This piece was written in response to a brief titled ‘Substantiate’. The following story is how I interpreted the theme through an exploration of the cliche as a kind of empty substantiation.
Take the potion and throw it out the window. Launch it from the arm of a lonely man with a blue guitar who is looking for L-O-V-E. Maybe it’s fate who will have it that the glass breaks on the pavement and splashes on the feet of a beautiful lady wearing powder pink sandals. She gasps upon the cold contact of water on skin. Ouch. Looks up. The man and lady are smitten. They are smitten because it must be so. They have names. Princess Cornelia and Oliver Blue. Princess Cornelia is languorous and pleasant and neer quite walks with her feet touching the ground. Oliver Blue is but the silhouette of a man, his music so much his identity that without his guitar he would simply cease to exist, fading into the E-T-H-E-R from which all wandering forlorn musicians are destined to appear. Out of thin air!
No, that won’t do. Let’s try this again, in a more realistic setting. Cornelia, just Cornelia, lies in a red bikini on her balcony overlooking Battersea Park. She is on the phone, not dialling. Her right thumb swipes across her screen. Left, right, left, left, right. No particular pattern. Here, on this small rectangle of glass, she is in complete control of her own destiny. No man is a suitor if she does not wish it. Below her she can hear the passing of cars, the clip-clap of heeled shoes on hot pavement, the guttural pant of the masochistic runner who embraces the challenge of running under the midday sun. She breathes in deeply and absorbs the glow from Battersea Park, bursting with all the surplus energy of its occupants. Yoga on the grass. Young girls sipping green juice and Matcha lattes. Suddenly, somewhere between the thirtieth and fiftieth swipe, she sees him! Looks down at his profile, notes his age and occupation. Twenty-two, ticket-seller at the local Odeon. No university pending. Cornelia smiles and holds the phone at arm’s length on top of her face, momentarily casting a small black eclipse across her chest.
Meanwhile, across the bridge in a council estate in Earl’s Court, Oliver is painting his guitar blue. Bored and tired. Stifled by the stale heat which lingers in his room, he gives up mid-brush and puts away the instrument, tucks it under his bed. Outside his window, he hears children screaming and sirens wailing. There’s a party later that night somewhere near Elephant and Castle and right now he’s going alone. Perhaps, he thinks, he should bring a date of some kind, somebody new. Someone whom he can impress despite the twelve pounds in his bank account and a lukewarm beer in the fridge. He opens his phone and taps on the icon of a small red fire, lightly presses his finger on the app and begins to swipe. Left, right, right, right. He isn’t fussy. But wait. There she is. Matted red lips and cheekbones enhanced by a filtered glow on an immaculate profile. He can almost smell the floral perfume on her skin. This isn’t quite love at first sight, but the stutter of his heartrate suggests it might be something close. He opens the chat box. There’s a blank page waiting for his words. Ungifted with gab, Oliver relies on technology to do the talking where he cannot. The message is swift, succinct. A thousand meanings compressed into three letters, two dots and a curve. ‘Hey.’ The perfect smile.
Not good enough. Still flat on the page. Flesh out paper and ink, but how? Let’s try again. So, we have Cornelia, who is bored and restless in the summer heat. She is scratching an itch on her thigh, flicking through endless photos with determination. Across the river with his hand down his pants, Oliver is watching porn on his phone under the open window. A breeze blows the sweat into his eyes. Must their love, if it should even be called so, be chaste and virginal? Why shouldn’t Oliver have his hands down his pants as he scrolls furiously through, his ejaculation timed perfectly with the messages he sends, incorrigibly filthy? Should Cornelia’s intentions be any more pure, constricted by the pristine headgear they call a crown, feet ferociously thrust into the rigid, impractical constraints of a pair of glass slippers? Ink and paper is obsolete anyway. Erasure on a desktop leaves no traces, just the tap-tap-tapping of a black dash on a white screen. They plan to meet this very night. Beneath his bed, Oliver’s guitar breaks a string, splintering trails of woven metal and copper, followed by flecks of blue.
I’ll let them be for now, to sustain their own narrative. Better to let them believe they are agents of their own actions, dictated only by a wish for carnal fulfilment. Irregular blocks of words build one after the other in blue and grey as time and place are carefully coordinated for tonight. They’ll be with friends. It mustn’t seem deliberate. They decide upon Tottenham Court Road Station. Open twenty-four seven, he’ll be coming from one side and she from the other. No stars in the sky thick with London smog. At midnight, two planes collide over Heathrow, erupting a bloom of fire above the city. For a second, London night becomes London day. Beneath the sewers, Oliver and Cornelia hurtle towards each other, sitting still on the underground. Smiling into the camera of her phone, Cornelia checks for lipstick in her teeth. Oliver grimaces at his reflection in the opposite window, late. Drops copper into the hat of a drunken busker with a broken guitar who is gurgling lyrics with all the charm of a modern-day Lou Reed. He steps onto the escalator and waits, tapping an erratic beat on the banister with his index finger.
Steady on, nerves. Let the lovers meet. Don’t be so quick to cut the chase. Tottenham Court Road station is a heaving belly of silver. Entrails of exhaust pipes line the walls, only partially hidden. Half-finished, half-formed, the station waits exposed. Cornelia is early. She stands alone in the concourse where central and northern lines meet. Where is he? For a second, doubt scuttles across the floor, disappearing into a small crack in the corner. She smiles. He’s stood her up! Her lips burst open into a guttural laugh. He’s stood her up, she’s here alone in a station at two am, drunk and without her friends. Plots revenge as she unravels on the floor. No signal underground. Her mouth gapes with the heaving laughter of the drunken disbeliever. Climb into the half-crescent curve and rupture the cliché. Oliver topples. His grip on the banister falters, he wobbles on his feet. Falls down the escalator head first. Snap! Goes his neck. Snap! Goes his leg. Arms out-stretched, he lies motionless at the bottom, watching the steps ascending, over and over again. The station opens and consumes itself whole, silver and wood sucked into a vacuum. Soon the escalator, bearing my Cornelia at the top and my Oliver at the bottom, disappears into nothing but the beating of a black stroke on an endlessly white screen.