All too soon he was home. The dark windows of the two-bed semi seemed to mock him as he stowed his bike in the lean to: the weed filled hanging baskets on the porch silently accusing as he turned his key in the lock and made his way into the cold, empty house.
A stack of ready meals greeted him as he opened the fridge. He grabbed the top one, stabbed the cellophane with a fork and shoved it in the microwave.
He leaned against the counter, arms folded around himself, eyes closed, as he remembered standing here holding Rosie while she busied herself at the hob, squirming to get out of his grip so she could carry on with whatever masterpiece she was creating.
He loved being her guinea pig when she was thinking up new dishes for the Caf…Deli, he heard her chide him. She hated it when he called it the Caf. She’d been so excited when she got the catering contract.
It’ll be perfect, I can work from home so I’ll always be here when you get back, no more ships passing in the night.
John sighed and opened his eyes as the ping of the microwave dragged him away from Rosie and back to the present.
He ate mechanically, stacked the dishwasher (rinse first, Rosie chided him) and went upstairs to get changed. His hand went to his thick, bushy beard as he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror.
Needs a trim. Rosie again. She wasn’t wrong. He took the scissors from the bathroom cabinet and carefully began to trim the more wayward strands.
His thoughts drifted.
It’s a manly beard, he’d protested after breakfast one morning, as she brandished the hair scissors with a glint in her eye, it’s not for pruning like you precious hanging baskets.
Wanna bet? Teased Rosie, give me ten minutes and I’ll have it in the shape of a Christmas tree.
His eyes widened in mock horror as she leaned in close and started to snip.
John was jolted back to the present by the buzz of his phone reminding him he needed to leave in five minutes. He headed for the bedroom where he donned his black jeans, grey t-shirt and flat cap, shrugged on his denim jacket.
Stand up straight my gentle giant, he heard Rose chide him.
It was about a forty-minute walk from here, but he didn’t like taking the bike into town, some muppet had once nicked his saddle when he’d popped into HMV for five minutes. Rosie had dined out on that one for weeks.
So he went into HMV to get me the new album for my birthday and came out to find his saddle nicked! John hadn’t been quite so amused but, as always, her smile was infectious.
The Symphony Hall was a grand building, white columns illuminated by soft, warm light bid him welcome. The gentle babble of the crowds heading in the same direction buoyed John’s spirits. He felt some comfort in being surrounded by so many people, all here for the same reason he was.
As quick as the sense of calm began to envelop him a stab of aching loneliness contracted his heart and caused his stomach to turn. Tears pricked his eyes as he ducked his head and strode inside.
As he walked into the auditorium excited chatter surrounded him from all sides, anticipation hung thick in the air. He kept his head down as he found his seat, sure he must stick out like a sore thumb.
The seats either side of him remained mercifully empty as the lights dimmed and John felt himself relax. He hated making small talk. Rosie struck up conversations wherever she went. She’d have some poor soul’s life story within five minutes of meeting them. As the orchestra took their places and the pianist began to play, the melody of La Primavera Tranquilla reached out to bathe him in a sea of memories.
I love this onesaid Rosie, as she twirled gracefully around the kitchen grabbing ingredients from cupboards and shelves as she moved, a pot simmering on the hob.
They all sound the same to me he’d said, nonplussed, give me AC/DC any day.
Give it a chance, she’d tried, broaden your horizons. I’ll take you to see them one day, that’ll change your mind. Magic.
She hadn’t. But he’d gone anyway. This was his tenth time. Almost a veteran. She’d been right of course: magic.
All too soon the musicians were bowing to thunderous applause and the lights were coming up, the harsh glare seeming to John to single him out as an anomaly among the gaggle of concert goer: a lone giant in faded denim.
He waited until most of the others had shuffled out of the auditorium before rising from his seat. A tap on his shoulder made him turn.
“Hope this isn’t too weird,” said the man in front of him, “but I’ve been to the last six of their gigs and I couldn’t help but notice you at every one.”
“Erm, yeah, kinda hard to miss” said John, shuffling his feet.
“Dark denim isn’t the kind of look you normally associate with these guys” said the man.
John took in the other man’s appearance; black jeans, AC/DC t-shirt, leather jacket slung over his shoulder.
“You can talk.”
The man chuckled in agreement; “I’m Mike” he said, shaking John’s hand. Got time for a pint? You can fill me in on what you’re doing at a gig like this.”
John’s jaw worked but he couldn’t find the words to say no, he hated being rude.
“Just a quick one” said Mike, “I know a place round the corner.”
Mike walked and John followed, Mike chatting away about how he came to these gigs on his own because all his mates thought classical music was shite.
“Even contemporary classical music. They’ve never even given it a go! They really need to broaden their horizons, I mean, it’s magic live, isn’t it?”
John grunted his agreement, not trusting his voice to respond without cracking.
“This is the place.” said Mike, gesturing to a cosy looking pub, Chesterfield sofas in dark leather illuminated by the soft glow of naked Edison bulbs.
“My round” insisted Mike, pulling a note from his pocket as they approached the bar. “You look like a pale ale man, am I right?”
John nodded. “Two pints of harvest pale please” Mike called to the bartender, proffering his note.
‘Grab that table” said Mike, gesturing to a small table in the corner with two comfy looking armchairs. “I’ll bring them over.”
As John lowered himself into an armchair he told himself he’d only stay for one. Mike seemed nice and everything, but he wasn’t in the mood for socialising. He fiddled with a beermat and plotted his excuse to leave as Mike headed over with the drinks.
“There you go…erm…oh, sorry” he said, redness creeping into his cheeks, ‘I’ve been so busy gassing I didn’t get your name?”
“Well, Cheers John,”
“Cheers.” John took a deep swig of the frothy amber liquid and felt himself relax a little as it slid down his throat.
“Great gig wasn’t it?” said Mike, a note of worship entering his voice, “Doesn’t matter how many times I see them, I always want more.”
John nodded his agreement as he took another swig of his pint.
“I first heard them when I was at college. One of my flatmates used to play them when he was studying. First time I heard it was like the first time I heard Metallica: wham,” Mike clapped his hands together, “it just floored me, couldn’t get enough. Been a bit of a groupie ever since. What about you?” asked Mike, finally pausing to take a sip of his drink, “How did you get into them?”
“My wife”, said John, looking down and resuming his decimation of the beer mat. There was an awkward silence, Mike clearly waiting for John to say more, but, as usual, he couldn’t find the words.
John felt the dark and malignant shroud of grief descend to settle on his shoulders, weighing him down and no doubt repelling his new friend. He downed the remains of his pint.
“I better go,” he said, “thanks for the drink.”
“Time for one more?” said Mike, meeting his eyes and holding his gaze.
“Thing is I’ve got…”
“This is Emily”, interrupted Mike, taking his phone from his pocket and turning the screen to John. John took in the image of a brunette with a wide smile showing off slightly crooked teeth.
“She died about five years ago now. Cancer,” said Mike simply. “Most people get uncomfortable when I talk about her, but I like to talk about her. Well, as you can see I’m a talker in general, but especially about her. I still find myself talking to her sometimes…in my head, you know?” he dropped his gaze and the flush crept up his cheeks again as he cleared his throat and stuffed his phone back into his pocket. “Anyway, never mind,” said Mike, developing a sudden fascination with the bubbles floating in his pint. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Rosie used to play them when she was cooking,” said John, “Told me they got her into her creative zone. I wasn’t that fussed at first, to tell you the truth. Stubborn really, never gave them a chance. Now though…” John trailed off and a kindred silence reigned for a few moments before he got to his feet. “Same again?” he asked Mike.
“Same again” Mike nodded up at him with a small smile.
As John leant against the bar waiting his turn, he imagined Rosie there next to him, knowing smile, playful glint in her eye.
Better, John. Still need to work on your small talk, but definite improvement.
As the bartender approached, John felt the ever present ache release its grip around his heart, just a little.
“Two pints of Harvest Pale please.”
A not so short short story for you today. I love writing flash fiction, but sometimes only a longer format will do.