She's actually there to meet the plane and it takes him a moment to recognize her. She's frozen in his head as the girl he loved, who fucked him over, whom he couldn't forgive. She's become hours of lines of notes and heartbreak, coded text like computers, like a bar code, symbols that make up a girl, lived so long as a picture to him, as the sum total of lyrics and work that it's hard to believe she could maybe now be a person to him again.
It's not her smile that does it, transforms her back into a someone. A girl. The girl. It's the roll of her foot in her boots, a sign of nerves, the way she fiddles with her bag, the way she's waiting and sort of waves and smiles so bright that it's all effort and want.
"Hi," he says, because what else can he say.
Her clothes are more expensive. Her haircut's better, but underneath it's all her, bursting at the seams.
"Hi," she says and keeps smiling so bright it's like all the lights have gone on in a dark room, blinding and a little painful. Unsettling.
He doesn't hug her and she doesn't reach for him. Instead she puts her hand on his guitar case and looks at it with something like jealousy, something like love.
"You still have this old thing," she says, and strokes its curved, worn shell.
"Sure," he says, "Of course."
She nods. "Let's get your bags."
"Didn't bring much." He doesn't have much, but it's not what he means.
"Sure," she says. "I know."
He doesn't say that everything he needs is on his back, in his pockets, in his heart. He's got songs to say all that. And those aren't something he's ready to share. Not yet.
He's slept the past eight nights on the floor in a sleeping bag, and tonight they came home from the pub and he played her the demo and she was half naked soon after, warm in his arms, familiar and different too.
"Did you write those for me?" she asked, sitting on the floor. He'd played her his favorite on the guitar, and if he wished there'd been another voice there to twine with, it was a wish that felt both bittersweet and full too, like watching snow on Christmas morning. Nostalgia was too old a word to put onto this feeling, and longing didn't have any place in the vocabulary he'd left behind in Dublin.
"Yeah," he said, because he had. Sure, of course he had. All of them, the love and the loss. And if they're not still for her, or only for her, that's all right as well.
She stood up and walked to where he sat on the edge of the shabby couch in the tiny flat, and she put her hand on his cheek and on his shoulder, tentative. She'd always been direct, known what she wanted and this was a new flavor of who she'd become. She was so warm and her smell was peppery and sweaty and sweet, a tinge of cider and ale and cigarette smoke from the crowd they lingered with outside the pub. He used to wake to that scent, nose in the curve of her shoulder, after a night out with friends. Some part of him is still tied into that, dialed in and when she kissed him it's an apology and a promise and a question all rolled up into one and he'd like to be a better man, a different man, one who'd talk this out, who'd say, "Not yet."
But it'd been a long fuckin' time since he'd last come anywhere except on his own pale thighs, and this is the woman he's here for.
He loved her. Loves her. He knows that's true. He still maybe hated her a little as well, and he couldn't deny that excited him as much as the sight in front of him, her peeling off the t-shirt she wore, standing there in a tatty bra and warm, white Irish skin, and that effortless ease he remembers. Naked, all the tentativeness had evaporated like smoke.
"C'mere," he whispered, and she said not yet, had gone to put the demo CD on repeat and they'd made love on the couch to the sound of his voice and her voice, another her, and the whole band behind them and at one point he had to turn his back to the music because it felt too much like them all watching him.
He's gonna have to do something for work.
A few agents have the demo, and most were enthusiastic, but no one's signed it and he's still got to pay the bank back and he can't keep crashing on his girl's couch/bed/life forever. In part, he thinks now, it was what ended things originally. He'd wanted music, he'd wanted to make music, turn love into life.
She was more practical, knows that vocation and avocation aren't always the same, got herself a real job - first in a shop, selling fancy housewares, and then later, after some classes, doing their books. Moving on, working for a larger store as a staff accountant. While he'd been singing on street corners, she'd found herself a career.
They go to the pub and he meets her friends and when they ask what he does, and he says he sings, they want to know if he's on the BBC. If he's top of the pops. When he grins and says he's king of Grafton they just give him that puzzled smile that means they don't get it and think he's just sponging off his girl. He's too old to be on the end of those looks, too tired of it now that he's finally made something he can be proud of.
He brings it up to her that night and she looks surprised, but kind of pleased and says that a mate of hers knows someone who has a shop that repairs things. It's on the edge of a posh neighborhood, lots of immigrants still, but the pay's decent. It means she's been thinking about the same thing, wondering if he was going to back to busking if no one bought the album. She wants him to get a cell phone, a new guitar case, says she's happy to pay the rent and buy the groceries, but she wants him to...settle in. Says repair work is only temporary, they'll find him something better.
He asks her if she thinks he can make money with the music. She looks at him and when she says yes, he thinks she wants to mean it enough that it counts.
"So you've forgiven me then," she says that night, pressed against him, socks on her feet, her hand on the small of his back.
He nods into her hair, "I'm here aren't I," he says and she pulls him tight against her.
9 MONTHS, 4 DAYS
It's not just Hoovers at the shop, it's all sorts of gadgets - old record players for DJs and fancy electronics and he only fixed them for a fortnight before the friend of a friend of someone's cousin asked if he'd like to manage the other employees seeing as the last manager had quit in a fit of temper and booze and he's the only one here who actually doesn't get screamed at when asked to interact with customers.
It's not as bad as sitting endlessly behind an ancient Hoover, tinkering with its parts (which wasn't so bad either really, just dull, frustrating in the way you could lose yourself in the midst of a mechanical muddle). Turned out there was a tiny club a block away that had an open mic night.
His girl still came religiously, and even the people he'd met at the shop had started turning up. It felt like a normal life, not too much happiness, too much sadness, not too many ups and downs, just...work and sex and some love and Sunday fry ups and nights playing darts and missing his da and his mates from Dublin and every once in awhile, letting himself think of her, framed by a window and family, fingers on keys that finally belonged to her.
Sometimes, he thinks it doesn't matter if anyone buys his music. His songs already let him pay for something greater.
"I want a baby," his girl had said the other night, and he thought maybe he did too, and so he said "Let's get married," and it was just that easy. A small wedding back home, just a few mates and a few words, and all back to the kind of normal he'd hoped for a long time ago that just felt like not trying here. He's not unhappy. He just feels like he's stepped into this other world to find it's flat. Black and white telly when he'd been watching colour, even if the colour had been wonky and the telly'd needed to be slapped more often than not. The current picture was clear, it was just all shades and tones and not enough brights.
Setting up for the set that week Gareth, the owner of the club, was bouncing out of his skin, wriggling the chairs back and forth like it would make them less worn, less shabby. "Got a producer coming tonight," he says for the hundredth time, and it isn't that he thinks Gareth is lying, it's that all that promise never comes to aught and everyone's disappointed despite brave smiles and too much whisky.
"Sure," he says to Gareth, "It'll be grand."
He pushes a table to the center. "I'm getting married," he says, realizes he hasn't told anyone else yet.
Gareth's eyes light up with genuine pleasure. "Oh, now that's really grand," he says. "Tonight, we'll toast, drink to your health."
"Tanks," he says, and blushes a little, feels a tingle of true pleasure at the thought.
The producer doesn't show up, but they still make a night of it, everyone there for the open mic, the strange fraternity of musicians looking for a break, staying up until the wee smalls, playing music, drinking to good fortune, to health and happiness and a future bright as a new moon.
1 YEAR, 5 MONTHS
She's in a second hand shop on Camden buying clothes for her daughter when she hears the song in the background. The last jumper was orange, and its replacement has to be orange, but there's really nothing here that works. Still, it's sort of nice to be stroking through racks of clothing, letting the fabric linger on her skin. The time is her own, and that's often not true these days (hasn't been true for so very long, since before she was pregnant really. Just those few days and that had been different, stepping into another life, not like her own time at all).
Humming to herself isn't unusual, and it takes a few moments to realize that she's humming along, that she knows the song playing through tiny speakers in the tiny shop.
The girl at the register is flipping through a magazine, her hair back, tight and messy on purpose.
"Hey," she says to the girl, abandoning the clothes for a minute. The girl doesn't respond and she gets closer. "Hey!"
Dark eyes flick up, surrounded by too much eyeliner. The girl's pretty, young, but the makeup makes her look weirdly old, like she's wearing a bad disguise.
"What?" she says, and it's a little aggressive.
"D'ya know this song?" she asks. The girl continues to idly turn pages and shrugs, then pauses.
"Oh," she says, "Sure. It's new."
That's clearly all she's going to get and so she leaves the store - no orange jumpers anyway, and her daughter needs new shoes more than a new jumper and it's always something: new shoes, new tights, new pencils and pens, new friends, new words, new days.
She still has a few hours left before everyone comes home and she goes to the flower shop. She isn't giving any lessons today so she goes back to the flat and sits at the piano and just puts her hands on the keys, letting them linger the same way she did over the wool of the clothing.
She doesn't play pop songs unless a student brings in sheet music and that isn't encouraged unless they've been very disciplined before that. They're all struggling to be the same - hear the same notes, play the same tunes, and they lose the sense of music in the struggle to all be teen stars. (She missed her moment to want the same, falling through the cracks of adolescence once she got pregnant. It was hard to imagine pigtails and microphones and glittery tights and world tours with a baby curled in close, full of need and wordless, messy love; with a husband just as baffled by the situation as she'd been).
As a girl, listening to notes spill from the strings of her father's violin, all she'd wanted was to let those notes seep into her skin, to convey that shiver, that ecstasy of feeling, that transportation. It isn't that she dislikes pop songs, but kids don't need her to teach them how to dance with a microphone. They need her to teach them about notes, about a fluttery line of composition that can break your heart, how music takes you someplace else and someplace true.
She teases out remembered notes on the piano, can feel for a moment him beside her, all his pages spread out, the way it felt to pick up the thread of his words and phrases and translate them, translate him, revel in that delight. She'd felt like a child again then, felt older than him too, still stuck in the same place, busking flowers and thoughts to feed her daughter in this place that was supposed to offer ease. She'd left all her dreaminess behind and here he'd been, playing his dreams out on a street corner and she couldn't have resisted if she'd tried. She didn't really try. He'd been an indulgence. Her indulgence, and a lovely one at that.
They've a little money saved for something nice that month - a dinner somewhere, maybe a film. It's not hers to spend, it's there's, but she can find a way to replace it. Things aren't quite so desperate any more. Her daughter is a little older, going to school a few days a week so her mother can take in some work. Her husband is working as a pharmacist's assistant, and if it's not what he trained for, he doesn't hate it. They are all bringing something in, and she doesn't ever spend but herself and suddenly the thought of bringing that music home isn't just a desire, it's a compulsion. A wave of have-to that she hasn't felt since the first time she'd made love to her husband.
She finds the money in the back of the bread tin, takes it before she can regret it and heads back to Camden. There's a man there who sells music on a blanket, and if he doesn't have anything, there's a real music store further along. The boys downstairs went in together and bought a CD player, and they've watched television often enough at the flat that she won't feel guilty borrowing their things.
The Jamaican doesn't have the music. She feels a flash of disappointment - it means all the extra spent and she'll have to sell flowers for a week to replace it.
When she comes out of the record store, she clutches the package tightly to her chest, feels like something's been put back that was missing.
Her mother is fixing dinner when her husband gets home, finds her sitting at the table, staring at the CD player and it's tiny speakers.
He gestures, asks her in Czech what she's doing as he kisses the top of her head, moves to do the same to their daughter.
"Listening," she says.
He picks up the cover of the CD, flips through it, and points. "That's your name," he says.
She nods. The words next to her name in the liner notes warm her - inspiration and thank you and grace.
The words coming out of the player warm her more. One journey completed. Another in the middle. He's happy. And so is she. And that longing is now a lovely indulgence that cost her nothing more than a night out sacrificed.
"There's a letter for you," her mother says, a couple of days later.
It's not a letter, and she's not surprised. It's a flyer for a show in Dublin, a few days hence. On the back side is a telephone number.
She folds it up, puts it in the pocket of her sweater, keeps it tight and refuses to decide what she'll do until that night. She doesn't need to do anything else.