They do it on purpose, Howard thinks. Women. They know how these things get stuck in our heads. Unremarkable at the time, we barely even notice, but somehow they turn into cast-iron memories, fencing us in from our own futures.
‘Good moaning,’ Kate would’ve said about this time (for no real reason, they’d never watched ‘Allo ‘Allo together), rolling over to bring her hands up to his chest. At which he would’ve grunted, and then smiled – because he couldn’t not smile when she was looking at him like that.
Then she’d wriggle free, sliding – no, jumping, bounding (how was she always so instantly awake?) – out of her side of the bed. She’d be wearing just a t-shirt and knickers. And some days she’d go straight into the kitchen like that, and he’d hear her padding about and humming as she put the kettle on to make coffee.
And now he can’t wake up without hearing her, can’t stop himself most days from reaching out an arm to feel the space where she used to sleep. Eventually, he’ll drag himself up (definitely no bounding) and slump into the kitchen in t-shirt and boxers – a shabby parody of her, lovely her.
He doesn’t allow himself to put the television on, or sit on the sofa – too much for his still sleep-hungry body to resist. Instead he sits hunched over a bowl of Rice Krispies (snap, crackle, pop!), breathing in the smell of his own stale sweat, waiting for his laptop to warm up.
He’ll check his emails (even though his phone would’ve bleeped if he’d got any), browse a few news sites. At some point he’ll look down to check his watch, realise he hasn’t put it on yet, and notice his coffee’s gone cold, again. Howard can never seem to finish a mug of coffee these days. He read somewhere recently that drinking coffee can prevent depression (on the same day he read that David Croft, creator of ‘Allo ‘Allo and other classics of British sit-com, had died.) Does it work backwards, he wonders – does feeling depressed impair your ability to drink coffee?
Who’s he kidding anyway? That ‘good moaning’ scenario occurred what, three, four times in the whole two years they were together? Most days it wasn’t like that at all. He’s not really sure what most days were like, to be honest. But that’s the way it works – now she’s gone and he’s stuck with this memory that’s taken over and is somehow stopping him from finishing his coffees.
He’s actually not even called Howard. More likely David or Anthony. Or Paul. Something ordinary like that. Howard just seems to suit the kind of character he is at the moment. You know the type. Philip Seymour Hoffman might play him in a film: slightly overweight, pasty, obsessive and a bit creepy, too often seen sitting around in his underwear.
And Kate (meaning: pure maiden) – a nice, ordinary name that suggests what a nice, ordinary kind of girl she is. Not Allegra or Charlene or Belinda (meaning: immortal beauty). Nothing too unusual or exotic, it wouldn’t fit.
The coffee though, a nice detail, definitely keep that in. Maybe it could be a recurrent motif. Or even the central motif: we follow Howard/ David’s story through a series of scenes based around coffee drinking…
‘I asked for a cappuccino,’ Howard (or David?) says.
‘I know,’ says Paul, still hovering over him with two tall glasses of something that isn’t cappuccino. ‘But I got you a frappuccino. Mocha light. They’re really good. Plus, it’ll cool you down.’
Paul’s always doing weird stuff like this, Howard thinks (let’s stick with Howard, we’ve got to know him now). He’s always so eager about things. That’s probably why Howard likes him. He’s not sure about the frappuccino though. Would Kate have liked it? He can’t remember coming to a Starbucks with her, but he thinks she would’ve stuck to a cappuccino most of the time.
New scene: Elizabeth (who also works with Howard) has brought Howard a coffee. She frowns and sucks in her lips a bit as she concentrates on delivering it safely to the coaster on his desk.
‘There you go.’
‘Thanks Elizabeth,’ Howard says, trying to load the words with the right emphasis so that she knows he really means it.
‘We’re onto the UHT stuff I’m afraid.’
Howard makes a mental note to pop out and buy a big carton of milk later. And some biscuits, or cake. He feels like making people smile today, like reaching out his arms and shouting ‘Hey, I appreciate you! Even if we hardly ever speak, and you don’t really know who I am, I still want you to know I appreciate what we share just by being together, every day, in this building. Thanks for being around, and smiling at me sometimes in the corridor, and wearing nice perfumes, and not swearing at me or keying my car or making my life more difficult.’
Hopefully at least some of that will come across through an open box and a cheerful note – ‘Help yourselves everyone!’ – with a smiley face drawn underneath. I’ll go to M&S, Howard decides, get something really nice. Kate used to go there, or had at least once, when they had people round.
Next scene: Howard is collecting a new suit (he’s in good shape, he’s lost weight). He’s early – they haven’t quite finished making the adjustments yet – so he goes for a coffee. There’s a mother next to him, with a baby in a pushchair and a little girl, just old enough to toddle round the table on her own. The little girl is called Kate, or Katie (not a big coincidence, not a coincidence at all really, it's a common name).
‘Katie,’ sings the mother, in a voice that hasn’t had enough sleep. ‘Kaaaa-tie. Do you want some sandwich?’
Katie is picked up and fed part of a sandwich. Her little brother moans and waves his arms around a bit. The mother gives him a piece of bread. Howard is fascinated by the way Katie seems to eat using her whole face. She scrunches up her nose and eyes with each chew – she’s stuffed in far too much. The mother looks across and he remembers his coffee, going cold again.
And now the reader is starting to wonder where all this is going. The story seems to have got stuck on its own motif. How many coffees are we going to watch Howard drink, or not drink?
Possible endings. Howard finally watches an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo, which is, after all, still pretty funny. And now when he wakes up he smiles, because he’s not thinking about Kate but about René and Crabtree and the rest. He even considers saying ‘good moaning’ to people at work, but decides against it. He’s not that keen on people who go round quoting TV shows, and anyway, they might not get it.
Kate comes round and asks if she can have the coffee maker, because she bought it, and he doesn’t really like coffee anyway – she was always pouring away barely touched, cold coffee when they were together. Howard is surprised. He thinks about it and after a while says no, he’d rather keep the coffee maker, it comes in handy when people visit and anyway he’s fairly sure he does like coffee.
Howard opens a coffee shop. He calls it ‘Howard’s’ and puts up a poster explaining that coffee can help prevent depression. He smiles a lot and people like going there because he smiles a lot and because he does ‘Allo ‘Allo impressions which they don’t always understand but which make them chuckle anyway. And he chops up the sandwiches really nice and small for the children.
Or, maybe we should leave Howard with little-girl Katie and her scrunched up face. Except he finishes his coffee (too depressing, too dark, that ‘going cold again’), and doesn’t even remember to worry about whether he’s finished it or not.