Bob Marley was to blame. Cath and I had been together for six months and I thought we’d learned pretty much everything there was to know about each other – certainly the important stuff – but then the row blew up and it seemed I didn’t know her at all.
We’d met on a blind date organised by Johnny. He and Liz were newly married and still in that blissful state where he wanted the whole world to be as happy as he was, especially his divorced best mate who’d learned the hard way that single women over forty are available for a reason. That’s how it appeared to me, anyway, and if that sounds bitter I’d got good cause. For far too long the only women I’d met were mad, desperate or just wanted to boast to their friends that they’d had a fireman in their bed. Women can be creeps too. So when Johnny told me that Liz had become friendly with the new maths teacher at Henshaw Tech I didn’t jump up and down with excitement at his suggestion of a foursome at Luigi’s, however good their meatballs are. Horn-rimmed glasses, tweed skirt and hair in a bun was what came to mind, and I was stupid enough to say so one evening when I’d been invited to The Love Nest for a drink and an opportunity for Liz to dissect my recent dating disasters.
“The trouble with you, Pete, is that you don’t give them a chance,” she told me. “You got burned by Janice and now you assume that every woman’s going to do the same.”
“To be fair, Cruella was enough to put anyone off women for life,” countered Johnny, coming to my defence like any best mate would. “Emptying the joint bank account is one thing. Using it to run away to Australia with Bruce Almighty is another. A man’s entitled to be careful after that.”
“I don’t disagree.” She sipped her shiraz and looked at me assessingly. “But five years is long enough to mope. Cath’s a lovely girl – far better than you deserve – so you could at least make the effort to meet her.”
“Although what she’ll see in this miserable git is a mystery,” Johnny added, then raised his glass in salute. Liz smirked.
“He can be made quite presentable if you get him out of jeans and a T-shirt. He’s got all his hair and teeth, his stomach’s not bad for a forty-five-year-old and he knows which fork to use if you take him anywhere classy. He even reads books that aren’t all murder, car chases and explosions.”
“But you love the men who do,” Johnny breathed into her ear, provoking a most unwifely blush.
“I’m in the room, you know.” The two giggled like naughty children. “OK, I surrender. Introduce me to this paragon of womanhood and I’ll do my best not to disgrace you, but if she’s another one who’s sad, mad or just out for a lad you won’t hear the last of it.”
Two nights later, more nervous than I’d anticipated, I was seated in Luigi’s with Johnny when Liz walked in beside a slim, dark-haired woman in a spectacular red dress, clinging but not over-tight, and shoes Janice would have killed for.
“Bloody hell,” Johnny muttered, “you’ve done well here, mate,” then stood to greet them. I followed his example and prayed that the spell wouldn’t be broken when she spoke.
I’d never believed in love at first sight. Now I did. Amazingly, so did Cath. Within a week she’d moved from her flat to my house and when we weren’t exploring each other’s bodies we were learning of each other’s past and present, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams. Then Bob changed everything.
During a hilarious evening spent browsing photo albums we’d been joshing each other about long hair, flared denim, hot pants, platform shoes and the merits of our teenage music heroes. While I’d played air guitar with Yes and Deep Purple, Cath had swooned over David Cassidy and The Sweet. We found some common ground in disco – Barry White for me, Donna Summer for her – then diverged again when punk rock slouched on to the music scene and stuck two fingers up at everyone. I hated the nihilism; she loved the energy. More bands and singers were thrown around until I made a mildly dismissive comment about Bob Marley. She looked as though I’d struck her.
“How can you say that?”
“I just said...”
“I heard you. Bob was... he was...” She shook her head, defeated. When I reached out to touch her she backed away, shook her head again and ran from the room. A moment later, before I’d even moved, I heard her car screech out of the drive and down the road. What the hell had happened?
After ten agonising minutes I was ready to call the police. Then the phone rang.
“She’s here.” It was Johnny. I’d never heard him so subdued. “She’s all right, Pete. She...”
“What’s going on! One minute she was fine, the next she was driving away. I don’t understand.”
“It’s a long story. Liz knows the ins and outs. We’ll get Cath settled then Liz will be over to see you.”
“Can I come to yours? I could...”
“No, mate. It’s best you wait for Liz. I only know half a tale so wait for her.”
By the time Liz arrived I was climbing the walls. Her first five minutes was spent putting brandy inside me and calming me down.
“I don’t know how much Liz has told you of her past,” she began.
“Everything,” I interrupted. “We’ve told each other everything.”
“She was married young.”
“Yes, when she was seventeen. Her family disowned her.”
“And there was... there was...”
“A baby. Yes. She told me. He died and the husband left her.”
“It was a bad time for her. Stuck in a pokey flat in a town she didn’t know, no-one to turn to.”
“I know all this!” I took a deep breath. “Sorry, Liz, but I know all this.”
“So you know how she got through it.”
“Yes, music. All she did for weeks was listen to music until, she said, the hurt had gone away.”
“And do you know what music in particular?”
I groaned. Liz squeezed my hand.
“That night you went to see Johnny’s band at The Grapes and we stayed behind, she told me everything. Bob Marley saved her, she said, but now she can’t bear to listen to him. He means survival and hope, but he also means loss.”
Did he mean loss for me too, I wondered.
Cath returned in the morning, ashamed and apologetic. We talked for hours but the distance that had opened up between us didn’t close. I knew I’d have to do something special.
A week later, Johnny’s band had another gig. Cath was bullied by Liz into joining us there where she stood listless and disengaged until, halfway through a rowdy first set, Johnny quietened the crowd down.
“Right, you lot. We’ve a special treat for you tonight. For one night only, and one song only, thank God, let me introduce you to Mr Peter Atkinson!”
The baffled crowd didn’t exactly go wild as I shuffled on to the stage, apart from a few guffawing friends who knew I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I didn’t see them. The only person I saw was Cath, her preoccupation blown away by confusion that turned to tears when she heard the first notes of the tune Johnny picked out on his guitar.
Redemption Song was written by Bob Marley near the end of his career when he already knew he had cancer. Some people reckon it’s his greatest song – one acoustic guitar, one voice, and lyrics filled with pain and mortality. I’d never sung in front of an audience, except in nightmares, but I did my best: a tremulous voice falling into a crowd grown silent because, although they didn’t understand what, they knew they were witnessing something profound. I gazed at Cath through the spotlights, her tears still flowing but her smile restored, and I managed to get halfway through the second verse before my throat became too tight to go on and Johnny had to finish the song alone because I was off the stage, surrounded by a mass of cheering people, my arms around her, neither of us able to speak, our embrace saying everything.
Next week is our tenth wedding anniversary. Cath doesn’t know it yet, but we’ll spend it in Jamaica. While we’re there, I’ll take her to see the home of her hero. And mine.