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The party was an oil slick, 40 iridescent streams moving across its surface, swirling, competing, sometimes intertwining, the thin layer of air above toxic to those who breathed deeply. We were returned travellers. The journey? 25 years. This was a reunion.
As always, I observed proceedings from four metres above the ground. I watched it nudge the white walls, leaving dark stains of comparison. I judged every word, every movement.
Jessica floated forward, a trapped swan, her feathers only partially sullied by the emotions in which she swam – unforgotten slights, old wounds, lost connections. We knew each other back then; no, not that way. We shared tastes, in film, music, and politics. True soulmates. Before choices made on empty forms led us to different ends of the country, and walls of convention separated us.
“You liked Tom Waits, I remember.”
Her question. We were outside, holding ourselves against the midnight cold.
“I did, still do. And you loved…Hitchcock.”
“Guilty! Think I’ve seen Vertigo sixty times now.”
We were over 40. I knew she was single; I knew I was divorced. But to consider that, tonight…seemed basic.
Basic was an insult we used, Jess and I, to describe others. Basic units. The jocks, the cliques. We were intellectual snobs. I smiled at myself.
“What?” she asked.
“Just laughing, at what we used to be.”
“What were we?”
“Superior.” Meaning, we were no better than them…it was just our defence.
I’m not sure she got it. The thought struck me: Can a sense of irony die?
“I have a theory. Relationships depend on commonalities.”
Jess was a foot shorter than me. She looked up, her brown eyes shining with intensity.
“Go on,” I said cautiously.
“Not the big things…hobbies, food, holidays. The little things.”
A spot of rain. The cold was moving through me. The hubbub created by those who had stayed inside sounded cosy.
“Like what? What things?” A touch of impatience.
“Take Tom Waits, your favourite.”
“Well, one of them…”
“What’s the single thing about his music that you love more than anything else?”
“I can’t say. I really cannot say.”
“You do. I know what it is. Look, I’ll write it down.” She unclipped the small, sequinned bag that hung from her fragile forearm and took out a tiny notebook with a glittery pencil attached to its edge.
“For my ideas,” she explained.
I visualised her as an old lady, sitting on a bench, making little notes on the movements of the people in her coastal village.
“Finished. Right. Now concentrate, Gavin. Think about the bit of Tom Waits that always makes you smile.”
“Is this a trick? Are you some kind of mentalist?” Who knew what she had spent the last quarter century studying?
“Okay, I’ll do it. Christ, Jess, you’re…okay, there’s a line, two lines, in ‘Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night…’”
Jess made air brackets with her fingers, indicating that the true title of the song was ‘(Looking for) the Heart of…’
“Very good,” I smiled. “Good Waits knowledge.”
“Anyway, the lines, ‘And now you’re stumblin’ / You’re stumblin’ onto the heart of Saturday night.’ The way he sings it, the note change, the…I just love it. I replay it, rewind, whatever.”
She held out her palm with the twice-folded piece of paper in its centre. I took it, shivering now. Her handwriting had not changed, the letters still fat and round, the dot of the i’s small circles rather than simple marks:
“Jesus Christ, Jess. How could you know that?”
“Because I know you, Gavin. Commonality.”
“But…we haven’t spoken in over 20 years. We don’t know each other…”
“We should have…”
“Come on, Jess. It’s so long ago. I’ve got two children at secondary school!”
“Who says I don’t?”
“I know you haven’t, Jess.”
“You been asking, then.”
“Somebody mentioned it, inside.”
She turned her nose up at the idea.
“Why did you come you to this reunion, Jess?”
“Interested. Like you. Both of us live on a higher plane, Gavin. They make more money, sure, live in bigger houses, check, kids all doing ‘marvellously,’ tick.”
The rain was thickening. My hair was matted. Her clothes were darkening against her skin.
“Come on, Jess, we’d better get back in there.”
“In a minute.”
“Jess. How is your love life?”
“Good! Whatever! But it’s…a thing?”
“Yeah, sometimes. Why? You scared I’m going to obsess on you?”
“No, no…not at all. Come on, I’m freezing.” My drink was collecting water at my feet, untouched for half an hour. I put a hand on her wet shoulder, which she accepted. I studied her straight nose, the drop of rain that was hanging there.
As we brushed around the curtain covering the French doors, old “friends” greeted us, some with quizzical expressions. Our host, Lily, one of the super-rich who had space to spare weaved through the crowd.
“You alright, guys? Pretty nippy out there, isn’t it?”
“Getting that way,” I replied. Jess had melted away from under my hand.
“Was that Jess Bradshaw?” asked Lily.
“You were good friends, weren’t you. Kept in touch at all?”
“No. Not once.”
“She okay? Different, isn’t she.”
“Yeah, different. A bit odd…”
I looked over Lily’s shoulder. Jess stood in the doorway, six metres away. Her bedraggled face fell. My lips were still puckered, my tongue pressed to the front of my mouth where it had made the d sound. She had read my lips. One of those skills that only Jess would bother to develop.
Follow her, Gavin. Comfort her.
Repair the bond.
I turned my back to the doorway, smiled broadly, and asked Lily how she had managed to get her daughter into Cambridge.