The crunchy lettuce in her sandwich resounds in her head as she chews, so it’s not until she swallows that Maggie hears the song threading its way through the fug of damp clothes and coffee steam. The melancholic voice conjures up an advertisement for some sort of chocolate, although she can’t remember the brand. In her mind, her fingertips fit themselves pleasurably into the two holes of a cassette and touch the small smooth plastic teeth of the inside circumference. The chocolate song; the box of cassettes.
She and Daniela had spent several summers like that, headphones whirring, legs folded around the rucksacks that always ended up being stuffed into the space between the front and back seats of their parents’ small car as it carried them over the roads of France, Italy, Spain. The shoebox always sat between them, cassettes for their Walkmans wedged into it so that they had to reinforce the corners with Sellotape. Daniela – older than she and much better at managing her pocket money – always saved up for new tapes for the holidays. She, clumsy little sister, was not supposed to touch them, but Daniela’s music was much more interesting than the old Madonna and Phil Collins albums she had already listened to a million times, and so her curious fingers would dive and search through the box as soon as Daniela’s gaze turned to the passing landscape. It was a thrill with a sour edge, though, for however quick she was at slipping her purloined tape through the black plastic jaws of the Walkman, Daniela always noticed and demanded the tape back, and she hated it when Daniela was cross with her.
One summer, Daniela had bought a collection that claimed to be the year’s fifty best songs. When Maggie had sneaked the tape into her Walkman and pressed the “play” button, it had been this song that she had heard, the one from the advertisement, the one she had only ever known as “the chocolate song”. It had been the only time Daniela had relented upon discovering Maggie’s thievery. Instead of demanding the tape back, she had listened to the song with her, twisting one of Maggie’s headphones around so that they could each press an ear close to it. When the song had ended, Maggie had wound it back, and they had listened to it again and again, until at last Daniela, with a sigh, had moved away and begun listening to her own music again.
Maggie pulls out her mobile phone. Before, she would have called Daniela and, without preamble, asked her whether she remembered the song, but ever since Daniela and Marcus decided to get married, it has become difficult to get hold of her. She used to answer after a couple of rings, but now Maggie usually finds herself listening to an automated message, which always seems to have wiped any coherence from her mind by the time it asks her to leave a message. Her sister calls her back, of course, but much later, sometimes even the next day. When she does call, she doesn’t ask about Maggie, just chatters about cousins who won’t sit next to each other and how many tiers the cake should have and which flowers are in season. Maggie listens, but she knows these are not confidences. Daniela isn’t telling her all this because she offers better advice than anyone else. At these moments, Daniela could be talking to anyone.
She’s still hesitating over the dial icon when the song draws to a close, conjuring up an image of dry yellow mountains. She wonders where they can have driven through such scenery. Spain perhaps? She wonders now how her parents did it, driving for hours in a cramped car with no air conditioning and two squabbling daughters in the back. She remembers now that it was just after that summer, the one when they had listened to the chocolate song together, that Daniela had suddenly turned against all that music they had both liked until then, calling it commercial and gutless. Maggie suddenly had the box of cassettes all to herself, because Daniela started going out to her friends’ houses to listen to music – bands Maggie didn’t know and couldn’t find a way to discover now that Daniela didn’t put anything new in the box of cassettes anymore. The summer after that, Daniela had found a job, and when Maggie had left for the holidays with her parents as usual, the back of the car had felt too big for her on her own.
For once, Daniela answers the phone immediately. Her voice is alert and a little nervous when she says, “Hello?”
“Just me. I had something to ask you.”
“Oh! I thought it was going to be the hotel telling me the wedding has been cancelled! At this stage, I’d nearly thank them… What did you want to ask me?”
“Do you remember that box of tapes we used to have in the back of the car when we went on holidays?”
Daniela gives a hoot. “God, do I! We used to fight like cats over those tapes! And I always wanted to listen to them in the same order! Those holidays were wasted on us – Mum and Dad drove us around the half of Europe and all we were interested in was those old cassettes.”
Maggie touches the brim of her coffee cup and smiles. “Yes. That’s what I remembered too,” she says.
Daniela says, “Funny that you’re asking about that, actually…”
“Well… I wanted to ask you to come over later and… help me decide how to do my hair for the wedding – I know it’s super boring but it would be such a help – and – I thought you could help me with the music list. Would you? I know you have loads to do but…”
“I’d love to,” Maggie says.
Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and has lived in France, England and, most recently, Geneva, Switzerland. She has published flash fiction in the webzines Every Day Fiction and The Irish Literary Review. In 2015, one of her short stories was shortlisted for the Cúirt New Writing Prize and in 2016, she was awarded second prize in the inaugural Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story Prize and third prize in the Nivalis 2016 Short Story Competition.