A pound coin clatters down the slot. I scroll through the song choices of the old jukebox, and punch in 624. A seven inch of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ moves into position. The tonearm slides across and there’s a crackle as the needle settles into the grooves. A melancholy guitar chord erupts from the speakers into the hushed pub. The familiar steady rhythm and haunting vocals begin, stirring my gut.
I’m in The Angel, a pub Siobhán and I frequented in the early nineties. Tonight though, the heavy snow’s left it empty. It’s a lonely place to spend my thirtieth birthday. I go back to my seat, undo the top button of my shirt, remove my Anglican clerical collar, and place it on the table. I’m twenty again.
The place hasn’t changed. It still has the same decor: oak beams, lead windows, black walls with torn posters of The Charlatans and The Stone Roses, the smell of ale and stale cigarettes. I glance at the door and imagine Siobhán walking in. It’s been eight years since I’ve seen her.
As ‘Purple Rain’ plays on, I take out a photo of her. There’s a white fold line across the middle of the picture but it’s the only one I have. It’s from her student house in Leeds. Her eyes, wild and dark, stare back. Her skin is unblemished with naturally pink cheeks. Blonde cropped hair hangs long at the front, blunt cut to her jaw-line on one side. She changed hair colour frequently, but blonde suited her best. She’s wearing a T-shirt from the Cure’s Brixton Academy gig. Robert Smith’s face is stretched across her chest, and at the bottom in red are the words: ‘MIXED UP’. I place the photo on the table next to my dog collar.
Out the window, snowflakes tumble in ever-changing courses. Fleeting shapes fall and disintegrate on the glass before my eyes can catch them, and I’m lost in memories of her again.
Sitting outside the tent, a short distance from here, under the cloudless blue sky, we took in the endless moors and breathed the sweet summer air.
‘Purple Rain’ came on the battered stereo that I had brought along. Siobhán pulled me to my feet and we danced, close. She looked into my eyes. “When you hear this song, think of me.”
I wanted to ask her to marry me, but I was scared she’d turn me down. Instead, I asked, “Do you think we’ll still be together when we’re in our thirties?”
“Maybe,” she smiled, amused at my question.
And then, to ensure we didn’t lose contact, I came up with this ridiculous idea: “Let’s meet back here on my thirtieth birthday, no matter what. At midnight.”
“Okay.” She smiled again.
“All done for the night!” My thoughts are interrupted by a man behind the bar who’s putting on his coat. Two other men stand by the door. A glance at my watch tells me it’s ten past twelve. I apologize for keeping them and place my collar and photo in my pocket.
I step outside into the cold night air. There’s no sign of anyone. The moon is big and bright. It’s stopped snowing and the wind has died down. Everything is white. I pull my coat collar tight around my neck and look towards the hills where Siobhán and I camped. I pause for a moment and hold my breath.
In the far distance, a figure stands motionless with a dog by their side.
I step closer. All I can hear is my own breathing and the light crunch of each step as I move forward.
The dog breaks free and a man shouts something incomprehensible.
A warm tear rolls down my cold face.
Andy Houstoun has had short stories published in a range of magazines and won ''Best UK fiction on the Net 2021' in the literary journal Ariel Chart Review. He is the author of the novella-in-flash 'Waiting For Lulu at Wuthering Heights'.