The Music of Our Youth
Evan first encountered the man in the Panama hat nearly one month ago. Their last meeting may have been today; it’s hard to say for certain. On that first occasion he’d been standing out the back of the research centre taking a smoke break, one he knew there was barely time for. His batch of lab samples was in the spectrometer – on schedule for once – and he really ought to have been closely monitoring the automated electrospray process. But his need for a cigarette was absolute. Besides, how many times had he run this process without a single glitch? Fuck it, have a sneaky fag, he told himself.
Taking cover in the narrow passage between the two giant bin sheds – a universally acknowledged hidey hole for those in thrall to nicotine – Evan lit up and sucked down the smoke, his brain immediately basking in the dopey glow of his first few drags. He pulled a copy of Mojo from his back pocket, plugged in his earphones and hit play. But, immediately sensing another presence in the alleyway, he removed the earphones and turned to see a man sporting cream linens and a matching Panama hat. Without introduction, the man addressed him.
“I expect you want to tell that Solanas where to stick his fucking pen and clipboard, don’t you?” he said. “But I wouldn’t recommend it, even though it would be a good thing if you stood your ground once in a while. I don’t like to see people being pushed around.”
“Er . . . right,” said Evan. “You made me jump there. Anyway, thanks.”
“I’m Evan” he said offering a cigarette. “And you’re . . ?”
“Warner” he replied, accepting the cigarette and a light.
“Warner. Okay. Do you have a first name?” asked Evan.
“Just think of me as Warner.”
“Right,” said Evan. And they fell silent for a while, concentrating on their smoking, Evan fidgeting a piece of loose brick with his trainer.
“Are you a decent sort, Evan?” said the man, grinning.
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” replied Evan.
“Good. So that’s my advice, anyway, stand your ground once in a while.”
Evan nodded vaguely while considering this advice. He leaned around the corner to stub his cigarette out against the low brick wall. “It’s just not that easy with Solanas . . .” he said, turning back to continue the conversation. But the man in the hat had gone. Not knowing what to make of the exchange Evan shrugged and went back to the lab. He returned to the unrewarding routine of batches and formulae, to the collation and evaluation of results and findings, to his quotas and quality targets.
How strange it seemed to Evan that a dozen or so years ago this very grindstone was the scene of his first, happy days in work. He found it hard to credit that he’d once had good times here, had made good friends. Jackman, Satch, Rosey, Quill, Dougie; an insuperable gang of inseparable friends. Life was a joyful blur of football and pubs, video games and banter, an incessant cycle of pow-wows, get-togethers, gatherings and sessions – each in the name of youthful abandon, a reaffirmation that they could, and always would, revel in their callow freedom.
Except that’s not how it turned out. This notion, which he returned to every day, consumed him because he couldn’t understand how it had crept up, casting him adrift from a never to be recovered heyday, his prime. Where were those fellow graduates nows? Evan felt these days as though he beheld the good times through the wrong end of an ever-lengthening telescope, each memory dwindling to a dust mote, and then to nothing. Everyone else had disappeared along the way. Apart from Solanas. Adam Solanas: workshop despot, lab bully, petty scourge of the research wing. The Spanish Inquisitor. Adam Sore-Anus. Now it was just Evan, Solanas, and an ever waning number of charisma-free itinerant worker bees.
Evan reflected on these random, pitiless inequities. He became gripped by a familiar, thick coil of regret, its coarse yarn chafing at his mood. And now he forgot about Warner, yielding to his workload and to a tired, lonely helplessness. He toiled wordlessly, grinding out the hours, the minutes until – long after everyone else had left – he was finished for the day. Only then could he welcome the long drive home, a brief purgatorial interlude before the next wave of demands.
Evan’s opinion of this slow, stop-start commute, skirting London’s congested, dirty rim was neither conventional nor fashionable. Not for him the stock conversational piece about too many cars on the road, a lack of investment in the traffic network or public transport infrastructure. No, here was solitude, a refuge from all his assailants, in a space of his own. For forty, maybe fifty, minutes he was alone with his thoughts and his music. He started the car, tuned into Nothing But 90s! FM and pulled out of the car park, relishing a blissful catatonia in the knowledge that, soon enough, he’d be home and the respite would be over.
One week later Warner reappeared. And he continued to turn-up most work days while Evan was taking a smoke. They would talk vaguely, in the way men gathered by chance always do, of work and life, skirting around any true nub of the matter, trading generalities. Evan would have liked to find out more about his new acquaintance. Which department did he work in? Where did he live? Did he have family? But Warner would always seem to steer the conversation along paths permitting no such intimacy, would step in to fill any pause with a decisive word or an intriguing thought. In this way any possibility they might become intimates was snuffed out.
In the third week after they’d first met he bumped into Warner in a café. Evan had needed to run some chores in town during his lunch hour, cramming in a visit to the post office, the bank and a couple of hardware stores to track down the right washer for a leaky tap at home. It was not an especially hot day, but he’d been in a rush – the last thing he wanted was to get back to work late, have Solanas on his back for something else – and now he was out of breath and hot, the wick of his garments heavy with a moisture that cleaved them to his skin. He was, though, ahead of schedule and there was just enough time for some lunch in town. Evan decided that a toasted panini and a proper cup of coffee would make a welcome change from the usual soggy cheese and tomato sandwich and the scorchingly hot, caffeinated cups of bitterness served from the machine at the research centre.
The café was busy: professional looking people tapped away at laptops; younger adults in outsized headphones were locked-in and swaying to some irresistible groove; kids, opposing thumbs working in unison, drummed at devices, defeating deadly adversaries; there was one lady reading a book. The scene was overlaid with a musical backtrack which, through the shrill blasts of spouting steam, Evan vaguely recognised as something contemporary and, while it was not unpleasant, it left him feeling slightly disappointed.
Sitting in their midst, doing nothing more than drinking a cup of tea, was Warner. On seeing Evan, he tipped his Panama and, with a curt smile, indicated the empty seat at his table. Evan ordered and paid for his lunch and returned to the table with his drink.
“Coffee man, eh?” said Warner, removing his hat and arching an eyebrow. “I had you down – rather hopefully – as a tea man. Still, not really my business I suppose.”
“No . . . well . . . of course. It’s just that I don’t really get the chance to ever just sit down and have a coffee,” said Evan. “Could do with the kick, to be honest, keep me going. Bloody knackered.”
“Yeah, you could say that. Christ! When aren’t we these days? Wasn’t always like this though, was it?”
“Probably not, no,” said Warner. “Though I don’t have that problem, myself.”
“You don’t?” said Evan, blurting a shocked guffaw. “Lucky you! You’ll have to share your secret.”
“There’s no luck involved. And it’s no secret either.”
“Really? Wish I could bloody work it out, I really do,” said Evan. A waiter brought over his toasted sandwich. He had on him a look of inquisitive concern, but did not ask Evan any question, just said he hoped Evan enjoyed his meal and went back to the counter.
“And what makes you think you can’t? Work it out, that is,” continued Warner.
“Well,” said Evan, pausing to consider, “it’s all so bloody complex these days, isn’t it? So many things to do. Obligations. Things were just better in the past. More simple, straightforward.”
“Really? Or are you just being nostalgic?” said Warner. Before Evan had a chance to answer, he added: “I fucking hate nostalgia. It’s dangerous shit, is what it is.”
“Whoa! Dangerous shit? . . . What do you mean? Why?”
“Look, there may be a little truth in what you say, some things were better in the old days. And I can’t deny there’s more bullshit around today. But lots of things were worse too. You just need to be more selective these days, less acquiescent.”
“I still don’t follow.”
“Take control of the things that matter,” replied Warner. “But you’ll need to work that one out, fella. Look, if you ask me, it’s a big mistake to go about thinking you were born in a goldmine and that you’ve ended up at the coalface. Were you born in a goldmine? Probably not. Are you at the coalface? Who the fuck isn’t?”
Evan sat, thinking for a moment. “Yeah, you’re onto something there. So, my current situation . . . what did you call it? The coalface? Where I’m at right now, how did I get here?”
“But that’s not really what matters. Wouldn’t you be much better off looking where you’re going?”
“But don’t you need to look back at the mistakes you’ve made to know where you went wrong, to help you take the right turns going forward?”
“Sure, there’s nothing wrong with what you’re saying there,” said Warner. He leaned forward with his elbow on the table, and fixed Evan with his eye. “But is that really what you’re doing?”
“God! If I had a time machine and, and I could just go back . . . well . . . I’d do things differently, I tell you.”
“Now there’s a dog-eared old Sci-Fi trope,” said Warner, frowning.
“Oh, come on! If you could just go back and do things differently, not make the mistakes you made, it’d have to be better, wouldn’t it?”
“Maybe. But let’s say you could do it; let’s say you could go back to a former self, knowing what you know today,” he said. “What makes you think you still wouldn’t fuck things up?”
Evan thought for a moment, and was about to reply when Warner cut him off: “Look, before you answer that, have a think about it. I need to go now.” He put on his panama hat and, making to leave, paused and said “Take heed, Evan, nostalgia’s a trap. Now I’ll have to say goodbye to you.”
Evan watched him leave, and then sat a while longer in the café and finished his lunch while pondering Warner’s parting lines. They all felt a bit cryptic, though Evan sensed a finality, a certain specificity, to Warner’s spiel that seemed odd, troubling. What, he wondered, did he mean? Evan checked his watch. Shit, he thought, I’m going to be late!
Evan scurried back to the lab and slipped in unnoticed. He knuckled down, intent on recovering the lost time. But he couldn’t do it. And he never would. Each attempt to hasten his progress brought errors, inefficiencies, breakages. Each mistake was a multiplier, adding orders of magnitude to his daily tenure, piling up the misery. He was snared and his struggling only made things worse. Deluged, Evan forgot all about Warner, and his message – if there ever was one – remained encrypted.
A week passed since the café encounter and Warner had not since been seen. It was Saturday and Evan was at work, doing overtime. He was, as usual, under the cosh, feeling the pressure, as he stared at the sample batches, then back to their exacting specifications, each one to be finished before he could leave for the day. Solanas appeared with his clip board.
“So . . . Evan. RO-TH_151015_00-92 to -99 . . . we’re on schedule with those, are we?”
“They’ll be done by close of play.”
“Bit later, actually. I just had to rerun a synthesis cycle on -93 and -94, so I’m a bit behind. Maybe 12:30? One-ish?”
“Right. But you’re not leaving till you’ve finished them, are you?”
“No, Adam, I won’t be going till they’re done.”
“Good, good,” he said, pausing, then adding: “You know, Evan, if you ever applied yourself, gave your work its due diligence, you’d do a better job. And I can’t help but think you’d make things easier for yourself. Get on a bit at work. Who knows, in life, even?”
Being told what to do in the work place is one thing, but advice about how to live his life – from Solanas of all people – irked Evan, and he now stood tense, anger welling, set against anything else his supervisor had to say. I’ll show you and your shiity little job, he thought.
“Look, I know we’ve never seen eye to eye,” said Solanas, “but I take no pleasure in seeing you struggle. You’re in a redundancy pool, for God’s sake. You should remember that.” Solanas shook his head and, leaving, he added “If it’s not too late.”
What does he mean, thought Evan, if it’s not too late? Christ, he can’t be serious. He can’t mean I’m for the chop. Jesus! He felt his anger deflate and, in its place, a gnawing worry had taken over. He returned to his work, though his heart was no longer in it, even less so than usual. He could not think straight, was making mistakes.
It had gone past two o’clock by the time Evan finished for the day. As he removed his lab coat, slumping into the staff room sofa, massaging his temples, trying to expel the stress, to de-pressurize, he remembered that he was supposed to take his eldest boy to a party this afternoon. He knew he had no chance of making it home on time but, frantic, still he rushed from the building to his car. Leaving the car park Evan found the barrier down and he realised he’d left his security pass in the building, in his lab coat. He buzzed the intercom for Security. He waited for a minute, without response, so he buzzed again, maybe a dozen times or more. He was beginning to think that he’d need to park up again and go back to get his pass – even though he was sure that the guard had been sitting there all the while, just letting him buzz – when the intercom crackled into life.
“Yeah, Hi! Can you lift the barrier, please?”
“You haven’t got your security card?”
“Of course I haven’t! Would I be buzzing if I had it?”
“Sure. Where is it, then?”
“I forgot it. You gave me a temp card this morning, remember?”
“One minute, please.”
Evan waited. One minute became two, then three . . . four, then five. Evan understood that the security guard knew who he was, had no reason not to just raise the barrier. So why didn’t he? Was there red tape to be processed? Had Evan done something to upset this man? No, Evan thinks, the security guard is keeping me here because he can. A knot of anger rose in his chest, compelling him to give the guard a mouthful but, as he reached out to press the button, the intercom sputtered once more into life.
“Thank you Mr.Critchley,” said the guard as the barrier rose. “Have a nice weekend.”
Evan grunted and drove off, turning on the radio. But this time he barely registered the music, Nothing But 90s making little impression. He switched stations to Sensational 70s Radio, but could still take no solace from it. Maybe Solanas is right, he thought, maybe things could be better. But why do things keep fucking up for me? At work. Christ, at home even. If I lose this job I’m shafted, he thought. It’s not fair!
He raced home, scrambled to the front door, unlocked and opened it. He waited for the onslaught, the clamoring son, the irate wife, the mad dash to get everything together for the party – perhaps they’ll only be thirty minutes late, he thought. But there was no onslaught. Apart from the distant ticking of the kitchen clock there was only silence, and Evan wondered if – hoped – he’d avoided the barrage, at least until later. Perhaps, he imagined, Juliette knew he’d be late and had taken Thomas to the party with the baby in tow too. He felt a slight relief, relaxed a little, decided to make a cup of tea. He went into the kitchen where Juliette, sitting silently at the island unit, catches him by surprise, holding his gaze with an implacable, glacial hatred. She sighed theatrically.
“Where’s Thomas?” asked Evan.
“What do you care? If you were so concerned where he was, you’d have been home on time to take him to the party. Like you promised?” said Juliette.
“I’m so sorry,” started Evan, before he was cut short by Juliette’s raised hand.
“You’re sorry, Evan?” she said, her brow deeply trenched. “Are you? Well I’m sorry too. This is the last straw. Mum had to come round and take Thomas to the party. Lucy’s asleep at the moment, but I’m going to get her and take her round to Georgie’s. When we get back I expect you to be out of the house. I don’t want you back.”
Evan stood, speechless. He was overcome by a gelid weakness that left him shaky and immobilized. He watched Juliette leave, his heart pumping furiously, blood rampaging through his temples, stomach tightening uncontrollably, his bowels twitching, loosening. After a while, he went to the fridge, took out a can of beer, opened it and gulped it down in one long draught. He took two more beers, downing another on the spot then, propelling a defiant belch into the silence of the kitchen, he slumped to the floor. Hollow, he tried to make sense of what had happened, to figure out whether the punishment matched the indiscretion. He poured over the events and Juliette’s reaction, and could make no conclusive sense of it. He drank the third beer and fell asleep.
He awoke, briefly unsure where he was, and checked the time. It was past six o’clock. He gathered his thoughts and remembered what had happened, feeling hope capsize and descend to the well of his stomach. Juliette would be back soon with the kids and he didn’t want to be here for that. He needed to think. He took another beer from the fridge and sat, considering his predicament. But far from feeling resentful, or confused, Evan felt a dawning sense of relief, a giddy contentment, even. The worst was over. He finished the beer, took the last can from the fridge, fetched his keys and cigarettes from the sideboard in the hall, pocketed a pack of sweets that Juliette must have dropped on the floor (Fruit Pastilles, which had been a favorite as a child) and left the house.
Evan strode along the tree lined avenue where he lived and into the park. He used to come here with his parents as a boy. How old was he then? Five? Six or seven? He remembered feeding the swans and the ducks, kicking a plastic ball around. He recalled picnics of liver sausage sandwich and sweaty processed cheese slices. The park seemed so much bigger back then, a whole county with its own rolling hills, towering banks and vast lakes circumnavigated by wandering tribes.
Now, like everything else, he regarded this world without wonder, an absence of awe, knowing every nook and cranny to the point of contempt. He understood the science behind the flora and fauna, the discipline of landscaping, the placement of structures, monuments and horticultural features for their desired aesthetic, behavioral and ecological outcomes. But Evan found that today, in spite of this familiarity, he was connected with the magical place of his childhood, as though he were feeling the same sun on his skin, smelling the flowers, feeling the gentle warmth of the breeze for the first time since he was a child. He tuned in to details he’d long since ignored: to the harmonious drone of insects, the inquisitive quacking of ducks, to murmuring radios and the susurrant rumour of scattered conversations. Each sound was woven intricately into what it meant to be in this place, at this time, to belong.
He strolled around the pond’s perimeter then cut through clusters of picnickers, past parents with toddlers, secretive youths, across an expanse of grass towards the Italian Garden. Here he found a bench backing onto a red brick wall, sat down and cracked open the beer. A low evening sunlight soaked Evan and his surroundings with an amber warmth. He swigged the drink, bathing in the moment, taking in the kaleidoscope of flowers, the fleshy, spiky plants, the swishing, rustling grasses, the aroma of lavender, rose and cut lawn.
But most of all, he wallowed in the sun, gave himself over to the experience of doing nothing. He thought that this might be a Zen moment, but wasn’t sure what one was. As each nerve relaxed, as his knotted muscles unwound, Evan lay poaching in the day’s last warmth and the alcohol’s effects. A bliss closed in around him, took control, relaying a soft focus cine loop of childhood scenes played out in these very grounds.
Evan was pulled deeper into himself by this reverie, towards the warm memory of a former self and, just before he was finally lulled to sleep, he thought he saw what looked like a man in a cream Panama hat crossing the park in his direction. But Warner – if it was him – faded from view as Evan dozed off.
In Evan’s version of events, his next recollection is that he had just finished feeding the ducks and was walking back home. He was so absorbed in the act of kicking a knot of soft wood as he went, reenacting a move from The Big Match, a fancy bit of trickery by Stan Bowles or some such long haired footballing maverick, that he did not at first notice the girl walking beside him, nor that she was talking to him.
“Evan? Hello? Earth calling Evan?” she said. And Evan felt happy to be interrupted because this was Michelle Revilla, emanating a force which attracted Evan in a way that he did not understand. Although he does not like girls, he is often consumed by thoughts of Michelle, thoughts that he does not understand, that swell in his breast like the radiating heat of a hot coal. He’d often pictured them running away, living together, doing simple grown up things like shopping and cooking. Kissing. Secret thoughts that he dared not share with anyone, that he felt a small shame for having.
“Michelle, hello,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a park,” she replied, not unfriendly, dipping her shoulder into his arm. “It’s for walking in. I’m just taking a walk. Actually, I’m on my way over to my Grandma’s. Wanna stroll with me?”
“Yeah, sure.” This is the best thing ever, thought Evan. At the same time, though, he felt under pressure: he didn’t want to blow this chance with Michelle, but he had no idea what to say, no real experience of talking to girls. What should you say to them? What did they like? He remembered the sweets in his pocket. “Fruit Pastille?” he said, offering the opened pack. Michelle smiled – a smile that, in itself, marks the greatest possible reward for Evan – and took one.
“Ooh, blackcurrant! My favourite.”
They walked on, Evan in rapt silence while Michelle talked about her Grandma, her house, and how she’s going there today because her mum and dad are both working this afternoon. Evan was not really listening. He was consumed by the thought that this could be his lucky day. They arrived at a bench, the same bench that Evan would be sitting on so many years later, but now it’s a glossy green, the paint so fresh and thickly laid that it’s soft to the touch.
“I don’t have to be at Gran’s for another ten minutes,” said Michelle. “Do you want to sit here for a bit?” Evan wondered what they could do, just sitting here on the park bench, what he could possibly have to say to Michelle Revilla. It filled him with dread, a panic, but still he couldn’t understand why there was nothing in the world he would rather be doing.
“Yes. Let’s,” he says.
They sat, swinging their legs, looking across the park, and every time Evan, speechless, turned to look at Michelle, she was looking straight back at him, smiling. He wanted this to last forever, was dreading the moment when it would end, and he felt powerless to prevent it. He realized that he loved her, and knew that if he didn’t take his chance now, he would never have it again. And somehow he knew he would regret it for the rest of his life, that there would be no turning back, no return to this blissful state, this Eden.
He stared ahead, frozen, noticing with some relief that Warner was still walking in his direction, now closer. Except there was something different, it was no longer a Panama hat that he wore, but a flat white cloth cap. And, closer still, he saw that the drooping moustache was gone, that Warner was younger, the cut of his suit different, and the shiny black loafers were now two-tone spats. But Warner would help, Evan was sure of that. He’d give him the advice he needed. With his approach came a swell of music, a saccharine falsetto building to a crescendo over a mantra of repeating bop-shoo-wadi-wadi vocal harmonies. The man in the white cloth cap stopped in front of them, swaying his arms and hips, dipping his knees in time to the four-four signature. Evan turned to Michelle, wondering if she can see what he sees, but she was still just smiling at him.
Turning back to this new, younger Warner, Evan asked “What do I do now?”
The music played on in the background but Warner brought the microphone down to his side, stopped singing. He planted his feet at shoulder width, pointed to Evan, and said “Sonny, take my advice: if you love Michelle, don’t think twice.” He winked, then took up the microphone and began to wail his ode to lovers, before retreating back across the park to where he came from.
Evan now felt fortified, certain. He was surer than ever that he and Michelle were destined for one another. He knew that this was the time to make the right choice, to reset his life, a chance to redeem himself, to be happy.
He turned back to Michelle, who still smiles beatifically, and declared: “Michelle, I should have told you this before. I love you!”
“Well I love you too Evan Critchly,” she replied.
“And I want to be with you forever,” said Evan.
“I . . . wow!”
They sat for a moment, eyes locked, and Evan felt an exhilaration driving him on. He leant in and started to kiss Michelle. She stiffened. But Evan was sure, and pressed on. It must be that she’d never kissed anyone before, he thought. Well, nor had Evan, and that wasn’t going to stop him. This was the path to happiness. He pressed on, wrapping her in his arms, holding her. He’d never let her go. But now she was crying. Tears of joy, thinks Evan, and he started to cry too.
He was holding her tightly, rocking back and forth to the rhythm of their sobbing, when his reverie was broken by angry shouting. His shoulder was jerked, and he was wrenched back to the here and now by a shower of painful blows. There was a young girl, whom he had never seen before, being led to the safety and comfort of a relieved looking mother, while the men who had apprehended him kept him restrained, calling him the vilest names, until the police arrived.
Evan found himself handcuffed and led to the awaiting police car, unable to make sense of what had just happened. He turned to take one last look back to the bench and saw only an abandoned cream panama hat.
Gene Farmer lives in East Anglia, in the UK, with his wife and children. He is an IT Consultant and puts aside a microscopic amount of his spare time for short story writing. His stories have previously appeared here in SickLit Magazine, and in flashfictionmagazine.com and are said to be ideal for insomniacs.