By Rob McIvor
In the loft, separating her belongings from Richard’s, Jennifer discovered a shoebox. Its lid was held down by wraps of tape and bore, in her own youthful capitals, the word “CASSETTES”.
She cut away the tape. Inside, plastic cases were crammed in two rows, long edges upwards. She skimmed the handwritten inserts: “Jen’s Mix”; “Best Love Songs Ever”; “Party Mix”; “Eric’s Jukebox”; “Punk and Funk” and several labelled simply “Mixture”. Why did she keep these? She and Richard hadn’t owned a cassette player for years.
Each insert bore a different handwriting; each a little love letter, a courtship ritual from an analogue age. Some were declarations of interest, like male birds building nests to impress prospective mates. Look at me, they shouted. See what good taste I have; imagine listening to this music with me. Others came from later in a relationship, content informed by time spent together. I think you will like this, Jen, they said. Occasionally, they were overtures to the end of an affair. Souvenirs. Remember how we used to love listening to this?
She prised several cases out and read the track lists, trying to recall their creators. On one, the titles were written entirely in capitals, the first letter of each word slightly larger than the others. “Nicholas,” she thought. Always so precise. Where others’ tapes might have thirty seconds of redundant silence at the end, Nick’s were always calibrated so that the final song ended exactly as the tape ran out.
Anthony had studied military history and compiled his tapes as battles, each song aurally challenging its predecessor. Gareth inserted esoteric jokes, like following “Norwegian Wood” with “Burning Down The House”. Eric prided himself on never wasting a second of tape and would skilfully edit songs together to remove as much silence as possible.
Then there was Michael, who approached a tape as if it were one of his own compositions, the final reverberations of one piece seamlessly and harmoniously leading to the opening notes of the next. On his “Night Music” tape, the reflective opening B minor of The Great Gig in the Sky arrived, almost prophetically, at the end of Barber’s Adagio, as though the two composers had somehow collaborated across the decades to create a soundtrack for his life; one that he could share with the woman who would love him for the rest of his days. Would Jennifer have married him? She had known the answer to that question even as she pledged fidelity to Richard. He had courted her with meals, the theatre and rustic hotels, but had never shared with her the songs that defined him. Had there ever been music in his heart?
Voices downstairs plucked her back to the present. The estate agent was showing another couple around, deftly parrying questions about why the owners were selling. She re-sealed the shoebox and placed it with her share of the photograph albums.
As soon as she had her own place, she would buy herself a cassette player.
Author bio: Rob McIvor lives in Blackheath, London, with his family and two attention-seeking cats. He is currently dreading the prospect of editing the next draft of an over-ambitious first novel and dreaming of cycling in the mountains once again.