Kelly woke up with the song going round and round in her head. ‘Breakaway’, recorded by Gallagher And Lyle many years ago. It had been a great favourite of her parents, who would go all nostalgic over it, and start opining about the long, hot summer of 1976. Kelly was too young to remember much of 1976 herself. She had only been a toddler at the time, but the way people of her parents generation carried on, it had clearly been the pinnacle of summers, to which all the ones since had been compared, and found spectacularly wanting.
Nostalgia is a funny old thing. Distance lends enchantment. It airbrushes out the bad times, and focusses on the good. From all she had heard of the 1970s it had been a time of endless strikes, power-cuts, and Britain on its knees. But to hear people of her parents vintage you could be forgiven for thinking it had been a halcyon age of hot summers, great music, sexy hot-pants, and endless jollification.
Now middle-aged herself, Kelly could at last undersand this yearning for a bygone era. The here and now was so bleak. Without hope. What were strikes and power-cuts compared to huge natural disasters (whch seemed to occur daily), rioting, strict censorship, and daily police brutality.
“You off somewhere?” the permanently-embittered woman who lived in the flat below met her on the stairs.
Kelly hated this woman, although being Kelly she never showed it. This woman was one of life’s serial-complainers, nothing was ever good enough for her, or went right for her. She oozed bitter sarcasm and self-pity all the time.
“Going to see my husband”, Kelly mumbled.
“Huh. That must suck for you”, snarled the woman “Tell him the rest of us are struggling here on the outside whilst the tax-payer keeps him in the lap of luxury”.
“Y-you don’t understand”, said Kelly, pushing open the main door to the street “You don’t understand what they’re going to do to him!”
“Like I fucking care!” the awful woman shouted after her, more because it was always a matter of pride with her to have the last say than anything else.
Vince was already seated at the table when Kelly walked in. He didn’t look any different, except he’d had a shave today. Same old Vince though. Kelly sat down opposite him timidly. The table was set for two. No frills. Just plates and cutlery.
“What did I expect?” Kelly thought “Candles and napkins?!”
“What was it you ordered?” a man in uniform appeared at the side of the table. He clearly had been appointed to wait on them for the duration of the meal.
Before Kelly had a chance to speak, Vince snapped “steak, well done, charcoaled”. Same old Vince. Not bothering to ask her what she wanted. Always assuming she would have the same as him.
The plates came out. A couple of very cheap cuts of thin meat plastered in a runny sauce, which was presumably meant to be cheese of some kind, but which looked pale pink.
They ate in silence. Kelly, never a sparkling conversationalist the best of times, struggled to think what to say. What do you say in a situation like this? Vince didn’t seem to want to speak anyway. He wanted to concentrate on his food.
The plates were whisked away. In no time at all the pudding was put in front of them. Strawberry ice-cream. Already melting under the harsh glare of the fluroescent lights.
“This is all going too fast!” Kelly panicked.
“What are you gonna do next?” Vince suddenly asked.
“I-I don’t know”, said Kelly.
“I’d cut loose if I was you, babe”, Vince surprised her by saying “Go on the road. Get away from the cities. Go out into the countryside. Go and look at the sea. It’s what I’d do, if they gave me another chance”.
“Oh Vince …” Kelly began to cry. She had shown very little emotion up to now. But the floodgates came open at the very worst time.
“None of that now”, said Vince “Or you”ll set me off”.
He hadn’t spoken so tenderly to her in a long while.
“Oh Vince, why?” Kelly cried “Why did it have to be like this?”
“Who knows, love”, said Vince “Who knows anything anymore. The world’s gone mad”.
Two more guards came into the room. It was time. Vince said he didn’t want her there, in the inner room. Didn’t want her to see the next stage.
“This is it”, he said, getting to his feet and adjusting his trousers, as he always did after a meal “Leave now, babe. Keep walking and don’t look back. Don’t let the bastards grind you down”.
The guard who had incongrously waited at table opened the door behind Kelly, and gestured at her. They would not be allowed a final kiss or a hug, no physical contact of any kind.
The lump in Kelly’s throat felt so huge it physically hurt, and as she walked she could barely see where she was going for the tears. She was taken into a different waiting-room to the one she had been in before.
“The door’s electronically-operated”, said the guard “We’ll open it from the office. Take your time”.
Kelly nodded. When she looked up she was alone. She pulled a packet of tissues from her bag and tried to mop her face. But it was a hopeless task. The words of the Home Office woman who had interviewed her a couple of weeks ago went round in her head.
“Since the re-establishment of the death penalty, this government is committed to making the process as humane as possible. We want to involve the prisoner’s loved ones at all stages. Therefore we can arrange for you and your husband to have a final meal together”.
“Oh God”, said Kelly.
The words, said so casually to her by the mumsy-looking woman in the cardigan, had cut her to the quick.
There was a buzz and a click, and the heavy outer door swung inwards. A blast of cold air filled the room. At least it wasn’t raining, for a change.
“I’d cut loose if I was you, babe. Go on the road … go and look at the sea. It’s what I’d do, if they gave me another chance”.
The soft, melodious song from her dream came back to her. A relic from a gentler age which she could barely remember. Breakaway.
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”.