He had made her a CD. Initially, he thought about making a tape, providing a useful segue into discussions about old sound systems, a topic about which he knew a lot. He imagined how this vintage gesture might be charming, and give way to his being able to tell her things she might not already know, like how hi-fi is an actually an abbreviation of high fidelity, or how to tighten the belt inside a record player. He thought she might like that. She seemed to like learning.
He recalled, on more than one occasion, her having mentioned almost winning the pub quiz at her local, and she had seemed interested in telling him some of the answers she hadn’t known. Did you know that? She had asked. Sometimes he had, but he never let on.
She had been to art college, and graduated, so he imagined she was a curious, inquisitive sort of person. Not that their conversations had ventured far into that territory yet. She had made the odd reference, to her ‘uni days’, and he had hoped his quick change of subject had not suggested a lack of interest. He had no frame of reference to bolster his side of the discussion. Whilst she’d been away, studying and meeting and laughing in pictures, he’d stayed at home. He imagined her telling him all about her favourite painters and sculptors. He would ask about styles and preferences, and she would revel in colourful anecdotes, as he listened and smiled and concealed. He would not know what to say, when the conversation turned back to him. He had wanted to tell her about Dad getting sick, but didn’t. Perhaps he wouldn’t be able to explain it well enough, and she’d get stuck on the part of the story where he’d lived at home all his life. He didn’t really believe that, but he was too invested to risk it, to poke his forehead above the parapet – not just yet.
He realised then that he had never asked her what class her degree was, when she’d mentioned it, and whether that might have offended her. People liked to say, didn’t they? Perhaps she didn’t mind. He imagined she’d done well. In one picture on Facebook, a male friend with white teeth and sunglasses had commented ‘well done, you little brainbox’ underneath an image of her laughing in her graduation gown. He tried to decide if the laughing face was her real one, or one for the photo, but couldn’t. The sun was in her face, and the glare obscured the triangular lines that spread across her cheeks whenever she really laughed. In the photo, she raised a hand; she was looking up to see where her mortarboard had gone amidst a swarm of other black squares, shrunken to dots by the streaming sunlight. A nagging thought infiltrated his mind, that perhaps she didn’t really like learning, after all, and that the conversation about sound systems and tapes would flop. He wondered about the male friend.
He had thought about how to record the tracks onto a tape, and was sure he had an old deck lurking somewhere in the garage, but, by the time he’d started to look up the prices of blank cassettes on Amazon, it all felt a bit too try-hard, and he abandoned the plan. Besides, she might not have a tape player.
It was hard to get it right, to gauge her preferences, whilst subtly showcasing his own. They had talked about it often, music, and the discussions had moved in moods. They discussed music to cook to, and he imagined her salting water and dicing onions, the phone clamped between her cheek and shoulder. He thought he could feel the heat of her breath down the line.
One evening, he sent her the link to a song by one of his favourite bands. She said she liked it, and so, in a hurry to impress her, he had sent six or seven more links, and a Youtube playlist, and told her she had to listen to their first album first, before she listened to their most recent. You’ll get them better that way, he had said. She had replied to his several messages with one, calling him The Great Dictator for prescribing the music in the way he had. He had felt embarrassed. What was that from? He had a half feeling it had something to do with Hitler, and he’d looked it up and discovered he was right. Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 political satire. He cringed. She had then sent him a smiley face, with the tongue sticking out of its mouth. He thought about her pulling the same expression, and felt the veins in his neck throb.
The next afternoon, as she rounded the corner of Kildoran Road, he saw she was wearing a dress he’d seen before, in the photo she’d been tagged in the previous week. It was ultramarine blue – garish, almost school jumper bright – and the style reminded him of the dresses married women wore in old wartime photographs. It was too big for her. Thrifted, he wondered. The shape of it concealed nearly everything beneath it; he watched as the slight gust of wind from the passing traffic tucked the hem between her legs, and pulled the shape of her left thigh out of obscurity. Around the hem of the skirt, there were tiny songbirds.
He liked the way she walked. She did not trudge, in the same way as he did. He remembered his mother once telling him that he walked as if he was afraid to be off the ground for too long. But she moved like a kite, pressing the full length of her shoe soles to the floor and kicking them back up again with a jaunt: no two steps the same. It was almost comical. He wondered whether to tell her.
As she got closer, she pulled something from her coat pocket and presented him with a loose disc.
She wiped it off with her cuff. He noticed the soft curve of her top lip, and how she had lipstick spread too far across one corner of her mouth. He wanted to touch it. She looked at him, and the triangular lines appeared on her face.
‘I made you a CD.’ She said. ‘It’s nothing, really, but you could play it on the drive home, if you wanted.’
He could, if he wanted. And he did. He really wanted.