When a writer conceives a story it arrives as a visual scene, an emotion, an ethereal wisp or intuition often alone and out of further context. The work of the writer is to construct the context, build the world, make sense out of scenes and segments. The writer tries to construct a whole that will, as the sum of its imperfect parts provide some epiphany or at least a satisfying sense of recognition, a consoling (or disquieting) feeling of common humanity or experience.
As a young college student taking a module in media studies in the early 1990s, I remember the astounding realisation that news was not just news, it could be partisan, that parts of a story could be left out. And in this era of fake news and endless rhetoric, the watering down and frowning on any absolute moral stance, it is often implied that all views are equal. With the narratives we make of our own lives on social media, in our own heads, in the frenetic, consumerist, production-centred world we live in, we have never been more aware that all stories are a version.
Short story writers know that weighty responsibility of choosing the right route, the right scene, the right character, the right moment to begin the story. We seem faced with this multiverse of choices that will make a story go one way or another, work or fail. But every work must fail in some way, the writer never achieves her goal, (just as in a heated argument between two people, there is, among any achieved shared understanding, always a sense of what was not adequately got across.) And when a writer’s work goes out into the world, we know only too well that what will resonate fully and ecstatically with some will leave others cold and untouched.
The opening line of ‘There’s a Café in this story’ draws self-conscious attention to itself as a story. This device might be considered a sort of cringe worthy post-modern winking but, as the tale unfolds, the fact that the protagonist is telling himself a particular story and conjuring up a particular truth about his life is crucial. How he frames that narrative will affect the final outcome.
There’s a scene towards the end when the man is travelling along a road, his view punctuated by bridge trusses. Small vignettes of his own life appear in his mind’s eye – clearer now that he is travelling alone, in darkness, but still fragmented, as if sliced by the trusses. Throughout the story the man’s main difficulty has been the lack of energy or imagination to forge the broken picture of his life back into a whole. The story is presented as separated slices – his encounters with the woman at the café, alongside flashes of his wife, at home with their new born baby and other children. And this stark sense of isolation abides: the single, abandoned mug on the kitchen counter; the woman at home; the man in the office, looking out of the window, on the road, or waiting alone for the woman to arrive at the café.
While the man is the main protagonist, more capable of movement and action than his wife who cannot reach the water as she sits under a breastfeeding infant, their stories are both told in the third person and – even though the man can choose how the story goes and ends – there is a feeling of passivity on his part, of things happening to him.
The bridge trusses and girders are metal lines that slice the stories he remembers, there are other angles – trays and shelves and arms aloft in the cafés of now and the past. In the past, in the café where he met his wife, they rotated around each other separately, arms aloft, and ultimately fit together. But at the moment of the story the separated segments of the man’s life, do not fit, they are increasingly fragmented and become more so as a result of his loneliness, his actions, and ultimately through the narrative he chooses to tell his story. The woman in the café is ‘resplendent’, his wife standing “for a long time at the deserted kitchen island, holding her mug, staring with amnesia” is forgotten.
As the man begins his liaisons with the woman, the cafés in which they meet are ubiquitous, “the details don’t matter.” There are many café s, the feeling is of nothing special. As time goes on, the details of the cafés build up over time. The story asks “will the café s merge?” This question is posed because the man is still in charge of the narrative and can decide which elements will take on greater vigour. Will these meetings in the café become as memorable and special as the café where he and his wife met – the café responsible for his children, the life with his wife?
As the story begins to close the man imagines the woman touching the cord of the car seat like Braille. In truth she is blind to the real story of him. Despite the illusion of intimacy the café encounters engender, she does not really know him. What is real are the glimpses of his wife dealing with real situations.
In our everyday, real lives there is constant renegotiation of our relationships with each other and with truth. In stories the writer sets the scene but then hands over power and impetus to the story itself, to the reader, to the characters themselves. In ‘There’s a Café in this story’ we wind up in that space between night and dawn, between café stops on long roads, in places where we only half-know ourselves. The man in the story must choose his route, his outcome. The writer steps aside and the story takes on a life of its own.
Alison Wells is a psychology and communication studies grad and author (as AB Wells) of the comedic fantasy Housewife with a Half-Life. Her literary short fiction has been published in Ireland, the UK and Australia including in The Stinging Fly, Crannóg, New Planet Cabaret & UK Flash Fiction Day’s Jawbreakers and Scraps. Alison blogs on http://www.writing.ie & www.alisonwells.wordpress.com and has been Hennessy, Bridport, Fish and BBC Opening Lines shortlisted.
© Alison Wells, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.