Cassette Players & the State of the World

He was knelt down in the train station, among a moving crowd of people, adjusting his shoelaces. His long hair fell down his leather jacket, always a leather jacket. I approached from behind and said—‘All right, geez, I see you’ve cut your hair.’ He threw his arm around me, and I led him into a nearby store that sold alcohol. Even having known someone almost two decades, I find myself uncomfortable at their embrace, so that I might come across as cold and uncaring. Before the fridges, he spoke of the characters on his train—‘Eight children! And three of them at home!’ What makes a good embrace? Is it the enthusiasm with which one might throw their arms around the other, or the strength with which they grasp them? Must both chests be close together? the hips? How far is too far apart? Does one pat the other’s back? Are both skulls placed side by side? And, of course, the question of how long to hold the embrace. Crinkly cut Thai sweet chili crisps and an expensive chocolate bar. It was the first time we had seen each other since before the pandemic. ‘Has it really been three years?’ I shook my head and pursed my lips—‘No, I’m sure it’s just less than three. I’m sure I saw you in the winter of twenty-nineteen because I was with…’ and I trailed off. He did not prompt me to finish. We sat for a long time in my living room, staring out at the dulled sunset and the black birds that traversed. It got darker and darker until nothing was very visible; the curtains were pulled to and lamps lit, only slightly brighter, washing our surroundings in an orange haze. After two beers, I was more comfortable. ‘Fancy a game of chess?’ and I got black; although in the dimness it was difficult to distinguish between our pieces. He refused to resign, making me earn mate. Between each move, we continued our conversation on the Lake District, cassette players and the state of the world.
At one point, he spoke to me about his father for the first time. I tried to contain my excitement, my joy, the honour I felt, for never before had he spoken to me or our friends about his father, who had passed before any of us met him. There he was telling me about his father, the history teacher. Even to swallow may have been enough of a disturbance to put him off, so I sat patient and enthralled, in silence, too nervous to clear my throat! We ordered hot curries and shared them, both of us perspiring and sniffling, with laughter and semiskimmed milk. I was merry when I went to bed at two, offering him a blanket for the sofa. I noticed that I had left my front door unlatched, leaving it so. In the morning, I made us coffee as we watched out the window for people leaving Sunday worship. The coffee was good. We lay on the sofa for a few hours before I arose and made us toasted bacon sandwiches, the rich smell of sizzling, thick butter and tamarind perfuming my flat as he opened the doors of my balcony, letting in a lazy breeze. I thought he might leave after breakfast but, would you know, he refused to leave and I refused to chase him! He slouched there and I slouched here. At one point, I found an old bag of crisps and jar of salsa, which we crumbed all over the sofa. Very little was said; no, we were tired and had nothing to say for the moods we were in; just gentle Sunday relaxation, the odd comment; memories of university, clouds of sour smoke, comedies, six young men in their own little world. I washed an apple and poured him a glass of water—‘This is proper Sunday.’ He was not inclined to depart until gone seven. Again, he threw his arms around me, this time in my hallway. I saw him to the lift, and closed the door, locking and latching it. The sun had gone. It was dark again, too dark to tell black from the white pieces.