She stood outside the newsagents next to the second hand record shop. Her shoulders hunched, collar of her raincoat turned up, her headscarf and dark glasses completed what she hoped was a disguise. A litter of half smoked cigarettes around her feet gave testimony to how long she had been there. She checked her watch for the umpteenth time and lit another cigarette. A skein of her long dark brown hair had slipped from underneath her head scarf. It caught in the wind and flicked across the lighter’s flame crackling briefly.
The last of the customers left the record shop and the lights began to go out one by one. The rather unkempt shop keeper pulled the shutter down over the door and locked it. He turned to go and then noticed the woman standing under the awning of the newsagents.
“It’s been a long time Frank” she said.
The six months they had spent together became the defining period of both their lives. They met for the first time in second hand record shop on Leith Walk in Edinburgh, a Fleetwood Mac song playing in the background, “I need your love so bad.” He was searching through the stacks of old vinyl LPs looking for any gems to augment his collection of 60’s and 70’s music. Most of the songs he wanted he could have downloaded but he preferred vinyl to CDs and MP3s. He believed the plastic gave a deeper and more profound sound and he deluded himself that he could hear the difference.
She, on the other hand, was just bored and trying to look interested. Poorly prepared for the rain she had popped into the shop to wait for the thunderstorm to pass by. The night before had been warm and humid and she had gone out that morning with just a thin cheesecloth top, shorts and sandals. She had walked with no destination in mind through the city until the crash of thunder and the ensuing downpour had driven her into the shop. It was purely chance that brought her here at this precise moment.
The shop was dingy and smelled of old shoes and damp, dust had settled on a window display that had seen better days. The owner sat behind the counter dressed in a ragbag mixture of tie dyed T-shirt under a leather waistcoat, grubby jeans, trainers and mismatched socks. He was reading a music paper and making notes on a small pad. His long greasy hair and dishevelled look was a perfect fit with the unkempt nature of the shop.
The two other customers were shaven headed and clearly looking for something very specific. Standing next to each other they flicked through the albums with small precise movements of their fingers almost perfectly in time, each cover briefly scanned before moving on. Occasionally one would lift a cover from the rack and look at the other who would either nod at which point the album would be added to the growing pile at their feet. Or a short shake of the head would see the album returned to the rack and the synchronised flicking would begin again.
An album cover caught her eye. A hideous blue and pink face, mouth gaping, nostrils flared, wide eyes staring at something just off to the side as if petrified by what was there. She picked the cover up and was surprised to see a small easily removed sticker on the bottom right of the sleeve, £20.00. For this she thought, it’s horrible. Then she read the title, “In the Court of The Crimson King”. It sparked a memory, King Crimson, her dad had gone on about this band for years, telling her how much better they were than the manufactured crap they called music these days. It drove her nuts.
Her dad had lost most of his music in a fire at their old home. Irreplaceable he said to the insurance man who had come to value their possessions after the blaze. The man had looked at the pile of warped plastic and estimated maybe 150 records at £5.00 each and wrote £750.00 on his notepad. “Irreplaceable” her dad had muttered again but to no avail, the insurance assessor was young and unsympathetic. She tucked the album under her arm and checked her purse. She had just enough cash; this would make a great birthday present for her old man she thought.
Frank looked up from his investigations and saw her standing there rummaging in her enormous canvas shoulder bag. It wasn’t her undoubted elfin beauty which he drew his attention but the album under her arm. He had been looking for it for a while; trawling around Edinburgh’s second hand record shops for months and there it was. It was only then that he noticed how lovely she was. He swallowed and lowered his head again embarrassed hoping she hadn’t spotted him staring at her. He was praying she wouldn’t have enough money to buy the album.
“Put it back – please put it back.” he thought.
He was twenty three years old, graduated 18 months ago with a respectable 2:1 in electrical engineering, working for a small electronics company and painfully shy. He’d had a few girlfriends while at university; generally scholarly types with ponytails, flat shoes and serious faces with little if any makeup. None of these relationships were of any consequence and were soon over. However he remained friends with all of them even after graduation and their departure to pastures new. And now here was this goddess in a dusty old record shop holding the very piece of music he had been hunting for.
The hairless pair lifted their small stack of records and went to the counter. The proprietor looked up from his reading and took the albums from them. He rang the amounts up on the ancient till, gently peeling the price tags off and sticking them into a ledger. “£62.50.” he said. One of the two went to hand over a card.
The pair looked incredulous but nevertheless rummaged in designer rucksacks to come up with the necessary cash.
The entire transaction had perhaps taken a minute but in those sixty seconds Frank had imagined a lifetime with the beautiful customer; house, children, hoards of admiring friends – success and triumph on a global scale. Thunder crashed outside and he caught a glimpse of himself in the store’s CCTV system. A slightly podgy, pasty faced 23 year old, unshaven but without a beard, ill-fitting clothes draped over him as if they were waiting for the real owner to turn up or for him to grow into them. “Dream on Frank” he thought
Still looking at the monitor he saw her go up to the counter and pay for the album and turn to leave. The rain pelted down outside and she hesitated by the glass door, the album in a plastic bag held loosely in her left hand wondering how much longer the rain would last. She didn’t have enough cash left after her purchase to get a taxi home and the nearest bus stop was 300 yards away through the pouring rain. She decided to remain in the shop a little longer. The owner had returned to his reading and the tallish podgy chap seemed harmless enough engrossed as he was in his inspection of the assembled LPs. If she had known what would happen she might have risked the soaking. She sat on a stool by the door idly flicking through back issues of NME placed there for customers, waiting for the rain to go off.
Frank went up to the counter and put two albums down.
“Not your usual stuff Frank”
“What?” said Frank distracted.
“Not your usual stuff.” said the owner pointing at the two albums.
It was only then Frank noticed what he had picked up; an ABBA record and a clearly fake copy of an early Bob Dylan. He shrugged, “Needed a change.” trying to appear nonchalant.
“I’ve got an original Deep Purple single out back, a demo for Parlophone before they became well known. A tenner for you, ’cause your one of my best customers.”
“Okay” said Frank still distracted.
The owner disappeared into the storeroom behind the counter. Frank continued to watch the monitor praying that the rain would stay heavy enough to keep her in the shop until he had plucked up the courage to speak. It was not looking hopeful, already the sky was brightening and the rain easing.
She stood to leave and Frank spotted that she had left the plastic bag with the album lying on the floor beside the stool. She walked out leaving the bag and the precious music behind. The owner returned lovingly cradling the single. Frank dumped the money on the table, grabbed the single and dashed out of the shop picking up the carrier bag on the way.
He could see her just fifty yards away up the hill strolling slowly towards the bus stop. “Excuse me miss, excuse me.” he shouted.
She stopped and looked round and he ran towards her. He waved the carrier bag in the air; he was out of breath when he reached her.
“You left this in the shop.” he panted “The record shop” waving the carrier bag indicating where he had ran from.
And that was how it started, him out of breath on a damp Edinburgh street, she forgetful and grateful for his kindness. They had a coffee in the St James’s Centre and chatted for an hour or more. She had just completed her degree in art history and was thinking what to do with the rest of her life and he was just happy to be seen in the company of such a delightful creature. That summer they began to see each other regularly and eventually she moved in with him.
Through the autumn then the freezing winter of 2010 they lived in his small flat off Leith Walk, just bohemian enough for him to feel part of a vibrant community and for her to appear in the right places at the right time. She smartened him up, bought him clothes that fitted properly, a decent hair cut and he lost some of his podginess. He began to feel more confident in himself and was promoted. He started smoking because she did; he started drinking expensive malt whisky because she did.
Anything he thought to keep her with him for as long as possible.
She got a job with a small radio station as a continuity announcer to begin with; then she filled in on an arts programme while the permanent presenter went on maternity leave. Before long Kirstine was the full time arts correspondent for the station. In a city like Edinburgh there was always room for a smart sexy presenter of arty programmes.
Then she was head hunted by the BBC and her fame rocketed. Within a few months she was to be seen at all the best parties, photographed by the paparazzi, her elfin beauty loved by the camera and cameramen alike. She soon had her own TV show on top of her radio programme. She plundered Franks record collection, sprayed his eclectic knowledge across the airways as if it were hers. But Frank didn’t mind she was still with him, that’s all that mattered.
He was seen as a rising star in the computer company and he had been away for a couple of days at the company headquarters in London. A fruitless trip as it turned out. He was tired when he turned the key to enter the flat. She was in the kitchen sitting at the table that they had picked up second hand from the Bethany shop on Leith Walk in the early days of their relationship. She sat with her head down on folded arms sobbing.
He should have rushed to her side, he knew that. But something held him back a premonition perhaps. He stood at the doorway to the kitchen; stiff and scared his coat half off. She lifted her head and he could see she had been crying for some time; her eyes reddened and puffy, her nose dripping and her mouth turned down. An empty vodka bottle sat in the middle of the table with only one empty glass beside it. She reached for the glass and missed which drew another sob from her. When she looked at him again she was obviously having difficulty focussing, swaying in the chair she splayed out her hands on the table as if to stabilise her position. He had seen her drunk before but never like this.
“Where have you been?” she slurred.
“Kirstine, what’s wrong?”
“Wrong! Wrong! Everything‘s wrong, where the fuck were you when I needed you?”
She waved an arm in the air which nearly toppled her off the seat. This time he did go to her, dropping his coat on the floor and gently lifted her to her feet. She swung a feeble slap at him.
“Bastard you should have been here!”
He still didn’t know what was wrong but she was unlikely to be able to tell him in this state. He carried her through to the bedroom her weak struggles no match for his sober strength. He laid her down on the bed trying to avoid the stench of stale alcohol she was breathing on him. He made sure she was on her side remembering something from a first aid course about people suffocating on their own vomit. He covered her with a blanket, she was snoring within seconds.
He slept that night on the living room sofa his old university greatcoat over him as a blanket. Despite her pleadings he could never bring himself to get rid of it. The coat had seen him through so many Scottish winters that it felt like an old friend, so it lingered in the hall cupboard until needed again. He slept better than expected. When he awoke and glanced at his watch he took a few seconds to return to reality. It was after 10 and he gradually remembered Kirstine from last night. He got to his feet still dressed and walked through to the bedroom. She was gone, she had obviously been sick on the floor during the night. There was a note pinned to a pillow. It explained in her shaky handwriting that she was leaving. She had fallen pregnant but had lost the baby while he was away. She was moving out to further her career in the media and he was not to try and see her. She would come and pick up her stuff when he was at work.
That was it; the best six months of his life came to an end with a scrawled note on a stained pillow with the smell of stale vomit pervading the room. He got drunk and stayed that way for a year, he was sacked from his job, and he could barely pay the rent. The owner of the record shop watched him fall apart; in an effort to keep him solvent he bought back many of the records he had sold to Frank. He was the only friend Frank had. Eventually Frank started working in the record store and began to sober up. But plagued by memories of Kirstine he felt less than real; a shadowy figure on the borders of life, broken and incomplete.
Kirstine’s TV career took off, her beauty and wit carrying her to dizzy showbiz heights, the inevitable BAFTA followed for her documentary on early Salvador Dali and his relationship with Luis Buñuel. The slightly haunted look behind her eyes merely enhanced her on screen persona with a sense of danger and risk. The viewers loved it, she could have sold ice cubes to the Eskimo’s and sand castles to the Arabs. So here she was mid twenties beautiful and successful, the world at her feet and she was miserable.
She stubbed out the half finished cigarette in the ashtray outside the semi dark bar before they went in. The small quiet cocktail bar on Queen Street was one of those places you came across purely by accident. Hidden in the basement it was difficult to find; just a small plaque in the wall at the bottom of the stair advertising its presence. Inside it was dimly lit and intimate with nooks and crannies perfect for clandestine lovers meetings.
On the walk there they had exchanged the usual pleasantries, about the weather, don’t you look well etc, etc, but they both knew there was more to come.
The seaweed and peat odour of a fine malt whisky wafted between them. She sipped from her glass. He breathed in the aroma – he hadn’t touched a drink since he stopped smoking. He knew that for him, they went hand in hand; one drop and he would be back where he started, drunk and incapable as the policeman had said. He took a quick swallow from his sparkling water and wiped his lips.
He was about to speak when she put a hand on his arm pleading for a moments respite, a breath before plunging in. This was the first time they had been together for over three years. He had changed, he was thinner his face gaunt and pained with loss. She, on the other hand, had blossomed. Her dark brown hair, the colour of old walnut, glossy and smooth, her cheeks faintly rouged looked rather more prominent than he remembered. Her lips were full and pouting as she sipped at the whisky. She was even more beautiful than he remembered.
“It’s been a long time Frank.” She said again.
Fleetwood Mac played in his head – The Green Manalishi, a guitar riff then a plaintive “just tryin’ to keep from followin’ you!”