Romance Contemporary

Now and then


We’re sitting in the upstairs room at Camden Palace. The music up here’s ambient, low pulsing techno. Dim lights match the vibe. Our crowd’s managed to bag a couple of sofas wedged in a corner. Folk sprawl, taking a breather from the funky-frantic melee downstairs. I’m next to Millie, her head’s on my shoulder and the coconut of her shampoo cuts through the room's hum of sweat, cigarettes and spilled beer.

           ‘Where’ve you been?’ she asks.

           ‘Just . . .’

          I can’t quite remember. Wandering. This place is a maze. An old theatre, a relic of London’s past, revived as a nightclub. Corridors and stairwells, tunnels that pop you out in unexpected coves and balconies. Psychedelic banners and flags and chewy-lipped ravers draped all over. The main space a kaleidoscope of pumping thrusting gurning; shiny, shirtless men in shades, ladies in little outfits, lost in the swirling laser lights and thumpy house music. Big fish little fish, and all that. I may have got lost. I love getting lost. I love Millie.

           She lifts her head and looks up at me. Eyes searching. Pupils like 12” of black vinyl.

           Her lips. So beautiful. I lean in.

           She leans back.

           ‘Where’ve you been?’ she asks again, more urgent, more uncertain, and there’s something lurking, something in the back of my mind that’s grey and morbid and shouldn’t be thought about.

           I break away and glance around. Carrie’s massaging Sid’s shoulders, but staring straight at me. Her look is somewhere between inquisitive and pure spite, but it can’t be that, there can’t be spite. Not here. We’re all so happy. I love these guys. This place. This tune. Millie. I look back at that beautiful face.

           ‘Just . . . wandering around the place, you know. I like getting lost, every now and then . . . ’

           She tips her head to one side, sleek red hair falling over one eye.

           ‘I thought you might have been . . .’ She flicks the hair away. ‘Kissing someone?’

           What what?

           No way.

           But I mean, yes - it springs back straight away, that banished thought. In the downstairs bar. Some girl asks if she can have a swig of water from my bottle. And she’s dry-mouthed and lip-chewing, obviously having a properly mental rush, and she licks her lips and says ‘Thanks’, and I smile, and she smiles, and she’s beautiful, and peachy light gyroscopes around us as she gives me a thank-you hug and we smooch in and have a friendly pill-snog, and everyone’s beautiful, and the world’s a beautiful place when you’re rushing on MDMA and the music’s funky and the lights are low – and there’s a hand on my shoulder, Sid dragging me away, calling me a stupid fucking idiot, and he’s got a point, man, because Millie’s amazing, and beautiful, and where is Millie? I seem to be lost, stumble a bit, but then I find my way back through the crowd, up through all the stairs and corridors and balconies and up into the chill-out room, with its ambient techno and sofas and - Millie! I flop down next to her, collapse my head back on the sofa and let the music take me. Some moments later she rests her head on my shoulder. And it’s like we’re in this loop.


           ‘Were you kissing someone?’ she asks, all hurt, like it’s a soap opera or something, and I laugh, spluttering indignant.

           ‘What what? No way! Why the hell would I do that? You’re my girl. You’re my everything. I love you. You’re so beautiful.’

           Hand on her cheek, stroke her sleek hair, lean in and kiss those lips.


           I’m queuing for the roundabout, one hand on the steering wheel, edging forwards, and it’s definitely her, on the central island, waiting to cross.

           I know it’s her before I even look closer. Like when you recognise a tune before the first note’s finished forming. Big mane of white-blonde hair, now, flumpy coat like she’s trying to hide the weight she’s clearly gained. Pushchair. Baby. Stands to reason.

           Even though I knew about that, it’s still a surprise to see.

           Partly because: I haven’t seen you for twenty-odd years, and look at you now, you’re a grown up with a baby!

           And partly because: Wasn’t that supposed to be us?

           Why didn’t you wait for me?

           And cut back to another rave, a warehouse south of the river, New Year’s Eve about six months before that stupid night at Camden Palace. And we’re pasted together in the queue for the cloakroom, we’d had bevvies and pills at the pub and we’re both properly peaking, cheeks rosy from the cold in the service tunnel where we queue, eyes spangled, the party a distant thumping monster-beast of bassline and junglist MCs, and her arms around me and my arms around her and I’m not sure where she starts and I stop, and I whisper in her ear ‘If it wasn’t such a stupid thing to say, I’d say marry me,’ and a heartbeat later she says ‘And if you said that, I’d say yes’, and bites my lip.

           But back at Camden Palace she just smiles, limply, and turns to talk to Tasha, and I let my head loll back. Catch a glance at Carrie, now rolling a spliff on the down-low with Sid’s weed, and her eyes still hate me. Sid told Carrie told Millie, clearly. But I think I bluffed it. Think I covered myself. Told her she’s beautiful. That’ll do. She is beautiful. Everyone’s beautiful. Although the peak is passed, now. I can feel my feet on the floor. The creep of downhill is building. Gravity. And I know what’s waiting at the bottom. And I cling to Millie, through leaving the club and hailing a minicab and back to Sid’s for spliffs and a comedown, and walking back to Millie’s flat-share through the bleak morning sunshine of the park, and toothbrushing, and she lets me kiss her, but doesn’t kiss me back. I don’t think she ever kisses me back again.

           And six months later, as I chase her down the road, the dark suburban winter night, too many beers in me, and she’s asking Why are you following me? It’s over, leave me alone, and I’m pleading, and stumbling, and she’s saying How dare you?! You lied. You always lied. You lied to my face and I should have ended it there and then.

           I didn’t always lie.


           Maybe twice.

           Maybe – I don’t know. I can’t remember. It’s a long time ago.

           She edges her pushchair into the road, and I wave her over, and she waves thanks, but doesn’t recognise me.

           Maybe the light’s reflecting off the windscreen. Maybe I’ve changed. It’s been – what – twenty years since we broke up? Ten years since I saw her at Greg and Julie’s wedding. In the rear-view mirror I see grey is winning the battle: hair and stubble and bags under my eyes. Fade to grey.

           I knew she had a baby because a year ago, at a dinner party of friends of friends, Carrie said to Bill, ‘Yeah, she said she’d given up. Went it alone. Donor sperm and IVF.’

           And Bill said ‘Funny, it’s not like she lacked for suitors,’ saying suitors like a Victorian maiden aunt.

           ‘Yeah,’ Carrie said with a sigh, loud enough but deliberately not catching my eye. ‘She just never found the right guy.’

           I’d say yes.

           And I toyed with my asparagus, feigning an interest in the conversation to my left about the soaring cost of houses round here, and school catchment areas and all that crap, wondering why I’d never actually asked. Fear of being trapped? Fear of missing out on a better offer? Or maybe I was just a stupid fucking idiot, as Sid so astutely put it.

           My finger reaches for the window button. Slide it down and call hello? Ask her how she’s doing, before she crosses the road and walks away, gone for another twenty years?

           In her shoes, would I give me the time of day?

          How dare you?

           I’m not sure I can calculate the weight of all the double standards.

           Lies, and more lies, and kisses on the wrong lips – that’s what killed my marriage. Cut back two years: ‘Are you cheating on me?’

           Emma pauses before she answers, and in that split second before the ‘No’ I know it’s a yes. And it doesn’t take me long to get to the truh. Cut forward a couple of months to the acrimony, the bitterness, the roaring disgust that she would come and curl up on the sofa with me with another man’s scent on her breath. And tell me, with a straight face, that she’d just been out, with friends. ‘Can’t I go out and have fun?’

           Should I have forgiven her, the way I wished the other her, all those years ago, had forgiven me?

           I still don’t know. You never can know, can you?

           The past is fixed; the future’s yet to be decided.

           Still, at least it was a clean break. Flat sold, kitchenware divided.

           I tell my mind not to dwell on the missed calls. Jo, her best mate, a few glasses deep the other day telling me that Emma’s so sad, so sick with guilt, and me hardening myself to it. Trying not to think of forgiveness, hypocrisy. Don’t let her back inFuck her! (lol, everyone else has.)

           The kid in the buggy, more than a baby, less than a toddler, is bundled up in a fluffy suit with bear ears, snug and asleep, pink pinching his / her cheeks.

           Now and then I wonder if I’ll ever be a father. If I’m getting too old. If I’m morally capable of governing the emotional development of another human being. Is that what fatherhood is? Apart from changing nappies, mopping puke, and taking stabilisers off a tiny bike?

           Emma wanted kids. Desperately. I was her last chance, she said, snot-nosed and choking on tears.

           Well you should have thought of that, shouldn’t you?

           Millie walks past my Volvo’s bonnet, her reflection warped in the scratched black paint, looking ahead, poker-faced, and I can’t help but wonder if she saw me first. Spotted me before I looked her way. And she could have said hello if she wanted to. But that’s clearly not the case. Why would she want to? Oh hello, didn’t you ruin my life for a few months in the late 90s?

           Or maybe she saw me and thought she’d give me the choice. I’m obviously going to see her, aren’t I, one car-bonnet’s length away? Do I want to reach back across the decades and make peace?

           Do I dare to?

           She casts a glance my way, but she’s looking over the car, checking for cyclists (she always hated bloody cyclists) before pushing the buggy across the last metres towards the kerb.

           I put on a smile, an Oh, hello, in case she looks back at me, but she pushes down on the handles and the front wheels go up and the buggy’s up on the pavement and so is she.

           My finger slides to the other button, the passenger window.

           Lower it and call out as she passes?

           What if she doesn’t recognise me? What if she gives me the finger? Shouts ‘How dare you?’ across the street at me. What if she says hello, and I pull over and get out for a chat, and stroke her baby’s pink little cheek and say how cute he / she is, and we share a meaningful look about what if (a what-if within a what-if!) and I say we should meet up some time, for a walk, maybe, and she says yeah, why not, and we do, and I swallow and say I’m sorry, you’re the only one I ever loved, really, and I messed it all up because I’m a stupid fucking idiot. And she says ‘I thought you said it was the booze, or being loved-up on MDMA, or whatever’, and I say ‘Yes, but I should have known better. I shouldn't have lied to you.’ And I’m pushing the buggy in the woods and she strokes my shoulder or something, links her arm through mine, and we walk on, the past setting firm behind us. And we move on together, move in together, and her child grows up knowing I’m not his / her (or their, these days?) father, but I’m still the one here, scratching my knuckles trying to undo the bolt on the stabilisers of the tiny bike. And as the years pass he / she / they wonder how there are pictures of us together in our early twenties at Carnival, but then nothing for twenty years.

           Millie turns and walks, back the way I came. Passing my passenger window. Someone behind me beeps. The traffic ahead has moved.

           I could lift the clutch and get onto the roundabout where traffic now flows.

           Or I could slide down the passenger window.

           My finger is on the button.

           And then I see my phone, think of Emma’s latest text, not reams of angst and guilt and self-hate, just: I miss you.

          I smile, thinking to myself how dare she?

          And now cut forward five years. I’m in the kitchen at my laptop. Thinking, as I do every now and then, about that pivotal moment. About all those moments that make up the fractured history of our love. And now I hear her key in the door, the rush of child-feet, and I snap back to reality, save my thoughts and power down.

October 07, 2022 21:16

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Edward Latham
12:04 Oct 25, 2022

Great job James, there were quite a few timelines here but you managed to keep each of them engaging and allowed the reader to follow them without getting confused, nice one!


James Woods
09:16 Nov 01, 2022

Thanks for your kind words, Edward. Glad it all made sense! J


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Delbert Griffith
14:21 Oct 19, 2022

I don't normally like these kinds of stories, but this is excellently done. Kudos.


James Woods
06:56 Oct 20, 2022

Thanks Delbert! Much appreciated.


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