It didn’t help that she was going through an existential crisis. Jen was 22, living with her fiancé, and looking for a ‘proper’ job, having recently graduated. Her fiancé was kind, caring, and funny, but she wasn’t in love with him. In truth, she hadn’t been in love when he had proposed to her on millennium night as Big Ben struck midnight. But she had already decided that she would rather live with a decent man than break his heart in search of a fairytale. It had seemed like the right thing to do. But it had left her feeling as though she had taken a wrong-turn and ended up skipping 20 years of her life, to land in her smack bang in her forties.
In an attempt to improve her outlook, Jen found herself some bar work for a couple of evenings each week. Just enough to give her an injection of energy – she thrived on meeting people – without getting in the way of her day job. It was just what she needed to drag her out of the rut she was in. A lively pub – the busiest night was a Sunday, surprisingly – where it could be mistaken for a club with its DJs and clientele clothing options.
Serendipity took over and ensured that Jen and Tom shared a rota, seeing each other on every shift. It made Jen feel like a teenager and crazy old lady all at once. They had a blast with rarely a moment just the two of them. They snatched those moments where they could and it turned out the incredibly cute and very cool Tom was actually smart, a talented graphic designer, funny, with the biggest heart full of love and kindness for all.
He also had a passion for music, with tastes ranging far and wide. Jen’s first experience of Tom’s musical taste came at clean-up time, after hours in the pub. Everyone else would busy themselves with the bar, dirty glasses, sticky tables. No-one wanted to volunteer to tackle the mangy ashtrays. As a non-smoker, Jen felt strongly about being expected to deal with them. Tom hatched a great plan whereby Jen would scoot around the tables in a flash, gathering ashtrays which had to be cleaned in the kitchen rather than behind the bar. He’d then man the sink and undertake the dirty work while they listened to his choice of music at full pelt, dancing about like hyped-up toddlers.
The first album he ever played was Spandau Ballet’s greatest hits. A classic by anyone’s standards. True and Gold were obvious winners. But he also knew Through the Barricades – Jen’s favourite – which got plenty of airtime too. Over the years, memories fade and some get forgotten altogether. Not this one.
As the years went by, they kept in touch and lost touch from time to time. Always pleased to hear from one another. Always wishing the best for each other. Becoming close. Very close. Sharing intimate fears and fantasies. Despite their physical distance – Jen having moved away – they came close to falling in love. Maybe they did, but neither one ever admitted it to the other. It was never the right time. If one was single, the other was not, and so time marched on. But their fondness for each other never skewed their desire for the other to find true happiness. A break-up was never seen as an opportunity for the other to gain a foothold. There was advice, humour, and virtual hugs to bring the heartbroken back to life.
And there was music. Always music. Tom had an almost innate ability to identify pieces Jen would love. They were attuned to each other but brought offerings that wouldn’t have been obvious choices. Her love of Céline Dion didn’t exactly pair with his adoration of Blink 182! But they met in the middle, crossed-over, wove a web of music that united them. Josh Radin came to feature heavily. Jen’s favourite being Paperweight which resonated with her loneliness. Tom’s was Winter – used in a television programme where a character dies suddenly, leaving his best friend utterly devastated.
Seventeen years have passed since they shared that first song and so many since.
On a trip to Manchester in November, they reminisced about their days spent listening to Angels & Airwaves’ album, I-Empire. He offered a new suggestion, Brian Fallon’s Painkillers. Apparently Tom’s ‘go-to’ album at the time. He told her about his favourite building in the Manchester skyline. She shared an artsy photograph of her new car. He confirmed that he still consumed his tea with half a bag of sugar. They wondered about meeting up but logistics were against them. Next time, definitely.
A few weeks later, Jen received a call from Tom’s wife. They’d never spoken before, let alone met. Surprise turned to anxiety. Two days after they’d last spoken, he’d died. Very suddenly. He was 37.
Their last song will always be Winter.