The Old Songs Still Play

John came home to the smell of already-cooking bolognese. Celia was moving around the kitchen, door closed, stereo loud – wobbling at the hob to the sort of music that seems to seperate women and men at some fundamental, almost genetic level.

As he dropped his keys into the bowl on the side, and shrugged out of his jacket, he found with vague irritation that he was humming along to the song. He chuckled to himself when he realised that he actually kind of enjoyed it.

Celia jumped slightly when he opened the kitchen door, and glanced over at him, smiling as she frowned, before turning her attention back to the cooking.

He moved quietly, sliding his arms around her and pressing close until he could look over her shoulder at the rich sauce that she was moving around the pan.

“Smells lovely, love. Thought it was my turn, though?”
“Mm-hm.” She purred, pressing her shoulders back against him, then half-turning her head to meet his eye. “But I got home early, and I’m starving.”

John laughed, moving away and over to the table, where Celia had placed his junk-mail from that morning. He leafed through the envelopes, wondering at the self-replicating mess that he’d set in motion from the first moment that he’d even considered owning anything substantial. At least half of the letters jostling against each other, trying to sell him services and products, were from people he already did business with – Banks, utilities, and charities.

He wondered how much money they spent producing this stuff, as he shovelled it into the bin. A waft of dirty air came at him from the momentarily open bin – rotten vegetables from a few days before – making him queasy.

As he rocked slightly on his heels, eyes crossed and closed, Celia spoke to him over her shoulder, voice raised over the hissing meat and tomatoes.

“Sorry, what?” John said, eyes open, looking over at her.
“I just said, it’s lucky I came home early, actually – some friends of yours came round looking for you, and they’d have missed me otherwise.”
“Friends? Who?” He said, perplexed.

Thinking about it, he was a little sad to note that there weren’t that many people it could be. Other than Celia and a few other close friends that the two shared between them, everybody else he knew were work colleagues, and he’d only just left those wankers behind him for the day.

“I hadn’t met them before. Quite young guys with dreads – similar look to Jane, but, you know, much younger. I assumed you’d met them through the Uni.”
“Oh.” He said. “No, my students wouldn’t know where I… why would they come round?” He wrinkled his nose at the back of her head. “Did they say what they wanted?”
“… Just said they wanted to say hello. They were quite charming, actually. They seemed very dissapointed when they went off back to their van.”
“Wait, what?” John said, suddenly hyper-alert and queasy once again. “Van?”
“Yeah… they had a white van. It looked a bit beaten up, but it had quite a cool picture of some old comic character painted on the side.”
“Oh, dear.”
“Don’t worry, love. No need to worry, they’ll be round again in a bit. I told them you’d be home from work around now-ish.”

John was silent for a few moments, and then burst into motion like a startled bird, taking Celia’s arm and guiding her carefully away from the cooking.
“Ah, you see, the problem is, and I can’t believe I thought it would be smart, but I’ve made us reservations at La Bomb – you know you said how we never go out for dinner – and, well, I thought it would be a nice surprise – God, I’m stupid! But we need to leave now ‘else we’ll miss the table.” 
“What?” Said Celia, bewildered. “But…” She continued, looking back at the bubbling pan. “We can’t…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll look after that.” John spluttered. “And it’s my treat. Off we go, then.”

A few hours later, Celia finally managed to catch her breath, and regain enough composure to pin John down for some questions.

“So…” She said, looking down at him, hands holding his shoulders in place among the now no-longer-pristine hotel linen. “… not that I’m not grateful, but what was this all in aid of?”

John looked up at her sheepishly, knowing that the next few seconds were crucial. As easy-going as their friends thought Celia was, he knew that it wasn’t beyond her to strand him in a hotel room without any clothes, or some other equally humiliating punishment, if she felt that he had behaved badly or kept something from her. Or even just if she thought it would be funny.

“All… what?” He said. Her smile widened, and she pressed herself down on him where their bodies met, beneath the sheets.
“The lovely hotel, when we only live five minutes away. The last-minute trip to the theatre. The restaurant.”
“Oh. What can I say? I love you?” He said. Then he winced as her head shot forward, but she was only coming in for a kiss.

“Well, obviously…” She said, kiss over. “… But you obviously hadn’t planned it, before I mentioned those friends of yours.”
“What do you mean? I’d made reservations..!” John responded, making a half-hearted try for righteous indignation, and falling somewhere short of it as she wriggled against him.
“Huh. Is that why we had to try four different restaurants before we found somewhere to eat?”
“Uh…” John responded.

After a few more minutes of stubborn wheedling and weak rebuffs, John finally relented.

“Okay, right. Fine!” He said.
“Yes?” Said Celia.
“But it sounds mad…”
“Like that’s ever stopped you.” She said. “Go on…”

“Remember I’ve told you about that year I spent living in a squat, when I was a student?”
“You’ve mentioned it, I think.” She curled her lip, and looked at the ceiling, trying to remember. “Hm. Not sure.”
“Well, anyway, I did. This is, what, 90? 91?”
“Heh. Nearly twenty years ago. You old bastard.”
“Hey!” He growled, and tried to dislodge her from her perch on his stomach. She had too good a grip on him, though, and was too well-placed, and he soon gave up. He resorted to pouting pettiness. “Well, you’re not as young as… all that… any more.” He said. She posed prettily for him.
“I’ve got ten years on you, old man. Which means you’ll be dead looong before I am.”
He rolled his eyes.

“Anyway, young lady. For a year, I lived in a squat, kind of, with these two brothers and their mate. The younger of the two brothers was about the same age as me, and so was their friend – the older brother was, well, older.”
“Uhuh.”
“And mid-thirties isn’t old, by the way.”
“I’d say that the point when you’re saying ‘mid-thirties’ instead of thirty-seven, it probably feels pretty old, though, huh?”
“S’pose. Shutup.” He closed his eyes, and carried on. “It wasn’t really a squat, though. It was this rental place. The brothers had worked out some sort of scheme, where they were getting the council to pay the rent, and give them other benefits. They let me stay there for free.”
“Oh. Well, what did they get out of that?”
“I don’t know. I guess they… liked my company?”
“HAH!”
“Yes, yes, laugh it up, furball. But I was far from the withered old, ground down husk of a man you know now. I was fun! I had dreadlocks, and went out dancing, and… stop laughing!”
“Sorry, just… I won’t believe it without photographic evidence.”
“Listen, do you want to know, or not?”
“Sorry.”
“So, these guys, they were crusties of the highest order. Crusties are like New Age travellers, only they don’t actually travel.”
“I know what crusties are. We still had them in my generation.”
“Oh, really? They’ve all but died out among the young people at work.” He said, grinning mischeviously at her. “So, anyway, they had all these idealistic ideas, about self-sufficient projects that they were going to do… Art projects, or environmentally sound living arrangements, stuff like that.”
“Well, that all sounds quite nice.”
“It isn’t.” His mouth curled in distaste. “It was elitist bollocks.”

“I was a bit more cynical, and a bit more pragmatic, but I kind of half believed it all, of course. After a few months of living with them, and only having to contribute what I could afford, it all sounded like the sort of lovely, naive dream that could actually work. It didn’t actually occur to me at the time that those guys… every few months, their parents would visit – the two most lovely suburban middle-class oldies you could ever meet – and give them discreet handouts.
Nor that it couldn’t be all that self-sufficient a lifestyle if it required benefit fraud to pull it off.
Or that none of the big plans ever seemed to get beyond the ‘sitting around smoking dope in front of the shopping channel’ stages.

Anyway, I started hanging out with them during the festival season one year, and everything was great and gravy – we spent a great summer listening to faux-socialist folk-pretenders in tie-dye – all dirty clothes and brand-new boots, singing about the struggle of the workers to fields full of free-thinking individuals just like us.”

“Oh, hang on, this rings a bell – I’ve heard this rant before. ‘The Levellers’, right?”
“Well, and others. But anyway, between that summer, and the next one, something changed. Either the shine went out of the relationship, and I just didn’t seem cool enough any more, or we started growing in different directions, or… I dunno.

Maybe it was as simple as one of their different money-making schemes falling through, and things suddenly not being as relaxed as they had been before. It’s always odd, how the people who don’t care about money seem to be the ones who really care about money.

They started getting less friendly, if not openly hostile, around times of money exchange, like the weekly food-shop or rent time – I paid them rent, though they’d somehow managed to swing a benefit cheque that exceeded the landlord’s rent. And they pretty much insisted that I go to the festivals with them that year – though I was too skint, and getting uncomfortable with the idea of sneaking in by then – telling me that they’d cover everything. But when we got there, and I was stuck in a field in Devon or somewhere, they’d start dropping veiled comments about the petrol money I owed them.

I’d try to pay my way, and once they stopped shielding me from it, I realised that they were actually living more expensive lives than I’d thought. I actually couldn’t afford to stay with them any more.

By the end of that second summer, I’d found a job – and thankfully they’d worked out a way to live on the road for a while, so I was spared the awkwardness of having to leave them – which would have basically been a proper out-loud rejection of their lifestyle.”

“You do know that this story is very boring, don’t you?”
“Imagine living it!”
“Oooh, poor baby and his poor boring life before he met me!”

“So, the boys left town, and I stayed. There were a few of us from that social group – squat survivors – in almost the same boat. In some ways, it’s quite hard to recover from spending a bit of time so free of responsibility and consequence – it’s not a life that’s easy to reconcile with the working world.

At least one of my mates from then has driven himself a bit loopy trying to keep hold of that lifestyle.

So, then, around two years later, in the middle of summer, I’ve almost completely forgotten about those guys. This is when I was living with Ellen. Remember Ellen? We bumped into her at the pub at New Year?”

Celia’s expression told him that yes, she remembered.

“Right, okay, moving on. I’m walking home from work, and I see a van pass by out of the corner of my eye, moving on up the road to our flat.”
“Wait, their van?”
“Yeah, it’s a white van, with an old comic character on the side. Though of course, at the time, she was the height of contemporary pop-art culture.”
“Oh.”
“I thought maybe I’d imagined it, though for some reason it filled me with anxiety anyway. I don’t know why – it wasn’t like we’d parted badly. But, just, though it wasn’t like I’d repressed the memories – it just wasn’t a part of my life that I was that interested in revisiting, even then.

Our flat at the time was above a big furniture shop, that was kind of on a corner, and as I walked nearer, I noticed that the van was parked outside the shop. And it was definitely the same van. I walked slower, and saw two of the three guys – they were quite distinctive, even from a distance – at the side door, talking into the intercom that fed into our flats.

For no good reason, I turned around and went to our local pub. And drank till they kicked me out.

Ellen wasn’t happy when I eventually rolled in – we didn’t have mobiles at the time, so she’d had no idea where I was. When I eventually calmed her down, I asked about the boys, and she got angry again, though the angle and velocity of it changed slightly – they had irritated her somehow.

Apparently they’d come around looking for me, to ‘catch up’. It wasn’t that weird that they’d found me – back then, enough of the same people were hanging around that it wouldn’t have taken much detective work. But when she had told them that I wasn’t about, they had kind of… refused to give up. They weren’t aggressive, she said – they just wouldn’t take her repeated hints to go.

Eventually, they got to their point. They told her that they were hoping to talk to me about some money that I owed them. They gave her some ridiculous figure – something like a thousand quid – saying that they’d taken a look at the finances for the year that I lived with them, and realised that they should have been charging more.

She told them to fuck off, and closed the door on them. They didn’t try and raise her again, but she noticed out of the window that the van was still there for hours afterwards – I must have just missed them.”

“Oh, yuck, that sounds horrible. Did you ever sort it out?”
“Well, no. I didn’t see them again that year. And though I thought I saw them at a festival a couple of years later, running a burrito stand, I didn’t approach them – I don’t like Mexican food.

But then, the following summer, with Ellen long gone and me living in a flatshare in a different part of town, they appeared again. Again, I missed them – luckily, they never could get the hang of an average working day – but my housemate, who was studying for his Masters at the time – wasn’t so lucky. Apparently, when I saw the van outside and dodged my house that time, they were inside drinking tea, after he’d inadvertantly failed to not invite them in.

And this has happened every few years ever since… always just long enough after the last time that I’ve forgotten all about them, and only ever the one afternoon every time. I guess it’s another stroke of luck that they’re not all that conscientious – they’re like the most lacklustre collection agency ever.”

“Wow. And you haven’t spoken to them in all that time? If they aren’t all that bothered, wouldn’t it be easier to just, I don’t know, talk to them? Tell them that they’re wrong?”
“You know how I feel about confrontation.”
“Good point.” She said. He looked a little pitiful, which Celia couldn’t help but find a little cute, but something was nagging at her.

“Hang on. So you’re saying that these guys were the same age as you?”
“Hm.” He nodded.
“But… the guys I saw were, what, young? They were almost cute with the youngness. And you’re, well, not.”
“No offence taken.”
“Uh, no offence meant. But, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would three youngsters be driving around in…”
“They aren’t.”
“Eh?”
“The thing is, as the years have gone by, all of the poor buggers who’ve ended up encountering the crustie boys on my behalf  have described them exactly the same way – early twenties, same hair, same clothes, same van.”
“But that… sounds…”
“Mad. Yeah. That’s why I didn’t want to say anything… it’s just better not to think about it.”
“So, what, are they ghosts, or something?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But I didn’t hear anything about them dying, and there’s enough of a grapevine, withered as it is, that I think I would have.

I think…

Well, I’ve changed over the years, sure. But maybe not everybody does. Maybe in among the commune-tourism, the new-age benefit fraud and the endless festival seasons, the three of them just… never moved on.

To be honest, I’d rather never find out.”

John looked up at Celia, and Celia looked down at John. She didn’t say anything for a while, though her face ran through a few different expressions.

After a while, she wrinkled her nose, relaxed, and pressed down over him, kissing his cheek, and whispering in his ear.

“It’s alright, you mad old senile bastard. This all sounds very curious indeed, but the hotel’s paid for, now, so we’ll stay till morning.”
“Oh, thank you so much for your patience.”
“You’re welcome.” She said, warm and soft against him. “… And don’t worry. I like that you got older.”
If he said anything else, it was lost among her kisses.

Across town, and outside their house, the white van sat, creaking, on ageless wheels. Around midnight, it made a cracking mechanical sound, down in it’s guts, and grumbling, rolled away.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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