‘Two pints of Guinness, please,’ I say to the barmaid.
She nods and turns to fill the glasses. I pull a stray, wet rat-tail of hair from my face: I am soaked after the walk across the village from the bed and breakfast to the pub. I shiver from the cold and nervous excitement and make a mental note to sort out my hair in the Ladies.
The barmaid puts the two glasses on the bar. I hand over a ten pound note and am surprised to see how much change I get – this rural corner of Cornwall is much cheaper than Brighton.
‘Cheers,’ I say, turning to Ray and chinking my glass with his.
‘Cheers’. He hungrily sucks down half his pint in a single gulp and wipes the froth from his moustache.
‘Shall we…?’ I point towards a table in the corner.
We sit down on a threadbare banquette and I see three teenage roadies setting up the stage for the band: the drum kit, the mike stands, the amplifiers. I feel another shudder, except this time it’s nothing to do with the cold. I run my fingers nervously through my damp hair.
‘So remind me,’ says Ray. ‘Who is the band?’
‘Oh, just a bunch of guys having a mid-life crisis,’ I say airily. ‘They do covers mostly – Ramones, The Clash, The Stranglers, that sort of thing.’
‘Do you mean we’ve just driven halfway across the country to see a covers band in a dodgy pub?’
Ray’s a copper, and sometimes it shows. I pull a face and drink some more Guinness. ‘Not exactly, no. Did I ever tell you about the road trip I did the summer that I turned eighteen?’
‘No, I don’t think so…why?’
‘Long story, I’ll tell you another time. Well, there was this guy, Eddie, he was mates with my boyfriend at the time – well, the trip put paid to that, but anyway, he tracked me down on Facebook recently – we’ve still got a couple of mutual friends – and we got chatting, and…’ I shrug.
‘And he’s in the band?’ says Ray with a barely suppressed grin.
I sneak a look at my watch: it’s a quarter to nine and the band will be on soon. I feel the start of a butterfly flutter in my stomach, and the doubts begin to bubble up. I question what I’m doing here, what makes me think that Eddie would want to see me again.
‘Thanks for coming with me,’ I say candidly. ‘I couldn’t have done this on my own.’
‘No worries. It’s Mandy’s turn to have the kids this weekend, and it’s good to get away once in a while. I was at a bit of a loose end, to tell the truth.’
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see him. He’s standing at the bar talking to an older man in a navy fleece. Of course, we’ve exchanged a couple of messages and I’ve seen his pictures on Facebook, on the band’s website and their old MySpace page, but nothing quite prepares me for this. I feel like a deer trapped in the headlights of an oncoming car.
‘Are you OK, Jude?’ says Ray with genuine concern.
All I can do is nod; my voice doesn’t seem to work any more. I wish I’d brushed my hair and I feel horribly aware of the garlicky curry that Ray and I ate before coming to the pub. I rummage unsuccessfully in my bag for mints, and I see that my hands are shaking.
I look up from my handbag and Eddie is standing about six feet away, in deep discussion with one of the roadies. He catches my eye and something jubilant unfolds in me when I see his expression of genuine, honest pleasure.He apologises to the roadie and bounds over to our table.
‘Jude! What a lovely surprise!’ he says as he hugs me, and I relish the long-forgotten feel of his embrace. I introduce Eddie to Ray and they shake hands.
‘So what brings you down here?’ asks Eddie.
‘Well…once we’d got chatting last month I checked out the band and saw you were doing a gig; I needed to get away from Brighton for a few days so figured that a weekend in Cornwall was the answer.’
‘I’m flattered,’ he laughs. ‘We’re not that good.’
There is an awkward pause, so I offer to buy Eddie a drink. He gestures with a three-quarters full bottle of lager, and tells me he’s not long bought one.
‘So you’re still in Brighton, then?’ he says.
‘Yup – it’s been over twenty years now; I never left. What about you? Cornwall’s a long way from London.’
Eddie laughs. ‘You’re right. I needed to get away from the rat race. I made a few quid working in the City, and I always fancied moving to a little place in the country. So here I am.’
‘Are you still in touch with any of the old crowd? Graham, Chrissie, Nick - I’m lousy at keeping in contact with people, especially after…’ I let the sentence hang.
Eddie pulls a face. ‘Well, John of course, he’s in Australia somewhere as you know, with a wife and kid. Nick, I don’t know about, for obvious reasons, but John’s in touch with him, I think. Graham was over here last summer. You wouldn’t recognise him, he’s vice president of some bank in New York now…’
‘What!’ I say, astonished. ‘Graham the chemical dustbin? Graham who…’ I pause, half a dozen memories of his legendary partying flooding back into my memory.
‘Yeah, he pulled himself together just before his final year and got a First, to everyone’s surprise, not least his own, and then was headhunted a few months after graduation.’
‘Wow. And Chrissie?’
‘Ah. I wondered if John had told you about Chrissie. Obviously not.’
‘What happened?’ Something in his tone makes my stomach sink.
Eddie sighs. ‘She disappeared, just after Finals. She’d been distracted and not herself for a couple of weeks but we’d put that down to the exams. One day she came round to my house for a cuppa, went home and that was the last anyone saw of her. She left her cat, her van, everything.’
‘Vanished? How? Where?’
‘I don’t know: she just vanished into thin air. Her flatmate reported her missing after a few days, the police came round and asked a few questions but they weren’t really interested. They said she’d come back of her own accord, but she didn’t. Graham was terribly upset about it – we all were, but especially Graham, they’d been together a couple of years by then. I think that’s one of the reasons he went to the States, to get away from the memories.’
I shudder: something cold has just walked over my soul. I’m stunned and can’t think what to say, but then a man I recognise as the band’s drummer comes and taps Eddie on the shoulder.
Eddie apologises tells me he must go, he’s late and the gig is due to start. Before he goes he says we should have a proper catch-up in the interval. I smile and agree to meet later, but my mind is in turmoil.
I look down and see that my hands are shaking again.