the coffinhouse

Johnny had recently started going out with a girl. The problem was, it wasn’t the same girl that Johnny thought he was asking out when he had asked her out. Johnny thought he was asking Emily out. And this girl wasn’t her, wasn’t Emily. He didn’t notice immediately – they’d been together for a couple of days – but it didn’t take long for him to notice he’d made a terrible mistake. Johnny realised his mistake when they were walking towards the high street together on the Wednesday after the Saturday he’d asked not-Emily out and not-Emily had said yes. He realised his mistake when he saw Emily walking along the other side of the pavement – she was walking away from the high street. Emily waved a little wave. Johnny instinctively waved a little wave back. Not-Emily wasn’t paying attention. Johnny and Not-Emily walked for another minute or two, and then Johnny stopped. Dead. He stopped dead in the way cartoons do – and he even did an absurd double-take back down the street, to glimpse the figure of Emily walking round a corner, away from the high street, away from him, without him, without even knowing that he was supposed to be going out with her.

Several rather muddled little thoughts fumbled around in his head. As you may well expect. And Johnny intervened and started fumbling around with these thoughts – trying to round them up, straighten them out, line them up neatly. The thoughts were having none of this, and fumbled off to a distant part of his mind, way in the back, to that place where you can feel thoughts exist but they’re impossible to coax out, and it’s too dark to go in there yourself to find them. Ugh, thought Johnny in that part of his mind where he was now all alone. Johnny put his hands over his head, closed his eyes. An image of Emily floated before Johnny, standing around idly in his mind. Or was it Not-Emily. Oh God, it was too hard to tell.

Johnny opened one eye slightly to look at whoever it was that he was walking to the high street with. Whoever she was, she looked nothing like Emily anymore. Or nothing like he thought Emily looked like anymore. To be honest, he thought whoever she was looked a bit cross. This annoyed Johnny a little bit because he hadn’t even said anything. He looked back down the road. Emily was still in the same place, like an image burned into the scenery, still turning the corner away from the high street, away from him, without him, without even knowing that she was supposed to be going out with him.

Going back into his mind, Johnny decided the only way to sort things out was by talking it over with himself. He decided he needed to have an internal monologue. He quite liked internal monologues – he always felt he understood things a bit better after talking it over with himself. And he thought he’d managed to work out what exactly had happened:

‘Well, it was dark, but it wasn’t very dark in the bar on Saturday’, Johnny internal-monologued, ‘and I suppose Not-Emily doesn’t look so completely different from the picture of Emily I had in my head that day. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m certain that the memory we have of somebody’s face is only an approximation of their actual face – our minds must all be a bit like those facial composites the police use to catch burglers who look like the burgler the victims think they saw: we must have a range of standard facial pieces in our mind, and do our best to choose the most accurate pieces when we meet somebody for the first time so that the second time we meet them there’s a better chance of us being able to identify them, so we don’t get frightened by meeting new people all the time. And over time, we replace the facial pieces with other, more accurate facial pieces. And so on, until it’s as close as possible to their actual face, but never perfect. That’s probably why we recognise our parents’ features in other people most commonly, we’ve spent ages looking at their faces, they must be the foundation on which all other facial recognition is based. Which means, when I saw Not-Emily out on Saturday, she looked enough like the image of Emily I had in my head – who I really haven’t known for very long, not half as long as I’ve known my parents. Besides, she looks nothing like either of my parents, so my mind was bound to have trouble trying to piece together an accurate image of her face – I guess as the difference between somebody’s face and our mother’s or father’s face increases, it becomes progressively more difficult to remember what they look like. As I was talking to Not-Emily, my mind began to replace the pieces of its image of Emily with pieces it presumed to more accurately represent her face, but were in fact only obscuring Emily behind Not-Emily. Days went by and my mind told me pretty assertively that this was Emily. But just now, I saw Emily. And her face was like the face buried beneath another face in my mind. My mind dug out her image – because nothing is ever forgotten, that much is obvious – and has just realised what an embarrassing cock-up it’s made. And now Emily is walking away from the high street, away from me, without me, without even knowing that we’re supposed to be going out.’

That was why Johnny had stopped, and why he’d suddenly felt so shocked. This was definitely not the girl that Johnny wanted to go to the high street with. How funny he would appear on the high street with the wrong Emily, whoever she is. Everyone would look at him, and everyone would say things, whisper things that Johnny wouldn’t be able to hear but knew he should feel embarrassed about. No, the high street was definitely off. Johnny said some things to Not-Emily, things so boring they don’t bear repeating but did their job and both Johnny and Not-Emily went back to their own homes for the evening – they would meet up again tomorrow, Johnny needed to explain.

When they met up tomorrow, Johnny took Not-Emily to a chain coffeehouse a short distance from the high street – this was a much better idea than taking her to an independent coffeehouse, the kind that encourages people to express themselves as individuals, Johnny did not want Not-Emily expressing herself as an individual, and nobody draws attention to themselves in chain coffeehouses, that’s not part of their plan. Johnny did not want Not-Emily flipping out. They each ordered their universal coffees. They sat down to talk. She flipped out.

Johnny tried to explain, to make her see that things weren’t as bad as they sounded. This is what Johnny explained, though he didn’t express it quite as eloquently and logically as this, which annoyed him because it was quite simple and anyway it wasn’t worth such a long explanation, but he was fumbling a bit:

‘Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with you, but you’re not Emily, you’re Not-Emily. It’s like when you’re trying to buy a movie, but the movie you buy isn’t the one you thought it was, just because the artwork on the case was a little bit similar to the one you actually wanted. When you watch the movie it doesn’t mean the same thing to you that you thought the movie you actually wanted to see would, it doesn’t even say anything of any interest to you at all. But that doesn’t detract from the artwork.’

This is roughly how Johnny started. It is quite obvious that he’s fumbling. It would have been much better had Johnny not chosen such an offensive simile. In fact, it would have been better had Johnny never even told Not-Emily that he’d mistaken her for somebody else, and just broken up, no fuss. But Johnny believed he had to tell her the reason why, you can’t return something without an explanation:

‘If you think about it, really, it’s quite the compliment.’ But thinking was not what Not-Emily was good at right now. ‘If I managed to convince myself that you were Emily, then Emily must be quite a bland looking person.’ Johnny realised this wasn’t quite the compliment he had momentarily imagined it could be. Rather, it was a comment on Emily’s own mediocre looks, which makes Not-Emily simply not-mediocre. ‘And if I hadn’t seen the Emily I actually wanted to be with, I may never have noticed that you weren’t the Emily I thought you were. My mind might have had a few doubts every now and then, but that’s no more than everybody ultimately has to deal with. I’m almost positive that we’d have been able to have children, nothing would have stopped us marrying or living together, we could even have been buried next to each other if that’s your kind of thing. I would never have known I had made a mistake if I had never seen the thing I thought I originally wanted, the thing I originally thought you were. And now the Emily I originally wanted is walking away from the high street, away from us, without us, without even knowing that she was supposed to be you. Not that you were supposed to be her, just she was supposed to be you.’

It is now probably time to take Johnny away from the coffeehouse, before he find himself, and before Not-Emily and Emily find themselves, in a rather grave situation. Johnny walked away. What Not-Emily did wasn’t so important, she could have sat in that coffeehouse forever for all Johnny knew. And so she did.

Johnny walked back to the road they had been on yesterday, where his image of Emily was still turning the corner, away from the high street and so on. But now that he was able to walk up to Emily, he didn’t much feel like it: she didn’t really look the same as the one that he had seen when he was with Not-Emily yesterday. He hadn’t noticed that she was carrying bags, for example, and her arms seemed to be really struggling from having to hold onto them for so long. She looked pretty tired. Johnny didn’t feel tired.

So he thought he might go to the high street on his own, just to have a quick look through all the windows and displays. Nobody paid any attention to him when got there. In fact the high street was very quiet. It was very busy, but it was definitely very quiet. Most of the couples looked like they were ready to leave the high street, but it was almost impossible to move with all the bags they all had, and there was no way they could take it all back to their homes. The coffeehouse chains were full of everybody too exhausted to stand anymore – newspapers were given to every newcomer, who was soon buried face-deep in the Classifieds – the coffee was terribly bitter, but it was infinite refills, occasionally somebody would bring something along to sweeten it with. Johnny stepped into one of the empty independent coffeehouses, their coffee wasn’t bitter at all, but it was a lot more expensive and Johnny couldn’t afford very much. Every so often someone would try and walk into the independent coffeehouse, but their partner always spotted some product in a store window a little bit farther down the road. In fact, almost everybody spotted something better than Johnny’s coffee a little farther down the road.

Johnny paid for his coffee and walked away. He had no money left, and he had to leave the high street. A couple of signs told Johnny there was a park not so very far away, they’d never make it no matter how emphatically they expressed it to passers-by. Johnny told the signs he’d go there for them. Johnny stepped off the high street. He’d never return.

j.

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