by Gareth Hywel Phillips
Neal’s Yard, London by Jeremiah Gilbert
They continue to talk, about nothing in particular: a few political sound-bites that they have memorised to sound inoffensively shrewd; a number of anecdotes, inflated with small, but vital, lies; appraisals of their current city and The Pink Steam Café; and a barrel of small-talk questions scraped clean in those moments when the silence becomes particularly loud. It never quite matters that their utterances lack intrigue or originality. What matters is that they are about to fall in love.
Their names are not important. Don’t try to legitimise their story this way; don’t fluff it up with minutia. That would be fruitless. It doesn’t matter what you call them, or what people who supposedly know them call them. To request to know them by name is not only to ask, how long is a piece of string? but to then also refer to the piece of string as Steve and wonder whether Steve, the 13cm piece of string, has dreams.
Coincidentally, his name actually is Steve and people call her Stef. Their second names, height and hair colour are similar as well. And they nervously laugh about it with mock Twilight-Zone-fear in their eyes (which are different colours) when they first speak at The Pink Steam Café, moments ago.
Obviously, they’re not real. Right now they’re not in a café or a field or a bedroom; they’re not knee-deep in a pond or at an office meeting or eating Christmas dinner. Where they are – and they barely are – is best visualised as an infinite expanse of whiteness (or blackness, depending on how you visualise nothingness). You don’t need to know what they are doing there. You simply need to accept that they have never been doing it.
Does she have one of those peculiar itches that seem to be impossible to locate? Sure, why not. Are they standing or sitting? Yes. You may imagine that he self-consciously smiles at her across the emptiness; and maybe she finds the tragic irony of his self-consciousness in that moment so funny that she starts laughing – hysterically laughing, creased over. It could very well be.
At any rate, as I have already indicated, this is a hypothetical story about the fictional characters Stef and Steve (not that their names are important) and you will see that although they live in a big white (or black) room of pure, unadulterated, unequivocal nothingness, their stories will be told and received and remembered and daydreamed and eventually forgotten. Forgotten as if there was something to forget, as if he were a real boy and she a real girl.
They are born in the same month, but they do not share a star sign. He is born on the 1st of January and she is born on the 30th; and they do not know it yet, but they both die on the 13th, twenty-six years later.
Stef won’t have been gone long before someone finds her in the garden lying facedown between two halves of one lawnmower cable. You may wonder how someone who doesn’t exist is able to die, and why anyone should care; and who was the neighbour that saw her and phoned for an ambulance? Do they exist? I like these kinds of questions – and I commend you for them. But for this story I would prefer to focus your intrigue on the strange co-event of Steve, a total of 7,132 miles away from Stef, taking his own life that very night. No one finds him for three days. No neighbour smells a funny smell and thinks to investigate. No family member is alerted by his lack of communication. It is in fact his window cleaner that decides (after consuming years of window-tainment) to glance periodically through the blinds and catch a private spectacle. I suppose he sees a figure on the bed and wants to look again. And again, on looking, observes that the naked sprawl does not have the sultriness of the premeditated exhibitionism he is used to, nor does it carry the peace of sentient sleep. The window cleaner has never seen a dead man before, but knows that it looks how a dead man looks. And he doesn’t scream, cry or fall off of his ladder in shock like Buster Keaton might. He simply knocks delicately on the window a number of times, calmly descends the ladder, and phones a wiser and older colleague like a perturbed child.
10 years after Stef’s funeral (which takes place three days before Steve’s) Stef and Steve’s parents meet, vaguely, at Chap-Co supermarket. Both parties have very recently visited their progenies’ respective gravestones (located in graveyards at opposite ends of Wainland) and, following this, serendipitously convene for a sombre supermarket big-shop. Currently, they are approaching the checkouts trolleying the same brand of toilet roll, among other similarly branded products. It might be accurate to say that there are, and always have been, invisible strings between them that cannot be severed.
These are the same non-severable strings that Stef and Steve pluck and play with as they speak at The Pink Steam Café over a decade earlier. They find each other oddly familiar. At first, their eyes rest upon each other’s with an uneasy tenderness – the way their parents’ eyes rest on their respective trolleys as they roll from Cushionella to Velvease to home-brand wiping paper. And as Stef and Steve quiz each other on birthdays, siblings and family schisms, it is not the many disparities that they discover, but each other’s samenesses. Sadly, when Stef’s parents encounter Steve’s parents on Chap-Co’s toilet roll aisle, all they see are the small, meaningful differences – cold and mysterious, like the secretly engraved, aging jewellery worn by strangers. There’s no ‘pink steam’ to speak of in the household section of Chap-Co. In its place – a thick, mournful, age-rotted smog through which they are close enough to see vaguely familiar outlines of each other.
In the Pink Steam Café’s dim lamplight, with its soft-focus, chiaroscuro effect, Stef and Steve seem to see themselves more clearly than ever before. Stef’s jewellery is agelessly kitsch. Steve’s shirt is adorably bland. As they symbolically swap drinks (and trade bacteria) they gaze at each other, and then at the table, and then at each other – their pupils wide. He suddenly cringes at the sweetness of her cocktail, and she grimaces from the bitter aftertaste of his beer. They do not truly believe that they are two dialectic sparks of the same being, thrown into the other’s trajectory by a cosmic glitch. It would be a strange thing to arrive at. But he thinks she is very, very nice – in a kind of science-fictiony, god-in-the-machine, holy-shit-it’s-happening sort of way. And the feeling is mutual.
Now would be a good time to remind you of their current situation in the big white room (which may be black), in which they will have always never been. You mustn’t forget that no set piece is too grand or intricate for this room. Any aforementioned or unmentioned scene has been produced there, in Big White Room Studios: The lawnmower death scene; the Pink Steam Café meeting; the argument at Steve’s parents’ house; even Stef’s recurring pond dream – they are all directed, performed and shot in B.W.R. Studios. In fact, a film studio set was erected there just moments ago, with giant channel letters (arching above a large, wheel-shaped window) that spell, B.W.R. Studios. Like I mentioned before, nothing is out of that studio’s budget. Stef and Steve don’t even have any scenes there; nevertheless, the building is fully furnished with cameras and lamps and boom-mics and extras and maybe even another version of Stef and Steve wandering through another big room of endless whiteness (or blackness). It could very well be. But you can tell yourself that that Stef and that Steve aren’t ours, and you’d know the difference.
The reason that Stef and Steve initiate a conversation with each other at The Pink Steam is the same reason that their parents – now shuffling through the cereal aisle and passed the freezers, respectively – don’t. They are all blind-drunk. It should not surprise you that following the deaths of their only children, neither Stef’s nor Steve’s parents ever come close to recovering. They wander through the remaining aisles of their life like staggering ghosts. Nor should it surprise you that at 10:13pm on student night at Wainland’s notorious student hub, Stef and Steve are a little more than getting there. Before his serendipitous meeting with Stef, Steve describes to a friend, with loose gesticulations and a ridiculous grin, precisely how much of a ‘buzz’ he is getting – a word he despises and reserves for the use of his giddily excitable, inebriated alter ego.
Perhaps the notion of their parents becoming alcoholics at the same time, and for the same reason, is a little farfetched. Most of the time marriages seem to rely upon a sense of perpetually opposed motion – the kind of strategic shuffling of weight required to stay on the good side of sinking sand. You would expect that one component of each partnership would instinctively take the role of the carer or the fighter in the event of their partner’s resignation. You would expect at least one of those four complex individuals to oppose their lover’s despondency, and push back. Sadly, and strangely, it isn’t the case. They all sink, streamlined and deliberate, and completely unaware of each other.
Steve has cause to be in good spirits, however. He has been accepted onto a Master’s course – his first choice university, and the city that many of his good school-friends had gone to the year prior. He and a drinking-buddy, Steve, go out and celebrate by doing the same thing they do most weeks. But it doesn’t feel the same. During the hour or so before Steve meets with his friend (who, incidentally, plans to stay at home to work with his father over the next few years), he is overcome by a wave of jittery, almost manic, contentment. It lasts for the entirety of the night and forever colours the memory of his first meeting with Stef.
Disclaimer: when Stef and Steve first meet, they are not meeting for the first time. They have been introduced, shaken hands and endured a tepid conversation with each other three years earlier. It seems redundant to even mention this, as neither of them would ever remember. Both of their temporal lobes would take their innocuous first encounter to the grave. It is accurate to say that none of this has really happened, but their first first meeting in Carloway, during the summer highland games, really didn’t happen.
The reason they go to Carloway has no bearing on the rest of the story, so I don’t need to tell you about Steve’s father’s participation in the games, and Stef’s weekend away with work-friends. They look differently at each other then. Both wear sunglasses the whole time. I assume this has something to do with their failure to recognise each other when they meet a few years later, but I’m honestly not sure.
Stef’s mother is wearing sunglasses in Chap-Co. She has been inside the shop for around thirteen minutes before realising that everything is slightly darker than it should be. Her husband, idly following and then wandering off briefly to look at a revolving DVD rack, doesn’t notice either. In fact, in those moments when Stef’s mother is alone near the vegetables, looking at darker than usual aubergines, Steve’s mother looks directly at her before reaching for a cauliflower. She does not recognise her. She just picks up her averagely sized, prototypically shaped cauliflower and goes about the rest of her business without pause.
As Stef reaches for her pink cocktail (inches from Steve’s beer), Steve wonders how he will eventually start speaking to her. They have been sat next to each other for about thirty minutes, on the second floor of The Pink Steam, amid the tightly packed clutter of students, pitchers, old cinema seats and parallel rows of lecture-hall tables. Their respective friends have unknowingly coordinated their exits and left them alone briefly. To a stranger sitting in that particular row of tables, it might look as if Stef and Steve are sitting with each other, and always have been. Steve thinks of the occasion, and his relatively good standing in life. His breathing deepens before he downs the residual froth of his beer, deciding to put his Dutch-confidence and the warm-as-liquor surge of serotonin to good use.
“What are your from?” he asks.
Good, he thinks – she didn’t hear.
“I was just wondering where you’re from. Because of your accent.”
“Oh, I’m from Birmingham.”
“Ah yeah, I suppose I can hear that now, but it’s not strong. What brings you up North?”
“Just visiting some family. Do you live here?” says Stef.
“No- I mean yes, don’t know why I said that. I do live here, yes ha ha! I’m not drunk, I’m just a moron.”
In this moment, after Steve calls himself a moron, and Stef smiles knowingly, he feels a potential between them, politely waiting and promising the world. They speak in this inane way for a certain number of minutes before Steve’s friend returns from the toilet, and Stef’s friend returns with two more pink cocktails.
“This is Stef, my cousin,” says Stef.
“Nice to meet you, Stef, I’m Steve and this is my friend, Steve.” Steve waves casually as he takes a sip of beer.
“Oh, and I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m Stef,” says Stef, smiling. “Nice to meet you, Steve.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You have concerns about the comprehensibility of this story. You would be happier if I gave every single character a brand new name so you can feel like they’re all different. I’m sure I don’t need to reveal Stef and Steve’s parents’ names to you. I’m certain they wouldn’t surprise you at all. But you should know that it’s not laziness on my part, refusing to come up with names like John and Mary and Chin. I just feel that the contrived seconds I’d spend plunging my hand into the lucky-dip-sack of random, associative names could be put to better use.
I hope you understand what I’m trying to do here. If you did you’d know why names are of no importance whatsoever. And if you detect a note of disdain in my words when I discuss our titular characters, it is because my effort to breathe life into them is beginning to feel frustratingly empty. Every step of the story-writing process has been stilted or second-guessed and has resulted in something severely uncomfortable in its own skin. Take this blurb I wrote, for example:
Stef and Steve didn’t know it yet – and never would – but they were each other and everyone else and everything else, and everything was nothing. But they were supposed to be with each other, I suppose. Even though they weren’t and didn’t want to. They were meant to, together: to bond necessarily, like particles of complimentary charge; to always sometimes fall into meeting, like racing raindrops they had watched rolling down their respective windscreens; to be as one, and not to be as two ones. Like a heliotrope, Steve would turn, blindly yearning and entirely unknowing, toward Stef’s radiance. It was doomed to be beautiful and fulfilling. And they would love itself.
I think this jumble of sentences effectively demonstrates the literary traps I’m falling into. The main issue is, quite clearly, that my scope is too cosmic. I’m writing about a second-hand description of a symphony heard through a keyhole, in crayon. I’m going to stop trying to breathe life into this tale of star-crossed lovers. I clearly don’t know how. This story is a carcass of some vast, unidentified creature. Names, dates and figures cannot revive it, or help me to understand what it once was. World-building cannot house it adequately. B.W.R. Studios’ walls are made of cardboard. And so are its sprites, Stef and Steve. I’m going to do what I should have been doing from the beginning and focus on what I know to be verisimilarly true: intentions acted and questions asked: the narrative meat. See if there’s anything to it or them. That way we can all be done with this meretricious literary exercise and get on with our lives.
Chapter Truth and Meat
Unfortunately, the truth of the meat of this story is mostly mystery. Not even Steve’s father, who knew Steve better than any other, knows why Steve chose to swallow his heart’s weight in co-codamol tablets. Steve descends further and deeper into the dark womb of that question with every night that follows, and is never able to find his son’s light down there. He has heard that young men are killing themselves these days. Many Steves before and many Steves to come. The banality of that explanation is far more frightening than the spooky concepts of possession and demonic temptation, which begin to seduce insomniacs during the witching hour.
On the worst of his sleepless nights, his guilty grieving mind wonders if he would prefer that murder was the cause of death. Would it be better that Steve’s vitality was snatched from him by an agent of chaos, as opposed to the thought of his perturbed soul wandering into death like a lost child? Those images of Steve wandering haunt his father. And I’d honestly rather be done with any descriptions of those hauntings: the waking whispers, the 3am panic attacks, the dream in which Steve walks with his son along the edge of a steep coastal precipice trying to listen to his muted utterances, which are drowned out by the crashing waves. Let them fade in the Fading Room, a newly erected area of the B.W.R. compound in which old sets are sent to be recycled.
I don’t think it would be fair to say that Steve is somehow aware of Stef’s unfortunate grass-cutting tragedy three hours earlier. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he feels a tug on those non-severable strings, which move him in some ineffable way. Following their short-lived romance, they move on in a manner that would hush any superstition of there being a vein of eternal love unmined in their lifetime. You could lay this excuse at the door of any failed or fizzled relationship: it just didn’t have enough time. And I think it would be fair to say that my retelling of their relationship has been bookend-like in structure because the middle part, when they are in love, is more than a little bit predictable.
I’m looking at it now. The middle part, I mean. The meat. At B.W.R. Studios I can see this yarn’s endless reel of minutia. I can see the walk home from The Pink Steam Café; the reprise of Stef’s pond dream; the Wainland Spring Festival date; their playful first sexual experience (in which they briefly let go of their conditioned penchant for dom/sub pornography), and their disappointing last; the mawkish Disneyland holiday; the time he smells her hair in bed and feels like he is acting; graduation; the pill suicide, and even the protest outside B.W.R. Studios, where the figments of Stef and Steve lead a coup in an attempt to escape their narrative at the beginning of Act Three. It’s all gears turning, and no unmoved movers. I can still see them self-consciously smiling at each other across the emptiness, and the truth is it makes me sick.
Why on Earth would anyone choose to write a story about Stef and Steve? It’s the kind of story you forget before it is told. A common defence I hear (and reject) is that they didn’t have enough Earthly time to craft a good story. I think you can lay that excuse at the door of any failed or fizzled existence (Keats made his mark in medicine and literature, and was one year shy of Stef and Steve’s ultimate age). In response, Steve might bitterly argue that the most meaningful thing he ever does is taking his own life. I’d have to say that that part is about as meaningful as the rest of it. I really don’t buy that true despair (the abject dissonance of having no alternative) overwhelms him on that unobserved night. Both Stef and Steve are affected by something much quieter – more of an absence than an overburden. They are paralysed by the ever-creeping realisation that they have never felt like real people. And their love for each other is an expression of that mutual doubt. When their eyes first meet, they are unified by a single question, implicit in their yawning pupils: “wait, you don’t feel real either?”
It isn’t that I’m saying Steve or Stef lived life in mp3 (as opposed to vinyl), with the extremities shaved down to the minimum, recognisable content. I think they lived life with the entire bass section missing from their song, and Steve, that unobserved night, fucking hated what he heard. Also, I wouldn’t want you to think that the reason we’ll surely forget about them is due to their nonexistence. There’s no practical difference between real memories, dreams of real people, and figments. Imagine Edgar Allan Poe. He existed. You see him in a Victorian bedroom probably, like the one he describes in The Raven. I’m guessing he’s not just standing there awkwardly; he’s doing something, like sitting up in bed or writing, with a quill no doubt. Now, there’s no barrier stopping Stef from entering the room in full anachronistic garb, thrusting an iPhone in Edgar’s face, and saying, “have you heard of Tinder?” One of those characters is real. Nevertheless, there he is swiping on that hand-window-portal to another dimension, and revealing the bedroom to be another set in B.W.R. Studios – nothing more. But, obviously, that Edgar-memory isn’t the real Edgar-memory, and you (or the people who supposedly knew him) would know the difference… At any rate, the reason we’ll forget Stef and Steve isn’t because they don’t exist. It’s because: why remember?
Chapter Why Remember?
There’s a relentless, brutal gale that wants, more than anything else, for the Wainland Spring Festival to end and the fields to just be fields again. The pegs do their best to keep the festival tents from being swept away. Stef and Steve chomp and lick their fingers under the cover of a crooked parasol. As they eat, they talk about memories and how you can sometimes know that you will eventually long for the moment you’re currently in. They mean to say that you feel as if you’re in a memory, somehow – corrupting it with your presence. Steve says that in films that tension can be felt in the juxtaposition of cold reality and romantic sentiment: the snow-covered beach in Eternal Sunshine or the fountain-frolic in La Dolce Vita, which is curtailed by sober morning light. Stef chooses not to point out that snow and dawn are romantic images as well – she knows what he means. More importantly, she knows that the topic of conversation is a veiled declaration of the romantic tension between them. She has honed an ability to interpret in Steve’s fictional references a sense of his state of mind. Generally speaking, if Steve starts whistling Baby Mine from Dumbo, or mentions how underrated he believes Spielberg’s A.I. to be, then she knows he misses his parents. Conversely, if he mentions either one of the two Fellini movies he has seen, he may be trying to impress her. And if he starts rambling about Michael Clayton (when Clooney throws his wallet into the burning car) or Five Easy Pieces (when Nicholson inexplicably abandons his girlfriend, his car, his life and, most importantly, his jacket as the credits roll), Stef knows that he also longs to abandon her and throw his own wallet in the flames, and run (jacketless) free.
Stef once heard that people forget approximately 87% of every day. When she tells Steve he asks (with mock Twilight-Zone-fear), what are we forgetting? I like this question. What are we remembering? Seems like an easier one for him. How do moments decide to become memories? This is my favourite question of Stef’s, which she flirts with but never has time to articulate, as they finish eating their donuts and make a beeline for the Waltzer ride shortly after. I think she might want to ask it this way because she correctly senses that she has little to do with whatever process metamorphoses moments into memories.
Steve looks forward, to where they’re going, and Stef looks back at what they’re leaving: the crumbs, the crooked parasol, the toppled bin, the billowing valance of the donut-stand awning. Steve hates festivals. Stef, with all her heart, doesn’t. As she runs toward the Waltzer clutching Steve’s hand, she remembers running next to a 3-foot wall on an evening of a distant summer. By her father’s hands this wall will rise and become the boundary of her childhood home. As she runs she hops on and off the wall at irregular intervals, and can feel (or smell) the approach of the blue-hour chill. At Stef’s final age, this would be her earliest memory. Her mother’s earliest memory is similar, though much less vivid as she lives to an older age. She is studying the patterns in the bricks of her home and sees a ladybird for the first time. Steve’s mother is sat in the middle of a room she doesn’t know and an old woman, she would later call her grandmother, is looking down at her laughing. Steve’s father is wide-awake at night listening to a clock ticking as his brother sleeps beside him. Stef’s mother’s mother has been locked in the coal shed, following an argument between her parents. Steve’s father’s father stands up in his crib and watches flashes in the darkness through a window, and feels the booming, and hears his mother quietly singing.
What pegs keep those moments from being swept away by the windstorm? What quality prevents them from being sent to the Fading Room? My lame answer to Stef’s unasked question is: I’m honestly not sure. But I like the question, and believe it’s worth thinking about – it can’t be arbitrary. Could it be related to a spike in emotional arousal? I’ve definitely heard that before. Maybe the subconscious composes memory like a dream, with priority given to disgust and desire. The dichotomy could be what makes those childhood moments stand out – something close to wonder, which contains both fear and magic. Alternatively, memories could be selected retrospectively based on their relevance to themes and motifs established in later life, when your story has figured out what genre it is. I have always had the sense that whatever the quality is, it is what those non-severable strings between Stef and Steve are made of. It’s what they feel so effortlessly as children and hope to rediscover. And it’s what their momentary infatuation promises them.
I can see Stef and Steve now. No Waltzer. No festival. No tents. No field. They’re still looking at each other across the emptiness. Emptiness that might be full up with stars, nebulas and cafés, but isn’t. It doesn’t matter, does it? That I don’t know what else to say about them? You’ll probably forget them anyway – as if there was something to forget. As if he were a real boy and she a real girl.
Written and created in B.W.R. Studios
Gareth Hywel Phillips was born and raised in Carlisle, North England, though his family is proudly Welsh (hence the name). He studied English and Music at the University of Birmingham, taught English and tutored guitar in China, and is currently based in Cardiff studying an MA in Forensic Linguistics with the hope of eventually completing a PhD in Forensic Speech Science. He is an avid musician who daydreamed many stories from a very young age, and has recently decided to start publishing them.
Jeremiah Gilbert is an award-winning photographer and avid traveler based out of Southern California. He likes to travel light and shoot handheld. His travels have taken him to nearly a hundred countries and territories around the globe. His photography has been published internationally, in both digital and print publications, and has been exhibited worldwide, including in Leica’s LFI Gallery. His hope is to inspire those who see his work to look more carefully at the world around them in order to discover beauty in unusual and unexpected places. He can be found on Instagram @jg_travels.