Mixtape. A story with five songs.
Martin is driving south out of Birmingham on the M40, in a white S-reg Hyundai Accent which he bought on e-bay with pretty much his last three hundred pounds. He hopes it will survive the trip. There’s a clonk from the nearside front that is starting to concern him.
Earlier, Martin had thrown a few things in his briefcase : a change of underwear, a wash bag, and a handful of old mix-tapes on cassette he’d found while clearing out the bedsit. He’s not sure why. He doesn’t really need anything except his phone, which glows on the otherwise empty passenger seat, tracking his progress.
It is just after 2am. It’s a fine night, and the motorway is mostly empty, but it’s been a long day, and Martin is sleepy. He finds himself veering onto the hard shoulder.
He shakes his head, opens the window and laughs. Mustn’t get killed.
A sign comes up for Warwick Services, and he stops and hopes for the best as he uses his card to buy a copy of Private Eye, two KrispyKreme doughnuts (glazed raspberry) and a regular cup of Costa Express latte from the 24 hour WH Smiths. He smiles with relief when the payment is approved. He sits alone, reading his magazine and eating his doughnuts in the migraine-bright service station. When he gets back to the car, he roots through his briefcase for one of the mix-tapes. The car is too old to have a CD, and the radio won’t stay tuned. But the cassette player still seems to work, even if the internal light doesn’t, as Martin discovers when he tries to see what’s written on the label of the first tape he pulls from the bag and plugs into the tape deck. He turns on the engine, pulls back out onto the motorway, and presses play.
Oh, Martin thinks. This one. Of course, it had to be this one. Kathy had made this one, a long time ago, and given it to him for his birthday. Of course, this one.
They met at Aston University on the second night of Fresher’s week in 1981. He was studying Mechanical Engineering, she, Business and French. She was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen, slight and blonde, funny, sharp; he was handsome, and self-assured. He’d taken a little time before coming up to university, as, after leaving school at 16, he’d worked on the floor at the family’s factory in Redditch whilst studying for an ONC in the evenings. She was 18, and he was 21. She was a virgin, only just, and he was not, though not by much.
They were inseparable for first year, and moved in together for second year, but third year, ‘sandwich’ year, was difficult, as she was working for a bank in Lyon, whilst he worked with an oil platform servicing company in Aberdeen. Though they tried to keep it going with visits and letters and a weekly phone call and holidays, they found the distance too much, and at the end of the Easter Vacation, they split up. Martin had a lively few months with various cheerful Aberdonian lasses; whilst Kathy had a delicious affair with a married colleague called Davide.
When they returned to Birmingham for their fourth year, they got back together, and were married two weeks after graduation. The firm in Aberdeen offered Martin a permanent job, which he decided to take. Kathy was offered a job by the same firm, in European sales, and they spent five happy years in Aberdeenshire. They discovered they liked working together, though Kathy gave up work for a time when their son Sean was born.
This would have been around the time Kathy made him the mix tape, Martin reckons, as he passes the turn off for Banbury. The satnav on his phone tells him it is two hours, thirty two minutes, and one hundred and forty eight miles to his destination.
When Sean was eighteen months, they moved home to the Midlands. There had never been any question about it. Martin was always going back to Midland Aluminium Fabrication at some point. He had spent his whole life since leaving school preparing for it. Martin’s father was maybe ten years off retirement; it was time to go home, and start to pick up the reins, and prepare for the hand over.
The firm made spun aluminium parts for the motor trade. When Kathy started to work in sales at MAF, it was her idea that they begin to look for more specialised markets, especially in aerospace and arms. With Martin and Kathy driving the firm forward together, and because of their careful restructuring of MAF, they managed to survive the final collapse of car-making in the Midlands, and profits rose at a time when a lot of engineering firms were going under. When Martin was forty two (and now a father of three, with Ellie and Rose joining Sean), he took over from his father as CEO, with Kathy as Sales Director.
They bought a beautiful 16th century farmhouse on the outskirts of Henley-in-Arden, and came to play a prominent part in the life of the village. Martin was a fixture as the dame in the annual village panto. Kathy, somewhat to her surprise, became a leading light in the WI, and had joined the tower as a bell-ringer. The children had all done well at Bromsgrove School. Sean had followed in his mother’s footsteps, and studied marketing at Lancaster, and was now working for a creative agency in London. Ellie had taken after her father, and had studied process engineering at Southampton, and was now in her second year of a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Both hoped to come home one day, and take over MAF together. Rosie was proving to be a gifted musician; she was in her first year studying the oboe at Birmingham Conservatoire, and living at home.
Martin would have described himself as a happy man at this stage. He was prosperous, with a beautiful succesful wife, three lovely high achieving children, and was CEO of his families thriving business, well-liked and a pillar of his community.
Now, driving down the M40, taking it fairly easy, as the clonk isn’t going away, Martin decides that it had all started to go wrong when, three years ago, a US engineering giant offered an eye-watering sum for the business. But, so specialised were the precision parts made by MAF, that the UK government blocked the deal, and BAE came in with an even larger offer for a controlling stake. Sean and Ellie were consulted on the sale, and the whole family agreed that it was too large a sum to turn down.
Martin and Kathy bought a place on the Breton coast, but he couldn’t speak French, and was bored to distraction by visiting châteaux and menhirs and the endless fine dining. So was Kathy, if she was honest, which was why she accepted the revamped Sales Director job at BAE-(MAF). He was replaceable; Kathy, clearly, was not. The village panto only came round once a year, and Martin didn’t know what to do with all the time on his hands. He sold his Overfinch Discovery and bought himself a Maserati Quatroporto, but found there was little point really; too big for the streets of Henley-in-Arden, too fast for Martin’s driving abilities when he got out onto the M40. From being prosperous and useful, Martin had become very rich and very useless, as he saw it. Martin felt that at 56, his life was pretty much over, and all that remained was to wallow in money whilst waiting for death.
Martin manages to overtake two overnight wagons lumbering in the slow lane. He laughs again. At least the money is gone. At least he won’t have to wait much longer. The satnav reads, Beachy Head, 135 miles, 2 hours and twenty seven minutes.
Martin felt that Julija had been a symptom, rather than the cause, of his current difficulties. But, as a symptom, Julija had certainly been devastating; so devastating, that for Kathy and the kids, and in the eyes of the police, Julija’s role in the thing appeared straight-forwardly causal.
Old Mrs Davenport used to come in on the bus from Redditch four mornings a week; but she agreed with Kathy that she was past retirement; they gave her a party, with all the kids and their partners there. Kathy found Julija through a friend, who said she was very efficient, hard-working and friendly. Julija came round for a chat with Kathy, who took her on three mornings a week; there was less to do now Martin was retired, and only Rosie living at home.
Martin would always remember the first time he saw Julija. Her smile, the curve of her neck, her beautiful accented English. She was tall and slim with snow white hair and ice-blue eyes. He made her a cup of coffee, and they sat outside the kitchen, Julija smoking and talking about growing up in Vilnius. She was 27, and had come to the UK to get away from a violent husband. She had an ear for language, an ability to work very hard at anything that came her way, and was hoping soon to train as a nurse. As she returned to hoovering the carpets, Martin found that he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. He made sure that he was at the door when it was time for her to leave, and, the next morning when she was due to work, Martin was at the door to welcome her in. He found himself thinking about Julija, a lot. He looked forward more than was right to their mid-morning coffee break. Martin started taking the odd cigarette from Julija.
After a fortnight, Martin was watching Julija sip her coffee one morning, when he noticed for the first time four small moles on her forearm in the shape of a diamond. At this moment, he suddenly came to the realisation that he was in love with her. The next morning, after a little overnight tuition from the internet, he leaned forward during their coffee break, and said,
‘ Julija, ash tavay mee lew.’, which means, ‘I love you’ in Lithuanian.
And she leaned across and kissed him, and he took her up to the marital bed.
Another fortnight, and Martin had emptied his share of various easily accessible accounts, (which amounted to a seven figure sum), signed over his rights in the properties in Henley-in-Arden and France to Kathy, and rented a flat in the Rotunda with Julija.
Martin is smiling as he passes the slip road for Stokenchurch. 2 hours, five minutes, one hundred and fifteen miles to go. He still can’t quite bring himself to entirely regret the year in Birmingham with Julija. The sex. The parties. The sex. The clubbing, the drugs, the ridiculous clothes she made him wear, the sex, the fun, the sex the sex the sex. They travelled in those months too; a mad week in Ibiza, three weeks in Bali, a weekend in New York. Julija persuaded him to sink a lot of money into a new city centre night club as a sleeping partner, so most evenings when they were in Birmingham, they made their way to what Martin thought of as his club, and sat at his table with his girlfriend and their friends, chopping up lines, laughing. It was shallow, empty, pointless; and it was fabulous. It was what rich men dreamed of doing, what too much money was for.
The mixtape clunks, and turns itself over.
Kathy…. Martin stops smiling. For Kathy it wasn’t great, he knew that. Not great at all. And none of the kids would talk to him, except Rosie, who rang him up once a week to express her contempt.
Nearly a year after Martin had left his family, Julija started to make long phone calls in Lithuanian. She looked worried much of the time, and the sex fell off. Martin tried to talk to her, but she said it was nothing, a few problems at home. And then, one morning, she had gone.
The Maserati was gone too. So had the contents of his current account, as he discovered later that day, when the bank rang to confirm a much larger than usual withdrawal. Martin tried her phone, but she wasn’t answering. Julija called Martin the next night from Vilnius. Her husband had been released from prison, and she had gone back to him. Sorry. The car was at Gatwick, but she’d accidentally kept the keys in her bag. Sorry. She would put them in an envelope, sorry. And she knew how generous Martin was, and that he could spare the cash; sorry, but what can she do? The man is her husband. Good luck Martin. Thanks for everything. Sorry.
So Martin phoned Kathy, who was much amused. He begged for a meeting, but she said no, that the kids were fine and still hated him, that the business went from strength to strength without him, and that she had been dating a widowered orthopaedic consultant from Sutton Coldfield who liked opera and sailing, who she’d met through bell-ringing, and who was, Kathy made clear, a bit special in bed. Martin said, ‘But Kathy, we’ve got to talk’ and she said, ‘No we don’t Martin. Goodbye.’
The rent on the flat in the Rotunda was paid for three months, and Martin raised a bit of money from the sale of the Quatroporto, but he needed income. He started phoning around his old contacts. In every split between couples, people feel as though they have to take sides, and Martin soon found that while he’d been fucking Julija in New York and discovering the delights of drugs and night-club proprietorship, and so on, Kathy had been garnering well-earned sympathy. There was nothing about, sorry Martin old son, but there it is. He offered himself as a consultant, but no one wanted to consult him about anything. The money was running low.
And then the club went under, and Martin discovered that he was pretty much liable for the lot. The subsequent bankruptcy left him with enough to pay a month’s deposit on a rented studio flat in Kings Heath. He found himself a job collecting trolleys from the car park outside Sainsburys by the Maypole Roundabout, and he travelled between work and home on the Number 50 bus. Sometimes, he tried calling Kathy and the kids, but no one seemed to be picking up, except Rosie, whose contempt was slowly morphing into pity, or so Martin hoped.
Last night, sitting up late having failed to sleep, Martin remembered long ago holidays in Eastbourne with his parents. Those were happy times. Such happy times. He’d always loved Eastbourne. Nice place to end up.
…and to stand on tip toes on top of Beachy Head, to stand on tip toes and spread your arms and…
It was the right thing to do, he realised. He searched e-bay from his phone and bought the car, because you’d need a car, because it would be good to get there about dawn when there was no one about, and anyway, what else to do? Catch a train, and then a bus? Just a single, please. No.
This afternoon, he had collected the Hyundai from a street in Walsall. This evening, he’d eaten a tin of beans and tidied the flat, delaying his departure till the time was right. And now
One hour fifty, ninety-six miles.
The mix tape plays on, and Martin finds himself crying. He is blinded by tears, and he tries to wipe his eyes under his spectacles. He pulls into the car-park at Beaconsfield Services. He turns off the engine, but keeps the key in the ignition as the tape plays, clunking as it turns itself over and over. Sad songs from when Martin and Kathy were at their happiest.
“Can you hear them, they talk about us, telling lies…”
“Please be careful, is never careful, till it hears the gun…”
“Don’t confront me with my failures, I’ve not forgotten them…”
“It’s that little souvenir, of a terrible year…”
“Since I lost the power to pretend, that there could ever be a happy ending…”
Martin whispers a prayer. Please God, give me fucking strength.
The sun is almost above the trees by the time Martin presses eject, gets out of the car, and stretches his legs around the car park. He risks his card one last time, and buys another coffee and two more doughnuts, and a newspaper with a photograph on the cover of a drowned child washed up on a beach.
And now, just as suddenly as in the moment he had realised that he was in love with Julija, Martin realises, with absolute certainty, that he loves his wife. And that he loves his children, with an intensity that is both new and well-known, painful and comfortable.
He loves them all so much.
There is no point in phoning Kathy, because she won’t pick up if she sees it’s him, but there’s something that he has to tell her. In his pocket, he finds a one pound coin; and, in the corridor leading to the lavatories, there is a call box. He dials her number, and it goes to answer-phone, but he still presses home the coin.
‘Oh God, Kathy. Oh God. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, my darling. Kathy… I’m so fucking sorry…’
And she picks up.
The songs were recorded in 2015 at the Electric Bike Shed in Presteigne, Powys, by John Hymas, with me on vocals, Dave Luke on guitar and vocals, and John Hymas on piano and cello.
‘Appetite’ by Paddy Mcaloon. Copyright EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ by Terry Hall and Jane Weidlin. Copyright: Plangent Visions Music Inc., Universal Music – Mgb Songs
‘Here’s Where The Story Ends’ by David Gavurin and Harriet Wheeler. Copyright: Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
‘These Days’ by Jackson Browne. Copyright: Universal Music Publishing Group
‘God Give Me Strength’, by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. Copyright :Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
All the photos are by Pauline Clark, and were taken at Tebay and Truckhaven on the M6 in 2009.
The story grew over its telling at several gigs with Dave Luke and John Hymas (aka The Same Tokens), as I speculated about why these songs belonged together.