Playing Stories — Epilogue: End of the Line

Epilogue: End of the Line
from the 1988 album “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” by the Traveling Wilburys
29 September 2019

Well it’s all right, everything’ll work out fine
Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line

“So where do we go from here?” Emily asked as she rolled out of her tiny bed and spreadeagled herself on the floor.

“Like, where are we going for today? I think it’s a bit too late to be asking that, it’s already five in the afternoon…”

“No, I meant us.” Her hand grasped for the blanket and gave it a yank, sending cushions and pillows tumbling onto the wooden planks. Sighing, she sat up and leaned against the bedframe. “You’re not going to be here forever.”

I looked back at the ruins of Rockingham Pier, its dark silhouette foreboding against the setting sun. The collapse had sheared off half the pier and now there was only a stump, barely a hundred yards, jutting out into the sea. Nobody really knew what to do with the bits of wood and iron that were lying about the coastline. What WAS clear was that I was now out of a job, and out of a home, which meant the few boxes of stuff I’d managed to salvage were now cluttering up the spare room in the lighthouse.

“I have no idea, seriously,” I said at last. “With a little luck I’ll be getting a job in town, but… to be honest, it’s been a rough couple of months for both of us and we’re still very much in flux.” I sounded so insecure in front of her, and for a moment I worried: where were we going with this?

Emily stood up and waved her hand at me. We hugged in the dimness of the room. “I know it’s hard these days,” she said quietly, her words almost a breath in my ear. “I believe in you though. You’ll figure it out.” It was almost barely a whisper, yet it felt like a voice shouting from above, echoing from every crack and surface of the rickety old lighthouse.

“Thanks,” I said — I tried to smile, but one look in her eyes and I realized it obviously wasn’t fooling Em. She gave me a gentle kiss on the lips before reaching over and flicking a switch. The whole room lit up like a Christmas tree — except brighter and better, because God this place was so beautiful on the inside. “I’ll fix us some dinner,” I said, heading towards the stairs.

Later, pushing the last couple of bits of spaghetti to the side, Emily reached over and turned on the record player. The sound of Prince’s guitar playing shot forth and around the concrete walls of the lighthouse, the howls and screams almost rattling the glass.

“Careful,” I said. “Don’t want to break another of Rockingham’s treasures.”

She snorted. “This place isn’t hanging on wooden stilts, it can survive a fricking army of death metal if it needs to.”

“Thank God you’re not interested in — OH GOD NO,” I yelped, looking through her record collection. “Seriously?”

She shrugged. “It helps to pass the time. I’m the only one for miles around anyway, and you have no idea how well it works in a place like this. Very cathartic.”

“Since when did you become a record aficionado?”

“Actually, it was when we started writing those stories back and forth.” She smiled and turned off the sink. “I got interested in pop music because we were having such a good time doing all those stories, you know? And I thought, well if I was going to be spending loads of time in here I might as well get learning about these things.”

“That explains the Pet Shop Boys,” I muttered. She knew how to pick a band, perhaps much more than I did now that I looked at the well-stocked cabinet in her room. “And I was hoping to keep that one to myself for a story…”

“Seriously? That was the first one I bought! How could you expect me to listen to Neil Tennant and not write a story on it, he’s basically the best…”

And so we went on, talking about what songs we should have used on our stories, riffing on records and pop music into the night. Even as she turned off the lights in the small living room once more and ascended into the lighting chamber, I followed her, fruitlessly arguing for the inclusion of a Stevie Nicks because what kind of monster would have left out “Edge of Seventeen” —

— and then I finished, and she was quiet. Pensive. Looking out over the dark sea, saying nothing. I felt for her hand in the dark, and she took it without a word.

“I’ve been thinking, actually,” she said in that quiet, raspy undertone.

“A very good thing to be doing.”

She swatted an arm in my direction, but chuckled nonetheless. “No, like — if it hadn’t been for the pop music and the stories… how long would it have been before you and I made it together? Sure, I knew you so well by the time I came to take over the lighthouse, but still. Without all that writing, our trying to tell each other what we were like through the songs we chose… where’d we be now?”

“I guess that we both liked songs and story writing from the start, though? So maybe we’d have bonded over that kind of thing eventually…”

She shook her head. “But what if we hadn’t had the idea to write stories about them? If you and I had just sat in your café, my lighthouse, minding our own business… would we have found each other after like six or seven months?”

I thought back to the night she stepped back into my café. Back then she had seemed cold, distant… so reluctant to mingle with all the people in the town. Nine months was a long time, particularly given how much had happened, but still. You wouldn’t have thought any chemistry possible between the two of us. “I guess you’re right… could we have turned out differently? Without all that talking and telling each other stories… it’s not how I’d have pictured courtship, but I guess we’re different. Argue about stories and songs, think about what’s possible… that’s the thing about all good art, you know. What’s the use of it if you can’t take sides and defend something passionately once in a while?”

“It’s what we do,” she said, tightening her grip around my fingers. “But… you know… what happens next? Now that you might be leaving this place once and for all and I’m stuck here for another year…”

“We could keep writing,” I said gently. “There’s loads more songs and loads more stuff we could write about. We can keep it going, even when we’re apart.”

“To be honest, I feel like we exhausted a lot of the possibilities over the past fifty stories,” she said. She leaned forward to look at a container ship passing way underneath. “At the end of the day, I prefer listening to records than writing stories on them… or just talking about them, you know? All that storywriting makes you knackered.”

I nodded silently in the gloom. After a while, I decided that there was only one thing to do. I tugged at her hand. “Come on,” I said.

“What, now? I’m at work, for Heaven’s sake.”

“Just five minutes. The radio’ll crackle on if you’ve got a ship coming through.”

We danced for more than that, but no ship did pass underneath our window. We simply swayed, cheek to cheek, as much as we could within that really cramped space — the shadows on the wall, the dim glow of the moonlight, the breathless tunes of Roberta Flack on the player. The floorboards creaked from time to time, and maybe it was the fall from the pier that had put me on edge, but I couldn’t help flinching and lifting my feet slightly. For her part, Em did me the courtesy of pretending she hadn’t noticed.

“Strange, isn’t it, that when we moved in I was the insecure one?” she said, her voice ghostly, pensive.

“Well, I’d say that we’re both suffering from it. Bouts of it. From time to time,” I added hastily, seeing the look on her face. “And you’re right, actually, it’s always about the songs we pick that tell us who we are. I wonder if we’re still writing those stories, actually…”

“Like how?”

“Like it wasn’t characters we were writing on the page. Thomas and Morgan, those weren’t two people with superpowers we willed into existence. Maybe they were us, trying to express ourselves through music and whatnot. All those times they fell in love, fell apart, fell back into each other’s arms once more… they looked a lot like us, too. I’m as petulant as Thomas sometimes, and you… well, it wasn’t hard to see that Mo was you exaggerated, standoffish and… well, kind of sexy…”

I could feel her rolling her eyes, it was so strong. “But now that the story’s over, where do we go? Did they live happily ever after? I couldn’t figure out whether they had a happy ending or not, to be honest… don’t you?”

“Yeah, I keep on wondering about us too… like where are we going after this, what are we gonna do afterwards. I don’t know either, to be honest.”

She let her hair fall down over her face, rested her head on my shoulder. The record played on. “Well what do we do then? Work it out in the next few days and the months ahead?”

“I don’t really know. But I guess we’ll have to find out, don’t we? We’ve got the songs. We can keep on writing, even if it turns out we don’t have time on our side. We’ve got… we’ve got the ink in us.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she said, nestling deeper into our embrace. She kissed me just before the ear and whispered. “We can just keep writing.”

And indeed, as the vinyl groove ran out and I gave her a final twirl, the needle seemed to keep scratching, continuing to inscribe words and music into the air.

This began as nothing more than a whim I had on the spur of the moment: I had a summer internship that required a lot of cross-city travel, so every day I’d listen to a shuffled playlist to alleviate the boredom of a 75-minute transit. After a couple of days I decided that I’d keep a list of what songs came first each day. There wasn’t any reason behind it, it simply felt like another way to satisfy my insatiable thirst for lists, as is well and proper for an Asperger’s person to have.

It wasn’t until I was almost finished that I realized that I’d jotted down 53 songs: one for every week of the year. At the same time, I began to get actively interested in pop music, and the idea that these tunes represented what someone thought at one time or another fascinated me. Was there, I wondered, a common fabric for all of these human experiences, was there a way for us to see a pattern within all these songs I’d been listening to? (The answer, I have since discovered, is no: we humans are just inherently chaotic. But we shall ignore this conclusion for now.) I began to think about linking these songs together, writing a bunch of stories that brought out the feel of each song I’d written down. At the same time, I was fretting about how uncreative I’d been lately, restricting myself to frivolous recollections of my travels and general non-fiction. I wanted to imagine other characters. And so was born this behemoth of a project that has consumed much of my 2020. (Though I mostly stuck to the original list for the first half of the year, I found myself rearranging songs and picking new ones here, there and everywhere, which… eh, well, I can’t be bothered with authenticity issues anymore.)

Writing this a year to the day I started my first story (the “Viva la Vida” one, actually), I look back on my attempts to create a whole multi-layered narrative out of a mishmash of songs that bear no relation or connection to each other and I wonder what is it that I’ve done. Besides 53 short stories (well, 25 short stories, one long novella, and a whole framing narrative), what have I actually achieved? Yes, I’ve probably repeated myself once too many (even the lightly skimming reader will notice that I’ve written the same romcom at least five times), but I’ve also tried my hand at horror and thrillers and drama and God knows what else. And I like to think that I’m a slightly better writer at conveying… well, stuff… than I was at the beginning of the year. (More knowledgeable readers will have to inform this autistic Christian young man about how accurate his depictions of intercourse were.)

But there was another revelation I got. I’m writing on something similar for a piece I’m publishing in a few days’ time, so I’ll skirt around that for a bit, but I’ll say this: what you pick as a song doesn’t just reflect who you are as a person. That conclusion should be obvious, but also: writing about songs, talking about what makes you attracted to them, it really does help you figure out why you love them so. And it helps you figure out why other people love a song too, whether it’s the heady rush of the violins in “Come On Eileen” or the cold and distant synths of “Enola Gay”; whether it’s the quiet contemplation of “The Sound of Silence” or the loud bombast of “Atomic” — there’s a story behind every song, there’s a reason why the writer wrote it and why people love it. And figuring that experience out, I think, is very much fun, and worth the while.

What more can I say? It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for reading with me.

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