Red Letter Day
Zac heaved his postal worker’s bag off the floor onto his shoulder, catching a glimpse of himself in the glass partition. Not the image of himself he preferred. His bohemian wavy hair that normally brushed his shoulders was now neatly tied in a little bunch at the back of his head so he could look ‘respectable’. What he really wanted was to be up on stage with his guitar without the restraints of ‘respectable’ hair. He didn’t wake up every morning, thrilled to be going to work. Still, it was a steady job, and he felt thankful that he had a salary to rely on, month after month, especially in these hard times.
“You’re doing Greg’s route today – he’s off sick.” His boss sat behind his desk, dipping a biscuit into his tea.
Zac checked the roster to see which route Greg was scheduled for today. Area 4T. His house was in that area. “Sure,” he said. That would get him home earlier which meant more time with Caroline and more time with his music. His music filled him with passion. His music and Caroline. He loaded the bag into the van and set off.
Zac still grinned whenever he thought about how they’d met. He’d been busking at King’s Cross Station when she’d passed him, breathlessly beautiful with her hair bouncing off her shoulders as she walked by. It was just like he was watching a hair-product ad: she moved in slow motion, her head turning towards him in sexy one-second intervals. And their eyes met. A buzz passed through his body and the song he sang was just for her. This must have been what James Blunt felt when he wrote ‘You’re Beautiful’ he thought. Except that he (unlike James Blunt) wasn’t high. Well… apart from the unexpected feelings that this beautiful stranger had suddenly created in him.
And then, she did the most amazing thing: she threw her bag down next to his guitar case, stood next to him and started singing along with him. Despite the fact that the grey matter in his brain had been replaced by a whirlpool of thoughts and sensations, he kept singing – probably because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. Scratch that. He couldn’t think – full stop. So he did what his body on auto-pilot told him to do - he turned towards her and continued singing with what he felt must have been an embarrassingly sheepish grin on his face.
They’d never been apart since that day, six years ago.
Caroline and a few very close friends were the only people he ever played his songs to. Most nights, he stayed up in his tiny little makeshift studio until all hours composing and playing. She was his most ardent fan, a fact that he’d always attributed to her love for him rather than for any objective opinion she might have about his music.
Playing other people’s music was fine -- no risk involved there -- but what the general public might think of his own music wasn’t something he was prepared to find out. The thought of other people tearing his music to shreds paralysed him, so he chose the easy way -- he knew it -- of not taking the risk at all.
Zac unloaded the mail and set off on his delivery route. He walked in time to the music playing inside his head, imaginary riffs soaring high and then diving down low. He looked at the mail for the next couple of houses: Mrs. Green had her “Good Housekeeping” magazine and a phone bill. Mr. Patel had a small package from India and “Rolling Stone” magazine. Zac Baldwin: bank statement. Caroline Baldwin: Phone bill. And a letter. Hmm. Who from? The address on the envelope had been handwritten with a fluid, blue, roller ball-type pen. He flipped it over. Sender: Russ Reynolds. Who the heck was Russ Reynolds and why was he writing to his wife? He lifted the envelope up to the light and peered at it, trying to see through the sheer envelope’s paper. Nothing.
What the heck was he making such a big deal about, he thought to himself. It was just a letter, after all, but the thought of ever losing Caroline… that was as far as that thought could go if he didn’t want to send himself into an emotional frenzy.
The sun dipped in the sky as he made his way back home from work. The headache he’d been nursing for a while now, pounded with each step he took, but the minute he got in, he headed straight to his little ‘studio’ and started jamming. Caroline came in a few minutes later, Chinese takeaway in hand.
“Thank God you’ve got dinner. I’m starving,” Zac said, as he gave her a quick peck on the lips.
“It’s Thursday, remember? My day to cook?” Caroline smiled, but he thought he saw darkness in her eyes.
“So, how was your day?” she asked.
Zac grimaced. “Same ole, same ole.”
Caroline sighed. “If only you’d send out a couple of your songs-“
“Don’t start with that again, Caroline.”
“Why not? How are you ever going to end up doing what you really love if you won’t take a chance and send out your songs?”
“Look, you know how I feel about this. I don’t want to discuss this anymore.”
Caroline exhaled loudly. “No comment,” she said, blowing her fringe from her face. “Really, Zac, no bloody comment.”
Zac moved over to her and touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry.” His voice was gentle. “…but don’t pressure me, ok?” He ran his hand through his hair. “My music’s not good enough yet.”
“What?’ She pushed his hand away from her shoulder. “It’s bloody brilliant! All our friends love it. Everyone who hears your songs loves them. But you know what, Zac, it takes guts to go out there and show the world what you’ve got, and I’m sick and tired of being the only one out of the two of us who believes in you.” Caroline banged the Chinese take away bag on the floor and left.
She was right, he knew it. He was a spineless chicken and he wasn’t proud of it.
Zac lay in bed, waiting for Caroline to brush her teeth and come to bed.
“What came in the mail today?” Zac said, trying to sound off-hand.
Zac registered the lie. “You sure?”
Silence. Suddenly he felt his world disintegrating around him. She was lying to him. Why?
“’Night,” she mumbled, as she lifted the sheets and got into bed next to him.
He only just managed to mutter a response. “Night.”
Just what time it was when the night shadows that swathed their home lifted, Zac didn’t notice. He left for work early, before Caroline woke up. He needed to think. His heart had been tied in a knot and his internal organs seemed to be doing some kind of a dance, except he wasn’t enjoying the process. He almost had to keep reminding himself to breathe. Caroline meant everything to him. She had shaken him out of the lethargy and insecurity he’d wallowed in before he’d met her, but obviously not as much as necessary. The tightening in his chest rose until it lodged in his throat, choking him. He clenched his fist and punched his open hand. Why? Why?
The answer was staring him straight in the face. He would have to get rid of this self-doubt and make his dream come true. And hopefully, just hopefully, Caroline would still want to come on that journey with him.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. Caroline.
Zac tried to swallow the lump in his throat. “Hello?”
“Hi... you left early this morning.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d get up and make the most of the day.”
“Listen, there’s something I need to tell you,” she said.
This is it. Here it comes, and it’s all my bloody fault.
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Did you hear me?”
“Yeah? I did. What’s up?” He tried to sound casual.
“It’s something important. I prefer that we do this face to face.”
Damn! He clenched his teeth. “Ok.”
“What time will you be back home?”
“Ok. Great. I’ll see you at home at 6 then.”
“Yeah, fine. I’ll catch you later then.”
The rock, rock, rock of the subway car usually soothed him into a nirvana-like state, but today, it kept the flow of thoughts steadily streaming through his head. All manner of thoughts. Caroline and Russ Reynolds kissing. He had no idea what Russ Reynolds looked like so, in his imagination, he saw only his back. But it was definitely Caroline he was kissing – he could see her face – and she seemed to be enjoying it. Russ Reynolds baking a pizza with anchovies, that Caroline loved but Zac hated. She’d finally found someone who had the same tastes as her, huh? Caroline climbing onto Russ Reynolds’ motorbike as Zac caught a glimpse of Russ’s tattooed arms. He’d never figured she’d go for a guy with a tattoo. So, Caroline was leaving him for an anchovy-loving, pizza-baking, tattooed biker.
Rock, rock, rock went the train. Caroline and Russ ate more and more anchovy pizzas and fell into each other’s arms at every opportunity they had, which happened to be each time the subway car rocked.
The walk from the subway station to the house was torture. Step. Russ putting a wedding ring on Caroline’s finger. Step. Caroline giving birth to Russ’s tattooed little babies. He couldn’t stand it any longer. He wedged the earphones to his iPod in his ears and pressed play.
White door. Brass knocker. Number 22, Acacia Grove. Home. He fumbled for his keys. The only light on in the house radiated from the kitchen. Acid billowed in his stomach. He breathed out heavily. Here goes. He pushed the door open.
“In the kitchen,” she shouted back.
He would tell her that he loved her more than anyone else in the world. Nothing more. Anything else would be redundant.
He pushed the kitchen door open. Flashes of light, champagne bottles popping, streamers flying everywhere. All his friends with bright, happy smiley faces, grinning out at him. And right in the middle of it all, Caroline.
“Surprise!” they all shouted.
Caroline beamed out at him. She held two glasses of champagne in her hands.
An express train filled with thoughts of despair, thoughts of anguish and then thoughts of relief propelled its way through the various stops in his mind as he arrived at the conclusion that she didn’t want to break up with him.
“What’s going on?” Zac said.
“Come over here and stop looking so bewildered.” Caroline cleared her throat. “Right… first of all I’d like to give you this - your very own ‘Gibson’ guitar!”
“Woah!” Zac felt his mouth drop open. “I’ve always wanted one. But … how… we can’t afford it.”
“Well, I can’t afford it, honey. But you can,” Caroline said, her eyes shining with laughter and happiness. “All right, all right, you look like you’re ready to collapse, but there’s more, so brace yourself a bit longer. Are you ready?”
Zac felt his head nodding, as if of its own accord.
Caroline stood before their friends, held up a piece of paper and started reading.
“Dear Caroline, I would like to acknowledge that I have received your client, Zac Baldwin’s recordings, and after serious consideration, have decided to offer him a two-year contract with the ‘Rock the World’ music label. To begin negotiations of the said contract, please call our office to arrange for a mutually convenient date and time for the meeting. Sincerely, Russ Reynolds.”
Zac blinked. “R…Russ Reynolds?” he stammered.
Everyone started cheering again.