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"I've heard that name before," one of the men said.
"There's a singer named Jackson Browne," said Jackson. "Also there's a place called Jackson. I've never been there. Which is kind of weird, if you think about it."
"No, not your name, sonny Jim. His. Tucker Wotsit."
"I doubt it," said Tucker.
"No, you're right, Barnesy," said the other one. "It's come up recently."
"Did you get here okay?" said Annie.
"You were going on about him," said the man who had to be Gav, triumphantly. "That night we met you. In the pub." were going on about him," said the man who had to be Gav, triumphantly. "That night we met you. In the pub."
"Was I?" said Annie.
"Oh, she's always going on about him," said Terry Jackson. "In her head, he's famous."
"You're country and western, is that right?"
"I never said that," said Annie. "I said I'd been listening to you recently. Because of Naked Naked, I suppose."
"No, you said he was your favorite singer," said Barnesy. "But . . . is he the person you said you were seeing? In America?"
"No," said Annie. "That was someone else."
"Bloody hell," said Barnesy. "You know more Americans than an American."
"I'm sorry," said Annie, when they'd gone. "We seem to keep bumping into people who think we're together."
"You just told him you were seeing some other American."
"Well, I'm not."
Tucker had known for some time that Annie had some sort of crush on him, and he was too old to feel anything other than a childish sense of delight. She was an attractive woman, good company, kind, younger than him. Ten or fifteen years or so ago, he would have felt obliged to enumerate all the individual items on his baggage carousel and point out that their relationship was doomed, that he always made a mess of everything, that they lived on separate continents and so on; but he was almost certain that she'd been paying enough attention to what he'd been saying, so caveat emptor caveat emptor. But then what? He didn't even know if he was capable of having sex, or whether having sex would kill him if the capability was there. And if sex was going to kill him, then would he be happy to die here, in this town, in Annie's bed? Jackson wouldn't be happy, that was for sure. But was Tucker prepared not to have sex until Jackson was capable of looking after himself? He was six now . . . Twelve years? In twelve years, Tucker would be almost seventy, and that would raise a whole lot of other questions. For example: who'd want to have sex with him when he was seventy? If he was even capable of having sex?
The worst thing about his little medical event was the questions, which had started to come in an apparently unstoppable flood. Not all of them were about whether anyone would want to have sex with him when he was almost seventy; there had been a few really tricky ones related to the empty decades since Juliet Juliet, and the decades-he liked to think of a plural-to come. There weren't going to be any answers to these tricky questions, either, which made them seem tauntingly rhetorical.
If he were a character in a movie, a few days in a strange town with a kind woman would renew his faith in something or other, and he'd go straight home and make a great album, but that wasn't going to happen: the tank was as empty as it had always been. And then, just as Tucker was about to give in to his gloom, Terry Jackson pressed a button on a boom box, and the room filled with the sound of a soul singer Tucker recognized-Major Lance? Dobie Gray?-and Gav and Barnesy started doing backflips and headspins on the museum carpet.
"I'll bet you could do that, Dad, couldn't you?" said Jackson.
"Sure," said Tucker.
Annie was stuck with the most faithful Friend the museum had ever had, but out of the corner of her eye she saw an elderly lady having her picture taken beside the photograph of the four workmates on their day off. Annie made her excuses and went over to introduce herself.
"Hello, Annie the Museum Director," said the elderly lady. "I'm Kathleen. Kath."
"Do you know any of those people?"
"That's me," said Kath. "I knew my teeth were bad, but I didn't know they were that bad. No wonder I lost them."
Annie looked at the photo, then back at the old woman. As far as Annie could tell, she was seventy-five now, and she'd been sixty in 1964.
"You've hardly aged a bit," Annie said. "Really."
"I know what you're saying. I was old then and I'm old now."
"Not a bit of it," said Annie. "Do you keep in touch with the others?"
"That's my sister. She's passed on. The lads . . . They'd come up for the day. From Nottingham, I think. I never saw them again."
"You look like you were having fun."
"I suppose so. I wish we'd had a bit more though. If you know what I mean."
Annie made an appropriately scandalized face.
"He wanted to. His hands were everywhere. I fought him off."
"Well," said Annie, "you can never go wrong not doing something. It's only when you do things that you get into trouble."
"I suppose so," said Kath. "But now what?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I'm seventy-seven and I never got into any trouble. So now what? Have you got a medal for me? You're a museum director. Write to the queen and tell her. Otherwise it was all a bloody waste of time, wasn't it?"
"No," said Annie. "Don't say that."
"What should I say instead, then?"
Annie smiled blankly.
"Would you excuse me for a moment?" she said.
She went to find Ros, who seemed to be giving an impromptu lecture on the typography of Terry Jackson's Rolling Stones poster, and told her to take Jackson away from his father and stuff him full of Twiglets. Then Annie pulled Tucker into the corner where they had displayed Terry Jackson's old bus tickets, which weren't attracting as much traffic as they'd hoped.
"You okay?" said Tucker. "Seems to be going pretty well."
"Tucker, I was wondering whether, whether . . . If you'd be interested."
"In . . ."
"Oh. Sorry. Me."
"I'm already interested in you. The conditional is unnecessary."
"Thank you. But I suppose I mean sexually."
The blush, which she had more or less kept in check over the last few days, was returning with a pent-up force; the blood had clearly been pooling, frustrated, somewhere in the region of her ears. She really needed her face to do something different when she asked a man to sleep with her. It seemed to her that the very act of asking made the request irritatingly unlikely.
"What about the party?"
"I meant later."
"I was kidding."
"Oh. I see. Anyway, I told myself I'd . . . I'd broach the subject. I've done it now. Thank you for listening." And she turned to go.
"Pleasure. And, of course, I'm interested, by the way. If the answer to your question isn't beside the point."
"Oh. No. It isn't. Good."
"I would have jumped on you by now if it hadn't been for my little scare the other day. And it still worries me."
"I did actually look that . . . side of things up on the Internet."
"This is what constitutes foreplay, when you get older-a woman who's prepared to look your medical condition up before she sleeps with you. I like it. It's kind of sexy. What did the Internet have to say?"
Annie could see Ros leading Jackson toward them.
"You don't get breathless going up stairs?"
"Well, you should be okay, then. As long as, as I, well, do the work."
She was, she felt, the color of an eggplant now, a kind of purply black. Maybe he'd like that.
"That's the way I've always done it! We'll be fine!"
"Right. Well. Good, then. I'll see you later."
And she went to give her little welcome speech to the great and the good of Gooleness.
Later, home and drunk, she felt a kind of precoital tristesse tristesse. Most of her tristesses tristesses were precoital, she thought gloomily. How could they not be, seeing as most of life was precoital? But this one was sharper than most, possibly because the coitus was a more real prospect than most. It began with an attack of nerves, a sudden lack of self-confidence: she'd seen pictures of Julie Beatty, and Julie Beatty had been breathtakingly beautiful. True, she'd been twenty-five or so when Tucker was with her, but Annie hadn't looked anything like that when she was twenty-five; Natalie was still beautiful, and she was older than Annie. They all must have been, she realized, the ones she knew about and the scores-hundreds?-she didn't. And then she tried to console herself with the knowledge that Tucker must have lowered the bar by now, and, of course, that was no consolation at all. She didn't want to be the dying embers of his sex life, and she certainly didn't want to be a low bar. While Tucker was putting Jackson to bed she made tea and looked for something else to drink; when he came downstairs she was pouring some very old banana liqueur into a tumbler and trying not to cry. She really hadn't thought the museum thing through, when she first took the job. She hadn't worked out that it would make absolutely everything, even a one-night stand, feel as though it were already over, behind glass, a poignant relic of an earlier, happier time. were precoital, she thought gloomily. How could they not be, seeing as most of life was precoital? But this one was sharper than most, possibly because the coitus was a more real prospect than most. It began with an attack of nerves, a sudden lack of self-confidence: she'd seen pictures of Julie Beatty, and Julie Beatty had been breathtakingly beautiful. True, she'd been twenty-five or so when Tucker was with her, but Annie hadn't looked anything like that when she was twenty-five; Natalie was still beautiful, and she was older than Annie. They all must have been, she realized, the ones she knew about and the scores-hundreds?-she didn't. And then she tried to console herself with the knowledge that Tucker must have lowered the bar by now, and, of course, that was no consolation at all. She didn't want to be the dying embers of his sex life, and she certainly didn't want to be a low bar. While Tucker was putting Jackson to bed she made tea and looked for something else to drink; when he came downstairs she was pouring some very old banana liqueur into a tumbler and trying not to cry. She really hadn't thought the museum thing through, when she first took the job. She hadn't worked out that it would make absolutely everything, even a one-night stand, feel as though it were already over, behind glass, a poignant relic of an earlier, happier time.
"Listen," said Tucker, "I've been thinking," and Annie was convinced that he had come to the same conclusion himself, that he was about to tell her that, yes, though his bar was no longer at Olympic height, it hadn't dropped that far just yet, and he'd come back to her in a decade or so. "I should look at this stuff myself."
"The stuff on the Internet that told you whether sex will kill me."
"Oh. Of course. No problem."
"It's just . . . If I did drop dead, you'd probably feel bad."
"You'd feel responsible. And I'd rather it was me who had the post-death guilt."
"Why would you feel guilt?"
"Ah, you're not a parent, are you? Guilt is pretty much all I feel."
Annie found the website she'd been looking at and showed him the section titled "Recovery."
"Can I trust this one?" said Tucker.
"It's the National Health Service. They usually want to keep you out of the hospital. The government can't afford you, and anyway the hospitals kill you."
"Okay. Hey, there's a whole sex section. 'Having sex will not put you at further risk of another heart attack.' We're good to go."
"It also says that most people will feel comfortable about resuming sexual activity about four weeks after a heart attack."
"I'm not most people. I feel comfortable now."
"And then there's that bit."
She pointed at the screen, and Tucker read from it.
"A thirty-percent chance of erectile dysfunction. That's good."
"Because if there's nothing going on, you needn't blame yourself. Even though it would probably be your fault."
"There won't be any erectile dysfunction," said Annie, mock confidently.
She was blushing, of course, but they were looking at a screen in the dark of the office, and Tucker didn't notice, so for a moment she wanted to undercut the moment out loud-clap a hand over her mouth, or make a joke at her own expense-but she resisted the urge, and . . . well, there was an atmosphere, she thought. She wasn't sure she'd ever created an atmosphere before, and she would never have thought it could be achieved by talking to a man with health problems about erectile dysfunction. It was just as well, really. For the best part of forty years she had genuinely believed that not doing things would somehow prevent regret, when, of course, the exact opposite was true. Her youth was over, but there might be some life left in life yet.
They kissed for the first time then, while the NHS website glared at them; they kissed for so long that the computer went to sleep. Annie wasn't blushing anymore, but she was feeling embarrassingly emotional and she was worried that she'd start to cry, and he'd think she had too much invested in him, and he'd change his mind about the sex. If he asked her what the problem was, she'd tell him she always got weepy after exhibition openings.