into a new but familiar dance.
‘We’ll have to be careful. You know what happens in situations like this,’ I say. Another brave statement, referring to the old dance we left in the cafe. ‘Don’t!’ she says, bumping me with her shoulder. I laugh, continuing the joke, and it sounds off-hand but really it’s not. Then: ‘We’ll see,’ K. says unexpectedly.
I turn to K. in the middle of pedestrian crossing and she’s smiling and she puts her hand on my waist.
‘Oh, gosh,’ and the music comes up, deafening me.
When I reach over to the upside-down magazine and turn the page from Vox POP to Melody Mayhem, to break the silence, K. reflexively retreats a fraction. She notices me noticing her and I pretend not to notice that. I know all the moves.
My own reflex is to make up more stories. ‘Those lyrics are derived from a cabalistic rite,’ I say as K. just looks at me, ‘and the popularity of that song in West Germany led to the fall of the Berlin wall.’ This used to make K. laugh. ‘Because of this very magazine.’
We recover from the mis-step because, POP‘s right, eighteen months is more than enough to move on, and we finish our coffees without event.
I wonder if it would have been different if I’d stood up when K. had said hello earlier, or if it had been just overcast and not spitting down. I’m aware of the smiling phone number not burning a hole in my pocket. And although there’s no traffic coming, I wait until the green man lights and the beeping starts before I walk into the road.
By Matt, 17 May, 2006; direct link.