The band was striking up, and his team was being whipped, and she was breaking up with him. The neutral ground where they had met for the mercy blow was a glass-walled bar, like a museum exhibit or sadistically undersized zoo pen for captive wildlife, one floor above Paddington Station. On the table between them, a single sweaty beverage sat almost untouched: “last drink” was a measurement that he had control over, an hourglass full of fluid rather than sand, and he was intent on prolonging her discomfort even though it was an act of masochism. As the never-ending end dragged on, in an attempt at positive body language he unlocked his arms from their folded position - the only way he had so far been able to resist reaching out to hold her hand - and knocked his drink over. Both of them sat watching the beer drool off the table edge without trying to clean it up, and the illusion that the moment could go on forever ebbed away with it. On the television joisted just above his head City were getting drubbed in the Manchester Derby, and the bar was half-packed with itinerant fans watching. He could not quite shake the feeling that their cheers and howls of protest and approval were for this mess of two halves, limping through the last seconds of its injury time in front of them. “I’m sorry”. The crowd were on their feet. “Don’t be – it’s not your fault”. It was her fault. The fans groaned and grasped their heads in frustration at his lie, and at a thirty-yard effort from outside the penalty area that had
not even troubled the opposition keeper. He felt himself drift away from the conversation, staring past her shoulder: across the packed station floor the wind was slinging filthy gouts of city rain against the entrance; just feet away, a swarthy man was scrubbing the glass bar walls with soiled water; when he snapped back to the conversation, she was crying, and he had no idea why, as the last minute of conversation had dribbled down the surface of his closed mind like rain down grubby glass. It was her decision that they were breaking up, and he had felt it coming for a while, so he did not see any point in listening. To his knowledge, boys were not supposed to be the ones to make these kind of deductions – it was always woman’s intuition that you heard about. He shook his head, but could think of nothing to say. He felt that perhaps he should cry too, as that seemed to be the right thing to do, and it might remind him of what they once had in common. At the foot of the escalator that led up to the mezzanine bar door, the Salvation Army were lurching into step with the theme from ´The Dambusters’, glossing the moment with an absurd Hollywood sheen. A tremble of strings shook in time with her lower lip, pursued by a flatulent blast of tuba; an overweight soldier huffed and pounded away at a marching drum, and Chris felt the thuds in his chest sync with it in a muffled tattoo, as if seeking something new to keep time with. She made a token effort to wipe her tears away, but they chased along her jaw line to collect on and double a small mole under her chin, and he only loved her more then because it had always been her flaws that he loved anyway. His gaze wandered away again, to a man trying to spark a wet cigarette outside the station door, and he felt the last embers of his affection for her flare up and fizzle out in soggy tandem: he resisted the urge to wipe the tears for her or proffer his napkin. That was not his job anymore. He considered the idea of taking a photograph of the moment for posterity, and then rejected it. Capturing the emotions of other people was professional, preserving his own just seemed callous and pointless – he had no desire to preserve them for a later date.
They took the end of the game as their cue and left, riding the escalator a step apart down to the station floor, amidst the trundle and mutter of the crowd. The band was now locked in key with ‘The Great Escape’, cheered on by football fans who were tossing money into the hat with a drunken abandon they would regret later – the tune was so loud that it buried the station announcements under a blanket of noise, as if the band sensed that they were providing the score for something both momentous and painfully commonplace. They kissed, the last one, and he felt his guts curdle into a ball, his heart murmuring in protest out of time with the band. The kiss lasted for ever: when it stopped he looked up through the sheets of rain and dirty glass at the hotel just outside the station door and asked her, and she frowned at him. “You’ve made me feel cheap”. Why was it cheap? He turned and left. “This isn’t goodbye, is it?” She threw it after him in a plaintive tone that almost made him forget all the weeks that had gone before it. He turned back around to face her. “Of course it’s goodbye”. Walking away, he caught a glimpse in a shop window of the sneer he had delivered his parting shot with, and hated himself for how well he had hidden from both of them what he actually felt. He almost went back to apologise, but instead concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, wondering if there was to be a Hollywood ending to go with the score, a staccato coda of footsteps as she chased and caught him. He delved into his pocket to produce a small camera that he had on him, and turning quickly back, he took a shot of the station floor as the blurring crowd hid her from sight. As he walked out, the sliding door cut the music off midway through a note, the needle slipping from the vinyl, and left him with only the static hiss of rain on pavement. He felt the absence of the music keenly, as it had concealed what was slipping away from him as it played: not her, whom he had lost months before the final orchestral flourish, but all the moments they had shared together, which
should have flooded over him like the last remembrance of a drowning man, and which he could now not buy back at any cost; he had bartered those memories for a mediocre soundtrack supplied by the Faith House Arm of the Salvation Army Amateurâ€™s Band.