A Shoebox Filled

With Love Letters

Behind the bags of clothes that she would never wear again but had kept for thirty years in any case, and after pushing anything that was undisputedly Richard’s to the other side of the loft with the things he had already claimed, Jennifer was surprised to come across a grey shoebox with slightly battered corners. Its lid was held down by several wraps of masking tape and bore, in her own youthful capitals, the word ‘CASSETTES’.

She reached for the scissors and cut away at the thick tape. The cases were crammed in two rows, long edges facing upwards. She skimmed the handwritten card inserts: ‘Jen’s Mix’; ‘Best Love Songs Ever’; ‘Friday Night Mix’; ‘Eric’s Jukebox’; ‘Punk and Funk’ and several labelled simply ‘Mixture’. Who listens to cassettes nowadays, she wondered. She and Richard hadn’t owned a cassette player in more than twenty years.

She prised one out and read the track list. 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 a few minutes of redundant silence at the end, Nick’s were always calibrated so that the final song ended exactly as the tape ran out. He would never finish with a fade-out.

‘It feels like an anti-climax if the last song just fades away,’ he’d said.

‘You need to come to a hard stop. Bang! It’s finished.’

That was how their affair had ended as well. With a bang. She had dumped him, clumsily she vaguely recalled, for someone else. The someone else’s name might come to her, if there was a tape from him here too.

She pulled out a few more, scattering them around her on the chipboard flooring. Each box bore a different handwriting; each a little love letter, a courtship ritual from an analogue age.

Some of the tapes were declarations of interest, like male birds building nests to impress prospective mates. Look at me, they would shout. 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. Here is some music for you, Jen, they would say. I think you will like this. Occasionally, they would be overtures to the end of an affair. Souvenirs. Remember how we used to love listening to this?

Anthony had studied military history and compiled his tapes as campaigns, each song challenging its predecessor; an acoustic reflection followed by power trio rock; U2’s shallow verbosity countered by Randy Newman’s caustic precision.

Gareth liked to insert esoteric jokes in his selections. Norwegian Wood preceding Burning Down The House was one of Jen’s favourites.

Eric – of jukebox fame – prided himself on never wasting an inch of tape and would skilfully edit songs together to remove as much silence as possible. He had cut into the moment of silence after the final chorus of Make Me Smile to skip the instrumental fade, lurching, without missing a beat, into Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Nicholas had dubbed that an act of musical vandalism when he heard it.

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?

Jennifer sat on the floor of the loft for more than an hour, looking at every cassette box. In her mind, she heard again the songs that her lovers – and would-be lovers – had pledged to her, saw again their youthful faces and herself, almost forty years younger. Where were Nicholas, Anthony, Gareth, Eric and all the others now? Settled into middle age somewhere, streaming songs into instant and ephemeral playlists and posting them on the social media sites that she was determined to avoid? What if Michael had taken a different route home and she had never met Richard?

She wiped the dampness from her eyes. With a spasm of understanding of the arc of their marriage, she realised that Richard had never made her a compilation tape.

Voices downstairs plucked her back to the present. The estate agent was showing another couple around, deftly parrying the question of why the owners were selling.

Jennifer re-sealed the box as best she could 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.

Runner-up in the Retreat West Themed Story competition, September 2020

Image by Bru-no on Pixabay

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